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How to kill your car: From Dragon Wagon to bike paradise

My daughter in her bike trailer

For the past four years, I’ve lived without the car. It’s been surprisingly great. Before that, I’d been sinking thousands of dollars into my vehicle: A beat-up Honda station wagon with 329,000 miles on the odometer and the words Dragon Wagon painted on its haunch. (I bought it from my mom. She’s into dragons. That’s another story.) When it failed its smog test, I dropped it off at a junkyard, then looked around that industrial no-man’s land and wondered how I would be getting home -- not to mention how I would be getting around from there on out.

I posed for a picture with the title and final failed smog check before giving up the Dragon Wagon
I posed for a picture with the title and final failed smog check before giving up the Dragon Wagon.

I was living in walkable San Francisco, working out of my home as a freelance journalist. I had a notion that I wanted to go car-free, but at that moment, it seemed incredibly naïve, stupidly idealistic. How would I race out to interview someone on deadline? How would I zip out to the Central Valley to talk to almond growers about bees? How would I get to work?

But life without a car was (shockingly) easier and better. Of course, there were the annoyances you’d expect: slow, crowded buses, flat bike tires, and the misery of unexpected rain showers. But I could get to work fine, and there were plenty of Zipcars and cabs around if I needed one. Because I had to pay by the trip, I almost always found ways to get around without a car. In the end, it was much cheaper. And then there were the unforeseen benefits.

Read more: Cities, Living

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How is parking like a sandwich?

subway-sandwich
Jeremy Brooks

Imagine, just for a moment, that you live in an apartment building that offers a special lunch deal. Every morning, the landlords put out a tray of 100 sandwiches for their tenants. They’re darn good sandwiches -- each one costs $10 to make. Yet the landlords offer a discount, so that hungry tenants can buy a sandwich for just $3. If you don’t want a sandwich, you don’t pay anything. But if you do want a sandwich, you get a bargain!

Neat, right?

Well, not if you remember one of the key rules of economics: There is no free lunch. There isn’t even a below-cost lunch. The building owners are going to have to pay for the sandwiches somehow. And since their only source of income (besides the sandwich fees) is rent, that means that they’ll do their best to make up the money they lose on sandwiches by charging higher rent.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Every “serious environmentalist” must support fracking? Seriously?

Fracking protestors.
Stop-CSG-Illawarra

If you oppose fracking, then you are not a “serious environmentalist.”

So say U.C. Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller and his daughter Elizabeth Muller in a new opinion paper with a none-too-subtle title: "Why Every Serious Environmentalist Should Favor Fracking."

Until recently, Muller wasn't much of an environmentalist himself. He was a prominent climate denier. But last year he wrote in The New York Times that he came to realize the error of his ways after an intensive review of the science.

Now this self-described "converted skeptic" has appointed himself the arbiter of serious environmentalism.

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The grinch that stole the coal industry’s Christmas

coal
Shutterstock

Coal industry executives can only wish Santa will leave them a lump of the black stuff in their stockings this Christmas. But as 2013 draws to a close, those stockings are likely to be empty as the pace of coal-fired power plant closures accelerates.

Market research firm SNL Energy estimates that coal-fired plants generating as much as 64,002 megawatts of electricity will be shuttered by 2021. That’s 5,000 megawatts more than SNL predicted in May. Just since that earlier projection, however, several energy companies and utilities announced they would close some big coal plants, including the Tennessee Valley Authority’s decision in November to take out of service coal-fired power stations generating 3,100 megawatts. That would leave the government-owned utility in the heart of coal country reliant on nuclear and natural gas to generate the bulk of the region’s electricity.

That’s certainly good for the planet, given that coal is responsible for 42 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

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Are Brits going to get screwed by pricey nuclear power?

Rendering of Hinkley Point C nuclear plant
EDF Energy
This nuclear plant would be really, really expensive.

New nuclear power has become so expensive that Britain intends to allow a nuke plant operator to charge double the market rate for electricity. The European Union is investigating whether that amounts to illegal government aid to a company.

French nuclear energy giant EDF wants to build a $26 billion facility in southwest England, the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant. The U.K. government's philosophy is that nuclear power is desirable; the new plant could meet 7 percent of Britain's electricity needs without hurting the climate. So, the power plant would be heavily subsidized by utility customers paying roughly double the rate set by the free market for electricity.

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America’s new cars are more fuel-efficient than ever before

a green-colored car
Shutterstock

The 1990s-style thirst for power that gave rise to America's fleet of gas-guzzling SUVs is being replaced by a hunger for fuel-efficient cars, helping auto manufacturers in 2012 beat their previous record for overall gas mileage.

The average model-year 2012 vehicle got 23.6 miles per gallon, according to a new report from the EPA. OK, that's still pretty lame -- but it's 1.2 mpg better than the previous year, the second-largest annual increase in history.

Click to embiggen.
EPA
Click to embiggen.

And Dan Becker of the Clean Climate Campaign points out that this improvement marks real progress made under Obama's new fuel-economy standards: "That’s roughly 5% in the program’s first year. We are on track to hitting the 54.5 mpg standard for 2025. This is a big deal."

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Pushing poor people to the suburbs is bad for the environment

suburb
Darko Zeljkovic

In recent years, an overhyped counterrevolution has emerged in America. Millennials from the suburbs and their empty-nester parents have been flocking to certain desirable urban neighborhoods. This has led to a lot of chin-pulling about “demographic inversion,” wherein the cities become richer and whiter and the suburbs more non-white and poor. Skeptics note that suburbs are in the aggregate still richer and whiter than central cities and most middle-class families still settle in suburbia.

This sociological debate misses the important environmental question: What will we have achieved if we simply change the demographic complexion of who lives in walkable urban areas and who doesn’t? The answer is nothing. For the urbanist movement to be worthy of its name, the end result has to be that a higher percentage of Americans are actually living in central cities, and that the residents of both cities and suburbs represent the full spectrum of American life.

The evidence suggests that a combination of bad public policies is instead causing poor residents to be priced out of the most popular cities by well-heeled newcomers. Consider Annie Lowrey’s report on low-income renters in Tuesday’s New York Times. They are being squeezed by an economy where all the gains accrue to the top and new housing is built at the high end. Gentrification also brings wealthier renters into poor urban neighborhoods, bidding up the price of existing housing. Writes Lowrey:

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This bike could purify the air as you ride it

filter_bike
Lightfog Creative & Design Company

Obviously riding a bike is better than driving a car because, among other things, bikes don't emit greenhouse gases or other poisons. But what if bikes could actually reverse pollution, by sucking in smog and pumping out clean air?

It's theoretically possible, according to the group of Thai engineers and designers responsible for this concept bike. 

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Happily ever NAFTA: New trade pact could boost corporations and harm environment

world-earth-hunger-feeding-plate-425.jpg

I grew up around the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was all grownups talked about in Detroit: the Sound of NAFTA. Although not much rhymed with that phrase, the hills were indeed alive with the sounds of grouchy tool and die workers, complaining that all of our jobs were going to Mexico.

As a kid, I found it hard to see what was so exciting about jobs. My dad worked in a tool and die shop with bad ventilation and no heat, and every winter he would come down with a case of bronchitis that was one order of magnitude worse than the last. But it didn't matter what we thought, anyway. George Bush Sr. was for NAFTA, and Bill Clinton was for NAFTA, and the only guy who wasn't was Ross Perot -- which is always a sign your cause is in trouble.

Now, at nearly 20 years of age, NAFTA is almost old enough to drink responsibly. The number of people I knew who worked in tool and die shops went from everybody to nobody, and while on the whole the consensus has been this is Not Great, it's also been years since my dad has had trouble breathing.

What I didn't realize at the time was that NAFTA was not just about jobs. Chapter 11 of the agreement contained a provision that has had, and has continued to have, major effects on the environment and environmental regulations.

To understand why, look to the province of Quebec, which, two years ago, put a stop to fracking. At first the move didn't seem like much. Quebec's environment minister, Pierre Arcand, said that the province was just going to conduct an environmental review, and that "informative demonstrations" of hydraulic fracturing would still be allowed. But by April, 2012, there was a complete moratorium, the environmental review showed no signs of finishing, and there was talk of extending the ban five years into the future.

Attitudes in Canada seemed to be shifting. "Why does my kid come home from Alberta junior high school social studies saying the oil and gas industry is evil?" Michael Binnion, the CEO of Questerre Energy Corp., complained to Alberta Oil magazine. "I hardly know a senior oil and gas executive who hasn’t had a similar experience."

But Quebec's fracking ban wasn't simply a political move fueled by a cultural shift; it also carried a financial risk. This September, an energy company named Lone Pine Resources sued Canada for allowing the province to tighten its environmental policies, and asked for $250 million. The suit read:

The dispute is in relation to the Government of Quebec’s arbitrary, capricious, and illegal revocation of the Enterprise’s valuable right to mine for oil and gas under the St. Lawrence River, in violation of Chapter Eleven of the NAFTA.

Welcome to NAFTA's unexpected environmental legacy. Chapter 11 is not well known in the U.S. -- its tribunals are secret, and Canada and Mexico are the countries that get sued the most under it. But NAFTA was always meant to be a template for other trade agreements, and since its mid-'90s enactment it has become one. As NAFTA's offspring have multiplied around the world, so have lawsuits like Lone Pine's, where corporations seek damages from countries whose environmental regulations affect their ability to do business.

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Washing our hands in hot water is using as much carbon as Barbados, and it’s not doing a damn thing

Hot tap
Doug Wheller

Washing your hands in hot water is, according to one Vanderbilt researcher, a pretty useless endeavor.

Here's what it is doing:

  • Creating, in total, as much carbon emissions as the whole of Barbados
  • Drying out your hands.

Here's what it's not doing:

  • Killing any germs.

As Amanda Carrico explains to National Geographic, sure, hot water can kill bacteria, but it has to be so hot that it would scald your skin. We're betting that water you're using isn't that hot. (And if it is, ouch! Sorry about your hands.)

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living