Toward a sustainable future (just not quite yet…)

So, as is well-known now, Canada didn’t win the race for the global sustainability standards board

The big prize went to Frankfurt, with Montreal getting what was generally taken to be a kind of consolation prize, a secondary office for “key functions supporting the new board and deeper co-operation with regional stakeholders.” Given that the announcement also referred to offices in London and San Francisco, I couldn’t help feeling a bit uneasy that a major new initiative in sustainability should involve so much new far-flung physical infrastructure. A Globe and Mail story (it was even the lead website story for a while) quoted finance minister Chrystia Freeland as saying, “The new ISSB will create good jobs here in Canada and accelerate growth in the green economy, at home and around the world.” But this is exactly the same language of profit-oriented competition that underlies so much of our existential difficulty, and which sits especially heavily in the wake of the substantial failure of the COP26 summit.

To me at least, a lot of the coverage of the summit seemed dutiful and weary from the start. Perhaps some optimism is justified in that corporate activity at least will gradually be subjected to more rigorous focus. But for the most part, governmental pronouncements ring entirely hollow. A recent interview with Mark Carney in Pivot magazine contained much that sounds generally correct, as far as it goes, while carrying an emptily ritualistic quality, largely untethered to any observable activity:

  • It’s not about walking away from businesses or walking away from sectors, but about moving them forward and investing and we need to do that now with deliberation…
  • …we should be investing all of those (fossil-fuel-related) cash flows in the energies of the future, including the transition of our core businesses, and the building up of skills for people in those areas who work for this business. It’s absolutely doable but, as you know, it won’t happen haphazardly. It has to be done very deliberately, with a clear objective and in a way that brings everyone along…

But then, as Yanis Yaroufakis put it:

  • In one sense, Carney is correct: mountain ranges of cash are lying idly in the global financial system, its ultra-wealthy owners keen to invest it in low-carbon activities. But a private investment in, say, green hydrogen will only return profits if many other investors invest in it too – and so the investors all sit around waiting for each other to be the first. Meanwhile, corporations, communities and states join this waiting game, unwilling to take the risk of committing to green hydrogen until big finance does.

Yaroufakis viewed Cop26 as ultimately “nothing more than an expensive cover-up for continued toxic emissions. Hiding behind Cop26, the great and the good lie to the young, lie to vulnerable people and even lie to themselves by repeating the truth that the ‘money is there’ to be invested in the planet’s salvation.”

The waiting game referred to above is often actively deceitful – as in an example recently pointed out by George Monblot:

  • Germany has promised to phase out coal production by 2038 (far too late, by the way). Yet it is still developing new deposits. For example, the village of Lützerath in North Rhine-Westphalia, which sits above a thick seam of the filthiest kind of coal – lignite – is currently being destroyed. But if Germany abides by its own rule, the mine will need to be abandoned before it reaches full production. So either homes and forests are being trashed for no reason, or the German government doesn’t intend to honour its promise.

In using the phrase “as far as it goes” above, I was in part flagging that every social and industrial revolution has losers, people or entire communities who are inevitably left behind. To some extent, despite the best intentions, it will have to be about walking away from sectors, businesses, potential profits. The political reluctance to acknowledge this is understandable, but deadly; the premise that this needn’t entail real loss and sacrifice is cowardly. It often seems that we’re not collectively capable of even the easiest steps. In Toronto where I’m located, there was recently an announcement of a high-end “car condo,” a 180,000 square foot facility in which owners of luxury vehicles might store their cars. Obviously such projects are criticizable on many fronts, but even cursory consideration of the resources and energy consumed in such a project (and the largely useless items to be housed within it) should put it beyond the pale. But such things tend to be seen as oddities rather than as central manifestations of our malaise (of which the building and construction industry is hardly a minor part). If we can’t even close down the absurdity of a car condo, what can we do?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author

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