Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Making the Shift Towards a Culture of Conservation

I’m going to start off today’s blogpost in a similar manner to the way in which I began the last one, although I will be taking this post in a different direction. In my last post, I discussed how moving forward to create a culture of conservation would better position Canadians to address change on our terms – rather than reacting to the impacts of change. That post looked at inevitable change from a national and international perspective. In today’s post, I want to look at what it means to approach change at a local level.

We know that two important issues have been emerging over the past several decades, and that they are going to inform events and impact lives throughout the remainder of the 21st Century. The first issue has to do with the way in which greenhouse gas emissions from industrial processes are warming our planet. The second relates to the first: the era of inexpensive fossil fuel energy is over, and adapting to this circumstance is now more necessary than ever. How we adapt to this circumstance will greatly impact the extent of the global climate crisis.

For successful adaptation, we must begin to create a culture of conservation. That means that we must begin to use less energy in our lives. Given that the energy trends in western societies over the past several hundred years have always gone up, and never down, it appears that we may have our work cut out for us to reverse this trend. The truth is, though, that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Over the past hundred years, we’ve increased the complexity of our society by moving away from regional and national trade to trade which has become globalized. That this circumstance has occurred has largely been because of two reasons: the pursuit of ever-increasing profits has been the motivator, and the existence of inexpensive fossil fuel energy, particularly oil, has been the enabler. In many cases, jobs which were once performed locally in communities have relocated to areas where labour and/or capital costs are less expensive.

Other jobs have been replaced by mechanization. For example, instead of a dozen farmhands labouring to bring in the harvest, a single farmer on a tractor can now do that work, and perhaps in a fraction of the time. In a very real sense, oil has replaced much manual labour.

Free trade agreements have exacerbated this situation, and we’ve seen a hollowing out of our manufacturing sector as a result. Our resource sector, however, remains very strong – in part because you can’t physically relocate resources to other parts of the globe.

Our industrial and transportation sectors rely heavily on fossil fuel use, and are therefore somewhat vulnerable to risk as a result of rising energy prices. Energy prices will not be coming down again in any significant way, as international competition and a lack of new production to replace depleted sites will ensure that oil prices continue to trend upward – at least until prices rise high enough to throw the global economy back into recession. Then, with more people out of work and fewer industrial demands, prices might drop until the economy picks up again.

This hasn’t happened in the past, as new production always came online to replace production lost to depleted resources. Now, what new production is coming online isn’t enough to replace what’s been lost, and it’s largely from sources which have much higher production costs which need to be recouped.

When pollution pricing is added to the price of fossil fuel energy (and I believe that pollution pricing will be a reality for all Canadians in the very near future), we can expect even higher energy prices. Indeed, energy consumers will be paying an amount closer to the value of the product being consumed than ever before. Given that we’ve been subsidizing fossil fuel energy for our entire industrial history, by allowing climate changing atmospheric pollution without cost to emitters, many believe that it’s high time that we started paying the real costs of energy.

So, until we experience some kind of technological breakthrough, and develop the comprehensive infrastructure needed to deploy the new technology to our industrial and transportation sectors (and frankly, the development of a new tech isn’t on the horizon right now), we can expect to experience increasing energy and gasoline prices. To adapt, we’ll have a couple of options: pay more, or use less. For many, paying more simply isn’t an option at all, because family and business budgets are already tight.

The using less option, however undesirable it might be to some, is likely the more sustainable and realistic choice for a vast majority of Canadians. Conserving energy needs to become engrained in all decision-making processes: governments, businesses, industries, families, individuals: all will need to start making smarter energy consumption choices, or be prepared to pay much more for energy use.

There’s a lot of opportunity for a culture of conservation to take root in Canada. Canadians are currently energy hogs. The OECD reports that Canada is 27th out of 29 member nations when it comes to energy consumption per capita: we burn 6.19 tonnes of oil-equivalent per person every year. This rate is almost double the OECD average of 3.18 tonnes. Only sparsely populated and cold Iceland and, perhaps somewhat inexplicably, Luxembourg, consume more oil-equivalent units per person each year.

It seems obvious that a cold, northern nation is likely to require more energy than for a nation located in the mid-latitudes. Also, given that Canada’s population is quite spread out, it would seem to make sense that our energy requirements for transportation would be significantly greater than for more compact nations. Neither of these points, though, forgives Canadians of the fact that we’ve built our communities and transportation infrastructure to be much more energy-intensive than they need to be.

Rail travel for individuals and freight has remained popular in Europe, even though it has largely disappeared in Canada. Even in the United States, rail has started making a tentative comeback. Rail travel, of course, is much less energy intensive than the use of personal automobiles and trucks. Rail produces fewer emissions. All in all, rail will prove to be a much more sensible choice for moving people and goods in the future.

Yet, with this knowledge in mind, Canada has done very little on a national scale to encourage the reintroduction of rail. Some provincial governments, such as Ontario and Manitoba, are working with municipal counterparts to develop freight and passenger capacity, but these efforts have been long in coming, and can really only be considered to have minor impacts.

With regards to heating costs, Canadians have tended to prefer living arrangements which are also energy intensive. The single-family dwelling has been a mainstay for Canadian families. As a result, more and more land has been used to build energy-inefficient subdivisions, further and further away from the employment centres where subdivision inhabitants work. Our subdivisions have by necessity become largely dependent on cars for personal transportation.

Houses have gotten bigger over time, even though households have gotten smaller. Larger houses require more heating (and electricity for cooling). The home building industry hasn’t exactly prioritized energy efficiency in building design up until recently (and goodness knows, there is still a way to go in promoting “green” buildings). Further, homes are often not built to take advantage of natural lighting, heating and cooling sources.

Although Canada’s larger cities have begun to experience a boom in denser development forms, such as apartments (condominiums), the car-dependent energy-inefficient suburbs around Canada’s large and small cities continue to expand with few impediments.

If we know that energy prices are going to continue to rise, and as a result we will need to conserve the energy which we use, how can it be that Canadians have not demanded energy-efficient options from our governments? Indeed, why is it that Canadians continue to subsidize the energy-intensive lifestyles of our richest members, at the expense of investing in energy efficient options?

What do I mean by subsidizing energy-intensive lifestyles? Well, let’s start with looking at personal transportation. I think that we’re all in agreement that driving an automobile to and from work generally uses more energy and creates more greenhouse gas emissions than public transit, walking or cycling. Indeed, transit, walking and cycling are much more energy efficient modes of transportation, along with being more economical choices.

For many Canadians, though, the option of taking a bus or train to work, or walking or cycling simply isn’t an option at all, due to a lack of transit service, or the distance which must be travelled. In part, this is because many Canadians have chosen to live in energy-inefficient subdivisions, located long distances away from their jobs. These low-density subdivisions don’t generate enough riders to make public transit a viable option, so transit services are either not present, or serve only a handful of residents.

As a result, many kilometres of often-winding roads must be maintained for the use of cars which burn gasoline. In part, property taxes are used to maintain roads, but it’s not unusual for local cities to ask higher levels of government to assist with infrastructure repair and maintenance (especially for larger projects, such as bridge repair or new highway creation). Provincial and federal governments transfer revenue which they’ve received in the form of taxes. Ultimately, road maintenance is paid for through a variety of different sources; it can be said, however, that those who directly benefit are paying only a small portion of the overall costs (despite what might appear to be high property taxes levied by municipalities). And that’s a subsidy.

Yet, property values in many of these subdivisions are amongst the highest in their communities. Indeed, with high property values, many homes are priced beyond what is affordable to a significant number of Canadians. Yet all of us pay for road maintenance, including those who will never drive personal autos on those roads.

So, even in this basic scenario, into which I’ve not even factored health and environmental costs from carbon-polluting personal vehicles, it becomes clear that we’ve been subsidizing energy-inefficient suburban development.

We could have made different choices regarding the use of public money. We might have chosen instead to invest in public transit, or the creation of smaller, more affordable housing units in denser neighbourhoods. So what motivated us to make the decisions we made? Why have we chosen suburban, car-dependent living over more sustainable, less energy-intensive options? Largely, those decisions were made because of the availability of inexpensive fossil fuel energy. At a time when personal vehicle ownership was the norm, it was easier to justify the subsidy given to affluent suburbs.

But, those days are gone now. We’re living in a different reality. Surely, we’re going to be making different choices regarding what we spend our public dollars on. Right?

Well…yes and no. Clearly, some things have started to change. There is an increasing awareness amongst decision-makers that the public’s needs are changing. The condominium building spree which we’ve seen in Toronto, for example, is evidence of this change in attitude.

However, in many cases, vested interests continue to rule. Again, going back to Toronto as an example, although condominium towers have been going up like there’s no tomorrow, what we haven’t seen emerge is an investment in public transit. Well, rather, we have seen commitments for more transit infrastructure, in significant part being made by a senior level of government. But due to squabbling about priorities and funding, the gap between transit need and transit reality in Toronto continues to widen.

There’s a lot that we could be doing to get serious about building the kinds of communities which we need for the future that we’re going to inhabit. It all has to start with acknowledging that the days of inexpensive fossil fuel energy are at an end, and that to address the climate crisis, we need to create a culture of conservation. From there, we need to take a hard look at the things we’ve been funding, and determine whether they continue to be deserving of public subsidies.

In the past, our priorities have been on building infrastructure for cars, and on creating energy-intensive subdivisions for people to live. In the future, we must be more cognizant of full costs, including the costs to our health and environment from energy-intensive transportation and land uses. We must critically assess whether it continues to make sense to build more roads and highways for a future where there will be fewer people who can afford personal vehicle ownership. A better use of public funds would be to invest in rail, transit, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)


The Mound of Sound said...

Good arguments Steve. When the 2008/2009 meltdown hit and Harper first prorogued Parliament, Ignatieff fumbled the opportunity to devise a viable stimulus/recovery budget proposal. He could have based that on a new, transcontinental rail system for passenger and freight transport. It would have benefited all parts of the country both in immediate stimulus and in the long term. It would have been an investment that would have offered Canadians a genuine, tangible return for decades to follow. Instead he took the time off to write a book on his maternal ancestors.

Sudbury Steve said...

It's true: the opportunities which were missed through the economic stimulus funding were significant. It showed me that either the Conservatives were far more interested in getting the money out through the door than on how it was spent.

Canadians will look back on the years 2008-2011 as the most wasteful in our history.