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New July 2013

‘Baby hatches’ are no substitute for a social welfare system

<!– google_ad_section_start –> A controversy is raging over the growing phenomenon of “baby hatches” on the mainland amid Guangzhou’s abrupt suspension of its new facility after being overwhelmed by abandoned babies. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a flying wind turbine!

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Are we the only ones who can’t think of blimps without thinking of Blimpie’s sub sandwiches? (We also have a hard time thinking about submarines without getting hungry.) If so, we’re sorry to make your mouth water, but Massachusetts company Altaeros has cooked up the Buoyant Airborne Turbine (BAT), a scrumptious, 60-foot blimp that can float 1,000 feet high. Instead of delicious smoked turkey and provolone, its tasty filling is a wind turbine. Once airborne and tousled by the wind — which blows two to three times stronger up there — the BAT sends power down to earth through wires. It’s ideal for remote areas that aren’t fit for solar or traditional wind turbines, like parts of Alaska with thinning permafrost. In fact, the BAT is planning to launch a pilot project in Alaska, powering about 12 homes. Fast Company adds pricing details: Altaeros says the BAT will deliver power at about 18 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is more than most of the country, but still below what some Alaskan communities currently pay. Now all we have to do is get the blimp to deliver lunch too.Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living

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Xi wins EU pledge to weigh free-trade deal

<!– google_ad_section_start –> President Xi Jinping won a promise from the European Union yesterday to consider a multibillion-dollar free-trade deal with his country, a long-held goal for Beijing which divides Europe. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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Rich countries: Sure, climate change will screw poor countries, but what about us?

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The new report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights that we are already feeling the pain of global warming across the planet. Heat waves and drought are increasingly in rhythm in every major continent, including our own, while severe flooding is more frequently becoming the business in Africa. If you don’t want to read the IPCC’s 2,500-plus page report, here’s the shorter version: Climate fuckery is not futuristic; we have been fucking up the atmosphere; it is fucking us back. But, as I wrote recently, there are certain people — particularly those with large concentrations of melanin in their skin, and smaller concentrations of money in the bank — who are suffering more of that fuckery than their less-melanated, more-resourced counterparts. The IPCC’s latest makes note of this. Disturbingly, the report’s authors wanted to keep this critical information out of the much-shorter IPCC executive summary — the part that’s supposed to be the most accessible to the public and lawmakers. From New York Times reporter Justin Gillis: The poorest people in the world, who have had virtually nothing to do with causing global warming, will be high on the list of victims as climatic disruptions intensify, the report said. It cited a World Bank estimate that poor countries need as much as $100 billion a year to try to offset the effects of climate change; they are now getting, at best, a few billion dollars a year in such aid from rich countries. The $100 billion figure, though included in the 2,500-page main report, was removed from a 48-page executive summary to be read by the world’s top political leaders. It was among the most significant changes made as the summary underwent final review during a days long editing session in Yokohama. The edit came after several rich countries, including the United States, raised questions about the language, according to several people who were in the room at the time but did not wish to be identified because the negotiations are private. The language is contentious because poor countries are expected to renew their demand for aid this September in New York at a summit meeting of world leaders, who will attempt to make headway on a new treaty to limit greenhouse gases. Many rich countries argue that $100 billion a year is an unrealistic demand; it would essentially require them to double their budgets for foreign aid, at a time of economic distress at home. That argument has fed a rising sense of outrage among the leaders of poor countries, who feel their people are paying the price for decades of profligate Western consumption. Those bolds are all mine. And before I elaborate, I have to add that it’s equally disturbing to me that this information came two-thirds of the way into Gillis’s article. Talk about burying the lede — this erasure is the story, but it was relegated to the story’s third act, meaning many people probably won’t read it. Back to the bolds, starting with the last one: Rich countries argue that $100 billion a year to shield poor countries from climate impacts is an “unrealistic demand.” I do not believe that if the World Bank said that Europe and U.S. will be destroyed without $100 billion in aid each year, that this would have been deleted from the IPCC summary. Arguing that they cannot afford to deal with the poor in the way that the world’s lead economists say they need to means rich countries do not truly understand what they’re up against. It means that they believe they will somehow be immunized from the kinds of violent uprisings over food, land, energy, and water that result when the poor — mostly people of color — are left out of the picture. It means they do not get what is already happening in Syria, the Ukraine, Taiwan, Mexico, and the Sudan, where forced massive migration and civil wars have already started over limited resources, arguably the result of climate change’s impacts. When rich countries can edit the poor out of the most important document on the gravest danger facing Earth, it means that they are not serious about addressing climate change. It means that climate mitigation funds will help protect millionaire beachfront condo owners in South Beach, but have yet to address how it will protect what’s left of Geechee families in South Carolina. Perhaps it even means that rich countries think their money is better spent on technology and “innovation” to shield themselves from climate catastrophe. And those tricks very well might shield some people from flooding, but it doesn’t shield the “poorest” from the kind of reckless capitalism that traps them in a perpetual state of vulnerability. This is an insult to nations who even with meager resources have already started making the difficult investments that their wealthier counterparts don’t have the courage to make. “Bangladesh has invested $10 billion of its own money to adapt to extreme climatic events,” said Dr. Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development in a statement on the IPCC report. “Nepal is the first country to develop adaptation plans at the community level. It is time for the richer countries to pull their weight and do the right thing, by investing at home and abroad in actions that can reduce emissions and protect people and property from danger.” There is little today that says whiteness is supreme more than arguing that it is an “unrealistic demand” for nations with predominantly, if not exclusive, white leadership to pay what is necessary to protect the people of Africa, India, and South America from climate calamity they did not cause. The oppression, the bigotry, and the fuckery of that argument is that it allows rich countries to continue perpetuating unrealistic demands on the world’s “poorest” — those who “virtually have had nothing to do with” climate change. Chattel slavery was an unrealistic demand. Putting Latin American workers in the most dangerous farm and factory jobs, exposing them to pesticides, carcinogens, and other toxic elements so that Walmart can have “roll back” prices — these are unrealistic demands. Asking the poorest of communities to fend for themselves against unprecedented waves of heat, drought, and rising sea levels is an unrealistic demand. In my estimation, there are two things that will destroy us eventually if not resolved soon: white supremacy and climate change. These happen to both be things that the wealthy believe they can afford to ignore. It’s for this reason that the IPCC’s summary just may be their infamous last words.Filed under: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Real hippies drink beer made from tree branches

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If you really care about the planet, you’ll eat, sleep, and especially drink the outdoors. That’s why one Canadian brewery is making beer out of tree branches, because NATURE. Sarah FarthingPrairie Sun Brewery isn’t just proving its hippie bona fides — it’s also raising money for outdoorsy pursuits. The brewery created Meewasin 80 ale to help expand the Meewasin Trail in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Adding 10 miles to the trail will connect two public parks, but the Meewasin Valley Authority still needs a little over $1 million to finish the job. Graciously, Prairie Sun is donating all proceeds from Meewasin 80 to the project! But what’s it taste like? Writes CBC News: It’s quite authentic … It is brewed with branches from spruce and pine trees. The branches come from trees along the Meewasin Valley. “It doesn’t taste like spearmint gum. It’s more of an aroma thing. It’s a very refreshing light-tasting beer,” said Prairie Sun’s Heather Williams. According to Cameron Ewen, who brewed it for Prairie Sun, it’s a light spring brew with “earthy, herbal notes and woodsy flavors” (hopefully no aroma of dog poo). The white ale launched on Thursday at a fundraising event, and now it’s on sale to the public until it runs out. But it looks like you can only find it in Saskatoon, which is too bad. Word on the street is it’s superb.Filed under: Food, Living

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Musharraf charged in treason case

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A court in Pakistan charges former military ruler Pervez Musharraf with treason, the country’s first army chief to face such a prosecution.

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Here are the fair-trade hipster shoes you’ve been waiting for

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OlibertéForget giving hipster shoes to people in Africa (cough, TOMS). How about giving them jobs? Oliberté is that shoe company — with the added perk of giving you a way to buy your chukka boots and flats with less guilt. OlibertéOliberté bills itself as a fair-trade, sustainable clothing brand based in sub-Saharan Africa, paying its workers in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, more than double the minimum wage. The factory is the world’s first to be certified by Fair Trade USA. So in addition to fair pay, workers get benefits like 90-day maternity leave, reasonable work hours, no exposure to certain toxic chemicals, and decisionmaking via employee committee. Adds Treehugger: The shoes and bags are made from locally sourced leather, purchased from farmers who raise free-range cattle that typically live six to eight years. The company works with a tannery that is careful not to pollute and recycles its chrome … Although not all of the components are sourced from Ethiopia, the natural rubber used from the soles is also local. They work to make the factory zero-waste, recycling and reusing anything that’s left over from leather scraps to glue cans. And although the shoes aren’t cradle-to-cradle, you can mail ’em back to Oliberté when they’re worn out, and the company will find ways to recycle them. Other than the carbon emissions from shipping shoes halfway around the world — and yeah, that’s a big caveat — they sound pretty spiffy.Filed under: Business & Technology, Living

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What the U.N.’s new climate report says about North America

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Global warming is a global crisis, but the effects of climate change are being felt differently in different corners of the globe. The latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of a world wracked by hunger, violence, and extinctions. But the IPCC also dedicates chapters to impacts that are underway and anticipated in individual regions and continents. For North America, the report states there is “high confidence” of links between climate change and rising temperatures, ravaging downpours, and declining water supplies. Even if temperatures are allowed to rise by just 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 C), which is the goal of current international climate negotiations (a goal that won’t be met unless everybody gets a lot more serious about curbing greenhouse gas pollution), such severe weather is going to get a lot worse. North America’s coastal regions will continue to face a particularly long list of hazards, with climate change bringing growing risks of “sea-level rise, warming, ocean acidification, extratropical cyclones, altered upwelling, and hurricanes and other storms.” Here are some highlights from the North American chapter of the IPCC’s new report: Observed climate trends in North America include an increased occurrence of severe hot weather events over much of the US, decreases in frost days, and increases in heavy precipitation over much of North America … Global warming of approximately 2°C (above the pre-industrial baseline) is very likely to lead to more frequent extreme heat events and daily precipitation extremes over most areas of North America, more frequent low snow years, and shifts towards earlier snowmelt runoff over much of the western US and Canada. Together with climate hazards such as higher sea levels and associated storm surges, more intense droughts, and increased precipitation variability, these changes are projected to lead to increased stresses to water, agriculture, economic activities and urban and rural settlements. The following figure from the report shows how temperatures have already risen — and how they are expected to continue to rise in different parts of the continent under relatively low (“RCP2.6″) and high (“RCP8.5″) greenhouse gas pollution scenarios: IPCCClick to embiggen.And this figure shows that rain and snow are falling more heavily in parts of central and eastern U.S., but that the changes are more mixed in the West: IPCCClick to embiggen.Care about other parts of the world? Good for you! So do we. Here are links to chapters on other regions, along with our brief summaries of their findings: Africa. This already overheated continent can expect to experience faster warming than other parts of the world – we’re talking about as much as 11 degrees F of warming by the end of the century. Couple that with worsening water shortages in many areas and more severe floods, and many Africans are staring down a hellish long-term weather forecast. Europe. Worse floods and droughts, peppered with brutal winter winds over Central and Northern Europe. Asia. A bento box of impacts varying widely across the region. Water shortages and rising seas are among the big worries. Farmers in some countries might benefit, but rice growers will generally find it more difficult to feed Asia. “There are a number of regions that are already near the heat stress limits for rice,” the chapter states. Australasia. Crikey, them cyclones are gonna hit Down Under harder than a ‘roo on a bonnet. And that’s not all. Fires, heat waves, and flooding will continue to get worse in many areas of Australia and New Zealand. Central and South America. Temperatures will continue to rise, and rain and snow will fall harder in some places but grow scarcer in others. The Andes will continue to lose snow. Polar Regions. As the poles melt and grow more balmy, new biomes will appear. The report notes that the “tree line has moved northward and upward in many, but not all, Arctic areas … and significant increases in tall shrubs and grasses have been observed in many places.” Which sounds like a good thing, except that the melting permafrost is unleashing climate-changing methane. Small islands. Those island bits that remain above sea level will be buffeted by salty floods, which will make freshwater harder to come by. The coral reefs that foster the ecosystems that support the livelihoods of islanders will continue to bleach and die. The ocean. Three words: acidic rising seas.Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy

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U.N. climate report offers lots of bummer news plus a few dollops of encouragement

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Climate change has broken down the floodgates, pervading every corner of the globe and affecting every inhabitant. That was perhaps the clearest message from the newest report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the latest in a conga line of warnings about the need to radically and immediately reduce our use of fossil fuels. Published Sunday, it’s the second installment of the IPCC’s fifth climate report. The first installment was released last September; the third comes out next month. (If you’re wondering WTF the IPCC even is, here’s an explainer.) This latest installment catalogues climate impacts that are already being felt around the world, including floods, heat waves, rising seas, and a slowing in the growth of crop yields: IPCCClick to embiggen.As we reported when a draft of key parts of the document was leaked in November, the IPCC says current risks will only worsen – risks such as food crises and starvation, extinctions, heat waves, floods, droughts, violent protests, and wars. Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke called the report an “S.O.S. to the world,” reminding us that failure to “sharply curb carbon pollution” will mean more “punishing rainfall, heat waves, scorching drought, and fierce storm surges,” and that the “toll on our health and economy will skyrocket.” But the report doesn’t just focus on climate change’s risks and threats – it looks at ways in which national and local governments, communities, and the private sector can work to reduce those threats. And some of the news on climate adaptation is actually, gasp, slightly encouraging! “Adaptation to climate change is transitioning from a phase of awareness to the construction of actual strategies and plans,” chapter 15 says. “The combined efforts of a broad range of international organizations, scientific reports, and media coverage have raised awareness of the importance of adaptation to climate change, fostering a growing number of adaptation responses in developed and developing countries.” Farmers are adjusting their growing times as they adapt to changing local climates, for example. Wetlands and sand dunes are being restored to protect against storm surges and flooding, drought early-warning systems are being established, and governments are turning to the traditional knowledge held by their indigenous communities for clues on how best to cope with the increasingly hostile weather. But the report highlights a depressingly unjust fissure between the world’s rich, who have caused most of the global warming but can afford to adapt to some of it, and the world’s poorest countries and communities, where countless lives can be ruined en masse by a single unseasonably powerful storm or drought. “Climate change is expected to have a relatively greater impact on the poor as a consequence of their lack of financial resources, poor quality of shelter, reliance on local ecosystem services, exposure to the elements, and limited provision of basic services and their limited resources to recover from an increasing frequency of losses through climate events,” chapter 14 says. And the report highlights the yawning gap between the amount of money that needs to be spent on climate adaptation and how much is actually being spent. Chapter 17 cites a World Bank estimate that it will cost the world $70 billion to $100 billion a year to adapt to the changing climate by 2050 (but notes that these figures are “highly preliminary”). Yet actual spending in 2012 was estimated to be around $400 million. Those high adaptation costs will be out of reach for many of the world’s poorest countries — something that IPCC delegates from the U.S. and other Western countries don’t want you to think about. The New York Times reports that the World Bank’s $100 billion figure was scrubbed from the report’s 44-page summary at the last minute under pressure from rich countries, which have been spooked by poor countries’ calls during recent negotiations for climate compensation and far-reaching adaptation assistance.Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Food, Politics

Continue reading U.N. climate report offers lots of bummer news plus a few dollops of encouragement

Here’s a solution to most bikes’ dirty secret

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Ever been biking in a park and been dismayed that your shiny metal bike didn’t quite fit in with your earthy, natural surroundings? So has designer Daniel Gestoso — so he dreamt up the Boske wooden bike. Daniel GestosoLike its predecessor, the Sandwichbike, the Boske is flat-packed in IKEA fashion; you only need an Allen wrench to put it together. Its frame is a bony figure eight made from laminated, sustainably harvested maple. Recycled pop cans provide the aluminum for the seat base and front fork. “All of this will allow production to stay local, reducing energy usage in transportation and distribution,” Gestoso told Fast Company. Daniel GestosoThe problem with typical aluminum bike frames is that mining aluminum is a huge energy suck. (It’s way worse than glass, for instance, not that you want a glass bike.) And even though it’s almost 100 percent recyclable, only about half of pop cans get recycled. As Umbra once wrote, “Americans are said to throw away enough aluminum in three months to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet.” (Insert ashamed emoticon here.) Daniel GestosoAlthough it’s still in the prototype phase, the Boske would help keep some of that metal out of the waste stream while helping you get around in low-carbon style. It might be the best we’ll get until someone invents a bike made out of air!Filed under: Business & Technology, Living

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The Good Wife Recap: Will to Go On

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Any remaining shreds of denial we were clinging to — maybe last week was a dream? maybe Will had a secret twin who took his place at the courthouse during the shooting? — were demolished in this episode. Will is dead, and it’s time to process that. And before we … More »

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Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf pleads not guilty to 5 counts of treason

<!– google_ad_section_start –> Former president Pervez Musharraf yesterday pleaded not guilty to five counts of treason, in the latest chapter of a long-running drama between the country’s increasingly assertive judiciary and its former military ruler. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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Watch North America’s busiest bus stops become more efficient using only sidewalk tape

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NelsonNygaard landed a super-easy job. The transit planning firm had to streamline a couple of bus stops in British Columbia for TransLink. Only about 100,000 people ride that particular route a day. It’s just the busiest bus line in North America. (But no big, right?) Palms sweaty, knees weak, and arms heavy, NelsonNygaard already knew what didn’t work: a huge passenger shelter where riders of Vancouver’s 99 Broadway line simply ignored switchback arrows on the ground. (Think airport security without any crowd-control ropes — madness.) So rather than armchair postulating about what MIGHT work better, the firm did some real-time analysis at two east- and westbound stops, laying down some sidewalk tape on a busy Monday morning and capturing the results on video: The above video is a timelapse of the westbound stop outside the Broadway-Commercial SkyTrain station. NelsonNygaard roped off areas to guide people along, funneling lines into each of the bus’ three doors while leaving room for pedestrians. At the eastbound stop, only a few pillars near the bus doors and some tape were needed to wrangle people coming from the train into three lines for the bus: “Live trial-and-error intervention helps push the boundaries of standard planning approaches,” writes Eric Jaffe of Atlantic Cities. For instance, NelsonNygaard learned that people ignored eye-level signage. (After all, who can be bothered to read, pre-coffee?) Tape isn’t exactly a long-term solution, but now that TransLink has some ideas of what works, more permanent improvements are on the way.Filed under: Cities, Living

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Ask Umbra: So even BPA-free plastic is poisonous now?

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Send your question to Umbra! Q. In light of recent BPA-free-wait-this-stuff-is-worse confusion, what kind of water bottles can I drink from? I don’t trust myself with a glass Nalgene. Thanks, Hannah W. Cleveland, Ohio A. Dearest Hannah, Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water bottle … Out comes disturbing new research saying our new, safer plastics aren’t necessarily all that safe after all. So where can we turn to fulfill our hydration needs now? First, for those of you who don’t have a Google Alert on BPA, a.k.a. bisphenol A: The Center for Environmental Health recently released a study that looked at chemicals in several brands of BPA-free kids’ sippy cups. Nine of the 35 cups tested contained significant amounts of estrogenic chemicals similar to BPA – seven of which actually measured higher for estrogenic activity than products with BPA. This joins a 2011 study finding that most plastics leach synthetic estrogens, even those labeled BPA-free, and even without exposure to stressors like microwaving, dishwashers, or UV light. What gives? Didn’t we solve this dangerous-hormones issue a few years back, when the FDA banned BPA in baby bottles and kids’ cups and manufacturers switched en masse to BPA-free plastics? It seems we owe this out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire situation to the fact that legally, chemicals are considered safe until proven otherwise. With BPA out, companies may have turned to untested replacements – some of which are now coming up positive for hormonal activity. I don’t blame you for wanting to chuck all your plastics, Hannah. The FDA’s official position may be that low levels of BPA are OK, but plenty of other scientists dispute the agency’s recent research. Given the health issues implicated with synthetic hormone exposure, I think the time-tested “better safe than sorry” plan is a prudent one. Luckily, I do have a few solutions for you. One, you could tote a stainless steel bottle, long a favorite option for the plastic-wary because they’re durable and recyclable. Though breakable, a glass water bottle is also a good, nontoxic bet, and you can slip a silicone sleeve over it to guard against butterfinger moments. A third option might be an aluminum bottle with a BPA- and phthalate-free liner, but given the choice, I’d still opt for steel. As long as you’re ditching plastic for all on-the-go drinking needs, I think you’re in good shape. Hydratedly, UmbraFiled under: Article, Living

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Tiny house for two? Yes, this dating site is real

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Every Friday night across the country, a familiar scenario plays out: Someone listens to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” for the 14th time in a row, consumes Nutella by the fistful, and dons old sweatpants with paw prints on the butt, all while thinking, “It might be time to try to get a date.” Why shouldn’t this be happening in a 120-square-foot cottage on wheels? Tiny house people have needs, too. And slowly, a few enterprising souls are popping out of the reclaimed woodwork to fulfill them. Enter Tiny House Dating. At long last, someone thought to outdo FarmersOnly, Purrsonals, and SaladMatch by creating a niche dating site for tiny house people. From the website’s About Me section: We help connect people who’s [sic] values are based (at least in part) around “right-sizing” their lives. This includes We the Tiny House People (of course) and other related folks like minimalists and environmentalists. If this sounds like you, welcome. We’d like to help me you meet someone special. After finding out about this from Lloyd Alter on TreeHugger on Friday, I wanted to see who’s out there on the tiny house dating scene, so I opened an account. My interest in tiny houses is, after all, well-documented. It was slow-going, however, because the website’s capacity was overloaded for hours. Tiny house people, it seems, are flocking in hordes to find love. To make a profile on Tiny House Dating, you’re required to answer some basic questions about yourself, and also provide some details about where you stand in the tiny house movement. For example: How serious are you about tiny houses, on a scale from one to 10? What does tiny house living mean to you? So what is the single tiny house person looking for? I perused some of the profiles to get an idea. As it turns out — as with any dating site — a person’s preferences can get pretty specific. For example: I am searching for a petite and attractive lady too share my life with who is a one man kind of women some one responsible and fun who shares my dream of building a mortgage free homestead and having a quality life based on respect for each other. [sic] It’s not every day that a shared desire for a mortgage-free homestead factors into someone’s image of the perfect mate, but hey — why the hell shouldn’t it? And there’s at least one tiny house designer catering to the single-and-searching as well. I spoke with Joshua Woodsman, founder of Pinup Houses, about what drove him to launch a website for those making their own tiny houses “a dream in progress.” In keeping with the name, the site is festooned with old-timey illustrations of half-naked women. For anywhere from $50 to $120, customers can purchase blueprints named for legendary sex symbols: the Bettie, the Marilyn, or the Sofia, among others. And who is this guy, exactly? He introduces himself with the basics: “Hi, my name is Joshua Woodsman. I’m from Texas and I live in a cabin.” He is also an imaginary person. Joshua Woodsman is an alter-ego invented by a Czech architect to appeal to American audiences, who he tells me are more interested in small-scale living than Europeans. I asked “Joshua” (who declined to share his real name) how he came up with the idea for Pinup Houses, and it turns out that his target audience is pretty much the same as every other business in the United States: sad single people. “First, I tried to imagine the people who would want to build a small cabin. And I saw one single man and his date, in this cabin,” he said. “I tried to focus on this lonely man, and make a good space for him and his date in the plans.” He raises an important question: If you live in a small cabin in the middle of the woods, how do you propose to bring someone back to your cabin deep in the woods without sounding like a serial killer? Alternatively, how do you tell your date that you live in a trailer in someone’s backyard without sounding like a huge loser? Tiny house dwellers need people who understand them and their unconventional living spaces. Dating services for lonely tiny house people: It’s creating the next generation of micro-homesteaders! If ever there were an indication that the tiny house movement has some longevity, this might be it.Filed under: Cities, Living

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How did Vancouver get so green?

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Vancouver is supremely green, in both senses of the word. Set between ocean and mountains and lined with verdant trees, Vancouver also has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of any major city in North America. In 2007, the most recent year for which comparisons are available, Vancouver had annual emissions of 4.9 tons of CO2 equivalent per capita. By 2012, according to Vancouver’s city government, it had dropped to 4.4 tons per person. “Vancouver has done really well at decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and showing leadership on climate change,” says Ian Bruce, science and policy manager at the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian environmental research organization. “Vancouver is bucking the trend of a lot of North American cities when it comes to how quickly the city is growing in population — it’s increasing quite dramatically, its economy and jobs have increased — while greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by 9 percent in the last decade.” How did Vancouver achieve that? It’s an outlier in even the green-friendly Pacific Northwest: While Seattle and Portland look and feel a lot like Vancouver, their per capita emissions are roughly three times as high. The U.S.’s closest competitor to Vancouver is New York, followed by San Francisco, then Philadelphia. All of those cities are older, with many dense, walkable rowhouse neighborhoods developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the car rose to dominate the landscape and city planning. Like its Pacific Northwest peers, Vancouver was built later, with more detached houses and parking garages. In part, Vancouver is just lucky. British Columbia is rich in hydroelectric power, so keeping the lights on in all those coffee bars pumps a lot less CO2 into the atmosphere than in cities where power comes from fossil fuels. It also helps that Vancouver has a relatively mild West Coast climate. Inland cities like Minneapolis and Denver, with more weather extremes, need more fuel for heat in the winter and electricity for air conditioning in summer. But Vancouver has also made a lot of smart public policy choices. Even as the Canadian national government backslides on environmental protection, Canada’s more liberal localities are making progress. Ontario banned coal-fired electricity this year. Vancouver has been committed to sustainability, and creating policies to advance that goal, for several decades. Mayor Gregor Robertson keeps raising the bar on his predecessor’s successes. He developed the comprehensive “Greenest City 2020 Action Plan,” which lays down benchmarks that each sector of the city’s government must achieve. According to environmental advocates, the city has pursued three main agendas that account for its success: 1. Offering transportation alternatives. Vancouverites are eager to ditch their cars, and the city is trying to help them do so. In 2010 Vancouver started building separated bicycle lanes and it is launching a bikeshare system this year. “Continuing to shift people out of cars to walking, biking, and transit is crucial,” said Mayor Robertson in a phone interview with Grist. Robertson boasts that Vancouver has reached 44 percent of its trips being made without a car. That’s the third-highest percentage in North America, after New York City and Washington, D.C. His administration has also encouraged carsharing, which helps reduce car ownership and total driving, with free dedicated parking spaces for the Car2Go car-sharing service. Winston WongVancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson, IRL.Even as the city grows, its number of car trips decreases. That means its drops are even more impressive when adjusted for population. “In the past decade, the population in Vancouver has increased 18 percent, the number of jobs has gone up 16 percent, while vehicles entering downtown have decreased by 20 percent,” notes Bruce. The proportion of all trips taken into and within Vancouver by car have each dropped around 5 percent during the same timeframe. “It’s not based on breakthrough technology,” Bruce explains, “just planning decisions to invest in transit, bike, and walking infrastructure.” “Vancouverites have chosen to shift out of cars for 20 years in a row now,” says Robertson. The city’s average decline in car mode share is 1 percent per year. In addition to pedestrian and bike safety, Robertson is trying to expand mass transit. But without sufficient investment at the provincial and federal level, the biggest projects may not be completed. Right now, Roberston is lobbying Ottawa for help building a $3 billion subway line that would go to the University of British Columbia (UBC) and unclog traffic on Broadway, a major road through the city. 2. Density, building codes, and transit-oriented development. Walk around downtown Vancouver and you’ll see a lot of skyscrapers. But unlike the downtowns of many big cities, these aren’t all just office buildings. Vancouver has encouraged building housing upwards in its downtown and along transit corridors. This manages the population growth so that most new residents are living in dense, walkable, transit-accessible environments. Denser buildings also tend to be more energy-efficient. “Vancouver has been designed around the notion of building complete communities,” says Bruce. Shopping, housing, office space, parks, and public amenities are all found in the same neighborhoods, especially downtown. “A lot of downtown cores are ghost towns after businesses close at 5 p.m.,” adds Bruce. “Vancouver has tried to redesign the downtown and build enjoyable places. That has made public transit more efficient and a better investment — with more people living in the downtown core it made more sense to invest in things like mass transit.” Or, as Robertson concisely puts it: “We’ve battled hard against suburban sprawl.” All that development has its environmental challenges. “A lot of the new development is in high-rise condos. Their actual energy performance does not look like it’s as good as anticipated,” notes Ellen Pond, senior policy advisor at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental think tank. Buildings are the largest source of Vancouver’s emissions. And while density is preferable to sprawl, luxury high-rises encased in glass are not necessarily more efficient than, say, compact low-rise brick apartment buildings or townhomes. “The modeled energy performance and actual performance can be quite different,” Pond explains. “For example, sometimes there is no thermal barrier between an apartment’s concrete balconies and the floor inside. So, basically you’re building a building with fans that transmit energy in or out.” That can make it colder in winter and hotter and summer, and thus less energy-efficient. The city is working on these issues. Last fall the city council adopted amendments to the city’s building code requiring all new large buildings to be designed to meet strict energy standards and use 20 percent less energy – below 2007 benchmarks – by 2020. Pond says she expects these new regulations to help make future high-rises more efficient. 3. Clean, productive waste management. Trucking garbage to landfills uses energy. Burning garbage may be even worse. Vancouver also tries to make efficient use of its waste. “Our waste goal of diverting waste away from landfills and incinerators is crucial,” says Robertson. The city has introduced compost pick-up for single family homes and is now working on doing the same for multi-unit buildings. “Vancouver has a really aggressive waste management strategy to divert organics from the waste stream,” says Pond. Food waste and yard waste go to a large composting facility. The city’s compost materials are then sold to gardeners. Vancouver even makes use out of leaky gas (although not the kind that comes out when you’ve eaten a burrito). The city captures methane at the landfill and use it to heat greenhouses. They even take the warmth that naturally accumulates in sewers and use it to heat homes. The biggest problem with Vancouver is that this high quality of life attracts too many people. Last year, The Economist ranked Vancouver the most expensive city in North America [sub req]. Robertson argues that his environmental initiatives also make it less expensive. “Greening a city makes it more affordable,” says Robertson. “You have more affordable transportation, with walking, biking, and transit. Healthier buildings burn less fuel. You get more success by investing in a green city — both [in] quality of life and affordability.” Certainly, Vancouver’s high cost of living is a byproduct of its success. If local governments elsewhere were smart — never a safe assumption — they will seek to emulate it. Robertson is also working on climate adaption, as any responsible mayor must these days. Vancouver, like so many coastal cities, is experiencing adverse effects from climate change and CO2 emissions, and could face much worse problems if CO2 pollution continues unchecked. The city’s harbor has become increasingly acidic due to CO2 pollution, and that may be why its shellfish are dying in droves. Vancouver has adopted a Climate Change Adaptation Plan, which is leading to policies such as flood-proof building regulations and developing plans to deal with extreme heat. And that illustrates the most daunting fact of all: While Vancouver is doing great comparatively, it still needs to do more if it is to meet the generally accepted goal of an 80-percent reduction in greenhouse emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. While environmentalists have almost nothing but praise for Vancouver’s existing policies, they want to see the city go farther, faster. “The greenhouse gas emission targets need to be more ambitious than they are today,” says Stephanie Goodwin, Greenpeace’s director for British Columbia. Vancouver may not even meet its own goals. “We’re less than halfway to our emissions targets,” says Goodwin. “They want to reduce emissions by 33 percent from 2007 by 2020. They’ve made less than a 10 percent reduction so far. How far will the city really get over the next 6 years? I have hope but whether they’ll get from single digit reductions up to 33 percent? I’m sitting on pins and needles waiting for that.” Goodwin notes that while the city is following its roadmap to make its buildings carbon neutral by 2020, it is not yet on pace to get there. And so Vancouver’s status as a global warming mitigation leader is both encouraging and discouraging, depending on how you look at it. It shows how much can be done with the strongest political will and the boldest leadership – but is also uncovers a concerted strategy’s limits. At the end of the day, even most liberal Vancouverites don’t want to stop heating their homes or using electricity, and all that energy has to come from somewhere. Says Goodwin of the Vancouver government, “They’ve achieved what’s politically feasible, not what’s ecologically necessary.”Filed under: Article, Cities, Climate & Energy

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