As we move forward to a more sustainable and flourishing future, we’re going to need to increase our understanding of our role in the biosphere and request the assistance of some of our fellow planetary occupants, many of whom can do things that we can’t.
One of these we’ll likely need are mushrooms. Of course they are delicious on pizza and in soup, but they also have some amazing properties that make them essential for the maintenance of the soil, on which we all depend. Not only are they one of nature’s best recyclers, breaking down waste matter into simpler compounds that feed the soil, but they can also break down toxins and render them harmless.
From this comes the idea of mycoremediation. That’s the practice of using mushrooms to clean up contaminated soil.
This post is an entry in the Masdar Engage Blogging Contest.
It used to be too cold up here in Western New York to ride a bike in early April, but winters have gotten shorter. I also have a lot more flexibility now than at my old job. I work at a freelance co-op where a bunch of us share office space and equipment. So, I’m out for a ride on a weekday morning.
I’m on what used to be the Inner Loop expressway. It was filled in 10 years ago and now there are trails, community gardens, playgrounds and other common spaces. One trail circles the city, while others form commuting corridors that connect a number of neighborhoods with a now-thriving downtown. Many people walk, bike or take electric buses, many from net-zero homes. There are tubes that shield intrepid bikers and walkers from the elements.
The city has grown a lot in the past decade. People are attracted by the moderate temperatures and abundant water supply. Plus, this has become a high-tech hub. Even though so much is done now using virtual worker networks and 3-D printing, the presence of major universities still attracts a skilled workforce. People have come to realize that there’s a limit to what virtual tools can provide and that there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction when important matters are at hand.
This is part of a trend emphasizing the human side of business: People are realizing that intangibles, like the richness of one’s social network, meaningful employment and the depth of sharing, are far stronger drivers of happiness and well-being than material wealth. That realization has been a key driver in our transition.
We’ve heard a lot about falling solar prices. Some of that is due to dumping of low-cost panels from China. But there is also a great deal of research being done here in the U.S. and elsewhere that is attacking the problem from many different directions. This is helping to not only reduce cost but to increase efficiency as well.
One area that has shown promise is that of colloidal quantum dots (CQD). These tiny nanotech wonders have a theoretical efficiency of 45 percent, surpassing that of silicon, though no one has come close to achieving that yet. What has been done, however, by researchers at MIT, is the development of production techniques that allows quantum dots to be produced without elevated temperatures or vacuum conditions. That means low cost, with a present conversion efficiency of 9 percent.
One thing to keep in mind with solar is that, given the fact that sunlight is free, the efficiency by which it can be converted into electricity is less important than it is with other sources that require you to pay for the energy. Where it does matter is in two areas: the system cost and the amount of area required.
So if the system cost is low — allowing you to cover your entire roof at a reasonable price — which provides enough power even at low efficiency, then who cares? Still, you have all that mounting hardware and labor to install it, right?
The cool thing about quantum dots is that these solar cells can theoretically be sprayed on, eliminating all that mounting hardware and labor and also permitting the cells to conform to irregular and uneven surfaces.
Eventually the truth, like cream, rises to the top, though it sometimes takes a long time. Perhaps it’s because we live in a world with so much technological capability that allows us to merely think of something and it becomes true — which has led us to believe whatever we wish to be true is true. In other words, some of us appear to have lost the distinction between fact and fantasy.
Sadly, there are a number of things out there that, no matter how hard we might wish it otherwise, are facts. Death and taxes are two (though if you have enough money you might be able to avoid the second one). The fact that the massive amount of combustion products we’ve emitted over time has substantially altered our planetary climatic system is a third. It seems that the facts are on one side, while the money is on the other, which might explain the standoff we’ve been seeing in Washington.
There is a young man in Congress, a Republican named Chris Gibson, who has announced his intention to put forth a resolution that will help others “recognize the reality” of the situation. Gibson, who represents the 19th district in New York (Hudson Valley), is basing the move on what he has observed:
“My district has been hit with three 500-year floods in the last several years, so either you believe that we had a 1 in over 100 million probability that occurred, or you believe as I do that there’s a new normal; and we have changing weather patterns, and we have climate change. This is the science.”
Last week I wrote a story about the outpouring of support for the EPA’s Clean Power Plan among both businesses and state legislators. Of course, with a measure dealing with a subject as volatile as climate change, not everyone is going to agree on the course of action, or whether action should even be taken.
But you might be surprised to learn who is opposing this and how they are going about it. A story broke in last week’s New York Times about how various energy companies had formed a secretive alliance with a group of state attorneys general. For example, Oklahoma’s Attorney General Scott Pruitt sent a letter to EPA officials, asserting that the agency was grossly overestimating the amount of carbon pollution being generated by natural gas wells operating in the state. What Mr. Pruitt failed to mention, as the Times learned through an open records request, was that the letter had been written by attorneys for Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma’s largest oil and gas companies, and then cut and pasted directly onto the attorney general’s letterhead.
In other words, Mr. Pruitt was using the power of his office to give the oil company’s appeal more clout, insinuating, if not outright stating, as a letter from an attorney general is apt to do, that legal action could potentially follow. The email exchange obtained by the Times revealed notes from the company, heartily thanking Pruitt for his help.
A similar pattern plays out in at least a dozen states. Corporate donations to the political campaigns of attorneys general exceeded $16 million this year, collected by the Republican Attorneys General Association, which Scott Pruitt heads.
A number of different groups came out this week in support of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the rule that will allow the agency to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. Power plants emits nearly one-third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and they comprise the largest contributing sector. The goal of the rule will be to reduce those emissions by 30 percent compared to 2005, by the year 2030. Republicans in Congress are hoping to block the rule. Transportation, which is the second largest sector, is already being addressed in various ways including updated fuel economy standards. These improved standards have helped to keep American cars competitive with high efficiency models from overseas. An additional rule addressing heavy duty trucks also took effect this year with impressive results.
This week, the advocacy group Ceres hosted a conference call in which they, acting as a spokesman for a wide array of companies across numerous industries, presented a letter of support for the EPA rule signed by 223 companies. They had a number of industry representatives on hand to speak out in support of government policy action on climate change. Ceres president Mindy Lubber said it well in her opening comments.
“Today’s press event affirms that companies and investors are supporting solutions to tackling climate change. More than ever before, businesses are setting ambitious goals to reduce their own energy use, lower their carbon footprint, and source more and more renewable energy. They’re achieving these goals and in so doing, they’re improving their bottom line and helping the environment. These companies also recognize that their voluntary actions alone are not enough. Lowering carbon pollution at the scale and during the time frames that are needed to avoid catastrophic temperature increases requires stronger policies. That’s why hundreds of companies have signed the Ceres climate declaration, a business led call-to-action that urges Federal and State policymakers to adopt clean energy policies that will enable companies to seize the clear economic opportunities of addressing climate change.”
Other speakers included Tim Brown, President and Chief Executive Officer, Nestlé Waters North America; John Gardner, Chief Sustainability Officer, Novelis Inc.; Dan Probst, Chairman of Energy and Sustainability Services, Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL); Sandy Taft, Director of U.S. Energy and Sustainability Policy, National Grid; and Donna Carpenter, Chief Executive Officer, Burton Snowboards.
John Gardner of Novalis (Aluminum) praised the plan’s flexibility in including energy efficiency (EE) as a means for power providers to reduce carbon emissions, noting that EE is, “the cleanest, cheapest, and most readily available energy resource to help states cut their carbon emissions.”
We know that cities are growing bigger, smarter and more connected, but which cities are best connected and which ones are growing their capabilities most quickly? A recent survey by communication technology provider Ericsson evaluates 40 leading cities around the world for their level of information and communication technology (ICT) maturity.
What the study found was that cities that were ranked lower are growing more quickly, thus beginning to catch up with those at the head of the pack.
The cities found to have the highest level of ICT maturity were Stockholm, London, Paris, Singapore and Copenhagen. Only three U.S. cities made the list, with New York coming in seventh, Los Angeles 11th and Miami 15th.
The report claims that ICT will form future cities, the way the railroad formed London and the highway formed Los Angeles. That may well be, though it seems that ICT is far less place-dependent than those other defining innovations were. Perhaps it is more a matter of how future cities will utilize their technology that will define them and distinguish them from others.
Because, as the report states, “it is not enough to simply invest in new ICT infrastructure. For this infrastructure to be fully utilized, it must be applied in new ways and turned into a vital resource for innovation involving people, businesses and city governments. Without compelling and useful applications, there will be no benefits for the individuals and the city as a whole.”
This provides a challenge and an opportunity to city leaders. “To get the full benefits of ICT infrastructure, city leadership needs to master its use of ICT to boost the city’s economy and competitiveness; provide services; and develop urban environment, quality of life and community collaboration.”
Sometimes, what we don’t know can set us free. Visiting a foreign nation — and seeing local people struggle to eke out a living on arid and unforgiving land — can certainly move and inspire a bright young man, who has never heard “all the reasons things cannot change here,” to come up with a clever plan that may or may not work.
One need look no further than the example of the renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs (whose biography I recently finished) to see both sides of that story. Sachs had an ambitious plan to eradicate extreme poverty in Africa, which he threw himself into with all the considerable passion, talent and fundraising he could muster. And while his Millennium Villages Project did improve the lives of numerous families, it ultimately fell short of its ambitious goals for a number of reasons. Most notably it lacked a sustainable business model.
Tevis Howard traveled to Kenya and saw what Sachs saw, and he too became determined to do something about it. After coming up with numerous business plans, Howard settled on the idea of planting trees and founded Komaza, a Swahili word that means “to encourage growth.” This was a fortunate choice, likely inspired by Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt movement and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai championed for human rights, democracy and conservation, all organized around the planting of trees.
Last week, the Senate blocked another attempt at passing the Keystone XL pipeline. The vote fell short by only one vote. The House has already approved the measure and one might expect it will pass when the Republican majority takes over in January. The president has signaled his intention to veto the measure when it comes to his desk, but is waiting for a decision from Nebraska’s governor before committing.
The plan has been opposed by most environmental groups because the tar sands oil is extremely dirty and energy-intensive to extract. It requires all the tar to be heated before it can be extracted or made to flow through a pipe. That means enormous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the lifecycle of extraction, transportation and combustion. Furthermore, the proposed pipeline would be routed right over the massive Ogallala aquifer, a crucial source of water for Midwestern farmers. This elevates the risk of a toxic oil leak to one of potentially devastating consequences. All this is happening at a time when oil is at its lowest price in years because we have so much of it from fracking.
As part of our ongoing series on carbon offsets, it’s time to peel back another layer and look at how entities determine exactly what their carbon footprint is, so that they know how much they want to offset, whether it’s for a specific action (like an overseas flight) or an overall operation.
Simply put, carbon emissions generally occur as the result of energy consumption in one form or another. More specifically they emanate from the combustion of fossil fuels, though there are certain industries, like concrete production, that give off CO2 as a byproduct of different kinds of chemical reactions.
Figuring out the carbon emitted by various fuels is straightforward. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) created a chart that provides the number of pounds of CO2 emitted for a variety of common fuels.
So, for example, it tells us that a gallon of gasoline emits 19.6 pounds of carbon dioxide when burned. It doesn’t tell us that, based on each vehicle’s efficiency, the amount of carbon emitted per mile will vary. For example, a Prius will emit 0.39 pounds per mile, while something like a Jeep Grand Cherokee will emit 1.03 pounds per mile. Still, a company that owns a fleet of vehicles can simply add up the amount of fuel purchased, from which the carbon footprint can easily be computed. Diesel fuel emits 22.6 pounds of carbon per gallon. There are other considerations, such as where the gasoline came from, how the oil was extracted and refined and how far it was transported, but these are generally ignored since it would be extremely difficult to track.
Right on the heels of his historic climate agreement with China, President Barack Obama announced a pledge of $3 billion to the United Nations’ thus far underfunded Green Climate Fund. The fund was formally established in 2010 at the U.N. Climate Change conference in Cancun. The purpose of the fund was to redistribute resources between the developed world and the developing world in order to assist developing countries in their effort to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
It’s clear that the president is doubling down on climate change, which shouldn’t be a surprise, since he has repeatedly highlighted his intention in his second term to take action by any means available. Recently, that has meant primarily by executive order, which, given the upcoming Republican control of Congress, will likely remain the only available avenue left to act on this crucial issue.
I don’t believe the timing of the announcement is random. I think Obama is taking aggressive action right now, in the wake of the election, to signal Republicans in Congress that:
- They are becoming increasingly isolated on the issue as even the Chinese are making major commitments, and
- he has no intention of letting up on this issue, which he intends to make part of his legacy.
One of the great (and sometimes not so great) things about our modern, hyper-connected world is that we have become much better at keeping track of people and things. That provides the opportunity to not only recognize how incredibly wasteful our society is, but also to do something about it.
One of the areas in which we are incredibly wasteful is food. We talked about that here last week and disclosed the fact, as originally reported by the National Consumer League, that 40 percent of the food grown in this country is wasted. Some readers had a hard time believing that which is understandable.
Putting these two things together is Food Cowboy, a company started in 2012 that uses mobile technology “to safely route surplus food from wholesalers and restaurants to food banks and soup kitchens instead of to landfills.”
The company was founded by Roger Gordon, a lawyer and former caterer; his brother Richard, a long-haul produce trucker; and Barbara Cohen, Ph.D., the author of the USDA’s Community Food Security Assessment Toolkit.
If you check out this video on Food Cowboy’s website, you will begin to understand what happens. Most of the produce sold in this country is delivered by truck. Truckers usually make their deliveries between midnight and 6 a.m. Palettes or sometimes even entire truckloads are often refused for cosmetic purposes — the potatoes have too many eyes or are the wrong shape, or the tomatoes are too close to being ripe. The truckers need to make room in their trucks for their next load, and given that they are often in unfamiliar locations in the middle of the night, they have little choice but to discard this food in a dumpster or a landfill.
When you see things happen that just don’t make any sense at all, it’s probably politics.
Last year the state of Arizona was ranked fourth in the nation by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy on their list of states whose utility customers saw the most savings on electricity. This was due to the comprehensive energy efficiency standard that was passed unanimously in 2010 by the bipartisan Corporation Commission. Despite the fact that the standard has been enormously successful by any measure, saving consumers and businesses in the state $540 million, last week the commission quietly proposed a resolution to essentially repeal it — gutting it to the point where it has no targets and no directives.
This is the same commission that, back in 2010, said, “The Corporation Commission has long recognized the value of energy efficiency and the benefits from the existing programs at regulated utilities and has approved rules to address how to expand energy efficiency efforts and align incentives to harness greater benefits for consumers.”
The now-endangered standard requires utilities to design programs for demand side management (DSM) and energy efficiency (EE) and has put in place targets that require a 22 percent reduction in power by the year 2020. In the four years since the standard was put in place, Arizona climbed from the 29th to the 15th most energy efficient state in the nation.
What could have happened to trigger such a radical change in philosophy?
A surprising announcement came out this morning as President Obama concluded his visit to China where he’d been attending a conference of Pacific Rim economies. The President, along with Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an agreement for the two countries — the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gas pollution — to work together to limit emissions.
The agreement, which was over nine months in the making, has China committing to reach peak carbon by 2030, with emission declining after that date. The U.S., on the other hand, has agreed to a 26 to 28 percent reduction by 2025 relative to 2005. This was the first time the U.S. pledged to reduce its emissions more than the 17 percent target by 2020 first declared in 2010 in anticipation of the Copenhagen accord.
On China’s part, Xi Jinping said that clean energy sources such as solar and wind would constitute 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030. Nuclear power is also expected to be part of the mix. In order to meet this target, China, which is still adding a new coal plant every eight to ten days, must complete roughly 1,000 gigawatts of new clean power over the next sixteen years. That’s roughly twice the current world total for renewables.
On the American side, we need to pick up the annual pace of carbon reduction from the current percent to somewhere between 2.3 and 2.8 percent.
Although China is currently the number one carbon emitter, the U.S. is responsible for more of the carbon currently in the atmosphere than any other country.
“We have a special responsibility to lead the global effort against climate change,”said Obama at a joint news conference. “Today, I am proud we can announce a historic agreement.”
Given the widespread popularity of digital communications, you might imagine that the use of paper should just about be dead by now.
Here’s a reality check: Although paper consumption is declining in North America, it is still on the rise worldwide. And before we get too carried away patting ourselves on the back, it’s worth noting that Americans still use far more paper per capita than any other people in the world, upwards of 500 pounds per year each. A full 40 percent of all industrial logging goes into paper production, and that number is expected to increase.
Xerox just announced a couple of new services that can help reduce paper consumption. That might be a little surprising for a company that, not long ago, made most of its revenue based on the number of pages customers printed. Now, in additional to copiers, the company also provides services like document management, which has reoriented Xerox towards helping its customers become more productive.
The Xerox Print Awareness Tool is a software application, developed at Xerox’ European Research Center, that can give you another reality check. It asks how many copies you think you print each month, and then gives you the actual numbers. This is done not to harass you, but to befriend you and win your trust — with the promise that it will help you become more productive and less wasteful. At that point, it becomes a kind of game. Users are given a monthly allocation of points based on their nominal printing requirements. Feedback is provided to compare users to their peers, and suggestions are made with ways to improve productivity.
This might seem odd, but it is, in fact, part of a growing trend of workplace gamification, which has been touted as an effective way to increase employee engagement.