Can Canadian communities adapt to the twin evils of climate change and the end of cheap energy in less than ten years? That was the question raised at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities 2006 Sustainable Communities National Conference in Ottawa on February 2-4th by two speakers, Elizabeth May, Director of the Sierra Club of Canada and David Hughes of the Geological Survey of Canada in NRCan.
Elizabeth May, Director of the Sierra Club of Canada gave a keynote speech on the urgency of dealing with climate change. She presented scientific records of Antarctic ice samples that reveal atmospheric conditions spanning the last 650,000 years. The research showed that since 1955, and particularly in the last ten years, man has drastically altered the chemistry of the atmosphere. Adding carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels has raised the historic level of carbon dioxide of about 275 parts per million to 380 parts per million, a 30% increase.
The Earth’s atmosphere – the only one known to support life – is now hotter than it has ever been in the past. It now has unique characteristics that did not occur during periods of dramatic change in climate over hundreds of thousands of years. The predictions are that temperatures will continue to climb, what is unknown is how high they will go. The more carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere, the worse the situation becomes.
According to Elizabeth May municipalities are the level of government that has been most responsive to her message. It is municipal infrastructure that is often overwhelmed by the severe weather events that become more frequent with greater energy in the atmosphere. Ironically she said New Orleans had signed on to a program to assess the impact of climate change on the city two months before Hurricane Katrina struck.
The second speaker, David Hughes of the Geological Survey of Canada in NRCan delivered an equally alarming talk on Peak Oil and the Future of Energy and urged immediate change. It is not a new talk – he has delivered it fifty times in the last year and there have been many articles written on the same topic. The key message is that while energy demand worldwide grew at 4% in 2004 and continues to grow, peak production worldwide of oil and natural gas will occur within ten years. Some projections show it will peak by 2015 while the average projection shows the peak arriving in 2010.
Canada passed its peak natural gas production in 2002 and peak oil production is expected this year according to Hughes. He made it clear that although there are still reserves in the ground, past experience shows that oil and gas fields reach their peak production when less than 50% of the original find has been exhausted.
According to Hughes renewables and nuclear electricity will grow quickly as a source of energy but they are projected to reach a plateau with respect to their share of production. However, there is no fuel that can easily substitute for the huge amount of oil used in cars. For heating and electricity the only fuel that he believes can make a significant contribution to the shortfall in energy is coal. A transition to coal is expected to be difficult and there would be increased discharges of CO2 for the same energy output.
While numbing his audience with graphs and figures, the dramatic gap between increased energy demand and almost certain reduction in supplies of oil and natural gas after 2010 (at the latest after 2015) could have catastrophic impacts. The solution proposed by Hughes is to first recognize the problem. The next step is to conserve energy by reduction in use, increased efficiency and finding new technologies. He also advocated use of whatever alternative energy sources are available.
Nobody at the conference disputed the facts presented by Elizabeth May and David Hughes. Other sessions at the conference were comforting because they offered incremental solutions that gave a sense of progress but none addressed the changes required in the time-frame discussed by May and Hughes. The recently released film, The End of Suburbia was distributed to all the participants at the conference.
All the presentation at the conference are to be posted on the FCM website.