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A parable of two roads: Why the COVID crisis is exactly the right time to push for a low-carbon economy

September 23, 2020

2-minute read

Picture it: You’re driving down a long straight road. Far in the distance you can see the road getting bumpier and bumpier before suddenly dropping over a cliff.

Bright yellow and red warning signs punctuate the side of the roadway. “Danger!” they proclaim. “Road ends in 12 km! Uneven surface ahead! Reduce speed!”

You look around. A ditch runs beside the road and there is a second road beyond it. This second road is rougher than the one you’re on right now, perhaps a bit narrower and certainly not as well travelled. But this other road doesn’t end. It veers away from the cliff and extends as far as you can see over the horizon.

The two roads run side-by-side but they are not in parallel. The second road is drifting away the further you drive. The ditch in the middle is getting wider and deeper. And all the while the signs are getting bigger and brighter, too.

“Road ends in 10 km! Seek alternate route!”

You resolve to get onto the second road. It’s the only way to keep moving forward, you tell your passengers, and the sooner you make the transition the smoother it will be.

But you’re afraid to drive through the ditch. You’ll have to slow down. Your passengers will yell at you to get back on the road. Your vehicle might take some damage and there’s no guarantee you can make it up the other side.

You begin to have doubts. Is the second road really that much better? It doesn’t look like many people have taken it before. Even if you made it, you might have to drive slower. And besides, what if the first road continues beyond the cliff? Surely this road wouldn’t exist if it just dropped you into the ocean.

Your passengers are arguing now. Some implore you to turn. They point to the warning signs and to the second road, which is getting further and further away. Yet others insist you ought to continue forward. Don’t trust the signs, they say. The current road got us this far, after all. It would be ridiculous to abandon it now.

You’re conflicted and you’re stressed. Your fingers clutch the wheel.

And then you crash into the ditch.

It wasn’t your fault. Something jumped into the road and you swerved to avoid it. Your quick reaction undoubtedly prevented a larger disaster. But here you are, reeling, stuck in the ditch. The people in the back seat are urging you to get back on the road. You want to get back on the road, too. You just want things to get back to normal.

You assess your vehicle. It took some damage but it still seems to be running. You figure if you’re careful you can probably drive it out of the ditch. You start turning your wheel back toward the road you left.

But you pause and look up at the second road. You’re surprised to see that you’re already halfway there. In fact, the hardest part of the transition—the shock and pain and uncertainty of the initial tumble into the ditch—is behind you.

Driving back out will be slow and bumpy in either direction. It’s a steep and uneven slope and you might even need your passengers to get out and help you push. There will be grumbling and disagreement, not to mention the cost and difficulty of repairing your vehicle, regardless of where you drive it next.

But if you take the second road now you won’t have to crash through a deeper, wider ditch later. And you definitely won’t drive over a cliff.

You turn the wheel around. You take the second road.

Editor’s note: As right-wing voices clamour for a return to “normalcy” in the federal government’s throne speech tomorrow, climate policy researcher Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood reminds us in this parable that the COVID-19 crisis is also an opportunity to make overdue and necessary changes to the Canadian economy.

Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood is a senior researcher on international trade and climate policy for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Follow Hadrian on Twitter @hadrianmk.

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