No time to be fuel hardy

We have been aware of the existence of climate change and its effects for far too long to excuse our ongoing neglect of the issue. The past decade has been the warmest on record. These rising temperatures have caused flooding and droughts of increasing frequency all over the world, which numerous experts have linked directly to food shortages.

While Canada failed to commit to any meaningful emissions-reductions target in Copenhagen, countries in the G77 group of Third World nations demanded that something be done to prevent temperature increase of 1.5°C or greater. Some estimates indicate that if we are to achieve this goal, we would have to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent or more by the end of the century.

Something needs to change. Canada maintains 25 power plants that burn coal, which emits more greenhouse gas than any other fossil fuel, and continues to expand oil extraction operations across the country – especially in Alberta.

Not only does Canada have an interest in maintaining the status quo because of this development, it is also less affected by climate change than many other countries. Global geography means that a small increase in global temperatures would be catastrophic for the tropics, where most developing countries are located, whereas Europe and North America could even profit from higher temperatures – Canada, for instance, stands to gain from offshore Arctic oil that will be opened up by melting polar icecaps. Many tropical countries are already facing the problem of climate refugees – people displaced by desertification, like in Chad, or by the submersion of their homes, like on Bhola Island in Bangladesh. The prospect of increased temperatures and subsequent drought or flooding poses an existential threat to these countries.

Our refusal to implement carbon-free energy policies has had much to do with the high short-run costs of retrofitting our energy infrastructure, but it has also been the result of the formidable political clout of the oil and gas industries. The power of fossil-fuel industries cannot be chalked up to laissez-faire attitudes: in fact, the federal government subsidizes the Alberta tar sands to the tune of $300 million per year – money that would go a long way in establishing wind and solar farms across the country.

The problem is not as intractable as many of us have been made to believe. Countries like Germany and Denmark have proven that generating sustainable energy on a large scale is possible. Wind, solar, and hydroelectric energy, when subsidized, can lead to job creation, improve local economies, and has, in some cases, led to lower energy costs in the long run.

At present, every fibre of our society is tainted by fossil fuels: plastics and rubber, manufacturing, transportation. Even sources of carbon-free energy are dependent on oil for their construction and maintenance – their workers wear uniforms made with fossil fuels and commute in gas-fuelled cars. Fuel used on the creation of new energy sources is well-spent, but we need to begin retrofitting our economy right away to transition from oil and coal. But we can’t stop there: we need to end our society’s fundamental dependence on fossil fuels. Carbon-free energy sources are a step in the right direction, but so long as the building materials for hydroelectric dams are flown in using helicopters, it’s not enough.

This carbon-free energy cannot be seen as a cure-all, however. Wind power has proven difficult to expand due to health concerns ranging from disrupted sleep to heart palpitations, and hydro-electric installations often radically alters its ecological and social surroundings, displacing communities and reducing rivers to a trickle.

Though private acts of carbon footprint-reduction are important and commendable, what we need is systemic change, and this is where our governments have failed us so miserably. Beyond government-led shifts in energy production, it is vital that we fundamentally rethink energy consumption, that we bear in mind its economic and social cost.

The status-quo attitude toward energy is predicated on the assumption of unlimited resources and does not take into account the energy needed for developing countries to begin to move sustainably toward prosperity. We must not only find and develop new sources of energy, but also remember that no energy source is entirely harmless. The recalcitrance of governments in addressing this in policy calls for a reinvigorated and energetic activism. Ultimately, we must learn that energy is a finite resource. To move toward globally equitable, sustainable usage, we have no choice but to use less of it.