23 May 2012

Post-Carbon Postcard#1: California, USA and British Columbia, Canada

Eye of the Wind Turbine, Grouse
Mountain, Vancouver, BC
by John Wiseman, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

I’m currently on a study tour interviewing authors, campaigners and policy makers responsible for the post carbon economy transition strategies reviewed in the recently published report: Post Carbon Pathways – and thought the following reflections arising from these discussions might be of interest.
     Over the last two months, travelling in California and British Columbia, I’ve interviewed and held discussions with the following people:
Over this period I’ve also attended three significant conferences:

1.    Contrary to the views of some ill-informed journalists and politicians, there are many places where the international momentum is swinging rapidly towards – not away from – a swift transition to a post-carbon economy. The pace of innovation in solar, wind and energy efficiency technologies is impressive and inspiring, with Chinese, US and European investment and competition continuing to drive down costs and prices. Despite concerted legal and political opposition, California remains firmly committed to the target of providing 33 per cent of electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020; and to the achievement of its legislated targets of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and to 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050. British Columbia also continues to provide strong leadership in the implementation of a provincial carbon tax and other measures designed to achieve its emission reduction targets of 33 per cent below 2007 levels by 2020. On April 19, the Mexican Parliament joined the UK as the second nation to pass legally binding emission goals. On May 3, the South Korean Parliament overwhelmingly endorsed emissions trading legislation, bringing the number of countries committed to large scale emissions trading schemes to 34.

2.    While political leadership at national and global levels remains crucial, the leadership being provided by states and provinces like California and British Columbia highlights the increasing significance of sub-national climate change examplars and benchmarks.  There is considerable interest in the potential for strengthening links between sub-national initiatives though regional alliances (with the possibility of a Pacific Rim Climate alliance being one idea under active consideration). The University of British Columbia’s University as Living Laboratory initiative also demonstrates the potentially powerful catalytic role of universities as sites for testing and showcasing sustainability and de-carbonisation technologies and systems.

3.    There is also a rapidly expanding body of knowledge and community of practice on the design and implementation of large scale, integrated zero carbon plans.  Indeed one of the most rewarding outcomes from circulating the Post Carbon Pathways report has been the development of links with others working to build and share knowledge about post carbon economic futures and transitions. See, for example, the extensive zero carbon links on the Zero Carbon Wiki (curated by Mexico based Kjell Kuhne) or the work of the Trottier Energy Futures project, which is a joint initiative of the Suzuki Foundation and the Canadian Academy of Engineering identifying actions needed to drive an 80 per cent reduction in Canadian GHG emissions by 2050.

4.    There is widespread recognition that there is still a yawning gap between the required speed of GHG emissions reductions and the current pace of de-carbonisation policies. Frank and honest appraisal of the scientific evidence of the extent of global warming is already locked in – and therefore of the full scale and speed of action required to prevent runaway climate change – remains fundamental. Shortsighted pragmatism, utopian wishful thinking, and dystopian fatalism are all equally unhelpful. 

5.    The primary barriers to the rapid acceleration of de-carbonization policies and programs are political rather than technological. The largest obstacles remain the influence of oil and coal interests working to protect their investments from being stranded as the tide turns in the direction of more renewable and sustainable energy supply options. At a time when clouds of economic uncertainty continue to hang over Europe, there is also an abiding danger of attention on climate change and other ecological challenges being overwhelmed by the more immediate threat of rolling financial crises.

6.    While there is broad agreement on the crucial importance of mechanisms which raise the price of carbon to a level sufficient to drive a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewables, a number of other complementary policy interventions will clearly play an essential role in driving system wide de-carbonisation.  The recipe book is likely to include the following ingredients:

  • Removal of subsidies for oil, coal and other fossil fuel based industries;
  • A variety of regulatory instruments to drive rapid improvements in the energy efficiency of buildings and rapid reductions in transport emissions;
  • Feed-in tariffs to provide the financial incentives needed to drive large scale business and household investment in renewable energy;
  • Long term public sector infrastructure investment in the smart grid systems required to maximise the efficient distribution of renewable energy;
  • Labour market and training programs to build the skilled workforce needed to rapidly – and safely – retrofit old residential and industrial infrastructure and to build the new infrastructure of the post carbon economy; and
  • Income redistribution, adaptation and resilience investment to ensure the burden of transition is fairly shared within and between nations.

7.    Most large-scale de-carbonisation strategies still focus primarily on reducing the carbon intensity of production by replacing fossil fuels with renewables and maximising energy efficiency.  There is however an increasingly important debate about the extent to which even the most optimistic renewable energy and energy efficiency scenarios will be sufficient to achieve GHG reduction targets at the necessary speed. 

8.    Far greater attention therefore needs to be paid to the actions needed to reduce aggregate demand for energy and resources.  When combined with a full understanding of the actions needed to reduce the risks of crossing other critical planetary environmental boundaries it becomes clear that effective climate change solutions will require significant rethinking of the ways in which we define and measure just and sustainable economic growth. One useful way to reframe the economic growth debate may be to prioritise ‘growth’ in health and wellbeing, education and access to information, social connectedness and time with friends and family over unconstrained consumption in goods and services.

9.    Some of the biggest reductions in demand for energy and resource are likely to come from urban planning and transport innovations enabling more localised systems of food, water and energy production and distribution

10.    And most crucially of all… there is a great thirst – and great potential – for carefully considered, compelling narratives which can inspire and drive the social mobilization and political leadership needed to drive a rapid transition to a just and sustainable post-carbon future.