Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Motorsports in a Time of Climate Crisis: Sustainability Must Be Our Focus

It's 2017. Are we finally going to start taking the climate crisis seriously? Are we prepared to do more than just treat terms like “sustainability” and “low carbon economy” as meaningless buzz-words?  Are we finally going to acknowledge that we ought to be planning for the future that the market economy is already making a reality – a future based on clean, renewable energy - not fossil fuels?

I'm extremely troubled by a recent announcement here in my community.  At a time that we should be doing what we can to bury the internal combustion engine, a group of people here in my home town have decided to embrace recklessly emitting greenhouse gases for no other purpose than entertainment.  Yes, I'm talking about the recently announced Sudbury Motosports Park, which is intended to be built on my City's urban fringe as part of a massive, car-centred development initiative spear-headed by private developer, Dario Zulich (see: "Plan for True North motorsports park revealed," the Sudbury Star, June 5, 2017).

Look, I understand that vehicles powered by internal combustion engines remain a significant part of every day life for many in my community - and indeed, throughout the world.  After trying - and failing - to go car- free with my family this past winter, we were forced to acknowledge just how much we rely on our vehicle for getting around our City.  I get it. And I know that despite the switch that is on towards electric vehicles, it's going to take some time before the majority of vehicles on our roads are powered by anything other than greenhouse gas emitting petroleum and diesel fuels.

But I also know that the transportation sector is Ontario's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, representing 35% of total provincial emissions (see: "Ontario's 5 Year Climate Change Action Plan," Government of Ontario - page 6).  And emissions in this sector are growing, thanks to population growth mainly in the southern part of the province, coupled with a severe lack of alternatives for people to get around.

The good news is that things are starting to change – the province appears to be committed to building the infrastructure we need in place to make the switch to electric vehicles.  Of course, I've been critical of our provincial Liberal government and Minister of Environment and Climate Change Glen Murray in particular, over the general lack of ambition contained in their Climate Change Action Plan (see: "Sudbury column: Climate change plan lacks ambition," the Sudbury Star, July 2, 2016).  Yet, credit where it's due – the government recognizes the issues with greenhouse gas growth from the transport sector and is taking action.

A recently released study from Stanford University economist Tony Seba predicts the imminent demise of the internal combustion engine within the next 8 years (see: "Stanford study says fossil-fueled cars will vanish in 8 years as ‘big oil’ collapses," Inhabitat, May 17, 2017).  I think that's an incredibly ambitious timeframe, but without a doubt, market forces that are making renewable energy cheaper, coupled with carbon pricing that is finally addressing the externalities of climate changing pollution, make the demise of fossil fueled vehicles inevitable. The writing is on the wall for internal combustion engines, and some nations are already looking ahead and doing what they can to hasten its demise (see: "Germany votes to ban internal combustion engine cars by 2030," Extremetech, October 10, 2016).

With all of this in mind, it is baffling to me why anyone would be proposing to establish a new  entertainment use that celebrates and glorifies the internal combustion engine – a sunset technology, and one responsible for so much of the harm caused to our atmosphere.  Yes, let's continue to use our personal vehicles wisely, as tools to get us from Point A to Point B until better alternatives become available. But the days of using fossil fuels for entertainment must come to an end, as U.K. environmental journalist George Monbiot suggested over 10 years ago (see: "How sport is killing the planet," the Guardian, October 29, 2006).  Real change has to come - and it starts with like-minded community members standing up for the planet and proclaiming that sustainability must be at the heart of our decisions.

And a motorsports park just isn't sustainable.  In 2017, it can't be justified.

Keep that in mind, because the group behind this carbon behemoth wants you to believe that their proposal will create jobs and lead to economic development.  And they may be right.  Of course, the tobacco industry also creates jobs.  As do those companies that build weapons of mass destruction.  Yes, I understand that comparing a motorsports park to the nuclear weapons industry and Big Tobacco is more than a little over-the-top.  But I'm being deliberately provocative to make a point: There are lots of ways of making money and creating jobs, but not all are moral. At this time of climate crisis, promoting jobs and economic development initiatives that will exacerbate the crisis is not a moral response.  Let me repeat that.  No moral economic development strategy can continue to rely on the use of fossil fuels for the exclusive purpose of entertainment.

Yes, I understand that the focus of this post here has been a new motosports park in my community, rather than railing against the Toronto Indy or Montreal Grand Prix – events which probably have far larger carbon footprints than will ever be achieved by motosports in Greater Sudbury.  Of course those other events have been around for a while – and yes, they ought to be phased out, unless racing organizations embrace the shift to electrical power vehicles ahead of the curve (and in fairness, there is some evidence that the industry is getting the message - see: "Wanted: Climate Scientists Who Can Save the Future of Racing," Jack Baruth, Road And Track, February 9, 2016).  The Indy and Grand Prix are problematic, that's for sure.  But their existence should not be an argument against standing up for establishing a new and needless greenhouse gas emitting entertainment venue in Greater Sudbury.

It's not even clear that a new motosports facility here would be a net fiscal boon for the City and us taxpayers.  When the City tried to justify the Maley Drive Extension, it did an admittedly poor cost benefit analysis that looked at the proposed benefit of saving greenhouse gas emissions, using an $88.5 per tonne price on carbon (see: "Some Initial Observations on the New Cost / Benefit Analysis for the Maley Drive Extension," SudburySteve.ca, November 3, 2015).  If a similar cost/benefit analysis were prepared based on projected greenhouse gas emissions from the motosports facility, how much will the public be on the hook for when it comes to the social costs of carbon pollution?  Keep in mind that carbon pollution represents a real cost to taxpayers through higher health-related costs, higher insurance premiums and climate change adaptation costs.  These costs aren't make-believe. Business and industry are already building these costs into their corporate investment strategies (see: "The true cost of carbon pollution," Environmental Defense Fund).

These motorsports folks have been trying to move their initiative forward for some time now.  I would have expected to be reading about the work that they've done to justify their new entertainment facility, and to reassure the public that greenhouse gas emissions will be minimized and paid for by the organization or facility users, and how those costs underpin their financial plan. That's the kind of analysis that the public expects nowadays – especially from a high-carbon enterprise.  And especially especially from one which is relying on the use of fossil fuels strictly for the purpose of entertainment. But there's nothing like this posted on their website.

Of course, the City of Greater Sudbury needs to undertake it's due diligence as well. How will this carbon-centred motorsports park fit in with the greenhouse gas reduction initiatives identified in City's own climate change plan (see: "The EarthCare Sudbury Local Action Plan" City of Greater Sudbury, 2003)? Will this help or hinder us in meeting our emissions reduction targets?  And here the City will need to look at more than just the greenhouse gases that are emitted from racing and the transport of vehicles and the public to and from the venue located on the fringe of our urban area (and the extension and expansion of infrastructure needed to support that initiative).  The City should be assessing the comprehensive carbon costs of creating a new entertainment complex on the urban periphery – and what that means in terms of contributing to the carbon costs of urban sprawl.

Yes, I understand that these sorts of studies may take some time, and generally speaking, even when they have been undertaken, they usually fall short (as in the case of the Maley Drive cost/benefit analysis).  Making announcements is easy - but undertaking the necessary hard work to inform decision makers and the public about a range of issues is necessary if we are going to take the concept of evidence-based decision making seriously - something which we must do, if we are to take the notion of sustainability seriously. Not studying an issue because it's too costly is simply unacceptable, and no PR campaign can change that.

Of course, on this matter, the City may be out in front of the curve, with a study expected to be completed this summer that looks at the costs of urban sprawl throughout the City and impacts on the City's bottom line (see: "Decision on splitting, developing rural lands delayed," sudburydotcom, May 29, 2017). At a time when the experts are proclaiming that our population will remain stagnant or be reduced in the coming decades (see: "Population in Sudbury District to drop - updated, the Sudbury Star, May 13, 2017), it's even more important that we look at fiscal sustainability as the primary guiding principle for any new development initiative.

Can we develop a motorsports entertainment facility here in Greater Sudbury that is sustainable?  Yes, I believe we can, but the challenges will be significant, as the only moral way forward will be to rely on the use of renewable energy – and not fossil fuels.  That's just not in the cards for any motosports facility currently being contemplated anywhere.  And that's all the more reason that we have to start changing our thinking about entertainment, economic development and job creation.

College Boreal was identified as a potential partner for this motorsports complex.  I strongly suggest that publicly-funded institutions like our post-secondary education institutions should be doing their own due diligence with regards to the initiatives that they are backing and with whom they are partnering.  For those, like me, who are extremely concerned about motorsports and climate change, it should be obvious that College Boreal should be encouraged to give their backing a rethink at this time.

The same, of course, applies to our provincial government, for the land being eyed by the Sudbury motorsports group is currently in Crown ownership.  Release of Crown lands for the purpose of creating a high-carbon entertainment facility is, I suggest, not in the long-term interests of the province.  The Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, Kathryn McGarry, should be reminded of this at every opportunity.  The Minister should also be reminded that there is a naturally occurring wetland on this site that may include the habitat of threatened and endangered species – an issue raised by the MNR with regards to lands located just to the south of this Crown parcel (and yes, I am referring here to the lands that Mr. Zulich wants to build his events centre on - see: "Request for Decision, Application for rezoning in order to permit the development of a complex with office, hotel, bulk retail, warehouse, and commercial recreation centre uses. Kingsway, Sudbury - 1777222 Ontario Ltd. & 1777223 Ontario Ltd.," City of Greater Sudbury, Agendas Online, September 12, 2014).

By the way, you can remind the Minister of her government's obligation to protect threatened whip-poor-will and blanding's turtles under the Endangered Species Act by writing to her at: kmcgarry.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org

The potential presence of species at risk habitat on this parcel should have been something that the motorsports group already explored – if for no other reason than to shut people like me up for raising it as an issue. Likewise, I would have expected the motorsports group to have entered into consultation with area First Nations about this parcel. Perhaps they've been looking after species at risk and First Nations issues both, despite the absence of information they've made available to the public on their website or at the media scrum they held earlier this week.  Maybe I just don't know about it - which is more than possible, given that I've not been plugged into what this group has been doing.  Given the involvement of a publicly-funded institution, College Boreal, it may very well be that these issues have all been looked after.  Why else would College Boreal want to be a associated with a proposal that would see greenhouse gas spewing vehicles occupy a wetland that once was the habitat of threatened species? Why else would College Boreal want to associate themselves with a proposal from a group that hadn't reached out to area First Nations to determine their thoughts on exacerbating the climate crisis?  Maybe if I were the kind of person that really wanted to know about what went into College Boreal's decision-making process to involve themselves in this initiative, I'd email College Boreal President Daniel Giroux at daniel.giroux@borealc.on.ca and ask him.

It's 2017.  We can do better.  We must do better.  The future requires it of us – it requires us to finally start getting our act together and planning for the things that we need to be doing to aggressively wean ourselves off of fossil fuels.  It requires us to remind and prod our governments and public institutions that the status quo on fossil energy is no longer acceptable.  The future requires us to change our ways - and change our ways we must.

A motorsports park in my community?  No. It's time to draw the line.  We can't keep doing this. It is not moral, just, or sustainable. It fails our children and grandchildren out to the seventh generation.  It is not helping build the low-carbon future that we know we must build.  In fact, it will hinder its progress.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

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