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Just Fair-Weather Friends of the Environment

by Carol Goar
As long as it isn't expensive, noisy, inconvenient, uncomfortable or labour-intensive, we're eager to save the environment.

Little wonder our greenhouse gas emissions keep climbing. Little wonder Canada produces more municipal waste per person than any other country. Little wonder we rank among the world's top consumers of fossil fuels. (The oil-rich Gulf states are worse.)

Our 20-year quest to preserve the ecosystem – without changing our lifestyle – has led to a succession of unrealistic plans, missed targets and ineffectual initiatives.

We're still looking for a painless fix. Our efforts would be laughable, if the stakes weren't so high.

Consider some of our current schemes:

Carbon sequestration: We're pouring billions of dollars into developing a technology that will capture carbon dioxide before it is released into the air and pipe it deep into the ground. Although scientists say it is technically feasible, it's never been done on a large-scale basis.

Nevertheless, federal regulations require oil-sands producers to start implementing carbon sequestration in 2012. In the meantime, it's business as usual.

Taxing energy use: We vehemently rejected a carbon tax – along with its chief proponent, former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion – in last fall's election. We weren't prepared to pay more for energy, even with the incentive of paying less in income and payroll taxes.

So now we're back to square one. Ottawa is promising to create a carbon trading market. Greenhouse gas emissions would be capped but companies could exceed their allotment by buying credits from cleaner enterprises. No launch date has been set. The government is now seeking public input and waiting for the United States to unveil its rules before finalizing its cap-and-trade plan. In the meantime, the status quo prevails.

Renewable energy: Although we like the principle of environmentally benign power, we dislike most of the options. We don't want wind turbines near our homes (too noisy); biomass processors in our community (too smelly) or transmission lines overhead (too unsightly).

The Ontario government, which has begun to phase out the province's coal-fired generators, is scrambling to defuse tensions between frustrated wind power developers and hostile citizens' groups. Meanwhile projects are stalled and progress is minimal.

Conservation: We are willing to reduce our energy use as long as we don't have to sacrifice any comfort. Take Toronto Hydro's peaksaver program. It offers users with central air conditioning a chance to "make a significant difference to improving our environment" by allowing it to reduce their power use during peak periods. Hydro promises never to activate the system on weekends or statutory holidays. "You likely won't notice the difference," it says.

Waste management: We don't want to burn or bury our garbage locally, so we truck it long distances. We don't want to discard less, so we design elaborate disposal and diversion regimes.

Any hapless resident who puts out the wrong bin on collection day, doesn't leave enough space between bins, or forgets what goes in which container, risks being scolded or refused service by Toronto's garbage collectors (when they're not on strike).

We criticize municipal officials for making it so difficult to be green, rail at our politicians for dithering and blame the oil companies for fuelling our high-consumption economy.

But we're the ones who spend hours in traffic, shop incessantly, produce mountains of garbage, oppose carbon taxes – and still insist we want to live sustainably.

It is possible to get along without central air conditioning, a leaf blower, a snow blower, an espresso maker, a plasma TV, a winter vacation abroad, apples from South Africa and avocados from the Caribbean. People managed for generations.

But who'd want to do that?

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