Thursday, August 6, 2009

How Green was my stimulus? (Not very)

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner:

After more than a year of economic bad news, it seems the worst may be over. Some are even saying the recession is past, although somehow that means job losses will continue for a while yet. Apparently the much-debated economic stimulus did its work. Or did it?

If the economy is like a moving car, then a recession is like the engine stalling, and government stimulus a jump-start to get it running again. The problem is, when your engine dies, it is a sign of something seriously wrong -- something that should be fixed lest it break down again. To re-start your car and just hope for the best isn't very prudent -- yet that's precisely what our governments have done.

Of course, our economy isn't just like a car on the road, it's more like a car in a race -- against the other nations competing in global markets. The global recession was a shared pit stop. The big difference is how the other teams -- other governments -- responded. Rather than replace failing tires with another set from the same stack like us, they've been rapidly upgrading to newer, better equipment. As the race resumes, we'll fall further and further behind in our obsolete jalopy.

HSBC published a study in the Financial Times analyzing how much of each nation's stimulus spending was "green" -- directed to improving energy efficiency, reducing emissions, going renewable, boosting transit, etc. The Obama budget to our south dedicated 12 per cent. Germany put in 13 per cent, France 21 per cent, and powerhouse China a whole 38 per cent -- more than a third of their stimulus.

Yet even they were exceeded by the European Union at 59 per cent and South Korea at a whopping 81 per cent green stimulus. Japan's share seems low at three per cent, but they have already spent decades crafting one of the most energy-efficient, low-emission economies in the developed world.

Where does Canada's stimulus fall on this curve? Down with the laggards, at a measly eight per cent. Not even one tenth of our massive dive into deficit and debt went into greening our economy. And of even that little spending, much targeted measures of dubious long-term benefit: more money for the nuclear money-pit of AECL and subsidies to help obscenely profitable fossil fuel companies try to capture and store a fraction of their CO2.

In Ontario, we have spurned both environmental and economic common sense in bailing out the worst performers.

By market capitalization, Toyota and Honda are the world's largest automakers, each by itself more than the size of Ford, Chrysler, and GM combined. They also have the highest fleet fuel efficiencies - far better than GM or Ford. The market has clearly spoken: the most efficient companies are sought after, while guzzler-makers are dropped. Yet we taxpayers are now proud owners of the worst, a company which actually promises fewer jobs in Ontario over the next decade. Premier Dalton McGuinty even promises huge grants to buyers of more Detroit steel, provided it's the untested Chevy Volt.

When it comes to energy inefficiency, Canada is a world leader. Of developed nations, none use more energy than us to produce a dollar of income. Even neighbouring New York state produces twice as many dollars per unit of energy as Ontario. We are gold-medal energy-wasters, not a title we should happily accept.

There is still time, as the world crawls out of the recession, to retool our economic race car to challenge the best, but time is swiftly running out. Specific numbers are hard to predict, but there is little doubt resurgent demand will soon pull oil above $100 per barrel, and likely $200 before the decade ends. Are we ready for this? Can your lifestyle handle $3 a litre gasoline? How about $4? How will your business cope when electricity prices double and oil quadruples? Will your job or pension be safe?

Keep in mind that Japan and the EU -- and even the U. S. -- will be able to produce the same good or service with half or less the expensive energy -- passing their savings on to their global customers. These are the people who used to be our customers.

Word to the wise (and our leaders): Never waste a good crisis.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Update: Reuters today has a story that shows how Canada's lack of green stimulus is not only preventing us from keeping up, it is putting us even further behind as green industry is drawn south to Obamaland:

Keeping it out of sight, or out of Site 41?

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner:

The struggle continues to prevent what may be a colossal mistake in Tiny Township. Protesters warn of the costs, risks and likely failures if dump Site 41 is created, while local government, backed by Premier Dalton McGuinty, rely on studies and reports to defend it.

Certainly, this is a decision that should be based on science -- along with a healthy dose of prudence and skepticism. Yet is that being done? It seems that the science is being kept out of sight. This is never a good sign.

What is at issue is water. Located atop some of the world's cleanest water, Site 41 could threaten drinking water for humans and natural species. The engineering of the site, held up as the way to prevent such harm, is based on measurements and predictions of water flows. The only way this operation could possibly be safe is if those measurements and predictions are accurate.
The standard way to test the accuracy of science is through reproducibility. Other experts must be able to make the same measurements and tests and come up with the same results, or at least review the measurements and raw data.

If computer modelling is used to make predictions, then that model must be subject to examination, comment, criticism, and modification where necessary. Yet in this case, the information is being held secret, despite an order from the Information and Privacy Commissioner that it be revealed. This is a red flag.

This study was not done by the government, it was done by private consultants. Both local and provincial governments are now relying on those results -- even though the details remain confidential, unproven and untested. There is always a tendency for consultants to produce reports that favour the needs of the client.

The consulting firm, Jagger Hims, is now owned by Genivar, a company hired to support Site 41. This makes a clear conflict of interest -- they won't want any contrary information to get out. The "proprietary information" excuse for refusing to release the data is rather flimsy, since the MODFLOW software is in wide use in the industry. If there truly is demonstrable harm to the contractor, would it not be worth compensating them in order to get access to this data? Surely that's much cheaper than the cost of a toxic dump failure.

There are indications that the measurements and data may be flawed -- which would create a flawed result. These must be addressed, not swept under the rug.

In a modern era of information, science and the Internet, when we should expect more transparency, we get less. Local officials have even tried to cancel meetings of the Community Monitoring Committee (CMC) mandated to discuss issues around Site 41 and gone so far as to sue one of the members for $160,000. Yet she is clearly doing her job -- representing the community her committee is accountable to. If anything, she is representing them better than some of their elected representatives are.

The continuing attempts by the county and now province to prevent the release and proper, independent study of this information is reprehensible, but, sadly, not surprising.

At the federal level, such obfuscation has become standard. Over the past three years, our federal government has removed information from public view, sought to suppress scientific reports which contradict partisan messages, and muzzled government experts.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that our provincial and local governments are now following suit. The feds ignore "inconvenient" facts and fire scientific advisors, the province ignores their own Environment and Information Commissioners, and the county ignores (and sues) the CMC. Consistent from top to bottom.

Our tax dollars paid for this information; we have a right to see it. We must continue to pressure our elected representatives to follow due diligence and put a one-year moratorium on completing Site 41 until all these issues can be resolved. We must make them know (and remind them often) that anything less will get them thrown out of office come the 2010 and 2011 elections.

The era of zero waste is in sight, when dumps will be unnecessary. Government must recognize that now and wind up existing dumps, not build new ones.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.