Remember the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius? That, of course, was the basis of the Paris Agreement in 2015 – the landmark global deal to limit human-caused climate heating to, ideally, 1.5 C, or, at worst, well below 2 C.
The numbers weren’t conjured out of nothing. Every fraction of heating matters. The latest science shows July, the hottest month on record, breached 1.5 C. Extreme heat everywhere, Antarctica melting, wildfires and floods: Welcome to the future. Now picture what heating of more than 2 C would be like. That’s the current trajectory, propelled by the ongoing bonfire of fossil fuels.
What’s necessary, scientists have long argued, is “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented” changes in how countries operate, starting with energy production. The technology, led by wind and solar power, is ready and affordable. Change is happening – the International Energy Agency expects, for the first time, more global spending on solar power this year than on oil. But it’s not enough.
This is the essential context for the broiling climate debates in Canada. At the fore is the federal Liberals’ pending clean electricity regulations, a set of rules that aim to cut emissions from fossil fuels out of power generation by 2035. Canada has a huge head start, with more than 80 per cent of power in the country generated by hydro, nuclear and wind.
Cleaning up the rest – alongside expanding the grid as sectors like transport are electrified – is an essential part of Canada meeting its Paris treaty commitment to slash emissions. Despite the urgency, provinces are failing to deliver.
In the business of electricity, Canada is 10 different countries. The provinces export more power to the United States than to each other. But instead of a new spirit of collaboration and innovation, the provinces are saying no to the goal of clean power by 2035.
Ontario is adding more fossil fuel power. Saskatchewan flat-out rejects Ottawa’s goals. In Manitoba, which is already almost 100 per cent clean with its bounty of hydro, the province last week somehow concluded that to clean up the rest of its grid by 2035 is “not feasible.”
The absence of ambition is staggering.
The worst, however, may be Alberta. The province, with its open power market driven by private investments, is Canada’s wind and solar leader. Renewables produced 17.3 per cent of Alberta’s power in 2022, almost double four years earlier. Many more billions of dollars of investments in solar, wind and energy storage have been proposed.
So what does Alberta do? Last week it halted development of new solar and wind projects until next winter. The United Conservative Party government claims it may need to step in and slow progress, because things are happening too fast. The UCP is all for the free market, but doesn’t like what’s happening in the free market.
It’s the same in Texas. The state’s open power market led to a boom in renewables. Right-wing lawmakers this year fought back to favour fossil fuels and discourage renewables.
Alberta is a “natural gas province,” Premier Danielle Smith says. A top UCP goal is to resist Ottawa’s clean power rules. Like every province, Alberta has reasonable concerns about the impact of overly rapid changes in the electrical grid. Reliability and affordable costs are key. But the province’s opposition ignores its potential. Change is possible. In 2015, about two-thirds of Alberta’s power came from coal. The Alberta NDP put the province on a path to get off coal by 2030; it’ll happen this year.
After that successful, and fast, shift, the UCP now insists Alberta has to rely on natural gas for years to come. What it should do is start building the grid of the future, decentralized, interconnected across Western Canada, able to handle intermittency with an abundance of storage, and able to manage through peak demand in the coldest months of winter. Rather than rise to the challenge, the message Alberta broadcasts is: It can’t be done.
It can be done. The Pembina Institute and the Canada Energy Regulator in recent months have detailed how. Whether it all happens exactly by 2035 is a distraction. Fighting over a deadline, rather than figuring out solutions, isn’t the answer.
The mission and urgency are clear. Clean power, aside from zero emissions, promises lower electricity bills. The challenges brought on by rapid change can be overcome. There are more opportunities than risks. The provinces need to stop resisting change and get to work.