Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Arctic Canaries

For centuries the Inuit have lived in harmony with possibly the harshest climate on the planet. Thanks to climate change they are losing their traditional way of life as rapidly as the polar ice caps are melting. While this drama may seen remote and unimportant to those who defend what they believe to be their God-given right to burn fossil fuels, what befalls the Inuit may soon befall all of us. In simple terms, they are the canaries in the coalmine of climate change.

This was the profoundly moving message that 2007 Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Arctic activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier gave to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Sustainable Communities Conference in Ottawa last week.

The Arctic is the planet's stabilizer. The white polar ice caps reflect much of the radiation that they receive from the sun. As the snowcap melts, the open water absorbs rather than reflects the sunlight, accelerating the predicted rate of climate change and ultimately impacting the entire planet.

Until recently, scientists were predicting an ice-free summer for the Arctic as soon as 2040. Because of the significantly accelerated warming, NASA scientists are now predicting that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free as early as 2012. That's a problem that the Canadian government may not be ready to address. It's coming nonetheless.

While we still think of climate change in terms of environmental and health impacts, for Watt-Cloutier, it's a human rights issue.

"Canada has lost its ability to lead by abandoning Kyoto - the only international agreement we have ever had on climate change, however flawed it may be," said Watt-Cloutier, "Principles and ethics matter in a world that often teeters on chaos. We have a responsibility to act. By not acting we have failed that responsibility."

The Inuit are a very old people, with a population of only 150,000 souls. They have survived and thrived over many thousands of years because of their remarkable ability to adapt and live in balance with the harsh northern climate. Over the centuries they have developed an economy that cares for the planet and for their people, and in doing so have enabled both to thrive.

"We have integrated this idea of balance into all of our planning processes,' said Watt-Cloutier. 'We are asked, 'Wouldn't it be better for indigenous people to simply abandon their lifestyle and adopt a 21st Century lifestyle?'" But the idea of cultural and economic assimilation is not an acceptable one to the gentle Inuit people, she told a spellbound audience of the nation's municipal leaders.

"The solution for our communities is finding a balance," said Watt-Cloutier. "Our influence springs from our ethical authority. We must do the right thing."

Rather than abandoning the life of the hunter-gatherer for more conventional employment, Watt-Cloutier advocates training the Inuit young people to do both.

"Why not a career as a hunter gatherer engineer?" she asks. "If you are connected to the cycles of nature then you are connected to your food source."

Watt-Cloutier's message is that we have to adapt to sustainable food production. For the Inuit people, taking the best of their traditions and blending it with the best of the new technologies is the key to survival. She believes that taking this approach will empower the people in marginalized communities where passive dependency has had disastrous results. According to her predictions, the destruction of the ancient ways of the Inuit people mirrors a much larger catastrophe.

Climate change is seen as a financial opportunity in the North says Watt-Cloutier, but as the Northwest Passage is opened, Canada will want to defend its sovereignty.

"Instead of seeing the Northwest Passage as an opportunity, we must recognize that an ice-free passage is an environmental disaster," she said. For Canada it will mean a build up of our armed forces and a potential conflict with other Arctic nations.

What we have is a small opportunity that is disappearing almost as rapidly as the Arctic ice. Rather than defending our sovereignty with military icebreakers and troops, her elegant solution is to defend our sovereignty by supporting the human rights of the indigenous peoples of the North. Instead of a regime where conflict and strife reign, protecting the fragile climate of the North presents us with an opportunity to preserve one of the very last pristine places on the earth where no war has ever taken place.

For Watt-Cloutier, protection of the Arctic is a shining example of how the nations can come together at the very tip of the world. In order to accomplish this we must give up our simple minded notion that uncontrolled economic development will lead to a better world.

The opportunity is ours, the motivation is upon us now and the rewards are not for us, but for our children and grandchildren. What is required is the courage to be exceptional; to go beyond what is politically or economically acceptable. The measure of our success of will not be in development or commercial product of any kind; rather it will be in the preservation of the most delicate, the most rare and tenuous of existences - the canaries of the Great White North.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

For more on the Sustainable Communities Conference, go to www.sustainablecommunities.fcm.ca.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Carbon Neutral

If you're planning to fly south this winter, you might want to take a moment to consider the impact that your travel could ultimately have on the tropical paradise you're planning to visit. Flying by air is the most environmentally damaging way to travel.

According to the David Suzuki Foundation, carbon dioxide emissions from international air travel have increased a whopping 83 percent since 1990. Thanks to relatively cheap air travel, more and more individuals are flying to their vacation destinations. Unfortunately, the cheap air ticket doesn't reflect the true cost of flying. Even taking into consideration the fact that air travel makes up a relatively small percentage of the total miles traveled globally, it still accounts for between four and nine percent of the impact that human activity is having on the planet.

Consider the following. A flight between London, England and Paris, France would load the atmosphere with 348 kilograms of carbon dioxide. The same distance, traveled by high-speed train, would release a mere 75 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Combining rail with boat travel, whenever possible, is even less carbon intensive. All tolled, a whopping 75 percent of the world's traded goods are shipped by a combination of rail and water, but only contribute 1.75 percent to our global greenhouse gas emissions.

Since most of us don't have time to take a month long cruise to get to the Caribbean, flying south is the only solution for the winter weary Canadian soul. The question becomes how do we protect the planet that we're destroying in our attempt to experience it?

An interesting solution is something called carbon offsetting. Simply put, travelers pay a voluntary carbon tax, based on the distance traveled. The money is used to fund projects that absorb, reduce or avoid an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases elsewhere.

Carbon offset programs began in Britain almost a decade ago and have been running voluntarily in that country even since. Rock fans might remember the Rolling Stones 2003 World Tour that promised to be carbon neutral by subsidizing the planting of trees. Coldplay, another UK band, also pledged to be carbon neutral. The band funded the planting of 10,000 mango trees in India to offset the environmental impact of its 2002 release, A Rush of Blood to the Head.

The idea of carbon offsetting is finally beginning to catch on in North America. In December 2007, NHL hockey players Andrew Ference of the Boston Bruins and Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames teamed up with the David Suzuki Foundation to issue a carbon neutral challenge to all NHL players. Based on the regular hockey season, each player contributes about ten tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. Thus far 482 members of the NHL have taken the challenge, effectively offsetting the impact of nearly five million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Since carbon offset projects are still in their infancy and largely unregulated, it's important to purchase your offsets through a credible source. In order to help consumers make that choice, a Gold Standard has been established.

Gold Standard projects must meet a very stringent set of criteria and include those projects that replace fossil fuels with renewable energy projects and utilize leading edge technologies and processes. The projects are primarily implemented in developing countries where the need for affordable, environmentally responsible energy is in the greatest demand. The reduction in emissions from these projects must be verifiable and measurable and pass ten sustainability criteria. They must also be validated and certified independently.

Planetair.ca is the first Canadian offsetter to offer Gold Standard carbon credits. Travelers can visit the Planetair website, calculate their emissions and even pay for the online. For example, a return trip to Montego Bay, Jamaica from Toronto, Ontario would net 1.23 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Using the Gold Standard, the cost to offset these emissions would be $ 41.82. If sunny Cuba is more to your liking, a return trip to Varadero Beach is a bargain at 34.34 in Gold Standard offsets and pumps slightly more than one tonne of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.


To calculate your emissions and purchase your carbon offset check out Planetair.ca.

Still not convinced? The David Suzuki Foundation is great resource for information about carbon offsetting. Visit www.davidsuzuki.org.and check out the carbon neutral section. You can also check to see if your favorite NHL hockey player is a climate hero.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Have a Heart this Valentine's Day

With Valentine's Day just around the corner, can bouquets of roses, boxes of chocolates and candlelight dinners be far behind? While these signs of the romantic season may seem harmless enough, each one can carry a heavy environmental price tag. Since concern for the environment is becoming as sexy as star spokesperson Leonard DiCaprio's smile, combining a little romance with a touch of ecological awareness can be a wonderful thing.

Let's start with roses. Commercially grown roses and other imported flowers are often sprayed with a host of chemicals that contaminate groundwater and the workers who grow them. Over one million roses are shipped into Canada every year, but unlike food, there is no regulation that requires that they be tested for pesticide residues. The alternative is organic roses, but these can be hard to find. Instead you might try opting for a gift certificate for a rose bush that can be redeemed in the spring.

Chocolate is often considered a forbidden food, and with good reason. Commercial cocoa production often involves unsustainable agricultural practices and the exploitation of local producers. Buying organic chocolate helps to protect the environment. Buying fair trade chocolate helps to protect the workers who produce it. As an added bonus, organic chocolate is often available with a higher cocoa content; making it devilishly rich and so good it's almost sinful.

Purchasing organic wines is another way to show your environmentally sensitive side. Buying organic wines supports sustainable agricultural production. Consuming organic wines is a healthier alternative, particularly for anyone with chemical sensitivities or environmental allergies. Most LCBO Stores carry an assortment of reasonably priced organic wines.

Dining by candlelight is not only romantic, it saves energy, too! Use beeswax candles rather than regular wax candles, which are made from a petroleum by-product, a non-renewable resource. In addition, unlike beeswax candles, which burn cleanly, petroleum wax candles can release toxins into the air. For safety's sake, use votives, hurricane or other glass enclosures when burning candles and don't forget to blow them out at the end of your romantic evening.

Once the table is set and the wine is poured, the next item up for consideration is the menu. The Toronto Vegetarian Association (TVA) recommends a romantic vegan dinner that is healthy, humane and very hot!

According to the TVA, "Vegetarian aphrodisiacs - from chocolate and strawberries to tomatoes and peppers - are famous for their reputed arousing qualities, but did you know that there's a scientific reason why meat-free cuisine is a recipe for romance? The cholesterol and fat in animal foods slow the flow of blood to all of a man's vital organs - not just his heart - but healthy vegetarian foods will leave lovers full of energy and vitality."

The TVA says that for veggie lovers there are many fruits and vegetables that are natural aphrodisiacs. To begin, try an appetizer salad make up with organic greens and lightly steamed asparagus, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. For the main course, TVA suggests "oyster mushrooms sauteed with leeks and briefly sauteed cherry tomatoes served over quinoa or rice that has had a little turmeric cooked into it, and with a tiny bit of saffron mixed in." The grand finale should involve strawberries and lots of dark chocolate dipping sauce (both organic, of course.)

After dinner, if you want to give your honey something warm and lovable to cuddle up to, how about a toy Manatee? The Save the Manatee Club has an Adopt-a-Manatee Valentine's Day special. For $35 you get a photo and bio of your manatee, an adoption certificate and a plush manatee to cuddle. Leonardo diCaprio would definitely be impressed!


Save the Manatee Club was established to help the public participate in the conservation efforts to save these gentle giants from extinction.

For more food tips for veggie Valentinos, check out the Toronto Vegetarian Association.

Ten Thousand Villages has a variety of wonderful fair trade, organic edibles including various chocolates, oils, teas and coffees. Ten Thousand Villages also has a wide range of beautifully handcrafted gift items such as jewelery, personal accessories and other items perfect for Valentine’s Day giving.

For list of available organic wines, check out www.lcbo.com.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Earth Hour

Imagine if everyone in the world - individuals, businesses and cities - gathered together on one day, for just one hour, to combat climate change. Imagine what would happen if during that hour, everyone turned out the lights and let the light of the stars shine through.

Imagine not only how much energy we would save, how many tonnes of carbon dioxide wouldn't be released into the atmosphere, but imagine the spirit of goodwill and possibility that one single hour would generate.

That is the spirit behind Earth Hour. It is a brilliant example of an idea whose time has finally come. It started last year in Sydney, Australia, when for one hour on March 31st, 2007, the skyline when dark. Even the world famous Sydney Opera House dimmed its light. At the end of the hour, 2.2 million people had collectively reduced the city's demand for electricity by 10.2 percent, more than twice the original target of 5 percent. Since Australia generates the bulk of its electricity from coal, the result was that 250,000 fewer tonnes of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere. That's the equivalent of taking 48,000 cars off the road.

The exciting news is what happened last year was just the beginning. In 2007, Earth Hour was a Sydney event, in 2008, Earth Hour is a global movement.

On March 29th, 2008, from 8:00 to 9:00 pm, cities around the world have pledged to turn out their lights. It's anticipated that tens of millions of individuals will join in this single hour that may very well change the world. According to the Earth Hour website,

"Created to take a stand against the greatest threat our planet has ever faced, Earth Hour uses the simple action of turning off the lights for one hour to deliver a powerful message about the need for action on global warming."

It is a simple and elegant idea that marks the beginning of a new age of global awareness. After decades of procrastination by the world's leaders, Earth Hour will answer the question, "What if we just stopped stalling and did something?"

It is this simplicity that makes Earth Hour so powerful. Anyone, anywhere can participate. You can act individually, or count yourself in on the Earth Hour website.

While one single hour isn't going to change the world or the relentless onset of climate change, Earth Hour is a symbolic event that will create a tipping point in public opinion and hopefully political action. It is a good example of the power of the old adage, "Lead, follow, or get the heck out of the way."

To quote the Earth Hour website, "Turning the lights off for Earth Hour is a great first step, but if you really want to see a difference, then make Earth Hour part of your everyday life."

At home you can switch over as many light bulbs as possible to compact fluorescents, make a habit of turning off anything that doesn't need to be on, switch to cold water in the laundry and line dry whenever possible. If you really want to get serious, have a home energy audit and budget to upgrade appliances to more energy efficient models.

At the office you can start by turning off any equipment that isn't in use. Turn off lights at the end of the day, and find out if your company has a corporate energy policy. If not, ask why not! Encourage your company leaders to have measurable emission reduction targets, switch to green power and reduce traveling to meetings by teleconferencing. For air travel that is unavoidable, recommend that your company adopt a carbon offsetting policy. In other words, donations are made, based on the number of miles flown, to organizations actively working to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Mark 8:00 pm, March 29th, on your calendar and join in the countdown to the day that might just change the world.


To sign up for Earth Hour, or for more ways to reduce energy consumption, visit www.earthhour.org.

Visit the Office of Energy Efficiency and take advantage of the new ecoENERGY Efficiency Initiative to reduce energy use in buildings and houses, industry, personal vehicles and fleets. Homeowners and owners of small and medium-sized organizations can also apply for financial assistance from ecoENERGY Retrofit, as well as other grants and financial incentives.