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‘It would be great to have clean air’: A Polish wish as crucial climate talks open

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The official video promoting the host of this year’s crucial international climate talks paints a glowing green picture.

Poland, it says, is a country whose climate is “consistently improving,” and that “promotes low emission means of transport.”

The video makes no mention of the tough negotiations starting in Katowice, a city in Poland’s prime coal-mining country, nor of the smog that often plagues the region. Instead, it says Poland is a place where “care for nature” and forest management have helped absorb climate-changing carbon dioxide gas (CO2) from the air.

The narrative leaves activists like Magdalena Kozlowska incredulous.

“It’s a very nice video of a place I would love to live in,” she said in an interview. “It’s good that the government realizes that that’s the place we should live in. So that’s the goal.

“But it’s still not the Poland we are now.”

Broken pledges

This week, Poland is in good company in greening up and papering over an evident lack of drastic action to fight climate change despite the dire warnings.

The global gathering aims to meet a December 2018 deadline set at the Paris climate talks to come up with guidelines to implement the 2015 deal on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Talks in Poland come just days after a UN report revealed that, three years after the Paris deal, several G20 countries —including Canada — are not on track to meet their promised targets for cutting greenhouse gas emission by 2030.

“In fact, global CO2 emissions increased in 2017 after three years of stagnation,” said the report. This warning comes as scientists say the Paris goals themselves are inadequate to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Krakow’s smog days aren’t as frequent as a few years ago, but the city continues to be rated among the most polluted in the world. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

And yet several of those countries, Canada included, insist they’re making progress. They say a global turnaround is coming — even as the U.S. announced it’s pulling out of the Paris deal, and Brazil gives up hosting the conference next year.

Claims of advancement are made even as a significant number of the nearly 200 countries represented here, like Poland, are still dependent on coal, including big economies like Germany, India, and China.

Poland’s coal industry is thriving, and the government has announced that a state-owned coal producer would be one of the sponsors of the climate talks, to the dismay of environmentalists.

In Poland, coal is used to heat individual homes and to generate about 80 per cent of the country’s power.

If Poland’s tight relationship with coal has international parallels, then perhaps the city of Krakow’s experience could prove inspirational for activists fighting to change it.

How one city battled smog

Krakow, a city of about 800,000 in southern Poland, has a smog problem, one that simply rages in winter.

The city’s air is some of the most polluted in Europe, sending many residents packing, some to as far away as Canada.

Krakow’s curse is its location in a windless valley and the once-rampant use of coal in and around it. Some have called it the Beijing of Europe, in reference to China’s smog-choked capital.

An electronic billboard keeps Krakow city residents informed about smog levels. Red signals a health alert, better to stay inside; yellow indicates there are some smog issues, but it’s still OK to go outdoors; and green means it’s safe to do outdoor activities like jogging. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

This pollution has led to a growth spurt at the Kochane daycare in Krakow — a virtual fortress against toxic air.

Daycare owner Teresa Tkaczyk-Szlachta calls hers Poland’s first anti-smog preschool, and parents have clamoured to enrol their kids. She and her husband invested in a custom-made filtration system to keep the premises virtually pollutant free. Outside, if her monitor indicates pollutants are high, either the kids wear masks on outings, or they stay indoors.

On bad smog days, nine-year-old Stefan Szlachta never heads outside without his anti-smog mask. His mother runs Krakow’s first anti-smog pre-school where emissions are constantly measured and monitored. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

“It would be great to have clean air … I think that is [the] wish of every citizen in Krakow,” she said. 

Change is happening in Krakow that isn‘t always obvious in the day-to-day monitoring of air quality on mobile phone apps or the city-sponsored real-time street panels.

New stoves

The city of has approved a ban on using coal and it’s helping residents to phase out coal stoves by September 2019.

At least two more of those stoves will be struck off the list in the next few days.  

The tile-covered, tall rectangular stoves that have heated one of Poland’s oldest stained glass workshops and museums now sit idle. Temporary heaters warm the air until a hot-water based system kicks in.

“Each of us men had to do heating service once or twice a week, we’d go downstairs with these buckets, get some coal, get some wood to start the fire,” said Johan Christoph Model, an apprentice from Germany who also works at the museum as a guide.

“From this year on, we’ll have a new heating system.”

Johann Christoph Model, an apprentice and guide at Krakow’s famed stained glass museum and workshop, demonstrates how the coal stove used to heat the museum during the city’s long cold winter months. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

The ban is a game changer that is credited to Krakow Smog Alarm group, a circle of old friends who mounted a campaign six years ago demanding action from the city.

“We gained lots of support from the media and from people who also were fed up with air quality but nobody before us just shouted out this problem,” said Kozlowska, the activist and one of the group’s founders. Their work also led the city to create an alert system to inform citizens about air quality minute to minute.

The good news, said Kozlowska, is that only about 4,000 coal stoves remain in Krakow. The city’s air quality has improved slightly. “Just smelling [it] we feel it’s better,” she said.

The bad news is that smoggy days are still frequent. Last week, in one part of the city, the Airly monitoring app reported one pollutant 373 per cent higher than acceptable levels. “If possible, stay at home,” it advised.

‘We have to change something’

Some Krakow residents still can’t afford to permanently get off coal.

Elżbieta Brodzik, 78, would like to switch but said the municipality that owns the apartment where she lives should pay.

“I use that stove but it is very uncomfortable,” she said. “I am not able to carry the coal anymore.” She abandoned a second furnace in the apartment after she nearly died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

‘It’s not just the region — it’s Poland,’ Kozlowska said about the issue of smog. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

In towns near Krakow, many are also still using coal or even garbage to heat homes, and the smog that regularly swallows whole streets keeps seeping into the city.

That has led Kozlowska‘s group to cast its gaze on the bigger picture.

“We started small,” said Kozlowska. “Then we realized it’s not just Krakow but it’s the region. Then we realized it’s not just the region — it’s Poland. Now, we are thinking ‘wait, it’s not just air pollution, it’s also climate change.'”

“It’s a problem [that] we started to really take seriously.”

The city of Krakow is also thinking big and it’s inspiring other cities in Poland to follow suit. Krakow is aiming to create more green space, and more traffic restrictions, said Pawel Scigalski, a city official responsible for air quality.

“People understand that we have to change something,” he said in an interview.

In the meantime, in the name of clean air, a steel company is recasting some of the old discarded metal stoves into bicycle racks. In a contest, some of them have been donated to a local school.

At the museum, the plan is to keep the old stoves exactly where they stand — as relics of history.

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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