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Is Cannabis up to the Green Challenge?

September 1, 2018

 

With Cannabis legalization only weeks away, there's a rush of questions and research proposals to study everything from addiction to traffic accidents, to the effects of second hand cannabis smoke on developing brains. And this is all good stuff.

 

Now what about the Carbon Footprint and other environmental implications of the plant? Canada is about to legalize a whole new industry which produces a relatively energy intensive product. We committed to emissions reductions targets in the 2015 Paris Accord, limiting annual emissions to 517 megatonnes by 2030. What sort of impact will this new industry have on these targets? What does this new industry mean for provincial GHG inventories and municipal electricity grids?

 

To be clear, the illegal Cannabis cultivation of the past decades incurred a carbon cost, but this cost was swept under the rug by prohibition. Emissions and energy consumption from illegal 'grow-ops' were not reported, because for the most part they were not known. Inputs such as water, pesticides and waste disposal practices were not tracked. With legalization on the horizon however, this is set to change. Our provincial and national Greenhouse Gas Inventories will now count emissions from the new industry, and we as a nation are responsible for them internationally.

 

Given all of the historical concerns over Cannabis, starting with the 'Reefer Madness' of the 1930's, conversations surrounding the plant have never ventured into the domain of sustainability. So it's not a surprise that very little (and I do mean very little) work has been done on the carbon footprint of Cannabis.

 

One of the only studies done in North America on the subject concluded that producing 1kg of Cannabis incurs 4,600kg (or 4.6 tonnes) of CO2 emissions. This suggests that Cannabis is more energy intensive than Aluminum or Steel. Now, this particular study was attempting to measure the carbon footprint of indoor, illegal Cannabis grown in the United States, and illegal grow-ops tend not to consider emissions reduction a priority. They have no economy of scale, and since power for illegal grow-ops is often stolen from the grid, they don't invest in high-efficiency appliances or methods. So to what extent do figures such as these reflect the carbon footprint of legal, commercially grown Canadian Cannabis? The short answer is we don't really know - but they probably don't represent a realistic accounting for us. Nevertheless, studies such as these are all that we have at this point.

 

Today there are many challenges the new industry faces in gaining legitimacy. These battles need to be fought and won now. But eventually this issue will begin to press the industry. To the extent that Cannabis is getting press on the sustainability front, the headlines are troubling. "Not So Green: How the weed industry is a glutton for fossil fuels" reads a headline in The Guardian, "Environmentalists cast a wary eye on Cannabis industry's water, energy consumption" says The Globe and Mail. "Will new environmental concerns weigh on Canada's Cannabis industry?" asks The Motley Fool.


One report from the Portland-based Northwest Power and Conservation Council concluded concluded that home-growing four cannabis plants (which is the legal limit on home-growing in The Cannabis Act) consumes as much electricity as running 29 refrigerators! It's difficult to understand how the figures could add up this way, but in the absence of high-quality Canadian research, sensational and troubling headlines like these will anchor perceptions of Canada's Cannabis industry as a brutal polluter.

 

There is no doubt that Cannabis can be an energy intensive crop to cultivate under certain conditions. But most research to date on this question has focused on illegal and indoor cultivation in the U.S. In other words, on the least efficient forms of cultivation. They have not studied state-or-the-art facilities here in Canada that have transitioned to LED lighting, or the impact of switching to renewable fuels. Not to mention that greenhouse and outdoor growing are a different ballgame entirely.

 

Fortunately there are a small number of players who have recognized that sustainability is a crucial part of the

long-term equation for legal Cannabis, as for all industries as we head into the mid-21st century. The Cannabis Conservancy in California offers sustainability certification to legal Cannabis organizations that adhere Good Agricultural Practices (GAP's). In order to obtain certification, growers must meet the Cannabis Conservancy's high standards for land-use, water and energy consumption, cultivation practices and waste treatment.

 

Carbon is increasingly priced into business activity, so it's crucial that Canada's burgeoning Cannabis industry demonstrate leadership on this front. The past of illegal Cannabis cultivation may have been one of heavy pollution, but the present and future need not be. But in the absence of initiatives such as The Cannabis Conservancy, up-to-date research and leadership from the industry, the Cannabis sector may struggle to shed this bad rap - and more misinformation is not what Cannabis needs right now.

 

Better to be proactive with good research, voluntary certification programs and partnerships, than to wait for a reactionary regulatory response to bad press.

 

 

 

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