Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

« Older Entries Subscribe to Latest Posts

4 Jul 2020

Fairness, equity and sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The pandemic has forced us to face some unpleasant realities about the unsustainability of our world. For many years, I’ve written about widespread environmental degradation. Now we are seeing the harsh side of economic and social unsustainability. A story this spring said the richest Americans increased by $434 billion since the pandemic lockdown began in March. At the same time, millions of people were out of work, struggling to feed their families and pay their mortgages. Food banks were swamped with demand. Businesses were struggling and many were failing. In a number of countries, such as Canada, the majority of COVID-19 deaths have been in long-term care homes. Other groups that suffer more illness and death from the pandemic include the poor, the homeless and migrant farm workers, some of whom are crowded into dormitories where it is impossible to keep a safe space. The Brundtland report said we need environmental, economic and social sustainability together. As governments seek a post-pandemic development pathway they have an opportunity to create a cleaner, healthier and secure future. But, they will have to retire some old ideas about the marketplace solving society’s problems.

30 Jun 2020

Once in a lifetime chance

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

In a post COVID-19 world we will have a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a serious shift to sustainability. It’s clear that in the current world there is not enough appetite to save ourselves from ecological decline with all its knock-on effects of climate disasters, economic failures and great hardship for billions.

As we start to emerge from lockdowns we have an opportunity to reshape societies. There are two examples from the past century. The Great Depression of the 1930s closed companies and sent huge numbers of people lining up for soup kitchens and even killing themselves in desperation. In the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched The New Deal, which offered relief payments and public works jobs that helped reshape the country with new roads, buildings and power dams. It has long been cited as an example of how governments can save their citizens from economic collapses. At the end of the Second World War allied forces launched massive plans to rebuild shattered economies, to foster independent and democratic governments and to create a network of international institutions, including the United Nations. Now, we have another chance to rebuild society. The challenge is to make it a sustainable recovery. We need to avoid a repeat of the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis which saw governments investing in traditional projects such as coal-fired power plants, poorly insulated buildings and more roads.

Saying the COVID-19 pandemic has created “The biggest global economic shock in peacetime since the 1930s” the the International Energy Agency has produced a Sustainable Recovery Plan for a post-pandemic world. The 1 trillion USD a year program would increase wind and solar power, expand and improve electricity grids, increase cleaner transport, improve energy efficiency, make fuel production and use more sustainable, and boost innovation in clean energy. The report will be discussed next week at an online summit for countries producing the bulk of global greenhouse gas emissions. The aim is to stop the increase in greenhouse gas emissions and bring them down to the levels set in the Paris Accord of 2016.

For an academic look at possible futures, the Great Transition Initiative has just published a series of articles under the heading, After the pandemic: Which Future? Thirteen world experts examine the risks of slipping into a fortress world, inequality, collective action, a chance to change mindsets and the problems of trying to create future scenarios. For many years this online forum of ideas and international network on a transition to sustainable development has been holding discussions on the risks, barriers and opportunities of sustainability.

4 Jun 2020

COVID-19 and a green shift

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The COVID-19 pandemic has given the world’s economy a giant shock. It grounded most of the world’s nearly 30,000 passenger and transport aircraft and putting some airlines out of business. Some 300 cruise ships, are either tied up or floating at sea waiting for permission to dock. Hundreds of millions of cars sit in driveways, parking lots or unsold on dealers’ lots. Factories have shut down and shopping centres closed. The result has been a giant cut in air pollution. The air in cities is cleaner than at any time in living memory.

But it is not a sustainable change. Billions of us have had our lives disrupted, and millions are in desperate straits. Unemployment is spiking to levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The World Food Programme says the lives and livelihoods of 265 million people in low and middle-income countries will be under severe threat unless swift action is taken to tackle the pandemic, up from a current 135 million.

The big question is what next? If we get a vaccine, which will probably not happen for many months, we will be able to go back to our former work and lifestyles. If the vaccine is delayed, then we will continue a gradual deconfinement with risks of more infections and possible closings. But, do we want to go back to old, unsustainable “normal?”

In May, some 350 organizations representing more than 40 million health care workers issued an open letter to G20 world leaders calling for a healthy recovery from COVID-19. They asked for “investments in pandemic preparedness, public health and environmental stewardship,” including renewable energy. They said air pollution already causes 7 million premature deaths a year in the world, and weakens people’s ability to fight off illness. “A truly healthy recovery will not allow pollution to continue to cloud the air we breathe and the water we drink. It will not permit unabated climate change and deforestation, potentially unleashing new health threats upon vulnerable populations.” For a number of years health experts have pointed out that racial minorities and the poor suffer most from air pollution, climate change and diseases, including COVID-19. There have been calls for what amounts to a more sustainable recovery that includes cuts in pollution and an approach to help people escape discrimination, poverty and the resulting ill health.

Many governments had already committed to a green shift, especially given their promises to fight climate change. The pandemic is seen as a possible turning point for a green rebuilding of economies around the world. In late May, the European Commission proposed a European Green Deal that would include billions of Euros a year to create a more circular economy that reduces waste, saying it has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs for Europeans and reduce foreign dependency. The green deal includes a Farm to Fork strategy to help the region’s farmers provide people with good and affordable food, and a Just Transition Strategy to help workers acquire new skills. The proposal calls for greater energy efficiency and green heating, renewable energy, clean cars, zero-emissions trains and the production of clean hydrogen fuel.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given the world’s economy a giant shock. It grounded most of the world’s nearly 30,000 passenger and transport aircraft and putting some airlines out of business. Some 300 cruise ships, are either tied up or floating at sea waiting for permission to dock. Hundreds of millions of cars sit in driveways, parking lots or unsold on dealers’ lots. Factories have shut down and shopping centres closed. The result has been a giant cut in air pollution. The air in cities is cleaner than at any time in living memory.

But it is not a sustainable change. Billions of us have had our lives disrupted, and millions are in desperate straits. Unemployment is spiking to levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The World Food Programme says the lives and livelihoods of 265 million people in low and middle-income countries will be under severe threat unless swift action is taken to tackle the pandemic, up from a current 135 million.

The big question is what next? If we get a vaccine, which will probably not happen for many months, we will be able to go back to our former work and lifestyles. If the vaccine is delayed, then we will continue a gradual deconfinement with risks of more infections and possible closings. But, do we want to go back to old, unsustainable “normal?”

In May, some 350 organizations representing more than 40 million health care workers issued an open letter to G20 world leaders calling for a healthy recovery from COVID-19. They asked for “investments in pandemic preparedness, public health and environmental stewardship,” including renewable energy. They said air pollution already causes 7 million premature deaths a year in the world, and weakens people’s ability to fight off illness. “A truly healthy recovery will not allow pollution to continue to cloud the air we breathe and the water we drink. It will not permit unabated climate change and deforestation, potentially unleashing new health threats upon vulnerable populations.” For a number of years health experts have pointed out that racial minorities and the poor suffer most from air pollution, climate change and diseases, including COVID-19. There have been calls for what amounts to a more sustainable recovery that includes cuts in pollution and an approach to help people escape discrimination, poverty and the resulting ill health.

Many governments had already committed to a green shift, especially given their promises to fight climate change. The pandemic is seen as a possible turning point for a green rebuilding of economies around the world. In late May, the European Commission proposed a European Green Deal that would include billions of Euros a year to create a more circular economy that reduces waste, saying it has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs for Europeans and reduce foreign dependency. The green deal includes a Farm to Fork strategy to help the region’s farmers provide people with good and affordable food, and a Just Transition Strategy to help workers acquire new skills. The proposal calls for greater energy efficiency and green heating, renewable energy, clean cars, zero-emissions trains and the production of clean hydrogen fuel.

Business is playing an ever more important role in a green shift. It is companies that produce wind turbines, solar panels, electric cars, organic food, green buildings and a huge array of products and services that can make the world better than it was. Last month, 155 companies with a combined market capitalization of over US$ 2.4 trillion and representing over five million employees signed a statement urging governments around the world to align their COVID-19 economic aid and recovery efforts with the latest climate science. The corporate chiefs called  on governments “to reimagine a better future grounded in bold climate action.” They said, “As we are setting ambitious corporate emission reduction targets through the Science Based Targets initiative and its Business Ambition for 1.5°C campaign, we remain committed to do our part to achieve a resilient, zero carbon economy. We are now urging governments to prioritize a faster and fairer transition from a grey to a green economy.”

22 Apr 2020

Earth Day at 50

Posted by Michael Keating. 1 Comment

Half a century ago environmental problems were visible, smelly and mostly local. Some rivers were so polluted with oil they caught fire or killed birds that landed on them. Smokestacks belched clouds of dust, chemicals and fine metal particles into the air. Toxic chemicals were openly dumped into lakes and rivers. Gaylord Nelson, an American senator from Wisconsin, pushed for a rally to focus attention on environmental problems. He recruited Dennis Hayes, a 25-year-old Harvard University student to organize what became a nation-wide rally on April 22, 1970. So many people turned out that it put pressure on politicians to pass a series of powerful environmental laws in the United States and later in countries around the world. Today, Earth Day has been somewhat pushed to the side by the COVID-19 crisis. But, it’s a good time to take stock and look ahead. Since 1970, most nations have created environment departments and laws. They have brought in controls on acid rain, ozone-depleting chemicals and a wide range of pollutants. Motor vehicles are much cleaner and more efficient. However, we are still sliding into a series of crises. More parks have been created and some species saved. Now, we face new problems. Climate change, which was unknown to the public in 1970, is the greatest single threat to our future. Despite some successes in reforestation, the world’s wildlands are still shrinking and driving more species toward extinction. The oceans are being polluted and overfished. New chemicals are threatening our health. Plastic pollution is in our food and water. It’s hard to look ahead another 50 years, but we can see building pressures. In 1970, there were about 3.7 billion people on Earth. Since then we have more than doubled the population to about 7.8 billion, and it is projected to be more than 10 billion by 2070. It will take a huge amount of resources and energy to feed, house, clothe, move and employ so many. As the population grows, we must also cut our use of fossil fuels which provide about 80 per cent of current energy, reduce pressures on fish and wilderness, and cut back on many forms of pollution. It will take a massive shift in attitudes and behaviour. The question facing humanity is whether the changes come because the environmental crises have become so severe that we are forced to react, or will we develop the foresight and will to move before the environmental hammer falls on us?

20 Apr 2020

Greener countries

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The greatest long-term challenge countries face is moving to a sustainable lifestyle. An article on the BBC website takes a look at countries that are doing well. Drawing from the Good Country Index, the BBC highlighted five countries that are tackling climate change. The highest ranking goes to Norway which runs almost entirely on hydro-electric power and has very high sales of electric cars, although it is also a major producer of oil. Portugal ranks high because of a large number of electric car charging stations and support for citizens to install renewable energy systems. Uruguay has become a leader for renewable energy and has been praised for its social and environmental policies. Kenya is already struggling with the effects of climate change, including more extreme weather and droughts. It has one of the world’s strongest bans on plastic bags. New Zealand also has controls on plastic bags, and is working for carbon neutrality although its large cattle and sheep farms produce methane, a greenhouse gas. While the list is not exhaustive, it gives an interesting perspective on how countries from around the world are trying to improve their environmental performance.

14 Apr 2020

What we say and what we do

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

I’ve long believed the greatest threat to the environment comes from the way we live: what we buy and what we do. Consumption of things and services – cars, food, houses, travel, etc. – and the use of energy from fossil fuels are the primary driving forces of change. They shape the industries that clear cut, over fish and pollute to provide what we demand. Our behaviour is the  root cause of the issues we see, such as climate change, deforestation, urban air pollution the decline of other species and the other environmental ills that plague our world. An article by Joel Makower in GreenBiz before the annual Earth Day, next Wednesday, looks at polls and consumer attitudes towards purchases and recycling. It’s an American perspective, but as the article shows the attitudes are shared in a number of industrialized countries. It’s not very optimistic. Makower says that for decades consumers say they are concerned about the environment and want to make environmentally and socially responsible choices but they keep buying the same things. They claim to recycle but the recycling figures do not bear this out. He does end on a hopeful note, saying that younger consumers appear to be readier to shop green than older people, and COVID-19 may bring about more concern about global stresses and the need to protect the environment.

11 Apr 2020

COVID-19 and climate change

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

One is coming at us like a runaway train and other like a steamroller. The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an unprecedented global crisis response that has shut down economies and virtually stopped travel as countries struggle to slow the deadly respiratory infection. The world reacted with great speed, as one would in a wartime situation. Meanwhile, climate change keeps up its inexorable pace, threatening us with a series of ecological, economic and social breakdowns, but over years.

The COVID-19 crisis shows that societies can respond very quickly to a crisis when death is imminent. People will grumble but put up with being confined to their homes for weeks at a time rather than face a serious, sometimes fatal illness. But will this willingness to take dramatic action carry over to the climate crisis? It appears unlikely. In Canada, some critics say the federal government did not react fast enough to stop the approaching coronavirus. They say it should have acted sooner to close borders, urge people to wear masks in public, stockpile medical supplies and expand testing for the virus. However, Canada’s Health Minister Patty Hajdu said in an interview aired today that the public was not ready for drastic measures when the early warnings of the pandemic appeared. “It would have seemed ludicrous in January had we said, ‘Well, what we should do is shut the borders and stop all non-essential work, including government work,’” Ms. Hajdu said. Sadly, this comment applies to our willingness to take drastic steps to stop climate change. We know we need to stop burning fossil fuels, switch to renewable energy, take much bigger steps in energy conservation and change our diets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But, until the threat of disaster is at our doorsteps, too few people are willing to make the changes to give governments permission to bring in the controls we need.

1 Apr 2020

Nature bites

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The COVID-19 outbreak killing thousands of people around the world is just the latest example of how our destruction of nature is coming back to bite us. This coronavirus is a zoonotic disease, one that jumps from animals to humans. COVID-19 has been traced to a live animal market in the city of Wuhan in central China. According to an article in Science Daily it may have come from bats or pangolins, a scaly anteater that is often captured and sold for food. The highly infectious COVID-19 virus jumped to humans in late 2019, and rapidly spread around the world, creating a global pandemic and unprecedented health measures to slow its spread, including confinement of millions and a virtual shutdown of many businesses. In the recent past the world has had to deal with similar illnesses, such as Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), both diseases caused by coronaviruses that originated in animals and spread to people. So are the highly-lethal Ebola as well as West Nile virus and bird flu. AIDS is believed to have jumped from moneys or apes to humans in in central and west Africa, possibly contracted by people killing the animals for food.

Many experts are warning that as humans push deeper into remote areas of the world and kill more exotic wild animals for food we will continue to unleash more diseases on ourselves. In an article in Slate zoologist Peter Daszak says that as we cut into rainforests and mine in remote areas, we expose humans to an untold number of diseases we have never seen and for which we have no natural resistance. China is the source of COVID-19, and of SARS, which is believed to have come from civet cats sold in a live animal market. The world’s most populous nation has recently banned the consumption and farming of wild animals. The use of wild animals for food, medicines, clothing, decoration and pets goes back thousands of years, so it will take time to change. The question is how will other countries try to control their contact with nature to protect us humans. The COVID-19 outbreak will kill thousands more people, and cause economic devastation. Many companies will struggle to survive and many will likely fail. Dangerous as it is, COVID-19 is not as lethal as the plague of the middle ages or the 1918-19 influenza. But if we get another infectious outbreak that combines high contagion with more fatalities it could wreck modern society.

7 Mar 2020

The quest to and from fire

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Harnessing the power of fire made humans the most powerful species on the planet. We started using wildfires far in the distant past and making our own fires as long as 1 million years ago. At first, fire gave us heat, light, protection from wild animals, the ability to make better tools and especially to cook food, making it much easier to eat. Since then fire has given us guns, rockets, steel, concrete and chemicals. Burning fossil fuels produces most of the world’s energy, powering our modern civilization. But, fire has a darker side. Burning produces air pollution, which has long sickened people and now kills an estimated 7 million a year around the world. It is causing an even graver crisis as millions of tonnes a year of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and gas, are changing the climate we depend on for life as we know it. A linked problem is the deliberate burning of vast tropical forests to clear land for farming and cattle. This adds to climate change and is reducing biodiversity, another of the environmental crises we face. After hundreds of thousands of years of inventing ways to use fire, we have to make a historic shift and put the genie back in the bottle. We have to move beyond fire before it consumes us.

7 Mar 2020

Kids fear the future

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

There are more and more stories about kids becoming afraid of the future. I was born in the midst of a war, but there was a sense that it was going to end in victory. A couple of decades later people were marching to ban nuclear weapons, stop the Vietnam war, end racism and for women’s rights. In all those cases there has been at least partial success and a sense of progress. With the decline in our environment and especially with climate change there a strong sense we are losing the battle, and have no credible plan to save our environment and civilization from great damage, even catastrophe. It is the young who feel the threat most keenly. Hundreds of thousands have been going on one-day school strikes – Fridays for Future – inspired by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish high school student who pioneered the movement. Some have closed roads and bridges to force adults to pay attention. A number of young people question what kind of future they will have and wonder openly if they should even have children of their own. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer captures many of the concerns and frustrations of the young as they try to get their parents to pay attention. It is clear that we need unprecedented changes in how we live, travel and eat and especially how we generate and use energy. The young need not only to protest but to lead because today’s adults have failed to do enough. They have the chance to rewrite history and save the world.