Citizens' key role in tackling climate change stressed

Fri, Mar 30, 2012, 01:00

Progressive US states and Canadian provinces are working on a bold agenda to cut emissions, writes FRANK McDONALD

IF US president Barack Obama doesn’t get re-elected in November, Gina McCarthy knows where she would like to spend the next four years: Vancouver. As assistant administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), she’s had enough of all the climate change denial in Washington and muses openly about going into exile.

McCarthy had never been to Vancouver but was so bowled over by how civilised it is that she half-joked about the idea of sitting out a Republican presidency – along with James Goldstene, executive director of California’s powerful Air Resources Board – until the right-wing, anti-environmental agenda ran its course.

Clearly frustrated by political sentiment in the US Congress, which led to the defeat of “cap and trade” legislation aimed at cutting carbon emissions, she told the Globe conference in Vancouver last week that the visceral opposition to it was driven by a refusal to deal with – or even recognise – the reality of climate change.

But the news from Washington is not all bad. As McCarthy noted, it was similar “cap and trade” laws in the 1970s that sorted out acid rain by cutting sulphur dioxide pollution from power stations and other sources. And now that carbon dioxide has been legally defined as a “pollutant”, the EPA has the power to regulate it.

As head of the EPA’s office of air and radiation, McCarthy has been a leading advocate for “win-win” strategies to confront climate change and strengthen the embryonic green economy in the US. A veteran at this stage, she previously served as commissioner of Connecticut’s department of environmental protection.

Goldstene, meanwhile, took pride in California’s “more than 40 years of leadership on auto standards”, which had almost single-handedly forced the motor manufacturing industry to improve the fuel efficiency of American cars and cut the pollution spewing from their exhaust pipes. This was another “win-win” for everyone in the US, he said.

And despite the Obama administration dragging its feet at UN climate conferences and Canada walking away from the Kyoto Protocol, progressive US states and Canadian provinces are working together on an ambitious agenda to cut carbon emissions and transform their economies under the North America 2050 plan.

Terry Lake, environment minister of British Columbia, said it aimed to have the first zero-carbon government in north America. And Pierre Arcand, Quebec’s environment minister, told us his province had adopted the European target of a 20 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020.

Arcand noted that annual per-capita emissions in Quebec were down to 10.4 tonnes per inhabitant compared to 12.5 tonnes in 1990, despite a cumulative 46 per cent growth in the French-speaking province’s economy. “We don’t have sceptics in Quebec. Even on the right, there’s a consensus on the need to fight climate change.”

Quebec is one of the Canadian provinces whose premiers are working with the governors of the New England states south of the border on the introduction of an emissions trading regime for electricity plants in the region. But Quebec’s task is easier because, like British Columbia, 95 per cent of its electricity comes from hydropower.

Henry Derwent, chief executive of the International Emissions Trading Association, detects a growing movement in this area. The EU has led the way, but he said Australia’s latest climate change package was “very impressive indeed” and it was also “just extraordinary how fast China is moving to embrace emissions trading”.

With all of that, and the Western Climate Initiative led by California, Derwent even talked of a “Pacific Rim effect” that would make itself felt over time. But the EU’s inclusion of aviation in emissions trading since January 1st last was “arousing all sorts of furies” – exemplified by China’s threat not to buy more European Airbus aircraft.

The consensus view in Vancouver was that bottom-up initiatives might turn out to be just as effective in tackling climate change as top-down diktats. And that’s what led Terry Lake to appeal for more citizens to get involved: “It’s not enough to provide leadership – we also need ‘followship’ to back it up.”

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of people are discovering the delights of Vancouver as a place to live and work. With its excellent public transport, skilfully composed skyline and densely inhabited inner city, it is a powerful antidote to the hollowed-out cores of so many north American cities, particularly in the US.

Irish architects, engineers and construction industry professionals are being lured to British Columbia because there’s still much more work to do. But don’t be surprised if you run into feisty Gina McCarthy – if Mitt Romney or, God spare us, Rick Santorum wins the US presidential election.

  FRANK McDONALDtravelled to Vancouver at the invitation of the Canadian Trade Commission