Green gurus on what helps the most

You've mastered recycling and changed your light bulbs. What's the next best step your family can take to improve the environment? We put that question to three of Canada's top eco experts

Global warming

Peter Corbyn, Fredericton, NB
Environmental consultant, co-founder of The Climate Project – Canada and GreenNexxus, partner in the One Million Acts of Green campaign

Global warming is Peter Corbyn’s top environmental concern. And his desire to make a difference, through his work as a consultant and as an educator and speaker, takes him to companies and communities across North America. It also motivated him to team up with several other Canadians to successfully lobby former US vice-president and Oscar-winning environmentalist Al Gore to open a chapter of his Climate Project campaign in Canada. Corbyn’s advice to parents who want to do more is simple: Keep looking at things you do or use every day and find ways to make them greener. Solutions are out there. New ones are welcome. Please share.

This, not coincidentally, is the mantra of another project in which Corbyn is involved: the One Million Acts of Green online campaign, which was originally led by CBC’s The Hour and hosted on cbc.ca, and is now hosted by Corbyn’s four-man company online at greennexxus.com. On the website, you can get advice, share ideas and tick off completion boxes for about a hundred emission-reducing actions — everything from installing a tankless water heater to joining a carpool. The site calculates how much carbon you save with each.

We asked Corbyn to highlight a few acts that make the biggest difference in reducing emissions. At the top of his list: “Purchase locally grown food as much as possible. The carbon footprint of shipping food from the other side of the continent really adds up.” Local foods also tend to use less packaging. In fact, he says, avoid prepackaged food as much as possible. Not only is doing that good for the environment, it’s probably healthier too — an important benefit of many carbon-cutting activities.

Another big-ticket item: the family car. Or cars. “When purchasing a new vehicle, try to make it as fuel-efficient as possible,” says Corbyn. “If you have two vehicles now, take a good hard look at whether one of them can either not be replaced or replaced with a much smaller vehicle.”

Finally, install a programmable thermostat. Says Corbyn: “It’s one of the quickest and most inexpensive means to save a few hundred dollars per year on your heating bill.” The more money you save, the more you’re reducing emissions.

Fighting climate Change

Mark Jaccard, Burnaby, BC
Professor, School of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University

Fighting climate change is also uppermost on economist Mark Jaccard’s agenda. A member of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize–winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which helped galvanize world opinion on the need for immediate action to radically reduce carbon dioxide emissions — he also seems a perfect role model for a low-carbon lifestyle. Jaccard drives fewer than 8,000 kilometres a year, he avoids packaged goods and, at home, everything that draws electricity is on a power bar and gets turned off at night or while he’s away.

All good — except for one thing. Jaccard wants no part in selling personal lifestyle as a means to fight global warming. The reason? “It’s not how you solve this problem,” says Jaccard. “Consuming differently will have some marginal effects, but [if that’s all we do] we’ll still destroy the planet.”

Jaccard’s sights are set, instead, on the biggest human sources of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — energy production, electricity production and transportation. And the only way individuals can have an immediate impact there, he says, is by actively working to change the system. “Youth mobilization, political mobilization” is the solution, Jaccard says. “If I’m advising parents, I’m saying get your kids to understand that we need to change the regulations that run our society, not just our behaviour.”

He cites a recent modest example: “Here in British Columbia, we had some youth who were very active in promoting the carbon tax and writing letters before the government ended up adopting it. If we’re going to succeed in the future, it’s going to be because of things like that.” Protests and demonstrations — “lying down in front of bulldozers, demonstrating in the streets” — are also on Jaccard’s menu. And he likes the power of the Internet to mobilize people quickly — as it was used by Iranians, for example, in the wake of this year’s disputed election.

The urgency of the climate situation demands that parents (and children) take a stand, he maintains, whether the issue is a lack of bike lanes, unrestricted use of gasoline-burning cars or planned construction of new fossil-fuel-burning electricity facilities. Says Jaccard: “We need people to say, ‘This is unacceptable politically. We need to stop doing it.’”

What parents can do

Marlo Raynolds, Calgary, AB
Executive director, The Pembina Institute

Most people who know the Calgary-based Pembina Institute and its executive director, Marlo Raynolds, know it for its respected research and policy work in renewable energy and climate change. But teachers, at least, might also know Pembina’s GreenLearning programs, which include formal, curriculum-based lessons on energy and environmental issues, as well as informal lessons and activities on renewable energy. Such scope, coupled with Pembina’s strong emphasis on policy solutions and not just criticism, sets it apart from many other environmental organizations.

So what is Raynolds’ advice to parents looking to do more? “For me, after you’ve done the light bulbs, it’s really about getting politically involved,” says Raynolds. “It’s about requesting meetings with our provincial representatives and our Members of Parliament, writing a note or making a phone call, to ask tough questions about what they’re doing about the environment and especially about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Raynolds, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and a master’s in management and leadership for the voluntary sector, stresses that this is a time for big decisions and big changes. “Any opportunity people have to sit down with their [political] representatives, both provincially and federally, and discuss some of these issues, I think could go a long, long way.” So much the better, he adds, if that dialogue includes students and schools.

Illustrating the point nicely is one of the teaching modules Pembina has created, called eCards. Aimed at students in grades seven through nine, the module helps them research renewable and non-renewable energy, then create an electronic card with their own message and art which they can email to family members, local politicians or a CEO. Sample eCards on the Pembina website include two from students at Agnes Macphail Public School in Toronto to Ontario’s finance minister, urging him to invest in wind power and to follow Germany’s lead on greater use of solar energy. “It’s a sort of multidisciplinary module that brings in art, research, reading, and public and community engagement,” says Raynolds.

If you can make one lifestyle change, Raynolds urges, make it the one that lets you “carve out that little extra time to write that letter or make that phone call.” By taking action now, we’ll benefit our children’s future and show them that we all have a responsibility to speak up and the means to be heard.