Last week was Canadian Environment Week — a time to reflect on humanity’s impact on the natural world and what individuals can do to preserve the planet for future generations.
Unfortunately, reflection is often as far as we go once day-to-day concerns return to dominate our thoughts.
This is a mistake.
Not just because it ignores the lasting damage we are doing to the earth but also because we risk running headlong into catastrophic economic consequences.
A recent BBC story describes a “carbon bubble” that could wipe away $1.4 trillion from the global economy by 2035 — a loss greater than the 2008 financial crisis. And this is only if no new environmental protection action is taken.
The article, which cites a report by the International Energy Agency, notes that fossil fuel exporters in Canada and the United States would be the biggest losers when the bubble bursts; the report suggests increasing energy efficiency and the development of low carbon technology will lead to a rapid sell off of oil and gas reserves.
The Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources is studying the transition to a low-carbon economy — a transition that seems all the more urgent if Canada is to beat the carbon bubble.
Canada is still largely reliant on fossil fuels and that the oil and gas sector contributes billions of dollars to the Canadian economy. But oil and gas also benefits from taxpayer-funded subsidies that will only make it more difficult for Canada to escape unscathed if the bubble bursts.
To set us on the right path, there is one type of pollution we should target immediately.
Reducing the use of plastic would not only be a promising step away from a carbon-centric economy, it would also have immediate, and positive, environmental impacts.
Single-use plastics, in particular, are an incredibly damaging source of pollution. A bag or straw we may use for mere minutes will end up in the environment for hundreds of years because these products do not biodegrade.
While they may be out of sight and out of mind when we throw them out, millions of tonnes of plastic makes its way to the ocean.
That’s where it stays.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, is an accumulation of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean that’s the size of Quebec. The waste contaminates the water column up to 20 metres in depth, putting the health of marine organisms at great risk.
We are hearing more and more stories of whales washing up on beaches, their stomachs full of plastic bags. Approximately 87% of Arctic sea birds have ingested plastics. Often, the plastic ingested by marine mammals and birds is fatal.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that about 12 million tonnes of plastic contaminate the ocean each year. To put this in perspective, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
Other countries are leading by example to reduce plastic pollution. Great Britain has announced plans to ban plastic straws. The European Commission plans to ban plastic cutlery, plates, straws, and drink stirrers, among other items, which account for 70% of marine litter in Europe. Last week, Chile passed a bill to ban single-use plastic bags. India just announced that it will abolish all single-use plastic.
Closer to home, Montreal and Victoria have banned single-use plastic bags, and businesses in Toronto and Prince Edward Island have stopped using disposable straws.
Canada has the opportunity to lead by example. Taking concrete action against single-use plastics is an opportunity for Canada to reduce pollution and help preserve the world’s natural environments, which are at risk due to the effects of climate change.
As we stand on the brink of a renaissance for clean energy, we can balance environmental protection with economic stability. Indeed, the carbon bubble threat suggests environmental protection is necessary for economic stability.
The cost of fighting pollution and protecting the environment is preferable to the prohibitive cost of “business as usual” and dealing with the potentially catastrophic outcomes of unfettered resource use.
Oh, and the theme of this year’s Environment Week?
Reducing plastic pollution.
Senator Rosa Galvez, Ph.D., P.Eng., represents the Bedford division of Quebec. She is one of Canada’s leading experts on pollution control and she chairs the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources.
This article appeared in the June 13, 2018 edition of The Hill Times.