Climate Change: It's Not the Science, it's the Policy

11/10/2014 05:52 EST | Updated 01/10/2015 05:59 EST

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released its latest "Synthesis Report" drawing together the findings of the most recent three-volume set of the Fifth Assessment Report. The Assessment Report is meant to be the last word -- at least until the next omnibus review is done -- on climate change science and policy options. Let's set the science stuff aside for the moment (I'm a climate-accepter, though on the modest end of the worry range), because the real issue is less the "disease" than it is the proposed treatment for climate change.

Based on the findings of the synthesis report, the UN calls for almost a complete end to fossil fuel use by 2100, with the majority of that decarbonization to take place before 2050. Carbon-based fuels are, by far, the least-cost fuels for reliable electricity production, and for powering the world's transportation system.

Raising power costs by switching to nuclear, wind, solar, and biofuels would seriously degrade our quality of life, pricing development out of the reach of more than two billion people around the world. For Canada, that prescription would be particularly damaging, as it calls for an end to oil sands production, and abandonment of Canada's coal, oil and natural gas resources. That's a major chunk of Canada's economy, eliminated by 2050.

Environmentalists and green-energy hucksters promise to power the world with wind and sunlight, but that's highly unlikely -- wind and solar power are expensive and unreliable forms of energy generation with their own significant environmental impacts.

The most authoritative source that compares the costs of different kinds of electricity generation on an apples-to-apples basis (energy economists call this the "levelized cost of power") is the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In its most recent estimations, the EIA lists the cost of generating new coal power (looking to 2019 construction) at $96/MWh; natural gas at about $65/MWh; solar power comes in between $130/MWh and $243/MWh depending on how you generate it. Wind looks slightly better than it has in the past, at an estimated $80/MWh for on-shore wind, but wind carries problems that transcend price -- it's intermittent, it requires redundant back-up power sources, and it comes with its own set of environmental headaches.

And let's look at Canada's own experience with green energy. Last year, in a study for the Fraser Institute, Ross McKitrick (Fraser Institute Senior Fellow and economics professor at the University of Guelph) looked at the mess that Ontario got itself into following the green energy playbook.

What McKitrick found was that in pursuit of a renewable-energy transition in Ontario, power prices were driven to some of the highest rates in North America, with additional rate hikes of 40-50 per cent pending in the next few years. His study showed that 80 per cent of the wind-power generated in Ontario was out of phase with demand, and that this surplus power was sold to the United States at a loss to Ontarians.

McKitrick found that Ontario already lost more than $2 billion on wind power, with additional losses of $200 million/year ongoing. Adding insult to injury, the very modest environmental benefits realized by Ontario through the transition to renewables could have been secured at one-tenth the cost if the province had simply continued to use existing technologies to retrofit existing coal plants.

Advocates for greenhouse gas controls are waving the UN's newest synthesis report around, asserting that arguments over climate policy are now over, as the UN's definitive climate diagnosis has produced a prescription that cannot be questioned. Disagree with them on any particular, from the potential scale of the threat to the impacts of their proposed policies -- even if you use the UN's own data to support your position -- and they'll label you a "denier."

But here's what can't be denied: the policy prescriptions of the ENGOs and the United Nations would hike energy prices worldwide, perpetuating energy poverty for billions of people, and debilitating the few bright economic engines left in the world. It's a prescription far worse than the disease.