By Hugh Holland
Where did fossil fuels come from? Before the last ice age, algae, plants, and animals lived in and around shallow seas. After dying, decomposing, and sinking to the seafloor, that organic carbon material mixed with other sediments and was buried (sequestered) over millions of years under high pressure and high temperature, and transformed into what we know today as coal, oil, and natural gas. Northern Alberta was one of those areas. The proof is on display in museums across Canada and around the world.
The history of the scientific discovery of climate change began in the early 19th century when ice ages and other changes in climate were first suspected and the natural greenhouse effect was first identified. It is now generally accepted that there have been five ice ages or “glaciations” over 2.4 billion years since the earth was formed. Those ice ages were separated by “interglacial” periods in which the Earth was virtually ice-free. Animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Plants breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. All living things eventually die and decompose, releasing carbon from their cell structures into the air, soil, and water. Those actions are known as the natural carbon cycle that has maintained a balance for millions of years.
But in the short span of only 100 years, we have dug up and burned most of those sequestered deposits as fuel for transportation, heating, and industry. The resulting emissions have destroyed the Earth’s natural carbon cycle, and like a greenhouse, are trapping ever more heat in the atmosphere.
Climate change is a multi-faceted problem that has unfolded over not just centuries but millennia. We are now well into the third industrial revolution. Since the first revolution in 1800 that introduced coal for steam engines and heating, the global population is up by a factor of 8, the standard of living as expressed in GDP per capita is up by a factor of 9 and together driving global energy consumption up by a factor of 16. The introduction of the internal combustion engine (ICE) in 1900 solved a serious horse manure problem but gradually created an unsustainable accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere.
The global auto and mobile equipment industries have solved that problem with battery-electric and hydrogen-electric cars, trucks, locomotives, ships, tractors, aircraft, and heavy equipment. Ultra-efficient cold-climate heat pumps are now replacing oil and gas furnaces. For the coldest regions, dual-fuel heat pumps operate on electricity 80% of the time. Oil, gas, or electric assists can kick in for 20% of the time.
On December 7, 2023, 192 countries of the world met in Dubai, UAE to increase consensus on how to mitigate climate change. On the same day, a new poll was released in the US saying 75% of Americans, including 50% of Republicans, want meaningful action on climate change. On the same day, Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives staged a 36-hour sit-in in our national parliament and vowed to stop all other business until the government agreed to “axe the refundable carbon tax” that is in place in 54 countries.
On December 13, after 2 weeks of intense debate and negotiations, 192 countries struck a breakthrough climate agreement, calling for “a transition away from fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, while accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.”
Although it is not legally binding, “the deal sends a powerful signal to investors and policymakers that the world is united in its desire to break with fossil fuels, something scientists say is the last best hope to stave off climate catastrophe”.
What has made this 30-year journey so difficult is the very uneven distribution of both the causes and effects of climate change. Canada, the USA, and Europe are ranked in the lowest 33% of vulnerability, and China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia are ranked in the middle 33%. India, Africa, and most Island Nations are ranked as the most vulnerable 33%, so they are the most likely sources of out-migration.
Oil production as a per cent of GDP ranges as follows: Libya 56.38%, Saudi Arabia 23.69%, Iran 18.27%, UAE 15.67%, Russia 9.67%, Norway 6.06%, Canada 2.83%, USA 0.61%, UK 0.42%, 0% for 90 countries including Japan, Spain, and Switzerland. Even within Canada, 80% of oil production is in Alberta, 15% in Saskatchewan, and 5% in Newfoundland. In most cases, the areas with the biggest changes to make also have the most means and the biggest opportunities in this emerging era of sustainable energy.
Several enabling strategies were part of the discussions. The IEA (International Energy Agency), the UK, and the US called for a tripling of nuclear capacity. The IEA called for a tripling of renewable energy capacity, double the rate of energy efficiency improvements, dramatic cuts to methane emissions, the establishment of large-scale financing mechanisms to triple clean energy investment in developing economies, and an end to approvals of unabated coal-fired power plants, especially in China and India. A few simple calculations confirm that these strategies can get the job done.
Certainly, Alberta and Saskatchewan have all the expertise and resources needed to survive and thrive in the new era of sustainable energy. The early bird gets the benefits. The late bird gets what is left over.
The past 200 years have been the era of fossil fuels, but with increasing negatives for the world’s climate that are driving up the costs of food, housing, and infrastructure everywhere.
The next 100 years can be the positive era of sustainable energy that reverses all those negative trends. It’s time for all political parties to endorse an orderly transition to all the positives of sustainable energy.
Hugh Holland is a retired engineering and manufacturing executive now living in Huntsville, Ontario.
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