Environment minister comes to York to talk climate change

Amid speculation about an imminent federal election, Stéphane Dion, Canada’s environment minister, brought his message on climate change to York last week. His speech before a group of faculty, students and members of local environmental organizations generated a number of responses from the audience and a lengthy reply from a group of York professors who are members of the York’s newly formed Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS).

Stephan DionThe speech at the Schulich School of Business on Wednesday, April 27, was presented by IRIS in association with York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, the Osgoode Hall Law School, Schulich, the Sustainability Network and Net Impact.

Right: Stéphane Dion, Canada’s environment minister, speaks on climate change

After allowing that his audience was already knowledgeable about the need to deal with climate change, Dion said no country was prepared to do more than Canada, which faces one of the toughest challenges of any signatory to the Kyoto Accord – a commitment to reduce greenhouse gases by up to 300 megatonnes by 2102. He called climate change an “opportunity for innovation”.

“Kyoto is only asking us to do the right thing, which we would have to do anyway,” Dion said as he explained the workings of a proposed “carbon market” that would bring the force of the private and public sectors together for the public good. After citing examples of how the market for greenhouse gas-reduction credits would work, Dion said, “if I were an environmentalist in the market, I would make a lot of money. I would go to the CEOs of companies and tell them, I know how to make you money with the Climate Fund.”

Stephan Dion and Stan ShapsonDion said the program would eliminate the need for multiple government programs and create a flexible marketplace for ideas on how to reduce greenhouse gases that would be driven by market forces.

Left: From left, Stéphane Dion with Stan Shapson, York vice-president research & innovation

A second part of Canada’s plan for climate change, said Dion, was an up-to-$3 billion partnership fund with the provinces to help with projects such as the closure of Ontario’s inefficient coal-fired power generating plants.

The third part of the plan, Dion said, was to work with the more than 700 companies in Canada’s auto industry to help them meet Kyoto targets by 2010 using a combination of standards and credit trading. He said providing tough targets for the auto industry would help it to remain competitive with Japan’s automakers, which are already producing hybrid cars and taking advantage of the climate change opportunity.

Dion said changing public opinion was the key to success and defended the government’s public information programs, such as the $165-million one-tonne challenge, which he said will generate additional indirect reductions as well.

David Wheeler and Stephan Dion

Left: From left, David Wheeler thanks Stéphane Dion following his speech at York Wednesday

During a short and pointed 10-minute question and answer period, where about a dozen well-versed members of the audience challenged the minister on specific issues, Dion defended Canada’s reduction of emission targets for fuel companies by saying the original “soft” target figures had been replaced by lower but firmer targets. “They know now what the targets are,” Dion said. “We are not open to renegotiate the targets to give any specific deal to anyone. Deliver your target. Don’t send to us your lobbyists and legal experts anymore, send us your engineers.”

After a question about investing in Russia and making sure its development didn’t contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions, Dion said he was working with other countries on a global framework for a plan that would address the problem by creating a new more inclusive international pact. “Canada is open to the carbon market only to help the planet and provide a showcase for Canadian technology,” he said.

York faculty speak out on climate change

David WheelerAfter thanking the minister for his speech, David Wheeler (left), director of IRIS and a professor at the Shulich School of Business, said York faculty members would provide their comment on climate change. The professors’ statement, released that afternoon, calls for a fundamental shift in Canada’s economic, industrial, social, science and legal policies and said Kyoto compliance will necessitate a re-invention of what it means to be Canadian.

“It will literally have to be a ‘renaissance’ – a social and political agenda the like of which Canada has not seen for 150 years,” said Wheeler. Nevertheless, Wheeler and his colleagues do not believe that such a massive attitude shift needs to be expensive.

“One of the reasons I think meeting the CO2 emission reduction targets envisioned in the Kyoto Accord will not be as expensive as people fear is because as a society we really haven’t paid any attention to the problem as yet,” said Professor Peter Victor, York’s former dean of Environmental Studies. “We’ve never tried to control carbon emissions because there was no reason to think about it, no framework of laws and regulations, no financial incentives.”

The academics – all leading members of IRIS – embrace the disciplines of economics, natural science, business, law, social science, geography and political science.

Some of the elements of a technological and social renaissance that York’s multi-disciplinary researchers believe need to be part of the federal government’s vision include: pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets, safe neighbourhoods with strong public facilities, community-based planning, cities without gasoline-dependent cars, provinces without coal-fired stations, elimination of urban smog with its attendant health and economic costs, elimination of fuel poverty through massive investments in social housing infrastructure, radically more efficient and innovative high technology industries that can export environmental solutions.

“The good news is that such a vision would be more socially, environmentally and economically sustainable,” said Victor.

York’s professors are so convinced that a more sustainable Canada would be a happier, healthier and more socially cohesive Canada, that they launched the “Renaissance Project in Environmental and Social Change” to prove it. For the complete IRIS statement, see The Economics of the Good Life.