Canada's Prime Minister, along with the other leaders of the G-7 countries, agreed this week in Germany to eliminate the use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels by 2100. It's an admirable goal, but comes with no binding legislation.
Meanwhile, Hawaii has made a similar commitment that has a better chance of happening because it has a realistic deadline and it was made into law.
Governor David Ige of Hawaii signed four energy bills that will make the island chain the first U.S. state to become 100-per-cent dependant on renewable energy for electricity generation by 2045. This will involve taking advantage of the considerable wind, solar and geothermal energy resources available among the volcanic islands.
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It will also free Hawaii from its current situation of having to import all of its fossil fuels.
This commitment is a good example of how to bring about change, because it comes with a relatively short deadline and it is bound by law. The statement by the G7 leaders comes with no binding legislation, and is so far away in the future that none of the people making the decision will be alive, let alone in office, when the deadline arrives.
Hawaii is not the first island state to try weaning itself off fossil fuels. Iceland has the same problem of having no fossil fuels of its own, and it pays heavily for imports. Yet it has abundant and cheap geothermal energy, which provides clean electricity to the country.
In the late 1990s, the country declared that it would become the first nation to demonstrate a move towards a hydrogen economy, where electricity would be used to make hydrogen from water. That hydrogen would be used as a zero-emission fuel in fuel-cell cars, as well as in buses and ships.
The scheme was a cooperative effort between government, automotive manufacturers and, ironically, Shell Oil. The oil company was helping Iceland with the distribution of hydrogen by setting up filling stations, which was a smart move on Shell's part. It considers itself an energy company, so it doesn't matter to Shell whether it's gasoline or hydrogen coming out of the pump — as long as people are filling their cars at Shell stations. It was a win-win situation for business and the environment.
Unfortunately, the whole plan came crashing down in 2008, when Iceland's economy took a hard hit from the global financial crisis. Today, only three hydrogen-powered buses are running in Reykjavik and hydrogen production has been largely shut down. A good idea was stifled by economic greed.
Hawaii has a better chance of success because it has a realistic deadline and a plan to demonstrate to the world that the transition to renewables does not have to destroy the economy. In fact, it could provide more local jobs — building wind farms, solar installations and geothermal generating stations.
Deadlines work if leaders are committed to them. In 1963, President Kennedy set a deadline of less than a decade to land a man on the moon. That became the driving force that inspired an entire country to rally, with scientists, engineers and astronauts working together to pull it off. And they did with five months to spare.
In contrast, this new deadline of the year 2100 — 85 years from now — set by the G7 to cut fossil fuel use, with no legal bite to it, is almost meaningless.
Canada already has a poor record of taking action on climate change. Our country pulled out of the Kyoto Accord and it looks like we will not meet our targets set in Copenhagen.
It's easy to make a grand statement when you know you are not going to be the one to carry it out. The intention is noble and the goal is necessary, but if we say we are going to do it, let's follow Hawaii's example and make it real.