Can we start the AirCare discussion now?

I’m amazed it has taken until now, but it appears that people other than me and free-enterprise spokes-creep Harvey Enchin are starting to notice that the current government of BC wants to kill Air Care, for no good reason.

If you haven’t been paying attention (and why would you, as there has been virtually no public discussion on this topic?), the region’s only transportation air quality program is under the knife because the Premier has decided it doesn’t work anymore. She has no actual evidence that it doesn’t work. In reality, every time there has been an external audit or analysis of the program it has returned evidence that the program is effective (and will be for at least another decade), cost efficient, provides significant economic benefits for small business, and has spin-off benefits for automotive safety and health care savings.

The only argument against AirCare seems to be that it is kind of inconvenient. Apparently, requiring less than 50% of BC’s car owners to go to a testing centre once every two years, spend 15 minutes and pay $45 to demonstrate that their >10-year-old car still has functioning emission controls is a great big hassle, and for that reason our PR-savvy Premier wants to ax the most cost-effective air quality protection measure in the Province.

So at the risk of repeating myself, here are the reasons we should all be against the shuttering of air care:

Local governments: Metro Vancouver has already passed two resolutions asking that the Province not end the program. This makes simple sense: AirCare demonstrably reduces air pollution in the region, and makes our cities cleaner, healthier, more beautiful, and more liveable, while costing local governments nothing. The same goes for the Fraser Valley Regional District, who have been only tacitly in favour of AirCare, despite the disproportionate impact that vehicle emissions have on their communities. Hopefully, our local governments themselves will also join in and request that the Provincial government re-assess this move.

Unions: Some argue this is about 110 union jobs, and that is why this story is currently in the news, but that is a small part of the story. The AirCare program is run by a private contractor, with only a few government employees. There is an administration level, but the majority of the $19 Million program cost does not go to union wages.

Small Business: Auto Repair division: According to independent economic analysis of the program, there is an annual $35 Million economic spin-off effect to the automobile repair industry from AirCare. These are not predominantly Big Union jobs, but mom-and-pop operations across the City, along with a few of the bigger players like Canadian Tire. Simply put, end AirCare, and these people lose income.

Small Business: New Car Dealer division: Because Air Care has resulted in a measurable updating of the domestic car fleet (and this has been measured against other jurisdictions with similar socio-economic settings but without such a program). In other words, people have bought more cars, and according to external audit, this has resulted in an annual $19 Million in benefit to the New Car Dealers of BC. Where are they on this topic?

The Ministry of Health: The measured effects of AirCare on the health of British Columbians – both in reducing air pollutants and in providing for a newer, safer fleet of cars – could add up to $77 Million in health care savings province wide.

Everyone who doesn’t drive, or drives a car newer than 2008: Because the program is 100% self-financing, you get all the air quality, health, and livability benefits of the program without it costing you a dime. Although administered by TransLink, the program neither draws money from the TransLink Budget or provides revenue to it. It is, despite the protestations tax-opinionater-for-hire Jordan Bateman, no tax money is used to run AirCare, this is not a Government cash cow.

Government has been creating some bafflegab about replacing AirCare with a system to get smoky big trucks off the road. We in New Westminster know as well as anyone about the impacts of diesel truck exhaust, and reducing it is a noble goal, but the introduction of such a program does not preclude the existence of AirCare. Instead, Air Care, in it’s proven efficiency, cost effectiveness, and self-funding model, may be the best template upon which to build a heavy truck program. To suggest both cannot run in parallel is to suggest we have a provincial government that cannot walk and chew gum at the same time.

I expect more from a government.

on skepticism

I listen to a lot of podcasts. With the intellectual wasteland that is talk radio in the Lower Mainland, where every conversation or idea is a reduced to either a he-says / she-says argument between two people who are too busy hitting their “message points” to hear what the other is saying, or random uncritical repeating of press releases with no time for setting context, (and don’t get me started on call-in or person-on-the-street bitching), the options are thin. Stephen Quinn is a brilliant interviewer and engaging host, but even his work is hampered by every-10-minutes traffic reports and redundant news “updates” every half hour. As the weekends on CBC 1 have basically shifted to all “Debaters”, all the time, and the commercials have arrived on Radio 2, the wasteland is only expanding.

So while I listen to quite a bit of music, there are many times when talk works better, and occupies brain space that music cannot while doing non-thinking stuff: commuting, weed-pulling in the garden, bike maintenance, ironing. So podcasts, with their flexibility of timing and ready access fit the bill.

One of my favourites is the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. This weekly hour of “skeptical talk” discusses science and reason in a fun and engaging way. Not a “hard science” program, but one that often delves into pretty science-heavy topics. There are several good Science podcasts (Material World, Science Talk, etc.) but the Skeptic’s Guide stands out in what can only describe as their “skeptical approach”. The hosts and guests spend less time talking about the potential meaning of the latest “groundbreaking” new scientific study or discovery (although they often cover that), and more into the process of how a discovery was made or study was performed, and what that means about the result. In other words- they view a wide variety of topics through the lens of a rigorous application of the scientific method. They are also merciless at tearing apart bad science, bad science reporting, and the preponderance of pseudo-science that fills the modern media. They don’t do this by mocking the characters involved (well, any more than deserved, and I’m talking to you Deepak Chopra), but by systematically disassembling their bad ideas.

As a result, their show is a weekly hour-long primer on how to think. It engages you to not just question “what is the evidence?”, but to question “what is evidence?” or even “what is the evidence presented actually evidence of?”. From listening to the Skeptics Guide, I have learned to better recognize sloppy thinking and weak arguments: on my part, and on the part of others. It has also taught me about common logical fallacies and rhetorical techniques that are used when someone is trying to make a point that the data do not support.

It seems funny that I am still learning this stuff after all the time I spent in school getting degrees in science. However, that is a common failure in our current post-secondary science education system. Neither UBC nor SFU (my alma matter) require a student seeking a science degree to take a serious Philosophy of Science course (although UBC has the optional SCIE 113– which is an English writing course that discusses the topic).

I was fortunate to have an undergrad Prof (who became my supervisor for the Masters) who spent part of a mandatory second-year Structural Geology course discussing the scientific method and its application to problems. We also spent much of his upper-level course time reviewing the scientific literature, with him asking us to critique the thinking in the paper – to understand what the basic assumptions are, and how to test their validity. I learned to look at the citations of a paper, the citation of the citations, to find the root of an idea. All of this was, however, in the context of teaching structural and sedimentary geology. Frankly, I probably did not appreciate it much until I got into my Grad work and realized he had equipped me with a scientifically skeptical mind. Thanks Peter, you sneaky bastard!

However, a geology Prof shouldn’t have to sneak this into students in courses that are meant to be teaching about eigenvectors, stress vs. strain, and what those Moment Tensor solutions on the USGS Earthquakes site mean. Every science student should take a course in third year (after all the wheat-and-chaff data bashing of the first two years is out of the way, and only those really interested in a field of science remain) to teach the philosophy of science. What is evidence? How is it evaluated? What is certainty, and what is consensus, in the scientific context? How do Theory, Law, and Hypothesis interact? What is a model, and how does it compare to reality? What is the Dunning-Kruger effect? What can we learn from what we don’t know? What are the major categories of Logical Fallacies, and how do you detect them?

Why should we subject students to this scientific brainwashing? Because our brains are dirty. We all have our biases, our bad ideas, our perceptual weaknesses. We cannot avoid these, but to approach even the simplest problem scientifically, we need to recognize these problems, and find a way to isolate them from careful observation of the evidence. The more complex the scientific problem, the harder this is to do. With a high level of science illiteracy today (no higher than in the past, I suspect, but more pronounced because there is just more science to be illiterate of), there are often calls to address complex problems with liberal application of “common sense”. The problem is, “common sense” is often wrong. Common sense tells us the earth is still and the sun rotates around it. Common sense tells us that you are more likely to be killed by lightning than an asteroid impact. Common sense tells us driving your kids to school is safer than letting them walk. Common sense tells us more snow is not a predictable result of global warming. The data proves all of these ideas false. Pretty much the entire subject of Quantum Mechanics belies common sense – it is still a hell of a useful model of the subatomic universe.

His Eminence, apparently one of the great Thinkers of our time, does not clarify what to do in frequent occasion when scientific findings are contrary to “experience” or “common sense”. 

The problem with common sense (especially when biased by personal experience and inherent confirmation bias) is that we all have it, and we all rely on it too often. This is reinforced by a certain anti-intellectual bias in our current discourse. The list of ways our current Federal Government ignores, muzzles, defunds, and otherwise hinders scientific discussion is well established. Knowledge gained from decades of scientific research is given “equal treatment” in reporting on scientific topics with the opinions of the scientifically illiterate or (worse) those who are willing to give up their scientific credibility for profit. And how are we, those who are curious about scientific idea, or want to apply scientific principles to planning (never mind regular folk trying to make our way through this increasingly complex world), supposed to tell the difference?

A perfect example arrived in the Surrey Newspaper this week. Read this Letter to the Editor, which was sent in support of a scientifically-questionable opinion piece by columnist Tom Fletcher on the recent IPCC report. This letter writer was apparently of the opinion that the entire Anthropogenic Climate Change argument was a result of the world’s scientists not being able to understand decimal points. I quote:

“Never have so many known so little about basic mathematics, physics, chemistry, history and so forth. To illustrate my point, consider that the Earth’s atmosphere is 77 per cent nitrogen and 21 per cent oxygen. That leaves two per cent for all the trace gases including carbon dioxide – currently .04 of one per cent. How can a reasonable person argue that carbon dioxide is the primary driver of climate change?”

This is (as far as formal Logical Fallacies go) called “the argument from personal incredulity”, which can be summarized as “I don’t believe/understand it, therefore it must not be true”. This is an argument wrapped in the same profound lack of scientific literacy or skeptical analysis that the letter writer is accusing others of.

One can easily attack the factual failures in this specific argument (If 0.04 % is not enough to impact the climate, how much do you suppose is required? 1%? 10%? Show me your math / Somehow 0.04% is enough to support the respiration of all photosynthesizing life on earth, yet it cannot impact climate? / Ozone makes up less than 0.00007% of the atmosphere, are you equally convinced of its irrelevance to life on earth?). A more skeptical analysis would lead one to wonder how the writer has discovered a critical flaw in Climate Science that tens of thousands of scientists who work in climate, physics, chemistry, and geosciences for organizations from NASA to NOAA to the Royal Society to every major national scientific body in the world, have somehow missed due to their stunning collective scientific illiteracy? That no-one in the >150 years since the greenhouse effect caused by carbon dioxide was first discovered and measured, no scientist from John Tyndall to James Hansen, ever realized that 0.04% just wasn’t enough CO2 to matter?

No, what we have here is an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. We have the bulk of the world’s scientists, who have been plugging away at this problem for a generation, saying they are reasonably certain (now over 95%) that human-caused CO2 emissions are the leading cause of the current observed warning, and you have Francis Patrick Jordan, of White Rock, 100% sure it is not possible because he doesn’t understand small numbers.

But Mr. Jordan is not to blame, his is a failure of the education system not preparing people appropriately for an information-saturated world. We live in a time when everyone is walking around with more raw data than the Library of Congress in their hand, the problem is not getting a hold of facts, it is being able to recognize what the value of a fact is. So when I complain that the graph Tom Fletcher included in his original article  dishonestly compares mid-tropospheric temperature measurements from tropical areas with modelled global surface temperature trends (see “Stage 2 – Deny We’re the Cause” here, which two months ago pointed out the falsehood of that particular graphic, complete with references and data and such stuff that a good reporter might be interested in) and even in light of this lie, still counters Fletcher’s thesis by demonstrating a measured increase in surface temperatures on the order of 0.15C per decade during an “pause” in surface temperatures that is not only fully explained by the IPCC report, but the cause of which has been discussed openly in the scientific literature for more than a decade, people should be empowered to follow the links and recognize Fletcher for the non-skeptical, scientifically illiterate, cynical bullshitter he is.

And please, I encourage everyone to treat me with the same skepticism, but be prepared to provide the refuting data and back up your claims.

“Getting to Yes”

Further to poorly-framed arguments supporting specific hydrocarbon-transportation projects, there was this recent opinion piece written by John Winter, who is the President and CEO of the British Columbia Chamber of Commerce. It was, frankly, disappointing. Not because I disagree with Mr. Winter, but because it was so poorly argued.

The opinion was in response to this previous piece in the same Important CanWest Newspaper of Record. In the first piece, economist Robyn Allen pointed out that the economic arguments being made by Enbridge on the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal were “just not true”. Ms. Allen, in a tightly-argued 600 words, explained the factual misrepresentations in Enbridge’s claims, from the perspective of an economist, using Enbridge’s own numbers. No-where does she suggest the Northern Gateway, or any other project, should be stopped. Instead, she simply criticizes, point-by-point and from a position of considerable knowledge, the mis-characterization of the economic impact of the project as presented in the proposal. She then suggests:

“In the interests of transparency and accountability, British Columbians deserve better than what Enbridge seems capable of delivering.”

Mr Winter’s response to this argument does not engage in the same detailed analysis of the data presented by Enbridge, nor does he directly address any of Ms. Allen’s actual points. Instead he engages in over-the-top and largely fact-free rhetoric. He further characterizes her argument as an “intellectual exercise” to undermine the project:

“It’s disturbing to see how much British Columbian ingenuity is being channelled into our province’s alarming — and growing — ‘culture of no.’ And for what gain?”

I don’t know where I got this idea, but I suspect the gain Ms. Allen was aiming for is that the conversation be “in the interests of transparency and accountability”.

You see, Ms. Allen is a scientist who studied, spent a career working in, and teaches economics. It is her job to scrutinize economic augments and determine if they are fact-based or not. If Mr. Winters disagreed with her factual information, he might have made a counter-point. Instead he engages in a bunch of irrelevant hyperbole:

“In virtually every corner of the province, we’re seeing the same thing: Smart, highly environmentally responsible projects that can employ our children and keep our towns alive are being battered, paralyzed and stomped out.”

I’m not sure what dusty corners of the Province Mr. Winters is spending his time, but the vast majority of large industrial projects in BC are being stomped upon only by rubber stamps. If one looks at the BC Environmental Assessment Office records, one can look at the history of project proposals in BC since the Act came into force in 1995.

Completed:       128
Refused:           3
Pre-application:  69
Exempt:           22
Terminated:        6
Under Review:     10
Withdrawn:        21
Total:           259

So of 259 projects, exactly 3 have been refused permits. That is just over 1%. In contrast, 150 were either issued certificates or were found to be exempt from the process. That is 58%. If you re-calculate those numbers without including 79 that have not yet reached the decision stage, 83% of projects have achieved approvals. Where is the alleged battery occurring here?

As an aside,the Federal EA process numbers are very similar. Well, they were, until the Federal Government in one stroke of a pen in 2012 changed the Federal EA Act, such that thousands of Federal Environmental Assessments will simply not happen now. Where before there was scrutiny, proponents can now fill their boots.

But back to the Project in question: the Northern Gateway Pipeline. Mr Winters continues:

“So there’s a lot at stake here. And frankly, what’s yet to be decided has nothing to do with project economics (which, Ms. Allan, are frankly settled), but rather how we balance economic value against other B.C. priorities, as the Joint Review Panel is assessing.”

This is actually where Mr. Winters is wrongest. Ms. Allen has aptly demonstrated that the project economics are far from settled, and there still exists debate. At the very least, some clarification is required from the project proponent.

It is interesting that many of the environmental protection measures that come out of this type of Environmental Assessment are codified in the review documents as conditions of approval. For example, if the exclusive use of double-hulled tankers was promised by Enbridge, then using single-hulled tankers would be a breach of the Approval, and the certificate can be removed, shutting down the project. However, none of the “economic” commitments have the same status. Enbridge could promise to employ every adult person north of 50 degrees, then only employ three people once the assessment is done, and there would be no recourse for the Province or communities to whom the promises were made. I’m not saying they would do that, but that makes it important that any assessment of the anticipated economic impacts be as accurate, fact-based and defensible as possible- we only get one crack at that part of the project review.

“And with this project, as with any that proposes such substantial benefits for B.C., we hope that British Columbians will take a close look at what’s to gain here. We certainly don’t ask that environmental or community concerns be sidelined. But we’d ask that jobs and economic value not be sidelined as well.”

Ms. Allen is not sidelining economic values, she is assuring they are properly assessed so that we can, as British Columbians, take the close look at what’s to gain for which Mr. Winters is asking. Surely, the CEO and President of the BC Chamber of Commerce wants the public to be provided with factual information, both when they question the economic gains, and when they question the environmental impacts. That is why we have Environmental Assessments, and that is why responsible businesses engage in them.

Alas.

The entire argument presented by Mr. Winters is framed around “Getting to Yes”, which has become one of those abstract rhetorical phrases that everyone thinks they understand, but in reality it means different things to different people, and is actually completely meaningless. Mr. Winters suggests we need to “Get to Yes” on these projects. But who is it, exactly, that needs to “Get to Yes”?

Does the Provincial Government need to “Get to Yes” by bypassing (or tossing out a la Stephen Harper) their own environmental assessment laws, ignoring the environmental protections afforded by Provincial Law, Federal Law, and our constitutional responsibility to First Nations?

Does the Media need to “Get to Yes” by continuing to publish fact-free editorials that would have us believe that 3 certificate refusals out of 256 applications is some sort of war on resource development?

Does the public need to “Get to Yes” by agreeing to whatever Enbridge says, and refusing to listen to people who point out factual errors in what they promise?

No. It is Enbridge who needs to “Get to Yes”. They will get there by providing realistic data about what they have to offer BC, and what the risks to BC (economic and environmental) are. Then they need to convince us that those risks are managed and mitigated to the point that the economic development they are offering us is sufficient payment.

It is possible that Enbridge will not, with this project, ever “Get to Yes”. But that would not be from a failure of British Columbians to dream, it would be from a failure of Enbridge to convince us they are good for our future.

Do the Math (the Movie)

Every month or so, the NWEP hold an informal get-together of like-minded folks to chat about sustainability issues. This follows the international movement known as “Green Drinks”. The original Green Drinks model was to have a regular informal networking and conversation session for environmental professionals, sustainability activists, and like minded folks to create a crucible for action. There are literally hundreds of Green drinks held internationally, and each has its own character.

Here in New West, we are trying to attach a small-scale event to each Green Drinks, a speaker or such to lubricate the conversation and to increase the reach to the general community. As per the Green Drinks code, the evening is not “about” the speaker or a specific topic. The conversations after are broad-reaching and held in small informal groups constantly migrating, really it is just a cocktail party not a rallying session. Above all, it is a social night out where folks can meet new people and share new ideas. As a bonus in New West, we can meet in the Back Room of the Heritage Grill, where the license if food primary, so it has a “pub” feel, but people under 19 can attend, and there is no expectation to imbibe in alcohol if that isn’t your thing. There is even live music up front for those who do feel like hanging out a little later.

Last week’s Green Drinks was moderately well attended, considering short notice and the burgeoning nature of this new iteration. 25-30 people gathered to see a short documentary film that was just released last month:

Just to put things into a local perspective, I gave it a short intro, and tried to put the local and personal spin on it all. For the record, here are my speaking notes from the night (of course, I ended up speaking more off the cuff and may have missed some of this or added new stuff- you’d have to have shown up to recognize the difference).

INTRO:
Tonight we have a short new Documentary; “Do the Math”

Don’t be afraid of the title, there are only three numbers discussed, and the movie is less about the math behind those three numbers, and more about what those three numbers means to us as denizens of Earth in the 21st century.

The film revolves around Bill McKibben, who has become one the most vocal environmental activists in the Land of Freedom, therefore the subject matter is almost exclusively about our southern neighbours – but maybe that is an interesting thing to keep on your mind during the film: how does the situation there relate to Canada? Or does it relate? What are the similarities and differences?

Finally, I like this film because after the first third talking about the problem, McKibben makes a compelling case about how it is time to stop playing defense for the environment, and if we are going to make any difference at all before it is too late, we had better start playing hard offence, and hitting the people who are perpetrating climate change right where they hurt: their stock value.

Clearly an academic who got dragged into activism (much like Marc Jaccard, Andrew Weaver, James Hansen, Michael Mann, etc.), McKibben has an academic’s speaking style. He wants to be understood more than heard, so what he lacks in bombastic, he makes up for in factual information.

So without further ado: on with the show.

AFTER:
I want to mention a number that was alluded towards, but not part of the “big three numbers” in McKibben’s argument. That is the number 400, as in parts per million CO2.

Sometime last month, while many of us were distracted by a Provincial election, the global atmospheric concentration of CO2 exceeded 400ppm for the first time in about 3 million years. This number is much higher, I hasten to mention, than 350 – the number that the globe agreed was the limit we had to shoot for long-term to prevent unpredictable and catastrophic results of the global atmospheric temperature increasing by more than 2 degrees due to fossil carbon in the atmosphere.

It might be seen as ironic that this arbitrary milestone was passed in the middle of an election where the winning party set as their main policy goal – as their great vision of the future and economic salvation of our Province – a rapid expansion of fossil fuel extraction and quick sale through the most energy-intensive and unsustainable means possible. That this position was supported tacitly by the poll-leading opposition party might be part of the reason we saw a strong surge in support for the Green Party.

Look, mea culpa: I own stocks in Exxon. I own stocks in Encana and Suncor and BP. Not by choice, mind you. I work for a municipality, and am required to contribute to the Municipal Pension Plan. All of those companies are listed amongst the holdings of the MPP. I also have a small personal RRSP, and until recently, Suncor (a large bitumen sand producer) was included as part of my “Ethical Fund” investment. For many of us, we either cannot know where our retirement savings are invested, or have no influence over how they are invested. Maybe the first thing we should take out of this film and McKibben’s “disinvestment” idea is to find out. See if we can change that.

But even if you are not lucky as I am to have some retirement savings, think about what those election promises meant. We have a government right now who wants to invest in hydrocarbon extraction and burning in order to put the Provinces’ finances in order. That is your money they are investing in extracting part of that 2000 GigaTonnes of carbon that needs to stay in the ground if we hope to leave a recognizable global ecosystem to our kids and grandkids. Maybe here in BC, that is where divestment starts. But in this case, we are not just the shareholders- we the voters are the corporation.

There is a coal terminal proposed for across the water that will be responsible for more GHG per year than the City of New Westminster, all its citizens and businesses and cars and schools and everything puts out over 200 years – but our local Chamber of Commerce is all for it because it promises 25 local jobs. Is that a good investment?

There are two pipeline proposals to make BC the export port for bitumen bound for gas tanks and boilers around the Pacific Rim – risking our coastline and our water supplies to expand bitumen sand extraction in Alberta. Is that a good investment?

The big proposal on the table right now is to use your tax dollars to double BCs electrical generating capacity, not to wean ourselves off of less-sustainable energy sources, or even to sell to neighbouring jurisdictions to offset their more carbon-intensive electrical generation, but so we can refrigerate methane extracted through fracking, transported in pipelines, with up to 20% of the methane lost during drilling, pumping, and transportation activities, letting all of our chips lie on the roulette table known as the global natural gas market. Is that a good investment?

To quote the film- we need to start taking money from people causing the problem, and start giving it to people solving the problem. But first, we, as British Columbians, need to stop being former, and start demanding that our government become the latter.

What’s with abandoned Gas Stations? Part 1

One of the things I do in my professional life is deal with contaminated sites.

In the same way that whenever I tell anyone I am geologist they ask me about when the next earthquake is going to happen (short answer: I have no idea), when people find out I work with contamination, they always ask about old gas stations. Why are there all these old gas station lots with nothing on them but weeds and white pipes? Or more commonly: what is going on with the old gas station at the corner of XXX and YYY?

All of the images in this post are straight screen captures from GoogleMaps.
I spent 5 minutes scrolling around local communities looking for examples of
White Pipe Farms. I presume they are all former gas stations, but I do not actually
 know the history of most of the sites I found just by surfing. Nothing I say below
should be specifically related to the sites I took images of – every site has it’s
own history, and every owner has their own motivations.

It is a long story, and regular readers know how much I love long stories.

In British Columbia, there are two pieces of related legislation – the Environmental Management Act and the Contaminated Sites Regulation – that control how contaminated land in the Province is managed. Municipalities have very limited powers over contaminated lands, unless of course they own the lands. It is the form of the EMA and CSR that cause these valuable urban commercial lots to sit empty for years.

A contaminated site becomes a capital-letter Contaminated Site when the owner of the property applies to the City for one of 5 specific permits named in Section 40 of the EMA: Subdivison, Rezoning, Development, Demolition or Soil Removal. The City is required by the EMA to collect certain information from the owner and send that off to the Ministry of Environment prior to issuing a permit. This makes sense, when you think about it. Those 5 permit types will change the character of the site – evidence of past property uses disappear when one of those 5 permits are issued. The Province wants to take that opportunity to document whether there is any contamination before evidence of that contamination disappears. If the site is contaminated, then the Ministry will most often prevent those permits from being issued until someone deals with the contamination.

So if you have a gas station, and you want to tear it down and put in condos or a In-and-Out Burger, you need to demonstrate to the Ministry that the land is not contaminated before you change the use. If it is contaminated, you need to either clean that contamination up or demonstrate through a rigorous science-based “Risk Assessment” that the contamination is contained, isn’t impacting your neighbours, and will not cause harm to human health or the environment at any time in the future. If the contamination is not stable, or if it could possibly cause harm, then you are not getting your permit, and your condo-building or burger-schlepping dreams will have to wait.

Cleaning it up can mean a lot of things. Sometimes, you just go in there with an excavator and dig out all of the contaminated soil and throw some ORC in the hole to cause hydrocarbon-eating bacteria to bloom in the groundwater. Bob’s yer uncle.

However, if the contamination is a long way down, it can be really expensive to dig it out, especially on an urban lot. Sometimes the contamination has migrated to include the neighbouring property, and the neighbour doesn’t want their building to be excavated. Disposing of this contaminated soil can be expensive. The cost of a complicated excavation can easily exceed the value of the land.

Alternately, in most cases the contamination will not last forever. Gasoline spilled in the ground will migrate downwards until it hits groundwater, then sit on top of the groundwater like Cointreau on top of a B-52. Some of it evaporates and moves back up through the soil, some is dissolved in the groundwater and flows away- diluting with distance. Some simply breaks down chemically in to less harmful compounds, while some gets eaten up by natural hydrocarbon-metabolizing bacteria. All of these degradation processes can be helped along from the surface.

You can stick wells in the ground and blow air down into the hydrocarbons and groundwater (“air sparging”). This breaks up the hydrocarbons so they dissipate, increases the evaporation, and provides fresh oxygen that encourages bacterial decomposition of the gas. You can also stick tubes higher in the ground and suck out the vapours, accelerating the dissipation. You can stick chemicals down the wells that will accelerate the degradation (but this is tightly controlled by the Water Act – you cannot stick the kind of dispersants they used in the Deepwater Horizon spill into a well in BC- things like Milk of Magnesia are typically used to boost oxygen levels).

Regardless, this type of in-situ remediation can take years or even decades, and in the meantime we can end up with a vacant lot, surrounded by a rental fence, with white pipes sticking out of the ground everywhere. Those white pipes are monitoring wells, which are used to keep track of the groundwater conditions, or the air sparging or vapour extraction wells for in-situremediation systems.

Or, of course, the owner can do absolutely nothing. (In reporting, this is what they call “burying the lead”). You see, nothing in the Environmental Management Act or the Contaminated Sites Regulation actually forces the owner of a contaminated site to clean it up.

That’s right. The owner is limited by what (s)he can do with the contaminated land (because they can’t get those municipal permits), but unless they have a compelling business reason to do something about the contamination, there is no law or other requirement saying they need to take any action towards cleaning it up. So the weed-covered empty lot can sit there literally forever.

It is at least theoretically possible for the Director of Waste Management (the senior bureaucrat in the Land Remediation Section of the Ministry) to order an owner to clean up contamination, but that power is very, very rarely exercised. In practice, the Ministry only does this if there is an imminent risk to persons or property caused by the contamination. Not unprecedented, but very unusual. There is no sign the Ministry is interested in increasing this power. And there is nothing a City or neighbouring properties can do to compel the Ministry to take this action.

So why is it (apparently) always abandoned gas stations? Near as I can tell, there are three reasons for this:

First, pretty much every gas station built before 1980 is a contamination nightmare. The old technology of buried single-walled steel tanks almost invariably leaked after a few years in the ground. Since gas was so damn cheap before the 1970’s oil crises, it was of little concern to most station owners if they lost a few gallons a day to leaks, presuming they even noticed. It was cheaper to let it happen than to dig the tanks up and replace them. A few gallons a day can, however, add up to a hell of a lot of hydrocarbon in the ground over several years. Then there was the waste oil and solvent disposal methods from the 60s. At a time when PCBs were used to clean carburettors, let’s just say housekeeping to protect the environment was not standard practice at Cooter’s Garage. This is no longer the case, I hasten to note. Modern gas stations use double-walled vacuum-sealed plastic underground tanks with automatic leak detection systems, and are very careful to recycle their valuable waste oils and solvents, mostly due to tougher laws. The legacy of old practices still haunts us.

A second factor is that there are far fewer gas stations today than there were 40 years ago. The smaller two-pump Mom’n’Pop operations have been replaced with larger multi-bay major company franchises. This means many of the former stations from the Century of the Car have been closed in the last couple of decades, and they all probably have contamination issues.

The third factor is that the closed stations usually belong to large multi-national oil companies. These companies have a lot of assets, and are in no big rush to divest themselves of fiddly little assets like a block of City land. The minuscule cost of paying property tax on an empty lot in New Westminster disappears when these companies are making multi-billion-dollar revenues. Commonly, the cost and hassle of cleaning up the land isn’t offset by the selling price they could get for it. They can sit on it for years, maybe the contamination will get better with gradual degradation and dissipation. Or not.

One thing they do not want to do is sell it without cleaning it up first, and that is, again, because the CSR does not allow for the “persons responsible” for the contamination to sell that liability. Nothing (except for your bank’s loan officer) prevents you from buying a contaminated site, but you cannot legally “buy the contamination”.

This actually makes sense. The last thing we want is for every owner of a contaminated site to sell that liability to some numbered company registered in Belize. That company could buy up 10 contaminated sites then go insolvent and disappear, abandoning the land for the Province to clean up. No-body wants that.

So the person who caused the contamination will always own it, as long as they exist. The big oil companies plan to exist for a long time. If they sell you their contaminated land, they no longer control what you do on that land. You could go back and clean the contamination up, and send the bill to the Oil Company, but if they wanted to spend that money themselves without you being the unaccountable middle-man. You could even conceivably do something that harms yourself or others with that contamination that belongs to the oil company, and the oil company will be responsible for some of that harm. Oil companies hate risk, so they would rather just own the land, put a fence around it, say “no trespassing” and do whatever due diligence is required to keep anyone from messing with their contamination. Just to be on the safe side.

So too often, the most rational business case is to just let that white pipe farm sit there, contributing nothing to the community for perpetuity. And there is nothing the City can do about it.

Some time in the next week or two, I will write Part 2 – about what the Province, Cities and neighbourhoods can do about these sites.

What a difference a year makes

It was only a year ago, just a couple of days before Earth Day, that the Harper Government(tm) announced their progress at tearing the heart out of Canada’s strongest habitat protection legislation.

Their re-writing of major portions of the Fisheries Act (a part of the Mother of All Omnibus Bills) sent shock-waves across the community of biologists, ecologists, and environmental scientists whose job it was to assure the protections afforded by legislation were followed by industry and the general public. This was partly because they recognized the combined neutering of the Fisheries Act and the Environmental Assessment Act would result in less protection of ecological areas, but mostly because the people whose job it was to advise their clients in industry about how to follow the laws now had very little idea what the law was!

It is like Victoria announcing (as part of their budget, none the less) that they would remove all references to speed limits from the Motor Vehicle Act, without telling the Police ahead of time, giving the police a chance to comment on the changes, assessing the potential impacts of the changes, or developing any mechanism to permit safe driving with no speed limits.

In typical Harper Government(r) style, they put a lot more thought into the photo op and announcement than they did into the actual legislation. Here we see a photo of Minister of Fishy Stuff Ashfield standing beside James Brennan of Ducks Unlimited, to demonstrate how conservation groups support the changes, so therefore it must all be good.

(source: http://www.ducks.ca/national-news/2012/04/duc-supports-strategic-direction-fisheries-act-changes/)

I am going to put aside for now my own reservations about Ducks Unlimited. They are not so much an ecological protection group as a group interested in preserving areas where they can take their dogs for a walk while filling ducks with steel shot. However, they have been effective at preserving large tracts of vitally important wetlands, so I will judge them by results, not by motivations.

There they were, amongst Canada’s (well, America’s, but I guess DU is exempt Joe Oliver’s list of suspiciously-foreign-funded shit-list of environmental protection groups) most renown conservation groups lining up with the Minister of Fishiness talking about how this was going to be great, a bold step forward in fish protection rationalization and conservation management mumble mumble mumble…

At the time, it made more sense than appeared on the surface. Although the changes in the Fisheries Act were specifically requested by and delivered to large oil companies, at the time of the announcement all the talk was about how these amendments would help the poor suffering rural farmer who was tired of having to jump through regulatory hoops every time he wanted to maintain his drainage ditch.

Turns out now, the poor rural farmer got screwed, at least in BC. You see, until these changes, the farmer would simply ask his local Fisheries Officer to approve the works he needed done. The Fisheries Officer, being a local Fisheries and Oceans Canada employee with training in fish ecology would tell the farmer to follow standard fish protection practice (keep sediment out of the open stream, don’t work in the stream during windows of time critical to salmon lifecycles, don’t block the stream completely, etc.) and go for it. It was a simple straight-forward process that just paralleled good farming practice, it was completely free to the farmer (except for a week or two planning ahead), and there was lots of guidance available from the DFO. You know, government services you pay taxes for, that kind of stuff.

Now, that Fisheries Officer is no longer going to provide that approval, or that guidance. Mostly because she is likely one of the 30% of Fisheries and Oceans staff that got fired. The approval process will be centralized, so the person granting approvals will not necessarily know your local conditions, or even be a biologist. since the approvals are science-based, the poor farmer is likely going to need to hire a Qualified Professional (biologist, geoscientist or engineer) to assess whether the works constitute a threat to fish, then get that professional to help navigate through the approval process. Trust me, those professionals don’t come cheap.

Well, they are cheap in context of a multi-billion dollar pipeline project (as Big Oil Corp Inc. will already have Qualified Professionals on staff), but for a potato farmer in Chilliwack, that $200/hr consulting fee he will be paying to someone who recently got laid off from a job at DFO to complete an Aquatic Effects Assessment will not be small potatoes. These guys should be thinking about rounding up the calves and heading back downtown, because they just got royally screwed by Minister Ashfield and the Harper Government(tm).

Back to Ducks Unlimited. With the changes to the Fisheries Act being marketed last year as a big boon to long suffering farmers, it was little surprise that Ducks Unlimited, with its deep rural and agricultural support base, especially in the Prairies, were ready to line up in support of the changes. One year on, it seems they might have caught wind that the bag of ducks they were sold might contain more than one cat. Just this week, Ducks Unlimited Canada were signatories to a Joint Policy Statement with other conservation groups, which expresses significant concerns with the changes including:

“Without explicit policy support it will be unclear where the Act applies on the landscape making it difficult to implement and enforce”;

“If some forms of harm are not prohibited under the Act it is unclear how a long term trend of declining quality of recreational fisheries will be avoided due to incremental impacts”; and

“Recent reductions in staff and research facilities make it unclear how DFO intends to support implementation of the amended Act and the new fisheries protection policy”.

Makes me wonder how long until Ducks Unlimited are added to the list of foreign-funded radicals trying to destroy Canada through environmental protection.

The Wrong Tool for the Job

Yeah, the Pacific Carbon Trust is crap.

It is a poorly conceived and brutally executed waste of taxpayers’ money, invented and mismanaged by a government that is either willfully corrupt or stunningly incompetent. But that doesn’t mean Anthropogenic Global Warming caused by the burning of carbon at a rate that the planet’s biosphere cannot buffer is not an issue that Governments need to take immediate measures to address.

I was amongst those whinging about the Pacific Carbon Trust years ago, and I was frankly shocked to see how close the Auditor General report paralleled my criticism of the program. The gist, repeated ad nauseum by my strange political bedfellow at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, is that cash-strapped cities and school districts are forced to pay money to Encana and other multi-national corporations to do things they would have done anyway, to create the illusion that Government operations were “carbon neutral”.

There was some flawed thinking from the onset, even if there were good intentions. Creating incentives to reduce the carbon impact of government operations was a good idea. Putting a price on carbon use is also a good idea. Causing government operations that cannot meet “zero carbon” goals to invest in offsetting activities may also a good idea, if well executed. Forcing every government entity to buy their carbon offsets from the same “Crown Corporation” run by entrenched kleptocrats was a terrible idea.

Giving these government entities access to a within-the-Province, one-stop-shop offset isn’t in itself a bad idea, but forcing them to purchase their offsets from that singular entity changes the game. The entity no longer has to compete on the burgeoning global carbon market. It knows it has buyers (actually, the more Government policy discouraged other carbon reductions, the more customers it will have!), it’s only problem is finding sufficient sellers to fill the need. That is not a healthy way to run any market. This is the same flawed market that makes it a bad idea to allow “free enterprise” to run a health care system: when your customer can’t say no, why provide a quality product or price your product fairly?

Well, I guess it works for the Mafia. but who wants to be their customer?

Worse, Municipalities that had their own internal carbon-reduction projects could not use their own carbon-offset money to fund them. For example, let’s imagine the New Westminster School Board decides to build one of their schools (stick with me here!) to be truly carbon neutral – ground-source geothermal with ATES, solar thermal water heating, and non-fossil electricity. That will cost more (up front, anyway) than running a gas boiler, but will result in real greenhouse gas reductions. At the same time, they are still burning carbon for their vehicle fleet and in their older buildings, so they need to buy offset credits. The School Board are not permitted, by law, to apply the cost of implementing those carbon savings from their new school to offset the carbon produced by their own legacy systems. They must instead buy those credits from the Pacific Carbon Trust.

That’s asinine.

This is nothing new, this has been going on for quite a while, and people much smarter than me have been saying for quite some time that the Pacific Carbon Trust is a piss-poor way to manage government carbon offsetting. Only now, when there is a hugely unpopular government heading for a wood-chipper election and the Auditor General report on the Pacific Carbon Trust Comes out, does the media pay any attention to the fiasco.

Unfortunately, much of this criticism from “conservative” parts of the conversation suggests that this is an example of how the entire idea of pricing carbon, from carbon taxes to offsetting schemes to the very idea of reducing emissions is a waste of time and “hard earned” taxpayers money.
Nothing could be further from the truth.

Some go so far to point out that “prominent environmentalists” like Dr. Mark Jaccard are highly critical of the Pacific Carbon Trust, without making clear that Dr. Jaccard argues vehemently that we need to be doing more, not less, to deal with our greenhouse gas output, and the Pacific Carbon trust is not a failure primarily because it cost the taxpayers money, but because it failed miserably to do the thing we were paying for it to do.

(side point – calling Dr. Jaccard a “prominent environmentalist” is about as ignorant as calling Albert Einstein a “noted physics advocate” or Rene Leveques a “well-known Nordiques Fan”. Dr. Jaccard is a highly respected Nobel Prize winning scientist whose research has global impact and whose area of study is the one topic the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is most ignorant of- Economics.)

So let’s make things clear: anthropogenic global warming is still happening. Actually, it is happening faster than we in the scientific community expected. The IPCC worst-case scenario projections for atmospheric carbon, surface temperatures, ice loss, ocean temperature and pH changes, and sea level rise have all been exceeded in the last 5 years. the economic and societal costs of this are going to be monumental unless we do something really soon to manage the issue.

The Pacific Carbon Trust may be the wrong tool for the job, but this doesn’t mean the job no longer needs to be done!

Climate keeps on changing

There have been a couple of intersecting stories recently relating to how our Federal Government is dealing with the science of Anthropogenic Global Warming.

Cynics say they are doing nothing about it, but I counter they are taking a strong, nuanced, and multi-faceted approach to the issue; one common to theocratic Petro-States the world round.

They are lying to the public, and then making sure no-one on their payroll can call them on the lie.

First the lie part.

You might remember last month when that most Orwellian of federal officials, Minister of “Environment” Peter Kent, suggested that Canada is making real progress, and is already half way to meeting our 2020 Greenhouse Gas targets as set out in Copenhagen Accord in 2009.

The Copenhagen target was based on emissions we put out in 2005. Here is the Government’s own data on GHG emissions (in Million tonnes of CO2 equivalents):

2005 (the date upon which targets are hung): 740 Mt
2010 (the most recent data provided by the government): 692 Mt
2020 (the target): 607 Mt

Now, I’m a geologist, which basically means I’m not so good at math, but I’m pretty sure 692 is NOT half-way between 740 and 607. But it gets worse.

Reading through the Ministry of Environment report, you can see that much of the reduction up to 2010 is a result of the recession that hit in 2008 (which I don’t see the Harper Government taking credit for…). Much of the rest is a result of this little nugget:

“ For the first time, the contribution of the land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector to achieving Canada’s target is included in our projections.”

So, they have fudged the numbers going forward to include landuse changes. That may be a valid way to count net GHG impacts, but introducing it halfway through makes it look like something has changed when, in reality, nothing has!

Even with this fudging and the fortunate (in hindsight) global recession, the report does not project that Canada will meet its target of 607 Mt by 2020. See Table ES-1 where it shows emissions since 2010 have been creeping back up after the recession, and we will be putting out 720 Mt per year in 2020. This is a 2.7% decrease from 2005 numbers, but not half-way to 607 Mt. Not even close.

Of course, the problem with telling lies is that someone might call you on it. It is one thing if this is a political opponent (you can dismiss it as partisan bickering, who in Politics “owns” the truth?). It would be something different if those people work for the Government, especially if they are the people who collect this data. So in true theocratic Petro-State style, the Harper government has a three-prong attack against science:

First you stop new science from happening:
Then you stop existing scientists from talking.
Then you limit access to historic science.

Eventually, the facts hit the memory hole, and there is nothing to stop the buddies who funded your unlikely rise to power from re-writing the laws of the land for a singular, psychotic, self-destructive purpose.

How long can this go on?

All the Good News that Fits

Proving that there are two ways to look at any story, it has been interesting to watch the news coming out of this recent report by the International Energy Agency.

The story on the CBC, that bastion of left-wing thought, was positively glowing for the future of oil and gas. The US will be the world’s largest hydrocarbon producer by 2020, and completely energy independent by 2035. The only problem they forsee for Canada is that we will be producing so much oil and gas in Canada in the next decade that we will outstrip our ability to burn it or export it.

Few stories, however, talked about the other half of the IEA report. I pick a few relevant quotes from the Executive summary:

“Taking all new developments and policies into account, the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path. Fossil fuels remain dominant in the global energy mix, supported by subsidies that amounted to $523 billion in 2011, up almost 30% on 2010 and six times more than subsidies to renewables.”

So we are pulling too much carbon out of the ground, too fast, and government policies are specifically designed to mainline this unattainable status quo, not working to fix the inherent problem with this.

What inherent problem? How about these quotes:

“Successive editions of this report have shown that the climate goal of limiting warming to 2 °C is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes. No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal. Emissions correspond to a long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6 °C.”

Now compare this to the most “alarmist” of IPCC predictions, and you can see that the International Energy Agency is predicting something like twice the warming than the average of the IPCC models over the next 4 decades. Yet this part didn’t even make the news.

We can pull more carbon out of the ground that we know what to do with, and we know doing that will cause unintented catastrophe. Its like we have some kind  of Obsessive Compulsive Oil Extraction Disorder.
Note – we don’t have to leave that carbon in the ground forever. The climate change thing isn’t about how much gas, oil and coal we burn, it is about the rate at which we burn it. To avoid catastrophe, we don’t need to stop using hydrocarbons, we need to slow down until the biosphere can catch up, or until we invent some sort of practical and realistic sequestration technology (which the IEA notes we are not actually inventing anywhere near fast enough). If we leave it in the ground, it will always be there. It is already so valuable for everything from plastic to chemicals to medicine that it is frankly baffling that we still waste so much of it on simple combustion – but that’s another whinge.

So we have a choice- we can rush to exploit the Bitumen Sands faster than we can burn and export it, or we can do it slowly, keep as much in the ground as long as possible, and extract more value out of every tonne of carbon extracted.

If we take the fast-and-cheap route, we will run out faster, make less per tonne, and threaten the most expensive infrastructure we have – our coastal cities (see New York and Venice). Not to mention the homes of hundreds of millions of people, and entire marginal ecosystems. Then we will leave the future generation the problem of abandoning those cities or investing massively in energy-intensive plans to save them- after we have already spent all of the easy money and burned off all of their cheap energy.

Try explaining that to your children, who I assume you hope will be alive in 2050, even after you are in the ground. That is why Anthropogenic Global Warming isn’t a science problem or a political problem, it is an ethical problem.

My 12 minutes of EnVisioning

The City of New Westminster kicked off their Integrated Community Sustainability Plan process – called EnVision2032 – this weekend with a two-day Sustainability event.

Saturday, there were more than 100 people in a room discussing a variety of topics, and workshopping ideas about what a more sustainable New Westminster will look like in 20 years – the planning horizon for EnVision2032. There were lively and interesting discussions, and a broad set of ideas and principles were discussed. This is only the start of a long planning process, but I think the attendees gave City Staff a good foundation upon which they can build the plan.

This followed the Friday night “inspiration” event, when the planning process was outlined, and some motivation was provided through a half-dozen speakers and a couple of video shorts. I was honoured to be one of the speakers, providing a 10-minute case for environmental sustainability and community engagement. There were accomplished community leaders on the agenda, so I kept my remarks short and light to get out of their way – the comedy relief of the evening if you will. Since I talked fast and pared it down to fit in 12 minutes of my allotted 10, I figured I would expand a bit on the speech here, with the images I used.

The following is a slightly extended version of my 10 (+2) minutes on the stage – with parts I edited out on the spot to make my allotted time.

So I care about Environmental Sustainability, for somewhat selfish reasons. I kind of like the environment the way it is. Being someone who studied ancient climates on the geologic scale in my academic life, I recognize that the biosphere has changed remarkably over the 4 billion years of life on Earth. But the environment of the last 100,000 years, the environment where humans prospered and developed things like “society” and “the economy” has been remarkable stable. Until now.

There is no reason to believe the rapid changes we are seeing now in the biosphere, from the atmosphere to the ocean to the forests, will benefit the prosperity of humans. So why are we changing it?

When an environmentalist like me comes to a mixed crowd and says we need to drive less, burn less oil and coal, use less electricity, rely more on local and seasonal food, account for the pollution we cause, etc., it is usually seen as anti-progress. The recommended “heckler” response is:

“You Suzuki types won’t be happy until we are all living in caves using candles and eating cockroaches!”

I hope to demonstrate the exact opposite is true. And to do that, I want to invoke this guy:

Who worked as an economic adviser to this dirty hippie:

…and had a son who turned in to this guy:

But back when Herbert Stein was working for that Maoist hippie commune called the American Enterprise Institute, he coined an economic truism that was so new, so profound, and so important, it became known a Steins Law:

“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop,”

When coined, Stein was talking about balance of payment deficits – and he was arguing for laissez-faire free market capitalism. In a free market, deficits cannot go on forever, so we don’t need to take action to stop them, they will stop of their own accord. (note at the time, the cumulative US debt was about $300 Billion, it is now approaching $13 Trillion).The same could of course be said of ballooning housing prices and irresponsible mortgage practices in the US in the mid 2000s. They were unsustainable, so in 2008 they stopped.

In that sense, Steins Law might be the greatest statement ever made about “Sustainability” since Bruntlund went to the UN. Stein would have said we don’t need to worry about burning the last of our oil, we don’t need to worry about removing fish from the sea faster than they can reproduce, we don’t need to worry about putting more CO2 in the atmosphere than planetary biosystems can remove… all of these things will stop eventually. The question is whether we, as a society and as an economy, decide when that stop happens, or if we just sit around and face the cold shock of it happening.

Now, a common response to this is that Malthus was wrong. Technology will come the rescue, it always has. If we run out of oil we will use natural gas; if we run out of natural gas, we will use nuclear; if we run out of uranium, we will develop fusion – the technifix is there.

The simplest answer to this approach is that it ignores that existence of fixed limits to the environment, regardless of technology. I am going to use energy use for the example, partly because I believe energy use is the #1 environmental issue on the planet today, the one all of our other issues, economic, social, or environmental, stem from, and partly because someone else already did the math for me.

Energy use over the last 400 years, on a global scale, has increased exponentially at a pretty constant rate. Through the transitions from wood and animal power to coal and steam then electricity, kerosene, refined petroleum, and nuclear energy – this gate of growth has been pretty constant. Plotted on a logarithmic scale, it is a flat line showing constant growth.

For the fun of it (and partly to demonstrate the fallacy of projecting too far into the future), Dr. Murphy projected this rate of energy use growth into the future, with hilarious results:

Note that only 400 years from now, we will need to tap 100% of the energy the planet receives from the sun. That would require 100% efficient solar panels on every square inch of the earth’s surface. A thousand years from then we will need to tap the entire energy supply of the sun. On the scale of “societies” and “economies”, 400 years is not that long a time… there are buildings built by Europeans here on the North American continent that are almost 400 years old…

Ok, the technofix to the rescue again, Why rely on the sun? In 400 years, we will use Cold Fusion or Zero Point Energy or tap the limitless energy of fairy wings. However, there are other limits. Whenever you use energy, you create heat. There is no getting around the Second law of Thermodynamics. Whenever we use energy to do something, lift a book, drive a car, smelt some steel, we create heat. The cumulative heat of this energy use is “sunk” to the biosphere. At this point, we slightly increase the heat of the planet through fossil fuel and nuclear power- much less than a degree (separate than “Global Warming” and other feedback effects, this is literally converting other types of energy to heat that must be dissipated). If we continue to grow energy use at current rates, the average temperature of the planet’s surface will double in less than 400 years. And in about 450 years, the average surface temperature on Earth will be at the boiling point of water.

Don’t worry, this can’t actually happen, as every multi-cellular form of life on the planet will be long dead – the temperature cannot continue to increase, it will stop. Just like Ben Stein’s dad told Nixon.

So, again, the question we need to ask ourselves- will we take the laissez-faire approach and leave the next generations to deal with the problem, or will we acknowledge this issue, take personal responsibility for this, and take it on now? I argue the second.

OK, if we agree that we need to do something, what to do? How do we get there? How do we get there? How do we engage and change the narrative applied to us?

Of course, you can just change things in your life. You can buy a Prius, or even stop driving altogether. You can grow your own food in your back yard, you can build a rammed-earth house with ground-source geothermal, passive solar and photovoltaics and a composting toilet and live off the grid. But that won’t change the world, because the guy living next door to you just bought an F-450 Super Duty with a 7-litre diesel for hauling his boat out the lake every weekend so he can “rip-it up”.

This isn’t going to work. To change the world, we need leaders to make the hard choices. As engaged, concerned citizens, it is up to us to empower our elected officials to make those hard decisions. Beyond choosing how we vote, we can arm them with information, we can voice our support, and we can ask them tough questions that force then to think differently.

That is what the NWEP does – and why I want to talk about the NWEP model as an example of positive engagement towards sustainability. We engage citizens and decision makers on issues around sustainability.

We reach out, as a collective, to the City and the community to move ideas forward. We run events that raise public awareness. We delegate to City Council and take part in City committees, to assure Sustainability is always a part of the conversation within the City. We reach out to City staff and share ideas, try to understand their challenges and provide solutions. We delegate to council and have less-formal discussions with elected officials, to again increase understanding on both sides, and to hopefully clear-up misconceptions about what “Sustainability” means, and about the value of a healthy environment.

We don’t protest. OK, we usually don’t protest.

Protesting can be a divisive activity- it calls into question decisions that are being made in the most aggressive way, and can put people who made decisions on the defensive. We would rather, collectively, take part in a constructive conversation and use personal conversations, the power of ideas and constructive criticism, and humour, to bring peoples’ thinking to a place where hard decisions become obvious decisions.

How do we apply this in an urban setting? What are our Sustainability goals in a developed City? The same as in other settings: reducing our externalities. Less energy in, less waste out, and creating efficiency in our internal systems.

Energy has obvious implications in New West. This City is uniquely empowered (pun) to take control of its electrical energy consumption, as we own our own electrical utility.

So where is our co-generation program? Where are our roof-top photovoltaics across our expansive south-facing slopes? Where are our small turbines? Where is our sewer heat recovery, or groundsource geothermal, our riversource geothermal?

Here is a picture of Nelson, in the West Kootenay, similar to New West in that it is full of old, inefficient, but historic buildings and it operates its own energy utility. Nelson has introduced a municipal ecosave program, where you can pay the capital cost for efficiency upgrades to your house through the savings in your power bill. This is on top of the rapidly-disappearing Federal and Provincial programs – an example of a City moving forward.
Note also the Solar Colwood program introduced by one of the earlier speakers tonight)

Waste is another area where municipalities can make tough choices. I could go on at length about the successes of the City’s solid waste diversion plans, compost-promotion and green organic waste collection system. Good news all around.

…but I could also go on at length about how burning trash for energy is inherently as unsustainable as burning coal. Its cheaper, it is easier, and it carries a certain “green” patina: it may be socially acceptable and economically prudent at this time, but it ain’t sustainable. We need to think better – and may soon need to make a tough choice here.

What about those internal systems? Places where the Urban Environment can put back, improve the world’s overall sustainability?

One example is protecting and promoting the Urban Forest- trees in the City provide remarkable benefits from reduced heating and cooling energy use to improved storm water retention, air quality improvements, habitat protection for birds and other animals. Protecting and promoting trees is an easy choice.

Living in denser, more diverse communities mean we spend less time and energy travelling between home, work, and play. This is why your average New Westminster resident drives less than your average Kelowna resident, or even your average Langley resident – this is a tangible benefit well-planned dense urban environments can provide- a “value added” to the environment.

There are harder questions I could raise. Try this: go up to any Federal or Provincial candidate and ask them when their party is going to offer a Zero-growth economic model as part of their platform. It’s inevitable that economic growth will stop. It has to, just ask Ben Stein’s father. The question is how it stops.

Can we empower our elected officials enough that they can admit this during an election cycle?

Are we going to plan a sustainable future now, when resources are still relatively plentiful and we can still have the most comfortable sustainable future possible? Or will we wait until resources are so decimated, that we are scrapping for what we can get? I don’t want to live in a cave cooking roaches over a candle- which is why we need to start now- actually we needed to start yesterday, making the choices that will protect our resources, protect our society and our economy- protect the environment that has allowed us to build this comfortable lifestyle.

Livable cities are part of the solution – and we are just getting started!