December 31, 2008
November 20th, 2008
Part 1: Home
My story begins with an accident of nature – I was cycling, and fell, but even as I was falling, I knew this was no ordinary fall. It’s true, I had been recently been rather obsessed with the appalling future that is facing us, and the future in the year 2030 in particular, which I saw as reasonably close yet distant enough for major changes to have happened. But I was never expecting to find myself physically present in Vancouver in the year 2030 – or as close to physically as my strange transmigration allowed for. If it was a dream, it was certainly as robust and detailed as the best of dreams.
After I hit the road, I must have blanked out for a while, but I remember my whole body being charged with a series of vibrations I’d never experienced before, so I did have a sense that something very out of the ordinary was happening.
When I came to, there was a crowd of people gathered around me, looking very concerned, and a woman offered to take me into her home, which was nearby.
I recovered quite quickly, and was able to walk the 20 metres to her home, and the first thing to strike me as unusual – apart from the healthy vegetable garden growing in her front yard - was the large circular green sign by her front door, which had “100%” written in the middle, surrounded by five green stars. I had no idea I was not still in the year 2008, so I said nothing, until I saw an unusual telescreen immediately inside the door, with the date “November 20th, 2030” clearly displayed.
I did a double-take, and assumed it to be a programming error, but the screen intrigued me, so after she had kindly served me a cup of refreshing herbal tea, I asked her about it.
“Oh, that’s our smart meter. Don’t you have one? I’m Johanna, by the way – happy to meet you!”
I introduced myself, and we shook hands – and then I had to admit that I didn’t have a smart meter, and I could see that Johanna was a bit shocked.
“It tells us how much energy we’re using in real time, and keeps track of any remaining carbon emissions we might have. We’ve been on zero for five years now, so we just use it to keep track of the cost, and watch for our son who’s a heavy I-Beam user, which takes a lot of power.”
“Yes – the holographic side-beam that comes with all computers these days, that enables people to talk to their friends in real-3-D holographic form. It uses a lot of power because of the bandwidth.”
Then she said, “You’re not from these parts, are you?”
I quickly decided to tell a lie, and said, “No – I’m visiting from Iceland, where I’ve been living for the past 30 years. Things have been a bit backward there ever since the financial crash in 2008, when the entire country went bankrupt.”
“So you don’t know about the Carbon Busters, and the whole Go Zero initiative?”
No, I explained – and she started to tell me that starting quite some years ago, every street had been encouraged to form a local Carbon Busters Club, with the goal of eliminating their carbon emissions by 2020. It became a competitive game between neighbours, with people both competing and helping one another, but there was all sorts of support available, and every investment they made was funded with a zero-interest loan, which removed any kind of disincentive.
She told me how most houses had installed air-source or ground-source heat pumps, drilling down into their lawns to install the pipes that bring up the heat, using the system in reverse for air conditioning in the summer. Everyone had also installed a solar hot water system, and as soon as the price of solar electricity hit parity at 10 cents a kWh they had all installed rooftop solar systems, generating most of their summertime power. Their fridges, dishwashers, and other appliances were all super-efficient, thanks to the new global standards, and being smart-metered, some were set to operate at off-peak periods when the power cost less.
“Where does the power come from?” I asked.
She told me that here in BC it was mostly hydro, supplemented with wind, tidal, solar, and geothermal – and then added that BC had been a net exporter of green power ever since 2015, thanks to our enormous resources of wind, tidal, and geothermal power, which had helped Washington, Montana, and Alberta to close down their coal-fired power plants.
“So you’re telling me your whole household has zero carbon emissions?”
Yes, she said – for herself, her husband, their three teenage boys, and their tenants in their two-storey converted garage.
“But what about your travel, and the food you buy – and your garbage, come to that?” I hadn’t been a climate solutions specialist for nothing, so I knew what to look for.
“Our waste is 100% recycled,” she said. “Almost no garbage at all, as of last year.”
Vancouver learnt a big lesson from San Francisco, she said, which had achieved zero waste in
2020 by recycling all their compostables, using “pay as you throw” for the declining amount of garbage, banning non-recyclable wastes from the landfill, and requiring companies to take back their packaging and broken goods, as they’d done in Germany for years, triggering an ecological redesign revolution.
“Our compostables are producing biogas for some of the city’s bus fleet,” she said, “and the recyclables are converted back into new materials.”
I was blown away.
“What about food?” I asked. I knew that food and farming were responsible for up to 30% of the cause of global warming, and found it hard to believe that they’d solved this one, too.
“Back yard”, she said, leading me to the window – and sure enough, there was food growing everywhere. “For the rest,” she said, “you’ll need to visit a farm. But it’s true, we’ve changed our diet a lot – we’re mostly vegetarian, and what occasional meat we do eat is locally raised on organic pastures. Much healthier, by far. The oil crisis did as much to put an end to industrial farming as the climate imperative.”
I was about to say “Oil crisis?” but I thought better, because if there had been an oil crisis, the folks in Iceland would certainly have known about it, with their entire fishing fleet dependent on oil. So I just nodded and said, “Yes. How was it for you here in BC? It certainly hit us hard in Iceland.”
“Just crazy,” she said. “People couldn’t believe what was happening when the price of gas rose to $2, $3, and then $5 a litre at the pump. It was really chaotic for a while, because the whole crisis was exaggerated by the speculators, but the government did a really smart thing when they created a carbon tax price floor which stopped the price from falling below a certain level, capturing all the revenue as carbon tax to pay for the zero interest loans and other carbon reduction programs.”
“So for transport …. you’re not using oil any more?”
“No – say, have you got the time? If you’re feeling recovered, we could go for a spin around the neighbourhood, let you see for yourself.”
I was in fact feeling quite recovered, thanks to whatever was in that herbal tea, so I happily agreed, and thus started the second of what would be my five adventures in 2030-land, before returning to the carbon-polluting present.
Part 2: City
Johanna’s family didn’t own a car, she explained, as we walked down the street, but they were members of the city-wide Go Zero Travel Club, which gave them access to all the local transport options they needed, via a smart-card and a monthly bill.
“Let’s take the ZENN”, she said, waving her smart card at a cute little Neighbourhood Electric Vehicle with seating for two, unlocking it. “It’s limited to 50 k, but that’s fine for our needs, since nobody goes faster than 40 in the city anyway. It’s almost free, as well – the total bill for our e-bikes and the Go Zero Travel Club comes to less than $20 a month. And to think that before we sold our last carbon car, we were paying $100 a week. Good riddance to that!”
The first thing I noticed was that the streets of Vancouver were full of bicycles – far more than I’d been used to in 2008. At least half had electric drives, enabling their riders to sail up the hills, and all the roads had good wide bike lanes on either side, marked off from the regular road and paved with a distinct material. When we came to the lights, I saw that the bikes had 10 seconds precedence before any car could cross. As well as regular bikes, there were bikes with trailers, bikes with child-carriers, tricycles, tandems – you name it – and their behaviour was quite different to what I’d been used to. There was no rushing, and no sense that they had to compete with the traffic. There was an almost lazy ambience, with some cyclists drinking coffee, others holding hands. For the electric bikes, I could see that there were recharging posts all over the place, wherever there was bike parking – and that many of the bikes had a distinct design.
“What are those?” I asked Johanna.
“Oh, those are the Bixi Bikes, that people rent by the hour,” she replied. “They’re designed like that to make them safe against stealing, since none of the parts are interchangeable. I think Vancouver took the idea from Paris.”
I was impressed.
“What about the buses – has that system changed?” I asked. There were clearly a lot of buses on the road.
“They’re free – that’s the fundamental difference. We pay for them in our city taxes, and most people think it’s a great improvement. It’s only out-of-towners who have to pay, who don’t have smart cards. It’s the same for the SkyTrain, and the Light Rail Transit routes that run along the Fraser Valley.”
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to a large tubular structure in the centre of the road.
“That’s our Bus Rapid Transit loading tube – Vancouver took the idea from Curitiba, in Brazil. It makes loading easier, especially if you’ve got a wheel chair, or children in a push-chair. The rapid buses have their own dedicated lanes, and priority at the traffic lights, so once they were introduced most commuters abandoned their cars. Especially when road-pricing was introduced on top of the carbon tax.”
“Yes, Johanna said. “$5 bucks every time a vehicle such as ours crosses the Green Line into downtown Vancouver.”
“The road toll applies to electric vehicles, too?”
“Yes”, she said, “and rightly so. It used to apply only to gas vehicles, as a way to drive down carbon emissions, but when people discovered how cheap it was to run an electric vehicle, and how easy it was to roll into a service station if you needed a replacement battery, the market went crazy. The planners quickly realized that congestion would soon be worse than ever, even if the air was clean, so once the electric vehicles hit a certain high, they included all vehicles, except bicycles and buses. That’s how we paid for all the new bike lanes, and can afford to make the transit free. It all comes from the road tolls.”
I was even more impressed. Vancouver seemed to have it sorted – and the city I was seeing in 2030 was such an amazing place. The neighbourhoods all had car-free pedestrian centres with street markets, musicians, and sidewalk cafés, and everywhere you looked there was the evidence of what had clearly been a great summer crop of tomatoes, beans, artichokes, sunflowers, herbs, fruit trees, nut trees, and every other kind of food. You could tell this was a fundamentally happy city from the smiles on people’s faces, the people lingering to chat, and
the general vibe on the street.
“What about winter?” I asked. It was November, but it still seemed like summer.
“Oh it certainly rains – does it rain! We have more rain than ever before, and it comes like no-one’s business. Utter downpours. That’s climate change for you – they say there’s little chance of things returning to normal for 100 years. It’s cost the city an enormous amount to retrofit all the storm drains for the increased flow. We’re getting what used to be a 100 year storm event almost every year, if that tells you anything.”
Finally, I had to ask the question that had been on my mind.
“And sea-level – what about that? How do things look, here in Vancouver?”
Johanna’s face changed. The happy gaiety she’d been showing disappeared, and a whole other expression appeared.
“Come,” she said. “I’ll show you.”
We drove over the Fraser towards Richmond and the airport, and as we crossed the bridge I could see that there was a massive works operation happening all along the banks of the Fraser.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“It’s the new sea wall – we’ve got to prepare for what could be a two-metres sea-level rise. Unbelievable cost. If we don’t, they say we’ll lose huge areas of the lower mainland by the end of the century. Richmond, Surrey, Tsawassen, Delta, the riverside lands all the way up to Hope – they are all at risk. And it’s not just the sea wall. Vancouver is still a centre for what little remains of the global shipping industry, and every company that’s still shipping by sea is having to raise its riverside infrastructure by two meters as well.”
“But I thought you said most people were Zero Carbon.”
“Yes, that’s true – the province is a founder member of the Go-Zero Group of Nations. We were the fifth to get there, after Sweden, Britain, Costa Rica, and Austria. But globally, there’s a lot of nations that have a long way still to go. Take India, for instance – they’re only half way there, and China has only reached 75%. On top of which, the world’s climate is controlled by the carbon loading of the past century, so we’re still in danger of a two-meter sea-level rise.”
“You mean all this effort might be for nothing?”
“Absolutely not – don’t ever think that! If we and most other industrial nations had not embraced the Go Zero goal so solidly back in 2010, we’d have been looking not just at a future 25 metres sea-level rise, but basically the end of all existence – humans, bears, fish – the works. There’s not much life on this planet that can withstand a temperature rise of 6 degrees Celsius, which is where we were heading. As things stand, it looks as if we may be able to hold the rise to 2 C, and then start a decline – but only because we’ve worked so hard to eliminate our carbon emissions.”
“You must be tired, however, after that bike accident, and all this chatter,” Johanna said. “How about we return home, and I’ll cook you a lovely supper. Are you free to stay overnight? If you are, I’d love to take you up the valley, and show you what’s happening in the farmland.”
I expressed content with the idea, and that night I shared a delicious meal of home harvested food with Johanna’s family, before a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow would be another adventure.
Part 3: Farms
The next morning, Johanna and I walked down the street and took a Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle from the Go Zero Travel Club that Johanna had arranged to borrow the night before. The first 80 kilometres would be all electric, and after that the car would switch to biogas, which, as Johanna explained, came mostly from Vancouver’s sewage and composting programs.
As we travelled east, I noticed a lot of fancy looking coaches heading into the city.
“What are they?” I asked.
“They’re the new Green Line Coaches,” Johanna replied. “Luxury commuter coaches for people who live some way out, but work in Vancouver. They used to commute by car, but when the income from carbon taxes and road tolls started supporting these new coaches, people tried once and signed up for a season ticket immediately. They’ve got tables, lap-top plug-ins, cappuccino, the works. Some people even get paid for working on the bus – and most people can pick one up within a short bike ride from home.”
“What do they run on?” I asked.
“Mostly biogas, backed by electric and hydrogen – I used to work for the bus company. The hydrogen is a neat addition – they take electricity from the alternator and run it through water, generating hydrogen which goes straight to the biogas combustion chamber, increasing the fuel efficiency by up to 20%.”
How come we never did this kind of thing back in 2008? I wondered silently to myself. As I recalled, all the technology she described had been available then.
“Look – there’s the Abbotsford Bioenergy Centre,” Johanna said, as we passed a large building with a huge solar roof. That’s where they process farm wastes into biogas for use in farm equipment and for sale to the public. It has just celebrated its tenth anniversary.”
“Are all the farms linked into centers like this?” I asked.
“Most of the large ones,” she replied. “Smaller farms keep their biogas to themselves, using it locally for heat and electricity. But they’re all doing it.”
An hour later, we pulled into the driveway of Beetlewood Organics, a 100-acre farm outside Chilliwack.
“They’re friends of ours,” Johanna said. “I said we might make a visit.”
The old farmhouse was clearly the centre of activities, but there also seemed to be a small village surrounding the house, which would never have been allowed in 2008, due to the Agricultural Land Reserve. I asked Johanna what it was all about.
“That’s the farm village,” she said. “They’re springing up everywhere, giving the farm workers a place to live. There’s a complicated contract that links the buildings to farm-related work, but otherwise, they are perfectly normal homes that people can buy and sell, giving them home-ownership security. The farmers like them, because it creates a larger farming community, and some of the older farmers have been leaving their farms to the young settlers in their wills, working cooperatively. They’re all zero-energy houses - most are straw bale or cob construction, using local materials right here off the farm, built by local labour. The old barn-raising tradition has come right back, with people working together to build the new villages.”
Getting out of the car, we met the farmer, Karl, and his wife Lakshmi. They were both in their 60s, and happy to spend an hour greeting Johanna and her supposed visitor from Iceland.
The farm was all organic, I learnt, which seemed normal enough to me – until Lakshmi told me that 90% of the farms in BC were organic, and for the other 10% it was only because the farmers hadn’t bothered to get certified.
Anxious not to make a fool of myself, I played the Iceland card.
“Can you tell me how all of BC’s farms came to be organic?” I asked. “At home in Iceland, we are mostly fishermen, not farmers.”
“What other way is there to farm?” Karl answered. “Before they made the transition, non-organic farmers were paying higher fuel bills and higher bills for fertilizers and pesticides, all with the carbon tax, and losing out on the carbon credits that come from the increased carbon storage in organic soil. Every acre of our land is absorbing one and a half tonnes more CO2 than non-organic land. With the carbon credits selling at $100 a tonne, we were earning $15,000 a year before the government passed its law requiring every farm to go organic by 2030, ending our ability to earn offsets.”
“But who cares about all that?” Lakshmi chimed in. “What really matters is the land is so much healthier. The food is healthier, and the bugs and bees are so much healthier. Nobody wants poisoned food any more. Why should they?”
“How do you sell all your produce?” I asked.
“We’ve a great arrangement with a wholesale buyer,” Karl responded. “We’re in an electronic marketplace that links us up with other members of our growers network, and between us we can fill all the gaps, providing most vegetables 11 months a year. This way, we can sell direct to buyers groups in Vancouver who have home delivery once a week.”
“What about the greenhouses – how are you heating them?” I asked.
“Stored solar – an amazing development,” Karl replied. “Before we switched, we were struggling to get enough biogas, and some growers were still burning coal or old tires – disgusting behaviour.”
“But how can you use solar energy to heat your greenhouses in the winter – surely, there’s not enough?”
“It’s very clever. Instead of venting surplus heat in summer, we installed a deep soil underfloor, and a fan directs the heat down into the soil, which slowly heats up. Then in winter, we cover the north side of the greenhouse and recover the heat. It’s so simple. We also redirect the summer heat into our solar driers, so we get the best quality dried figs, tomatoes, pears, raisins, blackcurrants, and other food.”
“I see that you also have sheep and cows,” I said, hoping to evoke some comment.
“Yes –it’s wonderful that we can,” Lakshmi said. “We thought for a while that the government’s methane tax would cause us to lose them – but then a neighbouring farmer told us about rotational grazing, and how it builds so much carbon in the soil that it offsets the methane. We’re trying to copy the way herds used to graze when they were being hunted by wolves and cougars, forcing them to group together for safety. That caused them to trample the soil, driving the native grass seeds down into the mud where they took root, and stored large amounts of carbon. When we killed off the wolves, the animals grazed wherever they liked, causing terrible soil erosion, and losing the carbon. Furthermore, it seems that the higher the organic content of the soil, and the greater the diversity of native plants, the lower are the animals’ methane emissions, presumably because the plants help their digestion. It’s something we track very carefully for the Farmlands Go Zero Trust, who demand all these statistics.”
By this time, Johanna could see that my mind was reeling with so much new information, so we took ourselves on a walk around the farm, were treated to a slap-up lunch by Karl and Lakshmi, and then headed back to Vancouver.
After a while, I found my voice again.
“It all seems to logical,” I said. “Or perhaps eco-logical. Why didn’t we do this 20 years ago?”
“Some farmers did,” Johanna replied, as we passed the first of the returning coaches carrying their workers back to their zero carbon homes in the suburbs. “But they were seen as freaks and oddballs, bucking the way farmers thought they were supposed to farm. Nobody realized how much the old way of farming contributed to global warming – or how much oil it needed. It’s so much healthier now, and everyone is happier. The food is far better quality, too – we are seeing a marked decline in cancer rates. Who’d have thought there’d be a healthcare spin-off from going zero carbon?”
And so ended my second day in the wonderland that was 2030. In the morning, Johanna said, she’d take me downtown to meet an eco-economist, who could hopefully answer some of my other questions.
Part 4: Economy
On my third day in 2030, after a breakfast of fresh eggs from Johanna’s urban chickens, we cycled downtown for the meeting she had promised me. As I had surmised on my first afternoon in the future, cycling was a lot easier than it used to be. The bike lanes were wide, and in many places clearly separated from the roadway. For about two kilometres we followed a back-street route from which cars had been banned altogether, leaving it entirely for bicycles. I saw children on bikes, grannies on bikes, and businessmen in suits on bikes, all being relaxed and cheerful.
The eco-economist Johanna wanted me to meet was a woman in her 40s called Heidi Hernandez, a poet, architect, and now an eco-economist who worked on contracts to business and the government, helping to plan the future of the province’s economy in this new post-carbon world.
She offered us some freshly ground organic coffee, harvested from a zero-carbon cooperative in Costa Rica and shipped up to BC by sea.
In order to divert any questions about Iceland and its struggling economy, about which I knew absolutely nothing, I asked Heidi about the ship that brought the coffee to BC. Did it still burn bunker oil?
“Not a drop,” she replied. “And that’s a first for us. It is only this year that we have been able to find a shipping line that has moved entirely over to mycodiesel as its chosen fuel.”
“Mycodiesel?” I asked.
“Yes, mycodiesel – biodiesel made from a Patagonian fungus found in October 2008 called Gliocladium roseum that almost exactly replicates the long molecular chains of traditional carbon fuels. A BC company found a way to produce the mycodiesel in bulk in Prince Rupert, which has a similar climate to Patagonia, and has been selling it to the few container ships that are still in business. Most went under when oil passed $600 a barrel.”
“Wow. Let me get this right. We’re using a fungus to ship coffee, from which the coffee-drinkers’ urine will be used to generate biogas, which will power the coffee delivery trucks in BC?”
“Something like that,” Heidi replied. “Don’t you love it? And when you think there were economists and peak-oilers only 20 years ago who saw no way out of our oil-based civilization, and predicted total collapse.”
“The Peak-Oilers – is that what Edmonton’s hockey team is called these days?”
Heidi laughed. “The Edmonton Geothermals would be a better name – it’s a fascinating story how the oil industry kept itself in business by using their drilling expertise to switch over to hot rocks geothermal, which they are exporting to the US in gigawatts. What about your homeland, Iceland – do you call it Melt-Land, now that the ice is disappearing?”
I laughed, and quickly changed the subject. I wanted to know how effective the carbon tax had been in creating the changes I saw around me.
“It has been extremely important,” Heidi replied. “When BC started, it was the only place in North America with such a tax, which was never really was a tax anyway, since it was revenue neutral. It took a lot of flack in the early days because people didn’t realize how urgent climate change was, and how important it was to internalize the externalities – to make the price reflect the pollution. It almost died in its first year due to political posturing by the Opposition, but once people understood it, they accepted it, and it became a matter of BC pride. By the time it was phased out, since the Go Zero campaign had been so successful, it had risen to $200 a tonne – but people accepted it because they saw how beneficial it was in redirecting the economy into a clean, affordable, electric and bioenergy future – while generating a host of new jobs.”
“New jobs? I thought people were saying tackling climate change would kill the economy, and destroy jobs.”
Heidi looked at me and then at Johanna as if to say, “Where did you find this fossilized brain?” but I quickly recovered, and said “I mean years ago, before all this started. You must forgive me – I’m a fisherman, not an economist.”
Heidi put out her hand, and started enumerating on her fingers. There were jobs in the solar and wind industries, jobs making new transit systems, jobs building grid extensions, jobs retrofitting every house to become zero carbon, jobs recycling all the waste that used to be dumped in the landfills, jobs on the organic farms, jobs in the bioenergy plants, jobs in the new mycodiesel industry – it went on and on.
“Wow,” I said, trying hard to uphold my ignorant Icelandic fisherman line. “So did these new jobs play a role in helping the world recover from the financial meltdown and banking failure of 2008, that knocked my country back into the 19th century?”
“Absolutely,” she replied, warming to her topic. “When Obama become President in 2009, he promised five million new green collar jobs as part of a Green New Deal that would simultaneously fight the global depression that was looming, tackle climate change, eliminate America’s dependency on oil from the Middle East, and lift millions out of the poverty that globalization had caused to American workers. And it worked. Far better than the Bush Plan, which would have simply put more money in people’s pockets, which they would have spent at Wal-Mart, making the whole problem worse. It was genius. America has recovered its place as a pre-eminent technology leader, carrying Canada with it – for our government at the time understood very little of all this.”
“Where did the money come from to finance all the home retrofits, new transit systems, and new wind and geothermal projects? Did we continue to borrow from China?”
“No,” Heidi replied. “We took a leaf from World War II, when the government issued Victory Bonds. The BC government issued Green Bonds, offering a 7% return, and made the money available to retrofit buildings, servicing the bonds through the energy savings. People flocked to buy – for there was nothing else on the market that could be trusted at the time. It soon became part of the whole Go Zero movement that people who had savings would invest them in building a post-carbon future, to try to save something of this crazy world for our grandchildren.”
“And it worked…?”
“Yes, she replied, “but each dimension of the change has its own source of finance. The solar, wind, and tidal energy is paid for with a small Renewable Energy Payment on everyone’s utility bill, based on Germany’s Feed-Law, which gives a guaranteed price for 20 years to anyone putting renewable energy into the grid. The transit lines and bike routes are being paid for with income from the road tolls. A lot of money has been raised in Community Bonds which people are using to finance post-carbon projects in their communities, under local ownership and control. That makes a difference – when people see the local wind turbines spinning, they say to themselves ‘That’s my pension!’”
“ I need to leave soon,” Heidi said, “I have a flight to Victoria for a meeting with the Finance Minister. We’re still struggling with the cement industry, and talking about retaining the carbon tax for them with the income going into a dedicated fund that they can use to develop geo-polymeric and other alternatives. It’s quite complicated.”
Rather than use my last five minutes to learn about cement, I asked the one question that was still on my mind.
“What about flying – what will fuel that plane you are about to board?”
“Algae-diesel,” she replied. “It’s being made in the interior around Kamloops. It’s a low altitude flight, so there’s no danger of the biodiesel freezing up. And now, I must go, if you don’t mind. It’s been very pleasant talking with you. Good luck with your economy in Iceland!”
My mind was reeling, so I was happy to take a break and wander around downtown with Johanna. We had just an hour before the final meeting she had arranged for me – and then she said she really had to get back to work. My fifth and final adventure, in which she had promised I would learn something of how all this came about, was about to begin.
Part 5: History
Our wander downtown was probably the most familiar part of my time in the year 2030. I had lived in Europe, so I knew the look and feel of a pedestrianized town centre – and I liked them. I liked the new downtown Vancouver, too, with its courtyard cafés, strolling musicians, and living statues. Some things don’t change much once you’ve found a winning formula. No homeless people, I noticed – I’d have to learn about that on another trip.
When our hour was up, we used an elevator to go to the top of one of Vancouver’s tallest buildings, and Johanna led me down a few corridors, past a reception desk where they were expecting us, and into the office of one John Michael Williams, CEO of a big mindware company who had, Johanna explained on the way up, been a cabinet minister in the government of BC at the time when everything went crazy, and the big changes started to happen.
“How do you know him?” I asked.
“Very mundane,” she said. “No big love affairs, or anything like that. We were at school together!”
John Michael was a very affable man with a warm handshake, who was running short on time, but could spare fifteen minutes, because – as he said to me in a quiet aside - “I’ve got a soft spot for Johanna.”
“So, how can I help you?” he asked. “Johanna says you want to understand how BC came to hit the Go Zero goal so soon.”
“Yes,” I replied, not sure whether to be casually affable or nervously polite. I just hoped he didn’t ask me anything about Iceland.
“You have to understand, we inherited a very good position when the government I was part of was hit by the crisis in 2015. The previous governments, going back to 2007, had set the province on a very firm course towards carbon reductions, so everyone knew what the game was, and how important it was. Some of them, at least.”
“It was 2015 when the shit really hit the fan. The world already had a new Kyoto Treaty that had been crafted in Copenhagen in 2009, committing most countries to substantial reductions, and many of the important programs were in place, but we still weren’t getting the traction we needed as a planet. 2015 was the year, in January, when the global science community finally stopped being so fastidiously careful in everything they published, and came out en masse with their new report saying, “It’s too late. You ignored our warnings. We’ve passed the critical tipping points, and now there’s nothing we can do that will stop the temperature from rising by 2 degrees, then 3, and then six, bringing ecological catastrophes and mass extinctions, including for most humans.”
“The forest fires were particularly bad that year. At one point they were burning all the way up the west coast from Los Angeles to Prince George – it was biblical in the scale of devastation. Five million people had to leave their homes, and 30,000 families lost their homes to the fires. Then came the November downpours right on top of the fires, and whole mountainsides that had lost their cover were washed away in torrents of mud, carrying away roads, sewers, and gas pipeline. It was unbelievable. It had already been a scorching summer with temperatures above 40 C for weeks on end, and a hurricane season that had devastated both Houston and Halifax.”
“People finally woke up that year,” he continued. “Children around the world united, and used the Internet to declare a week-long strike when said they would refuse to attend any classes unless they were taught about climate change, and what they could do. “This is our future you’re messing with,” they said, “we demand a say.”
“In England, a group of teenagers took things one step further, and launched a class action suit in which they were joined by 16,000 other young people accusing Britain’s government of ignoring their future, obliging them as future tax-payers to pay far more to cope with the looming disasters to come than would be necessary if only Britain would act now. It was a bit unfair, because Britain was at the head of the pack, but in terms of what was needed, it was still nowhere near enough. The court ruled in their favour, which totally shocked Britain’s establishment, and led to similar law suits being launched by young people all over the world.
With progressive leaders running coalition governments that included the Green Party in most European countries, the US fully on board, and China beginning to show up as a very significant post-carbon technology leader, the scene was set for major action. The world economy was strong again after the recession, so demand for oil was soaring, and speculators had driven the price up to $250 a barrel, which had everyone screaming.
“You following me so far?” he asked. “It’s years since I’ve had the pleasure of doing this. It’s quite enjoyable really, knowing how far we’ve come.”
“I’m following every word,” I said, desperately trying to fix it all into my memory. But would anyone believe me, back in 2008? That was something I’d have to worry about later – assuming I ever got back there.
John Michael continued.
“That fall, the world’s leaders met for an emergency climate summit in Paris, where they agreed that as many countries as possible would go for zero by 2030. To back their ambitions, they wrote the Climate Solutions Treaties that have been in place ever since – collective global agreements in which nations work together to speed up most of the solutions, such as the global standard that requires the highest level of energy efficiency in all appliances, and the global solar treaty that has expanded uptake dramatically, driving down the price so that everyone can get on board. It was these treaties that enabled The Great Acceleration to happen. There were also treaties to close down most of the world’s coal mines by 2030, and to not open any new ones unless they included the still untried carbon capture technology.”
“There was one other piece that I should include, but I do have to leave in a minute. It was a global agreement that every three years, each nation should publish a report on the costs and impacts of climate change, looking ahead to the year 2095 – this was one of the rulings that the judge had made in the British children’s class action suit, requiring governments to spell out exactly how bad things were going to be – or not, as the case might be. It was this ruling that
led our government to discover – and be forced to publish – that most of the Lower Mainland could be under two metres of water by 2095, and Vancouver’s summer temperature could be in the 40’s for weeks on end.”
“Anyway, I do have to leave now,” he said. “It’s been nice talking with you. I hope this has been helpful.”
“I do have one more quick question, if I may,” I said, knowing it might be my only chance. “Did the Green Party ever form a government in BC during these years?”
“Well, funny you should ask”, John Michael said. “Because yes, they did – and it was a good thing, too. It came about because of a referendum that was held in May 2009, when the people of BC voted in favour of reforming their voting system to make it more proportional. As soon as that was in place, the Greens’ ten, twenty per cent share of the vote started turning into seats, and before you could turn round, they were in coalition governments, first with one party, then the other. It was quite amusing at first, until the mainstream politicians began to realize that the Greens had a much better handle on the climate crisis than they did, and started wooing them for support. They’re still in the current coalition government now, by the way.”
And with that, our meeting was over – except for one thing. As we were leaving, and John Michael had given Johanna a rather fond farewell kiss, he said, “It’s not over, by the way. Don’t go getting any ideas that simply because BC is at Zero Carbon, we’re out of the woods. Far from it. We’re still working desperately hard behind the scenes to get the rest of China, India, and other countries on board – and we’ve still got to find a way to use the world’s forests and grasslands to suck the excess carbon back out of the atmosphere. 280 – that’s the new goal we’re all chasing – getting atmospheric CO2 right back to where it was before the Industrial Age started. 280. Don’t forget it, back in Iceland!”
And with that final comment, my trip to 2030 was suddenly over. As Johanna and I came out of the building, I tripped and fell to the ground, hitting my head on one of the Bixi Bikes racks. As I fell, those strange vibrations came over me again, charging my whole body, and I must have blacked out, just as I did when I fell off my bike at the beginning of my adventure.
When I came to, it was all over, as if it had never happened. I was back on the street in Vancouver where I had fallen off my bike, and there was a crowd of people leaning over me, trying to help. I was back in the year 2008 – and honest to God, that is my story.