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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.

15 Apr 2019

Making a “good” country

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

What makes a “good” country in a world of environmental crises, civil wars, terror attacks, mass migrations and a political drift toward closed borders and narrow short-term interests? Simon Anholt, came up with his own set of measures the Good Country Index. It calculates what each of 153 countries contribute or takes away from the common good of humanity, relative to their size. Anholt, is an independent policy advisor who counsels governments and corporations on a wide range of issues, including national identity and reputation, education, trade, security. His index, started in 2014, changes from year to year. This year, Finland, The Netherlands and Ireland top the list, based on their performance in such fields as science, culture, peace, equality, health and the environment. War-ravaged Iraq and Libya are at the bottom. A BBC story gives a good overview.

17 Mar 2019

Going in two directions

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The struggle to tame climate change has entered choppy seas that are turning and tossing in all directions. The course is clear. Every credible report says we have to make rapid and drastic changes to our use of fossil fuels to head off climate changes that will undermine the very way of life we are trying to maintain. The politics are all over the map. In the United States, the president continues to deny climate change is a problem, and pushes for extraction of ever more fossil fuels. Meanwhile the mayor of New York is proposing to spend billions of dollars to protect his city from the rising seas caused by global warming. Same story in Miami. The president has proposed a budget that would cut clean energy spending just as New Mexico voted to decarbonize the state’s electric grid and Nevada’s governor announced his support for bills to expand renewable energy. In Canada, the federal government is promoting the development of heavy oil and pipelines to carry it to foreign markets. It is also imposing a fee on carbon emissions to encourage people to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. Countries around the world are struggling to both provide reliable energy and make the transition to a carbon neutral economies. Energy companies are struggling to keep up with the changes as they plan investments that are supposed to last for decades.

16 Mar 2019

Leadership from the young

Posted by Michael Keating. 1 Comment

Greta Thunberg

Credit: Hanna Franzen, EPA

Can a 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl get more action on climate change than politicians and business leaders? Last August, Greta Thunberg, then 15, skipped classes and rode her bicycle to the country’s Parliament where she sat on the steps with a sign demanding the government do more to stop climate change. Thunberg continued her protests, missing school every Friday even after the elections. At first, she was alone, but her persistence inspired other young people around the world, and drew respect from people such as the head of the United Nations.  Soon, she became the global voice of youth exasperated by the failure of policymakers to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions. In December, she told politicians at the COP-24 global climate summit: “You are not mature enough to tell it like is,” and that they were leaving the burden of clean-up to the next generation. She has recently been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Last Friday, hundreds of thousands of students in more than 100 countries followed her lead and walked out of school in a protest dubbed the Youth Climate Strike. The students expressed anger at older generations for not doing enough to fight pollution, and fear for their future on a warming planet. They carried banners with such messages as “I’m not showing up for school because adults aren’t showing up for climate,” and “why should we go to school if you won’t listen to the educated.” Greta Thunberg has joined the ranks of such renowned figures as Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who survived a Taliban assassination attempt because she sought an education. She went on to become a global activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate.