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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.

26 Feb 2020

Children and sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The future success of nations depends on their children’s health and well-being, but no country is ensuring their future according to a group of world experts. Many wealthy nations are doing a good job of taking care of the current needs of the young, but are undermining their future through their greenhouse gas emissions. Some poor nations have few but are unable to adequately take care of children’s needs now. The World Health Organization, UNICEF and The Lancet medical journal published a A future for the world’s children? It said that recent decades “have seen dramatic improvements in survival, education, and nutrition for children worldwide. Economic development, concerted international action, and political commitment have brought about rapid change. In many ways, now is the best time for children to be alive.” But the future is less rosy, it continued saying “…today’s children face an uncertain future. Climate change, ecological degradation, migrating populations, conflict, pervasive inequalities, and predatory commercial practices threaten the health and future of children in every country.”

The report split the world into two categories based on how they care for children today and how they are dealing with the threat of climate change. “The poorest countries have a long way to go towards supporting their children’s ability to live healthy lives, but wealthier countries threaten the future of all children through carbon pollution, on course to cause runaway climate change and environmental disaster. Not a single country performed well on all three measures of child flourishing, sustainability, and equity.” For example, Norway, South Korea and the Netherlands ranked first, second and third in having flourishing children today, but ranked low on long-term sustainability because of their high greenhouse gas emissions, which undermine the future for children. It quoted student climate activist such as Greta Thunberg from Sweden in her famous speech to last year’s World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland when she told delegates, “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” The report went on to say the world needs to listen to children and make them central to global sustainable development goals.

Deborah Morayo Adegbile (left), from Nigeria, and Greta Thunberg (second from left), from Sweden, take part in a press conference at UNICEF House announcing the collective action being taken on behalf of young people over climate change.
Credit: UNICEF

12 Feb 2020

Future Earth

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

A group of scientists from around the world has warned the environmental challenges facing us are so great that it is too late for incremental change. In a far-reaching and detailed report, they say only a historic and transformational change unprecedented in modern history will save us. The 222 scientists from 52 countries provide a snapshot of our world as it heads into a crucial decade in which environmental crises are becoming more severe and some risk becoming irreversible. Their report, Our Future on Earth 2020 warns a number of overlapping environmental breakdowns could tip us into a global systemic crisis. It would bring include extreme weather, such as droughts and floods, major biodiversity loss, water shortages and lower food production. There would be an increased likelihood of wildfire, heat death, water shortages, and power outages

On a more optimistic note the report says: “we are a vast global population facing unprecedented environmental challenges, yet we still have the time and the capability to prevent extreme outcomes, such as runaway climate change and wildlife extinctions.” However, making the changes needed will require much more than tinkering with the existing system. It warns that “transformative change goes well beyond incrementalism or reform, both of which allow existing practices, goals, and structures to stay in place. We need to rethink how we design economies and do business; how we produce and distribute the food we eat – even what we eat; how we design and construct our homes, workplaces, and communities; and how we get from place to place.” The needed changes to how we live and do business will be disruptive. We have to deal with the complexity of the problems and solutions while many people want simple answers.

29 Jan 2020

We need greener buildings

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

When we talk about cutting greenhouse gas emissions we often think of coal-burning power plants, motor vehicles and aircraft. But homes and buildings are a major source. A statement from the Canadian senate says they are the source of about 17 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from burning oil and gas to heat them. It’s been possible for years to build structures that need virtually no fossil fuels to heat them. However, many buildings leak large amounts of heat because they were built in an era when energy was cheap and builders did not want to raise the purchase price by adding more insulation and energy efficient windows and heating systems. An article on green buildings says North America still often settles for mediocrity when it comes to green buildings. Homeowners and owners of businesses appear to be heading towards a change that may become a crisis. If we are to meet our goals of greenhouse gas reductions, we have to phase out of fossil fuels, and that means most buildings will have to change their heating systems.

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.