A low-carbon future doesn't mean losing our lifestyle: Bob McDonald
Part of the vision of a carbon-free future is already here
A big challenge for politicians gathering in Paris for the UN Climate Summit, or COP21, is the fear that weaning ourselves off fossil fuels means giving up the very comfortable lifestyles we have enjoyed for the last century.
But a more realistic vision of the future does not have to involve going back to living in trees and caves.
You have to admit - it's so convenient to have a blue flame from natural gas instantly appear in your kitchen stove to cook dinner, or provide hot water for the shower and heat for the home.
There is tremendous freedom getting into a vehicle all by yourself and driving it anywhere on the continent, confident that a filling station will always appear somewhere over the horizon.
The synthetic clothes we wear, the plastics that mould our lives and just about all of the other conveniences that have shaped modern civilization have been provided by the black gold that comes out of the ground.
If it weren't for those nasty emissions that come out of tailpipes and smokestacks, we wouldn't need international conventions on climate change. But they do. And that means getting rid of the processes that produce those emissions.
However, it doesn't necessarily mean we have to give up our entire lifestyle. We just need a new vision of what that future life will look like.
Glimpse the future now
This is not to say that all future cars need to be expensive, high-performance dragsters. There are other electric vehicles at more reasonable prices. But the Tesla demonstrates that going green can still embody the luxuries that have been available to us for so long.
Mainstream automakers are finally catching on to the idea that people are willing to buy electric cars, if they provide the same comfort and convenience as the vehicles they've been used to.
Reimagining the future
So, what would the rest of our green future look like?
The Gulf Emirate of Abu Dhabi is building a carbon-neutral city called Masdar, which will include electric vehicles and super-efficient buildings.
Closer to home, Vancouver is hoping to get all of its energy from renewable sources by 2050, thanks to abundant hydro power. (Although a plan to begin exporting liquefied natural gas may cancel that effect.)
Super-efficient batteries would store electricity in the home when the sun doesn't shine. That electricity can also charge the electric car in the garage overnight. If energy is needed from outside the home, it will come from many different sources, including geothermal, wind farms, solar farms or hydro. For large cities, thorium molten salt nuclear reactors could provide the base load.
High-speed electric rail and buses, including hydrogen-powered fuel cell buses, would provide transport in downtown urban areas, while personalized electric vehicles would be restricted to regions outside city limits. Airlines would run on biofuels, made from waste products or bacteria.
The beauty of this vision of the future is that it uses technologies that already exist. They haven't been fully exploited yet, because we have been too busy feeding the fossil fuel elephant in the room with subsidies.
Burning fossil fuels better
Other technologies on the horizon include fusion power plants, space-based solar power and even fossil fuels.
That's right - fossil fuels. Oil, coal and gas are among the densest energy sources and are not the real culprits in causing climate change. It's how we've been burning them that is the problem.
Whether it's inside combustion engines or power-generating stations, we have been basically setting fire to the raw fuels and letting them burn, capturing whatever energy we can from the resulting heat. But these methods are very inefficient, and therefore dirty.
Even a small engine only captures about 20 per cent of the energy in gasoline to turn the wheels of a car. The other 80 per cent is thrown out the tailpipe and through the radiator as waste heat, along with nasty combustion products. That's crazy.
If there was another way to get the energy out of oil that is 90 per cent efficient, with no emissions, all those jobs in the oil and gas industry could be preserved.
Stripping off hydrogen
One approach to this is to strip the hydrogen off the hydrocarbon molecule (hydrogen is what burns in gasoline; the carbon combines with oxygen to make CO2) and run it through a fuel cell. So far, experiments have demonstrated that it takes energy to remove the hydrogen, so the efficiency goes down, but it shows that there are clean, alternative ways to get energy out of fossil fuels. (And, of course, you still have the problem of what to do with all that carbon.)
Then, there are the ideas that are only dreams in the minds of the next generation, which need to be cultivated and employed.
The transition to a zero-carbon emission economy will involve every sector of society and business.
Change always invokes fear, and as we've seen in the past, fear prompts inaction. But if we invoke creativity, intelligent investments, innovation and political will to pull it off, it doesn't mean giving up everything we do in our lives — it just means doing them a little differently.
A carbon-free future might seem like a dream, but it's better than the nightmare of climate calamity.