The season of hot air

This looks like a winter season where we will be spending more time than usual cozying up inside. My recommendation is to find ways to get outside and be safe - take a walk on a beach or anywhere where there is nature and few people. We are lucky to be on PEI where such places are easy to find.

When you come home, you may even have a wood stove that you can cozy up to. That is why I like winter: The opportunity to get cold and refreshed outside and then warmed again inside, preferable next to some kind of wood fire.

Being around a wood fire is an essential part of being human, and if you have access to even an acre of woods or two, there will be plenty of dead wood to burn. While burning wood does create CO2, leaving a piece of deadfall on the forest floor eventually releases the same amount of CO2 through composting. Therefore burning wood is considered sustainable, and if you return the ashes to the woods, nature’s cycle is complete.

This does not mean that all burning of wood is a good thing or sustainable.   

The government calls wood biomass, and claims that burning biomass is an excellent replacement for burning oil. However, there is a  difference between you burning a stick of wood and the government converting a large number of buildings to wood chip burners. As the old saying goes, the devil is in the details.

These chip burners are fed with large trailer trucks filled with wood chips that have likely been harvested in a less than sustainable way. Typically, a lot is clear cut and, depending on size and type of trees, either the entire lot is turned to chips, or into a mix of pulp logs and chips. In either case the result will be to send the carbon, which was previously sequestered in the trees, into a large cloud of CO2 within the year.

Even if replanted, it will take decades before the trees are big enough to capture a significant amount of carbon again. It could take a century before the CO2 that was released is recaptured.

On top of that, all the minerals contained in the wood, which the trees have created and collected over thousands of years, are not returned to the woods. Therefore, each regrowth is poorer than the one before. Add to that the fossil fuels used for harvesting and transporting the chips, and it becomes clear this method is not sustainable.

Curiously, the government sent the Minister of Transportation, Infrastructure and Energy with other MLAs and officials to Europe to learn the best methods these countries use. One of the places visited was Samsoe, a Danish island, where they have been burning chips for decades.   But they have learned  it is NOT a good idea to burn wood. In fact when the energy director for Samsoe visited PEI recently, he told us that burning wood was “stupid.” But apparently the government is not listening. I like to use more parliamentary words like “hot air,” used to describe not just the air coming off a hot wood stove, but also the unrealistic promises coming out of politicians’ mouths.

It is not just the government’s plan to burn more wood chips that is full of hot air. So is the ambitious Net Zero plan announced by the government recently. Bold in concept, this plan claims to be leading in Canada and maybe even the world. But this plan, when you look at the details, turns out to be just a lot of hot air.

Net Zero Energy by 2030 as promised gives us just 10 years to convert away from oil and gas in all sectors of society, including  buildings, transportation and agriculture. Yet the actual efforts planned are completely insufficient in reaching those goals: The first government buildings to be Net Zero won’t be completed until 2024 or later. What’s more, plans do not address the 2,000 other buildings and apartments being built by the private sector each year nor how or when the government will upgrade the 50,000 existing buildings. Nor does it address the buildings already planned or under construction.

It is much, much cheaper and easier to make the changes before construction starts. Take a window as an example. It will cost about $10 per square foot to upgrade a regular double glazed window to a Net Zero triple glazed window. However, to change an already installed window later will cost 10 times as much, or $100 per square foot.  So it is well worth it to change plans before the buildings are constructed.

Clearly a government claiming to be the Net Zero leader in Canada, needs to change plans on the table and buildings under construction now, not later. If they don’t, they will never reach their goal.

In the transportation sector this government has continued to subsidize taxes, a practice begun by previous administrations. This results in spending millions and millions of tax dollars to keep gas prices low, when exactly the opposite is needed

Buying a few electric school buses is a nice gesture, but clearly to be all electric in ten years we need, not 50, but 5,000 new electric cars per year.

In agriculture no solutions are even discussed or subject to pilot experiments. Should we not at least investigate, for instance, how carbon could be sequestered in our soils, increasing organic matter and at the same time reducing the need for irrigation?

Interestingly, many of the goals promised can be reached without blowing budgets. Net Zero buildings do cost a little more to build, but the savings in operating costs (which are zero) will pay for themselves over 10 to 20 years. You could say, Net Zero has a much better return than putting money in the bank.

The government has the option of borrowing funds at a low interest rate like 2% or less and can even do so off-budget, like they do now to finance windmills. To reach their goals they could have and should have made a flying start this year investing a few hundred million in Net Zero features that would give a great annual return for generations to come.

Anything else is just hot air, in fact so much hot air that the PEI government could well be the leader in Canada or even the world. So gather around and enjoy the hot air while it’s cold outside.

Ole Hammarlund, MLA for Charlottetown-Brighton
Official Opposition
Net Zero Critic