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Expired · 15th August 2011
Ray Grigg
Responsibility for reducing carbon dioxide emissions is falling to cities, municipalities and regional districts because wider efforts during the last 30 years to ameliorate the threat of global climate change are not working. Multiple negotiations sponsored by the United Nation's have been unsuccessful. Developing nations such as China, India and Brazil are determined to follow the destructive example of industrialized countries which, in turn, are reluctant to risk economic advantage by reducing their emissions.

Canada, under the Harper government, is so disconnected from climate science that it seems to live in parallel and separate universe, one that systematically obstructs reduction efforts, assiduously suppresses climate change discussions, silences climatologists, shrinks relevant federal research programs, pushes for greater oil and gas production, and abets coal exports. BC's government is only marginally better.

The situation is moving from serious to critical, according to the International Energy Agency that monitors global CO2 emissions. Emissions in 2010 broke a dubious record – 30.6 billion tonnes (Gt or gigatonnes) or 1.6 Gt over 2009's 29.0 Gt. The 5.52 percent increase was also unprecedented, representing a nearly unbroken succession of yearly rises – the so-called "Great Recession" cut 2008's 29.3 Gt to 29.0 Gt in 2009 (Guardian Weekly, June 3/11).

Climatologists warn that we cannot exceed 2.0 C without invoking "dangerous climate change". To maintain any reasonable measure of safety, they estimate that 32.0 Gt of carbon dioxide is the maximum we can emit by 2020. However, if present trends continue, we will reach this threshold 9 years early, "making it all but impossible to hold warming to a manageable degree" (Ibid.). The end of this century, therefore, could see average temperature increases of 4.0 C or more, about 6 times the temperature increase from the Industrial Revolution to the present. (Climatologists calculate that 32.0 Gt per year is not a safe level of emissions but the maximum before they must gradually be reduced to zero. Even during this transition we risk inducing serious climate change and destroying the marine ecology with fatal acidification.)

CO2 emissions are the key environmental force affecting almost every other corrective environmental action we undertake. We cannot restore wild salmon runs if rivers are too hot for fish and oceans are too acetic for marine life. We cannot protect endangered ecologies if temperatures rise above levels species can tolerate. We cannot sustain agriculture if the weather is too extreme for crops. We cannot cope with displaced people if hundreds of millions are fleeing rising oceans, drought, floods and unprecedented storms.

Unlike the federal and provincial governments that have been incapable of reducing CO2 emissions, cities, municipalities and regional districts are closer to the grassroots of communities. Their smaller size allows them to be more responsive and manoeuvrable, better able to initiate the many incremental reductions that can have a huge cumulative effect on total greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, this is what many of them have already done. And given the overall severity of the emissions challenge, this should be the primary guiding principle of all local planning and development.

Several helpful options exist. First is to increase population density downtown. This concentration of people has multiple advantages, all of which are efficiencies that directly or indirectly lower CO2 emissions. Walking, biking or using public transit reduces the need for cars, long commutes from the suburbs, and the costly matter of building roads and servicing dispersed properties. As collateral benefits, city centres become more vibrant, social, interesting, healthy and safe. Public services such as schools, hospitals, libraries, water, sewage and law enforcement are easier and cheaper to provide. Think medieval towns and cities. Their efficiency has been tested and proven during the centuries before we had the energizing power of fossil fuels.

Garbage is a topical problem these days as landfill sites fill and methane escapes from existing dumps – methane is a greenhouse gas about 20-times more powerful than CO2. Burning is probably the worst option for garbage disposal because it emits CO2 and innumerable toxins. Expensive incinerators also commit communities to long-term agreements and eliminate better options as they come available. The best option is careful household streaming of garbage that can then be composted, recycled or stored. Sophisticated technologies such as anaerobic digesters and thermal depolymerization can process waste into reusable materials, thus creating useful heat, oil, gases and solids that can substitute for non-renewable resources.

The two communities of Campbell River and the Comox Valley both have problems with coal, the former with Quinsam Coal that is almost certainly polluting an important watershed, and the latter with a proposed Raven coal mine that will inevitably cause similar environmental problems if it is allowed to proceed. But the fundamental problem with coal is that it is a dirty and polluting fuel. When burned, coal emits toxic materials that compromise human health – every year coal kills 13,000 American prematurely, incurring $100 billion in health costs – and it is the major global source of carbon dioxide emissions. Coal mines are also a source of methane – whether surface or underground, they are essentially open methane wells that release large quantities of this harmful greenhouse gas. If less coal were mined, this would force up its price, thus encouraging efficiencies and cleaner alternatives.

Climatologists warn that we are reaching a critical tipping point in our misadventure with fossil fuels. If senior governments are not capable of curbing greenhouse emissions, then the responsibility for corrective measures falls to local communities and individuals. Given the evidence of all other failures, this is the place where important change must begin.