Politicians are green until they're intimidated by the electoral price: Don Pittis

There are inceasing signs that low-carbon technology is ready for its place in the sun. But as voters balk and fuel prices sag, politicians may feel compelled to retreat.

An economic recovery fuelled by low-carbon technology is possible, but will voters prefer cheap energy?

General Motors announced that the new Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle will go farther on a charge than a Tesla. But to succeed, green technology needs a commitment from governments. (Reuters)

You can boast to your grandchildren that you lived through a technological revolution. That is, if you're lucky.

But rather than speeding us through a capitalist-led transformation to a high-tech low-carbon economy, politicians seem to be getting cold feet, fearful that voters won't accept the short-term pain of the costs involved.

Everything sounded so different only nine months ago, when world leaders held hands as they celebrated a "historic" deal to defeat climate change.

Backing away?

Suddenly, it seems, now that it's time to pay the bill, everyone has forgotten their recent enthusiasm for saving the world. There are signs politicians may be backing away from the difficult process of convincing voters that making the transition is worth the cost.
People in suits holding hands aloft.
From left to right, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius and French President François Hollande react during the final plenary session at the World Climate Change Conference in 2015. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

In Ontario, Premier Kathleen Wynne appears to be retreating from one of the essential parts of making green power work: higher electricity costs. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is being urged by a ghost from the past, former prime minister Brian Mulroney, to push through the Energy East pipeline.

In British Columbia, home to one of the most environmentally friendly electorates in North America, Premier Christy Clark has left increased carbon taxes out of the province's latest climate plan and is pushing ahead with new fossil fuel developments.

Nobody said fighting climate change would be easy. But despite some enormous difficulties, we may be just on the verge of a tipping point that experts say will be good for business and good for the entire economy.

Signs are everywhere, but there were two transformational announcements just this week.

Only three years ago when I wrote about the Tesla battery-powered automotive revolution, doubters outnumbered supporters of the idea. The skeptics said electric cars were too expensive, too short-range and technically impractical.

Now the world's largest car companies have joined the race to perfect the battery-powered car. This week, U.S. giant General Motors released the all-electric Bolt, with a range of nearly 400 kilometres, outdoing Tesla.
U.S. automaker GM releases the all-electric Chevy Bolt with a range of nearly 400 kilometres. Many automakers are charging ahead with plans for electric vehicles. (General Motors)

Another reason offered for why green technology would never take off was that wind and solar were intermittent power sources requiring fossil fuel backup. Battery technology, we were told by groups like the Calgary-based climate change skeptics group Friends of Science, will not be adequate.

Well this week, that objection, too, took another big step toward not being true, if it ever was.

On the Scottish island of Gigha, a company called redT is installing something called vanadium flow batteries that the company says will prove the technology is ready for widespread commercial use.

"The technology has moved faster than anyone has expected," company chief executive Scott McGregor told the Financial Times.

Electric cars and vanadium storage may not yet be in a state of perfection, but they are two examples in a single week that show that technology being created by disruptive industries is advancing by leaps and bounds.
The Kashagan oil field in the Caspian is one of the biggest conventional oil finds in decades. It was developed at a cost of $50 billion US and is expected to go into production next month, adding to a world oil glut. (Reuters)

Going through a disruptive energy transition is nothing new to us. We did the same thing when we went from wood heat to coal.

In that transition, politicians escaped most of the blame because wood was running out and getting expensive. That's just not true this time.

Peak oil?

It's hard to imagine that as recently as 2009 we were all doing stories about peak oil, the moment when oil would go the way of wood, sending prices up toward a prohibitive $300 a barrel.

For environmentalists and oil producers, peak oil now seems like a bad joke. Another thing we also learned this week was that the glut of oil on world markets is growing. And there is plenty more in the pipeline. This week we heard that  the Kashagan field in the Caspian Sea, one of the world's largest new discoveries, will go into production next month.

If oil and natural gas continue to be cheap, the only thing standing between us and a world damaged by climate change will be the resolve of politicians. 

Energy has to be more expensive. Pipeline opponents must be given a voice, even if it hurts the established giants of the doomed fossil fuel economy. Carbon has to cost us more.

But in a democracy, politicians can't act alone. Without loud voices of political support, environmentally inclined governments quite rightly fear they will be pitched out and replaced by those willing to sacrifice the future to relieve short-term pain.  

Capitalism has demonstrated it's up to the job. All that green technologies need to become the motors of a brilliant new disruptive industrial boom is a little economic push to get them over the hump.

Changing our ways will mean a little pain. If voters are able to bite the bullet and make it happen, if politicians can help persuade them, that will be something to tell the grandchildren.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

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Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.