I’ve been thinking a lot lately about global emissions and the environment, and how we are trashing away this beautiful place we call Earth. In light of the recent political climate, and with the environment being a major speaking point in the Canadian Federal elections, this issue is at the forefront, on the minds of many Canadians right now.
From global emissions to the toxic chemicals we put into our oceans and in our waterways even here in North America, to the dismal state of our soil quality due to the rising use of pesticides, and even the overuse of antibiotics that has led to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, we are doing a whole lot of damage these days. We should all be thinking about how we can limit our impact to this Earth since this is our only home (and it’s not like we can run out and find another one!). This is it people. Having two little ones at home has changed my perspective, and leaving this place for our children in a state that is just as good if not better than we have enjoyed is very important to me.
But there is a growing global trend today that is very worrying to me. People seem relentlessly obsessed with just one very narrow aspect of this problem. "Dirty" Oil Companies. It’s all you see on the news these days. The flavor of the day is which pipeline might get approval, and how environmentalists are fighting rigorously to block it. There’s a lot of talk about peak oil, and how we need to slow development. I don’t disagree with slowing development, but this focus on Oil Companies is what is misguided. And full disclosure, as well as being a crunchy mama with two spunky little children and running a small business focused on earth-friendly practices in parenting, I am also an engineer working in Oil & Gas. Yes, the very industry that is at the "root" of so much damage to our environment. The success of these pipeline approvals is directly related to my job security. I will fully admit to my own bias.
However, people are missing the boat here. Yes, the Energy Industry is at the root of a lot of damage, BUT it is not the root cause. The root cause is global demand for these hydrocarbon fuels. If we can lower the demand for hydrocarbons, then oil & gas development will naturally decrease. There has been a rising and very successful idealistic philosophy in the environmentalist world today: this is the idea that we can forcefully decrease our use of hydrocarbons by blocking new development. Unfortunately, this tactic doesn’t work and it has ZERO net impact on emissions today. ZERO.
The root cause of global emissions is found in the industries that use hydrocarbons, not the industry that produces hydrocarbons. So which industries are the biggest culprits? The Transportation Industry is a major driver of hydrocarbon use. And which industries drive transportation? Stacey Dooley came out with a very revealing documentary called Fashion’s Dirty Secrets. It has some shocking revelations about the impact of the Fashion industry. In this documentary, I learned that almost an entire Sea the size of Ireland has all but disappeared due to cotton production and the locals have suffered long lasting health effects due to the aftermath as has the ecosystem. Cotton growing uses an exorbitant amount of water, emissions from the factories producing these clothes, the fuel emissions to transport them and the contribution to landfills by the fashion industry is astronomical. This is exacerbated by the fact that much of the clothes that do end up in landfills are synthetic textiles that can’t biodegrade as readily as natural fibers. Our used clothes also end up in landfills in Africa, so even if we are donating our clothes at the end of their cycle, they are still doing damage that we aren’t even aware of.
The Food industry is another major contributor. There are sections of the ocean that are now called dead zones because of the lack of oxygen present. This is caused by high density collections of nitrogen and phosphorus due in large part, to the beef industry discharging to our waterways. Other major causes include fertilizer runoff and raw sewage disposal. Plastics dumped in our oceans compound this problem for our struggling sealife as well. I don’t think we can pin the plastic problem on any one industry, but this is a serious issue that we should all be concerned about. As for agriculture, some experts are predicting that we only have about 60 years of harvests left before we have completely depleted the world’s soil of any nutrients rendering food for our future generations even more devoid of nutrients than it already is today. Pesticides contribute to this problem, so buying organic isn’t just about our individual health in the meals we choose to consume today but also in the long term health of our food chain.
So back to pipelines. By blocking a pipeline in Canada where we have the highest environmental regulations in the world (except for Norway and maybe a few others), not to mention one of the highest standards for human rights and corruption, we are not affecting the consumption of hydrocarbons at all. We are simply replacing them with imports from Saudi Arabia or other countries. I highly doubt a decrease in oil exports to the US is having a positive impact on their emissions either.
On top of that, the fuel required to import oil from the other side of the planet, offsets any improvement in emissions by exploiting "cleaner" oil as opposed to “dirty” oil sands. So, what impact are we having by blocking pipelines in Canada whether they are oil or natural gas pipelines? We are stranding Canadian energy, and forcing ourselves to sell to a singular customer, the USA. Yes it’s more energy efficient to sell to the US, but they are now exporting their own resources, so they are getting it from us at a fraction of the price, and then potentially sending it in ships to sell it in Asia at a premium price (making money on the backs of Canadians). So again, there’s no environmental benefit. In fact, by exporting to China, we may actually be helping that country "get off coal" as Viviane Krause puts it in her new documentary, "Over a Barrel". By importing from countries like Saudi Arabia we are supporting regimes who are killing/torturing/imprisoning innocent humans every day, supporting economies which are much more wasteful than our own.
Back to the US. We are giving our hydrocarbon resources away at a hefty discount. In fact, quite often we are giving it away for free. Just take a look at AECO spot prices and you can see that we are literally paying to give away our gas at times. We are losing significant Canadian hard-earned tax dollars in royalty income, because as the commodity prices go lower, so too does the royalty rate that the government gets. This sliding scale royalty regime is designed for Energy Companies to be able to afford to get the gas out of the ground in a low price environment.
What’s worse than burning hydrocarbons and having a negative impact on our environment? Burning them just to give them away for free. But companies are stuck in that position because not every company has the financial luxury to immediately react to pricing; production can't always just be shut in when prices are low.
And I’ll mention my biggest gripe, although for some reason there isn’t much sympathy in Canada on this front…Canadian jobs. The number of Canadians who have been negatively impacted by this industry downturn (and still are) is astounding. Many Albertans have been job hunting for years and have had no success because of the state of the industry. Flocks of people have left the province or found other industries to work in, having to completely change their careers and go back to school to build a new skill set. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not a dinosaur. Change is good. We should all adapt to changing times. But times aren’t “changing”. Global demand for oil and gas is still rising, but we are forcing an oppression of an industry that is still booming globally. We just don’t seem to want our own Canadian resources to be a part of it. How is this helping?? We are making Canadians suffer for an idealistic idea that is not having any net impact on the environment today. Many families in Alberta have had to sell their homes or have gone bankrupt trying to because they just couldn’t afford the bills anymore. People who are still working, are stressed out and have suffering health because Energy Companies are overworking their staff to keep costs down. I see various health practitioners in Calgary to try and maintain my own health and keep stress levels at bay, and I always hear from them how much more stress-triggered health issues they are seeing in the last few years. Domestic violence has also increased dramatically due in big part, to financial stressors at home. So perhaps, some Canadians believe that the suffering of Albertans is acceptable since they are doing so much environmental good by limiting Oil & Gas development, but how does that look now when we see that there is no net positive impact to the environment? Is it still worth it? Causing unnecessary suffering to fellow Canadians for an idealistic agenda that really only benefits American interests and not so much the environment at all? We really need to rethink what we are trying to accomplish here. Maybe there’s a better way to have a positive impact on the environment? I would happily accept being laid off because global demand for oil & gas had declined, but seeing our suffering economy for a superficial political idealism? This is a sad state of affairs and it is completely unnecessary.
Meanwhile Canadian companies are struggling to find pipeline capacity for their oil, so it is being sent by rail which is much less safe than by pipeline. Oil transports by rail have increased 10 fold in the past few years. The risk of an oil spill by rail is almost 5 times higher than by pipeline, so, we are actually having a potentially negative impact on the environment by not building pipelines.
The problem is blocking pipelines is easy. It’s an easy target, and it makes people feel like they are doing something. Unfortunately, there has been so much misinformation and as revealed last year by Vivian Krause, the majority of the misinformation has been funded by US companies who benefit from Canadian oil and gas being stranded in North America. It is sinister but has been proven to be true. Americans have had a major influence on public opinion on pipelines in Canada. We are suckers, and we care about the environment, so we have fallen for this misinformation to our own peril. We’d rather listen to American-funded environmentalists than our own good citizens who happen to work in the Energy Industry. We’ve been shouting from the rooftops, but not loud enough apparently. There is also the stigma attached to fighting for “dirty oil” and we as Canadians tend to be less confrontational and too polite to fight for the truth. Greta Thunberg's campaign only makes Canadians shy away even more from discussing these issues as shame dominates the conversation. Even if the things we are fighting for actually do help the environment, this message gets lost when we frame the discussion in a way that emotionally charges instead of discussing the facts. It actually makes it less likely that you will be able to talk to the people you really need to convince when you say "how dare you talk about economics", because frankly, it is part of the discussion when we are talking about risk/reward, and you're not going to convince conservatives if you don't have that discussion.
So not only is the Energy Industry NOT the root cause of the damage, but also there are other industries that have very similar impacts on global emissions and sadly, most people aren’t even aware of it. For example, if every Liberal or NDP voter stopped buying a new apple phone every year, this would have a significant impact on the environment, but giving up conveniences in life is not an easy thing to change. It's easier to go after a dirty oil company. I get it.
The food and fashion industries drive a lot of consumer-related emissions, but what is underlying both of these industries is the transportation industry which contributes about 40% to global oil demand. Energy Companies will never transition to alternative fuels until this demand decreases. So what is the root cause of global emissions? Global demand for hydrocarbons.
And that starts at home. So what can you do personally? Hint: No it’s not voting for parties that will block pipeline projects or going to the next protest against "dirty oil". And no, it’s not tweeting about Greta Thunberg.
REDUCE THE DEMAND. This is the answer, plain and simple.
So how can we start having an impact on reducing the demand? I’ll split up the actions that you can take into two categories: micro influences and macro influences. Micro influences are things you can do in your own lives and within your own local circles of influence. Macro influences are things you can do to influence government policy and economies on a wider scale. I’ll start with the micro influences that we can all have in our daily lives.
1) Shop locally.
Stop shopping on amazon because it’s cheaper and more convenient. Buy your favorite gadget locally and made by a local artisan company. The fuel used to get your gadget to you is a big part of the problem. Buying a new apple phone every year because it looks prettier or has the newest technology when the one you had worked just fine is a very easy way to reduce your impact, and really isn’t hard to do. The emissions that Apple generate are astounding as I mentioned earlier. I’ve had the same android phone for 5 years, and I always get pressure from my mobile phone company to upgrade so they can lock me in for another 3 year contract. It’s all about business and materialism. Fight the urge, and just keep that phone that works fine.
2) Reduce your consumerism habits. Think strategically about everything you buy. Reuse, buy used or rent items when you can.
Stop buying clothes as emotional therapy, or just because it's fun. Or buying something that you’ll only use once just because it’s the perfect fashion piece for an event that you have to go to next week. Think strategically about your clothes. Buy from thrift stores or rent that trendy piece for your next event.
Start supporting a local Fillery, where you can bring your own glass containers to fill up on a wide range of household items such as shampoo, dish soap, hand soap, laundry soap and even many food items. You can even refill many of these items at your local health food store now making it super convenient.
3) Eat less meat. Buy Organic. And buy your meat from sustainable farms.
The carbon footprint of most commercially raised beef is astronomically worse than plant-based food. If going vegan isn't something you are into, try to think of the meat on your plate as a side dish rather than the main course. Whether you believe that veganism is the healthiest route or that meat adds nutritional value, moderation is key. Cook at least 2 or 3 vegetable dishes for your meal to fill that gap. Your health will thank you for it and so will our oceans. If you do buy meat, try to buy from locally run businesses who value sustainable practices.
4) For all the parents out there, here's a personal favorite of mine. Buy less disposable diapers.
Learn how to potty your babies earlier and use cloth diapers instead of putting disposable diapers in the landfills. Learn more about this through my little local business or if you are outside of Southern Alberta, find your own local advocate through the company I trained with.
As for the macro influences that can potentially have a larger impact on this global problem, there are many ways that you can lobby your government to change policy. There are many things we could be doing besides blocking pipeline approvals that will have a much higher impact on the environment today:
5) Spread the word. Start the conversation about something, ANYTHING other than "dirty oil companies". Let's spread the word about lesser known evils instead of beating a dead horse to the ground. I've outlined all the ways we can have a real impact on global demand here, so come on. Put it on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, or whatever the cool kids are using these days :)
6) Lobby your local government to do better on litter cleanup near waterways & ensure your local waste water system is effectively removing microplastics. And to have an impact on a micro level, pick up garbage and plastic litter when you see it on the ground, especially if it is close to a water source.
A recent study showed that the amount of plastics entering our oceans from North American waterways is significant. We tend to think that the disastrous state of our oceans today is due to plastic being dumped from third world countries, but that is not fully true. That plastic bottle or plastic bag flowing in the wind beside the river you walk by everyday could potentially kill a whale one day, and it's our responsibility to do something about it.
If we don't clean up our act, nobody will. We tend to look the other way and think someone else will deal with it. But our government doesn't pay people to walk the banks of every river everyday, and we need to take responsibility. Even better, if we can lobby our government to bring some attention to litter in and around waterways this would have a much larger impact. Even if there aren't funds to increase the budget for this, all it may take is a change in focus of existing programs. Help bring attention to this and minimize garbage entering our waterways.
And on that note, the BC government and other provinces have been dumping untreated sewage waste into our ocean for years. So let's start at home with unnecessary damage that we can actually do something about today. The BC government has finally made the investment decision to upgrade their waste water system, but there is still debate on whether it is necessary. However, recent attention to microplastics has revealed that microplastics are now raining down on us everyday. I wonder how much of these toxins in our rain originated from sewage waste? Lovely thought. Victoria is the last North American coastal city to stop dumping raw sewage into the ocean. Lobby your government to make sure it does follow through and the sooner the better.
7) Lobby your government to regulate single use plastics & come up with a local plan to deal with our recycling disaster.
This is a no brainer. It's hard to justify all the plastic waste I see every day. Only 9% of plastic products in Canada end up being recycled. I would love it if I didn't have the option to use plastic bags at the grocery store, and if plastic straws would be a thing of the past. Email or call your MP and tell them what you think. Let's make it happen.
Something people don't realize is that they don't have full control over what happens to all those plastic bags they use at the grocery store. You may think your conscience is clear by recycling those bags, but it has been shown that those bags may be ending up in China or more likely other third world countries since China started turning our recycling away. More than half of our recycling is exported to other countries (a significant amount of which goes to third world countries). We don't have the capacity to recycle all of our recycling feed within Canada so we simply outsource it, but "out of sight, out of mind" is no longer a good excuse. If our "recycling" ends up in the ocean, we only have ourselves to blame, and I'm not sure we know whether that is happening on or not at this point.
So, maybe throw in an argument for some extra Canadian recycling plants while you are lobbying the government. If we want to "feel good" about recycling, we should be responsible and handle it ourselves instead of using more fuel to ship it across the globe only to be burned adding even more to the green house gas problem. So on that note, another micro influence is to be a bit more thoughtful and informed about what you throw into that blue bin. More is not necessarily better, in fact, it could be a whole lot worse.
8) Regulating the beef industry is another one. Let's face it. We eat way too much meat in North America. It's damaging our Earth and it's not sustainable. Let's put incentives in place to help the beef industry become more sustainable.
9) How about the Energy Industry? We already have one of the most regulated industries in the world. But you could lobby the Alberta Government to incentivize recycled water for hydraulic fracturing.
The BC government already has such incentives, but Alberta is lagging behind on this. Let's put the energy where it should be, and safeguard our water supplies by encouraging Energy companies to use recycled water rather than fresh water.
For some the pipeline debate is idealistic, but if the real concern is about oil spills from pipelines then our focus should be on pipeline integrity, not getting rid of pipelines all together. Because let's face it, we just can't do without them. We already have substantial regulation at the provincial level, so if you want to learn more about that you can speak to your provincial regulator.
10) Lobby the government to provide incentives for consumers to make eco-friendly choices.
What about an incentive to buying locally? This could come in the form of a yearly household limit on amazon orders, for example in order to receive a tax break. Incentives for efficient home improvements. I’d love to put new windows in my house, but the government is doing nothing to make this more affordable.
These common sense changes could make a real impact on the environment today but it's not going to be easy. No pain, no gain, but it's time for everyday Canadians to start taking some responsibility for what needs to be done. Let's stop talking about pipelines (at least for a minute) and start talking about how we can get to the root cause of the problem and have an immediate, direct impact on global emissions today.
Helen Holder is a mother, an engineer and the owner of Earth Baby Services. She is a Go Diaper Free Certified Potty Consultant and Postpartum Doula. She is an avid ECer and advocate of early potty training and protecting the environment, and is very passionate about helping new mothers!