You don’t have to be a tree-hugger to recognize the fact that we can’t forever continue to take raw materials out of the Earth, use a lot of energy to convert them into briefly-useful products and then pile them into huge landfills. If you understand that, then you get the gist of what sustainability is about. A sustainable future is one where nothing is wasted. Indeed, the idea of zero waste, whether we’re talking about factories or homes, has already taken root.
That means we could find ourselves in a place in the not-too-distant future, where we have no more need for landfills. While that would be a glorious achievement, there are those who could find it a hardship.
That would include those like 13-year-old Inusa Mohammed and his friend Kwesi Bido, who is a year older. The two of them spend their afternoons scrounging through the Agbogbloshie landfill in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, looking for bits of copper or electronic remnants that they might be able to exchange for a few coins. The boys will burn the plastic insulation off the wiring to collect the precious copper inside, heedless of the dangers that dwell within the toxic fumes. The dump is full of other dangers — ranging from broken glass to exploding aerosol cans, to the ubiquitous lead that lurks inside of old and broken computer monitors as well as arsenic and mercury and other deadly toxins.
Agbogbloshie, and places like it, represent the end of the road for your old computer, cell phone or TV. Electronics recyclers here at home are often overwhelmed, especially with things like old cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors and TVs for which there is no longer a market. That means some of it gets shipped off, albeit illegally, to places like this.
It has been a challenge at times to get well-heeled and sometimes highly influential people to care about climate change. After all, having a great deal of money can serve to insulate someone from problems that afflict those less fortunate. Food prices going up, for example, not that big a deal. Coastal areas flooding out, go somewhere else for vacation. Many of those at the top of the heap are finding that business-as-usual is working very well for them, thank you very much. Besides, they might have significant investments in industries that could be threatened by changing to a more sustainable model
Perhaps, what is needed to get their attention is something that hits closer to home. Here is an item in England’s The Telegraph that might fit the bill: Apparently, rising temperatures in areas like France, Italy and Spain are affecting the flavor of certain wines. The grapes that are used in the production of certain wines, like pinot noir, are growing more quickly than before.
What that means, according to Kimberly Nicholas, a wine industry consultant, is that “as the atmosphere warms, the desired ratio of acid to sugar occurs earlier in the season.” That challenges the vineyards to deduce the ideal time to pick the grapes. Ms. Nicholas, an associate professor of sustainability science at Lund University in Sweden, warned that vineyards are finding it difficult to know the perfect moment to pick the grapes in order to retain a wine’s signature taste. The grapes may no longer produce the unique flavors that wine fanciers have come to associate with their favorite reds and whites.
Sometimes you have to think big. That’s certainly what Dr. Phillip Carlson would say. He’s the guy that invented the “energy skyscraper” back in the ’70s. It was a colossal tower that would reach up into the sky to create what you might call artificial weather, which would deliver consistent 50 miles-per-hour winds to the base where an array of wind turbines would convert that wind into electricity.
The principle is basically the same as the chimney effect in which hot air rises and cool air descends. In order for the effect be sufficient to produce significant amount of power, you need a very tall chimney. Spraying water enhances the effect, especially if the air coming up is hot and dry.
Carlson was clearly ahead of his time. After the Arab oil embargo of 1973 came and went, interest in energy went back to sleep as oil had become abundant once again. But the idea was picked up by Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. They proposed construction of a full scale version in the Southern Arava Desert that would be close to 4,000 feet tall and 2,000 feet in diameter. It’s worth noting that the tallest building in the world today, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, is 2,700 feet tall. Needless, to say, the cost of constructing such an engineering marvel would be prohibitive, which is why the Technion project did not proceed.
But now, an American company called, Solar Wind Energy Tower (SWET) is moving forward with plans to build one of these in Southwest Arizona, outside the town of San Luis, Arizona, and another one across the border in San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico. Their design is only 2,250 feet tall, practically a miniature version of the original. The company has purchased land and received approval from the city council for the Arizona project. The town has also agreed to provide the water necessary to run the tower for 50 years.
The SWET tower, as designed, is expected to produce some 4 million MW-hours per year; that’s more than the Hoover Dam. If this seems unbelievable, it’s not. The underlying science is sound. That doesn’t mean there won’t be unanticipated problems with these if they ever get built. (See Video below.)
So, now after some 10,000 years or so of human civilization, what have we actually learned? One thing that seems clear is that greed has been an effective motivating force to get people to use their imaginations to improve their lot in life, often by improving the lots of others with useful products and services. This led to what we call progress — all the wonderful conveniences that make the many aspects of our lives easier and safer, while providing the means to accomplish far more than any individual could have dreamed of in years past.
At the same time, it has produced a society with a high degree of social and economic inequality, a society that does not seem to have progressed very far at all in this regard since feudal times. There are still the haves and the have-nots with a vast chasm of entitlement and privilege dividing the two.
The question of how to bring these two opposing facets of our chosen course into some kind of balance has bred a couple of different approaches that seem to be in contention.
One, government oversight, has been used quite effectively at times, though it also goes in and out of vogue depending on the prevailing political philosophy. Today, in the post-Citizens United era, it seems likely that weakened oversight and regulation will remain the norm — as long as those business interests with money to contribute to political candidates now get to erase those pesky regulations that dampen profits with the swipe of a credit card. Just this week, Dodd-Frank was further weakened in the latest budget bill, another thank-you gift to Wall Street campaign contributors from both sides of the aisle.
The other approach seems to be the installation of conscience into companies, via the move towards increased transparency, sustainability and the growing corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement. Mission-driven companies and companies that truly care are no longer merely hypothetical. This development seems to be consistent with the flourishing vision that is becoming popular, fueled largely by a sense of personal commitment on the part of individual employees.
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.