Sierra Daily: January 2011

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23 posts from January 2011

Jan 31, 2011

The Locavore's Dilemma

In recent years many environmentalists have fixated on the notion of eating as close to home as possible. There are plenty of good reasons for doing so: preserving agricultural open space, supporting family farms, and keeping regional food traditions alive, to name a few. However, one of the most widely cited reasons--reducing greenhouse-gas emissions associated with transporting the food to market, sometimes known as "food miles"--may be greatly overstated. 

According to a new study be Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews in Environmental Science and Technology, a much larger source of greenhouse emissions is the production phase--the fertilizers, feed, and other inputs it takes to produce the food. This accounts for 83 percent of the average U.S. household's carbon footprint for food consumption.

Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%. . . . [F]or the average American household, "buying local" could achieve, at maximum, around a 4-5% reduction in GHG emissions due to large sources of both COand non-CO2 emissions in the production of food."

Sounds like bad news, right? Despair not! According to the authors' lifecycle analyses, it's far more important what one eats rather than how close it is:

Shifting less than 1 day per week's (i.e., 1/7 of total calories) consumption of red meat and /or dairy to other protein sources or a vegetable-based diet could have the same climate impact as buying all household food from local providers.

Put in other terms, eating totally local would result in GHG reductions equivalent to driving 1,000 miles less per year, while eschewing red meat for one day would be the same as driving 1,160 miles less. Meatless Monday, here we come!

--Paul Rauber

Jan 27, 2011

The Most Polluted Places on the Planet

Courtesy of Daily Infographic.

Happily we aren't one of them! At least for the time being: In a speech in Iowa Tuesday, former GOP House Speaker, possible 2012 presidential contender, and past Sierra contributor (!) Newt Gingrich proposed abolishing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, so we might be in the running for Most Polluted Place sometime in the future. Data in this infographic come from the Blacksmith Institute, in collaboration with Green Cross Switzerland. You can download the full report here.

--Paul Rauber

Jan 25, 2011

Something Missing?

"Daddy, why didn't he say anything about global warming?" --daughter Fae, age 8

"The tragedy we can see unfolding, though, is the way the president shied away from even mentioning the idea that climate change is a problem. That reflects political reality, but it also reflects the greatest failure of Barack Obama’s term in office." --Matthew Yglesias, smart DC blogger

Trouble in Gasland

The natural-gas industry has fallen a long ways since environmentalists (including some here at the Sierra Club) were talking about it as a "bridge fuel" between dirty old coal and oil and the bright, shiny, but incompletely built out world of renewables. Natural gas is often said to produce 50 percent less greenhouse gas than coal; my own "Beyond Oil In 20 Years" in our current issue says that it "produces one-quarter less CO2 than diesel" (that judgment sourced from the Department of Energy).

Now comes bad news from the Environmental Protection Agency: According to Abrahm Lustgarten in ProPublica, the "Climate Benefits of Natural Gas May Be Overstated."

"The new EPA analysis doubles its previous estmates for the amount of methane gas that leaks from loose pipe fittings and is vented from gas wells, drastically changing the picture of the nation’s emissions that the agency painted as recently as April. Calculations for some gas-field emissions jumped by several hundred percent. Methane levels from the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas were 9,000 times higher than previously reported. When all these emissions are counted, gas may be as little as 25 percent cleaner than coal, or perhaps even less."

Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth posts an amazing short video clip compiled by the EPA, filmed with infrared light, in which plumes of methane are seen billowing out of natural-gas facilities:


In total, reports ProPublica, "[b]illions of cubic feet of climate-changing greenhouse gases--roughly equivalent of the annual emissions from 35 million automobiles--seep from loose pipe valves or are vented intentionally from gas production facilities into the atmosphere each year." The new analysis will also strengthen environmentalists complaints against hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," the drilling technique that spurred the current gas boom:

The EPA now reports that emissions from conventional hydraulic fracturing are 35 times higher than the agency had previously estimated. It also reports that emissions from the type of hydraulic fracturing being used in the nation’s bountiful new shale gas reserves, like the Marcellus, are almost 9,000 times higher than it had previously calculated.

Happily, arriving just in time is the Sierra Club's brand new Natural Gas Reform Campaign Director, Deborah Nardone! Sierra Daily wishes her luck in sorting it all out for us.

--Paul Rauber  

Jan 24, 2011

Hey, That's Not Funny!

This blogger considers it a good sign when environmental issues have reached deep  enough into the culture that they can be comedically mocked. There was Kathleen Turner in 1994’s Serial Mom, playing an unhinged housewife who, among other homicidal misdeeds, conspires to have her neighbor offed for refusing to recycle. There was Steve Martin as the eco-precious owner of the Round Earth organic-food chain in 2008’s Baby Mama, described by the New York Times as “a belligerently New Agey entrepreneur with an unkind ponytail” who boasts “I’ve toasted pine nuts on the edge of an active volcano.” On television, the South Park folks handily and infamously skewered eco-smug drivers of the Toyota “Pious.” And now we have Portlandia, a weekly sendup of Portland, Oregon, the perfectly pleasant spiritual center of Ecotopia. (Sorry, Berkeley.) In its opening installment on IFC last Friday, Saturday Night Live veteran Fred Armisen finds himself in a locavore restaurant honing in on the quality of life experienced by the organic chicken he’s about to order. “He looks like a happy little guy who runs around,” Armisen says after the  waitress shows him a photo of the "woodland-raised" chicken, whose name is Colin. “A lot of friends?”

If you didn't "kill your television" back in 1980, what’s your take on Portlandia? What other send-ups of things enviro have you seen in movies and on TV? Feel free to share (or vent) below.

-- Reed McManus

How Much Do You Love James Hansen?


Ordinarily, the Sierra Club loves him plenty. We loved him enough to put him on our "fantasy roster" of all-star university professors. We loved him when he wrote to President Barack Obama declaring that "Coal plants are factories of death." We loved him when he got arrested protesting mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia.

So keeping in mind all that love, read what he wrote in response to the New York Times Andrew Revkin's plea for suggestions for what President Obama should say about energy in his State of the Union address. (Full version here.)

. . . It is both a moral issue and a question of where the United States will stand in the future. Our economic standing is going to become second class this century if we do not move smartly toward a clean energy future.

No where is the lame middle-of-the-road go-slow compromise approach clearer than in the case of nuclear power. The Administration has been reluctant to admit that the Carter and Clinton/Gore administrations made a huge mistake in pulling the U.S. back from development of advanced nuclear technology.

That is the way to make nuclear power safer (nuclear power already has the best safety record of any major industry in the United States) and resistant to weapons proliferation. The approach to nuclear power is to take a few baby steps with current technology. People such as Bill Gates are despairing at the lack of leadership in Washington — investing his own money in development of advanced reactor designs.

But even Bill Gates does not have enough money to make up for the lack of dynamic leadership in Washington. If we took advantage of our brainpower (which is rapidly aging!), we could still be the leader in developing safer clean energy for the future and producing a better future for our children, rather than going after the last drop of oil in pristine environments, off-shore, in the tar sands. It is such a purblind foolish approach. We need someone with the courage to stand up to the special interests who have hamstrung U.S. policy, including the minority of anti-nukes who have controlled the energy policy of the Democratic party. . . . Nevertheless, the easiest thing that he could do, and perhaps the best that we can hope for, is for him to give a strong boost to nuclear power.

Unfortunately, he seems to fall prey to Democratic politics on this, rather than being a responsible leader.


Sierra Daily commenters did not take kindly to to Thursday's post in which Scientific American's David Biello suggested that getting off fossil fuels might mean a world in which solar farms and wind turbines were "a common feature of many landscapes and seascapes." Here's what he had to say about the challenge of nuclear power:  

Just to supply one-quarter of its current energy mix from a resource that emits far fewer greenhouse gases — nuclear power — the U.S. would need to build 1,000 one-gigawatt nuclear reactors by 2050. Yet construction has begun on only two nuclear reactors in the U.S. since 1974. And just to power an electric car and truck fleet to replace the U.S.’s current gas and ethanol-fueled one would require 500 new nuclear power plants.

This is not to advocate for building 500 nukes or covering New Hampshire with wind turbines. But the United States uses a lot of energy, and at present renewables (including hydropower and ethanol) provide only 8 percent of our energy needs. Sure, we could get more energy efficient, but as BBC environment correspondent Richard Black points out, many increases in technological efficiency are matched by increased consumer demand. Refrigerators get more efficient, and people decide they want two. Auto fuel efficiency has improved, but fuel consumption keeps going up. Somethings got to give.

--Paul Rauber 

Photos: Arnold Adler, iStock 

Jan 21, 2011

Did you hear about "air conditioners for bears"? Nyuck nyuck nyuck

I've never been much of a fan of those media outfits that offer us their supposedly apolitical, true-or-false judgments on politics. They invariably find that both sides have transgressed against their Platonic ideals of political speech, and so end up equating one side's cynical lies to the other's mild overstatements. Also, they're often just plain wrong. Plus they are as political as anyone else, they just pretend not to be.

A perfect example of this smug operation in action came on NPR's Morning Edition on Wednesday, when host Steve Inskeep interviewed Bill Adair, editor of Politifact. Here's Brad Johnson's excellent writeup from Think Progress's "The Wonk Room":

President Barack Obama’s pledge to forestall mass extinction from global warming is a laughing matter to NPR. Today, Morning Edition Steve Inskeep broke into guffaws of laughter as PolitiFact editor Bill Adair mocked Obama’s plan “to devote billions of dollars annually” to help “ensure that fish and wildlife survive the impacts of climate change.” Adair said he thought that meant supplying “air conditioners for bears,” considering the promise on par with the one Obama made about college football rankings:

INSKEEP: What are some of the more obscure promises on the campaign trail they said they were going to work on?

ADAIR: One we really enjoyed was the Obama promise to help species adapt to climate change. We decided that meant air conditioners for bears, which are probably not get funded now that Republicans are controlling the house.

INSKEEP: Did he misspeak? “Help species adapt”? Not not deal with climate change, but help species adapt to climate change.

ADAIR: Well, that’s what the promise said. He got very detailed in his policy statements on the campaign. It’s clear he was trying to appeal to very precise constituencies. And so we saw a lot of promises like that. My personal favorite was his promise was to push for a playoff system for college football.

Listen here:


Scientists estimate that around a quarter of the world’s species — around a million different species — will be committed to extinction by 2050 if global warming is unabated, and nearly 60 percent of new U.S. endangerment findings describe global warming as an extinction factor.

Oh that Steve Inskeep! He's such a card! And thank God he's on the job telling us what's true and what's not.

--Paul Rauber



Jan 20, 2011

How Can I Get You Into An EV Today?

Ibmev_survey_chart_motivators_rev2b IBM’s Institute for Business Value recently took an interesting approach to assessing prospects for electric-vehicle sales in the U.S. Big Blue’s researchers asked consumers what factors would motivate them to opt for an all-electric vehicle, then asked auto industry executives what they thought would get consumers behind the wheel of a clean, quiet machine.

It turns out consumers claim they are driven by rationales a bit more noble than the greenback-focused sales guys say they are. While consumers and execs pretty much agree on the relative importance of factors like the range of electric vehicles and the convenience of battery charging, the buying public rates traffic congestion and concern for sustainability issues far more importantly than the business guys. And when it comes to anything that involves dollars, the gulf widens. While 41 percent of shoppers say lubricative government incentives might motivate a decision to drive a plug-in, the guys in the plaid sport jackets say that factor is more like more like 73 percent. While 51 percent of consumers say significantly higher oil prices would motivate them, the execs say it’s more like 76 percent. And while both groups consider an electric vehicle’s out-the-door price the most important factor of all in the decision to abandon the fuel-burner, the execs see sticker price as the be-all-and-end-all: Eighty-one percent of them say price is the deal-breaker, while drivers rated it at 71 percent.

So who’s right? You can choose to believe that tire kickers are motivated by their higher natures, or that the professionals who cajole us into signing on the bottom line have the inside line on consumer behavior. 

--Reed McManus

Scaling Up

Solar panels

Suddenly everyone wants to talk about what it would take to get Beyond Oil in 20 Years.  Today's contribution is from David Biello in the always-smart Yale environment360 with Green Energy's Big Challenge: The Daunting Task of Scaling Up. Like Mark Delucchi and Mark Jacobson, Biello is trying to tease out whether it is possible to wean the world from fossil fuels in the near future. He concludes that it is--but at the cost of the total transformation of the country and the globe.

One thing is certain: If the global economy does succeed in making the transition to renewable energy, the face of the planet will be significantly changed, with solar energy farms and wind turbines a common feature of many landscapes and seascapes.

Producing 10 percent of the energy the United States used in 2009 from wind farms, for example, would require turbines covering an area the size of New Hampshire. Meeting global energy demand from solar power would mean covering 1 percent of the earth's surface with solar panels. The problem is that pollution problems notwithstanding, fossil fuels are pretty darn efficient:

A coal-fired power plant produces 100 to 1,000 watts per square meter, depending on the type of coal it burns and how that coal is mined. A typical photovoltaic system for turning sunlight into electricity produces just 9 watts per square meter, and wind provides only 1.5 watts per square meter. . . . “Ultimately [says Jon Wellinghoff, chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission], we are going to have to accept the fact that wind turbines and solar systems are going to take up fairly large pieces of land."

Given the fervent opposition to relatively modest wind projects like Cape Wind and the battles over the siting of large solar projects in Southwestern deserts (about which the Sierra Club and its members have many strong opinions), it won't be an easy transition. But having taken the position that it is a necessary one, it's something we need to start envisioning now.

--Paul Rauber

Image: iStock.

Jan 19, 2011

Thinking Big


Oil Barrels, 2008 (60 x 60 inches)
Depicts 28,000 42-gallon barrels, representing the amount of oil consumed in the United States every two minutes. Photo illustration by Chris Jordan, courtesy of Kopeikin Gallery

In the current issue of Sierra I take a look at what it would take to get the United States Beyond Oil in 20 Years--a lively discussion of which is ongoing in the comments section. Turns out that I may have been thinking way too small, because here's National Geographic Daily News talking about Going "All the Way" with Renewable Energy--i.e., what it would take to get the whole globe off fossil fuels in the next few decades. National Geo bases its story on research by Mark Delucchi, of the Institute for Transportation Studies at U.C. Davis and Mark Jacobson of the civil and environmental engineering department at Stanford, published last month in Energy Policy, here and here. Eschewing coal and oil--as well as biomass and nuclear--the authors argue, would pretty much solve the world's unemployment problem for some time, because we'd need:

  •  4 million giant (5 megawatt) wind turbines,
  • 90,000 large scale (300 MW) solar plants, and
  • 1.7 billion 3-kilowatt rooftop solar systems.

And that's not to mention quintupling production of rare earth metals to make all those electric motors. Obviously we are very far away from such a project at present, but it's not because we don't know what to do. "Technically you can do it," writer Mason Inman quotes Jacobson. "It really depends on will power."

--Paul Rauber

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