In 2015, let’s really talk about sustainability

Let’s have a show of hands: how many of us have already reneged on one or more New Year’s resolutions?

You’re not alone. According to a study recently published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, 45 per cent of us make New Year’s resolutions, but only 8 per cent of us actually succeed.

New Year’s resolutions, it turns out, are just another form of procrastination. Interested in losing weight and getting in shape? Spending more time with family and loved ones? Maybe learning something new? No matter the goal, the best approach, according to a spate of new scientific studies, is to ditch the resolution and just do it. Like, now.

We need to heed this advice on a national level when it comes to energy, the environment and sustainable development. Like, now.

According to a poll recently conducted by Nanos Research, more than 80 per cent of Canadians say that it’s urgent (53 per cent) or somewhat urgent (33 per cent) to have a national conversation about the future of energy and the environment.

For this conversation to succeed, it must meet three conditions.

First, we need to start this conversation right now. We simply don’t have time to plan. Fancy international accords are a luxury we can no longer afford. Signatories to the 2009 Copenhagen Accord — including Canada — resolved to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent of 2005 levels by 2020. Most countries — Canada included — will not meet this goal. Not to worry, now there’s the 2014 Lima Accord, with countries resolving to lower greenhouse gas emissions after 2020. But if we’re ever going to lower greenhouse gas emissions, we have to start now.

Second, we have to stop talking about energy, the environment and the economy as if these are somehow separate and discrete issues. The debate over the development of the tarsands is a case in point. Each proposed oil pipeline project is assessed in isolation and, without exception, approved. The federal administrative agency in charge of making recommendations on proposed energy projects, the National Energy Board, outright refuses to “consider the upstream or downstream activities associated with the development of (the Alberta) oilsands, or the end use of the oil to be transported by the project.”

Come again? According to the Federal Court of Appeal, the National Energy Board is “the main guardian of the public interest in this regulatory area.” And indeed it is, insofar as Prime Minister Harper has made it perfectly clear that he’s going to rely exclusively on the board’s recommendations when it comes to oil pipelines.

The National Energy Board defines its mandate as regulating “pipelines, energy development and trade in the Canadian public interest.” The board defines the “public interest” as “inclusive of all Canadians and refers to a balance of economic, environmental and social considerations that changes as society’s values and preferences evolve over time.”

Which makes perfect sense. The time has come for our government to live up to its own greenwashing rhetoric and begin balancing these critical yet competing considerations.

Finally, we can’t go on ritually incanting the words “sustainable development” as if they’re endowed with magical powers. What does the phrase even mean?

According to the Federal Sustainable Development Act, sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

But what are the “needs of the present”? What if they are in and of themselves utterly unsustainable?

What does it mean to suggest, as countless Canadian commentators unthinkingly do, that we need to develop the tarsands sustainably?

As eight prominent Canadian scientists argued last June in the leading science journal Nature, “no new oil-sands projects should move forward unless developments are consistent with national and international commitments to reducing carbon pollution.”

Yet the tarsands are the fastest growing source of carbon pollution in Canada today. Ritually incanting the term “sustainable development” isn’t going to reverse that destructive trend.

Instead, we need to grow up and realize that we can’t have sustainability without sacrifice. In the legal language of “sustainable development,” we need to learn how to “need” much less than we presently do.

For a glimpse of what an adult version of a national conversation about energy, the environment and the economy actually looks like, look to Norway, a once oil-rich country beginning to contemplate a future without oil.

“It’s really hard for people to see a society without the oil industry,” says Ingrid Skjoldvaer, deputy chair of the aptly named environmental group Nature and Youth. “How is that going to work? What are we going to live off then?”

Good questions. We need to start asking them, too. Like, now.

Jason MacLean

Published in the bi-weekly column, Sustainability Matters, The Chronicle-Journal, Thunder Bay, Tuesday, January 6, 2015