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!

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.

Link roundup. Interesting eco news stories.


Photo courtesy of
Anthony L. Solis 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 cost of airfare has gotten a lot of newsprint. Even though oil prices seem to have stabilized, ticket prices are still going up. When air travel gets so expensive that even P Diddy scales back his private jet flights, well, we’ve officially reached the tipping point. Cheap airfare is history, and soon we may all be flying like it’s 1955.

Sailing is a green alternative to air travel, but it can be awfully slow. A group raising awareness of plastic pollution decided to sail across the Pacific in a boat made from plastic junk? Believe it or not, they survived the trip and made it to Honolulu. Things got a bit dicey along the way, because they ran low on food. When they tried to catch some fish to supplement their provisions, they were (ironically) foiled by plastic pollution:

One day, said Paschal, they caught a fish after watching it grow for five weeks. They were going to eat it, but when they cut it open they found its stomach was full of plastic confetti.

Monitoring pollution in the ocean may become easier in the next couple of years. Scientists have found a new way to measure water pollution using algae. The method is a bit bizarre – just shine a special light on the algae and ‘listen’ to the sounds of the light striking the water. Healthy algae will absorb more of the light, and unhealthy algae will be unable to absorb certain wavelengths that due to the pollutants in the water. Algae reacts strongly to even small amounts of water contamination, and algae is widely available. As this method is developed further, the hope is that tests using algae will cost a fraction of what conventional tests cost.

Wind energy continues to make the news too. Wind turbines are going up at a phenomenal rate, and the production capacity of wind power doubled between 2006 and 2008. Even though wind power still makes up a tiny portion of total power, wind turbines accounted for more than a third of all new electrical production built last year.

The U.S. Department of Energy in May forecast that wind power could reach 20 percent of the nation’s power supply by 2030.

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?

Eco News Roundup: 5 Quick Environmental News Stories


Photo courtesy of
wallyg at Flickr.com.

Here are a few quick stories that you might have missed last week:

First off, many different newspapers, tv shows, and blogs have discussed how high gas prices are discouraging people from driving their cars. Well, another factor is at work in many big cities – high parking fees are also encouraging people to conserve gasoline. For both of those reasons, we’re seeing record levels of use for public transport, carpool lanes, and bicycles.

Also, the weak economy is making it difficult for many families to afford organic food. If the high price of groceries is keeping you from enjoying organic produce, the article includes a guide to choosing which foods are most important to buy organic.

Across the nation, electric prices are on the rise. In Texas and Pennsylvania, deregulation of the electric markets may be partly to blame for high energy prices.

Speaking of Texas, the Lone Star State has taken a big step to develop more wind energy. This is a big development, because Texas is a huge electric market and the Texas Interconnection is one of only 3 electrical regions in the US.

Ford, GM, and Chrysler are all seriously re-thinking their offerings for next year. For car designers, low-Carbon is “in”.