A framework for addressing the climate emergency

As I indicated in my last blog post, the recent 6th Assessment Report from Working Group 1 of the IPCC makes it clearer than ever that we are facing an emergency.  The impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the climate is already severe – we’ve had a taste of that this summer, disastrous and terrifying for some, but less severe than the climate change impacts that people in Bangladesh or east Africa have now been experiencing for many years.  And it is going to get worse, because every gram of carbon dioxide that we push into the atmosphere increases the problem.  But we still have time to stop this from becoming an unmanageable runaway global crisis that puts human civilisation in jeopardy.

To do that, we have to act decisively.  And that means collective action.  The reality is that, while individuals can do their bit, the bulk of the changes need to come from government through legislation, regulation, incentives, taxation, and every other channel available to them.

So what is needed?  Energy and climate specialists worldwide have been talking about this for decades, and those outside of commercial vested interests have come to remarkably common conclusions.  Details of what is appropriate will vary from one jurisdiction to another, but the basic framework is generally the same.  Here is my summary, focussed mostly towards Saskatchewan:

  1. Maximise energy efficiency.  This has to apply to every sector of energy use – electricity generation, industry, commerce, buildings, transport, agriculture, waste management.  Governments have multiple tools to make this happen, and they need to use all of them:  progressively increasing carbon pricing, steadily toughening energy regulations, better financing options, support for the training and employment of energy managers, compulsory energy management awareness training for all managers, and so on.  In the construction sector, the potential for new jobs in both efficiency retrofits and high-performance newbuild is enormous, but will require some extra training for builders, electricians, plumbers, architects and engineers.  If we can keep energy use down as low as possible, the items which follow next will be easier to put in place.
  2. Decarbonise electricity.  This means rapidly closing down coal-fired power stations.  It means not ordering any new gas-fired power stations, and expecting to close the existing ones well before the end of their commercial life.  It means replacing that capacity – and adding new capacity for reasons I will come to in the next point – through a rapid build-out of renewables.  In Saskatchewan, that means mostly wind and solar photovoltaics, but also some geothermal in the south of the province and very limited amounts of new hydro and biomass.  Here (unlike next door in Manitoba) we need to be heavily dependent on variable sources, so we need measures in place to ensure stability of supply.  That means much stronger interconnections with Manitoba, to enable two-way electricity trade on a large scale – we export when we have a surplus from our wind farms, and we import their hydro when we have a shortfall.  And it means investment in storage technologies – not just lithium ion batteries, but vanadium flow cells, gravity-based storage, gas-free compressed air and ultimately (to enable maybe just the last 10% of the transition) some use of green hydrogen.
  3. Electrify just about everything.  As electricity is decarbonised, we can move more and more to using it for motive power and for heating.  That means electric vehicles, it means electric furnaces for high-temperature industrial processes, it means heat pumps for homes and other buildings.  Of course this also means a substantial increase in the amount of electricity required in the province, which makes item #1 above all the more important.
  4. Rationalise transport, whatever the financial cost.  Public transit makes climate, environmental and social sense both within and between population centres.  It also makes sense for business productivity when you compare with driving or flying to meetings at a distance.  Within population centres, it should be a core principle of the planning regime that most people can reach most of their regular needs by walking or cycling, and most of the rest by taking the bus or tram.  That means that a primary job of the city planners must be to replace automobile-centred urban sprawl with well-serviced urban density, taking as a model the most liveable cities in Europe, Japan and Korea.
  5. Drastically cut methane emissions.  Leaking and venting from the oil and gas industry is a major source of the second-most important greenhouse gas, and tough regulations forcing the industry to invest the the appropriate technologies could cut it down substantially within a few months.
  6. Transition rapidly off fossil fuel production.  Addressing the demand side isn’t enough: the supply side must also be wound down.  An end to federal and provincial subsidies to the oil and gas industry is long overdue.  But we must go further.  Even the historically pro-industry International Energy Agency is now saying that new fossil development is incompatible with staying below 1.5°C of warming – which means that it is incompatible with keeping climate change manageable.  So, to start with, no new mines, no new oilfields, no new gasfields, no new wells, no new refineries, no new LNG projects, no new pipelines.  And some of the existing infrastructure will need to become stranded assets, because we need to transition away from these industries.  Within a couple of decades, all that should be left of this whole sector is a few oil wells serving a limited petrochemicals industry.  This transition has to be planned with the interests of current workers in mind – and key elements in that transition must be empowering them to move seamlessly into a rapidly growing greentech sector, and building new green energy or green manufacturing hubs in their communities.
  7. Transform agriculture.  This will take more time, but it is also essential.  Shift away from heavy dependence on artificial fertilisers.  Shift away from intensive livestock practices.  Shift towards regenerative practices which build carbon in the soil – not just zero-till but, for example, organic and near-organic cultivation, and addition of biochar with organic fertiliser.  This will depend on taking power and influence out of the hands of the corporations and putting it back in the hands of the farmers themselves, advised by independent agronomists with government support.

Note what is missing from the list.  No mention of fundamental research – the technologies we need for the next decade are still improving but they are mature.  No mention of nuclear power – it cannot contribute on the timescale required, it will be too expensive, and its inflexibility makes it more difficult to integrate variable renewables on the grid (quite apart from the other serious risks which it creates).  No place for coal with carbon capture and storage – the Boundary Dam 3 project still doesn’t live up to the claims made for it when it was installed 7 years ago.  And no place for brown or blue hydrogen – only green hydrogen, produced by electrolysis, is capable of being carbon neutral, and even that can have only a niche role because of its poor efficiency profile.

A policy framework with all of the seven elements should be put in place urgently.  We are facing an emergency, we need to treat it as an emergency, and we have the skills, the intelligence and the financial ability to do what is necessary.  All the technologies exist, and most of them are cheaper than their carbon-emitting equivalents.  But this list is not, in itself, enough, for three reasons.  Firstly, it mostly addresses just what we need to do in the next decade: further and deeper decarbonisation measures will be needed after that.  Secondly, it says what needs to be done, but not how to do it, and not how to ensure effectiveness, efficiency and accountability.  And thirdly, and most importantly, it doesn’t address fundamental matters of justice for Indigenous people or for people on low incomes.  For example, at least some revenue from carbon taxation must be returned at least to people on low income if we are to mitigate energy poverty.  And greentech plans must defy the doctrine of discovery,  take seriously both the letter and the spirit of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and recognise the legitimacy of Indigenous land rights – which will mean in practice that for many renewables schemes Indigenous leaders should be in the driving seat and Indigenous communities should be the primary economic beneficiaries.

The next blog post will address some of those issues and talk more specifically about – especially in the context of the current federal election campaign – what we want from our politicians .

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