On June 1, 88,000 environmental refugees began a “phased re-entry” into Fort McMurray as firefighters continued to battle more than 580,000 hectares of wildfires. While it may feel uncomfortable to discuss the role of climate in this tragedy, the conversation is overdue. Fort McMurray is a microcosm of our war against carbon. It is a place where two disturbing narratives of climate change intersect.
The first narrative is about destruction and stranded assets. Fort McMurray speaks to the “scientific consensus” that climate change will cause more intense and frequent wildfires. At an estimated cost of $4.6 billion to insurers, the current wildfires are a rounding error next to the $369 trillion worth of global economic damage we can expect by 2200 if climate change continues unabated. The wildfires are a taste of a future in which humanity ignores the moral and economic imperative to cut carbon.
The second narrative is about the cost of letting other nations lead sustainable industrial innovation while we sit on the sidelines. Places like Fort McMurray will stagnate if we don’t evolve our resource-based industries to be cleaner and more energy efficient. The real tragedy of Fort McMurray may be the economic collapse of a city and, more broadly, an industry that is one of the strongest contributors to Canada’s economic growth.
We must convert these two risks into opportunities. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that we need $44 trillion in investments to create a carbon-free global economy. To earn our share of that opportunity, together we should set a goal that by 2025, we make Canada one of the top three sellers of clean technologies in the world.
For every dollar we invest in sustainable industrial innovation, we will see a double payout in tech industry jobs and wealth created through the optimization of our natural resources. But the switch to a decarbonized economy can’t happen overnight. Our challenge is to resist short-term gratification and choose long-term competitiveness in the carbon-free economy that most nations agreed to last year in Paris.
That challenge will test our entire society. The problem is that we currently lack the scientific knowledge and technology to power a carbon-free economy. To win the war on carbon, Canada must become a leader in sustainable industrial innovation and new cleantech solutions.
In the short-term, that means championing technologies that make our resource-based industries cleaner, cheaper and more efficient. For example, carbon capture technology is essential for reducing emissions as we gradually wean ourselves off hydrocarbons. Smart energy transmission and storage technologies will enable us to integrate solar, wind, hydropower and other renewable sources into existing energy grids, while new high-voltage power lines will help renewables to become part of “baseload” energy provision (the wind always blows somewhere). Breakthroughs in steel production and other materials can lead to massive carbon savings in mining and oil and gas. These technologies will determine how our most important industries fare in 20 years.
In the long-term, we need breakthroughs in nuclear fusion or something totally new that would render hydrocarbons obsolete. Here in British Columbia, innovators, investors and policy-makers take that goal seriously. Our carbon tax has been imitated all over the world (even if our rate has been needlessly frozen), and Vancouver’s plan to phase out fossil fuels by 2050 hinges on innovation. The #BCTECH Strategy, a $100 million government venture capital initiative, could, if executed appropriately, help make Canada a net exporter of clean, sustainable technologies by 2025.
Let’s build on it. Let’s earn our share of the $44 trillion needed to decarbonize the global economy. Let’s revitalize places like Fort McMurray, where the pains of climate change, stranded assets and economic transformation are intertwined. For our environment, economy and society, sustainable industrial innovation is the way forward. If we succeed, “Made in Canada” will be a symbol of excellence in the new energy industry of the future.
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