An emissions target made real

Last October, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority, declared that global emissions need to drop by 45% by 2030 – just 11 years from now – if we are to limit global warming to 1.5°C.  (Quick primer here.)

Sadly, global reaction was underwhelming – perhaps because any target given in years can sound like a long time.

Recently, I heard a speaker reframe those numbers in this different, more impactful way:

          “Emissions need to drop by 1% every three months.”

Emissions

For me, it was simple math, and suddenly it was real.  Reductions need to start now, and the longer we stall, the more daunting the challenge.

So, something to ponder as you relax and sip this summer: where will your 1% between now and November 14 come from?

  • Will you drive less? Will you bike, carpool or take public transit, even just a few times?  Will you stop idling or using drive-throughs?  Will you get a more efficient vehicle?  Will you take one less flight?  (Quick tip: transportation is ‘low-hanging fruit’, with significant savings readily available to anyone willing to make a few simple habit changes.)
  • Will you use less air conditioning now, or less heating in the fall?
  • Will you eat a little less meat and a few more veggies? Will you choose more local produce this fall?
  • Will you take shorter or fewer showers?
  • Something else? (Please hit reply and let me know, so I can share in a future Green Ideas.)

And once you’ve decided, why not start thinking about where your next 1% will come from, by Valentine’s Day?

(PS: 11 years isn’t that long – remember the global financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama in 2008?)

One of the easiest ways to reduce your carbon footprint: work less, relax more!

Remember June 5th’s Green Ideas tip, about the benefits of letting at least a part of your lawn grow into a meadow? Here’s a true summer story to help reaffirm that.

My wife and I have let our back lawn grow this summer, as an experiment. Bees and fireflies are loving it, and we’re enjoying skipping the mowing. Yet we’ve also been a tad uneasy about being perceived as… well, a bit weird or crazy. But last week we were sitting out on the deck enjoying a cool beverage when the peaceful silence was interrupted by someone firing up their lawn mower for the weekly drudge. We looked at each other, clinked our glasses and agreed, “Crazy? Not us!!”

There’s a larger message here too. In today’s world, it seems so many of us work too much, drive too much and consume too much. That’s hard on us, and hard on the environment. A growing body of research suggests that working less can reduce our carbon footprint disproportionately (IE working 25% fewer hours can reduce our carbon footprint by more than 25%). This Guardian columnist makes that point convincingly, going so far as to suggest that a four-day work week could be one of our best strategies for fighting climate change and improving our quality of life (provided our fifth day doesn’t become a drive-and-shop day).

Relaxing

So why not explore ways you can work less and enjoy non-carbon relaxation more? Something to raise a toast to on these hot summer days.

How to limit the impacts of your summer (or winter) break

Vacations help us relax, clear our minds and rejuvenate – essential in today’s complex, dizzying world.

Unfortunately, vacations can be hard on the environment – but we can greatly reduce the environmental impacts of our vacation with a few simple choices:

  • Travel in the lightest way you can. Flying has a huge carbon footprint (to the point where one progressive airline is even encouraging people to fly less); trucks and SUVs guzzle a lot of fuel (especially at higher speeds and AC blasting).  An electric vehicle can reduce your footprint by half.  Taking the train is even better.  Bicycling is best of all (and arguably best for clearing your mind too).
  • Seek out high-quality small scale, family-run hotels and traditional accommodation, if possible with renewable energy sources. Camping is even better, and less expensive too.
  • Eat as much local food as you can, leaning as much as you can toward a plant-based diet – and don’t leave anything on your plate!

Enjoy low-impact activities like hiking, canoeing or kayaking – excellent ways to reconnect with the natural world we are part of, depend on and need to protect.

Bicycling

Happy vacationing, and see you on the trails!

Thanks to the Global Footprint Network for their ongoing excellent work and for much of the information above.

Top tips for limiting how much trash your household produces

Six months ago, I shared my 2019 sustainability goals.  One of them was that our family would produce no more than 10 bags of trash this year.  (Hey, what’s the point of a goal if it’s easy?…)

Halfway through, I’m pleasantly surprised to share that we’re actually on track: we’re working on bag number five.

So what’s the trick?  Here are six keys to our success so far:

  1. Choosing less packaging: limiting trash is top-of-mind when we shop, so we actively choose products with little to no packaging, and actively avoid heavily packaged products. 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.  This has probably been the biggest single factor in reducing our trash this year.  (Some people think the three Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – should be preceded by a fourth, most important one: Refuse.  My experience would seem to validate that idea.)
  2. No single-use plastic bags, ever: 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).
  3. No disposable coffee cups, ever: that means I skip that coffee if I’ve forgotten my mug. The upside: I now remember my mug.
  4. No disposable cutlery: alas, still working on this one as I sometimes still forget my spork (no endorsement intended).
  5. Composting: organics make up a big part of household waste, so diverting them to a compost heap greatly reduces trash. A bonus: you end up with fertilizer for next year’s garden. Another bonus: your remaining trash is less smelly and less attractive to pests.  (Unsure about composting?  Here’s a simple guide.)
  6. Recycling rigorously: our recycling systems are far from ideal (carbon footprint of collection; mixed materials; offshore ‘processing’), but recycling is still better than trashing.

So – nothing magic here; it’s more been a matter of commitment and habit.

So why not try it yourself?  And please let me know if you have any tips or secrets to add to the above list!

Please, no more trucks!

June 18, 2019

Make efficiency the number one issue when you buy a vehicle

I’ll confess to periodically talking back to my television.  And in recent months, nothing has provoked me more than that ad with the line, “Introducing eight all-new 2019 Chevrolet Silverados”.

Why?  Because trucks are horrendous gas guzzlers.  They, along with SUVs, are THE reason why Canadian vehicles are the very least efficient in the world.

I get that trucks are powerful, comfortable, luxurious and work-ready – except that most rarely work; they’re used for commuting.   Over a 300,000 KM lifetime, a truck averaging 14 litres/100 KM will emit 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide.  That sure seems out of touch with reducing our emissions by 45% by 2030 if we plan to cap global warming at 1.5°C.  Perhaps trucks are our generation’s irresponsibility.

So hey Chevy – for power, comfort, luxury and mind-blowing efficiency, why not instead give us eight new models of your magnificent Bolt EV, with an incredible 2.0 litres equivalent/100 KM, or seven times as efficient as a truck?  (Like all EVs, the Bolt is eligible for a $5000 rebate anywhere in Canada.)

For those rare few who really do need a truck for work, check out Rivian, Workhorse or – soon – Tesla.

For the rest of us, why not get familiar with NRCan’s fuel efficiency guide, where you can compare the fuel efficiency of every vehicle available for sale in Canada?  Then make efficiency your top priority the next time you buy.

Turn a corner of your lawn into a meadow

I saw a man mowing his {enormous} manicured lawn this past weekend.  He had a {nearly as enormous} ride-on mower, but it was surely still a multi-hour task.  It got me thinking: how many hours will he spend mowing over the course of the summer?  How much fertilizer, water and spray will be used to make it grow faster, so it will require even more mowing?  And how many litres of fuel will be burned?

Manicured lawns may look nice, but they are typically biodiversity deserts: favouring a few grass species, but hostile to pretty much everything else (not unlike the sprayed plantation forests that tend to be lightning rods for criticism).  Maybe the manicured lawn is a concept that needs a reality check; maybe there are better ways to spend our resources – and our precious time.

So here’s a thought: why not turn a part of your lawn into a meadow?  It’s easy: just leave it to grow; let other species creep in, or maybe plant a few wildflowers; and make it a haven for bees and other insects in our ecosystem’s ‘circle of life’.  (Not ready to go completely wild?  As an alternative, mow part of your lawn higher {10 cm} and less often.)

Start small, and who knows?  Maybe the benefits (including the music of insects and a poison-free space) will lead to more meadow and less lawn next year.

Happy non-mowing!

The importance of being able to discern truth from fiction

For ten years, I wrote a newspaper column about environmental issues.  My biggest fear was always that I might get something wrong: that a mistake on my part would divert attention away from the issue I was trying to cover.  So it led me to research meticulously from multiple, credible sources.  (Perhaps because of that, nothing I wrote was ever called into serious question – phew!!)

We live in an era of greater knowledge than ever – yet misinformation, ‘fake news’ and propaganda are perhaps more prevalent than ever, thanks to the internet, and social media platforms in particular.

It’s a huge problem: fake news sows confusion and uncertainty; reinforces previously-held beliefs that are simply wrong; angers and polarizes people; and – particularly in the case of climate change – delays urgent action.

Truth matters – so here’s what you can do to discern fact from fiction:

  1. Stick to good sources.  Newspapers, especially large and longstanding ones, are among the best places for critical analysis and quality journalism.  (Very few are totally free of bias, so don’t entirely turn off your truth filter.)  Media Bias/Fact Checkand the Pew Research Center of Journalism and Mediaoffer (unbiased?) assessments of many major news organizations.
  2. Have a healthy suspicion of stories originating from think tanks and other special interest groups.  They may not be wrong, but it’s unlikely they’ll share anything that hurts their case.
  3. Look for credible references.  It’s wise to be wary of writers who cite only their own articles or research.
  4. Beware of headlines that sensationalize or exaggerate; stories that contain adjectives like ‘amazing’ or ‘revolutionary’; or web pages splashed with click-bait stories.
  5. Take the time to read balanced, well-researched and well-written pieces that challenge your own point of view.  There’s always room for added perspective and better understanding.

And – want to discern climate change fact from fiction?  Visit (and bookmark) Skeptical Science.

This great graphic from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) summarizes a sensible approach to discerning fact from fiction in all you read; you can download it yourself here.

Fake News

How climate change causes extreme weather

Here’s a graphic to help explain one of the most immediate and direct impacts of climate change: extreme weather events.

Water Cycle

Image: US Geological Survey

Earth’s water cycle is a critical component of our climate.  It operates continuously, and has three stages:

  • Evaporation: water goes up into our atmosphere, mainly through evaporation from the surface of oceans
  • Condensation: cooler temperatures high in our atmosphere cause evaporated water to condense into droplets of moisture
  • Precipitation: this moisture falls back to the Earth in the form of rain or snow

We humans are most conscious of the third, because it’s the one that affects us directly.

Most people understand that global warming has warmed our air – but over 90% of the extra heat so far from global warming has actually gone into our oceans and warmed the water – and here’s why that combination is a big concern:

  • It’s a basic principle of physics that warm water evaporates more readily. So when oceans warm, much more water evaporates from their surfaces into the atmosphere.
  • It’s another basic principle of physics that warm air can hold and carry much more moisture (seven per cent more for every one-degree rise in temperature)

The result: warmer air carrying more moisture can drop enormous amounts of precipitation, whether as rain or snow, over an area.  In other words, extreme weather events.  (Just last week, I heard a television meteorologist attribute the stretch of wet weather we’ve been experiencing in eastern Canada to warmer water in the Gulf of Mexico.)

So – if ever you’ve wondered how climate change and extreme weather are related, now you know: intensification of our global water cycle, pictured above.  Perhaps that’s worth printing, or even sharing!  (Missed the graphics shared in the past three editions of Green Ideas?  You can find them here.)

Where we are, where we need to go

I get that your fridge may becoming a bit crowded by now – but here’s a third graphic worth printing and contemplating: where global greenhouse gas emissions currently stand, and where they need to go.

GHG Emissions

A special report issued last October by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that, if we are to limit global warming to 1.5°C, we need to:

  • Reduce emissions globally by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 (just 11 years from now); and then
  • Achieve net zero emissions by 100% by 2050, just 20 years after that

The IPCC’s conclusion is represented by the dotted red line above.  (The solid red line represents continuing with ‘business as usual’.)

A few takeaways:

  • A 45% reduction in just 11 years is a daunting goal by any measure; it won’t be achieved if we fall into the trap of thinking we can wait 10 years and then just do it all in the 11th, so we need to act quickly
  • A 45% reduction is not just a minor tweak; it will require deep, fundamental changes to where we get our energy and how we use it
  • A 45% reduction for all translates into a 45% reduction for each of us, so here’s the big question: what can you (or I) do to reduce our carbon footprint by 45%? (To help, why not revisit this graphic of the sources of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by sector, from March 27’s Green Ideas.)

True, you or I can’t do it alone.  But it’ll never get done without us.

A snapshot of Canadian greenhouse gas emissions

If a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s another graphic worth printing and placing onto your fridge: a summary of Canada’s 2016 greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector.

GHG

The above numbers add up to 704 million tonnes (or 22 tonnes a second), about 4% below the 732 million tonnes we emitted in 2005.  Under the 2015 Paris Accord, Canada committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, so we have a lot of work to do over the next 11 years.  (And, if truth be told, our targets need to be more ambitious if global warming is to be addressed seriously.)

A few key takeaways: between 2005 and 2016, Canadian emissions:

  • from Electricity decreased by 34% – a good thing!
  • from Buildings, Industry, Agriculture and Waste declined slightly
  • from Transportation and Oil & Gas, the two biggest slices of the above pie, increased by 7% and 16% respectively – pretty much summarizing where the greatest problem lies and where our greatest efforts are required.

Why not print this graphic and place it on your fridge, so you see where our emissions are coming from and contemplate all the ways we can reduce them.  (It’s a complement to the carbon cycle graphic from March 13’s Green ideas, which hopefully made it onto your fridge too!)

Learn more about our Canadian emissions (including, on page 13, which four provinces’ emissions have gone in the wrong direction) here.