Getting off the growth treadmill: Kyoto revisited

The Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions challenges us today as much as during the bitter debate over its ratification. For people approaching the issue from a perspective of justice for the earth and for all its peoples, it was frustrating indeed.

Remarks in the Globe and Mail by David Boyd, a professor at the University of Victoria and at Simon Fraser, stand out: "Canadians are among the world’s most prolific consumers of energy, water and other natural resources, as well as leaders in greenhouse gas emissions and waste…If every individual in the world consumed as much as the average Canadian, we would need at least two additional planet Earths to produce the resources and process the waste."

These mind-boggling facts remind us that we use up far more than our fair share of the earth’s resources. We have a responsibility for the earth entrusted to us by God, the Creator. It’s our global home. None of us as individuals wants to live in a dirty home. Why then do we put up with a dirty environment in our community and national "home"?

Taking responsibility for our share of creation means widening our perspective beyond our community, province, and national borders. That only makes sense. After all, greenhouse gases, and other types of pollution, don’t stop at the border of the country in which they originate. They affect the whole world, which is why an international treaty — the Kyoto Protocol — was devised to deal with them.

Boyd’s comments also makes clear that Kyoto’s six percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is a modest target. We need to go well beyond it to truly protect the earth. In doing so, we need to get to the heart of the matter: our public and corporate policy-making based solely on growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Facing up to the limits to growth

We have yet to come to grips with the fact that the kind of economic growth we’ve had in Canada is overtaxing the earth’s natural resources upon which all else — including life itself — depends. Economic growth measured solely by GDP has become a sacred cow in our society. The Kyoto debate is a case in point. Bitter debate erupted over the costs of Kyoto, in part from industries that have done well under the current system and don’t want to rock the boat. Powerful business leaders, backed by powerful politicians, warned that Kyoto would choke off the economic growth upon which our prosperity rests, leading to massive job losses.

The Chrétien government worsened the situation by pretending that Canada could meet its Kyoto obligations without any adverse economic impacts. Only towards the end of the debate did it come up with a plan to help cover the costs which businesses such as oil companies will face in cutting their emissions.

Economic costs faced by the oil and gas industries arising from Kyoto received widespread media coverage. Yet there was little acknowledgement of the heavy price we pay for such an oil-dependent economy. The threatened war on oil-rich Iraq serves as a stark reminder.

Moreover, the plight of Canadians working in other industries received far less attention. A group of Alberta scientists noted in an October letter to Premier Ralph Klein, "the effects of climate warming on agriculture in western Canada will certainly cost tens of billions of dollars. Compensation payments and crop insurance payouts this year alone amount to over two billion dollars in Alberta and Saskatchewan….Such costs can only increase with a warming climate. Recent analyses predict that by mid-century the arid and semi-arid areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan will increase by 50% if climate models are correct.

"In the 1980s and 1990s, the incidence of forest fire in Canada doubled compared to the 1960s and 1970s… the costs of fighting forest fires in Canada average over 500 million dollars per year."

Global warming has deadly health impacts. Montreal has 70 heat-related deaths each year, and Toronto 20. Greenhouse gas emissions contribute to air pollution, which the federal government estimates cause 16,000 Canadians to die prematurely each year.

The evidence is clear: there are real costs to the kind of economy and society that we’ve developed. And the heaviest burden of climate change has often fallen onto people who did little to create the problems: drought-stricken farmers, children suffering from asthma, and many others.

Nor do we see industry as the sole villain in this situation. We all need to acknowledge our responsibility for care of the earth, and do what we can to move toward a sustainable society. Doing so reflects the justice principle upon which CPJ is based. The debate about climate change and the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is fundamentally a public justice issue. We agree with the World Council of Churches that "social justice for all people and eco-justice for all creation must go together."

An economics of enough

More than ever, we are challenged to embrace the "richness of sufficiency." That means realizing that most of us have enough. We don’t need more things, more stuff. The five million Canadians living in poverty do need more to live in dignity. But many of us don’t. And our constant craving for more is a major factor contributing to Canadians’ huge impacts on God’s creation.

If we can realize this, enormous benefits can result. We’ll be on our way to a sustainable economy and society. We can focus economic growth in areas that promote a more caring society, one that protects the earth: aid to low-income families, affordable housing, expansion of renewable energy, and public transit.

A growing number of economists acknowledge the limits to growth. More than 150 scientists working for the United Nations and World Resources Institute recently warned that the earth’s ecosystems "are buckling under the strain of human activity." Similarly, Herman Daly and R. Goodland, in their book Population, Technology and Lifestyle, write "The North (northern countries like Canada) should stabilize its rate of resource consumption to free resources for the South and to free up ecological space…The North should get its own house in order by transforming its present-day consumerism and borrowing economy into a more sustainable model."

Getting there from here

So let’s reject the over-emphasis on traditional economic growth, and get on with protecting the environment. Heartening signs are evident as Canadians move on with the practical task of cutting back on our emissions. For example:

The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, representing oil and gas workers, joined with the Pembina Institute, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Forest Products Association of Canada and others to call for an action plan on greenhouse gas emissions.

Many companies are slashing their greenhouse gas emissions. Dofasco reduced its emissions 22% percent below 1990 levels by 1999. General Motors achieved a 37% reduction, and is aiming for a 56% cut by 2005.

Municipalities across Canada are doing their share. Calgary achieved its six percent emissions reduction target ahead of schedule, and has North America’s first wind-powered light rail transit system. Toronto cut its emissions by a whopping 67% through landfill waste-to-energy programs, building retrofits, and other steps.

Families and individuals are reducing their demands on the earth, using practical suggestions from the David Suzuki Foundation’s Nature Challenge and the Pembina Institute.

Kyoto is only a first step in a much bigger process. More environmental protection agreements will be needed. Thus we can expect more debates, and political battles. However if we can embrace a sense of enough – and encourage our neighbours, church communities, governments, businesses, unions and other organizations to do likewise – we can make progress quickly.

From the Catalyst, Volume 26, #1, January/February 2003