Tim Flannery speaks out on Canada's election, the insanity of fracking, and reducing gigatonnes of carbon dioxide

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      A scientist and leading writer on climate change says that Monday's election is "the last roll of the dice for Canada" in being able to credibly confront the problem of rising greenhouse-gas emissions.

      Tim Flannery, author of Atmosphere of Hope and The Weather Makers, made the comment in a wide-ranging interview with the Georgia Straight at Simon Fraser University's Harbour Centre campus in Vancouver.

      "It's the last opportunity for Canada to present as part of the global negotiation a credible alternative—and to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem," Flannery said. "One of the great fears for the [upcoming] Paris meeting is that the coalition of the unwilling will really scupper an ambitious agreement."

      Flannery, an Australian research scientist, was recently honoured with SFU's annual Jack Blaney Award for Dialogue.

      The scientist described the UN climate conference in Paris as "the last chance for Canada to engage constructively."

      "So I just think it's incredibly important," he said.

      In the interview, Flannery described Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper as an "identical twin" of recently ousted Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, whom Flannery accused of fomenting fear.

      So what advice does Flannery have for Canadians as they think about casting their ballots on Monday (October 19)?

      "Do it with hope and confidence for the future, not with fear," he replied.

      He also criticized the notion that burning carbon-spewing natural gas is a "bridge to the future". That's because the declining cost of solar power and other renewable forms of energy has changed the financial dynamics.

      "It's no longer cost-effective anywhere to invest in gas for electricity generation," Flannery stated. "The renewables are so much cheaper."

      To reinforce this point, he added: "For a province to put all of its eggs into one basket of fracking is insane."

      You can read the full transcript of the Straight's interview with Flannery below.

      Georgia Straight: Can you talk about the relationship between human health, rising greenhouse-gas emissions, and the use of fossils? It's an area that isn't often addressed.

      Tim Flannery: That's right. I'm fortunate that in Australia, we had the lead author of human health impacts of climate change, Prof. Tony McMichael, who I worked with quite closely for a number of years.

      He coauthored the major reports in the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report on health impacts. And they turn out to be extraordinarily varied.

      They range from direct impacts: deaths through heat waves and so forth and on to the impacts on fires—and deaths and smoke inhalation from fires—right through to psychological impacts for farmers who are dealing with years and years of below average rainfall and trying to make things work. So they are very, very, very widespread and pervasive.

      We can see the negative impacts across a huge range of activities. When it comes to the burning of fossil fuels, our knowledge of the negative impacts continue to grow.

      So we know it's been bad to breathe in emissions from fossil fuels for a long time. We didn't know quite how bad until the 2.5-micron particle issue became a really big one. It's incredibly difficult technically to study those particles. They're so tiny. They're hard to monitor properly. It's taken many years to do that well.

      But we see in places like China now, they're way, way above any safe level. As a result of confabulation of those factors, in places like Northern China now we're seeing longevity decrease by about five-and-a-half years on average. That's before the big cancer that we know is inevitable and is going to come off the back of breathing all of those particles.

      You'd have to say the health impacts are profound. The studies that have been done to try to evaluate the costs in dollar terms—it's inevitably very much round figures—but they're in the hundreds of billions of dollars for a place like the U.S. alone.

      Georgia Straight: In your last book, Here on Earth, you focused on the earth's capacity to regenerate itself, evolutionary biology, and some fairly esoteric subjects. This time, the focus seems to be heavily on the reduction of gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. What accounts for the change in focus and really zeroing in on that area?

      Tim Flannery: I wrote The Weather Makers a decade ago at a time when I couldn't see very clearly the resolutions to the problem. Over the last decade, I've sat around watching us track the worst-case emissions scenario that was imaginable.

      That means emissions of greenhouse gases have been as bad as anyone could have conceived in the last decade. And I've been depressed, actually, about it. I haven't been able to write about climate change until recently.

      I wrote Here on Earth because I wanted people to understand a bit more about Earth systems and how they actually work—and what it means to be an Earthling. I know that's kind of a philosophical subject.

      Georgia Straight: Before reading Here on Earth, I didn't know we were superorganisms.

      Tim Flannery: Ha ha. Exactly. That's right. It's kind of interesting to conceive of ourselves as part of the Earth system in that way, I think. This book [Atmosphere of Hope] has come about because over the last couple of years, I've had a sense that there is hope, finally. It's been pretty tough going up until now.

      That sense of hope initially came from a scoping study I did based on the Virgin Earth Challenge prize where we were trying to look at technologies to see what options existed to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere at the gigatonne scale. And when Richard Branson set up that prize in 2006 and I was appointed a judge, I was far from confident that there would be anything. But we've had 11,000 entries now.

      We've seen that across a broad range of activities, the potential really is there to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere at a scale that will make a difference to our climate future. And that was hugely heartening.

      It was that realization that got me writing this book, quite frankly. A number of things have happened since that has just reinforced that view.

      Georgia Straight: What are the best options for sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere?

      Tim Flannery: I reckon that if I had the answer to that question, I would already be a billionaire, probably, instead of being a poor working scientist and author. Ha ha ha. That's kind of unknowable, but there are a few options that really excite me. A couple of them have been published since the book came out.

      One of the most exciting is the manufacture of carbon nanofibres using atmospheric CO2. There was a paper published about a month ago that said, "Hey, we can do this. We worked out a way to do it and the production cost for carbon fibres is one-tenth that of current production methods." How exciting is that?

      Carbon fibres are strong, light material. At the moment, they're so expensive they're used mostly in specialized areas like aircraft hulls. But as costs decrease, they're going to be competing directly with steel and aluminum, which themselves are great sources of emissions.

      So I just think that's one of those ground-breaking discoveries. To turn a problem, atmospheric CO2, into a solution at some sort of scale is incredibly exciting. There's lots of stuff, even here in B.C.

      I mean, Carbon Engineering is doing some amazing stuff using atmospheric CO2 to make substitutes for diesel fuel. I just think there's a lot of stuff. I don't know which ones are going to play out over the decades but I do know the potential is there. It's going to be an economic revolution.

      Georgia Straight: What about seaweed farming?

      Tim Flannery: Well seaweed farming is amazingly exciting. The desktop study that was published out of the University of South Pacific made the point that if you could cover nine percent of the world's ocean farms—because seaweed grows so fast— you could capture all of the current annual emissions that people are putting up into the atmosphere.

      That's 40 gigatonnes or more of CO2. And you could have enough fish farms to feed a population of 10 billion people 200 kilograms of high-quality protein every year. That's amazing stuff.

      But we've got to remember it's a desktop study. I did a calculation of what nine percent of the world's oceans look like. It's about four times the size of the contiguous 48 states of the USA. This is not small-scale. This is kind of big.

      It's a hell of a lot of seaweed to deal with. What are we going to do with that stuff? Are we going to process it? Where are we going to put the CO2? These are all huge, huge questions. We need more R&D before we can take that proposal on.

      It's typical, I guess, of the third-way technologies. Often where the scale is there, the gaps in the knowledge are huge, as well.

      Georgia Straight: How excited are you about the pace of pick-up of solar power?

      Tim Flannery: I think it's been one of the great triumphs of the last 10 years. For the last 30 years, cost reductions in solar have been on the order of 10 percent per annum. Constantly, year in and year out, for 30 years.

      I'm very excited about it. I think solar is going to be the future. Especially when we have battery storage or some storage mechanism. There are a number of options for that.

      There will be wind [power] as well, and other forms of energy. But solar is going to be huge. We have to recognize that the success of solar has come out of 30 or 40 years of incredibly hard work and investments by government and industry at huge risk.

      The third way is going to be the same. None of these technological innovations are simple. The pathway to scale is always difficult.

      Georgia Straight: How important is this federal election in Canada for the world in addressing climate change?

      Tim Flannery: Can I answer by starting with Canada? This is the last roll of the dice for Canada. It's the last opportunity for Canada to present as part of the global negotiation a credible alternative—and to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

      One of the great fears for the [upcoming] Paris meeting is that the coalition of the unwilling will really scupper an ambitious agreement. Paris is already too late as we've had a decade of worst-case emissions. Copenhagen—a failure there.

      This really is our last chance globally. This election is the last chance for Canada to engage constructively. So I just think it's incredibly important.

      Georgia Straight: Do you have any advice for Canadians as they think about casting their ballot on Monday (October 19)?

      Tim Flannery: I wish I could put it simply.

      Georgia Straight: You're not under subpoena. You're not required to answer the question.

      Tim Flannery: Let me think. Uhm.  Do it with hope and confidence for the future, not with fear.

      Georgia Straight: I'm curious to know what impact the departure of Tony Abbott as prime minister has had on Australia's position with regard to climate change because he was pretty much in the camp of the unwilling.

      Tim Flannery: He was very much in the camp of the unwilling. He and [Stephen] Harper were sort of identical twins as far as that went, you know. But his departure has changed Australia.

      There's been this collective outlet of breath and this relief. People have relaxed. We're not talking about enemies and all that sort of stuff anymore. The threat of death cults and all this sort of stuff.

      People are getting on with a much more optimistic future. We had $12.5 billion of government investment stalled in clean tech and innovations because two of the big agencies in Australia were slated to be closed down.

      Thank heavens they're not going to be closed down anymore under the new leadership. So there's a huge opportunity there for us.

      We're just seeing such a more positive approach and so much more action on so many levels. People are willing to engage and invest in a better Australia whereas before, we were driven so much by fear.

      The political agenda was all about fostering fear. And that had a kind of stultifying effect on Australia as a whole.

      Georgia Straight: The Weather Makers seemed to influence former premier Gordon Campbell to introduce a carbon tax in British Columbia. If you could wave a magic wand, what impact would Atmosphere of Hope have on the current B.C. cabinet?

      Tim Flannery: I would hope that they would look at this book, understand what the current dilemma is, how serious the current situation is, redouble their efforts to decarbonize, [and] make a conscious decision not to get into LNG, which I think is not in the interest of the province for many, many reasons. I can cover off on why in another question. But also, see that the opportunities for a place like B.C., third-way technologies are absolutely huge.

      You are such a great hub of tech innovation. You've got the Pacific Ocean out there with some of the biggest kelp beds in the bloody world.

      If you were serious trying something big on seaweed farming, this would be the place you would think about doing it. That's one opportunity.

      I can't tell which ones are going to work out for B.C. I just think you should be filled with optimism and a sense of opportunity around some of this stuff.

      Georgia Straight: What lessons can B.C. learn from Australia's foray into LNG?

      Tim Flannery: It's been a disaster for us at many levels. It's interesting the conservative regional communities in Australia, which have always voted Tory basically, are now way, way out on their own. I think we had something like a dozen 90-year-olds arrested at last count on farms in Australia.

      It's because these oil and gas people are trying to get on people's property to drill and people are just saying, "Sorry, no. We're locking the gates. It's over our dead bodies." Quite literally.

      So we've had huge demonstrations in regional Australia where people have said "no".

      Georgia Straight: Do the property owners own the subsurface rights?

      Tim Flannery: No, they don't. But they just say: "Over our dead bodies. This is civil disobedience. You're not coming on."

      What are at risk is water and biodiversity and productivity, quite frankly, in a lot of these croplands. They've just said "no".

      I think here, you'll find people who are already living on that land or using that land that don't want this stuff to happen if it's anything like Australia. They will say "no". That is a huge social cost.

      There's the fact that the market is changing so quickly. People talk about gas as a bridge to the future. Boy, that bridge is looking shorter and shorter.

      It's no longer cost-effective anywhere to invest in gas for electricity generation. The renewables are so much cheaper.

      If you build a gas-fired power plant, you'll be getting your money back 30 years from now. With the cost of wind and solar, it's just not going to be competitive.

      Georgia Straight: There are also the fugitive emissions, especially with the fracking.

      Tim Flannery: Fugitive emissions as well, indeed. It's another huge area in Australia and we'll be held accountable for those. There are ways now of measuring them. We will be held accountable.

      So there are a whole lot of reasons why it's undesirable, apart from the fact of the risk involved. Anyone who's speculated in the energy market knows how risky it is in changing times.

      For a province to put all of its eggs into one basket of fracking is insane.

      Georgia Straight: What would you like to see as the outcome of the COP21 climate meetings in Paris later this year?

      Tim Flannery: I think it will be the last COP. I hope it will be the last COP so that after 20 years of attempting to negotiate something, we will be able to claim that we have an agreement. We can then move on to different mechanisms. That is key.

      I think the best we can hope for is a strategy that's going to be aiming us at about 2.7 degrees [Celsius] above the preindustrial average, which is far, far too much. But I hope it's coupled with a mechanism to allow for reviews at regular, short periods.

      So a five-year review rather than a decadal review or even a three-year review would be fantastic. That should happen because technology is changing so fast as well as the science changing. I think we need to have short review periods.

      Hopefully, we will get some sort of agreement that will allow the least-developed countries that are the most at risk to have a funding base to deal with the problems.

      Georgia Straight: China's emissions have shot up enormously. India's are on the way up. I'm wondering what your thoughts are about those two countries in how they're responding to the climate crisis.

      Tim Flannery: They're really different. I've had a bit to do with both, but most to do with India.

      We've seen in China, just over the last year, use of coal has declined by 2.5 percent. Their biggest problem is going to be transport. There are 15 million new vehicles a year going on the road in China.

      I think one in five people have a vehicle now. They want to be like the U.S., where they're seeing everyone has one.

      Electric vehicles are going to be really important in that. I think China has decided now that their Number 1 priority after economic growth is going to be environment. They have to clean up the air and the food and the water.

      India is different. India is starting from a much lower base than China. There were fears for many years that they were going on a China-like trajectory of building more and more coal [-fired power plants].

      That is looking much less likely. [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi has signalled a new direction for India. There's been a beefed-up solar program there. The costs of renewables are now declining very quickly so that even a place like India can have ambitions to have renewables at scale.

      So we haven't gotten to the last chapter for India, yet. It's not quite like China where we're into the emissions reducing. But I'm optimistic that it's not going to go back on a carbon-intensive pathway of development.