Keeping “Green” Green

May 11, 2010

We’d all rather make environmentally sensitive choices about our energy use, especially given the financial incentives for energy efficiency. And with large-scale changes like Nova Scotia’s plan to increase its provincial renewable energy targets from 25 to 40 per, there’s strong evidence that these changes can be made on a considerable scale.

But there’s always room to be cautious about the steps we take forward, especially when there’s evidence that the steps we’re so certain are helping the planet might be nothing but a green shell around old ideas.

In a recent article in the Globe and Mail, for example, University of Toronto professor Dan Harvey cried foul on recent developments in Toronto’s downtown core. Noting that the focus on glass facades creates a veritable heat trap — a perfect example of how passive solar heating can work (even if unintentionally) — Harvey suggests that no matter other fancy energy features might be included, bad design will fundamentally undercut any other initiatives.

Harvey’s comments don’t just suggest an isolated example in Toronto either. With the growing trend of “green” renovations, consumers need to be clear that making a building more energy efficient doesn’t just include its most obvious features. The fundamentals of our energy use, as always, are the main factors in determining whether we’re making smart energy choices. And there will always be temptations to accept greenwashing, because, after all: it feels good to think you’re a savvy energy consumer.

The future of energy is certainly going to include a new energy mix that includes renewable as well as non-renewable sources, coupled with a heavy dose of energy efficiency. And for that future to be different than our present, we need to ask hard questions about the well-meaning steps we take along the way.

CAPP’s 2010 Steward of Excellence Awards

April 9, 2010

As an association representing Canada’s upstream oil, oil sands and natural gas industry, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) is as conscious as any group about the difficulties of maintaining environmental credibility in oil and gas. As Flow explored in “The Great Oil Sands Journey”, oil companies have a complex story to tell in explaining the entire process of extraction and refining. And, in the end, there’s no doubt that the story that’s often told isn’t a positive one.

Broadly, CAPP addresses the issues of safety, environmental responsibility and community relations through its “stewardship” program. Updated annually in its Stewardship Report (2.7MB PDF), its member companies’ progress on initiatives ranging from lower-impact construction to improved safety protocols are highlighted through vital statistics and CAPP’s Steward of Excellence Awards, which began in 2007. Recognizing companies whose programs contributed to CAPP’s threefold mandate for stewardship (health and safety, environment and social), this year’s awards were distributed on March 15 at a dinner held in Calgary at the Westin Hotel.

Across the awards’ four categories, winners included BP, ConocoPhillips, Devon and the Horn River Basin Producers Group.

In the President’s Award category, BP won for reducing the environmental impact of Noel Major Project in North East BC. Through the use of new technologies and improved processes, BP was able to reduce the project’s carbon emissions by 85 per cent, while also reducing its footprint through a smaller number of wells and pipelines. Given the billion-dollar scale of the project, BP’s ability to cite the responsibility of its development is an important public tool.

ConocoPhillips, meanwhile, took the Steward of Excellence Health & Safety Award for its Advanced Safety Auditing (ASA) program. The program, designed to actively reinforce safe behaviours through (literally) exemplary leadership, led to a 61 per cent reduction in the company’s year-over-year Total Recordable Injury rate (TRIR). Just as important as the public face it presents, the health and safety of the oil and natural gas industry’s employees helps tell a story that begins inside the company itself.

For its use of minimal disturbance techniques in constructing access roads, Devon won CAPP’s Steward of Excellence Environment Award. In building roads through forested areas, Devon was able to reduce the size of its transportation corridors by 50 per cent and use the resulting mulch from the removed forest areas to layer the “right of way” (ROW) corridors.

Finally, in the “social” category, the Horn River Basin Producers Group took the award for its collaborative efforts, unifying 11 companies in their pursuit of a safe and responsible development of the titular Horn River Basin. With outreach that included an Oil and Gas Field Operations Training Program at the Fort Nelson campus of Northern Lights College, as well as supporting and participating in the 2008 Horn River Basin Economic Development Symposium, the producer group demonstrated the importance of both internal and external collaboration.

Together, these awards represent some of the actions being taken by CAPP members to improve the story being told about Canadian oil and gas development. Even if the resources they use have to be dug out of the ground, it makes sense not to make the public dig for positive facts about the industry.

Canadians not as green as they think

September 16, 2009

patentsSo You Think You Can Be Green, Canada? If that were a new hit show, it would be hard to find any winners.  At least, according to a new study commissioned by Cossette Communication and Summerhill.

The survey says Canadians are not nearly as green as they think, resulting in an enormous “Green Gap.”  That means that while Canadians genuinely care about the environment, they aren’t making appropriate lifestyle changes in areas where they want to make a difference.

Need an example?  Take water bottles. Those polled reported using reusable water bottles 80 per cent of the time. That’s pretty good, right?  However, according to Environment Canada, 65 million empty water bottles are added to our landfills every year.

The truth is, Canadians may think green, but could be doing a much better job of putting belief into practice. The study shows they’re aware they should be using transit, but still don’t; they support harnessing solar energy, but they don’t – and so on.

A similar survey was conducted in 2008, demonstrating that Americans misunderstand key phrases, and are subject to “greenwashing.” In Canada, women and Quebecers are most likely to take a product’s greenness into consideration when making a purchase.

But overall, most Canadian consumers are leery of greenwashed labels, and don’t necessarily trust Green Certification on products, according to Nick Cowling of Optimum Public Relations.  “They don’t want to be fooled”.

Perhaps a fear of being sold a bill of bad (brown?) goods has turned Canadians away?

Count me in WINNER

September 9, 2009

countmeinCount Ontario in. By reducing their power consumption, a community challenge has shown Ontario residents the power of collective action. Participating communities were monitored over a 12-hour assessment period. Participants were given the best kind of advice: not foregoing the stove for a day, which isn’t sustainable over time.  Instead, they were told how to permanently reduce consumption in their homes. 

It’s like losing weight. For best results, you don’t just avoid chips for a single day, but alter your diet permanently. Actions such as fixing leaky faucets and installing solar panels help conservation and the environment in the long run. These communities have made changes that will last. 

Organized by the Electricity Distributors Association and the City of Woodstock, the Count Me In Challenge is meant to replace Woodstock’s municipal Blackout Day Challenge. This year’s competition was held on August 14.  

Sound familiar? It’s an ominous date in power-consumption and production circles. It’s the (sixth) anniversary of the enormous blackout that affected the eastern side of the continent in 2003. Major cities had to learn how to deal with partial and full blackouts, caused in part by too-high demand.  

More than commemorating a bad week, this program encourages people from all over the world to say “count me in!” and start saving electricity wherever they can. Their website is full of testimonials, which they hope demonstrates the cumulative effect of individuals really can make a difference. 

The Count Me In Challenge recognized winners in two categories. Kingston won in the category of highest drop in energy consumption, and Sioux Lookout in highest participation per capita. 

These and all of the other participating communities hope their pride catches on, and that eventually everyone will want to “count themselves in.”

Consumer Challenges – Count Me In!

July 24, 2009

countmeinAh, there’s nothing that Canadians like better than a challenge. 

August 14th marks the anniversary of the North American blackout in 2003. So organizers of Count Me In! thought it would be the perfect date to choose for their community challenge. 

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to rally your community to join. The winning community is the one with the highest percentage drop in electricity consumption on August 14 or by having the highest per capita participation in the pledge drive. Count Me In is an example of how consumer challenges are raising awareness and changing habits.

And there are others. Take last year’s One Million Acts of Green. 

onemillionacts

The campaign asked Canadian residents to make one single environmentally-friendly change and track it by logging onto the site. The campaign started on October 21, 2008 and the goal of one million acts was reached in February – four months ahead of schedule, and only 105 days after the movement was launched. 

It was so successful in fact, that One Million Acts of Green announced in June that it was going global. Members from other countries are now encouraged to sign on with their acts, and a U.S. viral site is also in the works.

These Canadian success stories are powered by small and simple changes. There are many ways to act Green. It can be as simple as changing light bulbs or driving less, and they are proving that one small act can make a big environmental difference.

Game on, Ontario!

Yellow Pages takes it one step at a time

May 26, 2009

“Let your fingers do the walking.”

It used to be Yellow Pages’ slogan, an allusion to browsing through the directory to find the right business number. Now, Yellow Pages is talking about steps again – but for a very different reason.

Yellow Pages Group (YPG) has launched its Changing the World, One Step at a Time campaign. It’s designed to encourage ethical and environmentally-sound decisions for individuals and organizations. Equiterre and Green Communities Canada are supporting YPG’s campaign.

There are already 12 steps listed on YPG’s site, in the following categories: Sustainable Transportation; Fair Trade and Ethical Consumption; Ecological Agriculture; Energy Efficiency; Waste Management; and Social and Community Involvement. YPG lists its own corporate actions and details for each.

YPG is no Johnny-come-lately to eco-friendly business practices. Its directories are already 100% recyclable. They’re composed of post-consumer fibre from Canadian suppliers, vegetable-based ink and hot-melt glue. Additionally, YPG uses only 100% recycled office paper at all its offices.

Their corporate actions include short, medium and long-term objectives. Some initiatives for 2009 include: offering the option to consumers to customize their directory order, reviewing the employee business travel policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, implementing a more efficient energy-saving policy and offering fair-trade products.

YPG says it will publicly report its progress on the various actions and programs. This will keep them honest, of course, but it will do something else. It creates a resource and database. By revealing the efficacy of its programs, the public and other companies can evaluate and compare.

Some companies talk a good game, but Yellow Pages is walking the walk – fingers and all.

Responsibility rewards

May 19, 2009

It’s one of the great debates of our time: do companies and corporations have a responsibility to protect the environment and promote conservation? Of course, companies are legally obligated to conform to environmental legislation. But that’s not quite the idea. Put simply: is there a social responsibility to do more than the minimum? Can businesses become green leaders? It’s easy to answer “of course,” but it’s not so simple.

Companies have an obligation to shareholders to maximize their profits, and are expected to provide for things such as employee pension funds. Short of ensuring business operations don’t contravene environmental laws, is it fair or reasonable to expect companies to do more?

Some do. Some companies see themselves as constituent members of their local and global community, and are embracing social responsibility. Some companies are driving the unfolding green revolution, rather than lamenting how much it might cost them. GE, Google and Waste Management are three Fortune 500 companies with seemingly little in common beyond sheer success. So what do the world leader in power generation, a free Internet search tool and a waste company have in common?

The common thread linking all three – if you’ll forgive an obvious metaphor – is green. Each has put its money where its public spokesperson is, so to speak, and actively funds and supports green initiatives.

GE   Take GE. A huge corporation by anyone’s standards, its power division alone had $29.3 billion in revenue in 2008. With operations literally around the globe, GE deals in many different types of energy – including non-renewables such as coal and natural gas, but also significantly invests in and promotes solar, biogas, and in particular, wind.

Quite simply, GE is the world leader in wind power. In 2008, GE’s wind turbine business was approximately $6 billion, and has grown dramatically in a short period of time. As recently as 2005, GE was making about 500 turbines per year. GE expected to make more than 3,000 in 2008.

In total, it has installed more than 10,000 wind turbines around the world, comprising over 15,000 megawatts of capacity. GE manufactures turbines in its main facility in Germany, but also in Spain, China, Canada, and the US.

GE has also developed tools to help individual electricity consumers make better decisions. GE’s SmartMeter makes consumers aware of their energy use, especially during peak times. This enables time-of-use pricing, where applicable. The goal is to decrease peak-time energy use, which is more expensive, and increase energy efficiency, saving money for both utilities and their customers.

Waste Management   What’s more “brown” than trash? Waste management used to be about finding an empty field within trucking distance of a town, and filling it with stuff people throw away. Responsible waste management used to mean digging a pit first, so there’d be more space to throw garbage into. Waste Management is trying to do things differently.

Quite simply, Waste Management is trying to effect a culture change – trash doesn’t have to be brown. Indeed, their website ThinkGreen.com reflects a conscious paradigm shift. Trash can be green if it’s put to good use – but what use is trash?

Plenty, says Waste Management. A new facility will liquefy and purify landfill gas into natural gas, which will fuel garbage collection trucks. The first phase of the program will involve 300 trucks in California, reducing annual greenhouse gas emissions by 30,000 tons. The medium-term goal is to reduce Waste Management’s overall truck emissions by 15 per cent by 2020.

Google   It’s only appropriate for energy and waste companies to be more environmentally responsible – after all, they are best-placed to make the biggest difference. Companies in all sorts of divergent industries are taking steps to ensure they make the right sort of impact.

Take Google. Yes, the search engine. If it’s not immediately obvious to you how a free service provider can be financially successful, Google had over $16 billion of revenue in 2008 – mostly from online advertising.

Whereas GE figures it can best act responsibly by building and selling clean energy, Google funds and conducts energy research. For example, in October 2008, Google announced an ambitious plan to wean the United States off coal and oil by 2030, and to cut the use of cars by 40 per cent. Google’s contributions are more than theoretical. Google has also invested $45 million into wind, solar and geothermal start-up companies as part of its Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal campaign.

The big THREE are just the start…

Are those the only three companies seeking to do something about the environment? Far from it. Many smaller companies further from the green industry are greening up their business.

Take the National Bank as an example. The Drive Eco program, launched in September 2007, plants trees on behalf of its young drivers customers. The amount and type of trees depends on the model and make of the car, specifically calculated to offset the vehicle’s carbon dioxide emissions. In less than two years, more than 5,000 trees have been planted, reforesting five hectares of land – about 10 football fields.

Other companies aren’t just taking action to be more environmentally responsible, they’re keeping track of companies that do – and don’t – make a similar effort.

The Conference Board of Canada, for example, analyses corporate responses to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) and publishes a report. The top 200 companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange are encouraged “disclose information on the financial and business implications of climate change risks and opportunities, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions accounting, and GHG management strategies to institutional investors.”

The annual report illustrates the actions companies are taking to combat, or at least adapt to, climate change. The trends are encouraging; each year, more companies participate – 55 per cent in 2008, up from 45 per cent the previous year, and 28 per cent before that.

What’s more, there seems to be a general sense among companies that change is needed, and steps are being taken. To that end, almost half of the companies report having implemented formal greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan or policies , and more than half have established committees with mandates to track and seek ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Corporate responsibility used to be seen as a humorous oxymoron; like military intelligence, or civil war. Increasingly, however, independent companies and corporations are taking steps to, at the very least, mitigate their environmental footprints and reduce their harmful emissions. Sometimes “the man” isn’t so bad after all.