Railroads make eco-friendly comeback

Is the horse-drawn carriage next? It’s 2008 and the once-dying freight railway industry is “enjoying its biggest building boom in nearly a quarter century, a turnaround as abrupt as it is ambitious,” gushes The Washington Post ( 21 April 2008 ). The boom is “largely fueled by growing global trade and rising fuel costs for 18-wheelers,” the article says. However, with the boom comes a concern about a return to the robber barons (and anti-competitive pricing) of the 1800s. Excerpts:

In 2002, the major railroads laid off 4,700 workers; in 2006, they hired more than 5,000. Profit has doubled industry-wide since 2003, and stock prices have soared.

This year alone, the railroads will spend nearly $10 billion to add track, build switchyards and terminals, and open tunnels to handle the coming flood of traffic. Freight rail tonnage will rise nearly 90 percent by 2035, according to the Transportation Department. [Actually: 88%.]

[T]he changing global market has fueled prosperity — and the need to add track for the first time in 80 years. Soaring diesel prices and a driver shortage have pushed freight from 18-wheelers back onto the rails. At the same time, China’s unquenchable appetite for coal and the escalating U.S. demand for Chinese goods, means more U.S. rail traffic is heading to ports in the Northwest, on its way to and from the Far East.

The zeitgeist has even dropped a “green” gift in the industry’s lap. A train can haul a ton of freight 423 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel, about a 3-to-1 fuel efficiency advantage over 18-wheelers, and the railroad industry is increasingly touting itself as an eco-friendly alternative.

But rail customers are complaining about the kind of price-gouging not seen since the robber barons of the 1800s, leading to antitrust suits and calls for re-regulation of rail prices. The rail industry counters that it’s using the same kind of “differential pricing” that airlines use today (i.e., higher prices where they have market power).

Railroad news: Shippers say lack of antitrust enforcement hindering rail competition

8 home remodeling trends for 2008

According to Case Handyman and Remodeling Services LLC, the nation’s largest full-service remodeling company, homeowners in 2008 will want to do the following:

  • Transform attics into comfortable bedrooms, play areas and guest suites to gain more livable space.
  • Install skylights and sun tubes to revitalize dark rooms, stairwells and closet spaces with natural light.
  • Bring back the large, pedestal “soaking tub” in the master bath, for rejuvenation and unwinding after a long day.
  • Build a whole, spacious walk-in closet suite, with high-end cabinets, mirrors, lighting, huge dressers and a center island.
  • Use surprisingly realistic faux stone to enhance their home’s curb appeal.
  • Convert space in the home into a comfortable yet highly functional home office, including custom cabinetry for storage, high-end audio/visual connections, task lighting and telecommunications equipment aimed at keeping the homeowner connected at all times.
  • Seek out simple and easy ways to incorporate various aspects of “green living” into their daily lives. From energy-efficient appliances, low-VOC paint that improves air quality, recycled materials for resource conservation and environmentally-friendly cabinetry, the kitchen will serve as the perfect area to introduce green living in the home.
  • Turn basements — formerly the dumping ground for excess and clutter — into home theaters, game rooms and wet bars.

2080: Global warming leads to floods, droughts, agricultural disasters, hunger

An article in The Washington Post describes studies predicting the effects of global warming on agriculture, in the 2080s:

Several recent analyses have concluded that the higher temperatures expected in coming years — along with salt seepage into groundwater as sea levels rise and anticipated increases in flooding and droughts — will disproportionately affect agriculture in the planet’s lower latitudes, where most of the world’s poor live.

India could experience a 40% decline in agricultural productivity as “record heat waves bake its wheat-growing region, placing hundreds of millions of people at the brink of chronic hunger.”

Africa … could experience agricultural downturns of 30%, forcing farmers to abandon traditional crops in favor of more heat-resistant and flood-tolerant ones, such as rice.” Senegal and war-torn Sudan could have a “complete agricultural collapse.”

Scenarios like these — and the recognition that even less-affected countries such as the United States will experience significant regional shifts in growing seasons, forcing new and sometimes disruptive changes in crop choices — are providing the impetus for a new “green revolution.” It is aimed not simply at boosting production, as the first revolution did with fertilizers, but at creating crops that can handle the heat, suck up the salt, not desiccate in a drought and even grow swimmingly while submerged.

Fortunately, research on the new crops is underway, but it’s a race against time.

Continue reading “2080: Global warming leads to floods, droughts, agricultural disasters, hunger”

Intelligence Briefs

An eclectic collection of discoveries & developments:

Bloom Energy is developing a solid-oxide fuel cell that it believes could generate more than enough electricity to power a house. — The New York Times (8 September 2007)

There’s talk of breaking up the country of Belgium into two or three mini-states. — The Economist (6 September 2007)

A Michigan auto dealer is selling a miniature Chinese electric “neighborhood vehicle.” The FlyBo starts at $10,000 and goes up to 70 miles before needing a recharge. Plug it into any ordinary household electrical outlet for two hours, and it’s ready again to cruise along at 25 mph. — The Saginaw (Michigan) News (7 September 2007)

Russia and China are expected to develop aerospace capabilities to compete with the current Airbus/Boeing duopoly for commercial jets — perhaps in the next decade. The CEO of Russia’s United Aircraft says Russian companies aim to build planes worth $250 billion from 2007 to 2025. — GE Commercial Finance industry newsletter

Slowear, a collection of men’s luxury clothing that promises to be fashionable for years, is challenging the notion of fast fashion. — Iconoculture Inc.

Development and environmental change are now altering the physical aspect of the world so fast that maps must be redrawn frequently, according to an atlas publisher. For example, a new atlas shows the dramatic shrinkage of two of the world’s biggest inland water bodies, the Aral Sea in central Asia and Lake Chad in Africa. — The Independent (3 September 2007)

The next-generation shopping cart is emerging from MarkitCart in Australia. It’s colorful, plastic, safer for children, and (most importantly) has easier-to-control wheels. It can also be plastered with advertising. — Springwise.com

Intelligence briefs

An eclectic collection of discoveries & developments:

A new biosensor developed at the Georgia Tech Research Institute can detect avian influenza in just minutes. In addition to being a rapid test, the biosensor is economical, field-deployable and sensitive to different viral strains. — Georgia Institute of Technology

Brazilian food companies recently made two cross-border acquisitions: JBS (Latin America’s largest beef processor) bought Swift & Co.; and Perdigão (a leading Brazilian food company) bought Plusfood Groep BV in Europe. “While only two data points, we wonder if this foreshadows additional cross-border acquisitions by Brazilian companies in the increasingly global food industry.” — GE Commercial Finance industry newsletter

Sixty percent of Americans are pessimistic about the state of the environment and want prompt action taken to improve its health, according to a national opinion poll. The survey found that 52% of Americans expect the world’s natural environment to be in worse shape in 10 years than it is now. An additional 8% said the environment is in poor or very poor shape and won’t improve. — Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University / Associated Press

India could challenge the position of China as the manufacturing center of the world in the next three to five years because China is becoming too expensive. Labor costs are surging on China’s eastern coast. — Capgemini / ProLogis

Starbucks has always insisted that the company doesn’t market its caffeinated beverages to children and teenagers. But company officials acknowledge that they’re considering introducing drinks and drink sizes suitable for the under-18 set. — MSNBC (10 September 2007)