Will we ever be able to get all of our energy from renewable sources? There is certainly enough supply available. Enough sunlight hits the Earth every hour to power the entire human world for a year. But right now, it would take a 310,000-square-mile solar farm (about twice the size of Oregon), or 6 million wind turbines to capture enough sunshine or wind to provide all of the world’s electrical power.
If that sounds like a lot, it is– which is why we will continue to use a mix of sources including natural gas and coal to meet our electrical demand for some time to come. The renewable numbers will continue to shrink as long as the technology and our efficiency improves faster than the population grows. In the mean time, coal, despite being the dirtiest fuel available, is still abundant and still produces 30 percent of the world’s energy. In 2012, the U.S. used coal to produce 43 percent of our electricity, while in China coal produced 81 percent. In other places, like South Africa, it contributed over 90 percent.
While there are a number of problems associated with burning coal, the biggest is the amount of carbon dioxide it produces: Coal combustion generates anywhere between 200 and 230 pounds of CO2 for every million BTUs of heat produced. That is roughly twice the amount emitted by natural gas.
The new EPA Clean Power Plant rule will put pressure on utilities to either clean up their coal plants or switch to a cleaner fuel. Many are already switching to natural gas, but another approach that has been talked about for a long time, carbon sequestration, is finally getting a chance to demonstrate its capabilities in a full-scale commercial operation.
Just this week, NRG announced the Petra Nova Carbon Capture Project, the world’s largest post-combustion carbon capture power generation plant. The project will be a joint venture between NRG’s wholly-owned subsidiary Petra Nova Holdings, and JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration Corp.
According to the press release, this commercial-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) system will utilize existing technology to capture 90 percent of the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the processed flue gas from an existing coal plant in Fort Bend County, southwest of Houston. Construction on the project has already begun.
As we push towards a radical overhaul of the world economy, with the goal of establishing a sustainable human presence on the planet, it is important to manage our progress. As quality expert Edward Deming once said, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” It’s a good thing, then, that we have organizations like Clean Edge to provide extensive benchmarking services in the clean technology and sustainability area.
This week the organization released its 2014 Clean Tech Leadership Index. The report tracks clean technology progress in all 50 states, as well as the top 50 metropolitan areas in the U.S.
So this is what American politics have come to in 2014. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appears on NBC’s Meet the Press, then quietly jets out to Vail, Colorado to appear at an exclusive and secretive Koch Brothers strategy meeting. Not a word of this was spoken to his constituents back home. He spoke to an audience of some of the wealthiest people in the country, who have become considerably wealthier over the past decade, about how “America is careening into an economic crisis.” He boasted to the ultra-conservative crowd that “the governorship in New Jersey is the most powerful constitutional governorship in America.” I take that to mean he has extraordinary executive powers to do his and their political bidding.
One step that he has just recently taken is to withdraw New Jersey from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), something he has been threatening to do for several years.
RGGI is a voluntary alliance between nine mid-Atlantic and New England States, which have agreed to work cooperatively to reduce carbon emissions through the use of emission credits that could be traded within the cooperative. RGGI states have reduced their emissions at a higher rate than their non-RGGI counterparts. The price of carbon credits has climbed to $4/ton, another sign that the program is working. If there is a problem with the system, it is that it hasn’t been aggressive enough in locking in reductions. Christie claimed, wrongly, that participation would make the state less competitive. Numerous studies and analyses have shown that sustainable enterprises do better, by reducing costs, avoiding penalties and attracting the best talent.
The governor was praised for his move by David Koch, who described it as a “commitment to the free enterprise system.” This commitment to free enterprise apparently lapsed when Christie banned EV maker Tesla from selling its cars in the Garden State. Tesla’s direct-to-consumer marketing poses a threat to the politically-connected car dealer networks, long known for their campaign support, which hold a monopoly in the state. Such contradictions are nothing new for the governor, who said back in 2011, that “the future for New Jersey is in green energy.” Of course that was before he became involved with the Koch brothers and their extensive oil and gas interests. Since 2011, he has scaled back renewable energy goals and rebates for residential solar, as well as vetoing a bill that would have banned the disposal of fracking waste.
This is a little ironic; no, it’s more than a little ironic. Congress won’t act on climate change for fear of adversely impacting businesses. So, cities and states are picking up the slack, taking aggressive action, in order to protect their… wait for it…businesses.
A new report entitled Protecting Our Capital, released by the CDP, claims most cities recognize that climate change poses a considerable risk to their local businesses and therefore their economy and well-being. Of course, it’s only a small fraction of businesses that are actively lobbying against climate action — mostly those in the fossil fuel industries who have the most to lose. Most of them now acknowledge the problem and, even as they hope to slow government action, are moving to address the challenges.
The report, which is based on responses from 207 cities, documents the recognition of the interdependence between cities and businesses. Of those surveyed, 76 percent of cities said that climate change could impact business, while businesses said that 75 percent of their biggest climate-related risks could also be seen as threats to their respective cities.
What kinds of risks are they talking about? These could include rising insurance costs, loss of tourism, supply chain issues and a lack of raw materials. Drivers of these costs will stem from storms and flooding, sea level rise, temperature increases, drought, and other weather-related disruptions and destructions.
A total of 757 carbon reduction drivers were reported.
As we study the key systems upon which our human population depends, it quickly becomes clear that water and energy are essential. Not only are they essential, but they are also inextricably linked. It takes energy to move, heat and purify water. It also takes a great deal of water to produce energy, whether it’s from hydropower or from thermal power plants, both nuclear and fossil fuel-fired.
The most prominent example of this interdependency is in agriculture, which uses enormous quantities of both energy and water. The paper industry differs from agriculture for a couple of important reasons. First, 72 percent of the fiber used in paper comes from trees which are rainfall-fed. This, in water conservation parlance, is considered green water — which is distinguished from surface and groundwater, referred to as blue water. Agriculture also depends on rainfall, but in many cases it is supplemented by a great deal of additional water via irrigation, which is why the industry is by far the largest water consumer in the nation.
Most of the water used in the paper production life cycle is used during the manufacturing process, primarily for conveyance of the fibers as they are extracted from logs as wood chips, and through the pulping process. By the same token, most of the energy used in paper-making goes into cooking the pulp, in order to remove the fibers, and drying the wet fibrous mat as it comes out of the paper machine before it is rolled up and ultimately cut into reams or converted into cardboard. According to this Energy Star report, more than $7 billion worth of energy was purchased in 2009 for the manufacture of pulp, paper and paperboard. This is primarily used as boiler fuel for both process-steam and power generation.
Of course, there is an opportunity to do things in a smarter and greener way. There is a great deal of residual biomass such as bark that could be used to produce energy. International Paper does exactly that, generating 72 percent of its energy from forest residuals. The company has also been working to improve energy efficiency, with a goal of a 15 percent reduction in purchased energy by 2020. An investment of $290 million has led to a reduction of 9 trillion BTUs per year. At current coal prices, that will pay for itself in 8 years, though if natural gas is substituted, it could take longer. Since 2010, the company has reduced its purchased energy usage per ton of paper by 3.7 percent.
We don’t often associate airplanes with low-hanging fruit. I mean, it might just be the worst metaphor one could imagine. After all, planes spend a lot of time entirely out of reach. But when it comes to finding ways to save fuel and reduce carbon emissions, there’s lots of low hanging fruit.
The automobile industry has invested billions reducing the weight of their cars to reduce fuel consumption and they don’t even have to lift them off the ground. So it’s no surprise to hear that airlines are saving millions by reducing weight. What’s surprising is that they haven’t done more of that sooner.
The opportunity is enormous. Researchers at MIT estimate that that cost of each passenger carrying a cellphone costs Southwest Airlines $1.2 million annually in weight-related fuel expenses. That number jumps to $21.6 million if the cellphone is replaced by a laptop. Other pundits have pointed out that if every passenger used the bathroom before boarding the plane, it could save the airline millions. This caused budget airline Ryanair to consider charging passengers to use the bathrooms in flight (to encourage them to plan ahead).
Virgin Atlantic estimates that shaving even a single pound off all the planes in their fleet would save them 14,000 gallons of fuel per year. The airline has redesigned its meal trays, an exercise that was originally intended to improve the customer dining experience. Turns out they could fit more of the smaller, lighter trays on each meal cart, which means fewer meal carts per plane. The net result is close to a 300-pound weight loss. It’s a great example of the kind of rewards that creative thinking, and a willingness to think outside the box, can bring.
I don’t know if it was the cold winter or what, but we suddenly seem to be seeing mass defections from the climate denial bandwagon. Last week it was the former chairman of Shell U.K. This week it’s Henry Paulson, who served as Treasury Secretary during the George W. Bush administration. Paulson was instrumental in that administration’s response to the financial meltdown, a situation he draws as parallel to the climate crisis in a New York Times Op-ed entitled, “The Coming Climate Crash.”
Speaking specifically about climate change, Paulson says: “This is a crisis we can’t afford to ignore. I feel as if I’m watching as we fly in slow motion on a collision course toward a giant mountain. We can see the crash coming, and yet we’re sitting on our hands rather than altering course.”
You would think that as a former Secretary of the Treasury, his call for a carbon tax would be enough to convince his fellow Republicans that not only is this the most effective way to address the issue, but also that the time for procrastination has passed. But Paul Krugman, writing in his response, says: “Every economist I know would start cheering wildly if Congress voted in a clean, across-the-board carbon tax. But that isn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future. A carbon tax may be the best thing we could do, but we won’t actually do it.”
Krugman says that the health care crisis is actually a better parallel to climate change than the financial crisis. Back in 2008, the administration held the specter of an imminent (and plausible) worldwide financial collapse potentially only days away with which to drive urgent and dramatic action. Climate change is very different as it has revealed and will continue to reveal itself slowly, over a period of decades, at the end of which it will be far too late to do anything but brace for the impact.
Human beings are very clever — clever enough to remake much of the world in the image of what lies in our collective imagination. We are also clever enough to forget, perhaps for generations, that we are still a part of nature. But part of our cleverness also involves learning from our mistakes.
People are beginning to wake up to the fact that even our wildest excursions of creativity and talent must be grounded in and informed by the lessons of nature. Nature, being the ultimate master of the subject, can teach us how to survive. Nature wastes nothing. The very idea of waste does not exist in nature. Leaves fall from trees and decompose, turning back into food for the trees and the millions of organisms employed in that industry.
People recycle, too. Aluminum cans become car frames or more cans. Yesterday’s front page becomes tomorrow’s sports section. We are saving lots of energy and resources in the process and feeding those employed in that industry. But food waste, despite the tremendous biochemical value contained within it, has been slow to follow. Food is wet and sloppy. It smells bad, and it rots — providing a potential haven for microbial bad guys. It must be picked up and disposed of promptly, and unlike aluminum or paper, it contains a lot of water, which makes it heavy.
So, other than the few of us who compost, most of the food waste goes into the landfill. According to the EPA, close to 50 percent of what goes into landfills is organic material. Some of that is recovered as landfill gas, but we could do much better, especially considering that a great deal of that methane, a dangerously potent greenhouse gas, escapes into the atmosphere. But, beyond avoiding methane release, there is tremendous value that can be recouped from this material.
James Smith, as the former chair of Shell U.K. and current chair of the consultancy Carbon Trust, is a man who has looked at the questions of fossil fuel consumption and climate change, in Joni Mitchell’s words, “from both sides now.” Not surprisingly, he has much to say on the subject, informed as he is by his background as both a physicist and a chartered accountant, as well as his experience.
Clearly no climate denier, he told Business Green that, “Climate change is a problem that absolutely must be tackled, and it is a very urgent problem and the longer we leave it the more and more urgent it becomes.”
Blending ecological sensitivity with the pragmatism of an oilman, he points out that, “It is going to be hard to kick the fossil fuel habit, because the phenomenal density of fossil fuels is what brought us the industrial revolution.”
Smith talks about the “trillionth ton” of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, which is projected to occur by 2040. We need to stop emitting before we get there, but that won’t be easy. Says Smith: “It is an order of magnitude problem. What we need is a unit of economic output for one-third of the energy input and a unit of energy for one-third of the carbon-output. That is the scale of the challenge.”
Because of the state of the fishing industry today, small fishermen find themselves squeezed between massive international fleets and heavily depleted stocks. In their fight for survival, many are finding themselves becoming both educators and advocates along the way. In grappling with these forces and trying to find a way to keep afloat, they may have just hit on a key principle that lies at the heart of the sustainability journey.
I spoke with two fishermen on the New England coast (on different days), who both wear multiple hats.
Chris Brown is both the owner of the Brown Family Seafood Co. in Rhode Island and also the president of the newly formed Seafood Harvesters of America (SHA), a group that, among other things, is focused on lobbying Capitol Hill, to ensure that the concerns of commercial fishermen are represented in the re-authorization of the Magnuson Stevenson Act (MSA).
Josh Wiersma is the Manager of Northeast Fisheries Groundfish Sectors XI and XII in New Hampshire. He is responsible for the implementation of the sector management system established in 2010. Josh is also the founder of New Hampshire Community Seafood, a community supported fishery (CSF).
You could say that, at least until now, cars and tomatoes have basically nothing in common. Tomatoes go from green to red as they ripen, and cars, well, they seem to be getting greener. As part of this trend, Ford is one of several companies that have been pursuing a viable bio-based plastic that could substitute for the petroleum-based plastics that dominate the industry today. Indeed, as cars continue to reduce vehicle weight in order to improve fuel economy, the use of plastics is becoming ever more common.
Ford formed a collaboration two years ago with Heinz, Nike, Coca-Cola, Procter and Gamble and others, along with the World Wildlife Fund, in the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance. Their stated goal was to develop a 100 percent plant-based PET, a common type of plastic used in soft drink and water bottles.
The intent, from Ford’s perspective, has been “is to develop a strong, lightweight material that meets our vehicle requirements, while at the same time reducing our overall environmental impact.” So says Ellen Lee, a Ford plastics research technical specialist.
Now they have apparently hit pay dirt. In what appears to be a marriage made in heaven, Heinz was looking for an innovative way to recycle and repurpose peels, stems and seeds from the more than 2 million tons of tomatoes the company uses annually to produce its best-selling ketchup.
Siemens Report Lays Out Opportunities for Cities to Leverage Technology and Build Infrastructure Value
Ed note: This article is part of a short series on financing smart city infrastructure, sponsored by Siemens. Please join us for a live Google Hangout with Siemens, PwC and Berwin Leighton Paisner on June 12 at 10 a.m. PT/1 p.m. ET, where we’ll talk about this issue live!
If you were to watch a time lapse video of the history of human civilization, you would see something like this: Small bands of humans moved from hunting to agriculture, consolidating, and then developing all kinds of technology at a gradually increasing rate. Improved food security led to rising population levels which, in turn, led to more innovation. All of this is punctuated by numerous wars.
In more recent times there has been a massive migration into cities, leading to highly concentrated metropolises. If you were to look closely, you would also see a redistribution of power and resources. Where it was once almost exclusively held by ruling classes and governments, it is now being increasingly shared with businesses and an investor class. Now we find ourselves with resource scarcity, a disrupted climate and cities looking to find a way to manage their swelling ranks at a time of receding government support.
A new report, entitled Investor Ready Cities, jointly produced by tech conglomerate Siemens, consultancy PwC and law firm Berwin, Leighton & Paisner, looks unblinkingly at these trends and proposes a way forward through increased collaboration between cities, businesses and investors.
The main thrust of their argument centers on the notion of infrastructure value. It first challenges and then provides guidance to city officials to develop the “legal and governance structures that need to be in place to provide the necessary security and certainty to the investment community that will encourage them to invest in infrastructure projects.”
This is because, “Cities with the appropriate foundations of institutional stability can leverage financial mechanisms to their advantage to help deliver the infrastructure that is so critical to their future.”
There are some big changes afoot at consumer products giant Procter & Gamble (P&G), though with little in the way of comments from the company, it’s anybody’s guess what’s behind it.
Here are the facts. The company announced that it is consolidating facilities, and cutting some 3,000 office jobs over the next two years. A company spokesman said that the move to close one office in Geneva, “was enabled by leveraging more flexible office designs, increased use of digital technology and improving our environmental sustainability.”
Sustainability is a big topic at the company, especially after the Dow Jones Sustainability Index dropped P&G from its Top 100 list of most sustainable companies in North America. This must have come as quite a blow after the company had been on the list for 14 consecutive years and named as the leader of Nondurable Household Products sector for seven years straight. The company now considers environmental impact a top priority, “as important as a new product launch or a business acquisition.”
The company was named as a hero in last year’s Canadian Corporate Knights report. Among the accomplishments cited by the report was the fact that 25 percent of its 192 plants were certified zero waste. The company is committed to finding the value throughout its supply chain that might have once been considered waste. “Only in a landfill does that waste have no value,” said Len Sauers, vice president for global sustainability. “Our goal was to find some value in all that waste, which has been a good investment for the company. Plus, not paying to have the stuff landfilled.” Some examples include paper sludge being converted into roofing tiles and waste from a feminine care pad plant converted into fuel for a local cement plant. All told, the company has saved $1 billion in landfill costs since 2007.
While the dedicated startups that spearhead the sustainable seafood movement through things like community supported fisheries (CSFs) and green aquaculture are exciting, these fish will take a while to hit your local grocery store.
That is why today’s story about the work Greenpeace has been doing in rating the sustainability practices of major food retailers might have the greatest impact of all, at least in the near term.
Greenpeace just issued the eighth edition of its report entitled Carting Away the Oceans. The wide-ranging report covers everything from human-rights abuses in the industry, to GMO salmon, to protecting America’s fish basket in the Bering Sea, where roughly one-half of all seafood landed in the U.S. comes from.
But the main focus of the report is the ratings, which evaluate 26 major American grocery store chains — including everyone from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s to Kroger, Safeway, Target and Walmart.
I spoke with report author James Mitchell, senior oceans campaigner with the Greenpeace Oceans program, about the significance of the report.
When most people think of sustainability, they think of things like renewable power, energy and water conservation, or recycling. But sustainability is all about recognizing the interconnectedness of things. That means taking care of the things that take care of the things that take care of us: like our air. And though we often think of the environment as what’s outdoors, there is also an environment indoors, and we need to take care of that, too.
Why should we care about indoor air quality (IAQ)?
Well, the first reason is our health. Consider the following facts: First of all, most people spend roughly 90 percent of their time indoors these days.
Secondly, indoor air pollution is two to five times higher than what is generally found outdoors. With help from the American Lung Association of Minnesota, here is a list of pollutants that can often be found lurking within our indoor air. These generally fall into several categories including:
- Products of combustion (e.g. ash, soot, carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic compounds)
- Biological agents such as molds, pet dander, and pollen
- Volatile organic compounds
- Metal dust such as mercury or lead
- Radioactive particles such as radon, and
- Cooking effluents including nanoparticles
The Environmental Protection Agency lists poor indoor air quality as the fourth largest environmental threat to our country. Quite often the health impacts of poor indoor air show up as allergies and asthma. There are an estimated 40 million individuals in the United States who are affected by allergies, and the prevalence rate of pediatric asthma has increased by 72.3 percent. Asthma is now the sixth ranking chronic condition in our nation and the leading serious chronic illness of children in the U.S.