Three observations on the Leap Manifesto

With the way that the NDP convention played out last weekend, it looks like we’re going to be hearing a lot more about the Leap Manifesto over the course of the next year or two. So in the spirit of discussion, I thought I’d throw in my two bits.

I have three specific observations, but before getting to that, I’d just like to comment on the public reception of the manifesto. Setting aside stylistic complaints, the thing seems to me fairly reasonable as an aspirational document. Other than being a bit of a laundry list, I don’t see that much specifically wrong with it. However, the idea that we are in a position to take this “leap” right now is just old-fashioned balderdash (I’ll elaborate on this a bit below). But if you wanted to map out where we should be in, say, 50 years, there’s not all that much to object to in this document. Those who have been calling it “socialist,” in particular, seem not to understand what the term “socialist” means, since the document says nothing about displacing markets, or about state ownership, it merely recommends increasing taxes and promoting cooperative ownership structures. (By the way, if anyone can tell me what a “progressive carbon tax” is, I’m all ears.)

Some specific remarks now, on particular passages:

This leap must begin by respecting the inherent rights and title of the original caretakers of this land. Indigenous communities have been at the forefront of protecting rivers, coasts, forests and lands from out-of-control industrial activity… And Indigenous Peoples should be first to receive public support for their own clean energy projects.

I was struck by the heavy rhetorical emphasis on Indigenous perspectives and issues, combined with a failure to grapple with the problems posed by the overwhelming fossil-fuel dependence of Aboriginal communities. Of the 292 remote/off-grid communities in Canada, 170 of them are Aboriginal (see analysis here). There has been some modest investment in wind power in some of them, and a few have hydro power, but apart from that they are 100% fossil fuel dependent – running on good old-fashioned diesel generators. Transportation in remote communities is also, of course, fossil fuel intensive, especially where the road network is poor or non-existent, and so there is heavy reliance upon snowmobiles, ATVs, and outboard motors. I have heard very little discussion of what the plan is for such communities – and the Leap Manifesto says nothing. Is the plan to hook them up to the grid? That is a massive infrastructure investment. Is the plan to shift them to renewables? Unless there is hydro available, this requires some kind of storage capacity, of the sort that current technology does not permit. Both wind and solar are intermittent, and so you can’t power a community on them unless you have a backup power source, or a way of storing excess power during peak periods. Considering the enormous heating needs of these communities, especially during periods where there is very little sun, it’s difficult to see how this is supposed to work. It is certainly not possible with existing technology. And finally, when one looks at transportation, suffice it to say that a battery-powered snowmobile that works in in -40º weather is still a long way away.

Moved by the treaties that form the legal basis of this country and bind us to share the land “for as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the rivers flow,” we want energy sources that will last for time immemorial and never run out or poison the land. Technological breakthroughs have brought this dream within reach. The latest research shows it is feasible for Canada to get 100% of its electricity from renewable resources within two decades; by 2050 we could have a 100% clean economy.

There is a little sleight of hand that Naomi Klein pulls in her book, This Changes Everything, that made it into the manifesto. When she talks about renewables, she refers to wind and solar, but the literature that she cites, claiming that we can shift to 100% renewables right away, refers to wind, solar and water. In other words, you need to include your good old-fashioned hydro megaprojects in order get the numbers up anywhere close to what is needed. That’s fine, as far as it goes, I happen to be a big fan of hydro megaprojects. It’s just that if you include hydro in the mix, then you can’t go on about “local ownership.” Specifically, you can’t be serious about stuff like this:

As an alternative to the profit-gouging of private companies and the remote bureaucracy of some centralized state ones, we can create innovative ownership structures: democratically run, paying living wages and keeping much-needed revenue in communities.

There’s been lots of movement toward creating local wind and solar cooperatives (partly, it should be noted, as a way of defusing the sometimes intense community backlash against these projects in rural areas). But there is no way that a cooperative runs a hydro project, it’s too capital-intensive. This means, in all likelihood, ownership by “the remote bureaucracy of some centralized state,” and if not that, then by a large corporation. There is simply no model of cooperative ownership under which you can put together the multimillion dollar investment required to do a hydro dam.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Manifesto’s energy vision is extremely hydro-dependent. That is because wind and solar are both intermittent power sources, which means you need a backup power generation system for days when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun isn’t shining. Hydro is one of the few power sources that can be easily turned on and off, and so every megawatt of sun or wind capacity will have to be matched by an equivalent megawatt of back-up hydro capacity under this scenario. In other words, we would have to build a hydro system that could meet close to 100% of our energy needs. This is – I suppose one should point out – not possible in many parts of the country. So where does that leave us? Realistically – and barring some technological breakthrough – it leaves us with natural gas. Nuclear is obviously a go-to source for zero-carbon power, but it can’t be quickly switched off and on. So realistically, no matter how you run the numbers, you are left with natural gas-fired plants as the crucial transitional technology in many parts of the country.

One last observation. There has been some intra-party grumbling about “Toronto political dilettantes” undermining the NDP government in Alberta. Passages like the following serve to bolster this impression:

We could live in a country powered entirely by renewable energy, woven together by accessible public transit… High-speed rail powered by renewables and affordable public transit can unite every community in this country – in place of more cars, pipelines and exploding trains that endanger and divide us.

The references to “public transit” give the document a very urban feel. There is no way that rural areas, much less smaller towns and cities, are going to be making a transition away from private automobiles anytime soon. How are you supposed to get to the cottage? Furthermore, there is no reason that the manifesto needed to alienate the rural and small-town constituencies in this way. After all, the intercity rail that is supposed to “weave together” all these communities right now runs on dirty old diesel. In order to shift this over to electricity, you need battery technology that doesn’t currently exist. If and when that battery technology is invented (and there is every reason to be optimistic that it will be), then it can be used to power private automobiles just as easily as it can be used to power high-speed trains. So the connection between “renewal energy” and “everyone has to take public transit” is not really a necessary one, it is just the lifestyle/moral preference of urban elites.

More generally, the Leap Manifesto, despite appearances, depends essentially upon a very optimistic view of technological progress. It is not quite “techno-utopian,” but no one who thinks about things very carefully could believe that its goals can be achieved without several major technological breakthroughs. Naturally, the manifesto fails to mention this, and even gives some appearance of denying it. And yet, if one were to lay out clearly what sort of technological improvements would be required in order to realize this vision – improvements in energy storage, to handle the intermittency problem of wind and solar; improvements in battery technology (and cold-weather resistance), to handle transportation needs; and what about air travel? how are you supposed to get to remote communities? – then it becomes clear that these technological developments would permit a wide range of other visions of a low-carbon economy (such as ones in which individuals continue to make use of private vehicles to meet the majority of their transportation needs).

This why I think a lot of people find the Manifesto to be obnoxious. Basically, it comes across like bunch of people saying: “in order to save the world, we are going to have to change everything, so that society is reorganized in pretty much the way that I wanted it to be organized anyhow, and that causes me very little inconvenience.”

Finally, there is the reaction of organized labour in Alberta. I wouldn’t want to be involved in that. For people like me, from Saskatchewan, it all sounds pretty familiar. There was a huge dustup in the Saskatchewan NDP over uranium mining, during the cold war, pitching the urban peace movement types against the labour interests wanting mining jobs. It’s too bad we can’t call Alan Blakeney anymore to help sort it out, but perhaps Roy Romanow has some useful suggestions. (For what it’s worth, the labour interests won.)


Three observations on the Leap Manifesto — 11 Comments

  1. Interesting and insightful criticism, as always. Regarding your question: a carbon tax starts out as inherently regressive. Since low-income individuals consume more, especially in energy (gasoline, electricity) as a share of their income than wealthier individuals, they end up paying a larger share of their income as a carbon tax. However, the carbon tax can be made progressive by giving tax refunds (or just a transfer) to low-income individuals, which cancels out the income effects of the tax for them, while keeping the incentives effect. So that’s a progressive carbon tax: a carbon tax with tax refunds for low-income people. British Columbia does something like this, I believe.

  2. In Filthy Lucre you provide various reasons why cooperative ownership structures can work, but more reasons (I think) why they don’t, and why corporate ownership structures have a lot more advantages, such as being able to raise capital. What kind of changes would encourage more cooperatives, and would this be socially beneficial?

  3. LIke Great Leap Forward in China where people lived in communes and were encouraged to produce steel in their backyards, Leap Manifesto will have us building our own community windmills. Why do left wing types always want to leap somewhere?

    Wiki says windmills have been in existence since before Christ was born but the climate still changed radically over the two millennia, so why do people think windmills are now going to magically stop the climate from changing?

    And why the focus on electric cars, windmills and solar panels? Fuel cell vehicles show much more promise than electric cars, and France’s nuclear system is significantly cleaner, more reliable than Germany’s renewable system where coal has returned to pick up slack when wind is not blowing nor is sun shining.

  4. Hear that sound?

    That’s the sound of Joseph hitting the ball out of the park.

    Excellent points one and all, but I’d like to add a few of my own:

    -Here in Alberta, we have more and more Indigenous peoples participating in the oil and gas sector not just as employees, but as entrepreneurs. In “Unsettling Canada: A National Wakeup Call”, Art Manuel also talks about B.C. First Nations issuing their own logging rights to lumber companies. What happens to Indigenous people and communities who are getting increasingly involved in resource development themselves?

    As for hydro development, ask the James Bay Cree in Quebec how well the big hydro projects of the 1960s worked out for them at first.

    -I seem to recall reading about essential wildlife corridors, such as the one running through the Northwest Territories. Now, let’s assume that a high speed railway is built from Edmonton (near where I live) to Yellowknife. How is the development of a railway going to impact that wildlife?

    And what about communities like Iqaluit or St. John’s, places that exist on islands? How are supplies and people going to be ferried to these places? What will power the planes and ferries we use to get there, if not fossil fuels?

  5. Really good, thoughtful article – as always. Thank you.
    One small point: you mention that high-speed electric trains as envisaged by the manifesto writers will need battery technology that has yet to be invented. That would be true – if such trains ran on batteries. But of course they don’t. The well-established, extensive, and wonderful high-speed rail network in western Europe (often called TGV after its French name) is entirely electric and powered by a catenary system of overhead wires. If Canada were ever to take the plunge with high-speed rail (oh, happy day) I imagine that this is the system that would be used, especially given its excellent record not just in Europe but elsewhere in the world.

    • A big discussion broke out about this on reddit. My assumption was that the distances involved in Canada would preclude overhead wires/third rail.

  6. “progressive carbon tax” pretty sure that progressive carbon tax is just like any other progressive taxation system ie: one that is not a FLAT tax rate, but that increases with level of income. Flat tax rates like Alberta had are considered to be regressive and punitive on the poor.

    example: a 10% tax on someone making $10,000.00 per yr = $1,000.00 the citizen has only $9,000.00 left to live on and the 10% tax makes a huge dent in that persons lifestyle. That person will have to choose between being homeless, having enough food to eat and/or being able to pay for dental care.

    a 10% tax on someone making $1,000,000.00 per yr is $100,000.00 – the citizen has $900,000.00 still left to live on – it’s not going to make that big a difference on their lifestyle. Maybe they’ll have to settle for the Mercedes rather than the Lamborghini.

    • I think what Joe was getting at is that carbon taxes are often done in the form of consumption taxes. You pay the taxes at the point of purchase — when you are at the pump. It is hard to design a progressive consumption tax. Like, imagine someone asking you how much income you made before charging you GST.

  7. Capitalism besides ecosocialist communities, communities powered by State entreprises and others left to themselves, the picture changes when developmental limits have been noted. New large state institutions, capitalism, local social-democracy, development of productive forces. urban tastes and lifestyle, this article fills the holes left by the manifesto. A great ride never the less, I get a better view of what holds for us.

  8. Joseph,

    Your comment about 100% Wind, Water and Sunlight is slightly incorrect. The model provide by Jacobson et al is one where no new hydro power is built. Rather the water power comes in the form of tidal and wave power. These two options are excluded in a northern scenario due to the absence of ice-free locations where that type of generator can be installed.

    I address the Leap’s dependence on renewables and the 100% WWS at my blog as well as running the numbers on the high-speed rail and renewables costs.

  9. A few points:

    On Railway Electrification:
    1. To back up a previous commenter, it is indeed possible to run electric rail for very long distances, in fact, the Trans-Siberian railway, the longest rail line in the world, in an undoubtedly similar geographical context to Canada is entirely electrified throughout it’s length, as incredible as that is to believe.

    On Nuclear Power:
    2. Dr. Heath is correct in general that nuclear power plants cannot easily ‘load follow’, i.e. they are not effective for peak/valley power demand management. However, this isn’t entirely true, as Bruce NGS is currently being used in a slight load following fashion, by switching some of the generation power to ‘hotel’ loads. In France, where their electricity is approximately 75% nuclear (!), they run several of their plants in very specific ways to adjust for demand – shutting some down entirely on the weekends, for example.

    A second point about nuclear that I find an excellent litmus test for green credentials is comfort with recommending nuclear power as one of the more effective options to decarbonize. People can have legitimate concerns about nuclear power, but the facts are that it generates copious power at reasonable cost and with very little environmental footprint. Prominent environmentalists (e.g. James Hansen) and knowledgeable philanthropists (Bill Gates) are on the record as saying that nuclear power will need to be employed more in the future, rather than less – and that in fact the sudden stoppage in building in the mid 1980’s was due to un-realized fears that ended up re-establishing coal as a primary baseload power supply. Greens who demand only ‘pure’ renewables without allowing for some nuclear in the mix, and in fact, advocating shutting down current nuclear plants, are, in my view, making their job massively more difficult.

    On Techno-Utopianism:
    3. One of the things that irks me as an engineer is the contention that we must be super efficient on the consumption side of the energy equation (i.e. reduce usage, energy efficiency, etc), which is all to the good, but we’re being forced to go to the least efficient methods of supply (intermittent and very non-dispatchable wind / solar and much better but geographically determined hydro). Even allowing for efficiency improvements, these systems and their required storage will have monstrous impacts on the environment – I don’t see how they could not, given the requirement that they replace our entire existing electrical supply system, plus electrified transport. Again, the obvious answer would be that perhaps further R&D on nuclear may provide some solutions. In fact, given the starting point – current Generation II and III nuclear technology is already lower impact, provides more power, is cheaper than RE and generates very little volume of waste – one would assume that if we’re given to techno-utopian flights of fancy, that we might as well assume we’ll be as easily able to address the lingering safety and waste issues with nuclear going forward as we would develop a reasonable, scalable large-scale energy storage system.

    Further articles/videos germane to these points:

    Conclusions from Google’s attempt to make an impact on climate change from RE:

    Rationale behind a reasonable approach to nuclear power from an environmentalists’ perspective: <– first 10 minutes describe the rationale <– Look for the super compliment of Ontario at minute 11