Soap and detergent makers say they are being hurt by a double whammy of federal subsidies and mandates that has reduced the supply and pushed up the costs of a key ingredient, beef tallow. The steeply rising price of corn, driven by a federal requirement to use more ethanol, has pushed up corn prices, making animal feed more expensive and prompting farmers to blend the less-expensive tallow and other fats into their feed.
The upshot: In the past year, beef-tallow prices have doubled.
Further down in the article, there's this gem:
Lou Burke, manager of Conoco's new biofuels program ... blames the market gyrations on hedge funds that have been bidding up futures prices for soybean oil, anticipating a boom in alternative diesel fuels. The move, he says, has spurred a sympathetic rise in other fat-related commodities.
Fat-related commodities? A charming term. Apparently, some folks are suggesting that beleaguered soap manufacturers turn to a different input altogether: petroleum. Gives the phrase "awash in oil" a whole new meaning, don't it?
Perhaps you recall the "Northwest Passage" from your seventh grade social studies class. Until the phrase showed up on the AP newswire and at the center of Canada's aggressive new defense policy, I had almost forgotten about this long-sought-for shortcut to Asia that swallowed up so many European explorers.
Usually frozen, the Passage has historically only been passable for a few days every summer. The onset of global warming has raised its strategic value, since all the ice in the world might be gone soon. In addition to a transcontinental shipping route that's 2,480 miles shorter than going through the Panama Canal, it turns out those northern straits host bountiful fishing stocks, valuable minerals, and—get this—25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves.
In the manner of any self-respecting oil producer (especially given the recent IEA report of an oncoming oil supply crunch), Canada has begun an aggressive campaign to protect what the Canadians say is rightfully theirs. Despite his country's history of turning a blind eye to U.S. usage of the Passage, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has forthrightly asserted Canadian sovereignty over the arctic waterways:
Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this government intends to use it. It is no exaggeration to say that the need to assert our sovereignty and protect our territorial integrity in the North on our terms have never been more urgent.
What's more, Canada has recently hoisted the maple leaf over Hans island, a small, barren rock less than a thousand miles from the North Pole. Countering Danish claims of sovereignty over the island, which isn't far from Denmark's Greenland, many Canadians have even called for a boycott of Danish pastries.
First PM Harper won't talk to Bono, and now he's on the warpath, hoping to reap the rewards of global warming. Better keep an eye on this fellow.
The bureaucrats of the European Commission have taken a radical step toward reducing their carbon footprint and halting the progress of global warming: Neckties have been declared "optional."
The logic is that tie-free men will tolerate greater heat, and by setting the air conditioners just one Celsius degree higher, they can cut their 56,000 metric tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent. Apparently, the always snappily dressed Internal Market Commissioner Charlie McCreevy got the idea on a trip to Japan.
Considering that the high in Brussels today is a balmy 66 F (19 C), I can't say I have much sympathy for the EC's noble civil servants (it's 100 F in Washington). If they really want to make a difference, they could probably turn off the air conditioners altogether.
|12%||Percentage of the global trade in fruits and vegetables enjoyed by China's agricultural exports [link]|
||China's agricultural exports to the United States in 2006 [link]|
||Percentage of U.S. food imports that come from China [link]|
|13 million||Tons of Chinese grain contaminated by heavy metals, according to China's Ministry of Land and Resources [link]|
|30.4 million||Acres of China's arable land that are contaminated by pollution [link]|
|10%||Percentage of China's arable land that is contaminated by pollution [link]|
||Multiple by which the rice grown in Nanning, China, exceeds the allowed level of cadmium [link]|
|1.3%||Percentage of U.S. food imports inspected by the FDA [link]|
Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
What do you do if the World Bank is about to come out with a major study on pollution in your country, and the news is unequivocally bad? And by bad, I mean something on the order of 750,000 of your countrymen die premature deaths each year as a result of urban air pollution, and another 60,000 die as a result of polluted water.
If you're Beijing, you simply convince the World Bank to delete the offensive sections, arguing that breaking the news might cause "social unrest."
The Bank's resulting report, Cost of Pollution in China, omits the dangerous numbers. It still contains, however, an entire chapter on what these deaths might cost China in terms of GDP. It also estimates "people's willingness to pay to reduce risk of premature death," and includes this little gem:
The results show that respondents care very much about reducing their mortality risks, and are willing to pay for this.
Shocking. People care about extending their lives.
It gets better: One of the reasons offered by a Chinese official for the removal of the mortality estimates was that they didn't want the report to be "too thick." He's right. Who wants to carry a heavy report when you can hardly breathe?
It never hurts to check up on what T. Boone Pickens is saying and doing. The Texas oilman, corporate raider, and philanthropist has serious cred, and it's unlikely that he's giving interviews in order to pump up his investments. His portfolio is well known, and, as he says, "There isn't anybody who can talk a commodity market up more than three or four minutes. The fundamentals will take over at some point."
In a recent interview with the Houston Business Journal, he reiterated his view that global oil production has already peaked:
PICKENS: I think you'll see $80 oil before the end of the year. There's no question in my mind that oil has peaked. If you've already peaked, you'll start to decline. Can you replace it? Probably not.
There's obviously a lot of disagreement on this, but Boone's position is worth noting. Moving on to electrical power generation, he voiced concern on natural gas:
Q: Here in Texas we're struggling with our long-term power-plant needs, trying to pick among coal or nuclear or natural gas. I guess you'd pick nuclear to fuel the Texas plants?
PICKENS: Yes. You've got to get nuclear in because you don't have the other fuel to supply it, unless it's coal. You're not going to have enough natural gas.
You would think that Texas would have access to plenty of natural gas, but Pickens's calculations must show that it won't be enough for a serious ramp-up of gas-fired power plants. Pickens, a stalwart Republican and big fundraiser for presidential contender Rudy Giuliani, has recently endeared himself to greens with plans to build the nation's largest wind farm near Amarillo in west Texas, a burgeoning center for wind energy.
Pickens summed up his emerging ethos to the WSJ recently:
I'm an environmentalist because caring for what we have is a reality that is going to be on page one a long time. We have got to pay for that, and I think we can do that without damaging our economy."
I think that's a sentiment that will resonate on both ends of the political spectrum.
It's hard enough running a marathon when the air is cool, crisp, and pristine. Add coal smoke, ozone, and particulate matter to the mix, and you'll have runners wheezing their way to the finish line—if they even make it that far. Unfortunately, that's exactly the type of air that will clog the lungs of more than 10,000 athletes next year at the Olympics in Beijing.
On days when there is no rain or wind, ozone and fine dust are often two to three times the maximum levels suggested by the World Health Organization, making the Chinese capital one of the world's dirtiest cities. Endurance athletes such as marathoners and cyclists will have the toughest time—they inhale up to 150 liters of air per minute, more than 10 times what an office worker does. Spectators who are elderly, very young, or chronically ill may also encounter problems, including asthma, sore throats, and allergic reactions, all of which occur even among healthy visitors.
"I wouldn't expect a world record in the marathon in Beijing," says a physician who advises the British Olympic Committee.
The Beijing Olympics won't be the first time athletes will have to contend with poor air quality. More than 20 percent of U.S. athletes had breathing problems due to smog in Athens in 2004, says a manager of the U.S. Olympic team. British runner Steve Ovett said Los Angeles's air pollution made him collapse in the 1984 Olympics.
Beijing is committed to making its Olympics the "Green Games," and is investing more than $3 billion to clean the air, but it's unclear if it can succeed. Areas outside the city are responsible for a substantial amount of the pollution, and over 1,000 new cars hit the streets each day.
In the end, athletes may be left gasping for glory.
[Photo: PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images]
With announcements of new energy technologies coming out constantly, it's sometimes difficult to figure out which ones are actually worth getting excited about.
A power-plant scrubber highlighted in Tuesday's Financial Times is a case in point. The Sugarland, TX-based WOW Energies has developed a device that reduces CO2 emissions in a big way, the company claims:
Daniel Stinger, Wow chairman and inventor of the technology, says standard scrubbers can remove 50-60 per cent of mercury from emissions, while third party testing has shown his technology removes 85 to 95 per cent of heavy metals pollutants, including mercury. In addition, its pilot projects demonstrated carbon dioxide reductions of up to 85 per cent - not even the original aim.
85 percent CO2 reduction? Wow (no pun intended). Although it hasn't been proven on a large scale, this is impressive. Oddly, the WOWClean results (pdf) have been out since December, yet we're only reading about it now. There has to be a catch. The FT reports that WOW energy hasn't found much interest from utilities:
In the six months since Wow began marketing the technology, [WOW's CFO Martin] Brau has found utility groups have little interest in spending money to reduce emissions unless forced by legislation, preferring instead to "chip away" at emissions as new requirements gradually come into effect."A lot of them simply don't want to know," says Mr Brau. "Unless they are forced to, they won't stop. They have a grandfathered right to pollute."
Could the catch be that WOWClean captures the CO2 so that it can be stored somewhere or sequestered underground (boring) rather than eliminate CO2 emissions through some chemical process (potentially very exciting)?
I emailed Brau to get clarification on this. Brau responded:
What we mean is that the CO2 is converted into a stable bicarbonate, such as baking powder, it is not sequestered as a liquid gas.
This is awesome ... but it's probably unwise to get too excited until more work is done to test the large-scale performance and viability of this technology. In energy, there's always a catch. But definitely keep an eye on this. Power plants account for 40 percent of CO2 emissions in the United States, so progress in this area is crucial to major emissions reductions.
After tomorrow, Tony Blair is going to have a lot more time on his hands, especially if—as seems increasingly unlikely—he heeds the advice of Blake and the FT's Gideon Rachman and turns down the thankless job of Middle East envoy.
Here's an idea. Why not leverage his star power by taking on the world's most neglected causes?
Al Gore already has dibs on carbon emissions. Bill Clinton has taken on HIV/AIDS. And so, Passport humbly submits five other worthy causes that Tony Blair may want to make his own:
For years, dogs have been used to sniff for illegal drugs. Now, in China, humans are soon going to be used as "professional noses" to sniff for illegal emissions while patrolling the southern city of Guangzhou. The noses have been trained by environmental experts to differentiate between hundreds of odors and gauge their threat to human health. Unsurprisingly, a member of the sniffing team has described the work as "quite unpleasant."
The sniffers expect to receive certificates that will officially let them commence their careers as professional noses. The certificates will be valid for just three years, though, because humans' olfactory capabilities tend to decline with age.
The noses should be careful. Earlier this year, two sniffer dogs in Malaysia received death threats from crime bosses after authorities used them to help locate pirated DVDs and CDs (the canines sniffed for polycarbonates used in manufacturing disks). So when it comes to illegal polluters, who nose what could happen?
Expanding upon its recent humanitarian efforts, Google is making a concerted effort to go green.
Last week, the search engine company launched an industry initiative with Intel to promote energy efficiency in computing to help cut greenhouse gas emissions. The "Climate Savers Computers Initiative" focuses on addressing the energy waste from PCs, and includes plans for a certification program to recognize energy-efficient computers (here's hoping they get Microsoft on board). And now, in addition to announcing its intention to go carbon neutral by the end of this year, Google is launching two more projects with a green tinge.
First, Google Earth is teaming up with a Brazilian Indian tribe with the aim of countering deforestation in the Amazon. The project aims to capture vivid images that could deter loggers and miners from cutting down trees and digging for gold in the tribe's reservation. It hopes to help police the reservation site and provide evidence to authorities if and when destruction occurs. Second, Google has just launched what the Financial Times calls its "first significant philanthropic initiative": an $11 million contribution to speed the development of the plug-in hybrid electric car, though this isn't the first time Google has expressed an interest in alternative energy.
What does all this green investment mean? Does Google really care about the environment, or is it simply trying to reassure the 80 percent of U.S. consumers who believe it's important to support green companies? And as the FT highlights,
Unlike other philanthropists, [Google.org's leaders have] opted to keep the bulk of their financial pledges outside a non-profit structure, a move designed to give them more flexibility in deciding how to spend money for social good, including the option of doing so through for-profit ventures.
Of course, it's possible to earn profits while supporting environmental causes. But if Google really wants to prove its environmental bona fides, Sergey Brin and Larry Page may want to reconsider jetting around in their personal Boeing 767.
Want to know how much your consumption habits are contributing to global warming? Climate Counts, a new nonprofit organization, now lets you see how companies rank in the fight against climate change before you go shopping.
On its recently launched website, Climate Counts scores 56 companies from 0 to 100 based on how they measure their greenhouse gas emissions, their plans to reduce them, their stance on legislation, and how fully they disclose these activities. The methodology focuses heavily on public disclosure of activities and policies, so the emphasis is on which companies talk the climate change talk, but not necessarily on which ones follow words with actions.
Canon comes out on top with a score of 77, while Amazon.com, Wendy's, Burger King and CBS find themselves at the very bottom of the climate-friendly ladder. The New York Times reports that Climate Counts gave Amazon.com a zero because researchers could not find relevant data about its role in climate change. Amazon's response? Climate Counts just didn't look very hard.
I'm not sure what kind of impact the group thinks it can have on consumption patterns, but I highly doubt it'll be convincing die-hard Pepsi fans (score: 26) to switch to Coke (score: 57) anytime soon. At best, these endeavors are good for the embarrassment factor they create. Maybe now, companies at the bottom will feel a need to step up their efforts—or at least make their policies easier to find.
Even using their own highly questionable numbers, anti-immigrant activists may be barking up the wrong tree. What's the bigger threat: illegal aliens, or invasive species? We report, you decide.
|Mode of entry||Porous U.S. borders||Porous U.S. borders|
|Annual cost to the U.S. taxpayer||Lou Dobbs: $100 billion||$120 billion|
|Estimated population inside the U.S.||Dobbs: Up to 20 million||At least 50,000 distinct species comprising trillions of individuals. 16 invasive plant species alone cover 126 million acres of U.S. land. 80% of U.S. fish populations have been degraded by invasive species.|
|Health threats||WorldNetDaily: Drug-resistant Tuberculosis, Chagas disease, Dengue fever, Polio, Hepatitis A, B, and C||AIDS, Malaria, Typhus, Plague, West Nile virus, Cholera, Mad Cow Disease, Avian Flu|
|Accused of:||Stealing U.S. jobs, living off of the welfare system, and raising crime levels.||Destroying millions of acres of U.S. crops, disabling nuclear reactors, and wiping out endangered species.|
|Number of mentions in the media in the last month, as reported by Google News||
Photos: www.invasive.org; David McNew/Getty Images
In the last week of May, ExxonMobil's CEO proposed shelving plans to build a natural gas pipeline from Canada's Mackenzie Valley to the existing pipelines in Alberta, which continue down into the United States. The cost projections for the project have apparently shot up, in large part due to rising steel prices.
If the project ends up nixed or shelved, it could be a rather big deal. According to energy analyst Andrew Weissman, this is the "biggest energy story of the year" thus far. He told MarketWatch:
About 10% of our future natural gas supplies will disappear as a result.... It's like we know there's a hurricane coming into the Gulf of Mexico that will wipe out all the natural gas there. The gas will just sit in the ground."
It's clear the United States will need to import more natural gas. U.S. natural gas production has basically remained flat for the last decade, fluctuating between 511 and 555 billion cubic feet between 1996 and 2006 (PDF). Even if that number rises, it probably won't offset the need for more imports.
Another big reason this story could (or should) get more attention is that natural gas is the main substitute for coal in electricity generation. Replacing coal with cleaner-burning natural gas is probably a good idea as Congress and presidential candidates consider policy options on climate change.
All that said, the talk about nixing the project could just be a negotiating tactic to get more Canadian government subsidies to build the pipeline. The Globe and Mail's initial report on ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson's comments make it seem as though a juicier subsidy package could change Tillerson's mind.
After several years of being buffeted by the Terrorism Tsunami and Hurricane Bush, the Middle East this week was struck by a non-metaphorical weather event: Cyclone Gonu. This latest storm, however, left only a slight imprint upon the region—evacuations and a small number of deaths and temporary port closings in Oman, and a brief uptick in the price of crude oil. Here's what Gonu looked like from above:
(Hat tip: National Geographic)
Soviet Russia was never overly concerned with nuclear waste disposal. For decades, the Soviets simply dumped radioactive materials into the Arctic Ocean or erected temporary storage facilities for such materials. Those facilities are now beginning to age, and are becoming a serious environmental problem. Frighteningly, one of these facilities may even be in danger of exploding.
Norwegian researchers have obtained an alarming report from Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency, about a site on the Kola Peninsula, an ore-rich area near the northern border with Norway. Since 1982, 21,000 spent uranium fuel assemblies have been stored there in three concrete tanks right next to the coast. Inside the tanks, large metal pipes contain the rods. Unfortunately, the concrete has begun to leak and allow sea water in, corroding the metal tubes.
Leakage is a problem because spent rods contain many types of fissile isotopes, and salt water could cause them to disintegrate relatively quickly. Essentially, those fissile isotopes will dissolve in the water, creating a radioactive slurry inside the tubes.
This could be dangerous because, in the right conditions, enough fissile material concentrated in a small space creates a lot of heat—the same principle we exploit for nuclear power generation. Uncontrolled, this heat could cause steam to build up in the tubes, eventually leading them to explode. If concentrations of fissile material are high enough, dangerous chain reactions could occur, releasing more intense (and potentially explosive) "bursts of radiation and heat." The risk of such explosions is small— both Russian and Norwegian nuclear officials have accordingly "downplayed the danger"—but still significant given the potential for widespread fallout.
And while an actual atomic explosion is probably impossible in this situation, even steam explosions could send huge quantities of dangerously radioactive material into the environment. Rosatom claims there is no danger of that happening, but given the Russian track record on waste disposal, we should watch sites like this very carefully.
Greenpeace, the international environmental organization that never met a publicity stunt it didn't like, has built an ark to raise awareness about climate change. Fittingly, Greenpeace chose Turkey's Mt. Ararat, thought by many to be the site of Noah's ark in the Bible. The ark looks great. But if this photograph from Der Spiegel is any guide, it's not so much "all God's creatures, two-by-two" who are seeking shelter from the impending flood thus far, but rather one of His foulest creations, the pigeon:
Full story here.
Today was another big day for the booming Chinese solar industry. Shares of LDK, a solar wafer manufacturer based in China, went on sale today on the New York Stock Exchange. The IPO did somewhat better than expected, with shares going for as high as $30 in a flurry of heavy trading. Another highly anticipated IPO, for Yingli Green Energy, is likely to happen later this month. It'll be (at least) the sixth Chinese solar company to raise capital in the U.S. stock markets.
There's actually a bit of a debate among stock market analysts, however, on just how viable the Chinese solar industry really is. Those bearish on solar point to a worldwide shortage of high-grade polysilicon, which has weakened demand by keeping prices high for several years now. And earlier this week, SolarFun Power, another Chinese solar manufacturer, posted disappointing first-quarter earnings. That put a damper on some investors' enthusiasm for Chinese solar manufacturers, but apparently not enough to ruin LDK's day in the sun.
LDK boosters point out that the company has already amassed a reasonable quantity of polysilicon, and that its fundamentals are solid. Couple that with China's low labor costs, burgeoning engineering prowess, enormous energy needs, and its environmental crises, and you've got a potential winner to follow other Chinese solar success stories like China SunEnergy. This is definitely a sector to watch.
The big news out of today's speech by U.S. President George W. Bush is that the United States is apparently bowing to international pressure and will work on a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol. Bush's plan for moving forward:
By the end of next year, America and other nations will set a long-term global goal for reducing greenhouse gases. To help develop this goal, the United States will convene a series of meetings of nations that produce most greenhouse gas emissions, including nations with rapidly growing economies like India and China.
After six years of no progress, this would seem a welcome change. I'm skeptical, however. The United States has been pushing back against German efforts to put a more stringent climate change regime in place during the upcoming Group of Eight summit. This is clearly, as critics are already pointing out, an effort to take control of that process and water it down. And with only 18 months left in office, it's pretty much impossible that a big initiative like Bush is proposing would get anywhere.
That said, it's a good sign that even a noted skeptic like President Bush is finally recognizing a need to at least pretend to care about this issue. It'll make things easier for his successor to do what is necessary.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia – One of the world's largest and least studied freshwater turtles has been found in Cambodia's Mekong River, raising hopes that the threatened species can be saved from extinction.
Scientists from Conservation International (CI), World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Cambodian Fisheries Administration, and the Cambodian Turtle Conservation Team captured and released an 11-kilogram (24.2-pound) female Cantor's giant softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) during a survey in March.
Thanks to the nice people at Conservation International for allowing us to use this very cool photograph.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg just hosted 40 mayors from around the globe (and Bill Clinton) for a climate conference in New York. The chattering classes are all atwitter that Bloomberg is unveiling what might be important environmental positions for a possible presidential run.
And I, for one, think the mayors in attendance are doing a great deal of good, serious work on the issue—encouraging smart ideas on more efficient energy use, greener businesses, less traffic—and getting the private sector involved in a big way. These local actors have certainly been far more innovative and proactive in advancing these issues than most national leaders around the world.
But my favorite moment from the conference, which was all about encouraging cities to be more energy conscious: During Bloomberg's speech in Central Park, all the street lights were left on. In the middle of the afternoon.
You've heard of the $100 laptop. Meet the $30 stove/refrigerator/generator combo.
Scientists from a consortium of UK universities have come up with a novel solution for food storage and preparation in developing countries. Using thermoacoustic technology, the team of scientists is developing a device that acts as a refrigerator, cooker, and power generator at the same time, and is powered by biomass fuels such as wood that are locally available. Led by Paul Riley at the University of Nottingham, the SCORE (Stove for Cooking, Refrigeration and Electricity) project has been granted $4 million to develop the device.
So how exactly does it work? Riley explains:
[B]urning wood heats a gas-filled pipe at one end. The gas moves from the hot part, where it expands, to the cold part, where it contracts. The pipe then resonates rather like an organ pipe."
The acoustic pressure waves this creates are then harnessed to produce electricity, so SCORE doesn't need an external electricity source.
For the two billion people in the world who still use open fires as their primary cooking method, this is potentially great news. And considering that 93 percent of the energy generated by these fires is wasted, and the smoke can lead to serious health problems, the device also provides environmental and health benefits. Riley hopes that the stove will be commercially available within four years, adding, "We are hoping to build a million a year after year five - that's the aspiration - and the price target we've set ourselves is between 15 and 20 pounds ($30-40) per unit." He also hopes that ultimately the technology will be accessible enough for the devices to be produced cheaply by local populations.
This map from France's Centre International de Recherche sur l'Environnement et le Développement and Ecole Nationale de la Météorologie projects what the weather might be like in a few European cities come 2071. Note that Londoners will be treated to a climate generally experienced in western Portugal. Barcelona will be not unlike Rabat.
(Hat tip: The Guardian)
There's no doubting the importance and urgency of economic development that meets the needs of the world’s poorest people without harming the planet. In fact, it may be one of the defining issues of our time. Which makes it all the more ridiculous that the world's most important body is handing over the chair of the U.N. Committee on Sustainable Development to ... Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.
It's an African country's turn to head the rotating position, and Western efforts to block the appointment have thus been met with criticism by many African countries and rejected by the Zimbabwean delegation. Even if this committee weren't dealing with economic issues, the notion that today's Zimbabwe is fit to lead anything at the United Nations is somewhat ridiculous. But this is a country with 2,200 percent inflation, where the leadership is rationing electricity to four hours a day. That's less than in many parts of Iraq.
Inclusive opportunities for all the world's peoples and nations ought to be at the forefront of the U.N. mission. But so should principled and pragmatic leadership. Apparently the U.N. learned nothing from Sudan, Libya, and Cuba's embarrassing stints on the Human Rights Commission.
Global climate change will create one billion refugees by 2050, according to a report released today. The paper, written by charity organization Christian Aid, assumes that the world will heat up by between 1.8 and 3.0 degrees Celsius over that time, giving rise to apocalyptic floods and famines that will starve and displace millions. The result? "A world of many more Darfurs," as refugees are caught between devastated homes and hostile populations elsewhere who have no desire to share precious resources.
These internally displaced persons, or IDPs, have no rights under international law and no official voice .... Their living conditions are likely to be desperate and in many cases their lives will be in danger."
The prospect of multiple Darfurs is horrifying. But if Christian Aid think this is a call to action, they're dreaming. We all know what's happening in Darfur. Thus far the response from the West has been precisely zero. And no matter what you multiply zero by, the answer is always the same. The sad fact is that for all the hot air exhaled about climate change, it is little more today than global debt relief was two years ago—a platform to help politicians appear sensitive. Only when the consequences of global warming pinch the world's middle classes will action be taken. By then, I'm sorry to say, it could be too late for the IDPs.
As Harry Harding argues in the March/April issue of FP, China has enormous ecological problems that the Chinese government is struggling to come to grips with. It so happens that there's been a flurry of stories lately about how China is supposedly getting more environmentally friendly. A sampling, via the indispensable China Digital Times:
No doubt Chinese leaders are becoming painfully aware of the seriousness of their country's mounting pollution problems, but I seriously doubt China's one party system is capable of fixing them. Consider this carefully worded passage in Esty's article:
Just as the U.S. awakened to its environmental crisis in the 1960s, when Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire and Pittsburgh's air began to choke its citizens, China now faces highly visible environmental harms.
But there's a key difference between Pittsburgh and China. China doesn't have "citizens" in the way that Pittsburgh does—voters who can hold politicians accountable when they fail to, say, bring air pollution down to reasonable levels. Local Chinese officials, in contrast, are truly accountable only to the Chinese Communist Party. And based on their comments at the Bangkok summit on climate change, it's clear that top Chinese officials aren't yet ready to bump environmental concerns ahead of economic growth on the priority list. Rest assured, it's a message that will resonate on down the line.
Passport noted a couple of weeks ago that the price of beer could soon soar due to the increasing demand for biofuels, especially ethanol. Rising prices for the alternative fuel's natural ingredients, notably corn, are causing the displacement of barley crops. And barley happens to be a key ingredient in beer, so the price of the amber beverage goes up as a result. We also speculated that widespread use of ethanol-powered cars, which may actually produce more ozone than their gas-guzzling counterparts, could lead to slightly more deaths each year. So, there's a public health trade-off here. Ethanol might cause more deaths from air pollution. But higher beer prices probably lower demand for beer, which means that the number of traffic accidents and alcohol-related deaths will presumably decrease. But what if the very process of making beer could produce clean energy?
A team of scientists from Australia's University of Queensland and Foster's, the beer maker, are teaming up to generate clean energy from brewery wastewater. With a $115,000 (A$140,000) grant from the Queensland government, the scientists will install a microbial fuel cell at a Foster's Group brewery near Brisbane. The 660-gallon fuel cell, which is essentially a battery in which bacteria feed continuously on the organics in the brewery wastewater, will be able to produce two kilowatts of electricity. That's enough to power a household. The cell will also produce "clean water and renewable (non-polluting) carbon dioxide." Considering that Australia is facing its worst drought ever recorded and a massive water crisis, this is certainly promising news. And the best part of all: Aussies will finally be able to claim that they are drinking beer for environmental reasons.
An interesting story in today's Washington Post takes aim at an unlikely culprit in the battle to stop global warming: U.S. women. According to the Post, U.S. men are much more likely to buy compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), which consume less electricity and last longer than incandescent bulbs, than are their female partners:
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week showed that while women are more likely than men to say they are "very willing" to change behavior to help the environment, they are less likely to have CFL bulbs at home [...] In groceries and drugstores, where 70 percent to 90 percent of light bulbs historically have been sold and where women usually have been the ones doing the buying, CFLs have not taken off nearly as fast as they have in home-improvement stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's, where men do much of the shopping.
So what explains the gender gap? Energy Star Director Wendy Reed guesses that "women are much more concerned with how things look. We are the nesters." Women are apparently less willing than their husbands to put up with fewer lumens (although the latest CFLs are supposedly just as bright if not brighter than incandescents). But it seems there's also a widespread failure to communicate about this difference in preferences:
The guy typically brings a CFL home and just screws it into a lamp in the bedroom, without discussing it with his wife," [energy efficiency market researcher My] Ton said. "She walks in, turns on the light and boom -- there is trouble. That is where the negative impressions begin, especially when the guy puts it into the bedroom or the bathroom, the two most sacred areas of the home."
I'm curious to know if the CFL gender gap exists even in other countries like Germany and Japan, where far more people use the energy-efficient bulbs. And as couples in these places have gone increasingly green in their light bulb choices, have they also had to learn to communicate better?
People who care about protecting the environment are often ridiculed as being tree-hugging hippies who eat granola and wear Birkenstocks. Or, they're seen as elitist, hypocritical liberals who rant against global warming while living in 4,000-square-foot houses. Sometimes, they're just dismissed as wackos.
Yesterday was Earth Day, and unfortunately, one well-meaning music icon made a ridiculous suggestion that reinforced all the laughable stereotypes that critics have of environmentalists. Singer Sheryl Crow proposed limits on toilet paper: "only one square per restroom visit, except, of course, on those pesky occasions where two or three could be required."
Maybe she made the comment in jest, but overall it doesn't help the environmental movement. People don't have to embrace extreme austerity or sacrifice basic hygiene to make a difference. Just Google "ways to save the environment," and you'll find hundreds of entirely reasonable ways to be more earth-friendly (mixed among some of the more outrageous suggestions).
Perhaps Crow, who seems so bent on being green, should take her suggestion to its logical extreme: ditch toilet paper altogether. Poor people all over the world manage without it. Old newspapers, corncobs, leaves, left hands, pails of water, and bidets are all alternatives.
Ethanol-fueled cars will create an equal or even greater risk to public health than those powered by gasoline, according to a new study. Gasoline emissions are estimated to cause at least 10,000 premature deaths in the United States alone every year. Yet ethanol is no panacea, says Mark Z. Jacobson, the Stanford University atmospheric scientist who conducted the study.
Using sophisticated computer modeling techniques to simulate air quality in the United States in 2020, Jacobson found that vehicles fueled by a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline (E85) increase atmospheric concentrations of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, canceling out the reduction of carcinogens that are prevalent in gasoline but not in ethanol. What's more, E85 can increase ozone in some areas. And that means ugly smog and the deaths associated with higher levels of ozone. Jacobson projects that widespread adoption of E85 would lead to slightly higher mortality rates in the United States (+4 percent) and especially smog-friendly Los Angeles (+9 percent).
And it doesn't matter, according to Jacobson, whether ethanol is made from corn, switchgrass or other plant products—the results remain the same. So we have yet another reason to be skeptical of the prevailing obsession with ethanol. Well, what should we do? Jacobson highlights alternatives such as battery-electric, plug-in-hybrid and hydrogen-fuel cell vehicles, which can derive energy from wind or solar power. He says, "These vehicles produce virtually no toxic emissions or greenhouse gases and cause very little disruption to the land."
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