Saturday, April 22, 2006

Earth Day

It's earth day, and that makes me think of the great What Might Have Been, Al Gore. Gore was a strong promoter of the Kyoto Accord (along with many other environmental initiatives), and signed it in 1992. Had he become president, the US would have used its mighty influence to lead the world in reducing C02 emissions... instead of wielding its might to become an imperialist pariah.

But Gore hasn't given up and continues as an environmental crusader. In terms of the Kyoto Accord, he is working to get Americans to commit to the US target of 7% emission reduction without federal government input. So far 219 US cities have signed on, representing 44 million Americans.

Gore was in Seattle last month congratulating the city on its adoption of Kyoto. The approach of municipal adoption is laudable, and Seattle shows some of the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. Seattle is focusing on more efficient vehicles and household appliances, lower thermostats, better public transportation, and the use of biofuels to reduce emissions from diesel trucks, trains and ships. For decades Seattle has implemented a brilliant and simple way to reduce traffic downtown: transit is free within the downtown area.

So how is Canada doing on our Kyoto commitments? Back in 1998 we pledged to reduce emissions by 6% from 1990 to 2012. By 2003, our emissions since 1990 had risen by 23%.

Over half of the increase in emissions is in Alberta. In part, this is because the population is rising in Alberta, and Alberta relies largely on coal for electricity. But the biggest cause of the emissions is the tar sands. Two-thirds of the energy extracted from the tar sands is used up in the extraction process, and the process generates an enormous amount of pollution. There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon in the person of Jim Dinning, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein's heir apparent, who is a proponent of clean coal technologies and of carbon sequestration, a technology for capturing C02 emissions either artificially or with natural carbon dioxide sinks.

The electricity and petroleum sector has the worst environmental record in Canada, but no sector is doing well: we have made some progress in vehicle emissions, but these gains have been more than offset by the increased use of vans, SUVs and trucks. The manufacturing sector has also made improvements in its emissions but overall it has grown so much that it hasn't led to any overall decrease. Agriculture continues to be a carbon-intensive activity. (Another reason for the rise in emissions is simply that our population has increased.)

Last year my town spent upwards of a million dollars installing a green roof on our city hall, which seems to be missing the point entirely. The time for expensive and impractical symbols is over. We need to start making some progress. What are our tools? Public education, grassroots mobilization, regulation, taxation, subsidies, emissions trading, research, and government policies regulating its own projects. Paul Martin put a plan in place last year, but it's not clear whether the new conservative government will allow it to continue.

For environmental initiatives to be effective, there should be a lag time between announcement of government initiatives and their enaction. This is because efficient adoption of policies means that less polluting equipment should replace current equipment when it wears out. It won't help the environment if manufacturers throw out machines that have 10 years life left in them, or if drivable SUVs go to the junk yard.

We are pathetically far behind, both in government initiative and in public awareness. I include myself in the latter failure. For example, someone told me this week that GTO and Sunoco gas stations sell gas with much lower sulphur content than other gas stations. So far I have been unable to verify it. We need more information about things like that so we can make intelligent consumer and political decisions or nothing will ever get done.


1 comment:

Beth H T said...

Newsweek has an article this week about Gore's new movie about Global Warming. It's a favorable article. The movie is getting good reviews, too. Let's hope for the future.