Green Certification and the Democratization of Sustainable Lifestyles

I Pity The Fool Who Doesn't Recycle

Environmental Ethics asks questions about how one ought to act, from which we derive social mores. Based on these, we develop rules, regulations, the social contracts that govern society. Moving to a green economy and a green society is essentially a project in the movement of societal values. There are a handful of tools that are typically used to move social values, some more effective than others. Mass coercion is generally frowned upon, and proven to ultimately be ineffective. So, we are left to the hearts and minds campaign. Meanwhile, we work to improve some of the legal, regulatory and business frameworks in ways that minimally impact people’s general happiness. The tools most often employed by NGO’s, grassroots groups for hearts and minds are typically some combination of education and/or incentives and good ol’ shame (which is just a negative incentive). We educate on the problem, offer a solution, incentivize the transition and shame those who don’t comply. (If you don’t recycle, you obviously hate nature!)

While the education and incentive approach does work, it’s a steep slope to climb. It took 50 years for this approach to halve smoking rates in Canada, and 30 years for impaired driving rates to drop by 65%. Issues without a clearly visible moral imperative like deaths from impaired driving face an even steeper slope. Despite Canada, the birthplace of the Blue Box, enjoying a 99% recycling program coverage rate, Canada still only achieves about a 27% diversion rate. While that’s rather underwhelming, it’s actually amongst the highest in the world. While changing social norms had a significant role to play in smoking and impaired driving trends, these behaviors also had very clear, quantifiable social costs. Consequentially, significant regulatory and legislative power was applied to incentivize behavior. The social costs have often not been convincingly communicated for environmental degradation until recently. Moreover, the ecological costs like wetland and biodiversity loss are not readily apparent to the individual. While education and incentive are ultimately the most effective because the behavior becomes part of our social moral fabric, social mores change on a scale of decades. Many of the ecological challenges we face simply cannot wait.

The other set of tools most often used are market tools. Environmental taxes or subsidies, pollution trading schemes like carbon or renewable energy credits, or green consumption through ecolabeling schemes work on the economic base, the structure upon which society subsists. Governments, NGO’s and other supranational organizations have realized that given how difficult shifting public opinion is, and how pressing many environmental stresses have become, that market instruments represent the best chance to move the needle quickly towards a sustainable society. However, most of these tools are out of the hands of the individual consumer and leave many disenfranchised in the transition to a greener economy. The way many large-scale schemes roll out like renewables or carbon taxes may leave the most marginalized communities out. Green products that are organic, efficient, ecologically superior and healthier, in general, are more expensive and harder to find and create an environmental social classism.

The largest intersection of market instruments and consumer power other than taxation and representation is green purchasing. Environmentally conscious purchasing, while growing, remains a niche area, with most consumers feeling sustainability is important, yet only 22% actually willing to pay more for a sustainable product.  Of those that do, 81% are influenced by an environmental certification mark or claim. However, despite typically being more efficient and providing other benefits in the long run, certified green products typically cost more. Moreover, with the ever-increasing plethora of marks, there is significant confusion leading to skepticism in the consumer space. Consequentially, there is comparatively little focus on green consumer products compared to what is happening in the commercial, institutional and industrial space.

Too Many EcoLabels

Today there are over 400 ecolabeling programs and tens of thousands of green marks. Many are completely meaningless, some are too vague. A small number adhere to verifiable standards, the strongest of which are rigorous international ISO 14000 standards. These programs, such as UL ECOLOGO, Green Seal and the EPA’s Designed For Environment mark are independently audited and verified against standards scientifically developed in consensus with industry, NGO’s, researchers and regulators. What these programs have in common is that a very small percentage of their work is in fact in the consumer space. This is a matter of scale – it is much easier to change the habits of a few large institutions like hospitals, universities, manufacturers and government purchasers than it is millions of individual consumers.

Stakeholders lobby large purchasers of materials to build into their purchasing specifications environmental performance criteria, arguing for the better health, environmental, efficiency and performance that make these products pay off in the long-run. An example is the Healthy Schools Campaign, an NGO that advocates for green cleaning in schools to reduce environmental impact and cut childhood asthma rates. The upshot of standards-based green procurement policies is that they trickle down to the consumer space. When a large purchaser like the State of New York requires certifications for vendors to sell to them, it pushes the industry to innovate. There have been incredible strides in the environmental performance of consumer products due to demand for environmental certifications that go entirely unnoticed by consumers. These include reductions in the effluent from pulp and paper manufacturing, diminished toxins in consumer cleaning and personal care products and reduced VOC’s in home building products.

The role of environmental certification in driving innovation is largely unrecognized outside of the industry, and while there may be valid criticisms, shortfalls are not unexpected in a quasi-regulatory industry in its infancy. Green Certifications remain a highly valuable tool in the effort to make society more sustainable, one that could be strengthened by broader public participation and better enforcement of already existing regulations. Green innovation leads to efficiency and lower prices in the long run, just as seen in the solar market, and these innovations will mean democratized, affordable products that have significantly lower ecological impacts for everyone.

Canada Needs a National Policy on Green Infrastructure

Despite its ubiquity in certain circles, you could be forgiven for not knowing what Green Infrastructure is. Unless you are one of those rarefied beasts that has a burning passion for environmental and/or municipal infrastructure and urban design policy. You may not have given more than a passing thought about the form and function of your urban green spaces, how urban water flows, or how big your watershed is. That is, unless you live in Windsor, Ottawa/Gatineau, Michigan or Houston, or one of the many communities across North America who have been hard-hit by the near endless rain that has marked the summer of 2017. If you live in one of these towns, you may be asking these very questions. You are certainly aware that a city’s infrastructure is tasked with managing water, and well, it seems many places aren’t managing very well. This is where Green Infrastructure comes in.

Traditional (grey) infrastructure design takes all the water that falls as precipitation, and puts it in a pipe under the road where it gets channeled off somewhere, likely to be discharged into a local watercourse. Many older cities have combined sewer / stormwater systems, and large rainfalls can overwhelm the system. The result is raw sewage discharged into our lakes and rivers. Green Infrastructure design is a type of urban renewal being adopted globally that seeks to improve urban quality of life and build climate resilience by leveraging, mimicking and strengthening natural systems to complement or improve on traditional (grey) systems. The focus of Green Infrastructure policy is on water management, flood mitigation, environmental adaptation, biodiversity protection and enhancement through which a myriad of social benefits are provided, such as improved air and water quality and a greener, more vibrant and livable urban environment. As we have seen this past season, how water is managed is arguably one of the most important urban infrastructure functions.

Street Side Bioswale

Street Side Bioswale
Image used under Creative Commons License Labeled for reuse – Wikimedia

Good Green Infrastructure policy focuses on using innovative approaches to integrate natural and artificial systems to create spaces that are dynamic, beautiful, functional and resilient. Cities around the world have already embraced good Green Infrastructure policy, the most common of which may consist of urban forests and woodlots, Bioswales, engineered and natural wetlands, ravines, waterways and riparian zones, fields, meadows, parks, green roofs, urban gardens, or simply planting more trees[1]. Green Infrastructure elements make neighborhoods beautiful places to live while providing a bulwark against the damaging effects of climate change. Moreover, according to a 2013 Nature Conservancy study, Green Infrastructure projects, compared to traditional grey infrastructure typically have reduced environmental footprints, lower startup, operating and maintenance costs, and have no end-of-life recapitalization costs due to their self-sustaining and regenerative nature. [1] Green Infrastructure projects in lifecycle analysis have demonstrated significantly lower carbon footprints, and are much more efficient at reducing toxic loading of grey water at point of discharge compared to traditional projects. [2]

Urban Rain Garden & Water Feature
Image used under Creative Commons License Labeled for reuse – Wikimedia

Most of Canada’s infrastructure is at least 30 to 50 years old and is in disrepair. The biggest impacts of climate change in Canada will not be killer heat waves, as much as it will be increased 100, 500 and 1000-year storms, and the effects of water. The Insurance Bureau of Canada has indicated that property and casualty insurance payouts from extreme weather have more than doubled every 5 to 10 years since the 1980s, and the primary cause of claims  during the seven-year period up to 2016 was flooding. Furthermore, with over 70% of Southern Ontario’s pre-settlement wetlands lost through agricultural drainage, development, encroachment, land clearance, filling and road construction, [4] we have undermined our very ability to absorb the worst that Mother Nature would throw at us.

If Green Infrastructure is such a great solution, why aren’t we doing it already? After years of missed opportunity we find ourselves far behind the curve, and Canada’s leadership simply lacks the political will to prioritize climate resilience policies. The United Nations, European Union, The UK, and the US EPA all have strong policies, guides, guidelines and targets for implementation of Green Infrastructure, however Canada has no such policies in place. The other side of climate change mitigation is adaptation. We must be ready to face a changing climate in Canada, and according to A new report by Prof. Feltmate at University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, we are not ready.

While the Federal government in Canada has committed to investing $20 Billion over the next decade to investment in Green Infrastructure, they have essentially abandoned all strategy, policy coordination, guidance or even a basic definition of what in fact qualifies as Green Infrastructure to the provinces and municipalities who are struggling to fill the gap. Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, has no stand-alone Green Infrastructure policy. The province defines, or discusses Green Infrastructure in significant detail, but these discussions are largely buried within multiple policy papers and diffused among several agencies. Ontario’s Green Infrastructure policy is piecemealed between the Ministry of Municipal Housing and Affairs, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, and lacks any coherent framework, let alone tangible targets. This is reflected in the City of Ottawa’s Green Infrastructure policy which, despite having received some genuine engagement and even a pilot project or two, Canada’s capital city is approaching Green Infrastructure as an unproven technology and their policy is just as vague and disjointed as the province’s.

Canada has always been an innovation leader. It is time for us to step up and demonstrate climate leadership. Feltmate’s report stresses that Canada must develop “authoritative, accessible and actionable information” on changing climate conditions, and  “generate greater awareness, leadership and investment in adaptation”. He urges Ottawa and the provinces to each create a position of “chief adaptation officer,” whose mandate would be to identify areas of strengths and weaknesses in flood preparedness and produce regular audits of the jurisdiction’s commitments and actions. [5] This is exactly what is required for Canada lead by example in climate preparedness.

While other global jurisdictions are getting on with things and building the great cities of tomorrow, excellent places to invest and live, Canada is lurching along hesitantly, stymied by the Harper-era shift away from climate adaptation-related public policy [6] just when we needed it most, and politicians who are reticent to take on any new ideas when “staying the course” just seems safer. It isn’t. We are headed into uncharted waters and we need all the tools we can muster. Lack of leadership and coordination creates confusion and paralysis when we need decisive action. I urge Canada’s leaders to adopt Professor Feltmate’s recommendations, and show leadership by developing a National Policy on Green Infrastructure.

___________________

Sources:

[1] Online Source: http://greeninfrastructureontario.org/

[2] The Nature Conservancy (2013) Online Source: https://www.nature.org/about-us/the-case-for-green-infrastructure.pdf?redirect=https-301

[3] Brudler, S., & et al. (2016). Life cycle assessment of stormwater management in the context of climate change adaptation. Water Research 106, 394-404.

[4] When the Big Storms Hit: The Role of Wetlands to Limit Urban and Rural Flood Damage. Prepared for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. – Intact Center for Climate Change Adaptation (Moudrak & et al., 2017)

[5] IBID

[6] Bolivar Phillips. (2013). Adaptive Approaches in Stormwater Management. Ottawa: City of Ottawa. Retrieved from http://documents.ottawa.ca/en/node/6048

Why Racism is Bad

No, I’m not going to actually discuss why racism is bad. If you’re seeing this article in your feed, then you likely already have a pretty good grasp as to why racism is not acceptable or beneficial in any way. That said, it would seem it’s a conversation we are going to have to have. And no, I’m not just talking about the USA, that troubled kid next door. Racism is a real and present issue in Canada too. One only needs to read comment threads on any news story that deal with any story even tenuously related to race issues or members of any racially marginalized community for that matter, to see the misguided, uninformed racially charged vitriol pour forth. Wait – I know what you’re thinking: “Misguided”!? “Uninformed”!? Yes. Don’t get me wrong – racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism etc. are all repugnant. But to paraphrase Nelson Mandela, “People are not born with hate in their hearts”. These attitudes are taught, and somewhere along the line, right attitudes are not taught.

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon in the comment threads. Many who support policies and views of the alt right agenda are painting the left as fascists, Orwellian in their suppression of free thought and speech and the rejection of moral equivalency. The story goes that there is a cabal of “Cultural Marxists”, intellectual elites that are waging a class war against traditional Western culture and values. They use the continued shutting down of the discourse and the refusal to give the alt-right any kind of moral equivalency as evidence of leftist fascism that will ultimately lead to the end of democracy. Clearly, any view that discriminates or takes away freedoms cannot give any kind of any kind of equivalency with the hard-fought, legally enshrined philosophies of universal human rights. But clearly, they feel they aren’t being heard, and sensing a moment of entropy, they are grabbing their chance.

The uprising of hate in the USA has certainly been disconcerting to most of us, and surprising to the relatively sheltered, white social justice activists located in the big cultural centers of North America. I don’t think it was a surprise for any member of any marginalized group, or anyone who has spent time in the small towns and rural areas. I believe a big reason why there has been such a perceived backslide in enlightened progress just when things seemed to be going so well, is a failure to communicate. Communication is not talking at someone. It is listening, processing, reiterating and engaging. It is a lost art to many. There are large swaths of society that social activism has failed to engage. Another failure is a propensity for social progressives to focus on the macro at the expense of the micro. Just like free trade is in fact a boon for society at large in the long run, it can cause a lot of short run pain. If free trade shut down your local mill, it’s a bad thing for you regardless of national GDP.

While there have been some hard-fought and hard-won victories in environment, economy and social justice, not everyone has gained. Coal miners, factory workers and farmers are victims of the same system as those who are fighting for environmental and social justice. Just because their situation is arguably less bad does not make it good. They are losing jobs, access to health care, access to social services, and suffering a deteriorating environment. Indeed, often they are at the pointy end of many environmental and social impacts of globalization. At the same time, they are indeed invisible to the social justice movement of the major cultural centers. There are no movie stars visiting hollowed out rural communities with no jobs and no health care. All they have is the same political system that in their grandparents’ day, when they could not feed their families fed them Jim Crow. The core of that message has not changed with the times.

Clinton called Trump followers a “Basket of Deplorables”. That is probably one of the biggest gifts she gave to the Alt Right. Maybe some are, or at least their views are. But what to do with them? No matter how deplorable, are we going to round them all up and incarcerate them? Do we shoot them into space or set them adrift on ice floes? We can’t simply plug up our eyes and ears and chant “Na Na Na Na…” and hope they slink away.

Let me be clear. Since Charlottesville we have all have seen some pretty chilling stuff. As much as I like to think otherwise, some people may be irredeemable. There are certainly some actions one just can’t walk back from. But I have seen people change, and does not happen through yelling at them, denouncing them and calling them names. I’m not suggesting that we need to start giving intolerance any leeway, and I am CERTAINLY not insinuating that marginalized groups need to go out and teach white folks a history lesson, or how to be decent people. It is incumbent upon us to take care of our own house. But if those on the side of social justice are supposed to be enlightened, it’s time we started acting like it. Yelling at each other clearly isn’t working. One way or another we will have to find a way to communicate.

Open Letter to MP David McGuinty & Justin Trudeau on the Kinder Morgan Pipeline Approval

Dear Hon. David McGuinty,

I was quite dismayed at the government’s announcement yesterday to approve the Kinder Morgan pipeline. I am one of those “radicals” that believe there should be no new pipelines – ever. While I care about water, bears and orca whales, my reason is climate. I am an environmental scholar; while I do not study climate directly, I have a good understanding of the systems, and the math. And math is the reason I say we CANNOT afford new pipelines. As stated in this article written by the former director of the NASA Goddard Institute, here is the math:

942 > 800

The proven oil reserves currently in operation globally represent 942 gigatons of CO2. If we want to keep warming below 2°C, WE CAN ONLY BURN 800 GIGATONS.

There are currently 22 Gigatons of accessible CO2 in the tar sands, with another estimated 218 gigatons present. The tar sands alone represent the potential to blow almost ¼ of the PLANET’s CO2 “bank account”. Now is NOT the time to build new infrastructure, it is the time to plan a transition.

Currently there are a couple of false narratives that are being perpetuated by Rachel Notley, as well as PM Justin Trudeau.

The first false narrative is that the pipelines in question constitutes an existential choice between environment and economy. There are other paths available. The renewable sector has created over 2.5 million jobs in the USA, and employment in that sector has surpassed oil, gas & coal combined. While China and the USA build their industry, Canada lags far behind. There is NO reason we could not have been a leader in this area if Harper had decided in 2008 to invest in the renewable industry over subsidies to oil & gas, and pouring concrete. With the Trump presidency aiming to kill the US renewable industry, NOW is the time to open Canada’s doors to the US renewables brain trust, and invest in renewables as an industry of the future. Moreover, Canadian oil patch workers are ASKING to be retrained in renewables!

The second false narrative is that with offsets and regulation, there will be NO ADDED CO2 output from the tar sands as a result of building new pipelines. This is utterly, laughably false.

  1. This is a matter of emission scoping. In the carbon footprint industry, we calculate a carbon footprint by making determinations regarding now far downstream it logically makes sense to capture data. This may make sense empirically, but the climate does not care who, in the end burns that fuel. WE pulled it out of the ground, and it WILL be burned. And that is not even considering all the ancillary emissions. What the federal government views as “in scope” only accounts for 9.5% of emissions.
  2. Carbon OFFSETS (such as tree planting and other schemes) and CREDIT schemes have been widely found to be at best unreliable. Moreover, human nature demonstrates virtually every time that when you save a dollar in one place, you simply spend it elsewhere. Same goes for GHG’ Also, Notley said today that building a pipeline does not mean they will increase capacity. Seriously!? There is currently NO economic need for it, and who in their right minds would invest billions in infrastructure you are planning to mothball!?

As stated, I am an environmental studies major at Carleton, and I have studied climate change in depth. There is NO DOUBT about the science. As an environmental scholar, what I see happening now in the arctic is extremely alarming. It is blowing away most of the climatology modeling that has been done, and climatologists don’t even know what the consequences may be – but the will NOT be good.

The Insurance industry has indicated that from 2009 to 2014, insured losses in Canada caused by large natural catastrophes hovered around or surpassed the $1 billion mark. The signature of climate change features prominently on this. In fact, by the government’s own reckoning, over the past six fiscal years, the federal government spent more on recovering from large-scale natural disasters than in the previous 39 fiscal years combined. The same report states that the future cost of climate change for Canada could grow from approximately $5 billion per year in 2020 to between $21 billion and $43 billion per year by the 2050s.

Canada has COMMITTED to reducing GHG’s per our COP21 commitments, and by approving these pipelines, there is NO WAY we can meet these commitments. Just as we must commit to take care of our own homeless and needy, manage our own environment and economy responsibly, we MUST take our climate responsibilities seriously. When you knocked on my door you told me you are a family man, and that you care about our environment. I don’t see how you can reconcile these, and support the government’s position on pipelines. I kindly request you bring my concerns forward, and you DO NOT support expansion of hydrocarbon infrastructure.

Regards,

Adam Caldwell

Ottawa, Ontario

Conflict Minerals – Intel’s “Less Bad” Intentions

This week the popular Corporate Sustainability communications group Triple Pundit published a rather saccharine piece, lauding Intel for achieving a supply chain free from Conflict Minerals. Wow. (Insert slow clap here). Well, sounds good, right? Well… yes… But does Intel really deserve all of the love?

If you follow social justice and/or Conflict_Mineralshigh-tech news, you’ve probably heard of Conflict Minerals by now. Tin, Tungsten, Tanatlum & Gold – all used in your favourite electronic devices, and all mined by slave labor in a black market minerals trade by DRC warlords. These minerals are the “blood diamonds” of the electronics industry. As part of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, measures to restrict the movement of conflict minerals were introduced in 2010 under Section 1502. Since then, the issue of conflict minerals has received increasing attention.

Intel’s CEO announced in January at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show that they are leading the way to being 100% “Conflict Free”, and he has challenged his competitors to do the same. Intel’s commitment to conflict free has been laudable, don’t get me wrong. They adopted a principled stance on the issue early on, and supply chains for metals can be extremely complicated things to untangle. Intel even bucked their own industry association, who has fought The SEC on conflict minerals all the way.

So, should Intel be congratulated for leading the way on adopting a conflict minerals policy? Do we generally congratulate people for not stealing, murdering or being generally unhelpful to society? No, because ethical behaviour is generally expected of us. Reporting on conflict minerals isn’t a suggestion, it’s the law. So, why should we feel we have to congratulate companies for not displaying wanton disregard for human life, the environment, or all-around decency – much less obeying the law? Maybe it’s because we are so used to them acting in ways generally considered psychopathic at best, criminal at worst, we feel the need to laud the firms that are the least badconsumerism

When a firm pats themselves on the back for obeying the law, much less broader social mores, it is the worst type of greenwashing, because it is insincere, it presupposes that others are getting away with such behaviour with our tacit knowledge and implied consent, and therefore assumes its customers are amoral, mindlessly consuming imbeciles. It also demonstrates that our regulatory system is broken. As consumers we must demand better than “less bad”. The worst part of it is, unless you live in a tree, they’ve got you pegged. You, me, every one of us. So, what are we going to do about it?

Resources for Ethical Purchasing

To find out more about Conflict Minerals and related issues, the true heroes doing the heavy lifting are Global Witness. These folks are on the front lines – risking life and limb to report goings on in some of the world’s most dangerous and corrupt corners.

When it comes to making ethical purchasing choices, the best choice is to start with The Three “R’s”, upcycle, or buy used. If you must buy new, the best thing you can do is educate yourself, and in turn, others. A great place to start is a series of videos called “The Story of Stuff”.

There are lots of organizations doing great work to shed light, or bring about an ethical economy, here’s a few.  If you know of a great one, let me know!

 

mindless-consumerism