Sunday, February 15, 2009

A flare for the unusable

by Dave Rochlin - from

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 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

"Eco-balancing your life"

Note: This first appeared in Dave and Katy's January "Green and Greener" Column

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 ( 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.