Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Zero-Carbon Ring of Fire

Picture this: You’re riding a silent, electrically-powered railway northward into the heart of Ontario’s largest industrial project, the Ring of Fire. Occasionally, the landscape of trees and rocks is interrupted by one or two wind turbines or ground-mounted solar arrays. As you near the end of the line, you can see that the ore processing facility looks as if it were on fire, thanks to the thousands of solar panels affixed to just about every building surface. Here, chromite and other minerals are being extracted and processed in the world’s first zero-carbon mining project, deep in the heart of the James Bay lowlands.

Impossible? Hardly. Impractical? Not at all. A zero-carbon mining project would be good for the environment and for job creation. Sustainable, net-zero development may be the only option for “getting things right” in the Ring of Fire as we go deeper into the 21st Century, thanks to Canada having taken a back-seat on climate change reduction initiatives.

The 2009 Copenhagen Accord recognized the need to hold global warming at no more than 2 degrees Celsius. Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report established a global carbon budget for burning of fossil fuels up to the year 2100 – a budget which must be followed to keep warming below the 2 degrees C threshold. If warming continues beyond 2 degrees C, we risk triggering positive feedback loops which could lead to runaway climate change. To remain within budget, it is estimated that two-thirds of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves must remain buried in the ground.

Canada, one of the world’s worst per capita producers of greenhouse gas emissions, is on track to exceed our extremely weak 2020 emissions reductions targets. Real gains made at reducing emissions, such as closing Ontario’s coal plants, have been offset by the expansion of tar sands developments in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Without a national energy strategy, there is no compelling mechanism in place which parcels out our carbon budget based on provincial needs. Right now, each province pursues its own emissions reduction strategy in isolation of its neighbours – with the result that emissions from Alberta and Saskatchewan will continue to skyrocket and eclipse reductions made in each and every province.

And that spells bad news for the Ring of Fire. There is no question that successful resource extraction in Ontario’s remote northwest will be energy-intensive. The energy needs of First Nations and other communities are also expected to expand, as they become service hubs for development in the Ring. Yet, with Canada’s carbon budget being rapidly taken up by tar sands expansion, by the time that real infrastructure development in the James Bay lowlands occurs, there may be no other choice for the Ring of Fire than to go green.

The timing, however, for going green, might be just right. Distributive energy systems, powered by renewables and based on smart-grid technology, are just now coming online in Europe. Renewable energy is the world’s fastest growing industry, and local-scale distribution means that energy can be bought and sold by small and medium-scale producers, such as Ring of Fire miners and First Nations energy co-operatives. With northwestern Ontario offering a blank slate for development, the Ring of Fire is a real opportunity to do things right the first time.

A profitable, job-creating, zero-carbon future is a very realistic goal for the sustainable development of the Ring of Fire. “Getting it right” must involve building the low-carbon distributive energy smart-grid and electric transportation infrastructure for prosperity in the 21st Century.


(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star, Saturday February 2, 2014, as "A zero-carbon Ring of Fire is needed" (online Friday, February 1, 2014.

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