04.29.08

Santa May Need a New Home–and no it’s not the credit crunch

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Resources at 11:05 pm by justakim

…he handed out too many lumps of coal.

The Arctic is plagued with a variety of woes. Not only is it melting faster than anticipated, it just might be ice-free this summer. It shrank back drastically last year, and while there has been a promising growth in ice over the winter, it is ‘new’ ice that is less resistant to melting. Picture a thin film of ice over your drink vs. a cube in it.

It is also “wetter” than previously, with more rain and more snow. When a thick frost forms on top of the snow, reindeer and other animals accustomed to digging down are unable to break the surface.

When the ice melted back last year, it exposed the fabled North-West Passage that connected the Atlantic to the Pacific. Among other things, one of the concerns brought up by the opening of the Arctic are fisheries. As ocean temperatures rise, fish species are appearing in new places, typically moving northward. In an attempt to forestall future crashes in fish stocks, there is an attempt to establish a marine sanctuary within the exclusive economic zone around Alaska. There’s no teeth in it yet.

o/~Just one time I would take the northwest passage… o/~

04.27.08

Notes on Biodiversity

Posted in Book, Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Energy, Health, Pollution at 12:29 pm by justakim

There is a new book explaining how the loss of biodiversity will impact the discovery and development of new drugs. What makes this notable is that this is not just E.O. Wilson’s Discovery of Life. This book, Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity is composed not by environmentalists or entomologists, but by medical doctors at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.

The book demonstrates the value of biodiversity in previous discoveries, and covers several areas that show promise for new drugs, including cases where the species went extinct before the drug potential could be realized, and more cases where this may yet happen. Time to put a few frogs aside. It looks like it has a solid overview of what biodiversity is, why it matters, and what affects it. The book will be out in June.

One species that was not on the list for drug potential is the finless porpoise. While it has a pretty wide range along the coast, there is only one freshwater population that lives in the Yangtze River and two connected Poyang and Dongting Lakes. In addition to habitat degradation, a recent study finds that they are suffering from high levels of pollution.

While the focus of this study was on pollution, the situation is quite precarious. Dongting Lake relies on overflow from the Yangtze River and it swells and shrinks with the seasons. The Three Gorges Dam, which was built upstream of the lake, also has the function of flood control. Regulated flow and trapping of sediment must have drastically changed the functioning of the lake.

What makes this news so unpleasant to me is that I didn’t even know they existed. The extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin was pretty much expected when the Three Gorges Dam project began. It is probably more significant to lose a species than a population, but I was not aware there was much else of note. To lose something only as you learn it is there…

04.25.08

The Future of Cars

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Politics, Pollution, Resources at 9:23 pm by justakim

Ars Technica posted a nice description of the governors’ conference on climate change from last week. It is widely known that California has attempted to set its own emissions standards and has been blocked federally.

Perhaps in anticipation of the promises of all three presidential candidates, there is a new venture to bring Norwegian electric cars to California.

The joint venture’s first product will be Think City, an emission-free, 95 percent recyclable car with a maximum speed of 65 miles an hour. Plans call for a U.S. launch next year.

Lane said he expects the Think City, which will be priced under $25,000, to compete with Toyota Motor Corp’s popular Prius hybrid.

Their plan include charging stations to support the 50,000 cars they hope to be making annually.

If the US government won’t take the lead in promoting a market for cleaner cars, who will? …China?

The question of hybrids and other fuel efficient vehicles arises because the world’s automakers are gathering this week for the Beijing Auto Show, an event that is growing in clout as the world’s second largest auto market is set to be No. 1 soon.

But executives are waiting for Chinese officials to lay out a set of incentives that could jump start a product line…

Given how much we’ve used China as an excuse not to sign onto Kyoto etc, it would be terribly embarrassing if the world had to turn to China to take the lead. On the other hand, a switch to a purely electric car might not be so great an idea, for China.

Nissan Motor Co Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn told reporters the Japanese automaker is approaching the Chinese government, among the many it is in talks with, to push for a pure electric vehicle solution to battle pollution.

China depends heavily on coal to produce electricity. Emissions offset from the tailpipe will just appear elsewhere.

Hey, if the federal government doesn’t want California to dictate standards for the entire country, there might be appeal to dictating standards abroad.

Whatever it is that the government does, sensible Americans would prefer that the government do it to somebody else. This is the idea behind foreign policy.

-P.J. O’Rourke

1. Emissions by country
2. Chinese energy consumption
3. US energy

04.22.08

Food Craze

Posted in Climate Change, Economic Development, Energy at 4:50 pm by justakim

Farm aid and fair trade are what the leader of the UN Conference on Trade And Development is calling for. Local farmers have to compete with food aid as well as subsidized agricultural products from the US and Europe, leaving countries vulnerable to changes in the market with underdeveloped agriculture at home.

Panitchpakdi said speculators on commodities futures markets were worsening the problem of high food prices, and he hoped the April 20-25UNCTAD meeting in Ghana would address this.

And if that’s not sensationalist enough for you, we can call it “silent mass murder”.

Meanwhile, Bolivia’s president blames biofuels.

The US Foreign Agricultural Service advises countries against stopping exports.

“Firstly it is restricting trade and tends to make people think of hoarding. Secondly, domestic producers are sending the wrong signal –don’t produce, don’t invest in new technology, additional fertilizers or new genetics.”

What good will investing in agriculture do if you cannot compete with subsidized farming?

Case in point: USDA celebrates Earth Day by preserving farmland..

Happy Earth Day?

It seems like a great irony that places so lacking in biodiversity–places that are used for the purpose of monoculture, are being protected as if it were of environmental benefit. They could not protect the land from farming, nor could they set aside some other more environmentally valuable land to offset farming. Instead, let us go all the way to perverting environmental easements in the name of environmentalism, to create another farming subsidy.

We here in the US are affected by soaring prices, even if to a much lesser degree. Some places in the US are rationing grain.

The New York Sun reported Monday that “major retailers in New York, in areas of New England, and on the West Coast are limiting purchases of flour, rice and cooking oil as demand outstrips supply.”


Rice is especially hard-hit, as shortages have led to dramatically increased prices. In some cases, a 25-pound bag is selling for more than $30.

Well, I hope that doesn’t last long. Our last 20lb bag of rice is probably going to last us ’til winter.

Also, as an alternative to burning food, the seeds of weeds are back.

I am probably lacking in environmental enthusiasm today. I’ll leave that to the pros.

05.21.07

Trees are Cool

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Health, Resources at 9:07 am by justakim

I saw this while actually taking class outside: parks could lower city temperatures. Putting aside the climate change predictions, it makes a lot of sense that parks and greenery would reduce the temperature of the nearby environment. I can attest to this as I sit under the shade of trees on cool, moist grass on a fairly hot, moderately humid day. But the article says building new parks is not necessary; you can roll out strips of green geraniums on your roofs, and this would make a difference.

If that doesn’t suit your fancy, or you’re having flashbacks of spray-painted grass, asian apartment dwellers have a more aesthetically pleasing alternative. For the many asians living in concrete-lined apartments, having a small garden in their balcony offers many benefits, only part of which is cooling.

Beijing has pledged to add 100,000 square meters of roof gardens every year from 2007-2010. And last month Singapore, the “garden city”, unveiled its first “green” housing estate, with walls of cooling greenery hardwired into its architecture.

“From the scientific point of view, every plant produces a cooling effect,” said Professor Nyuk Hien Wong, of the Department of Building at the National University of Singapore, who designs the green walls.

“The rule of thumb is one degree less is a five percent (energy) saving”.

Against this backdrop, Asia’s apartment gardeners are taking a small, but important, step in the right direction, he said.

“If you look at it as one individual unit doing that, it may not be that significant. But if everybody is doing it, there may be a very big impact”.

If roll-out turf does not appeal to you, or perhaps you have a bank of solar panels already, a garden in a small space can make a difference. You just have to balance out the time required for this hobby, and the cost of watering them potted trees.

Mm, I think the sun had an impact on my post count last week.

05.10.07

Bottled Water: an unlikely case in environmental economics

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Health, Pollution, Resources at 10:09 pm by justakim

With a cough, I took a gulp from my water bottle and coincidentally browsed this article on the externalities of tap water, As one considers the fastest growing beverage market, one can see how it is at the same time, the most ludicrus thing and the most natural outcome of modern tastes.

Water, that is often of no higher quality than local tap water, is bottled in disposable plastic containers, chilled in vending machines, and sold at a price, while at the same time, that much water won’t make a dent in your utility bill.. And don’t forget the cost of transport.

But it makes so much sense! Health-conscious Americans are trying to drink more water and less soda. The bottles provide the conveinience that carrying around your own bottle lacks. And who wants to drink from a public fountain? There’s no telling what people have been doing with the spout. And recycling is just so inconvenient. If one was going to recycle, one would have brought one’s own bottle… And so it goes.

Plus the fancy mineral spring waters, brand names, vintages, what have you. I understand that different water tastes different certainly. But these fancy springs can run dry. They should be demanding fancier prices.

Tap water and bottled water are by no means perfect substitutes. Among other differences, real and perceived, people are willing to pay for the bottle that holds the water, and for the ability to dispose of it.

This problem, this logical culmination of desires and incentives, leads me to two thoughts.

First, perhaps people are not paying enough, either for the bottles or for the delivery.

Second, if it costs more for disposable bottles, we’d be willing to buy better water bottles. Things that are more conveinient to carry around, or store cold better, or weigh less. If it were easier to carry around your own tap water, the appeal of the disposable bottle will diminish. Picture a flask that keeps your water cold all day long, then packs away into a 1″ cube when empty. Who’d pay for these if a cheap one’s just fine?

I don’t know to what extent externalities are generated from bottled water, but I find it unlikely that shipping in someone else’s bottled tap water is the best use of the resources we have. But given current gas prices, disposal costs, and water subsidies, it’s just not worth our while to work out something better yet.

05.09.07

Water Woes: What California and China have in common

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Energy, Health, Politics, Pollution, Resources at 8:21 pm by justakim

California could lose a vast amount of its snowpack due to global warming by the end of the century. The percentage ranges are so wide, that I will leave those to the article.

Right on the heels of this interview, with the knowledge of snowpack being at its lowest point in 20 years, Governor Schwarzenegger requests $5.9 billion in bonds for water related projects including two dams.

Where could you possibly put the dams and have them be effective? We’ve damed all the good places where the geography lends itself to a stable structure and an opportunity for hydropower exploitation. Not too long ago, the project to dam the American River was buried. It is hard to believe that there are any better options.

Meanwhile, China is investing a little shy of $4 billion to reinforce reservoirs and improve drinking water while pondering projects to transfer water from the wet south to the parched north. Investing in current dams is a different story. Dams with high levels of siltation may have a lifespan, depending on how fast they can keep up with the dredging. That could obviously be cut short if the dam fails before dredging becomes an issue. The concern for drinking water is a good sign.

It is of little surprise that there are also complaints about dams in recent news as well. For instance, a group lawsuit vs. PacifiCorp over Klamath dams where just about everyone except the farmers have banded together, addressing toxic algae blooms, recreation, and fishing.

The U.S. Department of the Interior last year recommended removing the dams or building “ladders” for the spawning fish if PacifiCorp wants to keep them.

China has its own problems as they encounter problems while trying to protect the endangered Yangtze alligator. The article makes mention of the Yangtze river dolphin, which had been declared functionally extinct. Few of these unique creatures existed even before the Three Gorges Dam was built. That was merely the nail in the coffin.

It feels like we are stuck in some sort of time warp, returning to the days when it was not widely known that all the good dam spots had been taken and additional dams were often not worth the bother. We need to better allocate the water that we have, rather than pretend that if you build [the dam], [water] will come.

05.04.07

Are the Lights Out? Villainizing the Climate Change Debate

Posted in Climate Change, Economic Development, Energy, Politics at 12:36 pm by justakim

I recently watched The Great Global Warming Swindle courtesy of Google. One of the scenes that really stuck out in my mind was where they went to a clinic with a solar panel. They demonstrated that an alarm would sound if they turned on the CFL bulb and plugged in the refrigerator holding vaccines at the same time. One of the guests called environmentalists ‘anti-human’ while another said to have Africa not to touch their resources is (I assume economic) suicide. Meanwhile Greenpeace was giving out “Climate Criminal” awards in India for selling incandescent light bulbs instead of fluorescent.

Well, I guess they’re even.

Also in India, the UN is subsidizing investment in solar panels. Some solar panel vendors were having trouble selling domestically despite exporting to Germany.

“In 2003, close to 70% of people in India did not have access to electricity,” says Painuly. “Even being connected to the national grid did not ensure power because of frequent power cuts. There might be electricity when you don’t need it and then the power is not there when you do need it.”

While this plan is short-lived, there is hope that this domestic market will be sustained.

[Edit: to add more irony, Patrick Moore, the speaker who called environmentalists anti-human, turned out to be a founding member of Greenpeace.

See, I don’t even like to call it the environmental movement any more, because really it is a political activist movement, and they have become hugely influential at a global level.

Wait wait, when did the environmental movement turn into a political activist movement?]

05.02.07

The Informal Economy Protects Trees: Madagascar’s regenerating tropical dry forests

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Politics, Resources at 8:51 pm by justakim

New Scientist had this article on Madagascar forest regeneration in which cultural customs has led to the regrowth of forests in Madagascar. Satellite imagery revealed that deforestation had more of an impact in unpopulated areas, areas that were outside of the control of local communities.

While the government owns most of the land, local clans have control over its use, and permission is granted only to members. It is in areas where a local group does not have a claim that deforestation becomes a problem. These include areas that once were controlled by clans that have abandoned their territory because of a drought. The concern is that climate change will cause more migration and the loss of informal property claims, which would allow further deforestation. It would help to have more formal property claims so that ownership will be maintained if this were to occur.

In addition, there are taboo forests where no one is supposed to take anything. The punishment for breaking this rule is a cow, which is pretty expensive. It would be relatively easy to change these unspoken rules into real laws so that the forests can be protected beyond the time the locals live there.

Coincidentally, Greg at CES Blog wrote about the further meaning of my last post on the Wollemi pine and the meshing of natural and social worlds. Well, there is further enmeshment for you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to mark my territory with a few cacti.

04.25.07

Clean Air ‘Or Else’

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Politics, Pollution at 8:46 pm by justakim

The climate change debate heats up further as Schwarzenegger threatens EPA with a lawsuit if it does not respond within six months to California’s 2005 request for a Clean Air Act waiver so that it can regulate carbon emissions more aggressively. The EPA says that they were waiting for the recent Supreme Court Ruling earlier this month before tackling the California case. It was a 5-4 decision.

The closeness of the vote makes me uncertain as to the extent of this victory, if the definition of a pollutant lies closely with your political leanings. One would hope that the definition of pollution would not change depending on who the judge is.

Even if the EPA is allowed to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, it will still take time to come into effect. Just because the EPA can regulate it doesn’t mean it will, or at least anytime soon.

But at any rate, the California plan seems surprisingly harsh, even from my perspective. Build cars with a quarter less emissions by the 2009 model year, and cut greenhouse gas emissions statewide by a quarter by 2020? Both goals seem unrealistic. At least let the Automotive X Prize play out first!

On the other hand, of the auto manufacturers who claim these regulations will cause them to go bankrupt, I have to wonder if they include Toyota, Honda, and VW.

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