NWEP Environmental Policy Forum

Tomorrow, the New Westminster Environmental Partners are trying a bold experiment in grassroots environmental policy development. I have been privy to some of the organizing, and have been asked to act as an MC and facilitator at the event. However, I have been amazed to watch other NWEP members put this thing together, and come up with, what I think, is a remarkable plan. 
The genesis of the idea is the upcoming (not yet officially begun!) election (even though it has not yet been called), and we already know who our local Candidates will be. The NWEP could get together in our group and come up with some policy ideas, raise holy hell about a specific issue or two, but how do we know we are representing how the Community really feels about an issue?
Was there some way we could poll the “environmentally engaged” populace and get ideas? Since our budget is too small to get Ipsos on the phone, one of our members had the idea for this forum.
The event is envisioned as an exercise in grassroots policy development, with the aim to encouraging lots of lively discussion and sharing of ideas. Fitting with the NWEP’s mission, the main theme will be “environmental sustainability”. However, the topics will be generated by the citizens who show up, not by the NWEP board.
Of course, we can anticipate what some if them will be (transportation, coal terminals, climate change?) but who knows what will come up in the early part of the event when we ask people to post their ideas and concerns?
After a short period or idea collection and a voting mechanism to choose the “hottest” topics, we will break the room up into several smaller groups. Each of the smaller groups will flesh out the idea at that station. Again, NWEP people will be there to help the conversation along, but it will be the participants doing the talking, and the NWEP will be doing the record keeping and note taking.
This will be the fun, dynamic part. I frankly have no idea where these conversations are going to go. I anticipate some topics (LNG comes to mind) will draw a wide breadth of opinions, and the goal will not be to argue and debate the merits of opposing positions, but to find the common ground – the essential underlying ideas or philosophies where agreement can be found (even if the details differ), or even where the real friction rests- the point where people cannot agree.
Either way, the discussion will no doubt create an interesting record of the community’s concerns, documentation of where the community conversation and the level of education that the community has on some of these (obviously controversial) topics.
The Candidates who have agreed to attend (listed in politically-neutral alphabetical order here: Hector Bremner, Judy Darcy, Paul Forseth and Terry Teather) will NOT be taking part in these discussions, but will instead be circulating around the room, eavesdropping, hearing the conversations, and no doubt taking notes. Because only after we do this community conversation and each group gives a very brief report out of the results of their conversation, will the Candidates be asked to comment on what they heard, what they know about the issue, what their feelings or their position is on that topic.
The hope here is that the candidates get to hear what the people are saying, then report back that they have heard the concerns of the citizens. In a perfect world, we would like to think that the candidate who is successful in May will take those ideas to Victoria, and be they in Government or Opposition, they can speak clearly with their community’s voice.
I was explaining this to a politico I ran into in town today, and he asked “why would candidates agree to show up just to listen? Can’t you give them more time to talk? ”
So to counter the cynicism of that mindset, I am glad to report we at the NWEP told the candidates what the format was, that their speaking part of the event was going to be relatively short and late in the event, but for the first hour, they were going to be listening, and all of the candidates agreed to attend. I think this speaks to the quality of local candidates we have.
So I am excited, if a little nervous. I honestly have no idea how this will turn out. If it goes great, we may have a new model that can be adopted for other policy areas (economic development? Education? Health Care?). If it goes less than great, we will at least create a written record of the conversation and have a better understanding of where the community stands on various environment and sustainability topics. As we all spend so much time in our own policy/political bubbles, staring inwards at our own ideas, we can all benefit from sharing ideas with the broader community, even if it means we have to hear ideas we don’t agree with. Actually, specifically because may hear ideas we don’t agree with.
Also, the event will be recorded by the good folks at NewWestTV, there may even be a webcast on the day of, (I have no idea if this is technically possible!). Also, the NWEP will collect the conversations and condense them into a document that will be published on our website before the election writ is dropped.
So , I hope to see you there! I’m a scientist by training, and some the funnest parts are when you don’t know what the results will be, but you just throw the switch and collect the data, and let the numbers fall where they will.What could possibly go wrong? 
Sapperton Pensioners Hall- 318 Kearey Street- Saturday, March 9, 1:00pm to 3:30 pm.

In which Coal gets the best of me.

I have a sneaking suspicion I might be very bad at politics.

I just don’t see the issue with the coal terminal proposal in Surrey. Worse: I see a big issue with the coal terminal proposal in Surrey  but I don’t see that issue being meaningfully addressed in the current debate about the coal terminal proposal in Surrey, because I seem to care about the one issue few others seem to be concerned about.

For those who don’t leaf through the back pages of the Record or the NewsLeader, or don’t spend their evenings reading through reams of the reports attached to Council minutes (…which makes me curious about why such a person would be reading this… ehrm… Hi Mom!), the story thus far is thus:

Right across the river from New Westminster are Fraser Surrey Docks, you can see the ships and large blue cranes operating from the Quayside boardwalk. They move containers, logs, bulk agricultural products, steel, and assorted cargo on and off of boats and on and off of trucks and trains. Now they want to move coal off of trains onto barges. And apparently, some people are concerned about this for a variety of wrong reasons.

There is a lot of info about this proposed operation available here , including maps, diagrams, and the answers to most of the questions you might have. This will not be a situation like the Delta Port or Neptune Terminals in North Van, where there are large piles of coal being shuffled around. The plan is to move the coal directly from the trains to the barge, and ship it to a deep-sea transfer facility up on Texada Island, then to China. The on-site stockpile will (it appears) be small, and be under one of those big plastic Quonset hut style shelters.

From the looks of the Council Report and the newspaper stories, the local and regional concerns can be summed up as: the health effects of coal dust; increased diesel emissions from boats and trains; the risk related to coal spills into the river; and the general noise and view impacts for Quayside residents.

Most of these issues seem well addressed by the application. The plan is to do all the coal movement with covered conveyors and to use dust abatement measures that are industry practice in urbanized areas. These measures are notably more stringent than those currently used for the bulk agricultural products they move now- that yellow dust sometimes visible from the New West side of the river. Also, this new coal transfer activity will take place at the west end of the terminal, more across from the gi-normous Annacis Island Car Terminal where they unload thousands of cars from those gi-normous car carrier ships than across from the Quayside. The barges, during loading, will be more than 2 km downstream from the Quayside residents who have expressed the most vocal alarm about the project.

The risk of significant spill from the dock or the barges is small, but obviously not nil. That said, compared to moving many other cargoes (especially liquid fuels), coal is relatively stable and fairly easy to contain and clean up in the event of a spill. It would be a very bad day for the salmon in the river if that happened, no doubt, so there is some area to explore here for the local municipalities and agencies like FREMP, clearly an area for more discussion.

The elephant in the room, however, is hardly mentioned in these discussions. According to the Council Report, this coal facility is being planned to move up to 8 Million Tonnes of coal a year that (when burned) will generate about 48 Million Tonnes of CO2 annually. To put this in perspective the same Council meeting had a presentation on the City’s Community Energy and Emission Plan, which would see New Westminster’s 82,000 residents in the year 2030 producing less that 240,000 Tonnes of CO2 annually.

Not to put too fine a point on it: if both of these plans see the light of day this single port terminal will be directly responsible for 200 times the greenhouse gas emissions of the entire community of New Westminster!

So all of our energy conservation actions in the City, all of our appropriate, responsible, intelligent changes we are taking in the City – the sacrifices we are facing, investments we are making, even a few hard choices we may need to take, for all the right economic, ethical, and environmental reasons, will be meaningless in light of the impacts of that coal terminal.

This all arrived at the same time that this month’s Walrus Magazine arrived in my mailbox, with a remarkable piece written by New Westminster’s own Dr. Marc Jaccard that talks about his personal arc from academic to IPCC member to policy adviser to Stephen Harper’s minority government to Nobel Prize winner to being placed in the back of a paddy wagon by the RCMP for protesting the movement of coal through Canada’s ports. It is a great read, as Dr. Jaccard asks himself (and causes us to ask ourselves) what he was doing about the single most important environmental issue of our generation.  This from a guy who has dedicated his life to studying the problem, understanding the science and the economics, and bent the ear of some of the most powerful people in the world. Yet in the end, he felt he was not doing enough, and direct action was the only way he was going to be able to live with himself, or answer to his grandchildren for what we are doing now.

Yeah, I am contradicting myself again. I recently complained that unsustainable shark harvesting as not really being a City issue. This is not strictly a municipal issue, and the Port seems to think the “big issue” of Climate Change impacts is not even Port jurisdiction. This issue, I think, its too important for every single jurisdiction to not take it on. A 450ppm world will not be comfortable for those people living on the Quayside.

The Port is wrong. They are profiting in the trade of a commodity that is causing global catastrophe  It is killing people, and they are part of that supply chain that supports that. For them to say “Hey, we just move the stuff, not up to us to question what we move – none of our business!” is morally bankrupt. We don’t burn Coal in BC, for good reasons, but we are comfortable exporting it to places that do. How is this different than our unethical asbestos trade?

Much more than a few people concerned about how the noise of an operating port 2 km from their waterfront home will impact their property values, I think we need to be asking ourselves why we are supporting the rapid extraction and combustion of coal in the year 2012? And if burning that coal is OK with us, if folks profiting from its burning is OK with us, if the biggest concerns we have about this is the noise of distant conveyors or dust on the horizon, why the fuck are we even bothering with a Community Energy and Emission Plan!?

Sorry for the potty mouth, Mom, but it had to be said.

The Return of Green Drinks

Sorry I haven’t rapped at ya recently, but I have been busy. Work is crazy, a few volunteer things are coming to a head right now, spent a few days trapped outside of New Westminster, attended a massively fun Pecha Kucha event, and am generally enjoying the hell out of life.

I do want to make a quick point, though: GreenDrinks is coming back to New Westminster!

For those out of the loop, GreenDrinks is an international local event. The idea is that people interested in Environmental and Sustainability issues get together once a month or so, and have a casual social and networking event. There isn’t an agenda, there isn’t a formal meeting, or any real formal structure: the idea is to just bring people together and see what arises!

Although lacking that formal structure, this isn’t completely anarchy. GreenDrinks is part of a great international tradition. There are GreenDrinks events everywhere from Argentina to Vietnam, from Perth to Vancouver. All are related in name, spirit, and “The Code”.

It is sometimes amazing what arises. Many of the things the NWEP have done in the past have grown from tossed-around ideas at GreenDrinks, and new friendships and partnerships have grown from these events. For a variety of reasons, monthly GreenDrinks stopped in New West a little more than a year ago, but a crew of people have stepped up to get the event operating again, and the first draft (so to speak) is next week!

There is no charge, no stress, all we ask is that you are willing to get into a conversation, meet someone new, bring your ideas and opinions, and bring a sense of humour. We’ll put name tags on you to make introductions easy, and we will have a conversation starter around the break any ice that might develop. People will start arriving around 6:30, and it will continue until the last person leaves (but hey, it’s a school night – so don’t wait until midnight, you might miss the best stuff!)

New West has the perfect location: the Back Room at The Heritage Grill allows semi-privacy, a great menu, drinks for those who would like them, while being open and inviting to people who don’t want to drink (or are not yet 19 – it is a Restaurant, not a Pub!). Oh, and cool tunes out front later in the night.

So if you need an excuse to be social, are interested in environment and sustainability issues, or think you might have an idea that people should hear about, come by GreenDrinks. Who knows what will develop?

Annus horribilis

It is the time of year when the media take their annual look back at the year in review. As I am enjoying a short vacation (notably in a place a healthy distance south of New Westminster), I am less immersed in every day life and find myself looking back as well, but I’m afraid looking back doesn’t fill me with joy. Instead, I find myself thinking of 2012 as annus horribilis for the issue I am most concerned about: environmental sustainability.

Nationally, that began with Bill C-38. The least open and accountable government in Canadian History (and that is saying something coming out of the Chretien years) created a 425 page “Budget Bill” that featured a dozen pages on budget issues wrapped in a lengthy, complicated, and harmful disassembly of decades of environmental law.

How bad was it?

They ripped the bottom out of the Fisheries Act: the single strongest piece of environmental protection law the country had. This is (was) the law around which all other laws protecting the quality of Canada’s water were structured. The CCME Water Quality Guidelines, the Provincial Fish Protection Act, the Provincial Environmental Management Act, Municipal Riparian Areas Regulations, (and more) are all structured around the basic protections of water quality and habitat protection afforded by the Fisheries Act. The Harper Government(tm) ripped this fundamental law apart so suddenly and inexplicably that even the Government’s own scientists have yet to understand what the loss of habitat protection means. They left the professionals tasked with applying the laws completely in the dark about what the changes mean, while concurrently firing all of the Government staff who might provide the guidance. They did this just before the report from the Cohen Commission was released, knowing full well it was going to suggest that the Fisheries Act needed to strengthen, not weaken, fish protection.

That was bad enough, but they did the same thing (again completely without consulting the public, their own scientists, or the practicing professionals working with the regulations) with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (reducing by 90% the number of major projects requiring any environmental planning at all). They scuppered the law that made it illegal for them to break an international agreement (The Kyoto Protocol); they opened up the coincidently ice-free arctic to oil and gas drilling while giving the National Energy Board the only power of oversight over this monumental policy change and not actually asking any of the locals; they also gave the National Energy Board the power to deem which species qualify for protection under the Species at Risk Act; disbanded the National Roundtable on Environment and the Economy (because god forbid we have a rational discussion between environmental professionals and industry about developing business responsibly); specifically exempted pipelines from the Navigable Waters Protections Act; along with several other goodies.

All this under the guise of a “Budget”, and all without any public discussion. One might argue the Act went to committee and there was discussion in Parliament before it was passed, and that constitutes “discussion”. However, not a single amendment was made to the original bill as written – 425 pages modifying a dozen other pieces of legislation that fundamentally changed how the environment is protected across the nation, and it was apparently perfect on the first draft, at least according to the Harper Government(tm).

Then, after all the negative press (even the National Post, the Conservative house paper, called the Omnibus Bill “Illegitimate” and spoke of “fundamental issues of Parliamentary government”), after the outcry from the opposition, former Parliamentarians from both sides of the aisle, and the public, the Harper Government(tm) doubled down with Bill C-45, which further reduced protection of lakes and rivers in Canada, causing the government to shirk it’s constitutionally-mandated responsibility (in other words, Provinces cannot even legallly step in an provide the protection the Feds have stripped).

Aside from Omnibus nuke-the-environment bills, the Federal government has also made some dubious decisions regarding our nation’s ability to protectant exploit its non-renewable resources. They continue to float the idea of signing a free trade agreement with China which doesn’t specifically permit Chinese-owned companies to operate in Canada without following Canadian environmental laws, but it may allow them to sue the Canadian Taxpayers for lost profit caused by following those laws. The race to the bottom has never been so clear.

I’m not as concerned as some about the Nexen takeover by CNOOC, but when you combine that takeover with the increasing interest in Canadian hydrocarbons from state-owned oil companies from Japan to Korea to Malaysia, one has to wonder if Canada is the only nation that is specifically exempt from owning Canadian Oil and Gas. Yes, I am going there: It is time for National Energy Program 2. If all of our customer countries are doing it on our own soil, it is getting tough to argue it will make us uncompetitive…

However, the Harper Government(tm) doesn’t want to openly discuss these important issues any more than they want to discuss changes in the Fisheries Act.

“In spite of all the very important deals and the billions of dollars of contracts we signed this week, more people in Canada will notice the pandas than anything else.” Stephen Harper to Bo Xilai during a trip to China.

The 2012 story was not much better locally in New Westminster.

The opening of the replacement Port Mann Bridge produced the centre-piece for the $5 Billion subsidy to unsustainable urban planning that is the Gateway Program. Assuring that car-oriented development, traffic quagmires, air pollution, and erosion of livability will continue South of the Fraser of another generation. The minor damage done to a couple of dozen cars by falling ice is an irrelevant distraction compared to the long-term damage that bridge will do to our City.

Especially when put into the context of the ongoing standoff over TransLink funding, where our idiotic-looking Provincial Government is battling the moronic-acting Mayors’ Council over 0.6% of that amount of money to keep our Regional Transit System operating at it’s current level of service. The idea of growing the Transit System to meet the needs of the growing community, and the growing number of people actually using the already inadequate system, is apparently off the table for now. Instead of addressing this issue, the Mayors of our biggest communities bitch and grumble over which rapid transit line should be built next, while ignoring the fact that the one promised to the Northeast Sector almost 20 years ago has still not been built! We can build three freeways at the same time in BC, but ask the same people to build two transit lines at the same time, and that is apparently beyond our engineering capacity.

Meanwhile, the Left Coast of Canada is quickly becoming the new Persian Gulf, as the only industry our Governments deem worthy of investment is the putting of hydrocarbons (be they coal, bitumen, or methane) onto boats to ply the stormy seas of volatile international energy markets. Considering what our planned contributions to Greenhouse Gas Emissions are from these projects alone, I hope they’re building those ports well up the hill from today’s tidewater.

Cazart.

Despite all of this, there was some good news. Despite the Harper Government(tm) attempts to derail all environmental oversight, the push-back over the Enbridge Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan Pipelines are aligning disparate citizens’ groups toward a common cause: assuring their is environmental oversight and public discussion of major projects, even if the Government doesn’t want it. As a result, the ongoing coordinated media blitz between the Oil and Gas Industry, the Provincial and Federal Governments, is being seen for what it is: a cheap sales job paid for by taxpayers to sell them an idea that might be a bad one for them (even if it is a good one for the oil companies eking the last bit of profit out of their 20th Century business models).

These projects, and the failure of the Federal Government in its constitutional responsibilities, are leading to what may turn out to be the most important national political action by First Nations since Elijah Harper held a feather up to Meech Lake. The epicentre may be Attawapiskat, but the real battle will be in Ottawa and Kitimat, and it refreshes me to know that the one group in Canada that has so consistently been marginalized by official proclamation will be Idle No More.

Locally, things are also looking up. TransLink’s rush to expand the Pattullo Bridge has slowed down as they seek more consultation from New Westminster and Surrey, and they re-assess their budget and the alleged need for more bridge capacity connecting King George to McBride. Meanwhile, New Westminster’s Master Transportation Plan consultations showed the people in New Westminster want the City to set aggressive goals towards reducing traffic load on our City, and with EnVision2032, City Hall is taking steps to integrate Sustainability into all future City planning and activities.

however, if There was one dominant “Good News” story for the Environment in this annus horribilis, it was the emergence of Elizabeth May, Parliamentarian. Every day she was in the House (and she was there every day it sat), she demonstrated what a Member in a parliamentary representative democracy should be. She proved that a lone member from a fringe party can represent, and that perhaps it is time for us to stop relying on the “established” parties to represent us, when they really only represent their party, when instead we should be choosing the individual who will fight the good fight in the House.

You should read the speech excerpted in that link above. It is a compelling plea for democracy and the traditions of parliament that once made Canada a model for the world, a place where rule of law, honest discussion and diplomacy was the way to solve problems. Where people didn’t need to fight for our freedoms, but negotiated them like civilized people. People often forget our nation confederated over a table, we didn’t fight a bloody revolution. We did all of our fighting for freedoms in other countries, like France and the Netherlands and Korea and Cyprus and Bosnia, hoping that others would enjoy the freedoms we won through peaceful negotiation. Here at home, compromise and understanding were not evils to be avoided, but were the way we got things done. And I’m proud of the country that approach built…

…but I may be getting ahead of myself a bit here. We lost some things in 2012, I’m not sure if we will know their impact for years to come, but Canada is still here, and BC is still here, and New Westminster is still here, and they are still the best places to live (in my sometimes-humble opinion).

So for the environment, 2012 was annus horribilis. As a proud Canadian, that only renews my energy and drive to do better in 2013.

Happy New Year.

Defining your terms

I’m going a little more philosophical than I usually do here, but I have been attending some, for lack of a better term, “political” events recently, and they got me to thinking.
I am (I think) in a fortunate position that I don’t belong to a political party and don’t have strong political allegiances. I like the work that is done by our two local MPs, and I think they represent our community well, but that has little to do with the Party they belong to. I suspect Diana Dilworth would have also been a great representative, given the opportunity to do that. I also think we have two (sorry Mr. Forseth) very good candidates for MLA in the upcoming elections here in New West (although I have yet to challenge each of them on their weaknesses… and that’s between me and them and the ballot).
I have said it before, the issues I care the most about right now (environmental sustainability, municipal infrastructure and transportation, social responsibility, science-based policy development) are issues that every party should address in their platforms, and issues no single party “owns”. I also believe in pre-Chrétien/Harper representative democracy, where the local elected official represents the region to the  House of Commons, not where the local official stands only to bring missives from the PMO to their electorate. So I am kind of a socially-progressive, economically-moderate, environmentalist, policy-wonk rationalist Preston Manning style democrat, if that makes any sense.
With that extended caveat, I want to address two terms I have been hearing a lot recently. They were prominent during the recent USelection, and seem to be featured in assigned talking points for the upcoming BC Election. Both are so poorly defined as to be meaningless, and I cringe whenever I hear them used in discussion. So I am going to throw them out there right now and now you will hear them in every speech you hear between now and May. I may set up a drinking game around them.
They are “Free Enterprise” and “Socialism”.
Some people would have you believe that these are two separate things: two ends of a spectrum so far distant that we must choose which we to abolish and which we must embrace to summon forth a new land of prosperity. I call bullshit on the whole lot of it, starting with the lack of definition of the terms.
They both have definitions, of course, but the definitions you might find in the dictionary are far from the way they are bring applied in rhetoric in 2012.
As the BC Liberals and BC Conservatives clamour over each other to prove themselves the more “Free Enterprise” party, I’m not even sure what that means, and who (other than the Marxist-Leninist Party, I guess) is against “Free Enterprise”. We all believe that businesses should be free to operate within a fair and accountable regulatory regime. We also agree that business operates best when there are regulations around how they operate. As an extreme example, no-one wants a “Heroin-R-Us” store to open up next door, or for weapons to be sold in unregulated booths on street corners. Less extreme examples are the (relatively tight) regulations that protected Canada’s banks from making the risky bets that caused the recent global economic collapse.
“Free Enterprise” does not mean a complete lack or regulations. Actually, there can be no such thing as business unless there is something called “property”, and “property” is defined by the law – we need laws for business to prosper. What we don’t need are unfair or non-transparent laws.
Every Party (again, I might except the Marxist-Leninists and their pals the Libertarians) wants to have well regulated business regime where entrepreneurs can prosper and employ people. To not want that is not rational. We only differ about the process to get there.
“Socialist” has the opposite problem: every Party (again, possibly excepting Libertarians, who limit their socialist leanings to the armed forces) is socialist. I look out at that shiny new $3.3 Billion Port Mann bridge, at the $2 Billion South Fraser Perimeter Road under it, at every single school I pass on my bike ride to work, at the bike lane I ride that bike on, the cop pulling me over for running a stop sign on my bike and the court system where I could defend myself and I see socialism. They are all examples of citizens being forced through law and taxation to pool their “heard earned” money to set up a state-run enterprise for the greater good.
There is no front-line party now arguing that socialism will end under their rule: none are talking about dismantling the public school system, ending the collecting of royalties for natural resource extraction, privatizing the hospitals and fire departments, or turning the police department and the armed forces over to Haliburton. If someone runs “against the socialists” that is someone you should fear – they want to disassemble the very structure of society that separates Canadafrom place without a functioning government, like (alas) Mali.
But that’s not what they mean. They define “socialism” as some sort of vague combination of taxes and labour unions. I know that “Special interests groups” are involved as well, but I’m not sure if that includes the Chamber of Commerce.
Or maybe I just don’t get politics.

So as we enter the election season, (yes, it will be a painfully long campaign leading up to May 2013, such if fixed election dates) I hope that more people, when a candidate uses a term like “Free Enterprise”, “Socialist”, or even “Special Interest Group” or “Big Business”, you ask them to define their terms*. You might be thinking something different than they are.

*My favourite retort when someone asks “Do you believe in God?” is “You will have to define at least two of those words”. It usually allows me to avoid a conversation that will satisfy no-one. .    

on the Shark Fin Soup Bylaw

This Monday New Westminster City Council is going to attack one of the great environmental issues of the day: the unsustainable harvesting of sharks for their fins.

These fins, when boiled long enough to get the urea stink out, dried, powdered, and added to soup, provide a certain gelatinous texture that apparently proves your wealth and success in some cultures. Their harvest from depleted shark populations is one of those long-standing environmental concerns that has only come to popular knowledge due to recent video-recorded cruelty to charismatic megafauna, and it is a certain cause celebre these days. I really have no problem with that.

One only has to look at the long list of animals endangered or made extinct because someone claimed eating bits of them will give you an erection to see just how asinine humans are in the collective, and how easy it is for a protected cultural belief to result in the decimation of an ecosystem. Sharks are important animals in the ocean, and just as banning the global ivory trade is an important step in protecting the elephants, banning shark fin may play a role in protecting endangered sharks. So ending the popularity of shark fin soup is probably a good thing.

In fact, a professional organization I work with, the Environmental Managers Association of BC awarded a grant a few months ago to a grass-roots organization called SharkTruth, who work to raise awareness at the consumer level about shark fin soup and the associated unsustainable harvesting of sharks. I fully supported this choice for a grant recipient, because I agree with their cause and the approach that group takes (if you care about this issue, please think about helping them out!).

So why am I against a Shark Fin Bylaw?

Ultimately, it is the Federal Government who (through a document called the Constitution Act of 1982) has the mandate and the responsibility to protect the oceans around Canada and the fishes within. It is also the sole level of government empowered to negotiate and sign international agreements like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna. It is also empowered to prevent the import and sale of things like ivory, rhino horn, tiger gall bladders, or whatever is getting sick old men up these days.

This is not a job that municipalities should, or even can, do. Do we imagine Bylaw officers inspecting the backs of restaurants for signs of shark fin? De we expect that offending soup is confiscated by a Bylaw officer, taken to a lab for analysis to determine if it indeed contained shark fin and not the much cheaper alternative (gelatin, which is kind of gross when you know what it is, but at least it is a by-product of meat possessing and can be sourced sustainably), then spend 6 months putting the case together to take the Restaurant Owner to court to recover a $1000 fine? Is this how you want your property tax dollars spent?

Of course it will never happen. The Restaurants will take Shark Fin off their menu (talk on the street is that the Starlight Casino hosts the only restaurant in town that sells shark fin soup) and, if they are unscrupulous, will continue to sell it in a hush-hush kind of way for special events only, and no money will be spent on enforcement at all.

So what purpose the Bylaw? To “shame” the restaurants into hiding their shark fins? To show support for a noble cause? I hate to be the guy who says this: but doesn’t the City have bigger environmental responsibility fights to put their energy into – ones they actually have the jurisdiction to do something about?

It has taken only a couple of months for this idea to come to the City, and for a Bylaw to see third reading. Meanwhile, it has been 18 months – a year and a half- since I went to Council to remind them that we are one of the few municipalities in the Lower Mainland that does not have a Tree Protection Bylaw. In June of 2011, Council resolved the following:

“WHEREAS trees are essential to air quality, esthetics and quality of life;
BE IT RESOLVED THAT New Westminster develop a Tree Retention / Removal Bylaw for both public and private property.”

…and we have not had a single update on progress towards that Bylaw in a year anda half.

Protecting the trees in our neighbourhoods is something our City Council has the power and the jurisdiction to do. Saving sharks in the East China Sea is both outside of their jurisdiction and beyond their powers. So, why is there a rush to do the second and no interest in doing the first?

Yes, the worldwide decimation of shark populations and the trade in shark fins is a legitimate concern. The City can (without a Bylaw) express their support for the banning of shark fin imports- it can even choose to publicly shame businesses that choose to serve it, or refuse them a business licence (as they threatened to do recently with a legal medical marijuana dispensary). But to what end?
For the Feds to deal with this issue domestically, it would only require an update of the Species List under the CITES Act to include those species of sharks that are used for fin trade: it wouldn’t even require a new piece of legislation. No debate, no committee work, just a feat of Ministerial signature would get it done. The necessary inspection and enforcement procedures are already in place, and it would allow Canada to be one of the leaders internationally in the protection of sharks in the world’s oceans (wouldn’t it be nice to once again be the leader in something positive?).

My MP has already been outspoken on this issue, the Minister of Fisheries isn’t really interested in dealing with the issue, nor is the Federal Minister of (cough) Environment. This, however, is the only place where useful action on this issue can happen. Supporting Fin Donnelly to get action at the Federal Level and, in turn, the International Level is the appropriate way to address this issue under the Constitution of Canada.

Then City Council and Staff can stop wasting their time, and get on with that 18-month old resolution to start protecting trees in the City.

All the Good News that Fits

Proving that there are two ways to look at any story, it has been interesting to watch the news coming out of this recent report by the International Energy Agency.

The story on the CBC, that bastion of left-wing thought, was positively glowing for the future of oil and gas. The US will be the world’s largest hydrocarbon producer by 2020, and completely energy independent by 2035. The only problem they forsee for Canada is that we will be producing so much oil and gas in Canada in the next decade that we will outstrip our ability to burn it or export it.

Few stories, however, talked about the other half of the IEA report. I pick a few relevant quotes from the Executive summary:

“Taking all new developments and policies into account, the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path. Fossil fuels remain dominant in the global energy mix, supported by subsidies that amounted to $523 billion in 2011, up almost 30% on 2010 and six times more than subsidies to renewables.”

So we are pulling too much carbon out of the ground, too fast, and government policies are specifically designed to mainline this unattainable status quo, not working to fix the inherent problem with this.

What inherent problem? How about these quotes:

“Successive editions of this report have shown that the climate goal of limiting warming to 2 °C is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes. No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal. Emissions correspond to a long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6 °C.”

Now compare this to the most “alarmist” of IPCC predictions, and you can see that the International Energy Agency is predicting something like twice the warming than the average of the IPCC models over the next 4 decades. Yet this part didn’t even make the news.

We can pull more carbon out of the ground that we know what to do with, and we know doing that will cause unintented catastrophe. Its like we have some kind  of Obsessive Compulsive Oil Extraction Disorder.
Note – we don’t have to leave that carbon in the ground forever. The climate change thing isn’t about how much gas, oil and coal we burn, it is about the rate at which we burn it. To avoid catastrophe, we don’t need to stop using hydrocarbons, we need to slow down until the biosphere can catch up, or until we invent some sort of practical and realistic sequestration technology (which the IEA notes we are not actually inventing anywhere near fast enough). If we leave it in the ground, it will always be there. It is already so valuable for everything from plastic to chemicals to medicine that it is frankly baffling that we still waste so much of it on simple combustion – but that’s another whinge.

So we have a choice- we can rush to exploit the Bitumen Sands faster than we can burn and export it, or we can do it slowly, keep as much in the ground as long as possible, and extract more value out of every tonne of carbon extracted.

If we take the fast-and-cheap route, we will run out faster, make less per tonne, and threaten the most expensive infrastructure we have – our coastal cities (see New York and Venice). Not to mention the homes of hundreds of millions of people, and entire marginal ecosystems. Then we will leave the future generation the problem of abandoning those cities or investing massively in energy-intensive plans to save them- after we have already spent all of the easy money and burned off all of their cheap energy.

Try explaining that to your children, who I assume you hope will be alive in 2050, even after you are in the ground. That is why Anthropogenic Global Warming isn’t a science problem or a political problem, it is an ethical problem.

My 12 minutes of EnVisioning

The City of New Westminster kicked off their Integrated Community Sustainability Plan process – called EnVision2032 – this weekend with a two-day Sustainability event.

Saturday, there were more than 100 people in a room discussing a variety of topics, and workshopping ideas about what a more sustainable New Westminster will look like in 20 years – the planning horizon for EnVision2032. There were lively and interesting discussions, and a broad set of ideas and principles were discussed. This is only the start of a long planning process, but I think the attendees gave City Staff a good foundation upon which they can build the plan.

This followed the Friday night “inspiration” event, when the planning process was outlined, and some motivation was provided through a half-dozen speakers and a couple of video shorts. I was honoured to be one of the speakers, providing a 10-minute case for environmental sustainability and community engagement. There were accomplished community leaders on the agenda, so I kept my remarks short and light to get out of their way – the comedy relief of the evening if you will. Since I talked fast and pared it down to fit in 12 minutes of my allotted 10, I figured I would expand a bit on the speech here, with the images I used.

The following is a slightly extended version of my 10 (+2) minutes on the stage – with parts I edited out on the spot to make my allotted time.

So I care about Environmental Sustainability, for somewhat selfish reasons. I kind of like the environment the way it is. Being someone who studied ancient climates on the geologic scale in my academic life, I recognize that the biosphere has changed remarkably over the 4 billion years of life on Earth. But the environment of the last 100,000 years, the environment where humans prospered and developed things like “society” and “the economy” has been remarkable stable. Until now.

There is no reason to believe the rapid changes we are seeing now in the biosphere, from the atmosphere to the ocean to the forests, will benefit the prosperity of humans. So why are we changing it?

When an environmentalist like me comes to a mixed crowd and says we need to drive less, burn less oil and coal, use less electricity, rely more on local and seasonal food, account for the pollution we cause, etc., it is usually seen as anti-progress. The recommended “heckler” response is:

“You Suzuki types won’t be happy until we are all living in caves using candles and eating cockroaches!”

I hope to demonstrate the exact opposite is true. And to do that, I want to invoke this guy:

Who worked as an economic adviser to this dirty hippie:

…and had a son who turned in to this guy:

But back when Herbert Stein was working for that Maoist hippie commune called the American Enterprise Institute, he coined an economic truism that was so new, so profound, and so important, it became known a Steins Law:

“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop,”

When coined, Stein was talking about balance of payment deficits – and he was arguing for laissez-faire free market capitalism. In a free market, deficits cannot go on forever, so we don’t need to take action to stop them, they will stop of their own accord. (note at the time, the cumulative US debt was about $300 Billion, it is now approaching $13 Trillion).The same could of course be said of ballooning housing prices and irresponsible mortgage practices in the US in the mid 2000s. They were unsustainable, so in 2008 they stopped.

In that sense, Steins Law might be the greatest statement ever made about “Sustainability” since Bruntlund went to the UN. Stein would have said we don’t need to worry about burning the last of our oil, we don’t need to worry about removing fish from the sea faster than they can reproduce, we don’t need to worry about putting more CO2 in the atmosphere than planetary biosystems can remove… all of these things will stop eventually. The question is whether we, as a society and as an economy, decide when that stop happens, or if we just sit around and face the cold shock of it happening.

Now, a common response to this is that Malthus was wrong. Technology will come the rescue, it always has. If we run out of oil we will use natural gas; if we run out of natural gas, we will use nuclear; if we run out of uranium, we will develop fusion – the technifix is there.

The simplest answer to this approach is that it ignores that existence of fixed limits to the environment, regardless of technology. I am going to use energy use for the example, partly because I believe energy use is the #1 environmental issue on the planet today, the one all of our other issues, economic, social, or environmental, stem from, and partly because someone else already did the math for me.

Energy use over the last 400 years, on a global scale, has increased exponentially at a pretty constant rate. Through the transitions from wood and animal power to coal and steam then electricity, kerosene, refined petroleum, and nuclear energy – this gate of growth has been pretty constant. Plotted on a logarithmic scale, it is a flat line showing constant growth.

For the fun of it (and partly to demonstrate the fallacy of projecting too far into the future), Dr. Murphy projected this rate of energy use growth into the future, with hilarious results:

Note that only 400 years from now, we will need to tap 100% of the energy the planet receives from the sun. That would require 100% efficient solar panels on every square inch of the earth’s surface. A thousand years from then we will need to tap the entire energy supply of the sun. On the scale of “societies” and “economies”, 400 years is not that long a time… there are buildings built by Europeans here on the North American continent that are almost 400 years old…

Ok, the technofix to the rescue again, Why rely on the sun? In 400 years, we will use Cold Fusion or Zero Point Energy or tap the limitless energy of fairy wings. However, there are other limits. Whenever you use energy, you create heat. There is no getting around the Second law of Thermodynamics. Whenever we use energy to do something, lift a book, drive a car, smelt some steel, we create heat. The cumulative heat of this energy use is “sunk” to the biosphere. At this point, we slightly increase the heat of the planet through fossil fuel and nuclear power- much less than a degree (separate than “Global Warming” and other feedback effects, this is literally converting other types of energy to heat that must be dissipated). If we continue to grow energy use at current rates, the average temperature of the planet’s surface will double in less than 400 years. And in about 450 years, the average surface temperature on Earth will be at the boiling point of water.

Don’t worry, this can’t actually happen, as every multi-cellular form of life on the planet will be long dead – the temperature cannot continue to increase, it will stop. Just like Ben Stein’s dad told Nixon.

So, again, the question we need to ask ourselves- will we take the laissez-faire approach and leave the next generations to deal with the problem, or will we acknowledge this issue, take personal responsibility for this, and take it on now? I argue the second.

OK, if we agree that we need to do something, what to do? How do we get there? How do we get there? How do we engage and change the narrative applied to us?

Of course, you can just change things in your life. You can buy a Prius, or even stop driving altogether. You can grow your own food in your back yard, you can build a rammed-earth house with ground-source geothermal, passive solar and photovoltaics and a composting toilet and live off the grid. But that won’t change the world, because the guy living next door to you just bought an F-450 Super Duty with a 7-litre diesel for hauling his boat out the lake every weekend so he can “rip-it up”.

This isn’t going to work. To change the world, we need leaders to make the hard choices. As engaged, concerned citizens, it is up to us to empower our elected officials to make those hard decisions. Beyond choosing how we vote, we can arm them with information, we can voice our support, and we can ask them tough questions that force then to think differently.

That is what the NWEP does – and why I want to talk about the NWEP model as an example of positive engagement towards sustainability. We engage citizens and decision makers on issues around sustainability.

We reach out, as a collective, to the City and the community to move ideas forward. We run events that raise public awareness. We delegate to City Council and take part in City committees, to assure Sustainability is always a part of the conversation within the City. We reach out to City staff and share ideas, try to understand their challenges and provide solutions. We delegate to council and have less-formal discussions with elected officials, to again increase understanding on both sides, and to hopefully clear-up misconceptions about what “Sustainability” means, and about the value of a healthy environment.

We don’t protest. OK, we usually don’t protest.

Protesting can be a divisive activity- it calls into question decisions that are being made in the most aggressive way, and can put people who made decisions on the defensive. We would rather, collectively, take part in a constructive conversation and use personal conversations, the power of ideas and constructive criticism, and humour, to bring peoples’ thinking to a place where hard decisions become obvious decisions.

How do we apply this in an urban setting? What are our Sustainability goals in a developed City? The same as in other settings: reducing our externalities. Less energy in, less waste out, and creating efficiency in our internal systems.

Energy has obvious implications in New West. This City is uniquely empowered (pun) to take control of its electrical energy consumption, as we own our own electrical utility.

So where is our co-generation program? Where are our roof-top photovoltaics across our expansive south-facing slopes? Where are our small turbines? Where is our sewer heat recovery, or groundsource geothermal, our riversource geothermal?

Here is a picture of Nelson, in the West Kootenay, similar to New West in that it is full of old, inefficient, but historic buildings and it operates its own energy utility. Nelson has introduced a municipal ecosave program, where you can pay the capital cost for efficiency upgrades to your house through the savings in your power bill. This is on top of the rapidly-disappearing Federal and Provincial programs – an example of a City moving forward.
Note also the Solar Colwood program introduced by one of the earlier speakers tonight)

Waste is another area where municipalities can make tough choices. I could go on at length about the successes of the City’s solid waste diversion plans, compost-promotion and green organic waste collection system. Good news all around.

…but I could also go on at length about how burning trash for energy is inherently as unsustainable as burning coal. Its cheaper, it is easier, and it carries a certain “green” patina: it may be socially acceptable and economically prudent at this time, but it ain’t sustainable. We need to think better – and may soon need to make a tough choice here.

What about those internal systems? Places where the Urban Environment can put back, improve the world’s overall sustainability?

One example is protecting and promoting the Urban Forest- trees in the City provide remarkable benefits from reduced heating and cooling energy use to improved storm water retention, air quality improvements, habitat protection for birds and other animals. Protecting and promoting trees is an easy choice.

Living in denser, more diverse communities mean we spend less time and energy travelling between home, work, and play. This is why your average New Westminster resident drives less than your average Kelowna resident, or even your average Langley resident – this is a tangible benefit well-planned dense urban environments can provide- a “value added” to the environment.

There are harder questions I could raise. Try this: go up to any Federal or Provincial candidate and ask them when their party is going to offer a Zero-growth economic model as part of their platform. It’s inevitable that economic growth will stop. It has to, just ask Ben Stein’s father. The question is how it stops.

Can we empower our elected officials enough that they can admit this during an election cycle?

Are we going to plan a sustainable future now, when resources are still relatively plentiful and we can still have the most comfortable sustainable future possible? Or will we wait until resources are so decimated, that we are scrapping for what we can get? I don’t want to live in a cave cooking roaches over a candle- which is why we need to start now- actually we needed to start yesterday, making the choices that will protect our resources, protect our society and our economy- protect the environment that has allowed us to build this comfortable lifestyle.

Livable cities are part of the solution – and we are just getting started!

EnVision2032 this weekend!

The NWEP AGM went very well. There were four departing board members, we refreshed with three new board members and a fourth person is returning to the board after a one-year hiatus. It is good to have a combination of old and new ideas, and I look forward to working with the new team (which should give you the hint about who the returning-after-a-hiatus person is).

Speaking at the AGM were Mark Allison, who is a Senior Planner for the City of New Westminster, and Ann Rowan, a Senior Policy Analyst for our regional government, MetroVancouver. They spoke of community engagement and how individuals and organizations can make a difference in their community.

There were two big ideas I took away from the discussions.

First (to paraphrase Mark), when it comes to community planning and municipal government the decisions are generally made by “those that show up”. At open houses, at council delegations, at community meetings and advisory councils. Those that take an active part in the discussion are the only ones whose voices will be heard in the discussions.

Second (to paraphrase Ann), there are easy things individuals can do to improve the situation in the world from a sustainability standpoint: drive less, live in a more efficient house, conserve energy, buy local food, and generally buy less. However, talking to politicians is also one of those things, and it is one that it is often easier for groups to do than individuals. Bringing ideas to, sharing knowledge with, and providing support for the elected types is an important way to empower them to make the right decisions.

I’m glad to say: these are two things the NWEP does well locally.

This is what I hope to talk about (if I ever get a speech written….) at the City of New Westminster’s Envision2032 event this Friday. Besides taking part in the Saturday workshop (see “showing up” above), I am taking part in the Friday night social – an inspirational event where people who work or advocate in Sustainability Planning will talk the talk, hoping to inspire the Saturday participants to walk the walk on Saturday.

Yep, another “City Consultation” process for yet, another “Plan”. But I hope to emphasise that the Integrated Community Sustainability Plan is the big one. This is the over-arching set of community standards and goals that will inform subsequent Official Community Plans, Master Transportation Plans, Local Area Plans, Affordable Housing Plans, etc. etc. Once approved in 2013, the ICSP will provide guidance for the next generation of community development. How will we grow? How will we manage the volatility in world energy markets? How will we care for the homeless and the economically disenfranchised? How will we prioritize our taxation and spending? This Plan will set the stage upon which our City’s resurgence will play out. Take it from the City’s Sustainability Planner– this is a rather big deal.

If you live in New West, own property in New West, run a business or work in New West, you might want to drop by on Saturday and spend a couple of hours helping to sketch out that plan. This is your opportunity to show up, and your opportunity to speak to politicians: in other words, your opportunity to make the change you want to see happen.

You need to register before Thursday, mostly because they need to know how much lunch to order. Yes, if you spend a couple of hours on rainy Saturday when there is no Hockey on TV helping out the City – your City– you will get a free lunch!

Also, show up Friday night for the inspiration event, and find out if I ever got a speech written. I’m thinking of talking about this guy’s contribution to Sustainability thinking:

 

Building Community – THE NWEP AGM

Monday night is the Annual General Meeting of the New Westminster Environmental Partners, an organization which, when I speak about it, I must declare my bias. I’m a member, was the President of the NWEP for two years, and I still take an active role in many NWEP initiatives. So, yeah, I’m going to the AGM, and hope some of you will as well.

Sometimes the NWEP is out at community events, manning the booth as in the photo above, and people ask what we do. The quick answer is “lots”.

It can be summarized in our Mission:

To work with residents, businesses, and government agencies within the city, as well as regional (locally connected) environmental groups, to achieve environmental, social and economic sustainability in New Westminster through the identification of issues, education, public advocacy, the promotion of best practices, and the implementation of effective projects.

But that doesn’t really say what the NWEP does.

It was a group of NWEP folks a few years ago who found a common interest in seeing a Farmers Market in New Westminster – and the RCFM was built. Another group of people got together at an NWEP meeting, lamenting the lack of Community gardens in New Westminster, and from those seeds the New Westminster Community Gardening Society grew. When one of our more astounding volunteer members saw a niche for Documentary Films in New West, he got a group together, and with NWEP help, started the New West Doc Fest.

All of these organizations are up and running outside of the envelope of the NWEP, and all credit goes to those organizations and their volunteers for the successes they have seen in the last couple of years. The role of the NWEP is not to run organizations like this, or even to take credit for them, but to bring people together so that these types of things can ferment in the City.

The NWEP has also spent a lot of time engaging the public and decision-makers on issues of sustainability. We lobbied the City effectively during the transition to automated trash collection and organics separation, then worked with the City and MetroVancouver to outreach at community events to prepare people for the transition. We were up front on the UBE issue, and continue to follow the ongoing saga of the Pattullo Bridge replacement.

We also have also brought the potential decision makers together with voters in a couple of very popular “All Candidates Meet & Greets” during the previous couple of elections (I love how the first word on that poster is a typo – volunteers!), and working with our friends at Tenth to the Fraser, we brought the subject of “Sustainability” (plagiarized or not) to the last municipal election. More recently some of our volunteers have organized a couple of massively-successful Shoreline Cleanups in Queensborough, with invaluable assitance from the City.

All this with a few volunteers and a bank account that rarely sees three figures.

So I am hoping I make the case that the NWEP is a force towards good in the City, and something you should support. So what does “support” look like?

#1: Go to the AGM Monday. There will be a couple of great speakers talking about, of all things, sustainability and community engagement. It will be a fun, social evening, the talks will be informative and relatively brief, and we will have lots of time to meet and greet, hang out, and talk City.

#2: Join the NWEP. It costs you $5, but it provides the group the ability to speak with a louder voice, and to draw on a larger group of volunteers when need arises. Many hands make light work.

#3: Bring your ideas about what the City needs to be more sustainable. You might find some folks who share your interest, and are willing to work with you to see it happen. Or you might hear someone else’s idea, and decide you want to help with that. “Helping” can me as simple as bringing an idea, or providing a few hours of volunteer time and energy, or knowing a contact person to bring groups together under a common cause, or even just acting as a sounding board for ideas to tease out their viability.

Doesn’t that just sound like “building community”?