In fall 2014, UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon exhorted all countries to raise the ambitions of their climate change policies to avoid a global temperature increase of more than 2oC during this century. Since the Rio+20 Conference, he has repeatedly called for a greater contribution of science to resolve environmental problems. Responding to this call, Catherine Potvin has convened colleagues from 30 Canadian universities to join her in a collective initiative called Sustainable Canada Dialogues (SCD). The resulting group, that mobilizes over 60 researchers from every province, has built a consensus around a plan of sustainability solutions to help Canada successfully achieve transition to a low-carbon society. This network representing crosscutting disciplines ranging from engineering and sciences to social sciences, wishes to encourage public debate on climate policy in view of the upcoming Federal election and the December 2015 climate summit in Paris.
Potvin is a forest ecologist specialist in global environmental change, including climate change and biodiversity loss. A professor at McGill, she holds a Canada Research Chair Climate Change Mitigation and Tropical Forests and has actively engaged in policy-making, serving as Panama’s negotiator at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change between 2005 and 2011. In the wake of the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference, Potvin has been selected as one of 23 women visionaries for the future of Canada by the initiative a “Bold Vision.”
What can Canadian citizens do for climate change?
One of the biggest challenges in mitigating climate change is transportation. This is where every citizen of Canada can have the biggest impact by examining how they transport themselves and adopting more sustainable modes of transportations that suit their need.
However, there are limits to what each Canadian can do: they are limited by the vehicles available for sales – need stricter standard; they are limited by the choices that are offered to them – need more efficient public transportation and urban planning; they are limited by affordable and livable housing projects next public transportation. Governments have a role to play to help Canadians make sustainable choices.
Consequently Canadian citizens should seriously consider the climate change policies of the various political parties as they head to the polls for the next federal election but also during provincial and municipal elections. The mobilization of Canadian voters is essential to give courage to politicians and push for larger-scale, meaningful political responses to climate change
What are the key actions that governments could take in front of climate change?
We identified 10 key policy orientations that could allow Canada to immediately transition towards a low carbon economy and a number of actions could be immediately implemented. Two stand out: (i) there needs to be a price on carbon now throughout Canada. It is not very different than taxes on cigarettes. Cleaning up carbon pollution, as the USA now calls it, needs to be paid by those who cause it. The second one is (ii) to ensure electric connections between the provinces that produce hydro-electricity and those that do not. Such interconnection would allow Canada to have 100% carbon free electricity and could become the backbone of our transition to a low carbon sustainable society.
In parallel, it is essential that the government help by supporting the stricter standards for energy use and appropriate urban design that will offer to citizen a high quality of life environment with minimal green-house gas production.
People are tired of hearing about climate change, what novel aspects can you put forward?
We propose that the “problem” of climate change should be viewed as an “opportunity for change” that will improve the well-being of all Canadians. For us sustainability entails a vision of the future that improves social and environmental well-being. Seen in this context, climate change policy should promote a transition, similar to the transition that occurred during industrialization.
It is important therefore that Canadians ask themselves what future they want. Climate change mitigation is an opportunity to collectively move Canada in the direction of these desired futures.
There are examples of countries that have managed to use this transition successfully along these lines. Being proactive is much less costly than being reactive.
Climate change is costly how are your proposing to finance your proposed action plan?
Three points here.
First, not doing anything will be costly. Many studies have shown that the cost of adapting to climate change will soar if no mitigating action is taken. This means that climate change mitigation could be done at “no-net cost” if we act rapidly.
Second, the transition to a low carbon society can be used as a way to propel the Canadian economy into the future, to make it more competitive and more sustainable. Of course, this means that some economic sectors will shrink while others expand. But this is exactly what Schumpeter called creative destruction whereby the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”
But overall, the economic, environmental and social gains will exceed the losses. The sectors that will likely benefit more from the transition are those that are proactively trying to adjust. This is why it is important to move now and not to wait until this change is imposed on us from the outside. Just like businesses, the governments that are the forefront of issues are the most likely to succeed.
Finally, Canada is currently renewing much of the infrastructure that we built in the 1960s and 1970s. Incorporating the mitigation strategies into this infrastructure will be much less costly that correcting the errors in 10 or 15 years. An analogy is the state of California making sure its infrastructure (buildings, bridges) are prepared for earthquakes – it does not know when it will occur but it invests now – the state does not take a wait-and-see attitude. One of the most cost efficient mitigation strategies involves incorporating climate change mitigation into the design and reparation of existing and new infrastructure. In this way the cost of mitigation is folded into current infrastructure budgets.
Learn more about Sustainable Canada Dialogues.