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Making the energy transition in a decade

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Although Canada has pledged to decrease carbon emissions by 30 per cent below our 2005 levels by 2030, keeping up current trends will puts us at just a four per cent reduction by 2030. At least that's what earth scientist David Hughes, who was formerly a research manager at the Geological Survey of Canada, told a Calgary audience at a March 4 Parkland Institute talk titled "Canada's Energy Future: The Path to Transition." 

Transitions, of course, are easier to invoke than to fulfill, especially in Alberta. Nowhere else in Canada is the trade off clearer, or the dilemma more challenging. Oil and gas royalties provide about one-third of Alberta's GDP, and about eight per cent of Canada's. On the other hand, nearly half -- 48 per cent, to be exact -- of Alberta's carbon emissions come from from oil and gas production, he said.

If the oil sands expand, "that forces all the other sectors to reduce their own emissions more sharply." At a time when Albertans are calling for diversification, expanding the oil and gas sector would mean "the rest of economy would have to decrease emissions by 96 per cent."

Although solar panel prices are falling and exponential growth has brought wind energy up to two per cent of national energy production, Hughes does not expect renewables to provide more than 20 per cent of the current energy load. He mentioned geothermal resources as an option for heating homes and businesses. But these are minor measures.

To reach Canada's commitments under COP 24, the Paris agreement, "We would need 100 Site C sized dams to generate enough electricity for a 35 per cent reduction by 2040," he said, "At a cost of $1.5 trillion." Such mammoth projects seem overwhelming, far beyond what one person can do.

Systemic problems require systemic solutions

On the other hand, perhaps that's the point. The crisis clarifies where responsibility lies for reinventing our current destructive economic system: the oil companies and car makers who knowingly promoted their products at the expense of the population's long-term health. And the governments that encouraged them, in the name of economic prosperity. 

Suddenly, oil and gas companies may find themselves paying for part of the conversion to renewable energies. Or else they'll end up paying for environmental damages. Nine major cities are suing major fossil fuel companies for damages caused by climate change, such as floods and storms. Several cities in British Columbia have endorsed a similar suit, much to Calgary City Council's dismay.

With this in mind, let's turn to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) October 2018 report, which says the world needs to cut carbon emissions by nearly half (45 per cent) by 2030 -- less than 12 years from now -- in order to limit temperature rise in this century to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial norms.

We must change drastically now, the experts urge, because by the time we see the effects, we won't be able to make any more adjustments. "Going from 1.5 to two degrees," says the Brookings Institute analysis of the IPCC report, "would expose several hundred million people to dangerous climate-related risks by 2050, and would likely wipe out 99 per cent of coral reefs."

"We are the first generation that has a clear picture of nature and our impact on it," says a World Wildlife Fund report from the same year. "We may be the last that can take action to reverse the trend. From now until 2020 will be a decisive moment in history."

As David Hughes illustrated, Canada is thus far lagging behind its commitments to reduce carbon emissions. So far, he said, renewables have only been slowing down the rate of increase of oil consumption. Carbontracker.org says the same. And while his Calgary audience was friendly, he would have had a different reception from the yellow vest protestors who drove from Calgary to Ottawa to demand the federal government do more to help the oil industry.

Change has to come from the top 

Examples like this show that to reverse the global environmental degradation already underway, change has to start at the top. And with a 2030 deadline, barely a decade really to turn this battleship around, the change has to start right away, this year. The good news is that some governments and private sector actors are already responding with major across-the-board changes.

  • Last summer, the European Union voted to dedicate 25 per cent of its budget for the next seven years to decarbonizing Europe and making the transition to clean energy.
  • Some corporations are already on board. GreenBiz has a list of 25 women CEOs who are turning their companies green. 
  • General Motors will be making only electric cars from now on, in every product line including Cadillacs, Buicks, and Chevrolets, although this fact was lost in the outcry over General Motors closing its Oshawa plant and others as part of restructuring.
  • Volkswagon has also announced it's phasing out conventional vehicles, and plans to build 15 million electric vehicles in the next few years. Luxury brands like Porsche and Jaguar have announced new electric models.
  • In January, Elon Musk reminded the world that he made all his electric vehicle patents open source four years ago.
  • While many of these corporate initiatives are driven by intelligent responsible concerns over environmental degradation, others are motivated by lawsuits. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that 21 youth have standing to sue the US government as Juliana vs the United States, in hopes of the courts ordering the government to force oil companies to halt fossil fuel exploration and development.
  • In the States, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey unveiled the Green New Deal resolution, which reclaims both the environment and the economy -- and which has much in common with the Leap Manifesto model that Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis proposed in Canada couple years ago. 
  • A brand new International Military Council on Climate and Security convened for the first time in February 2019, with high ranking Board members. The Council is chaired by Tom Middendorp, retired General in the Dutch armed forces, who was scoffed at and scorned back in 2016 when he first declared climate change to be a threat to the world's security. Now the "Green General" has won support for his views that climate change causes social insecurity. Next step is to demand that the military step up its contribution to reducing the carbon footprint.

Experts are clearing a path. Youth will keep up the pressure. 

The angry but peaceful youth of Extinction Rebellion (XR) would agree with that sentiment. They are pouring fake blood in front of Downing Street as I write this. They're not about to let the older generation shuffle off and leave them with a lethal mess. "We are facing an unprecedented global emergency," says the  XR Canada website. "Governments around the globe have failed to protect us. To survive, it's going to take everything we've got."

The group has three demands:

  1. That our Government must tell the truth about how deadly our situation is, it must reverse all policies not in alignment with that position and must work alongside the media to communicate the true scale of the crisis and the urgency for change including what individuals, communities and businesses need to do.
  2. Good intentions and guidelines won't save the ice caps or our children's futures. The Government must enact legally-binding policies to reduce carbon emissions in Canada to net zero by 2025 and take further action to remove the excess of atmospheric greenhouse gases. It must cooperate internationally so that the global economy runs on no more than half a planet's worth of resources per year.
  3. By necessity these demands require initiatives and mobilisation of similar size and scope to those enacted in times of war. We do not however, trust our Government to make the bold, swift and long-term changes necessary to achieve this and we do not intend to hand further power to our politicians. Instead we demand a Citizens' Assembly to oversee the changes, as we rise from the wreckage, creating a democracy fit for peaceful purposes.

On the more philosophical side, the Degrowth movement has also crossed the Atlantic. Powered by 238 academics, the Degrowth movement challenges a basic premise of capitalism: constant, endless, growth.

"For the past seven decades, GDP growth has stood as the primary economic objective of European nations," says the document from the Degrowth working group on a post-growth economy.

The report continues,

"But as our economies have grown, so has our negative impact on the environment. We are now exceeding the safe operating space for humanity on this planet, and there is no sign that economic activity is being decoupled from resource use or pollution at anything like the scale required. Today, solving social problems within European nations does not require more growth. It requires a fairer distribution of the income and wealth that we already have. [...] A new global initiative, the Wellbeing Economies Alliance (or WE-All), is making connections between these movements, while a European research network has been developing new "ecological macroeconomic models". Such work suggests that it's possible to improve quality of life, restore the living world, reduce inequality, and provide meaningful jobs – all without the need for economic growth, provided we enact policies to overcome our current growth dependence."

Oil is a hard habit for Albertans -- or anyone -- to kick. Not to mention that converting from capitalism to something like democratic socialism has to be planned carefully. On the other hand, finding out how much is already underway is kind of reassuring. Okay, all you other corporations -- hands up! Who's ready for show and tell?

Watch David Hughes's talk "Canada's Energy Future: The Path to Transition" below.

Image: Jeanne Menjoulet/Flickr

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30-minute David Hughes lecture on history of fossil fuels and humans' options at this point

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