Green Guru

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Story and photography by Marianne Meadahl

Mark Jaccard and climate change

He wasn’t expecting it – in fact, he was betting it wouldn’t happen. On the same day that B.C.’s new carbon tax was unveiled, Mark Jaccard told a gathering of SFU alumni who were honouring him with an Outstanding Alumni Award that the news came as a pleasant surprise. “I plan to get drunk tonight,” he quipped.

And who would blame him?

After more than two decades as an environmental economist carrying out research; writing papers, opinion pieces, even books; and speaking around the globe about why we need better environmental policies, there was suddenly a light in his own backyard.

The government’s new tax, which applies to nearly all fossil fuels and has added about two cents a litre to the price of gas at the pumps, was quick to reap criticism. Jaccard – who had no hand in crafting it nor, in fact, has he even met Premier Gordon Campbell – soon found himself defending it.

“It would seem really strange for me to see a politician being hammered for implementing the policies that I have said are essential, and for me to then go and hide somewhere,” says Jaccard, a professor in SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management who is no stranger to the public debate on climate change. Myriad governments and political parties have sought his expertise. “I feel I have a responsibility as a citizen and an independent academic to be out there explaining why those policies are superior.”

Two years ago he told the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers that the fossil fuel industry must “play the leading role” in creating policies that would point the global energy system toward zero greenhouse gas emissions. Fossil fuels, he believes, can fuel the system for years to come – and in ways that don’t pollute.

Jaccard’s interest has always been policy, not politics. He has advised governments across the political spectrum and around the world on environmental policy – most recently working with B.C.’s Climate Action team.

His view of what Canada needs to do – and his ability to drive home his message in plain terms – has led to his growing public image as Canada’s green guru, the country’s leading thinker on environmental policy, and “the best Canadian mind available on the environment” (that from the Globe and Mail’s Roy MacGregor).

I feel I have a responsibility as a citizen and an independent academic to be out there explaining why those policies are superior.

“Mark Jaccard is hot these days – very hot,” declared the Globe’s Jeffrey Simpson in a column titled, “Here’s the Jaccardian Approach to Clean Air.” Jaccard and Simpson have since collaborated, along with graduate student Nic Rivers, on the book Hot Air: Meeting Canada’s Climate Change Challenge (2007).

How does Jaccard define himself? “The media view aside, I’d say I’m a mediocre academic economist who is applied and engaged in public debate – emphasize ‘mediocre,’” he insists. “I would argue that the best energy and environmental economists in the country would agree with that assessment.

“Being an applied economist, I get a lot of national and international recognition, and so I’m named to things. It’s where I like to be, quite frankly. I want to be out there making an impact.”

That, he tells his four children, makes him the luckiest guy in the world. “I tell them I am extremely blessed because I am paid to do my hobby, which has always been to figure out how humans can live sustainably on this planet,” he says. “That’s my passion. I think about it all the time. I dream about this stuff.

“I’ll wake up with these ideas, lots of them, and it’s not unusual for me to get up and write them down, or they’d be lost.”

The author of several other books besides Hot Air, including the Donner Prize–winning Sustainable Fossil Fuels: The Unusual Suspect in the Quest for Clean and Enduring Energy (2005), Jaccard is in the process of writing yet another and has others simmering on several backburners. Stay tuned.

“My best ideas come when I’m running – so I’ve developed one of those memory tricks. When I think about four different things I start a chant that goes through a word that helps me remember each of those items. Then when I get home, even though I’m soaking wet and I mess up the paper, I write down enough to remember them. Otherwise I’m in big trouble.

“I’ll think about other things too – like ‘oh man, the Canucks should have re-signed Naslund’ – but the ideas are never far away.”

To wind down from “the substantive stuff” that fills his thoughts, Jaccard will reach for a New York Times crossword puzzle. Another escape is his subscription to the twice-monthly New York Review of Books – something he stays on top of while commuting or before sleep.

He’s a fanatical reader – his older sisters taught him to read long before he started school, and by 14 he was reading the philosophy of thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre. His favourite place to hang out when he travels is in a library.


“I’m feeling really good about my kids these days,” says Jaccard, who has scheduled his fall European trips around Torsten’s football season. The New Westminster high school football star has caught the eye of local media. “I’ll make all of his Friday night games.”

Also on his agenda are regular squash games with Ingram and the ritual of dinner table discussions that unite and challenge the tight-knit family. He keeps “a stash” of dictionaries of every kind around his house for such occasions.

While growing up in south Burnaby, Jaccard says the influence of his own parents – his father, Lou, was a left-leaning, working-class electrician and his mother, Doris, worked as a cashier at Woodward’s – was subtle but powerful.

His best down time – and his top priority – is time with his children: Brit, 14; Torsten, 16; Kjartan, 18; and Ingram, 21, who is heading into his third year at SFU.

“My parents inadvertently gave me a very open and expansive environment. They weren’t religious or nationalistic, unlike a lot of people around me. So I didn’t develop an identity with my country; I started to feel like an internationalist. Reading National Geographic, I was always in love with the rest of the world.

“I had the freedom to already be scanning around with my brain – my father is a very critical thinker – and that freed me to believe that I don’t have to just assume. I can always look behind what someone is saying. So I think I developed some skills then that have helped me.”

He developed an early love of the outdoors, and as a young teen he convinced his father to drive him into the mountains on weekends. “I spent most of my teens and early adult life there. I had a real passion for nature,” he says.

After Jaccard graduated from Burnaby South High School, his father suggested he study electronics at BCIT. Instead he followed his own path to SFU, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree.

He spent the next several years in unfamiliar territory, first as a commercial fisherman, then motorcycling across Australia and even hitchhiking across Canada twice.

He returned to SFU to do graduate studies and spent a semester at UBC studying creative writing and poetry. “I was very keen on writing and I was always trying to make myself a better writer – a better communicator. I really try to consider what others are thinking or feeling when they read my writing. That seems to make a difference, especially in a field like economics.”

He completed his PhD at the University of Grenoble in France and found work quickly in a field that had few positions available.

“The big thing in 1985–87 was finance economics or international trade. The job ads had nothing to do with the environment for an economist then. The energy crisis had gone by.”

Jaccard proved a good fit at SFU’s new school of resource and environmental management. Early on he created the Energy Research and Materials Group, and with his team devised an economic model that has become a standard used by governments and industry.

Jaccard proved a good fit at SFU’s new school of resource and environmental management. Early on he created the Energy Research and Materials Group, and with his team devised an economic model that has become a standard used by governments and industry.

He also established M.K. Jaccard and Associates, a company he intended to phase out after completing an off-campus project several years ago. But it carried on, and while the company bears his name, he is rarely involved with its work. It is now run by former students under director Chris Bataille. The company consults for governments worldwide – and was responsible for undertaking the modelling work behind B.C.’s carbon tax.

“When I went into economics I said I was interested in power in society and that if we’re going to save the planet from humans we’ve got to deal with the power structure that’s going to destroy it – and that’s our economic system,” he says.

As he recently told the Burnaby News Leader: “We’re never going to get rid of that get-rich economic system, and yet it’s going to keep pressuring that environmental world that I treasure so dearly.”

With that in mind Jaccard intends to leave the climate change issue for a bigger one.

“We’ve got to solve climate change, but the solutions are obvious now,” he says. “The bigger issue is all of the material throughput that we’re going to have as people get richer. There are some huge issues about how our economy is organized and going forward.

“I’m really worried about the future of this planet. The scientists are telling me some really scary stuff now – way scarier than they were five years ago. I don’t see how ethically I could sit back in my field of research and be silent.”

“That’s where I want to focus, starting about two years from now, and for the next 10 years of my career.”

It all comes full circle when he considers his kids. “I’m really worried about the future of this planet,” he says. “The scientists are telling me some really scary stuff now – way scarier than they were five years ago. I don’t see how ethically I could sit back in my field of research and be silent. I’ll have more to say. And, thinking of my kids, I probably wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Collaborating on Hot Air

Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail columnist and author, on his collaboration with Jaccard on Hot Air: Meeting Canada’s Climate Change Challenge (2007):
“I had given myself a self-help program on climate change, in the course of which I read Mark’s prize-winning book (Sustainable Fossil Fuels). I thought that of all the material I was reading, it made the most sense; or at least it most closely corresponded with my instincts as to the best way of tackling the challenge.

“On a trip to Vancouver, I phoned and asked him for lunch. We met downtown. I asked him a bunch of questions, and toward the end he said he wanted to put his arguments in a more “accessible” form. One thing led to another, and we agreed to collaborate.

“I found the publisher, and he and I then worked very harmoniously to craft the book, Hot Air. We never had a serious disagreement. There developed a lot of mutual respect, I believe. I used to kid him, though, because I was never sure which hat he was wearing: co-author, academic, or consultant.

“Between his travel schedule and mine, both hectic, email got a strong workout, but it all came together, and we were both well satisfied with the final product.”

The book was released in paperback version in August (2008).

Mark Jaccard on Living Green

• Drives about 8,000 kilometres a year (annual consumer average is about 20,000 kilometres) and deliberately does not have an SFU parking pass (“If I did, I’d use it”). Uses transit for half of his urban travel and “flies far too often!”

• Cycles his 25-year-old bike to SFU “occasionally” – some- times twice a week during the fall semester. Estimated ride from his New Westminster home: up, 52 minutes; down, 36 minutes (climbs Cariboo Hill on his return). Does this mainly for fitness. “I’ve learned that how fit I am seems to have a direct impact on how well I do research.”

• Home power use estimated at 3,000 kilowatts annually (compared with the consumer average of 12,000 kilowatts). • Powers down his house every night and while away. Every- thing, including the TV, is on a power bar. His kids also do this.

• Buys few packaged goods. Brings his own bags, and creates one small bag of garbage weekly.

• Buys minimal. “We raised our kids this way too. Birthday gifts are traditionally something like giving money toward Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees in my name. I’ve always loved that kind of gift.” • As much as possible, buys the most energy-efficient appliances. Most recent purchase: a 96 percent energy- efficient furnace. (Investment: $6,000)

• Has fully insulated each of the four homes in which he has lived in New Westminster. • Is upgrading his cabin on Savary Island with new solar panels.

• Considers himself “Joe Average.” “I’m not a purist at all, but rather full of contradictions, like everyone else.” He doesn’t own a cell phone and is deliberately a late adopter of new technology. He is “not so sure” that changing habits will greatly influence climate change because people spend their incomes, and that will likely not change. “This is why we need to regulate producers to be responsible for retrieving and recycling everything they produce, even all cell phones, even if this means a $2,000 deposit when you buy one.”

Mark Jaccard: Brief Biography

1973 – graduated from Burnaby South High School (Student Council President, Outstanding Citizen of Graduating High School Class award)

1978 – Bachelor of Arts, SFU

1984 – Master of Natural Resources Management, SFU

1987 – PhD, University of Grenoble, France, Department of Economics/Institute of Energy Economics and Policy

1988–1992 – Assistant Professor, SFU, School of Resource and Environmental Management

1992–1997 – Chairman and CEO of the B.C. Utilities Commission

1996 – Chair of inquiry into gasoline pricing in B.C.

1997 – Advisor, Ministry of Employment and Investment, headed a task force on electricity market reform

1992 to present – Director, Canadian Industrial Energy End-Use Data and Analysis Centre

1992–2003 – Associate Professor, SFU

1993–96 – appointment to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

1999 – recipient, Outstanding Alumni Award from Burnaby South

2003 to present – Professor, SFU

2002 – winner of the National Policy Institute award for best policy book in Canada for The Cost of Climate Policy, with John Nyboer and Bryn Sadownik

2006 – winner of the Donner Prize for best policy book in Canada for Sustainable Fossil Fuels: The Unusual Suspect in the Quest for Clean and Enduring Energy (2005)

2006 to present – Research Fellow, CD Howe Institute

2007 – co-author, with Jeffrey Simpson and Nic Rivers, Hot Air: Meeting Canada’s Climate Change Challenge

2006 – recipient Nobel Peace Prize (as a former member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

2007 – appointed to the National Roundtable on Energy and the Economy (NREE)

2007 – recipient, SFU President’s Award for Service through Public Affairs and Media Relations

2007 – recipient, SFU Outstanding Alumni Award

2007 – recipient, Academic of the Year award by the B.C. Confederation of University Faculty Associations (CUFA)

2007–spring2008 – advisor to the Provincial Climate Action Team