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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 4, January/February 2008

Kyoto: a New Year’s resolution

By Hugh Robertson

"Kyoto is dead. Long live Kyoto." To give the old monarchical adage a modern ring, Kyoto in one sense is dead. It was killed not only by the recent decision of our government, but also by the collective inaction of all of us over the past decade. However, Kyoto lives. It lives in spirit because it is still the only international agreement attempting to rescue future generations from environmental chaos. Kyoto also lives because it is possible for us to achieve our reductions in greenhouse gases by the end of the target period in 2012.

Kyoto actually commits us to reductions every year for the next five years. At this late stage, however, it is impossible to cut our greenhouse gases to 6% below our 1990 level in the next 12 months. But if we can reach our target by the end of 2012, the world will be cheering because few other countries will meet their pledges.

The major greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) are created mainly by the extraction, refining, and burning of fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and natural gas. The refined products are used primarily for energy, such as electricity, transportation, and heating. Increases in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are due largely to oil and natural gas production, particularly exports to the US. In addition, transportation emissions have ballooned because of the growth of truck freight and sales of SUVs and light trucks.

The Kyoto Protocol requires Canada to reduce its 1990 greenhouse gas emissions of 600 megatonnes by 6% to a total of 563 megatonnes. Our present emissions stand at 750 megatonnes, which is 35% above our Kyoto commitment. To simplify these stratospheric statistics, we have converted our present greenhouse gas total in megatonnes to an average per capita figure for each Canadian. The latest estimate from Environment Canada places our overall per capita greenhouse gas emissions at approximately 24 tonnes per individual Canadian.

Roughly one-quarter, about 6 tonnes, is directly attributable to activities that are an integral part of our personal lifestyles—heating and cooling our homes, appliance use, heating water, lighting, food consumption, water and sewage, waste disposal, and driving. If 6 tonnes of the present overall average of 24 tonnes is directly attributable to our personal lifestyles, then we have to trim our individual share of emissions to 4.5 tonnes each—an eminently doable target.

The necessary lifestyle changes will be as much behavioural as technological. For example, initiating a war on waste is neither inconvenient nor expensive. It is estimated that half our electricity is wasted, half the food produced is squandered, and half of our garbage is biodegradable and should never end up in a landfill. Megatonnes of harmful gases could be saved by simple conservation at no financial cost to individual Canadians.

We need to establish baseline consumption figures before the end of December to measure our progress. Calculate your consumption of electricity, natural gas, gasoline and water. Most utility bills provide a consumption history or alternatively phone the utilities and request the figures for 2007.

Pledging to cut your energy consumption, and, thereby, your greenhouse-gas emissions, gradually but systematically over the next five years is an heroic undertaking. Set yourself a reduction target of 5% per year.

Listed below are the major categories where we will need to focus our individual reduction efforts. Quantifying our consumption in all of these activities may not be as easy as reading a meter. But we can all pledge to restrict our purchases of goods and services that have a negative impact on the environment.

It is beyond the limits of this article to list all the possible means of conserving resources in these categories. A separate article could be written on each category. However, a profusion of conservation ideas can be found in books, newspapers, magazines, and on numerous websites.

Develop strategies from your reading and searching and list them under these category headings. Share and brainstorm ideas with neighbours and circulate these ideas and suggestions in your community. Although leading by personal example is crucial in combating climate change, building community support for sustainable living will help unleash a country-wide groundswell that is essential to achieve our Kyoto target.

  • Driving: Approximately half our personal greenhouse gases are generated by driving.
  • Heating: Close to 30% of our personal emissions result from heating our homes.
  • Air conditioning overburdens our electricity system, partly coal-fired, in the summer.
  • Cooking: Both electrical and gas-fired cooking appliances increase greenhouse gases.
  • Heating water: Investigate pre-heating devices for warming water.
  • Water: Municipalities spend half their electrical operating budgets on water and sewage treatment.
  • Lighting: Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs.
  • Food: Eating locally produced food can shave 20% off your greenhouse gas total.
  • Waste: You could save another 20% with one small bag of garbage per month.
  • Shopping: Consider the environmental burden of every purchase you make.
  • Flying: Fly only for family—"love miles" in the words of George Monbiot.

Kyoto is a journey that starts in the hearts and minds of individual Canadians, not in cabinet meetings and corporate boardrooms and the corridors of bureaucratic power. Let us live our values, let us initiate lifestyle changes one step at a time and build a sustainable future for unborn generations.

Let each of us focus our new year’s resolution on the challenge of meeting our Kyoto commitment over the next five years. In setting a personal example of restraint and sacrifice, we can then demand more enlightened environmental policies from our politicians.

Hugh Robertson is a retired teacher. "Kyoto: A New Year’s Resolution" is part of a series of articles on climate change appearing in the New Edinburgh News, an Ottawa community newspaper.


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