Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Prince of Whales?

Dave Rochlin - www.climatepath.org

The French revolution was about overthrowing the monarchy, and of course the American revolution rid the colonies of the imperialist policies of King George III. So can royalty start a revolution?

This Friday, NBC is airing a special called Harmony, which highlights the three decades of work by The Prince of Wales to combat climate change and find innovative solutions to the global environmental crisis, and shows how these values are expressed through the people and programs that he has supported.

Prince Charlie? Who Knew?

As he says in the book on which the film is based:

"This is a call to revolution. The earth is under threat. It cannot cope with all that we demand of it. It is losing its balance and we humans are causing this to happen. Revolution is a strong word and I use it deliberately. The many environmental and social problems that now loom large on our horizon cannot be solves by carrying on with the very approach that has caused them."

I had a chance to hear the filmmakers on a conference call this week, and they mentioned that the prince supported this film in order "to speak out and collaborate" on the issues of sustainability that have been important to him. Perhaps Lancelot was right in lamenting "the land without a king"?

It sounds like Prince Charles' intention are...well... noble, and I look forward to hearing his message. But to quote some other even more famous brits:

- You say you want a revolution....Well, you know we all want to change the world.
- You say you got a real solution ...Well, you know we'd all love to see the plan.

Harmony has its broadcast premiere at 10 PM/ET on Friday, November 19th on NBC. Prior to the premiere, “Dateline” will air an exclusive interview of Prince Charles speaking with Brian Williams at 9 PM/ET.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Americans Flunk Climate Test

Dave Rochlin - www.climatepath.org

According to a new Yale study, most Americans are aware of climate change, but have no idea why it is happening. The Yale team claims that only 8 percent of Americans have knowledge equivalent to an A or B grade, while 52% would get an F. The grading was done by a school where grade inflation is an issue, and Dubya carried a C+ average, so these numbers are even worse than they sound.

The study found a generally poor level of understanding of such issues as how much greenhouse gas concentrations have increased in the last 100 years (a lot), the impact of livestock on global warming (quite large), and how long greenhouse gasses stay in the atmosphere (a very long time.) The last item is particularly alarming, since our near term inability to reverse the impact of emissions is what drives the urgency to take action now. Slowing climate change is more like stopping an aircraft carrier than turning a speedboat.

But most concerning is that most in the survey admitted that they don’t know all that much about the issue. The Yale team reports that only 1 in 10 say that they are “very well informed” about climate change, and 75 percent say they would like to know more. What exactly are people waiting for? The truth is out there.

I suppose one could argue that as long as scientists are on top of the issue, we’ll all be informed at the depth we need to, in order to make collectively prudent decisions. But I have started reading Naomi Oreskes new book (The Merchants of Doubt), which documents how frequently (and easily) science is undercut by manipulating popular opinion. It only takes a few influential deniers to mislead the public.

Perhaps instead of “no child left behind” we need a policy of “no planet left behind?”

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Originally posted at care2.com. Photo:
Some rights reserved by hans.gerwitz

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The fight for the future starts in California.

By Dave Rochlin - ClimatePath

When California passed AB32, the landmark greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction bill in 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger said;

"Using market-based incentives, we will reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. That's a 25 percent reduction. And by 2050, we will reduce emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels. We simply must do everything in our power to slow down global warming before it's too late."

But the opposition apparently borrowed another quote from the governator:

"I'll be back."

And back they are, with a coal and oil interest backed ballot initiative which seeks to overturn AB32 before most of the more significant pieces of it take effect. The fight reflects the two sides of the debate on what to do about global warming.

On one side are the folks who believe we must act, and who are also happy to assert that by taking action, we will create thousands of new green and 'clean tech' jobs, while reshaping our economy around energy conservation, clean technology, and renewable energy production. Not surprisingly Silicon Valley is firmly behind AB 32, and against efforts to repeal it. California imports a significant amount of electricity, and sources almost all if its coal, natural gas, and oil from outside the state. The prospect of breaking this dependency and reducing emissions through the use of technology represents a pretty exciting future, and many feel that the state will become more competitive as a result.

As Schwarzenegger also said;

"Some have challenged whether AB 32 is good for businesses. I say unquestionably it is good for businesses. Not only large, well-established businesses, but small businesses that will harness their entrepreneurial spirit to help us achieve our climate goals.

But on the other side are those who claim we should not act, and that the initiative will cost the state jobs while reducing GDP by as much as $100 Billion dollars over the next ten years. This case is being pressed by a consortium of oil refiners, truckers, and coal interests, who like things just the way they are. If California stands alone and energy costs rise in the state, this could be the future, as businesses move operations out of the state, and consumers seek out cheaper products and services from elsewhere, even if they have a higher embedded carbon footprint.

So if AB32 stands, apparently there are two very different possible futures in the Golden State. One in which the rest of the country scrambles to keep up with a new energy paradigm that makes California an economic engine, or one in which the burden of taking responsibility for emissions simply adds cost. Not coincidentally, this is the same debate that's going on in Washington over national climate legislation.

My guess is that the impact of AB32 will be closer to neutral, and certainly somewhere in between these two extremes: On one hand, energy costs will rise, which will hurt businesses and consumers. But California will use less, create energy jobs, and keep more money in the state. And in the long term, the state will be protected from energy price shocks. One thing is certain: The big losers in all of these scenarios are those whose business models continue to be built around the demand for fossil fuel. And that's why they are putting up money to overturn AB32.

The economic consequences of meaningful and comprehensive emissions legislation won't be known for some time, and Californians are being asked to take a leap of faith. An uncertain future is pretty scary, but scarier still is a failure to take action on curbing our addiction to fossil fuels and the consequences of that addiction.

As Thomas Jefferson said, "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

Originally posted on care2. Photo: CC license - Flickr. Some rights reserved by tibchris

Friday, July 23, 2010

Does Google know something about energy that the rest of us don't?

Dave Rochlin - www.climatepath.org

Google announced a large wind energy deal this week that reveals a lot about where they think energy markets are headed. Other big energy consumers should take notice.

Rather than simply buying renewable energy credits (RECs) and adding some solar panels to show their commitment to green, Google’s energy subsidiary signed a 20-year power purchase agreement with NextEra Energy. Google will begin buying 114 megawatts of electricity from an Iowa wind farm later this summer. Now of course Google doesn’t consume much of their energy anywhere near Iowa, but they can (and intend to) sell this energy on wholesale markets, and simultaneously buy energy where they do use it.

By buying the wind energy directly, Google has created a giant hedge against both rising energy prices and the future cost of compliance with emissions reduction mandates – either voluntary or mandatory. RECs are a way to separate out the actual energy from the credit for low emissions, and this direct investment locks in their costs for both.

Why would they want to do this? Aside from their intention on greening their operations, they believe it makes good business sense.

On the energy side, world demand keeps increasing. China recently overtook the US in total energy use according to the International Energy Agency, and India is poised to become a large importer of coal to meet their growing demand. While there is much debate about whether and when we’ll start to deplete fossil fuel reserves, it’s clear that higher demand and higher costs associated with the extracting future reserves (think of BP drilling a mile underwater for oil) will send energy prices upwards. And demand-wise, plug-in electric cars could undo some of the other energy savings that are slowing electricity use in the U.S.

On the renewables side, while the cost of solar, wind and other ‘clean’ sources will continue to fall and capacity continue to increase, a climate bill in the US could create a shortfall, sending the price of ‘clean energy’ (or at least the REC piece) up. With the senate climate bill stalled, and both carbon offset and REC markets showing weak demand, this may seem hard to imagine today. But in a few years, it could be quite a different story.

A group called NERA Economic Consulting has partnered with a very cool startup called Crowdcast to try and predict how this will all play out. They use ‘the wisdom of crowds' to come up with a consensus forecast, which Crowdcast claims is typically more reliable than individual expertise. Half 'the crowd' thinks we’ll have a senate bill by June of 2012, that it will require a 17% reduction in emissions, and that the price per ton of carbon credits (which can be used to make up for missed reduction targets) will rise above $10.

Google will be immune to both overall energy and emissions targets, and in fact might be in a position to sell their excess green energy for quite a tidy profit. My bet is that by 2020, Google will be – as usual – laughing all the way to the bank.

As they say “Through the long term purchase of renewable energy at a predetermined price, we’re partially protecting ourselves against future increases in power prices. This is a case where buying green makes business sense.”

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Photo: CC License via Flickr: Yodel Anecdotal

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Unquenchable thirst: The many things we do with oil.

Dave Rochlin - www.climatepath.org

With BP's broken underwater well still leaking oil into the gulf at an alarming rate, there are many calls to reduce our dependence on oil of all kinds.

Animator Mark Fiore recently did a wonderful video highlighting the bizarre notion of using "dinosaur squeezings" to power cars.

But oil is used in a lot more than our gas tanks. Petroleum is in many other products, and we use it for many of our processes. We also rely on it to grow, cook, eat, and even enhance our food. This second video, featuring eco-man and badger girl (which I made with the cool web tool xtranormal), highlights this.

I'm no Mark Fiore, but you get the point, I hope. A fairly exhaustive web list of many of the everyday goods that come from oil is available here, courtesy of the Illinois Oil and Gas Association. The list covers everything from ballet tights to venetian blinds. It certainly is food for thought. The list isn't 1001 items long, but easily could be.

The website also quotes Jeane Kirkpatrick, former U.N. Ambassador for the United States.

"Oil is a product that arouses so much passion. A lot of people have a passionate fear, or distaste, or downright hatred almost for oil. There is no other product that so many people need so badly, yet so many people believe should be produced entirely without profits."

As long as we need it "so badly", there isn't much chance we are going to stop drilling for oil off our shores. While there is a lot of talk about alternative energy, it seems that we also need to reconsider the role of oil as an input for all the other things we consume.

Photo copyright TommL at istockphoto.com

Saturday, June 5, 2010

President Obama calls for a price on carbon. Will it work?

Posted by Dave Rochlin - http://www.ClimatePath.org

In a recent speech at Carnegie Mellon University, President Obama called for a price to be put on CO2 emissions, in order to move us on the path towards renewable energy. He figures the market will help do the rest.

" ...the only way the transition to clean energy will succeed is if the private sector is fully invested in this future, if capital comes off the sidelines and the ingenuity of our entrepreneurs is unleashed. And the only way to do that is by finally putting a price on carbon pollution."

A price on carbon has dual purposes:
  • It raises the cost of energy, which should encourage conservation.
  • It closes the cost gap between fossil fuels and alternative energy.
But will it work?

According to the most recent EPA greenhouse gas inventory, US greenhouse gas output is 7 billion tons a year. At a price of $25 per ton -- as envisioned in the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act -- the total added cost if we priced all US emissions would be $175 Billion dollars per year, or about $1750 per household per year. Of course we won't be charging for all emissions....more likely just those above our 17% reduction cap, so the short term number (in grossly oversimplified terms) is really more like $350 per household....and that's only if we were not simply giving away all the permits. And in the long term? The senate bill targets an 80% reduction by 2050...but I'll believe that commitment when I see it.

I suppose this could show up as an additional $.25/gallon at the gas pump, or perhaps another $.01- $.02 per KwH for electricity. More likely, a lot of it would be buried in the cost of all the things we buy...carbon pricing by a thousand paper cuts!

When I talk about offsets (which I do a lot), I often have people tell me that a carbon tax is a much better answer, because it sends clear signals about the cost of consuming energy. So let's look at some major sources of emissions to see what pricing carbon might do:

Driving (roughly 20% of US emissions)
I really doubt that adding another $10 per barrel to the cost of oil is going to change driving habits or vehicle choices much. Demand only seems to change with massive ($30 or more per barrel) type price shocks, and even then only temporarily. If you don't like a Prius at $60 per barrel, you probably still don't like it at $70. Rather than carbon pricing, we either need to tax the real price of oil (including military expenditures, health costs, and deficit-related currency weakness) or simply rely on higher mandates on gas mileage, like the ones the EPA just enacted.

Flying (roughly 3-5% of US emissions)
Much of the cost of flying is fuel related, and this is an area where carbon pricing could have the greatest impact. While 10% at the gas pump does not scare drivers much, a 5% or 10% increase in the price of flying has a big impact on demand....there are plenty of pricing studies that confirm this. But even in this case, the drop in passenger miles would probably not hit the 17% reduction target. Of course airlines are already looking for exemptions to cap and trade in both the US and Europe. Perhaps we need some sort of mandatory fuel targets (per passenger) for airplane flights?

Electricity Generation (roughly 30% of US emissions)
For a home using 9,000 KWH per year, the carbon penalty would be around $15 per month. Most homes could easily save this much by using cold water for washing clothes and changing out a few lightbulbs, or shutting off vampire appliances and computers. And yet most of us don't. We don't seem to be that rational when it comes to electricity.

The utilities would look at both cost per kWH and capital expense, if it is a purely market based decision. Many uilities don't really compete, so any cost increases would simply be passed on anyway. This makes it rational to avoid new capital expenses, and stick with the old power plants. Emissions and renewable energy targets and other mandates (like additional scrubbers) could be much more impactful.

Industrial Energy Use (roughly 10% of US emissions)
Businesses have gotten smart about energy use in a big way. The more energy intensive the business operation, the more they are conserving in order to cut cost. But if they are taking action anyway, how much more impact will carbon pricing have? For those on the margin (less energy intensive businesses) some may start to care. But the big polluters are already paying attention to conservation. The senate bill also has some trade protections (carbon tariffs) so simply raising prices on goods and services ever-so-slightly is an option...no need to worry about foreign competition.

Agriculture (roughly 7% of US emissions)
This sector seems to be given a waiver: If so, the CO2 equivalent of agriculture related Methane (21 times that of CO2) and Nitrous Oxide (310 times that of CO2) will not be priced. Need I say more?

Another big issue is that the price on carbon - as envisioned in current climate legislation - will go right back into the pockets of US consumers, either in the form of rebates or in defict reduction that will keep both taxes and inflation down. So the more we reduce our consumption or switch to renewables, the less we get back in rebates....sort of a reverse incentive.

While I think capturing the true cost of energy is an important step, I am not all that optimistic that carbon pricing alone will change behavior. What are some other options? Here are a few I can think of:

Conservation Capital
There's a high ROI on energy reduction (which would be even higher if energy costs go up due to carbon pricing.) But many changes require upfront capital. How about a low interest or no interest capital fund or Fannie-Mae type system for businesses and households to fund conservation and energy retrofits? This scheme is already being considered for residential solar.

Hard Targets
We could simply set renewables and emissions targets, as has been done with automobiles. If the market knows that a utility needs to get to 20% renewables in ten years, the "ingenuity of entrepreneurs" that The President referred to will kick into high gear an compete vigorously for a piece of the pie, lowering costs and increasing innovation.

Cost Transparency
Better feedback on energy use and costs would lead to better decisonmaking. Let's hook those smart meters into our thermostats and iphones, so we can see at anytime how much we are spending on power. And instead of an MPG gauge on cars, how about a taxi-meter style read out that shows how much we are spending on gas as we drive? These sort of in-your-face mechanisms are more likely to change behavior.

Spend Intelligently and Holistically
While we are pricing carbon at $25 or higher, I can think of an amazing innovation that 'eats' carbon for $10 per ton, and has years of successful field trials. It's called a tree, and we are losing as much as 80,000 acres of them each day. Trees also can preserve biodiversity and provide income in poverty zones. Using less and cleaner energy is a worthwhile goal, but a planet covered with solar panels and turbines instead of trees is not the kind of future we should aspire to. It's all about balance.

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Original photo CC license http://www.flickr.com/photos/bdburton/ modified by ClimatePath. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Coal Use and CO2 Emissions Projected to Rise By More Than 50% By 2035

Dave Rochlin - www.climatepath.org

The world's hunger for energy is insatiable, according to the most recent Energy Outlook published by The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

And if nothing changes, this will lead to an increase in coal consumption from 132 quadrillion Btu in 2007 to 206 quadrillion Btu in 2035, most of which will come from growth in India and China. As a result, annual Greenhouse Gas Emissions could rise from 29.7 billion metric tons in 2007 to 42.4 billion metric tons in 2035.

Things are generally flat in the OECD countries, as they move from manufacturing to service based economies, and focus on efficiency rather than growth in their transportation sectors. But as manufacturers locate factories in developing countries where wages are cheapest, and those wage earners increase their standard of living, the countries least equipped to invest in renewable energy and public infrastructure will be the most active in growing their energy and fuel use. So the EIA projects plenty of additional coal and oil consumption.

Policymakers refer to this as an issue of energy intensity of the economy (how much energy is used for every dollar of GDP) and carbon intensity of energy (the sources used to produce the energy.) Most of the projected growth is in countries with high energy and carbon intensity.

This good news is that this scenario is based on the reference case—which assumes that current laws and policies remain unchanged throughout the projection period. There seem to growing public and political will to make some changes. But while China and India have floated the idea of cutting their emissions intensity in half as a percent of GDP (primarily through improved energy intensity) growth in their economies and only small reductions in the carbon intensity of the energy will overrun these reductions. Before we start finger pointing, however, keep in mind that exports to the US and other OECD countries have been powering China's industrial growth.

In any case, the reference scenario is quite scary, and we have to do much better. A healthy dose of conservation and alternative/renewable energy is needed, both in OECD and non-OECD countries. This means supporting a strong and effective energy and climate bill in the US, and the completion of the UN climate work that was started in Copenhagen. It's going to take a global solution to tackle this problem.

Chart by U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) from The International Energy Outlook 2010.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Quiz: Is The Senate Climate Bill Right For You?

Dave Rochlin - www.climatepath.org

Is the recently released senate climate bill right for you? Take the quiz below to assess where you stand on the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill, AKA "The American Power Act", announced last week.

The bill's intent is "To secure the energy future of the United States, to provide incentives for the domestic production of clean energy technology, to achieve meaningful pollution reductions, to create jobs, and for other purposes."

It sounds like there's something for everyone, right? At almost a thousand pages, there should be! But opinions vary. In trying to placate enough constituents to get a viable bill, a lot of trade-offs have been made. Can you accept them? Take this handy quiz and find out....and tell us what you think and how you scored! If you don't want to do the math by hand, an interactive version is available here.

The Quiz:

1. I Believe 350 Is:
a. A great temperature for baking cookies.
b. A noble but unachievable goal.
c. The upper limit for a safe and just planet (e.g. 350 parts per million of CO2)

2. My View On Offshore Drilling:

a. States should be able to decide.
b. Three words: "Drill baby drill.
c. Two words: Deepwater Horizon.

3. Carbon Offsetting:
a. The best way to make an immediate impact on climate and support sustainable development.
b. A flawed tool, but with fixes should be part of the solution.
c. Is like paying someone else to not have an affair so you can.

4. Nuclear Power:
a. Three words: Fission baby fission.
b. Ugh. Painful to consider but necessary.
c. Think Chernobyl, and where exactly do you plan on storing the waste?

5. International Cooperation:
a. If China doesn't do their part, what's the point?
b. If we lead others will follow.
c. The free market will sort it all out.

6. Agribusiness:
a. US agriculture needs help, not regulation.
b. Paying farmers/ranchers to follow better environmental practices makes sense.
c. "Sustainable agriculture" does not mean subsidizing beef and big farms.

7. Climate Change and Jobs:
a. Green jobs are the future.
b. Climate legislation is a job killer.
c. The free market will sort it all out.

8. Pricing Carbon:
a. Let's discourage emissions, but without punishing consumers or businesses.
b. Fossil fuel is a sin...it's time for a sin tax.
c. The free market will sort it all out.

Your Results:

Give yourself 3 points for each "a" answer, 2 points for each "b" and 1 Point for each "c".

19-24 : This bill fits you like your favorite pair of blue jeans.
15-19 : Life's full of trade offs. You'll take the good with the bad.
0-14 : You take comfort knowing that the bill probably won't pass anyway.

If you scored 15 or more, you may want to encourage your senator to support the bill here.

More information on each question and how we based our scoring is listed out below.

How We Based Our Scoring:

1. 350: The bill seeks to cut emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and by more than 80 percent by 2050. These goals are consistent with what was promised by the President in Copenhagen, but fall well short of both UN targets and what is necessary to reduce CO2 concentrations to 350 ppm.

2. Offshore Drilling: The bill encourages off shore drilling, but the states can opt out if it is within 75 miles of their coast. It gives states over 1/3 of the revenue to protect their coastlines, and money for land and water conservation.

3. Offsets: Up to 2 Billion tons of offsets could be used for hitting reduction targets, emphasizing forest preservation and carbon sinks, and waste/agricultural changes both domestically and internationally. Includes additional oversight for offsets.

4. Nuclear Power: A very heavy emphasis is placed on nuclear power. Increased funding for nuclear loan guarantees to $54 billion, and provisions for tax credits for construction of new facilities.

5. International Cooperation: The bill stipulates that, in the event that no global agreement on climate change is reached, an international reserve allowance program would be implemented. This would require that imports from other countries that have not taken action on emissions pay a comparable amount at the border in order to avoid "carbon leakage."

6. Agribusiness: Farms are exempted from mandatory action. The bill would create agricutural revenue through a domestic program that lets agricultural interests receive credits if they make reductions in emissions, which could then be sold into the offset/permit market.

7. Climate Change and Jobs: While proctionalism has been a concern, offshoring of emissions intensive industries (aka "climate leakage") is also a concern. If no global agreement on climate change is reached, the bill would require that imports from other countries that have not taken action on limiting emissions pay a comparable amount at the border. In addition to protecting domestic jobs from climate leakage, the bill proposed spending on retraining of workers and developing "emerging careers and jobs in the fields of clean energy, renewable energy, energy efficiency, climate change mitigation, and climate change adaptation."

8. Pricing Carbon: The bill would set a price on carbon ($12-$25 per ton), but would give away plenty of permits to business, potentially send revenues back to consumers in the form of energy rebates (or use the money for defiect reduction), and protect low and middle-income families.

The full text of the bill can be found at http://kerry.senate.gov/americanpoweract/intro.cfm

You can support senate action at http://www.thepetitionsite.com/122/Support-the-climate-bill

Photo Copyright: Question marks from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/valeriebb/ / CC BY-SA 2.0 American Power Act logo from the office of Senator John Kerry. Combined photo work by ClimatePath, all rights reserved.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Wind Power for Everyone!?

by Dave Rochlin - www.ClimatePath.org

I recently posted on the Cape Wind project, which will be built in Nantucket Sound. If it's like most other wind projects, you'll still be able to buy the energy it generates, whether you live as far away as California, Florida, or even Germany.

Extra long distance transmission lines? No, not quite. With the help of renewable energy credits (RECs), even if your utility can't sell you wind generated electrical power, you can buy it anyway. In fact most utilities that claim to offer a"green energy" option are actually selling you the same old electricity bundled with RECS. Not everyone seems to be aware of this.

Renewable energy sources are typically more expensive, and not everyone wants to pay the premium, so the demand for renewable energy isn't always in the areas where it's produced. The simplest way to think of RECS is that you have the opportunity to buy the green energy that local buyers are not. As the EPA puts it: "RECs provide buyers flexibility in procuring green power across a diverse geographical area. This flexibility allows organizations and individuals to support renewable energy development and protect the environment when green power products are not locally available. "

Being a savvy wind buyer:
Utilities don't always make it easy to see where your support for the renewable piece goes or how much it really costs. The Con Ed utility in New York, for example will charges you an extra 2.5 cents per kWh for wind, because the power is generated 'locally'. It's actually sourced from wind farms in New Jersey and Pennsylvania owned by a utility group, energy marketer, and a recently liquidated Australian private equity firm. Sourcing nationally from third parties is typically cheaper (half the price or less), because the RECs supports wind projects where they are most cost effective (e.g. lots of wind, lots of land), and are replacing the dirtiest energy sources. My organization ClimatePath chose to offer RECs from a specific project in North Dakota (the Langdon Wind Farm), since North Dakota has the greatest wind generating potential of any state, but historically gets most of its electricity from coal. This makes it the ideal place to use wind power for the greatest impact. In our case, as for a few other REC providers, you also acquire the REC benefit via a non-profit, so it's a tax deductible transaction.

How much green?
Each power grid and utility has a different mix. 80% of your energy is already green in the state of Washington, but less than 20% in New York. If you are committed to green energy, you only need to buy RECs for the portion that your utility does not deliver. If you use 10 mWh per year, that means buying 8 mWh of RECs in New York, but only 2 mWh in Washington. State by state renewable information is available here.

Being a savvy consumer:
For individuals, buying green energy/RECS is simply stepping up and saying that "I value renewables enough to pay a premium." But for companies, it can lead to some mischaracterizations. One wind provider gave this advice about how businesses should talk about RECS to avoid 'greenwashing':

Do say:
We support wind power.
We are supporting the growth of renewable energy.
We offset 100% of our electricity with wind power.

Avoid saying:
We are wind-powered.
Our electricity is sourced only from renewable energy/wind power.
We use 100% wind power.

Good advice, but unfortunately this message often gets lost. Silk Soy Milk, for example, has been a leader in supporting wind energy via RECs. But their marketing department hasn't quite gotten the message about how to talk about it. A recent marketing piece I saw said "Silk is made using 100% wind energy". Unfortunately, this implies that Silk generates the wind on site. As a consumer, you should insist on more transparency and investigate claims from firms that use green in their marketing.

Is this all necessary?
Just as we need to encourage and fund rainforest preservation in Brazil and Costa Rica, we need to encourage wind and solar energy use where its practical to install it. We can either continue to wait for government solutions (which will cost you anyway) or use conservation, RECs, and offsetting to accomplish that goal. As the saying goes, if you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

Photo copyright: Adapted by ClimatePath from http://www.flickr.com/photos/shaireproductions/ / CC BY 2.0 All rights reserved.

Friday, April 30, 2010

There Once Was a Wind Farm From Nantucket: Rethinking Energy Production

By Dave Rochlin - www.climatepath.org
Originally posted on care2.com

The state of Vermont is poised to shut down the Yankee nuclear power plant, after months of underground tritium leaks, and misleading statements from Entergy's local management team.

A BP drilling rig explosion will lead to as much as 4 million gallons of crude oil leaking out into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening wide-scale coastal damage.

29 miners were killed this month in an explosion in a Massey Energy coal mine in West Virginia.

You would think that these messes would have the public - and especially environmentalists - running towards wind power as a solution...without even factoring in the climate change benefits of renewable energy. Yet in Cape Cod, some environmental groups and residents are fighting hard to overturn approval of the nation’s first offshore wind farm. The Cape Wind project will build 130 turbines covering 25 square miles of Nantucket Sound. As the New York Times reports, the offshore wind farm would lie about 5 miles from the nearest shore on the mainland, and about 13 miles from Nantucket Island. The tip of the highest blade of each turbine would reach 440 feet above the water.

Is anyone seriously more concerned about 400 foot towers 5 miles off shore than they are with oil spills and radioactive leaks ino the water tables? The answer seems to be yes.

As one resident put it, "I’m 100 percent for alternative energy, but just not in Nantucket Sound.” The movie The Age of Stupid also documented similar attitudes in the UK. The term for this is NIMBY (Not In My BackYard), a sort of reverse tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons describes "a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen." In this case, the individuals will prevent a common resource from being created, but the outcome is the same.

If we're serious about renewables, this sort of thinking has to change. Dams, turbines, and solar panels visibly alter local vistas and ecosystems, so there is a perceived and visible negative impact to renewables. In contrast, most of us don't see mountain top mining, fossil fuel related CO2e emissions, or where spent nuclear reactor fuel goes to slowly die over thousands of years. It's also much more convenient for energy to be produced somewhere else and transported - inefficiently and at great expense - to where we use it. Everyone wants wind power, but not always the windmills.

My friend Rosie, who grew up in Nantucket, has a more enlightened view: "Cape Wind will certainly diminishes the vista, but that's the price we have to pay to get clean energy. It's better than an oil spill, a nuclear accident, air pollution, and war." She's actually more concerned with a second issue raised by opponents to Cape Wind: that a private firm - Energy Management Inc. (EMI) is developing the project, and plans to make money at it. But both Vermont Yankee and the leaky oil rig in the Gulf are also private enterprises. If cleantech is going to succeed, private firms will need to have the opportunity to make profits. A lot of speculative capital is needed to scale up new innovative approaches and the delivery of clean energy.

It's clearly time to change how we think of electricity production. When it comes to farming (roughly 1% of the US economy) we want to buy local, know where our food comes from, and support a vibrant private sector. Since energy expenditures are 6-8% of our economy, maybe we should be thinking along the same lines.

Photo copyright: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bossco/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The New EPA Fuel Standards: Why MPG No Longer Matters

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on care2.com

I love the ambitious new automobile efficiency targets set by the EPA this week. This is long overdue. As the EPA pointed out, "transportation sources accounted for 28 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2007, and have been the fastest-growing source of U.S. GHG emissions since 1990."

While the new targets works out to an average of 35.5 MPG by 2016, the rules are actually set in terms of "grams of CO2 per mile." I suspect that it was done this way because of the EPA's new found authority to regulate CO2, but it also highlights that "miles per gallon" is not all that matters when it comes to climate change.

From an oil perspective, setting these aggressive targets may be the single most important action taken to preserve the United States since Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Rather than balanced trade, our dependence on foreign oil has created a systematic drain of dollars from the US to the tune of $200 billion per year, with many negative implications to the stability and economic well being of the country. Additionally, our massive military expenditures are driven by the need to protect our overseas oil supplies (see the Carter Doctrine.) And with the looming specter of peak oil - or even just $150/barrel oil - closing the spigot is needed.

But in dealing with climate change, there's a lot more to think about than just how much gasoline gets burned.

The good: Reducing gasoline related emissions.
Assuming a 100,000 mile life, a car getting 25 MPG will burn 4,000 gallons over its lifetime, resulting in 40 tons of CO2 emissions. By raising fuel efficiency to 35 MPG, that car will use 1,100 less gallons of gasoline, keeping 11 tons of CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere.

It also reduces the amount spent on gasoline by almost $4,000! While automobile manufacturers are estimating that the cost to meet the new higher targets will be around $1000 per car, that still puts consumers way ahead of the game. As an old 1987 Honda CRX owner (and how I miss my old pocket rocket), I can say that this does not need to be the case. My CRX was high mileage (40-60 MPG), high performance, and very reasonably priced...and this was 25 years ago. The secret was a small but efficient engine, and a very lightweight design...which brings us to:

The bad: Considering the lifecycle and impact of the automobile.
An awful lot of rubber, steel, plastic and other materials go into making a car. The energy used to power the gigantic factories stamping out parts and assembling it is also significant. The most recent estimate I've seen is that producing a mid-sized sedan results in roughly 7 tons of emissions. I'm guessing that a full-sized SUV with 19 inch wheels and TVs in the seats checks in a lot higher than that.

Unfortunately, automobiles seem to be designed for obsolescence rather than reuse. While many materials are recycled, a more modular cradle to cradle approach to automotive design would be much more eco-friendly.

The support system for automobiles, and consequences of our autocentric culture also have led to the large US emissions footprint. Road building and maintenance, replacing natural habitat with asphalt and sprawl, lack of convenient public transportation...all of these help create an automobile emissions intensive culture. As cars become cheaper to operate, will we simply demand our own version of the autobahn, and drive further and more often?

Avoiding the ugly: Swapping coal for oil?
The biggest battle in the EPA' s new rule was over how to treat electric cars. While the industry likes to use the term 'zero emissions vehicle', a plug-in car requires electricity from the grid. Several estimates I've seen put the amount of energy used in the range of 3 miles per kWH. If you're connected to the hydroelectric-powered clean grid up in Washington, your plug-in would be six times less carbon intensive than a gas powered vehicle. But if you operate that same car in coal-dependent North Dakota, then your 'zero emissions vehicle' would actually be 20% more emissions intensive than if it used gasoline. Of course you can offset this electricity use by supporting wind farms in North Dakota, but the vehicle itself is far from 'zero emissions'.

It's possible that a hybrid Prius, which generates electricity from its braking system, may actually be better from an emissions perspective than a plug-in. In any case, the EPA gave each automobile manufacturer 300,000 'zero emissions' car waivers through 2016, which means the 35.5 MPG figure is actually closer to 34.5 MPG. Beyond that, who knows.

But three cheers for the EPA, for thinking about oil and emissions. Whether we replace gasoline with electricity created from coal, bio-diesel from corn, or hydrogen produced in a refinery, they need to keep the focus on grams of CO2 per mile, not MPG.

It would also be great to start thinking of the the footprint of the actual vehicle and other consumables (tires, oil, other consumables) that go with it. I think we'd be better off with hybrid CRXs rather than than plug in Escalades....Or maybe more light rail, and less of both.

Photo copyright: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/ CC BY 2.0

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Is America becoming a third world country with first world emissions?

Arianna Huffington admits that asking if America is becoming a third world country is meant to be provocative, but she's clearly distressed by "a nation where the rich get richer, the middle class is in free fall, and the education system and infrastructure are crumbling." Her biggest distress is over the idea that "the American dream" - that our children will have a better life than we have - has vanished.

But what is a "better life?" I saw Ms. Huffington at the Economist Magazine's Innovation Summit, a portion of which focused on whether innovation will save us from the various global disasters that await us in areas such as disease, water, and of course climate change. The venue turned into shootout between optimists and pessimists, all of whom are well known and hyper-intelligent, over whether innovation is part of the problem or part of the solution.

Representing the pessimists were Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive and Paul Saffo, a Stanford-based futurist who once said, "There's less than a 50% chance that the United States will exist as a nation by the middle of this century. And that is actually the good news." Professor Diamond pointed out that unsustainable consumption rates will be our undoing, leading to growing inequality, resource scarcity, and climate related problems. The root cause of all this is our misperception that higher consumption rates equates to a higher standard of living. The Professor points out that much of Europe has been busy disproving this standard of living/consumption connection. The average per capita carbon footprint in Europe is less than half of that in the US, which seems to support this viewpoint.

This led one audience member to put the idea to Ms. Huffington that maybe the US should become a third world country.

On the other side of the debate were the optimistic technologists, lead by the prolific inventor Ray Kurzweil, who points to the dramatically increasing price-performance of phones and computers, to assert that innovation in solar energy, battery storage (and other areas such as water purification, hydroponic food production) will solve both scarcity and environmental issues long before they become critical. His underlying message is that we just need to produce and consume smarter, not less.

Both sides support the idea that the current energy and resource intensive industrial revolution is playing itself out. What's beyond it is less clear.

My seat neighbor (who turned out to be a well known CEO) and I got into a discussion at the break about the role of common sense. He mentioned that in China, firms such as Procter and Gamble are rethinking and redesigning their product lines both to accommodate the needs of Chinese households, and the resource base and ecological needs of the country. In a country where middle class is a relatively emerging idea, will it be created in a more pragmatic and sustainable fashion? From a climate perspective, there's no other viable option.

But back to the US....perhaps what's crumbling is not the middle class, but our definition of what middle class means. If the American Dream is about a better life for our kids, than maybe the focus of innovation should be on a more commonsensical definition of a better life. Cheap energy or clean energy? Big cars or reliable transportation systems? Better 'stuff' or better relationships?

The resistance to cap and trade and other flavors of climate legislation is primarily based on the notion that it will lead to a reduction in our standard of living. But that's a false choice. I like to think it's possible that we can innovate our way to a less consumption-heavy footprint that increases our standard of living. We'd have plenty left over for education and infrastructure.

Photo courtesy of the Economist Magazine. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Alice Pays a Carbon Tax in Wonderland

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on care2.com

Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the Red Queen aren't waiting around for the climate bill. According to a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, Disney is making the company’s business units pay an internal tax based on how much carbon they use.

Alice in Wonderland's filmmakers needed to think about everything from the commute miles for Johnny Depp's makeup artists, to buying local/organic for the on-set buffets. The more emissions they reduced or avoided, the less they had to pay into Disney's internal carbon fund.

"It would be so nice if something made sense for a change."
What an amazingly refreshing approach. Assigning a true cost to business activities is the best way to encourage greener behavior, and using the money for mitigation balances these activities with an equal measure of environmental stewardship, at least in the case of carbon. I particularly like that each business unit makes their own decisions on the feasibility and economic practicality of reducing vs. offsetting specific activities, rather than being shoe-horned into a one size fits all policy.

“Say what you mean and mean what you say.”
- Cheshire Cat
The key to this sort of voluntary program is transparency on both the measurement and reduction/offsetting sides of the equation. To be credible, Disney will need to share much more of their eco-info in their corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports. The program leaves lots of unanswered questions: How did they calculate each business unit's footprint? What were the organizational 'boundaries'? What is the internal price of carbon? Where does the money go? They have typically partnered with very well respected NGOs, so I suspect that they are doing a reasonable job, but when it comes to corporate behavior, show me...don't just tell me.

It's very easy to take more than nothing.
- Mad Hatter
CEO Bob Iger sees a strong need for Disney to practice environmental stewardship. In a recent interview, he pointed out that it is an "Issue of interest" to consumers, employees and shareholders. But, as Iger was asked, can a company that's focused on leisure travel and consumption be green? In other words, isn't Disney inherently a fundamentally eco-flawed enterprise? On this point, Iger was very clear an unapologetic: "Life is to be enjoyed....we don't feel guilty about growth, but we can grow in a responsible way...At least the consumption we promote in the future is better for the environment."

Be what you would seem to be -- or, if you'd like it put more simply -- Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.
- The Duchess
So is Disney the kind of firm that can lead us into a green tomorrowland, or are they doomed to forever encourage us to take another bite out of the poison apple? What do you think?

Photo: Official Alice in Wonderland Wallpaper Image, copyright Disney Enterprises. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Beware the Nine Billion Ton Hamster

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on care2.com

My friends at the Global Footprint Network sent me a link to a video which asks, "What if hamsters grew non-stop, the way we expect economies to?" The answer: We would have nine billion ton hamsters.

Check out the video: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sqwd_u6HkMo)

Here's the transcript:

From birth to puberty, a hamster doubles its weight each week.

If it didn't stop when mature, as animals do, and continued to double,
on its first birthday we would be staring at a nine billion ton hamster.

This hamster could eat all of the corn produced annually worldwide in a single day, and still be hungry.

There is a reason why, in nature, things grow in size only to a certain point.

So why do most economists and politicians think that the economy
can grow forever and ever and ever?

Personally, I think this massive hamster should be grass fed.

The spot was made by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a self proclaimed think-and-do-tank. While some of their ideas are intriguing - such as using a 'happiness index' and focusing on 'social return on investment', it's hard to advocate putting the brakes on economic growth when 80% of the planet's population still lives on $10 per day or less, and over two billion live on less than $2 per day.

Innovation and economic growth have increased life expectancies and quality of life, and lifted many out of poverty. It isn't decreasing economic activity we need to focus on, but rather increasing resource productivity. Let's uncouple economic growth from resource use and environmental degradation. What does this mean? Renewable energy rather than fossil fuel based sources, higher productivity, green jobs, smarter "cradle to cradle" design, doing more with less, and focusing on reuse and recycle (as well as reducing.) There's a lot of room to improve, if we simply decide to be smart about it. If we challenged automakers (or just university students) to design a car that used 50% less materials, lasted twice as along, and would get double the gas mileage, they could do so pretty easily. But we just don't adequately value those attributes (yet).

The NEF folks want to put on the economic brakes because they don't believe that the world will improve in efficiency and conservation as fast as it increases use of resources and growth. Some of their data on planetary boundaries is pretty scary and compelling. But with adequate incentives and market signals (such as a price on carbon, and continued rising energy and raw commodity costs) I think they will be proven wrong. There's a second 'green revolution' on the way, which will be driven by scarcity and environmental/regulatory caps.

Even better, let's grow the economy by putting economic value on ecosystem services, such as keeping the water clean, forests planted, and soil and air untainted. The World Resource Institute estimates that these services - what they call "Mother Nature’s life-support services" are worth twice the value of the global GDP. If we start to value and pay for these, including them in GDP, we can have our cake and eat it too!

Is it time to starve the hamster, or should we just harness the energy of that massive hamster wheel she'll be spinning on? Is triple bottom line growth (people, planet, profits) possible? Can growth be good?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Climate Change Leaders On the Defensive: How Did We Get Here?

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on care2.com

It was an interesting week for the climate movement. Al Gore published on Op Ed piece in the New York Times entitled "We Can't Wish Away Climate Change", and The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a statement that they intend to establish an independent committee to review IPCC procedures. Clearly, some of the most visible players in the climate movement are on the defensive. With only 35% of Americans now convinced that climate change is caused by human activity, it's no wonder.

But how did we get here? Gore points to three causes:

1. Mistakes were made.
The Op Ed piece acknowledges that "scientific enterprise will never be completely free of mistakes", and alludes to both the climategate emails and errors in reporting on the threat to the Himalayas that I blogged about a few weeks ago. Worse than the mistakes, however has been the IPCC's refusal to take responsibility. The statement by the IPCC acknowledges criticism without admitting error, maintaining the aura of immaturity surrounding the organization. As Gore points out, "What is important is that the overwhelming consensus on global warming remains unchanged" (which my organization agrees with.) The IPCC should more openly admit to, learn from, and respond to errors.

2. Opposition is getting organized.
The last few years of discussion on the solutions to the climate problem have made it clear that the heaviest emitting industries are going to feel some negative impact through regulation or caps. As Gore says, "some industries and companies whose business plans are dependent on unrestrained pollution of the atmospheric commons have become ever more entrenched. They are ferociously fighting against the mildest regulation — just as tobacco companies blocked constraints on the marketing of cigarettes for four decades after science confirmed the link of cigarettes to diseases of the lung and the heart." This is a common tactic, and many of these firms have sizable war chests to fund both explicit public opinion campaigns, as well as dubiously ethical stealth efforts.

3. Right wing media is gaining influence.
I'm not sure I agree with this point, but Gore points out that "changes in America’s political system — including the replacement of newspapers and magazines by television as the dominant medium of communication — conferred powerful advantages on wealthy advocates of unrestrained markets and weakened advocates of legal and regulatory reforms. Some news media organizations now present showmen masquerading as political thinkers who package hatred and divisiveness as entertainment. And as in times past, that has proved to be a potent drug in the veins of the body politic. Their most consistent theme is to label as “socialist” any proposal to reform exploitive behavior in the marketplace." He is giving FOX News far too much credit.

Looking at the issue from a consumer and populist perspective, I suspect that there is simply a massive underestimation of what it will take to undo decades of messaging and behavior reinforcing that cheap energy is an unlimited resource, international cooperation should automatically take a back seat to corporate profits, and that unrestrained consumerism is both a right and a virtue. It is more than just an inconvenient truth to discover that the old way is the wrong way. Change to deeply ingrained social institutions is seldom easy, and often generational.

Senator Lindsey Graham seems to understand this. As he told Thomas Friedman, “I have been to enough college campuses to know if you are 30 or younger this climate issue is not a debate. It’s a value. These young people grew up with recycling and a sensitivity to the environment — and the world will be better off for it."

Gore and Bono, photo copyright: http://www.flickr.com/photos/worldeconomicforum/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

Friday, February 26, 2010

Is the UN climate chief abandoning a sinking ship?

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on care2.com

The controversial former UN ambassador John Bolton famously said "If the U.N. secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

Now Yvo de Boer, the UN's executive secretary of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, is resigning, saying in a statement that “I have always maintained that while governments provide the necessary policy framework, the real solutions must come from business."

An interesting comment from a lifelong bureaucrat.

The Copenhagen round in December has been described as everything from a "debacle" (UK Guardian) to "chaotic" (NY Times). But is this a failure of the UN, or of Mr. DeBoer's management of the talks? The world's major emitter nations came to the table prepared to commit to substantial reductions, there was near unanimous acknowledgment that we need to set a 450 ppm target to avoid massive global ecological disaster and social injustice, and hundreds of NGOs had engaged in protracted public awareness/education campaigns to create populist enthusiasm for climate action. Businesses have also been preparing to prove de Boer right - by working hard on solutions to address the almost certain need to conform to a new world order with low carbon economic policies.

As de Boer himself said, "We were about an inch away from a formal agreement...it was basically in our grasp, but it didn't happen. So that was a pity."

Just two months later, we have major firms (including BP and Caterpillar) bailing out of the US Climate Action Partnership, a stalled climate bill, sinking public belief in climate change, and the US chamber of commerce again attacking the EPA. A pity indeed.

What was needed in Copenhagen was strong and competent leadership, and a pragmatic and realistic acknowledgment that a half dozen super powers were really the ones in a position to get a deal done...or to block it. Bolton understood this, as does President Obama, who flew in on the last day and brokered a last minute accord among the largest emitters.

I for one believe the the UN can play an important role in facilitating coordinated global policy on this borderless issue. The Montreal Protocol, which halted ozone depletion, is a shining example of what is possible. And the UN- created CDM mechanism is a potentially powerful tool to fight climate change while improving livelihoods through financing projects such as cookstoves, forestry, and innovative energy retrofits.

We have another chance at the next meetings in Cancun later this year, although the momentum and build up to Copenhagen will not be replicated. My advice for the next UN climate chief? Most of the work for Copenhagen should have been done on a bilateral or multilateral basis before the meeting opened, whether that is politically popular or not -- the twelve day mosh pit approach does not work. And it is time to dismiss Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, the UN's climate science arm. Under Pachauri's leadership, the IPCC's credibility, and therefore the credibility of the science underlying climate change has become tarnished.

Tough decisions? Perhaps. But the issue is too important not to take decisive action. As the saying goes; "When the going gets tough, the tough get going"...while the not so tough simply go. So Mr. de Boer, thank you for your service. But no one said your job would be easy. On an issue this big, we need someone at the helm who can make this work, or at least is willing to go down with the ship.

Photo adapted from http://www.flickr.com/photos/x-ray_delta_one/ / CC BY-SA 2.0 and http://www.flickr.com/photos/worldeconomicforum/ / CC BY-SA 2.0 under a CC license. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Is the nuclear option really the answer to climate change?

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on care2.com

In President Obama's recent state of the union speech, he called for "building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country." While he specifically called out what he referred to as clean energy, the speech made no mention of renewables, and gave only token acknowledgment to the idea of conservation. Is the nuclear option really our best option?

The issue of expanding nuclear power is a divisive one, even within the environmental movement. Greenpeace responded to the President's speech by saying:

"Nuclear power is neither safe nor clean. There is no such thing as a "safe" dose of radiation and just because nuclear pollution is invisible doesn't mean it's "clean." For years, nuclear plants have been leaking radioactive waste from underground pipes and radioactive waste pools into the ground water at sites across the nation."

To prove their point, they highlighted a recent New York Times article covering the rapidly rising levels of radioactive tritium in the groundwater surrounding Vermont’s sole nuclear power plant. This has raised doubts in the minds of many former supporters of the plant.

On the other side of the issue, one of the co-founder of Greenpeace - Patrick Moore - is now co-chairman (along with former Bush-era EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman) of the Nuclear Energy Institute's Clean and Safe Energy Coalition.

As Moore told Wired Magazine:

"We failed to distinguish between the beneficial uses of the technology and the evil uses of the technology...Greenpeace is against fossil fuel, nuclear and hydroelectric power. Those three technologies produce over 99 percent of world energy. What kind of a path to a sustainable future is that? We're bringing people at the municipal and state levels together to help convince the American public that nuclear energy is a key technology for the future."

He also told another interviewer:

"Even though nuclear does create waste, that waste is very successfully contained – it is not leaking out, it is not harming anybody. On the other hand, emissions from fossil fuel combustion for energy and transportation are harming people."

A few other environmental champions have also take this positon.

But while Mr. Moore declares success, is he wrong to ignore Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, the 100,000 gallon radioactive coolant leak at TVAs Sequyah plant, or the smaller incidents in Japan, France and the former Soviet Union? Or are the rest of us burying our head in the sand about the realistic options for reducing fossil fuel consumption?

My own views are best captured by a recent episode of The Simpson's, which describes nuclear power as:

"The cleanest energy there is, except once in a while, but then lookout."

That pretty much says it all.

There's been amazing progress in solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable technologies, and conservation and forest preservation have tremendous potential. But apparently the lure of energy that is clean and "too cheap to meter" continues to divert attention from these ideas. Or perhaps the President is offering his opponents a uranium-enriched olive branch in order to get a climate bill passed. But with the track record and unanswered questions about storage of nuclear waste, I don't think that "mostly safe and clean" is good enough. Let's at least try to find and fund some better ideas.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

IPCC Goofs, Himalayan Glaciers Get a 300 Year Reprieve

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on care2.com

Like many, I am deeply, deeply concerned about the impending impact of climate change, a Sword of Damocles that hangs over hundreds of millions of people and thousands of species. But sometimes backing the IPCC (UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is a little like being a supporter of the Chicago Cubs or the Chudley Cannons. Nobel prize or not, the IPCC seems to be their own worst enemy, and determined to test our resolve.

For those of you who are not familiar with the IPCC , it is "the leading body for the assessment of climate change, established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences."

After a series of stolen emails (aka 'climategate') revealed an immaturity more suited to a prepubescent facebook crowd than a team of the world's smartest climate scientists, the IPCC has now revealed that the Himalayan glaciers will in fact not be dissapearing by 2035, as they reported in the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report on Climate Change, and what they really meant to say was that they may be gone by 2350 (whoops!). What's worse, the transposed number was reportedly sourced from a 1999 article in New Scientist, rather than peer reviewed research.

There is such an overwhelming amount of evidence in support of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that this is really of little consequence. And mistakes do happen, even for groups of hundreds of scientists working collaboratively. But this still pretty scary: The Himalayas hold the planet's largest body of ice outside the polar caps -- this is no small ice shelf we're talking about. And the world's governments are relying on the IPCC findings to justify putting in place major changes that will affect virtually every aspect of the world's economy.

Historically, I would characterize climate science as an obscure field, populated by wonks and number jockeys who would prefer to quietly build computer models, leaving some ex-jock weatherman to get all the credit on television. Basically the Peter Parker's of the science world. But like Parker with his accidental Spiderman powers, they have suddenly been thrown into the limelight -- unwilling superheroes. As Parker's Uncle Ben said, "With great power comes great responsibility." Climate change is no longer an academic exercise, and it's time for the IPCC to start doing better.

Photo copyright http://www.flickr.com/photos/ilker/ / CC BY 2.0

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Coming Soon To Our Planet: Two Billion Cars.

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on care2.com

Over the break I've been reading Daniel Sperling's book Two Billion Cars, an exploration of how the planet can handle the two billion vehicles that will be in service by 2025.

Is this number inevitable? Sperling says yes: There are over a Billion vehicles today, and 2.4 Billion emerging consumers in China and Indian interested in 'personal motorization'. He also points out that most automakers are focusing their efforts on building and conquering these new markets. His projections actually show roughly 1.2 Billion cars, another 500 Million trucks/buses, and 500 Million motorcycles and scooters, but the forecasted growth in each segment is still staggering and a little scary.

We clearly live in what Sperling and his co-author call a "gas-guzzler monoculture". Only 2% of passenger travel in the U.S. is via public transportation, and even in Europe where fuel is expensive and trains plentiful, 80% of travel is via automobile. He calls this car-centric western lifestyle "an extravagant consumer of resources and producer of greenhouse gasses."

On the Daily Show earlier this year, Sperling stated that one of the problems is that "There is no value placed on carbon production." I totally agree, and whether we end up with cap-and-trade, a carbon tax, low carbon fuel standards, or voluntary offsetting, factoring the environmental cost of burning gasoline into the cost of ownership is needed to start to change consumer behavior. So is an honest assessment and forecast of how much oil is left and what it will cost. Sperling is pretty optimistic about oil reserves, but does see the price of oil driving supply, and therfore an end to cheap oil.

Unfortunately, he also sees a lot of this higher cost and regulatory action focused primairly on driving automobile and fuel innovation...hybrids, biofuels, lighter cars, and more. Clearly these are needed: the book compares a 1976 Honda accord (2000 pounds, 46 MPG) with a 2008 model (3600 pounds, 29 MPG) to demonstrate the stagnation in innovation related to the resource intensity of automobiles. But two Billion vehicles? Isn't there a better way for us to plan communities and get around?

Sperling presents some interesting and promising alternatives including 'smart paratransit' (point to point public transport like airport Super Shuttles), carsharing (think Zipcar), small powered vehicles (Smart Cars and Segways), and ridesharing (Pickup Pal). He also discusses the idea of redesigning roads to be more bus (and bike!) friendly. All of these seem to be gaining traction, but none are growing as fast of personal vehicle ownership.

Part of this is financial, I suppose....we pay endlessly for roads and (hidden) oil subsidies, while underfunding light rail and other alternatives -- expecting them to pull their own financial weight in a way in which automobile travel does not. Part of it is also the desire for the 'freedom of the open road', an aspiration which will become more elusive as cars and traffic multiply. Maybe its time take some focus away from automobiles and highways, and to re-imagine and fund infrastructure that creates a different future.

Photo copyright: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bike/ / CC BY-SA 2.0