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Is the divestment movement really hurting fossil fuel companies?





Hello, friends! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This is our last newsletter of 2018. But fear not: We will be back. Look for the next issue of What on Earth? in early January.

In the meantime, have a wonderful holiday!

This week:

  • Divesting from fossil fuels — how meaningful is it?
  • How pop culture tackled the environment in 2018
  • News flash: Canadians use a lot of wrapping paper
  • Environmental regulations aren’t as costly as you think

Is the divestment movement really hurting fossil fuel companies?

(Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

When the UN climate conference was at its darkest point last week — no new agreement and concern countries wouldn’t arrive at one — one organization hoped to be a bright light.

Environmental campaigners announced that more than 1,000 companies had joined their cause — fossil fuel divestment.

“The reach and impact of this global movement is huge — major institutions with almost $8 trillion US in assets have commited to divest from the likes of Exxon and Shell,” said May Boeve,’s executive director, in a statement.

Like voting with your wallet, divestment has been a powerful tool. Historically, it has played a role in turning public opinion against South African apartheid and tobacco companies.

Unlike a boycott, the idea behind divestment is to cut off or move investments out of a company — in this case, ones that extract and/or burn fossil fuels for profit.

Of the few Canadian organizations on board, it’s mostly faith-based groups and NGOs. (Laval University and the Canadian Medical Association are outliers.)

Eight trillion dollars worth of divestment sounds impressive, but does it make a dent, let alone a difference?

Some argue that divesting doesn’t drive share prices down, and may, in fact, leave less eco-concerned investors positioned to snatch outstanding shares. It also means very little withbig oil companies that are private (and thus don’t sell stock).

Energy companies have funded research suggesting it could harm your investment portfolio, a warning that could scare a pension fund, for example. But “clean capitalism” magazine Corporate Knights released a study in October estimating the New York state retirement fund would be $22 billion US richer had it divested from fossil fuel stocks a decade ago.

The fact that the chief executive of British oil giant BP recently slammed divestment suggests the industry feels threatened. So maybe the movement is changing minds.

Divestment has a role in “saying it’s no longer OK for the world to say they care about climate change and then make money off of it,” said Jessica Green, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.

Green says climate change has led to institutionalized pressure, meaning investors, including shareholders in fossil fuel-burning companies, demand regular reporting on climate risks and impacts.

Divestment is “shifting the baseline of what is expected of big multinationals and fossil fuel companies,” Green said.

Keep in mind, divestment has never really affected its targets’ bottom lines. For example, South Africa’s economy didn’t suffer, but divestment was part of the chorus of arguments that came together to end apartheid.

In terms of halting climate change, Green said strong government policies, investment in renewables and reducing oil and gas subsidies are better strategies to take.

“There are a bazillion different levers to pull and we have to pull all of them,” said Green. Divestment “is one of them.”

—​ Anand Ram

Pop culture takes a closer look at our changing planet

Making people understand the scale and unintended consequences of environmental degradation has often been a challenge — just ask the scientists who have spent the past few decades sounding the alarm about climate change.

Yet that hasn’t deterred climate scientists — and it hasn’t stopped artists, either. Films, visual art, books and music remain powerful means of expressing the ways we have altered the natural world and our conflicted feelings about that.

Here are three of the most powerful artistic statements on the environment in 2018.

Annihilation (film)

Based on a series of sci-fi novels by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation was one of the most harrowing cinematic experiences of the year. The basic plot: As a result of some sort of environmental disturbance, one part of the continental U.S. has become so treacherous and, frankly, bizarre, that it is not only uninhabitable, but slowly expanding. Natalie Portman, in the photo above, plays a biologist who is part of a small team sent to explore “Area X,” which contains some horrifying mutant animals. (The film is on Netflix, though it is not recommended right after your holiday dinner.)

Anthropocene (photo exhibition/film)

In Anthropocene, photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier have created an exhibition that shows, in beautiful, appalling detail, how we have despoiled the Earth to satisfy our modern lifestyle. Highlights include oversize photos of a plastic landfill in Kenya, marble quarries in Italy, oil extraction in Nigeria and potash mines in Russia.

The Overstory (book)

The latest novel from U.S. author Richard Powers is unorthodox, ambitious and weirdly profound. Nominated for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, The Overstory follows characters from different walks of life — including a university student, an engineer and an eco-activist — to demonstrate our deep, healing relationship with trees. If it sounds fanciful, it is. It’s also poignant. But here’s the sobering takeaway: While humans may not survive an environmental disaster, the trees will.

Andre Mayer

Was there an environmentally themed piece of art that impressed you this year? Tell us about it.

Resolutions for 2019

It’s a time of celebration and reflection, as well as anticipation of what the new year will bring. Do you have resolutions for 2019, specifically of the environmental variety? If so, we’d love to hear what you have in mind.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • The UN climate conference in Poland wrapped up last weekend with the announcement of a broad “rulebook” for how countries would report their progress on cutting emissions. Environmentalists were disappointed that countries wouldn’t agree to more aggressive targets. The mood was decidedly less triumphant than Paris in 2015.

  • On the sidelines of last week’s climate talks, an Australian farmer named Tony Rinaudo shared his wildly effective methods of regenerating forests, a key strategy in neutralizing carbon emissions. You want mindboggling numbers? Over 30 years, Rinaudo’s method is responsible for regrowing six million hectares of trees in west Africa.

The Big Picture: Wrapping paper use in Canada

At this time of year, there are a lot of gifts to wrap. But how much paper do we use? According to Zero Waste Canada, we consume 545,000 tonnes of wrapping paper and bags. How much is that, actually? Well, see for yourself.


Environment regulations: Cheaper than you think

(Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

What if you went to a store and when you took your item up to the till, it ended up costing you half or even a 10th of the figure on the price tag?

For one thing, you might consider shopping there more often.

Along those lines, industry often kicks up a fuss when the government proposes new environmental regulations. But an updated study released by the Smart Prosperity Institute last week found the Canadian government typically overestimates the cost to businesses of pro-environmental measures like vehicle emissions standards, measures to curb acid rain and a ban on ozone-depleting substances.

In five case studies, the Ottawa-based think-tank found the cost ended up being half to a 10th of the initial government estimate, while saving the government more money than anticipated on things like health-care costs.

“Where we have looked at actual costs and benefits, environmental regulations cost less than we think and generate more benefits than we expected,” said Stewart Elgie, executive chair of the Smart Prosperity Institute and the lead author of the report.

He said it’s now “commonly accepted” among researchers that the cost of environmental legislation to business is routinely overestimated.

Why? Regulation drives innovation and economic models used to generate estimates have trouble accounting for how that will reduce costs, Elgie said.

In the case of phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals under the 1987 Montreal Protocol, legislation pushed companies to find substitutes for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were safe for the ozone layer. The reason alternatives such as  hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HFCs) weren’t known before is because no one was looking for them. But they ended up costing roughly the same.

Similarly, Elgie said constant innovation has led to the plummeting cost of wind and solar energy.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses across Canada, released a report earlier this year criticizing the quality of government cost-benefit analyses used to draft regulations (although it didn’t suggest that overestimates were the problem).

Obviously, bad estimates don’t lead to the best decisions. So what’s to be done?

Elgie says he hasn’t had much luck convincing governments or economists to halve their cost estimates as a matter of routine.

But the Smart Prosperity Institute and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce do agree on one thing: Governments should do more followup after regulations are implemented to see what the real costs are and whether they’re providing the desired benefits.

In the meantime, the Chamber of Commerce released a new report on carbon pricing this week, making it clear that businesses support the idea and are perhaps more forward-thinking about environmental regulation than some give them credit for.

Emily Chung

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future





Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M






Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.


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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study






The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”


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