The Saskatchewan White Paper on Climate Change

Last week (on Oct. 18, 2016) Brad Wall at last announced his climate policy… sort of.  It turns out that there is nothing new in the White Paper as regards actual policy – but there are some new twists in the demands that he is making of the federal government.

It is encouraging to see that there is no overt climate science denial in the document – indeed it explicitly acknowledges the reality of climate change and the human role in its causation.  However, there are other sorts of denial.

There is the ideologically convenient denial of the effectiveness of carbon pricing – whether a carbon tax or cap and trade.  To do this Mr Wall’s researchers have needed to quote economists out of context and leap to conclusions on the basis of scant cherry-picked evidence.  (What was that about “grim leapers”, Mr Wall?)  For a more detailed treatment of this, I recommend Brett Dolter’s economic analysis.

And then there is the attempt to claim that Saskatchewan isn’t really such a high emitter after all.  There are two talking points here.  Firstly, the authors direct our attention away to China and India – countries which, because of their much larger population, have higher total emissions (but whose per capita emissions are a small fraction of ours).  Secondly, they argue for adjustment of our own emissions figures by introducing effective credits for legume production, for agriculture generally, and even for uranium mining.  The claim is that legume nitrogen-fixing and zero-till agriculture provide effective carbon sinks, and that uranium supply reduces fossil fuel use elsewhere in the world.  We will address this separately in other blog posts, but let’s just say for now that it amounts to creative carbon accounting – and that the sheer chutzpah of these claims took me by surprise.

Denial can take other forms, too, and one of them is fantastical thinking.  At the centre of Mr Wall’s supposed strategy is the assumption that SaskPower’s experience of retrofitting a carbon capture and storage facility to the Boundary Dam 3 power station will give the province some ability to market this technology in Asia.  Firstly, it isn’t working to specification – and as a result they’ve had to reduce their annual target from 1 million to 800 thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide captured.  Secondly, it is expensive – the Boundary Dam installation cost of about $1.5 billion works out at about 15 cents per kilowatt-hour generated.  Wind power typically works out at between 5 and 8 cents per kilowatt-hour, and solar photovoltaics at 12 (and rapidly decreasing).  And, thirdly, SaskPower doesn’t even own the patents for the adsorption unit – the key element in the CCS facility.  Perhaps, when he talks about “more research and development” to produce “next generation” CCS, Mr Wall is hopeful of overcoming that last hurdle.  But it’s all speculative, the timescale is unspecified, and it is difficult to envisage what changes would merit the label of “next generation”.  There is no grounding in reality.

And maybe it is this naive faith in expensive big technology that lies behind the truly poisonous suggestion that the $2.65 billion federal money pledged to the Global Climate Fund be diverted into research and development for projects like this.  That money is earmarked to help the poorest in the world to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change (for which high-emitting wealthy societies like ours bear the bulk of the responsibility) and to enable them to pursue their own low-carbon path to development.  Mr Wall’s proposal amounts to stealing from the poor to give to wealthy corporations.

There is more to be said.  I have said some of it here. We will be publishing further responses on this blog to some of Mr Wall’s favourite talking points – not so much to show how wrong he is as to present the reality. We will also be posting some positive proposals which make more scientific sense – and more economic sense – than anything that the present government has come up with so far.

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