Yes, climate change can be beaten by 2050. Here’s how.

A carbon-free world can be a reality. What would that mean for our jobs, homes and lives?
Alanna Mitchell
In the post-carbon future, downtown Calgary could boast green tech like hyperloops, wind farms and sustainable architecture(Photo illustration by Lauren Cattermole and Drew Maynard)

This article is part of a special climate change issue in advance of the federal election. This collection of stories offers a comprehensive look at where Canada currently stands, what could be done to address the issue and what the consequences might be if this country continues with half measures. Learn more about why we’re doing this.

The sun rises in Calgary in 2050. A wind-farm worker rolls out of bed, packs himself a tofurkey sandwich on rye, checks his condo building’s geothermal heating system and hops the electric tram to work.

Welcome to the post-carbon world. We’ve dodged the bullet. The global economy has ditched fossil fuels. Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have stopped rising. Temperatures are stable. We’ve started harnessing the power of the sun, the wind, the water and even the stray heat lurking in the air or underground.

What does it look like? What does it feel like? Maybe most importantly—is this just science fiction, or a possible reality? “Is it possible to turn things around by 2050? The answer is absolutely yes,” says Kai Chan, a professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia.

There are plenty of scientists tracking what the world will look like if we fail to rein in the carbon beast. But others, like Chan, are also tracking what success might look like. They are not pie-in-the-sky dreamers. They are putting together road maps for how to safely get to the planet envisioned in the 2015 Paris Agreement, where temperatures hold at 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than before we started burning fossil fuels.

READ MORE: Yes, we should be scared: What major Canadian climate thinkers say about the crisis

“Three decades is enough to do a lot of important things. In the next few years—if we get started on them—they will pay dividends in the coming decades,” says Chan, the lead author of the chapter on achieving a sustainable future in a recent UN report that predicted the possible extinction of a million species.

Accomplishing a positive outcome will meaning shifting the priorities of consumers, business and government, and rearranging the way economic incentives work. To begin with, according to the International Monetary Fund, it will require rejigging some of the US$5 trillion spent by governments to prop up the fossil fuel industry. There will undeniably be upfront costs, but those aren’t as high as analysts calculated only a year or two ago. And long-term profits could flow from new technologies.

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Making these changes won’t mean years of being poor, cold and hungry before things get comfortable again. These scientists don’t insist we need to build off-the-grid cabins in the woods or overhaul how society provides energy, food and jobs. Instead, these scientists say that if we start right now, we stand a decent chance of transforming society without huge disruption. “Rather than talking about what we may have to give up, it’s a focus on what we’ll actually gain,” says Neil Jennings, partnership development manager at the Grantham Institute—Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, in England.

No question, it will require a massive switch in society’s systems of energy use. But quietly, that’s already happening with electricity generation as solar panels and offshore wind power plummet in price. Iceland and Paraguay have stripped the carbon from their grids, according to a new energy outlook report from Bloomberg (Paraguay thanks to hydro electricity; Iceland with hydro and geothermal and a dash of wine). Europe is on track to be 90 per cent carbon-free by 2040. And Ottawa says that Canada is already at 81 per cent, thanks to hydro, nuclear, wind and solar.

Decarbonizing the whole economy is within grasp.

“If we have five years of really sustained efforts, making sure we reorient our businesses and our governments toward sustainability, then from that point on, this transition will seem quite seamless. Because it will just be this gradual reshaping of options,” Chan says, adding: “All these things seem very natural when the system is changing around you.”

Still, it’s the day-to-day details that are hard to imagine. How will I get to work? How will I heat my cold Canadian home and feed my family? What kinds of jobs will our no-carbon economy support?

OUR EDITORIAL: Enough with the climate change half-measures. Canada has real solutions to consider.

For David R. Boyd, the metamorphosis in transportation will be measured in bird song. Today, electric vehicles are routine. In a carbon-free 2050 world, they will be ubiquitous, says Boyd, a UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and environment and a professor of law, policy and sustainability at UBC.

“You’ll be living in a city that is quieter and cleaner, where you can actually hear the birds singing on the way to work,” he says. The noisy internal combustion engine will be all but obsolete. Cities will be built for walking and cycling, featuring plentiful electrified public transit. This is not a utopian vision, he says. “Everything I’ve said is grounded in trends that are happening today.”

It matters, because transportation globally makes up nearly a quarter of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, according to the latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In Canada, carbon emissions from transportation are marching steadily upwards as we buy more SUVs and do so much truck-delivered online shopping, government figures show. And at the moment, electric vehicles make up less than two per cent of new sales in Canada.

The game-changer will be the collapse in the cost of lithium-ion batteries, which run electric vehicles, says Ajay Gambhir, a senior research fellow at the Grantham Institute in London who assesses the global carbon picture. The price of a single lithium-ion battery pack stood at US$176 in 2018. That’s a drop of 85 per cent from 2010, according to the Bloomberg report. Sales of passenger vehicles that rely on the internal combustion engine have already peaked around the world, the report adds.

Other countries are showing us how fast the electrification of public transit vehicles can catch on. China, for example, already has more than 400,000 electric city buses on the roads, a figure that grew by about a third in the last year alone, says the report. Meanwhile, Canada has pledged $23.5 billion for public transit infrastructure over the next decade in a series of bilateral agreements with provinces and territories.

What about travel by train, plane and ship? Trains can reliably be shifted from diesel to electric, Gambhir says. But aviation and shipping will require more futuristic plans to get to zero carbon. He has hopes that plant-based kerosene fuel for ships and short-range electric planes, now being tested, might be common in 2050. Longer-haul flights may have to rely on electrically generated hydrogen as a fuel. 

Gambhir is not ruling out hyperloops, the mass-transit darling of Tesla co-founder Elon Musk, now in development. Hyperloops work by driving pods containing goods and maybe people at high speed through a vacuum tube caught between the push of the electromagnetic field and the pull of the Earth’s gravity. If hyperloops can get off the ground, so to speak, they could dramatically reduce the need for carbon-heavy domestic aviation, Gambhir says.

A passive house under construction, ready for the thick insulation that increases energy efficiency (Jure Gasparic/Alamy)

A Canadian winter without a furnace? You bet, says Guido Wimmers, an architectural engineer who is chair of the master of engineering, integrated wood design program at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. He is a specialist in the ultra-energy-efficient building known as the “passive house.”

“There are hundreds of thousands of them built across the planet. You can do it today. There’s no need to wait until 2050,” he says.

A passive house doesn’t use a machine to generate heat, like a traditional oil or gas furnace, or even electric space heaters. Instead, it uses a heat-recovery exchange ventilator to draw waste energy from your body, the sun and even appliances out of the air. Passive-heat buildings work because they are airtight and thickly insulated.

It’s the same principle as dressing for the outdoors during cold weather: a warm layer covered by something to cut the wind, plus a vent in case you get overheated and start to sweat. The buildings typically also make use of solar energy and shade—and triple-glazed windows—to manage temperature and natural daylight inside the building.

Wimmers not only builds them, he has lived in them.

“Good friends once visited me and said, ‘You know, it feels like living in a spa,’ ” he says. “Even if it’s minus 20 on the outside, you’re feeling very comfortable. There’s no drafts, no cold areas. It just feels good.” Air quality is also top-notch because of the ventilator, he adds, and thick walls make it feel cozy.

Wimmers, a founder of the Canadian Passive House Institute, helped build the first official “passive” house in Canada. That house started its life as Austria’s headquarters for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, B.C. After the Games, Austria gave the building to the municipality and it is now a commercial space known as Lost Lake PassivHaus. It needs just a fifth of the fuel it would take to heat and cool a typical home in Whistler.

Passive building construction is catching on in Canada, including in the commercial and industrial sectors, although it costs about 10 per cent more than a conventional structure. The University of Victoria’s new 782-bed student residence and dining hall, with a full commercial kitchen and classrooms, will be one. Canada’s first passive-house daycare opened in Penticton, B.C., two years ago, saving as much as 90 per cent on energy costs every year.

READ: Extreme weather may finally make climate change a ballot-box issue

Building codes are under revision across Canada to move the trend along. In B.C., recent changes to voluntary building energy codes aim for new homes to create as much clean energy as they consume by 2032, Wimmers says. Ottawa has similar goals for the country for 2030. As these types of heating systems become more common, they become less expensive. Because you don’t need to pay for a furnace or much energy, they pay for themselves over time.

Another low-carbon technology for heating buildings is the heat pump. Like the mechanism in your fridge, heat pumps harness the compression/expansion cycle of gases to heat or cool homes. Often called “refrigerators in reverse,” they extract heat from air, water or even the ground and use it inside buildings, relying on only a small bit of electricity to power the pump, says the Grantham Institute’s Gambhir.

The reality for Canadians is they might not do the job fully in very cold climates, he says, and could require a boost from a micro gas boiler. But heat-pump technology is getting more popular. France installed about a quarter of a million of them in homes last year, Gambhir says. They’re taking hold in the U.K., too.

“This is a totally commercialized and available technology,” Gambhir says. “That’s not a particularly innovative technology, it’s just something that we should be seeing a lot more of in people’s homes.”

By 2050, older homes will be using a lot less energy, too. Jennings, also of the Grantham Institute, sees a future where homes are retrofitted to make them more energy-efficient. That means they will be warmer and drier as well, and poorer citizens will no longer have to choose between heating and eating.

Like transportation, changing the building stock is another key part of the strategy to decarbonize the economy. In fact, the IPCC says buildings “represent a critical piece of a low-carbon future.” And a move to mass retrofits has benefits that go far beyond carbon. It could create jobs—with retraining—for those displaced out of carbon-intense vocations, an important part of making sure the carbon-free future economy doesn’t leave workers behind.

And it could cut down on health costs. In the U.K., some general practitioners have experimented with “boilers on prescription.” They write a health-care-covered prescription for needy patients—not just for new boilers, but also better windows and home insulation. It’s a way of slashing the costs of visits to emergency rooms and doctors. It’s working. A study on the project found that for every British pound spent making homes warmer, the National Health Service saved 42 pence as people cut down on doctor visits for respiratory problems, strokes and heart attacks.

Another pilot project that began in Islington—now rolled out across London—has health officials referring homeowners to a team that brainstorms with them to get grants for new furnaces, learn energy-saving techniques and figure out how to cut down on fuel costs.

“It’s exactly the sort of thing that should be scaled up as quickly as possible,” Jennings says, “because you’re dealing with the root cause of a health-related problem rather than just dealing with the symptoms and, in this case, sending elderly people back to the very house that made them ill in the first place.”

READ: How climate change is destroying the Arctic

Will we still be the farmers, foresters and drillers of yore, come a carbon-free 2050? Yes. But we’ll do it differently, says Chan, with the goal of not just cutting carbon out of the mix, but also bringing plants and animals back from the brink of extinction.

Many large-scale monoculture farms will give way to those that grow a suite of different crops, he says. Those that remain will work smarter, using fewer pesticides and relying more on natural predators to control pests, he says.

Fertilizers, which foster emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, will be used far more sparingly, says Gambhir. And more cows and sheep will live in covered grazing spaces so that the methane they release can be captured and used.

What else could be on the dinner plate of the future? Maybe more lab-grown meat or manufactured protein, and lots more veggies, says Gambhir, adding: “Food and diet is a huge, huge area of potential wins in terms of greenhouse gas emission reductions.” Granted, it would mean substantial shifts for enthusiastic carnivores.

As for forests, they will no longer be replanted with vast tracts of the same species, all the same age, Chan says. Instead, they will contain multiple species of different ages. It adds up to more birds and bees. The landscape will look and feel more diverse.

“We’re going to see changes,” Chan says, adding: “As a result of that, you’re going to see a balancing back of nature.”

Gambhir says some future industrial jobs will come from expanding carbon-capture enterprises. They take carbon from the waste streams of, say, cement-manufacturing plants, liquify it, and then transport it to safe spaces underground. And an emerging technology involves sucking carbon directly out of the atmosphere in huge volumes through chemical scrubbers and solvents, and storing it underground. Another is growing carbon-eating plants for fuel while also capturing the carbon emitted when they burn, a double-win for pulling carbon out of the air.

“We’ll likely need some degree of negative emissions technologies,” says Gambhir, “but you or I probably won’t see those because they’ll be done in big, centralized areas.”

The world of 2050 will look, sound, smell and taste a little different once we succeed in flipping the switch on carbon. It will be a healthier world, with more walking, more green spaces, more plants and animals, less sickness, far less air pollution, and probably less meat but better nutrition.

It will feel different, too. Today, some mental health providers in both Europe and North America have banded together to create climate psychiatry alliances, driven by the need to help patients cope with powerlessness and sorrow. By 2050, those alliances may no longer be necessary.

“By 2050, people will look back at 2020 and say: ‘What were they thinking!’ ” Boyd says.

That’s not to say it will be a cakewalk. Kirsten Zickfeld, one of two Canadian lead authors on the recent IPCC report describing what the physical world will look like if we cap warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, says the carbon dioxide we’ve put into the atmosphere will take hundreds if not thousands of years to go away.

“It’s a very slow process,” says Zickfeld, a climate physicist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. “What this implies is that the temperature we experience at the Earth’s surface will actually not come down after we stop emissions. It will remain at that precise point at which we stopped emitting. So temperature will be elevated for a very long period of time.”

Sea levels will continue to rise. The ocean will continue to heat up, lose oxygen and acidify, with awful consequences for marine life. The frozen parts of the planet will continue to thaw, including ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, permafrost and Arctic sea ice. Life in the far warmer Arctic will be profoundly altered.

“The climate doesn’t forget,” she says. “Even if we get to zero emissions, the climate will still remember the time when we put carbon into the atmosphere.”

And there are lots of ways a transition could go wrong. Gambhir shudders to think about new energy-chomping consumer fads that could take off, reversing progress made on personal energy cutbacks. Say, a must-have computer-generated virtual environment for the home.

“As a society, we have to capitalize on energy-saving inventions and temper those inventions that would increase the profligacy of our energy use,” he says.

READ: Are ‘green’ cities a big part of our problem with climate change?

The shift to a no-carbon future will also shift the types of jobs on offer. Some sectors will be big losers. The obvious one is the global fossil-fuel industry. To meet the 1.5-degree target, the amount of energy supplied by fossil fuels will have to start dropping in the 2020s and be cut in half by 2050. It’s a big consideration in Canada, where whole communities depend on the fossil-fuel industry. But it will also hit Russia, the Middle East and Central Asian states hard, Gambhir and his co-authors calculated in a recent paper. Some of those jobs will disappear overnight, and some of the workers will have trouble retraining for other work.

In all, the paper reckons that a total of six million jobs will vanish by 2030. On the bright side, 24 million new ones will appear, compared to the high-carbon “business as usual” economy.

Jennings cautions that it’s critical to take care of people who stand to lose their jobs in the transition. What does the life of an oil worker in Calgary look like in 2050? Perhaps managing a solar farm or making chemical scrubbers for carbon capture and storage facilities.

Jennings points to oil and gas workers in Britain who have transferred their skills en masse to offshore wind production. An unhappier example was the hemorrhage of manufacturing and coal-mining jobs in the U.K. starting in the 1980s as the service sector roared. Social upheaval was immense. A recent study pegged the cost of unemployment benefits to those workers at more than $5 billion a year even now. And many permanently withdrew from the workforce.

“When we don’t get those transitions right, it has really significant consequences for the lives of people in those communities and for society more generally,” Jennings says.

It will mean pulling together, says Reneltta Arluk, director of Indigenous arts at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta and a playwright whose work often touches on the threat of climate catastrophe.

“I don’t think we ever want to go back into the past,” she says. “But the beautiful thing about the future is that we will have to be more relational to survive because the environment will demand that from us.”

When she looks to a carbon-free 2050, she sees the reimagining of borders, a gathering of the like-minded, possibly the creation of safe havens where animals can re-emerge. Maybe even the resolution of grief.

“From there, that’s where we get to grow and learn and create and make space for newness,” she says.

This article appears in print in the August 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Wait! There’s good news.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.