Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2010

As green-collar jobs boom, Canada is mired in the tar sands

Jessica Leigh JohnstonWebsite

Canada and Abu Dhabi share one big trait: an economy addicted to oil. But while Canada doubles down on the tar sands, the emirate quietly plans a renewable energy hub in a gleaming zero-emissions city in the desert. Can either of these bets pay off?

Artist's rendering of a Masdar public square. Click to enlarge.

Artist's rendering of a Masdar public square. Click to enlarge.

Looking out over the site of Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, it takes some imagination to consider that this slice of hardscrabble desert will soon contain the world’s first carbon-neutral, zero-waste city. A six-metre sign at Masdar’s entrance is the only confirmation that my cab driver and I have arrived at the right place. Despite its ambitious nature, Masdar—the Arabic word for “source,” a reference to the sun—is not a household name in the region, and for the moment its seven square kilometres, demarcated by a corrugated white plastic fence, is home to little more than shrubs and debris.

It’s early December, and one of the last hot days of the year before the mild winter begins. Even at 30 degrees Celsius, today’s temperature is nothing compared to the heat of summer. Migrant labourers dressed in white lay paving stones over the sand. Some of the men wear turbans while others are in baseball caps.

Workers in boots, alternating with workers in suits, come and go from the development’s temporary headquarters, a series of white, two-level portables shaded by circus-sized canopies the colour of desert. Inside, an image framed on the wall projects the future HQ, a wavy steel and glass structure that produces more energy than it consumes.

Once complete, Masdar is supposed to be home to 50,000 residents and 1,500 companies with 40,000 people commuting daily from Abu Dhabi. At its centre is the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a sustainable-research hub, which as of today is the only building that has started to sprout. By 2018, Masdar is meant to contain two city squares housing day-to-day activity, outside of which will lie all the infrastructure required to sustain an eco-city in a desert: solar-power plants, a waste-to-power plant, an algae farm for biofuel, a solar desalination facility, a tree nursery, and a water-treatment plant.

The form of the city—itself an experiment in sustainable design—will mirror its function, which is to develop a completely new economic sector. Masdar City is the planned home of the Masdar Initiative, a foreign direct-investment fund for renewable energy technology. The end result, its leaders hope, will be Abu Dhabi’s own version of Silicon Valley.

The irony, of course, is that the United Arab Emirates is both a massive oil exporter and produces more carbon per capita than any other nation on Earth. The Abu Dhabi government’s rhetoric is lofty—Masdar will be a “testing ground for the future of humanity,” its purpose to create “a manifesto for sustainable life”—but it’s not empty: there is money behind it. Lots of money, even with Abu Dhabi now feeling the effect of the recession that has been devastating its neighbour Dubai. Oil brought wealth to the tiny emirate only a generation ago, and leaders know the supply is limited. Masdar is an attempt to ensure future security for a newly rich people.

The timing is canny. As the scientific and political consensus has shifted from if there is a climate crisis to how severe it will be, governments, industries, and citizens are increasingly looking for action to take. While change threatens to disrupt many traditional businesses, others see the transition to a post-fossil-fuel economy as a gold rush in the making. In 2008, for the first time, investments in renewables outpaced those in traditional energy: $140 billion was invested in wind, solar, and others, compared with $110 billion for fossil fuel and nuclear. What was once the marginal turf of environmentalists is now fought over by titans of industry. (The UN predicts renewable energy could create as many as 20 million new jobs over the next decade.)

Despite the economic potential, Canadian government policy—fixated on the tar sands—has not kept pace with science. Short-term thinking, buttressed by entrenched industrial interests, has stunted innovation here. Abu Dhabi, by contrast, has kept a long view, developing a vision for a fossil-fuel-free future, and is working to realize it. The motive is self-interest, but the results have the potential to be world-changing.

Political will, of course, is easy to mobilize in a wealthy monarchy unconstrained by democracy, election cycles, or budgets. But still, in striving to wean its prosperous economy off ever-scarcer fossil fuels, the tiny Muslim territory can be seen as a microcosm for the rest of the world, and one we would do well to take a lesson from. Whether it succeeds or fails—and there are bets placed on both outcomes— the emirate knows something that Canada doesn’t seem to: you can’t build a sustainable future without a blueprint.

Arriving in Abu Dhabi, the 20-kilometre drive from the airport to the city’s centre is quick in time more than distance. People in the UAE drive fast: traffic accidents are the number one cause of death here. Brand new SUVs hurl themselves down a 10-lane desert highway that not too long ago was desert itself. The drive to Dubai takes about an hour, but anyone over 50 will recall when the trip could be made only by camel, taking three or four days.

Abu Dhabi’s history reads like a rags-to-riches screenplay: the largest of the seven independent sheikdoms that comprise the United Arab Emirates, it was a poor pearl-farming outpost for the first 60 years of the 20th century, watching from the sidelines as oil strikes elsewhere in the Persian Gulf made its neighbours rich. When Abu Dhabi’s own huge oil reserves were discovered in 1959, residents expected the new wealth would bring long-awaited modernization, but nothing happened. Crown prince Sheik Shakhbut had grown paranoid from decades of dealing with the British, who maintained a presence in the region, and hoarded the wealth in case he should need it to fight off a military threat. By the mid-1960s, the problem was obvious to all, and Shakhbut was overthrown by his youngest brother, Zayed, kicking off an overnight transformation into a modern petrocracy. The nomadic population traded palm huts for air-conditioned villas, camels were swapped for cars (though there were few roads to drive them on), and high rises sprouted. Each Abu Dhabian received at least two plots of land—one for home, another for business—and a lump-sum cash payment. For most, it was a bewildering windfall: it was not uncommon at the time to see residents unaccustomed to keeping bank accounts leaving banks with cardboard boxes full of cash on their heads.

In 1968, when Britain announced its plan to withdraw from all territories east of the Suez, Zayed—fearing the prospect of being swallowed by a larger neighbour—successfully united the region’s quarreling sheiks under the flag of a federated UAE in 1971. Abu Dhabi is the largest and richest of the emirates, holding 90 percent of the country’s oil, about 10 percent of total global reserves. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the notoriously secretive sovereign wealth fund tasked with keeping the country rich, is thought to be worth about US$350 billion.

Headquarters of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

Headquarters of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. Click to enlarge.

ADIA, as the investment authority is commonly called, makes its home in a 36-storey black skyscraper with rounded edges that wouldn’t look out of place in a Star Wars movie—and it dominates the view from where I am staying. My friends’ Abu Dhabi home is a four-bedroom, four-bathroom apartment, palatial, with marble floors and high ceilings. It rents for US$50,000 per year—a bargain by Abu Dhabi standards. With the influx of Western expatriates seeking large, tax-free incomes here, demand for housing outpaces the supply.

Our 14th floor balcony looks directly onto ADIA’s five-storey, airconditioned parking garage, which is topped by a gym featuring a pool that looks like it should be filled with dollar bills—which, in a way, it is. Water in the UAE is desalinated from the Gulf: nine million tonnes of oil are used each year to turn salty water sweet. (Even so, the UAE is number three in water consumption globally— behind the U.S. and Canada.)

I pour a smaller version of the ADIA pool in my en suite bathtub and think about what’s on the other end of the water pipe. In my imagination, it’s sinister machines belching black smoke while men in robes sit around lighting shisha pipes with dollar bills—but at least they are talking about wind farms.

The truth is the sheiks are talking about oil and wind farms—and Formula One racetracks and branches of the Guggenheim designed by Frank Gehry. Along with the new economic sector represented by Masdar, Abu Dhabi is focusing on tourism, aiming to make itself the cultural centre of the Middle East. Call it bet-hedging. The emirate has a lot to lose. If Masdar is successful, it may just happen that Abu Dhabi, a latecomer to the industrial age, will be among the first out the other side.

Nicholas Parker knows something about trying to move past fossil fuel dependence. The Canadian coined the term “cleantech” eight years ago when he founded Cleantech Group, a venture capital company that specializes in technology and knowledge related to the mitigation of ecological crises. Cleantech as an investment category includes everything from energy production to wastewater management to compliance management, and today, it’s the fastest growing sector there is.

Parker sits in the backyard of his home in Toronto’s High Park neighbourhood on a sunny June day. In a sweatshirt, sandals and socks and khaki pants, he looks much more at home than in the suits his business dealings often demand. Parker comes across as generous, gregarious, and as something of a rebel.

To me, he represents the convergence of environmentalism and business that has become our best hope for progress. “I’ve always had a passion for two things: entrepreneurship—I really celebrate that—and sustainable development, social justice, the environment,” he says. “Most of my life I felt schizophrenic; my lefty friends think I’m a right-winger and my right-wing friends think I’m a hardcore revolutionary.”

Parker says he founded Cleantech to “bring the radical disruptive mentality that exists in Silicon Valley and put it at service of the major sustainability challenges of our time.” That, and he claims to be unemployable. It’s true Parker is hard to pin down. He’s a venture capitalist who hasn’t owned a car for 23 years, a lifelong Liberal—but for a dalliance with the Green Party—and a Zen Buddhist.

In his business, the stakes here are high, both financially and environmentally. “If we’re focusing on energy, this is a $6-trillion-a year industry,” says Parker, adding that no other industry gets measured with numbers close to those for power generation. By now, most people know generally what is at stake with global warming. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that Earth’s average temperature will rise somewhere in the range of 1.1 to 6.4 degrees over pre-industrial times by the end of the century. The IPCC’s overall veracity was called into question last year with the exposure of emails suggesting it used questionable sources to advance questionable claims in its groundbreaking 2007 report, but “Emailgate” aside, these warming estimates are widely believed to be conservative, as actual increases have so far outpaced projections.

Beyond two degrees Celsius, the scenarios become apocalyptic: polar ice caps melt, three-quarters of the world’s species face extinction, and rising sea levels threaten coastal settlements. As it is, we’re 0.7 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures and the carbon we’ve emitted so far has us committed to at least another 0.2 degrees. To avoid the worst, environmental scientists believe we must reduce emissions by 80 percent before 2050. The numbers don’t leave a lot of room for optimism.

Parker’s company is at the forefront of innovation in trying to keep us away from the precipice, and he says he spends a lot of time spurring competition in the race toward a greener future. “My job is to run around telling everyone they’re behind everyone else,” he explains with enthusiasm.

When it comes to the environment, Canada has chosen to lag in pretty much every way. Our Kyoto commitment was a six percent reduction below 1990 levels, but we’ve increased emissions by 22 percent since signing on. Environment Canada attributes this trend primarily to increases in fuel production for export (specifically, the Alberta tar sands), as well as new vehicles on the road and our continued reliance on coal-fired power plants. In keeping with its demonstrated priorities, government spending on clean technologies has been almost entirely earmarked for non-renewable nuclear as well as carbon capture and storage, in which emissions are captured at the source and injected into the ground—at best a technological stop-gap. The Tories’ 2010 budget committed Canada to becoming “a leader in green job creation,” but failed to back the pledge with investment in renewable energy technologies.

Canada’s approach to climate change, or lack thereof, became hard to ignore in the weeks leading up to December’s UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, and during the proceedings, where the Canadian government’s disregard for emissions reduction led to loud international scorn. (For the third year running, Canada won the “Fossil of the Year” award, presented by the Climate Change Action Network to the country that has done the most to obstruct progress on climate change.)

This country’s regressive stance means Parker doesn’t do a lot of business close to home. “Canada doesn’t have a top 10 company in any cleantech category,” he says. “That’s why I live here, and I don’t work here.”

Parker is hopeful about the future, but not convinced we will make enough progress to avoid catastrophe. “I think this is an experiment,” he says, “and it’s quite possible we’ll fail. It’s incredible to be smart enough to know we’re fucking it up and stupid enough to still be doing it—it’s an amazing thing to be a human being.”

José Etcheverry is trying to make sure we succeed. A member of the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University and president of the Canadian Renewable Energy Alliance, Etcheverry argues that a future in which all energy is derived from renewable sources is possible, if only government would wield policy to stoke innovation—not to mention the jobs it would create. “What we need to do is implement policies that make it possible for project developers to do what they do best,” says Etcheverry. “Entrepreneurs are by definition very creative and what we are missing is the political will to open market possibilities and create policies that give people the will to invest.”

This is what Abu Dhabi is trying to do, and it’s hardly a new idea. Denmark currently derives 19 percent of its energy from wind, thanks to an aggressive policy of government incentives implemented in the 1970s, spurred by the energy crisis. The windswept nation used to get 90 percent of its energy from petroleum sources, and the transition was pure self-defence. Today, Denmark is an energy exporter, and has reduced its carbon emissions by 13 percent since 1990.

John M. R. Stone is an adjunct research professor at Carleton University and until recently was on the bureau of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Opportunities here are abundant, he says, but Canada has not stepped up. “We’ve got a prime minister who doesn’t want to tackle this issue, who would prefer if it simply went away,” says Stone. “And the main reason is because he doesn’t know how to square it with the development in the tar sands. It’s unimaginative.”

Parker says there’s no shortage of imagination: researchers have shown that, theoretically, the planet’s total energy needs could be met with solar arrays covering around four percent of the world’s desert (if it were one plot of land, it would be about the size of the Gobi). “You can make deserts into valuable land,” says Parker, “leave the lights on all night, and it won’t matter, if we get this right. We’re five years, maybe 10, from solar being cost competitive from baseload fossil fuel power, so why aren’t we pursuing it?”

In a plush-seated auditorium in Abu Dhabi’s Chamber of Commerce, Masdar’s leaders are gathered for a specific, important purpose: to convince local businesspeople to sign up for the ecocity’s vision. They are having trouble sourcing materials and labour locally due to the stringent green standards inherent in the project. For local companies—providers of everything from lighting systems to floor finishings to roofs—to do business with Masdar, they must first green their own supply chains, rising to the same environmental and ethical standard Masdar has set for itself.

Masdar City is planned to be 99 percent carbon-free, with the remaining one percent (of what a comparably sized community would emit) offset or stored. The city is being constructed using the World Wildlife Fund’s One Planet Living principles, which include zero-carbon and zero waste, as well as sustainable transport, sustainable water and local food.

The WWF initiative began as a public relations campaign designed to communicate the ecological consequences of overconsumption. By 2035, the WWF figured, Earth’s residents would require a second planet, having exhausted the resources of the first. Its involvement in Masdar, however, goes beyond cheerleading. One Planet Living also acts as an accreditation system. Each principle of sustainability is a target that a project must meet in order to get WWF’s seal of approval. According to WWF, Masdar City goes beyond their expectations.

But even with all the political will and money in the world, people need to be convinced that the change is worth the risk.

At the chamber of commerce, a row of men in flowing white dishdashas take turns speaking, introducing Masdar and its aims in an effort to win the attendees to their view. There is interest—the 400-seat room is more than half full—but this is not an easy sell. Sultan Ahmed al Jaber, CEO of Masdar, lectures to the crowd, his talking points jargon-filled and clearly well-rehearsed. “We are going to direct you. But you must look for opportunities and solutions around the world. Contribute to the knowledge transfer, the making of a knowledge economy. You as the private sector have a major role to play. Don’t underestimate your contribution; the opportunity here is huge. The project we are working on now is a paradigm shift. You must be aggressive.”

But the people who have gathered here are still a few chapters back, and with good reason. This, after all, is a city that doesn’t even have a recycling program. “Why is Masdar next to the airport?” asks the first person to stand up. (He is reassured the development is not under any flight path.) Other questions range from how multicultural the city will be to how fast carbon neutrality can realistically be achieved. A cynical comment gets al Jaber back on his feet, full of fight. “We need to make a choice,” he says, fiercely. “We can do what we usually do—sit in the passenger seat and have others develop the technology and sell it to us. Or, we can take that pioneering and become owners of intellectual property and shop it around the world. Which one would you choose?”

As far as al Jaber is concerned, the choice is made, and the big-picture elements are well under way. The Masdar Initiative’s $250-million venture capital fund has invested in about a dozen early-stage companies around the world. One is Atlanta-based EnerTech, which does waste-to-energy conversion. Since coming on board with Masdar as a small shop, it’s signed a contract with the city of Los Angeles, and could end up meeting as much as 20 percent of L.A.’s energy needs through the conversion of septic sludge. (The process is called SlurryCarb, and it works by using heat and pressure to mimic the natural processes that turn once-living materials to fossil fuel.) Masdar also has high-profile investments in projects such as London Array, the world’s largest offshore wind farm.

As an idea, Masdar is irresistible. It’s compelling, the thought of a green utopia springing forth from the desert within the world’s biggest polluter, funded by the oil money of far-sighted sheiks trying to diversify away from a diminishing and damaging resource. And it’s still early enough that Masdar is a blank canvas on which everyone involved can project their fondest hopes.

Gerard Evanden sits overlooking the Thames at a small round table in the Foster and Partners London offices. Evenden, a stylish fortysomething with spiky salt-and-pepper hair, is lead architect for Masdar City. The architectural firm founded by celebrated British architect Lord Norman Foster is a pioneer in sustainable design—the firm renovated Germany’s Reichstag, the world’s first energy-positive parliament building—but Masdar is their biggest project yet, a chance to engineer a complete city from scratch.

Evenden shows me slides illustrating Foster’s vision: pedestrian walkways elevated seven metres off the ground, with driverless electric taxis bustling below and monorails gliding overhead. According to the plan, no resident will ever be more than 150 metres from emissions-free public transit.

“It’s not just about providing power for buildings and it’s not just about collecting energy,” Evenden says. “It’s about everything from the research through to the way people live, through to the way people move.” Evenden believes Masdar is the most important project in the world right now, and for this team of architects, it’s a dream come true.

Others, however, think of it more as a pipe dream. Christopher Davidson is a fellow at the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Durham University in the U.K., who studies the UAE, and has published numerous books on the region. He points out the political dimensions to Abu Dhabi’s motives. As a monarchy, he says, Abu Dhabi continuously needs to prove itself legitimate. “Abu Dhabi in the past couple of years has hit on a fantastic new legitimacy resource, which is championing the environment,” says Davidson. “It’s political and economic. Anyone who claims that Abu Dhabi can diversify away from oil and all related industries is living in a dream cloud. That’s just not accurate.”

But that doesn’t mean its leaders can’t have it both ways. “Despite the titillation we may feel over Abu Dhabi, a massive oil exporter, doing this, once we get over that irony, I think what we can see is a great initiative,” Davidson continues. “They’ve seized on a great opportunity, and in the long term, they might become an international hub for environmental industry.”

When I reach John Stone on the phone, he has just come from a meeting at Parliament in Ottawa—a gathering of a conservation caucus that brings together MPs with scientists and members of NGOs to talk about environmental issues. “They even listened to me,” he jokes.

Stone points out that it’s possible now, with existing technology, to rapidly move to a low-carbon future, and questions why we in Canada are not doing just that. “We should be working as hard as we can toward a new energy system that is carbon free, if possible,” says Stone. “And we have the technologies that we need already: photovoltaics, solar thermal, wind and the like. We basically know what we need to do. We just need to go on and do it.”

Despite the federal government’s foot-dragging, there’s more hope at the regional level. Etcheverry calls Ontario’s energy legislation the most progressive on the continent: the Green Energy Act of May 2009 is the first in North America to mandate feed-in tariffs, compelling electricity utilities to pay renewable energy providers at a premium rate. The law makes it possible for every home, office building, or neighbourhood to produce renewable energy and guarantees a market to sell it. Such a system currently provides 12.5 percent of Germany’s electricity, and adds about $2.20 to the average German home’s monthly energy bill. Solar City, a development in Freiburg, Germany, produces all its own electricity from solar arrays (in one of the cloudiest spots in Europe) and sells the surplus into the grid. A combination energy plant in Kassel, Germany, sells wind and solar power, and switches on biogas combustion to meet peak demand. Based on the Combined Power Plant, German scientists believe that country could be powered entirely with renewables within 40 years.

“It’s very difficult to make a quantum leap if you’re stepping into the unknown,” says Etcheverry about imagining a different future. “For me it’s easy. I have solar power in my own house, and have seen what others have done, and what we could do if we got our collective act together.”

Currently, nearly 60 percent of Canada’s grid is powered by a renewable source: hydro. Other renewables are a tiny 0.5 percent, with the balance coming from coal, natural gas and nuclear. According to world average numbers from the Canadian Renewable Energy Alliance, coal is still the least expensive power source at four to seven cents per kilowatt hour. Wind comes in second at six to nine cents, followed by nuclear at 10 to 13 cents (CanREA factored building-cost overruns into its equation). Expensive carbon capture and storage facilities, which are key to “cleaner coal” schemes, will soon push the price of coal above 12 cents per kWh. The prices for solar and coal are expected to meet within the decade.

Traditional problems with renewables—only being able to produce power when the sun shines or the wind blows—still pose challenges. The most compelling fix is to reconfigure the energy grid as a two-way, distributed system linking together many different types of generation facilities. The same redundancy and flexibility is what makes the internet possible: when one node fails, others pick up the slack. The electricity equivalent, advocates say, would be greener, more efficient, and more resilient.

But business as usual is tempting. It’s easier, for one, and there is still a lot of money to extract from the ground. North America is sitting on a lot of coal—probably enough to last at least 300 years, if we don’t mind tearing mountaintops off to get it. Oil has maybe 100 years; accessible uranium, 40. But climate change is the real catalyst for developing alternatives. From an ecological perspective, diminishing oil stocks are irrelevant. “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones,” quips Stone, “and the oil age is not going to end because we’ve run out of oil.”

When it comes to energy and climate change, the path forward is as fundamentally uncomplicated as it is urgent. It’s last call for the oil age. The only question now is, how long until we kick the old drunk out of the bar?

Artist's rendering of the completed Masdar City development. Click to enlarge.

Artist's rendering of the completed Masdar City development. Click to enlarge.

A sign at the entrance to the Masdar site dwarfs everything around it. At its top is an aerial illustration of what the city will look like on completion. The rest of it lists the various businesses that are partnering to make it happen.

Masdar’s associates undoubtedly feel good about the project’s noble cause, but the sign would be empty if these companies weren’t making money. The Masdar Initiative is a business: the city is intended to be a magnet for foreign investment, the eventual home of 1,500 companies looking to profit from clean technology. The physical city is one big carbon offset project, generating carbon credits that will be sold on international markets. There is no ambiguity: the motive here is financial; environmental benefits are a bonus. Regardless of the reason for its existence, the Masdar Initiative shows what clearly defined policy and political leadership can do.

Through its two facets, the city and the initiative, Masdar shows that climate change is both an individual problem and a macro one, and that the best tool for change is policy. The city, with its emphasis on living lightly, while retaining a high standard of living, shows what individuals—in intelligently planned surroundings—can do. The initiative is political and economic, creating an environment favourable to the pursuit of alternatives.

There are politicians in Canada who have attempted, in smaller ways, to use policy to fight climate change. Stéphane Dion wanted to put a price on carbon to reduce emissions, but his Green Shift plan—centred on a carbon tax—failed to connect with voters. Similarly, B.C. premier Gordon Campbell did not come away unscathed after implementing a revenue-neutral carbon tax. The public knee jerks at the mention of the word “tax,” but just as there is consensus among scientists that humans are changing the climate, economists are in agreement that carbon pricing is essential if we are serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Before the October 2008 federal election, 230 of Canada’s leading economists from universities across the country signed an open letter to the federal parties urging a coherent economic plan to combat climate change. “In the absence of policy, individuals generally don’t take the environmental consequences of their actions into account, and the result is a ‘market failure’ and excessive levels of pollution,” reads the letter, which goes on to warn: “Even those who are not convinced by today’s scientific evidence need to consider the costs of not acting now. Any action (including inaction) will have substantial economic consequences and, thus, economics lies at the heart of the debate on climate change.”

Industrialization produced the emissions that threaten the climate balance, and moving to a low-carbon society must also largely be driven by economics. Yale University economist William Nordhaus believes that all the conflict and contortions of 2009’s Copenhagen summit, and the next round of wrangling scheduled for November 2010 in Cancún, Mexico, could be avoided if the world could simply agree on a price for carbon. He told a pre-Copenhagen conference that “to bet the world’s climate system on the Kyoto approach is a reckless gamble. Taxation is a proven instrument. Taxes may be unpopular, but they work. The Kyoto model is largely untested and the experience we have tells us it will not meet our objective—to stabilize the world climate system.”

The threat to polar bears may not stir their consciences, but slashand-burn capitalists will respond to threats to their pocketbooks: Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, projected in 2006 that investing one percent of global GDP in emission-reduction measures would spare the world an economic contraction of as much as 20 percent this century. As an investment, that’s a winner. (Two years later, Stern has revised his figure to two percent because climate change is progressing more rapidly than anticipated.)

The first evacuations directly attributable to man-made climate change occurred in 2009 in the Carteret Islands in the South Pacific without much fanfare. If we were paying more attention to such evidence, we would be sprinting toward a clean energy future. Instead, we have been sauntering. As people have discovered there’s money to be made, it’s picked up to a jog. As Parker says, “We’re learning. But the problem is that the situation is deteriorating faster than we’re learning.” Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the economics favour action. “The longer we delay,” says Stone, “the graver the threat, and the more expensive it will be to address.”

There are lessons to be learned from the desert, and they are familiar ones. We’ve mustered political will for important things before. “Other prime ministers have said we will have railroads that will connect the country from coast to coast,” says Etcheverry. “We will have public health care, we will have a Canadian broadcasting corporation, and so on. The big 21st century Canadian project is making our country a generator of clean power, truly clean power. And it could make us rich in the process.”

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