BC fails to take adequate action on climate crisis

13 October 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

701 words

By recognizing that “humanity is waging war on nature”, the UN arrived at the idea of making peace with nature. Regrettably, the BC government pays little heed to calls to make peace with nature, whether from the UN or its own citizens. On the contrary, it continues to make war on nature even though, in the words of the UN Secretary General, this is suicidal.

This week I consider BC’s inadequate action on the first of three global ecological crises the UN recognises – climate change. Next week I will look at BC’s inadequate action on biodiversity loss and pollution, as well as on the wider economic, social and other transformations needed if we are to make peace with nature.

The BC government produces an annual greenhouse gas inventory; the last one, published in August 2020, covers the period from 1990 to 2018. It charts progress in meeting the “legislated emissions reduction targets (a 16 percent decrease by 2025, 40 percent by 2030, 60 percent by 2040, and 80 percent by 2050)” – all compared to the baseline year of 2007.

In 2018, our emissions were 7 percent above 2007 levels, having risen four years in a row, suggesting we are not likely to come anywhere near a 16 percent reduction by 2025, never mind the one third reduction by 2020 that was set by the Liberal government in 2007.

In a critical article in January 2021, Marc Lee, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Co-Director of the Climate Justice Project, pointed out that the modeling and assumptions in the NDP’s 2018 CleanBC plan are inadequate and that “CleanBC does not include any planning to meet BC’s 2040 and 2050 emissions targets.”

Even worse, he notes, “the biggest flaw in CleanBC is that it permits LNG development.” When LNG Canada opens in 2025, he writes, it “will become the province’s largest point source emitter of GHGs the day it opens” and its future emissions “will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for BC to meet its 2040 and 2050 targets.” Note this is only for the emissions created in extracting, processing and transporting the fuel for export, not the emissions that result when these exported fossil fuels are combusted elsewhere.

On top of that, an independent review of BC’s natural gas royalty system, released in September, concludes: “The BC royalty system for natural gas and oil is broken. It does not support and contribute to government and societal goals,” which include supporting BC’s climate commitments. Specifically, the report notes the production rate incentives, introduced in 2001, encourage low-production wells to keep operating, which “does not help meet GHG targets.”

While not really this government’s fault – this is a failure long in the making – it does suggest continuing to provide supports to this industry that are not then adequately recovered through royalties is throwing good money after bad.

Furthermore, adding insult to injury, the NDP continues to support fracking and other fossil fuel investments; indeed, it has almost doubled its support since coming to power, to $1.3 billion annually, according to a September 2020 report from Stand.Earth.

This in spite of the fact that one of the important actions proposed by the UN is to “eliminate environmentally harmful subsidies”, which includes fossil fuel subsidies. Instead, says the UN, “redirect that support to low-carbon and nature-friendly solutions and technologies”. Meanwhile support for Clean BC in the April 2021 budget is only $506 million. So we could triple the support for Clean BC by shifting all that fossil fuel support there.

Moreover, these supports are not popular with the public. As part of its “Stop Funding Fracking” campaign, the Dogwood Initiative recently released the results of a survey conducted by Insights West. The survey found 58 percent of BC respondents are opposed to BC offering financial support to oil and gas companies, while 62 per cent would like to see subsidies reduced or eliminated altogether.

So if BC really wants to be a climate leader, it need to get serious with its Clean BC program, shift all its fossil fuel supports to low carbon solutions and stop funding fracking. Those would be good first steps in making peace with nature.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

‘System-wide transformation’ needed to rebalance ourselves with nature

6 October 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

697 words

Last week I mentioned the UN’s call for a ‘peace plan’ and a ‘post-war rebuilding program’ as central to our need to make peace with nature. This week I delve into the plan, which is presented in the February 2021 UN Environment Program report ‘Making Peace with Nature’.

After laying out the scale of the problem, focusing on the three crises of climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution, the report is clear and blunt: “the current expansive mode of development degrades and exceeds the Earth’s finite capacity to sustain human well-being.”

The report is equally clear on the response: “Only a system-wide transformation will achieve well-being for all within the Earth’s capacity to support life, provide resources and absorb waste.”

System-wide transformation – think about that for a moment. The report says we now need “a fundamental change in the technological, economic and social organization of society, including worldviews, norms, values and governance.” In other words, a major cultural shift away from the dominant worldview and ideology that is the source of the problems we face and that has brought us to this critical juncture.

But regrettably, the report notes, “the types of transformational change needed have often been thwarted by vested interests that benefit from preserving the status quo.” We have seen that, of course, in the persistent opposition to action on climate change from the fossil fuel industry and its political supporters. And just last month, three independent UN special rapporteurs on human rights issued a joint statement expressing concern with the adverse influence of the corporate sector in the world’s food systems, leading to a whole host of ecological and social problems.

If the system as a whole is the problem, then tinkering with it and making marginal changes – which is all any of the current political leadership in Canada and, for the most part, around the world, is offering – will not be enough. Indeed, it plainly has not been enough, or we would not be in such a fix after what the UN describes as “decades of incremental efforts.”

A key transformation is to “put human well-being centre stage”, while recognising that human well-being depends ultimately on the ‘well-being’ of the Earth’s ecological systems that are our life support systems.  Meeting the challenge of the climate change crisis alone will require “rapid transformations in areas including energy systems, land use, agriculture, forest protection, urban development, infrastructure and lifestyles.”

But in addition, meeting the crisis of biodiversity loss will require making biodiversity conservation and restoration “integral to the many uses of terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems”, which will profoundly change the way we use these systems.

Among other things, the report states, this will require reduced consumption of resources in wealthy countries and by wealthy people, so that those who need more – low-income countries and people – can have more. This means a marked shift from seeing the good life as being rich in consumption of ‘stuff’ to seeing it as rich in terms of relationships with others and with nature.

In terms of economic transformation, the report is clear this means replacing GDP, which “fails to properly account for gains or losses in the natural capital that underpin many vital economic activities or for environmental quality and other non-monetary factors that contribute to human well-being.” Instead, we should look to measures such as ‘inclusive wealth’, which integrates several forms of capital – natural, social, human and produced (human-created), or the Genuine Progress Indicator.

The report also calls for significant investments in nature-friendly water, energy, food and other systems, and at the same time the removal and re-direction of environmentally harmful subsidies towards nature-friendly alternatives. Environmental degradation, an important source of inequality, must be reversed, and inequalities resulting from shifts in production, taxation and subsidies must be remedied.

While BC has prided itself on being ‘Super Natural’, it in fact has a high ecological footprint and has recently been described as a ‘poster child’ for the biodiversity crisis. Troublingly, BC is failing to act, or is taking inadequate action, in many of the areas of transformation called for in this important UN report. BC’s continuing war on nature will be the focus of next week’s column.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

How do we make peace with nature?

29 September 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

I find myself increasingly drawn to the UN’s framing of our current situation as being at war with nature, as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres put it in a landmark speech at Columbia University in December 2020.  For an organisation that is, after all, intended to be the world’s peacekeeper, the response was obvious: “Making peace with nature”, he went on to say, “is the defining task of the 21st century.”

A report from the UN Environment Program (UNEP), three months later, began to fill in some of the detail as to what ‘making peace with nature’ means in practice. So in this and several subsequent columns I will explore what is involved in doing this, with particular emphasis on local examples. I will look at BC’s recently announced third UN Biosphere Region (Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound), UVic’s ‘green’ civil engineering program, the Municipal Natural Assets program that began in Gibsons, and the work of local architect Christine Lintott in bringing ideas of bio-mimicry into architecture.

I am interested in learning about and profiling other local examples of making peace with nature, so please e-mail me about any you know of. Perhaps over time we can make the Greater Victoria Region a leading model of what it means to make peace with nature.

But first, let’s be clear what the war on nature is. The UNEP report focuses on three global ecological emergencies: Climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution. A wider framing is provided by the concept of ‘planetary boundaries’, first put forth by a team led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre in 2009 and then refined in 2015.

They proposed a set of nine Earth systems “and associated thresholds which, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental change.” In addition to the three identified in the UNEP report, these include ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, global freshwater use, changes in land use and atmospheric particulate aerosols. Staying within these planetary boundaries keeps us within what they called a ‘safe operating space for humanity’.

In the 2015 update to their work, they found that at a global scale we have already passed the suggested boundary for species extinctions and phosphorus and nitrogen flows, and are in a zone of increased risk and approaching the suggested threshold for both climate change and land use change. Back then we were within the ‘safe zone’ for freshwater use and ocean acidification (although the latter was worsening, and has continued to do so), while stratospheric ozone depletion provided a rare success story, in that we have stabilized and are slowly reversing that trend.

Worryingly, they could not even determine a threshold for atmospheric aerosols or for what they called ‘novel entities’: “chemicals and other new types of engineered materials or organisms not previously known to the Earth system.” These include not only chemical pollution – particularly the persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that bio-concentrate up food chains and are found now in our bodies – but also heavy metals, GMOs and nano-particles.

Of even greater concern, the 2015 review identified two of the Earth systems – climate change and biosphere integrity – that “should be recognized as core planetary boundaries through which the other boundaries operate.” This, presumably, is why the UNEP identified these two as planetary emergencies, along with pollution, which not only kills at least 9 million people annually, but has an unquantified – and perhaps unquantifiable – planetary boundary.

So yes, we are at war with nature, across multiple fronts simultaneously. But in his foreword to the UNEP report, Mr Guterres extended the analogy of making peace with nature. He suggested we need to see nature as an ally, that we need “a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme”. But let’s be clear; seeing nature as an ally does not mean changing nature to work better for us, it means changing ourselves and our society to work better for nature.

What is our peace plan? What does our post-war rebuilding program look like? That is what I intend to explore, starting next week by examining both the UN plan and the need for a local expression of that as a core part of what it means to be a One Planet Region.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

The global ecological crisis is also a global health crisis

20 September 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

(Published as ‘Measures to tackle climate change bring health benefits, too’)

701 words

Something extraordinary happened in mid-September: 231 medical journals around the world all published the same editorial, titled “Call for emergency action to limit global temperature increases, restore biodiversity, and protect health.”

Led by a group of chief editors from world-leading journals such as The Lancet, The BMJ and The New England Journal of Medicine, as well as the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the editorial stated, bluntly, “The greatest threat to global public health is the continued failure of world leaders to keep the global temperature rise below 1·5°C and to restore nature.”

Tellingly, notes the editorial, the latter – the destruction of nature – “does not have parity of esteem with the climate element of the crisis”. This is an important point. As recent UN reports have begun to recognize – and as governments, by and large, have not – we face not just climate change but multiple and interacting human-driven ecological crises.

This is well illustrated by the concept of planetary boundaries, first proposed in 2009. Nine major Earth systems are identified and boundaries are suggested, beyond which we should not go if we wish to avoid destabilizing our planetary life support system. One of these, of course, is global warming exceeding 1.5 – 20C.

The most recent updating of this model was in 2015; at that point we were already in a zone of high risk for species extinctions and nitrogen and phosphorus flows, in a zone of increased risk for land system and climate change and approaching it for ocean acidification. Troublingly, boundaries could not even be established for a couple of the Earth systems.

The editorial lists some of the health impacts that are already apparent as a result of these changes, including a 50 percent increase in heat–related mortality among older adults in the past 20 years and a host of other health problems related to climate change. But it also points out that “thriving ecosystems are essential to human health and the widespread destruction of nature, including habitats and species, is eroding water and food security and increasing the chance of pandemics.”

Moreover, the clear link between unsustainable development and inequality is made clear. Not only are the most vulnerable people – “children, older populations, ethnic minorities, poorer communities, and those with underlying health problems” – disproportionately affected, so too are low-income countries and communities.

Ironically, these are places that “have contributed least to the problem” – which historically, and still today, is disproportionately caused by high-income countries. Yet these low-income countries and communities have less capacity to deal with the problems caused by these global ecological crises. The burden of ecologically-related ill health thus falls most heavily on those least able to deal with it.

Which is why the editorial insists that “equity must be at the centre of the global response” and that wealthy countries – such as Canada – will have to make larger and more rapid changes to address these crises. In fact, the editors all agree, “only fundamental and equitable changes to societies will reverse our current trajectory.”

The good news, they point out, is that the dramatic changes we must make bring with them “huge positive health and economic outcomes.” These include improved air quality – which “alone would realise health benefits that easily offset the global costs of emissions reductions” – better diets, more physical activity, improved housing and high-quality jobs.

Now doubtless this will all be dismissed by the same ranting fools that deny the reality and severity of climate change and Covid. But their uneducated and unscientific opinions simply can’t be allowed to count. Nor for that matter can we accept the self-interested views of the major corporations and their government partners that make vast sums of money through their war on nature. They profit from the status quo and ‘business as usual’, and have no interest in ‘fundamental and equitable changes to societies.’

But those of us who do actually care about the wellbeing of both the population and the Earth’s systems that support our wellbeing (and the wellbeing of the myriad of species with which we share the Earth) must, as the editorial puts it, “do all we can to aid the transition to a sustainable, fairer, resilient, and healthier world.”

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

No matter who wins, we could all lose

13 September 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

698 words

It has been a pretty dispiriting election all round. It was called in the midst of a pandemic for no better reason than that the Liberals want to hang on to power. The campaign has been lack-lustre, the debates uninspiring and badly organised and, at the end of it all, it seems to me we may well be right back where we started; a minority government.

If that happens, given the global and national emergencies we face – of which more below – could we perhaps see an agreement between two or more parties, such as the one the BC Greens struck with the BC NDP, or even a coalition government?

If the latter, hopefully we won’t see a repeat of the ignorant and undemocratic posturing of Stephen Harper in 2015, when he tried to persuade people that a coalition government was somehow improper, if not unconstitutional.

Just to be clear, while the leader of the party with the largest number of seats gets to approach the Governor General and ask for the chance to form a government, they must then demonstrate they can command a majority in the House.

If they can’t, the leader of a party that believes they can command the confidence of the House can ask to be allowed to seek that confidence and form a government. This is completely legal and constitutional, it’s how the system is meant to work. And coalition governments are particularly important in times of national crisis, where we all need to be working together.

Which brings me back to my point in my column two weeks ago about the planet-sized elephant in the election room. Unfortunately, none of the parties that are likely to form the government seem to understand the global and national emergencies we face.

These emergencies were underlined yet again last week by Mr. Guterres, the UN Secretary General. In a September 10th speech to the UN General Assembly, he presented a report  – “Our Common Agenda” – requested by the General Assembly in 2021 as part of the marking of the UN’s 75th anniversary. His remarks are worth quoting at some length.

He began by stating: “On almost every front, our world is under enormous stress. We are not at ease with each other, or our planet”. He went on to identify the main elements of the crises we face, beginning with Covid-19.  But also, he noted: “From the climate crisis to our suicidal war on nature and the collapse of biodiversity, our global response has been too little, too late. Unchecked inequality is undermining social cohesion, creating fragilities that affect us all. Technology is moving ahead without guard rails to protect us from its unforeseen consequences”.

“Global decision-making”, he continued, “is fixed on immediate gain, ignoring the long-term consequences of decisions — or indecision . . . As a result, we risk a future of serious instability and climate chaos”. And, he added, “Business as usual could result in breakdown of the global order, into a world of perpetual crisis and winner-takes-all”.

Canada, of course, is part of this, and as a high-income country we contribute disproportionately to these emergencies. This is no time for business as usual in Ottawa; we have to treat the situation with the seriousness it deserves. That may well require the creation of a coalition government to address these national and global crises.

Such a government should take a leaf – in fact, several leaves – from Mr. Guterres’ book. For example, he proposes a Summit of the Future “to forge a new . . . consensus on what our future should look like, and how we can secure it” and he plans to appoint “a Special Envoy for Future Generations, to give weight to the interests of those who will be born over the coming century”, as well as establishing a new UN Youth Office and a Futures Lab to report on emerging trends and risks.

All these ideas – and others too numerous to mention – are worth replicating at a national level, as a matter of urgency. Because if the governing parties cannot recognise, accept and address these global and national crises we all lose, especially young people and future generations.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

7 September 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

697 words

Last week I noted that none of the main parties – those likely to form the next government – have yet recognized and accepted the scale of the global ecological crises we face, to which Canada contributes disproportionately. Nor have they recognized the implications for Canadians and the rest of humanity, including the threat these crises pose to our human rights.

David Boyd, a BC-based environmental lawyer and currently the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, noted in a recent blog posting: “Among the human rights being threatened and violated by the global environmental crisis are the rights to life, health, food, a healthy environment, water, an adequate standard of living, and culture.” Which is why he is a leader in the efforts to establish the right to a healthy environment in Canadian and international law.

Regrettably, Canada remains one of the few countries in the world that does not recognize that people have the right to a healthy environment – and that we also thus have a duty to protect nature and ensure the environment is healthy.

Admittedly, in April 2021 the Liberal government introduced Bill C-28, which would have amended the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to include the recognition of the right to a healthy environment. But the Bill, while welcomed as a good start by important health and environmental organisations, was also criticized by them as too weak.

Problematically, the right to a healthy environment would only be in the preamble to the Act, with no clear legal powers to ensure it is fully implemented. Even worse, the Bill stated that this right “may be balanced with relevant factors, including social, economic, health and scientific factors”. In other words – well, you sort of have that right, but not if economic or other factors are considered more important. Thus making money could triumph over your need for a healthy environment – as it has done for many years.

Anyway, Bill C-28 failed to proceed beyond first reading and was not even debated, indicating how little importance Parliament gives to this vitally important issue.

So one question to ask your candidates is: Do you and your party recognize that Canadians have a right to a healthy environment, that this right is not subject to modification for economic or other reasons, and that you will commit to introducing and or supporting legislation to enshrine the right to a healthy environment and, ultimately, to include it in the Canadian Constitution?

Another way in which Canada’s lack of interest in and support for the right to a healthy environment manifests is that Canada did not support a March 2021 Statement put forward at the UN Human Rights Council calling for “international recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment”.

The Statement was proposed by the governments of Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland and supported by almost 70 countries. Canada was not alone in failing to support it; other unsupportive major planet-harming countries were the USA, the UK, Australia, China, Russia and India.

The Statement was however supported by 15 major UN organisations, from the International Labour Organization to Unicef and the World Health Organization, all of whom recognized that the “rights of present and future generations depend on a healthy environment”. It was also supported by more than 1,000 civil society, child, youth and indigenous peoples’ organizations.

Happily, there is a growing global movement not only to recognize the right to a healthy environment, but to create a Global Pact for the Environment. The Pact, which the UN has been considering, would be a legally binding global instrument establishing “the right to a sound environment and the duty to care for the environment”. But ultimately, David Boyd suggests, “the right should be added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.

So a second important – indeed vital – question you should ask your federal candidates is whether they will support the adoption, globally, of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment and its addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If they and their party are seriously concerned about the wellbeing of this and future generations, they must answer ‘yes’.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

The planet-sized elephant in the election room

31 August 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

697 words

In a December 2020 speech at Columbia University, the UN Secretary General said: “the state of the planet is broken. Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal”, adding “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere”.

A February 2021 UN Environment Program (UNEP) report, “Making Peace with Nature”, is blunt: “Humanity’s environmental challenges have grown in number and severity . . .  and now represent a planetary emergency”. Noting “human well-being is critically dependent on Earth’s natural systems”, the report identifies the three “self-inflicted planetary crises” we must address simultaneously: the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies.

Yet we are failing to meet even the agreed upon targets for climate change, protection of biodiversity, land degradation neutrality, protection of oceans and marine resources and the safe management of chemicals and waste. As a result, says the report, the web of life – of which we are a part, and upon which we depend – is unraveling.

These human-driven ecosystem changes thus represent a threat to the stability and sustainability of our society and the wellbeing of the global and Canadian populations, as well as the wellbeing, indeed the continued existence, of many other species.

So you would think the main federal parties would make the theme of making peace with nature a core element of their election platforms – and you would be wrong. To be sure, the parties all address climate change, with varying degrees of serious but generally inadequate commitment, have something nice to say about protecting our lands and waters (although the word ‘biodiversity’ is conspicuous by its almost total absence) and acting on some forms of pollution and in particular addressing plastic wastes.

But none of the parties addresses the underlying problem, which is that our entire way of life and our economy are unsustainable. The central fact is that globally we use 1.7 times the Earth’s bio-capacity every year, and almost five times that much per person in Canada. In other words, as a country we take almost five times our fair share of the Earth’s limited bio-capacity and resources, while disproportionately polluting the Earth.

The central challenge we face in the next couple of decades, then, is how we reduce our ecological footprint around 75 percent, share the Earth more with those who have less (including other species) and yet ensure a good quality of life for all Canadians.  

Continuing the ‘making peace’ metaphor, the UNEP report outlines both a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding program. There are recommendations for governments in three broad areas: Address Earth’s environmental emergencies and human well-being together; transform economic and financial systems so they lead and power the shift toward sustainability, and transform food, water and energy systems to meet growing human needs in an equitable, resilient and environmentally friendly manner.

But, notes the report, this will involve overcoming “vested and short-term interests” – those who do very well out of the current system (such as the fossil fuel, chemicals, mining, forestry, agricultural, automobile and consumer products industries), and want to maintain the status quo.

Among the specific recommendations that challenge a ‘business as usual’ approach are to “include natural capital . . .  and environmental costs . . .  in decision-making”, end fossil fuel subsidies, and develop and use alternatives to GDP.

These, then, are some of the transformative changes we need to see at the core of the platform of any party aspiring to form the next government. And they need to start happening right now, because time is short – “the coming decade is crucial”, says UNEP. This is not something that can be put off for another election or two.

Any party with pretensions to caring about the wellbeing of young people and future generations, as well as the wellbeing of the Earth itself, would make these issues the core of their platforms. Sadly, however, making peace with nature does not seem to be a top priority among Canada’s main political parties, and thus not a priority for whomever forms the next government. This is the planet-sized elephant that the main parties are trying to ignore in this election.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

‘Neither left nor right, but ahead’ – Why the Greens are different

24 August 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

As anyone who has ever Googled my name could tell you, I was the first leader of the Green Party of Canada in the mid-1980s. That was in part because I had deep roots in green or ecological political thinking, dating back a decade before that. In 1974 I had been an area organiser for the People Party in the UK, attending the founding convention as a delegate.

The People Party, as it was then called (it soon became the Ecology Party and then, with the success of the German Greens later in the 1970s, the Green Party) was one of the first two ecological political parties in the world; the other was the Values Party in New Zealand.

So as we approach the latest federal election, I thought it would be helpful to discuss what it is that makes the Greens so distinct. To understand this, we have to go back to the intellectual roots of the party. In 1972, the UN held its first UN Conference on the Environment, in Stockholm, which led to the creation of the UN Environment Program.

Among the many books published for the conference, three stand out in my mind. The first was ‘The Limits to Growth’, commissioned by the Club of Rome from the World Systems modelling team at MIT. Its stark conclusion was that under a ‘business as usual’ model, “the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years. The most probable result will be a sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

Although massively attacked by the business and political elite because it undermined their central message of endless economic growth, subsequent reviews have found that, decades later, we remain pretty much on the path they forecast.

The second book was the ‘unofficial’ conference report – ‘Only One Earth’; its title speaks for itself. But it was the third book, ‘Blueprint for Survival’, that led to the creation of the world’s first ecological political parties. Originally published as a special edition by The Ecologist, a radical ecological magazine established in the UK in 1970, the book was clear-sighted in both its diagnosis and its treatment:

“The principal defect of the industrial way of life with its ethos of expansion is that it is not sustainable. Its termination within the lifetime of someone born today is inevitable”, the authors wrote, adding, ominously and, I would argue, presciently, “unless it continues to be sustained for a while longer by an entrenched minority at the cost of imposing great suffering on the rest of mankind.”

Finding little prospect that current political groupings could or would act to address this dire situation, the Blueprint stated boldly “the situation . . must now give rise to a national movement to act at a national level, and if need be to assume political status and contest the next general election.” And it was that rallying cry that led to the creation of the Values and People Parties.

So to be clear, what separates the Greens from the mainstream political parties is that they recognise that the central social, economic and political issue of the 21st century is that there is indeed only one planet, there are real physical and ecological limits to growth, and the myth of endless economic growth in a finite world is insane.

For Greens, then, the perennial left v right squabbling about who gets to control and benefit from the ever-expanding pie is to completely miss the point; the pie cannot continue to expand, indeed it must contract. Globally, we already consume the equivalent of 1.7 planet’s worth of biocapacity and resources. Here in Canada we take almost five times our fair share, and have to reduce our footprint by almost 80 percent.

The struggle for social justice is deeply rooted in the fact that the limits to growth requires a radical global and societal redistribution of the Earth’s limited resources – recognising also that other species are entitled to their fair share. The Green message must focus squarely on our long-term ecological wellbeing; as the German Greens memorably put it in a 1980s-era slogan, Green politics is ‘neither left nor right, but ahead’. 

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

B.C.’s ‘natural gas’ is both unnatural and unhealthy

17 August 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

699 words

If you have used the Tsawassen ferry terminal this past week, chances are you will have seen a large billboard asking “How healthy is natural gas?” and pointing you to a website – unnaturalgas.org. The billboard and website are the work of the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment (CANE) and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE); I am proud to say that some 30 years ago I was one of three co-founders of CAPE and for some years was Chair of the Board.

The billboard is part of their campaign to raise concerns about the health effects of so called ‘natural gas’. Interestingly, attaching the term ‘natural’ to gas seems to have resulted from the fact that originally much of the gas used as fuel in the 19th and early 20th centuries – think of Victorian gas-lit streets and parlours – was manufactured by ‘gasifying’ coal. As a child growing up near London, I can recall the local ‘gasometer’ where this gas was stored – and I can remember the smell.

In contrast to manufactured gas, ‘natural gas’ – which was known of centuries ago – was found as a naturally occurring substance underground. But it did not begin to be widely exploited until the 20th century, eventually displacing manufactured gas.

Of course the term ‘natural’ was a boon to those marketing gas; attaching the word ‘natural’ to a product always makes it sound better – wholesome, good for you. But calling something natural doesn’t make it good; arsenic and mercury are natural, but also dangerous, harmful to our health.

In reality, natural gas is just another fossil fuel, as natural as coal or oil, although it burns more cleanly and with lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But it is 95 percent methane, and methane has about 80 times the climate changing potential of carbon dioxide.

So while it is not a problem when burned because that destroys the methane, creating mainly carbon dioxide and water, it is a big problem if it is unintentionally released during its production, processing, storage and transportation, so-called fugitive emissions. 

In fact, the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released on August 9th, drew particular attention to methane, with the Chair of the Working Group that wrote the report, Panmao Zhai, noting “limiting other greenhouse gases and air pollutants, especially methane, could have benefits both for health and the climate.”

Here in BC, according to the governments own GHG Inventory, fugitive emissions from the oil, coal and gas industries released the equivalent of 4.3 million tonnes of CO2 in 2018, more than 6 percent of all emissions; three quarters of those fugitive emissions came from the gas sector. But a July 2021 article in Environmental Science and Technology by two Carleton University scientists suggested the emissions from the oil and gas sector in northern BC are really about double what is being reported.

Moreover, around 70 percent of the gas Canada produced in 2018, and around 70 percent of our gas reserves, are ‘unconventional’ – tight gas, shale gas, or coalbed methane – according to a January 2020 report from CAPE on the health and climate impacts of fracked gas. That means they need unconventional extraction, namely fracking – and there is nothing natural or healthy about the fracking process.

So when you hear government and  industry talk about liquefied natural gas (LNG), you should do an edit in your head – its actually liquefied fracked gas (LFG). Fracked gas, as CAPE and CANE note, “is a health hazard — for families in BC who live beside the LNG-fracking industry that produces it, for people who burn it in their homes, and for the climate change that is devastating our planet.”

CAPE and CANE are calling for a moratorium on fracking expansion; support for a just transition for workers moving in to the new clean-energy economy; investments in zero emissions buildings and the banning of natural gas hook-ups in all new buildings by 2023; and the ending of all fossil fuel subsidies. 

You can learn more at the Unnatural Gas website mentioned earlier, where you will also find a link to enable you to sign on to their letter to Premier Horgan.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

If we lose the carbon sinks, we are sunk

10 August 2021

703 words

This week an important new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states bluntly “climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying.” The Co-Chair of the Working Group that produced the report, Panmao Zhai, said we need “strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions, and reaching net zero CO2 emissions”.

As discussed last week, there are two ways to achieve net zero: Reduce GHG emissions (principally carbon dioxide, but also methane, nitrous oxides and other gases) or increase the absorption of these gases – primarily carbon dioxide – in natural or human-engineered ‘sinks’; in reality, we need both.

Natural sinks are described by the Council of Canadian Academies – currently undertaking an assessment of the potential of Canada’s carbon sinks for Environment and Climate Change Canada – asnatural systems ― plants, soils, aquatic and marine environments ― that absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than they release”.

Therein lies their value, and hence their interest for Environment and Climate Change Canada; what if we could expand the ability of these natural sinks to absorb carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere?

The problem is that the ability of the main sinks to absorb more carbon is in doubt. In fact, far from the sinks helping us, they may become sources of GHG as a result of human interference, poor management and climate change – which is itself human-induced. So as climate change impairs the sinks, it worsens climate change!

One example of this is very apparent in BC and around the word today – forest fires and other forms of deforestation. Globally, a 2017 study published in Science reported that the world’s tropical forests are now a source of carbon, primarily due to deforestation and degradation or disturbance of natural forests.

They emitted over 400 million tonnes of carbon annually, which is equivalent to around 1,500 million tonnes (or 1.5 billion tonnes) of carbon dioxide. Considering total human emissions of carbon dioxide are around 36 billion tonnes, we can see this is a significant problem.

A paper published last month in Nature, titled “Amazonia as a carbon source linked to deforestation and climate change”, found that far from being an important carbon sink, as it once was, the Amazon’s ability to absorb carbon is in decline. In fact, they found the Amazon has become a carbon source in its Southeastern regions, due to “the intensification of the dry season and an increase in deforestation”.

Meanwhile, here in BC our forests, which used to be important carbon sinks, are now huge carbon emitters. In a July 5th article in the National Observer, using data from B.C.’s official greenhouse gas inventory, Barry Saxifrage found that on average in the 1990s the forest absorbed 84 MtCO2 (millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide), while on average each year in the 2010s the forest emitted 39 MtCO2. This large shift, he found, has two main causes: the massive increases in wildfires and, at the same time, a decline in absorption of carbon dioxide via forest growth.

So BC was on average worse off by 123 MtCO2 annually in the 2010s compared to the 1990s; in fact, in 2018 wildfores led to almost 200 MtCO2 of emissions. Considering that BC’s human-created GHG emissions in 2018 (the latest year for which data is available) were 67.9 of MtCO2, this is obviously a huge problem, and one we must reverse.

Forests are not the only natural sinks where we have problems. Current land use and agricultural practices – and the high-meat diets that drive them – make plants and soils major emitters. But Drawdown, an important organisation working on carbon reduction, lists 22 different interventions that could make land use a major sink, absorbing many times the amount of carbon we emit today.

But it will require major social changes across many societies, including “ecosystem protection and restoration, improved agriculture practices, and prudent use of degraded land” as well as “reducing food waste and shifting to plant-rich diets.”

If we lose our major sinks – if they become major sources of GHG emissions – we are sunk. But if we can mobilise globally and locally to protect and manage our carbon sinks, we might yet manage a smart transition to a net-zero future.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy