Drawn from an original open letter publication in July 2021 by Ugo Lapointe & Donna Ashamock
Canada’s Material Footprint
According to the OECD’s latest review (see chart), Canada ranks worst of all G7 countries in mineral efficiency, recycling and circular economy. It remains amongst the most material-intensive economies in the world.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates Canada’s domestic yearly material consumption at 28.8 tonnes per capita, higher than the United States (18.6 tonnes), twice the world and European averages (12.3 and 14 tonnes, respectively), and 14 times the average material footprint of low-income countries (2 tonnes).
Mining has grown to be the largest producer of solid waste in the country. It today generates 30 times the amount of waste that all Canadians, municipalities, and other industries combined produce. Much of this waste is toxic and a liability for future generations.
The mining, processing, smelting and refining of minerals is also a significant contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. With 33.7 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted in 2018, it comes second to oil sands (82.4 Mt) and far ahead of the cement and construction industries (11.8 Mt).
If the Canadian government truly wants to support a green economy transition, it should lead Canada in taking bold steps to reverse these trends.
The Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan should prioritize material footprint reduction solutions above raw material extraction.
Here are five key recommendations to reduce Canada’s material footprint:
1. Binding Targets to Reduce Raw Material Use
We support the recent call by the Gaia Foundation and 180 scientists, communities, and organizations to urgently decarbonise and dematerialise our economies at the same time.
To consume within ecological limits, this European-lead initiative proposes to introduce legally-binding targets to reduce Europe’s material footprint by up to 70% from the current levels, down to 4.4 tonnes per capita. Canada should also set similar targets.
2. Transportation: Beyond Carbon Emissions, Reduce Number & Size of Vehicles
For the transportation sector, which is a large consumer of energy and resources, this means not only the setting of ‘zero emission vehicles’ targets, but also targets to cap and dramatically reduce the size and number of individual vehicles on the roads, while increasing high quality and affordable public transport – especially within and between large urban areas.
The global fleet of vehicles has doubled to over 1.2 billion vehicles in the last 20 years and could double again, to over 2.5 billion vehicles, by 2040 if nothing is done. Electric or not, the average light vehicle requires the equivalent of 10,000 cell phones in minerals and materials to build.
As the size of vehicles increases in affluent regions like North America, so does their material footprint (light-duty trucks reached a historic high of nearly 80% of new sales in 2020 in Canada).
A recent study found that vehicles are also a major source of microplastics in the environment, waterways and oceans, with each tyre releasing on average 4 kg during its lifetime (way more than from synthetic clothing).
3. Limit Urban Sprawl
Reducing the material footprint in the transportation and housing sectors also means to dramatically reduce the low-density urban sprawl since its underlying networks of roads and service infrastructures are highly resource-intensive. It also perpetuates the use of individual vehicles and increases the costs of public transportation alternatives.
4. Support 5Rs, Circular Economy
Binding targets for product design, durability, repairability, and recyclability are also needed. The European Union and some U.S. States are already moving in this direction, including for electric vehicles batteries.
Recent studies indicate that proper investments, infrastructures and policies in recycling alone could reduce the mining of raw materials for batteries by up to 40-60% – that’s nearly one in two mines for some minerals – while bolstering downstream economies.
5. End Public Subsidies for Raw Material Extraction
Governments also need to end direct and indirect subsidies for raw material extraction. In Canada, this amounts to billions of dollars every year in various fiscal incentives, energy and infrastructure subsidies, and education programs. Instead, public funding efforts should prioritise the development and promotion of low-material innovations, practices and policies.
In the words of the European Environmental Agency, “Societies need to rethink what is meant by growth and progress and their meaning for global sustainability.” The “Green Deal and other political initiatives for a sustainable future require not only technological change but also changes in consumption and social practices.”
In conclusion, we invite the government to listen to all Canadians and to hear the growing call made by independent scientists, Indigenous Peoples, and organizations around the world to carefully rethink our economy, support a just transition, and not repeat the mistakes of the past.