Feb 14, 2010

Meeting the new green house gas reduction targets – how do we make this happen?

Earlier this month, the Canadian government filed its official greenhouse gas reduction targets with United Nations. Many environmentalists object that these targets are too low. Others, however, are asking the more basic question: what can the government do to make it happen?

The short answer is that it's not a technology issue, it's a management issue. We don't need new technology to reduce our fossil fuel combustion and greenhouse gas emissions. We already have all the technology. Our research shows that there are no less than 160 such technologies available. They exist, they are on the market and they work. It is not a question of creating new technology. It’s a matter of removing barriers and obstacles to make sure the existing technologies and solutions are fully deployed.

In the housing sector alone, we could reduce our carbon emissions by 60 to 80% before 2030 if we deployed 55 of these technologies in the 10 to 15 million residential units across this country. So what’s really stopping us?

Certainly financing plays a role. In deploying green technologies, homeowners face an immediate up front cost that energy savings would only amortize over decades. Yet this could be addressed through incentives, redistribution of taxes, rebates, different types of mortgages, and even novel business models.

Other barriers show up in the lack of widely approved standards or codes to move in this direction. And an even bigger one is the acute lack of skilled trades to implement and install these technologies. By one estimate, we would need a million skilled trades people to fully retrofit Canada's existing housing stock.

There are many such barriers and taken together, they are slowing down progress toward sustainability to a crawl.

One especially difficult set of barrier consists of the complex patchwork of contradictory regulations and incentives that confuses and misdirects progress.

We all say we would like to encourage the use of public transit, yet we provide highways with a 100% subsidy from taxpayers while partially subsidized transit systems have to charge for ridership.

We recognize the advantages of higher densities in cities yet we tax buildings at higher rates than empty land and we tax high-rise buildings at higher rates than we do low rises.

Becoming green is not rocket science. It involves thousands of small decisions taken systematically and strategically to move toward sustainability.

A compelling example of such choices is offered by the University of Ottawa. Over the past 25 years, the university tripled both its surface area and its population, but its overall energy consumption remained relatively constant. In effect, its ability to use energy efficiently increased by a factor of three!

There was no magic bullet involved, Instead, thousands of individual decisions and choices had to be made relative to water faucets, pipes, air-conditioners, compressors, boilers, heat recovery etc. Through careful monitoring of daily energy use, the plant manager was able to pinpoint opportunities that increased efficiency. The result was that the University saved $28 million and it reduced its CO2 emissions by 30-40%!

What made this possible was the dedication of one individual able to make financial decisions and investments to optimize the energy system because he had the consistent backing of the university administration.

In the same way, we need governments at all levels in Canada to provide Canadians with a consistent regulatory framework that gives them incentives to make choices tending toward sustainability.

Some governments are beginning to realize this. Ontario's new Green Energy Act, passed last year, provides incentives to those wishing to install renewable energy in their homes and sell the excess to the province's electricity grid. But what really makes this piece of legislation remarkable is that it was accompanied by a careful review of other laws to identify those that might conflict with the Act’s core objectives.

The legislators recognized that aggressive promotion of renewable energy demands the removal of many different barriers across many different jurisdictions. So the Green Energy Act includes amendments to no less than 15 other provincial statutes including the Electricity Act, the Building Code Act and the Planning Act governing municipal zoning. It even amended the Co-operative Corporations Act to allow for new renewable energy co-operatives.

In other words, it is not new technology that is needed to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets. Instead, we have to face up to our complex legislative and regulatory systems. We really need the will to get down to the nitty-gritty of identifying and removing the many small institutional and bureaucratic barriers that are stopping us from moving to sustainability.

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