Tag Archives: climate

Environmental Assumptions

Big busi­ness is envir­on­ment­ally destruct­ive: a wide­spread and almost unques­tioned assump­tion. A false assump­tion, accord­ing to Jared Dia­mond, not­ing that profits often arise from green ini­ti­at­ives and envir­on­ment­al con­cern is of inher­ent import­ance to many large cor­por­a­tions.

The story is told through the lens of Wal-Mart’s trans­port and pack­aging ini­ti­at­ives, Coca-Cola’s con­cern “with prob­lems of water scarcity, energy, cli­mate change and agri­cul­ture” and Chevron’s policy of rigour­ous envir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tion (of which any­one who has read Diamond’s Col­lapse, will be acutely aware):

The embrace of envir­on­ment­al con­cerns by chief exec­ut­ives has accel­er­ated recently for sev­er­al reas­ons. Lower con­sump­tion of envir­on­ment­al resources saves money in the short run. Main­tain­ing sus­tain­able resource levels and not pol­lut­ing saves money in the long run. And a clean image — one attained by, say, avoid­ing oil spills and oth­er envir­on­ment­al dis­asters — reduces cri­ti­cism from employ­ees, con­sumers and gov­ern­ment.

It’s not just big busi­ness we make assump­tions about: as Tim Har­ford points out after read­ing Prashant Vaze’s The Eco­nom­ic­al Envir­on­ment­al­ist, some typ­ic­al envir­on­ment­al decisions are some­times based on incor­rect assump­tions:

Envir­on­ment­al­ists have been slow to real­ise that the fash­ion­able eco-life­style is riddled with con­tra­dic­tions. The one that par­tic­u­larly exas­per­ates me is the “food miles” obses­sion, whereby we eschew toma­toes from Spain and roses flown in from Kenya, in favour of loc­al products grown in a heated green­house with a far great­er car­bon foot­print. Oth­er less-than-obvi­ous truths are: that pork and chick­en have sub­stan­tially lower car­bon foot­prints than beef and lamb (yes, even organ­ic beef and lamb); that milk and cheese also have a sub­stan­tial foot­print; that dish­wash­ers are typ­ic­ally more effi­cient than wash­ing dishes by hand; and that eco-friendly wash­ing powders may be dis­tinctly eco-unfriendly because they tend to tempt people to use hot­ter washes.

Jared Dia­mond piece via Mar­gin­al Revolu­tion

Environmental Effects of the Shipping Industry

I don’t usu­ally give much cre­dence to Daily Mail articles—given the paper’s edit­or­i­al stance and propensity for junk food news—but I made an excep­tion for one penned by Fred Pearce, New Sci­ent­ist’s envir­on­ment­al con­sult­ant.

Still not com­pletely free from sen­sa­tion­al­ism, Pearce looks at the pol­lu­tion emit­ted by the ship­ping industry, par­tic­u­larly some of the world’s largest con­tain­er ships.

Because of their colossal engines, each as heavy as a small ship, these super-ves­sels use as much fuel as small power sta­tions.

But, unlike power sta­tions or cars, they can burn the cheapest, filthi­est, high-sul­phur fuel [bunker fuel]: the thick residues left behind in refiner­ies after the light­er liquids have been taken. The stuff nobody on land is allowed to use. […]

Thanks to the IMO’s rules, the largest ships can each emit as much as 5,000 tons of sul­phur in a year – the same as 50 mil­lion typ­ic­al cars, each emit­ting an aver­age of 100 grams of sul­phur a year.

With an estim­ated 800 mil­lion cars driv­ing around the plan­et, that means 16 super-ships can emit as much sul­phur as the world fleet of cars.

Before I come to any per­son­al con­clu­sions on this, I would like to see fig­ures on the envir­on­ment­al effects of the feas­ible altern­at­ives. After all, the scale of these con­tain­er ships is stag­ger­ing:

The only ships men­tioned by name in the art­icle, the Emma Mærsk and the sev­en oth­er Maersk PS-Class ships, are all the equal largest con­tain­er ships in the world. All are a few feet shy of quarter a mile long, have gross ton­nage of over 150,000 and can hold upwards of 11,000 ship­ping con­tain­ers. I find these fig­ures hard to com­pre­hend.

via The Browser

How Congestion Pricing and Traffic Jams Help the Environment

When us lay­men think of ways to solve traffic con­ges­tion we typ­ic­ally think of two ways: con­ges­tion pri­cing to force those who are most price sens­it­ive off the roads and on to pub­lic trans­port (which should be improved using the funds gained through said pri­cing), and adding capa­city to the roads. But do these solu­tions really help: do con­ges­tion charges and addi­tion­al capa­city really affect over­all driv­ing habits and are they bene­fi­cial for the envir­on­ment (do they increase pub­lic trans­port use)?

Traffic jams can actu­ally be envir­on­ment­ally bene­fi­cial if they turn sub­ways, buses, car pools, bicycles and walk­ing into more-attract­ive options. […] The tra­di­tion­al solu­tion to traffic con­ges­tion is to cre­ate addi­tion­al road capa­city. But pro­jects like those almost always end up mak­ing the ori­gin­al prob­lem worse because they gen­er­ate what trans­port­a­tion plan­ners call “induced traffic”: every mile of new, open road­way encour­ages exist­ing users to make more car trips, lures drivers away from oth­er routes and tempts trans­it riders to return to their auto­mo­biles, with the even­tu­al res­ult that the new roads become at least as clogged as the old roads. […]

In 1999, the Aus­trali­an research­ers Peter New­man and Jeff Ken­worthy con­cluded that “there is no guar­an­tee that con­ges­tion pri­cing will sim­ul­tan­eously improve con­ges­tion and sus­tain­ab­il­ity,” and men­tioned sev­er­al ways in which con­ges­tion pri­cing can defy the expect­a­tions of its sup­port­ers, among them by caus­ing motor­ists to “drive exactly as they always have if the con­ges­tion charge is covered by their firms (e.g., a major­ity of London’s peak-hour com­muters have com­pany cars and perks).”

Some have inter­preted Dav­id Owen’s column to be anti-con­ges­tion char­ging: I don’t believe he sug­gests this, primar­ily because of his final para­graph, describ­ing what he believes is the most effect­ive con­ges­tion man­age­ment pro­gram:

A truly effect­ive traffic pro­gram for any dense city would impose high fees for all auto­mobile access and pub­lic park­ing while also gradu­ally elim­in­at­ing auto­mobile lanes (thereby redu­cing total car traffic volume without elim­in­at­ing the envir­on­ment­ally bene­fi­cial bur­den of driver frus­tra­tion and inef­fi­ciency) and increas­ing the capa­city and effi­ciency of pub­lic trans­it.

It isn’t the solu­tion; it’s part of the solu­tion.

Computing and the Climate

In what appears to be a bit of an advert­ise­ment for climateprediction.net–a dis­trib­uted com­put­ing pro­ject to test the accur­acy of vari­ous com­puter mod­els of cli­mate change–The Eco­nom­ist looks at the impact of com­put­ing on the envir­on­ment; spe­cific­ally car­bon diox­ide emis­sions.

Accord­ing to a report pub­lished by the Cli­mate Group, a think-tank based in Lon­don, com­puters, print­ers, mobile phones and the wid­gets that accom­pany them account for the emis­sion of 830m tonnes of car­bon diox­ide around the world in 2007. That is about 2% of the estim­ated total of emis­sions from human activ­ity. And that is the same as the avi­ation industry’s con­tri­bu­tion. Accord­ing to the report, about a quarter of the emis­sions in ques­tion are gen­er­ated by the man­u­fac­ture of com­puters and so forth. The rest come from their use.

via More Intel­li­gent Life

The Most Important Century

The next 50 years will bring tech­no­lo­gic­al, social and geo­pol­it­ic­al change great­er than we can ima­gine, says Astro­nomer Roy­al Mar­tin Rees, but the emer­ging prob­lems of pop­u­la­tion growth and cli­mate change make this cen­tury argu­ably the most import­ant in Earth’s 4.5 bil­lion year his­tory, even from the per­spect­ive of an astro­nomer.

It’s some­times wrongly ima­gined that astro­nomers, con­tem­plat­ing timespans meas­ured in bil­lions, must be serenely uncon­cerned about next year, next week and tomor­row. But a “cos­mic per­spect­ive” actu­ally strengthens my own con­cerns about the here and now.

Ever since Dar­win, we’ve been famil­i­ar with the stu­pendous timespans of the evol­u­tion­ary past. But most people still some­how think we humans are neces­sar­ily the cul­min­a­tion of the evol­u­tion­ary tree. No astro­nomer could believe this.

Our sun formed 4.5bn years ago, but it’s got 6bn more before the fuel runs out. And the expand­ing uni­verse will con­tin­ue – per­haps for ever – becom­ing ever colder, ever emp­ti­er. As Woody Allen said, “Etern­ity is very long, espe­cially towards the end”. Any creatures who wit­ness the sun’s demise, here on Earth or far bey­ond, won’t be human. They will be entit­ies as dif­fer­ent from us as we are from a bug.

But even in this “con­cer­tinaed” timeline – extend­ing mil­lions of cen­tur­ies into the future, as well as into the past – this cen­tury is spe­cial. It’s the first in our planet’s his­tory where one spe­cies – ours – has Earth’s future in its hands, and could jeop­ard­ise not only itself, but life’s immense poten­tial.

As Richard says (via), the art­icle “seems to be a trun­cated ver­sion of his book Our Final Cen­tury”.