UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 1 | Jan.
Media Coverage Misses Key Issues of Kyoto Accord Says UBC
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.
Its 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 dont 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
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 UBCs Sustainable
Development Research Institute. He was Chair of the Canadian
Global Change Programs 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.