Ten years on, some inconvenient and convenient truths

Published Tuesday, May 24, 2016 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Today marks the tenth anniversary of An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore documentary that catapulted climate change onto the global agenda.

Here’s a quick look at developments over the past decade, both the inconvenient and the convenient.

Inconvenient

Unfortunately, global consumption of fossil fuels – oil, coal and natural gas – is significantly higher today than it was a decade ago; we now burn 250 tonnes of coal every second of the year.

Total greenhouse gas emissions have also increased.  In 2006, the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere was 382 parts per million; today, it’s 404 parts per million, with recent annual jumps being the largest on record.

The climate is responding: 2015 was the hottest year on record, and 2016 will likely be even hotter.  January, February, March and April of 2016 have each been, by far, the hottest on record.  Sea levels have risen by 40 millimetres since 2006, the fastest increase on record.

Convenient

The past decade has heralded a revolution in renewable energy, led by a spectacular drop in the cost of solar panels and the explosion of solar power installations around the world.

Just how fast are costs dropping?  In 2014, large-scale solar farms in the US were being built promising power for five cents per kilowatt-hour.  In 2015, that dropped to four cents.   Last month, a deal was signed for a new solar farm in Mexico at 3.6 cents, and just this month bidders vying to build a massive solar farm in Dubai offered to do it for three cents per kilowatt hour, without any subsidies.  Compare that to the ten cents per kilowatt-hour most New Brunswickers pay for power.

Wind isn’t far behind.  Thanks to improvements in turbine technology, well-sited new wind farms can generate power for five cents per kilowatt-hour.  A wind farm being built this year in Morocco promises power for three cents.  

Globally in 2015, renewable power attracted twice the investment that fossil fuel power generation did.  Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal producer, declared bankruptcy last month.

According to Clean Energy Canada, more Canadians now work in green energy than in the oilsands.  Two months ago, experts at Stanford University outlined an achievable path to 100 per cent renewable energy for Canada by 2030 – just 14 years from now – using existing technology.  

In 2006, electric cars were rare.  Today, there are over a million on the road worldwide.  Tesla’s recent launch of its Model 3 is revolutionizing the automotive world, and all major manufacturers are scrambling to get electric models to the market. 

Politically, the winds have changed too.  In 2008, Americans elected Barack Obama, who has moved aggressively on climate change and rallied other world leaders, including his Chinese counterpart, into action.  In 2015, Albertans and Canadians elected new governments that have promised action on emissions reduction.  And the pope and leaders of other faiths are speaking about the moral imperative of action on climate change.

175 countries have signed the December 2015 Paris Accord.  It’s not perfect, but it’s our best hope in years.

Looking forward

Unfortunately, the green energy revolution has been a slow train coming to our province.  Solar energy is largely an unexploited and unsupported opportunity, and much wind blows unharnessed.  In the midst of our own abundant forest, we continue to import fossil fuel and electricity from elsewhere to keep us warm.  And, somehow, the short-term construction jobs promised by someone else’s fossil fuel pipeline seem to have enchanted us into believing it’s going to be an economic panacea for us.

But hope springs eternal and, as the last decade proves, change is exponential – so, with bated breath, I wait for what the next decade will bring.