A New, Free-Market-Based Agenda to Tackle Either Slow or Fast Climate Change

Commentary, Climate, Ian Madsen

The Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, will soon issue his own program for dealing with ‘Climate Change’ and its consequences. The earth appears to be warming; how much or how fast or whether it is human-caused is for another debate.  

The current regime in Ottawa has started a program of ‘carbon taxes’ that start at $20 per tonne of carbon in fossil fuels, and will gradually rise to $50 per tonne by 2022; causing steep rises in coal costs, less so in gasoline and diesel, and only half the price rise in natural gas. There is billions for ‘clean tech’, conservation, and in assisting provinces, municipalities and First Nations to conserve energy and adopt more renewable energy.  There are also caps on large emitters such as steel mills and oil sands plants.

It is unclear whether the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition will advocate a diluted or re-oriented version of what Ottawa is already doing. While it may be too late to influence his, or any other politicians’, attempts at Greenhouse Gas (GHG) reduction or climate change adaptation, here are some ideas that have a chance at working, at a much lower cost to the economy and households than the agenda of any political party or ‘activists’.

The first and most logical thing that could be done is to make our most abundant and least harmful (in GHG terms) energy source more widely accessible, and affordable: natural gas, the fuel is cheap, relative to oil, and competitive with coal, thanks to it being a byproduct of shale oil exploration. When it becomes ubiquitous, it will be benchmark indexed, as oil is, and even more traded.

Provincial, federal and local governments, First Nations reserves, and utility companies together could and should find ways to finance and expand the network of gas lines to heat, and, in more remote communities, electrically power households now reliant on wood, or expensive power lines.  Existing coal-fired electric power plants could be encouraged to phase into gas-firing, as could cement plants and other coal-using industries. Cement plants produce about 5% of global CO2 emissions.

Emissions by long-haul truckers, railways and delivery fleets will fall by using compressed natural gas, ‘CNG’, or liquefied natural gas, ‘LNG’.  This could be further encouraged by the same group of government and commercial interests. Not-fully-treated sewage, discarded food and agricultural waste, and garbage landfills are all big GHG emitters.  There are technologies to capture much of these emissions, along with ensuring more modern containment and remediation. They could be phased in with government incentives, and also render the residue into useful fertilizer, eventually.

While renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, wave, and tidal are intermittent and thus not commercially viable yet, there are things government could do to make them so:  embark on rigorous research to identify practicable, scalable, economically feasible energy storage products, systems and devices; mainly, new sorts of batteries. There are many already being deployed, but this will have to happen faster to make renewables truly competitive with fossil fuels. This is longer term, but crucial.

The federal and provincial governments could also make it easier to plan and develop independent hydroelectric plants; perhaps smaller-scale ones, given the Keeyask and Muskrat Falls debacles.  Analogous to this, will be to foster and incentivize deployment of distributed off-grid gas-powered fuel cell power generation already occurring in North America. Finally, congestion charges for commuters have a place but should be phased in in conjunction with expanding roadways to make travel more efficient.

These suggestions may cost, eventually, in the billions of dollars, even if far less than other plans.  If spread out over time and to many different parties and made market-oriented, that will make all the difference in helping make this transition, if it is to be forced upon us, as useful and painless as possible.