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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.

13 Apr 2021

The rich polluters

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on The rich polluters

The world’s rich not only have more money but they create a huge amount of the planet’s pollution. Changing our ways? Behaviour change and the climate crisis, by the Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change lays out some shocking numbers. It says greenhouse gas emissions of the world’s richest one per cent are greater than all those from the poorest 50 per cent. It says that one per cent – the polluter elite – needs to reduce its footprint by a factor of 30 if the world is to meet the Paris climate agreement targets. The situation is worsening according to the report because of the expanding middle classes in developing countries are trying to emulate lifestyles in rich nations.

It cites the 2020 UN Emissions Gap report which said we need more than a 90 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Cambridge commission says we need a rapid shift to a sustainable lifestyle based on low energy demand, low material consumption and eating food that does not result in high greenhouse gas emissions. This includes a more plant-based diet, a reduction in food waste, a ban on big gas-guzzling vehicles and big cuts to air travel.

It won’t be easy. “The belief that this enormous, existential problem could have been fixed if all of us had just tweaked our consumptive habits is not only preposterous; it’s dangerous.” It will take both changes in personal behaviour combined with government policies that give people low-polluting options they often lack today. While many will see the huge changes as losses, the report says we will gain cleaner air, more vibrant local communities and improvements to well-being.

20 Mar 2021

We need more imagination

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on We need more imagination

What we need to deal with the environmental sustainability crisis is the imagination to take on our great challenges. A very interesting article in The Guardian newspaper talks about a proposal to regreen the Sinai Peninsula, a chunk of Egyptian desert abutting Israel to the east with the Red Sea to the south and the Mediterranean Sea to the north. Long ago, the Sinai had forests and rivers. But, like too many parts of the world it was deforested for firewood and building materials, and grazing animals prevented forests from coming back. The loss of greenery led to a process of desertification, leaving an arid, barren and inhospitable landscape.

“This world is ready for regenerative change,” says Ties van der Hoeven, co-founder of a group of Dutch holistic engineers called The Weather Makers. They are proposing to regreen the Sinai, effectively rolling back the ecological clock. He compares this project to putting someone on the moon, very difficult but doable once people set their minds to it. What his group proposes is ecological restoration, the renewing and restoring of damaged or destroyed ecosystems.

There are good examples. The Loess Plateau an area in northwest China went over the centuries from a breadbasket to a dry, barren, heavily eroded landscape because of cutting too many trees and overgrazing the land. About 30 years ago a major restoration project turned around the soil degradation with planting vegetation and controls on land use. The land is more stable and food production went up.

In Africa’s Sahel region, at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert the Great Green Wall project aims to plant an 8,000-kilometre belt of trees from The Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It is now one of the poorest places on the planet, subject to war and famine. The aim is to restore this degraded landscape providing a better environment, food security, jobs and possibly peace.

7 Mar 2021

Throw less, fix more

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Throw less, fix more

The fastest and cheapest way to reach our environmental goals is not some new machine or process. It’s much simpler and we can do it now. It’s consuming and wasting less materials and energy. Earlier this year, France used an anti-waste law to require makers of some consumer products to display a repairability index with the price. The index covers smartphones, laptops, televisions, washing machines and lawnmowers. The aim of the index is to encourage people to choose more repairable products, and manufacturers to improve the repairability of their products. It’s an important attempt to fight against the throwaway culture. France estimated that only 40 per cent of broken electronic devices were repaired last year. It’s also an effort to roll back the clock to a time when products were expected to last for years and repairs were cheaper than replacement. In three years, the French index will be expanded to include durability. All this is part of a growing movement to encourage a circular economy where materials remain in use rather than ending up in the garbage.

28 Feb 2021

The end of ICE

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on The end of ICE

When I was young, ice was something to slide on and then to skate on. As I got older it was something that lurked under the snow when skiing, ready to send me sideways. Later still, it was a threat when I walked in winter. Now the world worries about disappearing ice in our polar regions. Huge glaciers are melting and Arctic ice is retreating, opening one of the most dangerous oceans to shipping. ICE is also shorthand for internal combustion engine and this is something else that will be disappearing. As a young man, I watched car engines grow to mammoth sizes, as much as 7 litres. They burned huge amounts of gasoline and spewed out plumes of air pollution. Anti-pollution regulations have drastically cut the stinking fumes but can’t stop the carbon dioxide coming out the tailpipes. With climate change threatening the world’s future, the axe is falling on the fossil fuel engine. Around the world, governments are mandating a shift to emission-free vehicles over the next 10-15 years. The sales of battery electric vehicles is starting to climb. They were the majority of sales in progressive Norway last year. The automotive giants are moving. Companies like Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen, among others, have announced billions of dollars in investments in electric vehicles. Prepare to say goodbye to the roar of motor and hello to the sound of silence when you pull out of the driveway.

picture of Ford's new electric Mustang Mach-E
An electric Mustang
Credit: Ford Motor Co.

24 Feb 2021

Making Peace with Nature

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Making Peace with Nature

Once more the United Nations has sounded the tocsin on the threats environmental decline poses for our well-being. Its latest report, Making Peace With Nature, lays out grim scenarios. We are creating “…a world of extreme weather events, sea level rise, a drastic loss of plants and animals, food and water insecurity and increasing likelihood of future pandemics,” said report lead author Sir Robert Watson. “The emergency is in fact more profound than we thought only a few years ago,” he added. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said humans “have been waging a senseless and suicidal war on nature,” and “We are close to the point of no return.” The climate is becoming more unstable, millions die from air pollution, land is becoming less fertile, fisheries are in decline and food supplies put at risk. All this is driven by unsustainable forms of production and consumption.

First World War devastation of nature

The report applies a new twist to the war metaphor. Guterres says making peace with nature will be “the defining task of the coming decades.” Drawing parallels with recovery efforts from past military conflicts, the report proposes “a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme.” We have to reach net zero carbon emissions, and transform how we produce food, and manage our land, water and oceans. The UN says governments should look beyond economic growth as an indicator of performance and take account of the value of preserving ecosystems. They need to redirect vast amounts of money now spent to support fossil fuels when we are supposed to be phasing them out. The timing is good. The echoes the calls of many governments for a green recovery from the economic devastation of COVID-19, something that seems to have broad public support.

19 Feb 2021

Are we reaching a tipping point?

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Are we reaching a tipping point?

More than 30 years after the Brundtland report, Our Common Future, called for sustainable development, are we reaching a tipping point for a greener future? The struggle to control climate change is taking off. First, and most important, a lot more people are worried. People have seen enough killer forest fires, floods and giant storms to realize the world is changing for the worse, because of our actions. Fear of climate change is a great driver of action. They are starting to spend serious money on electric cars and are pulling their investments from fossil fuels. They are giving governments permission to roll out one greenhouse gas control after another.

Business is in a historic shakeup, one caused not by new inventions or changes in consumer demand but by a series of environmental crises. Mark Carney, who has headed the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, warned that companies that fail to adapt to climate change will go bankrupt. Major financial groups are turning away from fossil fuels. BlackRock, the world’s biggest investment fund manager, has threatened to sell shares in the worst corporate polluters in a bid to support the goal of net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. While fossil fuel generating stations are still being built, the rate of growth is slowing while the growth in renewable energy has grown dramatically. Renewable energy companies are overtaking the big oil companies in market value. Renewables have become the cheapest form of energy in many parts of the world.

Wind energy

Car makers are on the front line of the green shift. While most people still buy gas and diesel vehicles, one government after another has said it will ban fossil fuel vehicles over the next 10-15 years. The switch has started. In Norway, battery electric vehicles made up 54.3 per cent of all new cars sold in the country in 2020, a world record. In December one-quarter of cars sold in Germany were hybrid or pure electric.

Tesla, a pioneer in making electric cars has seen its value rocket above that of traditional automakers, helping to make founder Elon Musk the world’s richest person. Others are racing to catch up. In early 2021, Ford Motor Co. doubled its investment in electric vehicles and General Motors said it plans to make almost all its vehicles electric by 2035. This came a day after U.S. President Joe Biden signed executive orders that include moving to an all-electric federal vehicle fleet. Jaguar the maker of beautiful luxury cars, announced it will go all electric by 2025.

Governments play key roles in setting expectations, passing laws and regulations to control pollution, and in putting their money into green projects. The 2015 Paris Agreement pledged countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to prevent a climate disaster. Globally, emissions are still rising, but many countries have promised to reduce them in coming years. Last year the European Union set a target of 32 per cent of electricity production to come from renewables by 2030. It has often been said that crisis creates opportunity for change. Many countries have promised a “green recovery” from the COVID-19 economic collapse. Last year a number of large governments made pledges to phase out fossil fuels and to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Late last year, the world’s publicly-financed development banks pledged to tie together their efforts to rescue the global economy from the Covid-19 crisis and the climate emergency, using their financial muscle to assist a green recovery for poor countries.

It is ironic that a health crisis is opening the door to more sustainable development. The fact that the COVID-19 virus appears to have originated in wild animals sold in markets revealed the dangers of pushing deeper into primaeval areas with their hidden diseases. The pandemic reminds us of how vulnerable we are to natural forces. It drives home the point that climate change can also threaten our health and well-being. The social and economic upheaval caused by lockdowns has made people realize that huge changes can happen rapidly. The effects of the COVID-19 crisis, including a sharp fall in demand for oil, gave a peek at what the future holds. Last year, I wrote that in a post COVID-19 world we will have a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a serious shift to sustainability. As the world recovers from the pandemic over the next few years, we will see if people, governments and business have the will and ingenuity to give us a safer and more stable future that no longer runs down the environment on which we depend for life itself.

5 Feb 2021

Living within the donut

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Living within the donut

There is the green economy, the circular economy and now the donut economy. It’s one more idea on how to rethink and reshape a global economy that is both overusing the environment and making some super rich while hundreds of million suffer deprivation of essential needs. British economist Kate Raworth came up with the term “donut economics.” She combined the idea of ecological planetary boundaries we cannot safely exceed as an outer ring on an image with the unmet needs of many people forming a gaping hole in the middle. Raworth said that between the extremes of environmental overuse and human privation was a “safe and just space for humanity” which she called the donut.

The doughnut of social and planetary boundaries

Her ideas echo those of the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, often called the Brundtland report after its chair, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland. This global group of experts pointed out that economic development by the rich countries was running down the environment, but poor countries needed more economic growth to lift themselves out of misery. The timing seems good for a new way of saying what we have known for a long time. COVID-19, which has caused not only a health but an economic and social crisis, has stimulated interest in sustainability. More people are talking about rebuilding shattered economies as green economies. Raworth runs the Donut Economics Action Lab, to inspire and support people. Her group has attracted attention from a number of cities scattered around the world, ranging from Copenhagen to Nanaimo, BC, to Dunedin, New Zealand.

31 Jan 2021

Bad road ahead

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Bad road ahead

As if we don’t have enough bad news these days, a group of international scientists is warning that most people don’t understand how serious biodiversity decline has become. “The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms—including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts.” They go on to say, “Without fully appreciating and broadcasting the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required, society will fail to achieve even modest sustainability goals.” Because the loss of biodiversity takes place over years, people don’t see its gravity and keep putting off action to stop it.

The sober warning comes in an article, Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future, in Frontiers in Conservation Science, an online journal on conservation management. It documents the huge changes humans have made to life on earth. We have altered about 70 percent of Earth’s land surface; the ocean’s large predatory fish are two-thirds gone; coral reefs have lost half their living mass. Humans and our livestock account for about 95 per cent of land animals on the planet by weight. The world’s wild populations of birds, mammals, fishes, reptiles, and amphibians have declined by an average of nearly 70 percent in just the last 50 years. “With such a rapid, catastrophic loss of biodiversity, the ecosystem services it provides have also declined. These include reduced carbon sequestration, reduced pollination, soil degradation, poorer water and air quality, more frequent and intense flooding and fires, and compromised human health.” With the steady increase in human population and consumption, the trends are worsening.

Polar bears at risk.
Credit: Dan Bolton

The 17 prominent academics and experts from the United States, Mexico and Australia call their report a “cold shower” to wake people up in time to head off disaster. They admit this will not be easy, given that many people still enjoy the status quo. The authors say we need fundamental changes to global capitalism, including the abolition of perpetual economic growth as it now exists. “These choices will necessarily entail difficult conversations about population growth and the necessity of dwindling but more equitable standards of living.”

26 Jan 2021

Global risks

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Global risks

According to a global panel of experts we have had, “a year ravaged by a global pandemic, economic downturn, political turmoil and the ever-worsening climate crisis.” What next? First, a struggle to recover. The impacts of COVID-19 “…threaten to scale back years of progress on reducing global poverty and inequality and further damage social cohesion and global cooperation.” What else? The experts list emerging risks to human health, rising unemployment, widening digital divides, youth disillusionment, and geopolitical fragmentation. But the biggest long-threat to our well-being is the steady, seemingly inexorable march of climate change. While the change seems steady, the panel worries that climate change will not be slow and even but will involve sudden and dramatic changes called tipping points, such as the release of frozen methane that could cause a spurt in global warming and a dramatic rise in sea levels. “We are on the path to triggering climate tipping points that could create runaway and irreversible damage that will be an existential threat to future generations.”

The Global Risks Report 2021 is the 16th in a series of reports prepared every year for the World Economic Forum, an annual meeting of the world’s rich, powerful, famous, knowledgeable and influential, including leaders from government, business, civil society and the media. This week, instead of gathering in the exclusive Swiss ski resort town of Davos, they, like millions of others, are holding virtual meetings. The economic forum was created in 1971 to introduce the American business management approach to European firms. It has evolved into a meeting to discuss critical global issues, including their impacts on business.

Top Risks
By likelihood
Top Risks
By impact
Extreme weatherInfectious diseases
Climate action failureClimate action failure
Human environmental damageWeapons of mass destruction
Infectious diseasesBiodiversity loss
Biodiversity lossNatural resource crises
Digital power concentrationHuman environmental damage
Digital inequalityLivelihood crises
Interstate relations fractureExtreme weather
Cybersecurity failureDebt crises
Livelihood crisesIT infrastructure breakdown

Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2021

The report says the pandemic caused by one of the deadliest viruses in history is seen as relatively short term. However, “…the global economy will be threatened by the knock-on effects of the coronavirus crisis, while geopolitical stability will be critically fragile over the next 5 to 10 years.” These effects “…threaten to scale back years of progress on reducing global poverty and inequality and further damage social cohesion and global cooperation.” Problems facing the world are the huge debt crisis caused by countries borrowing to keep people afloat, a deepening digital divide as poor struggle for access to modern technology. In addition, “youth face new barriers to social mobility, strains on mental health, uncertain economic prospects and the continued degradation of the planet.” The crisis has caused terrible unemployment, especially affecting working women. It has put great strain on many fragile health systems. It has slowed down or even stopped education for millions of young.

Forest fire burns house Credit: Park Insurance

The report warns it will take a historic effort to recover and to rebuild economies that keep people safe, healthy and employed but to redirect development to green economies, not just more of the old, polluting and environmentally destructive ways.

7 Jan 2021

A new measure of how we are doing

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on A new measure of how we are doing

Which is really the most developed country in the world? For many years, economic output, measured as gross domestic product, has been used as a key measure of progress. Over the past three decades, the Human Development Index from the United Nations Development Programme [UNDP] has ranked the world’s nations based on composite of life expectancy, education, and per capita income. Using this scale, the top performers in the 2020 report are Norway, Ireland and Switzerland. They have long life expectancies [over 80 years], lots of education and high gross national income. But this year, the UNDP introduced a new experimental index on human progress that deducts points for countries’ environmental impacts: their carbon dioxide emissions and material footprint. With the new index, Norway dropped 15 places, Canada, which ranked 16th on the regular scale, dropped 40 places and the United States, which was 17th, dropped 45 places. All three countries are major fossil fuel producers.

This year’s Human Development Report, The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene, warns that the success of nations has been tied to high resource use and pollution. Achim Steiner, the UNDP administrator, writes “…no country in the world has yet achieved very high human development without putting immense strain on the planet.” If this development path continues, he warns, humanity’s progress will grind to a halt. The report says human impacts on the planet are so great that they are changing the earth. We have climate change, loss of species, acidification of the ocean, loss of tropical forests and many forms of pollution. As a result, we are “lurching from crisis to crisis.” Mr. Steiner says that to “survive and thrive in this new age, we must redesign a path to progress that respects the intertwined fate of people and planet and recognizes that the carbon and material footprint of the people who have more is choking the opportunities of the people who have less.” The report said many of the problems are rooted in inequalities within and between countries, with roots in colonialism and racism. The rich get more of the benefits of exploiting nature and export the costs to the poor who are less able to deal with the resulting problems.

1 Dec 2020

Cleaner energy is coming

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Cleaner energy is coming

As the world starts taking climate change more seriously, business is betting on an electric future. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, 73 countries, 398 cities, 768 businesses and 16 investors are working to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. Since fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – account for 84 per cent of primary energy, there is a gigantic shift ahead. Hydroelectricity at 6.4 per cent is still the largest non-fossil source but there are limited places for it to expand. Nuclear power is at 4.3 per cent but its growth is limited by costs and safety concerns. Other renewables are where the action is. An article in Bloomberg Green proclaims “The New Energy Giants are Renewable Companies.” It says a handful of companies that have invested heavily in solar and wind energy are overtaking the big oil companies in terms of their market value. Renewables are already cheaper than fossil fuel power in many parts of the world, leading to a shift in investments. The cost of solar power has dropped by as much as 90 per cent in a decade and big investments will keep driving down the cost of renewables. The question is can we make the shift fast enough to bring down greenhouse gas emissions before the cause catastrophic climate change. It’s not certain. Many countries are still subsidizing the production and transport of fossil fuels more than they are investing in renewable energy. The United Nations says the world should be cutting production of oil, coal and natural gas by 6 per cent each year by 2030 to keep global temperatures from rising too high. Instead, countries are projecting annual increases of 2 per cent in fossil fuel production.

18 Nov 2020

Citizen voices on tough choices

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Citizen voices on tough choices

Over the past 50 years, I watched and written about governments struggling to deal with environmental problems, often caught between the interests of polluting companies and evidence of serious environmental damage and threats to human health. Over time governments brought in laws and regulations to control pollution and limit the overuse of natural resources. When it comes to the really big issues of our times, such as climate change, governments are facing unprecedented challenges. To deal with climate change they must curtail pollution from virtually every citizen. Many governments have promised to make dramatic cuts in greenhouse gases but are hesitating to bring in controls that will be unpopular with many. The use of “citizen assemblies” is an attempt to give permission to politicians to make tough choices. An article in Science, the journal of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, looks at the U.K. Climate Assembly. It was created by the British House of Commons and made up of 110 people randomly selected to reflect the age, education level, wealth and gender makeup of the general population. The group was given the task of identifying policies to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. They made a series of recommendations, including an early shift to electric vehicles and improvement of public transport, and higher taxes on frequent flyers. The question is how closely will the British government listen to the advice.