Answering Saskatchewan government talking points #7: How long will we continue to depend on fossil fuels?

In response to a 2016 letter from 250 citizens and 9 groups, premier Brad Wall failed to answer any of the ten questions which we asked him.  Instead he sent a letter consisting of what amounts to a list of his standard talking points on the subject.  We still want answers to our original questions – and as a public servant Mr Wall or his successor should provide them – but as an exercise in public education we are responding to his talking points here.

Saskatchewan is prepared to do our part; however we must heed to the global facts of the matter.  The world continues to rely on fossil fuels for energy, transportation and the production of thousands of petroleum-based products every day, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  By 2040, according to the International Energy Agency, fossil fuels will account for 75% of the energy consumption on the planet.  The transition to a post-carbon economy will not be quick, nor easy.

 – Brad Wall

Firstly, it is abundantly clear in Mr Wall’s October 2016 White Paper that his administration is not prepared to do anything like its part.  (Is it hubris or mere buck-passing that prompts him to refer to himself and his ministers as “Saskatchewan”?)  Mr Wall’s main responses to the crisis are (i) a CCS for enhanced oil recovery programme which merely shifts emissions on to someone else’s carbon budget sheet, (ii) the distant future prospect of small modular nuclear reactors, (iii) an attempt to fudge Saskatchewan’s own emissions figures with creative carbon accounting, and (iv) diverting attention to emerging economies in Asia.  Even his own very limited 2010 Management and Reduction of Greenhouse Gases Act cannot be implemented because, seven years later, it has not yet been proclaimed.  The only truly positive step which he is taking – and for which the credit should probably mostly go to SaskPower engineers rather than politicians – is the commitment to expand renewable power capacity.  Yet even there, the plan is predicated on expanding total capacity rather than replacing existing fossil capacity with renewables – the 40% emissions savings which SaskPower quotes are dependent on either shifting from coal to gas or fitting coal-fired units with CCS.

Secondly, if we cannot foresee a future in which the world is dependent on fossil fuels then we will not plan to achieve it.  Such a future needs to be achieved – in order to satisfy the Paris 2°C cap, emissions from energy production worldwide need to reach zero around mid-century.  For the more ambitions 1.5°C, we need to be fossil-free substantially sooner.

Thirdly, “petroleum-based products” are irrelevant to the discussion.  We are concerned here not with petrochemicals or plastics but with oil which is extracted for the purpose of being burnt (whether for heating, transport or electricity).

Fourthly – and this is an egrigeously misleading error – Mr Wall’s reference to the IEA is utterly irrelevant because quoted out of context.  In its World Energy Outlook report for 2015 (to which I assume Mr Wall is referring), the IEA set out three scenarios for world energy futures.  A business-as-usual scenario assumes that no serious action is taken to address climate change.  A “central” scenario assumes that all the national pledges (INDCs in UN jargon) taken to the 2015 Paris climate conference are honoured.  And the “450” scenario assumes that measures are taken which give us a 50-50 chance of staying under 2°C of warming.  It is the “central” scenario to which Mr Wall refers.  As the IEA itself explains, “The net result of the changes seen in the WEO-2015 central scenario is that the growth in energy-related emissions slows dramatically, but the emissions trajectory implies a long-term temperature increase of 2.7 C by 2100. A major course correction is still required to achieve the world’s agreed climate goal.”  That goal is, of course, to keep well below 2 degrees of warming, aiming for 1.5 (and the IEA estimate of 2.7  C is at the low end of the range of peer-reviewed estimates as to the impact of the INDCs).  Mr Wall’s reference indicates either sloppy research or a deliberate attempt to mislead.

A detailed study by Greg Muttit of Oil Change International, published in 2016:September, compared standard industry data for fossil fuel reserves currently under production with the carbon budgets set out for 2°C and 1.5°C in the latest IPCC report.  Muttit found that:

  • The potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently operating fields and mines would take us beyond 2°C of warming.
  • The reserves in currently operating oil and gas fields alone, even with no coal, would take the world beyond 1.5°C.

The recommendations follow logically:

  • No new fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be built, and governments should grant no new permits for them.
  • Some fields and mines – primarily in rich countries – should be closed before fully exploiting their resources, and financial support should be provided for non-carbon development in poorer countries.

This requires a much faster exit from fossil fuels than the Saskatchewan government is prepared to consider.  However, it does not mean stopping using all fossil fuels overnight.  Governments and companies should conduct a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry and ensure a just transition for the workers and communities that depend on it.  With the necessary decline in production over the coming decades to meet climate goals, clean energy can be scaled up at a corresponding pace, expanding the total number of energy jobs.

For answers to more talking points click here.