Was Cash for Clunkers a success?

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Photo courtesy of natashalcd at Flickr.com

The jury is still out on the Cash for Clunkers program. The last paperwork was filed on Monday, August 24, 2009, but crushed cars still waiting to be recycled. The final numbers are in – so how did the program score?

All told, C4C took 690,114 clunkers off of the road:

84 percent of consumers traded in trucks and 59 percent purchased passenger cars. The average fuel economy of the vehicles traded in was 15.8 miles per gallon and the average fuel economy of vehicles purchased is 24.9 mpg. – a 58 percent improvement.

That sounds wonderful, but a lot of people are wondering how effective C4C really was. Some argue that the program was a handout to car makers, that it was economically ineffective, that it increased consumer debt, or that it will create a price bubble for used cars.

There’s some truth in each of these claims, and policy makers are hopefully taking notes. Cash for Clunkers generated a lot of strong emotions. Even among environmentalists, there was spirited debate over the program. For example, ethanol lobbyists and wind turbine manufacturers opposed the program because it threatened their funding.

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Photo courtesy of cluestream at Flickr.com

The Federal Cash For Clunkers program is also being blamed for distorting the value of carbon credits. Depending on the vehicles involved in the trade, the government set a carbon price of between $237 and $500 per ton. That compares with an average price of $5 to $40 per ton for carbon credits available on the open market.

Critics have argued that the low fuel efficiency requirements for replacement cars will have minimal impacts over the long term. Under the program, some trucks were replaced with other trucks that “only” received a 2 mpg improvement (18 mpg –> 20 mpg). That is more than a 10% improvement – and improving the mileage of a work truck has a much larger impact than improving the mileage of an economy car.

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Photo courtesy of shimonkey at Flickr.com

One of the strongest arguments about C4C is that the environmental impact of making new cars may be greater than the benefits provided by improved fuel efficiency. Mining ore, molding rubber, welding parts, and moving the finished product to showrooms are all processes that produce carbon emissions:

The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted to produce a new car has been estimated to range from about 3.5 to 12.5 tons, or an average of about 6.7 tons. So buying a new car means an extra 6.7 tons of CO2 emissions — you wouldn’t have emitted all that pollution had you just kept your old car.

Yet, the bulk of CO2 that a car releases comes from day to day operation:

According to a literature review by the Pacific Institute, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the life-cycle carbon emissions of the average car come not from driving but from manufacturing and disposal.

The other 80-90% comes from driving. It doesn’t take a large increase in efficiency to make up for the carbon released in making a new vehicle.

So, is it worthwhile to replace the less fuel efficient cars with fuel sipping models? Does it produce more pollution to build the vehicles than it takes to operate older, less efficient engines? Setting up a formula is pretty simple – let’s say the 690,114 cars produced for C4C released average amounts of carbon dioxide. 690,114 x 6.7 tons = 4,623,763.8 tons of CO2. That’s how much Cash For Clunkers caused to be released.

On the other side of the equation is how much CO2 saved by getting gas guzzlers off of the road. The average American drives more than 13,000 miles per year. The vehicles that were replaced would have burned approximately 596,511,828 gallons of gasoline per year ((13,657 miles x 690,114 cars) / 15.8 mpg). The replacement cars would only burn 378,509,513 gallons ((13,657 miles x 690,114 cars) / 24.9 mpg). That’s 218,002,315 gallons saved per year.

Each gallon of gasoline that’s burned produces about 19.4 lbs of CO2. 19.4 lbs of CO2 is ~0.008799692 metric tons.

So, after all that math, C4C is currently reducing our CO2 emissions by approximately 1,918,353 tons per year. In less than 2 and a half years, the program will “pay” for itself in terms of CO2. The average passenger car is driven for 7 years or more, so over their lifetime, Cash For Clunkers vehicles will save approximately 13,428,471 tons of Carbon Dioxide.

With numbers this large, sometimes it helps to put them in perspective. A large elephant weighs approximately 6 tons, so 13,428,471 tons of carbon weighs more than 2 million elephants!

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Photo courtesy of ECU Digital Collections at Flickr.com

CO2 isn’t the only pollutant that the program has reduced. It isn’t even the type of emission that new cars have the greatest impact on:

Older vehicles emit conventional air-pollutants, such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, at rates as much as 100 times higher than newer vehicles, he says. That’s because they have less-sophisticated pollution controls and because emission levels tend to worsen as vehicles age.

Most of the greenhouse gas released in the US comes from other sources. We cause more pollution with coal power plants, oil refining, chemical extraction, and other industrial processes. So, the Cash For Clunkers reductions are really just a drop in the bucket:

…on average, every hour, America emits 728,000 tons of carbon dioxide. The total savings per year from cash for clunkers translates to about 57 minutes of America’s output of the chief greenhouse gas.

Cash for Clunkers isn’t going to solve our emissions problem. But it’s a start.

As a side note – $2B of funds were added to extend the Cash For Clunkers program. Unfortunately, those funds were taken from the $6B set aside for other green technology. This means that there will be less investment in wind turbines, energy efficiency upgrades, power storing devices, smart grids, and other uses that may have delivered more of an environmentally friendly bang-for-the-buck.

There are also plans to mirror the program with rebates for energy efficient appliances.

Photo courtesy of Uncle Bumpy at Flickr.com

What do you think about Cash For Clunkers? Would the money have been better spent on public transportation, alternative energy generation, research, or other uses? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

In the news: Environmentally friendly legislation and programs

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Photo courtesy of WallyG at Flickr.com

Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture. A lot of exciting things are going on right now, with recent legislation leading the way.

Many gardeners, ranchers, and farmers are concerned about a Food Safety Bill that’s pending in the House. There have been rumors that this legislation would redefine the word “organic”, or outlaw small scale farms, or make it impossible to grow heirloom seeds, or drive up the price of locally grown food. HR 875 has been the subject of message board arguments, blog punditry, and even chain mail. Before you call your Congressman and voice concerns, it’s important to do some fact checking about HR 875.

There’s also some interesting news about ethanol and biofuels production. The percentage of ethanol in gasoline is currently capped at 10% (E10), but Ag Secretary Vilsak is urging lawmakers to raise the amount of ethanol that’s allowed in transportation fuel. He’s calling for E12 gasoline, and we may see 15-20% ratios if the Environmental Protection Agency approves E15 or E20 gasoline. This move face opposition from equipment manufacturers who are worried that high ethanol blends may harm engines. Lawnmower and boat engines are particularly at risk.

Several states are making green news too. Michigan is offering scholarships to train unemployed and underemployed workers for green collar jobs – these Michigan Promise scholarships may help the state survive waves of layoffs in the automotive sector. The funds come from Tobacco settlements and are not at risk from the declining tax base in the state.

Illinois, California, Texas and other states are rushing to build transmission lines that will carry wind generated electricity from the countryside into the big city. A recently proposed line called the Green Power Express would run from the Dakotas into Chicago. This is one of many infrastructure projects that could pay dividends in reducing pollution and reducing dependence on foreign energy sources at the same time.

Private enterprise is also partnering with city and state governments to encourage energy saving projects. “Green Mortgage” programs allow homeowners to take advantage of the tax break on mortgage interest to finance energy saving additions and renovations to their homes. These programs will funnel money towards installing insulation and energy efficient windows, or replacing light bulbs with skylights and upgrading Energy Star appliances. In the process, they will generate manufacturing and construction jobs now while boosting energy efficiency of homes for decades to come.

Do you know of any other big green news? Feel free to share in the comments section below!

Green ways to travel

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Photo courtesy of Saw You On The Flipside

For some people, travel is an unpleasant necessity. They travel to meet clients or commute. For other people, travel is a joy and the reason that they work. They save up money for vacations and sight seeing. Whether you’re in a hurry to get home or if you’re taking the chance to satisfy your wanderlust, there are plenty of opportunities to add some green to your itinerary.

From hiking boots to luxury jets, we have more transportation options today than ever before. Most travelers weigh these options based on comfort, price, and time. Yet an increasing number of adventurers and businesswomen are factoring in the environmental impact before they buy tickets.

When choosing transportation with a small carbon footprint, it’s important to compare apples to apples. One way to compare the environmental impact is using passenger miles. Passenger miles are calculated by taking the total fuel consumed and dividing by the number of passengers. For example, consider a car that gets 40 miles per gallon. If the driver is the only person in the car, then the driver is responsible for 19.4 pounds of CO2 for every 40 miles driven or 0.485 pounds per mile (19.4 / 40).

If we add a passenger with heavy bags, the car’s MPG will decrease slightly to about 39 MPG, but the amount of carbon dioxide generated will stay roughly the same. That footprint is spread out over 2 people instead of one. (19.4 / 2) / 39 = 0.249 pounds per mile. This is because so much of the energy used in moving a car is used to move the car itself.

In short, vehicles that travel full are more fuel efficient than empty vehicles, and passenger load can greatly affect the pollution produced per person. While trains are often more carbon efficient than buses, a fully loaded passenger bus may even be more efficient than a train. Then again, rail systems in some countries have the edge.

The most common way to compare different fuel sources is to use Miles Per Gallon equivalence (MPGe), but some fuel sources are dirtier than others. For example, generating 100,000 British Thermal Units (BTU) from coal will produce about 42 lbs of CO2, while natural gas will produce the same amount of energy while emitting about 14 lbs of CO2. So, a coal powered train may be more energy efficient than a natural gas powered bus, but it would produce more pollution to travel the same distance. Hard numbers for this “pollution efficiency” are difficult to pin down.

And that’s not all… some situations can magnify the effect of emissions. For example, pollution from airplanes is released in the upper atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, water vapor and other byproducts behave differently in the upper atmosphere than they do at ground level, multiplying their effects. For more information on this subject, look at how various scientists calculate the radiative forcing factor. As a rule of thumb, each pound of airplane emissions is about 2.8 times worse than emissions from other forms of transportation.

From lowest impact to highest impact, here is a rough guide to transportation options (including some data from the US Department of Energy Transportation Energy Data Book and manufacturer’s sites):

On foot / Walking
Bicycle
Horseback Riding
Rickshaw
Electric Motorcycle / Scooter
Vanpool or Shuttle (1,322 BTU per passenger mile)
Motorcycle (1,855 BTU per passenger mile)
Train (2,816 BTU per passenger mile)
Ultra Efficient Passenger Car (ie; a Prius)
Average Passenger Car (3,512 BTU per passenger mile)
Passenger Trucks/SUVs (3,944 BTU per passenger mile)
Bus (4,235 BTU per passenger mile)
Turboprop Passenger Plane (for short distances)
Fuel Efficient Passenger Jet (for long distances)
Piston Engine Passenger Plane
Older Passenger Jets
Small Prop Plane (ie; Van’s Aircraft’s RV-7: ~36 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Ferryboat
Helicopter (~20 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Cruise Ship (~17 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Motorboat (~15 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Jet Ski (~10 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Executive Jet (~0.8-5 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)

Are there any transportation methods that I’m missing? It’s hard to quantify the MPGe for a hang glider, sailboat, submarine, electric pogo stick, or jet pack, but if you have the scoop on how to rank an unusual form of locomotion, please drop a note in the comments at the bottom of this page.

So, how can you use this list? Before you book a trip or reserve a hotel room, make sure to check out all of the options that are available. Instead of flying cross country, do you have time to take the train? Instead of staying at a hotel across town from a conference, can you find a hotel within walking distance and skip the rental car?

A few more tips for carbon efficient travel…

  • Maximize the capacity of your vehicle: carpool, combine taxis, choose a party boat instead of a dozen jetskis
  • Travel light: ditch 2 suitcases and you may be able to fit another passenger in your car or cut your weight in half on an airplane
  • Choose direct flights: up to 80% of a plane’s fuel consumption happens during take-off and landing, flying direct also cuts out unnecessary miles in the air and, as a bonus, can reduce the amount of tax and airport fees charged
  • Pick fuel efficient cars, planes, and motorcycles: newer vehicles are often much more fuel efficient (ie: the 737-800 airplane gets about 35 percent better mileage per seat than the MD-80 it is replacing).
  • Make the captain a passenger: get certified to operate your own riverboat, learn to fly your own plane, or (if you have one) ditch the chauffeur back at the mansion
  • Often, the green choice will yield a more pleasant trip and save money at the same time!

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    Photo courtesy of svanes

    How are you spending Earth Hour on March 28th?

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    Photo courtesy of Earth Hour Global at Flickr.com.

    Once a year, environmentalists around the world turn out the lights for an hour. This year, Earth Hour falls on Saturday, March 28th, and many different homes, offices, and government buildings are taking part. The organizers of Earth Hour hope to raise awareness of how much energy we waste with inefficient lighting systems. For one hour a year, everyone can take part and see the beauty of the natural sky that’s lost due to light pollution.

    The World Wildlife Fund and other environmental organizations are hard at work planning activities for Earth Hour 2009, ranging from star watching and recycling events to tree plantings and slumber parties. Find an Earth Hour event nearby, or if there aren’t any, you can plan one yourself with help from the Earth Hour Facebook group!

    Now’s the time to raise your voice and take part. Are businesses and government offices in your town participating in Earth Hour? Check the latest Earth Hour news, and if City Hall isn’t taking part, now is a good time to ask pointed questions of your elected officials. While they’re on the line, why not ask about steps that the city is taking to retrofit energy efficient devices into public buildings and legislation that improves local air quality?

    Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate how we destroy the night sky for the other 8,765 hours of the year…
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    Photo courtesy of fyngyrz at Flickr.com.

    The latest news on carbon credits

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    Photo courtesy of Azure Bleu at Flickr.com.

    The Kyoto treaty is in the news again as the Obama administration considers implementing a cap and trade system for carbon dioxide. It turns out that a lot of participating countries have fallen short of their Kyoto commitments, and are now required to purchase approximately $46 Billion of carbon credits to make-up for surplus CO2 production. This could mean that the price of carbon credits is about to spike upwards from their current low levels.

    So, what exactly is a cap-and-trade system?
    Cap and trade is a regulatory framework for controlling the emission of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that affect the climate. It is one of several proposed systems, with the largest alternative being a carbon tax. The cap in cap-and-trade refers to a limit set on the level of emissions. This cap can be company specific, region specific, national, or international. When participants spend more than their allotment, they can trade credit with other participants who haven’t produced as much as their allowed.

    What are carbon credits?
    Carbon credits are warrants that represent carbon neutralizing behavior (ie; maintaining a forest, sequestering carbon underground, or breaking down greenhouse gases). In some countries, factories and power plants are required to purchase carbon credits that offset their pollution. These vouchers are used to fund the development of clean technology and conservation, and they also make green business practices more competitive by putting a price tag on externalities. A cap and trade system promotes land conservation by placing a value on pristine wilderness areas. In turn, this reduces carbon emissions by deterring development.

    Many different companies offer carbon credits and carbon offsets. If you’re interested in purchasing some for your personal use, there are plans that you can use to neutralize the impact of a plane trip, counterbalance your home’s expenditures, or to offset your daily commute. Here’s a price survey of various companies that offer carbon credits.

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    Photo courtesy of Dianne Pike at Flickr.com.

    There are concerns with how carbon credits are computed. Critics argue that carbon credits are often miscalculated, that they’re rewarded for projects that were going to be built anyway, or that the expense is not justified by the results. A recent report by the US General Accounting Office offers some support to these criticisms. Projects that have applied for carbon accreditation under the UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) were found to have serious problems. Several of these projects involved displacing Chinese farmers to build hydroelectric dams, and construction on some of the dams had even been underway before the project managers asked for carbon credits.

    The end users of carbon credits are increasingly demanding third-party validation. In order for carbon credits to be more than modern-day indulgences, there are some important stipulations that need to be met. The carbon savings must be measurable, unique, and independently verifiable. This prevents unscrupulous carbon dealers from selling non-existent credits or selling the same credits over and over again. In the terminology of the Clean Development Mechanism, only actions that provide “additionality” are eligible for carbon credits:

    If I buy carbon offsets, I make the implicit claim that I forgo reducing my own emissions (i.e. I still fly) but in exchange I pay someone to reduce their emission in my stead. If I buy carbon offsets to “neutralize” the emissions I caused during air travel from someone who would have reduced their emissions anyway, regardless of my payment, I, in effect, have not only wasted my money, but I also have not neutralized my emissions.

    Currently, the majority of projects applying for CDM accreditation involve hydroelectricity. There are only a finite number of suitable rivers in the world though, so future savings will have to come from new techniques and green technologies. Microturbines fueled by waste are one of the largest areas of potential growth, and US companies are spearheading development in that area.

    San Antonio recently became the first city to deploy a power plant that uses methane from sewage to generate power. Burning this renewable resource is a clean solution, because methane has more than 20 times the impact on climate change that carbon dioxide does. There’s no word yet on whether San Antonio is applying for carbon credits on this project, but it’s certainly more useful than methane flare projects that are already cashing in.

    Several states are pursuing a different tactic to reduce their carbon footprint; they’re attempting to reduce overall power use. A California law is now in effect that requires all state facilities to reduce their energy use by 20%. There have been some unexpected results. In addition to new systems at government offices and service centers, Corrections facilities around the state have also been forced to go green. California’s not alone; many prison facilities nationwide are adapting energy saving technology. From prison gardens that use compost to water boilers that burn wood waste, cleantech is saving thousands of dollars and introducing prison populations to some innovations that were originally developed for the Hollywood elite. With state budgets feeling a pinch, how long do you think it will be before San Quentin starts selling carbon offsets?

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    Photo courtesy of MrGluSniffer at Flickr.com.

    10 Steps to a Healthy Ocean: Protecting our Oceans from Pollution

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    Photo courtesy of Webzer at Flickr.com.

    The ocean covers more than 70% of the earth’s surface, and it’s a major part of the ecosystem that we rely on. Phytoplankton are responsible for about half of the oxygen produced worldwide. More than 1 billion people rely on fish for a significant part of their diet. The ocean provides food, recreation, clean air, carbon mitigation, inexpensive transport, and many other things that we take for granted. Yet, we’ve been treating the ocean like a dump for centuries. That may have been fine when society produced trash on a very small scale and all of things we threw away were biodegradable, but technology has changed that.

    There are thousands of phantom fishing nets that keep killing fish after being abandoned. Sunken ships leak millions of gallons of oil and billions of styrofoam cups end up in the water every year. Even when these events happen thousands of miles away, they have a ripple effect that’s felt worldwide.

    The ocean is one continuous body of water. Each sea and bay is connected by strong currents and migrating animals. That means damage done to one part of the ocean will eventually affect all the connected bodies of water. After oil spills happen in the Arctic Ocean, traces of petroleum spread to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans too.

    The oceans are one of many areas around the world where the environment has a direct effect on human health and industry. For example, the rain forests convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and affect climate. Coral reefs nurture schools of fish and they offer passive protection to ports. The organisms that make these areas work are resilient – they’ve survived centuries of natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires. Yet some of these areas are under constant stress caused by humans.

    Stress factors that threaten wildlife include contamination of water supplies, climate change, human development, and invasive species. Abandoned mines are leaching hazardous chemicals into rivers and lakes. Mangrove forests are being cut down to build beach resorts. River deltas are clogging up with invasive species like zebra mussels and Wakame kelp.

    In the face of all these threats, what can we do? Here are a few steps that anyone can take to help protect the health of our oceans.

    1) Restore damaged ocean habitat

    In areas that have been fished out or poisoned by industry, native species have often been wiped out. But, that doesn’t mean that Cod have been permanently wiped out in the Atlantic, or that scallops will never return to the Virginia fisheries. Jennifer Rich is planting sea grass in an effort to restore the scallop breeding grounds of her home state. She led a volunteer effort off the coast of Virginia to replant eel grass in environmentally damaged areas. Her effort is ongoing, and similar replanting projects could use your help. Wetlands and mangrove forests are especially valuable because they filter sediment, pesticides, and fertilizer runoff before they get to the ocean.

    If you’d like to get your hands dirty in another way, plan a beach vacation off of the beaten path. Once a year, the Ocean Conservancy does a worldwide project to remove trash from the shore. Last year, volunteers cleaned up more than 30,000 miles of shoreline. In a single day, more than 7 million pieces of trash were collected for proper disposal. Check with your City Hall – many towns are happy to supply trash bins, rubber gloves, and even boats to anyone who wants to clean up local waterways.

    2) Protect natural buffer systems.

    Biosystems are nature’s utilities – they desalinate water, absorb carbon, liberate nutrients from the ground, and provide other services free of charge. The plants and animals that make up these systems are often treated as commodities, but killing the goose that lays golden eggs will only put food on the table for a day. Protecting biosystems can pay dividends for years to come.

    Forests are an essential buffer for the oceans. Old growth trees neutralize the pH of rain and absorb harmful chemicals before they reach the ocean. Trees that grow in estuaries and along riverways are especially important, but those areas also face increased development pressure and they are easy for loggers to access. Shoreline habitat is being destroyed to build giant shrimp farms and resort hotels. Luckily, there are now sustainable forestry and aquaculture options available. Sustainable logging allows limited harvesting of resources without destroying the natural processes that we benefit from. The next time you buy lumber or land, do some research and check for certifications of sustainability.

    3) Substitute organic fertilizer in the place of chemical fertilizers.

    When a lawn is overfertilized, the excess fertilizer will usually wash off into the surrounding environment. Fertilizer pollution causes eutrophication in waterways – it saturates the water and promotes algal blooms in nearby lakes. A significant amount of fertilizer runoff will eventually make it out to sea, where it can cause red tides and elevated amounts of harmful bacteria. Surprisingly, residential property has higher levels of fertilizer runoff per acre than agricultural land – possibly because farmers are smarter about how they use fertilizers.

    “12-50% of all surface water pollution originates with urban runoff. Additionally, whereas agricultural runoff tends to be limited to nutrients, runoff from roads and parking lots contains a wide variety of additional pollutants including oils, road salts, nutrients, and sediments, as well as hazardous and solid wastes.”

    Using organic fertilizers, mulch, and compost can reduce these problems. Not only are these fertilizers slower releasing, but they also contain nutrients in forms that are more easily absorbed by plants. Chemical fertilizers have other problems too. They can form a crust on the top of soil that repels water (blocking soil absorption, increasing runoff, and promoting erosion). Some chemical fertilizers will also kill soil fungus, soil bacteria, earthworms and insects, all of which play a vital role in aerating the soil and helping anchor it to the ground.

    4) Landscape with native plants

    Plants have evolved to live in just about every area of the country. These native plants are adapted to local soil and weather conditions, so there’s very little need to fertilize or water them. Many beautiful native plants are available. A yard landscaped with unusual plants can really stand out, especially during a drought when all of the neighbors yards turn to dust.

    Using native plants to conserve water is known as Xeriscaping. It can be a very effective way to cut your yard’s pollution footprint, and xeriscaped lawns also offer natural habitat to native animals and migrating species. Since native plants are heat and drought tolerant, they also work year round to trap dust, block wind, and prevent erosion.

    5) Replace impermeable groundcover

    When rain falls on bare ground, about 90% of the water is normally absorbed in the first 30 minutes. On developed land, the surface is usually covered with impervious materials such as asphalt, concrete, and cement. For every 20% of the ground that’s covered with impermeable surfaces, the amount of runoff will increase by roughly 100%. These impervious materials block water from soaking into the ground, but the water has to go somewhere. As a result, residential areas are prone to flash floods and rapid erosion which harm the water quality of nearby rivers and lakes.

    You can use this information to make smart landscaping decisions. Instead of putting a sidewalk in your garden, consider using flagstones or building a gravel pathway. If your driveway needs to be resurfaced, check into using permeable cement. There are even companies that build living rooftops – these green roofs not only help insulate your house, but they also protect your roof from heat damage, hail, UV degradation, and animal damage. Permeable areas act as natural buffers to pollution because they help contain runoff.

    6) Improve landscaping

    Runoff is often caused by poor landscaping. Many older homes have design flaws that cause water to flow much faster than necessary. Not only are these flaws easy to fix, but reducing the speed of runoff will also protect your home from flood damage and erosion. On sharp slopes, you can grow plants with deep roots like prairie grass. Other solutions include placing bales of hay on the slopes to soak up the water or installing terraces. If your building has rain gutters, installing silt fences on the gutters will slow the speed of drainage and reduce the energy of flowing water before it reaches your foundation. If you want to make an even big difference, consider putting a rain barrel or rainwater garden under your downspouts.

    When planning these projects, make sure to check local building codes. It’s also important to schedule construction projects for months with low rainfall. While the projects are underway, there will be a lot of exposed soil that can be carried away. Tarps can be used protect bare ground, and sewing quick growing plants will quickly cover up any worrisome spots.

    7) Clean up after pets

    Housepets are another major source of pollution – pet waste has concentrated forms of some toxic chemicals as well as harmful bacteria that can do serious damage to the ocean. Even the nutrients found in sewage can cause problems because they promote the growth of anaerobic bacteria. Anaerobic bacteria create an Anoxic zone of seawater, where all of the oxygen has been depleted and many organisms are unable to breathe.

    Dog droppings and cat poo contain many of the same pathogens that human waste does, such as e coli and salmonella. While human waste is at least partially treated in sewage processing plants, dog waste is often left to decompose wherever the dogs leave it. When it rains or the sprinklers turn on, harmful bacteria in pet waste is spread over the surface of your whole lawn. Runoff will carry this bacteria down the storm drains and eventually out to sea.

    One way to reduce the impact of pet waste is to bag up the poop and flush it down the toilet. Septic tanks and sewage systems use good bacteria to breakdown waste into harmless material. It doesn’t matter if the waste comes from a person or a pet – the treatment processes they use can handle almost everything. One thing that you shouldn’t put down the toilet is soiled cat litter. Cat litter is not biodegradable and can also cause damage to pipes.

    If you have a cat, you might want to go a step further and change your cat litter. The most common types of pet litter is made from bentonite clay and silica. Not only is do these materials prevent decomposition, but they are also produced by strip mining (and strip mining causes water pollution in its own right):

    “Clay-based cat litters are not a by-product of the manufacture of something else, but produced by strip mining. The clay, known as bentonite, is found under several layers of soil, which are removed in the mining process. The first few inches of clay are discarded, and the final clay is removed and processed into cat litter.”

    There are natural alternatives to conventional cat litter. Check with your local pet store, or consider making your own cat litter with shredded paper, sawdust or wheat bran. Also, some cats prefer not to use kitty litter. Cat droppings on the ground can be scooped up just like dog poop.

    If you use biodegradable pet litter or scoop up pet poo, then you may also want to try composting the pet droppings. There are tumbling composters and vermicomposters (worm composters) made especially for pet waste. It’s important to keep pet poop separate from food scraps and grass clippings. That’s because the harmful bacteria in pet waste are largely inactive and they will only multiply if there’s an available food source. A Pet Waste Composter is effective at quickly reducing pet droppings into useful fertilizer.

    8 ) Take endangered species off the menu

    It’s not easy being tasty. Our search for exotic flavors has pushed many different species to the edge of extinction, and fish are in serious trouble. Fishing trawlers are catching fish faster than they breed, which means that the fish available at the supermarket are getting younger and thinner. Some species, such as Swordfish and Orange Roughy are frighteningly rare in the wild. As certain species of fish disappear from the ocean, they leave a gap in the foodchain. The things that they feed on will multiply because nothing is controlling their numbers, and the fish that feed on the missing species will be stressed as well. The biodiversity of the ocean is in jeopardy, and people who rely on fish for a major portion of their diet face starvation due to overfishing.

    What can you do? The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a great pocket guide to bring with you to the supermarket. This guide lists many fish that are abundant, and offers alternatives to endangered species that you can eat with a clear conscience. Greenpeace publishes a Red List of fish which should not be eaten under any circumstances. These are fish that are critically threatened by overfishing, disease, or habitat loss. There are many other fish that are in the gray area – hundreds of species are at risk but not necessarily endangered. Memorizing these lists is a bit tricky. If you have a less than photographic memory and your wallet doesn’t have room for a cheat sheet, another way you can shop for fish that are plentiful is to look for the Marine Stewardship Council eco-label.

    Some species that are at risk in the wild are being raised in fish farms to supplement wild stocks. Farmed fish account for an increasing percentage of total fish caught. There’s some controversy over whether farmed fish or wild seafood are more sustainable though. The footprint and operating procedures of fish farms vary considerably between different locations. Some aquaculture operations are very earth friendly, while others turn pristine shoreline into industrial farmland and introduce devastating diseases that affect nearby wild populations. It’s important to research where your food comes from and choose responsible suppliers.

    9) Reduce CO2 Emissions.

    When most people think of pollutants, they picture ooze pouring out of factory pipes. Due to environmental regulations and pressure from consumers, almost all of these pipes have been cleaned up. Yet we still affect the environment by releasing chemicals with less immediate effects. Greenhouses gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are changing the way that our planet heats up and cools down. If the greenhouse effect is left unchecked, we could see drastic changes in the temperature of ocean water, reductions in ocean salinity as the polar ice caps melt, and shifts in the paths of major ocean currents (which would cause further temperature changes).

    In addition to climate effects, CO2 emissions can have a huge direct impact on the health of ocean life. New research suggests that salt water is becoming more acidic as it absorbs increased amounts of carbon from the air. Changing temperatures and increases acidity are some of the many factors bleaching coral reefs. Elevated temperatures increase the effect of acidity by boosting the rate at which carbonic acid dissolves calcium. Changes in the pH balance of the ocean are also affecting the metabolic rates of various animals, making it harder for many fish to breathe. That’s bad news on top of overfishing and other forms of water pollution. Even highly adaptable species like the Humboldt squid are showing changes in their behavior.

    10) Reduce Noise and Light Pollution

    Loud noises and bright lights cause major disruptions in the natural world. Animals rely on their sensitive ears and sight to evade predators and find food, yet the oceans are becoming a deafening, blinding place. All creatures have natural rhythms based on the sun and moon, day and night. These rhythms control sleep, breeding, migration, and hibernation, yet the natural rhythms are being disrupted by constant mixed signals due to human activity. The homes of many nocturnal animals are lit up 24 hours a day by beach floodlights and fishing lure lights, and the ocean is filled with the noise of motors, sonar, and mining activity. All this noise and wasted light is a serious form of pollution.

    Every year, we waste hundreds of millions of dollars worth of electricity on light that goes in unintended directions. Globe and acorn shaped streetlights are a prime example – they send light out in all directions, yet only 15-25% of that light reaches ground level. The efficiency of these spherical streetlights can be vastly increased by putting a simple reflector dish on the top, and replacing the light with a lower wattage bulb. Redirecting the light can save 75% on electricity costs, and it will also protect animals that are already endangered by human development.

    Skyglow and light trespass are also nuisances to human beings. These effects of errant light were first noticed by astronomers and other night owls, but an increasing number of people are finding that they can’t turn off the lights at night. Light pollution has a direct effect on human health, it drags down property values, and it destroys the natural beauty of the night sky.

    Some cities, states, and countries have started passing laws to protect wildlife from luminous pollution. These laws will likely become more stringent over time. Unfortunately, there are many sources of light pollution in the ocean, and very few of them are regulated.

    Here are some things you can do to reduce light pollution:

    • Upgrade exterior lights to full cut-off fixtures and other dark-sky friendly products
    • Install bulbs with lower wattage lamps
    • Turn-off lights when you’re not in the area
    • Replace automatic timers with motion detectors
    • Discuss the issue with your family, friends, and neighbors
    • Use curtains on all of your windows (this can also pay dividends in insulation)
    • Campaign for regulations that protect against photopollution in your town
    • Demand strict enforcement of light control ordinances

    Every year, thousands of sea turtle hatchlings and young seabirds are killed by lights on the beach. These lights cause reflections on sand that look just like moonlight on water, disorienting the young animals and causing them to wander away from the ocean. Instead of going for a swim, baby turtles and birds are hit by cars, eaten by predators, and die of exhaustion. Reducing light pollution can save many species from extinction.

    sea-trutles-fl-luca5
    Photo courtesy of Luca5 at Flickr.com.

    Sound pollution also kills many wild animals every year. The scale of the problem is unknown, and scientists are just beginning to study the effects of man-made noise on wildlife. Early results show that loud motor sounds can deafen animals who rely on their sensitive hearing to find food and evade predators. These noises can also drown out mating calls and distress signals. There is suspicion that navigation systems such as sonar are responsible for an increasing number of whale and dolphin beachings. High intensity sound waves can cause internal ruptures and induce symptoms similar to the bends.

    Water conducts sound waves much better than air does, so loud noises can travel much further in the ocean than they would on land. This is worrisome, because the noise level in the ocean is increasing rapidly. Between 1948 and 1998, the average volume of sound in the ocean increased about 15 decibels. 15 decibels may not sound like much, but that’s the difference between the amount of noise in a regular office and a busy street.

    So, how can we reduce noise pollution in the oceans?

    • Move shipping paths away from marine sanctuaries
    • Install noise baffles on boats and ships
    • Reduce the use of high intensity sonar
    • Protect sensitive habitat from oil and mineral exploration

    So, that wraps up a ‘quick’ ten-list. But, there’s one other thing you can do to save the oceans.

    Buy from environmentally responsible companies

    The policies that companies follow can make a huge difference on the health of our oceans. Since the United States put pollution controls in place, we’ve seen remarkable recovery in many of the worst affected waterways:

    “Oxygen levels in New York Harbor, for instance, are now 50 percent higher than they were 30 years ago. In the Southern California Bight, off Los Angeles and San Diego, inputs of many pollutants have been reduced 90 percent or more over a 25-year period, and the ecosystem there—including kelp, fish, and seabird populations—has greatly recovered. “

    A lot has been accomplished, but we can still do better. Comparing modern emissions to emissions from the 1970’s, is sort of like comparing a Boeing 777 to the Wright Flier – we’ve come a long way in a short period of time, and we should expect major improvements. Unfortunately, many companies are still stuck in the seventies and see nothing wrong with dumping wastewater directly into rivers that feed into the ocean. Not all of our factories and processing plants are using best practices, but it’s easy to find companies that devote resources to improving their environmental record.

    When you make purchase decisions at work or for your home, are you buying from companies that publish an independently reviewed environmental report card? If you can convince even one of the companies you do business with to adopt these guidelines, that will multiply the effects of your choices. Here’s a list of the a top polluters in the United States: these are companies that might reconsider their record if large numbers of customers demanded that they act responsibly to protect the oceans.

    ocean-cleanup-fl-mdelcid
    Photo courtesy of HckySo at Flickr.com.

    US states are moving towards a cap and trade system for CO2 emissions

    smokestack-fl-atomicshark
    Photo courtesy of AtomicShark at Flickr.com.

    The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative held its second auction for carbon credits in December. This was the first auction where all 10 states in the initiative took part, and the sale price rose about 10 percent from the previous auction in September, 2008.

    These carbon credits have some bite to them; the auction wasn’t just a public relations affair for the local utilities. The northeast is attempting to achieve a major shift in carbon dioxide emissions. Greenhouse gasses from power plants in these 10 Northeastern states are capped at current levels from January 1, 2009 until 2014. Then, the cap will drop 2.5% a year until 10% reductions are hit in 2018.

    Now that the carbon cap is in effect, utilities that use coal or natural gas to generate electricity will have to buy carbon credits to offset their pollution. They are likely to pass along the cost to consumers, which will drive up the price of dirty electricity and help make alternative energy sources more competitive. Regional cap and trade systems have already proven effective at reducing Nitrogen Oxide emissions, and policy makers hope to have similar success with reducing carbon. Funds raised from the carbon auction are earmarked for efficiency improvements, building alternative power sources on government buildings, and eliminating emissions from non-powerplant sources.

    The RGGI isn’t the only regional group working on a cap and trade system. In the middle of the country, the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord is developing a system that will cover Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, and the Canadian Province of Manitoba. Other western states and Canadian Provinces formed their own group, the Western Climate Initiative. WCI membership includes Arizona, British Columbia, California, Manitoba, Montana, New Mexico, Ontario, Oregon, Quebec, Utah, and Washington State.

    Some states are tackling emissions on their own. California passed laws in 2006 to reduce CO2 emissions by 20%, and is considering ways to extend the reach of those laws into neighboring states. California plans to roll out a Cap and Trade system by 2012, and the state budget crisis may accelerate the process. A carbon credit auction would raise desperately needed revenue for California, but there’s concern that the money would be squandered instead of spent on reducing emissions.

    Federal action is also expected in the near future. The President-Elect, Speaker of the House, and other national leaders have publicly spoken in favor of a cap and trade system. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency is facing pressure to treat CO2 as a pollutant. The EPA recently published an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to regulate agricultural emissions of greenhouse gas.

    Some surprising voices have also spoken out against cap and trade carbon systems. A small number of utilities and businesses who use large volumes of electricity have raised concerns about the costs, but some environmentalists are also skeptical of the concept. There’s a concern that carbon credits don’t actually reduce total emissions, and that flaws in the systems can allow polluters to play a shell game with their emissions. Another concern is that the system wont achieve it’s goals of reducing emissions. The cap and trade system in Europe has been plagued by politics and lobbying, and emissions have risen since it was introduced.

    Even with these concerns, the US looks likely to move ahead on efforts to reduce carbon production. Many changes are on their way, and some will arrive sooner than others.

    powerplantcollapse-fl-bytepusher
    Photo courtesy of bytepusher at Flickr.com.

    Green news is good news (mostly)


    Photo courtesy of Ted Abbott at Flickr.com.

    A lot of news about the environment lately has been good news – there are huge solar arrays being built, energy efficiency is improving by leaps and bounds, and more people are recycling today than even knew what recycling was 20 years ago. But, there’s some bad news on the environmental desk too.

    For starters, the ailing economy is threatening to undermine recycling programs nationwide. Demand for commodities has fallen so quickly that we have a surplus of many raw materials, and those surplus materials are exerting negative price pressure on recycled ingredients. Don’t worry though – runaway inflation in the first quarter of 2009 should “solve” those problems.

    A controversy is brewing in the world of organic food. Several large organic suppliers have been caught using unapproved farming techniques in their overseas operations, and the FDA is reviewing their certification. This is a little bit of a good news / bad news situation, because the problem was caught before harm was inflicted and it’s a sign that the internal reviews are working to catch abuse.

    A lot of politicians are burning the midnight oil before their terms in office expire, and this means that some poorly crafted laws, rules, and regulations are on the way. One of the most worrisome developments is that the Endangered Species Act is being undermined by rule changes within the Fish and Wildlife Department. The department has assigned only 15 people to review more than 200,000 unique comments… that means a lot of comments are going to be brushed off and ignored, and that the rule changes will likely face a legal challenge.

    Okay, now on to the good news.

    With automakers begging Congress for a bailout, there’s a lot of attention focused on their business plans. Last year, they were offered a $25 Billion line of credit to develop fuel efficient cars, and these green strings have been cut from the older loan. Just to confuse things, the Big 3 are asking for another $34 Billion dollars to fund their operations, which really makes you wonder if they forgot about the treat they were already given. Now that the funds have been released for GM, Ford, and Chrysler to use at their discretion, there’s still a good chance that some of the money will be used to make fuel efficiency improvements. Consumer preferences have shifted towards improved mileage, but there’s no consensus about how green the cars of the future will be.

    There are a lot of competing standards for determining the “greenest car” on the road. Some carmakers stress miles driven per gallon of fuel, while others focus on the grams of CO2 emitted per mile driven, or the amount of smog causing particulates that are released. These competing claims can be very confusing, and the confusion allows some car makers to greenwash their dirtier vehicles with misleading claims. Until recently, there hasn’t been a clear mechanism to weigh the eco-credentials of competing cars. Now though, the Environmental Protection Agency has created a new standard that combines air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The new SmartWay Certification Program, is designed to highlight best in class vehicles just as the EnergyStar rating system highlights efficient appliances. Honda was able to secure the first top rating for a vehicle – they earned Smartway Elite certification with their Honda Civic Hybrid and the Honda GX (a natural gas powered car). Hopefully, American car manufacturers are following close behind.

    Cars are raising environmental awareness in other ways too. Daniel Bowman Simon and Casey Gustowarow are driving cross country to gather signatures for the White House Organic Farm petition. The bus was donated by Ben Cohen (of Ben and Jerry’s fame) and has a very unusual container garden built into the roof. If you see a strange bus that looks like it had a collision with another bus and kept driving, ask for Daniel or Casey.

    To bring this post full circle, here’s some good news about recycling. If you still have any McCain, Obama, or other political signs sitting around from election 2008, don’t throw them out. Waste management experts have found a way to recycle corrugated plastic campaign signs!

    Can lighting a match help the environment?

    Photo courtesy of green lit at Flickr.com. Even if you have a high-tech, earth friendly toilet, how many times have you heard someone say “Light a candle” after you use the bathroom? Not only does lighting a candle reduce the unpleasant smell, but it also burns up a lot of stinky hydrogen sulfide as well as odorless methane gas. Methane is the second worst gas causing climate change, responsible for climate change, and it has a much stronger heat trapping effect than CO2:

    Molecule for molecule, methane gas is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a warming agent. However, since methane doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long – around 12 years, on average, compared to a hundred years for CO2 – and human activities do not produce all that much of it, concerns about climate change have mostly been focused on carbon dioxide. The one big worry was that warmer temperatures might cause massive releases of methane from natural sources.

    Burning up the stink not only reduces the greenhouse effect but it can also reduce some friction in your household. That said, be careful with matches. Don’t burn a candle if your bathroom always smells funky – that could be a sign that explosive sewer gas is leaking into your house from the pipes. Also, don’t spray any deodorant before lighting that match. No one wants to find out the hard way that fire and aerosol cans are an explosive mix. Photo courtesy of Poet for Life at Flickr.com.

    News that has nothing to do with Election 2008


    Photo courtesy of ecupaintingguild at Flickr.com.

    With all the news coverage focused on the election, there are a lot of important and/or awesome things that have escaped attention. Here’s a quick overview of environmental news that’s worth following:

    First off, it’s common to get a craving for pumpkin pie around this time every year. But it would take hundreds of people to eat a pie made from this enormous 1,900 lb pumpkin. This behemoth is expected to set a new record for giant pumpkins (a record that has grown bigger every year in recent memory). Maybe this is the monster that Charlie Brown’s been waiting for.

    I’m sure that pumpkin wasn’t grown naturally, but no one tried to stick an organic label on it at the store. On the other hand, some businesses have been caught making false environmental claims to sell their products. It can be challenging to tell greenwashed products apart from their legitimate green competitors, but one way to make informed choices is to research the companies involved. Many large companies now publish yearly ‘Corporate Sustainability Reports’ that describe their environmental track record. Corporations are also assigning a dedicated board member to oversee environmental performance. Many of the pro-environment changes that companies are adopting also contribute to the bottom line, and make great economic sense while money is in short supply.

    On a related note, the credit crunch is slowing down plans to build new wind farms. Even though wind power accounted for about a third of all new power capacity built last year, the credit climate is making it really hard to line up investors. Wind energy is also running into some problems of scale. Windy days in Washington state are causing salmon deaths in a weird series of unintended consequences. As the wind picks up, wind turbines generate more and more electricity. The excess electricity floods the transmission lines, and automatic controls kick in to shutdown other sources of power. In some cases, this causes hydroelectric dams to idle their turbines and dump water over spillways. If only there was an efficient interstate transmission system, or a better way to store electricity, this whole chain of events could be avoided.

    But what if we lived in a world without any need for a power grid? Bloom Technologies is trying to create a lower pollution future based on efficiencies of micro-scale. With small fuel cells, the company hopes to eliminate power loss from transmission lines and bring electricity to the third world. As a bonus, they are designing fuel cells that produce hydrogen as a byproduct – that waste gas could be used to warm homes and fuel vehicles.

    Whether cars burn hydrogen or gasoline, tailpipe emissions are pretty much inevitable. This waste product has something that is surprisingly useful though – untapped energy in the form of heat. Researchers are developing new thermoelectric systems that can harvest electricity from tailpipe emissions. If they can keep cost and weight to a minimum, these devices will likely be incorporated into a wide range of hybrid vehicles to boost mileage. The energy recovery isn’t 100 percent, but it can really add up to a serious boost in efficiency:

    GM researcher Jihui Yang said a metal-plated device that surrounds an exhaust pipe could increase fuel economy in a Chevrolet Suburban by about 5 percent, a 1-mile-per-gallon improvement that would be even greater in a smaller vehicle.


    Photo courtesy of fensterbme at Flickr.com.

    Queen of England plans array of offshore wind turbines, including biggest turbine ever built

    Her Majesty -FLA
    Photo courtesy of ceebee23 at Flickr.com.

    The Queen of England once enjoyed direct rule over 2/3 of the earth’s surface. Her personal authority is a bit less these days, but she still has control over the territorial waters of Great Britain. And, with the backing of the Crown Estate, Queen Elizabeth II can afford to do some really impressive things in her domain. Like building an array of offshore windmills, including the biggest individual windmill in the world.

    Her Majesty’s windmill will produce 7.5 megawatts, which is more than twice as much as the previous record holder (GE’s 3.6 MW Offshore Turbine). The company that’s producing the turbine is Clipper Windpower, based in California. They have a proven history building monster wind turbines – including the largest turbine built in the US: the 2.5 MW Liberty Turbine. Details are still being worked out about where the giant wind turbine will be produced, and how it will be shipped to England.

    The average British person uses 10-15 kilowatts per day (half of the average American energy consumption), which means that on a windy day this monster turbine will meet the needs of roughly 500-750 people. And the British Crown plans to build multiple turbines, all far out to sea. Many will be invisible to people on land, but the biggest windmill in the world will be nearly 600 feet tall and should be visible for about 18-19 miles.

    Windmill array -FL
    Photo courtesy of yakkerDK at Flickr.com.

    The first auction of US carbon credits

    Photo courtesy of Karen Eliot at Flickr.com.

    Last week, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative held the first auction for US Carbon credits. This was an important milestone because the auction may set the pattern for a federal carbon tax. Funds raised at the RGGI auction will benefit six northeast states: Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont. The states plan to spend this money (slightly more than $38 Million) to invest in energy efficiency, developing new technology, and other “programs to benefit electrical consumers”.

    Hopefully, most of the money will be spent on the first two uses. If carbon taxes are used to subsidize the price of electricity, then that could actually accelerate climate change. In countries where the price of electricity is artificially reduced, demand is rising faster than production. This is causing some extremely dirty power plants to be built to meet short term need. Power outages and brownouts are also common.

    Some people argue that revenue from carbon taxes is best used to implement programs that reduce the use of fossil fuel generated power. Possibilities include offering rebates on high-efficiency air conditioners, providing low cost loans for businesses that eliminate wasteful machinery, and building alternative power sources such as wind farms, geothermal generators, and solar arrays. When used in this way, carbon taxes can stimulate local businesses and encourage green consumption. In the long term, the economy will also benefit from energy self sufficiency.

    Other states in the RGGI include New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. These states didn’t participate in the first auction, but they may participate in the next auction, on December 17, 2008. Registration begins in October.

    So, who bought these carbon credits? Mostly, the buyers were power utilities that operate in New England. Several environmental groups also participated, bidding on credits with the intent of retiring them from circulation. Brokers and individuals were also allowed to participate, but the RGGI hasn’t released a list of buyers yet.

    Bidders had the option of concealing their identity during the sign up process. This anonymous bidding is a bit troubling, since most companies would be happy to garner free publicity from buying carbon credits. It leaves the door open for companies to make false claims and makes it hard to independently verify which utilities are responsible stewards of the environment. Hopefully, the lack of disclosure is only a temporary situation, and future carbon auctions will be more transparent than the emissions they offset.

    Photo courtesy of _Krystian PHOTOSynthesis (wild-thriving) _ at Flickr.com.

    The Sahara desert is reaching north into Spain



    Photo courtesy of DanielKHC at Flickr.com.

    Droughts are a worldwide problem, with water in short supply in many different countries. Australia and Spain are both suffering through record breaking droughts right now. It hasn’t gotten much attention in the US, but rainfall in Spain is at its lowest level in 40 years. This comes at a time when population is booming and per capita water use is rising.

    Water use is a very emotional issue in Spain, and tensions are running high between neighboring cities and regions. Opinions are divided largely along geographic lines; many people living in the southern provinces favor redirecting water from the north (where the drought is less severe). No one in the North wants to sacrifice their water rights to support wasteful behavior though, and water redirection projects face strong opposition. To break this logjam,

    …the government is building more desalination plants, adding to the more than 900 already in Spain – the largest number in any one country outside the Middle East.

    There is some concern that these energy intensive desalination plants will drive up the price of water while also creating even more climate change. It’s a no-win situation, like trying to prevent an avalanche by running a snow maker.

    Leaders in Spain are looking for a better solution. The country is currently hosting the 2008 World’s Fair in Zaragosa, and the theme of Expo 2008 is “Water and Sustainable Development”. New technologies are on display, including water saving fixtures for the home and agricultural techniques that conserve water. Government programs are encouraging people to adopt these innovations with tax rebates and grants, and if the Spanish are successful in conserving their water, they may be able to stop the desertification of their country. Otherwise, climate change will devastate the environment, with lasting effects on the economy.

    If you get a chance to visit Zaragosa, you’ll see an alternative vision of the future, with clean technology offering jobs and climate security. The best vantage point to view the fairgrounds is atop the 250 foot tall Water Tower building.



    Photo courtesy of Paulo Brandão at Flickr.com.

    In the news: reducing your AC bill, earn cash through recycling and more


    Photo courtesy of
    Mayank Austen Soofi at Flickr.com.

    Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture here. This week, a lot of exciting things are going on.

    The news is full of stories about practical ways to save money. One easy way is to save energy and cut your air conditioning bill.

    Here are 4 websites that help you earn money from recycling everything from old cell phones and digital cameras to glass bottles and old cars. Recycling e-waste is a double win – with commodity prices sky high, the copper and gold in old electronics are worth some serious cash, and keeping heavy metals out of the landfill is key to protecting the environment.

    “We generally see about a 100 percent increase in recycling in mid- to affluent neighborhoods,” says [RecycleBank CEO Ron] Gonen. “In lower-income neighborhoods, it can be up to 1,000 percent, because the recycling rates are so low there.

    Also, the shipping industry is taking huge steps to reduce their fuel bills. Surcharges are running out of control, and the profit margins of commercial transport companies are under pressure. In addition to driving slower, truckers are saving fuel with an Auxiliary Power Unit. APUs are widely used in airplanes to provide electricity without running the engines, but their high price has kept other industries from adopting APUs. With high oil prices, and new pollution controls that outlaw idling engines in residential neighborhoods, that could change quickly.

    Due to climate change, farmers are now using sunblock to protect certain produce. Presumably, sun ripened tomatoes aren’t on that list.

    Could you live a month without buying any plastic? A British Blogger is trying to do just that, and its tougher than you might think.

    Is the future going to be human powered? Clubs and fitness centers from Portland to London are adding devices that harvest kinetic energy to power the lights, sound systems, and HVAC. There are even plans for a floating gym that will travel back and forth on the Hudson river under human propulsion.

    The best and latest green news


    Photo courtesy of
    sterkworks at Flickr.com.

    Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture here. This week, a lot of exciting things are going on.

    Not everyone who wants to eat local food has time to garden. That’s why a new breed of entrepreneurs are ready to help you out by managing your garden. They’re like executive chefs, but more hardcore.

    An unusual new power plant is going up in Indiana. With an output of only 1.6 megawatts, the first phase of this electrical turbine isn’t going to power the entire eastern seaboard, but it is one of several new power plants that generate power using methane from garbage.
    That’s equivalent to:

    — Removal of emissions equivalent to over 22,000 cars per year, or
    — Planting about 27,000 acres of forest annually, or
    — Creating enough energy to power more than 2,000 homes per year

    Computers contain some pretty toxic chemicals, and e-waste is a major problem we’ve blogged about before. Many companies are working from the other side of the issue and trying to produce greener computer components.

    Climate change and invasive species threaten to destroy some of the most beautiful places on Earth. Here’s a list of endangered places to visit before they’re gone. If you do have the means to visit these places, please consider donating to local conservation groups.

    Due to high oil prices, reduced gas consumption is resulting in shortfalls in the Federal Highway Fund at the same time that Congress is focused on rising road maintenance costs. What does that mean?

    Well, for starters, we can expect more toll roads. And here’s a cruel irony: the increased use of mass transit may cause a cut in funding for mass transit.

    Ethanol isn’t the only biofuel


    Photo courtesy of
    Mista Fitz at Flickr.com.
    There’s currently a bit of a corn shortage, driven by rising food consumption, ethanol consumption, and changes in diet in developing countries. Luckily, corn isn’t the only alternative to oil.

    While ethanol made from corn gets the most attention, there are all sorts of other biofuels under development. There are companies working on producing ethanol from straw and other farm byproducts such as coconut fiber and cotton seeds. There are factories working on producing diesel from landfills, turkey processing waste, algae, canola, old tires, and other low cost sources. In fact, the US government is actively promoting development of alternative fuels, especially alternative fuels made from non-corn sources (would that be alternative, alternative fuels?):

    The government is pushing to get the industry off the ground. Legislation passed last year mandates the use of 36 billion gallons of biofuels a year by 2022, less than half of it from corn ethanol. Almost all the rest is supposed to come from nonfood sources, though the requirement could be waived if the industry faltered.

    The future of our fuel supply is going to be very different, and there are positive signs that we’ll be using more green biofuels sooner than anyone expected.

    Photo courtesy of
    jurvetson at Flickr.com.

    Eco news of the week


    Photo courtesy of
    Brooklyn Bridge Baby at Flickr.com.

    Here are five big environmental stories that you might have missed this week:

    1) Saudi Arabia is planning for a future without gasoline. The Kingdom is investing in education and hopes to develop new industries and exports that will supplement oil in the near term and replace it in the long term.

    2) Small is big. Due to rising energy costs and environmental awareness, architects are finding a surprising demand for smaller homes.

    3) Have you heard of CarbonRally.com? It’s a carbon calculator site that’s different from the hundreds of other calculators out there. Instead of focusing on environment harms, the site reinforces good behavior with instant feedback about the progress you’ve made. After all, even minimal impact can be discouraging to focus on.

    4) Speaking of carbon – Al Gore and T Boone Pickens are both pushing aggressive energy plans. These gentlemen, who come from very opposite sides of the political spectrum, are stressing that carbon free electricity is more than an environmental issue. They opine that moving away from coal and oil will make a huge difference in the US trade deficit, bolster national security by increasing energy independence, and position American companies to prosper against global competition.

    5) Did you know that the Prius fails Georgia’s Vehicle Emissions Test?

    Turning trash into fuel for our cars


    Photo courtesy of JohnKit at Flickr.com.

    Trash, trash, trash. We’ve got plenty of it! Just take a look around your neighborhood on trash pickup day – all those bulging bags are headed to the landfill, where they’ll be buried and put out of sight, out of mind. Yet those bags may contain a solution to high fuel prices.

    In the near future, our cars could be powered with gases produced by decaying waste. A test project is underway that will effectively convert a 30 acre cell of the McComas landfill into a giant compost pile. For the project, researchers are laying 7 pipes in various layers in the landfill, and the pipes will recirculate leachate through the trash heap. By adding nutrient rich moisture to the pile, these pipes will allow bacteria to digest the trash at an accelerated rate (200-300% the rate of decomposition in other landfills).

    This accelerated decomposition will help conserve space in the landfill, but it will also produce methane gas as a byproduct. Methane gas (also known as natural gas) is distributed to homes and businesses by natural gas utilities. Methane from the McComas landfill will be transported by Atmos Energy, and sold to heat buildings, run industrial machinery, and generate electricity. Methane can also be compressed for use by buses that use natural gas for fuel , or even processed into hydrogen for the next generation of gasoline-free cars.

    Landfill gas is an alternative source for hydrogen fuel, and using waste to produce our fuel is one way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The majority of hydrogen produced today is derived from petroleum products. Converting landfill methane into fuel is a double win, because it reduces the use of gasoline while also preventing the release of methane into the atmosphere. This is important, because methane gas has an even greater effect on climate change than carbon dioxide.

    So, how much gas are we talking about here?

    As it stands, McCommas already captures about 5.6 million cubic feet of methane a day, which is piped to an on-site plant operated by the independent company, Dallas Clean Energy. Some of the city’s estimates show that by 2012, output could exceed 20 million cubic feet per day.

    The conversion rate from methane into hydrogen is about 66%. That means the McComas landfill could produce 13.2 million cubic feet of hydrogen daily. Across the entire country, our current production of Hydrogen amounts to about 3 billion cubic feet per year, so this one landfill could more than double our current hydrogen production.

    There are many more landfills in the US. We have about 3,000 active landfills and 10,000 old landfills, all full of trash that’s breaking down into methane. Tapping them to produce hydrogen gas would be a great way to escape our addiction to oil.


    Photo courtesy of
    cosraifoto at Flickr.com.

    How to offset carbon from shipping with TerraPass


    Photo courtesy of Berni Beudel at Flickr.com.

    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!


    Photo courtesy of fboosman at Flickr.com.

    Is your zoo an amphibean refuge?


    Photo courtesy of spisharam at Flickr.com.

    Despite what the Chinese zodiac says, 2008 is officially the year of the frog. Nearly 6,000 frog species are threatened with extinction, and there’s no time like the present to take action.

    Frogs are under intensive pressure – they face massive habitat loss, pesticide poisoning and even human predation. As if those dangers weren’t enough, a previously unknown fungus recently began attacking frogs. This fungus has an extremely high mortality rate – after Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis is introduced, 50% of amphibian species and 80% of individuals generally die within 1 year. Think of it as Kermit Ebola.

    It’s likely that the spread of Chytrid Fungus is caused by human activity. Chytrid Fungus is moving along with global trade, and the problem is developing at a much faster rate than previous infections. Dutch Elm Disease took nearly 30 years to cross from Europe to the United States, while Chytrid Fungus took roughly 20 years to cross from the US to Europe. The pathogen wasn’t even identified in the lab until after it had spread to virtually every country in the world. Globalization has something to do with this, but the deadly fungus is also getting a boost from global warming..

    “Climate change is making for cooler days and warmer nights due to changes in cloud cover on the tropical mountains,” [says Alan Pounds, an ecologist at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve in Costa Rica]. This shifts temperatures to those more agreeable to the fungus, which thrives between 17°C and 25°C. “Global warming is loading the dice in favour of this disease-causing fungus,” he says.

    There is good news, though. An effective treatment has been found using over-the-counter antibiotic cream. This means that wherever frogs can be reached, they can be treated to cure infection. Several zoos and botanical preserves are working with the group Amphibean Ark to create refuges for wild frog populations. The idea is to treat incoming frogs and create a biosecure area in case the frogs go extinct in the wild.

    Is your zoo taking part? You can petition them to get with the program, and raise awareness about the issue. Several zoos, such as the Denver Zoo, have found big money in frog preservation. These programs are extremely effective at raising donations and improving visitor turnout. Kids love cute frogs – and this is a way to make sure that frogs are around for our grandchildren!


    Photo courtesy of shadowowl at Flickr.com.

    Zoo programs are already having unexpected results. The Memphis Zoo has found a new way to preserve the endangered Mississippi gopher frog. They’ve introduced a program to save the species using in-vitro fertilization. With only about 100 adults left in the wild, the zoo has spawned a batch of 94 viable tadpoles. That’s an amazing result!