Climate & Energy

Fat earthers

The parallels between accepting obesity and ignoring global warming

I have recently been thinking about the parallels between climate change and the obesity epidemic facing the United States and other industrialized countries. Both are the result of our society's desire to consume, and there are similarities in how we might respond. Photo: iStockphoto There are basically three ways to respond to obesity, and each has an analog for climate change. First, you can try to reduce caloric intake. Bob Park calls this the thermodynamic diet: take in fewer calories than you expend and you'll lose weight. For the climate change problem, the parallel is reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it is hard. No one likes to diet, and many find it impossible to lose and keep off weight this way. Similarly, our society is not going to find it easy to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. That does not mean, of course, that it can't be done, or that we won't be happy with the results. I've never met someone who's lost a lot of weight that isn't ecstatically happy with the results, and I think there are many benefits for our society that come along with reducing CO2 emissions. Second, you can simply say, "I'm overweight and I'm going to stay overweight. If I have any health problems, I'll let the doctors solve them for me." So if your weight causes hip problems, just have the hip replaced. If your cardiovascular system goes on the fritz, utilize the latest in cardiovascular care to get the problematic arteries unblocked or a pacemaker installed. If the risk of stroke rises, take the appropriate medication to bring the risk down. A recent news report said that obesity is now a lifestyle choice for Americans. In other words, many overweight people have simply given up trying to lose weight by taking in fewer calories, mainly because they just can't do it. They are now relying on the health care system to deal with the impacts of their obesity:

Turn on, plug in, drop out

Plug-in hybrids and electric cars: A core climate solution, nationally and globally

I have a new article in Salon, "The car of the future is here," about plug-in hybrids. The two central points of the article are: Plug-in hybrids (and electric cars) are an essential climate strategy, enabling renewable power (even intermittent sources like wind) to become a major low-cost transportation fuel. Practical, affordable plug-in hybrids will be here in a few years -- even if we don't get a technology breakthrough in batteries. (I am even more confident of these conclusions given the amazing joint announcement today by Renault-Nissan, Project Better Place, and Israel -- see below.) If you read the Salon article, you'll know more than billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who recently said: Forget plug-ins. They are nice toys. But they will not be material to climate change. The subject deserves a far more serious discussion. Transportation is the toughest sector in which to achieve deep carbon emissions reductions. Of the three major alternative fuels that could plausibly provide a low-carbon substitute for a significant amount of petroleum:

If you build it, they will come

Growing solar industry depends on key tax credit that will expire this year

Advocates talk a lot about how renewable energy is not just good for the environment, but good for the economy as well. And here is some real-world proof: New Mexico, with strong leadership by Gov. Richardson, PRC Commissioners Lujan and Marks, and many others, has done more than most to establish the full suite of policies necessary to build a solar market. And the reward? Schott AG is investing $100 million in a new manufacturing facility outside of Albuquerque. It will initially employ 350 people, which could grow to 1,500. Good stuff, and congrats to New Mexico. But lookie here at what Schott has to say about what it will take to get to the higher end of the projected jobs numbers:

Moving on out

There are limits to the positive environmental change we can expect from high gas prices

You can scarcely pick up a paper or turn on the television these days without hearing the word recession. Leading economic indicators have wiggled in different directions over the past few months, but the general trend appears to be negative. The conventional wisdom points toward an economic downturn of some kind during 2008, and businesses in all sorts of consumer markets are bracing for the inevitable tightening of purse strings. A funny thing happened on the way toward economic slowdown, however. As one might expect, oil prices dropped on expectations of reduced future demand. As one may not have expected, …

Boucher for Obama

The latest in a string of endorsements for Obama from red-state Dems

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), notorious champion of Big Coal, has endorsed Barack Obama. Some greens are no doubt going to use this as evidence that Obama is too close to coal. I share the concern, but I don’t think it’s the most sensible interpretation of this case. Boucher’s endorsement is just the latest in a string of endorsements from Democrats in red states — including, crucially, popular Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine. (Two other prime Va. Dems — Sen. Jim Webb, widely discussed as a VP candidate, and former governor Mark Warner, who was rumored to be mulling a run for …

Biomass, part I

Where will biofuels and biomass feedstocks come from?

When it comes to biofuels we have choices. We can do it poorly, using short-run approaches with no potential to scale, poor trajectory, and adverse environmental impact. Or we can do it right, with sustainable, long-term solutions that can meet both our biofuel needs and our environmental needs. We do need strong regulation to ensure against land-use abuses. I have suggested that each cellulosic facility be individually certified with a LEEDS-like "CLAW" rating, and that countries which allow environmentally sensitive lands to be encroached be disqualified from CLAW-rated fuel markets. We think a good fuel has to meet the CLAW requirements: C -- COST below gasoline L -- low to no additional LAND use; benefits for using degraded land to restore biodiversity and organic material A -- AIR quality improvements, i.e. low carbon emissions W -- limited WATER use. Cellulosic ethanol (and cellulosic biofuels at large) can meet these requirements. Environmentally, cellulosic ethanol can reduce emissions on a per-mile driven basis by 75-85% with limited water usage for process and feedstock, as illustrated later. Range, Coskata, and others currently have small-scale pilots projecting 75% less water use than corn ethanol, with energy in/out ratio between 7-10 EROI (though we consider this a less important variable than carbon emissions per mile driven). Sustainable land use The question about biomass production that arises first is about land use: how much will we need? What will it take? Is it scalable? For conservatism, I assume CAFE standards in the U.S. per current law, though I expect by 2030 to have much higher CAFE and fleet standards (hopefully up near 54mpg or a 100% higher that 2007 averages), which will dramatically reduce the need for fuel an hence biomass. Yes, this would include lighter vehicles, more efficient engines, better aerodynamics, low-cost hybrids, and whatever else we can get the consumer to buy that increases mpg.


Decelerating growth in tropical forest trees, thanks to accelerating carbon dioxide

I meant to blog on this earlier, but lost track of it after failing to find the original study (for reasons that will become clear). The bottom line is: Global warming could cut the rate at which trees in tropical rainforests grow by as much as half, a new study based on more two decades of data from forests in Panama and Malaysia shows. The effects, so far largely overlooked by climate modelers, Nature magazine said, could severely erode or even remove the ability of tropical rainforests to remove carbon dioxide from the air as they grow. More evidence that the carbon sinks in the ocean and on the land may saturate sooner than scientists expected, which will inevitably lead to an acceleration of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (see below).

Study quantifies ecological debt owed to world’s poorest countries

New research has attempted to quantify the costs that richer and poorer nations inflict on each other through environmental degradation. And guess who gets dumped on more? Turns out, the poorest countries have endured more environmental strife from richer countries than the other way ’round. The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on six environmental issues and their effects on low-, middle-, and high-income nations — agricultural intensification, climate change, deforestation, draining of coastal mangrove wetlands, overfishing, and ozone depletion — from 1961 to 2000. It concluded that low-income countries effectively subsidized higher-income …

The hybrid solar home

An alternative housing concept

Seattle is having a cold snap. It's 25 degrees outside. Our rare freezing winter days correspond with equally rare clear winter skies. Days like this make me wish I had a solar powered home that could harvest and store that free burst of energy for later use. The bottom line is that American homes are just too large to be cost effectively heated with solar energy. The push has been to get the cost of solar panels down. But, what would you get if you crossed an expensive solar heating and cooling system with an optimally sized home? By optimal, I mean not larger than you need. You would get an affordable solar powered home like the one shown above (click here to see the details). By affordable, I mean in the $150-200 thousand range excluding land, sewer, and water systems. Picture the north face with fancy wood and slate trim, a deck off of the loft doubling as a carport, double french doors, and lots and lots of windows (and window plugs). Essentially, this is a well insulated 10 x 40-foot park model trailer stocked with highly energy efficiency dual mode gas/electric appliances, and lots of diode lighting under a standardized solar energy system optimized for a given area of the country. Picture an entire neighborhood (or trailer park or commune) of these all facing south. Ninety percent of the people on this planet would jump at the chance to live in a home like that. Home size is relative, dependent on wealth and how far the "my house is bigger than yours" arms race has progressed. It's all a matter of perception.

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