Posted at Americas Quarterly on September 8, 2010.
With all the recent talk about a slow economic recovery and rising unemployment in the United States, there is a real risk that major environmental concerns will once again get overlooked for the sake of achieving renewed growth. Worse still, the failure of the UN Copenhagen Conference of 2009 to achieve substantive gains and the inability of the U.S. Congress to pass climate change legislation could lead many observers to conclude that the push for sustainable economic development is losing momentum. Based on some recent trends and events, however, I believe neither is happening and that the general consensus of the past decade that economic prosperity must not be achieved at the expense of environmental conservation is holding firm.
The quest for renewable energy sources and the development of green technology is generally supported by policymakers across the globe. The lack of progress at the Copenhagen summit had more to do with the process than an absence of conviction. Countries throughout the hemisphere, from Chile to Canada and Quebec realize the threat that global warming poses to our collective future.
The emerging debate around the exploration of shale gas in the Northeast of the North American continent is evidence that the economic potential of this resource should not blind us to the concerns of local populations regarding the technology used and its possible impact on the environment. New York State is in the process of establishing a moratorium on shale gas exploration in order to conduct further studies on its environmental consequences. Pennsylvania, which has embarked on an aggressive initiative to explore shale gas, has also substantially increased the number of its environmental inspectors. Just recently, the Quebec government asked its environmental assessment agency to conduct a thorough study of shale gas exploration with the promise that legislation will follow that takes into consideration the studies’ results.
Later this month, a not-for-profit, non-partisan organization called The Climate Group will hold the second annual Climate Week NYC on the sidelines of the United Nations’ General Assembly meeting. Their goal is to create a global forum to mobilize an international public-private response to climate change. Its first edition, in 2009, included speakers from around the world, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Quebec Premier Jean Charest. What is noteworthy about Climate Week is the increasing engagement of key corporate players, regional governments—including federated states like Quebec and California—and political leaders from around the world. The Climate Group is now also fostering the development of electric vehicles through its EV 20 initiative. The message is clear: sustainable economic growth cannot be achieved without considering environmental impact at all stages of development.
Those who believe climate change is the result of human activity must not despair at the slow pace of progress. Renewable energy is now considered a crucial part of the equation to achieve energy independence in North America, and to reduce dependence on fossil fuel sources. The potential of green technology for building a new manufacturing base is now being acknowledged throughout the business community in both the U.S. and Canada, and their investments reflect this.
Another encouraging recent development came from Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish academic who became famous in part because of his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, when he announced that he will soon publish a book that acknowledges global warming as a man-made phenomenon and proposes that governments invest heavily in developing technology to fight climate change.
The policy debate on the best way to promote sustainable development will doubtless continue for the foreseeable future. High unemployment rates create a sense of urgency and a tendency to look for short cuts. But the discussion is repeatedly on the means, not the end. Some will argue that taxation and regulation are the best means to combine economic progress with the environment. Others like Lomborg will argue for market-driven investments in technology to correct and prevent threats to the environment. The BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, just like the Three Mile nuclear incident in the 1970s, illustrates how fragile the connection between the environment and the economy can be. Placing both concerns on an equal footing is a winning proposition and remains the best course for the future.