Amid information overload, the bottom line on solving climate change

Does learning about climate change and its solutions sometimes give you information overload?

Well, join the crowd.  It seems just about every day I read about yet another app, gadget or technology that promises to help solve climate change.  All are well-intentioned, of course, and probably make a positive difference.  But I often wonder if some do more harm than good, because:

  • In the big picture, they often make a pretty tiny difference and can’t be affordably or practically ramped up to the scale required
  • They may give us a false sense of relief, and distract us from the areas where the really big differences and progress can be made

For example, you may have heard about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), where carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels is captured and stored underground – a great idea, except that it’s prohibitively expensive to do; preventing emissions in the first place is much, much cheaper.  (An analogy:  would you throw confetti or glitter at a wedding if you knew you had to sweep up every bit of it?  Or would you just not use it in the first place, and find another way to celebrate?)

Just one of so many distractions.

So here’s the uncomplicated bottom line: to stop climate change, we need to reduce our emissions to zero, period.  There’s no magic, no silver bullet, no ‘get out of jail free’ card.

Hopefully this chart can help you focus on a few really simple things (in rough order of importance) that will yield the largest reductions in your personal emissions:

  1. Reduce your transportation emissions by driving less, taking public transit, carpooling, driving an efficient vehicle, practicing efficient driving techniques, avoiding drive-thrus, never idling your engine and using less AC in your vehicle. Try to think climate every time you reach for the keys.  (And lower Transportation emissions will automatically reduce demand for gasoline, lowering emissions from the Oil and Gas sector too.)
  2. Reduce your emissions at home by turning off lights and anything else when not in use, turning down the thermostat a few degrees, sealing leaks and drafts, insulating where possible, switching from oil to electric heat pumps (a new federal assistance program was announced last week), using efficient appliances, using a clothesline and using AC as little as possible.  Try to think climate every time you reach for a switch.
  3. Reduce your industry emissions by buying less stuff (and if it comes from far away, you’ll be reducing transportation emissions too)
  4. Reduce your food emissions by reducing food waste and adopting a more plant-based diet
  5. Reduce your waste emissions by favouring less packaging in your purchases, composting organics and recycling meticulously
  6. If you have the means, reduce your electricity emissions by installing your own source of renewable energy

Reducing our emissions to zero, period.  It may not be simple to do, but amid distractions and information overload, hopefully at least it’s easy to understand.

…so why not the planet?

Plenty of people spend hours every week mowing their lawns.  Others spend hours every week washing and vacuuming their vehicle.  Still others spend hours every week on their appearance.  Why?  Because through their lens on the world, those things are important – and we humans are pretty good at taking care of things when they matter to us.

So why are we such poor caretakers of our planet?  Probably because, in a world where most of our time is spent indoors, food is perceived to come from a supermarket and water is perceived to come from a tap, most of us have lost our connection with the natural world and don’t care enough about it – even though we depend upon it for every breath, sip and bite.

So maybe we could benefit from a reset in our thinking.  For example:

  • What if we perceived a river as our well or swimming pool?  I’m guessing we would take great care to not dump sewage, plastic and other pollutants into it.
  • What if we saw the atmosphere as our enclosed garage or, even better, the air in our home?  I’m guessing we’d very soon be turning off our engines and adopting non-polluting ways to get around.
  • What if we saw a roadside as our front yard?  I’m guessing we wouldn’t litter.
  • What if we valued all trees as we value that one in our backyard that provides summer shade, bird habitat and an anchor for the hammock?  I’m guessing we’d take a stronger stance against deforestation.
  • What if we perceived the planet as an airplane?  I’m guessing we’d be much less afraid to talk about the issue of population growth.

So… how best to trigger that reset?  Why not:

  • Go for a walk in the park or, even better, the woods.  Ponder the beauty around you, and imagine how it would feel to lose it.
  • Grab a canoe or kayak, and paddle to a secluded place.  Breathe deeply.  See, hear, smell, feel.
  • Hop on a bike and explore a trail
  • Sit in your backyard with no electronic device, and just look, listen and reflect
  • Read a good book; just Google ‘books about connecting with nature’ for many wonderful suggestions.  If you’re up for a good challenge to conventional economic thinking, I’ll suggest The End of Growth.
  • Take the David Suzuki Foundation’s One Nature Challenge: spend 30 minutes a day in nature for 30 days to kickstart a new, permanent habit

It’s clear we have the financial and technological means to solve our climate crisis and most of our other environmental challenges.  We just need a reset, so that we care enough to act (as we do for our lawns, vehicles and appearances).

What really matters

Near the beginning of “An Inconvenient Truth”, former US Vice President Al Gore reflects on the two life events that motivated him to dedicate his time to fighting climate change: learning about climate science from a respected university professor; and the near-death of his young son in an accident.  Gore’s telling of the story is set to a haunting piece of instrumental music, “How could I spend my time?”

This summer, I’ve been able to retreat to my kayak a bit more than in recent years.  It’s been rejuvenating to breathe the fresh air and savour the natural beauty.  Perhaps your retreat has been a cottage, camp or cabin.  Perhaps it’s been a road trip.  Perhaps it’s been socializing with a beverage in hand as we re-emerge (kind of) from the pandemic.  Whatever your retreat, hopefully it’s been rejuvenating and re-energizing.

But this summer, the planet has been sending us some pretty strong distress signals about the state of our climate, and how frighteningly fast change is happening.  Record-breaking heat in Europe and China; extreme wildfires in France and Newfoundland; severe drought in China and Germany; flash flooding in Austria and Afghanistan.  And that’s just a sample.

Soon, fall will beckon us back to our ‘normals’ and routines.  In view of the need for climate action, here’s a simple question to ask yourself: how will you spend your time?  Same old same old?  Or is it time for a real and big change, to something more meaningful and more important?

Making a big change is daunting, for sure.  But take inspiration from the people featured here who did just that.  Some of their new ventures:

If tech’s not your thing (and it sure isn’t mine), don’t despair.  Instead, why not do an inventory of your talents, values and interests, and, to paraphrase Richard Nelson Bolles, find the place where they intersect with the world’s greatest needs.  Maybe it’ll be installing solar panels; or teaching eco-and energy literacy; or doing energy efficiency upgrades; or communicating with our leaders about the importance of real climate action; or volunteering at your local environmental non-profit; or simply making positive changes in your own life.  Maybe you’ll want to check out The Work That Reconnects conference happening in Nova Scotia in October. 

Whatever you do, please do something – because as the Lung Association slogan goes, “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”

I hope summer has rejuvenated and motivated you for a focussed, productive fall, and maybe even some new beginnings.  I know my kayak outings have helped replenish my soul, and reassured me that working on climate change awareness and solutions is still the best way for me to be spending my time

Hydrogen, a fuel with huge potential – if done right

Hydrogen, the first element of the Periodic Table, is getting a lot of attention these days as a potential energy source of the future.  Why?

  • It’s plentiful: hydrogen is the H in H2O, or water; it’s the most abundant element on Earth and in the universe
  • It’s versatile: hydrogen can be used to produce electricity or heat
  • It’s clean: the combustion of hydrogen produces only water; zero carbon dioxide is produced

Sounds like a perfect solution for shifting the world off of fossil fuels and solving climate change, right?  Except for one thing: pure hydrogen doesn’t occur naturally; it needs to be separated from other elements first – and that requires energy.  Where that energy comes from is critical in determining whether hydrogen really is or isn’t a clean fuel.

That’s why an international system has been developed to categorize hydrogen, using colours.  Here’s an overview:

  • Grey hydrogen is hydrogen derived from natural gas, or produced through other means that involve the burning of fossil fuels.  The hydrogen itself may be clean, but its production has a huge carbon footprint.  That’s why grey hydrogen is of minimal benefit in addressing our climate crisis.
  • Blue hydrogen is also derived from fossil fuels, but most of the carbon dioxide generated in creating it is captured and stored.  However, carbon capture and storage is very expensive and technically challenging.  So blue hydrogen is less harmful to the climate than grey, but still not great.
  • Green hydrogen is hydrogen produced when renewable electricity (IE from wind, solar or hydro) is used to extract pure hydrogen from water through a process called electrolysis.  Green hydrogen has a virtually zero carbon footprint in both its production and combustion, so it’s the only truly climate-neutral type of hydrogen.

Unfortunately, most of the world’s hydrogen today is the grey kind.  However, great strides are being made in developing better green hydrogen technology – such as this facility that converts wind energy into hydrogen.  

The potential is enormous, as hydrogen is seen to be the best solution for things that will be very hard to electrify, such as airplanes, large trucks, steel making and more.

But the true sustainability of hydrogen depends entirely on how it’s produced – and now you know: it’s got to be green!

Click here to learn more about the many colours of hydrogen. 

Three years on, a progress report on our family’s 10 bag challenge

In January 2019, our family made a New Year’s sustainability resolution that we’d generate no more than 10 bags of trash per year.  At the time, I thought it was pretty audacious; I really had no idea whether we could do it.  (On the other hand, if Lauren Singer can put three year’s worth of her trash into a mason jar, surely we could manage 10 bags??…)

Fast forward to today, and I’m pleased to report that we did hit our 10-bag target in 2019 – plus every year since.  And I think we’re actually getting better at it: bag #3 for 2022 just went out earlier this month.

So what’s the secret?  (And no, we’re not using bigger garbage bags.)  There is none, really.  We just strive to:

  • Choose less packaging: limiting trash is top-of-mind when we shop, so we actively choose products with little to no packaging. It’s meant the odd sacrifice, but we’re okay with that; our purchase decisions are one of the best ways we can influence the market. Packaging made up the bulk of our trash, so this has probably been the biggest single factor in helping us reduce it. (Some people think the three Rs should be preceded by a fourth, most important one, Refuse.)
  • Buy used whenever possible: because used goods seldom come with packaging
  • Avoid single-use plastic bags altogether: it’s meant a few walks back to the car, but we’re now comfortably in the habit of using alternatives that include reusable produce bags or collapsible boxes (no endorsement intended).
  • Avoid disposable coffee cups altogether: that means I skip that coffee if I’ve forgotten my mug. The upside: I now remember my mug.
  • Avoid disposable cutlery and takeout containers by carrying a spork (no endorsement intended) and keeping a bag with camp-style reusable cutlery, dishes and containers in the trunk of the car
  • Compost everything possible: all the organics from our kitchen end up on our compost heap, which turns them into fertilizer for next year’s garden. A bonus: our remaining trash is less smelly and less attractive to pests. (Unsure about composting? Here’s a simple guide.)
  • Recycle rigorously: our recycling systems are far from ideal (carbon footprint of collection; mixed materials; offshore ‘processing’), but recycling is still better than trashing.

If there is one secret to what we’re doing, it’s probably this: reducing trash has become part of our family’s culture.  It’s ingrained into our everyday thinking, and now it’s become second nature.  (Sidebar thought: a culture of sustainability would probably help all of us take giant strides toward solving larger challenges too, like climate change.)

Are you up for a 10-bag challenge in your family?  I hope so – and I hope the above tips will help you achieve it!

Thanks to subscribers Don Ross and Wes Glocking for each sharing tips on how they’ve gotten their households’ trash down to 2-3 bags per year, and inspiring me to a loftier goal!    

Life Cycle Assessment, the one sure measure of sustainability and environmental impact

It’s no secret that electric vehicles have huge batteries, which have a significant manufacturing and disposal footprint.  That leads some people to suggest that EVs are as bad for the environment as conventional gas vehicles.  But that’s a false argument, and here’s why.

The only truly fair way to measure the sustainability of any product – whether a bag of chips, an article of clothing, biofuels or a vehicle – is to do a full Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).  That means measuring the impact of everything from manufacturing to use to eventual end-of-life disposal or recycling. 

It’s true that it takes more energy and resources to manufacture an EV than a conventional one, mainly because of that big battery.  And it takes more to dispose of (IE recycle) an EV at the end of its life, again mainly because of that big battery.

However, the largest environmental impact of any vehicle doesn’t come from its manufacture or disposal; it comes from that phase in between: its use, AKA driving.  And when it comes to driving, the far-superior efficiency of EVs more than offsets their extra manufacturing and disposal impacts.  (And as mentioned last time, the more renewable the energy used to charge an EV, the greater those benefits.)

Need more convincing?

  • Here’s a 2021 study showing that EVs have lower overall greenhouse gas emissions than gas vehicles – not only in the US and Europe, but also in China and India, where much power comes from coal; here’s a magazine article about the same study.
  • Here’s a 2022 analysis from the Fuels Institute (yes, lots of fossil fuels representation there) concluding the same thing: EVs are better
  • Here’s a 2018 analysis done for the City of Vancouver – a bit dated, but with findings that are consistent with the above research, and probably amplified by today’s improved EV technology.

It’s true that conducting a proper LCA can get pretty complicated, technical and expensive.  And admittedly, there’s room for interpretation, depending on methodology.  (For example, how do you factor in the non-GHG impacts of mines that supply the ingredients of any vehicle, whether electric or gas?)

But if you’re intent upon reducing greenhouse gas emissions and doing your part to help in the fight against climate change, know this: under scrutiny of a full Life Cycle Assessment, EVs are significantly better than gas vehicles.

Where your power comes from matters, but…

When it comes to electric vehicles, SGOTI – ‘some guy on the internet’ – sure has a lot to say.  One common suggestion is that EVs are no better than conventional vehicles in places where a lot of electricity comes from fossil fuels.

It’s definitely true that the source of the power used to charge an EV matters. If an EV runs entirely on renewable, non-emitting power, it has zero driving emissions.  However, if it runs on power generated from fossil fuels, you could say a share of those power plant emissions rightfully belong to the EV. 

The real question then becomes: at what mix of power generation sources (IE emitting versus non-emitting) are EVs really better?  Or perhaps the more relevant question for each of us: what’s the situation in my province or state?

And here’s the answer: across North America, even in areas where most power is generated by fossil fuels, EVs generate fewer emissions than conventional vehicles. 

If you’d like to take a deeper dive, here are a few sources to browse:

One further key point: power grids are changing quickly because of the rapid uptake of renewable power sources, wind and solar in particular.  So EVs are worth adopting even in areas that get a lot of their power from fossil fuels, because emission reductions will increase as those power grids get more and more of their energy from clean, non-emitting sources.

So the next time SGOTI – or anyone else – questions the emission reduction potential of EVs, please refer them to the above links!

Comparing costs: a fuel-efficient gas vehicle versus an EV

A few months back, I shared a table comparing the cost of a 2022 Honda Civic Sedan (2.0 litre/4 cyl) and a 2022 Chevy Bolt EV.  But that was when gas was ‘only’ $1.80/litre; today, it’s $2.20 here in NB – so here’s an updated comparison. (Same caveat as last time: I’m not an accountant so there may be gaps in my methodology – but it should serve as a pretty good indication.)

Emissions information hasn’t changed; the Bolt still generates 78 per cent fewer emissions than the Civic.  (Imagine the emissions reduction if every vehicle in the province were electric.)

But what has changed: with fuel at $2.20/litre, the extra cost of purchasing the Bolt would be recovered in fuel savings in just two years (versus 2 ½ years a few months back) – and that’s over a Civic, which is already a pretty efficient gas vehicle!  The savings over an SUV or pickup truck would be mind-blowing.  Plus:

  • That payback happens more quickly the more you drive and the higher gas prices go
  • EVs require far less maintenance than gas vehicles; if maintenance costs were included above, the payback would be even quicker.

True, you do need to invest a bit more up front when buying an EV – but that’s changing quickly: just last week, Chevrolet announced that the price of its 2023 Bolt in the US will be about US$6,000 less than the 2022(That discount appears not to be coming to the Canadian market this year, but surely it’s an indicator of where things are headed.)

And true, EVs are suffering from the same supply chain issues as everything else, so prospective buyers are having to book a vehicle and then wait for it to arrive.

But vehicles account for a large chunk of our carbon footprint.  So if a new one is on your horizon, hopefully this gives you resolve to make it electric – for your planet and your pocketbook.

Coming next: how ‘green’ is an EV if the power to charge it comes from fossil fuels?

Go easy on the AC

June 1, 2022

Save on fuel by using air conditioning only when it’s really needed

Note: This Green Ideas first ran a few years ago, but $2/litre gas prices made me think it was worth sharing again.

It’s summer, and for many of us that means the air conditioner in our vehicles is always on.  But consider this: air conditioning is second only to driving as the biggest load on an engine – it can increase your fuel consumption by up to 20%.  Put another way, turning on the air conditioner is a lot like constantly hauling a trailer around.

So what to do?

  • Turn off your AC and use fresh air when possible; open windows wide as you like at low speeds, just a crack at higher speeds, and use your fan without air conditioning for added comfort.  Sunroofs are awesome because they are quieter than open windows
  • Reserve AC only for really hot days, and use it intermittently; aim for comfortable, not cold
  • Set your AC to ‘recirculation’; it uses less energy because you’re cooling the air already inside your vehicle and not bringing in warm outside air
  • Park in the shade whenever you can or use a reflective window shade so your vehicle doesn’t get as uncomfortably hot inside (meaning there’s less heat to get rid of via open windows or AC)
  • Get into the habit of turning off your AC when you park at the end of the day so it’s not automatically on in the morning when you least need it

Learn more strategies for saving on air conditioning from Natural Resources Canada, here (and note the savings chart is based on gas costing… sigh… $1/litre).

Take an egg for a drive

Note: This Green Ideas first ran a few years ago, but $2/litre gas prices made me think it was worth sharing again.

If you’re an average driver, here’s a simple, zero-cost way to improve your gas mileage by 10-20%: the next time you go for a drive, take an egg and tape it under the toe of your right shoe.  Then try to get where you’re going without breaking the egg. 

It’s a simple trick that will produce significant savings, guaranteed.

Here’s why.  Much fuel is consumed when we speed up aggressively, and we waste our hard-won momentum when we jump on the brakes aggressively.  It’s well documented that gentle starts and gentle stops can save the average driver 10-20%.  That’s like driving over a month for free every year.

So strap on an egg the next time you get behind the wheel of a car, truck, bus or anything else, and get ready to save.  And if you happen not to have one with you, good news: it works with imaginary eggs too!