I’m no longer updating this site with my latest work. There are over 500 articles of mine still here, more or less in chronological order. Use the search tool on the right to find a particular story or explore a topic. Thanks for dropping by – Stephen
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EXTRA: March 14 2018
Summary of my coverage at the 2018 IPCC Cities conference in Edmonton on Radio Ecoschock – 8 min podcast (plus I talk about my upcoming Nat Geo article explaining why Cape Town is running out of water)
Articles written for non-profit news service focussed on the developing world
By Stephen Leahy
On Aug. 10, Shawn Williamson put out his family’s first bag of trash in 26 months. That’s right, 26 months and just one bag of trash for Williamson, his wife, Monica, and their 7-year-old daughter Alyssa.
The Brooklin family recycles, reuses or composts 99.3 per cent of their waste, Williamson calculates. “It’s easier and cheaper,” says the management consultant, who specializes in environmental challenges.
“In my office, there’s a container for compostable materials, one for paper and a small one for garbage.” Asked what’s in the garbage container, Williamson says “cut-up credit cards, old pens, some plastic wrapping … I empty it every four or five months.”
There are only two other small garbage containers in the home. But there are plenty for recycling, composting and a couple of large containers destined for the Goodwill donation centre.
Driving by, no one would guess this is a near-zero-waste home. Williamson insists they don’t have a Spartan lifestyle. In fact, he feels a bit sorry for the rest of us: “If you’re putting out three bags of garbage, you’re wasting an awful lot of time and money.”
It all starts at the store, especially the grocery store. Buying pre-packaged and ready-made food not only creates a lot of trash, it is much more expensive and less nutritious than buying fresh. The Williamsons hit the supermarket once a week with their 12-year-old green plastic baskets and preprinted shopping list, with the weekly essentials listed to make shopping more efficient and eliminate impulse buying.
“We still buy things like potato chips occasionally, and those bags can’t be recycled.”
They also buy in bulk. Toilet paper comes from an office-supply outlet in a giant box that barely fits in the car. Staples such as rice come in 50-pound bags. The house is outfitted with more shelving than most homes but Williamson insists it doesn’t look like a warehouse.
“Try eating only fresh for a few weeks and you’ll see a health improvement . . . you’ll feel better,” Williamson says.
When the family does order takeout, they bring their own plastic containers. “We bring the big ones and the take-out places tend to fill them up for the same price.” Most of this is just common sense on how to be more efficient, and Williamson believes it has saved his family hundreds of hours.
“Just take a few seconds once a week to think about how to do something better and do it.” Before you know it, you will be living better, saving money and maybe losing a bit of weight, says Williamson.
Nearly all food waste and organic matter goes into a back-yard composter, to be turned into rich top soil for the vegetable garden. Williamson says he gets a bit of a workout digging in the compost and he finds it very relaxing. And it beats driving to the gym.
“It’s really all about living better, living simpler and living smarter.”
Incineration vs. diversion
The Williamsons live in Durham Region, where 60 per cent of residential waste is now being diverted from the landfills in Michigan, where much of Ontario’s waste has been going for the past decade. But Durham and York regions are proceeding with plans to build a $230-million garbage incinerator in south Courtice, near Lake Ontario. To operate efficiently, the natural-gas-powered furnaces will need to be fed thousands of tonnes of garbage around the clock. That will take the emphasis off waste reduction and the need to improve recycling programs, says Shawn Williamson, whose family diverts 99.3 per cent of its household waste.
“The simple solution to Ontario’s perennial garbage problem is not to create any waste,” he says. “We saw a big change by converting all our garbage cans throughout the house into recycling bins and putting a tiny container for garbage inside.”
Ontario’s overall waste diversion rate has risen from 21 per cent in 1992 to about 44 per cent. Toronto’s diversion rate was 45 per cent last year, far short of its target of 70 per cent. San Francisco and Los Angeles are already at 70 per cent. More than half of Toronto’s households are in townhouses and high-rise apartments or condos, where recycling and composting must be taken down to basement bins and the diversion rate is a paltry 15 per cent
First published in The Toronto Star October 21, 2011
The moon has no atmosphere so it is scorching hot (+100C) during the day and bitterly cold (-150C) at night. The Earth has an atmosphere made up of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases. Over 150 years ago scientists proved that CO2 traps heat from the sun. We also know without any doubt that burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal emits CO2.
Measurements, not computer models or theories, measurements show that there is now 46% more CO2 in the atmosphere than 150 years ago before massive use of fossil fuels. That extra CO2 is like putting another blanket on at night even though you are already nice and warm.
The Earth is now 1.0 C hotter on average according to the latest measurements. Heat is a form of energy and with so much more energy in our atmosphere our weather system is becoming supercharged resulting in stronger storms, worse heat waves, major changes in when and where rain falls and more.
The Carbon Law says human carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions must be reduced by half each decade starting in 2020. By following this “law” humanity can achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by mid-century to protect the global climate for current and future generations.
A “carbon law” is a new concept unveiled March 23 in the journal Science. It is part of a decarbonization roadmap that shows how the global economy can rapidly reduce carbon emissions, said co-author Owen Gaffney of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, one of international team of climate experts.
“Coal power plants under construction and proposed in India alone would account for roughly half of the remaining carbon budget.” –Steven Davis
To keep the global temperature rise to well below 2°C, emissions from burning fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal) must peak by 2020 at the latest and fall to around zero by 2050. This is what the world’s nations agreed to at the UN’s Paris Agreement in 2015. Global temperatures have already increased 1.1 degrees C.
“After the Paris agreement we began to work on a science-based roadmap to stay well below 2C,” Gaffney told IPS.
The “carbon law” is modelled on Moore’s Law, a prediction that computer processing power doubles every 24 months. Like Moore’s, the carbon law isn’t a scientific or legal law but a projection of what could happen. Gordon Moore’s 1965 prediction ended up becoming the tech industry’s biannual goal.
A “carbon law” approach ensures that the greatest efforts to reduce emissions happen sooner not later, which reduces the risk of blowing the remaining global carbon budget, Gaffney said.
This means global CO2 emissions must peak by 2020 and then be cut in half by 2030. Emissions in 2016 were 38 billion tonnes (Gt), about the same as the previous two years. If emissions peak at 40 Gt by 2020, they need to fall to 20 Gt by 2030 under the carbon law. And then halve again in 2040 and 2050.
“Global emissions have stalled the last three years, but it’s too soon to say if they have peaked due largely to China’s incredible efforts,” he said.
The Science paper, “A roadmap for rapid decarbonization”, notes that China’s coal use swung from a 3.7 percent increase in 2013 to a 3.7 percent decline in 2015. Although not noted in the paper, China’s wind energy capacity went from 400 megawatts (Mw) in 2004 to an astonishing 145,000 Mw in 2016.
“In the last decade, the share of renewables in the energy sector has doubled every 5.5 years. If doubling continues at this pace fossil fuels will exit the energy sector well before 2050,” says lead author Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
The authors pinpoint the end of coal in 2030-2035 and oil between 2040-2045 according to their “carbon law”. They propose that to remain on this trajectory, all sectors of the economy need decadal carbon roadmaps that follow this rule of thumb.
Elements of these roadmaps include doubling renewables in the energy sector every 5-7 years, ramping up technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and rapidly reducing emissions from agriculture and deforestation.
The immediate must-do “no-brainer” actions to be completed by 2020 include the elimination of an estimated 600 billion dollars in annual subsidies to the fossil fuel industries and a moratorium on investments in coal. Decarbonization plans must be in place for all cities and major corporations in the industrialized world.
Rapidly growing economies in India, Indonesia and elsewhere should receive help to take a green path to prosperity. They cannot use coal as China did because CO2 emissions are cumulative and there is little room left in the global carbon budget, said Gaffney.
This is an extremely urgent issue. India is already on the brink of taking the dirty carbon path.
“Coal power plants under construction and proposed in India alone would account for roughly half of the remaining carbon budget,” said Steven Davis of the University of California, Irvine about his new study that will be published shortly.
Davis, who was not involved in the carbon law paper, agrees that rapid decarbonization to near-zero emissions is possible. Cost breakthroughs in electrolysis, batteries, carbon capture, alternative processes for cement and steel manufacture and more will be needed, he told IPS.
All of this will require “herculean efforts” from all sectors, including the political realm, where a cost on carbon must soon be in place. Failure to succeed opens the door to decades of climate catastrophe.
“Humanity must embark on a decisive transformation towards complete decarbonization. The ‘Carbon law’ is a powerful strategy and roadmap for ramping down emissions to zero,” said Nebojsa Nakicenovic of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria.
Update: The Trump admin approved the Keystone XL pipeline Friday March 24, 2017. My article from 2011 details how Keystone will be an export pipeline since the US is awash in oil. This even more so today. The Keystone project is only about selling Canadian oil to countries in Asia or Europe. Meanwhile Americans living along the route are stuck with the consequences and the costs of a spill. — Stephen
“The only way Keystone XL could be considered in the national interest is if you equate that with profits for the oil industry”
By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Sep 2, 2011 (IPS)
With four times as many oil rigs pumping domestic oil today than eight years ago and declining domestic demand, the United States is awash in oil.
The country’s oil industry is primarily interested in who will pay the most on the global marketplace. They call that “energy security” when it suits, but in reality it is “oil company security” through maximising profits, say energy experts like Steve Kretzman of Oil Change International, an NGO that researches the links between oil, gas and coal companies and governments.
The only reason U.S. citizens may be forced to endure a risky, Canadian-owned oil pipeline called Keystone XL is so oil companies with billion-dollar profits can…
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The Trump admin approved the Keystone XL pipeline today (Fri Mar 24). I wrote this article in 2014 and it shows how the pipeline will add another 110 million tonnes of CO2 to our already hotter climate. The US and the rest of the world is legally committed to using less fossil fuels based on the 2015 Paris agreement. So…wtf?
The Keystone XL oil pipeline could put up to 110 million tons of additional climate-heating CO2 into the atmosphere every year for 50 years, according a study publishedSunday in the journal Nature Climate Change.
If Keystone XL was a country, its 110 million tons of CO2 emissions would be comparable to those of the Czech Republic, Greece, and a number of other mid-sized European nations. And it could have a real shot at making the top 35 worst carbon polluting countries in the world.
The study notes that 110 million tons of CO2 is four times more emissions than the US State Department’s highest estimate for the controversial pipeline, which is currently undergoing an environmental review.
The State Department failed to account for the potential emissions from the increase in the global supply of oil, said study co-author Peter Erickson, a…
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The original headline of the article said we had 5 years but now it’s less than 2 years to stop building any new stuff that uses fossil fuels. Here’s lightly updated repost.
By Stephen Leahy
[Authors note: One of the most difficult and important articles I’ve written in 20 years of environmental journalism. Originally published Sept 6 2014 @Vice Motherboard]
Here’s the frightening implication of a landmark study on CO2 emissions:
By 2018, no new cars, homes, schools, factories, or electrical power plants should be built anywhere in the world, ever again, unless they’re either replacements for old ones or carbon neutral. Otherwise greenhouse gas emissions will push global warming past 2˚C of temperature rise worldwide, threatening the survival of many people currently living on the planet.
Every climate expert will tell you we’re on a tight carbon budget as it is—that only so many tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) can be pumped into the atmosphere before the global climate will overheat. We’ve already warmed temperatures 0.85˚C from pre-industrial levels, and the number rises every year. While no one thinks 2˚ C is safe, per…
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The Middle East is home to 70% of the world’s desalination plants, but the more water they process, the less economically viable they become
By Stephen Leahy and Katherine Purvis (First published in the Guardian)
Gulf states are among the most water-scarce in the world. With few freshwater resources and low rainfall, many countries have turned to desalination (where salt is removed from seawater) for their clean water needs.
But Gulf states are heading for “peak salt”: the more they desalinate, the more concentrated wastewater, brine, is pumped back into the sea; and as the Gulf becomes saltier, desalination becomes more expensive.
“In time, it’s going to become impossible to use desalination in a way that makes economic sense,” says Gökçe Günel, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona. “The water will become so saline that it will be too expensive to desalinate.”
The Middle East is home to 70% of the world’s desalination plants – mostly in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Tens of billions of dollars, $24.3bn (£18.8bn) in Saudi Arabia alone, are being invested over the next few years to expand desalination capacity.
The process is cost and energy intensive; it pumps seawater through special filters or boils it to remove the salts. The resulting brine can be nearly twice as salty as normal Gulf waters, according to John Burt, a biologist at New York University Abu Dhabi.
But the 250,000 sq km Gulf is more like a salt-water lake than a sea. It’s shallow, just 35 metres deep on average, and is almost entirely enclosed. The few rivers that feed the Gulf have been dammed or diverted and the region’s hot and dry climate results in high rates of evaporation. Add in a daily dose of around 70m cubic metres of super-salty wastewater from dozens of desalination plants, and it’s not surprising that the water in the Gulf is 25% saltier than normal seawater, says Burt, or that parts are becoming too salty to use.
Peak salt, says Günel, mirrors the concept of peak oil, a popular concept in the 1970s used to describe the point in time when the maximum rate of oil extraction had been reached. “Peak salt describes the point at which desalination becomes unfeasible,” she says.
And studies have shown that the Gulf will only get saltier in the future. Raed Bashitialshaaer, a water resources engineer at Sweden’s Lund University, says that the growth of desalination plants in the region is happening far faster than his own 2011 study estimated.
With groundwater sources either exhausted or non-existent and climate change bringing higher temperatures and less rainfall, Gulf states plan to nearly double the amount of desalination by 2030 (doc). This is bad news for marine life and for the cost of producing drinking water – unless something can be done about the brine.
Farid Benyahia, a chemical engineer at Qatar University, believes he has a solution. He recently patented a process that could eliminate the need for brine disposal by nearly 100%. The process uses pure carbon dioxide (emitted during the desalination process by burning fossil fuels for power) and ammonia to turn brine into baking soda and calcium chloride. Whether the process is cost-effective remains to be seen but Benyahia believes it could be, especially if markets are found for large volumes of the end products.
Other efforts are also under way to reduce desalination’s country-sized carbon footprint which globally accounts for 76m tonnes of carbon dioxide per year – nearly equivalent to Romania’s emissions in 2014.
The Global Clean Water Desalination Alliance was formed in 2015 to tackle this problem by increasing efficiencies and shifting to renewable energy sources, such as solar-powered desalination. Saudi Arabia expects to have a commercial-scale plant operational by 2017 and in California, a proposed solar-powered desalination plant combines innovation, efficiency and design.
Water pricing, says Günel, is also becoming critical to improving water efficiency in the Gulf.
“Climate change policymakers in the region are pushing for water pricing and awareness campaigns around consumption to explain to governments and citizens that they can’t continue to use water in the same way.”
Rising temperatures are drying out northern forests and peatlands, producing bigger and more intense fires. And this will only get much worse as the planet heats up from the use of ever larger amounts of fossil fuels, scientists warned last week at the end of a major science meeting in Vancouver.
“In a warmer world, there will be more fire. That’s a virtual certainty,” said Mike Flannigan, a forest researcher at the University of Alberta, Canada.
“I’d say a doubling or even tripling of fire events is a conservative estimate,” Flannigan told IPS.
While Flannigan’s research reveals forest fire risk may triple in future, a similar increase in peat fires will be far more dangerous. There are millions of square kilometres of tundra and peatlands in the northern hemisphere and they hold more than enough carbon to ramp up global temperatures high enough to render most of the planet uninhabitable if they burn.
A forest fire in Indonesia that ignited peatlands in 1997 smouldered for months, releasing the equivalent of 20 to 40 percent of the worldwide fossil fuel emissions for the entire year, he said.
“There is the potential for significant releases of carbon and other greenhouse gases (from future peat fires),” Flannigan said.
If peat fires release large amounts of carbon, then temperatures will rise faster and higher, leading to further drying of forests and peat, and increasing the likelihood of fires in what is called a positive feedback, he said.
When the increased fire from global warming was first detected in 2006, Johann Goldammer of the Global Fire Monitoring Center at Germany’s Freiburg University called the northern forest a “carbon bomb”.
“It’s sitting there waiting to be ignited, and there is already ignition going on,” Goldammer said according to media reports in 2006.
Flannigan’s research is based on climate projections for 2070 to 2090. Forests will be drier and there will be more lightning with rising temperatures. Around the world, most fires are caused by humans, except in remote regions like boreal forest and treeless tundra, he said.
Lightning sparked the 1,000-square-kilometre tundra fire fuelled by peat in Alaska’s Anaktuvuk River region in 2007. Lightning, once nearly unknown in the far north, is becoming more common as the region is now two to three degrees C warmer. Until the past decade, fire had largely been absent from the tundra over the past 12,000 years.
The Anaktuvuk River peat fire burned for nearly three months, releasing about two million tonnes of CO2 before it was extinguished by snow. That’s about half of the annual emissions of a country like Nepal or Uganda. Surprisingly, the severely burned tundra continued to release CO2 in the following years.
Peat can grow several metres deep beneath the ground. In fact, some peat fires burn right through winter, beneath the snow, then pick up again in the spring, said Flannigan.
About half the world’s soil carbon is locked in northern permafrost and peatland soils, said Merritt Turetsky, an ecologist at Canada’s University of Guelph. This carbon has been accumulating for thousands of years, but fires can release much of this into the atmosphere rapidly, Turetsky said in a release.
Over the past 10 years, fires are burning far more boreal forest than ever before. Longer snow-free seasons, melting permafrost and rising temperatures are large-scale changes underway in the north, Turetsky and colleagues have found.
Other researchers have shown that the average size of forest fires in the boreal zone of western Canada has tripled since the 1980s. Much of Canada’s vast forest region is approaching a tipping point, warned researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany’s largest research organisation.
This “drastic change” in normal fire pattern has occurred with a only a small increase in temperatures relative to future temperatures, the German researchers concluded in a study published in the December 2011 issue of The American Naturalist.
Worldwide, fires burn an estimated 350 to 450 million ha of forest and grasslands every year. That’s an area larger than the size of India.
The first-ever assessment of forest and bush fires’ impact on human health estimated that 339,000 people die per year from respiratory and other fire-related illness.
“I was surprised the number was this high,” said Fay Johnston, co-author and researcher at University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia.
Half of the deaths were in Africa and 100,000 in Southeast Asia. Deforestation fires in the tropics are the worst when it comes to human health impacts, she said. Heavy smoke contains high volumes of tiny particles that are very damaging to the lungs and cardiovascular system and can produce heart attacks.
“It takes humans to burn a rainforest. This would be the easiest to stop compared to other fires,” Johnston told IPS.
Forest and bush fires result in many billions of dollars in material losses every year. Last year, fires in drought-stricken Texas resulted in at least five billion dollars in losses, while the Slave Lake, Alberta fire was Canada’s second worst disaster at 750 million dollars.
Future fires will be bigger and more intense and largely beyond our abilities to control or suppress, said Flannigan.
“Virtually all of Russia, Canada, the U.S.” will be impacted, he said