We’re the world’s biggest energy hogs, and we ought to look to the U.S. for solutions

COLIN CAMPBELL November 20 2006


We’re the world’s biggest energy hogs, and we ought to look to the U.S. for solutions

COLIN CAMPBELL November 20 2006



We’re the world’s biggest energy hogs, and we ought to look to the U.S. for solutions


If global warming is as bad as most scientists say, the world will be a very different place in 100 years. Major cities, like New York and London, will be underwater thanks to melting polar ice caps. Unending drought will grip huge swaths of Africa, a million species will have gone extinct, and dangerous tropical diseases will have spread far and wide. Tens of thousands of people, or more, will quite literally die from the heat, and the calamity will cost the world economy US$7 trillion, according to former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern. Future generations might well look back and ask, where did it all go wrong? Who’s to blame? And they might point to one North American country in particular, with its bigger-is-better attitude and its refusal to play along with international efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. They might point to the people

who were, at the turn of the century, the biggest energy hogs in the developed world: Canadians.

No developed nation, save for tiny Luxembourg and Iceland, uses more energy per capita than Canada today, and only a few emit more greenhouse gases per capita. In fact, experts predict that by the end of this decade, or sooner, Canada will have surpassed the United States, and trail only Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the U.A.E.—small oil-centred economies in the Mideast—in per capita emissions. If there is one country that most characterizes the global failure to address climate change, it’s Canada. And the failure can’t be blamed entirely on rapacious Alberta oilmen, or the cold weather, or even the great distances between our cities. It’s largely the fault of the average car-driving, steak-eating, electricity-burning Canadian energy glutton—who might, in turn, be surprised to find that one place the country ought to be looking to for solutions is the world’s other great energy hog, the United States.

Canada has gone a long way in the wrong direction since it signed the Kyoto Protocol

four years ago, vowing to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. Today, our emissions are running about 30 per cent above 1990 levels. Kyoto has been dumped from the government’s agenda and the latest climate change plan—the Tories’ clean air act—avoids shortterm measures in favour of a long-term pledge to cut greenhouse gases in half by about 2050. Despite efforts by government officials to put a positive spin on the plan, Canada’s failures were much in the air at this week’s UN conference on climate change in Nairobi, aimed at reducing global greenhouse gases. Even the United States, which emphatically refused to play along with Kyoto, has done more to address its emissions and energy use. “We witnessed the smug way the Paul Martin government said, ‘We’re not like the U.S. We’re green. We’re clean,’ ” says Pierre Sadik, a policy adviser with the David Suzuki Foundation. “But if you look beneath the rhetoric you’d see that Canada was being outperformed by the U.S.”

By most measures, both countries have pitiful environmental records. Rates of emissions and energy use in North America are more than double what they are in western Europe. North Americans rely on coal to produce electricity (though more so in the U.S. than in Canada), are addicted to large cars and SUVs, rely on freight trucks to supply consumer goods, shun rail travel for airplanes, occupy large, inefficient homes and office buildings, fill vast landfills (which also emit greenhouse gases), and do little to try to minimize their energy consumption. Per capita, the U.S. produces 24.03 tonnes of CO2 emis-

sions a year, and Canada produces 23.28, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Only Australia, which is not party to the Kyoto Protocol, fares slightly worse among developed nations. The one bright note is that Canada’s overall emissions, due to its relatively small population, amount to only about two per cent of the world total (the biggest emitter, the U.S., has more than a 20 per cent share).

Where Canada easily tops the United States is the speed at which its emissions have been growing. Between 1990 and 2004, Canada’s went up 27 per cent, compared to 16 per cent in the United States. And on a per capita basis, U.S. numbers appear to have even declined slightly, says Sadik, so Canada, in fact, may have already passed the U.S. in per capita emissions. Many blame the growth on Alberta’s sprawling oil sands. But they’re not the culprit, at least not yet, say environmentalists. Much of the oil sands development has occurred only in the last few years—too soon to account for growth between 1990 and today. “It’s not that they are currently a huge fraction of emissions, it’s that they are going to be growing incredibly quickly,” says Matthew Bramley, the director of climate change at the Albertabased Pembina Institute. What has raised emissions over the last 15 years is the demand for electricity, the transportation sector, and most importantly, the conventional oil and gas sector, where emissions went up by 50 per cent between 1990 and 2004, according to the Pembina Institute. All that’s the result of a rising population, a booming economy, and its insatiable demand for energy.

But it’s not always the case that a country with a big oil and gas sector must inevitably have high emissions. Norway, the world’s third largest exporter of crude oil, has a per capita rate of emission half that of Canada’s. It has implemented a CO2 tax, relies on hydro power as well, and has pushed technology that pipes emissions into underground aquifers (one of the few concrete proposals in Canada’s latest plan). If they can do it, so can we, says Sadik. “In Norway, the government has said, ‘do it.’ Here the federal government hasn’t moved in that direction yet, but we will have to.”

Nor is it the case that Canada’s high energy use and emissions are inevitable, and defensible, because the country is so big and so cold. David Richard Boyd, an environmental lawyer and adjunct professor at Simon

Fraser University, calls those “classic Canadian excuses.” In fact, while freight trucks are a fast growing source of emissions, the majority of travel in Canada is intra-city travel (implying that urban sprawl and not distance is a big problem), and peak energy use in Ontario and Quebec, the most populous provinces, occurs not in winter months, but in the summer, says Emilie Moorehouse, an environment campaigner with the Sierra Club of Canada. Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway are just as cold as Canada, yet have far better environmental records. Germany, a large, highly industrialized and populated country, is on track to beating Kyoto targets, as is the U.K., which also happens to be a net oil exporter.

It’s relatively rare for greenhouse gas emissions to go up in developed countries at all. Between 1990 and 2002, CO2 emissions rose 47 per cent in the developing world, accord-


ing to the Washington-based World Resources Institute, but were unchanged in the developed world. The United States and Canada are notable exceptions. In part, that’s because they have largely ignored climate change, arguing that capping emissions would unnecessarily constrict economic growth. And the general public seems in no rush to sacrifice the North American way of life. Both the U.S. and Canada are addicted to cheap energy, and use plenty of it. Gas prices in Canada and the U.S. are less than half what they are in much of Europe. Given the high price of fuel there, most Europeans can’t afford to drive SUVs, so they don’t. Europeans tend to drive smaller, more efficient cars, and live in smaller, more efficient homes.

Still, some of the more aggressive U.S. jurisdictions are taking action. In September, the California legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to a groundbreaking plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. Critics have warned those measures could destroy the economy, but polls show widespread public support for the initiative. Enough even for the Republican governor to chart a radically different course than his national counterparts. “If we do it right, it can be an example for the rest of the world and the rest of the country to see,” said Schwarzenegger.

He’s won praise from environmentally conscious world leaders like Britain’s Tony Blair and Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. And he appears to have won a nod from the NDP’s Jack Layton, whose climate change plan also calls for an 80 per cent emissions reduction below 1990 levels by 2050. Similar laws are being considered in a number of U.S. states, like Oregon, which have long taken their environmental cues not from the national government but from California. Since the 1970s, it’s been at the forefront of environmental legislation-laws in California, for example, led to the widespread use of catalytic converters in cars to cut smog-producing emissions. California has pushed for more energyefficient appliances (even cellphone chargers), and was the first state to force carmakers to reduce the emission levels

of vehicles. In August, the state put in place legislation requiring that solar panels be offered as a standard option on all new homes. Outside California, seven states in the northeast recently banded together to cap power plant emissions by 10 per cent by 2019. Schwarzenegger visited New York last month and added California’s support to the plan.

Environmentalists say Canadian lawmakers would do well to follow California’s lead. “That’s what environmentalists have been saying to the government of Canada for years: we need long-term targets, shortterm targets, and actions now,” says David Richard Boyd.

But in Canada, the provinces have done comparatively little on the climate change front. In a 2002 report, the Pembina Institute’s Bramley found that U.S. states were not only outperforming provinces, but having a real impact with their legislation. Many U.S. states were more aggressive than Canadian provinces in everything from energy-efficient building codes to capping emissions from large emitters, the report said. “The leading states in the U.S. were far ahead of anything seen at the provincial level in Canada,” says Bramley. That trend continues today. A new report by the David Suzuki Foundation concluded that provinces, with the exception of Quebec, are still failing to take “the climate change crisis seriously.” Provinces have put in place a patch-


work of policies that have led to some improvements, but are unlikely to put a dent in the nationwide growth in emissions, said the report.

The lack of political will was evident last month, when the federal government said it was considering imposing California-like emissions standards on Canadian vehicles. The proposal sparked a bout of interprovincial bickering when Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty warned the plan would unfairly hurt the province’s auto sector while ignoring Alberta’s oil and gas industry. “We will not simply stand back in case the federal government should somehow decide that Ontario will unduly be demanded to come to the table

when it comes to reducing national greenhouse gas emissions.” To which Ralph Klein later responded, “Maybe he’s just mad because we are promoting coal. Clean-burning coal, that is.”

The division of powers between provincial and federal governments greatly complicates the making of a comprehensive climate change plan, says Dale Marshall, the author of the Suzuki report. But there is nothing stopping provinces from putting in place aggressive caps and standards like those in California, he says. “The reality is, every single level of government has huge potential for reducing emissions,” he says. “The jurisdictional issue is a lot more about being able to point the finger somewhere else.”

If certain U.S. states can offer Canada the baby-steps example of how to tackle climate change, the big league in the battle against greenhouse gases is in Europe, where most countries are on pace to meet Kyoto targets. The European Union has put in place regulated caps on emissions and combined them with an emissions trading system to reduce economic impacts (known as a “cap and trade” scheme). Europe has also seen the rise of green parties that have helped push the climate change agenda, says Boyd.

The political and public will to legislate climate change measures is likely driven as well by the fact that Europeans, and Californians, have already suffered through some intense environmental problems. Smog, water pollution, heat-wave deaths, high-priced real estate crumbling into the Pacific Ocean and wildfires—all of it has forced a greater awareness about the results of climate change. In Canada, the most visible impacts so far have been in the Arcticout of sight and out of mind. “We still suffer from the myth of Canadian environmental superiority,” says Boyd, the environmental lawyer. “People think Canada is too big and too beautiful to possibly have any environmental problems.” And also, it seems, too big to do anything about it. M