Ecology Ottawa's Robb Barnes: Why waste matters to climate action

When it comes to local climate action in Ottawa, the path forward offered by municipal officials – and even advocates like Ecology Ottawa – can seem deceptively simple. That is, Ottawa’s greenhouse gas emissions overwhelmingly stem from two major sources. Buildings – or how we heat, cool and electrify our homes, offices and other structures – account for 45% of Ottawa’s emissions, while transportation accounts for 44%. The remainder – two tiny slices on Ottawa’s emissions pie chart – are waste (8%) and agriculture (3%). 

While true, this analysis leaves out some very important pieces of the climate story. 

First, let’s talk about what the City of Ottawa’s emissions leave out. Like many cities, Ottawa is better at measuring some things more than others. In the case of climate emissions, we have gotten pretty good at assessing what are sometimes called “production emissions.” That is, we have a pretty good estimate of all of the carbon emissions generated by the community, within the boundaries of the City of Ottawa. 

Fair enough, but what does this leave out? The counterpoint to production emissions are “consumption emissions,” the many items that come from outside the city’s boundaries. You know that shiny phone in your pocket? Or that plastic bag sitting in the corner? Or the many miles and carbon inputs that went into producing your food, especially if you eat meat? Because most or all of these greenhouse gases are not produced by the Ottawa community, they’re not factored in. 

Even if we zero in on what we measure – Ottawa’s production emissions – waste’s role is bigger than it first appears. While waste accounts for only 8% of Ottawa’s community-wide emissions, the city notes that reducing and redirecting organic waste is the third most-important action we can take to reduce emissions. In fact, successfully diverting organic waste and creating renewable natural gas could get us nearly one fifth of the way to Ottawa’s 2050 goal of net zero emissions. Part of the reason is that reducing waste emissions involves a one-two punch: cutting down on highly damaging methane pollution while creating a new source of low-carbon energy that replaces fossil fuels. Another part of the reason is that waste is something over which we have power. It is a daily choice, and like all choices, it is something we can control if we choose to. 

We know we can’t solve the climate crisis through individual choices alone. Policy matters deeply, and we must continue to urge decision-makers at all levels to respond to the climate emergency with the speed and scale required. But with all that said, our choices matter – a lot. What we buy, how we buy it, where it comes from, how it was made, and what happens to it after we finish with it – these are questions we should be asking ourselves daily.  

To put it briefly: we can’t tackle the climate crisis without tackling the waste problem. That’s why the rise of the zero waste movement is so inspiring. It shows that another way is possible – both for people who want to change their waste habits, and for businesses who know you can make money while protecting our planet.

Robb Barnes

Executive Director, Ecology Ottawa

Ecology Ottawa was founded in 2006 in a living room in Ottawa and has since grown into a city-wide movement. Ecology Ottawa works with local residents, organizations and businesses to advocate for more vibrant green space, healthier watersheds, safer streets and stronger action on climate change. They are this month's recipient of our 1% for a cause program. Every time you shop at NU, you support their mission to make Ottawa the green capital of Canada.

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