So How Did Rio+20 Do?

“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”
—Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732

One might hope that when a number of world leaders and/or their representatives get together at an international summit to address a variety of environmental issues that affect our entire planet, some reasonable headway might be accomplished.

I certainly hoped for that. Although I would never have bet money on it. As I address in my book, no one nation is prepared to stick its neck out unless everyone is going to be sharing the pain equally. And that’s difficult to define. Or enforce.

Last week at the Rio+20 summit, it would seem little was accomplished. What is concerning to most is that the draft document entitled “The Future We Want” was ratified largely unchanged form its original state. Negotiation didn’t take place. Progress wasn’t achieved. In other words, people from all over the world flew into Rio for little more than photo opportunities.

Some of the responses to the final outcome document are as follows:

“The summit has gone the Copenhagen way, with lots of fuss and no concrete outcome. This place was virtually invaded by the representatives of the corporate world — the drivers of today’s unsustainable human consumption.” Soumya Dutta, India People’s Science Forum quoted in The Hindu.

Or this one:

“We’ve sunk so low in our expectations that reaffirming what we did 20 years ago is now considered a success.” Martin Khor, executive director of the South Centre.

One key message was that any progress is worthwhile, and that even more will be accomplished at Rio+40, and Rio+60. But to most people concerned with what’s happening to our planet’s climate, that’s simply not soon enough. Hanna Thomas, a delegate from the United Kingdom walked out of the conference as did many who were frustrated with the lack of any accomplishment. She explained her actions this way: “I left this process, not because I am hopeless, but because I have work to do. And our leaders, our governments, are getting in the way.”

Some people look to portions of the final outcome document and consider that not everything about Rio+20 was a disaster. Just making mention of previously ignored ecosystems like oceans, mountains, deserts, and small island developing states is being considered a form of success. In other words, just being mentioned in the document is supposed to offer a better opportunity for governments to turn those words into actions.

And that’s really what it boils down to: turning words into actions. There’s an ancient Chinese proverb that I frequently refer to in talks I give. It goes like this:

Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words.
Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions.
Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits.
Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character.
Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.

Although cautionary in tone, you can take out the key words and turn it into a positive message.


It would appear that those involved in the Rio+20 summit are at the “words” portion of this spectrum. And they’re hoping that individual governments are willing to move along to the “actions” segment.

I think we all have to do a lot better than that. Perhaps if governments are incapable of it, then it’s up to each of us as individuals to make sure we go beyond thoughts and words, and turn our actions into habits that shape the character of our species, and ultimately our destiny.

Our future depends on it. Not at Rio+40 or Rio+60. Right now.

Building a Better Battery

If you want to make something dirt-cheap, make it out of dirt.”
—Prof. Donald Sadoway, John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

I love innovation. I love when people think outside the box. Too often I hear comments like “the battery capability isn’t there,” or “the grid can’t handle the intermittency of renewable sources of energy.”

But I don’t think that means we have to continue to work within our current framework and squeeze out every drop of oil from beneath the ocean floor or out of the tar sands in Alberta. Nor do we need to dig out every nugget of coal from every mountaintop that we’re tearing down. What we should be striving toward instead is change the infrastructure so it can deal with these newer developing technologies.

One inspiring individual who thinks outside the box is Professor Donald Sadoway at MIT. Although he has research interests in many areas of chemistry and metallurgy, one area of research he has focused on has been to produce more efficient batteries, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions, especially within the industry sectors. His research has often been driven by his desire to reduce carbon pollution output by various industries.

Professor Sadoway recently had a TED talk posted on a new efficient battery he and his research team have been working on. I found his video particularly inspiring. If you have fifteen minutes, I strongly recommend you watch this informative and enlightening piece of education.

A Most Appropriate Birthday Gift

“I remember when the candle shop burned down. Everyone stood around singing ‘Happy Birthday.'”
—Steven Wright

This past Monday, June 25th, was my birthday. I’m pretty hard to buy for it turns out. If I really want something, I don’t usually have the patience to wait for my birthday or the holidays to get it as a gift, I just go and buy it. Also, my life is so busy that there’s little chance for someone to spring a surprise on me either.

That’s why I was quite pleased with one particular gift I received on my birthday. It was just a little gesture from someone I work with (I won’t say who, but if you ever call my office, chances are this individual will be the one answering the phone.) We don’t usually exchange gifts at the office for birthdays, but this person knows how much of an environmental activist I’ve become in the last few years.

So when she gave me a gift bag I didn’t know what to expect, but inside was a clock. Now I have lots of clocks, but this one was different. It doesn’t require any electricity or conventional batteries to power it. This digital clock requires nothing more than tap water to supply its energy.

I’ve reviewed high school level chemistry quite a bit over the last few years because I’ve wanted to make sure I understood electricity and batteries well, so I know in general how batteries work. I tried to explain how batteries work in my book in greater detail than you’ll find is in there now, but the description became too onerous and detailed for the average reader so I took much of that section out. Suffice to say, I’ve learned from experience that a detailed explanation of how batteries work in any great detail is not in the cards.

So in brief, an electrochemical battery produces a current from ions that result from a chemical reaction. Two metals are involved, a cathode and an anode. For example, nickel and cadmium are what make up the Ni-Cad batteries in common use today.

But you don’t always need a specific chemical reaction to get ions moving. Tap water has all sorts of ions in it, which is what makes it “hard.” And what ultimately contributes to the formation of scale in our pipes. And why we buy salt for our water softeners to help eliminate these ions.

In the case of my new water-powered digital clock, the ions come right from the tap water I filled it with. There are two separate halves to the chamber, with a metal plate in each half.
Water isn’t the direct source of power, but it serves as the conducting agent to complete the electrical circuit for the clock. The metal plates extract energy from the various particles that are naturally found in the water.

The electricity is being produced by the difference in electrode potentials of the anode and cathode (the two metal plates) which are in the water. A slowly dissolving piece of zinc serves as the source of energy that ultimately powers my birthday clock. The lifetime of this clock will vary depending on the amount of zinc it has, anywhere from months to years. Since the clock only draws a very small amount of current, I’m optimistic I’ll have it for some time. (I’m not planning to use the alarm clock that is one of the functions it has available as well.)

I can appreciate that for the most part, this is a novelty for eco-minded people like me. But when you think of the number of clocks out there that only serve as time pieces and therefore need very little power to run, it would be amazing if we could replace most of them with clocks that run solely on the power of electrolytes found naturally in hard water.

Innovations like these need more attention, I believe.

What the Frack is Fracking Anyway?

“We are the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.
—Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., May 2010

Most everybody seems to be aware that most natural reservoirs of petroleum and natural gas are beyond their peaks, and are slowly drying up. That’s why more imaginative ways to get at the planet’s sources of crude oil are now being exploited. Deep sea offshore drilling and developing the tar sands in Alberta may cost more and cause greater harm to the environment, but given that they still make money, they’re still worth it to those doing the exploiting.

One relatively new term to the fossil fuel vocabulary is “fracking.” Short for “hydraulic fracturing,” fracking is yet another way of getting at some petroleum products that were previously inaccessible. Developed as a technique more than sixty years ago, it didn’t become economically useful until 1997, specifically for accessing natural gas associated with shale which is a fine-grained sedimentary rock made from a mixture of clay and other minerals. Not surprisingly, therefore, natural gas found in shale is known as shale gas.

Shale gas has become an increasing source of fossil fuels, particularly in the US but other countries such as Canada are developing their own fracking operations as well. China sits on the largest source of shale gas on the planet.

The technology of fracking involves pumping millions of litres of water deep into the shale formations where the petroleum products, particularly natural gas (methane) are located. This is done at very high pressures. Chemicals are added to the water to make it more viscous, and because companies believe this is a proprietary issue they won’t usually divulge exactly what these chemicals are, but thousands of litres of the stuff are added to the millions of litres of water. The chemically-altered water cracks the shale or in some cases widens existing cracks, freeing any hydrocarbons deposited in the shale to flow toward the well at the surface. About thirty percent of the water is lost. It’s believed that fracking has contributed in some part to the droughts that Texas has experienced of late.

To keep the fractures from immediately collapsing, something known as a proppant is added to the fracking fluid that will keep them open. Sand is often used, but other materials include ceramic, bauxite, and even glass.

As you can imagine, this issue has its many who are for it, and many who are against it. Those in favour of it point out how much more natural gas and other hydrocarbons that were previously inaccessible can now be extracted, reducing dependence on foreign sources of fossil fuels. Also, natural gas is a cleaner fossil fuel than either coal or oil.

Those against it, however, point out that once again, obtaining fossil fuels with these less conventional methods wreaks havoc on the environment. These include:

—the high volume of water required
—contamination of ground water and drinking water
—risks to air quality and health
—carbon emissions associated
—disruption to ecosystems
—migration of gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals to the surface
—surface contamination from spills and flowback

Although Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) stated in April 2011 that there’s “never been one case—documented case—of groundwater contamination in the history of the thousands and thousands of hydraulic fracturing [wells],” that’s a mistake at best, and a lie at worst. Various surface spills have occurred over the years. There have also been blowouts at wells operated by Chesapeake Energy and EOG Resources. One spill of more than 30,000 litres of fracking fluid occurred at a site in Pennsylvania, contaminating the groundwater there.

The Council of Canadians is one group in my country very opposed to fracking. But anywhere that fracking is taking place, you don’t have to look too far to find those who see it as another appalling way to look for energy. A quick Google search reveals that New York State, North Carolina and Alabama all have fracking with many opposed to its development.

I would just love to see as much energy and research invested into renewable sources of energy as there is devoted to squeezing every last bit of fossil fuel out of the planet. People talk about how the infrastructure isn’t ready for renewables yet, it’s not designed to handle the intermittency of wind and solar, and the battery capacity isn’t yet there. Know what I say to that? Then let’s develop them.

That may sound naive, but the ability is there, I have no doubt. The hackneyed phrase applies here, so I make no apologies for using it: over forty years ago we put men on the Moon. Surely we can build better batteries that are smaller and economically competitive, and we can build a grid that can deal with the intermittency of renewables.

All it takes is a little willpower to see where we need to be, and what we need to achieve to get there. We’ll have to do this someday anyway once every last well has run dry, and every last bit of shale gas has been consumed. Even our coal isn’t infinite. I just hope we have the sense to stop looking for unique methods of obtaining tougher sources of fossil fuels and use that ingenuity to develop renewables.

The Climate Reality Project—Spreading the Word

“I don’t really consider this a political issue, I consider it to be a moral issue.”
—Al Gore

Many people do their best to educate the public about global warming and climate change. Some are famous (David Suzuki is Canada’s best-known example), and some aren’t so well known (like me). But every one of us is doing his or her part to make sure that people are aware of the facts and not just the ideologies attached to this very important issue for our planet.

One group hard at work in this regard consists of those connected to The Climate Reality Project. Founded by Nobel Laureate and former US Vice President Al Gore, it now has more than five million members worldwide. From its website, it points out its simple mission: “The climate crisis is real and we know how to solve it.”

All told, the organization has over four thousand dedicated volunteers who have been personally trained by Mr. Gore “to educate the public about the science and impacts of climate change as well as solutions to address the climate crisis.” So far, 7.3 million people have heard talks through this non-profit organization from the 4,000 dedicated volunteers who have been personally trained by Mr. Gore to deliver these presentations.

The Canadian segment of this organization is known as The Climate Reality Project Canada. Their particular mission is as follows:

  • Train a diverse range of citizens from numerous geographic regions and walks of life, who will then communicate to the public about the urgency and impact of climate change.
  • Engage the public through presentations, news media and individual conversations as well as grassroots advocacy and activism so that they will make informed choices about public policy matters related to climate change.
  • Promote personal, local, domestic and international initiatives to solve the climate crisis.

Between 2006 and 2007, Mr. Gore met an initial goal of training about 1,000 Americans (and 21 Canadians thrown in for good measure!) to go out and give an adapted version of his talk which which was the basis of the Oscar-winning film titled “An Inconvenient Truth.” In May 2007, five of those Canadians from the initial training session formed The Climate Reality Project Canada and it has been growing strong ever since.

Their first goal was to bring Mr. Gore to Canada specifically to train Canadians. This happened in April 2008 when Mr. Gore came to Montreal to train the first 250 Canucks. David Suzuki—well known for his long-standing commitment to the environment and global warming—was also on hand to help with the education for that initial training session.

Those who are trained are asked to commit to giving ten climate talks within the first year of their training. To date, 440,000 Canadians have participated in Climate Reality Project presentations.

If any of you have followed my blog for any length of time, you might anticipate that I would love to be part of such an organization and its efforts, since we’re definitely on the same page. And you’d be absolutely right. Which is why I’m very happy to let you know that on August 21-23, I’ll be in San Francisco gaining this valuable training from Mr. Gore and other Climate Reality Project staff.

I’ll be one of about a thousand new trainees, so I don’t expect there will be much opportunity to hang out with Al and shoot the breeze about all things climatic, but I feel very fortunate that my efforts to help educate the public have been recognized, and that I’ll be able to continue these efforts in a new and different platform, hopefully one that is on a much larger personal scale than those I have experienced so far.