Saying the F words
The Glasgow Climate Pact calls for “the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.”
Not “phase down fossil fuels,” mind you — just the tax breaks and tax dollars accelerating climate breakdown (and only those deemed “inefficient”). But it’s the first COP that has, however grudgingly, mentioned “fossil fuels” at all.
The F-words have been the “who shall not be named” of global climate diplomacy. You will search in vain for “fossil fuels” or the words “oil,” “gas,” or “coal” in the Paris Agreement, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or any of the other accords and protocols issued during the long history of climate negotiations.
Contrast that to the one shining example of global co-operation to keep our planet habitable — healing the ozone hole. Canadians, in particular, remember that agreement as the Montreal Protocol. But it’s formal name was literally the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.
The Montreal Protocol defined and limited the “calculated levels of production and consumption of controlled substances” over 12-month periods. Rich countries acted first and financed the phase-out in developing nations. The ozone hole was an easier problem to tackle than the climate crisis, but the underlying principles are sound.
We did see the start of a global effort to control the production of climate-wrecking substances in Glasgow this week. Away from the big plenaries, a group of nations launched the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA).
Led by Costa Rica and Denmark, BOGA welcomed France, Greenland, Ireland, Sweden, Wales, and Quebec as full members that have agreed to end new permits for oil and gas. California, Portugal, and New Zealand joined as “associate” members, and Italy signed on as a “friend” of the alliance.
At the launch, Denmark's Climate Minister Dan Jørgensen put the situation succinctly: "There's no future for oil and gas in a 1.5-degree world. We hope today will mark the beginning of the end of oil and gas.
“This might sound like a straightforward course of action, after all (every country is) charting a common course for net-zero. And yet it is somehow provocative to state that we need to end our own production of fossil fuels.”
Naming the problem is “provocative” because it’s a clear challenge to the strange kabuki theatre where countries show up each year with bold pledges to cut climate pollution even as they plan to pump more than double the fossil fuels those targets would allow us to burn.
Now, some will surely, correctly, point out that BOGA’s founding members are not the heavyweights of the oil and gas era, although California is no slouch and Denmark ranks as top producer in the European Union (Norway and the U.K. aren’t EU members). Some, like Quebec, are giving up the potential for drilling in the future rather than winding down existing projects.
But minimizing BOGA overlooks some important points. For one, countries naming the problem and swearing off fossil fuels was simply unimaginable as recently as one COP ago. The terms of debate have shifted dramatically. The question now is: Who will sign on next?
(The smart betting seems to be on COP26 host Scotland, home to the U.K.’s oil and gas industry in the North Sea.)
This is exactly how you might expect a new movement to take hold: small players at first, momentum growing, until it becomes unimaginable that governments saying the F-words was ever unimaginable.
Quebec is a case in point. When François Legault’s party was elected, it was unimaginable it would be any kind of climate advocate at all. But the new government was met with a wall of public pressure and made an abrupt pivot.
Of course, 26 COPs is interminably slow. The need for international action has been undeniable since the first time a British prime minister tried to rally the UN on climate change: Margaret Thatcher at the UN General Assembly... in 1989. As Bill McKibben says: "Here’s the most important F-word — fast. Speed is the only thing that matters at this point.”
The youth movement is already several leaps ahead. Young people from around the world lambasted the official delegates for dickering over whether to include “fossil fuels” in the official text and called for a global fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty.
And the heavyweights did start to move. One promise that actually seems promising was the commitment by over 39 countries (and counting) to stop funding fossil fuel projects abroad. What makes it different from the usual promises is the phase-out date: one year from now, a timeline that actually has some teeth.
Canada signed on and we’re not only the fourth-biggest oil producer in the world, but the biggest backer of foreign fossil projects in the G20. The United States signed on, too, and the U.S. is the world’s largest oil producer.
“Abroad” is the key qualifier, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. But the climate benefits are real and, while the commitment to stop fossil fuel expansion abroad may be hypocritical, it’s a hypocrisy that accentuates the need to act on fossil fuels at home.
The pledges on international finance are the result of many years of campaigning by groups like Oil Change International, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, and Environmental Defence.
But if fossil fuel extraction is finally getting some focus in the sterile halls of climate negotiations, let’s remember the all too-often bloody history of Indigenous and front-line defenders that propelled it there.
Poignantly, this week was the 26th memorial of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 9, hanged for defending the Niger Delta from Shell. The oil giant settled lawsuits out of court, paying $15 million to the victims’ families as part of what the company called a “reconciliation” process.
And it is now 46 years since the Dene Nation stopped the Mackenzie Valley pipeline. Check out the archived video of Dene Chief Frank T'Seleie excoriating the gas companies in front of the Berger Commission.
But we don’t have to go back in time to recognize the sacrifices. Last year alone, 228 land and environmental defenders were killed, and that’s certainly a grave undercount. “On average, our data shows that four defenders have been killed every week since the signing of the Paris climate agreement,” according to Global Witness.
Nor is it only a case of abstract global statistics.
Right now, Wet’suwet’en land defenders are standing against the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern B.C. Just this week, the Secwe̓pemc Tiny House Warriors were presented the Carole Geller Human Rights Award for their ongoing resistance to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
Quebec: $5 billion for electric buses
Premier François Legault announced Quebec is going to buy 2,148 electric buses, which will electrify 55 per cent of the province’s fleet. That amount of bus-buying will be half of the total North American market for e-buses, according to The Canadian Press.
The province will pony up $3.65 billion, while the federal government and transit companies make up the remainder of a $5-billion spend on electric buses. The program will be split roughly 50-50 between buying new buses and retrofitting facilities.
Doug Ford’s first act as premier was to scrap his province’s climate policy. Now Ford seems to have belatedly realized clean tech is the province’s manufacturing future and vehicles are going electric. He’s going to put $295 million into helping Ford upgrade its Oakville plant (matched by the feds) and suddenly sees Ontario as a hub for mining EV battery minerals.
But Ford pissed on EV drivers as “millionaires” and refuses to bring back EV rebates even though sales dropped 50 per cent after his government cancelled the program. They now lag way behind B.C. and Quebec and even the Yukon.
Ontario’s next provincial election is coming up next year. Ford government’s moves to gut environmental policy range from scrapping cap-and-trade and cancelling 758 renewable energy projects, to fast-tracking development in the Greenbelt.
New diesel plant for Newfoundland and Labrador?
The provincial government of a province awash in mega hydro didn’t even wait until COP26 was over to announce plans to spend $70 million on a new diesel power plant intended to run for 50 years.
The announcement reads as open defiance of the federal promise to clean Canada’s electricity grid by 2035. The mayor of Mary’s Harbour, Alton Rumbolt, described the project as “stepping back in time.”
And the MP for Labrador, Yvonne Jones, said: “At a time when the rest of the country is leading in renewable integration, reliable, low-cost green solutions for future energy for communities, here in Newfoundland and Labrador, we have Hydro looking at super diesel plants.”
U of T and SFU divest
Following years of pressure from students and faculty, two more Canadian universities have agreed to divest from fossil fuels.
The University of Toronto, Canada’s biggest university (and biggest endowment), made the commitment as did Simon Fraser University.
SFU administrators made their announcement on the same day students were set to begin a hunger strike and one day after math professor Nilima Nigam announced she would join the strike.
Tim Takaro, a professor and associate dean in health sciences, has been one of the tree-sitters blocking the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. He says divestment should only be a beginning:
“The university still has to appropriately address the threat of the Trans Mountain pipeline on the mountain, which puts the students and staff at lethal risk.”
U.S. city to decarbonize all its buildings
The college town of Ithaca, N.Y. — famously the home of Cornell University — has embarked on a fascinating project that could be a model for cities across North America and beyond.
It’s a relatively small city with about 30,000 full-time residents. Every building in Ithaca — not just municipal buildings — will be electrified and retrofitted so they don’t use fossil fuel for heating, cooling or appliances.
Natural gas and propane stoves will be replaced with induction stovetops and heat will come from air-source and ground-source heat pumps. The local grid is already about 80 per cent clean and the city will expand rooftop solar to make up the difference.
To finance the project, the city has lined up $100 million in private equity. Fast Company reports that, “with many buildings, owners will save so much on energy costs after making changes that those savings can pay for the cost of the loan payments.”
This week, I’ll leave you with some heat. If you’ve read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, you’re probably still haunted by its opening chapter in which millions die during a heat wave in India.
Is Heat the Greatest Climate Threat? Jeff Goodell, the veteran journalist, just did a show on that question hosted by the three climate experts who run Energy vs. Climate from Alberta.
That’s all for this week. Thank you for reading Zero Carbon. You can email me with your thoughts or suggestions for future newsletters at [email protected]
Support for this issue of Zero Carbon came from The Trottier Foundation and I-SEA.
Sources and Links
Quebec electric buses
Canadian Press, Quebec will foot most of the $5B bill for 2,148 electric buses
- Doug Ford's hopes for Ontario's electric vehicle industry hinge on mining its Ring of Fire
- Governments unveil details of $590M investment to help Ford Oakville plant make electric cars
New diesel for Newfoundland and Labrador?
U of T and SFU divest
Canada’s National Observer, U of Toronto to divest its endowment of fossil fuels
Washington Post, This U.S. city just voted to decarbonize every single building