November 2015
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Disastrous inventions

It’s Monday again, and some of you might be reluctant to start your work week. Everything you take on is an absolute disaster, and everything you try to make things better only makes them worse.Sound familiar?
Oh, but listen to the unfortunate tale of chemist and inventor Thomas Midgley, as told on the BBC comedy/trivia/quiz show QI. I’m sure he caused far bigger problems than you did.

The entire story is also on Wikipedia, but it’s funnier and more shocking to hear it get increasingly worse and see people’s reactions.

Carbon offsets and flying

I’ve been considering buying carbon offsets for my air travel in 2007, as well as for the air travel my mom and sister did to visit me (because if I didn’t live in Canada, they wouldn’t have flown to North America at all)
But carbon offsets often seem like just something to patch up your feelings of guilt about polluting.

p7260136.JPGCarbon offsets are virtual units of “CO2 equivalents”. They’re sold by a number of companies that let you calculate approximately how much carbon dioxide your activities emit. For air travel you simply enter the start and end destinations of your trip and it returns tons of CO2-equivalents and the cost of offsets for this amount of CO2
The money you pay for carbon offsets goes towards the funding of projects that aim to reduce the same amount of CO2 you so readily emitted with your reckless jet-setting lifestyle. But the CO2 has already been emitted — buying carbon offsets doesn’t take it back. The damage is done. The best thing you can hope to achieve by giving money to offset companies is to support those projects that are most likely to lead to a significant reduction in CO2 in the future.

The David Suzuki Foundation explains the difference between carbon offset projects. They point out some bad types of carbon offsets: tree planting, destruction of halocarbon gases, and projects that would have happened anyway. (Good carbon offsets are additional: they would not have happened without the offset money, so that buying offsets really adds to CO2 reduction.) The projects should be specific, permanent, validated by a third party, not sold to multiple buyers. Offset projects subject to the highest criteria are Gold Standard projects, and the Suzuki Foundation has a list of these Gold Standard offset vendors, which I’ll copy here. There are many other companies that sell carbon offsets, but these are the five that have been independently and externally verified for integrity and high quality projects.

Planetair (Canada)
MyClimate (Switzerland)
Sustainable Travel International (USA)
Climate Friendly (Australia)
Atmosfair (Germany)

Now here is why I am still on the fence: I entered one of the flights I wanted to offset on all five sites. I used the Toronto-Raleigh trip I made back in January, because it seemed less variable in terms of route and companies than the transatlantic flights. Now I understand that the cost of different offset projects varies, so it’s no surprise that an offset for this trip varies from $6 to about $20. What is surprising is that the tonnes of CO2 that this trip would emit varies quite a bit as well. Only MyClimate and Sustainable Travel gave a similar number (0.393 tons and 0.3924 tons). The others calculated 0.42 tons, 0.6 tons, and 0.28 tons for the return trip.
So it’s about 0.4 on average, comparing all three, but the difference between 0.6 and 0.28 is ridiculous. That’s more than twice as much.

Some sites – but not all – also want to know if you were flying business class or economy class. I thought it was absurd at first, but it does make sense: they have to divide the plane’s emissions by the number of passengers, and an economy passenger contributes relatively less than a business class passenger, who takes up 1.5 times as much space. (If there were only economy seats, more people would fit and everyone would carry less of the burden.)

Aha, but while thinking about this I found another problem: this entire calculation assumes that there is only one type of plane. This standard plane emits a standard amount of CO2 divided over its standard number of passengers, of which a standard number are paying more money to stretch their legs a bit.
Every time I fly anywhere, my dad (both a professional and amateur airplane enthusiast) wants to know what type of plane I’m in. I don’t really care, as long as I am in it and get to my destination and they give me food, movies and my luggage back. But he’ll get all excited: “The new 767?! What did you think? How was the landing gear? It has the new type of engine! The wing stability is improved! Did you notice it only needs a very short runway?” This is all paraphrased, because, as my dad will happily confirm, I never really listen. What I do understand from all his excitement is that even for the same trip with the same airline company you can end up in greatly different types of planes. I, and many other passengers with me, can only distinguish them by where the movie screen is and whether the table is in the seat in front of you or in your armrest, but I’m sure they have different emission profiles as well. How do the offset companies know I wasn’t in the most eco-friendly plane on all my trips? How do they know what the airlines themselves invest in reducing the emissions of their fleet? Or which airline I flew with? They don’t. They have to make assumptions, which is why the calculated emissions differ per company.

I’m on a plane again this week. I don’t know what type of plane it is, and all I really care about is getting to the same destination as my suitcase (preferably the destination on my ticket). I’m still debating whether or not to pay for guilt-reducing carbon offsets, but the only real solution is, of course, to not fly in the first place.


spacing_fall07.jpgI have a short article in the newest issue of Spacing magazine. Spacing is a magazine about Toronto’s public spaces, or urban landscape, and the current issue is all about the environment. (I’ve linked to their blog before) My piece is on the Air Quality Health Index project.

I knew the new issue would be in stores as of Thursday, so Thursday night I walked down to Pages on Queen Street to pick up two copies as self-centered Christmas gifts. I had to wait a while at the counter because the Pages-guy was on the phone, and in the mean time another customer got in line behind me. He was also buying Spacing! I smiled when I saw his purchase. “Great choice”, he said. I felt a bit over the top with my TWO copies, so I blurted out “They printed my article. That’s why I have two.” Like he cares. Then of course I had to show him what I wrote, and we exchanged some niceties about the magazine and both agreed that it’s great. You should buy one or two copies too! If you’re in Toronto, you can buy Spacing at independent bookstores such as Pages or Book City, or at the issue release party on December 3rd. You can also get a subscription online, from anywhere in North America.

Reading recommendations

I was going to write about the Anne Frank House tree in relation to cloning (of trees), but after fighting some technical difficulties I’m just going to recommend other people’s blog posts that you might be interested in and I’ll get back to the tree later.

hep_virus_c_gene.jpg If you don’t have a lot of time and just want to see something fun very quickly, go look at these genetic quilts described on Inky Circus. I wonder if I can submit a quilt instead of a thesis? It’s more comfortable to hold, but harder to convert to microfiche. Both have their merits.

If you have a lot of time on your hands, you can also read Stephen Fry’s post on different types of people’s reactions to global warming, and why people who aren’t sure whether to believe in global warming or not would be better off following the believers. There’s a lot in there about scientists as well, but there is a lot in there in general and I’m very serious about my “if you have a lot of time” warning. It took me 8 minutes to just read the introduction about soup and chewing gum and America (I had a timer running for other reasons) and another two sittings to go through the rest. Then, if you have even more time, you can also continue and read the commenters’ reactions, which are overall pretty insightful as well, as far as I can tell from just skimming them. And if you are really swimming in time, and have an opinion on the topic of scientific consensus you should leave him a comment too.
It really is a very long read, I’m not kidding. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. But it’s worth it.

Leafy trees

Toronto tree expert Todd Irvine has a post on the Spacing blog about Toronto’s trees and why they are so late changing colour and losing leaves this year. Global News invited him on a helicopter tour to have a good look at the trees, and this is really not what November is supposed to look like up here.

“This year, as a result of the long summer draught, followed by a mild fall with no frost and cool rains, trees are holding their leaves longer. They are doing so partially to take advantage of the unseasonably good growing conditions by storing extra sugars they were unable to during the summer, because of the crippling draught.”

(I’m having trouble posting photos — something seems broken in Wordpress — so you have to visit Spacing to see all the oranges and yellows.)

Arctic Tale

arctic taleI had a free pass to see Arctic Tale last night, so I did, but in retrospect I don’t think it was worth the trip to the suburban movie theatre. Arctic Tale is the story of a baby polar bear (Nanu) and a baby walrus (Seela) who grow up in the Arctic in a time when the winters are too short and far between for the ice they need to respectively hunt on and rest on to be fully formed.

It’s a kids movie, but I couldn’t imagine being a kid and liking it. Queen Latifah does the narration, and sounds like she’s reading to four year olds. But the story itself is too complex for that age. There were a lot of four year olds in the audience, though, and they collectively laughed at the walrus fart scene (yes, there is a “walrus fart scene”) but the whole storyline of not being able to find food when the climate conditions change went way over their head. There is probably a narrow age window of 6 to 8 where kids would still find the jokes funny and understand the issues, but there’s little appeal for anyone else. There is one enjoyable montage set in an Arctic summer, where you see a bunch of different animals swim, run, and fly around to remind people that it’s not as bare and boring as it seems up there. This scene was set to instrumental music, but some of the other montages are set to pop music with lyrics that were somehow related to the story, but music that doesn’t fit at all. Case in point: a big walrus family dancing to a segment of “We are family”.

The entire cast of the film is made up of animals, but during the end credits we see cheesy studio segments of kids reciting ways to conserve energy. The tips are all aimed at kids too (”Tell your parents to…”) but I can’t imagine any kid actually taking this advice. It might have been better to leave it out, and let them draw their own conclusions or discuss it with an adult.
As a climate change movie for kids it doesn’t really work, and as a movie for adults it doesn’t work at all. The naming of the two main characters is kind of cute, in that you can relate to them, but it’s also a dead giveaway that those two characters will survive the story. (Nanu’s frail twin brother bear remains unnamed — guess what happens to him?)

Go see it if you’re about six to eight years old and really like polar bears and/or walruses and are concerned about the environment. Otherwise: skip it. I’m rarely negative about movies, and I really like polar bears and I agree that they’re having a hard time when their seasons shift, but this was just a totally unnecessary movie. (Rotten Tomatoes agrees.)

The Green Roof at MEC

No, people in Canada do not actually leave their doors unlocked all the time. Only during the annual Doors Open Toronto event, where about 150 buildings in the city offer free access to the public. The idea behind the project is to get a chance to look inside some buildings you would otherwise never go and learn something about the architecture or functionality of the building. This year the program had a green theme. I visited Mountain Equipment Co-op, which led fifteen minute tours through the stockroom, up a ladder, and out of a trapdoor to the roof.

mecroof1.jpgWhat was so special about the roof? It’s green! Not painted green, but a “green roof” in the environmental sense. The roof on top of the MEC store holds 75% of rain water, so it reduces the amount of dirty run-off water that eventually ends up in the lake. According to our tour guide, if every building in the city had a green roof, the lake would always be clean enough to swim in. (I assume it’s calculated based on how much rain would be retained by the total flat roof area of the city, but we didn’t get any more details on the numbers.) The roof is also much cooler in summer than regular roofs (about 30 degrees celcius versus 50-60), which reduces the need for energy otherwise used for cooling.

mecroof.jpgThe roof is almost entirely maintenance-free. Twice a year an “Ecoman” comes by to check if no harmful plants have popped up: the roof can’t support a tree, for example, but the big green plant you see in the first picture is an anomaly that has been allowed to stay. There is also an automatic watering system that waters the plants for about 20 minutes if it gets very dry. The sprinklers are coupled to a detector that measures the moisture of the soil. Last summer it went on twice, and it hasn’t been switched on this year at all. So basically, the roof supports itself.

We were also shown what the plants grow on (second picture). They’re on a very lightweight base, and any excess water is collected on a sheet and in a drain.

The City of Toronto Green Roof website
has a list of some other green roofs in the city and a schematic drawing of a green roof similar to the one at MEC: