10 “Smart Green” Ideas for Reducing Greenhouse Gases

Commentary, Energy, Peter Holle

It is one of Canada’s great policy ironies. Our environment has never been better, yet public dialogue on the subject verges on the apocalyptic, and governments are under pressure to “do something now.” A religious eco-fundamentalism oblivious to evidence is setting the stage for considerable mischief. It’s therefore imperative to find ways to improve our environment without old-style, “command and control” methods that restrict freedom and diminish wealth creation. Thankfully, there is no shortage of ways to be both smart and green.

First, the silent good news. Over the last few decades, new technologies and higher wealth levels have enabled significant improvements in air and water quality. More efficient agriculture allows us to produce food with a smaller footprint, which protects Canada’s vast forests and wilderness areas. Our cities are investing in environmental infrastructure like sewer and water plants. Petroleum markets are working as they should, to reflect future scarcity by increasing prices and make carbon dumping more expensive.

Despite having achieved the highest levels of environmental quality in the history of mankind, developed countries are obsessing over wild predictions of catastrophic flooding and disease pandemics. Excoriated for demurring on the Kyoto accord’s lethal changes to Canada’s lifestyle and economy, the federal Conservatives are striving to brush up their green credentials with “me too” junk regulations.

Face it, folks. Taking all the cars off Canada’s roads would get us only halfway to Kyoto’s targets for greenhouse gas reductions. Raising the price of energy through carbon taxes in developed countries would progressively push energy-intensive industries to relocate in Kyoto exempted countries like China. This is why Australia and the United States, which have little interest in economic suicide, rejected Kyoto. To deflect criticism over its abandonment of Kyoto, Harper’s Conservatives are offering some minor moves, like tax deductions for transit passes and a raft of strict regulations dealing with minutiae like lawnmower and snowmobile emissions.

Treading down the tired path of 1970s-style top-down, regulatory models that expand government’s bureaucratic whimsy will make our environmental programs more intrusive, but no more effective. But creative ways to increase our energy efficiency and reduce so-called “greenhouse gases,” broad, frequently counter-intuitive measures that help both the environment and the economy without expanding government or reducing human freedom, do exist. Here are 10:

1) Promote Telecommuting

High-speed internet access is revolutionizing patterns of work, shopping and living. Home-based entrepreneurs and workers now outnumber transit users in many communities. Telecommuters are environmentally benign, with zero impact on fossil-fuel consumption, greenhouse-gas emissions, accident rates, air pollution or peak-hour congestion. They represent the future, the emerging technologically dispersed economy. Decision-makers should stop obsessing with policies that look to the past – mass transit, “containing” sprawl and building up centre cities – and focus on the future, by moving public services online and encouraging video-conferencing, telemedicine and distance education. They should accommodate the extension of high-speed Internet service to rural and remote areas, maximize provider competition and otherwise create zoning and tax reforms that accommodate telecommuters.

2) Remove hidden subsidies that depress energy prices.

In theory, carbon taxes stimulate less demand by raising energy prices. But a “smart green” approach would avoid this difficult political territory by simply removing existing, but hidden, subsidies. One example is government–owned municipal or provincial power utilities exempt from paying income tax and GST. More complicated are policies that subsidize their debt financing and deliberately accept a below-market return on equity. The solution is to impose a nominal equivalent charge for these subsidies to increase prices to market levels, or, more elegantly, simply privatize the assets to make them pay their fair share of taxes and carry the true cost of capital.

3) Cut federal equalization subsidies for cheap electricity in Québec and Manitoba.

Government-owned power monopolies in Manitoba, Québec and B.C. keep hydro prices low for political reasons. This results in artificially high consumption of a clean energy resource which, if exported instead, would displace dirtier forms of energy. A low price also discourages other forms of renewable energy like wind, bio-mass and bio-gas energy and forces governments to hand out subsidies so they can look “green.” The subsidies in Ottawa’s equalization program help both Québec and Manitoba to sell a valuable resource far below market prices. The answer? Reduce equalization payments to those provinces by the difference between market and subsidized prices.

4) Improve Traffic Flows

Speed, convenience and affordability mean that the car will remain the dominant mode of transportation. Stop-and-go driving increases both fuel consumption and exhaust emissions. Cities can counter that by deploying the latest technology to better synchronize traffic flows and by separating roadways with overpasses, underpasses and four-leaf clovers wherever possible to eliminate traffic lights. Smoother traffic flows from refinements like these increase average speeds to more efficient levels resulting in substantial environmental benefits.

5) Expand Car Scrappage Programs

Automobile fuel efficiency is rising and our environment benefits as we retire older, more polluting cars, from our roads. Various Canadian jurisdictions have so-called scrappage programs which provide a small subsidy to take polluting wrecks off the road. These programs should be expanded.

6) Cabotage Rights for Truckers

A recent study from the University of Manitoba’s Transport Institute discusses how archaic regulations prohibit American and Canadian truckers from the right of cabotage – picking up a new load and carrying it to another destination within the other country. Instead the truck must drive back empty until it crosses the border. Empty trucks waste time and gasoline and produce emissions to move nothing at all. Our free-trading economies should embrace cabotage.

7) Smarter bio-energy

Ethanol is the policy fashion of the day and politicians are stampeding to subsidize it. Its environmental pedigree is marginal at best, because it produces much less energy output per unit of energy input than other forms of bio-energy. Pelletized biofuels turn Prairie grasses into combustible heating fuels that generate few greenhouse gases and produce far more net energy gain. Policy could assist the fuel pellet industry, for example, by retrofitting heating systems in schools, hospitals and other government infrastructure to get the ball rolling on this much needed green energy alternative.

8) Pay farmers to conserve the land

If we value stewardship of the land then we should pay farmers for it. ”Alternate Land Use Services” provide a means for government to compensate them for altering their behaviour to place ecological values in the mix. If farmers preserve a wetland or other habitats, , in short, if they act as responsible stewards, ALUS provides a means of paying them for that positive effort. Such conservation incentives are encouraged under world trade rules and Canada is the only industrialized country without such a program.

9) Help end global farm subsidies

Both Europe and the U.S. dish out billions in farm subsidy programs every year to grow mountains of surplus product, consuming fuel and producing unnecessary emissions. Our politicians have repeatedly caved in to Canada’s highly organized supply-management lobby, thus assisting the recent failure of Doha round of talks aimed at curbing farm subsidies. We need to reform farm policy at home to boost the prospect for reversing environmentally deleterious farm policy abroad.

10) Nuclear Power?

On the environmental front, this is the elephant in the room. Despite its mixed record on operating efficiency and cost, nuclear power produces zero greenhouse gases. It deserves another careful look.

These ten “smart green” ideas make sense because they conform to tried and true principles for superior environmental policy. They will produce real improvement, not just “good feelings,” and they use incentives and new technology to accomplish it, not mandates. They include human needs in the calculation of costs and benefits, and recognize that clumsy government programs often cause more environmental harm than they’re worth.

Most importantly, these ideas recognize that the key to a cleaner world is wealth creation. As the failure of governments around the world to endorse or comply with Kyoto-style directives proves, there is no political constituency demanding a less affluent society. It’s not smart to be poor. When the environmental movement incorporates that thought, we will all be smart green.