Monthly Archives: July 2007

Hummer vs. Prius, Regulation vs. Market Signals

The headline on the front page of today’s Globe, Ottawa can’t shift green rebates into gear, is regrettably predictable. In short, not a single buyer of a 2006 or 2007 eligible model has yet received the rebate they’re entitled to under the ecoAuto program. Further, no one knows what 2008 models are eligible for the rebate (it hasn’t been announced), causing confusion and inconsistency that’s creating a “customer nightmare” and adding “an element of risk to doing business in Canada” according to Honda and DaimlerChrysler, respectively.

What’s worse, these rebates never made sense in the first place. Vehicles were made eligible for rebates based on their class first, and their emissions second. In other words, if you buy an “efficient SUV” you’re eligible for a rebate not available to someone who buys an “inefficient” regular car, even though your SUV emits more carbon emissions.

Add to the mix this confusing column about a study that concluded a Hummer is greener than a Prius, and early-eco-adopters must be ready to throw up their hands in defeat. The study took into account the total “dust to dust” (I prefer “cradle to cradle,” but ok) energy and material inputs for each vehicle, and concluded that a Hummer’s life-time environmental impact is less than that of a Toyota Prius.

Did the study get it right? I doubt it. Others have already pointed out a number of flaws and question marks with the methodology. For example, the study authors arbitrarily assigned the Prius a lifetime of 100,000 miles and the Hummer 300,000 miles (artificially amortizing the embedded energy required for research and production over a much longer period), despite the fact that a Prius will last at least twice as long as that. Not to mention the fact that the study was conducted not by a scientific group, but by a marketing company whose client list includes Chevrolet, a brand of Hummer-manufacturer General Motors. (I’m yet to see that reported anywhere, by the way.)

Why has this report nonetheless garnered so much attention and so little scrutiny outside of the blogosphere? Well, if it were true, wouldn’t it be great to rub it in the face of that treehugging, smug, judgmental Prius-owning neighbour of yours? In some circles, “environmentalist” is still a tainted word, hearkening back to the arrogant, ignorant EPA official in Ghostbusters who almost destroys the whole world with rash actions motivated by his presumed superiority.

And what if, on the other hand, there is some truth to the report? It’s possible. Considering the full life-cycle environmental and energy impacts of everything we make is a very important thing to do, and the results will often surprise us. That’s why it’s sometimes difficult to tackle extremely complex problems through government regulation, and why it would be more effective in this case to harness market tools as well. A carbon tax applied early in the process would help to reveal and deter hidden energy bloat at every stage in the production process.

Government regulation can’t do that. Turns out they can’t even send out a simple cheque. Now With Dissent!

A few days ago I was welcomed as an affiliate of Progressive Bloggers, “an alliance of Canadian political blogs aimed to express and promote progressive ideas.” It’s cool to be part of this group, as I already read a few other Progressive Bloggers regularly, including A BCer in Toronto, Cameron Wigmore, Cerberus, Cherniak on Politics, DevonRowcliffe, Section 15, and some others.

This will mean some increased traffic to this site. It will also mean that many more non-Green-Party-partisans will be reading and commenting on this blog. (You may have already noticed an increase in comments over the last few days.) I’m thrilled about that for reasons that are hopefully self evident, but just wanted to give all you regular readers a heads-up in case you were wondering why people suddenly started disagreeing with me in record numbers.

Cons Rooting For Bob?

A commenter just tipped me off about this post on Garth Turner’s blog. (Yes, this is the first time I’ve mentioned his name since our emotional break-up last October. Never mind that.) Garth makes some very interesting–if non-specific–accusations about the Conservative campaign here in Toronto Centre. Namely, that it’s being sabotaged by the PMO:

Unable to hobble the new Liberal leader with its tidal wave of smear and innuendo, the Harper Party strategists are hoping Mr. Ignatieff and especially Mr. Rae still have the scent of power in their nostrils. The plan is to facilitate a Rae victory in Toronto Centre, get Bob Rae into the House and have Stephane Dion sitting smack in the middle of the two guys from whom he snatched victory. Then [Prime Minster Stephen Harper] will start bating them, ask rhetorically who is in charge, and again attack Dion, mocking his consensual style of leadership as being weak.

And it gets even more scandalous:

That explains the on-the-ground strategy in Toronto Centre. It explains what PMO political operations director Doug Finley is doing. It certainly clarifies the media blackout, the hobbling of the local campaign and the complete disregard for the hard work and honest efforts of Conservatives there. Mr. Harper is about to elect Mr. Rae.

Don’t believe me? Ask the poor candidate.

There, in that last line, and again in the intro, Turner twice suggests that our Conservative candidate himself has been complaining of being sabotaged by his own party. He does not, however, offer any specific evidence or examples, nor does he give us any idea what kind of “political operations” and “hobbling of the local campaign” Conservative war room chief Doug Finley might be up to. I’m also left to wonder why the Conservatives would bother, since Rae is all but guaranteed to win anyway. Still, makes for some interesting speculation. Maybe one of our regular commenters can help clear this up.

Positive First Steps in Toronto

Crossposted from Torontoist.

All of the controversy last week over city council’s non-decision regarding new taxes overshadowed another story with equal (if not more) importance. Just as a one-vote margin of defeat for a mayor is rare, so too is a unanimous vote for anything other than ceremonial or housekeeping motions. And yet, that’s exactly how Toronto’s climate change plan came to be adopted last Monday night, without a single dissenting voice. Given the importance of dealing with the climate crisis, the relative media-silence surrounding the city’s plan, and the fact that the wrong climate solutions can actually lead to even bigger problems, Toronto’s approach deserves a closer look.

First of all, it’s hard to find fault with the city’s objectives. The “Climate Change, Clean Air and Sustainable Energy Action Plan: Phase 1” [pdf highlights] sets emissions reduction targets from 1990 levels of 6% by 2012 (the Kyoto target), 30% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. Those are very ambitious targets (Toronto calls them the “most ambitious in North America”) and they will not be easy to meet. They’re also the same targets that most climatologists agree are necessary in order to avoid the worst of climate change. To put those numbers in context, in 1990—chosen as a base year because it was the founding year of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—Toronto’s emissions were approximately 22 million tonnes of eCO2 (carbon dioxide equivalent) per year. Since then, Canada’s emissions have risen by 30%, which now puts Toronto’s emissions at around 28.6 million tonnes. In other words, what we’re really talking about is getting our emissions down to 20.7 million tonnes by 2012, 15.4 million tonnes by 2020, and 4.4 million tonnes by 2080.

The report’s many recommendations are broken down into twelve categories. Basically, here’s what the city hopes to accomplish.

The Live Green Toronto strategy is designed to provide incentives for individuals and communities, primarily to reduce their own energy consumption, but also to take other action to reduce their impact on our life support systems (sometimes referred to as “the environment”) such as installing green roofs and retrofitting old buildings. The details are vague and presumably yet to be worked out, but there’s a suggestion that the incentives would be in the form of loans to be repaid by the energy savings of new projects. This is also the section that contains the call to “investigate banning the use of two stroke engines” like the ones in some leaf blowers.

The most encouraging ideas in the Green Business Toronto section are the promotion of local food production and an eco-roofs program which would help businesses save money by reducing their air conditioning use, while also reducing the amount of unfiltered water that ends up in storm sewers (and, ultimately, our watershed). There’s also a call to “develop a business plan for a model green-industry business park,” which seems too ambiguous to get excited about just yet.

The city plans to Become the Renewable Energy Capital of Canada by installing small-scale renewable energy systems (including solar, wind, geothermal, and biogas) on 1500 city buildings and landfill sites. Other ideas include making it a legal right for homeowners to install renewable energy generation on their properties, and expanding deep lake water cooling capacity by 20%.

Given last week’s discouraging TTC news, it’s particularly hard to read the plan’s Sustainable Transportation strategy without rolling your eyes. The ideas are there (implement the bike plan, implement the transit city plan, create a new plan to make all the old plans work with each other), but we’ve heard it before. Some (slightly) newer ideas, on the other hand, include shifting taxis and limos to hybrids by 2015 (though you have to wonder why it would take that long) and investigating “a road pricing regime,” which we’re pretty sure is code for tolls.

At 17%, Toronto has a decent amount of tree canopy, but Doubling the Tree Canopy to 34% is still a neat idea that would pay real dividends. Remarkably, this section of the summary report uses 89 words to explain that this will be accomplished by planting more trees.

By the time we get to the Building Partnerships for Change section, things are starting to sound particularly fluffy. Build partnerships with business…invite stakeholders to participate…discuss forming research partnerships…you get the idea. Needs to be done, boring to read about.

Inspiring Action is the name of the plan’s public awareness strategy. The one idea here is to organize a charette to get Torontonians’ input on how to use the internets to spread the word.

Preparing for Climate Change deals with adaptation, which is where things necessarily get a bit more somber. In short, there is a certain level of climate change that we can no longer avoid, so even while we do everything we can to prevent things from getting even worse, we have to deal with the reality of what we’re already done. The city will plan for “response mechanisms [to] meet identified environmental changes, including health related impacts.”

All these ideas are well and good, but they’re pretty useless without Regular Monitoring and Reporting. The city will set benchmarks for progress and report on if they’re being met or not. (But who will report on the reporters?)

Filed under “lead by example” is the Greening City Operations strategy. Toronto will connect City Hall, Toronto Police Headquarters, and Union Station to the deep lake cooling system, phase out the use of incandescent heat light bulbs and improve on the existing Green Fleet Plan (which seeks to improve fuel efficiency in city vehicles).

Program Funding for all of this will add up to approximately $85 million, and be targeted towards a number of specific funds and projects.

Finally, Planning for a Sustainable Energy Future tackles community energy planning (as opposed to just renewable energy generation and individual building retrofits as mentioned above).

Ok, so there are a lot of words there. The big question, of course, is will these strategies and tactics accomplish the stated objectives? While we haven’t crunched the numbers, it seems clear that there are enough good ideas here, if properly executed, to meet and probably exceed the initial Kyoto target of 6% reductions by 2012. That’s a good start, and assuming we hold the feet of every single councilor who voted for this (i.e., all of them) to the fire to make sure it gets done, we can feel proud of this plan. In that case, our positive example—proof that emissions can be reduced in smart ways that don’t destroy the economy—will make it harder and harder for the federal government to ignore both the threat of the climate crisis and the great opportunity that its solutions present.

On the other hand, this is only the beginning. There will be many phases to go after “phase 1” is done. And just like any weight-loss program, the last pounds (er, tonnes) are the hardest to lose. We can’t buy into the marketing hype that tries to convince us that getting down to just 4.4 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in the next 43 years will be easy, especially since Toronto’s population is projected to grow dramatically in that time. But it is possible, and it is necessary.