The Low-Carbon Path

We yak a lot about the economy in Canada these days when what we really need is more conversations about the low-carbon economy.

The news media gives us daily reports on the rise and fall of the stock markets; the fate of the Canadian dollar in relation to the American greenback is cause for constant concern.

Yet the current heat wave and spate of forest fires should remind us that there is a reason why our Earth is hotter and extreme weather is proliferating. That reason is the amount of carbon dioxide we humans are putting into our atmosphere – we’re adding about 30 billion tonnes of CO2 annually.

We need to transform our economy to be less dependent on carbon sources of energy or else the media may be giving daily updates on the rise of sea levels and the fate of many of Earth’s species.

We are “oil-aholics”; we are addicted to fossil fuels. This year we’ll burn eight billion metric tonnes of oil, natural gas and coal. Next year we will undoubtedly burn more.

Three spoonfuls of crude oil contain as much energy as eight hours of human labour. Even at last summer’s market price of $150 a barrel, oil was an extraordinary bargain. We pay only about a tenth of energy’s real value to our economy.

We need to explore ways to “get off this sauce” and the solution is to embrace the low-carbon economic model.

Simply stated, a low-carbon economy is one in which carbon dioxide emissions from the use of carbon based fuels such as coal, oil and gas are substantially reduced. Such an economy features low energy consumption, low pollution, and low greenhouse gas emissions.

The low-carbon economy offers the potential to create new businesses, provide new opportunities for existing businesses, and in doing so create and support jobs.  A number of governments have already indicated they believe a low-carbon economy is an integral part of economic recovery, not an optional extra.

The Obama administration in the U.S. is ready to make a $70-billion commitment to energy efficiency, renewable energy, transit, and fuel economy programs as part of its economic stimulus package, creating 459,000 jobs by the end of 2010; Ontario expects it recently introduced Green Energy Act to create over 50,000 “green collar” jobs and generate billions of dollars of economic growth in communities across the province.

In neighbouring Washington State, Governor Christine Gregoire set a goal of having 25,000 green jobs in her state by 2020, but that goal has been met in just two years with 47,000 jobs in the state now considered “green.” When the state created an incentive for wind energy development, it became the U.S.’s fifth largest producer almost overnight.

And it was recently announced the world’s largest solar photovoltaic plant, capable of generating 75 megawatts of electricity (enough for 45,000 homes), will be constructed in the state. The Teanaway Solar Reserve will be located on 400 acres of formerly-logged private property four miles north of Cle Elum, in Kittitas County, Washington. Comprised of approximately 400,000 photovoltaic panels, the energy generated will offset about 275-million pounds of carbon dioxide annually compared to the same amount of energy produced by coal plants.

Many people believe that to grow our economy, we need to continually use more energy. The good news is that our economies expand not so much because our energy inputs grow, but rather because our efficiency in using these inputs constantly rises. Research by Robert Ayres and Benjamin Warr, authors of The Economic Growth Engine: How Energy and Work Drive Material Prosperity, shows that while our economies are deeply dependent on massive inputs of cheap fossil fuel energy, those economies will have to find ways to reduce the amount of fossil fuel energy input per unit of work in order to have continued growth. Energy conservation and energy efficiency are key to economic and environmental sustainability, they write.

These two pillars of the low-carbon economy – conservation and efficiency – are more than affordable; they are literally a source of new wealth. Research by McKinsey & Company shows that developing countries could slow the growth of their energy demand by more than half over the next 12 years – to 1.4 percent a year from 3.4 – and demand would be 25 percent lower in 2020 than it would otherwise have been. Just by using existing technologies that would pay for themselves in future energy savings, consumers and businesses could save some $600 billion a year by 2020.

The picture is no different in the developed world. In a report — Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the U.S. Economy – released July 29, McKinsey says Americans are wasting $130 billion a year on energy. Businesses and individuals could save money, curb emissions of global warming pollutants, reduce dependence on foreign oil and cut energy consumption by 23 percent by 2020, merely by taking sensible, practical steps to use energy more efficiently says the report.

To get a real understanding of the low-carbon economy, just take a look at the Low Carbon Transition Plan unveiled July 15 by the United Kingdom government. By 2020, more than 1.2 million people will be employed in green jobs; 7 million homes will be made more energy efficient and 1.5 million homes will be supported to produce their own energy; the average new car will emit 40 percent less carbon than now; and there will be a five-fold increase in renewable energy generation.

Kicking the carbon habit is crucial to both the economy and the environment. That makes it a good topic for your next coffee klatch and a priority for government policy.

“A series of studies clearly show that low-carbon growth is not only good for the planet, but it is also the most logical long-term way out of the economic crisis,” says Erik Rasmussen, founder of the Copenhagen Climate Council. “Huge opportunities await in new, green markets. It is no coincidence that the two most energy efficient countries in the world – Denmark and Japan – are competitive and wealthy.”

A low carbon economy is humanity’s next big leap forward – or next industrial evolution. The scale of needed change is daunting but achievable.