Tag Archives: environment

Flight cameras for environmental and traffic monitoring

Recordings from the downward-pointing cameras on commercial airliners that provide inflight belly-cam views could be downloaded after landing to use for research, for example on vegetation cover, traffic density on roads, night-time light which measures economic development. The flight paths are saved on flight tracking websites anyway, which enables localising the video at any point of time to the GPS coordinates the flight was at. The recordings are not much use for military spying because countries ban overflights of sensitive sites anyway. Thus security and privacy arguments should not stop research in this case.

The resolution of the belly cameras is low and the wavelengths cover only visible light, not infrared which would be useful for vegetation measurements. The compensating upside is the frequent overflights of many parts of the globe, thus the dense temporal coverage. The videos are almost costless to obtain – just plug an external hard drive into the existing inflight entertainment system to and later upload its contents at the airport. The low cost contrasts with specialised satellite and aerial surveys.

Free food for health and the environment

To motivate choosing vegan or environmentally friendly or healthy food, one option is to provide it for free. If people have eaten their fill, they are less likely to buy extra, whether meat or unhealthy. There are tradeoffs of course – any free resource tends to be overused.

For free food to be environmentally friendly, it should not be wasted and disposable utensils should be avoided. Food waste can be reduced by providing small portions to be eaten on the spot, with unlimited free refills of these small portions. All-you-can-eat restaurants already use this strategy by providing only small plates and bowls. The oversight of the food servers and other eaters and their disapproval of wasting food is a social deterrent.

The use of disposable dishes may be reduced by not providing any, requiring people to bring their own utensils, but some will then bring disposable and some will substitute away from the free food toward buying (unhealthy, delivered) meals in disposable containers. It is an empirical question whether the potential use of disposables outweighs the benefit of switching people to healthy and environmentally friendly eating. A dishwasher next to the food station eases the use of reusable kitchenware. Handheld foods (buns, sandwiches, wraps, whole fruit) do not require dishes.

Free food may lead to overeating and increase obesity. Any free resource tends to be over-used, especially if in limited quantity or available for a limited time. The latter overuse motives are eliminated by making the free food continuously available, but this exacerbates potential overeating. The obesity effect can be reduced by offering only healthy food without the somewhat addictive additives sugar, salt and monosodium glutamate. Foods like celery, iceberg lettuce, whole linseeds that provide fewer calories than it takes to chew and digest them (given inefficient human digestion, as opposed to the calories measured by the burn method) may actually reduce obesity when distributed for free. Again, it is an empirical question whether the potential costs of overeating and obesity neutralise the benefit of substituting towards healthier and environmentally friendlier foods.

Given how cheap basic healthy foods are (rice and other dry grains under a dollar per kilo, cabbage, bananas, lemons, dry peas and lentils two dollars per kilo), the social benefit of providing these for free may outweigh the deadweight loss of taxation to finance their purchase. In this case, the government would actually save money in the long run (over the average life expectancy) by offering free food. Cooking the foods would increase the costs slightly, but not much if it is done continuously in bulk by machines (rice cookers, bread machines). No need to wash the cookers if a new batch goes in within hours and the heat sterilises the machine. Or the machine can wash itself if it is connected to a water supply, a drain and a soap dispenser and either has a mixing blade in it like a blender or the water supply has sufficient pressure to flush out the soap residue.

Volunteer parking wardens may benefit the environment

Reducing the utility from car use and ownership motivates substitution towards other forms of transportation, which benefits both the environment and public health. One way to cut the convenience of driving is enforcing parking regulations, because drivers have to park further from their destination when the option of illegal parking becomes less attractive. Parking at a greater distance also makes people walk more – a minor health benefit.

Enforcing speed limits and other traffic rules that slow cars down increases the time cost of driving. This may reduce wear and tear on vehicles and roads, which benefits the environment.

An implication of is that people who want to reduce global warming or improve public health should become volunteer parking wardens and traffic police by reporting parking violations, speeding and dangerous driving (preferably with photo or video evidence from phones or dashboard cameras).

A possible countervailing effect of the enforcement of parking rules occurs if the illegally parked cars obstruct the movement of other cars enough to motivate some people to switch away from driving. Then stopping the parking violations may open the road up enough to encourage more use of cars, with an overall negative environmental and health effect. Similarly, if reckless drivers make the roads unsafe enough to reduce others’ car use, then making traffic civil again may attract risk-averse people back to driving. However, in most developed countries, illegal parking and the ignoring of rules of the road is not severe enough to deter driving significantly, so better enforcement is likely to reduce car use.

Slowing traffic down may increase congestion and emissions per kilometre travelled if there is little substitution away from driving. Again, in developed countries public transit and cycling are usually feasible options. Of course, some people always find excuses not to use these, and in remote rural areas public transit may indeed be economically unreasonable and distances may really be too great for bikes. Electric bikes are then an option. These increase the range of travel with less pollution and congestion than cars.

Rain-based waterfall in a building

Many large buildings have a high lobby – some of these reach the roof, which in that case is often transparent. Some edifices also have an indoor water curtain in the lobby, or water running down a decorative wall. A way to save the cost of pumping the water up for such a waterfall is to rely on rain. The roofs of high buildings are flat anyway, in order to direct water into internal drainpipes, as opposed to sending the water over the eaves of a slanting roof. If the pipe from the roof is made wide, transparent and put it in the middle of the lobby, then whenever it rains, a waterfall occurs in the pipe. This works best in rainy climates and will be especially spectacular in intense rain and with a single pipe receiving the water from the whole inward-slanted roof. The lobby may become noisy though with the sound of all that rushing water.

Equilibrium response to reduced material use for plastic bags

Probably to save material on the manufacture of the free plastic shopping bags in the US, these bags are small and thin compared to the ones in Estonia (which used to be free, but are now priced at significantly above production cost due to EU regulations on disposable plastic products). The equilibrium response of cashiers and customers to thin flimsy bags is to double-bag groceries, a practice unheard of in Estonia. After all, if one bag is sturdy enough, almost nobody will use two inside each other. I have successfully carried 10 kg in an Estonian plastic bag.

The equilibrium response to small bags is to distribute the groceries among many bags, especially the heavy or bulky items, for example to put each milk canister or large salad sack into a separate bag. Both double-bagging and the one-item-per-bag distribution lead to more bags being used in response to manufacturing each bag out of less material. It is an empirical question whether thinner, smaller bags result in less or more plastic waste overall. To incentivise reducing the one-time use of plastic bags and to encourage reuse, customers should have to pay for these, like in the EU.

One form of plastic bag reuse is as garbage bags (although it is only a one-time reuse, it is better than nothing). However, the flimsy free bags in the US come in bulk packs with the bottoms of the bags stuck together, so separating one from the stack often results in holes in its bottom an inch wide or more. The holes discourage many forms of reuse, including as trash bags, because small items (dust, crumbs, scraps) fall out. Partly the holes are due to the flimsiness of the material, partly to the way the bags are glued together to make a bulk pack.

Saving ventilation cost by using the wind

Most large modern buildings have active ventilation built in, meaning that electric fans drive the air through the building. The airflow direction is usually fixed at construction time. However, if the wind happens to blow from the opposite direction to the ventilation flow, then the fans require extra energy to counter the wind. On the other hand, if the wind agrees with the airflow in the building, then the fans may not need to be run at all. To save electricity, a building could have a wind direction sensor (a weather vane) on the roof connected to a switch that reverses the ventilation fans, so that the fans always pump air in approximately the same direction as the wind. If the wind is strong enough, a wind speed sensor (a small windmill or windsock) on the roof could stop the ventilation fans altogether.
The tradeoff for this adaptive ventilation system is the initial fixed construction cost and the ongoing maintenance of the weather vane, windsock and controller of the fans. All the extra components of the system (relative to the current unidirectional ventilation) are cheap and robust, so the both the fixed cost and the maintenance should be negligible.
Current ventilation systems have differently shaped air inlets and outlets in the rooms, which suggests that the system requires a particular airflow direction. In this case, adaptive ventilation may be much more expensive than the current ones, because the ventilation shafts and air vents need to be doubled. To avoid the need to build twice as many shafts and vents, have just the air inlets and outlets of the whole building switch roles with the wind direction. The rest of the system can remain unidirectional when the valves from the building’s inlet and outlet to the rest of the system switch appropriately. The air inside the building can then move in the opposite direction of the wind some of the time. In this case, the electricity saving is only realised if the building is sufficiently airtight, which is the case for modern highrises that have unopenable windows. If the air is allowed to move through the building independently of the ventilation and the wind is opposite the airflow in the system, then the fans have to overcome the air pressure difference like in the current systems. This wastes electricity.

Poaching reduction using lab-grown ivory

Poachers kill elephants for tusks and rhinos for horns because these can be sold for a high price on the black market. The killing has occurred both in the wild and in zoos, and thieves have broken into nature museums to steal rhino horns from exhibits. Sometimes news reports describe how police crush or burn seized illegal ivory, which seems counterproductive, because it reduces supply and thus drives up the price. A higher price increases future poaching. Perhaps the police are in the pay of some illegal ivory dealers and are deliberately helping drive up the price by destroying competing dealers’ products.
Instead, the price of ivory and rhino horn should be reduced so that poaching becomes unprofitable. Many organs have been grown in the lab using a collagen scaffold seeded with stem cells from the appropriate tissue (bladder, skin, heart). Growing elephant tusks or rhino horns in the lab should be feasible using similar techniques. Flooding the market with cheap lab-grown horns and tusks would eliminate the incentive to poach.
The demand for ivory and rhino horn is mostly due to silly beliefs about their medicinal properties, so the buyers may not want lab-grown substitutes, believing these to be ineffectual (which these are, just like wild-type horns and tusks). In this case, the lab-grown horns and tusks should be made indistinguishable from animal-derived ones and inserted into the illegal supply chain covertly. The dealers on the black market are not too honest people and would probably be happy to lie to their customers that lab-grown products are from wild animals.

Local and organic food is wasteful

The easiest measure of any good’s environmental impact is its price. It is not a perfect measure. Subsidies for the inputs of a product can lower its price below more environmentally friendly alternatives that are not favoured by the government. Taxes, market power, externalities and incomplete information can similarly distort relative prices, as introductory economics courses explain. However, absent additional data, a more expensive good likely requires more resources and causes more environmental damage. Remembering this saves time on debating whether local non-organic is better than non-local organic fair trade, etc.

Local and organic are marketing terms, one suggesting helping local farmers and a lower environmental impact from transport, the other claiming health benefits and a lower environmental impact from fertilizers. Organic food may use less of some category of chemicals, but this must have a tradeoff in lower yield (more land used per unit produced) or greater use of some other input, because its higher price shows more resource use overall. From the (limited) research I have read, there is no difference in the health effects of organic and non-organic food. To measure this difference, a selection bias must be taken into account – the people using organic are more health-conscious, so may be healthier to start with. On the other hand, those buying organic and local may be more manipulable, which has unknown health effects. Local food may use less resources for transport, but its higher price shows it uses more resources in total. One resource is the more expensive labour of rich countries (the people providing this labour consume more, thus have a greater environmental impact).

If one wants to help “local farmers” (usually large agribusinesses, not the family farms their lobbying suggests), one can give them money directly. No need to buy their goods, just make them a bank transfer and then buy whichever product is the least wasteful.

There are economies of scale in farming, so the more efficient large agricultural companies tend to outcompete family farms. The greater efficiency is also more environmentally friendly: more production for the same resources, or the same production with less. Helping the small farms avoid takeover is bad for the environment.

Fair trade and sustainable sourcing may be good things, if the rules for obtaining this classification are reasonable and enforced. But who buying fair trade or sustainable has actually checked what the meaning behind the labels is (the “fine print”), or verified with independent auditors whether the nice-sounding principles are put into practice? When a term is used in marketing, I suspect business as usual behind it.