Here’s a list of ten things you can do or find out about to help slow the pace of climate change: five things to do and five more things with which we think it’s useful to familiarize yourself. Each item comes with a short explanation of its importance.
While the list isn’t meant to be a definitive Top 10, it does spring out of the interviews and research conducted during the creation of U: The Comedy of Global Warming.
There are also tonnes of books, websites and other resources that extensively list practical things people can do to take action on this issue. We’ll do our best to list as many as we can under Taking Action and Hope for the Future, also found on this page.
5 THINGS TO DO
Click on an action to find out more!
1. Vote for a party that promises strong action and has a credible plan to follow through.
1. Vote for a party that promises to meet the targets set at Copenhagen at the very least and has a credible plan for achieving them. (listed June 15, 2009)
Unfortunately, due to the inaction of three successive federal governments and not a few of the provinces, Canada will never be able to honour the emissions targets set out in Kyoto back in 1997. With three years to go until 2012, the deadline for achieving the reductions, greenhouse gas emissions in Canada – and Alberta – have increased, not decreased. So what’s desperately needed is a government that will make an honest effort to get back on track – and one that will push for aggressive new goals in Copenhagen this December and sign on the line for real this time.
The scientists, activists and politicians that were interviewed for U: almost invariably stressed the first thing Canada and Alberta needed in order to address climate change properly was more committed leadership from federal and provincial governments.
Why is voting so important?
There’s no way around the fact that regulations and policies that need to be put in place in order to make real progress toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions require legislation, implementation, monitoring and enforcement on national and provincial levels. While individual citizens can turn off lights and conserve all the water they want – and they should continue to do so – the power to pass laws and implement policies that make reducing greenhouse gas emissions in industry’s best interest rests solely in the hands of our politicians. Agriculture, transportation policy, auto emissions standards and urban planning and infrastructure are four other areas where really only the upper levels of government have the ability to make the kind of changes that are required.
Simply put, a government that truly takes the issue seriously will get us somewhere. One that doesn’t keeps us all part of the problem.
2. Let your government know that climate change is an issue that will determine your vote.
2. Write or call your MP, MLA, Ministers of the Environment and Energy and your City Councillor and let them know that climate change is an issue that will determine your vote (listed June 25, 2009)
It’s easy to think this kind of action is futile or all but insignificant. But we’re likely to have a federal election sometime in the next year or two, and having people in power who understand the importance of the issue is going to be key to getting anywhere with it.
Consider also that in December, representatives of our governments will be in Copenhagen with the rest of the world trying to come to an agreement about the next international targets for greenhouse gas reductions. Canada and Alberta are coming to the table with strategies that would be risible if they weren’t so embarrassing – and they’re not likely to improve without public pressure.
3. Change how you get around (listed September 20, 2009)
Do a little research around item #2 in Things to Know and you’ll discover that how you get yourself from one place to another probably creates much of your carbon footprint, especially if you own an automobile (or two, or three). Changing how you get around, particularly when you go to work or take your kids to school, can take a big chunk out of that. There are lots of alternatives to driving your car, including walking, biking and public transit.
You don’t have to suddenly switch to using these ways of getting around every day, either. Even if you decide to take the bus just one day a week, you’ve arguably reduced the carbon footprint you leave as a result of driving your car by 12-20%, in which case you may already be doing better than the province of Alberta. You don’t have to bike in the winter either, though many people do both here and in other countries, but if you switched to cycling from late spring to early fall, that could cut your personal transportation emissions by as much as 50%.
A number of the people interviewed for U: The Comedy of Global Warming had switched completely to walking or biking to work and pointed out the many advantages of using these alternative methods of transportation. Biking and walking increase physical fitness, and can even replace the need for expensive gym memberships. Walking, public transit and biking offer opportunities to interact with neighbours and foster a much greater sense of participation with your community. Walking and biking are also cheaper, more reliable in that they’re less subject to traffic delays, and depending on where you live, just as fast or faster than driving once rush hour, parking and walking from your parking spot to work are factored in. Finally, taking public transit allows you to get work done, relax, read the paper or safely drink that morning coffee while you travel.
Try counting the cost of owning and using a car – gas, maintenance, insurance, parking (and tickets!) – and consider if in your case renting a car only when you need it might be a cheaper option, especially if you’re able to take advantage of alternative modes of transportation for most of your local travel.
When you do take your car, or if its indispensable to your work, try travelling in pools, planning multiple errands in one trip or just being conscious of taking the most efficient route from A to B. Keep your current car tuned up and an good running order and, cash for clunkers or no, when you do buy a new automobile, make fuel economy a top priority and definitely test drive a hybrid or, if they’re legal by that time, an electric vehicle.
4. Use less or renewable energy at home.
4. Use Less Energy at Home (listed September 20, 2009)
Along with getting around, how much energy you use at home makes up the other large portion of your personal carbon footprint. You’ve probably already heard all the ways you can address that, from switching off lights and home electronics when you’re not using them to upgrading your furnace and making sure your walls and windows are adequately insulated, but below are a few general thoughts to help focus your efforts.
In Canada, heating accounts for the largest portion of your home energy use, so whatever you can do to insulate your house, upgrade your furnace, or lower your thermostat can go a long way to helping address climate change. Beyond that, you can strategize by thinking and acting along four main lines:
Use what you’ve got less (turn it off when you’re not using it, or ask yourself if you even really need to use it at all)
Make sure what you’ve got uses energy efficiently (from bulbs and TVs to fridges and furnaces);
Use energy smartly (what about installing lighting and thermostat timers, doing your laundry at night during the off-peak hours or, considering that dryers are energy pigs, hanging that laundry out to dry every one in a while?);
Switch to renewable sources where you can (solar water heating is affordable – and consider switching your supply source to one of the growing number of renewable energy suppliers in the province).
One more thing: if you’re in Edmonton, drop by the Net Zero Houses in Mill Creek and Riverdale – you’ll find lots of helpful information there.
5. Help guide policy with your wallet.
5. Use your purchasing power to let industry and business know what’s important to you (listed September 22, 2009)
Some people think this is just so much tilting at windmills, and maybe they’re right. On the other hand, maybe they’re really, really wrong. The awful and prevalent idea that we should always let the market decide things can turned to good use if we recognize that we always consciously or unconsciously have the ultimate choice in many purchases we make. Sometimes we’re seduced into it by things bright and shiny or popular brand names. So why not add “Does it help save the world?” to the list of important, conscious criteria for choosing what we buy?
Buy energy and fuel efficient.
Buy renewable energy.
Buy recycled or recyclable.
Sometimes its good to buy used or second-hand (though often not for cars or appliances).
Buy a bus pass, a taxi ride, a bicycle, a nice pair of walking shoes…
…and sometimes, just sometimes, maybe don’t buy at all….that can say just as much.
5 THINGS TO KNOW
Click on an item to find out more!
1. What are the targets we need to set?
1. Get to know the targets (listed August 17, 2009)
Knowing we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is good. Knowing by how much and by when and why is even better. For one thing, it gives you some criteria with which to assess the merits of government strategies to address climate change.
For instance, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates the average warming of the earth’s atmosphere needs to be limited by the end of this century to about 2°C above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid grave risks to the planet’s ecosystems. In 2001 the IPCC judged the average global temperature had risen about 0.6°C. In 2007 it predicted we were on track for a further increase of 0.2°C per decade. So we’re staring down a 2°C rise by well before 2100.
How much do we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid hitting that 2°C mark? The Kyoto Protocol set a first step target of 5-6% from 1990 levels by 2012. The next steps look to be 50% from 1990 levels by 2020 and by as much as 80-90% from 1990 levels by 2050.
Baselines are Important
A reduction target is meaningless without a baseline year from which a reduction can be measured. But some governments try to get away with fudging a baseline, or sliding it forward. For instance the Alberta Climate Change Strategy boasts a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. What they don’t go out of their way to make terribly clear is that their 50% reduction is measured not from 1990 levels, but from what the levels will be in 2050 if we carry on emitting greenhouse gases as we please. That’s a big, big difference.
In fact, Alberta does plan to carry on emitting greenhouse gases exactly as it pleases, and is relying on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to grab 70% of its reductions and shove them underground. It’s certainly a bold plan, considering that the very expensive CCS technology is unproven on the scale Alberta plans to use it, and that they’re all but ignoring proven wind and solar options in one of the sunniest and windiest jurisdictions in the world.
But getting back to targets, the best Alberta currently offers as goal relative to a baseline year that’s actually some point in the past is a 14% reduction from 2005 levels. The year 1990 – the one almost everyone else in the world is using – doesn’t even make it onto the graphs the Alberta government uses to illustrate its Strategy. At any rate, it’s impossible to directly compare their reduction of 14% from 2005 levels by 2050 with the recommended 80% from 1990 levels by 2050, except to say it’s incredibly weak in comparison.
2. How does my region contribute to greenhouse gas emissions?
2. Get to know your region’s emission sources and how much they contribute (listed August 21, 2009)
This information is often just a google away. If you’d like to know how things break down in Alberta, click here. Finding out what the levels of greenhouse gas emissions in your region are and what activities are producing them lets you know where best to concentrate your efforts to reduce them.
For instance, the pie chart you’ll see if you click on the link in the previous paragraph shows that residential emissions make up less than 5% of Alberta’s total greenhouse gas emissions (since they’re lumped together with commercial emissions). Transportation contributes another 15% to the total.
Most people can do a lot in their day to day lives to reduce the former and not a little to affect the latter. But unless you actually run a greenhouse gas emitting enterprise or are in a position to influence its business decisions – or are a Minister of the Environment, Energy, Agriculture, Industry, Transportation, or a Premier or the Prime Minister – there’s not much you can do to make an appreciable impact on the remaining 80%. Not much, that is, beyond letting governments and politicians know that climate change is a priority that will determine your vote.
It can also be handy to know absolute amounts of emissions by sector, usually expressed in megatonnes (Mt), as well as how emissions from your region stack up compared to others. For instance, Canada is one of the top ten greenhouse gas emitting nations in the world, and in 2006 Alberta’s emissions made up one third of Canada’s total.
3. What's the difference between a carbon tax and a cap and trade system?
3. Get to know the difference between a carbon tax versus a cap and trade approach to carbon dioxide reductions (listed September 10, 2009)
These terms describe two different ways of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. There are good arguments for either approach, even if those who side with one or the other generally feel very strongly that the policy they favour is the superior one.
Basically a carbon tax aims to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by making it increasingly expensive to emit carbon. A tax on carbon can be fully or partially offset by reductions in other taxes in order to neutralize its impact on taxpayers. It can also be introduced gradually in order to minimize any shock to economy and give people time to adapt to rising prices. The money raised from a carbon tax can also be redirected to fund green initiatives or other programs for environmental or public good.
The chief complaint about a carbon tax, beside the fact that it’s a tax, is that it’s difficult to know how high it needs to be in order to guarantee a given reduction target will be reached. On the other hand, besides being relatively simple to implement, it’s generally acknowledged as an effective way to reduce carbon emissions.
The concept of cap and trade is a little more involved, but easier to understand than the jargony sounding term implies. First of all, cap and trade generally only applies to industrial, point sources of carbon dioxide – “point” here referring to emissions from a stationary source such as a smokestack, as opposed to emissions from a moving source, such as an automobile.
The cap part is easy to explain: a law is passed that puts a limit – or cap – on the amount of carbon dioxide an industry or point source can emit.
The trade aspect is a way of giving industry some flexibility in how it decides to achieve the limits set by the cap. First, a value is put on carbon emissions – so many dollars per tonne, for instance. Now lets say one company decides to reduce its carbon emissions to the amount dictated by the cap. That would be well and good and they could pat themselves on the back for being a bit greener and avoiding a fine.
But lets say this company then decides to lower its emissions even further so that they’re emitting even less than the law says they should. They would now get a credit, in the form of a government issued certificate, equivalent to the difference between what they’re emitting and the amount the cap dictates. So if they’re emitting six tonnes below the cap, they get a certificate for whatever the value of six tonnes of carbon emissions is.
And here’s where the trade part comes in. They can now sell that certificate to another company that decides it’s too expensive to reduce its own emissions fully (or at all), but not as expensive to buy another company’s extra reductions in the form of one of those certificates.
So lets say there is another company out there that’s managed to reduce its emissions to a certain point, but the cost of further reductions is just too prohibitive for them. Lets also say that the point they’ve managed to reach happens to be six tonnes over the legal limit set by the cap. That company can opt to buy the six-tonne reduction certificate – usually referre to as a credit – from the first company.
The result is that both companies have now reached their targets: the first by making actual reductions, the other by buying them. But even though their efforts are uneven, the fact that they balance out – one is six tonnes over the cap and the other is six tonnes under – means the target set by the cap remains acheived.
The chief complaints about a cap and trade system, beside the fact that it involves the licensing of pollution, are that it’s much more complex to administrate and therefore prone to loopholes.
4. What the Sam Hill is a Feed In Tariff?
4. Find out more about Feed inTariffs (listed September 24, 2009)
A Feed in Tariff (FIT) is a way of increasing the amount of energy that is produced from renewable sources and it’s really quite simple to explain. Most energy suppliers – the people who send you an electricity bill each month – draw the energy they bring to you from a number of different sources: a coal plant here, a few gas plants there, maybe from time to time they buy a little hydro from the province next door.
To implement a feed in tariff, a government legislates:
1) that energy suppliers have to draw a certain percentage (say 15%) of their supply from renewable energy sources (solar, wind, geothermal, etc.), and
2) that the suppliers have to buy that renewable energy at a very high price
What does this do? Perhaps most surprisingly, it only very marginally raises the cost of electricity to you. At the same time, it grows the supply of renewable energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions substantially. It can also spectacularly transform an economy; when Germany implemented its FIT the result was a home grown, world leading renewable energy industry that now employs 250,000 people.
Legislating that energy suppliers must feed a fixed percentage of renewable energy into the grid guarantees a demand for it. Setting a high tariff on that clean energy creates incentive for producers of solar, wind other other renewables to enter the market and supply it. Does that price stay high forever? No. Eventually it’s lowered as the cost of producing renewable energy drops or as renewables reach a certain level of market penetration.
The list of countries and jurisdictions in which FIT is being implemented in one form or another (and under one name or another) is getting longer and longer: Austria, China, Spain, Australia, France, Italy, Hungary, Australia and Ontario (yes, Ontario, Canada) just to name a few.
Why is FIT so important to Albertaville? Our province is one of the sunniest, windiest jurisdictions in the world. Research done by the Pembina Institute suggests that we could completely replace coal-fired power (currently 70% of our supply) with renewables in just twenty years. If we wanted to. But that doesn’t seem to be our current government’s plan. We hope you start hearing more about FIT in this province soon, but it might take accomplishing Things to Do #1 and #2 before that happens.
For more information about Feed in Tariffs, check out Chris Turner’s article in the January/February 2009 issue of The Walrus magazine.
5. What are the greenhouse gases after all?
5. Learn the Greenhouse Gases (listed September 24, 2009)
This may sound like a really dumb memorization exercise, but honestly, we think it will make you sound more credible, should you get into a debate about the issue, if you can at least correctly name a few of the these gases (and also not confuse what ozone does way high up in the atmosphere with what it does when it’s close to the ground, but we’ll get to that).
Almost everyone can explain the greenhouse theory in simple terms: there are certain gases in our atmosphere that, despite their very, very miniscule concentrations in the air, trap the sun’s warmth and help keep temperatures here on earth toasty. You don’t really have to know this theory in too much technical detail because no credible scientist disputes that these gases exist or that they act as they do.
So what are the greenhouse gases? Here are eight to know:
Are there more? Yes, but don’t worry too much about those unless you really want to impress your friends. It is, however, useful to know that water vapour, which is not on the list above, is by far the most ubiquitous greenhouse gas of all. It’s in the air naturally as a result of the evaporation of our oceans, lakes and other sources of water and there’s not much we can do to control how much of it there is floating around. We wouldn’t really want to either. Without it and most of the other greenhouse gases the earth would be a cold, uninhabitable place.
The first four gases listed above also occur naturally, and their concentrations in the atmosphere have gone up and down over the ages. But don’t let anyone tell you they’re not a problem because of that. The issue is that human activity is adding to the natural levels of these gases, raising them faster than has generally occurred over the course of human history, and the ability of our civilizations and ecosystems to adapt to the potentially (and relatively) sudden and drastic rise in average global temperature that is expected as a result of these increases is questionable.
In terms of human activity, carbon dioxide comes from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas and the burning and decomposition of organic matter (trees, plants, or anything living, really). Methane is a carbon based fuel itself, but can also be the by-product of the extraction and burning of other fossil fuels. It’s also a product of organic decay (landfills are an important source, for instance) and, like nitrous oxide, is emitted as a result of agricultural activity.
The last four gases listed are not natural, but are rather among the products of human industrial activity. They’re used in refrigerators, fire suppression systems and manufacturing. You get points for knowing that these gases are by far the most powerful greenhouse gases of concern. Fortunately, other factors, like the extremely low concentrations at which they’re currently present in the atmosphere, keep them lower down on the list of threats.
Methane, ozone and nitrous oxide are also way more powerful greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide (though not so powerful as the other four) and while their concentrations in the atmosphere are still much lower than CO2 (though much higher than the other four), there’s greater cause for worry in the case of methane. That gas is locked up in huge quantities all over the planet, and there is concern that changes in global temperatures will trigger its release from under the permafrost and the ocean floor, to name a couple of places where it currently rests in stasis.
The Kyoto Protocol controls six of the eight gases listed above. CFCs aren’t included because they’re already regulated under the Montreal Protocol which you may remember set reduction goals for CFCs because they deplete the ozone layer, which protects the earth from harmful ultraviolet rays.
Some people confuse ozone depletion with climate change and it’s good to remember that they’re pretty much unrelated. The confusion is understandable though. Not only do CFCs cause both ozone depletion and global warming, but ozone is also involved in both cases. Just remember that CFCs deplete stratospheric ozone, which is good ozone way high up in the atmosphere, while ozone produced at ground level (tropospheric ozone) is what really contributes to global warming, not to mention other bad stuff like smog and asthma.
Ozone is also not on the list of gases controlled under the Kyoto Protocol because it’s created by chemical reactions between other pollutants, most of which come from the burning of carbon based fuels.
TAKING ACTION AND HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
What can you personally do to help slow the pace of climate change? On this page you’ll find a few book titles you can track down if you’d like to read up on the subject or, if you prefer to surf the web for your information, some sites you can check out for starters.
The Daily Planet Book of Cool Ideas: Global Warming and What People Are Doing About It, by Jay Ingram. Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, 2008.
A Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, by Chris Turner. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2007.
Good News for a Change: How Everyday People are Helping the Planet, by David Suzuki and Holly Dressel. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2003.