Clean Air Act muddies air and public understanding

Monday, November 6, 2006

Written by Scott Gilbert

Now that the Clean Air Act has finally been released – after months of promises from Stephen Harper as a “Made in Canada” solution that would mark Canada as a leader in reducing emissions – some are calling the plan little more than “smog and mirrors”.

Noted environmentalist David Suzuki, in a recent article on the subject, said “what we got was George W. Bush-style rhetoric, using language designed to confuse. Much as George W's "Clear Skies" initiative allows pollution to continue increasing, so does Canada's new Clean Air Act.”

Although the Clean Air Act does have a few minor gains, it does not satisfy the concerns of the scientific community working on the smog or global warming issue. In fact many independent sources are saying that the act favours parties interested in prolonging decisive action on carbon emissions, saying that what we need is incentives, timelines, and targets; none of which should be modest. The act however does nothing but promise many more years of consultation with industry – far beyond Harper’s departure.

With the only target set at 2050, many are saying this piece of legislation is a lot of hot air and designed more for public relations reasons than for environmental ones.

On November 1st, opposition parties came to an agreement with the Prime Minister to bring the Clean Air Act to committee before second reading. The Globe and Mail reports that this procedural option means that “MPs are free to amend the bill in any way they wish.” The Globe quoted Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe as saying "We'll clean the Clean Air Act. Be sure of that. Stephen Harper won't recognize what he's proposing."

Shortly after the Clean Air Act was released, another report by former World Bank chief economist Sir Nicholas Stern was released. This second report took aim at the global warming issue from a purely economical perspective. The 700 page report argued that we must immediately commit 1% of global domestic product to taking action on climate change, because inaction could shrink the global economy by 20 per cent. Although the costs may seem high, in the long run it will be seen only as a good investment. His report also said that up to 200 million people could be displaced without action as drought and floods become more intense around the world.

Many argue that one of the primary reasons action is not being taken on global warming is the minimal amount of doubt presented by some academics. In the recent Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth, the point was made very clearly that just about every voice in opposition to the consensus about climate change has ties to the oil industry. Here at the University of Guelph we have one professor, Ross McKitrick, that claims global warming concerns are not based on sound science. But since October 2002, has been a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute, one of Canada’s prominent right wing think tanks that has ties to the oil and gas industry. For instance, the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute received $60,000 from ExxonMobil in 2003. A recent Fraser Institute report declared that “2004 has been one of the cooler years in recent history.” However the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization calls 2004 “the fourth warmest year in the temperature record since 1861.”

Local action for global problems has been a catch phrase commonly used when talking about global warming and climate change. But here in Canada it seems that, on a federal level, we have all but abandoned our commitments to the Kyoto agreement. Even the United States has done a better job than us at limiting emissions. Although the Harper government essentially intends to scrap all action on climate change, one might expect universities and other public institutions to do their part.

Here at the University of Guelph, our emissions have increased significantly over the last 10 years, and student efforts to retrofit buildings have so far been unsuccessful. The only building on campus that is powered entirely by renewable energy is the Bullring, which is operated by the CSA. The referendum question that was passed by students to provide the funding for this venture was submitted by the student group Guelph Students for Environmental Change (GSEC).

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