Should the en­vi­ron­ment trump the econ­omy?

Pri­or­i­tiz­ing green growth over GDP

Bayview Post - - Life - DAVID SUZUKI

What does cli­mate change have to do with eco­nomic growth? Canada’s prime min­is­ter and pre­miers signed a deal in De­cem­ber to “grow our econ­omy, re­duce green­house gas (GHG) emis­sions and build re­silience to the im­pacts of a chang­ing cli­mate.” The Pan-Cana­dian Frame­work on Clean Growth and Cli­mate Change out­lines plans for car­bon pric­ing, en­ergy-ef­fi­cient build­ing codes, elec­tric ve­hi­cle charg­ing sta­tions, meth­ane emis­sion reg­u­la­tions and more.

Is the frame­work cor­rect in as­sum­ing we can re­duce green­house gas emis­sions and grow the econ­omy? If not, which should be given prece­dence?

These ques­tions come at a piv­otal mo­ment in Cana­dian cli­mate ac­tion. The Pan-Cana­dian Frame­work marks the first time Canada’s first min­is­ters have en­dorsed a na­tional plan to tackle cli­mate change. It opens the door to a game-chang­ing car­bon price that will make re­duc­ing green­house gas emis­sions the smart, cost-sav­ing choice for busi­nesses and in­di­vid­u­als.

How­ever, a re­cent Na­ture Cli­mate Change ar­ti­cle claims, “No ma­jor ad­vanced in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­try is on track to meet its pledges to con­trol the green­house­gas emis­sions that cause cli­mate change.”

Canada pushed for am­bi­tious tar­gets dur­ing the 2015 Paris cli­mate ne­go­ti­a­tions, but even that frame­work won’t put us on track to meet our pledged re­duc­tions.

Rather than be­ing an out­come of cli­mate ac­tion, eco­nomic growth may pre­vent us from reach­ing cli­mate tar­gets. A July 2017 study in Na­ture Cli­mate Change con­cluded that the world only has a five per cent chance of keep­ing global av­er­age tem­per­a­ture from in­creas­ing be­yond 2°C. On a pos­i­tive note, the au­thors found economies world­wide will likely be­come more en­ergy-ef­fi­cient, and low-car­bon sources, like wind and so­lar, will make up a grow­ing share of the mix.

But eco­nomic growth will likely can­cel out these ad­vances. For ev­ery mega­tonne of emis­sions re­duced through ef­fi­ciency and clean en­ergy, an­other mega­tonne will be pro­duced be­cause of eco­nomic ex­pan­sion. Our economies will get big­ger al­most as fast as they get cleaner, and emis­sions will not drop quickly enough to stave off cat­a­strophic cli­mate change.

Eco­nomic growth has been the pri­mary goal of ev­ery Cana­dian govern­ment, pro­vin­cial and fed­eral, for decades. Lead­ers’ speeches are pep­pered with ref­er­ences to it. Elec­tion cam­paigns are filled with prom­ises of eco­nomic ex­pan­sion. Pity the politi­cian who pre­sides over an eco­nomic down­turn.

Rarely do we stop to ask what eco­nomic growth means. In short, it’s a year-to-year in­crease in pro­duc­tion, dis­tri­bu­tion and con­sump­tion, as ex­pressed by gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (GDP).

If GDP strikes you as a poor in­di­ca­tor of well-be­ing, you’re not alone. The late U.S. politi­cian Robert F. Kennedy once re­marked that GDP “mea­sures ev­ery­thing, ex­cept that which makes life worth liv­ing.” It’s a flawed in­di­ca­tor of progress.

The Pan-Cana­dian Frame­work ex­presses op­ti­mism that we can re­duce emis­sions while expanding the econ­omy. This prom­ise of “green growth” is pop­u­lar be­cause it of­fers some­thing for ev­ery­body. It main­tains a com­mit­ment to eco­nomic growth while claim­ing green­house gas emis­sions will drop. But, as the Na­ture Cli­mate Change study as­serts, “green growth” is likely an oxy­moron.

De­growth ad­vo­cates ar­gue that tack­ling cli­mate change re­quires shrink­ing the econ­omy. A planned slow­down of the econ­omy would be achieved by im­ple­ment­ing shorter work­weeks and more hol­i­days and en­cour­ag­ing low­con­sump­tion life­styles.

Growth ad­vo­cates ar­gue that we should ig­nore GDP al­to­gether and in­stead eval­u­ate progress us­ing in­di­ca­tors such as lit­er­acy, em­ploy­ment, rates of di­a­betes and heart dis­ease, water and air qual­ity and cli­mate sta­bil­ity. If GDP hap­pens to go up while these in­di­ca­tors im­prove, so be it. If GDP goes down while other mea­sures of well-be­ing in­crease, what have we truly lost?

When the Pan-Cana­dian Frame­work is im­ple­mented, some eco­nomic sec­tors will likely grow. Com­pa­nies that of­fer low-car­bon en­ergy sources, en­ergy-ef­fi­cient prod­ucts and op­por­tu­ni­ties to off­set or store green­house gas emis­sions will pros­per. Other sec­tors, like coal min­ing for power pro­duc­tion, will shrink. We may or may not have “clean growth,” but we will have a cleaner econ­omy and a bet­ter shot at pre­vent­ing or mit­i­gat­ing cli­mate change’s most har­row­ing ef­fects.

If mov­ing be­yond the PanCana­dian Frame­work is at odds with grow­ing the econ­omy, let’s make sure our elected of­fi­cials have their pri­or­i­ties straight. Re­duc­ing green­house gas emis­sions should take prece­dence over eco­nomic growth. David Suzuki is the host of the CBC’s The Na­ture of Things and au­thor of more than 30 books on ecol­ogy (with files from Brett Dolter).

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