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We Have the Tools to Solve Climate Change, Says Bob McDonald

Today’s technologies can fix the crisis, the host of CBC’s 'Quirks and Quarks' says. We just need to use them.

Michelle Gamage 18 Jan

Michelle Gamage is a Vancouver-based journalist with an environmental focus who regularly reports on climate for The Tyee. You can find her on Twitter @Michelle_Gamage.

Humans have already invented everything they need to solve the climate crisis, according to author and longtime CBC reporter Bob McDonald.

All we need to do is scale up the technology we already have and start using the energy we already produce more efficiently, he explains in his new book The Future is Now: Solving the Climate Crisis with Today’s Technologies.

After 46 years of reporting on climate change, McDonald says he wanted to research climate solutions. “It was to my absolute delight, once I started researching, to find that all the solutions are already there,” he told The Tyee.

Humans use 100 million barrels of oil every day. That’s enough oil to flow over Niagara Falls for two hours. In a year we consume the equivalent of 120 million tonnes of oil — that’s incredible, considering it would have taken only 400 barrels’ worth of energy to build the great pyramids, he says.

This energy use is having catastrophic consequences. We’re in the middle of our planet’s sixth mass extinction event. Nine million people die every year due to air pollution from burning fossil fuels and roughly 150,000 people are killed from the impacts of climate change annually, McDonald says.

Transitioning to a greener economy will require political will, economic investment and public acceptance, he says.

There’s no silver bullet. A green future will use solar, biofuel, wind, wave, tidal, geothermal, nuclear, fusion and hydrogen power. We’ll need to improve efficiency and push for better, faster and lighter batteries. We also need to rethink how we use oil. For example, Proton Technologies in Saskatchewan found pumping oxygen into depleted oil wells with water in them produces hydrogen and heat. The latter can then be used to run the machine that pumps oxygen in and harvests the hydrogen.

The Tyee sat down with McDonald to talk about energy solutions, how partnering with oil companies could benefit a green transition and why we’re likely going to see the first fusion power generator come online within a decade. The resulting interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: Your book isn’t just about how to generate energy, but also how we can use what we already have better. Why?

Bob McDonald: Consumption is a huge issue, especially here in North America, where we live in a cold climate and our population is spread out. But we can still cut down on the amount of energy, the amount of food, the amount of water that we waste.

Retrofitting buildings is a great place to start.

Take the Empire State Building as a model of efficiency, where they replaced the windows, put heat reflective screens between the radiators and the walls and installed LED lights — they save millions of dollars per year on energy.

Retrofitting buildings and homes up to LEED standards creates a sense of pride. What if we got cities in on it? Wouldn’t it be great to have environmental competitions between cities for bragging rights for who is greenest?

Some of the solutions you mention in The Future is Now seem so simple it feels ridiculous that we don’t all use them. Two examples that stood out to me were the Finnish company Polar Night, which uses power collected in the summer to heat buried sand, and then uses it for heating all winter. You write that “the potential heat storage capacity of one hectare of sand 20 metres deep at 600 C is the equivalent of 4,500 tonnes of coal or 10,000 megawatt hours.”

The other was the Scottish Voith wave generator, which stuck a big long vertical tube in the water. Waves pushing in and leaving the bottom of the tube moved air that spun a turbine at the top. These generators were providing 300 kilowatts that powered 250 homes in Spain.

Did you have any similar favourites?

Yeah, the Orbital Marine Power generator in Scotland. It looks like something Batman would drive. [Editor’s note: This device looks a bit like a giant bird. Its body is 72 metres long and it has two giant turbines for wings, each 20 metres wide. With its wings up it can be towed anywhere. The turbines turn both ways to catch the tides and it can generate up to two megawatts, or just over 18 per cent of a household’s annual energy demand in the Pacific Northwest.]

I’m a sailor and sail around the Gulf Islands. Oh boy, sometimes the tide funnels between islands and the water runs like a river, twice a day. Tides are predictable down to the minute for the next 1,000 years but we’re not tapping into them.

Since 1942, an average of one person every 14 years has been killed by nuclear disasters, compared to nine million people who are killed by fossil fuel pollution annually. Why do you think we struggle to grasp the comparable risk between these two technologies?

We don’t see the deaths from fossil fuels, or the CO2, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide that causes pollution and smog and chokes up lungs. It’s not easily visible.

It comes down to public education. A scientist I interviewed said the nuclear industry hasn’t done a good job of educating the public on how it actually works or how safe or hazardous it is. The oil industry has done a good job of hiding the the industry’s effects, like oil spills, pipeline leaks and contaminated land. I’ve been to the tarsands — it’s like a moonscape up there.

A common critique of nuclear power is that it creates waste that will be toxic for 400,000 years. How can we justify creating something that will be hazardous that far into the future?

It’s a matter of perspective. Yes, nuclear waste is toxic stuff and it lasts a long time — but we know where it all is. It’s all under lock and key. In its history of nuclear power Canada has created seven hockey rinks worth of waste, up to the boards. Compare that to the billions of tons of pollution that we throw into the atmosphere every day. Which is worse?

The good news is that scientists are designing these small modular reactors that burn waste fuel. There’s still energy in it, so we can recycle that stuff and reduce the amount of it by using it in these new reactors.

It feels strange to learn all of these incredible technologies are used to boil water so steam can turn a turbine. Do you think we’ll ever discover a fundamentally different way to think about power?

I hope so! That’s a challenge that I put out there to the young minds in our universities. The chemists, the engineers, the physicists — they’re already working to find better battery material that doesn’t involve heavy metals, that’s lightweight, that can hold a lot of charge and charge quickly.

Finding a way to generate electricity in some other way would be fabulous. That’s why we need to support fundamental research — just pay people to think and let them mess around and come up with stuff that we haven’t even thought of yet.

I believe we can do that. You know, bring on warp drive, let’s manipulate gravity. Anti-gravity machines, we don’t have those yet!

Speaking of future technology, you’ve got a whole chapter on fusion power. Do you really think we’ll see fusion power in our lifetimes?

It’s happening. The Iter project in France is under construction right now. It’s over budget and behind time, but when they finally got the thing up and running, it’ll be incredible.

And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has the SPARC reactor, which is smaller and more efficient — they’re hoping to have that up and running around 2025 or 2030. We are going to see fusion.

There was the breakthrough that happened at the end of last year where they got more energy out of a fusion reaction than they put in. That was a nice boost for the whole industry to say yes, it is possible, we can do this.

It’ll become part of the montage of energy sources but it won’t take over everything — there’s no magic bullet.

For all these solutions the book doesn’t talk about organizations that oppose a transition to a low-carbon world. The oil and gas industry is massively powerful and killed the electric car once before. Why doesn’t the book look at things that could limit or inhibit these innovations?

I’m not interested in obstacles. I want to look at opportunities.

If we work with the oil companies rather than against them, it’ll be more productive. It would be in their best interest to think of themselves as energy companies so that they can supply us with other forms of energy, whether it’s hydrogen or something else.

Iceland, back in the ’80s, decided that they were going to go to a hydrogen economy. They have cheap geothermal energy and lots of water, which you make hydrogen out of.

It was Royal Dutch Shell that helped Iceland get off oil. Their philosophy was, “we don’t care what cars are filling up with as long as the gas station they go to says Shell.”

That was brilliant, brilliant philosophy. That kind of approach can make the oil companies an ally, rather than an enemy. Let’s work with them.

As soon as you label the evil oil empire and the green tree huggers, both sides dig in their heels and nothing happens. I didn’t want my book to point out reasons why to not do something. Let’s look at why we should do it and how we can do it. Those answers are out there.

People think going green means we’ve got to give up everything, go back to the caves. Not so!

We will still have cities and cars, everything will look the same. But there’ll be something different turning the wheels. Your electricity will be coming from different sources. Rather than a coal-fired generating station it will come from wind and solar farms, your own roof, whatever, it’s gonna come from a lot of different sources. There will be an evolution of what we have rather than some big overnight change. There doesn’t have to be a catastrophe.

At the end of the book, you discuss how the Industrial Revolution caused conflict, social disruption and environmental degradation — and how we should be careful not to cause that harm again during a new, green industrial revolution. But aren’t we being pushed into this new green revolution because of those exact harms?

I think we can learn from the past. We’re far more environmentally aware now than 150 years ago. They didn’t think about smoke from the smokestack because it blew away — out of sight, out of mind.

Now we’ve got satellites that can track CO2 and see the change in surface temperatures, ocean currents and weather patterns. We’re seeing the Earth as a whole. That is driving people to look at full environmental impacts, like how much energy it takes to build something, where the materials are from and how it was transported here. We can approach this industrial revolution more intelligently than we did in the past.

What about developing nations, which are impacted by climate change without being responsible for it? They’re also out of sight and out of mind.

Many developing nations are adopting new technology better than Canada. The last time I was in Rwanda, everyone had cellphones. It was too expensive to build telephone lines so they went wireless. Other parts of Africa have geothermal or solar power. Canada should export green technology rather than the old stuff, like internal combustion engine cars, once they’re no longer allowed here.

There are opportunities for the developing nations to develop in a green way, rather than duplicate the mistakes that we’ve already made here.  [Tyee]

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