Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

7 Nov 2013

Stuck on a one-legged stool

Posted by Michael Keating

Sustainability is about integrating economic, social and environmental decisions. One of the popular images is of a three-legged stool. For stability you need the three legs to be equal. Dealing with greenhouse gases and climate change is the greatest test of the world’s willingness and ability to find ways to successfully integrate the different needs and interests.

The next attempt comes during annual U.N. climate talks in Warsaw on November 11-22. The aim is for representatives from some 200 nations to hammer out a deal on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in time to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The betting is that they won’t be able to do it. Economic development interests are likely to once more trump the need for a safe and stable climate system. The economic leg of the stool will take precedence. A recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme said global greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, instead of falling back to a safe level. In Canada, for example, rising emissions from oil sands production means this country is headed to miss another of its targets for greenhouse gas reductions. Other nations, such as China and India, are still expanding their use of coal, the most greenhouse gas intensive of the fossil fuels.

Economic growth takes priority in virtually all nations. Developed countries are preoccupied with trying to restart economies hard hit by the financial collapses of 2008. Unemployment is still high in most of these nations. Developing countries are still trying to grow their economies to lift more of their citizens out of poverty, another major goal of sustainable development.

The answer, of course, is to make a rapid transition to energy sources that do not release greenhouse gases, but this is costly, and will take decades even if the money is there. The world needs to agree on a rapid and economically costly project to speed the transition away from energy sources that release greenhouse gases. It would include not only major shifts on spending within countries, but very large financial and technology transfers from richer to poorer nations so they do not build their economies on pillars of pollution.

Can nations make this kind of agreement? We’ll see.

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