Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Canada is Now the Dirty Old Man of the Climate World

Every time I open a newspaper or visit media sites, I find it harder to feel proud to be Canadian. This is the first time in my life I have ever felt that way, but between war crimes and climate change sabotage, this government has destroyed my faith.

Another story on our dirty oil and our dirty government is adding more fuel to fire. I'm also finding it difficult to read comments at the end of some of these articles, not willing to believe that there are Canadians out there who suggest that we shouldn't care about Afghans torturing Afghans, or claiming that climate change is a hoax.

What happened to us?

Canada must reclaim its reputation by reducing greenhouse gas emissions
By Graham Thomson
Edmonton Journal
December 1, 2009

First it was "dirty oil." Now, it's "dirty old man." Canada's environmental reputation has gone from crappy to creepy.

The latest slap comes from the British newspaper, The Guardian, that published a biting "countries to watch" primer for next week's climate-change conference in Copenhagen: "In stark contrast to its cuddly international image, Canada is the dirty old man of the climate world."

The Guardian blames Canada for "missing its Kyoto emissions reduction target by a country mile (by 2007, it was 35 per cent above its target) and showing no signs of reigning in its profligacy." Singled out for particular abuse are "those lucrative tarsands in Alberta."

Albertans might call them oilsands but the rest of the world knows them as tarsands. You can thank Greenpeace for that. Actually, I guess you can thank the fact that the oil-soaked sand--bitumen--is more like tar than oil. That's why bitumen in its natural state is better for waterproofing a canoe than fuelling an SUV.

The Guardian's article might be a simplified view of Canada's record on the climate change portfolio but it is also a measure of how far Canada's reputation has fallen in the eyes of the world, especially to those who look to us for leadership. Our record on climate change is so bad a coalition of scientists and officials from developing countries are asking that Canada be suspended from the Commonwealth.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made no pretence of leading on climate change; he is following Washington. Alberta likes to talk leadership. There'll be more talk today when the Alberta government announces a fourth carbon capture project--this one in Swan Hills worth about$300 million. That means Alberta has now committed almost all of its $2-billion budget for carbon capture projects. It's an impressive amount of money and having four projects announced in quick succession will provide Alberta and Canada with some political cover at the Copenhagen conference.

However, the reality is that there's no guarantee any of the projects will go ahead. The Alberta government has budgeted $100 million to start up the carbon capture and storage projects this year but the projects are only in the "letter of intent" stage and still under discussion.

The only government money being spent on the projects this year is on the cost of printing off news releases breathlessly announcing the yet-to-be-proven projects. Not a nickel will be used to capture carbon. That's probably good news if you're not sold on the sanity or safety of pumping millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide underground every year. But it does tend to undermine the government's insistence that "Alberta surges ahead with climate change action plan."

That was the headline from a government news release on July 8, 2008 that announced the government will invest $2 billion in carbon capture and storage, and $2 billion in public transit.

That second $2 billion was targeted at the province's Green Transit Incentives Program --Green TRIP--which will, in the words of the news release, "promote the use of local, regional and intercity public transit. The program will support new public transit alternatives throughout the province that will significantly reduce the number of vehicles on Alberta roads and reduce GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions."

Green TRIP is a bold idea designed to spur new methods of public transit in Alberta. One model suggested was something akin to metro Toronto's GO commuter train system which brings people from outlying communities into downtown Toronto. Maybe we could do the same here in Edmonton with riders from Spruce Grove and Stony Plain. Calgary could do it with people from communities such as Okotoks and Airdrie.

More public transit, fewer cars, less greenhouse gas. It's all good-- except that 17 months after Green TRIP was announced, the government is still stuck in neutral.

It had budgeted $10 million to spend on the program this year but that money was quietly withdrawn in last week's second quarter fiscal update. In government-speak, the money has been "re-profiled to future years" as a way of trimming this year's expenses.

Premier Ed Stelmach insists he is still committed to Green TRIP and says "there will be money in next year's budget and there will be more the following year."

But how much? Nobody knows. In this year's budget documents released in the spring, the government said it would spend $150 million next year on Green TRIP and $360 million the year after. But the government couldn't even meet its commitment for a relatively paltry $10 million this year.

So, 17 months after announcing$4 billion to "surge ahead" on climate change, the government has spent nothing. And it has done almost nothing except hold news conferences and organize photo-ops. (Sounds like the Canada Action Plan)

It's a mixed message where the government is trying to have it both ways: Claiming it is moving ahead on climate change while also claiming it is being fiscally prudent by not spending any money.

We can't have it both ways. In a climate constrained world, we will have to take action as a province and a country to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The world will be watching in Copenhagen-- and thinking up even dirtier things to call us.

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