One of the unfortunate legacies of 2016 is the frequency of so-called "post-truth" communications. This term has emerged to describe communications in which objective facts are replaced by erroneous assertions aimed at creating emotion-based beliefs. Post-truth communications reached a peak during the U.S. presidential election campaign. But Canadians have also seen an escalation of post-truth communications, particularly in relation to energy. What follows are some of those assertions contrasted with real-world facts.
Post-truth No. 1: We have the technology to replace fossil fuels with wind and solar energy
- Fossil fuels generate more than 65 per cent of global electricity production. Despite the hundreds of billions of dollars invested, wind and solar provides only 1.5 per cent of global power. You may have seen higher figures from the green-power industry, but that’s a classic post-truth distortion quoting “capacity” versus actual electricity delivered. Solar panels operate at “capacity” on a sunny summer day, less on a cloudy day and zero at night. Likewise, a wind-power farm might reach capacity on windy days, but produces nothing on calm days. At best, the average portion of wind and solar capacity producing usable electricity is in the 20-per-cent to 30-per-cent range. And that leads to another fact that green power advocates fail to mention: Because wind and solar are intrinsically undependable, they must be backed up by reliable power plants, which are almost always fossil-fuelled. The result: Consumers suffer large rate increases to pay for power they can’t depend on and then pay again to build and operate expensive standby fossil-fueled plants.
- Fossil fuels power almost all road, sea and air transportation. And despite the advent of electric vehicles, it’s highly unlikely they will significantly impact fossil-fuel demand because of impracticality for heavy vehicles, limited range and unaffordability in the developing world where auto ownership is skyrocketing.
- Finally, World Bank data show that fossil fuels supply 81 per cent of global energy. Almost all authoritative analyses forecast increasing fossil-fuel demand. Like it or not, all the post-truth rhetoric about wind and solar energy won’t change that reality.
Post-truth No. 2: Canada's oil and gas industry increases global carbon emissions
- Canada produces less than 4 per cent of the 96 million barrels a day of world oil production. If our production were completely shut down, that 4 per cent and the emissions associated with it would quickly be replaced by other countries. Moreover, carbon emissions from Alberta’s much-maligned oil sands make up a miniscule 0.15 per cent of global emissions.
- Canadian natural gas is actually reducing global carbon emissions. Critics of the recent federal approval of the Petronas LNG project focus only on emissions associated with the Canadian portion of the project, while deliberately ignoring the overall global benefit of displacing higher carbon-emitting coal and fuel oil in China. Moreover, clean-burning natural gas produces none of the toxic particulates and sulphur compounds that are shortening the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens.
- Natural gas is increasingly being used to fuel trucks, buses and rail locomotives. And the arrival of British Columbia’s new gas-powered ferries heralds its use in ocean transportation.
Post-truth No. 3: Canada's carbon tax will be part of a global emissions reduction effort
- While 111 countries represented at the November, 2016, Marrakech Climate Change conference supported a proclamation calling for “the highest political commitment to combat climate change,” the real-world facts paint a far different picture. My December column pointed out that only countries with a combined global emission share of 17 per cent had any intention of honouring that proclamation. And since none of those are significant trading partners, imposing a carbon tax to reduce Canada’s minuscule 1.6 per cent of global emissions is simply economic suicide.
- While Canadians debate the wisdom of taxing carbon, a great many countries actually subsidize fossil-fuel use. More than one-third of the 111 countries pledging support for the Marrakech proclamation actually subsidize fossil-fuel use. International Energy Agency data show that, in 2014, fuel subsidies totalled a staggering $493-billion (U.S.). This blatant hypocrisy may help explain why U.S. president-elect Donald Trump recently labelled the United Nations as “an international body that has potential to do something good, but just isn’t living up to expectations.”
The big question is, how, in this age when headline-style messaging offers advantage to those who practice emotion-targeted post-truth communication, can the real-world facts ever get through? I don't have an answer to that perplexing question, but can say with certainty that if those who know the truth remain silent, post-truth falsehoods will eventually erode the factual basis upon which Canadians judge issues important to the economic and political future of our nation.