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Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

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15 Jun 2022

Marking an era

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Marking an era

When I was a little boy in the late 1940s my father gave me a hand sprayer loaded with the pesticide DDT. With this new toy I ran around the house shooting at flies like some anti-aircraft gunner.  Little did I know that I was participating in not just the killing of a few houseflies but the start of civilian chemical warfare.

It was more than another decade before people realized our use of pesticides was out of control and threatening our environment and health. On June 16, 1962, The New Yorker magazine began to serialize chapters from a book by U.S. biologist and ecologist Rachel Carson. It was Silent Spring, the most influential environmental book until then. It was a bombshell. Carson wrote about declines in bird populations linked to pesticides. She took a complex subject—the damaging effects of persistent pesticides—and captured it in one powerful image: a spring in which no birds sang. By this time the bald eagle, an American icon, was heading for extinction because DDT was causing eggshells so thin they broke. The same was true for other birds. Carson did not call for the elimination of pesticides but for minimizing their use to protect other species and to limit the ability of pests to develop resistance to the chemicals.

photo of Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson

Silent Spring is often seen as the launchpad for the environmental movement and for laws and regulations to protect people and nature from pollution. It led to controls and bans on a number of pesticides, notably DDT, the most notorious of the pesticides developed in the middle of the twentieth century. It changed public thinking about industrial claims that such products were safe when in fact a number were not.

Despite the many controls on specific chemicals we are still awash in pollution. The latest crisis is over so called “forever chemicals” as PFAS are widely known. These compounds, found in non-stick cookware, food packaging and water-repellent fabrics, are highly persistent in the environment. They have been found in the bloodstream of virtually every human tested. It shows that our approach to regulating hazardous substances still fails to protect us from new harmful substances. Companies have to run certain safety tests but these are clearly inadequate and we end up with dangerous substances widely dispersed in the environment and in our bodies.

5 Jun 2022

50 years of trying to save the environment

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on 50 years of trying to save the environment

It was 50 years ago, on June 5, 1972, that the world began the first of the great environmental conferences that have tried to chart a course toward a sustainable future. At the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, 114 governments met to try to come to terms with the environmental problems that were serious even then and with the needs of the less industrialized nations who needed ecological room to expand their economies. Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi put human needs on the agenda, calling poverty a driver of environmental degradation because the poor exploit the environment to meet immediate needs such as for food and fuel. This made a strong link between environment and development issues, helping to set the scene for the sustainable development concept which was fleshed out in the next decade. The Stockholm conference came three months after the publication of the controversial book The Limits to Growth, by The Club of Rome, an international association of scientists, educators, economists, humanists, industrialists and civil servants. The book warned that with increases in population and demands, the world would face increasing shortages of essential natural resources. It said consumption trends could be changed “…to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future.” This presaged the 1987 Brundtland report, Our Common Future, which called for sustainable development. Following the Stockholm conference, Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos published Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet, which warned we had to learn to control our demands and environmental impacts.

One of the major results of the Stockholm conference was the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP], giving the world its first global environmental agency. It was a period when governments around the world started creating their own environmental departments and citizens formed  many environmental non-government organizations.

Following Stockholm, the world has held a series of major meetings such as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1982, which included the Earth Summit, the largest meeting of world leaders ever held. The Rio conference launched the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity and agreed on Agenda 21, a program to achieve sustainable development. After Rio came the UN General Assembly Special Session on Sustainable Development in New York in 1997 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. Although there are many great environmental problems most attention has shifted to climate change with its regular meetings to seek a solution to this crisis.

Maurice Strong

The common theme for much of this was the work of Canadian businessman and environmentalist Maurice Strong. He headed the Stockholm conference, was the first head of UNEP, was a member of the Brundtland commission and headed the Rio conference.

22 Apr 2022

The great disconnect

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on The great disconnect

How many people can look at the clouds, feel the wind direction and make an informed guess about the weather? How many kids have never seen a cow, and think milk only comes from plastic bags? For thousands of years humans have been making a great migration. Not the one from Africa to the rest of the world but from rural areas to cities. We are the only species that is becoming disconnected from our roots.

In 2008, the United Nations said that half the world now lived in urban areas and this trend will continue, and more recently estimated that two-thirds of humans will be urban dwellers by mid-century. In high income regions such as North America and Europe more than 80 per cent of people live in cities, towns and villages. It is a huge change. For most of history humans were rural dwellers, harvesting food and natural resources and later farming and fishing with big boats. People understood nature and natural processes because they depended on that knowledge for success, even survival.

As people move into cities, some of which hold more than 30 million people, they lose connection with nature, the basis of life. Many millions have never been outside urban areas and millions more have only seen bits of nature from the windows of a car, bus, train or aircraft. This lack of connection to our natural roots becomes more and more of a handicap when experts try to explain why we need to protect biodiversity and preserve natural spaces where nature can operate on its own cycles.

16 Apr 2022

Approaching overshoot

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Approaching overshoot

Each statement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] ratchets up the pressure to fight climate change. The planet has already warmed by more than 1 Celsius since the start of the industrial revolution because of massive burning of fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. Under the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change the world agreed we need to hold the temperature increase to well below 2C with a goal of 1.5C to prevent even more severe damage from wildfires, floods, droughts and huge storms that already are hitting us hard.

An early April report by 278 climate experts from 65 countries said we have to make historically fast and deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions or we will overshoot the targets. The report, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of climate change, said that to meet the 1.5C target, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2025 and be reduced by 43 per cent by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. We’re nowhere near on track. With current policies, the world will warm by more than 3 degrees. Even if nations meet their promises for future cuts, we will get just under 3 degrees of warming. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres did not sound optimistic as he accused the governments of high-emitting countries, of making “empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.”

Two days after the IPCC report came out, Canada approved the Bay du nord oil project in the Atlantic Ocean off the country’s east coast. It is to produce some 300 million barrels of oil which when burned would release about 130 million tonnes of carbon dioxide or twice as much as Canada’s electricity sector releases in a year. The deep-sea oil project is to start pumping oil in 2028. The Canadian climate plan aims for emissions to be cut by 40-45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The IPCC scientists said we need deep and immediate emissions reductions across all sectors. “We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming,” said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee. However, the report’s authors write, it “cannot be achieved through incremental change.”

More than 80 per cent of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels, a power system developed over several centuries. A titanic shift must take place. We must electrify almost everything to literally repower the world. It will cost trillions of dollars but is necessary to save the planet from climate disaster.

Electric cars recharging

It’s not just electric cars. We have to change the heating systems for almost every building in the world and the power for most industrial processes. There are signs of hope. A number of countries have cut emissions over the past decade, including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and Ukraine. They used less energy, transitioned away from fossil fuels to renewables, and increased the energy efficiency of their products.

The need for dramatic change is running up against a fight from huge fossil fuel industries trying to stay in business, people reluctant or uncertain how to make the necessary changes and many politicians afraid to provide the historic leadership needed. Given current trends it is virtually certain we will overshoot the 1.5C goal. The question is can we correct by rapidly reducing emissions later and how much damage will we suffer in the interim.

19 Mar 2022

War and sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on War and sustainability

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the biggest blow to sustainability since the term became popular more than 30 years ago. The invasion is not only a humanitarian catastrophe for Ukrainians but it will harm people around the world. The war has already driven the price of oil to sky high levels. That makes it more expensive for everyone who needs fossil fuels for heating, food production, transportation and production of virtually everything we use. For low-income countries this means an increase in the cost of their food and that has long been a trigger for social instability. In addition, Ukraine has been one of the world’s major grain producers and there are questions about how much it can produce this year let alone ship with the Russian navy controlling its Black Sea export routes. Russia is being blacklisted from a wide array of international activities at a time when we need global cooperation on critical issues such as COVID-19 and climate change. We risk slipping back into a Cold War period of isolation at a time when countries need to be pulling together.

7 Mar 2022

Running out of time

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Running out of time

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]  makes for chilling reading even at a time when we have war in Ukraine and a continuing COVID-19 crisis. It says the window to prevent huge and irreversible changes to our climate is rapidly closing. The effects of melting glaciers and thawing permafrost in some areas are “approaching irreversibility.” Mass die-off of fauna and flora are happening now. We already live in a world of history making floods, fires and drought and this with a temperature rise of only 1.1C from pre-industrial times. At current rates of emissions we are headed for between 2 and 3 C which will likely trigger a scenario where burning trees and melting permafrost release even more greenhouse gases accelerating the warming trend. The results will be dramatic and deadly. Tens of millions will have to flee as their homelands become unlivable because of flooding or heat waves. The only way to stave off the worst is to start making gigantic cuts to emissions, at least 45 per cent in this decade alone.

23 Jan 2022

A new way of thinking

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on A new way of thinking

We have changed our planet and now we have to change ourselves. As the climate becomes wilder and less predictable, the four new horsemen of the apocalypse – drought, fire, flood and storms – are riding into our lives destroying homes and businesses and killing people. We need to react and fast. First, we must make historic efforts to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. Second, we need to adapt to the effects of a warmer world because we are too late to completely stop climate change. The best we can do is to slow and eventually stop the global temperature increase over many decades.

How? The main tool is between our ears, and we must change how we use it. To paraphrase Einstein, the kind of thinking that got us into this environmental mess will not get us out of it. Building more and bigger things that consume fossil fuels will worsen climate change. Instead, we need to build smarter and more efficiently, and we need to conserve energy and materials. It would not be the first time. During the Second World War fuel and strategic materials were rationed. People made do with what they had. During the 1973-1974 oil embargoes people traded in big cars for fuel efficient ones and the phrase “off oil” became popular. There was a burst of research into alternative energy. In each of these crises people learned how to conserve but then forgot again once oil was again plentiful. This time there is no going back. It is time for a permanent shift in our thinking. It will mean revaluating what is worth keeping and what we can do without.

“A man’s wisdom is most conspicuous where he is able to distinguish among dangers and make choice of the least”          – Niccolò Machiavelli. The Prince 1513  

There is no shortage of ideas. In 1915, Canada’s Commission on Conservation wrote about the need to live within natural cycles saying: “Each generation is entitled to the interest on the natural capital, but the principal should be handed on unimpaired.” In 1973, the Science Council of Canada said, “Canadians, as individuals, and their governments, institutions and industries, (must) begin the transition from a consumer society preoccupied with resource exploitation to a conserver society engaged in more constructive endeavours.” In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development, {the Brundtland Commission] released its historic report, Our Common Future, saying humans have to live “within the planet’s ecological means.” It called for sustainable development to meet our needs and reasonable wants. It said we need a safe and fair society with a healthy economy in a stable and healthy environment.

In late 2021, the International Energy Agency said there is an urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It called for “…behavioural changes – meaning adjustments in everyday life that reduce wasteful or excessive energy consumption” particularly in nations that burn a lot of fossil fuels. It said nearly two-thirds of the energy reduction needed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 will require changes in what we consider “normal” behaviour.

This will require fundamental changes in our thinking. Several centuries ago western philosophers proposed that humans should conquer nature and use it as we see fit. Scientific discoveries and the industrial revolution brought us more food, better health, greater comfort and longer lives. They also brought the over-exploitation of natural resources, the decline of other species and life-threatening pollution. The costs of this development pattern are starting to outweigh the benefits. We need to return to older concepts in which humans were seen as part of the natural world. We need to learn how to properly value nature and natural goods and services such as the provision of clean water, removal of wastes, genetic diversity and a stable climate. For example, we commonly value forests only in terms of the money they will bring if cut down and sold. Yet the forests are critical in carbon storage, air purification, stability of land, the water cycle and biological diversity. These are essential services.

We need to change what we value as individuals. Is the consumption of things and energy more important than a healthy environment? This is the question that all of us must put to ourselves and in a consumer society it will not be an easy one to answer. Another change is in the goals we set as societies. For most countries, especially industrialized nations, the long-term strategy of economic development has been to use more natural resources to build more things, mainly using fossil fuels to run the machinery. We need to reorient our idea of development, so it provides essential goods and services in ways that no longer undermine environmental stability and security. We want to live well but need to do it within natural limits. This all comes at a time when the global population is still expanding and more people aspire to better lifestyles. How we do this and the trade-offs we make will be defining choices for our future.

7 Jan 2022

Changing how we behave

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Changing how we behave

A global organization created nearly 50 years ago to deal with oil shortages now says people have to embrace a future where they stop burning oil and other fossil fuels that are disrupting the climate. The International Energy Agency (IEA) was set up because of the 1973-1974 oil embargo by major producers that left many countries scrambling to get affordable supplies. For much of its existence it equated energy security with more fossil fuel supply.

In recent years the IEA, like most governments and businesses, has realized this is not sustainable. Last spring it called on governments to stop approving new fossil fuel projects and plan for an orderly but rapid wind down of existing operations.

In a paper in late 2021, Do we need to change our behaviour to reach net zero by 2050? the IEA said technology change is necessary but not enough. It said, “…behavioural changes – meaning adjustments in everyday life that reduce wasteful or excessive energy consumption – are also needed. They are especially important in richer parts of the world where energy intensive lifestyles are the norm. Behavioural changes include cycling or walking instead of driving, turning down heating, and going on holiday nearer to home. In addition, efforts by manufactures to use materials more efficiently and encourage consumers to recycle can reduce energy use in industry.” It estimates that nearly two-thirds of the energy reduction needed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 will require changes in what we consider “normal” behaviour.

Governments can help by settling lower speed limits and improving energy efficiency in appliances. Individuals can help by driving slower and less often in fossil-fueled vehicles, using mass transit and generally reducing energy use. It will not be easy but can be done. The COVID-19 crisis showed that most people will accept major lifestyle changes for the good of their health and that of their society. However, it also showed limits to how fast and how far governments can move. The greatest challenge in governance in coming decades will be how well leaders can convince and assist people in shifting to a low-carbon lifestyle, giving up some things to gain others, such as better health and reduced risk of natural disasters.  

10 Dec 2021

COP26. What next?

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on COP26. What next?

COP26, the global meeting on climate change was hard as delegates struggled to get commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. But the hardest work starts now as governments, industry and individuals try to make pollution cuts in ways that most people can accept. A recent webinar, The Climate Agenda Post COP26, brought together three prominent experts on what the future might hold.

Mark Carney, economist, UN Special Envoy on Climate Action and Finance, former governor of the Banks of England and Canada, and author of Values: Building a Better World for All, said money managers are starting to shift investments away from fossil fuels. Mark Cutifani, Chief Executive of the multinational mining company Anglo American, said there were opportunities and value in sustainable business and his company is creating renewable for some of its operations. Gail Klintworth, Chair of the Shell Foundation, talked about the need to include communities, especially in the Global South, in the transition to sustainable development.

The webinar was held by GlobeScan an international polling and advisory company with a long history of researching and interpreting public opinion on environmental and sustainability.

21 Nov 2021

The future will not be friendly

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on The future will not be friendly

Human history has been a quest make life better; to produce better shelter, more food, good health care and personal safety. Now one of the main tools we used to build a better world – energy from burning fossil fuels – is starting to destroy our civilization. The pollution from coal, oil and gas is creating climate disruption like nothing we have seen in modern history. Heat waves, droughts, fires, floods and giant storms have burned whole towns to the ground and flooded out others. Hundreds have died in the heat, fire and floods. Just last week historic rainfall in British Columbia sent mudslides down hills. Roads and rail lines were cut. Cars were swept off roads and people killed. Hundreds had to be rescued by military helicopters. Floods submerged towns and killed thousands of farm animals. The whole southwest coast of the province was cut off from land transportation to the rest of the country. Food supplies were disrupted and fuel rationed.

BC highway cut by mudslide

This is just one example of how climate change is going to upend our lives. Fires and floods ravaged parts of Europe and North America this year while historic droughts cut food production in parts of western North America. In parts of the world, particularly in Africa years of drought are turning hunger into starvation. Millions of animals are dying in forest fires and heat waves, even in the oceans. Tropical diseases are moving out of the tropics as the world warms.

We have changed the world’s climate and now it is changing us. The earth’s temperature has risen 1.1 C since the start of the industrial revolution a couple of centuries ago. With current promises for pollution cuts by governments around the world it is still on track to rise by 2.4 degrees this century. Scientists warn we have only a few years to reduce our climate changing emissions enough to stave off even more disastrous effects. It will require historic changes in human behaviour. It’s a classic example of pay now or pay more later.

17 Nov 2021

Reinventing the wheel

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Reinventing the wheel

COP26 in Glasgow gave the world a giant wakeup call about how much we have to do to stop climate change from crippling our civilization. The scope and scale of changes we need to make are so great it is like reinventing the wheel. Many things that work well, have built our economies and supported our lifestyles are destroying our environment. We must replace them to avoid a harsher and more dangerous world. To save ourselves from a more hostile environment this generation will have to make the greatest changes in the shortest time in human history.

Pollution from energy use is the biggest culprit in causing climate disruption and will be the hardest thing to fix in time. About 80 per cent of the world’s commercially produced energy comes from fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. Their production and burning release carbon dioxide and methane, which are warming the planet causing more erratic and violent weather. In 2015 world leaders said they will work to limit the global temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees with a goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels. We are already at 1.1 degrees and are on track to blow past both targets. To stop dangerous levels of climate disruption we need to cut emissions by about half this decade and nearly totally by 2050. It means repowering most of the world: getting rid of gas and diesel cars, trucks and buses and changing aircraft, ships and trains to clean power. It means the end of burning gas to heat homes and other buildings and to cook food. It means changing the way we make such essential materials as steel and cement. It also means changing agriculture and stopping deforestation.

It’s impossible to make such huge changes overnight, but we must start the process immediately. This is a gigantic task that will last for years. Many politicians are probably unaware of just how big. Those that do understand appear reluctant to tell the public about the scope and scale of changes needed. Some political leaders still support the expansion of fossil fuel production. Most local governments routinely approve buildings with too little insulation and with gas heating, instead of mandating maximum insulation and systems such as heat pumps and electric heat. All this will cost vast amounts of money and cause years of disruption.

Governments need to map out a pathway for change so we can see what is feasible. They will need to provide financial support for the transition just as they did during the COVID-19 crisis. This will be hard in rich nations and extremely difficult in developing nations, such as India, where coal provides 70 per cent of energy. So, leaders in rich countries not only have to sell the idea of a major change in spending at home they also need to convince voters to support spending on clean energy in other countries. In the past they have been able to raise support for spending billions on foreign wars, often with poor outcomes. They need to put the same level of effort into raising funds to fight climate change overseas as necessary to protect their own nations not only from extreme weather but from a flood of climate refugees.

The good news is that such changes will bring many benefits and a more sustainable society. In addition to keeping climate change from spiralling out of control, the air will be much cleaner, and deaths and illnesses from air pollution will plummet. Whenever I see an electric car go by, I know I won’t be breathing noxious fumes from a tailpipe. Ending dependence on foreign oil should eliminate the need to send armies to protect oil wells. Renewable means no more worries about depleting fossil fuels and having to destroy more of the environment to find new supplies.

One way or another the world we know today is coming to an end. Climate change has begun. The only question is how much worse will we let it get. Do we want to live in a world of increasing heat waves, droughts, forest fires, floods, famines, sea level rise and climate refugees? How much of an effort will we make to keep a relatively safe environment?

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10 Aug 2021

Heat warning

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Heat warning

The head of the United Nations says the latest report on the climate crisis shows the world has to stop using fossil fuels before it is too late. “The alarm bells are deafening,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. “This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.” The problem is that fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – supply more than 80 per cent of world energy and their use is growing at a time when we need to cut back. In the 2015 Paris climate agreement world leaders promised to try to limit the global temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees with a goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels. We are already at 1.1 degrees and are on track to blow past both targets.

Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis is the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of scientists whose findings are endorsed by the world’s governments. In more than 3,000 pages 234 scientists said warming is already accelerating sea level rise and worsening heat waves, droughts, floods and storms. The report comes at a time when unstoppable forest fires in Canada, the United States, Greece and Turkey are burning towns, forcing evacuations, and killing people. After setting a Canadian heat record of 49.6 in late June, the village of Lytton, BC was virtually wiped out by a forest fire.

Ruins of Lytton, BC after forest fire Credit: CTVNews

Arctic sea ice and glaciers are melting. So is the permafrost, releasing stored methane, a potent greenhouse gas that will increase global warming. Some effects, such as sea level rise and ocean acidification are irreversible for centuries to millennia. A number of low-lying island nations say they are facing “climate extinction” as rising seas will force them to abandon their homelands. People in cities are already suffering from air pollution from forest fires hundreds of kilometres away. Cities form heat islands as their pavement traps the sun’s heat and this will get worse, making life more hazardous for anyone without air conditioning. Warmer weather is allowing insect-borne diseases to spread north, including the debilitating Lyme disease which has moved into Canada. Ironically this is discouraging people from getting into nature at a time when we need to be more connected to the natural world.

We have a choice about how bad things get. It all depends on how much we are willing and able to wean ourselves from fossil fuels and other practices that release greenhouse gases. Three years ago, the IPCC said the world’s climate will reach a dangerous 1.5 degrees increase from pre-industrial levels by as early as 2030, bringing extreme drought, huge wildfires, great floods and food shortages for hundreds of millions of people. That report said global net emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach “net zero” around 2050 to keep the warming to around 1.5 degrees

We are not on a good track. The International Energy Agency has warned that global emissions will rise next year by a record amount, much of driven by increased coal burning. What can you do? At a personal level, choose energy efficient equipment and turn it off when not in use. Reduce driving and look at getting an electric car or at least a plug-in hybrid. Limit meat consumption. We will have to make some big changes, including sacrifices of what we take for granted. Major decisions on what kind of energy is available are made by politicians and the energy companies. Real change will only come when a majority of people push their politicians and business leaders. Whenever you connect with a politician ask what they have done and what they are going to do to stop the climate crisis. Let them know you support policies that rapidly reduce our use of fossil fuels.

3 Aug 2021

Sustainability or survivability

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Sustainability or survivability

For more than a generation we have been warned to stop destroying our environment or the damage will come back to haunt us. Experts around the world urged us to quickly move to sustainable forms of development that cut pollution and don’t use up natural resources faster than they are created. We made some half-hearted stabs at the job but keep falling further and further behind.

photo of Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland
Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development, released Our Common Future, a wide-ranging report that popularized the term sustainable development. Known as the Brundtland Report, it called for development that did not destroy the environment that supports life on Earth. In 1988 the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere said we needed a 50 per cent cut in global CO2 emissions to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of this greenhouse gas. The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and the Earth Summit of world leaders produced Agenda 21, a roadmap for more sustainable development and launched the United Nations Framework Convention On Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity, both aimed at reducing ecological damage.

Back then we had the time to for a planned transition to a sustainable economy that would work for all people and for the long term. Instead of launching a full-scale shift to a sustainable economy and lifestyle we built bigger houses, bought bigger cars and consumed and polluted more than ever. Now we coming up against a wall of crises. Whole towns are being burned by out-of-control forest fires and people are dying. Others are fleeing into lakes or seas to save their lives. People thousands of kilometres away from the fires are choking on the smoke and breathing in toxic materials that harm their health. Bigger and hotter heat waves are setting record temperatures, killing people and cooking shellfish alive. Intense heat is even killing Christmas trees as they grow. Droughts are getting longer and more severe, reducing food production, and sending climate refugees from poor lands knocking at the doors of richer nations. Historic floods are wiping out bridges, highways and homes. Glaciers and ice caps are melting, and seas are rising, flooding low-lying areas.

Ruins of Lytton, BC after forest fire Credit: CTVNews

As a senior vice-president of a major polluter ruefully told me years ago it would have been far cheaper to prevent the pollution than to clean up the mess afterward. We now face the task of undoing decades of choices and purchases that are too polluting and demanding of limited resources. In many parts of the world the future is looking so grim that the survivability of communities and whole regions is in question. As the world gets hotter and weather more extreme some regions are predicted to become unlivable. Coastal areas are starting to be inundated and will have to be abandoned or protected with gigantic seawalls. Some food producing areas are already under stress and may not be able to produce as much particularly as rivers dry up. A number of governments have promised a shift to more sustainable forms of development and are investing in renewable energy, but most are still allowing the expansion of fossil fuel projects. This at a time when world experts warn we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half by the end of this decade and to nearly zero by 2050. Thus we are in a race toward an uncertain future in which our climate will keep changing and we will be struggling both to adapt and to try to reduce our impacts on nature.

1 Aug 2021

COVID-19 reduces sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on COVID-19 reduces sustainability

Among its many impacts, COVID-19 caused the world to lose ground on its transition to sustainability according to an independent experts’ review. The decline was driven largely by higher unemployment and poverty. According to The Sustainable Development Report poor countries were hit harder because they lacked the financial ability to help their citizens as much as rich nations that borrowed heavily to finance rescue programs. Along with COVID-19 the world is faced with the impacts of climate change, including more and greater heat waves, droughts, forest fires, storms and floods. At the same time countries are being hit by an increasing number of cyber-attacks.

This year’s top 10 countries on a sustainability scale are Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Norway, France, Slovenia and Estonia. A number of highly industrialized countries fell far below, with Canada at 21 and the United States at 32 in the rankings. Even many high-ranking countries were not performing well on sustainable consumption and production, climate action, and biodiversity protection. Countries were ranked on performance on 17 sustainable development goals set by the world in 2015.

11 Jun 2021

Another warning

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Another warning

Even as governments and citizens struggle to cut greenhouse gas emissions, they continue to rise. This spring the world passed another dangerous mark when the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 419 parts per million or 50 per cent higher than in pre-industrial times. It has now reached levels last seen 4 million years ago when our early ancestors were developing stone tools. Back then the world was in a natural warming period. The global temperature was 4 degrees C warmer and the oceans about 24 metres higher, flooding what is now home to half of humanity. The latest measurement comes from the world-famous atmospheric observatory atop Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano. According to Pieter Tans, a senior scientist with NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory, the world continues to add about 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year. The United Nations has warned that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by near half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 to prevent a climate disaster.

CO2 level keeps going up

Meanwhile the world continues to open new coal mines, and oil and gas wells as a growing world population demands more energy. The International Energy Agency is forecasting that global demand for oil will rebound to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2022. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development rich nations keep funding energy projects that pump more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere despite pledges to reduce emissions. The organization said that between January 2020 and March 2021, G7 nations put US$189 billion into coal, oil and gas projects compared to US$147 billion for clean energy. UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently said the world needs to abolish subsidies to fossil fuels and put a price on carbon dioxide emissions. Recently the G7 agreed to stop the international financing of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel but keep supporting gas projects, which still add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

28 May 2021

What’s in a name?

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on What’s in a name?

The oil industry is under so much pressure to clean up that some businesses are rebranding themselves. This week the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors became the Canadian Association of Energy Contractors. In France the oil giant, Total, changed its name to TotalEnergies, saying it will invest more in solar and wind energy, using revenues from its oil business. The question is whether the name changes signal real cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. In 2001, the oil giant BP rebranded itself from British Petroleum to “beyond petroleum.” I asked a BP executive if this meant the company was getting out of the oil business. He gave me a horrified look and said BP was investing in renewable energy but still intended to pump and sell as much oil as it could. A decade later, BP sold off many solar and wind assets to deal with financial problems caused by a gigantic oil spill. More recently it has once again promised to invest in renewable energy.

The name changes are one more signal the once-stable industry is in a historic period of change. In The Netherlands a court ruled that Royal Dutch Shell must accelerate its planned emission cuts. This was the result of a lawsuit by Friends of the Earth and thousands of Dutch citizens. On the same day shareholders voted to nominate two climate activists to the board of ExxonMobil, while Chevron shareholders voted for a proposal to cut emissions generated by its oil and gas products.

24 May 2021

Cleaner – faster

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Cleaner – faster

It’s time to start cutting the ties to fossil fuels. That’s the short, sharp, hard message from the International Energy Agency [IEA]. Its report Net Zero by 2050: a Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, says that if countries are going to achieve their Paris agreement goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 they have to start moving a lot faster than they are now. They need to immediately cease new investments in oil, gas and coal supply, shutter coal-fired plants in advanced economies by 2030 and ban sales of new internal combustion engine cars by 2035. IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said the opportunity to bring emissions down in time to stop severe climate change is “narrow but still achievable.” He went on to say, “The scale and speed of the efforts demanded by this critical and formidable goal – our best chance of tackling climate change and limiting global warming to 1.5 °C – make this perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced,”

It’s a kick in the behind for the numerous governments that keep funding and encouraging more fossil fuel development even as they promise to reduce emissions. Although some countries are cutting fossil fuel use others are still expanding it, particularly with coal-fired power plants, one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide. Many are still expanding their natural gas networks which supply fuel for heating to hundreds of millions of homes and other buildings. There is already pushback from some developing countries that want to take advantage of established fossil fuel technologies to expand their economic growth. Just after the IEA report came out the G7 nations and the European Union agreed to stop international funding for coal projects that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

For years climate activists, recently joined by some major investors, have been calling for an end to investment in fossil fuels. The IEA report is support from a highly credible source, one that was created in 1974 to ensure the security of oil supplies after the 1973 oil embargo by major producing countries. The agency has evolved to the point that it calls for “the complete transformation of the global energy system.” It says that by 2050 oil, gas and coal use needs to fall to just 20 per cent of energy supply, down from 80 per cent currently. What remains of fossil fuel use will need to be offset by carbon capture technology.

The IEA report, which it calls the world’s first comprehensive energy roadmap, focuses on energy, source of around three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions today. In addition to stopping the expansion of fossil fuel use, it calls for the “massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies, combined with a major global push to accelerate innovation.” We need an unprecedented expansion of technologies such as renewables, electric vehicles and energy efficient building retrofits between now and 2030. The IEA says that most of the reductions in CO2 emissions this decade can come from current technologies but after that we need to roll out technologies that are still at the demonstration or prototype stage.

The IEA says global clean energy investments need to more than triple by 2030 to around $4 trillion a year. The upside of such investments is not only a more stable climate but a 4 per cent boost in global GDP by 2030 and the opportunity to provide clean electricity to most of the world. There will be great opportunities for innovation in sectors such as advanced batteries, hydrogen fuel and carbon removal from the atmosphere. Virtually eliminating fossil fuel burning would get rid of air pollution that sickens and kills millions of people a year.

We are on the road to a historic change. Wind farms and giant solar arrays are spreading faster than ever. Automotive giants like Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen have decided on an electric future and announced billions of dollars in investments in electric vehicles.

Electric pickup truck
All-electric pickup truck

The IEA report calls for a growth spurt in renewables that is hard to grasp. For solar power, it is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day. While governments need to lead change the report says, “A transition of such scale and speed cannot be achieved without sustained support and participation from citizens, whose lives will be affected in multiple ways.” Around 55 per cent of the emission reductions in the proposed pathway are linked to consumer choices such as purchasing an EV, retrofitting a house with energy-efficient technologies or installing a heat pump. Behavioural changes, particularly in advanced economies – such as replacing car trips with walking, cycling or public transport, or foregoing a long-haul flight – also provide around 4 per cent of the reductions.

23 May 2021

A lesson from COVID-19 for climate change

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on A lesson from COVID-19 for climate change

We can look on the experience of dealing with COVID-19 as a training ground for the upheavals coming with climate change. The speed with which we reacted to the new virus showed we are amazingly adaptable. In a few weeks people stopped travelling, learned to wear masks and pulled back from human contact. Scientists collaborated to produce vaccines in months not years. One country after another is bringing the infection rate down.

When it comes to heading off the worst of climate change the challenges will be different, much more complicated and permanent. We need to create a new normal. We cannot keep releasing massive of greenhouse gases if we want to have a habitable world. We need to start immediately replacing most of the energy systems that power the modern world. This includes everything from gasoline-powered lawn mowers to cars and trucks to the giant ships and planes that carry us and our goods around the world run – all burning fossil fuels.

This is “perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced,” says Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency [IEA], a global centre of expertise on energy. There are signs of progress. Car makers are making the switch to electric motors faster than anyone thought possible just a few years ago. More than a dozen countries have announced bans on fossil fueled vehicles over the next couple of decades. Investments in renewable energy generation are growing at a record place. They need to. Most of the world’s vast array of fossil-fueled power plants need to be phased out over the next few decades. Ditto for the huge number of heating systems in homes, offices, shops and hospitals that all burn oil or natural gas. These are staggering challenges. We have never had to abandon such a huge number of technologies that worked very well because they are destroying our environment.

The IEA says we have many of the technologies to start the move to net zero emissions by 2050, but we need other technologies that are currently at the demonstration or prototype phase. Developing vaccines for COVID-19 in less than a year shows we can move with incredible speed and ingenuity. Cutting our emissions of greenhouse gases will require the same type of global cooperation and innovation and huge investments. We will need ingenuity, adaptability and flexibility to end our carbon-intensive lifestyle. Moving quickly pays off. As we saw with COVID-19 infection rates, those governments that imposed strict controls on movement and stuck with them ended up with far fewer infections and were able to open up earlier.

Making an unprecedented change in our energy supply will require courageous leadership from governments. They need to start limiting then banning new investments in fossil fuels and their use.  It will especially hard for governments of fossil fuel producing countries, such as Canada. While there will be many new jobs in a renewable energy economy there will be losers, especially among people who work in the fossil fuel sector. The transition will be hard, and it will be essential for governments to provide support for those dislocated by the changes just as they did when businesses were closed by COVID-19 restrictions.

It will be important for leaders to focus on the benefits of change rather than the costs of the transition. Stopping the burning of fossil fuels will eliminate a major source of air pollution that causes health problems and shortens lives. Electric vehicles are simpler and cheaper to maintain. Government directives are not enough on their own. We need but a profound culture change. This is not a new idea. In 1973 the Science Council of Canada called for a shift to a “conserver society.” It said, “Canadians, as individuals, and their governments, institutions and industries, (must) begin the transition from a consumer society preoccupied with resource exploitation to a conserver society engaged in more constructive endeavours.”

27 Apr 2021

Unions and the environment

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Unions and the environment

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. Comments Off on Science and choices

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.