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Here's a shocker: We're flunking the one-tonne challenge

How's the "one-tonne challenge" coming? Are you halfway there, or just one-third? Or, like most of us, nowhere?

Are you turning out those lights, retrofitting your house, buying energy-efficient appliances? December is a great month to start walking or cycling to work.

What? You don't know about your personal one-tonne challenge? Haven't you been paying attention to advertisements and exhortations from your friendly federal government?

Join the crowd. Between September of 2002 and March of 2003, Ottawa spent $17-million on climate-change ads. That's where the one-tonne challenge comes in, because we're all -- and that means you -- supposed to be slashing our greenhouse-gas emissions by that much.

When Decima Research surveyed Canadians about those ads, however, most people said they had never seen them.

Energy efficiency. Climate change. Greenhouse gases. Global warming. It's all either a blur or a non-issue.

Check your own habits and those of your neighbours. Have you noticed any appreciable change? If you have, that's rare. Because focus groups taken after those useless ads showed, according to a recent Senate report, that "concerns about energy efficiency and climate change are not the primary drivers when it comes to consumers' decisions."

You can say that again. As the focus groups revealed, Canadians don't see climate affecting them. It has a "limited observable impact on their daily lives." And so, we're flunking the one-tonne challenge.

Each Canadian is responsible, on average, for emitting five tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. If everyone cut back by one tonne, it would reduce the country's emissions by 32 megatonnes.

Canada committed itself in the Kyoto accord to reduce its emissions by 240 megatonnes, of which 32 were to come from individuals. Half of each individual's emissions comes from vehicles, a little more than a quarter from heating, about a 10th from water heating and 7.5 per cent from appliances.

Here and there, energy-efficient cars such as the Toyota Prius are finding tiny market niches. But look around you on the roads. For every Prius, how many climate-killing SUVs do you see?

Ottawa formally launched the one-tonne challenge in March of 2004. But there had been plenty of exhortation and advertising before that. Predictably, the whole thing has been a failure. The money has been literally wasted.

The Senate report got as much attention as consumers devote to energy efficiency. It's a rather light effort, intellectually speaking. But the report got one thing right: Price influences individual behaviour to some extent.

As long as energy prices, especially for fossil fuels, are low in absolute and real terms, purchasing behaviour won't change. Drive up the price of fuel, and watch consumers start changing patterns of consumption.

At the beginning of this climate-change discussion, Ottawa ruled out a carbon tax or any other serious price change. That means fighting the problem with one hand tied behind the back.

Think about what happened just before the last election. The price of gasoline spiked temporarily, and the politicians ran around like the proverbial headless chickens making all manner of wild promises to shield consumers from slightly higher prices.

The fundamental trouble with asking consumers to pay higher prices -- apart from the obvious fact that they don't want to pay them -- is the lack of a direct link between those prices and greenhouse-gas emissions. People just don't see that link. It's the classic tragedy of the commons, as economists call it, with Earth being the commons.

Canada, with its huge land mass, has an enormous stake in global warming: everything from the Arctic changing to rivers getting less water, to more icebergs off the East Coast, to more insects, and on and on.

These changes are incremental. To Joe or Sally Citizen living in a home with a two-car garage in suburban Canada, they mean nothing.

The car industry could help by improving emissions efficiency. Forget that. The industry has to be dragged kicking and screaming into fuel efficiencies.

Doubt which kind of vehicles that industry wants to promote? Check the car ads in your newspaper. The industry would say it responds to, but does not mould, consumer taste. And consumers are definitely not with the one-tonne challenge.

jsimpson@globeandmail.ca

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