Glimmer of light in green gloom – comment – Glimmer of light in green gloom
June 09, 2008. Carol Goar

Ethanol is beginning to look like a costly mistake. Not only does it drive up food prices, it takes almost as much energy to produce as it saves.

Hybrid vehicles are still out of reach for most consumers. A decade after their introduction, it is not clear when – or whether – their benefits will outweigh their cost.

Carbon taxes, which penalize consumers for fossil fuel use, are inherently regressive. They impose the heaviest burden on the poor, who can’t afford solar heating, can’t retrofit their homes and can’t pay a premium for renewable energy.

Every proposed solution to global warming seems flawed. Every environmentally friendly technology seems either unworkable or prohibitively expensive.

As auto plants close, jobs disappear and the economy weakens, it is hard to discern the shape of a green future.

Although some discouragement is in order, defeatism is not.

What technology has ever been an instant success?

The first cars were slow, ungainly, dirty and uncomfortable. The first airplanes were flimsy and dangerous. The first computers were huge, temperamental calculators containing 20,000 vacuum tubes. Eventually, the bugs were worked out.

What shift in human behaviour has ever been easy?

The agricultural revolution brought long hours of work and an increase in infectious diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis. The industrial revolution created squalid urban slums. The knowledge revolution reduced once-thriving factories to vacant hulks and stripped manual workers of their livelihood. Eventually – often painfully – people adjusted.

Today, likewise, there is progress amid the pain.

• Green jobs are starting to come on stream in significant numbers.

In the United States, the environmental sector – encompassing everything from sustainable forestry to wind power – is now creating roughly 5 million jobs a year.

In Germany, renewable energy accounts for 250,000 jobs. The number has doubled in the last three years.

In Brazil, ethanol production accounts for 700,000 jobs. Displacing food with biofuels is controversial. But if scientists can find a way to use the residue from edible crops to produce energy, agriculture could still be a key source of clean power.

In China, more than 150,000 people are employed in the solar heating industry.

Regrettably, Canada is dragging its heels. But other nations are moving ahead smartly.

• Zero-emission electric cars are not far off.

General Motors aims to have its Volt (which has a gasoline engine that kicks in when the battery runs out) on the market by the end of 2010. Renault and Nissan plan to introduce all-electric vehicles by 2011.

Canada could have been a world leader in non-polluting propulsion. More than a decade ago, Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems, developed a hydrogen fuel cell capable of powering a car or bus. But Ottawa failed to recognize the potential of the technology.

• Citizens are ahead of both government and industry.

Electricity consumption in Ontario is dropping faster than Queen’s Park projected. Car buyers are downsizing faster than the automakers expected. Suburbanites are moving into cities as fast as the housing market will allow. Commuters want more mass transit than their politicians can provide.

It is lack of leadership, not public resistance, that is holding Canada back.

Once the transition gets underway, it will generate growth and employment. Manufacturers will be needed to build green cars, nuclear generators, wind turbines and high-speed electric trains. Construction workers will be needed to retrofit buildings. Farmers will be needed to grow food locally. Scientists and designers and engineers will be needed to develop clean technologies, better building materials and new sources of energy.

These are the dark days. The industrial heartland is hurting. The ice cap is melting at an alarming rate. And the federal government seems content to promote Canada as an “energy superpower” in an oil-hungry world.

But the journey is still in its early stages. There are promising glimmers on the horizon. There are talented innovators at work. And there is a powerful incentive to press ahead: Burning through the Earth’s atmosphere is simply not an option.

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