Americans Already Taking Action Against Climate Change

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It’s a new year, and everyone is still feverishly committed to their New Year’s resolutions. After all, January is the time for reinventing oneself, committing to self-improvement, and setting new goals. I love when New Year’s comes around because I enjoy thinking about all of the possibilities that a new year brings.

It is in that spirit that I thought January the perfect time to share a recent study done by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. I’ve shared their work before, telling you how Americans really do want more renewable energy. But that is not the only subject they’ve studied – the two schools continue to poll American citizens on their viewpoints, their habits, their goals, and their ideas for improvement when it comes to climate change. This information is powerful, and I can only hope it gets put to good use.

So what is this research duo up to now? About a month ago, they released a joint report on “Americans’ Actions to Limit Global Warming in September 2012.” The study looks at the actions of Americans to reduce their energy consumption over the course of one month, thus lowering their carbon footprint by reducing the amount of emissions produced by electricity generated on their behalf. It also looks at “green” consumer, citizen, and communication behaviors.

So what are the highlights of the study?

  • 53% of Americans “always” or “often” set their thermostat no higher than 68°F in the winter. (I must be part polar bear – I set mine to 62°F!)
  • 57% of Americans report that all or most of the bulbs in their homes are CFL bulbs (compact fluorescent light bulbs, which are exponentially more energy efficient and longer-lasting than incandescent bulbs).
  • 60% of those polled believe that if everyone in the United States took similar energy-saving actions it would reduce global warming (I happen to agree) – but this figure is down from 78% in 2008!
  • 32% believe their individual actions to save energy will reduce their contribution to global warming – but this figure is also down from the 2008 figure of 48%.
  • 52% of Americans say they have or intend to reward or punish companies for their action or inaction to reduce global warming (consumer feedback is very powerful, which I brought up last year in talking about voting with your wallet).

So, not only do Americans want to take action against climate change – they ARE taking action. Which is great! Companies and government officials may be dragging their feet, but individuals are willing to take steps to reduce energy demand now. Power to the people, right?

But unfortunately it looks as though Americans’ faith in the power of the individual to impact climate change has been decreasing over the last four years. Why? Perhaps people are disheartened by the devastating extreme weather events of 2012 despite their climate-friendly actions? Perhaps the sensationalist coverage perpetuated by the media has scared people into thinking it is too late to take action? It’s hard to pin down the exact reason for this decrease in confidence, but perhaps a new year will bring with it renewed confidence! One can hope so. But more importantly, perhaps this waning confidence in the power of the individual will convince us that we have to work together to effect change at the national – not just the individual – level. And that requires voicing your concerns to your representatives in Congress, supporting environmental groups that lobby for stricter regulations, and supporting the renewable energy industry.

In the meantime, individual action can still create significant progress, and we can see that Americans are willing to take those actions. People have clearly responded by making the changes they’ve been instructed to make by environmental organizations or public serve announcements (e.g. lowering the thermostat and switching to energy efficient light bulbs). So, organizations must continue to present new ways for individuals to change their habits that can make a difference in energy demand. Perhaps if we were to create such action plans for companies and governments we could even expect to see these results reproduced on a larger scale? Food for thought!

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SPOTLIGHT on Concord, Massachusetts: Ditching Disposable Plastic Water Bottles

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If you look hard enough you’re always sure to find something inspiring going on in the world. On this Monday morning, I stumbled upon a green action definitely worth applauding: Concord, Massachusetts has placed a ban on single-use plastic water bottles.

We’ve seen bans placed on plastic shopping bags in a number of cities already, but Concord is the first U.S. city to extend that ban to disposable water bottles. After a three-year effort by the Ban the Bottle campaign, Concord’s new law prohibits the sale of non-sparkling, unflavored liquids in single serving PET (polyethylene terephthalate – a type of plastic) bottles smaller than one liter. Wow – that’s a lot of qualifiers! As you can surmise from the language, sodas, flavored waters, and sparkling waters are not included in the ban – nor are larger bottles of flat water, such as gallon sizes. Additionally, exceptions will be made for emergency situations. However, even with all of these exceptions, eliminating small disposable water bottles alone will be a marked improvement.

Here are a few facts about these single-use plastic water bottles, courtesy of Ban the Bottle:

  • Production of the plastic water bottles used by the United States each year requires 17 million barrels of oil – that’s enough to power 1.3 million cars for a year!
  • Each year, it is estimated that over 38 billion plastic water bottles end up in landfills.
  • Antimony, a chemical found in these PET plastic bottles, has been shown to cause health issues, such as dizziness and depression – even in small amounts.

The bottom line: we use a lot of disposable plastic water bottles every year, and that requires a lot of resources. What if we were to redeploy those resources elsewhere?

If national budget talks have taught us anything, it’s that compromises are often necessary. We must give and take to create a favorable outcome. Giving up all fossil fuels overnight is an unrealistic goal. But we can steadily reduce fossil fuel dependence. What if reducing plastic water bottle usage allowed us to ease more slowly into stricter vehicle emissions standards? Eliminating disposable plastic water bottle production could be a good way to reduce oil consumption without asking people to give up their cars. And wouldn’t it be easier (and far less expensive) to switch to carrying a reusable water bottle than to buy an electric vehicle today or to start biking to work from your suburban neighborhood? Don’t get me wrong – we will still need to reduce oil use by our vehicles (and this is already underway with rising electric and hybrid vehicle sales and the increased CAFE standards enacted last year) and make serious efforts to switch to renewable forms of energy (here we are also making slow but steady progress), but these changes will take much more time because cars and energy infrastructure are such large investments. Reducing disposable water bottle usage is something we can do today.

Much like plastic bags, plastic water bottles are convenient, but they are far from a necessity. Reusable water bottles come in a variety of sizes and materials and can just as easily carry filtered water for those who don’t like what comes from the tap.

I love finding small actions that can make a big difference, and reusable water bottles are a perfect example. Switching to reusable water bottles takes only a small effort but can have a lasting impact on the environment. So if you can, try switching to a reusable water bottle today!

A plastic water bottle ban is a small but admirable step toward greening a community, and I hope many more cities will follow in Concord’s footsteps.

Is your city doing anything particularly green? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

SPOTLIGHT on Nantes, France – European Green Capital for 2013

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Nantes

Happy New Year, everyone! With a new year come new hope, new energy, and new vision. So this year, I would like to increase the scope of GreenIsMyThing to include posts highlighting laudable green actions of cities, states, or countries around the world. And Nantes, France is the perfect place to start…

Why? Nantes was named as the “European Green Capital” for 2013. The European Green Capital designation began in 2010 with the city of Stockholm, Sweden and has since been awarded to Hamburg, Germany (2011), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain (2012), and now Nantes, France. Copenhagen, Denmark is set to receive the designation in 2014. The European Green Capital award is an initiative of the European Commission. The rationale is that because 80% of European citizens live in cities and because cities are a significant source of environmental harms, cities are an excellent place to focus greening efforts.

What is so special about Nantes? Its residents are taking the threat of climate change to heart and have decided to take some serious action.

1)   This metropolitan area of 600,000 people has adopted a climate action plan that aims to reduce carbon emissions 30% below 1990 levels (the reference year set by the Kyoto Protocol) by 2030.

2)   Nantes is also a leader in global climate conversations. The city spearheads a worldwide coalition of cities participating in UN climate negotiations and co-chairs with Copenhagen a working group of European cities working to address climate change. They are also going to be the host of 8 upcoming environmentally themed meetings, including EcoCity 2013 in September and an international meeting on wetlands in October.

3)   They are heavily investing in their public transit systems. In fact, 95% of homes are within 300 meters of a transit stop (that’s about 400 steps, according to Google). That means 95% of the city’s households can use public transportation to get around if they so choose. How? In recent years, Nantes has reintroduced streetcars and light rail in the area, created a dedicated busway, and has developed a bikesharing system. All of these improvements have helped Nantes achieve per capita CO2 emissions of only 4.66 tonnes! (To put this into context, per capita CO2 emissions in the U.S. are 17.3 tonnes.)

That’s all pretty impressive, right? But there’s more. Nantes has initiated three projects to further enhance and focus on sustainability.

1)   Île de Nantes – This project will revitalize a large “brownfield” area of industrial development into an “eco district” that will contain a large park, housing, public transit stops, and walkable mixed-use neighborhoods.

2)   Ma Ville Demain 2030 (My City of Tomorrow 2030) – This project strives for civic engagement to determine Nantes residents’ long-range vision for the region, and sustainability has become an important part of that vision.

3)   Estuaire – This project will place pieces of public art along the river in order to draw interest and attention to the area’s estuary and its many environmental benefits, the hope being that increased knowledge will increase residents’ pride in and desire to protect the estuary.

I love all of the green things that Nantes is doing. No one can transform to being completely green overnight, but Nantes is making sustainability an important part of the city’s identity so that becoming greener is a continued part of local development. The European Green Capital designation rightly reinforces this commitment by praising these practices and lifting up Nantes as a positive example for the rest of the European Union.

I also love the European Green Capital initiative as a whole. First, it focuses on change at the local level, which tends to be more effective than changes at a national level. Action at the local level is easier to coordinate and implement, not only because of the smaller scale, but also because pride and concern for one’s own city can be highly motivating. More importantly, the initiative encourages sharing of best practices between cities so that effective ways of increasing sustainability can be realized on a larger scale. I think the United States could benefit greatly from a similar green cities initiative and form of recognition.

All in all, two thumbs up to the European Green Capital initiative and to Nantes, France for making greener cities a priority and a reality.

Is your city doing something green and noteworthy? If so, feel free to share it in the comments!

[MOVIE] Chasing Ice Documentary Stuns and Inspires

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Imagine images of vast glaciers rising high above an icy landscape. Envision seeing nothing but white ice and bright blue sky for as far as the eye can see. To many, this landscape is not one we’d want in our everyday lives, but it is one in which we still see tremendous beauty and majesty. These harsh, ice-covered locations have been around for tens of thousands of years and so are full of history – biological, geological, climatological. They seem symbols of permanence and strength. And yet they have now begun to crumble before our very eyes.

This is the scene set by James Balog’s award-winning documentary, Chasing Ice. The film is only showing in a small number of cities nationwide, but I highly recommend it to those who have the opportunity to see it.

Chasing Ice chronicles James Balog’s project – Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), which snaps hourly photos of glaciers over a number of years. It’s goal: to capture the changes occurring amongst several of the world’s prominent glaciers (30,000 – 100,000 years old) as a result of a changing climate. “The story is in the ice somehow,” says Balog of climate change.

The Arctic region is one of extremes, so the effects of climate change are felt there earlier and to a greater degree than elsewhere. In fact, changes occurring in the Arctic will trickle down to impact the rest of the world. How so? Glaciers are melting, thinning, receding – basically becoming smaller each year. We know that Greenland’s ice sheet melted more this year than any other year on record. Some 96% of glaciers worldwide are receding or have become extinct in recent years. But that’s not the whole story. Melting glaciers and ice sheets are expected to cause sea levels to rise 1.5 to 3 feet within this century. This degree of sea level rise could displace 150 million people (over 2% of global population).

Melting is just one impact of warming among many, but Balog asserts that glaciers are like the canary in the proverbial coalmine – they should serve as a warning to us that something is off kilter. We can’t just move to another Earth, but we can make changes to our lifestyles before too much damage is done. This is the core of Balog’s message – something major is happening, so now is the time to act.

Balog’s photography and video footage portray this message stunningly. The film shares footage of a massive glacial calving event where a piece of ice the size of Manhattan (except 3 times taller) broke off within 75 minutes. It was truly mouth-dropping. His photos show the progression of melting and recession of major glaciers, with some retreating so far that the camera had to be moved to capture the new limits. The Columbia Glacier in Alaska receded 9 miles in the last 10 years after retreating only 8 miles over the previous 100 years! The changes to these landscapes are huge and undeniable. Balog’s photographs give us visible proof of the manifestations of climate change.

Of course Balog is not the first to tell us about glacial melting; scientists have long known this is occurring. But what Balog does is show these changes to the world for the first time. He captures on film the steady and dramatic decreases by these historic glaciers. Statistics and facts only have so much power over us because we can’t conceptualize the sheer magnitude of what is happening. But Balog’s images are so gripping and so telling that we can’t help but feel concern over the rapid and stark changes underway.

For me, Chasing Ice accomplished exactly what Balog set out to do – it caught my attention and educated me about the extent of glacial melting. It is a powerful film, one that is well worth watching.

Energy Department Speaks Out on Wind

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“Wind energy is one of the major American success stories.” –Energy Secretary Chu

The wind industry has been splashed throughout the media of late, the debate continuing about whether or not to extend the production tax credit (PTC). But with opinions from both sides of the argument woven throughout these reports, it’s tough to get a real handle on the situation. Well, this week I had the pleasure of listening to a webcast about the wind industry put on by the U.S. Department of Energy where Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu and Colorado Senator Mark Udall spoke and answered questions from the audience. It was very informative, so I thought I’d share what I learned. If you’re interested in watching the full webcast, here it is:

 

 

The bottom line is that wind technology is a plentiful and viable fuel source for the United States.

The perception of many is that wind energy, and really all renewables, is more expensive that energy derived from fossil fuels. People assume they must choose between inexpensive fuel and renewable energy. But Dr. Chu insists that this is a false choice. With technological improvements and increased investment options, wind energy prices over the next 10 years should decrease from about 7.2¢ per kilowatt hour (kWh) to about 5¢ per kWh. Wind technology has improved remarkably in recent years, and it is expected to continue improving over the next decade. Better designs, better efficiency, higher wind towers, and lower maintenance costs are all in the pipeline, and our current energy distribution system has the capacity to handle an increased influx of wind energy. All of this simply means that wind energy can be a competitively priced fuel source.

In the mean time, Senator Udall reported that Colorado residents were willing to pay a bit more for the benefits provided by wind energy, saying those costs are “well worth the investment.” Not only does wind allow for rural revitalization, job creation, and cleaner air, it also evokes tremendous worker pride in the machines that they have so carefully constructed. He also highlights the national security benefits of domestically-produced wind energy, although that same argument can be made for domestic fossil fuel production as well. Senator Udall supports an “all-of-the-above” energy approach, which includes coal, nuclear, solar, wind, and geothermal fuels, but Colorado recently passed an amendment requiring that 30% of the state’s energy be provided by renewables by 2020 (awesome!).

So what about the PTC? First of all, what is it? The PTC provides a 2.2% tax credit (not exemption) on each kW of wind energy produced (so only actual output is credited). The argument is that the PTC helps engage producers and utilities, while also allowing small-scale producers to enter the marketplace. In fact, the American Wind Energy Association estimates that the PTC has helped incentivize more than $15 billion in private investment in wind farms every year. Can you believe that? That tremendous level of investment is what enables continued technological progress and increased capabilities. Losing this credit would certainly be a major setback for the wind industry as a whole.

Senator Udall is ardently campaigning for the extension of the wind PTC, but he also highlighted a number of other market-based incentives that could increase investment in the wind industry. He specifically recommended the master limited partnership, an investment opportunity that allows for public investment in a limited partnership. This investment vehicle is currently available for fossil fuels but not for renewables. Secretary Chu stated that if master limited partnerships were extended to the wind industry, it would significantly reduce the costs of financing, thus making wind less costly. The interest on financing would decrease from 10-15% to 5 or 6% — one half to one third of current interest rates! Initial capital outlays are actually one of the largest costs for wind energy, which makes sense if you think about it. The fuel itself (wind) is free; it’s production and installation of the equipment that captures and transmits wind energy that make up the majority of the costs. If the wind industry is given investment capabilities equal to those of the fossil fuel industry, wind energy will become increasingly less expensive and more competitive.

So what are the main takeaways from this webcast?

  1. Wind technology is continuously improving, and the costs of wind energy are expected to steadily decline.
  2. Wind energy provides a number of benefits, including rural revitalization, job creation, cleaner air, and increased national security.
  3. The PTC should be extended so that investment in the wind industry continues, thus enabling the continuance of the aforementioned improvements and benefits.
  4. The wind industry should be afforded a fuller range of investment opportunities, including master limited partnerships.

“This is happening. This is our future,” says Senator Udall of wind and other renewable forms of energy. He believes that renewables are the “next big thing,” and so do I.

Shocking News: Clean Air Helps You Live Longer

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I’ve got shocking news: Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) recently published a study revealing that life expectancy increases as particulate matter air pollution decreases. Not surprised? Me either.

The study tracked health and pollution in 545 counties in the U.S. over the course of 7 years, beginning in 2000. The study particularly focused on particulate matter (PM) pollution, which is comprised of a combination of small solid particles and liquid particles. PM pollution can come from vehicle exhaust, smoke from forest fires, and the reaction of gases emitted by power plants with the surrounding air. When inhaled, PM can cause heart and lung problems.

Do these findings really surprise anyone? It seems fairly intuitive that pollution is bad for human health, so reducing pollution would be better for us. But it’s good that we finally have proof of this link. Clean air regulations promulgated by the EPA are health-based standards, rather than a balance between welfare benefits and economic costs as are most federal standards. So if EPA can prove that stricter air quality regulations will demonstrably improve health, they can and must increase air quality standards.

In fact, EPA just issued a new limit for particulate soot (black carbon) emitted by smokestacks, diesel trucks, and other sources. The American Lung Association (ALA) has estimated that this new standard will save 15,000 lives annually because reduced exposure to soot will lower the risk of heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer, and asthma attacks. Dr. Norman Edelman of the ALA calls soot a “lethal pollutant,” so reducing soot emissions should undoubtedly save lives.

But PM pollution isn’t just bad for human health – it also adversely impacts the environment. Once the PM pollution falls out of the atmosphere it can cause acidification of lakes and streams, nutrient depletion of soil, and damage to forests and crops. All of these occurrences disrupt the health of a larger ecosystem and can have a far-reaching ripple effect. Soot, in particular, can also contribute to climate change by absorbing additional sunlight. For example, when soot lands on snow or sea ice, it reduces the area’s ability to reflect sunlight, thus accelerating melting.

While none of this news is shocking, perhaps it will spark some much-needed action on climate change. The emissions that are contributing so significantly to climate change are also hurting human health. And that makes total sense, doesn’t it? We’re part of the natural ecosystem, so something that harms the rest of that ecosystem is bound to hurt us as well, right? So for those people who still aren’t worried about climate change, there exists an even more personally-significant reason to take action – your own health and wellbeing.

Now that the link between lower pollution and increased health has been proven, there is no reason not to act. EPA is already making strides in the right direction with stricter air quality standards, so let’s keep up the good work!

How is Rainforest Loss Really Contributing to Climate Change?

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I recently read an article saying that Amazon rainforest deforestation between 2000 and 2010 totaled nearly 93,000 square miles, or an area approximately the size of the United Kingdom. Statistics like these are shared frequently, but it can be difficult to understand their implications. What does this figure actually mean? What are the impacts of these actions? I was curious and decided to do some research. Here’s what I found:

The Amazonian rainforests span 2.4 million square miles, so 3.875% of the rainforests were cut down in that 10-year period. Rainforests can be re-grown (which scientist Willie Smits demonstrates in this interesting TED Talk on reforestation in Indonesia), but it has been estimated that it will take decades for tropical rainforests to achieve their earlier levels of biodiversity and carbon storage capacity.

We all know that forests act as “carbon sinks” because they pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it. But, just how much carbon do they hold? A study from Australian National University estimates that tropical rainforests store 250 metric tons of carbon per hectare (or 101 metric tons per acre). [SIDE NOTE: These storage figures talk about amounts of carbon, not carbon dioxide. Carbon is what trees store because oxygen from CO2 is released through the respiration process. But when a tree is cut down, the carbon combines with oxygen in the air to once again form CO2. One metric ton of carbon emissions actually results in 3.67 metric tons of CO2.] So, one hectare of rainforest stores 250 metric tons of carbon.

To put this in context, the EPA estimates that the average U.S. car emits 1.38 metric tons of carbon each year (which results in 5.1 metric tons of CO2 emissions). That means each hectare of tropic rainforest stores the amount of carbon emitted by 181 U.S. vehicles in an entire year. Of if your house sits on one acre of land, that area could store the carbon emitted by 73 U.S. vehicles in one year if it were entirely covered in tropical rainforest.

Then what is the expected result of 93,000 square miles of tropical rainforest loss? 93,000 square miles is over 24 million hectares  (1 square mile=258.999 hectares), so 93,000 square miles of tropical rainforest could release over 6 billion metric tons of carbon (resulting in approximately 22 billion metric tons of CO2)! Global CO2 emissions in 2011 were 31.6 billion metric tons.

Because trees store carbon, loss of these forests results in carbon being released into the atmosphere, in addition to a lost capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. So, the impacts of deforestation are two-fold.

I know I just gave you a lot of numbers, but you should take away two important things from these figures:

  1. Tropical rainforest deforestation contributes to climate change by releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
  2. Rainforests have a tremendous capacity to store carbon, so reforestation could pull significant amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere.

I understand that halting (or dramatically reducing) deforestation and initiating reforestation on deforested lands could have far-reaching economic and societal implications – after all, deforested land is used for agriculture, oil drilling, and development, not to mention the timber itself is sold as well. So, it would certainly not be easy to implement these changes. But it is clear to me that reducing deforestation and focusing on reforestation could contribute significantly to reducing global carbon emissions and atmospheric carbon concentrations.

How can we as individuals contribute to this outcome? A number of non-profit organizations are working fervently to reforest the Amazon. See what one of my favorite organizations (The Nature Conservancy) is doing and how you can help here.