27 May 2013

What Can I Do for a Greener Planet?

“Why fickle wind power wins out over nuclear” “Why fickle wind power wins out over nuclear” http://www.earthtimes.org/energy/why-fickle-wind-power-wins-nuclear/822/

I mentioned in my previous blog (highlighting the work of Bishop Kenneth Cragg) that we had just reached an ominous signpost on the way to a warmer, more hostile planet. The atmosphere’s concentration of CO2 had just topped 400 parts-per-million. Now, what can you and I do about slowing down this rush toward a truly frightening world ahead?

I’ll start with some practical steps (they’ll simply be reminders for most of you) and offer more resources; then I’ll take a step back, ending with a needed strategy for us as a human family on a global scale.


Reducing my carbon footprint

Wikia.com has a “wiki” called “Green Wiki.” Read through their "101 Tips" for reducing one’s carbon footprint. True to their mission to multiply knowledge by pooling resources by anyone for anyone (they now manage 200,000 wikis worldwide – and this is separate from, though related to Wikipedia), this page has a dizzying number of great links on the topic of sustainability.

If you want to start with fewer steps to digest, try Public Radio’s "15 Ways" to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.” Just to give you an idea of what we’re dealing with, let me give you just five – ones that I hadn’t thought about much before:


            1. “Try to use something other than black plastic garbage bags. The black bags can't be recycled because of their black pigment. If possible, use white bags or better yet no bags.”

            2. Millie Jefferson on Public Radio says “Chuck your Microwave,” but she’s really saying, “Avoid buying and use ready-made frozen meals.” Makes sense: “Cook fresh food when you can, and you'll also find yourself eating out less often.” The Green Wiki says, “Use a microwave to heat and cook food; microwaves are more efficient than regular ovens and hobs.” And if you’re using an oven, always put your food on the highest tray, where there is the most heat.

            3. I have friends who are vegetarian, and even some who are vegans. I get it. The production of meat is very inefficient; it pollutes the planet; and it often means tragic abuse of animal rights. But we moved into my 86-year-old mother-in-law’s house and we care for her daily needs. She loves her meat and with other challenges to face, that is not one worth fighting over. So I like this gradual approach: “Eat one less serving of meat a week. Use a cheese-free alternative each week. Cheese is an animal product and has the same carbon cost as meat. Cattle release a great deal of methane into the atmosphere. Consider unendangered fish, beans, and soy as replacements for beef, dairy, and fowl protein.”

            4. “Stop watering your lawn. Grow a garden instead. Lawns require lawnmowers, which require fuel. Gardens allow you to grow veggies which require less trips to the produce section.” Again, in our case we can’t change everything overnight, but we do have a good vegetable garden and the next step is to start composting.

            5. “Avoid unnecessary trips to the store, do grocery shopping monthly or at most weekly. This will save you money as well.” Oh, the discipline of keeping a running list of things to buy, so you don’t have to keep going back to the store!!


But really, the old adage “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!” covers most of the ground you’ll need to cover for a while! We all have to make an effort to buy less, fix what we have, and work harder at recycling what we have used. And, by the way, maybe you shouldn’t buy that hybrid car you’re drooling over … the energy and resources necessary to produce it might better be offset if you kept driving your present car several more years.

I’d love to have solar panels installed on my roof. Hopefully, we’ll be able to pull this off financially at some point. Also, I’d be thrilled to convince my church to do that – many are doing just that in our state. But all in good time. What I’m saying here is that the biggest gain for our planet will come from humans switching to clean and renewable sources of energy. We have to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.


Breaking the grip of fossil fuels

I referred to Jeffrey D. Sachs, Special Adviser to the UN General Secretary on environmental issues. Besides his professorship in two areas at Columbia University (Sustainable Development and Health Policy and Management), he directs their Earth Institute and, more significantly, the UN-sponsored Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Pay attention to what he writes, including a recent OpEd piece in the New York Times on where the world economy should be heading.

Here’s his pithy summary of the toxic link between carbon emissions and climate change:   


Several gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, warm the planet as their concentrations in the atmosphere increase. As the world economy grows, so do emissions of these gases, accelerating the pace of human-caused climate change.

The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide. Most CO2 emissions result from the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – for energy, global consumption of which is rising as the world economy grows. As a result, we are on a path to very dangerous levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Twenty years ago, the world agreed to reduce sharply emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, but little progress has been made. Instead, the rapid growth of the emerging economies, especially coal-burning China, has caused global CO2 emissions to soar.


Plainly, and with all urgency, we have to move to a low-carbon global economy. There are two solutions, Sachs says, but neither has been developed on a wide scale:


The first is to shift massively from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, especially wind power and solar power. Some countries will also continue to use nuclear power. (Hydroelectric power generation emits no CO2, but there are only a few remaining places in the world where it can be expanded without major environmental or social costs.)

The second solution is to capture CO2 emissions for storage underground. But this technology, called carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), is not yet proven on a large scale. One approach is to capture the CO2 at the power plant as the coal or gas is burned. Another is to capture it directly from the air using specially designed chemical processes. Either way, CCS will require significant investment in further research and development before it becomes a viable technology. 


So the greatest obstacle is time … and politics. In a more recent article he writes, “America is still the land of Big Oil. Americans are bombarded by industry-funded media downplaying climate change, while countries that are much poorer in fossil fuels are already making the necessary transition to a low-carbon future.”

The two hopeful models are in Europe. France has turned to nuclear energy, while Germany (courageously, I might add) has massively invested in clean, renewable energy, mostly wind and solar. But different countries, with their own unique set of natural resources and political realities, will have to choose their own path to de-carbonizing their economies.

He then adds, “…but we will all need to get to the same place: a new energy system built on low-carbon sources, electrification of vehicles, and smart, energy-efficient buildings and cities.”

And by the way, Sachs points out the mirage represented by the current rush to natural gas – a phenomenon that is transforming the economy of my own state of Pennsylvania:


“Even the much-heralded shale-gas revolution is a lot of hype – similar to the gold rushes and stock bubbles of the past. Shale-gas wells deplete far more rapidly than conventional fields do. And they are environmentally dirty to boot.”


In the end, natural gas, though less carbon-intensive than coal or oil, still sends tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. No, we desperately need to be weaned off of all fossil fuels!


Getting radical

I’m not the activist I sometimes wish I could be. But again, within the limits of my family and work responsibilities, I participated in two marches in 2003 and 2004 protesting the war in Iraq and I'm always writing letters to politicians and signing petitions. We all do what we can!

But in closing, I’ll leave you with a taste for what some people are doing to fight the iron grip Big Industry maintains on the high-carbon status quo.

Bill McKibben teaches environmental science at Lehigh University but is best known for his books in this field and his activism. Founder of 350.org, McKibben is organizing a concerted campaign this summer to nonviolently pressure the powers that be on several related issues. You can read about it on jointhesummerheat.org: