Kumi Naidoo, a veteran of the apartheid struggles in South Africa, is now executive director of Greenpeace International. Walking along the beach with him the other day in Durban, where we are attending the United Nations climate-change negotiations, I asked him whether he’d played there as a child. He gave me an odd look and replied slowly, carefully choosing his words: “Oh no,” he said. “Though we would stand over there sometimes and watch the white children play. We weren’t allowed to play on the beach.”
Our world has entirely changed in the past 20 years. Undoubtedly, it will change again in the next two decades. The untold story in Durban during these climate negotiations is how the change we’re currently experiencing is creating a cleaner, safer and more stable economy. The pace of change of both renewable energy and energy efficiency technology and investment in the past two years is faster than the change in the past 20. In 2009 and 2010, the UN says, investment in new renewable electricity capacity exceeded the combined new investment of coal, gas and nuclear combined.
We’re truly living a tipping point in which the foundation of industrial activity is being re-envisioned. Once the pipe dream of some West Coast hippies, renewable energy, super-efficient high-speed electric rail and electric cars are now big business and possible at a scale many didn’t think possible just a couple of years ago. This year, solar achieved price parity with coal in Australia. The basic fact is that the initial infrastructure spending is starting to look a lot more attractive as oil prices rise.
This week, Environment Minister Peter Kent delivered a speech that caused Canadians at the conference to apologize profusely to other delegates. Youth activists received applause from governments around the world when they protested during Mr. Kent’s speech. Many of these countries are experiencing the brutal impact of climate change. Estimates this year are that 300 million people have lost their homes or been pushed to extreme poverty as a result of the increase in violent storms and droughts and the related spiralling food prices and water scarcity.
The developing countries and big emerging economies have clearly stated that they’re willing to do their part, but only if developed countries take responsibility for the mess we’re in (there’s a time lag between carbon release and impact, and the current climatic changes are a result of the carbon locked into the atmosphere from pollution the developed world has spewed out) and recommit to existing agreements (referred to as the second round of Kyoto).
Canada’s position that it won’t agree to Kyoto or talk about a legally binding agreement until 2015 is swinging a wrecking ball through the conference.
The saddest conversation I had this week was with an older European diplomat. “What happened to the Canada that was always a problem-solver and a leader on the world stage?” he asked me. Today, our policy seems to be written in the oil patch or in Washington. It’s true that oil is an economic engine in this country, but by making it the only game in town, our government is building an extremely fragile house of cards that is increasingly dependent on volatile oil prices and saddles us with a massive toxic and carbon footprint.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is underestimating the capacity of Canadians to rise to the challenge of creating a new green economy. If there were any doubt that it could be done, we have only to look to Germany. It has become one of the world’s solar leaders, creating more than a quarter of a million jobs in the past decade and untold millions of dollars in revenue.
On the opening day of the Durban summit, Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate negotiator, quoted Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” I’m sure it seemed impossible to the black children on the beach all those years ago that they would ever see a day when they would have the freedom to leap in the surf like the other kids.
We will build a safer, cleaner, low-carbon economy in Canada and, in fact, globally. It will happen by design or default. The countries that step up and design the transition will be world leaders and will be able to proudly tell their children of how we narrowly escaped having so much carbon trapped in the atmosphere that there was no turning back. What story will we be telling in Canada?
Tzeporah Berman is co-director of Greenpeace International’s climate and energy program. Her first book, This Crazy Time , was just published by Knopf Canada.