Tag Archives: global warming

What’s ‘Green’ about subsidizing car travel?

Would you believe the Green Party recently took a more environmentally regressive position on an important issue than Stephen Harper?

Elizabeth May added her voice to the main opposition parties on a recent visit to Montreal by telling suburbanites they should expect a future non-Conservative federal government to continue aggressively subsidizing the most costly, unhealthy and ecologically destructive form of land transport.

May told Le Devoir that her party didn’t necessarily support the Harper government’s plan to implement a toll when the Champlain Bridge, Canada’s busiest crossing and a key connection between the island of Montreal and the city’s South Shore, is rebuilt at a projected cost of over $4 billion.

“The Green Party doesn’t have a rigid position on the issue,” May said in French. “Before talking about a toll, we need to agree on what kind of mass transit we want to put in place between the South Shore and the island [of Montreal]. Maybe if there is an efficient system a reduction in traffic on the bridge will take place naturally and the toll won’t be necessary.”

This is either political opportunism of the worst sort or a lack of real commitment to combatting climate change.

Anyone with the least respect for climate science ought to oppose building an auto-centered bridge of any sort (toll or no toll). But even a fully bike-, pedestrian- and mass transit-oriented bridge, which isn’t being seriously discussed, should include a toll. A light rail-dominated, private and car-free bridge would still include a lane for emergency vehicles and buses, which ought to cross freely. Trucks could also use the lane, but they should pay — they are dangerous, noisy, emit high volumes of carbon emissions and mostly transport goods for private businesses.

Perhaps the Green Party’s unwillingness to publicly back a toll on the Champlain Bridge has little to do with a serious analysis of its ecological or social implications.

Perhaps it’s a sop to a political culture, shaped by the auto industrial complex, that tells drivers it is their right to be subsidized every metre of their 10-, 40- or 80-kilometre daily drive (often solo) into the city. Having been seduced by land developers into buying big houses far from work, suburbanites are outraged at the prospect of paying the direct costs — leaving aside climate and health — for each kilometre of their trek.

But surely a leader of the Green Party ought to publicly declare that climate science makes this state of affairs unsustainable. If not her, then who?

And if electoral politics makes this an impossible position to take, then no moral, ecologically minded person should enter party politics. (The Green’s opportunism is made more depressing by the fact that they have little chance of winning a seat on the South Shore.)

The Green’s ambiguity towards a bridge toll reflects a larger problem with groups challenging the dominance of private cars. They generally shy away from supporting policies that increase the costs or make lives more difficult for drivers and instead focus on inducing individuals to leave their automobiles through new transport services.

While expanding transit options is often necessary, those of us who really care about human health, the livability of urban spaces and humanity’s capacity to survive on this planet shouldn’t fear initiatives that punish private car travel. We must tell the truth.

Increasing gas taxes, tolls and congestion fees; eliminating parking; tearing down highways and otherwise freeing streets from vehicles should all be pursued in the struggle against private automobility.

Dedicating a lane to buses or even building light rail on a new bridge is unlikely to substantially reduce car travel if other automotive infrastructure is maintained or expanded. One reason for this is that cars usually fill whatever space is devoted to them. Another part of the explanation is that areas built entirely for cars can’t simply adopt mass transit.

Car-dominated urban landscapes must be radically revamped, and one way to encourage these transformations is to make drivers pay more of the cost of their trips.

While I believe in challenging the private car at every turn, there is a tactical and social argument for focusing on corporations driving auto dominance rather than individual drivers. But the Green Party is not articulating these types of policies either. If they wanted to challenge automotive hegemony, but avoid angering individual drivers, they could target automakers’ omnipresent advertising, which largely explains the private car’s immense cultural standing.

Many times more damaging than cigarettes, car advertising should be (as with tobacco) steadily eliminated. Or how about pushing for a quota system whereby automakers’ are compelled to steadily increase the production of rideshare vehicles, buses, bikes and light rail cars in exchange for the right to sell private cars? The objective would be to push auto companies to produce less ecologically and socially damaging products while maintaining employment levels.

While it’s unclear how best to curb auto dependence, current efforts are failing. Greater Montreal’s car stock is growing by some 45,000 vehicles a year and new auto sales, driven by gas guzzling SUVs and light trucks, are on pace to reach a record in 2015.

In the current political culture many find it easier to imagine the collapse of civilization than the replacement of a transportation and urban planning system that harms our health and destroys cityscapes. But we either curtail the private car or accept that human civilization is unlikely to survive much longer.

Et tu, Elizabeth May?

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Canadian crimes against humanity in Africa

Should Africans pursue Stephen Harper for crimes against humanity?

The Africa Progress Report 2015 suggests they may have a solid moral, if not necessarily legal, case.

Led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Africa Progress Panel highlights Canada and Australia as two countries that “have withdrawn entirely from constructive international engagement on climate.” The mainstream group concludes that Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda have shown “far higher level of ambition” to lessen CO2 emissions than Canada.

The report, which was released last week, adds to a significant body of evidence showing that anthropogenic global warming poses a particularly profound threat to Africans. Although hardest hit by climate change, the terrible irony is that Africa, among all continents, is least responsible for the problem.

If nothing is done to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, average temperatures may rise 7°C in southern Africa and 8°C in the north by century’s end. Reaching nearly twice the global average, this would destabilize human life on large swaths of the continent.

Still, a skeptic might argue, how does this amount to charging Stephen Harper with crimes against humanity? Doesn’t that require some form of mass murder or genocide?

Back in 2012 the Climate Vulnerability Monitor concluded that climate disturbances were responsible for 400,000 deaths per year, mostly in Africa. Nigerian ecologist Nnimmo Bassey has dubbed growing carbon emissions a “death sentence for Africa” while Naomi Klein reports that “African delegates at UN climate summits have begun using words like ‘genocide’ to describe the collective failure to lower emissions.”

Various ecological, economic and social factors explain the continent’s vulnerability. Most Africans are directly dependent on resource sectors – fisheries, forestry and agriculture – that are particularly vulnerable to climate conditions. Between half and two thirds of the continent are subsistence farmers who largely rely on natural rainfall, rather than irrigation, to water their crops. Additionally, large swaths of the continent are arid and a third of Africa’s productive area is already classified as dry land. As such, subsistence farmers’ crop yields and incomes are easily damaged by reduced or intermittent rainfall. According to Tanzanian Minister of State for the Environment Binilith Mahenge, “global warming of 2˚C would put over 50 per cent of the African continent’s population at risk of undernourishment.”

CO2 induced food shortages are not in some far off dystopian future. A study by Britain’s Met Office concluded that global warming sparked a major famine in Somalia in 2011 during which 50,000 Somalis died.

While water shortages represent a threat to many, an excess of this same element poses a hazard elsewhere. A quarter of Africa’s population lives within 100km of the continent’s 38,000 km coastline. Without significant investments to mitigate risks to major metropolises, such as Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and Lagos, the threat of flooding looms.

Carbon can also trigger the taking up of arms. Climate change has spurred violent cattle raids in north-western Kenya and triggered the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in Mali while the mid-2000s violence in Sudan’s Darfur region was dubbed the world’s “first climate change war.” A University of California, Berkeley, study found a statistical link between the hotter temperatures generated by climate change and the risk of armed conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. The Colorado researchers forecast a 54 per cent rise in civil conflict on the continent due to climate change by 2030, causing 393,000 more combat deaths.

Increasing the strain on governance structures, climate change has already exacerbated inequities and ethnic divisions in parts of the continent. Climate change may well propel large areas of Africa into a downward cycle, further undermining the capacity of communities and governments to cope.

But most African governments can contribute little to curtail runaway global warming because their countries’ carbon footprints are negligible compared to the biggest capitalist economies. Per capita emissions in most African countries amount to barely 1% of Canada’s rate. In Uganda, Congo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Rwanda and Mozambique, per capita emissions comprise less than 1/150th of Canada’s average. In Tanzania, Madagascar, Comoros, The Gambia, Liberia and Zambia per capita emissions are less than 1/80th Canada’s average.

Forward looking comparisons are equally stark. If plans to double tar sands production proceed, by 2030 Alberta’s project will emit as much carbon as most sub-Saharan African countries combined.

Canadian officialdom has done little to regulate tar sands emissions and has, in fact, subsidized its expansion. The Conservative government has campaigned aggressively against any international effort to reduce carbon emissions from fuel sources, which might impact sales of Alberta bitumen. Canadian diplomats worked with feverish determination to undermine the European Union’s Fuel Quality Directive, a modest bid that would force suppliers to privilege lower-emission fuels. To the south, the Canadian government also lobbied aggressively against any US legislation that might curtail tar sands expansion and in favour of the Keystone XL pipeline to take oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast.

Despite the rising toll of climate change in Africa, the Canadian government pushed to grow the global “carbon bomb” in international forums. At every turn, Harper’s Conservatives have blocked progress on setting minimally serious targets for reducing CO2 emissions, repeatedly receiving the Colossal Fossil given out by hundreds of environmental groups to the country that did the most to undermine international climate negotiations meetings. At this week’s G7 meeting, Canadian officials reportedly sought to undermine German chancellor Angela Merkel’s bid for a statement committing countries to a low carbon economy by 2050.
Under Conservative government leadership, Canada became the first country to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement committing leading industrial economies to reducing GHG emissions below 1990 levels by 2012. (Instead of attaining its 6% reduction target, Canada’s emissions increased 18 per cent.)

In addition to undermining international climate negotiations and the efforts of other nations to reduce GHGs, the Harper government made a mockery of its own commitments. As part of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, Ottawa pledged to reduce carbon emissions 17 per cent by 2020 (from the levels in 2005). Five years later, however, Environment Canada admitted this target would not be reached. In fact, Environment Canada suggested emissions would rise 20% by 2020.

In a sign of Ottawa’s near total indifference to the impact of global warming in Africa, the Conservatives pulled out of an international accord to study the consequences of desertification, a process ravaging parts of the African continent. In 2013, Canada withdrew from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in countries seriously affected by drought and/or desertification, particularly in Africa.

Adopted in 1994, this international convention collects and shares scientific information about drought and ways to curb its spread. By becoming the sole nation outside the convention, Canada saved itself a paltry $300,000 a year. While the savings barely registered in the federal government’s $260 billion budget, the message was clear.

Clearly Harper’s Conservative government has wilfully ignored the interests of Africans and pursued an environmental, economic and political course that has already killed hundreds of thousands.

In a just world a Fulani pastoralist in Burkina Faso would have a forum to pursue Stephen Harper for crimes against humanity.

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Filed under Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, Canada in Africa, The Ugly Canadian