Reducing your own carbon footprint is great, but it won’t save the planet unless governments and corporations step up

What are the most personal causes that stir the hearts of our nation’s political leaders? The Star asked the leaders of Canada’s major political parties to share the issues that move them deeply. Today, in the second of a series, we look at the importance of fighting climate change, the cause chosen by federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

When Aliénor Rougeot realized the planet was in trouble, she knew she needed to change her lifestyle to reduce waste and fight climate change. She tried to cut down how much she uses cars, switched to a plant-based diet, and started buying her clothes from thrift shops or companies she knew had ethical and sustainable practices.

The University of Toronto economics and public policy student even organized a campaign to reduce single-use plastics on campus, feeling proud of her success in helping her peers make better choices. But right around that time, Nestle bought a well for its bottled water operation in Centre Wellington, Ont., that the township wanted for its own future drinking supply.

“For the few bottles we reduced on my small campus, we just had a whole new industry setting up near us,” said Rougeot, 20.

The incident, and many others like it, made it seem like her personal actions were being undermined.

“It’s extremely distressing. Part of it is being angry and overwhelmed by the fact that (industries) apparently don’t feel responsible or don’t feel accountable for their actions which are way more significant than ours,” Rougeot said. “The reason I became more of an activist is because one day I realized with all these small changes I make … there’s a big company that does a whole thing that’s going to harm the environment.”

Although she still feels individual actions play an important role in the battle, Rougeot now also advocates striking, voting and pushing employers, governments and corporations to overhaul an economy that could do irreparable damage to the planet.

“I do believe our individual lives will have to change but I don’t think it’s up to the individual,” said Rougeot, adding that sustainable lifestyles are tough for less privileged people. “It’s the government and the private sector’s role to make these changes so acceptable that it’s just a question of opting into it.”

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Experts studying climate change agree. While individual actions that lead to more sustainable lifestyles are commendable, they’re not going to save the Earth on their own, they say. Instead, what’s needed is an overhaul of our way of life, a mobilization by governments and corporations of resources and people at wartime levels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before it’s too late.

And this, they say, is a critical moment.

“It’s not individuals changing light bulbs, it is governments that are called on by the people who elected them to put our public money where it needs to go,” said Angela Carter, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo who specializes in environmental policy and politics. “This involves everybody in the world. It’s all of our futures.”

An October 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that in order to keep the Earth from warming no more than 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, as opposed to 2 C, global emissions of greenhouse gases would need to fall to net zero by 2050. The difference of half a degree is monumental, and would have far reaching impacts in terms of extreme weather, Arctic sea ice and coral reefs.

Carter says the consensus is that 2020 is a make-it-or-break-it year in terms of meeting emissions targets to get to net zero emissions by 2050.

“We don’t have any time. We need to act right now — we needed to act 30 years ago,” she said. “So when you see people in the streets with signs that say ‘This is our last chance, last chance for a safe climate,’ that’s what they’re getting at.”

We need huge public investment, from public transit to mass retrofitting of buildings to holding fossil fuel companies accountable, she says.

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Corporations, which can transcend governments, need to be regulated, but they also can work to make a difference on their own, says Deborah Harford, an expert in climate change adaptation based at Simon Fraser University.

“I think government needs to require corporations to be good citizens, but I think corporations, just like all the rest of us, can choose to be good citizens above and beyond what’s required,” Harford said.

“If individuals are trying their best to live sustainable lifestyles and we’re expected to treat corporations as individuals — they have the rights of personhood — then they should be expected to as well.”

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That doesn’t mean we should give up if corporations don’t step up. Individual actions do make a difference, Harford says, particularly as Canada produces more greenhouse gas emissions per capita than any other G20 country and is “exporting a lifestyle” through film and television that developing countries aspire to.

But “it’s a real mistake for us to think that green consumerism can solve climate change,” she added. “It can’t.”

It’s not that we don’t know what to do, but that leaders won’t do it, says Ian Mauro, an associate professor of geography at the University of Winnipeg and co-director of the Prairie Climate Centre, at what he calls a “critical” and “existential” moment for the country.

“We don’t have time to jockey around this issue. The idea that climate change has become a political football in Canada is insane,” Mauro said.

If global warming is to be held to under 1.5 C, the science is clear that carbon pollution needs to be cut by 45 per cent by 2030 to come down to net zero by 2050.

“This isn’t a 12-year timeline. We have to literally peak in the next year or so to meet those longer-term targets,” Mauro said. “The deep cuts in emissions need to take place have to start immediately.”

He says Canadians need leaders who are ready to make tough choices, and should go to the polls looking not for rhetoric but for the strategies that can get solutions at the biggest scale the quickest.

“People are saying this is an existential threat to human survival,” Mauro said. “That sounds like hyperbole, but this is real.”

But it doesn’t mean people should give up, says Carter. She’s encouraging participation in a massive global climate strike planned for the week of Sept 20-27. Inspired by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg and her “Fridays for Future” school walkouts, the call has been taken up by labour, faith and Indigenous communities and it could become the largest climate mobilization in history. Rougeot is one of the Toronto organizers.

Thunberg, who rejects air travel, recently arrived in New York City for upcoming climate talks after crossing the Atlantic in a zero-emissions yacht.

What can make a real difference, Carter said, is “a show of people power — that we want action on the climate crisis and we need it right now, today.”

May Warren
Sahar Fatima

TORONTO STAR

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