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Is your supermarket ‘climate-friendly’? Here’s how to tell

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This weekly newsletter is part of a CBC News initiative entitled “Our Changing Planet” to show and explain the effects of climate change. Keep up with the latest news on our Climate and Environment page.

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This week:

  • Is your supermarket ‘climate-friendly’? Here’s how to tell
  • ‘This is fine’: A closer look at a popular climate meme
  • Air pollution is changing how our brain functions, say researchers

Is your supermarket ‘climate-friendly’? Here’s how to tell

A masked man walks by a refrigerated section of a grocery store.
A freezer is pictured as a man pushes a shopping cart in a supermarket. (Agustin Marcarian/Reuters)

Two weeks ago, I wrote my first What on Earth? story in more than half a year. That’s because I took a break from work to catch up on other parts of my life.

But I didn’t stop thinking about climate stories, and one thing that caught my attention while I was off was a project involving Drawdown Toronto. It’s a branch of Project Drawdown, a global non-profit group dedicated to promoting effective solutions to fight climate change.

They were recruiting volunteers at a local eco-fair in November to help create a map of which grocery stores were still using powerful greenhouse gas refrigerants called HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons). 

Drawdown Toronto and Drawdown BC are both helping with the Climate-Friendly Supermarkets project launched by another non-profit called the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). The goal is to motivate supermarkets to drastically reduce their emissions by switching to greener refrigerants.

HFCs can trap thousands of times more heat in the atmosphere, pound for pound, than carbon dioxide (CO2). Project Drawdown says preventing HFC emissions and replacing them with more climate-friendly refrigerants, such as ammonia and CO2, are among the most effective actions to fight climate change. 

Meanwhile, the EIA’s work has found that leaks from grocery stores are widespread. In the U.S. alone, it calculated that each year, HFC leaks from supermarkets cause as much global warming as burning 22 million tonnes of coal.

I’m a regular contributor to “citizen science” apps (or “community science” apps) like eBird and iNaturalist, where I record sightings of birds, insects and other organisms for databases that scientists use. They provide an opportunity for ordinary people to help gather data over a large area that would be very difficult or impossible to get otherwise. I’ve also learned a lot by participating in them.

So I was intrigued by the supermarket mapping project and signed up to help out.

About a week later, Drawdown Toronto got in touch by email, assigning me and other volunteers each to different nearby grocery stores. I was to go to a Shoppers Drug Mart a few kilometres from my house. 

Once there, I followed the instructions sent by Drawdown Toronto, looking for labels near the top of each fridge or freezer in the store. They had sent an example, so I knew what to look for. I took pictures of several using my phone (which was a lot easier than photographing birds or insects). No employees asked what I was doing, but had they done so, I would have happily explained.

According to the labels, the freezers in that particular store were made in 2012 and used the HFC refrigerant R404A, which has a global warming potential of 3,922. That means that over 100 years, each tonne of R404A can warm the atmosphere by as much as 3,922 tonnes of CO2 — not good.

When I got home, I emailed the photos to the EIA. A few weeks later, it appeared as a little red dot, showing the store uses HFCs. Stores that use natural refrigerants such as CO2 appear as green dots, while those that use both are orange dots. 

Anyone can add their local grocery store, and there are many parts of Canada where the supermarkets have yet to be mapped.

Avipsa Mahapatra, climate campaign lead for the Environmental Investigation Agency, said she hopes the map will raise awareness, motivate supermarkets to take action and help shoppers choose more climate-friendly stores.

CBC News will have more about HFCs and their impact on the climate, Canadian refrigerant regulations and how Canadian grocery stores compare to the rest of the world in the coming days.

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

Vivian Unger:

“Your piece about the need to find more sustainable ways to travel than by air struck a chord with me. I live in Atlantic Canada, where passenger rail is appallingly bad. Trains only run in one direction per day, they can’t go at full speed due to the condition of the tracks and they’re slower than the bus even when they arrive on time, which they rarely do. Yet my last MP made a big fuss about expanding our airport. To the best of my knowledge, the Liberal government has done nothing to improve rail travel since its inception.

“This is a big, spread-out country, and we need ways to get around it. Yet Canada is the only G7 country with no high-speed rail whatsoever. This should be considered a national embarrassment. Addressing it should be [Transportation Minister] Omar Alghabra’s top priority.”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here

CBC News has a dedicated climate page, which can be found here.

Also, check out our radio show and podcast. This week, we find out how the ongoing drought in Somalia is causing ripple effects here in Canada. What On Earth airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: ‘This is fine.’ But what does it all meme?

Two comic panels show a yellow dog in a hat sitting at a table drinking coffee while flames grow around him. In the second panel, he says: "This is fine."
The ‘This is fine’ meme is made up of the first two panels of K.C. Green’s 2013 comic strip On Fire. (K.C. Green)

It’s hard to quantify the popularity of any given internet joke, but it’s fair to say the “This is fine” meme is one of the better-travelled examples. As seen above, it’s the mordant two-panel illustration of a coffee-drinking dog in a burning room assuring the reader, “This is fine.” When web users want to satirize society’s lack of urgency on issues like COVID-19, far-right extremism or climate change, this is the meme they often reach for.

The graphic is the work of Massachusetts illustrator K.C. Green, and is actually part of a six-panel comic strip called On Fire (part of his Gunshow webcomic series), which he posted online about a decade ago. But it’s the abbreviated two-panel version that stuck. 

Memes have become one of the dominant forms of modern storytelling, for individuals and organizations alike, and Green’s creation has become a key part of climate change communication. For example, Greenpeace has used Green’s artwork to demonstrate the problem of Amazon deforestation, and you can buy merchandise that says “This is not fine,” featuring a tired Earth in place of Green’s hound. 

In a recent interview with CBC Radio’s As It Happens, Green said the original comic strip was actually meant to reflect his feelings about taking antidepressants, and what they might do to his personality. He’s sanguine about the fact that his comic has been used in completely different contexts. 

The last decade “has helped me understand the perception of one’s art,” he told host Nil Köksal. “It might have been just a comic I had to dash off because I had a self-made schedule for my webcomic at the time. But, you know, people take what they want out of your art — without your permission half the time.”

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Air pollution is changing how our brain functions, say researchers

A skyline is seen through under grey skies, through smoky air.
Metrotown towers are pictured through smoke from Burnaby, British Columbia on Friday, October 14, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria have found that exposure to traffic pollution is changing the way our brain works.

“Air pollution is affecting our thinking, which could have serious public health effects,” said Chris Carlsten, director of UBC’s Air Pollution Exposure Lab and one of the researchers of the study, published Jan. 14 in the journal Environmental Health.

Carlsten says exposure to diesel exhaust for just two hours led to changes in brain function connectivity, a measure of how different regions of the brain interact with each other. 

The most affected regions are linked to memory and attention, he says.

Changes in connectivity are associated with reduced cognitive performance and symptoms of depression, “so it’s concerning to see traffic pollution interrupting these same networks,” said Jodie Gawryluk, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Victoria and the study’s first author.

The study measured the brain activity of 25 healthy adults over periodic exposures to diesel exhaust and filtered air. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) captured bright splotches of changing brain activity between exposures to polluted air and clean air filtered from pollutants.

Carlsten says the images showed clear differences between both scenarios, but adds more research is needed to understand what these differences mean. 

While the results of the study have led to more questions, Carlsten says the researchers are confident about one thing: air pollution, and climate change, is changing how brains function. 

“We’re all exposed [to traffic pollution], not only in B.C. and locally, but globally it could have major implications,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing this work to try to push things, push the awareness and push the policies [for change].”

Dr. Melissa Lem, president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, says one-third of Canadians live within 250 metres of a major road. 

“This tells us that there are a lot of people who are going to be affected by traffic-related air pollution,” she said, adding impacts can vary from slow childhood development to heart disease, cancer and brain alterations.

“If we’re exposed to certain things, people may notice brain fog … trouble concentrating … [or feeling] a bit more irritable and tired,” she said. “So if you think you’re smelling fossil fuel fumes and you feel that way, get away from them and go inside.”

Carlsten says pollution levels used in the study were comparable to air pollution in cities like Delhi, India, or to industries like mining. 

“Occupations in closed spaces and no good ventilation are most at risk,” he said.

He added that B.C. is not immune to these issues, due to annual exposures to wildfire smoke. While more research needs to look specifically at the effects of wood smoke on the brain, Carlsten speculates results would be similar.

“Diesel exhaust shares a lot of similar characteristics to fire smoke in terms of the particles,” said Carlsten. 

To avoid negative impacts, Lem suggests wearing an N95 mask on especially smoky days and investing in proper air filtration systems. 

“From a wider community standpoint, we need to get more cars off the road,” she said. 

“We’re facing a climate crisis and an air pollution crisis at the same time, both driven by fossil fuel combustion. By getting more people out of cars and onto bikes and sidewalks, we can tackle both simultaneously.”

Arrthy Thayaparan

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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