Build back better? It’s a catchy slogan, but it’s an empty one unless we are much more specific about what it means.
We live in an unsafe world. The Covid pandemic is bad enough, but a far greater escalating danger comes from the overheated planet and intensifying climate change impacts that threaten to disrupt the economies, livelihoods, and communities of all nations. How about we try and build back safer?
While most people are understandably preoccupied by the continuing pandemic and the alarming increases in infections across many regions of the world, the geophysical data being registered and reported by climate scientists continue to show an inexorable trend towards eventual disaster.
We knew that the Arctic was warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet (as is Canada). Now it seems that Antarctic is also warming faster than predicted. This is a land mass larger than Canada with an ice sheet several kilometres thick that holds 90 percent of the Earth’s fresh water. We do NOT want the Antarctic ice sheets to be melting.
Think or swim
If you want to build back differently it helps to have an idea what you want to build and to have a plan for how to construct it.
In fact, many countries and jurisdictions have committed to just such a plan. The agreed objective is to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and to get to a situation of net zero emissions by 2050. If this target can be attained globally, there is a fair chance that global warming can be limited to a rise of 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This is the upper bound that countries committed to when they signed up to the 2015 Paris Agreement. The more stringent target of 1.5°C already looks like a lost cause. If global warming cannot be held to less than 2°C, a world which is already unsafe will become much more dangerous.
We have the technology, the expertise, the physical resources, and the economic power to achieve this objective. Most governments responded rapidly and forcefully when their populations were threatened by Covid-19. This strong global response shows that when scientists recognise and articulate a clear threat to the public, politicians can act swiftly, mobilise substantial resources, and induce sweeping changes in public behaviour. Concerted action on the same scale and with the same sense of urgency is now needed to tackle global warming and climate change.
What might the modern world look like in 2050? It’s not that hard to identify the salient features of an economy that has transitioned to a net-zero-emissions by 2050. First of all, it’s almost fully electric. For the first time in human history, the urban air of towns and cities is clean and breathable. Medieval wood smoke first gave way to the smog of coal and then came the miasma of automobile exhaust fumes. Those days are over. All cars, buses, and trucks are either electric or fuel cell-powered. The built environment also runs on electricity. Natural gas is no longer burned for space and water heating in buildings (so the air is cleaner inside as well as out). A massive retrofit programme that started in the late 2020’s has made buildings super energy-efficient, and heated or cooled by equipment powered by electricity.
Industry is also almost fully electrified. High temperature process heat, which drives much of the petrochemical industries (still needed for many essential products–but not for fuels), is generated either by electricity, hydrogen, or synthetic biofuels. All shipping is electric. Aviation runs on biofuels but smaller planes are electric: a first prototype flew in 2020. A huge network of high speed electric trains connects all the major cities.
Where does all this electrical power come from? Hydropower generates baseload, but wind and solar are key. Offshore wind turbines in 2050 are massive machines. In 2020, the largest wind turbine was rated at 12 megawatts. Thirty years later that power has more than doubled and the machines are much more efficient. There are major windfarms on land, but the largest installations are offshore.
Huge solar photovoltaic power plants have been constructed. In Canada, the largest installations are in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan—which have some of the best insolation levels in north America.
Megawatt-scale batteries, now just a fraction of the cost they were in 2020, are an integral component of all solar and wind power plants. No one talks any longer about intermittency.
Smaller batteries are mandatory in all buildings. Charged at night by cheap electricity, and powering the building during the day, they ensure that there is little diurnal variation in the demand for electricity. All new buildings have rooftop solar and batteries. Distributed systems bring much greater resilience and reliability to urban power supply. The batteries in electric vehicles are managed by the grid while charging. The fully integrated power system is managed by the smartest AI technology.
Building back better requires designing the roadmap to this net zero-emissions future and funding its implementation. The Europeans are doing it. Canada and the United States need to follow suit.
But although emissions of greenhouse gases may have been substantially reduced by 2050, the world will still be ravaged by extreme weather, intolerable heatwaves, wildfires, and drought. By the time we get to net zero emissions and atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide finally level off, concentrations of the gas will be substantially higher than they are today, and the devastating impacts of climate change will be at their most intense. The reality is that the climate crisis will get much worse before it gets better.
But building back safer isn’t just about clean city air, electrified transport, renewable energy, and smart technology. The Covid pandemic has shone a bright light on the harsh realities of the lives of communities of colour and indigenous peoples, and the systemic racism that blights and fractures their lives. They are disproportionately affected by the Covid pandemic: a clear indication of their neglect by governments and their lack of access to healthcare, education, clean air, and employment.
The climate crisis is a gathering storm. We are approaching the most intense period of extreme weather and destructive climate-driven events the Earth has experienced in recorded history. The second half of the 21st Century will be a period of constant social upheaval, conflict, and crisis as millions of people struggle to escape from regions desiccated by drought and intolerable heat.
It is essential that the government of Canada prepares for this grim and challenging future. There are ways to build resilience, create adaptation mechanisms, and safeguard and protect communities—particularly those vulnerable and marginalised communities that already bear a disproportionate burden.
When talking about the Covid pandemic, politicians in Canada like to say: “We are in this together”. But it’s a bit like the Titanic. If you are down in 3rd class: yes, you are in it together. But the outcome is not quite the same.
There is a lot more information about the climate crisis and how to solve it in this new book: Climate Change and Renewable Energy: How to End the Climate Crisis. It is the only book that explains in detail how solar energy, wind power, and the other renewable sources of energy are the key to ending the climate crisis. You can check it out here: //www.palgrave.com/us/book/9783030154233