Friday, December 25, 2009

Trees For Rent!

If anyone else is looking to lower their carbon footprint this (well at this point, next) holiday season then The Living Christmas Company may spark your interest. Instead of cutting down a tree and discarding it after a two or three week stay in your living room, the guys at Living Christmas Co. will deliver a potted tree of the desired size and species to your doorstep and come back to collect it at the end of the holiday season.

According to this New York Times article, company founder and landscape architect Scott Martin was unnerved by the sight of abandoned trees lying about after Christmas in his hometown of Los Angeles. Now he and his coworkers (mostly laid-off architect friends) don Santa hats, elf ears, and reindeer antlers and deliver trees all across LA. In only two years of operation, The Living Christmas Company has increased its inventory from a handful of trial customers last year to over 400 this season, and they had hoped to finish with around 500.

The carbon savings from this service are pretty obvious: instead of uprooting carbon-sequestering trees, Martin and his colleagues allow them to keep growing, continuing their life cycle (somewhere William McDonough is cheering). In fact, families who become attached to their trees are allowed to label them and welcome them back to their homes the following year.

Don't live in LA and don't have a tree rental service in your area? No problem. Try doing what my family did last year: we bought a small 3 or 4 foot potted tree and planted it in our backyard after the holiday.

What could be a better way to honor the spirit of Christmas than by celebrating nature instead of taking a little piece of it?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Have We No Shame?

The UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen was rocked earlier today by a document known as the "Danish text." The document, apparently drafted by the so-called "circle of commitment" (including the UK, the US, and Denmark) centralizes climate power among rich countries and strips the UN of authority in future climate negotiations. Read the full text here.

John Vidal describes what is at stake in this Guardian article:

The agreement, leaked to the Guardian, is a departure from the Kyoto Protocol's principle that rich nations, which have emitted the bulk of the CO2, should take on firm and binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gases, while poorer nations were not compelled to act. The draft hands effective control of climate change finance to the World Bank; would abandon the Kyoto protocol – the only legally binding treaty that the world has on emissions reductions; and would make any money to help poor countries adapt to climate change dependent on them taking a range of actions.

Developing nations were understandably outraged by not only the implications of this measure but also the secretive fashion in which it was drafted. And in case you are wondering how passionate these countries are about fair and equitable treatment, African nations staged a walkout earlier this year at a climate conference in Barcelona citing a lack of emissions commitments from developed nations.

For me the Danish text is particularly alarming (not to mention damaging to the image and success of the conference in general), because it is such a bold departure from the collaborative essence I believed these talks to value and promote. There is too much riding on this conference to allow these blatant and ill-founded digressions to occur. The mentality embodied in this text is a direct threat to the political and environmental stability of our world. It remains to be seen how this will effect the negotiations moving forward, but if this selfishness and short-sightedness exhibited in this document is not checked at the door during the next week and a half of the climate negotiations, we are all in a hell of a lot of trouble...

Monday, November 30, 2009

Hacked CRU Emails: Smoking Gun or a Shot in the Dark?

Computer Code, via The Matrix

In case you haven't heard by now, a week ago the world's leading institutions of climate research, the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in the UK, was infiltrated by computer hackers.

Soon information from the hacked emails leaked its way onto the internet (first on The Air Vent, a blog devoted to climate skepticism) and ignited the blogosphere. Since then climate skeptics have had a field day, using certain information from the hacked correspondence between premier climate scientists as proof that climate change is an international conspiracy. This incident may have finally unleashed the tension that has been building for months as the UN Climate Change Conference approaches (it begins a week from today, on December 7th in Copenhagen, Denmark).

Opponents to climate legislation have pointed to a few key phrases and to support their claims of climate conspiracy. Juliet Eilperin identified contentious content in this Washington Post article:

In one e-mail from 1999, the center's [CRU] director, Phil Jones, alludes to one of [Michael E.] Mann's articles in the journal Nature and writes, "I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e., from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline."

The words "trick" and "hide the decline" are particularly troublesome. But Andrew Revkin of the New York Times reports further:

Dr. Mann, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, confirmed in an interview that the e-mail message was real. He said the choice of words by his colleague was poor but noted that scientists often used the word “trick” to refer to a good way to solve a problem, “and not something secret.”

The folks over at RealClimate, a blog produced by climate scientists and perhaps one of the most interesting and professional climate blogs out there, also responded to the CRU hack (excerpts below, but I highly recommend you read the full post):

More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to ‘get rid of the MWP’, no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords. The truly paranoid will put this down to the hackers also being in on the plot though.

Instead, there is a peek into how scientists actually interact and the conflicts show that the community is a far cry from the monolith that is sometimes imagined. People working constructively to improve joint publications; scientists who are friendly and agree on many of the big picture issues, disagreeing at times about details and engaging in ‘robust’ discussions; Scientists expressing frustration at the misrepresentation of their work in politicized arenas and complaining when media reports get it wrong; Scientists resenting the time they have to take out of their research to deal with over-hyped nonsense. None of this should be shocking.

Despite these explanations, it is easy to see why these comments have sparked controversy, especially for those who have been hunting for cracks in the climate edifice for years...

At a time when Climate Skeptic in Chief, Senator James Inhofe (R - OK), dubbed 2009 "The Year of the Skeptic" because of Congress's inability to pass comprehensive climate legislation and the subsequent decline in the expectation for what can be realistically achieved in Copenhagen next week (This is a separate issue entirely, profiled here), the CRU hack comes as another blow to the climate movement. Watch Inhofe's personal message to Senator Barbara Boxer (D - CA) below (Inhofe is the senior Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Boxer the senior Democrat):

Inhofe has since called for an investigation into what he calls a manipulation of climate research, saying, "The stakes in this controversy are significant, as it appears that the basis of federal programs, pending E.P.A. rulemakings, and cap-and-trade legislation was contrived and fabricated."

Finally, in this eloquent and provocative article, Mark Lynas of The Guardian explains why this incident represents a "dangerous shift in climate denial strategy" and his colleague George Marshall describes how public trust in scientists as unbiased and objective communicators has been tarnished.

Oh, and just how heated has the discussion gotten? Watch actor-environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. spar with Fox News host Stuart Varney:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Michael Pollan's Secret Remedy

In the video above, Michael Pollan makes the connection between the energy crisis, health care reform, and climate change (although he presents them as separate issues, I would argue that energy and climate can be considered two symptoms of the same problem). What is the thread that ties these issues - some of the most significant challenges of our time - together? The answer is deceptively simple: Food.

Pollan, author of the award-winning book The Omnivore's Dilemma, has made quite a name for himself investigating the complexities, hypocrisy, and corruption of the corporate food system in the United States (Click here for David Kamp's brilliant synopsis of the book from the New York Times Book Review). As the way we produce food in this country becomes more industrialized, Pollan writes, the distance our meal travels from farm to dinner plate becomes longer and more convoluted. And when we lose sight of where our food comes from, we also lose sight of the value of what we use to fuel our bodies (leading to cultural, nutritional, and environmental problems).

In light of this basic explanation of Pollan's work, I pose the following questions: Is it possible to kill three birds with one stone? Is it possible to solve the energy crisis, alleviate the burden on our health care system, and mitigate the effects of climate change by reforming the way we produce, distribute, and consume food in this country?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Complexity is No Excuse for Complacency

We've screwed up. Big time. If this Guardian article is correct, and US lawmakers have really given up hope of going to Copenhagen ready to commit to strict, binding climate change legislation, we've made a very grave mistake.

According to the article, Todd Stern, the State Department's Special Envoy for Climate Change, said, "It doesn't look like [a treaty is] on the cards for December." He offered instead that negotiators were intent on producing a blueprint in Copenhagen that would lead to a binding legal agreement "perhaps next year or as soon as possible."

I'm sorry Mr. Stern, but that is simply not good enough.

US participation at Copenhagen is the keystone of the success of the climate treaty - without bold US support, negotiations will surely fall apart. As is the case in most international negotiations, world leaders look to the United States to set the precedent for action (see how countries compare on their climate positions here). As troubling as this reality may be, it makes perfect sense. Why should other nations commit to emissions standards when the richest country, which also happens to be the world's second-largest producer of greenhouse gasses, refuses to? And as we have already witnessed during the preliminary climate meetings in Barcelona last week, leaders of developing nations are prepared to oppose any negotiations in which developed countries do not promote strict emissions standards.

Given the current US attitude, whatever comes out of Copenhagen this December will at best become another Kyoto Protocol: an international climate treaty (December 1997) that the US refused to ratify and it was thus rendered largely ineffective. Below is the map of countries who ratified the Kyoto treaty (green) and the only one who didn't (red):

To put it bluntly (from the Guardian):

The US shift resets expectations for what will be accomplished at Copenhagen, once billed by the UN as a last chance to avoid catastrophic global warming.

We're the game changers. We're the movers and the shakers. We're the country all other countries look to for guidance and direction, and through our indecision and delay we've let down the international community (not to mention slapped all of these people in the face).

Speaking in Barcelona, Artur Runge-Metzger, the European Commission's chief negotiator, said: "It is a Catch-22 situation. People are waiting for each other so it is difficult to blame anyone. [But] the US position is significant. Clearly the US has been slowing things down." It's as if world leaders are all standing around looking at one another to take the first, definitive step forward. Not only has the US demonstrated an unwillingness to step forward: we've taken a step back.

For Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's Minister for Climate and Energy and COP15 President, failure is not an option:

“If the whole world comes to Copenhagen and leaves without making the needed political agreement, then I think it’s a failure that is not just about climate. Then it’s the whole global democratic system not being able to deliver results in one of the defining challenges of our century. And that is and should not be a possibility. It’s not an option."

She eloquently and accurately frames what is at stake in the video below:

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) said the reduced role for Copenhagen could work out to the world's advantage by giving America, China, and the international community more time to co-ordinate their efforts. But as Hedegaard says, complexity is no excuse for complacency. Just because climate change is a terrifyingly complicated issue, that doesn't mean it's okay to postpone negotiations. In some ways the damage has already been done - we may very well have sacrificed a unique opportunity to form a global pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by failing to work on this issue domestically in the past year. Of course it is possible for other countries to pick up the banner and propose tough emissions standards in December, but without US support the treaty will fail to mark considerable progress.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

This Week in Climate Politics

1. The US Chamber of Commerce faces off with President Obama over climate change regulations.

2. Senate Republicans, led by James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), threaten to boycott a key committee vote on the Kerry-Boxer climate bill.

3. Other Republicans, most notably Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), recognize that "constructive Republican engagement will produce a better climate and energy bill than one produced by Democrats alone."

4. A report by Deutsche Bank’s global asset management group and Columbia University’s Earth Institute makes the connection between favorable climate policy and renewable energy investment.

5. Looking ahead: What's at stake at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

In the Battle for Hybrid-Electric Vehicles, What's Missing?

A Toyota Prius hybrid rear-ended an electric Tesla Roadster in Denmark several days ago, pushing it underneath a Volkswagen Touareg and highlighting the ongoing feud between these coveted vehicles (read the full report of the accident here).

In all seriousness though, with these energy-efficient automobiles engineers and designers are achieving two very important goals: 1. providing a vehicle that produces little or no carbon dioxide emissions (transportation-related CO2 accounts for roughly 25-30 percent of all emissions in the US) and 2. maintaining the freedom and independence inherent in personalized transportation.

As manufacturers continue to recognize the value of hybrid-electric vehicles, the transition from automobiles powered by fossil fuels to those powered by electrons will accelerate. But we need extensive infrastructure improvements to support this shift. Some states, California especially, have invested large sums of money in projects which promote electric vehicles. But when I refer to the need for infrastructure, I am not just thinking about roadside recharging stations. I am talking about something much more complex: the way we produce our electricity. What's the use in shifting from autos running on gasoline to autos running on electricity if that electricity is produced by a coal-fired power plant? Point source and not just tailpipe emissions must be factored into this equation.

If we are to succeed in this endeavor, we're going to need some help from the big dogs...

Yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden attended the opening of the new Fisker Automotive plant in Wilmington, Delaware (previously owned by GM), touting the benefits of electric vehicles. The same morning, President Barack Obama announced a $3.4 billion investment plan for the ailing US energy grid at the unveiling of Florida Power and Light’s (FPL) DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center, the largest photovoltaic facility in the country (pictured above). Watch the full speech below or read a detailed synopsis from here:

The beauty of the dream for a safe and secure renewable energy future is the amount of technological innovation and collaboration it will take to make it happen. We are becoming more and more aware that we have the technology we need to succeed and it is now up to our leaders to step up to the plate and implement policies which incentivize sustainable development. Some have already - Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Senator Barbara Boxer's (D-CA) Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act is currently under review in the Senate - but this is just the tip of the policy iceberg and there is much more work to be done. There are tremendous political obstacles to overcome (see here, here, and here).

One closing thought: If Rush Limbaugh can go gaga over low-emissions vehicles (in this case, the electric Ford Focus), we all can. Enjoy:

Friday, October 23, 2009

McKibben's Challenge: When Good Politics are Bad Science

On the eve of what he says will be the "single most widespread day of political action the planet has ever seen," Co-Founder and Director Bill McKibben has written an op-ed in the Boston Globe challenging President Obama to answer the call to action (see post below or click here for background on's International Day of Climate Action).

McKibben argues that climate change is different than any problem we have faced before, and that Obama's strategy of "working with Congress to pass something modest" simply will not work. Climate change defies conventional political paradigms:

The negotiation that really counts is not between Republicans and Democrats or industry and the greens, or even between the United States and China. The real bargaining is happening between human beings and physics and chemistry, and that’s a tough negotiation.

Mother Nature has drawn a line in the sand: 350 ppm is the highest acceptable concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There is no negotiating. There is no compromise.

In order to meet this goal, we must demand more serious climate action from our legislators and our Commander in Chief (McKibben says, "The bill making its way through Congress explicitly aims for a world with 450 parts per million carbon."). If Obama is worried he will exhaust his political capital by throwing his weight behind stricter climate legislation while dealing with health care reform and the struggling economy, he must look no further than the 4594 events planned in 175 countries this Saturday. With such widespread support from the global community, how could he afford not to promote bold policies?

McKibben concludes his piece in the Globe with the following challenge to our President:

It would risk real political capital to push for change on the scale that the science demands. Since even a politician of his talents can’t amend the laws of nature, though, let’s hope that beginning today he’s willing to take some real risks.

Obama is scheduled to give a speech on "American leadership in clean energy" at MIT in the morning to promote the Senate climate bill. Let's listen carefully to what he says and decide if he lives up to McKibben's challenge or if he reverts back to conventional political practices.

(Image above courtesy of the Boston Globe)

Sunday, October 18, 2009 International Day of Climate Action

One number will determine the fate of our planet. 350 parts per million is the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide above which the earth can no longer naturally sequester (absorb) the greenhouse gas and climate change occurs., a nonprofit organization focused on raising awareness about this essential benchmark, is creating an international movement to pressure political leaders to agree to adopt strong climate legislation at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December.

In a recent post on, Co-founder and Director Bill McKibben describes the significance of the 350 limit and also outlines the challenges we face in order to meet it:

It's as if we suddenly discovered what normal body temperature was, so we'd be able to tell when we were running a fever. In that sense, it came as a great relief.

But in every other sense, it was a pretty devastating number. For one thing, we're already past it, at 390 ppm and rising two ppm annually--that's why the Arctic is melting. For another thing, it means the work nations and individuals must do to reduce their carbon footprints is much larger, and must happen much more swiftly, than we'd believed. Hansen's data [Jim Hansen and his team of NASA researchers established the 350 metric] shows that as a planet we'd need to get off coal by 2030 in order for the planet's forests and oceans ever to bring atmospheric levels back down below 350--that's the toughest economic and political challenge the earth has ever faced.

The time to hesitate, to doubt, and to second-guess has passed. We now have a quantifiable metric for the success of our environmental efforts, and it's going to take a hell of a lot of collaboration and innovation to meet it before the effects of climate change become irreversible.

This Saturday, October 24th, is hosting a global call to action to mobilize members of the international community. So far there are 3,769 events planned in 163 countries. By demonstrating to our respective governments that there is definite support for climate legislation, we pressure them to act boldly in Copenhagen. The following video captures the essence of the event:

To find a 350 rally near you, or to start your own if there isn't one already, click here.

We have an immense amount of work to do and a desperately short amount of time to do it. If we are to ever succeed in this endeavor, we are going to need everyone's help. We need to send a clear message to our political leaders that we won't accept anything less than a commitment to carbon legislation in Copenhagen that respects the 350 ppm limit. Let's get out there on Saturday and make our voices heard.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Change Yourself, Change the World

Colin Beavan is the No Impact Man. Through his blog, book, and documentary film (trailer above), he has increased awareness of the ways in which individuals can improve their quality of life while creating positive environmental change.

In the Spring of 2009, Beavan founded the No Impact Project, inspired by his year-long, zero-carbon experiment in New York City. The mission of the No Impact Project is:

To empower citizens to make choices which better their lives and lower their environmental impact through lifestyle change, community action, and participation in environmental politics.

The idea behind this mission is that "individual behavior change leads to both cultural change and political engagement." Again the importance of personal agency in transforming national and international paradigms comes to the foreground of the climate debate.

Sure, the lifestyle he promotes is intimidating (if only at first) and presents some problems. The biggest of these obstacles is that not everyone is readily willing to sacrifice the amenities we have come to take for granted in today's society. But through his work Beavan challenges us, asking, "What if those amenities distract us from what is most important? What if we could live better, happier, and healthier lives without them?"

Starting on Sunday, October 18th, the Huffington Post is hosting the first ever No Impact Week in partnership with the No Impact Project. This initiative will give each of us the opportunity to experience some or all of the lifestyle changes Beavan and his family went through during their own experiment, and ideally it will show us that the task of living carbon-free is not so daunting after all. To get more information about No Impact Week, follow this link and to register click here.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

How Walkable is Your Neighborhood? Walk Score Has the Answer

Two of the most important concepts in the field of sustainable urban design today are dense, mixed-use development and neighborhood walkability. Dense developments are those that make the most of the available land and pack a lot of urban infrastructure into a small geographic area. Mixed-use developments are those that include buildings from diverse real estate sectors (office, retail, residential, etc.). Walkability refers to the degree to which residents can effectively and comfortably walk around their neighborhoods and also incorporates what they have access to on foot. The two ideas are related in that it is a lot easier to walk to work if your office is close to your house or apartment (the same argument can be made for grocery shopping, schools, yoga classes, and so on). The opposite of dense, mixed-use development would be a sprawling neighborhood where most uses are accessible only by car. Consider the comparison below:

One mile walk in a compact neighborhood (Seattle's Phinney Ridge, left),
and one mile walk in a sprawling neighborhood (
Bellevue, WA, right).

Even though you are walking the same distance, it is clear that you can access a lot more in a densely planned area than you can in a sprawling suburb. Not only does dense, mixed-use urban design reduce transportation-related carbon dioxide emissions, but it also improves the health and well-being of residents, strengthens local businesses, and enforces a sense of place lost to most commuters who are insulated in their shells of metal and glass (i.e. automobiles).

One company is trying to quantify this somewhat vague idea of walkability and make this information accessible to all. is a user-friendly website which rates neighborhoods on a scale from 0-100 based on their proximity to amenities (including schools, grocery stores, movie theaters, parks, libraries, pharmacies, retails outlets, etc). Simply plug in your address to the search bar and the software - integrated with Google Maps - provides a readout with your score. For example, below is the walkscore of the White House:

As you can see at the top, it scores a whopping 97 percent and is classified as a "Walkers' Paradise." Given it's location in the heart of a major metropolitan area this should come as no surprise. But let's try another example. Below is the walkscore for former President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas:

This property scores a pathetic 0 percent and is classified as "Car-Dependent." Does anyone else think this map looks really lonely?

I will be one of the first to point out that Walkscore isn't perfect: for example, some of the destinations they include in their calculations aren't truly what they claim to be (for example, Shop N' Go Inc near my dorm in Providence is not exactly what I'd call a grocery store...). But it is important to note that the company acknowledges these flaws and includes a page on their website identifying further drawbacks. The algorithm can't account for everything and no score will ever supplant actually hitting the streets and deciding for yourself, but Walkscore is nevertheless a valuable tool that will continue to be updated and improved.

The following statement is part of the company's mission:

"Our vision is for every property listing to read: Beds: 3 Baths: 2 Walk Score: 84. We want walkability and transportation costs to be a key part of choosing where to live."

I eagerly await the day that dense, mixed-use and walkable neighborhoods become highly valued and sought-after communities.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ken Burns's Newest Documentary Focuses on "America's Best Idea," National Parks

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir in Yosemite, 1903

Ken Burns, award-winning documentary filmmaker (The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball), is at it again. His newest endeavor, entitled "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," explores the complicated history of our nation's oldest landmarks. This 6-part miniseries debuts tomorrow night at 8 PM EST on PBS and runs through Friday night (one two hour segment will be broadcasted each night this week). For those of you familiar with Burns's work, "National Parks" is sure to be shot in his trademark narrative style: intellectual yet accessible, thoroughly informative, and very engaging. I for one am excited to hear his account of one of the most significant ecological struggles and achievements of our forebearers. So tune in tomorrow night at 8 PM and follow this link to the PBS website for more information.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Shame on You, BMW

Watch the recent BMW commercial above. Maybe you have seen it already - it ran during nearly every break during the US Open two weeks ago.

"Americans are always finding ways to be more responsible," the actor begins, gazing longingly at the energy efficient compact fluorescent (CLF) light bulb in his hand. He continues, "And so is BMW," as the ceiling comes alive and hundreds of bulbs illuminate to reveal the company's new line of fuel efficient automobiles (that is, if you consider 28 mpg highway to be efficient).

The clip on the television screen could not have been more incongruous with the message of the commercial. My roommate Hadley and I couldn't help but laugh at the hypocrisy each time it aired. If BMW truly practiced what it preached, it would have shot this commercial in the dimly lit studio it started out with.

With this in mind, I have a few simple questions for the folks at BMW...
  1. How are you "finding ways to be more responsible" by creating the brightest commercial in the history of bright commercials?
  2. On the topic of your "commitment to lowering emissions," does that include increasing the energy consumption of the studio you used to promote your product?
  3. Did no one in the marketing department pick up on this? Really? I mean, come on...
While questions one and two are straightforward and identify the contradictory messages of the commercial, question three is considerably more complex. The unfortunate reality is, the answer to question three is probably a "yes," but BMW expects people to buy their cars regardless. Maybe they thought no one would pick up on it (although it's kind of hard not to). The idea to take away from this is we shouldn't be letting companies get away with things like this. Does anyone else feel a little taken advantage of? It's insulting to be presented with garbage and expected to consume it. It's also more complicated in this situation because the product itself is quite luxurious, while the way it is marketed is more dubious...

This scenario relates back to something I have referred to in several previous posts: the power we have as consumers to dictate the direction of the market. I know very few (if any) of you were planning to skip down to your local BMW dealerships this weekend and pick up a new ride, but this same idea can be extrapolated across all product lines. Each time we purchase something, we endorse the way it was manufactured (and in this case, marketed). Be on the lookout for products with misleading environmental claims, an advertising strategy known as "greenwashing." The website allows concerned consumers to post and review advertisements. Commercials are rated on a scale from 1 to 5 (one being authentic and five being bogus) based on each company's honest disclosure of its environmental responsibility. Cast your vote on the BMW commercial here.

If we work together we can show companies they can't just talk the talk - they have to walk the walk too. If they are going to say they are committed to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, they have to mean it, and it is our job to hold them accountable.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

From Oil to Plastic (and Back Again?)

In a recent post on Green Inc., the environmental blog of the New York Times (feed available to the right), Matthew Wald describes how one entrepreneur has found a niche in the market for disposed plastics and is closing the production loop of this petroleum-based waste. After years of research and testing, a Washington DC based sustainable waste management company called Envion has developed a way to return plastic to its original form - crude oil (or at least something resembling oil). Wald explains the significance of this technological breakthrough:

"Entrepreneurs have been trying for years to turn low-value wastes into high-value products. Waste plastic is among the lowest in value, and gasoline or diesel fuel the highest, but machines that carry out that conversion usually consume a lot of energy and get gummed-up by leftover material that they cannot convert."

Using a new technique - heating the plastic with infrared energy - the team at Envion has made it feasible to extend the life cycle of plastics. This reduction process produces a murky, yellowish fluid which can be mixed with additional components and sold as gasoline (see image below).

This innovation has significant implications for the world of plastic consumption. As I wrote in a previous post entitled Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, disposable plastic water bottles are a considerable contributor to carbon dioxide emissions. I also referenced William McDonough's book Cradle to Cradle, in which he advises altering the traditional production process from a manufacturer --> consumer --> landfill (or cradle to grave) system to a manufacturer --> consumer --> manufacturer (or cradle to cradle) system. With the invention of its new plastics converter, Envion has done just that. As Todd Makurath, the company's director of global brand management explains, “This could be transformational in how we handle plastics."

Of course this new technology is not a perfect solution. As Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace accurately points out in this Washington Post article: "To make it big, this company needs people to waste plastic." He adds, "We need to question whether we should be using plastic at all to begin with."

Even though Davies has a valid argument about the fundamental fault of plastic consumption, it is unrealistic to disregard initiatives such as this one on a matter of principle. The fact is, even without Envion's prodding, people are discarding plastic products at an alarming rate (roughly 50 million tons of plastic waste are generated annually in the US). By taking on the task of reforming this deeply flawed and broken system, Envion provides a creative short-term solution to a very systemic problem. It is obviously not the only piece of the puzzle, but it's nevertheless an important one.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Beaten to the Punch

I have a confession to make. Several weeks ago my girlfriend Lucy brought it to my attention that this blog has some serious competition. On August 21st, she posted a link to Slate Magazine's environmental blog on my facebook profile. What is it called, you wonder? Nothing other than The Green Lantern: Illuminating Answers to Environmental Questions. In an instant, the title I had once considered to be a brilliant combination of my passion for reporting on environmental issues and my affinity for one of the Justice League's banner heroes was defiled (see images below). Instead of being proud I was left with the rotten and pervasive disappointment you feel when you discover the brain-child you have loved and nurtured is not your own, but in fact an illegitimate bastard fathered by someone you've never met.

The Green Lantern, left, and yours truly, right, Halloween 2007

Since this unfortunate reality was brought to my attention I have been struggling with how to break the news, and I have not yet decided what I'm going to do about the existing title. I am currently brainstorming alternatives, but so far nothing has inspired me. I am also considering, having fully disclosed the symmetry between this blog and Slate's GL, keeping my title as is. I will be sure to keep you updated on how I decide to resolve the commonality, and if you have any new title ideas I am open to suggestions!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

My Summer at the Urban Land Institute: Solar Cities and the Year 2050

So I figure I have been back home in Guilford long enough and I should let you know what I was doing this summer in Washington, D.C. For two months (all of June and July) I was interning at the Urban Land Institute, an urban design and real estate development nonprofit organization focused on promoting responsible land-use policies. The mission of ULI is to "provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide." ULI boasts a membership base of over 40,000 professionals (including architects, developers, planners, realtors, etc.), has district councils across the country, and offices around the globe. It was a very engaging and dynamic place to work because there were dozens of projects taking place on subjects ranging from infrastructure and affordable housing to sustainable development and economic recovery strategies. The office itself was LEED-CI (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design - Commercial Interiors) certified, reflecting ULI's commitment to the environment.

As far as my internship was concerned, I was splitting time between their Information Group (publications) and Initiatives Group (progressive urban think tank). In general, my ULI managers were great about giving me a high level of responsibility and autonomy in the office and they trusted me to respond appropriately in my work. Everyone has heard the usual intern coffee-run and copy-making horror stories, and fortunately my time at ULI could not have been more different.

I was working on two main projects throughout the course of the summer. My first task was to write up a case study for the Developments section of ULI's monthly magazine, Urban Land. Specifically, I was researching Babcock Ranch, a planned sustainable city designed by Kitson & Partners to be powered exclusively by the sun. The development will boast the world's largest photovoltaic facility (75 megawatts), a renewable technology mecca Syd Kitson, Chairman and CEO of the real estate development company, hopes will attract greentech companies and create a living laboratory for innovation. In his words, Babock Ranch will be a "place where businesses, universities, and government can test, and implement, its best ideas for the future.” Listen to Kitson talk about "Southwest Florida's City of Tomorrow" and watch an amazing computer rendered walkthrough of the development in the video embedded below (make sure to watch it in high quality!). This case study was exciting to put together because I was granted an in-depth look at a development that could very well change the composition of this country's urban fabric.

The Babcock Ranch marina and town center.

A view from the (solar panel-covered) rooftops.

Sid Kitson, Chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners, guides
us on a virtual tour of Babcock Ranch

This summer I also worked to update The City in 2050 exhibit and companion publication, the former of which debuted last October at ULI's annual Fall Meeting and Urban Land Expo in Miami. The exhibit serves as a diagnostic analysis that identifies the social, economic, and environmental challenges our world will face in the next 40 years and how urban centers can be the cradles for solutions to those problems. Last year's material was especially US-centric though, and as the exhibit will soon travel internationally (first to the Middle East in early October for Cityscape Dubai, the largest real estate development conference in the world), I was in charge of spearheading the initial research and collecting data a global audience can relate to. It was incredible to know that my efforts on this project were greatly contributing to a forward-thinking urban initiative. Listen to ULI Worldwide President Rick Rosan speak about The City in 2050 project and view images from the exhibit below:

(If you have questions about these two projects or would like some more information about them, please let me know!)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Copenhagen, Continued...

So in my post last month entitled A Portrait of the Future of Transportation Planning: Auto Lovers Beware, I referenced a section of Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic where he describes how more and more Copenhagen commuters are forgoing their cars for bicycles, and how city planning officials have aided this transition through their urban design decisions (you can read about it here if you missed it). Well, the citizens of Copenhagen are at it again, as this article reports. Officials plan to spend $47 million to establish a system of bicycling "superhighways" stretching far into the surrounding suburbs, allowing bicycle commuters faster avenues to get to work and hopefully persuading more residents to jump on a bike instead of into their automobiles. Copenhagen is proving itself to be the trend-setter when it comes to alternative transportation. Learn more about the proposed bicycling infrastructure at

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

During my stay at Lucy's place in Chocorua, New Hampshire last week (sorry for the blogging hiatus!) I picked up an old (well, May 2007) copy of the New York Times Magazine which had a very interesting and informative article about the history of bottle deposit legislation. Author Jon Mooallem reveals the economic and political complexities behind enacting this seemingly straightforward piece of legislation.

By placing value on something otherwise valueless, bottle deposits incentivize recycling and thereby promote behavior that ameliorates the burden of disposable containers on the environment:
  • According to the Pacific Institute, producing the bottles for American consumption in 2006 required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil (not including the energy for transportation) and bottling the water produced more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.
  • And according to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), states with bottle bill legislation have a beverage container recycling rate of about 60 percent, while non-deposit states achieve only about 24 percent.
Mooallem's article also addresses the daunting task of updating this 70s era policy to be more relevant, as the typical five cent deposit established 30-40 years ago equals only about one cent today. Imagine if all states implemented these programs (only eleven states currently have such systems in place), and if instead of the laughable five cent return, bottles were granted a 25 cent deposit. Who, then, would throw away their bottles? And what if plastic water bottles were also included in addition to the carbonated and alcoholic beverage containers that are accepted today? These improvements would at the very least stimulate a massive increase in recycling and at best would alter the relationship we have with our disposable containers and make us more mindful of the consequences of our waste (consider the implications of throwing something "away," and ask yourself if you can answer where that "away" is).

This article hearkened back to one of my favorite books, William McDonough's Cradle to Cradle. McDonough examines the contradictions and short-sightedness of the system of manufacturing established by the Industrial Revolution. He emphasizes the need to close the production loop from a manufacturer --> consumer --> landfill (or cradle to grave) approach, to a manufacturer --> consumer --> manufacturer (or cradle to cradle) approach. In the bottle deposit article, Mooallem cites how in the past beverage distributors would retrieve empty glass bottles for reuse (glass was too expensive at the time to simply discard), and suggests returning to a similar system which makes producers (and not consumers and municipalities) responsible for the ultimate fate of their containers. Bottling companies resist such a regression and understandably so: why start paying the collection and recycling costs they have shirked for decades? Plastic beverage containers have become so cheap to produce there is no economic incentive for corporations to assume responsibility for the waste they create.

The current system of five cent bottle deposits is outdated and needs to be reformed if there is any hope of curbing our nation's rampant rate of waste disposal. What were once dynamic pieces of legislation that gave value to the valueless and promoted recycling have become afterthoughts in the three to four decades since their inceptions. More states need to implement such legislation and those states that already have policy in place need to make sure that it adequately incentivizes the responsible disposal of containers.

I will conclude with the following tracker from CRI, which records the number of beverage cans and bottles that have been landfilled, littered, and incinerated in the US so far this year:

That's a lot of aluminum and plastic...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

For All You Alternative Transportation Naysayers Out There, This One's For You

Take a good, long look at the images above (click to enlarge).

This poster hung on the wall of the City Planning Office in of Muenster, Germany back in 2001. It depicts the amount of space needed to transport sixty people by car, bus, and bicycle. Although I think it was originally intended to operate purely on a city planning level (reducing traffic congestion), it has important implications for sustainable urbanism as well (mitigating greenhouse gas emissions). I am tempted to say more, but won't because the poster largely speaks for itself.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Portrait of the Future of Transportation Planning: Auto Lovers Beware

The questions surrounding our transportation system are some of the most intriguing and provocative questions related to the climate change dialogue. According to the Department of Transportation, vehicle-related emissions make up 28 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, so improving automobile efficiency, increasing availability of and access to public transportation, as well as making changes to our urban structure which promote walkability and curtail automobile use have very real implications for mitigating the effects of global warming.

In many ways, my pursuit of an Urban Studies Degree originated from my interest in the transportation sector. It was my study of transportation planning and some key literature - most importantly Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) - that got me thinking about how macroscopic urban development plans can influence micro-level decision making, and the tremendous potential this relationship has for positive environmental change.

One thing is for certain: our nation is addicted to oil, and along with it, our cars. But who could blame us? Our society is geared (pun intended?) to value the autonomy of automobile use, and to make matters worse we have a national urban composition that encourages this behavior. Starting after World War II, government planners established the system of interstate highways we still use today that promotes sprawl and a decentralized lifestyle. Apart from the freedom and convenience, we drive our cars as often as we do because the current urban fabric offers no viable alternative.

But how can we change our behaviors if our current system is rigged so heavily in favor of automobile use? As a society, we need to radically shift the notion that automobiles are the primary mode of transportation and create a planning paradigm where multi-modal streets (aka streets friendly to multiple uses, for example a road with a designated bus and bike lane), walkable neighborhoods, and mixed-use development become our priorities. Fortunately, officials in several major cities around the globe have taken it upon themselves to begin this transition.

As part of his PLANYC 2030 initiative, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently made a decision to promote pedestrian street access and directly undermine automobile use in Midtown Manhattan. As you may know, earlier this summer Bloomberg closed Times Square to traffic, transforming a five block section of Broadway from a chaotic bumper-to-bumper jam into a pedestrian-only plaza complete with lawn furniture (see photo above and slideshow here). In the midst of a city renowned for its traffic (and its bad drivers), this ambitious makeover of an iconic urban landmark could spell the beginning of the end for cars in the Big Apple.

A second example of city leadership favoring pedestrian priorities over those of automobiles was recently featured in this New York Times article. Four years ago, a $384 million recovery project was completed in Seoul, South Korea. This plan peeled back a major transit artery which sliced through the center of the city to reveal the Cheonggyecheon, a largely forgotten waterway that had been entombed in concrete after the Korean War. Spearheaded by then Mayor of Seoul and now President of South Korea Lee Myung-bak, this urban revitalization project brought wildlife back to the heart of the city, created a place where residents (an estimated 90,000 per day) can enjoy the green space along the banks of the stream, and restored a waterway with historical significance for South Korea. In the words of Lee In-keun, Seoul’s assistant mayor for infrastructure, “We’ve basically gone from a car-oriented city to a human-oriented city.”

The third example comes from Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic, referenced earlier. One of my favorite anecdotes from the book, Vanderbilt describes how the Traffic and Planning Office in Copenhagen devised a plan to reduce the amount of auto traffic flowing into the center of the city. Government officials decided to take action without announcing their plan to the public in a truly remarkable display of the macro-micro relationship I described above. Between 1994 and 2005, the city gradually phased out parking spaces in favor of parks and bike lanes. During this period, the total number of spaces was reduced from 14,000 to 11,500 and bike traffic surged an incredible 40 percent (today one third of commuters bike to work). Ironically, biking has become so popular in Copenhagen that the city now has a bicycle congestion problem.

These three initiatives send clear and bold statements to members of the international community, and they will hopefully lead to similar projects around the globe in the years to come. It is understandably difficult to measure how much carbon dioxide these initiatives prevent, but they are undoubtedly moving transportation in a direction that not only has less of an impact on the environment, but also improves the lives of the people living in these communities.

Our auto-centric world may very well be dissolving, city by city, block by block. We will just have to wait and see what happens…

(Note: Image 1 & 2 source: The New York Times, Image 3 source:

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On Transforming Market Trends and the National Consciousness

Last semester as we were studying for our North American Environmental History exam, a friend of mine asked me what environmentalism meant, to which I responded, "a hyper-awareness of how everything you do affects the world around you." At the time it surprised me how easily I had come up with that definition, but I guess it has been something that I have been thinking about a lot in the past year or so. In in a simple yet comprehensive way, I think this definition captures the essence of the environmental movement. In recent months, I have begun the transition from ignorance and obliviousness to deep eco-awareness, and have altered my behaviors accordingly. From phasing out the use of plastic water bottles and the consumption of meat (yes you heard me right - as shocking as it is to myself and to those who know me well, I am pretty confident I am slowly but surely becoming a vegetarian. More to come on this decision in further postings.), to taking public transportation - or even no transportation at all - I am restructuring my lifestyle to become one that has less of an impact on the natural world.

This type of awareness is vital for the long-term success of our nation today. We need to transform the national consciousness from one of eco-ignorance to eco-awareness. It is also essential that this awareness does not sit idle, but translates into action (awareness does little good if behaviors remain constant). Today, a staggering 95 percent of the scientific community believes in climate change, but how does this number translate into action? This benchmark, identifying the problem, is only half the battle. A nationwide transition to eco-awareness can be facilitated by reliable, easily accessible information that links consumers with products that reflect their desire to reduce their impact on the environment.

Fortunately, a lot of this information is available already: Detailed, minute-by-minute energy performance consoles are installed in some high tech green buildings, allowing residents to monitor (and curb) their energy use. New cars are being outfitted with computers that can calculate and display key driving statistics, among them miles per gallon. Grocery stores are now offering more information about the food we eat, including nutritional facts, country or state of origin, organic certification, etc. Even corporate mammoths are jumping on the bandwagon – Walmart is set to unveil a “sustainability index” on all of the products on its shelves, giving shoppers an unprecedented window into the production of the goods they buy. These mutually reinforcing trends – consumers becoming more aware and demanding more sustainable products, and producers releasing more information about their goods – have the tremendous potential to influence the direction of the market in the coming years.

It is important never to underestimate the power we have as consumers to demand socially and environmentally just products. One of my favorite quotes from Food, Inc., a recent documentary which reveals the complexities and corruption of our industrialized food system, explains: “When we run an item past the supermarket scanner, we’re voting for local or not, organic or not.” The same idea can be expanded to all consumer products. Every time we buy something, we endorse the system through which that product was created. So take advantage of the information that is out there, and start voting for products which deserve our support. What do you say we facilitate the nation’s transition from eco-ignorance to eco-awareness together?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The 2009 Campus Progress National Conference

So I figure it is about time I profile the conference I attended yesterday that motivated me to start this very blog. As I mentioned in my previous post, I heard about the event, as well as Campus Progress itself, from my girlfriend Lucy who had heard about it from a fellow intern. Campus Progress is the college-focused division of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank founded in 2003 by John Podesta, former White House Chief of Staff in the Clinton Administration and recent co-chair of President Obama's transition team (aka an all around baller).

The Conference was hosted at the luxurious Omni Hotel in NW Washington DC, and began with a complimentary breakfast in a massive ballroom. Lucy and I found our seats among the other 1400 some-odd college students piling into the room. The morning plenary was dominated by Campus Progress (CP) and Center for American Progress (CAP) staff welcoming us all to their event, headlined by the CP and CAP Directors, David Halperin and John Podesta, respectively. Podesta spoke extensively about his path to the national stage (it helps to go to kindergarten with a future president of the United States), his vision for the CAP (the largest and most effective progressive organization in the nation), and his close relationship with two US Presidents.

After the morning introduction, we broke out into focus groups on different topics, including health care, climate change, human rights, labor rights, and college affordability. I attended the panel on climate change (duh!) and thought it was really interesting. The speakers were great and informative, but I thought our small group discussions were most valuable. It was amazing to engage my peers in dialogue about climate issues, effective organizing methods, and the importance of social networking.

After the morning sessions, lunch was served in the ballroom, accompanied by speeches from Van Jones (Special Advisor for Green Jobs, White House Council for Environmental Quality), Kathleen Sebelius (Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services), and John Prendergast (Co-founder of the Enough Project) and Joel Madden (activist and member of Good Charlotte). Jones, an incredible and captivating public speaker, detailed the challenges presented by climate change, and how a green economy can not only be a solution to mitigating carbon dioxide emissions, but also to lifting the nation out of recession. He spoke of the importance of connecting our renewable energy centers with our population centers.

Sebelius stepped in briefly (she had just come from, and had to return shortly to Capitol Hill), to talk about the status of the current health care legislation and about how we needed to transition from an "illness system" to a "wellness system," yet she failed to explain the role reform of industrialized agricultural and the nation's current nutrition delivery system would play in this shift.

Prendergast and Madden, quite the dynamic duo, described at length how key minerals needed for the production of our electronics (cell phones, laptops, iPods, etc.) are being mined by gangs in Africa who use rape as a weapon in the war for social control. They drew comparisons to the blood diamond situation in Sierra Leone (where gangs had previously used amputation as their method for social control) and how consumer pressure caused jewelry titans to alter their buying strategies. They both stressed the amount of power we have as consumers in our ability to dictate economic markets depending on the purchasing decisions we make. They implored us to "create a critical mass of confrontation" so that the big electronics manufacturers would be forced to change their practices. When asked by a member of the audience who were the most flagrant of the rape-electronic offenders, they replied that it was an "industry-wide issue" and all were culpable.

After the lunch presentations, we broke up into focus groups again, this time covering topics from the economy and free media, to hip-hop, threat assessment, and faith. I attended the media session moderated by Amanda Terkel, CAP deputy research director and recent Bill O'Reilly ambush journalism victim (see video here). The panelists were all very interesting and came from diverse journalism backgrounds. Media has been something in the forefront of my consciousness lately - CNN is always on at my office gym where I train every day after work, so it's kind of hard NOT to pay attention. One of the panelists, who argued in favor of "hungry journalism" ( read comprehensive and contextualized journalism) as opposed to "drive-by journalism" (read minimally investigative and devoid of perspective), articulated precisely what bothers me about CNN and other commercial media outlets (in case you're wondering, they are drive-byers). They skip almost jubilantly from topic to topic, on subjects ranging from celebrity gossip, to airline crashes, to political coups without delving below the surface or delivering comprehensive coverage. One panelist also referenced an interesting quote that my mom had told me a day earlier: the role of the media is to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." All in all the session was tremendously informative, and also contributed to my desire to start this blog, itself a form of free media.

Following the afternoon session, we all returned to the ballroom to hear the "big three" presenters: Daily Show correspondent John Oliver, Speaker for the House Nancy Pelosi, and Former President Bill Clinton. Let me just pause for a moment and let that resonate and also give me time to ponder referencing John Oliver in the same sentence as the other two (ahh, what the heck!?). Oliver was incredible, and barraged the eager and attentive audience with 110% of his Daily Show charm and wit. He testified to the strengths of the British public health care system ("Just look at my teeth!") and also how much of an honor it was to work alongside John Stewart every day. He admitted how far he still has to climb on the learning curve of political satire, dissuaded us from the notion that he would start his own show like Stephen Colbert, and also revealed his concerns of deportation (his visa is set to expire on Saturday). All in all, he undoubtedly brought down the house, and who's to blame him? As he put it, we are his target demographic, after all...

Pelosi ducked in briefly - she, like Sebelius earlier in the day, had to rush back to the Capitol after her address. She spoke about the "three pillars" of American society: 1) Energy, 2) Education, and 3) Health Care. She profiled the challenges she and other members of Congress faced in the weeks to come as debate on health care reform raged on. But she wanted to clarify the public option, which has come under such scrutiny lately, explaining that the new plan would not put government between you and your doctor, but rather take insurance companies OUT.

Clinton was absolutely, positively AMAZING. An eloquent and engaging speaker, Clinton urged us to get involved in solving the problems in this "very interdependent world that is inherently unstable." He explained how being a good citizen forty or fifty years ago meant simply voting and paying your taxes, but that now it was necessary to be "public servants as private citizens" who advocate for and practice innovative and progressive behaviors in our daily lives. He described the extent to which building retrofits were the real low-hanging fruit of the climate change movement and cited the recent plan to retrofit the Empire State Building, one of the few architectural symbols of the United States, as evidence of this opportunity. All in all, he argued that if we are to ever catch up with Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and the United Kingdom (the world leaders in investment in renewable energy technology), we need to rethink how we fundamentally operate as a nation and as a society. He was not shy about detailing the challenges which lay ahead, but he also made it clear that if there were any generation equipped to handle them, it was us.

All in all, the 2009 Campus Progress National Conference will be a day I remember for a long time. The speakers, the fellow participants, the discussion groups, and the panelists were all very inspiring. Lucy and I were asked today whether we learned a lot at the conference, and although there was a considerable amount of information covered, we agreed that it was the inspiration and motivation we felt by particpating in the event that was truly invaluable. I want to ride this emotional and intellectual high as long as I can, and hopefully it will aid me in my desire to save the planet and its people for years to come.

Note: All images courtesy of Campus Progress. Full album can be found here: (