Sunday, July 26, 2009

Boldy Go!

The global economic crisis has led to two very important conclusions: first, that the “business as usual” scenario is no longer viable for the auto industry, and secondly, that our addiction to oil is neither economically nor environmentally sustainable. Couple this with the serious downturn of the Big Three automakers last year, and it would appear that our century-long romance with the car is finally over.

The reality is that North America’s functionality is predicated on the universal access to personal transportation. For most of us, owning a car isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.

While there is a trend toward creating communities where we can live, work and play, the dream of a car-free society is decades away. In the meantime, access to some form of personal transportation pre-determines virtually every aspect of our lives: where we live and work and shop, how, when and where we play, even how we design our cities.

Automakers have responded by introducing a new generation of electric cars that will help eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels, and all the inherent problems associated with burning them. Building these vehicles is only half of the solution. The other half is creating the infrastructure to support them.

The problem is that until now an electric vehicle’s range was limited by the distance it would take to deplete half of its battery, leaving enough remaining charge to return home. Unlike gasoline, which can be transported and stored at gas stations and then purchased as required, the electricity needed to “re-fuel” electric cars is supplied by an elaborate grid. Access to this grid is monitored and measured from a static location.

We don’t yet have a system where you can simply pull up to any outlet and plug yourself in as needed. Even if we did, there is the time factor. While re-fuelling a car can take several minutes, electric cars take several hours to recharge.

Finally, there’s the issue of price. The new generation of electric cars costs substantially more than their combustion engine counterparts.

What it comes down to is a “chicken and egg” situation. Do we build the infrastructure first, hoping that electric vehicles will follow? Or do we encourage consumers to purchase the electric cars, creating a demand for a smart grid that will cut the invisible tether than currently ties them to the home outlet?

The answer is all of the above. To help encourage the transition, last week Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced a plan to provide rebates between $ 4,000 and $ 10,000 for owners who purchase plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles after July 1, 2010. To further sweeten the pot, electric vehicles will receive special green licence plates that would permit access to the High Occupancy (HOV) lanes on the 400 series highways.

The province also has plans to incorporate charging stations at GO transit parking lots and Ontario government facilities. In an effort to walk the talk, the government will add 500 electric vehicles to its fleet of public service vehicles.

These recent announcements come six months after the McGuinty government publicly supported Better Place, an innovative California-based company that plans to build a network of battery switching stations across the province. Depleted batteries would be replaced automatically in less time that it takes to fill up a fuel tank.

Project Get Ready is another interesting project that is helping to prepare the way for widespread use of electric vehicles. As the name suggests, the goal of Project Get Ready (PGR) is to create the infrastructure necessary to support electric vehicles. Lead by the Rocky Mountain Institute, PGR is a network of municipalities, businesses, partners and technical advisors. Within each city, partners work collaboratively on local projects such as plug-in garages or parking meters. They then share their successes with other municipalities through the PGR online database and network.

To date there are three Canadian cities that have already committed to Project Get Ready – Toronto, as well two of Canada’s largest motor cities, Windsor and Oshawa.

A new automotive future is definitely coming. And while these initiatives are encouraging, there’s a lot of road to be covered before we get to the place where we can simply plug in anywhere and travel beyond the limits of a single charge.


Check out for a glimpse into the future.

Visit to learn how you can make your community a plug-in pioneer.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Brave New World

Despite all the hype, the recent global climate talks in L’Aquila, Italy, ended with little progress. While everyone agreed that there was an urgent need for long-term reduction targets, no one was willing to commit to immediate reductions.

The G-8 nations were prepared to cut emissions, but not in the immediate future. The developing giants – China and India, both struggling to catch up with the richer western nations – argued that they are not responsible for the bulk of the carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere.

In the end, it was much ado about nothing.

“Once again, we have had a lot of talk and little action from Canada and the G8. To end a stalemate in international climate negotiations, the G8 needed to make a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020,” said Dave Martin, climate and energy coordinator for Greenpeace. “Stephen Harper has given lip-service to the importance of fighting climate change but has opposed meaningful greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions in Canada.”

The question is, why should he? While Canadians are frequently scolded for being some of highest users of energy per capita in the world, our total national output represents a mere 2.3 percent of global emissions. If the entire country were to become carbon neutral tomorrow, it would do little to mitigate the pending climate crisis.

Targeting GHG reductions is a lot like chasing a runaway train. If we all work very hard together we might be able to close the gap, but as scientists are increasingly trying to tell us, we may have already passed the tipping point.

On second thoughts, perhaps the runaway train analogy isn’t quite right. It’s more like trying to bail out the hull of the Titanic. We might be able to keep ourselves afloat in our corner of the world, but the math tells us that we cannot possible win against the northern Atlantic Ocean.

So, should we continue trying to bail out a sinking ship, or should we jump to a lifeboat, assuming we can find one, and hope that someone rescues us?

The answer is neither. If we really want to survive, then we must be willing to bail each other out. According to the Pembina Institute, “Negotiations for a new global climate deal cannot succeed without stronger commitments from countries like Canada for financial support of climate action in developing countries.”

I’ll take that one step further. Canadians should be focusing all our considerable energy and ingenuity on developing innovative new technologies that leapfrog our current efforts to mitigate climate change. These new, resilient and diverse energy technologies would not only transform our economy they would provide the tools to help developing countries do the same.

This isn’t about providing financial assistance to poorer countries. This is about transforming the global economy and environment with technologies we haven’t even begun to imagine.

If this sounds impossible, consider President Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to the U.S. Congress to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. At time the he made his challenge, the U.S. had yet to successfully launch a man into orbit around the planet. Eight years later, on July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong uttered those few words that changed our relationship with the cosmos forever:

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

This week, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of that historic accomplishment, perhaps it’s also time to revisit the vision and courage that it took to achieve that milestone. Rocket and computer technology were still in their infancy when the race to the moon began, and yet somehow the goal was reached. It’s worth noting that the motivation to reach the moon was merely a political rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Today the stakes are billions of times higher – 6.7 billion to be exact. That’s the current estimated population of the world. If the climate models are correct, there will be very few of those 6.7 billion people who won’t be impacted by catastrophic climate change.

So, forget about Canada’s 2.3 percent. Instead, let’s focus on the bigger picture. To quote another space visionary, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, “We’ll head in the direction in which we look.”


For more on the 40th Anniversary of the first lunar landing, visit

The International Panel on Climate Change is the world’s leading scientific body for the assessment of climate change. Established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the IPCC provides a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


July 18th marks the 20th Anniversary of Canada’s Parks Day. To celebrate, Parks Canada is collaborating with the International Year of Astronomy to provide a national day of family-oriented stargazing events. Activities will be taking place across the country at national, provincial, territorial, community parks and historic sites across the country. You can visit Parks Canada’s website for a list of what’s happening your area, or you can plan your own stargazing activities.

Anyway you look at it, summer is a great time of year to gaze at the stars. The nights are warm and celestial events abound. Before you begin, you might want to visit your library or local bookstore to find a book about the night sky. Familiarize yourself with the main constellations so you’ll be able to orientate yourself once you head outside.

The key to great stargazing is to get away from artificial light sources such as streetlights and buildings. recommends that you wait for a night that is clear and dark, preferably one when the Moon is not shining brightly.

For even greater enjoyment, take along a sky watching kit that includes a blanket, binoculars, a simple star chart and a flashlight to read the chart. Covering the end of the flashlight with red paper will reduce the light’s impact on your night vision. Give your eyes about 20 minutes to adjust to the dark, lie back and enjoy what the night sky has to offer.

In particular, there are two meteor showers visible in the night sky during July and August. According to the StarDate website, each shower is named after the constellation from where meteors appear to fall.

July 28 to 30 - Delta Aquarids meteor shower

The best time to watch for the Delta Aquarids is after moonset or just before dawn. Unlike most meteor showers, the Delta Aquarids doesn’t have a definite peak. predicts that these medium-speed meteors will provide a fairly steady show through July and into early August. Stargazers can expect 15 to 20 sightings per minute, with meteors appearing to radiate from the southern part of the sky.

August 12, 2009 – Perseids

The Perseids meteor shower will be the most visible in the early morning. According to, “These typically fast and bright meteors radiate from a point in the constellation Perseus, and, like all meteors in annual showers, they cover a large part of the sky.” Thanks to the timing of the phases of the moon this August, 2009 won’t be the best year to view the Perseids, but they should still put on quite a show, leaving their brilliant trails across the pre-dawn sky.

If you really want to see the stars, consider a trip to the Torrance Barrens Conservation Reserve. Located southeast of Bala, Torrance Barrens is Canada’s first official Dark Sky Reserve. The growing awareness of light pollution of the night sky and the inability of large sectors of the population to experience and enjoy astronomical events has created a demand for an area where the dark sky can be preserved.


If you’re planning a summer vacation or just looking for a great day of summer activities for your family, check out,

For more information about the International Year of Astronomy, visit

For events in Canada, check out

EarthSky’s 2009 Meteor Shower Guide is available at is the public education and outreach arm of the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. The website has loads of great information for both novice and experienced stargazers, including Weekly Stargazing Tips.

Established in 1999, The Torrance Barrens Conservation Reserve, located near Bracebridge, Ontario, is the world’s first Dark Sky Reserve. Type “Torrance Barrens” into your search engine to visit some of the great sites dedicated to this wonderful national treasure.

"Imagine the Universe" is NASA's offering for kids 14 and up. Go to

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Trash Talk

They’re at it again. Slinging trash and insults back and forth like a bunch of school kids in a food fight. It’s Trash Wars 2009 and the whole thing is starting to read (and smell) like a really bad sequel.

For starters, there’s the City of Toronto, slowly drowning in the rotting wastes of 2.5 million people, thanks to a strike by the city’s 24,000 civic employees. The strike comes exactly seven years after the 2002 garbage strike that left city streets reeking of garbage for months after that 16-day strike was ended by back-to-work legislation.

To the east, there is the Region of Durham. One day after the Toronto strike began, Regional politicians voted (by a narrow margin of 16 to 12) to build a $ 272 million garbage incinerator. At the June 24th Council meeting, a record number of 70 citizen delegations spoke in opposition to the project, citing an unacceptable risk to human health from the dioxins and other toxic materials that the facility will eventually vent into the atmosphere.

In response to the Durham incinerator decision, one blogger wrote, “People have to stop living their lives as if they are the only ones on this planet. We MUST take responsibility for our waste. This project will spew dioxins and heavy metals into the air, not to mention nano-particles we don't even know about. It isn't an "acceptable" risk to me. ZERO WASTE is what we should strive for.”

What's interesting about these stories is that they are hardly unique. Cities and regions throughout the developed world are all writhing in the painful, awkward agony of excess. The people who don't want a dump in their backyards are the same people for whom the dump is being built - those endless crowds of people that pile out of Wal-Mart on any given Saturday, or Sunday for that matter, bags of stuff gleefully in hand.

The bottom line: How much stuff is enough? We shop because we can, not because we need. We shouldn't be so excessful.

The problem is that as a society we are addicted to cheap consumer goods. Instead of wasting billions of dollars on new stuff (and the packaging that it is delivered in), plus many more billion dollars looking for a place to dispose of our old stuff, we need to fess up to the real problem. It's garbage in, garbage out. If we really want a long-term solution to the garbage crisis, we need to stop making it in the first place.

Meanwhile, the piles are getting higher and we're running out of options. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians discard 31 million tonnes of waste annually, which makes us the second largest producers of garbage in the world. That's about 2.7 kilograms per person, per day.

The really scary thing is that this only represents so-called “finished waste” – the stuff we put out at the curb as garbage or recycling. The EPA estimates that this finished garbage only represents 1.4 percent of the total waste stream. The remaining 98.6 percent is made up of manufacturing wastes (sludge, mine tailings and other industrial garbage).

According to business writer Polly LaBarre (How to Lead a Rich Life, Fast Company, March 2003) “The United States spends more on trash bags than 90 other countries spend on everything. In other words, the receptacles of our waste cost more than all of the goods consumed by nearly half of the world’s nations.”

Before we get too smug, it is important to note that Canadians produce almost as much garbage as our American neighbors.

Whether it’s stacking our trash on the curb for somebody else to pick up, or burning it to pollute land, air and water, the culprit is the same. We – both individually and collectively – produce too much trash. When asked for whom the garbage dump (or incinerator) is built, the answer is you and me.


It’s an idea whose time may finally have come. The Grassroots Recycling Network has a vision of the world where waste is valued as a resource. Zero Waste means not only 100 percent recovery of society’s discards, but also a redesign of the products and packaging of our lives such that everything produced for our consumer economy is non-toxic and designed to be recovered for re-use, recycling or composting.

The Zero Waste Alliance provides assistance to industry sectors and organizations for development and implementation of standards, tools and practices that lead to a more sustainable future through the reduction and elimination of waste and toxic materials.

Seeing is believing. Edward Burtynsky’s stunning documentary, Manufactured Landscapes, is a journey through the world of industrial wastelands. Check out