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Ontario's wild ideas 

When it comes to environmenal stewardship, Nova Scotia politicians can learn a lot from Upper Canada.

I just got back from a trip to Ontario. The leadership over there has some pretty wild ideas. Our province and our regional municipality could learn somethingfrom Ontario.

Very few visitors to Ontario bother with the northern half---225,000 square kilometres of boreal forests, or four Nova Scotias. Ontario's supreme leader, Dalton "no lips" McGuinty, recently evoked the wild idea of protecting this vast swath of carbon sinks (those trees absorb almost 13 million tonnes of CO2 every year).

But McGuinty didn't stop there, the wild man. He committed his government to consulting with the 24,000 residents of the area, most of them living in First Nations communities, every step of the way. This includes changes to the Ontario Mining Act requiring early consultation and accommodation with those communities.

Nova Scotia's been no slouch when it comes to protecting wild lands lately, but our goal of protecting 12 percent of land mass suddenly looks pretty pathetic by comparison. Equally pathetic is our performance as consumers in supporting green energy. Ontario happens to co-host one of the country's leading private green energy providers, Bullfrog Power, with Alberta (that other environmentaljuggernaut).

Bullfrog uses a demand-side management approach, which means they sell wind- and water-generated power to Ontario's power grid at exactly the rate their customers use energy in their homes and offices. The customer pays her power bill (at a dollar a day premium) to Bullfrog, which uses the revenue to invest in all that green energy. Budda bing---less demand for coal and other polluting non-renewables. And the consumer gets nothing back but a clean, green conscience.

Bullfrog's clients include 4,000 homeowners, businesses and government offices. Big banks, municipalities and major publishers have joined the ranks of high-profilecustomers.

Back at home, Nova Scotia Power offered its own green power marketing program in 2002, but we weren't buying and the program was dropped. The company has since made some worthy investments in renewable energy. But Nova Scotia has meanwhile prevented consumers from buying directly from renewable generators. Looking at how one recent start-up has used social marketing to reshape an industry and give a province a better chance at a low carbon future, you can't help but wonder what could have been. Anybody out there in our ocean playground seeking a new market niche?

The sad thing is that, in some respects, even Canada's universal centre, the big sprawling city we love to hate, is handing our ass to us when it comes to certain environmental initiatives. As our province's capital municipality widens roads, cracks down on four-legged friends, cracks the heads of tree-lovers and invests nothing in active transportation, Toronto is preparing to release a dazzlingly ambitious transit plan. And get this: The plan includes money!

Backing their brainchild with bucks, Toronto's transit plan will come with its own companion investment strategy. Investments will include expanded commuter rail lines, incentives to pedestrians and cyclists, and ever-controversial road tolls. Wild ideas indeed; mayor David Miller must be anticipating an early retirement. But hats off to him. While our mayor launders his diarrhea-proof Speedo, their guy is risking his political future to do right by the environment.

Another controversy is dividing Toronto on one environmental issue that may give us bragging rights: Waste management. Our leaders have reason to be proud of our waste diversion record (but not too proud as long as much of our waste is "diverted" to poor rural communities and China). Our hipster friends in Hogtown ship almost half a million tonnes of garbage to Michigan each year, and super-sized composting and recycling programs haven't ended that practice.

Enter the pay-per-size garbage bin, another wild idea. The city rents bins in four convenient sizes. The more garbage you make, the bigger bin you need, the more you pay for it. The revenue pays for more investments in waste diversion.

The simple plan has been criticized for its potential to drive up rents and punish people living in areas of urban density, its unfair punishment of large families, even its impingement on the "right to litter." All but the latter are reasonable concerns and the bugs still need to be worked out. But at least the city councillors in the Big Smoke are willing to consider creating pollution taxes that give people personal reasons to reduce their ecological footprint.

It's good to be home, though. Despite Ontario's wild ideas, this feels like a wilder place, more open and spacious and green. I just hope our leadership doesn't succumb to the other kinds of wild ideas, like mining for uranium again, because boy did that solve our poverty problems last time, and twinning highways because what the hell else can you do with a hundred million bucks? These are the ideas being whispered in our leaders' ears by dingbats with dollar signs for eyeballs.

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