We are all plastic people now, in ways we can’t see – and can no longer ignore

Our global plastics problem has been steadily growing for decades, polluting the planet in obvious ways. Less obvious are the microplastics that we eat and breathe, and the impacts they have on our health. I experimented on myself to find out more

For most of us, the COVID-19 pandemic is a terrible disruption to our lives and livelihoods. For the plastics industry, it would seem, it’s an opportunity to be exploited.

With a brazenness that would make even Joe Exotic of Tiger King fame blush, the plastics industry has been using this time of heightened public concern for hygiene to argue that single-use plastics are the healthiest choice. Fashioning itself as a champion of consumer safety and worker rights, the industry has recently persuaded some U.S. cities and states to reverse bans on plastic bags, and has sought to position recyclable shopping bags as germ-ridden biohazards. Their argument isn’t in the slightest bit subtle and can be boiled down to the title of a recent column circulated on one of the industry’s many lobbying websites: “The War on Plastic Makes the Virus Worse.”

Coronavirus or no, the plastics industry is determined to gain ground. When Dustin Hoffman’s character was told in the 1967 classic movie The Graduate that there was “a great future in plastics,” global production of the stuff was a meagre 25 million tonnes a year. Today, that number has risen to about 400 million tonnes per year, and is projected to double again in the next two decades. Amazingly, half of all plastics ever made have been produced in the past 13 years.

If the magnitude of increased plastic production is eye-popping, the resulting mountain of waste is even more so. Nearly one-half of all the plastics produced every year are for single use. Often, as in the case of fast food take-out containers, this use lasts for only a few minutes. In addition, it’s estimated that up to a trillion plastic bags and about half a trillion disposable water bottles are used globally every year, and in the United States alone, an estimated 500 million plastic straws are used each day. Less than 10 per cent of plastics are recycled, meaning the vast majority winds up discarded in landfills or dumped in the environment.

Some people – such as U.S. President Donald Trump, for instance – care little about any of this. The President’s re-election website proudly sells packs of plastic “Trump”-monogrammed straws because “liberal paper straws don’t work.” But a great many other people, thankfully, are indeed concerned. The United Nations recently declared that plastics pollution is the “second-most ominous threat to the global environment, after climate change.”

In February, the Canadian government’s “Draft Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution” stated that there are “growing concerns that plastic pollution may adversely impact the health of the environment and humans.”

The visibility of plastic litter is impossible to ignore. The images are heart-wrenching: sea turtles with discarded plastic straws clogging their noses; whales found dead, their stomachs packed full of plastic grocery bags. Unless we change course, it is estimated the oceans could have more plastic than fish by 2050.

All of this is awful. And, just as much as the planet is, our bodies, too, are a host for countless plastic particles. But whereas the damage done to nature is obvious, it’s less clear what ingesting plastics is doing to us.

What if the biggest problem with plastic is not what we can see, but what we can’t see?

FROM MACRO TO MICRO

The scale of Plast-Ex, one of the premier plastics industry trade fairs held each year at the cavernous Toronto Congress Centre, was something to behold. Perusing the hundreds of exhibitors of plastics processing equipment, packaging and consumer items, the crowd was large and upbeat: Plenty of deals were being done. Noticeably absent, however, was any significant reflection of the roiling debate on plastics pollution occurring outside the exhibit hall. In fact, one of the very few downcast people I spoke with was a salesperson for a company trying to market a new type of non-toxic, plant-based plastic. Apparently, he was having a difficult time getting any uptake.

It was at Plast-Ex that I first met Joe Hruska, the vice-president of sustainability for the Canadian Plastics Industry Association. With a lengthy career that dates back to the creation of the Blue Box, Mr. Hruska is now the industry’s lead for all things environmental. “Yes, we’re very high on plastics,” he said. “Plastics are essential to our health and well-being, not just in Canada but around the world.”

Mr. Hruska’s got a point, of course. It’s certainly true that plastics have made many parts of our lives easier. Plastics make cars and planes lighter. They make building construction more robust. They make IV bags in hospitals functional and they make the laptop computer that I’m writing on at the moment portable enough to bring to my local coffee shop.

As Sherri Mason – a Penn State University professor of chemistry and a leading researcher on plastic pollution – explained to me, one of plastic’s most useful attributes lies at the core of the current challenge. “Plastics are sturdy and extremely resistant to degradation,” she said. “Micro-organisms don’t have a way of breaking the molecular bonds of plastics, which is what you have to do to get any energy out of what you eat.”

So because microbes – the planet’s tiny engines of decomposition – find the stuff distasteful, it turns out that plastic never truly disintegrates. Through the action of sunlight and waves over a long period of time, it just keeps getting shredded into smaller and smaller bits. The result, as scientists are only just beginning to understand, is that much of the plastic in the environment is invisible: Over the past few decades, it’s been rendered into an enormous collection of tiny micro- and nano-sized fragments and fibres.

Although the research is only just beginning, Peter Ross, a widely published marine biologist based in Vancouver, told me bluntly: “It’s safe to say that microplastics are everywhere. They’ve been found at the North Pole, the South Pole, from the highest mountain peaks to the deep trenches of our oceans, from air to water to land, urban environments, agricultural environments, remote environments. And they’re in every species we’ve looked at.”

While many of these microplastics are certainly derived from discarded plastic waste, others come from less obvious sources. Garth Covernton, a researcher at the University of Victoria, used the term “stealth microplastics” to describe their sometimes mysterious and unanticipated origins. “They come from things that we don’t even think about,” he said. For example: “I was using a Sharpie marker to label some samples in the lab, and when I put them under the microscope, I realized that there were all these polyester particles on them that came from the marker itself.”

Another major culprit is the plastic fibres in our clothing: about 60 per cent (and rapidly growing) of current clothing material globally, according to Kelly Drennan, sustainability advocate and founder of Fashion Takes Action. “Like fast food, polyester fast fashion is cheap, disposable and not very good for us,” she explained. Plastic clothing produces an enormous amount of pollution to make. As we wear it, the fibres slough off and wind up in household dust. When we wash it, the fibres get flushed down the drain into nearby lakes, rivers and oceans. By some estimates, it is these fibres that make up most of the microplastic problem.

Microfibres are so prevalent that any research lab working in this area goes to extraordinary lengths to eliminate them lest they contaminate their samples. Chelsea Rochman, a biologist at the University of Toronto, told me that when her students come into the lab, “there’s a breezeway where they need to hang their fleeces, fuzzy scarves and hats, and there’s a rack of cotton lab coats they put on over their clothing.” In addition to this, there’s a HEPA filter inside the lab, and counters and floors are wiped down every day.

When I asked Mr. Hruska from the plastics industry what he thinks about the developing research on microplastics, his answer was clear: “You can’t hold the material accountable.”

“This is a people-behaviour thing,” he said, reflecting the industry’s long-held talking point that if we could all just get better at recycling, there would be no need to talk about more significant changes to current plastic use.

According to the scientists I spoke with for this column, however, it is indeed concerning that the world is marinating in microplastics and we are in desperate need of a better understanding of the situation. Among the many unanswered questions, one looms the largest: Are humans absorbing microplastics, and if so, what are the health implications?

RUBBER DUCKS AND PLASTIC PEOPLE

I’ve been interested in plastics and the chemicals they contain for a long time. Just over a decade ago, Bruce Lourie and I wrote a book called Slow Death by Rubber Duck, which told the story of common pollutants in everyday life. In order to make the story authentic and as engaging as possible, we decided to test our own blood and urine for some of these common toxins. Not satisfied with stopping there, we actually experimented on ourselves, to find out whether the use of certain household products would measurably affect the levels of chemicals – including plasticizing chemicals – in our bodies. For example, we analyzed the extent to which we could increase our levels of bisphenol A (BPA) by handling cash register receipts. (BPA is a common component of certain types of plastics and coatings, and cash register receipts are slathered with high levels of the compound.) Our experiment showed that BPA is easily absorbed through the skin and that our levels of the chemical rose substantially after touching receipts for just a few minutes.

Mr. Lourie and I conducted more than a dozen similar experiments that pointed to worrisome levels of toxins in our and, by extension, most people’s bodies. All of the chemicals we found are a serious health hazard and are being increasingly linked to common human ailments ranging from breast and prostate cancer, to developmental delays in children, to obesity and diabetes. One of the puzzling things that we noticed throughout all of our experimentation is that we could never get our levels of plasticizing chemicals to zero – even though we avoided using certain types of plastics around the house. Could this have been because we all carry measurable amounts of plastic bits in us all the time? If so, they may act as countless microscopic pollution point sources, slowly leaching their chemical ingredients into our bodies over the course of our lives.

I wanted to investigate this question in a direct and personal way. So about a year ago, I started to mull over the possibility of testing my own body for microplastics. To date, the only study showing microplastics in humans was released in September, 2019, and it examined a tiny group – only eight people – none of whom lived outside Europe or Asia. Microplastics were found in all of them.

I started looking for labs that might be interested in collaborating with me on this ground-breaking work, the first time such experimentation would be tried in North America. Through colleagues, I was put in touch with experts Christy Tyler and Nathan Eddingsaas, researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology. We worked together to design an experiment that would not only test me for microplastics, but also see whether a change in behaviour might affect my personal microplastic load.

FIBRES AND FRAGMENTS

I’m going to spare you the more graphic details, but let me briefly describe what I did. Over the course of six days in January, I collected a stool sample from myself each day, and each sample was deposited in a jar with a preservative. The first two samples were from days when I was living and eating as I normally do. On the days I took the next four samples, I did a variety of things to try to crank up my ingestion of plastic microparticles to see whether the effects could be measured.

I didn’t do anything outlandish – or even beyond the daily experience of most Canadians. Based on a few recent scientific studies, I engaged in activities that might result in microplastics entering my body. I ate food that had been shrink-wrapped in plastic and cooked it with bottled water (possibly one of the most important sources of microplastics in our daily lives). I heated my meals in plastic containers in the microwave. My coffee was prepared in a Keurig machine (which involves the boiling water being pushed through plastic) and my tea was brewed in microplastic-spewing nylon tea bags.

To add to my potential microplastic load, I chose foods that had recently been shown to contain microplastics such mussels and canned fish. I left my victuals out on my kitchen counter for up to four hours before consuming them. Over the three days of the experiment, I also made sure to wear the new fuzzy black fleece I’d received for Christmas and went out of my way to put on other clothing that was laced with plastic. The reason for all of this? Recent evidence has shown that more airborne microparticles and microfibres from household dust can fall on food than the microplastics contained in the food to begin with.

Once the Rochester lab received my samples, they set to work. Over the course of several weeks, the organic material in my samples was digested away, the remnants carefully filtered through a tiny sieve and picked through under a microscope. Visible particles were analyzed with a Fourier-transform infrared spectrometer (FTIR), a machine that measures the spectrum of a particle’s infrared absorption and allows researchers to determine what type of plastic it is made of.

When I left Toronto to drive down to Rochester for the big “reveal,” Dr. Tyler and Dr. Eddingsaas and their graduate students hadn’t finished their analysis yet. It was only when I arrived at the lab that they told me the results: The experiment had worked. “We found microplastics in you, and more fibres were observed in the later samples,” Dr. Eddingsaas said as he leaned over his microscope. “The FTIR analysis confirmed that some of them were PET (a common polyester used in clothing), polystyrene and acrylic derivatives.”

Looking through the microscope, I saw a considerable amount of material that turned out to be cellulose – the tough cell walls of the plants in my diet that the peroxide couldn’t break down. But mixed in with this whitish material were tiny fibres, a few still retaining their original colour. Based on their shape, these polyester and acrylic microplastics could only have originated from clothing. Did my new black polyester fibres fall from my fleece into the meal I was eating? Maybe. In terms of the polystyrene, this material is common in food packaging, meaning these fragments likely originated from my plastic-infused diet.

The results also demonstrated that over the course of the last four days of the experiment (when I kept increasing my exposure to plastic), the microparticle count in my body also increased, revealing that the amount of plastic used around the house had a direct impact on my body. Given that people’s bodies take in environmental pollutants in similar ways, it’s safe to say that anyone who was near increased levels of plastic would suffer the same effect.

WHEN THE ENVIRONMENT GETS PERSONAL

So now we know: I have microplastics in me.

What does that mean for my health? As Dr. Tyler told me: “Although this was a small experiment and focused only on plastics in the ‘micro’ range, the results clearly show that plastic particles from the environment are in the food that we eat and travel through our bodies.

“In many ways,” she said, “this raises many more questions than it answers and more research is needed as soon as possible.”

What scientists already know about the potential health effects of having imbedded plastic particles throughout our bodies is cause for serious concern. A September, 2019, editorial in the American College of Physicians’ Annals of Internal Medicine made clear that particles of a certain size can pass through the gut lining and into our bloodstreams and may deposit themselves in organs that clean and filter our circulatory system – such as the liver, spleen and lymph nodes. Scientists have already shown that ingestion of microplastics by a range of species under lab conditions leads to reduced appetite, energy and reproduction. And plastics contain toxic chemicals such as flame retardants, phthalates and BPA, as well as absorbing toxins – such as pesticides – on their surface. With current calculations of the average human’s yearly ingestion of microplastics being in the hundreds of thousands of particles, and one recent estimate showing that countless tonnes of microplastic particles shower down on us every day in precipitation and dust, that could easily mean a lot of damaging chemical exposure.

As public debates go, the one surrounding plastics has considerable momentum. Unlike climate change, where attitudes are wildly different between conservative and progressive voters, recent polling has shown that support for progress on plastics is high right across the political spectrum. Tim Gray – executive director of Environmental Defence Canada, one of the leading environmental organizations engaged in solving the plastic problem – says he thinks this is because the “issue seems to most people … [to be] eminently solvable.” “It’s dumb as a bag of hammers to be taking virtually all of this high-value material and throwing it in landfills and the environment,” he told me. In addition, he said, people feel like they’ve been sold a bill of goods. “The one thing they’ve been doing that they’ve been told helps the planet – the Blue Box – turns out largely to be useless.”

My guess is that the existing public support for action on plastics is only going to get more turbo-charged by the new microplastics science. As Mr. Lourie, a long-standing Canadian leader in environmental policy and my co-author on Slow Death by Rubber Duck, has observed: “At the end of the day, many people don’t really care about the environment outside of their own lives. What people are really concerned about is what affects them, their families, their kids, their own bodies.” Mr. Lourie says he thinks the plastics debate is now where the discussion around shutting down coal plants in Ontario was in the early 2000s: Everything is about to change. “Once it becomes broadly known that plastics are a threat to human health, that we’re inhaling and swallowing them every day, that they may be wreaking havoc in our bodies, that’s going to be the turning point on the plastics issue globally.”

And if the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates anything, it is how quickly and decisively our society will react when it becomes clear that human health is at risk.

SCIENCE FICTION AND SCIENCE FACT

The notion of microplastics is so new that it’s currently a favourite storyline in science fiction. During the writing of this column, I happened to be watching the most recent season of the long-running British show Doctor Who with my younger son. In this particular episode, a malevolent strain of alien bacteria invades the Earth and starts consuming birds, people and other creatures with explosive effect. The reason? The bacteria thrive on eating plastic and, like a giant intergalactic dinner bell, the elevated level of microplastics in Earth’s environment and its inhabitants attracts the germs from the other side of the universe.

I asked some of the scientists I spoke with what keeps them up at night about this issue. Their answers were only slightly less dramatic than the Doctor Who episode. Dr. Ross, the marine biologist, wondered whether microplastics may now be a permanent part of our ecosystem. With more familiar types of pollution, he told me, the chemicals eventually settle out into sediments in fresh water and oceans and don’t bother us much again. But microplastics seem to behave differently. “Because they’re buoyant, I’m concerned we may see microplastic fibres float around like a cloud and remain in suspension in the food web and the water column for centuries,” he said.

Phoebe Stapleton, an assistant professor at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, has recently shown that rat mothers are able to pass on to their fetuses microplastic particles that they’ve inhaled. Many of these tiny plastic particles are small enough that, once they’re in an animal’s body, they could pass from the gut or lungs into the bloodstream. From there, we simply don’t know what effect they might have. One horrifying possibility, Dr. Stapleton told me, is they could “get sealed into the brain area.” She explained that there is a window in early fetal development before the brain becomes protected through the creation of the “blood-brain barrier” (a network of cells that shields the brain from any pathogens that may be circulating in our bodies). So if a fetus gets filled up with microparticles from the mother and the blood-brain barrier forms after that, humans and other creatures may be stuck with tiny plastic particles in their heads and bodies that lack the enzymes to break the particles down. Dr. Stapleton and Penn State’s Dr. Mason wonder whether there could be a link here with Alzheimer’s. “Plastics are a great insulating material,” Dr. Mason told me. “Our brains transmit messages through electric impulses that move between one neuron and another. What if there’s a piece of plastic in the way that prevents that transmission from occurring?”

“We’ve been exposed to these particles since before we were born,” she said. “What is the impact of these tiny toxic time capsules?”

At a time in history when the warnings of scientists – about climate change, pandemics and plastics – often go unheeded until it’s too late, we need to make sure that microplastics are the exception to this rule and take the warnings seriously. The plastics industry, of course, is going to fight any changes tooth and nail. In response to the Canadian government’s recent announcement that it was proceeding to declare plastics “toxic” (the first step in regulatory action under our country’s pollution laws), an industry spokesperson fretted that this might “be used as a reason by some campaigners to encourage people to stop using plastics.” This, of course, is exactly what needs to happen. Contrary to the industry’s cynical use of the pandemic to argue that plastics are good for human health, the rapidly developing science points to the opposite conclusion. We’re drowning in the stuff. And it’s time to drain the plastic swamp.

When rock star Pete Townshend sang the lyric “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth,” I’m pretty sure it was meant to be a commentary about class as opposed to environmental destruction. But it was prescient nonetheless. These days, rich and poor, urban and rural, young and old are all surrounded by plastic every day. And the implications are only now becoming clear.

Though I’m one of the first people in the world to find plastic in me, I’m afraid I won’t be the last.

Notes on my plastic menu

JAN. 10

  • Dinner: Noodles from plastic bowl, two veggie hotdogs with cheese (both plastic-wrapped), mint tea from nylon tea bag

JAN. 11

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal prepared with bottled water, coffee
  • Lunch: Macaroni microwaved in plastic, kale salad (plastic-wrapped), mint tea
  • Dinner: Instant noodles, Noodle soup in plastic bowl, smoked mussels, crackers (plastic-wrapped)

JAN. 12

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal, coffee, mint tea
  • Lunch: Instant noodles, canned fish, cheese (plastic-wrapped), coffee, kale salad

OTHER EXPERIMENTAL NOTES

  • 11 litres of Nestlé Pure Life bottled water consumed directly or used in the preparation of food, tea and coffee
  • Seven cups of coffee prepared using plastic K-cups
  • Nine cups of tea consumed prepared using nylon tea bags
  • Food and drink left out uncovered for up to four hours before consumption
  • New fleece hoodie with 100-per-cent polyester lining, and other clothes with plastic fabrics, worn throughout the experiment
  • In total, 0.8 kilograms plastic waste produced
SOURCE

Rick Smith is the executive director of the Broadbent Institute and co-author of Slow Death by Rubber Duck, an examination of toxic chemicals in people.

Greta Thunberg will donate €1m climate change prize to environmental causes

Activist intends to give some to SOS Amazonia campaign and Stop Ecocide Foundation

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg takes part in a protest outside the EU Council as EU environment ministers meet in Brussels, Belgium, March 5, 2020. REUTERS

Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg was awarded a €1 million (Dh4.2m/$1.1m) climate change prize on Tuesday, but said that instead of becoming a millionaire she would donate it to environmental causes.

Ms Thunberg, 17, won the inaugural Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity, awarded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, a Portuguese philanthropy organisation.

The prize seeks to recognise people or organisations “whose contributions to mitigation and adaptation to climate change stand out for their novelty, innovation and impact”, the foundation’s website says.

The young activist was selected among 79 organisations and 57 people from 46 countries.

The prize jury was chaired by Jorge Sampaio, who was Portuguese president from 1996 to 2006.

Ms Thunberg will give €100,000 of the prize to the SOS Amazonia campaign, led by Fridays for Future Brazil to tackle Covid-19 in the Amazon, and €100,000 to the Stop Ecocide Foundation to support their work to make ecocide an international crime.

Mr Sampaio, also the inaugural Mandela Prize winner in 2015, said the jury reached “a broad consensus” that the Swede had been able to mobilise the younger generation to fight climate change.

He said her “tenacious struggle to alter a status quo that persists makes her one of the most remarkable figures of our days”.

The judging panel was made up of internationally renowned personalities from science, technology, politics and culture.

It highlighted Ms Thunberg’s “charismatic and inspiring” personality, but also her ability to deliver a hard-hitting message that “aroused disparate feelings” about climate change globally.

The activist said she was “extremely honoured” to receive the prize.

“We’re in a climate emergency, and my foundation will as quickly as possible donate all the prizemoney of €1m to support organisations and projects that are fighting for a sustainable world, defending nature and supporting people already facing the worst impacts of the climate and ecological crisis, particularly those living in the global south,” Ms Thunberg said.

She was Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2019. Forbes Magazine included her in the list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women of 2019 and she was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2019 and 2020.

 

Green Jobs Can Be Just as Good as Fossil Fuel Jobs

Certain leaders love to suggest that renewable power is anti-labor. The numbers don’t back that up.

West Virginia coal miners in 2017 JUSTIN MERRIMAN/GETTY IMAGES

Conversations about jobs and the environment tend to play out along predictable lines: Fossil fuel jobs are havens of well-paid, unionized employment, so the story goes. Any move away from them will place an undue burden on workers in those sectors—leading many to advocate for a longer decarbonization timeline than climate scientists say the world needs. “We agree that over the coming decades we’re going to do more to transition” to renewable energy, Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, told Axios in a story published on Monday. “But we can’t transition into careers where they take a 50–75% paycheck cut.”

Real-world numbers are starting to challenge this narrative—one frequently repeated by the leadership of fossil fuel–adjacent unions, fossil fuel companies themselves, and politicians eager to maintain close ties to one or both.

According to the 2020 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, 6 percent of wind power generation workers are unionized. Solar power concentrating system work is 6 percent unionized, and 4 percent of photovoltaics work is unionized. That’s low, but not as low as the rates in some areas of fossil fuel production. Work to produce oil, coal, and gas, for example, is 2, 1, and 3 percent unionized, respectively. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.7 percent of mining, quarrying oil, and gas extraction workers were unionized in the fourth quarter of 2014—roughly the same number as retail trade workers and below the 6 percent average for private sector unionization.

Certain points along the fossil fuel supply chain are more heavily unionized than others, sometimes netting six-figure salaries. Refinery and coal- and gas-fired power plant workers are more likely to be union members than the people who dig those resources out of the ground, and construction work building fossil fuel infrastructure tends to happen through union contracts.

But sectors that would see growth under a Green New Deal, or even less ambitious Democratic Party plans, are unionized as well. Seventeen percent of power transmission, distribution, and storage workers are unionized, along with 10 percent of energy efficiency workers. Automakers—whom Biden hopes to enlist in building out electric buses and postal service vehicles—have unionization rates above private sector averages, too, at 13 percent. Energy efficiency now employs 2.4 million people and could be a massive source of green jobs.

Clean energy companies can certainly do much better by their workers, and climate campaigners shouldn’t labor under the assumption that they’re necessarily progressive institutions: The fact that they’re producing clean power instead of digging up fossil fuels doesn’t make them any less likely to exploit their workers. Renewables companies are, after all, companies with a profit motive just like any other and have seen their most rapid growth after decades of assaults on organized labor through public policy. Last year, the solar firm Bright Power fired its solar installation team in what dismissed workers allege was retaliation for their unionization efforts.
Working conditions also vary widely based on the type of work being done and who’s doing it. Residential rooftop solar, in particular, tends to be nonunion, while utility-scale solar—done by unionized utility workers—often comes with better wages and working conditions.

Fossil fuel companies, however, aren’t the worker-friendly safe havens that critics of green energy would have you believe, either. For decades, coal mines and oil refineries were sites of brutal and often bloody fights for unionization and to change some of the country’s worst working conditions. Well into the twentieth century, workers in coal camps throughout Appalachia were paid in company scrip, and children descended deep underground in toxic conditions. Organizers were murdered in broad daylight by company thugs, and companies went to great lengths to break up solidarity among broadly multiracial workforces by sowing division among white, black, and immigrant miners. Like much of corporate America, fossil fuel companies spent most of the postwar era trying to break up unions, and—as current unionization rates can attest—were largely successful.

In more recent years, fossil fuel executives have used bankruptcy filings to tear up collective bargaining agreements and short workers on their health care and pensions, all the while ensuring executives come out with bonuses. And as The New York Times reported recently, many fossil fuel companies are shirking responsibilities to clean up abandoned wells leaking prodigious amounts of heat-trapping methane and other toxins into the atmosphere and surrounding communities. Such remediation work could furnish jobs for these companies’ laid-off workers. Instead, hundreds of thousands of workers are already losing work with no plan for what comes next.

One way to ensure clean energy jobs offer fair conditions and wages is to have them offered through the public sector, where average unionization rates are five times higher than in the private sector. “It’s much easier to put in wage requirements and project labor agreements,” said J. Mijin Cha, assistant professor of Urban and Environmental Economics at Occidental College, and a co-author of a recent proposal for a Green Stimulus in response to the Covid-19-induced recession. “If we think about doing really big public projects, doing as much through the public sector is best for job standards and job quality.” Cha points as well to the potential for sectoral bargaining in clean energy, which would set baseline wages and benefits provisions regardless of whether work was happening at the residential or commercial level. Larger public-led home retrofitting projects, as well, could make energy efficiency work more attractive for union contractors.

Green jobs also don’t end in the power sector. “We’re in this moment where we’re thinking a lot bigger about the type of economy we need to survive in the long term, especially in light of the pandemic,” Amanda Novello, senior policy associate at the Century Foundation, told me. “Within this context, there’s definitely space to think more broadly about the definition of green jobs and broaden people’s horizons beyond solar installers and wind turbine technicians. If you counted health care, teaching, or childcare as green jobs then you would have a very different picture of unionization in green jobs.”

Decarbonizing the United States as rapidly as scientists say is necessary to avert catastrophe will involve disruption. But painting green jobs as inherently worse than fossil fuel jobs—even going by current numbers—is dishonest. And punting a transition from fossil fuels down the line doesn’t reckon with the reality that workers are already being unjustly transitioned out of fossil fuels with a threadbare safety net to catch them.

No unionization numbers are fully static. Where high wages and strong union contracts in the coal, oil, and gas industry exist at all, they weren’t won without a fight and won’t come easy in wind and solar, either. What an economy in transition looks like is still very much up for discussion. Fatalism about the quality of low-carbon work leaves the keys to the future of clean energy in the bosses’ hands.

SOURCE

Here’s why oil train derailments and pipeline spills keep happening

Aerial photo of the 2013 Lac-Megantic rail disaster. Image: Transportation Safety Board/Flickr

Image: Transportation Safety Board/Flickr

In the midst of global upheaval, recent oil spills in Canada have received little attention.

These spills occurred as governments, both federal and provincial — notably Alberta and Ontario (which later reversed the suspension) — suspended environmental regulations for the oil and gas sector, mirroring suspensions in the U.S.  But the recent Saskatchewan train derailments and Trans Mountain pipeline spill point at how dangerous it is to allow these events to be swept under the rug, given the hazards of an already weak regulatory system.

As the seven year anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic disaster passes, and in the midst of plans for expanding pipeline infrastructure across the country, it is important to reflect on the regulations which followed in the aftermath of the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

The general assumption is that regulatory changes enacted in response to disaster and protest were intended to make oil and gas transportation safer. But these regulations have little to do with reducing risks to the public, and much more to do with reduction of financial risk in a form that makes hydrocarbon transport economically viable by shaping the conditions around their insurance.

Regulation in the corporate interest

In the immediate aftermath of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, and upon the technical recommendations of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, Transport Canada updated key operating procedures and regulations. Further legislation was introduced to amend the Transportation Act and the Railway Safety Act in 2015, expanding minimum insurance requirement for railways hauling dangerous goods, and the creation of a compensation fund financed by levies on crude oil shippers, as well as increased information-sharing provisions with municipalities and first responders (even though such information remains limited and inaccessible to the larger public).

A key outcome of the 2015 Pipeline Safety Act was to set liability at a maximum of $1 billion for all pipelines with capacity to transport 250,000 barrels per day, leveling the insurance requirements across pipeline firms.

But there is little incentive for railway companies and pipeline firms to take public safety seriously. In the case of the railway safety act, monetary penalties for contravening the Railway Safety Act or rules and regulations are minimal (and generally appealed). Meanwhile increased oil-by-rail transportation has boosted railway companies’ profits.

Although large and small railway companies have varied capacity to develop safety management systems, the size of companies does not prevent derailments as they all operate with staff cutbacks, lack of maintenance and chronic underinvestment in equipment and infrastructure, as the Saskatchewan derailments demonstrate.

For pipelines, incidents have increased since the 2015 pipeline safety act took effect, yet these incidents are complicated to track due to highly inconsistent reporting structures.

Infrastructural investment to ensure safety would require either that the private sector is willing to forego profits given the costs involved in proper equipment maintenance, or state subsidies to underwrite these costs.

The recent $4.5-billion purchase of the Kinder Morgan pipeline by the Canadian state illustrates the extent to which the government is prepared to make huge expenditures to bring oil to market and underwrite the sector overall, but instead of similar investments in safety the federal government  has rolled back the rules, further externalizing costs to humans and the environment.

Austerity has covered for reduced monitoring of safety compliance and rule enforcement, shifting from a prescriptive regulatory approach to corporate self-monitoring. This reduction in safety management has been particularly problematic as companies increasingly transport dangerous goods and crude oil across the continent and as pipelines have aged.

There is a fundamental gap in implementation given that companies themselves are expected to inspect and audit their own systems, making results available to the regulator as part of the audit or inspection processes. Safety management systems are subject to Transport Canada audits but the agency does not approve whether the safety measures and risk management established by the companies are appropriate; they simply make sure that a plan is submitted.

The lack of inspections by independent monitoring agencies is a major area of weakness in the regulatory process. To make the audit process substantive would, in effect, not only require reporting but also periodic inspections leading to action. A 2013 report by the auditor general of Canada (completed just days before the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic) revealed problems with continuous safety issues, oversight of safety management systems and collection of data on safety performance.

As tragically illustrated by the derailment in Lac-Mégantic, and subsequent CN and CP derailments in Gainford, Alberta; Plaster Rock, New Brunswick; Gogama in northern Ontario; near Gurnsey, Saskatchewan; and Emo, Ontario, among many others, transporting oil by rail remains hazardous.

As is the case with pipeline risks, the land affected by spills and accidents is Indigenous land, further demonstrating what the COVID conjuncture has brought to the fore — that the inadequacies of state regulations are shaped by a long history of systemic racism.

Inconsistent and misleading reporting

For both rail and pipeline transportation, the categorization of spills and the presentation of data on these spills obscures the extent of the problem.

Derailments are officially treated as “accidents” or “incidents” rather than what Eric de Place and Rich Feldman called a “self-reinforcing chain of events and conditions caused by underinvestment, lack of maintenance, and staff cutbacks” and the regulator’s unwillingness to engage with the systemic problems related to oil extraction and transportation.

Safety data is difficult to access and not comparable nationally. In the case of both rail and pipelines, the definitional distinction between “incident” and “accident” is not only unclear,  but also distracts attention from increasing hazards.

The term “railway occurrence” is employed to refer to what the Transportation Safety Board of Canada calls “any accident or incident associated with the operation of rolling stock on a railway, or situation or condition that the Board has reasonable grounds to believe, could, if left unattended, induce an accident or incident.” With this vague term, the TSBA recognizes a certain inevitability and failure of their operations, which completely disregards the people experiencing the too often tragic consequences of crude oil tank cars derailing, burning and exploding.

The situation is even worse for pipelines. A 2014 report to energy ministers clearly states that “there is no standard definition for a ‘pipeline incident’ in Canadian law. Definitions vary by jurisdiction, which can influence the scale, scope, and pace of a response.”

Notable, however, is that in response to public concerns, the release of data by government ministries has been not only partial but also presented in a highly misleading form. Overlapping provincial and federal jurisdiction for pipeline monitoring and spill remediation contributes to lax accountability, allowing regulators to shift responsibility onto other levels of government.

The definitional inconsistency between railways and pipelines creates an empirical gap. As there are no standard criteria for reporting on accidents, data cannot be combined in a form that allows for a consistent, nationwide database.

The currently posted TSBA data tables on pipeline spills and incidents are presented in a misleading and incongruous form. 2017 TSBA data are now presented in TSBA tables in a different format and order than that of the TSBA tables we examined and presented in a 2019 publication.

Notably, the Canada Energy Regulator now compiles and presents data on pipeline incidents nationally via an interactive online data visualization initiative, which, arguably, is incredibly opaque in presentation.

Importantly, with the exception of the past two years, the numbers of “accidents” recorded for the 10 preceding years are now considerably higher than those reported in 2017.

Inconsistencies in reported data constitute a major obstacle to the possibility of substantive monitoring and auditing even though the information superficially provides some social-psychological comfort to regulators and the public.

In a context of highly inadequate information, incomplete data renders audit practices substantively hollow. Meanwhile the dangers that spills cause to the public — in particular those in lower income, Indigenous and rural populations — only intensify.

SOURCE

Liette Gilbert and Anna Zalik are professors in the faculty of environmental and urban change at York University.

 

Alternative Federal Budget Recovery Plan

The Alternative Federal Budget (AFB) Recovery Plan is an offshoot of the Alternative Federal Budget project, now in its 25th year. This project is a collaboration among organizations and researchers from a variety of sectors, populations, and areas of expertise including human rights, labour, environmental protection, anti-poverty, arts and culture, social development, child development, international development, women, Indigenous peoples, the faith-based community, students, teachers, education, and health care workers.

Together, they have created the AFB Recovery Plan recognizing that the federal government’s role as backstop during the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t end with the first wave of reopening—Canada needs to step up with more investments to ensure a just, equitable and sustainable recovery.

Among the key issues in the AFB Recovery Plan requiring immediate action: implement universal public child care so people can get back to work, reform employment insurance, strengthen safeguards for public health, decarbonize the economy, and tackle the gender, racial, and income inequality that COVID-19 has further exposed.

Download 1.13 MB163 pages

SOURCE

Coal power should be relegated to the ash heap of history

Atlas Coal Mine, near Drumheller, Alberta. Image: Heidi G/Flickr

Image: Heidi G/Flickr

During and after his 2016 campaign, the current U.S. president promised to make coal great again. He also claimed climate change was a hoax, so it’s no surprise that he’d promote a cheap, outdated, polluting, climate-altering fuel even as cleaner alternatives continued to become more efficient and cost-effective.

Since then, U.S. coal companies have seen share prices plummet and many have gone bankrupt. A decade ago, more than half of U.S. electricity was generated by coal. Now that number is down to one-fifth and dropping steadily, in part because of a shift to natural gas, but also to renewable energy. Wind power is now the country’s fastest-growing electricity source.

Coal isn’t coming back, nor should it. From start to finish, it’s one of the most destructive energy sources. Extracting it often requires blasting away entire mountaintops, polluting air, water and soil. Burning it creates enormous amounts of deadly pollution, along with CO2 and methane emissions that drive global heating.

The climate emergency demands that we use less energy and that we get what we need from cleaner sources. We shouldn’t be using 19th-century fuels in the 21st.

But the U.S. president isn’t alone in wanting to double down on archaic, deadly coal in the face of a climate crisis. Alberta, not content to drive global heating to catastrophic levels with its dirty bitumen, is now moving to expand its coal industry — with little or no environmental oversight.

Even though Canada is moving to phase out coal-fired electricity, we’re happy to export it to other countries. It’s like a drug dealer who knows the harms of addiction, and so quits a personal habit but continues to sell to others.

The proposed Vista mine expansion near Hinton, Alberta, will increase thermal coal production from about seven million tonnes a year to between 10 and 15 million tonnes. Even though it will destroy ecosystems and put endangered species at greater risk, the project isn’t required to undergo a federal environmental assessment — in part because the company revised its estimate of the “project area” to fall below the threshold that requires review for any “increase in the area of mining operations of 50 per cent or more.”

A metallurgical coal mine in B.C.’s Elk Valley, Teck’s Castle Mountain, is also attempting to avoid federal review by claiming the project is an expansion rather than a new mine.

Alberta is even overturning regulations enacted by its Conservative government in 1976 to protect ecologically sensitive areas — substantially increasing locations for open-pit mines. The Alberta government’s relationship with the coal industry is almost as cosy as with the oil industry. The province’s former environment minister is now president of the Coal Association of Canada.

It’s always the same story from those who lack the imagination, wisdom and foresight to learn and change with the times, who prioritize the human-created economy over the air, water, land and biodiversity that we need to survive, and over human health and well-being.

Economic costs and benefits should never be the only factors in considering industrial policy and regulation. But coal fails even on that front. Although electricity from existing coal power plants is often less expensive than wind or solar, many plants worldwide are nearing their end. Building new coal power plants would make the costs far higher — while prices for renewables are dropping rapidly as the technologies improve. Of course, the costs to human lives and health, wildlife, habitat and the climate are immeasurable.

It seems strange to write about the push for coal well into the 21st century. Those who would go on destroying the environment and fuelling the climate crisis all for the sake of short-term profits and a few jobs — when so many better options exist — are demonstrating their short-sightedness and illustrating the flaws in our current economic systems.

Even within the current paradigm, more and better jobs could be created by facilitating clean tech and renewable energy industries rather than relying on outdated, destructive energy sources that the world has agreed must be phased out if we are to survive.

The pandemic crisis hasn’t slowed the climate and extinction crises, but it’s shown that rapid action can have positive results. It’s time to do better. Coal is over.

SOURCE

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior writer and editor Ian Hanington. Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.

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Food policy action required in the face of COVID-19

Image: Aaron Cloward/Unsplash

There was a run on seeds and soil in the spring while urbanites were still wondering how long lockdown might be, and whether or not fresh veggies and fruit might be scarce, particularly given the close of the Canada-U.S. border.

Gardening has grown in popularity this year, for sure. But now many are discovering that it is not so easy to grow all that food, even if you are lucky enough to have access to land — and that it takes knowledge and lots of effort to get that small basket of peas.

Growing food when you are new to the practice is definitely an adventure. It takes persistence to ensure a plentiful garden. And it takes persistence to create a solid agri-food strategy as well. Food does not just automatically appear.

COVID-19 should be forcing us, along with policy-makers, to reflect deeply on Canada’s food security and sovereignty.

There have been several interesting studies over the years that show that in Canada we could do much more to support homegrown food production and sustainable agricultural policies. There are also some really innovative food production models in urban areas — such as this green roof farm — that show cities can also contribute to low-carbon food production.

What is really demanded at this point is that we acknowledge that Canada can grow much more of its food, and that we lessen our reliance on the export/import game this country has been engaging in for far too long.

Until August 7, the House of Commons standing committee on finance is accepting briefs from individuals and organizations as part of consultations in the preparation for the 2021 budget. These consultations happen annually, but this year the topic is about measures the federal government could take to restart the Canadian economy as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is lots that could be done on the food production front.

A report published in late May by Food Secure Canada is calling on the federal government to support local food systems and hubs to address the food security needs, now more evident than ever because of COVID-19.

The report, titled “Growing Resilience and Equity: A food policy action plan in the context of Covid-19” champions several recommendations, including harmonizing “Canada’s national and international food policies, prioritizing food sovereignty approaches, supporting family farms and low-input, low-emissions agroecological food production as well as sustainable processing and distribution.”

The report notes that local food systems would go a long way towards alleviating food insecurity and poverty, particularly in Indigenous, Black and racialized communities.

As this and other reports have underscored, Canada imports 30 per cent of its food, yet exports more than 50 per cent of what we grow and raise. Canada is the fifth largest food exporter in the world, and the sixth largest food importer. Go figure!

Essentially, we export more than 50 per cent of the fruit and vegetables that we grow — and yet we import many of these very same horticultural products. Some of these imports are due to seasonal demand and Canada’s growing season. But at the same time, studies have shown that a significant amount of these horticultural imports could be grown and stored in Canada if it were made a priority in our agricultural policy.

Generally, the rate of growth in imports exceeds the rate of growth in exports. Ontario, for example is a net food importer, importing annually about $10 billion more than it exports, with roughly half of those exports being products that we grow, store and process within the province.

A study published in 2015 concluded that more than half of the food products imported by Ontario could be produced in the province. The report, “Dollars and Sense: Opportunities to Strenthen Southern Ontario’s Food System” concludes:

“If local production were expanded to replace even ten percent of the top ten fruit and vegetable imports, the Ontario economy would gain close to quarter of a billion dollars in GDP and 3,400 full-time jobs. The research also demonstrates that when more food is produced locally, energy use and pollution from transportation are reduced.”

The report goes on to detail many more opportunities and advantages of local food production.

I am sure similar studies could be done in other provinces. As well, it would be important to review on a national scale how provinces might be able to support each regional food need when there is a shortfall in certain food products locally.

Many organizations and economists have argued for decades that our current import/export model is a fallacy and that we should produce food for our own domestic needs first and export only when our own needs have been satisfied — in other words, export the surplus.

The Canadian Commission on UNESCO and the UNESCO Chair on Food, Biodiversity, and Sustainability Studies have also released several briefs related to the COVID-19 recovery. One is a detailed look at sustainable food systems.

Given COVID-19 and how precarious and, frankly, economically backward our current food policies are, the federal government must move towards supporting local food systems, and local producers, as it considers ways to stimulate the economy and recover from the pandemic. It must also adopt policies that ensure we produce and market for the domestic market first — and withdraw from the export/import game.

The pandemic is tough on us, but it is also showing us a path towards a healthier future.

SOURCE

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column “At the farm gate” discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

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Please Advise! Are We Done with Trudeau’s Sorry Ways?

In other words, did WE finish our PM? Our political spin doctor offers his appraisal.

TrudeauSorrySorrySorry.jpg

[Editor’s note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a PhD in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]

Dear Dr. Steve,

The Liberal government is taking a lot of summer heat for the WE scandal. Will this one have legs?

Signed,

Volunteer

Dear Vol,

As the cynical old saying has it, no good deed goes unpunished. It’s like Halloween where you hand out candy, but if you don’t do it right, they egg your house. And now here was our prime minister, trying to hand out $900 million to the nation’s youth and winding up with a veritable omelet on his face.

But there’s another truism that says political scandals are tailor-made for particular individuals. The misdeeds that really pop are the ones that seem to make for a snug fit. For Trudeau, the WE scandal is like a bespoke suit. It features his secular brand of pious sanctimony matched with arrogance, presumption, and for that piece de resistance, a pocket square of hypocrisy.

At first blush, the scandal appears particularly Canadian — not about misappropriated funds from a mobbed-up paving contract, but about the choice of administrator for a national student volunteer program. Surely, it’s just about good intentions gone wrong, yes? Just poor Prime Minister Jean Valjean, persecuted for stealing bread to feed the needy?

But Les Miserables would be a different story if Jean Valjean was in charge of the city flour supply, and every loaf in Paris ended up in the hands of various Valjeans. WE is a group with strong ties to the Trudeau family, having employed both Sophie Gregoire and Margaret Trudeau. And there were no bids put out on the massive contract, despite doubts in some quarters about the suitability of the organization for the role. Trudeau promptly cancelled the contract and went before cameras to apologize for his lapse in judgment. But it offered yet another example of questionable behaviour from the man who brought you the SNC-Lavalin scandal, among other hits.

Donald Trump cheats at golf. It’s who he is. In a more complex way, the WE scandal will strike many as being a glimpse into Justin Trudeau’s very soul — a surface of sunshine and rainbows with some grubby soil underneath. There is a sense that an unshakable belief in his own righteousness allows Trudeau to cut himself plenty of slack on ethical considerations. The prime minister probably looks into the mirror each morning and sees a human Hallmark Movie-of-the-Week. But Canadians feel like they are watching a different movie, and it’s one they’ve seen before.

As for WE itself, much has been written recently not just about their influence but their considerable real estate assets, and the disturbing fact that their entire board of directors resigned this spring.

Calculated or not, establishing a relationship with young Justin Trudeau years ago was a savvy move for WE. It’s an inescapable truth about charitable organizations that, regardless of their cause, they are organizations first and foremost. And it’s a rare organization that does not eventually become dedicated to self-perpetuation. It starts out with faith, hope and good works, and then somewhere along the way you find yourself hiring mercenaries to defend the Papal States. Or the Toronto equivalent.

Beyond the details, the obvious political question here is whether anyone is paying attention. In this it seems the world of sports may offer some clues. The pandemic has provided a measure of just what activities one can be made to care about in the absence of the usual stuff. Dr. Steve has lately been glued to the Major League Soccer tournament. This has been a surprise to Dr. Steve, since MLS has previously appeared to him as akin to Triple A baseball, and he has paid it roughly the same amount of attention. Now though, facing a dearth of options, he is riveted. Similarly, it is entirely possible that the WE scandal might gain more traction than expected simply because it’s a choice between that and watching the Pro Scrabble circuit or a high school archery tournament.

On the other hand, the NHL, the NBA and Major League Baseball are coming back soon. Likewise, larger political spectacles will soon arrive. In fact, the Conservatives may well undermine their own attempts to spotlight the WE issue, simply by getting some heat going in their underwhelming leadership race. You’d think it has to get some attention eventually. So far, it’s been the equivalent of a 3 a.m. rerun of an arena football game. But at some point, the leadership contest could turn into a genuine tennis match, perhaps a mixed martial arts cage brawl, a fiery NASCAR pileup, or even a Houston Astros-style cheating scandal, any of which would at least prove to be a distraction for popcorn-crazed political junkies.

This is not to say the prime minister will be able to shrug off the WE debacle. Why, Conservative leadership candidate Erin O’Toole calls it “the biggest scandal in Canadian history!” (The Liberals will now probably support O’Toole for the leadership — it will be a bonus to have an Opposition leader who has already forgotten SNC-Lavalin.) But even assuming O’Toole goes on to loudly demand resignations from Justin Trudeau, Sophie Gregoire, Margaret Trudeau and Kenzie the First Dog, the Liberals should not get too smug. Scandals like this, the ones that seem to fit a pattern, tend to accrete. Even when the substance is forgotten, the impression remains.

Still, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that foreign media, should they look at this affair at all, will be apt to snicker. “Canadian prime minister in hot water for botching handout to student volunteers. Meanwhile Donald Trump funnels $400,000 of campaign money into his own pockets and commutes the prison sentence of his personal political attack dog, while a member of his own family describes him as a racist psychopath. Never change, Canada!”

And somewhere in Ottawa, Justin Trudeau nods into the mirror. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I won’t.”  [Tyee]

SOURCE

Catch and Release: Why Trudeau Gets away with So Much Stuff

Trudeau-ethics.jpg

Working in the PM’s favour is the low importance of ethics in today’s public life.

 

B.C. would welcome talks with feds over basic income guarantee

B.C. Social Development and Poverty Reduction Minister Shane Simpson speaks to media on April 2, 2020. Photo by B.C. Government

British Columbia would welcome consultations with the federal government on the issue of basic income, says the province’s social development and poverty reduction minister.

Shane Simpson was asked to respond to a federal Senate committee report that recommends the Government of Canada give “full, fair and priority consideration” to a basic income guarantee, in consultation with the provinces, territories and Indigenous governments.

“The possibility of a basic income guarantee deserves more thorough investigation,” the Senate finance committee wrote in its interim report on COVID-19, published July 14.

Simpson’s office confirmed to National Observer that “B.C. would welcome consultation” over the issue. The province is currently studying basic income via a panel the government struck in 2018. The panel’s final report is due to the minister at the end of December.

CERB ‘effectiveness’ seen as inspiration

The Senate committee’s deputy chair, Senator Éric Forest, said “many witnesses and senators strongly suggested” the government consider a basic income program in the “post-COVID world” during its study of the issue.

Senators found that the “effectiveness” of the government’s $2,000-a-month COVID-19 income support, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) “has led many people to wonder whether it is time to consider a more permanent solution, such as a basic income guarantee.”

B.C. Senator Yuen Pau Woo recently told CBC Radio that Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s “economic and fiscal snapshot” of its pandemic relief efforts suggested a COVID-19 recovery will be modest.

“That suggests to me that we will need income support of some sort into 2021,” he said.

“To the extent that we need special income support, this is an opportunity to pilot basic income, perhaps at a provincial level, to see if this might be a better way to help Canadians and to reap the benefits that the proponents of basic income have been touting for many years.”

British Columbia would welcome consultations with the federal government on the issue of basic income, says the province’s social development and poverty reduction minister.

Hundreds of individuals and organizations in the arts and culture sector released an open letter July 16 that called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others in his cabinet to “ensure the financial well-being of all residents by implementing a permanent Basic Income Guarantee.”

The letter points out that millions of Canadians are either out of work or in precarious financial situations. They said structural inequalities already disproportionately affect groups such as refugees, women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ2+ people and Black and Indigenous people.

“Establishing a Basic Income Guarantee will help to create a healthier, more equitable social safety system that provides financial support, elevating people and ensuring that no one is left behind,” they wrote.wrote

 

The group argued basic income would lower poverty and inequality as it would be applied to everyone in a fair manner, addressing the issue of “inconsistent support programs that have overlaps and gaps.”

The Green Party has been calling for a “guaranteed livable income” program for several years. The party said March 17, early on in the pandemic, that the economic fallout of COVID-19 presented the “perfect opportunity” to explore how basic income could be happened before the next emergency.

The federal NDP has also said the establishment of the CERB has demonstrated why Canada should be putting in place a basic income program.

The CERB is being phased out by the Trudeau government as it shifts its support toward a redesigned wage subsidy program available to all eligible employers, with varying support levels depending on pandemic-related revenue losses.

The former Bank of Canada governor, Stephen Poloz, told the committee that some future reliable and automatic “fiscal stabilizer” would be “worth developing more deeply,” as a lesson learned from the pandemic.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) also released a cost estimate of post-pandemic basic income on July 7, responding to a request from Woo, using the structure that was set up when Ontario had a basic income pilot project.

The PBO said the total estimated gross cost of such an endeavour would be between $47 billion and $98 billion, if it were to run between October 2020 and March 2021.

But this could be offset by $15 billion over the same period, if federal and provincial income support programs, such as tax credits, would be eliminated in its place.

SOURCE

Carl Meyer / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

RELATED:

Advocates hopeful CERB will pave way for universal basic income

Ford government’s COVID-19 economic recovery bill broke the law, auditor general says

Ontario Environment Minister Jeff Yurek, pictured at Queen’s Park in 2019, defended the government’s COVID-19 economic recovery bill Tuesday. File photo by Christopher Katsarov

The Ford government broke the law by passing its omnibus economic recovery bill Tuesday without consulting the public on major environmental changes, auditor general Bonnie Lysyk said.

The government used its majority to pass the legislation, Bill 197, on Tuesday night over the objections of opposition parties. The omnibus bill makes sweeping changes to 20 pieces of legislation, including major rewrites of environmental law.

Under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, the Progressive Conservative government is required to post measures that impact the environment on the Environmental Registry and consult the public for 30 days. The government posted notices on the registry but did not hold consultations about Bill 197, which was introduced in early July.

“We did give (the government) a heads up indicating that we had concerns on Friday,” Lysyk said in a phone interview with Canada’s National Observer.

“We indicated that the bill, before it passes third reading, should be posted on the Environmental Registry (for a full 30 day consultation).”

Green advocates have said measures in the bill amount to a rollback of environmental protections.

It includes a rewrite of environmental assessment rules — the government will now decide which projects get environmental assessments, rather than reviewing most public sector projects by default. It also streamlines assessments for projects that do need them, and removes a mechanism that allows the public to ask the environment minister to require a full review of a project.

The government has said it’s working on more regulations to decide which projects should get assessments, and to define what streamlined assessments would look like.

The bill also expands the government’s power to override the normal land planning process and potential opposition to projects through Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs).

Premier Doug Ford has previously said the proposed rewrite would be used to speed up infrastructure projects that would help Ontario recover from the financial hit it has taken during COVID-19.

“We aren’t going to dodge (environmental assessments) or anything,” Ford told reporters when the legislation was first introduced.

Ontario NDP environment critic Ian Arthur wrote to the province’s auditor general to ask for an investigation into Bill 197, which Arthur said may be a violation of the Environmental Bill of Rights. #onpoli

“We’re going to make sure we strengthen them, but we’re going to do them quicker and smarter.”

The government previously told National Observer it included a measure in the bill to exempt it from public consultation requirements under the Environmental Bill of Rights.

Lysyk said only the portion of the bill that deals with environmental assessments included that exception, not the one about MZOs. And either way, the government still needs to consult the public, she said, adding that it would be “precedent-setting” to allow the government to retroactively give itself an exception to the rules.

“It could undermine public confidence,” she said.

NDP environment critic Ian Arthur said the legislative process doesn’t work the way government was attempting to use it.

“You can’t embed a change that affects legislation being tabled in the legislation itself,” he said.

Arthur said he hopes the bill will be challenged in court.

“(The Ford government is) on a mission and it’s to run roughshod over environmental protections, and they’ll do that at any cost,” Arthur said in a phone interview.

“I certainly hope that they’re not allowed to do this without some sort of pushback.”

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the legislation shows a “total lack of respect” for environmental oversight.

“Bill 197 was a rush job that subverted the democratic process and bypassed public input,” he said in a statement. “I hope the AG will hold them accountable.”

Last October, an Ontario court found that Ford’s government broke the law when it axed the province’s cap-and-trade program without holding consultations in 2018. (The court didn’t compel the government to restore the program.)

Spokespeople for Ontario Environment Minister Jeff Yurek, who is responsible for environmental assessments and Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark, who is responsible for MZOs, did not immediately reply to a request for comment.


Ontario NDP environment critic Ian Arthur questions Environment Minister Jeff Yurek at Queen’s Park on July 21, 2020 about changes to environmental assessments. Photo from Legislative Assembly of Ontario

NDP MPP wrote to auditor general earlier Tuesday to ask for investigation

In a letter to Lysyk earlier Tuesday, Arthur asked that she and Jerry Demarco, assistant auditor general and commissioner of the environment, review the government’s push to pass the environmental changes in the economic recovery bill. Not only did the government not hold public consultations, he said, it was also using its majority to skip the committee stage and fast-track the bill.

Lysyk said late Tuesday that she had not yet received Arthur’s letter, but said her office is already done assessing the issue.

“We already concluded on that,” she said. “We will issue a report on compliance or noncompliance with the Environmental Bill of Rights this fall. And we’ll address it in that.”

During question period at Queen’s Park Tuesday, Arthur asked the government to withdraw the “potentially illegal” changes.

Ontario Environment Minister Jeff Yurek fired back in response, saying the bill would modernize the province’s 50-year-old environmental assessment system and focus government efforts on higher-risk projects.

Though Yurek didn’t directly address the Environmental Bill of Rights, he pointed to provisions in the bill that would preserve treaty rights for First Nations and allow municipalities to veto landfill projects.

“I don’t know why the member is against those changes to environmental assessments,” Yurek said.

“I have yet to hear the member opposite or that opposition party come up with a plan for the environment for the province of Ontario. All they say is, ‘no, no, no.’”

Green and Liberal MPPs also flagged concerns about the bill.

Speaking by phone Tuesday night, Arthur said it’s “in character” for the government to pass the bill despite concerns about the Environmental Bill of Rights.

“They view any sort of environmental regulation as red tape,” he said.

“I think that this government is so sure of themselves and their view of what is right that there is very little consideration for what anyone brings to the table, be it the auditor general or the opposition.”

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