Well, it’s pretty big news, isn’t it? Canada’s Conservative federal government has announced a plan to fight climate change. In case you missed our news item about this, I’ve reproduced it at the end of this post (scroll down).
The gist is that, via a number of measures, Canada’s overall greenhouse gas emissions (i.e., consumers and industry) must be reduced by 20 per cent by 2020; the government expects industry alone to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 18 per cent by 2010 and 26 per cent by 2015.
It’s interesting that yet again (ironically) a Conservative government is introducing big environmental programs (remember Brian Mulroney’s Green Plan?), whereas people normally think of the Liberals and NDP as the “greens” (not to mention the national Green Party led by Elizabeth May).
I expect I’ll comment on this in more detail in the next edition of the printed magazine, but I thought I’d share at least one thought right away.
Almost in tandem with this announcement, Ontario has announced phase-out of incandescent light bulbs. To quote from the news item:
“The Ontario government has already announced a phase-out of incandescent light bulbs, to be replaced by compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) by 2012. The government believes replacing all 87 million incandescent bulbs in Ontario households with CFLs will save six million megawatt hours annually — enough to power 600,000 homes.”
When this was announced, Terence Corcoran (with whom I often agree) wrote an editorial that appeared on the front page of the National Post, panning the whole thing and describing it as yet another example of the nanny state meddling in the economy, no doubt to trigger perverse consequences. (For instance, he stated that people would likely hoard their incandescent bulbs because of the more please amber light, and this would affect prices, and the whole thing is really a subsidy to the Home Depot-style box stores, etc.)
On a certain level I agree with Corcoran on this – there will no doubt be some hoarding and CFLs are more expensive (initially) and so on. But even though I remain skeptical that human activity is directly warming the climate (I think increased energy from the Sun has a lot to do with it), I feel that at some point government has to set the pace for broad societal change. The juggernaut of consumer society and its enormous ecological footprint needs to chart a new course, and ocean liners take a long time to turn around, even when you suddenly turn the wheel hard about.
It’s not that I think we need to live like monks. I’m just powerfully aware of how wasteful we are in terms of energy and consumption of non-renewable fuels. I don’t even need the argument that the Earth is heating up to agree that some bold changes must occur.
The reason Ontario’s fluorescent bulb initiative resonated with me, and is in fact emblematic for me of the whole issue, is due to a couple of trips I’ve made to Europe in recent years. Visits to France, England and Finland made a profound impression on me.
The trips included visits to major cities (e.g., London, Helsinki, Paris) but also smaller cities, towns and villages. I was struck by the consistency between both the cities and villages in regard to energy efficiency and, in general, a more enlightened way of doing things.
Coming from me, this is no small statement. I am not one of those people who automatically thinks everything the Europeans do is automatically better than our way. I know people like that and their comments often make me cringe. But there was just no escaping the fact that the Europeans are already where Canada aims to be in 2020. High fuel prices and dollops of common sense caused Europeans to move ahead with energy conservation and environmental preservation dramatically in the past several decades., and the results are impressive, not just on the macro level, but in many small ways you notice traveling around.
I don’t want to write an epic novel here, so here is a short list of things I noticed in my travels, all of which could be implemented in North America with terrific results. In other words, these are changes we could make that would improve our lives, not cause us to live in some kind of impoverishment.
1. Trains: The train systems in Europe are simply incredible. Both in terms of the train systems connecting major centres, and also the trains that connect smaller rural areas to one another, and the larger centres. You could argue that the population density in Europe makes this kind of thing more viable, but the lack of numerous train routes in Canada is a very sad comment. For instance, I live in Collingwood, Ontario and there’s no train connecting my town to anything. If I want to get to Toronto, I can drive to Barrie and get on the Go Transit system, but guess what? There’s no train there, either. I have to catch a Go bus and then switch to a train down in Bradford. It’s just such a joke. And I really notice this when I want to send one of my young kids to visit their grandparents in the city. They’d have to change so many buses and trains that the lack of security and complexity of it all makes it unthinkable – I end up just driving them to and fro. But if you go to London and visit ANY of the MANY large train stations, you’ll get a glimpse into the (preferable) future and see what a travesty the absence of such infrastructure is in Canada (and the United States).
2. Public transit: As with trains, the quality of public transit is far superior in Europe than here. I was especially struck in Lyon, France, where the ancient city and its beautiful old buildings coexist with a network of uber-modern sleek streetcars and subway trains. These things look very futuristic, yet its not the future to them – it has already arrived. These are not the rattling, noisy buses and streetcars of most Canadian cities. They’re quiet (almost silent) crafts that weave their way between sidewalk and street like enormous strange insects.
3. Bicycles: The fact that most European cities are pedestrian friendly and have bicycle lanes (esp. places like Amsterdam) is not news. But I noticed that some cities have a really innovative concept that I think would work here. When you get off the train, there are public bikes locked to special poles. The bikes are painted a distinctive color. You put a coin or token in a slot in the special pole and unlock the bike, then ride it to your destination. These special bike poles are all over the place, so you just lock it up when you arrive at your destination. It’s incredible that entrepreneurs haven’t established this kind of system in every Canadian city.
4. Density: There’s less urban sprawl in Europe, and it’s no accident. Sprawl is not subsidized there as it is here. Many people live in apartments above shops. They live, work and play in the same areas, whereas in North America many people live in one low-density area, drive to work in another area (downtown in a high-rise or to some non-descript commercial area) and shop in another part of town (often a “shopping centre” that is, in fact, not at the “centre” of anything, but on the edge of town). The saddest example is the so-called “community centre” which is usually an ugly concrete building that’s not in the centre of town, which houses swimming pools and sports halls, but isn’t really a lively centre of urban life. These stand in stark contrast to the lovely open plazas in European cities (think: Italy) with statues and fountains in the middle, and coffee shops and bistros all around the perimeter. What impoverished lives we live here! Here’s a suggestion: if you’re an urban planner, jump on a plane and go to Lyon with a camera and a notebook. Observe everything they’ve done there and copy it over here, please! A practice you’ll notice in European cities is that a lot of dense apartment complexes (with shops on the main floor) are built directly above subway stations. This encourages a close integration of living, shopping and use of public transit – what a contrast to the pathetic empty buses that cruise around suburban neighborhoods here.
5. Hot water: Because many of the homes in Europe were built before the era of hot water heaters and central plumbing, often conveniences like hot water had to be retrofitted. This has led to the practice of installing small electric heaters inside walls that serve individual shower heads and bath faucets. The beauty of this is that rather than pay to keep a huge tank filled with super-hot water (99 per cent of the time sitting unused) the water is heated at the point of use. Doesn’t that make a lot more sense? I think a combination of this kind of system with “smart metering” would boost energy efficiency in most homes.
6. Light bulbs: The thing that struck me most in my trip to Finland was the ubiquity of compact fluorescent bulbs. My host took me all over the country and I walked through many different kinds of buildings. I stayed at a spa resort. I visited commercial buildings, municipal buildings, private homes and apartments, even a golf course. I don’t think I saw an incandescent bulb even once! I never, and I do mean NEVER, walked into an empty room that had lights on. Even in the golf club, when you went downstairs to the change room the lights in the hallway were off, as well as the lights in the change room and washroom. These rooms were equipped with luminous wall switches, and/or motion detectors that turned on the lights when you entered the room. Most appeared to be on timers, so when you left, the lights went out after a little while. It just made so much sense. After a few days of this it was difficult to return to our energy wasting country where lights are on all the time and people are so sloppy in their habits. I kept thinking, “We are just pigs, we really are.” I still think that, at least on the energy waste front.
7. Cars: Not only are automobiles smaller in Europe (for the most part) but they are energy efficient. What you encounter all over the place is diesel. Not smoke-belching diesel, like you see with transport trucks here, but clean diesel. You see a lot of diesel Volkswagens, but also other brands. My host in Finland drove a diesel Jaguar. I don’t recall him ever filling up the tank the entire time I was there. I recall him saying that on a tank of diesel he can drive about 1,000 kilometres on the highway, and 700 to 800 kms in the city. Now here’s the thing that kills me: the same companies that produce these cars in Europe are cross-owned by the Big Three car companies in North America. In other words, they do one thing over there, and another here. I have absolutely ZERO sympathy for the Chryslers and Fords of the world, and their bleeding red ink. Though I would feel for the workers, I wouldn’t care one bit if they went bankrupt tomorrow. Why? Because they should have introduced energy efficient cars to the market decades ago, like the diesel cars you see all over Europe. (It’s difficult to find any at all here.) These companies deserve to be replaced by the smart imports that are eating their lunch. Do yourself a favor and go see (or rent) the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car?” It’s one of the best things I’ve seen in years – really great!
8. Nuclear power: One of things I like about France is that they understand the benefit of nuclear power and have never succumbed to the fear-mongering about Three Mile Island and so on. In his book “The Revenge of Gaia,” environmentalist James Lovelock makes the most convincing and passionate argument on behalf of nuclear power imaginable. I won’t try to do the same here – just buy the book and read it. I swear you won’t be able to put it down, and you’ll think differently about nuclear power. No, I don’t think we should build them along the economic subsidy-ridden model of Ontario Hydro, but I think a competitive market with private sector involvement to build and operate nukes should be a big part of our energy strategy. I am more and more convinced that we should be building nukes in Alberta to generate power to melt the tar sands, and using the perfectly suited geologic structures underground in Saskatchewan to sequester carbon – but that’s a story for another day.
I could go on and on with this list, but I think I’ve made the point. I don’t think you have to be a global warming proponent to embrace the new direction toward which the federal government’s climate change plan is pointing us. There are many many significant changes our society should be making that will boost our environmental performance and sustainability, and also create more of a sense of community. This is perhaps the greatest benefit; we need to move away from being a society of lonely people driving one person to a car between far-flung low-density locations, and embrace more of a high-density society with people walking, cycling, taking the train and, in general, interacting with one another. Canada initiates climate change plan
Sensing that Canadians are deeply concerned about a potential global warming threat, and that inaction will cost them at the polls, Canada’s Conservative Stephen Harper government has announced a blueprint to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2020.
The government plans to force industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 18 per cent by 2010 and 26 per cent by 2015.
The price of cars, home appliances, electricity and fuel are expected to rise, but may be offset by technological innovation and the adoption of energy-efficient systems. (The Ontario government has already announced a phase-out of incandescent light bulbs, to be replaced by compact fluorescent bulbs [CFLs] by 2012. The government believes replacing all 87 million incandescent bulbs in Ontario households with CFLs will save six million megawatt hours annually — enough to power 600,000 homes.)
Environment Minister John Baird concedes the economy will take a hit of up to $8 billion annually in the “worst year” under the plan until 2020. But he claims that cleaner air will result in health-care savings of more than $6 billion annually, by 2015, courtesy of reduced risk of death and respiratory illness.
Industry’s 26 per cent reduction target by 2015 is expected to be met through reduced emissions, contributions to a technology fund, domestic emissions trading and a one-time credit for emissions reduction action between 1992 and 2006.
Highlights of the government plan include:
— Short-term emission reduction target of 18 per cent for existing industry by 2010, based on 2006 emission levels.
— A 26 per cent reduction target rate for industry by 2015.
— Canada’s total emissions, including industry and other sources, reduced by 20 per cent by 2020.
— Industry can meet targets through reducing emissions, contributing to a technology fund, through domestic emissions trading and one-time credit for emission reduction action between 1992 and 2006.
— Plan predicts real but “manageable” price increases for cars, home appliances, electricity and fuel.
— National emission caps by 2012 for air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter.
— Plan predicts $6.4 billion in annual health benefits by 2015 from reduced risk of death and illness.
— Mandatory fuel-efficiency standard for the auto industry (yet to be determined) to take effect beginning with 2011 model year.
— Economy expected to a hit of $8 billion in “worst” year of plan. For further commentary, see Editor’s Blog at left side of the home page at www.hazmatmag.com or www.solidwastemag.com