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How badly do we need roads?

Shift Storm newsletter—February 2024 edition

March 27, 2024

7-minute read

The following is a re-print of the February 2024 edition of Shift Storm, the CCPA's monthly newsletter which focuses on the intersection of work and climate change. Click here to subscribe to Shift Storm and get the latest updates straight to your inbox.


Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s recent comment that the federal government will stop funding major new road projects was met with predictable backlash from conservative politicians across the country who were quick to point out that many Canadians do, in fact, drive cars.

Ottawa will still fund some road infrastructure, so the latest political furor is unsurprisingly overblown, but Guilbeault’s (mis)statement raises an interesting and important question: how badly will we continue to need roads in a net-zero economy?

Roads are not going away entirely, of course. We’ve locked in $900 billion worth of road infrastructure across the country. We are consequently too car-dependent to give it up entirely, especially in rural and (to a lesser extent) suburban communities. Shipping goods by (zero-emission) truck will also remain an unavoidably vital part of the economy moving forward.

But whether we need additional roads for personal vehicles, or even as many roads as we have today, is not so clear. There are 26 million registered vehicles in Canada, and we probably can’t replace every internal combustion engine vehicle with an electric alternative in the years to come (for both financial and material reasons), which means we’re going to need alternatives.

Fortunately, cities are slowly getting the memo that enabling more mixed-use urban density means people don’t actually need to own cars to meet their daily needs. Coupled with the long march toward remote work, the dream of 15-minute cities is increasingly realistic in large swaths of the country. As urban populations swell—Canada is slated to add around 20 million people by the 2060s, most of whom will end up in big cities—the share of households that forgo car ownership will increase significantly.

Besides better public transit, one of the biggest missing pieces for a car-free (or car-light) future is robust inter-city transport. Governments are stumbling toward a renewed passenger rail system in the Windsor–Québec City corridor, which would serve half of Canada’s population, but progress is slow. The federal government is also shying away from high-speed rail, which would make the train a viable replacement for emissions-intensive short-haul flights.

Nevertheless, it’s clear even in 2024 that we have all the tools we need to seriously reduce car dependency and thus the need for roads over the long term. Whether we put those tools to use—and back them with sufficient public funding—is ultimately a political choice.

We’ll get into the money question more next month following the release of the federal budget. This month, we turn our attention toward the outstanding challenges facing emissions reductions in Canada. Let’s dive in!

Storm surge: this month’s key read

Dependence on speculative technologies a risky plan for achieving net-zero emissions

The latest emissions analysis by earth scientist David Hughes, Getting to net-zero in Canada, has been published by the CCPA-BC and it’s chock full of important findings. The report is prototypically Hughesian in its eye-watering level of detail, so let me pull out what I think are the key takeaways.

For context, the report is a response to the Canada Energy Regulator’s (CER) net-zero scenarios, which I profiled back in July. Although the CER found a way for Canada to hit net-zero on paper through a massive expansion of hydrogen and nuclear power coupled with carbon capture and negative emissions technologies, Hughes finds that approach to be wildly optimistic.

First off, hydrogen, carbon capture and direct air capture are all essentially speculative technologies. They “work” but are inefficient and prohibitively expensive at present. The technologies will undoubtedly improve, but there’s no guarantee they will ever be economically viable.

Nuclear power has a longer history, for better or worse, but the specific kind of nuclear power the CER is banking on—small modular reactors (SMRs)—are another novel technology that has not yet been demonstrated at scale.

One of the key problems shared by all of the aforementioned climate “solutions” is that, even if they do pan out, they will come online too late. Canada has four SMRs on deck with completion dates between 2028 and 2036, for example. Direct air capture at scale is decades away.

Leaning on proven renewable energy sources won’t be easy either—we need to build 10-12 times more wind and solar than we have at present, according to the CER, and even more according to Hughes—but we know it will work and, in many cases, renewables are the cheapest option anyway.

Unsurprisingly, Hughes concludes that Canada needs stronger climate policies, but he focuses especially on the need to pursue energy efficiency improvements across the economy. Efficiency isn’t as exciting as building new stuff, but reducing energy demand makes transition much easier. It’s a priority I’ll be looking for in the forthcoming federal budget.

Research radar: the latest developments in work and climate

Construction unions taking the lead on green skills development. Canada's Building Trades Unions (CBTU) announced the launch of their Building it Green program. In development for the past two years, the program is designed to upskill construction workers for the clean economy. It’s a relatively modest proposal—three hours online plus a one-day workshop—but it’s a great start. CBTU is very focused on teaching the “why” of climate action and not just the “how”, which is essential for winning long-term buy-in from workers. Hopefully, labour unions in other sectors will use it as a model for developing climate-focused training programs of their own.

BC can be a leader on inclusive, sustainable transportation. My CCPA-BC colleague Marc Lee released a new report, Connecting BC, in partnership with the BC Federation of Labour. The report offers a comprehensive, $15.4 billion plan for revamping the transportation system in that province with an emphasis on publicly-funded, interlinked transit options. It’s a good example of the kind of ambitious, big picture thinking that is sadly absent in most of the provinces these days.

Inadequate operational funding means fancy new buses are sitting idle. It came across my desk a bit too late to feature in this month’s newsletter, but next month I’ll be diving deeper into a new report from Environmental Defence and Équiterre, Putting Wheels on the Bus, that makes the case for expanded public transit service funding. Co-author Nate Wallace has done a lot of good work recently arguing that it’s not enough to fund new transit infrastructure if you don’t also fund transit operations.

Action on affordability can’t be separated from climate action. The Affordability Action Council, a group of independent Canadian experts convened by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, has released a report, Making Ends Meet, that makes a compelling case for addressing the affordability crisis and the climate crisis in tandem. Among other recommendations, the report proposes a home energy efficiency retrofitting program for low-income households, which ought to be a priority in the forthcoming federal budget.

EU policies offer lessons for North American just transition efforts. A new report from the U.S.-based think tank Resources for the Future, The European Union Policy Toolbox to Support Just Transition, draws lessons for the U.S. from the EU’s just transition efforts. Key takeaways include the importance of stable, long-term funding; the need to develop local transition plans before funding can be accessed; and the availability of funding for just social infrastructure in addition to sustainable physical infrastructure. All lessons worth heeding in Canada!

Nordic climate leaders not immune to fossil industry pressures. Denmark and Norway are often held up as exemplars of the clean energy transition, but a new briefing from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, “Northern Lights?,” discusses some of the ways they are nevertheless coming up short. In Norway, the oil and gas industry holds considerable sway and the country has no plans to reduce fossil fuel exports even as it decarbonizes its domestic economy (sound familiar?). In Denmark, the initial success of the country’s wind revolution tends to overshow a more recent turn towards biomass combustion and unrealized promises of carbon capture. There is still much we can learn from places like Norway and Denmark, but they are certainly not perfect.

UK latest country to leave fossil-fueled Energy Charter Treaty. The ECT is a multilateral agreement that has since 1991 tied the hands of many (mostly European) governments in their efforts to slow or wind down fossil fuel production. The UK has now signaled its intent to join Spain, France, the Netherlands and several other countries in withdrawing from the ECT, which they view as an obstacle to achieving net-zero emissions. The slow demise of the ECT is a win for global climate action and, hopefully, a precedent for tackling the many other international investment agreements that lock in fossil fuel production.

Demand for green skills growing twice as fast as supply. Jobs site LinkedIn published its Global Green Skills Report 2023, which finds that employer demand for “green” skills is growing at about twice the rate that LinkedIn users are acquiring those skills. The report’s methodology is a bit vague, but the findings are consistent with a growing body of evidence that workforce development is not keeping up with the transition to a cleaner economy.

Auto mechanics vulnerable to EV shift. A South Korean English-language newspaper, the Korea JoongAng Daily, reports that a quarter of auto repair shops in the country have closed due to the transition to electric vehicles, which generally require less maintenance than conventional vehicles. I suspect the situation is a bit more complicated than that—Korea’s EV adoption rates are similar to Canada’s and we haven’t yet experienced the same loss of auto mechanics—but this is still an important trend to keep an eye on. When discussing industrial transitions we tend to focus on the locus of change (coal mines, auto plants, etc.) and not enough on the indirect effects for workers up and down the supply chain.

The case for just transition as a goal, not a process. The journal Social Inclusion has published an interesting theoretical take on the idea of a just transition, “Small Sacrifice for the Greater Good,” from academics in China seeking to “redefine just transition beyond Western ideas.” The study argues that “just transition” is, ultimately, about achieving a just future, not undergoing a just process. In other words, the ends justify the means. You won’t hear many Canadian politicians or activists adopting this framing, but there’s probably more truth in it than we’d care to admit.

Many low-income countries have no plan B for a post-fossil economy. Carbon Tracker’s latest update to its PetroStates of Decline report highlights just how unprepared many countries are for the coming energy transition. For context, despite all the whinging about oil and gas revenues here at home, Canada doesn’t even crack the top 40 list when it comes to vulnerability. At the extreme end, countries like Nigeria and Venezuela get more than 80 per cent of government revenues from fossil fuel rents, and those revenues will drop by 50 per cent or more in the coming years.

The AI hype isn’t wrong, it’s just premature. Over on the CCPA blog, I write about the fears and hype surrounding generative artificial intelligence. On the one hand, the attention lavished on ChatGPT and its ilk is not yet deserved. On the other hand, governments and economies are not ready for the impact these technologies will have in the years to come. A huge share of labour will be impacted by AI tools and without sound regulation it will be a losing proposition for many workers.

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