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October 28, 2002

Kyoto and You

It's the hottest word in the political dictionary right now, despite the fact that it's not really a word so much as a name. Ralph Klein calls it "the K-word", but the rest of the world simply calls it "Kyoto". Of course, I'm talking about the much talked about (and somewhat maligned) Kyoto Accord. In case you've been living with your fingers in your ears under a rock in the back recesses of a cave on another planet, the Kyoto Accord is an agreement among nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 6% below 1990 levels. Although doing this alone certainly won't save the planet or stop the weather from going screwy on us for the next millennium, it's a damned good start.

I've written before on topics that expose my environmental bent before. I'm all for Kyoto (the accord, not necessarily the city), as it appears to be the one initiative that seems to have a fighting chance of actually being implemented. There have been other initiatives that are environmentally beneficial, but the ones that have actually registered on my radar have been pretty much industry-specific, and all of them seem to have eventually been stillborn. With Kyoto still kicking after all these years, I have reason to hope.

Unfortunately, not everybody sees Kyoto as something good. Our own Prime Minister waffled for the longest time about whether he'd be the one to ratify the accord. My personal theory is that he's only now committed himself and the government to ratifying it because he'll be gone inside 18 months. Even if ratifying Kyoto is an act of political hara-kiri it doesn't matter at this point. His attitude towards Kyoto is positively orgasmic as contrasted against Alberta Premier Ralph Klein's attitude towards it. As I mentioned above, Ralph can't even say "Kyoto" - he call it "the K-word" as if it's something you wouldn't dare mention in front of women or small children. He has his reasons for not embracing Kyoto, but I just don't buy them.

Apparently Kyoto is stirring old emotions that first surfaced back in the 70's due to the National Energy Program (NEP). I'm not thoroughly versed in 70's politics and energy matters, but from what I understand it was a program thrust onto Alberta to sell their resources to the rest of Canada at artificially low rates. This, so I understand, pretty much ground Alberta's economy to a halt, and caused many layoffs, slowdowns, job losses, and (according to RK) suicides by people who suddenly had the rug yanked out from under them by Ottawa. In this light, Ralph's reactions are quite reasonable - assuming that Kyoto is another NEP.

Is Kyoto another NEP? Let's take a good step back, and paint with really broad strokes for a second. The NEP could be boiled down to "Alberta, you will sell your energy for less than it's worth". I don't have to be an economist (or play one on TV) to tell you that it seems like a pretty lousy business practice. Buy high, sell low? May as well move to the Niagara Peninsula and start picking grapes instead.

Kyoto, on the other hand, is simply a goal. "Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by THIS much." A very simple statement, and it leaves all the fine details up to the people who are producing said greenhouse gas emissions. Nobody is telling Alberta oil fields that they have to do anything other than cut emissions. Whether they choose to interpret that as "give up and go home", or "use new technology to reduce emissions" will be up to them.

To his credit, Ralph got someone to do some number crunching and calculated that to get to 6% below 1990 greenhouse gas emissions levels Canada would have to reduce 2002 emissions levels by about 30%. That's just shy of a third of current emissions - that that's a lot. Yes, we've grown a lot in 12 years, and will continue to do so. While it's easy to say "6% below 1990" is a fixed target, the status quo is ever moving up.

I won't say that cutting emissions will be easy. How do you cut carbon emissions of a coal-fired electricity generating station by 30%? You can burn things more efficiently, but you're still burning things, producing greenhouse gases. I don't envy some industries trying to come up with a way of satisfying Kyoto. Although I know complying with Kyoto will not be cheap, I think it's a price that has to be paid now before the cost goes up even higher. Previous generations didn't bother paying, so we have to now.

All this got me thinking about my personal emissions. No, I'm not going to commit to reducing my flatulence to 6% below 1990 levels. I mean the emissions of all the various greenhouse gas-emitting systems that I own or are in charge of. Thus far the emissions sources I know I have are:

  • natural gas-fired hot water tank
  • natural gas-fired high-efficiency furnace
  • gasoline-guzzling brick shithouse SUV
  • propane BBQ
The average household may have even more than the four I have, with additional vehicles, natural gas or propane-fired appliances, and one or more gasoline-powered garden or power tools. Let's assume we're talking about the Joneses we're all trying to keep up with, and that they have it all. The question becomes, how do the Joneses reduce their emissions by 30%?

First off, ditch the SUV. I know I'm itching to do so simply because it's such a resource hog. Do I really need to propel two tones of steel, glass, and plastic at highways speeds just to get my comparatively insignificant frame from point A to point B? Not really. There are many vehicles available, both new or used, that would suit my family's needs just as well or better, and getting 30% better mileage would be nothing short of easy.

If I had one or more additional vehicles, I'd take a good hard look and see what they're used for. My wife and I have successfully gone from two vehicles to one, and I'm sure others out there could as well if they put their minds to it. Planning ahead is a lot cheaper than buying, maintaining, fuelling, and insuring another car. Failing that, Suzie Soccer Mom could probably get away with driving something else other than a truck to get groceries. Other vehicles such as boats, ATVs, snowmobiles, or even airplanes would have to be put under more scrutiny as well. As much fun as recreational vehicles can be, would it be possible to do away with them entirely? Perhaps using a more efficient model would be an option for diehard weekend warriors that need to throttle something to feel their oats.

Secondly, I'd look at my household systems. This is where I get excited, as this is directly related to my new job. If you go into my basement you'll see what 99% of new homes likely have in their basement; a high-efficiency natural gas furnace and a rented natural gas-fired hot water tank. I knew there were efficiencies hiding in alternatives to these bargain basement systems, but now it's part of my job to know why as well.

A bit of trivia: what is the single largest electrical power draw in Canadian households? Having heard a statistic many years back, I thought it was the refrigerator. Makes sense - it has to keep things cool 24/7/365 - it's got to use some power doing that, right? Yes, but apparently there's an even bigger power monster lurking in your basement. I was floored to learn that the furnace is actually the biggest electrical consumer in Canadian households. Yes, it may run for less time than a refrigerator does, but the large, powerful electric motors used in even high-efficiency furnaces are generally dirt cheap, power-hungry beasts that really suck down the juice when they do run. So, buying a furnace with a motor that's even slightly more efficient could make a big difference. Admittedly, it's not reducing actual emissions, but theoretically its reducing emissions at the power generating station by requiring less electricity. Reducing the actual furnace emissions is possible, but I'll come back to that in a second.

About a year back I started looking into alternative home systems. Solar panels, wind power, alternative designs and construction methods and materials, even household fuel cells to make your own electricity. During this search I came across tankless water heaters. The main idea behind them is that instead of having a huge vat of hot water sitting in your basement, you have a small unit that heats your water as you use it. Without the energy losses associated with having hot water sitting downstairs getting cool and needing reheating, you simply heat what you need. Very cool stuff (pun not intended), but not exactly inexpensive. Still, in the name of doing my part for Kyoto, I'd be willing to spend a bit more or wrap the extra cost into my mortgage.

What I did not know about until I started my new job is that your water heater can also double as your furnace. Think about it - you've got two heat sources sitting side by side in your basement. One heats water, the other air. Why not combine them? One source of combustion (assuming you're using some sort of fuel) can theoretically be cleaner than two of an equal capacity. It's been done, and in the case of the products I'm working with now, hot water is used as the heat source for the furnace instead of an electric element or a natural gas burner.

Although it doesn't sound startlingly brilliant, using hot water to heat your entire house really does have advantages, not the least of which is that it's a pretty small step to include radiant in-floor heating. I dream of being able to walk in my kitchen barefoot between October and April without freezing myself, and radiant heating would fit the bill nicely. Aside from keeping toes warm, it's apparently a very good way to heat a room.

Before I start trying to sell you a system, I'll just cap off and say that there are furnaces and water heaters out there that are more efficient and even better at their job than conventional systems. The only problem is that they aren't mainstream, or in some cases are targeted towards upscale dwellings, with price tags to match. You can bet your morning coffee money, however, that if Kyoto is ratified these systems will see demand spike. Price will come down, and you may even see some nice rebate cheques from the government. Wouldn't that be nice?

I'll admit that I don't know what I should do about my BBQ. I'm sure the emissions are pretty gruesome, and it probably burns a lot more fuel than needed to cook a few burgers. I try to avoid using the BBQ when it's just my wife, my daughter, and I. Why throw only a dozen small sausages on a grill that size? Perhaps some enterprising BBQ designer will rethink current cooking methods and come up with a fuel (and thereby greenhouse gas emissions) saving strategy. One thing's for sure - an electric grill just won't cut it. Try cooking a steak on one and you'll see what I mean.

Luckily I don't have to figure out what to do about gasoline-powered garden and/or power tools. With my small lawn I use a reel mower, so the only emissions come from me. Typical lawn mowers and other power tools have really abhorrent emissions pollution-wise. This won't be of concern for Kyoto, as it deals with greenhouse gas emissions and not pollution, but they do still spew carbon dioxide (and a host of other nasty stuff I'm sure) so something will have to be done. What that will be, I don't know. I'd suggest catalytic converters like cars have, but I'd really rather just do away with gasoline-powered implements altogether, as they're annoying as hell when I'm trying to watch TV.

Is Kyoto going to ruin Canada? No. Bottom-line thinking will. I hold hope that Canadians, and other people worldwide, will realize what's really at stake and will be willing to pay a bit more to contribute a lot less to greenhouse gas emissions. I've really lucked into how I'll be able to contribute through my new job, especially as I'll get these uber-efficient home systems at cost (I hope). Meanwhile, maybe we can at least convince Ralph Klein to hand out Beano to all Albertans and lay off the nachos.


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