By Theo van de Kletersteeg
The other day I received an email which contained the following pesky message at the end “Thank you for considering the environment before printing this message.” The email was sent to me by a well-meaning person who was obviously completely oblivious to the problems of climate change. And that reminded me that I have a friend who is a physicist and who for the past three decades has been very much involved in minimizing his environmental footprint: he walks to work, he drives a Prius when he has to drive, and for the past three decades has been involved in engineering wind, solar and tidal power systems. If anyone should understand what we need to do to avoid environmental catastrophe, he should be the one. But, no, he too is among those who think we can stop climate change in its tracks by making minor changes to the way we live our daily lives.
Environmentalists and politicians, perhaps because of their own ignorance, have attempted to make the subject matter far more complex and controversial than it needs to be. Similarly, we can all agree that present day automobiles are highly complex machines but, at the same time we can all agree that to drive to car from A to B, we do not need to understand how all the systems and sub-systems work. So why not deal with the environment in the same manner?
Global warming is caused by the accumulations of “greenhouses gases” around the earth, which are mostly caused by human activities. These gases consist mostly of carbon dioxide (CO2), but also contain other gases, such as methane. Collectively these carbon-containing gases are referred to as “greenhouse gases” because they are like a blanket around the earth, insulating it.
Since about 1800, carbon levels in the atmosphere have been rising, and those increases are largely contributed to the much greater number of humans on earth, and the ever-increasing carbon-intensive activities of human beings, starting with the invention of the steam engine which enabled large scale industrialization.
From 1850 to 2020, it is estimated that a total of approximately 2,400 gigatonnes of CO2 were emitted by human activity, with about 40 per cent (950 gigatonnes) emitted into the atmosphere, and the remainder absorbed by oceans and forests. A gigatonne is a billion tonnes. Although nations of the world have previously committed themselves to reductions of CO2 emissions, they keep on increasing year after year, except in 2020 when they fell for the first time in a long time due to reductions in human activity due to Covid-19. At the present time, the world emits about 45 gigatonnes per year, from all sources. That’s just less than a billion tonnes per WEEK, every week, and these emissions are rising. Wildfires in Canada, the US, Australia, Europe, Asia and Siberia are significant sources of added carbon.
Climate change is occurring because the “blanket” around the globe is becoming denser, so the solution to the problem is to reduce the density of the “blanket”. Nobody knows by what level we need to reduce the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, but a good bet would be that we should stop adding CO2, and that we should gradually remove 1,000 gigatonnes of existing CO2.
Climate change is already here, resulting in more violent weather patterns, higher temperatures, and large volumes of melting ice, resulting in higher sea levels. Even if we were to stop emitting greenhouse gases today, the effects of past accumulations of such gases will continue for decades to come, and damage already done will be irreversible. Climate change is like a supertanker which has so much momentum that you can’t stop it just like that.
Climate scientists generally believe that mankind should not allow the earth to become 1.5 degrees C warmer than at the dawn of the industrial age because they believe that temperature rises beyond that limit will have catastrophic consequences. There is no universal agreement on what exactly we should do to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, except that there is universal agreement that we should make significant reductions to our emissions of greenhouse gases, and that we should ultimately begin to remove accumulated carbon from the atmosphere.
Under the 2016 Paris Agreement, Canada agreed to reduce by 2030 its output of greenhouse gases by 30 per cent, compared to its 2005 level of such emissions. With just over seven more years to go before countdown, Canada is nowhere near on track to meet this target.
The task at hand is unimaginable large in terms of scope, disruption, technical challenges, and cost. In fact, the technology to remove CO2 in large volumes does not presently exist, but we do know that when it is ultimately developed, its costs will occupy a significant portion of the world economy.
Among large industrialized countries, Canada and the US are among the world’s “leaders” in per capita emissions of CO2, at about 16 tonnes per year. There are a number of countries that vastly exceed North American averages, but these are typically small island communities that rely on diesel power, or oil-producing nations. As a point of reference, a typical passenger car driven 18,000 kilometers per year produces about 4.6 tonnes of CO2.
Let’s think about Canada at 16 tonnes per person per year – we all have a general idea of how we live in this country, which may provide us with an idea of the challenges the world faces. Assuming there are 35 million Canadians putting 16 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, that would equate to 560 million tonnes per year for the country as a whole (Actually, Environment Canada reported that number was 725 million tonnes for 2018). So, the scope of the problem becomes a little clearer when we know that Canada produces significantly less than one gigatonne per year, but the world produces 50 gigatonnes, and the ultimate goal is for NONE of that CO2 to be emitted, PLUS the REMOVAL of another 30-50 gigatonnes of existing greenhouse gases each year. The size of the problem is truly beyond imagination.
Life without producing CO2 is distinctly undesirable: We would all have to live in caves, not eat, and not conduct any activities. We would all have to go naked because the production and transportation of clothing would emit CO2 gases. Similarly, we should not eat because food production and distribution are associated with high volumes of CO2 gas. And forget about heating or airconditioning. So, clearly this scenario is highly unrealistic. On the other hand, is there a realistic scenario that works for people as well as the environment? My guess is that the answer is “No” for a long time to come. Our governments have pretended for a long time that climate change can be avoided through easy fixes, as a result of which the vast majority of the population has no idea about the scope of the problem, and how dramatically our lifestyles will have to change. So how do governments come clean with an unsuspecting public, tell them that disaster is knocking on our doors, and that major changes in behaviour are expected from all citizens to set an example for other nations that will hopefully follow up with similar drastic measures? It is incumbent on governments to stop practicing environmental tokenism, and to present meaningful action plans to their citizens, to prepare them for the shocks that will be widespread and will hurt.
Lest I be accused of not offering any solutions, this is what I propose. I want to keep my “solutions” very simple and easy to implement, to avoid getting confused, to avoid negotiations with hundreds of different interest groups which will further delay action, and to avoid bureaucrats delaying implementation because they think their “made in Ottawa” solutions represent better solutions.
Because everything we consume was made using inputs that caused carbon to be released into the atmosphere. first and foremost, governments should encourage people to consume less. Consider the huge inputs of steel, plastic and other materials to make a car. Consider any product made in Asia that consumed coal-fired electricity, and other carbon-intensive processes to make the plastics and other materials that eventually find their way on vessels powered by carbon-intensive fuels on their way to Europe and North America. Discouraging consumption will result in lower emissions domestically, and lower emissions in the countries from where the products are exported to Canada.
How should we discourage consumption in a meaningful way? I suggest governments raise sales tax rates dramatically. For a start, at the federal level, I would raise the present rate of 5 per cent to 10 per cent immediately after the next federal election, to 15 per cent the year thereafter, and to 20 per cent the year after that. The additional tax revenues could be used in part to reduce future government debt and operating deficits, and could also be used, in part, to fund research into the technologies that will need to be developed to start removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
If we are to avoid the most harmful impacts that climate change will undoubtedly have in store for us several decades from now, we must start to take serious action now. The time for talking ended a long time ago – it is now high time for men and women to show they are prepared to relinquish some of their comforts to avoid future catastrophe that will make life a lot more difficult for their children – and catastrophe it will be. The problem is incredibly huge in scope, and unless we start dealing with it with the urgency and seriousness it deserves, future generations may discover we started too late and did too little to make a difference.