Dianne Saxe: Former Ontario Environmental Commissioner
Oct 7, 2019:
The call of youth for more ambitious climate action by world leaders cannot be ignored. And politicians who ignore their protests do so at their own peril. One in 37 Canadians showed up for the recent #climatestrike on September 27—around 1 million, or 3% of us. Change is coming! This piece by Dianne Saxe describes a roadmap—10 guiding principles— for the changes that are required to transition to a green economy. It was first published in OpenCanada.Org.
Roadmap to a Green Economy
As an environmental lawyer and the former environmental commissioner of Ontario, I have spent 45 years at Canada’s battlefront between the economy, the environment, and law and government. These decades of difficult work produced hard-won, important victories that many people now take for granted. Because of civil society protests, government regulation and business innovation: urban and indoor air is cleaner; the ozone layer is recovering; acid rain, lead and mercury pollution are way down; the pesticides in food are less toxic to people.
But the task Canadians have now is enormously more urgent and more difficult. The climate emergency and the devastation of ecosystems put the very future of human civilization at stake, largely because the lavish use of fossil fuels is destroying the natural systems on which all human lives depend.
“We have reached a point where the best-case outcome is widespread death and suffering by the end of this century, and the worst-case puts humanity on the brink of extinction,” says a 2019 report from the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
Canada is a major user, producer and exporter of fossil fuels. These fuels have helped make us prosperous, with a high quality of life that no one wants to give up, although they have done so only by ignoring the mounting cost to the natural world. The economic and technological tools that could effectively move Canada toward a low carbon economy would do so largely by increasing the cost of fossil fuels, but raising the cost of fossil fuels has often led to political backlash. This fall’s election is again polarized over a very modest step in the right direction, putting a small price on fuel, even though 90 percent of the money goes directly back to households.
10 Guiding Principles
Given that Canada’s largest emitting provinces have recently elected parties that reject almost all effective actions to reduce climate pollution, it is hard to be optimistic about Canadians rising to this challenge. But the consequences of failure are so dreadful that I feel obliged to keep speaking up. Perhaps it will help to break the challenge down into 10 key building blocks, which together address most of the questions people ask me and will help guide a speedier transition to a green economy:
1. Physics does not compromise.
The climate crisis is not a normal political negotiation between different interests, where solutions come from compromise. The climate crisis is a collision between human beings and physics. Physics, like gravity, doesn’t compromise.
Governments that treat the climate crisis as a “balance” between the economy and the environment are doomed to fail. Instead, our prosperity depends on respecting the limits of the natural systems on which our lives depend. They cannot keep absorbing our greenhouse gases (and other wastes). We’re already so close to the edge of disaster that every extra tonne worsens our chances against an overwhelming health, economic and environmental threat.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown us how close that edge is. For a world that is “only” 1.5° hotter, i.e. tough but mostly manageable, rich countries like Canada must cut emissions at least 45 percent by 2030, and emit zero net greenhouse gases by 2050. For a world that is “only” 2° hotter, i.e. less stable and safe than today with significant food and economic damage, rich countries must cut emissions at least 25 percent by 2030, and reach net zero by 2070.
This scale of reductions can only come from slashing the fossil fuels we burn, starting right now. We won’t get there if we burn all the fossil fuels that we have already found, much less keep exploring for more. We won’t get there if we keep investing in new ways to supply, or burn, fossil fuels. We won’t get there by improving carbon intensity while allowing totals to grow. We will only get there if we burn less fossil fuel every year than the year before.
2. We cannot count on magic.
It would be lovely if technology (and planting trees) would magically allow us to continue our current lifestyles without much effort or expense. I think we’d all vote for that; in fact, we’ve been betting the planet on it. But it is not a real option.
But we’ve left it too late to just wait for someone, somewhere, to invent something to make it all easy. Inventions like that are rare, take time, and always have costs of their own. We have to slash our emissions now with what we already know how to do.
Technology and innovation do play a huge role. Solar and wind power, batteries, electric vehicles, LEDs, all make the transition to a greener economy easier, faster, and better for public health. There is enormous scope and financial opportunity for improvements in all areas of human activity, from agriculture to water to conservation and clean energy, and perhaps carbon capture and storage. Once we launch an all-out effort, innovators will likely find greener ways to meet human needs. And planting trees can take some carbon back out of the atmosphere over time, if the resulting forests can survive heat, drought, pests and fire.
3. No one will do it for us.
“States, politicians, and corporations have consistently used bad economic arguments to stall climate action… that it would alter markets, threaten economic growth, harm citizens’ way of life, and kill jobs. This is … cynical and short-sighted.” — 2019 UN report
These arguments amount to either a refusal to believe the physics (“we don’t have to reduce;” “there is no rush”) or a claim that someone else will do it for us. No one else can, and no one else will.
It’s comforting to tell ourselves that our emissions are too small to matter, but Canada is one of the world’s 10 top climate polluters, and a highly visible one at that. The more fossil fuels that we burn today, the more expensive, disruptive and unmanageable climate damage will become. It is cynical, short-sighted and selfish to leave these mounting costs until “later”, i.e. to our kids. If we do, we will have earned their contempt.
Nor will poor countries, who have done much less than we have to create the climate crisis, do the heavy lifting for us. Instead, they will be looking to us for compensation, as they struggle with massive climate damage. And hundreds of millions may try to escape fire, flood, thirst and famine by migrating here. Wouldn’t you?
4. We have lots to gain.
Yes, cutting climate pollution now is an enormous challenge for democratic politicians. Many people may not “want” to do what the climate crisis demands: to pay much more for energy, to use much less of it, to put longer-term, communal benefit first. But physics doesn’t care what we want.
Putting the economy first got us into the current mess, and putting the economy first won’t get us out of it. But Canadians have a lot to gain from reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, on top of the climate imperative.
“Climate action should not be viewed as an impediment to economic growth but as an impetus for decoupling economic growth from emissions and resource extraction, and a catalyst for a green economic transition, labour rights improvements, and poverty elimination.” — UN report
For example, the health benefits from reducing fossil fuel use are worth twice what they would cost. Air pollution from fossil-fuelled vehicles increases dementia and crime, and endangers the health of children, seniors and those who live or work close to heavy traffic.
The worldwide market for green, low-carbon goods and services is already exploding and Canada has many strengths to build on. Energy conservation creates green jobs, and allows families, businesses and public institutions to spend less on heat and more on what matters most. Building complete communities instead of sprawling suburbs slashes commutes and saves taxes.
And the federal carbon price “fee and dividend” approach helps to reduce inequality, by returning 90 percent of the money to all households.