Friday, October 24, 2008

The Appalachian Corridor: connecting people and nature

The human landscape is all about connections. Connecting one town to another, connecting farms to markets, and connecting people to one another. These connections are useful to us but have the opposite effect on the natural landscape creating a disjointed network that makes it hard for wildlife to migrate or travel from forest to forest. One local organization, the Appalachian Corridor (or ACA - Appalachian Corridor Appalachien), recognizes this and is helping local landowners and organizations apply conservation measures for a healthier landscape benefiting wildlife and people alike.

The Appalachian Corridor has been a part of conservation in the Townships since 2001 when three ambitious women, Louise Gratton, Francine Hone and Terri Monahan, started the project to protect the natural corridor of the Appalachian Mountains which includes over 2,500 km2 in Quebec alone, stretching from Brompton lake to the border and from the Pinnacle to Sherbrooke. Before ACA, the only sizable protected area in the region was Mount Orford National Park, covering nearly 6,000 hectares, and a variety of local land trusts which contributed another 400 hectares of protected land. In the short years since, the Appalachian Corridor and its partners – a wide array of local land trusts, conservation groups and government agencies – have effectively doubled the area of protected land in the region through private land donations and conservation agreements bringing the proportion of protected land in the area to 3%. The most notable example of this is the acquisition of 6,000 hectares of the Sutton Mountains massif which was purchased from Domtar by the Nature Conservancy Canada and the government of Quebec and is now known as the Green-Mountains Nature Reserve.

The idea of wildlife corridors has been around since the 1980s when ecologists began realizing that human development was causing the natural landscape to become more fragmented and more disconnected. As natural habitats were shrinking, so was the number of connections between them making travel and migration difficult for numerous wildlife species.

The Monteregian hills (e.g. Mount St-Hilaire, Mount Rougemont, Mount St-Gregoire) just west of the Townships are a good example of fragmented natural habitats. Each hill, while endowed with beautiful forests and wildlife, is completely surrounded by farmland and roads making it difficult for wildlife to migrate from one hill to another. Habitat fragmentation can be a problem for species that have big ranges and can’t rely on small, isolated natural areas such as the bobcat and cougar. Even for species that don’t necessarily travel as much or migrate, a certain amount of mixing between different populations is required to prevent inbreeding. In order to minimize these detrimental effects, conservation groups began working on creating wildlife corridors, stretches of protected land between protected habitats that make it easier for wildlife to travel between them.

Here in the Townships, we are fortunate to have a landscape that is much less fragmented than in Monteregie but wildlife movement is by no means unhindered by human development. This is the underlying goal of ACA’s three-pronged plan. The first step in the conservation plan is to ensure the region has core conservation areas – such as the Green-Mountains Nature Reserve and Mount Orford National Park – big enough to ensure the survival of all representative species. These core areas are then surrounded with buffer zones where certain activities that don’t compromise the integrity of the core area are allowed such as sustainable forestry and low-density housing. Lastly, corridors of natural habitat should be maintained between core areas to allow wildlife movements between them.

The means by which the Appalachian Corridor achieves their goals is by offering their technical expertise to local conservation groups and by helping landowners realize their conservation goals. Particularly impressive is the number of options available to landowners wishing to donate their land for conservation. Landowners can donate land outright or, if they wish to retain ownership, they can choose the conservation servitude route – a legal agreement whereby a landowner retains ownership of the land but agrees not to practice certain ecologically damaging activities such as construction, logging or draining wetlands. Another option is to draw up a management agreement with a local conservation organization or simply rent land out to them. Donations and agreements can cover as little as one hectare of land or as many as several hundred hectares.

The Appalachian Corridor’s website (www.apcor.ca) has a variety of testimonials from landowners who have taken the plunge and dedicated their land to one form of conservation or another. Their motives are very diverse as well as the means employed to achieve their goals. What is also abundantly clear from their stories is that donating land and starting conservation servitudes is more complicated than it sounds and that ACA greatly facilitates this process. “Without the Mount Pinnacle Land Trust and the Appalachian Corridor it would have been difficult to realize this dream which has been dear to us for many years,” one lady admits. Another contributor to the Mount Pinnacle Land Trust says, “after several meetings with the Mount Pinnacle Land Trust and the Appalachian Corridor team, I opted for the conservation servitude. They explained the process of establishing a servitude, and they supported me every step of the way.”

This ability to work with landowners and local organizations has not only helped to protect the natural landscape and the approximately 100 threatened or endangered species that can be found here, but has attracted national and international recognition for the Appalachian Corridor’s work. Last summer co-founder Francine Hone won second place in the Yves Rocher Institutes Terre de Femme awards recognizing women contributing to environmental issues. This summer the Appalachian Corridor received the Canadian Environment Awards’ Gold Medal in conservation ahead of other national conservation projects.

Natural conservation is an issue that deserves a bigger spotlight than it gets in the Townships. If anyone doubts how spoiled we are here with natural riches they can just ask any of the hoards of tourists pulled over in the most inopportune along backroads armed with their cameras and an eye for colourful fall leaves. While I wish they would choose not to park around blind corners, I sympathize with their appreciation of our region’s natural heritage. ACA’s work is giving Townshippers an opportunity to conserve this natural wonder and increases people’s awareness of it. What I find most encouraging, however, is that the instinct to preserve it already exists in our region as landowners voluntarily agree to donate their land or make arrangements ensuring that it will be conserved. It is a sign that Townshippers have the ability to look beyond their property lines and, with the help of the Appalachian Corridor, take action that will benefit not only themselves, but the entire population of the region today and for years to come.

Global eating equals global warming

Eating is an indispensable habit and a bigger part of our lives than just providing nutrients and energy; it defines us. According to Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a 19th century gastronome, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” This quote, better know as “you are what you eat”, strikes such a powerful chord with us that is has been repeated through the ages and most people (including me before I wrote this) have no idea who first said it. But as people become more numerous on this planet, it’s becoming apparent that not only are we what we eat, but the world is what we eat as well.

With all the climate change talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions this election, people are looking to their cars to help curb their personal emissions but it may be that the kitchen is a better place to start. A recent study in Environmental Science and Technology by Christopher Weber and Scott Matthews indicates that the average US household produces almost twice as many greenhouse gas emissions through food consumption than through driving. These emissions include the energy that goes into the production of the food, transporting the food from the farm to the retailer and other energy uses such as refrigeration and lighting.

I decided to find out for myself what kind of impacts my diet could have on climate change. After a little bit of research I found eatlowcarbon.com, a site that calculates your greenhouse gas emissions for different meals in grams of carbon dioxide. The calculator was put together by the Bon App├ętit Management Company, an online catering company that strives to provide both “culinary expertise and commitment to socially responsible practices”. They provide a thorough list of the sources they used to develop their tool for those wishing to do more research. I discovered quite quickly that small changes in my diet could make big changes in my emissions and that I could start making a change first thing in the morning at the breakfast table.

On weekdays, I like to keep breakfast simple with either toast and jam or a bowl of cereal. Surprisingly, that simple decision between two rather mundane choices meant the difference between 1224 g CO2 for the bowl of cereal and 103 g for the toast and jam. This means that over the course of a year, eating toast instead of cereal would reduce my personal emissions by over 400 kg of CO2, the same amount of emissions created by driving an average car 1500km. The reason that emissions are so high for a bowl of cereal has nothing to do with the cereal itself, but the milk. Dairy products and other animal products take a lot more energy to produce than food crops. This is because about 90% of the food an animal eats is used for movement and metabolism and only 10% goes into the meat and dairy products that are sold as an end product.

Lunch and supper provided their own surprises. With a cheeseburger and fries coming in at almost 2000 g CO2, I decided to look for which foods might have a smaller impact. My best bets were chicken or fish if I wanted meat (400-700 g CO2) but if I cut the meat out I could get down as low as 300 g CO2 with a vegetable stir fry.

While few people would say it is realistic to eliminate meat and dairy products entirely from our diet, some important organizations, such as the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, suggest reducing the amount of meat consumed starting with one meat-free day per week. Dr. Pachauri, head of the International Panel on Climate Change, told The Guardian, “in terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most attractive opportunity.”

Cutting down greenhouse gas emissions other ways is also possible but it is not as intuitive as you would think. For example, buying organic produce, because they use less nitrogen can reduce you emissions but when you buy organic meats the opposite is true. Animals raised organically take longer to reach the desired weight meaning they eat more food over their lifetimes than industrially raised animals. Also, while buying local is important to support local food producers, the emissions reductions aren’t as important as buying food that is less energy-intense to grow because transportation is only a relatively small part of food’s greenhouse gas emissions (11%) when compared to the emissions involved in food production (83%).

I encourage everyone to try this calculator. Because calculators like this one are greatly simplified, they do not give perfectly accurate results, but they do provide a reasonable estimate and at the very least can help consumer pinpoint which parts of their diets are the most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

As seen in the October 8, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A tale of two climate change policies

In their rush to climb over each other, the five major political parties rarely find themselves agreeing on anything, but addressing reductions in greenhouse gas emissions has found the five parties lining up on two sides. And the parties that line up are not the ones you think they may be.

The media, awash with the words ‘carbon tax’ have neglected to discuss its only real alternative for emissions reductions: the cap-and-trade system. So while the Liberals are the ones getting all the heat for their greenhouse gas reduction policy – mostly because they are touting it as a keystone issue – there is little, if any, comparison of the two major approaches to greenhouse gas reductions.

The biggest difference between the two is how direct they are in reducing emissions. The cap-and-trade system – championed by three strange bedfellows: the Conservatives, the NDP and the Bloq – limits emissions directly by placing a limit on them. Industries exceeding these limits have to either pay fines or purchase carbon credits from industries that are below the limits. This direct approach is generally favoured by environmental groups because it sets exact targets on emissions. Some economists, on the other hand, dislike this approach because it is difficult to calculate the exact economic impact of reaching specific targets which, they say, may create volatile energy prices

The carbon tax – the strategy of choice of the Liberals and Green Party – aims to reduce emissions in an indirect fashion by making the cost of emitting carbon more expensive. For example, in British Columbia, where a tax of $10 per tonne of carbon emitted was levied on July 1 of this year, drivers will have to pay an extra 2.4 cents per litre of gasoline. This means that a person driving a hybrid car will have to pay an extra $10 in tax for every 8500 kilometers they drive, the distance required to emit a tonne of carbon. People with less fuel efficient SUV’s would have to pay over $30 extra to cover the same distance. The tax covers any fuel that emits carbon such as heating oil, natural gas and propane. The Liberals’ plan, however, exempts gasoline from their carbon tax judging it to be already sufficiently taxed.

Because the price is fixed for every tonne of carbon emitted by both consumers and industry, a carbon tax’s impact on the economy and energy prices is easier to predict than for the cap-and-trade system. It is, however, more difficult to predict emissions reductions because they are dependent on how consumers react to higher carbon taxes.

An important criticism of the carbon tax is that it will have a larger impact on lower income Canadians for whom energy costs represent a bigger part of their budget. Supporters of the carbon tax address this issue by making the tax revenue-neutral which is just a fancy way of saying that the government isn’t making any money off it. It redistributes all revenue from the tax back to consumers in the form of income tax cuts and interest free loans for people retrofitting their home to be more energy efficient. Both the Liberal and Green address this issue in their party platforms by giving bigger tax breaks and tax credits to low income families affected by this tax. The cap-and-trade system doesn’t have a direct cost to consumers but industries having to implement expensive measures to reduce emissions will no doubt pass some of the costs down to the consumers. None of the cap-and-trade supporting parties have really addressed this issue in their platforms.

A carbon tax, of the nature being discussed in Canada, is not uncharted waters either nationally or internationally. In fact, we Quebeckers already pay a 0.8 cent carbon tax on every litre of gasoline ($3.30 per tonne). Internationally, there is an even longer history of carbon taxation particularly in Scandinavian countries which put carbon taxes in place in the early 1990’s, years before the Kyoto Protocol came into existence. Denmark and Sweden are proof that the tax system can produce emissions reductions without economic hardship. Even after nearly two decades of high taxes on carbon ($150 per tonne of carbon in Sweden’s case), Denmark and Sweden still manage to enjoy higher GDP’s per capita than Canadians according to the World Bank.

Cap-and-trade systems can also be found on the international scene. British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario and Quebec have joined 11 Americ2an states in an agreement that will see all participants cap emissions on certain industries and trade carbon credits amongst themselves. Currently, the biggest cap-and-trade system in the world is the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme which includes 18 countries and went into effect in 2005. The European carbon credit trading suffered severe drawbacks because the targets were voluntary for the first phase. The second phase started in 2008.

Both the cap-and-trade and carbon tax systems have positive and negative aspects and both provide incentives for greenhouse gas emissions reductions in distinctly different ways. While the media continue to portray Dion’s carbon tax in negative light, it is clear that cap-and-trade system is not necessarily an improvement over it. When Canadians hit the polls, they should keep in mind that any way you wish to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there will be an impact on everyone. The carbon tax may sound like a bad idea because we have a natural dislike for taxes, but it has a proven track record and its economic impacts are easier to predict. The cap-and-trade system, on the other hand, can also be an effective way of reducing emissions though it may have higher economic risks for more ambitious targets. In the end, it’s Canadians who will decide.

As seen in the October 1, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The biology behind voting

On October 14, Townshippers, along with their fellow Canadians will be filing into the voting booths to elect who will represent them in Ottawa. We often think that we are fully in control when we are choosing which little white circle to fill in, but two studies released recently is making the traditional notion of voters carefully choosing sides based on candidate, party performance and values look antiquated.

For some people deciding who to vote for is not a demanding task. Like a die-hard hockey fan, their loyalty to a party is undeniable. But for those not firmly entrenched, adding up all the debates, sound bytes, mistakes and so on, can be demanding. Take the race for MP of Brome-Missisquoi, for instance, where the battle is between Bloq Quebecois incumbent Christian Ouellet and Liberal Denis Paradis. For those voters who wish to express their preferences on environmental issues, it is not a straightforward decision.

Both have a history of service on Parliament’s Environment and Sustainable Development Committee but Ouellet has stronger personal environmental credentials having served as chair of the Solar Energy Society of Canada and also as co-founder of Quebec Solaire. Ouellet’s party, on the other hand, has no legitimate chance of forming a government and, as such, are relegated more to a role of influencing legislation rather than instigating it. Paradis, on the other hand, is a member of a party that is really pushing its green side under leader Stephane Dion who continually emphasizes the importance of his carbon tax, a plan to cut income tax and boost taxes on activities the emit greenhouse gases. If you don’t wish to vote for either of these, a vote for any party will still secure $1.75 of funding for that party assuming they get 2% of the vote. How do you make up your mind with choices like these? A recent study shows that your biology can influence your decision in ways you weren’t aware of.

A group of American scientists from backgrounds in political science and psychology released a study in last week’s edition of the journal Science which shows that physiological traits have a measurable impact on political attitudes. After filling out a form to identify their political beliefs, the participants of the study were exposed to two slide shows. One included three threatening pictures of a large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed person with a bloody face, and a maggot-infested wound and the other included three non-threatening pictures of a bunny, a bowl of fruit and a happy child. While both groups reacted similarly to the non-threatening slides, there was an important difference between reactions to the threatening slides. Participants with a high level of support for protective policies (increased military spending, support for the Iraq war, etc.) tended to have stronger reactions to the threatening slides as indicated by skin-conductance which measures levels of stress. This difference has important implications including the fact that politic affiliations may be, in part, genetic shedding new light on an old saying: like father, like son.

While your genetics may play a part in political choices, it is certainly not the be all and end all of decision making. The conscious brain must do the rest of the work right? Not according to Bertram Gawronski from the Western University and two of his colleagues who found that they could predict the future stance on an issue of an undecided individual one week in advance by measuring certain unconscious impulses. Participants in their study, citizens of Vicenza, Italy, were asked to fill out a questionnaire on the enlargement of a U.S. military base in their area and were subsequently submitted to an implicit association test. This test asked the participants to associate, as quickly as possible, pictures of a U.S. army base and either positive or negative words. The speed at which they associate two items can reveal subconscious preferences. The researchers found that, among those undecided about their opinion on the base, reaction times in the implicit association test allowed them to make good predictions of their decision one week in advance. This demonstrates that, although the participants were consciously undecided, a stance on the issue had already been taken in their subconscious. This means that so called swing voters that political parties vie viciously for, may have already decided.

Each of these studies, when published in the mainstream media, seemed to elicit negative responses, primarily from angry partisans trying to find some rationale for the choices of their political adversaries. This interpretation seems, to me, quite selective. Research into this kind of psychology isn’t intended to portray voters as robotic automatons filling in ballots as their genetics and subconscious see fit; another, positive, message can be excised. Knowledge of the genetic and sub-conscious components of our decision-making process, can be used to our benefit by weeding out knee-jerk reactions to politicians and policies leaving us to better able to vote for our values, regardless of what those values may be.

As seen in the September 24, 2008 issue of the Brome County News