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The 17-Tonne Challenge

If we’re serious about curbing climate change, each of us will have to cut our annual greenhouse gas emissions from 24 tonnes to just under seven. Plane travel needs to end, food needs to be local, houses need to capture heat and NSP needs to wake up.


By now everyone has heard about global warming, and all but a few deluded denialists and oil company shills accept the overwhelming scientific consensus that it is a real threat to the future of the planet.

The rest of us seem to dodge around the problem. We think somebody will invent a miracle technology that will save the day. Or we play carbon trading and offset games, shuffling around the deck chairs on the global Titanic. Or we lamely point fingers at China and India, billions of people who, compared to North America's mere millions, have nearly no responsibility for climate change.

But there's no getting around the central truth: If we are to avoid cataclysmic and runaway global warming, we, here in North America, right here in Nova Scotia, have to make very drastic and very quick reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions.

This truth is not controversial. The 2001 Climate Change Action Plan agreed to by the New England governors and eastern Canadian premiers (including Nova Scotia's) reviewed the scientific literature and called for a10 percent reduction from 1990 levels of GHG emissions by 2020, with a further long-term cut of between 75 and 85 percent.

Other jurisdictions around the world use similar targets, naming the year 2050 as the target date for long-term cuts of 75-80 percent in GHG emissions.

But how, exactly, are we going to reduce Nova Scotia's GHG emissions by such amounts? Are we up to the global warming challenge?

According to Environment Canada, in 2004 Nova Scotia emitted 23 million tonnes of GHG—or roughly 24 tonnes of GHG per person. That's about a 16 percent increase over our 1990 emissions of 19.7 million tonnes. If we are to achieve an 85 percent cut from 1990 levels, the per capita annual cut must be over 17 tonnes.

Rick Mercer's "One Tonne Challenge," which was given up as overly ambitious, looks pathetically weak in contrast.

Likewise, replacing traditional light bulbs with compact fluorescent light is a worthwhile project, but it doesn't do much in the overall scheme of things. If we replaced all light bulbs in the province tonight, we'd see a drop in GHG emissions of less than one percent. If we did nothing else, by the end of the year that reduction would be cancelled out by emission increases in everything else we do.

Earlier this year Mark Parent, the provincial minister of the environment, announced a series of initiatives, including a reiteration of the GHG emission reduction goal of 10 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.

"It's challenging, but doable," says Parent. "If you set goals that are too low, people say you're not doing enough, but if you aim too high they say you're doing it for political reasons."

Parent, however, is aware that his announced goals fall well short of what is needed. He says he has read the recent best-seller Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, by George Monbiot, a columnist with the English newspaper The Guardian. That book (which inspired this article) calls for Britain to achieve a 90 percent reduction in GHG emissions by 2030. The Canadian target, says Monbiot, should be 94 percent by 2030.

"When you look at the global challenge—Monbiot says 90 percent, others say 70 percent. So, 10 percent isn't enough, but in the Canadian scheme of things, it puts us in the lead," says Parent" If the federal government goes higher, we'll raise our targets too."

Parent's announcement was greeted warmly by environmentalists as a good first step, but if we're going to make GHG emission cuts of the size needed—75 to 90 percent—we need to start restructuring our society now, says Larry Hughes, head of the Energy Research Group at Dalhousie.

"We should have started down this road during the national energy crises in the 1970s," says Hughes. "It takes decades to put these things in place."

Hughes' primary work has been around "energy security" issues, but his research provides some possible solutions to the global warming challenge.

"Climate change is real, and by far the larger issue," he says. "But energy security will be an issue even sooner."

Hughes points out that the vast majority of Nova Scotia's fuels are imported, mostly from unstable countries, and that the province is vulnerable to price hikes and supply disruptions. Even oil and natural gas from Alberta can't make it to the Maritimes, as pipelines don't extend past Quebec City.

Instead of using imported fuel, says Hughes, Nova Scotia should concentrate on developing indigenous and renewable sources of energy. While his work is aimed at the energy security issue, it turns out the same arguments hold for reducing GHG emissions: finding and using renewable sources of energy solves both problems.

Home warm home

In a paper published in February, "Review, Reduce, and Replace: The three "R's of energy security," Hughes takes a look at Nova Scotia's overall energy demand. He suggests we could, through a combination of increased efficiency and use of renewable fuels, cut our reliance on fossil fuels for residential space and water heating by about 75 percent. The same strategies would also work for industrial and commercial heating needs.

Fuel oil and propane burned for residential space and water heating account for about 1.2 million tonnes worth of GHG emissions in Nova Scotia. We don't know the exact number, but probably that much again comes from generating electricity used in baseboard heating and electric water heaters. Hughes suggests we can reduce the energy demands, and therefore the GHG emissions, as follows:

Reduction: We'll return to this in a bit, but Hughes says constructing new buildings to a higher standard and retrofitting old buildings for increased efficiency can result in an energy savings of one percent per year. That strategy will bring energy demands down by 17 percent by 2025.

Solar energy: Simply orienting new buildings on an east-west axis and taking advantage of their southern exposure goes a long way towards reducing heating needs. Couple that with solar water heating in new and existing buildings, and Hughes says we can make a further energy reduction of 15 percent.

Wind energy: Nova Scotia has immense wind potential, and the technology for using wind for heating purposes has existed since the 1940s, through a process called Electric Thermal Storage. With ETS, electricity is used to heat ceramic blocks in the basement, which then release the heat as needed, for as long as 10 days. ETS systems are priced comparably to oil furnaces.

ETS systems can be powered with sometimes erratic and unpredictable wind generators: when the wind blows, the systems are charged. Nova Scotia power would use basic computer technology to deliver energy generated by thousands of windmills distributed around the province to the individual houses most in need of an ETS recharge.

Because the ETS systems store heat so long, a lack of wind hardly ever becomes a problem—for a study of heating needs on Prince Edward Island, Hughes found that ETS systems would need backup electricity sources for less than one percent of their power needs.

Applying wind power for heating across the province could reduce the need for non-renewable energy for residential heating by an additional 30 percent, says Hughes.

District heating: Scandinavian countries make wide use of district heating, a system of using waste heat from power plants to heat nearby houses. Heated, pressurized water is sent through super-insulated pipes, which residents tap through heat exchangers (also comparable in price to furnaces).

Hughes notes that the Tufts Cove power plant is about 30 percent efficient, meaning that 70 percent of the potential energy of the plant is simply dumped into Halifax Harbour as waste heat. That is enough energy, he suggests, to heat every residential unit on the Halifax peninsula.

Installing the piping for such a system would cost the same as pursuing current plans to install natural gas lines around the peninsula. But, says Hughes, provincial supplies of natural gas are limited, North American fields have already peaked and importing natural gas from countries such as Russia leaves the province vulnerable to supply disruptions. "Anyway, why don't we just burn the natural gas in the power plant, and improve efficiency?" he asks.

Using district heating just in Halifax (the potential exists for Sydney as well) can decrease the provincial demand for residential energy by about another five percent province-wide.

Biomass: Because much of the market is informal, we don't know exactly how much wood is being used for heating in Nova Scotia. Hughes guesses that it's meeting about 10 percent of our present heating demands, and can be doubled by 2025.

Hughes is visibly frustrated at the bureaucratic indifference, and even hostility, to implementing a sensible energy policy. District and wind-generated heating are existing technologies, but putting them in place means stretching traditional power generation in new ways. "Nova Scotia Power won't do it unless the government pays for it," he says. "It doesn't make sense—they'll make money on this."

Likewise, Halifax's much ballyhooed regional plan doesn't require builders to orient new buildings to take advantage of passive solar opportunities.

Pass the gas

And, says Hughes, there's an irrational obsession with natural gas in Nova Scotia. "I really don't understand it. It's like they have to justify their past bad decisions by chasing this thing. But ask them where they're going to get the natural gas. They want to build this infrastructure for offshore supplies that will last maybe a decade. It's wasted time, and wasted investment that could be spent on a long-term solution."

Waste not, want not

The frustration with bureaucratic inertia is something Brendan Haley knows well.

"By 2050, we"ll need an 80 to 90 percent reduction in GHG, and we can't get there if we build a bunch of inefficient houses in the next few years," says Haley, energy coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre."

The province recently announced that new construction must meet Energuide80 efficiency standards—by 2011. "That's totally inadequate," says Haley. "We can go to Energuide80 in a year—this isn't new or hi-tech technology, it's been around since the 1970s. We can't afford to have inefficient houses being built.

"The number one way to cut greenhouse gases," he continues, "is to invest in energy efficiency. And yet, there's no provincial energy efficiency plan."

To Haley, it's a simple equation: "We should invest in efficiency if it's cheaper than building power plants and burning fossil fuels."

This year, Nova Scotia will spend just $10 million on a handful of energy efficiency programs. But if the province adopted California "best practices"—directing five percent of utility revenue into efficiency efforts—some $50 million annually would become available.

With that kind of money, "we'd hire an army of auditors and contractors to go into people's homes and see what needs to be done," says Haley. "They'd come up with financing plans and incentives, and the retrofitting work would be paid for through the efficiency fund and customer spending."

As public works projects go, that's a pretty good one. Thousands of people are put to work, and thousands more save money on their monthly utility bills.

And it's also a pretty good plan for reducing GHG emissions. Retrofitting houses results in tremendous energy savings—and, therefore, cuts in future GHG emissions. Just for electricity, efficiency improvements alone can result in 600 megawatts in savings by 2020, says Haley. That's more than 25 percent of Nova Scotia's current electrical capacity of 2,243 megawatts, most of it produced with high GHG-emitting coal plants.

All together, Haley thinks that efficiency improvements can cut energy use between 30 and 40 percent, and there'd be similar reductions in GHG emissions.

Until last month, provincial and Nova Scotia Power officials rejected out of hand environmentalists' suggestion of an energy efficiency surcharge on power bills. But in May the company made an about-face and shocked observers by calling for matching the California standard.

What happened?

"We finally got them to do an economic analysis of energy efficiency that looked 20 years out," says Haley. "And of course they found that it's totally economical. The people at the utility finally realized it and said, "We have to do this.'"

The proposal still has to be approved by the Utility Review Board, and there's ambiguity about the details. "Who's going to run the fund?" asks Haley. "What type of public oversight will there be? Who's going to do the evaluation? We haven't been supportive of Nova Scotia Power running the program. We'd like to see third-party advisors making decisions, and stakeholders on a management board. We want targets and penalties for not meeting them.

"We don't want people saying 10 years from now, "See, this doesn't work.'"

And then there's the matter of political support for starting the program.

"People don't want to see an energy efficiency surcharge on their power bill," says Haley. "They think they shouldn't have to pay for someone else to save money."

But such thinking misses the point: energy efficiency reduces the need for more power plants, and so serves to lower the cost of electricity for everyone. True, there's a line on the bill that wasn't there before, but the rest of the bill is lower as a result.

Blowin' in the wind

Electrical generation through the five Nova Scotia Power generating plants was responsible for 10.6 million tonnes of GHG emissions in 2004, or 46 percent of the total for the province. So while savings through efficiency, even of 30 percent, are important, we need much more if we are to reach the necessary overall GHG reductions of 75, 85 or 90 percent.

As part of his environmental policy initiative, Parent announced that by 2020 Nova Scotia would generate 18.5 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. Currently, about 10 percent of electricity comes from renewables—mostly hydroelectric.

The 18.5 percent goal is so weak, says Haley, because Nova Scotia Power is reluctant to increase its reliance on wind power. This reluctance was perhaps best expressed by energy minister Bill Dooks, who flippantly dismissed wind power by asking "what happens when the wind stops blowing?"

The intermittent, hard-to-forecast nature of wind is an issue—power providers have to be ready with a back-up supply that can be powered up in seconds, lest a drop in wind generation causes the entire grid to overload, leading to blackout across the province.

But wind generators argue that those concerns can be met through new improvements in wind forecasting, and by geographically separating lots of smaller wind farms. They also call for Nova Scotia Power to build an integrated power grid with other Atlantic provinces to better distribute wind-generated electricity.

Also, wind energy can be stored in what's known as a pumped storage plant. These facilities consist of two reservoirs at different levels. Wind energy is used to pump water from the lower to the upper reservoir. The water then flows back to the lower level via regular hydroelectric turbines to generate electricity at a predictable rate, and when it is most needed.

Such technology has been in use around the world since the 19th century. One such facility—the 600-megawatt capacity Bear Swamp generating station along the Deerfield River in Massachusetts—was built in 1968. Emera, Nova Scotia Power's parent company, ended up buying a part interest in the facility, and makes a hefty profit by providing relatively low-cost electricity to the Long Island Power Authority during high demand times. But the company has made no move to build a new pumped storage facility in Nova Scotia.

"Nova Scotia Power hasn't shown a lot of interest in running its plants in a way that's compatible with wind," says Haley. "And no one seems to want to investigate storage."

A change in policy might result in larger GHG emission cuts, but it still isn't clear by how much—a comprehensive wind map for Nova Scotia still has not been drawn.

The tide of progress

Parent believes the challenge could be met with tidal power generators in the Bay of Fundy. "Tidal is our mother lode of energy, and it's predictable," he explains. "My big vision is to hook up with Newfoundland. We'll build a grid connecting their hydro at Churchill Falls with our tidal, take what we need, and sell the rest to New England."

The past year has seen increased interest in tidal power, notes Andrew Henry, executive director of Energy at Dalhousie, a research group dedicated to exploring renewable energy sources. "Lots of small developers have come to us, asking for research assistance. So we've begun to look at tidal, but we're still in the very early days."

Henry points at a preliminary study published by the Electric Power Research Institute, a California organization devoted to environmentally sustainable power generation, which found that the Bay of Fundy has the potential for about 150 megawatts of generating capacity. A less conservative study suggests it could be as much as 180 megawatts.

The EPRI study identifies eight potential sites for tidal-powered turbines. The largest is between Cape Split and Parrsboro, and could support 50 to 100 turbines. Digby Neck, the smallest, could support six turbines.

"The potential," Henry says, "is huge—150 to 180 megawatts is about the size of a coal plant."

In contrast, Nova Scotia Power now has about a 2,400 megawatt capacity. Tidal power, then, could replace less than 10 percent of our existing electrical supply. Henry thinks full development of tidal power will take 10 to 15 years.

Carbon capture and storage

Whatever the combination of renewables (wind, tidal, solar and others, like biomass) it doesn't appear it will be enough to reduce our GHG emissions by the amount needed—at least, not by our target date of 2050.

Fortunately, there is a technological fix. A process called carbon dioxide capture and storage can be used to remove CO2 from power plant emissions and trap it under ground.

CCS isn't a panacea. "It involves a huge amount of money," says Henry. "To fit existing coal plants with capturing equipment costs $200 million per plant, and building new clean coal plants with capturing equipment costs a billion dollars each."

Simply from a financial standpoint, then, CSS won't solve the power plant GHG emission problem. (Similarly, nuclear power has tremendous capital costs and unsolved waste issues associated with it that make that an extremely unlikely source of power generation in Nova Scotia.) But a combination of increased efficiency, the use of renewable energy sources and CSS can bring us power plant-related GHG emission reductions of the size needed.

Get on the bus, Gus

The last major source of GHG emissions is transportation, which in all its various forms pumped out 6.4 million tonnes of GHG in Nova Scotia in 2004. Most of that came from passenger vehicles—cars, pickups and SUVs—and so Parent has announced that the province intends to meet California-style auto emissions standards by 2010.

Local car dealerships have come out firmly against the proposal, and others think it's politically unrealistic. "They say, "Little Nova Scotia, what can we do?'" says Parent. But, he predicts, Nova Scotia will soon be followed by the rest of the eastern Canadian provinces and the New England states.

"That's a $24-million market, with 60 million people. The car companies will have to comply."

On paper, the new standards will make a big difference: by 2016, GHG emissions will be about 30 percent lower in cars sold with the higher standards. But if the past is any indication, it's doubtful that actual GHG emissions from cars will see such reductions: nearly all vehicle types have seen efficiency improvements since 1990, and yet GHG emissions increased overall, because people are travelling the longer distances required to live in sprawling suburbia and have traded in their small-polluting cars for large-polluting SUVs.

So making cars that pollute less is a good thing, but it doesn't get us anywhere near the kind of overall GHG emission cuts needed. For that, we have to change the way we travel.

"If we're looking at GHG emissions and what we need to achieve in the way of cuts, we need to travel with much less fuel," says Stephanie Sodero, transportation coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre. "A big chunk of car trips needs to be replaced by transit, and the remaining cars need to be super efficient."

The new Halifax Regional Plan calls for a "modal shift"—a change in the way people commute to work—of five percent towards transit. By 2025, if all goes as planned in the document, 23 percent of us will use transit to get to work, up from 18 percent that take transit now.

If that sounds too good to be true, it is. In fact, city planning figures don't have anything to do with how many of us actually take transit, now nor in the future.

"Those numbers probably aren't right," admits Dave McCusker, the city's manager of transportation planning. "They're based on Stats Canada figures, which come from census data. People tend to stretch the truth a bit when they fill out their census

forms—if they ride the bus once or twice a month, they report they ride transit. But our ridership doesn't reflect those numbers."

Environment Canada's GHG figures are more reliable—they're based on how much fuel is sold, and what kind of vehicles we use—but they don't tell us exactly who's driving what and how far.

Regardless, Halifax's transit goals are more ambitious than those of other Canadian cities, says McCusker. Still, in GHG terms, a five percent modal shift towards transit is pretty close to meaningless, especially if driving distances increase substantially.

As Sodero sees it, funding from all levels of government for transit is woefully inadequate. The provincial government, for instance, spends just $700,000 annually on transit programs, or about 73 cents per capita. In comparison, Manitoba spends $18 per capita on transit.

"About $300 million is spent annually on building and maintaining roads," says Sodero. "If we invested, say, a tenth of that, $30 million, on transit, just think of the transit systems we'd have."

Current transit funding levels are "almost perverse," she says. "I wouldn't suggest just throwing money at the problem, but if there's any program that works, it's transit."

Sodero points at the success of Halifax's MetroLink system as proof of people's willingness to take transit. "Metro Transit had anticipated a three-month period to get to capacity, but it came within a week. And 22 percent of the riders formerly drove alone to work."

To a large extent, convincing people to take transit is a simple matter of providing the service, she says.

Asked about possible government penalties for continued driving, Sodero demurs. "I wouldn't even want to talk about that until we've put forward every possible carrot we can think of," she says. "We don't want people to get angry about being forced to take transit that isn't convenient or comfortable. What we want is people choosing to use the bus. We want them waking up and thinking "I could take the car today, but I'd rather take the bus.'"

Still, there are potential "sticks" available. Halifax is blessed with a geography that both is transit-friendly and optimal for limiting car trips. The peninsula is the workplace for many commuters who drive through just five choke points: the two bridges, the Bedford and Bicentennial Highways, and the Armdale Rotary. Conceivably, through some combinations of increased tolls or trip limits, these entry points could be used to drastically cut the number of people driving into the inner city.

The City of Montreal has announced that it plans to implement such a system to limit driving into the island of Montreal. Tolls on each of the bridges will be increased, raising $300 million in additional revenue. Those funds will be added to increased gas taxes and parking and car registration fees to underwrite an $8 billion expansion of the city's transit system. Similar plans are either up and running or in the planning stages in London, New York and many other cities.

Here in Halifax, even doing nothing at all to the city's entry points—allowing them to become increasingly traffic congested—would have its deterrent effects in terms of driving.

But instead, the city is actively enlarging the choke points, encouraging more driving. The Chebucto Road widening was intended to increase capacity of the rotary, and the regional plan lists the "MacKay Bridge Twinning"—building a parallel structure, vastly increasing its carrying capacity—as a "future potential project."

And recently, a city councillor announced that the Halifax-Dartmouth Bridge Commission was working towards building a tunnel connecting Woodside to downtown

Halifax—in effect, replacing the successful ferry service between those points, and dumping tens of thousands more cars each day onto the peninsula.

Ferries and trucks

Commuting to work is just a small part of the equation. People use their cars to go shopping, drop their kids off at school and for much of their leisure travel.

Although exact numbers are hard to come by, on an emissions per passenger-kilometre basis, buses are about three times better than cars. That's good, but it means if everything else remained the same, and we replaced all car trips with bus trips (a likely impossibility), we'd still only achieve a 67 percent reduction in GHG emissions—not enough to get us to our goals.

To achieve further cuts, we have to do two things. First, use more efficient and less-polluting transit vehicles. For example, new electric-diesel hybrid buses emit about a third less GHG than do traditional buses.

There are some limited opportunities locally to use biofuels made from agricultural and fish processing waste. But we have to be very careful: many of the biofuel schemes foisted on the public, and especially corn-based ethanol, actually end up with increased GHG emissions, and have disturbing social ramifications as well, as they drive up the price of food.

On the ferry front, the 30-year-old tubs now crossing the harbour are terribly inefficient. According to Metro Transit figures, last year each passenger trip of about one kilometre used about 0.4 litres of fuel. Replacing them with a newer, cleaner burning fleet would result in further GHG reductions. Solar- and wind-assisted ferries are now being built for use in San Francisco Bay, a technology that would probably work well locally.

Electric trolleys also look extremely good, and potentially much better than buses. But it would be unwise to pursue that route until a clean source of electricity could be assured.

The second thing we can do is rebuild our communities so things aren't so far apart. "We need to encourage walking and cycling," says Sodero. "Lots can happen through urban planning, how our towns are laid out, the location of schools, that sort of thing."

Then there's trucking. Environment Canada figures show that GHG emissions attributed to trucking increased 37 percent in Nova Scotia from 1990 to 2004, from 0.8 million tonnes to 1.1 million tonnes. But those numbers reflect only trucking within the province, and don't recognize that much more is produced in GHG by way of truck deliveries from outside the province. A truck hauling asparagus from Mexico, for example, emits GHG all the way through two countries and several provinces before a very small portion of its total emissions are credited to Nova Scotia. There's no easy way of telling the true dimensions of Nova Scotians' actual truck-related GHG emissions, but whatever they are, they're much, much higher than the official figures.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that preventing just one truck trip a year from California to Nova Scotia saves more in fuel than does shortening the daily one-way commute by 20 miles: one 3,600-mile truck trip at six miles per gallon uses 600 gallons of diesel, while 500 car trips (two a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year) of 20 miles each at 25 mpg uses 400 gallons of gasoline.

When burned, each litre of diesel fuel produces 2,730 grams of CO2, compared to 2,360 grams for each litre of gasoline, so the GHG costs of truck travel as compared to car travel are even worse than the fuel costs. In the above example, the one cross-continental truck journey produces about 6.2 tonnes of CO2, 70 percent more than the 3.6 tonnes of CO2 produced by an entire year's worth of daily 20-mile car commutes.

Many truck trips could, and should, be replaced by train trips, but by far a better strategy would be to eliminate as much long-distance shipping as possible, by buying locally produced goods. The City of Toronto proposes that grocery stores in the city be required to label the distance their food travels, to encourage shoppers to buy locally, but no similar legislation has been proposed in Nova Scotia.

Obviously, buying food at farmers' markets leads to very large reductions in GHG emissions. But we'll need to make similar shifts in our buying decisions for everything else we use as well: construction materials, business supplies, consumer goods, etc.

The rest of North America will have to do likewise, but again our policy makers are moving in the opposite direction—politicians, business people and academics are promoting the idea of "Atlantica," which basically would turn Halifax into a mega-middleman between Chinese factories and the American midwest—the Port of Halifax would double or triple its business, and all the Chinese goods will be shipped westward, primarily by truck.

Presently, about half a million containers travel through the Port of Halifax each year. Tripling that number adds one million trucks to the road. If they're travelling to, say, Chicago and back, those trucks will increase our GHG emissions by something like five million tonnes.

In other words, our political leaders are suggesting that we build our economy around a scheme that, fundamentally, makes reducing our greenhouse gas emissions impossible.

The part you really don't want to read

If we are to truly achieve GHG emission reductions of 70 to 95 percent, we'll have to make cuts in areas not covered here: construction, industrial processes, agriculture, waste and sewage treatment, ATVs and small engines, to name a few.

But perhaps the most difficult area to control is human behaviour.

For example, there is a sociological theorem called the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate, which suggests that as energy efficiency increases, overall consumption of energy actually goes up, not down. The idea can apply to GHG emissions as well.

It works like this: As people insulate their houses and take transit to work, they end up saving a lot of money. They then spend that extra money on things that cause even more GHG emissions than their old, uninsulated houses and SUVs did—buying more food that is shipped from far-flung locales, for example. Or, they travel to far-away lands.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but on a distance per capita basis, North Americans fly more than any other people. For many Canadians, the trip to Cuba has become a winter ritual.

The Environment Canada figures for GHG emissions attributed to air travel from Nova Scotia aren't all that bad: in 2004 domestic aviation contributed 490 kilotonnes of GHG in the province, about two percent of the total.

But those figures are just about meaningless. First, like all other GHG inventories, they completely ignore international travel, which from the Halifax airport accounts for over 20 percent of all passenger flights. And these flights tend to be longer, meaning they probably emit much more in the way of GHG.

Second, as a 1999 IPCC report details, because of the way GHG and planes behave in the upper atmosphere, in addition to the substantial GHG emissions from airplanes there is a multiplier of 2.7 in terms of their effect.

As a result, air travel has staggeringly negative effects when it comes to climate change: a single roundtrip flight from Halifax to Havana produces the equivalent effect of 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per passenger. For a round-trip to Vancouver, figure just over two tonnes.

In terms of global warming, the Environment Canada figures are off by about a factor of three. Add in the international flights and the real climate change effect is probably more like four or five times as bad as the official figures say. If so, flights to and from Halifax are already doing about as much damage as all the car and SUV travel in the province.

Even worse, we're flying lots more each year. Figures from the Stanfield International Airport show that over just the last six years, the number of passengers has increased 23 percent. The largest increase, over 33 percent, came in the highest GHG emitting category—very long, non-US international flights. Airport officials expect these increases to continue into the foreseeable future.

Worldwide, if the projected increase in air travel is not checked, by 2050 it will be the single largest component of human GHG emissions.

There are potential design innovations for achieving drastic cuts in airline GHG emissions, but those technological fixes are at best several decades away, more likely even longer, if ever.

The only way, then, to achieve overall GHG cuts of the size needed is to buck the trend and avoid flying, nearly completely.

Flights across Canada and into the US can be replaced with rail and bus service, but these modes of transportation have been badly neglected for so long they'll need massive public subsidies to become an attractive transportation alternative.

But in terms of cross-Atlantic and other long distant flights, there really isn't any viable low-emission alternative. Ocean liners emit even more GHG than do airplanes. George Monbiot, author of Heat: How toStop the Planet from Burning, bravely argues for the building of a new fleet of zeppelins, which would take two or three days to cross the Atlantic, but that suggestion seems more whimsical than serious.

We'll simply have to give up overseas travels.

Business- and academic-related air travel can easily be replaced with teleconferencing, although businesspeople and academics will have to give up a perk of the job. More difficult will be giving up flying for family vacations.

But will people do so voluntarily?

A new society

Consider it from this standpoint: How many people in Bangladesh should die so Canadians can go to Cuba? To what degree should famines in Africa be intensified so academics can have face-to-face meetings with their colleagues across the country? How badly should Canadian children's lives be impacted so junior executives can make sales pitches in Calgary?

The Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate isn't an immutable, unavoidable law of physics. If we act consciously, we can control and reduce our GHG emissions, but it will involve giving up some things we hold dear, like air travel and exotic tropical fruits, and making fundamental changes in our economy—for example, as other North Americans reduce their GHG emissions, Haligonians might want to rethink their reliance on the cruise ship industry.

Combating global warming is a moral issue. We will in coming decades define our relationship with the Earth, and the other people and species that live on it. The choice is ours: Do we care enough about how we impact the planet that we'll take climate change seriously and consciously, actively rebuild our society in a sustainable fashion? Or do we give it up as too disruptive of our current lifestyles, and leave it for other people, in other places and into the future, to deal with? What kind of people are we?

"We in the west have an obligation," says Meinhard Doelle, a lawyer and researcher at Dalhousie who writes on international agreements to reduce GHG emissions. "First we need to show that we can have a good quality of life while reducing emissions, and second, we need to assist other countries in building low-emission economies. And it has to happen in that order: lead and assist."

In the end, we may find that getting a handle on this problem isn't a bad thing.

"There's this idea that all change is negative," Doelle continues. "But the more I think about it, the more I realize we're talking about making this a much nicer place to live.

"For example, we say cars give us freedom. But if you stand back and think about it, if we actually had public transit that worked, if we could get around cheaply and easily, not having a car brings an increase in freedom. Imagine our cities without cars, the congestion, the smog.

"As for the air travel issue, the way you change that, is make vacationing locally attractive. We learn about our own part of the world, become more connected to it.

"There are so many co-benefits of doing this right. This isn't a negative—it's a positive vision of what our world will look like."

Tim Bousquet writes the “Sustainable City” column for The Coast.

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Remember, it's entirely possible to disagree without spiralling into a thread of negativity and personal attacks. We have the right to remove (and you have the right to report) any comments that go against our policy.

xxx - Deprecated in favor of GTM, above.