Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Lost opportunities

"Never let a good crisis go to waste" is the feel-good mantra of the times. There is some sense to that argument. The economic crisis does provide an opportunity to invest in renewable energy, public transit, retrofitting homes, construction of more efficient buildings, manufacture of more efficient cars, a smart electricity grid, the list goes on. There are countless ways to make a few glasses of lemonade out of this economic lemon.

Far too few of those measures are found in the new budget announced today by Canada's Conservative government (you can read the entire document here).

The biggest item is the "Green Infrastructure Fund":

Targeted investments in green infrastructure can improve the quality of the environment and will lead to a more sustainable economy over the longer term. Green infrastructure includes infrastructure that supports a focus on the creation of sustainable energy. Sustainable energy infrastructure, such as modern energy transmission lines, will contribute to improved air quality and lower carbon emissions. Budget 2009 provides $1 billion over five years for a Green Infrastructure Fund. Funding will be allocated based on merit to support green infrastructure projects on a cost-shared basis

Nice idea. The problem: the fund amounts to less than 4% of the proposed infrastructure spending. If the other 96%, or just a fraction of it, goes to carbon-intensive building and road construction, we're quite likely to counteract all the benefits of the "green" investments.

Now it's possible that "green" projects may pop up in the other infrastructure spending. There's $407 million to upgrade VIArail service in the Quebec City - Windsor corridor, which depending on the upgrades, could be a net energy and emissions saver. There are also three projects - Summerside Wind Energy in PEI, Union Station upgrades in Toronto, and the Evergreen transit line here in Vancouver - listed among the "priority projects" that may recieve infrastructure funding. Then again, it is not clear whether the money would come from the general infrastructure fund or not.

The "green" budget item that has received the most media attention is the funding for a home retrofitting program:

Providing an additional $300 million over two years to the ecoENERGY Retrofit program to support an estimated 200,000 additional home retrofits.

Again, a nice idea. And again, don't be swayed by the numbers. It is 5% of the funds to "stimulate housing".

It is clear from the text of the budget suggests the government are not terribly interested in, or do not see, the opportunity to seriously invest in a case of green lemonade. Case in point, the three items under the heading "A more sustainable environment":

  • A new Clean Energy Fund that supports clean energy research development and demonstration projects, including carbon capture and storage.
  • Improving the Government's annual reporting on key environmental indicators such as clean air, clean water and greenhouse gas emissions with $10 million in 2009–10.
  • Strengthening Canada's nuclear advantage with $351 million to Atomic Energy of Canada Limited for its operations, including the development of the Advanced CANDU Reactor, and to maintain safe and reliable operations at the Chalk River Laboratories.

I've been unable to find details on the first item. One can surmise from the short summary that the majority of the money will go towards carbon sequestration research in the tar sands. The second is a tiny investment - remember, this budget is in the tens of billions of dollars. And the third, well, regardless of your feeling about nuclear power as a solution to climate change, it is a sad comment on our country when the nuclear investment is the dominant component of "a more sustainable environment".

Nowhere here do you see real money for wind power development, solar power, a better electric grid, large expansion of public transit, helping the automakers build more efficient cars, all investments that would create jobs, that would stimulate research and innovation, and that would prepare Canadians for the future.

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