November 18, 2008
Congo Violence Reaches Endangered Mountain Gorillas
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
BULENGO, Congo — Jean-Marie Serundori wakes up every morning with gorillas on his mind.
“I wash my face, I stare at the mountains and I think of them,” he said. “They are like our cousins.”
But Mr. Serundori, a Congolese wildlife ranger entrusted with protecting some of the most majestic — and most endangered — animals on the planet, is far from the broad-backed mountain gorillas he loves.
Instead, he is stuck in a wet and filthy camp for internally displaced people where the only wildlife are the cockroaches that scurry across the mud floors. He is one of the hundreds of thousands of people left idle and destitute by eastern Congo’s most recent spasm of violence, and the consequences in this case may be dire and irreversible.
Eastern Congo is home to almost a third of the world’s last 700 wild mountain gorillas (the rest are in nearby areas of Rwanda and Uganda). Now, there are no trained rangers to protect them. More than 240 Congolese game wardens have been run off their posts, including some who narrowly escaped a surging rebel advance last month and slogged through the jungle for three days living off leaves and scoopfuls of mud for hydration.
“We figured if the gorillas can eat leaves, so can we,” said Sekibibi Desire, who is staying in a tent near the other rangers.
This is just the latest crisis within a crisis. Congo’s gorillas happen to live in one of the most contested, blood-soaked pieces of turf in one of the most contested, blood-soaked corners of Africa. Their home, Virunga National Park, is high ground — with mist-shrouded mountains and pointy volcanoes — along the porous Congo-Rwanda border, where rebels are suspected of smuggling in weapons from Rwanda. Last year in Virunga, 10 gorillas were killed, some shot in the back of the head, execution style, park officials said.
The park used to be a naturalist’s paradise, home to more than 2,000 species of plants, 706 types of birds and 218 varieties of mammals, including three great apes: the mountain gorilla, the lowland gorilla and chimpanzees.
Now Virunga is a war zone.
Rebel soldiers command the hilltops. Government soldiers fire mortars at them, blowing up precious gorilla habitat that is rapidly disappearing anyway because of deforestation and an illegal charcoal trade.
“Armed groups hide in the park, they train in the park, and most importantly, they eat in the park,” said Samantha Newport, a spokeswoman for Virunga National Park.
Ms. Newport said that two years ago, at one of the lakes in the park, a local militia went on a hippopotamus-hunting rampage, machine-gunning hundreds of hippopotamuses for their meat.
“The lake turned red,” she said.
Eastern Congo has been stuck in a vise of bloodshed for more than a decade. The trouble began in 1994, with the genocide in Rwanda, which killed 800,000 people and sent waves of refugees into Congo, along with bloodthirsty militias. Since then, various armed groups and neighboring nations have battled for control of this stunningly beautiful land, loaded with gold, diamonds and other precious resources. Last month, a rebel force widely suspected of being supported by Rwanda routed government troops near the strategic city of Goma and was poised to capture it, when the rebels declared a cease-fire.
That cease-fire remains shaky. On Sunday, the same day that the rebels’ leader, Laurent Nkunda, vowed to stick to the truce, heavy fighting broke out north of Goma. Congolese troops fired rockets. The rebels responded with mortar bombs. Once again, game wardens were caught in the middle. Some of their families have even been shot.
Last month, the 14-year-old daughter of a ranger was shot in the stomach during a firefight near a ranger post deep in the forest. “I put her in my arms and just ran,” said her father, Mberabagabo Rukundaguhaya. “I thought she was dead.” She lived, though it is not clear when her family will be able to go home.
Officials with Virunga National Park are urging the rebels and government troops to allow them to return to work. The rebels insist the gorillas are safe.
“We are protecting them,” said Babu Amani, a rebel spokesman.
Mr. Serundori said that in his 20 years as a ranger, he has seen the gorillas more than 100 times.
“But what always impresses me is how fragile they are,” he said. “They could be wiped out — in a minute.”
France Moves to Add Troops
UNITED NATIONS — France began circulating a draft resolution on Monday that would temporarily authorize an additional 3,085 troops and police officers for the peacekeeping mission in the Congo to protect civilians in the eastern part of the country.
CREDIT: Fred Prouser, Reuters
A Chevrolet Volt plug-in electric car and others like it will make up the five per cent of clean vehicles expected on roads in the next decade, says a federal task force.
One in every 20 new cars sold in Canada should be electrically powered within a decade, say members of a task force that today is to deliver a progress report to the Harper government about the future of plug-in vehicles.
The group was set up by the government last winter to design Canada's Electric Vehicle and Technology Road Map for shifting the transportation industry away from fossil fuels.
"It'sgoingtobeanelectricvehiclerevolution," saidMichaelElwood, chairperson of the task force and vice-president of marketing at Azure Dynamics, which specializes in electric and hybrid electric drive technology. "Hybrid electric, plug-in hybrid electric and electric vehicles are all part of the equation," he said.
The group includes a wide range of stakeholders, including automakers Ford and General Motors as well as the Canadian Auto Workers union, academic institutions such as the University of Manitoba and utility companies Hydro Quebec and Manitoba Hydro. It's expected to submit its final recommendations next February.
"Anything is possible and everything is being worked on and the sooner we dedicate resources to the advancement of this (industry), the better," said Elwood.
The group set its five per cent target last summer, after reviewing a technical analysis of the industry submitted to Natural Resources Canada in June. The goal would be the equivalent of 80,000 to 125,000 electric vehicles sold yearly.
A Canadian industry spokesperson said the Big Three North American car manufacturers are moving toward new hybrid or electric technologies in their models, but progress depends on consumer demand, securing loan guarantees from the government during an economic downturn and the price of gasoline at the pumps.
"The industry is almost in the midst of the biggest revolutionary technology turnaroundin its history," saidMarkNantais, president of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturing Association.
"Probably one of the worst nightmares wouldbetobringforwardthistechnology in a low energy cost environment."
Bob Oliver, director of the transportationprogramatPollutionProbe, saidsome ofthemainchallengesincluderesearching better technologies for more powerful, longer-lasting batteries and ensuring that there is sufficient infrastructure in place for people to charge their vehicles on the road. But he believes it's possible to exceed the five per cent target.
November 25, 2008
Slump May Limit Moves on Clean Energy
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
Just as the world seemed poised to combat global warming more aggressively, the economic slump and plunging prices of coal and oil are upending plans to wean businesses and consumers from fossil fuel.
From Italy to China, the threat to jobs, profits and government tax revenues posed by the financial crisis has cast doubt on commitments to cap emissions or phase out polluting factories.
Automakers, especially Detroit’s Big Three, face collapsing sales, threatening their plans to invest heavily in more fuel-efficient cars. And with gas prices now around $2 a gallon in the United States, struggling consumers may be less inclined than they once were to trade in their gas-guzzling models in any case.
President-elect Barack Obama and the European Union have vowed to stick to commitments to cap emissions of carbon dioxide and invest in new green technologies, arguing that government action could stimulate the economy and create new jobs in producing sustainable energy.
But as the United Nations prepares to gather the world’s environment ministers in Poznan, Poland, next week to try to agree on a new treaty to reduce emissions, both the political will and the economic underpinnings for a much more assertive strategy appear shakier than they did even a few weeks ago.
December 27, 2008
The Energy Challenge
No Furnaces but Heat Aplenty in ‘Passive Houses’
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
DARMSTADT, Germany — From the outside, there is nothing unusual about the stylish new gray and orange row houses in the Kranichstein District, with wreaths on the doors and Christmas lights twinkling through a freezing drizzle. But these houses are part of a revolution in building design: There are no drafts, no cold tile floors, no snuggling under blankets until the furnace kicks in. There is, in fact, no furnace.
In Berthold Kaufmann’s home, there is, to be fair, one radiator for emergency backup in the living room — but it is not in use. Even on the coldest nights in central Germany, Mr. Kaufmann’s new “passive house” and others of this design get all the heat and hot water they need from the amount of energy that would be needed to run a hair dryer.
“You don’t think about temperature — the house just adjusts,” said Mr. Kaufmann, watching his 2-year-old daughter, dressed in a T-shirt, tuck into her sausage in the spacious living room, whose glass doors open to a patio. His new home uses about one-twentieth the heating energy of his parents’ home of roughly the same size, he said.
Architects in many countries, in attempts to meet new energy efficiency standards like the Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design standard in the United States, are designing homes with better insulation and high-efficiency appliances, as well as tapping into alternative sources of power, like solar panels and wind turbines.
The concept of the passive house, pioneered in this city of 140,000 outside Frankfurt, approaches the challenge from a different angle. Using ultrathick insulation and complex doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that barely any heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants’ bodies.
And in Germany, passive houses cost only about 5 to 7 percent more to build than conventional houses.
Decades ago, attempts at creating sealed solar-heated homes failed, because of stagnant air and mold. But new passive houses use an ingenious central ventilation system. The warm air going out passes side by side with clean, cold air coming in, exchanging heat with 90 percent efficiency.
“The myth before was that to be warm you had to have heating. Our goal is to create a warm house without energy demand,” said Wolfgang Hasper, an engineer at the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt. “This is not about wearing thick pullovers, turning the thermostat down and putting up with drafts. It’s about being comfortable with less energy input, and we do this by recycling heating.”
There are now an estimated 15,000 passive houses around the world, the vast majority built in the past few years in German-speaking countries or Scandinavia.
The first passive home was built here in 1991 by Wolfgang Feist, a local physicist, but diffusion of the idea was slowed by language. The courses and literature were mostly in German, and even now the components are mass-produced only in this part of the world.
The industry is thriving in Germany, however — for example, schools in Frankfurt are built with the technique.
Moreover, its popularity is spreading. The European Commission is promoting passive-house building, and the European Parliament has proposed that new buildings meet passive-house standards by 2011.
The United States Army, long a presence in this part of Germany, is considering passive-house barracks.
“Awareness is skyrocketing; it’s hard for us to keep up with requests,” Mr. Hasper said.
Nabih Tahan, a California architect who worked in Austria for 11 years, is completing one of the first passive houses in the United States for his family in Berkeley. He heads a group of 70 Bay Area architects and engineers working to encourage wider acceptance of the standards. “This is a recipe for energy that makes sense to people,” Mr. Tahan said. “Why not reuse this heat you get for free?”
Ironically, however, when California inspectors were examining the Berkeley home to determine whether it met “green” building codes (it did), he could not get credit for the heat exchanger, a device that is still uncommon in the United States. “When you think about passive-house standards, you start looking at buildings in a different way,” he said.
Buildings that are certified hermetically sealed may sound suffocating. (To meet the standard, a building must pass a “blow test” showing that it loses minimal air under pressure.) In fact, passive houses have plenty of windows — though far more face south than north — and all can be opened.
Inside, a passive home does have a slightly different gestalt from conventional houses, just as an electric car drives differently from its gas-using cousin. There is a kind of spaceship-like uniformity of air and temperature. The air from outside all goes through HEPA filters before entering the rooms. The cement floor of the basement isn’t cold. The walls and the air are basically the same temperature.
Look closer and there are technical differences: When the windows are swung open, you see their layers of glass and gas, as well as the elaborate seals around the edges. A small, grated duct near the ceiling in the living room brings in clean air. In the basement there is no furnace, but instead what looks like a giant Styrofoam cooler, containing the heat exchanger.
Passive houses need no human tinkering, but most architects put in a switch with three settings, which can be turned down for vacations, or up to circulate air for a party (though you can also just open the windows). “We’ve found it’s very important to people that they feel they can influence the system,” Mr. Hasper said.
The houses may be too radical for those who treasure an experience like drinking hot chocolate in a cold kitchen. But not for others. “I grew up in a great old house that was always 10 degrees too cold, so I knew I wanted to make something different,” said Georg W. Zielke, who built his first passive house here, for his family, in 2003 and now designs no other kinds of buildings.
In Germany the added construction costs of passive houses are modest and, because of their growing popularity and an ever larger array of attractive off-the-shelf components, are shrinking.
But the sophisticated windows and heat-exchange ventilation systems needed to make passive houses work properly are not readily available in the United States. So the construction of passive houses in the United States, at least initially, is likely to entail a higher price differential.
Moreover, the kinds of home construction popular in the United States are more difficult to adapt to the standard: residential buildings tend not to have built-in ventilation systems of any kind, and sliding windows are hard to seal.
Dr. Feist’s original passive house — a boxy white building with four apartments — looks like the science project that it was intended to be. But new passive houses come in many shapes and styles. The Passivhaus Institut, which he founded a decade ago, continues to conduct research, teaches architects, and tests homes to make sure they meet standards. It now has affiliates in Britain and the United States.
Still, there are challenges to broader adoption even in Europe.
Because a successful passive house requires the interplay of the building, the sun and the climate, architects need to be careful about site selection. Passive-house heating might not work in a shady valley in Switzerland, or on an urban street with no south-facing wall. Researchers are looking into whether the concept will work in warmer climates — where a heat exchanger could be used in reverse, to keep cool air in and warm air out.
And those who want passive-house mansions may be disappointed. Compact shapes are simpler to seal, while sprawling homes are difficult to insulate and heat.
Most passive houses allow about 500 square feet per person, a comfortable though not expansive living space. Mr. Hasper said people who wanted thousands of square feet per person should look for another design.
“Anyone who feels they need that much space to live,” he said, “well, that’s a different discussion.”
Prince Charles set to visit South America on eco-tour
Herald News ServicesFebruary 14, 2009
Britain's heir to the throne, Prince Charles, is to visit the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands next month on a mission promoting environmental preservation, British officials said Friday.
The prince, accompanied by his wife Camilla, will travel to Chile, Brazil and Ecuador between March 8 and 17, the respective British embassies and the prince's office in London said in statements.
"The visit will focus on the theme of climate change, one of the U. K. governments highest foreign policy priorities in 2009," a statement from the British Embassy in Brazil said.
"Environmental sustainability and protection will be the central issues of the visit. This reflects The Prince of Wales' long-standing interest and expertise in this field."
Prince Charles, 60, is to begin the tour with a three-day stop in Chile, where he will focus on bilateral ties, including military ones, the diplomatic mission there said.
March 11 to 15, he will be in Brazil, where he will give a key speech on environmental preservation and visit the Amazon forest, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia.
The prince is to round out the trip with a voyage to the Galapagos Islands, off Ecuador. That visit will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the Briton who formulated his evolution theory from research in the archipelago.
February 15, 2009
Yes, They Could. So They Did.
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
So I am attending the Energy and Resources Institute climate conference in New Delhi, and during the afternoon session two young American women — along with one of their mothers — proposition me.
“Hey, Mr. Friedman,” they say, “would you like to take a little spin around New Delhi in our car?”
Oh, I say, I’ve heard that line before. Ah, they say, but you haven’t seen this car before. It’s a plug-in electric car that is also powered by rooftop solar panels — and the two young women, recent Yale grads, had just driven it all over India in a “climate caravan” to highlight the solutions to global warming being developed by Indian companies, communities, campuses and innovators, as well as to inspire others to take action.
They ask me if I want to drive, but I have visions of being stopped by the cops and ending up in a New Delhi jail. Not to worry, they tell me. Indian cops have been stopping them all across India. First, they ask to see driver’s licenses, then they inquire about how the green car’s solar roof manages to provide 10 percent of its mileage — and then they try to buy the car.
We head off down Panchsheel Marg, one of New Delhi’s main streets. The ladies want to show me something. The U.S. Embassy and the Chinese Embassy are both located on Panchsheel, directly across from each other. They asked me to check out the rooftops of each embassy. What do I notice? Let’s see ... The U.S. Embassy’s roof is loaded with antennae and listening gear. The Chinese Embassy’s roof is loaded with ... new Chinese-made solar hot-water heaters.
You couldn’t make this up.
But trying to do something about it was just one of many reasons my hosts, Caroline Howe, 23, a mechanical engineer on leave from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Alexis Ringwald, a Fulbright scholar in India and now a solar entrepreneur, joined with Kartikeya Singh, who was starting the Indian Youth Climate Network, or IYCN, to connect young climate leaders in India, a country coming under increasing global pressure to manage its carbon footprint.
“India is full of climate innovators, so spread out across this huge country that many people don’t get to see that these solutions are working right now,” said Howe. “We wanted to find a way to bring people together around existing solutions to inspire more action and more innovation. There’s no time left to just talk about the problem.”
Howe and Ringwald thought the best way to do that might be a climate solutions road tour, using modified electric cars from India’s Reva Electric Car Company, whose C.E.O. Ringwald knew. They persuaded him to donate three of his cars and to retrofit them with longer-life batteries that could travel 90 miles on a single six-hour charge — and to lay on a solar roof that would extend them farther.
Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 5, they drove the cars on a 2,100-mile trip from Chennai to New Delhi, stopping in 15 cities and dozens of villages, training Indian students to start their own climate action programs and filming 20 videos of India’s top home-grown energy innovations. They also brought along a solar-powered band, plus a luggage truck that ran on plant oil extracted from jatropha and pongamia, plants locally grown on wasteland. A Bollywood dance group joined at different stops and a Czech who learned about their trip on YouTube hopped on with his truck that ran on vegetable-oil waste.
Deepa Gupta, 21, a co-founder of IYCN, told The Hindustan Times that the trip opened her eyes to just how many indigenous energy solutions were budding in India — “like organic farming in Andhra Pradesh, or using neem and garlic as pesticides, or the kind of recycling in slums, such as Dharavi. We saw things already in place, like the Gadhia solar plant in Valsad, Gujarat, where steam is used for cooking and you can feed almost 50,000 people in one go.” (See: www.indiaclimatesolutions.com.)
At Rajpipla, in Gujarat, when they stopped at a local prince’s palace to recharge their cars, they discovered that his business was cultivating worms and selling them as eco-friendly alternatives to chemical fertilizers.
I met Howe and Ringwald after a tiring day, but I have to admit that as soon as they started telling me their story it really made me smile. After a year of watching adults engage in devastating recklessness in the financial markets and depressing fecklessness in the global climate talks, it’s refreshing to know that the world keeps minting idealistic young people who are not waiting for governments to act, but are starting their own projects and driving innovation.
“Why did this tour happen?” asked Ringwald. “Why this mad, insane plan to travel across India in a caravan of solar electric cars and jatropha trucks with solar music, art, dance and a potent message for climate solutions? Well ... the world needs crazy ideas to change things, because the conventional way of thinking is not working anymore.”
There is an interesting and potentially tragic purity in the way other life forms respond to our warming climate. They do not debate the matter. They simply shift as the contours of their habitat shift. Even the distribution of slow-moving species — like trees — is changing. And more mobile species? They offer vivid testimony about the alterations in our world.
According to the Audubon Society, data from the past 40 years of the annual Christmas Bird Count — a three-week census of American bird populations — shows a striking northward movement among a majority of species. This is not just a movement of individuals. It’s the migration of an entire population.
The boreal chickadee has moved 280 miles north, almost out of the range of the lower 48 states. The marbled murrelet, a seabird that breeds inland, has moved 360 miles north. The wild turkey has gone about 400.
These population shifts make it look as though many bird species can easily adjust to a warming world. And some of these shifts may be opportunistic in nature — taking advantage of open ground and new food sources in regions that used to be snowed over in winter. But ultimately birds cannot migrate out of their habitats.
A boreal species pushed farther and farther north comes eventually to the end of the plants (which move far more slowly) that it depends upon for food. A grassland species cannot simply decide to become a woodland species. And birds do not simply push northward over unchanging terrain beneath them. The entire species mix that defines suitable habitat is changing as well, bringing with it the risk of extinction.
The important thing to remember — as we notice an absence of purple finches at our feeders — is that we are not merely witnesses of these striking shifts. We are the cause of them, and it is our responsibility to do all we can to mitigate them.
March 15, 2009
The Next Really Cool Thing
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
If you hang around the renewable-energy business for long, you’ll hear a lot of tall tales. You’ll hear about someone who’s invented a process to convert coal into vegetable oil in his garage and someone else who has a duck in his basement that paddles a wheel, blows up a balloon, turns a turbine and creates enough electricity to power his doghouse.
Hang around long enough and you’ll even hear that in another 10 or 20 years hydrogen-powered cars or fusion energy will be a commercial reality. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard one of those stories, I could buy my own space shuttle. No wonder cynics often say that viable fusion energy or hydrogen-powered cars are “20 years away and always will be.”
But what if this time is different? What if a laser-powered fusion energy power plant that would have all the reliability of coal, without the carbon dioxide, all the cleanliness of wind and solar, without having to worry about the sun not shining or the wind not blowing, and all the scale of nuclear, without all the waste, was indeed just 10 years away or less? That would be a holy cow game-changer.
Are we there?
That is the tantalizing question I was left with after visiting the recently completed National Ignition Facility, or N.I.F., at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 50 miles east of San Francisco. The government-funded N.I.F. consists of 192 giant lasers — which can deliver 50 times more energy than any previous fusion laser system. They’re all housed in a 10-story building the size of three football fields — the rather dull cover to a vast internal steel forest of laser beams that must be what the engine room of Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise space ship looked like.
I began my tour there with the N.I.F. director, Edward Moses. He was holding up a tiny gold can the size of a Tylenol tablet, and inside it was plastic pellet, the size of a single peppercorn, that would be filled with frozen hydrogen.
The way the N.I.F. works is that all 192 lasers pour their energy into a target chamber, which looks like a giant, spherical, steel bathysphere that you would normally use for deep-sea exploration. At the center of this target chamber is that gold can with its frozen hydrogen pellet. Once one of those pellets is heated and compressed by the lasers, it reaches temperatures over 800 million degrees Fahrenheit, “far greater than exists at the center of our sun,” said Moses.
More importantly, each crushed pellet gives off a burst of energy that can then be harnessed to heat up liquid salt and produce massive amounts of steam to drive a turbine and create electricity for your home — just like coal does today. Only this energy would be carbon-free, globally available, safe and secure and could be integrated seamlessly into our current electric grid.
Last Monday at 3 a.m., for the first time, all 192 lasers were fired at high energy precisely at once — no small feat — at the target chamber’s empty core. That was a major step toward “ignition” — turning that hydrogen pellet into a miniature sun on earth. The next step — which the N.I.F. expects to achieve some time in the next two to three years — is to prove that it can, under lab conditions, repeatedly fire its 192 lasers at multiple hydrogen pellets and produce more energy from the pellets than the laser energy that is injected. That’s called “energy gain.”
“That,” explained Moses, “is what Einstein meant when he declared that E=mc2. By using lasers, we can unleash tremendous amounts of energy from tiny amounts of mass.”
Once the lab proves that it can get energy gain from this laser-driven process, the next step (if it can secure government and private funding) would be to set up a pilot fusion energy power plant that would prove that any local power utility could have its own miniature sun — on a commercial basis. A pilot would cost about $10 billion — the same as a new nuclear power plant.
I don’t know if they can pull this off; some scientists are skeptical. Laboratory-scale nuclear fusion and energy gain is really hard. But here’s what I do know: President Obama’s stimulus package has given a terrific boost to renewable energy. It will pay lasting benefits. And we need to keep working on all forms of solar, geothermal and wind power. They work. And the more they get deployed, the more their costs will go down.
But, in addition, we need to make a few big bets on potential game-changers. I am talking about systems that could give us abundant, clean, reliable electrons and drive massive innovation in big lasers, materials science, nuclear physics and chemistry that would benefit, energize and renew many U.S. industries.
At the pace we’re going with the technologies we have, without some game-changers, climate change is going to have its way with us. Yes, we’ll still need coal for some time. But let’s make sure that we aren’t just chasing the fantasy that we can “clean up” coal, when our real future depends on birthing new technologies that can replace it.
Ken Salazar, the secretary of the interior, released a new, nationwide survey last month that assesses the state of bird populations in America. The news is grievous. Over all, a third of the bird species in this country are endangered, threatened or in serious decline.
There is special concern for grassland birds — whose habitat has been vanishing steadily for decades — for birds in Hawaii, where a variety of species face a variety of threats, and for coastal species. The good news is that wherever nature is allowed to recover, especially in the case of wetland birds, it shows its usual resilience.
But there is no glossing over these staggering losses, and there is no dismissing what they mean. There is nothing accidental or inevitable about the vanishing of these birds. However unintentional, it is the direct result of human activity — of development, of global warming, of air and water pollution and of our failure to set aside the habitat these birds need to flourish. Every threatened species reveals some aspect of our lives that could be adjusted.
The survey also shows that where humans have made an effort — as with migratory waterfowl and with endangered species like the peregrine falcon — good things have happened, with some species recovering even as others declined. This in turn argues that the programs now in place to protect habitat should not only be spared the budgetary wrecking ball but also expanded — most conspicuously those managed by the Agriculture Department that seek to preserve wetlands and prairie grasslands as well as the Interior Department’s Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The remarkable recovery of ducks and geese and other wetland species — thanks to strong conservation efforts — should remind us of what is possible. The only other outcome is too grim to consider — a landscape steadily emptying of birds.
April 16, 2009
Third-World Stove Soot Is Target in Climate Fight
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
KOHLUA, India — “It’s hard to believe that this is what’s melting the glaciers,” said Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, as he weaved through a warren of mud brick huts, each containing a mud cookstove pouring soot into the atmosphere.
As women in ragged saris of a thousand hues bake bread and stew lentils in the early evening over fires fueled by twigs and dung, children cough from the dense smoke that fills their homes. Black grime coats the undersides of thatched roofs. At dawn, a brown cloud stretches over the landscape like a diaphanous dirty blanket.
In Kohlua, in central India, with no cars and little electricity, emissions of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas linked to global warming, are near zero. But soot — also known as black carbon — from tens of thousands of villages like this one in developing countries is emerging as a major and previously unappreciated source of global climate change.
While carbon dioxide may be the No. 1 contributor to rising global temperatures, scientists say, black carbon has emerged as an important No. 2, with recent studies estimating that it is responsible for 18 percent of the planet’s warming, compared with 40 percent for carbon dioxide. Decreasing black carbon emissions would be a relatively cheap way to significantly rein in global warming — especially in the short term, climate experts say. Replacing primitive cooking stoves with modern versions that emit far less soot could provide a much-needed stopgap, while nations struggle with the more difficult task of enacting programs and developing technologies to curb carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.
In fact, reducing black carbon is one of a number of relatively quick and simple climate fixes using existing technologies — often called “low hanging fruit” — that scientists say should be plucked immediately to avert the worst projected consequences of global warming. “It is clear to any person who cares about climate change that this will have a huge impact on the global environment,” said Dr. Ramanathan, a professor of climate science at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, who is working with the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi on a project to help poor families acquire new stoves.
“In terms of climate change we’re driving fast toward a cliff, and this could buy us time,” said Dr. Ramanathan, who left India 40 years ago but returned to his native land for the project.
Better still, decreasing soot could have a rapid effect. Unlike carbon dioxide, which lingers in the atmosphere for years, soot stays there for a few weeks. Converting to low-soot cookstoves would remove the warming effects of black carbon quickly, while shutting a coal plant takes years to substantially reduce global CO2 concentrations.
But the awareness of black carbon’s role in climate change has come so recently that it was not even mentioned as a warming agent in the 2007 summary report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that pronounced the evidence for global warming to be “unequivocal.” Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of environmental engineering at Stanford, said that the fact that black carbon was not included in international climate efforts was “bizarre,” but “partly reflects how new the idea is.” The United Nations is trying to figure out how to include black carbon in climate change programs, as is the federal government.
In Asia and Africa, cookstoves produce the bulk of black carbon, although it also emanates from diesel engines and coal plants there. In the United States and Europe, black carbon emissions have already been reduced significantly by filters and scrubbers.
Like tiny heat-absorbing black sweaters, soot particles warm the air and melt the ice by absorbing the sun’s heat when they settle on glaciers. One recent study estimated that black carbon might account for as much as half of Arctic warming. While the particles tend to settle over time and do not have the global reach of greenhouse gases, they do travel, scientists now realize. Soot from India has been found in the Maldive Islands and on the Tibetan Plateau; from the United States, it travels to the Arctic. The environmental and geopolitical implications of soot emissions are enormous. Himalayan glaciers are expected to lose 75 percent of their ice by 2020, according to Prof. Syed Iqbal Hasnain, a glacier specialist from the Indian state of Sikkim.
These glaciers are the source of most of the major rivers in Asia. The short-term result of glacial melt is severe flooding in mountain communities. The number of floods from glacial lakes is already rising sharply, Professor Hasnain said. Once the glaciers shrink, Asia’s big rivers will run low or dry for part of the year, and desperate battles over water are certain to ensue in a region already rife with conflict.
Doctors have long railed against black carbon for its devastating health effects in poor countries. The combination of health and environmental benefits means that reducing soot provides a “very big bang for your buck,” said Erika Rosenthal, a senior lawyer at Earth Justice, a Washington organization. “Now it’s in everybody’s self-interest to deal with things like cookstoves — not just because hundreds of thousands of women and children far away are dying prematurely.”
In the United States, black carbon emissions are indirectly monitored and minimized through federal and state programs that limit small particulate emissions, a category of particles damaging to human health that includes black carbon. But in March, a bill was introduced in Congress that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to specifically regulate black carbon and direct aid to black carbon reduction projects abroad, including introducing cookstoves in 20 million homes. The new stoves cost about $20 and use solar power or are more efficient. Soot is reduced by more than 90 percent. The solar stoves do not use wood or dung. Other new stoves simply burn fuel more cleanly, generally by pulverizing the fuel first and adding a small fan that improves combustion.
That remote rural villages like Kohlua could play an integral role in tackling the warming crisis is hard to imagine. There are no cars — the village chief’s ancient white Jeep sits highly polished but unused in front of his house, a museum piece. There is no running water and only intermittent electricity, which powers a few light bulbs.
The 1,500 residents here grow wheat, mustard and potatoes and work as day laborers in Agra, home of the Taj Majal, about two hours away by bus.
They earn about $2 a day and, for the most part, have not heard about climate change. But they have noticed frequent droughts in recent years that scientists say may be linked to global warming. Crops ripen earlier and rot more frequently than they did 10 years ago. The villagers are aware, too, that black carbon can corrode. In Agra, cookstoves and diesel engines are forbidden in the area around the Taj Majal, because soot damages the precious facade.
Still, replacing hundreds of millions of cookstoves — the source of heat, food and sterile water — is not a simple matter. “I’m sure they’d look nice, but I’d have to see them, to try them,” said Chetram Jatrav, as she squatted by her cookstove making tea and a flatbread called roti. Her three children were coughing.
She would like a stove that “made less smoke and used less fuel” but cannot afford one, she said, pushing a dung cake bought for one rupee into the fire. She had just bought her first rolling pin so her flatbread could come out “nice and round,” as her children had seen in elementary school. Equally important, the open fires of cookstoves give some of the traditional foods their taste. Urging these villagers to make roti in a solar cooker meets the same mix of rational and irrational resistance as telling an Italian that risotto tastes just fine if cooked in the microwave.
In March, the cookstove project, called Surya, began “market testing” six alternative cookers in villages, in part to quantify their benefits. Already, the researchers fret that the new stoves look like scientific instruments and are fragile; one broke when a villager pushed twigs in too hard.
But if black carbon is ever to be addressed on a large scale, acceptance of the new stoves is crucial. “I’m not going to go to the villagers and say CO2 is rising, and in 50 years you might have floods,” said Dr. Ibrahim Rehman, Dr. Ramanathan’s collaborator at the Energy and Resources Institute. “I’ll tell her about the lungs and her kids and I know it will help with climate change as well.”
Nature has a warehouse of proven principles and a research and development laboratory with four billion years of product development. Many corporations draw their ideas, information and inspiration from ecosystems such as prairies, coral reefs and ancient forests. When we follow nature's blueprint, economic, social and environmental abundance occurs. We know that in living systems the behaviour of the parts operates to benefit the entire system. In forests, for instance, specialists (species with unique as opposed to general requirements) find it to their advantage toco-operate with one another. As it turns out, these specialists use fewer resources and in some cases extend their longevity.
A number of businesses around the globe are mimicking natural systems, reducing waste, creating new products and employing millions of workers.
In the early 1950s, Bill Coors, the grandson of the founder of Adolph Coors Co., discovered that "all pollution and all waste are lost profit."
He observed that industrial companies were taking raw materials and fuels from nature, cycling products through the economy and then generating tons of garbage. In turn, the garbage was polluting the groundwater. An "open loop" system exploits nature's resources and deposits waste at both ends. A"closed loop" economy, on the other hand, is one where the full array of costs is accounted for within a system and the only way to do business. Companies and consumers are rewarded for reducing waste. And the environment is safeguarded.
In 1952, to control liquid waste from the brewery, Coors built Colorado's first biological waste-water treatment plant, which also treats waste waters of Golden, Colo.
Bill Coors initiated a penny for every Coors aluminum can returned for recycling and he opened the nation's first aluminum recycling centres offering "cash for cans."CoorsTek, a subsidiary of Coors, manufactures advanced technical ceramics using nature's model for smart design, by embedding hardness, strength, insulation and durability into its products. Another subsidiary Graphic Packaging uses clever technology to reduce ink by as much as 90 per cent and solvent by 100 per cent while producing bolder graphics.
By following nature's blueprint, many corporations believe the most valuable forms of capital in the learning organizations are knowledge, gained through feedback and learning, and changes in design--adaptation. Toyota Corp. has effectively used its labour force for ideas. In 1982, for example, its workforce made over two million suggestions, that's more than two every month per employee, and 95 per cent of them were implemented.
Technology enables humankind to do more with less. From 1973 to 1990, society learned how to create more real value per unit of energy consumed. By 1990, about a third of the energy and material services were delivered from innovation and efficiency.
The chipmaker Intel has advanced its microchip design through innovation as each successive generation of chips holds more information. In effect, Intel has been very successful by emulating nature's blueprint. For billions of years nature has replaced consumption by design.
Dow Chemical also utilizes nature's model and in 1982 it began encouraging employees to find ways to reduce pollution. By 1992, 700 projects were underway reducing waste around the globe and saving the company millions of dollars.
DuPont, another chemical titan has been reducing its CO2 emissions worldwide, striving for a zero-emission target by 2020.Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, a company that specializes in coatings and adhesives has been following nature's path for decades, solving their own environmental problems and implementing Pollution Prevention Pays.
By 2000, 4,650 employees had prevented about 750 million kilograms of pollution and saving the company over $825 million. Moreover, the company has reduced water losses by 82 per cent, volatile organic compounds in emissions by 88 per cent, solid wastes by 24 per cent and rates of waste generation by 35 per cent.
Business, like nature, is a living system--creative, productive and resilient. All waste is lost profit, all value is created by design and adaptation--the ability to learn--is crucial for survival.
Reese halter is a public speaker and founder of the international conservation institute global forest science. He can be ContaCted at www. at www.drreese.Com
Prince Charles is writing a book and making a film warning of the threat to the environment posed by Big Business.
The project puts the prince on a collision course with industrialists and bankers he accuses of endangering nature in pursuit of profit. The prince has waived his author's fee, but his foundation will receive an undisclosed share of the royalties.
"I believe that true sustain-ability depends upon us shifting our perception and widening our focus, so that we understand, again, that we have a sacred duty of stewardship of the natural order of things," the prince said. "In some of our actions we behave as if we were masters of nature and, in others, as mere bystanders.
"If we could rediscover that sense of harmony, that sense of being a part of, rather than apart from nature, we would perhaps be less likely to see the world as some sort of gigantic production system, capable of ever-increasing outputs for our benefit--at no cost."
Alim Khamisa wins first annual Environmental Innovation Challenge
April 22, 2009
Posted by ismailimail in Canada, Ismaili Muslims in the News, North America.
Prepared and published by volunteers of Ottawa Ismaili Newsletter team:
Congratulations to Alim Khamisa for winning Carleton University’s inaugural Environmental Innovation Challenge! The Challenge is intended to encourage undergraduate and graduate students to produce innovative and practical plans that may address local and global environmental problems. Working in partnership with another student, Alim submitted a proposal for a clean and cost-effective means for breaking down polyurethane waste. As this excerpt from Alim’s proposal explains, “Biodegradation of polyurethanes is an environmentally safe and cost-effective way of dealing with the increasing number of problems associated with the disposal of polyurethanes (PU). Worldwide, only 10% of the total PU waste is recycled which means a massive amount of PU is currently filling landfill sites and even worse - it takes as long as 1000 years for PU to naturally degrade. Current mechanical and chemical methods of recycling or degrading PU are of high cost, energy demanding, and polluting due to the release of toxic by-products..There is great potential in taking the idea of an enzymatically based degradation process for polyurethane to the market because of its advantages of being cost-effective, less polluting, and environmentally friendly.If we, the western societies implement a process like this one, we can act as role models to the rest of the world, especially to third world countries and developing nations.”
The competition carries a cash prize of $1000, with $500 allocated to a charitable organization of the winners’ choice. Alim and his partner agreed that the $500 would go to the AKDN because of the organization’s work in economic and environmental sustainable development.
Alim is now carrying the proposal forward independently, participating in the Technology Venture Challenge, an Eastern Ontario competition well known to those in Ottawa’s technology sector. Successfully proceeding to the semi-final round, Alim has been working with a mentor, Mr. David Mann, former Vice President of Emerging Business Technology Investments at Nortel and past Chair of the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation, to refine and further develop the business proposal in hopes of making it to the final round. Out of 35 submissions, only 13 advanced to the semi-final-if the proposal makes it to the final round, there is a good possibility of obtaining funding from investors and governmental organizations for research and development.
Good luck to Alim in this exciting project and congratulations on this great accomplishment.
Further information about Carleton’s Environmental Innovation Challenge can be found at:
May 12, 2009
In German Suburb, Life Goes On Without Cars
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
VAUBAN, Germany — Residents of this upscale community are suburban pioneers, going where few soccer moms or commuting executives have ever gone before: they have given up their cars.
Street parking, driveways and home garages are generally forbidden in this experimental new district on the outskirts of Freiburg, near the French and Swiss borders. Vauban’s streets are completely “car-free” — except the main thoroughfare, where the tram to downtown Freiburg runs, and a few streets on one edge of the community. Car ownership is allowed, but there are only two places to park — large garages at the edge of the development, where a car-owner buys a space, for $40,000, along with a home.
As a result, 70 percent of Vauban’s families do not own cars, and 57 percent sold a car to move here. “When I had a car I was always tense. I’m much happier this way,” said Heidrun Walter, a media trainer and mother of two, as she walked verdant streets where the swish of bicycles and the chatter of wandering children drown out the occasional distant motor.
Vauban, completed in 2006, is an example of a growing trend in Europe, the United States and elsewhere to separate suburban life from auto use, as a component of a movement called “smart planning.”
Automobiles are the linchpin of suburbs, where middle-class families from Chicago to Shanghai tend to make their homes. And that, experts say, is a huge impediment to current efforts to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes, and thus to reduce global warming. Passenger cars are responsible for 12 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe — a proportion that is growing, according to the European Environment Agency — and up to 50 percent in some car-intensive areas in the United States.
While there have been efforts in the past two decades to make cities denser, and better for walking, planners are now taking the concept to the suburbs and focusing specifically on environmental benefits like reducing emissions. Vauban, home to 5,500 residents within a rectangular square mile, may be the most advanced experiment in low-car suburban life. But its basic precepts are being adopted around the world in attempts to make suburbs more compact and more accessible to public transportation, with less space for parking. In this new approach, stores are placed a walk away, on a main street, rather than in malls along some distant highway.
After the Narnian winter we've just had, a reasonable person could easily agree with controversial Friends of Science spokesman Dr. Tim Ball on this much: Global warming is just another unfulfilled government promise.
So, why are we still preparing to spend money on it? Good question.
Ball is controversial because the retired science professor bucks the prevailing wisdom on global warming, calls the science behind it wrong, and questions the good faith of the governmental agencies promoting it. He gets flak. He also gives it, as he did Thursday to a crowd of 400 at Calgary's Metropolitan Centre, in an event sponsored by a reinvigorated Friends of Science, and the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. For instance, the idea that carbon dioxide generated by human activity is unnaturally warming the atmosphere through some supposed greenhouse effect is not (and never was) supported by facts that were reasonably easy to obtain. Want to know where the problem is? It's cycles related to solar activity.
At the risk of bastardizing a sophisticated presentation, the dots join like this. The sun is constantly emitting cosmic rays: Those that reach the Earth stimulate cloud creation, which has a cooling effect. But, when the sunspot cycle is active, the flow of cosmic rays is disrupted, fewer reach Earth's atmosphere, cloud cover is diminished, and the Earth warms.
It was seven years ago that local Friends advocate Albert Jacobs laid this out for the Herald editorial board. At that point, it was more of a prediction, as the solar cycle was popping and some interpretations of global temperature data suggested ambient temperatures were rising. Since then though, the sun has gone quiet and the last seven years of satellite data show a distinct cooling trend--even as CO2 levels continue to rise.
Yes, there's still melting in the Arctic. But is that more of a delayed reaction, not unlike a cast iron frying pan that stays hot for a while after it has been removed from the heat?
Could be. Not a bad evidence-based prediction, anyway. And before Canada diverts billions of dollars to CO2 reduction, you'd think it would make reasonably sure.
So, the Friends are back after a few years of discouraged retirement, trying to reopen the warming-science debate their opponents say should remain forever closed.
Most of the Calgary-based group of geologists are old enough to have lived through a few distinct eras of climate change themselves. Some can even remember the celebrated patrols through the Northwest Passage of the RCMP schooner St. Roch during the Second World War, which is another way of saying that the Earth's climate being as prone to change as it is, this isn't the first time the Arctic has thawed sufficiently to be navigable. (Indeed, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen made it through in 1903-06, and the Vikings got as far as Ellesmere Island a thousand years ago, before things cooled again.)
Initially, the group got traction. At that ed-board meeting, Jacobs pointed out that core samples from ancient ice packs showed atmospheric CO2 levels trailed, rather than preceded a rise in temperature: The bubbles you see in boiling water are the release of air held in solution at lower temperatures, and as the seas warm, they too give up dissolved gases, CO2 included.
And, did we know the global-warming crowd relied on computer modelling more than observation, and that the guide for policy-makers prepared by the UN's International Panel on Climate Change was written by bureaucrats, and was not in fact the lowest common denominator of the views of 1,700 scientists, just the ones the bureaucrats liked? We did not, but it sounded possible: We had just learned Canada's Kyoto targets had been decided by "think of a number"methods intended to embarrass the Yanks at an international gathering.
The Friends, in short, made a good case and while I didn't feel qualified to adjudicate it, it seemed to me that somebody who was, should.
But, that never happened. Instead, a well-funded global warming lobby steamrollered the world's governments and mainstream media, Canada's among them.
Indeed, it became professionally suspect to be a "climate-change denier." Oil companies one might have expected to argue the science, rolled over: Business is business. The provincial government listened, once, but figured they couldn't fight the gathering consensus and in Ottawa, the new Conservative government quickly realized that in any contest between ice-cores and cuddly polar bear cubs, the votes were with the bears.
And after that, there was the inconvenient Al Gore who, despite fostering a film loaded with misinformed or dangerously stretched data, rode the wave of future rising sea levels to an Oscar.
"It was," Ball told a Calgary audience Thursday, "the greatest scientific deception in history."
The Friends want to raise $500,000 to take their show to the airwaves.
June 28, 2009
It’s Time to Learn From Frogs
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Some of the first eerie signs of a potential health catastrophe came as bizarre deformities in water animals, often in their sexual organs.
Frogs, salamanders and other amphibians began to sprout extra legs. In heavily polluted Lake Apopka, one of the largest lakes in Florida, male alligators developed stunted genitals.
In the Potomac watershed near Washington, male smallmouth bass have rapidly transformed into “intersex fish” that display female characteristics. This was discovered only in 2003, but the latest survey found that more than 80 percent of the male smallmouth bass in the Potomac are producing eggs.
Now scientists are connecting the dots with evidence of increasing abnormalities among humans, particularly large increases in numbers of genital deformities among newborn boys. For example, up to 7 percent of boys are now born with undescended testicles, although this often self-corrects over time. And up to 1 percent of boys in the United States are now born with hypospadias, in which the urethra exits the penis improperly, such as at the base rather than the tip.
Apprehension is growing among many scientists that the cause of all this may be a class of chemicals called endocrine disruptors. They are very widely used in agriculture, industry and consumer products. Some also enter the water supply when estrogens in human urine — compounded when a woman is on the pill — pass through sewage systems and then through water treatment plants.
These endocrine disruptors have complex effects on the human body, particularly during fetal development of males.
“A lot of these compounds act as weak estrogen, so that’s why developing males — whether smallmouth bass or humans — tend to be more sensitive,” said Robert Lawrence, a professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s scary, very scary.”
The scientific case is still far from proven, as chemical companies emphasize, and the uncertainties for humans are vast. But there is accumulating evidence that male sperm count is dropping and that genital abnormalities in newborn boys are increasing. Some studies show correlations between these abnormalities and mothers who have greater exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy, through everything from hair spray to the water they drink.
Endocrine disruptors also affect females. It is now well established that DES, a synthetic estrogen given to many pregnant women from the 1930s to the 1970s to prevent miscarriages, caused abnormalities in the children. They seemed fine at birth, but girls born to those women have been more likely to develop misshaped sexual organs and cancer.
There is also some evidence from both humans and monkeys that endometriosis, a gynecological disorder, is linked to exposure to endocrine disruptors. Researchers also suspect that the disruptors can cause early puberty in girls.
A rush of new research has also tied endocrine disruptors to obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes, in both animals and humans. For example, mice exposed in utero even to low doses of endocrine disruptors appear normal at first but develop excess abdominal body fat as adults.
Among some scientists, there is real apprehension at the new findings — nothing is more terrifying than reading The Journal of Pediatric Urology — but there hasn’t been much public notice or government action.
This month, the Endocrine Society, an organization of scientists specializing in this field, issued a landmark 50-page statement. It should be a wake-up call.
“We present the evidence that endocrine disruptors have effects on male and female reproduction, breast development and cancer, prostate cancer, neuroendocrinology, thyroid, metabolism and obesity, and cardiovascular endocrinology,” the society declared.
“The rise in the incidence in obesity,” it added, “matches the rise in the use and distribution of industrial chemicals that may be playing a role in generation of obesity.”
The Environmental Protection Agency is moving toward screening endocrine disrupting chemicals, but at a glacial pace. For now, these chemicals continue to be widely used in agricultural pesticides and industrial compounds. Everybody is exposed.
“We should be concerned,” said Dr. Ted Schettler of the Science and Environmental Health Network. “This can influence brain development, sperm counts or susceptibility to cancer, even where the animal at birth seems perfectly normal.”
The most notorious example of water pollution occurred in 1969, when the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire and helped shock America into adopting the Clean Water Act. Since then, complacency has taken hold.
Those deformed frogs and intersex fish — not to mention the growing number of deformities in newborn boys — should jolt us once again.
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