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The Toronto Star

Lessons in Simplicity on Warming

Albert Koehl

The most useful lessons to be learned in the fight against global warming can probably be gleaned from grade-school problem-solving exercises - for example, that letting air out of the tires of a truck that doesn't quite fit under a bridge is easier than raising the bridge. In other words, difficult problems don't always call for complicated solutions.

Three sectors produce most of Canada's atmosphere-clogging (a.k.a. greenhouse gas or GHG) emissions: oil and gas (including the tar sands), transportation and electricity generation (mainly from coal).

Problem Number 1, reducing GHG emissions from the tar sands, is a very complex issue according to industry and political leaders. This is why tar sands emissions are projected to rise from 25 million to 100 million tonnes annually by 2015.

The leading solutions include intensity targets with difficult-to-comprehend formulae and hard-to-see results; cap-and-trade systems requiring an army of middlemen and negotiators; and carbon sequestration involving GHG injection into deep aquifers or mines - a system so complex it can be perfected only after governments reach deeply into your pockets to spare polluters from paying the cost.

And yet there are easy solutions. Governments could simply refuse to issue leases or permits for new projects. When the federal government recently approved the Kearl tar-sands project, the decision would allow 3.7 million tonnes of GHGs to be released each year, for 50 years. Prime Minister Stephen Harper could also discourage oil and gas executives by cutting them off the federal dole. Until 2011, tar-sands projects will get at least $1 million per day in federal subsidies - money better spent on energy conservation programs.

Problem Number 2 is the transportation sector. The big thinkers in big business and big bureaucracies have proposed myriad complex solutions including the development of hydrogen, electric and hybrid - electric vehicles, all of which still need an energy source.

Then again you could just call over the fence to your neighbour Bob to get him to ride downtown to work with you every day - resulting in an immediate 50 per cent reduction in gasoline use and GHG emissions per trip.

Gasoline consumption can also be reduced based on simple arithmetic: drive 20 per cent less and reduce fuel consumption by 20 per cent; drive 30 per cent less and reduce fuel consumption by 30 per cent; and so on. These reductions are certainly feasible since the average motorist makes 2,000 trips each year that are under three kilometres - easy walking and cycling distances.


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Reducing freight transport emissions is easy too, if you reduce distances. Buying apples from New Zealand and bottled water from Fiji makes sense if you live in, say, New Zealand or Fiji. The rest of us can buy more local goods.

Problem Number 3 is the electricity-generating sector. Reducing power plant emissions is most quickly achieved by reducing power use. Step one is to expect warm temperatures in the summer. This would help cut Ontario's peak summer energy demand, 40 per cent of which is for air conditioners. Adjusting the thermostat can reduce demand while shutting off the A/C and sitting under a tree with a locally brewed beer is a cool way to ponder other energy-saving opportunities.

But how do we get Canadians to notice the simple solutions?

Fortunately, nothing aside from natural disasters, political corruption or the partially exposed breasts of cabinet ministers' ex-girlfriends grabs the attention of our media more than price increases. Price increases make hitherto impossible acts - like giving up your SUV - seem easy.

Think of our atmosphere as a dump without a gatekeeper. If you go to the local landfill with debris you have to pay a fee, based on weight. Now apply the same thinking to the GHGs we dump into the atmosphere: the more you dump, the more you pay. These dumping fees are called carbon taxes.

When we put a price on GHGs people and business will notice (and adopt) easy ways to change their behaviour, for the good of the planet.

Simple ain't it?

Albert Koehl is a lawyer with Ecojustice, a Canadian environmental law organization.

© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2008

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