Revamping the carbon economy

Greening is not enough, Creative Commons image
Greening is not enough, Creative Commons image

I have participated in numerous discussions about climate change and usually they veer off into talking about recycling, composting or church greening. But those efforts, while personally commendable, are completely inadequate.

“The key is scale,” according to the editors of the book, Living Ecological Justice. “The problems lie with how we have organized our economy and designed our buildings and cities, hard wiring our problems into structures that are difficult to change.”

Hundreds of climate change scientists comprising the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say that there is virtually no doubt that climate change is occurring and that it’s driven in large measure by carbon emissions. We can avoid drastic ecological results only if we limit temperature increases to two degrees Celsius in the next 35 years. To do so, we would have to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent during that time. And we can’t do that merely by having consumers engage in recycling.

Jeff Rubin is a Canadian economist and former chief economist at CIBC World Markets. Writing in a publication called Corporate Knights, he says that if we are to limit global average temperatures to two degrees Celsius, two-thirds of the world’s existing hydrocarbon reserves will have to be left in the ground. That’s a stunning statistic.

Rubin also says that the billions of barrels of oil in Alberta’s oil sands make up the world’s third largest proven oil reserve. As such, the pressure to develop them is overwhelming from both industry and the federal and Alberta governments. To support rapid development and pipeline construction, the government has slashed environmental regulations and labeled opponents of pipelines as virtual enemies of the state. What’s more, the industry — represented by the Canadian Petroleum Producers Association — continues its massive public relations campaign.

In 2007, after years of saying there was no proof that climate change was occurring, Prime Minister Harper (leading a minority government) responded to public concern and did an about face. He promised a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 17 per cent by the year 2020, and 65 per cent by the year 2050. Seven years later there is still no plan in place to achieve that goal.

In 2011, the prime minister (by then leading a majority government) promised that Canada would become an “energy superpower.” His government is committed to extracting as much product — as quickly as possible — from the billions of barrels of oil held in the oil sands. But that oil has to be transported as well as extracted. To accomplish that, the carbon industry promises no less than 13 pipelines, including, but not limited to, the controversial Keystone into the U.S. and the Northern Gateway from Alberta to the coast in British Columbia.  There are also plans to construct pipelines and to reverse the flow in others in order to move oil east to Montreal and Atlantic Canada.

Concerned that these oil sands investments will turn into “stranded assets,” Rubin, along with other business analysts, warn that Canada is lagging in transforming its economy and becoming less reliant on the carbon sector.

These are huge challenges and a change in course will demand much from enlightened scientific, technical and business sectors. Change will also require a citizenry committed and engaged enough to take control of their own politics. After all, their governments have committed to supporting the special interests of the carbon industry for far too long.

This article appeared in a slightly altered version in the United Church Observer on May 8, 2014.

2 thoughts on “Revamping the carbon economy

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  1. Thanks for this. The signature on my emails reads:

    We need a new 3 Rs: Renounce, Redesign, Rebuild
    Resisting, Renewing and Regeneration
    Reverence, Respect & Responsibility for Mother Earth
    Because Reduce, Recycle, Reuse are not enough
    Slowcialism & Convivial Degrowth

    But how do we tackle this huge change in our consumption colonized economy, because it’s not just our economy, it’s our entire cultural narrative. Bill Rees has said this cultural narrative, our worldviews, religious doctrines, political ideologies, and academic paradigms are ‘social constructs’, the products of the human mind massaged or polished by social discourse and elevated to the status of received wisdom by agreement among members of the social group who are creating the construct… By the time most people have reached mature adulthood they will have accepted their culture’s overall ‘narrative’ and will subscribe, consciously or not, to any number of subsidiary religious, political, social and disciplinary paradigms.

    This is a project of “decolonization”, in the face of, as you note, millions of dollars of “propaganda” from the fossil fuel industry, and our own government, denying the problem.

    The Peoples’ Social Forum, to be held at the University of Ottawa August 21-24, will bring together thousands of Canadians (we hope) to discuss the many facets of this decolonization process.

    Bob Thomson


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