A week prior to declaring a national climate emergency, the federal government announced a ban on single-use plastics starting in 2021. While bans like this aid in protecting aquatic ecosystems and improving sustainability, they may serve more as a distraction than an effective solution. Announcing a state of emergency serves to paint Canada as an environmental advocate. Yet, without targeted policies and regulations, this announcement will not only be insufficient, but even serve to exacerbate the climate crisis.
Many consumers were happy to say goodbye to plastic straws and bags, as giving them up is a small behavioural adjustment that contributes to preserving the planet. However, environmental conservation policy is not effective climate change policy. Plastic bans may, in fact, serve to amplify our ‘single action bias’: Some experts believe that, in committing to a simple action, people allow themselves to feel as though they contributed to a solution, thus dissuading themselves from further, and much needed, action.
Populations around the world witness the threat of plastic pollution first-hand. The excess of single-use plastic pollution affects marine ecosystems, coastal communities, and infiltrates the world’s deepest oceans. In fact, some reports estimate that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. While re-evaluating plastic consumption is a critical step in conserving oceans, it should not be conflated with proper policy to address global climate change.
For years, plastic has been perceived as the epitome of waste and pollution: However, other climate threats of greater magnitude are not as visible and are often underestimated. Carbon, an inconspicuous compound, is a greenhouse gas that serves as the leading contributor to climate change, alongside methane and nitrous oxide. These unassuming, essentially invisible compounds slow down and trap heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise escape to space as part of the earth’s radiation budget.
While many of these gases are natural and even required to sustain life on earth, the influx of anthropogenic greenhouse gases has caused irreparable damage to earth’s climate. To effectively curb emissions and reduce large-scale climate changes, policies need to be geared towards behaviours that will limit reliance on carbon and other greenhouse gases. Climate policy needs to be systematically integrated on a larger scale.
Moreover, while protecting aquatic ecosystems is vital to long-term sustainability, climate change can only be tackled by addressing the source of the problem: Greenhouse gas emissions from electricity, transportation, and agriculture. Canada is acting as a global pioneer in banning single-use plastic at the national level, however, until the country halts subsidies to fossil fuels and ceases to support pipelines that increase greenhouse gas emissions, the country will continue to encourage behaviour that jeopardizes the vitality of all life.
Similarly, McGill’s recent ban on plastic water bottles seems laudable until recognizing that the school still profits from fossil fuels. Despite a 2018 recommendation from the Senate to divest, the school continues to retain holdings in corporations that produce, refine, and transport goods from the Canadian tar sands.
Ideally, plastic bans will not be seen as the final tool to tackling climate change. Instead, students and Canadians, in general, can use these bans as a catalyst to challenge institutions to divest from fossil fuels and work to properly reduce future climate impacts. Students should use Canada’s single-use plastic ban as a reminder to be environmentally-conscious on a daily basis, while simultaneously urging stakeholders like McGill to decarbonize the economy and reduce consumption. Several groups exist in and around campus that foster collective action initiatives to instigate change in Montreal, such as Divest McGill and Climate Justice Montreal.
While it is tempting to believe that the simplest policy answer is the right one, this logic cannot be applied within the framework of climate action, where systemic change is necessary, not only in the future, but right now.