Archives for category: Sustainability

Image: Torontoist.com

It was while I was bailing out the back yard that I realized that this was quite a rainstorm. Like a lot of people, I was neither expecting nor prepared for the amount of rain we got and what it did to Toronto.

I see the storm as one of those events that makes us realize we are now firmly in a new weather paradigm – one that is shaped by climate change.

For years, I worked in the sustainable energy sector. Occasionally, I would meet someone who insisted that all the evidence on climate change wasn’t in and that there’s not much we can do about the weather in any case. I don’t see much point in debating the science with someone like that, but this week’s storm made me think about what happens even after we acknowledge climate change.

Acceptance is one thing, but action is another. And even if we still can’t put a price on carbon and manage to find ways to reduce our use of fossil fuels, there is still the issue of how to deal with what we face right now. If you thought the storms of the past while (Calgary, Toronto) are outliers, think again. In fact, the city’s Parks and Environment Committee already considered this question, and came up with a report that says our city’s infrastructure is not adequate for Toronto’s new weather paradigm. By the way, the chair of that committee was Councillor Norm Kelly, who suggested we not make a big deal about it, since climate change is still “contentious.” I wonder if Norm’s opinion is shifting after the rainiest day in the city’s recorded history.

We should not balk at answering the hard questions about how we now understand the impact of global warming and extreme weather and our state of preparedness. Part of this is about looking at how we build and develop our city and what mitigation measures we can integrate to protect us and our infrastructure from flooding. Another part is about ensuring the city’s entire ecosystem can absorb water, or simply have it run off concrete and asphalt and flood our basements, backyards, subways, underpasses, hydro system and major highways.

A third part is about how we understand weather forecasts, what they mean and how they impact our decision-making. Monday’s deluge was an excellent example of the entire city getting caught in the rain. Somewhere between the meteorological scientists at Environment Canada and the weather reports you get, something is lost.

I could go on about this, but I would just be getting in the way of you reading this excellent blog post by The Grid’s Ed Keenan about this exact topic.

The storm revealed a lot about how unprepared we are, as individuals and as a city. It almost makes the transit debate looks minor.

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One of the nice things about having a blog is the ability to share your opinions and start conversations about topics that are of interest to you. It’s also nice to hear back from readers and get their comments and opinions on posts.

Yesterday, I published a post about my concerns about e-bikes. It didn’t take long for me to hear back from e-bike riders, some of whom seem to be very vigilant about defending e-bikes from uninformed criticism.

Many of the comments on my post pointed out that I had very few facts and only anecdotes to support my complaints about e-bikes. I can only plead guilty to offering an opinion, based on my observations. I am clearly not equipped with the knowledge and expertise to make technical, fact-based safety comparisons between bicycles and e-bikes.

I got many vigorous comments in defense of e-bikes. I won’t repeat them – they can all be found here. I encourage you to read them.

But I want to put up a video that several of the commenters suggested I view.

My views have softened from reading the comments, but I still think that many e-bikes are closer to motorized scooters than bicycles. On the other hand, I can also say that e-bikes offer a level of mobility to some people that is beneficial to them and to the environment.

Whether you accept my opinion or not, here are a few things I hope we can agree on:

  • Any clean alternative to cars is a good alternative, whether they are e-bikes, bicycles, pedal scooters, unicycles, roller blades or skateboards – as long as they are operated in a safe and legal manner.
  • It’s critical that we teach people how to drive safely, take proper precautions, wear helmets and be aware of those with whom they share the road or bike path. I think it’s safe to say that governments, schools and other institutions could be doing more to ensure that anyone who wants to drive on our roads is as prepared as possible to do so in the safest possible way. And if you want to prioritize, start with drivers education – cars are still the biggest and most dangerous things on the road.

 

I know there are plenty of safe, responsible and aware drivers out there, but it takes just one driver who is on the opposite side of the spectrum to ruin your day. I use my bike daily to get around Toronto. And I’ve tried, but I still have a problem trusting most motorists. And this has nothing to do with cycling advocacy or the war between cars and bikes – it is just the observation of a normal cyclist in Toronto.

It doesn’t matter if a cyclist is wearing a helmet, bright-coloured clothes, using reflective surfaces, lights and other safety accessories – a driver who is not aware of how to drive around cyclists or who is not looking out for them will eventually come into conflict with one.

A recent first-person piece in the Star by an adult cyclist on such a conflict made quite an impression on me. The author, a ordinary guys and a new father who goes to great lengths to be the safest and most prudent cyclists he can be, loses it on a driver who apparently didn’t bother to notice him – even as he was driving across a bike path. I have been in that situation multiple times, and there is nothing like a close shave to get the blood boiling. Even motorists – like the one in the article – who apologize to cyclists don’t do enough to merit the forgiveness of cyclists because of the high stakes involved.

Image: Montreal Gazette

Sometimes, more minor conflicts between cyclists and drivers often seems to come down to each side being representative of a larger debate about sustainability; drivers are part of the mindless march of suburban sprawl, swallowing up land and resources and insisting on dominating their environment. On the other side, cyclists are, as Don Cherry put it, pinkos who impose their alternative lifestyle on others.

But even if disputes between cyclists and motorists often boil down to this level, we shouldn’t forget the most important element of the conflict: safety. So whether you think that the dominance of cars poses a threat to our environment or cyclists are annoying pests who break the rules of the road while delivering sanctimonious lectures, both sides should agree that the reason this conflict is so heated and so emotional is because there are literally lives at stake.

As a cyclist, I am clearly not on the fence. I get into disputes with drivers on a regular basis because some of them do very unsafe things. Many of them are obviously not willing to acknowledge that they share the road with cyclists, nor are they equipped with the necessary competence to drive with cyclists around them. During some of these tense interchanges with drivers, I often ask them to imagine that I am their child and ask them to reconsider their approach to driving. It usually gets them to thinking, which is all I can hope for.

And that leads me to what I hope will eventually become the best solution to this problem is to focus on education – both for those learning how to drive a car and those kids who are starting to cycle on our roads. Cyclists are people — normal people, not lifestyle advocates waiting to get into an argument.

Globe and Mail image

I am getting used to hearing a familiar refrain about the idea of a carbon tax in Canada: “It’s a tax! It’ll kill jobs!”

It’s proof of the success Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have shown in communicating and framing the issue to Canadians. Tories, though, use the description “job-killing tax on everything”.

His government is under no real political pressure to do anything more than tinkering around the edges on climate change – and why should it? A poll  done by environment Canada earlier this year suggests that there is a lot of public hostility to a carbon tax. Most of us see a carbon tax primarily through the lens of personal economic security.

The relevant question in that poll, however, seems to suggest the issue is fundamentally one of “What will it cost me?” It reads (the underline is mine):

I’d like to know how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements. Please use a 10-point scale, where 10 means you strongly agree, and 1, means you strongly disagree.  Canada needs to implement a federal carbon tax to promote energy efficiency and protect the environment, even though it means increasing the cost of things like gas and groceries for consumers.

The results indicated that 43.5 per cent of respondents were on the “strongly disagree” part of the scale, while only 19.1 per cent were on the “strongly agree” side.

I wonder what the response would have been if the key part of the question was more like this:

Canada needs to implement a federal carbon tax to help replace the energy generated by fossil fuels with cleaner energy and reduce the impact of global warming and also to help Canada to adjust to the inevitable low-carbon economy.

Ok, this is slightly exaggerated, but I hope you get the point. When you contextualise issues not as transformational, but instead as a raid on your pocketbook for some intangible benefit (“Sure, we want to protect the environment, but not if it makes gas and groceries more expensive.”) you can see why more than 43 per cent are strongly opposed.

What if those who are actively involved in debates on climate change and reducing fossil fuel emissions consider the former approach; you can tax carbon and use it to support and develop the technologies that will provide us with clean energy. But that’s just the tree-hugger take on a carbon tax; even growing numbers of companies in the oil and gas sector think it’s sensible policy.

I was reminded of this when recently reading a Jeffrey Simpson column, where he examines Australia’s carbon tax and its lack of catastrophic economic impact. In the column, Simpson suggests – and this is hardly a new idea – that a carbon tax is the most efficient market mechanism to shift behaviour and reduce emissions.

But when so many people see a carbon tax as a bottom-line pocketbook issue, it’s no wonder that it seems a long shot – no matter how appropriate it is as public policy, and no matter how many in the oil patch think it’s an idea whose time has come.  Unless, of course, those who support a carbon tax, including the oil and gas sector, start contributing more actively to the public debate and challenging the misperception of a carbon tax. Yes, it’s a complex issue, but some voices carry a lot of weight. I think they should be talking more about this, and they should be doing it loudly.

I see that Toronto City Council is being asked to remove a little-known by-law that obliges cyclists in the city to ride in single file LINK. The by-law is a holdover from Etobicoke, and was extended to the rest of city during amalgamation. No side-by-side riding, you lane hogs!

I’m sure I wasn’t the only cyclist in the city to be caught by surprise. Are you kidding? We are legally required to ride in single file? And some cops actually pulled cyclists over for this?

toronto cyclists

“The Commute Home” by happy d/blogTO Flickr pool.

Legally, bikes are treated like cars under the Highway Traffic Act, so cyclists have every right – if they think it’s safer – to ride two abreast or take up a lane of traffic (a cop quoted in the Toronto Star article agrees, making me wonder why some of his colleagues continue to pull over offending cyclist). Two things non-cyclists might want to know here: no cyclist wants to get any closer to cars than absolutely necessary; and riding a bike in traffic requires very careful attention to what you are doing (where you are riding, what is around you and how you fit into the flow of traffic). Most cyclists don’t need to be told how to ride their bikes around cars. In fact, I would say motorists have a stronger need to be better informed and educated about how to drive around cyclists (hint: do a better job of this in Drivers’ Ed) The Ministry of Transportation agrees with me; it’s draft cycling policy makes lots of smart suggestions, many of which were taken from a 2012 Ontario Chief Coroners’ Office review of cycling deaths.

This by-law, for me, perfectly encapsulates the Rob Ford/Don Cherry “bike-riding pinko” school of thought. I’ve spent most of my time on the other side of the debate, biking to work year-round and wincing at the many, many drivers in this city who have no idea how to safely operate a large fast-moving piece of metal around bikes driven by other human beings. How to get around Toronto safely is a more complex topic than this by-law suggests, and laws for cycling should reflect that.

If, as it appears, Torontonians can start to have a mature debate over pubic transit (which is really a larger debate about how liveable we want the city to be), then surely we can include the roles of cars and bikes in that debate. And surely we can start by getting rid of the type of by-law that is as unnecessary as it is paternalistic, and recognize that a city that makes room for lots of people to get around by bike is a city with healthier air, healthier citizens and a higher quality of life.

Public debate about wind energy is one topic that always attracts my interest. I worked in the industry for a few years, and I am still amazed at the misinformation and overall poor quality of media coverage – particularly relative to other energy issues. How wind energy is perceived by Ontarians is sadly being shaped by a fair amount of fear and ignorance.

Take Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente’s column from last weekend (Feb 2), where she falls back on the laziest of stereotypes in characterizing wind energy. The headline is “green nightmare”, which nicely conjures up images of roving flesh-eating wind turbines that move across sensitive ecosystems, destroying everything while pausing briefly to generate a bit of electricity, then resuming their destruction and ruining the landscape. The sub-head reads, “Wind power is supposed to be environmentally friendly, but a lot of environmentalists don’t think so.”

Wind energy – the least-damaging form of energy generation, according to the World Health Organization – is environmentally damaging? Compared to burning coal or natural gas? How did this become part of the narrative on renewable energy?

The main culprit in this are the various anti-wind groups that make anecdotal claims about the human health affects of wind turbines, often describing them like one would a pile of radioactive waste. The typical unfounded claims made about wind energy include; they are making me sick, they are making my dog sick; they are killing all the birds.

These anti-wind groups have enough clout to actually affect elections; in the last provincial election, anti-wind groups and their supporters are strongly suspected of having knocked off three provincial cabinet ministers (Environment Minister John Wilkinson, Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky and Agriculture Minister Carol Mitchell) and a handful of other Liberal rural seats, denying Dalton McGuinty a majority government. With this kind of impact, you’d think supporters of renewable energy would be out in force, trying to get the facts on the table.

However, the wind energy and larger renewable energy industry could be better at acknowledging the nuisance factor of wind turbines and pointing out how the industry is trying to adapt turbines to deal with community concerns. It’s safe to say that the wind energy sector is not as developed as the oil and gas industry when it comes to defending itself.

So allow me to introduce some facts to challenge some of Wente’s assertions:

  • There is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that wind turbines have a negative impact on human health. Medical studies, including one from Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, have supported this. Check out this for a longer list of similar studies.
  • There is, however, a suggestion that some people who live near wind turbines could suffer from some form of psychological syndrome that makes them think they are sick.
  • Wind turbines have less of an impact on bird deaths than high-rise buildings, communications towers, power lines and fossil fuel generation. And don’t forget cats: a recent study from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute that concluded that cats are killing between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds a year.
  • There is a perception that wind energy only exists because of government subsidies. Sure, most forms of renewable energy are supported by governments in various ways, but it’s small change compared to fossil fuel subsidies. The International Energy Agency recently released its 2011 fossil fuel subsidy numbers: it says “…Fossil-fuel consumption subsidies worldwide amounted to $523 billion in 2011, up from $412 billion in 2010, with subsidies to oil products representing over half of the total. Changes in international fuel prices are chiefly responsible for differences in subsidy costs from year to year.”

My advice? Journalists, when reporting on the impact of wind turbines on communities, please bring the same level of skepticism and attention to fact that you would when reporting on any other public health issue (smoking, eating, exercise, etc.).