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19 Jan 2020

Decade of decisions

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The first decade of this century was shaken by terror attacks, including the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, and the ensuing wars. The second decade started with the struggle to prevent a global economic meltdown after the 2008 market crash. The third decade will be defined by how we deal with climate change and how that struggle reshapes our societies. Climate change is already bringing increasing floods, droughts, forest fires, rising sea levels and a melting Arctic, and we will have to live with a disturbed climate for centuries. The question is how much can we limit the increase in global temperatures. Coming out of the hottest decade on record the United Nations has warned we have to take drastic action over the next few years or we will be locked into the kind of changes that will destroy economies, force people to flee their homes and render increasing areas of the planet inhospitable. The UN has said we need we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 7 per cent a year in this decade to avoid disastrous consequences, and be carbon neutral by 2050. Given that 80 per cent of global energy production comes from burning fossil fuels, this will require  an unprecedented transformation of society, with seismic shifts in energy use, food systems, transportation, land use, employment and personal behaviour.

The most frightening evidence of climate change has been the dramatic increase in massive, uncontrollable wildfires in Australia, California and parts of southern Europe. Whole towns have been destroyed and people burned to death as they tried to escape. People are scared and want action.  Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, known for promoting more coal mining, was booed when he visited fire-ravaged areas of the country. Many observers say one reason that Canada conservative party lost last fall’s federal election is because it was too weak on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

There are encouraging signs of change. The European Union said it will dedicate a quarter of its budget to tackling climate change, and will shift 1 trillion euros to environmentally friendly investment over the next decade. The German government has a plan to phase out coal-fired power stations by 2038, involving compensation of more than 40 billion euros. Microsoft has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030 and by 2050 to have removed all of the carbon from the environment that it has emitted since the company was founded in 1975. Car makers are making large investments in electric vehicles. A significant number of investors are moving away from fossil fuels. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, is getting out of investments in coal used to generate power. Founder and CEO Laurence Fink, who oversees the management of about US$7 trillion in funds, said a warming planet puts “on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.” This week the World Economic Forum will hold its annual meeting of thousands of business and political leaders, economists, celebrities and journalists in Davos, Switzerland. Last year, the leaders were scolded by Swedish teen and climate activist Greta Thunberg. “At Davos, people like to talk about success, but financial success has come with a price tag, and on the climate we have failed.” Her message and similar words from millions more are finally being heard. Citing a survey of more than 750 key decision-makers, the World Economic Forum said catastrophic trends like global warming and the extinction of animal species would be front and center at this year’s meeting.

12 Dec 2019

A fair change in a greening world

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

We are heading into a period of disruptions greater than the world has ever seen. The surging climate crisis is bringing increasing droughts, fires, storms and floods. They will get worse. A series of other environmental problems, including overfishing, deforestation, land degradation, water shortages, the decline and loss of other species and a host of pollutants, will add to our misery. The world is trying to respond, but too slowly. Climate change is the biggest issue. People are coming to accept that we need to rapidly move from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy. This will mean huge changes to energy, transportation and a host of other sectors that have run on coal, oil and gas for generations. It means billions of people will have to find other types of work and other sources of energy. Globalization of trade gave us a foretaste of the kind shocks and repercussions. Industrialized countries, particularly in North America and Europe, saw tens of thousands of jobs vanish as companies moved production to lower wage nations, particularly in Asia. This had huge social and political impacts in the job losing nations, as people lost good paying work and went on unemployment or took lower paid jobs. It led to a reaction against the politicians who embraced freer trade but failed to compensate the people who were thrown out of work. The discontent is helping to fuel the rise of populist leaders. But, this is small potatoes compared to the changes we need to make to prevent catastrophic climate change. The UN Environment Programme warns the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6 per cent per year from 2020 to 2030 to meet the internationally agreed goal of no more than a 1.5°C increase in temperatures over pre-industrial levels. We need to virtually eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This is a call for a stunningly rapid transformation of the world economy. It would mean a rapid decline in the production and use of fossil fuels. It would mean the replacement of virtually all the world’s vehicles, including, cars, trucks, buses, planes, ships and other motorized equipment with non-polluting motors. It would require replacing a vast number of heating and industrial systems, such as boilers and furnaces in homes, office buildings, institutions and factories. Then there is the human impact. While millions of new jobs will be created and vast wealth generated by the work needed, millions of jobs will disappear or be radically changed. We cannot ignore the people who will be affected. We need all governments to start working on a global just transition strategy that treats displaced people fairly and sees that they get training for new jobs or get fair retirement packages. What is being done in the world? The European Union’s new Green Deal for Europe proposes €100 billion [about CAD146 billion] of the EU budget and investment loans from the European Investment Bank to fund a “just transition” in poorer, eastern member states whose economies currently rely on fossil fuels. This is the kind of investment the former West Germany has made in the former East Germany since reunification. The International Institute for Sustainable Development has published a paper, In Search of Just Transition: Examples From Around the World, that provides some examples of how countries are starting to grapple with change.

11 Dec 2019

Smarter, greener prosperity

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Canada has a trillion-dollar opportunity if it moves quickly to a build a low carbon, high performance economy. In a letter to the country’s first ministers, the Smart Prosperity Institute said: “Becoming a leader in clean performance and innovation will strengthen our competitiveness, attract capital, generate good jobs, and improve Canadians’ quality of life…” It said, “Building a low carbon, high performance economy is a vital environmental responsibility.” It added, “The shift toward a low-pollution, innovative, resource-efficient economy is the opportunity of the century.” The letter was signed by 26 people including executives from an oil company, a bank, an insurance organization, a consumer products giant, labour, indigenous and environmental leaders. The institute, a national research network and policy think tank, produced a report called 8 Reasons for Canada to Transition to a Clean Economy Now. It calls for green infrastructure and procurement, better environmental regulations, clean investment, smart tax incentives for clean technology and purchases, investments in natural capita and in education and skills for people to work in clean economy jobs, a “clean competitiveness roadmap” for a path to a low emission economy and exporting Canadian clean technologies. The 26 leaders say Canada needs to do more to take advantage of the growing shift towards emissions-free vehicles, greener energy, cleaner industrial production, and smarter, more efficient buildings. Their letter is also a call for national unity at a time when some provinces, particularly Alberta and Saskatchewan are fighting with the federal government for the right to expand fossil fuel production even though the country, along with most of the world is pledged to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Annette Verschuren, a business executive and signatory of the letter to first ministers, said the energy sector will have to move to lower-carbon production and extraction methods that will open new markets.

25 Nov 2019

The price of sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

How badly do we want sustainability? If we go by a number of surveys, not enough to voluntarily pay for the changes needed. In an online article by Sally Ho of the Green Queen website in Hong Kong, “sustainability all comes down to unit economics. When we make one eco-friendly decision over a less planet-friendly option, our individual motivation seems to stem from price, rather than moral persuasions.” These findings align with studies  in Canada. An Ipsos poll in September, on how much more Canadian are willing to pay to fight climate change found 46 per cent did not want to spend any additional money in the form of taxes or higher prices. Just 22 per cent said they would be willing to pay up to $100 extra per year. Ms. Ho writes that the flip side is that if prices do go up – for example for energy – we will use less. She references a 2018 University of Chicago study, of 691 households in Kyoto, Japan, which showed higher prices encouraged people to conserve energy much more than moral reasons. In Canada and a number of other jurisdictions carbon pricing is being used to discourage people from burning as much fossil fuel. In its final report, Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, a group of economic, business and political experts, calls for the price on carbon to keep rising. In terms of strategies to meet greenhouse gases reduction goals, “carbon pricing (with rebates or tax cuts) tops the list. It delivers the lowest cost emissions reductions. The second option is well-designed, flexible regulations, which can perform almost as well as carbon pricing.”

7 Nov 2019

Cooperation for sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

It’s one thing to set goals for sustainability. It’s quite another to figure out how to reach them. The re-elected federal government has set a green economy and especially greenhouse gas cuts as major goals. But, it depends on the whole country cooperating in an unprecedented national project. The government can convene, lead collaboration, provide financial incentives, change regulations and improve its own performance. The bulk of the transformation will take place in private businesses, offices and homes. If tens of millions of people are going to pitch in for a greener and cleaner future they have to be part of the process. There is a good precedent. In 1986, Canada’s environment ministers created the National Task Force on Environment and Economy. It included environment ministers, business, academic and non-government organizations. The task force recommended round tables on environment and economy to seek consensus among different parts of society on how to move to sustainable development. Governments created but mostly abandoned round tables for a number of reasons, including a reluctance to share power and lack of willingness to take the multistakeholder approach seriously. Now, the demands for sustainability are far more urgent, and governments need to reinvent that wheel. They need top-level players from the major sectors, including energy, transportation, food production, resource extraction, labour, academe, non-government groups and all levels of governance, including indigenous peoples. These experts need to agree on goals and provide expertise on how to achieve them. Each sector leader needs to commit to achieving the goals. Many will require cooperation across sectors, so these leaders need to commit to collaboration on a national approach using ideas that are proven, while continuing to innovate to bring on even better technologies and approaches.  

23 Oct 2019

A greener election

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Canada has just had a historic election. For the first time, the environment, specifically climate change, was the major issue in the campaign. It likely played an important role in voting patterns, given public opinion. The previous Liberal government had imposed a price on carbon emissions, often called a carbon tax. The Conservative party campaigned with a promise to abolish the tax. The Liberals won the most seats in the House of Commons, though they will form a minority government. However, three other parties that support carbon pricing and other measures to reduce climate change also won seats, meaning there is a strong majority in favour of controls on greenhouse gases. The Conservatives lost the election for a number of reasons, but their failure to have a strong and clear plan to fight climate change was certainly one of them.

29 Sep 2019

Making a sustainable future possible

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Like an avenging angel, Greta Thunberg has swept out of Sweden to accuse the world’s leaders of failing to save the planet

Greta Thunberg at the UN

from a climate disaster. The the 16-year-old schoolgirl turned climate activist regularly castigates political leaders. In a fiery speech at the United Nations on September 23, she said “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.” What started as a lonely crusade on the steps of the Swedish parliament last year has grown into a global movement of young people leaving school to accuse politicians around the world of failing to save the planet and leaving them to clean up the mess. Thunberg has catalyzed and mobilized millions in a justifiable protest against political actions that are too little and too late. What comes next? Many politicians would like to move faster, but they are afraid to take the kind of actions needed. Scientists have said we need cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 just to hold global warming to 1.5 C more than normal. That means rapidly starting the phase-out of fossil fuels, transforming agriculture to cut methane emissions, and changing whole industries, such as cement production. There is huge pushback to these ideas from many, especially those in the fossil fuel business. For politicians to move faster, they need to feel the voters will support them. What Thunberg and her followers need to do now is to change their consumption patterns and to convince others to do the same. The move to vegetarian diets and a slowing demand for cars among many young people is a first step. It needs to grow into a consumer movement that is grounded in sustainable use of energy and resources to give the green light to politicians and business leaders that sustainability is the future.

27 Aug 2019

Six transformations for sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The Amazon is burning, glaciers and icecaps are melting, people are dying from air pollution and species are being driven to extinction. We must transform how we live, work and play if we are to head off a series of environmental disasters that will make us sicker, poorer and put us in greater danger. In 2015 and 2016 nations agreed on 17 sustainable development goals for the world by 2030. They include ending poverty and hunger, ensuring equity, promoting sustainable consumption and production, and protecting and managing the natural resource base of the planet. Most nations also signed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which calls on the world to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to stop the planet from dangerously overheating.

How do we make the huge changes? Six world experts on sustainability,     Jeffrey D. Sachs, Guido Schmidt-Traub, Mariana Mazzucato, Dirk Messner, Nebojsa Nakicenovic and Johan Rockström, have proposed ways. In a paper, Six Transformations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, they call for “deep transformations in every country that will require complementary actions by governments, civil society, science and business.” The paper from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network says the transformations are interlinked and deal with a number of sustainability problems at the same time.

The six transformations are:

  1. Education to build human capital leading to reductions in poverty, inequality and gender discrimination.
  2. Universal health coverage and policies to increase well-being and quality of life.
  3. A shift from fossil fuels to zero carbon energy. They link this to a “circular economy” which keeps materials in use and virtually eliminates pollution.
  4. A move to efficient, resilient food systems that provide healthy diets and good livelihoods for food producers. This also requires protection of biodiversity, including land and marine habitats.
  5. Cleaner, safer cities where everyone has access to potable water and sanitation, and sustainable transportation.
  6. Universal access to the Internet along with a comprehensive set of rules and systems to help people benefit from the digital revolution.

The authors warn that putting such sweeping goals into action will require deep, deliberate, long-term structural changes in resource use, infrastructure, institutions, technologies and social relations over the next few decades. A successful transition to a sustainable world will require long-term planning combined with broad engagement with affected people and compensation for those who will face losses during the changes, such as people in the fossil fuel sector. The speed required and need for major government intervention are unprecedented in modern technological revolutions. They compare it to the 1960s US program to put a human on the moon in less than a decade, something initially seen by many as impossible.

15 Aug 2019

Sustainability pioneer sets sail

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Greta Thunberg setting sail. Credit: Ben Stansall

Greta Thunberg sets sail for New York. Credit: Ben Stansall

Pioneers are people who do what the rest of us can’t or won’t. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, is sailing across the Atlantic so she doesn’t create more pollution by taking a plane like most of us would. Last year, Thunberg quietly started skipping school and sitting on the stops of the Swedish parliament with a sign demanding the government do more to stop climate change. Since then, she has become a global symbol for young people demanding their elders do more to save the planet for the next generation. A person of principle, she travels to meetings in Europe by train, to reduce her carbon footprint. She wanted to be at next month’s Climate Action Summit at the United Nations in New York without flying. She got an offer to make the 3,500-nautical-mile voyage on the Maliza II, a bare-bones racing sailboat with solar panels and an underwater turbine to generate some electricity. It will not be a comfortable voyage. Whether crossing uncharted seas, finding ways through seemingly impenetrable mountain chains or rocketing into space, pioneers and explorers blazed new trails. Whether or not we will once again sail across oceans or will fly in low-pollution aircraft Thunberg is showing that if you are determined it’s possible to do things differently.

28 Jul 2019

The sustainability goals we are not meeting

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

In 2015, the world’s nations agreed on 17 sustainable development goals for the world by 2030. The goals have a strong focus on ending poverty and hunger, ensuring equity, promoting sustainable consumption and production, and protecting and managing the natural resource base of the planet.

An unofficial group of sustainability experts has produced the Sustainable Development Report 2019, a tally of how countries are doing. No country is on track for achieving all 17 goals. Nordic countries, particularly Denmark and Sweden, are top performers but even they face major challenges in implementing some goals. Even the best performers have trouble with responsible consumption and production, climate action and biodiversity protection. “Trends on greenhouse gas emissions and, even more so, on threatened species are moving in the wrong direction,” says the report. Income inequality continues and “high-income countries generate negative impacts on fatal accidents at work, typically by importing products and services from low- and middle-income countries with poor labour standards and conditions.” Half the world’s nations are not on track to eliminate poverty.

The report says market forces alone will not achieve sustainable development goals. “Directed transformations are needed to develop the technologies, promote the public and private investments, and ensure adequate governance mechanisms needed…” These transformations must have buy-in from all sectors of society or they will fail, as has already been seen in a number of countries. The report proposes six sustainability transformations:

  • Education, Gender, and Inequality
  • Health, Wellbeing, and Demography
  • Energy Decarbonization and Sustainable Industry
  • Sustainable Food, Land, Water and Oceans
  • Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • Harnessing the Digital Revolution for Sustainable Development

In September world leaders will meet at the United Nations in New York to report on what they are doing.