Submission to Alberta's Climate Change Advisory Panel
I’m responding to an earlier invitation[i] from Minister Phillips to contribute to the Advisory Panel’s consultative initiative. I’ve now reviewed the Alberta Government Climate Leadership Discussion Document and submit the following.
By way of introducing myself, I developed interest in the climate issue shortly after the 1988 UNFCC Conference in Toronto. I was employed by the nuclear industry at the time. My education and experience as a mechanical engineer specializing in fluid flow, heat transfer physics, and computer modelling, provided me with appreciation of the challenges posed by attempts to predict global warming due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. My early education also provided some insight into the role of carbon in living systems. I began to review climate science and studied the potential role for nuclear energy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the context of global warming. I published related papers, participated in public discussions and reviews, and helped establish science based collaborative conferences to bring researchers together to consider means to reduce emissions. Certainly, the climate change issue illustrates very well how closely human use of energy is integrated with life on earth. Human knowledge and understanding of energy is the primary reason for our success as a species and, hopefully, enables us to exert some degree of influence over earth’s future.
The Canadian Nuclear Association asked me to serve as one of their “expert” representatives to the National Climate Change Process established in 1997. Our federal and provincial governments then began to jointly discuss potential actions to meet federal greenhouse gas reduction commitments made re the Kyoto Protocol with industry, environmental organizations and other stakeholders. I served on the Technology Issues Table and Integrative Groups of that “Process” and have continued my involvement since its dissolution through the publication of technical papers, articles, and letters which are available on my website. I was also involved in reviews in 2002[ii] of Alberta’s emerging climate policy. I find my comments then are still largely relevant today. Continually increasing global emissions since then illustrate that enormous challenges posed by trying to meet humanities energy needs without fossil fuels remain. Does the climate change evidence available warrant such a change in direction? Many are doubtful.
Climate Leadership Discussion Document – Brief Review
I’m a bit taken aback by the superlative laced language used in the introduction under the chapter title “Effects of Climate Change”. The issue from the 1990’s that I was interested in, CO2 induced global warming, has now been morphed into general “climate change” and “extreme weather events”. There is no good reason for this change of language as the degree of extra heating of the atmosphere via the radiative properties of greenhouse gases is still the central issue. The change of issue name really seems to be just related to the slower development of warming than anticipated several decades ago.
When I first started to consider global warming, experts of the day suggested that it was difficult to separate the CO2 induced global warming temperature signal from the errors in temperature measurement and other natural variations of atmospheric temperature. It was anticipated[iii] then that the CO2 signal would be clear by about the turn of the century. It seems the signal is still not all that convincing, as the rate of warming seems to be slowing significantly. The connection of rising atmospheric CO2 levels to general “climate change” and “extreme weather events” is much more tenuous. Perhaps we are over-reacting to the alleged urgency of unspecified climate change. At least one author[iv] has suggested we should be more concerned with climate change in the form of a forthcoming ice age in a few centuries or millennia, than with the possibility of dangerous global warming. I digress.
The main focus of the Discussion Document is to review Alberta’s emissions of greenhouse gases, declare unequivocally that they must be reduced, and then to outline potential policies that could be implemented to accomplish that end. That was the mandate given the National Climate Change Process back in 1998. The potential policies developed then have not changed much. There is still much discussion of policy to improve energy efficiency, implement renewable energy, apply various cap and trade schemes, and impose carbon taxes. There is now less discussion of potential carbon sinks which could be employed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with living or manmade systems such as low till agriculture, forest sinks, or carbon sequestration. Carbon capture and storage is not mentioned at all, although it would be essential if we have any intention to make use of the energy in coal under current federal regulations to limit emissions from coal fired electricity plants. Alberta has been a leader in developing and evaluating this technology. It seems unwise to ignore the possibility. The focus evident in the discussion document is now just on a perceived need to reduce emissions from the fossil fuels which have been the energy foundation of human prosperity over the past two or three centuries.
The discussion of renewables in the chapter on electricity is very misleading. For a starter, Alberta is said to “have some of the best solar potential in Canada.” That is not much of a plus in a country where the sun barely rises above the horizon for three months every year. It is claimed that the costs of individual renewable installations will reduce substantially by 2040. That may be so, but there is no mention of the massive investments in transmission lines and energy storage facilities that would be needed to make wind and solar practical sources of electricity. Many other jurisdictions inside and outside Canada have learned by doing, that the way back to societal dependence on renewable energy is fraught with huge expense which depress their economies. The possibility of regression to dependence on renewables raises very serious questions with respect to the sustainability of our society.
As a proponent, I must comment on the dearth of information on nuclear energy in the Discussion Document. The only mention is in a sidebar which states that “From 2003 to 2014, Ontario phased out its coal-fired electricity, replacing this electricity generation with nuclear, natural gas, biomass, hydro, wind, and solar.” Ontario has indeed done that, with nuclear energy providing the bulk of that electricity. Ontario actually began the phase out of coal circa 1960[v] - not 2003 - when they began the development of a massive nuclear power program to eliminate their dependence on imported coal. There was no consideration of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions at the time. Nuclear energy has the potential to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions from both the electricity and oil sectors in Alberta. The Alberta government conducted a public survey in 2009 which indicated Albertans were generally supportive of nuclear energy. Why does this discussion document totally ignore an energy alternative which has the ability to provide steady and reliable future energy in quantities relevant to ultimately dwindling fossil fuel energy with very low life-cycle emissions?
In summary, I find the Alberta Government Climate Leadership Discussion Document, provides credible information on Alberta’s greenhouse gas emissions. Many potential actions are outlined which have been tried and shown to fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in other jurisdictions. Minister Phillips notes in her introduction that; “Doing more of the same would be the worst thing we could do for our environment and for our economy.” I agree. Surely Albertans can learn from the mistakes of others and come up with an approach which soberly assesses risks and benefits of potential natural and human influences on climate change to guide us to actions supportive of humanity.
So far, we are still quite uncertain what climate change might bring us. Scientists postulate many scenarios - from catastrophic global warming to the return of another of the cyclical ice ages we have actually identified over past millennia in the not too distant future. Some would suggest we do nothing as the potential for dangerous warming is quite low. Others suggest we go extreme lengths to eliminate the use of fossil fuels which, I repeat, provide us with the energy riches which sustain human prosperity.
Perhaps we should compromise and consider establishing “make haste slowly” policy which has future potential to reduce emissions, if proven necessary, and provides everyone, industry and individuals, with a path to contribute. Such policy should be simple to implement at low transactional cost and should be easily adjusted to accomplish emission reduction goals – up or down. What best serves that purpose? Of all the options specified in the discussion document, a carbon tax seems most appropriate.
Albertans have long resisted a general provincial sales tax. Still many have proposed such a tax as a means of smoothing provincial income from resources. A carbon tax could have very similar results as an income source, and would also provide citizens an opportunity to avoid the tax by taking action to reduce energy consumption. Of course, such a tax should be made very transparent. Transparency would allow citizens to develop an appreciation of the costs entailed in reducing carbon emissions. Emissions must continue to be tracked and published to demonstrate policy efficacy.
BC has implemented such a system, and would no doubt be a helpful provincial partner with establishing details of such a system. Unfortunately, BC has chosen to return the carbon tax collected to tax payers through personal and corporate income tax rebates. Surely that reduces the incentive to conserve fossil fuel and dulls the emissions reductions impact of the tax.
Alberta is entering an indeterminate period of low resource income, and it would possibly be wise to consider a dual purpose carbon tax that serves to stabilize government revenue while encouraging the conservation of fossil fuels and consequent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Additional consideration of the impacts of a carbon tax on households is available in my letter[vi] recently published in the Lethbridge Herald. In general, I believe such a tax would be most useful if the funds collected were to go to general revenue and used to ensure that public services such as education, health, and infrastructure are supported to the level needed.
I see one climate related exception. Climate science has become politicized by “alarmists” and “deniers” to the extent it is very difficult to believe much of what we are told. Some claim “the science is settled”. Others are convinced scientific method is being corrupted by the machinations of those with a vested interest. Perhaps there is an opportunity for the Alberta Government to support rigorous and unbiased climate science with some of the funds from a carbon tax. One way to support sound science would be to provide financial support to those who raise well-reasoned questions about the magnitude of greenhouse gas induced global warming and propose alternative explanations for observations. It seems exceedingly unwise to dismiss well qualified scientists by simply labelling them as “deniers” without a thorough test of their theories. Providing them with a source of support could provide a way for Alberta to initiate provincial, national, and global leadership toward the establishment of scientifically sound climate science.
I appreciate that the Panel has been assigned a very difficult task. I’m looking forward to your advice to the provincial government, and hope you will see fit to consider the above recommendations as you develop your advice to the Minister. I note that my website, freely established and provided as a public service, considers many aspects of greenhouse gas emissions. Should you have any questions please feel free to contact me.
Duane Pendergast, Ph.D., FCNS, P.Eng. (Retired)
[i] Philips, Shannon , Minister of Alberta Environment and Parks, Letter to Duane Pendergast, File 74067, July 30, 2015,
[ii] Pendergast, Duane, Submission to Alberta Stakeholder Meetings, 2002
[iii] Rotty, R. M., The Nature of the CO2 Problem: Certainties and Uncertainties, Environmental Progress, Vol. 3, No. 4, November, 1984, pp. 257.
[iv] Carlin, Alan, Environmentalism Gone Mad, Stairway Press, Mount Vernon, Washington, 2015
[v] Wikipedia, Nuclear Power in Canada
[vi] Pendergast, Duane, PST or PCT, is that the question?, Letter to the editor, Lethbridge Herald, June 10, 2015