Posts Tagged ‘World news’

The seven megatrends that could beat global warming: ‘There is reason for hope’

November 10th, 2017

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The seven megatrends that could beat global warming: ‘There is reason for hope'” was written by Damian Carrington, Environment editor, for The Guardian on Wednesday 8th November 2017 07.00 UTC

‘Everybody gets paralysed by bad news because they feel helpless,” says Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who delivered the landmark Paris climate change agreement. “It is so in our personal lives, in our national lives and in our planetary life.”

But it is becoming increasingly clear that it does not need to be all bad news: a series of fast-moving global megatrends, spurred by trillion-dollar investments, indicates that humanity might be able to avert the worst impacts of global warming. From trends already at full steam, including renewable energy, to those just now hitting the big time, such as mass-market electric cars, to those just emerging, such as plant-based alternatives to meat, these trends show that greenhouse gas emissions can be halted.

“If we were seeing linear progress, I would say good, but we’re not going to make it in time,” says Figueres, now the convener of the Mission 2020 initiative, which warns that the world has only three years to get carbon emissions on a downward curve and on the way to beating global warming. “But the fact is we are seeing progress that is growing exponentially, and that is what gives me the most reason for hope.”

No one is saying the battle to avert catastrophic climate change – floods, droughts, famine, mass migrations – has been won. But these megatrends show the battle has not yet been lost, and that the tide is turning in the right direction. “The important thing is to reach a healthy balance where we recognise that we are seriously challenged, because we really have only three years left to reach the tipping point,” says Figueres. “But at the same time, the fact is we are already seeing many, many positive trends.”

Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, agrees. “The good news is we are way better than we thought we could be. We are not going to get through this without damage. But we can avoid the worst. I am optimistic, but there is a long way to go.”

Also cautiously hopeful is climate economist Nicholas Stern at the London School of Economics. “These trends are the start of something that might be enough – the two key words are ‘start’ and ‘might’.” He says the global climate negotiations, continuing this week in Germany and aiming to implement the Paris deal, are crucial: “The acceleration embodied in the Paris agreement is going to be critical.”

THE TRENDS
1. Methane: getting to the meat

A lab-grown burger.
A lab-grown burger. Photograph: David Parry/PA

Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the main greenhouse gas, but methane and nitrous oxide are more potent and, unlike CO2, still rising. The major source is livestock farming, in particular belching cattle and their manure.

The world’s appetite for meat and dairy foods is rising as people’s incomes rise, but the simple arithmetic is that unless this is radically curbed, there is no way to beat global warming. The task looks daunting – people hate being told what to eat. However, just in the last year, a potential solution has burst on to the market: plant-based meat, which has a tiny environmental footprint.

What sounds like an oxymoron – food that looks and tastes just as good as meat or dairy products but is made from plants – has attracted heavy investment. The buzz is particularly loud in the US, where Bill Gates has backed two plant-based burger companies and Eric Schmidt, formerly CEO of Google, believes plant-based foods can make a “meaningful dent” in tackling climate change.

Perhaps even more telling is that major meat and dairy companies are now piling in with investments and acquisitions, such as the US’s biggest meat processor, Tyson, and multinational giants Danone and Nestlé. The Chinese government has just put 0m (£228m) into Israeli companies producing lab-grown meat, which could also cut emissions.

New plant-based products, from chicken to fish to cheese, are coming out every month. “We are in the nascent stage,” says Alison Rabschnuk at the US nonprofit group the Good Food Institute. “But there’s a lot of money moving into this area.”

Plant-based meat and dairy produce is not only environmentally friendly, but also healthier and avoids animal welfare concerns, but these benefits will not make them mass-market, she says: “We don’t believe that is what is going to make people eat plant-based food. We believe the products themselves need to be competitive on taste, price and convenience – the three attributes people use when choosing what to eat.”

Plant-based milks – soya, almond, oat and more – have led the way and are now about 10% of the market and a billion-dollar business in the US. But in the past year, sales of other meat and dairy substitutes have climbed 8%, with some specific lines, such as yoghurt, shooting up 55%. “I think the writing’s on the wall,” says Rabschnuk. Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson agrees. “I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be [lab] or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.”

Plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products are growing fast

2. Renewable energy: time to shine

Solar panel installation.
Solar panel installation. Photograph: Kristian Buus/Corbis via Getty Images

The most advanced of the megatrends is the renewable energy revolution. Production costs for solar panels and wind turbines have plunged, by 90% in the past decade for solar, for example, and are continuing to fall. As a result, in many parts of the world they are already the cheapest electricity available and installation is soaring: two-thirds of all new power in 2016 was renewable.

This extraordinary growth has confounded expectations: the respected International Energy Agency’s annual projections have anticipated linear growth for solar power every year for the past decade. In reality, growth has been exponential. China is leading the surge but the impact is being felt around the world: in Germany last week there was so much wind power that customers got free electricity.

In the US, enthusiasm for green energy has not been dented by President Donald Trump committing to repeal key climate legislation: bn has been invested since he signed an executive order in March. “I am no longer concerned about electric power,” says Figueres.

Global wind and solar is soaring

3. King coal: dead or dying

The flipside of the renewables boom is the death spiral of coal, the filthiest of fossil fuels. Production now appears to have peaked in 2013. The speed of its demise has stunned analysts. In 2013, the IEA expected coal-burning to grow by 40% by 2040 – today it anticipates just 1%.

The cause is simple: solar and wind are cheaper. But the consequences are enormous: in pollution-choked China, there are now no provinces where new coal is needed, so the country has just mothballed plans for 151 plants. Bankruptcies have torn through the US coal industry and in the UK, where coal-burning began the industrial revolution, it has fallen from 40% of power supply to 2% in the past five years.

“Last year, I said if Asia builds what it says it is going to build, we can kiss goodbye to 2C” – the internationally agreed limit for dangerous climate change – says Liebreich. “Now we are showing coal [plans] coming down.” But he warns there is more to do.

Solar and wind are cheaper than new coal, he says, but a second tipping point is needed. That will occur when renewables are cheaper to build than running existing coal plants, meaning that the latter shut down. If renewable costs continue to fall as expected, this would happen between 2030 and 2040. At that point, says Liebrich, “Why keep digging coal out of the ground when you could just put up solar?”

World coal production peaked in 2013

4. Electric cars: in the fast lane

Vehicles being charged at China’s leading maker of electric cars, BYD Co, in Shenzhen, China.
Vehicles being charged at China’s leading maker of electric cars, BYD Co, in Shenzhen, China. Photograph: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Slashing oil use – a third of all global energy – is a huge challenge but a surging market for battery-powered cars is starting to bite, driven in significant part by fast-growing concerns about urban air pollution.

China, again, is leading the way. It is selling as many electric cars every month as Europe and the US combined, with many from home-grown companies such as BYD. US-based Tesla is rolling out its more affordable Model 3 and in recent months virtually all major carmakers have committed to an electric future, with Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover announcing that they will end production of pure fossil-fuelled cars within three years.

“We have a domino effect now,” says Figueres. These cars are “now being made for the mass market and that is really what is going to make the transformation”.

“I don’t think it is going to slow down,” says Viktor Irle, an analyst at EV-volumes.com. Drivers can see the direction of travel, he says, with a stream of choked cities and countries from Paris to India announcing future bans on fossil-fuelled cars.

It is true that global sales of electric cars have now achieved liftoff, quadrupling in the past three years, but they still make up only 1.25% of all new car sales. However, if current growth rates continue, as Irle expects, 80% of new cars will be electric by 2030.

The rapid rise of electric cars has left the oil giants, who have a lot to lose, playing catchup. The oil cartel Opec has increased its estimate of the number of electric cars operative in 2040 by five times in the past year alone, with the IEA, ExxonMobil and BP all bumping up their forecasts too. Heavy transport remains a challenge, but even here ships are experimenting with wind power and batteries. Short-haul electric airplanes are on the drawing board, too.

Global electric car fleet is following a rapidly rising curve

5. Batteries: lots in store

A lithium-ion battery.
A lithium-ion battery. Photograph: Alamy

Batteries are key to electric cars and, by storing energy for when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing, they are also vital when it comes to enabling renewable energy to reach its full potential. Here too, a megatrend is crushing prices for lithium-ion batteries, which are down 75% over the past six years. The International Renewable Energy Agency expects further falls of 50-66% by 2030 and a massive increase in battery storage, linked to increasingly smart and efficient digital power grids. In the UK alone, government advisers say a smart grid could save bill-payers £8bn a year by 2030, as well as slashing carbon emissions.

Fears that lithium-ion, the technology that dominates today, cannot be scaled up sufficiently are overblown, argues Liebreich, as the metal is not rare. “I think lithium-ion is a banker in that you can be sure it will get cheaper and you can be sure there is enough.” He is also frustrated by frequent claims that a grid based on renewables and storage cannot be cheap and reliable: “That stupidity and absolute certainty is in inverse proportion to any knowledge of how you run an electrical system.”

It is true, however, that batteries will not be the solution for energy storage over weeks or months. For that, long-distance electricity interconnectors are being built and the storage of the energy as gas is also being explored.

Battery costs are tumbling

6. Efficiency: negawatts over megawatts

A zero-carbon house.
A zero-carbon house. Photograph: Alamy

Just as important as the greening of energy is reducing demand by boosting energy efficiency. It’s a no-brainer in climate policy, but it can be very tricky to make happen, as it requires action from millions of people.

Nonetheless, good progress is being made in places such as the EU, where efficiency in homes, transport and industry has improved by about 20% since 2000. Improving the efficiency of gadgets and appliances through better standards is surprisingly important: a new UN Environment Programme report shows it makes the biggest impact of any single action bar rolling out wind and solar power.

But again, continued progress is vital. “We need to drive energy efficiency very, very hard, even for European countries,” says Prof Kevin Anderson at the University of Manchester. “We could power down European energy use by about 40% in something like 10-15 years, just by making the most efficient appliances available the new minimum.”

In countries with cool winters, better insulation is also needed, particularly as a fossil fuel – natural gas – currently provides a lot of heating. “What is a crime is every time a building is renovated but not renovated to really high standards,” says Liebreich, who thinks labelling such homes as “zero-energy-bill” homes, not “zero-carbon” homes, would help overcome opposition.

One sector that is lagging on energy efficiency is industry, but technology to capture and bury CO2 from plants is being tested and ways to clean up cement-making are also being explored.

Energy efficiency has improved in EU homes, transport and industry

7. Forests: seeing the wood

The destruction of forests around the world for ranching and farming, as well as for timber, causes about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. This is the biggest megatrend not yet pointing in the right direction: annual tree losses have roughly doubled since 2000.

This is particularly worrying as stopping deforestation and planting new trees is, in theory at least, among the cheapest and fastest ways of cutting carbon emissions. But it is not getting the support it needs, says Michael Wolosin at Forest Climate Analytics. “Climate policy is massively underfunding forests – they receive only about 2% of global climate finance.” Furthermore, the .3bn committed to forests by rich nations and multilateral institutions since 2010 is tiny compared with the funding for the sectors that drive deforestation. “Brazil and Indonesia’s governments alone invested 6bn in the same timeframe, in just the four key driver commodities: palm oil, soy, beef and timber,” says Franziska Haupt at Climate Focus.

In fact, new research has shown that better land management could deliver a third of all the carbon cuts the world needs, and Wolosin says there are some grounds for hope that new forests can be planted. “Achieving large-scale forestation is not just theoretical. We know we can do it because a few countries have done it successfully.”

In the past two decades, tree-planting in China, India and South Korea has removed more than 12bn tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere – three times the entire European Union’s annual emissions, Wolosin says. This action was driven by fears about flooding and food supply, meaning that global warming needs to be seen as equally urgent in this sector. Regrowing forests can also play a crucial role in sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, which is likely to be necessary after 2050, unless very sharp cuts are made now.

Global tree losses are increasing

The race against time

Will these megatrends move fast enough to avoid the worst of climate change? Opinions vary and Anderson is among the most hawkish. He says it remains possible for now, but is pessimistic that the action will be taken. “We’re pointing in the right direction but not moving [there]. We have to not just pursue renewables and electric vehicles and so forth, we have to actively close down the incumbent fossil fuel industry.”

Stern is cautiously optimistic, saying that what has changed in recent years is the realisation that green economic growth is the only long-term option: “There is no long-run high-carbon growth story because it creates an environment so hostile that it turns development backwards.

“There are some tremendous developments so I am very confident now we can do this, but the change, attractive as it is, has to be radical,” he says. “Will we have the political and economic understanding and commitment to get there? I hope so.”

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The innovators: looped water system for Earth friendly shower

February 23rd, 2016

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The innovators: looped water system for Earth friendly shower” was written by Shane Hickey, for The Guardian on Sunday 21st February 2016 09.00 UTC

When he was working on an academic project with Nasa, Mehrdad Mahdjoubi, a Swedish industrial designer, realised there could be parallels between sustainability in space and on Earth. The extremes of space required that the vital resource of water be used in the most efficient way possible. Water should also be used like this in the home, he thought.

Inspired by those experiences with the space agency, Mahdjoubi created a shower system that reuses the same water in a circular loop, while two filters take out impurities as it circulates.

This Shower of the Future , from his company, Orbital Systems, can operate on five litres of water. The water constantly circulates for 10 minutes or so – the time of an average shower – in turn saving also on energy.

“The reason that we make it work sustainably in space is because we have to do it,” the Swedish industrial designer said. “What if we try the same things on Earth … [if] the house was like a space capsule, how would we go about it? The most sustainable lifestyle is the one that we have in the most extreme environments and that may be in space or in a submarine where you actually have no choice but to really care for the resources that you have.”
Mahdjoubi said that while savings have been made in how water is used in toilets and washing machines, the same was not true of the shower. “Without changing the technology, we seem to just heat up water and put it down the drain,” he said. In Sweden, where the company is based, the average shower emits 15 litres of water a minute. During a 10-minute shower this amounts to 150 litres, he said.

The Orbital Systems shower starts with five litres of water and adds more if some is splashed out or is taken out of the system by the filters.

Water is first pumped through two filters, one which takes out larger particles such as sand, skin and dust and then a finer filter to extract bacteria, viruses and blood.

From there the water travels through a heater that moderates the temperature, which is set by a wheel control the user can change from hot to cold. The water then exits the shower nozzle as normal.

But when the water trickles through the drain it goes through a sensor which analyses it. If it is contaminated, the sensor recognises this and replaces the water.

The company says water flows at a rate of 20 litres a minute, compared to conventional showers, which typically range between seven and 12 litres a minute.

The shower takes in water from the mains until it senses that there is enough to go in a constant loop, said Mahdjoubi. “Even though the water is clean we would always flush it out before the next user. Comparing [it] to a hot tub where you sit in your own dirt for however many minutes, this is way more hygienic. When you stand in front of one of these showers you completely forget that the water is being recycled. It is the most unremarkable thing.”

The shower unit can be fitted as either an integrated system in the floor or as a standalone cabin with glass walls. The first units were delivered in December with most of the sales to commerical customers such as gyms, residential homes, swimming pools and the Swedish military. Nursing homes and hospitals have also bought them, said Mahdjoubi, because of the filter system.

“Not because they really want to save a lot of water but because you can guarantee that the water is clean and free from Legionnaires’ disease because it is always being filtered.”

How much money is saved depends on the cost of water and energy and how often the shower is used, he said. The company claims that a UK home can save £1,100 a year assuming there are four showers taken a day lasting nine minutes each.

Offsetting this is the price of the shower. The cheaper of the two residential units, where the shower is integrated into the floor of the bathroom, costs £3,300 while the standalone cabin costs £4,100.

As sales increase, Mahdjoubi said, the price would fall to less than £2,000 in three years. “I would say that we are steadily going down in price but we have to start where the market can afford it, that is why we have this premium and commercial focus we have right now,” he said.

A family would need to spend an average of about £110 every year replacing the purification capsules.

So far hundreds of the showers had been sold, said Mahdjoubi, and there had been particular interest from Denmark (location of one of the highest water prices in the EU) and from California, where there had been persistent droughts over recent years.

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The Guardian view on COP 21 climate talks: saving the planet in a fracturing world

December 14th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The Guardian view on COP 21 climate talks: saving the planet in a fracturing world” was written by Editorial, for The Guardian on Sunday 13th December 2015 20.16 UTC

In the late 20th century, those who stood against globalisation were charged with swimming against an unstoppable tide, caricatured as “Stop the world, I wanna get off!” But in the 21st century, history is running with the anti-globalisers. World trade talks have gone nowhere, immigration controls have shot up the agenda, and two post-national EU projects – the euro and Schengen – are under strain. Figures as diverse as Donald Trump, Nicola Sturgeon and Marine Le Pen – who failed to convert a remarkable first-round victory in French regional elections into any outright wins – are all peddling one form of nationalism or another. Rumours of the death of the nation state, then, have proved exaggerated: globalisation is spinning into reverse.

Looking back on the future as it appeared in the 1990s – as a technocratic, transnational order – a democratic push-back was surely inevitable, in some senses even desirable. But when problems from the overuse of antibiotics to terrorism refuse to respect national borders, the retreat from the dream of global governance has some frightening consequences, especially in connection with climate change, the archetypal global problem. Saving the planet in a fracturing world is a daunting challenge indeed.

The Paris COP 21 talks surpassed expectations in rising to it, demonstrating just how much can be achieved by determined diplomacy, even while working within the unbending red lines of jealously sovereign states. A formal treaty was precluded because it would hand a veto to the intransigent legislators of Capitol Hill, while also offending the sensibilities of Delhi and Beijing. Fortunately, it proved possible to work within the fudged alternative framework of a “legally binding instrument”. Everyone offered up voluntary emission targets, and agreed, too, to a five-yearly review of these. While the targets on the table are not yet adequate to avoid the disaster of more than 2C of warming, the surprise inclusion of an aspiration to cap temperature rises at 1.5C signals a shared understanding that the targets will have to be tightened at each successive review. The destructive standoff between developing and developed countries that doomed Copenhagen six years ago has been transcended: the big developing economies, which now produce the bulk of emissions, are no longer pretending that they can delay doing anything until the rich world is perfectly green; at the same time the rich world is effectively accepting that it will have to help shoulder the “loss and damage” costs inflicted by the long legacy of western pollution.

This is, on the face of it, a rare and heartening case of disparate peoples being led to a common conclusion by evidence and reason, but serendipity played its part too. It happens, for example, that in 2015 there is a progressive US president who never has another election to win. It happens, too, that China is the midst of replacing filthy old power stations, which is already curbing its emissions growth, making it less painful than before for Beijing to engage. Indeed, the latest global CO2 data registers a striking levelling off, raising the tantalising possibility that technological progress could be entering a phase where the cast-iron link between emissions and growth begins to rust. If that pattern were borne out in future years, future climate negotiations could get smoother on every front. Then there is the great oil price crash, which facilitates a more fruitful discussion on fossil fuels, by making it much more imaginable to keep it in the ground.

One anxiety is whether this fortuitous alignment of political and economic stars will remain, as nations move from making promises, towards real action. Paris cannot guarantees success, but it does encourage hope – and particularly if Ms Le Pen’s chauvinist form of nationalism can be seen off. The Front National dabbled in greenwash last year, but its insistence on an ecology defined by “patriotism and the national interest”, and its instinctive suspicion of a multilateral UN approach is precisely the attitude which could thwart the translation of impressive COP 21 words into deeds.

Paris has given the world new hope in the possibilities of pragmatic diplomacy, at a time when France’s own politics illustrate the difficulties of assuming solidarity extends beyond national borders. If the answer to climate change is going to have to be found in continuous haggling between 200 nations, then success is also going to depend on winning the argument against narrow nationalism in every corner of the world.

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

May 3rd, 2015

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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Tiny apartments: a small solution to a big sustainability issue

April 9th, 2015

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

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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World leaders urged to tackle food waste to save billions and cut emissions

February 26th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “World leaders urged to tackle food waste to save billions and cut emissions” was written by Rebecca Smithers, for theguardian.com on Thursday 26th February 2015 00.01 UTC

Governments across the world should make reducing food waste an urgent priority in order to save as much as £194bn annually by 2030, according to a report.

Cutting food waste leads to greater efficiency, more productivity and higher economic growth, it said, but achieving such an aspiration would involve consumers cutting their own food and drink waste by as much as half.

One third of all food produced in the world ends up as waste, with food wasted by consumers globally valued at more than £259bn per year.

But that cost could soar to £388bn as the global middle class expands over the course of the next fifteen years, according to new figures from the UK government’s waste advisory body Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) for the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

Their new report, ’Strategies to achieve economic and environmental gains by reducing food waste’, also identifies significant opportunities to improve economic performance and tackle climate change by reducing the amount of food that is wasted at various stages in the supply chain – in agriculture, transport, storage and consumption.

It highlights how practical changes, such as lowering the average temperatures of refrigerators or designing better packaging, can make a big difference in preventing spoilage. Approximately 25% of food waste in the developing world could be eliminated with better refrigeration equipment.

In the UK, the most recent data from Wrap showed that households threw away seven million tonnes of food waste in 2012, enough to fill London’s Wembley Stadium nine times over. Avoidable household food waste in the UK is associated with 17 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.

Reducing food waste worldwide can make a significant contribution to tackling climate change, the report said. It found waste is responsible for around 7% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally, 3.3bn tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) a year.

Wrap estimates that emissions from food waste could cut by at least 0.2bn tonnes CO2e and possibly as much as 1 billion tonnes CO2e per year – more than the annual emissions of Germany.

Dr Richard Swannell, director of sustainable food systems at WRAP said: “Food waste is a global issue and tackling it is a priority. This report emphasises the benefits that can be obtained for businesses, consumers and the environment. The difficulty is often in knowing where to start and how to make the biggest economic and environmental savings.”

Consumers had a vital role to play, he added: “In the UK, where we are based, the majority of food waste occurs in the home.”

Helen Mountford, global programme director for the New Climate Economy, a programme of the commission, said: “Reducing food waste is good for the economy and good for the climate. Less food waste means greater efficiency, more productivity, and direct savings for consumers. It also means more food available to feed the estimated 805 million that go to bed hungry each day.

“Reducing food waste is also a great way to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. These findings should serve as a wakeup call to policymakers around the world.”

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