Friday, 5 October 2018

Escape to Mars

Mars. It has always been an enigma for mankind. Does life on Mars exist? How similar is it to Earth? Will humans ever get there? In recent times Mars has become synonymous with what people consider a safe haven, away from global warming stricken Earth. People casually joke "Oh well, I'm just going to move to Mars." This may not be too far from reality anymore as the race to Mars is real and talks about colonisation of Mars aren't all mumbo jumbo.

We have been told that Earth is heading towards its "tipping point". A term in climatology which means close to irreversible climate destabilisation. We have already raised global average temperatures by 1C pre-industrial levels. If this is raised by a further 1C, we will face a "hothouse" climate where Earth will continue warming even if all emissions cease. The Paris agreement on climate change made by 194 countries aimed to limit global warming 'well below' 2°C, or 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels if possible. However current efforts are unlikely to meet this target.

Reading reports such as these does make me pessimistic and I too wonder if we are fighting a losing battle and if Earth is hurling towards its inevitable demise. Grim huh?

This is probably one of the reasons why Elon Musk, Boeing and others decided it might be worth looking towards the skies for a way out. First humans on Mars are predicted to reach as early as 2020s. The idea is to start small,  build a base in Mars, learn how to survive and eventually build a self-sustaining community. It won't be easy. With freezing temperatures, radiation and thin atmosphere, humans can definitely not take a stroll in the Martian landscape without heavy spacesuits. But this too is being explored. A concept called "Terraforming of Mars" aims to alter the atmosphere of Mars through planetary engineering so it is more hospitable to humans. I have to admit, this concept does seem a bit far fetched to me and we definitely don't have the technology to do it in 2018.

But guess which place is hospitable to humans? Earth! I have nothing against space exploration. It is one of my key interests and it would be a grand day when we finally land on Mars. However I am hesitant to accept Mars as an escape route. We can make tremendous progress to reverse climate change here on Earth, through the resources we would invest in making a self-sustaining community on Mars. It almost sounds like we are giving up on this home, disregarding it as a sinking ship. Transferring the entire population of Earth to Mars is much, much more far fetched than making concrete efforts to reduce global warming here on Earth. Apart from everyday things that we do - reducing automobile use, eating greener etc. an important role we can play is to elect leaders who have an understanding of the delicate situation we are in and are willing to tackle climate change head on and not just cater to the whims and fancies of the fossil fuel industry and the likes.

So let's keep our eyes on the prize, shall we?

Monday, 11 June 2018

An Easy Switch - A Big Impact

I did not become a regular coffee drinker until recently. I mostly had a cappuccino at work if I felt like it, but for the most part takeaway coffee was usually only once in a while. However this has changed in the last year or so. There's a lovely cafe outside my gym and the smell of freshly roasted beans always lures me in after my workout. And then started my morning ritual of grabbing a coffee after gym and heading to work. For most Australians, having a coffee every day on their commute to work, going for meetings, etc. is extremely common. You'd be guaranteed to see busy commuters holding a cup of coffee from Starbucks or a local coffee shop while walking on George Street every morning.

Australians use 1 billion coffee cups each year. That is a LOT of cups. Is it sustainable? Most definitely not. Are there easy ways to reduce this waste? Most definitely yes.

Reusable coffee cups can be found quite easily in homeware stores around Australia. I prefer the brand KeepCup as their cups are quite high quality and come in various fun colours. But there are many other brands that you could easily choose from. Below are my cute KeepCups. I carry them while going to work, while going shopping (cause you never know when you might crave a coffee), they're pretty much in my handbag all the time.

I am not without fault. There are times when I forget. And that's okay. The important thing is to take the first step towards doing better. My good friend suggested that if you forget your reusable cup, you always have the choice of drinking your coffee inside the cafe in their ceramic cups - and that's always nice and relaxing.

The problem is that most people are aware of reusable cups but still don't think it's important enough to invest in them. There could be several factors responsible for this.
  • Unawareness. People don't know the extent to which coffee cups have become a problem. Consider this -they are the second largest contributor to waste after plastic bottles. 
  • Miscommunication. People think they are already doing right. Nearly all the takeaway coffee cups have a recyclable sign on it. But which part of the coffee cup is the sign referring to? If the sign is on the lid, it may just be referring to the lid, not the entire cup. Most coffee cups are not recyclable. This is due to the plastic lining inside the paper cup. Recycling rules vary from council to council - so you are better off not using them at all. 

  • Just actually not caring. Had to include this cause there is a vast majority of companies and consumers in this category. Most cafes and hotels are well versed with the problem of waste. Despite this I find they are not making any effort whatsoever to reduce this. For instance, I stayed at a hotel in Melbourne earlier this year. When we ordered some coffees to our room, all of them came in takeaway cups. This made no sense to me as they could have easily used the ceramic cups when delivering coffees to rooms? Oh well. I left this feedback while checking out. I will have to stay there again to see if they've made any changes.
Okay so they're not all bad. I was heartened to see this movement pick up in Australia - Basically participating cafes are offering discounts to consumers who bring their own reusable cups. How awesome is that! We need more measures like this to encourage behaviour change. You can look up if your cafe is participating through their map You're instantly saving money AND doing your bit for the environment. Go you!

Friday, 29 December 2017

If it isn't renewable, it'll run out.

South Australia (SA) has been a shining beacon of light in Australia's clean, green future since more than a decade. In 2009 the state government committed to increase the renewable energy production target to 33% by 2020. This target was unsurprisingly reached earlier, by 2013/14. The target was then increased to 50% by 2025. This target was reached early as well, in 2016/17 - and they're not showing any signs of slowing down. With solar and wind capacity doubling in the next 5 years, they're heading towards 80% of renewable energy generation by 2021/22.

The state's stance on renewable energy has not been without its challenges. Last winter South Australia was hit by severe storms, causing thousands of homes to go without power. Criticisms came from far and wide. The opposition seized the opportunity with both hands. The blame was placed squarely on South Australia's renewables and their unreliability. There have been several articles since last year's events on what actually caused the mass blackout. The AEMO (Australian Energy Market Operator) itself has released contradictory statements on the issue.

Nevertheless the incident highlighted that something needed to change to increase the energy security for the state. Before the blackout, wind had been producing about 50% of SA's power needs with the remainder being imported from Victoria's interconnector. The state had the realisation that they had sufficient renewable capacity to source energy security within the borders. They did not need to rely on their neighbours.

Enter Elon Musk AKA real life Tony Stark. Musk offered SA Premier Jay Weatherill that his company will help resolve South Australia's energy security issue. They will build the world's largest lithium-ion battery in 100 days, else it will be free. The Government took him up on his offer. This move along with the Government's announcement on building a new gas fired plant were the first steps towards solving SA's energy security concerns.

Musk's battery is a 100 megawatt/129 MWh system. It has been designed to lower the intermittency issues and manage high demand during peak summer months. It has the potential to provide enough energy to power 30,000 homes for eight hours or 60,000 homes for four hours. The battery is by far the largest in the world, more than three times any existing storage facility. It is expected to stabilise SA's electricity grid and also lower energy prices. The battery was launched on 1 December this year. Its early completion demonstrated that sustainable solutions needn't be time consuming and difficult but could be fast and efficient.

What pleased me most about this entire ordeal was that even after the blackout, the voter sentiment in SA wasn't dampened. A poll taken soon after the storms showed that almost two thirds of the public still believed that renewable energy is the solution to Australia's energy needs. It sent out a strong message to the rest of Australia and even the world at large. Sure, venturing into new territories with renewables will come with its set of challenges and setbacks, as we saw last year. But the most important thing is to look at the bigger picture. Renewable energy is the only way forward. South Australia understands this and it is important that the rest of Australia understands this too.

In Musk's words "It’s a definition that if it’s not renewable, it’s going to run out at some point”.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Article Published in the Australian Water Journal

I wrote an article on the importance of Active Monitoring in smart metering a few months ago. I am pleased to share that the article was published by the Australian Water Association in their Water Journal as well as in their quarterly "Current" magazine.


Below is the article abstract. You can read the complete article here.

Water security and demand management are prominent issues whilst discussing Australia’s future. Smart metering has emerged as an integral tool in this regard. It provides users with the ability to monitor their consumption patterns and avoid wastage. Significant time has been invested in exploring different types of smart metering technologies. However there has been little research on methods that will help employ these technologies to get measurable results. It is a common misconception that smart metering largely works on a ‘plug and play’ basis. This paper argues that the true benefit of smart metering lies in utilising the data obtained. Due to workload and other priorities it is hard for users to exercise diligence in doing so. This paper presents a possible solution by engaging an external party to provide that service. This is known as the Active Water Analysis, Risk and Efficiency (AWARE) service.

Three studies were conducted to demonstrate the advantages of implementing the active monitoring service.
Study 1 compared the water usage, amount and number of leaks at 43 supermarket stores not covered by the AWARE service vs 123 stores with AWARE.
Study 2 compared the consumption patterns at a hospital with and without AWARE, six months apart.
Study 3 explored what was involved in ensuring the continuity of smart metering data acquisition at 90 schools.

At the end of Study 1, it was found that:

The average water use at the stores without AWARE was 170kL/ compared to 143kL/ at the stores with AWARE.
The average amount of leakage found at stores without AWARE was 64kL/ compared to 20kL/ at the stores with AWARE.
The number of leaks at stores without AWARE was six times higher than stores with AWARE.
The study found that the service was saving the client $2 for every $1 invested in the program.
Study 2 found that without AWARE a leak costed a hospital $8,436. Six months previously, the hospital was covered by the AWARE service. A leak on the same meter was found and resolved within one month resulting in savings of $7,000.
Study 3 explored issues encountered in maintaining 280 loggers at 90 schools. Cases such as vandalism, replacement of meters, among others are discussed highlighting costs and issues experienced to maintain the system.

The three studies demonstrate that a clear ROI from smart metering can only be obtained by actively using the data collected. Employing the AWARE service described herein ensures this. By taking complete responsibility for water management, it provides organisations time and resources to focus on more important issues. It helps customers avoid bill shocks and risks of property damage. The service helps justify budget allocation towards remote monitoring technologies and boosts the organisation’s sustainability profile. Allocating resources for the active management of data collected is essential to achieve the savings and risk reductions possible from smart metering.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

World Water Day - Walk for Water

It's the peak of summer. I have a sip of water and my lips are immediately dry again. Water. We are running low. We still have to make our supply last a few more hours before I make my trip again. We try to ration it. We really do. But what can we do? We need it for everything. Cooking, washing, bathing, drinking. We are a family of five. My younger brother is only two. My older brother works in the fields. My mother has to take care of my younger brother.

I am twelve. My name is Sarita. Before my brother was born, I went to school. My mother made the daily trips to get water for us. I would jump up as I saw her approaching our house. She looked exhausted but pleased to see my face. I would tell her all that I learnt at school. She would listen with a smile on her face. I no longer go to school. I don't have much to tell my mother about my trips to fetch water. Now and then I meet the girls I went to school with. They have learnt so much more since I left. They feel sorry for me. I feel bad too. But this is my responsibility. Father said so.

It is time for me to go. I take my bucket and begin walking. It is a 5 km walk to my destination. The walk to the well isn't so bad. I feel it passes much quicker than my trip back. I walk faster. My lips are dry again. The sun is so strong on my back. The stones on the path dig into my feet. I don't even notice the cuts anymore. Far in the horizon, I see the well.

When I reach, I quickly lower my bucket, fill a little with water and bring it back up. I gulp it down and feel life returning back in me. I lower it again and bring it back up. My bucket is full to the brim. I put it gingerly on my head. Careful not to spill any of it. We will need every drop of the 20 litres. I prepare to head back.

"It's gotten worse." I think to myself. There is a sharp pain in my back. Mother had said it will go away. My body will get used to the load. I am not sure... I keep walking. The sun is stronger now. I feel sweat dripping down my face. Just a few more kilometers, I think to myself. I need to keep walking. I have no choice...

On average girls like Sarita have to travel 6 kms to get access to safe, clean water. Carrying heavy loads often causes them severe back and neck injuries. Easy access to clean water is not only important because this is a basic human right but also because it creates gender inequality. More often than not, women and girls are assigned the responsibility of travelling long distances and carrying heavy loads of water (sometimes up to 40 litres). This keeps them from attending schools or getting a job. This World Water Day, please join me for WaterAid's "Walk for Water" campaign to raise funds for girls like Sarita so they no longer have to carry this burden for their families. To join and/or donate please click here.

Image courtesy: Ankita Mehta

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Omnipresent Palm Oil

Palm oil. The single most devastating environmental problem the world is facing today. Palm oil requires tropical conditions to grow. Nearly 85% of the world's palm oil supply comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. What were before luscious rain forests were slashed and burnt to make way for palm oil plantations. Every hour 300 football fields worth of forests are being compromised to make way for palm oil production.

The impact on the orangutan population in Indonesia has been catastrophic. Almost 90% of their habitat has been destroyed due to this activity. We are losing 6000 orangutans every year. The thought of it makes me very sad. They have been attacked by machetes and guns. The ones that survive often die of starvation.

Palm oil plantation workers are ordered to kill orangutans. They are treated like pests! These beautiful creatures have been said to share almost 97% of their genes with humans. Not just orangutans but the Sumatran Tiger, Clouded Leopard, Sumatran Rhino, among others are also chronically suffering due to this activity.

When I first learnt about palm oil I got really mad and went "Right, going to stop buying everything that contains palm oil!". Much to my dismay I found that palm oil is in literally EVERYTHING. It is extremely difficult to get around. Below are just some of the examples of products that contain palm oil.

What is the solution? The WWF has set up a sustainable palm oil certification system that sets environmental and social criteria that companies must abide by in order to get the certification. Although a move in the right direction, it has been criticized as more of a greenwashing tactic. In other words, the degree to which the companies are abiding by the criteria set is unclear. In some cases the auditors have even been accused of colluding with the plantation companies.

The other solution is to find an alternative to palm oil. A couple of years ago there were reports that scientists were working on developing an alternative on an industrial scale. If this happens, that would certainly be good news for all of us.

But in the meantime, if we want to stop the alarmingly fast rate at which palm oil production is causing environmental destruction, we must attempt to buy products that don't contain this substance. There are apps that can help you make better choices. I know it is hard. I myself struggle a lot with this (avoiding Nutella alone is an achievement for me). But, the change must come from the consumer's side. If the people boycott products containing palm oil, production and supply are sure to get affected - it's basic economics.

Can we do it? We have to give it a try. These guys in particular will be very grateful to you.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The Great African Crisis

I am thrilled to be in Africa currently, visiting my parents after three long years. Although I have been to this continent many times previously, its majestic wildlife, beaches and cheerful people never fail to delight me. I consider myself very lucky to have been on great African safaris many times before and am beyond ecstatic about visiting the Serengeti National Park end of this month. I think Africa is one of the few places left on Earth where people can feel truly connected to the beauty of nature and our fellow beings that roam the planet. 

This is why it saddens me that the very essence of this beautiful land is threatened by the inhumane and gruesome act of poaching. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, at the current rate, elephants, rhinos and other iconic African wildlife might be gone in our lifetime. This is simply unacceptable. 

Ivory, from elephant tusks and the rhino horn are sold in the black market for $1,000 and $50,000 per pound, respectively. To put things into perspective gold is sold for about $22,000 per pound. The significant money involved in the trade lures poachers into getting involved in such activities. A pair of tusks can be worth a few years' salaries in most African countries. This is the strength of the organised criminal gangs that are thriving on the money generated from this illegal trade. It is easy for them to bribe rangers and tempt local people into getting what they want. What makes them more dangerous is their use of high powered technology and weapons which enables them to kill many animals at once, without being detected. 

Apart from the endangerment of precious animal species, poaching poses a significant threat to Africa's tourism industry. In 2014, tourism contributed close to 5% of Kenya and Tanzania's GDP. Adding pressure to the problem is the growing evidence that suggests that wildlife poaching is funding criminal and terrorist organisations in several parts of Africa. Thus suggesting that the situation at hand must not just be treated as a conservation issue but also a security issue. 

There is no one solution to tackle this complex problem but several measures that need to be taken to bring the situation under control. The first would be to educate and create awareness among the consumers themselves. China alone accounts for about 70% of global ivory demand. The African governments will need to invest heavily in more sophisticated technology such as surveillance equipment, even drones have been proposed as a possible tool to assist in this task. All the countries that have been known to providing a market for these animal products need to take a tougher stand on the subject. In addition sustainable livelihoods need to be created in areas affected by wildlife crime.

Do we really want our children to grow up in a world where there are no elephants, no rhinos? Do we want them to learn about them in a museum and then explain to them that they were killed over something as trivial as trinkets and jewelry? Definitely not. 

Let's restore Africa's majestic wildlife and let our children enjoy it in all its glory!