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Ole Hendrickson
Balancing our climate books: Why ecological debt matters

| November 4, 2015
Photo: Oxfam International/flickr

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The drumbeat of rhetoric about debt is unceasing. Even while running up the federal debt, Conservatives emphasized the negative aspects of annual public deficits and accumulated public debt as a major campaign theme. New Democrats promised balanced federal budgets. Many voters seemed comfortable with the Liberals' pledge to finance infrastructure spending through annual deficits.

Canada's federal debt was around $400 billion in 1992, and had grown to around $612 billion in 2014 -- roughly a $200-billion increase over a quarter century.

While monetary debt was a major issue in the recent election, none of the major parties chose to discuss ecological debt. 

Measuring ecological debt

Does ecological debt matter? How big is it?

Over the past 25 years Canada's annual carbon dioxide emissions averaged roughly half a billion tons per year, perhaps 12.5 billion tons in total. At the current European Union carbon market price of $10.8 euros ($15.56 Canadian dollars) per ton, this translates to a $195-billion debt increase. Some countries' governments have set much higher carbon prices -- Sweden's exceeds $150 per ton. The Green Party of Canada proposes a national carbon fee of $50 per ton, or around 12 cents per litre of gasoline.

Simple math indicates that Canada is running up a carbon dioxide "debt" at least as large as, and perhaps much larger than, the federal monetary debt. 

Scientists view ecological debt with grave concern. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a massive study of global ecosystems with over 1,300 authors, was released in 2005. Its governing board warned:

"Nearly two-thirds of the services provided by nature to humankind are found to be in decline worldwide. In effect, the benefits reaped from our engineering of the planet have been achieved by running down natural capital assets… In many cases, it is literally a matter of living on borrowed time. By using up supplies of fresh groundwater faster than they can be recharged, for example, we are depleting assets at the expense of our children… Unless we acknowledge the debt and prevent it from growing, we place in jeopardy the dreams of citizens everywhere to rid the world of hunger, extreme poverty, and avoidable disease -- as well as increasing the risk of sudden changes to the planet's life-support systems from which even the wealthiest may not be shielded."

The Global Footprint Network tracks annual ecological deficits using the "ecological footprint" concept. It says that "[s]ince the 1970s, humanity has been in ecological overshoot with annual demand on resources exceeding what Earth can regenerate each year." It calculates that we currently need "the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste."

In this calculation, carbon dioxide wastes from fossil fuel burning are converted into the land and sea areas required to absorb these emissions. This raises the question: "Can we increase Earth's capacity to absorb carbon dioxide without endangering other vitally important services provided by nature?"

Searching for solutions

Tim Flannery, Australian climate scientist and author of a new book, Atmosphere of Hope, thinks we can.

Flannery rejects larger-scale geoengineering strategies such as ocean fertilization and injection of reflective sulphur particles into the atmosphere. But he says that smaller-scale carbon absorption options, such as seaweed farming, biochar soil amendments, and manufacture of carbon-negative cements and plastics are worth pursuing. He says that these "third-way" alternatives could make a significant positive impact in slowing rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, complementing carbon emission reduction efforts while avoiding dangers associated with geoengineering.

Carbon dioxide pollution is only part of our ecological debt; perhaps not even the largest part. In 2008 a multi-author study entitled "The debt of nations and the distribution of ecological impacts from human activities" appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It provides estimates of damage costs (in U.S. dollars, as of 2005) of human activities for six categories: agricultural intensification and expansion, deforestation, overfishing, mangrove conversion, climate change, and stratospheric ozone depletion. If current trends continue over the next half century, damage costs from agriculture (soil erosion and fertility loss, drinking water contamination by pesticides and fertilizers, fish mortality, salinization, etc.) would be of roughly the same order as climate change (loss of food, timber, water and hydropower resources, weather disturbances, coastal flooding, heat stress, increased incidence of infectious diseases; human displacement, etc.).

The authors note that government subsidies to agriculture, energy and fisheries industries were $300 billion, $200 billion, and $17 to 50 billion per year, respectively, in 2005. Their upper estimate for fisheries subsidies is roughly equal to the total value of fish caught that year. Subsidies worsen a trend for richer countries to be "drivers" of damage costs while poorer countries are "bearers" of costs. They also, of course, contribute to monetary debt of governments.

Reducing our ecological debt

Election ads notwithstanding, monetary debt is not the real issue of our times. Judging by the recent election results, many Canadians seem to feel that we live in a reasonably salubrious country and should not base our politics on fear. 

Type "debt" into Google and you will find the following: "something, typically money, that is owed or due"; and also "a feeling of gratitude for a service or favour," as in "we owe them a debt of thanks." Perhaps we should thank the politicians of the past (however imperfect) for their efforts in managing our nation's affairs, including through their use of government borrowing powers.  

We can also be thankful for the improvements in our standard of living that have come through use of natural resources and ecosystem modifications, while acknowledging that we have some urgent important work left to do in making a transition to more sustainable lifestyles, through our choices in food, travel, housing, etc.

Perhaps we could all spend a little less time obsessing about monetary debt and pay a bit more attention to ways to whittle down our ecological debt. The good news is that it can be done. This is, above all, a message of hope.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: Oxfam International/flickr

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