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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.


13 Jun 2019

Time to move

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Imagine that you are living in a comfortable hotel. You can have anything you want for dinner every night. The swimming pool is heated even in winter. You can jump on a plane and fly across the world whenever you desire. But, the hotel is slowly running out of supplies. It is deteriorating. It will begin to shut down. You will be very uncomfortable. You could move across the street to simpler but still very comfortable accommodations. You would not eat much steak. The pool has solar heat. You would strop driving gas-powered cars. You would not fly very much until aircraft switched to renewable energy.

When will we be ready to change hotels? The natural world – our support system – is crumbling under the impacts of climate change, harmful chemicals, destruction of fertile soil, deforestation, overfishing and killing of other species. But most people still hesitate to move “across the street” to the clean, efficient hotel. We don’t want to give fossil-fueled cars, flying and buying lots of stuff. Our efforts to change are marginal. Blue boxes and slightly more efficient cars are not enough to turn the tide. What will it take to get the majority ready for the kind of seismic changes in behaviour and consumption that we need? Historically, people made major changes for a limited number of reasons, such as war, extreme poverty, charismatic leaders, religious belief and, in the distant past, natural climate changes. Today, human-caused climate change is causing crises in a growing number of regions. Low-lying islands are getting more flooding. Droughts are becoming more common and in some tropical regions they are sending “climate refugees” toward northern countries. These northern countries are undergoing more floods and forest fires.

Greta Thunberg, warning to world leaders

Pressures are building. People who lose their homes to exceptional and repeating floods, and to record forest fires are starting to call on politicians to take much more serious action to control greenhouse gases. It will take this and more public pressure for politicians to feel comfortable making the huge changes needed in our energy systems. Pressure is also coming from the young. This year there were unprecedented Youth Climate Strikes by students around the world. The unofficial leader and inspiration is Greta Thunberg a Swedish high school student. This winter she told political and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “…I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I do. Every day. And I want you to act. I want you to behave like our house is on fire. Because it is.” She told them to stop saying it is too complicated. “Either we prevent temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees (Celsius), or we don’t. Either we avoid chain reaction of unravelling ecosystems, or we don’t. That’s as black or white as it gets. Now we all have a choice: we can either create transformational action or continue with business as usual and fail.”

15 May 2019

Climate deadlock

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

People have struggled for years to keep partisan politics out of the environmental debates, but is becoming a losing battle. The latest example is the carbon fee or tax on fossil fuel consumption in Canada. It was originally supported by many conservatives as a way of using market forces rather than government regulations to control pollution. Now some of the same conservatives are attacking the idea. Instead of saying it is one way of encouraging people to use less fossil fuels, they are painting it as a government cash grab. This schism threatens to become a major issue dividing the two major parties in the fall Canadian election. As well, some conservative provincial governments are now repealing environmental protection laws, including putting a price on carbon dioxide pollution. We are losing reasoned debate on what to do about one of the most important challenges facing the world at a time when we need consensus. Instead, political parties are turning to attack ads. It was not always this way. When I was an environmental reporter in the 1980s, there was general agreement among political parties on the need to deal with such problems as acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer and Great Lakes pollution. For many years there was all-party agreement that climate change was a problem to deal with. If there was criticism, it was that governments were not doing enough to control pollution. In recent years “wedge” politics has become more common with parties seeking to split voters into camps. Unfortunately, climate change has become a victim of political gaming. If one party proposes cuts to greenhouse gases another party will attack them seeking political advantage. The only way out of this mess is to establish a cross-party coalition that sets aside the old jobs versus the environment arguments and seeks agreement on what it will take to reduce emissions to a safe level.

10 May 2019

The young demand change

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Climate change is forcing us into a historic shift that will remake our societies. If we do not virtually stop pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we will destroy our civilization. If we do make the drastic cuts needed, we will have to make seismic changes in how we use energy and how we manage forests and other wild lands. The last time the world faced such a dramatic decision was in the second half of the past century, when we were at imminent risk of nuclear war. I remember a time of fear and ferment. Those of us who lived in North America feared a nuclear war with the then Soviet Union. It would have killed tens of millions, and devastated the planet with radiation, fires and smoke that would have shut out the sun, causing “nuclear winter.” Young people, the baby boom generation, reacted with anti-nuclear peace marches around the world. It’s harder to calculate the impact of peace marches, but by the late 1980s there was a shift among major nuclear powers toward a reduction in missiles and a de-escalation in nuclear threats.


Anti-nuclear protest in 1961
Credit: AP Photo / Lindlar


There is always the potential for a nuclear war among the great powers, but it seems unlikely now. Today the greatest single threat to civilization is environmental decline, particularly climate change. It is forcing us to change. The question is will the change be peaceful and organized or will it be chaotic and harmful. Faced with the crisis, many politicians and business leaders seem frozen like deer in the headlights. They have made some gestures toward curbing pollution, but it is far from enough to save the planet. Last year greenhouse gas emissions were rising. As in the last century, many young people are taking up the cause, with their own marches and demonstrations trying to push the world to action.

The anti-nuclear protestors of the past century had leaders such as British philosopher Bertrand Russell and Australian physician Dr. Helen Caldicott. The leading figure for today’s climate protests is 16-year-old Swedish student, Greta Thunberg. Last year she skipped school to sit on the steps of her country’s Parliament with a sign demanding the government do more to stop climate change. She has become a Joan of Arc like figure for student protestors around the world. This year there have been worldwide student “climate strikes” with tens of thousands skipping classes to march in protest against political failures to stop climate change. Also last year a group in the United Kingdom formed the Extinction Rebellion movement to protest against failure to stop climate change. Peaceful protesters barricaded roads and bridges at major city landmarks. They shut down parts of London as people attached or even glued themselves to buildings. At one point police had to stop arresting protestors because they ran out of holding cells.


Extinction rebellion, London UK, 2019
Credit: AP


It’s too early to tell what impact if any these protests will have more than 450 communities around the world and some higher levels of government, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, have declared climate emergencies. Some are backing up the declarations with actions to move to renewable energy.

7 May 2019

The disappearing world

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The latest bad news is that about 1 million of 8 million known species on Earth face extinction because of what we are doing to the planet. The report from the UN-backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is the most comprehensive yet on the health of plant and animal life on Earth. Humans are now the dominant force of change on the planet. We have altered three-quarters of the land, and 85 per cent of wetlands are gone. Coral reefs are dying. One-third of marine stocks are over fished and 60 per cent are fished to the maximum sustainable level. The changes are driven by an ever-growing population and increasing per capita consumption. The big change agents are agriculture, fishing, logging, urban sprawl, pollution, over-hunting and invasive species. The losses are not just about other species. “Nature plays a critical role in providing food and feed, energy, medicines and genetic resources and a variety of materials fundamental for people’s physical well-being and for maintaining culture,” says the report. This just the latest report to warn we are destroying our own life support system. Back in 1987 Our Common Future the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development said we have a responsibility to leave a habitable world for future generations.

Sea turtle with fish
Sea turtle

The species report, Nature’s Dangerous Decline, says stopping the destruction “…may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.” What all such reports lack is specific instructions that would make it clear just what needs to be done and by who. The reality is that the United Nations is not able to support documents that say we need to rapidly move away from gas-powered cars, leave fossil fuels in the ground, catch fewer fish, reduce forest clearing, reduce urban sprawl and generally consume less meat, energy and materials. That will take an independently-funded organization that can put together a respected team of world experts to design a roadmap toward sustainable production and lifestyles.