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 on: Feb 24, 2017, 06:56 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
'Grey wall of China': the town at the frontline of a looming ageing crisis

In Rudong, where a third of the population is over 60, a university for older people is one solution to a changing demographic

Tom Phillips
Tom Phillips in Rudong county
Friday 24 February 2017 05.00 GMT

It has been dubbed the “grey wall of China”, a demographic shift so big you can almost see it from space.

The world’s most populous country is getting old. Plummeting birthrates, the result of the much-loathed one-child policy, and dramatically improved life expectancy mean that by 2050 more than a quarter of China’s population – almost 500 million people – will be over 65.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the most geriatric city in China, Rudong county, where as many as 30% of the 1m inhabitants are over 60. This is a place from the future, a city that many ageing western nations could learn from, with its proliferating retirement homes, its jobs for older workers and, yes, its University of the Aged.

On a dull Tuesday morning dozens of older people have gathered in a school building to play a stirring rendition of Beethoven’s ninth.

“We come here for happiness and joy!” beams Yu Bing, a sprightly 72-year-old who is among the silver-haired students in classroom 301 using Chinese “hulusi” flutes to perform the 19th-century symphony.

Yu, a retired doctor who lives nearby with her 80-year-old husband, Zhang Fanshen, is one of about 570 students at the university, a government-funded centre that offers the region’s elderly citizens classes in everything from Latin dance steps and literature to how to use smartphones.

“Even though we’re not young in age, we are happy,” says the septuagenarian, whose flute lessons are part of a packed weekly schedule of social activities that also includes dawn dancing and percussion sessions, calligraphy classes and painting workshops. “There’s so much to do – we enjoy life here.”

The University of the Aged is on the frontline in a fight against one of the most dramatic and potentially destabilising problems facing modern China: a looming demographic crisis that experts believe will have major implications for everything from the wellbeing of hundreds of millions of citizens, to the Communist party’s ability to hold on to power, and even the prospects for world peace.

Wang Feng, a University of California, Irvine scholar who is recognised as one of the leading experts on Chinese demographics, said the combination of these trends would place a monumental strain on the nation’s resources in the coming years and had the potential to radically alter its social, economic and political landscape.

China is not the only country bracing for a severe ageing crunch but Wang says a potent mixture of challenges mean its situation is particularly daunting. “It’s massive, it is unique, and it takes place in the most populous country in the world.”

Ageing nation

For a glimpse of China’s elderly future, drive two hours north from Shanghai to Rudong, a sleepy rural backwater in Jiangsu province where the ageing crisis has already arrived.

Perched on the country’s eastern coastline, near to where the Yangtze disgorges its murky waters into the East China Sea, Rudong is the greyest corner of this rapidly ageing nation. Retirement homes are springing up across the county to cater for its growing ranks of elderly people – while secondary schools shut for a lack of young people.

The explanation for Rudong’s premature ageing crisis lies in the fact that it was an early testing ground for the one-child policy.

Draconian family planning regulations came into force in Rudong in the 1960s, long before they were rolled out across China, in 1980, in an effort to avoid what the country’s rulers believed would be a calamitous explosion in the size of its population.

This, combined with many young natives not returning after university, has meant that Rudong’s population has been shrinking for almost two decades.

Image-conscious local officials shrugged off the suggestion that their town was grappling with any kind of ageing crisis. “We don’t feel it is a big problem,” said Miao Rumei, 75, the University of the Aged’s deputy head. “We haven’t felt we are lacking a workforce.”

But Chen Youhua, a Nanjing University sociologist who was born and raised in Rudong, said the problems caused by his hometown’s skewed population were all too real.

The soaring number of pensioners has placed “massive pressure” on Rudong’s social services, Chen pointed out. Its economy, meanwhile, was suffering from a palpable labour shortage, with businesses struggling to find staff.

Rudong’s ageing crisis is very apparent to visitors. Almost as striking as the lack of young faces on its subdued streets is the omnipresence of senior citizens who can be seen tending to fields, staffing shops, driving taxis or, like 72-year-old Ge Fangping, giving lessons at the University of the Aged.

“Old people can’t stand loneliness,” says Ge, an elegant multi-instrumentalist who gives weekly music classes with his erhu, a two-stringed Chinese fiddle on which he teaches Chinese standards such as the Butterfly Lovers.

Ge, who is both a teacher and a student at the university, hopes to give something back to society while also occupying his autumn years with calligraphy and Chinese literature classes.

“After I came here, I felt hope again. I didn’t feel old any more,” says Ge, who has worked at the university for almost a decade and lives nearby with his 54-year-old son.

At the university – where students pay just 80 yuan (£9.60) a term – students and staff say they are content with the government’s efforts to protect China’s pensioners.

“The government and the party are taking good care of the elderly,” said Yu, the flautist, as local officials who were offering a tour of the three-floor facility looked on.

Yan Xingzhang, 78, the university’s head, said decades of unprecedented economic development had transformed life in Rudong and meant its entire population was far better off than in the past.

“It’s impossible to describe how big the changes have been and how good things are now,” said Yan.

Miao, the deputy headmaster, dismissed the idea that the one-child policy was a major demographic blunder for which his county was now paying a price.

“The happiness of the elderly isn’t defined by the number of children people have,” he said. “In the olden days there was a saying: ‘Raise children to look after you in old age.’ But these days we have a very good social insurance system so nobody thinks about whether family planning was a mistake.”

Military powerhouse

The consequences of China’s looming ageing population will be felt far beyond the country’s borders.

Mark Haas, a political scientist from Pennsylvania’s Duquesne University, believes the unfolding drama is likely to have a global impact.

Haas’s argument, which he calls the “geriatric peace”, is that as spending on welfare for elderly people skyrockets, Beijing, which has spent trillions of dollars to build itself into a military powerhouse, will be forced to slash its defence budget.

“They don’t have to make that choice. But you are going to have hundreds of millions of poor seniors. That creates a lot of political pressure, even in a non-democracy like China. It also creates moral pressure,” Haas said.

    After I came here, I felt hope again. I didn’t feel old any more
    Ge Fangping, 72

One likely result of this, the political scientist wagers, is that as China grows older it will become less able and therefore less likely to attempt any military challenge to the US.

“This is good, assuming people like peace,” Haas said.

He said there was also evidence that older people were more predisposed to peace, bolstering the theory that China’s ageing crisis could have some benefits.

China’s silver tsunami might help prevent a third world war but there will also be a very real human cost.

Wang said the country’s unequal pension system and patchy, underdeveloped healthcare network meant that “as in every society, the less privileged, the more vulnerable are going to be hit the hardest”.

Michael Phillips, a Shanghai-based psychiatrist, said China needed to brace for a severe healthcare crisis as authorities struggled to offer adequate support to its growing army of elderly.

Phillips, who works at the city’s Jiao Tong University, said the most daunting prospect was dementia.

“China is in for trouble, big trouble,” he said of the millions of dementia patients who will need caring for over the coming decades. “It’s a tidal wave that is coming down the pipe. I see a lot of people doing studies on how many [people with dementia] we have. But what about providing services for them?

A glimpse of such difficulties can be seen at the Dingdian retirement home on the rural outskirts of Rudong.

The privately run home, a dilapidated cluster of low-rise dormitories centred around a damp communal dining area, was set up in 2012 by an evangelical Christian, Jiang Buying, and houses 55 senior citizens aged 62 to 101.

A bright red Christian cross hangs from one wall while another features a poster of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and the slogan: “Achieve national prosperity, revitalise the nation, realise people’s happiness.”

Jiang, whose 87-year-old mother is among the home’s residents, said she had been shocked at how many of Rudong’s rural poor had been forced to fend for themselves in old age because their children had migrated or were too busy to care for them.

Jiang, 60, said about a third of her residents suffered from severe physical or mental impairments, including dementia, meaning they required constant care. Before she took them in, many had been living at home in almost total isolation.

“The hardest thing for them about living at home was the loneliness and lack of care. They felt depressed because their children had all gone off to work,” she said.

Jiang said local authorities had given her 87,000 yuan to help expand the home, whose white-coated staff offer regular meals and smiles but only rudimentary medical care. But still she has struggled to keep the business afloat, charging monthly fees of between 1,000 and 1,300 yuan depending on the level of care needed.

Sheng Yunfeng, a chain-smoking 83-year-old, moved to the home three years ago with his wife, who has since died. He had no pension to cover its fees so his son pays instead.

Sheng said he enjoyed the camaraderie of living with other pensioners, who wiled away their days watching Ming dynasty period dramas on television and discussing their absent children.

“Here we play cards. It’s fun,” he said, before serenading his fellow residents with a lengthy and entirely out-of-tune performance on his erhu.

Jiang, whose 37-year-old son also helps care for Rudong’s older people, said she did not blame the government for being restricted to having one child.

“Rudong was the pilot city. We had no choice,” she said.

But she did fear for her future and said she had founded her roadside retirement home partly out of the hope that one day someone might help her through the twilight of her life.

“I thought: one day I’m going to get old too,” she said. “What will I do if there is nobody to take care of me?”

Additional reporting by Christy Yao

 on: Feb 24, 2017, 06:48 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
'Golden trio' of moves boosts chances of female orgasm, say researchers

Study sheds light on approaches, revealing ‘orgasm gaps’ both between the sexes and those with different sexual orientations

Nicola Davis and Mona Chalabi
Thursday 23 February 2017 12.49 GMT

The female orgasm has often been described as elusive, but researchers say they might have discovered how to boost the chances of eliciting the yes, yes, yes.

A study from a team of US researchers suggests that a combination of genital stimulation, deep kissing and oral sex is the “golden trio” for women when it comes to increasing their likelihood of reaching orgasm with a sexual partner.

Click to watch: <iframe src="https://embed.theguardian.com/embed/video/lifeandstyle/video/2017/feb/24/the-secret-to-female-orgasm-try-the-golden-trio-of-moves-video" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, a team of US researchers analysed data collected through an online survey, hosted on the NBC News website, based on responses from more than 52,000 participants aged between 18 and 65 who were in a relationship with one person.

The results shed light on a number of “orgasm gaps” – not just between the sexes, but also between individuals with different sexual orientations. “We had the rare opportunity to look at responses from over 50,000 people, including over 2,000 gay, lesbian, and bisexual men and women,” said David Frederick, lead author of the research from Chapman University.

While 95% of heterosexual men reported that they usually or always orgasmed during sexually intimate moments, just 65% of heterosexual women did. By contrast, the figure was 89% for gay men, 86% for lesbian women, 88% for bisexual men and 66% for bisexual women.

“The orgasm gaps between men and heterosexual women were well known prior to this study,” said Frederick. “The gaps between lesbian women and heterosexual women, however, were more speculative or based on small samples of lesbian women. This study highlights much more precisely that there are multiple orgasm gaps.”

The large disparities seen for women of different sexualities, the authors say, could at least in part be down to other women being more like to take turns at inducing orgasms, and having a better understanding than men that female orgasms are not primarily associated with vaginal sex.

“About 30% of men actually think that intercourse is the best way for women to have orgasm, and that is sort of a tragic figure because it couldn’t be more incorrect,” said co-author of the research Elisabeth Lloyd, a professor of biology at Indiana University and author of The Case of the Female Orgasm.

According to the research, only 35% of heterosexual women always or usually orgasm during vaginal sex alone, with 44% saying they rarely or never did. By contrast, 80% of heterosexual women and 91% of lesbians always or usually orgasm with a combination of genital stimulation, deep kissing and oral sex – but without vaginal sex. “To say that there needs to be some education I think is an understatement,” said Lloyd.

Whether it is playing music, changing sexual positions or saying “I love you”, very little appears to affect the probability that a man will orgasm. By contrast, women who said that they had done these things during their last sexual encounter were about 20% more likely to also tell the researchers that they “usually” or “always” orgasmed.

But there are other possibilities, says Frederick, including that women may take longer to become aroused than men, or that men desire orgasm more frequently than women. “So another question worth investigating is what percentage of women are happy with the frequency with which they orgasm,” he said.

The study also found that while 41% of heterosexual men reported that their partner always reached orgasm, only 33% of heterosexual women said that they did. “Part of this difference in perception could be due to women faking orgasms, which research has suggested women will do for a variety of reasons, including out of love for their partner, to protect their partner’s self-esteem, intoxication, or to bring the sexual encounter to an end,” the authors note.

Why women fake orgasms

Further analysis of the surveys revealed that women who frequently orgasmed were more likely to have a longer duration of sex and were more likely to have a higher relationship satisfaction, with the study also suggesting that factors such as asking for particular behaviours in bed and flirting with their partner throughout the day were linked to small but significant associations with more frequent orgasms in women.

The results, the authors say, offer couples a range of different approaches that could boost the frequency of orgasms, particularly among women.

“Women really are tremendously variable in how readily they orgasm and what makes one woman orgasm can be quite different than what makes another woman orgasm,” said Frederick. “Explicit and direct communication with one’s partner is key.”

Osmo Kontula, a sociologist and sexologist who was not involved in the study, said that the conclusion chimed with results from his own research into female orgasms based on a host of national surveys conducted in Finland, but added that other factors not explored in the new study also played a role in the frequency of female orgasm. “Important determinants were valuing orgasms, sexual desire, ability to concentrate and sexual self-esteem,” he said.

Lloyd says she hopes couples will consider the “golden trio” of behaviours for female orgasm. “I would like [women] to take that home and think about it, and to think about it with their partners and talk about it with their partners,” said Lloyd. “If they are not fully experiencing their fullest sexual expression to the maximum of their ability then I think our paper has something to contribute to their wellbeing.”

 on: Feb 24, 2017, 06:43 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Only 14% of plastics are recycled – can tech innovation tackle the rest?

A new group of companies is innovating on the problem of plastics recycling by tackling everything from styrofoam to Ziploc bags

Mary Catherine O'Connor
Wednesday 22 February 2017 15.44 GMT

The world recycles just 14% of the plastic packaging it uses. Even worse: 8m tons of plastic, much of it packaging, ends up in the oceans each year, where sea life and birds die from eating it or getting entangled in it. Some of the plastics will also bind with industrial chemicals that have polluted oceans for decades, raising concerns that toxins can make their way into our food chain.

Recycling the remaining 86% of used plastics could create $80bn-$120bn in revenues, says a recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. But those revenues will never be fully achieved without designing new ways to breakdown and reuse 30% (by weight) of the plastic packaging that isn’t recycled because the material is contaminated or too small for easy collection, has very low economic value or contains multiple materials that cannot be easily separated. Think of candy wrappers, take-out containers, single-serving coffee capsules and foil-lined boxes for soup and soymilk.

Large companies have developed plant-based alternatives to conventional, petroleum-based plastic so that they can break down without contaminating the soil and water. The market opportunity has attracted small, young companies that focus on developing recycling technology to tackle that troublesome 30% of plastic packaging that is headed to landfills at best, and, at worst, to our rivers, lakes and oceans.


The target: Polystyrene. It’s commonly made into products such as styrofoam cups, packing peanuts and rigid red picnic cups.

Trouble spot: Used polystyrene foam packaging has long been condensed and “downcycled” into décors such as crown molding or picture frames. Fully recycling used polystyrene back into the same material could reduce demand for oil and cut greenhouse gases even more.

The fix: Founded in 2006, Agylix’s technology breaks the polymer down to molecules, which it sells in liquid form to refiners that will bind the molecules to form polystyrene, according to CEO Ross Patten. Agylix’s technology can go further and convert polystyrene back to crude oil. It did that until last year, when low oil prices made it unfeasible to continue.

The challenge: Agylix, based outside Portland, Oregon, may find itself with a decreasing feedstock. There are legislative and grassroots campaigns in the US aimed at eliminating polystyrene packaging. Not only is it prevalent in oceans, but some public health advocates say it could cause cancer. Maryland is considering a ban on polystyrene foam packaging, and shareholder groups are pressuring Walmart, Target and Amazon to stop using the material for shipping.


The target: Low-density polyethylene (LDPE). It’s everywhere: grocery bags, produce bags and Ziploc bags. It’s also not accepted in curbside recycling programs. Some grocery stores do collect and send it to companies that turn it into plastic lumber and other products.

Trouble spot: Consumers tend to put LDPE in their recycling bins anyway, even though recyclers don’t want it. The material has become the bane of many recycling facility managers because they have no market into which to sell it, and in turn have not instituted systems for sorting and collecting the film. As a result, it tends to gunk up sorting and conveyance machinery.

The fix: Jeanny Yao and Miranda Wang, the entrepreneurs behind a two-year-old San Jose, California startup called BioCellection, are using genetic engineering to create a process that turns LDPE into chemical compounds for use in a variety of ways, including emulsifiers or cleansers in cosmetics to textile manufacturing. Their process involves feeding the plastic to a machine roughly the size of a cargo container and using a chemical treatment to break down the LDPE into small carbon-based molecules into powder form.

The powder will go into a bioreactor with bacteria that have been genetically engineered to eat the powder and secrete a lipid that’s used as an emulsifier or cleanser. It can replace compounds that currently are made from petrochemicals or palm oil, which typically comes from farms that have caused large scale deforestation and habitat loss in Malaysia and Indonesia. That has prompted many manufacturers, including clothing company Patagonia, to look for new sources.

“We are aiming to make sustainable biological products using the most problematic, unrecyclable mixed plastic waste as the starting material,” says Wang.

The challenge: The startup’s biggest hurdle will be weeding out both unwanted chemical additives in the polymers as well as random substances from trash collection that become attached to LDPE, says Susan Selke, who directs Michigan State University’s School of Packaging. Yao says she’s mindful of the issue and is working on creating bacteria that can eat or tolerate the contaminants.

The target: Low-density polyethylene (LDPE).

Trouble spot: Color – the product information and logos printed on plastic packaging is what has prevented LDPE from being recycled back into film which can be used for the same applications.

The fix: Cadel Deinking, which spun out of Spain’s University of Alicante three years ago, has developed a process that removes the ink by soaking the plastic in a solvent-free chemical bath. Cadel has licensed the technology to a Brazilian packaging provider that can produce recycled packaging, a process that can be cheaper than using petrochemicals or palm oil to make the plastics, according to Adriana Pineda, Cadel’s business development manager. (The same process also works with other plastics.)

The challenge: While Cadel can remove ink printed onto plastic, it can’t remove pigments injected into it, such as a colored cap on a plastic bottle. As a result, the company can only take white or clear plastic bag or shrink wrap with printed logos.

Cadel also only buys used plastic from businesses and factories instead of homes, where the plastic is more likely to get mixed in with unwanted materials. But the company has improved its machines that separate the plastic from contaminants, so it will begin testing its technology on post-consumer waste this year.

The target: Mixed-material packaging.

Trouble spot: Mixed-material packaging is made up of tightly laminated layers of plastic, cardboard and aluminum foil. Think of Capri Sun drink pouches or cardboard boxes for soup in the grocery aisle. This composition of materials can help extend the shelf life of foods, sometimes without requiring refrigeration, and is lighter than other packaging options such as glass or metal. However, separating materials for recycling is difficult and expensive to do, and few recycling programs will accept mixed-material packaging.

The fix: Saperatec, a six-year-old German company, has developed a process to separate the adhesive bonds of materials by shredding and putting them through a chemical bath. The technology will then isolate and cull the materials – aluminum, LDPE and polyester for recycling. Currently, Saperatec does not recycle paper used in these mixed materials.

Saperatec has been operating a pilot plant since 2014 and aims to have its first large scale recycling center open in 2018, according to Stefan Pöschel, the company’s head of sales and business development. It plans to recycle 18,000 metric tons of material each year.

The challenge: Saperatec can’t sell to the food and drink industry because of health regulations that prohibit recycled materials for food-contact packaging. Its current plant in Germany only takes used packaging from businesses because trash from these sources aren’t usually mixed with many types of garbage. It’s working on a process that can separate unwanted trash so that it can take mixed packaging materials from city recycling facilities.

    This article was amended on 23 February 2017 to delete a reference to Coca-Cola’s plant-based plastic because it doesn’t biodegrade or decompose.

 on: Feb 24, 2017, 06:41 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Green campaigners welcome Coca-Cola U-turn on bottle and can recycling scheme

Environmentalists hail ‘landmark moment’ as world’s biggest soft drinks company agrees to set up pilot scheme in Scotland

Severin Carrell Scotland editor
Wednesday 22 February 2017 12.36 GMT

Coca-Cola has announced it supports testing a deposit return service for drinks cans and bottles, in a major coup for environment and anti-waste campaigners.

Executives told an event in Edinburgh on Tuesday evening they agreed with campaigners who were pressing the Scottish government to set up a bottle-return pilot scheme to cut waste and pollution and boost recycling.

They told the event, organised by Holyrood magazine, that the company had been examining the merits of a bottle and can deposit scheme, where consumers pay a small surcharge of about 10p per item, which is repaid when an empty can or bottle is returned to a retailer.

The company, the world’s largest soft drinks manufacturer, had previously resisted a deposit return scheme, which is used in countries such as Canada, Sweden, Australia and Norway. It had claimed in 2015 it did not reduce packaging use or improve recyclability.

But in a clear switch in policy, which mirrors its attempts to cut high sugar content in its products, a Coca-Cola executive told the event in Edinburgh its thinking had changed, in part because of experience in other countries.

“The time is right to trial new interventions such as a well-designed deposit scheme for drinks containers, starting in Scotland where conversations are under way,” he said.

The announcement was hailed as a “landmark moment” by the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland (APRS), which is coordinating a lobbying campaign with other groups and businesses, including WWF and the Marine Conservation Society.

The Scottish parliament’s environment committee has set up a subgroup to examine the proposal, adding to pressure on Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish environment secretary, to agree to a pilot scheme.

John Mayhew, APRS’s chief executive, said it was an extremely significant moment given Coca-Cola’s position as the world’s largest soft drinks manufacturer.

A poll by Survation for the APRS this month found that nearly 79% of Scots supported a return scheme, while only 8.5% opposed it.

“The momentum is now with the campaign,” Mayhew said. “The crucial next step is for ministers to design a system that works well for the public, for local authorities, and for small Scottish businesses, including retailers as well as producers. We know it can be done, and we will continue to argue for a deposit system which takes account of their needs.”

Political parties in Wales have also floated a deposit return scheme, with a suggested deposit of 10p a bottle. The Marine Conservation Society has said up to 17% of the rubbish found on beaches is drinks containers.

A Coca-Cola spokeswoman said the company’s polling had found majority support for a deposit return scheme across the UK. It said 63% of consumers backed the proposal and 51% of those polled believed it would increase their recycling.

The company said it had made significant progress on sustainability: its bottles and cans were 100% recyclable; packages were lighter and the amount of recycled plastic in its bottles would increase from 25% to 40% by 2020.

Even so, it accepted it needed to do more and had begun a substantial review of its sustainability strategies. “We are focused on our packaging, the role of our brands and the ways we can collaborate with others to improve recycling rates and reduce litter.

“Our sustainable packaging review is ongoing, but it’s already clear from our conversations with experts that the time is right to trial new interventions such as a well-designed deposit return scheme for drinks containers, starting in Scotland where conversations are under way.

“From our experience elsewhere in Europe, we know that deposit schemes can work if they are developed as part of an overall strategy on the circular economy, in collaboration with all industry stakeholders. We are open to exploring any well-thought-through initiative that has the potential to increase recycling and reduce litter.”

Richard Lochhead, the previous Scottish environment secretary, said he backed the scheme and believed Coca-Cola’s change of heart would influence other drinks manufacturers and the Scottish government to support the proposal.

“This injects momentum and credibility into the debate in Scotland. We can lead the UK on this issue and this helps brings the introduction of such a transformative policy a big step closer,” he said.

 on: Feb 24, 2017, 06:38 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
The colossal African solar farm that could power Europe

By Sandrine Ceurstemont

The minibus crosses the vast plateau on a newly paved road. Cracked fields stretch away towards the Moroccan desert to the south. Yet the barren landscape is no longer quite as desolate as it once was. This year it became home to one of the world’s biggest solar power plants.

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Hundreds of curved mirrors, each as big as a bus, are ranked in rows covering 1,400,000 sq m (15m sq ft) of desert, an area the size of 200 football fields. The massive complex sits on a sun-blasted site at the foot of the High Atlas mountains, 10km (6 miles) from Ouarzazate – a city nicknamed the door to the desert. With around 330 days of sunshine a year, it’s an ideal location.

As well as meeting domestic needs, Morocco hopes one day to export solar energy to Europe. This is a plant that could help define Africa's – and the world’s – energy future.

Of course, on the day I visit the sky is covered in clouds. “No electricity will be produced today,“ says Rachid Bayed at the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (Masen), which is responsible for implementing the flagship project.

An occasional off day is not a concern, however. After many years of false starts, solar power is coming of age as countries in the sun finally embrace their most abundant source of clean energy. The Moroccan site is one of several across Africa and similar plants are being built in the Middle East – in Jordan, Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The falling cost of solar power has made it a viable alternative to oil even in the most oil-rich parts of the world.

    As well as meeting domestic needs, Morocco hopes one day to export solar energy to Europe.

Noor 1, the first phase of the Moroccan plant, has already surpassed expectations in terms of the amount of energy it has produced. It is an encouraging result in line with Morocco’s goal to reduce its fossil fuel bill by focusing on renewables while still meeting growing energy needs that are increasing by about 7% per year. Morocco’s stable government and economy has helped it secure funding: the European Union contributed 60% of the cost for the Ouarzazate project, for example.

With around 330 days of sunshine a year, the region around Ouarzazate - a city nicknamed the door to the desert - is an ideal location (Credit: Sandrine Ceurstemont)

The country plans to generate 14% of its energy from solar by 2020 and by adding other renewable sources like wind and water into the mix, it is aiming to produce 52% of its own energy by 2030. This puts Morocco more or less in line with countries like the UK, which wants to generate 30% of its electricity from renewables by the end of the decade, and the US, where President Obama set a target of 20% by 2030. (Trump has threatened to dump renewables, but his actions may not have a huge impact. Many policies are controlled by individual states and big companies have already started to switch to cleaner and cheaper alternatives.)

Due to the lack sun on the day I visit, the hundreds of mirrors stand still and silent. The team keeps a close eye on weather forecasts to predict output for the following day, allowing other sources of energy to take over when it is overcast.

    The reflectors can be heard as they move together to follow the sun like a giant field of sunflowers

But normally the reflectors can be heard as they move together to follow the Sun like a giant field of sunflowers. The mirrors focus the Sun’s energy onto a synthetic oil that flows through a network of pipes. Reaching temperatures up to 350C (662F), the hot oil is used to produce high-pressure water vapour that drives a turbine-powered generator. “It’s the same classic process used with fossil fuels, except that we are using the Sun’s heat as the source,” says Bayed.

The plant keeps generating energy after sunset, when electricity demands peak. Some of the day’s energy is stored in reservoirs of superhot molten salts made of sodium and potassium nitrates, which keeps production going for up to three hours. In the next phase of the plant, production will continue for up to eight hours after sunset.

As well as boosting Morocco’s power production, the Ouarzazate project is helping the local economy. Around 2,000 workers were hired during the initial two years of construction, many of them Moroccan. Roads built to provide access to the plant have also connected nearby villages, helping children get to school. Water brought in for the site has been piped beyond the complex, hooking up 33 villages to the water grid.

    Water brought in for the site has been piped beyond the complex, hooking up 33 villages to the water grid

Masen has also helped farmers in the area by teaching them sustainable practices. Heading towards the mountains, I visit the Berber village of Asseghmou, 30 miles (48 kilometres) north of Ouarzazate, where a small farm has now changed the way it raises ewes. Most farmers here rely on their intuition alone but they are being introduced to more reliable techniques -such as simply separating animals in their pens – which are improving yields. Masen also provided 25 farms with sheep for breeding purposes. “I now have better food security,” says Chaoui, who runs a local farm. And his almond tree is thriving thanks to cultivation tips.

Even so, some locals have concerns. Abdellatif, who lives in the city of Zagora about 75 miles (120 kilometres) further south, where there are high rates of unemployment, thinks that the plant should focus on creating permanent jobs. He has friends who were hired to work there but they were only on contract for a few months. Once fully operational, the station will only require about 50 to 100 employees so the job boom may end. “The components of the plant are manufactured abroad but it would be better to produce them locally to generate ongoing work for residents,” he says.   

A bigger issue is that the solar plant draws a massive amount of water for cleaning and cooling from the local El Mansour Eddahbi dam. In recent years, water scarcity has been a problem in the semi-desert region and there are water cuts. Agricultural land further south in the Draa valley depends on water from the dam, which is occasionally released into the otherwise-dry river. But Mustapha Sellam, the site manager, claims that the water used by the complex amounts to 0.5% of the dam’s supply, which is negligible compared to its capacity.

Still, the plant’s consumption is enough to make a difference to struggling farmers. So the plant is making improvements to reduce the amount of water it uses. Instead of relying on water to clean the mirrors, pressurised air is used. And whereas Noor 1 uses water to cool the steam produced by the generators, so that it can be turned back into water and reused to produce more electricity, a dry cooling system that uses air will be installed.     

    The success of plants in places like Morocco and South Africa will encourage other African countries to turn to solar power

These new sections of the plant are currently being built. Noor 2 will be similar to the first phase, but Noor 3 will experiment with a different design. Instead of ranks of mirrors it will capture and store the Sun’s energy with a single large tower, which is thought to be more efficient.

Seven thousand flat mirrors surrounding the tower will all track and reflect the sun’s rays towards a receiver at the top, requiring much less space than existing arrangement of mirrors. Molten salts filling the interior of the tower will capture and store heat directly, doing away with the need for hot oil.

Similar systems are already used in South Africa, Spain and a few sites in the US, such as California’s Mojave desert and Nevada. But at 86ft (26m) tall, Ouarzazate’s recently erected structure is the highest of its kind in the world.

Other plants in Morocco are already underway. Next year construction will begin at two sites in the south-west, near Laayoune and Boujdour, with plants near Tata and Midelt to follow.   

The success of these plants in Morocco – and those in South Africa - may encourage other African countries to turn to solar power. South Africa is already one of the world’s top 10 producers of solar power and Rwanda is home to east Africa’s first solar plant, which opened in 2014. Large plants are being planned for Ghana and Uganda.

Africa’s sunshine could eventually make the continent a supplier of energy to the rest of the world. Sellam has high hopes for Noor. “Our main goal is to become energy-independent but if one day we are producing a surplus we could supply other countries too,” he says. Imagine recharging your electric car in Berlin with electricity produced in Morocco.

With the clouds set to lift in Ouarzazate, Africa is busy planning for a sunny day.

 on: Feb 24, 2017, 06:32 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Readers' prize winning pictures of cats

With ten copies of Jane Bown’s book Cats to give away we asked you to share your best cat photos. Here are the pictures that were selected in our prize draw

Guardian readers
Friday 24 February 2017 12.17 GMT

Click to see all: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gallery/2017/feb/24/readers-prize-winning-pictures-of-cats

 on: Feb 24, 2017, 06:29 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Red squirrels: 5,000 volunteers sought to save species – and help kill invasive greys

Wildlife Trusts’ biggest-ever recruitment drive will see volunteers monitor populations, educate children – and bludgeon grey squirrels to death

Patrick Barkham
Friday 24 February 2017 06.01 GMT

An army of 5,000 volunteers is being sought to save the red squirrel from extinction by monitoring populations, educating children – and bludgeoning grey squirrels to death.

The Wildlife Trusts’ biggest-ever recruitment drive is focused on areas of northern England, north Wales and Northern Ireland where invasive grey squirrels first introduced by the Victorians are driving the retreating red squirrel population to extinction.

More than 2.5 million grey squirrels are continuing to spread north through England and into Scotland, out-competing the 140,000 remaining red squirrels and spreading the squirrelpox virus, which does not affect greys but rapidly kills reds.

“In most of the UK there are only a handful of refuges left for red squirrels,” said Dr Cathleen Thomas, programme manager of Red Squirrel United, a conservation partnership started in 2015. “Without help, experts predict this beautiful and treasured creature could be extinct within as little as 35 years.”

Volunteers for Red Squirrel United will be asked to monitor red squirrel strongholds in Northumberland, Merseyside, Wales and Northern Ireland, and report any grey squirrels entering these areas. Volunteers will set up camera traps to film squirrel behaviour and teach the public and school children about the way in which greys have rapidly driven the reds to extinction across southern Britain since 1945.

Supported by Heritage Lottery and EU Life funding, volunteers can also undertake training to trap and kill grey squirrels, which are caught in a cage-trap, put in a bag and knocked over the head.

“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea and we don’t expect people to do it if they are not comfortable but we do have volunteers who carry out the dispatch themselves,” said Thomas. “We don’t just say ‘do it how you like’ – we have very strict animal welfare guidelines. Nobody does it happily but it’s one or the other [reds or greys] and we’re in a position where we have to decide.”

Culling is controversial but scientific monitoring shows that reds swiftly recolonise areas cleared of greys. There were fewer than 40 red squirrels left on Anglesey in 1997 but a successful drive to eradicate all grey squirrels on the island by 2015 has seen the red squirrel population bounce back to 700 today.

Thomas added: “We do get animal rights activists saying we shouldn’t kill anything because all living creatures have a right to life and to some extent I agree but if we don’t do anything the reds will go extinct and in quite a horrific way. Given that the greys were brought over here by humans, it’s something we have to make a conscious decision about.”

Julie Bailey, who lives in Cumbria’s Eden Valley, used to watch dozens of red squirrels at her garden feeders. A grey squirrel arrived in Christmas 2009 and within a month all her reds had died of squirrelpox virus. “It was absolutely devastating,” she said.

She began volunteering for local red squirrel groups – there are 14 such community groups in Cumbria alone – recording red squirrels, and trapping and shooting greys.

“Pulling the trigger on grey squirrels was difficult if I’m honest because I’d never actually killed anything like that before,” said Bailey. “But because we’ve been culling the greys we’ve managed to get the reds back and they are still hanging on.” Despite three outbreaks of squirrelpox, Bailey now has six to eight red squirrels in her neighbourhood.

“It is a winnable war but not without boots on the ground,” she added. “We have some fantastic conservation projects but if we haven’t got someone sitting under that tree or checking that trap we’re at a loss.

“It’s an unfortunate part of red squirrel conservation that we have to kill grey squirrels. But we have an obligation to undo the damage the Victorians did by bringing them here in the first place.”

 on: Feb 24, 2017, 06:25 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Hedgerows are haven for birds, hares and badgers

Welland Valley, Leicestershire Wildlife sightings, even on a short walk across the fields, demonstrate the effect of these ‘green corridors’

Louise Gray
Friday 24 February 2017 05.30 GMT

The reed buntings sway on their vertical perches like trapeze artists waiting for the next trick. Bare hawthorn whips make a good vantage point from which to survey the landscape before they flit into a field of winter stubble to feed.

The males have a black head and smart white collar, adding to the appearance of professional performers. The females look at bit dowdy at first but, on closer inspection, their streaky brown plumage and fine white moustaches, running from the base of the beak across their cheeks, are just as handsome.

Once on the UK’s endangered list, Emberiza schoeniclus has recently made a comeback, largely because of its ability to adapt to living on farmland. These reed buntings are lucky to have found a farm where the hedgerows haven’t been grubbed up to make way for agricultural machinery and where the stubble hasn’t been ploughed up to make way for a second crop. The leftover kernels of wheat will see the birds through the hungry gap over winter and early spring.

Here at Rectory Farm, the tenants grow oilseed rape as well as wheat, which they add to bought-in millet, sunflower seeds and the niger seeds that goldfinches so love, to sell as garden birdfood mixes. Wildflower margins planted around the fields provide more seeds and attract insects for birds to feed on in the summer. Customers are encouraged to visit and see the results for themselves.

The effect of these “green corridors” is visible on even the shortest walk across the fields. Skylarks lift into the air, although on this February day their chirruping has yet to reach the joyous sound of springtime. Flashes of white suggest that the “little brown jobs” flitting in and out of the hedge are chaffinches. The yellowhammer perched on a briar is easier to identify, his head and breast bright against the muted landscape. In the distance, a kestrel hovers and a red kite glides overhead. A hare lollops into cover and badger prints in the earth show the birds are not alone in taking advantage of the hedgerows.

 on: Feb 24, 2017, 06:23 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Australia's 'biggest ever' antivenom dose saves boy bitten by funnel web spider

NSW central coast schoolboy, aged 10, was given 12 vials of antivenom after he was bitten by a male spider hiding in a shoe

Australian Associated Press
Friday 24 February 2017 03.48 GMT

A 10-year-old NSW central coast boy is lucky to be alive after a deadly funnel web spider bite necessitated what is believed to be the largest dose of antivenom administered in Australian history.

Matthew Mitchell was rushed to Gosford hospital after he was bitten on the finger by the male funnel web, which was hiding inside a shoe, on Monday.

He was given 12 vials of antivenom – an unheard-of amount and an Australian record, according to the Australian Reptile Park general manager, Tim Faulkner.

“I’ve never heard of it, it’s incredible,” he told AAP on Friday. “And to walk out of hospital a day later with no effects is a testament to the antivenom.”

The offending spider was captured and taken to the reptile park, where it is now part of the antivenom milking program.

Despite the fearsome reputation of spiders in Australia, deaths caused by bites are very rare, thanks to the introduction of antivenom.

In April 2016, a redback spider bite was believed to have caused the death of 22-year-old Jayden Burleigh from Sydney.

The funnel web spider is considered the most deadly in the world because its venom can kill within 15 minutes. But the redback is believed to have more powerful venom.


In Australia: giant spider carrying a mouse is horrifying and impressive

Forget pizza rat and cigarette crab and prepare yourself for spider mouse, the super strong and very hungry Australian arachnid

Bonnie Malkin
Monday 24 October 2016 04.54 BST

Australia’s litany of fearsome fauna seems to have a new entry. Added to deadly snakes, man-eating crocodiles and poisonous jellyfish comes Hermie the huntsman, a spider so unusually large and strong that it had no problem carrying a sizeable mouse up the outside of a fridge.

Hermie’s feat was captured on film by Jason Wormal, a tradesman from Coppabella in Queensland, who was heading out to work in the early hours of Monday morning when he says he received an offer from a neighbour that he couldn’t refuse.

“So I am just about to leave for work about 0030 and me neighbour says ‘You want to see something cool’ and I say ‘Hell yeah’, he wrote on Facebook.

“So we proceed to his place and he shows me this. Huntsman trying to eat a mouse.”

On the video shot by Wormal a voice can be heard off screen wondering in amazement: “What’s he gonna do with him? Man that is so cool”.

Stills taken of the spider seem to show the arachnid clutching the mouse by its head with its chelicerae while it scurries up the fridge.

The footage quickly circulated online and by Monday afternoon had been viewed more than 6.5m times.

Among the 41,000 comments below the original post were many expressing deep horror at the strength of the spider. Anthony Candelaria Sanchez summed up the general feeling with the simple statement: “Oh hell no.”

Arachnophobes may think about giving Coppabella a miss

In a later post, Wormal assures his friends that the spider is alive and well.

“Ok guys so just letting you all know that the spider is fine. We have named him Hermie, we have adopted him and he is now running his own extermination business out of our town Coppabella. Oh and he is now paying rent. Lol.”

Graham Milledge, the manager of the Australian Museum’s arachnology collection, said it was unusual, but not unheard of, for spiders to target vertebrates.

“This is the first time I’ve seen one catch a mouse, but I have seen huntsmen catch geckos. I’ve seen a redback spider catch a snake in its web, I’ve seen a golden orb spider catch birds.”

Milledge said the banded huntsman could grow to have a leg span as large as 16cm.

However his colleague, the Australian Museum arachnid expert Helen Smith, said it was unlikely that Hermie had killed the mouse itself.

“I would be very surprised if a huntsman would attack a mouse and even if it did, that the venom would be sufficient to kill it fast enough for the spider to still have hold of it,” she told the Guardian.

“I am also suspicious because the mouse’s tail looks quite stiff – as though it has been dead some time.”

While the exact cause of the mouse’s demise remained in question, there was no doubt over Hermie’s remarkable size and stamina, she said.

Click to watch: <iframe src="https://embed.theguardian.com/embed/video/environment/video/2016/oct/24/huge-huntsman-spider-tries-to-eat-a-mouse-video" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

 on: Feb 24, 2017, 06:18 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Activists force YouTube to suspend live stream of giraffe giving birth – zoo owner

    ‘Sexually explicit’ video of giraffe in New York zoo briefly removed by YouTube
    Owner Jordan Patch blames ‘handful of extremists and animal rights activists’

Associated Press in Harpursville, New York
Thursday 23 February 2017 17.49 GMT

The owner of a New York zoo planning to livestream a giraffe giving birth says the video feed was briefly removed from YouTube because animal rights activists labeled it sexually explicit.

Animal Adventure Park started streaming video on Wednesday of 15-year-old April in her enclosed pen at the zoo in Harpursville, 130 miles north-west of New York City. But the zoo’s owner, Jordan Patch, says YouTube removed the feed early on Thursday after someone reported it was explicit and contained nudity.

In a video posted on the zoo’s Facebook page, Patch blamed “a handful of extremists and animal rights activists” for interrupting the stream from the “giraffe cam”. The live stream resumed on YouTube later on Thursday morning.

April is expected to give birth to her fourth calf in the coming days.

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