Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Change is Upon Us, Part 5: The Cost of Inaction

There are those who believe that climate change is happening, but advocate for inaction, citing that any sort of action which Canada might take to reduce emissions or put a price on carbon will economically disadvantage us. They are concerned about factories closing up and moving overseas to countries which don’t price carbon. Of course, there are economic actions which can be taken to put a price on carbon when goods are imported. These economic tools, called “tariffs”, have been around for a long while, and their use makes sense when one nation under-prices its manufactured goods for whatever reason.

A better argument yet against the do-nothing approach is that the cost in the long run to our economy should we continue to do nothing is that ultimately Canada will be at an economic disadvantage, because we have not invested wisely in green technology and renewable resources. Instead of creating a positive economic environment for green jobs, our continued investments in the brown economy, powered by increasingly expensive and depleted fossil fuels, will ensure that the benefits from an emergent green economy pass us by. If we continue to invest in the brown economy, we run the risk that the future will pass Canada by.

There are those who acknowledge the need to begin to make some small changes to our current economic situation, so that we can start taking action to reduce our emissions. For those who advocate a “go slow” approach, often the sorts of changes discussed have to do with subsidizing emergent renewable energy technology, or imposing modest carbon pricing. We are seeing the “go slow” approach at work in places such as the European Union (which has established a cap and trade system which has not been effective at reducing emissions, given the very low price put on carbon). Ontario, through the creation of the Green Energy Act, can be put into the “go slow” category as well.

A “go slow” approach seems like a very typically Canadian action to take. The use of incremental changes to address problems is very much a part of our national character. Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, these incremental changes will prove to be too little, too late. Climate scientists are warning world leaders gathered this week in Cancun that international carbon emissions must peak within the next 5 to 10 years, and that we must begin to reduce emissions significantly after 10 years if we are going to hold warming at 2 degrees Celsius.

The 2 degrees C level of warming is an important marker, because climate modelling shows that we risk triggering positive feedback loops should we exceed this threshold, and thus face runaway climate change. The 2 degrees C level of warming roughly translates into 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Pre-industrial levels of C02 in our atmosphere were approximately 260-270 ppm. Scientiests believe that while we can peak at 450 ppm, it is important to then return to a level of approximately 350 ppm. Currently, there are about 390 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, and that’s rising by almost 2ppm per year, although the rate is accelerating with increased emissions, making 450 ppm a likely outcome about 10 year’s time.

Folks, that’s the timeframe that we’re talking about to get our collective acts together if we’re going to have much hope at staving off climate catastrophe. That’s not a doom and gloom prediction, by the way; first, it’s based on science. Second, instead of doom and gloom, what we have here is an opportunity for our exploitation. Instead of building a future for the world of the past, we can use the next decade to construct for ourselves a cleaner, greener, healthier future.

We must spend smarter. That applies to both governments and individuals. The choices we make will greatly impact our level of emissions. These choices will not be easy to make in many circumstances, given that there are those out there with a vested economic interest in perpetuating the status quo, despite the status quo being ill-suited for our anticipated future.

We must disinvest in fossil fuels and invest in the green economy. The brown economy is not sustainable, and indeed if we continue to invest in the increasingly expensive fossil-fuel reliant economy of the past, we can absolutely expect to see more poverty and fewer jobs. Continued investment in the brown economy is a recipe for disaster for all but the wealthiest amongst us.

We must put a price on carbon. Carbon pricing will help ensure that we spend smarter, and will level the playing field when it comes to energy. Currently, we subsidize the fossil fuel industry to the tune of billions of dollars a year. That must stop, and indeed the fossil fuel industry and those reliant on it must begin paying the price for their pollution. Their pollution is bad for our climate’s health and bad for our own personal health.

We must allow people to make better choices with their own money. Put money back into people’s wallets so that they can choose which products and services to purchase. They may a premium for a low-carbon home, or a higher price for a downtown condo unit, yet in the long run, such an investment will pay for itself. One of the barriers to investment, however, is the entry price of purchase. If you give people back more of their hard-earned money, entry price might no longer be such a barrier.

We must encourage smarter investments at all levels. We can no longer afford to subsidize wasteful spending. This means that we have to reign in urban sprawl (one of the most expensive and wasteful projects ever undertaken). We must stop building expensive highways and roads for a future where there will be fewer cars. We can no longer invest in government-sponsored mega-projects from which we derive little net benefit (example: nuclear power, one of the most expensive forms of electrical generation out there).

We must look for opportunities for smart spending. Instead of roads and cars, it’s time for public transportation and rail. Instead of mega nuclear projects, invest instead in small-scale local energy projects, built at the community level. Instead of massive mono-cultured crops which rely on pesticides and oil-derived fertilizers, invest instead in sustainable local agriculture, and make farming and food production a worthy career choice.

Certainly, we are going to continue to need non-renewable resources, such as nickel and copper, in our future, and oil to power our industries. A change to renewables and prioritizing sustainable transportation and building complete communities will actually help the resource extractive sector by keeping the price of oil down. Think about it: if there is less demand for oil from other sectors, those sectors of our economy which require its use will benefit from relatively lower prices.

Right now, we can’t live without oil. But we can certainly live comfortably by using less oil, and by using energy smarter. The benefits of reducing our reliance on oil are many-fold, and will ultimately lead to healthier lifestyles.

However, if we continue to with a “business as usual” scenario, we can expect to blow through the 2 degrees Celsius warming threshold quite handily and without the ability to look back. Right now, even if all of the international agreements made under the Kyoto Protocol and Copenhagen Accord are achieved, we will still find ourselves at about 750 ppm of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere three quarters of the way through this century. Many who are reading this blog today will still be alive at that time. They’ll be living on a radically altered planet if those international agreements are the only ones to be honoured.

What type of world are we talking about at 750 ppm? Globally, that’s a rise of between 3-7 degrees Celsius, which might not seem like much. However, that’s a global average. Warming isn’t going to impact every part of the planet equally. It will be felt most at the poles, where it may translate to as much as 10 degrees. That kind of warming will spell the end to Arctic Ocean sea ice, and likely to the West Antarctic ice sheet as well. With less ice, albedo effects will speed up warming (as light coloured ice reflects sunlight, while dark-coloured open ocean waters absorb it). Sea levels would be expected to rise between 3 and 8 feet, necessitating expensive damns and dykes around major coastal cities, or abandoning them altogether should expenses be too high.

Increased desertification at mid-latitudes is also expected. Drought in areas which currently are “breadbaskets”, such as the North American plains, will sharply limit food production. Southern Europe, Central America, the Middle East, southern China and Inida will experience drought, and drought’s associated impacts to crops. This means that in a hotter world, there is going to be much less food to go around.

What sorts of economic impacts might Canada face in such a world? Perhaps we’ll lose a million jobs, or more, because things will have fallen apart so badly and comprehensively for many of our trading partners. What might the level of unemployment in Canada be in this future? What about poverty and homelessness? Where will the middle class be?

Some might consider that inaction, in this scenario, actually represents an irresponsible use of our resources. I’m certainly one of them. And this “scenario” is where we are headed unless we can start turning things around.

The very real security threats created by global warming are well documented. The military planners of many nations have been war-gaming various scenarios based on expected outcomes of climate change. This isn’t a secret; in fact, a lot of this information is available to the public, despite it not being widely reported by the mainstream media (for a good read, try Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer’s “Climate Wars”, published in 2008)

This doom and gloom world of the future, however, need not become our actual future. If we undertake transformational changes to our economy, we can avoid some of the worst impacts we can expect to experience from climate change, and avoid the negative economic impacts from the end of cheap energy. We must begin taking those steps now; they must be bold and assertive steps, however. Baby-steps are not going to help in the long-term. That’s why I’ve used the term “transformational”.

The cost of inaction is too high for Canadians to bear, much less the rest of the world which is, for the most part, sitting in a far less pretty position geographically speaking than is Canada when it comes to the anticipated impacts of a changing climate. Canada, though, in our globalized world, will not prove to be immune from connected and cascading impacts felt elsewhere in the world. That’s why it’s important for Canada to become a leader in international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The health of our collective future depends upon us taking action to address climate change in the next decade. We can and we must undertake this venture.

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