Technology is making cities ‘smart’, but it’s also costing the environment



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A smart city is usually one connected and managed through computing — sensors, data analytics and other information and communications technology.
from shutterstock.com

Mark Sawyer, University of Western Australia

The Australian government has allocated A$50 million for the Smarter Cities and Suburbs Program to encourage projects that “improve the livability, productivity and sustainability of cities and towns across Australia”.

One project funded under the program is installation of temperature, lighting and motion sensors in buildings and bus interchanges in Woden, ACT. This will allow energy systems to be automatically adjusted in response to people’s use of these spaces, with the aim of reducing energy use and improving safety and security.

In similar ways, governments worldwide are partnering with technology firms to make cities “smarter” by retrofitting various city objects with technological features. While this might make our cities safer and potentially more user-friendly, we can’t work off a blind faith in technology which, without proper design, can break down and leave a city full of environmental waste.




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How cities are getting smarter

A “smart city” is an often vague term that usually describes one of two things. The first is a city that takes a knowledge-based approach to its economy, transport, people and environment. The second is a city connected and managed through computing — sensors, data analytics and other information and communications technology.

It’s the second definition that aligns with the interests of multinational tech firms. IBM, Serco, Cisco, Microsoft, Philips and Google are among those active in this market. Each is working with local authorities worldwide to provide the hardware, software and technical know-how for complex, urban-scale projects.

In Rio de Janeiro, a partnership between the city government and IBM has created an urban-scale network of sensors, bringing data from thirty agencies into a single centralised hub. Here it is examined by algorithms and human analysts to help model and plan city development, and to respond to unexpected events.

Tech giants provide expertise for a city to become “smart” and then keep its systems running afterwards. In some cases, tech-led smart cities have risen from the ground up. Songdo, in South Korea, and Masdar, UAE, were born smart by integrating advanced technologies at the masterplanning and construction stages.




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How does a city get to be ‘smart’? This is how Tel Aviv did it


More often, though, existing cities are retrofitted with smart systems. Barcelona, for instance, has gained a reputation as one of the world’s top smart cities, after its existing buildings and infrastructure were fitted with sensors and processors to monitor and maintain infrastructure, as well as for planning future development.

The city is dotted with electric vehicle charging points and smart parking spaces. Sensors and a data-driven irrigation system monitor and manage water use. The public transport system has interactive touch screens at bus stops and USB chargers on buses.

Barcelona has a reputation of being one of the world’s smartest cities.

Suppliers of smart systems claim a number of benefits for smart cities, arguing these will result in more equitable, efficient and environmentally sustainable urban centres. Other advocates claim smart cities are more “happy and resilient”. But there are also hidden costs to smart cities.

The downsides of being smart

Cyber-security and technology ethics are important topics. Smart cities represent a complex new field for governments, citizens, designers and security experts to navigate.

The privatisation of civic space and public services is a hidden cost too. The complexity of smart city systems and their need for ongoing maintenance could lead to long-term reliance on a tech company to deliver public services.




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Sensors in public spaces can help create cities that are both smart and sociable


Many argue that, by improving data collection and monitoring and allowing for real-time responses, smart systems will lead to better environmental outcomes. For instance, waste bins that alert city managers when they need collecting, or that prompt recycling through tax credits, and street lamps that track movement and adjust lighting levels have the potential to reduce energy use.

But this runs contrary to studies that show more information and communication technology actually leads to higher energy use. At best, smart cities may end up a zero-sum game in terms of sustainability because their “positive and negative impacts tend to cancel each other out”.

And then there’s the less-talked-about issue of e-waste, which is a huge global challenge. Adding computers to objects could create what one writer has termed a new “internet of trash” — products designed to be thrown away as soon as their batteries run down.

Computer technology is often short-lived and needs upgrading often.
from shutterstock.com

As cities become smart they need more and more objects — bollards, street lamps, public furniture, signboards — to integrate sensors, screens, batteries and processors. Objects in our cities are usually built with durable materials, which means they can be used for decades.

Computer processors and software systems, on the other hand, are short-lived and may need upgrading every few years. Adding technology to products that didn’t have this in the past effectively shortens their life-span and makes servicing, warranties and support contracts more complex and unreliable. One outcome could be a landscape of smart junk — public infrastructure that has stopped working, or that needs ongoing patching, maintenance and upgrades.




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In Barcelona, many of the gadgets that made it one of the world’s smartest cities no longer work properly. The smart streetlights on the Passatge de Mas de Roda, which were put in place in 2011 to improve energy efficiency by detecting human movement, noise and climatic conditions, later fell into disrepair.

If smart objects aren’t designed so they can be disassembled at the end of their useful life, electronic components are likely to be left inside where they hamper recycling efforts. Some digital components contain toxic materials. Disposing of these through burning or in landfill can contaminate environments and threaten human health.

The ConversationThese are not insurmountable challenges. Information and communications technology, data and networks have an important place in our shared urban future. But this future will be determined by our attitudes toward these technologies. We need to make sure that instead of being short-term gimmicks to be thrown away when their novelty wears off, they are thoughtfully designed, and that they put they put the needs of citizens and environments first.

Mark Sawyer, Lecturer in Architecture, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Lord of the forest: New Zealand’s most sacred tree is under threat from disease, but response is slow



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Tāne Mahuta is New Zealand’s most sacred tree, but its days will be numbered if it is infected with kauri dieback disease.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

Matthew Hall, Victoria University of Wellington

Tāne Mahuta is Aotearoa New Zealand’s largest living being – but the 45m tall, 2,500-year-old kauri tree is under severe threat from a devastating disease.

Nearly a decade after the discovery of kauri dieback disease, it is continuing to spread largely unchecked through the northern part of the North Island. Thousands of kauri trees have likely been infected and are now dead or dying. The Waipoua forest, home of Tāne Mahuta and many other majestic kauri, is reported to be one of the worst affected areas.

For Māori, who trace their whakapapa (lineage) to the origins of the earth, Tāne Mahuta is kin. The threat of losing this tree should electrify the fight against kauri dieback.




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Call to close the forest

Named after Tāne, the son of Ranginui the sky father and Papatūanuku the earth mother, Tāne Mahuta is a highly revered taonga, or treasure. In Māori mythology, it was Tāne who brought trees and birds to earth.

The loss of this ancestor, with a presence that has been known to move some to tears, is incalculable.

Kauri dieback has been recorded metres from this ancient tree, despite the best efforts of a prevention programme that has been in place since 2009. Much of the focus of the programme has been on encouraging behaviour change by forest users (following paths, washing boots) and upgrading tracks (from mud to boardwalks). A new national pest management plan proposes more of the same.

As part of a prevention programme to limit the spread of kauri dieback, visitors to kauri forests are encouraged to spray their shoes with a disinfectant.
Eli Duke/WIkimedia Commons, CC BY-SA
Signs remind visitors in the Waitākere Ranges about precautions against the spread of kauri dieback disease.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

In my view, the most notable, and frustrating, aspect of this programme is the significant resistance to close kauri forest tracks to people, who, along with wild pigs, are one of the major vectors of the disease.

Te Kawerau ā Maki, a Māori tribal group with mana whenua (customary authority) over the land of the Waitākere forest in the Auckland region, have maintained a consistent stance that the only way to protect kauri forests is to close them to humans. In November 2017, they placed a rāhui (temporary closure) over the entire forest area, severely frustrated by the lack of effective action to control kauri dieback by Auckland Council.

A rāhui is not legally enforceable, and it was largely ignored by forest users who continued to enter and spread the disease. Eventually, six months later, Auckland Council voted to close the majority of tracks, but Te Kawerau ā Maki have viewed this as too little, and possibly too late.

Keeping the forest open

In a similar laggardly vein, the Department of Conservation has only just put forward a proposal to close or partially close 24 kauri forest tracks. This proposal is currently going through a consultation process, which seems inappropriate when dealing with an immediate biosecurity crisis.

The proposal does not include the Waipoua forest and the track that leads to Tāne Mahuta, or to other significant kauri such as Te Matua Ngahere. The department says:

the decision to propose track closures is not taken lightly, but has been considered in situations where there is high kauri dieback risk, low visitor use, high upgrade and ongoing maintenance costs, and a similar experience provided in the vicinity.

Tāne mahuta draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to the Waipoua forest area. This, combined with the fact that forest tracks are generally in good condition has led to the decision to keep the forest open. For now, the tangata whenua (local Māori with authority over land) support it.

Tāne Mahuta draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to the kauri forests in the north of New Zealand.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

Relinquishing our claims

Although we know that our human presence in kauri forests will lead to the certain death of the trees, many people still wish to venture into the forests, to walk or to hunt, regardless of the consequences.

Whether conscious or not, the value assessment here must be that the right of kauri trees to live and flourish is of lesser value than some fleeting recreation on a weekend afternoon. As people kept blindly tramping into the Waitākere forest, infection rates increased from 8% to 19% in just five years.

What I find most disturbing here is that government agencies tasked with preserving the “intrinsic values” of native species are prepared to let this happen for pragmatic and economic reasons. This is one of those situations where competing values can’t be balanced.

The life and flourishing of kauri must be prioritised above all else, whatever the economic or recreational hit. This means letting go of our claim to kauri trees as “natural and recreational resources” and acknowledging them for what they are – our living, spiritual, intelligent kin.

Kauri or kiwifruit

Pragmatically, our assistance to kauri also necessitates that we re-assess the value we place on the survival of kauri from an economic perspective.

Funding of less than NZ$2 million per year for the kauri dieback programme pales in comparison to the magnitude of the response to recent agricultural biosecurity threats.

In 2010, a huge response to the incursion of a microbial pathogen (Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae, or Psa) in kiwifruit vines saw a NZ$50 million fund created to fight the disease.

In 2015, after a single Queensland fruit fly was caught in a trap in February, a large coordinated response, with local, restrictive biosecurity control orders in place, resulted in eradication in October, at a cost of NZ$13.6 million.

With such funds, it would be much easier to enforce the closure of kauri forests, until more long-term measures, such as improving genetic resistance, become possible.

At the end of last year, Minister for Forestry Shane Jones was quoted expressing a similar opinion, following the government’s announcement that it would attempt to eradicate the cow disease Mycoplasma bovis.

If it’s possible for us to move swiftly and cull diseased cows and stop the transport of potentially diseased cows off private farms, we need a similar level of vigour in safeguarding areas where our kauri are still strong.

The ConversationFor the survival of Tāne Mahuta, we should close off kauri forests immediately and boost funding for the implementation of the dieback management programme.

Matthew Hall, Associate Director, Research Services, Victoria University of Wellington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The ozone hole is both an environmental success story and an enduring global threat



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Researchers release a balloon carrying instruments to measure ozone levels above Antarctica.
Kelli-Ann Bliss/NOAA, CC BY

Shane Keating, UNSW and Darryn Waugh, Johns Hopkins University

The headlines in recent months read like an international eco-thriller.

At Mauna Loa Observatory, perched high on a Hawaiian volcano, researchers measure unusual levels of CFC-11 in the atmosphere. The measurements baffle the scientific community: CFC-11, a potent ozone-depleting gas, has been carefully monitored since it was banned under the 1987 Montreal Protocol. But the measurements are soon confirmed by observing stations in Greenland, American Samoa and Antarctica. The evidence points to illegal production of the banned chemical, threatening the fragile recovery of Earth’s UV-shielding ozone layer. But the identity of the environmental super-villain remains a mystery.

Then, a breakthrough. By running global climate models backwards, a team of scientists in Boulder, Colorado, trace the source of CFC-11 to East Asia. The trail is picked up by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a tiny activist organisation based above a coffee shop in Islington, London. EIA dispatches investigators to China and uncovers rampant illegal production of CFC-11 for insulation foam used in the Chinese construction industry. “This is an environmental crime on a massive scale,” says Clare Perry, EIA’s climate campaign leader.

Meanwhile, scientists and diplomats from around the world converge on Vienna for a meeting of the United Nations working group on the Montreal Protocol. EIA’s blockbuster report is high on the agenda. But can the international community band together once more to protect the ozone layer and save “the world’s most successful environmental treaty”?




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After 30 years of the Montreal Protocol, the ozone layer is gradually healing


A model of cooperation

The last time the ozone hole was front-page news, President Ronald Reagan was still eating jelly beans in the Oval Office. In 1985 British scientists announced the discovery of a shocking decline in atmospheric ozone concentrations high above Antarctica. The “ozone hole”, as it became known, was caused by ozone-eating chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used as refrigerants in air conditioners and propellants in aerosol spray cans.

The discovery galvanised public opinion, particularly over concerns about the risk of skin cancer, cataracts and sunburn associated with increased exposure to ultraviolet radiation. In Australia and New Zealand, popular ad campaigns featuring a dancing seagull encouraged the beach-goers to “Slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, and slap on a hat!”.

The 1981 “Slip! Slop! Slap!” ad campaign by Cancer Council Victoria (Australia).

Although many uncertainties over the science remained – which were eagerly exploited by the chemical industry – President Reagan recognised the danger posed by the ozone hole and vigorously backed international negotiations to ban CFCs, including CFC-11. On January 1 1989, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer became law.

In his signing statement, Reagan heralded the Montreal Protocol as “a model of cooperation” and “a product of the recognition and international consensus that ozone depletion is a global problem”. It remains his signature environmental achievement.

An enduring impact on Earth’s climate

Three decades after Montreal, the ozone layer is showing signs of recovery. In January 2018, a NASA study found that the ozone hole was the smallest it had been since 1988, the year before the Montreal protocol went into effect. But a full recovery will take decades. “CFCs have lifetimes from 50 to 100 years, so they linger in the atmosphere for a very long time,” said NASA scientist Anne Douglass, one of the authors of the study. “As far as the ozone hole being gone, we’re looking at 2060 or 2080.”

In the meantime, CFCs continue to impact Earth’s climate in some unexpected ways. CFCs are powerful greenhouse gases, with more than 5,000 times the warming potential of an equivalent weight of carbon dioxide. It is estimated that banning CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals has delayed global warming by as much as a decade.

However, those gains are threatened by the ozone-friendly, but heat-trapping, chemicals that have replaced CFCs in our air conditioners and insulation. The latest amendment to the Montreal Protocol will phase out the use of this new class of chemicals by 2028.




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Even more surprising is the complex influence of the ozone hole on Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. The loss of UV-absorbing ozone over the South Pole has changed the pattern of winds around Antarctica. Strengthened winds blowing over the Southern Ocean draw more deep water towards the surface, where it is “ventilated” by contact with the atmosphere.

Deep Antarctic water is rich in carbon, making it a poor absorber of atmospheric CO₂. That means that the ocean has become less efficient at removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing its ability to offset global warming.

Darryn Waugh on the ozone threat.

Lessons from a world avoided

The success of the Montreal Protocol holds lessons for today’s efforts to confront human-induced climate change. Vigorous leadership by Reagan and the then British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, a trained chemist, was crucial during the negotiations of the treaty. The protocol began modestly and was designed to be flexible so that more ozone-depleting substances could be phased out by later amendments. Developing countries were also provided with incentives and institutional support to meet their compliance targets.

Lessons from the World Avoided: Dr Sean Davis at TEDx Boulder 2017.

But perhaps the most important lesson is the need for action, even when the science is not yet conclusive. “We don’t need absolute certainty to act,” says Sean Davis, a climate scientist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “When Montreal was signed, we were less certain then of the risks of CFCs than we are now of the risks of greenhouse gas emissions.”


The ConversationProfessor Darryn Waugh will present a public lecture about the enduring impact of the ozone hole on climate at UNSW Sydney on July 30, 2018. Details and registration information are available here.

Shane Keating, Senior Lecturer in Mathematics and Oceanography, UNSW and Darryn Waugh, Professor, Earth and Planetary Sciences, Johns Hopkins University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.