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Archive for December 2014

2014 in review III: climate and other events

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The warmest years in order.  Number one? This year.

The warmest years in order. Number one? This year.

Ah, the year end reviews – quite fun to take a look back, if only to realize how soon we forget. As usual, lots happened in terms of environmental front. There are many reasons to consider 2014 a year of hoe and optimism (I’ll get to that) – but let’s not forget what happened on the climate and pollution scene, because there were some doozies.

The editors of Inside Climate News noted a lot of worrisome events with respect to pollution from hydrocarbons, whether from derailments, pipelines, or too often, from fracking (a two-part review, here and here).

Planet Ark summarized the year by saying that a changed climate is the new normal, a clear case of shifting baselines; CityLab reminded us that this was indeed the warmest year ever, despite the record snowfall in Buffalo; Jeff Masters added coverage on the drought in Brazil and the hurricane seasons (quiet in the Atlantic, stormy in the Pacific); and ThinkProgress presented a summary of the climate in six charts, including the one on top of this post, which shows that not only is 2014 the warmest year ever, but that the warmest years have all been happening in recent years (so much for the ballyhooed global cooling; nice as it would be, ain’t happening). Grist beautifully summarized the year in a two-minute video.

ThinkProgress reminded us that this year had its share of water disasters, and that water availability is often the first thing affected by climate change – this was the year of the worst California drought, but also the year when water in Lake Erie became poisonous. The same site (make sure to bookmark it!) profiled pollution from fracking waste, pet coke, and coal ash, all of which tend to get under-reported. Finally, from the same source, a review of what may be the most depressing story of the year: the accelerated disappearance of species worldwide. OneEarth and Alternatives Journal both produced a summary of the stories of the year, well worth reading.

And what happened in BC? Let’s see, this was the year when sockeye were exected in record numbers; there was indeed a very good run, but short of a record. But of course, the big story was the spill at the Mount Polley mine. There were also announcements that were discouraging to the environmental community: the Northern Gateway pipeline and the Site C dam were both given the go-ahead, Victoria hasn’t met an LNG project it doesn’t like, and Kinder Morgan is expecting the green light for its pipeline as well. Except that all these are running into a wall of public opposition, which bodes well for the future. But I’ll leave the politics for the next post.

Written by enviropaul

December 31, 2014 at 7:57 pm

2014 in review II: the year in culture and reporting

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An aerial view shows stranded cattle in the flooded region of Ballivian province in the Beni department

Ah, the year end reviews. In 2014, as usual, there were lots of developments on the environmental front, including in culture and reporting. With respect to reporting, in particular, there are reasons for optimism, as much of the faulty or biaised climate reporting is finally being denounced. Movies and books also featured environmental concerns prominently.

The Tyee’s list of offbeat novels for the year includes two clifi ones: Station Eleven and The Bone Clocks. Fukushima and 1117BC made their non-fiction list (along with Party of One, Capital, and Harperism); and the online magazine also listed Virunga among the notable movies of the year. Grist mentioned Blackfish as its documentary of the year (as it played a huge role in the demise of Seaworld), and Interstellar and Snowpiercer as two blockbusters that feature climate change, and noted that climate also had cameos on TV shows such as The Newsroom.

Reuters, once again, offers the photos of the year in environment (including this one on top of the post, of a flood in Bolivia).

In journalism, it was great to see a southern paper such as the Tampa Bay Times taking the trouble to debunk climate hoax claims; the resulting reporting was reader’s choice for the year, no less. This was actually part of a welcome trend: both The Daily Beast, Mother Jones, and ThinkProgress reviewed the most flawed articles and claims of the year (all make for rather entertaining reading).  Bill Moyers had an excellent in-depth feature where scientists debunk common climate myths.

DeSmogBlog Canada features the ten big energy and climate stories of the year (don’t be surprised if you didn’t hear about them in mainstream media; but the gamut ranges from Neil Young to geothermal, and they are all worth reading). Finally – and maybe the biggest reason for optimism for the new year: the debate shifted this year, with business-as-usual and deniers losing a lot of credibility. PressProgress’s “five posts that shifted the debate” include: the Fraser Institute loose way of collecting mining statistics; Peter MacKay echoing the NRA; Leona Agglukak with her nose in the newspaper; Rex Murphy in the pay of Big Oil; and (drum roll) Kinder Morgan’s claim that oil spills are good for the economy.

People just aren’t falling for it anymore, and that’s great.

Written by enviropaul

December 31, 2014 at 6:19 pm

2014 in review I: the news in science

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SFU's Lynne Quarmby at a Speaking for Science rally.  After what she saw on Burnaby Mountain, Lynn decided to run for the Greens.

SFU’s Lynne Quarmby at a Speaking for Science rally. After what she saw on Burnaby Mountain, Lynn decided to run for the Greens.

Ah, the year end reviews. As usual, there’s been lots of developments on the environmental front. But even with the usual disasters, the year is concluding on a decidedly upbeat note. I’ll get to why later, but first, here’s a compendium of the better reviews of the year in science. There were, as always, lots of scientific breakthroughs this year, and environmental science has been featured prominently among everything else. Here’s a review of reviews:

In Discover, fourteen of the magazine’s hundred top science stories of the year (paywalled, unfortunately) have an environmental angle. Right behind number one (the Ebola epidemic ) is “Climate in crisis”, with the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, record temperatures (despite the polar vortex in eastern US), heat absorption by the deep ocean revealed, and the International Panel on Climate Change report. The Guardian, in its review of science in 2014, likewise featured the decline the ice sheet as the most significant item of the year (Science News also featured it). Discover also noted the pulse experiment that sent water down the Colorado river to the Sea of Cortez for the first time in decades, bringing new life to the delta; the spill of coal ash with as yet unregulated MCHM in West Virginia; Japan’s “scientific whaling” halted by the International Court of Justice; new linkage established between neonic pesticides and bird deaths; the unexplained, mars-like gully found in Ellesmere Island; the arrival of Chikungunya virus in Florida; and the discovery of five new animal species, including a tree frog, a marsupial, and a weird deep-sea mite. Quite fun.

The emag ThinkProgress had a year-end feature on what scientists did this year, which includes winning a Nobel for LED, contributing to the 5th IPCC report and the appeal for biodiversity in the Living Planet report; and becoming more involved in politics, such as these who met with Florida governor Rick Scott demanding climate action. Locally, SFU molecular biologist Lynne Quarmby was one of the prominent activists on Burnaby Mountain, and what she saw convinced her of the necessity of defending the environment in the political realm – she will be running a Green candidate in the next federal elections.

Finally, Buzzfeed ran a very interesting feature about how climate scientists feel; after all, they know the most about what’s coming down. But among the expected fear about the consequences and anger about inactivity, it is heartening to hear about hope about the future.

Written by enviropaul

December 31, 2014 at 4:29 pm

Windup Girl in flooded Bangkok (and a Christmas gift suggestion…)

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So…last month Thailand announced that coal-fired power is the “only way for the country to move forward”.

It’s kinda sad, when you think of all the tourists who go there for the sun – and wind, for the sailors. You would think that wind and solar energy would at least be part of the mix. Or hydropower. Oh, but no.

The 2011 flood in downtown Bangkok

The 2011 flood in downtown Bangkok

It is even more ironic when you consider where the decision was taken: Bangkok, right smack at sea level. Bangkok, which already suffered a devastating flood in 2011. There are currently plans to build a three-meter tall dyke surrounding the whole city, with pump houses along the Chao Phraya river; experts expect that this would reduce future flooding from 740 km2 to a mere 360 km2 – imagine!

Part of the problem is that the city is sinking at a rate of three centimeters per year (yes, centimeters!), making it an Asian counterpart to New Orleans. And, like New Orleans, it has a government that is completely deaf to bad news. Says scientist Art-Ong Jumsai, former Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs:

“Nobody is taking the lead in the government. They are only looking at the next election. And people don’t like to hear this. The government has to consider business interests, it also wants to attract more tourists. So they don’t want people to talk about anything that is negative.”

If you’d like to imagine what Bangkok could look like in the distant future, you could do worse that read the Hugo award-winning 2009 novel “The Windup Girl”, by Paolo Bacigalupi.

The action is set in a steamy, claustrophobic Bangkok, protected from flooding by giant walls where coal-powered water pumps chug away; oil has run

Bangkok of the Windup Girl

Bangkok of the Windup Girl

out, the elite can still fly in helium airships. Never mind the frenzied chases between germ plasm hunters, the genetically engineered pleasure girls and beasts of burden, or the all-too-realistic corrupt politicians; it is the description of a doomed city fighting for its life in the rising ocean, and of its population trapped behind its looming walls and dikes that makes a lasting, frightening impression.

It’s a wonderful thriller set in a dystopian future, at once weird and realistic, a book that would make a great Christmas gift for any sci-fi fan. But it’s also a great parable of our short-sighted folly. Really, Bangkok? Coal?

Written by enviropaul

December 11, 2014 at 10:01 pm

Güssing, Austria

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Güssing, Austria, a town entirely powered by renewable energy

Güssing, Austria, a town entirely powered by renewable energy

In a previous post I mentioned that folks from Université Sainte-Anne went to Güssing, in Austria, for inspiration. They needed a way to drastically cut down on their energy expenses. But why Güssing?

The town in eastern Austria had fallen on hard times in the 80s. Unemployment was high, the main industry agriculture, and kids were leaving looking for work. Energy costs were very high, a drain on the town’s finances.

This was when city hall started on an energy efficiency campaign, insulating, changing light bulbs, etc, in all public buildings and was soon saving 50% on its utility bill. The town then decided to eliminate the use of fossil fuels in all public buildings, in order to keep more money in the local economy.

What city hall was thinking...

What city hall was thinking…

Meanwhile, some residents decided to use the abundant wood residue from the nearby forest to create a modest district heating system (6 homes only!). But this small scale project turned out to be very successful and was copied all over town, to the extent that by 1996 the whole town was on wood-fuelled district heating on a system that was also generating electricity.

In 2001 the federal government helped fund a wood gasification CHP system, which produces 2 MW of electricty as well as 4.5 MW of heating power. The town is not only self-sufficient in energy, it is a net exporter. Meanwhile, all the biomass is harvested sustainably from a radius of 10 km around the town, leaving the forest in great shape.

Of course, you can’t be that successful without people noticing. There are plans to adopt this model for whole area around Güssing. Meanwhile, scientists and politicians of all stripes, including Arnold Schwartzenegger, have visited and praised the town; and local businesses thrive on a uniquely European new category of visitors, the eco-tourists.

The biomass gasification combined-heat-and-power plant

The biomass gasification combined-heat-and-power plant

Güssing now sells its expertise all over the world, including to with offices from Bangkok to, of all places, Victoria, BC. That’s why Université Sainte-Anne paid a visit.

Güssing’s young folks no longer leave town looking for work; the town has a thriving business community. This is a remarkable example of pulling yourself by your bootstraps – but let’s remember that the Austrian federal government stepped in with a grant at a critical moment. This is how you nurture innovation, and it could well be a model for small towns in BC’s interior, as well. It might need a bit of federal government help – is it so much to ask?

Here’s a nice little documentary about how the town re-invented itself.  Pretty inspiring!



Written by enviropaul

December 8, 2014 at 7:27 pm

One of Canada’s smallest universities may also be the greenest.

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The two windmills of Sainte-Anne U seen behind the old lighthouse.

The two windmills of Sainte-Anne U seen behind the old lighthouse.

I stumbled by chance on the website of Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia. I discovered a remarkable energy management story, as well as one of student engagement, that I had never heard of before.

A few years back, the small university (300+ students) was struggling with high energy costs and decided that there had to be a better way. They sent a group to the town of Güssing, in Austria, for inspiration – the town is famous for having recreated itself around new energy technologies.

They came back with a plan for a windmill (they now have two, for 100 kW), hot water solar panels, as well as a wood-fuelled biomass plant to generate electricity and heat for the campus. And, of course, they insulated and looked at any other measures of energy conservation they could implement.

The plan was to reduce greenhouse gases by 90%, as well as energy costs by $200,000 annually, for an investment of $2.5 million. So far so good; the university still uses heating oil, but only one quarter of what they used to, for a saving of $300,000 annually. When the Austrian-designed biomass gasification system comes on stream to complement the wood chips fuelled furnace, heating oil won’t be needed any more. This approach is now touted as a possible model for struggling small towns in rural Nova Scotia.

But the main benefit may well extend beyond the energy savings; being green inspires students, as well. David Dodge, of Green Energy Futures, writes:

The students have noticed this green commitment as well and have taken notice. Chris McDaniel is a bright, young ambitious student who wants to be a teacher. He’s also the vice-president of communications with the student’s union.
“Being a green university, having a green campus makes this place sustainable for the future. It also plays a role in regards to our student population. I believe it brings students in. Students usually come here to study french but if they’re interested in the environment as well this will bring them on board,” says McDaniel.
“There’s a great pride amongst the students in regards to our green projects on campus. When I started here there was a small committee and now it’s developed and it’s grown. We have lots of interest, we have record numbers in our environmental group. We’ve been taking on a lot of new projects, it’s very exciting.”
Attracting, high-quality engaged students might not have been why St. Anne University went down this road but it sure is a nice ancillary benefit. It’s a small example but it’s always a pleasure to see it when a community gets the importance of green energy, comes up with a plan and executes it well.

Well, well. Being green and energy efficient helps attract, motivate, and retain students.  Who knew!

The renewable revolution has started

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A sunset industry?  One of E.On's large coal-fired CHP plants.

A sunset industry? One of E.On’s large coal-fired CHP plants.

This may be remembered as the start of a new era of renewable energy replacing fossil fuels.

E.On, the largest utility in Germany, announced that it is moving away from fossil fuels to concentrate on “decentralized generation” – wind, solar, and biomass to you and me (read here, here and here).

In the Canadian context, this is equivalent to, say, Enbridge announcing that it is getting out of the oil and pipeline business to focus on solar and wind. (Don’t laugh: this may happen in a few years. Enbridge already owns the largest PV plant in Canada, and has just purchased two large US wind farms from none other than E.On.)

Meanwhile, China is moving aggressively in the same direction, increasing its production capacity for solar and wind in order to get rid of its inefficient (and grossly polluting) coal thermal plants (see here, here and here, as well as here for the overall Asian context).

But what could compel a large utility like E.On to jettison its fossil and atomic porfolio? It could be that the writing on the wall is clearer in Germany. The federal government is already floating the idea of fast-tracking the closure of coal power plants, similar to what it is doing for nuclear plants. Indeed, nuclear plants seem to be unable to compete with renewables on a cost basis (witness the debate at Britain’s Hinckley proposed plant); but this is becoming the case for fossil-fuel plants, in Turkey, the US (here and here), and even, in a way, in Canada.

The Topaz solar plant in California - currently the world's largest

The Topaz solar plant in California – currently the world’s largest

But could an industrial economy actually be powered by renewables? The famous Frauenhofer Institute seems to think so, based on its analysis of a number of supply/demand scenarios, at least for Germany. And this would be without large energy storage systems, even though the development of storage systems is progressing apiece, including molten aluminum systems, low-cost distributed battery systems, and PV-integrated storage, as well as the development of superconducting systems for transmission and even generation in wind turbines.

Meanwhile, the world is witnessing the opening of Africa’s largest solar plant; of Canada’s first concentrating solar thermal plant; of the plant in Dubai shattering records for lowest cost ever; and, well, the unveiling of the world’s largest PV plant in California (nine million panels covering over 24 square kilometers! – see here and here).

So, yes, it’s only a matter of time, and now it’s moving quickly. Will we ever be nostalgic for the pollution and land destruction caused by fossil fuels? Didn’t think so.

Written by enviropaul

December 1, 2014 at 11:23 am