This article is part of a special climate change issue of Macleans in advance of the federal election. This collection of stories offers a comprehensive look at where Canada currently stands, what could be done to address the issue and what the consequences might be if this country continues with half measures. Learn more about why we’re doing this.
A carbon-free world can be a reality. What would that mean for our jobs, homes and lives?
In the post-car
bon future, downtown Calgary could boast green tech like hyperloops, wind farms and sustainable architecture (Photo illustration by Lauren Cattermole and Drew Maynard)
The sun rises in Calgary in 2050. A wind-farm worker rolls out of bed, packs himself a tofurkey sandwich on rye, checks his condo building’s geothermal heating system and hops the electric tram to work.
Welcome to the post-carbon world. We’ve dodged the bullet. The global economy has ditched fossil fuels. Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have stopped rising. Temperatures are stable. We’ve started harnessing the power of the sun, the wind, the water and even the stray heat lurking in the air or underground.
What does it look like? What does it feel like? Maybe most importantly—is this just science fiction, or a possible reality? “Is it possible to turn things around by 2050? The answer is absolutely yes,” says Kai Chan, a professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia.
There are plenty of scientists tracking what the world will look like if we fail to rein in the carbon beast. But others, like Chan, are also tracking what success might look like. They are not pie-in-the-sky dreamers. They are putting together road maps for how to safely get to the planet envisioned in the 2015 Paris Agreement, where temperatures hold at 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than before we started burning fossil fuels.
“Three decades is enough to do a lot of important things. In the next few years—if we get started on them—they will pay dividends in the coming decades,” says Chan, the lead author of the chapter on achieving a sustainable future in a recent UN report that predicted the possible extinction of a million species.
Accomplishing a positive outcome will meaning shifting the priorities of consumers, business and government, and rearranging the way economic incentives work. To begin with, according to the International Monetary Fund, it will require rejigging some of the US$5 billion spent by governments to prop up the fossil fuel industry. There will undeniably be upfront costs, but those aren’t as high as analysts calculated only a year or two ago. And long-term profits could flow from new technologies.
Listen to Alanna Mitchell talk about climate change on The Big Story podcast.
Learn more at The Big Story Podcast.
Making these changes won’t mean years of being poor, cold and hungry before things get comfortable again. These scientists don’t insist we need to build off-the-grid cabins in the woods or overhaul how society provides energy, food and jobs. Instead, these scientists say that if we start right now, we stand a decent chance of transforming society without huge disruption. “Rather than talking about what we may have to give up, it’s a focus on what we’ll actually gain,” says Neil Jennings, partnership development manager at the Grantham Institute—Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, in England.
No question, it will require a massive switch in society’s systems of energy use. But quietly, that’s already happening with electricity generation as solar panels and offshore wind power plummet in price. Iceland and Paraguay have stripped the carbon from their grids, according to a new energy outlook report from Bloomberg (Paraguay thanks to hydro electricity; Iceland with hydro and geothermal and a dash of wine). Europe is on track to be 90 per cent carbon-free by 2040. And Ottawa says that Canada is already at 81 per cent, thanks to hydro, nuclear, wind and solar.
Decarbonizing the whole economy is within grasp. MORE