Debunking Some Leap Manifesto Talking Points

06/24/2016 02:30 EDT | Updated 06/24/2016 02:59 EDT

Last week Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Naomi Klein got into a Twitter war over the "100% clean economy by 2050" plan being pushed by Ms. Klein and the proponents of the Leap Manifesto. During the discussion the Premier pointed out:

Leap Manifesto's 100 per cent renewable plan cost? $1.86 TRILLION, 3X Canada's debt. A number so big as to be meaningless

Ms. Klein countered with numerous tweets including these two:

1/3 Nice try @PremierBradWall: you can add but you forgot to subtract. @mzjacobson projects savings to Canadians

2/3 @PremierBradWall Annual energy, health, and climate cost savings per person in 2050: $8,887...

The Premier's data came directly from the supporting material from a still-draft paper: 100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight (WWS) All-Sector Energy Roadmaps for 139 Countries of the World (called 100% WWS hereafter) from the Jacobson group out of Stanford.

The 100% WWS paper represents a thought experiment to model a future world with energy sourced entirely from wind, water and sunlight. While, to the energy world, 100% WWS is simply a thought experiment; it also serves as the Leap Manifesto's energy plan.

Ms. Klein's talking point also comes from that paper and can be seen in this Solutions Project infographic for Canada derived from the 100% WWS paper.

Now while the Premier's numbers are easy to find, the source of that $8,887 is particularly interesting. To find it, you need to go to the spreadsheet used to do the calculations for the paper. There you discover that the $8,887 is made up of three numbers:

  • Energy Cost Savings (-$16)
  • Air-quality Health Benefit ($2,571) and
  • Climate Change Benefit ($6,109)

You might be surprised to discover that under the 100% WWS plan, in 2050 Canadian energy costs will be higher than the business-as-usual case. This is one of those inconvenient facts that the promoters of the Leap Manifesto would prefer you not notice. You see, while a WWS portfolio may save money in some countries, according to Dr. Jacobson's spreadsheet, that will not be the case in Canada.

As for the "Air-quality Health Benefit," it is obtained by estimating how many Canadians would be killed yearly from the particulates and ozone associated with burning fossil fuels in 2050 and multiplying that number by any associated health costs.

So how do they derive the death statistics? Well they didn't consult Statistics Canada or Environment Canada. Instead, they derived their number by looking at worldwide deaths attributable to particulates and ozone. This would be a great approach except for the minor issue that most of those deaths occur in Eastern Asia and Africa so spreading them out evenly across the globe makes no sense. Actually, this makes 100% WWS something of a miracle plan since it claims to save more lives in Canada than actually die from particulates and ozone in Canada.

The plan then takes that invalid death toll and instead of multiplying it by an estimate of health costs multiplies it by an obscure number from economics called the "value of statistical life" (VSL). VSL is defined as:

a willingness-to-pay estimate that values the change in well-being that would result from changing the risk of death; it is measured by how much wealth a person is willing to forgo to obtain that reduction in the risk of death.

The problem is that VSL has absolutely nothing to do with actual health-care costs. It is a theoretical number that is orders of magnitude higher than actual health costs. So not only does the plan save people who won't die, it also counts money that will never be spent. When you do the math, using real health-care costs, that $2,571 per capita "Benefit" simply goes away.

As for the "Climate Change Benefit" of $6,109 per capita, it represents the "avoided 2050 global climate change costs." It is calculated by looking at our national carbon dioxide emissions under the business-as-usual scenario and multiplying that number by the "social cost of carbon" (SCC). The SCC is defined as:

an estimate of the economic damages associated with a small increase in carbon dioxide emissions...this dollar figure also represents the value of damages avoided for a small emission reduction.

Understanding SCC is a necessary first step in any process to justify climate change policy. As a consequence, the US EPA has spent millions of dollars establishing a best-science value for SCC. Through their exhaustive process the EPA has estimated a SCC range of $26/tonne to $95/tonne in 2050.

Given this background you would expect that the 100% WWS team would use that generally accepted number in their calculations. You would be wrong. Instead, 100% WWS derives an independent SCC of $500/tonne.

Interestingly, if you use the consensus number for SCC, that climate change benefit drops down to around $850 per capita, which makes a far less compelling case for 100% WWS.

So if you rely on the consensus science the 100% WWS "Benefit" drops from $8,887 per capita to a much less significant value closer to $800 per capita; all for the minimal cost of $1.86 trillion over 34 years. Maybe that is why Premier Wall was less than enthusiastic about the plan? As for the Twitter war, I would say that Premier Wall wins by a landslide.

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