The Green Medium is an Emerald Award-winning, youth-run blog that seeks to innovate how we discuss and inform ourselves on environmental concerns.

Our Plan: The Province

Our Plan: The Province

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Looking to the Provincial level, we strongly support the Alberta Climate Leadership Plan put forth by the government. We commend the ambition and far-reaching nature of this plan, especially given our province’s history as an oil and gas haven. We respect and acknowledge the role that oil and gas have played in the prosperity of our great province, but we are excited and motivated to build beyond that legacy. Diversification is often used as an economic buzz-word that is neither here nor there. However, diversification insofar as we are expanding our economy, and specifically our energy economy, beyond oil and gas is an economic concept we endorse.

Currently, the Government of Alberta subsidizes the fossil fuel industry to the tune of some $1.16 billion CAD. This comes in the form of grants, reduced taxes, deductions, and alternatives. We propose one of two options for that money, diverting it from its current usage:

  1. That the entire sum be diverted from the fossil fuel industry and instead go toward financing the government’s current deficit.

  2. That the entire sum is diverted into a credit program for current oil and gas producing companies who are switching to clean forms of energy. This can mean anything from geothermal to wind to concentrated solar thermal (CST) arrays.

Agriculture

On the subject of credits, The Green Medium would like policy in place that would give grants or tax credits to farmers who employ agroforestry and/or other sustainable farming practices. Agroforestry combines standard farming practices with the planting of trees. It can come in many forms, whether it is tree intercropping wherein rows of trees are interspersed with crops directly or silvopasture, wherein livestock graze on forested land. These practices are currently underutilized in the agriculture industry but have been demonstrably proven to raise yields, cut costs (on fertilizers, water, and labour), and most importantly, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through carbon sequestration.

Agroforestry is a compound word that combines agriculture and forestry, which you likely already put together. It involves using farmland in a non-traditional way to diversify its uses and to cut back on fertilizer, water, and the need to protect crops from intense sun. Silvopasture is an idea that seems anathema to us in the West as we have become so accustomed to the separation between forests and grazing land. However, with cattle and other grazing animals requiring between 30-45% of all the earth’s arable land, we need to start think about how we use that land differently. Silvopasture sequesters much more carbon than ordinary grazing by trapping it in biomass grown above the ground like trees and shrubs in addition to soil. According to Drawdown research: “pastures that [are] strewn or crisscrossed with trees sequester five to ten times as much carbon as those of the same size that are treeless.”

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Incentivizing farming practices like this is not just great for the planet, it’s great for farmers too. Again, thanks to the research from Drawdown it has been calculated that silvopasture brings an array of benefits to farms of all kinds, be it smallholder farms or large-scale operations. Their benefit comes in the form of diversification, in that trees and shrubs can yield fruits, nuts, etc. while also serving as pasturing grounds. It also cuts winds, reduces heat strain, and provides far better food for animals, boosting meat and milk yields. The estimated increase in yield results varies depending on the type of silvopasture used but is in the 5-10% range, a huge increase in the world of tight margin agriculture.

Agroforestry involves layering trees and crops together to build a canopy of trees above crops that act as protection while sequestering carbon permanently (versus cyclically as with annual crops). This serves to reduce damage from wind and heat (due to the shade) but also reduces soil erosion, restores degraded soil and groundwater, and protects against flooding among other things. While heat strain and flooding may not be top of mind issues for many farmers in Alberta, the benefits of agroforestry are so innumerable that it works across the world.

Given the rather novel nature of these practices, they are not likely to spread suddenly in Alberta. On this front we believe that the government has a role to play. Subsidies, grants, and credits can be maligned for distorting markets but in the interest of the public good we strongly endorse them and believe that a convincing case can be made for their implementation. While there are important discussions to be had about where and when a government should step into an industry, we wholeheartedly believe that assisting changes that will help to preserve humanity is undoubtedly a strong case for government to get involved.

The Government can begin by providing information for farmers on how to implement these alternative systems, their benefits, best practices, etc. The confluence of financial incentives, information, and knowledge of tangible benefits will all come together to help build a better province. These policies are great because while they are aimed specifically at sequestering carbon, they make good sense regardless. The good folks at the Agroforestry and Woodlot Extension Society (website here: http://www.awes-ab.ca/about-us.html) are already doing work in this regard and could act as partners, building off of their existing expertise.

Cement (It’s More Exciting Than You Think)

Cement is not a material that attracts much attention from most of us. However, this fundamental building material happens to be a large producer of carbon emissions in its own right, and there are ways of doing it better. Drawdown has compelling research on how cement currently contributes GHG emissions and how those can be curbed. As it stands, most of the world uses “Portland Cement” where limestone and aluminosilicate clay need to be decarbonized at extremely high temperatures (nearly 1500 degrees celsius) which produces calcium oxide for cement and off-gasses carbon dioxide. The carbon off-gas produces 60% of the industry’s carbon emissions with the rest coming from energy use, a not insignificant amount coming from the heat level needed for decarbonizing.

Alternative cement practices like more efficient kilns, alternative fuels, and most crucially, changing the composition of cement are all ways to make cement more environmentally friendly. Using fly ash, a byproduct of coal, industrial waste products, and other materials that are already processed and ready to become cement bypasses the energy intensive decarbonization stage. There can be mixtures of conventional Portland cement with these alternatives suggested above in addition to purely pursuing alternatives.

If we in Alberta provide grants for alternative cement policy and exclusively commit to using alternative cement as a material in government infrastructure building than many more tonnes of carbon can be averted from our atmosphere in addition to saving on energy costs. Cement is not going anywhere anytime soon so it’s about time we adapted and made it better.

Artificial Fertilizers

The jury has come back in on artificial fertilizers, the stuff is like a drug for farmland. Artificial fertilizers aid productivity in the short-term but produce negative effects for those people and organisms affected by it (think about “dead zones” in bodies of water). In the long-run, when used in excess or at the wrong times, they create unhealthy land and crops which rely on ever increasing amounts to reach maximum yields. This is not to say that all artificial fertilizers are uniformly bad however, just that they do weaken the land and create dependency over time when improperly used. Frequently, fertilizers are overused to compensate for potentially poor yields and are not used at the right time in crop cycle.

The problem of run-off is currently being explored by scientists at the Sri Lanka Institute of  Nanotechnology. If fertilizer runoff can indeed be reduced by the widespread implementation of a urea-hydroxyapatite combination in order to keep the urea (with its nitrogen) from being flushed away, then eutrophication can be quelled at the source. In Alberta, eutrophication has not been quite as grave an issue as in other parts of the globe, however, we are still highly water-based as a Province and though we do not use as much artificial fertilizer as say the United States (0.9kg/hectare in Canada vs 2kg/hectare for the US), it is still a growing concern. For major rivers like the North Saskatchewan, this is an issue that demands monitoring, particularly when drinking water is at stake.

Eutrophication, for the clarity of any and all eyes that may be reading this is when there is chemical runoff like the kind described above (nitrogen for example) which then finds its way into bodies of water, promotes the growth of algae (algal bloom) which then uses more and more of the water’s oxygen which in turn creates a “dead zone” by robbing the water of its natural capacity to give life to organisms.

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To tackle this problem of fertilizer misuse, albeit one that is not as serious in Alberta as in other parts of the world, we propose that the Government implement a farmer focused education program that acts in tandem with the one proposed earlier for agroforestry. Creating a program of oversight and information sharing that will meaningfully affect farmer behaviour will be challenging but is a better alternative than banning fertilizers altogether which would be a misstep. Furthermore, the government could explore a levy for fertilizer use over a certain amount per hectare, with use below that amount costing what the market has deemed reasonable.

How We Do Food

The Province of Alberta must change the policies in place surrounding how we do food. Food waste alone is one of the biggest sources of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and serves as a cruel reminder of the fact that we have hundreds of millions of people wanting for food while perfectly fine food rots away. It is a truly lose-lose beast and one that can be vanquished if appropriate, but not overly prohibitive changes are made.

France is a world leader in food sustainability, as recognized by its top ranking in the Food Sustainability Index its remarkable policies surrounding food waste in particular shoot it to the top. Canada, however, is a not too distant 3rd place in the rankings, behind France and Japan. However, it’s not a great achievement to be in 3rd place on a mediocre list. Currently, food waste accounts for, according to Drawdown research, 8% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, a shockingly high amount that is doubly painful considering how those resources could be otherwise used. France’s much ballyhooed ‘Supermarket Waste Policy’ was introduced in 2015 and it curbed what grocery stores could do with food waste. According to coverage from The Guardian’s Angelique Chrisafis from May 2015: “French supermarkets will be banned from throwing away or destroying unsold food and must instead donate it to charities or for animal feed, under a law set to crack down on food waste.” This would be a boon for our province’s poorest, not to mention how it would incentivize grocery shops to sell their produce, regardless of its minor blemishes. We all win with policy like this. It is no wonder that the bill was widely voted for, doing away with partisan divisions.

Energy

Now it’s time to take a look at the big guns over in energy. Alberta’s riches have come in large part due to a formidable energy sector, buoyed by oil and gas. However, as the world’s demands shifts from these polluting fossil fuels to cleaner, more efficient alternatives, it is imperative that we shift too. This shift is not only important for its environmental impact but also for the future of our economy, ensuring Alberta does not get left in the past like the fossils from which the energy sector first grew.

Renewable energy, watt for watt, employs more people than the fossil fuel sector and as early as 2014, surpassed the oil sands for employment in Canada according to the Globe and Mail. The reasons for this heightened employment are twofold, one part that is likely to become less pronounced as renewables become more widespread and another that will be permanent and therefore a long-term boost to our economy. Renewables will create more jobs, increase innovation, make energy cheaper and more accessible, enhance energy independence, and provide dramatically cleaner energy.

To this, an oil proponent might say “That’s all well and good, but you can’t export solar energy, or wind energy, what will happen to our large net exports and the economic bonus they provide?” To that we would reply that it won’t do us any good to have excesses of oil and gas if the rest of the world has no need for it. Peak oil is the idea that at some point we will have discovered the maximum amount of oil that exists and from there will be working with ever more limited resources. While this will be the case in the future, the far more immediate peak oil idea being proposed now is that of peak demand, wherein human civilization demands less and less oil regardless of supply. Furthermore to the oil proponent’s question, while we will admittedly lose an export edge, the negative effects of this will be cushioned by the reduction in oil-based conflicts, cheaper costs of energy, and, if we play our cards right, a place for Alberta as a clean energy innovation hub.

As is well known, oil has a multitude of uses beyond energy, it is used for toothpaste, toilet seats, wax, lubricants, and on. One of the most ubiquitous and societally important things it makes is plastic. Only 4% of oil is used for plastic on a global scale but that 4% is omnipresent in day to day life and in animal disaster stories on the evening news. Plastic, a most unnatural product is valued because of the flexibility and durability it provides due to its polymers, however, it is also an environmental blight for its durability. It does not break down easily, taking 450-1000 years to biodegrade. This amount of time is unacceptably long and solving the problem certainly falls within the purview of the 3 R’s of reducing, reusing, and recycling. Advanced recycling, beyond a few instances needs to be explored further. Plastic has inserted itself as a substance that is here to stay in modern society, the benefits of it are unquestioned and I can’t pretend to not appreciate what is provides me as a consumer. So with that it appears we are at a crossroads, we can’t live with plastic but we can’t (easily) live without it.

Enter bioplastics. Without getting too in depth into polymer jargon, bioplastics are biodegradable alternatives to plastic and though some are not biodegradable in compost (ones with polylactic acid) they are biodegradable at high temperatures. Furthermore, some like polyhydroxyalkanoates are biodegradable in a regular composting environment. These and other options sequester carbon as they are bio-based. Encouraging plastic producing companies in research and development into bioplastics as well as subsidizing bioplastic research already in place (perhaps with funds from the plastic bag tax) would aid the transition.

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In addition to supporting bioplastic development through research grants and development grants we endorse as an interim policy a “plastic bag tax” Raising the current rate on plastic bags at grocery stores, or implementing it in places without one, could provide enough of a push to consumers to start bringing their own bags or using boxes. In the long term we endorse a policy to phase out plastic bags at grocery stores and other shops where they are prevalently used, this is something that Edmonton has considered before. A responsible phase out and change in consumer behaviour must be carefully planned before we can go ahead full throttle with this plan. For those who forget bags there need to still be options at grocery stores and at clothing stores, for example, an exploration of plastic alternatives (like recycled paper or FSC certified paper) needs to be in place.

Finally, we would like to endorse some positive policy changes that the province can make to encourage the growth of clean energy in a way that doesn’t hinder us economically.:

  1. Support groups like Iron and Earth which arm former fossil fuel sector workers with the training they need to work in the renewable energy sector. This eliminates the issue of unemployment as a result of the energy transition and helps all Albertans in the long run, providing jobs and much needed skilled labour. This skills transition may be one of the most critical determinants in changing public opinion in Alberta surrounding the renewable energy transition in addition to providing workers valued skills.

  2. Support the renewable energy sector with grants and subsidies on the production side in order to make them an even better choice for consumers.

  3. Continue to offer micro-generation subsidies for business and individuals which incentivize solar panels. This is a policy currently in place that we think can go farther.

  4. Introduce a ‘Cap and Trade’ policy whereby a finite amount of carbon licenses are granted within an industry and then may be traded for a cost between firms. This, in tandem with the carbon tax, provides an effective market-based method to lower emissions sector by sector.

  5. Continue and expand the home efficiency education program currently underway in the province. We strongly endorse the Government’s policy around this and think it can go even further.

  6. Continue and enhance the Green Transit program for municipalities, assisting them in the “greening” of their transit fleets. Initial investments in electric buses and the necessary infrastructure are formidable but with provincial help, these barriers can be lowered.

  7. Invest in research at Universities into energy efficiency and alternative sources of energy, like the Future Energy Systems project at the University of Alberta. Without research and the innovation that comes from it, none of this is possible.

Our Plan: The Cities

Our Plan: The Cities

Our Plan: What Alberta's Facing

Our Plan: What Alberta's Facing