DAMN THIS TRAFFIC JAM! Fossil Fuels Far Less Popular When Hidden Costs Exposed

By Colman, Ronald; Landon, Laura | CCPA Monitor, March 2006 | Go to article overview
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DAMN THIS TRAFFIC JAM! Fossil Fuels Far Less Popular When Hidden Costs Exposed


Colman, Ronald, Landon, Laura, CCPA Monitor


I used to think that I was cool,

Running 'round on fossil fuel,

Until I saw what I was doin'-

Drivin' down the road to ruin."

-James lay/or in his 1977 hit, Traffic Jam.

It's no news that burning fossil fuels has some nasty side-effects. But Canadians rely on them for over 80% of our energy, and our use of them keeps growing. Over the 1990s, for example, our fossil-fuel use grew 10%, and our overall energy demand grew by 9%. While energy efficiency improved somewhat during this period, Canada remains among the world's biggest energy gluttons. Our per-capita energy use is nearly double the average of other nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Canada ranks third highest among 30 OECD nations, surpassed only by Iceland and Luxembourg.

We often point to our cold climate and vast geography to explain our voracious energy consumption. But other countries with similar climates consume far less. OECD numbers show that, in 2002, Finland, for example, consumed about 249 gigajoules (GJ) of energy per capita and Sweden 264, compared to 353 GJ in Canada. Nor can we simply blame geographic size. According to the OECD, most Canadian transportation, which accounts for about one-quarter of total energy use, occurs within cities. Rather, it is Canada's high per-capita GDP, affluence, and consumption habits that generate such high industrial and personal energy use.

Although the Kyoto Protocol commits Canada to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, which are mainly from fossil fuel combustion, emissions rose 24% between 1990 and 2003. The increase is due largely to both increased fossil fuel use and production, with fugitive emissions from oil and natural gas extraction now one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Statistics Canada reports that energy is now Canada's largest export.

An October 2005 study by Simon Fraser University researchers, published by the David Suzuki Foundation, shows that Canada ranked worst among OECD nations in carbon monoxide emissions, second worst in emissions of volatile organic compounds, fourth worst in per-capita sulphur oxide emissions, and fifth worst in per-capita greenhouse gas emissions. We also ranked worst in nuclear waste production.

As for those nasty side-effects of burning fossil fuels, we need look no further than the wild weather of last year: Hurricane Katrina and the most intense hurricane season on record; a two-foot snowfall in Los Angeles; record-breaking drought with accompanying water shortages and wildfires in Europe...the list goes on. All of the hottest 15 years on record have occurred since 1980.

Such weather patterns are consistent with scientists' predictions about climate change, which the 2,000 experts on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change link to fossil fuel combustion and the production and use of energy.

We need energy to power our economy and produce goods and services. But we don't need nearly as much as we currently use. We can get by with far less fossil fuel; it's running out, and poses a threat to our environment, health, and survival as a species. Still, current measures of progress, based primarily on economic growth statistics, often send the misleading message that the more energy we consume, and the more fossil fuel we burn, the better off we are. And these conventional measures ignore the costs of that energy consumption. Resource depletion, soil contamination, air and water pollution, illness costs, damage to marine and terrestrial wildlife, land-use conflicts, and the effects of global climate change all remain invisible in our conventional economic accounts and in the narrow measures of progress based on them.

By contrast, measures of genuine progress give explicit value to the quality of our environment, health, and livelihood security. They count pollution, sickness, and climate-change damages as costs-not gains-to the economy.

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DAMN THIS TRAFFIC JAM! Fossil Fuels Far Less Popular When Hidden Costs Exposed
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