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The science community’s warnings about global climate change have become too dire to ignore. What are Canadian credit unions doing to thwart a possible climate apocalypse?

As the planet heats up, so too, have climate action initiatives. But the window is rapidly closing to drastically cut carbon emissions and collaboration is needed more than ever.

Last October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international body created by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme, released its special report, Global Warming of 1.5°C. The report was an outcome of the 2015 Paris Agreement, to which 195 members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, including Canada, signed on with the intention of keeping global temperature increases to less than 2 C degrees above pre-industrial levels.

To call the report dire would be putting it lightly. Focused on the environmental impacts resulting from 1.5 C degrees of warming (1 C degree of warming was already reached in 2017), the report explores a variety of devastating scenarios the globe could face in the coming years depending on our ability to keep warming below 2 C degrees, or, more likely, how far we’ll overshoot that target.

The impacts detailed in the report: catastrophic weather patterns, floods, fires, droughts and global food shortages, made headlines. So did the tone of the report — more urgent and foreboding than the scientic community has ever articulated. The bottom line is: we have 12 years to make major changes in the way we live and the actions we take to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Currently we’re on track to hit 1.5 C degrees of warming by 2030, which will bring a more intense barrage of climatic disasters.

And should we continue on our current course, we could reach 4 C degrees later this century. The fact is, climate change, and its ensuing effects, are well underway and accelerating rapidly.

“We support food co-ops and small local businesses, so there is a direct tie-in to the climate change situation.” – Denis Flinn, Assistant General Manager, CCEC Credit Union

North Americans are feeling the heat. Just a month after the report was released, the deadliest wildfire on record in California ripped through the state, destroying entire towns and incinerating about 19,000 homes. This past summer proved the worst on record for fires in Canada, too, while across the country temperatures soared. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg for Canadians if we don’t act quickly and collectively on climate change. “The report was another wakeup call,” says Merran Smith, executive director of Clean Energy Canada. “The consequences of global warming are going to be worse than what we expected. And it’s happening faster than we expected. But there are solutions that are ready to go right now,” Smith says. “We have energy efficient buildings, renewable energy, solar and wind technologies. We have the solutions, they create jobs and they’re affordable. What we don’t have is time for denying these solutions and slowing down implementation.”

Credit unions on climate action

Dennis Cunningham, manager, environmental sustainability at Winnipeg-based Assiniboine Credit Union (125,500 members, $4.6 billion in assets), recalls reading an article in The New York Times right after Hurricane Michael laid waste to parts of Florida last October. The article described the devastation in Mexico Beach, located in the Florida Panhandle. Nearly every home in the town was destroyed but for one house that had been rebuilt to withstand 400 kilometre-an-hour winds, more than double the requirements for the area. “This article showed the contrast between burying your head in the sand and anticipating things that may come,” Cunningham says.

“I think that’s the biggest issue when trying to talk about climate change; it’s a long-term issue. It’s easy to say that this IPCC report is alarmist but there will be a point in time when it starts happening more and more: the fires, the flooding, the heat waves. And it’s not like they were unexpected,” Cunningham adds.

Assiniboine, which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, has successfully aligned its organizational values with sustainability initiatives. Last year it won the Canadian Credit Union Association’s award for social responsibility for its wide variety of sustainability programs running the gamut from green branches to waste reduction, employee commuting and community impact. “We do it because it differentiates us from many other credit unions and businesses in the province,” says Cunningham. “But we also do it because our goal is to be around for another 75 years or longer. And if we’re looking to another 75 years, we have to be aware of what that IPCC report implies for how we need to practice business moving forward. If we’re going to reach a tipping point in 2030, we will see dramatic changes in the climate. So what does that mean for how we operate, how we design new branches and buildings and the type of risk associated with certain mortgages or investments?”

Cunningham says Assiniboine currently builds new branches that are designed with efficient heating systems. “And yet, as our climate changes, we’re probably going to need to design buildings to cool more effectively. And we’ll need to design to handle intense periods of rainfall, stronger winds, higher incidences of tornadoes or extreme weather events. If you’re not looking at that now, then you’re probably putting your business at risk. It’s a future that’s only 12 years away.”

Save the environment, boost business

There’s a business case to be made for climate action, too. “There’s a direct connection between taking action on climate change and helping your business,” says Smith of Clean Energy Canada, citing both long-term cost savings and customer loyalty. “The Clean200 ranks the world’s biggest publicly traded companies [by green energy revenues] and they have shown that their returns outperform fossil fuel companies by a factor of two.”

Smith also cites a group called RE 100. “Over 150 multinational companies are committed to sourcing 100 percent of their energy from renewable energy sources. It’s having an impact. Some have already hit their goals: Google, Lego, Wells Fargo. But there’s a glaring lack of Canadian companies on that list,” Smith says.

“We’ll need to design to handle intense periods of rainfall, stronger winds, higher incidences of tornadoes or extreme weather events. If you’re not looking at that now, then you’re probably putting your business at risk.” – Dennis Cunningham, Manager, Environmental Sustainability, Assiniboine Credit Union

It’s not that Canadian companies aren’t making their own commitments but perhaps they’re too humble to brag about them. “Global companies are out there telling people what they’re doing and why,” Smith says. “It would be great to see Canadian businesses speaking up. If they came together and put out that kind of statement and signal, it would be powerful, because we know Canadians want climate action.”

Credit unions may not be shouting it from the rooftops but they are coming together to make change. In Atlantic Canada, seven credit unions, along with Atlantic Central, have partnered with Bullfrog Power to green their energy consumption. “You can reduce your energy consumption as much as possible,” says Anthony Santilli, vice-president of sales and marketing at Bullfrog Power, “but we all still need to consume energy. With Bullfrog you can support renewable energy, which is making a shift at the grid level.”

Bullfrog Power procures energy from renewable sources like wind farms and puts that energy into the grid, matching its clients’ consumption. “We all need energy to run our lives,” Santilli says. “The question is: what type of energy do you want to use?”

For Atlantic Central, signing on with Bullfrog was a no-brainer. “Our decision to invest in renewable energy aligns with our values,” says Nancy Lutes, communications and stakeholder engagement specialist at Atlantic Central.

“We’re not going to retrofit all of our buildings,” adds Paul Paruch, vice-president of marketing and business solutions at Atlantic Central, “so it was an obvious choice to go with Bullfrog Power. And the ripple effect that had is that now credit unions are starting to see this as a more friendly alternative and a responsibility they would share with us.”

Atlantic Central is also working with Nova Scotia-based credit unions, as well as the Nova Scotia Co-operative Council, to pilot an Impact Investing program designed to support local businesses with social purpose. “In our first round we funded three companies with a small pool of pilot capital,” Paruch says. “One received an equity injection as well; it wasn’t just sponsorship or grant money. These were injections that they might otherwise find hard to borrow.”

Meanwhile, Tammy Christopher, CEO of OMISTA Credit Union (10,000 members, $240 million in assets), in Moncton, NB, has taken corporate social responsibility a step further.

OMISTA has become a certified B Corporation, a standard that measures the company’s entire social and environmental performance. “We were looking at how society as a whole is moving toward more of a grassroots approach, where people are very concerned about our planet,” says Christopher. “Our previous generation, we were a wasteful generation and we believe there’s a strong movement towards concern for the planet and concern for people. All of those issues are something we feel align very well with credit unions and we felt that the B Corp organization met those values.”

In addition to doing “all the regular things” like recycling and reducing waste, OMISTA is also supporting local businesses working toward climate solutions, including a solar farm, and “we’re looking for opportunities for anything in renewable resources to get involved with,” Christopher says. “We have a sustainability committee that is looking at how we’re having an economic impact in our community.”

The power of influence

In addition to supporting climate action projects, credit unions are also well positioned to educate members about climate issues and apply their influence democratically.

For single-branch CCEC Credit Union (4,500 members, $50 million in assets) in East Vancouver, community-based environmental action has always been part of its DNA. “We support food co-ops and small local businesses, so there is a direct tie-in to the climate change situation,” says Denis Flinn, assistant general manager at CCEC. “The one thing that we’ve seen more recently is people are concerned about the mechanisms through which pressure can be applied to make a change. The way we’ve tried to plug into that is democratic participation,” Flinn says.

Flinn adds that CCEC is one of the few credit unions that took an official stance on the Trans Mountain Pipeline. The pipeline is controversial as its proposed expansion will increase the amount of oil being transported from Edmonton to the Westbridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, BC. This will increase the amount of oil to 890,000 barrels a day, up from 300,000 barrels daily. Tripling the capacity will boost the number of oil tankers travelling through the City of Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet to 10 from two per week, increasing the risk of an oil spill. Flinn says that the credit union members expressed opposition to the expansion. “We believe credit unions have an opportunity to be instructed by membership as to what matters. We’re a small player in the grand scheme of things but that’s why we choose to connect to these issues and push.” It’s easy to get lost in the doom and gloom of the latest IPCC report but credit unions are proving that collective action can add up. “There are a lot of barriers but many of them can be easily overcome when people start to understand that addressing climate change doesn’t mean significant hardship as individuals or as society,” Assiniboine’s Cunningham says. “But not addressing it is likely to result in significant hardship. The cooperative principle for credit unions is about working with communities.

It really is vital that we extend that principle into protection and restoration of our physical environment. If we want the credit union system to endure over the long term, it needs to support the needs of both members and communities.” ◊