Food for thought

 

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I am back! It was about time. I have been reading quite a few good articles that outline how climate change and environmental issues are shaping the world’s politics (and geopolitics). Here are two oldies but goodies:

How mismanagement of natural resources in times of climate change can cause a severe energy crisis

and may have taken a part in preparing the ground for the Syrian war.

(Picture by André Kertész)

 

Food for thought

Bike Trips

I am mildly obsessed with travelling by bike. It started six years ago, when I went on a first bike trip, from Passau to Budapest (Eurovelo 6, for those who know what’s up).  The beauty of travelling by bike is that you get to experience the travel part first hand. It’s not about the destination, they say. Well, it really is true in that case.

You also discover places that are a bit out of the way, that you’d probably never would have visited otherwise, like the beautiful Niagara whirlpool. I never even knew it existed before I saw it – and I had been to the falls three times!

Whirlpool

I realised earlier this year that this is something I really love to do that I don’t do enough. It’s low key, it’s an adventure, it’s fun, it feels good and it always makes for great memories. And of course, if you do it right, it’s an incredibly sustainable way to travel! So I made travelling by bike more of a priority, and that’s where I plan to go this summer.

Hiddensee/Rügen

Sellin
Sellin, Rügen Island – Look at the Strandkörbe (“beach baskets”)!

I may have gotten the idea for this trip from a travel pamphlet aimed at 60-something British tourists… It looks pretty easy, touristy, and nice, and I just hope we won’t have to resort to sleeping under the stars for lack of Couchsurfing opportunities (although put this way, it doesn’t sound so bad). Fun fact: I have read that people in Hiddensee believe putting bathing suits on means you are trying to draw attention on yourself. Apparently, there, swimming in the nude is the modest thing to do. Interesting.

Hambourg-Copenhagen

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Copenhagen harbour

This one is still in the works, but I sure hope it will happen. I have never been to Denmark, and I am looking forward to pickled herring (that’s pretty much the extent of my knowledge of Denmark – I definitely need to go). What else is Denmark famous for? The little mermaid? I need your lights.

 

But once again, it’s more about the journey. Although I can’t wait to eat the herrings and swim naked to fit in.

Bike Trips

Fight or Flight

Could flying be okay for the environment

I’ve always heard that travelling by plane was one of the biggest offenders when it comes to climate change. It’s estimated that the aviation industry’s contribution to total GHG emissions reaches up to 4%. So I decided to travel less by plane. And then I researched some more, just for fun, and I came across some interesting points.

For instance, the emissions released by planes have a bigger warming potential because they are released at high altitudes, where they cause more damage. It’s hard to estimate how much more, but the scientific consensus settles around 2 to 4 times more impact than on surface (the estimate of 4% total GHG emissions takes this effect into account).

Another good point: a full train and a full plane are easy to compare in terms of GHG emissions: the train will release less. But what happens when the plane is full and the train is half-full (or half-empty, depending on how you see the world)?

And while we always imagine that trains are clean, it really depends on how they are fueled. Is it by fossil fuels, or by electricity? And, even if they are powered by electricity, how was the electricity actually produced? For example, as this article claims, Eurostar, while running on electricity, is more accurately powered by nuclear power.

Nevertheless, I still thought travelling less by plane was the right thing to do. Then I read about the European Union emissions trading scheme.

The EU emissions trading scheme (ETS) was launched in 2005. Several industries that have a global warming effect now operate under this “cap and trade system”, including, since 2012, the aviation industry. It sets a maximum amount of allowed GHG emissions per country, i.e. a cap. When this cap is exceeded, allowances must be purchased to offset the extra amount of emissions released.

The point has been made that, since the European flights are included in this scheme, and since their GHG emissions are offset if they go over the cap set by the EU, then there is no point in trying to avoid flying. Actually, some said, it might even be counterproductive to try to travel using other transportation modes, since the emissions from train or bus trips do not count under the EU ETS, and therefore would just be extra emissions on top of the maximum allowed for planes, that would not get offset.

I remember first reading this, and feeling disheartened, and angry. It’s hard to try and feel like there are obscure mechanisms that are actually getting in the way of your efforts. But on second thought, I began wondering if it wasn’t a bit simplistic: if everyone still made an effort, there would be a lot less GHG emissions due to flying, which would definitely have an impact on the goals set for this cap and trade system, and would be a clear message sent to authorities, governments and the industry. It totally makes sense economically too: the price of carbon credits, much like on a stock market, follows the rule of offer and demand. If people fly less, meaning there are less emissions to offset, and therefore less carbon credits being bought, then their price will go down. And if the prices go down faster than expected, it becomes politically easier to justify reducing the cap, since it mean there isn’t much demand.

So… I’ll keep taking the bus.

P.S: This article is full of thoughts about the initial research that stated that not flying in the EU was a waste of an ecological fight.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4.

 

Fight or Flight

Picture Perfect

The Atkins CIWEM Environmental Photographer of the Year 2016 competition has announced its winning and shortlisted photographers. All the pictures are eye-opening and beautiful, but here are the ones that I found most touching:

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Winner of the Atkins Built Environment Award 2016: SL Shanth Kumar, Losing Ground to Manmade Disaster, 2015 / Chennai. (SL Shanth Kumar/Environmental Photographer of the Year 2016)
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Pooyan Shadpoor, Houcheraghi, 2015 / Iran. (Pooyan Shadpoor/Environmental Photographer of the Year 2016)

This fluorescent blue light is reflected by pankton!

 

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Richard Sidey, Pearl Farm, Manihiki Atoll, 2015 / Manihiki, Cook Islands. (Richard Sidey/Environmental Photographer of the Year 2016)
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Sudipta Dutta Chowdhury, Life in Boiler, 2016 / Kashba, Kolkata, West Bengal. (Sudipta Dutta Chowdhury/Environmental Photographer of the Year 2016)

The by-products of a leather factory are burnt to serve as fertilizers or fish feed.

 

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Ruben Salgado Escudero, Solar Portraits India, 2015 / India. (Ruben Salgado Escudero/Environmental Photographer of the Year 2016)
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Mustafa Abdul Hadi, Behind the Taj Mahal, 2015 / Agra, India. (Mustafa Abdul Hadi/Environmental Photographer of the Year 2016)

 

See all the winners and the short-listed pictures here.

Picture Perfect

On Brexit and the Environment

As many, I woke up on Friday to the sad news that the UK had voted to leave the EU in the near future. As a European citizen, I felt disheartened. Although it’s hard not to admit that the European Union is full of flaws, and that some of its recent policies, especially on immigration and economy, are hard to reconcile with the political ideal of integration and openness I was always drawn to, I still feel very much European at heart.

It’s not just the fact that I am lucky enough to be able to easily travel, live and work in 27 other countries (while still being covered for health insurance, which is no small feat). It’s not just the fact that I am suspicious of the concept of nation-state, or even that I am proud the connection I feel with the other European people and cultures is made official through this institution. It’s mostly a hefty blow to one of the most ambitious peace projects of all times (lest we forget the single greatest achievement of the EU: the absence of armed conflict between countries of the EU since WW2, which is unprecedented in history).

After the initial shock and disappointment, I of course started thinking about what I think about a lot in general: the environment. See, I am worried. I am worried that we don’t take it seriously, I am worried that it is changing too fast for us to curb it, but yet not fast enough for us to see it, to feel it, and therefore to believe it. And I am worried that I am not going to like the world that is in store for us if we don’t act faster.

We do know that the EU has actually drastically helped improve the UK quality of air, protect wildlife and keep the countryside green, and that leaving means undoing years of European environmental policies in the UK (it would put “about 70% of UK environmental saveguards at risk”, according to this article). But it’s hard to know what consequences exactly Brexit will have on the environment in the long run – I mean, no one even has any idea on the actual short-term consequences of this referendum, in any area.

Yet, in my opinion, this vote does not exactly reflect the kind of political setting we’ll need to face our environmental crisis, and that’s what concerns me most.

It’s not just the fact that it might take the UK, and therefore Europe, and therefore the world (nature knows no borders, unfortunately) back a few steps when it comes to environmental action. It’s not only that it has taken our focus out of potentially more constructive discussions and plans to action for the environment, and in general has put short-term issues and calculations in the limelight instead of the big picture.

It’s also that this campaign has widely played on people’s fear of globalization, immigration, and openness to the world. Granted, not everything is good and fair in globalization. But again, nature knows no border, and we should be able to consider complex problems beyond borders. The same goes for the environment – there is no way to reach an effective point of action without considering the world in its entirety, beyond nation-states, in a peaceful setting.

Moreover, environmental policies need support from open-minded people with an ability, a will to see the big picture, to think in the long run – unfortunately, that was not what politicians encouraged in citizens during this campaign, and I am concerned that we are not prepared to face these challenges in an educated, thoughtful way.

I do believe we are stronger united. Especially when it comes to facing unprecedented, enormous crises such as climate change, which requires building ambitious policies, and changing our lifestyles and our habits in every area and on every level. I am very sad that Thursday’s referendum once again proved how hard it is to envision and put trust in a future together, beyond nationalities and borders.

On Brexit and the Environment

Smoke Screen

Smoking is not healthy: that’s no news. Its environmental (and social) impact, on the other hand, is rarely discussed. Of course, that does not mean that there isn’t one.

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Smoking in itself is not the biggest offender when it comes to pollution and greenhouse gases. The many chemicals released during combustion of course are not harmless, but in the grand scheme of things, they are not a major source of GHG.

But there is more to smoking than what we usually see: the rest of its life cycle, namely production, transformation, and disposal poses a bigger environmental (and social) threat.

Like many things nowadays, tobacco is now primarily cultivated in developing countries. It may seem like a boon to farmers in developing countries, as it is often considered more profitable than growing edible crops. Nevertheless, tobacco farming depends on the use of many chemicals and fertilisers, and when done as a monoculture, deplets soil of nutrients very quicky. Once the soil is barren, the only way to keep cultivating tobacco (or really, anything) is to create new fields. Of course, more land use means less forest: tobacco farming has been deemed responsible of 2 to 4% of the world’s deforestation.

Because safety and environmental regulations in developing countries are not as strict, or strictly enforced, as in developed countries, tobacco farmers in Asia or Africa are exposed to more chemicals, and are usually not properly equiped to handle them. A study found that only 30% of Pakistani tobacco farmers wore shoes, 14% a mask, and 9% gloves during a pesticide spraying. Tobacco farming has its own disease, it’s called “green tobacco sickness”, and results from the exposition to nicotine, which is basically a poison, while not wearing proper equipment. And to quote a 2008 report from the World Health Organization: “women and children are most often exposed to the health risks” of tobacco farming. Indeed, many studies have shown that child labour is common in tobacco farming.

Tobacco farming is resource intensive: not only does it takes up a lot of land, but it uses a lot of water – all of this for a plant that is not edible, and will actually be transformed in, you know, cigarettes.

This actual transformation is not harmless either. For instance, once harvested, tobacco leaves must be dried and cured, which is often done using the heat generated by wood (leading to more deforestation), oil, coal or gas.

Of course, cigarettes are packaged in paper and plastic, which is not exactly great. But maybe more importantly, the trillions of filters used each year are not biodegradable – indeed, they are made of cellulose acetate, which is a plastic. As it seems to be still okay in 2016 to litter with cigarettes, there are often not properly disposed of and go pollute and poison rivers, seas and oceans.

Well, these are some of the most obvious environmental effects of cigarettes, but there may be many less visible ones. For instance, they are a major source of wildfire (some researchers believe they cause about 10% of them), which destroy forests, release GHG, and kill people.

Smoking is an addiction, which makes it kind of hard to think about alternatives. But who knows, maybe that’s the extra bit of information someone needed to stop (or never take it up)?

Ps: e-cigarettes may seem like a more environmentally sound alternative, but they may still be encouraging deforestation, as many liquids are made of palm oil.

SOURCES: 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 1011

Smoke Screen

A Year Without New Clothes (Kinda) #1

A year ago, I decided to stop buying new clothes (underwears and shoes excluded for practical reasons, as they’re pretty hard to find used — and in the case of the former, not super appetizing). The idea was part experiment and part actual commitment to changing my lifestyle so it could better reflect my values. Full disclosure: I did cheat and bought 4 t-shirts from Everlane in October, so if you prefer, we can say it’s been seven months. Other than that, I stuck to my challenge, and I have learnt tons : about clothes, about myself, and about shopping for used clothes. The first idea I’d like to share about it is:

There is so much to learn by learning how to sew.

Sewing is a bit like cooking: a very useful skill that you need for a daily activity (granted, not one that is as necessary to survival as eating is). Yet, very few people know how to sew a button on, and we happily forget about how the clothes we wear are made, and by whom.

Learning to sew was a game changer. It opened my eyes to the labour-intensive work that making clothes is. For some reason, I imagined my clothes were made by machines, but no: clothes are hand-sewn by people, using machines. The only difference between me sewing my clothes and someone in China or Bangladesh sewing the T-shirt I’ll buy is that they have more experience and skills, and a better sewing machine (and they aren’t doing it for fun).

It also taught me about fit, cut, fabric, and all the details that make a garment a quality piece. I recognize immediately homemade garments when I see them in second-hand stores, I can spot a poorly made dress a mile away, and no defect can go past me anymore. That’s a tremendously useful skill to have when you want to create a stylish, efficient wardrobe, be it composed of new or used clothing, especially as mainstream ready-to-wear clothing is becoming cheaper, in all senses of the word.

It has given me confidence to shop in used store knowing I can easily alter and fix an array of little things, such as adding a pocket on a stain, shortening a hem or changing a lining. I also have a better sense of what looks good on me, and of my body type and size, and can usually tell just by looking at a piece whether it’ll work on me or not.

Finally, and most importantly, it made me question fast fashion and educated me about the social and environmental costs of clothes. There are a great many, that I have mentionned before.
I recommend checking out this book by Elizabeth Cline if you’d like to learn more about this topic.

A Year Without New Clothes (Kinda) #1