Earth Day 2022: Muddy Issue

The 22nd of April is traditionally celebrated as Earth Day. It serves as a reminder for governments, businesses and individuals around the planet of the deteriorating state of ecology and the efforts yet to be taken to stop further damage and avoid a global environmental crisis. Given the global concern for the environment and industrial growth worldwide, it becomes increasingly hard to track the efforts nations make to preserve and protect the Earth.

Where is Canada in environmental advocacy? What can we do as citizens to support the planet’s sustainability?

The look from outside

Canada is one of the signatories of the 2015 Paris Agreement, an international accord seeking to address climate change and its negative impacts. Developed at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21), it is the first climate action agreement of such scale. This accord not only sets national goals for emissions reductions but also binds parties to helping mitigation and adaptation efforts in countries that might need financial, technical or capacity-building support. The Paris Agreement also assumes a five-year cycle of independent monitoring of each major pollution contributor’s emissions reduction efforts or ‘nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs). Together with over 190 other signatories, Canada committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions with the goal of a global temperature decrease to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels while striving to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

Seeking to fulfil Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13: ‘Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts’, Canada released its first national climate plan in 2016. Developed jointly by federal, provincial and territorial governments, the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change aims to chart a way for the country to meet its goal of 30 per cent emissions reductions by 2030. In 2020, the government released an improved federal climate plan called ‘A Healthy Environment and a Health Economy’. It contains 64 new and improved policies and programmes that aim to exceed Canada’s 2030 emissions reduction target. The country is committed to becoming a net-zero emissions nation by 2050.

The look within

Based on figures from Environment and Climate Change Canada (2021), Canada’s largest greenhouse gas (GHG) contributors are Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan and British Columbia—they account for 91 per cent of Canada’s total GHG emissions. The latest statistics show that Alberta and Ontario alone contribute 60 per cent of the national total.

GHG emissions by province and territory, Canada, 1990, 2005 and 2019

The major economic sectors, the oil and gas industry and transportation sector contribute 52 per cent of total emissions. Others account for 7–12 per cent of total emissions in Canada.

GHG emissions by economic sector, Canada, 1990–2019

Others’ in the ‘waste and others’ sector refer to emissions from light manufacturing, construction, forest resources, waste and coal production. The heavy industry sector consists of emissions from mining, smelting and refining, pulp and paper, iron and steel, cement, lime and gypsum, and chemicals and fertilisers.

Other economic sectors’ figures may be considerably lower than those of the largest offenders, oil and gas and transportation, but they cannot be overlooked. Each of the listed industries uses Canadian natural resources on a grand scale. Unfortunately, it is difficult to understand that scale and its long-term effect on the environment as there are no numeric values for Canada’s most abundant resource - forested land.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and TD Bank Group set out to calculate the price tag by analysing the natural capital of Canadian protected forested areas. According to a 2015 report containing this analysis, natural capital is “the stock of both finite and renewable natural resources and ecosystems that provide benefits to our economy, society and the world around us”. Natural areas like forests provide many ecological services. Some of the ones accounted for in the analysis include carbon storage and sequestration, water filtration and purification, air filtration and flood control. Natural lands also provide disease regulation, soil erosion prevention, wildlife habitats, pest protection, nutrient recycling, soil formation, shade and recreational opportunities.

Using a defensive expenditures method, “which effectively calculates the cost to society of replacing the services provided by forest regions”, the two organisations calculated that the values of these services are in the range of CAD 5,800–46,000 per hectare per year of ecological services.

Ecological services in Canada

Even though these figures are approximations and the actual value of untouched land is much higher in the long term, they provide a unique perspective on modern land-use practices. Canadian climate change efforts should become more proactive, protecting as much forested land as possible instead of just reacting to the risks of industries that contribute so heavily to national GHGs.

Through the magnifying glass

The United Nations’ SDG 12 calls for ensuring “sustainable consumption and production patterns”, but Ontario is getting buried under trash. According to the Ontario Waste Management Association, an industry lobby group that tracks landfill capacity in the province, extant landfill space will be exhausted by 2036. According to the president and CEO of Walker Industries, a waste management company, “In the next five to ten years, you’ve got up to five major landfills that are going to close down. It can take decades to acquire all the paperwork required for a new landfill and another two to five years to build it”.

Ontario residents do not want landfills near their homes, worrying about their property values and health. Since the new 2020 provision in the province’s Environmental Assessment Act (Bill 197), Ontario municipalities acquired rights to veto landfills. However, even before Bill 197, landfill development would take decades and many millions of dollars, according to Harry Dahme, an environmental law specialist.

Banning organic waste from landfills or shipping Ontario trash to the United States (due to low tipping fees) does not solve the problem—the increasing amount of garbage on highly urbanised land that is void of nature’s checks and balances.

According to the World Bank, Canadians (competing only with the United States and Bermuda) produce more waste than people of almost any other nationality, at 2.21 kilograms per day.

Waste generation rates: North American region (kg/capita/day)

Waste composition in North America (per cent)

So, Ontario residents, and soon enough, all other Canadians, will face a harsh reality if their attitudes to environmental action do not change. Canadians must make far greater efforts at consumption reduction given that new landfills are not an option and American waste management counterparts’ patience have limits. The motto, ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ might soon become a mandated reality.

A simple first step is to ‘reduce’. Maybe we do not need to wrap a present or use a plastic straw. Maybe we can use our old cell phones for another year or two and not become someone who produces 7.3 kilograms of electronic waste a year. Perhaps most important of all, we can switch to cloth bags and not contribute to the 5 trillion single-use plastic bags thrown out every year. The opportunities to reduce are endless and cost little or nothing.

The last two years of COVID-19 illnesses, deaths and lockdowns have had a significant impact on humankind. Many have learnt and embraced the value of human relationships and health over material goods. Let us augment our new normal with such values and make our best efforts at normalising and valuing our relationship with our planet and its health.

Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha