February 29, 2012

Making choices to foster a green economy

Construction Corner | Korky Koroluk

We've had another call recently, for the development of a green economy in Canada.

It's one of those ideas that is hard to argue with. After all, who doesn't want a greener economy, a greener way of life, a greener world?

The problem, of course, is that the phrase “green economy” means different things to different people.

For some, it means development of more alternative energy or planting more trees or developing a healthy lifestyle that isn’t tied to our automobiles.

Korky Koroluk

Construction Corner

Korky Koroluk

For others, it means anything that reduces environmental impacts, but in ways that don’t sacrifice economic growth and general prosperity. And that’s where things get complicated.

That’s why the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and Sustainable Prosperity, a green economy think tank based at the University of Ottawa, have produced a discussion paper on the role municipalities might play in the quest for a green economy.

It was made public recently at the FCM’s Sustainable Communities Conference.

Not surprisingly, the paper says that cities can work toward a greener economy by focusing on a number of key policy initiatives, including improving public transportation systems, encouraging energy efficiency for buildings, promoting sustainable solid waste management, making better use of renewable resources and taming the old problem of urban sprawl.

It suggests that, among other tools, cities could reduce urban sprawl by adjusting developing fees, and changing property taxes to favour brownfield and infill development.

Also, they could work closely with the federal government to remove subsidies that encourage environmental harm and work with provincial governments to harmonize carbon pricing. None of this is new, but despite all discussions and studies we’ve had in recent years, the paper says “it is unclear whether we are making the right strategic choices today that will win us a share of the new jobs, investment and innovation associated with a greener global economy.”

“We could easily find ourselves watching those benefits flow to other countries and being net consumers of future innovations, instead of net producers.”

Canada began as a country of “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” in the famous biblical phrase.

That is still true to a large extent.

Our natural resource sectors represent about a fifth of our gross domestic product, and much of the activity in the finance, trade, transportation and business service sectors is also tied to resource industries.

The paper points to the Building Canada Fund as an important example of a long-term infrastructure program that has benefited many communities, and underscores the importance of long-term infrastructure development as an investment. It also suggests that Canadians like the idea of re-thinking some federal subsidies.

It notes that even in Alberta, where oil and gas is the big business, 78 per cent of people would prefer to see subsidies for renewable and alternative energy rather than oil and gas development.

This, says the study, is about investing in the future and in a greener economy. It is not about punishing traditional industries. None of our problems can be solved by any one level of government. Federal, provincial and municipal governments must work together, with the lead, perhaps, coming from the municipalities.

They’re the ones closest to the people, and they aren’t bound by partisan politics to the same degree.

That means they’re less prone to ideological gridlock.

David Thompson, one of the report’s authors, has a somewhat acid comment on this point.

“The notable lack of national progress on greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, over two ruling parties and 20 years, demonstrates that action also needs to be taken by other levels of government.”

The paper is called Building Canada’s Green Economy: The Municipal Role. It can be downloaded from www.sustainableprosperity.ca or from www.fcm.ca.

Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

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