Short Thoughts: Clean Technology in China

This week, I’m at SXSW Eco and it’s awesome. I would have loved to have gone last year but tickets were prohibitively expensive and, much as I hate to admit it, 3 months into my time in Austin, I was still floundering. This year, I was able to get a ticket through my work, so I’m a very happy bunny. I’ll be posting about a few of the sessions over the next two weeks or so.

Of the four sessions I went to on Day 1, the one I found most interesting and most inspiring was a surprising one. I decided to deviate from my norm and skip a session on Feeding 9 Billion (gasp! I know) and go to one on Cleantech in China. Maybe a strange choice for me, but I’m feeling so frustrated by the lack of any global progress on reducing GHG emissions that I was really looking for something hopeful.

Image from The Guardian

To an extent, that’s what I got. I also got a much greater understanding of the importance of focusing our attentions outward, rather than constantly inward. Trying to improve the situation in the US is great, trying to improve the situation globally by sharing and expanding technologies is greater. Consider: in the US, one new power plant is switched on each year. In China, one new power plant is switched on every 5 days. The best place to make a real impact is clear. But traditionally, that hasn’t been where we’ve focused. While we’ve pointed a judgemental finger at countries with developing economies, like China and India, shifting much of the blame for climate change in their direction, we haven’t done much in the way of engaging with them to improve the situation. And these countries are in a much better place to make rapid improvements – their infrastructure isn’t calcified, they are in the process of building from the ground up.  These countries now have the same opportunities to make the decisions that we made a century ago. In the 1900s, there were only 8000 cars on the roads in the US – around 50% were steam powered, with the other 50% split almost evenly between electric and petrol. We made a choice – and it was the wrong one. To get the number of electric cars on the road now that we’d like to, we will need to make huge changes, ripping out and replacing existing infrastructure. With the number of people just now able to afford cars in countries like China, we can help them to do things right from scratch. More companies are starting to do that now, but it’s still a slow process – most start ups (understandably) work within the familiar, known quantity of the US and are not immediately willing to take on the challenge of overseas, often complex markets.

While I don’t doubt that China is entirely capable of ‘greening’ its industry and infrastructure on its own, I do think that there’s an amazing opportunity open at the moment for real global cooperation to reduce our GHG emissions and have an impact on the whole world, not just our own backyards.


60 Minutes: When the media misinforms

You would think, that with a general scientific consensus on the anthropogenic nature of climate change, politicians, journalists, business leaders and the like would generally be positive and encouraging of any steps to mitigate out impact on GHG emissions. You would think that, because you would hope that we’d all be aiming for a better future for ourselves and our children and our children’s children. You would think that people would want to support efforts to better ourselves, rather than sitting back and doing nothing.

You would think that, but you would be wrong.

A screenshot from last night’s program.

I was relieved to read this piece by Will Oremus in Slate and this piece by Joe Romm and Emily Atkin on ThinkProgress today. Unfortunately, the readership of Slate and ThinkProgress combined versus the viewership of 60 Minutes is not really comparable and there are a going to be a lot of frustratingly misinformed people in the US today.

Misinforming the public, and cherry-picking the negatives as 60 Minutes did is concerning and curious. What I struggle to understand is why? Why would you consciously ignore the vast majority of Robert Rapier’s comments and only publicise those which damage the reputation of the cleantech industry? Why would you ignore the huge progress that cleantech has made in the last year, and the promise that it holds for the years ahead? Does CBS/ 60 Minutes have some vested interest in the traditional energy sector?

I can’t pretend that I understand the reasons, but I am angry that this happened. This is not reporting, this is not journalism, this is fantasy. And it is a fantasy that could damage the cleantech industry, by reducing investment in a supposedly failing, but actually booming industry. We need more money invested into cleantech research. We need it to help us reduce emissions and ensure the future of the planet, but the US also needs it if they want to continue to compete on the same playing field as China. China and the US’s industrial competition is not my battle, but I can’t help but feel that in ten years time, the US will suddenly realise that they have been left behind – and that misleading pieces like that aired last night were part of the reason.

West Virginia: an environmental health crisis

When I tell people that I hold a MSc in Environmental Health, about 80% of people will look blank for a moment before going ‘Errr…so what’s that?’ It’s a completely legitimate question. It’s not a well known area and its name can be a bit confusing (‘so, you study the health of the environment…right?’).

Last week in West Virginia is almost a perfect example of environmental (un)health and why I studied what I did. Environmental health is (Cliffs Notes version) the study of how our environment effects our health. When 7,500 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM) leak into the local water supply, every facet of health is going to be affected.

As you’ve no doubt read, this is what happened in West Virginia last Thursday. Since then, around 300,000 residents have been without a reliable water supply. Drinking water has been shipped in, but with tap water only fit for flushing toilets, and bottled water at a premium, the situation still leaves 300,000 people with: difficulty preparing and cooking food, limited hygiene (hand washing, showering etc. with tap water is out), no laundry facilities, no easy way of cleaning cooking utensils and so on. It’s also meant closed schools, shops, restaurants and government departments. It’s an environmental health crisis.

Five days later, officials are now saying that the water seems to be improving. That’s great news. But it doesn’t make up for the fact that this shouldn’t have happened in the first place – chemicals like MCHM shouldn’t be stored at facilities described as ‘ageing’ and ‘vintage’. It also doesn’t make up for the fact that while the leak was discovered on Thursday morning, it wasn’t announced to the public until Thursday evening. Both Freedom Industries (owner of the leaking storage tank) and the West Virginia American Water Co. should be fined out of existence for allowing a lapse of this magnitude to occur.

I’ve seen a lot of comments on articles about the incident blaming the residents for the situation. The general attitude seems to be ‘well, you wanted mining, now you can reap the consequences.’ The lack of empathy is breathtaking. Coal mining is these people’s livelihoods. Many of these people don’t have the education or the skills to do anything else. Of course they’re pro-mining. How else are they going to put food on the table? Demonising the victims isn’t going to solve the problems. What is needed is strong regulation, adequate consequences for polluters and the creation of new, cleaner energy jobs. Sadly, that’s going to take a lot more effort than finger pointing and/or sweeping the whole issue under the rug and pretending it never happened.

2013 in review

First of all, Happy New Year! I hope that 2014 is a great year for you – and for the environment!

2013 was in a lot of ways, a depressing year in food and the environment. The repeal of climate change legislation in Australia, the removal of SNAP from the Farm Bill in the US, continued development of the tar sands in Canada. And all the while, climate change has, if anything, accelerated and inequalities in our food systems continue to be pronounced.

At the risk of being repetitive (there are quite a few year-that-was recaps around at the moment), I thought I’d do a quick run through of my 3-most-important-things-of-2013.

1) The election of the Abbott Government in Australia

I don’t think that there’s too much more that I need to add on top of this post. Truly. I’ll explode if I think about this too frequently.

2) The EU ban on neonicotinoids

Back in January I wrote about a petition for the EU to ban the use of pesticides that had been shown to cause dramatic declines in bee populations. In May, the EU enacted a two year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids. Rare good environmental (and food) news from 2013!

4) 97%: The Consensus Project

In 2013, the results of a project analysing climate change literature from the past 21 years were released. These results found that 97.1% of the papers endorsed the science of anthropogenic climate change. 98.4% of the scientists who authored the papers also endorsed the science. The findings of the study were another huge step in dismantling the credibility of climate change ‘denialists.’ See for more.

Of course, there were other big happenings in 2013, but these are the ones that most struck me. I would like to think that the news will be a little brighter in 2014, and I’ll admit that I’m tentatively hopeful. While Australia looks like going to hell in a handbasket, President Obama actually rolled out a climate plan in June, and while there are still huge issues around Keystone XL and other fracking projects, this is at least a step in the right direction. China is making leaps and bounds in the development of thorium reactors, looking at how these might be a viable alternative energy source to reduce their dependency on coal and traditional uranium nuclear. If they can take this further, and if the rest of the world is on board, this could be a fantastic stop-gap measure to reduce GHG emissions while battery technologies for wind and solar power are improved. Big Food is fighting against GMO labelling laws, but the fight will continue into this year, hopefully with gains by those who support a truthful food future.

Here’s to you, 2014.

On the state of politics in Australia

It’s been a really, really long time since I’ve written anything here. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is that I’ve become immensely jaded and disappointed with the state of environmental and food politics lately. I’ve needed to take a bit of a break to reboot (the blog is mainly just a hobby that I love, but like any hobby, sometimes you need a bit of time away). In Australia, the Liberal Party was elected in September. You can scroll down to see a few of our new Prime Ministers choicest comments. It’s one of the major reasons that I haven’t been writing, and also the main reason that I felt the need to come back and write again today. Since election in September, the Abbott Government has

  • Dismantled the Climate Commission (see here)
  • Withdrawn all funding from the Environmental Defenders Offices around Australia (see here)
  • Approved the creation of one of the world’s biggest coal shipping ports near the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (see here)
  • Proposed the repeal of Australia’s climate legislation, including the carbon tax, clean energy funding and the existing emissions trading system (see here)
  • Been singled out for its poor climate change performance in Warsaw (see here)

All this, in less than six months. Political terms in Australia are usually around 3 years – the thought of the damage that could be done during that time is unsettling, to say the very, very least. And the worst of it? This is what people voted for. This is not some crazy surprise package. People made a conscious decision to vote against the Climate Commission, against the carbon tax, and against climate legislation more generally. I’m not sure that they expected the coal port in the Great Barrier Reef as well, but it’s hardly unexpected given the pre-election, anti-environment rhetoric. What does all this mean? It means that Australia has gone from being at the forefront of carbon legislation to being part of a shame circle in Warsaw. It means that, as one of the developed countries most likely to be affected by climate change, we are doing less than most developed countries to prevent it. It means that, in spite of some supposedly high-level conditions on shipping through the Great Barrier Reef, we are placing our trust in mining companies to ensure the future of one of our greatest national treasures – which frankly, either means that we’re naive, stupid or both.

I’m finding it difficult to control my anger about all this. Climate change denial is a denial of science. It’s like saying that the earth is the centre of the universe, or contending that our planet is flat. And, in a manner similar to that when these were the beliefs, proponents of the scientific view are being silenced. Even if we accept that there is still a debate to be had about the cause and impact of climate change, dissent is being stifled, through the shutdown of organisations like the Climate Commission and the Environmental Defenders Office. Even if we accept (and it makes my skin itch to even type this) that there is no such thing as climate change, the Government, those people we elected to provide the greatest good to the greatest number, has completely disregarded the environmental and public health benefits that could have been achieved through reducing our emissions and investing in green technologies. The legislations that were introduced by the previous government may not have been perfect. But they were never given a chance to work. Just two years of a carbon tax gives us no real idea of what the potential impacts could have been, whether they could have reduced our emissions, increased investment in solar and wind power. What a wasted opportunity.

I’m angry, and I’m disappointed. I am furious with those who put a few dollars off their electricity bills ahead of the future of Australia’s citizens, and I’m sad that it’s the twenty first century and people are still treating science like they did five hundred years ago. I’m upset that there’s nothing that I can do about it when I’m living overseas, and quite honestly, I’m ashamed to be Australian at the moment.

A little of everything

I’ll start by apologising (somewhat belatedly, I confess) in advance for the fact that my posting is likely to be very sporadic over the next few weeks.  With just a month now before we move to Austin, things are starting to get pretty hectic around our way – not to mention that we’re both still working full time and it’s the end of semester!  Free time is becoming rarer by the day.

With that out of the way, I thought I’d share a few of the excellent things I’ve come across lately on the interwebs. (I’ll also continue to share some articles via the Facebook page, even while I’m not able to keep up with blogging).

This piece on how we have slowly reduced the nutritional content of our fruits and vegetables over thousands of years was fascinating.  Given the likelihood of this process continuing, the importance of preserving genetic history where possible again seems absolutely crucial.  The associated graphic is a good summary for those lacking time:

Credit: NYT


Whether or not you are comfortable with the future of food including genetically modified crops, the unauthorised spread of unapproved GMO wheat in the US is alarming

and in stark contrast to Hungary’s vehement anti-GMO campaign of burning GMO corn fields.  GMO seeds remain banned in Hungary at this stage.

Phil Plait wins again with his Global Warming Firehose post on Bad Astronomy.  Following some of his links, I loved the 99 One-Liners to rebut climate change deniers and I hated the fact that I am moving to a state which can elect this guy representative of anything at all, ever.  That article nearly broke my brain.

I’m also glad not to live in Victoria, the state that brought us John Madigan who thinks that wind farms might break laws “both written and unwritten” (ummmm?).  The demanding requirements on wind farms fail to take into account that there is essentially no evidence of negative impacts on health and a whole lot which points to people’s wind-turbine-related “illness” being a case of a lot of fear and misinformation manifesting in a range of unrelated physical symptoms.


Fuel: Fail

image from

I was meaning to get back to Food Friday this week, but honestly,  I really need a full week away from writing about anything to do with food! My poor, scrambled brain is tired of even seeing the word.

Instead, I’m linking to a petition that JP over at The Green Word shared the other day, which is being run by  Fossil fuels are still being so heavily funded by governments, while renewables keep on lagging behind.  Our governments tell us over and over that green energy is not yet at the stage where it is  efficient enough, reliable enough and plentiful enough resource.  But they are doing so very little to change this.

They are right that renewables still aren’t at the stage where they could power the whole grid.  Current technology is so, so far behind that stage.  I read a paper a few months back, which I am going to copy word for word here:

Saul Griffith…has provided a powerful illustration of the limits of renewable power.  Griffith estimates that if we are to tackle global climate change, we will need ti be annually generating 110,000 TWH of clean energy in twenty-five years time (this equates to adding 13 terrawatts of clean energy power generation).  Griffith has done the maths to work out what 13 terrawatts of clean power looks like using current technology (…):

  • 2 terrawatts of solar photovoltaic power, which Griffith estimates would require installing 100 square metres of solar cells every second for the next 25 years or 30,000 square miles of photovoltaic cells
  • 2 terrawatts of solar thermal, requiring 50 square metres of reflective mirrors installed every second for the next 25 years or 15,000 square miles of mirrors and;
  • 2 terrawatts pf wind power, requiring twelve wind turbines installed every hour for the next 25 years, or 10,000 square miles of wind turbines and;
  • 2 terrawatts of biofuels, meaning four Olympic-sized swimming pools of genetically engineered algae installed every second for the next 25 years or well over 500,000 square miles of pools and;
  • 2 terrawatts of geothermal power, meaning 3 steam turbines every day for 25 years and;
  • 3 additional terrawatts of nuclear power, requiring 3 1000-megawatt nuclear plants built every week for 25 years.

Each of these tasks seems impossible, but let’s be clear that Griffiths isn’t saying the world needs to do one of them.  He is saying we need to  do all of them: solar, wind, biofuels, geothermal and nuclear.’

(Andrew Charlton 2011, Man-Made World, Quarterly Essay 44)

So, on that basis, why isn’t the government funding the research to improve the technology to make green energy possible?  Why is everyone so stuck in the pockets of Big Fossil Fuels?

Moving to green energy is not going to be easy, at all.  Not even a little.  And it’s a long way from where it needs to be, but that is not going to change without a lot of money, a lot of research and a lot of ingenuity.  We are just not getting any of that from our leaders.   I know that the Australian government is sinking some money into research, with the CSIRO doing a lot of work on algal biolfuels in particular.  But in a country with this much sunshine and this much coastline we could do more.  We should be leading the way, not lagging behind and hiding behind our piles of coal.  One day the coal will run out – and then where will we be?

Please, sign the petition here!