Has the EU’s carbon trading system made business greener?

July 21st, 2015 by admin No comments »

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Has the EU’s carbon trading system made business greener?” was written by Jill Duggan, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 15th July 2015 15.15 UTC

The EU is celebrating 10 years of the world’s largest carbon trading system this year by looking at new reforms to keep it on track. The emissions trading scheme (ETS), which covers half of Europe’s CO2 emissions by limiting the number of carbon permits available to energy generators and industry, has been dogged by low prices and oversupply of allowances.

The problems are largely ones of success – carbon emissions are lower than anticipated. But much of the oversupply was caused by the recession in Europe, so has the trading system been a waste of time or has it changed business attitudes and operations?

To answer these questions the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group commissioned a report, 10 years of Carbon Pricing in Europe – a business perspective, which was released last week. The report is based on interviews with a small number of companies from a variety of sectors that are mandated into the ETS to see what impact it has had on them.

For some, the responses were pretty much to be expected. EDF and Shell have long been advocates of the carbon market and higher prices. Energy companies need the price to justify the right investment decisions at the right time – and many of them are able to pass on the cost of carbon allowances to their consumers – so they would be in favour of a high carbon price.

Although they profess the importance of the carbon market, it is clear that other policies, such as those promoting renewables or nuclear energy, have had more impact.

Carbon trading driving emission cuts

But then there are the energy intensives. Often vulnerable to international competition and with limited options to reduce their CO2 emissions, these industries generally have not been enthusiastic advocates of the carbon price. But here the European carbon market does seem to have had a genuine impact. Steel company ArcelorMittel acknowledged the importance of monitoring and reporting emissions to manage them.

Tata Steel Europe said that even in the depths of the recession some of its facilities were taking steps that would have previously been unacceptable or impossible in order to stay afloat, because reducing emissions is synonymous with efficiency. To the same effect, cement company Italcementi uses CO2 intensity as an indicator of efficiency as it “combines most of the key levers to industrial excellence”.
It seems unlikely these companies would have got this far without the ETS.

Next, we should consider the industries that are within the ETS but for which energy is not such a significant cost or where there are other options. What is interesting here is how the most advanced companies have moved beyond compliance to more interesting and creative ways of cutting emissions.

There are plenty of examples of companies using their waste heat or buying heat from their neighbours, thus going the extra mile to improve efficiency. The bottling company O-I Group uses waste heat to pre-heat raw materials and to heat the floor in their plant. Others have created new business models that have provided a lucrative income stream from offering consultancy advice to others. Here the ETS has provided a valuable focus on carbon and underwritten the improvements made.

Finally, there are those companies that probably would not have gone beyond compliance if they had not had leaders with vision. Where senior managers decide to take carbon seriously there can be huge benefits, even where energy is a small proportion of total costs.

Jaguar Land Rover and GlaxoSmithKline have directed new resources to cutting carbon with astonishing success. This has been crowned by a reduced carbon liability. Clearly in these companies the ETS alone has not driven this transformation, but the senior management teams would not have had this on the agenda without the carbon price being discussed at board level. It is noteworthy that these businesses instigated action in 2007 and 2008 when the allowance price was relatively stable in the €20-€25 range.

What needs to happen next? Europe is embarking on reform of the ETS now. Clearly getting prices back up to the lofty levels of 2007 would help but, ironically, the companies that have focused on carbon have found the low hanging fruit of cheap emissions reductions to be almost limitless, which will make it a bigger struggle to raise the price.

Do we need a higher price then? Yes. To tackle the challenging industries that will need technological breakthroughs we will need higher carbon prices to incentivise more reductions and to fund innovation.

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The self-healing concrete that can fix its own cracks

June 29th, 2015 by admin No comments »

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The self-healing concrete that can fix its own cracks” was written by Rosie Spinks, for theguardian.com on Monday 29th June 2015 06.00 UTC

Of all the carbon emitters that surround us every day it’s easy to overlook one of the most ubiquitous: concrete.

The material that builds our buildings, paves our roads and spans our bridges is the most widely produced and consumed material on earth apart from water, according to a WBCSD report. By 2030, urban growth in China and India will place global cement output at 5bn metric tons per year, with current output already responsible for 8% of the global emissions total, according to a WWF report.

Although its environmental impact is far from benign, concrete – defined as the mixture of aggregates, water and the hydraulic powder material known as cement – is incredibly useful and widely applicable. Thanks to its durability, easily-sourced raw materials and thermal resistance, it is unlikely that an alternative building material will replace it on a large scale any time soon.

Hendrik Jonkers, a microbiologist at Delft University and a finalist at the recent 10th annual European Inventor Awards, has a plan to increase the lifespan of concrete. His innovation, which embeds self-activating limestone-producing bacteria into building material, is designed to decrease the amount of new concrete produced and lower maintenance and repair costs for city officials, building owners and homeowners.

Jonkers’ self-healing concrete marries two fields: civil engineering and marine biology.

“One of my colleagues, a civil engineer with no knowledge of microbiology, read about applying limestone-producing bacteria to monuments [to preserve them],” Jonkers said. “He asked me: ‘Is it possible for buildings?’ Then my task was to find the right bacteria that could not only survive being mixed into concrete, but also actively start a self healing process.”

When it comes to Jonkers’ concrete, water is both the problem and the catalyst that activates the solution. Bacteria (Bacillus pseudofirmus or Sporosarcina pasteurii) are mixed and distributed evenly throughout the concrete, but can lie dormant for up to 200 years as long as there is food in the form of particles. It is only with the arrival of concrete’s nemesis itself – rainwater or atmospheric moisture seeping into cracks – that the bacteria starts to produce the limestone that eventually repairs the cracks. It’s a similar process to that carried out by osteoplast cells in our body which make bones.

Healing these cracks the old-fashioned way is no small expense. According to HealCON, the project working on the self-healing concrete, annual maintenance cost for bridges, tunnels and other essential infrastructure in the EU reaches €6bn (£4.2bn) a year.

The invention comes in three forms: a spray that can be applied to existing construction for small cracks that need repairing, a repair mortar for structural repair of large damage and self-healing concrete itself, which can be mixed in quantities as needed. While the spray is commercially available, the latter two are currently in field tests. One application that Jonkers predicts will be widely useful for urban planners is highway infrastructure, where the use of de-icing salts is notoriously detrimental to concrete-paved roads.

Encouraging as it sounds, Jonkers’ self-healing concrete can’t cure very wide cracks or potholes on roads just yet; the technology is currently able to mend cracks up to 0.8mm wide. And while making better concrete is a more feasible approach to sustainable building than shifting to an entirely new building material, that doesn’t mean the innovation is a sure bet. The current cost would be prohibitive for many. A standard-priced cubic meter of concrete is €70, according to Jonkers, while the self-healing variety would cost €100.

John Alker, director of policy at the UK Green Building Council, says the success of any new green infrastructure technology relies on innovators like Jonkers being able to demonstrate the particular benefit of a product, whether that’s around cost or enabling a client to meet environmental targets.

“We’ve seen a lot of innovation around concrete as it is a highly impactful product in terms of the energy that goes into producing it and it’s simultaneously a very important construction product globally,” Alker said. But persuading the construction industry to change its behaviour will be tough, he says. “It comes down to innovative clients and developers being willing to experiment with their building and try and test these materials and prove a track record before others will follow.”

Though Jonkers is aware of the challenges of reaching wide adoption of the material, he points out that in particularly vulnerable environments – such as coastal communities or tropical regions that are increasingly experiencing extreme rainfall – some are already seeing the cost-benefit analysis of using this technology from the outset.

“We did a project in Ecuador where we made a concrete canal and irrigation system with self-healing concrete,” Jonkers said. “We are doing tests all over the world in developing countries where they realise that though this is more expensive than current tech, they see the profit because they will have to avoid repair down the line.”

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The streets were paved with algae: a greener material?

June 11th, 2015 by admin No comments »

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The streets were paved with algae: a greener material?” was written by Rich McEachran, for theguardian.com on Monday 8th June 2015 12.38 UTC

The process of surfacing a road isn’t complicated. Layers of asphalt, which is composed mostly of bitumen (a byproduct of crude oil distillation), are poured over an aggregate of crushed stone and sand; the asphalt acts as a glue, binding the mixture together to form asphalt concrete.

Maintaining the roads, however, is a costly job. According to the Asphalt Industry Alliance it would cost more than £12bn to restore all road networks in England alone to a reasonable condition.

Simon Hesp, a professor and chemical engineer at Queen’s University in Ontario, believes standard industry asphalt is not sustainable. “The problem with the composition is that it’s poorly controlled … it uses materials with poor performances,” he says. Hesp says the presence of certain oil residues lowers the quality of the concrete and is a key reason why roads are failing and many potholes need to be filled and cracks fixed.

But there’s not just a maintenance cost. Asphalt, dependent as it is on the oil industry, is resource- and energy-intensive, which is why the race is on to develop a greener alternative.

In Sydney an experiment is under way using printer toner waste blended with recycled oil to produce an environmentally friendly asphalt. And in the past few years there have been studies into the development of non-petroleum bioasphalts.

At Washington State University researchers developed asphalt from cooking oil, and last year academics at Wageningen University in the Netherlands found that lignin – a natural substance found in plants and trees – is another suitable replacement for crude oil bitumen. Other investigations have looked into the use of soybean and canola oil (rapeseed oil) and coffee grounds.

The WSU research, led by Haifang Wen and published at the end of 2013, concluded that the introduction of cooking oil can increase bioasphalt’s resistance to cracking . Wenn also claims it’s possible that, if commercialised, such bioasphalts could cost much less per tonne. The price of standard asphalt can fluctuate wildly as it’s dependent on the price of oil.

Hesp isn’t convinced that cooking oil is the way forward. He says, like petroleum, over time it will cause roads to fail because of weak bonds.

Bruno Bujoli, director of research at CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), agrees that the use of cooking oil “chemically modified to reach appropriate mechanical properties” could significantly affect quality. He also sounds a note of caution about food security, saying that asphalt based on vegetable oils could, if scaled up, affect food stocks

Bujoli recently played a key role in developing a bioasphalt from microalgae. It uses a process known as hydrothermal liquefaction, which is used to convert waste biomass, including wood and sewage, into biocrude oil. The chemical composition of the microalgae bioasphalt differs from petroleum-derived asphalt, but initial tests have concluded that it also bears similar viscous properties and can bind aggregates together efficiently, as well as being able to cope with loads such as vehicles.

How it will perform over time is yet to be determined. The findings were published in April.

Green roads

Bujoli suggests that microalgae – also known for its use in the production of cosmetic and textile dyes – is a greener and more appropriate solution than agricultural oils. The latter, he says, should be kept for food production.

“The benefits of microalgae over other sources include low competition for arable land, high per hectare biomass yields and large harvesting turnovers. There is also the opportunity to recycle wastewater and carbon dioxide as a way of contributing to sustainable development,” he adds.

It’s a neat idea, with an admirable green mission behind it, but how much of an impact can it really have? Technology such as this is still in its infancy, suggests Heather Dylla, director of sustainable engineering at the National Asphalt Pavement Association, a US trade organisation for the paving industry.

“A lot of interesting work is being done in this area, looking at everything from algae, to swine waste, to byproducts from paper making. It’s worth exploring these alternatives, but we need to be sure they provide equivalent or improved engineering properties. We need to understand how they affect the recyclability of asphalt pavement mixtures,” she says.

She points to the “unique” advantage of asphalt when it comes to recycling. “Not only are the aggregates, which make up about 95% of [asphalt concrete], put back to use, but the bitumen can also be reactivated and used again as the glue that holds a pavement together.”

Microalgae could yet put the paving industry on the road to a greener future. For now though, there are plenty of challenges – from price to scalability – for Bujoli and his team to address if the bioasphalt is to be commercialised.

“This is our research focus for the near future. Our current laboratory equipment works in a batch mode,” explains Bujoli. “Scaling up the process will require the design of a large-volume reactor that can operate under continuous flow conditions.”

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Business leaders prepare for limited UN climate deal in Paris

May 22nd, 2015 by admin No comments »

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Business leaders prepare for limited UN climate deal in Paris” was written by Tom Levitt, for theguardian.com on Thursday 21st May 2015 21.04 UTC

Business leaders are preparing for a limited agreement on reducing carbon emissions at the crunch UN summit in Paris later this year, despite growing support from them for carbon pricing and a commitment to cut emissions by enough to avoid more than 2C of global warming.

More than 1,000 business leaders, including the CEOs of Carrefour, Statoil, Total and Unilever, turned up at a business summit on tackling climate change in Paris this week in response to calls from the UN for the private sector to take a more active role in tackling climate change.

They called on policymakers to agree on carbon pricing mechanisms, closer collaboration between business and government on climate policies and a joint public and private sector fund for investing in low-carbon technology, particularly in developing countries.

The meeting comes as UN negotiators are trying to pull together enough emissions reduction commitments to prevent more than 2C of global warming, the level political leaders agreed in 2009 as likely to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The final commitments are needed ahead of the summit of world leaders in December this year.

Business claims frustration

However, business leaders did not expect the necessary emissions reductions or their policy requests to be finalised in December.

“We have to be pragmatic,” French oil group Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné told the Guardian. “If we take the sum of commitments made by countries then I am afraid we will not be on the 2C trajectory. There will be a gap.

“But what is important from the UN talks in December is to have a convergence of companies on the one side and governments on the other. At least some commitments by governments and businesses, and a mechanism in place to improve it,” he said, adding that he is in favour of a carbon pricing principle.

A failure to bring enough emission cut commitments to put the world on track for avoiding global warming of more than 2C is likely to frustrate the majority of businesses, says the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), with more than 30 companies including Ford Motor Company, Unilever, Nissan and H&M having already pledged to set long-term, science-based climate targets. The targets will match the scale needed to meet the goal of limiting global temperature increases to 2C.

“A small minority of companies may be relieved to continue on a business as usual pathway in the short term, but it would lead to a build-up of systemic risk in the economy,” says CDP’s CEO Paul Simpson. “The vast majority of companies want to see a managed transition to a low-carbon future and not costly, last-minute regulation or climate chaos.”

French companies were represented in large numbers at this week’s summit, with Renault saying it would be “totally stupid” not to have the right regulations, framework and price signals in place after the UN talks. “We have made the investments and have the technology ready to implement on a larger scale,” said Claire Martin, director for sustainable development at Renault.

Private sector could help meet targets

While some have doubted the sincerity of energy-intensive businesses in particular in tackling climate change, Unilever CEO Paul Polman suggests the private sector could help close the shortfall in emission commitments made by governments. “It is very likely that all the agreements coming in will not add up to what we need to stay below 2C. [Those commitments] will be around 40% of that in reality. That is why we are mobilising the private sector. If we work together we can close that gap.”

However, Claus Stig Pedersen head of corporate sustainability at Novozymes, said the past five years had shown business could not tackle climate change without a strong political deal.

“We had this reaction after the UN talks in Copenhagen in 2009 of disappointment with politicians and I was part of a movement that said okay, let’s just do it ourselves. A lot of business jumped into this space and took some big steps forward, but after some years business in general realised that we couldn’t do this alone.

“There is no way we can do this without partnering with politicians and making agreements going forward. So if we should end up with a Paris failure, like we’ve had before, then I do think we’ve learnt we can’t do it alone. We have all the solutions needed, it’s just about applying it. And regulation, a carbon price and ambitious goals from the UN climate talks will drive that faster,” he added.

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The UK company turning coffee waste into furniture

May 7th, 2015 by admin No comments »

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The UK company turning coffee waste into furniture” was written by Josephine Moulds, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 5th May 2015 15.06 UTC

Britain was falling in love with coffee just as Adam Fairweather was exploring ideas for new products and materials. Ten years ago, Starbucks stores were opening on every corner, followed by the burgeoning industry of artisan coffee roasters.

Fairweather, a designer by training and expert in recycling technologies and materials development, now develops materials from coffee grounds and uses them to design products including furniture, jewellery and coffee machines.

A poll of 2,000 Britons by Douwe Egberts in 2012 found 69% spent between £1 and £5 in coffee shops five days a week. “We use coffee as a moment to take a break, it’s a luxury product,” says Fairweather. “The idea that it already had this high value but we only use a little of it, that was interesting because I felt that there was a way of tapping into this perceived high value the product has intrinsically.”

On average, we use just 18% to 22% of the coffee bean when we make a cup of coffee but Fairweather says that coffee waste is not “the biggest problem”. “There are already massive recycling programmes in the UK that manage organic food waste very well. My interest is that we can use materials that have a perceived value to them, to communicate and get people excited about the idea of sustainability and social change and environmental management.”

Google seats coffee material
An example of Re-Worked furniture: easy chair and unity coffee table made with Çurface boards containing 100% recycled content and ash wood. Photograph: Re-Worked

Fairweather first tackled coffee waste by helping to develop the Greencup scheme, which provides offices around the UK with Fairtrade coffee and then collects their waste coffee to turn it into fertiliser. His new venture, Re-Worked, works with Greencup, so he has a ready supply of waste coffee grounds and a list of potential clients who may be open to the idea of other products made from their coffee waste.

Google uses Greencup’s service and has bought designer furniture from Re-Worked, created with a hybrid material made up of 60% used coffee grounds. “They’re all very quick sales,” says Fairweather. “It’s five or six conversations rather than hundreds, because we already have a relationship with the catering facilities management.”

Re-Worked has also teamed up with Sanremo, which uses a material made of 70% coffee grounds for the decorative housing of its Verde coffee machine. Fairweather says they have sold 300-400 of these each year since it was launched in 2013 and they are currently being installed in Wyevale garden centres around the country. High-end jeweller Rosalie McMillan makes use of another of Re-Worked’s materials, combining it with gold and sterling silver for her Java Ore collection.

Scaling up for profit

Re-Worked is a non-profit and Fairweather says the quest for funding has been one of his biggest challenges. “I’m really under-resourced. Because it’s been pioneering work, it’s made it quite hard to get the buy-in from people. We’ve never had huge amounts of wealth in the background to make things happen quickly.”

Re-Worked does generate revenue from trading, which it invests back into the business but Fairweather says the organisation still relies on grants. “In all honesty it’s not been massively profitable. The way we sustain ourselves is by getting government support.” This funds ongoing research into new materials and better production processes.

Fairweather says the process of making materials from coffee grounds would be economically viable if Re-Worked were to scale up. “Doing the life-cycle analysis of materials, is a very good way of seeing whether or not something stands up. If it’s more environmentally friendly, generally it’s more economically-friendly, because it means that you’re using less of everything.”

Java Rock Bangles
Java rock wrist bangle made by Rosalie McMillan using a custom Çurface material containing 70% recycled content. Photograph: Rosalie McMillan

Fairweather only wants to scale up, however, if he can maintain true to the original aim. He says the company explored the option of developing a low-value product, making fuel pellets out of coffee, to act as a staple to keep the business running. That hit a stumbling block when he realised they would have to take waste coffee from other sources and not just Greencup.

“It’s about promoting the idea of a circular business, if we started to offer the service to Nero, then we add value to their business, but we don’t promote the idea of this circular business model that excites people. It just becomes a service that people use.”

He admits he is not particularly commercially minded and that is, perhaps, why Re-Worked is not a million-pound business. “I’m not a marketer I’m more of an inventor. I like to invent the stuff. I like to work problems out.”

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Tesla’s new low-cost battery: ‘the missing piece’ in sustainable energy?

May 3rd, 2015 by admin No comments »

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Tesla’s new low-cost battery: ‘the missing piece’ in sustainable energy?” was written by Sam Thielman in New York, for theguardian.com on Friday 1st May 2015 12.12 UTC

Will the world become battery-powered? That’s certainly the ambition of Elon Musk, the PayPal billionaire turned would-be space explorer and electric car baron.

On Thursday night, Musk unveiled what he called “the missing piece” in sustainable energy: a range of batteries that can be used in homes and businesses to store power from wind or solar or take advantage of cheap electricity to charge up overnight and then be used in peak hours.

Two billion Powerpacks – as the batteries are called – could store enough electricity to meet the entire world’s needs.

“That may seem like an insane number,” Musk said. “We’re talking about trying to change the fundamental energy infrastructure of the world.”

The first place to feel the battery charge will be Nevada. Next year, Musk’s Tesla Motors is set to start operating a power-storage-device “gigafactory” across nearly a thousand acres of Nevada real estate. It’s required to contribute .5bn to the local economy, in return for a .25bn tax break.

Battery expert Davide Andrea, an engineer at Colorado-based battery manufacturer Elithion, worries about costs. The most basic home unit will cost ,500. No details have yet emerged about the cost of the large units Tesla is reportedly supplying to companies including Apple and Google to help manage their power supplies.

“Electricity is way too cheap to store in an expensive battery,” Andrea said. “It’s like saying I’m going to be storing my potatoes in a safe. Potatoes are too cheap to store in a safe.”

But Andrea is sold on the idea that batteries are part of a more efficient energy future. He is currently involved in a new project in Boulder to install batteries in homes, in order to ease the strain on power plants and avoid costly rewiring as the sizes of neighborhoods change.

Felix Kramer, a clean energy entrepreneur in California, said he hopes Musk’s presentation on Thursday evening changes minds.

“Tesla demolished the idea that EVs [electric vehicles] were golf carts,” Kramer said. “And maybe they’re about to do it again now. Maybe they’re about to demolish the idea that we can’t switch from coal and gas to wind and solar because of reliability issues. If they convince consumers, that changes the conversation.”

But Andrea and Kramer are enthusiastic about the possibility of greater infrastructure improvements with greater adoption of electric cars. Power provision could get a lot more efficient if cities can be persuaded to draw power from those car batteries, as well as supplying it. That would provide electricity and diminish local reliance on expensive, fossil fuel-powered generators during times of peak demand – when everyone in New York turns on the air conditioner, for example. Nissan is already trying to do this with the Leaf in Japan.

“In a home, the cost of the storage becomes much more important,” Andrea said. “It solves so many problems – the power company no longer has to turn on a dirty power plant during high-demand times. You can use the present wire infrastructure.”

If those sound like lofty goals, they had frankly better be: Musk will have to impress a great many people in order to justify the gobs of money the state of Nevada is giving him – the gigafactory will be allowed to operate essentially tax-free for 10 years and won’t pay property taxes for another 10 afterward. Beyond even that, the state is giving Tesla m in transferable tax credits, which the company can sell to other businesses in the region.

Nor is it the first time Musk has asked the government to chip in: SpaceX receives 5m in help from Nasa.

Still, if Musk’s batteries can merge wind, solar and electric car power into existing grids, that would constitute tremendous economic savings for cash-strapped municipalities everywhere.

“This is within the power of humanity to do,” Musk told the large crowd gathered at Tesla’s design center in a Los Angeles suburb on Thursday. “We have done things like this before. It is not impossible.”

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Seven things you need to know about sustainable smart technology

April 21st, 2015 by admin No comments »

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Seven things you need to know about sustainable smart technology” was written by Marcus Alexander Thompson, for theguardian.com on Friday 17th April 2015 11.41 UTC

1. What is a smart machine?

It’s a cognitive, contextually aware computing system capable of making decisions without human intervention. Smart machines use machine learning and data catchments to perform work traditionally conducted by humans. They are supposed to boost efficiency and productivity, and are being pegged as a major component in building a sustainable future.

2. The range of possibility for sustainability applications of smart machines is endless …

But, like all burgeoning technologies, the limits of sustainability within this future are not yet clear. Much will be based on which smart technologies society adopts. What we do know is the smart tech revolution is the first industrial movement that holds sustainability at the forefront of its development, and that’s a good thing.

3. We don’t need to kill the forest to save a tree

Replacing manual services with smart tech is expected to significantly reduce energy consumption. But the energy required to develop, build, run and service smart technology products must be considered. This video about two men cutting grass demonstrates the redundancy of overcapitalising on technology and the dangers of manufacturing a dependancy on regressive technology.

“While I believe, in general, that we’ll save energy by incorporating these machines into our lives, we have to be mindful that they themselves consume energy”, says Marshall Cox, founder and CEO of Radiator Labs.

4. Will smart technology make us stupid?

The successful integration of smart technology will see the enhancement of creative thought. The workforce will need an increasing skill level as more and more mundane work is overtaken. There are concerns that through automation and algorithm technology, human development could be stunted and lulled into complacency. It’s important to be aware of this threat. That said, there were similar fears heading into the industrial revolution and we work harder now than ever.

Philip van Allen, interaction designer, educator and creative technologist says: “There’s a lot of potential here, smart doesn’t always mean super intelligent. If our systems can understand our context, and have access to a lot of relevant information, they can present us with interesting options.”

5. They took our jobs! What are the implications of smart machines in work?

Reducing the human workforce to subservient drones isn’t in anyone’s interest, but it’s unlikely that progress will spiral out of human control. The aspirational focus is for smart machines to enable us to be more productive and flexible. By using them we can make more efficient, sustainable use of our resources.

“From a workforce point of view, smarter machines make us more productive and this allows us to focus on value-added activities”, says Maria Hernandez from Cisco Systems.

6. Technology makes errors, but so do humans

Performance failure is raised as a frequent concern whenever smart tech is involved, especially when we are looking at self-driving vehicles and other sectors where human life could be directly affected by smart machines. There is an argument that the systems should be intelligent enough to work out areas of poor performance and correct themselves. But nothing is fail-proof and it would be naive to think smart tech will be. There will be bugs in the beginning, but hopefully the collateral eggs in this omelette are minimal.

In the best-case scenario, we’ll combine smart technology with the agility of human decision-making to make sustainable and safe decisions. For example, says Chris Bilton, director of research and technology at BT, “The machine provides you with real-time information and you have the choice as to what action to take. This makes you think actively about your behaviours”.

7. It’s coming. Evolve or move aside

Hate it or love it, be prepared for smart technology to become a much bigger part of your life. It offers unbounded potential to improve our lives and enhance sustainability from all angles – home, health, manufacturing, work, transport, energy and leisure. But we also need to address issues such as IT security, skills and labour market problems. At the forefront we need to ensure that smart machines are enabling devices and not controlling mechanisms.

“The intelligence needs to be implemented in a way that augments our creative thinking rather than replaces it, and we need to consider where those boundaries lie,” says Stephen Barker, head of energy and environmental care at Siemens.

In the end, human capital must always remain dominant. “One might say that our humanity is found in what lies between a 1 and a 0,” says Jeff Wilson, dean of Huston-Tillotson University and “professor dumpster”. “That ‘in between’ is not within a machine’s capability. To me that ‘in between’ space will be ours”.

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Tiny apartments: a small solution to a big sustainability issue

April 9th, 2015 by admin No comments »

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Tiny apartments: a small solution to a big sustainability issue” was written by Alison Moodie, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 8th April 2015 17.29 UTC

For decades now, the residents of Tokyo have been coming up with novel ways to save space – tiny apartments, skyscrapers stuffed with miniature living quarters and hotels where rooms contain little more than a pull-out shelf with a bed. Now, the rest of the world’s big cities may need to start doing something similar.

Growing populations, coupled with housing shortages, are changing the way urban planners, architects and builders are thinking about living spaces. And in the US, one solution lies in modular fabrication.

Modular structures use pre-manufactured units – homes, apartments or offices – that are built in a factory and transported, usually fully built, to the building site, where they are assembled using a crane. Proponents say these “mods” could offer big cities a sustainable path forward.

Building homes in a factory instead of on-site, the theory goes, can yield more standardization, offering potentially safer and more energy efficient – and environmentally friendly – construction. But the extent to which modular buildings offer long-term sustainability solutions to environmental and social housing issues remains unknown.

New developments such as the My Micro NY and Atlantic Yards projects in New York City are the first examples of modular communities: small apartment units made in factories that, once completed, are stacked readymade at the building site, much like Lego pieces.

“[Modular buildings] will be an important innovation that spreads to many urban markets with high real estate values,” said Elisabeth Hamin, department head for landscape architecture and regional planning at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

When My Micro NY was announced, the mayor at the time, Michael Bloomberg, highlighted the environmental benefits of the new building. “Modular construction is faster, less expensive, allows for high levels of quality control and significantly reduces waste and truck traffic,” he said. “It’s also safer for workers as construction is done inside in controlled environments.”

Modular construction isn’t a new concept. A version of it has been used in the US as far back as the 1800s; a century later, American families could order a house from a catalogue and assemble it themselves, Ikea-style. But what is new is putting completed units together to form towering high-rises in big cities.

According to the Modular Building Institute (MBI), a nonprofit trade organization, the modular construction of lodgings – including condominiums, apartments, hotels and housing for workers – grew by 31% between 2012 and 2013.

“Demand for multifamily is very high currently,” said Liz Burnett, communications manager at MBI. “Young people are moving out of their parents’ houses, and older adults are seeking smaller homes with less upkeep.”

Millennials are looking for smaller, more affordable and more sustainable living spaces, Hamin said. But in expensive cities like New York, few affordable options exist for those who live alone. And with the city’s increasing housing shortage, condensing more units on one site makes good business sense.

“[Modular construction] is a realistic option for both creating more units in the always-in-demand real-estate market of Manhattan, but also as less costly approaches to affordable housing in the outer boroughs,” said Jorge Mastropietro, a partner at Jorge Mastropietro Atelier in New York.

“Because of the nature of cities like London, Mexico City and Tokyo, for example, people are willing to live in smaller spaces so long as they are maximized for efficiency and have other desirable amenities.”

The My Micro NY Project is the city’s first micro-unit apartment building, consisting of 55 units measuring between 270 and 350 square feet. Currently, each prefabricated apartment is being constructed offsite at the Brooklyn Navy Yard by a company called Capsys Corp, and will be assembled in early June in the Kip’s Bay neighborhood.

Tom O’Hara, a director at Capsys, said he has seen an increased interest in modular construction in the last four to five years.

“We have been contacted to review and explore dozens of projects from many of the city’s most prolific developers,” he said.

The structures are built off-site in a carefully controlled setting, which can result in less construction waste and air pollution, as well as quicker – and less expensive – construction.

Prefabricators like Capsys are capable of producing one module per day, or 35,000-square-feet per month, from their assembly lines, according to Petr Vancura of structural engineering firm Gilsanz Murray Steficek. A building that would otherwise take 24 months to complete through typical construction might take only 15-18 months to deliver using prefabricated modules.

Modular high-rises could also go some way to alleviating New York’s housing shortage, and could help current mayor Bill de Blasio towards his goal of building 200,000 affordable units over the next decade.

“I believe such units may relieve pressure at the lower end of the market and improve communities by allowing lower income households to have a presence in the inner cities again,” said Oliver Grimshaw, UK sales manager at Hanse Haus GmbH, one of the largest builders of pre-manufactured homes in Europe.

“As a result, it would reduce emissions from commuting, increase quality of life and enrich city life.”

However, New York’s ambitious Atlantic Yards project calls the efficiency of modular housing into question. The development, recently renamed Pacific Park Brooklyn, is envisioned as 16 modular apartment blocks. But work was stalled in August on the first building after a bitter disagreement over costs between the complex’s developer Forest City Ratner and its partner, Swedish company Skanska.

Forest City announced last month that it would resume construction on the 32-story tower called B2, but the project may take four years to complete, and not two years as originally planned. The next towers will likely be built via conventional construction, instead of modular, Forest City said in announcement made last spring. Forest City CEO and President MaryAnne Gilmartin said in a recent interview that modular is “an ongoing experiment” that “needs to be validated with a standing building”.

While modular buildings may make green sense during the construction phase, their long-term sustainability is less clear, especially in urban areas. The main issue is adaptability, said Renee Chow, a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley.

“They are difficult to fix over time, they don’t hold changes in lifestyle well nor do they accommodate changes in uses,” she said.

In a city like New York, famous for its continual reinvention, modular buildings might not allow people to remain part of a community as their lifestyle changes.

“Think of all the cities we like that have endured yet still hold modern ways of living and uses,” she said. “Will the modules do the same?”

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Earth hour: millions will switch off lights around the world for climate action

March 27th, 2015 by admin No comments »

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Earth hour: millions will switch off lights around the world for climate action” was written by Karl Mathiesen, for theguardian.com on Friday 27th March 2015 09.37 UTC

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has said hundreds of millions of Earth hour participants around the world will demand a strong global climate agreement by switching off their lights for an hour on Saturday night.

Many of the world’s brightest lights will go dark at 8:30pm (GMT) as Earth hour marks its ninth year. In a video address, Ban said the symbolic switching-off held more significance than ever, just nine months before a pivotal UN meeting on the climate crisis in Paris.

“Climate change is a people problem. People cause climate change and people suffer from climate change. People can also solve climate change. This December in Paris, the United Nations is bringing nations together to agree a new, universal and meaningful climate agreement. It will be the culmination of a year of action on sustainable development,” said Ban.

More than 7,000 cities in 172 countries are expected to take part in the world’s largest ever demonstration, which has grown from a single World Wildlife Fund (WWF) event in Sydney in 2007.

“Earth Hour shows what is possible when we unite in support of a cause: no individual action is too small, no collective vision is too big. This is the time to use your power,” said Ban.

Organisers said this year’s demonstration would be the biggest yet. Sudhanshu Sarronwala, chair of Earth Hour global said: “Climate change is not just the issue of the hour, it’s the issue of our generation. The lights may go out for one hour, but the actions of millions throughout the year will inspire the solutions required to change climate change.”

Some the world’s most famous landmarks will turn their lights out. The UN building in New York will join London’s Houses of Parliament, Rio de Janeiro’s Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. In Bulgaria a giant Danube sturgeon fish will be drawn in fire in the capital, Sofia. Millions of other, more humble, participants will take part by simply switching from electricity to candlelight for an hour.

Colin Butfield, director of campaigns at WWF-UK said the mass participation was a demand for climate action and politicians should take heed. “The fact that such a huge number of people are taking part in Earth Hour across the world and are using it as a moment to inspire action on sustainability in their own communities sends a really clear message that the public is ready to tackle climate change – we now need politicians to show the same drive,” he said.

Britain’s energy and climate change secretary, Ed Davey, who has been heavily involved in the climate negotiations at the UN, called for a response to climate change that was commensurate with its threat. “It’s time for everyone to recognise that climate change will touch just about everything we do and everything we care about. Earth Hour is an excellent opportunity for millions of people across the world to take one simple step to show they’re serious about backing action on climate change,” said Davey.

Joy Dominguez
Joy Dominguez, 11, studies under a solar lamp.

Ban said the focus on climate change should not distract from Earth Hour’s other key mission: introducing clean energy to the most remote and impoverished communities on Earth. “By turning out the lights we also highlight that more than a billion people lack access to electricity. Their future wellbeing requires access to clean, affordable energy,” he said.

In 2014 Earth Hour used a crowdfunding platform to raise money and deliver thousands of fuel-efficient stoves to families in Madagascar and solar kits to remote villages in Uganda. The organisation also supplied islands in the Philippines with solar power for the first time and raised money for victims of Typhoon Haiyan.

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Don’t brand your business with the label ‘ethical’

March 26th, 2015 by admin No comments »

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Don’t brand your business with the label ‘ethical'” was written by Oliver Balch, for theguardian.com on Thursday 26th March 2015 09.30 UTC

Handmade cosmetics retailer Lush is proud of the fact it does zero advertising. It’s also pretty chuffed about its ethics. It has every right to be, having won an Observer Ethical Award last year. The Dorset-based brand shuns animal testing, caps executive pay, donates to anti-fracking groups, pays its African suppliers a fair price and much else besides.

Would you know though? Not from its minimal packaging, that’s for sure. Lush shuns the word “ethical” and its synonyms (think “eco”, “sustainable”, “responsible”, “good” and so on). Instead, its marketing is all about laying its products bare. That way, says Hilary Jones, the company’s ethics director, there’s “an obvious dialogue that begs to be had between us and our customers”.

On the face of it, Lush appears to be missing a trick. All the evidence suggests that consumers are increasingly concerned about the ethics behind what they buy. The latest Trust Barometer from public relations firm Edelman places ethics and integrity top of 16 specific categories that engender the public trust.

Just because consumers want their brands to be ethical, however, doesn’t mean they want brands banging on about it non-stop. No one much likes the person who boasts relentlessly about their charity work or moral good conduct. When brands do it, the effect is just the same.

Explicit ethical branding has other negative connotations too. First, there’s the quality question: will this eco-branded washing powder get my clothes whiter than white? Some shoppers will doubt it. Similarly, on price, there’s a widespread (and usually justified) perception that “ethical” means expensive. A niche shopper may pay a premium for their principles, but the majority will not.

“In practice, most consumers assess their needs first, then how much they can afford to get those needs met,” says Brian Ahearne, director at London-based public relations agency Parker, Wayne & Kent. “Sometimes ethics will come into the mix, but that’s pretty rare.”

It’s not just consumers who are wary about ethical branding. The branding people are too. The fear is that by boasting about their ethics, brands will be setting themselves up for a fall. Take the Co-operative Bank, says Ahearne. For a long time it was the ethical poster-child, but news of its financial woes and drug-taking management were met with an eviscerating, almost gleeful backlash.

“As I always tell my clients, there’s only six inches between a slap on the back and a kick up the arse,” says Ahearne. Or, to put it another way, if you put your head above the parapet expect someone to take a pot shot.

Perhaps finding a less toxic term than “ethical” is the answer? Giles Gibbons, co-founder of specialist communications firm Good Business, is cautious about name games. Terms that resonate with ethical shoppers rarely do so with mainstream consumers. “Fair trade” represents a rare example, he suggests, but even that carries a “worthy” (read, boring) image for some.

Actions, not words

For Gibbons, words are not the most important factor; actions are what count. “Too many brands are trying to get the green or ethical label, rather than genuinely being a good business and getting the benefit from that,” he says.

He admits that most marketing professionals gulp at this message. Branding is their home turf, not “being” – but there’s no way round it. If ethical marketing is going to work, the ethics have to come first and the marketing second. Therein lies authenticity. Anything else smells, well, fishy.

Cheryl Giovannoni, chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather, concurs. Take Starbucks, she says. The Seattle coffee chain has umpteen certificates to say it’s sustainable. So does she believe it when it claims to source its beans ethically? “Not when I question whether they pay the right amount of tax in the UK,” she argues.

That doesn’t mean brands should keep schtum. No one is a saint – not even Lush. What the public expects isn’t ethical perfection; it’s clarity on what a brand stands for, and transparency on how its ethics are staking up.

Sarah Pinch, president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, gives the example of Devon-based food box delivery brand Riverford. The company grew so quickly that it had to go back on an initial pledge to buy only UK-grown produce, she says. Now it imports veg from France in spring, although it commits to zero airfreight.

For Pinch, such transparency only adds to her trust in the brand – it doesn’t detract from it: “Consumers and the media are now much more adept at testing ethical claims, so the need for greater accountability and openness is absolutely vital. PR professionals have a responsibility to tell their clients: we can’t say Produce A is 100% ethical. What we can say is that we are taking every effort to meet this and this ethical standard and here’s the proof.”

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