18 May 2005

19.05.05. Kyoto - amazing opportunity or political football?

Editor's Note: David Suzuki, Amherst '58, is Chair of the David Suzuki Foundation and an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. On 22 April he posted this commentary which got considerable play in the Canadian and international press in Science Matters.

Kyoto - amazing opportunity or political football?

From: Science Matters by David Suzuki

Looking at the media coverage of Canada's recently announced Kyoto plan, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the country's biggest polluters and environmental groups are on same side - but nothing could be further from the truth.

While neither group had much good to say about Canada's plan, scratch the surface and you'd find very different reasons why. Big polluters, such as the oil industry and other big energy users, simply oppose anything that alters their business-as-usual scenarios. Environmental groups, on the other hand, didn't think the plan went far enough to stop these industries from polluting in the first place.

What seemed to get lost in the fray was the point of the whole exercise - to actually start reducing the emissions that are polluting our air and disrupting our climate. That needs to be the focus now. We've already wasted far too much time delaying action. Our promises to start reducing emissions actually date back to 1992!

Environmental groups are absolutely right; the Kyoto plan is weak. But at least it's a plan. We now have a working document that we can build on as we go. Remember, Kyoto is not the end - it's the beginning. It's just the start of a fundamental change in the way we produce and use energy. That's a big deal, but we've made huge energy transitions before - from wood to coal, then to oil and gas. Each step we've became more efficient and less polluting.

The problem is, with so many more people in the world, so much more industry and so much more stuff in general, we are still polluting too much. We're disrupting the climate and causing a host of other problems, from species extinction to water pollution. So now we need to make another transition - to renewable energy and using energy more efficiently.

Using energy more wisely will be very good for Canada's economy. Remember, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Canada is second only to Iceland in terms of being the industrialized world's biggest energy waster. But Iceland can afford to waste energy - most of theirs is geothermal and non-polluting. In fact, Iceland wants to use that Earth energy to make hydrogen and become the first hydrogen economy.

Meanwhile, Canada is still stumbling along, stuck in an inefficient 19th and 20th century industrial model. With oil prices going up and up, that hurts our economy. By becoming more efficient, Canada will become more competitive in today's global marketplace. It will also reduce pollution at home, which will improve our quality of life and reduce health care costs.

Our Kyoto plan needs a lot of work. The targets for some of Canada's biggest industries, for example, are outrageously low. In fact, the way the plan is currently structured, these industries don't really have to do much of anything at all. Automakers also got a sweet deal with a voluntary agreement that is full of loopholes.

The big industries that sought to water down our Kyoto plan must be pretty pleased. The lobbying, cajoling and threats they used to weasel out of making virtually any cuts to their pollution levels will help keep Canada at the bottom of the industrialized world. High-fives all around, I'm sure. But it won't be very much fun to watch as Europe and Asia switch to cleaner energy sources and retool their factories to be more efficient while Canadian industries are forced to pay more and more for increasingly expensive fossil fuels.

Making the changes necessary to meet and exceed our Kyoto targets - that is, becoming more efficient, switching to cleaner energy sources and being more innovative - would be good for Canada even if they didn't address the looming problem of climate change. Previous energy revolutions all brought about profound improvements in human health and quality of life. This one will be no different.

Enough bickering. It's time to get on with it.

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