We've all heard about cars powered by wacky biofuels, including switchgrass and leftover French fry oil. Now, two British men who love the environment are trekking from Britain to Timbuktu in a truck whose fuel comes from cocoa butter extracted from waste chocolate (as in, like, misshapen Easter bunnies).
The vehicle is a Ford Iveco cargo truck, and as it travels 4,500 miles to Timbuktu, it will burn 2,000 liters of biodiesel originating from 4,000 kg (8,800 lbs.) of misshapen chocolate. That's enough of the sweet stuff to make 80,000 chocolate bars.
On Friday, the chocomobile crossed the English Channel by ferry, and after a sweet ride through France and Spain, it will hop onto another ferry to Morocco. Once it vrooms through Mauritania, it will plow through Mali's deserts until it arrives at Timbuktu, the city once regarded in the West as being at the ends of the Earth and which today is in a region that is being buried under sand.
The two Brits behind this stunt are, of course, trying to bring attention to biodiesel, a renewable resource that generates lower carbon emissions than fossil fuels. It seems unlikely that fueling vehicles with cocoa butter could be achieved at a large scale—that would require a tremendous amount of chocolate or, perhaps, tanning oil—but if the men's journey makes more people aware of the benefits of biofuels in general, that would be a sweet success.
Australia, known for its expansive wilderness and biodiversity, is also one of the world's worst polluters, according to an informative new emissions monitoring website from the Center for Global Development.
Per capita, Australians produce 10 tons of carbon dioxide every year from generating power. That's two tons more than the average American and almost eight tons more than the average Chinese person. Australia relies heavily on coal and as such, the country has some of the world's least efficient power plants. In terms of total emissions, the United States is still on top with more than 2.5 billion tons of CO2. Like with everything else, however, China is closing the gap fast.
Australia is also one of the world's top exporters of coal, and China is becoming a good customer now that its power needs exceed its domestic coal production. As The Economist puts it, "Energy lore has it that in China a new coal-burning plant is fired up every week... Freighters are literally queuing up off Newcastle, Australia, the world's busiest coal port."
I'm a big fan of recycling. I love it. Give me a rectangular blue bin and I'll fill it with newspapers, bottles and cans.
And yet, I can't help but be disturbed by a report that some folks in Guangdong province, China, are reprocessing used condoms into rubber bands. You gotta draw the line somewhere.
Local doctors have warned that using these rubber bands could lead to the spread of AIDS, genital warts and other sexually transmitted diseases.
"There are a lot of bacteria and viruses on the rubber bands and hair ties made from used condoms," a dermatologist at the Guangzhou Hospital of Armed Police, who asked to be identified by his surname Dong, said.
"People could be infected with AIDS, warts or other diseases if they hold the rubber bands or strings in their mouths while weaving their hair into plaits or buns," Dong was quoted as saying by the paper.
A better form of sex-related recycling, in theory, is this British company's initiative to recycle used vibrators. It turns out that under British law, electronic sex toys are considered e-waste, so you can't just throw them in a landfill when you've, uh, worn them out. But don't worry: The company isn't putting the old vibrators back into the rotation, as it were. They're just promising to dispose of them properly.
Still, all of this unusual recycling activity kinda makes you wonder what's really going on in places like this "digital dump" in China, featured in a recent FP photo essay:
It can be 10 times cheaper for a "recycler" to ship waste to China than to dispose of it properly at home. With the market for e-waste expected to top $11 billion by 2009, it's lucrative to dump on the developing world.
By now, we've all heard about old cell phones and laptops leaching toxic chemicals into the soil in places like India, China, and Nigeria. But are used Western dildos piling up in some dark corner of Xinjiang somewhere, too?
(Hat tip: On Deadline)
A massive statue of a robot stands outside the former Soviet-era synthetic rubber factory in Sumgayit, Azerbaijan. (Rena Effendi for EurasiaNet)
Click here for the rest of Effendi's stunning photo essay from this environmentally devastated city.
In his article "Think Again: Oil" (subscribers only) from the new issue of FP, Vijay Vaitheeswaran of The Economist argues that despite all the doomsday predictions you hear, the world is not running out of oil. He singles out the tar sands in Alberta, Canada as an example of a relatively unexplored source. As it happens, Canada is already the largest supplier of oil to the United States. Tar-sand extraction has exploded since oil prices began to rise with the start of the Iraq war, and Canada's total oil output will soon double Kuwait's. But as Vaitheeswaran notes, tar-sand extraction comes at a much higher environmental cost than traditional drilling. A new article by Aida Edemariam in The Guardian makes clear just how great this cost is:
The extraction of the oil requires heat, and thus the burning of vast amounts of natural gas - effectively one barrel of gas to extract two of crude - and some estimate that Fort McMurray and the Athabasca oil sands will soon be Canada's biggest contributor to global warming; nearly as much as the whole of Denmark. This in an area that has already seen, according to David Schindler, professor of ecology at the University of Alberta, two degrees of warming in the past 40 years.
The oil sands excavations are changing the surface of the planet. The black mines can now be seen from space. In 10 years, estimates Schindler, they are "going to look like one huge open pit" the size of Florida. Acid rain is already killing trees and damaging foliage. The oil companies counter that they are replanting - grass for bison, 4.5m trees by Syncrude alone - but the muskeg (1,000-year-old peat bog and wooded fen, which traps snow melt and prevents flash floods, and is home to endangered woodland caribou) is irreplaceable.
Two barrels of water are required to extract one barrel of oil; every day as much water is taken from the Athabasca river as would serve a city of a million people. Although the water is extensively recycled, it cannot be returned to the rivers, so it ends up in man-made "tailings ponds" (tailings is a catch-all term for the byproducts of mining), which are also visible from space.
Edemariam profiles the town of Fort McMurray, Alberta. In addition to the environmental impact of the nearby mining, Fort McMurray is struggling to deal with a population that has doubled in the last decade—not including the 10,000 itinerant construction workers from around the world who live there at any given time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, prostitution and gambling are booming as well. So, there's no such thing as a free lunch: The crude found in Canada's sands may be "safe oil" compared with what we buy from unsavory regimes in the Middle East, but it's hardly an attractive alternative.
In the next issue's Think Again: Oil (sorry, subscribers only), the Economist's Vijay Vaitheeswaran, right after he argues that the world still has plenty of oil left to pump, takes aim at the ecos' beloved Prius, reasoning that any car that still takes gasoline—hybrid or not—doesn't solve the world's oil addiction. Remaking the automobile altogether, he says, is the only serious way to wean the world off crude.
In that spirit, FP has compiled a short list of the cars of the future—plug-ins hybrids, diesels, all-electrics—in a special Web-only photoessay. Sure, some of the models still rely on a little oil to get from point A to point B. But they're a snapshot of where the auto majors (and a few start-ups) are heading in the quest to perfect the 21st century car. (Personal favorite: The all-electric Tesla Roadster at right, which goes from standstill to 60mph in a scant 4 seconds.)
Yesterday, Honda's chief executive, Takeo Fukui, took aim at one of cars profiled, the forthcoming Chevy Volt, which GM's Chairman Bob Lutz has said is more important to him than anything he's done in four decades in the auto business. Fukui argued that the Volt's electric motor (which is powered after a certain distance by a diesel fuel engine) is simply not as environmentally friendly as the auto industry ultimately needs to be, and that better, high-performing electric batteries that eschew the fuel engine backup are what's needed. It's clearly just a bit of corporate smack talk, but Fukui's thinking is on the right track. Hybrids are just the first step in what needs to be an auto revolution.
I spoke today with Jim Rogers, chairman, president, and CEO of Duke Energy, and Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), which represents shareholder-owned electrical utilities. Along with leaders of seven other utilities, Rogers announced an initiative "seeking regulatory reform and approvals to increase [the utilities'] investment in energy efficiency by $500 million annually to about $1.5 billion annually." His group's commitment will mean the equivalent of taking nearly 6 million cars off the road, Rogers says, and "avoid the need for 50 500-megawatt peaking power plants."
FP: What is motivating Duke Energy, and why aren't more utilities getting on board?
Jim Rogers: Well, I think the seven utilities who are here today are all very progressive with respect to energy efficiency and addressing the climate issue. And in fact, our entire industry—and Tom Kuhn's here, president of the EEI—as you know, early this year our industry changed our policy position on this and really said, "We support regulation of CO2 consistent with a set of principles." So we are going to work, because we realize our industry has about 35 to 40 percent of all the emissions of CO2, and our assignment is to find a solution. And so we turned our attention to finding the right regulatory framework and finding the right technical solutions so that we can solve the problem.
FP: Does that mean lobbying on Capitol Hill for mandatory emissions caps?
JR: We are now—There's a rich debate going on on the Hill today, and we are very involved.
Tom Kuhn: We're very much in favor of establishing a price for carbon. And I think that we are very strongly behind the whole idea that the only way you're really going to accomplish it ... is also to move these technologies together aggressively. And that means all the technologies, starting with energy efficiency, which is the fifth fuel (but maybe we call it the first fuel, too), but then renewables, moving the transmission that it takes to get the renewables to market; moving nuclear energy forward, which is a zero-emission technology ... We now generate 50 percent of our electricity with coal. If we want to maintain coal as an important option for the future, we've got to move forward aggressively with carbon capture and storage. So, it is the full basket of things that we need to do, the full toolset that we need to make our global climate goals, but we fully agree with the need to get a price for carbon.
JR: President Clinton really said it pretty well today with respect to this whole energy efficiency issue. While we call it the fifth fuel, it's really the number one option right now. And while people and politicians are debating how to move forward with climate regulation and how to develop an international framework, we can go today to work in implementing these energy efficiency regulatory changes and investing in energy efficiency as a way to reduce our carbon footprint right now. And what we need is action right now.
Make no mistake: Self-interest is motivating these guys, who are uneasy about patchwork, state-level regulation and fear the uncertainty that could come from not having a seat at the table. EEI opposes, for instance, a federal renewable portfolio standard that would require a certain percentage of electricity to come from renewable sources. Moreover, it's far from clear what, exactly, the proposed regulatory reforms entail. They certainly deserve scrutiny going forward. Still, the fact that they're seeing the light on energy efficiency is a good thing.
It's not easy defending the Bush administration's delaying tactics on climate change, but U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson made a go of it this morning.
Asked by an aggressive Tom Brokaw about whether Republicans in the U.S. Congress are doing anything on climate change, U.S. Treasury Secretary paused for a second, and conceded dryly that there is a "wide variety of knowledge" on the Hill about the issue.
Asked about a global deal based around binding emissions targets, proposed by Tony Blair, Paulson said, "it just depends on what your expectations are."
H. Lee Scott, president and CEO of Wal-Mart, spoke yesterday here at the Clinton Global Initiative about his company's efforts to be environmentally friendly:
Well, what we found is we’ve gone down this journey in sustainability, is the first things we’re doing is we are taking waste out of this whole stream of products and things that all of us are using. And they’re not exotic decisions. One I talked to General Mills about is that they straightened the noodles on the Hamburger Helper, and more noodles go into the box, and the boxes are now smaller. And thousands of tons of waste are eliminated, truck loads of movement are eliminated, fuel is eliminated.
The Atlantic's Matt Yglesias, who is here at CGI as well, was pretty critical yesterday of Scott:
Right now, for example, we have Al Gore, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Archbiship Desmond Tutu, Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott, Filipino president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and World Bank chief Robert Zoellick up on a podium to discuss "the need for global action." Clinton moderates, and leads by asking Karzai to make the case that Afghanistan is a good investment opportunity. I, for one, look forward to WalMart Kandahar. Maybe they could turn their union-busting expertise against the Taliban.
Matt is obviously forgetting the parable of the dentist from Tyler Cowen's book, Discover Your Inner Economist:
One study compared two methods for cleaning up a school. Authorities could (a) lecture students that they should be neat and tidy, or (b) compliment them for being neat and tidy. The lecturing had no effect, but the praise increased litter collection by a factor of three. The students saw a gain from identifying as clean and conscientious people; if anything, scolding usually makes such a self-image more difficult to adopt. [...]
With my current dentist, I pretend to have no fear. At the end of the visit I say what a great job she did. I expect better performance by supporting her self-image as a good dentist and, since she is new in my life, I find high-powered incentives difficult to apply. In any case I do not have access to penalties. But she may get a Christmas gift (even though she is Hindu).
In that spirit, great job, Wal-Mart! Keep up the good work!
Yesterday was my last day reporting from the United Nations. With all of the focus on Ahmadinejadapalooza (more on that later), I didn't get a chance to mention one of the aspects of President Bush's speech that set some tongues a-clucking. Tim Wirth, who heads the U.N. Foundation, had this to say:
This morning, President Bush admonished the UN to ‘live up to its promise to promptly deploy peacekeeping forces to Darfur.’ However, the Administration has requested funding for only 20% of its share of the Darfur mission, and is heading towards a debt of more than $1 billion for UN peacekeeping overall. It is impossible for the UN to ‘live up to its promise’ to deploy peacekeepers to Darfur if nations like the United States fail to pay for the peacekeeping missions that they vote for in the Security Council.
Today, I'm at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers for the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI)—and boy, is it good to be here. For all of the great things about the U.N., the place has a creepy, "New Tomorrowland" feel to it (not to mention the asbestos problem). And with 2,000 members of the press and I don't know how many delegates, the bewildering, maze-like complex of buildings is a zoo. Everywhere you go, there are internal security checkpoints. If your badge is the wrong color, you can forget about gaining access. CGI, based in a modern hotel with no asbestos, operates on a much more human scale, and the staff here bends over backwards to be helpful. I expect the sessions to be much more free-wheeling and interesting, in contrast to the staid official-speak of the U.N. Plus, the wireless actually works and there's free coffee, the fuel that powers the world's journalists. Expect more energetic posts from me today and tomorrow.
The fracas over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has already soaked up much of the media oxygen regarding this week's United Nations General Assembly opening session. Iran's lightning-rod president probably won't make it to Ground Zero, but he will be speaking to rapt audiences at Columbia University and the National Press Club on Monday. More interesting to me, though, is who's not coming: Pervez Musharraf. The embattled Pakistani leader is apparently so afraid of a coup that he's staying in Islamabad along with his prime minister and foreign minister. It's probably a wise precaution. After all, look what happened to Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted as prime minister by a military junta while in New York for last year's U.N. meetings.
The main event this year is Monday's high-level day of fun, "Addressing the Leadership Challenge of Climate Change." The U.N. is billing it as "the largest meeting ever of world leaders on climate change," and more than 70 heads of state will reportedly be in attendance. Arnold Schwarzenegger is kicking off the day with a major address highlighting his own efforts as governor of California, which, if it were a country, would have one of the world's largest economies. Today is really a warm-up for December's U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bali, when, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hopes, real decisions will be made that will lead to "Kyoto II"—a new, improved global agreement on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. (Eileen Claussen of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change told FP what this might look like back in June.)
I'll be covering the festivities live from New York courtesy of U.N. Dispatch and the U.N. Foundation, which invited me and a number of other bloggers to attend. (U.N. Dispatch will aggregate all of our posts here.) On Tuesday, I'll be blogging the U.N. General Assembly, which begins its year in earnest tomorrow with speeches from various heads of state—notwithstanding the best efforts of the UNGA's incoming president to turn these monologues into a dialogue (indulge me in being the first to make the joke that if the U.N. were truly serious about combating climate change, it would put a lid on some of the gasbags who will be speaking that day). On Wednesday and Thursday, I'll be at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. CGI has become a major player on climate change thanks to some innovative thinking and, well, Bill Clinton's Rolodex. Plus, Brangelina will be there, so it should be a pretty cool event.
The coal market isn't as sexy or as global as oil, so it often works outside the media spotlight. But when it comes to understanding how the U.S. energy-security-enviro challenge is shaping up, coal is an excellent place to look because, in America, coal is cheap, plentiful within the country, a huge provider of jobs and megawatts, and a tremendous source of greenhouse gases.
The global outlook for demand is strong, as Asia's appetite for electricity grows. This year, China became a net importer of coal. As for the United States, part of its energy challenge is improving security of supply — reducing dependence on the understandably dreaded "foreign oil." Making liquid fuels using our own American coal sounds appealing. And perhaps no consumer is more interested in coal-to-liquid (CTL a.k.a. "Fischer-Tropsch") than the U.S. military, which has huge transportation fuel needs and few alternatives to oil (it's kind of hard to build a jet that runs on electricity).
For the coal industry, getting access to the American gas tank would be a tremendous boost, giving it a whole new market outside of power generation and heavy industries like steel. The WSJ filed a must-read report last week, "Coal Industry Hopes Pentagon Will Kindle a Market," that really gets at the key issues. CTL is a huge emitter of carbon dioxide, and the process uses between 5 to 7 gallons of water for every gallon of fuel it produces. But those inconvenient facts aren't dissuading some folks:
The effort nevertheless has some backers at the Pentagon. The Air Force, which consumes the most fuel of the military services, supports using coal-to-liquids fuel. It recently certified the B-52 bomber to run on a blend of Fischer-Tropsch fuel and normal fuel. The Air Force plans to do the same for its entire fleet by 2011. The Air Force intends to buy about 400 million gallons annually by 2016. The service supports legislation that would allow it to sign 25 year contracts for supply, even at historically high prices above $50 per barrel, said William Anderson, assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and logistics.
"If the legislation helps spur on a market that is necessary, we believe, to ensure our long term national security, we believe it's something that has a lot of merit," Mr. Anderson said.
According to Jeff Goodell, the author of Big Coal, the rise of Wyoming coal is one of the key industry dynamics fueling the CTL push. At 18:05 minutes into this excellent June interview with NPR's Terry Gross, Goodell explains how Wyoming coal, in comparison to Appalachian coal, is easier to mine, makes less of an environmental impact, contains less sulfur, burns cleaner, and requires utilities to spend less on scrubbers at coal fired power plants (but it has a lower heat content, so you have to burn more of it). You can practically "dig [it] out with a spoon" in Wyoming, Goodell says.
In contrast, Appalachian coal has been mined for over a century, and because much of the easy-to-mine coal has been extracted, the coal remaining is in thinner seams and is more expensive to extract. So part of the push for CTL, Goodell says, comes from eastern coal states, for which CTL could be a huge boost. Sen. Byrd of West Virginia has likened American coal to "acres of diamonds under our feet." A large federal backing of CTL hasn't come yet, but keep your eye on it. China, like the U.S. Air Force, is in the process of building CTL capacity. And we know how much U.S. legislators like to keep up with China.
The economics of corn ethanol have never made much sense. Rather than importing cheap Brazilian ethanol made from sugar cane, the United States slaps a tariff of 54 cents a gallon on ethanol from Brazil. Then the government provides a tax break of 51 cents a gallon to American ethanol producers — on top of the generous subsidies that corn growers already receive under the farm program.
The above passage from today's New York Times editorial recalls nothing so much as this gem from Milo Minderbender, the mad genius businessman in Catch-22:
But I make a profit of three and a quarter cents an egg by selling them for four and a quarter cents an egg to the people in Malta I buy them from for seven cents an egg. Of course, I don't make the profit. The syndicate makes the profit. And everybody has a share."
After 1,300 years, China has decided it will no longer engage in "panda diplomacy" by giving away its giant pandas in order to improve its relations with foreign countries.
"We will only be conducting research with foreign countries," a state forestry administration spokesman said. It appears that the last panda "gift" was made to Hong Kong to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the island's handover to China.
The policy change is likely to add to China's fattening wallet. Now, the country will rent out its adorable black-and-white furballs for as much as $1 million a year on 10-year leases—with a bonus if the panda gives birth.
This could be a good thing. Given the explicit research and conservation aim of the new program, we may see more accountability for what happens to pandas after they go abroad. Plus, it won't affect the recent APEC deal between Australia and China to bring two giant pandas to Australia's Adelaide Zoo, which will be part of China's 10-year lease program. Adelaide Zoo chief executive Chris West believes the high cost of leasing pandas is "perfectly understandable." He adds, "Our interest as a zoo has been to support pandas in the wild, and any contribution that is made will do that." If zoos and nature reserves are willing to pay the price, it's likely they'll want to protect their cuddly investments as carefully as possible.
In a unique environmental scheme, Ecuador's government is asking developed nations to pay $350 million for them NOT to drill for oil in a major field in the heart of the Amazon. The sum represents about half of the estimated revenue that Ecuador would receive from drilling in the Yasuni National Park, a UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve that may contain up to a billion barrels of crude. Since Ecuador proposed the scheme last spring, politicians from Germany, Norway, Italy, Spain, and the EU have expressed interest, according to Ecuador's minister of energy. President Rafael Correa (pictured at left) had this to say:
Ecuador doesn't ask for charity [...] but does ask that the international community share in the sacrifice and compensates us with at least half of what our country would receive, in recognition of the environmental benefits that would be generated by keeping this oil underground."
Local residents are understandably skeptical that the government will be able to resist black gold's temptation for long. And despite their proven penchant for paying people not to do things, it seems unlikely that European governments would be willing to pay to keep the oil in the ground year after year.
Meanwhile, U.S. oil firm Chevron remains embroiled in a 14-year-old lawsuit from 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians who claim the company poisoned their region by dumping toxic waste water. The controversial case is a major factor in many Ecuadorians' opposition to further drilling:
What happened here we can't let happen anywhere else, least of all Yasuni," said the plaintiffs' lawyer, Pablo Fajardo.
Back in June, I wondered just who might have plonked down $300 million for an Airbus double-decker private jet for his own personal use. Airbus wouldn't peep about the purchase, which occurred during this summer's Paris air show.
Today, Le Figaro outed Russian oil baron Roman Abramovich as the mystery buyer. At 239 feet, Roman's new A380 private jet isn't quite as long as the soccer pitches his Chelsea club plays on in the UK, but it's not far off. And if the world's 16th-richest man is going to be flying around in an 840-seater with a few of his billionaire pals, it just might make him the most emissions-unfriendly person on the planet. I mean, he'd pretty much have to buy the entire rain forest to go "carbon neutral" on this one.
One other item of note: Abramovich, a man of impeccable taste, dubbed his 86-meter yacht the "Ecstasea". Perhaps his new A380 will be called the "Airgasm"?
UPDATE: According to Mr. Abramovich's spokesman, Le Figaro's report yesterday was inaccurate and Mr. Abramovich is not the mystery buyer of the private A380. That means the title of world's most polluting man is still ripe for the taking. Clues: The buyer is not American, European, or Roman Abramovich. We'll keep you updated.
Giovanni Bisignani, director of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and an FP contributor, said on Monday that the organization, which operates 94 percent of the world's international flights, had placed its very last order for paper tickets. By June 1, 2008, they'll be 100 percent reliant on e-ticketing.
The good news: 50,000 trees will be saved each year as a result.
The not-so-good news: "Bisignani did not say whether the $9 in cost savings [per ticket] would or should be passed on to passengers."
Chicago economist Steven Levitt recently conducted a blog-based experiment to test how people from different academic backgrounds explain economic phenomena. Levitt posed the question, "Why are we eating more shrimp?" (warning: due to the number of comments, this link may crash your browser). He then asked readers of his Freaokonomics Blog to post their answers and academic backgrounds in his comments section. No cheating allowed.
I thought the likely answer was rather obvious—the rise of shrimp farming has pushed down global prices for shrimp—but perhaps that's because I once did some research into the environmental problems associated with global aquaculture. In any case, the results of Levitt's little experiment are fascinating, and they offer some support for the theories of Shane Frederick, the MIT marketing professor whose inquiry sparked Levitt's interest:
As Shane conjectured, non-economists (i.e., anyone who didn’t major in economics) mostly thought that we are eating more shrimp because of demand-based reasons (e.g. the movie Forrest Gump, a rise in the number of vegetarians who will eat shrimp, etc). Fifty-seven percent of non-econ majors gave only demand stories, versus 24 percent who gave only supply stories. The rest had a mix of supply and demand explanations.
As for the real world consequences of shrimp farming, here's something to think about. Shrimp farming is one of the major reasons why mangrove forests around the world are dying out, particularly in Asia. So what? Well, mangroves, which are concentrated in tropical and subtropical latitudes between 32º N and 38º S, offer protection from extreme weather events such as the tsunami that did so much damage in Southeast Asia back in 2004.
What's more, mangroves are a prime link in the ocean's food chain, and they can filter pollution from land-based agriculture. But shrimp farms, if they aren't properly designed and sited, tend to destroy mangrove habitat. And as delicious as those bargain prawns might be, they won't do you much good when the next tsunami hits. When you think about it, maybe farm-raised shrimp isn't so cheap after all.
Buried in this expansive New York Times story about China's mind-blowing environmental pollution is this nugget:
Energy and environmental officials have little influence in the bureaucracy. The environmental agency still has only about 200 full-time employees, compared with 18,000 at the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States.
China has no Energy Ministry. The Energy Bureau of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s central planning agency, has 100 full-time staff members. The Energy Department of the United States has 110,000 employees.
And that, I'm afraid, tells you pretty much all you need to know about how serious China really is about tackling its massive environmental problems; after all, this is the country that more or less invented bureaucracy. As Harry Harding noted several months back for FP, China's most serious risks are environmental—and it's time Beijing got serious about tackling them. See also Elizabeth Economy's latest essay in Foreign Affairs, which lays out just how extensive the reforms are going to have to be if the Chinese are to make any headway.
As the so-called "war on terror" rolls on, the balance between security and public oversight remains tense. Recently, this tension surfaced when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission revealed a series of previously undisclosed accidents that took place over the past few years at Nuclear Fuel Services, one of only two U.S. companies that are allowed to process highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear fuel. In 2004, citing national-security concerns, the NRC deemed as "Official Use Only" all documents relating to Nuclear Fuel Services and the other HEU processing company, BWX Technologies, and sealed them away from public view.
As a result, several "abnormal occurrences" remained secret, including one particularly dangerous incident involving a spill of 9 gallons of HEU in liquid solution on March 6, 2006. When in liquid form, HEU must be handled with particular care to prevent creating a critical mass. If enough of the liquid collects within a certain volume, a dangerous, uncontrolled chain reaction can occur. Usually, such reactions will not result in a nuclear explosion, but they do release significant amounts of radiation. Processing facilities have extensive safeguards in place to prevent this, but accidents do happen.
This time, the spill did not turn out to be serious, ranking a lowly 2 out of 7 on the IAEA's International Nuclear Events Scale. (With a 2, there is very little threat to the surrounding area or even to the actual facility. Three Mile Island was a 5. With a 7, you're in Chernobyl territory.)
It's worrisome, however, that the NRC kept such a basic safety breach secret for so long. Rather than examining documents to see which truly contained sensitive information, the NRC just hid everything. And interestingly, the NRC did not fine Nuclear Fuel Services for the violation. Instead, a performance review was initiated. In past years, the NRC fined companies for violations like this and made the events public. Replacing fines with performance reviews is fine, but the NRC should bring back public announcements. To its credit, the NRC at least admits that "the pendulum maybe swung too far" towards excessive secrecy.
Potential terrorists might benefit from knowing the exact details of an accident or the security changes implemented after it, but there will rarely be much harm in disclosing the incident itself. In some cases even the old security procedures that led to such accidents could be safely disclosed, if they were no longer being used. And in general, increasing the transparency of the NRC's oversight role can spur greater vigilance and hopefully help prevent more dangerous "nuclear mishaps" in the future.
As FP has noted in the past, many see the Arctic as the last great frontier for oil and gas exploration. By one prominent estimate, the Arctic region may hold as much as a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves. The area's remoteness and harsh climate, however, mean that the technology is still not sufficient to access these reserves, and therefore profitable exploitation of them might not be feasible until 2050.
But oil and gas companies may not have to wait that long. In 2007, the extent of Arctic sea ice is likely to have declined further than in any other recorded year—reduced by an area greater than the size of California and Texas combined. This means the Arctic could become an energy center sooner than expected, not to mention one of the most critical sea lanes of communication in the world. The melting of the ice caps, along with improvements in shipping technology, will significantly cut the travel time between Asian manufacturing centers and western consumer markets.
While this may have some companies excited, it's certainly bad news for the Arctic's many inhabitants, including whales, walrus, seals, birds, fish and polar bears, as well as the Inupiat people who have resided in the area for 2,500 years. With their livelihoods already severely affected by global warming, the opening up of the Arctic to energy companies and shippers could ultimately mean the end of the Inupiat way of life.
What if instead of airline miles, cash back or hotel stays, your credit card paid you back in carbon offsets?
That's exactly what GE's new "Earth Rewards" card will do. One percent of your purchases go directly toward buying carbon offsets, which supposedly finance eco-friendly projects around the world designed to limit greenhouse gases and stop climate change.
It's a nice idea, but part of the problem with climate change is that we will never be able to buy our way out of it. Encouraging consumption in order to offset just one percent of that consumption is a futile effort at mitigating environmental issues. Using the GE Earth Rewards card is probably better for the environment than redeeming rewards for carbon-emitting airline flights. Still, the whole concept remains a bit ironic.
Although it would seem a more natural fit for an eco-conscious country like Norway, whose government pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2050, the world's first carbon-free city will actually be built in Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich Gulf emirate.
By 2009, Abu Dhabi hopes to complete construction of Masdar, a 3.7 mile enclosed city devoid of cars and carbon. To produce energy, Masdar will rely on a combination of wind, solar power and geothermal energy. The city—whose name means “source” in Arabic—is slated to be the centerpiece of The Masdar Initiative, which, according to their website, is “a global cooperative platform for open engagement in the search for solutions to some of mankind's most pressing issues: energy security, climate change and truly sustainable human development.”
According to this, some of Masdar’s main investors are automobile manufacturers and oil companies. British Petroleum, Fiat, and Mitsubishi are all involved. Why? Masdar is guaranteed to produce an excess of carbon credits traded on international markets either for profit or for the right to produce more emissions during other activities, such as oil production or auto manufacturing.
While their intentions might not be completely altruistic, the fact that oil and car companies are investing heavily in a project whose very mission is to consume no oil and use no cars means that carbon trading schemes might be having their desired effect. That is, incentivizing investments in carbon-reducing initiatives. Although, not everyone is playing by the rules. There is some evidence that Chinese companies are actually polluting more in order to make a buck (or about 7.5 Renminbi) off carbon credits.
Not only do rubber duckies make bath time lots of fun, they tell us a lot about the environment, too.
Fifteen years ago, 29,000 bathtub toys—ducks, frogs, turtles, and beavers made of plastic, actually—fell off a container ship in the central Pacific Ocean.
Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer has been tracking the toys' movement around the world and has found that about a hundred of them drifted on oceanic currents to Alaska, north to the Bering Sea, across the North Pole, alongside Greenland, and into the North Atlantic. As recently as 2003, one of the ducks washed up on the shore in Maine and one of the frogs landed in Scotland. The container of toys aren't the only ocean flotsam that Ebbesmeyer has tracked. He's also tracked 80,000 Nike shoes that were also lost in the Pacific, 34,000 hockey gloves, five million Legos lost off the coast of England, and survey stakes that have drifted in the ocean from Japan. As Ebbesmeyer writes in today's Wall Street Journal, there is way too much junk, especially plastic junk, in the world's seas:
Most of it does not biodegrade. It just breaks down into ever smaller pieces, to the size of confetti and, finally, dust. Fish, birds and other marine animals eat this pseudo-planton and pass it up the food chain. Our world-wide litter is poisoning the seas, the creatures within them, and ultimately, ourselves."
If you spot one of the ducks on your shore, now bleached to white and imprinted with the words "The First Years," submit a photo and note to Ebbesmeyer's Web site, www.beachcombersalert.org.
How polluted is Beijing?
The air quality in "Greyjing" is so bad, the Wall Street Journal reports (sub. req'd), that International Olympic President Jacques Rogge is considering postponing several sporting events at the 2008 Summer Games—which begin one year from today—if China doesn't clean up its act. (This contradicts what a top Olympics official said back in July, by the way.)
Much ink has been spilled about how human-rights advocates are using the Olympics to embarrass the Chinese government. (Just now, Canadian pro-Tibet activists got in trouble for hanging a cheeky banner on the Great Wall.) The air-pollution issue only raises further questions about the wisdom of picking China to host the 2008 Olympics.
But Beijing '08 isn't the only questionable decision the International Olympic Committee has made in recent years. Did you know that for the 2014 Winter Games, the IOC chose a Russian resort town just a short drive from ... get this ... Chechnya?
Paul Sonne argues in Gold, Silver, and Brazen, a new Web-exclusive piece for FP, that it's high time the IOC started taking politics into account in making its selections. After all, he says, politics inevitably comes into the picture, so the IOC might as well make smarter choices. Check it out.
Why does the environmental movement fête celebs who go around spouting do-gooder environmental rhetoric even as they travel in gas guzzling private jets and suck up endless watts of energy air-conditioning their L.A. McMansions? Apparently, it's because they're Democrats.
That's what Jeff Bercovici over at Radar recently discovered. When he sent an article highlighting the inconvenient truth that folks like Leo DiCaprio and Al Gore too often live environmentally unfriendly lifestyles over to the editors at the influential enviro-site Grist, they dismissed him for "carrying right-wing water." What a bizarre response. Why would they assume Bercovici was motivated by politics? Could it be that, within the environmental movement, what matters most is not whether Al Gore, Leo DiCaprio, or Barbara Streisand actually live the virtues they extol, but simply that they're not "right wing"?
I decided to conduct an unscientific test of the theory on Grist's own Web site. As a case study, I picked former CIA Director Jim Woolsey, who is not just right wing in his politics but decidedly hawkish when it comes to foreign-policy matters. He also happens to be a self-described "tree-hugger" who lives in a solar-powered farmhouse (complete with solar-thermal panels for hot water) and drives a Toyota Prius and hybrid Lexus SUV, which he uses to haul farm supplies.
A Google search for "Jim Woolsey" on Grist.org returned six articles; "James Woolsey" gets 16. A search for "Al Gore" returned 4,200. A search for "Leonardo DiCaprio" returned 286 articles ("Leo DiCaprio" adds another 38).
Woolsey lives a green lifestyle. So why isn't Grist giving him as much ink as Gore or DiCaprio? Perhaps because his primary motivation for calling on Americans to go green is to increase national security, decreasing dependence on foreign oil while increasing pressure on repressive regimes in the Middle East. That's not necessarily environmentalism for environmentalism's sake.
It shouldn't make a difference, Woolsey tells Rolling Stone. "It doesn't matter what the principal motivation is," he says. "It's just two different sets of reasons for wanting the same thing." Sorry, Jim, but the environmental movement doesn't seem to agree. Besides, you don't look as pretty as Leo on the cover of Vanity Fair.
The Kashmir conflict has claimed the lives of at least 40,000 people since since the Muslim separatist revolt began in 1989. For years now, the region has been steeped in insecurity and violence, with still no immediate settlement to the conflict in sight. But there is good news for other inhabitants of Kashmir.
Wildlife officials in the region report that the population of endangered Asiatic bears has increased between 30 and 60 percent since 1989. Because of the increased security presence in the Himalayan forests—intended to root out militants—poachers have also stayed away for fear of getting caught up in the crossfire. "No one dares to go deep into the forests since the militancy started," explains the state's wildlife warden.
And it's not just bears that the insurgency is helping: The general population of indigenous animals and birds has increased on average between 20 and 60 percent in the same time period. Elusive leopards, snow leopards, and hanguls, a type of stag found only in Kashmir, for instance, have flourished during the human conflict.
A similar phenomenon has taken place in Sudan, where thousands of animals thought to be in danger are repopulating despite the country's civil war. Of course, this doesn't mean that conflict is generally favorable for endangered animals. Some animals in Sudan have suffered what National Geographic calls "near-apocalyptic declines," and you need look no further than the Democratic Republic of the Congo to see the devastation war can have on threatened species. Still, it does show that vigilance against poachers can have a remarkable impact.
Trash—a munnezza, as they call it in southern Italy—is invading the streets of Naples. And though the city council just removed an impressive 4,000 tons of it, the International Herald Tribune reported recently that "egg shells, fermenting teddy bears, garlic, hair that looks human, boxes for blood pressure medicine, [and] scuzzy wine bottles" are still a common picture around town. A few enraged Neapolitans have protested by setting the trash on fire, and black-dressed elderly Italian women are blocking the railways in order to get the attention of public authorities.
Foreigners are amazed. Italians are ashamed.
It's gotten so bad that on Monday, the U.S. embassy urged tourists to stay away from Naples and its nasty smells. And Brussels is threatening EU penalties against Italy for allowing a health and environmental hazard to fester.
This is hardly the first time Naples has nearly drowned in its own refuse. In fact, it happens every summer. But why? Here are two clues:
Surely Passport readers can put two and two together here. I bet you thought that Tony Soprano's job in the waste-disposal business was a cover, right? We Italians know that garbage is the game, baby.
Using an array of sensitive, sophisticated techniques, scientists have discovered that our rotund planet Earth is a bit smaller than previously thought: a whole 0.1 inches (2.5 mm) smaller from surface to center on average.
Some of the other updated measurements the scientists made after two years of measuring include:
So what? Well, the more accurate measurements give scientists a better baseline against which to measure and track environmental changes such as melting ice caps and evaporation from the Amazon Basin. If the sea level is rising somewhere, it's important to know whether that change is due to a sinking continent, or due to, say, global warming. Regardless of the important implications of the new measurements, we at least now know for sure that it's a smaller world after all.
Over in Anhui province, the government evacuates nearly half a million people away from the surging Huaihe River.
And in neighboring Henan, authorities worry about the health risks from an estimated TWO BILLION RATS that attacked crops near Dongting Lake. The rats had been living on islands in the lake, but rising floodwaters sent them into the surrounding 22 counties, where they have been causing all kinds of trouble.
I'm tempted to say that this is just another day in China, but even for the Middle Kingdom, this is crazy stuff. More than 66 million Chinese people have been hurt by floods this summer. And knowing what we know about the water quality in China's rivers, it's even more frightening. The brain boggles.
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