Laval, Quebec, Canada
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
A world without trees 2
What’s at stake 5
Those who love a warming world 6
Copenhagen – a crashed dream 7
People clogging the earth 8
Bangladesh, a land that will sink 9
Who trusts the scientists? 10
Government, where art thou? 11
Let’s build the land 13
Fight the power of the seas 13
To grow and feed 14
Smoke belchers 16
Moving the masses 17
Cars cars cars 19
Shame on them 20
Building the roof over our heads 21
Reduce, reuse, recycle 22
Sharing green knowledge 23
Let the lights burn brighter 24
Winds, sun, waves, earth 25
As the snows melt 29
The deep blue seas 29
All for a good steak 31
Just a drop, no more 32
Our quest for the skies 35
What’s in a name? 36
How to make us care 37
I am a citizen of Canada and Bangladesh who actively participates in the democratic process. I follow politics very closely and I vote in all levels of elections. I would like to present here some thoughts and concepts to tackle the urgent crisis of global climate change. I urge you to consider all the different options and reasoning presented below and to undertake a significant commitment to a better future for your people, nation and the world at large, our Planet Home. I am sharing this letter with national and international organizations, with governmental and non governmental groups, with media and with environmental organizations. I open with forestry as I believe that trees are our best natural defense against climate change.
A world without trees
Despite all the gloom and doom, sometimes the impossible can happen. Recently environmental groups and the Forest Products Association of Canada united after years of negotiation to a common cause of sustainable development. There is now an agreement1 to leave the virgin Boreal forests of the North intact, areas where the footsteps of man rarely tread. There is now agreement to aggressively replant trees to sustain forests. There is now agreement to market the Canadian forestry industry as the first in the world to partner in sustainable development with environmental groups, adding a series of green credentials second to none2. This is surely the model for the future, ending this constant war between industry and preservationists. Imagine a world where instead of competing on raw prices, forestry firms vie with each other for the greenest credentials. I strongly feel consumers across the world are consciously willing to make the right choices, including the greenest forest products suppliers.
All nations should adopt this model to ensure that there are future forests for all of us. Imagine the cold statement that Jake made to the Tree of souls in Avatar, set hundreds of years in the future – “See the world we come from: there’s no green there. They’ve killed their mother, and they’re going to do the same thing here.”3 It is indeed natural that the genius director of Avatar, James Cameron, is indeed spearheading a massive project to plant a million trees.4
We learn in elementary school that trees consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. We learn that trees sustain all living things and that their role cannot be overestimated. Why then is the planet being stripped of its most essential elemental life giving organism, the humble tree? Do we really believe that the vast dead zones of deforestation shall spring back to life suddenly? There are even theories that the advanced civilization of Easter Island collapsed once all trees were cut.5
I strongly feel that every single nation on this planet needs to start massive tree planting projects that seek to cover every possible square foot of ground with new trees. We need to recover our dead forests, and expand them. Centuries of CO2 emissions can most effectively be countered with nature’s natural defense, the simple tree. Such tree planting campaigns should be driven at the governmental level, but private corporations seeking green credentials should also take a lead. National and global programs to reforest the earth should be kicked off coordinated by a unified front of global organizations ranging from the UN to Greenpeace.
There are of course exceptions to massive tree planting campaigns. This is fine for tropical areas, but in many ecosystems folks are concerned that they are being encroached by too many trees. Such systems are often open, fire driven ecosystems that lose biodiversity if they are overtopped and shaded by trees. Careful assessment is needed before fundamentally altering an ecosystem. A whole host of arguments can be made against tree planting6; however I cannot wholesale accept that the removal of earth’s trees is not a factor in our crises.
In nations where forestry continues in an unbalanced manner stripping the forests bare without replanting, shame and press exposure should force those responsible to begin massive replanting campaigns. For every tree cut, a dozen should be planted and nurtured and sustained to maturity. Forests should be patrolled and monitored carefully.
We are steeped in the fantasy that denuding the earth has no effect. This cannot go on. We are flaying the skin off the planet one acre at a time and with it biodiversity, watersheds, and natural synergies. We are seeing the effects all around us; trees can save us; let us plant them by the millions.
In addition to our own self preservation instincts, preserving forests will reduce the rate of biodiversity destruction on the planet. We are losing species at an alarming rate7 and I know it is hard to find room to care when humans are themselves disposable, but the shame of future historians should make us realize we will be held accountable for all our deeds. There are untold treasures of biodiversity in forests that have evolved for thousands of years, but now as man is the master of the planet, we have chosen to destroy like no other species has ever managed to do.8
There are plenty of good examples for us to follow; renewing the earth is not a fantastic dream. Reforestation9 to renew recently depleted zones, and afforestation10 to extend vegetation to long dead zones, are both gaining momentum. China is undergoing a massive effort to halt the expansion of the every growing Gobi desert11, aptly called the Green Wall of China to counter the Yellow Dragon.12 Naturally such forced plantations needs to be carefully nurtured to maturity, not treated as temporary measures. Just as nature embraces diversity, monoculture of tree species planted is not as effective as a diverse plantation.13
Historic successes have been achieved in the past. South Korea planted 11 billion trees since losing most of its vegetation after the last World War.14 This remarkable transformation serves a model for the rest of the world. Costa Rica has taken mass scale reforestation a step further, turning the goals upward to becoming the world’s first carbon neutral nation and promoting ecotourism.15
Plenty of advanced tree planting machines exist, from manual to automated mechanical.16 In all cases the method should be matched to the context; poor nations need simple, cheap methods for tree planting that are not expensive to deploy on a large scale. One simple and effective tool is the Pottiputki Planter17 of Finnish origin. Naturally effective cylindrical stem protection, water retaining material and fertilizer must be integrated into each planted tree.
I propose a tree planting machine that resembles a cycle rickshaw van18, a popular transport unit in my motherland Bangladesh. The general design is to have 2 pedaling riders in front and back, one geared to a central hub to pull and the other geared to the same spot but rotated to push. The wheels would be doubled at all 4 corners for greater traction in off-road conditions. The central cart would be ideal to store seedlings. When on unstable ground especially slopes, gear driven stabilizer legs can come down from all 4 corners and brace to the ground much like a backhoe or bulldozer when deployed to ground work. Finally another gear mechanism will drive a planting arm with a drill that with a corkscrew system can dig deep into the earth for a tree seedling planting hole. This will greatly reduce the manual labor of the 2 riders and will leverage to the fullest extend their combined pedaling power.
Recently there was more hope as a set of global leaders finally agreed to put conservation efforts together. The UN Biodiversity conference in Japan yielded comprehensive global agreements to conserve precious habitats, and to increase funding for enforcement and regulation. The ambitious goals are to protect 17% of all land and 10% of all ocean by 2020.19 There is always hope that nations across the world can unite in a common goal. The agreement is quite comprehensive and is being celebrated as the birth of a new era.20
What’s at stake
I spent my teenage years hearing about the ozone layer rupturing and horrific radiation pouring down on earth from tears in the upper atmosphere. Thankfully we reversed that danger by moving to a CFC free world.21 Then my environmental awareness was interspersed with strong visual images of oil drenched sea birds. We mandated double hull tankers22 and improved navigational systems. But growing up, I did not realize that a new ever present danger was gathering momentum, the fundamental destabilization of the earth’s climate.
Now we have come full circle and clear changes are underway in global climate. The pace and nature of these changes is certainly debatable, but the change itself is now a commonly understood and accepted fact. None of the science is clear or universally accepted, none of the public opinions are solidified and aligned, and nevertheless something must be done.
What if the changes will be much worse than we dreamed? What if the effects will be much more terrible in the long run? In a world already rocked and hammered with economic, social, political and religious upheaval, can we afford to add a new component of climatic upheaval? Perhaps we can, but the effects of such destabilization would be far beyond our immediate control to reverse, this is why I write this letter to summarize all the possible ways we can take some preventive action today, to at the very least, hedge our bets. I greatly appreciate the attention and focus you have laid on the climate crisis, and I humbly hope this letter will be of some use in your efforts.
In this age of commerce and information, people may not appreciate the commercial value of preserving the earth. Since it seems we incessantly demand financial valuations of everything from lawsuit settlements to nebulous mortgage instruments, it is a brilliant move to provide valuations of nature. The World Bank has launched such a brilliant campaign to outline the price of losing valuable natural resources like forests and watersheds.23 A startling calculation of the worth of the Mau forest in Kenya places it’s value at $1.3 Billion per year.24 In other words the loss of that forest would result in that much economic damage; the knock over effects would immediately devastate the tourism and agricultural industries, just to name a few.
Those who love a warming world
Yes, there are benefits to global warming. Yes every so called disaster has a plus side, if people look carefully.
The arctic passages will open up, facilitating new shipping routes25, reducing travel cost and time for shipping. The Arctic Ocean bed will open up, allowing exploration for oil and other resources. Russia has already planted a symbolic titanium flag under the pole, on the ocean floor.26
Northern nations have a lot to gain, especially Canada and Russia. Vast regions of their permafrost tundra will become warm fertile regions, opening new agricultural potential, and other applications like tourism etc.27
But nations cannot afford to be selfish in this day and age. If we speak of globalization and a new world order, where all economies and people’s are connected in a common bond against global evils and threats, then nations cannot focus on their own priorities while ignoring the suffering of other nations.
Copenhagen – a crashed dream
I had watched the recent Copenhagen summit with some level of fear and hope, wishing against all odds that some miraculous agreement emerged that really made a difference in our immediate future. However I was alarmed as the talks descended into a struggle over money, who pays and who does not, and how much. Finger pointing and rhetoric was everywhere.
Unfortunately with the sickly state of the Western economies, and with projects of ‘lost decades’28 and slow painful recoveries, it is unlikely that massive fund transfers will occur to assist developing nations. There are also concerns about corruption and misallocation of such funds, even if committed and transferred. Climate change actions should not be about money; they should be about concrete plans that translate into real change.29 In the age of the nation state, every country should be able to create and harness the national will to seek solutions within.
I am not against financial, technological and other forms of aid passed to developing nations with no strings attached, but the notion that this is the fault of the developed world is nonsense. James Watt had no way of knowing his steam engine and its children would someday result in the melting of the ice caps and the breakdown of global weather patterns! Furthermore the very technologies that contributed to global warming are now freely used by these same developing nations to further their own agendas.
All nations and global organizations have a responsibility to pursue and recommend to others a unified strategy against climate change. Such a manifesto should be globally compatible across nations and should be easily adaptable to local conditions.
People clogging the earth
It is a difficult matter to face and address, but one of the core reasons the planet is being burdened to the point of ecological collapse is our rampant population growth. Right now we are about 6.8 billion projected to grow to 8.9 billion by 2050 and 9.4 billion by 2100; clearly the projected growth spurt will be a heavy burden for the planet.30
It is interesting that with the grand success of the one child policy in China comes a ticking time bomb that can threaten their path to global supremacy – a massive skewing and inversion of the population pyramid toward older men. Due to knowing the sex of a child and social stigmas, abortion results in more men being born, and the lack of fertile women leads to a population pyramid inversion that will hit China like a shockwave in the future.31 The effects in China are already being manifested in labor unrest.32
Conversely the biggest future rival of China, India, is modifying an old idea and paying people to defer children, due to their own population boom.33 This is an admirable and unique idea that if managed well could certainly optimize their future demographics. The population boom in India is projected to be a geopolitical advantage that might project it ahead of China in the future.34
It is a very difficult matter to control population growth. It is not really practical to expect people to aggressively pull back on their natural desire to have children. In a world facing increasing economic struggles and uncertainty, many people consider children a required investment for financial security. Massive educational programs and reorientation of thought are required to convince people that fewer children is the right choice, to give them a better future and to help preserve the planet in terms of reducing demand for production. However I remain skeptical that the innate human desire to procreate can be kept in check. We can only seek to contain the problem by more efficient utilization of existing resources.
Bangladesh, a land that will sink
It has long been theorized that a large part of Bangladesh will go under water as sea levels rise, a threat also imminent on nations like the Maldives and other low lying areas.35 Only recently we have begun to see the threat materialize.
A long disputed island called New Moore / South Talpatti36 in the mouth of the Bay of Bengal has vanished under water. This land mass of 3km by 3km had a high point of 2 meters above sea level; it is now gone. The problem will only accelerate and get worse; urgent action is needed now and I address some of these ideas later in this letter.
The effects of a 1.5 m rise in sea levels for Bangladesh translates into a 15% impact on population and a 16% loss of land. 37The results will be catastrophic especially in the context of increased competition for land with increased population.
Recently it has been argued that gradual sedimentation deposits from the Himalayan regions, triggered with additional earthquake activity, will bring enough deposits to reverse climate change sea level rise.38 This is not a proven counteraction, and the rate of atmospheric heating tends to grow exponentially, whereas sedimentation is linear. Shallow theories like this do not absolve us from the core responsibilities of taking real actions.
With the increase in flooding as we have seen in neighboring Pakistan, some interesting ideas are being proposed in the context of Bangladesh. Practical Actions’ brilliant concept39 of a floating garden that rises with the flood waters hold promise.40 Food supplies would remain intact yet accessible. A similar plan for flood resistant housing41 is also very important.
Who trusts the scientists?
There have been some alleged significant scandals in climate science in the last few months, all of which have been debunked. The EPA in the US rejected attacks on climate change, and reaffirmed limits on greenhouse gases.42
One must understand something clearly. Isolated allegations of scientific fraud do not alone merit wholesale dismissal of the entire scientific body. Andrew Wakefield led the world astray for years, leading everyone to believe that MMR vaccines led to autism.43 Many children are dead, and the parents that chose to believe this lie are now wracked with guilt in denying their children vaccines. The journal Lancet recently officially negated the fraudulent study.44
Sensational reaction to an isolated incident in the face of a massive body of scientific consensus is not only immature but also very dangerous. The majority of scientists cannot be fraudsters, that is a ludicrous notion. We must give them due respect and credence, if they deserve our trust. These men and women are trying to save us from a future of calamity, we should think carefully before dismissing them.
Scientific consensus is a serious matter.45 Scientists are careful people who are trained to be truthful, precise and honest. When the majority of the world’s climate scientists are united in their belief that a terrible future awaits us, the rest of us who do not understand these things should take heed. There is no evidence in human history to suggest that the majority of scientific consensus was motivated by malice and ill will to mankind.
Recently the prestigious NOAA in the US released a comprehensive study stating that global warming is undeniable.46 This non partisan body of scientists is the latest in a long series of qualified, concerned persons who are warning the world of imminent danger.
In fact, major skeptics of climate change are also coming on board and changing their views. Professor Bjorn Lomborg has been one of the strongest to come out against climate change, but he has recently dramatically reversed his position.47 In fact he has proposed annual global investments of $100B and an 8 point plan to tackle climate change. His upcoming book48 – Smart Solutions to Climate Change49 – seeks to outline these views. The main areas that Prof. Lomborg addresses are Climate engineering, Carbon dioxide mitigation, Forestry carbon sequestration, Market and policy driven adaptation, Technology led climate policy and Technology transfer.
Government, where art thou?
In the age of corporate power where multinational firms hold sway and set global policy through proxy influence and lobbying, we risk losing control of our futures. So called Corporate Social Responsibility is an oxymoron in the time when profit trumps the general wellbeing of society and the world at large. There is a populist rage against government and the role of our political leaders, coupled with a strong sense of suspicion and nonchalance instilled in the general public.50
Yet it is hard to demonstrate a raft of examples where corporations have actually played a pivotal role in the preservation of the natural world and the protection of the planet. The modern corporation seeks to exploit the universe and maximize shareholder value51, and it is natural and normal for private industry to overlook environmental concerns. Therefore it is of paramount importance to come back to the traditional role of the government in maintaining balance and order.
Polls across the world indicate people want their political leaders to take the reins on environmental concerns.52 Voters are willing to look past the rhetoric and mistrust, the cynicism and vilification, to work in unison with their governments to further the cause of Earth’s preservation. Therefore we should seek this unique opportunity to bring each national government to the forefront of the debate and leadership. These concerns should be an agenda point for elections of all nations, and should be integrated into the manifestos of all parties, keeping in mind the need to balance against industry and progress.
Where the government does not pay attention, laziness creeps in. Nature abhors a vacuum. The agencies of the US allow industry to self regulate, corners are cut, and the Deepwater horizon blows up, a massive oil spill results releasing decades of future damage to the Gulf ecosystem.53 Government must act as an effective counteraction to the rapacious greed of the modern mega corporation, at the expense of increasing populist rage. Government is meant to protect the people against all threats, external and internal, and environmental destruction is a threat.
Nations and firms with entrenched interests in the carbon fuels economy do not care about switching out of their revenue streams any time soon. They have a duty to shareholders and national treasuries. Many industries in the past have stood against change, but eventually they have been forced to adapt. Oil, coal and natural gas are finite, diminishing power sources. A most effective force to catalyze transformative change is government legislation. Past examples are the strong emissions standards set by California, and future examples are the current EPA licensing requirements for mass polluters.54
Regardless of your political stripes or outlook on governance, if you doubt the role of government in shaping the destiny of a nation, pay careful attention to the past and future history. The Federal government of the USA was instrumental in bringing about transformative change to create the greatest nation on earth. Today that same leadership mantle is being reproduced in China albeit with a totally different political ideology. Government will always play a central role in human affairs, and it should never shirk responsibility.
Let’s build the land
There is plenty of opportunity to increase the amount of land we can use especially as it vanishes into the rising ocean. Many nations have successfully filled in shores and other water bodies to reclaim land.55 Boston Back Bay56 is an example near and dear to my heart, having lived there for a decade or more. Large scale land reclamation programs are especially important for low lying nations with little land to spare, such as my own nation of origin Bangladesh, and other nations like Maldives that shall disappear underwater. 57
There are many high landmasses in the earth that can be used to extract raw materials to counter the expected minimal 1 meter rise in sea levels. These should be exploited now while there is time. Whatever infrastructure is needed should be built, such as mines and railroads. The earth and rock can be transported to coastal regions and installed to bolster eroding shorelines and regain land. This danger will only increase as time goes by, therefore it is important to act now. For island nations at risk the land can be transported by ship. Land reclamation is not a dream or fantasy; it has been achieved with success many times in the past and it can be done again.
Fight the power of the seas
The oceans and seas are deceptively peaceful bodies of water. We underestimate their power time and time again. They are the cradle of life, but we disregard them. Now they are rising and with a vengeance will pound harder on our shores.
Sea wall technology has been in use for centuries and should be applied in force to counter the rising tides.58 National projects to protect against the increasingly violent ocean should be started. Not only will sea walls protect against further land erosion, but if built high and strong, will decrease the damage during storms and natural disasters. Sea walls are especially important around major coastal cities and around fragile delta regions where natural ecosystems will be shattered by rising oceans.
Complementing the sea walls are the well established technology of levees.59 The technology of levees is ancient, and the most recent successful application is in the Netherlands. Well maintained and engineered levees will certainly help maintain floods at bay from established, habited areas. However since we really do not know what the future holds, it is possible that in the very long term, levees will not keep the rising oceans at bay forever.
To grow and feed
The global population will continue to increase; there is no way to hold this back. Last I checked, we had not started massive neutering campaigns and family planning had not suddenly become a global priority. Weather patterns are bringing increased droughts and as we now know, major rivers of the earth will start drying up as glaciers melt. This deadly combination will result in less farmland and resources like water and fertilizer.60 No wonder major global food corporations are annexing land in Africa to plant cash crops for future crisis markets.61
Does the world realize the price of hunger? The masses can be kept sedated on entertainment, and can be tamed with strong arm police, but when their children starve, they will descend on the streets to kill.62 The first to die will be the rich, dragged from their houses. We saw an introduction to these riots during the last commodity price spike. Therefore it is time to coordinate resources to help the farmers of the earth produce enough locally to feed themselves. Not everyone can afford to buy from Monsanto.
The noble genius Norman Borlaug created a super wheat variety that avoided global starvation, and the resulting chaos and apocalypse.63 His work lives on in the crops of poor nations today, feeding the struggling masses. He remains an inspiration and we should seek to follow in his path. I encourage all nations to seriously pursue boosting agricultural output globally through responsible research, carefully considering the effects of genetic tampering and avoiding unnecessary risks. I urge all nations to freely share their technology with each other to create the next generations of ultra high yield crops64 that will feed the world, even with the cataclysmic climatic conditions that are soon to be a reality.
There is a new movement now towards urban agriculture, in condensed spaces maximizing utilization of areas like rooftops.65 There is plenty of potential in stacked tray agriculture where a wide range of vegetables and other crops can be grown with just a little soil in green rooftop green houses, with organic fertilizer made on site. 66 This enables a return to self sufficiency and a reduction on the pressure and need for industrial agriculture. High density vertical farming is a sensible model for future food cultivation, reducing destruction of habitat and use of raw materials and energy. However entrenched corporate interests are against this kind of initiative on the part of general citizenry, and this problem must be overcome. As an added benefit, local food production will reduce the consumption of carbon fuels for transportation costs, and that can only help the climate more.
Complementary to consumer grown food are local farmer’s markets in towns and cities, where local farmers bring their produce. This movement is growing during the last few decades, but most people are programmed to go to super markets with a false perception of fixed pricing, clean produce and standardized items. The culture of the people should be deprogrammed to appreciate farmer’s markets are proper environments to buy food, but the markets must also be more presentable. Predictable pricing models, though seasonal, are important. Internet sites can be useful here, with mailing lists sent to local customers on local prices across different stalls on a given market day. Cleanliness of surroundings is key to bring in finicky consumers. Finally standardized units and packages are much appreciated in today’s organized consumer base.
In the current context of urban density with lots of land lying fallow in backyards and gardens, spin [small plot intensive] faming67 is another novel solution, especially a model where a 3rd party business will farm this fallow land on the behalf of the landowner. A revenue and produce sharing agreement can yield significant benefits for both participants. The landowner gets fresh produce grown on site, the prestige of making an environmental contribution and the satisfaction of helping a green business. The business gets access to valuable urban soil and a revenue stream via local farmer’s markets.
It is ridiculous to expect mankind to reduce its industrial output with the vague hope that slowing down progress will undo the momentum of global environmental damage. We cannot reasonably expect sane nations to put down the mantle of modernization and development for the sake of saving the world, while the rest of the nations move forward on toward better futures. Therefore if there is a concerted effort to reign in emissions from factories and industries it must be undertaken at the source while production is underway.68
Carbon capture technology today is very expensive and beyond the reach of most people. It is not unreasonable for industries to claim that installing capture phases will destroy their profitability and throw them out of business altogether. There should be a global concerted effort in R&D and investments to bring down the cost of carbon capture. Innovation at a global coordinated level is essential here.
It is not unreasonable to imagine a future where there are no more smokestacks belching poison into the clean sky. Rather every industrial plant should someday hope to be carbon neutral.
There is no reason why industrial scale design cannot be formulated from the ground up to be environmentally friendly. Amata Corporation69 from Thailand is consistently building gigantic industrial parks with strict adherence to industrial standards and protocols, including recycling of water supplies.
In the power sector China is charging ahead with clean coal technology, putting up an efficient power plant each month.70 This kind of aggressive roadmap melded with clean technology is the roadmap all nations should follow for industrial development. China is also not letting inefficient, polluting plants to linger; recently they launched an initiative to close down over 2000 plants and factories.71 All nations should take this example, closing down old plants and replacing them with new plants, overall reducing carbon output.
Moving the masses
The world wants and needs cars, and they are entitled to purchase them. China is now the world’s largest car market and will hold that position for the indefinite future.72 Millions of cars are added to the worlds fleets each year, as emerging markets seek the elusive status of widely established middle classes.
I am not against car ownership; I have a small vehicle that I use on shopping trips and excursions. However my daily commute is purely through public transport. I am very fortunate to live in Laval and work in old town Montreal, Quebec. The public systems here are world class and exemplary.73 However such systems require time and investment and governmental leadership. All nations should realize that mass public transport is one essential key to a cleaner planet and a healthier tomorrow.
History has shown that whenever strong legislation is passed that sets clear mandated goals of fuel efficiency, the auto industry is capable of meeting the challenge. This has happened many times in the past. Governments should continue to mandate strict increasing standards, perhaps a global infinite standard that increase mileage by 1 mpg per year.74 Industry, which calls itself innovative, will find a way to meet the challenge. We might see a day when we have 100 mpg cars on the road, and the sky is the limit here.
Alternative power technologies with zero emissions should also be strongly pursued. Fully electric long haul trucks are now a reality from Smith Electric.75 The list of current passenger electrical cars can only grow over time.76
Again people can and should buy cars, but wherever and whenever possible, public transport should be made easy, affordable, comfortable, accessible and compatible. People should not be at a point where the though of getting on a bus or train makes them shudder and cringe. Rather planning and investment should render these systems pleasurable to use, so that the masses take pride in their participation in a smarter, better mode of transport. The stodgy and boring image of public transport needs to be tackled.
Funding is always a perennial headache in upgrading and expanding public transport systems. Here innovative public private partnerships are essential. As a national collective, public transport should be made a top priority.
In the stolid, clogged motorways of major cities, there is the possibility of additional innovations. Even if bus lanes are demarcated they can get jammed up and blocked. China is now developing a very interesting, elevated platform bus that does not even use a lane, but rather straddles multiple traffic lanes at a time.77 As a result, even if the roads are completely clogged, public buses can continue to roll over the jammed cars.
In terms of practical applications, the city of Bogota in Colombia has set a new high water mark in bus network design and execution. The TransMilenio78 system has boosted public transport use from 800,000 at inception to 1.4 million in 2009, with a 75% approval rating. What makes the system brilliant and effective are some simple ideas that are worth copying in other cities – feeder buses to central hubs, prepaid tickets for all bus boardings, level ramps for faster passenger mounting and real time gps systems to track exact bus locations for passenger convenience. This massive effort to unify innumerable bus service providers under a central umbrella was an impressive feat indeed.
In the area of trains again China takes the lead. True high speed rail investment is expensive, but surely we can be inspired by the fact that China will soon have more high speed rail than the entire world put together.79 Imagine the benefits in all sectors of society and business. This kind of herculean, brave, coordinated national effort is needed to reduce emissions yet catapult a nation forward. By the same token those who argue high speed rail can never replace air travel should consider that the China has the high speed record now80, and its next generation of trains will run at 500 km/h or more. The very latest trains released in Oct 2010 now run at a max speed of 420 kmh.81
In terms of alternative fuels besides the well known biofuels, it is also interesting that natural sources like algae are being considered to create new fuel mixes.82 Increasingly organizations will turn to natural sources for fuels.
Cars cars cars
The world wants cars yes, but most of the time they sit in cars locked into traffic jams. Billions of tons of poison gas spill into the air from millions of idle car exhausts. If the traffic problems of the world could be solved, incredible amounts of emissions could be avoided.83 It is probably laughable to even suggest that traffic can be conquered, but there are innovative approaches we can consider.
Most of the traffic problems in major cities are due to poor planning and infrastructure. Here again massive investments and brilliant planning are needed to manage traffic. Hastily drawn up road networks, poorly policed and flow controlled, lead to wasteful, horrendous, debilitating gridlock. One can almost see the GDP of a nation fall as the vehicles are jammed up on roads and highways.
Another bold idea I wish to put forward is the idea of staggering commute times, enforceable by law and fines. Based on the category of vehicle, and the purpose of the travel, different classes of vehicles can be banned from roads at different times of peak traffic rush hours. This system is already in use in some congested cities where heavy trucks are forbidden completely except overnight. However I am speaking of expanding such restrictions to small cars as well, so that the rush hour can be managed in phases staggered over several hours. I know businesses will complain that they lose the core business hours, but the gain in productivity due to fewer traffic jams and lost time will more than make up for this.84
I now hear of brilliant schemes in the Netherlands where GPS units installed by law on all vehicles will track the miles driven and a fee per mile is charged to all drivers.85 Preventing incentives for wasteful driving, and encouraging judicious use of roads by adding a price to driving, certainly makes sense. The resulting fees are rolled back into infrastructure improvements. GPS units with the fitted radio transmitters are not very expensive, and this system can be deployed easily in at least most rich nations.
At the same time we need to get old vehicles off the road. We must increase incentives to remove them and begin recycling their material. Programs like cash for clunkers not only have an economic benefit but overall an environmental bonus.86 However we must be careful to measure the overall cost of the program, including the sum total of the carbon offset in making a new replacement vehicle.
Shame on them
Contrary to popular opinion, corporations do care about their reputation. The age of gigantic monopolies has passed us by, global multinationals now control vast trade routes. Some allege they control governments and world affairs; perhaps. But they are still vulnerable to the wrath of the common person.
Organized groups should make it a point to identify the most outrageous violations of environmental pollution standards and pursue them in full vigor in the court of public opinion. Naming and shaming in my opinion is quite acceptable to bring pressure on corporations to do the right thing, not the profitable thing. Traditional media plays a critical role in this, and established channels like TV, radio, papers and magazines should realize that the general public wants to see them step up and play a positive role. A lot of faith has been lost on traditional media in recent decades with scandals like the Iraq War87 and the financial fraud88 that drove the world into a deep lasting recession. A path to redemption for the media is to crusade to the cause of environmentalism.
New media has limitless possibilities. The power of Twitter and Facebook should be harnessed by organized groups to create targeted and focused campaigns directed at abusive corporations. These new channels are gaining increasing credibility as shapers of policy, especially during crisis like Haiti.89
A clear reference point for corporations, and an attainable goal for them, is the term of carbon neutrality. Corporations can achieve this in many ways both internal and external, but above all the principle is to offset their omissions with actions that reduce or reverse emissions, such as investments in technology for carbon capture or in reforestation campaigns. Many major corporations such as Dell, Google and HSBC have already made firm commitments toward achieving this gold standard of environmental stewardship. Of course just stating the goal is different from measuring it and verifying it. Strong oversight, accountability and transparency is required. The concept of carbon neutrality can be extended beyond corporations to entire nations. Many nations from Denmark to Costa Rica have committed themselves in this manner.90
We can see the strong proof of what happens when corporations run amok, from the blatant alleged fraud committed by Goldman to the environmental disaster caused by BP. Corporations need to be regulated and watched closely every step of the way; otherwise the collateral damage of their missteps can have a massive reverberating effect nationally and globally.
If we can shame rapacious corporations, why not expand that to the nation level? Transparency International maintains an index of corruption across the world.91 Similarly Yale University has created an Environmental Performance index that ranks nations in their efforts.92 It should be a matter of national pride not to fall behind on such indices.
Building the roof over our heads
A large part of the world’s power goes to domestic heating and cooling. We live in an age of advanced technology where modern materials can be affordably created for robust resistance to temperature transfer. Retrofitting existing homes with temperature change resistant materials should be a top priority of all nations. Significant magnitude of power savings can result from widespread application of insulation materials with long term benefit of reducing a nation’s power load and the resulting emissions for generation.93
New construction should be mandated for maximum level of green ratings and insulation factors by law. With every new home or building raised, we lose an opportunity to reduce our power consumption in the future. Poor nations can benefit from such insulation technology as well, since simple but effective materials can make a huge difference in reducing temperature transfers.
The LEED standard should be adopted worldwide to set the benchmark in environmentally friendly building engineering and construction.94 Incentives for higher LEED ratings should be a national priority, and private enterprise can easily turn better ratings into a marketing advantage.
Some nations are drowning in cheap energy, for example nations that are rich in hydro electric power, or nations that export massive oil reserves. This is not an excuse to waste energy. Eventually every free ride comes to an end. The assets of water and carbon fuel wealth will be depleted over time; it is very important to reduce consumption today by proper building insulation.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
Recycling seems to have gained incredible traction in our daily lives and is now part of our every day. In rich nations it is now politically incorrect to throw trash anywhere without sorting it, and peers will chide anyone who disregards this social norm. In poor nations entire classes of downtrodden sift through trash and recycle it for new products out of sheer economic necessity. However the current efforts at recycling could benefit from additional organization and vision.95
Goods take energy to produce, which in turn drives emissions, however we don’t see a comprehensive industrial scale recycling scheme where products are driven back into the manufacturing processes deliberately. There are very few large scale firms that do this on a regular basis such as paper mills96, but we need to see more of this in all industries from container ships to ball point pens. Naturally the key to this is better sorting processes, and for that a comprehensive social norm change is required coupled with widespread efforts in public and private sectors.
Gasification is an interesting new technology that promises to convert trash into energy with minimal emissions.97 However the capital costs are very high and one would hope over time widespread adoption could result. Inefficient gasification will not fulfill these objectives and there needs to be oversight.
I was recently amazed to see a new invention from the Blest98 Corporation of Japan, an invention of Akinori Ito99. This remarkable machine turns all kinds of plastics into flammable pure oil that can be recycled for fuel manufacture or other applications, using very low power, small space and a low carbon footprint.100 Given how difficult it is to sort plastics and how time consuming the process of conversion is, such Be-h (Bieichi) tabletop machines are scalable up to industrial applications thus allowing mass conversion of plastics to raw fuel.
Given we have choked the world with waste plastics and metals we have to take effective measures to retrieve all these materials for reuse. The oceans are clogged with garbage patches101 of floating plastic that are killing wildlife, a sorry testament to the wastefulness of man.
Sharing green knowledge
The so called green technology revolution promises environmental hope and salvation in the coming century, including economic benefits of new industries and jobs. However we are at infancy stages, since most people cannot even define what green tech means.
Under a comprehensive umbrella we know that green tech generally includes Recycling, Water Purification, Sewage Treatment, Environmental remediation, Solid Waste Management and Renewable Energy.102 Rapid advances are being made in these areas leading to all levels of environmental benefits. Rightly so, private industry is leading the way forward to profit driven investments and projects.
However the issue of saving the global environment is too important to relegate to simple capitalistic impulses. The collapse of national ecosystems across the globe will have knock on effects around the globe, leading inevitably to resource wars. What I propose is that a portion of green tech be made open domain and distributable through global channels like the UN, Green peace etc. In this manner, nations rich and poor can benefit from a shared pool of technology that they can reuse in their own countries for the mutual benefit of the world and the human race. This common data bank of green tech would be freely accessible to all countries and in the long run would help ensure a minimal standard of environmental best practice across the world.103
Let the lights burn brighter
From space on the dark side of the earth it is pretty clear that our lighting is a massive consumer of power. According to a recent study by the International Energy Agency, efficiencies in lighting tech would reduce global power consumption by at least 10%.104 We are now at an age where mass produced Compact Fluorescent bulbs are very affordable and within reach of mass consumers, and this is a perfect complement to the already established fluorescent strip lights. Such new tech should be adopted widely and deployed across private and public sectors.
Some nations have gone as far as to ban the traditional incandescent light bulb and I strongly second this motion. The archaic invention dating back to 1800 MUST now be retired and relegated to the history books. This respectable technology lit up the world, but at efficiency rates of 5% conversion to light and the rest wasted as heat, it must be let to die off.105
New expensive tech should be adopted further in rich nations, such as the new generations of LED based bulbs.106 But one must be careful not to romanticize expensive solutions for the sake of environmentalism. Above all else the solutions to lighting power consumption must be on a global, industrial, wide adoption scale.
We must be careful not to be blindsided by the concept of reduction. We seek to consume less energy and materials, not to reduce the actual output of our systems. For example, misguided efforts to shut off highway lighting107 will only increase night accidents and human death tolls; rather than make foolish decisions like this, significant leaps forward must be made in lighting technology, from installing LED highway lamps to making each unit a solar powered battery backed up unit, off the grid thus completely harmless. The goal is to do more with less, not to do less.
There is a relatively simple and cheap technology that can save the world billions in emissions and untold energy consumption – it is the motion sensing light switch. In the absence of motion in a room for a few minutes, this unit will shut off automatically. There are too many examples of wasteful power usage in commercial and residential settings, and there is little reason to keep lights running even while the room is empty. A compromise can be to switch from full lighting to night lights when the room is empty, if the concern is safety. The strident call to shut off lights will be passé if this motion sensitive switch is deployed across the world.
Winds, sun, waves, earth
I have heard it claimed that the solar power of the Sahara and other deserts can power the entire world, but we are starting with Desertec that aims at 15% of European power by 2015.108 I have also heard that most homes in China have solar panels on their rooftops for use to heat water and other needs.109 If indeed China continues on its current trends of becoming the world’s leader in solar and wind tech, then at some point in the near future the cost of generating power from renewables will be LESS than that of traditional fossil fuels and nuclear solutions. Such a monumental cost and paradigm shift will enable for the first time in history the mass migration of power generation to renewables.
Solar technology can easily be deployed in a minimal localized scale at a variety of applications and regions. Agriculture depends on irrigation today, from extraction of underwater sources to the effective distribution across regions. The power needs of a critical industry like agricultural irrigation can be met with locally installed solar water pumps. In fact local solar power is now deployed across many regions of the world especially where the national electric grid does not go at all. Though power can only be obtained during daylight hours, it is far better for remote rural communities than waiting decades for the power grid to arrive. The Nobel Prize winner from my homeland, Professor Muhammad Yunus, was recently honored with the SolarEinstein Award for the mass scale deployment of solar tech to remote off grid villages, through his Grameen Bank organization.110
If we can lay massive amounts of optical fiber cable to connect the world and launch the Internet era, we can as a collective species build global electric grids connected to vast wind and solar farms in remote uninhabited areas. We simply need the willpower and organization. Hopefully in the near future the financial incentives will shift in our favor.
One of the long term constraints of solar power is the effect of power giving UV radiation on the cells themselves. It is well known that over many years UV degradation111 sets into solar cells, reducing their overall lifespan. Recently MIT scientists have developed nanotech scale solar cells based on organic carbon nanotubes that are self healing112, reforming at the molecular level thus greatly extending the lifespan of power panels. Naturally this tech will be very expensive to start off, but like all rapidly advancing efforts, prices will drop.
A classic long term problem in solar energy is the assertion that it cannot be stored at all, and that we are hostage to the glorious rays of the daylight sun. President Obama recently invested the future in Abengoa Solar which is proposing advanced technologies such as light reflection and concentration to a central tower, but above all storage of solar power based on salt heating113. The heated salt will then be intercepted with cold salt to create power generation. If solar power can indeed be stored in this or other manners, then one of the strongest critiques of this energy is rendered null and void. Another interesting technology to achieve the holy grail of solar power storage is the use of special chemical processes that involve changes in the molecular structure of special materials.114 There is the added bonus such storage can last indefinitely without deterioration, as it is integrated into the molecular structure and the change is reversible. Though such early advanced technologies are expensive today it is only a matter of time before they are affordable in large scale.
Overall we are only now entering the strongest research phase on solar power, with a plethora of firms across the world racing toward the biggest prize of all – highest conversion efficiency per unit cost. Large scale commercial deployments of solar remain beyond the reach of the masses due to the sheer cost and inefficiency of current cell tech, but it is only a matter of years as these curves bend in our favor as massive research is underway as we speak. Current conversion efficiencies range from a pathetic average 5% to an ultra expensive experimental 45%.115
Another interesting application especially in real estate sensitive city spaces is the emerging technology of thin film solar.116 This remarkable kind of solar panel can be retrofitted into existing buildings without major construction or redesign, and the resulting application can generate power only limited by square footage and cell efficiency. Imagine entire cities powering themselves based on retrofitted thin film solar cells. To extend the concept of using existing surfaces for solar power, we can consider roads and highways infrastructure.117 There are thousands of miles of existing road surface in all nations. This can be leverage for thin film solar where surface is used and temperature differential power generation where semiconductors take advantage of heat retention.
Off shore wind turbines are an excellent choice for nations with limited land, however these platforms are far more expensive and tricky to build as they have to be firmly drilled to the ocean floor. Nevertheless once correctly installed they have the maximum potential of harnessing the power of oceanic winds. Even more imaginative thinking has arrived where flying or floating turbines are envisioned that ascend to the upper atmosphere to take advantage of the extremely high wind speeds there.118
There is installed infrastructure in every single country of this planet that can be harnessed to install wind power at minimal cost and risk. Every single nation has electrical pylons or steel transmission towers119 for high speed transmission across vast distances. These structures are very strong and designed to withstand hurricane grade winds and earthquakes, especially as they form the backbone of a nation’s electrical supply. These pylons are already an eyesore and are already located in remote regions of nations, spanning mountains, deserts, forests, etc. I propose that all these pylons get retrofitted with small, lightweight wind turbines bolted onto the frames, with a direct inverted connection to the transmission line. The benefits would be to leverage existing infrastructure, reduce cost of turbines, take advantage of the great height of these towers and reduce costs in installing new transmission lines from turbine to power lines. There are innovative designs proposed that would minimally impact the actual installation, such as blades integrated intro the structure of the tower as proposed in a Next Generation design.120 Other more ambitious designs seek to leverage existing jet engine thrust technology to shroud the turbine and generate double the output.121
Most people do not consider the limitless power of the earth’s core122, but the heat trapped therein has infinite potential, rivaling mythical technologies like fusion. However drilling to the required depths and installing the required equipment is an expensive option that is most suited to developed, wealthy nations. Finally there is the least considered force of tidal and wave energy; the limitless beat of waves on shores is a strong power source. However like geothermal, the platforms required to harness these are expensive and tricky to install. The point is that every alternative energy source needs to be tailored to the target market and economic situation; the right price for the right solution.
Tidal power has long been overrated and underappreciated, but with rising oceans it is a viable solution. It is heartening to see serious efforts underway to harness this incredibly strong source of power. Atlantis Resources has just unveiled a single tidal generator that can power 1000 homes123, and scores of these are now being deployed along the Scottish coastline.
Naturally all nations need to prepare for this. Every single country on the planet has access to sun and wind, and if the cost of panels and turbines does indeed collapse over the next few decades, there is the potential for widespread adoption. Imagine a world in which all homes have solar panels on rooftops that create hot water all day long for use and distribution all night long.
It is not a dream to go completely renewable. Portugal is at the forefront even with all the economic woes it is undergoing. Portugal has already achieved 45% renewable sourcing of energy and serves as an example of an aggressive path forward.124 Just 5 years ago, they were at 17%! In fact Scientific American has charted a roadmap for the entire world to go completely renewable by 2030.125 The way forward exists; we just need the will.
An interesting theme that emerges is to maximize the use of existing infrastructure, from standing power pylons to road surfaces. We have to consider innovative ways to squeeze more out of our past investments, especially in the coming ages of austerity and slow economic growth.
As the snows melt
Recently climate science scandals revealed that an IPCC report claimed Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, a claim later revealed to be a scientific hoax.126 I have already discussed the ramifications of such massive hoax in the overall context of scientific consensus. In this section I would rather focus on the fact that the rate of glacial melt is indeed an established trend, and the effects therein.
The Bolivian capital La Paz is rapidly running out of water.127 The Andean glaciers feeding this city are vanishing so fast that the country is considering moving people away from the capital city. Water conflicts have started and the massive need is quite evident in the use of sewage as a water supply by the poor. Over in the Asian Himalayas, gigantic river systems are in gradual threat from retreating glacier supplies.128 The pace of change and the imminent threat level is debatable, but the overall change is not.
There are methods under study for glacier reconstruction including trapping water in reservoirs, shaded such that they freeze rather than melt in the summer. However given the altitude and scale of the Herculean task, there is very little we can do in a cost effective manner to preserve and rebuild the high glaciers of the planet as they slowly vanish.
The deep blue seas
Oceans are the largest known carbon sinks or traps of the planet, with a tremendous potential to make a difference for the future.129 There are 2 mechanisms in play in the ocean’s role as a carbon sink – biological and physical.
The biological role is driven by the colossal amount of minute organisms that inhabit the ocean, feeding the entire food chain from tiny shrimp to the giant creatures that feed on them, the blue whales. However mankind’s blatant dumping of waste in the ocean is increasing the acidity130 levels thus directly affecting these pillars of the food chain. We must take action to reverse the environmental damage to the world’s oceans lest we lose this critical carbon trap. Research indicates that the ocean is no longer acting as an effective trap or sink for CO2 emissions.
Once of the direct impact of ocean acidification is the death of coral reefs across the world.131 These reservoirs of biological diversity are being decimated at an alarming rate, affecting even the natural wonder the Great Barrier Reef.132 With crises come solutions; studies are underway to dump quicklime en masse into oceans, neutralizing acid and absorbing CO2.133 The required amount of quicklime is staggering, over 300 billion cubic feet a year to counter annual emissions, but it’s a start. Other ambitious efforts are suggested to electrolyze sea water to remove Chlorine from HCL acid.134 Ultimately reducing atmospheric CO2 is the only way to counter this problem.
Along the same lines the giant mammals of the oceans, the whales, are credited as contributing to carbon sinking by introducing iron to the upper ocean layers from deeper waters. When whales die they sink to the ocean bottom further acting as a carbon sink. In fact the over fishing and whaling of the oceans has released megatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, besides the inhuman consequence of decimating fish stock. It is estimated centuries of whaling have released over 100 million tones of carbon into the atmosphere. As a world we have still not learned restraint and focus in our fishing habits, especially given the imminent collapse of blue fin tuna stocks. However it is never too late to allow the oceans to repopulate and replenish, leading to the side effect of environmental stewardship.
An interesting side effect of melting glaciers is the emergence of new carbon traps in blooming phytoplankton where previously ice sheets prevented the sun’s rays from reaching the water. However this is only a side effect and not a solution. It is claimed in some research that adding iron to the water boosts the creation of organic photosynthesizing matter, however in my view before we dump any more human elements into the ocean we should be sure we know all our facts. Goodness knows we have caused enough damage. Companies like the Ocean Nourishment Corporation (ONC) plan to dump tones of urea fertilizer in oceans to boost plankton growth. 135 This is a laudable effort but once again I urge caution since all the long term side effects of this new man made action might not be known.
In counterbalance to temporary increases in phytoplankton, an alarming trend has emerged recently that gas global cataclysmic implications in the long terms. Phytoplankton is the start of the oceanic food chain and this species has been in decline for decades in all the oceans of the world136. Secchi disk measurements that map ocean water clarity show that the density of plankton has dropped 40% since 1950, strongly correlated with warming waters that prevent circulation of nutrient rich deeper waters.137 Phytoplankton generates 50% of the world’s oxygen supply138; by killing the ocean we are killing ourselves. One naturally cannot just cool the ocean when one desires; an interesting idea I can suggest is solar powered buoys in deep waters that suction up deeper water from miles below, to aid the conditions for plankton growth. The entire ocean food chain is at risk. Dumping nutrients directly into the water is like blasting someone with every known antibiotic without checking what bacteria we plan to kill; the natural nutrients in deeper waters are the only solution.
A decade long ocean census just completed and was published139, and even after all these decades we have barely scratched the service of the seas. Countless new species were discovered and catalogued. It is estimated we have only seen and explored 5% of the oceans. We must do our best to preserve and protect the biodiversity in the entire biosphere.
All for a good steak
It is a little known fact that agriculture and animal husbandry is a major contributor to global CO2 emissions.140 Across the world mass farming of animals for meat and milk consumption lead to side effects of methane and other gasses being released to the atmosphere. Some estimates put the figure at 18% of total emissions from a developed nation, even exceeding the transportation sector which comes in at 13%.141
Raising cattle is particularly heinous in the Amazon rainforest where it is 80% of the motivation for deforestation and clearing virgin rainforest.142 Sustainable and responsible cattle grazing is essential to our future, a path blazed by responsible ranchers like John Carter143, originally from Texas, who encourages corporations to seek certification for responsibly raised cattle similar to methods used with fair trade coffees. In parallel, the FAO is driving initiatives to pay ranchers to plant more trees and shrubs in concert with their deforestation practices. Recently archaeological evidence has emerged that the Amazon once housed over 20 million people144, but this was under the sustainable scheme of people who knew the forest and lived in harmony with it, not the rapacious greedy scorched earth policy of modern man.
Prairie grassland conservation methods in use and promoted by Canada are a good example to follow.145 Proper grazing management can go a long way to ensure sustainable grasslands. Rotation of grazing, avoiding overgrazing and managing density of grazing are all methods to ensure sustainable vegetation.
Just a drop, no more
It is well known that future wars will be over water, or white oil. 146 The UN has projected hundreds of conflict flash points where nations and groups within nations may fight over water resources. Now is the time to avert this crisis.
For cities and towns that do have water supplies in place, it is very important to reduce wastage and abuse. Strict laws should be in place to drop consumption and wasteful applications. In addition flat usage fees do not encourage responsible consumption. Rather man’s nature of over consumption kicks in, like an all you can eat buffet. Proper metered and paid water supply is the right way to ensure people do not abuse this precious resource.147 But given the perception of government corruption, it must be made very transparent and verifiable that monies collected from water meters are correctly reused to reinvest in water resources and other environmentally sound areas. The Australian city of Melbourne is effectively running out of water and is about to build a gigantic desalination plant.148 Across many nations, large investments are being made to produce more water, spending more energy and of course creating more emissions.
The USA is not immune to this problem either. At least 10 US cities have been identified at high risk of running out of water.149 Such crises will directly impact city life and the economy, leading to further economic collapse.
In our limitless thirst to transform the planet, we have tapped into aquifers that have built up over thousands of years and we have depleted them at astonishing rates.150 Even the more scorching deserts have water reserves under the sands.151 However every resource has its limits, and aquifers all over the world are rapidly drying up.152
On a local scale recycling of sewage into drinkable water in a cost effective, environmentally friendly manner is essential. A good example is the Arcata Wastewater Treatment Plant and Wildlife Sanctuary.153 This unique system is a synthesis of natural and man made environments, harnessing the power of wetlands to process sewage but also in return nourishing those very wetlands.
I was recently floored to learn of the latest invention from Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, medical devices and other technologies. His water purifier uses almost negligible energy, and transforms toxic waste water into pure potable water.154 The very idea of what he is about to accomplish is miraculous to consider.155 The machine from Mr. Kamen if scaled up to industrial levels would use a tiny fraction of existing energy to produce the same of greater amounts of water. I am also very heartened by the humanitarian aspect of the project and technology. Villages across my native land of Bangladesh are poisoned with ground level arsenic that seeps up and destroys the lives of the poor. 156 I am so pleased to learn that Mr. Kamen is testing his device in 2 villages of Bangladesh, using a simple pit of cow manure as a power source! The promise for the poor of the world is staggering in scope! Besides deployments at the local village and town level, I let my imagination soar a little and imagine solar powered automated Kamen machines at the edge of desert oceans, desalinating thousands of gallons of sea water and spreading the life giving liquid over surrounding areas, bringing back to life entire dead regions. Over time we might even reverse desertification globally!
On a similar aspect, Michael Pritchard has designed a revolutionary affordable filtration system157 whose pores at 15 nm are small enough to remove even the tiniest viruses from water. This revolutionary Lifesaver system158 has been deployed globally and has the potential to be the first real immediate solution to providing sterile drinking water without massive infrastructure investments. Deployed in bottle159 and jerry can160 versions, this unit has the potential to revolutionize water purification globally, especially in disaster areas. The remarkable Lifesaver system is not just for disaster zones, but even for urban 3rd world settings where safe drinking water is not supplied by the municipality and where permanent boil advisories are in effect. Michael Pritchard estimates that with $20B the global clean water crisis can be solved, and with the affordable nature of his solutions this is not impossible at all. Overall with the coming water crises, it is heartening to see some real technologies leap forward to close the gap for those who have no clean water today.
Now with the existing water bodies of the world that are rapidly diminishing, it is very disturbing to see rampant pollution at an unprecedented industrial scale. Water pollution across the world in general kills 14000 people a day161, and that does not count the incredible human cost in diseases. Much more needs to be done to arrest pollution sources at the point of origin, and strict law enforcement is obviously a foundation of such efforts. Water treatment technologies must be adopted and enforced in a cost effective manner that does not hamper industrial output and productivity, or profitability. The best solutions are those that complement existing setups, not disrupt them. The exciting new field of nanotechnology holds promise in this area; recently an IIT research unit developed a filtration system that effectively removes pollutants from dyeing operation runoffs.162 Carbon nanotube tech with integrated low power silver is another exciting area.163
Our quest for the skies
Aviation is undeniably a critical part of the modern interconnected world. In the name of climate we cannot expect to reduce the use of aircraft across the world. The current estimate is about 2% of all global emissions.164
New plane technology is making even more valiant efforts to reduce emissions and fuel consumption, from composite materials to enhanced engine technology. However just like reduction of traffic gridlock can make a significant reduction in emissions, similar increases in efficiency of airline traffic control will make a great positive difference.165 Many nations have not upgraded their first generation traffic control systems, especially in older and busier airports. The time spent in taxi mode or in waiting circles in the sky are quite significant, besides the fact that passengers are absolutely fed up with the delays. Computerized traffic control systems with human oversight offer great promise for the future.
Alternative fuels are another important area to explore.166 There is a lot of research underway today and there is great hope for the future that we can avoid traditional kerosene and create aviation fuels from the power of the sun. However once again we must be careful not to artificially gain efficiency at the expense of other assets, like cleared forests to grow bio fuel crops.
Recently a brilliant technological leap has occurred. The Solar Impulse167, a solar power plane the wingspan of an airbus, flew in day and night powered solely on sun rays. The entire wing span was covered with solar cells. The promise of this technology is incredible, given that aviation is here to stay and will only increase in time. Even if such planes do not in the short term replace large airliners, they can certainly help reduce fuel consumption in the small to medium personal aircraft markets.
What’s in a name?
Some have questioned the term global warming as misleading especially since it implies temperatures are rising. In the context of record snowfalls in 2010 that are actually a by product of warming temperatures and greater moisture in the atmosphere, the credibility of global warming is sorely taxed. The word hoax is yelled from street to street, as ignorance prevails. The issue of cognition is essential for any debate.
Assuredly the language and terminology of the debate is a key factor. One of the better terms I recently embraced is ‘global weirding’ from Thomas Friedman.168 Since people seem fixated on temperatures which change very slowly and which have cataclysmic long term effects, then the debate should shift to changing weather patterns which are far more tangible. From the vanishing fog that feeds the California Redwood forests169 to the shifting rain patterns that now dry out Melbourne, there are clear enduring evidences of long term global weirding.
We are certainly seeing the arrival of incredible extremes in annual weather patterns. 2010 has so far seen record floods in Pakistan170, and record heat waves in the USA and Russia171. And just 6 months earlier record snowfall hit the same regions. The envelope of climate is being pushed farther each year, and instability results, overall dropping agricultural output172 and shattering economies.
Another term that is a little more alarmist but still relevant is ‘global crisis’ from George Lakoff who lays emphasis on emphasizing the change aspect of the climactic shifts.173 However I am concerned that alarmist talk might be self defeating. The impacts of climactic shifts are self evident as crises across the globe as water supplies dry up in one region and others are deluged.
How to make us care
Raising awareness in general is a constant battle. We cannot for a moment rest on brief laurels. We have a few decades to turn things around and we must use all tools at our disposal.
The contributions of Al Gore174 in the global climate change efforts are most laudable as he was the highest profile person to date to stake a reputation on the matter.175 The excellent documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was paramount to bring discussion to the forefront.176 We need more laudable persons like this to spear head change, from all walks of life and from all nations. People naturally gravitate toward celebrities, and they have a serious role to play that they cannot shirk.
Excellent documentaries have been made on the topic of climate change, and one of the finer recently is Home.177 This brilliant documentary shows the incredible expanse of the world ecosystems and the threat they are under.178 The movie is completely free online179 and should be mandatory viewing for those seeking inspiration on these matters.
In this digitized world where numbers and precision matter it is often frustrating not to have a destination or target in mind. Enter the organization 350.org.180 In sum and substance, the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere is 390 ppm or parts per million. Scientific consensus indicates the ‘safe’ level for climate equilibrium is 350 ppm.181 The last time we were in the ‘safe’ level was 1988, so imagine how fast the situation has degraded in the last few decades. We finally have a stated goal. We finally see a target we can measure. Let us move forward as the human race collectively to save ourselves and our home planet.
Thanks and best regards,
The online version of this letter can be seen at the following blogs –