Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Have you ever thought about what it would be like if we lived on the moon? On such a barren and lifeless rock, many of the things we take for granted - air, water, trees - would be imported and manufactured goods. Instead of exploiting them, we would almost certainly be paying for them. In his science fiction classic The Moon is Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein has a term for this: TANSTAAFL. It stands stand for There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. In his lunar cities of the future, even air is paid for.
Life mirrors art.
The most definitive message out of the UN's two-week three-ring circus in Copenhagen is that if we want these things, we're going to have to pay for them. But unfortunately, our institutions have been operating as if they are free for a long time. The value of trees as air scrubbers, carbon holders, and fresh water producers has never been factored into the cost of cutting them down, or a fair price to save them. The ecological impact of extracting and burning coal and oil is seldom considered as part of their true cost as an energy source. The environmental cost of garbage, beef, cars, bottled water, and a million other man-made items is not reflected in what we pay to consume them.
The concept of doing so is called natural capitalism. It's not socialism or tree hugging, it is simply seeing the world's economy as connected to the larger economy of natural resources and ecosystem services that sustain us, and placing appropriate value on the ecological commons. Another way to look at it is as achieving "sustainable resource use"; a lifecycle based perspective on growth, production, and consumption. As long as we are tethered to this one tiny planet, it is the only long term model that will work.
So what good came out of Copenhagen? Acknowledgment of TANSTAAFL - that there ain't a free lunch. While no binding agreements were signed, there was explicit consensus reached ("The Copenhagen Accord") that the current carbon and methane intensive model of global capitalism has a cost, and that it's time to make a payment. Representatives from virtually every UN member country including the US, China, India, Brazil, and the EU members agreed that we need to come up with financial models to save rainforests, invest in cleaner renewable energy sources, consume less, and think holistically about how we achieve growth, wealth creation and a future world that is sustainable and socially just.
The bickering is all about who is going to pay for it, and of course the countries with the biggest wallets and the biggest bills are calling the shots. Did anyone really expect the Maldives to successfully set the agenda?
So while progress towards a binding solution to climate change was limited, at least the problem is now framed, and that's something positive we can take out of what otherwise would be considered a complete fiasco.
Unlike the moon, the earth is a generous and forgiving mistress. But the era of the free lunch is over.
You can download the Copenhagen Accord at this link (courtesy of the Washington Post.)
Photo copyright http://www.flickr.com/photos/doctorow/ / CC BY-SA 2.0
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
While the climate talks in Copenhagen ended with the world wondering if the US will commit to emissions targets, I have been wondering how we will deliver on the reduction promises made in Copenhagen. Apparently Senator Maria Cantwell has been thinking about this as well.
Cap and Trade? As I wrote earlier this year, a poorly designed cap and trade scheme could lead to market manipulation and speculation in carbon credits and pollution permits that transfers much of the money to Wall Street type firms. And giving away virtually all of the the permits (as has been proposed) won't increase the cost of energy, and so won't motivate changes in underlying demand.
A carbon tax? Well it certainly factors the cost of climate change into all the stuff we consume, which will change behavior, but trusting the government to spend the money wisely on investing in new energy policies (rather than pork) and keeping the economy on track requires a large leap of faith, whether you believe in big government or not.
So I was intrigued to see that Senator Cantwell just unveiled an alternate climate bill for the US called the CLEAR (Carbon Limits and Energy for America's Renewal) act, which would create emissions caps but give the proceeds of tradeable emissions rights to consumers, in the form of a rebate. One hand taketh away, but the other hand giveth right back. Now why didn't anyone think of that sooner?
As the Wall Street journal reported:
"2,000-3,000 of the nation's largest emitters would be able to buy and sell emission credits auctioned by the government, with credit values rising as mandated greenhouse gas levels fall. Seventy-five percent of auction revenues would be recycled into monthly tax-free checks to the public to help pay for rising energy costs. (Cantwell) estimates between 2012 and 2030, for the average family, those checks could average $1,100 a year for a total of around $21,000 for the period."
The AARP said that "The CLEAR Act offers a simple, straightforward approach for reducing carbon emissions in a manner that will mitigate energy cost increases and minimize administrative costs for consumers."
Grist called it "a heartbreaking work of staggering genius" (although while they gave it an A for intention, they gave it only a C for execution.)
Without question, the current version of the proposed CLEAR act is far too brief...and of course the devil is in the details. But this direction seems to tackle the problem while overcoming concerns that trouble legislators on both sides of the aisle.
I personally love the idea that the average consumer can decide which steps to take with their rebate checks, whether it is to caulk, buy a new car, add solar panels, or support fair trade offset projects that help small farmers in Mexico or Uganda.
But I suppose one of my biggest fears is that consumers will take this check and buy more gas (or just subsidize their fuel purchases), acquire more stuff, or take trips to Disneyland....and then complain that "Everything is more expensive." Future versions of the bill may have to address this potential fatal flaw. Giving money to taxpayers has usually been characterized as a stimulus designed to get us to buy and consume more. Will this be different? "Cap and dividend" puts the people back in charge. But can they handle it? Let us now what you think in the poll question below.
In any case, I am sure we'll be hearing more about CLEAR in the upcoming weeks. You can read up on it on Senator Cantwell's website.
Photo copyright: http://www.flickr.com/photos/portofsandiego/ / CC BY 2.0
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
With hundreds of countries at the negotiating table, finding a solution in Copenhagen that works for everyone is pretty hard to imagine. China wants growth and voluntary targets, India wants the West to take more responsibility, Nigeria wants compensation for lost oil revenues, while the US simply wants a pragmatic deal that keeps the economy rolling. Developing countries want help modernizing and payments for maintaining ecosystems. And Europe is focusing on keeping us below 450 PPM of CO2 and the the magic 2 degree Celsius figure.
So when a smaller country like Tuvalu walks out of the meetings in protest, what should be done? Tuvalu consists of a scattered group of low lying atolls. The highest elevation is only 15 ft above sea level, which gives Tuvalu the second-lowest maximum elevation of any country. For them, a rise of more than 1.5C (rolling back to 350 PPM) is not negotiable at Copenhagen. Anything more, and they (like the Maldives) expect to be under water.
Both Tavalu and The Maldives are part of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a group of the smallest and most vulnerable countries at the conference. Their "1.5 C or nothing" position is supported by many of the developing nations, and even more NGOs, who have been rallying around the magic number "350" for quite a while.
The problem is that getting back down to 350 seems to be nearly impossible. As I wrote recently, what's on the table from the major emitters isn't even enough to keep us below the 450 target.
For you data-geeks, a couple of simulation tools have been developed to show how far off the current proposals are and what it would take to get to the 350 number. One estimate is that it will also take at least an additional $10 Trillion dollars over the next 20 years, a price tag that just won't cut it. Trying to negotiate this sort of behavioral and financial change is like putting the mice in council.
So what next? Without compromise, the bigger world players won't sign on. With compromise, many of the Small Island States can't sign on.
Is there such a thing as "acceptable losses" when it comes to a climate deal? Do we need to focus on triage and minimizing the damage, or refuse to compromise when it comes to climate refugees? I think we are being offered a Hobson's Choice: a lot is at stake, and a deal needs to get done. These are certainly tough decisions to make - what do you think?
Photo copyright http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrlins/ / CC BY 2.0
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Picture a fleet of 100,000 cars, idling for 2 straight weeks in the middle of Copenhagen. That's the estimated greenhouse gas emissions impact of The UN's Climate conference (aka COP-15), which starts today. 40,548 tons of CO2 to be exactly inexact.
I, like many of us, consider a global agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to be crucial to averting the massive humanitarian and ecological crisis that looms in our future. We simply can't keep cutting down trees, burning fossil fuels, and consuming mindlessly. We already consume 1.4 times more than the earth can sustain, and if everyone consumed like Americans, we would need 5.4 earths.
But the irony of the Copenhagen conference is that while delegates will be meeting to discuss measurement, compliance, reduced emissions, and dramatic change in our fossil fuel consumption, the carbon footprint of the conference itself highlights why COP-15's goals are elusive at best, and at worst potentially unreachable:
Token gestures vs real change
According the UN, "the main objective of the organisers is to minimise greenhouse gas emissions as far as possible", and the UN is happy to promote the 20% reduction in energy use at the conference center and elimination of bottled water and gift bags. While this is a good start, research by ClimatePath reveals that 90% or more of the impact of meeting and events is driven by travel related emissions. There are simply too many people traveling too far by airplane, and no real plan by the UN to reduce this. Bravo for including Cisco conferencing, but this is being promoted as a way to include interested parties that are unable to travel to COP-15, not as a serious alternative to in-person attendance. If travel is considered a non-reducible emission source for the conference, then our delegates should recognize that it might be considered a non-reducible area for the rest of us as well.
COP-15's footprint estimate was "based on the calculations from the Poznan Conference in December 2008 (COP-14) and extrapolated for 15,000 participants." Accurate measurement and reporting is a foundation issue, and allocating emissions targets is a key to a successful agreement. I can tell you with almost 100% certainty that this 'Guestimate' is low. There will be thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands of additional "non official" attendees, and this does not count the millions participating in protests, rallies, and other events around the world as a part of the process. If we can't get accurate estimates from a 12 day conference, then can we really expect an accurate inventory from India, a country of over 1 Billion people?
My emissions are more important than your emissions
I mentioned in a previous blog that even some of the NGOs that are most active and engaged on the issue of climate change are jetsetting multiple writers to Denmark. A friend of mine who works for a large enviro-NGO is going to Copenhagen simply because she could get cheap tickets and the time off - and she is not alone. Whether to blog, because this is seen as "Copen-stock", or because a delegate's presence is 'vital', the idea that "living light" is a concept that applies to others is a sentiment that is pervasive not just at the talks, but around the globe, and stands in the way of a meaningful agreement.
Offsetting is the elephant in the room
Kudos to the UN for mitigating the emissions of the conference. How are they doing it? The will be offsetting, by replacing outdated brick kilns in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Quite interesting, considering that role of this type of mitigation is expected to be a hot topic at the conference. Most of the Western world has offshored manufacturing and agriculture, yet for many reasons the idea of doing this for carbon reduction and capture seems to be more problematic. I strongly support offsetting, particularly in support of projects which simultaneously improve lives.
What's at stake in the next two weeks is huge, but this all feels a bit like the US senate debating the high quality of US health care, while enjoying their own cushy plan.
Every hotel room in Copenhagen should contain a copy of the Aesop's fable The Mice in Council. We need to ask delegates "Who will bell the cat?", or--as the updated version from one of my favorite childhood cartoons (below) put it--we'll be left wondering why "After all was said and done, more was said than done."
Photo of traffic in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Copyright:http://www.flickr.com/photos/joiseyshowaa/ / CC BY-SA 2.0
Sunday, November 29, 2009
The International Energy Agency (IEA) issued their annual World Energy Outlook, and despite a drop in 2009 demand due to the global recession, the numbers look grim. As Nobuo Tanaka, Executive Director of the IEA put it;
"...a continuation of current trends in energy use puts the world on track for a rise in temperature of up to 6°C and poses serious threats to global energy security."
The IEA is to consuming countries what OPEC is to producing ones, advising members on energy supply and policy.Their activities include estimating how much oil is available and what future energy consumption will look like, and things may be even grimmer than they have been letting on.
Oil supplies in flux
According to a report in the Guardian, the Agency may have deliberately overstated world oil supplies, in order to avoid a worldwide buying panic. An unnamed (and therefore unverified) sources claim that the US has played an influential role in encouraging the organization to "underplay the rate of decline from existing oil fields while overplaying the chances of finding new reserves." Another (also unnamed) source was quoted as saying "We have [already] entered the 'peak oil' zone. I think that the situation is really bad."
"Peak oil" refers to the point at which the rate of production of oil, which has generally marched steadily upwards, begins to decline. If we continue our current energy habits and assume no change in government policies (called the 'Reference Scenario'), we will need to produce an additional 20 million barrels a day by 2030. It is not clear where that oil supply would come from, and is projected as "crude oil fields yet to be found."
Is even '450' a stretch?
In the 'Reference Scenario', the world's primary energy demand in 2030 is estimated to grow by a staggering 40% over the current figures. Much of this increase would be in coal use, which would grow by 50% and have a severe impact on climate change.
The IEA also looked at the alternative scenario needed to hold greenhouse gasses to 450 ppm, which is generally considered the maximum upper limit to avoid irreversible and possibly cataclysmic change (we are currently at 385.) What would need to happen? By 2030, a third of the world's power needs to come from renewables and/or nuclear, 60% of cars need to be plug in or hybrid, and we need to invest nearly $10 Trillion globally in energy efficiency. These are all what I would call 'stretch goals', and is partially why others have described staying below 450 ppm as pursuing "the greatest achievement in the history of the human race."
The IEA didn't even bother figuring out what it would take to reduce total ghg back to 350 ppm, a 'do no harm' target which seems to be completely out of reach.
Pay now or pay later
Conspiracy theorists claim that global warming is a hoax designed to create new 'green' profits via cap-and-trade and clean technology. While some concerns about Wall Street are always warranted, here is the simple math: The IEA estimates that carbon should eventually carry a cost of around $50 per ton, which translates to $20 per barrel of oil. If we continue on our current path, however, demand will likely drive up oil prices by at least $50 per barrel, sending over $4 trillion dollars to OPEC members in the next 20 years, just for the oil And the cost of climate change? The NRDC estimates that in the US alone, it will be $300 Billion a year by 2030. Many put the global figure in the Trillions.
So whether for the planet or the pocketbook, it's time to wake up. Things simply will not stay the way they are. We can either start spending on clean energy and efficiency now, or pay even more for the privilege of using up more fossil fuel and polluting the planet, with dire consequences. Why does this seem like a difficult choice?
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
If we are "addicted" to oil (as even George Bush admitted), then I guess air travel would need to be classified as heroin: Extremely harmful, and yet almost impossible to quit.
As an example of how deep this addiction runs:
I'm on an email group list of well known climate bloggers, and one of my colleagues recently asked, "So... what bloggers on this list are going to Copenhagen?" (for the UN climate meetings next month)
A few of the answers:
- "We will have several people there."
- "We will be sending two people."
- "We are sending 12 Midwest delegates."
They are almost certainly aware that in terms of personal carbon impact, flying is one of the worst things you can do: Without flying, the average person's carbon footprint in the US (the amount of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gasses we emit as individuals) is 16 tons. But for the 25% of American who fly, the average footprint is 6 tons higher. And for the roughly 6 Million 'frequent fliers' in The US, the typical footprint is 40 tons - almost triple the average. Yikes!
Flying is especially harmful because the emissions are released much further up in the atmosphere. There was a memorable scene in the movie The Age of Stupid, where a family tries to work out a reasonable carbon budget, and realizes that their holiday flying makes it impossible. As the father says, "the only thing worse than flying seems to be to set fire to a rainforest."
So what is a concerned eco-citizen to do? Waiting for the airlines to fix the problem is certainly not a good option. The Air Transportation Association is lobbying to avoid taxes or cap-and-trade on their industry, while also making vague promises to reduce emissions by 50% in the next 40 years. Unfortunately, most estimates are that airline travel will actually grow substantially as a portion of total emissions in upcoming decades.
Can we stop flying? Given the global nature of business and politics, as well as the importance of cultural sensitivity and awareness in an interconnected world, I hope not (although we can fly less, that's for sure.) I'm glad that concerned writers will be in Copenhagen to document the UN climate talks, even if they need to get on airplanes to get there.
The only remaining answer seems to be for fliers to fund activities that reduce their flight emissions via what is known as 'offsetting' -- funding other programs that do more good than the harm we create. Offsetting often gets a bad name, sometimes called the equivalent of a medieval pardon, or simply purchasing guilt reduction. But what it really does is pragmatically mitigate a potential environmental problem through a 'swap', something we do all the time. As examples, we chose to set aside national parks rather than halt westward expansion, conservation funds often trade forest tracts and logging rights with timber interests, and we support hatcheries to make up for dams and lost Salmon habitats. So why not set aside forests or support wind energy to make up for the flying we can't seem to avoid? While none of these 'swaps' are perfect, they are much better alternatives to doing nothing to mitigate activities that - for economic and other reasons - we just can't stop doing.
In the case of flying, offsetting the impact of a one way trip overseas adds roughly 2% ($15) to the price of a ticket. In an era where airlines now charge $32 for advanced seating assignments, $25 for an extra bag, and even for meals, that seems like a bargain to me.
Going back to the original heroin analogy, I suppose offsetting would be the moral and practical equivalent of Methadone -- a safe way to allow us to gradually withdraw from our addiction, rather than quitting cold turkey.
I think it's a good solution to the air travel dilemma, but I know not everyone agrees. What do you think?
Thursday, November 12, 2009
I just saw a short video featuring James Altucher, a weekly columnist for the Financial Times and long time Wall Street fund manager, who is bullish on Campbell's Soup and winter coats, and bearish on climate change.
Altucher is obviously a very bright guy, but he echoed a couple of the more prominent myths and erroneous arguments of climate skeptics:
"Peak temperatures world wide were hit in 1998, and the world has been cooling ever since."
This bit of urban myth is based on the data shown in the chart at left from AP. As you can see, naysayers jumped on a single high data point, ignoring basic statistical analysis and common sense. As the AP reported in busting this myth:
"The last 10 years are the warmest 10-year period of the modern record," said NOAA climate monitoring chief Deke Arndt. "Even if you analyze the trend during that 10 years, the trend is actually positive, which means warming." The AP sent expert statisticians NOAA's year-to-year ground temperature changes over 130 years and the 30 years of satellite-measured temperatures preferred by skeptics....Statisticians who analyzed the data found a distinct decades-long upward trend in the numbers, but could not find a significant drop in the past 10 years in either data set.
This idea has been perpetuated by both the BBC, and inadvertanly by Freakonomics author Steven Levitt, who has been backpedaling faster than you can say "buy my book."
"Nobody really knows whether the globe is heating or cooling or how much is man made and how much is just the Earth's natural cycle."
This "we can't be sure" tactic has been used before - by folks resisting DDT bans, cigarette warning labels, sulfur dixoide limits to reduce acid rain, and CFC controls to keep our ozone layer from being destroyed. The scientific evidence is pretty overwhelming, and near consensus. Does that mean that everyone agrees? Of course not.
A minority report released to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee listed 700 scientists who disagree. But a survey study of several thousand leading scientists conducted by the University of Illinois found that 97% of climatologists who are active in research believe that human activity has been a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures. (As a side note, petroleum geologists were among the biggest doubters, with only 47% believing in human involvement.) The study concluded that "the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes."
Here are a few more recent comments from skeptics:
"I live right outside of Orlando and it is the coldest it has been since I have lived in Florida. It was 65 the other day."
Yes, but it was unusally hot in my neighborhood last week.
"The Antarctic ice sheet is actually growing."
Maybe (this is still being studied)...but increased snowfall caused by warming is the likely explanation, and overall sea ice and glacier trends are alarmingly negative, particularly in the arctic. Here is a chart from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which tracks sea ice and glaciers.
It's a hoax. Al Gore is making millions of dollars on this issue.
As a cleantech venture capitalist, Al certainly has plenty of skin in the game. Billions of dollars are being invested in finding low carbon solutions, and there will be plenty of money made. By the same logic, however,the claims of well funded and motivated naysayers, including the US chamber of commerce and Big Oil should be rejected as well. So I guess nobody is right. Yes Al and the usual suspects might be making bank, but it doesn't mean climate change is a hoax.
Oh by the way, using Altucher's methods and logic, I observed that Campbell's Soup stock has been on a downward trend since 1998...which I guess proves that the planet must be warming.
Friday, October 30, 2009
- 1480 hectares of forest were cut down (3660 acres)
- 690 hectares of new desert were created (1700 acres)
- 3.1 Million tons of CO2 were emitted
- 3.5 Million barrels of oil were pumped
- 3 species went extinct
- The world's population grew by 8,800 people
On the climate front, the carbon meter currently reads 385 parts per million (ppm). Many of the world's leading scientists estimate that 450 ppm is our self destruct point. Still others feel that we need to drop back down to 350 ppm, and have already hit the redline -- we just don't know it yet. The number is rising by 2-3 ppm per year, and to get atmospheric CO2 to stop rising, scientists believe that global emissions need to be cut by at least 50%. Whether we are approaching or have passed the limit, we clearly need to take our foot off the accelerator.
There is of course a second definition of redlining, which is the practice of denying or increasing the cost of necessary services (health, food, jobs) to residents in defined racially determined areas. Sadly, in an indirect way the world clock also measures this. As the metrics increase, it is many of the poorest in the poorer countries who will be impacted most, exacerbating the differences between 'haves' and 'have nots'.
Because of both redline issues, we need to start thinking more holistically about our planet. As Russell says;
"The real crisis we are facing is not an environmental crisis, a population crisis, economic crisis, a social crisis, or a political crisis. It is, at its root, a crisis of consciousness. A crisis is an indication that the old mode of operating is no longer working, and a new approach is required. This is true of a personal crisis, a family crisis or a political crisis. In the case of the environmental the old way that is no longer working is our self-centred materialistic consciousness. It may have worked well in the past, when we needed to provide ourselves with the basic commodities necessary for our individual well-being – but it clearly no longer works today."
Note: Follow me on twitter, and be alerted when I post! http://twitter.com/ClimateTweeter
Image copyright ClimatePath. Adapted from http://www.flickr.com/photos/shanafin/ / CC BY-SA 2.0. Globe image courtesy of Nasa.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
The trouble with taking action on climate change is that the issue is so big. Unlike giving money to your church, supporting your local schools, or volunteering to build houses or work in a local shelter, it's hard to believe that your individual action is making a difference. If you're reading this blog, you're already conservation minded, encouraging action, trying to use your car less, and at least thinking of offsetting or buying green energy, etc. What more can you do?
Well I saw a story in my local newspaper that reminded me of the impact we can have as individuals, simply by refusing to accept the stupid things we see around us every day:
A regular commuter on BART (the SF Bay Area's light rail system) noticed that the lights were on all day every day in the parking lot at her local station. It struck her as a huge waste of electricity, even though it was a "drop in the bucket" to BART. She called and and was told that they must be testing the lighting system. Since she works across the street from the station, she doubted that this was the case...the lights had been every day for months.
Rather than accepting a brush off, she enlisted a local newspaper columnist, that recontacted the transit agency on her behalf. A BART crew visited the parking lot and determined that the master light switch had been inadvertently set to manual instead of automatic. The crew simply reset the switches to automatically shut off during the day and fixed the problem.
Parking lots use a lot of lights, and this simple citizen action had 10 or 20 times the impact vs. just reducing her energy consumption at home. By spending a few hours and showing a little determination, she had the strength of ten men...in other words, she was transformed from mere mortal to superhero!
When you speak up, sometimes others listen. It's great to share these successes, to keep us all inspired that we can make a difference.
Photo: Adapted from http://www.flickr.com/photos/xurble/ / CC BY 2.0
Monday, October 5, 2009
Ecology or economy? Do we really have to choose?
It's got me singing the climate week blues.
"Climate Week" - timed to coincide with last week's UN meetings and the Clinton Global Initiative - left me both excited and dreading the next few months.
The international community is solidly united behind creating a comprehensive climate change agreement, factoring in both economic growth and social justice while setting aggressive targets. As I mentioned last week, even President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao got in on the act. But the US economy is built on fossil fuel consumption, and even the modest reduction targets proposed by the House of Representatives are met with intense resistance.
I'd rather show than tell in this case, so take a look at the 2 minute YouTube video that ClimatePath put together.
The world needs, and world leaders demand, a 20-25% reduction below 1990 levels by 2020 to avoid the critical 2 degrees (C) threshold, yet such a reduction seems to require changes far above what we're willing to pursue. The question leading up to Copenhagen climate meetings is: What happens when an immovable object meets an irresistible force? We'll soon find out.
Monday, September 28, 2009
I recently went to the remote global premier of the film The Age of Stupid, which included a live simulcast to over 500 theaters in 45 countries as a tie-in to climate week and the UN climate meetings in New York.
The movie is set up as a series of modern day vignettes looked at through the eyes of an archivist 45 years in the very bleak future, who can only wonder at why we were so stupid. To be honest, I was a bit skeptical that this film would cover any new ground: There are only so many ways to represent the potential dangers and damage of climate change, many of which were covered via Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth and Leonardo DiCaprio's 11th hour (and in the case of a few scenes, the lightweight and unbelievable "The Day After Tomorrow".)
But I was impressed by the honest treatment of the complexity of the issues surrounding action on climate change. The film acknowledges that it isn't as easy as simply turning off the 'carbon tap'. The aspirations of billions for a middle class life, the entrepreneurial spirit, the contradictions between what we need to do for a living and what we believe, and even the simple unwillingness of many to accept aesthetic inconveniences (even while expressing concern over the climate) are all featured, providing an interesting human face and counterpoint to the growing body of scientific evidence and urgency for action. The film is full of ironies, such as the segment on a young Nigerian woman who points out the injustices of Shell Oil in her community, while selling diesel and wistfully aspiring to the "American good life", which of course is powered at least in part by Shell.
Most of the characters seem to feel "trapped" in a lifestyle that they know is unsustainable, even as the evidence of the planetary impact mounts around them. Perhaps we are not living so much in an "age of stupid" as an age of covet or inertia? Whatever the case, these are very real behavioral barriers to tackling the climate issue. For the "haves", we need to somehow increase the sense of urgency without waiting for the kind of planetary apocalypse to occur that the film projects. For the "have nots ", using climate action as a tool rather than barrier for development is also a way to encourage positive change.
The post film discussion was equally interesting, featuring the film's director (Franny Armstrong), Kofi Annan, the head of the IPCC, and many others. All seem generally alarmed at how much hangs in the balance in the next few months, both with US climate policy and worldwide commitment in Copenhagen. There was also a strong and consistent call for serious lifestyle change and economic retooling in the west as a matter of self preservation and social justice.
Finally, Ms. Armstrong rolled out a "10:10" campaign, urging a voluntary commitment to reduce emissions 10% by 2010. While the idea to send a message of public will is a strong one, the target is pretty tame, requiring little change, inconvenience or financial commitment, and is simply not enough. If anything, it may send a message that true public will is lacking.
Has she fallen into one of her film's traps of symbolic gestures over real change? Or perhaps as a Brit, she has does not fully appreciate that for the average American, 10% is easy. While Europeans have already captured the low hanging fruit, we clearly have not. For this "side of the pond", I have been a proponent of 20:20 or more, which is 20% via reduction and 20% more via offsetting.
Whatever your commitment, all of this attention is well timed. A strong populist message to the UN and the climate delegates needs to be sent.
Photo courtesy Spanner Films, all rights reserved.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
If you open the latest Merriam-Webster's Collegiate dictionary, (or use it online) you'll now find an entry for "locavore". The New Oxford American Dictionary made it the "word of the year" way back in 2007, so no kudos for the Websterites...they're bit late to the party. In any case, Webster defines it as "one who eats foods grown locally whenever possible."
But the bigger question is why? The three reasons I hear come up most often are:
- it helps the environment,
- it's healthier and fresher, and
- it supports small farmers in your area.
But when it comes to helping the environment, local is not always better. "Food miles" aren't typically the largest component of the carbon footprint of a product. One Carnegie Mellon study put the transportation piece in the 5-10% range on average. Our own in-depth study of beer put transportation in the 3-4% range, jumping to 10% if your product is shipped cross-country (intermodal). Significant, but the use of recycled glass, organic grain, and green energy all have a potentially larger impact.
Another study from New Zealand found that New Zealand pasture grazing lamb was 4 times less carbon intensive than feed lot lamb. Not only does this negate the food miles, personally I would rather buy pasture raised meat from overseas over that from a local high density feed lot. Similarly, a local non-organic source may not be 'better' than an organic alternative from farther away, and a locally grown hothouse tomato may use a lot more energy than an outdoor tomato from another state.
One local supermarket chain in my area is advertising their produce section as an "indoor farmer's market" (yikes!), and "all natural" seems to be the most misleading adjective of the decade. We need to look beyond marketing claims, and try to really understand where our food comes from, and how it's produced. As one of the Carnegie Mellon scientists pointed out "for the average consumer, buying local is not as important as what you eat."
Photo: Creative commons license - copyright swanksalot at flickr.com.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Did he or didn't he? We'll probably never know the true story behind Van Jones' signature on a 911 conspiracy petition that ultimately caused him to step down as green jobs czar. Politics is a dirty business (made dirtier by the internet) and he certainly is not the first or the last victim of partisanship. (Nor will he quietly vanish from the public spotlight!)
The real question is whether his passion for reinventing our economy so that tackling climate change actually creates opportunity will be a victim as well. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times did a profile on him in 2007 which featured a great quote summing up his position:
"The green economy has the power to deliver new sources of work, wealth and health to low-income people - while honoring the Earth. If you can do that, you just wiped out a whole bunch of problems. We can make what is good for poor black kids good for the polar bears and good for the country."
To that I would add that we also have a chance to solve problems in the developing world. While we tend to focus on the sky high average US footprint and the 'westernization' of successful economies (cars, televisions, appliances) leading to climate threats, there are a host of solutions to deep rural poverty issues that can be beneficiaries of action on the climate.
Imagine a future where we divert some of the $600 million we spend daily on oil imports (and $100 million per day on coal) to producing energy by capturing the wind, sun, tides, and heat. Imagine also trading out energy purchases for smarter design and construction of buildings, machines, cookstoves in Africa, and even cities. This future - where energy is a clean product rather than polluting resource controlled by a few large oil companies and countries, where we replace thoughtless disposable consumption with a skilled service and manufacturing sector, and where we practice natural capitalism (valuing ecological systems) - is an exciting and energizing counterweight to the normal doom and gloom surrounding the climate change discussion.
As Van Jones has said "Dr. King didn't get famous giving a speech that said, I have a complaint." Let's keep the dream alive.
Photo copyright psd at flickr.com
Monday, September 7, 2009
Imagine generating solar, wind, or geothermal power for your home and selling the excess to your neighbors. In the future, will you be the power company? If we are serious about renewable energy, the answer could be yes.
In many other countries, they have successfully put in place feed-in tariffs to accelerate this. Unlike "net metering" which allows cleanly generated electricity to be fed into the grid to offset electric bills, feed-in tariffs basically require utilities to pay a premium price for renewable energy they purchase from homeowners and businesses that install wind turbines, solar panels, or other clean-energy generating devices on their properties. Many see this as a faster way to get to more renewables, while creating green jobs and avoiding the barriers that have slowed the changeover here in the US. Germany in particular has used this model very successfully.
What's the alternative? California has a 33% renewable energy target for the year 2020. Unfortunately, using large scale solar and wind projects to meet this goal (mostly in remote areas) creates the need for an estimated $12-15 billion for transmission lines alone, a figure that will no doubt go well beyond $20 billion if and when they actually build them. T. Boone Pickens' project to install hundreds of massive turbines in the Texas panhandle was abandoned due to similar transmission line issues, and a fight is brewing over who should pay for a $12 billion project to connect wind from the plains to the large cities in the Midwest.
Centralized power generation could be a thing of the past. Fast Company described the renewables push in the United States as "big, expensive, slow, and spectacularly uncertain." Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute compares the push for "big renewables" as similar to proposing more hardwired telephone exchanges and mainframe computers in a world that has moved on to internet telephony and laptops. The large power generators have some interesting technologies on the horizon, but creating a vibrant decentralized industry where individual energy customers can compete with the utilities is likely to create more change and a better long-term outcome. A variety of bills are moving through state legislatures and and congress...keep your eyes open!
Photo copyright mjmonty at flickr.com (Creative Commons license)
Monday, August 31, 2009
It seems that over the last few years, more and more science fiction writers include climate change in their future-visions. It's their job to think of the future, and most seem resigned to envisioning the world quite different than it is today.
Now, a new type of futurist - the planners - are also painting a vision of a world altered by global warming. In California, the Natural Resources Agency is encouraging cities and organizations to prepare for rising sea levels and hotter weather. In France, President Sarkozy brought together teams of internationally recognized designers to develop bold visions for the transformation of Paris and its suburbs.
Even the US military may be getting into the act. As the New York Times reports there is growing concern in the Pentagon that the violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics caused by global warming could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions. The article also mentions that the key logistics hub for forces in the Middle East is located on an atoll a few feet above sea level, and touches on the possible military implication of an ice free Arctic.
As Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni said: "We will pay for this one way or another...We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we'll have to take an economic hit of some kind, or we will pay the price later in military terms." General Zinni is no lightweight.
Is military pragmatism the right motivation for the US to take a leadership position in climate change? Does it matter? You could argue that this is a selfish rather than altruistic motive. But if this particular way of analyzing the issue creates a more globally focused and active policy, I say "bring 'em on."
Friday, August 14, 2009
In a recent column in Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi described cap and trade as "a groundbreaking new commodities bubble, disguised as an environmental plan" and further asserts that it will "allow a small tribe of greedy-as-hell Wall Street swine to turn yet another commodities market into a private tax collection scheme." A pretty scary critique.
Now I should start with the caveat that Taibbi is a somewhat opinionated and controversial figure, prone to hyperbole. He once described Thomas Friedman (NY Times writer and author of "The World is Hot, Flat and Crowded") as someone who "flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee's signs." He called Goldman Sachs "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money" and he also penned an infamous piece called "The 52 Funniest Things About The Upcoming Death of The Pope."
But for me, the Enron-induced market manipulation of the energy markets that nearly bankrupted California still stings, as does the more recent mortgage backed securities fiasco that may end up bankrupting our country (thanks to the TARP, housing bubble, and stimulus packages that it has spawned). While carbon prices should drive us to demand greater energy efficiency and use less energy, the real underlying purposes of carbon credits are to fund ecosystem services (such as vibrant forests) and to finance the cost of permanent changes to the world's energy production and consumption infrastructure. A poorly designed cap and trade scheme could lead to market manipulation and speculation that transfers most of the money to sophisticated financial firms and market intermediaries, rather than groups that actually do the projects. A carbon price "spike" could easily lead to $10 of paper profits for every $1 that actually funds firms making a difference.
We set up ClimatePath so that money goes to a nonprofit that permanently retires the credits...no resale or speculation. Many of our mission based project partners also insist that credit transaction lead to retirement, not resale. We avoid treating carbon as a commodity, by linking money spent to the underlying project work. These aren't the only answers, and I do believe that market making firms are needed to make cap and trade work. But it is important that the final cap and trade bill contains strong provisions and penalties to prevent a speculative bubble. The language is there now, but as Mother Jones reports "regulation of carbon markets will probably be swept up in broader financial reforms that are the subject of intense lobbying and political pressure. It's too soon to take for granted that cap and trade will contain rules that go far enough to prevent speculation and fraud."
If you write rules for Wall Street, they follow them. If you leave loopholes, they exploit them. In the end, if your utility ends up paying $50 a ton while they transition away from coal, while the renewables supplier, forest preservation project, or conservation project receives only $10, then we have legislated the massive wealth transfer that Taibbi fears.
Photo copyright artemuestra at flickr.com (CC License)
Thursday, August 13, 2009
By Dave Rochlin - Originally posted on care2.com
There's a new study out by the highly respected firm Mckinsey, which concludes that, in the US alone, we have the potential to reduce energy consumption by 23% by 2020, eliminating more than $1.2 trillion in waste, and resulting in the abatement of 1.1 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually – the equivalent of taking the entire U.S. fleet of passenger vehicles and light trucks off the roads.
This is not based on new clean energy sources, or some future high tech solution like hydrogen powered flying cars. (Question: Does a flying car count as taking a car off the road?) It is based on energy efficiency - simply consuming less.
The cost? Well it isn't all free...but what is most interesting about the report is that they identify the expenditures that actually save more than they cost, and rank them based on their return on investment. High on the list are lighting, appliances/electronics, and water heating, things groups like Energy Star, utilities, and even ClimatePath have been touting for some time.
In a country where using fossil fuels is almost a sign of patriotism (a bizarre notion, given our reliance on foreign oil), some pretty sizable changes are needed to capture these savings. To sum up the Mckinsey study's conclusions, an energy policy based on supply needs to be replaced by one based on demand. Treating energy efficiency as an energy resource, more investment in energy efficiency, and cooperation between utilities, regulators, government agencies, manufacturers (and consumers) are all part of the solution.
A lot of this savings is in commercial buildings and facilities, where better codes and incentives to spend up front are needed. But that doesn't let us off the hook at home. Discover the operating costs of tankless water heaters, front load washers and other appliances before dismissing them in favor of cheaper models. And if you work in a commercial building, ask what your company and your landlord are doing to reduce energy costs. Especially in this economic climate, landlords will bend over backwards to please tenants...and they'll be saving money in the long run as well. Energy Star has a great guide for building upgrades.
Photo copyright janetmck at flickr.com (CC license.)
Sunday, August 2, 2009
I was on the beach last week, and watched a fellow beach-goer finish a cigarette, dig a small hole in the sand, and bury the butt. Presto, it was gone! As most of us know, cigarette butts are not biodegradable, so that solution was temporary, and just made the pain of that butt someone else's problem.
Hiding a problem does not make it go away, and for the environment, out of sight out of mind just won't cut it. This can be especially problematic when we try to raise the bar by doing things locally. For example, one of the California CBS affiliates recently reported that "California's recycling rules are so strict that we send our electronic waste across state borders. CBS 5 Investigates found a huge pile of glass from California's TVs and monitors in Arizona, a pile that environmental experts said contained potential environmental hazards...The pile consisted of thousands of pounds of glass, broken-up screens from California's supposedly recycled TVs and monitors."
It doesn't matter if you ban certain chemicals, or require local factories to use green energy or offset, if you turn around and buy goods from somewhere else that lacks these rules. The 'emerging' world economies (where much of our food and other goods are produced) are poised to pass the 'developed' world in emissions in the next decade, and in many cases the environmental bar is set lower. Even in the US, the carbon impact of a product can vary greatly depending on where it was made.
Conscientious consumers are figuring this out. More and more, we're asking for information and labels to make informed purchases. As a result, more companies are offering extra nutrition, recycling, organic, and fair trade labeling, with carbon labeling on the horizon. We can't vote in other states or countries, but we do get to vote with our wallet every day. When we do, we have the opportunity to enforce greener, cleaner practices wherever products are produced.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Probably the coolest thing I saw in Amsterdam a couple of years ago was a multi-story parking garage at the train station...for bikes. Bikes are everywhere; they have their own protected lanes, and at rush hour, they rule. Car and bus drivers have to deal with it. It's amazing how many people will adopt an earth friendly practice like riding a bike when it is easy.
Friday, July 10, 2009
Global giant Deutsche Bank just launched a real-time 70-foot-tall carbon counter in New York City (right outside Penn Station and Madison Square Garden at 33rd Street and 7th Avenue), which displays a running total of long-lived greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. You can see the online version here.
This sort of advertising is something that humble NGOs only dream of, and has the real potential to raise awareness and reinforce the need to act.
Kevin Parker, who heads up Deutsche's Asset Management group says that:
"Behavioral economists will tell you that the simple act of placing an electricity consumption meter in plain view can substantially cut a home's energy use. The same goes for real-time miles-per-gallon meters in cars, which change the way we drive. These findings tell us something about behavior: When the price of costly activities isn't hidden from us, we're more likely to pursue those activities prudently."
But how quickly does change occur? The sudden rush to raise awareness reminds me of the very public campaign against cigarettes, which started picking up speed 40 years ago when the "scientists don't agree" arguments crumbled and the surgeon general started issuing warnings about tobacco use. The good news on the cigarette front is that there are only 1/2 as many smokers in the US as there were in the 60's. The bad news is that it took 40 years to get here. The worse news is that smoking rates have continued to rise in developing parts of the world, rising by 3.4% per year, according to the WHO. The American Cancer Society projects a drastic increase in cigarette use, based on population and smoking trends in the developing world.
China is now the biggest producer and consumer of cigarettes. Of course, the same is true of CO2. Are we doomed to repeat the cigarette cycle with greenhouse gasses? A gradual adjustment in our domestic "carbon consumption", combined with growth in other parts of the world will be disastrous, leaving the planet with the equivalent of a two-pack-a-day carbon habit.
As a first, step, we need to lead by example. US emissions rates on a per capita basis are so high that it makes it difficult for us to credibly call for action elsewhere. Do your part!
Thursday, July 2, 2009
With all of the billions of dollars being invested in clean technology, carbon reduction and smart grids, it's amazing that forests have been largely overlooked as a source of carbon capture and storage. As a new report by the United Nations Environment Program points out: "forests...have been doing the job in a tried and tested way for millennia." Unfortunately, when forests are cleared via slash and burn, that carbon is unlocked. The UN estimates that 20% of global emissions come from releasing carbon stored in forests, tundra and other ecosystems.
The UNEP report comes at a pretty significant time. There has been a lot of ongoing debate leading up the next round of climate talks in Copenhagen about the role of forests and land use in reducing carbon levels. Establishing baselines, proving that money directly creates a carbon benefit (aka additionality), insuring that they don't burn and modeling ecosystems is pretty complex, and has made forest preservation an outsider when it comes to cap and trade and carbon finance.
I have written about REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) before, and the idea that forests have a carbon value that can be quantified and monetized. An acre of tropical forest can store 100 tons or more of carbon, and UNEP estimates that we are losing at least 20 million acres a year. They also point out that a number of other natural systems, from peatlands to savanna are under similar pressure. The greenhouse gas math is scary. Population growth and the need for income is driving a lot of the destruction, and providing an economic solution, for example by paying indigenous groups to care for forests and set them aside, rather than farm them, is an elegant way to 'unlock the value' of the forest land without unlocking the carbon. ClimatePath has been working with several groups that are using the voluntary carbon markets to do just that.
I have to say, it is a sign of how far decoupled and out of balance our global economy has become that the idea of protecting forests and other natural ecosystems as a way of fighting climate change is open for discussion. While the true 'cost of carbon' is open for debate, can you picture a world without forests? Aside from the carbon, deforestation is often irreversible, and deadly for the plants and animals that call specific forests home. For these reasons alone, let's err on the side of saving them.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
In what is being considered a major reversal of years of government policy, the EPA recently acknowledged the need to regulate greenhouse gas emissions to combat global warming.
The EPA concluded that the continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions "endangers the public health and welfare of current and future generations." Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled the EPA had the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. And now the EPA has the impetus.
The Clean Air Act was originally enacted in 1970 as part of a host of changes acknowledging that unregulated business practices were creating serious health and environmental issues. In the case of air pollution, leaded gas was the most pressing problem, and was continuing to grow despite knowledge of the harm caused by lead. Over time, the law was modified to take on other issues, such as CFC-induced ozone depletion, another environmental disaster which started as a simple business decision. So limiting the six primary greenhouse gasses is a no brainer right?
Maybe not. Our world runs on activities which produce GHGs – from growing food, to producing electricity, to filling up landfills. We have resisted efforts to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases for years, out of concern for the economy. Substitutes are proving to be a long time coming, which has us stuck trying to somehow both acknowledge and ignore the inconvenient truth that we are making permanent and unhealthy changes to our planet.
The latest example is the recent decision to uphold that the Endangered Species Act and GHG emissions should not be linked. The endangered species in question is polar bears, and the evidence is pretty unequivocal that their habitat is in decline thanks to global warming. Even Disney – in their latest movie Earth – makes the obvious connection. Refusal to act on GHG emissions to save Polar Bears has nothing to do with questions about cause and effect, and everything to do with the costs of moving to a relatively carbon free world. It would simply be too much of a shock to the system to act at the speed and level that the act would require. This is a devastating probable death sentence for a magnificent animal, and highlights the tension between pragmatism and speed in the fight against climate change.
While congress, industry, academia, and consumers debate how much change is needed how fast, we at ClimatePath continue to advocate for both speed AND pragmatism. We firmly believe that this notion of a “trade off “ is false. Want to cut your emissions in half? You can reduce your energy consumption by 25% simply by following the many conservation actions we have listed on our site. And by the way, this will probably save you $500-$1,000/year. If you take just 10% of that savings and put it against offset projects – such as the reforestation, energy efficiency, and alternative energy projects we feature – your carbon footprint will be half of what it was. Want to have a bigger impact? Convince 10 other people to do the same. We don’t have to wait while our institutions debate at what cost polar bears are worth saving.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
We just finished a study on Tweeting – (definition: the act of posting on Twitter) that calculated the carbon footprint of twittering at 21.5 pound per year. We decided to offset the 2009 tweeting of our followers as a 'thank you' gift for earth day. Our concept for tweet footprinting is supply side: If you post a twitter, people read it, and so that activity should be counted as yours. (You can learn more by clicking here: )
But you could just as easily build a demand side argument. In other words, if you agreed to follow a tweeter, the act of following should be yours. The difficult thing to avoid is double counting…either the tweeter or the tweetee (is that a word?) needs to be the one accountable.
McAfee just did a study of their own calculating the carbon footprint of unwanted email (aka spam.) As with twittering, the largest component is from the energy used by recipients (from reading the things.) The difference in this case of course is that it is spam…you didn’t ask for it! Being asked to account for the footprint of spam would be kind of like someone else burning down your house and then you being asked to offset the carbon from the fire.
So how to decide who should get the footprint? The whole point of measuring and offsetting carbon is to create a link between action and climate. Someone somewhere is taking an action that produced greenhouse gasses, and they probably aren’t considering the environmental costs when they do it.
Using this guiding principal, spammers should offset the spam footprint, tweeters should offset tweeting, wineries should offset everything that goes into making a bottle (but leave the CO2 from the act of chilling and drinking it to the happy customer) and clients should offset the climate cost of their lawyers flying to see them. Matching behaviors and costs leads to change.
Of course everyone can use a nudge now and then (for example, Maytag could ask you to offset the energy of your washing machine) but that is an idea for another blog!
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
We have been busy working on a footprinting exercise for a brewery, and it brings up many of the recurring questions about the scope of carbon emissions that should be attributed to an organization. And I thought beer is supposed to be fun! Some quick observations:
Counting for the purpose of measuring vs. mitigating (via offsetting and conservation) are two different things.
From an accounting perspective, if each entity accounts for their inputs, then 100% of the carbon (or it's equivalent) source is inventoried. For a brewery for example, the beer maker could count the brewing as their footprint, a bottle manufacturer covers the glass, a farmer the hops, and the paper maker the cardboard.
For declaring carbon neutrality or even carbon progress, however, this number leaves the brewery far short of the real impact of their operations. The end product - a bottle of beer - is actually a combination of the inputs, and the carbon footprint should reflect the total. When a consumer buys a beer that is labeled as carbon neutral, they expect the grain, glass, and packaging to be covered.
If the brewery's direct carbon input is 100,000 tonnes, then a 10,000 ton reduction would sound like an impressive 10% improvement. If all inputs actually add up to 300,000 tonnes, however, it is a far less impressive 3%. From a cap and trade perspective, this becomes a critical issue.
There is direct pain from indirect emissions
The guidelines around what gets counted upstream are surprisingly loose. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol , which is also used by the Climate Action Registry refer to scope 3 (indirect emissions) in this way:
Scope 3 is optional, but it provides an opportunity to be innovative in GHG management. Companies may want focus on accounting for and reporting those activities that are relevant to their business and goals, and for which they have reliable information. Since companies have discretion over which categories they choose to report, scope 3 may not lend itself well to comparisons across companies. This section provides an indicative list of scope 3 categories and includes case studies on some of the categories.
Encouraging innovative accounting? Yikes! One coffee study I have been reviewing shows that almost 50% of all emissions for the company result from the production and transport of fertilizer (not the use, but the actual production.) This input can easily by overlooked, which not only instantly cuts the firm's footprint in half, but also removes incentives to use organic and other techniques to reduce fertilizer dependency.
Good intentions are not enough
Almost without exception, flying is a pain point when it comes to footprinting, and most businesses (and individuals) would prefer to leave it out of their footprint. I was recently at a fair trade conference, and many of the attendees regularly fly to Africa, South America, and/or Asia to meet with the groups that they buy from. Few think to offset the travel, and most would consider themselves green and "low carbon," as well as socially progressive businesses. But four trips to Africa could mean 50 Tons of carbon, and for a small business, this actually puts them on par with traditional manufacturers. Too often green efforts fall short of real impact, but with carbon, the numbers don't lie. ClimatePath encourages full transparency in footprint reporting, and you should to.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
I recently attended a California Climate Action Reserve (CAR) event at the EPA building in Sacramento. The CAR is a major certifier of carbon projects, originally forestry related, and now from many other sectors. I left the event feeling that their exuberance for listing anything with a carbon benefit is a bit disturbing, making heroes out of some of the worst contributors to global warming, including intensive cattle farms, trucking firms, and landfills. In an ironic twist of logic, the only thing that the CAR turned their noses up at is renewable energy, since they expect that power producers will be required to clean up their acts.
Let's take a look at landfills. Landfills create methane, a potent greenhouse gas. So potent in fact that that 1 ton of Methane is the equivalent of roughly 20 tons of CO2. It turns out that capturing this methane is not particularly difficult. Some landfills are starting to either capture and use the gas for power generation, or to simply flare it, converting the methane into a much less harmful waste emission. Subsidies and carbon finance are chasing this change, since methane capture is highly measurable, and relatively easy to do. Project originators are finding this an easy and lucrative way to create carbon credits
While some enthusiastically endorse carbon land fill projects, what does this tell us about the commitment in the US to really doing something about global warming? Before 1970, factories discharged sludge with reckless abandon into the public waterways. After some well publicized cases of rivers literally catching fire, the EPA was formed to protect public health and the environment from pollution. Paying factories not to pollute was not the idea....it was to regulate industry from polluting the commons for the sake of higher profits. (It is your sludge, you deal with it!) How exactly is methane different from sludge? Where is the standard that requires landfills to clean up after themselves? When landfills are allowed to release methane and not flare, it hurts the environment while making garbage artificially cheap. This leads to more garbage, and more methane.
The Climate Action Reserve does not believe landfill regulation is forthcoming. And Co-generating power from landfill methane deserves support as both an alternative energy source and climate change reducer. But since the impact of landfill methane is measurable and the avoidance is easy, minimal capture and flaring requirements should not be optional. Unfortunately, a cap and trade system will codify business as usual, creating a permanent standard based on minimal regulation of landfills. Let's not celebrate or subsidize what should be a basic requirement of doing business: We need to hold polluters accountable.
Monday, February 2, 2009
Dave: I was making the holiday party rounds right after our last column ran, and quite a few people commented on my self described "lazy environmentalist" tag. Apparently, it really resonated. Several friends said "hey...that’s me too!" Most of us WANT to do the right thing, but why does it have to be so hard to do?
Katy: Assuming it's hard is the first problem. There are about a thousand easy tips that you can try, and see if they work for you.
Dave: Such as?
Katy: How about using a power strip to fully turn off your TV and game systems, or turning off the heater and opening your windows when it's 73 in January!
Dave: OK I’ll concede that point, but have you ever tried to use the bus? Also, a lot of us have to schlep kids around. And I am sure you noticed that I stopped biking to work about the time the thermometer started hitting 40. Sometimes you just need to drive. Where do you draw the line?
Katy: We all draw the line differently. And that's fine - the key is to just keep trying new things and finding the right ways to conserve that work for you. For example, when I finally got into a groove of bringing my canvas bags and reusing my produce bags at the grocery store, I found I preferred it. They are more comfortable to carry, and the people at Whole Foods are always thanking me for doing it. I like it MORE than using new bags each time. But it took trying it a few times for that to happen.
Dave: Yeah...I get the guilt of watching everyone else in Trader Joe's load up their canvas. I do have to say, at TJ's they pack those paper bags tight. Sometimes I think they just want to make you squirm for using paper in the first place.
I am not against trying new things, and constant improvement is a good thing. But even you haven't gotten your emissions down to zero.
Katy: No one is going to get to zero anytime soon. I try to avoid that all-or-nothing thinking; it sabotages me every time (and is why most diets fail, right?). So my approach is to keep trying to reduce in all the ways I can, see what sticks, and use carbon offsets for the rest.
Offsetting lets you support greenhouse gas reducing projects around the world while retaining some flexibility in your own life. They're crucial to fighting global warming in the short-term, while efficiencies and renewable energy are still in development.
Dave: It's a good solution for airline travel in particular. You and I both fly fairly often, and all that flying is pretty tough on the planet, but I don't see Toyota making any hybrid airplanes.
Katy: I'm pretty sure you don't see Toyota making airplanes at all.
Dave: So we need to find another way to make up for all that carbon that jet engines release on our behalf. Offsetting has been practiced at a national level for a while in Europe and other places where they have set voluntary emissions targets. The way it works is that by supporting things like forests or energy efficiency projects elsewhere, you make up for what you ‘have to’ emit at home. But I am sure many people reading this would ask "why should I as an individual do it?"
Katy: Well...I hate it when people spill their drinks on BART or leave their dog's waste on the trail. The degradation of common spaces and resources affect all of us, and we all need to do our part to care for and preserve them. Climate change is this same concept on a much larger scale. We all have to take responsibility for our impact on it.
Dave: My pet peeve is people who leave dirty towels lying on the floor in the locker room at the gym …..I guess the earth is the biggest locker room of them all.
Katy: I wouldn't call it a locker room yet, but we're headed for a hot and stinky future if we don't take action.
Dave: Well I hope it's not too late! Anyway...I love the idea that when I fly, drive, or even just watch a movie, I can still make that activity 'carbon neutral'. And yes, I know that I need to reduce first.
Katy: You're learning. For our readers, if you want to see what sort of offsets are out there, our website (www.ClimatePath.org) has a variety of projects listed. You can also calculate your footprint from flying, driving, and your home, and learn more about conservation and offsetting for yourself.