Osprey and Otter have a message for Ford

On most summer afternoons, if you gaze across Bowmanville Marsh long enough you’ll see an Osprey flying slow above the water, then suddenly dropping to the surface before rising up with a fish in its talons.

But the Osprey doesn’t nest in Bowmanville Marsh – it nests about a kilometer away in Westside Marsh. That’s where a pair of Ospreys fix up their nest each spring, and that’s where they feed one or two chicks through the summer until they can all fly away together. Quite often the fishing is better in one marsh than the other – and the Ospreys know where to go.

Otter knows this too. You might see a family of Otters in one marsh several days in a row, and then they trot over the small upland savannah to the other marsh.

Osprey and Otter know many things that our provincial government would rather not know. One of those is that the value of a specific parcel of wetland can’t be judged in isolation. Many wetland mammals, fish and birds – even the non-migratory ones – need a complex of wetlands to stay healthy.

To developers and politicians with dollar signs in their eyes, a small piece of wetland in an area with several more might seem environmentally insignificant. Otters and Ospreys and many other creatures know better. Filling in or paving over one piece of wetland can have disastrous effects for creatures that spend much of their time in other nearby wetlands.

A change in how wetlands are evaluated – so that the concept of a wetland complex is gone from the criteria – is just one of the many ecologically disastrous changes the Doug Ford government in Ontario is currently rushing through. These changes touch on most of the issues I’ve written about in this blog, from global ones like climate change to urban planning in a single city. This time I’ll focus on threats to the environment in my own small neighbourhood.

Beavers move between Bowmanville and Westside Marshes as water levels change, as food sources change in availability, and as their families grow. They have even engineered themselves a new area of wetland close to the marshes. Great Blue Herons move back and forth between the marshes and nearby creeks on a daily basis throughout the spring, summer and fall.

In our sprawl-loving Premier’s vision, neither wetlands nor farmland are nearly as valuable as the sprawling subdivisions of cookie-cutter homes that make his campaign donors rich. The Premier, who tried in 2021 to have a wetland in Pickering filled and paved for an Amazon warehouse, thinks it’s a great idea to take chunks of farmland and wetland out of protected status in the Greenbelt. One of those parcels – consisting of tilled farmland as well as forested wetland – is to be removed from the Greenbelt in my municipality of Clarington.

The Premier’s appetite for environmental destruction makes it clear that no element of natural heritage in the Greater Toronto area can be considered safe. That includes the Lake Ontario wetland complex that I spend so much time in.

This wetland area now has Provincially Significant Wetland status, but that could change in the near future. As Anne Bell of Ontario Nature explains,

“The government is proposing to completely overhaul the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System for identifying Provincially Significant Wetlands (PSWs), ensuring that very few wetlands would be deemed provincially significant in the future. Further, many if not most existing PSWs could lose that designation because of the changes, and if so, would no longer benefit from the high level of protection that PSW designation currently provides.” (Ontario Nature blog, November 10, 2022)

The Bowmanville Marsh/Westside Marsh complex is home, at some time in the year, to scores of species of birds. Some of these are already in extreme decline, and at least one is threatened.

Up to now, when evaluators were judging the significance of a particular wetland, the presence of a threatened or endangered species was a strong indicator. If the Ford government’s proposed changes go through, the weight given to threatened or endangered species will drop.

The Rusty Blackbird is a formerly numerous bird whose population has dropped somewhere between 85 – 99 percent; it stopped by the Bowmanville Marsh in September on its migration. The Least Bittern is already on the threatened species list in Ontario, but is sometimes seen in Bowmanville Marsh. If the Least Bittern or the Rusty Blackbird drop to endangered species status, will the provincial government care? And will there be any healthy wetlands remaining for these birds to find a home?

Osprey and Otter know that if you preserve a small piece of wetland, but it’s hemmed in by a busy new subdivision, that wetland is a poor home for most wildlife. Many creatures need the surrounding transitional ecozone areas for some part of their livelihood. The Heron species spend many hours a day stalking the shallows of marshes – but need tall trees nearby to nest in.

Green Heron (left) and juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

And for some of our shyest birds, only the most secluded areas of marsh will do as nesting habitats. That includes the seldom-seen Least Bittern, as well as the several members of the Rail family who nest in the Bowmanville Marsh.

There are many hectares of cat-tail reeds in this Marsh, but the Virginia Rails, Soras and Common Gallinules only nest where the stand of reeds is sufficiently dense and extensive to disappear in, a safe distance from a road, and a safe distance from any walking path. That’s one reason I could live beside this marsh for several years before I spotted any of these birds, and before I ever figured out what was making some of the strange bird calls I often heard.

Juvenile Sora, and adult Virginia Rail with hatchling

There are people working in government agencies, of course, who have expertise in bird populations and habitats. One of the most dangerous changes now being pushed by our Premier is to take wildlife experts out of the loop, so their expertise won’t threaten the designs of big property developers.

No longer is the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) to be involved in decisions about Provincially Designated Wetland status. Furthermore, local Conservation Authorities (CAs), who also employ wetland biologists and watershed ecologists, are to be muzzled when it comes to judging the potential impacts of development proposals: 

“CAs would be prevented from entering into agreements with municipalities regarding the review of planning proposals or applications. CAs would in effect be prohibited from providing municipalities with the expert advice and information they need on environmental and natural heritage matters.” (Ontario Nature blog)

Individual municipalities, who don’t typically employ ecologists, and who will be struggling to cope with the many new expenses being forced on them by the Ford government, will be left to judge ecological impacts without outside help. In practice, that might mean they will accept whatever rosy environmental impact statements the developers put forth.

It may be an exaggeration to say that ecological ignorance will become mandatory. Let’s just say, in Doug Ford’s brave new world ecological ignorance will be strongly incentivized.

Marsh birds of Bowmanville/Westside Marsh Complex

These changes to rules governing wetlands and the Greenbelt are just a small part of the pro-sprawl, anti-environment blizzard unleashed by the Ford government in the past month. The changes have resulted in a chorus of protests from nearly every municipality, in nearly every MPP’s riding, and in media outlets large and small.

The protests need to get louder. Osprey and Otter have a message, but they need our help.


Make Your Voice Heard

Friday Dec 2, noon – 1 pm: Rally at MPP Todd McCarthy’s office, 23 King Street West in Bowmanville.

Write McCarthy at Todd.McCarthy@pc.ola.org, or phone him at 905-697-1501.

Saturday Dec 3, rally starting at 2:30 pm: in Toronto at Bay St & College St.

Send Premier Ford a message at: doug.fordco@pc.ola.org, 416-325-1941

Send Environment Minister David Piccini a message at: david.Piccini@pc.ola.org, 416-314-6790

Send Housing Minister Steve Clark a message at: Steve.Clark@pc.ola.org, 416-585-7000


All photos taken by Bart Hawkins Kreps in Bowmanville/Westside Marsh complex, Port Darlington.

Dreaming of clean green flying machines

Also published on Resilience

In common with many other corporate lobby groups, the International Air Transport Association publicly proclaims their commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.1

Yet the evidence that such an achievement is likely, or even possible, is thin … to put it charitably. Unless, that is, major airlines simply shut down.

As a 2021 Nova documentary put it, aviation “is the high-hanging fruit – one of the hardest climate challenges of all.”2 That difficulty is due to the very essence of the airline business.

What has made aviation so attractive to the relatively affluent people who buy most tickets is that commercial flights maintain great speed over long distances. Aviation would have little appeal if airplanes were no faster than other means of transportation, or if they could be used only for relatively short distances. These characteristics come with rigorous energy demands.

A basic challenge for high-speed transportation – whether that’s pedaling a bike fast, powering a car fast, or propelling an airplane fast – is that the resistance from the air goes up with speed, not linearly but exponentially. As speed doubles, air resistance quadruples; as speed triples, air resistance increases by a factor of nine; and so forth.

That is one fundamental reason why no high-speed means of transportation came into use until the fossil fuel era. The physics of wind resistance become particularly important when a vehicle accelerates up to several hundred kilometers per hour or more.

Contemporary long-haul aircraft accommodate the physics in part by flying at “cruising altitude” – typically about 10,000 meters above sea level. At that elevation the atmosphere is thin enough to cause significantly less friction, while still rich enough in oxygen for combustion of the fuel. Climbing to that altitude, of course, means first fighting gravity to lift a huge machine and its passengers a very long way off the ground.

A long-haul aircraft, then, needs a high-powered engine for climbing, plus a large store of energy-dense fuel to last through all the hours of the flight. That represents a tremendous challenge for inventors hoping to design aircraft that are not powered by fossil fuels.

In Nova’s “The Great Electric Airplane Race”, the inherent problem is illustrated with this graphic:

graphic from Nova, “The Great Electric Airplane Race,” 26 May 2021

A Boeing 737 can carry up to 40,000 pounds of jet fuel. For the same energy content, the airliner would require 1.2 million pounds of batteries (at least several times the maximum take-off weight of any 737 model3). Getting that weight off the ground, and propelling it thousands of miles through the air, is obviously not going to work.

A wide variety of approaches are being tried to get around the drastic energy discrepancy between fossil fuels and batteries. We will consider several such strategies later in this article. First, though, we’ll take a brief look at the strategies touted by major airlines as important short-term possibilities.

“Sustainable fuel” and offsets

The International Air Transport Association gives the following roadmap for its commitment to net-zero by 2050. Anticipated emissions reductions will come in four categories:
3% – Infrastructure and operational efficiencies
13% – New technology, electric and hydrogen
19% – Offsets and carbon capture
65% – Sustainable Aviation Fuel

The tiny improvement predicted for “Infrastructure and operational efficiencies” reflects the fact that airlines have already spent more than half a century trying to wring the most efficiency out of their most costly input – fuel.

The modest emission reductions predicted to come from battery power and hydrogen reflects a recognition that these technologies, for all their possible strengths, still appear to be a poor fit for long-haul aviation.

That leaves two categories of emission reductions, “Offsets and carbon capture”, and “Sustainable Aviation Fuel”.

So-called Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is compatible with current jet engines and can provide the same lift-off power and long-distance range as fossil-derived aviation fuel. SAF is typically made from biofuel feedstocks such as vegetable oils and used cooking oils. SAF is already on the market, which might give rise to the idea that a new age of clean flight is just around the corner. (No further away, say, than 2050.)

Yet as a Comment piece in Nature* notes, only .05% of fuel currently used meets the definition of SAF.4 Trying to scale that up to meet most of the industry’s need for fuel would clearly result in competition for agricultural land. Since growing enough food to feed all the people on the ground is an increasingly difficult challenge, devoting a big share of agricultural production to flying a privileged minority of people through the skies is a terrible idea.5

In addition, it’s important to note that the burning of SAF still produces carbon emissions and climate-impacting contrails. The use of SAF is only termed “carbon neutral” because of the assumption that the biofuels are renewable, plant-based products that would decay and emit carbon anyway. That’s a dubious assumption, when there’s tremendous pressure to clear more forests, plant more hectares into monocultures, and mine soils in a rush to produce not only more food for people, but also more fuel for wood-fired electric generating stations, more ethanol to blend with gasoline, more biofuel diesel, and now biofuel SAF too. When SAF is scaled up, there’s nothing “sustainable” about it.

What about offsets? My take on carbon offsets is this: Somebody does a good thing by planting some trees. And then, on the off chance that these trees will survive to maturity and will someday sequester significant amounts of carbon, somebody offsets those trees preemptively by emitting an equivalent amount of carbon today.

Kallbekken and Victor’s more diplomatic judgement on offsets is this:

“The vast majority of offsets today and in the expected future come from forest-protection and regrowth projects. The track record of reliable accounting in these industries is poor …. These problems are essentially unfixable. Evidence is mounting that offsetting as a strategy for reaching net zero is a dead end.”6 (emphasis mine)

Summarizing the heavy reliance on offsetting and SAF in the aviation lobby’s net-zero plan, Kallbekken and Victor write “It is no coincidence that these ideas are also the least disruptive to how the industry operates today.” The IATA “commitment to net-zero”, basically, amounts to hoping to get to net-zero by carrying on with Business As Usual.

Contestants, start your batteries!

Articles appear in newspapers, magazines and websites on an almost daily basis, discussing new efforts to operate aircraft on battery power. Is this a realistic prospect? A particularly enthusiastic answer comes in an article from the Aeronautical Business School: “Electric aviation, with its promise of zero-emission flights, is right around the corner with many commercial projects already launched. …”7

Yet the electric aircraft now on the market or in prototyping are aimed at very short-haul trips. That reflects the reality that, in spite of intensive research and development in battery technology through recent decades, batteries are not remotely capable of meeting the energy and power requirements of large, long-haul aircraft.

The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) recently published a paper on electric aircraft which shows why most flights are not in line to be electrified any time soon. Jayant Mukhopadhaya, one of the report’s co-authors, discusses the energy requirements of aircraft for four segments of the market. The following chart presents these findings: 

Table from Jayant Mukhopadhaya, “What to expect when expecting electric airplanes”, ICCT, July 14, 2022.

The chart shows the specific energy (“eg”, in Watt-hours per kilogram) and energy density (“vb”, in Watt-hours per liter) available in batteries today, plus the corresponding values that would be required to power aircraft in the four major market segments. Even powering a commuter aircraft, carrying 19 passengers up to 450 km, would require a 3-time improvement in specific energy of batteries.

Larger aircraft on longer flights won’t be powered by batteries alone unless there is a completely new, far more effective type of battery invented and commercialized:

“Replacing regional, narrowbody, and widebody aircraft would require roughly 6x, 9x, and 20x improvements in the specific energy of the battery pack. In the 25 years from 1991 to 2015, the specific energy and energy density of lithium-ion batteries improved by a factor of 3.”8

If the current rate of battery improvement were to continue for another 25 years, then, commuter aircraft carrying up to 19 passengers could be powered by batteries alone. That would constitute one very small step toward net-zero aviation – by the year 2047.

This perspective helps explain why most start-ups hoping to bring electric aircraft to market are targeting very short flights – from several hundred kilometers down to as little as 30 kilometers – and very small payloads – from one to five passengers, or freight loads of no more than a few hundred kilograms.

The Nova documentary “The Great Electric Airplane Race” took an upbeat tone, but most of the companies profiled, even if successful, would have no major impact on aviation’s carbon emissions.

Joby Aviation is touted as “the current leader in the race to fill the world with electric air taxis.” Their vehicles, which they were aiming to have certified by 2023, would carry a pilot and 4 passengers. A company called KittyHawk wanted to build an Electrical Vertical Take-Off and Landing (EVTOL) which they said could put an end to traffic congestion. The Chinese company Ehang was already offering unpiloted tourism flights, for two people and lasting no more than 10 minutes.

Electric air taxis, if they became a reality after 50 years of speculation, would result in no reductions in the emissions from the current aviation industry. They would simply be an additional form of energy-intensive mobility coming onto the market.

Other companies discussed in the Nova program were working on hybrid configurations. Elroy’s cargo delivery vehicle, for example, would have batteries plus a combustion engine, allowing it to carry a few hundred kilograms up to 500 km.

H2Fly, based in Stuttgart, was working on a battery/hydrogen hybrid. H2Fly spokesperson Joseph Kallo explained that “The energy can’t flow out of the [hydrogen fuel] cell as fast as it can from a fossil fuel engine or a battery. So there’s less power available for take-off. But it offers much more range.”

By using batteries for take-off, and hydrogen fuel cells at cruising altitude, Kallo said this technology could eventually work for an aircraft carrying up to 100 passengers with a range of 3500 km – though as of November 2020 they were working on “validating a range of nearly 500 miles”.

To summarize: electric and hybrid aviation technologies could soon power a few segments of the industry. As long as the new aircraft are replacing internal combustion engine aircraft, and not merely adding new vehicles on new routes for new markets, they could result in a small reduction in overall aviation emissions.

Yet this is a small part of the aviation picture. As Jayant Mukhopadhaya told treehugger.com in September,

“2.8% of departures in 2019 were for [flights with] less than 30 passengers going less than 200 km. This increases to 3.8% if you increase the range to 400 km. The third number they quote is 800 km for 25 passengers, which would then cover 4.1% of global departures.”9

This is roughly 3–4% of departures – but it’s important to recognize this does not represent 3–4% of global passenger km or global aviation emissions. When you consider that the other 96% of departures are made by much bigger planes, carrying perhaps 10 times as many passengers and traveling up to 10 times as far, it is clear that small-plane, short-hop aviation represents just a small sliver of both the revenue base and the carbon footprint of the airline industry.

Short-haul flights are exactly the kind of flights that can and should be replaced in many cases by good rail or bus options. (True, there are niche cases where a short flight over a fjord or other impassable landscape can save many hours of travel – but that represents a very small share of air passenger km.)

If we are really serious about a drastic reduction in aviation emissions, by 2030 or even by 2050, there is just one currently realistic route to that goal: we need a drastic reduction in flights.

* * *

Postscript: At the beginning of October a Washington Post article asked “If a Google billionaire can’t make flying cars happen, can anyone?” The article reported that KittyHawk, the EVTOL air taxi startup highlighted by Nova in 2021 and funded by Google co-founder Larry Page, is shutting down. The article quoted Peter Rez, from Arizona State University, explaining that lithium-ion batteries “output energy at a 50 times less efficient rate than their gasoline counterparts, requiring more to be on board, adding to cost and flying car and plane weight.” This story underscores, said the Post, “how difficult it will be to get electric-powered flying cars and planes.”

*Correction: The original version of this article attributed quotes from the Nature Comment article simply to “Nature”. Authors’ names have been added to indicate this is a signed opinion article and does not reflect an official editorial position of Nature.


Footnotes

IATA, “Our Commitment to Fly Net Zero by 2050”.

Nova, “The Great Electric Airplane Race” – 26 May 2021.

The Difference In Weight Between The Boeing 737 Family’s Many Variants”, by Mark Finlay, April 24, 2022.

4  Steffen Kallbekken and David G. Victor, Nature, “A cleaner future for flight — aviation needs a radical redesign”, 16 September 2022.

Dan Rutherford writes, “US soy production contributes to global vegetable oil markets, and prices have spiked in recent years in part due to biofuel mandates. Diverting soy oil to jet fuel would put airlines directly in competition with food at a time when consumers are being hammered by historically high food prices.” In “Zero cheers for the supersoynic renaissance”, July 11, 2022.

Kallbekken and Victor, Nature, “A cleaner future for flight — aviation needs a radical redesign”, 16 September 2022.

The path towards an environmentally sustainable aviation”, by Óscar Castro, March 23, 2022.

Jayant Mukhopadhaya, “What to expect when expecting electric airplanes”, ICCT, July 14, 2022.

Air Canada Electrifies Its Lineup With Hybrid Planes”, by Lloyd Alter, September 20, 2022.



Photo at top of page: “Nice line up at Tom Bradley International Terminal, Los Angeles, November 10, 2013,” photo by wilco737, Creative Commons 2.0 license, on
flickr.

bright lights of june

PHOTO POST

In the first week of June, the last of the far-north migratory birds were still passing through. By the end of the month some local nesters were ushering fledglings out into the world.

Ruddy Turnstones and Red Knots at Port Darlington breakwater, June 5, 2022

In the meantime a wide variety of flowering plants made up for a chilly spring by growing inches a day – aided by lots of sunshine and frequent rains.

Primrose rays

But bees of all sorts have been noticeably, worryingly scarce this year. I was glad to see this bumblebee shake off the water and resume flying after a drenching shower.

Bumblebee shower

Some of the beautiful insects I first mistook for solitary bee species turned out to be flies of the hover fly family (aka “flower flies”, aka “Syrphid flies”). They make their way from flower to flower harvesting pollen, so they are important pollinators.

Fleabane after rain

Daisy fleabane is one of the first meadow flowers in our yard each spring, and the hover flies are busy.

Fleabane and Syrphid

Daisy dew

A spread of white daisies also beckons pollinators to unmown areas of the yard.

Daisy flower fly 1

Daisy flower fly 2

Virginia spiderwort blossoms, each only the size of a twenty-five cent piece, look a deep blue in shade and purple-lavender in full sun.

Virginia Spiderwort

Though I spotted what appeared to be a single small grey bumblebee visiting the spiderwort, it didn’t stick around for a photo. There was a much smaller creature grasping the spiderwort’s yellow anther – not a bee as I first thought, but likely a hover fly known as the Eastern Calligrapher.

Eastern Calligrapher

Meanwhile, overhead, the Baltimore Orioles have filled the air with chatter and song – especially as the fledglings were coaxed out of the nest.

It’s time to go

It’s such a nice nest

Perhaps the most ancient beginning-of-summer ritual, in these parts, is the march of turtles to lay their eggs. This Painted Turtle came out of the marsh and made her way across the lawn to the sand. She dug a hole for a nest just a few meters away from last year’s chosen spot, she deposited her eggs, she carefully covered them, and she tamped down the sand. We looked away for a moment, and she was gone.

Turtle procession

lakeshore medley

PHOTO POST

When you’re looking for fresh new scenery on a daily basis, the January lakeshore obliges – especially when the temperature plunges, heavy snow falls, and waves rearrange the ice, water and steam ceaselessly.

Breakwater Boulder (click image for full-screen view)

As dawn breaks frost is forming on icicles at the waterline.

Mouth of a Cave

The delicate filaments of frost are gone by the end of the day … but they’ll be back soon enough.

Sunset Arch

Gentle waves roll over pebbles at sunset, carving a path under a coating of ice.

Sunset Flow

It takes much bigger waves to topple the more massive ice formations.

Snaggletooth & Friends

Right along the coast is not always the best place to go looking for fauna, as most species of waterfowl stay well away from shore. But just a short drive to the west at Lynd Shores Conservation Area, it’s not hard to spot lots of wildlife.

White-Tailed Deer

Mourning Dove at Evening

Barred Owl

When you love ice and snow the lakeshore is a special place, not least because the sounds are just as beautiful as the sights. Here’s a short suite from the shoreline over the past week:


Photo at top of post: Branching Out (click here for full-screen view)

 

 

walking into winter

PHOTO POST

Gliding through the harbour one morning just before freeze-up I spotted a mink.

Though I’ve looked many times since, it proved an elusive sight. No more mink so far, but instead …

On the beach a crayfish rested its final rest, still but still intact, having escaped the mink and the pike and the herons.

Mine eyes have seen the glory

At the edge of the woods just after sunrise, maple keys grabbed the light.

Key

What work of abstract expressionist art did the sunshine reveal? Is it an alien crop circle, seen from a spaceship? 

Tooth Trail (1)

No, just the hard work of beavers who have been chewing through twigs and trees.

Tooth Trail (2)

As mornings got colder the starlings sought warmth – even if that warmth had to be created by fluffing their feathers and being as round as possible.

Points of Light (2)

The miraculous chickadees survive the coldest mornings in spite of their tiny size. But they certainly appreciate a bowl of unfrozen water to drink from.

At the watering hole

The big lake remains open though wind and waves scatter icy spray across the shoreline.

Winter Wave

When the harbour channel remains thawed it’s a great place to watch waterfowl in the warmth of afternoon.

Shimmering down the creek

But when both winds and temperature drop, the channel and the marsh begin to freeze.

Perpendicular Ice

Gulls gather one day at the lakeshore, another day in the centre of the marsh. For a few days, at least, the Ring-billed Gulls were joined by a less common visitor – a Great Black-backed Gull who stood still and did its best to act inconspicuous.

A giant among us

And then one morning dawns very cold and even the harbour channel is mostly solid. Canada Geese huddle on the ice in small groups awaiting the sunrise.

Minus Twenty-Two Morning

Will the cold last? Not likely, but we do our best to enjoy while we can. And if some day very soon the sun shines on an open harbour again, I’ll be looking for that mink.

Beautiful Niche (2)


Photo at top of page: Beautiful Niche (1)click here for full-screen view

For better or worse, we adapt

Also posted on Resilience.

Affluent owners of seashore properties buy up homes a safer distance from the coast – pricing poor residents out of communities they have called home for generations. Rural residents set up agro-forestry enclaves on mountain slopes, capturing some of the increasingly unpredictable rainfall. Relatively wealthy nations build and guard fences at their borders to keep climate refugees away. Water bombers fly hundreds of sorties from lakes and reservoirs to fires raging in drought-ravaged forests.

All these climate change adaptations have been happening for years now. But among the hundreds of examples of climate change adaption one could identify, some responses simultaneously work against climate change mitigation, and many work against climate justice – they are what Morgan Phillips terms “climate change maladaptations.”

He wants environmentalists to think more clearly about adaptation strategies so that we can get on with the urgent work of what he calls great adaptations. That’s the point of his recent book Great Adaptations: In the shadow of a climate crisis. (Arkbound, Sept 2021)

When he joined The Glacier Trust in support of adaptation projects in Nepal, Phillips learned that

“Lives in the Himalayan villages I have visited are on a knife edge. Landslides, floods, glacial retreat, drought, fire, air pollution, and insect pests are haunting the future of an already fragile country; it is on the brink of being turned upside down. … I knew that climate change needed to be mitigated, but the need to adapt to it is far greater than I’d ever imagined.” (Great Adaptations (GA), page 3)

Yet in 2020 The Glacier Trust “found that only 0.82% of articles written by the UK’s five biggest environmental organisations are focused on climate change adaptation.” (GA p 197)

There are valid reasons why, historically, environmental organizations preferred to focus on climate change mitigation rather than adaptation.1 If global economic elites had put serious work into mitigation 30 years ago, instead of lip service, we might not be in a position today where climate change adaption is, and will remain for generations, an urgent task.

In choosing to focus his book on adaptation, Phillips makes it clear that mitigation remains as essential as ever. We need to begin creative and effective adaptation projects around the world, because climate-induced crises are already happening. At the same time, without urgent mitigation work – primarily through a rapid curtailment of fossil fuel use – the climate crises will become so severe that effective adaptation in many areas will be impossible.

His book is wide-ranging but clearly written and free of obfuscating jargon. It deserves a wide audience because his message is so important:

“In the same spirit in which we call for a just transition to a low-carbon society, we must also call for just adaptation to climate change. They are two sides of the same coin.” (GA p 15)

Some of the adaptations Phillips discusses are as particular as changing one farming practice on one particular landscape. Others span the globe and involve changes to the international economic order, accepted definitions of universal human rights, or both. One great adaptation – forgiveness of debt – could be an effective step towards international justice whether or not it is enacted with climate change in mind:

“Cancellation of historical and unfair debts would save countries millions of dollars every year. This money could be put to use on climate change mitigation and adaptation projects.” (GA p 14)

Migration is another obvious adaptation to the climate crisis. Current citizenship law and current property law result in a crushing burden being paid by those who typically have done the least to cause the climate crisis. To achieve justice in climate adaptation, “we all also need to be free to find refuge and a new life in a country of our choosing if we want to – or are forced to – migrate because of climate change.” (GA p 14)

In some regions permanent migration might be neither desired nor necessary, but seasonal migration may be appropriate. Phillips notes that migratory lifestyles have been freely chosen by many cultures throughout history and we should open our minds – and our legal structures – to facilitate this adaptation strategy.

It should be clear that effective and just adaptation will call into question the deepest foundations of global political economy. Phillips harbors no illusions about the scale and the difficulty of the challenge. “My feeling,” he writes “is that to have any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change, ‘Western’ civilisation needs to be disassembled with great urgency and great care.” (GA p 149)

Citing Rupert Read, he considers the possibility of “a successor civilisation after some kind of collapse [of ‘Western’ civilisation]”. As an example of such a many-faceted response to climate crisis, Phillips discusses the “Make Rojava Green Again” movement in the region Western media refer to as Kurdistan. In his description,

“The ‘Make Rojava Green Again’ movement has strong ecological, multicultural, democratic, and feminist principles. It is based on a political system of democratic confederalism, where power is devolved to as local a level as possible ….” (GA p 167)

The Rojavan example has been inspiring to people around the world, not only because of its egalitarian and ecological principles, but also because the movement has become a decisive force in the wake of the global proxy war in Syria and the failed US occupation of Iraq. The response to this civilizational collapse has been, not an attempt to return to business as usual, but a new way of life: “‘Make Rojava Green Again’, and other ‘Phoenix’ like it, are so important because they help us to imagine different kinds of future. Rojavan’s are willing to challenge the value structures that underpin ‘Western’ civilisation.” (GA p 170)

The adaptation examples Phillips considers come from rich countries, poor countries, megacities, and sparsely populated rural areas. They are equally diverse in their effects: some adaptations reinforce inequalities; some adaptations fuel additional global heating; some adaptations help mitigate climate change while supporting global justice; many adaptations are neither wholly positive nor wholly negative.

But simply ignoring adaptation is a very risky strategy, “especially if the responsibility for adaptation is left in the hands of central Governments, large NGOs, and big businesses that are, by nature, resistant to anything truly transformative.” (GA p 197)

With this book, Phillips writes, “The Glacier Trust is trying to frame adaptation as a positive and transformative process grounded in the principles of social justice and ecological enhancement.” (GA p 204)

We must adapt to climate changes in future, and we are adapting already. But if the adaptations are merely ad hoc and not thoughtfully considered, they are more likely to be maladaptations than great adaptations.


1 Paul Cox and Stan Cox provide an excellent historical overview of the mitigation/adaptation divide in their chapter “Adaptation and Mitigation Amid the Consequences of Failure”. (In Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency, Post Carbon Institute, 2021.) They conclude that “Societies once could choose between changing direction or dealing with climatic disaster; now it is necessary to do both at once.”


Image at top: Grounding of John B. Caddell (tanker ship) by Hurricane Sandy, November 2012 in New York City. Photo by Jim Henderson, on Wikimedia Common.

Your gas tank is not an oil well. Your battery will not be a power plant.

Also published on Resilience.

My car comes with an amazing energy-storage, demand-management-and-supply system; perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s called the “gas tank”.

Thanks to this revolutionary feature, if I get home and the electric grid is down, I can siphon gas out of the tank and power up a generator. In a more urgent energy crunch, I can siphon out some gas, throw it on a woodpile, and get a really hot fire going in seconds. If a friend across town has no power, I can even drive over there, siphon out some fuel, and run a generator to provide power in an alternate location. It’s beautiful! I can shift energy provision and consumption both temporally and spatially.

There is one minor drawback, to be sure. If I siphon the fuel out of the tank then I can’t actually drive the car, at least not more than a few kilometers to the nearest fuel station. But let’s not let that limitation cast a shadow over this revolutionary technology. If this flexible load-management system were widely adopted, and there were cars everywhere, think how smoothly our society could run!

These thoughts come to mind when I hear someone rhapsodize about the second coming of the electric car. Recently, for example, a Grist headline proclaimed that “Your Electric Vehicle Could Become a Mini Power Plant. And that could make the electrical grid work better for everyone.” (June 21, 2021)

Stephen Peake, in Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons (review here) wrote that “new fleets of electric vehicles parked overnight could become another mass source of electricity storage and supply.” (emphasis mine)

One more example: an Oct 2020 article at World Economic Forum says that “When electric vehicles are integrated into a city’s energy system, the battery can provide power to the grid when the sun is down or the wind isn’t blowing.”

The key to this supply-and-demand magic is “bidirectional charging” – the electric vehicles of the near future will have the equivalent of a gas tank with a built-in siphon. Thus their capacious batteries will not only be able to quickly suck power out of the grid, but also to empty themselves out again to provide juice for other purposes.

But allow me this skeptical observation: electric car batteries do not have huge batteries because the drivers want to offer aid to the “smart grid”. Electric car batteries are huge because cars are huge consumers of energy.

(True, electric cars don’t consume quite as much energy as internal-combustion cars of similar class and weight – but they consume a whole lot more energy per passenger/kilometer than intelligently routed electric buses, trains, or especially, electric-assisted bicycles.)

And let’s be clear: neither an electric car vehicle nor its battery provide any “energy supply”. The car itself is a pure energy suck. The battery is just an energy storage device – it can store a finite capacity of energy from another source, and output that energy as required, but it does not produce energy.

As with internal-combustion powered cars, when the tank/battery is drained for a purpose other than driving, then the car ceases to be a functional car until refueled.

That will leave some niche scenarios where vehicle batteries really might offer a significant advantage to grid supply management. The Grist article begins with one such scenario: three yellow school buses which run on battery power through the school year, and serve as a battery bank while parked for the summer months. If all 8,000 school buses in the local utility service area were EVs, the article notes, their fully-charged batteries “could collectively supply more than 100 megawatts of power to the grid for short periods — or nearly 1 percent of Con Ed’s peak summer power demand.”

When parked for the summer, electric school buses would not need to be charged and ready to drive first thing every weekday morning. So they could indeed be used simply as (terribly expensive) battery cases for two or three months each year.

OK, but … let’s be careful about singing the praises of school buses. This might be a slippery slope. If big buses catch on, soon Americans might start taking their kids to school in giant pick-up trucks!

Of course I jest – that horse has already left the barn. The top three selling vehicles in the US, it may surprise people from elsewhere to learn, are pick-up trucks that dwarf the pick-ups used by farmers and some tradespeople in previous generations. (It will not surprise Canadians, who play second fiddle to no-one in car culture madness. Canadians tend to buy even larger, heavier, more powerful, and more expensive trucks than Americans do.)

The boom in overgrown pick-ups has not come about because North Americans are farming and logging in record numbers, nor even, as one wag put it, that a 4X8 sheet of plywood has gotten so much bigger in recent years. Yet urban streets, parking lots, and suburban driveways are now crowded with hulking four-door, four-wheel-drive, spotlessly clean limousine-trucks. Those vehicles, regardless of their freight-carrying or freight-pulling capacity, are used most to carry one or two people around urbanized areas.

If we are foolish enough to attempt electrification of this fleet, it will take an awesome amount of battery power. And as you might expect, car culture celebrants are already proclaiming what a boon this will be for energy transition.

A pre-production promo video for Ford’s F-150 Lightning electric pick-up truck gets to the critical issue first: the Lightning will accelerate from 0 – 60 mph (0 – 97 km/hr) “in the mid-4-second range”. But wait, there’s more, the ad promises: the battery can “off-board” enough power to run a home “for about three days”.

Keep that in mind when you start seeing big electric pick-up trucks on the road: each one, in just a few hours of highway driving, will use as much power as a typical American home uses in three days.

Keep it in mind, too, when you see a new bank of solar panels going up in a field or on a warehouse roof: the installation might output enough electricity each day to power 100 pickup trucks for a few hours each – or 300 homes for the whole day.

Given that we won’t have enough renewably produced electricity to power existing homes, schools, stores and industries for decades, is it really a good idea to devote a big share of it, right at the outset, to building and charging limousine-trucks? Are the huge batteries required by these vehicles actually features, or are they bugs?

Granted, an electric car battery can provide a modest degree of grid load-levelling capability in some situations. It can be drained back into the grid during some peak-power-demand periods such as early evening in the heat of summer – as long as it can be recharged in time for the morning commute. That’s not nothing. And if we’re determined to keep our society moving by using big cars and trucks, that means we’ll have a huge aggregated battery capacity sitting in parking spots for most of each day. In that scenario, sure, there will be a modest degree of load-levelling capacity in those parked vehicles.

But perhaps there is a better way to add load-levelling capacity to the grid. A better way than producing huge, heavy vehicles, each containing one battery, which suck up that power fast whenever they’re being driven, while also spreading brake dust and worn tire particles through the environment, and which significantly increase the danger to vulnerable road users besides. Not to mention, which result in huge upfront emissions of carbon dioxide during their manufacture.

If it’s really load-levelling we’re after, for the same money and resources we could build a far greater number of batteries, and skip building expensive casings in the form of cars and pick-ups.

Other factors being equal, an electric car is modestly more environmentally friendly than internal-combustion car. (How’s that for damning with faint praise?)  But if we’re ready for a serious response to the climate emergency, we should be rapidly curtailing both the manufacture and use of cars, and making the remaining vehicles only as big and heavy as they actually need to be. The remaining small cars won’t collectively contain such a huge battery capacity, to be sure, but we can then address the difficult problems of grid load management in a more intelligent, efficient and direct fashion.


Illustration at top of post: Energy Utopia, composite by Bart Hawkins Kreps from public domain images.

Beyond the green frog-skin world

Also published on Resilience

Sometimes you ask a question and the answer doesn’t come for many years. That’s the way it worked for me when I first tried to make sense of economics.

The time was the mid-1970s, I was an undergraduate student, and I was keenly interested in economics because it seemed key to so many social justice issues.

But I couldn’t get past the feeling that the cleverly constructed economic models I studied were floating in air, lacking a solid foundation in the physical world.

Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions was published in 1972 and has been reprinted in various formats. A mass market paperback edition issued in 1994 is available from Simon & Schuster.

A slim paperback called Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions put the problem into simple language, leaving me pondering a riddle, through several decades in which I seldom thought about economics as a formal discipline.

John (Fire) Lame Deer (original name Tȟáȟča Hušté) was a Lakota holy man, and I read his book during a summer when I was working on the edge of the South Dakota Badlands and spending many weekends in the Black Hills. Lame Deer was born in this area in 1903, only thirteen years after the US Army had massacred hundreds of Lakota at Wounded Knee, marking an end of the military phase of the long campaign to seize the US heartland for white settlers. (I am a fourth-generation descendant of immigrants who received title to some of that land.)

Lame Deer had seen the highways built through his people’s sacred territories, he had seen lands turned into bombing ranges for US military tests, he had travelled to big cities on the US east coast, he lived long enough for radios, TVs, and the threat of nuclear war to become part of everyday life.

He was not impressed.

“The green frog skin – that’s what I call a dollar bill,” he said. “In our attitude toward it lies the biggest difference between Indians and whites.” He added that “For the white man each blade of grass or spring of water has a price tag on it.” In fact, in the green frog-skin world everything has a price tag – but this world will not last.

Visions were of vital to importance to Lame Deer, and he compared visions to art and to imagination:

“The world in which you paint a picture in your mind, a picture which shows things different from what your eyes see, that is the real world from which I get my visions. I tell you this is the real world, not the Green Frog Skin World. That’s only a bad dream, a streamlined, smog-filled nightmare.”

I felt that Lame Deer was right, that the green frog-skin world cannot last. How can a civilization last, when its governing force is something so fleeting and artificial as money? And yet … this bad-dream-world has power – power to rip open the earth, build huge cities out of concrete and steel, power to cut down whole forests in weeks or months, power to fly squadrons of planes to the far side of the world and drop deluges of bombs?

How can a society, which stupidly believes its price tags are the essential measure of value, still have the power to dance in both awesome and awesomely destructive ways?

In one form or another that question flickered through my mind for decades after I had abandoned the struggle to make sense of economics. Gradually, though, some pieces of a puzzle fell into place. My winding path led me, some 40 years later, back to a focus on economics – this time with the help of bio-physical economics and degrowth theory. With these ideas I was able to understand the nature of power in the green frog-skin world, and to understand further why the frog-skin world can not and will not last.

In recent months I have re-read some of the books that made a great impression on me over the decades, and which, eventually, made my second study of economics so much more fulfilling than the first. This post is the first in a short series looking back at these books. The series will trace just one of the many routes to economic understanding, illustrating, I hope, how economics is connected to every aspect of daily life.

Nearly fifty years ago, Lame Deer could see clearly that the human race was in trouble. His life had begun shortly after the era of the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dancers, from many indigenous groups across the prairies, danced in the hope of a sudden transformation:

“The earth would roll up like a carpet with all the white man’s ugly things – the stinking new animals, sheep and pigs, the fences, the telegraph poles, the mines and factories. Underneath would be the wonderful old-new world as it had been before the white fat-takers came.”

This rolling-up of the world didn’t happen in the 1890s, and the memory of the Ghost Dance was nearly snuffed out by the massacre at Wounded Knee. In Lame Deer’s vision, though, it was still vital to hang on to the hope kindled by this dance:

“I am trying to bring the ghost dance back, but interpret it in a new way. I think it has been misunderstood, but after eighty years I believe that more and more people are sensing what we meant when we prayed for a new earth and that now not only Indians but everybody has become an ‘endangered species.’ So let the Indians help you bring on a new earth without pollution or war. Let’s roll up the world. It needs it.”

In 2020 it’s just as true and even more urgent: we need a new earth without pollution or war. The green frog-skin world, ruled by the price tag on each blade of grass and each spring of water, threatens the survival of thousands of species, us included. We need to bring a new dream into being, beyond the bad dream of the green frog-skin world.


Photo at top of page – Sunset in the Badlands, June 2014 (full-screen version here)

 

Celebrating the cargo bike revolution

A review of Motherload

Also published on Resilience

“Do you remember when your central purpose was to explore this world with your body? The sun and the wind, your legs, your breath, the water and dirt? This is how we understood the environment, and our place in it, and what it meant to be alive.”

Liz Canning remembers that everyday thrill of childhood. She remembers when that thrill disappeared under the obligations of adulthood and motherhood, when the sun and wind receded behind the sealed windows of a car, when exploring the world meant negotiating traffic jams in frustration. And she remembers rediscovering routine, daily joy with her children when she learned about cargo bikes and she escaped the cage of her car.

That’s the backstory of the deeply inspiring film Motherload. The feature-length documentary hit the festival circuit in 2019, and in 2020 it was released for on-demand rentals and purchase on Vimeo. (Education and library licensing available here and a DVD edition is here.)

Revolutions Per Minute

Motherload features Canning’s own story and the story of many other families, but the focus and the movie’s name developed several years into the project. The movie was produced through a crowd-sourcing model, with people around the world contributing stories, pictures, video clips and funds.

When I first became aware of the project in 2011 the working title was “Revolutions Per Minute: Cargo Bikes in the U.S.” A few years later the title had morphed to “Less Car More Go.” All along Canning was learning about the many types of cargo bikes, the people around the world who were building them and using them, and the first individuals and companies in the U.S. who were designing or importing cargo bikes.

This early research pays great dividends in the movie. Canning speaks with mountain bike design legend and historian Joe Breeze, and Xtracycle founder Ross Evans. She shows us how cargo bikes developed in Central America, West Africa, Australia and the Netherlands.

In the last 10 years the cargo bike movement has grown exponentially in North America. Cargo bikes, and cargo trailers pulled by bikes, became popular with tradespeople, mobile catering services, and courier services.

“It’s the moms”

But one type of cargo bike user became an increasingly important demographic: mothers with young families. Kaytea Petro of Yuba Bicycles – by then the largest seller of cargo bikes in the US – told Canning that “Seventy-five percent of our market are women.”

Thus it made perfect sense to name the movie Motherload, and to frame the issue through a series of personal stories – Canning’s own story, and the story of many other mothers who celebrate their new-found freedom to feel wind, sun and rain along with their children.

More than a hundred years ago the bicycle played a prominent role in women’s liberation. Today, Canning says, “We are still challenging notions of gender status, physical power, safety, even our definition of high quality of life.”

Unfortunately just as the suffragettes faced a lot of abuse from men, Motherload tells us about the “mom-shaming” and the vicious misogyny that women on cargo bikes often get from male drivers. Other hurdles include a lack of safe places to ride in many neighborhoods, and the high cost of still-rare cargo bikes (though the purchase price and especially the operating costs of cargo bikes are low compared to the cost of cars). Motherload packs in many stories and a lot of information, but there is still plenty of ground in this revolution for Canning or other documentarians to cover in future films.

Director Liz Canning and her twins

“We are teaching our children to become citizens of the earth,” Canning tells us. And she quotes Rebecca Solnit: “You do what you can. What you’ve done may do more than you can imagine, for generations to come.” The film closes with an image that will tug at the heart-strings of all parents, but particularly those in bicycling families: her twins, who first explored their world from the open-air box of a cargo bike, now pedal away on their own bikes, under their own power, down their own road.


picture at top of page: Emily Finch and her six children on their dual engine mini-bus

bloomin’ weeds

PHOTO POST

Full disclosure: not all the plants pictured here are wildflowers strictly speaking. Some have been introduced to the area, have escaped from gardens, and now roam the countryside, feral.

The Wood Anemone at the top of the post grows across North America, including local meadows and at the edges of some marshes.

A beautiful Flowering Cherry, on the other hand, may well have been brought in by a long-gone nearby nursery.

Flowering Cherry

Another flowering shrub, which I believe is a Nannyberry (a type of viburnum), also grows near the former nursery.

Nannyberry

The Barberry is much closer to home, having taken a post in our yard. Though most people grow it for its foliage its flowers are spectacular too – though at just a few millimeters in diameter you need to get really close to appreciate them.

Barberry in Flower

The beautiful Speedwell is just a wee bit bigger. If you google it you may learn as I did that this flower thrives in some lawns, giving fits to those determined to eliminate botanical diversity from their expanses of grass.

Speed Thee Well

And let us not forget the noble Dandelion, here looking resplendent after a morning dew.

Tall Dandelion Syndrome

On our marshes, a very different bloom often happens – an algal bloom. According to NOAA, the vast majority of algal blooms do not produce toxins. This patch of vivid green appeared at one end of Bowmanville Marsh and disappeared just as quickly a few days later. It may or may not be a reflection of ecosystem health, but it did not appear to concern the muskrats.

Muskrat Quest

Very few other aquatic blooms have appeared so far this summer, but these grasses and water catch the evening light as beautifully as any flower.

Spectrum

In wet woodlands beside the marsh, the Starry False Solomon’s Seal is widespread. (It should hire a spin doctor – surely it deserves a name of its own rather than being named by what it is not.)

What’s Solomon Got To Do With It?

At sunset in a meadow, you can savour the delicate colours of the Wood Anemone, which will soon be submerged in waist-high vegetation.

Wood Anemone Two


Photo at top of page: Wood Anemone One (click here for larger image)