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Best to target the pipeline 'johns'

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Governments, especially western governments, have long grappled with how to deal with the world's oldest profession. Many countries ban prostitution outright. Others, like the Netherlands or the state of Nevada, have legalized it. Canada has the most bizarre approach -- prostitution is legal but it is a criminal act to talk about it. No country has succeeded in doing away with it.

The problem is one of basic economics. If there is a strong demand for a product, human ingenuity will figure out a way to meet that demand. There is always a demand for sex for pay, hence prostitution. Trying to stop the practice by focusing on the providers of the service is doomed to failure if the demand remains the same. But what if one focused on trying to reduce the demand rather than attack the supply side? It's not exactly rocket science. Sweden, with its long history as a social innovator, decided a few years ago to criminalize the purchase of sex rather than the selling of it. The measures met with some success and other countries are considering following this "Nordic model."

What does this have to do with pipelines? The highest-profile environmental cause in the United States right now is opposition to the Keystone pipeline. Vast sums of money and untold hours of volunteer and paid time are being expended with a view to convincing U.S. President Barack Obama to veto this project.

The rationale is this pipeline is intended to bring "dirty oil" from Alberta's oilsands to refineries on the Gulf Coast. If the pipeline does not get built, so the thinking goes, oilsands producers will have no way to get their product to market, bitumen will stay in the ground, and the planet will be better off.

Right! And locking up a few hookers will cause the johns to stay home and behave. The "johns" of the big bad pipeline are the millions of drivers of oversized and overpowered motor vehicles. Plug the pipeline and they will leave their SUVs in the driveway. Right!

Of course they won't! Oil companies will feed the appetite one way or another -- by using railcars, by building alternate pipelines in Eastern and Western Canada, by substituting equally dirty Venezuelan and Mexican oil for the Alberta oilsands product. In fact, a major "environmental victory" on Keystone could conceivably result in an increase in greenhouse gases.

So what's the solution? Follow the "Nordic model" and target the johns with heavy fines. Attack the demand side rather than the supply side, whether the demand is for dirty sex or dirty oil. In either case, behaviour modification is needed. Few things modify behaviour more than being hit in the pocketbook.

Environmental groups should move away from their fixation with pipelines and direct their efforts toward the establishment of hefty carbon taxes. That may be politically toxic but it's the only thing that is guaranteed to work.

Four decades ago, we got ample proof of behaviour modification through the imposition of a massive global carbon tax. Of course it wasn't called a carbon tax back then, it was called the OPEC oil embargo, but by whatever name it worked spectacularly well. Car companies could not keep up with the demand for compact fuel-efficient vehicles while their gas guzzlers couldn't get off the lot. Industries suddenly started taking energy efficiency and conservation seriously. Speed limits in the U.S. were dropped to 55 mph, with hundreds of lives saved on the highways as an added bonus.

Most importantly, the production of greenhouse gases went into decline. But it didn't last. OPEC could not hold the line, the price of oil edged back down, drivers and businesses went back to their profligate ways, and the planet keeps getting hotter. We need to push the reset button on energy the way the Nordic countries refocused their sights on the issue of prostitution: target the clients.

Roger Turenne is a political analyst and past president of Nature Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 10, 2014 A11

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