What’s working in the race against climate change
You already know climate destruction is a crisis and you’re probably frustrated, even angry, that so much of the media doesn’t treat it that way.
If you’re anything like me, you find yourself vacillating between despair and inspiration.
That edge of fear in a sharpening wind. The dread that accompanies the news: another area recently burned, now flooded. Displacement and drought. Storms and hunger. So many people condemned to suffer.
But then, also: youth rising all over the world, networked and fierce. Clean energy blooming. Movements winning. Solar prices cratering. Fossil boosters scrambling.
The climate movement today reaches from Indigenous leaders in the Arctic to the Amazon. Financial wizards from Wall Street to Beijing. Local food co-ops from Toronto to Tanzania. Engineers, policy wonks, scientists, social justice movements, CEOs, parents, politicians…
Things are changing so quickly, and climate touches so many aspects of our lives that most days dipping into a newsfeed can feel like dropping into a typhoon. When things seem bleak, it’s worth remembering it wasn’t long ago that things weren’t like this at all. The plates are shifting now.
They’re impacting geopolitics and local politics. Culture. Business.
In this newsletter, we’ll try to separate the important from the hype. We’ll look at what’s working and what’s holding us back in the race against climate change. Zero Carbon will explore the climate crisis in Canada and around the world.
Yes, in Canada we have acute climate and energy problems. But we’ve also given the world more than our share of environmental heroes and innovators. And we continue to do so today.
I’m sure you know about Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Naomi Klein and Mark Carney. But here’s a piece of non-trivial pursuit: Have you heard of Harold Orr? (Or did you think the inspiration to design energy-efficient passive buildings was German, not Saskatchewanian?)
I’m guessing you know all about the oilsands. But most Canadians don’t realize we have one of the greenest electricity grids in the world — all those enthusiastic stories about Country X hitting 30 per cent or 50 per cent clean power are no big deal here. Yet, Canada is still one of the planet’s top 10 climate polluters. We’ll be digging into paradoxes like that, and many more, in the weeks to come.
Now, let’s get into it.
The Spotlight: The U.K. is halfway to net zero
It’s almost poetic that it’s happening in the country where coal-fired steam engines cranked up the Industrial Revolution. In fact, the U.K.’s emissions haven’t been lower since the reign of Queen Victoria. And that’s especially important this year because the U.K. will host COP26 — this year’s UN climate negotiations where countries are scheduled to strengthen their carbon-cutting pledges towards net zero.
There are, of course, caveats. The numbers are based on the UN accounting framework, so they don’t include things like international aviation. And the numbers do include 2020’s drop in emissions because of the pandemic.
But Carbon Brief points out that even by 2019, “the U.K.’s greenhouse gas emissions had been dramatically reduced, falling to 45 per cent below 1990 levels even as the economy grew by nearly 80 per cent.”
This is news that most Canadians really need to hear. The public is not at all convinced it’s possible to eliminate climate pollution entirely, even though global heating will continue to get worse until emissions are cut to zero.
Pro Tip: It’s really important that those of us motivated enough to read a climate newsletter make a point of communicating that other rich countries are making impressive progress.
It’s even more important because Canadians generally think we’re doing pretty well compared to our peers around the world. Nine out of 10 think we’re performing average or better. Canadians think we’re doing better than the U.K. and way better than the U.S.
But, as Barry Saxifrage recently charted, Canada is the only country in the G7 still polluting way above 1990 levels.
How did the U.K. manage such steep cuts? Cleaning up electricity and industry accounts for the bulk of the reductions so far. But there’s hard work ahead on transport and buildings to stay on track to net zero. A couple of critical factors underlie the progress to date.
One is support across political lines. You might have noticed a lot of the success on that chart came under Conservative governments. Years of campaigns pulling from within and pushing from outside made the Conservatives into willing advocates for climate action. Boris Johnson once derided wind turbines as “not being able to pull the skin off a rice pudding.” These days he pledges to “build back greener,” investing in a “green industrial revolution” with enough offshore wind to power every home in the U.K.
Another crucial thing the U.K. got right was its process for creating climate policies. The U.K. set the world standard: independent experts design policies years in advance that will meet five-year carbon budgets. Right now, they’re setting out the laws and regulations needed for 2033-37. Parliament passes the needed laws years ahead of time. Other countries like France have since adopted the model. But Canada chose a more hodgepodge approach including weaker stakeholder committees that don’t have their own independent budgets or teams for research and analysis.
Now, let’s get caught up on some of the latest news.
Fossil fuels are even deadlier than we realized.
8.7 million people died from pollution coming out of vehicles, power plants and other fossil-burning sources in 2018, according to new research. That’s three times more people than COVID has killed in the past year.
As Dave Roberts has pointed out, “Ditching fossil fuels would pay for itself through clean air alone,” even without accounting for climate impacts.
In Canada, air pollution is estimated to cause 6,600 premature deaths in Ontario alone and is costing the country $120 billion a year. Here’s Carl Meyer’s report, if you missed it.
The death toll from fossil fuels gets surprisingly little attention. It’s a topic we’ll definitely be coming back to on Zero Carbon in the weeks to come.
Biden goes big on green jobs, clean stimulus
Joe Biden pitched a US$2-trillion “American Jobs Plan” that has climate and clean energy hawks very excited.
The plan is strong on environmental justice, dedicating 40 per cent of green spending to disadvantaged communities. Biden needs to get the plan through Congress, but he’s definitely aiming for truly massive green recovery spending. He’s betting on “the kryptonite that will defeat Trumpism,” according to one columnist. The amount of climate spending alone is more than Obama’s entire ‘08 recovery program.
Fallout continues from Supreme Court ruling on carbon pricing
As you know, the Supreme Court judges gave the Trudeau government a win on its carbon pricing program. There was a lot of needle-threading and opaque legalese. Indigenous lawyers who had argued for a more co-operative federalism came away disappointed. But the judges had strong things to say about climate destruction.
“It is a threat of the highest order to the country, and indeed to the world... The undisputed existence of a threat to humanity cannot be ignored.”
It wasn’t a given that the Supreme Court would go big on climate. Canadian courts have been dismissing climate challenges from youth and First Nations without even getting into the arguments. But climate is already a major legal disruptor (see France, the Netherlands) and the Supreme Court may have given us an indication of things to come in Canada.
At least one former member of “the Resistance” has broken ranks since the Supreme Court ruling. Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe is already jousting with the feds about introducing his own carbon pricing program.
Pipeline battles heat up
New research from a team at SFU found the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is running way over budget, doesn’t make sense in the climate era and will lead to $11.9 billion in losses. You’ll recall that we own it — the federal government bought it for $4.5 billion from Enron’s spinoff, Kinder Morgan.
Are you having trouble keeping track of the protests and controversies over Enbridge’s numbered pipelines (Line 3, Line 5)? Emily Atkin has been reporting from the protests by Indigenous water protectors (Line 3) in Minnesota, while the Narwhal has a good explainer on Line 5 in Michigan. Braela Kwan rounds up the latest on Coastal GasLink and Trans Mountain.
Fossil fuel investments are losing billions. That’s the latest from Carbon Tracker, whose founder, Mark Campanale, is definitely someone to follow on the climate-finance nexus. Max Fawcett warns Canadian Big Oil’s next enemy might be Big Money. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers will find “there’s a growing army of people, many of them on Bay and Wall streets, who will be more than happy to put a sword through their hearts” if they don’t stop their obstructionism.
And it’s true that the home of Wall Street, New York City, is not only divesting its billions from fossil fuels but is also investing them in climate solutions.
On the other hand, Rainforest Action Network just disclosed that the world’s biggest banks have put $3.8 trillion (with a “T”) into fossil financing, just since the 2015 Paris Agreement. Canada’s big five are prominent — RBC ranked fifth on the global list. Meanwhile, Tariq Fancy, the former head of sustainable investing for BlackRock, says he’s been there, tried his best and green investing is just not working.
Finally, if you’re a fan of longform journalism, you might love this dive into deep time. Peter Brannen is a fantastic writer and takes us on a fascinating trip through paleoclimatology. Here’s a taste:
“We live on a wild planet, a wobbly, erupting, ocean-sloshed orb that careens around a giant thermonuclear explosion in the void. Big rocks whiz by overhead, and here on the Earth’s surface, whole continents crash together, rip apart, and occasionally turn inside out, killing nearly everything. Our planet is fickle. When the unseen tug of celestial bodies points Earth toward a new North Star, for instance, the shift in sunlight can dry up the Sahara, or fill it with hippopotamuses. Of more immediate interest today, a variation in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere of as little as 0.1 percent has meant the difference between sweltering Arctic rainforests and a half mile of ice atop Boston. That negligible wisp of the air is carbon dioxide.”
Thank you for reading Zero Carbon. I know you have lots of outlets, media feeds, podcasts and newsletters to choose from. With your support, Canada’s National Observer will continue to drive the climate and energy conversation forward.
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