Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Putting the Future Back in the Room

by Alex Steffen,

The future that my parents' generation warned us about forty years ago looks an awful lot like our present. The ice caps are melting, deserts are spreading, the planet is thick with people, most of the world's primeval forests are gone, the seas are in crisis, and pollution, famine and natural disasters kill millions of people a year. Compared to the world we might have had, had the progress of the early 1970s continued steadily through the following four decades, we live on a half-ruined planet.

That half-ruined planet, though, is our home. People old enough to remember the first Earth Day can well grieve for that other, healthier Earth we might have had if only older generations had made different choices. Kids born today won't have that luxury. This world is the only one they'll ever know: they'll have to make the best of it; life goes on.
1970 is the same distance in time away from us now as 2050: that's how close the future is. The 2050s, we know, will be a watershed era: the decade when, if we're smart, human population will have peaked, a bright green model of sustainable prosperity will be widespread and human damage to the climate and biosphere will have begun to be repaired. In an amount of time about equal to that from the first Earth Day, we have to remake the world. We'll know whether we've done well enough by 2050. If we fail, the resulting descent towards greater and greater catastrophe, will likely cause immeasurable human suffering and the end of civilization; it could include perhaps a general extinction of most life on Earth. The final outcome will almost certainly be ripped from our control at some stage. (It would be far better to tackle the planetary crisis while we have a chance at controlling the outcome).
Even if we do reach a safe plateau towards the middle of the century, with a stable human population, a new model of prosperity and a planet-wide effort to halt and reverse ecological destruction, much will still have been lost. Unfortunately, even a "win" may look like a ruined planet to the eyes of those used to the one we have now. Climate commitment means that no matter what we do, more climate change is a given (even if we avoid triggering any massive climate tipping points). Living on a planet of children (the median age in the least developed countries is only 19, for instance) and in a world where billions are struggling to rise out of poverty, means that even if reinvention happens fast and models spread quickly, entire forests, fisheries, rivers, mountains of topsoil, and myriad creatures will be devoured by human needs in the meantime. In the best case realistic scenario, we're going to do a huge amount of damage to the planet even as we transform ourselves into a global society that provides prosperity with essentially no impacts.

Some older environmentalists (most prominently, James Lovelock) have suggested that the fact that no future now awaits us in which our planet is not greatly depleted means the game's over. Lovelock in particular seems to enjoy saying it's too late to do anything to save humanity, but he's not alone among his generation. These “it’s too late” doomers look ahead and see a world full of deserts and empty oceans, dying forests and dead coral reefs, and they say, "we tried to warn you..." and walk away.
The problem is, the children of 2050 will look at that future world, with all its problems, and see home: and they'll look at the choices they have in front of them, and see the future. And since the choices we make in the next forty years will decide what choices our descendants are left with -- a thriving society engaged in centuries of restoration and planetary repair, or a gradual desperate retreat towards the poles -- giving up now because we don't like the choice set we face is pathetic cowardice.
In fact, it's worse: the writing off of the future (especially on the part of those who bear the responsibility of cultural authority) actually directly supports the work of those who are destroying the future; those that are stripping every last shred of profit from the planet's biosphere while they still can. The idea that there is no future is a club used to beat people into submission and acquiescent participation in the unthinkable.
The planetary crisis we face may be made up of machinery and market failures and sheer masses of humanity struggling to live, but I'm more and more convinced that it is not at its core really a material crisis at all. Rather, the planetary crisis is a crisis of vision; we see a growing and darkening void where our future ought to be. The average person, presented with accurate information about the state of the world, can see no way forward at all. The path we're on appears to end in darkness and a swift, cataclysmic drop. Most folks, entirely understandably, choose not to look.
That void in our future vision, I believe, is not accidental. In the 40 years since the first Earth Day, a whole set of industries has grown large attacking scientists and conservationists; falsely complexifying issues; spinning the news of environmental crimes; launching astroturf front groups; endowing think tanks; bribing politicians; obfuscating the need for systemic change by pushing funding towards NGOs that advocate the most limited of personal actions; and by promoting (in the most direct financial sense) cultural work that promotes cynicism and a disdain (if not a hatred) for idealists, from talk radio to teabagging. In a twist on the old axiom that tyrants don't care if they are hated so long as their subjects don't love each other, these industries don't care if the future they're offering us looks dark, so long as no other futures we can imagine look brighter. Despairing consumers still buy, and they cause less trouble for the investing class. "We have an economy," as Paul Hawken says, "where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it G.D.P." Keeping the future dark hides the crime.
There is a vicious political fight for the future happening right now. Having realized that they're steadily losing the war to convince people there are no problems, those profiting from the status quo have now turned to fear, uncertainty and doubt. They’re trying to convince the public that it is both too expensive to make changes that probably won't work and too soon for drastic measures (I personally think that the political use to which geoengineering is being put is very much a part of this effort, but that's a story to take up again another time). The dark, unknowable future has been turned into a weapon against action in the present.
The irony is, we already have the ability to solve or at least address the planet's most pressing problems. We don't have every solution we'll need, not yet. We do, though, have the technological capabilities, the design genius, the scientific ingenuity, the entrepreneurial zeal, the policy acumen, the community-building skill, and the educational and cultural wisdom. It is not that we are not capable of sustainable prosperity. We have never had more or better ability to build a better world. What we seem to lack is a belief that we can actually use those powers to change anything, and we lack that belief precisely because the future has been ripped out of our cultural debate.
That's why if we care about the planet, the most important thing we can do is start showing how good a future we still can have. That's why, right now, optimism is a political act, and a radical one at that.
I think, what we need today, is mass movement planetary futurism. I don't mean futurism in the cheesy sense -- the what-color-is-your-rocket-car sense -- I mean futurism in the best sense: of people who understand that the future is not an alien world or a land-of-make-believe, it's where we are right now, with a brief passage of time. Utah Phillips used to like to say that the past didn't go anywhere. Well, the future's already here. We're making it, as we speak, and we make it better when we consider what the effects of our actions might be over a longer range of time.
Human beings make the future every day. Making the future -- setting in motion future events -- might almost be considered part of the definition of humanity. The problem is that today, when powerful men sit down and make decisions, they generally make those decisions as if the future didn't exist, as if the consequences of their actions were beyond anticipation, as if they bore no responsibility for foresight. The future's not welcome in the room.
We need millions of people ready to put the future back in the room. We need millions of people ready to demand that their governments, their companies, their communities and their cultural institutions confront the reality of the futures they make every day.
In 2010, any institution which is not looking forty years ahead and at least considering the long-term impacts of its work is probably engaged in actions that wouldn't bear the full light of day. We need to sunlight them. We need to hold them up against absolute standards, hard numbers and firm time lines (I prefer carbon-neutrality by 2030, myself, but again, that's an argument for another time). We need to demand forty-year goals and bold immediate commitments. We need to be the voices for the children of 2050 who otherwise currently have no rights in our halls of power. 2050 is right around the corner: we need to fight for it in every discussion of practical action, in every institution on the planet.
And we need to be ready to envision the alternatives, and explore them with people struggling to make better decisions here in the present. Because the reality is that change is not only in the interests of future generations, it's in our own interest. Almost all the things we need to do to safeguard the best possible set of choices for the children of 2050 are things we'd want to do for other reasons, anyway:
*build better cities, so people can live in vibrant walkable communities and green homes, served by ecological infrastructure and a mix of transportation choices;
*foster a culture of bright green innovation, helping to generate meaningful work for the billions who will need it, by spreading new approaches like adaptive reuse, product-service systems and so on;
*develop new technologies and material and new clean energy industries;
*redesign our products and manufacturing to remove the toxic chemicals that are poisoning us and recover materials to eliminate waste;
*preserve farmland and forests, securing working sustainable foodsheds and needed ecosystem services;
*protect and restore wild places and biological hotspots on land and in the sea, helping prepare them for climate adaptation as best we can, saving as much biodiversity as possible, and reconnecting us with the beauty of the planet.
Even if climate change magically ceased to be a problem tomorrow, these are all things we'd want to do for other reasons anyway; places that do them will become far more economically robust and systemically rugged than those that don't.
There will be opposition. We will meet people filled with anger and fueled by misinformation. Many of the men (and they are still mostly men) making these decisions are good people. A few are evil sociopaths, actively obscuring the future to hide their own knowing crimes, but most are people you'd find decent dinner company, people you'd welcome into your family. Some are among the most principled and conscientious people you'll find anywhere. But many look only backwards.
Many, I believe, are secretly terrified of what they'd see if they looked ahead. The people most deeply traumatized of all in our society may be the older men who've devoted their entire lives, in grinding hard work and out of love for the people around them, to building companies and communities and systems they thought represented a pinnacle of human endeavor and free enterprise, but which instead -- they would now find, if they could bring themselves to admit the possibility -- have become components of what is quite possibly the most destructive way of life ever made by human beings. To have done right and well your whole life and yet find yourself ethically indicted in the end, to have your accomplishments turn to ash, to arrive late expecting security and respect, and find neither: I don't think those of us who are younger can fully understand what a soul-wrenching experience that must be.
As the air goes out of the most destructive parts of our economy -- as the oil runs out, as the sprawl financing dries up, as the world runs out of big trees to cut and big fish to catch -- economic fear gets added to the mix as well. How will they survive? Even when they see a glimmer of a bright green economy, it looks full of jobs demanding different skills than the ones they've spent a lifetime honing. I think a lot of them refuse to see a bright green future -- attack even the possibility of its existence, yell at those who even suggest its necessity -- because they see no place for themselves in it, and hear a ringing condemnation of the legacies they're preparing to leave woven into every fiber of the innovations we need.
I honestly have no idea how to reach out to these good people. We know, though, that they are the ones often at the table when the future is made, and though we will eventually prevail since time and numbers are on our side, spending another couple decades butting heads with these guys will at best slow our progress. Merely defeating them politically also wastes a huge creative resource: their talent and experience. Many of the people most angrily denying the future are those who understand how the systems we now need to retrofit, redesign, replace and adapt actually work -- because they built them -- and, if convinced that this new work needs to be done, they have oceans of insight and institutional knowledge to bring to bear on the problem. No one knows how to hack a system better than the person who's been in charge of protecting it from change...if only we can win them over to the side of change.
Whether or not we can bring around the oldest generation, the fundamental need is clear: we need, now, to put the future back in the room.

(Image credits, top image: (left to right): Flickr/Si Jobling, Flickr/flydime and Flickr/James Cridland. All shared under the Creative Commons license. Image editing: Amanda Reed)
Image of gas mask smelling flowers from the first Earth Day from National Geographic Blog; Credit: AP Photo, 1970.

Monday, April 26, 2010

City Trees: Photographers Explore the Urban Forest

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By Jennifer Hattam, Istanbul, Turkey
on April 16, 2010
court street brooklyn kate glicksberg photo

Trees in the city don't just provide visual relief and cooling shade in the midst of the hard-edged urban jungle: They remove greenhouse gases and pollutants from the air, lower power bills while boosting property values, assist with stormwater management, and even reduce stress and crime rates. 

These photos of city trees show their tenacity in surviving in incongruous, sometimes seemingly inhospitable locations -- and the strong drive people have to try to bring a bit of nature, real or not, into the urban environment.
Photo: Kate Glicksberg, "Court Street, Brooklyn, NY" (2008)
ghost tree albuquerque sharon sperry bloom photo
Areas with urban trees attract more businesses and visitors, who "linger and shop longer along tree-lined streets," according to the Colorado Tree Coalition. Apartments and offices in those areas "rent more quickly and have higher occupancy rates" -- and the people working in them are more productive and less prone to absenteeism.
Photo: Sharon Sperry Bloom, "Ghost Tree," Albuquerque, New Mexico
inner richmond backyard tree shannon claire photo
When strategically planted for shade and windbreaks, trees can help reduce home cooling and heating costs. In Washington, D.C., urban trees save more than $2.6 million in air-conditioning costs annually.
Photo: Shannon Claire, "Good Morning," Inner Richmond, San Francisco, California
brooklyn bridge park kate glicksberg photo
New York-based photographer Kate Glicksberg focuses on "exploring the city as a unique habitat where nature, humans, and the concrete grid co-exist" in her recent body of work, "The Urban Forest," on display through April 18 at the nonprofit art space Chashama in New York.
Photo: Kate Glicksberg, "Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn, NY" (2009)
trees art san francisco jennifer hattam photo
"A single mature tree can absorb carbon dioxide at a rate of 48 pounds a year and release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support two human beings," according to the Colorado Tree Coalition.
Photo: Jennifer Hattam, "Breathe"
departure tampa airport stevan northcutt photo
Trees can also enhance traffic calming measures, the Colorado Tree Coalition says: "Tall trees give the perception of making a street feel narrower, slowing people down."
Photo: Stevan Northcutt, "Departure," Tampa International Airport, Florida
parking garage los angeles kate glicksberg photo
In her early work on urban forests, Kate Glicksberg photographed "the clusters of trees that live in the intersections of highway overpasses" in Los Angeles. "I thought of them as still lives, in a way, because they were islands completely surrounded by highways on all sides," she says.
lone tree guanajuato ernesto perales soto photo
Three million trees were planted in Mexico City in 2007 as part of the Pro Árbol (Pro Tree) Campaign, a national effort to recover deforested areas and recharge the country's aquifers.
Photo: Ernesto Perales Soto, "Lonely Green in a Sea of Gray," Guanajuato, Mexico
tree graffiti istanbul jennifer hattam photo
Istanbul, where I live, has less than three square meters of green space per person, the lowest ratio in any European city, depriving residents of trees' health, aesthetic, and economic benefits.
Photo: Jennifer Hattam
trump tower new york kate glicksberg photo
"I see the city as an incredibly complex habitat full of nature. Sometimes you just have to look for it," Kate Glicksberg says. "One of the best parts of having the exhibition is that people have told me that it's helped them to see the nature in the city as well."
Photo: Kate Glicksberg, "Trump Building, NY, NY" (2009)
butler street brooklyn kate glicksberg photo
Kate Glicksberg started her "Urban Forest" project while living in Los Angeles during graduate school. When she moved back to New York in 2005, she started seeking out nature in the city's concrete environment, including graffiti and other pictorial representations of trees. "The inherent desire to integrate nature into built environments competes with the need to control it," she says.
Photo: Kate Glicksberg, "Butler Street, Brooklyn, NY" (2009)
urban tree pekka nikrus photo
"I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do," author Willa Cather famously wrote.
Photo: Pekka Nikrus, "Urban Tree"
bare trees red wall ege yuksek photo
American Forests's Global ReLeaf program has planted millions of trees in the United States and around the world, including an effort to replant the war-torn city of Sarajevo after residents were forced to cut city trees for fuel for heat and cooking.
Photo: Ege Yuksek
istanbul rooftops tree vladimir dimitroff photo
"The psychological impact of trees on people's moods, emotions and enjoyment of their surroundings may in fact be one of the greatest benefits urban forests provide," Tree Canada says.
Photo: Vladimir Dimitroff, "Roofs and City Trees"
stuyvesant town new york kate glicksberg photo
Public-housing residents who live in developments with trees, grass, and flowers reported that they "had better relations with their neighbors, felt a stronger sense of community, and experienced less violence in their homes," according to an article in Sierra magazine.
Photo: Kate Glicksberg, "Over Stuyvesant Town, New York, NY" (2008)
macys mural new york kate glicksberg photo
Glicksberg says her project got her "thinking about how humans, especially living in a city like New York, need nature in any way they can get it -- even if they have to create it themselves."
Photo: Kate Glicksberg, "Macy's, New York, NY" (2009)

Drive No More: 6 Alternatives to Your Car

by Michael Graham Richard, Ottawa, Canada

rush hour traffic photo
Photo: Flickr, CC
Do You Want to Go Car Free?
We often write about how our society is too car-centric, and while it's important to improve cars so they're orders of magnitude greener (because they aren't going away anytime soon), it's also crucial to have a wide variety of alternatives to the automobile. What are these alternatives? To some of you they might be obvious - you might use some of them every day - but to others who are just starting to try to reduce their dependence on cars, an overview of what's out there will be useful. Here we go!
bus photo
Photo: Flickr, CC

1. Buses

Probably the most obvious choice, the bus can either be a great way to get around or a nightmare, depending on where you live. Sadly, in many places there's been a comparatively small investment in bus transit compared to the money that goes into the infrastructure used by cars.
One way to make the bus more attractive is to create more reserved lanes and bus rapid transit (BRT) systems (check out Curitiba's BRT: 2.3 million passengers/day). If buses have to spend too much time using the same lanes as cars, they just end up swallowed up by the masses of cars during peak traffic times and there's very little benefit to taking the bus. But if they can bypass all that, a lot more people will use them.
light-rail train photo
Photo: Flickr, CC

2. Rail (Light, High-Speed, Underground, etc)

The other big player in public transit, rail tends to be more expensive than bus systems, but it has other benefits, like not sharing the road with cars and trucks and it is easier to electrify (making its operation greener).
Ideally, all cities of a certain size would have light-rail/subways within the city limits, and high-speed rail would link big cities so that people and freight could use it as an alternative to airplanes and trucks.
A national survey of Americans shows broad support for more investments in public transit (which means primarily buses, mentioned above, and various types of rail), and a National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) shows that there's been a 23.5% increase in the share of trips done using transit.
walking shoes photo
Photo: Flickr, CC

3. Walking

Ok, "duh" you say. But with this one, the problem needs to be looked at from a different angle. Here the decision isn't just to walk or not, because we're pretty limited in speed and range and many people can have all the motivation they want, if they live many miles from where they're going and they have to cross many freeways to get there, it's not going to happen.
The decision here is, on the individual level, whether it's possible to change where you live to make walking a more realistic option. Living closer to the office and family & friends is the best way to reduce the amount of time you spend in a car. Most of the time this means a combination of walking, biking, and public transit.
On the societal level, the decision we need to make is to design cities and neighborhood so it's easier to walk. New urbanism has a lot of tools for this, we just need to use them.

bicycles bike photo
Photo: Flickr, CC

4. Bicycles

Bikes! Another obvious choice, but a lot could be done to get more mileage out of it (pun intended). We know that bicycles could play a huge role in many big cities - places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam have shown it to us - yet bike culture is only starting to get going in most places, and we're far from the much talked about critical mass. Some cities are investing more in bike infrastructure (things like safe bike parkings, bike boulevards, bike-sharing programs, and physically separated bike lanes), but it's still relatively marginal.
Let's hope that transportation secretary Ray LaHood really means what he said, and that other officials around the world will pay attention...
telecommuting home office photo
Photo: Flickr, CC

5. Telecommuting

Not everybody can do this, and some bosses still resist it, but if it can work for you, it's a great way to cut on your car use.
Telecommuting doesn't only have advantages, and the relative isolation isn't for everybody, but a smaller environmental footprint is certainly one of them.
car sharing zipcar photo
Photo: Flickr, CC

6. Car-Sharing

This one might seem like cheating, but hear me out; car-sharing can actually kind of be an alternative to the car. Owning the car, that is. It's been shown time and time again that car-sharing members tend to drive less often than it they owned a car, and they plan their trips better, leading to less wasted fuel.
Paying for each car trip you make is a powerful incentive to use alternatives, even if the total amount of money it costs you is a lot less than if you actually owned a car.
There's some good news on that front: Car-Sharing Membership Grew by 117% in North-America Between 2007-2009.
More on Alternatives to Cars
Long Beach, California, Wants to be #1 Bike-Friendly City in U.S. (Video)
Bikestation: Awesome Secure Bike Parking at Union Station in Washington DC (Video)
Bicycling Magazine's Top 50 Bike-Friendly Cities in the U.S.
This is What Cyclists as First Class Citizens Look Like (Video)

World's First "Carbon Negative" Car Concept at Expo 2010 in Shanghai

by Christine Lepisto, Berlin

SAIC Ye Zi - Leaf - electric concept car at Expo 2010 image
Image: autohome China
SAIC-GM sponsors the award-winning pavilion at the Expo 2010 in Shanghai with the theme Take a drive to 2030. The concept car Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. plans to show at the Expo (more images in the extended) betrays tremendous pressure to set the highest standard. Combining all of the wildest dreams of electric vehicle buffs into one concept car, SAIC claims to achieve a net vehicle emissions balance of less than zero. The world's first negative emissions vehicle.
But does it matter that the concept probably "breaks the laws of physics", as Wired discloses? No. We'll tell you why.
SAIC Ye Zi - Leaf - electric concept car at Expo 2010 image
Image: autohome China
The Ye Zi, which translates as "leaf", may not be headed for production lines anytime soon. But the Ye Zi "Leaf" does bundle up an alluring package of feasible technologies. The visionary vehicle represents a dream which may become a reality; we need only to grasp the possibilities. It lays down a challenge to a rising generation of designers and engineers: "why not?"
SAIC Ye Zi - Leaf - electric concept car solar wind power image
Image: autohome China
Well, maybe not exactly as envisioned by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. engineers. After all, collecting the wind on wheels propelled by the power of that wind represents a bit of a perpetual motion machine. But the possibility to leave a stationary car in a situation where a passing breeze could help charge a battery is certainly within reach. The solar power collectors on the roof are feasible today. Of course, the real estate available on the roof of a vehicle cannot provide for much of its power needs at today's efficiencies. By 2030, paint-on photovoltaics with 50% or better efficiencies could be reality.
SAIC Ye Zi - Leaf - electric concept car MOF CO2 absorber image
Image: autohome China
The Metal-Organic Frameworks (MOFs) integrated in the car's leaf shaped roof also represent science that is about to spring out of science labs and into the everyday world. These designer molecular lattices preferentially absorb CO2 from the air. The CO2, once concentrated by MOFs, can be converted by microbial fuel cells into methane for fuel, releasing O2 back into the atmosphere. What Wired blithely dismisses as "somehow emits oxygen" is the natural result of microbes using the H from H2O (water) and the C from CO2 to make CH4 (methane), which leaves O2 to be emitted.
SAIC Ye Zi - Leaf - electric concept car at Expo 2010 image
Image: autohome China
Wired queried Spencer Quong, an automotive engineer with 15 years experience in advanced vehicle technologies, who notes that MOFs are heavy and generate a lot of heat when working. And we have often noted in these pages that microbial processes can be too slow to directly power a vehicle (respect to the designer that did not make this one look like a sports car). Maybe that points out that I am too naive to see that the SAIC "Leaf" is just another pretty piece of artwork without engineering value. But then, who would have thought man could walk on the moon? The dream has to start somewhere.

Sewage could become a more important energy source in the future

By Dhruti Shah
BBC News

As the UK faces the prospect of North Sea gas running out, could supply problems be eased by using gas made from human waste?

For most people the waste they eject from their bodies is something they don't bother thinking about once they've shut the toilet door behind them.

But there are some who think human waste could be a major part of a stable gas supply. Just as long as we can overcome our prejudices.

1: Domestic waste water heads to sewage processing plant
2: Settlement tanks separate sewage into clean water and sludge
3: Anaerobic digesters break down the waste and produce a thick, odourless waste and methane. Waste solids used as fuel or fertiliser
4: Biogas plant cleans methane to remove impurities, adds odorant to "smell like gas"
5: Clean biomethane pumped back into national network

The UK has to ensure that, by 2020, 15% of the energy it produces comes from renewable sources. This, combined with government plans to reward those who pursue this route sooner rather than later, has led to a surge in interest in deriving power from the euphemistically termed "sewage waste".

With many energy experts already looking forward to the end of North Sea gas, much will hinge on the stability of supply from Russia and the Middle East. Uncertainty could be a driver for the exploration of alternative sources of gas.

The UK produces 1.73 million tonnes of sewage sludge every year, which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says could potentially be used to produce biogas.

Anaerobic digesters

And, this summer British Gas, in partnership with Thames Water and Scotia Gas Networks, plan to be the first to start piping biomethane, derived from faecal matter, into the national network and straight back to the homes of 130 customers in Didcot in Oxfordshire.

Anaerobic digesters - carefully managed bacteria - are already used to turn faeces into a means of generating electricity, but the additional plant that British Gas will install will clean up the spare biogas and turn it into biomethane which can be used on household hobs and in gas central heating.
It is a way of turning methane into something useful and something which will prevent the displacement of fossil fuels
Guy Hitchcock
The whole process should take about 23 days from flush to finish and since the infrastructure is already in place, British Gas say that the test customers would not notice any difference in the final product.

The most crucial thing for many consumers will be the issue of smell. The new biomethane will smell just like the standard natural gas supply.

Other energy firms including United Utilities and Ecotricity have also announced their plans to inject biomethane straight into the network at a later date.

There may be some people who find the idea strange, but deriving power from human waste is nothing new. Experts who have contributed to a list maintained by University of Adelaide say biogas was believed to be used to heat bath water in Assyria in the 10th century BC and Persia in the 16th Century.

In the 13th century, the traveller Marco Polo noted the Chinese used covered sewage tanks to generate power, while biogas technologies were also referred to by 17th century author Daniel Defoe.

In 1859, an anaerobic digestion plant was built to process sewage at a Bombay leper colony, while in Victorian Britain excreta was used to power gas street lamps.

Sewage is still an important source of energy in communities in India and China.
Although human waste power has made its mark in the electricity field in the UK thanks to incentives already in place, gas companies say that until now, it had been too expensive for them to clean up that gas for it to be used in hobs and heating.

Prof Frank Scholwin, the head of the Biogas Technology Department at the German Biomass Research Centre, says the trend in Europe began around 15 years ago when waste management companies realised they could use the sewage as a fuel source for buses and heavy vehicles they had on site.

European countries were interested in producing their own gas sources as, among other factors, it provided them with a degree of stability, Prof Scholwin suggests.

"The result was that they became far less dependent on other major natural gas producing countries such as Russia."
Solid waste mass
The solid waste leftover in Didcot is given to farmers to use as fertiliser
Legal obligations and incentives resulted in an increase in the number of companies in Germany and Sweden producing biomethane for a variety of purposes.

A 2009 paper by the National Grid said with the "right government policies in place, renewable gas could meet up to 50% of the UK's residential demand for gas" but admitted this would not be easy.
It said that by 2020, a more feasible projection could see sewage and waste water providing up to 270 million cubic metres (0.28%) of the estimated 97,000 million cubic metres total demand for gas. In an ideal scenario, by that same date, it could provide 629 million cubic metres (0.65%) of the total UK gas demand.

Dr Guy Hitchcock, head of Exeter University's Centre for Energy and the Environment, says changes such as the Renewable Heat Incentives and other legal obligations have made sewage an attractive proposition for investment in the energy market.

Although biofuels made from food crops such as wheat and rapeseed were often criticised about their potential impact on the food chain, land development and carbon footprints, he says there were fewer arguments against biomethane derived from sewage.

Instead conflicts were over economics and the most profitable ways of utilising the gas.
"If we're talking about biogas from food crops then the argument is similar but when it comes to sewage it appears to be a different matter.

In Oslo biomethane is used to power public buses
False Creek Energy Centre in Vancouver used human waste to ensure athletes stayed warm during the Winter Olympics
In Rwanda, prisoners' waste is used to generate the heat to cook their food
"It is a way of turning methane into something useful and something which will prevent the displacement of fossil fuels."

However he admitted that the potential for power generation has an obvious limitation - the finite amount of human waste produced.
"We produce what we produce and we use it. The resource is obviously limited by what we produce", he notes.

The government's Renewable Energy Strategy says "12% of our heat could come from sustainable biomass, biogas, solar and heat pumps, supplying the equivalent of four million households with their current heating demands".
But it also warned that this could potentially lead to an increase in household electricity and gas bills.
And that could be of more concern to consumers than a bit of squeamishness.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sustainable cities - Good practices

Good practice

Cities and towns that respond effectively to climate change through sustainable place making will be healthier, more socially cohesive, economically resilient and more beautiful.

Many places in the UK and elsewhere are already integrating policies and practices, and there is much to learn from them. We have collected examples of good policy and practice across our six themes:

Climate Change

SMART 2020SMART 2020: Enabling the low carbon economy in the information age

We now have evidence demonstrating that the ICT industry is a key player in creating a low carbon society and could do a lot more to help push the world in this direction by 2020.

The ICT sector’s own emissions are expected to increase, in a business as usual (BAU) scenario, from 0.53 billion tonnes (Gt) carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2002 to 1.43 GtCO2e in 2020. But specific ICT opportunities identified in this report can lead to emission reductions five times the size of the sector’s own footprint, up to 7.8 GtCO2e, or 15% of total BAU emissions by 2020.

This report has identified many opportunities for the ICT industry, to replace goods and services with virtual equivalents and to provide technology to enable energy efficiency.  read more >>



Decentralised Energy ReportDecentralised Energy

Concern for the environment has started to reach into every corner of business operations from corporate reputation and brand management to R&D and innovation.

The science of climate change has brought home to business the message that we need to decouple growing economic prosperity from emissions of greenhouse gases – above all CO2. Yet, as many businesses have discovered, once we start to take a closer look at our carbon footprint we uncover many more questions about the “efficiency” of our operations - how well we manage and account for material resources consumed at different points throughout our supply chains. read more >> 



Mobility reportMobility

Today, the car is at the heart of personal mobility, offering us independence and our own space – at the price of congestion, pollutants and a rising contribution to climate change. Can we do things better?  read more >>

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Responsible living

Switching to more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs can result in energy savings and lower green house gas emissions.
Switching to more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs can result in energy savings and lower green house gas emissions.
  • Compact fluorescent bulbs are more efficient and last longer
  • Be aware that electronics and appliances can still draw power in standby mode
  • Driving less aggressively can increase fuel mileage
(Mother Nature Network) -- It all seems so daunting: Climate change. Carbon credits. Not to mention biofuels, hydrogen power and solar energy. The vocabulary of a new century. There's a lot to learn.
The news is full of disturbing reports about global warming, threatened species, and the gradual realization that the way we live -- particularly in developed nations -- will have to change if we want to enjoy a clean and sustainable future.

But there's no reason to feel overwhelmed. Every journey begins with a single step. We've rounded up the 10 easiest ways for you to start moving toward a lighter lifestyle. Some cost nothing at all. Others provide a lot of bang for your eco-dollar. In every case, these ideas will save you money, cut energy use, and help balance your household's greenhouse gas budget -- the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere to produce goods or electrical power.

So pick a few, and give them a try. Before long, you'll establish the habits we all need to develop as we face the challenges of a resource-hungry planet.

1) Make the switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). Just a few years ago, CFLs were bulky, expensive, and hard to find. Thanks to environmental commitments by companies such as Walmart, CFLs are now readily available for about $2 each. That's more expensive than incandescent bulbs, but lumen for lumen (the unit by which a light bulb's brightness is measured), CFLs use much less power. They also last up to 10 times longer than regular bulbs. That means that the average CFL bulb will save $30 in energy costs over the course of its life. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, if every American household were to swap just one bulb to CFL, we would save enough energy to light more than 2.5 million homes for a year and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of nearly 800,000 cars.
Living cheap is the new green

2) Monitor your thermostat. Small changes make a big difference over time. Make a note of where you normally keep your thermostat. Once you've got an idea where it is usually set in the summer and winter, make the Two Degree Pledge: up two degrees in the warmer months, and down two degrees when it's cold. Check Lighter Footstep for energy-efficient ways to stay comfortable through the seasons, and save up to $100 a year on your power bill. That's equivalent to 1 ton of greenhouse gases which would have been produced by the energy you saved.

3) Clean or replace your air conditioning filter. Depending on where you live, air conditioning filters can get dirty in a matter of days. An air conditioner with a clogged filter has to work harder, which means higher power bills and the creation of more greenhouse emissions. Running clean, you can save up to $150 each year. You'll also enjoy the benefit of fewer allergy causing particles in the air, and a more comfortable home or office.

Video: How 'Green Solutions' help the Earth
Video: Sigourney Weaver's 'Acid Test'
Video: Rural community a model 'eco-village'
4) Unplug idle appliances and electronic devices. Just because that cellphone charger doesn't have a phone attached to it doesn't mean it's not drawing energy. Devices such as televisions with standby modes can use up to half the power they would draw when turned on. Don't just turn something off: unplug it. The average household can save up to several hundred dollars a year just by pulling the plug on silent energy vampires.

5) Buy a low-flow shower head with a shutoff valve. In most homes, you can replace an old-style shower head with a modern unit in about 15 minutes. You'll reap two-pronged savings, both in water and the energy you'd have used to heat it. You're also saving your community the power it would have used to treat the wastewater. The benefits can be pretty impressive, since water heaters account for about 25 percent of home energy use. Put several hundred dollars back into your budget each year and keep water use to a minimum.
5 cheap ways to save 1,000 gallons of water

6) Drive smarter. In real world testing of common fuel-saving tips, the Edmunds Automotive Network found some surprises. First, it's a good thing to keep tires properly inflated, and this is a commonly recommended strategy for saving gas. But Edmunds found other ideas that make a more noticeable difference. Use your cruise control on the highway for up to a 15 percent improvement in mileage. Driving less aggressively is the single most effective way to save gasoline: accelerate out of lights more gently, avoid rapid braking, and only drive as fast as you must. And turn off your engine rather than idling excessively. If your car starts reliably, consider shutting it down at long lights. Skip the drive-through window, park and walk your business inside whenever possible.

7) Get an annual tune-up for your car. At $200 to $300, a full engine tune-up sounds like a pricey way to save fuel and money. In practice, it's a good investment. A faulty oxygen sensor, for instance, can penalize your car up to three miles per gallon. Worn spark plugs and dirty air filters can cost you another four mpg. It all adds up fast. Set a fixed time each year to give your car the attention it needs. And check that fuel cap, while you're at it. A loose or poorly sealed cap will vent gasoline vapor, polluting the air and costing you up to two mpg. Tighten up!

8) Dust off that bike. Bicycles are the most efficient form of human transportation, and the only thing they burn is calories. Consider if bike commuting might fit your lifestyle. Even if this isn't the case, bicycles are a healthy and environmentally friendly way to run those short errands. You'll need a helmet, a good lock, and proper lighting if you're out before dawn or after dusk. Start by resolving to use your bicycle instead of a car just once a week and build from there. Keep an eye out for more articles on choosing an appropriate commuter bike and outfitting for comfort and safety.

9) Go meatless once a week. If you're not already practicing a vegetarian diet, consider cutting back on the amount of meat in you consume. As Frances Moore Lapp pointed out in her bestselling book, Diet for a Small Planet, livestock production absorbs 16 pounds of grain and soy feed for every pound of meat that actually gets to the plate. Each calorie of animal protein requires 78 calories of fossil fuels to produce, and irrigation directly associated with livestock production (including feeds) amounts to about half of all the consumed water in the United States. Give meatless substitutes like Boca Burgers a try, or scan vegetarian recipes for healthy and earth-friendly meal ideas.

10) Buy local; buy in season. According to the nonprofit group Sustainable Table, the typical carrot travels 1,838 miles before it ends up in your kitchen. That's a lot of food miles, and a tremendous amount of wasted fossil fuels and packaging. Buying regionally produced food is a keystone of sustainability: not only does it save the energy costs associated with shipping bulk produce, it keeps a portion of your grocery money close to where live. So locate your local farmers market and add it to your weekly errands. You'll be supporting local growers while enjoying fresh, seasonal produce. You can keep up with the latest advice and tips on eating local with MNN's Food blogger, Robin Shreeves.

And you're on your way
By the time you've taken a few of these steps, you'll probably be thinking of other actionable ways to present a lighter environmental footstep. And that's how meaningful change begins: consistent, incremental improvements to the way we manage our personal and community resources. Join with Lighter Footstep in fashioning a wiser and more sustainable future.