The most delicious way to save the planet

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What’s the most delicious way to save the planet? Buying Ben & Jerry’s new “Save Our Swirled” ice cream flavor, aimed specifically at advancing and funding climate change activism, of course.

Ben & Jerry’s is launching a global campaign to raise awareness about climate change in advance of the UN climate summit to be held in Paris at the end of this year, where countries are expected to (finally) make binding commitments to reduce carbon emissions, and the company is doing it all with ice cream.

On every pint of Save Our Swirled (abbreviated “S.O.S.” on the lid) is the URL for a petition calling on international leaders to commit to using 100% renewable energy by 2050. They hope to submit this petition at the Paris summit in December with 3 million signatures, and it is well on its way with 2.36 million signatures already. (Here is the petition if you want to check it out.)

They’ve even made a clever (if subtly alarming) video where they demonstrate the impact of a 2 degree rise in temperature on ice cream as a metaphor for a 2 degree warming on the planet (ironically, I think you’ll need to eat copious amounts of ice cream to forget that image).

What I really love about this initiative is that Ben & Jerry’s is helping advance the fight against climate change using its strengths. Chris Miller, Ben & Jerry’s Social Mission Activism Manager says it best, “The place where we interact with our consumers most is in the freezercase.” So that’s exactly where they’re aiming their efforts. And as such a popular brand, they really have the ability to jump-start a huge grassroots campaign, which will be important in pushing international leaders to commit to a low-carbon future. If there is overwhelming popular support for renewables and emissions reductions, leaders will need to stand up and take notice.

But, Ben & Jerry’s isn’t just stopping at climate activism — they’re walking the talk in their own operations. Not only are they committing to use 100% renewable energy in their operations by 2020, they have also instituted an internal carbon tax on themselves, the funds from which are put toward programs that reduce farm emissions (with dairy being their primary ingredient and the dairy industry having an enormous methane footprint, farm emissions are a high priority if Ben & Jerry’s wants to reduce its environmental footprint).

Mitigating climate change shouldn’t just be left to policymakers — the policy-making process can be long and tedious. Individuals and businesses have a major role to play in reducing emissions and our general environmental footprint. In fact, individuals and businesses are much more nimble, so making these types of changes can happen more quickly. I love that Ben & Jerry’s is taking responsibility for its actions and committing to make the world a greener place. I truly hope that more companies follow suit. (As I was preparing to publish this post, I saw that 13 major companies have just made strong climate commitments as part of the American Business Act on Climate Pledge — certainly a good start!)

Let’s Hit the Road…for Emissions Reductions

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Road at sunsetDid you know that 2% of road transportation emissions actually come from the roads themselves? Two percent may seem like a paltry amount, but when we’re talking about 2% of almost 6 billion metric tonnes (globally, transport accounts for 13% of total global emissions, estimated at 46 billion metric tonnes), that’s nothing to sneeze at!

And, it turns out a number of companies and engineers around the world recognize the need to reduce the environmental impact of roads and are trying to do something about it. Here are three ventures I’ve read about recently:

  • A construction firm in the Netherlands is working on a road surface to be made entirely of recycled plastic. The company said the surface should require less maintenance than asphalt, withstand greater temperature extremes, and be laid in a matter of weeks – rather than months.
  • Researchers at Washington State University have made a version of asphalt that uses cooking oil in place of crude oil bitumen. Their research has found that cooking oil increases the asphalt’s resistance to cracking. They also believe it could cost much less per tonne, as currently asphalt prices are tied to oil prices (which can fluctuate tremendously).
  • A road contractor in Melbourne has been working with a print cartridge recycling company to replace bitumen in asphalt with recycled printer toner and recycled oil. The new mix (TonerPave) is said to be 40% more energy efficient and will save 270kg of CO2emissions per tonne of modified asphalt.

Of course, none of these products has reached the level of large-scale commercial deployment, but I’m intrigued by the many possibilities out there! Road paving may not seem like a sexy topic, but it represents such a significant part of our infrastructure – at least here in the U.S. I imagine driving will always play a major role in U.S. transportation, so it will be important for us to introduce elements of sustainability wherever possible. Plus, if they have the added benefit of being more durable, the U.S. stands to save a large amount of money in the future – a majority of the money allocated to road construction goes toward maintaining and repairing roads, rather than building new roads (in 2011, $21.6 billion out of the $31.8 billion allocated by the Federal Highway Administration was spent on improvement to the road system, rather than new road and bridge projects).

A lot remains to be seen on the viability of these new technologies:

  • Are they safe in all road conditions?
  • Are they as or more durable than asphalt concrete?
  • Will they be price competitive? (The cost of TonerPave is already equal to that of standard asphalt and is expected to decrease further as the product matures.)
  • Will the needed materials be available on a large scale? (Bruno Bujoli, director of research at CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), is worried that commercialization of asphalt using cooking oil will negatively impact food stocks. If the pavement must compete with the need for food, the cooking oil will likely become less readily available.)

Additionally, it will be a long road (pun intended and relished) to transition all existing roads to new, more sustainable materials — the U.S. has over 4 million miles of roads after all! But, when you think about it, roads need repair and repaving quite often; when that need arises, why not just repave with a “greener” version?

If you’ve been reading my blog for a little while, you know that when it comes to climate change mitigation, I support an “all-of-the-above” strategy — MEANING we need to embrace multiple new sustainable and renewable technologies in multiple sectors to meet our emissions reduction goals. I think greening the pavement industry is a valuable piece in what is, admittedly, a complicated puzzle.

How much does renewable electricity really cost? Can we afford it?

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Solar Panels

Source: Flickr

We’re always hearing that renewable electricity generation is too expensive, but how expensive is it really? I was reading an article about the large deployment of low-emission and renewable energy sources in Germany and France (yay!!), but it mentioned that Germany has some of the most expensive retail electricity in the world as a result. That made me wonder, how much more expensive is their electricity in Germany than ours is in the U.S., and is that difference in price really all that big? Would people easily be able to bear that price increase without really noticing it? So, I did some digging…

  • Average price of electricity in Germany: $0.32 per kilowatt hour.
  • Average price of electricity in the U.S.: $0.1232 per kwh (per EIA)

That price is 2.5 time higher. But, how much money are we really talking about here?

  • Average electricity use per U.S. household per month: 909 kwh in 2013 (per EIA), which amounts to 10,908 kwh per year
  • Average household electricity cost per month: U.S. : $112
  • Average household electricity cost per year: $1,344

So, how do those numbers change if we jump to Germany’s electricity price?

  • Projected household electricity cost per month: $291
  • Projected household electricity cost per year: $3,491

It should be noted that electricity consumption per household in Germany is less than 1/3 of per-household electricity use in the U.S. (due to many factors, including home size, efficiency standards, efficient behavior, etc.) and, therefore, German household electricity expenses would actually average less than those in the U.S. But admittedly, there is a substantial difference between what we currently pay in the U.S. and what we would pay with higher electricity prices like those seen in Germany.

So, how does it compare to what people are actually earning? Could people bear that extra cost?

  • Median household income in the U.S.: $53,046 (per the U.S. Census Bureau)
  • Average electricity bill as percentage of median income: 2.534%
  • Electricity bill with higher prices as percentage of median income: 6.581%

That’s a sizable jump in percentage of household income, which may be quite difficult for many households to bear financially. If prices were to jump to those levels tomorrow, it is likely many households would need assistance. Would federal government assistance be feasible?

  • Number of households in the U.S.: 115,610,216 (per the U.S. Census Bureau)
  • Estimated total cost of U.S. residential electricity – current prices: $155.38 billion
  • Estimated total cost of U.S. residential electricity – higher prices: $403.6 billion
  • Difference between the two: $248.22 billion

$248.22 billion is a huge amount of money. Could the U.S. government handle that type of expense?

  • Expected monetary income/receipts of the U.S. government for 2015: $3,176 billion (per The White House budget report)
  • Additional electricity cost as a percentage of that figure: 7.8%

That extra expense would be a significant portion of the federal budget – so that’s not really an option.

As much as I hate to admit it, it would be quite difficult for U.S. consumers to absorb a price jump of that magnitude — without any other adjustments — if that’s what it took to deploy renewable electricity generation. But, greater energy efficiency within homes would reduce electricity consumption (and therefore cost per household), and the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that efficiency actions could save the average household 25%. Plus, the cost of generating renewable electricity has dropped substantially in recent years to be on par with many fossil fuel sources, and that trend is expected to continue, with costs projected to drop an additional 40% in the next four years.

So today, the (unassisted) cost of renewable electricity generation may be burdensome for many U.S. households. But, lower electricity use (due to greater efficiency) coupled with lower generation costs could bring the household cost for renewable energy in line with what they pay today in under five years. I know major change doesn’t happen over night; but in the grand scheme of things, that’s pretty fast. Let’s get to work!

 

hOWLing winds

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owlWind power is on the rise in the U.S. In fact, 30% of new electricity generating capacity  in the U.S. between 2009-2013 came from wind power, and the U.S. could see 35% of its total electricity needs supplied by wind power by 2050 (per the White House). But, people are seriously worried about the noise.

The common complaints about wind energy are:

  • Noise made by the turbines (some people have even sued wind farm developers with claims that the noise has caused “wind turbine syndrome” – whose symptoms include headaches and sleeplessness – but the courts have found no convincing evidence that such claims are true);
  • Aesthetic disruption caused by the turbines (although, in my opinion, I’d much rather see a wind turbine than a smokestack…); and
  • Bird fatalities caused by the spinning turbines (which at 37,000 per year are remarkably fewer than those caused by buildings – 90 million – or power lines – 130 million).

Well, according to Bloomberg, the University of Cambridge may have a solution for the noise problem, and it’s got an unexpected source — owls. Owls are known for their unique and impressive ability to descend silently when attacking their pray, so scientists studied owl wings in an attempt to make the blades of wind turbines move through the air more quietly — with some success.

Evidently, researchers found that a downy, microscopic covering and a porous elastic fringe on the trailing edge of owl feathers scatters sound without impacting the wing’s aerodynamics. So, scientists tried to mimic that structure with a plastic covering made on a 3-D printer that could be applied to turbine blades, and they found that the covering successfully reduced noise by 10 decibels (to give you some context, that’s the difference between classroom chatter and a freight train 100 feet away — a significant difference). The technology’s success even caught the attention of Siemens AG, and the researchers are in talks with the company to test the coating on one of its turbines.

While I’m not sure how this covering impacts the cost of wind turbine technology, I like that this technology makes renewable technology more deployable. Noise reduction increases public acceptance of the technology and likely opens up new sites for installation if turbines can be located closer to residential and commercial areas. All in all, I’d call this another feather in the cap of renewables (yes, I went there…). :)

How many trees does it take to offset U.S. CO2 emissions?

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Trees

The answer? Almost 467 billion!

I was looking through the EPA’s Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks (yes, I peruse reports like that out of pure interest; what of it?) and saw that, in 2013, the U.S. offset 881.7 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHGs) through “sinks” (such as forested land that naturally sequesters carbon). That’s 13.21% of total (not net) U.S. emissions for 2013! So, I started wondering more about naturally sequestering our carbon emissions with trees. How many trees would it take to sequester all of the CO2 we emitted in 2013? Would it be possible to do that? Could we do it if every city or town in the U.S. planted an acre of trees?

Let’s take a look at the numbers:
  • Total US GHG emissions in 2013: 6,673,000,000 metric tonnes CO2-equivalent
  • Total US CO2 emissions in 2013: 5,505,200,000 metric tonnes CO2 (Let’s use this number, since the research on sequestration by trees is based on CO2 absorption only, rather than methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, and other GHGs)
Now on to the trees:
  • CO2 absorbed by 1 young tree per year: 26 pounds (Let’s assume they’re all young trees since they would be newly planted.) (Source: Arbor Environmental Alliance)
  • Average number of trees per acre: 700 (Source: Tufts University)
  • Amount of CO2 absorbed by 1 acre of trees per year: 8.255 metric tonnes CO2
So, how much forested land is needed to absorb our annual CO2 emissions?
  • Number of acres of trees needed to absorb all US CO2 emissions: 666,892,792 acres
  • Number of square miles of trees needed to absorb all US CO2 emissions (640 acres per square mile): 1,042,019 square miles
  • Size of United States: 3,805,927 square miles (Source: US Census Bureau)
  • % of US land needed to absorb all CO2 emissions: 27.38%
That’s a huge chunk of land that would need to be set aside to be planted with trees! Could we make a dent in that by having each city or town in the U.S. plant an acre of trees?
  • Number of incorporated areas in the U.S.: 19,509 (Source: US Census Bureau)
  • Amount of CO2 absorbed if each area planted 1 acre of trees: 161,054 tonnes of CO2
We’ll definitely need more than that! So, could we even set aside enough land to sequester all of that CO2? Well, the federal government only owns almost 28% of U.S. land (Source: USDA), so it would actually require setting aside all federal land and planting it with trees (and I’m betting a good chunk of federal land is already covered in protected forests).

 

How is our land actually being used? Only 2.6% of all U.S. land is urbanized and another 4.2% is rural residential land. A whopping 52.3% is used for agricultural purposes (e.g. cropland, grassland pastures, range, and forested grazing land). Another 21.9% is forested land used for timber, and 13.1% is categorized as “special use” land, which includes wilderness and wildlife areas, national and State parks, and national defense and industrial areas. The remaining 5.9% is taken up by miscellaneous land uses (Source: USDA). So, we do have a good amount of forested land in the U.S., but most of it is being cut down for timber. And, we don’t have an excess supply of unused land lying around just waiting to be planted with trees.

 

So to answer my question: It would take almost 467 billion trees (or almost 667 million acres of forested land) to absorb all U.S. CO2 emissions. That number is a bit smaller since we already have some forests providing carbon sinks. But, it would still take a large number of new trees. Theoretically, we do have the land for all of those trees, but – practically – it would require displacing other land uses, primarily agriculture and timber. I won’t say it isn’t possible, though…

New Regs are on the Way

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airplane propellerI’m trying not to hold my breath, but I was excited to read that climate change-related regulations may change significantly this summer. Power plants aren’t the only ones being targeted with new emissions standards; the EPA is planning to draft three new rules regulating emissions this summer in a push to advance climate regulation leading up to the December UN climate talks in Paris. Potentially to be regulated are:

  • CO2 emissions from airlines
  • CO2 emissions from large trucks (e.g. the freight industry)
  • CH4 (methane) emissions from oil and natural gas operations

While I’m sure there are those who disagree, here’s why I think new emissions regulations are a good idea:

  1. It puts our eggs in more than one basket. Obama has been pushing regulation of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants for several years now, and his Clean Power Plan (which addresses state-by-state emissions from the fossil fuel-fired power sector) is expected to be promulgated this summer. This regulation could make a hugely positive impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions if implemented — electricity from fossil fuel combustion was responsible for 35.22% of total US GHG emissions in 2013, or 2039.8 million metric tonnes of CO2. But, non-compliance by reluctant states (the WSJ reported that “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), is urging governors across the country to defy the EPA by not submitting plans to comply with its rule cutting power-plant emissions.”) could hamper the regulation’s effectiveness. Branching out to address additional sources of emissions takes some pressure off of the Clean Power Plan by spreading the burden of emissions reductions across multiple industries — which makes it that much more likely the U.S. will meet its emissions reduction goals.
  2. They address a huge chunk of U.S emissions. As a percentage of net U.S. GHG emissions, these new regulations would address industries responsible for a collective 11.916% of emissions. Together with the Clean Power Plan, new regulations would address industries responsible for 47.130% of net U.S. GHG emissions. According to the EPA’s “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks” —
    • Commercial aviation was responsible for 114.3 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2013
    • Medium and heavy-duty trucks emitted 393.2 million metric tonnes of CO2 in 2013
    • Oil and natural gas operations emitted 182.6 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent in the form of methane in 2013
  3. They’ll stimulate innovation. Regulating emissions requires leaving the status quo behind. It’s easy to become complacent when we’re not forced to move forward. New regulations will put fire in the bellies of these industries, driving them to create new and improved technologies that 1) lower our emissions, but also 2) represent new economic opportunities for the U.S.

I’m not saying new emission regulations will be a piece of cake to implement or that they won’t place any new costs on regulated industries. Change (and advancement) always brings along with it both costs and challenges; but, I believe these changes will create long-lasting benefits for our society, for our economy, and for our planet that far outweigh the costs.

[Just for Fun] Get Amped Up About Exercise

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What would it look like if fitness fused with clean energy? A little device called Ampy.

Ampy combines the idea of a Fitbit or other similar activity-tracking devices with the ability to turn kinetic energy into electricity (you know, like those flash lights that you can crank to power them?). Basically, you move, and Ampy generates and stores electricity that you can use later to charge your devices, plus it tracks how many calories you’re burning in that process. The website indicates that you should be able to get 3 hours of smartphone battery life out of running for 30 minutes, cycling for 1 hour, or walking the recommended 10,000 steps per day.

So, you create your own clean, renewable electricity! How great is that? Plus, you can finally turn all that exercise you’ve been tracking into something you can use. Believe me, I’m all for exercising to maintain a healthy body and mind, but isn’t it nice to get a little extra boost from all that effort?

Ampy is expected to start selling devices in June 2015. Check out their video [below] or their Kickstarter for more information!

**Note: This post is in no way sponsored. I just think it’s a cool product!**