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Energy transitions have historically taken many decades, half centuries. But now, to stay under even a 2C (and not the much safer 1.5C) global rise in temperature, greenhouse gas emissions must be halved in each of the upcoming decades. Climate change is now a sprint with heavy emission reduction needed as quickly as possible.

A carbon pricing aided decarbonization where renewables eventually out compete and replace fossil fuels – the ‘slow transition’ – could have been a successful climate mitigation path if effectively initiated by major economies in the 1990s. There was enough carbon budget and time for this climate mitigation approach to work without causing too much economic dislocation and pain. If the economic elites of the time had been onside and not economically fearful, we would today be well on our way to successful climate mitigation and without the terrible climate predicament hanging over our collective heads.

Canada’s Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate is a prime example of carbon pricing aided decarbonization. Today, given three decades of inaction, it’s pretend mitigation: ineffectual – won’t even make the old Harper-era targets, far too late, and mostly a farce that just wastes precious time. As climate scientist Damon Matthews explains:

” (W)e haven’t even started to talk about what might be ‘possible’ and are still mostly arguing about what is ‘feasible without compromising economic growth.’ These are of course extremely different things, and the latter will not get us anywhere near the 1.5 degrees C target.”

A Green New Deal(GND)plan to achieve a more rapid transition from fossil fuels by developing and implementing a ‘big government plan’ to build out renewable capacity (and use the opportunity to accomplish needed progressive change at the same time), could have probably worked if initiated with sustained support as late as the end of the Naughties.

There was still enough carbon budget for a more rapid transition; there was still the opportunity for working within economic and political business as usual (BAU). Government organization and investment would speed up the transition providing a new energy source for the prevailing economic evolution.

But today a rapidly shrinking carbon budget and increasingly dire climate science (for example, here and here) now necessitates emergency government because emission reduction has to occur far faster than is possible within political and economic BAU even with a big government intervention. We are approaching if not already crossing possible thresholds to dangerous climate change and civilization collapse or worse. After at least three decades of failure climate is an emergency.

There no longer is the time for renewables to seamlessly out compete fossil fuels even with a GND. There is no longer time to completely replace 100% of the energy now provided by fossil fuels. Deep systemic change to our socio-economy – not just a differing energy source – is now needed. Effective emission reduction will require emergency wartime-style governments and fossil fuel non-proliferation treaties.

This emergency government path to effective climate mitigation stands even less chance of success than the failed carbon price aided decarbonization or the mooted GND, but unless there’s a presently not understood miracle mitigation path, emergency government is our only remaining path and last chance. The sooner we get to emergency government the better the chance of mitigation success that would allow our civilization’s continuing evolution.

Unfortunately, pollutocrats rule; publics and even policymakers are fed convenient denial, and informed debate about effectively regulating a now potentially fatal toxin isn’t even allowed.

There is still a bright, hopeful future possible if we can get all of us onside, bi-partisan at home and internationally, concerning the real and now existential climate danger and the daunting scale of transition needed. It is still possible to conceive of a rapid managed decline of fossil fuels that keeps us at least below 2C. We could use our present immense wealth, tech expertise and emerging grassroots societal innovation to transition and survive what was always going to be a difficult transition from fossil fuel use.

There could still be a safer post-carbon future. There are many reasons to believe that if we could make such a transition we could all thrive in an even better socio-economy. But we must escape denial to responsibly consider effective mitigation that might still be possible.

Responsibly: we all have so much to lose and Canada is the world’s fourth largest producer of fossil fuels.

Bill Henderson is a climate activist


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