Friday, September 30, 2016

If cap-and-trade is a bust, what then?

As Canadian provincial leaders meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau next week to try and hash out some sort of consensus on climate change initiatives and a national carbon price, dark rumblings are beginning to surface about the viability of the so-called Western Climate Initiative (WCI), the joint cap-and-trade enterprise led by California and Quebec, and soon (theoretically) to incorporate Ontario.
As I have explained in more detail in a previous blog post, I have all sorts of reservations about cap-and-trade as a means of limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The latest news just confirms me in my reservations.
Both Quebec and Ontario (if it is in fact to continue with the WCI, which is now in some doubt) would rely heavily on California's carbon market, which is substantially greater than that of the two Canadian provinces combined, in order to meet their aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets over the coming years. But California is currently embroiled in legal challenges over whether its cap-and-trade program is effectively an illegal tax, and there is much uncertainty over whether it will be able to renew the program after 2020, when the current agreement expires.
Also, demand for carbon allowances in auctions of late has been much weaker than anticipated in both California and Quebec. The two most recent auctions, in May and August, have been woefully undersubscribed, with only 10% of available emissions credits being taken up in May, and about 30% in August. California has only raised a fraction of the hundreds of millions of revenue it initially anticipated from these auctions.
Calculations suggest that if Ontario were forced to go it alone with a cap-and-trade system it would have to set an effective carbon price nearly 9 times as much as it would within the WCI, with a concomitant increase in energy bills. Ontario Environment Minister Glen Murray still seems quite confident that California will remain a mainstay of the WCI, and will provide Ontario with an important source of low-cost emission credits for the foreseeable future. His optimism, however, is starting to look shaky at best.
The Canadian federal government is looking to adopt a minimum carbon price during the provincial environment ministers' meeting next week, although just what that price will be is anyone's guess at this point. Part of the problem is equating two very different mechanisms like a simple carbon tax and the much more complex cap-and-trade system. British Columbia's carbon tax is currently set at $30 per tonne, and for political reasons a national level seems unlikely to be set above that. Ontario's effective carbon rate within the WCI cap-and-trade system would only be around $16-18 per tonne (which is what emission credits in recent California-Quebec cap-and-trade auctions have fetched). Even at $30/tonne, BC's carbon tax only adds about 7¢ to a litre of gas, and its effectiveness as a method of reducing greenhouse gases is beginning to wane. Newfoundland recently doubled its provincial gas tax to 33¢ a litre which, with the existing 10¢ federal tax, gives an effective carbon price of $180 a tonne, which may be more like the level of taxation needed to actually have a noticeable impact on consumer behaviour and on carbon emissions.
A report by the OECD suggests that carbon prices need to be set at at least $45 to offset the damage caused by climate change. And even that will probably not be enough to meet the Paris climate accord goal of holding global temperature increases below 2°C above pre-industrial levels (we are already at 1°C). Furthermore, road transportation is not the only part of the economy that needs to be carbon-priced though, even if it may the easiest and the most visible.
The outlook, then, looks rather grim, and it is difficult to know what can best be done. To do nothing, though, is clearly not an option.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has definitively announced the federal government's intention to impose a minimum carbon tax on the provinces, starting a just $10 a tonne next year, but rising by $10 a year to a level of $50 a tonne by 2022, a level that would be equivalent to about an 11¢ a litre increase on gas prices. The provinces can fulfill this requirement through their own carbon tax or cap-and-trade systems, but any province that does not fully do so, will have a tax imposed on them by Ottawa to make up the difference (the proceeds of which will be returned to the province).
This tough talk has, predictably enough, ruffled some feathers, and the ministers from Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland walked out of the meeting (very helpful). Saskatchewan Dinosaur - sorry, Premier - Brad Wall accused Trudeau of a betrayal of the cooperative approach to federal-provincial relations he had promised (as though Wall knows anything about provincial cooperation...), and complained that such a tax would devastate, absolutely devastate, his province's economy (then maybe it's time to rethink your province's economy, Mr. Wall).
The Prime Minster will follow up on the implementation of this climate plan at a first minster's meeting on December 8th. Good luck to him, but it won't be an easy ride.

Is squash the ultimate sport?

Recently, I was researching how far a person runs during of a game of my chosen sport, squash. Hard information is difficult to find but, for the record, it's actually less than I expected, probably only a few kilometres, although the intensity of the game and the constant lunging and direction changes make a simple step count approach next to useless.
In terms of calories burned, for example, it is one of the most demanding sports out there, only equalled by boxing, handball (!), jai alai (!) and fast skipping (and who's going to spend an hour doing THAT?!). Other sources put it just below activities like competitive-level running, cross-country skiing, speed-skating, vigorous skin-diving, and fast wood-chopping (!). An hour's squash uses around 750-800 calories (more than 1,000 according to some sources), depending on weight, level, etc, which is substantially more than games like tennis, soccer, basketball, hockey, etc. It is also one of the few major sports which are to a large extent anaerobic (i.e. the demand for oxygen cannot be maintained during a strenuous rally, and the player must slip into oxygen debt). This all makes me feel a bit better about feeling so wrecked after a game these days...
Another article I found, based on a 2003 Forbes study, suggests that, overall, squash is perhaps the healthiest sport of all, followed by rowing, rock-climbing, swimming, cross-country skiing, etc. Analysed across six different categories - cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, calories burned, and injury risk - squash scored an impressive 22.5 points (for comparison, rowing and rock-climbing both earned 22 points, swimming 20.75, cross-country skiing 20.5, basketball and cycling 19, running and modern pentathlon 18.5, and boxing 17.5).
Obviously, all these comparisons and studies are subject to a good deal of variability: my game of squash is most definitely not the same as Nick Matthew's or Gregory Gaultier's, and "running" or "swimming" can mean a whole plethora of very different activities, depending on the individuals. But it is interesting - and gratifying - to see that squash is definitely up there in the top echelons in terms of physical demands and health benefits (even though it is still not an Olympic sport - don't get me started on that!)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

It really doesn't matter where Maryam Monsef was born

I am losing patience with the continued media fixation with whether Liberal MP Maryam Monsef was in fact born in Afghanistan or in nearby Iran. What does it really matter?
Ms. Monsef came to Canada as a refugee from Afghanistan 20 years ago, and has since established herself as the MP for her home town of Peterborough, and more recently as the Democratic Reform Minister in Justin Trudeau's cabinet. It is a Canadian success story par excellence.
Just recently, though, she claims to have found out from her ageing mother that she was actually born in Mashad, Iran, and not in Herat, Afghanistan, as she had always been told. As a child, her Afghan family regularly shuttled back and forth between Afghanistan and Iran, avoiding wars and internal strife, in an area where official borders have little meaning to most people. Her mother probably kept her actual birthplace from her in an attempt to avoid painful memories (Ms. Maryam's father died in 1988 as a non-combatant in those interminable border conflicts), and in the reasonable belief that it doesn't really matter anyway.
And it really doesn't. She is still Canada's first ethnic Afghan MP (we already have a couple of MPs of Iranian background). She is still a strong woman, a role model, and a shining example for Canadian immigrants. Enough already!

How does suing Saudi Arabia for 9/11 achieve anything?

In a more or less unprecedented rebuke to President Obama, both Democrats and Republicans have voted, almost unanimously, to override his presidential veto of a bill to allow the families of victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia in the US courts. And I can't help thinking that the president may have been right.
Mr. Obama's main concern was that Saudi Arabia, like it or not, is a major ally of the US in the "war against terror". The Saudis provide a significant amount of information to the US counter-terrorism efforts, something Obama would know a lot more about than litigators, families of victims, or even other regular senators. Litigation of the sort anticipated by the bill will almost certainly antagonize Saudi Arabia, and may well have a negative impact on that relationship.
But that is not the only consideration here. Yes, 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 actions were Saudis, but I don't see how that gives anyone the right to take the country itself to court. I am not an expert in international law, but this was not a state-sponsored action, and surely a state cannot be held responsible for the actions of individual citizens? That way, madness lies.
In addition to that, I have to wonder just what the families and the litigators hope to achieve from any court cases. I'm sure they would talk in terms of "closure", a concept I am not sure I totally understand. Any court case would probably go on interminably, repeatedly dredging up bad memories, and, it seems to me, would be very unlikely to come to any definite resolution. Are they looking for financial damages of some sort? An apology? I genuinely do not understand what can be gained from the process.

BC LNG project "approved" (with 190 conditions)

I can't decide whether the Liberal government is being politically astute or just plain hypocritical in their decision to allow a proposed terminal to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) near Prince Rupert in northern British Columbia.
Their "approval" of the project, touted as economic opportunity combined with environmental responsibility, comes with no less than 190 environmental conditions that would have to be fulfilled by the potential operator, Malaysia-owned Pacific NorthWest LNG (including a hard cap on carbon emissions from the project, which will mean that the company will have to substantially scale back the operation before it even starts). An associated pipeline, to be built by TransCanada Corp, would have it's own set of environmental challenges and conditions.
The governement-imposed conditions will take months to examine and consider and, with the current downturn in LNG prices due to a global glut of supply, it is by no means certain that the company will choose to continue, despite having already sunk billions into the early stages of the project.
As always, there are wildly differing views on the decision, most of them reasonably predictable. Environmentalists and the leftist NDP claim that, despite the environmental conditions built into it, the project would still jeopardize Canada’s international commitments on climate change. Some First Nations groups are worried that the environmental protections do not go far enough. The Conservatives, on the other hand, are decrying the onerous conditions, which they say are getting in the way of development of a major Canadian natural resource. The BC provincial government seems to be treating the whole thing as though it is a foregone conclusion.
Now, I assume that the decision was handled in this way because the Liberals do not want to be accused to being anti-business (and so need to technically approve the project), but they actually don't really want to the project to go ahead from an environment / climate change perspective (so they included enough conditions to make the project extremely uninviting, not to say prohibitive).
So, maybe they are just being cute and canny, which I am not sure I necessarily approve of. A good part of me believes that, if they want to disallow the project on environmental grounds, then they should just say so, instead of pussyfooting around the issue. But that is not really the Liberal way, is it?

Compassion fatigue and condom fatigue

On today's CBC Metro Morning, I was introduced to two related, but very different, concepts: "compassion fatigue" and "condom fatigue".
  • Compassion fatigue: In a discussion of a program of training for new doctors, the concept of compassion fatigue was brought up. This refers to the fact that hospital doctors are often so over-worked and physically fatigued that they just do not have time to reflect on and internalize the human issues they encounter on a daily basis, to the extent that they become emotionally numb. The theory is that individuals have a certain well of compassion to draw on, and when that is exhausted (e.g. towards the end of a long shift) there is just no more compassion to go around, and the doctors become little more than emotionless automatons. Scary.
  • Condom fatigue: This came up in a discussion of the alarming increase in cases of syphilis is Toronto (as well as in other major cities in North America and Europe). Around 98% of the cases are in men, and at least 89% of those are in men who have sex with other men. When asked why this might be occurring, one reason posited was reduced condom use, including "condom fatigue", the idea that some people become bored with using condoms all the time and this leads them to more risky, condom-free sex. Also scary.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Ontario back-pedalling on renewables

Hot on the heels of its recent announcement of the subsidization of the electricity industry and it's commitment throwing good money after bad by refurbishing its expensive ageing nuclear plants (as detailed in a previous post), Ontario takes another step backwards with the shock news today of the cancellation of the latest round of green power projects.
Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault justifies the move on the grounds that the electrical system operator has told him it does not need any additional generating capacity. Which, as far as it goes, may be true, but if they then go ahead and spend billions of dollars refurbishing its ageing nuclear plants instead of investing in clean, renewable energy from wind and solar, then how can we be said to be going in the right direction on energy policy. And for a province that talks big on climate change, shouldn't we be phasing out carbon-intensive gas plants and replacing them with carbon-free renewable generating capacity?
Like the province's move to subsidize electricity prices (which I have already lambasted in a recent post), this looks for all the world like another vote-grabbing exercise on the part of the Liberals (e.g. pandering to those rural residents who oppose wind farms in their back yard).
The local solar and wind energy industries, who were just starting to make a significant impact in terms of local employment and exports, are in shock over the announcement. Many Canadian green power producers have already shifted development plans from Ontario to provinces like Alberta that are in the process of moving away from coal-fired electricity production. Another development opportunity squandered.
I have now officially lost all remaining faith in the Liberal Party of Ontario.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Why peregrine falcons should be de-listed from CITES

I have been trying to wrap my head around the recent decision by the Canadian government to call on CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) to de-list the peregrine falcon on the grounds that the species has made a robust and historic come-back and no longer needs protection.
It is certainly true that the species has made a remarkable recovery, at least here in Canada (I don't know about elsewhere in the world), partly as a result of the banning of DDT and partly as a result of the CITES ban on trade and trafficking. Indeed, it is not unusual now to spot the birds nesting in the high-rises of downtown Toronto.
But it seemed like tempting fate to completely remove the falcon from CITES list. After all, 228,000 adult birds may sound like a lot, but population numbers can swing very quickly and dramatically.
Apparently, the logic of the decision revolves around the idea that the CITES treaty can actually be strengthened by recognizing some success stories. It is argued that, if some countries in regions like Africa and Asia where endangered animal trafficking has escalated in recent years, see the restrictions being loosened on newly-healthy species, it would offer an incentive to hesitant officials and perhaps discourage some key nations from dropping out of the treaty.
So, Canada is encouraging the upcoming treaty meeting to agree to lift the trade ban on peregrines, as well as on the wood bison and the cougar, which have also seen major increases in their populations and species stability.
It may sound counter-intuitive, even risky, but I think I can now see where they are coming from.

Friday, September 23, 2016

When Mr. Li.comes to town, be very very wary

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is so keen to "forge closer ties" with China during his talks with China's second-in-command Li Keqiang that he risks making a deal with the devil in the process.
The immediate goal of Premier Li's visit from a Chinese perspective is an extradition treaty with Canada, such as it currently enjoys with some 40 other countries (France and Australia are the examples usually mentioned, presumably because these are the only "Western" countries who have agreed to such a treaty). 
Just to be clear, though, we would be extraditing people to a country named by Amnesty International as the world's top executioner, a country that routinely employs torture in its legal process, and whose judiciary is inextricably constrained and influenced by the ruling Communist Party.
Mr. Li, canny negotiator that he is, indignantly denies such things, and defends the Chinese use of capital punishment as a necessary evil. He maintains that Chinese security forces do not routinely administer torture, although he says the whole country cannot be held accountable for the odd maverick who does (news to.Mr. Lee: a country CAN and SHOULD). And of course he denies that Chinese secret agents operate in Canada to pressurized Chinese citizens to return to China to face allegations of "economic crimes", despite evidence to the contrary.
Whether he believes what he says or not, the reality is clear: this is not a country Canada should be making deals with, either extradition deals or deals of any other kind for that matter. Canada could really use Chinese spending power right now, and we do not want to be in the position of harbouring foreign criminals. But there are issues more pressing than free trade with China and a resolution of that pesky canola dispute. Once again, Trudeau's ethics are on the line, and I must confess that have nothing like the same confidence in the man that I had just after the election.

How climate change deniers can believe so many "impossible things"

There's an interesting, if slightly patronizing, article in today's Guardian about something I had often wondered about, namely how climate science deniers are able to accept so many impossible things at once.
For instance, some will say that statistics show that global warming stopped in 1998 (the so-called "Pause" - see an earlier entry of mine on the subject), but then claim that statistics from suspect agencies like NASA are entirely unreliable. Or they will blithely assert that global temperatures and CO2 levels are not actually causally related, but then, in the next breath, claim that CO2 is what keeps out planet warm and livable.
There are many such examples out there. One that has suddenly become news in the last day or two is the argument of the US Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson, whose justification for not acting now on climate change is that, in a few billion years time, the sun is going to grow into a red giant and envelop the earth anyway! Mr. Johnson, presumably an intelligent person, must know that this snippet of real science does not have any relevance at all to contemporary climate change policy, but he is nevertheless willing to put it out there.
Anyway, a new paper published in Synthese (the International Journal for Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science - yes, there is such a thing) seeks to find a psychological and philosophical reason for such contrary views. The paper is playfully entitled "The Alice in Wonderland mechanics of the rejection of (climate) science: simulating coherence by conspiracism" after the White Queen in that book, who exclaims at one point, "Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." But its content and import is entirely serious.
The authors conclude that this kind of "incoherence" (a technical term) can exist in the minds of climate change deniers due to two main concepts: "conspiracist ideation" and "identity-protective cognition". Conspiracist ideation, or conspiratorial thinking, refers to the tendency of certain people to easily entertain suggestions of a conspiratorial nature (what might, in non-technical jargon, be called "gullibility"). Identity-protective cognition, on the other hand, is the idea that some individuals tend to selectively credit and dismiss scientific theories or asserted dangers in a manner that supports their own preferred form of social organization or political beliefs. Thus, in this case, some people will dismiss the scientific consensus on man-made global warming because to accept it would necessitate increased levels of regulation, which challenges their identity as free-market advocates. So strong and so deeply-entrenched is this political value belief that these people are willing to disbelieve and dismiss clear scientific evidence, and even to risk ridicule, rather than to accept the alternative.
It all kind of makes sense, but it doesn't really help us in any way to get past the problem.

Canadian kids fitter than Americans, but nowhere near as fit as Tanzanians

A global study of the aerobic fitness of international kids using the “beep” test (a global standardized evaluation of children’s general fitness levels), suggests that African and Scandinavian kids are the fittest, while Latino kids are the laggards. Canadian kids come, in our usual Canadian manner, somewhere in the middle of the pack.
Over a million children between the ages of 9 and 17 from 50 different countries were tested in the study. The results show Tanzanian kids way out in front, followed by Iceland, Estonia, Norway and (perhaps surprisingly) Japan. At the bottom of the list of the 50 countries tested are Mexico, Peru, Latvia (yes, a Scandinavian country - go figure!) and USA. Canada ranked 19th, just ahead of the UK.
The study was carried out by Justin Lang, a PhD student at the University of Ottawa, and a researcher at the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group (HALO) at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), in association with the University of North Dakota. It was recently published, for some reason, in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, but its general findings and selected results have been widely covered by the Canadian press, usually with the angle, "why did Canadians kids do so badly?"
Interesting though all this is, I'm not convinced that we can draw too many firm conclusions from the study, and I'm not sure we need to completely revise our education system based on the findings. The only demographic correlation the study's authors managed to come up with was that countries where the gap between rich and poor is narrow tend to have fitter children, and fitness levels tend to fall as the income disparity widens, although they could hazard no guesses at why that might be the case. I would have thought comparisons with diets, educational systems, air quality, etc, might be more interesting and potentially fruitful avenues.
No source I have read, not even the original study abstract, gives the full results, and I would be interested to see which 50 countries were tested. For example, was Tanzania the only African country in the study, or were they regional outliers? Likewise with Japan and Asia. I guess the full text of the abstract is available for a price, but my interest does not run quite that deep, I'm afraid.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

BC's Great Bear Rainforest gets more protection

Having just come back from the Great Bear Rainforest in northwest British Columbia, reports of more protection for the area comes as welcome news (and check out the cool video of the white spirit bears in that link).
Our naturalist on the trip was at pains to point out the messy patchwork of protected areas in the region, involving a bewildering array of conservancies, wilderness groups, Crown land, provincial and national parks. There are, however, still significant gaps in the patchwork, which many organizations are desperately trying to plug before it is too late. Some 9% of the area  (or 15% according to some sources I have read) is still fair game for commercial logging.
The recent donation of private land to the Nature Conservancy of Canada fills in a bit of the missing puzzle. 185 hectares of ecologically significant old-growth forests and estuaries may sound like a lot, but the overall area is so vast - it is the largest coastal temperate rainforest in the world, and I have seen a variety of different estimates of it size, from 32,000 km2 to 21 million acres (about 85,000 km2) or about the size of Ireland - that even a large donation of this type can seem more like a drop in the proverbial ocean. But it is certainly a step in the right direction, and a boost to the protection of a very special part of the world.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are visiting the area later this month, and this will be used as a photo opportunity to endorse the Great Bear Rainforest under the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy Initiative (which aims to conserve forests around the world), although I am not sure what, if any, concrete benefit this might confer.

Grammatical rules we follow unconsciously

I remember being blown away (as were so many other people) the first time I read about the hidden rule on the order of adjectives that we unconsciously follow in English (e.g. we say "great green dragons" and "six small plastic tables", and not "green great dragons" or "plastic small six tables").
We are never explicitly taught this rule; it is largely intuitive - we use it because it just sounds right.
Other than in a few cases where a particular emphasis is intended or to put across a specific precise idea, multiple adjectives are used in the order: Quantity, Value/Opinion, Size, Temperature, Age, Shape, Colour, Origin, Material, Purpose (you may see slight variations on this list, but the essentials are fixed). Interestingly, the rule applies broadly to most languages, and linguists have argued for decades over just why it exists and what is its basis.
The idea that we follow grammatical rules unconsciously has come as a revelation to many people, me included. And now I read in Mental Floss, that there are other such rules, and that we are in fact constantly following a whole bunch of grammatical rules without even knowing it:
  • "My brother's house" sounds better than "the house of my brother", but, on the other hand, "the door of my house" sounds better than "my house's door". The "animacy hierarchy" theory suggests that there is a hierarchy of humannness, going from human to animal to inanimate, and the higher up this scale a noun is, the worse the "of" construction for a possessive sounds.
  • "Abso-freakin'-lutely" and "im-bloody-portant" sound much better than "ab-freakin'-solutely" and "impor-bloody-tant". There is a hidden rule in how we insert expletives into a word for emphasis, and it turns out to be that it sounds better if the expletive comes just before the syllable that is most stressed.
  • "What did you say that he ate?" sounds better than "what did you mumble that he ate?" or "what did you describe that he ate?" This is because "ate" is one of a class of verbs called bridge verbs, while "mumble" and "describe" are not.
  • "I cheered up my friend" sounds fine, but "I cheered up her" does not. This difference, caused by the simple substitution of a pronoun for a noun, occurs because "cheer up" (like "call off", "go over ", "put down", and many others) is what is called a phrasal verb, a verb made up of multiple words that has a different meaning than a simple combination of the words might suggest. However, some of these phrasal verbs are separable by a noun and some are not: you can say "don't pick on my sister" but not "don't pick my sister on", whereas either "I cheered up my friend" or "I cheered my friend up" are acceptable. Even worse, some phrasal verbs that are separable by a noun are not separable by a pronoun, "cheer up" being an example of such a case.
Maybe we should take some comfort from the fact that there ARE in fact some rules for these things, and that they are not just as random a they appear. But what a nightmare! It makes me so glad I never had to learn English as a second language.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Ontario takes a wrong turn on electricity prices

After a couple of weeks away, exploring the wilds of the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, I came back to the unedifying (but perhaps not unexpected) spectacle of the Ontario Liberal Party digging themselves into a bigger and bigger hole.
The Liberals and Premier Wynne (of whom, I have to say, I once entertained great hopes and expectations) have been manifestly floundering in recent months, and integrity and principles have been giving way to political expediency and an apparent preoccupation with the next election (still a couple of years away).
A prime example of this is the recent announcement of a subsidy for electricity prices, an across-the-board and completely unjustifiable measure expected to cost the province over $1 billion. After a few years of good strong leadership on renewable electricity generation and climate change initiatives under ex-Premier Dalton McGuinty (in spite of all the bad press attributed to it), Kathleen Wynne has shown herself to be wishy-washy and equivocal on the energy file. Electricity prices, much more than the price of gas, water, or anything else, has for some reason always been an explosive and highly politicized issue in Ontario, and the Liberals have obviously latched onto it as a means of vote-earning (or at least of damage limitation).
An article by Mike Schreiner, leader of the Ontario Green Party, reported on Huffington Post, does a good job of critiquing this unabashedly political move. As Schreiner points out, the subsidy will be paid out of provincial coffers anyway, and so we will merely be paying it out of our taxes rather than through our electricity bills, with no net savings at all. Worse, it is also a regressive subsidy in that richer people with bigger houses and more profligate electricity usage will benefit the most, while poorer and more energy-responsible households will benefit the least.
Furthermore, it does does nothing to address the base systemic causes of our high electricity prices. Schreiner points out that Ontario currently produces more electricity than it needs, largely as a result of a continued over-reliance on base-load nuclear energy, the excess capacity ending up being sold at a loss. In addition, rolled-over debts from decades of Ontario's nuclear program are responsible for the so-called "debt retirement charge" that appears on our electricity bills each month.
Instead of the Liberals' subsidy, Schreiner suggests an immediate moratorium on new electricity mega-projects, including the billions of dollars that the province inexplicably wants to spend on already-outdated nuclear plants like those at Pickering, which would only serve to increase the surplus electricity we produce.
Secondly, halt the fire-sale of the provincially-owned Energy One utility for short-term financial gain. In the longer term, such a sale will cost the province millions of dollars, and in the process lead to poor energy policy decisions for decades to come.
Thirdly, invest some (or all) of those billions currently earmarked for nuclear plant repairs into energy conservation measures, which, dollar for dollar, still give by far the best bang for the buck. This can be combined with further off-peak pricing breaks, using the existing smart-meter system, to reduce maximum load requirements still further.
And finally, if new generation capacity is needed, build new transmission lines to Quebec, which has an excess of clean hydro power which it is currently exporting to the USA, a solution far less expensive than building or rebuilding nuclear plants.
Good, clear, sensible advice from the Green Party, that the Liberals would do well to heed. But don't hold your breath.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia resist the call of progress

Saskatchewan in particular, under the thumb of dinosaur-in-chief Brad Wall, is now by far the most regressive province in the country, and Mr. Wall sets himself up in opposition to pretty much any progressive initiative the feds might propose, almost as a knee-jerk reaction. He is blustering about bringing court challenges should the federal government have the audacity to impose carbon taxes on his province. I don't know to what extent Wall really represents the views of his province these days, but the fact that he is still there - he has been in power since 2007, and his rightist Saskatchewan Party won their third majority government just this year, so clearly he will be there for a while! - suggests that the majority of the province is just as dinosaurian as he. Which is a scary thought.
Most of Canada's coal production actually comes from British Columbia and Alberta, which have relatively progressive views on climate change and electricity generation these days (although they continue to produce and export coal in large quantities), followed by Saskatchewan. The Atlantic provinces produce relatively little coal today, although historically Maritime coal was much more important, and a coal tradition is deeply entrenched there. About half of Canada's coal production is exported for iron and steel smelting purposes ("coking coal"); the other half is used domestically, mainly for electricity generation ("thermal coal").
Currently, around 44% of Saskatchewan's electricity comes from coal, and 60% of Nova Scotia's and 13% of New Brunswick's. Alberta still relies on coal for about 55% of its electricity production, although it has plans to phase coal use out completely over the next 14 years. BC - like Ontario, Quebec and most other provinces - has already phased out its coal-fired power stations. Canada-wide, only 20% of our electricity generation is now powered by coal (this compares with over 40% in the USA)
The dissenting provinces claim that the federal plan to bring forward the complete phasing out of coal will leave them with worthless technology and drive up electricity prices. New Brunswick Power has plucked a figure of a 38% price increase from somewhere, although most reports suggest that wind power is more than competitive with coal these days. Credit where credit is due, all three provinces are doing something about cutting their carbon emissions, although Mr. Wall is relatively unapologetic and maintains that coal will remain an important part of Saskatchewan's electricity production mix, at least until 2040.
I have little patience with the arguments used, and even less with the attitudes of people like Brad Wall. Like it or not, coal is a moribund industry, and there are many compelling arguments as to why it should be discontinued. The Canadian government has poured subsidies into the coal industry for years, a practice which the current Liberal government has vowed to stop, so that coal will become even less price-competitive. If some coal reserves have to stay in the ground, that is fine by me (much the same can be said for products like asbestos). In the meantime, coal production should be actively discouraged, and investment encouraged instead into 21st century industries like renewable energy and clean tech.
Bluster all you like, Mr. Wall, the world is moving on, and we have to move with it.

The Visitation, the epitome of '80s English feminist literature

It's been a while since I did a book review. Not that I ever stop actually reading books; I'd be lost without a book or two on the go.
I've gradually been accumulating the oeuvre of British feminist author Michèle Roberts over the last thirty years, "gradually" because I buy almost all my books second-hand, and Michèle Roberts is not an author one encounters often in Canadian bookstores (I know I could just go to Amazon and pick up the whole back-catalogue in one fell swoop, but where's the fun in that?)
Anyway? I'm currently reading The Visitation, which dates from the early '80s, but is largely set in a '60s and '70s England that I instantly relate to. Like almost all her books, it follows the fortunes of a passionate but emotionally fragile young woman fighting to be taken seriously in a male-dominated world. Roberts' fiction is more "feminist" than "chick-lit", I would say, and has a challenging edge that stereotypical chick-lit prefers to avoid.
But one thing Ms. Roberts does very well is describe the inner emotional landscape of her characters as well as the more concrete outside world. She is quite capable of flights of naturalistic descriptiveness and poetic fancy ("The day is all white, a cool moist gauziness under the mossy old cedars on the lawn where the sun cannot reach in very far, a dry shimmering whiteness in the open air above the lawn and around the house"), but she doesn't use it to excess. She also has a facility for pithy and poignant epigrams ("By being perfect in her obedience she manages to feel superior to the rules that require it"; "She falls into his embrace like a suicide jumping off a cliff", " She weaves the fabric of the home out of her very self, like a silkworm producing the gold thread from its marrow before it dies"). But again, not to excess - Roberts is, if nothing else, a paragon of English self-restraint and understatement.
The Visitation is, more than anything, a book about relationships: the protagonist Helen's relationship with her parents, with her twin brother, with her grandmother, with various boyfriends and girlfriends, and with herself and her writing. Maybe that makes it chick-lit, I don't know. It also draws heavily on her own life, from her early convent education, her upbringing in suburban London, her university years in Oxford, her time with the British Council in Thailand, and her active participation in the socialist and feminist circles of 1970s London.
There are pregnancies and funerals, ear piercings and pubic shavings, but there is no real story arc or plot as such, just a series of episodes. Towards the end, some important plot-like revelations do seem on the verge of being revealed, but these just tail off and dissipate, deliberately unresolved. Also, I have to say that one can't help disliking most of the characters in the book for one reason or another.
For all that, though, The Visitation is a well-crafted and vital novel, and a fascinating glimpse into the nascent feminism of middle-class 1970s Britain.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Toronto sports teams start to shake underdog reputation

Other than a short period of baseball success in the early '90s, Toronto has been a perpetual underachiever in professional team sports for as long as I can remember. Currently, though - dare I say it? - the city is going through.something of a purple patch.
Our baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays, almost went all the way last season, topping the American League Eastern division, and narrowly (and contentiously) losing the American League title to eventual World Series winners, Kansas City. This year, they are currently sitting pretty at the top of the AL East, and look set for another post-season. Expectations are high.
Our basketball team, the Toronto Raptors, qualified for their second ever play-offs last year, after winning the Atlantic division with record stats, only to fall to eventual championship winners Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals. Expectations are also high for next season.
Unexpectedly, Toronto's soccer team, Toronto FC (the Reds), who experienced their first foray into playoff territory in 2015, are also top of the Eastern division at the moment, above main rivals and fellow-Canadians, the Montreal Impact. Another post-season may well be in prospect, although expectations remain relatively modest (apart from among their rabid core supporters).
And our hockey team, the Toronto Maple Leafs? Well, they remain a work in progress. They made a brief (and unexpected) appearance in the playoffs in 2013 for the first time since 2004, but have languished at or near the bottom of their conference ever since. Expectations are pretty much non-existent for next season. But, buoyed by the stellar performances of our other teams, who knows?