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Where are the numbers?

03 Jul 2019 | News Roundup

There’s a fair bit of jiggery-pokery in the econometric models that say we can get rid of fossil fuels at minimal cost. But simply look around you next time you’re out and about and you’ll be able to see what the modelers seem to miss: Without energy it’s very hard to stay warm, sheltered and fed. Thus retired public servant Robert Lyman, with long experience on the energy file, just critiqued the already sobering PBO report on how high carbon taxes would have to go to change behaviour, warning us “The Stakes Are Too High To Be Tricked By The Numbers”. We need to look at the reality, even if it’s not terribly congenial in public debate.

As Gwyn Morgan wrote back in January, it’s hard to be optimistic about our capacity to focus on what matters when the Canadian Press chose as the top business story of 2018 not the devastation of Canada’s energy industry but the legalization of marijuana. But let us try.

Lyman peels back the algebra in the PBO report on carbon taxes and doesn’t like what he finds. For instance the estimate of reduced emissions from existing policy includes 33 megatons in transportation alone, which Lyman calls “surprisingly large” given that almost all of it has to come from “light duty passenger vehicles” (cars, pickups and SUVs) whose total 2017 figure was 85.1 megatons. So we’re already supposedly going to reduce our miles driven by nearly 40%. But to get to Paris, metaphorically, the reduction would have to rise to 61% and “There appears to be no way this could be accomplished on the basis of taxes alone, as even a $102 per tonne tax means only a 23 cent per litre tax on gasoline, an increase motorists would bitterly resent but largely ignore in their driving habits (as has been shown in the high tax European regimes). An emissions reduction this large is simply not credible, absent major new regulatory restrictions on transportation.”

The models produce these results because you feed in known data and estimate functions that give you known outputs, and then crunch the numbers. But what of the reality that we need to drive and can’t do it on tap water? To be fair the Irish government is planning to ban private cars while attracting a million new “Irish” people to a nation with under 5 million total and cram them into slums, no wait, “vibrant, populated city centres, liveable, with excellent amenities and transport as we embrace higher densities.”

Good luck with that plan, mate. But in the real world, we need energy and there just aren’t alternatives. As Terence Corcoran argued in the Financial Post, citing the same Roger Pielke Jr. that got Lisa Raitt into so much unnecessary trouble and with a very compelling graph, meeting all these breezy Net Zero promises by brushing aside fossil fuels “would require building the equivalent of one new 1.5-gigawatt nuclear plant every day for the next 30 years.” Or 36 billion new solar panels. Or 5.1 million turbines. Which Corcoran calls “a scientific, economic and political fantasy, akin to levitation and time travel”. (To say nothing of its devastating impact on birds, if we can spare a thought for the actual environment while “saving” the conceptual one).

It’s all so easy to imagine as we float gently down stream. NBC blithely assures us that “Huge solar farms floating in the ocean could be used to convert carbon dioxide in seawater into methanol, a fuel that can power airplanes, trucks and other long-haul vehicles. That’s the takeaway from provocative new research suggesting that such “solar methanol islands” could curb our reliance on fossil fuels that belch harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.” (The author, NBC Science & Tech Editor Denise Chow, has an MA in journalism and a BA in criminology. But only skeptics are asked to produce their science degrees.) But the reality is quite different.

There may be substitutes for fossil fuels, especially nuclear, if we can build better batteries. But it’s time to put down the doobie and face the fact that the reason carbon taxes have to be incredibly high to stop us driving is that we need our cars and they run on gasoline.

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