Part 1 of our series,
Unpacking climate ‘solutions’: False, Real, or Unjust?
While the science on the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions has been clear for decades, it’s only in the last few years that we’ve started to see serious commitments to reduce emissions from federal and provincial governments. What’s worse, many of the solutions on offer are not enough, even as the climate crisis dramatically worsens.
We’ve written this short analysis series to parse through the climate solutions currently on offer. We distinguish between three kinds of solutions: false, unjust, and just.
In this first piece, we explore the question of who benefits from putting forth false ‘solutions’ to the climate crisis.
The myth of “clean oil”
Oil has been a part of the history and mythology of Canada for a long time—and the newest iteration of the story is the myth of “clean oil.” While the technologies used to extract oil have come on in leaps and bounds since the drilling of the first commercial oil well in 1858, the fact remains: oil extraction cannot be “clean.”
Certainly, there are ways to extract oil that are less carbon-intensive, which is generally what politicians and corporations mean when they speak of “clean oil,” especially around offshore drilling. However, extracting that oil also means addressing the dissolved natural gas that it contains. This natural gas is usually flared off (burned), but there are also frequent leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas that is at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The steam required for bitumen extraction is often produced by further burning of natural gas.
What’s more, the rhetoric around “clean” oil distracts from the fact that the vast majority of emissions from a barrel of oil are not from the extraction phase of the oil production process. These “upstream emissions” only make up 20 to 30 per cent of emissions from a barrel of oil.
Rather, 70 to 80 per cent of emissions come from burning the final product. While those “downstream emissions” from burning oil might not happen in Canada, they nevertheless make it impossible to label any oil that’s extracted here as “clean.”
“Clean oil” is not a reality. Rather, the concept is part of the shell game that allows politicians to support continued fossil fuel extraction, while corporations profit from an industry that is largely responsible for the climate crisis. The only clean oil is no oil: no further extraction and burning.
Fossil gas as a “transition fuel”
It has been argued that fossil gas (natural gas in any form, including liquefied natural gas or LNG) production has a role in the transition to a clean energy future, as fossil gas produces less carbon dioxide than burning coal and oil. Gas-fired power plants are said to integrate well with renewables as they can be turned on and off quickly and used when renewable energy production is low. Although both these statements are true, they neglect the negative aspects of continuing to exploit fossil gas as a “transition fuel.”
Since burning fossil fuels is the main cause of the climate crisis, logic says we need to use as little of them as possible as soon as we can. New fossil gas projects siphon investment away from emerging technologies such as renewables, and this “crowd-out” effect not only delays vital investment in clean technologies but also reinforces the need for even more fossil fuel infrastructure. Research has also found thatmoving directly to renewable energy from coal is cheaper than using gas as a “transition” fuel.
Fossil gas in Canada primarily comes from fracking and as a byproduct of oil extraction. Fracking is an environmentally damaging technology for extracting fossil gas from the ground and releases a great deal of methane into the atmosphere, which is very harmful to the climate. Fracking is responsible for most of B.C.’s methane emissions and is heavily subsidized by the province. When the carbon footprint of fossil gas extraction, transportation and processing is taken into account, burning fossil gas is as harmful as burning coal.
What’s more, advances in interconnected power grids and cost-effective battery storage solutions have made gas-fired power plants much less necessary in the current landscape.
Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage refers to a process that captures carbon dioxide (CO2)) from industrial activities, including oil and fossil gas production, and stores it underground rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.
While it sounds good on paper, CCUS technology fails on two major levels. Firstly, existing facilities have over-promised and under-delivered on the amount of CO2 they’re able to capture. And secondly, the CO2 that’s captured has so far primarily been used in other CO2 emitting projects, like “enhanced oil recovery.” (To learn more, read our analysis piece on CCUS here.)
Considering these factors, CCUS is not a climate solution—rather, it’s an insidious stalling tactic that allows fossil fuel companies to continue business as usual, and government support for such “solutions” amounts to a substantial fossil fuel subsidy. The federal government’s climate plan relies heavily on CCUS facilities for jobs and emissions reduction. But, until CCUS technologies actually do what they promise and are not used to increase fossil fuel extraction, CCUS is a false solution that puts money in the pockets of corporations rather than supporting workers and communities in the energy transition.
Green vs. blue hydrogen
Oil and gas companies are increasingly promoting hydrogen-related projects and technologies. They have painted a shimmering vision of a “hydrogen economy,” which they say would be an alternative route for their gas business, as burning fossil gas is under pressure to decline rapidly. Politicians are now also touting hydrogen as a central piece needed to unlock the energy transition.
But a lot rests on how the hydrogen is produced.
The most established industrial process for producing hydrogen is a method called “steam methane reforming,”an energy-intensive process where methane gas is reacted with high-temperature steam to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
Hydrogen produced through this process is referred to as “grey,” because of its super-polluting effect of releasing CO2 and unburnt fugitive methane into the atmosphere.
“Blue” hydrogen, which the fossil fuel industry is most invested in, is also produced from gas but ostensibly removes the CO2 that is emitted during hydrogen production through carbon capture and storage. This is where the industry once again falsely touts CCUS as a solution. While the industry claims to have the technology to capture 80 to 90 per cent of CO2, that figure is actually closer to 12 per cent, according to a recent peer-reviewed study on blue hydrogenThis means that methane emissions (which burn the planet faster than CO2) would actually be higher in this process than for grey hydrogen, because of the additional gas that’s needed to power carbon capture. Overall, producing blue hydrogen is calculated to produce more GHG than simply burning the fossil gas.
In contrast, “green” hydrogen is produced from splitting water, using renewable energy sources like wind and solar, into its constituent components of hydrogen and oxygen. There are no harmful byproducts, and no fossil fuels are burned to supply the electricity required to generate it. But while this method can be considered near to carbon-zero, it only accounts for only 0.02 per cent of all global hydrogen production.
Hydrogen isn’t an energy source; it’s an energy carrier. It is best thought of as an inefficient battery. While there is certainly a role for hydrogen in specific industries such as steel production and possibly in long distance transport (trucks and ships), there are currently more efficient power storage technologies available in the transition to renewable electric power generation. Hydrogen should not be used as a delaying tactic for sectors where existing electrification solutions are available today, like domestic and commercial heating, or to delay the phase out of fossil fuels.
Nuclear and SMRs
The production of nuclear energy is relatively straightforward. Nuclear fission, or the breaking of atomic bonds in a chain reaction, releases a great deal of energy as heat. This heat boils water and then produces pressurized steam that powers turbines to produce electricity.
But that’s hardly the full picture. In fact, nuclear energy generation is time-intensive, costly, unsafe, and unjust, rendering it a false climate solution. For instance, the Hinckley Point C nuclear reactor in the UK has been planned for 40 years, is massively over budget, is not certain to work, and still nowhere close to being operational.
With recent tax credits from the federal government announced in Budget 2023, and Ontario positioned to massively expand nuclear energy generation, nuclear power plants and small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) are being positioned as a key solution to lessening our dependence on fossil fuels.
The main argument made for nuclear energy is that it is more consistent and reliable than solar or wind energy. However, previous nuclear disasters like Chernobyl or Fukushima have made the danger and unreliability of nuclear facilities obvious. The risk of nuclear infrastructure cannot be overlooked, especially in a time of increasing political and climate instability that will increase pressure on an already delicate infrastructure.
In addition, because of anti-nuclear organizing in response to nuclear disasters, there is relatively little social license for new nuclear builds. This means that permitting, construction, and commissioning a nuclear facility is very expensive and takes a long time. Considering the timeline we have to address the climate crisis, that time and those resources could be better spent on renewable energy generation like wind and solar, which are quicker and cheaper to build.
Even more notably, we still do not have a successful way of disposing of radioactive waste. Indigenous communities are disproportionately bearing the brunt of nuclear waste, from Navajo communities dealing with radioactive tailings and raffinates from uranium extraction on their land, to Algonquin Nations fighting against a proposed radioactive waste dump that would be located 1km from the banks of the Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River), a Canadian Heritage River and a living sacred being for the Algonquin Anishinaabeg.
In the case of nuclear and many of the other false solutions discussed in this piece, the ends do not justify the means—putting the need for energy generation above the needs of people and the planet render nuclear energy a false climate solution. This nuclear narrative also compromises the opportunity to invest the necessary time and resources into energy generation options that are cheaper, safer, less polluting, and more just.
When we ask who these false solutions benefit, the answer is clear: each of these false solutions put expediency and profit over the needs of people, communities, and the planet. Understanding that these solutions are not the answer to a just and liveable future is crucial as we push back against the political rhetoric surrounding the climate crisis.
This is the first piece in our series, “Unpacking climate ‘solutions’: False, Real, or Unjust?” — Keep an eye out for the next piece, coming soon!
What to know
- Further investment into fossil fuel infrastructure will keep us dependent on fossil fuels and means accelerating climate change
- We cannot afford unproven or unscalable false solutions that prioritize profit over people and the planet
- False solutions benefit corporations, their shareholders and politicians who benefit from their support.