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Environment File

Methane-munching microbes and the carbon footprint of climate change in this week's Environment File.

Doctors and climate

Canada’s health care system is one of the most carbon-polluting in the world, a new study suggests, and one Alberta surgeon says our doctors need to step it up when it comes to treating global heating.

The international health journal The Lancet released its annual Lancet Countdown report this week, which tracks the health impacts of global heating and how governments are addressing it. Included in it was a policy brief on Canada.

The brief found Canada has the third-highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions from health care in the world, accounting for some 4.6 per cent of the country’s total carbon emissions.

One big reason for this in Alberta is our coal-heavy power grid, said Joe Vipond, board member with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and an emergency room physician in Calgary. Canada is also cold, so we burn a lot of natural gas for heat.

Waste was also a significant factor. CAPE noted some 71 per cent of health care’s global carbon footprint is due to its supply chain, including the production, packaging, transportation and disposal of goods and services.

Much of that is plastic waste, said Vipond, who noted his hospital recently fought back an attempt to replace its reusable metal trays with disposable plastic ones.

“As an Alberta health care professional, it’s really embarrassing to go to work each day and see the amount of single-use plastic we are going through.”

Global heating has already raised our risk of disease infection from mosquitoes and ticks and threatens our food security with unpredictable farming weather, Vipond said. It also makes wildfires like the ones in Fort McMurray more likely – fires that cause death and post-traumatic stress and cover huge areas with asthma-exacerbating smoke.

Medical organizations the world over have identified global heating as the world’s top public health issue, Vipond said. Alberta doctors need to invest in energy-efficient appliances and heating systems to reduce their carbon footprints.

The St. Albert and Sturgeon Primary Care Network headquarters in St. Albert Centre uses LED lights with automatic switches to save energy and uses electronic instead of paper records whenever possible, administrative manager Lorianne Edwards said. They’re also bringing in a virtual meeting system in a few months so doctors don’t have to drive to meetings.

The brief found about a quarter of Canada’s carbon footprint comes from transportation, and called on all provinces to require all new light-duty vehicles to be zero-emission ones by 2040 (as B.C. has done).

More zero-emission (typically electric) vehicles on the road means less lung-wrecking air pollution in Edmonton and Calgary, Vipond said.

“If we can reduce transportation air pollution, we’re going to make people healthier.”

The Lancet report is available at

Microbes and methane

Methane-eating microbes could help Alberta turn its climate-heating waste into new wealth, says a University of Alberta researcher.

About a hundred Edmonton-area residents were at the U of A’s Lister Centre Wednesday for a talk on methane, microbes and climate change by U of A microbiologist Lisa Stein.

Methane is about 30 times more powerful when it comes to global heating than CO2 and accounts for about 28 per cent of the greenhouse effect, Stein said. In Canada, about half of our human-caused methane emissions come from farming and waste, and all of those emissions happen because of microbes.

But some microbes consume methane instead of producing it, Stein said. Her lab is now testing ways to use those microbes to turn methane waste into plastics, fuels and other useful materials, creating jobs and fighting global heating.

Stein said her team has partnered with America’s Mango Materials to show how these microbes could convert 25 per cent of the methane fed into them into plastics. Another U.S. company, Calysta, is using these microbes to create protein for fish food.

“We have precedent that it works,” she said, and her team now wants to partner with Alberta companies and governments to test the technology here.

Stein said this technology could slot into any industrial process that already collects waste methane (and typically flares it), such as a wastewater treatment plant or landfill. It isn’t cheap, though – the reactor needed to host the microbes costs about half a million dollars.

Methane-eating microbes are just one of the thousands of technologies we’ll need to address global heating, Stein emphasized.

“You’re going to have to rejig all of society and put many technologies in place in order to address climate change.”

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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