Canada & Climate: Mission Impossible?

[Here's a short Op-Ed of mine that hasn't been picked up by any of our major papers. Better luck next time.]

It's Impossible
A few weeks ago, world leaders emerged from the APEC summit with a very Canadian message: “It's impossible. We will not reach a strong agreement in Copenhagen. Better luck next year." Since then, Canada has been internationally condemned for our role in blocking climate action at APEC, the Commonwealth...and pretty much whenever else we get a chance. The criticism is so sharp that there is even talk of booting us from the Commonwealth. But our tune hasn't changed.

“It's impossible,” what a soothingly familiar phrase. It could almost be our federal climate change motto: we heard it first from then Environment Minister Rona Ambrose in 2006, and our Prime Minister and current Environment Minister Jim Prentice have been repeating it ever since. In 2006 the problem was that the Kyoto targets were too high, now the problem is that we don't know what the American targets and policies will be...what is a government to do?!

There's Green under the Grey
Thankfully, not everyone has been so stumped: Canadian cities, provinces and private companies are miles ahead of the Feds. Canada is filled with examples that prove that what's “possible” is much bigger than it appears through the foggy windows on Parliament Hill. There are projects up and running across the country that are both good for the environment, and that put us on a more competitive footing against countries (like the US) that are rapidly developing their green technology sectors.

North America's power grid is the biggest single machine in the world. It is also amazingly inefficient, and losses up to 10% of the electricity that it carries. But that's changing. Ontario's ambitious smart grid program has pushed the province to the forefront of grid modernization. Higher efficiency, reduced consumption, and an increased ability to integrate renewable energy have all made Ontario into an international example. BC and Quebec are set to follow suit.

Cities
Canadian cities have also distinguished themselves as leaders in sustainability. Household energy use can account for up to third of a city's emissions, and many households rent. But how do you get landlords to make efficiency improvements to their buildings, when it will be their tenants who reap the benefits of lower bills? Toronto has used well designed low-interest loans provided by the Toronto Atmospheric Fund to resolved that Catch-22. On the Pacific coast, Vancouver's eco-density program is spearheading efforts to add housing to existing residential neighbourhoods while preserving their homey qualities. Olympic athletes there will also be staying in one of the most sustainable communities in the world.

Companies
Commercially, we have an impressive list of innovative companies: Bombardier, one of the worlds foremost manufacturers of high-speed trains; alternative energy companies like AAER or Canadian Hydro; and ZENN electric cars, to name a few. All of these would be able to play an increased roll in the Canadian economy if conditions were right. But here, as with all the successes noted above, there is no strong federal support.

High-speed rail (which is 20 times more efficient that driving a car) has been repeatedly shelved despite being economically viable in the Quebec City -Windsor corridor and between Calgary and Edmonton. There is also little in the way of incentives or support for residential efficiency or encouraging the growth of a cutting edge alternative energy sector. Public transportation continues to struggle to get the federal dollars that it needs.

One Challenge, Many Opportunities
The challenge of climate change is also filled with opportunities. Cities, provinces and companies have begun to respond to that challenge in serious and innovative ways. In and of themselves, their successes so far aren't nearly enough to make the urgent emissions cuts that we need. But their efforts point us in the right direction. They also sink the argument that the environment and the economy are at odds with each other. In Ontario, grid modernization alone will create an estimated 20,000 jobs. Housing retrofits, and green infrastructure projects could generate similar figures across the country.

In the weeks left before the climate negotiations in Copenhagen we are going to see more debate over what is "possible.” The answers will often seem to be strangely out of touch with what we can see going on around us. It's high time for federal politics to catch up with what is happening in the rest of the country. When playing the tricky political game of defining what is “possible” we need to keep our eye on what leaders are already doing right here at home. Then we need to ask: “What we can do to take those successes to another level?"

Comments

1 Response to "Canada & Climate: Mission Impossible?"

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.


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