Or at least that’s what one might conclude after scanning the year’s headlines.
To be sure, while the Philippines reeled from the largest typhoon ever to make landfall, governments failed to take necessary action at the U.N. climate talks. Instead, Japan dialed back its ambitions, a new Australian government worked to repeal that nation’s carbon tax (with Canada, sigh, cheering it on), and global clean energy investment dropped for a second year in a row.
Annus horribilis, right? Well, not exactly. In North America and elsewhere, the real progress on greenhouse gas pollution and clean energy has been — and will continue to be — seeping up from below, as companies, cities, and coalitions of provinces and states forge ahead.
Companies Cut Carbon
This year, familiar brands deepened their clean energy investments. In October, Google crossed a symbolic threshold when it invested more than $1 billion in utility-scale clean energy farms, while Apple committed to power its new headquarters with 100 per cent renewables. Even Lego promised to produce more clean energy than it consumed.
Meanwhile, as the cost of solar panels continued to plunge, big box stores put their sprawling rooftops to work. The Top 25 U.S. commercial installers — think Walmart, Costco, Staples and Target — collectively bolted on more than 445 megawatts of solar PV this year, up from about 300 megawatts last year. That’s enough juice to power roughly 53,000 American homes.
It’s happening here, too. As part of the company’s global ambition to invest U.S.$2.4 billion in wind and solar by 2015, Ikea Canada purchased a 46-megawatt wind farm under construction (“some assembly required”) in southern Alberta. President Kerri Molinaro said the retailer is keen “to support the transition to a low carbon future.” And hold on to your Allen keys, in the U.K. Ikea has begun selling residential solar panels.
Meanwhile, business consultancy Climate Smart released a study of 11 small and medium sized British Columbia companies that have made carbon-cutting investments. The research found the investments paid for themselves, on average, in about 2.3 years. The studied firms typically realized 43 per cent returns while collectively cutting 486 tonnes of climate changing pollution.
Cities Continue to Lead
Canada pulled out of the Kyoto accord last year, having once pronounced the target “impossible.” It appears nobody told Toronto. This past April, that city’s leaders revealed that T.O. would cut more than two and a half times the pollution it agreed to under Kyoto — largely as a result of landfill practices and efficiency gains.
For its part, Vancouver snagged a prestigious green building award for its Greenest City Action Plan.
Just over the border, this past summer more than 50 U.S. mayors and local leaders committed to transition their communities to a renewable energy future. They did so, they said, “to achieve greater energy independence, protect communities from price spikes, and ensure more reliable power during heat waves and other disruptions.”
Ontario Unplugs From Coal, While Quebec Strikes a Bold Plan
We also witnessed progress on climate and clean energy at the provincial scale this year. Ontario became the first jurisdiction in North America to formally unplug from coal power — the direct result of the province’s Green Energy Act.
Ontario’s premier also announced that her province will issue “green bonds” and use the resulting revenue to finance public-transit improvements and related environmentally-friendly infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Quebec finalized a provincial energy strategy intended to reduce carbon pollution, maximize the benefits of its clean and green electricity surplus, promote energy efficiency and develop new renewables. The province also announced a $516 million three-year plan to electrify surface transportation. It aims to place an additional 12,500 electric vehicles on Quebec roads by 2016.
Nova Scotia cleared the way for new tidal power projects in the Bay of Fundy with a new feed-in-tariff electricity policy intended to kickstart the sector. An economic-impact study, now underway, estimates that tidal power could bring billions into the region.
Regional Alliances Bolster Progress
Prime ministers and presidents continued to flounder in 2013 — with the exception of President Obama, who had the Environmental Protection Agency introduce aggressive regulations for new coal-fired power plants. Meanwhile, coalitions of provinces and states moved ahead.
In October, British Columbia linked up with Washington, Oregon, and California in a largely overlooked but wide-ranging climate and clean energy pact. The Pacific Coast Action Plan aims to harmonize carbon pollution pricing up and down the west coast, help drive adoption of net-zero buildings and zero-emissions vehicles, and more. Noting that the region collectively represents an enormous economy and more than 50 million people, The New York Times said the coalition “should have a lot of clout.”
In a separate alliance — also announced in October — the governors of eight U.S. states pledged to work together to put 3.3 million electric or fuel-cell cars on their roads by 2025 — a more than 20-fold increase over today’s numbers. (The United States is, of course, the largest single buyer of Canadian petroleum.)
A recent national poll revealed that 88 per cent of Canadians feel Ottawa should take primary responsibility for addressing global warming. But while federal governments generally fail to deliver both here and abroad, good news is regularly bubbling up from below.
2013 should not be remembered for its failures, but as the year that individual companies, cities, communities, and provinces and states stepped up to the plate and met the biggest challenge and opportunity of our age head-on.
This article first appeared in The Vancouver Sun.