November 29, 2023

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Is it possible to improve winter biking in Canada? Finland shows the way

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This week:

  • Is it possible to improve winter biking in Canada? Finland shows the way
  • Why Volkswagen picked Ontario for its new battery plant
  • This book celebrates women’s leadership in the U.S. climate justice movement

Is it possible to improve winter biking in Canada? Finland shows the way

Man with frozen beard stands next to a bike in winter.
(Submitted by Pekka Tahkola)

While many people have been trying to reduce their reliance on cars — and the carbon footprint they create — it gets pretty difficult when it’s really cold.

After all, it is way too cold to bike during a Canadian winter, right? Not so fast.

More Canadians are embracing winter biking, especially after the pandemic.

Take Saskatoon’s Evelyn Suchan. She is seven years old and she bikes with her family to school even during the colder months. Her gear isn’t fancy: she wears a big warm jacket, snow pants, a handmade tuque, a long scarf (with a cat on it) and mitts.

“It’s just really good exercise and I like it,” said Suchan (photo below).

Suchan comes from a family that is dedicated to cycling everywhere, even in prairie winters. In fact, they plan their housing and everyday routines around it.

But what if it was easier to bike during the winter, so that anyone, anywhere in your community could do it if they wanted to? 

Enter Oulu, a Finnish city near the Arctic Circle that proclaims to be the unofficial winter cycling capital of the world

Oulu has more than 900 kilometres of separated bike paths, which is comparable to Montreal. In the winter, the city plows this huge bike network by 6 a.m. every day and will plow multiple times a day if needed.

Oulu is not your compact old European town. It has more in common with Saskatoon than it does with the capital, Helsinki — namely, a sprawling layout and a mid-size population of roughly 210,000 residents.

“We’ve always had the [bike] culture and we just didn’t let it die completely. We are a car-infested suburban hellscape — with decent bicycle infrastructure,” said Pekka Tahkola (photo above), an urban well-being engineer for Navico, a consulting firm in Oulu.

Even in the winter, Tahkola says 42 per cent of the city’s population bikes occasionally, and 10 per cent of all trips in the winter are made by bike. 

He believes Oulu could serve as an example for other places around the world — and that Canadian cities in particular have the space to create a similar bike network. 

“The suburban sprawl in your cities is so huge that you’ve got so much space that could be used more wisely,” said Tahkola.

Young girl dressed in winter clothing smiles while leaning on her bike.
(Submitted by Paul Suchan)

So how does this help the climate? Well, in Oulu alone, 50,000 trips are taken by bike every day during the winter. If Canadian cities got more people into winter biking, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from cars would start to add up.

And it appears Canadian cities are looking into growing their winter biking. The City of Toronto commissioned an online survey of about 15,000 residents back in 2019 and found that most cyclists would be down to bike in the winter if the paths were properly plowed and there was safer infrastructure.

The advocacy group BikeEdmonton partnered with the city to offer free studded tires as part of its winter cycling challenge. It turns out they had so much interest that the program has completely filled up.

In the meanwhile, if you want to get into winter biking and are willing to make do with existing bike infrastructure — even if it is limited — Evelyn Suchan has some tips for you.

“It’s really easy when you think about it,” said Suchan. “Maybe you could get a fat bike and you could practise more.… And if you have kids, well then you could get a trailer that holds up to two kids.”

Rohit Joseph

Reader feedback

In response to Emily Chung’s piece on the proliferation of Buy Nothing groups, Michael Arbour wrote:

“For four years I’ve given stuff away through Almost everything I offered was picked up within 48 hours. The Freecycle Network has over 10,000,000 members in 5,000 cities across the globe.

“The Furniture Bank Network has 120 outlets across North America. I drop off stuff at the Furniture Bank in Toronto and receive a tax receipt for the value of the in-kind donation. Clothing banks can be found in many cities. In Toronto, I’ve given stuff to the Scott Mission, St. Felix Centre and the Good Shepherd Ministries refuge. I’m sure that there are other places. 

“I live in a 20-storey apartment building. The ‘free table’ in the recycling room regularly has stuff that I can pick up and pass along.”

Jennifer Wilks, who is part of a Buy Nothing group in East Vancouver, wrote:

“Just this week someone started a thread on a potential ‘sprout’ of our existing group as it is getting quite large, which prompted a fierce comment-string debate that at times got pretty tense. People are very, very invested in their Buy Nothing groups. 

“From a practical perspective … I would not like to have yet another app (read: time-suck) added to my life that I need to open — so instead I guess my best bet is to keep it embedded in my existing time-suck (i.e. Facebook)!”

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. Six months after post-tropical storm Fiona devastated the community of Port aux Basques, N.L., the people who live there are still cleaning up from the disaster. This week on What On Earth, a feature documentary that explores the ways people there are learning to navigate the changing climate and rebuild their community in the face of this new reality. 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.

***And watch the CBC video series Planet Wonder featuring our colleague Johanna Wagstaffe here

The Big Picture: Ontario’s embrace of EV battery manufacturing

Man smiling at a lectern.
(Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)

Earlier this week, the Ontario government announced that Volkswagen — the world’s biggest automaker — had chosen the city of St. Thomas as the site of its first electric-vehicle battery plant in North America. This “gigafactory” is slated to open around 2027, and some analysts think it could be bigger in terms of capacity and work force than the Stellantis battery plant slated to open in Windsor next year.

Batteries like the ones Volkswagen and Stellantis are slated to produce are meant to drive the transition to a low-emission transportation sector. This is a bit of an odd turn given Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s environmental record — for example, he pulled the province out of a cap-and-trade emissions plan with California and Quebec and cancelled Ontario’s EV rebate program. But Ford has crowed about the battery plants, calling the Volkswagen announcement “another vote of confidence in our plan to build.”

In assessing this move, it’s worth looking at why Volkswagen picked Ontario and not the state of Oklahoma, which was also in the running. Proximity to the spine of the North American automobile supply chain was one factor, but the German behemoth also cited locally sourced raw materials (such as nickel, cobalt and lithium) and access to clean electricity. Ontario’s grid, which is mainly powered by nuclear, hydro and wind, is considerably cleaner than Oklahoma’s, which relies heavily on natural gas and coal. But as several nuclear reactors in Ontario near the end of service, Ford has signalled he will likely fill the gap with natural gas, greatly increasing emissions from a grid that in the last decade has been among the cleanest in the country.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

This book celebrates women’s leadership in the U.S. climate justice movement

A composite photo featuring two smiling women and a book cover.
(Submitted by Tiffany Bellfield El-Amin/Broadleaf Books/Will Brinkerhoff)

While climate change is affecting every aspect of life, research by the United Nations has shown that it is disproportionately affecting women and girls, as the response to environmental degradation in many parts of the world jeopardizes their rights and livelihood and even puts them at risk of violence. 

Despite this, women everywhere are trying to create positive change. But how often do we celebrate these achievements? 

An upcoming book is paying tribute to women-led climate action in the United States. It’s called Love Your Mother: 50 States, 50 Stories and 50 Women United for Climate Justice, and it captures the many ways women are fighting for climate justice.

Author Mallory McDuff, a professor of environmental education at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., explained that a conversation with a friend inspired her to create the book. They noticed that women rarely acknowledge and reflect on the impacts of their accomplishments, especially in the climate justice movement. 

The solution was to profile one woman from each state working on climate solutions in their community and beyond.

“It wasn’t easy,” McDuff said. “And I think the good news is that it wasn’t easy — there are so many people who are doing this work, in a diversity of settings. There were so many people I could have chosen … it was really part of trying to just piece together this puzzle that would reflect a diversity on multiple scales.”

Two of the women she profiled are native Hawaiian climate activist MacKenzie Feldman and fourth-generation Black farmer Tiffany Bellfield El-Amin from Kentucky. 

Feldman began her climate activism after successfully partnering with a friend to eliminate fossil-fuel-based pesticides from the University of California Berkeley campus. She also managed to help get pesticides banned from public schools in Hawaii, and now leads an all-woman team for the charity Re:wild Your Campus, so the same can be done for all schools across the United States.

“I just love working with women,” said Feldman. “In my experience, women have been really good connectors.”

Bellfield El-Amin works primarily in food justice, consulting with other farmers to ensure that Black, Indigenous and people of colour who are underrepresented and disproportionately affected by climate change have access to the resources, funding and technical assistance to grow and sell food throughout the year.

Women “have that maternal instinct,” El-Amin said about the key role women play in activism. “And I feel like when I’m out working in the community, I’m nurturing the community. I’m mothering the land and allowing it to reciprocate that energy. And it’s just in us to be that way. That energy is a feminine energy.”

McDuff wanted readers to see themselves in the 50 women she profiled. She set out to find women of diverse backgrounds and expertise whose work felt accessible. At the centre of Feldman and El-Amin’s stories are love for the land and love for community, which McDuff feels will resonate with readers.

“The stories are inspiring, but I think inspiration sometimes to me can be overwhelming,” McDuff said. “Like, if somebody is so epic that you don’t think you could ever do what they are doing.”

Ultimately, McDuff hopes readers understand that you can fight for the climate in a number of ways, and that women can be leaders in this movement even when they feel small. 

“The take-home [message] for me is … not the individual,” McDuff said. “One individual can’t overtake the whole fossil fuel industry. But I really found in these stories that individual acts in a collective create momentum that propels change.”

Dannielle Piper

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty