Holiday Sustainability

Should we throw out our Christmas trees for plastic ones? Or should the tradition itself be scrapped?

To carry on tradition in an ever-changing world, some people feel the urge or responsibility to adapt old traditions or dispose of them altogether. For example, those who celebrate Christmas traditions might wonder what kind of tree to purchase for the holidays. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it depends on the context and circumstances. The overall lifecycle of your tree, be it real or plastic, is what actually influences how environmentally friendly it is, and there are benefits to either kind of tree. Read more about the fascinating conversation surrounding Christmas trees here!

To editorialize for a moment, there is not much most individuals can do to impact the overall environment (either positively or negatively). In the meanwhile, we must live and enjoy living when we can — especially in difficult times. Happy holidays everyone!

If you want to burn money, not fossil fuels …

'Shut up and take my money' meme.
For some, donating is less a financial issue and more the issue of finding an effective cause.

If you or anyone you know has ever been interested in finding a climate change cause to donate to, it can be challenging to determine which organizations will be the most effective. A team of economists and climate scientists created Giving Green, a website which advises people on how to most effectively maximize their climate giving, to help solve this problem.

The goal of Giving Green is to recommend organizations where the positive environmental outcome can be maximized per dollar donated. Among other organizations, they recommend Tradewater, a nonprofit which sequesters and destroys environmentally harmful chemical refrigerants chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Giving Green has had to meet many challenges – from applying statistical techniques and empirical evidence to determine which charities to recommend, while remaining nonpartisan on an extremely politicized issue in order to retain their non-profit status. Read more about Giving Green here!

Carbon . . . Cooling?

Layers of the atmosphere (Wikimedia Commons, 2010)

Scientists have recently discovered another atmospheric temperature cycle called the Quasi-Quadrennial Oscillation (QQO) in the upper atmosphere. The researchers believe that this newly discovered natural cycle can enrich climate modelling. This cycle describes a pattern of temperature variation, between 3-4 °C every four years, taking place 90 kilometers above Antarctica in the mesosphere.

The Earth’s atmosphere is divided into many layers, starting with the troposphere (which we call home, ending 15 km above sea level), stratosphere (50 km), mesosphere (85 km), thermosphere (500 km), and ending with the exosphere (outer space). Interestingly, while the concentration of green house gases (GHGs) rising in the troposphere leads to warming, the same occurring in the mesosphere leads to a cooling effect.

This is because gas molecules are much less dense in the mesosphere, so instead of trapping heat by transferring energy between other gas molecules, the few molecules capable of capturing infrared radiation are more likely to radiate it directly out to space. This results in an accelerated cooling in the mesosphere, at a rate the researchers determined to be 1.2 °C per decade. Studying the change in temperature in the mesosphere could allow us to build more accurate climate models and provide us with a new way to analyze changes in temperature due to the increasing (or decreasing) concentration of GHGs.

Learn more about the science here!

Climate Lawsuits

The La Rose youth climate plaintiffs (Our Children’s Trust, September 30, 2020)

On October 27th 2020, the Canadian Federal Court rejected a lawsuit headed by 15 Canadian youth who intended to argue that their Charter Rights were being violated by insufficient government action against climate change. The details of La Rose et al. vs. Her Majesty the Queen and the rejection are explored in greater depth here.

These young Canadians were not the first nor will they be the last to try to bring the climate change fight into a legal arena. The Netherlands vs. Urgenda ruled on December 20th 2019 that inadequate action against climate change is a violation of human rights, and the court mandated a strict target on greenhouse gas emission reduction. Similar cases are being brought to the table across the world.

How prioritizing human health can help stop climate change

The clean air of the Hydroelectric Reservoir at Buntzen Lake, British Columbia, Canada

The rising atmospheric CO2 levels and the climate change it leads to is often framed as a towering, existential threat – one which threatens the stability of vast ecosystems and the vulnerable species therein. Setting aside the devastating ecological impacts the overproduction of CO2 results in, there is another benefit to reducing CO2 production that is often overlooked.

Over a third of CO2 production is due to energy generation, and the burning of fossil fuels often results in the production of not just pollutants with global warming potential, but pollutants with strong, direct negative impact on human health (Sergi et al, 2020). Sulfur dioxide results in acid rain, while nitrogen oxides and particulate matter (soot) are respiratory toxins. Transitioning away from fossil fuels not only helps the global fight against climate change, but protects the health of individuals living near facilities which produce noxious chemicals as a result of energy generation.

A study has shown that prioritizing human health along with reducing global warming, can highlight the need for transition to greener technologies more effectively. This suggests that benefits to human health and the reduced economic harm caused by poor air quality should not be an afterthought in this conversation. Learn more from this press release on the study examining this problem here!

Narrowing the Range of Climate Change

CO2 atmospheric concentration and emissions have been on the rise since industrialization. This graph plots a pink line representing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (ppm) and a blue line representing total CO2 emissions (billions of tons) each year from 1750 to 2019. (NOAA

150 years ago, the global concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was 280 ppm. Current CO2 levels have risen to over 400 ppm, leaving many to question what our world will look like if CO2 levels double to 560 ppm compared to the pre-industrial average. A recent study examined this question, taking into account previous studies with multiple kinds of evidence, including how clouds and water vapour will affect and be affected by global warming.

The study projected that an increase in global temperature, compared to the pre-industrial average, to 4.5 °C is unlikely to occur but that an increase of 1.5 °C will almost certainly be exceeded. The study estimates that there is a 66% chance that we can expect a temperature increase between 2.6-3.9 °C.

Read an article which goes more in depth about the results here, and the original paper here.

Do androids dream of electric ships?

A fully electric container ship called the MV Yara Birkeland moored in outdoor waters. The ship has its name and the phrase "Zero Emission" printed on its side in large lettering.
The MV Yara Birkeland – a Norwegian-designed fully electric container ship (YARA)

An optimistic electric future looms on the horizon, with hybrids and electric vehicles becoming more common on the market and in day-to-day life each year. However, there are many other modes of transportation that could benefit from a shift away from fossil fuel energy to a green source of electricity. A 2020 study from Yale University projects that if ports and tugboats are electrified, pollutant emissions can be lowered by 50% by 2050.

Read the article here.

The forgotten history of climate change science

The historical figure Eunice Newton Foote is illustrated standing in front of chemistry equipment, reading from a piece of paper.
Scientists Eunice Foote and John Tyndall are a few of the forgotten climate science pioneers (Illustrated by Carlyn Iverson, NOAA)

Greenhouse gasses trapping heat re-emitted from the Earth and as a result warming Earth’s atmosphere is not a new line of study. As early as the 1850s, scientists like Eunice Newton Foote and John Tyndall demonstrated that gases like carbon dioxide and methane were capable of trapping heat, but they are both relatively unknown for their contributions. Additionally, Tyndall went on to make many other discoveries before his death in 1893, including why the sky is blue.

Read more about the history of climate science here!

Summer Skies and Smoke Pollution

A photograph of a West Kelowna beach during the daytime taken September 8 2020. The sky is visibly smokey, completely grey with no visible horizon. The sunlight reaching the beach looks darker than normal and red-shifted because of the smoke.
Smokey skies in West Kelowna (Brady Strachan/CBC)

As summer fades to fall, many of us might be hoping to walk outside (while physically distancing, of course) and soak up the remnants of sunny blue skies – only to be disappointed with grey smoke overhead. While British Columbia has had its fair share of wildfires, the current smoke blanketing southern BC is largely credited to our neighbours south of the border.

Throughout the summer, fires from Washington state and California have resulted in the dispersion of smoke into Canada as well as people out of their homes. Furthermore, a recent study from the University of Colorado Boulder has found that many areas in California and Colorado are becoming less resilient to fires, and that many affected forests are projected to become permanent grassland. The study highlights the importance of battling climate change before changes become permanent (read the press release here).

Increasingly severe fire seasons in North America are starting to serve as a near-annual reminder that the changing climate is a global problem and that disasters in one part of the world tend to have negative impacts elsewhere. Here’s how you can protect your lungs from smoke this fall (hint: the advice is largely one that’s been echoed throughout 2020 – stay inside!).