This is Regina’s extension cord – the high voltage transmission lines from Estevan area coal-fired power plants that keep the Queen City, and a large portion of Saskatchewan, lit. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

Editor’s Note: On July 19, Ottawa-based think tank Public Policy Forum released “Project of the Century: A Blueprint for Growing Canada’s Clean Electricity Supply – and Fast.” This 43 page report is the most comprehensive discussion of Canada’s “energy transition,” as envisioned by the Liberal federal government, Pipeline Online has come across. It focuses on more than doubling the electrical grid by 2050, but doing so without growth in fossil fuel power generation.

Here, University of Regina professor Jim Warren critiques Project of the Century, by Janet Annesley, David Campbell, Arash Golshan and Edward Greenspon. Published by Public Policy Forum. July 19, 2023

The Boy Scout Fallacy

The Boy Scout Fallacy occurs when virtuous, well-intentioned people (the Boy Scouts) assume that if they do the right thing others will want to emulate them. This was the sort of thinking our Laurentian elite engaged in when promoting unfettered trade with China. Sure, China might be an abuser of its people’s civil rights. Yes, it might steal our intellectual property. And, yes it might unfairly dump under-priced goods into Canada to force our domestic producers out of business. But, after working with all the nice people from Canada for a while, the Chinese Communists would be so impressed they would soon mend their ways to become more like us. The Fallacy is similarly in operation when the Boy Scouts assume that even if many other countries fail to abide by international greenhouse gas emissions targets, by golly we’ll set an example by meeting ours no matter how badly we are harmed in the process. If you steal and eat the Boy Scout’s lunch they won’t get mad. They’ll just be happy that you are getting good nutrition.

My most significant criticism of the Project of the Century report involves the statement on page 7 where readers are told that the measures the authors recommend are essential because without them Canada could not meet its Paris (2015) commitments.

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I call this the Boy Scout fallacy. Even though most observers, including many closely associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), concede that the goal of holding the climate to a 1.5o increase over pre-industrial levels by 2050 is virtually impossible. Canada’s governing Boy Scouts still assume that we are irrevocably bound to our Paris commitment. It does not matter that our export competitors and global customers will, intentionally or unintentionally, fail to meet their targets. The authors assume we must endeavor to meet ours despite the economic distress this might create. The cause of much of the economic impact will be the added production costs imposed by the Trudeau government’s various emissions reduction measures. They threaten the profitability of our exporters. Our exporters will be selling into a competitive global marketplace where their free riding competitors, who do not face similar costs (e.g. high carbon taxes), will be able to undersell them.

The fallacies involved in assuming that sticking with Paris is written in stone include the failure to consider recent history along with geopolitical and economic reality. Since the1997 Kyoto Protocol was proclaimed, virtually no country (Denmark may be the only exception) has met its international greenhouse gas reduction targets. More recently, China, the world’s single largest emitter of greenhouse gasses (GHGs), 9,877 million tonnes annually, faces growing economic problems at home and is expected to forego its greenhouse gas reduction “promises” to maintain its own internal political and economic stability.

No less troubling is that Canada’s share of global emissions is small; especially when compared to the world’s largest emitters. Even if Canada were to succeed in reaching net zero by 2050, it is doubtful many other countries would similarly succeed. China produces more than twice the tonnage of GHGs than the next largest emitter, the US, which produces 4,751 million tonnes of GHGs per year. Canada is back in 9th place. We generate 571 million tonnes per year. That amounts to just 1.07% of annual global GHG emissions.*

Sticking with the Boy Scout fallacy, will cost us billions in transition costs, damage our ability to compete in export markets and do little in terms of reducing overall global emissions.

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Magical thinking

On page 2 the goals of the process recommended by the authors are described as follows:

“Managed well the energy system coming out of a quarter century of change may well be more 1) efficient, 2) stable, 3) secure and 4) competitive.”

While a number of the ideas presented by the authors are indeed more useful than most of those previously published by academic policy wonks, there are many problems related to achieving their goals that are not adequately addressed. Somehow digital technology combined with good intentions and pixie dust will make all the wonderful things happen. I’d call that magical thinking.

  1. Efficient – It is assumed that the wonders of IT and new communications systems will allow for various forms of electricity production to be dovetailed in ways that will make the need for “wasteful” expenditures on “unnecessary” base load power will be eliminated. They ignore a number of the challenges (but not all) with intermittent sources like wind and solar. They have little to say about the power losses involved in moving electricity over long distances. And, they are not overly concerned about largely unsolved and/or prohibitively expensive storage challenges.
  2. Stable – less vulnerable to volatile commodity prices. Have they not been paying attention to the geopolitics of the 21st century? The physical location of raw materials deposits, hot wars, trade wars, natural disasters and economic crises will continue to frustrate the acquisition of critical raw materials – just like they have done for millennia. We can’t predict precisely where or when things will go sideways but we know we can expect periodic problems. We know that renewable energy is not produced by IT alone – it requires machinery which eventually wears out. The raw materials for replacement parts – new physical plant, etc. may be ameliorated somewhat by IT wizardry, but they will still arise with respect to the acquisition of all the commodities and technical gadgetry that is required; especially when it comes to those things that we do not own ourselves or produce.
  3. Secure and less vulnerable to geopolitical machinations – this is the standard mantra of all technophiles – nerds will save the world. Technological change is not infrequently accompanied by systems failures caused by tech not working as advertised. Elon Musk can successfully send rockets to space, sometimes, but his internet company was unable to broadcast the Ron DeSantis campaign launch. Have they fixed the Phoenix payroll system yet? Remember when the Saskatchewan NDP tried to digitize the land titles system and people discovered their neighbours now owned a half section of their land? More troubling are vulnerabilities related to cyber-terrorism, acts of cyber-warfare, the hacking of systems for ransom, etc.
  4. Competitive – Well at least they acknowledge the export trade problem. But, they naively assume that all the good countries (fellow Boy Scouts) will want to buy Canadian stuff even if it costs more. Good countries will boldly apply tariffs to the goods produced by greenhouse gas criminals regardless of the effects on the cost of living and GDP growth in their own countries. Easier said than done.
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One of the few potentially workable suggestions, which they fail to mention, would be to amend global trade rules such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to allow for GHG emissions tariffs. This would require getting the more powerful members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) onside. Even if that were to occur, it might not mean much. Canadians might recall how well we have done filing GATT disputes with the WTO. In a recent dispute, the WTO ruled the US had to pay billions in compensation to Canadian beef producers for the economic harm caused by US Country of Origin Labeling rules. The US never paid and are in the process of reimposing the labeling rules. And, what about the perennial disputes over softwood lumber sales to the US? The US was able to thumb its nose at WTO rules and NAFTA rules so many times Canada has given up. We now beg for the best deal the US might generously give us. If that’s what goes on when dealing with our closest neighbour, ally and largest trading partner, how well will we do with countries that don’t particularly like us?

As noted above the authors do address a number of electricity production problems that many academics and members of the Laurentian elite fail to adequately address. One that jumped out at me was their recognition of the need to synchronize the decommissioning of traditional electrical production technologies with the availability of new systems (and the ability to pay for them). I was disappointed to see the authors did not focus any significant attention on assisting displaced workers and adversely affected communities. It appears that blue collar and white collar workers involved in the traditional energy economy are of little concern to Central Canadian academics. Nonetheless, I leave it to experts in the field to evaluate the technical recommendations.

* Emissions data derived from International Energy Agency figures published by the World Population Review https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/greenhouse-gas-emissions-by-country  and Our World In Data, GHG Emissions https://ourworldindata.org/greenhouse-gas-emissions#annual-greenhouse-gas-emissions-how-much-do-we-emit-each-year

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Total flatline: For 3 hours, 17 minutes on Sunday, not one lightbulb in Saskatchewan was powered by grid-scale wind

Project of the Century – the most comprehensive discussion of energy transition we’ve seen to date

EDITORIAL: Think tank Public Policy Forum changes copyright notice after Pipeline Online asks to post their content