Saturday, April 27, 2013

“World’s Greenest Office Building” Makes Net-Zero Look Easy

by , Yes! magazine:

It’s a commercial office space equipped with composting toilets, rainwater showers, and a stairway designed to be so beautiful that no one ever takes the elevator.

Bullitt Center
Bullitt Center, Seattle (Ben Benschneider)
Peering down Seattle’s Capitol Hill, the Bullitt Center appears to be just another high-end commercial building - until you look up and notice the roof, which is overlaid with shiny silver photovoltaic panels that extend far beyond the building’s exterior walls.

Even in the cloudiest of cities, the panels generate all the electricity the six-story structure requires.

The building is a project of the Bullitt Foundation, which calls it “the greenest commercial building in the world.”

The foundation, which was founded in 1952, has focused since the 1990s on helping to create cities that function more like ecosystems.

Its new building provides office space for eco-conscious tenants, but also functions as a learning center that demonstrates how people and businesses can exist in harmony with nature.

The Bullitt Center was built according to a demanding green building certification program called the Living Building Challenge, which lists net zero use of energy and water among its many requirements.

The standards specified by Living Buildings far surpass those of the better-known Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program, which even at its highest level still produces buildings that harm the environment.

Jason McLennan, the founder of the program, says the goal of the Living Building Challenge is to create a structure that is in harmony with nature. “Even when buildings are promoted as 10 to 30 percent greener than the traditional code, the building is still extremely harmful to the environment.” 

A tour of the world’s greenest office building

It turns out that making a building beautiful can help to make it green.

In an effort to encourage people to take the stairs instead of the elevator, the architects of the Bullitt Center created an “irresistible stairway” encased by floor-to-ceiling glass walls that allow for an abundance of light and offer captivating views of Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains.

Office spaces are airy and bright, so the center requires no artificial illumination even on the dreariest Seattle days. And since most of the walls are made of glass, employees can see straight through one side of the building to the other, creating a feeling of community and openness.

What do tenants think of the space? “Everybody seems to be wildly enthusiastic,” says Bullitt Foundation president and CEO, Denis Hayes.

“Psychological studies show that people perform better when they have the diorama going by outside - they are happier, healthier, take less sick leave, and are more productive.”

With no on-site parking for cars, tenants are encouraged to ride bikes to work and park them in a space the size of a three-car garage. And for those who arrive sweaty from the bike ride in, rainwater-fed showers are available on every floor.

While some developers may argue that it is too expensive to build this way, the Bullitt Center’s initial costs were only one-fifth above average for an office building of its class.

And that’s not mentioning savings from energy and water bills, which will amount to zero when measured across 12 months.

The sewage bill is also zero because the building requires no hookup to the city’s sewer system. Composting toilets produce biologically pure waste, which is mixed with King County’s compost facility to produce agricultural grade compost.

The Bullitt Foundation hopes others will replicate their building. Bankers, developers, appraisers, insurance companies and government officials are invited to visit the center to learn more about building and investing in sustainable buildings.

McLennan concludes by suggesting that the Bullitt Center demonstrates the viability of taking a stronger approach to sustainability. “Washington is the least sunny state in the United States, and this building is still able to obtain 100 percent solar,” he says.

He hopes that the Bullitt Center’s example will help to encourage others to build more enjoyable, sustainable, and affordable buildings around the world.

Samantha Thomas wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.

Samantha is Project Consultant for DreamChange, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a better world for future generations, by building cultural bridges between people, societies and corporations.

She is also a freelance writer, green business consultant, and eco-fashion model based in New York City.


Saturday, April 20, 2013

Subsidies for Unburnable Carbon Need to Go Up in Smoke

by Chris Riedy, University of Technology, Sydney

International Energy Agency prediction of futu...
IEA prediction of future oil (Wikipedia)
More than half of global greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels.

Reducing and eventually eliminating fossil fuel use is a critical priority.

Most of the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground if we are to avoid dangerous climate change.

Yet governments around the world still pour billions of dollars into supporting fossil fuel production and use every year. Money utilised to prop up the fossil fuel industry dwarfs investment in renewable energy. This is a backwards policy that needs to change.

A growing chorus is calling for the removal of fossil fuel subsidies.

As well as environmental organisations, such as Paid to Pollute, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, those calling for action include major international organisations like the G20, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and International Energy Agency (IEA), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

The latest estimate of global fossil fuel subsidies comes from the IMF. In a report earlier this year, the IMF valued global fossil fuel subsidies at a staggering $1.9 trillion, or 2.5% of global GDP.

The IMF estimate is a lot higher than previous estimates from the Earth Policy Institute ($620 billion) and IEA ($512 billion). This is because the IMF includes lost revenue from failure to apply efficient taxes to fossil fuels.

In Australia, a comprehensive 2007 study identified fossil fuel subsidies of between nine and ten billion dollars. More recent work by the Australian Conservation Foundation estimated that fossil fuel incentives amounted to $11 billion in 2010-11.

There are several reasons why fossil fuel subsidies are a concern.

First, fossil fuel subsidies contribute to climate change and air pollution. They reduce the prices of fossil fuels, encouraging people and organisations to use more. This, in turn, leads to more pollutants, including greenhouse gases that warm the atmosphere.

The IMF estimates that eliminating fossil fuel subsidies would reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 4.5 billion tonnes, or 13%. The IMF also highlights the health benefits of reduced air pollution.

Second, fossil fuel subsidies create an uneven playing field for competing technologies like renewable energy. The Earth Policy Institute found that global fossil fuel subsidies were more than seven times higher than renewable energy subsidies.

In Australia, the disparity is even higher. Fossil fuel infrastructure has benefited from government investment and support over decades, putting renewable energy at a distinct disadvantage.

Third, fossil fuel subsidies can have negative economic consequences. They can depress investment in the energy sector, crowd out spending on public goods, diminish competitiveness, provide incentives for smuggling and make it harder to manage volatile international energy prices.

Finally, energy subsidies are regressive because they tend to benefit high energy users, with higher incomes. According to the IMF:
On average, the richest 20 percent of households in low- and middle-income countries capture six times more in total fuel product subsidies (43%) than the poorest 20% of households.
In other words, fossil fuel subsidies act to entrench poverty and reduce social equity.

Despite the number of heavyweight international organisations calling for reform, progress has been slow. Global fossil fuel subsidies have increased since the G20 first committed to their removal in 2009.

In Australia, there has been some limited progress. The rules relating to fringe benefits tax for company cars were changed in 2011, reducing that subsidy from $1.24 billion in 2011-12 to $930 million in 2012-13.

Support for renewable energy through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and other measures has also increased in recent years, relative to fossil fuels.

However, many fossil fuel subsidies and incentives still remain. In 2001, John Howard stopped annual indexation of fuel excise. The foregone budget revenue from this decision now amounts to something like $5 billion per year in lost tax on fuel.

The Fuel Tax Credits Scheme, which provides exemptions on fuel excise, cost another $5.1 billion in 2010-11. Removing these subsidies and incentives would increase the price of fossil fuels and free up budget to support renewable energy alternatives.

Just imagine what the Clean Energy Finance Corporation could achieve with another $10 billion per year to invest in renewable energy.

Of course, politicians are likely to run a mile from any policy that would increase petrol prices, so the prospects for removing these Australian subsidies in the short-term are slim. That’s a shame, because subsidy removal could be a lucrative source of funds in an era when government budgets are tight.

Reducing support for highly profitable coal, oil and gas companies and redirecting those funds towards public goods such as renewable energy and education makes excellent sense.

The United States is already heading in this direction. The White House’s budget for 2014 recovers $44 billion by eliminating tax breaks and deductions for fossil fuel companies.

Although removal of fossil fuel subsidies clearly makes sense, it does require a cautious and well-designed approach to ensure that consumers are not hit with rapid price rises.

This is particularly important with respect to petrol prices, as many of the people that are most dependent on their cars to get around have few viable transport alternatives.

Nevertheless, a compelling case remains for removal of fossil fuel subsidies around the world to reduce environmental, economic and social impacts. Reversing the backward policy of subsidising unburnable carbon should be a key plank in international and domestic climate change policy.

Chris Riedy has previously received research funding from the Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace Australia-Pacific to investigate fossil fuel subsidies in Australia. He is the President of the Climate Action Network Australia.
The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.
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Monday, April 15, 2013

Sanjit "Bunker" Roy Brings Light to Poor Villagers in Sub-Saharan Africa

Hanging Light Bulbsby Staff, Utne Reader:

Sanjit “Bunker” Roy’s strategy for improving access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa is all about empowering local grandmothers to use solar technology. 

If you live in Africa, chances are you’re off the grid.

According to the UN’s International Energy Agency, just over 40 percent of Africans had access to electricity in 2009, and in rural areas, it’s closer to one in four.

There are a lot of really good reasons why a traditional electronic grid isn’t an option, especially in rural areas. But all that means is that improving access means getting creative.

Even if rural villages could afford to be on a grid, says Indian activist Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, it would make them dependent on engineers and companies that are often dismissive of local needs. The solution, he says, is to teach poor villagers how to solar-electrify their own communities. 

For 40 years, Roy’s multi-campus Barefoot College has taught impoverished and illiterate people in rural areas skills in medicine, architecture, and since 1990, solar technology.

With dozens of villages already electrified in Africa, Roy plans to bring the technology to 25,000 homes in coming years, says New Internationalist (June 2012).

The kicker? Only women can take courses on solar - and mostly, it’s grandmothers. About ten years into the program, Roy noticed a problem: if young men learn how to manage a solar circuit board, they’re likely to leave their village to find similar work in cities, which means there’s no one to maintain the technology at home. 

But grandmothers are much more invested in their families and surroundings, so they stay put. Their knowledge becomes invaluable to the community.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: "Chasing Ice" Bewitches Eyes But Won't Change Minds

by Ann McCulloch, Deakin University

The climate change hole we’ve dug. EPA/Baard Ness
Science seems to be failing to change the minds of those who are sceptical about the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

Chasing Ice - a film by Jeff Orlowski, playing in Australia currently - tries instead to change minds through dramatic images.

The aim is laudable, and the film beautiful, but the message narrowly misses the mark.

Central to this film is the belief that we cannot divorce civilisation from nature.

This vision is rendered in James Balog’s extraordinary photographs of ice and his compilation of video footage of glaciers melting at an unnatural rate. The film argues that global warming promises to transform sublime beauty to sublime horror.

Chasing Ice is a significant film. It is exciting to the mind and visual imagination of anyone who accepts climate change as a reality. But its narrative is not riveting, and probably not persuasive to most climate change sceptics.

The film tells the story of evidence overwhelming disbelief: once, Balog himself did not take climate change seriously. But in his fascination with photographing ice he found that when he returned to many glaciers they were receding at a remarkable rate.

He was shocked at what he saw. He had not believed that human beings had the power to bring about changes of this magnitude. To make his findings public, he and his team placed 30 video cameras in Greenland, Alaska, Montana and Iceland.

The intention was not only to “record a powerful piece of history unfolding”, but also to provide visual evidence to a public that does not want to hear statistics.

His video footage does indeed show glaciers coming to an end; it shows how in a two year period physical features of glaciers disappearing, breaking apart, and literally melting into the sea. Chasing Ice’s limitations as an argument are due to its diluted narrative.

The film should have focused on how the video evidence, taken over a period of two years, demonstrates the fact of climate change. Instead there are three narratives, two of which should have fed the main thesis rather than vied for attention.

Balog’s beautiful images of ice, and the drama of his battling obstacles against the odds in securing his evidence, could have been woven into the film more successfully: cameras breaking, problems with the timer, batteries exploding and foxes eating into cables, cables becoming dislodged and buried in snow and Balog’s problems with his knees could not compete with the film’s prime message.

These story lines deflect attention away from the main argument: the significance of the unusual calving of glaciers. Successfully visualising this calving is of supreme importance.

Science education to date has failed to communicate the urgency of the need to counteract climate change: maybe art can fill the gap.

The film opens with a sequence of sceptics proclaiming climate change is based on an invalid argument, nonsensical and exaggerated. I expected the film would subvert this disbelief (and of course in many ways it does).

So why do I harbour reservations about this film? It will gain instant support from those already persuaded that climate change is real. But I was disappointed the film did not confront the climate change deniers with their findings.

When we see James Balog introduced to a forum of interested parties, I doubt there were any sceptics in the audience. There was a sense of converting the converts.

The film would have been more powerful if disbelievers had an opportunity to voice their objections. Certainly the film predicted the opposition and provided charts and graphs “proving” that changes in glaciers could not be explained by natural causes.

There was the canny inclusion of an insurance broker whose business offered policies allowing people to insure against the impact of climate change. He declared himself an ex-climate change sceptic who now, after having to do the research for business reasons, was a “believer”.

Imagine how provocative it would have been to include in this film a debate between experts with conflicting views.

But this is a film not to be missed - mostly because of Balog’s obsession with ice and they way his love of photographing its sublime beauty alerted him as if, by chance, to physical changes in the glaciers.

In the first instance he celebrated the beauty of ice; his veneration of nature led him to the awareness that our civilisation was destroying its own source of being.

Balog’s photographs are works of art and they are breathtaking. The film is a powerful tool for changing perceptions, perceptions which science education has failed to shift. Chasing Ice’s visualisation of the problem is a means of overcoming disinterest and ignorance.

I do, though, hope for a sequel in which disbelievers are written into the script. It would be fascinating to observe their stance and perhaps even witness a conversion.

Ann McCulloch does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

How to Compost in 3 Steps

by Mark Bishop, Weekend Notes:

Steaming compost
Steaming compost (Photo credit: SuperFantastic)
Mark is a cub writer, music lover, business guy in hibernation

Have you ever had trouble composting? Here's what works for me in Melbourne's west.

Step 1

I'm a regular kitchen scraps kind of composter.

First, I put all my vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds and tea bags (usually nothing cooked unless it's a vegetable, no meat or dairy) into a miniature rubbish bin (with lid) which I keep under the kitchen bench - not because it smells particularly, but it's not a display item.

Get one of these at the $2 shop.

Step 2

Empty the little rubbish bin into a recycled plastic compost bin with sliding 'doors' at the base (these come in handy later on to get the finished compost out without disturbing what's happening on top).

A four hundred litre compost bin like this is about $60 from a big hardware store. Locate the compost bin in a shady spot.

Keep an eye out for little burrows around your bin which means you've got visitors (usually mice). You can easily block these with bricks etc., ensuring it's just bugs and worms feasting in your bin.

Step 3

Making compost is a bit like cooking - keep your eye on things and taste as you go, or at least look as you go. Layers of vegetable scraps, dust from your vacuum cleaner, some lawn clippings and leaves will soon result in healthy, happy moist compost.

Don't put in twigs or small branches and expect them to disappear – they won't. Although, if you have a shredder of some description, you could add all sorts of plant matter, as long as you can get it fine enough to decompose readily.

To get started, I suggest some layers of moist soil, newspaper, leaves, maybe some pea straw and then get going with your vegetable scraps.

You will probably never have too many vegetable scraps but be careful not to introduce too many leaves or lawn clippings – the compost will become too dry and can overheat.

I have stone fruit trees and so I'll load up on autumn leaves and even some fruit in summer, if it has spoiled. I put citrus fruit in sparingly. I have a dog, too, but his business does not go in the compost bin - never.

We all know why we should compost - it's great garden food, less rubbish leaving your house, you feel good etc. You may not know that when you spread your compost around the garden you can get some lovely surprises like self-seeding tomato plants or pumpkins. If you put weeds in your bin expect to get some self-seeding weeds too.

My top tip? Turn over your compost - regularly. I use a gardener's shovel. You could use a garden fork. Regular turning can cure most composting problems. That - and a bit of water.

Depending on the state of my compost, I sometimes leave the lid off for a bit when it's raining.

The Victorian Government and Australian Government want you to compost too, and may even subsidise you to do it.
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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Can't Bear 'em: How GPS is Helping to Track Drop Bears

by Volker Janssen, University of Tasmania

The Deadly Australian Drop-Bear
Drop bears (Thylarctos plummetus) are a species of carnivorous Australian marsupial, renowned for preying on tourists in the bush.

Infamous for their mode of attack, new technology is now shedding light on their distribution, population and behaviour.

Drop bears spend most of their time in treetops. They hunt by ambushing ground-dwelling animals (mainly medium to large mammals) from above, skilfully latching onto the victim’s neck to kill the prey.

Quietly waiting in a tree for several hours, the drop bear closely resembles a sleeping koala.

Once prey is within striking range, the drop bear will plummet several metres out of the tree to pounce on top of the unsuspecting victim. The initial impact generally stuns the prey, allowing it to be bitten on the neck and quickly subdued.

Look out above

Bushwalkers are prone to come in contact with drop bears when hiking off the beaten track in Australia. Thanks to a new approach to animal tracking, it is now possible to minimise attacks on humans and enhance conservation practises in these areas.

Drop bears do not specifically target human beings. Yet there have been several cases where humans have fallen victim to drop bear attacks, resulting in serious lacerations and even death. Numerous disappearances may also be attributed to drop bears.

While the Australian government has been accused of orchestrating a conspiracy to cover up the existence of drop bears in order to protect the tourist industry, these claims have never been substantiated.

Animal tracking goes high-tech

For about 50 years, the tagging and tracking of animals has been a vital tool to better understand animal behaviour and ecology.

The introduction of satellite-based positioning technology into the field of animal tracking has made a huge impact. It has opened the door to many exciting discoveries and heavily supports animal conservation efforts.

Global Positioning System (GPS) and other Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) signals can provide accurate, regular and frequent estimates of the changing distributions of many rare animal species.

This means that it is possible to determine animal positions continuously rather than relying on occasional snapshots of the animal’s whereabouts.

Conventional GNSS-based tracking methods require the sensor to be directly attached to the animal of interest. This makes it extremely difficult to study tree-dwelling animals like the drop bear.

The dense tree canopy regularly causes extended periods of complete GNSS signal loss, and sensors are often damaged during attacks on prey. This severely reduces the availability of meaningful tracking data and substantially increases the cost of drop bear tracking.

Tracking drop bears, the student method

To address these shortcomings, an alternative for tracking drop bears has recently been proposed in the Australian Geographer.

This indirect GNSS-based method involves tracking the prey rather than the predator. The animal population is then mapped by pinpointing the location and timing of drop bear attacks.

It has been demonstrated that this method can effectively estimate the number and distribution of drop bears in a particular area. The analysis has also given valuable insights into the animal’s hunting behaviour.

The study has confirmed that foreigners are much more likely to be “dropped on” than Australians. The results also indicate that drop bears do not necessarily target the last person walking in a line.

Obviously, a better understanding of drop bear behaviour and ecology allows us to ensure that a sustainable population is maintained, while the possibility of attacks on humans is limited. The indirect GNSS-based tracking method provides us with a tool to do just that.

Volker Janssen does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.
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