Science·What on Earth?

Bill that aims to address environmental racism heads for debate in House of Commons

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the effort to get the federal government to address environmental racism and the global energy consumption of bitcoin.

Also: Bitcoin is a huge energy-sucker

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Bill that aims to address environmental racism heads for debate in House of Commons
  • Energy sucker: Just how much power is bitcoin consuming worldwide?
  • Meet the hibiscus bee, a newcomer to Canada

Bill that aims to address environmental racism heads for debate in House of Commons

(Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)
Looking back at Black history month and ahead to a bill to address environmental racism, we examine the connections between racism and climate change. We hear from Black academics, environmentalists and a labour leader about an inclusive green transition.

A private member's bill that aims to address environmental racism is headed for debate in the House of Commons next month.

Introduced by Nova Scotia MP Lenore Zann, Bill C-230 is seeking a national strategy to examine the link between race, socio-economic status and environmental risk, as well as the connection between hazardous sites and negative health outcomes in communities where Black and Indigenous people and people of colour live.

It would also ensure that affected communities have access to clean air and water.

The bill was inspired by Ingrid Waldron, associate professor in the faculty of health at Dalhousie University in Halifax and author of There's Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities, which in turn inspired a 2019 Netflix documentary featuring actors Elliot Page and Ian Daniel.

Waldron said contamination-heavy projects such as landfills, pulp and paper mills and petrochemical facilities are disproportionately located in low-income BIPOC communities and linked to health issues such as asthma, cancer and birth defects. She said because those same communities lack social, financial and political power, their concerns aren't heard, and governments respond more slowly.

"In many ways, these communities are invisible communities to government … and then they don't matter as much," Waldron said in an interview with Laura Lynch, host of CBC Radio's What on Earth. "And when they don't matter as much, it takes you a lot longer to address their issues."

What's more, said Waldron, because BIPOC people aren't included on many boards, regulatory commissions and NGOs, they are often left out of the decision-making process.

"When you don't have the people who are most impacted at the table, it's easy to miss things," said Waldron, who launched a mapping project that examines the social makeup of areas where environmental hazards are located, and helped organize a national coalition of affected communities. "And therefore you develop policies that miss the mark."

Bill C-230 is an updated version of a 2015 bill that Waldron drafted with Zann, and asks for the collection of multilayered race-based data — that is, data that looks at the links among race, gender, education, employment, income, health and environmental harms, as well as other factors. (Waldron points out that this type of data is collected in the U.S., but not in Canada.) 

The bill also seeks better consultation with communities, and reparations for areas such as the African-Nova Scotian community of Lincolnville, where contaminants from a landfill have been an issue since the 1970s.

"People don't want to build homes in their community. They don't want to open up businesses. There's out-migration of young people who don't want to live there anymore," said Waldron. "So they feel it's impacted the community's economic base."

The second reading of Bill C-230, which began in December, is slated to resume on March 23, with a vote expected soon after. If it passes, it will go to committee.

"Like systemic racism, environmental racism is something that's been ignored for far too many years, and the time has come for us to act to redress the problems of the past, and make sure they don't continue," Zann said via videoconference at the start of the bill's second reading in December.

During her presentation, Zann cited a number of historical examples, like the offloading of pulp mill effluent into the harbour of Pictou Landing First Nation in Nova Scotia and mercury contamination in Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwestern Ontario. "The legacy of environmental racism really can no longer be ignored," she said.

Waldron is hopeful that this time, the measure will pass, but she said even if it doesn't, the bill, along with the book and Netflix film, has helped raise awareness about environmental racism.

"I hope I'm not disappointed," said Waldron. "But if it doesn't happen, I continue on."

Jennifer Van Evra

Reader feedback

In response to Emily Chung's article last week on pet food made with insect protein, readers had this to say.

"I found the article about pets eating insect-based food intriguing. If the research clearly shows that insect-based proteins are good for pets, why not for humans?" asked Marshall Byle. As it turns out, the nutrition and safety of insect-based foods for humans has been the subject of media coverage and scientific study.

On a more philosophical note, Umberto Pascali wrote, "Regarding pet food, my question is: do we really need all these dogs?"

Write us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There's also a radio show! A bill before the House of Commons asks Canada to address environmental racism. What on Earth looks at the connections between racism and climate change, and hears from Black thinkers about what needs to change to make a green transition more inclusive. Listen to What on Earth on CBC Radio One on Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland, or any time on podcast or CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: Bitcoin's energy consumption

Depending on your personal stake in the cryptocurrency, bitcoin has been a source of heady profits or crushing losses, a beacon of enormous potential or profound disappointment. If nothing else, bitcoin's sharp fluctuations in value have been fascinating to watch. One aspect that has received less notice is its environmental impact. The key to bitcoin is the blockchain, which is an open digital ledger of all the transactions worldwide involving bitcoin. It's built on a peer-to-peer network and each new transaction becomes a new block on a chain that can't be changed. The mathematical calculations necessary to maintain the blockchain require incredible processing power, particularly as the currency has become more popular, and keeping all those computer servers humming necessitates a lot of electricity. A recent analysis by Cambridge University found that bitcoin's total energy consumption surpasses that of Argentina. Trying to get precise figures on bitcoin's historical energy use is tricky — the chart below, based on Cambridge's data, shows minimum, maximum and estimated totals for annual terrawatt hours (TWh). Determining how much carbon all this is producing also requires a more detailed analysis, as the sources of power vary from region to region — from carbon-heavy coal to zero-emissions wind and solar.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • In his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates reveals his action plan to address global warming. But some people have questioned the co-founder of Microsoft's motivations and his role as self-appointed climate expert. This piece lays out Gates's thin credentials, financial conflicts of interest and unproven solutions for reducing carbon emissions.

  • University of Manchester scientists discovered a new way to make solar technology more accessible. Increasing the environmental safety of perovskite solar cells could have a notable impact because they are easier to manufacture and are more versatile than conventional solar technology. But one downside to perovskite cells is that they contain lead, a harmful toxin. If the cells were to be damaged, lead ions may leak. The researchers have found a new way to prevent the release of lead from broken cells, which they say can increase their sustainability and range of applications.

  • More than 500 international scientists are demanding that world leaders halt the practice of burning trees for energy. In a letter addressed to officials in the U.S., EU, Japan, South Korea and the U.K., scientists said that burning wood threatens forests' biodiversity and efforts to solve climate change. The letter urges world leaders to stop treating the burning of biomass as "carbon neutral."

  • Quebec's Magpie River is the first place in Canada to be granted legal rights. The river will now be under the protection of "nature rights," which treat the river as a person as opposed to an object. The river is protected under nine distinct rights, including the right to sue. This kind of environmental strategy has been put in place by at least 14 other countries, including Bolivia and New Zealand.

Meet the hibiscus bee, a newcomer to Canada

(Submitted by Janean Sharkey)

A couple of years ago, master's student Janean Sharkey was stumped when she couldn't identify six of the bees she collected from a park in Windsor, Ont. Little did she know, it was because these bees had never been spotted before in Canada. 

"When I was trying to identify this group ... it wasn't making much sense to me," said Sharkey, who attends the University of Guelph's school of environmental sciences. 

Eventually, she realized that the insect she was looking at under her microscope was the hibiscus or chimney bee — formally known as Ptilothrix bombiformis. The bee species is an American migrant and its arrival in Canada may be another example of how species are expanding their habitats due to climate change. 

Now, Sharkey has published her first scientific paper in the Journal of the Entomological Society of Ontario outlining her discovery, which she made in 2019.

Sharkey had collected 2,000 bees from her traps in Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve in 2018, six of which were female hibiscus bees. It was when she started comparing the species to known ones across North America, rather than just Ontario, that she realized the bees had never been seen in this country. 

"I was pretty confident that my [identification] was correct ... but I had to confirm with a few people and once that [identification] was verified, then I was quite happy," she said.

"You never know what you're going to find until you look for it and I was looking for it, so I'm glad I found something." 

Just by their appearance, Sharkey said she knew these bees were different. They have short, feathery yellow hairs on their thorax and long black hair on their hind legs. 

The hibiscus bees nestle into hard-packed soil near wetlands and the population is one of few able to land on water, collecting it to build "distinctive turrets at its nest opening," according to a news release from the University of Guelph. (This trait is what gives the bee its other common name, chimney.) 

According to the university, insect collection curator Steve Paiero confirmed the insects were a new find for the park. Meanwhile, a curator at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, Cory Sheffield, confirmed that this was a new sighting for Canada — bringing the number of bee species in the country to 927. 

"If you take the time and effort to look, it's amazing what you can find in the natural world, and this bee is just really interesting. It has this close relationship with the hibiscus plant," Sharkey said. 

"It just sort of gives us a window into the world of how complex bee communities, relationships with bees and plants are, and how important they are to different habitats." 

Sharkey added that the bee populations have likely been in Windsor-Essex gardens, and that they enjoy the hibiscus shrub Rose of Sharon. 

The spotting of the bee, Sharkey said, has sparked some concern for its well-being and the hardships it may be facing. 

"Just like all the other species of native bees, we're concerned about impacts of climate change, habitat degradation, invasive species and pesticides," she said.

Jennifer La Grassa

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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