Toronto doing what it can

Toronto City HallThis is what you get when governments with appropriate powers to fix genuine problems abdicate their responsibilities:

Tolls on Toronto-area highways, a ban on gas-powered lawnmowers and leaf blowers, a requirement for hybrid taxis and a massive retrofit of city buildings are all needed to slash greenhouse gas emissions in Canada’s biggest city, according to a Toronto city report.

The report, issued late yesterday, calls for efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 6 per cent within five years; 30 per cent by 2020; and 80 per cent by 2050. It also asks council to find ways to reduce smog-causing pollutants by one-fifth over the next five years.

“This will change everything about the way Torontonians live,” Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park), vice-chair of the parks and environment committee and a longtime environmentalist, said of the report…

Franz Hartmann of the Toronto Environmental Alliance said the report contains “some very, very good recommendations and elements.” He called the proposed ban, by 2011, on the two-stroke engines fantastic.”

Councillor Paula Fletcher, who chairs the parks group, said the phase-out would be gradual. The city will start replacing its mowers next year and other city vehicles will become more environmentally friendly over time.

“We banned pesticides,” she said. “Why not ban things that are destroying things, that are bad for the environment in every neighborhood?”

All this stuff described in the Toronto Star story I’m quoting from is in a menu of options for greening up Toronto (PDF) offered by the city’s bureaucracy, partly but definitely not exclusively by cracking down on things that emit greenhouse gases. (The proposal for road tolls is a little bomb tossed at the provincial government, incidentally, whose acquiescence would be needed. There’s an election schedule for October and this is one no politician seeking votes in Toronto is going to want to touch with a 50-foot subway car.)

Many of the options are reasonable, particularly those to do with making the city’s own operations more efficient. And with others, the goals are quite desirable — leaf-blowers don’t do anything you can’t do with a rake, and modern push-mowers are easily as good as gas-powered ones for a typical lawn. Getting rid of them would be a good thing.

It’s the means that are awful: ban this little thing here, ban that little thing there, command by legislative fiat behaviour that rational people wouldn’t choose on their own (in particular, pity taxi drivers who might have to spend extra on hybrid cars whether hybrid engines achieve the desired effect or not). How will we enforce all this stuff? Don’t really know. Neighbours will tell on their neighbours and maybe somebody from bylaw will come by an hour later to see if the guy’s still mowing, probably.

Toronto’s resorting to this partly because its city council is dominated by — not unanimously controlled by, but dominated by — angry nannies, but also partly because the municipal government is using the tools available to it under Canadian law.

Toronto can’t apply a carbon tax or any variation thereof, to make the gasoline that powers those hated two-stroke engines more expensive and encourage individuals to find the best alternatives for themselves. But it can ban just about anything it feels like banning. So that’s what it’s doing.

(Photo credit: “Toronto City Hall 2,” Flickr/bennylin0724.)

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