As Finance Minister Jim Flaherty prepares to deliver his budget on January 27, all eyes seem fixed on the global economic crisis. An international consensus has emerged that free markets alone cannot resolve it, and that financial stimulus packages are a necessity, even if they result in budget deficits.
But there is another global emergency, one which has slipped from view as concerns about the economy have taken centre stage, one which could contain the seeds of hope to help resolve the first: the climate crisis.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has asserted that financial stimulus must be tied to government action on climate change. "The economic crisis is serious; yet when it comes to climate change, the stakes are far higher," he said at the recent UN Conference on Climate Change, adding that what the world needs is "a green New Deal." Former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern's Review on the Economics of Climate Change likens the impacts of climate change on the world economy - if unchecked - to that of the world wars and the Great Depression.
We need a budget that is good for the economy, Canadians and the environment. In his efforts to draft such a bill, Minister Flaherty is faced with a choice.
On the one hand, he can continue subsidizing fossil fuel industries that contribute to the environmental crisis. The oil and gas industries now receive approximately $1.4 billion a year in subsidies. Alberta and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers want new subsidies for costly, and unproven, techniques to capture and store carbon emissions from the tar sands.
A recent joint Canada-Alberta government study found that only a small percentage of carbon dioxide released by the tar sands can be captured. Others want infrastructure spending on projects like roads that continue our fossil fuel dependency.
On the other hand, Minister Flaherty could look at the climate crisis consequences of relying on the tar sands as an economic driver and choose instead to fund sustainable energy production and consumption.
Investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy production not only reduces greenhouse gases, it can also provide quality jobs. Investing in public transit, co-generation (combined heat and power systems), retrofitting homes and buildings and improving the efficiency of electricity transmission can create a host of new job opportunities. The Alternative Federal Budget produced by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calls for $1 billion a year for the next three years and $8 billion over thirteen years in improving energy efficiency and implementing a renewable energy strategy.
Minister Flaherty has called for "nation building" infrastructure projects. Why not work with provinces, territories, municipalities and First Nations to build public regional grids for renewable power, integrated across provincial borders? Investments to expand green energy development in the public sector would create jobs in the research, design, construction and maintenance of renewable energy systems. The Canadian Labour Congress cites an estimate that two million new jobs could be created combating climate change over 15 years.
A national renewable energy grid could also go a long way in ensuring energy security for Canada. Currently, Quebec and Atlantic Canada rely on imports to meet 90 per cent of their oil needs while two thirds of Canada's oil and 61 per cent of its natural gas are exported to the U.S. Faced with an energy supply crisis, Canadians could be left freezing in the dark. Instead of ensuring a strategic petroleum reserve and a national energy-sharing infrastructure, Canada is bound by NAFTA's proportional sharing clause, which obliges Canada to continue exporting oil and gas to the U.S. even if this results in domestic shortages.
Much is at stake in this budget. Much can be gained. We urge Minister Flaherty to seize the opportunity to put our country on a path that is good for the economy, the environment and all Canadians.
Mary Corkery is the Executive Director of KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.
Maude Barlow is National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and Senior Advisor on Water to the President of the UN General Assembly.