How to build a better planet

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McGill Reporter
February 10, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 10
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 32: 1999-2000 > February 10, 2000 > How to build a better planet

How to build a better planet

| When the federal government forgot to do its homework, it made up for its laxity by turning to management professor Richard Loulou.

Professor Richard Loulou

In 1997, Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol, pledging a six per cent reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions by 2010. Problem was, the Canadians didn't really know whether that promise was feasible.

"Canada went there with a bad case of unpreparedness. Usually, you do a little homework before committing yourself to something like that. Then Al Gore made a nice speech and the U.S. signed. In the spirit of Kyoto, Canada was also obliged to sign," jokes Loulou. "Literally, the country had to start planning the process the next day."

The federal government set up the National Implementation Process on Climate Change (NIPCC), a research and advisory group involving more than 500 people, including representatives from both levels of government and members of non-governmental organizations. Loulou and his colleagues at Groupe d'études et de recherche en analyse des décisions (GERAD) were called in to help the NIPCC achieve its goals.

Of interest to the feds was GERAD's MARKAL, a modelling system that evaluates greenhouse gas sources and their intensity, examines possible methods of reduction and suggests alternative, climate-friendly sources of energy.

Loulou describes what MARKAL does as "half-art, half-science" that takes a situation from the real world and makes an abstract model out of it for determining long-term goals, such as reducing carbon emissions.

"You cannot say, 'What happens if we stop using cars?' That cannot happen in the real world," says Loulou. Rather, he and his co-researchers "tweak the levers" of reality with a systems analysis of climate change.

The MARKAL model works with a computer database that includes every activity producing greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane and PFCs (perfluorocarbons). Cars and industrial plants, especially those producing coal-generated electricity, are two leading producers of carbon dioxide. An unexpected source is cement, which releases carbon dioxide when it is produced. Swamps and animals release methane into the atmosphere, while aluminum plants produce PFCs.

"Just like ecology, everything affects climate — meteorology, winds, humankind, the economy. So when we study climate change, we don't have a sharp and narrow focus or deep, specialized knowledge, like a scientist who spends his life looking at two molecules, because the climate change phenomenon pervades everything we do," says Loulou.

MARKAL allows for the study of a complex situation in the real world, like global warming.

Loulou's team has been studying the economic impact of climate change for 10 years. They developed MARKAL at GERAD, an interuniversity research centre run jointly by McGill, Université du Québec à Montréal, École Polytechnique and École des Hautes Études Commerciales.

A French native, Loulou first came to North America to study mathematics and engineering at Berkley. His interest in quantitative physics, statistics and mathematical models led to his specialization in operations research.

GERAD's study will be completed in a few weeks, but Loulou shared what he cautiously described as his "expert tentative conclusions."

In a nutshell, every sector and individual citizen will be asked to do something to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "There is no silver bullet here, no technological solution that will solve the problem with a 'poof,'" says Loulou. "Everyone must cooperate."

A proposed set of actions will focus on increasing efficiency by a widespread reduction in coal-generated electrical production and residential heating. In the area of transportation, "the hardest nut to crack," says Loulou, we need to build and use cars that pollute less and use energy more efficiently. We also need disincentives to discourage people from using cars so much.

Reducing emissions in industry is exceedingly difficult because so much of Canada's economy is fossil-fuel dependent, but a pragmatic approach would avoid the danger posed by making unrealistic demands. Incentives and financial aid would play a major role in these efforts.

"A six per cent reduction by 2010 is arbitrary, but it crystallizes things by putting a date on it," says Loulou. "What is particularly significant," he continues, "is that now we're talking not simply about stabilizing global warming but about reducing it. It implies a change."

Although he lauds the NIPCC's efforts, Loulou is skeptical about Canada taking any immediate action. The Globe and Mail recently reported that Finance Minister Paul Martin would announce a $500-million environmental initiatives budget to help fight global warming. Unfortunately, this is a far cry from the $1.6-billion budget over five years proposed by Environment Minister David Anderson and Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale.

But Loulou points to Kyoto's enormous symbolic value and predicts that in the long run, the necessary policies will be put in place with the help of rising public awareness. "Kyoto was a brave attempt to slow down climate change by humanity as a whole. Not since World War II have we needed this type of global approach."

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