Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

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27 Apr 2021

Unions and the environment

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

When society decides that an industry is too polluting and must be changed or closed the workers may lose their livelihoods. In many cases, unions have fought to protect industries and members’ jobs despite the environmental impact from that work. At some point that is no longer acceptable, and the unions can become powerful voices for environmental protection. That is the message from Unifor, whose 315,000 members form Canada’s largest private sector union. About 12,000 work in the oil and gas sector, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. In a statement, Unifor says, “Canadian labour strongly supports climate change action to limit global warming and we are prepared to work with government and employers on the transitions and transformations that will be necessary.” It continues that, “Some workers and industries will be directly affected by carbon pricing and by reducing the use of fossil fuels. In these cases a ‘just transition’ is necessary to ensure that workers do not disproportionately bear the burden of change.”

The Unifor position on the need to reduce greenhouse gases is an echo of that from the United Steelworkers of America on the struggle to cut acid rain, then seen as Canada’s greatest environmental threat. In 1983 the Steelworkers called for major cuts to acid gases from the Inco Ltd. smelter in Sudbury even though this would lead to some job losses. Union officials said the environment cannot be traded off for jobs. “We are our brother’s keeper,” said union president Ron MacDonald. These are crucial statements from those who represent workers. We need to reduce pollution but see workers are not abandoned and get a just transition to retirement or good new jobs. Such statements from unions are of historic importance because they undercut the argument that we cannot afford to protect the environment because it will affect jobs.

22 Apr 2021

Science and choices

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

If there is one lesson COVID-19 can teach us about environmental decision making it’s that if you ignore the science advice, you’re going to get into a lot of trouble. Politicians who listened to advice from doctors made much better decisions than those who pushed it aside under pressure from other interests.

When it comes to climate change we are faced with even more complex choices. We’ve got clear advice about the risks, some of which are already evident and about how much we have to cut greenhouse gas emissions: half by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. How do we do it? Are electric cars going to save us? Will our electricity systems be able to handle the demand? Is carbon capture and storage a worthwhile technology? How fast can we transition from fossil fuels to renewables? How do we cope with intermittent power supplies? What do we do about food supplies? The list of questions is endless. There are many answers, often from people or organizations trying to further their interests. There are billions of dollars at stake as well as the shape of our economy and society for decades. Governments, businesses and the public need the best possible advice and we need it now. Governments could use the model of COVID-19 expert panels and groups to provide the best advice on the difficult transition ahead.

13 Apr 2021

The rich polluters

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The world’s rich not only have more money but they create a huge amount of the planet’s pollution. Changing our ways? Behaviour change and the climate crisis, by the Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change lays out some shocking numbers. It says greenhouse gas emissions of the world’s richest one per cent are greater than all those from the poorest 50 per cent. It says that one per cent – the polluter elite – needs to reduce its footprint by a factor of 30 if the world is to meet the Paris climate agreement targets. The situation is worsening according to the report because of the expanding middle classes in developing countries are trying to emulate lifestyles in rich nations.

It cites the 2020 UN Emissions Gap report which said we need more than a 90 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Cambridge commission says we need a rapid shift to a sustainable lifestyle based on low energy demand, low material consumption and eating food that does not result in high greenhouse gas emissions. This includes a more plant-based diet, a reduction in food waste, a ban on big gas-guzzling vehicles and big cuts to air travel.

It won’t be easy. “The belief that this enormous, existential problem could have been fixed if all of us had just tweaked our consumptive habits is not only preposterous; it’s dangerous.” It will take both changes in personal behaviour combined with government policies that give people low-polluting options they often lack today. While many will see the huge changes as losses, the report says we will gain cleaner air, more vibrant local communities and improvements to well-being.

20 Mar 2021

We need more imagination

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

What we need to deal with the environmental sustainability crisis is the imagination to take on our great challenges. A very interesting article in The Guardian newspaper talks about a proposal to regreen the Sinai Peninsula, a chunk of Egyptian desert abutting Israel to the east with the Red Sea to the south and the Mediterranean Sea to the north. Long ago, the Sinai had forests and rivers. But, like too many parts of the world it was deforested for firewood and building materials, and grazing animals prevented forests from coming back. The loss of greenery led to a process of desertification, leaving an arid, barren and inhospitable landscape.

“This world is ready for regenerative change,” says Ties van der Hoeven, co-founder of a group of Dutch holistic engineers called The Weather Makers. They are proposing to regreen the Sinai, effectively rolling back the ecological clock. He compares this project to putting someone on the moon, very difficult but doable once people set their minds to it. What his group proposes is ecological restoration, the renewing and restoring of damaged or destroyed ecosystems.

There are good examples. The Loess Plateau an area in northwest China went over the centuries from a breadbasket to a dry, barren, heavily eroded landscape because of cutting too many trees and overgrazing the land. About 30 years ago a major restoration project turned around the soil degradation with planting vegetation and controls on land use. The land is more stable and food production went up.

In Africa’s Sahel region, at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert the Great Green Wall project aims to plant an 8,000-kilometre belt of trees from The Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It is now one of the poorest places on the planet, subject to war and famine. The aim is to restore this degraded landscape providing a better environment, food security, jobs and possibly peace.

7 Mar 2021

Throw less, fix more

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The fastest and cheapest way to reach our environmental goals is not some new machine or process. It’s much simpler and we can do it now. It’s consuming and wasting less materials and energy. Earlier this year, France used an anti-waste law to require makers of some consumer products to display a repairability index with the price. The index covers smartphones, laptops, televisions, washing machines and lawnmowers. The aim of the index is to encourage people to choose more repairable products, and manufacturers to improve the repairability of their products. It’s an important attempt to fight against the throwaway culture. France estimated that only 40 per cent of broken electronic devices were repaired last year. It’s also an effort to roll back the clock to a time when products were expected to last for years and repairs were cheaper than replacement. In three years, the French index will be expanded to include durability. All this is part of a growing movement to encourage a circular economy where materials remain in use rather than ending up in the garbage.

28 Feb 2021

The end of ICE

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

When I was young, ice was something to slide on and then to skate on. As I got older it was something that lurked under the snow when skiing, ready to send me sideways. Later still, it was a threat when I walked in winter. Now the world worries about disappearing ice in our polar regions. Huge glaciers are melting and Arctic ice is retreating, opening one of the most dangerous oceans to shipping. ICE is also shorthand for internal combustion engine and this is something else that will be disappearing. As a young man, I watched car engines grow to mammoth sizes, as much as 7 litres. They burned huge amounts of gasoline and spewed out plumes of air pollution. Anti-pollution regulations have drastically cut the stinking fumes but can’t stop the carbon dioxide coming out the tailpipes. With climate change threatening the world’s future, the axe is falling on the fossil fuel engine. Around the world, governments are mandating a shift to emission-free vehicles over the next 10-15 years. The sales of battery electric vehicles is starting to climb. They were the majority of sales in progressive Norway last year. The automotive giants are moving. Companies like Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen, among others, have announced billions of dollars in investments in electric vehicles. Prepare to say goodbye to the roar of motor and hello to the sound of silence when you pull out of the driveway.

picture of Ford's new electric Mustang Mach-E
An electric Mustang
Credit: Ford Motor Co.

24 Feb 2021

Making Peace with Nature

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Once more the United Nations has sounded the tocsin on the threats environmental decline poses for our well-being. Its latest report, Making Peace With Nature, lays out grim scenarios. We are creating “…a world of extreme weather events, sea level rise, a drastic loss of plants and animals, food and water insecurity and increasing likelihood of future pandemics,” said report lead author Sir Robert Watson. “The emergency is in fact more profound than we thought only a few years ago,” he added. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said humans “have been waging a senseless and suicidal war on nature,” and “We are close to the point of no return.” The climate is becoming more unstable, millions die from air pollution, land is becoming less fertile, fisheries are in decline and food supplies put at risk. All this is driven by unsustainable forms of production and consumption.

First World War devastation of nature

The report applies a new twist to the war metaphor. Guterres says making peace with nature will be “the defining task of the coming decades.” Drawing parallels with recovery efforts from past military conflicts, the report proposes “a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme.” We have to reach net zero carbon emissions, and transform how we produce food, and manage our land, water and oceans. The UN says governments should look beyond economic growth as an indicator of performance and take account of the value of preserving ecosystems. They need to redirect vast amounts of money now spent to support fossil fuels when we are supposed to be phasing them out. The timing is good. The echoes the calls of many governments for a green recovery from the economic devastation of COVID-19, something that seems to have broad public support.

19 Feb 2021

Are we reaching a tipping point?

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

More than 30 years after the Brundtland report, Our Common Future, called for sustainable development, are we reaching a tipping point for a greener future? The struggle to control climate change is taking off. First, and most important, a lot more people are worried. People have seen enough killer forest fires, floods and giant storms to realize the world is changing for the worse, because of our actions. Fear of climate change is a great driver of action. They are starting to spend serious money on electric cars and are pulling their investments from fossil fuels. They are giving governments permission to roll out one greenhouse gas control after another.

Business is in a historic shakeup, one caused not by new inventions or changes in consumer demand but by a series of environmental crises. Mark Carney, who has headed the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, warned that companies that fail to adapt to climate change will go bankrupt. Major financial groups are turning away from fossil fuels. BlackRock, the world’s biggest investment fund manager, has threatened to sell shares in the worst corporate polluters in a bid to support the goal of net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. While fossil fuel generating stations are still being built, the rate of growth is slowing while the growth in renewable energy has grown dramatically. Renewable energy companies are overtaking the big oil companies in market value. Renewables have become the cheapest form of energy in many parts of the world.

Wind energy

Car makers are on the front line of the green shift. While most people still buy gas and diesel vehicles, one government after another has said it will ban fossil fuel vehicles over the next 10-15 years. The switch has started. In Norway, battery electric vehicles made up 54.3 per cent of all new cars sold in the country in 2020, a world record. In December one-quarter of cars sold in Germany were hybrid or pure electric.

Tesla, a pioneer in making electric cars has seen its value rocket above that of traditional automakers, helping to make founder Elon Musk the world’s richest person. Others are racing to catch up. In early 2021, Ford Motor Co. doubled its investment in electric vehicles and General Motors said it plans to make almost all its vehicles electric by 2035. This came a day after U.S. President Joe Biden signed executive orders that include moving to an all-electric federal vehicle fleet. Jaguar the maker of beautiful luxury cars, announced it will go all electric by 2025.

Governments play key roles in setting expectations, passing laws and regulations to control pollution, and in putting their money into green projects. The 2015 Paris Agreement pledged countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to prevent a climate disaster. Globally, emissions are still rising, but many countries have promised to reduce them in coming years. Last year the European Union set a target of 32 per cent of electricity production to come from renewables by 2030. It has often been said that crisis creates opportunity for change. Many countries have promised a “green recovery” from the COVID-19 economic collapse. Last year a number of large governments made pledges to phase out fossil fuels and to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Late last year, the world’s publicly-financed development banks pledged to tie together their efforts to rescue the global economy from the Covid-19 crisis and the climate emergency, using their financial muscle to assist a green recovery for poor countries.

It is ironic that a health crisis is opening the door to more sustainable development. The fact that the COVID-19 virus appears to have originated in wild animals sold in markets revealed the dangers of pushing deeper into primaeval areas with their hidden diseases. The pandemic reminds us of how vulnerable we are to natural forces. It drives home the point that climate change can also threaten our health and well-being. The social and economic upheaval caused by lockdowns has made people realize that huge changes can happen rapidly. The effects of the COVID-19 crisis, including a sharp fall in demand for oil, gave a peek at what the future holds. Last year, I wrote that in a post COVID-19 world we will have a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a serious shift to sustainability. As the world recovers from the pandemic over the next few years, we will see if people, governments and business have the will and ingenuity to give us a safer and more stable future that no longer runs down the environment on which we depend for life itself.

5 Feb 2021

Living within the donut

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

There is the green economy, the circular economy and now the donut economy. It’s one more idea on how to rethink and reshape a global economy that is both overusing the environment and making some super rich while hundreds of million suffer deprivation of essential needs. British economist Kate Raworth came up with the term “donut economics.” She combined the idea of ecological planetary boundaries we cannot safely exceed as an outer ring on an image with the unmet needs of many people forming a gaping hole in the middle. Raworth said that between the extremes of environmental overuse and human privation was a “safe and just space for humanity” which she called the donut.

The doughnut of social and planetary boundaries

Her ideas echo those of the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, often called the Brundtland report after its chair, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland. This global group of experts pointed out that economic development by the rich countries was running down the environment, but poor countries needed more economic growth to lift themselves out of misery. The timing seems good for a new way of saying what we have known for a long time. COVID-19, which has caused not only a health but an economic and social crisis, has stimulated interest in sustainability. More people are talking about rebuilding shattered economies as green economies. Raworth runs the Donut Economics Action Lab, to inspire and support people. Her group has attracted attention from a number of cities scattered around the world, ranging from Copenhagen to Nanaimo, BC, to Dunedin, New Zealand.

31 Jan 2021

Bad road ahead

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

As if we don’t have enough bad news these days, a group of international scientists is warning that most people don’t understand how serious biodiversity decline has become. “The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms—including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts.” They go on to say, “Without fully appreciating and broadcasting the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required, society will fail to achieve even modest sustainability goals.” Because the loss of biodiversity takes place over years, people don’t see its gravity and keep putting off action to stop it.

The sober warning comes in an article, Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future, in Frontiers in Conservation Science, an online journal on conservation management. It documents the huge changes humans have made to life on earth. We have altered about 70 percent of Earth’s land surface; the ocean’s large predatory fish are two-thirds gone; coral reefs have lost half their living mass. Humans and our livestock account for about 95 per cent of land animals on the planet by weight. The world’s wild populations of birds, mammals, fishes, reptiles, and amphibians have declined by an average of nearly 70 percent in just the last 50 years. “With such a rapid, catastrophic loss of biodiversity, the ecosystem services it provides have also declined. These include reduced carbon sequestration, reduced pollination, soil degradation, poorer water and air quality, more frequent and intense flooding and fires, and compromised human health.” With the steady increase in human population and consumption, the trends are worsening.

Polar bears at risk.
Credit: Dan Bolton

The 17 prominent academics and experts from the United States, Mexico and Australia call their report a “cold shower” to wake people up in time to head off disaster. They admit this will not be easy, given that many people still enjoy the status quo. The authors say we need fundamental changes to global capitalism, including the abolition of perpetual economic growth as it now exists. “These choices will necessarily entail difficult conversations about population growth and the necessity of dwindling but more equitable standards of living.”