Marc Jaccard's talk at the Playhouse. He wrote a great book called Sustainable Fossil Fuels.
(The Sam he is referring to is Sam Sullivan, former mayor of Vancouver)
Sam asked us to “describe something we are involved with that could change the lives of others.” My guess is that Sam was looking for uplifting, inspiring stories. If so, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint. You see, I spend my time trying to prevent climate change. And I have increasingly come to the dismal conclusion that humans lack the cognitive ability to deal with the climate risk before it causes great harm to our planet. But in this sad way, my topic meets Sam’s criteria – because climate change will indeed change the lives of everyone!
I hope I am wrong, but the evidence of our incapacity to take action against this grave risk gets stronger every day. I will use my 7 minutes to give you a small taste of the evidence showing that humans are quite clever at deluding themselves into believing they are reducing greenhouse gas emissions, when in fact they are doing almost nothing.
The task before humanity is clear. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from our businesses and our households. We need to do it fast. We need to do it everywhere.
This means we need to quickly transition to vehicles that run on electricity, biofuels or hydrogen – technologies that are increasingly available. It means, in our buildings, we need to stop using natural gas and heating oil by switching to electric heat pumps, district heat, passive solar and other zero-emission options. In our industry, we need to ensure that thermal energy is provided by a combination of electricity, biofuels, waste heat and perhaps hydrogen.
But what do we do instead? Like a student who is avoiding homework, we creatively avoid this simple task and substitute other activities which we delude ourselves into believing are having an effect. While there are many examples, I can present only two within my time limit.
Example 1. We have invented the term “carbon neutrality.” This is a fictional concept that allows us to believe we can pay someone else to reduce emissions while we keep emitting. Their reductions are assumed to “offset” our emissions. But I don’t know of a single leading researcher in my field who endorses this concept. Why? Because most of the presumed reductions are not real. They are reductions that would have occurred anyway – would have occurred while our aggregate emissions continued to rise. The offset payment is little more than guilt money.
In fact, the only way someone could actually offset their carbon emissions would be if they or someone they paid an offset to literally extracted CO2 and other GHGs from the atmosphere and stored them permanently. This figure identifies the only true carbon offset with an arrow from the atmosphere into the ground. But guess what? No one is doing that kind of offset, even though it is technically possible.
Example 2. We focus our efforts on energy efficiency and delay the more difficult, essential and pressing task of rapidly adopting zero-emission technologies and fuels. And we overlook the fact that as we humans have made our devices more energy-efficient over the last three decades, we have simply shifted our consumption into other energy using devices or services. Thus, efficiency gains are offset almost entirely by a rebound in the particular use or by the development of related or new uses.
Conclusion. I wish I had an inspiring story to tell you. I used to get angry with my friend Professor Bill Rees at UBC for always sounding so negative about humanity’s sustainability prospects. But strong evidence has started to convince me that he is right, that humans lack the ability to lower their greenhouse gas emissions in time to save us from gravely destructive climate change.
- Our new houses on average are more efficient. They are also on average larger.
- Our planes are more efficient. And we fly a lot more on average.
- Our major appliances are more efficient. But we keep adding new energy using devices in our homes and this growth offsets the efficiency gains
The only chance, it seems to me, is a combination of early, hopefully isolated catastrophes that provide enough radical people with the motivation to do some pretty aggressive acts, ranging from corporate boycotts to demonstrations (to stop new pipelines and coal plants) to acts of sabotage (like “keying” large gasoline cars).
Sam, I am sorry this is not more uplifting. But you invited someone working on climate change. And I actually believe that part of our problem is the desire for uplifting stories. The media is always asking me for inspirational stories of some pioneer “greening” their behavior or their technology. I respond with, “Please write about the expanses of houses we build each year connected to natural gas. Write about the ongoing sales of gasoline-fueled cars, about the flourishing of propane-fired patio heaters.” Their response? No thanks, these not uplifting stories.
But these uplifting stories actually reinforce the delusion that we are taking action, when in fact we are not. So the delusion continues. And all of our lives will indeed be affected.