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With the pressing reality of major climate change and its serious consequences, Canada has committed to eliminate 219 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 – a mere 13 years away. It is a very ambitious goal. To put it into perspective, we could eliminate all fossil fuel-burning vehicles from the roads, rails, waters and skies and still not meet our target.
Faced with this herculean task, the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources is studying Canada’s transition to a lower-carbon economy – focusing on five sectors responsible for 80 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions.
These sectors are electricity, transportation, oil and gas, industries and buildings. We will release interim reports on each sector and a final report in late 2017 that will make recommendations to the government on how Canada can best achieve its targets in a way that doesn’t break the bank, doesn’t hobble the economy and doesn’t put Canadians in the poorhouse. The alternative to the world not achieving its climate change objectives poses an even greater threat to our economy and our lives in the long run.
Our committee just released its first report entitled Positioning Canada’s Electricity Sector in a Carbon Constrained Future. Canada already has one of the world’s cleanest electricity sectors, generating 80 per cent of its power from non-emitting sources, but there is always room for improvement. Four Canadian provinces still rely on coal-powered generation while many northern and remote communities use diesel generation because a lack of infrastructure prevents a transition to other sources. On top of that, we are told the current infrastructure is aging and will require significant investments.
Renewable energy is part of the solution
Part of the solution is offered by renewable energy alternatives. Their cost is becoming more affordable and they come with many new business opportunities. However, utilities cannot rely entirely on wind or solar generation because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. Until we find a better way to store energy, utilities need to have firm, reliable power to meet their customers’ needs.
Regardless of whether or not Canada meets its targets, fossil fuel consumption is projected to steadily increase globally and temperatures will continue to rise. But one thing is clear: we cannot afford not to take immediate measures to minimize the impact of climate change. Because we have already seen some of its serious consequences, we must do all we reasonably can to reduce our emissions. And to be realistic, we should also seriously start planning adaptation measures to reduce the negative impacts on our environment.
Regarding our efforts to transition to a lower-carbon electricity sector, what will the cost be to the average Canadian? Electricity utilities in Alberta and New Brunswick testified that shutting down their coal plants will lead to price hikes. NB Power said a precipitated shutdown could result in a 39 per cent rate increase, in addition to already planned rate increases. Ontario’s quick transition away from coal and its much higher electricity bills remind us to proceed with caution.
But to put the price hikes issue into a broader context, we have to realize that because all sectors of the economy are interconnected, electricity will be instrumental in helping other sectors transition. When our committee was at McGill University last month to talk to students about climate change, one student asked if we were wasting our time studying the electricity sector since it is already very clean. As many witnesses expressed, electrification through the elimination of multiple sources of combustion such as vehicles, buildings and industrial processing may be the most cost-effective way to achieve deep de-carbonization.
Future generations will pay later if Canadians don't pay now
While there may be many ways, through energy efficiency and demand-side management, to curb and improve electricity use, Canadians must accept that a significant part of the transition will be paid for through higher electricity rates or higher public spending to stabilize rates and to drive clean generation investment. It will come out of the pockets of consumers and taxpayers, which is essentially the same pocket. Admittedly, the carbon-pricing schemes will generate significant revenues to the provinces to offset some of the costs associated with carbon pricing. But we still expect many Canadians will be left with significantly increased costs of living.
Finally, one of the biggest impediments to hitting our targets is Canadians’ reluctance to change their habits. We won’t get close to reaching our goal if we won’t adapt our lifestyle regarding energy consumption.
Canadians are faced with difficult circumstances: how much of our lifestyle will we sacrifice to meet our reduction target of 219 megatonnes of carbon dioxide? Most experts say we can’t meet it anyhow. Others told our committee any delay in responding to climate change will only impose a much greater cost and greater consequences to our economy, lifestyle and to the living conditions of the next generations.
Senator Richard Neufeld (British Columbia) is Chair and Senator Paul J. Massicotte (Quebec) is Deputy Chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources.