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Policymaking often lacks environmental accountability

We live in a world today that is experiencing an international environmental crisis, ranging from rising temperatures, melting ice caps and animal extinction, to name a few. It is paramount that policymakers take an interest in creating legislation that effectively responds to these threats. Sadly, as I sift through various environmental reports released by supposed policymakers, there remains a noticeable issue: accountability.

What exactly do the terms “conserve”, “maintain”, “protect” and “sustain” really mean? Environmental policies are replete with terminology that could be considered essentially meaningless. Reading a 100-page report that uses terms that have little scientific relevance and purpose does not inspire confidence. Without appropriate terminology, research, and data, policies carry little potential to effect real change.

If you doubt me, I will offer you a perfect example. The 20 Aichi Targets are a series of global goals put forward by the Biodiversity Indicators Partnership, a host of international organizations working towards promoting positive environmental change. The targets frequently employ language such as “safe ecological limits”, and “degradation”, but fail to reveal a quantifiable definition of the terms. What exactly constitutes degradation and at what level does that occur? What are safe ecological limits as determined by research and data, and how will these limits then be implemented to effect change? The lack of adequate terminology is a common occurrence in many policymaking reports about global change and environmental conservation and is astoundingly inappropriate considering the level of import of these policies.

The solution lies in creating stronger intercommunication between scientists and policymakers. The terminology used to understand many environmental issues needs to be simplified for people making policies, but still needs to be meaningful. In turn, policymakers need to create more accessible platforms for scientists to take part in the creation of reports containing important empirical data. By providing more concise definitions and understanding on how scientists determine how to save the planet, it can be properly translated into policies and will then be effectively accountable.

The bottom line is every person on earth has a responsibility in trying to save the planet. It is neither the scientist nor the policymaker that has the responsibility to create effective legislation to help climate change initiatives or avoid environmental degradation. Both parties play an essential role and it is about time that everyone starts working together and opening the lines of communication.

If we don’t, we are looking at our own extinction and I would personally like to leave my children with a world to live in rather than rubble and ash. Don’t you agree?

 

Concrete has potential to be the greenest building materials

When I walk downtown, I am always slightly in awe of the construction of these magnificent concrete buildings looming over me. How can people build to such heights? Then my environmental brain kicks in, and I wonder if these concrete edifices are the result of years of planetary destruction. As it turns out, concrete has more potential to be green than I originally thought. If all concrete companies made sustainable production their priority, I dare say it could become the most environmentally-promising building material currently available.

Concrete is versatile, low maintenance, strong, diverse, and affordable. It is also one of the oldest building materials in the world, dating back to both the Roman and Egyptian times. It is a reliable thermal insulator and retains heat inside of the home, but it also cools buildings in the hot summer months. Concrete is also recyclable and can be broken down and used as aggregate when a building is torn down. A 2015 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered that concrete saves 20 per cent of the energy consumed by buildings made of wood.

That being said, concrete is still responsible for five per cent of carbon emissions. In order to become the greenest building material on the market, companies have to modify the way they produce their building blocks. Holcim, who recently joined forces with Lafarge, is one of the top ranking concrete company to use sustainable building practices on a global basis.

It takes a large amount of thermal energy to create concrete and that strongly contributes to its large carbon footprint. Holcim and Lafarge are sourcing their fuel from renewable energy resources such as waste and biomass. This production change will help Holcium meet global goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to pre-1990 levels, or 40 per cent by 2030. To date, they are on track with a 26 per cent reduction. Using carbon capture mechanisms to prevent high levels of carbon from being released also creates a more sustainable product.

It appears that concrete has potential to be one of the most sustainable building materials, but how do other building materials compare?

Tree sequestration is a popular construction material, and a lot of people think it’s sustainable because forests absorb carbon dioxide while they are growing. However, it is only sustainable if there is a larger plan to replace the wood cut for construction. Even if a company replants the trees and leaves portions of the forest untouched, it is still impossible to replace the natural biological diversity that existed before harvesting. It also takes time to regrow the trees that are used, which reduces the sustainability of this building material.

Another popular building material is glass, but there are arguments to be made that concrete is still the better choice. Glass is a sustainable building material because it is 100 per cent recyclable. Though glass is environmentally-friendly, it is not very durable and requires high maintenance and care. It is also not an efficient thermal insulator in comparison to concrete.

The highest polluting building materials are aluminum and steel, because these products need several materials. It takes six pounds of bauxite ore to yield one pound of aluminum, and the bauxite is strip-mined from tropical rainforests. Aluminum also requires 270 GJ/t of production energy as compared to concrete that only uses 1.4 GJ/t. Obviously, aluminum and steel are not sustainable building options and builders should avoid using them at all cost.

Compared to other options, concrete is clearly one of the best environmentally-friendly building materials available. The next step now lies in the companies themselves. If every concrete company embraced carbon capture and used biofuels, it would help reduce the global carbon footprint and the world would still have a truly reliable type of construction.

Budget cuts could increase efficiency of affordable housing

City Council made an announcement of a 2.6 per cent budget cut that will affect all programs, including affordable housing. So what does this mean for the Open Door program and other affordable housing initiatives in the city?

When the budget cuts were presented at council Tuesday, Councillor Mike Layton put forward a motion to protect Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), which the chair of affordable housing and Councillor Ana Bailao surprisingly voted against.

Though budget cuts are never welcome news for desperate programs like affordable housing, it isn’t as dire as it may seem. Councillor Bailao explains an alternative perspective to the budget cuts involving affordable housing that would ensure it doesn’t cut essential services, but instead would rid the system of inefficiencies.

“We weren’t discussing if anything specific was going to be cut. At community housing, we have 107 IT applications that don’t speak on each other. If we embark on an IT restructure and reduce the cost of doing things, isn’t that a good thing?” Bailao says. “There was nobody talking about cutting anything with an impact. If I can get 2.6 per cent in reduction to be more efficient, why wouldn’t I look at that?”

If the budget cuts put pressure on TCHC to make it more efficient, it could benefit the affordable housing agenda overall. The affordable housing corporation has come under fire over for their inefficiencies, long waitlists, and a lack of proper care for residents. Perhaps tightening up operations would propel TCHC into gear. Open Door, an affordable housing program and approved and amended Wednesday, attempts to address some of these concerns.

The Open Door Affordable Housing program was introduced by Councillor Bailao and Mayor John Tory in November 2015 in an attempt to meet housing targets put forth by the 10-year affordable housing plan. “The plan is for 1000 rental units and 200 ownership annually. There hasn’t been one year that we have fulfilled that goal,” Bailao says. “We know the city is trying hard and we are trying to enhance the partnership. Aside from the affordable housing program, we are saying the city is going to contribute.” Open Door streamlines building applications that have a minimum of 20 per cent affordable housing, provides government land and provides incentives such as the avoidance of building fees and permits.

Additionally, 294 new affordable housing properties were approved in council on Tuesday. Councillor Ana Bailao and other City Council members are slowly but surely making progress in the affordable housing profile though sometimes success feels limited. The recent 550 subsidies for $250 for families that have been on the waitlist for 10 years or more is a prime example of how the needs of people who require housing are not being met as much as the city would like.

“These are larger families that have been on the list for so long. Having a federal government that is talking about a federal housing strategy allows us to do a little more,” Bailao says. “They will be allowed to continue on the waiting list because we don’t believe it is enough but it is a little bit of help.” The Federal Housing Strategy that was recently launched should further help support affordable housing in Toronto.

The Federal Housing Strategy and Toronto’s Housing Summit should help to promote fresh ideas. The Summit will be put on by the City of Toronto to promote new ideas and gather stakeholders to talk about affordable housing solutions. Using sustainable building practices is an example of a possible solution to reduce costs and support the environment.  “The province released their green fund for social housing so that we can get environmental and repairs benefits, and reductions in operations such as electricity. More and more social housing providers are going in that direction,” Bailao says.

It is an uphill battle for Councillor Bailao and the TCHC because of the long waitlist and lack of available affordable housing, but innovation and perseverance could bring the change that Toronto needs. Open Door is a step in the right direction, and it will be interesting to see where the budget cuts are applied.