Energy security becomes a vastly more important issue for Canada assuming carbon policies increase reliance on the electricity grid in accordance with reduced fossil fuel consumption and the emergence of such technologies as the electric car, heard a recent University of Ottawa panel discussion regarding the nation’s climate change response.

“One of the reasons we have affordable, reliable energy is because we have a multi-fuel system,” said Monica Gattinger, director of the university’s Institute of Science, Society and Policy. “We have energy coming from electricity, from oil and gas, and from a variety of different sectors.”

During Monday’s UOttawa debate, she noted that as bad as was the Northeast blackout of 2003, it would have been far worse if people could not even drive their cars or conduct any other activities requiring energy in a scenario where electrification is a pathway towards decreasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

“This question of security begins to become extraordinarily important,” suggested the associate professor at the School of Political Science. “This is not a reason not to move in that direction, but it is definitely another thing that underpins the importance of thinking about the how.”

She added: “How do we move forward in a way that also ensures we have security of energy supply, affordability of energy supply, and resilient systems in the context of … much more frequent and severe climate events, which have a way of cutting out, notably, electricity systems?”

However, energy and climate campaign strategy consultant Tzeporah Berman told this week’s debate that climate change is itself a considerable security and economic risk that is already proving problematic for the country when one considers natural disasters such as the forest fires that devastated parts of British Columbia earlier this year.

“We are experiencing a 70 per cent increase in the severity and frequency of violent storms globally, and I think something we often miss is what that does to our economy.”

According to Berman, who is also York University’s adjunct professor in Environmental Studies, carbon tax is a key tool in Canada’s efforts to combat climate change, as it stimulates innovation. But it is not enough. She believes the country must also eliminate all fossil fuel subsidies and include a climate test for every project the government reviews, ensuring those projects are in line with limiting global warming to 2 C above pre-industrial levels.

“I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask our government to do analysis and project determination based on our own climate targets in a 2 C world, in which case we wouldn’t need the Kinder Morgan pipeline. It is not unrealistic to ask that we align our project decisions with a habitable world.”

Berman added: “We can’t build a new economy by propping up the old industries of the past entirely. That doesn’t mean shutting it down overnight, but it does mean we must plan to have a far more diversified and resilient economy.”

To that last point, Stewart Elgie has some disagreement. The founder and chair of the Smart Prosperity Institute, and director of UOttawa’s Institute of the Environment said the world will still use “old economy” products to some degree in a low-carbon future, and the “trick for Canada” is to position itself with those industries so they can succeed in that low-carbon world.

“Let us put limits on carbon emissions, let us put a price on carbon, and then markets will decide which companies can most effectively produce their products while staying within that budget,” added the law professor. “The one thing we know about innovation is that we cannot predict its path.”

The oil and gas industry is developing new technologies that strip carbon out of the atmosphere and turn it into usable products, Elgie noted. While he does not know if industry will succeed, he believes it is possible. Markets can figure out such details if there are constrains and a price on emissions.

“I am not convinced that trying to choke off oil supply is the most effective strategy. I think driving down demand is vastly more promising. Most of the oil we produce goes for cars and trucks — internal combustion engines — and it is not impossible to imagine a world within 20 years where we have virtually eliminated gas-guzzling cars and trucks. That will do much more to kill demand for oil than trying to choke supply.”

Since reducing demand for oil is more important than limiting production, building infrastructure such as the Trans Mountain expansion is a business decision the company should be allowed to make, he added. If oil demand decreases due to climate policy, and oil companies can decrease the carbon footprint of production in line with such policy, then the pipeline project is not really at issue.

“If they want to build a pipeline and they want to spend money on the oilsands, and it is a dumb economic idea, then their shareholders will pull out.”

Rather than pick on the energy sector unnecessarily, Canada should perhaps play a more impactful role using its auto production and auto technology expertise to accelerate the pace of change towards clean vehicles, he said. This would actually kill off demand for oil, rather than trying to choke off the supply.

“If we pair our carbon tax with something like incentives for adopting clean technologies, government support for adopting new technologies that actually make it less expensive to invest in new technologies here and more expensive to invest in dirty technologies, then that doesn’t change the overall cost of doing business. It just shifts incentives away from dirty stuff to clean stuff, and that is really good policy.”

Likewise, Gattinger said there is a tendency to narrow the debate on combating climate change in Canada towards upstream production, when the greater issue is downstream. “Yes, there needs to be a focus on [production] issues, but when it comes to GHG emissions, at the end of the day it is emissions, and emissions are produced from a variety of different activities.… It is consumption.”

As for the issue of energy security in the face of a move away from fossil fuels and towards greater electrification of the system, Annette Verschuren, chair and chief executive officer of NRStor Inc. and chancellor of Cape Breton University, highlighted the potential of “micro-grids” to enable increased power localization.

“One of the problems with these great big grids is that if they go down, then it is disastrous,” she said. “I think the decentralization of energy will bring security to the systems.”