Fuel From Slime: Suspension of Disbelief

The science fiction genre, in literature and film, has always had a difficult time appealing to a mainstream audience. While much of that is to do with poor writing and a focus on technology rather than art, it is also due to something Samuel Coleridge called suspension of disbelief. This is achieved when the writer involves enough of a human element, and enough universal truth, that the fantastical becomes believable. When the artist fails to achieve suspension of disbelief, the audience can’t take the fantasy seriously, and the narrative fails.

Outside of the realm of fiction, alternative energy sources are suffering from a similar challenge. Convincing those who may not have a grasp on the science that we can generate energy from something unexpected requires not only that we present the evidence, but also that we appeal to their imagination. To quote science fiction author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that the American public is generally skeptical of efforts to create fuel out of algae. That thick, slimy, green pond scum that made many of us afraid to dip our toes in the lake, is a potentially game-changing source of energy. Soon after US President Obama promoted algae as an alternative energy source at a speech in Miami last month, the Republic presidential nominees launched a series of retaliatory strikes on “President Algae” arguing that his claims of algae as a fuel source were, effectively, science fiction.

But if we can ignore the politics of the issue for now, and focus on the science, then it’s clean that this is not as much of a ridiculous idea as some would argue. While the technology remains in its infancy, algae has the potential to produce ten times more energy per hectare than traditional biofuel crops such as corn or soybeans. Further, the land used for algae production can be arid, brackish, or otherwise unfit for agriculture, ensuring that any land lost to algae production doesn’t impact food supply. As with all biofuels, the carbon that’s released when it’s burned is offset by the carbon that it absorbs as it’s grown. Combined with energy-efficient transportation and infrastructure, algae biofuel could make up part of a varied and balanced low-carbon energy system.

The algae biofuel cycle
The algae biofuel cycle

Algae really is an amazing little plant. It has been used for centuries as a fertilizer, it’s edible and nutritious, has been made into biodegradable plastics, and has also been used as a natural pigment. Up to forty percent of the oxygen you’re breathing at this moment was produced by algae floating in our oceans. On top of this, it grows quickly, so harvest times are significantly shorter than traditional biofuel crops. If it’s so easy to grow and harvest, what’s holding us back?

The risks to algae-fuel production are real, especially when dealing with bio-engineered strains. Such algae, if it escaped into the natural environment, could run the risk of seriously disrupting and damaging the natural environment, though some scientists argue this risk is minimal as such strains would be uncompetitive against natural algae.

It also has a long way to go economically. Prohibitive costs of production given current oil prices, and lack of public support mean that we’re still many years away from filling up our tanks with green gas. But to pretend that it’s an impossibility, or that it’s purely within the realm of science fiction, does a discredit to those scientists, engineers, and investors who are looking to make it a reality. When the algae fuel marketing campaign heats up in the next decade or so, it will do well to take heed of Coleridge and suspension of disbelief. Make us believe it’s possible, make us believe it’s real, and we’ll have confidence that flying an airliner across the Pacific powered on green slime is not magic, it’s technology.

(Icon photo courtesy of BioShark Technology, biofuel cycle graphic courtesy of refuellingthefuture.yolasite.com)

Green Building Materials, and the Evolution of Normal

For the first few years of my life, I lived in a brick house and as far as I was concerned, all houses were made of brick. When I was six years old, our family moved to a wooden-frame house and I discovered that houses could also be made from wood. Eventually we settled into a modern concrete house, and I slowly began to understand that a house is defined by its function, not how it’s built. However if I suggested that a house could be made out of paper, or a car could be made out of hemp-fiber, you may think I’m dreaming. We have a natural tendency to define and limit what we consider to be normal, and it takes imaginative minds and innovators to break those preconceptions.

Despite the idea that the twenty-first century is seeing a green building revolution, many traditional building materials were inherently green, as most homes were built with locally sourced materials without energy intensive manufacturing methods. Mud brick, adobe or cob, cut stone, and timber have all been used for thousands of years around the world. It was a desire for increasingly large, dense, durable, and architecturally unique structures in the twentieth century that led to the development of modern and energy-intensive building materials such as steel, concrete, and glass.

While it is unlikely that we will start building our homes and offices out of quarried stone again, there have been significant advances in incorporating recycled material into modern buildings. For the average consumer, however, it is the choices that can be made inside the house that will matter most. From counter tops and paint, to wallboard and tiling, there are many options for reducing our carbon footprint.

green building material is defined by a number of characteristics: a certain percentage of recycled content, renewable and locally sourced raw materials, an energy efficient manufacturing process, and a durable and long-lasting final product. Even packaging, marketing displays, and choice of transportation can be factors. Examples of green products include:

  • Wood flooring made from bamboo, a durable wood that grows rapidly, ensuring sustainable production
  • Counter tops made from 50-100% post-consumer recycled paper mixed with resin can have the same strength, durability, and look as quarried stone
  • Paint that is certified as low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) releases fewer chemical compounds into the environment
  • Recycled gypsum, the natural material often used in wallboard, can be added to new wallboard products, avoiding the need for further energy-intensive resource extraction
  • Glass tiles can be made of pre- and post-consumer materials, including manufacturing scrap, and glass bottles
Recycled glass tiles
Recycled glass tiles

The challenge is making these kinds of products normal – that is, when the average consumer decides to renovate, the choice of product should be green by default. Shifting to this way of thinking has been hampered by the most common criticism of green building practices: an assumed cost premium, however this is an oversimplification. As manufacturers, suppliers, and contractors become more knowledgeable about and comfortable with green materials, demand will increase and initial costs will inevitably fall. Combined with the long-term energy efficiency savings of green buildings, the net cost savings are undeniable. The role of the consumer in driving demand is crucial, and awareness of our options is the first step.

Unfortunately many champions of low-carbon initiatives who decorate their homes with niche green products are derided as elitist, but this characterization ignores the fact that the use of green materials and technology benefits everyone, through increased energy efficiency, lower emissions, and local economic growth. Regardless of your politics, the drive to a low-carbon, cost-effective, and efficient economy starts at home. The first step can be as small as choosing your brand of paint.

(Feature photo courtesy of Viahouse.com, glass tiles photo courtesy of Interstyle Ceramic and Glass)

The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline: What We Don’t Know

This post originally appeared on the Carbon Talks blog

Debate over the approval of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline is continuing to polarize Canadians. However the list of unresolved issues and conflicting information means that I’m not even sure what to believe. Will this project benefit the economy as Enbridge and the Federal Government suggest? Will First Nations groups ever approve the plan? Are oil tankers even legally allowed to sail off the BC coast? The more I read, the more I realize what we don’t know about the pipeline far outweighs what we do.

In a January 2012 poll by Abacus Data, Canadians almost equally supported or opposed the project at 38% and 29% respectively. Quebec led the charge in lack of support at only 23%, while BC is the province most opposed to the project at 36%. Unsurprisingly, the project has clear support from residents of Alberta.

Canadian support and opposition to the Northern Gateway Pipeline

In sifting through the details of the poll, we can see that those who support the pipeline do so for the potential economic benefits, while those who oppose it do so on environmental grounds. But for me, it’s the grey area in between that betrays this issue – what about those people who simply have no opinion at all?

It is this not-insignificant proportion of Canadians who are undecided that define the pipeline project. With so much conflicting information, how can I know whether to support, oppose, or even care?

For her own part, Canadian economist, and former Executive Director of VanCity Community Foundation, Robyn Allan has argued that the economic assumptions underlying support for the pipeline are fatally flawed. In her January 2012 report “An Economic Assessment of the Northern Gateway”, Allan states that “Northern Gateway represents an inflationary price shock which will have a negative and prolonged impact on the Canadian economy …” Essentially, she says that what economic benefit that will be seen will be limited to the oil companies themselves. The following graph, prepared by Natural Resources Canada, clearly show that oil prices have a direct effect on gasoline – and that affects all of us, regardless of whether we drive a car or not.

Comparison of crude oil and gasoline prices 2001-2009
Comparison of crude oil and gasoline prices 2001-2009

Ms. Allan’s views were presumably unwelcome in the energy sector; I can only assume it affected the National Energy Board’s refusal to grant her status to intervene at a hearing on Enbridge’s application. But then who to believe? Will the pipeline be an economic boom for Canada, or only benefit oil companies?

Then there’s the continuing issue of First Nation land rights. The fact is, virtually none of the 50 First Nations groups who have been offered equity in the project have agreed – though a deal was made between Gitxsan Chief Elmer Derrick and Enbridge, the decision seems to have been made unilaterally, and opposition among his community is incredibly strong. Though nobody can say with certainty what will happen in the coming year, it seems likely to me at least that negotiations will reach a stalemate. While some First Nations will perhaps yield to pressure and financial rewards, others will not. At the end of the day, there are only so many routes the pipeline can take, and avoiding traditional lands may be simply impossible. What are the realistic chances of ever reaching an agreement with all parties?

BC tanker routes
BC tanker routes

A final issue that is causing confusion among Canadians is the status of a moratorium on oil tanker traffic off British Columbia’s coast. For almost forty years, some Canadians believe there has been a de facto ban on tanker traffic sailing through Dixon Entrance, the Hecate Strait, and Queen Charlotte Sound. Yet in December 2009, the Canadian government stated their positionsupported by the BC Chamber of Commerce, that “there is presently no moratorium on tanker traffic in the coast waters of British Columbia.” While the Prime Minister has compared coastal BC to Newfoundland where tanker traffic is allowed, Elizabeth May of the Green Party strongly disagrees, describing the BC coastline as “extremely sensitive to oil spills because of its physical features.” Again, who to believe? Do we have a moratorium, based on provincial-federal agreement, or do we not, due to lack of legislation? Is it safe for tankers to transit the BC coast?

With so much uncertainty over such a large scale project, perhaps it’s best to shift our focus elsewhere. Reducing energy usage, retrofitting our buildings, expanding public transportation, and stimulating a green economy – these are things that are already underway, things we can overwhelmingly agree upon. The oil can wait, until we know where everybody stands.

(Pipeline photo courtesy Bill & Vicky Tracey/Flickr, polling data courtesy of Abacus Data, oil and gas prices courtesy of Natural Resources Canada, tanker map courtesy of Living Ocean Society)

Doing Away With Pointless Partisanship

The big news today is the leak of documents from the Heartland Institute, an American conservative think tank that is proudly skeptical of climate change. Whether the leaked documents are authentic is yet to be determined, so we should reserve judgement for now. However it underscores the continued attention we give to the us vs. them climate change paradigm, a way of thinking that ignores what both sides actually have in common.

As climate change continues to be used as a political wedge issue, garnering support based on ideology rather than science, the public is becoming increasingly partisan. That the percentage of Canadians who believe there is evidence for climate change is a full 22% higher than Americans reinforces that politics, media, and ideologies have a significant effect on our perceptions – after all, if we were basing our opinions on scientific evidence, then we would expect numbers north and south of the border to be comparable. Science does not care much for borders. The same study notes that in Canada, public opinion is also divided along political lines; 64% of Conservative voters recognize evidence of climate change, compared to 84% of New Democrat voters and a full 91% for the Liberals. All of this points to an urgent need to reframe the discussion of climate change along non-partisan lines. By demonizing the opposition, and using rhetoric like “anti-science” and “willful ignorance”, those of us on the opposite end of the argument alienate potentially powerful partners.

Similarly, what international climate change negotiations have shown us is that a top-down political process relying on consensus among players with widely varying interests is extremely unlikely to bring the necessary results. And even if we were successful in negotiating a treaty and severely reducing our emissions, according the IPCC, the effects of the current levels of emissions on sea level and atmospheric temperatures will be continued to be felt for a timeframe beyond comprehension.

IPCC graph on rising seal levels
IPCC graph showing rising sea levels despite drastic CO2 reductions

Despite these alarming and dire predictions, greenhouse gas emissions reductions are necessary and desirable. Yet there is almost insurmountable difficulty in achieving a common agreement that seems fair and equitable. Regardless of whether such negotiations are successful or not – and clearly we should all hope against hope for a breakthrough agreement – most of what we can do starts here at home.

Consider the following graph, produced by McKinsey and Co in 2010. This represents the cost of carbon abatement through a number of technologies and practices.

McKinsey Abatement Curve
The McKinsey C02 cost abatement curve

Those boxes to the left indicate lower potential for CO2 abatement, with rising potential to the right. However what we should focus on is the vertical axis, which is all about cost. Those strategies that fall below the main axis are net negative cost; that is, they would save us money. While clearly the opportunity for cutting GHG emissions becomes greater with greater cost, there is no ignoring the not-insignificant action that we could be taking for actual cost-savings.

Electricity generated from landfill gas, switching to LED lighting, increased efficiency in residential appliances and electronics, hybrid cars. These are all steps that we could be taking right now, steps that would create jobs, save money, and at the same time reduce emissions. All this could come without the governmental regulation on emissions that is so feared by Conservative voters worried about the state of the economy. These are places where we could all win, and all be on the same page.

The rhetoric of science versus anti-science, anthropogenic climate change versus natural historical cycles, and liberal versus conservative, are all getting in the way of those areas in which cooperation is not only possible, but desirable. We can hope that future international negotiations will see greater success, but moving ahead to cut our own emissions and lead more energy efficient lifestyles can begin right now, and also save us a few dollars along the way.

(Featured photo courtesy of spettacolopuro/Flickr)

Blaming Virtue for the Excesses of Greed

I normally wouldn’t waste my time responding to an article by Margaret Wente. For those who are lucky enough not to have come across her, she is a right-wing ideologue columnist for the Globe & Mail. Born into privilege, educated at private schools, and lucky enough to be able to put her MA in English literature to work by cutting down the weakest members of society, she has gained a reputation as a – how to put this delicately? – provocateur. For those of us in the internet generation, we’d call her a troll, her writings flamebait; she seemingly writes her column to stir up all the vitriolic responses that she can muster. Well this time I am forced to take the bait, because she’s touched a personal nerve.

In her latest column for the Globe & Mail, Ms. Wente blasts the Occupy movement as architects of their own demise. She paints a picture of what she calls the “virtueocracy”, a generation of graduates who pursued degrees in sociology, environmental law, or (heaven forbid) human rights and are upset that there’s no work to be had. I fall directly into her category, and so I find it hard to not take her attack personally. Says Wente, “They aspire to join the virtueocracy – the class of people who expect to find self-fulfillment (and a comfortable living) in non-profit or government work, by saving the planet, rescuing the poor and regulating the rest of us.”

I would be the last to argue that my desire to work in this sector is driven by pragmatism rather than idealism, I never expected to make much money. I did however pursue this career based on the lessons that were taught by the previous generation, lessons taught by Ms. Wente’s generation. Lessons that taught it is the responsibility of the strong to help the weak, and the responsibility of the wealthy to assist the poor. The post-war generation tried to show us that the world could be improved through cooperation and understanding. They built a world that is, for better or for worse, interconnected and interdependent. Those of us who work in international development (or social work, education, rights law) do so because we believe that everyone will be better off if we all give a little bit more, and stop taking quite so much. We believe in principles of fairness and equality, principles that were enshrined in documents signed by our parents and grandparents. We did not start this movement, we are simply trying to keep it going.

Yet according to Margaret Wente, unemployment is our fault. We graduated with degrees that made us unemployable because of our own reckless foolishness – never mind the de-streaming  policies and standardized testing of the Mike Harris Conservatives, never mind universities that charge exorbitant tuition fees while teaching standards plummet and class sizes balloon, never mind a media that blasts us from a young age with messages of grief, despair, and fear.

Somehow she has the gall to say, “It’s not the greedy Wall Street bankers who destroyed these people’s hopes. It’s the virtueocracy itself. It’s the people who constructed a benefit-heavy entitlement system whose costs can no longer be sustained.” And then this gem, “In Canada, it’s the social progressives who assure us we can keep on consuming all the health care we want, even as the costs squeeze out other public goods.”

Margaret Wente would have us believe that the financial system is broken because we are spending too much on helping people. She would argue that we are not being greedy enough! What an ego she must have to sit comfortably in her job that she gained through an education in the arts and blame the naiveté of youth. Ivory towers be damned, here is a woman marching the streets in gleaming ivory armour, waving a flaming sword of hypocrisy and screaming death to the peasants, for they are revolting!

What’s revolting is a comfortable upper and upper-middle class blaming the poor and downtrodden for their own ills, and similarly blaming those who are trying to make a difference. I am fully aware that the work I want to do is funded on the backs of taxpayers, but I am a taxpayer myself. I believe in distribution of wealth, and I am willing to do my part. But for Ms. Wente and her ilk, we are a drain on society – who needs health, pensions, and government-funded education? Let the weak sink, and the strong will rise. Survival of the fittest, she would claim; the world is a jungle. Well if the world is a jungle, then I suppose I have to make room for the snakes.

In conclusion, I should note that Ms. Wente never actually spoke to the protestors that she quoted, and through such painstaking research she managed to quote someone who has absolutely no connection to the Occupy movement. The protestor “John” who wants to work in environmental law for a non-profit? He was filched from a post on the website of the Obama election campaign. But who needs journalistic integrity when you were born in a lucky time, you own your house, and you don’t have a student loan. Honesty is yet another virtue, and one it seems it is profitable to ignore.

(Feature photo courtesy of Alexis Gravel/Flickr)

Comfortable Inconvenience

Fimmvorduhals - 27 March 2010
Fimmvorduhals - 27 March 2010
Fimmvorduhals erupting – 27 March 2010

At the beginning of issue 6 of NOVAsia, Kyle DeRosa talked of humanity’s struggle against nature as a Sisyphean battle, never to be won. He implies that we should be pleased not by our success (which is illusory and fleeting) but rather by our continued efforts and resilience. However we are not in a position to represent humanity. As the privileged middle and upper middle classes who can afford higher education, our concept of the Sisyphean boulder is so drastically different to that of a shopkeeper in Port au Prince that any comparison is by nature unfair. The world has been captivated this past week, and continues to be as NOVAsia goes to print, by a spectacular natural disaster that is affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions. But there have been no deaths. The damage (aside from that in Iceland) is confined to our wallets, and that is the boulder that we face.

Throughout Europe, and other parts of the world, families, tourists, business travelers, and anyone else looking to take to the skies is likely stuck. I have friends waiting in Kuala Lumpur, and co-workers trapped in Madrid, New York City, and Slovenia. Meetings have been cancelled and rescheduled, life has become ever so slightly inconvenient.Almost a full week has passed since the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted on Iceland. It has created what has been called the largest shut-down of air traffic since World War II. Europe has essentially come to a standstill, and if it were not for an extensive rail system, nobody would be moving anywhere. The airline industry has been losing close to $200 million per day, with the total losses being estimated at over $1 billion total so far, there are layoffs at some airports, and courier companies that rely on high-speed and efficient transport of goods are scrambling to find any way possible to keep business moving. The effect to the economy will be noticeable. There is however irony in the effect to the environment. Thanks to the massive plume of ash that is slowly and smugly making its way across the globe, the atmosphere has been spared over 1.3 million tonnes of CO2 due to savings in jet fuel, an amount that is more than the total annual emissions of many developing countries (not taking into account how much CO2 has been released from the volcano itself, but feel free to argue that straw man if you must).

This is a particularly northern hemisphere style of natural disaster. The contrasts to Haiti on a qualitative scale, and the emotional impact, are not even worth discussing. Clearly from a moral perspective the earthquake is more “important”. But looking at the hard numbers is worthwhile. The first obvious difference is in loss of life. Whereas not a single individual has died due to the volcanic eruption, the number of dead in Haiti reached up over 200,000 individuals. With such a huge discrepancy, comparison almost seems unfair and grossly sensationalist, but to ignore it would be an equal injustice.

The second major contrast is the economic impact and the likely compensation. While the airlines will surely fight tooth and nail with governments to get some sort of “bailout package” for their $1 billion plus in losses, Haiti has estimated its total damage at $7.9 billion. Although I by no means wish to downplay the importance of the substantial aid that has been promised (though not necessarily yet delivered) to Haiti, the fact that the airlines most certainly will get financial compensation from European governments is in some respects nauseating. The American banking crisis has set a precedent whereby a failed business model can run to governments for cash, and the governments will respond. The governments must respond; without the airlines functioning, trade will slow to a crawl, and economies will falter. Our boulders will suddenly take on much more mass. Of course this comparison is invalid. If an earthquake or tsunami struck a densely populated northern developed state (though this is unlikely, and being developed also a partial consequence of its unlikelihood) then there would almost certainly be deaths. But this does not happen to us. This happens to them. And when it happens to them, we mourn, we show support, and some of us even donate. But we quickly move on.

While the Sisyphean analogy is poetically apt, we should not be so culturally naïve as to believe that we are all the same Sisyphus. Our mountainside contains far fewer bumps, and has far more rest-stops and latte shops, than the mountainsides of the developing world. When this ash cloud “crisis” has ended, our boulder will be relatively light and comfortable once again. For the rest of the world, the struggle continues.

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)