Monday, February 20, 2012

Sustainable Electricity

Near the mountains where I grew up, the Elwha River dam, is being decommissioned (removed) to give wild salmon a chance again. The dam’s removal reflects the kind of proactive policymaking necessary to restore critical habitat for certain fish populations and the ecosystems and people they support. This is a bold move in a part of the world where electricity is primarily generated by hydroelectric dams.

Sustainable C wonders what lessons removal of the Elwha dam will have for other countries, particularly countries (like Sweden) that rely heavily on hydropower (for example, to meet “carbon neutral” goals), despite the awareness that doing so depletes non-renewable natural resources. Certainly nuclear power, which carries clear risks demonstrated by the Fukushima tragedy in Japan, is not the answer. 

It would seem that aggressive investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and energy storage devices are the only answers that can balance the needs and desires of both nature and humankind. Sustainable C will be on the look out for inspirational energy policy alternatives to nuclear and hydro. Stay tuned!

More information on the Elwha River dam’s history and removal is available in a 5-minute video on the Olympic National Park’s website. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

End of Free Rides for Airline Emissions

Earlier on Sustainable C (“Solar Flight in Sight”, 10 June 2010), we looked at the potential benefits of solar flight. Such flight would eliminate extensive greenhouse gas emissions from jet fuel. For me (and for many of my friends), jet fuel emissions from flights to vacation destinations constitutes most of my carbon footprint. Thus, even though I commute by public transportation instead of car, the jet fuel emitted on my vacations gives me a carbon footprint equivalent to someone who commutes by car for an entire year.

Thoughtful travelers may of course decide to offset their greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing carbon offsets or by climate compensating their trip. Some “cheap ticket” websites even allow passengers to add such climate compensation to their cart when they purchase a ticket. Climate Care  is one such organization that offers offsets on these websites and independent of them. It is easy and worth looking into if you are interested in offsetting future plane travel.

Now, though, all flights to Europe may be charged for their impacts on greenhouse gas emissions and air quality. According to Euroactiv, the European Union is considering charging airlines for their greenhouse emissions when they fly to Europe. The move by the EU has been challenged by China, and may be subject to diplomatic negotiations. From the Sustainable C perspective, however, charging airlines (and their passengers) for emissions is just common sense. Airlines, like all other greenhouse gas-intensive industries, should be held accountable for their impacts on climate and air quality. The policy move appears to level the playing field for airlines, which have until now enjoyed a free ride.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Fertilized & sustainable crops, sanitary & sustainable cities

What do you get when you take a Chinese, Japanese and Korean historic solution to sanitary city living and use it as a modern solution for fertilizing the crops that support cities? Humanure. The catch is that this is no joke.

Humanure is a word coined by Joseph Jenkins that refers to the idea that composting human waste for use as fertilizer may be the key to sustainable farming. What is more, using human waste as fertilizer may be the key to sustainable cities, from a sanitary and environmental standpoint.

Though the idea sounds radical, it is in fact nothing new under the sun. At the turn of the last century, the process was used in China, Japan and Korea. Entire (lucrative) markets were built up around so-called ”night soil”. It was one of the reasons that in the year 1900, Tokyo (then called Edo) was one of the largest cities in the world. Folks living there did not suffer from diseases such as cholera and typhoid because human excrement was not mixed in with other waste that ran through street canals. The city was therefore much more sanitary than most and folks lived healthier lives.

What is the punchline today? It is that these ideas could be used again to solve the problem of a growing world population that requires increasing amounts of food to feed. After all, why let factories continue to mine and pump out fertilizers—nearly 100 million tonnes of artificial nitrogen and 37 million tonnes of phosphates—when fertilizers can be more easily obtained on the home front, quite literally?

All joking aside, we live in dramatic times. Dramatic times call for thinking out of the box, at least, and radical new solutions at best. For those interested in taking a closer look at the at-first-glance radical concept of using waste for sustainable agriculture and sanitary cities, Sustainable C highly recommends that read this excellent article by Kris De Decker.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Switching gears: Swedish policy and practice with respect to biofuels

On January 1, 2012, Swedish tax rebates favoring ethanol and biodiesel-fueled cars came to an end. Rebates are still offered for plug-in hybrid and gas-driven cars. The shift gives rise to several questions at Sustainable C about biogas, including biogas used for cars as well as that used for heating.

Why the policy shift on ethanol-driven cars? According to one energy expert, the Swedish government is more pointedly moving towards a fossil-fuel independent fleet of vehicles by 2030. The policy shift may also be inspired by close scrutiny of what goes into making the biofuel.

When the biofuel is made from crops such as corn, soybean, palm oil or other crops that directly replace food crops, such fuel may give rise to food insecurity.

Cultivating biofuel crops may also lead to “indirect land use change”. Indirect land use change refers to biofuel crops that take the land where food or other crops otherwise would have grown. When such biofuel crops are grown, farmers of other crops look further for land, sometimes expanding into climate crucial areas such as the Amazon rainforest or Malaysia’s tropical peatswamp forests. Some of these forms of biofuel may be even worse for the climate than oil from the Canadian oil sands, as leaked data from the European Commission suggest.

But is all biofuel bad? No. In fact, a pitch should be made in support of biofuels made from waste. Farm waste, for example. One such project includes the waste-to-fuel project in Sweden’s Skaraborg municipality. These and other projects produce biofuel that is used for heating systems.

Sustainable C continues to watch these developments with interest, particularly biogas projects that take a climate problem like waste (which leaks methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere) and turns it into a climate solution. Sustainable C readers may also be interested in following EU policy on biogas. In spring 2012, the EU is expected to introduce new legislation concerning biogas and indirect land use change.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Taking Responsibility for a Livable Planet

In the summer of 2011 when I was pregnant with my son, the thoughts that kept me up at night were what kind of living conditions my son would encounter here on earth during his lifetime.

This may sound like a far-fetched concern, but it boils down to simple questions. Will he be able to drink water from the tap? Will he live to see the great glaciers on the mountains where I grew up? Will he have the chance to snorkel at a coral reef? Will the earth and its ecosystems still support wild salmon, polar bears, bees and other animals that we have taken for granted?

A key year for policymakers, scientists and others engaged in finding climate solutions by 2050. That is the year by which the earth will have warmed by at least two degrees Celcius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), according to conservative estimates, if dramatic measures are not taken to reverse human-caused trends. This two degrees Celcius figure translates to a loss of coral reefs, glaciers and other ecosystems, a loss of polar bears and other species, and the destruction of cities and towns at sea level, among other severe effects.

For my son 2050 is the year he will be my age. By that time he will be facing the consequences of our decisions today. He will likely wonder what I did—what we all did—to help prevent the severe effects we know are coming in the absence of change. What conveniences did we let go? What innovations did we implement? What steps did we take to protect ecosystems?

Sustainable C is back to study and explore climate solutions that I—that we all—can live by. It is my attempt to develop answers. It is my attempt to take responsibility. It is my attempt to anticipate when my son is my age, and he asks me what I did to help.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Solar Flight in Sight

If you're accustomed to flying for travel and are looking for a fast way to cut back your carbon footprint, look no further than the jet fuel that feeds your flights. Check nearly any carbon calculator, and you'll find that air travel is probably your biggest source of carbon emissions.

Is cutting back on such air travel an option? Yes, you can always buy so-called "green tags" to offset the emissions from your travel, find alternative modes of transportation (trains can offer a romtantic alternative in some regions), or organize "staycations" instead of elaborate journeys abroad. But for those airline trips where these options are out of the question, what else exists?

Commercially, current options are few and far between. But there is hope. This week I met the colleagues of a man, Bertrand Piccard, who plans to circle the world in a solar airplane called the Solar Impulse, stopping five times along the way to top up his hybrid solar battery. By day, the plane will absorb sunlight on its broad, solar-paneled wings by day, gaining altitude as it goes. By night, the plane will coast, slowly descending while propellors on the wings turn in the apparent wind, regenerating battery energy all the way. Mr. Piccard's purpose? To show that solar flight is possible.

Although solar flight may be far from commerciable at the moment, think what market change could come if investors prioritized this kind of energy over jet fuel. The concept of such change is not all that novel. On the contrary, Mr. Piccard's purpose should be familiar. On a field in Kitty Hawk, Arkansas, it was also the purpose of the Wright Brothers. And look what we're doing with their dreams now.

The Economist, at least, seems to think sufficiently well of the project to cover it in the Economist Technology Quarterly. My hope is that such options will soon spring from the pages of such magazines to the market.

A made-for-Hollywood type video promoting the project, or at least its daytime attributes, is online at

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sustainable Humanity and Energy Policy

There is more than one price to pay for our energy choices. The most obvious prices are listed on utility bills and legislative budgets. Less obvious is the price people pay for living near mining operations and power plants with deficient environmental management. Less told is the story of people who live with toxic air, poisoned water and contaminated soil.

On a road tour dubbed "Cleaning the Air," a group of concerned individuals set out on a ten-day, nine-city tour around Earth Day 2010 to explore this untold story and set the record straight. The tour was an intiative of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Little Village Environmental Organization and the Envirnonmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative. The tour precedes a report ranking the nation's coal power plants based on their emissions of air pollutants (nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide) in proximity to low income communities of color.

Read more about the climate justice initiative on the NAACP website here, To follow the tour from your computer, check out Jacqui Patterson's blog and interviews here,

The Cleaning the Air Road Tour raises key questions of equity and human rights. It names the price people have paid, and should mobilize action toward cleaner, healthier, more equitable energy policies.