Skip to content Skip to site navigation
Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


U.S. building is going green for profit, not for the climate

As the construction industry dusts off its tools post-recession, green building is on the rise. But the reasoning behind the boom looks less pure than you might think.

A new survey finds that 90 percent of developers and property owners are committed to environmentally sustainable construction, with 56 percent "very" or "extremely" committed -- but how they conceive of that commitment has changed a lot over time.


Efficiency and cost savings seem to be the biggest motivators. While the majority of respondents said they value sustainable building when it comes to air quality and tenant happiness, only 37 percent said it was extremely or very important to minimize their carbon footprints. Only 48 percent of those committed to sustainable construction said they're interested in LEED certification, down from 61 percent in 2008.

The U.S. Green Building Council touts LEED certification as the standard in top-performing energy-efficient buildings, though we know that the rating system is full of loopholes that allow massive, energy-guzzling buildings to be certified eco-friendly.

The motivations for going green might be less than noble, but does that matter if we like the results? Cost savings are the impetus behind the awesome greening of the Empire State Building and other New York projects that are creating new green jobs for previously unemployed workers. Some of those workers are picking up new skills at a South Bronx center for environmental job training, which will continue operations this year despite its federal grant running out. From The New York Times:

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Netherlands may face lawsuit over climate change inaction

It’s surprising news from a country we perceive as a bastion of Euro sustainable living: An activist group, Urgenda, is threatening to take the Dutch government to court over human-rights violations perpetrated, it says, by insufficient measures to fight climate change.

From The Guardian:

The Dutch campaigners believe [human-rights] laws could be used in other countries to force the hand of governments. Marjan Minnesma, of Urgenda, and one of the leaders of the action, said: "We definitely want to give a strong example to other countries. We believe we can take this to the courts and we would like organisations in other countries to look at what we are doing and consider it for themselves."

Their campaign is supported by the Nasa climate scientist Prof James Hansen. "In the climate and energy debate we need more pressure and involvement from the public, willing to defend our rights and those of our children and grandchildren using all the means of our laws to achieve justice," he said.

But what about the country’s attention to infrastructure to protect cities from sea-level rises and new extreme weather? What about Amsterdam's new $150 million investment in bicycling infrastructure? What about all those bikes!! From here, the Netherlands looks about as green as any national government might be. Over there, though, it's another story. Activists say the country's environmental focus has weakened over the past decade ...

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


New York’s bikeshare takes another hit, this time from Sandy

The bikeshare in D.C., which for some reason New York is having trouble duplicating.

In some parallel universe, New Yorkers took advantage of the city's massive, distributed (at least in Manhattan) bike-sharing network to get around in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Maybe Citi even waived fees for the vehicles, eager to get a little bump of goodwill at a moment of extreme need. But, as longtime viewers may remember, despite plans to unveil the 10,000-bike system this year, it got pushed to March of 2013 due to technical glitches.

Or, at least March was the target date in August. It's not clear if that is still the new date, because the system got damaged again. By Sandy.

From the Times:

The storm dumped several feet of water at some points across the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the city had been storing equipment like bicycles and docking stations in Building 293, near the northern tip of the yard and the waters of Wallabout Bay.

Building 293 was among those that flooded, and a spokesman for the mayor’s office said Tuesday that there appeared to be damage to program equipment, including docking stations for bicycles, as a result. …

Officials said it was premature to estimate whether the flooding could affect the program’s start date, scheduled for next March.


President Obama on climate change: We’ll see

In his first press conference since June, President Obama this afternoon was asked about climate change.

President Barack Obama
AP / Charles Dharapak

Mark Landler of The New York Times asked:

In his endorsement of you a few weeks ago, Mayor Bloomberg said he was motivated by the belief that you would do more to confront the threat of climate change than your opponent. Tomorrow you're going up to New York City where you're, I assume, going to see people who are still suffering the effects of Hurricane Sandy, which many people say is further evidence of how a warming globe is affecting our weather.

What specifically do you plan to do in a second term to tackle the issue of climate change, and do you think the political will exists in Washington to pass legislation that could include some kind of a tax on carbon?

The president's response:


CDC warns about rampant, dangerous use of antibiotics on livestock

Our love of meat is killing us in more ways than one. But get pumped, everyone: The Centers for Disease Control has dubbed this "Get Smart About Antibiotics Week"! And while we may be late to the party, we're excitedly tucking our pants into our boots and heading down to the farm. The factory farm, that is, where (amongst the other usual horrors) rampant antibiotic usage in livestock is threatening the efficacy of the drugs on humans.

Animal Equality
Antibiotics bottles on a pig farm.

In its statement about the week [PDF], the CDC specifically pledges:

To work with regulatory, veterinary and industry partners to promote the judicious use of antibiotics in food animals


To reinforce the judicious use of antibiotics in agriculture by: limiting the use of medically important human antibiotics in food animals; supporting the use of such antibiotics in animals only for those uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health; and having veterinary oversight for such antibiotics used in animals

This is nice and reasonable of the CDC, but with 80 percent of the country's antibiotics going to the animals we eat, and then into the environment, it'll take a hell of a lot more than a pledge from an agency with no regulatory authority and a week of awareness to shift course from where we're currently headed: a new dark age of medicine, where minor infections could be fatal.


Algae biofuel hits (a few) West Coast gas stations

If you pull into a Propel station in Washington or California (Propel being a chain of alternative fuel stations), you may notice a new offering: Soladiesel. It's a name that hearkens back to the finest tradition of pseudo-sciencey terminology in ads for cigarettes and face creams ("Loaded with Coxyresin®!" "Lab-designed to satisfy your M-Zone™!"), but there's kind of a logic to the name. It actually is a solar diesel! In the extremely indirect sense that algae needs the sun.

From NBC News:

Alternative gas station chain Propel is working with algal fuel creator Solazyme on a month-long experiment, selling algal-additive "Soladiesel" alongside Propel's normal diesel. The special stuff is 20 percent algae oil, while the "original flavor" will have the usual additives. ...

Algae has been proposed for years as an alternative to corn as a way to produce biofuels. Special algae are grown in bulk; when fed certain sugars, they produce combustible oils that can be used as fuel additives. The resulting fuel, biodiesel in this case, produces significantly less pollutants and, Solazyme claims, may in some ways actually perform better.

Solazyme's "Soladiesel"™! Specially formulated for your car's engine, etc., etc.!

A grimy, run-of-the-mill biodiesel station in Europe.


Increasingly costly coal plants may be retired early

The Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant

The beauty of the free market is that it's ruthless. It's an ongoing footrace with pushing and shoving and scrambling that rewards whoever's in the front. The market doesn't care that you used to be in front. If you're losing, you're losing.

Coal is losing. And in the race coal's in -- for cheap, abundant, clean energy -- it's hard to catch back up.

Yesterday, the Union of Concerned Scientists projected the future of coal-generated power in the United States. It's not expecting to hand out any gold medals.

America’s coal power fleet is facing an increasingly uncertain economic future. Growing competition from cheaper, cleaner alternatives -- including natural gas and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar -- is making it harder for these generators to produce energy economically.

With appropriate planning, these outdated coal generators can be closed down while still maintaining a reliable electricity system. By ramping up underutilized natural gas plants, increasing renewable energy through existing state policies, and reducing demand through improved energy efficiency, every region in the country could more than replace the electricity currently produced by ripe-for-retirement generators.

One of the main challenges for the plants the UCS expects to close is that they're dirty, emitting more harmful particulates and other pollutants than is healthy or, in some cases, legal. And as coal grows more expensive relative to other sources (like natural gas), the cost of upgrading facilities to remove those pollutants becomes less and less feasible.

As Bloomberg notes, the UCS's projections exceed the number of plants previously expected to shutter -- again, because coal is less cheap relative to other energy-production methods than it used to be. The UCS anticipates 59 more gigawatts of retirement than previous estimates -- some 6 percent of electricity generated in the U.S.


Meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions rose 2.5 percent last year

This magic number, 350, trumpeted by and hailed as a marker of climate health, signifies a particular goal in the effort to curb carbon dioxide pollution. 350 is the target amount of CO2, in parts-per-million, that it would take to maintain global temperatures at near-normal levels. Holding steady at 350 ppm would require, according to a 2006 study, a 5 percent reduction in emissions each year.


Last month, the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide reached 391 ppm. And in 2011, global CO2 emissions rose another 2.5 percent. From Reuters:

Global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2011 rose 2.5 percent to 34 billion tonnes, a new record, Germany's renewable energy institute said on Tuesday. ...

"If the current trend is sustained, worldwide CO2 emissions will go up by another 20 percent to over 40 billion tonnes by 2020," IWR director Norbert Allnoch said.

China led the table of emitters in 2011 with 8.9 billion tonnes, up from 8.3 billion a year earlier. Its CO2 output was 50 percent more than the 6 billion tonnes in the United States.

India was third, ahead of Russia, Japan and Germany.

Read more: Climate & Energy


U.S. poised for energy independence by 2035 — and climate poised for collapse

The U.S. will be energy independent by 2035! And it'll only cost us a few measly degrees Fahrenheit.

The new World Energy Outlook report from the International Energy Agency is chock-full of forecasts like that one about global energy markets [PDF]. More big news: The U.S. is poised to become the world's largest oil producer by 2020, overtaking Saudi Arabia and Russia, and to start exporting more oil than we import by 2030.


Like annoying jerks from high school, coal is doing better than you want

Here's a snippet from a New York Times article with the reassuring title: "With China and India Ravenous for Energy, Coal’s Future Seems Assured":

Coal remains a critical component of the world’s energy supply despite its bad image. In China, demand for coal in 2010 resulted in a traffic jam 75 miles long caused by more than 10,000 trucks carrying supplies from Inner Mongolia. India is increasing coal imports.

So is Europe, as it takes advantage of lower coal prices in the United States. …

Global demand for coal is expected to grow to 8.9 billion tons by 2016 from 7.9 billion tons this year, with the bulk of new demand -- about 700 million tons -- coming from China, according to a Peabody Energy study. China is expected to add 240 gigawatts, the equivalent of adding about 160 new coal-fired plants to the 620 operating now, within four years. During that period, India will add an additional 70 gigawatts through more than 46 plants.

King Coal is also the Homecoming King because people love him because he is cheap.
Read more: Climate & Energy