Superpowers dictate or can greatly influence events; ordinary powers cannot.
Therefore, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's boast that Canada was an "energy superpower" was, and remains, pure bombast. Canada was, and is, an energy policy taker (except maybe in hydroelectricity), subject to events rather than a commander of them.
The declaration's bombast has never been more apparent, what with oil prices in the tank and layoffs all over Alberta, a province now saddled with a deficit. Natural gas prices have fallen. Liquefied natural gas projects on the British Columbia coast are inching forward or stalled. Pipeline projects are in trouble everywhere. Fracking is verboten in New Brunswick (for the moment) and Quebec.
Environmentalists take heart from these problems, since the hardline among them want all fossil fuel production halted to help save the environment from global warming. They are organized, vocal and committed, and in their assumption that renewables can, will and must replace fossil fuels, they are wrong.
There are certainly policies – some debated in this election campaign – that can over time move energy use away from fossil fuels, or at least from the most polluting of them (coal and oil) to less polluting (natural gas and renewables).
The best is putting a price on carbon via a tax (an option no party favours); the second-best (the NDP and Liberal position) is a cap-and-trade system. The least effective methods, and most costly, are regulations and subsidies, which have been the federal government's preferred tools.
The ineffectiveness of these tools, coupled with the previous explosion of bitumen production, meant that Canada's greenhouse gas emissions declined by only 3 per cent since the Conservatives took office, whereas the Harper government had pledged to reduce them by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020.
It had been evident for a very long time that this target would be missed, but the Harper government kept repeating that the government was on track to meet the target when all evidence shouted the contrary.
The world, and to a lesser extent, Canada, will be using fossil fuels, including oil and coal, for a long time to come. Recent reports by the International Energy Agency and the British Petroleum Energy Outlook (a highly respected yearly publication) explain that renewables (nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, biomass) will change energy use patterns by 2035 but not in a transformative way.
Both reports underscore the growth of renewables. They suggest growth might rise as costs of producing renewable energy continue to decline. Growth might be furthered if governments put a price on carbon, thereby making carbon-intensive energy sources more expensive.
Still, the BP Outlook and the IEA see world energy demand rising steadily – not in North America or Europe but in Asia and Africa. By 2035, Asia might consume about 60 per cent of the world's energy.
In North America and Europe, oil and coal use is expected to decline, but it will rise in Asia, so that worldwide consumption of coal and oil, the two dirtiest fuels, will be higher in 2035-2040 than today.
Renewables' share of electricity generation in North America will increase, but so will natural gas, a fossil fuel. What about vehicles? BP notes that fuel economy has improved, and will improve more courtesy of tighter emission standards for vehicles.
Nonetheless, the vehicle fleet in North America might grow by almost 30 per cent by 2035, meaning greater efficiency will only reduce overall transport fuel demand by 9 per cent. And the fuel of choice will overwhelmingly remain refined oil.
Today, the world glut of oil means lower prices than before, which in turn encourages consumers to use more of the product, which in turn raises greenhouse gas emissions. Oil will be very tough to replace as a feedstock for petrochemical products.
Technology, of course, can help spur innovation in renewables. Solar panels are much more efficient and cheaper than a while ago. Work is proceeding apace at storing energy, critical for wind power, and making vehicles run on electricity. Who knows what other breakthroughs are ahead?
But the biggest technological breakthroughs have been in cracking open shale gas and tight oil in the United States. These have made the U.S. into the world's leading oil producer and a big natural gas producer, contributed to world over-supply, helped to drive down prices, and therefore raised consumption of – fossil fuels.