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A journey to the future: five transport inventions that could change the world

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It is safe to say that we have always been pretty bad at predicting how our great-great grandchildren will be getting around, though it never stops us trying.

This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Transport 2014.

In Brave New World – written in 1931 and set in 2540 – Aldous Huxley imagined a London where every upper-class resident had a private helicopter. In 1915, the Washington Post asserted that the prices of electric cars would soon drop to be “within reach of the average family”. We can only hope that we never start commuting by jetpack, as the environmental impact doesn’t bear thinking about.

While we must not count on some new technology to save us from our carbon intensive ways, it is possible an inspired breakthrough, a brave innovator or a pioneering application of existing technologies will help us on our way.

That said, not all of these selected projects, inventions and seemingly implausible concepts are intended as blueprints for the future. Some will likely never see the light of day in commercial terms. But each deserves recognition for serving as an inspiration, as admirable demonstrations of the kinds of ingenuity that will be essential in sculpting the sustainable future of transport.

Solar Impulse

In 1999, Bertrand Piccard – a psychiatrist by trade – together with aeronaut Brian Jones, was part of the first crew to successfully complete a non-stop balloon flight around the globe. They took off with 3.7 tonnes of propane. When they landed, they had only 40kg left. When he realised that their flight could have failed for lack of fuel, Piccard pledged to fly around the world again. But this time, without depending on fossil fuels. With that, Solar Impulse was born.

Solar Impulse successfully completed a record-breaking 26-hour non-stop flight in 2010, including nearly nine hours of night flying.

The first prototype was built in 2010 – a solar powered plane with a wingspan equal to that of an Airbus A340 but the weight of an average car. It soon completed a record-breaking successful 26-hour non-stop flight. The team is now working on a second model, in which Piccard and André Borschberg, co-founder and CEO of Solar Impulse, will attempt to circumnavigate the globe.

The plane gathers all the energy it needs from solar cells. These convert the sun’s rays into electricity to simultaneously power the engines and recharge the plane’s batteries, making it possible to fly throughout the night. Its designers claim that if Solar Impulse technologies were used on a massive scale, the world would be able to save up to 50% of the current consumption of polluting fossil fuel energy. However, they add that this is never going to happen, and stress that it is not the point.

“Our airplane is not designed to carry passengers, but to carry a message”, Piccard explains. His project’s primary purpose is not to revolutionise aviation, but to demonstrate the potential of renewable energy and change the way in which people think about clean technologies. As inspirations go, the sight of a giant, solar powered symbol soaring around the world is a good one.

Hyperloop 

This guide has focused on trains, planes, boats and automobiles, but billionaire inventor Elon Musk thinks there could be “a fifth mode” of transport (presumably disregarding walking and cycling).

Last year, the entrepreneur behind Tesla, SpaceX and PayPal unveiled the Hyperloop, an almost sci-fi concept that proposes shooting passengers in pods through a network of reduced-pressure tubes at near-supersonic speeds. Though it may sound terrifying, Musk insists the forces on the passenger would be minimal, feeling more like a standard flight on an aeroplane than a ride on a rollercoaster.

Hyperloop's founder, Elon Musk, also founded Tesla, SpaceX and PayPal. Photo: Sam Churchill via Flickr

Musk suggested the Hyperloop would even provide a safer, faster, and more efficient mode of transport between Los Angeles and San Francisco – the journey he used to illustrate the idea – than the high-speed train currently under development. According to his calculations, the concept would reduce the commute between the two cities to just half an hour, down from the one hour and 10 minutes the journey would currently take by flight.

The concept would be best used connecting cities closer than 1,000 miles apart, as beyond that, Musk notes, supersonic air travel would be preferable. For shorter journeys it would beat the plane, he says, because it would not spend time ascending and descending.

Perhaps most significantly, the pod could be powered entirely by solar panels installed to the top of the tube, though the environmental impact of construction would have to be considered. That said, we should not expect to see the hyperloop gracing reality any time soon. Despite fathering the idea, Musk says he is currently too busy to build it. It is suggested that the project would require $6 billion (£3.9 billion) to complete. However, customers would apparently have to pay only $20 (£13).

Aircruise

Consultancy firm Seymourpowell’s conceptual Aircruise – a giant, vertical airship lifted by hydrogen and powered by solar energy – is essentially a flying hotel. An initial design includes open internal spaces and a stylish bar and 10 apartments. Of course, journeys would be drastically slower than those made by jet – London to New York would take 37 hours – but in such luxury, that would almost certainly be a good thing. 

Essentially a flying hotel, Aircruise could travel from London to New York in 37 hours.

“The Aircruise concept questions whether the future of luxury travel should be based around space-constrained, resource hungry, and all too often stressful airline travel”, says Nick Talbot, design director at Seymourpowell. “A more serene transport experience will appeal to people looking for a more reflective journey, where the experience of travel itself is more important than getting from A to B quickly.” 

SkyCycle 

Of the suggestions put forward so far, cycling high over the streets of London is beaten only by the Hyperloop in terms of its ties with science fiction. But SkyCycle, a concept put forward by London-based architects Foster + Partners, landscape practice Exterior Architecture and consultancy firm Space Syntax, proposes a network of elevated bike paths running above the capital’s existing railway lines.

Foster + Partners believes SkyCycle's capacity could come at a much lower cost than building new roads and tunnels. Photo: Foster + Partners

Its designers say that the network would run for over 136 miles, accommodating up to 12,000 cyclists per hour while improving journey times by up to 29 minutes. They claim it could even provide this capacity at a much lower cost than building new roads and tunnels. Though it may seem a little farfetched, the idea has the backing of Network Rail and Transport for London, and could offer a much safer journey to many city commuters.  

Matternet

Drones have become synonymous with conflict and controversial foreign policy, but they do not have to mean death. Matternet is a project that wants to take the most cutting edge technology to the corners of the world where it is needed the most. It will use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and the power of the internet to establish “the next-generation transportation system”, bringing hope rather than fear.

Using completely autonomous UAVs and intelligent software, Matternet could help deliver essential supplies to the one billion people who do not have access to all-season roads. “Imagine one billion people being connected to psychical goods in the same way that mobile telecommunications connected them to information”, Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos explains.

Matternet says its UAVs could help deliver essential supplies to the one billion people who do not have access to all-season roads

One model has already been successfully tested in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Though the smaller crafts can carry a payload of 2kg, covering around 10km in 15 minutes, larger aircraft capable of carrying heavier loads are planned for the future.

The whole concept removes much of the necessity of significant investment in developing ecologically damaging, congested roads. Adapted for use in the cities of the future and for economic transactions, the Matternet team says their idea could revolutionise our transport infrastructure. Similar ideas have recently been proposed by Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, which is currently testing its own drone delivery systems.

Crucially, Matternet’s UAVs are also remarkably energy efficient. But perhaps most impressive is the cost. To carry a 2kg payload over 10km costs just 24 cents (15p).  The cost of setting up a trial network in Lesotho to transport HIV/Aids tests, complete with 50 landing stations and 150 drones, would be just $900,000. Raptopoulos adds, “We chose to do this not because it is easy, but because it can have an amazing impact.”

Further reading:

Sustainable transport: why it matters

The road to nowhere: a call to arms for sustainable transport

A convenient truth: the role of cycling in a sustainable transport system

Investing in sustainable transport, and not destroying the world

The Guide to Sustainable Transport 2014

Environment

These 5 Green Office Mistakes Are Costing You Money

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eco-friendly green offices
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Stokkete | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/cyano

The sudden interest in green business is very encouraging. According to recent reports, 42% of all companies have rated sustainability as an important element of their business. Unfortunately, the focus on sustainability will only last if companies can find ways to use it to boost their ROI.

Many businesses get so caught up in being socially conscious that they hope the financial aspect of it takes care of itself. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to go green and boost your net income at the same time.

Here are some important mistakes that you will want to avoid.

Only implementing sustainability on micro-scale

The biggest reason that brands are going green is to improve their optics with their customers. Too many businesses are making very minor changes, such as processing paperwork online and calling themselves green.

Customers have become wary of these types of companies. If you want to earn their business, you are going to need to go all the way. Bring in a green business consultant and make every feasible change to demonstrate that you are a green organization from top to bottom.

Not prioritizing investments by long-term ROI

It isn’t realistic to build an entirely green organization overnight. You will need to allocate your capital wisely.

Before investing in any green assets or services, you should always conduct a long-term cost benefit analysis. The initial investment for some green services may be over $20,000. If they don’t shave your cost by at least $3,000 a year, they probably aren’t worth the investment.

Determine which green investments will have the best pay off over the next 10 years. Make these investments before anything else. Then compare your options within each of those categories.

Implementing green changes without a plan

Effective, long-term planning is the key to business success. This principle needs to be applied to green organizations as well.

Before implementing a green strategy, you must answer the following questions:

  • How will I communicate my green business philosophy to my customers?
  • How will running a green business affect my revenue stream?
  • How will adopting green business strategies change my monthly expenses? Will they increase or decrease them?
  • How will my company finance green upgrades and other investments?

The biggest mistake that too many green businesses make is being overly optimistic with these forecasts. Take the time to collect objective data and make your decisions accordingly. This will help you run a much more profitable green business.

Not considering the benefits of green printing

Too many companies believe that going paperless is the only way to run a green organization. Unfortunately, going 100% paperless it’s not feasible for most companies.

Rather than aim for an unrealistic goal, consider the option of using a more environmentally friendly printer. It won’t be perfect, but it will be better than the alternative.

According to experts from Doranix, environmental printers have several benefits:

  • They can process paper that has been completely recycled.
  • They consume less energy than traditional printers.
  • They use ink that is more environmentally friendly.

You want to take a look at different green printers and compare them. You’ll find that some will meet your needs as a green business.

Poorly communicating your green business strategy to customers

Brand positioning doesn’t happen on its own. If you want to run a successful green business, you must communicate your message to customers as clearly as possible. You must also avoid the appearance that you are patronizing them.

The best approach is to be clear when you were first making the change. I’ll make an announcement about your company‘s commitment to sustainability.

You also want to reinforce this message overtime by using green labels on all of your products. You don’t have to be blatant with your messaging at this stage. Simply provide a small, daily reminder on your products and invoices.

Finally, it is a good idea to participate in green business seminars and other events. If your community has a local Green Chamber of Commerce, you should consider joining as well.

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Editors Choice

2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage

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Natural Disaster Damage
Shutterstock / By Droidworker | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/droidworker

Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.

Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.

Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each

The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.

Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.

Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.

That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.

Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.

Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.

Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.

The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.

Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity

Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.

Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.

Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight

The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.

The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.

2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded

People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.

Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.

Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.

Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.

Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.

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