Post-geographic pollution: Debunking the eco-city

15May07

In this lecture the man who invented the term “ecological footprint”, William Rees, rips apart the notion that any North American city could declare itself sustainable.

Looking at Shanghai and Vancouver, it’s easy to think that there is a sharp difference in environmental practice is going on here: coal-generated electricity and overpopulation make Chinese cities dirty, while solar power, bicycles and environmentalism make Vancouver clean — and ethical.

Sorry BC, but for the most part, what’s really happening is displacement. All the pollution generated by the manufacturing of goods consumed by the Global North – electronics, clothing, vehicles – occurs within the manufacturing country, which nowadays means the Global South. Displacement over space and time (so over borders and generations) is what makes global warming and other environmental problems incredibly difficult to find solutions for.

Clearly, displacement presents political and legal problems, but what Rees seems most concerned with is the psychological problem. When you’re breathing in fresh air in Stanley Park, it’s hard to truly appreciate how the simple act of buying stuff is ecologically destructive, and this problem is compounded when the myth of successful sustainability emboldens consumers in BC, California and elsewhere.

I think Rees is oversimplifying, for effect – it is still important for cities to minimize their local ecological footprint, since transportation and infrastructure still make up a substantial portion of greenhouse gas emissions, plus the kind of reform needed to internalize the full cost of an iPod can’t really be expected from a municipal government. Nonetheless, his message is important. In all the press coverage the environment has received over the past year, I think that the thorough examination that comes with life cycle analysis – compiling the total amount of resources needed for a product over its lifetime – has been underplayed in favour of the much easier reductions in transportation and power use.

For example, at a conference I was at last fall, Green Party deputy leader David Chernushenko wryly pointed out people can hardly pat themselves on the back for buying a hybrid vehicle when half of all the emissions from cars comes during their manufacturing. As usual, the environmental solution is a hard one: instead of making better cars, we really need to make fewer.

When reading up on New York City, I repeatedly came across congratulatory statistics on the low per-capita impact of NYC residents, since the city’s density means its electricity and water use are (again, per capita) the lowest in the US. As life cycle analysis would show, this is incredibly misleading: when you factor in the ecological impact of the many, many manufactured goods consumed by New Yorkers, eco-city this ain’t.

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20 Responses to “Post-geographic pollution: Debunking the eco-city”

  1. 1 W. Scott Thurlow

    This is a thoughtful and succinct study of some of the main issues regarding the concentration of pollution.

    It also helps Vancouver in that Pacific Winds pushes the pollution into the interior.

    The biggest misnomer about Toronto’s smog is that it comes from Toronto. In fact, the vast majority of it comes from the Ohio valley industrial power generation- which is code for Coal.

    Sadly, few people in Canada are really willing to make the changes to their lifestyle to arrest the pollution they create in the third world.

  2. Thanks for the comment – I hadn’t even thought of how weather patterns could serve as a displacement process.

    I wanted to include my 2 cents on what kind of internal mechanism would best force consumers to internalize the costs of this trans-border pollutions, but that thought process got complicated quick. Will the first international tax be an eco-tax?

  3. In relation to greenhouse gas emissions, some effort has been made to quantify this displacement.

    When a Canadian buys an iPod made from Chinese energy and Sudanese oil, it seems fairest to say that the Canadian is responsible for the associated emissions.

    A 2003 OECD study attempted to quantify such transfers using data from 1993 to 1998. For that span of time, the United States effectively imported an average of 263 megatonnes of carbon emissions per year: about 5% of their domestic total. China, by contrast, exported about 360 megatonnes: a figure equivalent to 12% of their GHG production. Canada, with all its forest and hydrocarbon industries, apparently exported about 54 megatonnes: about 11% of our emissions during that period.

    For more see this blog post.

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