Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
March 26, 2007
Limit growth for the sake of future generations
The last few months have seen a significant change in political will to deal with global warming in Canada. Both the federal and Alberta governments seemed poised to take actions that acknowledge that global warming is a serious problem and needs serious solutions. Opposition parties are well into the game of outbidding each other to prove that they, not the others, are the strongest opponents of global warming.
How this will play itself out remains to be seen. But the parties are pledging billions of dollars of taxpayer money to fight global warming, thus giving credence to the view that one must choose between prosperity and meeting Kyoto targets. Few have noted that BP Petroleum reached the Kyoto target, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 emissions on its own without taxpayer support. The company remains profitable too.
Governments, it seems, judge the worth of their efforts by the mountains of money that they dole out to solve a problem. Often - and this seems to be one case where this is true - they can provide the necessary leadership by setting standards that apply to all companies and giving them a date for meeting those standards. Companies rightly need to know that they are on a level playing field and, once that is established, they can use their own ingenuity to meet those standards.
Especially in the case of the tar sands, some common infrastructure may be needed to properly dispose of carbon dioxide emissions from existing plants. But even here, it is not too much to expect companies to pay a dollar or two per barrel of oil for a pipeline to sequester the C02 underground.
What is making the issue messy is the government's insistence that tar sands production be ramped up to three times the current level within the next 10 years. This hardly makes sense, not only for environmental reasons, but also because of the human cost.
Alberta is in the midst of a housing crisis, in particular a crisis of affordable housing, because of the current over-heated economy. There is a severe labour shortage because so many workers are being drawn to the high-paying tar sands jobs. There are also major concerns about worker safety due to a lack of training for too many workers.
A reasonable policy would be a moratorium on tar sands development and a phased-in development in the future. The tar sands are not going away nor is the demand for petroleum products. Development doesn't all have to happen at once.
A phased-in development would also give aspiring developers plenty of time to determine how they will build their plants with zero carbon emissions.
Moreover, the current focus on global warming has made it seem like the only environmental issue.
Alberta has a looming water shortage, not only with the Athabasca River, but in other parts of the province too. There are concerns with over-harvesting of timber, complicated by the arrival of the pine beetle. A proposed 50-kv electrical transmission line from Wabamun to Calgary has many saying the extra power is not needed and wondering if the government is planning electricity exports to the U.S. There are concerns about the use of wilderness areas.
The list goes on.
The biggest challenge may be whether the world is exhausting its God-given natural resources at a rate that will soon lead to economic collapse. For all of human history, people took what they needed from nature without concern for future generations.
But the explosive economic growth of the 20th century - an 18-fold increase in production between 1900 and 2000 - has raised a question that humanity has never faced: How can we make responsible use of resources now while respecting the needs of future generations? Along with the other environmental questions, this is one that surely needs to be asked.
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