Misuse of natural resources is stealing our kids' futureJune 6, 2011
By Christopher Hume
We are all thieves, says Stewart Elgie, stealing from our kids. Though unwitting, our behaviour is no less obnoxious.
The University of Ottawa professor who chairs Sustainable Prosperity, a green economy think tank, is referring to the way Canadians use natural resources.
“We’re exploiting our natural resources 50 per cent faster than the planet can restore them,” Elgie charges. “That means we’re sending a bill to the future. We’re consuming our kids’ natural capital. In effect, we’re stealing from them.”
But, he adds, “The problem isn’t people’s values; the thing that’s holding them back from investing in renewable energy is that it costs more. We think that clean energy is the enemy of economic markets, but that’s only because markets don’t tell the whole truth.”
If we had to pay the full cost of our life style, we’d change our habits — and quickly.
That’s why Elgie’s report, Advancing the Economics of Biodiversity in Canada, to be released Monday, argues that market forces could be the answer to the country’s environmental crisis, not the cause.
He uses the example of coal power, which generates one quarter of the electricity used in Ontario, as well as much of the province’s air pollution: “The cost of air pollution to the health system is $9 billion annually,” Elgie notes. “But we don’t pay that cost, so we think coal is cheaper than solar and wind power.”
The same logic applies with water. As he says, “Charging the real price of water would help conservation enormously.” In Britain, where water costs three times as much as it does in Canada, people use one third as much as we do.
And let’s not forget other natural features we take for granted — trees, swamps, wetlands, fields and so on.
Assign an economic value to those natural phenomena and the results are shocking. “The estimated cost of the ecological services provided by the green belt in Ontario is $2.6 billion,” Elgie reports. “That’s how much it would cost to build the infrastructure of flood control, water purification, pollination and wildlife habitat.”
“Because we don’t pay the true value,” he says, “we’re wasting our natural capital even though our lives depend on it. We should be living off nature’s interest, not its capital. We have to learn to live within our means ecologically.”
This message is one that has been heard before, but most Canadians remain blasé about the environment. Indeed, aided and abetted by political leaders from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, we are well into a period of collective denial.
The consequences will be disastrous for Canada’s economy as well as its environment. Elgie points to the US, where back in the 1970s, then-President Jimmy Carter turned that country a world leader in renewable energy. Then along came Ronald Reagan, who promptly undid these measures in an attempt to turn back the clock. Many companies moved to Europe — not Canada — and 35 years later, we’re importing equipment from there.
Even the Chinese are ahead of Canada in terms of its environmental policies: “For a couple of years,” Elgie explains, “China has been embarked on a hugely ambitious program to charge the full cost of environmental resources that are used.”
In contrast, Canadians are moving backwards, growing even more profligate in our energy usage, and somehow managing to convince ourselves that such is our right.
It’s unlikely one document can change a nation that has lost its way, but it’s another reminder that sooner or later the price must be paid, either by us or our kids.