Thursday, 18 May 2017

Sustainability and Biodiversity

Author: Dr. Ken Elliott 

This winter McGill University hosted their annual public lecture series called "MiniScience" in which  faculty members with extensive experience deliver fascinating in depth presentations  - this year on issues of sustainability. Topics included:
Slash and Burn agriculture in Amazonia,
Biodiversity
Water in the Andes
Doing chemistry with less
Development in China
Global food security
Urban transport 

Here are some of my reflections after listening to a lecture presented by Prof. Andy Gonzalez, titled “Biodiversity Change and Sustainability in the Anthropocene" - a look at the state of the planet in terms of the impact of humans on it.  Prof. Gonzalez highlighted the interconnectedness of the many different types of actions by humans on many different aspects of nature:  The deforestation of so many regions of the world, the elimination of habitats of so many species of plants and animals, the pollution of air and water on such a vast scale, and the build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses.  He pointed out that, up to the industrialization of the world, it has been natural factors that have caused the many changes on the planet over the past millions (billions) of years.  These changes include: climate warming and cooling, mass extinctions of animal and plant species, ice ages, changes in geological structures - mountains, rivers, coastal    areas- and changes in habitats for flora and fauna to name but a few.  They used to be the result of natural phenomena like volcanoes, catastrophes like meteor collisions, and other naturally occurring variations. 

Over the past few hundred years, however, there has been an accelerating effect of the Anthropocene on our natural world.  In other words, more and more, it is humans that are causing these changes.  Most climate scientists agree now that the climate is warming at an alarming rate (although there is not universal agreement about the rate of change) and that this is a direct result of the rapid increase of the amount of greenhouse gases (especially CO2) from industrial processes and combustion from different forms of transportation.  With the exponential growth in the human population, land use has been taken from its natural purpose and been turned over to human uses like housing, roads, farming, urbanization.  The habitats of many species of animals and plants have been destroyed by human activity, driving the natural inhabitants out or, worse still, causing their extinction.  There have been 5 naturally-caused mass extinctions documented by scientists over the geological history of the earth.  A mass extinction is defined as the loss of 70% of all species.  Dr. Gonzalez postulates that we are at the beginning of a 6th - and this time it is being caused by human activity. 

In an article, cited by Dr. Gonzalez, which cites hundreds of research articles on the Anthropocene in the Journal Nature, Cardinale et al (2012) emphasize the ecological damage that humans are now inflicting on the fragile earth's ecosystems. "The most unique feature of Earth is the existence of life, and the most extraordinary feature of life is its diversity. Approximately 9 million types of plants, animals, protists and fungi inhabit the Earth. So, too, do 7 billion people. Two decades ago, at the first Earth Summit, the vast majority of the world’s nations declared that human actions were dismantling the Earth’s ecosystems, eliminating genes, species and biological traits at an alarming rate. This observation led to the question of how such loss of biological diversity will alter the functioning of ecosystems and their ability to provide society with the goods and services needed to prosper."

It remains to researchers to continue to study this situation and look for solutions and to school teachers to make this topic an important part of school curricula so that we can all become part of the search for solutions.


Reference:
Bradley J. Cardinale, et al., 2012, Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity.  Nature 486, p 59-67.



Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Divest McGill: Getting McGill to Follow Through on Its Commitment to Sustainability

By Morganne Blais-McPherson


Earlier this spring, the Sustainability Project team members convened around cold coffee and leftover conference cookies to discuss, what else, sustainability at McGill. At some point, the conversation veered away from workshop dates and AV reservations and onto the subject of the impromptu campsite that had emerged in front of the James Administration building. The obvious question arose – so, what do we think about this Divest McGill business? Well, it didn’t take much debate before we all arrived at the same conclusion – we like it. We like it a lot.

And so, I was sent off, wide-eyed, camera in hand, to the famous tents, hoping to set up times for interviews. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. When I finally arrived to the location, the tents were gone, the banners blown away, the electrifying spirit of a university occupation now only surviving in our memories… What I’m trying to get at here is that you're going to have to try and picture a bunch of tents with people in front of a big stone building, because we don’t have any pictures.

Instead, I set up meetings with two members of Divest McGill, Kristen (U3 Environmental Sciences) and Guillaume (U3 Economics and Political Sciences), to talk about the campaign, as well as their thoughts on sustainability in the classroom.

Born out of the more broadly-oriented “Decorporatize McGill”, the campaign has one clear demand: McGill must divest from tar sands and fossil fuel companies. Kristen, who just graduated this spring, has been involved with Divest McGill since it was created in the fall of 2012. For Kristen, focusing on divestment was a way towards a wide and concrete change within an institution for which students, faculty, staff, and alumni alike could work together. 

However, concrete change wasn’t as simple as Kristen had anticipated. Three years into the campaign and divestment has yet to happen. Even after going through the CAMSR (Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility) twice, McGill’s $1.3-billion endowment fund is still have between 5% and 8% invested in fossil fuel companies.

As an McGill alumna, it is disheartening, not to mention unacceptable, that such a top institution continues to throw money into an industry that has repeatedly been shown to cause grave social injury. In fact, it was on this point that Divest McGill’s last 150-page research submission to CAMSR relied on.

This negative sentiment is shared with both Guillaume and Kristen, who expressed their personal disappointment at having a principal and a Board of Governors so disconnected from the rest of the McGill community. That the students had to stage a sit-in in order to meet Principal Suzanne Fortier on such a pressing issue leads one to question the principal’s commitment to sustainability. As Guillaume said, some things are important, and “sitting down and talking about things would probably be a good way to get things going”.

But McGill is doing a lot towards sustainability, which is what makes their recent refusal to divest so confusing. Just the other day, I was reading McGill’s beautifully drafted Vision 2020 and its most recent progress report. It is clear when reading the reports that the university is making a laudable effort at finding long-term solutions by funding sustainability research, educating its community, and altering the university’s operations. In fact, both Kristen and Guillaume made a point of crediting McGill for these efforts.

For some reason, when it comes to investments in fossil fuels, McGill is lagging behind the many other institutions (such as the University of Ottawa) that have divested, “acting like a blockade to change rather than as a supportive body”, as Guillaume put it. Over 3.4 trillion dollars have already been divested from this destructive industry. Thankfully, people like Guillaume and Kristen are making sure that McGill follows through on its commitments to sustainability.

Wishing there were more people like Guillaume and Kristen, I thought it wise to ask them about their own ideas on Education for Sustainable Development. Some responses came from other members of Divest McGill, who have allowed us to include their ideas in the following poster.







Before, signing off, we would like to thank Divest McGill for all their work in making McGill the sustainable institution it has committed itself to being. Divest NOW!

Monday, 20 June 2016

What's the Dirt on Dishware? Biodegradable VS Compostable Dishware

Author: Morganne Blais-McPherson

I love food. I love it so much that when I’m eating food, I’m still talking about food. It’s really all just food, food, food.

In fact, there’s little I love more about my job here with the McGill Sustainability Project than eating the food we get catered for our professional development workshops. My colleague Harley, a forager of gustatory satisfaction for all of us, has an unparalleled palate when it comes to finding the best catering services for our events.

On top of considering our culinary needs, Harley has made the effort to find a caterer that can provide biodegradable dishware with its deliveries. After all, we are spending over two hours at each conference preaching sustainability. As consistent individuals, it was with great comfort and pride that we threw out the plates and cups at the end of each workshop, believing that we were doing our (small, but commendable) part in considering waste management at our university.

So you can imagine the sinking feeling I had in my stomach when I discovered that biodegradable dishware doesn’t actually decompose into innocent particles of Mother Nature when it is dumped into the municipal landfill. The truth is that eco-friendly plastics aren’t so eco-friendly when they are suffocated in our mounds of trash. To add fuel to the fire, did you know that “biodegradable” doesn’t really mean much at all? I certainly did not.

Spidey senses awakened, I called up Compost Montreal to know more about this biodegradability business. It all has to do with official certification, they explain to me (quite patiently and very enthusiastically, I might add).

In a nutshell, there is a stringent series of hoops for companies to jump through to be allowed to have the word “compostable” on their products. The meaning of biodegradability, on the other hand, is up in the air.

These hoops concern the level and time frame of a product’s biodegradation. In Quebec, these standards are set by the Bureau de Normalisation du Québec (you can view these standards here: http://www.bnq.qc.ca/en/standardization/environment/compostable-plastics.html). For a product to be deemed “compostable”, 60-90% of the product must be broken down into pieces with a maximum size of 2 mm within 180 days of being put into the compost pile. Importantly, when done in a commercial or industrial composting facility, this decomposition process cannot leave any heavy metal traces that would be toxic to the soil.

Biodegradability, well, that’s a whole other story.  Putting the word biodegradability on a product is the equivalent of writing that you know a foreign language on your CV without providing official documentation specifying your level in reading, writing, speaking, or listening. After all, Rebecca Bloomwood in Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) “knew” Finnish and as far as I recall, this included two or three words and a slap in the face.

The product is biodegradable when it can be broken down by micro-organisms. To what extent? Don’t know. In how long? Don’t know. Will it be toxic? Again, don’t know. So what do we know? Not much.

Even more irksome is the fact that some plastics labeled as “biodegradable” can’t actually be broken down in a landfill. Oxo-degradable plastics, a type of biodegradable plastics, require light or heat exposure to be broken down. Few sunny days are seen 6 feet under trash. The main problem with these, however, is that given the small amount of oxygen deep down in a landfill, these plastics release methane when they biodegrade (if they even biodegrade at all). Methane, if you’ve been following the news recently, makes carbon dioxide look like Febreeze. Irritating, but at least it’s not the smell of a 16-year-old boy’s bedroom.

So next time you and your organization hold an event and want to be environmentally conscious, try avoiding plastics labeled as “biodegradable”. Look for compostable dishware and find a compost facility near you. In Montreal, we have Compost Montreal (http://www.compostmontreal.com/), which not only sells compostable dishware but also collects compost (though you will have to check if you are in their collection zone first). If not, many universities and community gardens have composting facilities you could use.

Sustainable living is difficult, and it’s even more difficult at an institutional and commercial level. But the first step to addressing our environmental problems is to be informed of the actual impacts of what we’re doing and be critical of our current practices. The next step is finding ways to change our behaviour and that of the institutions and businesses we find ourselves in.


If you’re interested in learning more about compostable plastics, stay tuned for my next post, in which I will be looking at differences in environmental impacts of compostable and disposable plastics!

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Why Fort McMurray’s Forest Burns

Author: Francesca Fuoco

The fire raging Fort McMurray in Alberta was the cause of great despair as 90 000 people had to evacuate their homes. The fire has torched over 1000 km2 and is expected to continue to burn over the next weeks. The forest continues to burn because the Boreal forest surrounding Fort McMurray has adapted to depend on fire for growth.

In essence, these trees need to burn to grow. Even the physical characteristics of the trees, such as branching arrangement, are adapted for easy ignition. The spruce and pine trees making up the forest have serotinous cones which open up after a fire to release their seeds. After a fire burns through a forest, the fire removes the competing trees, shrubs, and mosses. The soil is bare and it thus becomes easier for the seeds to thrive. The pine and spruce species then become the pioneers of the new forest and ecological succession brings about new biodiversity. The fire in Fort McMurray, whether caused by humans or nature, is an important part of the forest’s life cycle.

Watch the video by CrashCourse to learn more about ecological succession.


Click here to follow CBC news for the latest on the fire.

Francesca Fuoco is a 4th year undergraduate student in the Faculty of Education at McGill University. She is currently studying with the goal of teaching Science at the High School level. Francesca is interested in promoting the development of scientific literacy skills among her students by engaging them in learning activities which aim to study how Science affects our society and vice-versa.