Canada at a carbon crossroads

Most Canadians are understandably in a profound state of carbon confusion.

Most Canadians are understandably in a profound state of carbon confusion.

After all, for most of us, high school chemistry was a long time ago. But if we were able to replay what we learned about carbon in a scientific context, we might have a different view about whether carbon is evil.

Most Canadians are functionally illiterate when it comes to carbon. And that means we’re caught in a carbon crossfire of our own making.

Humans are roughly 18.5 per cent carbon and carbon is the fourth most prolific element on Earth by mass. We are the very atoms and related molecules that are so emotively, often irrationally, discussed in environmental and political arenas.

Are too many carbon dioxide molecules – one carbon atom, bonded to two oxygen atoms – in the Earth’s atmosphere problematic?

Of course. No sane person denies that. Humans haven’t been terribly good stewards of carbon management, particularly in developed countries. As our societies have advanced, we have failed to anticipate the negative impact of all those emissions and their role in warming the climate. Even if the impact is far less than science suggests, managing emissions aggressively lays the groundwork for better environmental stewardship more generally.

There are absolute climate deniers, of course, but they are increasingly fewer. Most of us know the science is right: we have to do something – and soon.

The problem is the way of that doing. We’re framing the challenge (and opportunity) incorrectly. Carbon has become too politically charged; overly vilified by virulent voices on the far side of the environmental spectrum. They have hijacked the narrative and painted carbon as a planetary poison.

To raise a hand in support of carbon, or to act for sober second thoughts on carbon strategies, is the equivalent of self-flagellation in the public square: painful and humiliating.

And so, ordinary Canadians might think that carbon is the root of all evils plaguing society. That’s because some voices would rather myopically separate us from our carbon selves. They are so distant from the centre – where the debates should occur – that their perspectives are misanthropic.

As well, their perspectives are rooted less in scientific reality than in social emotion. It’s critical to draw a line between the pragmatic environmentalists who get the science and the zealots – carbon trolls or haters.

Despite the profound polarization, Canada should be more than capable of achieving substantial emissions reduction. But it will take provincial governments working together, and with the federal government, to achieve that.

Unfortunately, we are now also dealing with a political pseudo-molecule: carbon toxide.

Carbon has become a political expedient. Three provinces have established their own carbon-controlling plans, but letting provincial interests prevail creates a crazy quilt of frameworks, regulations and taxes that muddle the picture when clarity are required.

The better approach would a consistent national strategy – one that Canadians can debate together, rather than widening provincial divides that are already dangerous.

We must talk about carbon-oriented dynamics in pan-Canadian economic, social, political and scientific frameworks.

Carbon is ubiquitous. It plays a critical role in how we live, breathe and exist – and in how local and global economies function.

It’s important to rebalance the carbon narrative so we can more effectively manage our future – and our energy future.

We need to abandon the concept of building a new low-carbon economy. Instead, we should just be trying to evolve the carbon economy that already exists. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just reframe the discussion.

The real discussion should be how, through innovation and creativity, we turn carbon from liability into asset – understanding that carbon already has great value. Carbon has its own economy and is inextricably bound up in many others. If ordinary folks accounted for carbon this way, and became more interested in all aspects of it, they would be amazed at the research long underway in labs, universities and corporations around the world on the positive aspects of a versatile element.

Why are so few pointing out carbon’s virtues? Many are understandably unwilling to be cast as a carbon pariah.

Carbon has become the flashpoint against governments seemingly bent on imposing new taxes and cost burdens to manage budgets rather than fund a new model for a new economic era.

Carbon toxide is the first emission we have to eliminate if we’re going to ultimately deal with carbon dioxide.

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.