Copyright Southam Publications Inc. Jan 13, 2008

A carbon tax would boost greener cars;

Advocates say time has come to plug-in cars;

TO meet the provincial goal of slashing 33 per cent of British Columbia's carbon emissions by 2020, most climate change policy watchers say the atmosphere must be priced.

It can no longer be a free dumping ground for our carbon emissions -- primarily from burning fossil fuels, they say.

Many are calling for a carbon tax.

Pricing the atmosphere would help kick-start a shift away from dirty technologies on a wide scale across many sectors. The transportation sector, which accounts for 40 per cent of British Columbia's greenhouse gases, would be forever changed by car co-op networks and electric cars, while the province's green hydro power would be augmented with other green energies like waste hydrogen and geothermal power.

It doesn't have to be a carbon tax. But capping certain industry emissions is basically a dressed-up tax. It's also clumsy, administratively bureaucratic and, as the Europeans have learned, potentially exploitable. A tax would be more broadly applied and require the least amount of government administration.

Unfortunately the word "tax" is not usually uttered by politicians unless it's followed by the word "cut." The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE), a federal advisory board, just released its report calling for a carbon tax. It was denounced in Alberta, by the federal Conservative government, and received little attention by the federal Liberals.

A carbon tax is nevertheless an option B.C. Finance Minister Carole Taylor is said to be seriously considering in the upcoming budget after receiving numerous letters in support, including a letter signed by 69 B.C. economists. One of those economists was SFU economic modeler Mark Jaccard, who recently penned a book with Globe and Mail columnist Jeffery Simpson and Nike Rivers on Canada's climate change policy. (He is also an NRTEE board member.)

In the book, Hot Air: Meeting Canada's Climate Change Challenge, the authors argue that if the tax is done right, it doesn't have to be a cash grab destroying the economy. The tax should start out small and grow incrementally each year so that people and businesses can adapt and change their behaviour. To make it a politically feasible tax, the revenue could be shifted back to the public so that income and corporate tax could be cut in relation to what the carbon tax brings in.

In 40 years, the overall increase to the average energy budget wouldn't be that high, says Jaccard, based on his computer-assisted models.

"For a typical person in a rich country, energy is on average something like six per cent of our annual budget -- the amount we spend on energy services: heating, cooling, mobility and electricity," said Jaccard in an interview. "Energy might end up being, instead of six per cent of our budget, it might be eight per cent of our budget."

As people adapt to the rising price of burning gasoline, one option predicted to become more popular would be selling the family car and joining a car co-operative, like the Vancouver-based Co- operative Auto Network (CAN). CAN is easy to use: you pay a membership, book a car online and with a little bit of luck you're driving within the hour in a car that was parked just around the block.

The District of North Vancouver just signed a deal with CAN to encourage their employees to drive less. At district hall, they've got a car on hand that staff can share. Having the Toyota Prius hybrid on hand, staff can take a bus to work and use the car in case of emergencies, for outside meetings or for errands at lunch time.

"If one of those instances come up, where they have to run an errand or they have to do one of those things, the car is there -- go book it, go take it, go use it," said Tracey Axelsson, executive director and founder of the co-op.

The car is open to network members in the evening and on weekends. As well, there is a dedicated parking stall in Edgemont Village (on Newmarket Drive) for any CAN vehicles.

The co-op started in 1996 with 16 people and two cars, now they've got 201 cars and 4,000 members across the Lower Mainland, says Axelsson. She said for each car shared in the co-op, six to 10 cars are taken off the road. That means the co-op is taking roughly 1,600 cars off the road in the Lower Mainland.

The district got wind of the network through some of the rezoning deals the City of Vancouver cut with developers. In Vancouver, there is a bylaw (the first of its kind in the world, says Axelsson) giving developers a break in the number of expensive underground parking stalls they have to build if they dedicated some spots to the car network. The district liked the idea and has recently been cutting similar deals with developers, who in turn save a ton of money.

"They are saving millions of dollars, while we are saving the world," says Axelsson with a hearty laugh.

Since it's inception, the car co-op has averaged about 35 per cent growth each year, but that would only speed up with a carbon tax, says Axelsson.

"That is the solution that will change everything," says Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association spokesman John Stonier of a carbon tax.

Stonier, whose association is a mix of enthusiasts and techies, says it's only a matter of time before the public figures out that electric cars are now cheaper than, and just as functional as, a gas- powered car. With a carbon tax, that recognition by consumers and ultimately producers would only accelerate.

"I'm not buying a new car until I can buy a brand new electric car," says Stonier defiantly.

The breakthroughs in battery technologies using lithium ion batteries, like the ones used in cellphones, have completely changed the nature of the electric car, he says. The new breed of plug-in hybrids, part lithium battery and part gas powered motor, will get about 60 kilometres on the battery before the motor kicks in to recharge. Their release dates from the major car companies is still unknown, but Ford has speculated that they will roll out their plug- in hybrid in the next three to five years.

Meanwhile, Stonier, a chartered accountant by trade, is converting a gas-powered car to an electric car. He expects it will get 150-200 km before it needs a recharge. He says the only reason the roads aren't already full of pure plug-ins is because the major car companies are slowing their release. He notes that a typical internal combustion engine has 640 moving parts, but a pure electric car has only one moving part. "They (the auto industry) are really going to have to change how they do things: write off transmission plants, engine plants, radiator plants, catalytic converter plants, all these things that internal combustion engines require," says Stonier. "A carbon tax would get the economy going in the right direction."

The time we would have to adapt to the slow-growing tax would have a cost, but not a huge cost, says Jaccard. He is a pragmatist, who does not see a near future where we all become vegans and bike to work. His view, which he says angers his environmentalist friends, is that in the future we will still need energy from fossil fuels, but that emissions would have to be cut, not the energy use.

"We have an emissions problem not an energy problem," says Jaccard.

With an incremental carbon tax, coal and the tar sands won't become obsolete; rather, to save paying taxes, the coal and tar sand producer would shift their production methods so their emissions become neutral, says Jaccard. By capturing the carbon and sequestering it in geologically secure locations, such as where the oil was trapped before it was pumped out, coal and the tar sands could form a part of a sustainable energy future. The capturing and storing technologies exist for separate processes, but are not yet commercially combined for carbon storage, he says. Again something that would change with a carbon tax.

The zero-emitting tar sands and the coal plants would then be directly hooked into the electricity grid to be used by plug-in electric cars, or would create hydrogen for hydrogen fuel cell- powered cars.

Stonier argues that both hydrogen fuel cells and capturing emissions are uneconomical. As the technology stands today, lithium ion batteries are much cheaper than hydrogen fuel cell batteries.

"The whole hydrogen fuel cell technology actually works, but there is only one problem that has bogged it from the very beginning, it's extremely expensive," says Stonier.

Stonier says capturing emissions is silly and too expensive; he thinks the big drills of the oil industry should be used instead to access geothermal energy. According to UBC professors Mory Ghomshei and John Meech, beneath British Columbia there is enough geothermal power to meet half of B.C.'s current energy needs. It's sitting untapped.

Also sitting untapped on the North Shore is enough hydrogen to operate a fleet of 20,000 cars. It's created as an industrial by- product by two North Vancouver chemical companies Nexen and Erco, but the vast majority is being wasted. Only a small part is being processed by H-tech, a North Vancouver company, to be used for eight trucks, two shuttle buses, four TransLink buses and, ironically, a car wash.

With an incremental carbon tax it would be up to the big players to figure out what was worth their time and energy: capturing emissions, using waste hydrogen, accessing geothermal heat or any other systems.

Meanwhile, it would give people time to join the car network or buy a plug-in electric car at a pace that isn't forcing their hand or breaking the bank. The key is the incremental rate of increase, so it can coincide with the natural turnover rate and lifespan of systems so it's not too expensive for businesses and consumers.

The biggest problem we face is that the time frame of the natural turnover rate is becoming tighter and tighter in relation to what the science is demanding.

To avoid dangerous climate change, something above a two degree increase in warming, scientists are saying we need to cut our emissions by 25 to 40 per cent by 2020 and close to 80 per cent by mid century. The longer we wait, the more difficult that will be to achieve.
Photo: Mike Wakefield, North Shore News / TANYA PAZ (left) of the Co- operative Auto Network watches as District of North Vancouver Mayor Richard Walton gets ready to take Patrick Golier, district transportation planner, for a spin in the co-op Toyota Prius at district hall. The car is available to staff in the day and residents in the evening and at weekends. ;

jon stonier, raphael lopoukhine

Photo: Raphael Lopoukhine, North Shore News / JOHN Stonier, a member of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association, is converting a two-door coupe to run on electricity. ;

Credit: North Shore News