P.O.V.: The Clean Air Act - what is being cleaned?

P.O.V.: The Clean Air Act - what is being cleaned? McGill University

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McGill Reporter
November 9, 2006 - Volume 39 Number 06
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 39: 2006-2007 > November 9, 2006 > P.O.V.: The Clean Air Act - what is being cleaned?


The Clean Air Act — what is being cleaned?

On October 19, 2006, the Government of Canada introduced Bill C-30 — Canada's Clean Air Act. It was quickly reviewed by the press, mostly thumbs-down, then disappeared only to re-emerge briefly last week when NDP leader Jack Layton met with Environment Minister Rona Ambrose to discuss what he thought needed to be done.

In contrast, the Oct. 30 review on The Economics of Climate Change by Sir Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank, is still being discussed in the press, though in Canada this story was bumped by the income trust issue. Why did Stern's review have more legs than Canada's Clean Air Act? One might be tempted to speculate it has something to do with substance.

We should applaud Canada's Minister of Environment for raising the serious issue of air pollution but we should take her to task on how the Clean Air Act fails to address the issue of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions any more seriously than the previous government's efforts. While they probably deserve an "F," the "new" government's proposal deserves a good look by a committee on integrity.

First, do we really need, as the Act calls for, more years of consultation? Will our great-grandchildren, five to six generations removed, think this was a wise strategy? I think most Canadians would agree with the principle of the Amish proverb, "We did not inherit the land from our fathers. We are borrowing it from our children." (We should be paying the borrowers' fees.) Second, the Act ties GHG reductions to emission intensities, at least until 2025. This means that as the economy grows so will GHG emissions. Finally, are the actual emission reductions in the proposed Clean Air Act actually much greater than the original Kyoto target?

"We did not inherit the land from our fathers. We are borrowing it from our children."

The Act seeks between a 45 and 65 percent reduction in the national GHG emissions relative to 2003 emissions by 2050. The key here is using 2003 rather than 1990 as the baseline, since Canada's GHG emissions grew substantially between 1990 and 2003. The Act would result in greater cuts in percentage of emissions but not much greater in absolute terms. The absolute difference does not warrant an additional 30 years. To be fair, it was very obvious Canada had no hope of making its Kyoto target under the previous government's plan by the 2008-–-2012 compliance window.

An economist friend, along with some of his co-investigators, has clearly demonstrated, despite what environmental organizations and the working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say, that we do not currently have sufficient proven, green technology to wean our economies off GHG-generating energy sources and avoid serious climate change. As much as it pains me to say so, I am convinced by the evidence he presents. But I still think we should be setting emission reduction targets.

How do we get serious about closing the green technology gap without establishing targets? Are we really thinking radically enough about this issue? Maybe our disagreement has its origin in our thinking too narrowly. After listening to Richard Dawkins' Homecoming Beatty Memorial Lecture two weeks ago, I am beginning to wonder if we got the short end of the evolution stick when it comes to dealing with climate change. We have very big brains relative to other organisms but we also think locally. As a species we may not be well adapted to think globally. Our environmental legislation may be handicapped by this.

We might begin to alter this thinking by tackling the problem, literally, in our own back yard. McGill University could put into practice what many of its professors are professing in their classrooms — that we are overusing a diminishing set of resources, including the atmosphere. In a place whose role is to create new knowledge and transmit that knowledge, we should begin to practice some of that knowledge.

Nigel Roulet is a James McGill Professor of Geography and the director of the McGill School of Environment.

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