It's going to be a hot summer, they say, and why wouldn't it be? The first three months of the year 2000 were the hottest first quarter ever; the 1990s were the hottest decade of the century and the 20th century was the hottest century in a thousand years. As millions of Canadians turn on their air conditioners for another season and wince in anticipation of summer electric bills, it's time to take stock of where we are going with respect to global warming, or rather where global warming is about to take us.
There are a couple of things that need to change about the way we are responding, or not responding, to the threat of climate change. First, we have to stop denying there's a problem -- global warming represents a clear and present danger. Second, we need to stop whining about the alleged economic hardship of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, and start pursuing the opportunities of the environmental transition that will characterize 21st-century business and economic development. The economy that goes along with reversing the global-warming trend is a picnic compared with the economy that comes with the consequences.
The scientific consensus on global warming is strong. If atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to rise in this century the way they did in the 20th century, global ecosystems will be disrupted in ways that will alter the environmental conditions in which human civilizations have grown and thrived. To stop those concentrations from continuing to rise to more dangerous levels, emissions must fall 50 per cent globally.
Global warming is upsetting the delicate balance of Arctic ecosystems, cultures and economies. Every year the breakup comes a little earlier, shaving precious days off the polar bear's seal-hunting season. The red shadow of climate change is moving south -- the forest-fire season in Ontario started this year before the ice was even off the lakes, and record low-water levels in the St. Lawrence Seaway threaten one of the most important inland shipping routes in the world. Fossil fuel consumption is causing global warming as surely as smoking causes cancer, and our understanding of the mechanisms and consequences has reached the point where it is irresponsible to argue that we need more research before acting.
The question arises at this point: Is it even possible to imagine a future Canada in which greenhouse-gas emissions drop to less than half their current levels? It has been nearly 20 years since the federal government supported a study -- written by myself, John B. Robinson and David B. Brooks -- on the potential for energy efficiency and renewable sources that showed how greenhouse-gas emissions in Canada in 2020 could be 25 to 35 per cent below 1978 levels. But oil prices collapsed soon after that study was completed, energy policy dropped off the government's priority list, and greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to grow.
Climate change has brought energy back as a policy concern, and with the David Suzuki Foundation, I have revisited the possibility of a sustainable energy future in a report released last month. Using a detailed model of the Canadian energy economy, and assuming 20- to 40-per-cent growth in population and economic output over the next 30 years, we systematically analyzed the potential for emission reductions.
When we began, we thought such a future would be radically different from the present, and that sweeping changes in lifestyle and behaviour would be required. What we found was that a 50-per-cent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions in Canada could be achieved over the next 30 years with technologies that are already available. Here's some of what we can do:
The fuel efficiency of cars and trucks increases by a factor of two or three over current levels; the vehicles that can achieve this are already coming on the market. Gasoline/electric hybrid vehicles, along with appropriately fuelled hydrogen fuel cells and ethanol made from agricultural wastes all contribute to a drop of more than 60 per cent in emissions from transportation, even while total travel continues to increase.
The central power plant, truly a dinosaur of the 20th century, is replaced by the kind of small-scale, combined heat and power plant from which Denmark already gets most of its electricity, at two- to three-times the efficiency of Canadian power stations.
A comprehensive, nation-wide program retrofits 80 per cent of the nation's housing stock with measures such as increased insulation, new and energy-efficient windows, and compact fluorescent lights. More than a million person-years of skilled employment are required by the program. Meanwhile, new homes are built to the government's own R-2000 standard and solar energy begins to supply some domestic hot water.
Commercial buildings make similar gains, with new buildings replicating the demonstrated success of recent retail and office building projects from Calgary to Ottawa in which the buildings' energy requirements have been cut in half with no significant increases in construction cost.
It is simply not credible to argue that we can't reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in Canada by 50 per cent or more, and to do it in a relatively short time -- by the year 2030. These measures will result in less fossil-fuel use, but also a fossil-fuel industry that makes a transition to adding much higher-value products and services. In the bargain, we get reduced air pollution, improved public health, enormous wealth generation and job creation, and even enhanced national security.
There still remains the question of whether this could be done economically, to which the first response must be -- compared with what? Coping with climate change? Faced with a choice between investing in an efficient and sustainable energy system versus paying ever-increasing costs from floods, droughts, storms, air pollution, infrastructure damage, primary productivity loss, and environmental refugees, where will the smart money go?
Indeed, the business case for targeting deep greenhouse-gas reductions is compelling. We are heading into a future in which energy productivity and a healthy environment are becoming increasingly valuable economic strengths and competitive advantages. Investment in the means for achieving and maintaining them will increase accordingly. Vast fortunes are about to be made in the transition to an environmentally sustainable economy as the information and knowledge industries do to resource productivity what fossil fuels did to labour productivity. Businesses and governments who recognize this, who position themselves now as leaders in providing products and solutions, will be the winners in the 21st-century economy.
Over the next few decades, we need a combined public-sector and private-sector effort to bring greenhouse-gas emissions down to half their current levels, an effort in which regulation, public investment, innovative market mechanisms, and cultural change will all have important roles to play. But we can do this.
In a recent series of public meetings held across Canada by the David Suzuki Foundation, thousands of Canadians showed up and voiced their enthusiastic support for a more aggressive response to global warming. What are we waiting for?
Ralph Torrie is a partner in Torrie Smith Associates, an Ottawa-based environmental consulting and software-development firm.
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