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Welcome to B.C., 2040: A vision for a zero-carbon future

Bertram Beach in Kelowna B.C. Photo: erwlas/Flickr

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The following comes from a short talk on a vision for a zero-carbon B.C. that I gave at a couple of events this fall. Many have asked for the text so I've posted it here, and we may try and turn it into a video. That said, I have been reluctant to do so up to now because it was intended as a 5-6 minute talk and thus had certain major omissions. In parentheses below I have added back a couple of paragraphs that got cut due to time constraints.

Welcome to B.C., 2040

The conference organizers wanted to know what the future looked like, so I went into Google Calendar and booked myself for New Year's Day, 2040 to write a letter back to myself about what things look like then. Now, I know what you are thinking -- this breaks the space-time continuum. All I can tell you is that it was written from a bright green future that could not exist if I did not get this letter and read it to you now.

B.C. in 2040 is really the best place on Earth, not just because we said so as a slogan, but because we all worked together to make it that way. Tough choices had to be made, and it has taken a few decades but we now live in a B.C. that has completely weaned its economy off of fossil fuels. In fact, a big ceremony was held last year to celebrate the burning of the last of our natural gas.

It turns out that 2012 really was the end of the world. Not in a death-and-destruction Hollywood movie kind of way, but the end of a way of living that was out of balance from nature. In 2012, we saw the last dying gasps of the old fossil fuel empires and their political friends calling for pipelines from Alberta to the coast for tar sands, massive fracking in Northern B.C. to feed other pipelines for gas exports. All amid increasingly obvious signs of climate change: melting arctic ice, crazy weather, droughts, floods.

In 2012, people woke up. In 2013, they said no to expanding the infrastructure for fossil fuel production, and yes to building a bright green future. The call for a green industrial revolution became a rallying cry for a cynical population, and it turned into a plan to create green jobs, to wipe out poverty, to innovate, to rise to the challenge of leadership.

In 2040, BC Hydro is an even bigger player in managing our supplies of clean energy. Its base of hydropower, supplemented by wind, tidal and solar technologies provide the juice for our economy, with a bit of biofuels and hydrogen in the mix for niche applications.

But stringent marketplace standards have led to 5-10-fold improvements in the energy efficiency of our homes, appliances and gadgets. That means we need only a fraction of the energy to get the same benefit as someone in 2012.

Buildings in particular have come a long way. For two decades now all new buildings have been designed as net-zero, meaning they produce more energy than they consume off of the grid. Still, a large share of existing buildings needed deep retrofits, and we created a green buildings corp to make that happen. Next generation solar water and PV technologies combined with biomass-based district energy systems made it possible for cities and neighbourhoods to greatly reduce their energy demand.

The most noticeable change is in how we get around. Now, 80 per cent of us live within a 10-minute walk of a town centre, a main street, or a transit hub. As the population grew and got older, strategic public investments in affordable housing, residential care, early learning centres and community health care were made to bring people, jobs, stores and other amenities closer together. Density is higher but neighbourhood-planning exercises took great care to create vibrant public spaces and parks where people could gather and run into their neighbours. Even in small towns, where population was not growing as much, seniors housing sparked the renewal of town centres.

As a result, half of all trips are made by foot or by bike. Another third of trips are by transit, which underwent a renaissance of expansion back in the teens and '20s. There are still cars, but few people own their own. It is much easier to use a car-sharing co-op for those more difficult trips within and out of town. Needless to say all of the cars are fully electric, and their presence at charging stations also helps stabilize the grid.

(Flying, on the other hand, is rarer. There is only so much biofuel to go around so flights are reserved for long-haul trips, and people travel less. Week-long golfing holidays are out. People still travel a lot in their region, mostly on high-speed rail networks.)

All of this reinvestment in re-building our infrastructure was made possible by a rising carbon tax, which was just abolished along with the last fossil fuels. But in the early days it brought in billions to re-shape and re-build our homes, buildings, schools, hospitals, and transportation system. Carbon credits helped the zero poverty effort by transferring money to low- and moderate-income households. Once people started to see results on the ground and a cheque each month, they did not hate the carbon tax like they did when it was first introduced. And the tax shifted the balance to make renewables more economic than fossil fuels.

In 2040 we have also virtually eliminated waste. Single-use containers, paper and plastics were banned; packaging is re-usable and only after a long life are those materials recycled or composted. Materials circle the economy in a closed loop.

This and the advent of small-scale manufacturing technologies have led to a more profoundly local economy. We still trade but most of our wants and needs can be supplied from B.C.

(Our food is all organic and mostly local, but we participate in global food sharing networks in order to guard against freak storms that still afflict us. Even though we have made so much progress the world has not yet stopped warming. We have had to shore up dykes and develop resilience plans to guard against our new climate reality, but those early efforts helped instill a deeper sense of solidarity and purpose in our people, a feeling that we are all in this together.)

Overall, it is a good life. People have rediscovered citizenship and have abandoned consumerism as a dead-end to well-being. All jobs now are green jobs, paying a living wage, and a large share of the labour force is unionized. We have full employment, in part because people work less, which has led to real gains in standard of living as people have more time with family and friends, and engaging in a more open and deliberative democracy.

The world is catching up due to a strict global treaty that has been in place for a quarter-century. Having done it in B.C., we have been helping others make the shift. In fact we have a whole industry of people able to work in solidarity with other nations, and within a decade they too will be clean of fossil fuels.

Looking back over the decades, it's amazing it took us so long to get started.

Photo: erwlas/Flickr

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