Going green – what’s the point?


I heard an interview today on the Quirks and Quarks podcast with an environment economist named Dr. Mark Jaccard who was talking about how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He was talking about how critical it is to do this, and how governments need to do much more to make it happen. The Canadian government set some unrealistic goals with respect to the Kyoto protocol (the goal was to reduce total emissions in 2010 to 6% less than the 1990 totals — we are currently at 25-30% above), and then did nothing to help achieve those goals except some advertising, misguided things like rebates (if you give someone a subsidy for buying a new energy efficient fridge, and then they put the old fridge in the basement and continue using it, what have you accomplished?) and simply asking people to cut down. There have been no additional penalties for homes or businesses that contribute excessively to greenhouse emissions. Quebec has imposed a “carbon tax”, but decided that the homeowners themselves wouldn’t pay any extra, only the energy companies, which does nothing to make homeowners want to reduce usage, and isn’t that really your ultimate goal?

He also said something that struck me as very unusual for an environmentalist. The host said that many people think that if they can be efficient and reduce their consumption and such, then that “should be enough”, but Dr. Jaccard says in his book that efficiency and reducing consumption is not the answer. He said they are “a significant part of the answer”, but that it would be a mistake to focus solely on that. I understand that it’s not the whole solution, but the implication to me was that reducing personal consumption is such a drop in the bucket that it’s almost not worth the effort. For an environmentalist to even imply this was very surprising to me.

I remember a trip to Canada’s Wonderland last year where I was watching one of the rides, called Cliffhanger, which takes a huge platform with about 50 seats and lifts it up, spins it around, and drops it repeatedly. Then we went to another ride called Psyclone that had a huge circle of seats and swings the whole platform while spinning it, and the one next to Psyclone called Sledge Hammer which has six huge “arms” with seats on the end of them, and spins the seats while lifting and dropping the arms. These rides run 10 hours a day, every day, from May until September. I looked at these rides and considered the amount of energy they must consume and thought “…and replacing the light bulbs in my house with the spirally ones is supposed to help?”

Similarly, I remember getting a Drive Clean test on my Grand Prix, which was about six years old at the time. I looked at the test results, and the car passed with flying colours — one of the tests said that a certain level had to be below 1500, and my car’s level was something like 12. Then while driving home, I passed a bus or a dump truck or something that was belching thick black smoke into the air, dumping more pollution into the air in an hour than my car did in a year. And I have to pay $40 for a Drive Clean test?

We have a test lab at work with hundreds of machines running 24/7. We do run a lot of stress tests so it’s not unlikely that a large number of them are actually in use for much of that time, but I am sure that on any given weekend, there are at least a handful of machines that are on and running the entire time but doing nothing at all. After the big blackout of a couple of years ago, it seemed that everyone went green for a short time and tried to come up with ways to reduce consumption. I remember that some of us talked about ways to automatically power off idle machines and then power them back on again when they were needed, but nothing ever came of it. Then there were no more power outages, and many people forgot and went back to their old ways. I won’t pretend that I am not one of those to some extent, though I’m definitely more conscious of it than I used to be.

We have not see the Al Gore movie “An Inconvenient Truth” though it’s on our “should probably rent” list. Gail saw some snippets of it somewhere recently and the bit about the polar icecaps melting which is causing polar bears to drown (i.e. this is not one of these “If we’re not careful, this could happen” things, it is happening) really struck a nerve with her. She went out the next day and bought some of the fluorescent (“spirally”) light bulbs to use in some of our most-often-used lights. One of our problems is that many of our light fixtures use unusual-sized light bulbs, which are not yet available in fluorescent models. I’ve read about people who install solar panels on their roof or build wind turbines in their backyard and use those to power their houses. Some are even able to remove themselves from the power grid completely. However, the initial cost of buying the necessary hardware is very cost-prohibitive. From what I’ve read, it costs thousands to install this stuff, and then takes upwards of 20 years before the initial costs are recovered in savings due to lower energy bills. I’d love to do this for the good of the environment, but I just don’t have an extra few thousand dollars sitting around, and therefore I cannot justify it.

I’m willing to do my part, and I certainly understand the logic of “one person doesn’t make much of a difference but if everyone does a little bit, the cumulative change can be significant”. But it sounds to me that unless government steps up and forces the worst offenders to clean themselves up (or at least makes it economically advantageous to do so), I kind of feel like any changes I make in my home are meaningless.

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