Environmental policy comes down to individuals

First published: May 05, 2007

Environmental issues can be overwhelming for government and for citizens. And, while policies are important, it is the actions of individuals on a hyper-local level that will turn the tide.

Port Hope council is about to debate a bylaw to stop people from leaving their cars or trucks running for more than three minutes. There are some limits: the temperature must not be freezing cold; and certain types of vehicles like ambulances, police cars, buses, farm equipment and the like will be exempt.

The town’s environmental advisory committee is pushing hard and it will be a real test for municipal politicians. People become passionate around these kinds of environmental issues. Think back to the pesticide debate or changes to the recycling program. For some, this is government intervening in the private life of citizens and it is not welcome. They just don’t like to be put out.

But, it is this kind of individual action that can be the most effective. In politics, it is assumed most citizens don’t get it. When issues or problems become complex or seem to be too large, the assumption is average people turn it off. That is why we get pandered to when an election campaign is on. Sound bites replace meaningful debate because politicians assume our attention span is no greater than a gnat.

What is particularly interesting is the way people like former United States vice-president Al Gore have captured the popular imagination with his Inconvenient Truth campaign. The combination of many factors converged to create a massive wave of public support for a pro-active agenda right now. Pollsters say the environment is a top issue. Just look at how Liberal leader Stephane Dion catapulted through the maze of contenders during the leadership campaign on his green message.

When the Conservatives came to power just over a year ago, green issues were not priorities, leaving them scrambling to find a compelling policy. Their first shot faced harsh criticism from the other side of the House of Commons and environmentalists. So, it was sent back to a bipartisan committee for some polish.

Then, early last week, Environment Minister John Baird announced a revised plan reducing emissions by 18 per cent by 2010 and hitting 26 per cent by 2015, missing the Kyoto targets completely. Industry can evade targets by contributing to a technology fund or by trading credits. And, while there is nothing concrete, mandatory fuel-efficient standards for the auto industry will be in place starting in 2011.

The public can be fickle. In the late 1980s, disasters at Bhopal in India, Chernobyl in Ukraine and the oil spill from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska created a similar wave of public outcry. Yet, experts will tell you it doesn’t last. Stephen Hazell, a spokesperson for the Sierra Club of Canada, says the difference this time is the number of scientists, economists and corporate leaders, who are voicing concerns. The momentum is quickly creating a juggernaut. But, the question is: Can a wave of public support become action on the ground?

All these efforts seem like somebody else’s problem. Industry is such a vague notion. For some, it may mean Alberta’s oil industry. For others, it may mean some local company in Cobourg or Port Hope. The only thing we can truly count on is our own action.

Sometimes, it takes a hit in the pocketbook to make a difference. The new levy on SUVs, up to $4,000, will get some people to stop and think about buying a huge truck or 4×4. However, there are incentives up to $4,000 to buy hybrid cars or other fuel-efficient vehicles. Other examples include user-pay garbage or the compost bin giveaways or the coupons for fluorescent light bulbs.

Making a decision around buying a fuel-efficient car is an excellent example of individual responsibility. It is something we can all do. We feel a sense of empowerment rather than helplessness. And, that is good.

So, the idling bylaw will be a litmus test. It will be important to see how Port Hope council handles it. If it passes, it will be a major victory for the environmental committee and its members for their leadership. It will also be a huge feather in the cap of council. While other municipalities talk about helping the environment, Port Hope will be doing something concrete. No doubt, critics will point out how hard it will be to enforce and the associated costs. There may also be some legal ramifications when it comes to proving how long somebody left a motor running. But, it may be enough bring about some positive change. It will also be interesting to see if a wave will sweep the county as other places like Cobourg, Campbellford and Brighton are asked to do the same.

The greatest change will come when this becomes a moral issue and not a policy one. When our actions make us feel good and there are pangs of guilt when we get into our cars or leave them idling, then the change will be permanent. Otherwise, it will be an intellectual debate and nothing more.

And, in a few months from now, when the smog alerts begin and the UV ratings go through the roof, we may take some solace in knowing each of us is doing something positive rather than throwing our hands up in the air.

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