Environment

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My kid loves statistics and 15 minute cities

My kid’s transport goals for the year

We have started this simple diary where my 7 yo tracks each of her trips and categorizes them as car or not car. I find the analog simplicity of this approach to be appealing and I’ll be helping her keep this updated. I am also resisting temptation to add more data to this survey for myself (her project, not mine!) My movement goals are the same as hers, walk and bike as much as practicable leaving driving only for the “it’s too far or I don’t have even 10 minutes to spare or I have to carry something that won’t fit on my cargo bike, or it’s not safe to bike with a kid”.

Our life for the most part now fits the 15 minute city model, the concept that “Everyone living in a city should have access to essential urban services within a 15 minute walk or bike.”. Other than my once a week commute to work, almost everything we do is in that 15 minute walk/bike window and while our all age and abilities bike network is still work in progress, the trend is clear (thanks Dave Thompson Victoria City Councilor for the graphic from the CRD transportation survey)

Big Wool and Fast Fashion

Cute sheep or not, factory farming is always impactful

 

According to one analysis of wool production in Australia, by far the world’s top exporter, the wool required to make one knit sweater is responsible for 27 times more greenhouse gases than a comparable Australian cotton sweater, and requires 247 times more land.

Source: Big Wool wants you to believe it’s nice to animals and the environment. It’s not.

This is an interesting article in Vox on the outsized impacts of large-scale factory farming wool impacts. The article goes into further detail comparing wool to synthetics on impact (Both big, but different), and why plant-based alternatives like Tencel and Hemp and recycling have not taken off. It also discusses the increasing trend of wool blends.

Widespread cheap synthetics have enabled fast fashion, making it possible for brands to produce stupefying volumes of disposable fabrics. These are now very commonly combined with wool to create hybrid garments. According to the Center for Biodiversity and Collective Fashion Justice’s recent analysis of 13 top clothing brands, more than half of wool items were blended with synthetics, giving them in-demand properties like machine washability

Of course when you blend a wool and a synthetic, it is now landfill material. The issue with clothing (same as the issue with most scaled up factory production) is scale and economics. Fast fashion makes clothes that fall apart in 6 months and are impossible to fix. So whatever the raw material used, this trend ensures high production, quick profit, large impact and large waste. In addition, factory-scaled animal production is not really compatible with animal welfare.

Unless the system changes, which will require a massive re-examination and re-jigging of our financial systems and reward/responsibility mechanisms, we will always have this issue.

Coffee Roasting and Popcorn Lung
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Coffee Roasting and Popcorn Lung

Cross-posted from Interrobang

Who among us coffee drinkers don’t love the smell of freshly roasted coffee? I am sure some of us imagine how much fun it would be to smell freshly roasting coffee more often. I don’t, because smell for me is an instant jolt of pleasure/pain followed by a rather rapid decline into the background.

Caution, though. New measurements from the US Centres for Disease Control warn of high exposure to some pretty nasty chemicals that can cause your lungs to be destroyed irreversibly, the unfortunately named “popcorn lung” or bronchitis obliterans:

Investigators with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, a research arm of the CDC, spent several days at Madison-based Just Coffee in July. Investigators tested personal air space and took air samples to measure the concentration of the chemicals diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione… NIOSH researchers found levels in three breathing-zone samples that exceeded the safety levels recommended by the CDC.

Coffee Roasting Plants and Exposure

The test results show a marginal exceedance in this case, but noted that ventilation is a big factor and these tests were done under well ventilated conditions on a warm and dry day when doors were open. So, exposure can be higher in other circumstances.

Worker exposures are to higher levels, and are more sustained, so they deserve the most attention.

So, local coffee roasters, it may make sense to confirm that your roasting environments are not exposing your workers to harmful, lung obliterating chemicals. Remember, organic, shade grown, fair pay, artisanal roasting aside, chemical exposures to workers don’t change. And, everything that smells good isn’t good for you.

One of my frequent points of emphasis (rants, some might say) is on the relative risk vs. media attention to exposures of people to ambient, day to day concentrations of potential harmful chemicals vs. those faced by workers everywhere. The last time diacetyl and bronchitis obliterans were in the news, it was around the use of diacetyl to produce that buttery smell so beloved in microwave bag popcorn (I don’t like it myself, olive oil all the way!). Despite reports of many workers facing severe lung issues, it took the detection of the disease of one person eating multiple bags of microwave popcorn over many years to actually move government regulators into action on diacetyl. People who work in factories, in the fields, and make things are exposed to thousands of times higher concentrations of harmful chemicals for longer periods of time, but their concerns are often de-emphasized.

This doesn’t mean ambient exposures in the general population are to be ignored, but worker exposures are to higher levels, and more sustained, so they deserve the most attention.

16-May-2016 Update

This US Centers for Disease Control page is a good collection of information and further readings. They recommend facility tests to measure diacetyl and its cousin 2,3-pentanedione, and better ventilation, worker safeguards and personal protective equipment as necessary. They also note that at least five workers in large scale coffee processing plants have been diagnosed with bronchitis obliterans.

Coffee image By Ailura – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Double for Nothing: Leaving the left lane empty

Double for Nothing: Leaving the left lane empty

Car Space

Apparently. my fine province is poised to bear down heavily on those most dastardly of villains, people who dare drive their motor vehicle in the left lane…

“There will be a number of measures that we will be implementing to do a better job in getting people out of the left lane,” Stone told Kamloops’ CHNL radio last week. “You know, it already is the law, today, not to be in the left lane unless they’re passing. … [There are] a number of initiatives that we’ll be announcing soon that we hope will make a difference to get those left-lane hogs out of the way.” – See more at: http://www.timescolonist.com/news/local/jack-knox-b-c-poised-to-make-a-move-on-left-lane-hogs-1.1158661#sthash.MYd8WAan.dpuf
“There will be a number of measures that we will be implementing to do a better job in getting people out of the left lane,” Stone told Kamloops’ CHNL radio last week. “You know, it already is the law, today, not to be in the left lane unless they’re passing. … [There are] a number of initiatives that we’ll be announcing soon that we hope will make a difference to get those left-lane hogs out of the way.” – See more at: http://www.timescolonist.com/news/local/jack-knox-b-c-poised-to-make-a-move-on-left-lane-hogs-1.1158661#sthash.MYd8WAan.dpuf

“There will be a number of measures that we will be implementing to do a better job in getting people out of the left lane,” Stone told Kamloops’ CHNL radio last week. “You know, it already is the law, today, not to be in the left lane unless they’re passing. … [There are] a number of initiatives that we’ll be announcing soon that we hope will make a difference to get those left-lane hogs out of the way.

Jack Knox: B.C. poised to make a move on left-lane hogs – Local – Times Colonist.

I get it, people who drive slowly in the left lane are annoying and are a potential safety hazard. But, given that a car already needs so much more space than a bicycle, a bus full of people or pedestrians, does having a rule saying you’re only supposed to use half the road for the majority of your driving make any sense? Think about an alternative reality in which bike lanes are built for double the capacity just in case you want to pass a slower cyclist, would never happen, right?

A minor point, but some of the aspects of our personal auto culture are egregiously wasteful, yet attract little attention because “it’s always been that way.”

Are there Vogons on Canada’s National Energy Board?

Are there Vogons on Canada’s National Energy Board?

I did not know whether to laugh or cry when I read this morning of the new rules put in place to “help” Canada’s residents voice their concerns on the numerous pipeline projects that are to be built to ship diluted bitumen out of Alberta. The rules arise from the Omnibus “Budget” bill passed in 2012 that “streamlined” environmental assessments.

Ordinary Canadians who want to participate at the NEB hearings, or even write a letter to offer their thoughts, must first print the application form that was made available online on Friday, answer 10 pages of questions, then file it with both the NEB and Enbridge. And they must do so by April 19.The NEB also encourages those wishing to make submissions to include résumés and references. Only after an application is approved will the board accept a letter

via Energy board changes pipeline complaint rules – The Globe and Mail.

Sounds familiar?

Mr Prosser said: “You were quite entitled to make any suggestions or protests at the appropriate time you know.”

<snip>

“But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”

<snip>

“But the plans were on display…”

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That’s the display department.”

“With a torch.”

“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

Just a note that the Vogons gave us nine months notice to demolish earth and did not ask for a 10 page application, résumés, references and first born (one of these is not a requirement).

vogon

Picture of Vogon from Tim Ellis’ Flickr stream used under a Creative Commons Licence

Better Place electric car experiment not in good place

Better Place electric car experiment not in good place

You may have heard of Shai Agassi and Better Place (link’s to a TED talk, so you know he was important!), the car company that was going to revolutionize electric cars by separating the battery infrastructure from the car and setting up a number of battery swap stations. The goal was to remove “range anxiety” as batteries could be swapped out in 5 minutes or less. Their first experiment was in Israel and it appears to have not worked.

Why a Promising Electric Car Startup Failed – Yale E News

But such rosy projections never came close to materializing. One of the unexpected things to go wrong was that the company didn’t get much help from Israel. Although Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president, was an enthusiastic Better Place supporter, Israel — unlike the U.S. — provides no subsidies to EVs. Local authorities, whose permission was needed to build battery-switching stations, put up unexpected roadblocks

Not surprised one bit. System change requires institutional support.The status quo bias in favour of the current infrastructure is massive. Gasoline cars work well for people who drive cars, regardless of the expense, which is incremental, hence easily disregarded, or pollution concerns, which are unseen and to which people only have shallow affinities for. People don’t like uncertainty or novelty in routine. If we want to produce less pollution in travel, electric cars cannot just be plugged in to the current infrastructure. This quote from David Roberts of the Grist explains it well:

Lurking in the background is the notion that the “promise of electric cars” is false until an electric car can plop down in America’s current transportation system and do everything an internal-combustion-engine car can do. <snip> The problem, however, is not merely that our cars consume too much oil. It’s that our transportation system consumes too much oil. A better system won’t merely involve better cars, it will involve driving less, telecommuting more, using more public transportation, sharing cars, making cars smarter, and building more and better electrical infrastructure.

betterplace

The current infrastructure was built with sustained government support over decades and is propped up by trillions of dollars in taxes, subsidies to fossil fuel industry and such. It works for the people using it, if not for life on this planet in the long term. If I was driving, if my commute is 20 minutes, an electric car will still only take 20 minutes. If you’re stuck in traffic in a hellish commute, an electric car doesn’t help you at all. An electric car would save some money in the long run, but  no individual or market is going to build me a charging station in my apartment or workplace, or set up a range of battery swappers from scratch. 

Building a sustainable infrastructure is not something a market can do, or is designed to do. It will be up to us to visualize where we want to go, and spend the money, time and effort needed to make it happen. We are also up against a large and well established system that does not really want this change to happen, and has spent decades eroding trust in the institutions that would have to make this change happen.

Looking forward

What needs to happen for electric cars to be a small part of the solution? The larger part involves system change to reduce daily transport needs, de-emphasize private transport and encourage bike, bus train and walk. For cars to be a part of the solution:

  1. Governments/communities will need to build millions of charging stations (no, markets will not make this happen magically)
  2. Regulations must force electric car companies to provide standard battery replacement systems (imagine a different battery compartment for each battery operated appliance you own!)
  3. Gas stations may need to be retrofitted and eventually replaced with battery swap stations for longer distance private travel.
  4. We need to fund research in better electricity storage and continuous charging using existing road infrastructure.
  5. Money? The true social cost of carbon could be $250 a ton, BC’s carbon tax is at $30 a ton, clearly we are all free-riding. Carbon taxes, financial transaction fees, taxing the rich and more need to happen.

Are our governments and institutions up to this massive task?

Climate change infographic

Climate change infographic

This infographic came my way via Learnstuff and it looked interesting. I have a love-hate relationship with infographics and this one evokes the same feelings of “I really appreciate the effort someone put into this and it looks great” vs. “how is this going to influence our policy makers, or create the intensity (read this link, it’s really good stuff by David Roberts of Grist) that is required to foster the system change we need”?

Climate-Change

Chinese coal mines in BC: Missing the forest for the trees
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Chinese coal mines in BC: Missing the forest for the trees

The story of a Chinese company in BC hiring Chinese workers has received a lot of attention. Much of the attention has focused on the company’s decision to game the temporary worker system in order to avoid hiring “Canadian” workers. Many of the objections are made on nationalistic grounds, “OMG, THEY”RE TAKING CANADIAN JOBS”, which then leads down the path of racist anti-Chinese sentiment. This Tyee article (disclaimer: I am a Tyee monthly funder, but obviously have no editorial input!) summarizes the issues involved very well. Recent changes to Canada’s immigration laws make this kind of hiring logical, because it is now okay to pay temporary workers with little/no bargaining power 15% less than you would pay locals. Of course you have to document that there were no qualified locals, but as this particular incident indicates, there’s little/no actual enforcement unless a fuss is made.

I find temporary worker programs to be problematic because they provide no path to citizenship, no permanence for the people who want it, and cause ugly divisions in the community. If you think there are not enough “workers” in your community, open your borders, let them in and pay well, you’d be surprised.

I wanted to highlight two obvious issues that to my mind are as important:

  1. Carbon Bomb. It’s a coal mine! How many people in BC, which preens gloriously on its carbon tax, are aware that coal is BC’s Number One export? What is the point of having a carbon tax for consumers when producers get to make money off that carbon for free? Whether the coal is burned in BC, or in China, it causes the same damage. Whether the coal is used to generate power, or to make steel, it puts out the same amount of carbon dioxide. Whether the mine uses Chinese workers or locals, it produces the same climate changing emissions. So, why instead of making coal producers pay the real costs of their product, are we enabling them to evade carbon taxes, royalties, and save even more money by reducing wages? Also, coal mining is not employment intensive, as countless other people have pointed out. So it’s not really about the jobs either. Kevin Washbrook of StopCoal made this point as well in the Tyee article I linked to earlier.
  2. Does this mine have right to be there? The West Moberley First Nation, part of a Treaty 8 band is opposed to the project on its land. That should be the end of the story. The state of Canada has responsibilities as a settler entity to obtain free, prior and informed consent on development from the people it colonized. The US is a bit more honest in this regard as it regards the colonization as a thing of the past and gives its indigenous peoples little/no rights. Canada’s different, the indigenous here have specific standing because of Canada’s existing colonial links and Canadian governments and courts routinely confirm this standing. The BC government is currently negotiating treaties with many First Nations communities including the West Moberley First Nation.

We’re trying to set up a climate and environment disturbing, cost and tax evading coal mine on land that belongs to someone else using easily exploited temporary workers we can be racist towards.

coal

Methane Leakage, again
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Methane Leakage, again

In a sane world, we would be very concerned about measuring, reporting and closely regulating methane releases during its extraction and processing, especially if we claim that it is clean energy. This is nothing I, or other people haven’t said before, but here’s more research summarized in the very respectable Nature Journal indicating that measurable leak rates of methane can vary widely.

Preliminary results from a field study in the Uinta Basin of Utah suggesting even higher rates of methane leakage — an eye-popping 9% of the total production. That figure is nearly double the cumulative loss rates estimated from industry data — which are already higher in Utah than in Colorado

via Methane leaks erode green credentials of natural gas : Nature News & Comment.

10% is a large number. I’ve posted this picture from Wigley (2011) previously. At any leakage rate other than zero, which no one claims, the benefits of switching from coal to methane are very modest.

It's all about Methane leakage
It’s all about Methane leakage

We absolutely need to measure, control and regulate fugitive methane emissions from every BC site, and need to have solid regulation in place before we keep expanding natural gas infrastructure. We need our political leaders to start talking seriously about capturing methane leaks when they talk about BC’s natural gas “play”.
Canada to stop asbestos mining and stop defending it.
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Canada to stop asbestos mining and stop defending it.

Canada’s long and sorry saga of exporting death (asbestos) and defending it loudly and proudly in international fora is over and I needed to mark this happy day on the blog. The newly elected provincial government in Quebec, the Parti Quebecois have followed through on their campaign promise to finally end this small “industry” employing a few workers. Canada will no longer produce asbestos, or fight the listing of asbestos as a toxic substance.

It is going to take $50 million in government funds, a fraction of the cost of one fighter jet, to transition the workers away (if they get the money, not the mine owners). That’s it, why were we exporting death to India and other countries for this, I don’t know.

Canada’s many conservative and liberal governments fought hard for years to preserve the industry, using techniques lifted from tobacco propaganda, or today’s climate change challenges. I leave you with the ruling Canadian government’s response: Finely tuned to appeal to everyone who likes mesothelioma, cancer and death.

“Mrs. Marois’s decision to prohibit chrysotile mining in Quebec will have a negative impact on the future prosperity of the area,” (Industry Minister) Mr. Paradis said in a statement.

That about sums it up. But, it is a good day for public health, nevertheless.

Citing PQ pressure, Canada to cease defending asbestos mining – The Globe and Mail.

Featured image courtesy wikipedia used under a Creative Commons license (a micrograph of asbestos fibres causing lesions in the lung).