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Thinking Outside the Crisis: Decarbonized or Destitute?

in Analysis/Beyond COVID/Featured/Longread by

This article is part of the Independent’s ongoing series, Thinking Outside the Crisis. Read Robin Whitaker’s introduction here.


We live in profoundly disturbing times. Thousands are dying from COVID-19. Governments around the world have been forced to grind life-as-usual to a halt to slow its spread. Canada’s economy has been put into an induced coma, and the worst is likely yet to come. We don’t know what the world will look like after the pandemic, but we know it will be different.

Which outcome we face will be determined by decisions that our leaders are making right now, and in the actions the public takes to support those decisions. We will feel the impacts of these choices in terms of lives saved or lost within weeks to months.

But public health decisions are not the only ones being made. Governments everywhere are crafting the biggest spending plans that any of us are likely to see in our lifetimes. In this unprecedented situation, elected officials have the power, and likely the public support, to spend almost limitlessly to reactivate economic activity across the country. The question they now must face is whether to try to restart to where we were before, or re-shape it into something new.

In times of trouble, there can be comfort in familiarity. Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, that may mean politicians telling themselves that the petroleum sector will save us. But doubling down on petroleum is a dangerous gamble. We can heart oil and gas all we want—it doesn’t heart us back.

Hibernia has stopped new drilling and mass layoffs are not far behind. Bay du Nord—which was supposed to provide $3.5 Billion in direct revenue to the government—is on hold. Royalties, already having lost most of their value since oil’s price peak, have bottomed out. Even the Come By Chance refinery is shuttered for the time being. No matter how much we subsidize, support, or propagandize for this sector it is not there for our workers when we need it most.

The current fiscal strategy for Newfoundland and Labrador boils down to praying for two geopolitical outcomes: first, that petroleum cartels enact policy that drives up oil prices; and second, that the clean energy revolution fails, maintaining demand for petroleum but immiserating current and future generations through the countless horrors that climate change will inflict on us all.

Flattening the Curve

The last few weeks have shown us that our choice is not decarbonization or petroleum. It’s decarbonization or nothing. Even if oil prices bounce back for a while, the vulnerability remains as the inexorable march towards clean energy continues. Chinese company GCL Integration Systems is building a factory that can produce 60 GW of solar panels per year—every year—for export around the world. Major auto manufacturers are pivoting to electric vehicles, which are already cutting into petroleum consumption. And economies of scale will soon drive the purchase price of electric vehicles below gas-consuming cars. Even now, during what could become the second Great Depression, we are seeing a serial collapse of petroleum projects, but sustained (albeit reduced) growth of renewable energy.

The very notion of the irreplaceability of the fossil fuel sector in Canada is a myth perpetuated by imprecise language and fuzzy statistics. Recently, Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan released a statement that the Canadian the oil sector “powers” 576,000 jobs. But Natural Resources Canada’s figures show in 2018 there were just 169,358 people employed in this sector—0.9% of Canada’s total employment (a figure that has almost certainly decreased since the pandemic began). This is despite the massive ongoing subsidies the industry enjoys, often at the expense of supporting other sectors.

In the meantime, the Canadian clean energy sector is booming. In 2017, it supported just under 300,000 jobs, and is forecasted to increase to 559,400 jobs by 2030—whereas oil and gas is expected to shed a further 50,000 positions. While energy is an important part of Canada’s economy, oil represents just one subset of that portfolio, shrinking year over year relative to renewables despite governments taking radical steps like gutting environmental law at the behest of the petroleum sector.

Specific job numbers depend on who you count as direct or indirect, but the trend is inescapable. Industries that are good for climate are better investments than those that aren’t.

Decarbonization is not just an economic transition. It is a matter of necessity and justice. Any revenue we get from oil today is akin to a cash advance on a credit card, leaving children to pay the bill, with interest. This cost is not metaphorical. There are literal cleanup costs, whether from abandoned wells, inevitable oil spills, the innumerable health problems from polluted air, or the incalculable damage that climate change is already bringing to societies everywhere.

With both COVID-19 and climate change, actions taken today will echo into the future. The impacts of flattening the infection curve are felt in days or weeks. For greenhouse gases, it takes years and decades. But in both cases, the consequences of making the wrong decision today are not felt immediately: they are felt in time, as the problem becomes exponentially worse. When we invest a public dollar in the petroleum industry or in infrastructure that depends on fossil fuels, we put that dollar to work against our children.

Rather than exacerbate the problem, governments at all levels should take three immediate steps to build us out of this immediate health crisis and into a position to lead the world out of the climate crisis as well.

Spending for the Common Good

First: leaders must stop debating whether it is “worth it” to decarbonize. The evidence is irrefutable. Every serious analysis shows it is cheaper to act now, both because renewable energy yields tremendous cost reductions and because the foregone damage from climate change delivers substantial savings in the long run.

Rather than bicker about whether to decarbonize, it’s time to figure out how best to do it. And this requires a plan.

All levels of government must put forward decarbonization plans and pledge to fund and implement them. These plans should align with science-based emissions reduction targets required to build a world that remains below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming—the “safest limit” defined under the Paris climate agreement. These plans must focus on real emissions reductions: not offsets, imaginary carbon capture technology, or other nonsense. As Dr. Haggie memorably said about COVID-19: Stop looking for loopholes. We need real plans that bring Canada’s emissions down aggressively and fast, while building up the industries that we need to sustain prosperity.

This will not be easy. But COVID-19 is showing us that seeming impossibilities can quickly become essential. So let’s make 1.5 C our goal and work backwards from there.

Some analysts complain that fossil fuel dependence means Canada will have a harder time decarbonizing than other countries. Too bad. Canada is one of the biggest greenhouse gas polluters in the world in both per capita and absolute terms, so what we do matters to everyone. And Canada is this way not because of some immovable divine intervention, but because of choices made by governments past and present that have locked us into this system.

But governments cannot use the process of creating a plan as an excuse to delay action until the plan is complete.

So, second: government must immediately start spending considerable stimulus money on projects that will materially improve the lives of Canadians while reducing emissions and costs. Examples include electricity transmission infrastructure; subsidies for home insulation and heat pump retrofits; expanding and electrifying public transportation and making it free to users; electric vehicle charging stations; cycling and walking infrastructure; and so on. We do not need to wait for a comprehensive plan to do these. The money they cost up front will create jobs in the immediate term and savings in the long run. Even if we are not perfectly efficient in delivering them, these programs are good investments that bend the emissions curve while benefiting people directly.

Third: governments must commit clearly and unequivocally that any stimulus dollars for the fossil fuel sector will be tied to actions that directly alleviate suffering—cleaning up abandoned oil wells, for example, while also crafting policy that ensures future polluters must pay the costs themselves—or that help industry workers move into new, sustainable jobs that are already becoming the true backbone of the Canadian economy. Doing so may mean adopting policies that were previously considered radical, like wage guarantees or fully-funded retraining programs to enable highly-skilled workers to transition to renewable energy and associated jobs.

We’re In This Together

I imagine by this point, you are reacting in one of two ways. You may be cheering, in which case please do so loudly and advocate for these actions to whoever will listen, but especially to politicians (see below for contacts). And if you have decision-making power yourself, please use this power to act.

But you may also be seething with rage at the unkind things I have said about the petroleum sector. If you’re in this category, I’d like to address you directly.

Look: I’m just the messenger. Reality has caught up with us. Now it’s time to make a choice. If you have the courage to join us, I will be the first to welcome you to the community of climate hawks who are working every day to try to fix this problem.

Decarbonization advocates have always been right. Climate scientists were right about fossil fuels causing climate change, and they were right about the dangers of greenhouse gases. Engineers and energy planners were right about the viability of renewable energy. Economists were right about carbon pricing and the risk of stranded assets. Biologists were right about the impact of climate change on biodiversity. And all of us were right about the economic risks of being dependent on a single commodity that, it must again be emphasized, poses an unprecedented threat to life as we know it.

I believe that you, as a petroleum advocate, are doing what you believe is right. At minimum, you see the current course as a way to provide for your family. Perhaps you also see it as a way to support your province and country. But the facts on the ground have changed. What worked before is no longer viable, and we are now experiencing the consequences of failing to adapt.

There is no shame in changing your views and actions as new evidence arises. I’m not asking you to become an environmentalist. I’m not even asking you to walk away from your job in the sector, if you still have one. I am asking you to become part of the solution: to help us make sure that a green job is ready for you when you need it.

Whoever you are, you have something to offer, and especially if you have been a major advocate for oil, now is the time to help out.

Climate hawks have never called for shutting down oil overnight. We have consistently advocated for a managed decline of oil consumption, in line with scientifically-derived targets and in concordance with a massive, urgent build-up of the renewable energy sector. We have advocated for workers to be placed at the centre of this transition, through wage guarantees, re-training, and significant government investment in the industries and technologies that can power our economy and position us as true leaders. And we understand that a small proportion of a barrel of oil is currently used as raw material to make things, so there will likely be a need—albeit a greatly reduced one—for fossil fuels into the future. Perhaps your oil rig will provide that barrel, and your role is to help us shut all the other ones down in the meantime.

Help us advocate for policy that will build these new industries alongside your own, as oil and gas extraction declines in a managed, rather than chaotic way. We need your skills and knowledge now more than ever, directed towards building a renewable economy that can work for all of us over the long term.

Newfoundland and Labrador is at a fork in the road. Our leaders can double down on a sector that is demonstrably failing, thereby impoverishing the people of this province. Or, they can embrace something new that can actually work.

Only a few of us have direct control over which road we take, but the rest of us can push them towards the right choice. I hope you’ll join me in doing so.

Key Political Contacts:

Federal:
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: pm@pm.gc.ca, or at https://pm.gc.ca/en/connect/contact, @JustinTrudeau
Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan: Seamus.ORegan@parl.gc.ca, @SeamusORegan
Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson: Jonathan.Wilkinson@parl.gc.ca, @JonathanWNV
Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Catherine McKenna: Catherine.McKenna@parl.gc.ca, @cathmckenna

Provincial:
Premier Dwight Ball: Premier@Gov.nl.ca, @PremierofNL
Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady: NRMinister@gov.nl.ca

Dr. Brett Favaro is a research scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Simon Fraser University, and the author of The Carbon Code: How You Can Become a Climate Change Hero (Johns Hopkins University Press). Dr. Favaro was a lead organizer of DecarbonizeNL.

Photo by Megan Sutherland.

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