Clark Williams-Derry

Clark Williams-Derry is research director for the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, a nonprofit sustainability think tank working to promote smart solutions for the Pacific Northwest. He was formerly the webmaster for Grist.

Density Star

From the New Urban News comes this nugget: Researchers presented findings at the Congress for the New Urbanism annual conference that show substantial energy savings from higher-density urbanism -- greater savings than can be achieved from the US government Energy Star program. As the chart on the left shows (if you can read it -- sorry it's so small), even small increases in density can yield substantial energy savings; increasing residential density from 3 housing units per acre to 6 units per acre actually saves more energy than the average efficiency boost provided by Energy Star appliances. Now, this shouldn't be much of a surprise, since it's been well established for decades that people who live in compact neighborhoods drive much less than people who live in more sparsely populated suburbs. Still, it's an important reminder: Neighborhood design is a powerful determinant of how much energy we use. But for some reason, when people talk about making our transportation system more fuel efficient, they typically talk about improving the efficiency of vehicles, rather than of neighborhoods. Efficient vehicles have a high-tech cachet, I guess. But if anything, efficient neighborhoods are even more important than efficient vehicles. Hybrids and biodiesel vehicles do save fossil fuels and reduce pollution, obviously; but by reducing how much people need to drive, efficent neighborhoods not only save fuel, but also reduce other costly externalities, ranging from highway spending to car crashes.

Long distance runaround

The question of whether to buy locally grown food is not as clear as it might appear.

When shopping for food, how important is it to buy local? This question isn't rhetorical: I no longer know quite what to think about this. Obviously, transporting food long distances requires fossil fuels and creates air pollution, among other ills. So all else being equal, it's better to buy local. But how much better, I'm just not sure. Studies such as this one (reported on here by the BBC, blogged about here) suggest that, in terms of net environmental impact, it's even more important to buy local than to buy organic. The authors of the study didn't look at human health issues, but did attempt to quantify all sorts of environmental "externalities" -- i.e., costs not borne by the consumer -- resulting from food production. And they found that transportating food was far and away the largest component of external environmental costs. In other words, the closer to home the food is grown, the better it is for the planet.

Grid schlock

Critics of new urbanism’s grid street pattern miss the point.

One of the defining characteristics of sprawl is a branching street pattern -- one in which cul-de-sacs feed residential streets, which feed local arteries, which feed thoroughfares, which ultimately feed freeways. It's a design that can work fine for cars, but not so well for people. I spent (or misspent) part of my childhood in that sort of neighborhood. There were houses that were literally 100 yards from my house as the crow flies, but nearly a mile by the road network. That sort of thing discourages, you know, walking and stuff. Which is one reason why people who care about promoting walking and biking as transportation prefer an interconnected street network to a hierarchical one. Now, Wendell Cox, a smart-growth skeptic and fellow of the Heartland Institute, writes in defense of the cul-de-sac:

Something smells rank

The ranking of most eco-friendly cities gives too much weight to good intentions.

Via Planetizen News, here's an interesting sustainability ranking for 25 US cities. Now, I haven't had time to look through the methods thoroughly. But my first impression is that it gives undue weight to intentions, and not enough to actual performance. For example, Portland does exceptionally well in climate and energy policy, while New York City's rank on energy policy is only middling. But this only measures what cities say about energy, not what they actually do. In the real world, however, the climate doesn't care about good intentions. And in point of fact--at least where transportation emissions are concerned--Portland eats The Big Apple's dust. Gotham has by far the most energy efficient and climate-friendly transportation system in the U.S., largely because higher residential densities and a good mix of residences, jobs, and services let many New Yorkers get around on public transit or on foot. So even though Portland is doing a good job of talking the talk on energy efficiency, in New York City they're (literally) walking the walk. That's not to say that Portland's energy policy is irrelevant, or that rankings like these aren't a useful exercise. Far from it.  Still, actions speak louder than words -- and any attempt to measure sustainability should look far more closely at what cities actually do than at what their leaders say.

Forests fired

Is using trees for biomass a good idea?

I point this out not because I'm in favor of it, but because I think it's a trend worth watching: the Klamath Falls, Ore., newspaper, The Herald and News is reporting on a project to use biomass--namely, thinned trees--to generate electricity. Here's what the article has to say about the greenhouse gas effects of the project: A major wildfire would release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. But the controlled use of that same wood for lumber or electrical production would be positive in terms of "greenhouse gas" emissions. Future fires would not release the same amount of carbon dioxide, the wood that goes into building products stores carbon, and the biomass that goes into power production offsets the need to produce that energy from fossil fuels. To be clear, I remain skeptical -- but since I don't really know anything about the specifics I'll keep my mouth shut, and let wiser or more informed people speak. But over the long term -- and if future prices for natural gas are as high as they're expected to be (link goes to natural gas futures contract prices) -- I can't help but think that the pressure for this sort of project will intensify. And that seems to be a cause for concern. Deforestation rates over the past 30 years have been high enough just to deal with demand for timber and wood pulp; adding electricity to the mix is, well, troubling.

Peak performance?

Washington Monthly considers peak oil.

Blogger Kevin Drum at The Washington Monthly has a well-written, informative, and balanced set of posts of the so-called "Peak Oil" theory -- the idea that, while the world may not be running out of oil, exactly, we may be fairly close to the practical limit of how much oil can be squeezed out of the ground in any given year.  After the peak, goes the theory, oil production gradually declines, no matter how high the price might go.  (By the way, oil production in the United States peaked in 1970.  Even with new production in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, and billions of dollars invested in domestic oil production since then, the US still produces about a third less oil per year than it did at the peak.  The Peak Oil theory is basically the hypothesis that the entire world is about to do the same thing that the US did in 1970 -- reach a physical maximum of production, after which oil supplies gradually and continually decline.) I've posted on the topic before, and have nothing new to add.  But I think it's definitely something worth familiarizing yourself with -- at a minimum, to put the recent rash of media stories on the subject in context.  The Washington Monthly series is a pretty good place to start.

Talking with cars

Transportation choices are made as much with the heart as with the head.

This New York Times article from last Saturday echoed news that has been popping up all over recently. The headline sums it up: "America's Love Affair With S.U.V.'s Begins to Cool." Higher gas prices are apparently starting to shift people's car-buying patterns -- which seems to have caught most auto-industry execs by surprise, though it should hardly come as a shock to economists who (quite naturally) expect that price changes will eventually change people's behavior. But what stuck out at me was this quote from a former SUV aficionado: "I never wanted a car before -- never," said Tamika Cooks, a science teacher at Bellaire High School in Houston, in an interview Friday as she was signing the paperwork for her Chrysler 300C. "But this car has captured my attention. It speaks to me. It calls my name."

Car buyers imposing higher fuel standards

Increasing numbers are changing the cars they buy based on fuel economy.

From the Christian Science Monitor, evidence that consumers are beginning to think about gas prices as they make new vehicle purchases: Last month, 49 percent of new-car buyers, the highest level ever, had changed their mind or were thinking strongly about buying a vehicle they would not have considered because of gas prices, according to a survey by Harris Interactive and Kelley Blue Book. Over the short term, rising gas prices only affect consumption a little bit, because people have only so much flexibility to change their driving habits. Over the long term, though, people start making more fundamental changes -- where they live, what they drive -- can lead to more significant reductions in how much gas they use. There's still plenty of room for skepticism. Sales of hybrids are surging now, but some industry analysts are predicting that demand will top out, with hybrids commanding a small share of the market. (Some of those skeptics, of course, are from car companies that don't produce hybrids -- so take those predictions for what they're worth.) But then there's this: Even McManus -- the hybrid cynic-turned-believer -- has serious doubts about how big an impact even a massive surge in hybrid sales will have on reducing America's oil dependence. His analysis, for instance, shows a "rebound effect. For every 1 percent decline in the cost of fuel, Americans drive 1.85 percent more. That number seems way too high to me, and this lit. review by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute seems to agree. Still, all else being equal, increased vehicle fuel efficiency does tend to reduce the cost of driving a mile, which in turn increases the number of miles people drive. Which leads to this seeming paradox: in a world of hybrids, we might drive more, but still use less gas. In other hope-inspiring vehicle news, cleaner diesel vehicles may be on their way.

Sometimes the cloth does not make the baby

A new study on diapers finds no difference between cloth and paper

Ok, that's a dumb headline. But the problem itself -- whether to diaper my babies with cloth or disposables -- was one I spent a bit of time agonizing over. But perhaps I shouldn't have. A new study commissioned by the British Environment Agency (reported on here and here) suggests there's almost no difference between the two, at least in terms of environmental impacts. Which is roughly the same answer that this 1992 study, at the website of our friends at the Institute for Lifecycle Energy Analysis, came to. The British study made some suggestions for ways that both disposables and cloth diapers could be improved, to reduce their impacts: for people who wash theyir own diapers, that means reducing washing temperature, using efficient washers, and line drying for home-washed cloth diapers. (Which, of course, is good advice for all your washing, not just diapers.)