Suzuki: We don't need cheaper gas, we need options
- A well-reasoned story about the price of oil in the mass media by Canada's
most well-known scientist and environmentalist.
The Globe and Mail is one of Canada's two "national" newspapers.
The Globe and Mail, Tuesday, September 12, 2000
We don't need cheaper gas, we need options
No matter what OPEC does, the price of oil keeps rising. And so it should,
says David Suzuki, until it reflects the real cost of burning fossil fuels
by David Suzuki
Everyone's complaining about high gasoline prices. Who can blame them?
After all, we're paying 40 per cent more for gasoline now than we were a
little more than a year ago and any time we get hit with a price increase
like that, we'll be annoyed.
But when gas prices rise, people seem to get especially enraged. Why?
I think there are two reasons. First, Canadians are quick to suspect they
are being gouged either by oil companies or the government -- neither of
whom they particularly care for. But I think the second reason is more
salient: Canadians hate high gas prices because they don't think they have
a choice. They see gasoline as a necessary staple like bread or milk. So
every time the price of gas goes up, there's a little bit less left in our
pockets for other necessities.
It seems that we have two choices. If we want to save money, we can either
burn less gasoline, or cut the cost of gasoline by reducing taxes (getting
OPEC or the oil companies to drop their prices is not likely an option).
The next question then becomes: Are we paying too much for gas in Canada?
Consider the cost of two products sold by the litre, gasoline and bottled
water. Many Canadians will gladly pay $2 for a bottle of water that was
simply collected at a natural spring, filtered, bottled and delivered to
the store. But we are outraged at the thought of paying 80 cents for a
litre of gasoline, which started as crude oil, requiring extensive
exploration and test drilling to find and a pumping infrastructure to
extract (processes which emit pollution and greenhouse gases). Then it has
to be transported to a refinery for processing (more pollution), and
finally delivered to market as gasoline. Only then do we buy and burn it,
usually in inefficient engines, creating pollution yet again.
Fossil fuels such as gasoline are integral to our current economy. They
are used to transport people and goods, generate electricity, heat our
homes and cook our food. But fossil fuels are also non-renewable; when we
burn them, there's that much less for future generations. Burning them also
causes air and water pollution and climate change, and it contributes to
other problems such as urban sprawl, gridlock traffic and car accidents.
These impacts are very costly. According to federal government statistics,
as many as 16,000 Canadians die prematurely each year from air pollution.
When you consider these increased costs to society, gasoline is actually
under-priced. Indeed, in many European nations gasoline costs twice what it
does here and the tax revenue generated is used to improve public
transportation and encourage energy efficiency.
Canada, meanwhile, is the only country in the developed world that does
not provide meaningful federal funding for public transit.
There are now more than 18 million vehicles in Canada. According to the
World Bank, in the next 10 years the world's total will reach one billion.
If these vehicles continue to guzzle gas, we will deplete our oil reserves
much more quickly, oil prices will continue to skyrocket due to increasing
demand, and our air, water and soils will suffer from greater pollution.
That's the trend in Canada, where some 300,000 more vehicles will roll
onto our streets this year. According to a study by Vancouver's Translink,
more families are buying second and even third vehicles. This has increased
traffic volume in the city by eight per cent in the past four years, while
the area's population has risen by just 4 per cent.
To make matters worse, half of these vehicles are inefficient SUVs, pickup
trucks and mini-vans that take up more road space, further increasing
traffic congestion and air pollution. Building bigger roads helps, but not
for long. In the end it simply encourages more cars, which quickly leads to
It's a vicious cycle. We only have to look south of the border to many
American cities for a glimpse of our future: vast freeways, sprawling
suburbs and even greater reliance on the automobile. This will hit us right
in the pocketbook because oil prices are expected too increase in the long
term and health care costs will continue to rise.
Instead of calling for reduced fuel taxes, which will only reduce prices
by a few cents a litre, we should be fighting for improved energy
efficiency legislation, better public transit and urban growth management,
and more fuel-efficient vehicles. Outdated federal fuel efficiency
regulations have not kept pace with new technology and loopholes allow
passenger vehicles like SUVs and mini-vans to be classified as "light
trucks," which means they can burn more fuel and pollute more. The
proliferation of these vehicles means that we get an average of 13 per cent
less mileage from our new vehicle fleet than we did a decade ago.
Consumers do have some options. My family just bought our first brand new
car in 30 years. It's a gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle that more than
doubles fuel efficiency and reduces some pollutants by as much as 90 per
cent. If we drive the average annual distance (which we won't) of 20,000
kms, it will cost us just $600 for gasoline. By comparison, driving the
same distance in an average SUV would cost $2,600 and generate more than
four times the pollutants.
But it's not just in transportation where we have to use our fossil fuels
more efficiently. In the coming weeks, the world will focus on the Olympics
in Sydney, Australia, for what have been dubbed the "Green Games." Although
they will not entirely live up to that name, the Games will showcase the
kinds of energy-efficient technologies that we will need in the near future
to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels -- and ultimately save money.
The Athletes' Village, for example, is a model of efficiency, designed
from the ground up to incorporate natural lighting, heating and cooling.
And electricity and hot water both come from solar power. The Sydney Games
are also the first "car-free" Olympics, meaning no vast parking lots will
be paved to accommodate spectators. Instead, they will be encouraged to get
to the events by foot, bicycle or the expanded public transit system, which
will be left as a legacy of the Games.
Reducing our reliance on automobiles, reducing fuel consumption and
increasing energy efficiency are essential to a healthy, sustainable
future. The lessons we can learn from the Olympics in Sydney and from new
technologies such as hybrid vehicles, and soon fuel cells, is that these
changes do not mean a reduced standard of living. Instead, they will free
us from being chained to an increasingly expensive, polluted, fossil-fuel
dominated future and provide us with cleaner choices that will leave Canada
as a society better off.
Scientist, author and broadcaster David Suzuki is chair of the
Vancouver-based Suzuki Foundation
Kevin Miller <mailto:miller_4@...>
"In the last fifty years, North Americans have used up more resources than
all the rest of the world in all previous history." David Brower, 1996