ENVIRONMENT

The 'greenhouse' gap

Canada lags in reducing atmospheric emissions

MARK NICHOLS March 6 1995
ENVIRONMENT

The 'greenhouse' gap

Canada lags in reducing atmospheric emissions

MARK NICHOLS March 6 1995

The 'greenhouse' gap

ENVIRONMENT

Canada lags in reducing atmospheric emissions

When world leaders met in Rio de Janeiro for the 1992 Earth Summit, Canada's delegation enthusiastically backed measures to reduce emissions of the manmade gases that scientists believe could dangerously overheat

the planet’s atmosphere. When a follow-up conference begins in Berlin later this month, the Canadian presence could be more muted. The reason: a federal-provincial meeting in Toronto last week concluded that an array of voluntary Canadian programs are likely to fall 13 per cent short of the goal agreed upon in Rio—cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) and other emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Despite that gloomy forecast, federal Environment Minister Sheila Copps insisted that Canada should still be able to fulfil its Rio commitment. Many provinces are moving to reduce emissions, she said, and Ottawa plans further measures, including possible steps to raise emissions standards for cars and trucks. “I am confident,” Copps told Maclean’s, “that Canada will meet its stabilization goal

by the year 2000.”

Still, it has proven difficult to win support for the kind of measures needed to reduce atmospheric emissions in Canada. For one thing, there is relatively little public pressure for them—a reflection of the sharp drop in concern for the environment as recorded in opinion polls. And then there is Alberta. Canada’s main oil producer is also a major source of CO2, but its government has steadfastly refused to consider any measures that go beyond voluntary action. At the

Toronto meeting, a heated debate erupted over the question of whether Canadian governments, federal or provincial, should enact regulatory measures that could, for example, impose binding emission standards on industry or automobile owners. Said Copps: “Alberta would not agree to the R-word.” The province’s stance drew sharp criticism from other conference participants. While some provincial governments see “environmental issues as pressing,” said British Columbia’s Environment Minister Moe Sihota, “others, like Alberta, seem to have their heads stuck in the tar sands.”

The failure of Ottawa and the provinces to agree on tougher measures means that Canada could be in for a painful loss of face at the 10-day climate-change conference that opens in Berlin on March 28. There, signatories to the Rio Convention on Climate Change will out-

line the steps they are taking to reduce the emission of gases that contribute to the so-called greenhouse effect. Many scientists believe that CO2 and other manmade gases in the atmosphere trap heat and could cause a sharp rise in global temperatures in the next century, leading to parched farmlands and flooding of low-lying areas as polar ice melts and sea levels rise. “It’s really humiliating,” said Kevin Jardine, a Torontobased spokesman for the environmental organization Greenpeace Canada. “Canada is going to have one of the worst plans for curtailing greenhouse gases in the industrialized world.”

In fact, only a handful of industrialized nations—including Britain, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands—are expected to succeed in stabilizing or reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2000. But Louise Comeau, a climate-change expert at the Ottawabased Sierra Club of Canada, noted that while other industrialized

countries may not actually meet their targets, “they at least have plans. We are the only country with a commitment to stabilize that hasn’t produced a plan to do it.” Instead, an array of voluntary programs operated by Ottawa and the provinces have just begun to reduce emissions in the country that is the industrial world’s secondhighest per capita producer of greenhouse gases after the United States. Tlie voluntary programs include efforts to make industrial operations, energy-producing utilities, office buildings, houses and household appliances more energy efficient, thus reducing the use of such fossil fuels as oil and natural gas, which produce CO2.

But environmentalists and other critics say that more far-reaching measures will be needed for Canada to significantly reduce the growing volume of CO2 and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. According to Sihota, “you would have to look at some pretty strict measures to close that 13-per-cent gap, including tougher automobile

emission standards and perhaps the mandatory use of alternative fuels such as ethanol and methanol.” Sihota said that within the next few months he will probably introduce measures in the British Columbia legislature to do both those things.

Most environmentalists argue that if Canada is serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, even more far-reaching measures will be needed to wean Canadians away from their reliance on petroleum products. One option: shifting millions of dollars annually in federal subsidies and tax breaks away from the

oil and natural gas industry—and towards alternative energy sources.

But Alberta opposes any measures that would threaten its petroleum-based economy. “We believe,” said Alberta’s Energy Minister Patricia Black, “that economic and environmental development must go hand in hand. We refuse to violate that.” Comeau thinks that with the memory of the federal Liberals’ 1980 National Energy Program— which was bitterly resented in Alberta—etched sharply in Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s memory, “Ottawa is afraid to risk any action that might be thrown back in its face as NEP II.” As a result, when Copps and the Canadian delegation arrive in Berlin in late March, they may find it difficult to persuade other nations that Canada’s environmental image still has its lustre.

MARK NICHOLS