‘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

Denying net zero is ‘simply not on’

3 August 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

702 words

Readers of this paper were recently treated to a classic piece of ‘light your hair on fire’ misinformation inspired by the fossil fuel industry. In a July 31st column, Gwyn Morgan informed us that achieving net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 “would require phasing out fossil fuels that currently supply 84 percent of global energy”, that the G7 plan to achieve net zero “defies the laws of physics” and that “it’s clear that ‘net zero’ is simply not on.”

If achieving net zero emissions by 2050 defies the laws of physics and is simply not on, that must be news to the International Energy Agency (IEA), hardly a hotbed of wild-eyed radicals. In May 2021 the IEA released its “Net Zero by 2050” report, sub-titled “A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector”.  The report notesthat 50 countries, representing 70 percent of global emissions, and including China and the USA, have committed to net zero by 2050.

It must also be news to the European Commission, which adopted a set of measures on July 14th that will reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, on the way to making Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. But let’s be clear what ‘net zero’ really means.

First, it does not mean no GHG emissions or no fossil fuel use. In the Paris Agreement on climate change, countries agreed to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic [human-created] emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second‐half of the century”. ‘Net zero’ means that overall there would be no net increase in the level of GHGs in the atmosphere.

To achieve net zero we have to either reduce our emissions or find ways by which the Earth can absorb more GHGs through its carbon sinks. In practice, we need to do both, although emissions reductions has received most of the attention so far; next week I will dig further into the potential to expand carbon sinks.

Clearly, the IEA believes achieving net zero, while very challenging, is do-able. Their report states: “In the net zero pathway, global energy demand in 2050 is around 8% smaller than today, but it serves an economy more than twice as big and a population with 2 billion more people”.  Moreover, “the energy sector is based largely on renewable energy”, with “two-thirds of total energy supply from wind, solar, bioenergy, geothermal and hydro energy”.

This would not mean phasing out fossil fuels, although they would be dramatically reduced. While noting there would be “a huge decline in the use of fossil fuels”, the IEA reported that compared to the “four-fifths of total energy supply today”, fossil fuel’s contribution would fall to “slightly over one-fifth by 2050”. It would mainly be used “in sectors where low-emissions technology options are scarce”, as well as in facilities using carbon capture technology and in creating plastics.

Of course, what troubles Morgan and other fossil fuel advocates is the IEA’s avowal that “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply in our net zero pathway.” The IEA foresees coal demand declining “by 98 percent to just less than 1% of total energy use in 2050”, while “gas demand declines by 55 percent . . . and oil declines by 75 percent”.

Nobody is suggesting this will be easy. Recognizing that “not all technologies are available on the market today”, the IEA calls for “an unprecedented clean technology push to 2030”. The IEA suggests this requires a doubling of annual energy sector investment by 2030, but notes that by 2050, average annual energy investment takes only 1 percent more of GDP than in recent years.

Moreover, this pathway means “universal access to sustainable energy is achieved by 2030” and the creation of 30 million jobs, compared to losses of about 5 million jobs in the fossil fuel sector; this must be handled with care, ensuring a just transition for these workers.

The pathway to net zero is tough, but do-able, and brings many social, economic, ecological and health co-benefits, as the IEA and European reports make clear. It is the denial of net zero that is simply not on.

© 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

Building child-friendly communities means protecting future generations

28 July 2021

Dr Trevor Hancock

700 words

“The well-being of children is the ultimate indicator of a healthy habitat, a democratic society and of good governance.” So stated a resolution passed at the second UN Conference on Human Settlements in 1996, leading Unicef, the UN Childrens Fund, to create its Child Friendly Cities Initiative that same year.  It is seen as a vehicle to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child at the local level.

To become a Child Friendly City, cities should implement a nine-point framework that includes having “strategies for children, regular reports on the state of the city’s children, independent advocates for children, opportunities to listen to children’s views”, and other governance measures. The aim is “to consider the best interests of children in formulating and coordinating policies, services and other government action.”

Unicef reports there are almost 1,000 Child Friendly Cities worldwide; in Canada, there are 49 in Quebec as part of an NGO-led provincial initiative but few seem to be in BC.

But my specific interest here, following on from my two latest columns, is the implications of a child-friendly approach for the design of housing and other aspects of the built environment, especially here in BC.

The Society for Children and Youth of BC (SCY) began its child and youth friendly communities project in 1998. It has a toolkit for interested organisations and has developed pilot projects in New Westminster and Vancouver. Abbotsford and Surrey, among others, have developed a Child and Youth Friendly Strategy, but I am not aware of anything similar in the Greater Victoria region.

Even before the SCY project Bob Yates, a local planning consultant, wrote a 1995 report for the Society on child-friendly housing. A guide for housing professionals, the report identified a set of nine principles and then discussed how to plan a child-friendly housing project, how to design a child-friendly housing unit, how to build better communities for children, and how to manage housing through involving youth.

More recent local examples include a 2009 report prepared for Abbotsford by Cherie Enns, a social planning consultant, and most recently, a comprehensive book – Child in the City – by Sidney-based planning and urban design consultant Kristin Agnello.

Based on a series of consultations in Abbotsford, Enns reported that “what is most needed for future housing development has been the need for mixed-use neighbourhood design with affordable rental and owned housing.” Her report includes an extensive checklist for various aspects of child-friendly neighbourhood design, covering issues such as parks and other amenities, housing, transportation, schools and security.

With respect to housing, she suggests child-friendly forms include courtyard housing – which “creates a specific public space that is shared by the residents” – and co-housing, while neighbourhoods should have discernible social centres and an elementary school within one mile.

Available free through her Plassurban website, Agnello’s easy-to-read and well-illustrated book takes the view that “an environment that addresses the needs of children . . . is one that is friendlier and more accessible to people of all ages and abilities”. So make it work for children and we all gain.

She provides a comprehensive overview of policy, regulatory and financial measures, as well as nine design guidelines and 35 design objectives for both housing and neighbourhoods, all summarised in two simple charts. As well, she emphasises the importance of engaging children in participatory planning, writing: “To plan our cities in a way that enables children to be co-authors of their own communities is key to a sustainable – and inclusive – future.”

But if indeed “the well-being of children is the ultimate indicator of a healthy habitat, a democratic society and of good governance”, surely that must include not only today’s children, but the wellbeing of future generations of children. That is the deeper meaning of child-friendly communities.

In this age of climate change and other global ecological crises, the CRD and all our local municipalities must dedicate themselves to the wellbeing of future generations by  reducing our overall ecological impacts, taking only our fair share of the Earth’s biocapacity and resources.  The region’s municipalities need to embrace both Unicef’s Child Friendly Cities Initiative and develop plans to become ‘One Planet’ communities. Our children require it of us.

© 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.