Not any more

MPs’ hot air: Summer travel for committees has left big carbon footprint

In Canada on August 29, 2010 at 19:45

OTTAWA — The planes, trains and automobiles MPs used to travel to the nation’s capital this summer for 10 special committee meetings pumped more than 23 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — more than four times the amount an average Canadian produces in a year.

And that number climbed even higher Friday when the House of Commons’ industry, science and technology committee held its eighth extraordinary meeting since the House rose in June.

Only two committees — industry and public safety — have reconvened in Ottawa this summer. Committees don’t normally meet with Parliament isn’t sitting.

Although some of the 56 MPs and 32 witnesses were already in Ottawa, most had to travel for these meetings. That translated into 89 plane trips, 64 car rides and four train trips, according to Postmedia News calculations. In total, those vehicles travelled about 109,357 kilometres across the country, all the while leaving trails of greenhouse gases in their wakes.

While these emissions represent a tiny fraction of the 750 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted nationwide annually, the government should “lead by example” and enact programs to help curb its impact on the environment, says Matthew Bramley, director of the climate-change program at the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank.

“Parliamentarians need to think of keeping travelling and emissions to a reasonable level,” he said. “When they have to fly, which they will because it’s part of their job and because of the size of this country, there would ideally be a collective plan in Parliament to help offset the greenhouse gas emissions.”

Typically, committee meetings take place while the House is in session, saving the time and cost of bringing MPs back to Ottawa from their ridings. Some critics have speculated that the summer meetings have been little more than grandstanding.

“All the hot air in that room, all the politicians talking and being peacocks over the census, I think that’s where the big carbon footprint comes from,” said president of the National Citizens Coalition Peter Coleman, who flew from Toronto to Ottawa when he was asked to speak as a witness at the July 27 industry committee meeting.

Even MPs have said some of the meetings they travelled for were “a waste” of resources.

“The meeting accomplished absolutely nothing,” Conservative MP Brian Jean said about an Aug. 10 public safety committee meeting, which the Tories called to request a study on airline safety. The meeting was prompted after a YouTube video raised concerns that veiled women might be boarding flights in Canada without being properly identified. The committee quickly decided it was not the right group to study the issue, so the item was dropped.

As it stands, buying carbon offsets — donating a dollar amount per kilogram of carbon dioxide to a program that works to reduce emissions — is left to the discretion of individual MPs, according to Heather Bradley, communications director for the speaker of the House of Commons.

With about 20 organizations of varying quality in Canada that provide offsets, choosing an appropriate program can be difficult, Bramley said.

“As an organization, Parliament has the resources and the responsibility to look at reducing emissions and to find a good program,” he said. “They can’t just leave it up to the goodwill of a few specific individuals.”

NDP MP Don Davies, who chaired the public safety committee on July 5 after flying in from Vancouver, said he buys offsets to mitigate the carbon footprint for his Parliamentary travels.

Some members, such as Liberal MP Marc Garneau from Montreal and Jean, who flew from Fort McMurray, Alta., said they take advantage of the trip to Ottawa by staying a few days and fulfilling several obligations. Still others said they ask MPs with ridings closer to the Hill to stand in as replacements at the meetings.

The estimated carbon footprint for summer meetings was calculated using information provided by 61 of the members and witnesses called to industry committee meetings on July 20, 23 and 27, and Aug. 16 and 20, and the public safety committee meetings July 5 and 12 and Aug. 10. Calculations for those MPs and witnesses who did not disclose their method of travel, despite repeated requests, were based on the distance travelled. The data were fed into an online calculator, planetair.ca, which was recommended by the Pembina Institute.

Carbon emissions from car trips were all calculated using as a base a 2005 Toyota Corolla with an automatic transmission — “a good, basic and popular model. It’s not quite a Prius, but not an SUV,” said Veronique Morin, project director for planetair.ca.

While Bramley said he urges Parliamentarians to set a good example, he says his bigger concern is that government ensures all Canadians have the resources to decrease and offset their emissions, which, per capita, are roughly twice those of most European countries, three times higher than in China and 10 times higher than in India.

“As Canadians, we are emitting way beyond our fair share,” he said. After accounting for industrial emissions, which contribute approximately three-quarters of the nation’s output, the average Canadian is responsible for emitting about five to six tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, Bramley said. “There is limited space in the atmosphere for greenhouse gases. And Canadians are really taking up too much space.”

© Copyright (c) Postmedia News

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