Sabotage in the air
The Alberta government pulled off a bit of a feat with its new climate plan, managing to disappoint even those who were fully prepared to be disappointed.
Danielle Smith’s government even sounded like it had disappointed itself. "We're behind,” said Sonya Savage, the provincial minister who pulled the short straw and was tasked with presenting the document. “I wish this plan had been out two years ago. We know we have work to do."
Savage won’t be doing that work herself — she is not running for re-election in Alberta’s upcoming vote. And her boss was atypically absent from the unveiling. Premier Smith did make a statement, demanding the feds “stay in their lane” and “stop setting unrealistic, unachievable targets.”
Despite her absence, Smith may have issued the most concise summary of the Alberta emissions reduction and energy development plan: “Instead of moving away from hydrocarbons, we will use these resources in innovative ways.”
The first thing to know is that Alberta’s plan is not really a plan in any normal sense of that word. Andrew Leach called it “a plan to make a plan.” The University of Alberta economics professor is being generous. There are nods towards advisory groups and committees. There is apparently a whole lot of research to be done. But no benchmarks, regulations or laws, no commitments to reduce emissions. The closest is a promise to “explore” an emissions limit for the oilsands. One that “aligns” with targets set by the big oilsands companies themselves through their Pathways Alliance.
There is some vague hand-waving about a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. The Alberta government even resurrected that old Harper era throwback, “aspirational.” You might have dared hope the days of aspirational targets were over but, no, Alberta now has an “aspiration” to achieve net-zero by mid-century.
The Smith government is keen on carbon capture and apparently even more hyped on hydrogen (104 mentions, almost two per page of the document). But strangely reticent about renewables for a province that leads the country in wind and solar (solar makes a meagre 17 appearances). And when renewables do make an appearance, the UCP government couldn’t resist taking swipes — the world’s leading energy analysts (not to mention the thousands of Earth scientists contributing to the IPCC) will be shocked to learn that the sun sets every day and the wind blows intermittently.
Why bother releasing this not-a-plan at all? The obvious answer is there’s a provincial election looming at the end of May. Someone must have realized that swing voters expect the government to have a climate plan.
It matters because Alberta spews the most climate pollution of any province. By a large margin. Alberta has about 10 per cent of Canada’s population but emits almost 40 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gases.
Look at that towering bar on the chart, contrast it with the disappointing, even contemptuous response by the provincial government, and you can understand why disappointment has turned to desperation in some quarters. Throwing paint on politicians’ office walls, or soup on paintings (or mammoth tusks). Frustration, anger, even sabotage are in the air.
“You’ve taught me to listen to my anger,” says one member of the crew that bands together in How to Blow Up a Pipeline, just released in theatres. It’s an impressive, gritty film (94 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes), reminiscent of classic heist movies and thrillers. “The climate crisis is the largest existential threat we’ve ever faced,” director Daniel Goldhaber told The Financial Times. “There’s no one system, no one person causing climate change, so how do you come up with a target? Well, it’s the machines that are killing us. That’s the morally defensible target.”
I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say the audience reaction is fascinating — a strangely kinetic silence as the lights come up.
In one sense, the movie is an adaptation of the book by Andreas Malm. But Malm’s book isn’t remotely dramatic fiction or even a how-to as its title might suggest. The book is more of a why-not? A philosophical exploration of the distinction between violence against living beings and damage to property. A history of sabotage and property destruction in successful social movements like the abolitionists and suffragettes. Malm argues these actions get rinsed out of conventional histories.
Some popular podcasts have been digging up more recent history. “How far is too far to stop the planet burning?” asks the host of Burn Wild, as she delves into the worldview of the 1990s’ Earth Liberation Front. Timber Wars takes us back to the old-growth battles in western North America, inspired by Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang.
Eco-sabotage is certainly back in the air today and prominent on the fiction shelves of bookshops. The outlaw group 6Degrees targets oil and gas infrastructure in Stephen Markley’s The Deluge, released in January. The Children of Kali are a shadowy presence through Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, taking vengeance on private jets and super yachts.
The bookshelf goes on: Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer, the more genteel guerrilla gardeners in Birnam Wood by Booker Prize-winner Eleanor Catton.
We live in very strange times. David Suzuki provoked days of outrage for his observation that pipelines could get blown up if government leaders don’t get more serious against climate change. Richard Powers won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Overstory, in which activists resort to arson. Barack Obama claims the book “changed how I thought about the Earth and our place in it.”
I’m still a bit unnerved by that tense silence after Pipeline. There’s power in culture and desperation in the air.
‘A complete joke’
Alberta’s energy regulator is completely captured by industry and should be dismantled, Indigenous leaders told MPs this week. The federal Standing Committee on Environment is investigating the recent tailings leaks from oilsands operations, reports Natasha Bulowski.
“The AER (Alberta Energy Regulator) and Alberta is a joke, a complete joke,” Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) Chief Allan Adam told MPs.
“Right now, the Alberta Energy Regulator gives all projects a green light, and ACFN members are simply told what type of cancer they have.”
Imperial Oil also testified. Its CEO said, “We were negligent in not sharing information proactively that we've had. But we've never been trying to hide any information.”
While the CEO testified, a group of protesters organized by Keepers of the Water and Environmental Defence marched to Parliament Hill demanding Imperial Oil be held accountable for the toxic leaks.
$10M slap for Nova Scotia Power
The Nova Scotia government gave the maximum fine to its electrical utility for missing a renewable energy target, reports Cloe Logan.
“The utility, Nova Scotia Power (NSP), was mandated to provide 40 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2022 but only hit around 32 per cent renewables between 2020 and 2022.”
“The Group of Seven signalled priorities for climate diplomacy this year that show the global energy transition is underway,” reports John Woodside.
The G7 agreed on 92 climate-related topics. “These range from the need to scale up finance for developing countries to deal with damages caused by climate change to phasing out unabated fossil fuels to setting new goals for scaling up clean energy like wind and solar.”
Climate advocates want to see a phaseout of fossil fuels agreed to at this year’s COP28 but criticized the G7 for inserting loopholes like “unabated” on the proposed phaseout of fossil fuels.
British Columbia's privately owned “natural” gas utility is “deceptively using renewable natural gas to lobby for an expansion of gas infrastructure,” and block the electrification of buildings, writes Liz McDowell.
“There’s not nearly enough renewable natural gas to pipe into homes and businesses to replace conventional gas, and there never will be.”
Setback in Ontario court
A judge in Ontario dismissed the constitutional challenge by seven young people against the Ford government’s rollback of climate policy. But the judge made a number of useful findings. “It would be difficult not to be sympathetic to the concerns expressed by the applicants about their future in light of the evidence filed in this case,” she wrote and also determined that Charter cases of this kind are “justiciable,” opening the door to future Charter challenges and appeals.
The climate activists vowed to appeal. "We are the ones who will have to suffer through the tomorrow the Ford government's policies are creating today," said Alex Neufeld, one of the applicants. "That's why, despite this setback, we're continuing our fight to hold the Ford government accountable for climate action."
In other legal news, seven residents of Saskatchewan announced a lawsuit against SaskPower because the company is expanding gas power plants.
Citizens sue @SaskPower over natural gas power plants@CJSaskatoon and 7 #Saskatchewan residents claim that expanding gas-fired electricity generation violates their Charter rights.#SKpoli #cdnpoli https://t.co/2tI3SZREPl— Markham Hislop (@politicalham) April 18, 2023
It doesn’t get much attention, but “Canadian homes and businesses are leaking some of the most powerful greenhouse gases on the planet,” writes Barry Saxifrage: “Human-made chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).”
In the latest episode of Hot Politics, David McKie takes us to the ocean depths, exploring the case for and against seabed mining for the critical minerals used in batteries and other energy transition technologies.
Germany to phase out oil and gas heating
The city of Berkeley, Calif., had its ban on new gas hookups overturned in court. The restaurant association challenged the ordinance and the Ninth Circuit decided the city ordinance was pre-empted by federal law. Ironically, the federal government had supported Berkeley’s position.
But, in a much bigger jurisdiction, the German cabinet approved a bill on Wednesday that bans new oil and gas heating systems from 2024 onwards, reports Reuters.
"We're starting comparatively late with this. Other countries have done this earlier," said the German economy minister, referring to Scandinavian countries that use much less fossil fuels to heat homes.
Have you started to see commercial electric vans and trucks on the streets? Ikea is now rolling out electric delivery trucks it bought from Quebec-based Lion Electric. The company’s goal is 100 per cent zero emission deliveries by 2025.
Yes, in our backyards
Before I leave you with a recommended read, I want to let you know I’ll be away for the next few weeks and won’t be sending out Zero Carbon. I’m going to take the advice from a few newsletters back (here and here), unplug from climate news and work on staying (somewhat) sane.
And now, here’s this week’s recommendation — a thought-provoking piece by Bill McKibben, Yes in Our Backyards: It’s time progressives like me learned to love the green building boom. In his article for Mother Jones, McKibben looks back across his own history of saying no, “a valuable survival skill for civilizations.”
“But we’re at a hinge moment now, when solving our biggest problems — environmental but also social — means we need to say yes to some things: solar panels and wind turbines and factories to make batteries and mines to extract lithium. And new affordable housing that will make cities denser and more efficient while cutting the ruinous price of housing.
“And in every case, there are both benefits and costs, all played out in particular places with particular histories. But what interests me is the search for some general principles that might make these disputes easier, at least for people of goodwill.