Sunday, July 24, 2011

My thoughts on our dependence on fossil fuels

Moving to an economy not based on fossil fuels is a challenge. The Liberals tried to steer us in that direction by introducing a carbon tax, but of course that went nowhere. It's like saying to an alcoholic, "You can keep drinking, but now you have to pay us a fee every time you have a drink. The bigger the drink, the bigger the fee." But is a carbon tax the reasonable choice? I suggest that it is, but we don't have the stomach for it or a lot of political will to make it happen - too risky.

The problem is that our economy is so dependent on fossil fuel that the biggest players fear what a carbon tax would do. Let's face it, we depend on fossil fuel and its derivatives for so much. Fuel for our vehicles, heating our homes and businesses, industrial applications, plastics, the list goes on. Worse, much of what we consume depends on fuel to get from the source of the raw material to the production facility and on to our stores. Then to our homes.

The thing about a non-renewable resource is that it is an independent economic machine in its own right. As the availability of a resource gets to the point where it cannot meet the demand for that resource, its value increases. But the industries that are part of the supply of this resource not only charge more money for the resource, they also generate more taxes. So not only does industry benefit when the price goes up, but there is a domino effect that ripples through the economy. The only ones who suffer are the consumers, but when there are few alternatives to heating, energy production, plastics, energy to propel our vehicles, there's not much that can be done.

As time goes on, fossil fuel will become more precious, driving up all costs associated with the use of that fuel. This is great for anyone with stocks (or jobs) in the oil and gas industry. Unfortunately, the profits made on the backs of fossil fuel dependence are not being used to pave the way for the inevitable alternatives we will need to seek, develop and perfect before fossil fuel becomes so expensive as to negatively impact on the economy and the standard of living. So in principle, what the Liberals tried to do by introducing a carbon tax was the wise approach. The more you use fossil fuel, the more you pay, while research and development into the alternative energy sources are funded by the extra tax. Why should the alternatives be funded? To speed their development in order to make alternatives viable and affordable in time for the necessary switch to other sources of energy and raw material for things like plastics. The carbon tax not only makes it more expensive to continue relying on fossil fuels, it makes it cheaper to use alternatives. Here's an analogy: If junk food were 5 times as expensive (due to a junk food tax) as it is now, people would be more likely to buy things like fruit for snacks. Plus, the extra money derived from the junk food tax could be used to help society switch to healthier foods.

Canadians (or at least - Conservative Canadians) seem to have adopted the stance that a carbon tax is an attack on the fossil fuel industry. They're not entirely wrong - it is. But if the industry were using its profits to ease the transition to an alternative energy economy now, a carbon tax wouldn't be necessary. The fossil fuel industry and all of its allies seem to have blinders on, spending money only on future exploration, extraction, processing and delivery of fuel, while ignoring the need to prepare for the day when the cost will make this fuel too expensive for the average consumer, never mind the fact that there won't be enough to go around.

Some countries have the right idea, having implemented a carbon tax anywhere from last year to decades ago. This money can be used to invest in the energy sources of tomorrow, so that when we have to start switching, the cost should be reasonable and potentially less than what we pay now. Simple economics says that a renewable source of energy should cost less considering that it won't run out. We just need to motivate ourselves to begin the transition now.

How do we do that? By weaning ourselves off of the oily teat by adopting new lifestyles, new behaviours and new technologies. In North America, we construct what must be the most energy-inefficient homes in the world. Even in countries that have a winter similar to ours, advanced home construction renders new homes so well insulated that they can be heated with one small space heater. These homes also stay cooler in the summer. Our cities are all planned around cars. Not only do we go out of our way to accommodate cars over every other mode of transportation, we spend billions trying to keep these infrastructures repaired - no easy task. Our entitlement attitude toward the car is so ingrained in North American society that people actively protest when bicycle infrastructure is planned that would interfere with vehicular traffic. The general attitude is that transit is for poor people, engine idling is a right, speed limits are for wimps, and cyclists are militant hippies with a Jehovah's Witness-like conversion mentality. I'm actually surprised that there aren't discussions over the viability of sidewalks. "Down with sidewalks! We need more car lanes!"

Planning priority needs to switch to mass transit based infrastructure. Our Mayor Naheed Nenshi said it best when he stated that transit shouldn't be the last resort, it should be the preferred option by the general public. The only way we can beat our dependence on fossil fuel is to tilt the scales in favour of the alternatives. The ring road around Calgary should have opened with a car pool / HOV lane already built into it. Deerfoot Trail should have an HOV lane, even if it means widening the road. Bus routes need revamping to make it easier and faster to get from any point A to any point B in the city, not just from the outskirts to downtown. We need to stop talking about modernizing mass transit and get it done today. We need high speed mass transportation - on the ground. We need to build neighbourhoods that allow for bicycle freeways, the sharing of cars, the sharing of the production of hot water and electricity. We need to revisit the idea of locally produced food, even food grown in our own front and back yards. Locally produced food is expensive to buy not because it is more expensive to grow, but because there isn't enough of it. Besides, the way fuel costs keep rising, the cost of importing food will soon outpace the cost of growing it in small batches near our homes. We could even grow tropical produce if we built heated greenhouses using waste energy from local power plants and situated them near to the power plant.

We need to start building more wind farms in windy areas, develop new wind harnessing technologies that are less harmful to wildlife, more appealing to the eye and have the ability to store energy for times of peak usage. We need to develop and harness existing methods of storing energy to make wind power more viable. Places in Europe have already done this, which is why they are able to use wind to power more of the grid than we can.

There are countless deserts that could supply the world with solar energy and if we can fins a way to capture the sun's raw energy outside of our atmosphere and get it down to the ground, we won't even be having this conversation anymore. The supply of energy available outside of our atmosphere is unfathomable.

So the next time you fill up, think about what your life would be like once the price of gas reaches $3 per litre and it costs $400 to fill up that truck. Or an orange is worth $5 in the grocery store because of how much it cost to get shipped to your city. Or your winter natural gas bill reaches $300 for one month. Or your electricity bill is $300 per month because in your location, the local plants burn natural gas. Or the price of milk doubles because the plastic container is much more expensive to make due to the cost of oil. Wouldn't you rather have other alternatives to fossil fuels already available to switch to at this point? At the pace we're going, I'm not convinced we will have them.

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