Originally published in The Vancouver Sun February 16, 2012
People who profit from an expanding fossil fuel industry want you to be suspicious of climate science. You should be suspicious of them.
All the world’s leading climate scientists know that burning coal, oil and natural gas is heating the earth. These scientists may debate whether our current path will increase temperatures four or six degrees Celsius in this century, but they all agree that either of these outcomes will devastate British Columbia’s environment during the lives of our children and, eventually, raise sea levels by tens of metres. Unfortunately, the fossil fuel profiteers have a lot of money to buy media coverage, politicians and even a few contrarian scientists who are not climate experts, so our ability to prevent this disaster is a long shot. But, for our children, we have to try.
For one thing, we must see through the deceit of politicians who trumpet jobs from fossil fuel expansion while ignoring the impacts on the planet, not to mention on their own climate promises. Prime Minister Stephen Harper knows that his pursuit of oilsands expansion, the Northern Gateway pipeline across B.C. from Alberta and dangerous oil tankers on our coast contradicts his promise to reduce Canadian greenhouse gas emissions 17 per cent by 2020. Premier Christy Clark knows that her pursuit of expanded shale gas production and natural gas exports contradicts her promise to reduce B.C.’s emissions 33 per cent by 2020. One of her ministers has already justified this destructive choice, saying “jobs come first.” In other words, jobs from destroying the planet are preferred to jobs that preserve it.
But what would happen if we rejected the plans of politicians and fossil fuel profiteers who are propelling us to the high-carbon, planet-destroying economy? Actually, we know the answer. The evidence is all around us.
In 2007, the B.C. government recognized it could not allow fossil fuel electricity plants and meet its emissions reduction promises, so it cancelled contracts to build two new coal-fired power plants and relegated the natural gas-fired Burrard Thermal plant to backup status. Yes, the economy lost jobs associated with these fossil fuel projects. But in their place, BC Hydro contracted for zero-emission electricity from run-of-river hydro, wind and biomass projects. A recent estimate by PricewaterhouseCoopers puts the combined economic impacts of these clean electricity projects at 18,000 person-years of construction and 2,000 full-time jobs, which is more than the coal plants would have created. These include high-paying skilled jobs in engineering, accounting, economics, finance, planning, law, environmental science, hydrology, public relations, construction trades, and technical operations.
Fossil fuel profiteers want us to believe that we must continue to pollute the atmosphere in order to drive our cars. This is not true. Vehicles can run on biofuel (biodiesel or ethanol), clean electricity and hydrogen, none of which pollute the atmosphere. An extended range hybrid car or truck can rely mostly on clean electricity, supplemented with biodiesel or ethanol, giving the same horsepower as conventional vehicles. Since such technologies are already commercially available, you can buy one today.
My research group at Simon Fraser University is currently estimating the job effects in B.C. of transitioning 80 per cent of cars and trucks to zero-emission technologies and fuels over the next two decades. This would create more jobs in zero-emission electricity generation as well as jobs in forestry and biofuel production as cellulosic ethanol can be produced from wood waste and dedicated wood chip-to-fuel facilities. Our preliminary estimate is that the replacement of planet-destroying gasoline and diesel with planet-saving electricity and biofuel in hybrid cars and trucks would create more than 60,000 person-years in construction and 15,000 to 20,000 permanent jobs in the province.
These are crude estimates which we will refine over the coming year of research — they depend on choices about clean electricity projects, biofuel production processes, and vehicle technologies and fuels. Regardless, the lesson is clear. Job creation is not a reason to develop planet-destroying fossil fuels.
We can create as many or more high-skilled, high-paying jobs by shifting now to the planet-saving energy system. As Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank says, “the low-carbon economy will be more energy-secure, cleaner and safer … the high-carbon economy will self-destruct.”