JUNE 16, 2012
As Canada’s environment minister, Peter Kent, joins the thousands of delegates on the road to next week’s Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil, the message from leading scientists and environmentalists is grim.
The world and its seven billion human inhabitants continue “to speed down” an unsustainable path and must change course to avoid what has been described as “global suicide.”
“If current trends continue, if current patterns of production and consumption of natural resources prevail and cannot be reversed and ‘decoupled,’ then governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation,” Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, said last week as he released the latest global environmental outlook in the run up to the summit.
“Earth systems are being pushed towards their biophysical limits, with evidence that these limits are close and in some cases have been exceeded,” the 525-page report warns.
Twenty years after the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, it says the world has failed to deliver on many of the promises made in 1992.
While the situation is graver than ever, few expect bold action from politicians and world leaders in Rio. There may be an international agreement setting goals for sustainable development, and a push to strengthen the UN’s environment program.
But increasingly the UN and many observers are looking to innovators, industry and individuals to step up, help get the planet onto a saner track, and force governments to act:
This is what they say is needed:
1. Start a revolution
“For most of the last century, economic growth was fuelled by what seemed to be a certain truth: the abundance of natural resources. We mined our way to growth. We burned our way to prosperity. We believed in consumption without consequences,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last year. He went on to describe it as a “recipe for national disaster. It is a global suicide pact.”
“We need a revolution,” he said. “Revolutionary thinking. Revolutionary action. A free-market revolution for global sustainability”.
2. Energy game change
The world needs an energy game changer. Burning coal, oil and gas pumps so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that it threatens to melt polar ice, fuel heat waves and leave millions homeless as sea levels rise.
The climate is warming so fast that the mean global temperature by 2070 (or possibly a few decades earlier) is expected to be higher than it has been since the human species evolved.
Climatologists say emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse must be slashed dramatically in coming decades to avert catastrophe.
There is, however, no obvious or easy path to a clean energy future, which helps explain why Canada and other countries that signed on to the UN Framework for Climate Change in Rio 20 years ago have failed to deliver on the promise to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Humans are now pumping 45 per cent more CO2 into the atmosphere than they did in 1990.
UN talks drag on and will move to Qatar in November to begin negotiations for a new climate treaty. But many feel the better hope for progress lies with engineers who are working on alternatives — solar, geothermal, wind — that promise plenty of clean carbon-free energy.
3. Put a price on carbon
One of the bright spots for Canada in the UNEP’s report last week was Quebec and British Columbia’s carbon taxes.
The taxes help “show a move to a more sustainable path is eminently possible,” the agency said, noting that scaling up and accelerating carbon taxes would help drive the transition to a “green” economy.
Putting a price on carbon can entail a tax or cap-and-trade systems, which put a lid on how much carbon dioxide can be released into the atmosphere. They are widely seen as one of the most powerful ways to drive down CO2 emissions generated by burning fossil fuels.
“We have to find a way to decarbonize the energy sector as fast as possible,” says David Runnalls, acting director of Sustainable Prosperity, a think-tank at the University of Ottawa. “That means putting a price on carbon.”
The Quebec tax, introduced in 2007, requires energy companies to pay 0.8 cents for each litre of petrol distributed in Quebec and 0.938 cents for each litre of diesel. B.C.’s carbon tax, in place since 2008, is more ambitious. Rate increases were phased in at $10 per tonne of CO2-equivalent in 2008 up to $30 a tonne in 2012.
4. Overhaul corporate motives and mindsets
Corporations are in the driver’s seat when it comes to making, packaging, transporting and selling goods around the world.
“And they are driving us in the wrong direction,” says Pavan Sukhdev, former head of the UNEP’s green economy initiative and a special adviser to UN agency.
He is calling for an overhaul of everything from corporate advertising to lobbying.
“Corporate advertising converts our insecurities into a chain of wants, needs and excessive demands, which have made our ecological footprint exceed the planet’s ability to produce resources and absorb emissions — by more than 50 per cent,” Sukhdev writes in a recent report in the journal Nature.
And corporate lobbying often influences national policies to create advantage for particular industries or companies to maximize profits, often to the detriment of the public good, he says.
As evidence, Sukhdev points to close to $1 trillion a year of “harmful” subsidies supporting the “brown economy” including more than $300 billion in subsidies for “mostly” unsustainable agriculture and fisheries and $650 billion in price and production subsidies for fossil fuels. (The Canadian government is reported to subsidize the oil industry to the tune of about $2 billion a year.)
“We are now consuming nature’s capital, not its interest,” says Sukhdev. “And yet we have enshrined this corporate model in business law and practice, and, indeed, celebrated it as a crowning success of our times.”
Sukhdev calls for transparent accounting of both the financial and environmental costs. And he wants regulations to force companies to act for the public good, as some — including German shoe company Puma and Indian information-technology firm Infosys — have started to do.
5. Green Canada’s blackened record
Canada was hailed as the hero at the 1992 Rio Summit when then-prime minister Brian Mulroney signed onto UN conventions to protect both the planet’s biodiversity and climate.
Today Canada is increasingly seen as a laggard as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government moves to weaken laws and rules for environmental protection and promote speedier extraction of minerals and fossil fuels.
“We are a standing joke,” Runnalls says, pointing to Alberta’s oilsands development, which has been generating controversy over pollution and environmental destruction for years.
Runnalls says Canada — with its bounty of natural resources — can do much better.
He said he’d like to see the Harper government in Rio next week commit Canada to becoming the world’s most sustainable producer of natural resources.
The country can be more efficient at getting wood out of the forests and replanting and restoring forest ecosystems; better at creating mines that allow First Nations to share profits and don’t keep draining pollutants into the environment for 50 years; and much smarter about regulating and controlling the oilsands to reduce environmental impacts, he says.
Canada should be aiming much higher to show the world “We’re trying to produce these things as sustainably as possible,” says Runnalls, noting it would also require “world-class” regulation.
6. Transform cities
Vancouver’s controversial bike lanes and Toronto’s recent — if accidental — ban on plastic bags are just a taste of the radical change in store for Canadian cities.
Canadian and Americans are among the world’s highest per-capita consumers of energy, water and resources thanks in large part to urban sprawl, supersized, inefficient housing and gas-guzzling vehicles. Scaling back does not mean living in caves. How about living more like the Danes and Swedes, who enjoy a high standard of living in northern countries but use a fraction the energy of the average Canadian, says Runnalls.
And he points to “congestion taxes” — such as the one in London, England, charging a flat fee as vehicles enter the city centre — that can help unclog busy streets and raise much-needed cash to improve bus service. And apartment and condo dwellers tend to have much smaller ecological footprints than their suburban neighbours, with no lawns to cut, lower fuel consumption and ready access to public-transit systems.
7. Connect the dots before you buy
Eco-labels on everything from coffee beans to smartphones could increase consumers’ ability to connect the dots between purchases and environmental damage that can be a continent away.
A recent study found the developed world’s insatiable appetite for things such as coffee, prawns, timber and minerals threatens the survival 30 per cent of vulnerable animal species in poor countries. In Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Honduras, hundreds of species threats were due to exports, mostly to meet demand from richer countries. Dozens of species in Papua New Guinea are threatened by logging to satisfy Japanese residential construction. And in Mexico and Central America, spider monkeys are losing habitat because of strong demand for coffee and cocoa.
The study will be used in Rio to push for universal environmental standards and eco-labelling, which, like nutritional labels on food, could be slapped on everything on store shelves.
8. Eat less meat
You don’t need to become a vegetarian, but meat eaters could help the environment by opting for salads and pasta a lot more often. A recent study concluded that meat eaters in developed countries need to cut consumption by 50 per cent by 2050 to avoid the worst consequences of future climate change. Beef is particularly damaging as flatulent cows and manure release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Cattle feed also requires a lot of fertilizer and energy to produce.
9. Embrace education (and contraception)
The seven billion people now on the planet dominate 43 per cent of Earth’s land surface, and a billion go to bed hungry.
The world will likely be home to 9.5 billion people by 2050 and slightly more than 10 billion by 2100, which scientists say could severely test the planet’s “life-support” systems.
One “win-win” way to reduce fertility rates is to meet the “unmet need” for contraception — supplying safe, modern birth control to the millions of people who do not want a child but are currently not using contraception, says Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich. He has long warned of the threat of unchecked human population growth. Ehrlich also said last week that education, especially among young women, is another “win-win” way to reduce fertility. It’s been estimated that an education program could result in a billion fewer people in 2050.
10. Get politically active
The state of the environment is grim — some call it terrifying — but individuals can make a difference. One option is to lead by example — reusing containers and grocery bags, buying local, reconnecting with nature, riding a bike, driving a fuel-efficient vehicle.
“But there is no substitute for actually getting involved politically,” says Runnalls, a veteran of many UN conferences and meetings with government over the past 30 years.
“Politicians are not going to do anything until the public forces them to.”