Category Archives: Sustainability

Is sustainable food consumption a myth?

There can be no doubt that our planet is under severe strain from economic and social development that maintains inefficient production and consumption patterns and an uneven distribution of resources.  The richest 20% of the people in the world consume nearly 75% of the planet’s natural resources.


It’s been said that if all the people of the world were to consume like those in affluent countries, we would need the equivalent of 4 extra Earths, putting unbearable pressure on our ecological balance.  Add to this the fact that the world’s population is expected to increase to 9 billion by 2050, with nearly all of the growth projected to take place in developing countries. 

You may believe that it’s just not possible to produce enough food to feed the global population. You would be wrong. Food wasted in affluent countries is estimated to be up to 50% of all that’s harvested.  Moreover, unequal distribution of food is the main reason why there are a billion undernourished and starving people in the world today.  The huge amount of food waste also corresponds to serious wasteful impacts on fuels for transportation, chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, water and generation of methane. 

Sticking with hunger and poverty for now, here are just a few sobering statistics reported as part of research conducted in 2007 in support of the Millenium Development Goals:

  • In 2005, the worldwide expenditure on military equipment and services was $1001 billion US (that’s more than a trillion US dollars!)
  • In 2006, North Americans spent $37 billion dollars on pet food and pet care products

Contrast that with the following:

  • An estimated $54-62 billion dollars would halve the number of people subsisting on less than a dollar a day by 2015
  • An estimated $29.6 billion dollars would halve the number of people suffering from hunger and halve the number of children suffering from malnutrition by 2015

Shocked and awed?  Although some see these statistics as controversial and lacking rigour, this is just the tip of the iceberg highlighting the urgency of breaking away from socially unjust vested interests and promoting and practicing sustainable consumption worldwide.

 

The Meat-Lover’s Sustainability Dilemma

Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is set to announce that “The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that direct emissions from meat production account for about 18% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. So I want to highlight the fact that among options for mitigating climate change, changing diets is something one should consider.”

By contrast, transportation contributes 13% of our greenhouse gas footprint.

Greenhouse gases are released throughout the meat production cycle, during land clearing, making and transporting fertilizer, feed antibiotics and hormones, burning fossil fuels in farm vehicles, and emissions from the animals themselves, which is a major proportion of gases emitted. Refrigeration and transportation of the meat for processing, packaging, distribution, retailing and to the consumer are also huge contributers.

Population growth and changing consumption patterns in developing countries will continue to increase pressure on global food supplies and food security. Livestock production has increased all over the world as demand for meat rises. The resulting increase in water scarcity, land degradation and soil erosion are key threats to productivity of farmland, not to mention the effects of loss of biodiversity associated with deforestation for high-maintenance agricultural land. Recent scientific studies have demonstrated that increases in global temperature adversely affects soil fertility, reducing crop yield. Water runoff from livestock farming can cause significant contamination and eutrophication of surface and ground water if the solid waste generated is not managed properly. Farming subisidies (like other poorly applied subsidy programs) tend to create an uneven playing field, further exacerbating the problem.

Possibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with farming animals include genetically engineering strains of animals that produce less methane and ammonia. Organic farming is not a feasible option globally, due to the comparatively low productivity and yield.

We all know by now that eating less meat is better for your health. A price on carbon could cause the price of meat to rise, people would eat less, and, at the same time, reduce associated emissions of greenhouse gases and other adverse environmental impacts. This might just be the added incentive that ardent meat-lovers like me need to make another personal choice that contributes to the sustainability of our planet. Given the magnitude of the impacts, reluctantly, I’m adding eating less meat to my list of simple ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

How will the 2008 Games Impact China’s Policies?

The Olympics has always been about bringing the world together to celebrate the greatest athletes. It also, undoubtedly, leaves behind an indelible mark on our environment when we consider the huge undertakings of the events, from the Olympic villages to the actual movement of people, the fuel, energy, and sheer force of assembling an extravaganza of this magnitude.

That’s why Beijing’s “green” considerations during the 2008 Olympics mark a significant shift reflecting the world’s growing awareness of its environmental footprint, while recognizing the need for incorporating sustainable policies in all endeavours, whether big or small. Although nobody’s quite sure if Beijing chose to incorporate sustainable practices as a mega-PR move, or out of a sincere concern for the environment (I’m holding back a laugh), it doesn’t really matter. The end result is positive, and remains the focus of this post.

If we look at the LEED-Gold Certified Olympic Village, it boasts some rather fantastic selling points, including near-zero net energy consumption. Here’s a short list of how it got there:

  • Solar heat, solar electric cogeneration, and solar hot water “intelligent” devices that help consume less than 1/30 the energy of traditional buildings of similar size (as it stands, the Village has 22 six-storey buildings and 20 nine-storey buildings)
  • Heat exchange systems that draw almost 8 million kilowatt hours of renewable energy from solar sources
  • Geothermal heat pumps as the building’s main energy supply source
  • Use of nearby sewage treatment plants to convert their energy through heat pump devices, saving an additional 40% of energy versus conventional air conditioning and heating systems
  • Water-recycling programs that reclaim 200 tons of water, daily
  • Lithium battery-powered buses around the Olympic Village

It’s noteworthy that Olympic Villages usually go on to house ordinary residents after the games are over, so the benefits of Beijing’s green buildings will continue to be enjoyed for future generations. Additionally, news of Beijing’s winning Olympic bid in 2001 helped spark the expansion of its public transport infrastructure, the creation of new parks, additional bus transport links, and the introduction of water recycling programs in Beijing—initiating the “green legacy” of the Olympics. Not bad for a country boasting one of the highest CO2 emission rates in the world.

The Great Wall of Waste
Despite China’s enthusiasm to portray itself as a greening-tour-de-force, its scorecard outside of the games doesn’t warrant cheers. In fact, quite the opposite; through its over-industrialization and dismal policies, China’s landscape, air pollution, and water treatment all rank as some of the worst in the developing world. With 15% of China’s yearly death rate attributed to air pollution, and concerns over its vastly polluted water (among other things), China faces some big challenges going forward.

Hoping for Change
With the games drawing to an end today, it’s up to China—its government and its residents, to decide whether they feel inspired enough to spread the green legacy throughout the rest of the country, or continue to wallow in their over-dependency on coal.

Green your landscaping practices and reclaim your life!

Over the years, it’s become harder and harder to motivate myself to regularly mow, fertilize, weed and water my lawn and garden. With all the extreme weather that seems to be the norm these days, even my best efforts seem to be wasted. Some years, the only reason I dragged myself out to do it or paid someone to do it is to avoid the occasional evil eye from my neighbours. I’ve become acutely aware of how much water, air and noise pollution is generated from conventional mowers, fertilizers and pesticides, in our society’s quest for the most lush, green, weed-free lawn. I used to look at the bags and bags of yard waste waiting for collection day, and wonder how fast the grass clippings were filling up the landfill before we got our municipal composting program.

According to the EPA, 30% of water consumption in urban areas in the eastern United States is for watering lawns, and an average 1-acre lawn costs $700 and requires 40 hours of labor each year to maintain. Not that my lawn is anywhere close to 1 acre… but I’ve decided to reclaim that wasted time and money and do a good turn for the environment by switching to more sustainable landscaping practices.

Slowly, but surely, I’m replacing some of the lawn turf with attractive, low-growing, traffic-resistant groundcovers and my garden beds with a greater variety of native, non-invasive, drought and pest-resistant plants. I like the natural, “woodland” look, which blends naturally with the mature trees in my neighbourhood without looking overgrown and unruly.

I use a push mower for the remaining small patches of lawn, having traded in my old gas mower and storing away my electric mower which never did do a great job, even after it was fully charged.

I dropped off all the leftover pesticides in my garage and garden shed to the hazardous waste depot. I spend just a few minutes every few days monitoring and physically dealing with any signs of disease, pests or weeds.

I compost my grass clippings and most of my yard waste right on site and use it to replenish the soil in the garden and I use almost no soil amendments, fertilizers or plant food.

I’m looking into installing a simple irrigation system with a timer, soil moisture sensor and controllers for more efficient watering, before dawn or after dusk. I’m sick of seeing water from the sprinkler running off my neighbour’s lawn and driveway straight into the storm sewer.

I used to cringe whenever my neighbour picked Saturday afternoon to mow his lawn, just when my guests arrived for a barbecue and a relaxing evening. We couldn’t hear each other speak over the din, with the nasty smell from the gas mower overpowering the tantalizing aroma of whatever was on the grill.

But I have the last laugh, because I’m spending only a fraction of what he’s spending on fertilizers and weed control. I figure I use about 35% less water than he does for his lawn and garden. Not only that, I now delight in the fact that I’m lolling around with a tall, cool drink watching the butterflies attracted to my perennial wildflower garden, grilling freshly picked vegetables or dreaming of a quiet, peaceful warm day in the neighbourhood during my nap (with earplugs on), while he’s hard at work on his lawn.

In praise of eco-friendly hotels

While I was travelling through Spain this past week, I stayed in four different hotels. All of them had the usual linen and towel program, with cards that communicated the option to have your bed linens and towels replaced less frequently. All of the hotels had a slot by the entrance to each room which activates and deactivates the power to the room when you insert or withdraw your electronic room key each time you enter and leave the room.

One of them went a step further and had a card that suggested limiting heating temperatures in the winter to 20°C, cooling temperatures in the summer to 25°C, turning the lights off when not needed and relying more on the natural daylighting in the room and also practicing water efficiency. They had electronic shutters on the exterior of the windows that you could use to keep out the scorching midday sun more completely than the drapes. All of the toilets were dual-flush toilets. They stated that this was not all about saving money, but for all of us doing what we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are harming our planet.

Needless to say, I was impressed. The potential environmental and economic benefits and the increase in awareness should be quite significant. North American hotels should follow suit. North American consumers could use a good dose of awareness about the unsustainability of our culture of rampant consumerism and waste and small actions that can make a big difference.

Water, water, not everywhere…

Few things are taken for granted as much as clean water. We see downtrodden nations fighting for it to survive, and the mere mention of a power outage has people running into stores hoarding bottles of it. However, as the world is busy fighting over other natural resources and developing fuel alternatives, we are letting our most precious natural resource go down the drain (pun intended).

Did you know?

  • A water-efficient washing machine uses only one-third the water of an inefficient model?
  • An old-style single-flush toilet uses up to 12 litres of water per flush, while a standard dual flush toilet uses just a quarter of this on a half-flush?
  • A standard shower head uses up to 25 litres of water per minute, whereas a water-efficient shower head uses as little as 7 litres per minute, which is less than a third?
  • A standard faucet aerator on your taps can reduce water consumption by 25 – 50% per tap?

Water heating is the second largest energy user in the average home, just behind operating appliances. With higher hot water usage, come higher energy bills. Even the inefficient use of cold water can cost you, since we still pay water and sewer fees—and believe me, these costs will only continue to rise as the scarcity of our clean water supplies dwindle with time.

In the meantime, here are a few simple steps that will help reduce your water consumption, and consequently bring down your monthly energy and water bills:

  • Install a low-flow showerhead. At a cost of approximately $30/shower head, a family of three can easily save $200/year in energy costs alone.
  • Aerators are a great way of adding bulk to your water, without compromising the flow and/or pressure. At a cost of between $2-4, these can quickly reduce your tap consumption by half, and do not require a handy-man to install. In fact, here’s a great article on how to install aerators yourself.
  • Replace that old 6- or 12-liter toilet with a dual-flush toilet. Switching from a 12-L to a dual flush will save you almost 70% water consumption, while the switch from a 6-L to a dual flush will save an additional 26%–of course translating into more money in your pocket. A quick scan of online forums seems to suggest Toto has the best brand of dual-flush toilets—and here’s a nifty comparison of Toto toilets based on a variety of factors, even letting you see the toilet in full 360 degree rotation!
  • Consider a front-loading washer instead of a top-loading version. Not only will you save $50-90/year in direct water costs, you will use less laundry detergent because the rinse cycle is more efficient and less water is needed to wash your clothes. Clothes come out of the washer with less residual moisture, cutting your drying time in half and saving you more money on your electricity bills.
  • Consider running your dishwasher with fewer, larger loads, instead of frequent, emptier ones. If you wash your dishes manually, turn down the water to a gentle, laminar flow and enjoy how easy it is to remove the soap instead of allowing water to gush down the drain needlessly.
  • Water your lawn in the late evening instead of the morning or afternoon. This allows the water to actually seep into the ground instead of evaporating from the heat and sun. Your plants will thank you for it!
  • Install a rain barrel—I bought one for $50 from a local vendor and have enjoyed watering my plants all summer without having to turn on the tap! There are many new versions being introduced into your local hardware store that incorporate planters and exquisite designs that mask that “cylindrical” look.

REBATES:
Municipalities are always offering rebates and programs for interested water-conscious consumers (here’s an example of one in Canada, and another in the U.S.) Contact your local authorities to find out if you can receive some money back for investing in a water-saving device, and reap the rewards of saving even more money!

Hydrogen Fuel Cells—Hit or Hogwash?

A recent online poll asked whether people should pay an additional tax to drive their gas guzzling vehicles – or as I call them, mini-tanks. The results showed that 60% thought it was a terrific idea that would “encourage the shift toward more efficient cars”. That got me thinking about hydrogen fuel cells and their touted efficiency and place as so-called green fuel-of-choice.

Then it hit me – hydrogen fuel cells are in fact not efficient or green when you consider their footprint over their life cycle (also known as “well to wheel” for cars). In fact, a careful analysis shows just the opposite—hydrogen fuel cells are far less efficient than conventional gasoline-based engines, and require much more energy to even make this hydrogen “usable”. Let’s see why…

Hydrogen does make an emission-less fuel cycle possible, but there’s a catch: hydrogen must be extracted from biomass or by electrolysis of water using …electricity! The statistics below are drawn from simple mathematical analysis using the known BTU of energy per barrel of oil, the energy needed to run a car, and process efficiencies for gasoline- and hydrogen-powered cars:

  • Gasoline-powered cars in 2007 had an energy efficiency of about 25%, well to wheel.
  • Hydrogen-powered cars, where the hydrogen is extracted by electrolysis, has an efficiency of about 12%–less than half that of gasoline-powered vehicles.

Why the pronounced difference? After all, isn’t hydrogen supposed to be a “green” fuel? In theory, hydrogen is a clean fuel. It’s the extraction of hydrogen that makes it dirty. Here’s why:

  • Electrolysis, used to extract hydrogen, is a 70% efficient process.
  • Within the fuel cell itself, some of that energy is converted into non-usable water vapour, and the potential energy yield drops by another 15%.
  • The best fuel cell we have is also about 70% efficient, lowering the potential energy yield by another 30%.
  • Because hydrogen is a gas, it takes up 3107 times the space of its gasoline equivalent. The energy needed in compressing it to fit in a tank is huge and further reduces the potential energy yield by another 27.4%
  • The U.S. relies on its supply of coal and coal-fired stations, which run at only 40% efficiency, to produce the electricity needed to extract the hydrogen.

Taking all the factors into consideration, it takes twice the energy that was used for gasoline-powered cars and one third that of the entire energy consumption of the U.S. to produce the hydrogen used in cars. Not to mention the little fact of increased CO2 emissions of about 270% from the coal-powered plants to produce hydrogen.

Even if we were to scrap the coal-fired stations, and go for renewable resources to muster up the huge energy (think 1.53 trillion kwh) needed to fuel this hydrogen production “process”, we wouldn’t be able to achieve it. It would take the entire area of the U.S. covered with solar panels to make a dent in the amount of energy needed to produce hydrogen for its cars. In such high numbers, wind power and solar would show the carbon payback and GHG contribution from the manufacturing process to be counterproductive and extremely high.

***

So there you have it—half the efficiency of gasoline-powered cars, and much higher carbon footprint once life cycle considerations are taken into account. I guess it’s back to skateboards for everyone!

If you’re interested in reading a more in-depth analysis of the numbers presented above, the New Atlantic Journal of Technology & Society has a great article titled, The Hydrogen Hoax.

Alberta’s Tar Sands—the Perfect Vacation Spot!

The Alberta Oil Sands Project is a contentious issue, and it isn’t going anywhere. On one hand, we know it is polluting the environment in ways we practically thought impossible (way to go, Canada!), and on another hand, it’s providing liquid black gold that we’ve become so excruciatingly dependent on. In light of this, what is stopping Canada from becoming a beacon to the world when it comes to our renewable energy resources? After all, with a land mass equivalent to Russia’s and less than 1/10th the population of the U.S., why haven’t we figured out a way of taking advantage of our vast, empty land for the betterment of the environment, instead of financing disastrous projects like the Alberta Oil Sands?

Let’s just think for a moment how Canada could set an example. We could erect wind turbines in the moderate-north, where no human wants to live, but energy sources abound. We could plaster our suburban and rural lands with field after field, or roof after roof, of solar panels. We could make it mandatory to install rain barrels outside our 2000 sq ft, homogeneous, suburban row housing. We could mandate the use of water efficient products in our residential and commercial communities, and demand to see green roofs on our buildings, instead of ugly concrete facades and HVAC devices.

The truth is, our government is still very much devoted to oil and fossil fuels, no matter what Mr. Harper dictates in his speeches to the world. We are dependent on oil, and sadly, will continue to be until we see every acre of our environment completely destroyed, or Mr. Suzuki develops an aneurism—whichever comes first. But there is hope!

Sustainability is a growing grassroots movement, and it will continue to grow in leaps and bounds as people like you and I become more educated about sustainable practices and our impact on the world. This is why we need to act now, from the ground up, and not wait for the government to tell us what’s “good” or “bad”, especially since so many government “policies” are aimed at helping corporate cronies make more money (check this out), and are not necessarily based on sound, logical principles (ethanol, anyone?).

This brings me to GreenPeace, and a rather tongue-in-cheek Tourism site they’ve created, aptly titled “Explore Alberta”. Watch and marvel at today’s bustling Albertan skyline, and relish in the thought of taking your next trip out to Alberta instead of sunny Punta Cana or Florida. Bon Voyage!

Bottle or tap? Income, education influence choices: StatsCan

A report released by StatsCan has correlated how family income and education levels influence whether we choose tap or bottled water. To read the full article on CBC News, click here. In summary, it states the following

  • Higher-income households and those with children were most likely to drink bottled water.
  • The higher bottled water consumption among high-income households was driven by households where no one completed a university degree.
  • Households where at least one member had completed a university degree drank less bottled water than their counterparts who had no post-secondary education.

Surprising? I think so. As a university-graduate myself, I never would have thought to correlate education with bottled-water consumption, but it does provide me with some relief. I always wondered whether I was just a nagging “logicalist” or perhaps a perturbed environmentalist—and now, I can claim neither. I’m simply a university graduate. Yippee!

In all seriousness, bottled water just doesn’t seem to make sense. It costs over 1000 times more than its municipally-treated counterpart from the tap, is regulated and tested far less (read: in some cases, never), and is leaving an environmental disaster in its wake. With hundreds of tons of plastic basking in our landfills, and now reports about the plastic additives leaching into the bottled water, why are we still apprehensive to switch to the tap?

Leave it up to the marketing gurus and today’s age of overconsumption, and you have a match made in the French Alps. Consumers believe that bottled water is cleaner, tastes better, and even looks better. Why? Because it’s being sold in brightly lit, clean supermarkets, has a crisp, colourful label on it, AND they’re paying more for it—feeding into their appetite for exclusivity and luxury. The marketing hype convinces consumers that this stuff is better for you than good ol’ tap water. With social thinking dictating that “we get what we pay for”, it’s no wonder consumers believe that bottled water is “better” than the infinitely cheaper municipal tap water.

Check out this rather telling (and somewhat potty-mouthed) video comparing people’s perception of tap vs. bottled water. Then come back with a tall glass of water (I won’t tell you which), and give me your thoughts on the subject.

Green living in the country

Many North Americans realized their dreams of moving to the country to escape the pollution, traffic and crime that goes along with city living.  An article in today’s New York Times proclaims:

“Suddenly, the economics of American suburban life are under assault as skyrocketing energy prices inflate the costs of reaching, heating and cooling homes on the distant edges of metropolitan areas.”

The article quotes Phil Doyle, a homeowner in the countryside of Denver, who says about his daily hour-long commute to the city, “Before it was ‘we spend too much time driving.’ Now, it’s ‘we spend too much time and money driving.’ ”

In less than five years, the average suburban household is paying more than double what they used to pay for their gasoline consumption, amounting to a yearly increase of over $1700.  This contributed to larger and earlier drops in the prices of these homes than those in the city. 

I’m all for city living, reducing urban sprawl and densification if you live AND work there.  However, a lot of infrastructure has already been built out to suburban areas, including multi-billion dollar investments in mass transportation systems to increase access to the city core.
 
Maybe it’s time to start investing in renewable energy technologies for lighting, heating and cooling in these faraway developments, to offset the higher costs of commuting.  It would be an interesting exercise to calculate the household payback of installing solar photovoltaic panels, solar hot water heating systems and geothermal systems for homes in these areas.  I’m sure it’s a lot more attractive than it was just a year ago.  If you also eliminated all the long-distance commuting, you would spend less time and money driving and be doing the planet a big favour too.  

So— my dream house is a net zero energy home in the boonies that’s totally self-sufficient in water use and onsite waste management.  I can grow much of my own food onsite.  And I don’t have to commute anywhere for a living.  :)