Are we voting with our wallets to overheat the planet?
Polls show we want to save the world from climate change but maybe not if it costs us
A "glass half full" report from the International Energy Agency out Tuesday does its best to be encouraging about the world's attempts to keep the planet from burning up.
But while saying it "remains possible" to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 C — considered a crucial limit to prevent the floods and droughts and fires from getting worse — the report is making waves in the oil and gas sector by declaring that the only way to reach that target is to cut fossil fuel output by 30 per cent in the next seven years.
Aly Hyder Ali, the oil and gas program manager with the advocacy group Environmental Defence, celebrates what he calls the first report to say that fossil fuel production would peak and decline this decade. But he says Canada and other rich countries are not doing enough.
"Current emissions reduction pledges from countries around the world are not ambitious enough to prevent further climate catastrophes," he said.
Impediment to prosperity
The trouble with battling climate change is that it is expensive. While optimists insist everything will turn out right in the end, there are signs that in the short term, governments, lobbied by the enormously profitable fossil fuel industry, may be unwilling to pay that price.
The IEA report — an update to its Net Zero Roadmap — flies in the face of statements just a week ago in Calgary where Saudi Arabia's Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud insisted increases in oil prices must be modest. And therefore, so should any output cuts.
The world must ensure that "energy is still affordable, and does not act as an impediment to economic prosperity and growth," he told the World Petroleum Congress.
But according to the IEA, an independent agency funded by governments through the OECD, inexpensive oil may not be what the future holds if governments fail to spend trillions of dollars more on clean energy technology.
"Prolonged high [oil and gas] prices would result if the decline in fossil fuel investment in this scenario were to precede the expansion of clean energy and the action to cut overall energy demand," said the report.
In other words, climate investment must come first or gas prices will spike.
The IEA's argument is a simple economic one. When governments invest in alternatives to fossil fuels, the demand for fossil energy will fall. And as demand falls, existing oil production will be sufficient to keep prices stable.
Counting the cost
The trouble is, repeated evidence shows spending on the kind of technology the world needs to keep fuel prices affordable is failing to keep pace with IEA targets.
In its latest net-zero outlook, the agency says a boom in clean energy tech would decrease the need for fossil fuels by 25 per cent by 2030 and 80 per cent by by 2050. But that transition will require the current global spending of $1.8 trillion US a year to rise to $4.5 trillion US.
U.S. oil giant Exxon has expressed doubts that will happen, saying world temperature gains will cross the 2 C barrier and that emissions will only decline 25 per cent by 2050.
"The underlying problem is that most mainstream politicians have embraced a convenient half-truth about climate change," writes Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times, warning that growing populist backlash could block the green transition.
Populism could derail the green transition <a href="https://t.co/aiWLVJeE2h">https://t.co/aiWLVJeE2h</a>—@fteconomics
Essentially, writes Rachman, green-friendly politicians have been ignoring the true costs of making the transition both in budgetary spending and in rising consumer anger, notably over gasoline prices. As governments face other budget demands and worry about short-term economic declines, their resolve is weakening.
Evidence includes U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's move last week to delay British climate goals, including a five-year delay in the ban on gas-burning cars and a nine-year delay in the phasing out of natural gas heaters. And there are fears that this kind of rollback could spread. Canada's Pierre Poilievre has promised to cut the carbon tax if elected. Former U.S. president and Republican front-runner Donald Trump offered rave reviews for Sunak's action.
"I always knew Sunak was smart, that he wasn't going to destroy and bankrupt his nation for fake climate alarmists that don't have a clue," Trump wrote on social media.
Hyder Ali points to the Liberal government's repeated delays in capping emissions by the Canadian oil and gas industry, which he attributes at least partly to massive lobbying by the lucrative industry.
And it's not just climate-skeptical politicians who are voting with their wallets. Canadians with the cash to do so continue to jet around the world and cough up for trucks and large SUVs. They don't like expensive gas.
Signs of backsliding
Despite signs of backsliding, Rachel Doran, director of policy and strategy at Clean Energy Canada, a think-tank based at Simon Fraser University, remains optimistic that people will look past the short-term costs of stopping climate change.
"Our continued expansion of fossil fuels threatens to undermine our ability to achieve our climate target," said Doran. "As we've witnessed this past year, Canada's big oil companies are already walking back their climate commitments."
But Doran remains convinced that Canadian consumers will lead the way, partly because repeated polls show they care about the climate, but also because it will save them money.
In a report out this morning Clean Energy Canada calculates that the owner of a detached home in Toronto can save $800 a month on energy bills mostly by going green.
Doran calls the idea that people must choose between the climate and affordability "a false dichotomy."
"These are choices for everyone and they are just better, they're more efficient and they're more affordable," said Doran and the same applies to investment by business focused governments.
"The export opportunities of tomorrow for Canada are going to be in clean energy industries," she said. "These are the industries that are growing globally whether or not Canada enacts its own climate policies."
Note: This is Don's last article as a business columnist for CBC as he retires and anticipates his next adventure.