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Why bitcoin is a bit rich for the planet, getting water out of air, Bruce Pascoe and the first urban planners

OXYGEN FILES: Data is great and can save money and resources, but the emissions behind the data are a growing issue. Researchers are flagging cryptocurrency Bitcoin as a possible threat to the two degree warming target, in part due to the energy-intensive data mining process that underpins the currency.

If it takes off, it could be the thing that tips the planet past the point of galloping greenhouse disaster, they say.

Forbes reported on the study, which was published in Nature Climate Change.

Co-author Randi Rollins says the estimates they’ve made about the possible emissions impact are quite conservative.

For example, while the hardware requirements for mining Bitcoin generate a lot of heat, the energy needed to cool the Bitcoin mining rigs were not factored into the emissions estimates.

The article points out that the analysis suggests that “mining data for profit could be as destructive to the planet than mining the planet itself for profit.”

We think that insight could be something to keep in mind when considering the shift towards data mining as part of the whole smart cities agenda. It definitely strengthens the case for a focus on reducing the operational emissions of data centres.

Floods highlight illegal building

Shonky dealings around illegal building have hit the headlines in the aftermath of disastrous flooding in Italy. It’s not just the fact there are unsafe buildings in flood-prone zones is a problem, but also a monetised approach to turning a blind eye to them.

Basically, according to a report in The Guardian, if a certain fee per square metre is paid to the appropriate officials, an illegal building is allowed to remain exactly where it is, no matter how unsafe.

There is a takeout for the Australian property sector – building in flood-prone areas, or approving building in flood-prone areas, is a risky proposition. In most states, consumers get the short end of that particular stick, however, as flood risk mapping is not publicly available in most jurisdictions, and in many areas, flood risk calculations that incorporate the increased risks of flash flooding due to climate change weather impacts are still not being taken into account.

A recent paper published in the Australian Journal of Emergency Management highlighted the degree to which climate change impacts are already being seen on the Sunshine Coast, and concludes that “without anticipatory hazard reduction plans and actions, risk for populations and assets that are exposed to coastal hazards will increase significantly in the coming decades.”

Who were the first urban planners?

Stories about the history and origin of cities often begin with places like ancient European, Middle Eastern or Chinese cities. But as Bruce Pascoe recently highlighted in a brilliant essay for Meanjin, the world’s oldest examples of city building are right here in Australia.

Pascoe points out that the story of Aboriginal towns, science, landscape engineering and agricultural practices is one that is still being ignored in favour of the colonial “hunter-gatherer” narratives that have been the dominant portrayal of our First Nations.

“We stab out our eyes rather than regard Aboriginal achievement in this country,” Pascoe writes in Australia: Temper and Bias.

He crafts a compelling argument for appreciating the true history of this landscape and its people both before colonisation and afterwards, during the 230 years of oppression that colonisation brought if we are to make “a nation rather than a mere economy”.

As well as the cultural and social gains, there are clear environmental benefits to be had also from this kind of genuine and committed listening and learning process.

“Australia is a drying continent. World and national inaction on the human contribution to climate change is leading to a situation where we will soon be growing mangoes in Canberra. Aboriginal domesticates do not require any more moisture than the Australian climate provides, no more fertiliser than our soils already contain and as they are adapted to Australian pests they need no pesticide. 

“These plants are an environmental boon to the nation, apart from the fact that, as they are all perennial with the large root masses of plants adapted to dry conditions, they sequester carbon. If we dedicated only [five] per cent of our current agricultural lands to these plants we would go a long way to meeting our carbon emission reduction targets.”

Water from thin air

A pair of US innovators have taken out the top prize in the $1.75 million Water Abundance XPrize, a competition sponsored by Tata Group and Australian Aid.

Architect David Hertz and colleague, Rich Groden have designed a system that can produce 2000 litres of potable water a day for less than two cents per litre.

The WeDew unit, which is housed in a shipping container, is powered by a wood-to-energy system that comprises a biomass gasifier which can be fuelled with wood waste, pieces of coconut shell or other biomass.

The gasifier powers a condensation unit that cools warm air to produce water, which is stored in a tank. 

As a useful by-product, the gasifier also produces biochar that can be used as a soil additive.

According to Business Insider, the WeDew is among numerous low-carbon, low-cost technologies reaching the stage of potential deployment to areas where access to clean water is restricted.

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