Editorial: Technology’s promise
By Patrick Flannery
Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall released a white paper recently calling for a different approach to fighting climate change. In it, he identified “adaptation, innovation and taxation” as the three possible ways to address the problem.
He said taxation does the most harm to the economy and the least to actually reduce emissions. Among other things, he called on the federal government to take the $2.65 billion it plans to give to developing countries and put it into the Low Carbon Economy Trust, where it can be used to fund Canadian research and innovation into helpful technologies.
This sounds like something our industry could get behind. At this summer’s Glass Connections in Ottawa we heard from Mark Silverberg of Technoform that studies show the building products industry can have by far the greatest impact on improving the overall sustainability of our economies – more even than sectors like energy or transportation. The Saskatchewan white paper mentions carbon capture and nuclear energy, but proposals for innovations that generate energy from building envelopes and help buildings to be carbon-neutral should also be well received.
I’ve always been uncomfortable with the amount of focus governments have placed on conservation in their policy responses to the climate change threat. I understand why this has happened. Scientists have told us we need to do something quick, and turning off the lights is something that can happen right away. The problem is, it is rather difficult to work in the dark. The reality is, most conservation measures equate to a reduction in economic activity. Green industries specializing in climate-friendly products and services have so far relied heavily on government subsidies, which make the green economy a matter of wealth redistribution, not a genuinely new wealth-producing sector. Attempts to force consumer and industrial behaviour into climate-friendly directions through taxation have the same chilling effect on profits, household incomes and employment. We know we can reduce energy use by inducing recession, but the severity of recession that it would take to make the kind of reductions scientists call for would create more problems than it would solve. We live now in an urban, industrialized society. A return to horses and buggies is simply not feasible without a tragic human cost. Add to that the observation that tax dollars do not always seem to go where they are supposed to, and I can see where taxation is the least attractive of Wall’s three approaches. Cap-and-trade programs (taxation by another name) have a terrible track record for reducing emissions, mostly because they are actually focused on allowing emitters to continue emitting, albeit at a fee.
The white paper mentions adaptation, and this will indeed need to be an area for investment as the environment is impacted by climate change. But that’s obviously a matter of closing the barn door after the horse has left. We should feel some moral responsibility to prevent, as much as we can now, the species extinctions and environmental destruction that climate change will cause.
All things considered, I think developing new technologies that will deliver the benefits of industrial society without emitting greenhouse gasses is our best approach to really solving the climate change problem for the long term. And development and marketing of new technologies is an economic engine, not a brake.