While environmentalists see climate change as a looming disaster for the planet, the business community sees it as an opportunity for long-term gains. For those with vision, it is possible to save the economy as we adapt to a warmer world.

The marches this week in New York and other cities had the usual assortment of banners saying, “Save the Planet” or “Planet before Profits” - the kind of slogan that polarizes the climate change issue into a good guy/bad guy, white hat/black hat, tree hugger/ evil oil magnate struggle that doesn’t really solve the problem.

When an issue becomes polarized, it breaks down to name-calling, accusations and denials, with each side retreating into its corner and digging in its heels. We’ve had a decade of that; let’s move on.

The size of the movement this week, and the response from the business community afterwards, signals a sea change, where people are spending less time making accusations and more time demanding realistic solutions to what everyone sees as a clear and present danger.

For decades, the business community has known that going green usually makes money. It’s already been demonstrated at the simplest level, with examples such as hotels that have installed low-flush toilets and efficient shower heads, and then recouped those costs through savings in a very short time. The same is true for investments in better building design and more public transit. The changes were not just to save energy and reduce emissions; it was because it made good business sense.

Now, the investment community is ready to take it to the next level by thinking long term about the benefits of alternative technologies that could be developed in Canada and traded on the global market. It’s the kind of future vision that’s been lacking on the political front.

Too late to do nothing

A number of reports from the business sector outline the considerable threats to the economy that come from doing nothing about climate change.

A report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development describes the costs of extreme weather events such as floods and storms, plus rising health care costs from extreme heat and pollution. The insurance industry has been tracking this for decades and is equally concerned.

But that report, along with a statement from the Responsible Investment Association state very clearly that if alternative energies were more attractive through government incentives, they would be willing to invest in them. It’s a win for business and a win for the environment.

Another report, by Clean Energy Canada, shows that one of the biggest obstacles to developing alternative technology - the cost - is actually dropping significantly, mainly because of development of technologies such as solar panels in China. Yet nobody knows about it.

Canada is in a position to take advantage of this investment in the future. We have a well-educated population, a history of technological innovation and we have the ability to develop products and sell them to the world.  

Subsidies needed

At the moment, short-term thinking around quick profits from the fossil industry is dominating the markets, with billions in profits and taxes to be made. As long as they have value, they will be attractive, even if that value is heavily subsidized by government.

But that value can change from dirty technology to clean with incentives, tax breaks and re-directed subsidies. Industry is also calling for a fund devoted entirely to new research and development.

The investment community is sort of like a sniffer dog, always on the lookout for something to eat. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s close by and easy. Now, the financial hounds are realizing that the current fossil-fuel dog bowl is making a big mess and will soon be empty. It’s time to provide a new, appetizing scent and they will follow it.

( For more on how Canada can take the lead on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, tune in to Quirks & Quarks this week for our interview with Canadian energy analyst Mark Jaccard.)