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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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Canada has said it is serious about climate change, but environmentalists complain the government has not passed any laws to mandate industry cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. At least one town has decided to take the issue of climate change into its own hands. Karen Kelly reports.


CURWOOD: Canada's government has made it clear that for now at least, it's not going to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. It says it's waiting for the U.S. to come along. But Canada's official response isn't stopping the residents of one of its towns. The people of Perth Ontario are already reducing greenhouse gases with a program they developed themselves. Karen Kelly reports

M. PEGG: This is my garden. It just keeps getting bigger and cutting out the grass. I mean the idea, what we're trying to do, is mulch more...

KELLY: Maureen Pegg stands on one of the few remaining pieces of grass in her backyard. She recently mulched most of the footpaths. Everything else has been taken over by a jumble of tiger lilies, raspberry bushes and rows of vegetables. Pegg says it's only a matter of time before her grass disappears altogether.

M. PEGG: It's a conservation measure, less water used, less energy used in the long run.

[push mower ambience]

KELLY: In the front yard, Maureen's husband, Sid, is drawing long, straight lines with a push mower.

S. PEGG: As a kid, I had to use one. You save electricity, you don't use gas, and it's very good exercise for me.

[outdoors ambience]

KELLY: Conservation is part of the Peggs' everyday life. They use rainbarrels to collect water for the garden. They compost their weeds and food scraps, reducing their garbage. They disconnected their dishwasher and now they throw the soapy water on their plants. And, they leave their car at home. The Peggs see these as baby steps in the fight against climate change. But they believe their actions can make a difference.

M. PEGG: I think I've become much more aware of things that little people can do. That it doesn't have to be 'the government' doing it for you, that it can come from the bottom up.

S. PEGG: It's the right thing to do. And we taught that to our kids. If more and more people get involved, it's better for the environment.

[outdoors ambience continues]

KELLY: The Peggs have always tried to conserve -- but say they've taken extra steps since their town pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by the year 2010. The drive is being led by a nonprofit organization called ecoPerth. The group was started in 1999 with the help of a federal grant. It's mission is to make their hometown of Perth, Ontario the most climate-friendly community in Canada. Alfred Von Mirbach is one of ecoPerth's founders. He says they saw an opportunity to make climate change a local issue.

VON MIRBACH: If we could get people really to come on board, they would understand a real big picture of what this is about. And so here was an opportunity to work with that at so many different levels and try to get people to embrace a more eco-efficient way of being and more particularly, we could do it in our little community.

KELLY: In some ways, Perth seems ripe for this transformation. It's a town of just 6 thousand people, with a healthy dose of artists, farmers and city folks in search of a simpler lifestyle. There are also big cars, fast food, and the trappings of modern life. Von Mirbach says they realize that most people aren't going to change their lifestyle to address a global problem like climate change. So, ecoPerth mainly focuses on economics and quality of life. Greenhouse gas reduction is presented as an added benefit. The group's motto is "Awareness Through Action."

VON MIRBACH: We just said, well let's do the actions, if people see the actions, then they'll understand what we're doing.

KELLY: Actions like the local flavor campaign, which links local farmers with stores and consumers. Not only does this increase support for neighboring farms, it reduces the fuel spent on long distance deliveries. ecoPerth also convinced the police to adopt bicycle patrols. And they sponsor tire pressure clinics, to improve cars' fuel efficiency. Von Mirbach says ecoPerth's job is to make it easy for people to do the right thing.

VON MIRBACH: They don't have to know why we're doing it particularly. They may be doing it because it reduces a parking problem, not because it reduces CO2 emissions. But once they come on, if they see that they've been involved in five or ten ecoPerth actions and they understand now that those all actually have CO2 benefits to them, then they'll embrace it.

KELLY: ecoPerth estimates that, so far, about ten percent of the townspeople have taken steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. And they're hoping those folks will serve as role models for their neighbors.

MAN: It's also wise to put a little bone meal as a phosphorus source....(fades under)

KELLY: At the ecoPerth annual tree sale, volunteers offer advice on energy efficient landscaping. They suggest planting evergreen trees to block the winter winds. And shrubs around the house to prevent heat loss. And they point out that air conditioners don't have to work as hard when they're shaded by trees. Brochures explain that a single tree will remove ten kilograms of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year. If it's planted for energy efficiency, ecoPerth estimates it'll help remove 100 kilograms of CO2. Perth resident Kathy Wilson is planting trees to reduce wind exposure and provide shade.

WILSON: I think it's really important because of the value of the trees and what they put back into the environment and the cleansing effects of the trees.

[Tree sale ambience continues]

KELLY: More than 18 thousand trees have been sold over the past three years. That's an average of three trees per Perth resident. The group draws people into programs with discounts and the promise of savings on their energy bills. For instance, rain barrels are sold at cost. And ecoPerth uses federal funding to provide discounts on solar hot water systems. Von Mirbach says they try to appeal to the things people care about.

VON MIRBACH: That's the sort of carrot-stick combination that we're really hoping gets people on board. So they say okay, if you're going to help me part of the way, then for sure I'll do this and so it's great from a greenhouse gas standpoint.

KELLY: Using economic incentives has worked with the town council, as well.

[sound of door opening and then walking upstairs]

KELLY: Jim Connell climbs a narrow staircase to the attic of Perth's town hall. He ducks to avoid hitting his head on the low beams. And then points to a 150-year-old stone wall layered with pink insulation.

CONNELL: Part of this project is to seal the perimeter at the attic reducing some energy consumption that way.

KELLY: Connell is the town's building inspector and he's overseeing the energy retrofit of five buildings. The program includes installation of energy efficient lighting, timed thermostats, and room sensors that automatically turn off the lights. Connell says ecoPerth initiated an energy audit of the town's buildings. Once councilors found out how much they'd save, he says, it was an easy sell.

CONNELL: The major motivating factor is if you can carry out a certain amount of work and see the capital returned in the energy savings, it only makes sense to do that.

KELLY: The project will cost an estimated 260,000 American dollars. It's expected to save the town about 30,000 dollars a year in energy costs. And the extra bonus is it'll reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by more than 140 tons annually. That's about 30 percent of the town's total emissions. ecoPerth's Alfred Von Mirbach says this example paves the way for a retrofit of larger businesses. It's expected all of these projects will help Perth achieve about half of its greenhouse gas reductions. It's also given the town a bit of notoriety. Last year, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities named Perth the most sustainable community in Canada. And the ecoPerth founders often travel to help communities interested in creating similar programs. Environmentalists like John Bennett of the Sierra Club of Canada say these grassroots projects are worthwhile. But the Canadian government has to do more.

BENNETT: We have not passed one law in Canada, not one law, that will make significant changes in our greenhouse gas emissions. So we're not serious about this, we're not serious at all.

KELLY: But Neil McLeod insists the government is serious about climate change. He's Director General of the Office of Energy Efficiency in the Ministry of Natural Resources.

McLeod says the government sponsors voluntary programs for industry. And it's spending almost 720,000,000 dollars on climate change education and research over the next five years. McLeod contends tougher laws aren't necessary.

MCLEOD: We prefer the voluntary approach in Canada and we monitor it closely and when we have a voluntary program in place and it works, we don't see any reason to have a bunch of laws and regulations. It can just introduce a lot of bureaucracy, sometimes you need to do that, but if you can achieve what you need to achieve without getting into all that, we'd rather try that first.

KELLY: But the lack of existing federal legislation is discouraging for some residents of Perth. Sid Pegg is one of many who wonders why the government isn't doing more.

S. PEGG: You can do a lot on the grassroots level, but you still look to your leaders, look to your government, they have to take a big step and they have to take care of all the air emissions and the pollution themselves. They're saying it, and they must do it. And then that will give the grassroot people more hope that what they're doing is the correct thing.

[push mower sfx]

KELLY: Every time Sid Pegg uses his push mower or his composter, it gives him a bit of hope, that he's taking a step in the right direction. He's not sure when, or if, the Canadian government will force the big polluters to make sacrifices, as well. But until then, he and the people of ecoPerth will continue to take matters into their own hands - and keep encouraging their neighbors to do the same. For Living on Earth, I'm Karen Kelly in Perth, Ontario.




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