Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

2 Jun 2016

What would a sustainable society look like?

Posted by Michael Keating

It’s been nearly 30 years since the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland) delivered its report, Our Common Future, calling for a great transition to sustainable development. I’ll bet that very few people in most countries, including Canada, have anything but a vague idea of what a sustainable society might look like.

We need to paint a clearer picture because of climate change. Last December in Paris, world leaders promised to dramatically cut emissions of greenhouse gases. There have been lots of general statements about phasing out fossil fuels, reducing deforestation and changing agriculture, all major sources of greenhouse gases. But what would a low carbon society actually look like? We got a preview in the recently released Ontario Climate Change Action Plan. Two of the biggest changes individuals will see are new power systems for their cars and homes. The Ontario document talks of moving buildings onto renewable energy and heating, such as geothermal and solar power, over a period of decades. Since three-quarters of the province’s homes are heated by natural gas, this would be a huge shift. The plan talks of major renovations to make buildings more energy efficient. What will our homes look and feel like in the future? Do we have examples now?

Hybrid electric vehicles have been on the road for more than 15 years. Pure electric cars are slowly gaining market share as their range improves. Ontario, like many governments, has been subsidizing these vehicles for years. Hybrid buses are being used by some cities. For some time there have been promises to switch commuter trains from diesel to electric. The Ontario plan talks about more renewable fuels and liquid natural gas for heavy trucks. We can easily imagine much quieter cities with electric vehicles whirring by, and much less air pollution in our lungs and settling on our homes. Will the roar of the diesel bus engine fade into history? We will likely see more wind turbines and solar panels. There may be more biogas created from composting wastes. This can replace some fossil fuels. Hydrogen has long been promoted as a clean fuel. Is this likely? We are moving to denser cities with more people living in apartments because fewer can afford to buy houses. How are cities likely to look in a low-carbon world? What about towns?

Political leaders need to spend a lot more time helping people understand what life may look like in a decade or two. They should not be too prescriptive, because no one can predict the economic, social and technological changes that will shape decisions. The process should be a dialogue with people and businesses. It is time to put a more human face on the transformation we must make.

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