By Karen Kelly
Photos by Bryan Gagnon
After decades of watching Canada pursue a half-hearted climate policy, James Meadowcroft says something significant happened during the recent federal campaign.
“The Liberals released a platform that committed Canada to achieving net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. In other words, balancing any remaining carbon emissions with carbon removals,” he notes. “This marked the first time that a party in government has stated clearly that dealing with climate change requires driving GHG emissions to net zero.”
While the platform attracted both complaints and cynicism, Meadowcroft was struck by what it represented: a necessary shift in thinking.
“Once we recognize that fact, it becomes clear that we need dramatic changes in our major systems of social provisioning—the socio-technical systems that allow us to move around, shift freight, generate electricity, live in cities, and produce food.” Today, he says, all these systems are dependent on inputs of GHG-emitting fossil energy.
Meadowcroft recently co-launched The Transition Accelerator, an organization that hopes to accelerate that change. They collaborate with groups around the country to solve major business or social challenges while significantly cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’re engaging with stakeholders to co-develop transition pathways that connect where we are today with visions of a better future,” explains Meadowcroft. “We then build them out through pilot projects, social experiments, and policy reforms.”
Disrupting Established Patterns
Change to large societal systems is not new. Think of the roll out of electricity systems in the first part of the 20th century, the shift to mechanized agriculture using artificial fertilizers, or the rise of computers and smart phones. These large-scale system changes altered the way we live. Similar transitions will be required to deal with GHG emissions, but they are unlikely to come about merely because people are worried about the climate.
“People are not all that eager to upend their lives and transform everything, even if they are concerned about climate change,” says Meadowcroft. “My research suggests that if you want to make these big systems changes to address climate change, it has to be in tandem with the achievement of other societal goals.”
Starting with Cars
Meadowcroft believes that, just as our society switched from horse-drawn transport to automobiles a century ago, we are on the cusp of another big transformation today.
“The auto sector is already being disrupted by electric vehicles, the possibility of autonomous and connected vehicles, and new business models represented by Uber and Lyft. Plus, young people are less eager to buy that first car,” says Meadowcroft.
“Whatever else happens we are looking at a dramatically different personal transport sector in 10 to 20 years’ time. The question is: can we steer this change so the outcomes give us better, cleaner, safer, and cheaper systems that are also good for the climate?”
Meadowcroft acknowledges his research suggests a different approach from the standard preoccupation with carbon taxes.
“In Canada, arguments about carbon pricing have sucked all of the oxygen from the room, taking one policy instrument and elevating it to the heart of the debate,” argues Meadowcroft. “It misses the key insight: that we need a complex mix of policies adjusted to circumstances in each particular sector—personal transport, buildings, agriculture, etc.—to accelerate transformational change.”
Calling All Governments
While Meadowcroft acknowledges there are things individuals can do to reduce their carbon footprint, he argues that large-scale transitions demand government effort. They require education, investment, and new policies to accelerate innovation and spur the adoption of new technologies and social practices.
“Transforming transportation is a complex problem that requires investment and planning over the long-term,” he says. “Overall, we need collective action to make changes at the system level.”
At the Transition Accelerator, Meadowcroft and his colleagues are identifying transformational pathways and then urging governments to collaborate with innovators from business and other social sectors to make them happen.
He says the key role for individuals is to push these same governments politically—whether through the ballot box or more direct forms of action.
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