CIGI Chair of Global Systems Thomas Homer-Dixon speaks on Canada's potential as a resilient energy superpower, October 29, 2014. (CIGI Photo)
CIGI Chair of Global Systems Thomas Homer-Dixon speaks on Canada's potential as a resilient energy superpower, October 29, 2014. (CIGI Photo)

Does Canada’s current energy policy make sense?

No,” says Thomas Homer-Dixon, CIGI chair of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs.  To boot, it’s not economically viable in the medium to long term.

Delivering a CIGI Signature Lecture last night entitled, “Canada as a Resilient Energy Superpower,” Homer-Dixon outlined how a patchwork of incompatible provincial and federal policies, incoherent federal policy on carbon emissions and overreliance on carbon-based resource extraction are all contributing to an inevitable (and radical) change in Canada’s energy policy.

“The problem we’re facing is a disconnect between reality and illusion,” Homer-Dixon said. That is, the certainty of climate change is being dismissed. Ultimately, the attribution of extreme weather to climate change, the negative effect of rising temperatures on global food production, and financial system pressures are key factors that will drive our policy makers to respond to climate change. The sooner we recognize the disconnect, he said, the sooner Canada can prepare plan B, be ready for the inevitable change, and get ahead of the curve (i.e. be in a better position than other countries).

One of the most interesting aspects of the lecture was Homer-Dixon’s dismissal of using technology to fix the problem with carbon-based resource extraction. “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” Homer-Dixon said, before discussing the very poor energy return on investment (EROI) in bitumen, which he calls junk energy.  We cannot run a technically and institutionally complex and advanced civilization on an EROI ratio that is less than 10:1, yet current tar sands EROI for mining and steam-assisted gravity drainage is running around four and six to one, respectively. “We’re taking high quality energy resources, such as the remaining conventional reserves in the world and really good natural gas reserves, and we're using that high quality energy to convert to bitumen...into something we can burn in a distributed transportation system...It really doesn’t make sense at all,” said Homer-Dixon.

In his lecture, he offered recommendations on how Canada can get ahead of the curve. In a world of increasingly frequent shocks and surprises, he said, we should aim to build resilience into our energy systems.  Like railroads, the internal combustion engine and personal computers, we should get ready for a general purpose technology transition — green technology. Once the technology is economically viable and people begin to appreciate its benefits, the flip will occur quickly, he explained.

Homer-Dixon outlined what Canada’s comparative advantages would be in a zero-carbon world and what unconventional technologies could be used. Thorium fission, compact fusion and ultra-deep “enhanced” geothermal power, were among the options discussed.

Predicting a global carbon price by 2030, Homer-Dixon had many wondering if our policy makers are truly considering a plan B — and what will it look like?

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