Searching for more sustainable options

Phew. That’s all I can say now that I’ve finished a 30-day cross-Canada road trip to listen to Canadians’ concerns about the environment.
It’s been exhausting and at times bewildering, but I now know that the concern for environmental issues we’re reading about in the polls isn’t just a surface anomaly – it’s real and it’s palpable. Canadians are hungry for sustainable solutions and frustrated by what they see as a lack of political leadership on these issues.

It frustrates me too. Governments should make it easy for consumers to choose environmentally sustainable products and services. World-renowned economists like Sir Nicholas Stern are telling us that greatly reducing our energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions is critical to having a healthy economy in the not-too-distant future. Air and water pollution is already costing our economy billions of dollars every year due to increased health care costs and lost work days. It’s only sensible – sustainability should be a top priority of every government at every level.
Yet, as I wrote in a recent column about the designed obsolescence of cell phones and other gadgets, disposability seems to be winning out over sustainability on many fronts. That battle with cell-phone chargers wasn’t the only time on the tour that we weren’t able to make our first choice from a sustainability perspective. Another was with our fuel.
We specifically chose to lease a bus with a modern, super-efficient diesel engine. Many people may not be aware, but diesel has a lower carbon footprint than gasoline. This is why there are so many diesel cars in fuel-conscious Europe. We needed a big vehicle like a bus because it would be packed with an entire month’s worth of office supplies, gear, clothes and food for up to a dozen people. A bus was by far our best option to have the lowest carbon-footprint possible.
But we knew the tour would still have a footprint and it was very important to us that the tour be carbon-neutral. So we decided to calculate the global-warming emissions from the tour and purchase internationally regulated credits to offset those emissions. These credits are like a self-imposed carbon tax. Money spent on these “gold-standard” credits goes towards reducing an equal amount of emissions through energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. Replacing an old dirty coal-fired power plant with a wind farm, for example. Since climate change is a global problem, it doesn’t matter where we reduce emissions, so long as we actually reduce them.
For us, the icing on the cake would have been to also showcase an alternative fuel – in this case, biodiesel. Biodiesel is a fuel made from vegetable matter, like vegetable oil or even used restaurant grease, as opposed to fossil fuels. It’s non-toxic and when burned, produces less carbon dioxide and fewer of the most common air pollutants. Biodiesel is now available as a blended fuel in some major Canadian centers. It’s much more readily available in Europe.
Biodiesel is not without controversy. A large-scale conversion of forested land to grow crops for biodiesel could result in a huge net release of carbon into the atmosphere. And there are widespread concerns about using land to grow fuel that could be growing food. Still, biodiesel has many advantages and could be an important part of a sustainable future. It certainly warrants more attention – which is why we wanted to use it.
In the end, however, the decision was made for us when the bus’s engine manufacturer warned our leasing company that running biodiesel in the new engine would void the warranty. Our bus company was supportive, but said they couldn’t take that risk.
From small things, like disposable electronic goods, to bigger items like the fuels we use to get around or heat and cool our homes, making the most sustainable choices can still be much harder than it should be. Consumers can’t very well embrace the best choices if they don’t know what they are or if they aren’t even available. To break down those barriers and help guide our economy to a sustainable future, we need government leadership and that’s what my tour was all about.

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