Archive for the ‘Climate Change & Environment’ Category


3 Comments » Posted on Sunday 9 May 2010 at 6:23 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

Who needs facts?

We all know that science can be complicated and confusing, but don’t let that get you down – Fake Science is here to straighten everything out. Did you know that the periodic table is actually based on Scrabble, or that wind power uses giant fans to make wind? Science has never been so simple.

Want to lose weight? Keep it off your plate

Simply leaving serving dishes on the kitchen counter rather than bringing them to the dining table reduces the amount of food you eat, say researchers at Cornell University. They found that this simple dieting strategy reduces the temptation of second helpings, cutting the number of calories people consumed by 20%.

Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, said that the same idea can be used to promote healthier foods over sugary snacks – keeping fruit on display makes you more likely to eat it instead of reaching for a piece of cake in the fridge.

Animal privacy? Not in my backyard

Wildlife documentaries infringe an animal’s right to privacy, says Brett Mills, a lecturer in film studies at the University of East Anglia:

“We have an assumption that humans have some right to privacy, so why do we not assume that for other species, particularly when they are engaging in behaviour that suggests they don’t want to be seen?”

I’m a staunch defender of civil liberties, but even I think extending the right to privacy to animals is going a bit too far. Of course, great care should be taken to avoid distributing their natural habits or causing them distress, but I really don’t think animals mind us watching them doing what they do.

Green tax would hurt the poorest

A proposed tax on carbon footprints would hit the poorest households hardest, according to study from the University of Leeds. The carbon tax would cost low earners 6% of their annual income, while the richest households would only pay around 2%.

The difference is the result of poorer households spending more on costs such as heating and electricity – 40% of their income, compared to just 8% for high earners.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 5 December 2009 at 3:22 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

[Here's a post from Gareth Mitchell, one of my former lecturers at Imperial, about his experiences on a recent BBC production]

With big thanks to Jacob for hosting this on Just A Theory, here’s my account of recording the recent programme on energy production in India for the BBC’s The Climate Connection season.

The first sign of trouble was a heated exchange that suddenly blew up between an armed security guard and our driver Antony. Though the raised voices were in Tamil, it was clear that the guard was deeply unhappy, pointing angrily to my camera and recording equipment.

We were at the entrance to Kalpakkam, a small township that serves the nearby Madras Atomic Power Station. We had interviewed the plant’s chief superintendent for our edition of The Climate Connection season on the BBC, exploring how India can meet its sharply increasing demand for electricity whilst keeping its carbon emissions in check.

After the interview, we’d wandered into the township to speak to the residents. We expected them to be lauding the employment and economic benefits of having a large power station on their doorstep and crowing about this reliable source of electricity, a luxury unavailable to many who live in India’s rural communities.

Instead, we heard that the power actually bypasses the township in favour of the 8 million inhabitants of Chennai about 70km north. They told us that the power station forbids other businesses locating within the area, thereby curbing job opportunities.

Most seriously, the villagers claimed that power station workers had become ill, with several dying of cancer and that some the township’s children were sick and lethargic. How can you be sure? I asked, anything could be making them ill, you can’t be certain it’s the power station. But, they pressed on, repeating their claims that the plant was a source of harm and hardship rather than wealth and opportunity.

The guard threatened to report us to the authorities and was making noises about us being detained until Antony worked some kind of magic and the man let it go. But the villagers’ revelations were safely recorded and I had a stash of photos. Right now, it was definitely time to go.

However attitudes to the power station are different in the city.

The ever-resourceful Antony drove us to a neighbourhood of workshops and small business units in Chennai where he knew twin brothers who run a successful firm manufacturing and exporting cashew nut processing machines. The city’s creaking electricity supply only provides 70 per cent of the power they need to run their heavy machinery.

Annoying though that seems, the brothers are quite sanguine. Out in the countryside, full power is only available for five hours a day. At least their supply is relatively stable, even if it is a lower fat version of what they’d ideally like.

And, for them, the Kalpakkam nuclear power station is a good thing. It’s not, by a long way, the sole source of their electricity but the brothers are glad it’s there and they’re hoping for more nuclear plants in the future. They dismiss any suggestion that nuclear is a source of health problems. Anything that props up the power supply will be good for business.

Earlier we had interviewed Dr Pugazhendi – a firebrand of a man who has examined many Kalpakkam residents. Talking at us for forty minutes without pausing for breath, Dr Pugazhendi listed cases of cancer and other illnesses associated with the nuclear power station, insisting that he has solid evidence but that he has been blocked from carrying out full studies and publishing the findings.

The fact remains that there is no hard, published evidence that the nuclear plant has caused any illness among the local population. The station’s management told us that they take their workers’ health very seriously, regularly monitoring their wellness.

One of the villagers we met in Kalpakkam had given us Dr Pugazhendi’s mobile phone number and when I called him, he jumped at the chance of talking to us. He’d drop everything, he said, and come and find us wherever we were.

Whilst he was on his way, we turned up unannounced at the HQ of the Tamil Nadu State Electricity Board. A contact in town had recommended we speak to the board’s chairman, Mr C P Singh.

Sure enough, Mr Singh, an affable gentleman in an office overlooking the sprawling monsoon soaked metropolis granted us an interview. The most penetrating questions came from my companion Hita Unnikrishnan, a feisty young ‘Climate Champion’ of the British Council of India. A recent life sciences graduate, she now lectures in Botany at Banaglore’s Jyoti Nivas College. She was travelling with me, taking on the role as local protagonist in our programme.

Mr Singh obligingly fielded Hita’s onslaught of questions. We learned that Tamil Nadu was the first state in India to supply electricity to all households and that it is one of the most progressive in the country when it comes to green energy. Half its power comes from hydroelectric and wind.

But the board is struggling to keep up with Tamil Nadu’s rapidly increasing demand. Whilst renewables are part of the solution, the state needs more power stations. For now, there will be more power cuts and the state will have to continue buying in expensive electricity from outside.

But I spent most of the interview in a state of considerable anxiety. Earlier, after negotiating with Mr Singh’s assistant for permission to meet the boss, I had been awaiting the verdict in a holding room down the corridor, when Dr Pugazhendi called me, saying he was in the area. I let slip exactly where we were.

This, I feared, was a potentially catastrophic move. One assumes that a well-known and vocal local opponent of the state’s nuclear power station would be less than welcome in the Electricity Board’s offices.

Throughout the interview with the chairman I had unsettling visions of Dr Pugazhendi, barging his way in, pushing aides and assistants aside and insisting on speaking to the BBC.

In the event, we met Dr Pugazhendi later on in a car park down the road and our interview at the Electricity Board passed off without incident. This was good. I could have done without a second altercation with security officials in as many days.

You can hear the programme at:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0053sqq

Or download it here (until Thurs Dec 10):
http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/oneplanet/

Video on YouTube:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbLSM2hFL7Q

Photos on Flickr:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/23404067@N06/sets/72157622927385208/

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 29 November 2009 at 5:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Universities must do more to stop formula stories

This week Times Higher Education have an interesting article about your favourite and mine, the “formula for” story. Of particular concern is the move by PR companies to use students to advertise their dodgy equations, such as the formula for a perfect night out from last month.

The concern is that students could be damaging their scientific reputations by taking part in this kind of PR activity, and that universities should take more care in publicising the work through their press offices. It turns out that Leeds University, home to “VKendologist” Phillippa Toon, were happy to facilitate media interviews for the nonsense formula story. A bit worrying, really.

Test-tube burgers, anyone?

Would you eat meat grown in a petri dish? Scientist in Holland have produced lab-grown meat for the first time – though they haven’t tasted it yet.

Cells taken from the muscle of a live pig grew into sticky muscle tissue, which doesn’t sound very appetising because the meat needs exercise to give it a more normal consistency.

I’d certainly welcome lab-grown meat, as long as it tasted like the real thing. It would take much less space and resources than breeding pigs or cattle, and animals wouldn’t have to die before we tuck in. I’m sure many people will be horrified by the idea, but a meat cell is a meat cell, wherever it grows.

Oh nos!

It had to happen eventually. The lolcats have got in to the Large Hadron Collider, and I think we all know how it’s going to end:

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 23 November 2009 at 6:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Right, Inventions & Technology

I don’t know why, but I just love clever ideas for electricity generation. Maybe it’s because I’m a great big nerd with vague but constant guilt about how the energy I used is produced.

The latest idea I’ve seen comes from researchers at the City College of New York, who’ve developed a way to literally suck energy from the air flow around cars and planes. They’re using materials with piezoelectric properties, which convert physical movement in to electricity, to generate a form of wind power.

It works like this. Airplanes, cars and other vehicles all create an airflow as the move forward and push the air around the to one side. Placing a small piezoelectric device into this flow, not much bigger than your thumbnail, will produce a voltage that can charge a battery.

You’re not going to be running your car on it any time soon – the energy produced is nowhere near enough to power an engine. We use cars for a lot more than just driving these days though, and the piezoelectric devices could power internal computer systems, or charge your mobile phone. The researchers are now trying to model the best location for their devices on a vehicle to maximise the energy they produce.

I think that ideas like this are the future of electricity generation. It’s not a very sexy solution to the problems of climate change, and you won’t see any politicians crying “let’s all attach small things to our cars!”, but if we can come up with loads of small ways to produce clean power, it could add up to a significant carbon saving.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 25 October 2009 at 10:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Weekly Roundup

Painted horses teach anatomy to vets

Champion horse rider Gillian Higgins has come up with a novel way for veterinary students to learn the skeletal structure of a horse – paint it directly on to the skin. Pretty cool, if slightly creepy!

Watch the carbon clock ticking

Early this year I wrote about research showing that the Earth effectively has a carbon budget of one trillion tonnes. Emitting more than this will lead to a global temperature rise of 2°C, and we’ve already spent over half a trillion.

To illustrate our spending, Professor Myles Allen of Oxford University has created a ticking carbon clock, counting down to the release of the trillionth tonne. That’s currently set for some time in March 2045 but as our rate of emissions continues to rise, this date gets nearer by the second. It’s sobering to watch.

Fancy a drink?

This photo of an ant refreshing itself after a hard day’s work was taken by András Mészáros, and won him a prize in the 2009 Veolia Environnement wildlife photographer of the year. Take a look at some of the other winners, including a wolf caught mid-jump and a stag with a crown of bracken.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 5 October 2009 at 6:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

My second article for New Scientist went up yesterday. Here’s an excerpt:

Green roofs are not just a load of greenwash. That’s according to a new study which has measured the amount of carbon absorbed by 13 different green roofs.

“I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want a green roof,” says Kristin Getter, who carried out the research with colleagues at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Getter’s team examined 12 existing green roofs and grew their own Sedum-covered roof. They found that the roofs absorbed up to 375 grams per square metre over the two years of their study.

Read the rest at New Scientist.

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3 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 30 September 2009 at 7:28 am by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

ResearchBlogging.org

Turning our waste paper in to biofuel could replace over 5% of global petrol consumption, say scientists from Singapore and Switzerland. It would also reduce the burden on our rapidly filling landfills.

So-called “first generation” biofuels made from food crops such as corn or soy have been widely criticised as an unworkable solution to the energy crisis. Growing crops for fuel takes up valuable agriculture land and leads to higher food prices. Now, a new wave of biofuel producers are looking to alternative sources.

A study published in the journal GCB Bioenergy details the possibility of producing a fuel called cellulosic ethanol from waste paper and cardboard. The researchers created a model to estimate the amount of this waste in each country, and found that the potential for waste-based biofuel amounts to over 80 billion litres globally.

Clearly, the quantity of fuel that can be produced depends on the level of waste in each country. Nations like Sierra Leone could only manage to produce around a third of a litre of fuel per person each year, while Norway could potentially turn out nearly 50 litres.

Fuel demands also vary by country of course. By modelling this demand and comparing it with the potential for generating fuel from waste, the researchers found cellulosic ethanol could replace 5.36% of global petrol demand.

Cutting down on petrol also means reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The data on emissions from cellulosic ethanol is varied, but the researchers estimate that a switch to biofuel would save between 29.2% and 86.1% of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Our results suggest that fuel from processed waste biomass, such as paper and cardboard, is a promising clean energy solution,” said study author Associate Professor Hugh Tan of the National University of Singapore.

“If developed fully this biofuel could simultaneously meet part of the world’s energy needs, while also combating carbon emissions and fossil fuel dependency.”

SHI, A., KOH, L., & TAN, H. (2009). The biofuel potential of municipal solid waste GCB Bioenergy DOI: 10.1111/j.1757-1707.2009.01024.x

Comments Off Posted on Friday 25 September 2009 at 12:27 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment

I’ve got a couple of articles going up at New Scientist. Here is the first:

Carbon dioxide may be the lead cause of global warming, but other gases are more potent greenhouse agents. So what is it about these molecules that makes them such effective heat trappers?

A team at NASA think they know, and the work could be used to create more environmentally friendly materials.

Timothy Lee and his colleagues at the Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale, California, analysed the physical and chemical properties of powerful greenhouse gases called fluorocarbons. They discovered that molecules containing fluorine atoms are particularly effective at trapping heat, especially when many fluorine atoms are bonded to a single carbon atom, which is the case with fluorocarbons.

Read the rest at New Scientist.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 13 September 2009 at 6:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Weekly Roundup

Human nails are growing faster

Your finger and toenails are growing faster than they would have 70 years ago, according to the Daily Mail. It sounds like nonsense, but it’s apparantly true.

Research published in in the Journal Of The European Academy Of Dermatology And Venereology last week found that the average thumbnail grows at 3.55mm a month, compared to the 3mm a month reported by a study in 1938.

Our modern-day diet could be the cause, say researchers from the University of North Carolina. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to access the paper to read their full results, but another explanation does occur to me: perhaps the 1938 study was simply inaccurate, and nails continue to grow at the same rate they always have.

Green energy

Trees contain enough power to run a small electric circuit, scientists at the University of Washington have found. Although the energy output is very small, it could be put to use powering sensors to monitor environmental conditions or forest fires.

Using nanotechnology components which do not require much power, the team created a circuit that uses an average of 10 nanowatts. By comparison, a 100W lightbulb uses 10 billion times as much power. The results will soon be published in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Transactions on Nanotechnology.

Despite their success, the researchers don’t yet understand where the tree power comes from, according to one of the paper’s co-authors, Babak Parviz:

“It’s not exactly established where these voltages come from. But there seems to be some signaling in trees, similar to what happens in the human body but with slower speed,

“I’m interested in applying our results as a way of investigating what the tree is doing. When you go to the doctor, the first thing that they measure is your pulse. We don’t really have something similar for trees.”

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 21 August 2009 at 2:11 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment

I’m still surrounded by cardboard boxes and half-built Ikea furniture, with a dodgy wireless connection that isn’t mine, but fellow sci-commer Mia has offered to step in for today:

It has been a few weeks since the second of two research ships of ‘Project Kaisei’ set of from San Francisco bound for the huge “island” of rubbish in the Pacific Ocean. An accidental-island build by swirling currents pushing the waste together in an area supposedly twice State of Texas. Now, a separate research group have published the results of new study looking at just what happens to plastic waste as it floats in the sea.

It has been well documented that plastics pose one of the biggest direct threat to marine animals – when they eat or get caught up in them. Researchers from Nihon University now report that plastics are not as ‘indestructible’ as once thought. With a surprisingly speedy decomposition these versatile convenience materials are resulting in a double whammy of harm as they release toxic substances into the water.

“Plastics in daily use are generally assumed to be quite stable,” said study lead researcher Dr Katsuhiko Saido, “We found that plastic in the ocean actually decomposes as it is exposed to the rain and sun and other environmental conditions, giving rise to yet another source of global contamination that will continue into the future.”

Dr Saido and his team found that when plastic decomposes it releases potentially toxic bisphenol A (BPA) and PS oligomer (both not normally found naturally) into the water, causing additional pollution. They also discovered that three new compounds not found in nature formed. These are styrene monomer (a known carcinogen) and styrene dimer and trimer- both also suspected to be. Although plastics don’t usually break down in an animal’s body after being eaten, the substances released from decomposing plastic are absorbed and could cause harm. BPA and PS oligomer are of concern because they can disrupt the functioning of hormones in animals and can seriously affect reproductive systems.

The timeframe for this process can be surprisingly short, polystyrene begins to decompose within a year. Cancers, hormonal abnormalities and reproductive problems are just the tip of our knowledge about the long term adverse effects of plastic, and yet we still can’t get enough of the stuff.

Mia Kukathasan studied biology at King’s College, London, and has taught science in secondary schools. She has written bits for Null Hypothesis and in the book Defining Moments In Science and the occasional student publication. Mia also dresses up in gorilla suits in the name taking science to music festivals, as a co-organiser of Guerilla Science. Science aside, she has a show On ICradio based on Free Music.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 5 August 2009 at 2:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Science Policy

[Whoops, I'm off schedule already. Apologies to those who were expecting a post on Monday, but another bout of illness over the weekend meant I had to take a few days off. And now, the news.]

On the path to a greener future, governments must lead the way. Without legislation that suitably incentives green behaviour, the necessary changes to our economy will not be possible. Carbon trading, if appropriately priced, seems like a good way to do this. Unfortunately, the UK Government seems to have missed the point of the scheme: reducing emissions.

A report published today by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) warns that the Government may not meet its own targets for emission cuts, and could have to use taxpayers money to purchase more carbon credits.

In 2006, then Prime Minister Tony Blair promised a 12.5% reduction in carbon emissions by 2010-11, relative to 1990/2000 levels. The EAC have criticised the Government for not doing enough to reduce energy use in its buildings, the largest source of emissions. So far, only a 6.3% reduction has been achieved.

Failure could come at a hefty price. Starting in April next year, around 5,000 organisations including Government departments, retailers and banks will have to buy carbon credits. Under the Carbon Reduction Commitment, these organisations will have to pay £12 for every tonne of carbon dioxide they produce.

All of this money is contributed to a central pot, and emissions are assessed on a yearly basis. Organisations that do well are given their money back, plus a bonus, whilst those that do poorly get back less than they put in. Effectively, inefficient organisations pay money to those which can reduce emissions the most.

This means that unless targets are met, the Government will be handing taxpayers money to private businesses to make up for its carbon excess. You could say this is how the scheme is meant to work – reward those who are greenest, and allow the stragglers to pay for their sins. A fair point – but shouldn’t we expect better?

If the Government are forced to purchase more carbon credits in this way, it sends out the completely wrong message to the country. We must learn that simply paying your way is not enough; at some point we must all make emission reductions.

What’s worse, this is a double cost to the taxpayer. In not reducing energy usage, the Government will have already paid more in utility bills than is necessary. Instead of investing in insulation or solar panels, it has thrown money away on a short-term “solution”. It’s not good enough. The short-term is running out.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 2 August 2009 at 6:53 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

A week on the Guardian’s Technology desk means I haven’t been keeping up with all the science news as much as I normally would. Don’t worry though, I’ve still got some good stuff in this week’s roundup.

Run Forrest.exe, Run!

Toyota have created a robot that can run. Not an easy task, as the machine must keep its balance whilst moving at fast speed, but the result looks promising:

Will we eventually have millions of these little guys running about the place, I wonder?

LaTeX tech

Bit of a geeky one this. LaTeX is a language used by scientists and other people to create documents containing lots of equations. I’ve used it in the past, and whilst it produces nice results, it can be tricky to use because of all the commands you have to learn. Remembering the codes for mathematical symbols can be especially difficult. Detexify allows you to draw the symbol you want with your mouse, and it will give you the code. Even if you have no use for LaTeX, it’s fun to have a play and watch the symbol recognition in action. Try drawing a smiley face!

Kill or cure?

Kill or cure? is a website that seeks to “make sense of the Daily Mail’s ongoing effort to classify every inanimate object into those that cause cancer and those that prevent it.” Where else can you learn that ketchup prevents cancer, but toothpaste causes it?

Kids vs climate change, round 2

A while back Sam wrote a post laying out the environmental reasons not to have children. It inspired quite a debate between some commenters, and now his position has been backed up by new research. Statisticians at Oregon State University found that in the US, having one less child will have an almost 20 times larger impact on the environment than things like changing the car you drive, or recycling.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 31 July 2009 at 8:33 am by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Science Policy

Earlier this month around 1,500 young people descended on Sydney for Power Shift Australia, an event organised by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition to empower youth action on climate change. It featured talks by climate campaigners like Dr Tim Flannery, a video message by Al Gore, and culminated in a 500-strong flashmob dancing outside the Sydney Opera House.

Former US Vice-President Gore encouraged the young Australians to put pressure on their leaders in the run-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. “Together we must encourage leaders throughout the globe to speak on our behalf at the Copenhagen negotiations this December,” he said. “Each of you here has a crucial role to play in order to get this done.”

The conference was modelled after a similar event that took place in the United States earlier this February. Organised by and for young people, it saw 12,000 teens and 20-somethings visit Washington to attend the biggest youth climate event ever. The delegates met members of the Obama cabinet in addition to civil rights activist Marshall Ganz.

The Power Shift ideals are now spreading further, and the next conference is to be held in the UK this October. Kate Shayler of the UK Youth Climate Coalition is coordinating the event, which she says is not just about getting the “usual suspects” of environmental campaigning involved. Instead, Shayler expects to have 1000 young people of diverse backgrounds in attendance. “We see climate change as a youth issue, not a minority middle-class issue, because it is going to affect all our futures,” she says.

Delegates will receive communications training adapted from the Obama campaign team and attend workshops designed to foster a sense of unity around climate change. The UKYCC hope that Power Shift UK can be the start of a larger climate movement, as called for by the British Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Milliband.

“We want to show young people in the UK that it’s happening all over the world, they’re not on their own, and young people around the world are being active and stepping up to fight climate change,” says Shayler.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 17 July 2009 at 6:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment

Two articles on the Guardian site today. First, a post on for science blog about the proposed name for element 112:

The periodic table gained a new element last month. It’s currently known as ununbium or simply element 112, but now the scientists who discovered it have proposed a name: copernicium. Sigurd Hofmann and his team at the Center for Heavy Ion Research (GSI) in Germany chose the name to honour 15th century scientist and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.

As the first man to realise that the Earth orbits the sun, Copernicus was vilified by the Catholic Church for removing mankind from the centre of creation. His discovery changed the way we looked at the stars and led to the realisation that the universe is a very, very big place. Star-gazers currently celebrating the International Year of Astronomy will agree that copernicium is a fitting legacy.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

Next, in the Environment section, how radar could be used to protect bats from wind turbines:

Radar beams that irritate bats could be used to prevent the animals from being diced by the spinning blades of wind turbines, according to a study of how the animals react to radar signals. The researchers discovered that a stationary beam reduced bat activity near the turbines by almost 40%.

Bat and bird populations can be significantly effected by collisions with turbines. A six-week study at two wind farms in the US recorded more than 4,500 bat deaths and the Peñascal wind farm in southern Texas is currently using radar to prevent migrating birds from flying into it.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 10 July 2009 at 12:01 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment, Yes, But When?

Many alternative energy sources have been suggested as a replacement for oil; wind, solar or biofuel just to name a few. Now another can be added to the list: urine.

Whilst abundant worldwide, this waste liquid is not the most obvious choice for weaning the world off oil. To extract urine’s energy Gerardine Botte of Ohio University employed a process called electrolysis which uses an electric current to break up molecules. The resulting hydrogen can then be put to work as a clean source of energy.

Electrolysis has already been used to create hydrogen from water, but this requires quite a lot of energy. Botte turned to urine as a way of improving efficiency. Although urine is 95% water much of the remaining 5% is urea, a chemical compound which has four hydrogen atoms per molecule. This is twice the number found in water molecules, and the atoms are less tightly bonded so extracting the hydrogen from urea instead of water requires about a third of the energy.

Originally the research team used “synthetic” urine made by dissolving urea in water, but the process works equally as well with the genuine article. Working with human urine requires special clearance, which held up the publication of their research, says Botte.

The team are now looking at the long-term feasibility of urine hydrolysis, as well as the potential for scaling it up to industrial levels. Botte believes that existing sewage plants could be put to work generating energy, as well as cleaning up waste. “We do not need to reinvent the wheel as there are already electrolysers being used in different applications,” she says.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 8 July 2009 at 1:32 pm by Thom Hoffman
In Climate Change & Environment, Psychology, Science Policy

Last night I attended a fascinating debate entitled ‘Whose landscape is it anyway?’. The panel was chaired unobtrusively by the BBC’s environment correspondent Sarah Mukherjee and featured distinguished guests: economist Nicholas Stern, writer Tahmima Anam, historian Ramachandra Guha, and environmental scientist Debal Deb.

The format was unusual and its brevity was both its strength and its weakness but I think it was an extremely useful discussion. Each panellist initially spoke for around 5 minutes concerning the topic of land ownership and its consequences for the environment.

The hugely diverse panel led to a wide range of subjects being highlighted and after this a between-panel discussion ensued. The most optimistic panellist seemed a surprising candidate in Nicholas Stern, the economist and writer of the Stern Review into climate change.

Whenever I think deeply about climate change I struggle to be optimistic but when asked about why he holds such a perspective, Professor Stern replied ‘because I am sick of being pessimistic’. He stated that if you are hopelessly pessimistic you should ‘get a hat and write a letter of apology to your grandchildren’.

I am always cautious about these approaches to engaging people with climate change. There is a notion that doom-mongering and pessimism does result in ambivalence and plans for future apologies rather than direct action. If you do not believe that advocates of optimism are genuine, that instead they are trying to patronize, then this approach is just as unsatisfactory.

Stern does seem to be genuine with his hope, and alluded to the role of undeveloped technology as a genuine source of optimism. After the panel discussion, questions were invited from the audience. A Doctor who works for the Millennium Seedbank at Kew Gardens highlighted how many citrus trees are being planted in places where the efficiency of their water use is wildly inappropriate. There are indigenous sources of vitamin C which have much lower-impact irrigation. Rather than magical technofix solutions, these are the kind of practical actionable things that must be rectified now, and I believe this is what Professor Stern was angling toward.

Debal Deb articulated his frustration with the consumerist ethic and, aside from Professor Stern’s book plug toward the end of the debate, everyone seemed to agree. At one point an audience member questioned Stern’s reluctance to call for the end of capitalism. Earlier Stern had argued that growth will have to continue for 60 to 70 years. ‘To tell all nations with growth aspirations, which is virtually all of us, to stop growth now is the most impractical politics of all.’ Discussion of poverty, which had been so high on the agenda, highlighted the massive need for growth in huge parts of the world.

A gentleman at the back of the audience seemed frustrated that the panel where not making enough suggestions for what we should do. Tahmima Anam suggested that it is not for the panel to make these decisions and that the front line workers are the future solution-providers. She suggested that decentralised governance is extremely important, and the role of the state recurred frequently through the debate.

I was fascinated to hear Stern’s thoughts but Ramachandra Guha was probably my favourite contributor. He argued that the idea of capitalism vs communism or conservatism vs socialism are anachronistic dichotomies that will not navigate us through these major challenges. He invoked Kolakowski’s call for us to be conservative liberal socialists, borrowing appropriate ideas from each strand. Post duck-housegate we look at the public desire for ‘new politics’ and this gives me hope that partnership through shared ideals is the way forward.

Former American Defence Secretary and later President of World Bank Robert McNamara died this week and a quote of his reminds me of the importance of collaboration: ‘I don’t believe we should ever apply our power unilaterally. If we can’t persuade nations with similar values, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.’

Tahmima Anam argued that the solutions must be as big as the problems and here her argument for decentralisation becomes slightly weaker. I think that everyone can agree that centralised governments are responsible for much of what has happened but these governments are made up of individuals and they chased the growth aspirations of individuals too. If you think that governments are a big part of the problem then I fail to see how they cannot be a big part of the solution.

Whether they will arrive at that solution remains to be seen. Professor Stern highlighted how water is being drilled like oil which is massively disturbing the surrounding water table and no-one has ownership of this water, if you can get it, it is yours. Tahmima Anam described how Bangladeshis are creating floating gardens to cope with the influx of saltwater onto their land, and that they must spend all day searching for freshwater.

Water shortage is the next big global crisis and who owns this water was a question that was never going to be addressed in 90 minutes but these types of debates are important. A 5 hour long debate achieving equally few solutions would only serve to turn people off more.

Succinct and frequent debates with such high calibre guests will hopefully put these issues on the map, and stop people from giving up and buying hats when their voices, interest, support and dissent are badly needed.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 4 July 2009 at 6:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Evolution, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Darwin’s children’s drawings on display

Charles Darwin used sheet after sheet of paper when writing On the Origin of Species, since redrafting before the days of Microsoft Word meant writing the whole thing out again. Only a handful of these draft papers have survived, mostly because Darwin gave his used sheets to his children for use as drawing paper.

Battle of the Vegetables
Battle of the Vegetables

Next week one such sheet will go on display in a new exhibition at Cambridge University Library. Named “Battle of the Vegetables” by Library staff, it depicts a battle between one man riding a carrot and another on what could possibly be a stale potato.

Did Michael Jackson’s death contribute to climate change?

Duncan Graham-Rowe of the Guardian asks whether we should consider the carbon cost of all the increased web activity following the singer’s death. I’ve discussed the carbon cost of Googling before – 0.2g per search, according to the company’s own figures.

As one commenter points out, if you added up the tiny contributions of all the tributary Tweets and YouTubes they probably wouldn’t exceed the Jackson’s personal carbon footprint, considering the lavish life he led.

The Guardian’s James Randerson also chimes in to say the point of the article isn’t really the carbon cost of Jackson’s death, but to highlight the issue of unsustainable internet growth. Whilst this is a problem, I can’t imagine that alternative methods of information distribution are any greener. As with many climate change conundrums, the answer is far from clear.

What’s on alien TV?

Webcomic Abstruse Goose has this rather nice image of what aliens might be watching on TV. When TV signals are broadcast some of them radiate out from the Earth, and could be picked up by any extraterrestrials out there. Like all electromagnetic radiation, the signals travel at the speed of light, so depending on how far from Earth the aliens are it’s going to take them a while to receive our latest programmes.

Whilst inhabitants of the relatively near Sirius system might have been enjoying episodes of Family Guy and The Sopranos for the past few years, everyone out in Aldebaran is still waiting for coverage of World War II to arrive. I just hope any aliens out there will forgive us for polluting space with broadcasts of Big Brother…

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 28 June 2009 at 3:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Right, Health & Medicine, Science Policy, Weekly Roundup

Sun in common-sense shocker

Sometimes I worry about being too negative on Just A Theory. With all the examples of media failings I write about, it’s easy to let the good ones slip past unnoticed. As such, I thought I’d congratulate The Sun’s Dr Keith for his recent article on misused medical terms. He informs us that we probably don’t have the flu (it’s a cold), there is no such thing as a nervous breakdown, and most of us are rarely “shocked”, in a medical sense.

New hope for Copenhagen

Later this year thousands of people will descend on Copenhagen to try and come up with a new global agreement on climate change. The United Nations, in conjunction with the International Advertising Association, have launched a campaign to re-brand the conference as Hopenhagen. The idea is to move from “coping” with climate change to a “hope” that action can be taken. A silly bit of marketing? Perhaps. But if it gets people talking, it’s probably a good idea.

Check this out. It’s awesome

“But what is it?” I hear you cry. Created by Japanese artist Sachiko Kodama, the strange substance in this art work is a ferrofluid. These odd liquids combine tiny magnetic particles with water or oil, and a surfactant, which prevents the particles sticking together. Ferrofluids react in the presence of a magnetic field, creating the wonderful structures in the video above.

Whilst they do have their practical uses, like forming a liquid seal in computer hard drives or marking areas of the body in an MRI scan, I think you’ll agree that just looking cool is good enough.

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24 Comments » Posted on Monday 22 June 2009 at 12:03 pm by Sam Wong
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment

David Mitchell, as usual, wrote a very funny but also very wise column in the Observer yesterday about the Daily Mail’s ridiculous wheelie bin campaign, and about how our heightened sensitivity to injustices against us has overridden our sense of responsibility to society.

Our fear of being encroached upon has made us forget that there are few freedoms that can be fully exercised without impinging on someone else’s. The freedom to stab has long since been subordinated to the freedom not to be stabbed. But we still have the freedom not to recycle and to borrow or lend money recklessly, regardless of others’ freedom to live on a habitable planet and in a functional economy. We’ve hugely prioritised our rights over our duties because it’s only the former that tyrants try to take away.

A reader called Memoid posted a comment saying:

There’s not even been a hint of discussion about the right to have children yet, and that’s the debate we really need to have. And the world needs the vast majority of us to lose the debate.

He’s right, so let’s start the debate. There are 6.8 billion people on the planet. At the current rate, there will be 9.1 billion by 2050. Most of the increase will happen in developing countries, but even Britain’s population is expected to increase by 16 million in that time. And yet you rarely hear anyone talk about whether everyone can continue to have as many children as they like.

The Earth simply cannot provide enough food, energy and resources for that many people. And just think about the impact on the climate. How can we expect to make dramatic cuts in our carbon emissions if our population continues to grow?

People need to see having lots of children as the environmental sin that it is. You can turn all your lights off, cycle to work and insulate your house but having kids makes you more of an eco-criminal than the childless bloke next door who drives a gas-guzzler and takes 10 flights a year.

The idea of limiting one’s procreative activities will be very difficult for many to accept, for Darwinian as well as societal reasons. Surely having children is the most sacred of all human rights? I’m not advocating any government intervention in how big a family people choose to have. But I think the public needs to be more aware of the seriousness of the environmental ramifications of having children. Perhaps then more people might realise that this is one instance when our duty to society should take precedence over exercising our rights.

The Optimum Population Trust, of which David Attenborough became patron in April, runs a ‘Stop At Two’ campaign, and has a pledge that you can sign on its website. The idea will still seem outrageous to some, but I think signing the pledge is an absolutely reasonable step towards remediating unsustainable population growth.

(Incidentally, even if you plan to stop at two, it doesn’t always work out that way. My Dad found this out the second time my mum got pregnant: the egg that became me wasn’t the only one that got fertilised. As a result, my mum got her wish for three kids.)

This is all very easy for me to say. I’m 22 and single, and the prospect of having children feels almost as remote to me as arthritis. It could well be that in 10 years’ time I’ll turn out to be a massive hypocrite with three kids. But I hope, for everyone’s sake, that I will be able to restrain my reproductive urges in light of the bald truth: there are too many people on the planet already.

2 Comments » Posted on Monday 15 June 2009 at 9:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

ResearchBlogging.org

It is an undeniable fact that if we are to successfully hold back climate change, people are going to have to make some adjustments to their lifestyles. We simply can’t afford to continue using energy at the current rate, and carbon emissions must be cut. You already know this of course, in fact you are probably sick of hearing it. Therein lies the problem.

Change your ways, we are told. Don’t leave the bathroom light on. Be sure to put out the recycling. And have you considered installing solar panels? There is a constant niggling feeling that we must all do something to fight climate change, but no real idea if our actions have any impact. Surely, people say, there’s nothing that I can do?

New research published in last week’s Nature could have the answer. Scientists from Canada and the UK lead by Damon Matthews, a professor in Geography, Planning and the Environment at Concordia University, have come up with a way of quantifying a person’s individual impact on the climate. It works by simplifying the complex web of interactions involved in climate change in to a single number: the global temperature increase per tonne of carbon emitted.

Matthews and colleagues calculated this figure, known as the carbon-climate response (CCR), by running computer simulations and examining historical climate data.. Although other climate factors can vary significantly, the CCR appears to remain constant even over a period of 1,000 years. Depending on the model used, they estimate that releasing one trillion tonnes of carbon in to the atmosphere will raise the Earth’s temperature by between 1 and 2.1 °C. To put it another way, for every tonne of carbon you emit in your day-to-day activities, the planet will warm by 0.0000000000015 °C, or 1.5 x 10-12 °C. This is a tiny amount, but it is easy to see how emissions add up.

This 2000 US Department of Energy report gives an average value of around 1.35 pounds of carbon dioxide released for every kilowatt hour of electricity used. We can convert this to pure carbon by multiplying by 12/44, a fraction which takes into account the relative atomic masses of carbon and oxygen. Converting again from pounds to tonnes gives a figure of around 0.00017 tonnes of carbon per kilowatt hour.

From this I calculate that leaving a 100W bulb switched on for a year releases around 0.15 tonnes of carbon in to the atmosphere, resulting in a temperature increase of 2.25 × 10-13. Again, this is a very small amount, but consider how many light fixtures there are in the entire UK when you include all households, offices, shops, schools, hospitals…the list goes on. Estimating the country’s population at 61 million, with 3 light bulbs per person (a number I have admittedly pulled out of thin air, but one that seems reasonable) that works out at a temperature increase of 0.00005 °C. Now we’re talking slightly bigger numbers, especially when you consider this is just lighting, and just the UK.

The crux of the matter is that if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, switching your lights off really does make a difference. Yes, the effects of these behaviour changes are small, but if everyone does them this new research shows that the effect on the climate can be significant. When you’re next told, for the nth time, to reduce your carbon footprint, remember that doing your bit really does matter.

Matthews, H., Gillett, N., Stott, P., & Zickfeld, K. (2009). The proportionality of global warming to cumulative carbon emissions Nature, 459 (7248), 829-832 DOI: 10.1038/nature08047

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 9 June 2009 at 2:37 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

The science of climate change says that we should all be making changes to our lives in order to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we release in to the atmosphere. Switch off those lights, buy a hybrid, and do your bit. But what about the scientists themselves?

Ryan Brook of the University of Calgary in Canada believes that researchers in to climate change should be mindful of saying “Do as I say, not as I do.” Scientists who undertake expeditions to the polar regions in the name of studying climate change actually have rather large carbon footprints themselves.

Writing in the June issue of Arctic, the journal of the UoC’s Arctic Institute of North America, Brook calculates that his own research footprint amounts to 8300 kg of CO2 per year. In comparison an average citizen of the Canadian capital Toronto produces 8600 kg of CO2 per year.

“My research footprint is about the same as the annual footprint of an average Toronto resident. Basically, I have two footprints—my own personal life, which is moderate, and my research footprint,” he says.

The figure is so high because of the numerous helicopters, planes and ships required to carry out climate change research. One possible solution is for scientists to purchase carbon offsets for their research. Whilst Brook says his colleagues “dismiss them as a sham”, he believes that buying offsets will promote dialogue and leadership from the scientific community.

“There aren’t necessarily any easy answers, but we need to start talking about it,” says Brook. “This is particularly important for the next generation of scientists being trained and I hope to see them become leaders in this issue.”

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 6 June 2009 at 3:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Space & Astronomy

ResearchBlogging.org

I’m almost tempted to leave you with just the title of this post, but perhaps a little bit of explanation is required. It seems that scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have found a rather novel way to monitor penguin population levels in the ice region – using satellite imaging to search for their poo.

Peter Fretwell and Dr Philip Trathan of the BAS outlined their novel technique in a paper published this week in Global Ecology and Biogeography. Using images taken by space satellites they were able to identify colony locations of emperor penguins in Antarctica. Despite the image quality being too low to pick out individual penguins, they were able to infer the presence of a colony by the distinctive brown stain they left behind.

Spot the stain.
Spot the stain.

Penguin poo, or guano, stands out from the white and blue sea ice as the only brown around. By picking out these areas of discolouration, Fretwell and Trathan found a total of 38 colonies, 10 of which were previously unknown. Emperor penguins are vulnerable to changes in the sea ice, so accurate information about colony locations is important in assessing the impact of climate change on the population.

Whilst searching for poo from space might sound silly, this research actually has important consequences for animal conservation. Unfortunately this method, whilst useful for finding unknown colonies, cannot really provide accurate estimates of the number of birds at each location. As such, the researchers call for further research to determine emperor penguins vulnerability to climate change.

Fretwell, P., & Trathan, P. (2009). Penguins from space: faecal stains reveal the location of emperor penguin colonies Global Ecology and Biogeography DOI: 10.1111/j.1466-8238.2009.00467.x

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 30 May 2009 at 2:24 pm by Sam Wong
In Climate Change & Environment

Can you put a figure on the impact of climate change? Yesterday, the Global Humanitarian Forum, a humanitarian organisation set up by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, did. According to their report, climate change is already killing 300,000 people a year, mainly through environmental degradation. They put the economic cost of global warming at 125,000 USD a year. As The Times reports,

The research was carried out by Dalberg Global Advisers, a consultancy firm, who collated all existing statistics on the human impacts of climate change. The report acknowledges a “significant margin of error” in its estimates.

Given the unavoidably large degree of uncertainty in the estimates, I’m not sure putting a figure on the death toll is particularly helpful. We already know that climate change is a big problem, and these numbers are not going to persuade anyone who’s sceptical.

‘Copenhagen needs to be the most ambitious international agreement ever reached,’ Kofi Annan said. But yesterday others were warning that setting overly ambitious targets would scupper any chance of a global deal. Carlo Carraro, Professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Venice, cautioned that the kind of measures necessary to keep CO2 levels to 550 parts per million by 2100 would be viewed as overly restrictive by China and India.

What’s often overlooked in discussions about climate change is the simple things we can do immediately that cost us nothing, or even save money. This was highlighted by Steve Chu this week when he spoke at the Nobel Laureate Symposium in London this week (you can watch his speech in full here). Professor Chu is the Nobel-winning physicist who was appointed Energy Secretary by Barack Obama when he became president. It’s the first time that a career scientist has run the Department of Energy since it was set up in 1977.

Chu argued that we ought to be doing a lot more to ensure that buildings are designed with energy efficiency in mind. The most intriguing suggestion he made was that we give our cities a makeover with the aim of reducing the amount of sunlight they absorb:

If you replace all the building roofs today with white roofs, and you go to cement-style pavement instead of black-top style pavement, it would be a reflection of sunlight back into space that would be the equivalent of if you took off all the automobiles in the world for eleven years.

Chu’s claim was based on a study whose authors included Art Rosenthal, Chu’s colleague at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a member of the California Energy Commission. The study said that repainting a dark roof that reflects 20 per cent of sunlight so that it reflects 60 per cent of sunlight could offset 10 tonnes of CO2 emissions – roughly the amount produced by an average American household in a year.

Urged on by Rosenthal, California has led the way in introducing legislation to this effect: since 2005, state law has required all new flat roofs on commercial buildings to be white. From July, sloped roofs will have to be cool-coloured. Making roofs more reflective cools the building, saving energy on air conditioning, but also means less heat absorbed by the planet, reducing global warming.

We can’t make roads and pavements white, but Rosenthal’s study claims that making black surfaces cement-coloured offsets four tonnes of CO2 per 100m². Combine this with roof-whitening in the world’s 100 largest cities and you get reduction in global warming equivalent to cutting 44 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Making roofs and pavements more reflective saves on energy and makes cities more comfortable. The incentives are local; there’s no need for international agreement. What are we waiting for?

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 10 May 2009 at 12:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Oxygen never looked so cute

Here is a really nice computer animation produced by Christopher Hendryx for his graduate thesis. It shows the interactions that an oxygen atom can have with other elements in the periodic table. I hope he makes more!

Just be glad they’re really tiny

An amoeba is a single-cell organism that floats around eating other smaller organisms like bacteria. It’s a bit like PacMan. Sounds pretty harmless you might thank, but I challenge you to watch this time-lapse video of an amoeba in action without recoiling in terror.

A chocolate-powered racing car

Slightly more useful than a chocolate tea pot, a team at Warwick University have constructed a car built from vegetables and powered by chocolate.

Of course, you should always eat your veg before snacking on chocolate.
Of course, you should always eat your veg before snacking on chocolate.

The unusual construction materials were created by blending vegetable fibres with resin, in order to demonstrate that green cars don’t have to be slow. Unfortunately the car is not eligible to enter the Formula 3 races it was designed for, because chocolate fuel fails to meet regulations.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 6 May 2009 at 8:13 am by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong

Any fan of The Sopranos will know that the Mafia is supposedly in the business of “waste management”, as disposing of rubbish makes a good cover for other more nefarious dealings. Now it appears that even the Mob are going green, as a Sicilian investigation into Mafia links to wind power gets under way.

Subsidies from the EU and Italian government combined with the world’s highest wind power rates of €180 (£160) per kwh produced has seen the Mafia getting into the business of renewables, with disastrous results.

According to Roberto Scarpinato, the anti-Mafia prosecutor in charge of the investigations, sham companies set up by organised crime bosses dominate the Italian wind power sector. He accuses the Mafia of controlling wind farm permits by manipulating their business and political connections.

Wind farms built by companies with suspected Mafia links have not produced power for the past couple of years, despite receiving taxpayer money to fund their construction. The Mafia is also suspected of protecting their interests by destroying two rival wind towers as they lay in storage.

It seems there is at least one honest man in the industry, however. Salvatore Moncada owns the largest Sicilian wind power company, Moncada Energy Group. His five wind farms produce around 100 megawatts, but the Mafia have been a constant threat. He refuses to pay “pizzo” – extortion money – and has pulled out from projects he believes to be Mafia controlled. He required a 24-hour police escort for 18 months, but believes the danger is now over.

Italy’s problems aren’t though, as the Mafia’s control over wind could have wider-reaching implications. Despite being fourth in Europe for installed wind power capacity, Italy is not on track to meet EU emissions targets by 2020. The science and technology to fight climate change might be in place, but once again it seems that people are the problem.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 4 May 2009 at 3:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

Scientists have discovered evidence of a tsunami in New York City. If it happened today, Wall Street would be completely flooded. Thankfully for the bankers, the giant wave is thought to have hit around 2,300 years ago.

Evidence in sedimentary deposit samples taken from over 20 spots in New York and New Jersey suggest that the North East coastal region of the US saw massive upheaval in 300 BC. It could just have been a large storm, but researchers now believe the culprit to be a tsunami – a rare occurrence for the Atlantic Ocean.

Steven Goodbred, an Earth scientist at Vanderbilt University, examined sediment cores from the region and found large gravel, marine animal fossils and other strange deposits. He said that such a formation would only be formed fast waves and strong currents that a storm could not produced. “If we’re wrong, it was one heck of a storm,” he said.

Scientists are still debating the cause of such a tsunami, and such information is important in case a similar event could occur today. Some believe that an submarine landslide could have generated the massive wave. These undersea earthquakes are common in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, because continental plates collide at these locations. The Atlantic however is more stable, meaning that Atlantic tsunamis are rare and understudied.

Dr Goodbred plans to rectify this by collecting more cores from around the New York region, but he’s got competition. Another group, led by Columbia University geologist Dallas Abbott, believes that an asteroid impacting from space could be the answer.

Evidence found in New Jersey and the Hudson River contain carbon spherules, shocked minerals, and nanodiamonds – all materials common to asteroid impacts. Dr Abbott suggests that an asteroid hitting the water off the cost of New York would either generate the tsunami directly, or trigger Dr Goodbred’s submarine landslide. Dr Goodbreed and others are sceptical, thinking that the asteroid is an unnecessary complication. “The tsunami story stands on its own without the impact,” he said.

Figuring out just what caused the 2,300 year old tsunami is a pretty tall order. Radiocarbon dating can place the date of the debris to the nearest century, but the common nature of the material – wood, sand, shells and rock – make identification tricky. Whether the origins of the New York tsunami are in outer space or underwater, I’m just glad it happened a couple of millennia ago!

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 30 April 2009 at 4:34 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

Two papers published in Nature this week give a troubling warning: we’re half of the way to a 2 °C rise in global temperatures. The reports say that such a rise will occur once a trillion tonnes of carbon have been released into the atmosphere, and we’re already half a trillion deep since the industrial revolution.

It’s taken a couple of hundred years to get this far, but with current emissions averaging about 9 billion tons a year and rising, we’re set to hit the trillion mark in just 40 years time. This effectively sets a framework for world leaders to agree on a “carbon budget”: we’ve got no more than a half-trillion tonnes to spend, and it’s got to be shared out somehow.

Parallels with the recession are inevitable. Governments overspent and banks over lent, and now we must adjust to the realisation that we’re not as rich as we thought. In the same way, rapid industrialisation has been one big extravagant carbon party, but now it’s the following morning and we’ve just realised how much we’ve spent.

How then do we go about paying our carbon bill? If it was just about money we could tuck the bill under the sofa and forget about it, relying on our overdraft and credit cards to get us through to the next pay day.

The trouble is, the next pay day isn’t coming. Once the carbon budget is spent there is no bank manager to plead with or government bailouts to rely on. Instead, the global warming bailiffs will be round to reclaim what they can. Rising sea levels will wipe out low-lying land and indeed entire island nations as payment, and we’ll wonder why we didn’t just settle the bill when we had the chance.

Thankfully, it’s not too late. We can cut up our carbon credit cards and reign in our spending through greater use of renewable energy, the interest-free loan in my increasingly stretched analogy. Action must be taken soon, however. Four decades seems like a long way off, but weaning ourselves from carbon entirely will probably take just as long.

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 27 April 2009 at 8:29 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Before I head off for the first day of exams, here’s the next roundup.

Pope goes solar powered

No, unfortunately His Holiness hasn’t developed the ability to absorb sunlight though his skin. Vatican City soon will though, with the announcement of a €500 million solar power plant. The 100 megawatts generated by solar energy will produce more than enough to power the tiny state, making Vatican City effectively the first country in the world powered entirely by renewables. The Pope may spout some dodgy science, but this time he’s done good.

Twitter your thoughts – literally

Twitter’s opponents decry the banality of sharing your every thought with the world, but researchers at the University of Wisconsin have taken the concept one step further. Using a machine which can translate brainwaves into movement of an on-screen cursor, a team of neuroscientists can literally tweet their thoughts.

It’s not simply for a laugh, however. They hope that the technology can be used by sufferers of locked-in syndrome; people who are concious but unable to move or communicate.

A map of global warming

Even though we know it’s happening, we don’t know exactly how much the Earth’s surface will heat up due to global warming. The image below shows one possibility:

Could the Earth warm this much?
Could the Earth warm this much?

Created by Global Warming Art, a wiki devoted to bringing data about global warming and climate change to the public, it is based on data from the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Change. The map shows a world much warmer than the one we currently live in, with some areas of land warmed by as much as 6 or 7°C.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 April 2009 at 5:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Talking in your sleep can be an annoying habit for anyone you share a bed with, but applying the same principle to computers could help combat climate change. ‘Sleep talking’ PCs are a new development from the University of California, San Diego and Microsoft Research that allow the computer to continue communicating on a network whilst in power-saving ‘sleep’ mode.

Computer science Ph.D. student Yuvraj Agarwal was lead author of a paper outlining the new technique, dubbed ‘Somniloquy’ – Latin for ‘sleep talking’. He says that people are leaving their PCs switched on even when they are not doing very much, simply because they want to remain online:

“Large numbers of people keep their PCs in awake mode even though the PCs are relatively idle for long blocks of time because they want to stay connected to an internal network or the Internet or both,

“I realized that most of the tasks that people keep their computers on for can be achieved at much lower power-use levels than regular awake mode.”

I know I’m guilty of going out for the day and leaving my PC on just to download a few files, and it turns out that I’m not alone. Previous research has shown that the average home PC is on 34% of the time, but only in use for half that.

Somniloquy works by plugging a piece of USB hardware into your PC that can communicate with other computers in the network. Low-intensity tasks can be performed whilst the PC is asleep, and if a bit more computational oomph is required Somniloquy will wake the PC up.

The current prototypes will work with any type of computer or network, and consumes anything from 11 to 24 times less power than a switched on, but idle, PC. This could mean a reduction of power consumption by 60 to 80% – quite a significant saving.

I’m a big champion of small, unglamorous ideas that can be rolled out on a large scale to lower energy usage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Somniloquy looks to be a great idea in this vein, and I look forward to installing it on my own PC.

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7 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 22 April 2009 at 6:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong

Getting the Tube home last night my eye was drawn to a man reading The Sun. “Fatties cause global warming” screamed the front page. “Oh really?” I thought. “And here I was blaming it on CO2 emissions.”

The news comes from a paper in the International Journal of Epidemiology, entitled Population adiposity and climate change. Adiposity being an overly-scientific term for “fatness”, that is.

Dr Phil Edwards of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and his colleague Ian Roberts modelled two possible populations, one “normal” with 3.5% obese people and another “overweight” with 40% obese, as measured by a Body Mass Index of 30. Both population consists of a billion people. They say that the normal population reflects the UK in the 1970s, whilst the overweight population is the prediction for 2010.

By estimating the energy required by both populations they found that the overweight population would require 19% more energy than the normal population. This of course means the overweight population would need to consume 19% more food. Producing this extra food would result in 270 megatonnes of extra greenhouse gasses (meaning CO2 as well as other gases like methane) being released into the atmosphere.

An overweight population would also release further greenhouse gases through increased reliance on transport. Newton’s laws of motion tell us that moving a heavier mass requires a proportionally larger force, so we would expect heavier car drivers to use more petrol. Overweight people are also more likely to drive rather than walk, compounding the effect. In total this would add another 170 megatonnes of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.

All of these figures are really extended back-of-the-envelope calculations. In the paper, the authors admit to making many assumptions about the two populations, such as keeping everyone of the same sex at the same height, and using identical levels of activity for both normal and obese people. As such, I wouldn’t take these figures as literal, but they do indicate that an overweight population has some effect on climate change.

Does this research mean then that a global diet is in order? Eat carrots, stop climate change? No. Food production accounts for only 20% of emissions, according to the paper, so in a planet of one billion people as imagined by this model we’re still left with 6000 megatonnes of greenhouse gasses being pumped out by other industries.

Tackling climate change requires a transformation in the way we consume and generate energy. The Sun story paints it as a problem caused by “fatties” – an easy scapegoat, but we’re all to blame. The obesity crisis is an issue that must also be tackled – nearly half of the population obese by next year is insane – but it’s not a magic bullet for climate change. Nothing is.

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 21 April 2009 at 4:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

With posts about the Sun and Moon today I thought perhaps I should bring things back down to Earth. New Scientist this week reported that we live in an increasingly hyperconnected world. According to researchers at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, working in conjunction with the World Bank, less than 10% of the world’s land is further than 48 hours by ground travel away from a city.

Using a model which calculated the travel time to the nearest city of over 50,000 people, they found that the most remote place in the world is on the this point on the Tibetan plateau, at 34.7° N, 85.7° E. From here it will take three weeks to get to the nearest cities of Lhasa or Korla, with one day by car and the rest on foot. Even Google admits defeat when asked to calculate directions.

The researchers plotted their findings on a colour-coded map which reveals the interesting pathways which criss-cross the globe:

The map's colours represent travel time to the nearest city. Click for a larger view.
The map's colours represent travel time to the nearest city. Click for a larger view.

The branching networks present in many countries invoke images of a central nervous system, as well as of fractal geometry. Both descriptions certainly relate to the way humans have spread throughout the planet.

New Scientist have ten maps in total of our networked world, including railway distribution and all the planet’s rivers. With the world becoming increasingly connected online, it’s nice to be reminded of our physical connections as well.

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 21 April 2009 at 2:03 pm by Jessica Bland
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

At the beginning of the month, NASA told us that last year’s record low in Solar activity may well be bettered in 2009. 87% of the days in the first quarter of this year had no solar flares. 73% of the days in 2008 saw similarly inactivity. The Sun is keeping very quiet.

Today, the BBC’s Pallab Ghosh produced a video news report on UK astronomers’ reaction to this. One of the physicists he interviewed, Professor Mike Lockwood from Southhampton University, was on the Radio 4′s Today show discussing it.  And, inevitably, the conversation turned to climate change.

It was inevitable because Solar radiation effects our weather: it certainly feels much warmer when the Sun is out. But, climate change patterns are a very different thing to our day-to-day local weather. There is significant debate over both the possible scale and nature of the sun’s affect on climate change. The Royal Society have a brief summary that explain the situation better than I can.

A clip of Lockwood’s Today show interview is available here. There is a wonderful Radio 4 ‘ah’ when Lockwood explains that there might be changes on Earth because of this lack in solar activity, but that solar variation is only by  “hundredths of percents”. And so the effects are likely to be very small. Lockwood’s story is not really related to climate change. The excitement for scientists is that the Sun, the things they spend all day studying, is doing something strange.

To give Ghosh credit, that is what he reports. Nor were the Today show’s team at fault either. They have a political mandate and were right to take this angle during the interview: particularly given the extent to which some climate sceptics rely on solar activity as an argument against anthropogenic climate change. They questioned the scientist hard about the potential climate repercussions, leaving no room for spin-off reports to exaggerate the claims made. A good interview technique in my book. Even if it did aggravate Professor Lockwood a little.

There was nothing loaded about the questions and reporting here, but back in 2007 the BBC was criticised by its own news executives for having a biased stance on climate change. It was planning a PlanetRelief day that would encourage green-thinking in everyday activities.  This was seen as pro-anthropogenic climate change campaigning, and the day was eventually cancelled. What aggravated me at the time was that most of the BBC reporting on climate change is of the kind we saw today: interview-based and quite science heavy. It is not biased in general, but was tainted by that episode.

The exception to that rule was Dr David Whitehouse, BBC Online’s science editor and now author of ‘The Sun: a biography’. Yet, he was biased against anthropogenic arguments: the opposite point of view to the one the BBC were criticised for. He expounded his minority views about solar effect on global warming on the BBC website for almost ten years without any comeuppance.

In 2000, Whitehouse reported on weather records found in Armagh in Ireland that supposedly showed that the Sun has been the main contributor to global warming over the past two centuries. He did not mention of the complex scientific debate behind the solar effects on our climate, choosing instead to quote Dr John Butler, who discovered the records: “I suspect that the greenhouse lobby have under-estimated the role of solar variability in climate change.”

Four years later, he reports on the high solar activity levels in the later 20th century. A group from the Institute of Astronomy in Zurich claimed that over the last century the number of sunspots rose at the same time that the Earth’s climate became steadily warmer. According to the article, there is a causal link. The only reason why the Sun’s recent low activity (it was low in 2004 as well) is not matched by a reverse climate change is because fossil fuel burning is starting to have some effect. Again, nothing about the debate over whether the sun can really effect climate change.

By 2007, Whitehouse starting writing in the mainstream press. Interestingly his tactic changes. He is no longer arguing that the Sun’s high levels of activity last century increased global warming. He claims instead that the Sun’s potential inactivity over the next fifty years might cause global cooling, reducing the effects of man made warming.  He wrote a long feature for The Independent, “Ray of hope: Can the Sun save us from global warming?”, in December that year.

That newspaper piece takes a much less contentious stance than the BBC reports. This is in part due probably to the increase in evidence against Whitehouse’s position. But it also highlights the difference in care taken over an online piece buried in a Science and Technology tab and one in the mainstream press. Which is worrying. Not least because that BBC tab is taking more and more of the newspaper readership.

Today’s reporting of solar activity showed a return to form by the BBC. There was no climate change headline: no overenthusiastic claims about a new model for global warming. Instead, the science came first. The sun is being a bit strange, which has got some scientists very excited. But that’s it really – no one really knows what it means for next summer’s hose-pipe ban.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 17 April 2009 at 9:27 am by Jessica Bland
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

This week the internet security company McAfee released the results of a survey they commissioned on the carbon footprint of email spam. The survey shows that the annual energy used to transmit, process and filter spam totals 33 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh). This is equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes. And 80% of it comes from us searching for and deleting spam emails from our inboxes.

Wow. That’s huge. Imagine how goody green-drops we would be if we had some way of getting rid of spam? Well we don’t need to imagine, we can just buy McAfee’s Spamkiller software.

There is nothing wrong with a company paying for a survey that might increase the brand-profile of one of its products. After all, that just makes good business sense. But there is something a bit sad about the way this was picked up by mainstream, well-respected publications and reported as news. The worst case is a New Scientist article in their online Tech section. This was a near verbatim repeat of McAfee’s press release with the addition of one quote – from Jeff Green, McAfee’s senior vice president of product development.

There are similar articles hopping around cyberspace, replicated in part or whole on various sites. They all do the same thing; they report the story as straight news, with a carbon footprint quote from someone at McAfee. My favourite is James Murray’s report for BusinessGreen.com entitled Spam Epidemic Results in Giant Carbon Footprint. Getting “epidemic” and “Carbon Footprint” in the same heading is pretty impressive. I challenge anyone not to click on the article if it appears in their Google news results.

Luckily, that particular article dose not actually appear on a Google news search for “carbon footprint spam”. The top article in that search is, in fact, a piece where the writer appears to have grasped more than the copy and paste functions of a keyboard. Jeremy A. Kaplan from PCmag.com should be applauded for being the only writer I found who applied his critical faculties to the McAfee study.

In Why the Spam Carbon Footprint Study is Wrong Kaplan makes the simple point that most of the energy we use whilst filtering and deleting emails (the process that accounts for 80% of the carbon footprint McAfee have calculated) comes from having a computer switched on. And by including a computer’s footprint in their calculations the study grossly overestimated the true effects of the spam epidemic.

Kaplan’s article was posted later than many of the other pieces and it illustrates well why taking time over a story can make for better journalism. If you read the McAfee study properly, mulled it over for a bit and then set about deciding whether it’s newsworthy, queries like Kaplan’s tend to crop up. Then when you speak to or, more likely, email someone at McAfee, you might just ask them about why the study they commissioned points more to the carbon footprint of computer uses rather than of spam emails. And that way, you might do more than play your part in their corporate marketing scheme. You might do some journalism.

All this is even more surprising given a similar statistical manipulation that burned a bona fide journalist at The Sunday Times back in January. Google and You’ll Damage the Planet claimed that just two Google searches has the same carbon footprint as boiling a kettle. This was almost instantly refuted by Google as Jacob reported. A search is equivalent to 0.2g of carbon, whereas a kettle burns 7g. The Times Online version of the article now carries a clarification. It claims that the original article based its numbers on the amount of carbon produced in the average number of searches done before some one finds the information they need, rather than in a one-click search. But this correction didn’t matter. The response from Google spread across the web quicker, discrediting the article.

The Google-Kettle episode taught us how precarious calculations of computing carbon footprints are. But those reporting the McAfee survey chose to forget that in favour of an easy article. Maybe that’s a little harsh; perhaps they are just too busy filtering their spam mail to do any real reporting.

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 13 April 2009 at 2:12 pm by Seth Bell
In Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology

The Kyoto box isn’t just a theory. It’s just a box (well technically it’s two, but that just sounds less snappy.) It’s a solar cooker made from cardboard boxes which won the Climate Change Challenge, a $75,000 prize organised by Forum For The Future. For the Kenyan-based entrepreneur behind it, Jon Bøhmer, it’s a bit like winning Dragon’s Den. Except it has the potential to save millions of lives. Almost as good as Levi Roots’ Reggae Reggae sauce?

How to assemble: Take one cardboard box (ask at your local Tesco if you don’t have one lying around), cover in silver foil. Place newspaper at bottom of box for insulation. Place second cardboard box inside and paint black. Cover top of second box with acrylic to trap sun-rays.

That’s it. Sounds like half an episode of Art Attack, or a particularly good GCSE technology project. Except this disarmingly simple box can cook stuff using the power of the sun alone and it only costs 5 Euros to make at a manufacturing level. Apparently it can reach over 100 degrees no problem. Perhaps the most amazing part is that no one has had this idea before (or if they have, that they failed to market it successfully).

The Kyoto box is very good news for the population of developing countries for a whole host of reasons. First, it offers a very cheap and easy way to sterilize water.  Second, for the three billion people who still rely on firewood for cooking the Kyoto box offers a wood-free method of cooking. Not only is this better for the environment, but it’s also safer – apparently 1.6 million women and children die from smoke inhalation during indoor cooking every year.

So I’m a fan, as were the judges (who included my old boss Richard Branson) and the prize money will be used to trial the Kyoto box in 10 different countries, including South Africa and India. 

The appeal of the Kyoto box is not just its potential to save lives, but its simplicity.  If you read the About page for Just A Theory, Jacob warns us of the danger of journalists who dumb down science. How do you dumb down the Kyoto box? You can’t, and this is the joy of this story. There is no elaborate scientific experiment or incomprehensible statistics for us to struggle with, because the concept behind the Kyoto box is beautiful in its simplicity. 

For me, science is at its best when clever thinking about simple ideas leads to a remarkable result (such as when Einstein developed Special Relativity using only high school mathematics) and the Kyoto box is a prime example of this. I’m all in favour of complicated experiments and expensive particle accelerators, but scientists would do well to remember that sometimes a small, simple idea can go a long way.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 30 March 2009 at 4:34 pm by Sam Wong
In Climate Change & Environment, Science Policy

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change was published, amid great fanfare, in 2006. The message of the 700 page document, commissioned by Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, was simple: the cost of failing to act on climate change would be far greater than the cost of taking measures to mitigate it. The report concluded that countries would have to spend at least one per cent of GDP on measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions, or else the consequences of inaction could lead to a 20 per cent reduction in global GDP. Last year the author, economist Sir Nicholas Stern, revised his recommendation for expenditure on mitigation to two per cent.

Naturally the Stern Review was seized upon by the Climate Change lobby as a definitive demonstration that cutting carbon emissions not only made environmental sense but also economic sense. In truth, many academics have criticised the report, saying that its conclusions are based on questionable assumptions.

This is, of course, an inevitable part of trying to predict future economic trends, just as it is in predicting the course of climate change. Both are phenomenally complex systems, and it is therefore impossible to have any great confidence in the precise figures that Stern produced. However, the report undoubtedly had a huge impact in forcing policymakers to consider the economic consequences of ignoring climate change. As Mike Hulme, then director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said when the report came out, ‘in a sense it’s neither here nor there whether you believe the numbers. This will take the discourse away from the costs of taking action and put attention onto the costs of inaction.’

Of course, since the Stern Review was published, the financial climate has changed dramatically. But Stern says in an interview with the Guardian published today that the recession could even spur on moves towards a low-carbon economy.

‘This recession is seen as something that would prevent action on climate change only if we confuse ourselves. If we think clearly, this is an opportunity to bring forward some of those investments, because resources are a bit cheaper at the moment. I’ve been struck that this climate change story has stayed very much on the agenda, the way that the green stimulus has been seen as part of the expansion package. In the next two or three decades, I think low-carbon technologies are going to be like the railways or IT – big drivers of growth.’

One of the stated aims of the G20 summit in London this week is to ‘put the global economy on track for sustainable growth’. Let us hope that those attending recognise that keeping environmental considerations in mind will be integral to achieving this goal.

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3 Comments » Posted on Saturday 28 March 2009 at 8:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Musings

This post has been written to coincide with the start of Earth Hour in the UK. The event, initiated by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), asks people around the world to spend an hour in darkness to support action against climate change. With a worldwide rolling start at 8.30pm local time, the WWF are hoping that a billion people will join together in switching off their lights.

Perhaps you’re already sitting in darkness as you read this post, but I’m not. I disagree with large scale events like Earth Hour, because they actually allow people to ignore the issues. “If I switch my lights off for an hour, I’m saving the planet!” they think, whilst tucking into a processed microwave dinner that they brought back from the supermarket in their gas-guzzling 4×4.

I’m generalising of course, and many of the participants in Earth Hour will already be hardcore eco-warriors. The trouble is, combating climate change will not be solved by large scale gimmicks like this. Everyone must make small and boring changes to their lives which are hard to market with a simple slogan or event, but will collectively make a difference

We must reduce our use of energy in a drastic way, and not just for 60 minutes in a year. You may switch your lights off this evening, but what about the rest of the time? How many people leave unoccupied rooms needlessly lit throughout the year, simply because they forget to flick the switch when they leave? I’m not claiming to be perfect as I sometimes do it myself, but I do make a conscious effort to turn off the lights each and every time I leave the room.

It’s not just lights we need to worry about, as changes must be made in every aspect of our lives. Transport, food, manufacturing – they all need overhauling. Whilst I appreciate that the WWF are using Earth Hour to get people talking about these issues, I worry that many people will simply enjoy an hour in the dark and then get on with their lives, using just as much energy and pumping out just as much carbon as before.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 22 March 2009 at 3:27 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Health & Medicine, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Prince Charles, Told Off

Prince Charles’s Duchy Originals company, which recently hit the headlines with its false “detox” claims, has been .

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) informed Duchy Originals they must change the product description on their website. The MHRA granted Duchy Originals a license to sell their products, but not to make claims on their effects. At time of writing, the product page remains unchanged.

Underwater volcano

Earlier this week a volcano off the coast Tonga erupted from in the Pacific Ocean. This spectacular display has resulted in the formation of a new island, made up of pumice as the result of emerging lava and gas.

To the stratosphere on just £56

The curvature of the Earth is clearly visible in this photo taken by four Spanish schoolboys from their weather balloon.
The curvature of the Earth is clearly visible in this photo taken by four Spanish schoolboys from their weather balloon.

Four students at a Spanish school have capture images of the stratosphere using a weather balloon and camera that cost just £56. Whilst there is no clear boundary between the Earth and outer space, the stratosphere is defined to be between 20 and 50km above sear level.

Aged between 18 and 19, the students attend the IES La Bisbal school in Catalonia. Gerard Marull Paretas, Sergi Saballs Vila, Marta­ Gasull Morcillo and Jaume Puigmiquel Casamort were “overwhelmed” with their results, and had to travel 10km to find the balloon when it eventually came crashing back to Earth.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 21 February 2009 at 10:24 am by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong

It’s been a while, and I know you’ve all been waiting for itm but we’ve finally got ourselves a new scientific rap. The last one, about astrobiology, was in October, so it’s been a long time coming. This new offering seeks to explain climate change with the aid of a funky beat:

The song, “Take AIM at Climate Change” (AIM stands for Adapt, Innovate, Mitigate) was produced by POLAR-PALOOZA, an organisation dedicated to bringing stories and multimedia from scientists in the poles to the masses.

It’s also, really, really bad.

From the opening “climate change, mmm mmm” to the moon-walking polar explorers, it’s like a parody of itself. It wouldn’t seem out of place on Sesame Street. It’s a shame, because the science is sound. You can read the lyrics here (as well as comments on each line from someone who doesn’t seem to have quite finished building the site…), and they have a decent enough message:

See, the heat comes down from the Sun to the Earth
But now the heat can’t escape, it just can’t disperse…
Cos of carbon dioxide from power plants and factories,
Cars and trucks, so much more than you can find naturally

So the Poles get warm, and the Earth gets hotter
All that necessary ice melts down into water
And the impact, the sad fact, is it can only escalate,
So – for real – we gotta act now, before it’s too late..

The message gets lost thought, because the presentation of the video is just so unintentionally hilarious. I’m afraid the LHC rap is still king when it comes to science rap – possibly because it knows just how ridiculous it is!

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 15 February 2009 at 1:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Mathematics, Science Policy, Weekly Roundup

Wayne Rooney solves quadratic equations

The Independent have a lengthy interview with Marcus du Sautoy (the recently appointed Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science) about his thoughts on mathematics. He makes the argument that everyone has a “maths brain”, including Wayne Rooney:

“As a footballer, you’re trying to get in line with an incoming free kick. Wayne Rooney is subconsciously solving a quadratic equation every time he works out where to stand in the box. That doesn’t mean he can do it on paper and I’m sure he’s probably forgotten how to do it. But the point is that our brains are evolutionarily programmed to be able to do it.”

I’m never entirely convinced by this type of argument, as I don’t think your brain is really solving equations for you go about your life, but it’s always nice to see a bit of maths promotion. Have a read.

What should the government discuss?

The House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee is inviting members of the public to suggest topics for discussion at an oral evidence hearing to be held in a few months time. If you’ve got some scientific grievances that need airing in public, now is your chance.

Any topic under the remit of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills will be considered, as long as it is not already covered by an existing enquiry. Your idea must also be examinable in under two hours, and appropriately timed for either April or May.

After reading du Sautoy’s interview above, an idea might be to look into what can be done to stop bankers poaching all the top science graduates. Perhaps I’ll get around to writing it up…

Apocalypse meh

The Met Office Hadley Centre, an government organisation involved in climate change research, suggests that “apocalyptic predictions” about global warming are just as bad as claims that the phenomenon does not exist. Dr Vicky Pope is head of climate change advice at the Met Office, and says that scientists and journalists must stop misleading the public.

“Having to rein in extraordinary claims that the latest extreme [event] is all due to climate change is at best hugely frustrating and at worse enormously distracting. Overplaying natural variations in the weather as climate change is just as much a distortion of science as underplaying them to claim that climate change has stopped or is not happening.”

A common misrepresentation is to extrapolate off only a few years data, which could lead to puclic confusion when scientists’ predictions don’t actually occur, says Dr Peter Stott, a climate researcher at the Met Office.

“The reality is that extreme events arise when natural variations in the weather and climate combine with long-term climate change.”

“This message is more difficult to get heard. Scientists and journalists need to find ways to help to make this clear without the wider audience switching off.”

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 7 February 2009 at 4:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Weekly Roundup

The weekly roundup has grown so big this week that it has spilled into Saturday – and that’s even with some stories not making the cut!

Up the creek with no sign of a paddle

People do some strange things in the name of science. Daniel Bennett spent seven years searching the rainforests of the Philippines for the faeces of the rare butaan lizard, a relation of the giant komodo dragon. It’s understandable then that he was rather upset when he found that his 35kg bag of poo had been thrown away by a Leeds University lab technician. He made the discovery on his return to start the third year of his PhD.

“I was surprised to find my desk space occupied by another student,” he said. “My personal effects had been carefully stowed in boxes, but there was no sign of my 35kg bag of lizard shit.

“To some people it might have been just a bag of lizard shit, but to me it represented seven years of painstaking work searching the rainforest with a team of reformed poachers to find the faeces of one of the world’s largest, rarest and most mysterious lizards.”

The university, after a 16 month wait, offered Bennett £500 compensation which he turned down in favour of legal action. He says the loss of the bag left him “reeling” and has changed his life forever. Although he was able to complete his PhD, the depression at his loss severely affected him.

Time for climate change

I came across this rather nifty timeline of climate change at the Met Office’s website. It begins in 1824, when the French physicist Joseph Fourier (inverter of a wonderful mathematical tool, the Fourier series) realised that the atmosphere can trap heat from the Sun, warming the Earth in much the same way as a Greenhouse.

From there we move through a 1938 prediction by engineer Guy Stewart Callendar that the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for warming the planet, the Kyoto Protocol, and a number of other important landmarks in the history of climate science. The timeline speculatively ends in 2100, with world temperatures expected to rise between 1.8-4.0 °C – depending on the action we take in the meantime.

Yoink

I join the Daily Mail in being a sucker for some pretty picture of animals. They’ve got some great snaps of a kingfisher diving for fish in an ice river in Land Hessen, central Germany.

The kingfisher grabs its underwater prey. Photographer: Gisela Delpho/Picture Press.
The kingfisher grabs its underwater prey. Photographer: Gisela Delpho/Picture Press.
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Comments Off Posted on Monday 2 February 2009 at 4:12 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Happenings

I was planning on reviewing David Attenborough’s new show, broadcast last night, but it’s hard not to pass comment on the snow. Britain seems to have ground to a halt after what feels like continuous snow fall since yesterday evening. Imperial have cancelled lectures both today and tomorrow, so it looks like I won’t be venturing outside for a while.

If you’re also “snowed in” (an absurd phrase for 10cm or so worth of snow!) perhaps this news from the Complutense University of Madrid will offer some hope: Europe is set for fewer days of extreme cold but more of extreme heat.

A study of 262 observatories analysing the minimum and maximum daily temperatures from 1955 to 1998 has found that days like today will be less frequent in the future. The average minimum temperature has risen from 0.5ºC to 1ºC, whilst the average maximum has moved from 0.5ºC to 2ºC. The study took place over 34 European countries, but the trends were particularly noticeable in Britain and Iceland.

Of course this research is actually intended to highlight the threat of global warming, and whilst a sudden outbreak of snow doesn’t mean that man-made climate change is no longer an issue, it’s hard to feel too worried on a day like today.

So, whether you prefer to stay inside, toasty, warm and releasing carbon dioxide with your central heating, or to brave the outside and enjoy the snow, just remember that this is not the answer:

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 13 January 2009 at 12:32 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

Now this is a bit interesting. Yesterday I (and many others) examined the claims of one Dr Alex Wissner-Gross, as reported by the Times, that two search on Google release as much CO2 as boiling a kettle. Today, speaking to TechNewsWorld, Dr Wissner-Gross says he has been misquoted.

The original study (which as I must remind you, I don’t have access to and thus haven’t read) apparantly never mentions Google, or indeed kettles. Both elements of the story seem to have been entirely manufacture by the Times.

“For some reason, in their story on the study, the Times had an ax to grind with Google,

“Our work has nothing to do with Google. Our focus was exclusively on the Web overall, and we found that it takes on average about 20 milligrams of CO2 per second to visit a Web site.” Dr Wissner-Gross told TechNewsWorld.

This quote gives us another figure to add to the growing bag of statistic on this matter: 20 milligrams, or 0.02g of CO2 per second of web usage. If you recall from yesterday, Google claimed that the average search on their servers took less than 0.2 seconds, which given this new figure would result in a CO2 emission of just 0.004g; pretty far off Google’s own estimates of 0.2g. Perhaps the remaining emissions come from the users PC as they read the results.

In the end, these statistics become meaningless. Google aren’t going to release their methodology; it would mean revealing the details of how their servers are set up, something they probably don’t want to share. Meanwhile, I still don’t even know where the original study was published, let alone how to access it. I’m considering emailing Dr Wissner-Gross, but I don’t think a message from a lone blogger is likely to get a reply when competing against the world’s press. Sigh.

I’ll sum up with another quote from Dr Wissner-Gross in he TechNewsWorld article:

“Everything online has a definite environmental impact. I think everybody can agree on that, including Google.”

It’s not just everything online that has an environmental impact, pretty much just everything does. If we’re going to worry about the carbon cost of Googling (rather than larger concerns such as cars or power plants) then we might as well take it to the ultimate logic conclusion: the greenest thing you can do is to kill yourself.

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 12 January 2009 at 8:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

Running just two searches on Google releases as much carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle, says Harvard University physicist Dr Alex Wissner-Gross. He says that each search produces 7g of CO2, but just how did he come up with such a figure? Well to be honest, I don’t know. I can’t find any original sources for his figures, only media reports. It’s still possible to infer some information from these reports, however.

The Times reports a similar estimation by Chris Goodall, author of Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, who suggest a Google search emits between 7g and 10g of CO2. This estimate assumes a total of 15 minutes computer use for one search however, which seems incredibly slow to me. Closer to the mark would be 15 seconds – type your search, hit enter, check the results and click a link – normally the first one, thanks to Google’s accurate searching technology.

Since both Goodall’s and Dr Wissner-Gross’s estimates agree, its not unreasonable to suggest they must be making similar assumptions – inaccurate assumptions, in other words. Google agree, and have responded to the claims. They say that as the average search takes just 0.2 seconds, their servers only use 0.0003 kWh of power per search – about the same amount of energy as an adult human body burns in ten seconds, apparently.

In terms of CO2 emissions, this works out at about 0.2g per search, far from the 7g claimed by Dr Wissner-Gross. Now, we’ve only got Google’s word for these figures, but I see no reason to believe Dr Wissner-Gross over them for one simple reason – he runs a company that offers to make your site carbon neutral. As is to be expected, everyone reporting the story has plugged his website so I won’t give him any more free publicity, and it does rather bring in to question his motivation for releasing his study.

I also question the comparison to boiling a kettle, which we are told is roughly equivalent to two search in carbon terms. The trouble is, “a kettle” is not the most scientific definition. A kettle will take a different amount of time to boil depending on how much water there is inside, and thus the electricity used is variable. As a basis for comparison, it’s a bit lacking.

Finally, consider the alternative to Google. Finding out information would involve travelling to a library, most likely by car, hunting down the book you require, and then searching through it. All of these activities require energy, be it in the form of petrol to power your car or food to fuel your muscles, and emit far more carbon into the atmosphere than simply loading up Google. I don’t know about you, but I think I will continue to Google with a green and guilt-free conscience.

1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 7 January 2009 at 2:46 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong

I guess 2009 must be short on celebrity TV scandals so far, because earlier this morning the headline story on the Daily Mail’s website was Revolt! Robbed of their right to buy traditional light bulbs, millions are clearing shelves of last supplies. It’s been pushed off by other stories now, but the switch to energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) bulbs must be big news, with not one but two editorials on the matter.

Last year I wrote about a study showing that CFL bulbs can do more harm than good, depending on where you live. Yes, they will always use less energy than a regular bulb, but the materials required to make them could increase average mercury emissions in a low-mercury country such as Norway. Countries like the US would receive a reduction in mercury emissions, however. Full details are in the previous post, so I won’t repeat them here, but although I can’t back it up with facts I imagine we’re probably closer to the US side of the scale than Norway.

The mercury question aside (a question that could be easily answered if I was able to access the paper) I’m moderately in favour of CFL bulbs, but I would much rather see commercial LED bulbs instead. More on that in a bit; let’s have a look at how the Daily Mail is reporting the national tragedy that is the loss of the incandescent bulb.

It’s good to see that hyperbole is out in full effect, with the opening statement:

Millions of Britons are finally waking up to the fact that their beloved light bulb will disappear for good after 120 years.

Yes, losing the good old bulb feels like an old friend has passed on. Often, I would stare up into my lighting fixture until my retinas burnt, such was my devotion. Soon, this happy past-time will be no longer.

Reading the article, it’s easy to see why this story is being run. Nothing to do with CFLs versus regular bulbs; it’s all an excuse for a bit of Daily Mail EU bashing:

The supplies are running out after the Government signed up to an EU decision to replace conventional 100w light bulbs with supposedly greener low energy alternatives.

The Mail’s main objections seem to be health issues, financial cost, and quality of lighting. They report that CFLs can causes skin rashes, migraines and epilepsy. Googling for a bit has revealed that much of the evidence for this is anecdotal – I can’t seem to find any scientific studies that provide an answer either way. This is a failing of both the Government and the Green movement – why haven’t these types of studies been commissioned before phasing out traditional bulbs?

The concerns on cost are a little less agreeable, however. The Mail reports an average pack of six standard bulbs to cos £1.21, or 20.17p each, whilst a single CFL is £2.19, roughly ten times as much. Again, no facts to back it up, but I have definitely seen CFLs cheaper than this, so the Mail are possibly being selective in their reporting. They do say, however, that CFLs can save £7 a year in bills per bulb, over a regular light.

Hang on a minute, doesn’t that mean that CFLs are actually cheaper? If a normal bulb costs 20.17p + £x to run (where £x is the electricity cost), then a CFL will cost £2.19 + £x-7. Doesn’t matter what £x is, a CFL will always be cheaper. Additionally, because CFLs last much longer than normal bulbs, you’ll see that £7 saving for many years.

Finally, the Mail report complaints that say both the lights are too dim, and that they don’t work with a dimmer switch. Forgive me if I’m being stupid, but why would you want to dim a too-dim light?

It’s a fuss about nothing really. Only the 100W bulbs are currently being phased our, whilst the rest of them will be hanging on until 2012. I’m hoping that by then, LED bulbs will have taken hold, and the question of CFL suitability won’t even matter. The Daily Mail fail to even report on the existence of LED bulbs, however.

LEDs, or light emitting diodes, are the small indicator lights you find in most consumer electronics. Not bright enough to light a room you might think, but put a bunch of them together, and you’re getting close. LED bulbs are already on the market, but at costs and strengths that make them unsuitable for wide use. These problems are expected to be overcome however, and will result in dramatic energy savings, even over CFLs.

Still, perhaps I’m just as bad as the Daily Mail in over-reporting the death of the light bulb. Glancing at my word count, I’ve written nearly 800 – quite enough for one day I think!

Comments Off Posted on Monday 5 January 2009 at 8:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Evolution, Just A Review

Well, we’re less than a week into 2009 and already the Darwinmania has begun. This week Radio 4 present a season of all things Darwin, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth this year. Amongst other programmes on the great man’s life and work is Dear Darwin, a five-part series broadcast every day this week at 3.45pm, which allows five modern-day scientists to write a letter to Darwin to tell him about the impact of his work.

The first episode today featured Dr Craig Venter, who popped up in TIME magazine’s top 10 scientific discoveries of 2008 for his work towards creating artificial life. He is most well known as being one of the researchers to first map the human genome.

Dr. Venter uses his letter to tell Darwin about the discovery of DNA, and how ideas from the Origin of Species can now be confirmed with modern genetic analysis. Looking at the similarities between human and chimpanzee DNA (which I talked about a couple of days ago), it is very clear that we must share a common ancestor as Darwin predicted. Dr. Venter tells him that we differ from the chimps by only 5-6% of our DNA – and some large stretches by only a little over 1%.

Darwin has clearly been a huge inspiration to Dr. Venter. He tells of following in Darwin’s footsteps on a voyage similar to that of the Beagle, but the goal of his expedition was to look for micro-organisms that would have been invisible to Darwin with the tools available at the time. The ocean provides an unimaginable bounty for the interested explorer; 1 million bacteria and 10 million viruses are to be found in every litre of sea water.

The letter also touches on the discovery of oil, and the effect that it has had on our world. Many of the species that were alive in Darwin’s day are now extinct, in part due to industrialisation. Now, Dr. Venter says, we must take control of evolution if we are to solve the problems of climate change, and engineer bacteria to suck up all our waste CO2.

At its heart, the programme has quite a nice idea. I’m sure Darwin would be amazed at the work that has been done today as a result of his natural selection. Unfortunately however, it doesn’t really make great radio! Dr. Venter’s voice is rather monotone, and uninterrupted for the entire course of the programme. As a letter, that’s how it has to work I guess, but I was glad that it only lasted 15 minutes!

If I haven’t put you off, here is the obligatory iPlayer link, and as I said above the other episodes will be every day this week on Radio 4, at 3.45pm.

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 2 January 2009 at 3:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology

A British company has developed a new type of cement that can suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Its use could transform the cement production from a harmful emitter of CO2 into an environmentally beneficial process.

Traditionally, cement requires intense heat to burn the raw material used in production – typically limestone. A large amount of energy is needed to generate this heat, and so CO2 is released. The effect is further compounded by the release of CO2 from the burning limestone itself.

Novacem, based in London, have created a new mixture of cement based on magnesium silicates. It requires much lower temperatures during production, and as it sets it actually absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, making the material actually carbon negative.

The company claims that in a normal lifecycle their cement can absorb 0.6 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of cement. This is a dramatic improvement over the regular stuff, which emits about 0.4 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of cement.

There are doubts over the suitability of the new cement, however. A spokesperson for the British Cement Association said that although much work is done in laboratories on new types of cement, they aren’t yet ready for the market:

“The reality is that the geological availability, and global distribution, of suitable natural resources, coupled with the extensive validation needed to confirm fitness-for-purpose, make it highly unlikely that these cements will a be realistic alternative for volume building.”

Chief scientist of Novacem, Nikolaos Vlasopoulos, countered such claims, as an estimated 10,000 billion tonnes of magnesium silicates are available worldwide. He acknowledges that the cement requires further testing until it is safe for use in buildings, but is confident that Novacem is the way forward.

For myself, I have to applaud Novacem for their efforts. Cement might not be glamorous, but it’s scientific developments such as these that will help us tackle climate change. No one is really going to get excited about a new type of cement, but adapting our existing industrial methods will certainly make a difference.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 31 October 2008 at 11:15 am by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment

Olives could turn out to be more than just a tasty snack or delicious pizza topping – or rather, their stones could. Often discarded in the cultivation of the olive for oil or other uses, it is estimate that every year the olive growing industry produces 4 million tonnes of olive stones as waste. Scientists at the University of Jaén and the University of Granada, both in Spain, have demonstrated a method of extracting bioethanol from the stones.

Bioethanol is a renewable source of fuel that can be produced from many kinds of waste plant matter, but it has recently come under fire. Turning fields over to growing fuel instead of food has seen grain prices rise and increased the threat of hunger. Nevertheless, the push towards bioethanol continues, with the UK government mandating that by 2010 all cars run on 5% biofuel. Thus, producing energy from an unwanted food by-product looks increasingly attractive.

The fuel was extracted by first blasting the stones with high-pressure hot water and then adding enzymes to break down the organic matter into sugars. This mixture was then fermented with yeast in order to produce ethanol, with a maximum yield of 5.7 kg per 100 kg of olive stones.

They won't be powering your car just yet.

If this process could be applied to all 4 million tonnes of stones produced each year it would result in 228,000 tonnes of ethanol. Government figures for 1997 (the only ones I could find, unfortunately) indicate that 22,243,000 tonnes of petrol were sold that year. Unfortunately for olive producers, this means that waste stones would only be able to provide around a fifth of the UK’s bioethanol needs in 2010 – let alone any other countries.

It’s not all doom and gloom however. This research shows that energy can be extracted from the most unlikeliest places, and will perhaps encourage others to seek out other forms of energy from waste bio-materials.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 29 October 2008 at 11:12 am by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Musings

And no, I don’t mean the falling sales of organic food in times of economic hardship.

In the past I’ve talked about the comparisons between the reporting of business and science, and discussed the economic effect of biodiversity loss. It seems that environmental campaigners are increasingly grasping hold of banking metaphors in order to engage with the public.

Today the WWF, in conjunction with the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network, published their Living Planet Report 2008 under the banner of an “ecological credit crunch”. The phrase, now so engrained in the public mind, instantly conveys a message: we’re in trouble.

The demand the human race now places on global resources exceeds the planet’s “natural capital” by about 30%. If this rate of growth continues, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to sustain our lifestyles. In other words, more than three quarters of the global population are now “ecological debtors” – we’ve borrowed from the Bank of Nature and can’t afford the repayments.

“Continued ecological deficit spending will have severe economic consequences,” said the Global Footprint Network Executive Director, Dr Mathis Wackernagel. “Resource limitations and ecosystem collapses would trigger massive stagflation with the value of investments plummeting, while food and energy costs skyrocket.”

America and the United Arab Emirates are the biggest borrowers, with the largest ecological footprint. The UK comes in at 15th, but still uses the same amount of natural resources as 33 African countries put together. That’s 33, folks.

Something needs to change. Capitalism is based on the concept of eternal growth; if we’re not moving forward, we’re moving backwards. As these figures show however, we’ve already grown too much. You can’t reach for infinity by using finite resources – yet we’ve blindly ignored this fact since the days of Adam Smith.

“We are acting ecologically in the same way as financial institutions have been behaving economically – seeking immediate gratification without due regard for the consequences,” said Zoological Society of London co-editor Jonathan Loh. “The consequences of a global ecological crisis are even graver than the current economic meltdown.”

The banks are semi-privatised. Climate change denial is no longer seen as valid point of view. In less than one week from now, the most powerful nation in the world will elect a new leader. We have the opportunity to changed the way we work, to move away from the days of eternal growth and in to a more sustainable model.

It won’t be easy, but it must be done. I have no idea how though. Capitalism, like its partner democracy, prevails because it is the least worst system compared to the rest of them. How can we move away from that? Ultimately, the answer must be an energy-based economy. I’ll trade you five hydrogen-bucks for a cup of ethically and sustainably produced coffee, buying a product for the actual cost of the energy used to make it. Can it be done? The WWF believes so.

David Norman, director of campaigns at WWF said: “We humans have been very good at creating problems – but we can be equally good at solving them. A sustainable world is not an unachievable goal. As the world looks to restore its economies we must build in long term environmental as well as economic sustainability.”

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 23 October 2008 at 5:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

The Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland have released a list of the worst pollution problems facing the world today. It’s unranked, as it reflects equally “the most serious environmental issues that impact communities around the globe” – particularly in the developing nations, where the The Blacksmith Institute works in cleaning up pollution hazards.

This injury was caused by chromium, a carcinogenic used by the leather tanning industry in India. Photo by Blacksmith Institute.

It’s founder Richard Fuller had this to say:

“Our goal with the 2008 report is to increase awareness of the severe toll that pollution takes on human health and inspire the international community to act,”

“Remediation is both possible and cost-effective.”

The full list is covered in detail on the Worst Polluted website:

A bucket of water from a contaminated source in India. Photo by Blacksmith Institute.

The list follows previous top 10s in 2007 and 2006, which profiled the world’s most polluted places. Also suggested are a number of sub-lists, included the four least addressed pollution problems and the four most likely to affect future generations. Interestingly enough, in most cases the polluting industries are locally owned and of fairly small scare. Only rarely is a large US or European multinational corporation responsible.

The Blacksmith Institute are calling for a “global effort” to identify polluted places, and the provision of resources to clean up the sites. By publishing the list they hope to raise awareness of the issues facing communities in the developing world, and the effect pollution can have on health, particular children’s. Some estimates say environmental factors contributed to 40% of death worldwide.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 14 October 2008 at 8:37 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment

The banking crisis is, as ever, pretty big news. Even yesterday the British government dished out another £37 billion of taxpayers money to beleaguered bankers. I’ve written previously on what science communication can learn from business reporting, but a new report from the EU suggests that science still has a lot to learn if it is to grab headlines like the business world.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb) has suggested that global economy loses more annually from the erosion of the world’s natural forests than it has from the banking crisis. Yet, I don’t see bankers being told to shove off and retrain as tree surgeons. Pavan Sukhdev was the leader of the study, and told the BBC the scale of the loss:

“It’s not only greater but it’s also continuous, it’s been happening every year, year after year,”

“So whereas Wall Street by various calculations has to date lost, within the financial sector, $1-$1.5 trillion, the reality is that at today’s rate we are losing natural capital at least between $2-$5 trillion every year.”

These losses are calculated by modelling Mother Nature as a service provider. We’re essentially provided with forests “for free”, and they offer services such as absorbing carbon dioxide and so on, but as they fall in to decline the human race has to pick up the bill to cover the shortfall, or simply go without. Either option entails an economic cost. It’s a bit like a bank withdrawing a great mortgage policy and refusing to lend to anyone – either taxpayers have to step in and pay up to get the money flowing again, or people will be unable to borrow money to buy a house.

The question is, if the cost to the global economy is potentially as much as five yearly credit crunches, why aren’t we seeing rainforest bail-out packages? Where are the runs on garden centres, as people try to stock up on saplings? The problem is that dying trees are seen as Somebody Else’s Problem.

If you’ve just been made redundant, your home is being repossessed, and your pension is worth nothing because the stock market has crashed, why should you care if a few trees are hard done by? According to the study, it actually turns out that the people who are worse off are the most effected by the loss of biodiversity, especially in tropical regions where peoples’ livelihoods are more dependant on the forests.

By presenting the loss of natural resources in terms of cold, hard cash, Sukhdev and the other authors of the report hope to make governments and business sit up and take notice:

“Times have changed. Almost three years ago, even two years ago, their eyes would glaze over.

“Today, when I say this, they listen. In fact I get questions asked – so how do you calculate this, how can we monetize it, what can we do about it, why don’t you speak with so and so politician or such and such business.”

Hopefully politicians will be influenced in time to halt the decline of our forests, before the economic pinch is felt.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 5 October 2008 at 11:43 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Better luck next year

Everyone has heard of the Nobel Prize, one of the highest achievements a scientist can win, but what about the Ig Nobel Prize?

The organisers say they honour achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think” – and winners have certainly come up with some of the strangest discoveries in science. This year, the 18th Ig Nobel Prize ceremony was held last Thursday at Harvard University.

Highlights include Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert, and Michel Franc of Ecole Nationale Veterinaire de Toulouse who discovered that fleas on a dog can jump higher than those on a cat, and Dorian Raymer of the Ocean Observatories Initiative at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Douglas Smith of the University of California who mathematically proved that a heap of string will inevitably tangle into knots. You can view the full list of winners here.

It’s the freakiest show snow

It’s not quite “Life On Mars”, but maybe David Bowie would consider changing the chorus of his classic song – NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has found snow falling from clouds on Mars. Using a laser sensor from the planet’s surface, the plucky little probe detected snow 4 kilometres above its landing site. Whilst the snow evaporated before hitting the ground, scientists think it might be possible to find signs that snow has reached the surface in the past.

Another experiment that analysed soil samples has also found suggestions of calcium carbonate (which makes up chalk) and possibly, clay. These substances tend to form only in the presence of liquid water here on Earth, giving further evidence that Mars had a “liquid past”.

Could future cars be used for electric storage?

The popularity of hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius continues to increase as drivers become more environmentally concious – so much so that the Prius actually goes up in value, as hybrid enthusiasts are prepared to pay over the odds for a second hand car.

Hybrids work by using a traditional petrol-based engine in combination with a recharging battery that captures energy from wasteful actions such as braking, but plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) take this one step further, allowing you to hook up the car to a socket and charge from the National Grid.

Scientists at the University of Michigan have come up with a cunning idea to use PHEVs as overnight batteries, storing excess energy in your car whilst you sleep, and then releasing back into the gird when it is needed. Storing electricity until it is needed can often be costly and inefficient for power plants, but using this distributed model would allow the electric companies to keep up their supply without wasting energy. They’ll even pay you for the privilege of using your car’s battery – if the system ever takes off, that is.

Round ‘em up boys – it’s the carbon capturers

Carbon, carbon, carbon. Life as we know it could not exist without carbon, but this poor little element has a bad reputation these days. Really, it’s only when carbon gets together with two of it’s oxygen friends to form carbon dioxide (CO2) that the trouble starts. Now, a team of climate change researchers at the University of Calgary have invented a machine that pluck CO2 straight out of the air.

Although CO2 only makes up around 0.04% of the Earth’s atmosphere, it is the main contributor to global warming. Removing CO2 molecules from the air would help slow down climate change. The new machine uses less than 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity to remove one tonne of CO2 from the air, and can capture the equivalent of a US citizen’s average yearly emissions – around 20 tonnes CO2 per annum – on one square metre of scrubbing material. Team leader David Keith is optimistic about the technology’s prospects:

“This means that if you used electricity from a coal-fired power plant, for every unit of electricity you used to operate the capture machine, you’d be capturing 10 times as much CO2 as the power plant emitted making that much electricity,”

At the moment, however, the machine is still in its early stages. The current cost of capturing CO2 is too high to make it commercially viable, but work continues on bringing the technique to market.

Tiny pictures, big prizes

You can now vote for your favourite entry in the 34th Annual Small World Photomicrography Competition. Some stunning pictures of the very small have been entered, so I encourage you to take a look. Winners will receive thousands of dollars worth of Nikon photography equipment, and personally I’m going for this strange looking chicken embryo.

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 3 October 2008 at 9:07 am by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

As you may have noticed, Earth is a pretty complex place. As we rush to reverse the effects of decades pumping carbon dioxide in to the atmosphere, it is possible that we might inadvertently do more harm than good. It isn’t as simple as less carbon = good, and people working to combat climate change would do well to remember that we still don’t fully understand the systems that govern our planet.

We’ve already seen that biofuels, once heralded as the solution to all energy problems, can actually lead to food shortages – we were so wrapped up in making the change, we didn’t consider the consequences.

Now, research published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal has shown that energy saving compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) might not be such a bright idea. The UK government has pledged to irradicate traditional bulbs by 2011, but scientists at Yale University suggest this could be the wrong approach.

Are these energy saving bulbs really the answer?

The problem is that the strangely-shaped bulbs contain small amounts of mercury – on average, 4 micrograms. Whilst mercury poisoning gave us the Mad Hatter, there is no risk to homeowners from the low levels in the bulbs. The problem occurs when the bulbs reach the end of their life and are thrown away, releasing the mercury into the atmosphere.

The research found that for places relying on coal power for electricity generation, the switch to energy savers can cut mercury emissions significantly. In the US, per capita annual emissions of mercury from coal power plants amount to 163mg, so using the new bulbs not only reduces the electricity used, but also the mercury emitted.

Paradoxically, countries that have already “gone green” could actually cause more damage by adopting CFLs. Cleaner-powered countries like Norway (who in 2004 generated 99% of their electricity using hydroelectric power) already have a low “mercury footprint”, and whilst CFLs would save energy, they would increase mercury usage significantly. “The places known for sustainability are the places that have the potential to do the most harm by bringing this technology in,” said Julie Zimmerman, an environmental engineer at Yale and a co-author of the study.

It just goes to show that there is not a “one size fits all” solution to the climate change problem. More studies like this one would help governments make decisions about the direction they should take with regards to energy, but most importantly governments must actually listen to what the scientists are telling them. Science is often counter-intuitive, and sweeping, unresearched changes could leave us worse off then when we started.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 29 September 2008 at 2:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment

It’s quite possible you already have significant amounts of dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) inside you. According to the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division in Newark, Delaware, this chemical has many industrial applications, and can easily enter the body. Indeed, it is often unintentionally ingested as it is found in many different food substances. It’s even used by terrorist organizations such as al-Quaeda.

This colourless and odourless substance is most often found in liquid form (large quantities have been reported in the world’s oceans, affecting the indigenous sea life), and can cause death if inhaled, although liquid DHMO is inert to human skin. Prolonged contact with DHMO in either a solid or gaseous state, however, can also lead to death.

There is also strong evidence to show that DHMO strongly contributes to climate change – indeed, some weather configurations can lead to sudden localised deposits of the liquid chemical.

A survey by US researchers Patrick K. McCluskey and Matthew Kulick found that nearly 90% of participants would sign a petition supporting an outright ban on the use of DHMO in the United States. Studies carried out elsewhere seem to agree with these findings; the majority of public citizens want to see an end to DHMO, but world leaders refuse to act. Continue reading for my suggested action to combat the spread of DHMO.

This pipeline has been contaminated by DHMO.

Well, you should probably just do nothing. Dihydrogen monoxide, more commonly known as H2O, or ‘water’ can be extremely dangerous if misused – it’s easy to burn your self in boiling water, for example – but I don’t think we need to worry about it.

I wrote this post because I myself was caught out by this oldy-but-goody science prank recently – the latest issue of New Scientist mentions it in the Feedback column. I read along going ‘oh, it’s already in my blood steam, really’ and ‘well I haven’t heard of this but it sounds pretty bad’, until finally, the penny dropped.

It’s a classic (albeit harmless) example of intentionally using science to confuse and miscommunicate. Leading the post with a headline highlighting the ‘risk’ to yourself or loved ones, mentioning terrorists/climate change and talking about the outrageous lack of political action are all designed to whip you up into a fury: ‘something must be done!’ you cry. No wonder so many people get swept along by scare stories such as the link between the MMR vaccine and autism; it’s just all too easy. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go sweep my kitchen for traces of sodium chloride – did you know that in large doses, it can lead to heart disease?

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 16 September 2008 at 2:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Education, Science Policy, Yes, But When?

In our increasingly technological world, scientific understanding is a vital skill for any modern day politician. Our leaders need to know how to tackle problems like climate change and manage controversial research such as stem cell research. Science is becoming politicised more and more, and for the past eight years the President of the United States has been extremely anti-science. George Bush has vetoed bills on stem cell research – a technology that could be used to save millions of lives – and also refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which required signatory countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

In less than two months time, on November 4th, America will elect a new “leader of the free world” in the form of either Barack Obama or John McCain. A self-styled “small group of citizens” decided in November 2007 that a presidential debate on science was required. They formed Science Debate 2008.

Thousands of scientists, engineers and others agreed with the need for debate, and submitted over 3,400 questions for the candidates. These were whittled down to 14 key topics, and submitted to the presidential hopefuls. Obama submitted his answers a few weeks ago, and now that McCain has provided his as well, we can compare the politicians views on science. You can read the full answers, or stick with me for a summary. Quotes are attributed to [O]bama or [Mc]Cain where appropriate.

Head to head on science.

Innovation: Both candidates were concerned with America’s slide from being a leading scientific nation. Obama pointed out that the US is 17th among developed nations for science and engineering degrees – down from third place 30 years ago. He promised increased funding for both research and teachers. McCain also promised more money for researchers and education reform, as well as the defence of American intellectual property around the world. He sees the nurturing of technology, particularly in communication, as key to solving “critical problems” [Mc] like climate change.

Climate change: Speaking of which, both candidates saw climate change as an important issues. McCain said it demanded “urgent attention” [Mc], and Obama believed “there can no longer be any doubt” [O] of human influence on the climate. They were also in agreement on policy: a carbon trading system would be put in place to reduce emissions by 60% below 1990 levels for McCain and 80% for Obama.

Energy: The candidates agree on the need for a sustainable energy policy. Both favour an increased reliance on nuclear power, in addition to renewables such as wind energy. Obama also highlighted the importance of a “more efficient use of energy” [O], utilising new technology to reduce waste.

Education: Obama and McCain both want to increase learning in science and maths by recruiting more teachers in the subjects and paying them more. McCain also spoke of encouraging private corporations to help “identify and maximize” [Mc] potential in students, whilst Obama promised tax credits for higher education in science.

National Security: McCain credited the military for driving forward technology that we all use today: the internet, GPS and Teflon, to name a few. He promised increased research funding for American forces, as did Obama.

Pandemics and Biosecurity: Both candidates emphasised that the US was not fully prepared to respond to attacks by bioweaponry, and pledged money for research into vaccination and detection technology.

Genetics research: In line with the general American attitude to GM food, both candidates favoured research into crops that could lead to higher yields, though Obama stressed the need for “stringent tests” [O] and “stronger regulatory oversight” [O]. They also agreed on genetic modification in humans, stating that whilst gene therapy had the potential to change lives, care had to be taken to avoid “genetic discrimination” [Mc].

Stem cells: An extremely controversial issue in the US, the candidates were divided on stem cell research. Obama “strongly support[s] expanding research on stem cells”, [O] and would lift the ban laid down by President Bush in 2001. He suggested that the “hundreds of thousands of embryos” [O] stored (unused) in fertilization clinics could ethically be used for research, because they would eventually be destroyed anyway. In comparison, McCain refused to “sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress” [Mc], hoping that adult stem cell research would one day rendered the debate “academic” [Mc]. Obama views adult stem cells as falling short of the “gold standard” of embryonic stem cells.

Ocean Health: Both candidates waxed lyrical on their love of the ocean (McCain was a former officer in the US Navy) but had little to say on actual policy. Obama is in favour of ratifying the UN Law of the Sea Convention, which in part refers to ocean conservation.

Space: McCain questioned “whether we can afford not to” [Mc] continue exploration of space, and pointed out that “space activities have contributed greatly to US scientific discovery, national security, economic development and national innovation” [Mc]. He pledged to make space exploration a “top priority” [Mc] and to minimise the gap between the decommissioning of the Space Shuttle and the launch of its replacement. Obama promised NASA “will inspire the world with both human and robotic space exploration” [O] and would help confront challenges such as climate change and energy independence.

Scientific integrity: The candidates took a swipe at George Bush as they agreed that “government decisions should be based on…scientifically-valid evidence” [O] and that “denial of the facts” [Mc] will not help solve “critical problems” [Mc] for the country. They both promised to appoint science advisers as key parts of their administration.

Research: Both candidates promised increased funding in basic research which they view as “the foundation for many new discoveries” [Mc], with Obama pledging cash “at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade” [O].

Health: Understandably, the candidates focused mostly on the cost of the provision of healthcare, rather than the science, but both praised the “scientific and technological developments” [Mc] of US medical research.

Honestly, when it comes to scientific policy, it doesn’t seem there is a huge difference between the two candidates. The only clear difference of opinion I can see is on stem cells, with the candidates following the party policy that you would expect. Does this render Science Debate 2008 pointless? I think not. Their answers to the questions raised in the debate total over 10,000 words – words which have no doubt been put through the wringer of PR and policy making. Even if the debate doesn’t help choose a President, it has certainly got the candidates (and hopefully the nation) thinking about science again.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 15 September 2008 at 1:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

The cover story of the latest issue of New Scientist throws up some food for thought (sorry, bad, bad joke), and if you have a subscription to the magazine you can read the full text on their website.

The article suggests that in the average US household food consumption produces almost twice as much greenhouse gases as driving. Using “equivalent CO2 emissions”, a measure that includes other greenhouse gases along with the infamous carbon, a recent study found that 8.1 tonnes of CO2eq make up an average “food-print”, whilst a typical year’s car use emits only 4.4 tonnes of CO2eq.

Calculation of CO2eq figures is extremely complex. You have to factor in all of the energy used in getting food to your stomach, from the fuel used by tractors, to the refrigeration in supermarkets, and even the methane emitted by cows. Complicating matters further, it is difficult to translate these numbers from one region to another – because farming and food distribution methods differ widely in different countries, a steak eaten the US doesn’t necessarily have the same CO2eq footprint as one eaten in the UK.

You might think that eating local could help you cut down on emissions. Supermarkets are already trying to implement “food miles” labelling, but a study by Christopher Weber, an environmental policy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, found that transportation of food makes up only 11% of the total greenhouse emissions. Most of the energy goes in to food production – a whopping 83%. The title of this posts reflects that fact: a bowl of cereal will set you back 1224 grams of CO2eq, roughly the same as a 6 km drive in a typical gas-guzzling SUV.

It’s not even the cereal which is to blame here – it’s the milk. Cows have a huge carbon footprint, which gives weight to the argument of Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin of the University of Chicago, who calculated that switching to a vegetarian diet could cut your emissions by almost 1.5 tonnes of CO2eq. Some of my friends have already gone veggie for this exact reason, but I’m not quite ready to give up sausages just yet.

One solution is in vitro meat. Essentially, animal cells are grown in a lab to form edible meat, without having to feed and care for an actual animal. The concept horrifies many people, but I personally have no problem with it (as long as the meat still tastes good!), and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are offering a $1 million dollar prize reward to anyone who can bring in vitro meat to market.

Unfortunately for PETA, it seems that treating your chickens badly actually lowers their carbon footprint. Next time you’re in the supermarket, you might find yourself wondering whether to side with Jamie Oliver or Al Gore, since organic chicken require 10% more energy than their battery-farmed cousins because they live longer and are allowed to move about more.

What then should your average consumer do to reduce their carbon food-print? I’d recommended the introduction of vegetarian meals into your diet, without going full-on meat free. Vegetable curries are always a good option, and I’m quite partial to a mushroom risotto. Just stay away from the cardboard-like “meat substitutes” that vegetarians seem to sustain themselves on – I think I’d rather have global warming!

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 5 September 2008 at 3:54 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Evolution

Today is the European release date of Spore, the latest product of game guru Will Wright’s active imagination. Wright is the creator of incredibly successful titles such as SimCity, which allowed players to build and manage a city, and The Sims, which places you in charge of a virtual household and it’s occupants. The Sims series of games alone has sold over 100 million copies, so you might say they’re pretty popular.

Spore takes players in a new direction. Wright wanted to explore the ideas behind evolution and make gamers think about their effect on the world. In Spore, you begin life as a microscopic organism, fighting for your existences in a style reminiscent of Pac-Man. Succeed, and you can evolve into a land-based creature, that will eventually develop its own society and ultimately explore space and rule the galaxy.

It sounds pretty ambitious, and it is – the game was announced to the public in 2005, but has actually been in development for nearly eight years. Part of the problem in creating Spore was how to reflect the true nature of evolution, without having to wait for millions of years. The solution was to allow players to create their own creatures, using an intuitive “virtual clay” system, and then to modify them as the game goes along. You start off with a basic spine, which you can pull and stretch to any number of forms, and then add a variety of heads, limbs, and other appendages. Player created creatures are then uploaded to a central server and then downloaded into other players games, to create a diverse range of species for everyone to play with. It’s very easy to use – why not try it yourself?

I find Spore to be an extremely interesting form of science communication. On the one hand, creatures evolve up from a single celled organism, eventually becoming much larger creatures that can form a society – not too different from our own evolutionary history. On the other hand, because players are shaping the make up of their creatures at every step, rather than the game making modifications at random, Spore is actually an example of intelligent design. Of course, it would be hard to make the game work any other way – as mentioned above, no one wants to sit around for a few million years waiting for something to happen – but it does send a mixed message to players.

In the space phase of the game, Spore hits on another scientific controversy: climate change. Players can fly around the galaxy in a spaceship, contacting other species and terraforming planets. Adding water to a planet will introduce an atmosphere and clouds, where greenhouse gases can accumulate and cause the planet to heat up. Wright believes that by demonstrating such large changes in a short amount of time, players will find it much easier to grasp the concept of climate change, and how it can occur.

At the end of the day, many people will play Spore without thinking about the science behind the game. It’s not intended to be strictly educational, but Wright wanted to create an experience that would allow players to learn about scientific principles at the same time as having fun and telling their own stories. I’m interested to see if he succeeds.

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2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 21 August 2008 at 2:58 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Right

The magazine Environment have published The Short List: The Most Effective Actions U.S. Households Can Take To Curb Climate Change. In it, the authors Gerald T. Gardner and Paul C. Stern discuss how people are willing to change their habits in order to use less energy, but either don’t know how or are acting ineffectively.

Most people emphasise visible changes, such as switching off a light bulb when leaving the room, but there are many “hidden” improvements to be made that can have a much greater effect on energy reduction. Gardner and Stern believe the media is partly to blame, with most information and articles offering advice in a “laundry list” format, with no indication as to the best actions to take. They propose to tackle this problem in a clear and logical manner: investigate different methods of cutting energy usage, and then rank them according to effectiveness.

They begin by looking at where our energy goes. In 2005 in the US, 38.6% of all energy use was by private motor vehicles – by comparison, the commonly attacked air travel was only 3.4%. The next largest use is in space heating, where 18.8% of energy goes to keeping houses warm. For the gadget lovers, TVs, computers and dishwashers barely break 3% when combined, so don’t feel too environmentally concious about that new HDTV.

Next up: what can be changed? It turns out there are a few surprises. Carpooling, commonly touted as a way to reduce vehicle emissions, turns out to be around a third less effective than buying a more fuel-efficient car. Upgrading from a car that gets 20 mpg to one achieving 30.7 mpg could save 13.5% of all the energy you use, whilst sharing your ride will only get you up to 4.2%. All in all, a more efficient car that is well maintained could save as much as one-fifth of your energy usage.

In the home, we see similar results. You could turn your thermostat down a bit at night in order to save 2.8%, but you’ll probably just forget or give up after a week or so. Install proper insulation in your attic however, and you can sleep easy knowing you’ll have saved up to 5% on your energy bill.

Encouraging efficiency rather than curtailment is the name of the game here. Improve the way your energy is used, and you won’t have to feel guilty about accidentally leaving the light on when you go on holiday. As an additional benefit, your electricity and gas bills will be permanently lowered – providing you remain in your house for long enough to recoup the initial costs of efficient replacements. It’s a similar idea to one I’ve discussed before [PDF].

So what are the top changes you can make? I’ve reproduced their list at the end of this post, but it isn’t as clear as it could be, so I’ll spell it out in the order you should follow:

Actions you can take now, with little or no cost

  1. Carpool with a friend.
  2. Replace 85% of all your old lightbulbs with energy savers
  3. Get frequent tune-ups to maintain your car.
  4. Turn down the thermostat two degrees during the day, and another two at night.
  5. Eco-drive by avoiding harsh acceleration and braking.
  6. Combine shopping trips to take fewer journeys.
  7. Cut your speed on motorways from 70 to 60 mph.
  8. Use a lower setting on your washing machine.
  9. Maintain the correct tyre pressure for your car.

Longer term actions, with higher costs

  1. Buy low-rolling resistance tyres to reduce road friction.
  2. Switch to a more fuel-efficient car.
  3. Seal heat-leaking gaps by weather-stripping your home.
  4. Install improved attic ventilation.
  5. Buy a more efficient heating unit.
  6. Swap to a smaller and more efficient fridge.
  7. Replace your boiler with a more efficient unit.

Better get started!

Click for a fullsize version
Comments Off Posted on Friday 15 August 2008 at 1:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Yes, But When?

I love hearing about an idea so good that I can’t help but think “why hasn’t anyone though of this before?” – in this case, using hot roads to generate electricity.

Researchers at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute have been studying ways to extract energy from asphalt, a material used to cover roads which is extremely good at storing heat from the sun. They discovered that when asphalt is exposed to direct sunlight it reaches its highest temperature a few centimetres below the surface. Placing a heat exchanger (such as copper pipes filled with water) at this point would extract the maximum possible energy. The hot water could then be used “as is” for heating purposes, or sent to a generator to produce electricity.

One of the major problems with solar energy is where to put the panels. With this solution, we can effectively reuse existing land. Great Britain has over 3,300 square kilometres of road. Even if only half of this was used for electricity generation, it would be equivalent to demolishing the entire of London and using that instead. That’s quite a lot of spare land!

The building of wind farms is commonly blocked by local residents because they “spoil the view”, but no one will be able to complain about aesthetics in this case because the solar collectors would be underground. Locals would actually benefit in the case of dense urban areas as the extraction of heat cools the asphalt down, reducing the surrounding air temperatures in the process.

I think this an extremely elegant solution to the problem of energy generation – a problem that is becoming increasingly more important. One sticking point could be the question of efficiency. It’s great having all this spare energy generating land, but if it can’t produce enough energy to replace a few power plants then there isn’t much point. The WPI haven’t published any figures on the energy generated, but I will certainly be keeping an eye out for what could be a great future technology.

It could be that in 20 years time we all drive electric cars powered by the very roads that they drive on. What a great idea.

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