Climate Change: It’s Not the Science, It’s the Policy

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released its latest “Synthesis Report” drawing together the findings of the most recent three-volume set of the Fifth Assessment Report. The Assessment Report is meant to be the last word – at least until the next omnibus review is done – on climate change science and policy options. There’s little sense debating the science of climate change at this point, though it is eminently debatable. Having served as an official reviewer for the IPCC, I’ve seen how the sausage gets made, and it’s not pretty. And summary documents are usually the worst, in that they’re highly selective of the information in the technical reports they aim to summarize, and they’re made in conjunction with political actors from around the world. If you dig into the technical reports themselves, you can support just about any position on the science, from no-worries to serious concern. For the record, I’m a climate “accepter” – I think manmade climate change is real, but likely to be modest in its impacts.

But frankly, one’s beliefs about projected climate change are vastly less important than one’s views of what humanity is supposed to do about it, and here, the UN’s policy prescription is draconian. Based on the findings of the synthesis report, the UN calls for almost a complete end to fossil fuel use by 2100, with the majority of that decarbonization to take place before 2050.

Carbon-based fuels are, by far, the least-cost fuels for reliable electricity production, and for powering the world’s transportation system. Raising power costs by switching to nuclear, wind, solar, and biofuels would seriously degrade our quality of life, pricing development out of the reach of more than two billion people around the world. For Canada, that prescription would be particularly damaging, as it calls for an end to oil sands production, and abandonment of Canada’s coal, oil and natural gas resources. That’s a major chunk of Canada’s economy, eliminated by 2050.

Let’s review some key facts. According to the International Energy Agency, 1.3 billion people in Africa and Asia have no access to electricity and 2.6 billion people lack access to clean cooking facilities. Energy poverty has been identified as a major threat to realizing the United Nation’s own Millenium Development goals.

Environmentalists and green-energy hucksters promise to power the world with wind and sunlight, but that’s unlikely – wind and solar power are expensive and unreliable forms of energy generation with their own significant environmental impacts. The most authoritative source that compares the costs of different kinds of electricity generation on an apples-to-apples basis (energy economists call this the “levelized cost of power”) is the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In its most recent estimations, the EIA lists the cost of generating new coal power (looking to 2019 construction) at $96/MWh; natural gas at about $65/MWh; solar power comes in between $130/MWh and $243/MWh depending on how you generate it. Wind looks slightly better than it has in the past, at an estimated $80/MWh for on-shore wind, but wind carries problems that transcend price – it’s intermittent, it requires redundant back-up power sources, and it comes with its own set of environmental headaches.

Let’s look at Canada’s own experience with green energy. Last year, in a study for the Fraser Institute, Ross McKitrick (Fraser Institute Senior Fellow and economics professor at the University of Guelph) looked at the mess that Ontario got itself into following the green energy playbook. What McKitrick found was that in pursuit of a renewable-energy transition in Ontario, power prices were driven to some of the highest rates in North America, with additional rate hikes of 40-50 per cent pending in the next few years. His study showed that 80 per cent of the wind-power generated in Ontario was out of phase with demand, and that this surplus power was sold to the United States at a loss to Ontarians. McKitrick found that Ontario already lost more than $2 billion on wind power, with additional losses of $200 million/year ongoing. Adding insult to injury, the very modest environmental benefits realized by Ontario through the transition to renewables could have been secured at one-tenth the cost if the province had simply continued to use existing technologies to retrofit aging coal plants.

Advocates for greenhouse gas controls are waving the UN’s synthesis report around, asserting that arguments over climate policy are now void, as the UN’s definitive science has produced a policy that simply cannot be refuted. Disagree with them on any particular, from the potential scale of the threat to the impacts of their proposed policies – even if you use the UN’s own data to support your position – and they’ll label you a “denier.” But here’s what can’t be denied: the policy prescriptions of the ENGOs and the United Nations would continue the impoverishment of billions, and increase that impoverishment over time, not lessen it.