Alberta & The Leap Manifesto

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It’s clear that the climate is changing. The Paris Agreement on climate change brought together 195 nations representing virtually the entire planet in what many understood was the last chance to achieve a framework agreement that might have a chance to keep climate change within reasonable bounds that would not radically destabilize the planet and human civilization along with it. As Green Party leader Elizabeth May said when I spoke with her about the negotiations:

“If this agreement had failed, it wouldn’t be, ‘glass half empty or glass half full.’ it would have been, ‘glass smashed on the floor and now what are we supposed to do?’ There was no other forum or mechanism (remaining).”  

[See: Elizabeth May on climate change, electoral, political, and monetary reform, sexual assault and much more.]

It is clear that the global economic order requires changing. In his seminal book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, French economic historian Thomas Piketty has masterfully demonstrated — employing the largest and most comprehensive collection of economic data ever assembled — the extraordinary, and ever-increasing, levels of economic inequality that are becoming increrasingly incompatible with core democratic, meritocratic, and egalitarian values. [See: Thomas Piketty: Economics Transfigured.] The release of the so-called “Panama Papers,” over 11.5 million confidential documents leaked to the global media that reveal the rampant use of offshore tax havens that allow the wealthy to avoid paying income tax, are simply the most recent illustration of the rot at the core of deregulated corporate capitalism and how it is consuming and destroying the foundations of the economies that it feeds on.

It is clear the Canadian social, political, economic, and environmental climate is changing as well. Gone is the decade-long blight of Harper Conservatism that, with its anti-knowledge, anti-science, anti-democratic, anti-intellectual, hyper-partisan primitivism tried to beat Canadian society into the same neoliberal mold that has enraptured far too many politicians around the globe.

And these are only a few of the many ways in which the global social, political, economic, and environmental orders are changing. And these changes are not unconnected. The last four decades of no-holes-barred neoliberalism are bearing their bitter fruit. Did anyone actually imagine that a generation of austerity, of neglect of every kind of social, cultural, and physical infrastructure, of pillaging of resources, of failing to respect the most fundamental of planetary ecological laws, of outsourcing, transparently tilted playing fields, tax havens — that all of these would bear no consequences? And now, can anyone imagine that these do not require a massive revision of how we conduct ourselves individually and collectively?

And so we come to the New Democratic Party in Canada. Although there are many interpretations and narratives of how and why the NDP went from a favorite to win government, hovering on the edge of a majority mandate in mid-August 2015, to a third place finish in October (and dropping from 103 seats in 2011 to 44 in 2015) — something clearly went awry.

In my view [See: The NDP: Minting a new political currency] the many particulars reflect a party tactically outmaneuvered by the Liberals and insufficiently expansive and transformative in its progressive vision. The twenty-first century isn’t business as usual in any sense of the word. The times they are a changin’. And people — young and old, of every gender, race, and demographic — are responding. Either with incoherent rage and xenophobia (witness the supporters of Donald Trump) or with insight into the social, political, and economic contradictions we face, an understanding that transformative change is required, and a belief that a better and more just world is not only imaginable, but is possible (witness the supporters of Bernie Sanders).

The Leap ManifestoTaking the Leap

A signal of this change was the “recognition” and “support” given to the Leap Manifesto by the NDP (the resolution received about two-thirds support by a show of hands) at its federal convention in Edmonton last week.

The fifteen demands of the Leap Manifesto address Indigenous justice, renewable energy, fossil-fuel infrastructure, energy democracy, energy poverty, sustainable and affordable mass transit, retraining for workers to participate in a clean energy economy, investments in public infrastructure, the development of localized and ecologically based agriculture, an end to trade deals that undermine Canadian sovereignty with respect to achieving such goals, substantive protections for workers, substantive investments in low-carbon sectors such as caregiving, teaching, social work, the arts, and public-interest media, a discussion on the introduction of a universal basic annual income, an end to “austerity” politics and economics, and political and electoral reform.

NDP motion on the Leap ManifestoIn my view they provide a visionary basis for a transformative political movement in Canada — precisely what the NDP should embrace if it wishes to be in the vanguard of such progressive political change. Read it. I encourage you to take The Leap. 

The resolution adopted by delegates isn’t a blanket endorsement but rather a recognition of it as, “a high-level statement of principles that speaks to the aspirations, history, and values of the party.” The proposal is to engage riding associations across the country in discussions over the next two years to determine how these principles would guide NDP party policy.

Opposition in Alberta

Given this “aspirational” adoption of the Leap Manifesto that “recognize(s) and embrace(s) the opportunity to confront the twin crises of inequality and climate change with an inspiring and positive agenda,” the many commonalities between NDP policy and the demands of The Leap Manifesto, and the fact that the Leap Manifesto makes no specific mention of pipelines, why has its recognition and support provoked such a blaze of anger and opposition amongst some Alberta New Democrats and others?

There are a couple of the Leap’s demands that raise the ire of Alberta New Democrats, namely:

1. The latest research shows we could get 100 per cent of our electricity from renewable resources within two decades; by 2050 we could have a 100 per cent clean economy. We demand that this shift begin now.

2. No new infrastructure projects that lock us into increased extraction decades into the future. The new iron law of energy development must be: if you wouldn’t want it in your backyard, then it doesn’t belong in anyone’s backyard.

These points sparked Alberta’s Environment Minister, Shannon Phillips to say:

“At a time when Albertans are most vulnerable, the last thing that the rest of Canada needs to be doing is making veiled threats about this idea, that’ll never come to pass, about keeping Alberta’s resources stranded. [The Leap Manifesto] is ungenerous, short-sighted and it is fundamentally, as New Democrats, a betrayal of the people who voted NDP in this province last year.”

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley took up the fight in an address to the federal convention saying:

“Alberta today is a land-locked province with one customer, the United States. We need to be able to get the best possible world price for the oil we produce here at the level of production that will be responsibly allowed under a climate change plan that is focused on effectively reducing the amount of carbon in each barrel of oil.

“And the way to do that is through pipelines to tidewater that allow us to diversify our markets and upgrade our products here in Canada. Pipelines that are built by Canadians using Canadian steel. And pipelines that support the national goal of being a smart, sophisticated, progressive, energy producer on the international stage even as we use that prosperity from that endeavor to carefully position our economy and the people within it to a more diversified and greener and more prosperous future.”

Stephen Lewis

An eloquent riposte was provided by Stephen Lewis, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, former leader of the Ontario NDP, former UN special envoy on HIV/AIDS, and an inspiration to many New Democrats. Lewis said:

“The Leap Manifesto is a radical document; of that there’s no dispute. It contains propositions that cause profound offence in the oil patch. It clearly causes distress to the Premier of Alberta. And I readily concede that amongst many social democrats at this Convention there are levels of intellectual consternation and skepticism.

“But that, I would argue, shouldn’t dispatch the Manifesto to obscurity. An intense exchange of views on all the issues raised in the Manifesto can only be healthy. What kind of a Party are we that would run from internal controversy when we seek a re-definition of who we are and where we’re headed? Aboriginal rights, the plague of inequality, pipelines, fossil fuels, corporate taxation, public transit, the caring professions … the list goes on; it’s a potential compendium of public policy. And at the heart of it lies a truth upon which the entire world agrees: the transformation to a renewable economy.

“But as everyone wrestles with these issues, these inescapable issues that are visceral in every way, there is an over-riding truth: the move to renewables is the greatest job creation program on the planet. It’s a Marshall Plan for employment. So simply let the Leap be the entry point to one of the great philosophic and pragmatic debates that engages democratic socialists in Canada.”

In the aftermath of the convention, having seen the federal NDP adopt The Leap Manifesto resolution, Rachel Notley fired her final volley:

“The government of Alberta repudiates sections of that document [the Leap Manifesto] that address energy infrastructure. These ideas will never form any part of our policy. They are naive, they are ill-informed and they are tone deaf.”

Ouch! Them’s fightin’ words. Notley then continued to say:

“I support the energy economy that we have here [in Alberta]. I understand the important linkage between that industry doing well and families supporting jobs. We are also very committed to [energy] diversification, and we are committed to our climate change plan, and we are committed to enhancing renewable energy opportunities here in Alberta. 

“These are all important objectives that we need to meet to reposition ourselves economically and ensure that we are well-positioned in going into the next fifty years. Also, to do our part on climate change.

“So we will do all those things but we will do so collaboratively, understanding that we can be a progressive energy producer in this province and support the people who work in that industry and make that transition in a just way for the time that it takes to maintain economic prosperity in this province.”

But are the differences between Notley’s commitment to the economic prosperity and environmental sustainability of Alberta really at such odds with the economic and environmental vision expressed in The Leap Manifesto? Is this showdown at the O.K. corral really necessary? 

Russian RoulettePlaying Russian Roulette

If we wish to avoid climate catastrophe, and play a meaningful role as a signatory of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, we have to dramatically scale back on our use of fossil fuels. How much? Answering this is a non-trivial undertaking. And it’s important to realize that in trying to make a determination on this issue we are always playing Russian Roulette with human civilization. The real question is how high a ratio of full chambers to empty are we willing to tolerate in the revolver?

A massive infusion of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is not a phenomenon that has ever occurred previously in the course of human civilization, and it involves complexities that are probably orders of magnitude greater than anything we’ve ever tried to imagine or model. There are non-linear processes, unknown thresholds, positive-feedback loops (i.e., runaway processes that feed on themselves that, once commenced, cannot be stopped), tipping-points, and unpredictable events. We are sailing the sea where the waters of the known-knowns, known-unknowns, and unknown-unknowns freely intermingle, with few reliable maps and the possibility of hitting an un-charted reef an ever-present danger. The vessel we are sailing is human civilization.

Oh, and there are no lifeboats.

A key factor in determining how urgently we need to move to a renewable energy economy, and our environmental and economic latitude in doing so, is determining how much carbon dioxide can we release into the atmosphere without courting cataclysm.

How much is too much?

How much carbon dioxide we can afford to release depends on two important questions:

1. How much warming can the earth can tolerate without very serious consequences arising?

The Paris Climate Change Agreement commits signatories to:

“Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.”

Despite the apparent precision of the number — 2.0 or 1.5ºC — there is nothing highly precise about the resulting prognostications. If we hit a tipping point where ocean-floor and permafrost methane suddenly begin bubbling uncontrollably out of the northern ocean and northern tundra, or the Greenland icecap begins to destabilize, melt, and slide into the sea, all bets are off. This becomes an uncontrollable process. We can’t just ease back on the number of coal-fired electricity generation plants or boost production of electric vehicles and expect then that this will make any difference. These are non-linear effects and we would find ourselves sucked into the maelstrom of the unknown. Where this merry-go-round would stop, nobody knows. 

2. How much carbon dioxide can we release?

This is a complicated question. Bill McKibben of has employed the number 565 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) as the remaining “carbon budget” of the planet in order not to exceed the 2.0ºC objective. This is based on a study by the Carbon Tracker Initiative based, in turn, on research done by Malte Meinshausen et al. at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (published in 2009), that calculated that for an 80 per cent probability of keeping climate change to within 2.0ºC (i.e., only two out of ten cartridges in the revolver at our temple) that no more than 886 GtCO2 could be released between 2000-2050. Since an estimated 321 GtCO2 have been released since the year 2000 this leaves 565 GtCO2 as the remaining carbon budget of the planet.

Burnable CarbonDuncan Clark, writing in The Guardian, points out that there are many uncertainties in determining such numbers, including how much emitted carbon dioxide is absorbed by plants and the oceans, and what we consider to be an acceptable risk of staying within the 2ºC threshold. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has proposed a remaining carbon budget of 850 GtCO2 for a 66 per cent probability of remaining within 2ºC.

But not all hydrocarbon fuels are equal: coal is “dirtier” than oil, while natural gas is cleaner than both (in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide released per tonne of fuel). Moreover, the location of deposits and their geological nature and how amenable they are to extraction also varies greatly. A recent analysis (2015) done by Christophe McGalde and Paul Ekins of the University College of London’s Institute for Sustainable Resources suggests that, overall on the planet, 80 per cent of coal, 50 per cent of natural gas, and 30 per cent of oil need to be left in the ground in order to have at least a 50 per cent chance of staying within the 2ºC threshold. [Note: these calculations do not include the greenhouse gas impact of escaping methane, nitrous oxides, or soot, so they should be regarded as very conservative.]

What does this mean in terms of utilizing existing proven reserves of fossil fuels? One estimate is that if all the planet’s “proven” (i.e., those with a 90 per cent chance of eventually being taken out of the ground) oil, coal, and gas reserves were burned, 2,795 GtCO2 would be released. If one employs the Carbon Tracker/Meinshausen projections (565 GtCO2) this implies that 80 per cent of proven reserves must stay in the ground. The IPCC estimate (850 GtCO2) implies 70 per cent must remain unburned (See Figure 1).

How dirty is too dirty?

Figure 2 shows the lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of a variety of fossil fuels and renewable energy sources (and also nuclear energy) expressed in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent released per Gigawatt-hour of electricity generation [See: Comparison of Lifecycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Various Electricity Generation Sources]. There are clear differences between different fossil fuels [i.e., natural gas has only 47 per cent the GHG impact of brown coal (a.k.a., lignite)]. However, renewable energy (solar, biomass, hydro, and wind) are very much lower (one to almost two degrees of magnitude) than any fossil fuel (as is nuclear energy). 

Lifecycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions

This doesn’t tell the entire story since there are other factors to consider such as the location of reserves, the difficulty or ease of extracting them, other environmental impacts (for example, the leakage of methane into the atmosphere in the course of fracking for oil or gas), the utility of fuel sources for different applications, and other fuel- and site-specific factors. But if we are concerned with climate change — as we all must be — even a cursory glance at these figures indicates that the environmental cost of fossil fuels is immensely greater than that of renewable energy. No amount of wishful thinking will change the fact that we must transition to these fuels with maximum haste, and this must happen in no more than the next 35 years. This is an environmental imperative that cannot be avoided.

A narrow transition window for fossil fuels

So, 70 to 80 per cent of fossil fuels must stay in the ground. However, even if the world community engages in a “Marshall Plan” to transition to renewable energy, it won’t happen overnight. We have to develop capacity. And, there is still a very large fraction of the world’s transportation and heating infrastructure that uses coal, oil, and natural gas that needs to be converted to other technologies and fuels sources. Transition will take time and a small fraction of fossil fuels (say, up to 20-30 per cent of proven hydrocarbon reserves) are available in order to make that transition. In doing so we need to:

1) Move with maximum speed (i.e., reduce the number of loaded cartridges in the revolver as quickly as we possibly can);

2) Be highly strategic in how we use that 20-30 per cent over the 35 years that are available to us (after 2050 we really must get to a point of carbon neutrality); and

3) Bearing the above in mind, emphasize the least carbon-intensive of fuels. 

Back to Alberta

Back in Alberta this doesn’t imply the end of the world. In the next 35 years we can utilize some hydrocarbon reserves in the Athabasca, Peace River, and Cold Lake oil sands basins in Alberta and Saskatchewan. What development there is in this region, and what use of fossil fuels takes place, needs to be reconciled against other carbon savings in Canada’s greenhouse gas commitments under the Paris Climate Change Agreement and COP Decision. Overall, we do need to make very ambitious targets and adhere to them.

Alberta Fuel ReservesIt also needs to be emphasized that bitumen is one of the “dirtiest” (in terms of carbon dioxide emissions) of all oils. And, of the currently potentially recoverable established reserves in Alberta, bitumen (166 billion barrels) makes up roughly 99 per cent of reserves. Crude (i.e., conventional) oil (1.8 billion barrels) makes up the other 1 per cent. There are also 32.4 trillion cubic feet of established recoverable reserves of natural gas in Alberta and 33.2 billion tonnes of coal. [See: Alberta’s Energy Reserves 2014 and Supply/Demand Outlook 2015-2024.] While the value of these energy sources is in constant flux, and at the moment prices of all fossil fuels are low, these are sizeable reserves. 

For the sake of comparison it is useful to convert all of these to their energy equivalent (Figure 3). Viewed in this way it becomes clear that natural gas (i.e., methane) reserves contain 94 percent of the fossil fuel energy of the province. In comparison, bitumen and coal each hold 3 per cent while conventional oil constitutes a mere 0.03 per cent. This becomes additionally instructive if we compare the environmental “impact” of different fuel sources (See Figure 2 above).

It is important to highlight that, given the carbon intensity of coal, it should be phased out as soon as possible, as indeed, the NDP government of Rachel Notley in Alberta is proceeding to do, requiring that all coal-fired power plants be emissions free by 2030, or else shut down. [See: Alberta’s coal-power phase-out will begin in 2018, industry association says.] This is an important and progressive step.

Alberta is in a sticky wicket, but so is the rest of the world. Indeed climate change puts as all in a very difficult place and jobs and revenues in the oil patch will be cold comfort if our civilization goes up in smoke.

This is a good moment at which to return to Stephen Lewis, who continued his address to NDP delegates in Edmonton saying:

“This province fears the further loss of jobs … how could it be otherwise? We all heard Premier Notley today. How could you not feel for the human predicament of this province? If and when there is to be a transition, let it be particularly thorough and careful, and the planning must include, through their unions, the thousands of workers whose jobs and homes and families and lives are on the line. We’re a socialist party for God’s sake; no one can suffer the unceremonious loss of jobs. I say to my trade union colleagues: the workers must never pay a price.” 

Jobs, jobs jobs

Understanding that a transition from a fossil fuel economy to a renewable energy economy will inevitably involve some labour disruption, what might the net effect be?

First of all, it’s important to understand that the development of renewable energy for the planet — what Lewis correctly calls “a Marshall Plan for employment” — involves many of the skills sets found in the fossil fuel industry. Solar or wind power installations involve engineering, environmental impact assessment studies, road building, and the construction of transmission lines, grids, and networks. Wind turbines have to be manufactured and towers have to be built and erected. These systems will need to be monitored, maintained, and periodically upgraded. Developing geothermal resources involves drilling wells and installing piping. And there are similar jobs related to hydroelectric, tidal, and wave energy. All these are dependent on skills sets that are directly transferable from the oil and gas sectors.

Furthermore, a key part of the transition will be an enormous number of upgrades and retrofits; houses that need to be properly insulated, heat exchangers and heat and water recovery systems installed. And there will be maintenance, administration, sales, and marketing associated with such endeavors. Also, the transition to electric vehicles in the transportation sector will involve the installation of a grid of re-charging stations. And there will be communications and marketing programs related to all of these. Stable and well-paying employment. 

All this sounds good in theory, but what might this mean in terms of jobs? In 2014 Clean Energy Canada found that the number of direct clean-energy sector jobs in Canada, 23,700, had already exceeded the 22,340 directly employed in the oil sands (and since then job losses in the oil sands sector have continued).

Globally, in 2010 the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) [See: Renewable Energy Jobs: Status, Prospects, and Policies] found that there were 3.5 million direct jobs in the renewable energy sector. In 2014 the Globe and Mail reported that that number had grown to 6.5 million [See: Green energy sector jobs surpass total oil sands employment] and in 2015 IRENA reported a further increase to 7.7 million (excluding large hydropower; including large hydropower increases the tally to 8.98 million) [See: Renewable Energy and Jobs: Annual Review 2015]. (Figure 4) This is an employment sector that has increased by 144 per cent in 5 years (i.e., an annual growth rate of 29 per cent) and IRENA notes there is every indication that this rapid growth will increase still further in the coming years and decades. This is indisputably a Marshall Plan of employment for the 21st century.

Renewable Energy Jobs

A key in taking advantage of this burgeoning sector is having in place a policy framework that enables it. The economic and job opportunities throughout the value chain of renewable energy technology, manufacturing, deployment, operations, and maintenance are greatly enhanced if there are government policies and programs that foster research and development, train or re-train workers in appropriate skills sets, assist with financing, develop regulatory policy, and generally assist and incentivize the transition to renewable energy.

Money, money, money

It is also important to bear in mind that financial resources, either venture capital or support from various levels of government, are not unlimited. If they go into fossil fuel projects this can be at the expense of funds available to invest in renewable energy.

More consequentially, investments in any infrastructure project need to be recouped. If major investments go into the development of pipelines and refineries there will be enormous financial pressures — which immediately manifest themselves as corporate pressure on governments — to keep operating such facilities for decades until the infrastructure investments are amortized — and beyond. Thus, we wed ourselves to continuing to use fossil fuels for economic reasons, long after environmental reason tells us we should and must stop.

The Energy East Pipeline

The Energy East pipeline proposal envisions a six-year development and construction phase with operations commencing in 2020 and continuing for 40 years until 2060. The pipeline would move 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day from a terminal in Hardisty Alberta to two oil refineries, one in Montreal, QC and one in Saint John, NB. When operational, TransCanada forecasts that it will sustain approximately 1,000 jobs. The project will entail some conversion and refurbishment of 2,997 km of existing pipeline and the construction of 1,618 km of new pipeline for a total length of 4,615 km. TransCanada pegs the cost of the project at $15.7 billion.

Energy East Pipeline

Over the projected 40-year operational span of the project, the pipeline would move some 16.06 trillion barrels of oil out of the oil-sands basin. What would be the greenhouse gas impact? This depends on what product the bitumen is refined into. If it is refined into gasoline (which contains circa 52 kg of carbon dioxide per barrel) then this would release on the order of 835 Megatonnes of carbon dioxide, or approximately 21 Megatonnes a year for 40 years. [See: Carbon Dioxide emissions per barrel of crude.] The fuel burned, however, is not the only carbon released in the operation of such a project, and the Pembina Institute has calculated a full upstream greenhouse gas impact as being 30–32 Megatonnes per year [See: Climate Implications of the proposed energy east pipeline].

To put this in perspective, Canada’s carbon emissions in 2014 were estimated to be 726 Megatonnes. Canada’s targets under the 1992 Kyoto Protocol (a 6 per cent reduction on 1990 base levels by 2012) would have been circa 565 Megatonnes (Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011 when its actual emissions were 20 per higher than the 1990 base level). Our 2009 Copenhagen Summit target (a 17% reduction below 2005 emissions by 2020) is 626 Megatonnes (for the year 2020); and the INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution) that Canada brought to the table for the 2015 Paris Climate Change Summit (a 30% reduction below 2005 levels by 2030) is 524 Megatonnes. [Note: this is the target set by the previous Conservative Government; the current Liberal Government has indicated that it will, in consultation with the provinces, develop an even more ambitious one.]

So, is 30-32 Megatonnes a year a significant amount? Of 524 (or less) total Megatonne emissions in 2030? And then of even lesser emissions targets in 2040, 2050, and 2060? As the years and decades go by, it becomes increasingly significant, and these additional emissions have to be counterbalanced by reductions in other areas. [Note: A convenient escape clause for oil producers is that emissions of fuels produced in one country and exported to another and burned there are not counted in the agreement targets of the producer state. This however, is accounting sleight of hand. Wherever fossil fuels are burned their carbon goes up in smoke, and the atmosphere and climate do not differentiate where greenhouse gases originate.]

Reducing the impact

All that said, is there some middle ground to be found? Are there ways to moderate climate impact? Are there ways in which the infrastructure expenditures could be reduced? 

Supposing the pipeline only went as far as Montreal. Of the 1,618 km of proposed new pipeline, only 520 km (281 in Alberta, 5 in Saskatchewan, 58 in Manitoba, 104 in Ontario, and 72 in Québec) are required to link Hardisty Alberta to Montreal. The remaining 1089 km would extend the pipeline from Montreal to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John. As a ballpark, I estimate this would cut the cost of the project by about two thirds, i.e., from circa $15.7 billion to $5.2 billion — a much smaller sum to recoup, hence a shorter time to amortize the project, hence much less economic and political pressure to keep the project operational beyond the time when fossil fuels must be phased out.

There would certainly be political fallout from such a decision; the government of New Brunswick, sometimes acting as a wholly owned subsidiary of Irving Oil, would certainly protest since such a scenario would not create new refinery jobs in Saint John.

[Note: All this is above and beyond the fact that: a) Alberta oil (Western Canadian Select; WCS) is already receiving the highest price it can command. The WTI-WCS price difference is a mere $5.40 as I write, a price differential entirely ascribable to the lower quality of WCS and the longer distance required to move it to market (WTI= West Texas Intermediate); and b) there is currently no shortage of capacity for moving it to refineries in the United States. Indeed there is currently 500,000 barrels per day extra capacity available on US pipelines. Thus, the rationale for building any new pipeline capacity for Alberta oil at the moment is nonexistent. Getting its oil to tidewater would benefit the Alberta economy not an iota. See: Dilbit Dogma: On Pipelines to Tidewater.] 

Let’s examine another issue in this context. Plans to tackle climate change, such as the Paris Agreement and the COP Decision (the work plan for reducing carbon emissions so as to be able to keep temperature increases to within 2.0º or even 1.5ºC) do not envision a total elimination of the use of fossil fuels, but a very pronounced reduction in their use so as to allow the world to stay below those critical thresholds. There is a recognition that there will be (at least in the foreseeable future) some use for and need of fossil fuels. There are some contexts in which renewable energy sources and the technologies associated with them may not yet be adequate to the task. What is important is to precisely target fossil fuels for those purposes, and those purposes alone.

George Monbiot's HeatA superb analysis of how renewables could replace fossil fuels, and the costs, difficulties, and technologies associated with the complete spectrum of energy use in our society, is George Monbiot’s book, Heat: How to stop the planet from burning. Monbiot is able to find possible renewable and sustainable methods related to a large majority of fossil fuel uses in contemporary society related to heating and transportation. One notable exception is air transport.

Although per person, per kilometer carbon emissions of flying are only half that of driving a car with an internal combustion engine, the number of kilometers flown in a single intercontinental return flight can rival the number of kilometers that a vehicle drives in a year, so the net impact of such travel is significant. 

Jet fuel (a kerosene-based formulation) has an energy density that is difficult to replace with anything else. Some energetic costs might be saved in terms of more aerodynamic airplane designs, the so-called blended-wing body aircraft that might reduce drag saving up to 30 per cent of fuel consumption. However, these such aircraft are still in a conceptual stage and their aerodynamic stability and controllability are unknown.

Alternate fuel sources (such as hydrogen) don’t have sufficient energy density (cabins would have to be filled with fuel tanks leaving no space for passengers or cargo; additionally hydrogen is highly explosive and dangerous to handle), and turbo-prop aircraft are too slow and have too limited range for long-haul flights. [Note: A separate but related issue is that of contrails, particularly problematic when aircraft are flow at high elevations since these vapour trails contribute to cirrus cloud formation which reflect more heat back into the earth than they reflect incident sunlight and are thus important contributors to the greenhouse effect.] 

All this leads Monbiot to echo the IPCC, which concluded, “There would not appear to be any practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for commercial jet aircraft for the next several decades.” “There is, adds Monbiot, “no technofix.” So (issues of reducing the amount of long-haul, high-altitude flight aside), for the foreseeable future we are going to require kerosene for jet aircraft. This provides an opportunity for Alberta in regard to transitioning from a fossil-fueled planet to a sustainable one. While crude oil refined into a barrel of gasoline emits 53 kg of carbon dioxide, a barrel of kerosene-type jet fuel emits far less, about 12 kg, i.e., 77 per cent less than gasoline. If the production of jet fuel was a targeted use of the Alberta oil sands, this would result in significantly fewer GHG emissions, and a significantly smaller climate change footprint.

The Leap Manifesto

Taking the Leap

As the foregoing account indicates, there are many complex dimensions related to climate change and the imperatives in tackling it (and this account touches on only a small fraction of them). What should be overwhelmingly clear is that climate change is an issue of the greatest gravity and that we need to be moving our society and technology with great rapidity to transition to a sustainable, renewable-energy based model. There is no alternative. None.

While some of the changes may be disruptive, and some of the initial steps costly, these are a pittance of the cost and disruption that we would face were we not to take action. Rising sea levels and massive flooding of low-lying regions of the earth, a huge increase in extreme weather phenomena, large areas of desertification, acidification of the oceans — the economic costs of such phenomena would be so immense as to be literally incalculable — and human costs would be even worse.

The Leap Manifesto recognizes that the issue of addressing climate change is a thread that that can be used to connect a wide spectrum of progressive evolutionary change. That what has brought us to this point is a disregard of the essential ecological basis of the planet, and of human civilization within it. That our lives and existence are dependent on a complex network of interactions mediated by the living, breathing fabric of our planet. That this has evolved over the last 3.5 billion years into a matrix of self-regulating processes that that sustain life by creating the environment in which it can exist. Exploiting resources wastefully, exterminating species, impoverishing ecological complexity, creating unsustainable processes, manufacturing myriad toxic products that are discarded and poured heedlessly into our oceans, waterways, and atmosphere — all these are limbs of the hydra of extractivism, a flawed notion that we can endlessly take from the natural environment without providing anything in return to sustain it.

The fifteen demands of the Leap Manifesto take this understanding as a departure point, a recognition that the mindset and politics of extractivism bleed into every domain of human existence, leading to exploitative relations with Indigenous peoples, of rampant economic inequality and extreme concentrations of wealth in the hands of the few, of disparity between genders and the relegation of women as second-class citizens, and of political structures that maintain and reinforce these fundamentally unbalanced relations.

The Leap Manifesto recognizes that the doctrines of extractivism and austerity are fundamentally flawed. That pulling on the thread of climate change results not in cosmetic change, but opens an avenue to fundamental, systemic change. If the Leap Manifesto is radical it is only because the reigning socio-economic paradigm of western civilization has become so askew that setting it aright and onto a sustainable and just footing requires a significant realignment. No one who looks at the imperatives of climate change, and the circumstances that have set these processes into motion, can imagine that there is a trivial solution — some silver bullet or techno-fix that will straighten all this out and allow us to continue with deregulated, corporate capitalism as usual. No magic wand will wave this away.

This is the inescapable reality that everyone — Canadians and Albertans included — must face. We are going to have to make changes. And some will be disruptive of existing status quos. But the exciting news is that we know what we have to do, and we can do it. The framework proposed by The Leap Manifesto not only points towards a climate solution, but to a better, more prosperous, more equitable, sustainable world — not just for the 1 per cent, but for all.

Alberta is not just a province and people defined by bitumen. Alberta has already developed substantial renewable resources. Forty-five per cent of its electricity generation already comes from wind, hydro, biomass, and biogas — and it has only started to scratch the surface. There is great potential for solar photovoltaic and for geothermal energy.  And of course, there already exists a large agricultural and forestry sector, and biotech, minerals, transportation, service, and communications sectors. And an extraordinary tourism industry, rich cultural resources and a knowledge economy.

There is no contradiction between the objectives of the Leap Manifesto and that of a prosperous Alberta, or indeed that of any Canadian jurisdiction. A sustainable economy and a just society founded on principles of ecological stewardship rather than extractivism and guided by genuinely democratic and inclusive political structures offers the opposite to the narrow, exploitative vision of neoliberalism. Inertia won’t get us there, a leap will.  Not a leap of faith, but one of determination, knowledge, and action.

[Note: Part two of this series on the Leap Manifesto is Misunderstanding The Leap, critics fall flat.]

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka studied oceanography, biology, mathematics, philosophy, and Russian studies at Mount Alison and Dalhousie Universities and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, and was a guest researcher...