NASA data released earlier this month showed that average surface temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere surpassed 2 degrees above ‘normal’ for the first time, as February temperatures smashed heat records.
The ‘terrifying’ milestone, measured against a 1951-1980 baseline, makes last December’s COP 21 agreement to contain carbon emissions even more critical in ways that will be felt one way or another in New Brunswick.
As New Brunswick heads towards municipal elections this May, and provincial and federal governments finalize their budget allocations for the coming year, it is worth taking stock of what is to come, and what we need to do.
New Brunswick’s government sent five delegates to the Paris conference. They should at least have a clearer picture of the heavy lifting now ahead.
The Paris Conference agreed to pursue 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels as the upper limit for climate change, requiring much more ambitious emissions cuts.
Both the new and old 2oC targets require reigning in the industrial production of oil and gas, and a rapid transition to low carbon economies and forms of living. The high carbon ways of life we currently take for granted, along with the business models that depend on them, are soon coming to an end.
Carbon Tracker, an investment consulting group based in London (UK), estimates that to keep emissions within the previously agreed 2oC limit, about 75% of the world’s known reserves of oil and gas will have to remain in the ground. It is an inconvenient fact that is increasingly being factored into market decisions, as investors begin to realize that oil and gas are useless – or stranded – assets.
No doubt, new technologies, especially those driving energy efficiency, such as smart grids, and automobile superchargers, not to mention solar and wind energy, are part of the solution as our societies transition towards lower carbon.
With these technologies clearly set to take over the energy sector within the next decade, New Brunswick would be repeating a historic mistake if it caved in to the oil and gas interests that have outsized influence in the federal Liberal Party’s powerful Atlantic Caucus.
The transition away from carbon fuels provides extraordinary new opportunities for research and development in New Brunswick, and there is an opportunity for crown corporations like NB Power to be important players as the innovation cycle accelerates.
UNB’s engineering faculty is a clear engine of economic growth, but in order to make best use of what opportunities it may bring, public investment across the university sector is needed, since engineers alone are unlikely to capitalize on potential without other expertise making creative contributions.
The future of our province at this point, perhaps like few others before or to follow, will be shaped by the ability of individuals at the City of Fredericton, the provincial government and UNB’s faculty of engineering to work together, attract outside talent with global experience, build on expertise already existent in geomatics, robotics, and computer sciences (among others), and turn these into national and international leaders. All of these areas will be instrumental to the post-carbon transition.
There will be other issues the public will have to deal with concerning these technologies (and the lack of democratic control over them), but the future prosperity of the province clearly aligns with taking advantage of the potential to build and attract new high tech and manufacturing activities.
Often overlooked in terms of innovation and research is the Government of Canada’s experimental farm just outside Fredericton. New developments in microbiology open new possibilities for innovation by supporting basic research capacity within Agriculture Canada—capacity that has been savagely cut for the past 20 years. Basically, the 20th century approach to bacteria was to kill it. Now, soil biologists and others are trying to harness it in order to produce crops that require fewer chemicals, or which are more resistant to drought, pollution and soil erosion.
Agriculture Canada’s research suffers from lack of funding, and a general lack of vision from local politicians at all levels – many of whom don’t trust foreign or outside expertise (behold, the ‘come from awayers’ who have little political influence in the province). This latter attitude is evinced by the nonplussed response of municipal and provincial leaders to the late federal government’s decision to cut the National Research Council in Fredericton – cuts that must be restored to replace valuable research jobs lost in recent cuts.
But we should not expect that we can fix this problem with technology alone—regardless of the potential economic benefits renewed investment in research and development may bring. Lithium, a mineral now widely used in batteries, is in limited supply and difficult to extract, and will not replace oil and gas.
We will have to find new efficiencies by changing the way we live.
While most of the commentary on low carbon living focuses on sacrifices, I want readers to think for a minute about how much fun and less hectic, lonely and spread out post-carbon cities in New Brunswick might be.
We are faced with a moment where we can rebuild the city and our societies in radically new ways, which can also be creative, liberating and more egalitarian. This transition process can (and should) be more inclusive of groups not traditionally involved in urban planning.
Low carbon social innovations are easiest to imagine and most likely to develop at the municipal level. In my own city of Fredericton, this means a host of new design requirements that current legislation is ill equipped to deliver, from zoning by-laws to the Municipalities Act.
Oil in the ground is unlikely to be the only stranded asset as we transition towards a new energy future. Infrastructure projects and private investment that dependent on high carbon lives will also come to naught, especially if an economic crisis recasts real estate values in cities around the globe. Some projects will fail, none faster than those stranding homeowners and businesses in neighbourhoods that are dependent on high carbon living.
Municipal councils could act to prevent (or at least limit) the coming tragedy by restricting green-build developments and retrofitting suburban mall spaces. In Fredericton, for instance, heaps of money have been poured into Bishop’s Drive over the last few years, yet it is hard to see how that part of town has a future without cheap and limitless carbon energy.
Responding to demand for condos, NB cities have seen a plethora of projects that have improved density in some areas, but this needs to be coupled with mixed-use urban landscapes that take advantage of ways that retail and commercial sectors are changing. Like a cavalry charge without infantry support, these developments may also strand assets unless municipalities can build communities that are walkable and that provide a complete range of services.
So far, New Brunswick has few if any good examples of post-carbon neighbourhoods to show off to other parts of Canada. Instead, neighbourhood designs that will be a major part of the solution to our problems are being innovated and implemented in other parts of Canada, or elsewhere in the world.
If we don’t lead, we will follow.
Matthew Hayes teaches sociology at St. Thomas University.