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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for March 2013

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Can they prevent climate change?

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The short answer is no.  Climate change is here, and future change is unavoidable.  As Joe Romm writes, the idea that climate change is reversible is a dangerous myth (he’s referring to the recent op-ed by Joe Nocera).

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But yet, the importance of predators for climate should not be minimized.  I already mentioned the importance of whales: their excrement doesn’t sink, and the fertilizing effect it has is important for carbon sequestration.  Likewise, the presence of wolves scares deer away from tree saplings, allowing for forest re-growth, with the carbon sequestration that that implies.

But now, a new study from BC demonstrates that this applies to most predators. According to Trisha Atwood of UBC, who led the study, “it looks like predators in many types of ecosystems can play a big role in global climate change.”  In the words of Fred Pearce, who reported the study:

Atwood and her team tested the idea in Canada and Costa Rica by temporarily removing fish and insect top predators from ponds, streams and tiny wet ecosystems associated with bromeliad plants. They then logged the impact on the local biomass, including its rate of decomposition – a process which produces emissions. They also monitored how much carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere.  A consistent pattern emerged: CO2 emissions typically grew more than tenfold after the predators were removed (Nature Geoscience, doi.org/kjm).

Other studies hint at similar effects. Christopher Wilmers of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and colleagues showed last year that vanishing sea otters are linked with higher emissions from North American coastlines (Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, doi.org/khz). With no otters to eat them, sea urchins thrive and gorge on kelp forests – often called the “rainforests of the oceans” – resulting in major CO2 releases.

According to Atwood, the removal of top predators may have a role in increasing emissions comparable to deforestation.

Thinking that we can stop or reverse climate change with technological fixes like Nocera advocates (carbon burial) is, indeed, foolish.  But that’s not to say that we should try to slow down the problem as much as possible; and that’s a further argument for the protection of wild places and their fauna.  Another reason to protect the Grizzly: climate change!  Who knew!

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Written by enviropaul

March 17, 2013 at 4:33 pm

I nominate Zagreb as best city!

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Aaah, Croatia…mmm!

Being a tourist in Croatia for a couple of weeks is barely enough to graze the surface.  There is so much to see: the Dalmatian Coast, the old stones of Split and Dubrovnik, the amazing Plitvice lakes…but of all places, Zagreb I loved the most.

Zagreb is not particularly big, as European capitals go, about a million people.  I didn’t expect much, it was just a place to catch a train to somewhere else.

Arriving by bus, we got into a streetcar to get downtown.  An excellent, easy to use system; but this is the norm in Europe (wish that were the case in Vancouver).  Still, when you’re new to a place, you appreciate discovering it at ground level, through the windows of a very cool tram car.

Trg Bana Josipa Jelacica, the main downtown square where the tramways converge

Trg Bana Josipa Jelacica, the main downtown square where the tramways converge

What makes for a good city for tourists?  I got my list of criteria. Good public transit is a must.  So, check that off the list, but it is so compact, we walked everywhere.  A good walking city? Check.

Much of downtown, in fact, is car-free (or car controlled – I’ll explain ).  That goes without saying in the old city, the touristy area.  But through the downtown business district?  Wow!

And what do you see when you walk around?  Cool parks, old buildings…and cafés.  My God, cafés are everywhere, and seeing them in action redefined café culture for me.

Because they are in action.  You see business folks, in power suits – maybe even politicians – conduct meetings, greet each other with a formal handshake.  You see students mulling over homework.  You see one of these students, a college age woman, getting up from one table, only to stop at another table fifty meters down the street, running unexpectedly into another group of friends.  You see someone glancing at their watch, wondering if they’ve been stood up.  A whole theater of life.  All of a sudden it becomes much easier to relax – you’ve come here to watch people, and the people oblige.

The main tourist drag, Radiceva st, with wall to wall cafes

The main tourist drag, Tkalciceva, with wall to wall cafes

The cafes on Gajeva street, in the middle of the downtown business district

The cafes on Gajeva street, in the middle of the downtown business district

(And good looking, they are, too.  I suppose it helps that it was spring, nice weather, and people were wearing easy smiles over their understated elegant clothes – it’s Europe.  I could have watched them a long time – oh wait, I did.)

So you just sit, people watching, reading a bit, whiling away the time and ordering another coffee, piece of cake, or beer, depending on the time of day.  Ah yes, this is it.

What else?  Good bookstores, another essential on the list.  Antiquarian, used, new books, this is a city that reads.  I found a large bookstore with a great stock of books in English as well as in Croatian, the sign of a healthy local publishing industry.

Trg Kralja Tomislava, one of the many green spaces downtown

Trg Kralja Tomislava, one of the many green spaces downtown

Bike paths, well used – check.  Green spaces downtown – check.  Good food, too: a nice mix of Balkan, Slavic, and Viennese influences – check.  And local!  In the geographic centre of town is a large square, the main farmers’ market.  This is a working market, not a quaint set-up for tourists.  And the produce!  Locally grown greens, tomatoes, strawberries…  The square is bordered by butcher and fishmonger shops, with a few restaurants peppered through.  Up the stairs above the food market (that part of town is hilly) is another, smaller square, the beautiful flower market.

The produce market, Trg Dolac...right downtown!

The produce market, Trg Dolac…right downtown!

The flower market right just above the produce market

The flower market right just above the produce market

Culture?  This is Europe, so you’ll find your museum with your old masters.  But Zagreb is home to a very distinct art scene.  There is a very vibrant naïve painting school, with some truly amazing works.  There is also the very memorable Museum of Broken Relationships, awarded Best New European Museum last year.   The street festival Cest is d’best was setting up: street performers, acrobats, music, visual arts.  (Some BC performers were there, such as Space Commander.)  This is the art scene that had invited Canadian artist Franke James to exhibit  (yes, the artist who irritated Harper enough that he got her stuff black-listed).  Culture?  Check, check, wow, check.

Painting by Mijo Kovacic, typical of the Croatian naive art school

Painting by Mijo Kovacic, typical of the Croatian naive art school

In his Croatia guidebook, Rick Steves comments: “One of my favorite Zagreb pastimes is nursing a drink along its thriving people zones, watching an endless parade of fashionable locals saunter past, and wondering why they don’t create such an inviting space in my hometown.”

Back in Vancouver, I keep wondering what it would take to create a little Zagreb feeling here, a people city.  We’re not as compact as Zagreb, so that presents difficulties.  But surely we should try.  Here are a few suggestions: cheaper facilities for artists to work and exhibit; permanent sites for farmers markets; better public transit; fewer cars.  More pedestrian streets: we have many streets that would be good candidates.  Yes, many merchants are fearful of pedestrian-only streets, and with good reason.  The right conditions must be there, otherwise it can be a costly flop.  So let the merchants use the streets, expand onto them.  Allow cafés to have permanent tables on the streets, under cover; make it relatively cheap for them, help the independent stores by lowering their taxes.  The outdoor cafés would bring shoppers to the bookstores and the shoe stores and the markets.  The artists would draw people to the cafés.  And, please, let people enjoy a drink on the street, at a café table.  I’m not advocating public drunkenness; on the contrary, I think that civilized drinking in public would help to prevent it.  We need to relax these silly drinking laws, and help the merchants.  I think we could do it, and we should do it.  And as we grow, let’s grow denser; the rest follows.

And, yes, those car-controlled Zagreb streets?  There are large bollards that prevent vehicles from entering the pedestrian-only streets.  Unless it’s a delivery van.  I saw one drive up to the bollards, point a remote control device…and the bollards disappeared under the street, letting the truck through.  It’s just plain smart, and you need smarts to have a liveable, human-scaled city.  Don’t we have that?

Some other treasures of Croatia: the Plitvice lakes

Some other treasures of Croatia: the Plitvice lakes

...or the city of Dubrovnik (yes, plenty of cafes there too...)

…or the city of Dubrovnik (yes, plenty of cafes there too…)

Addendum: At one of those cafés I noticed another traveler, furiously scribbling in her notebook.  We introduced ourselves: she’s Melanie Chambers, a fellow Canadian, teacher of travel and food journalism (you could do worse than check her travel blog on Croatia).   Café culture is about meeting people.  Why does this seem harder back home?  Denise Ryan recently wrote about how hard it is to meet people in Vancouver:

Vancouver is the hardest city to date in in North America. We have no dating culture here. In Edmonton, Toronto, Calgary there is a much higher chance that people will come out just to meet you for a coffee, just for the social aspect. Because Vancouver doesn’t have that dating mechanism, it’s awkward for people to ask each other out.

Indeed.  We need outdoor cafés!  We need the spirit of Zagreb!

Written by enviropaul

March 17, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Swedish garbage

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The Swedes sure do things differently.  Hanging out with Swedish scientists for a week, I started wondering if I entered an episode of a reality show based on the Jetsons.

Take garbage, for instance.  In Linköping, there is a new development where no trucks ever pick up the garbage.  Instead, there is a suction system that conveys your garbage into a central collection plant.  Think of garbage chutes in apartment buildings – but in this case, there are also fat bollard posts on street corners, with a mouth, ready to suck your garbage away – magic!

It’s what happens after, though, that is truly remarkable.  Burnable garbage is sent to the incinerator, while rottable garbage (food waste) goes to a bio-digester.    The main incinerator in Linköping receives waste from about 600,000 people.  That produces 1000 GWh of district heating, and 200 GWh of electricity.

The main district heating pipes run under this Uppsala street, melting the snow.

The main district heating pipes run under this Uppsala street, melting the snow.

District heating?  Yes, most people heat up their homes using the steam pipes that run under the streets.  Which means – here’s the kicker – only 10% of space heating uses fossil fuels or electricity; the rest is from the district heating – heat from garbage!  Add to that the electricity produced, and garbage no longer seems a waste.

The food waste, automatically separated from the rest, goes to a central bio-digester.  The methane produced fuels 6% of the vehicles, including the fleet of city buses and taxis.  The residue is spread as fertilizer on surrounding farm land.  Uh, waste?  What waste?

The biogas digester in Linkoping, possibly the best in the world.

The biogas digester in Linkoping, possibly the best in the world.

 

 

Much has been made to the fact that the Swedes import garbage from neighbouring Norway.  In the eyes of some, this is a cautionary tale against incinerators.  The capital cost of incinerators is so high, they say, that garbage must always be found to feed the beast – and that harms any effort at recycling.

Folks in Linköping don’t see it that way.  For them, garbage is a resource, and they have their eye on the ultimate price: importing garbage from Italy, the apparently inexhaustible source!

And it’s not if the Swedes don’t recycle.  They produce about 460 kg waste per capita, half of which is turned into energy; most of the rest is recycled, and only 5% is landfilled.  The amount of waste produced is pretty average for the western world (for instance, Germans produce about 600 kg per year each).  The recycling rate, near 50%, is also in the average.  What is remarkable is the amount that is landfilled; it is one of the smallest in Europe (only Denmark and the Netherlands are comparable).

In Metro Vancouver, for comparison, we produce a bit more garbage (570 kg per year per person), and on average recycle a similar 50%.  But this hides the fact that apartment dwellers recycle only 15% of their garbage (the high percentage is largely due to industry); and, in towns like Linköping, a much larger percentage lives in apartments than in Metro.

It’s just that it’s better set up there; in the basement of an apartment building in Uppsala, I counted a dozen recycling and garbage containers (yes, they have garbage trucks there): paper and cardboard, of course, but they also recycle light bulbs and neon lights separately, for instance.  In this case, what wouldn’t work for single family housing works well in apartments (another advantage of densification).

Recycling light bulbs in an ordinary apartment building

Recycling light bulbs in an ordinary apartment building

But aren’t incinerators polluting?  Old ones certainly were, but new ones run clean.  For instance, there are more dioxins produced in a single large display of fireworks than from a well-run incinerator running over a year.  Some of my friends in the environmental movement insist that burning anything, cleanly or not, pumps carbon dioxide into the air, so incinerators should be banned because they contribute to climate change.  But after seeing the one in Sweden (and there are many like it) providing district heating, and replacing fossil fuels, I don’t buy that argument (sorry guys!).  It just makes sense.

I was lucky enough to be invited to go to Sweden as part of a mission funded in part by our government; we discussed such obscure things as to whether spreading digested manure on fields releases more greenhouses gases than the raw stuff.  And how to determine whether a waste has a high potential for generating methane, which is surprisingly not that straightforward.  I was certainly suitably impressed by what the Swedes have accomplished.  They may be the only ones who can get away with a statement like “you know, because their feebates are so rich, the Germans have become lazy when they design their biogas systems”.  Wow!  And here I was thinking that Germany is so far ahead of us in Canada!

My travel mates were very sceptical of the latest project that will grace the skyline of Linköping: a vertical greenhouse, heated like the rest by the incinerator.  The south side will grow veggies, the north side will be office space in a prestige building.  Will it work?  Sure.  Will it make money and justify the investment?  Uh, fairly dubious at this stage.  But trust the Swedes: it’s a novel idea, an attractive idea, that seems reason enough to try.

my fish burger produced only 400 grams of CO2eq

my fish burger produced only 400 grams of CO2eq

Along the way we stopped for a quick bite in a Max, a local burger chain.  But not your average burger joint: their operation claims to be carbon neutral, and the menu advertises, along with price, the carbon footprint of each selection.  “I don’t know if people care that much”, said Gustav, our host.  Still, just to have that option!

And then there was the washroom.  Everything is high-tech – stainless steel fixtures and pipes, everything working just so – even the door latch was designed in a perfectly logical matter, better than ours, and closed with a satisfying high-quality precision “click”.  Nothing ever seems poorly designed or shoddy, even in a fast-food joint.

 

 

 

A lot of things seem to be like that in Sweden.  Maybe not quite the Jetsons – but how much closer than we are!

 

 

 

Written by enviropaul

March 15, 2013 at 4:34 pm