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February 19 2014


April 12 2012


Breaking Down Traditional Chinese Medicine

A new method of genetic analysis allows researchers to identify the component parts of traditional Chinese medicine, revealing endangered species, toxic plants and widespread mislabeling.
Sponsored post

April 11 2012


Marketing Plan: Solve a Problem, Then Spread the Word

Environmentally conscious marketers have only recently started hitting the sweet spot in positioning energy-efficient televisions, appliances and other products for the home.

March 07 2012


Can Geeks Defeat Lies? Thoughts on a Fresh New Approach to Dealing With Online Errors, Misrepresentations, and Quackery

This afternoon, I’ll be at MIT for this conference, sponsored by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and the MIT Center for Civic Media and entitled “Truthiness in Digital Media: A symposium that seeks to address propaganda and misinformation in the new media ecosystem.” Yesterday was the scholarly and intellectual part of the conference, where a variety of presenters (including yours truly) discussed the problem of online misinformation on topics ranging from climate change to healthcare—and learned about some whizzbang potential solutions that some tech folks have already come up with. And now today is the “hack day” where, as MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman put it, the programmers and designers will try to think of ways to “tackle tractable problems with small experiments.”

In his talk yesterday, Zuckerman quoted a helpful—if frankly, somewhat jarring—analogy for thinking about political and scientific misinformation. It’s one that has been used before in this context: You can think of the dissemination of misinformation as someone akin to someone being shot. Once the bullet has been fired and the victim hit, you can try to run to the rescue and stanch the bleeding—by correcting the “facts,” usually several days later. But, psychology tells us that that approach has limited use—and to continue the analogy, it might be a lot better to try to secure a flak jacket for future victims.

Or, better still, stop people from shooting. (I’m paraphrasing Zuckerman here; I did not take exact notes.)

From an MIT engineer’s perspective, Zuckerman noted, the key question is: Where is the “tractable problem” in this, uh, shootout, and what kind of “small experiments” might help us to address it? Do we reach the victim sooner? Is a flak jacket feasible? And so on.

The experimenters have already begun attacking this design problem: I was fascinated yesterday by a number of canny widgets and technologies that folks have come up with to try to defeat all manner of truthiness.

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February 24 2012


Want to Improve Science Communication? Start with Bad PowerPoint Habits

In the past three months, I’ve spoken on panels at two scientific mega-conferences—the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco, which draws tens of thousands of scientists, and the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting, which this year was held in Vancouver (and pulls in about eight thousand).

As a science communication trainer and advocate, I’ve noticed much at these events that makes me very hopeful. More so than ever before, these conferences are thronged with panels on how to improve science communication, particularly with respect to pressing concerns like climate change. Indeed, a powerful theme at the AAAS meeting, articulated by organization president Nina Federoff, was that science is under attack—an attack that must be countered, including through direct-to-public communication efforts by scientists themselves (of which the excellent communicator Michael Mann provides a great recent example).

Federoff is absolutely right in her message. Science communication is, indeed, vital—and scientific organizations like AAAS and the AGU are driving a very welcome change in scientific culture with their efforts.

But here’s the thing: While these organizations have the best of intentions, there may be inadvertent aspects of what they do that actually undermine their stated goals. In particular, in this piece I’m going to argue we can make science communication better not only by having lots of panels on the matter, but by changing some very simple and basic things about how scientists present their knowledge at conferences like AGU and AAAS.

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August 15 2011


Enviro News Wrap: Rick Perry’s Climate Ignorance; the Price of Oil and Renewable Energy; What Apple Could Do with All That Cash, and more…

The Latest Environmental News HeadlinesGlobalWarmingisReal contributor Anders Hellum-Alexander wraps-up the climate and environmental news headlines for the past week:


May 11 2011


The EcoPartnerships Program is Bringing the US and China Together to Work for the Environment

U.S. and China cooperation on environmental and sustainability issuesThrough the EcoPartnerships Program, the US and China are working together to address common environmental problems. The EcoPartnerships program brings together American and Chinese entities from the public, private, and civic sectors to create mutual economic and environmental benefits.

The US Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) and its Chinese counterpart are joining the US-China EcoPartnerships Program. The signing ceremony was held on Tuesday, May 10 in Washington, D.C.

The US BCSD is a business association that provides opportunities for its members to work on sustainability projects with industry, governmental and other key stakeholders to generate economic returns while improving the environment and society. The Chinese BCSD is a coalition of leading Chinese and foreign enterprises that promote sustainable development activities focused on corporate social responsibility, environmental protection, and clean production.

The American and Chinese business councils for sustainable development are part of a network of 60 national business councils worldwide associated with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a global network of 200 international companies with members drawn from 30 countries and 20 major industrial sectors.

The EcoPartnerships Program strengthens the bilateral business partnerships between the US and China. The program is part of the US-China Ten Year Framework on Energy and Environment, which was approved in Beijing in 2008. The program links stakeholders from the public, private, and civic sectors across the US and China to solve environmental and energy challenges and address climate change while at the same time promoting economic growth.

Under the EcoPartnerships Program, stakeholders will collaborate on seven major fronts:

  1. Clean Air: This plan includes US-China collaboration on sulfur dioxide emission trading in the power industry, control of vehicle emissions, regional air quality management, control of nitrogen oxide emissions, and control of ozone and particulates. For more information click here.
  2. Clean and Efficient Transportation: This plan involves collaboration on developing non-petroleum alternative fuels, promoting energy conservation and emission reduction in civil aviation, improving traffic management and policies, transportation infrastructure, and planning, as well as achieving efficient and sustainable transportation development. For more information click here.
  3. Clean, Efficient, and Secure Electricity Production and Transmission: This plan facilitates bilateral cooperation on electricity generation and transmission with an emphasis upon diversification. Additional collaboration may include renewable and alternative sources of clean energy, cleaner fossil fuel, power grid and the electricity market, and nuclear power. For more information click here.
  4. Clean Water: This plan encourages collaboration on water quality management, safe drinking water, and prevention and control of pollution from agriculture and rural areas. For more information click here.
  5. Energy Efficiency: This plan furthers cooperation in the fields of energy auditing, public financing mechanisms, and energy efficiency in building technologies. For more information click here.
  6. Nature Reserves: This plan promotes best practices for enhancing nature reserve management, improving habitat conservation, managing protected areas, strengthening scientific collaboration, and conserving endangered species. For more information click here.
  7. Wetlands Conservation: This plan fosters collaboration on best practices in wetland policy, monitoring, management, and scientific research, and helps build the capacity of each country to protect these crucial areas. For more information click here.

The EcoPartnerships program provides opportunities to test and demonstrate the policies, technologies, and new approaches. Many of these plans will facilitate policy, technical, and commercial innovations, which may include the development, commercialization and deployment of energy and environmental technologies and best practices. These plans may also include new financing approaches for energy efficiency and a system that allows companies from diverse industries to work together to match their underutilized waste streams with potential users at other facilities.

The EcoPartnership Program encourages US and Chinese governmental and non-governmental stakeholders to share best practices, foster innovation, advance energy security, promote economic growth, and work towards environmental sustainability. The program is a model for cooperation that benefits the planet, people and profits.


Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, enviro-politics and eco-economics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find Richard on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

May 04 2011


EarthTalk: The Future of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Powered Cars

When will you be able to drive this hydrogen fuel cell powered car?EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Not long ago we were reading a lot about hydrogen’s role in a clean energy future, with cars transitioning from gasoline-powered engines to hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Where does hydrogen fit now in the mix with electric cars now coming on so strong? – Amanda Jenkins, Troy, MI

It is true that just a few years ago everyone was talking hydrogen fuel cells as the future of petroleum-free automotive transport. Fuel cell cars can run on infinitely renewable hydrogen gas and emit no harmful tailpipe emissions whatsoever. A 2005 Scientific American article bullishly reported that car company executives “foresee no better option to the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle in the long run.” Likewise, the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggested, also in 2005, that some 30 percent of the global stock of vehicles—700 million cars and trucks—could be powered by hydrogen fuel cells by 2050.

But high development costs and implementation hurdles have kept fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) out of the mainstream for now. And in the face of competition from a new crop of all-electric and hybrid-electric vehicles lately, some analysts wonder whether the fuel cell’s future is as bright as once thought.

That’s not to say the technology isn’t impressive, and still potentially very promising. The concept was first developed by NASA some five decades ago for use in space travel and has since been implemented in a wide range of other mobile and stationary power applications. In an FCV, a stack of fuel cells under the hood converts hydrogen stored on-board with oxygen in the air to make electricity that propels the drive train. While automakers have been able to make fuel cells small enough to fit in and power a conventional size car or truck, the price per unit is high due to the need to incorporate expensive, cutting edge components. And the lack of widespread demand precludes cost-saving mass production. Also, the lack of hydrogen refueling stations around the country limits the practicality of driving a fuel cell vehicle.

According to Richard Gilbert, co-author of the book, Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight without Oil, another big issue for hydrogen-powered fuel cells is their energy inefficiency. Creating hydrogen gas by splitting water molecules via electrolysis ends up using up about half of the energy it creates. Another half of the resulting energy is taken up by the conversion of hydrogen back into electricity within fuel cells. “This means that only a quarter of the initially available energy reaches the electric motor,” reports Gilbert. (Making hydrogen by reforming natural gas is also highly inefficient and relies on a fossil fuel from the get-go.) Such losses in conversion don’t stack up well against, for instance, recharging an electric vehicle (EV) like the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt from a wall socket—especially if the electricity can be initially generated from a renewable source like wind or solar.

But FCVs aren’t dead in the water yet. A few dozen Californians are already driving one of Honda’s FCX Clarity fuel cell cars. A $600/month lease payment entitles qualifying drivers to not only collision coverage, maintenance and roadside assistance but also hydrogen fuel, available via a handful of “fast-fill” hydrogen refueling stations. General Motors is part of an effort to test FCVs and implement a viable hydrogen refueling infrastructure in Hawaii, currently one of the most fossil fuel dependent states in the U.S. The Hawaii Hydrogen Initiative aims to bring upwards of 20 hydrogen refueling stations to Hawaii by 2015. Other efforts are underway in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.

Honda FCX Clarity, .


Send Your Environmental Questions To: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk [at] emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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April 01 2011


Chart: The Deadliest Energy Sources in the World

How deadly is your energy source? The very real and lethal effects of our global energy choices become clear in this interactive data visualization, showing the death rate, as measured by the number of deaths per terawatt hour (TWh), for each of the major global energy sources, e.g., coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear, hydro, peat, and biomass. Take a closer look at the chart here:<!--break-->

Chart of deaths per terawatt per energy source

Click on the image to view the full size.

The left column displays the percentage of world energy production for each energy source while on the right you can see the corresponding number of attributed deaths per terawatt hour.

To give some perspective to the value of a terawatt hour: "All wind turbines installed by the end of 2009 worldwide are generating 340 TWh per [year], equivalent to the total electricity demand of Italy, the seventh largest economy of the world, and equaling 2 percent of global electricity consumption," according to a report the World Wind Energy Association published last year (PDF). Meanwhile, wind energy's cumulative death rate is 0.01 deaths/TWh (.xls file), based on 44 deaths since 1975, which Paul Gipe, author of Wind Energy Comes of Age, calculated in 2010.

This data visualization comes via IBM's research site, Many Eyes, where you can click through to interact with the data. It doesn't show here the data for solar (rooftop's 0.44 deaths/TWh) or wind, which the original source has claimed both have a higher number of deaths per TWh than nuclear (0.04 deaths/TWh). However, this doesn't take into account the most recent calculations for wind energy (0.01 deaths/TWh), making wind -- and not nuclear -- the least deadly energy source based on these metrics.

Coal, unsurprisingly, comes out the deadliest energy source, due to the clear health impacts of air particulate pollution. All the more reason the Environmental Protection Agency should be strictly regulating coal power's many hazardous air pollutants.

Nuclear energy's low death rate may seem somewhat surprising because of its pervasively toxic stigma (Homer Simpson working at a nuclear plant controls? -- radiation! meltdown! Chernobyl!). However, the low rate here is likely due in part to the fact that nuclear supplies a larger chunk of energy worldwide in comparison to say, solar, and that deaths associated with nuclear energy are harder to link directly because the adverse and fatal effects can develop over a much longer period of time (e.g., cancer). Deaths from solar (rooftop, anyway) tend to be from falling accidents during installation and maintenance on roofs and shouldn't be dismissed in the push for clean energy because these deaths are easily preventable.

Hat tip to GOOD for highlighting the chart.

Image: Many Eyes

March 23 2011


Waterless Tar Sands Extraction Misses the Point

Just in time for world water day, researchers at Penn State university have discovered a new "waterless" method for extracting oil from the thick mix of clay, water and bitumen that makes up the tar sands.

The current method for getting the oil out of the sand involves using huge amounts of both fresh water and energy. Hot water is mixed into the sand, which is then piped to an extraction plant and shaken up to release the bitumen. Some of the water from the process is recycled, but huge amounts are simply dumped into toxic lakes.

The new process, according to the Penn State scientists, uses ionic liquids - salt in a liquid state - to separate out the oil from the sand, and, since it doesn't use water, doesn't create the tailings ponds. It has been widely reported as cleaner and eco-friendly.

There is not, and never will be anything intrinsically eco-friendly about the tar sands.<!--break-->

Let me be clear: I'm not saying it's impossible to improve some of the extraction and refining processes to make them less destructive. Quite to the contrary, I'm certain it can be done, and have no reason to doubt that this new process does what the researchers say it can do. (Whether it could be scaled up to be economically viable, and whether the companies involved would be willing to invest in implementing it is - of couse - entirely another question.)

But let's pretend, for a minute, that human ingenuity can perfect a completely safe, non-toxic, waste free method of extracting oil from the tar sands. We've solved all the technical challenges. We've cleaned up the existing environmental disaster. We've compensated the impacted communities currently living downstream for all the cancers and loss of livelihoods, and we've figured out (somehow) how to restore one hundred percent of the ancient boreal forests, wetlands, lakes, and biodiversity that were there before the open-pit mining started.

We'd still be missing the point.

To maintain a liveable climate, we need - as a minimum - to limit temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Burning all the fossil fuels on the planet will result in at least 8-10 degrees of warming, if we're lucky, and cause mass extinctions. So, as George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian, when it comes to fossil fuels, we simply have to decide how much we should leave in the ground.

The answer is that we can only afford to burn around 60% of all current, conventional sources of fossil fuels. That leads to two unavoidable conclusions: first, we need to immediately stop expanding existing fossil fuel sources and start prospecting for new clean energy sources; second, the very first sources to be decomissioned should be those unconventional sources with the highest climate and environmental impacts - the tar sands are perched at the top of that list.

Many countries are beginning to come to terms with this realisation, looking long and hard at what it means to be importing the dirtiest, most unethical oil on the planet from Canada, and are considering low-carbon fuel standards to address that. Unfortunately the Canadian government is still doing everything in its power to prevent them from doing the right thing.

See video

March 10 2011


Coal Power Plants Are Number One ... Source of Toxic Air Pollutants in U.S.

King Coal once again takes the crown for title of dirtiest polluter in the land -- or in this case, the air. Coal-burning power plants cough up more hazardous air pollutants than any other source of industrial pollution in the U.S., but it doesn't have to be that way, says a new report from the American Lung Association (ALA). The report, released March 8, anticipates the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) expected proposal to reign in this kind of noxious air pollution with a new set of rules for electric utilities, which include coal and oil-fired power plants.

Congress passed amendments to the Clean Air Act way back in 1990 to limit the release of these air pollutants, but for twenty years, the electric utility industry has taken advantage of various loopholes and extensions to avoid cleaning up all facilities in the way other industries have been doing so across the country for years.

"It's time that we end the 'toxic loophole' that has allowed coal-burning power plants to operate without any federal limits on emissions of mercury, arsenic, dioxin, acid gases such as hydrogen chloride and other dangerous pollutants," said ALA president Charles D. Connor in a press release.<!--break-->

The EPA has until March 16 to release new emission requirements for 187 "hazardous" air pollutants. Coal-fired power plants emit 84 of those 187 pollutants at a rate of more than 386,000 tons each year. The ALA report, Toxic Air: The Case for Cleaning Up Coal-Fired Power Plants [PDF], notes that coal facilities don't only take top dishonors for total industrial air pollution but also for being the largest source of several individual airborne toxins, including mercury and arsenic.

Toxic Air goes on to document the public health and environmental impacts of hazardous emissions from coal-fired power plants, as well as the type of existing technologies facilities could implement today to create significant proven benefits to human and environmental well-being. Predictably, the coal industry accused the report of being "one-sided." It did not, however, refute the accuracy of claims about coal pollution's effects on public health.

Some of the report's key findings [PDF] were that hazardous air pollutants from coal plants:

  • Sicken and kill people. They can cause damage to the eyes, skin, and breathing passages; potentially cause cancer; impair brain function; and cause lung and heart disease. For example, being exposed to fine particulate matter, such as from coal plants, worsens cases of asthma and is a cause of heart attack and associated death.

  • Create a costly economic burden. In 2010 the National Research Council estimated that particulate matter spewed directly from coal power plants racks up an average of $3.7 billion in public health damages every year.

  • Foul soil, water, and other ecosystems. They contaminate lakes, rivers, and oceans and cause acid rain. Toxic metals also accumulate in organisms and travel up the food chain.

  • Produce severe adverse local, regional, and global effects. The high concentration of coal plants in the Midwest and Southeast endangers the health of people living there (at a rate of two to five times greater than those living farther away) because areas closest to the source suffer the brunt of health and environmental impacts from certain acid gas and mercury emissions. At the same time, other types of air toxics, such as uranium and dioxins, are able to sweep across the globe, affecting areas and people hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

  • Can be significantly reduced with existing technologies. When the EPA compared coal plants implementing several modern control technologies with a random sampling of plants, it found hazardous emissions averaged two to five times lower for those utilizing multiple controls.

In sum: Coal air pollution is dirty and plentiful but could be much less dirty and much less plentiful. Once the EPA finalizes these rules for air toxics, the regulations will still take three years to go into effect. Several Senators have voiced their support for the EPA in light of the government spending bill the House of Representatives passed recently which would severely slash the EPA budget this fiscal year and hobble its abilities to execute these types of stricter regulations.

The questions still clouding the political atmosphere, then, are what exactly the EPA will do when it releases new regulations next week and how far Congressional Republicans will go in their quest to curtail the EPA's powers to protect public health and the environment.

Photo: Mary Mactavish, Creative Commons

December 27 2010


Latest EIA Report Shows Renewable Energy Production Continues Growth in 2010, Equals Nuclear Energy Output

Wind energy saw the largest growth in 2010The latest Monthly Energy Review released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) last week shows both nuclear and renewable energy sources provided roughly 11 percent each of primary energy production for the first nine months of 2010 – the latest period for which data is available.

The EIA report states that renewable energy sources, including biomass/biofuels, solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal contributed 10.9 percent of domestic energy production through the end of September, up 5.7 percent over the same period in 2009. Nuclear energy accounted for 11.4 percent of domestic production – down 0.5 percent from the same period last year.

Renewable energy statistics breakdown

Of the various sources of renewable energy, each contributed the following to the overall renewable portfolio:

  • Biomass/biofuel: 51.95 percent
  • Hydropower: 31.50 percent
  • Wind: 10.52 percent
  • Geothermal: 4.65 percent
  • Solar: 1.38 percent

Wind, biofuels shows biggest growth

Comparing those statistics with the same period of 2009 shows solar energy production expanding 2.4 percent and hydro declining by 5.2 percent. The big winners were biomass and biofuels, which grew by 10 percent in the first three quarters of 2010, and wind energy, which grew a full 26.7 percent. Combined non-hydro renewable sources grew 11.5 percent.

Overall, U.S. primary energy production rose 2 percent in the first nine months of 2010 over the same period last year. Fossil fuels accounted for 78 percent of primary energy production.

“Members of the incoming Congress are proposing to slash cost-effective funding for rapidly expanding renewable energy technologies while foolishly plowing ever-more federal dollars into the nuclear power black hole,” said Ken Bossong, Executive Director of the SUN DAY Campaign. “The numbers clearly show this would be betting on the obvious loser while ignoring the clearly emerging winner in the energy race.”

December 23 2010


The Future of Energy – Bloomberg-Business Week Energy Survey

Surveyed energy professionals see smart grid, government incentives as key to energy futureSmart grids, government incentive key to energy future

Bloomberg Businessweek Research Services has recently completed a survey of energy professionals to gauge their thoughts and opinions on the key global energy issues we face in the coming decades. Sponsored by ABB, an automation technology service company for industry and utilities, the survey results show a majority of energy professionals urging more production from clean energy sources, increased efficiency, smarter grids, and more government incentives as the basis for a sustainable energy future.

Some of the highlighted survey results include:

  • 89% see government incentives as more effective than markets for driving energy efficiency
  • 63% believe the greatest opportunities for improving energy efficiency rests with industrial end-users
  • 76% think government regulation should require utilities to produce more energy from renewable sources
  • 81% see smart grid technology is a crucial key for global energy future

Materials and information about the Energy 2010 survey results including podcasts, key findings, and white papers is available from ABB’s website.

October 25 2010


Environmental News Wrap: Solar Cheaper than Nuclear; Tea Party Delusions; Negotiating Biodiversity, and more…

The latest environmental news headlinesGlobalWarmingisReal contributor Anders Hellum-Alexander wraps-up the climate and environmental news headlines for the past week:

  • While gleaning stories from National Geographic (NG) I ran into advertisements  for Shell Oil Company, like at the Scientific American site discussed last week. The story I found on NG focuses on the intersection of water and energy in our economy.
    Then, I went to the website for Popular Science and found, yet again, a web page covered in ads for Shell. Shell now “Presents” Popular Science.
    Shell is still an oil company no matter how much it tries to appear to be an energy company, and I don’t support businesses that let companies like Shell spread its deception.
  • ConsumerEnergyReport.com covers a new study that claims that solar is now a cheaper energy source than nuclear. Whether or not this claim is true, solar energy is getting cheaper everyday while nuclear is getting more expensive because of increased regulation and the need for billions of dollars upfront to build a reactor.

October 10 2010


Motorsports and Climate Change

This post is dedicated to the F1Rejects community, and is also a contribution to the 10-10-10 initiative on 350.org.

How to lose friends and alienate people

Environmentalists and motorsports fans don’t see eye to eye, and they both share the blame for it. The reasons are difficult to describe, but some causes can be agreed upon.

On the one hand, many environmentalists have taken the “catastrophe view”, the opinion that we’re all on our way down to hell in a wheelbarrow. We’re all doomed, doomed!, and everyone who fails to acknowledge this “fact” and radically change their ways is nothing but an irresponsible bastard, indulging in excessive consumption, an oil binge-drinker, someone to despise. For many of these people, green is the new red – and they treat it with the sort of reverence usually reserved for religion. Their opinion on motorsports? Deep greens always play the blame game, very vocally, from their bicycles, their blogs, in their manifests and protests, all while wearing sandals.

On the other hand, motorsports fans are frequently an uncompromising bunch: the louder engine the better, and bonus points if it spits flames on the overrun. There is simply no concern for non-fans’ preferences regarding motorsports: if they don’t like the noise, they should simply sell their homes, pack and move on. Who cares where the oil comes from, they love the smell of fuel. And they’re not about to be rustled by environmental concerns and the carbon malarkey – the press and everyone trackside says it’s not been demonstrated beyond doubt the Climate Change thing is true. The politicians just don’t want to let people have their fun, as usual.

These descriptions are stereotypical and, at the end of the day, false. But there is a point to make: noisy environmentalists’ message falls outside the latitude of acceptance of most people, as do motorsports’ fans’ opinions and attitudes. Nobody is meeting anyone else halfway. And the funny bit is there really is a problem, and that motorsports could contribute its small share to finding potential solutions.

From perceptions to facts

Let’s be candid about the issue at hand: there really is a problem. You can do your reading on the issue (and I would encourage you to; plenty of good, scientific material out there), but keep this in mind: cause and effect. Action and reaction. When you artificially increase the concentration of a number of gases in the atmosphere, it is bound to have consequences. Nothing in life comes for free (except if you’re Fernando Alonso racing for Ferrari in Germany – and even that cost $100,000).

And transportation is part of the problem. It is, I’m afraid. The EU estimates that, of the total CO2 emissions from its 27 member countries, transportation accounts for 22.3%. Now, the EU is not big on deforestation (a major cause of CO2 emissions worldwide) – so the total overall percentage of emissions attributable to burning petrol and diesel in internal combustion engines is probably much smaller. More information here and here – from the US Environmental Protection Agency (government body) and OICA (an auto manufacturers body).

You will note that neither of those bodies denies the fact that a problem exists and that something needs to be done about it. The contribution of transportation (especially the much bedevilled personal transportation and car culture) to that problem is substantial but hardly the main reason for the problem.

Unfortunately, it very easy to paint and accept the idea that motorsport is nothing but a manifestation of that supposed culture of over-indulgence. F1 is a global sport and, beyond a relatively small core of followers and fans, it appeals to many other, almost casual, fans. And among those fans, it is sometimes hard to explain why it is that, during a 2-hour race, the cars need to be refuelled twice. So, you could argue that the inconvenient truth in the new-for-2010 refuelling ban is that people paying around $6 per litre of petrol in Europe (F1 heartland, remember?) weren’t keen on seeing the apparent over-indulgence. So, refuelling had to go. But that is only perception, not a fact – the cars spend about as much fuel as before, it’s just that they have bigger fuel tanks; but The Man On The Street is appeased.

Fortunately, there is also a case to be made that the auto-industry is using this as an opportunity. Ever more fuel-efficient cars and technologies are being proposed, without the cars being inherently less interesting. And motorsports, the cradle of innovation, should be a part of it as well. The opportunity is there for the taking – and arguably it’s too good to ignore.

Greener than though

As green as it gets? Greenpeace's new company cars

Little known fact, #1579: the shrieking, gas-guzzling 2.4 V8 petrol engine installed in the back of modern F1 cars is probably more fuel-efficient than the hybrid engine in a Prius, or the 3-cyl TDi on my Polo. For the same speed, load, weight and aerodynamics, it would achieve better miles-per-gallon. Why? Because it is really good at squeezing out as much power (kinetic energy) from each drop of fuel. Of course, it uses bucket-loads of fuel in a race, but that is because the conditions aren’t comparable – modern F1 cars go fast and carry loads of aero-drag to push them into the ground and go even faster.

But the crux of the matter remains: the aim of a racing engine is the same as that of a fuel-efficient engine – to eke out as much movement from each gallon of fuel as possible. That is good news: if you’re racing, it allows you to carry less fuel, or to run for longer between pit stops; if you’re driving to work, it allows you to spend less money in fuel and emit less CO2 – which more and more means you pay less tax. That’s good, from the consumer point of view.

So, where does this lead us to? If F1 wants to embrace the challenge, the upcoming 2013 engine regulation change can be a watershed moment: allow waste energy-harvesting systems (KERS, HERS, Turbos), so that manufacturers and suppliers can develop the technologies for the cars of tomorrow. Because, let’s make it plain: people aren’t about to stop driving today because of catastrophic Climate Change in 50 years time. But if motorsports can help develop the technologies that will allow us to eventually have our cake and eat it too, we may all enjoy our racing, our driving, and our environment. It’s not war, it’s cooperation.

September 06 2010


Just a little of that human touch*

Paris metro body heat to help warm building | Reuters.

Waste heat used to increase efficiency. Sounds good to me.

The warmth generated by human bodies in the Parisian metro will help heat a public housing project in the city center, the capital’s largest owner of social housing said…

Sounds like somebody wants to set dead bodies on fire. Fortunately, that’s not the idea.

The calories emitted by passengers, around 100 watts per person, combined with the heat from trains moving along tracks and the underground location of the metro mean that corridor temperatures are 14-20 degrees Celsius all year around.

The project, which is based on geothermal technology, aims to draw heat from subterranean passages and move it to heat exchangers before supplying heating pipes. The system will complement district heating.

The project should slash carbon dioxide emissions by a third compared to using a boiler room connected to district heating…

100 Watts? That sounds good. Is it scalable, and does it stack up in terms of cost-benefit analysis?

But the system, which Wachnick said is also being carried out in Austria, will not be generalized in Paris because of costs and the need to build passages to convey the heat from the metro to buildings.

Shame. I suppose we need to have pilot project, though.

Punchline: reduce, reuse, recycle. That includes your sweat.

*Not exactly. But yes, I was thinking of this:

April 25 2010


Book Review – The Ascent of Money

When I mentioned to a very liberal, politically-minded friend that I had started reading Mr Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money, the sneer came that the author was one of the leading Conservative thinkers. While I don’t know if this is accurate or not, I can see while it could be true: Mr Ferguson makes an unapologetic endorsement of free markets finance, the financial institutions and their value for society, making it perfectly clear that we would be much worse off without them – and proceeds to go through the history of banking, the bond market, equity markets, insurance and real estate to paint vignettes of some of the many situations in the past where the financial system brought the economy to its knees.

That Mr Ferguson would choose this as a method to get his point across is strange, but at the very least demonstrates he is not bound by a fundamentalist approach. This is a hard-headed book, the sort that suffers no fools – waltz into a chapter with a badly wrung together and gratuitous criticism for finance (the “making money out of thin air” argument, you could call it) and you’ll be battered into submission by the demonstrations therein. Skeptic? So is the author, thankfully, so he makes a convincing case of looking at the issues as they are. Hate banks? Who doesn’t? But compare them to the loan sharks that proliferate where banks don’t serve the populations and all of a sudden things look better. The cruelty of the bond market? Won the Dutch independence from Spain, and allowed the Union to beat the Confederation in the American Civil War. Evilness in the Corporate Stock Market? That brought down the Ancient Régime, since it paved the way for the French Revolution, in an example of how things go wrong when the central government tries to rule the roost. Insurance is a dump? It is, but so are the alternatives. In negative equity? Well, here’s a great illustration of a market being propped up for political reasons with nefarious consequences.

The Ascent reads well (bluntly, you won’t put it down), but it makes for rough reading in places. For instance, it endorses the merits of the counseling Milton Friedman did for the Pinochet regime in Chile, and the good result thereof; but while the nook is explicit about the human rights situation, I can’t avoid feeling deep down, that you shouldn’t say anything good ever came of the Pinochet dictatorship, although it clearly did and sew the seeds of present day Chile’s prosperity. Perhaps Mr Ferguson suffers of failure of oversight (the irritating act of explaining smugly that there are good and potent reasons why things are exactly as they are). It’s not unlike Huntington’s Clash, in that it tries not to say how things should be, but to give a view as to why it is they are as they are, with the explicit intent of extracting consequences for the future: the fault line is, the introduction tells us, less and less between the haves and have-nots, but between then financial know-it-alls and ignoramus. Mr Ferguson would like to do something about that.

Unexpectedly (or maybe not so much so) the book does have relevance for the discussions here in Marginal Damage. It tells the story of how the lack of property rights over houses in developing countries was theorised by Hernando de Soto to lock an immense amount of wealth; how property rights would allow home owners to use their houses as collateral to obtain credit and help generate entrepreneurship and economic activity – a problem is not unlike the market failure that deprives landowners of property rights over the ecosystem services and biodiversity. But the progress, where property rights have been where none existed, has been disappointingly slow. The book does not go into details (and it’s not its objective to anyway) but it’s easy to see that the institutions to capture the value created by the property rights and put that value to productive use are missing. The message is clear: markets need institutions to function. But then again, we knew that already.

Punchline: a thoroughly recommended book because it is about how things are, not because it tells you how they should be. Allows you to look in the mirror and decide whether or not you like it – and what you may or may not want to do about it.

February 22 2010


Climate Change—The Doom & Gloom of Lovelock

By Nina Munteanu http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2008/mar/01/scienceofclimatechange.climatechange “Climate science maverick James Lovelock believes catastrophe is inevitable, carbon offsetting is a joke and ethical living a scam,” says Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian. When Aitkenhead asked the 88-year old scientist what he would do, Lovelock replied—rather pithily, I might add: “Enjoy life while you can. Because if you’re lucky it’s [...]
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