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

Archive for January 2015

The enviro Super Bowl

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Seattle Seahawks vs. Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII in East Rutherford, New Jersey

There are two notable firsts with tomorrow’s Super Bowl (aside from the possibility of an unprecedented repeat for the Seahawks).

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg reports that food waste will be much reduced this year:

Super Bowl Central, a 12-block area in downtown Phoenix that will play host to all sorts of festivities this weekend, is a kickoff (if you will) to more conscious food waste collection efforts in the city.

The reduced Waste Challenge will feature not only recyclable items (which is becoming commonplace, thankfully), but also reusable ones. Also, starting with the festivities, the city will launch a program for composting food scraps, starting with a three-bin collection system: food, soiled paper and yard waste to compost; recycling; and other garbage.

Sarah Battaglia, meanwhile, reports that

For the first time in Super Bowl history, the game will be played under LED lights, one of the most efficient types of light bulbs on the market. Lighting manufacturer Cree will be in the spotlight while the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots battle it out on the field.

The University of Phoenix Stadium went through a complete lighting renovation and now requires a mere 310,000 watts of energy. Compare that to the previously required 1.24 million watts and you’ll realize that’s a 75 percent reduction in energy consumption!

Neither of these, by themselves, will “save the world” or even make a big difference to the ecological footprint of Phoenix. But everything counts, and improvements like these are welcome. But the educational impact of these measures is possibly the most important result: if these become the standard to emulate, throughout Phoenix, and for all sports venues – and then, for all sports fans! – now we’re talking.

Written by enviropaul

January 31, 2015 at 7:19 pm

Some inspiring pix…

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, this will be a long blog.

Several organisations, such as, Climate Change Guide, or Climate Reality Project, have taken to create quick posters with whatever headline of the day showsprogress is possible.  Here are a few of my favourites, with headlines from all over the world.

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Written by enviropaul

January 31, 2015 at 12:28 pm

BIQ – the amazing algae house

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The BIQ algae house in Wilhelmsburg, Hamburg

The BIQ algae house in Wilhelmsburg, Hamburg

Last year when I was in Hamburg I saw a completely different kind of solar house: one that uses algae.

It’s a simple concept: the south facing windows are filled with an algae culture between the panes. The algae grow with daylight, and the growth gets harvested at night, and gets fed to a digester, which turns the excess algae into methane. The methane is then processed through a fuel cell, which produces electricity and heat for the building. What about the CO2 that is released? You guessed it, it is recovered and fed to the algae culture, where it is absorbed during photosynthesis.

It’s a small appartment block (15 units), and it has been occupied since 2013. It’s quite relaxing to watch the bubbles float up through the green

If it weren't for the algae panels, this could be an appartment balcony anywhere

If it weren’t for the algae panels, this could be an appartment balcony anywhere

culture in the windows, but it is just a toy concept? It may be too early to tell, but one fact remains: the efficiency is high. Normal solar collectors can be thermal or photovoltaics, producing either heat or electricity, but not both. Thermal collectors have a typical efficiency of 50%, photovoltaic ones 10%, meaning that only that fraction of solar radiation is converted into heat and electricity. The BIQ solar cells manages to do both at once: capture heat from the sun, an produce electricity indirectly from the algae, with an overall efficiency of 48 %.

The complex also uses underground heat storage and is also connected to the grid in case there’s no sun for an extended period (hey, it’s northern Germany…). Even so, according to CoExist magazine, the prototype building is performing beyond expectations, says architect Jan Wurm.

“It’s producing more heat than we thought,” he says. “We optimized the performance after introducing a new set of pumps at the beginning of the year.”

Surveys show the people in the 15 apartments are also content, as well they might be. They have no heating bills and plenty to show off to visitors.

And oh, by the way, algae absorb CO2 for photosynthesis – so panels like these could be used as carbon sinks to clean emissions from fossil fuel plants. It’s always surprising where new technologies can lead.

You can read more details about this amazing building here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Or better yet, just watch this video below. There is something funny about how the inventors – architects, designers, engineers – describe their prototype in the second video. Just around the 2:00 minute mark, one of the inventors, very earnestly but without much visible excitement or enthusiasm, asserts that “this could be a very big step for the future”. I’m not sure why being a technology whiz seem to turn a German engineer into an affect-less Mr Spock type, but these guys crack me up. “Yes, this may save the future of humanity. I think it’s okay.”

Anyways, I can’t wait to go back one day and see how well it has withstood the test of time. When you’re standing in front of the building, it feels like you’re been travelling to the future.

Written by enviropaul

January 29, 2015 at 9:28 pm

Murad III and the dangers of ignoring science

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Charlie Hebdo. Boko Haram. Murdered Pakistani school kids. Taliban against of polio vaccines.

I was thinking about these tragic events, and like everybody else, trying to come to grips with them. One thing that I noticed, aside from the obvious violence, is a denying of free thinking, science, and education. All things that make uncomfortable those who care for the status quo.

Why should this be so? There was a time when Muslim civilization led the world in knowledge, tolerance, and science.Murad_III_by_John_Young

For instance, medical students all know about William Harvey’s pioneering studies of the circulatory system, published in 1628; in his work, Harvey acknowledged his debt to Spanish physician Miguel Serveto, who published a work about blood flow in the lungs in 1553 (and was arrested and burned for heresy). Much less known is that Serveto himself was inspired by an earlier work of thirteenth century Syrian doctor Ibn al-Nafis, who described in remarkable detail blood circulation. And there are many similar instances.

In his 2002 book What Went Wrong, historian Bernard Lewis traces the decline of science and openness in the Muslim world to a single political decision.

In the fourteenth century the Ottoman empire was leading the world in medicine and science, including astronomy. Taqi al-Din, a prolific scientist (he wrote books on the history of science, astronomy, optica, and mechanical clocks), was appointed chief astronomer to the Ottoman court. He convinced Sultan Murad III to build an observatory that would rival that of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (whose detailed observations led to Newton’s discoveries). But a couple of years after completion, in 1577, the observatory was destroyed by order of the sultan, on the recommendations of the Grand Mufti. Whether this was because the visible comet of 1577 was followed by a plague, or simply because of political fights between the religious parties and other factions at court isn’t clear. But the net effect is that this observatory was to be the last one built in the lands of Islam until the modern era. According to Lewis

This rejection is one of the more striking differences between the Middle East and other parts of the world that have in one way or another endured the impact of Western civilization…the Middle-Eastern contribution [to science] compares poorly with that of other non-Western regions or, even more dramatically, with its own past record.

One may disagree with Lewis with respect to the impact of that single decision. But what I retain from this historical anecdote is that Islam itself had nothing to do with destroying science; rather, that a single policy decision set the stage for an irreversible decline, possibly paving the way for a zeitgeist of obscurantism, of reliance on dogma at the expense of free thinking.

harper_cowboyNow if I compare Stephen Harper with sultan Murad III, it’s with a tongue firmly imbedded in cheek. That said, there has been considerable damage done by his government to Canada’s science capacity.

This damage has been described at length elsewhere (see here, here, here, and here) but as a summary, let’s mention: the laying-off of scientists from Fisheries and Oceans, and closure of nine of the department’s libraries, along with the destruction of their collections; lay-offs of scientists and researchers from Parks Canada, Environment Canada, and the Coast Guard; the muzzling of federal researchers; the damage done to Stats Canada; the loss of research library privileges of Health Canada researchers; the lack of funding for pure research, research that may generate controversy, or lack a for-profit partner; and, in a perfect simile to the Istanbul Observatory, the destruction of the Experimental Lakes Area, a research facility unique in the world, and the closure of PEARL, the polar observatory.

The example of Murad III shows that once a government turns it back on science, the trend may be long-lasting and the damage irreversible, not only to science itself but to society as a whole. When science is no longer trusted for guidance, all that is left is dogma; and when dogma doesn’t fit reality, violence. Let’s not go there.

Written by enviropaul

January 23, 2015 at 3:49 pm

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The Flush It Blog

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When I started this blog, “All Things Environmental”, I figured it would be a good way to figure out where I really stand on some issues by writing about them. It’s been that, and more, and I’m really pleased I decided to start this; but they were sporadic. So last January my new year’s resolution was to write an average of one post per week – do I have the discipline? Turns out, I did!

But the downside of research and reflection is this: my posts are long and wordy.

So here’s this year’s resolution: learn to write crisp and short. So I started a new blog, which I’ve called the “Flush It Blog”.

All short entries, on a topic that never ceases to fascinate me: poo and other bodily wastes. They fascinate me for two reasons: first, because they are waste when they should be looked upon as a resource; and second, because we are uncomfortable talking about them and this prevents us from discussing what we should do with them.

Here’s what it’s about:

The stuff we flush – pee, poo, and everything else – seldom enter polite conversation. Yet, from the design of toilets to the health of our micro-flora, knowing about our excrements matters. And, of course, our environmental survival will depend on how quickly we will learn to turn what is now a waste into a resource: a fertilizer or a source of energy. So we need to have a serious talk about shit, and I’m hoping this blog can contribute to the conversation.

What is shit, after all? It’s a diagnostic tool, it’s a fuel, it’s a source of fertilizer, it’s an internal ecology of bugs; it’s a source of disease, a public health issue, a source of shame or embarrassment, an urban planning conundrum, an anthropologist’s wonder.

But it doesn’t need to be all heavy stuff. Among the serious discussion of our waste and their polluting impacts, there are many whimsical, fun or silly stuff about shit. Gourmets claim the best coffee is the one made with beans found in civet poo – and animal lovers abhor the practice.
For that matter, excrements and sewers have long been featured in our arts and literature. From the sublime to the ridiculous, let’s get this topic out in the open.

I’ve written about this topic before, including a few book reviews (here and here), a paean to whale shit here, or a look at how the costs of sewers in a sprawling city can be enough to bankrupt it (here).

I even wrote a post once on poo trivia – at the urging (or was she just kidding?) of my friend Diana, the sewage engineer. And doing so, I noticed that there’s no end of poo trivia, serious topic thought it may be. So here’s to our humble excrements: give them some thoughts, reflect about their importance, before you flush. Only then, mindfully flush.

Anyways, do go visit: you’ll see, the posts are waaay shorter. Here on this blog, I just can’t help it but to write at length.


Written by enviropaul

January 17, 2015 at 3:52 pm

Liveable German cities: how did they get that way?

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Maybe the best known pedestrian zone in Germany: the Brandenburg gate, Berlin

Maybe the best known pedestrian zone in Germany: the Brandenburg gate, Berlin

I often wonder why European cities developed so differently from North American ones, especially German ones. Germany was destroyed after the war, and much rebuilding took place in the 50s and 60s. This was the era of cars and suburbs on this side of the Atlantic, and Germany could well have followed suit. But it didn’t. It has great public transit, pedestrian malls, green spaces, cities built on a human scale. But why is that so? Was it inevitable that it should have developed in that fashion?

That’s the key question tackled by Jan Logemann in Trams or tailfins?, a book that should interest any one with an interest in urban planning and liveability (nerdy me, guilty as charged, of course). The book offers tantalizing clues as to how development could have gone on way or another, but some key policy decisions tipped the balance towards the liveable German cities we know.

Transportation policies were key, of course. Far fewer people owned cars in Germany after the war, and public transit was seen as essential. In the US at the time, transit was seen as something that had to earn a profit or at least pay for itself. Railroads, in particular, were seen as corrupt, old-fashioned, and undemocratic, these views a possible legacy of the Pullman era.

a modest pedestrian alley in Berlin

a modest pedestrian alley in Berlin

As in the US, German public policy promoted car use: for instance in the 50s and 60s there was a tax deduction for mileage, a reduction of 20% of the tax on cars, and the famous autobahn system continued to expand. But in contrast to the US, this never meant abandoning public transit. The 1950 federal railroad act ensured that the railway followed principles of Gemeinwirtschaft, that is, balancing both social and economic aspects. Even conservative politicians did not see privatizing rail as a realistic option. There were passes for students, large families, commuting workers, etc. As a result, rail ridership increased from over 30,260M in 1950 to 38,100M in 1970 – a period that saw a marked decline of rail commuting in the US.

Potsdamer Platz, Berlin

Potsdamer Platz, Berlin

German transit was never expected to pay for itself, and there was a social consensus that it should run a deficit. To be sure, social status was still attached to the car; as a result, ad campaigns were used to promote transit as faster, smarter. In particular, ads were aimed at women shoppers: “the smart man – or, better, the smart woman – is taking the streetcar again”. That said, there was a social consensus that public transit was a necessity; for instance, public opinion was sympathetic to Hannover students who staged violent demonstrations when the (privately owned) transit company raised fares in 1969; the city consequently purchased the system and improved service, an outcome unthinkable in the US.

By the mid 60s, American policy was seen as a failure by most German planners. Friedrich Lehner, for instance, said “everything [in the US]was done for the automobile, and space-saving public transportation was neglected in a way that is incomprehensible”. New urban developments were designed so that shops could be reached by walking, and dense enough that public transit was effective for trips to the centre. This was done in reaction to the American model, as planners feared congestion, but were also concerned about preserving the urban quality of life.

Celebrating public spaces in Chemnitz

Celebrating public spaces in Chemnitz

Transportation planning is only part of the story, though. Housing was in critical shortage after the war, and the aggressive rebuilding program (3.8 million units between 1950 and 1957) consisted of appartment blocks, about half of which was subsidized social housing built on a uniform plan (35-70 m2, rented through public housing offices, rent controlled). Single family housing (Eigenheim) never became a priority, in part because mortgages were not tax-deductible as in US. Instead, Germans could save for a down-payment in a tax-free account (Bausparen). Further, over 40% of appartments were built by non-profit companies, often affiliated with labour unions. Projects such as Bremen’s Neue Vahr (10,000 appartment units, 30,000 residents) were build with shops, amenities, close to the downtown core for a “sense of home”. All such projects sought to accommodate a mix of people from low-income class, working class, as well as better off middle class.

Bubble blowers and jugglers in Dresden

Bubble blowers and jugglers in Dresden

Another difference was cultural. As opposed to Americans who moved frequently and looked at housing as an exchangeable commodity, Germans put a high premium on housing quality and tradition, preferring not to move unless forced to.

And there were certainly ample reason to stay put in the city: municipal spending on public goods such as theaters, swimming pools, museums, or libraries were at a much higher level than in the US. As a result, the German public as a whole benefitted from the services, as opposed to in US, where public services (such as transit) were perceive to mostly benefit only the poor. According to Logemann:

by the late 60s, however, most American consumers had shifted their priorities away from public goods and were unimpressed by the call of urban planners to revitalize inner cities. [Whereas in Germany] residents of newly constructed neighborhoods at the urban fringes continued to feel part of the central city as consumers and taxpayers. Urban public good were thus more sustainable in Germany, where services such as mass public transportation continued to be used by middle-class consumers.

Controls on business were another reason for the differents paths. After the war, there were price controls on essentials (foodstuff, electricity, transit fares, etc); some of these remained in place until the 70s, affecting the way Germans decided to spend their money. Aside from price supports, discounting was not allowed, even for things such as second-hand books (1958 law). This was done to support small independent shops. Similarly, shopping hours were restricted, in part to prevent weekend shopping at suburban malls. Labour unions were strong supporters of restricted hours, as were most people; in 1966, for instance, the city centre of Dortmund went dark in protest against a planned suburban shopping mall. Logemann:

one of the crucial lessons the German cities learned from the declining downtowns in the US was the need to keep city centres attractive to customers. The development of the Fussgängerzone, an inner city pedestrian mall, between the early 1950s and the early 1970s was central to such efforts.

Kassel was the first city with a pedestrian mall, centered around the commercial Trepenstrasse, in 1952, which was to be “realm of the pedestrian”;

A typical fussgaenger zone: stores and cafes.  (Altona, an area of Hamburg)

A typical fussgaenger zone: stores and cafes. (Altona, an area of Hamburg)

this initiave received nationwide positive attention, and was widely copied. By the mid 70s, most downtown retailers were on pedestrian malls and doing well; all such areas were well connected to public transportation. The urban development law of 1971 incorporated a primary goal of ensuring that “people ofdifferent views and interest can meet and congregate”, and urban squares and pedestrian malls developped accordingly. In contrast, the first attempts in the US, such as in Kalamazoo in 1959, had moderate success, but retailer opposition prevented success to be copied elsewhere.

9780226491493Logemann, Jan L 2012. Trams or tailfins? Public and private prosperity in postwar West Germany and the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Written by enviropaul

January 14, 2015 at 7:12 pm

The German Energy transition in four graphs

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The energiewende made possible the large-scale adoption of solar collectors (here, a farm in the Black Forest)

The Energiewende made possible the large-scale adoption of solar collectors (here, a farm in the Black Forest)

Germany is often in the news for its Energiewende, the energy transition. The idea was to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced while keeping the economy going. This was done by encouraging the growth of renewable energy ( wind, solar, and biomass), and improving energy efficiency (with programs such as subsidies for building insulation). In a peculiar German twist, the other objective was to phase out nuclear energy.

The program has been much criticized in some quarters (hello, fossil fuel lobby!) but the results have been remarkable. There were fears that manufacturing was going to grind to a halt because of high electricity costs; that phasing out nukes was going to result in more coal being burned; that solar and wind, being intermittent, are incompatible with an industrial society; or that Germany was going to become reliant on electricity imports.

Well, here are some graphs of results over time, courtesy of the blog Energy Transition.


In the first graph, one can see the gross electricity demand (in blue), compared to the GDP (in red). Last year, the German economy grew by 1.4%. Electricity demand dropped by stunning 4%. In fact, the demand is almost back to the baseline level of 1990, while the economy has grown by over 40% in the same time span.


We can also see here above that the 2014 electricity generation in Germany from hard coal (anthracite) at a record low.


As shown above, 2014 was a record year for net power exports from Germany: 34 TWh of electricity. In the graph below, blue is electricity production while red is domestic demand. This wasn’t the case in 1990, before the start of the Energiewende program. (And note the clear impact of the Euro crisis on both exports and production in 2009!)


Since 2008, electricity prices on Germany’s wholesale market have actually continuously dropped (in the graph above, blue is baseload price and red is peak). The spread between the two is fairly small, putting the lie to the idea that renewables being intermittent would drive peak prices skyhigh. Sure, the prices are higher than in BC (about 60 cents per KWh); we have some of the cheapest electricity around. But what is key here is the remarkable downward trend: once the windmills and solar panels are up, well, the wind and sun are free. Something to keep in mind when investing in energy projects!

Written by enviropaul

January 7, 2015 at 5:57 pm