Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

Cut the Carbon

April 9, 2008

One solution to cutting carbon emissions of transportation industries is to use bigger trucks. Bigger trucks?!? Not bigger trucks for the same amount of cargo, but bigger trucks that carry more cargo with one vehicle. Just as it is better to have ten people in a van that gets only a few miles per gallon, it ends up being much better than having ten cars on the road. Double or triple long trucks (trucks with two or three trailers) can carry more cargo with the same tractor. This is the reason that freight trains are such efficient carriers. Trains use diesel generators to produce electricity to run electric motors that pull huge loads with just a few engines.

What I question is the big construction vehicles, dump trucks, gravel trucks, and construction machinery that are not covered by any emissions regulations and dumps visibly huge clouds of exhaust into the sky. I can’t help but think that the big clouds of poorly tuned dump trucks that I see undo most of the savings I have had in my Prius.

My Prius undone.

The sites that can help you learn about global warming are many, but you need to be aware of their potential bias.

A good place to compare the carbon dioxide emissions of various sectors of the United States (sectors like transportation, industry, residential) is the EPA’s Annual Energy Outlook (link:PDF) which presents a projection and analysis of U.S. energy supply, demand, and prices through 2030 (based on current use and trends).

This report shows that emissions for 2007 by sector are:

Residential – 1,214 million tons

Commercial – 1,034 million tons

Industrial – 1,736 million tons

Transportation – 1,939 million tons

Power Generation – 2,309 million tons

The part of the report that I think is most important is the projections for this current year and next year. None of the sectors are estimated to actually reduce their total emissions. All of the information we are reading discusses reducing emissions. This is a critical consideration when you are deciding what steps you will take to help reduce global warming: does getting a new car help? does choosing one type of product over another (e.g. cotton versus polyester) help? does reducing the amount of lights or type of lights you use help?

Let’s break it down. One way (the way of a pessimist or defeatist) to look at it is to say, “It doesn’t matter what I do, because emissions are going to go up anyway.” The other side of the coin is to say, “Any little bit helps.”

Which one is correct? Both actually. Emissions will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. As our economy and population grows, emissions will continue to increase. But to give up is like deciding not to brush your teeth because you are just going to eat more and get cavities anyway. What we want to do is to reduce emissions so that the growth of emissions is not as large as it would have been if we had done nothing. Eventually we can turn it around from increasing every year to decreasing every year, but it will take time (like turning an oceanliner around). The little bits that individuals and a few (emphasis on few) industries are doing does add up. But buying a new car to reduce your emissions when driving opens a whole other Pandora’s box.

To really calculate a carbon footprint, something that is left out usually, is the footprint of the production of the car itself. Calculating the carbon emissions resulting from mining the steel, nickel, copper, gold and other metals is very difficult. It can be done mathematically, but not necessarily accurately. Add in to the equation the plastics, fibers, foam, coatings and paint is another big source of pollution that is very difficult to calculate.

On Sunday, at the Blanton Museum I saw a piece about mining gold in Brazil (by Alfredo Jaar and it is titled “Gold in the Morning”). It showed the intensive physical labor that is used to mine the gold – virtual slaves working in conditions that would never be allowed in the U.S. The costs of production, environmentally, of gold in Brazil is not limited to the labor and waste produced by the mine. Related costs should also include the pollution caused by the thousands of people who earn very little and move to and from the mine, live in its proximity, and the economy that they drive. You can bet that their village doesn’t have curbside recycling, a waste treatment plant for sewage, or any of the things that we have here in our community that reduce our impact on the environment. Have you ever thought about the environmental and human rights impact of the jewelry you buy or receive?

Cars, jewelry… how about cement? Have you ever considered the environmental impact of the sidewalk under your feet, the road you ride on or the walls that protect you from the elements? Here is some good info from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

Globally, over 150 countries produce cement and/or clinker, the primary input to cement. In 2001, the United States was the world’s third largest producer of cement (90 million metric tons (MMt)), behind China (661 MMt) and India (100 MMt).6 The United States imported about 25 MMt of cement in 2001, primarily from Canada (20%), Thailand (16%) and China (13%). Less than 1% of domestic production was exported. The primary destinations for export were Canada (82%) and Mexico (6%).
Cement is often considered a key industry for a number of reasons. To begin with, cement is an essential input into the production of concrete, a primary building material for the construction industry. Due to the importance of cement for various construction-related activities such as highways, residential and commercial buildings, tunnels and dams, production trends tend to reflect general economic activity. Furthermore, because of the large demand for cement, the relatively high costs associated with transport of the high-density product, and the wide geographic distribution of limestone, the principal raw material used to produce cement, cement is produced across the United States.

I think that the scariest number is China’s. I drive every day past the freeway projects and buildings rising from the ground, and it’s hard for me to believe that another country is using six times the cement we are. To me it’s unfathomable.

Another interesting statement from this report is this:

Total energy consumption in the U.S. cement industry exhibited a decline between 1970 and the early 1990s, before showing an annual average increase of 4.5% between 1992 and 1999.

As our economy grows, so does our consumption of energy and the resulting greenhouse gases.

So many fallacies in the debate over global warming are based on incomplete information, it is easy to make changes in your life that don’t really result in a positive change.

We can work hard to make the little visible changes, buy “green” products and contribute to projects which appear to help the environment, but it can all be undone in one summer of forest fires.

It all comes down to this. All of the re-usable bags from the supermarket, all of the bamboo bed sheets and Prius hybrid cars mean very little when it comes down to it. The real hog is our energy production (power plants). The biggest was that you can make an impact on the environment is to lobby your government to change the way that we generate power, and to change the transportation systems that we currently use. A major change in those sectors would eclipse every other change you could make. Do you know how to lobby?


Your Cell Phone, Computer and Hybrid Car

March 31, 2008

How is the technology we use tied to human rights, poverty, political unrest and the environment?

Inside every device you use that plugs into the wall, there are electronics. Circuit boards, batteries and wire all contain metal that is mined in various parts of the world. Sometimes the mining of these metals damages protected habitat, sometimes it destroys entire eco-systems, sometimes it involves low wage labor, sometimes it involves the appropriation and pillaging of entire countries. In most cases it involves all of these things.

Consider your life now, and imagine living on a few cents a day in Africa, working twelve hours a day and taking huge risks (many miners day every day in many mines). Do you want to contribute to this? Do you already?

So many of the results of the production of our technology are irreversible. When a species is extinct, it is gone forever. When a miner dies, his family starves. When ecosystems are destroyed, they cannot be rebuilt.

If you are buying electronics, then you are contributing to an industry that has no standards for determining how the materials were produced. What can you do to reduce the impact? What can you do to draw attention to these negative impacts.

Read more here, here and here.

If you want to propose a project that teaches you and others about these issues, you might be able to do this project instead of the final exam.