American drivers are stockpiling gas because a major pipeline to the East Coast was shut down after a cyberattack. The internet is buzzing with videos of fist fights at gas stations. The federal safety regulator had to issue warnings not to “fill plastic bags with gasoline.”
In Canada, the standoff over Enbridge’s Line 5 under the Great Lakes is sparking new calls for a cross-country pipeline and rhetoric about the absolute, utter indispensability of oil and gas.
In the Calgary Herald, Licia Corbella thinks the “best thing for Canada would be to shut down Line 5” so we all get jolted out of our “fantasy land” and realize we can’t “survive and thrive… without petroleum products.”
Tasha Kheiriddin declares in the National Post that “killing Line 5 will only make people realize how much we need fossil fuels… there is no way to replace the energy source provided by Line 5 overnight, if ever.”
It’s all very reminiscent of the big freeze that caused blackouts in Texas just three months ago. The crisis was immediately weaponized against renewable energy. Never mind that the prime culprit was found to be cheaply designed gas infrastructure, politicians and talking-heads went on the offensive against wind and solar.
The Texas histrionics were particularly bizarre since frigid weather doesn’t stop wind power in Antarctica or solar in deep space. But oil and gas promoters are well aware that they’re in a battle for narrative.
And we see milder versions of this battle all the time. Canada’s petroleum producers want us to believe that without petroleum, we wouldn’t have smartphones, N-95 masks or even yoga pants.
Even climate-friendly politicians argue that, yes, there will be an energy transition, but nothing urgent. Take a chill pill, folks.
It’s certainly true that there’s no way to replace fossil fuels “overnight,” but that’s no argument for fossil fatalism. Big transformations are nothing new.
In his provocative book The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success, Mark Jaccard walks through several examples of big energy shifts that were driven by government strategy without changing daily life much at all. I’ll pepper in a few other examples with links. Some were driven by climate concerns, others happened before climate change was the priority it is today, but all show that we can drive transformative changes.
After the oil crises of the 1970s, France drove fossil fuels off the electricity grid by switching to nuclear power. The French grid cut power emissions 80 per cent in less than two decades. More recently, here at home, Ontario cut 85 per cent of its electricity emissions in just 10 years by phasing out coal. Alberta is following suit. Scotland’s grid is now almost completely powered by renewables (mostly wind) because of a 10-year push.
Brazil focused on vehicles after the oil crises. The government decided to blend sugarcane ethanol into fuel and reduce the need for imported oil. Six years later, almost all the passenger vehicles sold could run on an ethanol mix. Brazil pulled off a similar feat by shifting all new vehicles to flex fuel (able to run on any mix between zero and 100 per cent ethanol) in the five years between 2004 and 2009.
Norway is showing the same can be done for electric vehicles. The country already has a clean grid, and thanks to smart government policy, more than half of new cars are fully electric, up from one per cent a decade ago. Plug-in hybrids account for another 20 per cent. Norway is aiming to end the sale of old-time gas and diesel cars by 2025.
What about heating for homes and buildings in cold climates? Sweden cut those greenhouse gas emissions by 85 per cent between 1985 and 2000. They focused on district heating systems and used a combination of biomass, industrial waste heat, electric boilers, electric heat pumps and geothermal.
Quebec electrified homes and buildings. Just five per cent of Quebec households are now using natural gas for heating.
We could look at other examples of big progress in specific sectors. Or we could look at some of the excellent studies showing that it’s possible to knit them together and clean up the whole economy.
The necessary changes are possible, but putting them all together at scale and speed is a truly massive undertaking. To get where we need to go in the time we have left, there’s no room for fossil fatalism or complacency.
Germany keeps up the pace
Governments can act fast when they set their minds to it. Only two weeks ago, Germany’s top court ruled the country’s climate law wasn’t aggressive enough. Last week, Angela Merkel announced there would be steeper cuts and a goal of climate neutrality by 2045. This week, the cabinet approved the new law and carbon budgets by sector.
Over the next nine years, the new law requires industry to cut emissions by a third. Buildings and transportation will have to cut 43 per cent.
"For the first time, the most strenuous part of climate protection is not being postponed to the distant future," said German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze.
The head of the country's biggest workers' union, IG Metall, said that "climate protection only threatens jobs if we go about it the wrong way."
Famine in Madagascar
Unprecedented droughts are driving a hunger crisis in Madagascar. "We haven't harvested anything for almost two years," one local farmer told Germany’s DW news service.
The World Food Program’s Amer Daoudi says the situation is “extremely bad. Famine is looming in southern Madagascar.”
Spain to end fossil production
On Thursday, the Spanish Parliament approved a climate law that bans new licences for fossil fuel exploration or extraction. All coal, gas and oil operations will have to stop production by the end of 2042. Spain joins Costa Rica, Denmark, France, New Zealand and Ireland taking action to cut off new fossil fuel supply. The state of California — actually a bigger producer than any of the countries on the list — has also committed to ban fracking and phase out oil production.
Asian Development Bank will exit coal, stop supporting oil and gas production
The Asian Development Bank is going to end financing for coal mining and coal power plants. The bank will also stop supporting oil and gas production.
It’s “a big victory for communities and movements who resisted for decades ADB’s funding of dirty energy,” said Lidy Nacpil from the Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development. Campaigners vow to keep pressuring the bank until it bans all types of methane gas projects in line with the UN secretary general’s declaration last week that “we can no longer afford big fossil fuel infrastructure anywhere.”
The ADB’s new policy is the latest big move in Asia. Over the past month, South Korea decided to end financing of overseas coal-fired electricity, Japan cancelled its last planned coal plant, Indonesia banned new coal plants and China committed to peak and start reducing coal use by 2025.
Analysts can’t keep up with renewables
The International Energy Agency had to issue a new forecast for renewable energy growth in 2021. It’s 25 per cent higher than the estimates just six months ago, and 40 per cent higher than the agency predicted a year ago.
Canada’s forests have become carbon emitters
You got an advance look at the disturbing state of Canada’s forests a few newsletters ago. Now you can read the full story by Barry Saxifrage.
“Over the last two decades, the once great carbon sink has steadily drained away. It's now gone, and the balance in the forest has tipped to emitting CO2 instead.”
Canada tosses plastic in the ‘toxic’ bin
The Trudeau government has classified plastic as toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The move sets up the government to deliver on its promise to ban some single-use plastics.
In addition to choking seabirds, rivers and landfills, the plastics industry is “also poised to drive continued oil and gas extraction, with some petrochemical companies expecting it to account for up to 90 per cent of their future growth,” reports Marc Fawcett-Atkinson.
Canada’s ‘Action Council’ on finance
It’s taken Ottawa two years to announce an “Action Council” to advise on rules for sustainable finance. The council was recommended by an “expert panel” headed by Tiff Macklem, who is now the governor of the Bank of Canada.
All we know so far is that the council will be chaired by Kathy Bardswick, who used to be the CEO of the Co-Operators Group (an insurance co-op) and now runs the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices.
The rest of the panel will be made up of “financial sector leaders,” which worries climate advocates. “Canada's financial sector is lagging far behind in taking real action to address the climate crisis, so we don't see how a voluntary committee made up of representatives of that industry is going to be able to lead decisive change,” Adam Scott told National Observer’s Carl Meyer. Scott advocates for Canadian pension funds to disclose climate impacts.
European regulators are putting financial institutions through climate “stress tests” this year and the U.S. Fed has started asking banks for disclosure.
A Canadian company thinks it has a major oil find in Namibia. ReconAfrica (yes, incredibly the company’s real name) has a licence for an area of 13,250 square miles in Namibia and neighbouring Botswana, and estimates it has the potential to produce 120 billion barrels. Yale360 reports on the risks to local communities and the Okavango Delta downstream.
Veruschka Dumeni of Fridays For Future Windhoek says ReconAfrica “and its enablers in government… give no care to the fate of the environment and those who depend on it... the greed of a few should not jeopardise the needs of the future.”
Big oil cleans up tax dollars
When the pandemic struck, the federal government resisted pleas to pump money directly into a panicked oil and gas industry. Instead, the feds offered $1.7 billion to clean up old oil and gas wells. It seemed a smart compromise to help workers, as well as farmers and landowners, but the Narwhal’s Sharon Riley found “the lion’s share” of the money went to the biggest oil companies, which are supposed to be cleaning up their own mess.
The biggest winner was Canadian Natural Resources Limited, which increased shareholder dividend payments by 11 per cent this year.
Oilsands, RBC executives named “climate champions”
The oil and gas sector is the biggest and fastest-growing source of carbon emissions in Canada, but Suncor’s chief sustainability officer was named a “climate champion” by the U.K. government in the run-up to COP26 — this year’s international climate summit. Suncor is the largest company in the oilsands and it's increasing production. A vice-president at Royal Bank of Canada also got the title. RBC is the biggest fossil funder in Canada and the fifth largest in the world.
“The criteria for what constitutes a ‘champion’ is quite unclear,” said Cat Abreu, the director of Climate Action Network Canada.
Electric school buses
It’s not the world’s biggest use of fossil fuels, but I have a real soft spot for electric school buses. Quebec just announced it will spend $250 million over the next three years on the yellow charmers. The province wants to electrify 65 per cent of them this decade, phasing out 2,600 diesel buses.
British Columbia also made an announcement on school buses. A more modest one: 18 buses will be going round and round by the end of the year. Parents are organizing under the banner ForOurKids to get school boards and provincial governments to move faster.
Prince Edward Island plans to replace its whole school bus fleet and rolled out 12 new electric school buses in the Charlottetown area in March.
It’s all good news for Quebec’s Lion Electric. The company is moving to supply the U.S. market as well, and is going to build a new factory near Chicago. It’ll be the biggest American factory dedicated to electric buses and trucks — 20,000 per year. Amazon has agreed to buy as many as 2,500 trucks from Lion by 2025.
And finally, if you haven’t already seen Naomi Klein’s latest, I highly recommend you brace yourself and read it. It’s a pretty harrowing look at climate-driven homelessness and displacement happening right now in California. When wildfires burned the town of Paradise to the ground, 85 people were killed and thousands fled for their lives. Their neighbours in Chico took in 20,000 displaced people. Volunteers served food and residents donated supplies and opened their homes.
But things have turned ugly. “Chico’s war on the unhoused may be providing a grim glimpse into an eco-authoritarian future, in which the poor victims of climate change-fueled disasters are treated like human refuse by those whose wealth has protected them, at least in the short term, from the worst impacts of planetary warming.”
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