Cooling off: A sustainable path to our climate change goals

Cooling off: A sustainable path to our climate change goals

A view from the academic sector
May 1, 2006

Recent years have brought unprecedented debate, inquiry, cooperation, and conflict in response to growing concerns about the need for effective responses to the threat of global climate change. Increasingly convincing evidence has demonstrated that the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) by humans, mainly from fossil fuel based transportation and industrial processes, is driving a significant portion of observed climatic changes. Although this change will mean very different things in different regions, such as warmer, drier trends in some parts of the world, and cooler, wetter patterns in others, it is becoming clear that humanity as a whole is standing on a precipice beyond which fundamental, wide-reaching changes to our systems of production and consumption will be inevitable. Many argue that we have long since stepped unheedingly beyond this precipice, and thus must pay the price for decades of ecologically and socially destructive behaviour.

As the science of climate change gives rise to ever more disturbing findings, pressing questions arise regarding the preferred path to climate change mitigation (the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (actions that reduce one’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, such as the construction of a sea wall to protect against rising sea levels). One branch of this debate argues that we must design adequate and effective climate change response policies, and that these policies must consider, as one of many other criteria, the implications of the policies for sustainability. The overwhelming focus in the political, climate change research, and public communities, which grows out of this tradition, has been on the design and implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. An alternative view argues that if we were to pursue sustainable development pathways which address all components of sustainability such as poverty, illiteracy, public health, inequitable distribution of resources, and ecological resiliency, we would more effectively tackle the roots of the climate change problem. Thus far, this alternative view has been much less pervasive, but is gaining influence as growing numbers of politicians, scholars, and activists call attention to the inter-connected nature of both ecological and social problems such as climate change, technological and economic development, extreme poverty and HIV/AIDS. It is increasingly clear that if we do not pursue inherently low emission sustainable development pathways, climate policy will be unable to compensate for the resultant very large increases in GHG emissions.

Conversely, pursuing such pathways will contribute directly to reducing emissions and thus make the job of climate policy much easier.

This broader approach to climate change brings into focus an interesting feature of the global response to the risk of climate change which is the vastly varying differences in the apparent ability of nations to translate capacity to respond to climate change into effective action. By capacity, we mean those resources, such as the range of technological options available and the stocks of financial, social and institutional capital, which are closely related to a nation’s or group’s level of development, and that generally allow a nation to respond effectively to risks such as those posed by climate change. Action in response to climate change, however, is composed of real changes in the behaviour of individuals, industries, and institutions, which contribute to either the mitigation of, or adaptation to, climate change. Canada, for instance, despite its ratification of the Kyoto protocol and possession of vast quantities of technological and financial capacity, has made little in the way of real progress towards cutting its greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, instead of nearing its goal of reducing emissions to 6% below its 1990 levels, Canada’s emissions are currently exceeding 1990 levels by around 30%. Sweden, in contrast, has implemented ambitious and diverse policy instruments to help reduce its emissions, and is on track to meet and likely exceed its Kyoto commitments. The Swedish government estimates that national greenhouse gas emissions would be 20% higher than present emission levels, if Sweden’s current suite of climate policies had not been implemented. These two countries, although clearly varying substantially in terms of culture, history, and geography, arguably possess similarly rich stocks of the resources needed to effectively combat climate change. What strategies might Canada pursue to learn from Sweden or other examples, to pursue a sustainable, climate-friendly development path? It is increasingly clear that this is more than simply a matter of political will, but is rooted in a complex mix of cultural, technological, economic and social factors that together work to enhance or restrict effective action.

This in turn suggests that one effective way of paving the way to a sustainable development path, and thereby addressing the roots of the climate change problem, is to create and nourish new forms of partnerships between private, public, civic and research sector communities. Since the effects of the underlying development path on driving levels of GHG emissions may engulf the potentially positive steps taken by climate policy alone, it is necessary to articulate common visions of sustainability that are attractive to a broad range of societal interests and develop the partnerships needed to bring these to fruition. For good or ill, the private sector will be the main engine of development in the world, and it is therefore crucial to find ways of enlisting it in the implementation of sustainable socio-economic and technological development pathways. At the same time, this will not happen if the rules of the game are weighted against such development; thus the public sector must be mobilized to provide the appropriate legal and regulatory context for such changes. Civil society must also be actively involved since without a political constituency for change, and willing customers for sustainable products and services, neither politicians nor companies can deliver the policies and products needed. And finally, we believe there is an important role for the research sector to address the large number of outstanding research, development, and demonstration issues involved in making such a transition.

This approach to the climate problem suggests a critical role for innovation and socio-technological change. Significant changes in the energy intensity of production and consumptions systems, in the social organization of cities and settlements, in the characteristics of land use and transportation infrastructure, and in the production and distribution of energy and water systems, to name only some of the larger contributors to GHG emissions, are all required. All of these challenges have both technological and social/institutional components. They will require our best efforts at developing combined socio-technological responses that will allow us to implement a sustainable development pathway that simultaneously generates climate-friendly, as well as socially, economically, and ethically desirable outcomes.

John Robinson is a Professor at the Sustainable Development Research Initiative (SDRI) & Sarah Burch is a PhD Student.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.