Now that COP21 is over and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change has been written, what’s next? John Kerry suggests that there’s potential for economic growth in the development of new technologies to mitigate climate change. I prefer to see the potential for moral growth by all of us – individuals, corporations, and nations alike – if we abandon this model of growth as a value to be pursued.
This is a tough sell, living as we do in a culture where buying and consuming things is seen as the main route to happiness, as well as a crucial way to support the economy. What’s more, the health of our country’s economy is measured in its Gross Domestic Product, which includes all economic activity whether it is desirable or not – e.g. receiving chemotherapy treatments or dealing with oil spills contributes to the GDP. Given how our society is structured, how are we to believe that having less and doing less is not only okay, but desirable?
Elsewhere on the globe, happiness and health are measured by different metrics. Take Cuba, for example, listed in the 2010 Human Sustainable Development Index as the only country with a truly sustainable economy. Cubans have food sovereignty, a nearly perfect literacy rate and free, universal health care. They also have a strong foundation of family, community and culture. What they lack in financial capital, they seem to make up for in social capital.
Many will argue that Cuba’s authoritarian government is undesirable. They resist the idea of a more sustainable (read: austere) lifestyle being imposed from above upon an unwilling North American population. But should we allow market forces to drive economic policy?
I propose that the following short list of action items be undertaken. Some of them are entirely voluntary, some less so, and some may be a bit fanciful:
1. My # 1 pick for an individual action is to read: “How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything”. Mike Berners-Lee does a great job of breaking down the true cost of decisions we make over a lifetime, from having a child to choosing cremation. I urge everyone to read this entertaining and engrossing book, and to pass it on to as many friends as possible.
2. After reading the book, maybe people will be inspired to eliminate frivolous travel from their lives. I believe this is one of the best things we can do, as flying is the highest-carbon activity that most of us engage in. Reducing our footprint in carbon terms is the most important way to address sustainability in this era of climate change.
3. I’d like to see more businesses, whatever their size, try to become carbon-neutral – more about that in a future post.
4. Corporations that manufacture appliances and other stuff need to stop making obsolescence a built-in feature. The people who buy appliances and other household goods need to buy less of them, buy better quality, and take better care of what they buy. Why not have repair cafes in our communities, where people can take smaller items and have them fixed for little or no cost? http://repaircafe.org/en/
5. As communities, we need to get serious about metering as a feedback mechanism to tell us how we’re doing, energy-wise. And wouldn’t it be great if the Comox Valley had a carbon clock like the one in New York City, which tells passersby how much CO2 is being emitted into the atmosphere, in real time?
6. This won’t be popular, but I think that energy costs should stay relatively high. The government should invest those extra revenues in carbon-saving initiatives – like improved public transit and energy-efficiency retrofits on existing buildings. There’s evidence that the carbon tax in BC has already had an impact, as people drive less and buy smaller cars.
7. Speaking of public transit, there should be an infrastructural shift away from single occupancy vehicle traffic and toward more rail corridors, with development along the latter. Bus transit should be improved with better routes and vehicles that are sized proportionately to their ridership.
8. Lastly, it would be great to see carbon labeling on consumer goods and services, so that we can make more informed choices and stay within a carbon budget. Right now, the level of carbon production that’s considered sustainable is 5 tonnes per person annually. In North America, we average a staggering 28 tonnes. Mike Berners-Lee suggests that each of us set 10 tonnes as an interim goal. Obviously, on a 10 tonne budget we would have to face some tough lifestyle decisions, but is there really any other way?
The development of more “green” technology is good and necessary, but too many people still see it as a way to avoid lifestyle or policy change. New technology should only be used after we’ve done everything else that we can to conserve energy. The potential to do so is still great. In the new year, let’s all focus on producing more “negawatts” (unused energy) than megawatts.