Photo: Budget time offers a glimpse into the future - but how far?

Coal-fired power plant: ignoring the clean energy challenge. (Credit: Arbyreed via Flickr).

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

It's budget time. How refreshing it was, then, to hear these words: "We cannot continue to ignore the clean energy challenge and stand still while other countries move forward in the emerging industries of the 21st century."

If only they had come from our own government instead of U.S. President Barack Obama. In his budget address in February, the president said, "Because we know the nation that leads in clean energy will be the nation that leads the world, the budget creates the incentives to build a new clean energy economy."

The budget speech by Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on March 4 didn't even mention energy, green or otherwise. The budget document itself references green energy but emphasizes untested technologies like carbon capture and storage and unsafe, expensive, and decidedly non-green technologies like nuclear power (which also relies on a non-renewable resource, uranium).

The government summarized its position on the issue under the heading "Green Jobs and Growth": "Canada has established itself as an energy superpower, being the third-largest global producer of gas, seventh in oil production, and the world's largest supplier of uranium. Our international reputation as a safe and reliable energy supplier creates unprecedented opportunities for exporting our energy products within an integrated North American energy market and to the rest of the world."

And so, this budget continues to pin our hopes, our future, and our economy on rapidly dwindling and highly polluting resources while much of the rest of the world creates jobs and new opportunities with green energy.

To be fair, President Obama must contend with anti-science politicians intent on stalling every progressive piece of legislation that hits the U.S. Congress. But the U.S. is already investing about 14 times more than Canada in green energy. China and South Korea are also way ahead, according to an HSBC Bank study that shows Canada is investing less in green initiatives than many other countries.

Of the recent "stimulus" spending by governments around the world, South Korea has allocated 81 per cent to green areas, the European Union 59 per cent, China 38 per cent, the U.S. 12 per cent, and Canada eight per cent, according to the study, titled A Climate for Recovery. In actual dollars, that works out to US$221 billion for China, $112 billion for the U.S., and $3 billion for Canada.

Even if infinite growth on a planet with finite resources and a finite biosphere were possible, the federal government's "Jobs and Growth Budget" would make little sense from a long-range perspective. Where will the jobs — and indeed, the growth — be when the oil runs out, or when all of our economic resources have to be put toward controlling or adapting to the devastating effects of climate change?

Aside from climate change — one of the greatest crises ever faced by humanity — our reliance on fossil fuels like oil and gas and uranium is still suicidal. The pollution alone from burning fossil fuels is degrading the health of humans and all life on this planet. The consumer mentality that it encourages is also fuelling rapid depletion of other resources, as well as the destruction of agricultural lands and habitats for plants and animals that are essential to our survival. The fact that we're not even extracting the resources we have in a sustainable way that benefits all Canadians will only compound the long-term problems for our country and the rest of the world.

The good news is that we have an incredible opportunity. If we start focusing on energy conservation and new forms of sustainable energy, as well as new ways of looking at how we live on this fragile and finite planet, we and our children and grandchildren should be able to live healthy and prosperous lives long into the future.

We have a choice: either we move into the 21st century with some innovative solutions to the problems we've created or we go the way of the dinosaurs. It's up to all of us to make this choice. Many Canadians have shown that they are willing to take action in their own lives to reduce their environmental impact. Now we must let our government know that we expect them to move forward with the times as well.

March 12, 2010