05.24.08

Unintended Consequences

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Energy, Pollution at 2:27 am by justakim

Trees

I was browsing one of those various stories about an organization buying some patch of forest for carbon sequestration purposes. It occurred to me that this was a very strange thought.

Start off with a straight market in emissions, a textbook example. In the market, each company has a different cost for reducing their pollution. The ones that have a harder time reducing pollution will pay the ones better suited to it, to pollute less in their stead. Pollution is decreased efficiently where those most able, do so. Total pollution goes down. Cool.

Why stop with companies? There are other places that can emit or remove your pollutant. Some energy sources are cleaner than others; buying from the cleaner sources should count for something. Why not trees? How does this work? You assume that the trees will remove pollutants. You assume that whoever owns the trees is going to cut them down anyway. Pay the tree owners to leave the trees up so they can continue to remove the pollutant.

It sounds great! Offsetting pollution and protecting trees at the same time. But something about this extension seems flimsy. Instead of reducing pollution among firms that are polluting, this would instead pay to make another place keep doing what it was doing naturally. So, the firms keep polluting and the trees keep breathing, they are just theoretically not going to get cut down or burned. This doesn’t strike me as a very effective strategy to reduce emissions.

What’s to stop someone from taking a step further. Surely some trees are better at carbon sequestration than others. Why not cut down one forest of less ‘efficient’ trees, and replant them with a nicely ordered tree farm that has more efficient trees? Trees that can be harvested. Perhaps one day the tree farms will be replaced with algae vats.

The entire line of thinking, of finding the cheapest cost ways to alter the projected path of carbon emissions seems misleading and ineffective, providing excuses not to reduce pollution and crowding out pollution reduction technology.

Cars

The result of unintended consequences (or ulterior motives) can be seen in the car market. Here’s a story where the Postal Service buys new alternative fuel vehicles.

The U.S. Postal Service purchased more than 30,000 ethanol-capable trucks and minivans from 1999 to 2005, making it the biggest American buyer of alternative-fuel vehicles. Gasoline consumption jumped by more than 1.5 million gallons as a result.

They replaced their Jeeps with Ford Explorers and found it hard to find the alternate fuel. Since the Explorer-based cars are less fuel efficient, consumption went up and efficiency went down. Brilliant.

A limited number of stations selling ethanol and the scarcity of vehicles burning it diminish the fuel’s appeal, according to a June 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office, the research arm of Congress. Three of the 26 ethanol- capable vehicles offered in 2007 were compact or mid-size cars, and the rest were large autos, pickups, SUVs or vans.

Fish

On an odder note, it seems that cleaning up pollution can sometimes have a negative impact on a species. The murk of pollution protected the stickleback from predation. An aggressive cleanup campaign in the 1960’s transformed Lake Washington from an open sewer into a clear lake.

But the lake’s recovery put at least one species in a pickle: the three-spine stickleback.

The small fish, formerly hidden in the murky depths, found itself swimming in plain view of predators like cutthroat trout.

Researchers now think the threat of predators spurred the fish into rapid evolution toward an older version of itself, evolutionarily speaking.

In the absence of pollution, the fish was suddenly made visible to its predators. The less protected were snapped up, and the ratio of fish with armor increased.

Interestingly, there are other clear lakes where the stickleback are not heavily armored, suggesting that something different is happening here. My thinking is this: In the presence of pollution, the fish favored other traits. With the sudden removal of pollution, there was no slow return to normal. All the fish who were caught unprepared were eaten and the ones with armor survived. It may not have been the best advantage, but it worked in a pinch.

Whatever the reason for the difference, it is interesting to see such an unusual and rapid effect due to cleanup. Things aren’t going to be quite like they used to be.

05.09.08

Lakes

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Health, Pollution at 9:15 am by justakim

There have been a slew of stories lately related to different bodies of water.

For instance, there is a report on the rapid warming of Lake Baikal, the largest lake in the world. There have been changes to the plankton communities and it is causing concern for all the other, particularly endemic, life in the lake. This includes the Baikal seal.

There are also concerns about the impacts of a soda plant planned in Tanzania. Despite its move to 22 miles away from Lake Natron, there are still worries that the facility will impact the population of lesser flamingo. 3/4 of them migrate here to breed.

In Canada, hundreds of ducks died by settling into a wastewater pond of an oil sands plant. Apparently, the ‘sound cannon’ which is supposed to scare off birds by simulating gunshots was not put into place. I have my doubts as to the effectiveness of these devices.

On Sunday, another oil sands developer, ConocoPhillips, said its workers noticed a growing number of waterfowl on a settling pond at its Surmont project, south of Syncrude, last week.

After trying unsuccessfully to scare them away with air horns, two were captured and taken to a veterinarian in Fort McMurray, Alberta, for examination.

Sinking deeper into the gutter, traces of drugs can be found in sewage water, giving a surprising amount of detail on drug use.

The Milanese are partial to a line or two of cocaine. The same goes for many drug users in London, although they dabble in heroin more than their Italian counterparts. Both cities like ecstasy at the weekends and cannabis pretty much every day. Welcome to the results from a new branch of public health: sewage epidemiology.

But wait! It gets better. All sorts of chemicals can be found in our water systems.

Think Zoloft and other mood-enhancers. Anti-depressants are some of the compounds found in treated wastewater. Scientists have also discovered trace amounts of everything from Ibuprofen to antibiotics. Dana Kolpin, of the U.S. Geological Survey, says the government is just beginning to study the effects of this drug cocktail on marine life, and we don’t know a lot yet, but the risks of not finding out are huge.

As of February, Teleosis has collected 700 lb of pharmaceuticals in 6 months…. And what is the pharmaceutical response to that?

According to the Marketplace interview:

“We think that’s a solution that’s actually looking for a problem.”

Marjorie Powell represents the industry’s main lobbying group. Powell says one, pill-flushing is a minor contributor to pharmaceuticals in the waterways. Two, she argues, consumers can safely dispose of unused drugs by throwing them in the garbage in tightly sealed containers.

“Therefore, we think that focusing on creating a take-back program is establishing an enormous level of effort for very little return.”

05.05.08

Ecogamer

Posted in Conservation, Fun and Games, Pollution, Resources at 11:31 am by justakim

Someone is compiling a list of video games with environmental themes. I forgive them for not putting in ChronoTrigger yet.

05.04.08

The Value of Vultures

Posted in Conservation, Health, Pollution at 1:30 pm by justakim

The Asian vultures, the oriental white-backed, long-billed, and slender-billed vultures, are declining rapidly in numbers, by at least 97% each since 1992.

The painkiller diclofenac is used on humans and animals and are poisonous to vultures, When ingested, it shuts down their livers. While India has banned their production, diclofenac is still used in that country through imports and applying the human formulation. It does not take much; just 1% of contaminated carcasses can drive these species to extinction. About 10% of carcasses were found to be contaminated.

These species may be on the verge of extinction within the decade One may think that the loss of a few scavengers will make little difference, but these birds provide a vital environmental service.

The birds are critical to the ecosystem and for human health in India because they are the primary means of getting rid of animal carcasses in the nation of some 1.12 billion people, added Andrew Cunningham, who worked on the study.

Their demise is has led to a sharp increase in dead animals around villages and towns, which has boosted the numbers of disease-carrying rats and rabid stray dogs, he said.

This role is so important that there has been convergent evolution, producing unrelated Old World and New World vultures.

Is it worth saving these guys?

“Ironically, even though it is farmers using diclofenac that are killing the birds, when we say we are working on vultures, farmers thank us and ask us to bring them back,” says Cunningham.

Sounds like a yes to me.

Among other efforts, the Peregrine Fund is monitoring their locations.
Bombay Natural History Society

05.01.08

Polluter Pays At Its Best

Posted in Conservation, Pollution at 7:14 pm by justakim

An Egyptian cargo company is paying a record fine for falsifying their records about dumping oil sludge straight into the ocean instead of incinerating it. Basically, they took a hose to bypass the system and siphon the leftover sludge overboard instead of burning it. There was evidence that at least in the initial ship, this was being done. What they’re really being caught on is for lying about it. Repetitively identical records is not a good sign!

The company has agreed to pay a $7.25 million fine, the largest penalty in the Northwest for dumping at sea, prosecutors said. The deal will go before a federal judge in Portland today for approval. The company also agreed to an elaborate environmental compliance plan that requires outside audits of its ships and a court-appointed monitor to track its operations.

About $2 million would go into an Oregon environmental fund that supports wildlife habitat projects.

The shipping company had the choice between making a settlement or not being able to do business in the US. Ever.

Using the money for other environmental projects is a nice touch. The Coast Guard is very effective in polluter-pays policy. If one is caught letting oil or other pollutants into the Coast Guard’s domain, the fines for not coming forward immediately far outweigh taking responsibility. And we’re talking per diem here. And you’re not done fixing your mess until the boys in blue say so.

Here’s a surprisingly nice piece on Coast Guard operations, centered around Katrina

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

04.20.08

Energy at the Crossroads: Global perspectives and uncertainties by Vaclav Smil

Posted in Book, Energy, Pollution, Resources at 11:50 pm by justakim

Save yourself some pain–skip if you can.

In the first two chapters, Smil lays out a whole laundry list of details about energy, how much there is, how efficient it is, how much we use, comparisons, etc. Unfortunately, the textualized spreadsheet goes on for quite some time. It would have been a faster, more pleasant read if the words were omitted and the numbers were left behind.

In the third chapter, Smil demonstrates with a spectacular array of examples that forecasting is wrong unless it just accidentally got it right. Instead of making poor guesses at what might happen and acting on it, we should decide what will happen, and aim for it.

4 and 5 are more details about nonrenewable and renewable energies respectively. He takes the approach of considering overall potentials and constraints, which sadly is not often brought up. For instance, it’s going to take a whole LOT of land for biomass to meet current fuel demands.

Chapter 6 was almost pleasant. Energy efficiency will help us a lot, but not enough. Take care of your planet, you’re stuck with it. Invest in renewables but don’t buy into all the hype. Get real: we won’t last forever on coal.

This book has… grown on me somewhat since I started reading it. There is valuable information in this book, it’s just hard to access, and possibly not worth the trouble to find it. I am adverse to skipping anything and a slow reader, so your mileage may vary here. I have my doubts however, that anyone will read this book unless it’s necessary that they do so. That analogy about not seeing the forest for the trees does not quite fit here. Forget the trees–it’s more like a note was taken down every time two trees’ branches crossed.

I also found out that the speed limit was lowered to 55mph during the Carter administration to conserve energy… That explains a lot.

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.

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