The main culprit when it comes to polluting and impacting the environment across Canada, is industry. But without targeted policy, and political will, don’t expect corporations—particularly in the oil and gas sector—to change, or improve drastically on their own.
That being said, there is a role for a single individual to help, rather than harm, the planet. But not all environmentally-conscious actions are created equal. Because everyone’s time and attention spans are limited, it’s useful to understand which individual actions have the biggest impact.
VICE spoke with Keith Brooks, program director with Environmental Defence, which is a national advocacy group, to help you figure out what things are worthy of your attention. Here is his list of four things that everyone can do to maximize their personal efforts to live sustainably and responsibly.
1) Ditch the car (or truck, SUV, etc.)
Choosing not to buy a vehicle isn’t a realistic choice for many people outside of urban areas, where public transit, cycling or walking everywhere aren’t viable choices. But if it’s possible for you, this makes a real difference in terms of your environmental footprint. That’s because transportation is the second-largest source of emissions in Canada (oil and gas production is number one).
Brooks says that if you must buy a car, get an electric vehicle (EV), or a hybrid. This is a no-brainer if you live in British Columbia, Ontario or Quebec, which are all provinces that mainly harness “clean” sources to generate electricity. Provinces such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, on the other hand, still rely on sources including coal, resulting in a grid that’s decidedly dirtier.
According to Brooks though, electric is still a better choice than a “full-on gas powered vehicle” over the long-term. “The net impact is that even if it’s a dirty grid that’s burning coal, it ends up emitting less pollution over the lifetime of the vehicle.”
2) Eat less meat and waste less food
Environmentally-sound food choices are another relatively straightforward way to reduce your carbon footprint. Eating less meat and wasting less food are two separate actions, but they work together.
According to Drawdown Project, an environmental non-profit, “if all of the world’s cattle formed their own nation, they would be the planet’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, so eating less meat—especially beef—is good for the planet.”
It’s a trend that’s already playing out across Canada, where the amount of meat consumed per person is decreasing and one type of meat in particular is not as popular as it used to be—red meat. And based on the trend, the younger you are, the more likely you are to shun meat in favour of plant-based protein.
Brooks says if you look at greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, agriculture is responsible for 8.3 percent of the total and more than three percent of that total for agriculture is due to methane-laden cow farts. A significant portion of that is created to feed livestock, and a lot of it is wasted in the process.
Which brings us to the topic of food waste, and Canada has a poor record when it comes to this. Collectively, we waste about 40 percent of all the food produced in this country, totalling about $31 billion every year. Food waste that isn’t composted, emits harmful greenhouse gases and account for 2.6 percent of the country’s total.
3) Avoid single-use plastic like the plague
“We have to break our relationship with throwaway plastic: straws, bags, cutlery,” says Brooks. “Everywhere that scientists look, they’re finding plastic: in the High Arctic, in fish, whales, birds, water and in human feces.”
Brooks points to the fact that Canada is one of the highest producers of plastic per capita among developed countries. Not only do we make a lot of it, but we do a terrible job of recycling it. A recent report by Deloitte suggests that only nine percent of plastic is recycled in this country—the bulk of the other 91 percent collects in landfills for centuries (which is how long these types of products take to degrade), or it can end up in our waterways and soil, or otherwise contaminating the environment, while some of it is incinerated.
According to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, nearly 80 percent of plastic packaging can technically be recycled in this country—but not all Canadians live in places where all types of these plastics can be repurposed. So what can you do?
Cutting back on plastic consumption is ideal. But Brooks urges caution when rushing out to buy alternatives to plastic, suggesting consumers do their homework to see what is actually better long-term for the planet as some products may be marketed as an eco-friendly choice, when in fact they aren’t. Items made from recycled plastic are an easy alternative because they don’t create new plastic products.
4) Push for policy to protect the environment
This is the last item on the list, but it has the potential to be the single most impactful thing you can do—engage with our political system at every level of government. “As much as individual actions count, it’s collective action that we really need and the way to do that is through government policy because that’s what changes people’s behaviour and corporations’ behaviour on a massive scale,” Brooks explains.
He urges people to read up on the issues, talk to elected officials about what they’re doing for the environment. Brooks says climate change and the environment are shaping up to be a major wedge issue when Canadians head to the polls this Fall.
“The upcoming federal election is a de facto referendum on support for climate policy. Youth need to understand that it’s a really high stakes election coming up. If we put a government into power in Ottawa that doesn’t take these issues seriously, it’s going to send a long-term message to politicians that there isn’t the political will to act on climate change—that it’s a loser politically. And that will hurt us for a decade or more, of going backwards instead of going forwards.”
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