Equity and Sustainability: Examining Local and Global Issues

This article written by co-op student Thomas Tinmouth explores why equity is key in fighting the climate crisis and examines inequities amongst the local and global field of sustainability.

The issues brought on by a changing climate are not just scary thoughts for some countries, rather alarming facts for all people on earth. An unfortunate truth about climate change is the inequities brought along by the severity and timeliness of it’s effects. Past and present microcosms around the globe have led to one overarching inequity that encapsulates the unfair reality that is climate change. The fact is that a large majority of countries which have historically contributed the least to climate change, will be the ones initially hit the hardest by it’s effects. Though efforts have been brought forth to relieve some of this damage, the bitter fact that people will suffer due to the historical and present actions of developed countries cannot be overlooked. The question now is how can we help these nations that are set to fall to these uncertain circumstances before it’s too late. The first step is understanding and accepting that this is happening because of the industrialization of developed nations, and moving forward in a way that attempts to reduce our impact at a level that equals our responsibility and capability to solve the problem. To move forward in this way, our society and government leaders must understand that equity does not equal equality.

Figure 1 – Visual representation of equality vs equity.

Before diving into the moral obligations of countries doing their part to act on climate change, we must understand, what is equity? Equity differs from equality because it is not about giving an equal share/opportunity, rather it’s about allocating the share/opportunity based on the needs of that entity, to allow them to become equal. See Figure 1 for a visual representation. So how does this relate to climate change? When former President Donald Trump signed an order to remove the United States from the Paris accord, he said he would only re-enter the agreement “on terms that are fair to the United States”. Former President Trump failed to realize two key factors. The first being the actions necessary to achieve the agreement’s goals is not a matter of all 197 countries contributing equally, rather contributing based on their capacity and ability to act. The second key factor being that countries who have historically and continually added to climate change at a greater rate than others, should contribute to resolving the issue at a level that exemplifies taking a fair responsibility for the problem. This is where equity and equality must be understood when fighting the climate crisis. Not all countries have the ability to contribute equally, but all should contribute an equitable amount to achieving the goal of limiting global temperature to a 2 degrees Celsius increase by the year 2100.  

So far I have touched on equity and climate in the broader sense. What about all of the microcosms that have piled up and led to the overarching inequity of the climate crisis? Though government action is needed at the global level, there are also issues to be resolved in local industries that can help build toward changing the framework of how climate and sustainability is dealt with.

Equity in the Field of Sustainability- Areas to be Improved

  1. Female Representation

According to a 2016 ECO Canada report, 25% of Canadian environmental professionals are women. 13% of female Canadian environmental professionals work in construction, and 50% in education. It is clear that within the environmental field women are vastly underrepresented. What makes these statistics even more alarming is the fact that women around the globe are more vulnerable to a changing climate. This is because it’s common for women to be the ones in charge of gathering and producing food, collecting water, and gathering fuel for heating and cooking. Climate change makes these tasks increasingly more difficult, with flooding and droughts affecting the most vulnerable. So if women are the ones that are most affected by a changing climate, they should at the very least have an equitable voice in making decisions around climate policy and sustainability efforts.

  1. Indigenous Consultation in Canadian Environmental Assessment

When it comes to Indigenous consultation in Canadian environmental assessment there are a multitude of historic and present inequities. Focusing in on one of the many issues is that proponents of proposed projects are in charge of the consultation between Indigenous communities and the project team. This creates a disconnect as proponents do not always understand the traditional values and views of Indigenous communities, leading to a lack of participation. The duty to Consult is a legal obligation for the government to consult Indigenous groups when their treaty of rights may be infringed upon. There is no standard saying how in-depth these groups have to be in the process, or what regulatory steps the proponent has to complete to ensure effective participation from Indigenous peoples. This is currently an inequitable process as the voices of those who will be affected by the project can be suppressed. The power is set up to be with the proponent as they can easily meet the required standard, and act accordingly to ensure success for the project they intend to implement.

How Equity can be Injected Into These Areas

  1. Female Representation

To combat the lack of female representation in the environmental field there is a simple answer, hire more women. This is not a question of lack of ability, rather lack of opportunity. Through hiring more women in this industry, cognitive diversity will be increased as a wider range of experiences and views are present. Equity within a business model decreases one dimensional leadership that has limited problem solving approaches. Increasing equity in this field also increases the diversity of people making decisions, promoting increased agility and resiliency for problem solving and decision making. Governments and private companies in the environment sector can set hiring goals, and track progress to ensure goals are reached. 

  1. Indigenous Consultation in Canadian Environmental Assessment

Currently, the duty to consult cannot be relegated to a non-bias third party. Though there are many changes that would benefit the overall environmental assessment processes in Canada, a place to start is allowing non-bias third parties to be in charge of consulting with Indigenous communities. This would solve multiple problems in this process. First off, the third party’s main goal would be to have the voice of Indigenous communities be heard loud and clear in project meetings, and effectively communicate their views to the proponent. Secondly, the power the proponent had in being able to suppress the voice of Indigenous groups or act in a way that benefits their project at the expense of Indigenous groups is eliminated.

Conclusion

The fight against climate change is a fight for humanity. It will take actions from everyone moving forward to reverse what we have done to our planet, and attempt to meet the goals of the Paris climate accord. In this fight, it is important for people to understand there are different roles and responsibilities they must take in order to be successful. It is clear that within both the global and local spectrums of sustainability, there are an abundance of inequities present. The first step is to acknowledge them, then put the necessary steps in place to make change. The more we increase equity in local initiatives, the stronger the industry will be built up from bottom to top, eventually making change at a global level. It will take effort, time, and understanding, but this is a fight for the betterment of all people on the planet. A fight we must win.

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