I first became aware of climate change in 2004 when, in my teen years, comedian Rick Mercer jumped on my television to promote the One Tonne Challenge, an imperfect attempt by our federal government to place the burden of decarbonization on citizens rather than industry or leadership. The program was a short-lived failure, but was enough to spark in me a lifetime of research and advocacy on this most dire of subjects, threatening by way of droughts, hurricanes, heatwaves, forest fires and the exacerbation of mass extinction, the very foundations of society.
It’s a lot to absorb in your teen years, that the bright, shining future gifted to you might just as easily be snatched away by the brazen and unrepentant burning of fossil fuels, but in spite of regressive administrations we’ve since been making progress. Renewable energies have made some exceptional strides in the last decade, going from a minority in the market to a powerhouse which, in some places, has outpaced fossil fuels in affordability, overall investment, employment even practicality. In time, it seems assured, the scales will tip.
But it’s not happening fast enough. In order to avoid the more apocalyptic consequences of climate change we need to achieve dramatic reductions in carbon emissions by 2030, and cure ourselves of archaic carbon completely by 2050. The market is on our side, but we need to do better. The scales must be made to tip early.
The problem is that for sometime now, we Canadians have been actively incentivizing fossil fuels, throwing our weight on the wrong end of the scale in order to prop up an industry which should be shoved into irrelevancy. The numbers are difficult to come across, given a staggering lack of transparency in recent years, but our federal and provincial governments are collectively subsidizing the fossil fuel industry with something like $3.3 billion annually, with some estimates higher still, as Alberta shovels still more public money in that direction. It’s a shameful statistic that each and every Canadian is personally contributing about $100 a year to this wholly absurd enterprise. Here we are on a dying planet, going so far as to declare a national climate emergency while cutting cheques to one of its four horsemen.
Yes, we have invested in renewable energy as well, but these investments are undermined where these $3.3 billion are concerned, dispensed by way of tax breaks and handouts. So outrageous are these subsidies that our last two governments have pledged to discontinue them, but they’ve grown if anything. We are being cheated, not only of our money but of our future, teased with the vague promise of jobs while ignoring one of our most promising emerging industries – those solar and wind farms intent on powering and employing a nation.
So, let us return to that idea of tipping the scales, illustrated just recently in a report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development. It found that the global fossil fuel industry is subsidized with about $490 billion (Canadian) every year, compared to $132 billion in global subsidies for renewables. This same study concluded that if 10-30 per cent of these fossil fuel subsidies were redirected to support renewables instead, we would enable a tectonic shift in our energy infrastructure. The scales may tip in time to avoid the worst of climate change, if only we’d stop funding the end of the world.
“A swap,” the report concluded, “could magnify the contributions to long-term, permanent emission reductions while bringing additional economic and social benefits, in particular in relation to jobs, public health and gender equality.”
In case you haven’t checked the news, a plethora of heatwaves have been ravishing the forests, glaciers, crops and permafrost of the world in recent weeks, setting records as they go and impressing on us the significance of our place in history, and the mounting consequences of inaction. Not all the solutions to our climate crisis are so straightforward as a redirection of fossil fuel subsidies, but let’s not scoff at low hanging fruit and remind our leadership that their ongoing investments in carbon are beyond unacceptable, and that $3.3 billion will buy a lot of solar panels.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.