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Real versus fake Christmas trees: Which one’s greener?

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Hey, folks! 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:

  • O Christmas tree, how sustainable are thy branches?
  • Meet a young B.C. activist going to the UN climate conference
  • Global carbon emissions: Where are they all coming from?
  • How to eat for a healthier planet

Real versus fake Christmas trees: Which one’s greener?

(Philippe Desmazes/Getty Images)

Many of us have a cherished December tradition that involves a needle-y tree decked out in lights and seasonal bling. Whether that tree was cut down at a farm or churned out in a factory, you might be looking for affirmation that what you’re doing is greener than the alternative.

So what does science say? At least two studies have looked into this — onefunded by the American Christmas Tree Association, which represents artificial tree manufacturers, and an independent study by Montreal-based environmental consulting firm Ellipsos.

The main problem with real trees is the impact of Christmas tree farms, which in some cases displace natural ecosystems, Ellipsos found. It’s arguably also a waste to cut down a real tree for a single use before turning it into mulch, compost or, at worst, landfill. When it comes to the artificial option, the main impacts are that their manufacture depletes natural resources and generates greenhouse gas emissions.

Real trees suck up carbon dioxide, but Ellipsos found there is debate about whether trees absorb more carbon than they release in their first 20 years — and Christmas trees are usually cut down during their teenage years.

Both studies found that a real tree generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions per Christmas than an artificial one, but that changes if you keep your artificial tree for longer, since the emissions are divided over many years. To minimize the carbon impact, the studies say you should keep the same artificial tree for at least eight years, and preferably more than 20.

That said, both studies found the overall environmental impact of buying a Christmas tree is minimal compared to, say, flying or driving a few hours to spend Christmas with family and friends.

Still, there are things you can do to make your tree tradition greener:

If you get a real tree, buy one that is locally grown and don’t drive far to get it. Both studies suggested those transportation emissions make a big difference.

If you get an artificial tree, make it last. Buy used, if possible, and keep it for as long as you can.

When you’re done with your tree, dispose of it responsibly. Donate your artificial tree to a new home. Get your real tree turned into mulch. (Many cities do this.)

Speaking of disposal, some companies, including ones in B.C., Ontario and Alberta, now allow you to skip that step altogether by renting out potted live Christmas trees that are planted the following spring.

Emily Chung


Greening the holidays

The holiday season is soon upon us, and that means gifts, food and otherwise lavish celebrations. But given increasing awareness of the environmental impacts of our lifestyle choices, some people are seeking to cut back.

In what ways are you making the holidays greener?


Going to COP24: B.C. activist Marina Melanidis

(Marina Melanidis)

Marina Melanidis recently graduated from the University of British Columbia with a B.Sc. in natural resources conservation. Later this week, the 23-year-old Canadian will be attending COP24, the UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland, as part of a B.C. youth delegation. This week, Melanidis shares her hopes. Next week, she will report on her experience at COP24.

I must confess, attending one of the annual climate change conferences hosted by the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) has been a dream of mine for years. I’ve been engaged in climate action since I was young and first learned that the forests, mountains and oceans I grew up with and loved were at risk from global warming.

At COP24, world leaders are coming together to figure out how they will implement the Paris agreement and limit warming to 1.5 degrees. However, even if we can manage this, we will all still witness drastic shifts to the world around us. This is not an issue we can afford to let linger any longer.

The young people of B.C. know this. We have consulted with almost 300 youth in the lead-up to COP24, and almost half think about the consequences of climate change every day! Yet less than seven per cent of B.C. youth feel as though their voices are represented in the climate discussion in Canada. Youth may be the group that has contributed the least to the climate crisis, yet we are also the group that will face the brunt of its consequences.

Youth are powerful! We are hard-working, willing to embrace change and we care about our future. I will be addressing the lack of meaningful youth involvement in climate action, both internationally and right here at home, at COP24. Together with my fellow delegates, we will work to ensure that the voices of youth are no longer being ignored and we will push for the resources and opportunities that will empower youth across the country to act on climate.


The Big Picture: Sources of carbon emissions

There’s a lot of talk about the need for us to cut carbon emissions. But what sectors are the biggest generators of these noxious gases? The graph below, which draws on 2014 data from the United Nations, provides an overview.

(CBC)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • There has been much speculation about what agreements will come out of the UN climate conference going on in Poland. In the meantime, COP24 has witnessed passionate calls to arms from David Attenborough (naturalist and narrator of the Planet Earth TV series) and 15-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who told one panel, “Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.”

  • B.C. laid out its climate strategy this week, and environmentalists are pleased. Among other things, the plan known as Clean BC will require all new buildings to be zero-emission by 2032, all new cars to be zero-emission by 2040 and will redirect carbon tax revenues into helping the biggest businesses to go greener.

  • Governments around the world are debating how to reduce the impact of fossil fuels on the environment, but oil and gas companies are also feeling pressure from within. At the urging of shareholders, Dutch Royal Shell announced that it would set stronger emissions targets — and tie executive pay to meeting those targets.

Better food choices for a healthier planet

You’ve probably heard by now that a plant-based diet generates far fewer carbon emissions than one that’s heavy on meat. But let’s face it, going vegan is a major lifestyle change, and for that reason, daunting.

The good news is you don’t need to replace your annual holiday turkey with tofurkey in order to cut your culinary carbon footprint. I wrote a piece for CBC News this week citing research that shows there are lots of simple things you can do, starting now, that can make a big difference.

And most of them will save you money and help you eat healthier at the same time:

Waste less food. Food production generates lots of emissions whether you eat the food or throw it out. Decomposing waste food produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. You can cut your emissions from food significantly just by eating more and throwing out less of what you buy.

Prepare more food at home. Commercially prepared sandwiches generate double the greenhouse gas emissions of a sandwich made at home, a recent University of Manchester study found. By making food at home, you reduce both food waste and energy devoted to refrigeration, assembly and packaging.

Eat less. Statistics show that a) many Canadians are consuming more calories than they need, and b) many Canadians are overweight or obese. If you cut back your food intake to the right amount, you can reduce your emissions — and probably shed a few pounds, too.

Eat less meat, dairy and eggs. Most Canadians — vegetarians included — are eating far more protein than they need, a University of Waterloo analysis suggests. And animal protein tends to have a much higher carbon footprint than plant protein, especially red meat. Eating smaller servings or replacing some servings with alternatives like tofu, beans or lentils each day or week could make a big difference.

Avoid greenhouse-grown veggies. Buying local isn’t always greener, especially when it comes to tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce grown indoors during the Canadian winter. That takes a lot of heat and power. When salad ingredients aren’t in season locally, imported might actually be the greener choice.

All that said, many vegan recipes are delicious. (I’m particularly fond of vegan “cheesecake” and this stir fry with tempeh and cashews.)

— Emily Chung


Stay in touch!

Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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