Is the Canadian climate protest movement really worth all the bother?

Climate policies are more aggressive, the Energy Transition is underway, Canadians support the current approach, why protest?

Another weekend, another climate protest march, this one Saturday in various cities across Canada. Is another march really worth all the fuss?

FILE PHOTO: A man holds an American flag while marching with veterans and activists outside the Oceti Sakowin camp where “water protectors” continue to demonstrate against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline adjacent to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S., December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Yang/File Photo

I’ve written extensively about pipeline protests (Dakota Access, Northern Gateway, Trans Mountain Expansion), lack of respect by oil and gas boosters for eco-activists and the need to earn political legitimacy in regions where energy projects are planned, the danger of eco-activist direction action like pipeline tampering, and the likelihood of near-term protests over TMX and Keystone XL.

Now let’s pull back a bit, consider the forest instead of the trees.

Why continue to protest? What’s the point?

An obvious answer would be to influence government policy. But the recent more aggressive climate policies from federal and provincial governments suggest that objective has already been achieved.

Unless the eco-activists at Greenpeace and other environmental groups want governments to go faster. Well, of course they want governments to be more aggressive.

“100% renewables today!” is the rallying cry, right?

Here are three reasons faster is neither better nor possible.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shaking hands.

One, Canadians don’t support more aggressive climate policies. An Oct. Abacus Data survey found that 63 per cent of Canadians support the Trudeau government’s approach to climate change and reducing emissions; only Alberta and Saskatchewan disapproved. Almost 70 per cent agreed with the national carbon tax introduced by the Liberals. And 76 per cent said that if policies were in place to support the energy transition, then building a new pipeline would be acceptable; even a large majority of NDP voters agreed on the latter point.

According to Abacus CEO David Coletto, those policies are also strongly supported by younger Canadians.

“There are strong voices on either side of the energy/environment debate but for the most part, most average Canadians are somewhere in the middle,” Coletto said in an interview. 

“They recognize the importance of our country dealing with the climate crisis, dealing with carbon emissions, but at the same time, they’re not willing to completely give up on the energy sector and see the importance of that to the country, that they almost want a balanced approach.”

 A moderate, middle of the road, balanced approach. How very Canadian, eh?

Chinese electric vehicle manufacturing plant.

Two, clean energy technology isn’t ready for us to move much faster. I qualified that statement because there are exceptions.

For instance, there are alternatives to burning coal for power generation. Led by the United States, where coal has dropped from 56 per cent to about 30 per cent of electricity fuel mix in under a decade. Natural gas + wind/solar + storage + smart grids has emerged as the new power generation model. Low cost (with the prospect of even lower costs in the future as renewable energy cost curves continue to drop), reliable, and less sensitive to fluctuations in fuel prices.

But one of the defining characteristics of the Energy Transition is enormous scale and complexity combined with the immaturity of much of the new technology. There are literally thousands and thousands of technologies involved in transforming the global energy system. Some are new, some are still in the laboratory, and many haven’t yet been dreamt of.

Governments cannot get too far out in front of the technology.

“It’s best that these things all grow up together as opposed to being just sort of thought of as discrete components,” Tim Gratjik, LUX Research analyst said in an interview about the potential to break a power grid, for instance, by trying to force change too quickly.

Microgrids Navigant Research photo.

“This is the electrical grid, one of the largest synchronized manmade machines in history. Everything needs to work together, and that’s why it might feel frustrating and utilities might look like they’re in the way of progress but really in fact they’re sort of the shepherds of a way forward.”

Three, Canadians have shown no willingness to bear the extra cost and risk associated with speeding up the Energy Transition.

This is an important point: Canadians can have it fast, cheap, or good – pick two. There is no free lunch when it comes to clean energy technologies.

Ask Ontario voters.

The Province passed the Green Energy Act of 2009, phased out coal power plants, and replaced them with wind turbines.

The Liberal governments of Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne also lost hundreds of millions of dollars by cancelling natural gas power plants for political reasons and billions more by agreeing to buy all wind power at high rates, then having to sell the surplus on the spot market at a significant loss.

Kathleen Wynne, Ontario premier.

Now Ontario consumers have a dysfunctional electrical system with rapidly rising power rates that have become a huge political issue for Premier Wynne.

Back to the climate protests.

Governments are moving quickly on climate policies, the Energy Transition is underway and gathering steam, and there is at least one Canadian lesson of the dangers of moving too quickly.

What, then, is the point of protesting?

Keeping politicians’ feet to the fire? I suppose, but that seems like a pretty tepid motivator for most eco-activists.

Protesting specific projects, like the Kinder Morgan pipeline to the West Coast? Again, I suppose, but the review and approval process is complete and a majority of Canadians support TMX. Construction – and the inevitable protests – will be almost anti-climatic.

The climate protests seem so, well, yesterday’s news. Like eco-activists and their supporters are fighting battles from 2005.

Enough already. They won the war. It’s time for them to demobilize and take a break.

Posted in: Markham on Energy

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