Alan Bernstein is president and CEO of the global research organization CIFAR.
In 1961, U.S. president John F. Kennedy said: “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” That moonshot was successful in more ways than one. In 1969, NASA succeeded in landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. More importantly, it brought immense pride to the United States, stimulated technology development with enormous benefits for the U.S. economy, and reaffirmed its scientific and technological supremacy.
Today, we need another moonshot. But this one is urgent, because – as the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report stated this week – the increase in the Earth’s temperature is approaching an irreversible tipping point unless greenhouse gas emissions are cut drastically. That urgency is reminiscent of another recent global crisis: the urgent need for a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19.
The success in developing safe and effective mRNA COVID-19 vaccines at blistering speed was the result of global collaboration by the world’s scientists in addressing an urgent, mission-driven problem. That was a global science moonshot in action. Never before had mRNA been used to develop a vaccine.
Global warming is the defining challenge of our time: how do we achieve net zero carbon emissions in this decade to stop irreversible global warming? Make no mistake: this is a daunting problem. Energy is essential to life. We use energy to build, light, heat and cool our homes, grow our food, secure and clean our water, and move food, goods, people and information. Humanity’s appetite for energy will only increase with population growth and when the over one billion people in Africa and Southeast Asia demand their fair access to energy.
The switch to a decarbonized economy is not the first energy transition humanity has undergone. Humanity has transitioned from wood to peat to coal to hydroelectric to oil and gas to nuclear to renewables, including solar and wind. None of these previous transitions were driven by climate change considerations or the imminent depletion of the feedstock for energy in use at the time. Rather, they were driven by human ingenuity, advances in science (the discovery of electricity, nuclear physics, materials chemistry) and innovation. The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones.
Canada has a major role to play in this transition. We are a wealthy nation with a strong science and engineering base, and we are a desirable destination for highly skilled workers. But we are also among the top three emitters of carbon per capita on the planet. We have a clear responsibility to take a leadership role, working with other nations, to bring together scientists, working across borders, to solve the challenges of getting to net zero by 2050.
Those challenges should not focus solely on short-term fixes, such as Canada’s recent emphasis in the new 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan on carbon capture and storage. That strategy is only prolonging our dependency on carbon-based fuels not just to fuel our cars but also to fuel our economy. It is deflecting scarce public funds and public discourse away from the real issue: how to accelerate the transition of the Canadian economy from oil and gas to renewables. Arguably, the most effective and fastest way to accelerate that transition is to fund the disruptive science and technology required to transform how we produce, store, convert and transmit energy. Like the development of mRNA vaccines, a clean-tech moonshot would launch an enormous economic boom for Canada that would ease the pain of weaning off our dependency on oil and gas.
To succeed as the world goes through this period of profound change, Canada needs a comprehensive plan that will ease the imminent global transition away from oil and gas, coupled with a bold, moonshot science strategy to develop the disruptive technology and products that will move the world into a carbon-free economy over the next quarter century. That new technology must be accessible and affordable for people everywhere, for otherwise we will not have succeeded in weaning the planet off fossil fuels.
Mr. Kennedy’s moonshot boosted American pride at a time when the Soviet Union appeared to be winning the space race. The planet is now facing a real race. Now is the time for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to launch another moonshot – this time against an existential threat to the entire planet. As in the pandemic, the world again urgently needs disruptive science and innovation, this time to give us the technology needed to end the existential threat of climate change. Now that would be a legacy for Mr. Trudeau.
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