Don't opt out: click here to learn more about our work.

Weeding down the environmental cost of cannabis cultivation

How yeast could revolutionize an unsustainable industry

Weeding down the environmental cost of cannabis cultivation

Canada has the world’s largest market for recreational cannabis. Its legalization last year lit the path to a ‘higher,’ more liberal future, and was a bold move that came at an opportune time for science.

Cannabis-related research and education are flourishing in this political landscape — the demand for cannabis expertise is going through the roof, creating a space that begs for attention from researchers.

But cultivating cannabis for both research and recreation comes at a cost: it is both expensive to produce at industrial scales and damaging to our environment.

With the many trailblazing studies on cannabis underway, an especially creative finding detailing a new cultivation technique was published in February as a letter in Nature. Dr. Jay Keasling’s lab at UC Berkeley engineered yeast to produce pure cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). This discovery motivates a reconsideration of current cannabis production policies and strategies.

The ecological and economic costs of cultivating cannabis

A recent CTV News article titled “Canada’s largest outdoor cannabis farm ready for growth” reports that prior to the farm’s opening, most legal cannabis had been cultivated in indoor facilities.

This should be a cause for concern. The financial cost of these methods of production is superseded only by the environmental costs. The cultivation of cannabis is not only water- and nutrient-intensive, but also usually requires land clearing, causes agrochemical pollution, and erodes soil. The unenlightened idea of an outdoor farm could cause severe ecological harm and environmental degradation. 

The production of one kilogram of processed cannabis releases 4600 kg of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. That is the amount of carbon dioxide produced by 3 million cars in the US.

An indoor facility is an even worse prospect. A 2012 study published by Dr. Evan Mills in Energy Policy, analyzed a four by four by eight-foot module of indoor cultivation. The results show that it would require 13,000 kilowatt-hours per year for utilities such as high-intensity lighting, ventilation, pre-heating the irrigation water, space heating, and air conditioning within the indoor facility. At this rate, Mills estimated the financial cost of growing cannabis from electricity alone to be $6 billion per year in the US.

The environmental costs are even more astounding — fossil fuels have caused carbon dioxide levels to be raised four times the atmospheric usual. At this rate, Mills estimated that the production of one kilogram of processed cannabis releases 4600 kg of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. That is the amount of carbon dioxide produced by 3 million cars in the US. The ecological horror entailed would cause both Greta Thunberg and anyone who understands climate change to have nightmares.

A sustainable alternative to indoor and outdoor cultivation of cannabis

The environmental burden of producing cannabis is too costly using the current methods of cultivation. It would be a great mistake on the industry’s part not to consider alternatives. One beneficial method that could help solve these problems is the procedure co-outlined by Keasling.

The new method is said to cover the deficits of current cannabis production methods. The researchers created an experimental setup that would be cost-efficient, environmentally safer, and enable direct synthesis of THC and CBD.

By developing a fermentation process using brewer’s yeast, the scientists have engineered a way to produce cannabinoids from a sugar called galactose. The process could help rein in the carbon footprint and financial cost of cannabis cultivation, as well as enable efficient production of specific cannabinoids normally found in trace amounts of plant-cultivated cannabis. 

It could be a great breakthrough for Canadian researchers studying cannabis to investigate the application of this new method, along with companies that sell products imbued with THC and CBD, such as cannabis-derived oils.

Sustainably cultivating cannabis can have medical applications

By developing a fermentation process using brewer’s yeast, the scientists have engineered a way to produce cannabinoids from a sugar called galactose.

The efficient synthesis of THC and CBD through the sustainable yeast-based method could be especially relevant in medicine due to the effects of the isolated compounds on patients.

According to a research review on effects of THC on cognition, the compound can reduce activity in major parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex. THC is thus generally linked to impairment of cognitive abilities, as well as psychotic symptoms and anxiety. On the other hand, CBD, which is an antagonist of the cannabinoid receptor, increases activation of other major parts of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex and striatum.

The review further concludes that CBD reduces anxiety, thus opposing the effects of THC. When subjects are given a combination of equal amounts of THC and CBD, in comparison to pure THC, it was observed that CBD subdued the detrimental effects caused by THC. The risks associated with CBD products are therefore thought not to be associated with CBD itself, but other cannabinoids that can be found in the product.

Controlling the THC:CBD ratio in potential medications derived from cannabis could hold promise in medical research. Dr. Lakshmi Kotra, a senior scientist at the U of T-affiliated Krembil Research Institute, illustrated the example case of Sativex in an interview with The Varsity.

Sativex is a Canadian drug that has a 50:50 ratio of THC and CBD and is usually given to patients with multiple sclerosis. There is anecdotal evidence that suggests that smoking cannabis has better effects than Sativex.

Another example demonstrating the importance of controlling for specific ratios of THC and CBD stems from research on potential treatments for schizophrenia. The effects of potential cannabis-derived treatments have been shown to vary based on the THC:CBD ratio, highlighting the importance of its control.

While scientists can extract pure cannabinoids from cannabis plants, it’s an expensive and arguably arduous method that produces low yields. New approaches such as the yeast-based methods could offer more efficient ways of producing these medically relevant compounds.

The wider impact of sustainable cultivation

It may be a great breakthrough for Canadian cannabis-based companies to investigate such innovative, ecologically safe, and cost-effective methods, and would also allow the nation to set an example for the world with progressive legislation. It would be a great showcase of sustainable development and economics — a perfect way to lay down roots for a new industry that is bound to thrive in the coming years.

We are creating history with respect to cannabis legislation and distribution. With the nation-wide legalization of cannabis, along with Germany and New Zealand importing Canadian-grown cannabis, it becomes imperative to pay attention to current methods of growth, the sustainability of which should be equally considered for its ecological and financial costs.

U of T team wins top prize at KPMG’s international AI competition

Paramount AI team created device that sorts waste with 94 per cent accuracy

U of T team wins top prize at KPMG’s international AI competition

A team of five U of T graduate students named Paramount AI won first place in KPMG’s 2019 Ideation Challenge, a worldwide competition to develop solutions to problems facing businesses using artificial intelligence (AI). KPMG is one of the world’s top four accounting firms.

The U of T students faced off against 600 participants from top universities across nine countries, including Canada, Australia, China, Germany, Luxembourg, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

The final round was held from May 10–12 in Amsterdam, where the students — Maharshi Trivedi, Nikunj Viramgama, Aakash Iyer, Vaibhav Gupta, and Ganesh Vedula — won the top prize for their innovation, which used AI to automate waste segregation.

Paramount AI’s innovative solution

The winning innovation is a sorting system able to distinguish between three different categories of waste: recycling, organic, and garbage.

Iyer, who is specializing in data analytics and financial engineering, explained that the initial prototype of the system used LED light bulbs and basic circuits to classify the waste.

The five students worked continuously, with little breaks and limited sleep during the three days of the competition, which came at the expense of exploring Amsterdam.

The reward for their efforts came in the confirmation of the practicality of using the system in real-life situations. The device completed both a financial and market analysis by the end of the competition.

The importance of waste segregation

Viramgama, who is specializing in data analytics and data science, explained that the team chose to focus on the issue of waste segregation because they were concerned about improper sorting in Toronto.

He noted that about one in three residents in Toronto contaminate the waste they place in recycling bins, and that 20 per cent of waste placed in blue recycling bins ends up in a landfill.

Since there is limited landfill space, this has motivated government spending on improved waste management. An increase in spending may lead to a raise in taxes,which makes the emergence of automation in waste segregation something that can greatly benefit our waste management.

The U of T team tackled this issue by creating a system that accurately sorts waste about 94 per cent of the time. Current waste systems have an accuracy of only up to 74 per cent, and each percentage of accuracy translates to significant savings for spending on waste management.

The pressing need for a solution to this environmental problem, which has economic consequences, could be a reason why Paramount AI won the competition.

The other reason, explained Vedula, was that the team was “not only thinking about saving the environment, but… also trying to help businesses [maximize] profits.”

The future of Paramount AI

The next step for Paramount AI is to present their prototype to experts at KPMG’s annual AI summit in October. By then, the team hopes to further develop their model, aiming to continue increasing the accuracy of their system, while likely adding new features to increase the value of the product for potential clients.

The students currently have the intellectual property rights of their invention. With the support of KPMG, the team is interested in looking to commercialize their product.

They are also optimistic about the future of AI in positively shaping the lives of Torontonians, as a whole. “We completely believe that in the next few years, we will see AI being integrated in every part of our lives, because there is a huge potential,” said Vedula.

“[AI] is already involved in making our lives easier.”

Who is fighting for our future?

Youth protests reveal the lifeless reality of on-campus climate activism

Who is fighting for our future?

Fridays for Future is a movement started by 15 year old Greta Thunberg, who sat for three weeks outside of the Swedish parliament to challenge their inaction on climate change. Her courage and determination sparked an international student activism movement.

In Toronto, the Fridays for Future school strike for climate change action began on May 3 at Queen’s Park. It coincided with Doug Ford’s meeting with the recently-elected Alberta Premier, Jason Kenney, as they discussed their objections to the recently-enacted federal carbon tax. The strike concluded at Nathan Phillips Square, in front of City Hall.

These protesters highlighted the fact that even if they collectively decided to recycle, stop using straws, and go vegan, it would not be enough to contest the amount of damage that large-scale carbon emissions have done to the earth. Just 100 businesses alone have contributed to 71 per cent of our world’s global emissions since 1988.

Statistics like this can leave some feeling hopeless, but it ignited a movement among thousands of students around the world. These students refused to let the world decide their future. They refused to be left with the scraps of a dying planet. The march on May 3 was just a glimpse of their potential for enacting change. This is a continuous fight on all fronts, and it is being led by those who will be affected the most.

In 11 years, the damage to the Earth caused by climate change will be irreversible. It is the terrifying end to a story that began with the birth of the industrial age. From the early eighteenth century to now, generations have witnessed the development of what the National Centre for Climate Restoration calls a “near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization.”

It may seem excessive to phrase it that way, but it is the unfortunate, daunting truth. Scientists around the world have made it clear that if we do not stop the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions there will be permanently detrimental consequences.

We already see some of these consequences today, with frequent wildfires on the west coast, record-breaking hurricanes, floods with tolls on thousands of lives, and a severe lack of crops, a major instigator behind the modern refugee crisis.

As reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international goal is to reduce warming to under two degrees Celsius and afterward to not allow warming to rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius. It seems impossible, but in order to even begin the process, “every sector of the economy needs to get to zero emissions if we are to stabilize our climate” according to Akshat Rathi, reporting for Quartz.  

It is an intimidating task laid before all of humanity, and yet the response in political spaces has been lackluster.

U of T has witnessed a small protest campaign centred around divesting from fossil fuel companies led by the climate activist group Leap UofT. However, the scale and reach of the movement, unfortunately, does not compare to that of Fridays for Future and is only the second campaign of its kind on campus, following the UofT350 campaign. The truth is, we are nowhere near leading the charge. We are not doing enough.

Just before the march began, the voices that spoke from the microphone placed at the top of Queen’s Park were young, innocent, and enraged. They screamed, they begged, they chastised, and they joked at all those who claimed to work for the betterment of their future.

They spoke on a range of issues in quick, concise speeches. Topics included fast fashion, the effect of the meat industry on global emissions, the Green New Deal, and why divesting from the corporations leading in greenhouse gas emissions was vital for the fight against climate change. All this, when they should have been busy being kids.

Signs are one of the most important parts of a protest, and at the Friday for Future protests it was no different. One replaced the faces on the popular ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme with Doug Ford, money, and our dying earth. Another displayed earth imagined as an ice cream cone with the caption “Noo, I’m melting.” Then there were those with simple, heartbreaking messages, such as “I want to meet my grandchildren.”

That is the core message of Fridays for Future: to let the world see who would be left to deal with the ramifications of a dying earth. At the heart of protest signs covered in memes and the innocence of various misspelled words were children, standing in front of adults who have determined their future, begging for their lives.

As the world faces the consequences of negligent production and selfish policies, children, armed with seemingly more knowledge and worldly understanding than our public servants, are rallying. The question to be asked is where do we, the students who should be empowered by the privilege to learn more, question more, and fight for more, stand. We, as fellow students, must follow in the footsteps of the brave, impassioned students at Fridays for Future in combating climate change. This movement is for all of us, and we must do a better job.

It can be comforting to see youth rising against the injustices of the world. It can make you feel hopeful that the future will be filled with bright minds ready to challenge any obstacle that comes their way. You must not forget that this is not what they should be doing. At the end of the day, it is upsetting to see so many children forced to protest in the streets, because instead, as dozens of signs read, they should be at school.

Nadine Waiganjo is a second-year Social Sciences student at University College.

Undergraduate students take on Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Research Fair

More than 30 students presented their research to peers and faculty

Undergraduate students take on Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Research Fair

Undergraduate students from the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology presented their research on an array of topics, from biodiversity to gene-environment interactions, on April 5 at the Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Undergraduate Research Fair.

Judges selected four winners for a cash prize: Natasha Klasios for research in gene-environment interactions, Elenore Breslow for research in biodiversity & morphology, Joshua Craig for research in mutualism & parasitism, and Edita Folfas for the category of life history ecology & evolution.

Highlights from microplastics research

Klasios, supervised by Dr. Chelsea Rochman, investigated whether wildlife in the San Francisco Bay were absorbing microplastics. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than five millimetres in diameter which can potentially harm wildlife.

In an interview with The Varsity, Klasios explained that her experiment’s design was to compare the absorbance of microplastics in mussels residing in the bay, to those taken from a marine reserve and left in the Bay for 90 days. Unexpectedly, she found that the transplanted mussels absorbed a greater number of microplastics per individual on average versus the resident species.

Closer analysis revealed that the data was skewed due to specific sites of the Bay having higher concentrations of microplastics, particularly in the central and lower south regions.

Describing the applications, Klasios explained that since her research shows site-specific differences in microplastic absorption by mussels, officials could potentially take samples of mussels from bodies of water over time to monitor microplastic concentrations, and identify “hotspots of pollution” for clean-up.

Jacqueline Bikker, also supervised by Rochman, explained how she analyzed the distribution density and composition of microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay.

Using spectroscopic analysis of surface water samples, she found that the most common type of microplastic pollution consisted of the polymers polyethylene and polypropylene. She also discovered that pollution in the Bay was highest downstream of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Highlights from botanical research

Miguel Eduardo Felismino, supervised by Dr. John Stinchcombe, explained how his research found a correlation between the flower size of the ivy-leaved morning glory and a measure called “stomatal conductance.” This is the rate at which carbon dioxide enters and water vapour exits a plant, through small holes in the leaves called stomata.

The findings provided evidence of an abiotic factor that could affect flower size. It does not involve other creatures, unlike known biotic factors that affect flower size, such as the population of local pollinators and the reproductive strategies of nearby plants.

Also supervised by Stinchcombe, Matthew Coffey investigated whether a population of Queen Anne’s lace, or wild carrot, could evolve to develop frost tolerance over time.

While he did not find evidence of evolutionary change over the relatively short six-year timeframe of the study, his investigation showed that developing a seedbank over time through a “resurrection study” design could be a viable way to conduct evolutionary studies.

Julia Boyle, supervised by Dr. Megan Frederickson, investigated whether there are “priority effects” in mutually beneficial relationships between plants and microbes. In other words, she studied whether the order in which microorganisms were introduced to a legume affected the plant’s growth.

Boyle found evidence that the first microbial strain introduced to the plant affected it the most, compared to a subsequently introduced strain. She found that initially introducing a parasitic microbe led to stunted above-ground plant growth, compared to the introduction of a mutualistic microbe.

Even if both strains were ultimately introduced to the plant in identical amounts, Boyle’s observations showed that the order of introduction would significantly affect the plant’s growth.

Highlights from animal research

Cole Brookson, under the supervision of Dr. Martin Krkosek, investigated how two species of sea lice could affect populations of three different species of wild pacific salmon – chum, pink, and sockeye.

L. salmonis is a specialist species of lice that only affects salmon, while C. clemensi is a generalist species that affects all fish. From examining how they affect the salmon species as they swim from the British Columbian coast, he found that the pink salmon species was the most susceptible to both species of lice.

He further found that L. salmonis was more prevalent in the southern Discovery Islands, while C. clemensi was more prevalent around the northern Johnstone Strait. These findings could help guide local communities to manage parasite populations.

Vicki Zhang, supervised by Dr. Locke Rowe, investigated how environmental factors are projected to affect the populations of two ambush bug species in Southern Ontario.

Zhang used Maxent — a machine learning species distribution model — to visualize data. From this data, Zhang created presence-absence maps and discovered that bug population ranges may be contracted in specific areas due to climate change. These maps could help guide future field work on the Phymata americana and Phymata pennsylvanica bug species.

Under the supervision of Sebastian Kvist, Sophia Samuelsson created a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Leeches of Canada.” In doing so, she created the first meta-analysis of natural history information for Canadian leech species since the 1970s.

To collect findings, Samuelsson combed through a variety of studies, from how leeches affect turtles, to how leeches carry disease between hosts and respond to lake acidity. She hopes the reference resource may be useful for leech biologists, scientists who study species affected by leeches, and researchers in environmental health.

Saving the Great Lakes from ecological disaster

The consequences of climate change on our largest freshwater system

Saving the Great Lakes from ecological disaster

As summer approaches, students are exchanging their scantrons for swimsuits and pencils for popsicles. For many, summer plans will involve the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes are an epicentre of recreational, economic, and ecological activity. 9.8 million Canadians, about a third of our country’s population, rely on them. Carved thousands of years ago by retreating glaciers, the Great Lakes are a unique ecosystem housing a fifth of the world’s freshwater.

However, concealed by the rolling waves and the glassy surface of the lakes is evidence of environmental damage caused by humans over the last few centuries.

We have not always been kind to the Great Lakes. Heavy human use of the lakes has resulted in habitat loss and fragmentation, the introduction of invasive species, and environmental pollution. The invasion of zebra mussels and clouds of green algae blooming from phosphorus runoff are just two consequences of human activity to make headlines.

More than 3,500 species of plants and animals call the Great Lakes home, and for some, this is the only place where they can exist. Faced with the growing consequences of climate change, the Great Lakes system is coming under even more stress and is possibly reaching a tipping point.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center report

In March, the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), an American non-profit advocacy group, released a report detailing the effects of climate change on the Great Lakes.

Although it is widely understood that the consequences of climate change – like rising temperatures and more extreme weather events – will affect everyone, this report also detailed specific consequences for those who live in the Great Lakes region.

Increasingly severe weather patterns will bring hotter, drier summers to the area, causing heat waves. They will also bring wetter springs and winters, which will trigger flooding and increased water flow.

From the early 1900s to 2015, the Great Lakes region experienced a 10 per cent increase in precipitation, compared to the rest of the United States, which had only experienced an increase of four per cent.

“We’re seeing more and more of these… powerful wind storms, rain storms, [and] thunderstorms in the summer, and more milder winters for sure,” said Dr. Harvey Shear, a professor of geography at UTM, who teaches courses on the Great Lakes.

However, the ELPC anticipates that by 2100, the Great Lakes region will have less moisture in the summer, leading to fewer periods of intense precipitation at the start of the season.

Intensifying heat will bring about more days with temperatures above 33 degrees Celsius. By 2100, the ELPC report predicts that the Great Lakes region will experience an additional 30 to 60 days of such temperatures per year.

These intensified patterns of precipitation and hotter temperatures will translate into devastating consequences for the environment and our society. Shortened growing periods, increased disease, and the rising prevalence of waterborne pathogens will directly affect humans.

Nothing new

While it may seem like a shock to find that the Great Lakes region will experience such severe changes in the near future, researchers are not surprised by some of these consequences.

“We have modified the Great Lakes over the last 400 years to the point where they’re almost unrecognizable from what we would have seen if we [went] back in time,” explained Shear.

A case in point is the St. Lawrence River, which has been carved out to accommodate human activities since 1680. Construction began for the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1954 to directly connect the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. The $470.3 million seaway enabled cities like Toronto and Chicago to expand their commercial shipping industries, bringing in more than $6 billion USD per year to the Great Lakes region.

However, the seaway’s completion resulted in the decimation of the system by invasive species like sea lampreys. Sea lampreys are circular-mouthed fish with hooked teeth that attach themselves to native fish, feeding on their bodily fluids and abandoning them to succumb to their wounds. During their parasitic stage, lampreys kill approximately 40 pounds of fish over 12 to 18 months.

Spiny water fleas, zebra mussels, and other invasive species have also found their way to the Great Lakes system through shipping freighters. When taking on water in their ballast tanks, which are designed to stabilize vessels that are unloading or taking on cargo, these ships will also take on waterborne invasive species. Zebra and quagga mussels, in particular, are known for clogging water intake pipes and being costly to remove.

As temperatures continue to rise, native inhabitants of the lakes will endure added stress from an ecosystem where they are already competing with their non-native neighbours, likely forcing these species to shift to more northern regions.

These concerns are not new — the original 1971 edition of Dr. Seuss’ children’s book, The Lorax, referenced the dire state of Lake Erie. In the 1930s, runoff from fertilizer and waste from humans and animals introduced phosphorus into the lake. Annual phosphorus input soared from about 3,000 tons in 1800 to 24,000 tons in 1960, after the introduction of the mineral in cleaning agents after World War II. The high phosphorus levels caused an overgrowth of algae, clouding the water and killing off other species in a phenomenon known as eutrophication.

State and provincial governments around Lake Erie took action to limit the addition of phosphorus to soap, and began working with local farmers to reduce the amount of phosphorus input by more than half. However, new sources of phosphorus appeared in the 1990s, returning phosphorus levels in Lake Erie to previous conditions.

These algal blooms are more than an eyesore. A species of cyanobacteria called Microcystis causes such harmful algae blooms by producing a toxin called microcystin. The toxin can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and in high enough quantities, liver failure in humans.

Microcystis gripped Toledo, Ohio in 2014, when Lake Erie was subjected to two harmful algae blooms that year due to a one-two punch of increased precipitation and warmer temperatures. The toxin overwhelmed the city’s water filtration system, leaving half a million residents without clean water for three days.

Not all strains of Microcystis produce this toxin, but researchers have found that warmer growing conditions have increased the prevalence of the toxic strain, suggesting that this phenomenon could become more prevalent in the future.

Although some of these consequences listed in the ELPC report are not a result of climate change alone, climate change could worsen their effects in the coming years.

The looming storm

The consequences of climate change are not so far off. Shear noted that significant shifts can happen quickly within a year or two, intensifying extreme weather events.

“With climate change you’re dealing with very long-term changes over decades which makes it easy to attribute extreme weather events to normal year to year variation,” said Shear.

A more tangible consequence of the changing climate, continued Shear, is the uptick of unpredictable weather events, such as violent wind storms. In fact, climate change may have caused the Toronto Islands and the Harbourfront to flood in spring 2017

Shear further explained that we have hardened the surfaces of urban areas with hectares of paved roads and roofs that don’t absorb water. “So when it does rain, there’s nowhere for the water to go but straight into the streams and into [the] lake.”

“[The] Lake Ontario water level was fairly consistent,” he continued, “and then the water level began to rise because of the rainfall and snowmelt… that [had] nowhere to go.”

Concurrent flooding in Montréal, due to extra water in the Ottawa River and St. Lawrence Seaway, denied the officials the option of draining Lake Ontario into the sea to lower the water level.

Although the islands reopened later that summer, visitor attendance was down for the rest of the season, costing the city approximately $5 million in lost ferry revenue, in addition to costs from property damage.

That 2017 flood should be a sobering sign that the Great Lakes will not stay the way they are for very long.

Economic damage

Viewing environmental damage through an economic lens helps put the consequences of changing conditions into perspective. The Great Lakes provide over 1.5 million jobs and generate $60 billion in wages annually for local workers. The regional economy of the Great Lakes system is valued at $6 trillion, which is more than the GDP of countries such as Japan, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

With the prospects of decreased employment, damaged infrastructure, and forgone revenue, it raises the question of whether or not we are willing to lose an ecosystem that benefits local economies so much. It’s not that the Great Lakes will cease to exist, but that the system will cease to be a sustainable habitat for not only plants and animals, but for ourselves as well.

Starting change

Seeing the consequences of our past actions shows how much of an impact our behavior can have. But how can we begin to undo the damage that we have done?

Canada and the United States have pledged to reduce the amount of phosphorus in the Great Lakes by 40 per cent by 2025. However, this goal has proven to be tougher to match now than it was in the past. Unregulated farms, dissolved phosphorus, and different phosphorus sources causing the algal blooms have made it harder for the countries to meet their targets. With the added threat of rising temperatures, the threat of algal blooms is imminent.

The Ontario Great Lakes Strategy 2016 progress report outlined the collective efforts of the government, scientists, Indigenous peoples, and private-sector organizations to work toward returning the Great Lakes to a state where they are not at risk of ecological collapse. However, governments have yet to impose hard-hitting restrictions on certain behaviours such as the use of phosphorus by the agriculture industry.

In 2018, then-Ohio governor John Kasich signed an executive order to restrict agricultural runoff, which contributes to algal blooms, by setting requirements for how nutrients in animal waste and fertilizer should be stored.

But government intervention isn’t the only source of change in our society. Organized groups of concerned citizens have a created huge impact on these pressing matters.

According to Shear, citizen activism has led to eradication of all sources of mercury in the Lake Superior Basin and to the cleanup of the Love Canal disaster in New York in the mid-twentieth century.

Love Canal was the site of a failed energy project that became a landfill, which was eventually buried and sold to the city for development. Decades later, chemicals began to seep up through the ground, exposing the region’s residents to carcinogens and teratogens, which are implicated in deforming embryos.

“It was citizen activism in Niagara Falls, Ontario that linked with citizen activists in Niagara Falls, New York that really brought [the provincial, state, and federal governments] to shut down Love Canal… to prevent the contamination of the Niagara River,” said Shear. “So citizen activism can really work.”

In building our cities, we did not plan to bring harm to our environment. Rather, we were careless and uninformed about how our actions could damage the very home we live in. As we learn about why these ecologically devastating events occur and how human activity causes them, we must take action to prevent further damage and restore what we can.

We could otherwise negligently trek forward and continue to make decisions that harm not only ourselves, but those who will come after us.

Opinion: Ontario budget’s climate change plan a mess of contradictions, inaction

Ford’s frivolous climate lawsuit will cost taxpayers $30 million while doing nothing for the environment

Opinion: Ontario budget’s climate change plan a mess of contradictions, inaction

The Ontario government’s frivolous $30 million lawsuit against the federal government over the carbon tax is a self-inflicted wound that the provincial 2019 budget, announced April 11, fails to address. Doug Ford’s government claims that the implementation of a carbon tax on Ontario would be ineffective, result in job losses, and be bad for business. However, he brought this tax on the province when he chose to scrap the cap and trade program, which aimed to hold industry directly accountable instead of putting the onus on consumers.

In lieu of clarification on the carbon tax or the binned cap and trade model, the budget vaguely outlines a performance-based emissions reduction program that it expects will circumvent implementation of the impending carbon tax. The program entails developing and setting emissions performance standards sector to sector and assessing reductions according to the previous output of facilities. This will be buttressed by the creation of an emissions reduction fund, meant to incentivize industries to adopt “cost-effective projects in various sectors, such as transportation,” with no mention of investments in renewable energy.

Ironically, the budget states that performance standards will be “tough but fair, cost-effective and flexible,” as if ‘tough’ and ‘flexible’ are not antonyms.

Initiatives like these may not result in substantial emissions reductions because preceding enforcement, industry can ramp up their emissions in order to be held to a lower bar — what they would have normally been producing — when the time comes to ostensibly reduce output.

Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner told The Varsity that the proposed plan mirrors the failing emissions reduction mechanism currently operating in Australia, which has a much larger budget of about $1.9 billion, compared to the $400 million “emissions reduction fund” proposed in the provincial budget.

Ford is fear mongering about job losses, when, in reality, Ontario has had a good year of job growth overall, and despite the carbon tax in British Columbia working for years. Whether Ford likes it or not, the federal government is within its rights to impose a federal tax according to the distribution of powers outlined in section 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867. The taxpayer-funded money used to fight the carbon tax will be wasted in a frivolous lawsuit.

Lastly, it is worth noting the province has based its emissions targets on the federal government’s, which was grandfathered in from the Stephen Harper era and does not comply with the Paris Agreement. Their target of reducing emissions levels by 30 per cent compared to 2005 levels by 2030 is not nearly aggressive enough to curtail catastrophic repercussions, as forewarned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report.

As Schreiner said in his address to the press during the budget lockup, it is clear that “this budget cares about the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Sustainability in the 6ix

Eco-friendly lifestyles can cut costs that we didn’t know could be cut

Sustainability in the 6ix

The recent influx of attention toward sustainability and environmental awareness has taken social media by storm. Whether it’s Starbucks banning straws — but still wrapping every product in plastic — or Zara deciding to use recycled packaging, everyone seems to be making an effort toward a greener future.

But are they really?

Since the United States pulled out of the Paris Agreement, despite wildfires sweeping the nation and temperatures worldwide standing at a staggering high, the public’s awareness has turned toward climate change.

Those who have been fighting for change for decades finally feel that the urgency of environmental protection is being understood. Yet, regardless of plastic bag bans and boxed water, we have a long way to go before the damage can be stopped and reverted. There are organizations such as Greenpeace Canada, which have been fighting the good fight for years. Their efforts are inarguably genuine, but whether or not all of the corporations that have recently jumped on the green boat have done so selflessly is debatable.

There are a number of companies that have vowed to “go green” and promote eco-friendly practices in a fast-paced capitalist market. For instance, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Tesla are creating conscientious change with energy efficient appliances, reduced carbon emissions, or community recycling.

Often these efforts are still, as other aspects of the companies’ production and distribution are, harmful to the environment. Yet the fact that the urgency of the matter has been instilled in people’s minds, and that people are calling on industries to reduce their carbon footprint and scrutinize their practices, means that the harrowing realization of what we have done is looming.

As bleak as that may sound, it is immensely important for people to, at both a macro and micro level, evaluate their actions. Currently, this wave of environmental awareness has encouraged millennials to make it a point to reduce waste in their homes, buy from sustainable fashion brands, and go vegan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is possibly the most promising development for our futures. They have become, as one might call it, ‘woke.’

While it can be argued that survival instinct is at the stem of these actions, human beings still are not fully aware of the gravity of climate change. Regardless of the countless media campaigns, articles, and research, we find comfort in our minute attempts at sustainability and conservation. Claiming that our survival instincts have finally kicked in is giving humanity too much credit. We need to do more. Even living in a location with a high cost of living, such as Toronto, where the rent prices alone are drowning students, there are affordable ways to live an eco-friendly lifestyle.

As students on a budget, being sustainable can be reasonable, but it is not particularly convenient. We would have to go out of our way to reduce our carbon footprint, although these steps are worth the trouble. Recycling is one the easiest ways to do your part. U of T’s campuses, as well as most apartment complexes, have recycling bins. Instead of being negligent with your waste, make it a point to recycle when possible. Reduce your plastic usage by purchasing cloth bags for groceries and keep a reusable water bottle handy. Another convenient modification students can make to their lifestyles is to buy local. Whether it be perishables or furniture, we don’t often realize the environmental impact of shipping.

What individuals don’t often recognize is that eco-friendly lifestyles often cut extraneous costs. We no longer need to stop and buy bottled water, thrift shopping is much cheaper than purchasing brand new products, and opting for used textbooks or library copies can save hundreds of dollars.

These modifications can be made to your lifestyles and homes, such as using biodegradable plates instead of plastic ones and by using energy efficient power bars. Creating green living spaces is easier than most students presume.

While the vegan trend is still met with reluctance, there are ethical, environmental, and physical benefits to the diet itself. Most of us may not be ready to cut out meat altogether, but understanding where the ingredients are sourced from and choosing to dine at restaurants that utilize free-range local products will not only ease your conscience, but can also push other establishments to do the same.

As a student, living in the 6ix can be daunting and expensive, but sustainability is indeed achievable. It all depends on the effort we are willing to exert.

Our minute actions in which we find solace might also be our saving grace. If everyone were to implement these changes in their daily lives, we could make an impact. It solely depends on if we can grasp how important our actions are within the current climate.

Revisiting environmental policies to protect coral reefs

Certain sunscreen chemicals wreak havoc on coral reefs and marine ecosystems

Revisiting environmental policies to protect coral reefs

Hawaii is set to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. According to Senate Bill 2471, which was passed by Hawaiian state lawmakers in May and will go into effect in 2021, the two compounds contribute to coral bleaching and are harmful to marine ecosystems.

“Coral bleaching describes the phenomenon whereby corals lose their colour [so] their appearance becomes ‘bleached,’” explained Igor Lehnherr, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at UTM, in an email to The Varsity. “Bleaching occurs when environmental stressors cause zooxanthellae to lose their photosynthetic pigments or to be expelled from the coral.”

Stressors that can cause coral bleaching include warming ocean temperatures, increased ultraviolet (UV) radiation, the presence of certain pollutants in the oceans, and ocean acidification.

However, it is unclear whether the extent of pollution is similar on Canadian coastlines and  whether deep cold water corals are experiencing catastrophic bleaching events.

Rising water temperatures from greenhouse gas accumulation is still the primary cause of mass coral bleaching, but scientists acknowledge chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate also contribute to bleaching events. The two chemicals kill developing coral and increase the likelihood of coral bleaching, even at temperatures below 30.5 degrees Celsius.

“Corals can recover from bleaching episodes, and some coral species are more resilient than others,” said Lehnherr. “However, the increasing frequency of bleaching events hampers the coral’s ability to recover, increases mortality and is a threat to the long-term future of coral reefs.” The mass deposition of oxybenzone and octinoxate only exacerbates coral bleaching.

Each year, high volumes of sunscreen-wearing tourists travel to sunny coasts like that of Hawaii’s and, in turn, reefs are exposed to thousands of tons of sunscreen per year. Oxybenzone is found in parts per trillion concentrations off the coast of Barrow, Alaska to parts per billion on coral reefs in the Caribbean, Pacific, and Red Sea. In Honolua Bay, on the northern end of Maui, Hawaii, 1.9 parts per billion of oxybenzone were measured in 2015.

On Canada’s coast, there are the Atlantic deep-water coral habitat and the Pacific rocky reef habitat. They provide a complex habitat that is important for a variety of deep sea species. Canada should especially pay attention to regions that see a high number of tourists. Research efforts are already underway to protect Canada’s deep-water corals, but the country needs to determine whether or not it should follow in Hawaii’s footsteps.

For a similar policy to pass in Canada, researchers must determine whether any chemicals found in sunscreens are contributing significantly to the destruction of the aquatic ecosystems on Canadian coastlines.

“We’d have to think about whether it would be likely for reefs in Canada to be exposed to the same chemicals that the reefs near popular tourist destinations like Hawaii might be,” said Lehnherr. Like microbeads, wastewater effluent containing oxybenzone and octinoxate get washed off people in showers and pools, and this will have to also be assessed when determining the level of potential harm.

This is not the first time Canada has had to consider the environmental harm caused by household products. A recent example of this was the federal government’s ban on microbeads following a scientific review confirming its harmful effects.

Microbeads contain fragments of plastic and are found in lakes, rivers, and streams, and they take centuries to disintegrate. The ban is expected to go into full effect starting July 1, 2019 — microbeads in natural health products and non-prescription drugs will be the last items added to the list of prohibited products.

However, such policy changes take years to implement. A ban on oxybenzone and octinoxate in sunscreens will be an equally difficult undertaking that could affect mainstream sunscreens brands or cosmetic products that contain added UV protection. Banning these two chemicals may drastically reduce the selection of safe and effective sunscreen products available on the market.