The human tragedy; the social and economic chaos engendered by the Coronavirus Pandemic now sweeping the globe is something completely unprecedented for those of us alive today, but it has in a few months accomplished more positives for the earth environment than many years of often acrimonious wrangling about greenhouse gas reductions by various world leaders. This is immediately obvious when viewing satellite images recording global air pollution; the vast splotches of nitrogen dioxide covering most of Europe and Asia until recently have almost completely disappeared in the last three months as economic and industrial activity ground to a halt. A supreme irony is that this tragedy may well save more lives due to improved air quality than are lost to the virus!

Similar reductions of fossil fuel use could very well be what we should expect from the imposition of a truly effective, meaningful carbon tax on the world’s economy, and world leaders are very aware of this.

Jessica Jewell in the highly respected British science journal, Nature (16 September, 2019), has argued that to lower the use of fossil fuels to the level required to meet Greenhouse Gas reduction targets set at the Paris Accord, carbon taxes as high as several thousand US dollars per tonne of CO2 by 2030 might be required! The $50.00 per tonne our policy makers are proposing here in Canada by that date do nothing other than give the appearance of environmental concern to an uninformed electorate. BUT THEY DO ALLOW FOR BUSINESS AS USUAL. Statistics Canada documents show that in British Columbia, the province with the arguably most ‘progressive’ carbon tax in the country, gasoline and diesel fuel use increased every year along with annual incremental, relatively minor carbon tax increases.

If we want to do something meaningful we can’t go back to business as usual!

This pandemic is certainly a tragedy for individual humans but as a threat to human civilization it is far less serious than many other threats we face globally as human population numbers increase. Only a hundred years ago when we numbered 1.5 billion people on this planet the Spanish Flu wiped out an estimated 80 million of us, and two years later when the virus had run it’s course we embarked on ‘The Roaring Twenties’ – a time of unprecedented economic growth. Economic growth unfortunately accompanied by dramatic human population growth.

Today there are almost 8 billion of us competing for the earth’s increasingly scarce resources and polluting it’s air, water and land surface. We and our domestic livestock now comprise 96 per cent of all mammal biomass on earth! All other wild mammals – elephants; blue whales; deer; rabbits and all the myriad other species add up to the remaining 4 per cent! Skewed, exponential growth increases like this can’t go on much longer, and even if they could, would we want such a world?

Ever since 1972 when Limits to Growth, commissioned by the Club of Rome was published, we have known that unfettered growth in a finite world is unsustainable. Twenty years after Limits to Growth, an increasingly aware and critical citizenry was the impetus for the first United Nations Climate Change conference at Rio; the objective was to gradually reduce global greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide and the above nitrogen dioxide, considered responsible for worrisome increases in global temperature. Unfortunately but predictably, world leaders more concerned about maintaining economic growth than about environmental considerations then, and in the half dozen or so similar conferences since, have achieved essentially nothing in the way of greenhouse gas reductions. Along with constant economic growth, these gasses have increased every year since.

It should be noted there is no such thing as a growing economy without a corresponding growth in energy consumption, and for the foreseeable, near-term future that energy will be derived from fossil fuels. Renewable energy provides only a very small percentage of our energy needs.

Perhaps most worrisome in current public debates over environmental concerns is that in the furor over greenhouse gasses, broad public debate about arguably many even more important concerns such as species disappearance, growing wealth disparity, increasing militarization and the growing ‘takeover’ of the earth by our human species, have been pushed into the background. We do hear about these ‘Development’ issues of course but just as with the debates over greenhouse gas reductions, virtually nothing is done about the problems. And how could we expect anything other when capitalism and economic growth are the ruling paradigms in our world?

The pandemic we are now experiencing will pass, as they have in earlier periods of history but if we focus on our economy “roaring back’ afterwards, as our Canadian Prime Minister has forecast; if we go back to business as usual we will have learned nothing. If we hope to avert a far greater calamity down the road we must look upon this experience as an opportunity for a ‘re-set’ of our civilization. As an initial step it is time for world leaders to examine means of developing a stable, rather than a growing economy.

Try to imagine how much simpler the current problems of preventing a complete collapse of our economy would be if all the plethora of economic support programs in Canada – pensions, supplements, disability payments, employment insurance payouts, etc. were all rolled into one guaranteed minimum income, and already in place. Consider if government sponsored infrastructure spending was increasingly and proportionally directed towards affordable, efficient public transport; towards toxic waste cleanup programs; towards more housing for the poor and disadvantaged; Towards an economy less dependant on energy inputs. ‘Maintenance’ programs rather than ‘Growth’ programs.

Whether I or anyone else calls for a re-set, I believe what we are experiencing today will change the world in ways we may scarcely comprehend. Let’s take the opportunity when this pandemic crisis passes to think carefully about how we can in so many ways make the world a healthier and better place. The satellite images reveal a key component to be reduced economic growth; we must spend and consume and waste less!

James Wiebe is an environmentalist writing from  Sonningdale, Sask


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One Comment

  1. Avatar Bob Stuart says:

    A realistic carbon tax would require anyone selling carbon fuel to securely sequester more carbon from the air first. Requiring overall reductions rather than a reduced increase is the only way to restore the ice that used to guide the winds and weather to make farming easy.