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Let Kyoto take wing

Globe and Mail Update

Next week's federal budget will mark the first real test of Paul Martin's commitment to fight climate change. We've heard the Prime Minister promise to meet our Kyoto targets -- he even spoke to me personally and passionately about the agreement's importance. But we've seen little in the way of action. The sponsorship scandal, Liberal infighting and hedging over when to call an election have taken up most of his time in office so far.

It's too bad, because the bickering on Parliament Hill has prevented other critical work from being done. The money wasted in the sponsorship scandal pales in comparison to the billions of dollars a changing climate will cost Canadians.

Scientists tell us extreme weather events are expected to become more frequent and severe as climate change progresses. Such events are already costing us a fortune. Fighting out-of-control wildfires last summer cost British Columbia more than $500-million. In Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, Hurricane Juan brought down millions of trees, with losses totalling $100-million. In Ontario, smog costs more than $1-billion a year in hospital admissions and absenteeism, according to the Ontario Medical Association.

Climate change is a serious problem that requires immediate action. That's why next week's budget is so critical. It is one of the most powerful tools to turn our Kyoto targets into concrete actions. We need a budget focused on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions with actions that drive economic innovation, job creation and improved air quality.

But it is also an opportunity to shift our priorities away from an energy-intensive economy and begin a new way of doing business. The Prime Minister has said he wants to build a "21st-century economy." Shifting spending to meet our Kyoto targets will create highly skilled jobs, promote new industries and innovative research, and protect the quality of life Canadians deserve.

If Mr. Martin is serious about building a 21st-century economy, here's how to start with the 2004 budget.

Shift gas-tax revenue toward public transit. Each year, Ottawa should devote a small portion -- $1-billion -- of the revenue generated from the 10-cent-per-litre gas tax toward public transit.

We're the only Western industrialized country whose national government provides no stable funding for transit. The U.S. 2001 budget included a record $9.1-billion to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality by enhancing transit services and other transportation alternatives such as ride-sharing, bike and pedestrian paths and encouraging co-ordination of land-use plans and transportation alternatives.

Expand support for renewable energy. Canada should fund research and development for renewable energy and energy efficiency, with a national renewable-energy target of 10 per cent of electricity supply. A Shell International study found that renewables could supply 50 per cent of the world's energy needs by 2050. Renewable energy is the world's fastest growing source of electricity production.

Canada lags behind most industrialized countries in wind generation because of a lack of funding and policy support. By contrast, Denmark generates more than 21 per cent of its annual electricity needs with wind power.

Create tax incentives for the purchase of efficient vehicles. Transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, and 40 per cent of these emissions are from our personal cars. Although less-polluting vehicles exist, such as a gasoline/electric hybrid, they cost a lot more than similarly sized cars. Incentives are needed to help these cars achieve greater market penetration and economies of scale.

A car rebate would encourage consumers to purchase fuel-efficient vehicles, and discourage them from buying inefficient ones. Fees collected from a disincentive, such as a tax on less-efficient vehicles, would be rebated to consumers who purchase the high-efficiency vehicles.

Canadian taxpayers are subsidizing industries that pollute the environment. Annual subsidies to the fossil-fuel sector range in the hundreds of millions of dollars. As well, the nuclear industry has received taxpayer handouts for more than 50 years -- to the tune of $17.5-billion.

Instead, Ottawa should phase out all preferential tax treatment for fossil-fuel exploration and production over the next four years to free up $3-billion to finance special tax treatment of energy-efficiency investment, conservation and renewable-energy projects.

Canada and the U.S. are the only G7 countries that haven't supported phasing out subsidies to the fossil-fuel and nuclear-energy sector in order to increase support for renewable energy. The 2004 budget needs to provide tax incentives for renewable-energy projects, for the purchase of low-emission vehicles and to encourage the use of mass transit -- all critical to achieving our Kyoto goals.

These recommendations will help put Canada on a path to meet our Kyoto targets by reducing greenhouse gases while creating new jobs and opportunities for Canadians. Ottawa showed leadership by signing Kyoto; now we need the same kind of initiative to put the agreement to work. The federal budget is the first opportunity to do so -- if Mr. Martin is serious about addressing climate change and creating a 21st-century economy.

David Suzuki is the chair of the David Suzuki Foundation. The foundation is a member of the Green Budget Coalition, which seeks to protect the environment while promoting a competitive economy.

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