A dark bit of news landed in the last weeks of the decade on the climate-heating front. Changes in the Arctic – melting ice, higher air and water temperatures – are accelerating, and upheaval is happening faster than anticipated. Perhaps most harrowing is an early indication that thawing permafrost has started to emit carbon dioxide. That could unleash a feedback loop from which it would be difficult for humanity to escape.
As climate change rattles the planet, a few countries – led by the United States – are stymieing the global effort needed to take on the challenge. Disagreement and indecision marked December’s annual United Nations climate meeting.
At the dawn of the 2020s, there is ample reason to feel glum about the future. Was the decade just ending the last chance to make a difference? It’s already been more than a year since the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that “Limiting global warming to 1.5 C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
The world is on track to burn far more fossil fuels than are feasible, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said when the December climate meeting opened. However, he also said that staying under 1.5 C of warming “is still within reach.”
The 2010s did see progress. A decade ago, there was no urgency, and the technology to make a difference was hardly robust. Today, many people around the world see climate change as the top issue of our time. Action is being taken, in Canada and elsewhere. And the tools are now real, everything from rising sales of zero-emission vehicles to renewable energy that helped end Britain’s reliance on coal power.
Humanity has squandered time, but we have not yet exhausted it. “Every extra bit of warming matters,” the IPCC said last year, which means that every megawatt of low-carbon or zero-carbon power matters. Every shift to cleaner transit matters. Every advance in energy efficiency matters.
Rapid change has defined recent centuries. Measure the distance between today and what the world looked like when your parents or grandparents were born. Major shifts are the norm. An oft-cited story of a problem piling up is London and Manhattan of the late 19th century, when the need for ever more horse-powered transport threatened to bury the cities in manure. The internal-combustion engine rewrote that equation. It’s a reminder that challenges have been overcome before.
The International Energy Agency has shown that it’s realistic to cut global emissions by two-thirds within three decades. The recipe has many ingredients. The agency cited some two dozen factors. One that doesn’t get a lot of attention is nuclear power. Renewable power like wind and solar have major potential, but in a world where electricity demand shoots ever higher – a car may drive itself but it can’t power itself – atomic energy cannot be ignored. Ontario’s move to a cleaner, coal-free electricity system was made possible by nuclear power.
Politics is a central challenge, too. Two-thirds of Canadian voters in the 2019 federal election backed climate action, but denial of climate science is still widespread in Canada, and even stronger in the U.S.
Contrary to the opinion of some, however, climate action does not equal economic death. The Ecofiscal Commission think tank calculated that increasing today’s economywide carbon taxes by about 40 cents a litre on gasoline (refunded through income taxes) would get Canada to its Paris Agreement goals by 2030.
The price sounds high but, in 2019, regular gasoline in Vancouver was already 40 cents a litre more expensive than in Calgary and 30 cents higher than in Toronto. Vancouver is still thriving.
Much more progress is needed, and it has to happen relatively quickly. In Europe, there is a bipartisan consensus for action. Canadian public opinion is leaning in that direction. A new U.S. president could make a big difference. But unless all countries cooperate to reduce global emissions, the planet is in serious trouble.
The 2010s marked the decade when humans finally recognized the looming climate crisis. The 2020s must be the decade we do something big to avert it.