Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Journey May Be More Important

One of the benefits of writing a blog is that you don't have to explain yourself before making a stab at something. Often it was the story meetings at CBC that were the most discouraging part of the day. If something didn't have the tried and  true story elements of complaint,crisis or conflict, it would be a very hard sell.  So here's something that would never have made it to air. What does PEI's Royal Commission on Land Use (Round Table in 1997) have in common with some new work by very smart energy thinker Amory Lovins? Both were/are trying to solve very serious environmental problems, both trying to find the right mix of government  regulations, and personal responsibility to make things better.

It was fifteen years ago when the Round Table On Resource Land Use and Stewardship (chaired by farmer Elmer MacDonald, and included fishermen, foresters, environmentalists, tourism operators, and more)  made a series of recommendations to try (amongst other things) to protect water resources from soil erosion and pesticide run-off. It followed a time of quick expansion of the potato industry (driven by newly built french fry plants). There was a huge jump in land prices, and many farmers cut back on crop rotations to cover these increased costs, and perhaps worse started cropping  sloped fields around waterways. The new markets were badly needed after PVYn put so many seed growers outs of business,  and the new jobs at the fry plants were welcome, but there were environmental costs as well: fishkills, increased nitrates, soil erosion..

Some Round Table recommendations were followed:  a buffer zone between row crops and waterways,  fencing cattle out of streams, a mandatory three year crop rotation is on the books but not enforced.  There was one forgotten recommendation that I think deserves more attention (and gets us closer to Amory Lovins).  The Roundtable said what if organic matter (measured as a percentage of soil structure)  were measured in fields on a regular (yearly?) basis, and used as a way to measure progress or failure in improving soil quality. The information would be available to everyone. I would add a further idea that improvements in organic matter be the basis for continuing to get lower land taxes and cheaper fuel. If the organic matter is going up, then farmers enjoy the benefits of lower taxes.  If organic matter falls, then they don't.  I say let farmers decide how this can be accomplished.  Those that think that  3 year rotations aren't necessary  get to do what they think is best. There may be some fields that need four and five year rotations to start to improve. Either way there's tangible evidence and reward or penalty.  It sets up a different dynamic that creates a measurable benchmark that moves soil management in the right direction, treats all farmers the same but doesn't treat them like children.   And because it's the organic matter that's first to be lost when there's soil erosion from wind or water,  there's good reason to take steps to prevent it.  It also gives landowners who lease and rent their land reason to pay attention rather than just collecting the rent and hoping things will be OK.

Most farmers will meet this standard, and will be left to manage their land as they see fit.  Those that don't will pay a steep price. As it stands we have regulations that are loosely enforced because that's what the politicians want, enforcement officers who are treated more like Dirty Harry than a helpful agent of government, and many in the public with very little confidence that government or farmers are doing the right thing.

Too simplistic?  Too idealistic? Maybe. There's got to be something better than what we're doing now.

I think many of the same dynamics are at work when it comes to climate change. From everything that's happened in the last two weeks we know the Government of Canada says some nice things but is entirely hostile to the idea that climate change is real, and urgent action is needed.  As citizens again we wait for some big policy announcement that will bludgeon the private sector into doing the right thing, when we know full-well that won't happen. Amory Lovins in his new book  Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions in the New Energy Era  is suggesting governments set goals and standards but give people and corporations more leeway in how to reach them. He's not going soft on the need for change,  he just thinks a more decentralized approach will get us much further, much more quickly. 

Amory Lovins has written a lot of sensible things when it comes to energy over the years. I always remember his analysis that a huge percentage of our energy demand is for relatively low-grade temperature requirements (180 degree F. water for space heating, 120 degree F. water for domestic hot water for example) but North Americans use incredibly high grade energy to get it (oil, natural gas, electricity from nuclear, etc.) He called for a better match of energy source with energy use (wood waste, biomass, solar, etc for low grade demand; high grade fossil fuel for transportation and industry until better technology comes along).  He's not ideologically driven and definitely believes in the private sector. He just thinks governments are wrong-headed in what they use the tax system and other incentives to support, the very things that are causing so much damage.

I don't agree with everything in this take on what Canada needs to do now on climate change, but I do like shifting responsibility for change onto people and corporations, and giving them the right incentives.  A price on carbon is the simplest policy choice (and the analysis of how this is working in British Columbia is very positive), but all three major Federal parties have backed away from it for strictly political (and very stupid and shortsighted) reasons. So we need something a little more complicated. It's better than doing nothing.

Post-Kyoto, a search for ‘a subtle skill’ in tackling climate change

The Kyoto Protocol was very much the north wind in Aesop’s fable of the wind and the sun. Which of those elements could more quickly induce a man to discard his cloak – or a country to discard its carbon?
It is remarkable that so many people still think that the wind should have prevailed, that force (implicit or explicit) should have won over persuasion. Even Environment Minister Peter Kent, in his repudiation of Kyoto, appeared to suggest that a stronger wind than Kyoto might still be needed down the road. Let’s hope not. Let’s hope that, next time, Canada goes with the solar power.

It is by no means utopian to bet on the sun. Amory Lovins, the celebrated American environmental scientist, has argued for years that greenhouse gas emissions can be best controlled (and reduced) by radically decentralized decision-making in the private-sector economy.
In his new book, Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions in the New Energy Era, Mr. Lovins asserts that using only the profit incentives inherent in the marketplace and minimal government subsidies, the United States could entirely eliminate oil, coal and nuclear energy from its economy, and simultaneously reduce natural gas consumption by as much as one-third, by 2050. This transformation could happen, he says, through greater energy efficiency, without new taxes or new laws.
Equally persuasive as an alternative to the hypocrisy of international treaties, and equally radical, is the eloquent “Hartwell paper,” so-called for the English castle in which academics from OECD countries convened in 2010 to analyze the collapse the previous year of the Kyoto agreement at the Copenhagen round of Kyoto summits.
Co-published in May, 2010, by Oxford University and the London School of Economics as “A New Direction for Climate Policy After the Crash of 2009” it reflects the judgment of people who endorse “decarbonization” – but who deem the Kyoto accord an utter and abject failure.
“There is no evidence that … the ‘Kyoto’ type approach [to climate control] has produced any discernible acceleration of decarbonization whatsoever: not anywhere, not in any region,” the paper states. This was particularly true in Canada. The Kyoto Protocol required a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 6 per cent (from 1990 levels); in fact, Canada increased emissions by 36 per cent.
Kyoto became impossibly burdened by the conflicting agendas of too many countries, the Hartwell paper argues. The moment of truth came at Copenhagen when the debate degenerated from windy rhetoric to blackmail – “when utopian talk of global solutions and universal solutions” by rich countries gave way to petty demands for cash by poor countries.
But the fundamental error of Kyoto, the Hartwell paper argued, was its erroneous assumptions that science can successfully dictate public policy and that climate change could be “solved” by government decree. A less doctrinaire policy would have put it differently, the paper said, citing a 2010 article in The Economist: “Action on climate is justified, not because the science is certain, but precisely because it is not.”
Any credible carbon policy must therefore reflect a certain scientific humility. The public will quickly tire of policy wars that cannot be won: the war on cancer, on drugs, on poverty. As with all other such wars, the war on carbon will never be won; atmospheric carbon will be, at best, managed.
If there must be a war on carbon, the Hartwell paper argued, it should be a guerrilla war – fought differently in different countries with decentralized targets on diverse fronts: on adaptation to climate change, on energy efficiency, on forest policy, on biodiversity, on air quality. Each foray must be fought for its own sake. The accumulation of incremental victories will significantly reduce carbon emissions. More fundamentally, each foray must have widespread public support.
The Hartwell paper offers a nice analogy. Imagine an English landscape gardener who must design a driveway to a great castle. He will not force a roadway through to the castle in a straight line. He will make it follow a circuitous route, passing here though a stand of great trees and there across an open field. He will incorporate many different perspectives and will achieve an aesthetic result. The sequel to Kyoto, whatever it may be, should exhibit “a subtle skill … the capacity to deliver an ambitious objective harmoniously.”
Please, Mr. Kent: No more complex, top-down regulatory regimes. They aren’t necessary. They, too, will fail.

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