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Stay the course, Mr Harper? You Don’t believe We are on the Eve of Destruction.

The title of this note comes from a 1965 hit song. It is surprisingly relevant today. For a hit of nostalgia or a little history go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qfZVu0alU0I

The subject of this note is much more optimistic.

On September 19, 2014 the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project published its 2014 report. The Chapter on Canada is available at the link below. A pathway is not a forecast, but rather an illustrative scenario designed to identify technology-related needs, challenges, uncertainties, and opportunities

The Report was presented at the United Nations Climate Summit on September 23, 2014.

Similar reports are available for Australia, the USA and a dozen other countries. They show, for example how Australia can achieve net zero emissions by 2050 using present-day technologies while maintaining economic prosperity. The US can reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Canada can reduce emissions by 90% relative to 2010 levels.

The studies all allow for growing GDP per capita and growing population. In Canada they show how to achieve nearly complete decarbonization of the buildings, transportation, and electricity sectors. The remaining emissions come primarily from industry.

Canada can take action to decarbonize in four areas:DDPP_CAN_cover

1) deepened energy efficiency;

2) decarbonization of the electricity sector;

3) Fuel switching to lower carbon fuels (e.g. electricity, transport biofuels and hydrogen);

4) Direct GHG reduction for industrial processes and thermal heat generation

These studies are not the only only ones mapping out feasible paths to bring carbon dioxide emissions to or near zero. This is the kind of work that Environment Canada was about to begin back when Mr Harper came to power. He clearly didn’t want to know it could be done. Why? Probably because of a deep and irrational attachment to the revenues he thought would be generated by the fossil fuel industries.

In any case, the studies are being done, just not by Canada.

Mr Harper, instead, proposes that we “stay the course,” which happens to be the road to warming of 4 degrees Celsius. He is almost alone in that position now, but he could be elected. If he is, “staying the course” will mean that Canada drives closer to the brink of disaster. That’s where the Barry McGuire hit comes in.

People more connected to the real world know there is another pathway.


Electrifying News

We need to triple our electric power supply. Why? Because we have to replace gasoline and diesel for transportation and we have to replace all our use of natural gas for heating and industry by 2050.

This is the key energy issue facing Canada. It sounds pretety tough, but lets look at the numbers.

In Ontario, 9% of electricity is supplied by wind. 28% is supplied by gas and oil. Solar and biofuels are trivial at the moment. Biofuels have very limited upside. Lets consider the what would happen if we try to decarbonize with just wind.

First we have to add three times the current wind power capacity to replace fossil fuel electricity generation. Then we need to add another eleven times current capacity to be equivalent to transportation fossil fuels. Then we need another 11 for heating.

Are your ready for 26 times the current area covered by wind farms? And most of that in southern Ontario?

It is feasible and it would actually increase the economic productivity of agricultural land. It could be done by 2050 at current rates of growth of wind power. Solar adds a second technology that will be increasingly important, but it probably isn’t needed in a purely technical sense.

We will need to install storage systems and do some sophisticated load-shifting, but these are technical problems that are either getting close to being solved or already solved.

But I have over-estimated the amount of power needed for transportation. The internal combustion engine is typically about 15% efficient. The electric motor gets close to 60% efficiency. That means that in a simple technology swap we only need one quarter the current energy used in transportation. Instead of adding 11 times current capacity we could just add triple the current installed capacity. It is starting to look pretty easy!!

The change-over is gong to be complicated, but the basic technology already exists.electricity-clip-art-109122

There is more good news when we think about heating. Natural gas heats most homes and work-places in Ontario. It has to go. Electric heating is possible, but instead of just replacing the heat source, why not make building more efficient? Already we can build net-zero homes. They require no outside energy on average.

This means that a massive home and urban renovation project is part of our decarbonization roadmap. And if we pushed it far enough, fixed the building codes so new buildings don’t use gas, and exploited geothermal and waste heat, we would not need any additional electricity for heating buildings.

It is surprising how close we are. Really, all we need to do is start!

Value-Added Jobs for Northern Ontario

Economic development for Northern Ontario means learning to add value to the resources we export. I have heard a Conservative candidate say that by building pipelines we add value, but this is a deep, deep misunderstanding. Pumping oil out faster is not adding value. To add value you have to do more to the resource before you ship it out.

Wood is one of the two major export products for Northern Ontario. There is a major opportunity to add value to that wood that we are passing up. Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) is a building product that will be in huge demand, and we have the resource and skill needed to produce it. This is an example “low-hanging fruit” for Northern economic development.

MT-11The easy way to think about CLT is to imagine taking lots of the 2x4s we already produce, gluing them into solid slabs, and machining all the edges so they snap together like lego blocks. We have added value, so we have more jobs in Northern Ontario. We have made a relatively low value product into a premium building material, so we get more money per tree. Value added. Jobs.

CLT is an advanced building technoloogy, already produced in Europe, Quebec and BC. Ontario lags, and this not only hurts the Northern economy, it hurts the National economy. Here in Sudbury we have one of Ontario’s first experiments with CLT in the Laurentian School of Architecture. In Quebec, Nordic Structures, a construction firm, already has a beautiful 13 story condo on the drawing boards. Quebec has a more advanced building code and a better economic development strategy for its wood sector than Ontario.

CLT has been promoted by Woodworks, an initiative of the Wood Products Council, and FPInnovations, Canada’s principle research organization supporting the Canadian forest sector’s global competitiveness. This is a proven technology.

What makes CLT one of the building materials of the future? First, it is a superior building technology – fire resistant, beautiful, fast to build with. Second, it is a carbon store. Solid wood stores carbon, CLT is a nearly permanent and even reusable carbon store. Producing competing building materials – steel and concrete – releases large amounts of CO2. Concrete also requires large amounts of sand and sand is becoming a scarce commodity. Sand mining has already caused over 100 Indonesian islands to disappear.

Climate change models suggest that a great deal of our forests will be destroyed by fire and bugs. Salvaging the trees attacked by the mountain pine beetle depressed the price of lumber for years. Dimensional lumber is a crowded market, however. CLT is a growing market. We can salvage much of the forest and turn it into CLT without hurting the less advanced producers.

I have been arguing for years that Ontario should be energetically promoting CLT. I pushed to have CLT in the new Architecture building. If I were elected as the Federal representative for Sudbury I would obviously be an effective promoter for this important economic initiative.

But this is an issue for all the Northern Mayors, and all our representatives right now. They have been too busy trying to catch smaller fish. It really is time to take the blinders off and work together to create jobs for Northerners in this new industry.


Harper: The Black Hole of Canadian Politics

Anyone who is following the election knows that the three main parties are offering platforms that differ by a couple percentage points on this tax or a couple billion dollars on that program. They agree on far more than they disagree on. They are like rabbits arguing about where to stand on a beached whale.

They are avoiding the same issues as well. None of the main parties want to talk about climate warming or the energy revolution that is underway. The rabbits are too busy arguing to talk about which direction gets the whale off the beach.

Climate change and technology give us a map of the future. The election is being fought with a map of the past. Why?

It is because Steven Harper has become the Black Hole of Canadian politics. He has pulled the NDP and the Liberals into orbits near his own. The rest of the galaxy is now outside their event horizon.anigif_enhanced-buzz-22754-1416328348-16_preview (1)

This is not unusual in politics. Two party systems tend to collapse campaigns around the `median voter,’ the voter with 50% of the population to the left and 50% to the right. The US system is like this – two parties compete to be in the middle.

With Canada’s three large parties, the party in power tries to get as close to the middle as possible, forcing the other two to divide the remaining half. Harper tries to present his government as the center. In this election, the opposition parties have moved as close to Harper as they can without alienating their traditional bases. They are both competing for all of what used to be called the `center’ and the `left.’

One result is that Canada now has three centrist parties.

Another result is that there is no policy debate. Harper has been able to control what they talk about and what they don’t talk about. In this election they don’t talk about the really big issues. Global warming is off the table. The huge opportunity to transform the Canadian economy is off the table.

Green party policy can differ because the party is just too far from the black hole to be sucked in. The Greens do focus on the big issues, and they are right to do so. The struggle for the Greens is to open up the discussion – to pull some voters out of the black hole of Canadian politics. And to get the whale off the beach.

Harper: Economic Mismanagement 101

As an economist I am always astounded by Mr Harper.

Any time you are not in a deep recession it is easy to have a surplus – it may not be smart, but it is easy. All you do is shift some payments around.

If you are running a household budget you know how to do this. Don’t pay some bills, postpone getting the roof repaired, try getting through the winter with all season tires, cut out a trip for the kids, don’t buy Christmas presents. You might sell off some tools or a cottage. You are not richer or poorer as a result – you have simply rearranged your spending.

Mr Harper could always do the same kind of thing, and he did. So why does he think people should vote for him for juggling the books? What astounds me is that even after years of getting ready and months of careful book-cooking he still didn’t know if he had succeeded.

If he had actually spent all the money he budgeted, he would be in deficit now. He has been helped by the low dollar and low investment demand that have kept interest rates low. Of course these are signs that his energy superpower strategy has failed. The nation’s infrastructure deficit grew. The nation’s climate deficit grew. The `broad deficit’ is still there.

The real question about Harper’s little fiscal surplus is whether you want a contractionary federal government at a time when the economy is weak.13-PM-Stephen-Harper1-OFFICIAL-11x14in-e1354648279867

The answer is yes, if you are desperate to be re-elected, and no, if you are concerned about Canada’s economy.

I have been astonished by how cynical the man is. He bought votes by cutting the GST even though he had to borrow to do it. Basically he bought just enough economically illiterate voters by passing a huge tax liability on to our kids. Now he is dragging the anchor on the economy in the hope that the magic word “surplus” will buy a few more votes form economic illiterates.

He is not running a government so much as using Canada Revenue a giant vote-buying machine.


Canada’s Voodoo Economist

Voodoo economics is what George H. W. Bush called the approach that was later called “Reaganomics.” According to voodoo economists, you cut taxes to create growth and reduce the deficit. It didn’t work for Reagan, of course – lower taxes combined with a massive spending program did stimulate the economy, but the tax cuts tripled the US Gross Federal Debt, from $900 billion to $2.7 trillion. Presidents Ford and Carter together only doubled the debt. After WWII it took the USA 31 years to accomplish the first postwar debt tripling, yet Reagan did it in eight.n-HARPER-MULCAIR-TRUDEAU-large570

By way of comparison, Canada’s Voodoo Economist, Steven Harper, is a bit of a piker – he has only increased the nation’s debt by about one third. Mind you, the debt was falling sharply under the previous government. It took him a whole year to generate his first huge deficit, but since then then he has stayed firmly in the negative numbers. That is despite his amazing but short-lived discovery that Canada is an “energy superpower.” There is a small chance he will just barely poke into surplus in 2016.

Overall, he has added about $160 billion to Canada’s debt, much to the dismay of his one-time supporters at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

One tragedy of the Harper years is that this debt was unnecessary. Canadians were paying for what they got and were paying down the national debt when he came to power. Mr Harper chose to cut taxes and start borrowing.

This is obviously not traditional “conservative” economics. It isn’t “Canadian Conservative” economics, either, since it was Conservative Brian Mulroney that brought in the GST that Harper so rashly cut. Mr Mulroney deserves some of the credit for Paul Martin’s success in taming the deficits that began in the 1980s.
Harper’s economics isn’t “Liberal” economics either, since the Liberals ran surpluses.

What we have here is Mr Harper’s own unique Canadian version of Voodoo Economics. And Voodoo economics isn’t real economics: it is basically a religion. Don’t expect Mr Harper to change his mind just because history has proven him wrong.


Once Harper is Gone: A Federal Urban Climate Policy

It is time that we had a federal program to prepare cities in Canada to be carbon free by 2050. The economic advantages are huge, as the attached report suggests, but it will take a major reworking of urban master plans, new infrastructure plans, changes in staffing, public relations programs and more.

4320One of the best ways for the Federal government to contribute is to do the basic research for all Canadian cities. It takes money and time to find best practices, to work out technology road maps, to develop training programs, and to run pilot projects. Individual cities can’t afford it, but the Federal government can, and the Federal government can do it efficiently. In fact this is one of the key roles of the Federal government in the 21st century.

The project reaches form the top of the pile to the grass-roots. A city like Sudbury has to create a vision of itself without fossil fuels. That vision has to be one where the people of the city are healthier, happier and wealthier in real terms. How will we heat our homes in that better 2050 world?  (This is easier for us than many places- we have enormous geothermal potential)

How much do we save by not buying natural gas and gasoline? (hundreds of millions) What changes to the Building Code do we need? (Insulation, materials that sequester carbon, green roofs? water collection?)

What will public transit look like in 35 years? (Possibly individual self-driving electric vehicles you call with your phone?. Will we recreate our old street railway system? – the right-of-ways are still there.)

Will we continue to allow costly urban sprawl? What financing tools will help people adjust? What will a school look like in 2050 and where will it be to minimize social costs? (My guess is that schools should be beside shopping and sports facilities at public transit nodes.)

How will we protect our lakes while enjoying them more? (bigger setbacks? Compulsory composting toilets? Public green strips around the shoreline? Banning all motorboats? Only allowiwing electric boats?)

We do need a federal program to help answer these questions. We also need our local politicians to start asking them. There is no excuse for Councilors to wait. The first steps – ask the question, launch the planning process, call for a federal program – are cheap and can be done tomorrow morning.