Friday, November 30, 2018

Climate pics worth a 1000 words, and ones that aren’t

I suppose it should be no surprise that our anthropocentric species is more moved by climate-related pictures of urban flooding than bleaching coral or starving polar bears. But don’t get too personal or we feel judged. 😖 If you want to communicate about climate change, check out this article.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

2018 Sustainable Business Survey results are out

Business for Social Responsibility and Globscan do an annual survey of global business leaders to assess the state of sustainability in business. The 2018 report was recently released. This article summarizes the highlights.

Perhaps the most exciting finding is that 75 percent of corporate sustainability professionals say sustainability needs to be better integrated into business strategy to create resilient strategies necessary to address these global shifts.
As one executive told us in interviews for our recent report on Redefining Sustainable Business, “Most big businesses have been working on sustainability with reasonable success for the last 10 to 15 years, but we have been picking the low-hanging fruit, and the next phase will be much more difficult. It is about what you buy and what you sell. It goes into the heart of your commercial operations and investment decisions.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Energy and water are linked

People often think of energy and water as separate issues, but they are inextricably linked. A lot of power goes to pumping water. The poster child is California which uses about 20% of its electricity to pump water, according to a Stanford study.

And making electricity, especially from nuclear or other fossil fuels, uses a lot. As climate change drives drought and floods, thermal power plants will increasingly be at risk.

For nuclear plants, that warning is particularly grave. Reactors require 720 gallons of water per megawatt-hour of electricity they produce, according to data from the National Energy Technology Laboratory in West Virginia cited in 2012 by the magazine New Scientist. That compares with the roughly 500 gallons coal requires and 190 gallons natural gas needs to produce the same amount of electricity. Solar plants, by contrast, use approximately 20 gallons per megawatt-hour, mostly for cleaning equipment, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group

You’re not going deaf; restaurants are louder

Social relationships are key to our well being, and often we like to meet at coffee shops and restaurants, to break bread together. But nowadays, you can’t hear the person across from you. It would actually be quieter if you picnicked next to a freeway! Yes, actually.

According to this article, the author’s favorite coffee shop, just open but almost no patrons there, is as loud as a freeway. This noise undermines our ability to connect, especially as the Baby Boomers age. It also makes us eat too fast and drink too much (which is good for the restaurant’s profits) and stresses the employees (which is not.)

Read this article and then complain to management if your restaurant experience is too noisy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

#ClimateFriday: How climate change is affecting communities and industries in the US

Did you miss it? The fourth Climate Assessmment Report was released on Black Friday, giving the day another meaning. This report is the fourth in a series, thanks to George Bush Sr. and Congress requiring 13 Federal agencies to study the issue starting in 1990. This report focuses on how climate change is already affecting communities and critical industries and how those effects  will intensify into the future. It also talks about what is being done and needs to be done.

To give you a sense of the scope of the report, the summary itself covers agriculture, infrastructure, tourism, among other industries, and its impacts on ecosystems and human health. The report has chapters on each region in the US and chapters on what can be done. There are some cool interactive charts.

One part I think is important is that the report talks about the costs of inaction. To date, the politics can be characterized as “believe it or not” which has delayed action. Talking about the costs of inaction reframe the conversation toward the old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

In the absence of more significant global mitigation efforts, climate change is projected to impose substantial damages on the U.S. economy, human health, and the environment. Under scenarios with high emissions and limited or no adaptation, annual losses in some sectors are estimated to grow to hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century. It is very likely that some physical and ecological impacts will be irreversible for thousands of years, while others will be permanent.

Here’s a link to the report, which includes a summary for those who don’t need to get into the weeds.

Here’s a National Geographic article about the report for those who just want a quick once-over:

For those of us in the Southwest, here’s a summary of the findings for us, including some interesting charts showing declining Colorado River flows

and the amount of forest fires directly attributable to climate change.

Climate policies that will work in the real world

Voters, legislators, policy makers, energy companies, research labs and NGO’s: this article is well worth your time to read. It’s a summary of Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy. Some of the insights you’ll learn:

Which 20 countries we should focus on because they are responsible for most of the greenhouse gases.
What price on carbon might actually make a difference.
Why a carbon tax won’t work that well for transportation or buildings.
What Bill Gates doesn’t get about deployment of technologies.
Where policy makers should focus (in a simple diagram).

Monday, November 26, 2018

Protecting the native people who protect 80% of biodiversity

Apropos of my book review on Learning Native Wisdom, native people do actually do a better job of protecting biodiversity.

Comprising less than 5% of the world's population, indigenous people protect 80% of global biodiversity....
 “The indigenous peoples of the Amazon have proven to be the best guardians of their traditional territories,” Swing adds. “The fact that the Amazon ecosystems are as rich as they are today is proof of how successful these cultures have been, in living in balance with their environment.”
Discussions of their role are going on now (latter half of November 2018) as part of COP14 U.N. Conference on Biodiversity in Egypt.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Sewage plant can produce hydrogen with purple bacteria

Someday you may fill up your hydrogen fuel cell car at the wastewater treatment center. City buses, some of which already run on fuel cells, could run on this stuff. This research discovered that purple bacteria, with a little energy, were amazingly effective at converting the carbon in sewage into biofuel.

Purple phototrophic bacteria -- which can store energy from light -- when supplied with an electric current can recover near to 100 percent of carbon from any type of organic waste, while generating hydrogen gas for use as fuel.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Climate change is transforming sewage treatment systems

Sustainability is about connecting the dots, understanding how systems interact. Here’s one way that climate change is driving changes that you might not have thought about: sewage. When Cape Town almost ran out of water, ‘waterless urinals’ surged as a search in Google. How do you flush when you’re running out of water? How do developing nations like India provide better sanitation without expensive centralized wastewater treatment systems? These questions are driving innovation.

Sanitation innovators across the world are developing products based on the principles of the circular economy. The social enterprise Sanivation in Kenya installs container-based toilets in people’s homes for free and charges a small monthly fee to service them. Instead of dumping the toilet "waste", they transform it into a clean-burning alternative to charcoal. These briquettes are not only preferred by their customers due to longer burn time and lesser smoke, but they also save 88 trees for every tonne sold.
The VUNA Project at Eawag in Switzerland has developed an affordable dry sanitation system that produces a valuable fertilizer, promotes entrepreneurship and reduces pollution of water resources. The fertilizer, which is made from human urine, is branded as Aurin and is authorized by the Swiss Federal Office for Agriculture to be used as a fertilizer for every type of plant.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Spain’s plan to decarbonize their economy in full swing

While politicians agonize about (or ignore) climate change, Spain has a plan to beat the Paris Climate Agreement and build their coffers to deal with climate related disasters.

Spain has launched an ambitious plan to switch its electricity system entirely to renewable sources by 2050 and completely decarbonize its economy soon after.
By mid-century greenhouse gas emissions would be slashed by 90 percent from 1990 levels under Spain’s draft climate change and energy transition law.
To do this, the country’s social democratic government is committing to installing at least 3,000 MW of wind and solar power capacity every year in the next 10 years ahead.

New licenses for fossil fuel drills, hydrocarbon exploitation and fracking wells, will be banned, and a fifth of the state budget will be reserved for measures that can mitigate climate change. This money will ratchet upwards from 2025.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Book Review: Learning Native Wisdom

In honor of Thanksgiving, I wanted to offer up these bits of wisdom from our Native American and other First Nations about how to live well on the land we borrow from our children.

Holthaus, Gary (2008) Learning Native Wisdom: What traditional cultures teach us about subsistence, sustainability and spirituality. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

We are so steeped in Western Culture that we can’t easily tell what is human nature and what is an artifact of our worldview. So it can be helpful to investigate other cultures. This book, Learning Native Wisdom, summarizes what we might learn from First Peoples. It is of course important not to romanticize these tribal cultures. But many survived for centuries within the constraints and rhythms of nature. Here are some of the most important points I found in the text.

Warmongering: “Contrary to popular perceptions of ‘primitive savagery and tribal warfare and violence, there has never been a long-lasting culture based on war, violence, repression or slavery for the majority.” (p.27)

Story telling: “…there have been cultures that persisted for thousands of years without literacy, but there has never been a sustainable culture without health stories.” (p.28) The author uses as an example of ‘crippling stories’ our agriculture: “Their story has been that chemicals will work miracles, that bigger is better, that good farming business is to get rich rather than a way of living on the land.”

Individual vs the collective: “There has never been a sustained culture in which the individual exceeded the community in value.” (p.28)

We are a subsistence culture, whether we know it or not: We in the Western world see subsistence as a way that ‘primitive’ peoples eek out an existence through hunting or gathering, an economic system of providing for their needs. Instead it’s a way of life, including their stories, rituals, and world view. And we all should see ourselves as subsistence peoples. “The white man’s preoccupation with economics and determination to quantify everything are irrelevant to the life under discussion. It’s possible that we could have, in the future, the largest populations of moose and bear, caribou and salmon, that Alaska has ever known….But we can have abundant game and have no subsistence culture left. …What is critical for all of us is to know ourselves—regardless of the culture we belong to—to be subsistence people, to acknowledge the subsistence character of the culture, and to practice a life that protects both the land and the culture through its beliefs, rituals even when hunger gnaws and dogs our families.” (p.73)

On Education: We all sense that our education system, based on the Industrial Revolution, is broken. But what is to replace it? One of many things that are lacking is a sense of self-discipline. Tribal cultures knew if they ate the last salmon, there would be no more. But in our culture, if you have the money to buy (fill in the blank), why not do it? We are constantly told by advertising and social pressures that we are not enough, we need to buy something to make us happy, that what matters is our own personal self-gratification and self-actualization.  But this is counter to a sustainable culture. “A sustainable culture without self-discipline is an oxymoron. What is the role of education in creating a sustainable culture? What is the role of education in creating a self-cultivating, disciplined citizen who sees his or her role in the culture as serving family, community, nation and the great world of ten thousand things? How do we create citizens who are willing to place limitations on themselves, their power, and their acquisitions so that ther might be enough for everyone and for those other creatures whose lives humans depend on though we may not recognize it?” (p.99)

Defining sustainable culture: The author posits that we cannot address this piecemeal, with sustainable farming practices and renewable energy. “for at the heart of our present systems, our own human selves are the real issue. To create a sustainable culture that will support a sustainable agriculture and healthy soil, sustainable yields of fish or logs, sustainable water supplies or energy or clean air, to establish social justice in our own small towns and big cities so that the economy is viable for all and so that prejudice no longer figures in our reckonings about whom to include and whom to exclude from social intercourse, we have to work on ourselves. Everything goes back to that.” (p.117)

To help us unpack worldviews, the author turns to Gary Snyder’s “three lineages”:
·      Children of Abraham (Jews Muslims and Christians; believers in religious texts)
·      Descendants of Primates (believers in science, rationality)
·      Sons and Daughters of the Bear Mother (tribal societies, Hindus, Daoists, Buddhists, etc.) (p.50)

The core question: “…sustainability is not a state we achieve once and for all. It is a process of working toward, forever, being aware of the desired characteristics and alter to the implications of our choices every day. Does this story, song, idea, plan, policy or poem move us toward sustainability?” (p.121)

In the chapter, Defining Sustainability (p122-129); interesting this comes so late in the book), the author suggests we should “want to recognize rather than define sustainability.” In the chapter, he highlights:

·      Recognizing relationships, respect for others; careful observation
·      Protecting biological diversity and ethnic diversity.
·      Socially and economically just
·      Reciprocity and returning a portion of what is taken
·      Healthy intellectual and spiritual life
·      Self-cultivation (not self-fulfillment; “not for the sake of the self but so there is something in us for others.”)
·      Reverence for life

Language: The author talks a lot about language, including how we like to separate humans from Nature. “if, as the rhetoric of sustainability insists, the health of humans is utterly dependent upon the health of the earth, so, too, the health of creatures of every kind, and landscapes everywhere, now hinges upon the health of our spiritual life. I have been trying to show that the real roots of a healthy spirituality lie in two arenas.. one is our language, rather than any scripture, creed, or institutionally transmitted belief. The other is in our self-cultivation toward humaneness.” (p.217)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Designing cities for scooters

The rise in scooters has raised both excitement for low-carbon transportation and horror associated with the clutter and battery disposal.

Here’s a short video on 5 things cities can do to get control over this trend. One idea that resonated with me is having fast and slow lanes for these personal transportation options. As the market for electric bikes, neighborhood electric vehicles and scooters grows, we need to reimagine how to use the pavement we already have.

Five Ways to Redesign Cities for the Scooter Era - Bloomberg

Sunday, November 18, 2018

In the absence of EPA regs, a handful of retailers phase out deadly paint strippers

Too many people assume that if a product is on the shelves it must be safe. They don’t read the warnings and don’t follow the instructions for ventilation and protective gear. Walking down the aisles of building supply stores gives me the creeps.

One example is paint strippers with chemicals known to kill people while they used the product.

In May, Lowe's announced it would discontinue the products. Home Depot, Sherwin Williams and other major retailers followed. In all, thousands of stores will stop selling methylene chloride paint removers by January.
Fortunately there are alternatives that work as well.

Retailers Plan To Clear Deadly Paint Removers From Shelves, As EPA Delays Ban - NPR

Moral to the story: read the labels and take them seriously. Do you really want a wasp spray that is a neurotoxin, a weed spray that is a probable carcinogen, or a cleaning product that disrupts your hormones? At a client office, I noticed the air freshener in the ladies room that said not to use in enclosed, it’s a restroom....

If you don’t want to dig into chemical safety sheets, use apps like Think Dirty or to help you keep your family and employees safe.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Baby bust in half the world’s countries: Good or bad news?

Within the narrow view of individual nations, it seems bad news when the fertility rate drops below the replacement level. Who will do the work? Who will care for and pay for the elderly? Economists wring their hands.

In 1950, women were having an average of 4.7 children in their lifetime. The fertility rate all but halved to 2.4 children per woman by last year. 
But that masks huge variation between nations. 
The fertility rate in Niger, west Africa, is 7.1, but in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus women are having one child, on average. 
In the UK, the rate is 1.7, similar to most Western European countries.

But taking the long view, a reduced birth rate is a good thing. I’m a baby boomer, so when my parents were born, there were about 2 billion people on the planet. When I was born, there were already 4 billion, and now we’re headed toward 8 billion. In two generations. Nature does not treat kindly population growth rates like lemmings.

So yes, falling birth rates and even de-population will cause some social and economic disruption. But it could save us from destroying the planet upon which our societies depend. And with the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence, there soon may not be many jobs needing to be done by people anymore.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Too big to fail to fight climate change?

A lot of efforts around climate change focus on reducing fossil fuel use. But another critical component is to retain forests to keep gobbling up carbon. The largest, most important tracts are in Brazil, Russia and Canada.

While many worry about the concentration of wealth into a small number of hands (and rightly so), the fact that a handful of investment firms own major chunks of stock in ag/beef/wood products companies operating in those areas presents an additional way to fight climate change. Use shareholder activism as a way to put pressure on the companies doing business in those critical regions.

The study, published in the latest issue of Global Environmental Change, determined that a relatively small number of financial institutions — from American investment firms to Norwegian sovereign wealth funds to Swiss banks — can help build the resilience of some of the main geographic areas key to stabilizing the Earth’s climate: the Brazilian Amazon and boreal forests in Russia and Canada.

 Here are the key financial institutions that can help prevent climate 'tipping point,' per new study -

Thursday, November 15, 2018

5 stages of organizational sustainability—how far along is your organization

Organizations wanting to pursue sustainability get confused about what they should be doing. Having zero impacts on the planet seems a step too far but just doing token gestures doesn't seem enough.

This article presents 5 stages of sustainability in business. You can use these phases to assess where you are and what your next step might be. Here are the stages, with minor edits. Please see the article for more context.

Stage 1: One-off projects
Stage 2: It's integrated into organizational practices
Stage 3: It drives innovation
Stage 4: It's part of organizational culture
Stage 5: The org is now purpose-driven, where social and/or environmental change is at the core

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

UK renewables surpass fossil fuel capacity!

Wow, UK renewables have tripled and fossil fuels have dropped by 1/3 in the last 5 years. The net result is the UK now has more renewable capacity (solar, wind, biomass and hydro) between July and September.

The power industry has some confusing terms. Note that ‘capacity’ is different from power ‘generation.’ Capacity is the equivalent of turning your tub faucet wide open, the total amount of water that could be delivered; generation takes into account whether the faucet was turned off for part of the time, or throttled down while water was gotten from other sources.

When you factor in nuclear power, which they count separately. 28% was renewable power, 54% was low carbon, including nukes.

Coal capacity has dropped by 1/4 in the past year as old, inefficient, uneconomic plants are closed. The UK, which built its economy on coal, now only has 6 coal plants left.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Can you have your meat and eat it too?

The ranks of vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians is growing, over concerns for the environment, animal welfare and personal health. But there are still a lot of people who can’t imagine giving up their burgers and dairy. This author predicts that animal farming will be a thing of the past by the end of the century; half of it might be gone by 2050 in richer countries. Entrepreneurs and even ag-giants like Cargill and Tyson are pouring money into engineering these foods, from plants or animal cells.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Big trend in Britain toward plant-based diet, plastic free

British food used to be the butt of jokes, tasteless and unhealthy. But that is changing fast.

Most profoundly, one in eight Britons (nearly 13 percent of the population) is now vegetarian or vegan, with an additional 21 percent calling themselves 'flexitarian,' consciously reducing the amount of meat they eat. This amounts to nearly one-third of Britons, which is an enormous increase over years gone by; 60 percent of vegans and 40 percent of vegetarians say they've made the change in the past five years.

They’re also foregoing plastic.
A second hopeful change noted by Waitrose is a reduction in plastic use. Ever since the BBC aired its final shocking episode of Blue Planet II in December 2017, 44 percent of Britons say they have "drastically changed" their plastic use habits. (Another 44 percent say they've "somewhat changed.")

NOTE: I was curious how this compares to the US. It’s possible this study might be overstating the situation based on their methodology. According to this country by country comparison, the US has 5-8% vegetarians/vegans. This same source shows the UK as a whole at 7%. Sweden is at 10%; Switzerland and Taiwan are 14%. Mexico is 19%; India tops the list at 31-42%.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Hydro + solar

Floatovoltaics, floating photovoltaics, are being deployed at hydroelectric dams. They add to the electricity generation, of course, but they also cut down on algae and evaporation.

I can’t see people wanting to cover recreation Mecca’s like Lake Powell from shore to shore. Maybe the place to start are toxic bodies of water like Butte’s Berkeley Pit (a Superfund site legacy from mining) or coal slurry ponds to keep wildlife out, if the wiring wouldn’t dissolve in the chemical concoction.

Floating solar is more than panels on a platform—it’s hydroelectric’s symbiont - Ars Technica

Friday, November 9, 2018

What makes an urban space walkable?

Walkability is about more than sidewalks. Why are some places buzzing with activity and a joy to walk through and others feel like a dystopian movie set? This article explains what architects call form based codes.  Do our land use development codes focus on the wrong things?

Supreme Court allows kids to sue country over climate change

By doing nothing, the Supreme Court has allowed the lawsuit put forward by children in Oregon to sue the USA for climate change.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Market forces driving renewables

In the US, the percentage of renewable energy has doubled in the last decade. It’s still only 17% but there are a number of market forces driving the shift to clean energy. Some like the Federal tax credit will phase out in a few years. But coal is becoming unaffordable by comparison, a deregulation is making it easier for people to get power from different utilities. Corporations are also driving demand:

Currently, 71 of Fortune 100 companies have set renewable energy targets, with 22 of those committing to procure 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources.

Science, climate and the elections: the big silver lining

I remember seeing a presentation, it might have been Richard Heinburg, where a slide showed an exponential graph of yeast in wine making doubling and doubling, gobbling up all its resources, until in an instant it all died. His next slide asked this:

So, are humans smarter than yeast?

The day after the midterms, I was thinking the answer might be No. I could feel myself sinking into despair: our inability as a species to take the long view, to not foul our own nest, to be willing to expend a little self-control now for the benefit of future generations. Washington’s carbon fee didn’t pass. Colorado voted not to extend a safe zone for natural gas drilling to 1/4 mile from houses. Arizona’s renewable energy standard went down to defeat.

In case you’re feeling a little glum too, let me share with you some possible good news.

The Washington ballot measure has increased interest in carbon taxes.
Still, you could choose to look at your glass of petrochemicals as being half full. “Ballot measures are often susceptible to misinformation and lots of out-of-state money pouring in, and there are limitations on what a ballot measure can cover,” says Dylan McDowell, deputy director of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, a group that helps state legislators enact climate laws. “State legislation is more able to deal with something as complex as carbon pricing.”
Thanks to Democratic takeovers of governorships and state houses in 2018, that’s now more likely. New York, Colorado, New Hampshire, Maine, and Minnesota now have pro-environment majorities. Massachusetts is moving toward carbon pricing; Oregon legislators will probably vote on a cap-and-trade law next year. The governors-elect of Illinois, Colorado, and New Mexico all campaigned on renewables. And California still has its cap-and-trade system for carbon, and a new governor fired up to head into combat with the president. So the state level may still be a place for climate legislation.

A Carbon Tax Is Pretty Much Inevitable, Even if Voters Said No - WIRED

Arizona’s energy standard didn’t pass but right next door, Nevada did pass a renewable energy standard to increase renewables  to 50% by 2030, which is in alignment with the recent IPCC advice.

Florida passed a constitutional amendment banning offshore oil drilling.

And maybe the beat news of all, among the people elected to Congress are 8 new people with a STEM/scientific background.
The members of the 115th Congress include one physicist, one microbiologist, and one chemist, as well as eight engineers and one mathematician. The medical professions are slightly better represented, with three nurses and 15 doctors.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Which climate solutions will save the most money

Here’s an interesting analysis for policy makers in government. Which strategies to reduce greenhouse gases will save society the most money. Check out the graph.

Surprise, you’re governor! How will you fix climate change? - Grist

Monday, November 5, 2018

Chickadee study reveals importance of native plants in your yard

I love the chubby chickadee-dee-dees. They seem so perky. If you want to attract them to your yard, here’s something you should know.

This research study showed how important native plants are to their ability to raise young. This study likely relates to other songbirds as well. They depend on the insects that munch on native plants. The goal should be 70% or more native plants in your landscape.

The results showed that, as the proportion of a habitat’s nonnative plant biomass increases, chickadees are forced to change their diet and are less able to successfully reproduce. If more than 30 percent of total biomass in a given area is nonnative, chickadees are not able to maintain a stable local population.

Ecologists Have this Simple Request to Homeowners—Plant Native - Smithsonian

Washington State has interesting climate ballot initiative

“Polluter pays” has been the mantra, an accepted global principle, for decades. If you (a corporation) make a mess, you pay to clean it up. Washington State is going to test whether the public accepts it in regards to climate change.

If the measure passes, Washington would immediately have one of the most aggressive climate policies in the country. The proposal—known as Ballot Initiative 1631—takes something of a “Green New Deal” approach, using the money raised by the new fee to build new infrastructure to prepare the state for climate change. It would generate millions to fund new public transit, solar and wind farms, and forest-conservation projects in the state; it would also direct money to a working-class coal community and a coastal indigenous tribe.

The New Deal, Climate Change Edition - The Atlantic

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Danone packaging will be part of Circular Economy by 2025

We all know that being ‘recyclable’ doesn’t mean it’s going to be recycled. Markets have collapsed for all but a couple numbered plastics and not all communities have convenient ways to recycle.

That’s why it’s so important that Danone’s recent commitment to Circular Economy packaging includes ways to get the materials back so they can be recycled.

Friday, November 2, 2018

4 questions to explain climate change

I was tempted to title this Climate Change for Dummies but I always found that book series titling offensive. But if you have people in your life who don't quite get climate change. Here are three questions to help them understand how it works.

Q1: Is there a greenhouse effect? 

A: Yes.

All you have to do is sit in your car with the windows up on a sunny day to know this is true.

Q2: Does the greenhouse effect have an impact on planets? 

A. Yes.

If we didn't have certain gases in the atmosphere trapping infrared energy, our planet would be as cold as Mars. Too much and you get Venus, so hot it can melt lead. Interestingly, any gas with three or more atoms creates a greenhouse effect. (Source: American Chemical Society). So greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6, that was for a time in Nike Air Jordans). Even water vapor (H2O) can act as a greenhouse gas.

Roughly 98% of our atmosphere is nitrogen and oxygen with only two atoms each so they're not greenhouse gases (N2 at 78% and O2 at 21%) which leaves only about 1% for all the other gases, mostly argon. So it's a teeny, tiny percentage of the gases that keep our climate stable. It doesn't take a lot to throw that out of balance. It's not like adding another cup of tomato sauce to your chili; it's more like adding an extra cup of jalapeño chili powder to the recipe. Concentrations matter.

Q3: Have humans been increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? 

A: Yes.

Scientists have been monitoring the rise in CO2 at the Mauna Loa Observatory since 1958. Since pre-industrial levels, we have increased the CO2 in the atmosphere by over 40% (from about 280 ppm to over 400 now.) This trend follows the same path as the use of fossil fuels. It's really quite simple. If we take hydrocarbons from their ancient burial place in the earth and burn them, releasing them to the atmosphere at a much greater rate than Nature can put them back, they build up.

A lot of the CO2 has been absorbed by the oceans, which is making the ocean measurably more acidic. But methane represents about 40 percent to the heat-trapping effect of all human-produced greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Methane comes from natural gas (much of it leaking out of pipes) and also from rotting organic matter (like food in landfills and thawing permafrost.)

Think of our planet as a box with a pipe of greenhouse gases coming in and a pipe going out. For most of the last 10,000 years, the size of the two pipes were balanced, the same amount of greenhouse gases coming in and going out. Humans have not only increased the amount coming into the box with fossil fuels and other chemicals. We've also reduced the size of the pipe going out. For example, deforestation has reduced Nature's ability to take CO2 out of the air. Sometimes cycles make things progressively worse. For example, the oceans have absorbed a lot of human-made CO2 but as the ocean warms, it can't hold as much gas. (Think of your soda going flat on a warm day.) Or as sea ice melts, it reveals a darker ocean that absorbs more heat than the ice did, speeding up the rate of warming.

Q4: Will this have an effect? 

A: Yes.

We know from ice cores that CO2 levels map precisely against ancient temperature swings; more CO2 leads to a warmer global climate every time.

Any system is going to have a reaction to significantly different concentrations. Imagine increasing your fat intake by 40 percent or your body temperature. Exactly what will change where, by how much, by when are very complicated questions to answer. But continuing to add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere will clearly change the climate. According to the world's scientists, it already is. But you don't have to ask them. You can see spring coming sooner, glaciers retreating, and sea level rising.

What people typically don't understand

  • Scientists only disagree about the details. My brother was trained as a scientist and I'll tell you, they love to argue and poke holes in one another's theories. The disagreements around climate science tend to be about how the impacts will play out. But 97 percent of the world's climate scientists agree the climate is changing and that humans are the primary cause.

    Imagine you take your child to a doctor because you've noticed some worrisome symptoms. The doctor tells you the treatment may cost some money and be inconvenient but without treatment, the disease is likely life-threatening. You go for a second opinion and a third. Eventually you see 100 doctors, 97 of them saying the same thing. But a couple doctors say, "Hey, she might grow out of it, take some Vitamin C and hope for the best." What do you do? Most people listen to the 97 doctors. That's where we are regarding the climate.
  • Climate change (what many call global warming) can make some places colder at times. It's doing some odd things to weather patterns, bringing cold arctic air into the US at times. It's better to think of it as destabilizing the climate. Some people in cold climates welcome spring coming sooner. But we depend on a predictable climate: when to plant crops, when the rains will come, what weather we need to construct buildings to withstand, etc.
  • The change may not be gradual. Think of your annoying little brother rocking the canoe. Most of the time, the canoe rights itself. But if he goes too far, you're suddenly in a different place. The difference is with the climate, there may be no easy way to get back to the previous state, to get back in the canoe.

What cities must do to protect the climate

I've seen a lot of people with Deer-in-Headlights expressions regarding the recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change); if you haven’t seen it, I’ve included a quotation from the press release below and a link.

The good news is we still have time to act and there are more and more good research reports on what to do. Municipalities have a critical role to play. Here is a report that lists 7 actions for them to take.  Rather than getting pulled down by fear, we need to get moving.

And here’s a summary of the IPCC findings:

The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Circular Economy is coming after plastics

Lots of people are working on ways to recover plastic from the ocean, but that’s an end-of-pipe solution, dealing with problem after it’s a problem. Instead we need to prevent the problem.

Finally, there is an international agreement called the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment based on the Circular Economy concept. It already has over 250 signatories including major brands and manufacturers. Recognizing that Refuse/Reduce is the first step in Reduce/Reuse/Recycle mantra, they focus first on eliminating single use, unnecessary plastics like straws. Signatories commit to targets and are expected to report on progress.

Six key points define the Global Commitment:
  • Elimination of problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging through redesign, innovation and new delivery models is a priority.
  • Reuse models are applied where relevant, reducing the need for single-use packaging.
  • All plastic packaging is 100 percent reusable, recyclable, or compostable.
  • All plastic packaging is reused, recycled, or composted in practice.
  • The use of plastic is fully decoupled from the consumption of finite resources.
  • All plastic packaging is free of hazardous chemicals and the health, safety and rights of all people involved are respected.