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North America in the Dark: the Blackout in Context

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Issue: 7 Section: Environment Geography: Canada, USA Topics: climate change

September 12, 2003

North America in the Dark: the Blackout in Context

by Yuill Herbert

On August 15th, 50 million people in the United States and Ontario found themselves in the dark, but many argue that North Americans have been 'in the dark' about the global context of their energy consumption for far too long. The 'biggest blackout in history' can shed some light on the inequalities of global energy consumption. The course that policy makers chart in the future must stretch beyond blackouts to looming problems that face all societies across the globe.

"America, welcome to Kenya, see what we go through," said Alex Mwaura, a logistics officer with an aid agency in Nairobi, according to Reuters. "I'm happy -- let them experience how bushmen live without power, even for just one minute," added Emma Nzau, a 28 year-old receptionist. "Americans are so used to electricity, they should be like the Chinese and ride bicycles to work."

Figures from the International Energy Agency illustrate the global inequities of access to electricity. The power that wasn't consumed as a result of the recent blackout could have satisfied all the power requirements of India's nearly one billion people for twenty four hours. Or Africa's 760 million people for a day and a half. Or Burma's 44 million residents for a year.

North American's energy gluttony goes beyond the issue of inequities in energy consumption; the pollution from the burning of fossil fuels in the US and Canada is causing disproportionate harm to communities around the world. The United States has five percent of the world's population but accounts for twenty five percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions are altering the climate around the planet, causing extreme weather events such as storms and droughts. The development charity Christain Aid reports "The burden of dealing with such enormous disruption will fall on countries where many already lead subsistence lives. The most affected will be people with the least access to adequate health systems, alternative housing and other social safety nets. These are countries which already survive with little room for error when growing food. Small amounts of disrupted production due to changed weather patterns, drought and flooding, could wipe out marginal agricultural surpluses".

Because there are major costs associated with climate change, in particular for poor countries, yet the benefits of using the fossil fuels were primarily incurred by wealthy nations, the idea of a carbon debt has become a significant discussion point at climate negotiotiations. Christain Aid is unequivical. "The rich countries' carbon debt is now the clearest argument for conventional debt cancellation, but should also be linked to a better deal on trade, aid, greater technology transfer from rich to poor and, vitally, a commitment to tackling climate change built on the foundations of equity".

"There must be limits on all greenhouse gases if the danger to our climate is to be averted... A globally agreed ceiling of greenhouse gas emissions can only be achieved by adopting the principle of per capita emissions rights...," declared the Africa group of nations at the climate negotiations in Berlin, five years ago. The proposed policy framework for stabilizing the climate in an equitable manner is titled contraction and convergance. The industrialised countries must contract their emissions and all countries converge at a safe emissions level of 0.4 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per capita. North Americans currently emit around 20 tonnes.

This is the context that policy makers face when they are devising a system to fix North America's energy network.

The first step is to save energy. The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) is headquartered at an elevation of 7000 feet in the moutains of Colorado. Home to banana trees and an iguana, the Institute is heated by the passive thermal power of the sun and electricty is generated by solar panels. Amory Lovins is one of the founders and has been a prominent analyst on energy issues for twenty years. He originated the idea of a negawatt, a unit electricity which is simply not used.

In the Globe and Mail Lovins wrote "The cheapest, fastest way to save energy dollars and pollution is to use energy efficiently. My household electric bill is $7 a month for a 372 square-metre living space, before counting my larger solar production, which I sell back to the local electricity power co-operative at the same price -- now allowed in 38 states."

The Centre for the New American Dream proposes a voluntary blackout, not only as a means to curb energy consumption, but as a socially beneficial exercise. "At 7pm on June 21, turn off your lights and unplug whatever you can unplug in your house. Light a candle, take a stroll in the dark, tell ghost stories, get together with your neighbors, anything that's not electronic. This isn't about shivering in the dark, knitting sweaters out of mopheads. It's about taking some time to reflect on the role of fossil fuel in our lives and its impact on our ecological life support systems... and to take some time to just have fun in the dark!"

Next is the matter of choosing the appropriate technology. Solar energy is toted as a solution both to a changing climate and problems with the grid, as it is decentralised and can be installed in a variety of locations. Jeremy Leggett, CEO of solarcentury and Associate Fellow at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute doesn't mince words on the lack of widespread use of solar: "I literally seethe with frustration that the solutions to global warming are ready for mass deployment - technologies like solar power which ironically needs nothing like this amount of sun to work, just a bit of light. It is bewildering to me that governments are not galvanised into action by what is happening to the world's weather."

Solar power has the added benefit of addressing global energy inequities. The Worldwatch Institute reports "Already the cheapest source of power in many remote, off-grid locations, solar cells can help meet the power needs of some of the 2 billion people who now lack access to modern energy services. Having rejected new coal plants for environmental reasons, Thailand will soon host Southeast Asia's largest solar installation and plans to expand capacity in the vicinity to 4.7 MW over the next several years. The Indian government aims to electrify 18,000 villages by 2012, most with solar power".

Technology will play a major role in addressing the issue of climate change but it must be in a framework of equality to satisfy political insecurities. "We cannot lecture developing countries about the importance of protecting then environment from behind the luxury of our own high living standards," said former British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook in an interview with United Nations Environment Program.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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