Planning for a green future

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We often make poor decisions about the future. When we buy cars, choose careers, or plan dinner, people are often motivated by short term goals and overlook long term implications. We buy cheap cars that waste gas, gravitate toward high risk jobs with the hope of big rewards, and choose tasty meals that are horrible for our bodies. In short, we make many decisions that are penny wise, but pound foolish.

Why do we do this? Is it a cultural thing, or something hard-wired into all humans? There’s good reason to believe that evolution is responsible. The decisions that promote our immediate survival and reproduction are rewarded, while decisions that promote long term success aren’t. After all, long term success depends on the sum of all of our choices – the effects of long term decisions are muted and we subsequently discount the rewards.

In fact, long term planning skills often go against the grain. Making sacrifices now can prevent us from having kids and passing on our genes. Saving food for the winter is a good long-term plan, but a layer of fat would be more useful if someone is going to steal our food. Everyone wants to find their soul mate before having children (especially if that soul mate happens to be a rich supermodel), but what if we get hit by a bus tomorrow?

Hal Ersner-Hershfield of the Stanford Center on Longevity has some interesting findings:

Hal Ersner-Hershfield, a fifth-year psychology grad student in Carstensen’s lab, is working on a way to help young people make better decisions about planning for retirement. It’s based on his work using functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans that first demonstrated that, when people are asked to imagine themselves in retirement, the parts of their brains that usually “light up” when they think about themselves don’t light up at all. It’s as if they were thinking about a stranger.

So, if our future selves are strangers to us, why should we make good long-term decisions? Think about it – are you the kind of person who makes financial sacrifices and then gives the money away to random people on the street?

This has big implications for the environment. Environmental policy requires thoughtful long-term decision making, and it offers few immediate rewards. Sacrifices are concentrated among a few companies, but the benefits are distributed across the entire planet. Finding a way to get people to relate to the effects of their actions is a major challenge. The good news is that Hal Ersner-Hershfield found a way to change people’s behavior. He showed test subjects digitally aged pictures of themselves in the mirror and then gave them $1,000 to spend however they liked. Subjects who had “seen the future” chose to invest more of that money than the control group. So, the trick is finding a way to clearly illustrate how climate change can affect the world.

Here’s what our future might look like unless we change course:

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New airline radar can save millions of gallons of fuel

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The radar system that monitors airplanes has changed very little in the last 50 years. Due to this, there’s a pretty large “fudge factor” planned into routing all air traffic. Very bad things can happen when planes run into each other (or even when they run into each other’s wake’s – check out this cool video of what wing tip vortices do to the air). No one wants that to happen, so there are aviation rules that keep airplanes 10 minutes apart and prohibit unplanned altitude changes.

As passengers, this means that we spend hours waiting on the runway for paths to clear in the sky, and that we often get stuck in rough patches of air that make the trip feel like a roller coaster ride. Planes waste hundreds of gallons of fuel on the ground and the rules cause even more waste because pilots are unable to take advantage of favorable tail winds at different altitudes. With fuel costs at all time highs, and maintenance costs rising as well, these rules add significantly to the financial and ecological costs of travel.

Good news though. Airbus is testing a new type of radar for aircraft, using satellite signals to replace ground based radar (and offer better coverage in the middle of the ocean):

…in late March the partners in CRISTAL ITP (the ‘ITP’ standing for ‘In-Trail Procedure’) used satellite-navigation-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance—Broadcast (ADS-B) technology to demonstrate safe cruise-altitude changes in oceanic airspace. ADS-B is now being developed internationally to replace radar as the world’s primary method of air traffic control (ATC) worldwide by the early 2020s.

This system is one of several in development that offer significant fuel savings. It also may allow jets to fly in tighter formations, which would allow more flights per day out of each airport (and reduce the wait time under current passenger loads). Until the system is up and running, here are a few things you can do to save fuel on board your next flight:

1) Pack light.
If you can get all of your clothes and toiletries into one bag or even into your carry on, do so. Every pound you avoid putting on the airplane can prevent dozens of lbs of CO2 from being produced. You may also want to consider mailing your luggage ahead to your destination via UPS or FedEx (these shipping companies use ground transport and ultra-efficient airplanes). You’ll have better insurance coverage, less chance of losing items, and the ability to track your bags. Many airlines are also adding a $25 surcharge for a second bag.

2) Conserve power
Try to avoid using anything on the plane that draws current. Overhead lights, power plugs, and even earphone plugs draw current that’s produced from jet fuel. Bring your own book light, use the bathroom on the ground before boarding, and avoid using the in-flight video screen.

3) Close your window shade
Cooling the airplane is one of the most energy intensive processes on board. If it’s sunny outside, shutting your window shade can help reflect heat away from the interior (and help the passenger in 13E get a peaceful nap). On the other hand, if it’s cold outside, a closed window shade can help insulate the plane and retain heat – which also saves fuel.

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How to offset carbon from shipping with TerraPass

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Whether they’re transporting a package across the world or just across town, shipping companies use a lot of fuel. As more consumers become carbon conscious, these companies are facing customers with new priorities.

Recently, uShip announced a new program to offset carbon emissions. In partnership with TerraPass, the shipping company is offering a new option to highlight green transport options. Now, whenever you ship items, you can choose a company that offsets the emissions of its planes, trains, trucks, and boats with “…domestic wind farms, “cow-power” projects, and energy efficiency projects.”

This is a great development! But, until all shippers start reporting their emissions, voluntary carbon offsets are only a drop in the bucket. The container shipping industry accounts for about 4.5% of all CO2 emissions – and that figure doesn’t include air cargo emissions. Cargo ships and oversize delivery vans are gas hogs, and often have very poor emission controls.

By giving consumers a way to offset carbon emissions, uShip offers a way to judge the efficiency of our service providers. Imagine if the carbon cost of all the companies we shop with was included in the price tag. That way, the greenest companies would have a competitive advantage over their dirty competition!

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1st LEED gold certified car dealership opens in Rockwall, Texas

Toyota Of rockwall

For those of you not familiar with the Fort Worth/Dallas Metroplex (or if you live in Dallas it’s Dallas/Fort Worth…but what do they know), the area is like one big city managed by a couple of big city governments and an absurd number of smaller ones. It’s why the Dallas Cowboys haven’t actually been in Dallas since 1971 and yet nobody really seems to notice.

The city of Rockwall, Texas resides somewhere to the east of Dallas proper. Apparently, it is in an area that on my outdated map was labeled “Here there be monsters.” (I don’t travel much.) Rockwall is the county seat of Rockwall County. Rockwall is the smallest county in Texas, but also the one of the fastest growing counties in the whole United States. More importantly for this blog post, it is the home of Rockwall Toyota.

So, why would someone like me brave Dallas traffic to travel to a car dealership in a town I had never been to when I’m not in currently looking to buy a car? Well, this particular Toyota dealership holds a special place in the history of going green. This is the first Leed Gold Certified auto dealership on the planet, and after reading about it in the press room at Toyota I had to see for myself.

By nature I’m a bit skeptical about green businesses; even with certification it’s easy for a company to do the bare minimum to say they tried and then go about their business same as always. But never have I seen a business the extremes that Steve and Barbara Jackson have gone to with this dealership. This isn’t a marketing ploy with them, but a serious commitment.

It’s hard to know where to start but let me tell you right off the bat you haven’t lived until you walked into a men’s room with a digital camera and start taking pictures of the high tech waterless urinals. People just didn’t know how to react, but I couldn’t pass this up. As Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was fond of saying “God is in the details.” I hope it’s not sacrilegious to apply that to a men’s room. The cabinets, like the cabinets in the lobby, are made of recycled agricultural waste. The lights turn on and off automatically when you enter the room (a feature also common to all rooms in the facility) and the electronically controlled water saving water faucets are solar powered. Even the tile accents are made from recycled glass bottles.

The lobby is even more amazing. No VOC paints are used so there is no new car showroom smell. Furniture, cabinetry, wallpaper, even the floor mats are made from recycled and sustainable products. The lighting in the showroom senses when the room is lit by sunlight flowing in through the massive windows and automatically dims the lights to save power. They even have ceiling fans powered by solar panels on the roof. Skylights and windows provide natural lighting even in the climate controlled service areas. The bay doors into the service area open and close within 8 seconds to save energy.

The service bays and the parts department are connected by computer so that when a mechanic needs a part there are no forms or invoices to be filled out; In fact as much of the dealership communication that can be conducted paperless is.

Outside, the landscaping consists entirely of native plants. By using native plants, the amount of water, fertilizer, and pest control products used are greatly reduced. Four cisterns that are each bigger than my house collect water from the roof and from the condenser units for the air conditioning. These cisterns provide water for the landscaping and the car wash.

Green building techniques and materials were used throughout construction of the complex. The outside walls are made from recycled aluminum cans, and all waste materials from construction were recycled.

Environmentally friendly as commonly understood refers to nature and the outdoors. And I guess on a lot of levels, that’s the most important. I once worked for a defense contractor that employed some 10,000 people. Almost all of those employees were locked away 8 hours a day behind concrete walls with no windows, for national security reasons. The atmosphere was toxic, and I don’t just mean the WWII era asbestos in the building, but the burned out fluorescent baked state of mind that was a recognizable feature with anyone who had worked there more than a few months.

The commitment to the environment of Toyota of Rockwall extends not only to outside world, but also to their customers and employees. Air quality is carefully maintained throughout the facility with no VOC paint and concrete sealant, and airlock style entryways. Copiers and printers are sequestered away behind closed doors so that the toners and chemicals won’t contaminate the ecosystem of the building. Nearly every room is lit by sunlight during the day, and windows are made low enough that employees are able to see the outside from their desks.

Bike racks and showers are provided for the employees to encourage them to ride to work; not something you would expect from a car company. Employees are taught and encouraged to recycle and all the break rooms are provided with clearly marked recycle bins. Employees who carpool or drive hybrids to work are given special close in parking to encourage energy efficiency.

As I said, I’m not in the market for a car. As much as I wanted to drive one of the new hybrids off the lot, my beat up old Mercedes diesel (that I fill up with biodiesel) will have to hang in there a while longer until prize patrol shows up. But if you are in the market for a new car and you live within driving distance of Toyota of Rockwall it’s time to put environmental money where your mouth is. Toyota of Rockwall already has.

Farming the oceans

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The oceans are in trouble. Fish catches are starting to fall despite an increase in the number of people fishing and despite advances in fishing technology. Many fish that were once plentiful, such as cod and Chilean Sea Bass, are almost unobtainable. Due to overfishing, new diseases, climate change, and pollution, we are reaching a tipping point where many species are no longer able to replace their losses.

“Since 1950, with the onset of industrialized fisheries, we have rapidly reduced the resource base to less than 10 percent—not just in some areas, not just for some stocks, but for entire communities of these large fish species from the tropics to the poles.”

If fish disappear from the ocean, the effects will be massive. Roughly 2 billion people rely on fish for the majority of their protein intake. Without this food source, starvation is a very real possibility for many fishing villages. Luckily, some people are looking for an alternative before widespread extinction sets in. Kona Blue is one such company – they’re spearheading a program of deep ocean aquaculture. In the words of Neil Sims (Kona Blue’s founder):

“We would have never been able to sustain our population if we had remained a hunter-gatherer society on land. And I’m not sure what makes people think we can remain that way in the ocean,”

The response from chefs is encouraging – imagine sustainable fish that tastes even better than fish from the ocean!

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