Issues & Projects
Photo: Rock Arssenault, Reuters. Woodland Caribou in conflict with Industry in Alberta's Boreal.
The Vital Role of Insects
I have a weakness for the little things of this planet. Insects, in all their variety, ability, and beauty. I especially love spiders. In fact, last summer my family adopted a gorgeous Cat Face Spider who had spread her web across my son’s window. We caught lunch for her - it was fabulous to watch her zip down from her hidey-hole to wrap up her prey in thick white silk. Her wrapping web was nearly invisible, like thin wool. Spiders produce seven types of silk for different jobs.
Wiki, Araneus gemmoides
Cat Faced Spider
To me, that’s fascinating and miraculous.
My love of insects gives me joy, but it also makes me vulnerable.
I guess love always carries the possibility of loss.
But people who love critters haven’t had to face the possibility of insects being in serious peril before.
Now we do. As Damian Carrington wrote in The Guardian:
More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.
Oh! But maybe the insects in Canada are okay …
No. They’re not. But we knew that, didn’t we? All you have to do is remember the plethora of insects plastered across your windshield after a long summer trip. That doesn’t happen anymore. The insects are just not there.
Agriculture Canada scientist Jeff Skevington, who works with the Canadian National Collection of Insects:
In our region, 720 species of insects are at risk, and there’s an estimated 30,000 prairie species that haven’t even been studied yet. In other words, insect species could disappear before we even got a chance to find out they existed! [i]
Insects are critical to the health of people. They pollinate our food, anchor entire food chains, break down plants and other organic matter, and control pest species that can decimate crops. Insects are such an important part of our planet’s ecosystems that biologist E.O. Wilson once called them 'The little things that run the world.'
Why are insects threatened? There are multiple factors, including pesticide and herbicide use, habitat loss, intensive agriculture, light pollution (turning insects into easy prey at night), and climate change. Skevington says climate change is "one of the most impactful reason bugs are dying out." He cited recent temperature fluctuations in spring that some bugs simply can’t endure. "Quite often you’ll have really big warm spells so you get a flush of insects coming out, followed by a cold snap" he said. Cold snaps can interrupt a bug’s lifecycle and severely impact their populations, and heat waves affect insect reproduction by severely decreasing male fertility. [ii]
What can we do to help insects bounce back? A lot! We can: stop using chemicals on our lawn and garden, get rid of the bug zapper (which kills good insects, not mosquitoes), and buy organic food and cotton products that use fewer pesticides in production. In your garden, plant native species and leave little homes insects can shelter in, especially over the winter. [iii]
We’ll all be better off if insects can thrive again.
You don’t have to feed a spider, but you can give one a hidey-hole in your yard!
[i] Insects at Risk in the Prairie Region
Peter W. Hall, Paul M. Catling, J. Donald Lafontaine. PDF
[ii] Experimental heatwaves compromise sperm function and cause transgenerational damage in a model insect
Sales, K., Vasudeva, R., Dickinson, M.E. et al.
Nat Commun 9, 4771 (2018)
[iii] Endangered Species International
Insect population faces 'catastrophic' collapse: Sydney research
12 February 2019
Review shows 40 percent of species threatened with extinction
The University of Sydney
What are your emissions?
We hear in the media a lot of talk about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but few of us know how we contribute or how to calculate them for our own lives. And since it was probably this New Year’s Resolution to learn, cut this out of The Lethbridge Herald and attached it to the fridge door!
Now, dig out your solar powered calculator and your utility bills (or phone your provider) and follow along:
Home heating (natural gas):
Add up the GJs on your bill and multiply this number by 0.056 for your tonnes of GHGs.
For example, for a house that uses 120 GJ of natural gas over a year:
120 x 0.056 = 6.7 tonnes of GHGs.
Myth: that cooling and re-heating a home takes more energy than the amount of energy saved. This is simply not true, though homes made of concrete or other high heat capacity materials may take longer to heat back up.
Add up the kWh for the year and multiply this total by 0.000688 for your tonnes of GHGs.
For example, for a house in Alberta that uses 7200 kWh of electricity over a year:
7200 x 0.000688 = 10.2 tonnes of GHGs.
Multiply your gas mileage by the number of kilometers you drove in the past year and multiply by 0.0024 for your tonnes of GHGs.
For example, for a car that uses 12.1 litres per 100 kilometers driving 15,600 km last year:
12.1 x 15,600 / 100 = 1890 liters purchased. So, 1890 litres x 0.0024 = 4.5 tonnes.
For a return trip from Lethbridge to Calgary: 12.1 litres per 100 kilometers driving 450 km:
12.1 x 450 / 100 = 55 liters purchased. So, 55 litres x 0.0024 = 0.13 tonnes
Did you need to make this trip? Could you have planned to travel with other people going the same way?
For individual emissions, you can divide these numbers by the number of people living in the home or travelling in the car.
Food is tricky, but important.
Assuming you eat about 2600 calories a day, and according to Canadian statistics we waste about 40% from farm to fork.
(Interestingly, 20% of this is lost in our homes – for more information go to wasteless.ca).
Our food is responsible for about 2.5 tonnes per person for a Canada Food Guide diet.
This may be lower if you eat less meat or waste less food.
Now, what about your flying holiday?
Google the flying distance between your home and your destination. Let’s say Lethbridge to Madrid, which is a 15,700 km return flight. Multiply this total by 0.000111 for your individual GHG emissions. In this example, 15,700 x 0.000111 = 1.7 tonnes.
Emissions for other popular destinations (return) using Air Miles Calculator:
Lethbridge to Puerto Vallarta: 6600 km = 0.7 tonnes
Lethbridge to Toronto: 5200 km = 0.6 tonnes
Lethbridge to New York: 6300 km = 0.7 tonnes
Lethbridge to Hong Kong: 21,600 km = 2.4 tonnes
Lethbridge to Sydney, Australia: 26,400 km = 3.0 tonnes
Adding it all up, with two people in the home, the personal GHG emission is just about 15 tonnes per year.
This number would actually be a little low, as it does not include the emissions in the production and transportation of all of our consumer items.
The published number for Canadians is 16.7 tonnes per year which includes everything inside and outside our homes.
By comparison, the United States is 15.7 tonnes per person; China is 7.7 tonnes; European Union is 7.0 tonnes; and India is 1.8 tonnes.
It is important to consider both individual emissions and the sort of emissions that come from countries. In general terms, individual emissions reflect the level of affluence, which can be controlled. But it also reflects things that are less controllable like the climate you live in, and the way the urban environment was designed, including long driving distances between home, work and play.
A country’s emissions become more important as governments dictate the incentives and disincentives to reducing emissions, and the type of economies developed (high energy products, resource dependent exports, agricultural exports, manufactured goods for home consumption or export, and so on).
If Alberta was a country, our per capita emissions would be 66 tonnes per person (amongst the highest in the world, next to Qatar), even though our personal emissions might be more along the national average of 12 to 16 tonnes per person [iii].
The difference between Canadian provinces is mainly related to the energy source for electricity, and the type of industries supported by each province.
To reduce our collective emissions, it is important to take personal initiative (the power of numbers) and to encourage governments to provide the best direction with appropriate incentives to the economy and meaningful indicators of economic effectiveness (one that indicates the most benefits to the most people).
[i] Phantom Load (or, Vampires in Your Home)
[ii] Food's Carbon FootPrint
[iii] Govt of Canada, Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Ways to Waste Less Food
In Lethbridge, about half of the total residential waste going to the landfill is food and lawn cuttings. Of this, about a quarter is food waste, which is continuously sent to the landfill, while lawn cuttings are more seasonal (from April to October). In more measurable terms, Lethbridge sends about 100 tonnes of food each week to the landfill – that is about 1 kilogram per person each week[i]. Organics in the landfill contribute to methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas), and the accumulation of toxic fluids in the landfill called leachate. But what makes this even worse is that the food you throw away also wastes resources, beginning in the sea or on the farm until it reaches your belly.
About one fifth of the food you buy ends up in the trash. Much of this food was edible at one time, some of it is discarded due to habit or personal taste (like bread crusts and potato skins), and some of it is simply not edible, like coffee grounds or eggshells. Of this wasted food, about 45% comes from fruit and vegetables – as they tend to spoil relatively quickly. Bread and bakery account for about 9%, and dairy and eggs about 7%. Uneaten leftovers account for 13% of the total food wasted in the home. And, though the amount of meat wasted is relatively small, it has a high impact on the environment due to the resources it takes to raise livestock.
Food wasted in the home costs you about $1700 each year, but it also costs our environment: wasting agricultural land to grow food that ends up wasted; using fresh water to grow the food; from the fertilizers that end up in the rivers causing huge aquatic dead zones worldwide; the herbicides and pesticides that disrupt soil ecosystems as well as affecting insects, birds and animals; and the energy used to package, transport and refrigerate before it arrives in your home. The State of Oregon has completed some interesting reports on the full life-cycle impacts of some foods[ii].
It is roughly seven times better for the environment to use all the food you buy than it is to compost the food you do throw away[iii]. But composting is the next best thing, as there are portions of the food you buy that simply cannot be used. Backyard composting is good, but municipal collection and industrial composting creates much better compost and can compost many things that are not suitable for backyard technologies. Reduce first, compost as a last resort.
There are a number of things you can to do reduce food waste in your home. For those who have shopped while hungry, you will know that planning your meals and buying only what you need for those meals is a good start. You can also improve your food preparation by using what you have in the refrigerator. Use more of the plant, from root to stem. And all of those scraps you generate can be saved to make soup stock for another meal.
Organize your fridge so that you can see the food that will spoil more quickly. Freeze food that you may not use right away or, when you have an abundance, you can preserve or dehydrate food to be used later. Best before and expiry dates are general suggestions from the food manufacturer. Do a sniff test, as it may still be good to use. If you are going to use a product right away, help your grocery store by buying the items on the shelf closer to the best before date. If you have purchased or grown too much food, consider donating it to a food charity while it is still good.
Most people are pretty good at eating what they buy, but it is amazing how much goes to the trash anyway. Throw a pot on you counter and toss in all of your food waste for a few days. Ask yourself if you could have used any of this food waste in another way. Make it a personal challenge to use as much as you can from the food you purchase. For a lot of good tips, tools, and resources, visit wasteless.ca
[i] Community Issues Committee, City of Lethbridge, October 7, 2019. Agenda package available online at www.lethbridge.ca
[ii] State of Oregon, Department of Environmental Quality, Environmental Footprints of Food (https://www.oregon.gov/deq/mm/food/Pages/Product-Category-Level-Footprints.aspx)
Environmental Working Group, Meat Eater’s Guide (https://www.ewg.org/meateatersguide/a-meat-eaters-guide-to-climate-change-health-what-you-eat-matters/)
[iii] State of Oregon, Department of Environmental Quality, Strategy for Preventing the Wasting of Food (https://www.oregon.gov/deq/mm/food/Pages/foodwastestrategy.aspx)
The Resource Curse
The discovery of Leduc 1 in 1947 set off a period of rapid oil & gas development in Alberta, attracting workers, investment and creating massive wealth in the province.
Production of conventional light oil increased steadily until the early 1970s, when production peaked. After conventional light oil peaked, conventional heavy oil was exploited and peaked in turn in the early 21st century. Heavy oil requires more investment in recovery, transportation and refining. During roughly the same period, massive investments were made in northern Alberta to extract bitumen from sand. Bitumen requires a diluent for transporting by pipeline and requires much more processing to be made into a usable product.
[Source: Canada Energy Regulator, http://www.cer-rec.gc.ca/nrg/sttstc/crdlndptrlmprdct/rprt/tghtdvlpmntwcsb2011/tghtdvlpmntwcsb2011-eng.html]
In the past 10 or 15 years, advances in technologies like hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) have allowed for the extraction of oil & gas from tight sands and shales. These formations require more well stimulation and the wells typically have shorter useful lives than conventional oil and gas. This is because the oil or gas liberated by fracking flows quickly to the well and then it is done, requiring additional fracking or a new well.
Each stage of the development of oil in Alberta has required more technology, more investment, and more energy for each barrel produced. It has also resulted in more changes in land-use, more use of fresh water, more abandoned or orphaned wells as a public liability, more air pollution, and more greenhouse gas emissions.
These are indicators of the ‘resource curse’.
The Paradox of Plenty
The ‘paradox of plenty’ (or the ‘resource curse’) has been observed in regions that have an abundance of a non-renewable resource. The argument is that resource-rich regions are more likely to experience low economic growth in the long-term. The International Monetary Fund considers a region ‘resource-rich’ when 20% of the fiscal revenue is derived from non-renewable resources.
The cycle goes like this: A resource is discovered and the demand for this resource is established. This draws private investment from early entrants into the industry. As the industry expands and the return on investments remains lucrative, available financial capital is directed to increase the extraction, refining and transportation of the non-renewable resource. Governments invest in infrastructure that benefits the dynamic industry. Both public and private investments are made at the expense of other potentially profitable industries seeking capital.
In plain words, the eggs are placed in a single basket.
Overlooking alternative investments is called an ‘opportunity cost’ in economics, and represents the difference between the forgone investment and the chosen investment in the long term. When there is an extremely active and profitable economic sector in the short-term, opportunity costs can be high. Money flows to one industry for short-term rewards, which will cost the economy in the long term.
This is where the curse comes in. At some point in the resource cycle the return on investment begins to decline. This may be because the easily-extracted resources are diminished, and the resources that are more difficult to access or refine are needed to fill the gap. The government that relies on a single resource industry for revenue and for employing the productive capacity of its workers responds by supporting the struggling and influential industry in the form of increasing direct investment in industry-focused infrastructure, tax incentives, support for research & development, and reductions in royalty expectations. This is usually an honest attempt to sustain the industry (already vulnerable to boom/bust cycles in commodity markets), hoping that it will recover in the short term or within the next election cycle.
The ‘resource curse’ suggests that there will be a time when this recovery is weak, or simply non-existent. Nonetheless, out of desperation, even more money will be invested to prop up the industry – money that will never be recovered in revenues.
It becomes what Herman Daly, former senior economist for the World Bank, calls ‘uneconomic’. Uneconomic growth considers the costs to society from externalities – those expenses that are not borne by the industry, but have real costs to society. Externalities might include liabilities like orphaned oil & gas wells, mining tailing ponds, contaminated soil and water from industrial effluents, biodiversity loss, and the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Since most of the available money has flowed to a single industry at the expense of other industries, the resource-rich region has not adequately diversified and it is unprepared for the loss in revenues and employment opportunities. It is not uncommon that the failing industries leave behind a legacy of obsolete infrastructure and environmental damage that become public liabilities. In many countries where this cycle has been observed, the results have included instability in democratic institutions and the rise of populism and demagoguery, a drastic reduction in public services, an increase in human desperation and a dissatisfaction in political leadership as manifested in corruption, violence, crime, scapegoating, and human rights violations.
The Paradox of Plenty is a cautionary tale. Indicators might include rising liabilities (like orphan wells and mining tailing ponds), increased public investments in infrastructure for the once-lucrative industry (often accompanied by declining private investment), lower transparency in government finances, and less civil and open public discussion. Good government leadership can mitigate many of the worst effects – by encouraging economic diversification, by adopting a long-term view in decision-making, by not relying on royalty revenues for core public services, or by saving revenues from this non-renewable inheritance for future needs.
It takes courage and foresight to recognize a faltering or uneconomic industry, and it takes wise leadership that seeks thoughtful input to avoid the worst consequences of the ‘paradox of plenty’.
 An interesting in-depth analysis of oil may be found in Terry Karl Lynn’s 1997 book titled “A Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States.