Phase out carbon emissions

Federal MP candidate Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu introductory postcardExplaining my introductory postcard: “Phase out carbon emissions as science demands, through retrofits, efficiency and renewable power”

As science demands

The critical phrase here for me is “as science demands”.  While it’s clear that our planet would be a lot healthier today had we done without fossil fuels in the first place, our understanding of the risks of maintaining our current lifestyle is continually being refined.  In general, over the last few years, the risks of climate change are increasingly believed to be greater than anticipated.  So whatever targets we set today, we must be prepared to re-evaluate them as needed according to emerging science.

The emerging consensus

The emerging scientific consensus seems to be that atmospheric carbon dioxide must be stabilized at below 350 ppm.  That is significantly below today’s levels approaching 390 ppm.

While a rapid phaseout of emissions now can allow the oceans to mop up some carbon and bring down the levels somewhat, even the toughest targets spoken of in international negotiations are unlikely to be aggressive enough.  What’s being negotiated now for the post Kyoto period is emissions reductions of carbon dioxide equivalents of 25-40% below 1990 levels by 202o, though Prime Minister Harper doesn’t even want to agree to reductions in that range.  That’s the political consensus, which is inadequate, because it’s based on an ultimate target of 450 ppm, which is now largely recognized as irresponsible.

Just how inadequate is unclear.  Scientists are reluctant to translate their risk scenarios into specific policy recommendations.  Some thinkers have attempted to make the connections and the assessments are very sobering.  Gwynne Dyer suggests 80% reductions by 2030.  George Monbiot suggests 50% by 2012 (I’m extrapolating a bit here.  Monbiot suggests that Britain would need to reduce emissions by 25% below today’s levels by 2012.  Because the baseline rate for all international calculations is 1990, and Canada’s emissions have risen by over 20% since that time while Britain’s emissions have fallen almost the same amount, our cut would be 50%).  What’s clear is that speed is becoming an urgent necessity.

In the long term, a complete phaseout is going to be necessary.

Phasing out emissions

How can we phase out emissions?  Well, to start we need to recognize that the majority of energy released from fossil fuels is wasted and never used for anything at all.  The vast majority of energy released in a car engine as well as about 2/3 of the energy released in a coal plant end up as waste heat.  A highly efficient combined-cycle natural gas generating plant does a little better, wasting just less than half the energy released.  But simply by moving to more efficient methods of generating energy, we can dramatically reduce our energy needs.  That means renewable energy generation powering fully electric vehicles.

However, even the energy that is conventionally classified as useful is questionable.  We count it as useful that in order to get a person from home to work, we move two tonnes of steel along with him.  We count heat that goes into our house as useful, even when it immediately leaves through cracks or open doors.  We count it as useful energy to truck waste to Michigan, including large amounts of waste that could be recycled, reused or composted.  We count it as useful to idle a car on a hot summer day.  We count air conditioning the sidewalk as putting energy to use.  We count it as useful when televisions and lights are on and no one is home.  I count it as useful when I play Sudoku on my computer, and I’m pretty sure that’s wrong.

So a great deal could be done to improve efficiency.  Some of this could be done with new standards for efficient lightbulbs, mandatory motion sensors that turn lights off when we’re not in the room, higher efficiency standards for standby modes on electronics and appliances, Passivhaus or Net Zero standards for new buildings of all types, a gradual phaseout of inefficient vehicles already on the road and other regulatory measures.

Some efficiencies will be achieved with serious investments by governments, private interests or both, to retrofit existing buildings to post-carbon standards, build up public transit systems, streamline industries and convert their energy sources and develop secure local food systems.

A price for carbon emissions across the economy is a critical component of a serious plan to phase out fossil fuels.  The money generated can be immediately returned to Canadians to help them change the way they move, the places they live, the food they eat, the way they shop and so on so that we’re less reliant on fossil fuels as they become scarce and expensive.  The Green Party would implement all the component parts above to get Canada moving in the right direction.

We have a lot of work to do.  And we should have started decades ago.  There’s no time to waste.

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