The Footprint Of Our Data-Driven Lives

New-Dark-Age-1050-5927870a2b206657f6b87133d3f776c4.jpgThanks to John Harris, writing in the Guardian, for “Our phones and gadgets are now endangering the planet,” an opinion essay that doubles as a review of the book to the right:

It was just another moment in this long, increasingly strange summer. I was on a train home from Paddington station, and the carriage’s air-conditioning was just about fighting off the heat outside. Most people seemed to be staring at their phones – in many cases, they were trying to stream a World Cup match, as the 4G signal came and went, and Great Western Railway’s onboard wifi proved to be maddeningly erratic. The trebly chatter of headphone leakage was constant. And thousands of miles and a few time zones away in Loudoun County, Virginia, one of the world’s largest concentrations of computing power was playing its part in keeping everything I saw ticking over, as data from around the world passed back and forth from its vast buildings.

Most of us communicate with this small and wealthy corner of the US every day. Thanks to a combination of factors – its proximity to Washington DC, competitive electricity prices, and its low susceptibility to natural disasters – the county is the home of data centres used by about 3,000 tech companies: huge agglomerations of circuitry, cables and cooling systems that sit in corners of the world most of us rarely see, but that are now at the core of how we live. About 70% of the world’s online traffic is reckoned to pass through Loudoun County. Continue reading

Helping Plants Make Their Own Nitrogen

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Poplar trees at the Snoqualmie River in Washington State. The river is fed mostly by snow melt and is extremely low in nitrogen, yet the trees thrive thanks to endophytes. Sharon Doty

Thanks to our friends at the salt, and National Public Radio (USA) for this:

Microbial Magic Could Help Slash Your Dinner’s Carbon Footprint

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Endophytes are microbes that live inside plants — the ones tagged with a fluorescent dye in this image are found in poplars. The microbes gather nitrogen from the air, turning it into a form plants can use, a process called nitrogen fixation. Researchers are looking at how these microbes could be used to help crops like rice and corn make their own fertilizer.
Sam Scharffenberger

If you’re interested in sustainability, you’ve probably thought about how to reduce your carbon footprint, from how you fuel your car to how you heat your home. But what about carbon emissions from growing the food you eat?

Most of the crops in the United States are grown using chemical fertilizer – a lot of it: American farmers used over 24 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer in 2011. And making nitrogen fertilizer requires fossil fuels like natural gas or coal. Continue reading

Decades Of Awareness, But Not Enough Action

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Thirty years ago, James Hansen, a scientist at nasa, issued a warning about the dangers of climate change. The predictions he and other scientists made at the time have proved spectacularly accurate. Photograph by Charles Ommanney / The Washington Post / Getty

I have always been appropriately alarmed by Elizabeth Kolbert’s articles and her comment pieces in the New Yorker. This brief comment below is alarming enough, but with a twist. Science has done its job, but we as citizens, business people, civic leaders have not acted with sufficient urgency considering the clear scientific evidence.

IMG_7014It may be true that scientists have not been the most compelling communicators, but that is no excuse for our inaction. As someone who left a scientific career developing a theoretical framework for entrepreneurial conservation in favor of opportunities to apply those ideas in the real world, I am in the same boat as a climate scientist. I look around today, after decades of best effort and I conclude that we have not accomplished enough in our practice. In our efforts to offer alternatives to messier forms of tourism, we have not accomplished enough. That is discouraging. But discouragement is not an option. We must find a better way to communicate that generates the required action for a less messy planet:

Listening to James Hansen on Climate Change, Thirty Years Ago and Now

On June 23, 1988—a blisteringly hot day in Washington, D.C.—James Hansen told a Senate committee that “the greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now.” At the time, Hansen was the head of nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and though his testimony was certainly not the first official warning about the “greenhouse effect”—a report to President Lyndon Johnson, in 1965, predicted “measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate” in the decades to follow—it was the first to receive national news coverage. The Times ran the story at the top of the front page, with a graph showing a long-term rise in average global temperatures. Continue reading

Audubon’s Reasonable Request

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Northern Harrier. Photo: Diana Whiting/Audubon Photography Awards

A message from friends:

NEW YORK — “Audubon is committed to protecting birds and the places they need — and the greatest threat to birds and people is climate change,” said David Yarnold (@david_yarnold), president and CEO of National Audubon Society.

“While some may be holding out for a perfect solution to climate change, we know that it will take an array of approaches to reduce planet-warming pollution.

“The Carbon Capture Coalition is pursuing many avenues—including a market-driven approach that has deep bipartisan support. Audubon is excited to be at the table with a range of voices exploring policy options that accelerate a reduction in carbon pollution,” Yarnold added.

The Carbon Capture Coalition is led by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and the Great Plains Institute. With over 50 members ranging from the energy industry, agriculture, labor unions and conservation leaders, the coalition is non-partisan and solutions-oriented. Recently, the coalition successfully advocated for improving and extending the carbon capture tax credit, known as the 45Q tax credit, led by Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), John Barrasso (R-WY), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). Continue reading

Renewables In Our Midst

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When it opens in 2020, Facebook’s new data center in Odense, Denmark will channel its waste heat to warm nearly 7,000 homes. FACEBOOK

Thanks to Nicola Jones and colleagues at Yale Environment 360 for this:

Waste Heat: Innovators Turn to an Overlooked Renewable Resource

Nearly three-quarters of all the energy produced by humanity is squandered as waste heat. Now, large businesses, high-tech operations such as data centers, and governments are exploring innovative technologies to capture and reuse this vast renewable energy source.

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Heat radiates from the Grangemouth Oil Refinery in Scotland. About 70 percent of all the energy produced globally gets discarded as waste heat. CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/GETTY IMAGES

When you think of Facebook and “hot air,” a stream of pointless online chatter might be what comes to mind. But the company will soon be putting its literal hot air — the waste heat pumped out by one of its data centers — to good environmental use. That center, in Odense, Denmark, plans to channel its waste heat to warm nearly 7,000 homes when it opens in 2020.

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Data centers, such as Google’s facility in Dalles, Oregon, generate huge amounts of waste heat. GOOGLE

Waste heat is everywhere. Every time an engine runs, a machine clunks away, or any work is done by anything, heat is generated. That’s a law of thermodynamics. More often than not, that heat gets thrown away, dribbling out into the atmosphere. The scale of this invisible garbage is huge: About 70 percent of all the energy produced by humanity gets chucked as waste heat. Continue reading

Just When Ford Started Being Great Again, The Signals Indicated A Shift To Reverse

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Cristina Spanò

Ford1I have been based back in the Americas for fifteen months. For the previous couple years I had been driving Ford’s best-selling vehicle in India –a vehicle with the three letters Eco in its name. This was the company that built the cars I grew up in, but had long since stopped believing in. That “Eco” car got me starting to believe again.

Then the election of 2016 happened. Holding aside all its other dangers, the election result has elevated ecological danger to perhaps its greatest level in my lifetime. A government elected on the slippery Make America Great Again slogan has given cover to companies seeing profit in rollbacks of erstwhile impressive ecological commitments. And the slope down which we all are now sliding seems to be getting steeper. An op-ed by Jamie Lincoln Kitman, the New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine, illuminates the slip and the slope:

Why Is a ‘Green’ Car Company Pivoting Back to S.U.V.s?

Ford2Two years ago, the Ford Motor Company boasted about having been named Interbrand’s Best Global Green Brand and said it was committed to working to meet stricter fuel economy standards. Last week, after lobbying with the rest of the industry to strike down those standards, Ford announced that it would largely abandon the American passenger car market in favor of building more trucks, crossovers and S.U.V.s. Continue reading

Lyft Is Now Carbon Neutral

Image © Medium

We’ve already expressed our natural preference for Lyft, although Uber is still necessary and useful in certain countries outside the US. But now there is yet another reason to support the underdog, after they announced a few days ago that their rides were from then on (i.e., now) carbon neutral, through the funding of emission mitigation and capture, reforestation projects, and renewable energy programs.

Continue reading

Global Problems, Forests & Solutions

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Thomas E. Lovejoy a pioneer in the use of economics to conserve forests and other ecosystems globally is joined by John Reid, who has worked in the Amazon since 1965, in presenting a case for:

How Big Forests Solve Global Problems

Sit on a log by the Madidi River in Bolivia at dusk and you can hear what an Amazon forest should sound like. The music includes red howler monkeys, breathy thumps from the mutum jungle fowl, droning cicadas, eerie calls locals attribute to deadly bushmaster vipers and the unhinged excitement of elusive titi monkeys. Around your feet, the beach is crisscrossed by jaguar tracks and those of the pony-size tapir, a shy beast that, if you keep quiet, will saunter out of the forest and swim across the river.

This is what scientists call an “intact forest landscape.” It’s a swath of at least 500 square kilometers (about 193 square miles, equal to 70,000 soccer fields) of unbroken forest. Because of their size, these areas have maintained all their native plant and animal life and biophysical processes. These forests still adorn parts of our planet’s tropical midsection, notably the Amazon, Congo Basin and the island of New Guinea. And they form a northern belt, the boreal forests of Canada, Russia, Alaska and Scandinavia. Continue reading

Carbon Footprint Self-Analysis

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Thanks to Livia Albeck-Ripka and the New York Times for this

How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

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What Is a Carbon Footprint?

Climate change can be overwhelming. The science is complex, and when it comes to future impacts, there are still a lot of unknowns. While real solutions will require action on a global scale, there are choices you can make in your day-to-day life to lessen your personal impact on the environment. This guide will walk you through some of them.

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DRIVE LESS

A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions that come from the production, use and end-of-life of a product or service. It includes carbon dioxide — the gas most commonly emitted by humans — and others, including methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases, which trap gas in the atmosphere, causing global warming. Usually, the bulk of an individual’s carbon footprint will come from transportation, housing and food.

You can start the process by calculating your carbon footprint here. You will need to know the following: Continue reading

The Big Carbon Footprint For Mining Virtual Currency

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A computer server farm in Iceland, dedicated to mining Bitcoin. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

Thanks to the New York Times for this story on how much electricity is required to create virtual currencies:

SAN FRANCISCO — Creating a new Bitcoin requires electricity. A lot of it.

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An employee at a Bitmain facility in Inner Mongolia, one of the biggest Bitcoin farms in the world. Credit Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

In the virtual currency world this creation process is called “mining.” There is no physical digging, since Bitcoins are purely digital. But the computer power needed to create each digital token consumes at least as much electricity as the average American household burns through in two years, according to figures from Morgan Stanley and Alex de Vries, an economist who tracks energy use in the industry.

The total network of computers plugged into the Bitcoin network consumes as much energy each day as some medium-size countries — which country depends on whose estimates you believe. And the network supporting Ethereum, the second-most valuable virtual currency, gobbles up another country’s worth of electricity each day. Continue reading

Environmental Impact From Microwave Ovens

totalenvironmentThree scientists at the University of Manchester have shared their findings in a journal whose title we had not been aware of, but are glad to know is looking out for us all:

1-s2.0-S0048969717X00259-cov150hScience of the Total Environment is an international journal for publication of original research on the total environment, which includes the atmospherehydrospherebiospherelithosphere, and anthroposphere.

Since most readers of our pages likely use this type of oven on a daily basis, it seems worthy of a moment to read their findings as abstracted below:

Environmental assessment of microwaves and the effect of European energy efficiency and waste management legislation

Authored by Alejandro Gallego-Schmid, Joan Manuel F.Mendoza & Adisa Azapagic

130 M microwaves in the EU consume 9.4 TWh of electricity annually.

First LCA for microwaves to estimate the environmental effects of EU regulation

Standby Regulation will reduce impacts by 4–9% by 2020; WEEE Directive by ~ 0.3%.

Decarbonisation of electricity will reduce most impacts by 6–24% by 2020.

Eco-design regulation for microwaves should be developed to reduce resource use.

More than 130 million microwaves are affected by European Union (EU) legislation which is aimed at reducing the consumption of electricity in the standby mode (‘Standby Regulation’) and at more sustainable management of end-of-life electrical and electronic waste (‘WEEE Directive’). Continue reading

Divesting Scales With Leadership

Screen Shot 2018-01-12 at 5.25.34 AMThanks to the Guardian for giving Bill McKibben the space to put the New York City decision in perspective:

Over the years, the capital of the fight against climate change has been Kyoto, or Paris – that’s where the symbolic political agreements to try and curb the earth’s greenhouse gas emissions have been negotiated and signed. But now, New York City vaulted to leadership in the battle.

On Wednesday, its leaders, at a press conference in a neighborhood damaged over five years ago by Hurricane Sandy, announced that the city was divesting its massive pension fund from fossil fuels, and added for good measure that they were suing the five biggest oil companies for damages. Our planet’s most important city was now at war with its richest industry. And overnight, the battle to save the planet shifted from largely political to largely financial. Continue reading

Vote Early, Vote Often

Voting open for crowdsourced climate change innovations

MIT Climate CoLab allows the public to vote for promising crowdsourced ideas on how to tackle climate change.

Annalyn Bachmann | MIT Climate CoLab

MIT-CCl-02_0.jpgThis is better than democracy, and as important as any citizen science initiative we know of, so we hope you will contribute:

MIT Climate CoLab has opened a public voting period to select the top innovative ideas on how to tackle climate change. A project of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, Climate CoLab is an online platform where over 90,000 community members from around the world work together to develop and select proposals to help solve this massive, complex issue. Continue reading

Trees, Carbon-Neutral Energy, & Ambiguous Definitions

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Thanks to Fred Pearce over at Yale Environment360 for this puzzler:

Carbon Loophole: Why Is Wood Burning Counted as Green Energy?

A loophole in carbon-accounting rules is spurring a boom in burning wood pellets in European power plants. The result has been a surge in logging, particularly in the U.S. South, and new doubts about whether Europe can meet its commitments under the Paris accord. Continue reading

Heroes Come And Go, Climate Change Marches On

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For all their tough-on-carbon rhetoric, Governor Jerry Brown, of California, and other leaders are ignoring a key component of the fight against global warming. Photograph by Lukas Schulze / Getty

The song Kermit used to sing was cute. Until it was no longer cute. Saying it is not easy is a vast understatement in an era when bombast reigns. Bill McKibben, who we probably highlight more in these pages than any other single author, reminds us of this every time we read what he has to say. If you can call it a luxury, McKibben is more free to speak truth to power than a normally standup politician, who sometimes will take a position that pure activists are correct to oppose. Case in point, here is an erstwhile leader who pure activists will not allow to have it both ways:

Why Governor Jerry Brown Was Booed at the Bonn Climate Summit

Spare a little pity for Jerry Brown. The California governor has been standing up admirably to Donald Trump on many issues, but especially on climate change—even threatening to launch scientific satellites to replace the ones that Washington wants to ground. This week, he’s in Bonn, Germany, at the global climate talks, spearheading the drive to show that America’s states and cities have not forsaken the promises made last year in Paris. On Saturday, barely a minute into his big prime-time talk, Brown was rewarded for his pains with booing. He was visibly startled when demonstrators interrupted his speech and began chanting, “Keep it in the ground!” Continue reading

Carbon Engineering, Bill Gates, And Long-Shot Answers To Climate Change

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Carbon-dioxide removal could be a trillion-dollar enterprise, because it not only slows the rise in CO2 but reverses it. Photo-Illustration by Thomas Albdorf for The New Yorker

If you read the caption to the photo above, and then the first sentence of the story it headlines, you could come away with the thrilling sense that there is an entrepreneurial opportunity associated with climate change. There is something reassuring about the fact that Bill Gates has made some bets in this realm. Pasted below is also the last paragraph of the story. We recommend reading the whole long-form reporting that goes in between:

Can Carbon-Dioxide Removal Save the World?

CO2 could soon reach levels that, it’s widely agreed, will lead to catastrophe.

Biogenics In The 21st Century

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A wood stove burns with pellet fuel. Photo © U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr through a CC BY 2.0 license

Thanks to Cool Green Science for this reminder about the use of wood and related biomass as fuel throughout human history, and its implications for today’s climate change challenges:

As long as the Clean Power Plan is still in place, electric utilities are looking for ways to clean up their carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere and prevent global changes in climate. Some utilities are switching to natural gas, which emits lower amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) per unit of energy generated. However, natural gas is not without its own problems.

Humans used firewood for thousands of years, during a period with little change in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. So some utilities are looking toward the burning of wood, also known as biomass or biogenic energy, to generate power. This is an interesting “throw back” to an earlier time when firewood was used widely for heat, light, and early industrial processes. But, there is a reason why we switched to coal, which has greater energy content per unit weight.

It is natural to think that burning firewood would have a minor effect on atmospheric CO2. Continue reading

Environmental Leadership Born Of Cold-Eyed Pragmatism

Dale Ross, the mayor of Georgetown, Texas, says the decision to source all the town’s energy from renewable resources was based in cold-eyed pragmatism. Photograph: Katie Hayes Luke for the Guardian

This is what America’s eco city of the future looks like

Georgetown mayor Dale Ross is ‘a good little Republican’ – but ever since his city weaned itself off fossil fuels, he has become a hero to environmentalists Continue reading

Britain’s Windfalls

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Thanks to the Guardian for this update on the current state of the art of wind power, and it is good to see Britain in the lead:

Wild is the wind: the resource that could power the world

Wind isn’t just mysterious, destructive and exhilarating – capturing just 2% of it would solve the planet’s energy needs at a stroke. And as the windiest country in Europe, Britain is at the forefront of this green revolution Continue reading