Low Carbon Futures


Special Series: Fast Forward

Getting Off Fossil Fuels

By David Kattenburg

The sun energizes all life on Earth. Solar rays captured by green plants, phytoplankton and lots of different kinds of bacteria are used to convert highly oxidized, energy-poor carbon dioxide into energy-rich, carbonaceous organic matter. This has been going on for almost three billion years.

Over the last million and a half, human beings have derived energy from power-packed organic food — wild plants, roots and seed, and other animals that eat plant food — and by burning dried plant material, wood and dung.


Some twelve thousand years ago, humans discovered how to grow their own plant food, in regulated and controlled fashion, over extensive acreages, thereby tapping into a huge volume of energy to drive costly activities like building cities. Before too long, humans were harnessing wind and water to travel across oceans and carry out primitive manufacturing activities.

(David Kattenburg)

(David Kattenburg)

When exactly Homo sapiens stumbled upon fossilized organic carbon — oil, gas, bitumen and coal — is anyone’s guess. Primitive people may well have used dug-up coal to burn their fires. As early as the 6th century B.C. (according to one source), a Persian shah had turned oil into a weapon of war.

Far more peacefully, lamp manufacturers were early oil technology adopters. Over many thousands of years, humanity’s love affair for carbon grew.

Fast forward to the eighteenth century. Among the most successful inventions of the golden age of physical sciences and engineering: the coal-powered steam engine. By the early nineteenth, English people had burned the hard, black stuff in sufficient volumes to blanket their cities in layers of insalubrious soot. Charles Dickens wrote about it.


(David Kattenburg)

That all the carbon dioxide humanity was pumping into the atmosphere might actually affect Earth’s climate was carefully considered by Joseph Fourier (1824), Claude Pouillet (1827-38), John Tyndall (1859) and Svante Arrhenius (1896). The term “greenhouse effect” was coined in 1901.

Still, who could have imagined the scale of the change humans could put Earth’s atmosphere through? American scientist James Hansen is credited with ringing the alarm bell very loudly.

“Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming,” Hansen told a US Senate committee in June 1988. “It is already happening now.”

How to address the challenge has been the subject of contentious public debate ever since — not to mention grueling, often bitter negotiation among the world’s major carbon emitters. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted in 1992. Under its aegis, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change was formed. The IPCC has published five “Assessment Reports,” the most recent in 2015. Twenty-one, Conferences of the Parties have been held over the years, most recently in Paris, where world leaders resolved to do something about the problem for once and for all. Governments are now deciding what they’ll actually do.

David Schindler (David Kattenburg)

David Schindler (David Kattenburg)

Most everyone agrees it’s a crisis. Does global capitalism have the capacity to wean itself off fossil fuels, whose days are clearly numbered? Can wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable energy sources pick up the slack, generating enough joules to drive permanent economic growth on both cloudy and sunny days? Can Planet Earth sustain our style of growth.

Perhaps a better question: can global human society survive the three or four or five degree rise in global atmospheric temperature — and ensuing climate chaos — that economics-as-usual will bring about? For a particularly scary scenario, listen to Andrew Weaver in this last story of ours.

Perhaps carbon emissions should be taxed, some say — or capped and traded. Vexing suggestions.

Whatever the solution to Earth’s human-inflicted carbon woes, most agree that the atmosphere can no longer be made available to unregulated dumpers. Talk of low/no carbon futures, “decarbonization” and fossil fuel decoupling — of carbon taxes — is in the air. At last year’s Alberta Climate Summit in Edmonton, much discussion centered around the planned decommission of Alberta coal-fired plants. TransAlta President and CEO Dawn Farrell put on a good face. Listen to her and others at the SoundCloud link above.

Andrew Weaver (David Kattenburg)

Andrew Weaver (David Kattenburg)

Fast Forward: Stories of Challenge & Change is produced with the generous support of the Government of Canada and the Social Justice Fund of Unifor. Thanks to Roger Dumas for his wonderful human brain ‘sonifications’, one of which appears in Fast Forward intros/extros. For more information about Roger’s Pieces of Mind CD, go here. Feature photo credit: Clive Baugh.