Sunday, September 2, 2007

Climate Change Action; small steps too small? by Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko

This piece is in the September 2007 issue of Mayday Magazine

The Mayor’s worried about climate change and our over consumption of energy. That’s why on august 14th he challenged people to a Black out Day challenge (in commemoration of the 2003 Ontario wide blackout).

The municipality of Woodstock led the way urging its residents to reduce energy use by 5%; so in friendly competition Mayor Fred Eisenberger asked Hamiltonians to plug out too (between the hours of 12 noon to 8pm).

“Anything we can do to heighten awareness, reduce consumption and get people to think about how they can be more energy efficient is a very helpful thing,” he told me.

At Environment Hamilton we’re thinking along the same lines. We’re circulating our Climate Challenge brochures in Hamilton neighbourhoods asking people to make pledges to reduce their personal green house gas emissions (We’ve been at it for a month now).

“Would you be interested in taking our climate challenge?” I asked the Mayor.

“I would,” was his response. He’s already doing a lot of the steps outlined in our brochure such as turning down the thermostat 1 degree in the summer and up 1 degree in the winter, taking the bus or walking, and eating locally produced food.

The Mayor whose own house is entirely energy efficient and has been for years (low flow showers, compact florescent light bulbs etc) knows it’s an investment that not all people can make but he wants to “encourage people so that they can all do their part.”

The City and Powerwise Energy were giving out free energy saving light bulbs to get people motivated.

While I agree that that’s one way to get people taking small steps in the right direction, for a city as large as Hamilton, it just isn’t good enough.

“Does Hamilton have a climate action plan?” I asked the Mayor. Perhaps in the months since Environment Hamilton outlined a detailed ten point plan for the Council, they might have taken a page out of it to develop.

It’s all very well to ask people to take individual responsibility. They should. But their efforts will go a long way further if elected officials take leadership on a larger, far reaching scale.

“I’m not sure if we have a climate change policy yet,” is the Mayor’s response. “But I agree that we should have.”

Mayor Fred assures me that he’ll be checking with staff to see exactly where they are at.

Granted, Hamilton has made “huge investments” in terms of public transportation, (the hybrid vehicles as part of the fleet, plans to light up the downtown with energy efficient lighting) and “I expect there will be more coming,” he says confidently.

Again, aren’t these baby steps...well, rather babyish in the face of impending climate chaos and the transportation implications of peak oil? After all, nearly 50% of individual greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation.

Yes, yes. Many of the 34 new buses purchased this year are low emission hybrids but they are only replacements. The total number of buses on the road has remained the same. And we have fewer buses today then we had in 1988. If we want people to reduce their greenhouse gases in a big way by taking the bus more often then we need to have ‘more buses more often’ and we need to have the incentives in place that will entice people to ride instead of driving.

Environment Hamilton’s Don Mclean has some helpful suggestions the Mayor and his team might seriously want to act on;

Reverse the budget cuts and rapidly expand the bus fleet.

End the bizarre system of “area rating” transit taxes. A home valued at $200 000 in the former city of Hamilton pays $168 a year for the HSR. One is Ancaster of the same value pays only $34-one fifth as much. In Dundas the rate is $41 and in Stoney Creek it’s $52. unfair.

If everyone paid the rate currently imposed on old Hamilton, the HSR budget would jump nearly $8million a year-enough to provide much better service to the suburbs and other improvements.

McLean has other suggestions; start increasing transit taxes instead of reducing them every year. The rates cited above are all less than what was charged on a $180,000 home in 2004. In fact, the effective rate for the HSR appears to have fallen every year since the mid-1990s.

Dedicate gas tax monies to improving the transit system. Up until now, most of the money has gone to avoid raising taxes to cover normal inflationary cost increase for fuel and other HSR expenditures.

Mayor Eisenburger says he wants to “lead by example,” (he takes commuter challenge and rides the bus too) and for that I applaud him. “It is not the responsibility of government and industry and public transportation agencies. It’s about individual choices that we make in our homes has probably the most significant impact.”

But Mr. Mayor, it’s time Hamilton stops toddling along but grows up and joins the many communities getting serious about climate change.

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