Science·What on Earth?

Energy efficiency is key to climate action, but which provinces are leading the way?

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at a new scorecard on how provinces are doing on energy efficiency and which countries produce the most lithium, a key ingredient in the zero-carbon economy.

Also: The environmental benefits of second-hand clothing

(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:

  • Energy efficiency: Canada's 'unsung hero' of climate action
  • Who produces the most lithium?
  • Thrift-store shoppers save money and the planet

Energy efficiency: Canada's 'unsung hero' of climate action

(Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

When it comes to action on climate change, a lot of emphasis is put on finding ways to green the power grid. One of the lesser-known strategies of reducing emissions, however, is focusing on energy efficiency — that is, building or retrofitting structures and vehicles so they use as little power as possible.

"I don't think it's discussed enough. It's the unsung hero of Canada's energy system," said Brendan Haley, policy director of Efficiency Canada, who said that energy efficiency could represent 40 per cent of the emissions reductions needed to meet the targets of the Paris Accord.

The federal government has recognized the importance of energy efficiency, and cites it specifically in its Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. "But it's really the provinces that are the implementers," said Haley.

With this in mind, Efficiency Canada released a scorecard this week comparing how each province is doing across a broad list of categories, including "Energy Efficiency Programs," "Enabling Policies," "Buildings," "Transportation" and "Industry."

Out of a score of 100, British Columbia finished first, followed by Quebec and Ontario. Here's the overall ranking:

1.    B.C. (56 points)

2.    Quebec (48)

3.    Ontario (47)

4.    Nova Scotia (45)

5.    Manitoba (32)

6.    Alberta (30)

7.    Prince Edward Island (26)

8.    New Brunswick (24)

9.    Saskatchewan (18)

10. Newfoundland and Labrador (15)

While B.C. scored well in most categories, Haley said the western province is really ahead on the issue of buildings. That's largely a result of B.C.'s Energy Step Code policy, which "provides a clear path" toward net-zero energy-ready building standards.

Quebec did well in the transportation category as a result of being what Efficiency Canada calls "the country's vehicle electrification leader," thanks to its support of electric vehicle sales and for helping develop a robust charging network.

One of Canada's underappreciated performers is Nova Scotia, which has gone a long way in establishing provincial energy-efficiency programs, Haley said.

The province was early in recognizing the potential. In the mid-2000s, Nova Scotia looked ahead to future power demand and determined it could either meet it through traditional means, which meant building carbon-emitting power plants, or it could tackle the problem through greater efficiency. 

Results showed that greater efficiency would avoid the need to build an additional coal plant, and save an estimated $1 billion. The province ended up making saving energy a focus through the creation of a utility known as Efficiency Nova Scotia, and spurred growth in green jobs in a new energy savings sector.

One of the beneficiaries of that was Dwaine MacDonald, co-founder of Trinity Energy Group in Stellarton, N.S., which works on making commercial and residential buildings more energy-efficient. Since MacDonald and his partners launched the company in 2006, Trinity has grown to 80 full-time employees. Not only is business good, but other regions have taken notice of Nova Scotia's expertise.

"Efficiency Nova Scotia is now known as a world leader in these programs," said MacDonald, citing Alberta and Ontario, as well as U.S. states like Maine, as some of the jurisdictions that have sought guidance. "Nobody has been able to touch what Nova Scotia has done. It's extremely impressive."

Given the sector's potential, Haley fully admitted that Efficiency Canada put out the scorecard with an eye to "trying to get some friendly competition going amongst the provinces to improve energy efficiency."

— Andre Mayer

Reader feedback

Holiday gift giving can be pretty hard on the environment. Have you or your family cut back on gift giving, found a greener way to gift or stopped giving presents altogether? We'd love to hear your anecdotes and get your tips for an upcoming CBC News story, or simply to share in the newsletter.

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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: Who produces the most lithium?

Lithium has long been a key component of batteries in devices such as phones and laptops, but the increasing electrification of transportation will only drive up demand for this silvery white alkali metal, which some have taken to calling "the new oil." On paper, many believe Bolivia to have the biggest lithium reserves in the world, but some observers are skeptical that it can be extracted at a reasonable cost. Here's a look at the world's biggest producers, according to figures from 2018.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Thrift-store shoppers save money and the planet

(Marc Baby/CBC)

Not long ago, the idea of shopping at thrift stores brought to mind images of rummaging through racks of random, tatty, sometimes smelly clothing. But climate concerns are driving a boom in a newly energized resale industry. 

"It was a $12-billion [US] market by our research when we started. It's now a $24-billion market, and we expect it to be a $50-billion market in no time," said Chris Homer, co-founder of San Francisco-based ThredUP, an online marketplace for used clothing that expanded to Canada last year.

"In Canada alone we've seen almost 70 per cent growth year-over-year on our platform."

The fashion industry has been criticized for its impact on the environment, both for the fast fashion that piles up in landfills and for its carbon footprint, which is estimated to be larger than that of the shipping and airline industries combined.

Buying used clothing helps alleviate these problems, and it appears consumer attitudes are starting to change. A report just released by online marketplace Kijiji confirms a shift toward "community-minded commerce."

In September, fast fashion chain Forever 21 announced it is closing all of its international locations, including 44 stores in Canada, amid flagging sales. Retail consultant Bruce Winder said fast fashion's target market — young, style-conscious shoppers on a budget — are also among those most concerned about the health of the planet.

Millennials and Generation Z "look at every brand and every product in terms of what is the impact on society, but also what is the impact on the employees and the environment," Winder said.

Brett Bélanger, 20, is passionate about thrifting because of the damage the fashion industry causes to the planet.

"All the fast fashions these days are just polluting our Earth, so it's nice to be able to reuse other things that people don't want," she said while browsing through the coat department recently at a Value Village thrift store in Toronto.

Zero-waste consultant Sophi Robertson said her closet contains only one piece of clothing that was bought new — everything else is second-hand. She's particularly proud of having found a pair of designer jeans from Italy that "normally retails for well over $100." She paid $30. "That was a win."

One of Robertson's favourite shopping destinations is Common Sort, a small chain of boutique-like thrift stores in Toronto. She describes its merchandise as being carefully "curated." A recent browse through the racks revealed labels from J. Crew, Wilfrid and Club Monaco.

Common Sort owner Nicole Babin said she and her staff are very selective, and take pride in operating a store that smells good, with no scent of mothballs lingering in the air. "You don't have the odour that you would have in some vintage stores."

Value Village district manager Christine Riddell acknowledged there's a stigma about second-hand items. "When I was growing up, it was not as cool to wear second-hand clothing. It represented people not having the money to spend on new clothing."

But she said that's changing quickly — and she credits the education system.

"My 14-year-old son is learning about environmental issues at school, so as they're the future leaders of our planet, they're taking responsibility at a much younger age, which is so wonderful to see."

Dianne Buckner

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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