Earth’s Choice: Economic Prosperity or Climate Stability

This week’s Water Cooler question:

On July 5, 2015, celebrities and activists participated in the “March for Jobs, Justice and the Climate” held in downtown Toronto, Canada. From July 7-9, 2015, the Climate Summit of the Americas was also held in Toronto. The conference included delegates from countries and indigenous groups throughout North, Central and South America.
csa_site_banner-eng_jun11 The Primary Objectives of the Conference were to:

  1. Provide an opportunity to build new partnerships among jurisdictions, with an emphasis on the role of subnational jurisdictions in the fight against climate change.
  2. Build on the great momentum across the Americas to establish and expand existing carbon pricing networks; and
  3. Develop and deliver a common statement on commitments by subnational jurisdictions to reduce GHG emissions.

 

Whether these objectives were reached during the Summit remains to be seen and environmental activists will certainly be scrutinizing the Summit for  weeks to come in an attempt to understand if any agreements were realized. As the rest of the world prepares for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, France later this year, the significance of climate change is ever apparent but the issues pertaining to global inaction to combat it continue to build. One of the biggest barriers to progress are the potential effects fighting climate change may have on global economic prosperity.

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In the developed world, can we fight climate change without harming our economic prosperity?

The Responses


Corinne: We Need a Paradigm Shift.

Program Editor,  Society, Culture and International Relations

In Canada, it is no longer a matter of choice between the economy and the environment. On July 5, many unlikely groups, including environmentalists, labour unions, First Nations, anti-poverty and faith groups, health workers, and immigration rights activists, came out in Toronto to march for “Jobs, Justice, and the Climate.” They all had one message, which is that the fight for climate change can coexist with a prosperous economy, despite the old and trite narrative that they cannot.

In 2009, the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation commissioned a study on Canadian governmental policies on meeting its target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% below the 1990 level by 2020, an important topic for this month’s Climate Summit of the Americas. The study shows, what many before it have also shown, that the Canadian government could meet this target and still have a prosperous and growing economy, despite their many objections to this point. What is important to note from this study is the emphasis on stronger governmental policies in both areas. The study showed that Canada’s GDP would continue to grow at 2.1% (per year on average) and job creation would continue to grow by 11%, both of which are crucial to a prosperous economy, while still meeting its target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

So, in Canada, it is no longer a matter of choice between the economy and the environment but instead a fundamental change in approach by the Canadian government.

A group of people spelling out Earth Hour with sparklers against a dark sky on Vancouver Island, Earth Hour 2010, Canada.


Jeff: It isn’t money. It’s consistency.

Program Editor, International Business and Economy

It would be futile to argue that the costs of switching over to renewable energy sources from fossil fuels are high enough to merit keeping them. In fact, solar and wind have become fairly cost competitive to coal in recent years. But that isn’t the problem. Coal is simply much more consistent than solar or wind, with renewable energy facilities having much lower capacity than fossil fuel plants, with coal and oil combining for 60% of the world’s energy supply. Whereas that doesn’t particularly matter in developed nations such as Canada where the main problems in a transition would be replacing the existing power grid, it is especially important in developing nations, which burn most of the world’s coal, China and India combining for over 60%.

Over a billion people live permanently without electricity in Africa and Asia, and it isn’t just YouTube they are missing out on. Heating. Light. Water. These people will need enormous sources of consistent energy that wind and power simply cannot provide in their current state. The West has had centuries of unrestricted fossil fuel usage to bring their economies to where they are today, and the poor populations living in developing countries should not bear the brunt of this hypocrisy.


Sandra: There Has to be Thoughtful Urgency. 

Program Editor, Canada’s Armed Forces

As a former Ocean Energy Plan Consultant who was contracted to conduct a study on behalf of an undisclosed government, I feel like I should chime in here. I won’t get into the specifics of what my project entailed, but I will speak on my experience of working in Northwest Europe’s tidal energy sector.

After conducting extensive research and interviews across a handful of countries, I am well aware of the costs for states to implement ‘newer and innovative’ technologies to acquire clean energy, meanwhile minimizing the effects of harming the environment.

From what I saw in Europe, issues related to climate change and the environment rank higher on the political agenda than in Canada. So, the commitment to combat climate change16650798668_ffb5615a1c_o without kicking the economy into a downward spiral is very much possible and feasible. By no means am I trying to make the claim that this is a simple initiative, because it is extremely challenging.

The way I see it is that states need to feel a sense of urgency to decelerate the effects of climate change. Without that sense of urgency, it seems like there would be a lack of commitment to appropriately distribute economic resources. At least if a consistent and gradual commitment is established, a state’s economic prosperity wouldn’t fall apart in the fight against climate change.

 


Stefan: We Have to Change the Narrative. 

Program Editor, Procurement 

I think it is possible to fight climate change and also protect economic prosperity. However, I would argue that achieving both priorities requires a hard look at the traditional environmentalist narratives. In recent years, there has been much discussion of ‘clean technologies’, particularly wind and solar energy. Many prominent activists have argued that the world needs to stop using fossil fuels altogether. I think that both of these narratives are impractical and ultimately counter-productive. Many of the world’s advanced economies, specifically the United States, depend disproportionately on coal-powered generation plants.

Creating incentives to switch from coal to natural gas would be one viable strategy for significantly reducing carbon emissions. Despite some successes, solar and wind power is still highly subsidized and un-affordable for many businesses and individuals. In terms of clean power that is consistent and economical, many experts have argued that nuclear power is the best option. Nuclear power has faced a major public relations setback with the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. But there is a strong case for the safety and effectiveness of nuclear power, particularly the newer plants that incorporate the latest fail-safe measures.

It is easy to talk idealistically about a carbon-free future. I for one believe we as a global society should ultimately aim toward that objective. But I also think we need to carefully examine the options that are politically and economically viable right here and now. Interim measures and incremental change may not match the soaring environmental rhetoric, but such approaches will help create the foundation for bolder policies in the future.


Trevor: Brighten Your Day With a Solar Array

Program Editor, Canada’s NATO

Clean energy investment has already been on the rise, while clean energy technologies like solar and wind have seen dramatic reductions in costs in the past decade. Solar and wind power technologies are now able to compete with fossil fuels with low or no subsidies in many places.

Combating climate change is also a big business opportunity. Businesses have already begun tsun-220188_640o integrate climate change into their business and investment models as the global market for low carbon and environment goods and services is estimated in the trillions, and growing every year.

At the municipal level, investing in clean energy infrastructure will most likely provide long term benefits. While the initial upfront investment will be expensive, over its lifetime clean energy infrastructure could provide substantial savings, from avoided fuel use, and better planned and more compact cities that run more efficiently then current models.

 

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