Low-carbon energy choices go back to underlying values

Low-carbon energy choices go back to underlying values

The conversation about low-carbon energy futures will only deliver effective solutions if there is a full understanding and discussion of the costs, benefits and trade-offs behind various options for transforming our energy systems.

This larger dialogue will be far more complicated and time-consuming than a linear choice between energy technologies or projects based solely on their carbon footprint. But without a wider view, even the most comprehensive response to climate change will fall short, and rapidly lose public acceptance, if it’s seen to create a new set of problems beyond the one it sets out to solve.

An 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is a daunting enough challenge in itself, and there is no doubt that we’re on a very tight timeline to transform energy systems. But for better or worse, there are no shortcuts here. The solutions we come up with will only succeed if they somehow balance the full range of sustainability criteria—economic, environmental and social.

A Question for Every Answer

The questions lurking behind the various low-carbon solutions depend on the answers we come up with.

For example, crop production for biofuels could mean a 100-fold or more increase in water use per kilometre travelled, compared to the already substantial water demand for making transportation fuels from Alberta’s oil sands. In areas with surplus water, this may not be a problem, but as the scale of biofuel production increases, and water becomes a limiting factor, the former solution may create a new problem.

The rural backlash against wind energy reflects the human tendency to react differently when a new technology shows up in our back yards, rather than 100 or even 10 kilometres away. While there is no scientific evidence that wind turbines damage human health, some people don’t like their visual impact on the landscape, or they have simmering resentments of neighbours who were able to cash in on a developer’s offer.  Societal constraints on transformational change also need to be understood and managed.

As the Trottier Project showed in its Inventory of Low-Carbon Energy, Canada could tap significant new hydroelectricity reserves by 2050. But large hydro development, in particular, involves significant land use and biodiversity impacts that would have to be addressed—in full, and in public—for any project to earn a social licence to operate.

The common denominator, to paraphrase the not-quite-wily Dennis Moore of Monty Python fame, is that this redistribution of energy supply and demand will be trickier than we may have thought.

A Wider Frame

The Trottier Energy Futures Project could help frame these issues by opening a truly integrative dialogue on energy systems choices. It would begin with water and land use, biodiversity, and air pollution. It could extend to broader topics like the economics, stability and resiliency of different energy systems configurations. These concerns won’t be addressed easily or quickly, but that’s all the more reason to begin weighing the costs, benefits and trade-offs of different energy systems choices.

Along the way, we’ll find out that the conclusions we reach are different in Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal, and can vary widely between urban and rural communities. That’s the point when the real conversation about values will begin—and none too soon, as the 2050 deadline for an 80 per cent greenhouse gas reduction looms ever larger.

Dr. David B. Layzell, FRSC, is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy at the University of Calgary.

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