As a slow motion catastrophe unfolds in the bayous and deltas of Louisiana, one thing has become clear as we accelerate our pursuit of every last remaining natural resource of any kind of value on the planet: we have entered a time of consequences.
In the race to continue life as we know it in the industrialized world, oil wells have been drilled deeper, so deep that it is now apparent they cannot control the consequences of their actions should they go awry.
In the race to continue life as we know it in the industrialized world, we have invented new ways of extracting natural gas from shale formations using techniques and solvents that risk poisoning our drinking water with carcinogens effectively to the end of time.
In the race to continue life as we know it in the industrialized world, we have created tailings ponds in the Canadian boreal forest that contain hundreds of millions of gallons of waste effluent laced with toxic sediment that it is believed will take centuries to settle.
Something has to give. And this event comes at a pivotal time.
Just as a massive spill off the coat of Santa Barbara forty years ago marked a turning point in oil exploration in the continental US, shelving plans for drilling and resulting in a host of new environmental laws at the state and federal level, this disaster comes weeks after President Obama announced plans to re-start oil exploration along US coastal waters.
Much has changed since 1969: technology, terrorism, domestic politics, climate change, accelerated ecosystem collapse, the rise of a newly industrializing world that wants beer, baseball games and monster trucks and houses just like ours.
Could this be a critical turning point to the post-carbon economy? This weekend’s edition of the New York Times speculated as much.
Thinking globally, acting locally
Environmentalists have long talked about thinking globally and acting locally. What does this actually look like?
We’re still some time away from the post-carbon economy. But not as far as some would think. Acting locally means taking ownership of the situation right in our own cities, neighbourhoods and homes.
According to the City of Toronto’s Sustainable Energy Plan (Published 2007 by the Energy Efficiency Office, Business and Strategic Innovation and the Facilities and Real Estate Division), Toronto’s businesses and citizens spend $4.45 billion a year on energy, most of which leaves the city and the local economy. $1.7B of this is on natural gas and $2.7B is for electricity (2005 figures).
How efficient are we? The report considers this.
According to the report, Torontonians use 11,500 kWhrs/yr of electricity on a per person basis. In New York City, the figure is 7,800 kWhr/yr. On a per capita basis, the economy of New York uses electricity 32% more efficiently than we do.
While some of the factors behind this difference could be structural (weather, nature of the economy etc), much of it is likely due to waste and inefficiency. In fact, the report specifically cites a business and civic culture that is weak on innovation, productivity and waste. These are findings consistent with past analysis of our national competitiveness and the continued under-investment in innovation, research and productivity by the country’s business community.
How much does this waste cost us? Consider:
A 32% reduction in electricity use would result in savings of roughly $860 million per year using the above figures. That’s $860 million per year that is largely leaving the local, city economy. Rather than paying interest to foreign bondholders of hydro debt, homeowners and business owners could be spending that money at the local store and employing people.
A 32% improvement in energy efficiency would eliminate the need for more gas-fired power plants, the very kind being protested by Oakville residents. A 32% improvement in energy efficiency would greatly reduce the need to invest in repairing and expanding the province’s fleet of nuclear reactors, the very ones for which it has historically exceeded its capital and repair projections by 200% to 300%, leaving countless billions of dollars in stranded debt which now shows up on your monthly electricity bill.
What would I do with $860 million per year? I would:
- Fund food banks and build affordable housing, thereby reducing the impact of poverty in the city pretty much forever
- Train every disadvantaged kid from every at-risk neighbourhood in a skilled trade and this would be the generation that would retrofit and rebuild our neighbourhoods for the post-carbon economy.
- Rewire our homes for broadband and enhanced building intelligence.
- Drill-baby-drill geothermal loops into every neighbouhood and create district-level heating and cooling infrastructure.
- Rebuild public transit.
- Ensure health-care for an aging population and ensure that our re-wired smart homes include real-time monitoring of vital signs so that people could safely stay in their homes longer.
An $860 million annuity buys a lot of things. This is what I would do with $860 million per year.
Of course, these funds are not centralized in any one place; they are diffused, pissed out the back door of leaky homes, old machines, badly run businesses and outdated buildings that satisfy an outdated building code. But these are buildings, businesses and machines which we own, operate, live in and, at some level or another, have influence over.
It’s worth thinking about.
This is the thing about tipping points; you never know when one will be reached until you hit it. And then, you only recognize it once it’s in the rear-view mirror.
We can wreck the planet. Or, we can seize on an opportunity to create a culture-wide efficiency revolution that rivals the industrial revolution in terms of its transformational effect. One way or another, we’re going to spend the money anyway.
A choice not made is still a choice.
Gabriel Draven; Village Technologies