By Theo van de Kletersteeg
If you are like me, you may have reacted to the numerous discussions about climate change during the past two decades with degrees of skepticism and a relative lack of interest. After all, with a global population of 7.4 billion people, what can any one person do, particularly when there is very little evidence that big corporations and governments are truly interested in environmental stewardship. Or, what can a relatively small country like Canada, responsible for only 1.6 per cent of global GHG emissions, do to impact the other 98.4 per cent of emissions?
I decided to “check things out”, and share my findings with readers.
Throughout the decades, the nature of environmentalism has changed from an initial focus on identification of workplace hazards, to identification of food contamination hazards to hazards introduced into the soils and air we breathe. This was the era of Rachel Carson whose 1962 book Silent Spring caused citizens and governments to connect the hazards of uncontrolled industrial practices with premature death and incapacity. Nowadays, with industry having become subject to much tighter regulation, we hear little about industrial pollution in North America, although it has by no means “gone away”, and during the past two decades or so, the focus has shifted to greenhouse gas emissions.
What are greenhouse gases and why should we care?
Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are gases that persist in the atmosphere and which absorb and emit radiation within the thermal infrared range, which is the cause of the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect describes the earth’s increasing inability to “shed” heat generated through human activities on earth as well as solar radiation, because of a build-up of “greenhouse gases” which act like a blanket around the earth. The primary greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Without greenhouse gases, scientists have determined the average temperature of the earth’s surface would be about 15°C colder than the present average of 14°C.
Human activities since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution have produced a 40 per cent increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, from 280 parts per million (ppm) in 1750 to 400 ppm in 2015. This increase has occurred mainly from combustion of carbon-based fuels, principally coal, oil, and natural gas, along with deforestation and soil erosion. It has been estimated that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the present rate, the earth’s surface temperature could exceed historical values as early as 2047, with potentially harmful effects on ecosystems, biodiversity and the livelihoods of people worldwide. Scientists have told us that Canada’s rate of warming is actually twice the global rate. Thus, the almost universal objective of limiting global warming to 2 degrees C. would mean that Canada’s environmental temperature would rise by 3 to 4 degrees C. Some scientists are of the opinion that we have squandered the past decades in rhetoric, and it’s too late to do anything about the dire consequences of our present way of life. However, fortunately this is not (yet) a widely shared sentiment among scientists. It appears there is still time…..
The big picture
It is important to note that the greenhouse impact of greenhouse gases is cumulative. Every passing day we emit more and more, and the emissions of every month are greater than those of the preceding month. Our quest to consume more and more of everything, and our government’s obsession with economic growth at any cost are making it very difficult to see how we can avoid falling victim to the creation of a world that may not be able to sustain human life through our own refusal to act.
According to scientists, we must never exceed cumulative emissions of more than 3,200 gigatonnes of CO2, if we wish to prevent global warming from exceeding 2 degrees C. Historically, however, we have already accumulated 2,000 gigatonnes into the atmosphere so, according to available scientific evidence, we have only another 1,000 gigatonnes or so to go before we must STOP CO2 emissions altogether, unless we wish to become subject to unmanageable impacts of climate change, which will include rising sea levels, more violent weather, shifting weather patterns, elevated surface temperatures, etc., all of which will make life on earth considerably more difficult.
At present, our global population generates about 3 gigatonnes of CO2 per MONTH. So, at our current rate of CO2 accumulation, it will take us about 30 years to hit the wall. However, despite all the talk about reductions of CO2 output, such emissions are actually climbing, not falling. How much time do we really have to go from our present destructive ways to a situation that is stable, and will not get worse?
In 2013 (the latest year for which data are available), Canada produced 726 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent GHGs, up from 613 megatonnes produced in 1990, according to data provided by Environment Canada. Emissions peaked in 2007 (761 megatonnes) before the financial crisis of 2008/09 reduced economic activity and, therefore, carbon equivalent emissions.
Environment Canada has compiled a breakdown of Canada’s GHG emissions that indicates that the oil and gas industry produces some 25 per cent of total emissions, followed closely by the transportation industry (23 per cent), industrial, commercial and residential housing (12 per cent), electricity generation (12 per cent), general industry, including mining and refining (11 per cent), agriculture (10 per cent), and other industries (7 per cent).
Emissions generated in Ontario and Quebec were lower in 2013, as compared to 1990 and as compared to 2005. In Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia they were higher. As the top emitter, Alberta produced approximately 37 per cent of total GHG emissions in Canada in 2013, while the five top emitting provinces (Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan and British Columbia) were responsible for 91 per cent of Canada’s total GHG emissions in 2013. Ontario was the only province whose CO2 equivalent emissions declined significantly since 1990 and 2005, primarily because of the closure of its coal-fired electricity generating plants.
On a per capita basis, Canadian GHG emissions per person decreased to 20.7 tonnes in 2013, as compared to 22.1 tonnes in 1990.
In 2011, Canada was responsible for emitting 1.6 per cent of global GHG emissions. China was the world’s biggest source of GHG emissions (24.1 per cent), and the world’s most rapidly growing source. The United States emits about 15 per cent of global output.
According to a report by World Resources Institute, Canada is by far the heaviest emitter of GHGs on a per capita basis, followed by the United States (about 20 per cent less) and the Russian Federation (about 35 per cent less).
The “doomsday” clock
Based on the above scenario that appears to be the consensus scientific scenario, and based on current levels of emissions of about 3 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent GHGs, it appears that 2045 is the year of maximum permissible CO2 accumulations and, at that time global CO2 emissions must STOP. Is this a realistic scenario? No, of course not. Despite all the rhetoric at home and internationally, global emissions show no signs of abating, and probably will continue to increase for many years to come as nations are positioning themselves for the time when serious negotiations are becoming a higher priority, just like warring nations are eager to intensify their destructive actions just prior to settling the terms of a cease-fire.
All this means that by the time we do get serious about GHG emissions, there will be much more evidence of the potential destruction to be caused by looming climate change, which will at some point cause recalcitrants to capitulate. Because more time will have been wasted in talking about the problem rather than taking action, we are likely to see panic among governments of people that have the most to lose, namely those living in the “developed” world, and we should expect governments of “developing” nations to delay getting onboard until the very last moment. In the panic that I expect, tremendous change will be forced on us, at extremely great expense. Many industries that exist today will be forced out of business. Just like the digital “revolution” of some fifteen years ago caused tremendous change, the climate change revolution that is upon us will cause drastic changes to the way we live, the way we travel, what we consume, etc. Any businessperson who does not take the inevitability of climate-induced change into account in the evaluation of long-term business plans stands to pay dearly for his or her lack of foresight.
At this stage, while the vast majority of scientists agree that humanity will face dire consequences of no action, a significant minority of North Americans, some 40 per cent, continue to be in denial, and believe that all the talk about climate change is a hoax. Most believe its impact will be negligible, and all we need to do is to ban plastic grocery bags, or make an effort to use public transportation. Government officials would like to believe that we will be able to deal with the problem by paying a few cents more at the pump. The fact is that very few people actually realize that if we truly want to prevent global warming of more than 2 degrees C., the changes that need to be carried out during the next 25 years represent nothing short of an unprecedented industrial and social revolution. With public attitudes ranging from being in denial to believing that we can make the problem go away by paying another 10 cents per liter for gasoline, we are better prepared for dealing with massive earthquakes hitting all of our cities simultaneously than we are for dealing with climate change. Frankly, we don’t have a clue of what’s coming.
Of course, we must realize that once we have reached cumulative emissions of 3,200 gigatonnes, the world will not stop. We will continue to live, and we will continue to emit. However, by that time people will realize that everything they do contributes to a worse tomorrow, as a result of which they must find ways to live while only emitting a tiny fraction of present-day emissions. It will be the biggest challenge mankind has ever faced.
What could 2040 look like?
Since the production of energy and transportation presently account for 80 per cent of global GHG emissions, we should expect the biggest changes to occur in those industries. And, with relatively minor exceptions, those industries rely on fossil fuels. Since industries of the future will rely on electricity, automobiles operating on fossil fuels will ultimately be banned, as will fossil fuel-fired power plants. Transport trucks will gradually begin to operate on LNG, and will ultimately be replaced by trucks propelled by electrically-powered engines. Trains will become the transportation mode of choice for long-distance moves. Regrettably, we would see a huge rise in the installed base of nuclear power plants worldwide. Production and transformation of oil and gas would be drastically reduced, maintaining roles to produce feedstocks for other industries. Solar and wind-powered energy production would experience accelerated growth. It is inconceivable that a world on a carbon-restricted diet would continue to allow air transportation to grow without bounds. Perhaps ocean liner service would make a comeback. Our homes will become a lot smaller, and much more energy-efficient. Future vacations will be closer to home, which is also where more of our foods will come from. Tsunamis, hurricanes and tornadoes will wreak havoc with the insurance industry, and will ultimately mean that we need to build much stronger and durable structures, which will be vastly more expensive. Financial institutions will see financing opportunities decline as a greater number of industries will struggle as it will become more difficult to realize on distressed industrial, commercial and residential property. Unemployment will likely rise, and our standard of living will likely decline, as the increasing cost of everything will eliminate the production of low value-added products. In addition, government services will likely need to be curtailed as the economy will no longer be able to generate the tax revenues that are necessary to repay debts incurred in the past, and to provide a high level of current services.
Although the anticipated picture of Canada in 2040 is not a pretty one, we do have the power to influence it positively. For example, rather than spending massive amounts on “infrastructure” that may have dubious economic benefits, or constructing infrastructure that private enterprise (through PPPs) would be happy to construct and generate streams of cash flow from, the government might contract with industry for the early development and delivery of critical technologies to enable the new fossil fuel-constrained economy that will be coming our way. For example, we need improved battery technologies and we need conversion of our commercial and industrial transportation fleet from diesel to LNG or from diesel to some other form of energy (hydrogen?) Early work on such alternative technologies should enable us to develop exportable technologies, thus mitigating the negative impacts of reduced exports of commodities.
Canada’s current commitment
Canada is currently committed to reducing annual GHG emissions to 525 megatonnes by 2030. While it should be well possible to achieve this objective, one wonders whether putting the population on a 15-year diet of minimal GHG reductions accurately reflects the nature of the problem. The inherent message of such a minimalist objective is that the problem is a minor one that will be no more than an inconvenience to fix. Based on the scope of the science we have in front of us, it is, in my opinion, ethically wrong to pretend that this is just a minor problem. Instead, dealing with this problem requires a complete overhaul of our thinking about the economy and our way of life. Not dealing with the problem until many years from now will cause panic and far greater upheaval and disruption by 2030 – we know the nature of the job to be done – we should get on with it sooner, rather than later.
What about the economy?
As it looks today, dealing realistically with the enormous challenges posed by looming climate change will involve challenges of the sort we have not had to deal with since World War II, and includes serious economic challenges. On top of economic challenges arising from Canada’s poor record of productivity growth, Canada will have a relative disadvantage converting its high carbon-based economy to a low carbon-based economy, if only because Canada is a sparsely-populated country with long distances between economic centres, and must air condition its homes and businesses in the summer, and heat them during the winter months.
It is impossible to predict the level of disruption that must occur, and it’s impossible to predict whether, at the end of the day, Canada will be materially better off or worse off – much will depend on the timely availability of new technologies to help facilitate the migration from our current dependency on fossil fuels to an economy that can sustain itself with only minimal fossil fuel-based inputs. Electric and hydrogen-based transportation technologies do presently exist, but have not yet reached cost and performance standards that will allow widespread adoption.
This is where we need to go
In consideration of the unimaginable scope of the problem, and the relatively narrow window of opportunity to deal with the problem, I suggest there is no time to be lost. Although it appears to be easier to focus on industry to find solutions, I suggest that focusing on the consumer would be far more productive because it is essential for the diehard non-believers to be convinced of the necessity to act, and to start acting fast. Consumers must ultimately abandon their gasoline-powered vehicles, so it is imperative for government to establish regulations for the phase-out of such automobiles. In the meantime, the cost of gasoline should be raised substantially. In addition, governments should increase taxation of residential electricity and home heating fuels, to get consumers used to the idea that future homes must be smaller and more energy-efficient. Any additional taxes raised should be channeled toward alternative fuels technologies and technologies to increase energy efficiency.
A last thought
Our governments often talk about “Canada’s leading role in the world”. Whether or not we actually do play a leading role in the world is a subject of debate. However, our PM certainly aspires to it, as was recently evident when Canada submitted its application to be appointed a temporary member of the United Nations Security Council.
Current Canadian “leadership” in terms of being the country with the highest per capita GHG emissions is nothing to brag about. We have a chance of correcting our past neglect of environmental issues, and become a true global leader in addressing the most challenging problem of our times. If one of the world’s worst environmental offenders can become a torchbearer for environmental stewardship, it will undoubtedly help us in our standing in the international community.
The one thing that I will gladly predict is that the longer we wait getting serious about climate change, the more difficult it will be to implement the draconian measures that may then be unavoidable, and the greater the cost will be to the economy. Also, waiting will cause us to forgo opportunities to develop new technologies that could find export markets, in addition to domestic markets. With Canada being an international laggard in innovation and productivity, we need to wonder if we can afford to discard opportunities to develop new technologies that could help us in future years. It seems to me that, with impending negative changes to industries that have propelled Canada’s economy for decades, the sooner we find alternatives to sustain our economy, the better off we’ll all be. We owe it to the next generations!