We cannot continue to deliver economic growth at the expense of the environment. Nor can we halt all economic activity in an attempt to arrest climate change and ecological degradation. Instead, we must find a way to reconcile our economic and environmental objectives.
Thankfully, there are many ways in which we can do so. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, we do not have to choose between our environment and our economy. Rather, with smart public policy, we can strengthen both.
Or, to put it another way, we want a green economy both because of the threats posed by our current trajectory of development, and due to the opportunity to unlock new opportunities for jobs and growth while improving the state of the environment.
To better understand why we want a green economy, it makes sense to look at the two drivers of this transitiion: Threats and Opportunities
In terms of threats, the most pressing one is climate change. According to recent analysis, without new policies, we are headed for a 6 degree rise in temperature by the end of the century, which would have incalculable costs to our society and economy.
Consider, for example, that last year alone, there were 12 billion-dollar climate and weather disasters in the U.S. Climate change poses a threat to our oceans, our fisheries, forests, and cropland — every natural system that we depend on. As the esteemed economist Sir Nicolas Stern and Canada’s National Round Table on the Environment and Economy have both concluded, ignoring climate change is more costly than dealing with it. Furthermore, as the International Energy Agency has argued, the longer we wait, the more costly action becomes, while at the same time our ability to avoid the worst impacts is further diminished. In their words, delaying action on climate change is a false economy.
And climate change is only one of many threats. The continued degradation of ecosystems undermines their ability to provide crucial services for us, such as pollination, wastewater treatment, carbon sequestration, and flood protection. By one estimate, Canada’s boreal forest provides about $700 billion worth of these services every year. And Ontario’s greenbelt is similar, estimated to contribute $2.6 billion in non-market services annually. But when we don’t appreciate the value of these services, we degrade the ecosystems which supply them, and ultimately we’re forced to go out of pocket to build waste-water treatment plants, or flood mitigation, or other expensive infrastructure, which is almost always less effective than the wetland, forest, or green space which it is meant to replace.
Continuing down this path does not make sense. We are accruing an ecological deficit, and the longer we let that deficit continue to grow, the more costly it is to service it, and the greater the risk of drastic fallout, beyond our control.
But what’s really exciting is that the pursuit of a green economy is opening up new opportunities for jobs and growth. Indeed, “the greening of economies is not generally a drag on growth but rather a new engine of growth…a net generator of decent jobs.”
Consider the case of renewable energy, which has experienced “torrid growth” in recent years, even during the recession. Over one trillion dollars have now been invested in renewables world-wide. Some 3.7 million people are now employed in renewable energy, and that number is expected to grow, even double, by 2020. China alone boasts over half a million renewable energy jobs. Germany has over 370,000. And the U.S. has 100,000 people employed in the solar photo voltaic industry.
Many Canadian provinces are part of this renewable energy boom, capturing a share of the jobs and economic activity. Nova Scotia has a community-feed in tariff (Com-FIT) program, through which they are building out solar and wind power, and they are manufacturing wind turbine towers in the province as well. Quebec is developing wind power too, and by requiring manufacturers to locate in specific areas, like the Gaspe Peninsula, they are revitalising economically depressed communities. Ontario is home to the world’s best renewable energy program, the Green Energy and Economy Act. The act is dramatically increasing the amount of renewable energy in the province, and thanks to the domestic content requirements, it has attracted over 30 manufacturers to the province.
And renewable energy is only one piece of the green economy. Other opportunities include energy efficiency, particularly for buildings, green chemistry, public transit, hybrid and electric cars, waste management, and more.
As green jobs advocate, Van Jones, points out, everything that is good for the environment is a job.
The green economy is a better economy, with more opportunities for jobs, and for growth thanks to the decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressure.