Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category
A sobering statement:“The wildlife at Chernobyl is very likely better than it was before the accident, not because radiation is good for animals, but because human occupation is much worse.”
Danny Clemens writes at Dscovrd:
Mealworms can safely and effectively biodegrade certain types of plastic waste, according to groundbreaking new research from Stanford University and China’s Beihang University.
In two newly released companion studies, researchers reveal that microorganisms living in the mealworm’s gut effectively break down styrofoam and plastic into “biodegraded fragments that look similar to tiny rabbit droppings.”
In fact, worms that dined regularly on plastic appeared to be as healthy as their non-plastic-eating companions, and researchers think that the waste they produce could be safely repurposed in agriculture.
“There’s a possibility of really important research coming out of bizarre places,” Craig Criddle, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, says in a news release. “Sometimes, science surprises us. This is a shock.”
Further research is needed before the worms can be widely deployed to munch the world’s growing supply of plastic waste. The studies released today focused solely on Styrofoam and polystyrene, a type of plastic widely used in packaging, appliances and electronics — future investigations will look into whether or not the worms can biodegrade polypropylene (used in textiles), bioplastics andmicrobeads.
Plastic waste takes notoriously long to biodegrade — a single water bottle is estimated to take 450 years to break down in a landfill. Due to poor waste management, plastic waste often ends up in the environment: recent unrelated research has revealed that 90% of all seabirds and up to 25% of fish sold in markets have plastic waste in their stomach. . .
Sara Solovitch describes housing done right:
In July, when Portland was sweltering at upwards of 100 degrees, the tenants of The Orchards wondered if they had air conditioning. The temperature in their apartments never rose above 70.
They had all just moved into the newly opened affordable housing project in Hillsboro, a Portland suburb that over the last decade replaced thousands of fruit trees with silicon chip factories. Some of the tenants were workers in those factories. Others were clerks at Costco and nearby supermarkets. As they knew all too well, affordable housing didn’t come with air conditioning. So why were their new homes so comfortable?
The Orchards is an L-shaped building with bare bone apartments that overlook the light rail station. Its lobby is small with two striking features: a glassed display of tree trunks, cross sections of those cut down from those eponymous orchards and marked by fruit typology (Orenco apple, Green Gage plum, Royal apricot) and a five-foot TV screen prominently mounted, with a readout that monitors the minutiae of each apartment’s energy consumption, alerting tenants to the nuances of their neighbors’ electric budgets.
But it’s what you don’t see that makes it so unique. The Orchards is a “Passive House,” currently the largest one in North America. It’s a high performing energy-efficient complex whose 57 apartments stay cool on the hottest days and can be comfortably heated with a hand-held hair dryer on the coldest. Its windows are triple-paned. Its walls and floors are stuffed 11 inches deep with insulation. The ventilation system in the attic acts as the building’s lungs—continually pulling exhaust from every kitchen and bathroom, sucking stale air through a heat exchanger before carrying it to the outside and returning with fresh air.
“Every day I find a new reason to love it,” gushes Georgye Hamlin, whose one-bedroom apartment is as noiseless as a recording studio. “It’s cool, it’s quiet, and I don’t even hear the train. During the heat wave, my girlfriend came over to sleep because it was so cool. Yay for German engineering!”
Passivhaus, a building method developed in Germany in the early 1990s, relies on an airtight envelope—the roof, exterior walls and floors, literally, the physical barrier that separates in from out—to create a building that consumes 80 percent less energy than a standard house.
As translated into English, the term is almost a misnomer. It implies single-family housing, when in fact the approach can be applied to any size building. In Europe, supermarkets, schools, churches, factories and hospitals have been built to passive house standards. The number of certified buildings there exceeds 25,000.
The American market is tiny by comparison. There are about 150 certified houses nationwide and most people, on hearing the term, assume it refers to solar panels. That is now starting to change, along with concern about climate change and a growing understanding that, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, houses and other buildings account for 40 percent of all energy consumption and a third of carbon emissions nationally. Widely applied, passive construction could fundamentally alter the world’s carbon balance, but only if it can get over the internecine fights that have torn the concept’s European and North American backers apart.
With the virtuous equation in mind, hundreds of passive houses are now going up around the country—from bland, boxy cubes (like those at The Orchards) to elegant condos and Victorian retrofits. Volunteers for Habitat for Humanity have constructed passive townhouses in Washington, D.C. An ambulance dispatch center in Brooklyn was last year retrofitted to passive standards. An affordable housing project, built for youths aging out of foster care, just opened in Pittsburgh.
Last September, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio released a 35-year plan, One City: Built To Last, for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the city’s buildings. The report named Passive House construction as a pathway for achieving the city’s goal of 80 percent reduction. It was the only building standard specifically identified in the report, a fact that made architects, builders and public policy experts take notice. In Europe, where all new construction must comply with “Nearly Zero-Energy Buildings” by 2020, passive building is a best building practice.
Then came the news that ground was being broken for the world’s biggest passive house—a 350-unit apartment house, owned by Cornell University on Roosevelt Island in New York City, to be completed by 2017. “This is going to open people’s eyes about what’s possible,” says Ken Levenson, a Brooklyn-based architect who will be working on the Cornell project. “It’s a huge building and it’s significant in terms of its breaking out of a stereotypical low-rise building. And it’s a blue chip customer, with all the associations of Cornell University—plus the fact that it’s being embraced by New York City and the mayor’s office. It changes the conversation in a big way.”
Despite all the talk of “r factors,” kBTUs and “air changes per hour” that breaks out whenever Passive House engineers and designers assemble, the approach’s appeal is its simplicity: Orient a building to . . .
What seems to be a quartet of writers (but might be a trio with an extra comma), Danny, Hakim, Aaron Kessler, and Jack Ewing, tell a good account of the origins and discovery of the VW fraud. Well worth reading. From the article:
. . . It is not Volkswagen’s first run-in with regulators over emissions. When the United States began regulating tailpipe pollutants in the 1970s, Volkswagen was one of the first companies caught cheating. It was fined $120,000 in 1973 for installing what became known as a “defeat device,” technology to shut down a vehicle’s pollution control systems. This time, it equipped its vehicles with software that was programmed to fake test results, an action the E.P.A. rebuked in 1998, when it reached a $1 billion settlement with truck-engine manufacturers for doing the same thing.
Over the last year, when confronted with evidence that its system was not performing as promised, Volkswagen aggressively pushed back, saying that regulators were not doing the testing properly. . .
And, later in the article:
. . . In 2013, a nonprofit group, the International Council on Clean Transportation, proposed testing on-road diesel emissions from cars in the United States — something never done before.
California regulators decided to team up with the group. They had an attractive chip to offer: the state’s laboratory, where vehicles were tested for California emissions compliance.
The transportation council, staffed by a number of former E.P.A. officials, did not expect to catch Volkswagen, or anyone else, cheating. In fact, it assumed that American diesel cars would run much cleaner than their European counterparts, thanks to stricter United States emissions rules. The group felt that by promoting a success story for diesel, it could pressure — and perhaps shame — automakers in Europe into improving their own emissions.
“We thought we would be seeing some clean vehicles,” said John German, one of the project leads at the council. “That was the whole point when we started.”
It was only by chance that the group’s testing of three vehicles began with two Volkswagens. The researchers already had a BMW X5 and aVolkswagen Jetta — and then a Passat owner happened to see an ad seeking cars for the project and offered up his.
Researchers hit the road, traveling five routes with varying terrain and traffic. Almost immediately, the two Volkswagens set themselves apart from the BMW.
“If you’re idling in traffic for three hours in L.A. traffic, we know a car is not in its sweet spot for good emissions results,” said Arvind Thiruvengadam, a research professor at West Virginia University, which was hired to conduct the tests. “But when you’re going at highway speed at 70 miles an hour, everything should really work properly. The emissions should come down. But the Volkswagens’ didn’t come down.”
It was difficult to know what was going on: When the two Volkswagens were placed on a “car treadmill” known as a dynamometer, they performed flawlessly.
“It just didn’t make sense,” Mr. German said. “That was the real red flag.”
By 2014, the California regulators determined what to do next. First, they alerted their federal counterparts at the E.P.A. Then, they opened an investigation. “We brought in Volkswagen and showed them our findings,” said Stanley Young, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. “We asked them, ‘How do you explain this?’ ”
Volkswagen fired back. “They tried to poke holes in our study and its methods, saying we didn’t know what we were doing,” Mr. Thiruvengadam said. “They were very aggressive.”
The company offered many explanations: Weather conditions. Driving styles. Technicalities that it claimed the researchers and regulators did not understand.
“There was always some story, some reason they’d come up with each time,” Mr. Young said. “Meeting after meeting, they would try to explain it away, and we’d go back to the lab and try again. But we’d get the same results.”
The back-and-forth lasted for months. Finally, in April, Volkswagen made an offer: It would conduct a voluntary recall, or service campaign, to fix the problem in certain model year 2010 to 2014 diesel vehicles.
Regulators got the software update for their test vehicles and returned to the lab. The results were not good. “It didn’t solve the problem,” Mr. Young said.
Confronted again, Volkswagen continued to maintain that there was a problem with the testers, not the vehicles.
California regulators changed tack, examining the company’s software. Modern automobiles operate using millions of lines of computer code. One day last summer, the regulators made a startling discovery: A subroutine, or parallel set of instructions, was secretly being sent by the computer to what seemed to be the emissions controls.
Regulators were floored. Could Volkswagen be trying something similar to what the heavy-truck industry did to manipulate emissions tests in the 1990s?
Regulators set out to cheat the cheat, tweaking lab test parameters to trick the car into thinking it was on the road. The Volkswagens began spewing nitrogen oxide far above the legal limit. . .
Very interesting article in The Economist:
Herbie, a Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of its own in a series of Disney films launched in the 1960s, had its share of misadventures. But things had a way of ending up happily for both the car and its passengers. The German carmaker’s more recent attempts to give its cars the gift of thought have things headed in an altogether grimmer direction. Its use of hidden software to deceive American regulators measuring emissions from diesel-engined cars has plunged VW into crisis. And as the scandal provokes further investigations it seems likely to throw into question a wider range of claims about emissions and fuel efficiency. It could thus be a blow to much of the industry—one that might be large enough to reshape it.
The damage to VW, the world’s biggest carmaker, is cataclysmic. The company’s shares have collapsed by a third since its chicanery surfaced (see chart 1). It faces billions of dollars in fines and other financial penalties. Lawsuits will be flying their way to its headquarters in Wolfsburg. Its strategy for the crucial American market is ruined; its reputation is in tatters. Its boss, Martin Winterkorn—who in 2009, when the misleading “defeat” software made its first appearance, was also directly responsible for the company’s R&D—resigned on September 23rd.The company’s home country is in shock. Germany’s environment minister, Barbara Hendricks, spoke for many when she declared herself “more than astonished”—though the Greens, an opposition party, say that in its response to a parliamentary question earlier this year the government admitted that it knew manipulating emissions data was technically possible. Mixed in with this is some embarrassment that, as with the scandals over FIFA and the World Cup, it is falling to America to enforce rules that Europeans have been breaking.
There is also a certain apprehension. Sigmar Gabriel, the vice-chancellor and economics minister, said on September 21st that he hoped the export brand of Germany as a whole would not be tarnished. Germany’s economic strength rests in large part on the idea that anything stamped “Made in Germany” will offer a high level of reliability, trustworthiness and engineering prowess. Much of that reputation rests on the broad shoulders and sturdy tyres of the car industry, which directly or indirectly employs one in seven of the country’s workers; and with a stable of marques that includes Porsche and Audi, VW is that industry’s leader. Industrialists fret that consumers worldwide could exact reputational Sippenhaft—collective punishment, but literally “kin liability”—on all German engineering.
As well as being a threat to Germany’s export earnings, the scandal also menaces the brainchild of one of its most eminent engineers, Rudolf Diesel—at least as far as its future in cars is concerned. Diesel engines use fuel more efficiently than engines with spark plugs, and better efficiency reduces both drivers’ expenses and carbon-dioxide emissions. Those advantages have endeared diesel engines to thrifty Europeans with green governments; none too popular elsewhere in the world, they power half of Europe’s cars (see chart 2).
Unfortunately, the benefits come with costs. Diesel cars’ efficiency comes from burning their fuel at a higher temperature, and that means they turn more of the nitrogen in the air they use for burning into various oxides of nitrogen, collectively known as NOx. This does not have global climate effects on the same scale as those of carbon dioxide, which is the most important long-lived greenhouse gas. But it has far worse local effects, generating smogs and damaging plants and lungs. To make matters worse, the catalytic technologies used to deal with the NOx emitted by petrol engines are not well suited for use with diesels, requiring engine makers to deploy more complex and expensive alternatives. That is not a big problem for large engines like those of trucks and ships. But it is for small engines like those of cars.
In America NOx standards are more demanding than they are in Europe. Mazda and Honda, both accomplished producers of diesel engines, have had trouble complying with them. It now appears that VW, which has put a lot of effort into persuading Americans that diesels can be clean and green, would also have failed to comply if it had not cheated. The campaign to convince Americans of the merits of diesel may thus well be at an end. And if it turns out that under real-life conditions many diesels also break Europe’s less stringent NOx standards then the future of diesel cars worldwide will be bleak.
Nothing seems right
The scandal broke on September 18th, . . .
Continue reading. Lots more, good stuff.
Later in the article:
. . . It is possible that some companies are using software trickery to cheat on Europe’s tests on fuel efficiency. But as Nick Molden of Emission Analytics, a consulting firm in Britain, argues, the European testing regime is so out of date and open to abuse that carmakers do not have to bother with such subtlety. The companies test their own vehicles under the auspices of independent testing organisations certified by national governments. But these organisations are commercial enterprises that compete for business. Although obliged to put the vehicles through standard activity cycles both in a laboratory and on a test track—neither of which is remotely realistic—they are aware that their ability to “optimise” the test procedures is a way to win clients. In practice this means doing everything possible to make the test cars perform far better than the versions punters drive off the forecourt.
The cars that are tested have generally been modified to be as frugal as possible. Things that add weight, such as sound systems, are left out. Drag is reduced by removing wing mirrors and taping up cracks between panels. Special lubricants make the engines run more smoothly. Low-resistance tyres are overinflated with special mixtures of gas. Alternators are disconnected, which gives more power to the wheels but guarantees a flat battery in the end. The cars may be run in too high a gear, and conducting tests at the highest allowed ambient temperature—another efficiency booster—is commonplace.
Stable for days
Worst of all, though, is that once this charade has produced a claim as to the car’s efficiency, no one checks whether it is true or not. In America, too, carmakers are responsible for their own tests. But there the EPA goes on to acquire vehicles at random for testing at a later date, to see if the cars on sale to the public live up to the claims. If the numbers do not match up substantial fines can follow. In 2014 Hyundai-Kia was fined $300m for misstating fuel-economy figures. Europe has no such system for punishing those who transgress. As a result more than half Europe’s claimed gains in efficiency since 2008 have been “purely theoretical”, says T&E. And the industry as a whole has developed a gaming attitude to tests and regulations that it should take seriously. As Drew Kodjak of the ICCT observes, VW’s activities in America are part of a pattern of behaviour that the “European system created”. . .
The reason the criminal fraud VW committed is so important that it killed people. Kevin Drum, using available data, estimates the death toll from the higher pollution of 11,000,000 cars to be 4,000 worldwide. (One hopes that’s high enough to trigger criminal prosecutions of individuals responsible; recall that GM’s concealing the problem defective ignition switch caused 153 deaths according to Reuters, and not only were no GM employees prosecuted, the company itself got what amounts to probation. So car companies have to kill many people for individuals to be held responsible for committing a crime. Usually the company can simply write a check, though to be sure the amount of the check may be relatively large.
But did the pollution actually kill people—that is, caused them to die before they otherwise would have? Yes, according to this article in the NY Times by Michael Greenstone:
Back in 1970, Los Angeles was known as the smog capital of the world — a notorious example of industrialization largely unfettered by regard for health or the environment. Heavy pollution drove up respiratory and heart problems and shortened lives.
But 1970 was also the year the environmental movement held the firstEarth Day and when, 45 years ago this month, Congress passed a powerful update of the Clean Air Act. (Soon after, it was signed by President Richard Nixon, and it was followed by the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the Clean Water Act, making him one of the most important, though underappreciated, environmentalists in American history.)
Since that time, the Clean Air Act has repeatedly been challenged as costly and unnecessary. As a fight brews over President Obama’s new use of the law to address global warming, it’s worth re-examining the vast differencethe law has already made in the quality of the air we breathe, and in the length of our lives.
Numerous studies have found that the Clean Air Act has substantially improved air quality and averted tens of thousands of premature deathsfrom heart and respiratory disease. Here, I offer new estimates of the gains in life expectancy due to the improvement in air quality since 1970 — based on observations from the current “smog capital” of the world, China. (To learn more about how this was calculated, click here.)
For several decades starting in the 1950s, China’s government gave residents in the northern half of the country free coal for winter heating, effectively creating a natural experiment in the health impact of pollution. My colleagues and I recently compared pollution and mortality rates between the north south of China and calculated the toll of airborne particulate matter, widely believed to be the most harmful form of air pollution, on life expectancy.
Applying that formula to E.P.A. particulate data from 1970 to 2012 yields striking results for American cities.
In Los Angeles, particulate pollution has declined by more than half since 1970. The average Angeleno lives about a year and eight months longer. Residents of New York and Chicago have gained about two years on average. With more than 42 million people currently living in these three metropolitan areas, the total gains in life expectancy add up quickly.
But some of the greatest improvements occurred in smaller towns and cities where heavy industries appeared to operate with few restrictions on pollution.
In 1970, the Weirton, W.Va.–Steubenville, Ohio, metropolitan area had particulate concentrations similar to current-day Beijing. A child born there today can expect to live about five years longer than one born in 1970.
More than 200 million people currently live in places monitored for particulates in 1970 and today. (The E.P.A. focuses on the most heavily populated or polluted areas of the country, which is why these calculations exclude approximately 115 million people.) On average, these people can expect to live an additional 1.6 years, for a total gain of more than 336 million life-years. . .
VW really was responsible for killing people; we just don’t know which ones.
James Surowiecki has an interesting column in the New Yorker:
It took a few days, but the inevitable happened Wednesday: Martin Winterkorn, the embattled C.E.O. of Volkswagen, stepped down in the wake of revelations that his company had equipped eleven million diesel-engine cars with software explicitly designed to cheat on emissions tests. The cars were set to recognize when they were being tested and, if they were, to abruptly begin emitting far less nitrogen oxide than they would on the road. Winterkorn had initially tried to ride out the scandal, and there’s no evidence (so far) that he knew about the software cheating. But, given that this was not, as in most auto-industry scandals, a case of a defective part but rather a deliberate corporate effort to deceive consumers and regulators, it was impossible for him to stay on, particularly given his reputation as a hands-on, technically adept micromanager: he either did know or should have known, and, in either case, he has to bear the blame. Winterkorn’s departure, though, will do little to relieve the pressure on Volkswagen, or to save it from the travails to come. This is one of the more remarkable corporate scandals in history, and by the time it’s over the company, which at the moment is the world’s largest automaker, is likely to be a shadow of its past self.
Volkswagen’s lies to consumers and regulators weren’t tangential to its business: instead, they were crucial to how it marketed its diesel cars, at least in the United States. Diesel has always been a tough sell in the U.S., where the technology is associated with the dirty, clunky engines of the nineteen-seventies, and where fuel economy (typically a strong selling point for diesel) tends to matter less to consumers than it does in Europe. Volkswagen’s solution to this problem was to trumpet a “new era of diesel,” featuring engines that were cleaner than ever. The headline on a 2008 BusinessWeek article summed up the pitch: “This Is Not Your Father’s Diesel.” Improvements in diesel technology had made it possible for diesel engines to run cleaner than ever before. But the assumption had been that there was a trade-off: making diesel cleaner would also lower a car’s fuel economy and/or its performance. Volkswagen promised customers that they didn’t have to make these trade-offs. They could, for a relatively modest price, get a high-performing car with great fuel economy (and, therefore, lower CO2 emissions), while also releasing less of other pollutants. It sounded too good to be true—and, for Volkswagen, it was. (BMW and Mercedes made a similar case for their diesel cars; neither has been implicated in the emissions scandal, though.) Volkswagen did deliver the high performance and the fuel economy but did so, it has now become clear, only by disabling the emissions controls, which meant its cars were pouring hundreds of thousands of tons of nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere.
In that sense, Volkswagen’s actions are oddly reminiscent of (while obviously far more serious) the classic “Seinfeld” episode in which the characters become enamored with a new frozen yogurt that’s incredibly tasty but still somehow “a hundred percent nonfat.” The principle is the same: you can make a lot of money by promising people that they can have all the pleasure and none of the guilt. As Newman says to Jerry, “This yogurt is really something, huh? And it’s nonfat! I’ve been waiting for something like this my whole life, and it’s finally here!” Needless to say, the frozen yogurt turns out to be full of fat.
The centrality of Volkswagen’s deceptive promise to its marketing strategy in the United States is precisely why the stock market’s reaction to the scandal has been so dramatic. While the stock rebounded slightly on Thursday, it’s still down almost thirty per cent from when the news broke. It isn’t just the cost of fixing the emissions problem that’s the issue—it’s possible that, because the emissions controls are already in the cars, the only fix that will be needed will be a software patch that, in effect, disables the cheat. Nor is it just the fines, though those could be huge, and will presumably be the biggest ever levied against an automaker. (The Environmental Protection Agency, which helped uncover the scandal, can fine the company up to thirty-seven thousand dollars for each of the four hundred and eighty-two thousand cars Volkswagen sold in the United States with the software.) There will also be class-action lawsuits, and the possibility that Volkswagen might have to compensate owners for the full value of their cars. Whatever patch Volkswagen offers, after all, won’t make the cars run just the way they did—in fact, it’s likely to make them run worse in terms of performance and fuel economy. That means, in effect, that the cars Volkswagen said it was selling were not the cars it actually sold. It would be very surprising if this doesn’t end up costing the company many billions of dollars. (It has already set aside more than seven billion, which may be conservative.) And the hit to its reputation, especially in the United States, will be long-lasting.
While the scandal is a disaster for Volkswagen, there’s a good chance it’ll end up being a boon for the environment, since the fallout from the controversy will hurt not just the company but also diesel technology itself.