Balancing the environment and economy

Two mechanical diggers

When dealing with climate change, politicians often talk about the need to ‘balance the economy and the environment.’ I think this is a misleading categorization for two reasons.

Firstly, the balance has always been tilted virtually 100% towards the economy, in Canada at least. When the government talks about the need to scale back climate mitigation programs for economic reasons, they are talking about scaling back a handful of ineffectual programs that are not proving effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The ‘balance’ dial between environment and economy is already twisted sharply towards the latter.

Secondly, even if we completely ignore the natural environment, the need to mitigate emissions remains. The Canadian economy could not survive the consequences of unrestrained emissions and climate change, with a temperature increase of 5.5°C to 7.1°C by 2100. If we care at all about the state of the economy 20, 50, and 80 years out, we need to avoid catastrophic climate change.

The economic analyses of mitigation that have been undertaken in the UK, Australia, and elsewhere have painted the same broad picture: it is possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly at a modest cost, provided you start early. The costs associated with inaction are much higher than those associated with this mitigation programme. To succeed, the whole economy needs to be pushed in the direction of decarbonization – a fact that remains true regardless of what balance you care to strike between economic health across the long term and environmental protection.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

29 thoughts on “Balancing the environment and economy”

  1. 2100? You are talking way outside the planning scope of any business or government.

  2. Is anyone actually using that approach go government potential? Rational pie in the sky is still pie in the sky.

  3. What is being balanced isn’t the level of importance society places on the environment and the economy, as manifest in choices and behaviours. Rather, the balance is a rhetorical one being employed by politicians who want to seem environmentally concerned, while they are actually personally invested in keeping things as similar as possible to now.

  4. Andrew Coin seems to understand this better than anyone – Harper wants nothing but power. No principles, no loyalties, just calculation for the sake of influence (not, as is usually conceived, for the sake of using that influence for some particular end). Coin recognized this distinction and should be commended for it.

  5. Did the Liberals really pay any more heed to the environment? Chretien invented the Kyoto target, breaking an agreement with the provinces, then did nothing serious to meet it.

    The unfortunate lesson drawn from Dion might be: pretend you care about the environment, but don’t take (or even propose) any serious concrete action to protect it.

  6. Screwing up environment not so great for economy, studies find

    # A West Virginia University researcher found that “coal mining costs Appalachians five times more in early deaths as the industry provides to the region in jobs, taxes and other economic benefits,” reports the Charleston Gazette.

    # The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development found that “the coal industry takes $115 million more from Kentucky’s state government annually in services and programs than it contributes in taxes,” reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

    # A recent peer-reviewed paper in the journal Science found that areas of Brazil that cut down their rainforests to sell the wood or plant crops “do see a short-term boost in per-capita income, life expectancy, and literacy rates,” reports The Vine. “But once the trees are gone, those gains disappear, leaving deforested municipalities just as poor as those that preserved their forests.”

    # The International Fund for Animal Welfare found that “in 2008 whale-watching generated $2.1 billion of tourism revenue worldwide … more than double the estimated $one billion generated by the industry in 1998,” reports Agence France-Presse. Said Australia Environment Minister Peter Garrett, “Whales are worth much more alive than dead.”

    # The University of Michigan found that “the Detroit Three automakers can become more profitable and slow the growth of their Japanese rivals if they simply meet tougher new government-mandated fuel economy standards,” reports the Detroit Free Press.

  7. Science Matters: Harming the environment is bad for the economy
    Published Wednesday July 15th, 2009

    David Suzuki With Faisal Moola, David Suzuki Foundation

    We often point out that ecology and economy have the same root, from the Greek oikos, meaning “home”. Ecology is the study of home and economics is its management. But many people still insist on treating them as two separate, often incompatible, processes.

    At its most absurd, the argument is that we simply can’t afford to protect the environment – that the costs will be so high as to ruin the economy. But if you don’t take care of your home, it will eventually become uninhabitable, and where’s the economic justification for that?

    Others argue that the economic advantages of some activities outweigh the environmental disadvantages. This, too, is an absurd argument. A recent posting on the website points to a number of studies and articles showing that many of these activities are not even beneficial from an economic standpoint.

    Take coal mining. Research from West Virginia University found that “coal mining costs Appalachians five times more in early deaths as the industry provides to the region in jobs, taxes and other economic benefits.” And, according to Grist, the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development found that “the coal industry takes $115 million more from Kentucky’s state government annually in services and programs than it contributes in taxes.”

    The website also refers to a peer-reviewed study in the journal Science that concluded logging in Brazil’s rainforests offered only short-term gains in income, life-expectancy, and literacy, but that the gains disappear over the long term “leaving deforested municipalities just as poor as those that preserved their forests.”

  8. “I would like to start by adding something to the debate. Not only must we leave fossil fuels behind, but we will be better off if we do.

    The climate debate is frequently framed as one where we must choose between dramatic action and business as usual. In this context, business as usual implies growth, comfort, and things being much as they are now, while dramatic action suggests austerity and woollen socks for all. This is completely upside down.

    Business as usual is leading us into a period where humanitarian disasters of unparalleled scale and scope will unfold around the globe. As climate change continues to take hold, access to the basic things we need to live—food, water and shelter—will become increasingly tenuous for billions of people. As Nazmul Chowdhury of the Bangladeshi NGO Practical Action puts it, we can forget about making poverty history: “Climate change will make poverty permanent.”

    The best estimate of the cost of continuing with business as usual was made by Nicolas Stern in a report for the British government. He placed the cost at 5-20% of future GDP, but has since said he was too conservative. The real path of increasing austerity is business as usual.

    But what if we choose dramatic action? What if we choose business as unusual? Business as unusual means innovation, investment and prosperity. It means 2m new jobs, access to clean, reliable energy for the world’s poor and an end to the massive pollution caused by the fossil fuel industry.

    It also means leaving fossil fuels behind completely and quickly.”

  9. Canada to push ‘balance’ in Copenhagen

    By Michel Viatteau (AFP) – 2 days ago

    OTTAWA — Canada aims to reestablish itself as an environmental defender at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen by calling on all major emitters to cut carbon emissions, but distrust lingers as its own emissions soar.

    Canada signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol but has so far failed to meet its corresponding obligations. The December 7-18 meeting in Copenhagen aims to hammer out a pact to replace the treaty before it expires in 2012.

    Proof the government is mindful of its reputation as a climate change laggard came this week when Environment Minister Jim Prentice vigorously disputed reports of a “walk-out” by developing G77 countries representatives at a recent UN climate change meeting in Bangkok to protest Canada’s position.

  10. That last article makes the important point that Canada is dishonest in comparing its targets, which use a 2006 baseline, to targets from other places based on a 1990 baseline.

    “If pegged to 1990 levels, Canadian carbon reductions would amount to a mere three percent, critics note. And carbon emissions are currently up more than 35 percent from 1990.”

  11. Burning fossil fuels costs the U.S. $120 billion a year — not counting mercury or climate impacts!

    “The report estimates dollar values for several major components of these costs. The damages the committee was able to quantify were an estimated $120 billion in the U.S. in 2005, a number that reflects primarily health damages from air pollution associated with electricity generation and motor vehicle transportation. The figure does not include damages from climate change, harm to ecosystems, effects of some air pollutants such as mercury, and risks to national security, which the report examines but does not monetize.”

  12. We can afford to save the planet

    By Eban Goodstein, Frank Ackerman and Kristen Sheeran
    Friday, October 23, 2009

    Here is the good news on the climate front: The Europeans have ratcheted down their emissions targets, the Chinese are getting serious about solar power and energy efficiency, and Washington is lumbering toward a carbon cap.

    These are steps toward the long-held goal: cutting global warming pollution 80 percent by 2050. Such cuts would stabilize the thickness of the heat-trapping carbon dioxide blanket surrounding the planet at 450 parts per million (ppm) and, we’ve been told, ensure that the global average temperature increase would not exceed 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from 1990 levels.

    The bad news? Turns out that 450 ppm is so 2005.

    In the past four years, climate scientists, led by NASA’s James Hansen, have dramatically altered the goal. To avoid the collapse of the continental ice-sheets and a dangerous rise in sea levels, many scientists are now saying we have to get down to 350 ppm, and quickly.

    This means what was already a heroic (and to many, impossible) target has become mind-boggling. Reaching 350 ppm would require a 97 percent reduction in emissions, entailing a complete conversion to renewable energy systems by mid-century, with the world economy virtually free of carbon emissions. Such a goal is far more demanding than any of the leading policy proposals under discussion.

  13. What’s really behind the government’s resistance to meaningful action on climate change?

    One clue lies in Prentice’s very first speech as environment minister. In Lake Louise nearly a year ago, Prentice pledged that he would never “aggravate an already weakening economy in the name of environmental progress.” In other words, he sees a zero-sum game of economy vs. environment, and economy always wins.

    This runs counter to modern ideas of sustainable development and green growth, which are now part of mainstream business thinking. As countries around the world act to cut emissions, the federal government’s approach risks putting Canada at a serious disadvantage in the global race for clean energy jobs.

    (Fortunately, not all Canadian governments take this approach. The day our study was published, newspapers also reported on an independent assessment of the economic impacts of Ontario’s new Green Energy Act. It concluded that renewable power will produce $4.5 billion in economic gains in the province in the next two decades.)

  14. ‘Clean energy superpower’ an empty buzzword, say insiders
    By Carl Meyer

    The Harper government’s three-year effort to market Canada as a “clean energy superpower” does not appear to have caught on with energy industry insiders, with many dismissing the term as empty words.

    However, there is also a sense that if the government can somehow turn that widespread obliviousness around, the branding effort could pay big dividends in the long-run.

    Prime Minister Stephen Harper first tried out the term during a 2007 speech, saying: “Canada must not be merely an energy superpower, but a clean energy superpower.”

    Since then, it has been increasingly used by Mr. Harper and other Cabinet ministers to describe the government’s attempt to protect traditional Canadian energy exports by promising to be a better environmental steward. The expression figured prominently in the 2010 Speech from Throne, and has been used in reference to natural resource development projects, federal regulatory changes to the energy sector, infrastructure and technology investments, and public outreach initiatives.

    But while Canada’s status as a major exporter of energy is well-known throughout the industry, Embassy found that only a small proportion of attendees at the World Energy Congress in Montreal last week could identify the phrase “clean energy superpower” in relation to its connection with Canada.

  15. That has left people like Ken struggling to keep body and soul together. He describes how he gave up his cooking job to look after his ailing mother in 2007. When he started to look for work again a few months later, he could find only a part-time job, which soon evaporated. He had no savings, so could no longer afford to rent. He wound up in a tent in a camp for the homeless called Pinellas Hope, which was set up by the Catholic church in the town of Clearwater, 50 miles up the coast from Sarasota. He is relatively lucky: Steve Barton, a carpenter from Ohio, is one of several hundred living in the woods outside Venice, 20 miles south of Sarasota. He has been out of work for over two years, so is no longer eligible for unemployment payments. He lives entirely off charity.

    In addition to the cooks, chambermaids and construction workers who hit the skids soon after the recession began, many former professionals have now exhausted their savings and are beginning to fall back on local charities. Angie Sammann, a former loan officer at a bank, is another of the tent-dwellers at Pinellas Hope. She tells the story of how she lost her job due to illness, then her apartment, then part-time work in a deli, then the room she was renting and finally the possessions she had put in storage. She got a month’s work from the Census Bureau last year, but otherwise has not seen a pay cheque for over a year. “I don’t care if I scrub toilets,” she says, “I just want a job.”

  16. Climate change to cost Canada billions: panel

    By David Ljunggren

    OTTAWA | Thu Sep 29, 2011 4:55pm EDT

    (Reuters) – Climate change will cause damage in Canada equivalent to around 1 percent of GDP in 2050 as rising temperatures kill off forests, flood low-lying areas and cause more illnesses, an official panel said on Thursday.

    The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy said Canada’s Conservative government – criticized by green activists for not doing enough to fight global warming – should take measures to mitigate the effects of climate change, which most scientists blame on greenhouse gas emissions.

    The north of Canada, the world’s second largest country, is warming up at a much faster pace than the rest of the Earth.

    “Climate change presents a growing, long-term economic burden for Canada,” said the NRTEE, which the government set up in 1988 to provide advice on environmental issues.

  17. People really don’t get that intuitively.

    They still see ‘the environment’ as a combination of parks and wilderness – not as the necessary basis for all human life.

  18. Byron Smith tried to post this comment on March 28th, but it got eaten by my spam filter:

    Yep, that’s why I generally try to avoid using the term “environment” and its cognates. I made an exception for the quote.

    I thought it was one of the more effective parts of An Inconvenient Truth when Gore showed an image (used by someone else) with a pair of scales balancing some gold bars on one side (economy) with a globe on the other (“environment”) and simply said something like “hmmm, gold bars… or, the entire planet?”

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