Carbon, Energy And The North
Canada is a land of many Canadas. There’s the Maritime version, the Montreal version, the inland BC version…so many versions really. In spite of how different those Canada’s are – they’re all down South. The North is entirely different. More people live on Prince Edward Island (~160,000 people over ~5400 KM^2) than the entire North (~126,000 over ~2.5 million KM^2). I don’t even fully comprehend just how different life is in the North.
It’s always been expensive and hard to get up North. It’s brutal by foot and paddle. It’s expensive by boat, rail, truck and airplane. The most obvious factor is the distance. The spaces are vast. Less obvious is how much more expensive it is to build transportation infrastructure. Meter for meter, kilogram for kilogram, weather roads, railbeds, and airports are far more expensive to build in the North. The challenges in building transportation infrastructure is directly linked to the challenges of building sustainable economic development.
Energy is a major input cost. It’s why you read stories of $6 toothpaste, $30 orange juice, and $6 for 2L of milk.
Economic development in the North, like anywhere else, relies on expending carbon. Expending carbon exacerbates climate change. And the North bears a disproportionate cost for climate change. There’s something unsatisfying about that reinforcing cycle. Put degrowth and 2,000 Watts aside for now and consider alternatives to this reinforcing cycle. What might be possible if a few variables are tweaked?
Rail powered so many booms and busts since it was discovered. It generated huge economic growth. It’s always been more fun to think about the way carbon was dug up and put to work in these huge engines. That was a huge change for a lot of people. I’m always blown away by how slippery steel is. The coefficient of friction of rail is around 0.4…compared to the coefficient of friction of a truck tire of around 0.7. From an energy expenditure perspective, rail is great. Low and slow is a great way to go.
The further North one builds rail, the harder it is to build and maintain rail. There is a lot of entropy up North. Liquid water gets into everything. Water expands by ~9% when it freezes. It’s bad enough when it happens once. It’s worse when it happens repeatedly over the course of a spring, winter, and fall. It stands to reason that if climate change is driving the freeze/thaw line northward, more of the North will experience cycles like the South. If the climate system is going to experience more variability in its search for a new equilibrium, then maybe there would be more intense freeze/thaw cycles in the North. So, let’s get up off the ground then.
There is a recurrent story about dirigibles, rigid airships, and blimps. There isn’t as much friction in the air if you go slow. The idea goes that if you use hydrogen, you get lift for free. Propellers are fairly efficient, so the unit economics of moving large amounts of cargo by dirigible starts to look okay. Dirigibles need infrastructure like landing facilities which could be less complex than an airport but more complex than a train station. If you squint a bit at the future, consider that they could act like drones, making the mode safer from an occupational health and safety perspective, the relative risk of flying hydrogen bubbles over sparsely populated regions might be acceptable. Forest fires set off by burning balls of hydrogen gas would still be a problem. Risk exists. However, it’s kind of easy to squint at the future and see large fleets of airships transporting containers moving along long and thin routes throughout the North. There are a few policy barriers in the way. For decades it’s been illegal to use hydrogen as a lifting gas in Canada. There are licensing complications for drones and dirigibles alike. So it isn’t trivial.
There is a less repeated story about ships. Ships play the economies of scale game. They move huge masses very cheaply. Canada’s North is indented with large natural harbors and big bays. The story goes that if we just wait until all the ice melts, sustainable economic development will happen the same way it develops anywhere else that has security and is connected to the world ocean. The story isn’t popular because of the bit about waiting for the ice to melt. For one, it’s slow — it still hasn’t really happened for the Port of Churchill. For two, it acknowledges a few very inconvenient facts about the way the planet is going and implies a course for humanity that hasn’t been all the way processed just yet.
If popular opinion shifts to wanting to prevent all the ice from melting, where exactly does that leave the North? Which policy options become acceptable for government investment? Deep water ports and docking facilities? Try a few airship facilities?
If the North wants it, and if you follow the traditional method of development, the path of improving economic life goes through inventing ways of building and defending rail from permafrost melt and freeze/thaw cycles. I don’t know enough about metallurgy and building railbeds to know how much R&D would be required to achieve the breakthrough. Rail links would have the additional benefit of reducing carbon emissions and could be more sustainable than flight. In so doing, Canadians would be optimizing for avoiding the conversation they don’t want to have about climate change.
The downside is that the rail links would connect the North to the South instead of interconnecting the North with itself. The dirigible idea has the advantage of lower marginal costs and lower capital costs, but comes with technological risk that appears to be very difficult to manage. It would cost billions of dollars to develop with no guarantee of success.
Carbon, energy and the North are interconnected in a way that creates a very complex policy space. The shadow of history and the hard constraints of physics combine to create a tough puzzle. The North will ultimately develop the way the North wants to develop.