Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Conservation starts at the top in U.K.

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LONDON -- The knock on the door at my parents' home in the northern English city of Leeds was from a government worker with a clipboard and a pleasant manner. She wanted to know if my parents had received the government grant to bring their roof insulation up to new standards.

Yes, they had. The insulation had been done, the grant had paid for it and, in the politest possible way, the government had confirmed that their intentions had been carried out.

The government snooping and the presence of the insulation grant illustrate just how serious the British administrations of prime minister Tony Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, have been in tackling energy consumption in an effort to reduce carbon emissions and thereby do the country's part in reducing global climate change. So far, David Cameron's Conservative government is following in their footsteps.

Britain, unlike Canada, met its Kyoto Protocol commitment to reduce its carbon emissions by 12.5 per cent from 1990 levels. Britain had set a further target of a 20 per cent reduction by this year that it's going to miss. Britain shouldn't be given too much credit for its achievement of the Kyoto target. Much of the reduction in carbon emissions has come from a switch from coal-fired power stations to much cleaner electricity generation from natural gas, a switch that causes no pain at all to consumers.

Nevertheless, the U.K. is being far more serious about cutting carbon emissions and reducing energy than Canada. Canada would do well to pay attention.

In some ways, the U.K. has it easier. Its climate, while often dismally wet and grey, is far more temperate than Canada's. There are no Winnipeg-style, -30 days in winter. Homes need less heating and most don't need air conditioning.

Before the advent of North Sea oil, Britain was an oil and gas-importing nation. Gasoline was heavily taxed and expensive. When North Sea oil came on stream, gasoline prices remained high and the government pocketed the revenue.

As a result, Britain's cars have always been far smaller than those in Canada and the United States and more fuel-efficient. With a premium on space in a crowded country, homes are smaller and appliances are appropriately smaller too. The average British fridge and stove are about half the size of the North American equivalent.

Household utilities have always been expensive. Any Canadian who has visited their U.K. relatives has learned to put up with the slow drip from showers that have a hard time producing enough water pressure to rinse off the soap.

Now, with a certain amount of predictable grumbling and significant cajoling and forcing by the authorities, Britons appear to have accepted the need to conserve energy in a way Canadians and Americans have so far failed to do.

A typical hardware store is stocked with far more energy-saving light bulbs than the traditional incandescent variety that still hang in most Canadian homes. My mother says she hates them -- mostly because they don't come on instantly but gradually become brighter -- but she uses them anyway.

My parents have an electricity meter -- supplied free -- which constantly monitors their supply and is an incentive to use cheaper off-peak power and to understand which appliances are big users, which are not and which can just be shut off.

The meters will gradually be introduced to most homes. At the same time, there are tentative plans to generate electricity from floating wind farms off the U.K. coast and the privately owned transmission company, the National Grid, is working on a plan to integrate power transmission with Europe so that energy generated from renewable resources such as wind and water can be balanced between countries of the European Union.

In short, the U.K. is a long way along a journey that Canada has barely started. Most importantly, perhaps, is the change of attitude. Brits may complain, but conservation is gradually becoming a way of life. Toilets in hotels all have water-saving flushes, you have to pay a $13 "congestion" charge to drive your car in central London. Consequently, most people take public transit to work.

It would be impossible, not to say impractical, to import the British way of energy saving and carbon reduction to Canada. The carrot and stick approach of the insulation grants, however, could well work in Canada.

If government shows it is serious about tackling energy consumption, attitudes start to change and a genuine attack on carbon emissions starts to become possible.

At the moment, the lackadaisical attitude of Canada's federal government gives the population a free pass. If the government doesn't think energy conservation is important, why should we? The U.K. government has acted differently. We don't need to do exactly what they have done, but we do need to act. The U.K. lesson is that where government leads, the people follow.

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 14, 2010 A14

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