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Accessible information key to carbon education

Just because the Harper government refuses to show leadership on climate change doesn't mean Canadians can't contribute to initiatives to cut greenhouse gasses.

Around the world there are already hundreds (if not thousands) of non-governmental projects under way to help cut carbon emissions. Everyone, from scientists to schoolchildren, is participating. As government foot-dragging continues, amplifying grassroots energies offer the best short-term hope for meaningful action.

The British Columbia government, already a leader in addressing climate change, recently lit a fire under Canadian software developers by open-sourcing hundreds of its best climate datasets. The government challenged programmers to create innovative Web-based and mobile apps that would raise awareness of climate change and inspire action. As an incentive, $40,000 in prize money was offered.

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One of the winning apps helps students manage their carbon footprints. Users can track their bathing, eating, transportation and entertainment habits, and the app spits out an impact statement showing the annualized kilogram of CO2 equivalents generated by their actions. Another app, aimed at small- and medium-sized businesses, lets business owners measure their company's emissions and benchmark its score against industry peers.

B.C. government officials told us collaborations such as these provide a low-cost way to tap new ideas and skills in pursuit of the province's climate goals. The government contributed its data; private-sector partners contributed the prize money. Software coders and local businesses provided their labour and ingenuity. And none of the initiatives spurred on by the contest require new rules or new legislation to move forward.

Other governments should follow B.C.'s lead.

Climate change experts generally agree that the surest way to accelerate action on reducing emissions boils down to simple economics: If you want to discourage carbon-intensive activities, make them more expensive to pursue. Make people and businesses pay the full environmental costs of the products they produce and consume and suddenly every investment and purchasing choice in retail stores, financial markets and small and large companies around the world would be for the lowest-cost, low-carbon option.

Industries would need to invent and adopt new efficiency-boosting technologies to limit their emissions. And consumers would curtail their carbon footprints as the prices for such items as air travel and exotic fruits begin to reflect their true costs to the planet.

Today, insufficient information about which economic activities - and, by extension, which communities, companies and nations - are contributing most to climate change undermines society's ability to target remedial actions and assign responsibility for correcting harmful behaviour. The right amount of transparency in such cases can change perceptions, reveal new factors that alter the stakes, or compel other participants to accept the need for, and legitimacy of, new regulations.

Being able to obtain comparable CO2 emission data for all industrial facilities and human activities such as logging, fishing or mining would be a gold mine for scientists, policy makers, environmentalists, investors and ordinary citizens. Even better would be the ability to measure the impact of those activities on the climate in the same way companies apply financial metrics to their investment decisions to understand the bottom-line impact.

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We're not there yet. But over the past few years, many initiatives have emerged that make climate change information more accessible to public and key institutions, such as the investment community, regulators, and government purchasing organizations. Whether mapping the world's oil spills, simulating the effects of sea-level rises, tracking mammals on the verge of extinction or showing national per capita CO2 emissions, the initiatives often use bold visual formats to help communicate complex phenomena in a way that both scientists and laymen can easily grasp.

Of course, climate deniers, and those who see the world's attempt to control climate change as a threat to their business interests, aren't necessarily interested in more transparency. They will continue to unleash their armies of lobbyists to water down policy, spread bogus science and block innovations that might threaten their business models.

But the best way to counter back-room lobbying and misinformation is not to hunker down - as some climate scientists have in the wake of the Climategate scandal - but to foster greater transparency and open debate around the risks of not acting now.

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About the Author
Don Tapscott

Don Tapscott is adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management. He is the author of 14 books, including Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing your World and most recently (with Anthony D. Williams) MacroWikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World. More

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