The economy-environment debate is back
In BC, with a Thone Speech next week and the provincial budget the week after, the speculation has been around what additional measures might be announced in relation to BC’s commitment to a one-third reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (relative to 2007 levels) and 80% by 2050. A carbon tax figures among that speculation.
Today, just in time for next week’s Throne Speech, CCPA released a climate justice discussion paper, Searching for the Good Life in a Carbon Neutral BC. This release is unauthored, one of the rare publications we put out that is the “voice of the CCPA”. I think it is the first comprehensive document of its kind to step beyond the science and targets to consider the social and economic implications of getting serious about climate change.
At the same time, the push-back from business has begun. They are getting antsy about what a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system means for their competitive position vis-a-vis countries (and provinces, too, Alberta) who are not getting with the program to keep the planet tolerable for human life.
Ultimately, this should not be framed as environment vs economy. Instead, it is about what type of economy we want. A transition will need to happen to a carbon neutral society and economy. But we need to ensure that transition is fair and equitable.
It is also a transition that is going to happen over several decades not immediately. 2050 is 42 years away, and a lot can happen between now and then. Some 42 years ago was 1966, before I was born. To get a picture of how people back then saw the future, watch an episode of the original Star Trek. Today’s computers and cell phones blow away their equivalents on that show, and they were visioning several hundred years ahead (OK, there is no teleportation and warp drive yet, but we have time).
What we are looking at over the course of the next several decades is essentially an industrial revolution that de-carbonizes the economy. Along the way there will be job losses in some areas but also job gains in others. So we need to ensure that “just transition” programs are available that provide affected workers with income support, mobility allowances, and extensive retraining in order to take advantage of new opportunities. And there is lots of work that needs to be done! Even in the short-term, if the economy does head towards recession the best thing we could do would be to accelerate the build-out of rapid transit and affordable housing. This will absorb employment losses while positioning ourselves for the future.
There are also efficiency gains that can be had by business, by for instance, investing in more energy efficient capital equipment. Such moves can increase their competitiveness. Ditto for value added production in the resource sector. There will also be a growing market for eco-friendly goods and services. By being a leader, we can
seize the advantage (… that last sentence reminds me of some of the crap I used to write when I worked for the feds; sorry, let’s try again …) position ourselves as first-movers in the development of new green technologies, power sources and so forth (was that better?).
It is worth remembering that other countries have much lower emissions than ours and still have strong economies. In Europe GHG emissions per capita are one-third lower than BC (that is, BC’s 2020 target is Europe’s current level of emissions); in Sweden they are one-half.
And finally there are costs of inaction. Last year a near-miss of massive spring flooding was estimated by Environment Canada at an averted cost of $6 billion (about 3% of BC’s GDP). Extreme weather also poses growing annual costs for (proactive) adaptation measures and (reactive) cleaning up the ensuing mess.