A number of solutions have been put forward to address the daunting problem facing roughly a billion people on this planet: a lack of clean, safe drinking water. Climate change is only making the problem worse. Some experts say that 50 percent of the global population will experience some form of water stress by 2030.
A large percentage of these people live near an ocean. Since 97 percent of the world’s water is found in the ocean, it makes sense to use sea water, if possible, as a source that can be purified or desalinated for drinking and cooking purposes. Although desalination tends to be energy-intensive and costly, it has inspired a number of recent improvements.
Among the solutions aimed at this sizable opportunity is a large-scale solar desalination plant in Saudi Arabia, a joint effort between IBM and the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. This approach uses concentrating solar power (CSP) to drive a nano-membrane reverse osmosis system.
Another project in France uses wave power to generate mechanical pumping action that forces seawater through a set of reverse osmosis filters. A smaller, portable solution has been developed by a team at MIT. This system, which is primarily intended for disaster relief, features a set of solar panels, a water storage tank, a desalination pump and a filtration system.
A major press conference today featuring Bill McKibben and U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, as well as senior Sierra Club leaders, announced the launch of a new Congressional bill aimed at simultaneously addressing the issue of climate change with that of broad growth in the American economy.
The bill, HR 5721 or the Healthy Climate and Family Security Act, is an update of a bill introduced last year by Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland. It is, in essence, a cap and dividend plan that would collect gradually increasing fees on the “first sellers” of fossil fuels, with all of the proceeds being distributed equally to all American citizens. The fees would be collected as a limited number of pollution permits were sold at auction, and the dividends would be paid quarterly to every American with a social security number. The rationale behind this is that since we all are collective co-inheritors and co-trustees of the atmosphere, the polluters should be paying us for the right to use it as part of their business.
We’ve all heard a lot about plastic pollution, which has led to a movement away from plastic shopping bags and bottled water in the U.S. A principal driver of these actions has been a growing awareness of the so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a floating island of plastic twice the size of Texas. This unplanned floating dump, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, comes about because of swirling ocean currents known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. The full extent of the patch stretches from just off the U.S. West Coast to the East Coast of Japan.
A recent study in Science analyzed the contents of the patch. The study determined that in 2010 there were 275 million metric tons of trash found in the patch. The team, led by Jenna Jambeck from the University of Georgia, estimated that an additional 4.8 million to 12.7 million metric tons were being added to the patch each year. So, the question is: Where is all that trash coming from?
India and China both have high levels of poverty. Both are energetically pursuing policies of economic growth to both reduce poverty and avoid social unrest. In order to fuel this rapid growth, both have chosen to exploit domestic coal reserves as a readily available and inexpensive energy source.
This, despite the fact that coal is the largest carbon dioxide emitter of all fuels, is the cause of massive air pollution and is environmentally devastating in its extraction.
While both countries have pushed back against calls to reduce their coal burning, claiming that they would do so once they reached their economic targets, China, in response to major concerns over air pollution, has taken several actions. For one thing, they’ve banned coal burning in the city of Beijing. They’ve also made a major shift from coal to natural gas in their electricity generation sector. They’ve reduced court fees, making it easier for environmental groups to bring suit against companies, and they have also made a huge commitment to ramp up the deployment of renewable energy.
Not to be outdone, the Indian government, led by newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has announced a very ambitious program for renewable deployment that could, if achieved, potentially catapult the country to the front of the pack, with more renewable power generation capacity than anyone else.
So, with all this good news, it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that while the Indian government is very progressive in its policies regarding energy, there is a hard stop when there is a perceived threat to economic growth.
Case in point: An Indian environmental activist named Priya Pillai, a member of Greenpeace India, was recently blocked as she attempted to travel to London, where she was scheduled to testify before Parliament about coal-mining activities in India’s Mahan forest. Arriving at the airport, she learned that her name had been added to the government’s no-fly list because her trip was considered “prejudicial to the national interest” and that it could damage India’s image abroad. The action has led to concerns that the Modi government is singling out NGOs that are seen as detrimental to the country’s economic growth.
Danish pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk, a leading force in the battle against diabetes, has long been admired for taking the high road on issues related to sustainability. This week the company released its 2014 integrated Annual Report, which, as has become company tradition since 2004, focuses on the triple bottom line.
The authors kept their eyes on the prize: The report bears the title, Cities Need to Fight Diabetes — But How?
The state of Washington just released a draft rule for a clean fuel standard. This was done under the umbrella of the state’s 2008 goal to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Given that transportation accounts for nearly half of the state’s GHG emissions, it is an obvious choice for specific action.
The new rule is modeled after the California law that was adapted under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, which mandates a declining proportion of fossil content in transportation fuels. That rule directs suppliers toward a targeted 10 percent reduction in GHG emissions by the year 2020.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s Executive Order 14-04 directed the Office of Financial Management to prepare a report evaluating “the technical feasibility, costs and benefits, and job implications of requiring the use of cleaner transportation fuels.” This new report is an update to a report prepared in 2009, reflecting numerous changes that have occurred in the past five years.
MillerCoors has been working to reduce the impact of its operations from the start. Formed six years ago as a joint venture between SABMiller and Molson Coors, the company focuses on critical areas like water, energy consumption and emissions.
In its 2014 sustainability report, MillerCoors shows a greenhouse gas reduction of 15 percent over the previous year, and a reduction in energy consumption of 15.6 percent. Since 2009, the company has reduced the energy required to produce beer from 162 megajoules per hectoliter of beer to 123 MJ/hl. This year, it aims to reduce that number by an additional 15 percent. (For those not up on your conversions: A hectoliter is about 26 gallons, or a little less than two kegs of beer.)
The company is now a step closer to its energy goals with the announcement of a 3.2-megawatt solar array completed at its Irwindale, California, brewery.
In many ways, the sustainability journey is one of growing our capacity to provide critical production outputs like energy, food and water in a manner that does not deplete the natural resources upon which they depend. This needs to be done in a way that also does not produce unwanted byproducts that challenge the carrying capacity of the environment.
Exciting new innovations are being developed and introduced every day. One area that really seems to be heating up is aquaculture. Fish are becoming more and more popular due to their lower fat than other meats, but as their popularity and our population continue to grow, overfishing is becoming a problem. We have written about sustainable fisheries, and the growing community supported fishery (CSF) movement, but there seems to be little doubt that farming fish in a controlled environment can be far more productive than catching it in the wild.
For example, Lake Erie, which encompasses some 4,000 square miles, produces around 11 million pounds of yellow perch per year (down from about 38 million pounds 50 years ago). According to Norman McCowan of Bell Aquaculture, a sustainable operation in Indiana we wrote extensively about last summer, 11 million pounds of perch could be raised indoors on about 7 acres.
This week brought an announcement out of Holland of a new investment fund called Aqua-Spark that is focused exclusively on sustainable aquaculture. The fund was launched in 2013 and has since raised $10 million. This week, Aqua-Spark announced its first two investments.
One thing I promised to look into, after having won the trip to Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week 2015 based on a vision of my city in 2030, was to get a sense of the vision for this place in the same time frame.
Abu Dhabi is clearly one of the most sustainability-focused, forward-thinking cities in the world. This stems from a massive commitment on the part of the iconoclastic ruler Sheikh Zâyed bin Sulṭân Âl Nahyân, father of the current ruler.
The country’s wealth came from oil, which allowed it to sprout from a minor fishing village into a bustling modern city in just the past 50 years. Given Abu Dhabi’s harsh environment, it is not an easy place to implement a brand new vision. Yet, the combined mounting pressure of rapid growth and dwindling water supplies give a unique shape to the challenge the emirate faces. It was a credit to the Sheikh that he recognized that a major step in the direction of sustainability — something few others were doing at the time, especially in this part of the world — was just the right medicine for his people.
A substantial number of exhibits were still focused on oil and gas. Though I skipped most of those, I did stop to thumb through some of the energy projections for the future. ExxonMobil showed residential and commercial demand for oil remaining flat through 2040 and natural gas increasingly slightly, with both coal and biomass declining. Most of the growth in demand will be met by electricity, which is shown to nearly double between 2000 and 2040, according to the company’s projections.
BP, on the other hand, offered projections for 2050, (on a pie chart without numbers) which shows solar comprising more than 40 percent of the total “technically-accessible energy resource.” Second was nuclear at about 20 percent. Geothermal will provide about 15 percent, followed by wind (onshore and offshore) at close to 10 percent, according to BP’s projetions. Oil and gas were little more than slivers on the chart, with the two combining for about the same portion as onshore wind.
Speaking of wind, conference sponsor Masdar had an operational 3-D mockup of their London Array offshore wind farm. Sitting off the coast of England, the wind farm produces 630 megawatts from 175 turbines — that’s 3.6 MW each. Of course, those are tiny compared to the 8MW monsters introduced by Vestas last year. This industry doesn’t stand still for anyone.
Nuclear power was also well represented with a number of vendors on hand. Right here in Abu Dhabi, there is a major project in the works, which I will write more about later in the week.
Next week I will be attending Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week in the United Arab Emirates as the winner of the Masdar Blogging Competition. My winning essay described a vision of my city, Rochester, New York, in the year 2030. The conference, which will include the World Future Energy Summit, also hosts numerous talks, displays and presentations featuring sustainable options for the future.
In preparation, I read this post on GreenBiz in which the author interviewed a number of leading thinkers in various fields about their thoughts on what 2030 might bring.
Not surprisingly, each focused on his or her own corner of the world.
The news from China seems to be improving. First, the Asian nation agreed to target peak carbon emissions and produce 20 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030. Now China is beginning to take action on pollution, a problem that has become quite severe.
The Chinese Supreme People’s Court just announced that it will reduce the court fees required for environmental groups to bring lawsuits against polluters. The ruling applies specifically to “social organizations involved in public interest litigation” targeting environmental concerns.
Our journey toward a sustainable future has been and will undoubtedly continue to be an uneven ride, marked by setbacks one day and breakthroughs the next. You can’t take much for granted on this landscape, either. It used to be that conservatives could be counted on to take the side of the established fossil fuel industries.
Look at North Carolina, for example. Down there you have utility giant Duke Energy trying to pass a bill that would allow fees to be charged to utility customers who generate their own electricity using rooftop solar and sell it back to the utility through net metering. Appalachian Power in Virginia has asked for similar fees. Public Service Co. of New Mexico has a similar proposal in the works. Most experts agree that these actions would have a discouraging effect on people who were considering the possibility of adding solar to their homes.
You might have thought it was safe to take that trend for granted as something that red states were doing. But a Tea Party group in Florida called Conservatives for Energy Freedom has taken the opposite tack, asking for a measure that would “encourage and promote local small-scale, solar-generated electricity production and to enhance the availability of solar power to customers.”
In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence “Larry” Summers makes the point that, with gasoline taxes at levels not seen in years, this would be an excellent time to implement a carbon tax.
It’s not likely that a 25-cent-per-gallon surcharge to help offset the impacts of resulting carbon emissions will draw outrage at a time when gas prices have fallen by over a dollar. Yet, this is the amount that a proposed $25-per-ton carbon tax would cost. The $1 trillion collected from this could be used to fund aggressive development of cleaner technology and to help prepare cities and towns for the many changes that have been predicted.
Summers points out that, “The core of the case for a carbon tax is the recognition that those who use carbon fuels or products do not bear all the costs of their actions.”
Indeed, the only realistic possibility for a successful market-based approach to combating climate change is some mechanism that reflects the full impact of each transaction. “Free” market forces that pro-business advocates often cite are not sufficient because the impact of today’s actions may not show up until years from now and in some locale thousands of miles away. Indeed, buying and burning carbon fuels like gasoline, diesel and natural gas today is a bit like driving without a speedometer — in that we have no feedback on how quickly we are adding carbon into the atmosphere.
Filling up your SUV today could contribute to coastal flooding in Florida 10 years from now, but neither you nor the people who sold you the gas have any connection to this outcome without a mechanism in place to effect this.
As we start the New Year, there is a quiet sense of optimism that says perhaps we are reaching a tipping point in the race against time that will determine the future of life on our planet. Whether it’s the impressive growth of renewable power, the recent agreement between the U.S. and China to take meaningful action to curb emissions or the various moves towards a zero-waste economy, there are signs everywhere that humanity is slowly beginning to pull together in a unified way to save ourselves from our epic miscalculations of the past.
Another sign is the transformation of the transportation sector. According to the website EVObsession, there will be at least 15 new electric vehicle models hitting marketplace this year. Most of them are from well-established brands including Chevy, with an updated Volt, BMW, with a plug-in version of its 3-series, along with the X5 eDrive luxury-style SUV with crisp performance that, at 62 mpg, squeezes more out of a gallon of gas than a Prius. Think about that for a minute.
That machine will be vying for attention against the new Tesla Model X. Tesla, having established itself as the team to beat when it comes to electric vehicles, will certainly attract attention with this latest model. With benchmark styling, gull-wing doors and exceptional performance, this car will certainly turn heads. Though with a price tag in the same range as the Model S, it won’t be the EV for the everyman that the Model 3 (due out in 2017) promises to be.
Also competing in what I’d call the SUEV space will be the diesel hybrid Audi Q7 plug-in, the Mitsubishi Plug-In Outlander (with 512 mile cruising range), the Mercedes GLE-class, and the twin-engine Volvo XC90 T8 (with a 4-cylinder gasoline engine driving the front wheels and an 80 horsepower electric motor driving the rear).
I must confess that despite living in a snowy climate, I have resisted the temptation to purchase an SUV in my desire to minimize my carbon footprint. Vehicles like these could be game changers in that regard.