Air pollution is literally killing us. The deadly stew of nitrogen oxides, mercury and arsenic from Ontario's five coal-fired plants is directly responsible for at least 668 deaths a year and untold thousands more illnesses. Still, we continue to be hogs when it comes to electricity consumption, sucking up a staggering 60 per cent more kilowatts than places of comparable size, like New York State. All of which means our pollution problem is only going to get worse unless we do something drastic quick.
What we need to do now: Phasing out coal-fired plants and moving toward a 100 per cent renewable electricity system are the logical steps. But while we're at it, we should also be ditching electric space heaters and water heaters, which account for a mind-boggling 33 per cent of residential electricity consumption in Ontario.
In the long term: Double electricity prices. It'll stimulate investment in energy efficiencies and force industry to be more competitive.
It's a myth that boosting electricity prices will hurt business. New York State's electricity productivity (kilowatt hours used per unit of goods produced) is two and a half times Ontario's, and people there pay more than twice what we do for power.
In the longrun, we can eliminate the need for nuclear facilities, which we're already subsidizing to the tune of billions of dollars a year just to keep electricity prices artificially low in the first place. Madness.
"Subsidizing electricity consumption just encourages the construction of new high-cost natural-gas-fired or nuclear power plants."
Jack Gibbons, Ontario Clean Air Alliance
Water is the oil of the 21st century. And already a thirsty U.S. is putting pressure on us to open the taps to huge water exports from the Great Lakes, which hold 20 per cent of all the world's fresh water. We're drinking on borrowed time. One-quarter of Canadian municipalities have faced water shortages in the last year alone, and another one-third rely on groundwater for daily needs. Municipalities are issuing hundreds of boil-water advisories every year. The province, however, has yet to fulfill its promise to implement all the recommendations of the inquiry into the Walkerton tainted-water scandal. A Clean Water Act has been introduced, but large areas of the province (outside of 36 areas under the jurisdiction of conservation authorities in southern Ontario) remain outside source protection areas designated under the act.
What we need to do now: Adopt a national water policy that bans the export of water, restricts diversions and creates national clean drinking water standards.
In the long term: Ensure water doesn't become a tradeable commodity in future trade deals. Right now, NAFTA defines water as a "service" and an "investment." And we need an investment plan for municipalities, many of which are increasingly contemplating privatizing their water systems so they can rebuild long-neglected water pipes and filtration systems.
"There's no leadership. There's no coordination. We have this whole patchwork of a mess when it comes to water policy. It's shocking."
Susan Howatt, Council of Canadians
Canada is home to one of the world's largest remaining stands of ancient forest. But about half the boreal forest has been allocated or licensed to logging companies. Already, the logging industry is cutting down more than 185,000 hectares of forest in Ontario - an area half the size of Prince Edward Island - every year. Companies like Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Kleenex, are wiping out what's left with clear-cuts as large as 10,000 hectares for virgin fibre to make, wait for it, toilet paper and other disposable tissue products. Now, that's crap.
What we need to do now: Buy only paper products with recycled fibre, and wood and wood products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, to ensure that what we're buying is harvested using responsible forest management practices. Get local businesses to pledge not to buy Kimberly-Clark products.
In the long term: Protect, as BC's provincial government has, at least one-third of all forests from logging, give native groups more control over their traditional territory, and adopt sustainable "light-touch" logging practices that involve harvesting trees of a certain size only (no clear-cuts), protection of wetlands, and limiting logging activities to winter, when the soil is less vulnerable to compaction. This way, we can limit the disturbance to surrounding vegetation.
"The problem when you're dealing with governments and legislative change is that you then have to have policing on the ground, some meaningful way of making sure companies don't break the rules. It gets complicated. With consumer-based actions, companies are forced to make changes very quickly."
Andrew Male, Greenpeace
Billions wasted, nowhere to store the tonnes of waste safely, yet we continue to rely on nukes to meet a whopping 40 per cent of our energy needs. Seven of Ontario's 20 CANDU reactors were closed down in 1997 because of poor performance and safety concerns (another had already been shut down in 95), marking the single largest nuclear shutdown by any country in the world. Restarting the reactors has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns. We've also had our share of accidents; all the fuel channels at the Pickering A reactor had to be replaced after a major malfunction in 87. But now the province is trading off risk for profits, arguing that complete replacement of fuel channels in two reactors at Bruce isn't necessary for their restart.
What we need to do now: Place a moratorium on new nuke plants.
In the long term: Follow the California example -- take the billions we're blowing on nukes and put the cash into conservation programs that impose strict standards on the energy efficiency of homes and provide incentives for Ontarians to buy energy-efficient appliances. In Cali, this approach has resulted in annual electricity savings of $12 billion a year. That's about $1,000 per family. And an astonishing reduction of 18 million tonnes a year in carbon emissions, the equivalent of taking 12 million cars off the road. What the hell are we waiting for?
"There's a lot of misinformation about the potential of renewable energy like wind and solar power. Communities can actually manage their own power generation and power use rather than living with the environmental consequences of massive centralized systems that are completely unreliable. "
Emilie Moorhouse, Sierra Club of Canada
FISHERIES AND OCEANS
Our food security is in peril. We're fishing down the food chain to the point that scientists say we'll be literally scraping the bottom of the ocean barrel and bottom-feeders like jellyfish are all we'll have left in less than 30 years. It's already happening on the Atlantic coast, where fisheries are now reliant on crab and shrimp. No more cod and tuna. How long before we add salmon to the list? Climate change isn't helping - the cyclical ocean currents that carry food to feed fish (nutrient upwellings) are slowing down, causing a marked decline in stocks.
What we need to do now: Stop eating fish that are in decline (see list compiled by COSEWIC at cosewic.gc.ca). And start listing as endangered those species that are threatened. If we're serious about recovery, then we need to put an end to bottom-trawling, the fishing method that's knocking the hell out of the nursery grounds for juvenile fish.
In the long term: Phase out fish farming. Escapes and diseases from these large operations are threatening wild fish stocks. More monitoring and research: right now we have little idea of what's actually contributing to declining fish stocks besides overfishing. We tend to fish until species are almost gone. We need to understand what's at play to make sure our management efforts aren't exacerbating the dire situation. We also need to formally protect areas of the ocean from fishing. Our record in this area is pathetic -- less than one-10th of 1 per cent of our entire marine coast is formally protected.
"Do we want to actually have fish as part of our long-term sustainable food supply? We're spiralling down to the point where we can see in 25 to 30 years there'll be limited opportunity to fish anything."
Bill Wareham, Suzuki Foundation
Toronto sends 975,000 tonnes of garbage, enough to fill the Rogers Centre, to Michigan landfills every year. We're running out of waste options. Michigan Democrats are pushing state lawmakers for an outright ban on our waste. And our recycling and composting efforts, while commendable, aren't meeting targets anywhere near fast enough. Our recycling rate is climbing, but the amount we dispose of per person is remaining constant. We're doing well on the residential side, but only one-third of our 80,000 businesses use the city's yellow bag program, which means most aren't bothering to recycle. Those living in apartments, half of us, recycled only 12 per cent of our garbage in 2004.
What we need to do now: Emphasize reduction. Pass extended producer responsibility laws so businesses get serious about reducing packaging. If they decide not to package their products using recyclable materials, then they, not taxpayers, should pay the costs of disposal. We also need a deposit return system for pop containers. We're one of only two provinces (Manitoba is the other) that still don't have one. Embarrassing. Other provinces have take-back regs not only for pop containers but also for paint cans, batteries and even motor oil.
In the long term: Start thinking of waste as gold. We need to begin converting methane from garbage into usable energy on a large scale, especially given the growing pressure to go back to the dirty days of incineration. We have the technology. Wells are being drilled in landfills in California to capture methane for energy. Scientists in the U.S. have also developed a fuel cell that converts sewage waste into electricity.
"We need real packaging and product regulation. Our governments have been absent from this file for at least a decade. We've lost a lot of ground."
Gord Perks, Toronto Environmental Alliance firstname.lastname@example.org