What if Durban doesn’t matter?

The end is near...or not

If you’re like me, you care about the future of the planet and believe we need to do everything we can to protect it. If you’re even more like me, you were both dismayed and ashamed by what our leaders failed to do in Durban last month – failed to recognize that our unrestrained carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels have put the planet on an express train to catastrophe, failed to recognize that fairness and short-term economic growth do not matter in the face of disaster, and failed to pull out all the stops to reach a new agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. And, if you very much like me, and happen to be Canadian, you’re disgusted by the fact that our leaders added insult to injury by choosing that decisive moment to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.

While the Durban debacle was taking place, I was attending the CanSIA Solar Canada conference. The commuter train ride between Toronto and my home in Guelph gave me plenty of time to ponder. I was in a state of disbelief, shock, and shame. How could I tell my kids about this? What would they say?

I know what it is to look back at the previous generation with bitter resentment. The leaders they chose concluded that economic growth would continue forever, so why not borrow against that growth to make things better today? The result was an unsustainable collection of services that eventually had to be trimmed or cancelled, and a crushing burden of debt which my generation – and likely the generations to follow – will now have to repay.

I can bitch and complain that my parents borrowed in my name and without my permission. But if I do, I’m a complete hypocrite. My generation has topped the one that came before. A First Nations adage says, “We do not inherit the earth from our parents; we borrow it from our children.” With the Durban disappointment, we have failed our children beyond all imagination. We have bequeathed them a planet which will turn on them in a myriad of ways, be it increasingly capricious and violent weather, famine and starvation due to lower crop yields, some rivers running dry while others flood furiously, more violent civil and international conflicts over food and water and land, and ecosystems collapsing under the weight of runaway climate change.

Or have we?

Perhaps all is not gloom and doom. Perhaps hope still remains. Perhaps Durban doesn’t matter.

Our national leaders have adopted an ostrich mentality, but federal governments are not the only thing that matters in this world. I am an individual, and I can make change on behalf of myself and my family. My purchasing decisions can affect change in the corporations that supply me with goods and services. I vote and pay taxes in my city and my province; those two levels of government can take up the torch – or the solar-charged LED flashlight – where our federal government has thrown it down with such short-sighted cowardice.

Despite being otherwise allergic to anything green, Canada’s ruling Conservative Party renewed a program called EcoEnergy. This provides rebates to homeowners for improvements that enhance home energy efficiency. I’ve taken advantage of this program in my last two homes, reducing the cost of a new furnace, an on-demand water heater, insulation, windows, and exterior doors. These upgrades reduced the amount of energy my homes required for heating and cooling, and in turn reduced my electricity and natural gas bills.

Even without the government subsidies, these improvements make good economic sense. Anyone that owns a building has a built-in incentive to be green, and many property owners are taking advantage. This runs counter to the prevailing wisdom that people are only interested in being green when the economy is booming – when money is tight, it makes sense to save wherever possible.

Businesses have an additional green incentive that has nothing to do with global diplomacy. In businesses where competition is stiff and differentiation difficult, it can be advantageous to cater to the green-minded. This applies in the battle for talent just as it does in the battle for customers. Google, for example, has taken its informal motto – “Don’t be evil” – to a different level with its significant investments in renewable energy. These enhance its brand, giving Google a leg up over other Silicon Valley companies seeking to attract the best and the brightest.

Municipalities also have a role to play in fighting climate change. The City of Guelph was well-represented at Solar Canada – Mayor Karen Farbridge gave a plenary session address describing the city’s Community Energy Initiative, and CEI General Manager Rob Kerr served as a panelist in a breakout discussion. The CEI includes innovative ideas such as constructing two solar parks within the city limits, developing district energy and combined heat and power, as well as a grassroots program offering energy efficiency retrofits to homeowners at no charge. The objective is to consume less energy and emit less carbon in 25 years than the city does today, while growing its population by 40%.

Then there are states and provinces. Many US states have introduced a Renewable Portfolio Standard, which mandates that a certain percentage of energy produced in the state must be from renewable sources by a specified target date. In Canada, the provinces of Ontario and Nova Scotia have introduced Feed-In Tariff programs, to purchase electricity from renewable sources at a premium rate. This is encouraging investment in wind, solar, tidal, and biomass energy, all of which are helping to reduce our dependence on carbon-laden fossil fuels.

It would have been inspiring if the nations represented at Durban had come to a new agreement to limit carbon emissions, and we must all play our part to convince our elected representatives that they have made a huge mistake. However, it is possible that Durban is not the end of the world. Between individuals, corporations, municipalities, and states/provinces, many exciting things are happening to stave off climate change.

And, if the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow.

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