“Sustainability” Not a Metaphor for “Climate Change”

I’ve heard climate change referred to as conversation killer. Like sex, religion and politics it’s a subject one has to handle gingerly in social settings.

This came to mind recently as my eye ran down the agenda for a greening government conference scheduled for the end of November at the National Arts Centre; “sustainability” was mentioned 10 times, “GHG” and “low carbon” once each, “CO2” “climate” “warming” or “greenhouse” not at all.

The City of Ottawa 2012 draft budget documents amplify this (granted, the budget is thicker).

In 733 pages the phrases “climate change” and “greenhouse gas” each appears once. Neither “global warming” “carbon dioxide” “CO2” nor “GHG” (short for greenhouse gas) appear at all.1

A search on those same budget documents looking for “sustainability” gives a hit count of 151 instances; “sustainable” 28 hits.

This made me think about what we do as residents of Ottawa that isn’t sustainable. The Nobel Prize committee refers to climate change as a threat to the basis of human life. To me that sounds unsustainable. What could “sustainability” possibly mean in a City of Ottawa context besides climate change?

I looked closely through the draft 2012 budget documents and found that sustainability appeared repeatedly in departmental and managerial titles, which is in part why the hit count is so high. Also that the City recognizes “four dimensions of sustainability – economic, cultural, social and environmental.”

Setting aside for the moment that if the basis of human life is threatened, economic, cultural and social sustainability is threatened, let’s assume the City of Ottawa categorizes climate change as part of environmental sustainability. What other elements of environmental sustainability does the City concern itself with?

Here’s the list I came up with as reflected in the 2012 draft budget:

  • Water (what we drink)
  • Wastewater (what we flush)
  • Storm water
  • Solid waste (garbage, recycling, green bin & recyclables)
  • Energy use by the “corporation” (i.e., the City of Ottawa) – which is expressed also in terms of cost savings
  • The new “express lane” for green building development

Climate change implications are certainly buried inside solid waste, corporate energy use, and the express lane, but the issue is hardly prominent. One can easily imagine policy, program and project reviews aimed at sustainability not considering climate implications at all.

For this reason we can’t accept that the City’s sustainability initiatives necessarily address climate change. Sustainability for the City is not a metaphor for climate change action.

The climate change issue needs more explicit recognition in the City’s documents and approach.

Footnote 1: As noted in Ecology Ottawa’s November 8th update email

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