Posts Tagged ‘CO2 emissions’

“Next year, when my youngest daughter goes to college, I wouldn’t mind spending more time in Hawaii” I mused over dinner with my friends Tom and Betsy. And quickly added that I felt conflicted about the idea. Given the climate situation, I told them, it felt irresponsible to engage in such gratuitous behavior. Both of my friends looked at me as if I was some crazy woman. Why wouldn’t I want to fly to Hawaii? No way would they change their habit of flying to Europe three of four times a year.  Tom started ranting about not subscribing to moralistic attitudes towards climate change. No, the solution lied in new technologies. What about all the predictions that keep getting worse and worse? I asked. Tom, an engineer with an interest in data visualization, expressed skepticism. There is a lot we don’t know. All those data are to be taken with a grain of salt. No, both he and Betsy were adamant they were not about to change their lifestyle, one bit. I was shocked. And changed subject.

This morning came this alarming news from the Associated Press:

The world pumped up its pollution of the chief man-made global warming gas last year, setting a course that could push beyond leading scientists’ projected worst-case scenario, international researchers said Thursday.

The new numbers, called “scary” by some, were a surprise because scientists thought an economic downturn would slow energy use. Instead, carbon dioxide output jumped 3 percent from 2006 to 2007.

That’s an amount that exceeds the most dire outlook for emissions from burning coal and oil and related activities as projected by a Nobel Prize-winning group of international scientists in 2007.

Meanwhile, forests and oceans, which suck up carbon dioxide, are doing so at lower rates than in the 20th century, scientists said. If those trends continue, it puts the world on track for the highest predicted rises in temperature and sea level.

The pollution leader was China, followed by the United States, which past data show is the leader in emissions per person in carbon dioxide output. And while several developed countries slightly cut their CO2 output in 2007, the United States churned out more.

Still, it was large increases in China, India and other developing countries that spurred the growth of carbon dioxide pollution to a record high of 9.34 billion tons of carbon (8.47 billion metric tons). Figures released by science agencies in the United States, Great Britain and Australia show that China’s added emissions accounted for more than half of the worldwide increase. China passed the United States as the No. 1 carbon dioxide polluter in 2006.

Emissions in the United States rose nearly 2 percent in 2007, after declining the previous year. The U.S. produced 1.75 billion tons of carbon (1.58 billion metric tons).

“Things are happening very, very fast,” said Corinne Le Quere, professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia and the British Antarctic Survey. “It’s scary.”

Gregg Marland, a senior staff scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said he was surprised at the results because he thought world emissions would drop because of the economic downturn. That didn’t happen.

“If we’re going to do something (about reducing emissions), it’s got to be different than what we’re doing,” he said.

The emissions are based on data from oil giant BP PLC, which show that China has become the major driver of world trends. China emitted 2 billion tons of carbon (1.8 billion metric tons) last year, up 7.5 percent from the previous year.

“We’re shipping jobs offshore from the U.S., but we’re also shipping carbon dioxide emissions with them,” Marland said. “China is making fertilizer and cement and steel and all of those are heavy energy-intensive industries.”

Developing countries not asked to reduce greenhouse gases by the 1997 Kyoto treaty – and China and India are among them – now account for 53 percent of carbon dioxide pollution. That group of nations surpassed industrialized ones in carbon dioxide emissions in 2005, a new analysis of older figures shows.

India is in position to beat Russia for the No. 3 carbon dioxide polluter behind the United States, Marland said. Indonesia levels are increasing rapidly.

Denmark’s emissions dropped 8 percent. The United Kingdom and Germany reduced carbon dioxide pollution by 3 percent, while France and Australia cut it by 2 percent.

Nature can’t keep up with the carbon dioxide from man, Le Quere said. She said from 1955 to 2000, the forests and oceans absorbed about 57 percent of the excess carbon dioxide, but now it’s 54 percent.

What is “kind of scary” is that the worldwide emissions growth is beyond the highest growth in fossil fuel predicted just two years ago by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said Ben Santer, an atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Under the panel’s scenario then, temperatures would increase by somewhere between 4 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit (2.4 to 6.3 degrees Celsius) by the year 2100.

If this trend continues for the century, “you’d have to be luckier than hell for it just to be bad, as opposed to catastrophic,” said Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider.

I read this, and I think about my conversation with Tom and Betsy. And I wonder, what is it going to take, for the reality to sink in, with people like them. The message is not getting through.

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I just came back from trip to Honolulu. For those of you who have been there, you probably noticed the spectacular old trees that stand tall all over the Hawaii capital. I certainly did. I also noticed the absence of new trees, and the long stretches of cement, with no shade to protect people from the scorching sun. Planting a tree is so simple, and such a great investment. So, how come the city officials in Honolulu, do not make the trees more of a priority? The big talk is about building a mass transit system, that would cost 3.7 billion dollars. The mayor has made it the main theme for his reelection campaign. That’s all good. And that’s no excuse for forgetting the trees. 

In my own city of Palo Alto, I have been remarking on the same problem, although to a lesser extent. Trees missing here and there, along tree lined streets, and no replacement in sight. Across the freeway, in East Palo Alto, the situation is even more blight. Hardly any trees. Its residents have other worries than planting trees, too busy they are to survive, and stay safe. 

I have been wondering for a while, what is it with the trees that makes them the forgotten child of environmental policies? Part of it is taking for granted what gives us so much, and asks so little in return. If tomorrow, the trees were removed from our urban landscapes, we would instantly notice, and plead to get the green giants back. 

Just when I thought I was done thinking about the trees, I get this mail from Glenn Pricket, the head of Conservation International:

“The CO2 emissions from deforestation are greater than the emissions from the world’s entire transportation sector-all the cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships combined. Less forest cover means fewer acres of habitat for species, so they must move or adapt. Those that can survive; those that cannot, go extinct. … There have to be limits to how much and where we encroach on the natural world.” 

Call me clueless, but that is news to me. I had no idea trees in faraway places were this critical to our survival. And that is a problem. Our collective ignorance is doing a number on us.

I take issue with the clever tagline used in the Conservation International campaign. “Lost there, felt here” fails to capture the whole issue. I am not, you are not feeling it “here”. The challenge is how to translate this remote tragedy, into one that’s personally relevant to all the world citizens. More accurate would be “Lost there, problem for you”

Let’s face it, we are squandering away one of our most important natural capital. Today, I am asking you to take a few minutes, and claim your one acre of the tropical forest

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In the process of doing research for the 350 campaign, I came across an AFP press release from a few weeks ago, that is too important to be ignored:

Global warming has plunged the planet into a crisis and the fossil fuel industries are trying to hide the extent of the problem from the public, NASA’s top climate scientist says.

“We’ve already reached the dangerous level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” James Hansen, 67, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, told AFP here.

“But there are ways to solve the problem” of heat-trapping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which Hansen said has reached the “tipping point” of 385 parts per million.

In a paper he was submitting to Science magazine on Monday, Hansen calls for phasing out all coal-fired plants by 2030, taxing their emissions until then, and banning the building of new plants unless they are designed to trap and segregate the carbon dioxide they emit.

The major obstacle to saving the planet from its inhabitants is not technology, insisted Hansen, named one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2006 by Time magazine.

The problem is that 90 percent of energy is fossil fuels. And that is such a huge business, it has permeated our government,” he maintained.

“What’s become clear to me in the past several years is that both the executive branch and the legislative branch are strongly influenced by special fossil fuel interests,” he said, referring to the providers of coal, oil and natural gas and the energy industry that burns them.

In a recent survey of what concerns people, global warming ranked 25th.

The industry is misleading the public and policy makers about the cause of climate change. And that is analogous to what the cigarette manufacturers did. They knew smoking caused cancer, but they hired scientists who said that was not the case.”

Hansen says that with an administration and legislature that he believes are “well oiled, our best hope is the judicial branch.”

Last year Hansen testified before the US Congress that “interference with communication of science to the public has been greater during the current administration than at any time in my career.

Government public relations officials, he said, filter the facts in science reports to reduce “concern about the relation of climate change to human-made greenhouse gas emissions.”

While he recognizes that he has stepped outside the traditional role of scientists as researchers rather than as public policy advocates, he says he does so because “in this particular situation we’ve reached a crisis.”

The policy makers, “the people who need to know are ignorant of the actual status of the matter, and the gravity of the matter, and most important, the urgency of the matter,” he charged.

“It’s analogous to an engineer who sees that there’s a flaw in the space shuttle before it is to be launched. You don’t have any choice. You have to say something. That’s really all that I’m doing,” he explained.

On my end, I am going to contact NRDC and E2 to get their counsel, and see what kind of actions can be taken to address Mr. Hansen‘s concerns. I would love to get your ideas as well.

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From Gary Peters, another guest article, this time in response to the current world food crisis.

Below is Hunger Hypocrites, an article from Le Monde, short but worth looking at:

Hunger riots having erupted on the television news, it’s time for mobilization. From Paris to Washington, everyone has their own idea about how to come to the aid of poor countries’ populations unable to withstand the price increases in basic foodstuffs, notably rice. We can only commend this surge of generosity. To fail to respond would be criminal and would provide a very tarnished image of the West.

Nonetheless, how is it possible not to feel ill at ease with these tender impulses? For those who are the most generous today are those perhaps the most responsible for this planetary malfunction. The new eating habits of emerging countries, largely imported from developed countries, explain a large part of the explosion in demand and consequently price tensions.

That’s not the only reason. Biofuel competition is another, essential, cause. Now, the United States – so generous with the World Food Program – has confirmed its resolve to double the already-very-significant surface it devotes to biofuels. Opposite the American driver, the Haitian peasant doesn’t carry much weight. The same is true for Europe. Not only does it want to develop biofuels, but in international negotiations, it maintains a protectionist policy that has long destabilized third-world agriculture and slowed down poverty reduction.

The responsibility of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is also considerable. For decades, these institutions have explained to emerging countries that the future of agriculture was behind it. So, emerging countries favored export crops in order to bring in foreign currency; they are harvesting the bitter fruits of that policy today. Thus does Senegal export food products – which Europe taxes when Senegal has the gall to want to process them domestically – but has to import 80 percent of the rice it consumes. Now not only has rice become scarce, but speculators are making its price climb as much as 30 percent in a day. The West’s sudden generosity cannot erase its share of responsibility for the major crisis that threatens today.

Consider the last sentence, “The West’s sudden generosity cannot erase its share of responsibility for the major crisis that threatens today.” Maybe it is just me, but that sentence seems to have implications far beyond the current hunger crisis that is sweeping the globe.

Since at least 1492, the West has been affecting, often negatively, life in the rest of the world. One of the West’s great contributions to the Americas, for example, was widespread disease and death, though it took a long time for us to admit that. Expansionist policies have long taken the West into other lands, mainly to extract resources and to dominate local cultures and peoples. We encouraged others to “develop” along with us, but seldom made it easy for them or created the “equal playing fields” that were so fond of talking about, even as we avoid them when they might do us harm.

Today it is food, but tomorrow what else? Fossil fuels, especially oil, have provided the means for a steady growth of people and affluence during the last 200 years or so, but that growth has, despite its promise, remained vastly different for different peoples and regions. Some aspects of the West have certainly “trickled down” to the poor countries, including some public health measures and medicines that helped bring mortality downward, sometimes quickly. However, until much more recently at least, fertility remained high throughout much of the Third World, leaving it with rapidly growing populations and locking it into often unequal economic relationships with the West.

Right now, as Earth Day approaches, we have reached a point that I’ve not seen before, one in which we are directly using a growing portion of Earth’s food supply to feed hungry vehicles rather than empty stomachs. At least temporarily we are feeding our own addiction to oil and fossil fuels at the expense of those who remain for the most part in a very uneven relationship with us, driving food prices up everywhere in the process. Westerners may seem generous as they try to help the suffering poor of the world, but seldom do we connect the dots in such a way that we see that population as in part our own creation. Vast agricultural subsidies in the U.S. and the E.U. turn trade terms against most poor nations. For example, in the U.S. we subsidize vast acreages of cotton in California and elsewhere, even though it would make much more sense not to do that and to import cotton from producers in Asia and Africa instead. All of us would be better off except a few wealthy landowners and their political lackeys.

The West largely does the same with energy, subsidizing local production of fossil fuels and doing what we can to take what we need from the rest of the world, preferably paying as little as possible. Before the 1970s and OPEC this worked fairly well for us and for a few wealthy Middle Easterners as well. However, population growth in the Middle East, the rise of OPEC, and now the sudden “Westernization” of China and India in economic terms have left the world facing some energy problems that are not new but are now occurring on a much larger scale. One result is rapidly rising energy prices; another is rapidly rising food prices; yet another is rapidly rising CO2 and CH4 concentrations in Earth’s lower atmosphere. There are many more, but most suggest to me that the great era of Western dominance may be slowly unraveling, but it will not end without considerable struggle, and the price will be paid, as always, by those who can least afford it.

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Just published by Reuters, the following update from Lord Stern, the author of the now famous 2006 Stern Report. I am reproducing the Reuters interview in its entirety, as this is critical information in my opinion:

Climate change expert Nicholas Stern says he under-estimated the threat from global warming in a major report 18 months ago when he compared the economic risk to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Latest climate science showed global emissions of planet-heating gases were rising faster and upsetting the climate more than previously thought, Stern said in a Reuters interview on Wednesday.

For example, evidence was growing that the planet’s oceans — an important “sink” — were increasingly saturated and couldn’t absorb as much as previously of the main greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2), he said.

Emissions are growing much faster than we’d thought, the absorptive capacity of the planet is less than we’d thought, the risks of greenhouse gases are potentially bigger than more cautious estimates, and the speed of climate change seems to be faster,” he told Reuters at a conference in London.

Stern said that increasing commitments from some countries such as the European Union to curb greenhouse gases now needed to be translated into action. Policymakers, businesses and environmental pressure groups frequently cite the Stern Review as a blueprint for urgent climate action.

The report predicted that, on current trends, average global temperatures will rise by 2-3 degrees centigrade in the next 50 years or so and could reduce global consumption per head by up to 20 percent, with the poorest nations feeling the most pain.

Some academics said he had over-played the costs of potential future damage from global warming at up to twenty times the cost of fighting the problem now, such as by replacing fossil fuels with more costly renewable power.

Stern said on Wednesday that increasing evidence of the threat from climate change had vindicated his report, published in October 2006.

People who said I was scaremongering were profoundly wrong,” he told the climate change conference organized by industry information provider IHS.

A U.N. panel of scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), writes regular summaries on climate science and last year shared the Nobel Peace prize with former U.S. vice president Al Gore for raising awareness.

Its latest report in 2007 had not taken detailed account of some dangerous threats, including the falling ability of the world’s oceans to absorb CO2, because scientists had to be cautious and that evidence was just emerging, the former World Bank chief economist added.

“The IPCC has done a tremendous job but things are moving on,” he told Reuters.

“The IPCC’s (cautious) approach to this is entirely understandable and sensible, but if you’re looking ahead and asking about the risk then you do have to go beyond.”

Stern said that to minimize the risks of dangerous climate change global greenhouse gas emissions should halve by mid-century. He said the United States should cut its emissions by up to 90 percent by then.

Will world leaders listen, and take action, quick?


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A comment from Meryn Stol resurrected my interest in green working‘, a concept that came up in some of my earlier discussions with my friend Bruno de Beauregard, one of France’s pioneers in the field of online collaborative tools, and now involved with Netcipia, a wiki startup. Green working is a way of living that minimizes carbon costs associated with traditional work models. I have boiled it down to six principles:

  • Work from home
  • If not possible, find a place of work close to home
  • Either walk, bike or use public transportation to go to work
  • Limit number of days in outside office
  • Minimize business travel as much as possible
  • When in the office, become an environmental advocate, e.g, insist that all lights and equipment be turned off when not in use

This, folks is how I would answer Pamela Poole’s question, What Does the 21st-Century Workplace Look Like? The most exciting part about the green working concept, is the existence of emerging technologies, that will soon make it a reality for the majority of workers in the world. The following video features Cisco telepresence technology of remote collaboration, as demonstrated by John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, and Al Gore during their virtual meeting, at the recent VoiceCon 2008 Conference:

Pretty exciting! For more on Cisco‘s green working related initiatives, click here.

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More details came out on the recent Nielsen Online report on, Sustainability through the Eyes and Megaphones of the Blogosphere, leading to some important conclusions about the state of the conversations amongst consumers regarding all green things:

#1 The buzz around sustainability continues to increase -50% in 2007.

#2 The kind of topics bloggers are interested in, is shifting away from global environmental wellness to personal health and practical solutions:

#3 The top greenwashing sins from consumers’ perspective show a concern for consistency, authenticity, and transparency from companies:

This may give us some clues as to the media’s seeming lack of sustained interest in global warming and other global environmental issues. It may be that the conversation is continuing, but under a different form. People like to talk about tangible things, that they have a power on.

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First my daughter Charlotte, then loyal reader and commenter Jeff Huggins. Both urged me to read “Big Foot“, Michael Specter‘s article in The New Yorker‘s upcoming March issue. Subtitled, ‘In measuring carbon emissions, it’s easy to confuse morality and science‘, the article is a great summary of the challenges inherent to carbon labeling. Here are some highlights of the eight-page article, starting with an introduction featuring some commendable efforts from Tesco, the British retailing giant:

A little more than a year ago, Sir Terry Leahy, who is the chief executive of the Tesco chain of supermarkets, Britain’s largest retailer, delivered a speech to a group called the Forum for the Future, about the implications of climate change. Leahy had never before addressed the issue in public, but his remarks left little doubt that he recognized the magnitude of the problem. “I am not a scientist,” he said. “But I listen when the scientists say that, if we fail to mitigate climate change, the environmental, social, and economic consequences will be stark and severe. . . . There comes a moment when it is clear what you must do. I am determined that Tesco should be a leader in helping to create a low-carbon economy. In saying this, I do not underestimate the task. It is to take an economy where human comfort, activity, and growth are inextricably linked with emitting carbon and to transform it into one which can only thrive without depending on carbon. This is a monumental challenge. It requires a revolution in technology and a revolution in thinking. We are going to have to rethink the way we live and work.”

Tesco sells nearly a quarter of the groceries bought in the United Kingdom, it possesses a growing share of the markets in Asia and Europe, and late last year the chain opened its first stores in America. Few corporations could have a more visible-or forceful-impact on the lives of their customers. In his speech, Leahy, who is fifty-two, laid out a series of measures that he hoped would ignite “a revolution in green consumption.” He announced that Tesco would cut its energy use in half by 2010, drastically limit the number of products it transports by air, and place airplane symbols on the packaging of those which it does. More important, in an effort to help consumers understand the environmental impact of the choices they make every day, he told the forum that Tesco would develop a system of carbon labels and put them on each of its seventy thousand products.’

Sir Leahy is attempting to implement what I have been asking for on several occasions, a carbon label on each item, to let people know the real cost to the environment of that item. I appreciate Sir Leahy‘s efforts to bring some awareness and behavior changes in his customers. I can certainly attest to the power of ‘carbon consciousness‘. Even more effective than carbon labeling, would be a carbon tax, to be added to the normal price of the item, and based on the carbon cost of the item. But that should be a policy decision, not a matter for businesses like Tesco.

Michael Specter pays tribute to a bunch of corporate and institutional green do-gooders: Marks&Spencer, Kraft, Sara Lee, the Church of England, and yes, even Ford and General Motors . . . I am surprised no mention is made of Wal-Mart, but then, the article is heavily skewed towards a British crowd!

Measuring carbon footprint is very, very complex, and this is where good intentions, such as the Tesco initiative, can fall short:

‘The calculations required to assess the full environmental impact of how we live can be dazzlingly complex. To sum them up on a label will not be easy. Should the carbon label on a jar of peanut butter include the emissions caused by the fertilizer, calcium, and potassium applied to the original crop of peanuts? What about the energy used to boil the peanuts once they have been harvested, or to mold the jar and print the labels? Seen this way, carbon costs multiply rapidly.

John Murlis is the chief scientific adviser to the Carbon Neutral Company also served as the director of strategy and chief scientist for Britain’s Environment Agency. Murlis worries that in our collective rush to make choices that display personal virtue we may be losing sight of the larger problem. “Would a carbon label on every product help us?” he asked. “I wonder. You can feel very good about the organic potatoes you buy from a farm near your home, but half the emissions-and half the footprint-from those potatoes could come from the energy you use to cook them. If you leave the lid off, boil them at a high heat, and then mash your potatoes, from a carbon standpoint you might as well drive to McDonald’s and spend your money buying an order of French fries.”

It is a logical and widely held assumption that the ecological impacts of transporting food-particularly on airplanes over great distances-are far more significant than if that food were grown locally. There are countless books, articles, Web sites, and organizations that promote the idea. There is even a “100-Mile Diet,” which encourages participants to think about “local eating for global change.” Eating locally produced food has become such a phenomenon, in fact, that the word “locavore” was just named the 2007 word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary.

Yet the relationship between food miles and their carbon footprint is not nearly as clear as it might seem. That is often true even when the environmental impact of shipping goods by air is taken into consideration. “People should stop talking about food miles,” Adrian Williams told me. “It’s a foolish concept: provincial, damaging, and simplistic.” Williams is an agricultural researcher in the Natural Resources Department of Cranfield University, in England. He has been commissioned by the British government to analyze the relative environmental impacts of a number of foods. “The idea that a product travels a certain distance and is therefore worse than one you raised nearby-well, it’s just idiotic,” he said. “It doesn’t take into consideration the land use, the type of transportation, the weather, or even the season. Potatoes you buy in winter, of course, have a far higher environmental ticket than if you were to buy them in August.” Williams pointed out that when people talk about global warming they usually speak only about carbon dioxide. Making milk or meat contributes less CO2 to the atmosphere than building a house or making a washing machine. But the animals produce methane and nitrous oxide, and those are greenhouse gases, too. “This is not an equation like the number of calories or even the cost of a product,” he said. “There is no one number that works.”

My reaction to “Big Foot“: are we missing the boat in attempting to be too perfect? I come back to the idea of a carbon tax, on non essential products and services that are obvious polluters. It is unrealistic to think that a precise carbon-based pricing can be derived for each product ever produced. By the time we are done measuring, global warming will have become an unavoidable reality.

You can also hear Michael Specter on Fresh Air.

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Just found on YouTube, this ‘3650‘ video from MTV Switch:

3650 is the number of days – ten years – before the effect of our CO2 emissions are irreversible. Yes. Only 3650.

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