Science·What on Earth?

5 things Canada can do to reduce its carbon emissions

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the most effective ways for Canada to reduce its carbon footprint and how the country is reshaping its building code to address climate change.

Also: Climate change-proofing our buildings

White text against a semicircle made of lines and blue and green stripes
(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! 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:

  • 5 things Canada can do to reduce carbon emissions
  • 'Plastic is a disease': A Montrealer is tackling the problem in Costa Rica
  • Look at what happened to this former coal plant
  • Climate change is rewriting Canada's building codes

The 5 biggest things Canada could do to cut carbon emissions

The City of Calgary has added 42 new charging stations for electric vehicles in 3 downtown Calgary Parking Authority parkades (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Last week, Canadians discovered the inconvenient truth that this country is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world — and that Canada's North is heating up at nearly three times the rate.

Like many of us, Eddy Pérez, international policy analyst at Climate Action Network Canada, found the report "frightening" and "a reminder of the need to increase climate action."

On April 1, the federal government introduced the main plank of its climate plan — the much-contested carbon-pricing backstop — which sets a price of $20 per tonne of carbon, or 4.4 cents per litre of gasoline.

Pérez said the carbon tax is "a good start," but that other measures are necessary. Here, he outlines five measures in the government's Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, which Pérez believes "could be enhanced."

⭐ Accelerate the phase-out of coal and diesel power generation.

Coal-fired power plants are a major source of carbon emissions — for example, in closing its coal plants over the course of a decade (ending in 2014), Ontario removed the equivalent of seven million vehicles from the road. Pérez said halting coal power, as well as the use of diesel, a common fuel in remote communities, is key to reducing emissions. "The objective is to make sure [they're] not part of the electricity mix by 2030," said Pérez.

⭐ Create a pan-Canadian plan for zero-emissions transportation.

The transportation sector accounts for 25 per cent of Canada's carbon emissions. The government went some way in addressing this in the March budget by announcing a $5,000 incentive for people wanting to buy an electric vehicle (in those provinces that don't already have such a program). Pérez said the emphasis should be the broader transport sector, which could include building a robust electric charging network or implementing a national zero-emissions strategy that could include hydrogen-powered vehicles. "It goes beyond buying a single vehicle," Pérez said. "It's about having an overall strategy that increases mobility and reduces pollution."

⭐ Reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.

One of the side-effects of drilling and producing oil and gas is the release of methane, a greenhouse gas that's even more potent than CO2. Pérez said mitigating the release of methane would "substantially help us reduce [overall] emissions," a fact acknowledged by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

⭐ Stop subsidizing the oil and gas sector.

According to this federal report, the oil and gas sector was responsible for 26 per cent of Canada's GHG emissions in 2015. Pérez said we as a country need to have "a more frank discussion" about the future of the petroleum industry in a time of global warming — and ending subsidies to the sector is a key step. (After all, it was one of Justin Trudeau's campaign promises in 2015.)

⭐ Synch up federal and provincial building codes.

The building sector is another big culprit for GHG emissions. Governments can make these structures more efficient and thus greener by introducing building codes that mandate, for example, better insulation, more efficient lighting and the use of low- or no-carbon heating. Harmonizing federal and provincial codes, Pérez said, is the way to ensure the best results across the country.

Andre Mayer

What's on your mind?

The introduction of the federal carbon-pricing backstop last week gave rise to more debate about the usefulness of this mechanism in reducing our carbon emissions. A few people wrote in to ask: So what are the carbon-tax naysayers (like federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister) proposing instead? It's something we'll look into in the coming weeks.

And, as always, if you've got any comments at all…

Email us at

How one Montrealer is waging war on plastic in Costa Rica

(Submitted by Charlie Wade)

About four years ago, a young Montrealer headed down to Costa Rica for a little sightseeing adventure with friends and quickly fell in love with the rainforests, beaches and way of life.

Charlie Wade, now 25, decided to stay and learn how to speak Spanish and live off the land, which included opening coconuts with a machete. She started a tour guide company, and spends her days surfing, swimming and spearfishing as she takes ecotourists off the beaten path. But as much fun as that is, it breaks her heart to see how much plastic plagues the waters she's come to love.

"Plastic is a disease," she said. "I see it everywhere now." She finds it in the innards of fish, in the bodies of dead birds on the shore and in the sand, rivers, jungles and reefs.

Sickened by these sights, and aware of her own guilt in using takeout containers and single-use bags far too often, Wade decided to do something about it. She designed and created a compact, portable zero-waste kit loaded with bamboo cutlery, collapsible bento boxes, beeswax food wraps, plant-fibre napkins, cloth sacks, borosilicate glass straws and more.

Made of hemp and the size of a pencil case, the kit also includes a large, sturdy grocery bag made of recycled plastic that's been pulled from the sea.

With the support of her parents and a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $20,000, Wade launched her company, Keep Gaia Wild, this spring. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the mother of all life.

After months of research, Wade is partnering with companies that employ only sustainable practices with the hope that if enough people are equipped with the kits, it will help stem the tide of plastic flowing into the environment.

"People are overwhelmed. They don't know where to start, but they know it's an issue," she said. "At least if these kits get out there, people can feel good about their step forward."

She is selling her kits in small, beachside boutiques in Costa Rica, as well as on her website.

She said she wants to empower individuals to make a difference — to give them everything they need to stop using plastic.

"I want people to feel like they are their own hero, in their own life and for this larger organism that we are all a part of," she said. "The issue right now is our over-consumption of plastic."

Isaac Olson

The Big Picture: From coal to solar

As you examine the photo below, you may be thinking, what precisely am I looking at? It's the former Nanticoke generating station in southern Ontario, on the shores of Lake Erie. Until 2013, it burned coal to produce electricity. But as part of Ontario's multi-year effort to wean itself off the dirty fossil fuel, Nanticoke's coal-burning facilities were dismantled. As of this month, the site is reborn as a solar farm. While it doesn't have the same capacity it did before (44 megawatts compared to about 4,000 MW), this installation — a partnership involving Ontario Power Generation, the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation — will bring renewable, emissions-free power to about 28,000 homes.

(Ontario Power Generation)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • The words of Sweden's Greta Thunberg have galvanized teens worldwide to strike for climate action. Her life choices, meanwhile, are also having an effect. Inspired by her low-carbon lifestyle, some Swedes are skipping air travel and hopping on the train.

  • Two of the biggest scourges of our times are hunger and food waste. A smart non-profit in Indiana is bridging that obvious divide by rescuing food that's "been made but never served" in school cafeterias and giving it to students in low-income households for use at home.

Canada's building code is getting a climate change rewrite

(Albert Leung/CBC)

From how concrete is mixed for road construction to roofing standards enabling buildings to withstand stronger storms, Canada's building rules are being rewritten because of climate change, according to briefing notes for a senior government official seen by CBC News.

If no changes are made to the way we build, infrastructure failures linked to climate change could cost Canada $300 billion over the next decade, according to estimates cited in the partially redacted documents.

With the country warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, analysts say it's crucial to design infrastructure that protects residents from extreme weather while reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Some of the new rules for construction are nearly ready, while others remain in the planning stages, according to a briefing note prepared for the deputy minister of infrastructure in 2018 and accessed by CBC News under freedom of information laws. The briefing said the new code will be the "first substantive" introduction of climate change considerations for buildings and crucial infrastructure in Canada.

Some of the changes under discussion, according to the notes, include:

  • New standards for basement flood protection, which should be finalized by the end of 2019.

  • New guidelines for certifying the resiliency of roofs to extreme weather events, planned for 2020.

  • New specifications to optimize concrete mixes for pavement to mitigate flooding, expected to be ready for 2021.

  • Guidelines for climate resilience for existing stormwater systems, also for 2021.

  • New structural design rules for buildings to take into account the changing climate, ready for adoption by the 2025 building code.

For the average homeowner, flooding will be the biggest challenge, said Natalia Moudrak, director of climate resilience at the University of Waterloo's Intact Centre. If a homeowner has a pump to get water out of a basement, "it's important to install a backup generator," she said. Widespread flooding often leads to power outages, leaving regular pumps useless when they're most needed.

Climate change analysts and green building experts said the plans are a step in the right direction, but don't come soon enough.

Mona Lemoine, an architect with the firm Perkins+Will in Vancouver, said she is "definitely excited" about the direction of the code, but notes that a 2025 date for an update to structural design rules feels far off.

"We are dealing with climate change because we haven't been building the right way."

Chris Arsenault

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty