Monday, October 29, 2007
Photo: The UNEP panel delivers its report at a press conference in Ottawa.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recently issued its fourth report (GEO4) to warn people that the world is nearing an environmental tipping point.
GEO4 comes 20 years after a commission headed by former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland published Our Common Future, a watershed document that called for sustainable development.
Here in Ottawa, three experts were on hand to deliver the findings of the report, which was authored by scientists from around the world.
“The world has changed considerably in the last 20 years,” said Christian Lambrechts, policy and programme officer with the UNEP.
“Change is happening faster than we can deal with it. We have not yet crossed a threshold, but how many more reports does the world need before we act?” Mr. Lambrechts said.
Here in North America, three priorities were highlighted by the report: energy and climate change, urban sprawl and fresh water.
According to GEO4, North America has only five per cent of the world’s population but consumes almost 25 per cent of global primary energy. From 1987 to 2003, emissions from fossil fuels in North America increased almost 28 per cent.
The report repeats what many experts have proposed – greenhouse gas emissions need to fall by up to 50 per cent compared to 1990 levels to keep the global temperature from exceeding 2 C above pre-industrial levels. How countries like Canada – which will not meet its own 2012 Kyoto targets – will get there remains to be seen.
“No one can say for certain whether that target is achievable,” said Nicholas Schneider, a policy analyst with the Fraser Institute. “A lot of attention is paid to targets 50 years into the future, but what is most important is the cost-effectiveness of the policies implemented now. Putting a price on emissions (such as through a tax) and using the revenues to rebate other taxes would be one of most cost-effective policy options. Without good policies, you are unlikely to hit any future target,” said Mr. Schneider.
Canada is desperately in need of good urban development policies, given that three Canadian cities – Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto – are among the world’s most sprawling urban areas, according to the GEO4 report.
“Suburban life is deeply imbedded in our culture,” said Jane Barr, an associate at the Commission for Environmental Co-operation and one of the presenters at the press conference in Ottawa.
More urban sprawl means more cars on the road, more pollution and a greater percentage of tax dollars being spent on building and maintaining roads.
In addition, urban sprawl means less land is available for agriculture and reduced space for wetlands and natural habitats.
“Vancouver is an interesting case,” said Mr. Schneider. “For all the restrictive growth controls that have been implemented, people still prefer single detached, lower-density housing. This suggests that ‘more of the same’ won’t work. Instead, requiring people to pay the full cost of their choices (for example, through road tolls) would be a better policy.”
The third priority for North America is its water supply. North America has about 13 per cent of the world’s total fresh water supply, but regional droughts, smaller snow packs and water quality issues (remember Walkerton?) have placed a burden on this precious resource. North Americans need to conserve more and consume less water.
Clearly, changes are needed – both at a consumer level and at a legislative level.
“We will have to make lifestyle changes,” said David Runnalls, president of the International Institute for Sustainable Development. “We have ducked the issue of self-responsibility up until now.”
Taking responsibility was exactly what attendees at last weekend’s Ottawa Eco-Fair were after.
The keynote speaker, Darryl McMahon – an Ottawa-based energy consultant and author of the book The Emperor’s New Hydrogen Economy – offered real world, practical advice on how individuals can reduce their energy bills.
“Energy not used is the best alternative of all,” said Mr. McMahon.
“Drive less, walk or cycle more. When you do use your car – slow down – reducing your speed will reduce your gas bill by 25 per cent,” he said.
He also stressed the importance of keeping tires inflated to the correct pressure and the necessity of planning trips better. This, he said, reduces the actual number of kilometres driven.
Mr. McMahon suggested people use water from a rain barrel to water their lawn and garden or to wash their car.
He also thinks North Americans have too much lawn and too little garden. By growing more of our own food, we would not have to pay for shipping and packaging costs. Using a push mower instead of a gas mower would also reduce energy costs.
Inside the home, Mr. McMahon recommends the use of compact fluorescent lighting. To capture as much solar heat as possible in the winter, he suggests keeping windows clean and leaving curtains open during the day. To cut down on air-conditioning costs in the summer, he suggests putting a seasonal shade cloth on the outside of windows.
Proper insulation of doors, windows and the hot water tank goes a long way toward reducing energy costs.
These (and other) practical suggestions have saved Mr. McMahon about $1,000 per year in his family’s energy costs.
The GEO4 report goes into detail about what needs to be done on a global scale to move towards sustainability. Mr. McMahon’s advice will allow individuals to make a personal contribution.
Photo: Darryl McMahon standing beside his 1973 Porche 914, which he converted into a zero-emission electric car.