Renewable energy is key to a low-carbon future, say climate leaders

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Vancouver city council's unanimous decision to commit to running on 100 per cent renewable energy is the kind of political leadership the world desperately needs says Jørgen Randers, professor of climate strategy at the Norwegian Business School in Oslo, Norway.

"Despite the looming catastrophe of climate change the market will choose to do nothing," Randers said in the keynote speech at the ICLEI World Congress 2015, the triennial sustainability summit of local governments in Seoul, South Korea.

Nor will voluntary actions on climate be enough. Strong legislation, intelligent policy and collective action are the only ways to keep humanity from a nightmare future, said the former business executive who still sits on boards of major corporations.

"It is totally obvious what we should do. And it is only a little more costly."

However capitalism is exactly the wrong system to deal with a long-term risk like climate change, Randers explained. Capitalism is designed to allocate capital to the most profitable projects and climate action is an additional cost.

Of course, failure to act will be an economic disaster as regions and countries are forced to devote more and more of their capital and labour to coping with climate impacts. Flooding, heat waves, water and food shortages and building defences to buffer those impacts will be very costly, he said.

Randers is a co-author of the landmark 1972 book Limits to Growth, which was updated in 2004. His latest book is 2052 A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. Based on the latest scientific, economic and other data, 2052 is a real-world look into the next 40 years. It says global CO2 emissions will not begin to decline until 2030 producing a very hot planet 3 to 4 C hotter than today by 2080.

"The climate will just get worse and worse … it will be very unpleasant especially for the poor," he said.

"There is a strong moral imperative to act on climate," Andrea Reimer, Vancouver's deputy mayor, told DeSmog Canada in Seoul.

"There's also a fantastic economic case. So why shouldn't Vancouver be a leader on this?" Reimer said.

A new study substantiates this. It found that world's biggest economies could save $520 billion a year if they go 100 per cent renewable. Such a shift would generate three million new jobs.

On March 25, Vancouver voted to make such a shift. More than 90 per cent of the city's electricity already comes from hydro and shifting to 100 per cent will only take a few years.

Converting all of the cities' heating and cooling systems will likely take until 2030 or 2035, she said. City staff are working out the details and timelines. Transport will be tougher still, perhaps taking until 2050.

"This could happen sooner with national and provincial government support," Reimer said. Cities and local governments only get about eight per cent of total taxes paid by Canadians.

Vancouver is one of about 50 cities pioneering the path to a low-carbon future. Others include San Diego and San Francisco in California, Sydney, Australia, and Copenhagen which plans to be carbon neutral by 2025. Nearby Malmo, Sweden, will be 100 per cent renewable for all three sectors -- electricity, heating/cooling and transport -- by 2030.

Tackling all three sectors at same time works far better than just doing one said Anna Leidreiter, coordinator of the Global 100 per cent RE Alliance -- an international alliance of organizations pushing for a shift away from fossil fuels. It is much easier to cope with renewable energy fluctuations and stabilize the grid when heating/cooling and transport are integrated, Leidreiter told DeSmog Canada.

That's Germany's approach where more than 80 regions are already 100 per cent renewable and 60 more regions are on their way.

Even Seoul is moving on this. The rapidly growing megacity of 11 million plans to generate 20 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2020 by covering all of its public structures -- water treatment plants, subway stations, schools etc. with solar panels.

Another essential policy for effective climate action is a carbon tax that rises to $100 a tonne, Randers said. "Carbon markets will not do it," he said.

Even Ontario's recently announced cap-and-trade market has been criticized by the likes of Canadian economist Jeff Rubin for being too weak to be effective. Cap-and-trade schemes operating in the European Union's have also been found to be too complex, costly and ineffective by most analysis. However, even critics will agree a price on carbon is essential for meeting our global emission reductions goals.

British Columbia's carbon tax shift is widely considered a smart policy and the best of its kind in North America. A 2013 study DeSmog reported on showed the carbon tax has allowed B.C. residents to enjoy the lowest income tax in the country (not Albertans), use the least amount of fuel per person and have arguably the healthiest economy. However, the tax needs improvement. For starters, the rate has been frozen at $30 a tonne since 2012 and there are backwards exemptions for the oil and gas sector.

Ultimately, people and businesses want to live and work in clean and green urban areas. And whoever develops expertise in shifting to 100 per cent renewable energy will own the 21st century, Reimer said.

This article was first published on DeSmog Canada.

Stephen Leahy is the senior science and environment correspondent at Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS) based in Rome and Montevideo. To continue this work at a time of severe cutbacks and closure of many media, Leahy launched Community Supported Journalism.

Photo: Andrea Reimer addresses crowd at ICLEI World Congress 2015. Credit: Stephen Leahy

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