I buy local. I take the bus. What else can I do to help the environment?
By now you’re probably familiar with the headline: by burning fossil fuels we’re changing our climate.
We know what the short-term implications are of a warming planet. More frequent and intense droughts, wildfires, and storms. Rising sea levels and rapidly acidifying oceans. Widespread economic losses. Habitat degradation and species loss. Growing global inequality.
We also know what science means for public policy. Limiting global warming to levels that don’t lead to catastrophe requires strictly limiting the total amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions between now and the end of the century. In other words, we need to cut emissions as soon as possible by as much as possible.
But we knew essentially the same thing last year, and the year before, going as far back as the 90s. For young Canadians worried about the future, where does this leave us in 2019? What has changed?
Well, for one, there are many Canadians across the country squaring up to our GHG emissions challenge. Taking public transit or riding their bike to work, buying locally sourced produce, eating less red meat. These behavioural changes can shrink an individual’s carbon footprint. The problem is that these behavioural changes among the few are not enough to address the scale of the GHG emissions challenge among the many. Of course, this message is hard to absorb for those of us who try to make changes in our lifestyles, but it’s important that we do.
If changes in our lifestyles are not enough to move the needle, then what is? We need to approach our emissions challenge pragmatically - that is, in a sensible and realistic way. In other words this means: (1) identifying the sectors that the bulk of our emissions come from (electricity generation and transportation); (2) understanding the potential for reducing emissions in these sectors given technological, economic, and political constraints, and; (3) combining these concepts to target opportunities that are easy and attainable.
As pragmatic environmentalists, we must understand that progressive national and provincial public policy has made a difference in cutting our GHG emissions in the past, and will do so moving forward. Understanding this is particularly important in 2019 as it appears increasingly likely that GHG emissions policy will be the central issue in this year’s federal election race.
In Canada, decreasing GHG emissions is as much a political constraint as it is a technological or economic one. In other words, we have the technologies to de-carbonize our economies - like wind turbines, nuclear plants, and electric vehicles - and it doesn’t look like it’s going to cost that much in the long run. This is no secret to our elected officials.
Some politicians choose to exploit GHG emissions policy debates for their own political gain. This is where it’s important for us to draw a line between disingenuous arguments intended to garner political support, and legitimate concerns about the right way to go about reducing emissions.
Although the latter may be inconvenient for city-dwelling environmentalists who draw on low-carbon electricity (like me), they should not be discounted. Our national economy is fossil fuel intensive. We have greatly benefited in the past from burning fossil fuels, and exploiting and exporting our fossil fuel resources. Cutting emissions will not come without costs.
So what can we do?
Our path forward is to look at what has worked in the past and to support similar policies and those who champion them. For example, British Columbia put a price on carbon in 2008, reducing emissions by 5-15 percent, while the province’s real GDP growth outpaced the rest of the country. Ontario stopped burning coal to generate electricity in 2014, leading to enormous GHG emission reductions. Alberta plans to do the same by 2030. Nova Scotia capped emissions from its electricity sector in 2009 and will import clean hydroelectricity from Labrador through Maritime Link. Quebec became the first province to adopt a zero-emission vehicle standard in 2018.
It’s this policy dynamic that needs to be accelerated by young Canadians who make GHG policy the key factor when casting their vote and who raise the issue among their friends and families. This is where we can effect change.
Admittedly it’s difficult for our policymakers to sort out the best way to cut emissions. They also do not want to burden those who have come to depend on high-emissions lifestyles through no fault of their own. But the fact of the matter is that we must cut emissions, and that requires us to first have a nuanced understanding of our emissions challenge and to support the policies that work.
No matter our political stripes, young Canadians should be pragmatic and compassionate in our push for a low-emissions future.
About the author
Aaron is currently in the midst of a master's program at Simon Fraser University's School of Resource and Environmental Management, and holds a BEng from Dalhousie University. He aims to contribute to informed discussions around sustainable energy and materials policy. Aaron enjoys reading, getting active outside, playing music, and cooking.