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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 1 | Jan. 2, 2003

Media Coverage Misses Key Issues of Kyoto Accord Says UBC Professor

While Alberta remains locked in battle with Ottawa over ratification of the Kyoto Accord and its costs, John Robinson sees an opportunity for British Columbia to lead the way in tackling the climate change issue by championing sustainability. It’s the best strategy for saving Mother Earth and one that can generate economic benefits too, Robinson believes.

The current flurry of media attention on the Kyoto Accord has focussed almost entirely on the question of the expected costs of meeting the Kyoto target for Canada. In doing so it has miscast the issue and ignored the key message of recent research and activity in the climate change arena. This message has to do with the degree to which investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy will itself stimulate both technological and institutional innovation that will take us down new pathways that might be much more desirable than what would happen if we don’t do this.

This crucial point emerges directly from the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 2001, where several hundred expert authors and reviewers examined the academic literature on climate change emission reduction. What we discovered in that work was that achieving sustainable development is the single most important thing we can do to reach our long-term climate change targets (which go well beyond the Kyoto targets). The reason is simple. If we can manage, as a world, to get on technological and socio-economic development pathways that are sustainable, we will have very low emissions, even without any explicit climate policies (since many policies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be done for other reasons). The extra climate policies required to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at a reasonable level will be relatively minor. But if we are on a high-emissions path, then the additional climate policy required to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at a reasonable level will be massive and prohibitively expensive.

In other words, getting on the right development path is more important than implementing any particular climate policy. And early introduction of carbon-saving technologies would have the positive effect of lowering their costs in the long run due to economies of scale and learning by doing. This renders static costs assessments irrelevant. The costs of mitigation are a function of the development path taken!

The importance of this point is that there are many other reasons to get on a sustainable development path. And many of them offer remarkable business opportunities. To give just one example, the urban population of the world is going to increase by about 50 per cent over the next 30 years. And all these cities need to address the same ten challenges: clean air, clean water, water supply, energy, transportation, land use, jobs, housing, health care and waste disposal. Most of them are doing an inadequate job of many of these ten challenges already and the job is going to get about twice as hard over the next few decades as populations and economies grow.

This is a tremendous economic opportunity. The World Bank has estimated that trillions of dollars of new urban infrastructure will have to be built over the next decade. Who is going to get a piece of this action? My belief is that those who can deliver technologies and services in a more sustainable fashion, including the use of low-carbon technologies, will have a major competitive advantage.

This is the opportunity represented by the Kyoto targets. The countries, and companies, that move fastest in developing technologies and processes that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve environmental quality, and create jobs are likely to do rather well in a more crowded and congested future. It is not that there will not be costs associated with achieving these opportunities. But incurring these costs will give rise to both environmental and economic benefits: they are investments in a more sustainable world.

Moreover, achieving sustainable development futures will require massive innovation, and the development of new
technologies and services, including especially new telecommunications and information technologies. As a result, moving in this direction is strongly consistent with, and supportive of, the development of the new information economy the pundits tell us is necessary for Canada to achieve prosperity in the future.

So the politicians who voice fears about the costs of Kyoto are actually thinking about the issue the wrong way. In fact,
it is failing to act on the Kyoto opportunity that will pose the real net costs -- environmental, social and economic -- on Canadian society.

John Robinson is a professor at UBC’s Sustainable Development Research Institute. He was Chair of the Canadian Global Change Program’s Panel on Canadian Options for Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions (1992-3) and was a Coordinating Lead Author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for both the Second (1995) and Third (2001) Assessment Reports.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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