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

Archive for October 2019

My “hope and climate” talk on video

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The last time I gave my talk “Hope despite the climate crisis”, I was able to get a video version of it.  Thanks Erin and the Kwantlen Student Association for all the help!

I’m a bit too dark to be seen properly – that’s because the key was to be able to see the slides clearly.  The voice came out okay, so I think it worked.  A clearer view of the slides can be found in a series of posts starting with this one here.

The talk is in three parts, below:

Written by enviropaul

October 23, 2019 at 9:29 am

Electric cars and car culture

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The Piëch Mark Zero

I picked up a copy of Automobile Mag at my local library, the October 2019 issue called New and Future Cars 2020.

It’s an intriguing magazine.  I’m not sure who is its readership – collectors?  But there was a time as a teenager when I was, like most boys, mad about cars.  I felt transported back to that time – in more ways than one.

The magazine (every issue, as it turns out) opens with a five-page spread deceiving entitled “On Design”. But there is no design as such, no technical specs at all in this discussion of the new Ferrari Stradale.  It’s all, and only, about looks.  (A bit like the Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated, something else I discovered at about the same age, that supposedly was about swimming.)

The cover of the magazine features the new Chevrolet Corvette. “Finally! Mid-engine Corvette locks its sights on Porsche’s 911.”  That took me right back to the great races of the 60’s between Porsche and Ford; the new Ford model, the GT-40 had a mid-engine design. Except that this was over fifty years ago – did it really take that long for GM’s prestige car to move with the times?  Reading the article, I learn that “traditional transverse leaf springs will not package under the car’s new transmission, meaning customers who have long called for coil-over suspension finally get their wish”.  And here I thought that leaf springs was something that only cheap trucks still use.  Elsewhere, another reviewer opined that

without the benefit of AWD traction, [the Corvette] doesn’t quite deliver the initial visceral gut-wrench you feel when a Porsche Turbo instantaneously catapults off the line.  The Corvette makes up for it aurally. With 6.2 litres of V-8 just inches behind your head and no turbos to dampen the exhaust, wide-open throttle in track mode sounds like being in the midst of an artillery barrage.

So, we are supposed to celebrate the fact that the Corvette has finally adopted a 50-year old technology (the mid-engine design), while the competition Porsche uses recent breakthroughs such as AWD or well established efficient systems such as turbo-compressors (to say nothing of a proper suspension) – and all the Corvette has to show for is a loud exhaust?  Good God, what is wrong with our car culture on this continent that it should shun modern engineering?

Thankfully, there is change in the air.  In smaller characters, the magazine cover proclaims that the electric vehicle revolution is here.  And sure enough, the section on new cars includes 13 manufacturers, from the obscure ones (say, the Texas-made Drako GTE, retailing for one million US) to well know brands that feature several models, including in particular Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Porsche, and Volkswagen (with silly model names such as Buzz, Crozz, Vizzion).  The German companies are rebounding strongly from dieselgate.  Tesla introduced a new model, a small truck, to compete with the surprising Rivian.

But the technical breakthrough that caught my eye comes from the Piëch Mark Zero, a moderately priced two-seater dream car (603 horsepower, 500 km range, 0-60 in 3.2 seconds, $300,000).  The Swiss-made company, founded by a grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, has developed (with a Hong Kong partner) a battery system that can be charged from 0 to 80% in only 5 minutes, generating very little heat in the process. Any breakthrough in battery technology has implications beyond dream cars.

(The magazine features new internal combustion engine cars, of course.  But models such as the 1600hp V8 Koenigsegg Jesko, a $2.8 million supercar, or the new Ferrari or Rolls-Royce, not to mention the new Corvette, seem strangely outdated, passe, destined to the waste heap of over-mature technology along with powdered wigs and steam locomotives.)

Back to reality, though, electric cars have arrived, and not just for the rich.  I know several people who have just bought one, or are considering it.  The ones driving them are as happy as if they had just discovered smart phones after years of land-line.  And the incentives provided by both levels of government reduces the price of a new model by as much as $10,000.  Some models, such as the Nissan Leaf, have months-long waiting lists.  (Not so Tesla, remarkably.)  But even without any purchase price rebates, they are still a good deal.  Peter Gorrie of Corporate Knights ran a comparison between comparable brands, such as the Honda Civic and the Nissan Leaf.  Even though the Leaf costs more that $13,000 than the Civic, over a ten-year lifetime, assuming 20,000 km per year, the Leaf comes out with a lower cost of ownership.  This is based on Ontario prices for electricity and gasoline; in BC, the savings would be even higher.

Electric and internal combustion: comparison from Corporate Knights

But are electric cars truly better for the environment?  The answer is a clear yes. It is true that the footprint of manufacturing one is higher than for an internal combustion engine car; that is because of the battery pact, and that is reflected in the higher initial cost of the car.  But, as with the cost in dollars, the life-time greenhouse gas emissions are smaller, often much smaller.  Vancouver sponsored a complete life-cycle analysis study by UBC (a good document, should you want details).  Even if an electric car is powered by electricity from a coal power plant, the high efficiency of an electric engine is such that the result is still fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Be that as it may, electric vehicles are becoming much more common, and not just as private cars.  A taxi company in Madison, WI, announced the purchase of 40 TeslasAmazon and Anheuser-Busch both announced large purchases of electric delivery vans.  Hamburg, Germany, will be replacing its whole bus fleet with electric buses.

You would think that car companies would be scrambling to be first off the gates to create electric vehicles.  But, with the exception of the German companies, most are continuing to develop models with old technology, particularly GM, Ford and Chrysler, the US (former) big three.  And they are also continuing to finance a rear-guard action.  According to research conducted for The Guardian,

while the automotive industry releases public statements that support climate initiatives, such as increased electrification, it has been pouring millions of dollars through industry bodies into lobbying efforts to challenge attempts to tackle global heating in the past four years. Fiat Chrysler was ranked most oppositional to climate change regulations and initiatives.

Meanwhile, Akshat Rathi writes that

[t]he Chinese government has spent nearly $60 billion in the last decade to create an industry that builds electric cars, while also reducing the number of licenses available for gasoline-powered cars to increase demand for electric cars. And Beijing plans to spend just as much over the next decade. China currently makes 99% of the world’s electric buses, and experts say it’s unlikely other countries will catch up anytime soon.

Nathaniel Bullard of Bloomberg likewise reports that

The global auto market is not only not growing, but it is also shrinking [76 million expected for 2019, from a peak of 86 million in 2017].  But electric vehicles are a growth market. Take Germany and the contrast between EV sales and all auto sales: the growth of EV sales combined with the decline in overall auto sales means electric vehicles now make up almost 5% of total sales [from being marginal in 2015].

Or take China, the world’s largest auto market. China’s sales of “alternative energy vehicles” — mostly electric, with some hybrids and a small number of natural gas combustion engines — are nearly 1.5 million. Meanwhile, sales of all passenger vehicles peaked at close to 25 million in the middle of 2018, and are now below 22 million.  That change in buying cars also means a change in fuel consumption. China’s gasoline demand, after almost doubling between 2010 and July 2019, is now essentially flat. China diesel demand, meanwhile, peaked several years ago.

Bullard adds that BMW leads all major automakers in revenue from electric car sales. Volkswagen and Daimler are third and eighth, Nissan is seventh, GM is ninth. The rest of the top 10 automakers by revenue from electric vehicles are Chinese: BYD (number 2), then Geely, BAIC, JAIC, SAC.  Tesla was not included in stats.  Two Chinese companies (Chery & BYD) get over 40% of their revenue from EV sales; JAC, also Chinese, gets 25%.

The Chinese-made BYD 6

It stands to reason that China has come to dominate the electric car market: new to car culture, they immediately embraced the newest, best technology.  The Germans had a scare from Dieselgate that forced their hand.  But the US?  Trapped in car culture, looking back with nostalgia to the heyday of the 50s – and continuing with outdated technology. (Even as a kid, I was already puzzled by the fact that none of the Camaros and Mustangs that I adored had anything like their European counterparts like Alfa Romeo, say; no overhead cams, no turbo compressors, no independent suspension…)

It is fine to wax nostalgic when it comes to looks (like the new Beetle) or names (Porsche Taycan Turbo, eg; this is a fully electric car without any need of a turbo).  It’s another thing to design according to nostalgia, with obsolete (and environmentally damaging) technology.  The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, recently declared that companies that ignore climate change risk stranded assets and bankruptcy, while

great fortunes could be made by those working to end greenhouse gas emissions.

Indeed.  Corvette?  I’ll pass.  Now, about that Tesla…

Written by enviropaul

October 21, 2019 at 1:53 pm

Sustainability at YVR

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Vancouver International Airport (YVR) (Vancouver Sun)

Last week I took a group of EPT students to listen to a presentation hosted by the Environmental Managers Association of BC on new developments in the environmental industry.  All talks were excellent but the biggest surprise, for me, was about what is happening at Vancouver Airport.

Wendy Avis, environment manager at YVR, went over a few stats as a way to introduce the airport: last year nearly 26 million passengers went through the airport, 128 destinations, over 300,000 tonnes of cargo at Canada’s second busiest airport.

Next came the surprise: it’s evident in hindsight, but YVR is the largest building in all of BC.  It makes sense that it takes quite a bit of energy to heat, cool, and service. So the decision by the airport to upgrade its heating and cooling system to a geoexchange system may be one of the most important single initiative so far in BC with respect to energy conservation.  The system, which consists of about 1100 wells dug at over 100 meters depth, is expected to reduce the energy consumed by 16 megawatts.

This initiative should go a long way towards meeting the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a third in 2020, compared to 2012.  This is a tall order, and shows how difficult it is to reduce GHGs, necessary as it is.  As of 2018, the airport had already reduced its emissions by 11% (a commendable reduction of 40% per passenger).  This was done through measures such as solar water heaters or increasing the efficiency of the natural gas space heating system.  All good – but even the current heating performance is about 245 kilowatt-hour per square meter per year, a far cry from the PassivHaus standard of 15. So I can only applaud the initiative of developing a geoexchange system.  But even that may not be enough to meet the Paris climate targets – and that is despite YVR being one of the more progressive institution in the province.  Yes, there is lots of hard work ahead.

Progressive, the airport?  Yes, definitely.  It has managed to divert 51% of its waste from the landfill, has received a Rick Hansen gold certification for accessibility and a Salmon Safe designation (no pollution from antifreeze or anything else in the Sea Island creeks).  And it has reduced its use of potable water by 37% since 2012; the rainwater harvesting system will initially collect 33,000 m3 per year of rainwater, provide a constant 4000 m3 in fire protection reserve storage and provide 84% of the car washing water demand.  And it has developed a leading partnership with the Musqueam Nation (including jobs and scholarships).

Garbage-sorting robot Oscar

But I want to get back to the garbage, because of another initiative that is truly interesting.  Where do you put that disposable coffee cup once you’re done with it?  What about the sandwich wrapper?  There are four different receptables, but it may be unclear which is the better one even if you are a conscientious recycler.

Enter Oscar.  The robot has a camera that looks at your waste and will tell you where it goes.  Airport staff have spent days training its AI system.  This had led to less cross-contamination and more recycling, but Oscar is now a feature that attracts people.  It has become a game to try to stump Oscar.  Wendy Avis says that some have fun holding their babies for Oscar to decide how best to get rid of it – or not!

Innovation is what is needed, and YVR has many cool examples of it.  It can do so because it is neither a for-profit corporation (so it can have a long-term vision) nor an arm of the government (it doesn’t have to beg city hall for funds).  Its arms-length non-profit governance makes feasible a mandate to provide economic and social benefits to the community.  Something to copy, maybe?

Architecture geeks may be interested in the new energy efficient airport designed by Zada Hadid for Beijing.  That too is pretty cool.  But it’s much harder to increase the energy efficiency of an existing building than to start from scratch.  So I commend YVR.

Written by enviropaul

October 20, 2019 at 12:36 pm

The environmental impacts of textiles, in one simple diagram

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A radar chart to compare the environmental impacts of different fabrics.

When Dinah and I were in Hamburg, the Museum of Art and Design hosted a special exhibition on textiles, clothing and the environment.  We went.  (And four years later, I’m finally getting around to write about it.  There is so much that I saw and learned during these few months, I’m still trying to catch up.)

Dinah feeling the softness of the nettle fabric

This was an eye-opening exhibit.  Not only did it present the expected environmental impacts topics in a very effective and unexpected way, but the focus was chiefly on solutions: environmentally-benign fabrics.

Take stinging nettle, for instance.  What is here an irritating weed is there not only a great soup ingredient (at least, in Dinah’s hands) but also a crop used for textiles.  In Germany the fiber was widespread and known as “poor man’s cotton”.  It is now grown and prepared mostly in Nepal, but cultivation is making a come-back in Germany.  This is a tough fiber, resistant to boiling, that becomes softer with extended use.  In contrast to cotton, it grows pretty much anywhere without the pesticides required by conventional cotton.  There are fewer fibres in nettle (10%) compared to flax (20%) or hemp (30%), but the nettle fibers are finer, have a high tensile strength, and excellent breathability.

Other displays featured making fibre from waste, such as the QMilk textile, which uses past-date milk to extract casein and process it into fibre, creating a fabric reputed to be breathable, hypo allergenic, antibacterial, and silky-soft. There was also leather tanned with rhubarb extract – a non-toxic alternative to chromium.  Along side the rhubarb kind there was also leather tanned using olive tree leaves.  This product is collected after the annual tree pruning; no tillage is needed, no trees are cut down, and this provides an outlet to the million tonnes of olive leaves collected in Europe after the olive harvest, leaves that are usually (and harmfully) burned afterwards.

Then there were social innovations, such as Kleiderei, a St-Pauli company, which provides customers with fashionable clothing on a rental basis for 14 Euros per month – eliminating the waste of fast fashion (since its Hamburg debut, the company has opened stores all over Germany and also has an on-line version).

But geek that I am, I saw a system to compare the impacts of different fibers that have not seen since.  It uses what’s called a radar chart (see the top picture) featuring six criteria: toxicity, acidification, land requirements, global warming potential, water needs, and energy input.  The diagram makes it simple to compare different fabrics based on the quantity needed for a single tee-shirt.

For instance, when comparing industrial cotton with organic cotton (diagram below), one can see that the organic version requires the same amount of land, but produces about only a third of the acidification and toxicity and a quarter of the greenhouse gases, requiring one fifth of the energy and a laughable amount of irrigation compared to its industrial counterpart.  This is due to the fact that organic cotton is usually not irrigated – but the comparison is plain.

More surprising may be the difference between viscose (or rayon, produced from tree fibre) and polyester.  Being an oil-based synthetic, there is no need of land for polyester, of course.  But polyester is also shown to have a lower impact when it comes to water and energy requirements, as well as lower toxicity and greenhouse gas emissions.  Despite this, though, polyester does require 2.5 times more energy than industrial cotton (never mind organic).  The exhibit makes it clear that there is no simple answer and all-around better fabric; but the comparison can be made quickly and easily by super-imposing the radar diagrams for all fabrics, as see on the top picture.

There is much more that can be said about the impacts of textiles, of course, from fast-fashion to third-world dumping of recycling clothes.  For instance, there is an excellent (if lengthy) publication, in English, produced by the EU on the topic, here.  But I like my radar-diagram snapshots.  Clever, simple and effective.


Written by enviropaul

October 14, 2019 at 4:53 pm

The Economist’s climate issue

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What’s the point of a big march?  Yes, September 27th was huge in Vancouver and Montreal (and the previous week in Europe), but so what?

One of the impacts is awareness raising – the more people know about the issue, the harder it becomes for politicians to ignore it. Yes, it is circuitous – but we need the politicians in order to get things done.  Politicians listen to many voices – climate protesters have to make sure to keep theirs loud.

This needs mainstream media.  I was pleased to see last week-end’s Globe & Mail profile a number of climate issues (I reviewed those here).  Now here’s another player on the scene a considerable one: the august British magazine The Economist.  (In fairness, it was there first; its climate issue is dated September 21st, but my library gets the magazine with a bit of delay.)

And it is quite the review.  It features 23 articles linked to climate change.  Some are what you would expect, such as What Goes Up, which describes the global increase of CO2 emissions.  Since the articles in the magazine are organised geographically, there is an article describing the US Green New Deal proposals.  The Europe section features a review of Germany’s addiction to coal, and lessons from wind power in Britain.  The science section talks about climate uncertainties, and the effects of a warming Arctic.  None of that will be surprising for anyone who follows climate change news, but all these articles are excellent summaries.

The real beauty of the magazine, though, is that it goes further afield.  It discusses how South America’s left seems to love oil, despite climate change concerns (Brazil’s Bolsonaro notwithstanding); rising seas in Jakarta and haze in South East Asia; climate-induced drought in Malawi, and its impacts; and the demise of century-old olive groves in Spain.  All climate related.

The magazine also discusses the implications for the finance industry: insurance companies in trouble, and whither mitigation or adaptation.  There is an article on arts and climate, and the obituary section features not a person, but the Okjökull glacier in Iceland.  It also discusses whether a democracy or a dictatorship is more effective in fighting climate change – and does it intelligently, as always.

But where the magazine may come in particularly handy is for convincing friends and relatives who are somewhat conservative and think that environmentalists are exaggerating the potential impacts of the crisis in order to bring on big government; in other words, that environmentalism is just a Trojan Horse ploy to bring about socialism.  There is no publication that has more free market creds that The Economist – yet it recognizes that business-as-usual is a deadly dead end. Here are excerpts from its opening editorial, The Climate Issue:

FROM ONE year to the next, you cannot feel the difference. As the decades stack up, though, the story becomes clear. The stripes on our cover represent the world’s average temperature in every year since the mid-19th century. Dark blue years are cooler and red ones warmer than the average in 1971-2000. The cumulative change jumps out. The world is about 1ºC hotter than when this newspaper was young.

That the changing climate touches everything and everyone should be obvious—as it should be that the poor and marginalised have most to lose when the weather turns against them. What is less obvious, but just as important, is that, because the processes that force climate change are built into the foundations of the world economy and of geopolitics, measures to check climate change have to be similarly wide-ranging and all-encompassing. To decarbonise an economy is not a simple subtraction; it requires a near-complete overhaul.

To some—including many of the millions of young idealists who, as The Economist went to press, were preparing for a global climate strike, and many of those who will throng the streets of New York during next week’s UN General Assembly—this overhaul requires nothing less than the gelding or uprooting of capitalism. After all, the system grew up through the use of fossil fuels in ever-greater quantities. And the market economy has so far done very little to help. Almost half the atmosphere’s extra, human-made carbon dioxide was put there after the turn of the 1990s, when scientists sounded the alarm and governments said they would act.

In fact, to conclude that climate change should mean shackling capitalism would be wrong-headed and damaging. There is an immense value in the vigour, innovation and adaptability that free markets bring to the economies that took shape over that striped century. Market economies are the wells that produce the response climate change requires. Competitive markets properly incentivised, and politicians serving a genuine popular thirst for action, can do more than any other system to limit the warming that can be forestalled and cope with that which cannot.


Some claim that capitalism’s love of growth inevitably pits it against a stable climate. This newspaper believes them wrong. But climate change could nonetheless be the death knell for economic freedom, along with much else. If capitalism is to hold its place, it must up its game.

Written by enviropaul

October 6, 2019 at 2:42 pm

Vancouver rubber sidewalks, revisited

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A few years ago I wrote a post about a new initiative in Vancouver: using recycled rubber for a sidewalk, on the south side of the 500 block of East 17th.

Here is some of what I wrote at the time:

 It costs a bit more than the standard concrete sidewalk, but it should last longer – specially where roots from mature trees put pressure on the paving surface.  So, long run, costs should even out.

Recycling puts something (rubber, in this case) back into use, and that avoids having to manufacture something new, with all of the carbon emissions that it implies. In the case of concrete, this is very significant.  Concrete is made by heating limestone to a temperature above 1400C, which requires a large amount of energy, usually from coal or other fossil fuels.  The heat can be re-absorbed in efficient processes, to a degree, but the energy requirement remains high. Further, any Portland cement – the key ingredient in concrete – is made by heating limestone, which turns it into quicklime, releasing carbon dioxide.

I went back there recently. The sidewalk, now eight years old, has aged beautifully.  There are a few bumps, where tree roots have grown.  But there are no cracks, no tripping hazards.  And it looks like the interlocking blocks may allow water to seep through the joints, making the whole thing a form of porous paving. There are commercial suppliers of the material; you can find an example here.

I asked the city if there had been any follow-up studies.  I spoke to a young man on the 311 help line, who said he had never heard of this, but thought that it was a really cool idea, and that he was going to try and find someone from Engineering who knows more about this.  He said to be patient.  Well, that was two months ago, which makes me think that whoever championed the idea must have moved on.  I expect that there has been no follow-up, and that few people at city hall, if any, know about this.  (Dear readers, if you happen to know, contact me please!)

Too bad.  It’s a cool idea, that warrants revisiting.  When originally installed, the city created a short video (below) which documents the process and the expected results.

The bumpiest part, 8 years later – barely noticeable

The joints, 8 years after installation

Written by enviropaul

October 5, 2019 at 11:14 am