The Global is the Local

By Stephen (Team Deep Earth)

Sudbury has been the site of some of the most devastating local environmental destruction I’ve ever heard of. Throughout the 1900s the city saw vicious deforestation, “open-pit roasting,” and billowing sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions from ore refineries. Together these processes eroded soil, polluted water, killed vegetation, and harmed humans on a massive scale. Sudbury infamously became a “moonscape.” A Mordor-esque landscape of bare soil and soot-covered rocks. Mayor Brian Bigger grew up in Sudbury, and in our conversation with him last Friday he mentioned that as a child he thought all rocks were black until he saw one broken open and the true grey colour within revealed.

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source: sudburysoilstudy.com

The past forty years have seen a dramatic re-greening effort undertaken collaboratively by local universities, governments, and companies. Technological development has reduced sulphur dioxide emissions by orders of magnitude and millions of trees have been planted. The moonscape is just an embarrassing memory. Still, the city maintains a focus on local environmental protection. Mayor Bigger plans to release the “Sudbury Protocol” later this year in partnership with professors at Laurentian University. The Protocol synthesizes four decades of learning from Sudbury’s regreening efforts, drawing especially on the hundreds of papers published by local academics.

In our meeting I asked Mayor Bigger about the next big environmental challenge for Sudbury. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for a particular answer. We still have some momentum from the Paris climate negotiations; there’s lots of talk about carbon pricing in Canada, and the Premier are meeting with the Prime Minister this week to get started on what we hope will be an ambitious and progressive plan to help Canada achieve its GHG emission reduction goals. Meanwhile, you can see the smokestacks of local ore refineries everywhere in Sudbury, spewing billowing clouds of white smoke. Mostly SO2 still, but with some carbon mixed in of course. I wanted Mayor Bigger’s answer, as I would want any Mayor’s answer, to be reducing GHG emissions. That’s the next big environmental challenge for all Canadian cities.

I thought it was softball question. A big, juicy changeup, thrown right down the middle for our friend Brian to smash out of the park.

Instead, Mayor Bigger answered “watersheds.” Sudbury’s next big environmental challenge was watershed protection.

On the one hand, it’s an okay answer. Watersheds are a crucially important and drastically underappreciated part of environmental protection, and when we’re talking in Sudbury about heavy metals, tailings ponds, and toxic run-off, watersheds are hugely important to consider.

But the next great environmental challenge? The follow-up to the Sudbury Protocol? The dominant environmental issue of the next 40 years? Well…

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Note that Mayor Bigger was nothing but pleasant and welcoming to us.

Throughout our week in Sudbury I kept waiting for someone to talk about carbon reductions. Granted, I was coming to Sudbury directly from the Climate Choices Conference, a conference at the Wilfrid Laurier’s Balsillie School specifically about Canadian climate policy, and knew that the week after the Sudbury trip I was off to Vancouver for Globe 2016. I had GHG reduction strategies on the brain. But I still don’t think it was unreasonable to want somebody (anybody! please!) to talk about carbon reductions. Especially in an industry-intensive city like Sudbury.

There’s a curious dynamic at play here. The horrific destruction wrought upon Sudbury in the 20th century has led to what Brenda Koziol, senior scientist at Science North, called in conversation with us a “culture of environment.” Sudbury calls itself the “Education Capital of the North” and we interviewed Dr. David Pearson at the gorgeous Living With Lakes facility at Laurentian University. But during the week we heard far more about SO2 reductions and cutting-edge toxic run-off disposal techniques than cutting carbon.

I wonder if the intense focus on local environmental issues has left the perception of Sudbury environmental concerns too narrow. Is it impossible to think hard about serious GHG cuts when you’re so worried about protecting local water sources and trees?

I thought there might be a symbiotic relationship between these concerns. That Sudburians, having seen what happens when you don’t think about the effects of industrial costs being externalized to the environment, would care deeply about all things environment. We’re basically doing to the world right now what we did to Sudbury in the 20th century. It’s happening more slowly, but on a much wider scale.

Two more thoughts:

First: it’s key, I think, that we can hear about re-greening from someone like the Mayor. He experienced the moonscape early in his life, was part of the community that took aggressive action, and has been a direct beneficiary of that action later in his life. The problem with climate change is that the cause-and-effect relationship of aggressive action and tangible benefits won’t be felt by those who take action.

Second: the Inco Superstack, Sudbury’s most iconic building, was built to alleviate the effects of local SO2 poisoning. But it didn’t actually do much in itself to reduce total SO2 emissions. It was just built really really tall so that the emissions would go higher into the air, get blown around by the wind, and be distributed over a much wider area. Somebody told us that most of the emissions now end up somewhere in Michigan.

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photo: Stephen Clare

The Superstack that solves a problem, but doesn’t really solve the problem. If the perception of what ought to be protected was wide enough, the Inco Superstack wouldn’t really solve much of anything at all.

The same thought processes that led us to build the Superstack are holding us back from dealing seriously with climate change.  Our perception of “where” ought to be protected isn’t wide enough.

What Happens When Being Good to the Planet Isn’t Profitable?

By Team Deep Earth

Part I (by Stephen)

I’m thinking a lot about the dangers of just making a business case for sustainability. Businesses can save on electricity bills by replacing lightbulbs and appliances, reduce waste disposal costs, cut supply chain costs by being more efficient or recycling. But what happens when the return on investment doesn’t make sense on purely economic grounds? Then, by framing sustainability as a good business decision, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner. It’s even harder to effect real change.

At our meetings today we learned that some local mining companies have made the emissions they’re sending up the smokestack less hazardous by filtering out some sulphur dioxide, converting it to sulphuric acid, and selling it to companies in other industries. But if they were still able to just send it up the stack unrefined they’d probably do so. Recycling the sulphur is a way to mitigate the cost of scrubbing the gaseous by-product, not a genius way to increase profit.

I know that the Centre for Impact Investing at MaRS tries to get investors to devote 10 percent of their portfolio to stocks which will provide lower financial returns but some good social benefits. There’s no equivocating about the economic cost. If you want to do good, provide social or environmental benefits, the market will not reward you. Your bottom-line will take a hit.

Maybe we need to just steel our resolve and be real about what it means to be sustainable, even in Sudbury. Internalizing the costs we’ve been externalizing to the environment for hundreds of years is going to suck. It’s going to be expensive. It’s not going to be a way to make more money (at least not in the short-term). Until we’re willing to have that conversation, and until we’re willing to force companies to pay those costs through legislation such as a carbon price or bans on certain practices, we’re doomed to fail. More missed targets, forgotten action plans, and lost decades. Let’s get real.

 

Part II (by Ian)

Working with B Lab Canada, I have come to strongly believe that the private sector must be involved in the fight against the complex social and environmental issues facing our communities. Our meetings on Tuesday in Sudbury with EarthCare and reThink Green highlighted the important role businesses can and need to play in addressing environmental issues. Both initiatives, EarthCare through the city and reThink Green as a non-profit, have key elements that focus on getting local businesses involved in sustainability work.

In our meeting at reThink Green it was exciting to learn about how Sustainable Waterloo Region, part of the Sustainability CoLab Network, is working with B Lab to expand their Regional Carbon Initiative. The program was originally focused on getting companies in Waterloo to reduce their CO2 emissions but is now expanding into a holistic Regional Sustainability Initiative that helps businesses look at a range of environmental factors. reThink Green will be launching its own program focused on businesses called Green Economy North. If the Regional Sustainability Initiative is successful in Waterloo, there is potential for it to spread to Sudbury and other cities in the province through the Sustainability CoLab.

It is really encouraging to see such interest from companies in Greater Sudbury to get involved in these initiatives but I still left with some reservations. The current paradigm around corporate social responsibility (CSR) is based on the idea that changes to help the environment will also always have a positive impact on a company’s economic bottom line. The argument is that companies need to make these environmental changes to increase their profits and maximize their competitiveness, with the benefit to the environment being an important but secondary selling factor. While I understand that this has been the only way to get many companies to even consider environmental policies and programs, I worry that it is not enough. While for a majority of situations I think there can be a win-win scenario between the economy and the environment, I don’t think it will always be the case. This argument continues to place corporate profit above both people and the environment, meaning that in the case of a trade-off, profits come first. It does not touch on the moral, ethical and very real issue that our current economy is operating beyond the limits of what our planet can sustain. At what point do we recognize that we do not need to be making environmentally focused changes in businesses to increase economic profitability, but because it is necessary if we want our economy to stop eroding the planet we all depend on?

Quick wins such as getting companies to recycle or use energy efficient appliances are an important first step, but I want to continue pushing further. I want to support companies that are willing to look beyond their bottom line and find ways of using their business model to a positive net impact on their community and the environment. I want to be working to build an economy with companies that use business as a force for social good, not CSR initiatives as a way to mask the harm the inflict. The B Corp certified companies and the business leaders I have met through B Lab prove that taking this next step towards true social and environmental responsibility is possible. I look forward to seeing the impact that EarthCare, reThink Green and the Green Economy North program have in Sudbury, and I hope that the B Corp movement can follow right behind to take companies to the next level.