Kilowatt Ours, Pt. 2

Here’s a follow up to my Kilowatt Ours post from last week, and a response to the W&M Federalist Society’s recent post on the subject. Energy consumption in developing countries is definitely something that should cause warnings bells to go off in our heads. China’s coal consumption threatens to make us look like amateurs very soon. The Federalist Society post makes a good point that we cannot afford to ignore such a juggernaut.

However, increasing energy consumption in places like China cannot be the basis of a refusal to change our own habits. Even though Chinese electricity demands will outstrip our own in the future, it still makes sense to save electricity, for several reasons. First, continuing to waste resources because someone else is wasting more does not make the problem go away. I prefer to make the world better, not worse. (more…)

Published in: on October 29, 2007 at 7:43 am Comments (3)

Kilowatt Ours

Filmmaker Jeff Barrie is trying to kick a habit. As part of this crusade, he recently attended a showing of his film, Kilowatt Ours at William & Mary. When the film ended, he stood up in the front of the theater, and introduced himself as an addict: “Hi, my name is Jeff, and I use electricity.” Barrie isn’t the only one with an addiction. Kilowatt Ours opens with footage of Vice President Cheney claiming that the United States will need 1,900 new power plants in the next 20 years to meet projected energy demands. Wow. How could anyone expect to even trip up the juggernaut of American energy usage, let alone slow it down enough to make a real difference? Barrie has an answer.

His film shifts the viewer’s focus from the seemingly unconquerable problems of global warming, rising oil prices, and ever increasing energy needs, to manageable personal issues. Barrie hones in on little ways we all tend to waste energy, and points out easy ways to stop that waste. He and his wife, his co-star in the film, replaced their light bulbs and appliances with more energy efficient products, and made sure they turned off or unplugged anything that wasn’t necessary. With little changes like these, they dramatically reduced their monthly energy bill, saving both money and resources. The Barries’ experiment with their own electricity addiction in the microcosm of their home has the potential to change the macrocosm of America’s electricity usage.

According to Barrie, a typical American home emits twice the annual global warming emissions of a typical car. If Americans decided to make just a few minor changes around their houses, the energy they could potentially save is enormous. Some ambitious college students in Maine are demonstrating this potential right now. Bowdoin College holds an energy conservation competition between dorms every October. Last year, the competition saved the college 52,228.5 kilowatt hours of energy, the equivalent of 104,000 pounds of CO2. Taking this much CO2 out of the air would require planting 155 trees. This year, some students are upping the ante and studying by headlamp rather than turn on their lights. Now that’s conservation.

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Published in: on October 21, 2007 at 5:41 pm Comments Off on Kilowatt Ours

“Green Collar” Jobs

I have to admit, I’m a big fan of Thomas L. Friedman. Yes, at times he can be a bit Biden-esque with his incredulity over the originality of his own ideas. And true, he has a penchant for trying to coin kitschy catch phrases. But Tom Friedman is a thinker, and more importantly, he’s a listener, and I like that. Now that N.Y. Times Select is free again, his editorials are available at no cost. I think he’s the best around.

Solar PanelsFriedman’s piece today was an anecdotal account of his encounter with Van Jones, a black social activist-environmentalist in Oakland, California. Friedman recounted Jones’s view that if you go door-to-door in neighborhoods troubled with violence, unemployment, and poverty, an environmental argument about “sav[ing] the polar bears!” and melting glaciers is likely to fall on deaf ears.

Jones’s passion, then, has been devising ways to fuse America’s pressing need for environmental and energy reform, with the problems facing disadvantaged communities. His nonprofit organization, Green for All, seeks to do precisely that in two ways.

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Published in: on October 17, 2007 at 10:54 pm Comments Off on “Green Collar” Jobs

Baby Steps, Green Footprint

Last week, President Bush concluded a meeting of sixteen carbon-emitting nations with a broad promise to “set a long-term goal for reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions.” The United States has yet to create a comprehensive national program for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, let alone participate in an international one. After the President’s speech, John Ashton, a special adviser on climate change in the British foreign secretary’s office, remarked “We could have another 20 years of talking about talking…We need to start deciding about doing.”

While large governmental and non-governmental organizations talk about talking, smaller initiatives are already deciding and doing. And when I say “smaller,” I’m not using the term loosely. In the United States and beyond, some environmental activism is coming out of the mouths of babes. A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted the growing influence of children on their parents’ energy usage. After Luke Dahlin, age 8, appeared in his California school’s play about global warming, he convinced his parents to spring for solar panels when they replaced the roof of their home. The Dahlins had not expected to shell out thousands of greenbacks for a greener house, but Luke’s constant lectures from the backseat of the car about energy consumption won them over. In Colorado, Nicole Thomas’ 4-year-old son has mounted a verbal campaign against her coffee habit. The preschooler is concerned about deforestation by coffee growers in Central America. Across the pond in Hungary, Gergely & Ildikó Torda have offset their new daughter Boróka’s (“green footprints” picture on the side) lifetime carbon emissions by arranging for 300 trees to be planted in her name in Bukk National Park.

In an interesting and productive nod toward this trend, some state governments are encouraging kids to get involved in reducing their families’ energy consumption. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency uses a character called “Captain Earthworm” to get kids to talk with their parents about returning used oil to gas stations and lube centers. Even in the grown up world, some states and governments are legislating baby steps in energy conservation. Earlier this year, the city of San Francisco banned plastic bags from its supermarkets and pharmacies. Around the same time, the Australian government began a program to phase out that country’s incandescent light bulbs over the next three years.

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Published in: on October 2, 2007 at 10:55 pm Comments (4)

A Constitution for the Oceans?

When recently perusing the website of the Hamilton Project (an excellent consortium of progressive-leaning policy papers), I came across something that I never knew existed. To my surprise a comprehensive framework, established under the imprimateur of the United Nations, exists that seeks to set forth rules governing the uses of the non-territorial oceans (i.e., the open seas) and their resources, including the airspace above and the seabed and minerals below.

OceanThis international treaty of sorts–called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)–was first adopted in Montego Bay in 1982, and has since been modified an adopted by 155 nations (yes, in case you are wondering, even Lesotho has signed on). The text of the Convention may be read here.

Some of the major features of this Convention include:

  • Coastal States have sovereign rights in a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) with respect to natural resources and certain economic activities, and exercise jurisdiction over marine science research and environmental protection;
  • All States enjoy the traditional freedoms of navigation, overflight, scientific research and fishing on the high seas; they are obliged to adopt, or cooperate with other States in adopting, measures to manage and conserve living resources;
  • States are bound to prevent and control marine pollution and are liable for damage caused by violation of their international obligations to combat such pollution;
  • Disputes can be submitted to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea established under the Convention, to the International Court of Justice, or to arbitration. Conciliation is also available and, in certain circumstances, submission to it would be compulsory. The Tribunal has exclusive jurisdiction over deep seabed mining disputes.

Conspicuosly absent from the list of ratifiers? You guessed it: the United States. Refreshingly, however, this is not due to any intransigence on the part of the Bush Administration. In fact, President Bush listed UNCLOS as one of his “top 5” treaty priorities in 2004. Lip service is one thing, and action is another, but all things considered it is a step in the right direction that a proposal wasn’t rejected outright under the auspices that the United States would somehow cede its sovereignty to every other nation in the world. The White House should be commended for its leadership.

No, despite the support of the Bush Administration (to wit, as recently as May 2007), the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers, and the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vern Clark, a small group of conservative U.S. senators have opposed the treaty and precluded its progression for ratification in the Senate on grounds that it would impair America’s sovereignty. This, despite the fact that it was approved 19-0 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 2004.

This argument is stale and rejected by many who apply the same argument in different contexts, with respect to international organizations and treaties. In fact, ratifying UNCLOS would benefit the United States in a variety of ways…

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Published in: on August 31, 2007 at 1:04 am Comments (1)

One Fish

An interesting follow up on an earlier entry I wrote for this blog on bottom-up self-regulation of fisheries by local fishing communities: An article in yesterday’s New York Times reveals that efforts on the part of Palau, a tiny archipelago in Micronesia, to increase fish populations has been remarkably successful.

According to the article, the Palauan method is to designate “no-take” zones, or small areas of reef that are accessible to fisherman but where fishing is prohibited. The effect of this practice is to increase not just the populations of edible fish and other seafood, but also the many reef fish that bring a large number of diving-obsessed tourists to the island every year. Both of these commercial practices were in serious danger prior to the beginning of the no-take zone enactments due to over-fishing and
global warming. 

Although this practice grew out tribal cohesion and loyalty to local chiefs and elders, the practice of creating no-take zones seems to have caught on at the national level: The first ban in Palau took place on a small patch of reef in 1994 but today the island has 460 square miles of protected waters.

In 2005, Tommy Remengesau, Jr., the president of Palau, announced at a U.S. Conference on coral reefs what he deemed the Micronesian Challenge: an invitation for fellow Micronesian governments to increase conservation-designated waters by 30% and land areas by 20% by 2020. As the article points out, countries such as Fiji, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands have since accepted Remengesau’s challenge, many having no problem doing so since they’d begun designating no-take zones years before the Challenge was issued.

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Published in: on April 18, 2007 at 7:18 pm Comments Off on One Fish

Massachusetts v. EPA

This is the case many have been waiting for. Massachusetts, along with many other petitioners, sued the EPA for failing to regulate carbon emissions, thereby putting the Massachusetts coastline at risk from the hazards of global warming. Massachusetts was countered by an equally impressive list of states and figures filing amicus briefs opposing its position. The case presented three very interesting questions. First, does Massachusetts have standing to sue the EPA for its alleged role in global warming? Second, does the EPA have the authority to regulate something as ubiquitous as carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act (CAA)? Finally, is the EPA in fact required to do so, its discretion as an agency notwithstanding? These are three very important questions that likely present the first of many dealing with global warming that courts will have to address. For those of you that want to skip the fun part, the answers are yes, yes, and yes. In what follows I will try to summarize the Court’s responses to paraphrased arguments on the side of the EPA.

The CAA provides that “The EPA Administrator shall, by regulation prescribe, (and from time to time revise) in accordance with the provisions of this section, standards applicable to the emission of any air pollutant from any class or classes of new motor vehicle or new motor vehicle engines, which in his judgment cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare ” The term “Air pollutant” is defined as “any air pollution agent or combination of such agents, including any physical, chemical, biological, radioactive  substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air.” “Welfare” is defined to include “effects on  weather  and climate.”

Justice Stevens, for the Court, begins by surveying the history of pollution research and regulation, noting that the wording of the statute was changed to address pollutants that were “reasonably foreseeable” to cause harm, rather than merely those actually determined to do so. In 2003 the EPA determined that it did not have the authority to regulate carbon emissions because Congress had declined to pass an amendment explicitly granting it that power, and because to do so would mean regulating vehicle emissions intruding on legislation Congress had already passed on the matter. It also concluded, citing a study concluding that a causal link between carbon emissions and global warming “[could not] be unequivocally established,” and more concerns about intruding on prior congressional legislation, that even if it did have the power it would be unwise to regulate emissions at that time.

The lower court found that petitioners, who alleged that global warming was “harmful to humanity at large,” had failed to allege the “particularized injuries” required for standing. Standing, you will recall, requires “actual or imminent injury” fairly traceable to the defendant and which a favorable decision by the court is likely to redress. However, Congress may grant a procedural right to protect concrete interests without requiring that those with this procedural right meet all the normal standards for redressability and immediacy (there is no argument that it did so here). (more…)

Published in: on April 7, 2007 at 5:26 pm Comments Off on Massachusetts v. EPA

Say Hi to Hydrogen

Hydrogen, long lauded as a potential alternative to fossil fuels, has had a slow start. But for those of you sick of filling up your gas tank with expensive and polluting fossil fuels take note; Honda has announced that they plan on selling a hydrogen fuel cell powered car in 2008. Granted, the current ticket price for the Honda FCX is around $3 million, but some companies that are already retro-fitting existing internal combustion engines to use hydrogen gas estimate that with mass-production the costs could go to a much more reasonable $20-25,000.

The hydrogen engine is similar to a gasoline engine, in that the hydrogen fuel is used in conjunction with a battery. However, the similarities end there. The “hydrogen fuel cell” is a misnomer; the hydrogen gas doesn’t actually act as a fuel. Instead, the hydrogen reacts with oxygen in a complicated way, resulting in a highly efficient transfer of energy into a battery for storage. Then the battery powers the moving parts of the car. If that doesn’t make sense to you, as it doesn’t really to me, just imagine the hydrogen fuel cell as a producer of energy, similar to the outlet on your wall. The only difference between the fully electric car and the hydrogen car is that hydrogen reaction creates the energy that powers the attached battery, whereas electricity from your wall (and previously coal, wind, or nuclear power plants) powers the electric car.

The benefits of hydrogen fuels have long been debated, but we now know that it is possible to run a car that lives up to current consumer requirements solely on hydrogen power. (more…)

Published in: on March 28, 2007 at 7:11 pm Comments Off on Say Hi to Hydrogen

Ranking the Cleanest Cities

SustainLane Government an “open-source knowledge base” focusing on sustainable development at the state and local level, recently released their rankings for 2006’s top U.S. cities for clean technology incubation clusters. The group defines a Cleantech incubation cluster as a combination of “Cleantech investments, infrastructure and supportive policies [that form] a physical “cluster.” Ideally, these clusters arise out of combined efforts by venture capital groups, research labs, and active state/local encouragement via proactive programs and incentives. Not surprisingly, and further supporting the growing feeling in many of our guts that it is the coolest state ever, California has three cities in the top five: San Jose, Berkeley, and Pasadena.

San Jose is apparently leading the way nationwide in developing solar power
technologies (don’t ask me what the difference between proprietary thin-film
technology and semi-conductor wafer cells is, but apparently the valley’s
tech firms are mastering both).

Due in part to a $500 million investment (to be shared with the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana) by BP, Berkeley is looking to become “the center of the universe for biofuels.” Intriguingly, included in the scope of this project is the creation of synthetic biofuels, which apparently don’t require all the corn, soy bean or other agricultural matter that typically gets poured into the melange that is biofuel.

Finally, Pasadena was included in the list for its welcoming atmosphere, fostered by the abundance of willing angel investors and venture capitalists in combination with Caltech’s research programs. This environment has proven quite conducive to Cleantech firms, including those on the cutting edge of solar and methane power technologies.

So what is it about California?

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Published in: on March 8, 2007 at 12:59 am Comments Off on Ranking the Cleanest Cities

The Day After Tomorrow

It was great to see the large turnout for the ACS/Environmental Law Society screening of An Inconvenient Truth yesterday evening.  And it was very gracious of Prof. Erin Ryan (especially big ups b/c I know she was under the weater) of the law school, and Prof. David Taylor of the college, to stick around and lead what was a free-flowing discussion on a range of “earthy-friendly” topics.

Part of our discussion focused upon automobile efficiency standards, which Mr. Gore Welcome to Detroitpoints to as an illustration of American industry’s short-sightedness.  As a native Michigander whose family is mostly concentrated around Detroit, the auto industry brings out strong feelings.  And if there’s one thing almost everyone back in Michigan agrees on, it’s that the management of the auto industries is a joke.  Not only are their profit margins nonexistent, but Detroit is single-handedly decimating Michigan’s job market.  To say that there is a high level of job anxiety in Michigan would be the understatement of the year.

Now certainly this is not primarily due to poor fuel efficiency standards.  But at least in terms of recent history, Detroit has shown a remarkable ability to think incredibly short-sightedly.  Instead of clamoring for tax incentives for SUVs, they should have been attempting to get the government to subsidize fuel efficient vehicles.  Instead, Toyotas get double the miles per gallon and back in Michigan, we’re witnessing a never before seen phenomena:  those blue collar Michiganders who used to live and die by Ford and GM, well, they’re starting to say things like, “You know, those Toyotas aren’t so bad.”  Because while it’s good to buy American, it’s even better not to spend your grocery money on gas every month.

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Published in: on March 1, 2007 at 1:00 am Comments Off on The Day After Tomorrow