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February 10 2014

19:19

EarthTalk: Harsh Winters and Global Warming

EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Does the fact that we’ve had such a cold and snowy winter mean that global warming might not be such a big problem after all? – Lacey L., Lynchburg, VA

Does the record-breaking cold weather in parts of North America mean the end of global warming? Unfortunately, no. It’s tempting to think that the cold air and snow outside augur the end of global warming, but don’t rejoice yet. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), weather and climate are two very different beasts: “Weather is what’s happening outside the door right now; today a snowstorm or a thunderstorm is approaching. Climate, on the other hand, is the pattern of weather measured over decades.”

Isolated weather events and even seasonal trends are not an indication of global warming’s existence one way or another, and most climatologists agree that the carbon pollution we have been spewing into the atmosphere for the past century is leading to more frequent and intense storms of every kind and causing greater temperature swings all around the planet. In short, the harsh winter we are having shouldn’t be viewed as a refutation of global warming, but rather as further evidence of a growing problem.

“There is a clear long-term global warming trend, while each individual year does not always show a temperature increase relative to the previous year, and some years show greater changes than others,” reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The agency chalks up these year-to-year fluctuations to natural processes such as El Niño or volcanic eruptions, but points out that, regardless, the 20 warmest years on record have occurred since 1981, while the 10 warmest were in the past 12 years. And global average temperatures have risen by 1.4°F overall since the early 20th century.

According to Becky Oskin of LiveScience.com, shrinking polar ice caps as a result of global warming in recent decades are one factor that may be contributing to the cold weather in North America this winter.

“One way the shrinking ice changes weather is by pushing winter air south,” she reports. “When the stored ocean heat gradually escapes in autumn, it changes the pattern of an atmospheric wind called the polar vortex, streaming frigid Arctic air into North America and Europe.”

Meanwhile, a 2012 study by researchers Jennifer Francis and Stephen Vavrus concluded that intense warming in the Arctic has caused changes to the jet stream that regulates air circulation around the planet, potentially leading to stronger winter storms hitting the eastern seaboard of the U.S.

And what about all that snow? “Hotter air around the globe causes more moisture to be held in the air than in prior seasons,” reports UCS. “When storms occur, this added moisture can fuel heavier precipitation in the form of more intense rain or snow.” The U.S. is already enduring more intense rain and snowstorms, says the group: “The amount of rain or snow falling in the heaviest one percent of storms has risen nearly 20 percent, averaged nationally—almost three times the rate of increase in total precipitation between 1958 and 2007.” And some regions of the country “have seen as much as a 67 percent increase in the amount of rain or snow falling in the heaviest storms.”

And Oskin points out that while we may be bundling up and shoveling out in the U.S., it’s turned into another scorcher of a summer in the Southern Hemisphere: 2013 was Australia’s hottest year on record, and 2014 has started off even hotter, with temperatures soaring to 125°F and severe fire warnings issued in at least two states there. Apparently global warming is still on.

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EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E – The Environmental Magazine.

Image credit: Marques Stewart, courtesy flickr

The post EarthTalk: Harsh Winters and Global Warming appeared first on Global Warming is Real.

July 15 2013

23:44

EarthTalk: Implementation of California’s Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Law

Understanding California's Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection ActEarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Three regions in California recently implemented transportation plans as part of a statewide strategy for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Can you explain? – Bill Oakes, Reno, NV

Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about global warming even as Washington politicians continue to debate whether or not to mandate emissions cutbacks. In lieu of federal action, some states and municipalities are taking action on their own to reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Not surprisingly, California leads the pack, having passed the 2008 Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Law (SB 375), which calls on each of 18 Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) to prepare a “sustainable communities strategy” to show how it plans to meet previously established greenhouse gas reduction targets through integrated land use, housing and transportation planning. Over the past year, three regions—San Diego, Sacramento and Southern California—formally adopted transportation plans specifically designed to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

“All three regions have found that most people want to live closer to jobs and retail, and yearn for ways to live without spending so much time driving,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has been tracking California’s progress on sustainability. “These regions are planning communities that reflect these preferences while also reducing harmful air pollution, creating jobs and saving people money.”

NRDC adds that the sustainable community strategies “lay the foundation for smarter, more efficient growth and healthier communities, each of them offering lessons for other regions to follow.”

Under the terms of SB 375, each of the MPOs crafted plans based on local priorities, needs and resources, while adhering to strict statewide emissions reduction goals. San Diego’s 2050 Regional Transportation Plan was the first of its kind in the country when implemented last year. It calls for investing $214 billion in various local, state and federal transportation initiatives around San Diego over the next four decades.

“The largest proportion of the funds will go toward transit, which will receive 36 percent of the funds in the first 10 years, with 34 percent going to highway improvements (largely for the addition of high occupancy vehicle lanes to existing freeway corridors) and 21 percent to local roads and streets,” reports the San Diego Association of Governments, one of the agencies that helped design the plan. “The percentage dedicated to transit will grow each decade, up to 44 percent from 2021 to 2030, 47 percent in the third decade, and 57 percent in the last decade of the plan.”

Most environmental leaders view SB 375 as a step in the right direction, though others worry that it doesn’t go far enough. “The plan will worsen health risks in communities that already suffer from disproportionate levels of pollution,” reports the California-based Environmental Health Coalition (EHC). EHC is concerned about the health of low-income communities of color and feels that the plan allocates too much funding toward highway expansion while deferring investment in public transit for too long.

Meanwhile, 15 more plans will come to light soon across California, giving the rest of the nation that many more models for planning responsibly for a warmer, less environmentally secure future.
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EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E – The Environmental Magazine.

Image credit: NRDC

The post EarthTalk: Implementation of California’s Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Law appeared first on Global Warming is Real.

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August 23 2012

14:29

EarthTalk: Atmospheric CO2 – Is it Too Late Anyway?


The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere today is roughly 390 parts per million (ppm), well above the 275 ppm it was before we started pumping pollution skyward during the Industrial Revolution. Climate scientists and green leaders today agree that 350 ppm would be a tolerable upper limit.EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I read that CO2 in our atmosphere is now more than 300 parts per million. Doesn’t this mean that we’re too late to avoid the worst impacts of climate change?  – Karl Bren, Richmond, VA

Actually the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere today is roughly 390 parts per million (ppm). And that’s not good news. “Experts agree that this level cannot be sustained for many decades without potentially catastrophic consequences,” reports the Geos Institute, an Oregon-based non-profit and consulting firm that uses science to help people predict, reduce and prepare for climate change.

While we’re unlikely to get atmospheric CO2 concentrations down as low as they were (275 ppm) before we started pumping pollution skyward during the Industrial Revolution, climate scientists and green leaders agree that 350 ppm would be a tolerable upper limit. Prior to 2007 scientists weren’t sure what emissions reduction goal to shoot for, but new evidence led researchers to reach consensus on 350 ppm if we wished to have a planet, in the words of NASA climatologist James Hansen, “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.”

The non-profit 350.org, launched in 2008 by writer and activist Bill McKibben and others to raise awareness about global warming, has circled the proverbial wagons around the cause of reducing atmospheric CO2 to 350 ppm. The group has enlisted the help of thousands of student volunteers around the world to mobilize public support for reducing humanity’s carbon footprint.

McKibben, whose 1989 book The End of Nature detailed the potential effects of climate change and remains one of the most influential environmental books of all time, believes that 350 ppm is attainable.

“We’re like the patient that goes to the doctor and learns he’s overweight, or his cholesterol is too high. He doesn’t die immediately—but until he changes his lifestyle and gets back down to the safe zone, he’s at more risk for heart attack or stroke,” says McKibben. “The planet is in its danger zone because we’ve poured too much carbon into the atmosphere, and we’re starting to see signs of real trouble: melting ice caps, rapidly spreading drought. We need to scramble back as quickly as we can to safety.”

“Scrambling back” will entail nothing short of transforming our energy infrastructure, including how we transport people and goods and power our structures. According to 350.org, it means building solar arrays instead of coal plants, planting trees instead of cutting forests, increasing energy efficiency and reducing waste.

“Getting to 350 means developing a thousand different solutions—all of which will become much easier if we have a global treaty grounded in the latest science and built around the principles of equity and justice,” the group reports. “To get this kind of treaty, we need a movement of people who care enough about our shared global future to get involved and make their voices heard.”

The group is working to create an international grassroots movement to influence political dynamics and implement solutions that show the benefits of moving to a clean energy economy. 350 ppm, while merely a number, represents humanity’s potential capacity to solve the most pressing problem it has faced; it also represents a target for international negotiators to aim for in forging an effective global warming treaty.
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EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E – The Environmental Magazine.

May 03 2012

15:37

EarthTalk: The Deep Carbon Footprint of Water Managament


According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the collection, distribution and treatment of drinking water and wastewater in the U.S. uses up significant amounts of energy and releases some 116 billion pounds of carbon dioxide each year -- as much global warming pollution as 10 million cars on the roadEarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I read somewhere that our various systems for collecting, distributing and treating water are very energy intensive and, as such, contribute significantly to global warming. How does that happen and what can we do to correct such problems?            – Marina Shaw, Monroe, CT

It’s true that the collection, distribution and treatment of drinking water and wastewater in the U.S. uses up significant amounts of energy and releases some 116 billion pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year—as much global warming pollution as 10 million cars on the road—according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Nationwide, around four percent of power generation is used for water supply and treatment, but in certain drier parts of the country that number is far higher. For instance, in California the water sector is the state’s largest energy user, accounting for some 19 percent of total electricity consumed there.

The key to staving off water emergencies is to use less. “Reducing water consumption saves energy because less water needs to be treated and pumped to end users,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Moreover, when energy use is reduced, water is saved because less is needed in the operation of power plants.” Some thermoelectric power plants, for example, use some 100 billion gallons of fresh water each day, which translates into 25 gallons to produce each kilowatt-hour of electricity.

Another way to reduce waste is by fixing leaky aging water pipes throughout the U.S. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that many drinking water systems across the country lose as much as 20 percent of treated drinking water each year due to leaks in their pipe networks. Making a concerted effort to fix these systems would go a long way toward preserving our aquifers.

Water waste can also be reduced significantly if new buildings and developments integrate so-called “low impact design” concepts into the planning stages, whereby the landscaping surrounding structures is designed to mimic the natural hydrology of the site, including strategically placed native plants, rain barrels, green roofs, porous parking lots and roads, etc. The idea is to retain rainfall on site where plants and soil can filter pollutants out naturally or where it can be re-used in gray water applications (such as for landscape irrigation or water for toilet flushing). Especially parched parts of the country can recycle and reuse wastewater on a larger scale to avert the costly importation of more fresh water.

Much water is also wasted in agriculture. Farmers can help by adopting any number of efficiency measures at their disposal, mostly in the realm of efficient irrigation technologies. “Switching from flood irrigation to drip irrigation, for instance, can increase water use efficiency as much as 40 percent,” reports NRDC, adding that even small changes can mean a 10-15 percent gain in water use efficiency on farms.

And everyone can do their part by turning off the water while brushing teeth or shaving and limiting the length of showers and the amount of lawn watering we do. Beyond these little things, home- and business-owners should consider investing in water fixtures that meet the EPA’s more rigorous water efficiency “WaterSense” standards (look for labels accordingly). To qualify for the label, fixtures must be at least 20 percent more efficient than current standards specify, while performing as well or better than less efficient counterparts. The price of WaterSense fixtures may be slightly higher, but most consumers will make up the difference quickly if they are replacing older inefficient faucets, taps or toilets.

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EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E – The Environmental Magazine.

December 01 2011

22:55

EarthTalk: The Promise of Thorium – Real or Hype?


Advocates of thorium to power nuclear plants say that the element is safer than uranium, and that its waste cannot -- like the plutonium waste of uranium fission -- be re-formulated for nuclear weaponsEarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Thorium is a naturally occurring element that is supposedly more available, more efficient and safer to use than uranium for generating nuclear energy. Is this true and, if so, why haven’t we made the switch?    – Jane Westermann, Austin, TX

Thorium, a naturally occurring radioactive element found in abundance in the Earth’s crust all around the world, might well be a better fuel source than uranium for nuclear power generation for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, just one ton of the silvery metal can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium or 3.5 million tons of coal, according to Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Another advantage is that it comes out of the ground as a 100 percent pure, usable isotope. Unlike uranium, which contains only 0.7 percent fissionable material, thorium doesn’t require enrichment to be used in nuclear reactors. Also, the spent-fuel waste from thorium fission cannot be re-formulated for nuclear weapons like plutonium, the waste product of uranium-based fission.

Also, proponents say that thorium doesn’t require the high temperatures and mitigation equipment of uranium-based reactors. “The plants would be much smaller and less expensive,” Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA rocket engineer and now chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering, told the UK’s Telegraph last year. “You wouldn’t need those huge containment domes because there’s no pressurized water in the reactor.” With no high temperatures, thorium reactors can’t “melt down” and release radiation.

“Once you start looking more closely, it blows your mind away,” adds Sorensen. “You can run civilization on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s essentially free.” The advocacy-oriented Thorium Energy Alliance reports that there is “enough thorium in the U.S. alone to power the country at its current energy level for over 1,000 years.”

Nuclear researchers in the U.S. first contemplated using thorium as a nuclear energy feedstock back in the 1940s, but its lack of feasibility in making nuclear weapons put it on the back burner, where it has sat for the last six decades despite various attempts to revive the technology for practical use. In Russia, China and India, thorium reactors represent the next generation of nuclear power. India possesses about a quarter of the world’s thorium reserves. The country is working to develop a network of large thorium-based reactors, and plans to meet 30 percent of its electricity needs with thorium by 2050.

Many nuclear advocates and environmentalists alike don’t see thorium as the savior its supporters make it out to be. For one, uranium is still relatively easy to come by and inexpensive, and the nuclear industry is set up to run on it. Changing over to thorium would be expensive, and who knows what unforeseen problems may arise with full-scale deployment. Perhaps most important, some analysts worry that putting more eggs into humanity’s nuclear basket will surely further delay the transition to a truly green economy that runs on clean renewable energy from the sun, wind and other so-called alternative sources.

Contacts:
CERN
Thorium Energy Alliance
Teledyne Brown Engineering

 

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EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E – The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

October 20 2011

16:14

EarthTalk: Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S. – Can Obama Get Anything Done?


Can the U.S. federal government ever meet its "aspirational" emissions targets?EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest in regard to putting limits on greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.? Is there any hope that Obama can get something done?            – Bradley Johnson, Helena, MT

Our best hope to date was 2009’s American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), a bill that called for the implementation of a “cap-and-trade” system to limit carbon dioxide emissions by capping overall emissions and allowing polluters to buy or sell greenhouse gas pollution credits—similar to what the European Union has been doing since 2005 to successfully reduce its own emissions—depending upon whether they were exceeding established limits or had succeeded in coming in below them.

According to the bill, U.S. businesses needing to pollute more could buy emissions credits on the open market; those able to reduce emissions could sell their pollution credits on the same trading floor. Thus there is a built-in incentive to reduce emissions: If you exceed pollution limits you have to keep buying costly credits; and if you can get below limits you can profit from the sale of credits for the difference.Among the bill’s key provisions was a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2020, with a mid-century goal of an 80 percent reduction. Also, billions of dollars would have gone to initiatives bolstering green transportation, energy efficiency and related research and development. The bill was approved by the House in June 2009 by a narrow 219-212 vote. But Senate Democrats decided they didn’t have enough votes to get a version of the bill passed, and tabled the discussion.

While ACES may not have made it into the law books, its passage by the House was significant as it represented the first time the legislative branch called for sweeping climate legislation. Also, the bill’s provisions served as a guideline for U.S. negotiators heading to Denmark later in 2009 for the COP15 international climate talks (although in the end nothing binding was agreed upon there).

Then, in May 2010 Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman unveiled their own cap-and-trade climate bill for the Senate. Dubbed the American Power Act, it aimed to reduce overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by similar amounts as ACES. But with the nation still reeling from the effects of BP’s Gulf oil spill—the American Power Act include provisions for offshore drilling—and Senate Republicans leery of any climate legislation, the bill failed to make it to a floor vote. Some point the finger at a handful of Democratic Senators from coal-producing states for not supporting their party colleagues. Others say Obama wasn’t advocating strongly enough despite his campaign rhetoric on the topic.

“The best one could plausibly hope for in the next Congress, assuming only modest Republican gains, is some sort of weak cap on utility emissions, possibly with some weak oil saving measures, though that would still require Obama to do what he refused to do under more favorable political circumstances—push hard for a bill,” writes commentator Joe Romm of Think Progress, a liberal political blog. Romm adds that it’s inconceivable to think the next Congress would even contemplate strong climate or clean energy legislation “without Obama undergoing a major strategy change and taking a very strong leadership role in crafting the bill and lobbying for the bill and selling it to the public.”

CONTACTS:
ACES
Think Progress

 

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EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E – The Environmental Magazine . Send questions to: earthtalk[at]emagazine.com.
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May 04 2011

13:05

EarthTalk: The Future of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Powered Cars


When will you be able to drive this hydrogen fuel cell powered car?EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Not long ago we were reading a lot about hydrogen’s role in a clean energy future, with cars transitioning from gasoline-powered engines to hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Where does hydrogen fit now in the mix with electric cars now coming on so strong? – Amanda Jenkins, Troy, MI

It is true that just a few years ago everyone was talking hydrogen fuel cells as the future of petroleum-free automotive transport. Fuel cell cars can run on infinitely renewable hydrogen gas and emit no harmful tailpipe emissions whatsoever. A 2005 Scientific American article bullishly reported that car company executives “foresee no better option to the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle in the long run.” Likewise, the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggested, also in 2005, that some 30 percent of the global stock of vehicles—700 million cars and trucks—could be powered by hydrogen fuel cells by 2050.

But high development costs and implementation hurdles have kept fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) out of the mainstream for now. And in the face of competition from a new crop of all-electric and hybrid-electric vehicles lately, some analysts wonder whether the fuel cell’s future is as bright as once thought.

That’s not to say the technology isn’t impressive, and still potentially very promising. The concept was first developed by NASA some five decades ago for use in space travel and has since been implemented in a wide range of other mobile and stationary power applications. In an FCV, a stack of fuel cells under the hood converts hydrogen stored on-board with oxygen in the air to make electricity that propels the drive train. While automakers have been able to make fuel cells small enough to fit in and power a conventional size car or truck, the price per unit is high due to the need to incorporate expensive, cutting edge components. And the lack of widespread demand precludes cost-saving mass production. Also, the lack of hydrogen refueling stations around the country limits the practicality of driving a fuel cell vehicle.

According to Richard Gilbert, co-author of the book, Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight without Oil, another big issue for hydrogen-powered fuel cells is their energy inefficiency. Creating hydrogen gas by splitting water molecules via electrolysis ends up using up about half of the energy it creates. Another half of the resulting energy is taken up by the conversion of hydrogen back into electricity within fuel cells. “This means that only a quarter of the initially available energy reaches the electric motor,” reports Gilbert. (Making hydrogen by reforming natural gas is also highly inefficient and relies on a fossil fuel from the get-go.) Such losses in conversion don’t stack up well against, for instance, recharging an electric vehicle (EV) like the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt from a wall socket—especially if the electricity can be initially generated from a renewable source like wind or solar.

But FCVs aren’t dead in the water yet. A few dozen Californians are already driving one of Honda’s FCX Clarity fuel cell cars. A $600/month lease payment entitles qualifying drivers to not only collision coverage, maintenance and roadside assistance but also hydrogen fuel, available via a handful of “fast-fill” hydrogen refueling stations. General Motors is part of an effort to test FCVs and implement a viable hydrogen refueling infrastructure in Hawaii, currently one of the most fossil fuel dependent states in the U.S. The Hawaii Hydrogen Initiative aims to bring upwards of 20 hydrogen refueling stations to Hawaii by 2015. Other efforts are underway in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.

Contacts:
IEA
Honda FCX Clarity, .

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Send Your Environmental Questions To: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk [at] emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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April 15 2011

13:39

One Million Electric Vehicles by 2015?


Will Barack Obama's call for one million electric vehicles on American roads by 2015 be realized? Some predict there could be as many as 14 million on the road by 2020. Either way we should soon be seeing many more signs like this one.(Our regularly featured Enviro News Wrap will be back next week)

EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: In his recent State of the Union Address, President Obama called for a million electric vehicles on American roads by 2015. How likely is it that we’ll attain that goal? – Jerry Mitlitski, Salem, OR

“We can break our dependence on oil…and become the first country to have one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015,” President Obama said in his January 2011 State of the Union address. “The future is ours to win.”

It’s difficult to say how likely such an arbitrary goal might be, but green leaders and others are optimistic. The waiting list for the new electric Nissan Leaf, rolling off the factory floor as we speak, is some 20,000 Americans long. The auto industry expects similar demand for other new electric and plug-in hybrid cars hitting U.S. roads this year and next from General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Mitsubishi and others.

Of course, the Obama administration realizes that attaining such a goal will be impossible without help from the federal government. To that end, consumers and businesses can get tax credits worth up to $7,500 on the purchase of each new electric vehicle (EV). The feds have also committed $2.4 billion for research and development into improving EV batteries, and another $115 million for the installation of EV charging infrastructure in 16 different metro areas around the country—not to mention some $300 million in clean cities grants to dozens of American communities working to reduce petroleum use, and the $25 billion being doled out to help U.S. automakers retool. So much federal involvement has helped spur state governments and private industry to make significant investments in the EV sector as well.

But even with all this funding, a million EVs on the road by 2015 may still be just a pipe dream. James Sweeney of Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center calls the plan “very aggressive.” He reasons that it took over a decade for hybrids—which “did not require any difference in infrastructure and had as great a range as conventional vehicles, neither of which is likely to be the case with electric vehicles”—to capture three percent of the U.S. passenger car and light truck market. EVs would have to achieve the same market share in just four years if Obama’s goal is to be realized. “Even with a large subsidy, it would be very hard to move to such a large market share that quickly,” Sweeney concludes.

The Electrification Coalition, an organization of pro-EV business leaders from companies including Nissan, Federal Express, Coda Automotive and Coulomb Technologies, would take issue with that conclusion, however. The group’s November 2009 study, dubbed the Electrification Roadmap, predicted that as many as 14 million EVs could be on American roads by 2020 if lawmakers create “electrification ecosystems” in several major U.S. cities simultaneously. If the group is anywhere near the mark, reaching Obama’s goal of a million EVs by 2015 should be a no-brainer. The group also says that EVs could account for as many as 75 percent of all miles driven by light duty vehicles in the U.S. by 2040.

Now if only we could clean up our supply of electricity too, then we really might be onto something good for the planet…

Contacts:
Precourt Energy Efficiency Center
Electrification Coalition

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Image credit: Quinn Dombrowski, courtesy Flickr

April 14 2011

13:24

Population, Health, Poverty, and the Environment


The Obama administration's reinstatement of funding to the United Nations Population Fund helps the agency's efforts around the world to reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV/AIDS, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect.EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Global population numbers continue to rise, as does the poverty, suffering and environmental degradation that goes with it. Has the U.S., under Obama, increased or at least restored its family planning aid to developing countries that was cut when the Bush Administration first took office?                                                                                                            -- T. Healy, via e-mail

The short answer is yes. President Obama is much more interested in family planning around the world than his predecessor ever was. One of Obama’s first acts upon assuming office in 2009 was the restoration of funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

George W. Bush had withheld some $244 million in aid to the UNFPA over the previous seven years. UNFPA works with developing countries around the world to “reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV/AIDS, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect.”

Reinstated U.S. funding will help the agency pursue its goals of universal access to reproductive health services, universal primary education and closing of the gender gap in education, reducing maternal and infant mortality, increasing life expectancy and decreasing HIV infection rates.

Along with restoring UNFPA funding, Obama also overturned the so-called “Global Gag Rule” that prohibited groups funded by the U.S. Agency in International Development (USAID) from using any government or non-government funds for “providing advice, counseling or information regarding abortion, or lobbying a foreign government to legalize or make abortion available.” Foreign nonprofits were already not allowed to use U.S. funds to pay for abortions, but the Global Gag Rule—first instituted as the ‘Mexico City Policy’ in 1984 by the Reagan White House, then overturned by Clinton and later reinstated by George W. Bush—went further by restricting the free speech rights of government grantees and stifling public debate on the contentious topic. Foreign NGOs that accept U.S. funding still cannot perform abortions, but can discuss the options openly with the families they serve.

“For too long, international family planning assistance has been used as a political wedge issue, the subject of a back and forth debate that has served only to divide us,” said Barack Obama upon overturning the policy as one of his first acts in office. “It is time that we end the politicization of this issue.”

Of course, advocates for increased family planning are pressuring the Obama administration to step up its efforts aboard even more. The Institute of Medicine, one of four government-affiliated nonprofit “academies” of experts, recommended last spring that the U.S. increase its spending on global health by some 50 percent over the $63 billion pledged by the Obama White House over the next six years.

Groups providing family planning services domestically would also like to see the Obama administration step up funding for their programs, not only to improve the quality of life for American families but to save money and reduce abortions as well: A 2009 report by the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute concluded that publicly funded family planning services at both hospitals and non-profit clinics saves taxpayers $4 for every $1 spent by preventing nearly two million pregnancies and 810,000 abortions per year.

Contacts:
UNFPA
USAID
Institute of Medicine
Guttmacher Institute

Image credit: CIMMYT, courtesy Flickr

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April 07 2011

15:05

Climate Change and Land Conservation


According to The Wilderness Society, American forests capture about one-tenth of the greenhouse gases put out by U.S. cars, factories and other sources. Pictured: Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.ational Park, ColoradoEarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I understand that Congress passed legislation not too long ago that protected a few million acres of wilderness areas, parks and wild rivers, in part to help offset climate change. How does conserving land prevent global warming? – M. Oakes, Charlottesville, NC

The legislation in question is called the Omnibus Public Land Management Act. It was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Obama in the spring of 2009. The Act protects some two million acres outright as wilderness in nine different states (California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia) and requires the Bureau of Land Management to prioritize conservation on another 26 million acres of mostly Western lands. The bill also established three new national park units, a new national monument, three new national conservation areas, over 1,000 miles of national wild and scenic rivers, and four new national trails.

With provisions appealing to sportsmen and conservationists alike, the bill enjoyed broad support; drafters took into account requests from dozens of constituent groups in putting together the legislation. As such, it is one of the most significant expansions of U.S. wilderness protection in the past quarter century. “This legislation guarantees that we will not take our forests, rivers, oceans, national parks, monuments and wilderness areas for granted, but rather we will set them aside and guard their sanctity for everyone to share,” President Obama said upon signing the bill into law.

While the law doesn’t specifically address global warming in its language, environmentalists are overjoyed at the climate benefits that protecting so much land will bring. “Our forests store vast amounts of carbon in tree trunks, roots, leaves, dead wood and soils—a service that is becoming ever more essential as the threat of global climate change mounts due to the buildup of human-generated carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” reports the nonprofit Wilderness Society.

Plants and trees utilize ground-level carbon dioxide as building blocks in photosynthesis. The more flora we leave growing naturally on the ground, the more greenhouse gas we can store (or “sequester”) there and prevent from drifting on up to the atmosphere where it can contribute to global warming.

“Although investments in energy efficiency and clean energy will provide the only permanent solutions to climate change, forest sequestration can buy us time to develop those alternatives,” says the Wilderness Society, adding that American forests currently capture the equivalent of about one-tenth of the greenhouse gases put out by U.S. cars, factories and other sources. In addition, forests provide other key environmental benefits such as cleansing our air and water.

In the absence of binding legislation mandating stricter carbon emissions standards, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, given the climate-related benefits of land conservation, may well be the most significant global warming bill Congress has passed to date. And environmentalists might have to take what they can get: With Republicans now in control of the House and gaining ground in the Senate, dedicated climate legislation may be even more elusive than analysts thought even a year ago.

Contacts:
Bureau of Land Management
Wilderness Society
Omnibus Public Land Management Act

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EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E – The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk[at]emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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January 04 2011

17:05

EarthTalk: Factoring Environmental Degradation into Economics


Environmentalists want to put a monetary value on the negative impacts of industrial activities, such as polluting, and to force offending companies and utilities to compensate society for the harm they doEarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: In my business courses in college, we were taught that ecological degradation was an “externality” – something outside the purview of economic analyses. Now that the environment is of such concern, are economists beginning to rethink this?Josh Dawson, Flagstaff, AZ

By definition, economic externalities are the indirect negative (or positive) side effects, considered un-quantifiable in dollar terms, of other economic acts. For example, a negative externality of a power plant that is otherwise producing a useful good (electricity) is the air pollution it generates.

In traditional economics, the harmful effect of the pollution (smog, acid rain, global warming) on human health and the environment is not factored in as a cost in the overall economic equation.

And as the economists go, so go the governments that rely on them. The result is that most nations do not consider environmental and other externalities in their calculations of gross domestic product (GDP) and other key economic indicators (which by extension are supposed to be indicators of public health and well-being).

For decades environmentalists have argued that economics should take into account the costs borne by such externalities in order to discern the true overall value to society of any given action or activity. The company or utility that operates the polluting factory, for instance, should be required to compensate the larger society by paying for the pollution it produces so as to offset the harm it does.

So-called “cap-and-trade” schemes are one real-world way of monetizing a negative externality: Big polluters must buy the right to generate limited amounts of carbon dioxide (and they can trade such rights with other companies that have found ways to lower their carbon footprints, thus creating an incentive for polluters to clean up their acts). While cap-and-trade was invented in the U.S. to clean up acid rain pollution, it is a model used in Europe but not yet in America, which has yet to pass legislation mandating it. Until Congress acts to regulate the output of carbon dioxide in the U.S.—via cap-and-trade means or others—such emissions will remain “external” to the economics of carrying on business.

Recent news that has many greens excited is that the World Bank, the leading financier of development projects around poorer parts of the globe, is starting to think outside the traditional economic box. This past October, World Bank president Robert Zoellick told participants at a conference for the Convention on Biological Diversity (an international treaty signed by 193 countries—not including the U.S.—that went into effect in 1993 to sustain biodiversity) that “the natural wealth of nations should be a capital asset valued in combination with its financial capital, manufactured capital and human capital.” Zoellick’s comments are the first sign from the World Bank of its recognition of the need to consider externalities in any overall economic assessment. “[We] need to reflect the vital carbon storage services that forests provide and the coastal protection values that come from coral reefs and mangroves,” he added.

Critics are still waiting to see if the World Bank will walk its talk.

“It’s a fine rhetorical start,” says the New York Times’ Andrew Revkin in his blog. “But the  announcement by the bank of a $10 million ‘Save Our Species’ fund, with the United Nations Global Environmental Facility and International Union for Conservation of Nature, seems quite piddling in a world where money flows in the trillions,” he adds.

Indeed, we may still be a ways off from including our environmental impacts into our measures of social wealth and health, but at least the World Bank has gone on record as to the need to do so, and you can be sure that environmental advocates will be working to hold its feet to the fire.
Contacts:
World Bank
Convention on Biological Diversity

December 14 2010

11:35

EarthTalk: What is Global Dimming?


Global dimming occurs when particulate pollution (primarily sulphur dioxide, soot and ash) from the burning of fossil fuels absorbs solar energy and reflects sunlight otherwise bound for the Earth’s surface back into space. Some scientists blame the phenomenon for causing the droughts in Ethiopia in the 1970s and 80s because the northern hemisphere oceans were not warm enough to allow rain formation. Pictured: Particulate pollution over Mexico City.EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard of global warming, of course, but what on Earth is “global dimming?” – Max S., Seattle, WA

Global dimming is a less well-known but real phenomenon resulting from atmospheric pollution. The burning of fossil fuels by industry and internal combustion engines, in addition to releasing the carbon dioxide that collects and traps the sun’s heat within our atmosphere, causes the emission of so-called particulate pollution—composed primarily of sulphur dioxide, soot and ash. When these particulates enter the atmosphere they absorb solar energy and reflect sunlight otherwise bound for the Earth’s surface back into space. Particulate pollution also changes the properties of clouds—so-called “brown clouds” are more reflective and produce less rainfall than their more pristine counterparts. The reduction in heat reaching the Earth’s surface as a result of both of these processes is what researchers have dubbed global dimming.

“At first, it sounds like an ironic savior to climate change problems,” reports Anup Shah of the website GlobalIssues.org. “However, it is believed that global dimming caused the droughts in Ethiopia in the 1970s and 80s where millions died, because the northern hemisphere oceans were not warm enough to allow rain formation.” He adds that global dimming is also hiding the true power of global warming: “By cleaning up global dimming-causing pollutants without tackling greenhouse gas emissions, rapid warming has been observed, and various human health and ecological disasters have resulted, as witnessed during the European heat wave in 2003, which saw thousands of people die.”

Just how big an issue is global dimming? Columbia University climatologist Beate Liepert notes a reduction by some four percent of the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface between 1961 and 1990, a time when particulate emissions began to skyrocket around the world. But a 2007 study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) found an overall reversal of global dimming since 1990, probably due to stricter pollution standards adopted by the U.S. and Europe around that time.

Whether or not to try to reduce global dimming in a fast-warming world is a conundrum. Most climate scientists believe global dimming is serving to counteract some of the warming effects brought on by increased carbon emissions. “The conventional thinking is that brown clouds have masked as much as 50 percent of global warming by greenhouse gases through so-called global dimming,” reports Veerabhadran Ramanathan, an atmospheric chemist at California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He adds, however, that brown clouds have been known to amplify warming as a result of various environmental factors, especially in regions of southern and eastern Asia.

Some scientists have gone so far as to propose deliberate manipulation of the dimming effect to reduce the impact of global warming, in other words increasing particulate emissions. But Gavin Schmidt, an atmospheric scientist and one of the voices behind the RealClimate blog, argues that such a scheme would hardly provide a long term fix to our environmental excesses and ills and amount to a Faustian bargain, bringing with it “ever increasing monetary and health costs.”

Contacts:
Global Issues Blog
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
RealClimate Blog

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October 07 2010

16:10

EarthTalk: Oil Lingering on the Sea Floor in the Gulf – the Aftermath of the BP Oil Spill


Does oil linger on the Gulf's sea floor in the aftermath of the BP oil spill?EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: A friend of mine working on the Gulf Coast oil cleanup says that at least 50 percent of the loose oil is laying on the sea floor. What’s the long-term prognosis of this? - Chris H., Darien, CT

It’s true that oil from BPs Deepwater Horizon fiasco is still sticking to and covering parts of the sea floor for some 80 miles or more around the site of the now-capped well. In early September, researchers from the University of Georgia found oil some two inches thick on the sea floor as far as 80 miles away from the source of the leak, with a layer of dead shrimp and other small animals under it.

“I expected to find oil on the sea floor,” Samantha Joye, lead researcher for the University of Georgia’s team of scientists studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill, told reporters. “I didn’t expect to find layers two inches thick. It’s kind of like having a blizzard where the snow comes in and covers everything,” Joye said.

But as recently as three months ago the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported finding no evidence of oil accumulating on the sea floor in the Gulf. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco told reporters then that the oil from the massive spill that never made it to the surface was dispersed naturally or chemically. She added that only about a quarter of the 200 million gallons of spilled oil remained in the Gulf, the rest having “disappeared” or been contained or cleaned up.

But some researchers say NOAA misled the public by saying that much of the oil simply disappeared. Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University, says that initial reports from NOAA about how much oil remains in the Gulf were too optimistic. The oil “did not disappear,” he says. “It sank.”

One of the reasons why so much oil may have sunk was because it was broken up into tiny droplets by chemical dispersants, making the oil so small that it wasn’t buoyant enough to rise as would otherwise be expected. Also, as oil still in the water column ages it becomes more tar-like in a process called weathering, and as such becomes more likely to sink. And to make matters worse, oil on the sea floor takes longer to degrade than it would on the surface because of the colder temperatures down deep.

The new findings are particularly troubling because of the potential ripple effects the remaining oil could have on the wider ecosystem and industries that rely on a healthy marine environment. Marine biologists and environmentalists worry that the oil is doing significant harm to populations of tube worms, tiny crustaceans and mollusks, single-cell organisms and other underwater life forms that shape the building blocks of the marine food chain.

“Deep-sea animals, in general, tend to produce fewer offspring than shallower water animals, so if they are going to have a population impact, it may be more sensitive in deep water,” reports Louisiana State University oceanographer Robert Carney. “There is also some evidence that deep-sea animals live longer than shallower water species, so the impact may stay around longer.”

Contacts:
University of Georgia Department of Marine Sciences Gulf Oil Blog
NOAA
Louisiana State University

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SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial

Image credit: James Davidson, courtesy Flickr

August 05 2010

16:33

EarthTalk: Climate Change and Wildflowers


Aspen sunflowers, like the one's pictured here, used to first bloom in mid-May, but are now are doing so in mid-April, a full month earlier. University of Maryland ecologist David Inouye thinks that smaller snow packs in the mountains are melting earlier due to global warming, in turn triggering early bloomsEarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I've noticed that wildflower blooms in the mountains have been coming earlier and earlier in recent years. Is this a sign of global warming? And what does this mean for the long term survival of these hardy yet rare plants? – Ashley J., via e-mail

As always, it’s hard to pin specific year-to-year weather-variations and related phenomena—including altered blooming schedules for wildflowers—on global warming. But longer term analysis of seasonal flowering patterns and other natural events do indicate that global warming may be playing a role in how early wildflowers begin popping up in the high country.

University of Maryland ecologist David Inouye has been studying wildflowers in the Rocky Mountains near Crested Butte, Colorado for four decades, and has noticed that blooms have indeed begun earlier over the last decade. Aspen sunflowers, among other charismatic high country wildflowers, used to first bloom in mid-May, but are now are doing so in mid-April, a full month earlier. Inouye thinks that smaller snow packs in the mountains are melting earlier due to global warming, in turn triggering early blooms.

Smaller snow packs not only mean fewer flowers (since they have less water to use in photosynthesis); they can also stress wildflower populations not accustomed to exposure to late-spring frost. According to Inouye’s research, between 1992 and 1998 such frosts killed about a third of the Aspen sunflower buds in some 30 different study plots; but more recently, from 1999 through 2006, the typical mortality rate doubled, with three-quarters of all buds killed by frost in an average year thanks to earlier blooming.

Inouye’s worrisome conclusions are backed up by experiments conducted by fellow researcher John Harte, who over a 15 year period used overhead heaters in nearby wildflower study plots to accelerate snow melt. The results were the same: Wildflowers bloomed early and not as vigorously.

Several studies in Europe have shown that some species of wildflowers there may be able to migrate north and to higher elevations as the climate warms, but Inouye fears his beloved Aspen sunflowers and many other American wildflowers may be lost forever as they are not able to migrate as quickly as needed in order to survive widespread surface temperature increases and escape extinction.

Harte is also gloomy about the prospects for Colorado’s mountain wildflowers. He predicts that the wildflower fields he and Inouye have been studying will give way to sagebrush desert within the next 50 years, whether or not the governments of the world can get a grip on greenhouse gas emissions.

As a hedge against such dire predictions, the nonprofit Center for Plant Conservation is spearheading seed collection efforts on thousands of rare wildflower species across the U.S. for inclusion in the Colorado-based National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, a repository for both common and rare “prized” American plant seeds. The “banked” seeds, useful if not solely for preserving the genetic makeup of species that may go extinct in the wild, can also be used for future restoration projects on otherwise compromised landscapes.

Contacts:
David W. Inouye
Center for Plant Conservation
National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation

Image credit: beautifulcataya, courtesy Flickr

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SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial

July 05 2010

19:49

EarthTalk: Building the Green Economy


In a recent speech to Congress, President Barack Obama said: "To truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy.” Pictured: A wind farm takes shape in Langdon, North Dakota.EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What does it mean when one uses the phrase, “building a green economy?” I’ve heard it repeated a few times lately and would like to have a better understanding of the concept. – Rosie Chang, Islip, NY

The phrase “building a green economy” means different things to different people, but in general it refers to encouraging economic development that prioritizes sustainability—that is, working with nature and not against it in the quest to meet peoples’ needs and wants—instead of disregarding environmental concerns in the process of growing the economy. The primary way governments around the world are trying to “green” their own economies today is by increasing investment in—and, by extension, creating jobs in—industries on the cutting edge of non-polluting renewable forms of energy, such as solar and wind power.

President Obama has repeatedly invoked his vision of a green economy as a tool for helping the U.S. lift itself out of recession and position itself as an economic powerhouse in a carbon-constrained future. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, the $787.2 billion stimulus package that Congress signed into law in 2009, was chock full of provisions to boost renewable energy, energy efficiency and environmental restoration initiatives. Examples include $4.5 billion to convert government buildings into high-performance green buildings, $8.4 billion for investments in public transportation, and tens of billions of dollars more for research into new technologies to amplify existing efforts. ARRA also earmark $11 billion for the implementation of the “smart grid,” a new approach to power distribution that will bring more clean energy sources into the mix and promote energy efficiency.

Infusing such huge amounts of cash into sustainability-oriented projects is one way the Obama administration hopes to “green” the U.S. economy while simultaneously pulling the country out of recession. “To truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy,” Obama told Congress a few months ago.

Of course, Americans aren’t the only ones bent on building a green economy. During the 1980s and 1990s, while the American government was largely asleep at the wheel on environmental issues, countries such as Denmark, Germany, Spain and Japan were already busy investing in wind and solar research and implementation. And while these nations’ ongoing efforts are nothing to sneeze at, economists point out that what is most needed is action on the part of the world’s fastest growing economies—China and India.

A recent report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that China—which surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest generator of greenhouse gases three years ago—has great potential for building a green economy over the coming decades. According to McKinsey, by 2030 China could reduce its oil and coal imports by up to 40 percent and its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by investing upwards of 1.5 trillion yuan ($220 billion in U.S. dollars) per year in both existing and new green technologies. China has begun to see the light with regard to reducing emissions, increasing energy efficiency and embracing renewable alternative energy, but it has yet to make significant financial commitments, which will be key to both warding off catastrophic climate change and building a truly global green economy.

Contacts:
ARRA
McKinsey & Company

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SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial

June 24 2010

22:24

EarthTalk: Volcanoes and Global Warming


The amount of greenhouse gases emitted by even a large and ongoing volcanic eruption is miniscule compared to industrial and automotive carbon emissions caused by human activity. Global warming can, however, help trigger volcanic eruptions by melting the ice that keeps rock from turning to magma. Pictured: The Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica, one of the 10 most active volcanoes in the worldEarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Is there any link between increased volcanic activity—such as the recent eruptions in Iceland, Alaska and elsewhere—and global warming? – Ellen McAndrew, via e-mail

It’s impossible to pin isolated natural phenomena—like an individual volcanic eruption—on global warming, but some researchers insist that there is a correlation between the two in some instances.

“Global warming melts ice and this can influence magmatic systems,” reports Freysteinn Sigmundsson of the Nordic Volcanological Centre at the University of Iceland. Her research with Carolina Pagli of the University of Leeds in England suggests that rocks cannot expand to turn into magma—the primary “feedstock” for volcanic eruptions—when they are under the pressure of a big ice cap pushing down on them. As the theory goes, melting ice caps relieve that pressure and allow the rocks to become magma. This in turn increases the chances of larger and/or more frequent eruptions in affected regions, from Iceland to Alaska to Patagonia to Antarctica.

As for Iceland specifically, the eruption of Mt. Ejyafjallajökull that shut down some air travel for weeks this past spring cannot be blamed on changing climate: That volcano lies under a relatively small icecap which would not exert enough pressure to affect the creation of magma. But Sigmundsson and Pagli found that the melting of about a tenth of Iceland’s biggest icecap, Vatnajokull, over the last century caused the land to rise an inch or so per year and led to the growth of an underground mass of magma measuring a third of a cubic mile. Similar processes, they say, led to a surge in volcanic eruptions in Iceland at the end of the last ice age, and similarly increased volcanic activity is expected to occur there in the future.

On the flip side, volcanic eruptions can exacerbate the ongoing effects of climate change: Already retreating glaciers can lose all their ice when something below them blows. Of course, many volcanoes around the world are not subject to pressure from ice caps, and scientists stress that there is little if any evidence linking global warming to eruptions in such situations.

Some have theorized that large volcanic eruptions contribute to global warming by spewing large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the stratosphere. But the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by even a large and ongoing volcanic eruption is but a drop in the bucket in comparison to our annual output of industrial and automotive carbon emissions.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, greenhouse gas emissions from volcanoes make up less than one percent of those generated by human endeavors. Also, ash clouds and sulfur dioxide released from volcanoes shield some sunlight from reaching the Earth and as such can have a cooling effect on the planet. The 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines—a much larger eruption than what occurred recently in Iceland—caused an average cooling of half a degree centigrade worldwide during the following year. Regardless, single volcanic eruptions, even if they last for weeks or months, are unlikely to send enough gas or ash up into the skies to have any long term effect on the planet’s climate.

Contacts:
Nordic Volcanological Centre
U.S. Geological Survey

Additional reading:
Iceland Volcano and Its Effect on the Environment

Image credit: Frank Kehren, courtesy Flickr
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SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial

June 09 2010

16:01

Were the Heavy Storms Last Winter Due to Global Warming?


We must keep in mind the difference between climate and weather. Climate is the average of weather over at least three decades, which means that specific storms or even individual snowy winters, let alone other types of extreme weather, cannot be considered evidence of either the existence or nonexistence of global warming.EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: The U.S. got socked with several major storms this past winter. Local weather reports never mentioned this as odd. But is it a sign of global warming? — R.A. Forbes, via e-mail

Weather patterns and trends are notoriously unpredictable, varying due to a great many different inputs. While it’s true that snowier, stormier winters could be the result of global warming, many meteorologists believe that El Nino—a climate pattern involving warmer-than-usual sea temperatures across the tropical Pacific that affects weather all over the globe—is mainly to blame for this past winter’s ongoing white misery.

According to Joe Bastardi, a meteorologist with the Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather forecasting service, the current El Nino—they occur once every three to seven years—has been “very strong, prompting many major blizzards for the mid-Atlantic region.” By altering the intensity of the atmospheric jet stream, El Nino can force cold air from Northern Canada to push down into the United States, converting the moisture in clouds into falling snow as temperatures drop.

Bastardi believes that El Nino is exacerbating an already ongoing trend of cooling in the Pacific that is part of natural cyclical patterns of heating and cooling unrelated to global warming. “When you get an El Niño with a cold Pacific, you get crazy winters in the East,” he told National Geographic News.

Of course, global warming could also be playing a role, according to Amanda Staudt, a climate scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. “It’s hard to determine global warming’s effect on any particular storm, but it’s highly unusual to have these really large winter storms in one winter,” she says. “Oddball winter weather is yet another sign of how uncontrolled carbon pollution amounts to an unchecked experiment on people and nature.” Staudt reports that warmer temperatures cause more water to evaporate off the oceans and settle in clouds in the sky, where it eventually falls back to the Earth’s surface as rain or, if temperatures are low enough, snow.

The same types of atmospheric conditions have conspired at times to dump multiple feet of snow in the Great Lakes of the Midwest at unseasonable times. A 2003 study in the Journal of Climate found that as global temperatures have risen; the winter ice cover over the Great Lakes has decreased, leading in turn to more moisture in the atmosphere and snowier winters throughout the region. This is sometimes referred to as the “lake effect.”

Whether or not this past winter’s storms were exacerbated by global warming, scientists maintain that we must keep in mind the difference between climate and weather. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), climate is the average of weather over at least three decades, which means that specific storms or even individual snowy winters, let alone other types of extreme weather, cannot be considered evidence of either the existence or nonexistence of global warming.

Contacts:
Accuweather
National Wildlife Federation
Journal of Climate
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Photo credit: Tanya Liu, courtesy Flickr
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SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial

May 03 2010

12:22

EarthTalk: Does the Ongoing Oil Spill Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico Spell the End of Offshore Oil Exploration?


The BP oil disaster is casting a long shadow over the public comment process now going on in Virginia and other coastal states that are considering putting exploratory oil wells in their offshore waters

EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Given the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last month, isn’t it high time the government put a stop to offshore oil drilling once and for all? Short of banning it altogether, what can be done to prevent explosions, leaks and spills moving forward? - P. Greanville, Brewster, NY

The explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drill rig on April 20 and the resultant oil spill now consuming coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico could not have come at a worse time for President Obama, who only recently renewed a push to expand drilling off the coast of Virginia and other regions of the U.S.

The debate over whether or not to tap offshore oil reserves with dangerous drilling equipment has been raging since extraction methods became feasible in the 1950s. It heated up in 2008 when George W. Bush convinced Congress to lift a 27-year-old moratorium on offshore drilling outside of the already developed western Gulf of Mexico and some areas off Alaska. Despite public protests, cash-strapped governments of several coastal states wanted the moratorium lifted given the potential for earning windfall revenues.

Barack Obama had historically toed the Democratic party line on offshore drilling—don’t allow it—but changed his tune during his 2008 campaign to compromise with pro-drilling Republicans if they would play ball with him on his carbon emissions reduction and energy efficiency initiatives. Then on March 31, three weeks prior to the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 workers and has caused untold environmental damage, Obama called for new offshore drilling in the Atlantic from Delaware to central Florida and in Alaska’s untapped northern waters. He also asked Congress to lift the ban on offshore drilling in the oil-rich eastern Gulf of Mexico, just 125 miles from Florida’s beaches.

A key aspect of Obama’s new plan is to assess the potential risks and benefits of each specific offshore site before drilling there can commence. While Obama’s plan wouldn’t grant any new leases until 2012, the Deepwater Horizon problem is casting a long shadow over the public comment process now going on in Virginia and other coastal states otherwise ready to sign on the dotted line for exploratory wells to go into their offshore waters. Whether or not Congress and the American people are willing to let their government expand on what appears already to be some risky business is anybody's guess at this point.

Oil industry representatives maintain their equipment and processes are safer than ever. The U.S. Minerals and Management Service (MMS) blames the vast majority of the 1,400 offshore drilling accidents in U.S. waters between 2001 and 2007 on “human error,” not malfunctioning equipment, though some might argue that the distinction is irrelevant because there will always be human error. A small fire on the Deepwater Horizon in 2005 was found to be caused by human error, and most analysts agree some kind of bad judgment call also likely caused the rig’s ultimate demise. The MMS says it was already in the process of drafting new regulations that would require rig operators to develop programs focused on preventing human error, including operations audits once every three years for each rig.

Some Congress members don’t think the new regulations are enough, especially in the wake of the BP tragedy. U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who has led opposition to offshore drilling, has now called for a congressional investigation of safety practices at offshore oil rigs, and has asked the U.S. Interior Department to undertake a full review of all U.S. drilling accidents over at least the last decade.

Contacts:
BP
U.S. Minerals and Management Service

Image Credit: Sky Truth, courtesy Flickr

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March 16 2010

23:06

EarthTalk: Will Hybrid Plug-ins Lead to Greater Reliance on Coal?


EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Isn’t the interest in electric cars and plug-in hybrids going to spur increased reliance on coal as a power source? And is that really any better than gasoline/oil in terms of environmental impact? - Graham Rankin, via e-mail

It’s true that the advent of electric cars is not necessarily a boon for the environment if it means simply trading our reliance on one fossil fuel—oil, from which gasoline is distilled—for an even dirtier one: coal, which is burned to create electricity.

The mining of coal is an ugly and environmentally destructive process. And, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) burning the substance in power plants sends some 48 tons of mercury—a known neurotoxin—into Americans’ air and water every year (1999 figures, the latest year for which data are available). Furthermore, coal burning contributes some 40 percent of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) estimates that coal mining and burning cause a whopping $62 billion worth of environmental damage every year in the U.S. alone, not to mention its profound impact on our health.

Upwards of half of all the electricity in the U.S. is derived from coal, while the figure is estimated to be around 70 percent in China. As for Europe, the United Kingdom gets more than a third of its electricity from coal, while Italy plans to double its consumption of coal for electricity production within five years to account for some 33 percent of its own electricity needs. Several other countries in Europe, where green sentiment runs deep but economics still rule the roost, are also stockpiling coal and building more power plants to burn it in the face of an ever-increasing thirst for cheap and abundant electricity.

On top of this trend, dozens of electric and plug-in hybrid cars are in the works from the world’s carmakers. It stands to reason that, unless we start to source significant amounts of electricity from renewables (solar, wind, etc.), coal-fired plants will not only continue but may actually increase their discharges of mercury, carbon dioxide and other toxins due to greater numbers of electric cars on the road.

Some analysts expect that existing electricity capacity in the U.S. may be enough to power America’s electric cars in the near future, but don’t rule out the possibility of new coal plants (or new nuclear power plants) coming on line to fill the gap if we don’t make haste in developing alternate sources for generating electrical energy. And while proponents of energy efficiency believe we can go a long way by making our electric grids “smarter” through the use of monitoring technologies that can dole out power when it is most plentiful and cheap (usually the middle of the night), others doubt that existing capacity will be able to handle the load placed on even an intelligent “smart grid” distribution network.

Environmentalists—as well as many politicians and policymakers—maintain that the only viable, long-term solution is to spur on the development of renewable energy sources. Not long ago, the concept of an all-electric car charged up by solar power or some other form of clean renewable energy was nothing but a pipe dream. Today, though, such a scenario is within the realm of the possible, but only if everyone does their part to demand that our utilities bring more green power on line.

Contacts:
EPA/mercury emissions

Image credit: Rich McGervey, courtesy Flickr.

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March 01 2010

23:28

EarthTalk: Carbon Nanotube Battery Technology


The rechargeable lithium-ion batteries common in everything from iPods to cell phones to laptops can store twice the energy of similarly sized nickel-metal hydride batteries and up to six times as much as their lead-acid progenitors. But these advances are only a small evolutionary step from the world‚s first battery designed by Alessandro Volta in 1800.EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is the potential for carbon “nanotubes” in battery technology? I heard them referred to as the biggest battery breakthrough to come along in years. And what else can we expect to see in terms of new battery technology in coming years? – R.M. Koncan, via e-mail

The rechargeable lithium-ion batteries now so common in everything from iPods to hybrid cars can store twice the energy of similarly sized nickel-metal hydride batteries and up to six times as much as their lead-acid progenitors. But these advances are only a small evolutionary step from the world’s first battery designed by Alessandro Volta in 1800 using layers of metal and blotting paper soaked in salt water.

With battery technology advances long overdue, researchers are racing to develop more efficient ways to store power. One hopeful option is in the use of carbon nanotubes, which can store much more electricity by weight than lithium-ion batteries while keeping their charge and remain durable for far longer.

But what are carbon nanotubes, and how can they be used to store energy? Technicians skilled in working with matter at the molecular (nano) level can arrange pure carbon molecules in cylindrical structures that are both strong and flexible. They have significantly higher energy density and can store more electricity than any currently available technology. These tubes, each only billionths of a meter wide, essentially become highly efficient, electrically conductive pipes for storing and providing power.

Electrical engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have formed carbon molecules into tiny springs that store as much electricity as same sized lithium-ion batteries but can maintain a charge while dormant for years and work well in temperature extremes. Stanford University researchers have created ink made from carbon nanotubes that can be drawn onto paper where it serves as a high-capacity rechargeable energy storage medium. And University of Maryland scientists have created nanostructures able to store and transport power at 10 times the energy density of lithium-ion batteries.

Other technologies in development include batteries using zinc-air, lithium-air and other combinations of elements to provide longer run-times between recharges. Others still are working on prototype nuclear batteries, the trick being to make them small enough to be practical, let alone safe.

Of course, the accelerating growth of nanotechnology itself, which has not yet been thoroughly tested to evaluate potential down sides, has some health advocates worried. Animal studies have shown that some nanoparticles, if inhaled or ingested, can harm the lungs and also cross the blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain from toxins in the bloodstream.

And then there are fuel cells, created in 1839 but only recently commercialized. Not batteries per se, fuel cells generate, store and dispense power by forcing a reaction between a fuel (hydrogen from water, methanol) and oxygen, creating usable non-polluting electricity. One major hurdle for fuel cell makers is making them small enough to be able to work in laptops and other small personal electronics.

Contacts:
“Researchers fired up over new battery” MIT News
“Carbon Nanotubes Turn Office Paper into Batteries” Scientific American

Photo credit: Hector E. Balcazar, courtesy Flickr.
—————-
SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO:
EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk [at] emagazine.com.
Read past columns in our archives
EarthTalk® is now a book! Get details and order information

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