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.

Vicious life cycles

Can we trust carbon labeling?

About a year ago, I was cautiously bullish on British supermarket giant Tesco's pledge to start putting carbon labels on its food. But I think that their progress so far -- which I'll get to in a minute -- suggests an important lesson about the policy risks of treating a fuzzy exercise as if it were completely reliable. Tesco's idea was that the chain and its suppliers would pay for objective, comprehensive reviews of the greenhouse-gas emissions from the foods on the store's shelves. The analyses would cover all major steps in bringing food from farms to the checkout line -- everything from running farm machinery, to food processing, to transportation, to refrigeration. Then, each item in the store would be labeled with the climate-warming emissions that could be traced to that particular product. This sort of exercise is called "life cycle analysis," and it's been used for decades to great effect, to shed light on all sorts of questions: paper vs. plastic (for bags), cloth vs. disposable (for diapers), hybrids vs. hydrogen (for cars), and a host of others. Last week, a nifty article by Michael Specter in The New Yorker reported on Tesco's progress so far. The results? There's still only one product on the shelves with a carbon label -- a single brand of potato chips, or "crisps" in British parlance. You see, as it turns out, life cycle analysis can be really, really difficult. And to make matters worse, it may be that the whole enterprise is chock full of uncertainty. Where carbon is concerned, it can be hard to trust the label.

Horsepower vs. mpg

A timeline of changes in automotive fuel economy

This should be perfectly obvious, but automotive technologies have changed an awful lot over the last few decades. From about 1975 through 1987, federal standards prompted massive and surprisingly rapid improvements in fuel economy. Cars designers focused on nimbleness and efficiency over raw power, and the fuel savings were enormous. But since the late 1980s, most engineering advances have focused on making cars more muscular, and fuel efficiency has taken a back seat. For graphic proof, take a look after the jump at a nifty chart ...

Pesticide-free produce, pesticide-free kids

Organic food reduces organophosphate exposure in children

By now, I think most people understand that organic food is supposed to be healthier for you. But I think there are still some people who feel that the health benefits are a just a bunch of marketing hype. Well, this new study suggests that it ain't just hype -- organic produce really does reduce kids' exposure to some potentially risky pesticides. From the Seattle P-I: The peer-reviewed study found that the urine and saliva of children eating a variety of conventional foods from area groceries contained biological markers of organophosphates, the family of pesticides spawned by the creation of nerve gas agents in World War II. When the same children ate organic fruits, vegetables and juices, signs of pesticides were not found.

Why grandfathering sucks

More on cap-and-trade systems

Here's a clear demonstration of why, in a cap-and-trade system, grandfathering emissions rights to historic polluters is a terrible idea: The UK's biggest polluters will reap a windfall of at least £6bn from rising power prices and the soaring value of carbon under the new European carbon trading scheme ... Critics argue ... that the scheme, under which nearly all allowances are granted free of charge rather than having to be bought by big polluters, has created a distorted market in which the worst offenders will enjoy bumper profits while incurring no extra underlying cost for producing greenhouse gases. That's just about right: handing out pollution rights for free, as the European emissions trading system did, creates the potential for massive, unearned windfall profits. Permits will have a market value -- someone will want to buy them. So when we hand out emissions permits at no cost, we're essentially handing out free money. There may be a few exceptions to this rule: a few economic sectors where free allocation won't lead to windfall profits. But they're the exceptions. The rule (as demonstrated in Europe) is that grandfathering is great for polluters, and bad for consumers. So maybe that's why lots of big oil and coal companies are so supportive of grandfathering ...

The answer depends on whom you ask

How much global warming results from air travel?

Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to pull together some data on how airplane travel affects global warming, as part of a broader project on transportation and climate change. My stunningly obvious conclusion: it’s complicated. Worse, different calculation methods yield wildly different results. Take, for instance, this brilliant chart (below) from the Stockholm Environment Institute, comparing many of the major online emissions calculators. Emissions are represented by the light blue lines. As you can see, the online calculators find that a Boston-D.C. round trip has the impact of somewhere between 0.19 tons and 0.48 tons of CO2 emissions, …

Toxics cause cancer

Pollution’s effects linger, long after compounds are banned

A new study by researchers at a British Columbia cancer agency stands as a stark reminder that, when it comes to pollution, an ounce of pollution prevention is worth a pound of cure: Researchers found people with the highest levels of a certain type of insecticide in their blood had 2.7 times the risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma as those with the lowest amounts ... People with PCBs in their blood, meanwhile, had twice the risk of developing the disease as those with the lowest exposures. That's about the same level of increased risk as having a family history of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The thing to remember is that these compounds were banned 30 years ago. But they're still hanging around, tainting the soil and the food chain, and causing all sorts of problems. For some kinds of pollution, you just can't put the genie back in the bottle -- meaning that it's much better not to open the bottle in the first place.