Going to the root of the problem

Going to the root of the problem

When you set out to solve a big, complex problem, it is essential to put your effort and resources where they will generate the best results.

Based on my experience as a member of the Global Studies Committee of the World Energy Council, it is evident that deriving an overall solution for the climate change challenge requires a very comprehensive approach. Such an approach requires assessment of all possible sources of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and all options for reducing GHG releases to the atmosphere. The overall framework has three dimensions:

  • Assessing all GHG sources associated with production and processing of primary energy sources to the point of final consumption, including exploration, extraction, upgrading, refining, conversion and transport to point of end use (referred to as “well to tank”), to arrive at an understanding of GHG production at each stage of this supply chain
  • GHG production for final consumption to meet energy-related end uses, such as burning gasoline to transport vehicles or natural gas to heat homes
  • All options for managing GHGs, by preventing or reducing their release to the atmosphere.

It is of special interest, and often a huge surprise, to note that GHGs are generated predominantly by consumers, not producers. For fossil fuels, in particular, only about 15 per cent of GHG emissions are generated in the entire “well to tank” process. The remaining 85 per cent occur when the fuel is burned.

For example, people are astonished when they hear that, for all the concern and controversy surrounding the Alberta oil sands, the massive process of harvesting the energy and bringing it to market only represents such a small portion of its overall ultimate impact. There is a much greater relative reduction in GHG generation when people shift from using personal vehicles to commuting by public transport, than by seeking further efficiency refinements in the oil sands production process. This is not to suggest that efficiency improvements are not important. But it is even more important to consider how energy-related services are being used by society at large, and how to make fundamental changes in the way we consume energy, especially fossil fuels.

The tough, fascinating challenge for energy engineers is that these choices are not driven solely by energy. Shifting personal mobility toward electric vehicles would reduce demand for carbon-intensive fossil fuels and point toward deployment opportunities for non-dispatchable electricity. But three things are true about the option of investing in our cities to get people out of their cars:

  • It’s a worthy policy goal that many of us might embrace with great enthusiasm.
  • It is not a strategy that traditionally receives in-depth attention from energy supply and demand modelers.
  • When city planners do address issues like commute times and urban sprawl, it’s often to meet objectives that have little to do with energy or GHGs. So the impact we seek in the energy sector often results from choices that may be made for other reasons.

There is much to be done in reducing GHG production, and any short-term effort is worthy. But if the end target is to reduce GHG releases by as much as 80 per cent, the dominant transformations will have to occur in the way in which we, as members of society, use energy-related services. As the Trottier Energy Futures Project has pointed out, much of that activity will be situated outside the energy sector, where the underlying demand for energy-related services originates.

One of the Trottier Project’s strengths is its mandate to look at the low-carbon challenge in a totally integrated way, then systematically select the transformation strategies that will deliver the greatest impact at lowest cost. Even with this pragmatic approach, the process of implementing a lengthy list of actions will require tremendous leadership.

But for the overall effort to deliver needed results, it will, very obviously, be necessary to expand the decision domain beyond our traditional, nearly exclusive focus on supply-side transformation options.

This broader frame is perhaps the Trottier Energy Futures Project’s most important contribution to energy policy. An expanded solution set takes a conversation that is already very complex and makes it even more so. But it also points to a different set of strategies and trade-offs that will have to be considered if public and private decision-makers are to craft a meaningful, practical response to the challenge of global climate change.

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