I think the bigger problem is what happens if oil and gas do not run out. Coal use is up, gas use is up, oil use is up – all the things they said we should cut back on, we’re even more aggressively pursuing. New techniques like fracking are making new reserves of oil available. Up to 80 per cent of the assets that oil, gas and coal companies claim right now have been discovered but not yet exploited. If we’re to keep below a two-degree increase in temperature over the next century, we cannot use those assets. However, if these ‘stranded assets’ can’t be used, they constitute a bubble. So, in the short term, there’s greater and greater pressure to exploit those assets, because if they don’t, it will be an emperor has no clothes situation. Corporations will lose their value, but as long as they don’t look down, they can keep going; they’re like Wile E. Coyote after running off a cliff.
It’s great to talk about alternatives, but the alternatives to date have been deployed in an environment of ever-increasing oil and gas use. You can roll out a million wind turbines across the country, but they’re not cutting into the amount of oil and gas that’s being used. Adding renewable energy isn’t, at the moment, reducing fossil fuel use at the global level, partly because what we used to call the developing world is expanding its energy use at a fantastic rate – and coal is the cheapest way to do that. In many jurisdictions, the renewable energy price-point is about to cross over to being cheaper than coal, but governments tend to subsidize industries such as coal mining. There’s definitely going to be a battle in getting rid of coal. Right now there are more than 50,000 coal-powered electricity plants around the world.
The National Ignition Facility in the United States has almost reached an important milestone in achieving a self-igniting laser fusion reaction, but we can’t look to miraculous new technologies to solve these problems. We have to look for more systematic changes in how and why we use energy in the long run.
There are very straightforward courses of action: Take all your money out of oil and gas. If you have a pension fund that’s invested in oil and gas, get your money out and relocate it into renewables. When the bubble bursts, a fantastic amount of money will be lost.
Replacing income tax with a carbon tax has been proven to work; it’s worked in British Columbia.
Education, health and conservation
Author and associate professor of history at the University of Alberta, currently studying the relationship between environmental change and disease outbreaks in the North.
We need to invest in three things: education, health care and environmental conservation.
Education, because the one thing any historian will tell you is that we don’t know what the future will look like. It’s critical that Canadians are creative, open-minded and have a strong educational foundation, in all of the arts and sciences. Harold Innis, a pre-eminent thinker in the early 20th century, travelled to northern Canada when it was on the cusp of its own industrial transition. He trumpeted the potential for railroads, extolling, for example, the opportunities created by the Hudson Bay Railroad, which runs through northern Manitoba to its outlet at Churchill. In looking to railroads, he failed to see that it was airplanes that would transform the North and enable large-scale resource exploitation. If you don’t know what the future holds, you have to hedge your bets.
We need to invest in health care because such industrial transformations typically bring significant socio-economic disruption and migrations, which in turn can have major health consequences.
The rise of fossil fuel economies, whether in southern Canada in the 19th century or in northern Canada in the 20th, was accompanied by major epidemics ranging from typhoid and cholera, to poliomyelitis and tuberculosis. These epidemics had socio-economic underpinnings, most notably in the conditions found in the new urban centres that accompanied the industrial transition. Without a robust health care system, we will likely experience significant human suffering and loss of productivity in any kind of major energy transition.
Lastly, we must invest in environmental conservation, because we don’t know what we will need beyond the obvious alternative energy sources. If you create wastelands or render resources inexploitable, then you significantly reduce your options.
These answers have been edited and condensed.
Special to The Globe and Mail, with a report from Christina Varga
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