Science·What on Earth?

Want to give and receive less this season? Here are some ways to do it

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at ways to reduce gift-giving during the holidays, the falling price of battery power and a historic flight for a B.C. airline.

Also: The falling cost of battery power

(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:

  • How to persuade your family to give fewer gifts
  • Power move: The falling cost of battery packs
  • A B.C. company proves that electric air travel is possible

How to persuade your family to give fewer gifts


'Tis the season for conspicuous consumption — a recent survey by consulting company Accenture found the average Canadian plans to spend more than $700 on holiday purchases this year, about the same as in 2018.

What's the environmental impact of buying and gifting all that stuff? On Black Friday, protesters around the world took to the streets to raise concerns about consumerism and its impact on the climate. Meanwhile, according to the industry publication Plastics le Mag, 90 per cent of the toys for sale now are plastic, and most aren't recyclable.

Many of us would like to cut back. But it can be difficult to convince your family members, who may feel that giving lavishly is what the holidays are all about, and that fewer gifts mean less fun — especially when children are involved.

Sarah Herr, a project assistant for Living Green Barrie, based north of Toronto, is well aware of this. She recently held a workshop called "Greening the Holidays," which included tips on how to help your family transition to greener gifting. Here are some of her suggestions:

  • Let them know you want to be more mindful about gift giving. You can do so by writing a post on social media or writing a Christmas letter or email to your loved ones, including how you are changing your holiday traditions to involve less waste.

  • Tell them why you are doing things differently. Let them know your concerns about environmental pollution, climate change and waste.

  • Provide alternatives. Your family will be much more likely to get on board if you let them know about new ways to give.

And what are some alternate ways to give that you could suggest to your family?

What on Earth? readers had plenty of suggestions, some of which we've already shared. Here are a few more:

  • Lois Hosein suggested using leftover fabrics to make useful gifts such as pyjamas and aprons, and asking kids to make booklets of "helping tickets" for their parents, with promises such as "I will take out the recycling" or "I will feed the cat."

  • Chris Lemphers was among several readers who make charitable donations in lieu of gifts. He wrote: "This year our family made a joint contribution to the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Economic Development Corporation youth micro financing program through the Anglican Church. This program provides seed money through small loans."

  • Debbie Kinsey said her family has decided to give "action gifts" only, which could include tickets to a play or concert or even help, such as gardening or babysitting. ("It really takes the pressure off an already busy season," she added.)

  • Several readers suggested second-hand gifts, including Annie Sirois: "This year, I've bought my partner a retro Nintendo gaming console and will give it to him in the original box."

  • Aniko Varpalotai said that instead of everyone exchanging gifts, her extended family does two Secret Santa draws, one among the seven grown children and one among the seven older adults, with a $50 and $100 limit, respectively.

Herr had one wise final suggestion: "Know that you don't have to do it all. You can use this holiday season as a transition year, so your family understands what your new traditions might look like."

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

To start, we wanted to put out another call for your environmentally minded New Year's resolutions. We will publish some of the responses in the coming weeks.

Also, our Q&A with Queen's University Prof. Brant Peppley on hydrogen vehicles last week generated a lot of reader questions about the potential and pitfalls of this technology. We will be answering some of those queries in a followup piece on hydrogen power in an upcoming issue.

Email us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: The falling price of battery power

Battery power is a key component in efforts to decarbonize the world's economies, whether it's used to electrify transportation or harness solar and wind power more effectively. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, in 2010, the cost of producing a kilowatt hour of power with a lithium-ion battery was, on average, more than $1,100 US. But in the ensuing decade, the cost has fallen dramatically to $156 — an 87 per cent drop.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • Taking action to halt climate change works. Want proof? New research published in the journal Environment Research Letters shows that the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which was intended to halt ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), actually slowed global warming. Thanks to that agreement, average global temperatures today are lower than they would have been without it.
  • As climate talks continue in Madrid, the European Commission has set out a bold, comprehensive strategy to make the EU carbon-free by 2050. The 50 policy measures will touch every aspect of the economy, and include a 100-billion-euro fund to help countries that are more dependent on fossil fuels make a "just" transition.

Look at it go: B.C. flyer shows electric air travel is possible

(Ben Nelms/CBC)

It was a short but historic moment on the Fraser River earlier this week as Vancouver-based Harbour Air completed the debut test flight of what aims to be the world's first fully electric commercial aircraft.

Harbour Air founder and chief executive Greg McDougall took off solo in the bright yellow retrofitted DHC-2 de Havilland Beaver float plane, and spent three minutes in the air over Richmond, B.C., before circling back and landing in front of a crowd of roughly 120 onlookers and media.

"It was good, like a Beaver [a single-engine de Havilland plane] on electric steroids," said McDougall, after the flight. "It was definitely smooth and a lot quieter than the piston [engine], that's for sure."

McDougall's flight is the first exercise in what is expected to be a two-year process to get the e-plane certified for commercial use.

Harbour Air partnered with Seattle-based company MagniX 11 months ago to design the e-plane's propulsion system, which is powered by NASA-approved lithium-ion batteries that were also used on the International Space Station. 

"It's a prototype, for sure," said McDougall. "But in every way it's a high-tech piece of equipment, which is kind of ironic considering the airframe that it's attached to is actually one year younger than me — 62 years old." 

MagniX CEO Roei Ganzarski said Dec. 10, 2019, will go down in history as the start of the electric aviation age, and believes the e-plane will eventually revolutionize how people travel by making short- to mid-range flights more economical than driving. 

"It means you can stop driving for three, five, seven hours to get to a destination because there's no other way to get there," Ganzarski said. "It means you can fly in a small aircraft from a small airport to a small airport.... It's faster, cheaper and more convenient than any other method of travel, including going with a standard airline." 

According to Ganzarski, the electric motor in the e-plane is a standard design that was adapted to work reliably on an aircraft to provide the power and torque needed to fly, but at a minimum weight.

McDougall said there will be dozens of test flights to come to meet the certification requirements.

"Today is a milestone," he said, "and this aircraft is now a test-bed for all the things we need to do to get the regulatory side of it done as well."

Karin Larsen

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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