The long path towards transparency

This February, I read an article from Science Magazine on the issues of open record laws. It was interesting that the attempt to integrate transparency into the scientific community has led to harassment of researchers. This happens in the form of incessant communication (via meetings, calls, requests, emails), legal battles and lawsuits [1]. Is this what transparency brings to EIA? Is that what scares proponents away from being transparent?

Transparency is a concept that can improve decision-making. In several of my graduate classes, we can have eternal discussions on the importance of transparency in environmental impact assessments (EIA). We have seen cases where transparency was needed, or how it could improve the EIA process. Transparency was lacking in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant project, which led to unquestioned and uninformed decisions, resulting in the infamous Fukushima disaster [2]. If transparency can improve the credibility and process of EIA, why is it met with so much resistance?

What we need to keep in mind is that peer-reviewed research studies and EIA conclusions are not the same. The audience of peer-reviewed scholarly articles includes other scholars and researchers. An EIA is meant for decision-makers and to inform stakeholders. This is an important distinction. Research papers go through peer-reviewing “as the system for evaluating the quality, validity, and relevance of scholarly research [3].” An EIA report is meant to analyze the impacts of a particular project.

During one class, we discussed a paper by O’Faircheallaigh [4] that looked at the different types and purposes of public participation. It would be interesting to allow these types of public participation to provide controlled opportunities for anyone interested instead of limiting the transparency of the project. We know that there has already been an increase in restraints on public participation with the current CEAA 2012 [5]. We should at least increase transparency.

On March 16, 2015, a story about a Six Nations incinerator project, in Ontario, emerged in the news involving a new “zero emissions” incinerator that was reportedly producing 200 times the acceptable provincial levels of toxins and carcinogens into the environment [6]. On March 19, 2015, the community held a meeting to discuss the issue [7]. Questions were left unanswered, and the inventor of the incinerator, John Kearns, did not even attend the meeting to provide any information [7]. This is an instance in which transparency is needed to decide what to do next, and yet it is lacking.

“So this is good. It’s not bad. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. And we need a lot of sunlight in this troubled world.”

– Don Tapscott on transparency

Questioning the level of transparency for peer-reviewed papers is intended to protect researchers from excessive harassment. What the EIA process has that the research process lacks are the planned opportunities for those with access to the information and data to express their concerns. There are also more members participating in the EIA process compared to the number of members in a research team. We are in an age where this resistance only creates conflict. Proponents are finding it harder to fight transparency, as transparency in everyday life is becoming the norm. We no longer see transparency as a courtesy. It is becoming expected.

The following TEDtalk video has well-known author, management thinker and futurist Don Tapscott discuss where we, as a global community, are headed in terms of transparency:

[1] Kollipara P. 2015. Open records laws becoming vehicle for harassing academic researchers, report warns. In: News: Policy. Science Magazine. Electronically accessed: http://news.sciencemag.org/policy/2015/02/open-records-laws-becoming-vehicle-harassing-academic-researchers-report-warns

[2] Wang Q and Chen X. 2012. Regulatory transparency—How China can learn from Japan’s nuclear regulatory failures? Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. 16:3574–3578.

[3] Taylor & Francis Group. 2014. What is peer review? [Website] Taylor & Francis. http://journalauthors.tandf.co.uk/review/peer.asp

[4] O’Faircheallaigh C. 2010. Public participation and environmental impact assessment: Purposes, implications, and lessons for public policy making. Environmental Impact Assessment Review. 30: 19–27.

[5] Gibson RB. 2012. In full retreat: the Canadian government’s new environmental assessment law undoes decades of progress. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal. 30(3):179-188.

[6] Green J. 2015. Six Nations incinerator polluting at up to 200 times Ontario limits. CBC News. March 16, 2015. Electronically accessed: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/six-nations-incinerator-polluting-at-up-to-200-times-ontario-limits-1.2931215

[7] Green J. 2015. Inventor skips Six Nations meeting about failed incinerator report. CBC News. March 20, 2015. Electronically accessed: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/inventor-skips-six-nations-meeting-about-failed-incinerator-report-1.3002484

Striving for a Green Economy: novel concept or novelty?

(Photo by Kalikasan Party)

According to the European Environmental Agency, “the green economy” is a concept that consists of balancing economic growth and environmental protection [1]. The idea is to incorporate the environment into economic development. Will the idea of the green economy be a solution to environmental sustainability? It is a novel concept but could it become a simple novelty instead?

The past year has had a lot of focus on sustainable activity. The United Nations 2014 Climate Summit took place to lead up to the 2015 Summit in which the UN will discuss a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol [2]. Al Gore streamed an event called 24 Hours of Reality that listed a myriad of solutions to lower carbon emissions [3]. Even Pope Francis has begun emphasizing the need to turn our attention towards climate change [4].

Currently, President Obama has proposed designating 4.8 million hectares of Alaskan territory as wilderness areas [5]. Opposition to this proposal has to do with a large area of Alaska being put off limits for oil exploration. In addition, in the United Kingdom, MPs are in debate about a moratorium on fracking in order to meet emission reduction goals [6].

The question is, with our growth towards “the green economy”, how are environmental assessments responding to projects? As easy as it is to fall on oil and coal as our main sources of energy, there are numerous alternative and sustainable sources of energy. Does this trend towards green energy give more easily permission to green projects?

There are cases where a good idea goes wrong. An example is Germany’s transition to renewable energy and the implementation of wind farms in the mid-2000s. Striving for a cleaner source of energy had switched Germany from an energy exporter to importer due to the power strain on the power grid [7]. Due to a quick transition and poorly assessed plans on the output of energy, the power demand, and the unpredictability of wind caused the problem [7]. It continues with the need to expand and deliver energy impeded by activists who preventing approval of construction [7]. A similar problem occurred with a solar plant:

“[…] I will never forget those seemingly endless days of summer spent inside while it rained incessantly. Bavaria is like Seattle in the United States or Sichuan province in China. You don’t want to put a solar plant in Bavaria, but that is exactly where the Germans put it. The plant, with a peak output of 10 megawatts, went into operation in June 2005.

It happened for the best reason there is in politics: money. Welcome to the world of new renewable energies, where the subsidies rule—and consumers pay.”

– Vaclav Smil, writer for IEEE commenting on a proposed plan for a solar plant [8].

What we see here is not the fault of the type of resource, but the system and approval of a plan not well assessed. The poor planning leads to ineffective energy production which leads to an increase price in energy and loss in potential. We get caught up with the trend of green projects that we neglect some of the problems. In 2011, a project in Saskatchewan involving a wind turbine encountered skepticism such as:

 “I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle because as soon as you announce a project is green, everybody stands and salutes the flag.”

– Councilor Pat Lorje  [9]

It is a fair point. People have the right to question a new project. In this case, they wanted to see the documents of the project assessment. Is it not their prerogative? If we want to advance towards a green economy, these projects need to be approved after proper assessment and planning. EA reports should not become more lenient to projects that are labeled “green”. I do not want to sound punitive but I would prefer to see few successful projects than many failed projects. Green is not the new black, it should be a way of living; let us judge it so.

[1] European Environment Agency, 2011. Europe’s environment — An Assessment of Assessments. From: http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/europes-environment-aoa

[2] Brown P. 2014. New York summit is last chance to get consensus on climate before 2015 talks. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/04/new-york-summit-is-last-chance-get-consensus-on-climate-before-2015-talks

[3] The Climate Reality Project, 2014. 24 Hours of Reality: 24 Reasons for Hope. http://climaterealityproject.org/24-hours-reality

[4] The Associated Press, 2015.  Pope Francis’ stand on climate change deepens distrust among US conservatives. NOLA. http://www.nola.com/religion/index.ssf/2015/01/pope_francis_stand_on_climate.html

[5] BBC News, 2015. Obama push to expand Alaskan refuge. BBC News: Science & Environment. http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-30985824

[6] Briggs H., 2015. MPs: Ban fracking to meet carbon targets. BBC News: Science & Environment. http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-30955291

[7] Watts A, 2012. Germany in skeptical turmoil on both Climate and Solar/Windfarms. http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/02/06/germany-in-skeptical-turmoil-on-both-climate-and-windfarms/

[8] Smil V., 2012. A Skeptic Looks at Alternative Energy. IEEE Spectrum. http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/renewables/a-skeptic-looks-at-alternative-energy

[9] Eyre B., 2011. Green skeptics simply tilting at windmills. The Starphoenix. http://yourfairshare.ca/files/2011/11/Green-skeptics-simply-tilting-at-windmills.pdf

Rise of Remote Sensing

By Megan Chan

WWF

In the news, we hear about polar bear shrinking and populations declining, and walruses trampling their young on the shores of Alaska because of the decrease in sea ice [1, 2]. On the other hand, there are stories like the sighting of the rare clouded leopard, the hog badger, the marbled cat and the yellow-throated marten caught on film in the North Bengal’s Buxa Tiger Reserve: species we were unsure even remained in that the area [3]. So, where do we stand on the health of wildlife?

In September, the World Wildlife Fund (a.k.a. World Wide Fund For Nature) released its annual Living Project Report for 2014 that stated:

The [Living Planet Index], which measures trends in thousands of vertebrate species populations, shows a decline of 52 per cent between 1970 and 2010. In other words, vertebrate species populations across the globe are, on average, about half the size they were 40 years ago. [4]

With the rapid change in the world, maps quickly become outdated and misrepresentative of the status of areas we are interested in protecting or developing. Maps communicate information in a way that represent reality [5]. Meeting the demand for current data is essential if we want to keep our representation of reality as accurate as possible. This is where remote sensing can make some data collection easier to accomplish. Geographic information systems (GIS) are additional time savers when it comes to producing and storing new information [5].

Furthermore, remote sensing is useful for monitoring changes in habitats without being invasive: sometimes important for observing locations like protected areas. In Colorado, laws prohibit “anything mechanical or motorized” from entering the protected area in order to avoid extensive man-made damage [6]. We have technology to help with this problem.

So, where are we with technology? If you looked at the news, you could read about NASA launching their Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) for measuring pollutants and small particles in the air [7]. On a similar note, current satellites and a new marine gravity model are in the process of creating higher-resolution, more in-depth images of the ocean floor [8]. Access to remote sensing tools or imagery, and GIS software make collection and analysis faster than previously [5].

Maybe you are worried about accessibility or cost. Open source materials, like the Arduino microcontroller, are acting as a catalyst for new scientific instruments [9]. As of 2011, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife has made species and habitat information available [10]. The Atlas of Canada and the U.S. Geological Survey provide a limited but excellent source of data for anyone interested in using it. There is even open source GIS software for this free data depending on your needs.

Not convinced that the instruments available to us are effective? This technology is still growing. There is always room for growth.

Here’s a video I find fascinating of ecologist, Greg Anser, giving a TED Talk in 2013 about his work on collecting data and how he makes remote sensing work for his research:

We still have limitations. We can still maintain some skepticism, but if you do not like the instruments in front of you, think about making your own.

 

References:

[1] Maki, A. (2014, Oct. 02, 2014). How the effects of climate change in Arctic Canada are shrinking polar bears. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/technology/science/shrinking-polar-bears-a-barometer-for-the-climate-sensitive-north/article20904215/?utm_content=buffer738cb&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

 

[2] AP. (2014). Walruses forced ashore en masse as sea ice melts. CBC News. http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/walruses-forced-ashore-en-masse-as-sea-ice-melts-1.2783672

 

[3] Mukherjee, K. (2014). Can technology developments save what’s left of our wildlife? The Time of India. Retrieved from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/Can-technology-developments-save-whats-left-of-our-wildlife/articleshow/42380949.cms

 

[4] WWF. (2014). Living Planet Report 2014: species and spaces, people and places. In R. McLellan, L. Iyengar, B. Jeffries & N. Oerlemans (Eds.). WWF, Gland, Switzerland.

 

[5] Vitek, J. D., Giardino, J. R., & Fitzgerald, J. W. (1996). Mapping geomorphology: A journey from paper maps, through computer mapping to GIS and Virtual Reality. Geomorphology, 16(3), 233-249. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0169-555X(96)80003-1

 

[6] Estabrook, R. (2014). Climate change causing National Park Service to ‘rethink’ wilderness management. Colorado Public Radio. Retrieved from CPR website: http://www.cpr.org/news/story/climate-change-causing-national-park-service-rethink-wilderness-management

 

[7] Keesey, L. (2014). New remote-sensing instrument to blaze a trail on the International Space Station [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-09/nsfc-nr090814.php

 

[8] Gramling, C. (2014). Satellites reveal hidden features at the bottom of Earth’s seas. News. Retrieved from Science website: http://news.sciencemag.org/earth/2014/10/satellites-reveal-hidden-features-bottom-earths-seas

 

[9] Davis, J. (2014). Students build smart devices and scientific instruments with Arduino. Life. Retrieved from Open Source website: http://opensource.com/life/14/9/tools-scientific-discovery-open-hardware

[10] Ball, M. (2011). Washington State Unlocks Habitat Data with New Online Mapping Site. Retrieved from http://www.sensysmag.com/spatialsustain/washington-state-unlocks-habitat-data-with-new-online-mapping-site.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+SpatialSustain+%28Spatial+Sustain%29