Happy (?) Earth Day 2014

It’s Earth Day, when politicians wave their environmental flag and we’re all encouraged to make a token effort at reducing our enormous environmental footprint. I think Earth Day has in a number of respects, outlived its usefulness. When it was first celebrated in 1970, the notion of an environmental movement was still very new: Silent Spring was only eight years old, neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor Environment Canada were established (the EPA would be by the end of the year, and EC the next), and it would be at least ten years before municipal recycling programs started to appear. Having a single day around which to promote environmental causes made sense when environmental issues aren’t very visible, but with climate change consistently on our collective radar, I think the focus of Earth Day needs to shift.

Maybe my impression of Earth Day leans too heavily on the “go clean up a patch of river with your class” sort of effort from grade school, but Earth Day is the original in a collection of one-off, isolated efforts designed to raise awareness and, to a lesser extent, make a dent in our collective carbon footprint. I’m dubious of anything whose primarily purpose is to nebulously “raise awareness” rather than actually doing anything [1] — especially considering that environmental issues aren’t exactly obscure these days. Earth Hour (which is of course distinct from Earth Day) is a perfect example of this: having a smattering of people turn off their lights for one hour does bupkis for actually reducing emissions, and the principal awareness it raises is remembering where you put the emergency candles (which is important but not the point).

This model is ineffective and, I’d argue, counterproductive: it proposes a model of small, discrete individual efforts to reduce emissions rather than the sustained, concerted, and substantial efforts actually needed to effectively combat climate change. It drastically undersells the level to which we need to collectively reorganize our lives to make a substantial change in emissions level, and, perhaps most importantly, it puts the onus of dealing with climate change on us as individuals and ignores both industrial and commercial sources of emissions as well as the need for good public policy to encourage those choices.

Let’s consider take the breakdown of Canadian greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 2012 which I found in this report from Environment Canada: (see also this report [PDF])

Source Emissions in Mt CO2 equiv. Proportion
Oil and gas 173 25%
Transportation 165 24%
Electricity 86 12%
Buildings 80 11%
Emissions Intensive and Trade-Exposed 78 11%
Agriculture 69 10%
Waste and Others 47 7%

Most of these are not things that can be effective tackled solely by individuals acting en masse. The oil and gas industry is the single largest contributor of GHG in Canada, and considering the number and scale of pipelines being proposed for transporting and exporting tar sands oil, it seems wildly unlikely that this number will go down in the foreseeable future. Buildings includes homes, but also businesses, skyscrapers, and all sorts of infrastructure that individuals have minimal power to change. It’s unclear whether constructed structures other than buildings are also included in this number, though I suspect they are, and if that’s the case, there’s an even tinier amount of influence that individuals can wield to change this number. Emissions intensive and trade-exposed includes “metal and non-metal mining activities, smelting and refining, and the production and processing of industrial goods such as chemicals, fertilizers, paper and cement,” and while individuals can reduce their general consumption, I suspect it’s hard for citizens to make much of a dent in this sector.

So that’s 54% of Canada’s GHGs which are highly resistant to change by individuals, and electricity, transportation, agriculture, and waste and other still to consider. It’s straightforward for individuals to reduce their electricity usage, by using energy efficient goods and lightbulbs, not leaving lights and appliances on when not in use, and efficiently insulating their houses to reduce heat loss. However, it’s unclear how much electricity is used by individuals as opposed to the industrial, commercial, and public users, and other efforts need to be enacted to deal with those sectors. Transportation breaks down similarly: it’s straightforward for individuals to drive less (if your city has an efficient, robust, and accessible public transit system, which is not a given), but this number includes commercial and industrial transportation as well, and I don’t know how the number divides. GHG emmisions from agriculture can be reduced in part by people eating less or no meat, but plant crops also emit GHG (via machinery rather than ruminants), and many people are very resistant to becoming vegetarian, let alone vegan. Waste and other includes emissions from landfills, so by consuming less, composting, and recycling, individuals can make a dent in this number too.

So out of the sectors that can be impacted by groups of individuals, which represents about 46% of the total GHG emissions, not one source of emissions is due solely to individual consumption. All are split between individual, industrial, and commercial uses, and most require systemic factors to be favourable before large numbers of individuals can make substantial efforts over a sustained period of time to reduce the amount of GHG they directly or indirectly generate. It’s much easier to get people to retrofit their houses when there are subsidies and public policy supporting them. People are much more likely to leave their cars at home if there is a robust, safe, efficient, and (economically and physically) accessible public transit network. Without appropriate public policy to make environmentally conscious choices realistically accessible to broad sectors of citizens, few people will make those choices on a daily basis.

But even if we all, as citizens, consistently reduce our transportation and electricity usage and start eating tofu instead of steak, we’re shaving off parts of a small part of GHG emissions pie. Pushing individual reductions while ignoring that well over half our GHG emissions are due to industrial and commercial sources of various stripes is a spectacularly ineffective way to deal with climate change. To enact any sort of meaningful change in the oil and gas sector in particular will require concerted and sustained political vision and willpower. To effectively address our outsized GHG emissions (Canada has one of the highest emission rates per capita in the world), we need to drastically reduce not only our individual, but especially our industrial emissions, and that won’t change without public policy, legislation, and a drastically different vision of economic prosperity in Canada. It’s up to us as individuals to do what we can, but we need our politicians and civil servants to set policy that ensures that industry and commercial interests put in their share of the work too.

Happy Earth Day 2014. Let’s go protest some pipelines.

  1. Top of the list of offenders: the pinkwashers “raising awareness” about breast cancer.

4 responses to “Happy (?) Earth Day 2014

  1. Taylor Binnington

    So I read this expecting to agree completely with you – but I didn’t. Certainly I think that Earth Day’s ‘day’ (and especially Earth Hour’s ‘hour’) have run their respective courses. And I think they give people a convenient way to feel good about themselves without actually affecting any kind of meaningful change. Not to mention the unintended consequences, which is what Earth Day should really be focusing on. Eat tofu? As far as land degradation goes, monocrops usually take cake, and tofu is one of the most energy-intense processed foods that we produce. Turn off your lights and use candles? There’s so much evidence to suggest that burning petroleum wax is far worse than the average power mix that I don’t even have to provide a reference. Do you turn them back on again after the hour is up? If everyone did this at once, the massive load rise that utilities see would send even their most inefficient peak oil boilers into overdrive, just to cope.

    BUT I would maintain that individuals wield significant power to reduce GHGs. Those statistics exist, too, and the power of the individual is not so wrapped up in each of the numbers you provided from the GHG inventory that they can’t be disentangled. Finally, I guess I don’t take this statement for granted: “Without appropriate public policy to make environmentally conscious choices realistically accessible to broad sectors of citizens, few people will make those choices on a daily basis.”, when it could just have sensibly been written as “Without people making environmentally conscious choices on a daily basis, few public policies will reflect those values.”.

    • I’m so sorry I missed this earlier — I didn’t see it amongst the spam.

      I’d be interested in seeing those more detailed statistics — do you know where I can find them for Canada? I googled around a bit but didn’t turn up anything useful (which probably says as much about my googling skills as anything). Of course individuals can make environmentally sound choices, and that does have a significant impact, but I don’t see much meaningful pressure being applied to commercial or industry or public infrastructure sectors to do the same. (Maybe there’s more than I’m aware of/guessing exists? I certainly hope so.) We need reductions across all sectors if we’re going to get anywhere near meeting even Kyoto, and individual efforts are only part of that.

      However, you’re totally right: we’re not going to get sensible policy on a broad scale without a sizeable chunk of the electorate making environmentally conscious choices and agitating for policy to match it.

      • Hey check it out – actually a weak article (so much data collected! so many possibilities left unexploited!), they only allude to inefficient operation of plants in the abstract, but really follow it up. I will say that I didn’t expect to see such large drops in demand.
        title = “The electricity impacts of Earth Hour: An international comparative analysis of energy-saving behavior “,
        journal = “Energy Research & Social Science “,
        volume = “2”,
        number = “0”,
        pages = “159 – 182”,
        year = “2014”,
        url = “http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629614000474”,
        author = “Sarah J. Olexsak and Alan Meier”,

  2. Great blog entry! Never gone in for this Earth Day thing myself, but I do tend to be a sucker for this “we can change things through our actions” malarkey. May have to think more about protesting!

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