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We Can Save Our Life on Earth. Do We Want To?

Report argues that transformation to an equitable, sustainable future is possible.

Crawford Kilian 24 Oct

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Here’s an offer you can’t refuse, but very likely will.

By 2050, Canada could not only meet its Paris Agreement emissions targets, it could help keep global warming well below the two-degree Celsius increase that would lead to “Hothouse Earth."

What’s more, all nine billion of us on Earth in 2050 could be living pretty well, because Canada, like the rest of the world, would have achieved most of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals we signed on to in 2015.

So by 2030 we would have ended poverty everywhere (including Canada), eliminated hunger, ensured health and education for all, attained gender equality and provided clean water and sanitation to everyone.

And those are just the first six Sustainable Development Goals. Climate change is goal 13, and in 2050 we would have a grip on that as well.

What’s the catch? Ruinously expensive?

Actually, no — by 2050, our GDP would be only about a year behind where it would have been if we’d continued business as usual.

But the offer does have five serious catches: growing renewable energy so fast that we halve our carbon emissions every decade from now until 2050; boosting productivity in sustainable food chains; creating new development models in poor countries; reducing inequality on an unprecedented scale; and investing in universal education, gender equality, health and family planning.

That’s the sales pitch of a new report, Transformation is Feasible, published by the Stockholm Resilience Centre for the Club of Rome. One of the report’s co-authors, Johan Rockström, is also a co-author of the Hothouse Earth report, which warns that we could be just a few years from irreversible climate breakdown.

The Transformation report suggests four scenarios for achieving the social development goals — but three of them will fail.

Business as usual?

The first scenario is “Same.” We commit to the SDGs, and expect to achieve them by business as usual — steady economic growth plus lots of science and technology. And it works, in part. We eliminate poverty and hunger, and global health improves, but the cost is high.

“During the 2020s, rising pressure on arable land and freshwater push even more biodiversity and ecosystems into high-risk zones of irreversible decline,” the report concludes.

Worse yet, we see rising economic inequality, political instability and weakening governments and public institutions — which all make it harder to handle extreme weather events and social unrest.

“The world economy,” says the report, “is two and a half times bigger in 2050 than in 2018 (from US$94 trillion to US$215 trillion). But the wealth goes mainly to the richest in the wealthy areas of the world.”

And from 2050, things go “firmly downhill for the rest of the century.”

The second scenario is “Faster” — push growth by “an extra one per cent of GDP per person per year from 2018 to 2050.” This backfires because the richer people get, the fewer children they have — so by 2050 far fewer persons are alive to boost GDP.

And there are other, serious consequences. “Speeding up average growth rates also increases social inequalities,” the analysis concludes. “Furthermore, ramping up high-growth 20th-century policies in the 21st century causes an even larger ecological footprint, which weakens responsible consumption, worsens climate, and harms life below water and life on land.”

The third option is “Harder” — try to grow the economy while greening more. But in trying to reach one Sustainable Development Goal, we starve another: cut funding for sustainable agriculture so we can educate more kids, or vice versa. We still get growing inequality and weakening public institutions and government. We achieve 12 of the 17 the goals by 2030, but we can’t sustain them.

“The main conclusion from scenario Harder is that simply trying harder on all fronts separately helps SDG achievement somewhat, but does not secure a safe operating space by 2050.”

Smarter, but tougher to achieve

The only winning scenario is “Smarter — transformational change.”

That’s where the five catches come in, because “transformational” means just that. We’ll have to change our whole way of living, not to mention our class structure, cities, politics and economy.

Just consider the impact of halving our carbon emissions every 10 years.

According to Environmental Reporting BC, our greenhouse gas emissions in 2014 were 64.5 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. That was a nine-per-cent decrease since 2004, largely thanks to our carbon tax (launched in 2008).

But if we had adopted the Smarter program agenda, with the goal of halving emissions every 10 years, our GHG emissions in 2014 would have been only 35 megatonnes. Then in 2024 emissions would be down to 17.5 megatonnes, 8.25 megatonnes in 2034, and about 4 megatonnes by 2044.

In June, Alberta’s NDP government published a Climate Leadership Plan that shows the province’s GHG emissions in 2014 were at about 275 megatonnes. If the plan isn’t junked by the next government, emissions could be down to 240 megatonnes by 2024, and 225 megatonnes by 2030.

But the Smarter plan would knock Alberta’s emissions down to 137.5 megatonnes by 2024, to 68.5 by 2034, and 32 by 2044. Good luck selling that to Albertans, and comparable emission reductions across Canada would be equally unpopular. (Never mind that emissions would be down thanks to green energy.)

What about the other Sustainable Development Goals? The federal Liberals’ poverty reduction plan predicts a drop in our poverty rate from 15 per cent in 2015 to six percent in 2030.

But the SDGs require zero poverty, plus universal education, good health care, and so on. We can’t even provide those services on many Indigenous reserves, let alone to many in our cities and towns. Income redistribution — that is, sharply higher taxes on the rich — would be needed to fund such changes.

A hard sell to English-speaking nations

The Transformation report anticipates such challenges between 2025 and 2050.

“Distrust of central government roles, more nationalism that discredits global co-operation, ideological opposition to redistribution, particularly in the Anglosphere, and market fundamentalism that opposes government work on market design” will all play a role, the report says.

But the authors argue that the Smarter plan would achieve 13 of the 17 SDGs, open up new business opportunities and create “a net benefit of 26 trillion dollars in the 2018-2030 period” during transition to low carbon.

“The GDP per person will be the same in 2051, as it could have been in 2050 — but with the added benefit of a healthy planet, and with societies in a safer and more just operating mode.”

Judging by current policies, the transition might be possible for some northern European countries like the Netherlands and the Nordics, where taxation isn’t seen as an existential threat and scientific evidence is respected. Anglophone nations like the U.K., Canada, Australia and the U.S. look like no-hopers by comparison.

Still, if the ideas in studies like the Transformation report can become a serious part of our national conversation, and achieving the SDGs gains more than lip service from the federal government, we might have a chance to pull back from the brink.

But without political pressure, there is no political will.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Environment

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