An interview with François Bregha
Since graduating from York University with a master’s degree in environmental studies, François Bregha has spent 30 years working in the environmental field, with organizations such as the Canadian Wildlife Federation, the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, and Environment Canada. Since 1988 he has worked as a policy consultant, and he is now vice-president of Stratos, an Ottawa-based company that assists business, government and international institutions “in the development and implementation of more sustainable practices and policies.”
Arthur Milner met with François Bregha at the Ottawa offices of Stratos on February 15, 2005.
ARTHUR MILNER: Tomorrow marks the official implementation of the Kyoto Accord. Are you excited?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: I’m pleased that it’s finally come, because for a long time it was touch and go as to whether there would be enough signatory countries to ratify the protocol. So the fact that it has become international law is great. However, the difficulties that we had concerning implementation of the accord demonstrate that it’s going to be a very difficult road.
ARTHUR MILNER: How do you think Canada is positioned right now?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: Very poorly – in part because we signed on to quite aggressive targets compared with other countries, and then we’ve spent the last several years talking about them but not doing very much. As a result, it’s evident that we will not be able to meet the targets domestically. The protocol allows countries to purchase credits from other countries to meet their targets, and I think it’s quite clear that Canada will have to do so.
ARTHUR MILNER: From an international environmental point of view, would you say that global warming is the number one priority?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: Yes, because the consequences of climate change are pervasive. Climate change affects, and in some cases compounds, other problems. So it is the single most important problem. Having said that, there are other important environmental problems where we can probably make faster progress than on climate change. So it is important not to be entirely consumed by climate change.
ARTHUR MILNER: Are global warming and greenhouse gas emissions necessarily connected?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: The increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is what is leading to climate change. And that climate change is primarily warming, but in some parts of the planet it is cooling. It is expected to lead to more severe weather events – tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts, big rainstorms, high temperatures, etc.
ARTHUR MILNER: The world has gone through incredible weather change over the last few billion years. How do we know that the current changes are not the result of the natural cycles of the world?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: We don’t know for sure, but we know there’s a correlation between the start of industrialization, the consumption of fossil fuels and increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Now there have been times when the concentration of carbon dioxide was higher than it is now, but what we are seeing, apparently, is a much faster rate of increase in concentration than before.
ARTHUR MILNER: Those previous increases in concentration were natural.
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: Yes, as a result of volcanic activity or changes in sunspots or for a variety of reasons, some of which we don’t understand well. What is different now is that these changes seem to be happening much faster. The concern is with the rate of change and our ability to adapt and the ability of nature to adapt. We’ve had glaciations and we’ve had warmer periods, and vegetation would creep back as the glaciers were retreating. So if carbon dioxide concentrations were increasing by, say, 2 per cent a century rather than 2 per cent a year, then we probably wouldn’t worry about climate change: we would have confidence in our ability to adapt. It’s the fact that it’s happening quickly that is the concern.
ARTHUR MILNER: Are the people who are warning us about climate change the same people – and the same organizations – that warned us about the millennium bug?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: No, it’s not at all the same organizations. But the question is fair. Environmental groups have been rightly criticized, in some instances, for having been apocalyptic. In the 1970s, for example, there was a tendency to see the worst possible consequences in trends that we were going to run out of oil and minerals and that it would compromise our standard of living. That is probably a misplaced concern.
ARTHUR MILNER: Why?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: We’ve found technological solutions. We were concerned that with increased telecommunications we were going to run out of copper. Now we’re using fibre optics. Other minerals, we’re recovering and recycling. We may run out of oil, but we’re taking steps to use oil more wisely, by insulating buildings for example. And we’re developing more efficient machines and new fuels. Energy sources will become scarcer and as they become scarcer we will replace them.
ARTHUR MILNER: So we don’t have to worry about running out of nonrenewable resources.
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: That’s right. It’s renewable resources that are the real concern, which is ironic, because “renewable” implies that they can exist in perpetuity. They can if managed properly, but we often overexploit them. The best example in Canada is cod. This was the richest fishery in the world. It was exploited for 500 years. It is one of the reasons why Europeans came to North America in the first place. It was central to the culture of the Atlantic provinces. And it’s collapsed. It’s gone. We’ve depleted our forests, not in Canada as a whole but in specific places, where pulp mills or sawmills have closed because there’s no economic supply of timber. Some wildlife populations have been hunted to extinction. We’ve lost some good agricultural land essentially forever because it has been put to other uses or degraded through poor agricultural practices. There are societies in the distant past that have collapsed as a result of environmental degradation. They were far less technologically sophisticated than we are, but it shows that it is possible to outstrip the ability of nature to support what we do. We now see many examples of environmental degradation around us. We know that today our bodies carry a greater toxic load than they did 50 years ago. We don’t know, however, whether it’s something we need to worry about. There are more species disappearing than there were 50 years ago. We know that there has been desertification in many countries as a result of poor land practices. We know that we have severely compromised the ability of the ozone layer to shelter us from UV rays. We have acidic lakes devoid of life that will take over a hundred years to recover.
ARTHUR MILNER: Where are these lakes?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: There are hundreds of thousands of lakes in eastern Canada and the northeastern United States that were in an acidic environment already and where acidic precipitation tipped them over the edge. I’m not concerned that all this will lead to human extinction. I don’t think that’s the issue. What we could see, what we already have seen, is large populations living at lower standards of living.
ARTHUR MILNER: What’s the next cod? What’s the thing we’re going to destroy?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: I think the next area that is likely to create a great sense of unease is air quality in southern Ontario, where we’re seeing more frequent episodes of smog. We had poor air quality in the 1960s and after we took a number of measures we saw dramatic improvement. But now we’re seeing a deterioration. It’s not that the measures we put in place were ineffective, but they’ve been overwhelmed by increased industrialization, population and vehicles, and climate change. And there are clear links between smog and human health, between greater incidence of smog and more people suffering from respiratory problems and going to hospital. Some studies claim that there’s increased mortality as a result of smog, although it’s very difficult to establish a very rigorous cause-and-effect relationship.
ARTHUR MILNER: But on smog days, more people go to the hospital.
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: Yes. But it’s difficult to show a link between smog and death.
ARTHUR MILNER: Are there any other symbolic cod on the horizon?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: Endocrine disruptors are a growing area of concern. These are chemicals that mimic female hormones and can lead to sexual dysfunction. For example, there have been pesticide spills in Florida, and a few years later they found male alligators that were hermaphroditic or incapable of reproducing.
ARTHUR MILNER: What about us?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: We certainly find raised levels of these chemicals in humans in certain areas. Minute quantities of these chemicals might not affect us, but they may affect our progeny. It’s very difficult to establish linkages. What’s worrisome is that some endocrine-disrupting substances leach out from products that we consider benign, like plastic cups or plastic containers.
ARTHUR MILNER: There’s cod and everyone can see we blew that. And you mentioned increased smog, which I presume is in part caused by greenhouse gases.
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: Yes.
ARTHUR MILNER: And then endocrine disruptors which are not connected to global warming. If these are typical of Canada’s environmental problems, is it fair to say we’re asking Canadians to sign on to Kyoto out of a long-term global concern, but that in terms of immediate threats to our own environment, Canadians have other priorities?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: We have to balance those things. We should be governed by the precautionary principle, which says that, in the absence of incontrovertible proof, it is still prudent to take cost-effective measures. If you can drive a smaller car that consumes less gas but gives you the same services as a bigger car, then that’s probably a good thing to do. Also, W.C. Fields once said, “What have future generations ever done for us?”, but I would argue that we should leave our children the same natural capital that we inherited from our parents – I would say that is one of the principles of sustainable development. But there are also investments that yield multiple benefits. If we consume cleaner or less fuel, we will, as you suggested, deal with both climate change and smog. There are other examples of multiple benefits. One reason we overexploited the cod was that we thought “they’re free – they live in the ocean.” We have smog because we look at the atmosphere as a sink for sulfur and nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. We don’t pay the environmental costs of what we consume, which leads us to consume resources at too fast a rate. If we paid the actual costs, we might have more cod and produce less smog and greenhouse gases.
ARTHUR MILNER: If you were prime minister with a large majority government, what are the five things that you would legislate tomorrow?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: One of the most important things we can do is to try to ensure that the economic decisions that we make all day are better informed by their environmental consequences. Buying or selling or investing have environmental consequences. Many OECD countries use what are called economic instruments to raise the price of goods and services to reflect more closely their environmental costs. Why does gasoline cost twice as much in Europe as it does in Canada? It’s not because Europe is farther from oil wells. It’s because Europeans have put a very large tax on gasoline, for a whole variety of reasons, some of which are environmental. Europeans also tax cars or licence plates according to the size of car. That’s a recognition that cars impose environmental costs. Some countries impose taxes on products like plastic bags, for example, to discourage their use. If the price of goods and services do not reflect their environmental costs, we will not successfully mitigate environmental damage. Canada is a laggard. Canada has found it very difficult to introduce environmental taxes.
ARTHUR MILNER: Why is that?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: We’re a small, wealthy population in a huge landscape. We can drive out of Ottawa and see deer or moose, or even wolves or bears. You will not find large wild herds of ungulates anywhere in Europe. We have several large herds of caribou. Europeans charge more for gasoline and electricity, they have much more aggressive recycling programs and more stringent pollution control, and the reason for that is that they lived in very crowded environments that were very polluted, and so they came up against their pollution and had to do something about it. We are not there.
ARTHUR MILNER: So environmental taxes would be your first priority.
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: Yes. Now, some of these taxes can be revenue-neutral. You could say gas guzzlers will pay a tax in proportion to their inefficiency, and the proceeds would be given to the purchasers of fuel-efficient cars. You could make an exemption for tradesmen, etc. Europeans impose energy taxes on large industries, but sometimes give rebates to exporting industries. The point is to make sure that taxes meet environmental objectives but are not economically destructive.
ARTHUR MILNER: Are there any examples of that in Canada?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: A few. One very successful instrument is the deposit on beer bottles. The reuse rate on beer bottles is over 95 per cent – on wine bottles, it’s close to zero. If you own an ecologically significant property, you can donate it to the government, or to an organization that manages such properties, and receive a charitable deduction. It encourages individual landowners who have property that has ecological value to protect it. But there are very few examples, compared to Europe.
ARTHUR MILNER: Are these things talked about in government? Is there a sense that environmental taxes are imminent?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: I think we will see in next week’s budget some form of economic instrument to improve the environment, but it will be in the form of subsidies as opposed to taxes. I’m not optimistic that we are going to see major use of economic instruments in Canada in the near future, because we share a continent with and are deeply influenced by a country where it is almost impossible to talk about increasing taxes for any purpose. It would be difficult for us to impose a large carbon tax on Canadian industries whose American competitors don’t have to pay the tax. Automobile producers have been lobbying fiercely against controls that would increase the average efficiency of new vehicles in Canada. We’ll see in the budget to what extent the Canadian government resists that pressure.
ARTHUR MILNER: What’s the priority? To get people to use less energy or cleaner energy?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: Whatever we use we should use efficiently. As a general principle, it’s always better to reduce waste first than to substitute. Second, we do not have enough sources of clean energy to replace the dirty energy that we use. Wind power and solar energy will make increasingly important contributions in the future, and they may make important regional differences, but at the national scale it’s just not enough.
ARTHUR MILNER: Where do you see large-scale reduction of energy consumption coming from? Cars?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: It’s a huge area. More than one quarter of our energy use is in transportation, most of that is cars and most of that is cars in cities. Industry uses about another quarter, but energy use in industry is already quite efficient. Industry has a built-in incentive to use energy efficiently, because they use a lot of it, and to the extent that they can minimize that cost, it goes straight to the bottom line. Next is the residential sector, where a lot of energy is lost for a whole variety of reasons.
ARTHUR MILNER: Will we have to live in apartment buildings?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: No. We have the technology to build high-efficiency single-occupancy dwellings that consume a fraction of the energy that is now consumed. We have high-efficiency furnaces that are much better than medium-efficiency furnaces we now use in new houses, and we have better water heaters and appliances. They cost a little more, but the cost is recovered very quickly. But developers want to sell houses as cheaply as they can, and the building code does not force these sorts of decisions.
ARTHUR MILNER: Would you simply legislate a tougher building code or would you find an economic incentive?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: You could certainly legislate that new houses have to meet a higher standard of efficiency. To make it work, you would have to provide training to home builders, and you would have to educate the public to understand why houses are costing more up front, although they would cost less to run. There are already standards for heating and appliances but they could be higher still. Now, a high-efficiency furnace doesn’t make sense for a small dwelling, so I’m not saying you should impose them on all houses. But I have no problem at all in regulating in this area, rather than just leaving it to the consumer. I would just add that building codes are an area of provincial jurisdiction and in the past the federal government has had difficulty getting the provinces to agree that this was a priority.
ARTHUR MILNER: So now that we’ve fixed transportation and domestic energy consumption, how much of the “one-tonne challenge” is taken care of?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: The one-tonne challenge is a good idea, but it’s likely to fail. You have to do more than provide the challenge. You have to provide information. You have to provide tools. You have to provide opportunities. It has to be a package. You see the ad on TV, what do you do? You have to be much more aggressive than that.
ARTHUR MILNER: I haven’t got a clue what it means. If I go out and buy a new TV marked “Energy Star,” how far up of the one-tonne challenge have I reached? A gram? A kilogram?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: There are examples of innovative approaches that have worked. There are utilities that will do an audit of your house, and will calculate the rate of return of improving energy efficiency. And instead of your paying for this up front, they amortize it through your utility bill over a number of years.
ARTHUR MILNER: So the two priority areas for reducing greenhouse gases are transportation and houses.
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: They’re the two where I think we can make the fastest strides at the cheapest cost. Industry consumes a lot of energy and is going to have to play its role, but there’s less waste in the industrial sector so there’s less obvious opportunity to reduce energy consumption.
ARTHUR MILNER: Two arguments used by Kyoto opponents are first that it’s going to have a negligible effect, and second that it’s a great economic cost to the country. You seem untroubled by the economic cost.
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: There will be economic costs, and politicians have not demonstrated the leadership required to tell the public that there will be costs. Of course, there are costs of inaction as well. But the costs of action have to be managed in a way that they are as low as possible. We have to start with what are called “no regrets” measures, which basically pay for themselves. If it makes economic sense to insulate your house, do so. It will save you money and it will reduce emissions that contribute to climate change. There are many such measures that can be taken. But we have to face that, yes, there are going to be some costs, and there’s speculation that the federal government will set aside a few billion dollars to pay for some of those. There are going to be some economic benefits as well, inasmuch as some of that investment is going to drive technological improvements that may create markets. Almost all the wind turbines available in Canada are Danish-designed. Why would Denmark would have an edge in wind energy? Because several years ago they decided they wanted cleaner sources of energy, and they’ve developed technology that they’re now exporting throughout the world.
ARTHUR MILNER: If I worked for General Motors, making $80,000 a year in an auto assembly plant, would I be one of the ones who had to bear the economic costs?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: Is a worker in a Toyota plant, making a Prius at $80,000 a year, going to suffer? I expect not. There are going to be some dislocations. If you’re an auto worker building SUVs, and the government taxes them, there are going to be impacts and we have to figure out how to manage those impacts. Do we tell the auto producer, you’ve got five years to get out of the SUV business? There’s 20 per cent overcapacity in the car industry. Is it realistic to expect that all people who have jobs in the car industry today are going to keep those jobs, regardless of Kyoto? The “Big Three” are losing market share to the Japanese and I haven’t seen anything to make me think that’s going to change. And the Japanese on average produce more fuel-efficient cars, and the trend is going to be toward greater fuel efficiency. That’s been evident for many, many years.
ARTHUR MILNER: Let’s go back to our list. You have five things to do now as the unilateralist prime minister who doesn’t even have to worry about the provinces. First, you will use economic incentives and deterrents to steer the market. Second, you will regulate in certain areas, like furnaces for homes. What’s third?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: Third is environmental toxics.
ARTHUR MILNER: Like endocrine disruptors.
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: That’s one example.
ARTHUR MILNER: So this doesn’t involve climate change.
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: There are other environmental problems that we have to address. Inuit women have PCB (polychlorinated-biphenyl) levels that Health Canada says are beyond safe limits.
ARTHUR MILNER: Where do the PCBs in the far north come from?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: From the south. It’s called the “grasshopper effect.” Volatile compounds are carried by the wind, deposited and picked up again, until they get to cold places which can be mountains or high latitudes. People around the Great Lakes also are also exposed to high levels of toxic chemicals. There are about 100,000 chemicals in commerce today, 23,000 are used in Canada, and some 1,000 new chemicals enter commerce every year. All of these chemicals have economic uses and contribute to our quality of life. Many are benign, but some of them have proven dangerous. We do regulate them, but there are many chemicals that we don’t know much about, and that we may need to regulate and, in some cases, ban. There was an article in the paper yesterday about fire retardants in our bodies. Where do these come from? What are the consequences?
ARTHUR MILNER: Are you saying we need to do more research or we need to ban more chemicals?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: We need to do more research. Environment Canada has estimated that, at current budgets, it would take 50 years to do the necessary research on the chemicals that are of concern. We’re collaborating with Europe and the United States, but it’s not enough, in part because it’s a catch-up effort. New chemicals are being researched and documented. The problem is the many thousands of chemicals that entered commerce freely because we didn’t realize there was a concern.
ARTHUR MILNER: Number four?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: Wildlife. Canada has something like 300 endangered species. I find that a remarkable indictment against our poor stewardship. If in a country like Canada, with less than 1 per cent of the world population and more than 6 per cent of the land mass, there can still be 300 endangered species, what hope is there in the rest of the world? We can do a better job of protecting species, and that means protecting habitat. We’ve set aside national parks and other areas. We need to do more.
ARTHUR MILNER: I find that astounding. There are so many areas where people don’t live, you would think that threatened animals must be localized subspecies, a particular kind of frog that only lives in this area, for example. Is that true for the most part?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: In some cases it is a local species, which can be found in other countries and whose habitat in Canada is small. In some cases, though, it is a species that used to be fairly widespread. The eastern cougar used to live throughout the Atlantic provinces, Quebec and Ontario, and there’s been a debate recently as to whether it exists or not. There are people who think we have had some sightings, but clearly it’s extremely rare. And then we’ve got endangered species like the cod and Pacific salmon populations. There are species indigenous to Canada that used to exist in huge numbers but have severely declined.
ARTHUR MILNER: That’s four.
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: I’ll stop there.
ARTHUR MILNER: I want to ask some specific questions that you may know the answers to. Do you watch West Wing?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: No.
ARTHUR MILNER: The most recent episode was about political integrity among presidential nominees, and the sign of integrity was one’s willingness to tell Iowa corn farmers that ethanol substitution is a bad idea. Were West Wing’s writers accurate? Is ethanol a bad idea?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: It’s true that burning ethanol in gasoline makes for a cleaner burn with fewer pollutants. The problem is the life cycle of ethanol. To create ethanol you have to grow corn, and the corn is a very energy-intensive crop. You invest a lot of energy to create the ethanol, and that energy is not clean energy – it’s fossil-fuel-driven energy.
ARTHUR MILNER: That seems straightforward. Are there are other examples like that, where things that present themselves as environmental solutions are really counterproductive or not productive?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: Car manufacturers have advertised the fuel efficiency of cars that aren’t very fuel-efficient. Such advertising was labelled “greenwash.”
ARTHUR MILNER: What do you think about genetically modified foods?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: I don’t have the visceral concern that many people have. We already consume GM foods and I don’t think it’s been demonstrated that these create either health or environmental risks. I do think they need to be regulated very closely and I think there’s a danger of indigenous stocks becoming contaminated or disappearing as a result of competition with GM stock. But I think the concerns are exaggerated.
ARTHUR MILNER: What about nuclear energy? If the big concern is global warming, should we be considering nuclear energy?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: It’s an extremely difficult dilemma because we have not found a permanent solution to the high-level radioactive wastes that are generated by nuclear plants. I’m not an advocate for closing down existing plants, and I’m not sure that building new plants in Canada is required, because of our hydroelectric resources. But a lot of countries don’t have that luxury. I’m not sure what the solution is. There’s a hard-core resistance to nuclear energy, but I think a lot of people are going to have to get off the fence.
ARTHUR MILNER: Anything else to add?
FRANÇOIS BREGHA: I want to stress that environmental problems are not unidimensional. We cannot set priorities exclusively on the basis of climate change representing the biggest threat, and that’s what makes environmental policymaking so difficult. If we put all our eggs in the climate-warming basket, then other problems like smog, like environmental toxics and the loss of biodiversity, will become more serious. It’s also arguable that problems like AIDS and poverty are more important than environmental degradation. If I had a million dollars to spend, would I spend it on antimalaria vaccinations? That would probably have the biggest welfare impact. Canada is in a privileged position. The rich countries don’t face the problems of the developing countries, so the tradeoffs here are a little easier. We don’t have the mind-numbing, where-do-you-start problem that you would face sitting in the middle of Karachi. We have to keep a sense of balance.
A week after our interview, Finance Minister Ralph Goodale brought down the 2005 federal budget. I asked François Bregha what he thought of the budget, and this was his response. – A.M.
I have mixed feelings. At one level this is probably the greenest federal budget we’ve seen. There’s a very long list of measures that have been announced to promote environmental protection, and that’s great. However, it is not always easy to see what the priorities are and why they are priorities.
There is an impression that effort will equal outcome – that by spending money here and there, we will get a better environment. I would have preferred a budget that said, “These are the environmental goals we want to achieve, this is why we’ve selected these goals, this is how much we’re going to spend to get there, and this is the link between our programs and the goals.”
There are no clear targets, and that’s been a deficiency in environmental policy for many, many years – understandable, in part, because the federal government has limited jurisdiction over environmental issues and therefore has difficulty setting national targets. It has recently launched an effort to set environmental objectives, and hopefully in a few months we will see something concrete in that area.
But there is something more fundamental. Environmental degradation is the result of the sum of all of our actions. The budget seems to be premised on the government solving the problem for us – on cleaning up after the fact. In health policy, there’s a constant debate about how much the government should be investing in prevention as opposed to care. Economic policy is about increasing competitiveness and exports. But when we talk about environment, we talk about paying to repair the degradation that’s already happened.
What governments need to figure out, as in other policy areas, is how to prevent the degradation from taking place. In other words, how do we create market signals that discourage people from degrading the environment? That’s the greatest failure in this budget.
The budget does mention the possibility of introducing a “feebate” – fee and rebate – system for cars that taxes gas guzzlers and remits the proceeds to purchasers of fuel-efficient cars. That is an example of a tax measure that sends consumers a signal. But there were concerns that feebates would fall disproportionately on the Big Three – that Ford, GM and Chrysler would lose market share, which might cost Canadian jobs. I’m sure, too, that the U.S. government would not look favourably at a feebate system introduced in Canada.
Like previous budgets, this one puts the emphasis almost entirely on subsidies. One thing that it does talk about – which will likely be announced as part of our Kyoto implementation plan – is a “cap-and-trade” regime of tradable emissions permits for greenhouse gases. Strictly speaking, this is not a tax, but it would be a very important step toward controlling greenhouse gas emissions.
So I’m delighted that this government is investing heavily in the environment. But rather than just keep shovelling money at the problem, I would have preferred that the government create clear economic signals to lead consumers and investors to reduce environmental impact.