Monday, 7 November 2011

* Driving away from Ecotopia
Joshua Kagan, analyst with Atlas Capital, a fellow with the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Technologies
We have two main "solutions" for curbing the unintended consequences of our use of fossil fuels: first generation biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel) and electric vehicles. I am unapologetic in my belief that both are very flawed solutions. At best, they make only a marginally positive contribution; at worst, they represent a situation where the patient's medicine can actually make him sicker.

It may seem like heresy for a self-righteous Prius-driving vegetarian environmentalist to claim that electric vehicles and first generation biofuels are almost as evil as oil, but they are. Let me preface by saying that I love the idea of "zero emission" vehicles. However, we also need to ask ourselves a fundamental question: What will be the source of the electricity that fuels these vehicles? According to the Department of Energy, 50 percent of all electricity generated in the United States comes from coal, while only 10 percent is derived from renewable sources (solar, biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric, wind, etc). Thus, if we think we are actually making a meaningful impact on reducing GHG emissions from switching our transportation energy source from oil to coal, then we have read Don Quixote one too many times and absorbed his delusions of grandeur. Electric vehicles also have such arcane battery technology (the $100,000 Tesla Roadster uses laptop batteries after all) that you are more likely to see a "Back to the Future" hovercraft in your lifetime than fly to Bratislava in an EasyJet electric airplane.

Our other current "solution" to displace petroleum is first generation biofuels. In other words: ethanol and biodiesel.  Ethanol is a gasoline alternative made from the starch or sugars of plants like corn or sugarcane.  About 80 percent of the world's biofuels are ethanol and the United States is the largest market (9 billion gallons produced in 2008) followed by Brazil (7 billion gallons).  Biodiesel comprises the remaining 20 percent of biofuels. It is made from feedstocks like canola, soybeans, and palm plants. The European Union-due to its preference for diesel over gasoline engines-accounts for half of the world's biodiesel production, though the United States, Argentina, Malaysia, and Indonesia also produce significant quantities.

Now let's get to the meat and potatoes. Or in this case corn. Ethanol is an alcohol-based fuel that has been used as a fuel source since Henry Ford's Model T.  Currently, ethanol is blended into up to 10 percent of the U.S. gasoline supply, but higher percentages of ethanol-without engine modification-will cause your car to die a painful death. On a per gallon comparison to oil, ethanol carries two-thirds the amount of energy. It also cannot be transferred via pre-existing petroleum pipelines.

There are many other problems I have with corn ethanol but for the sake of brevity, I will only touch on the big one. According to the USDA, the United States will produce 12.8 billion bushels of corn in 2009, 4.2 billion of which will be used to produce corn ethanol production. That's one-third of our corn supply to produce a fuel that will displace only 5 percent of our gasoline?  All the while, according to the United Nations, 1 billion people will go to bed hungry tonight.  As long as there are people starving on this planet, fuel sources that directly compete with food supplies are morally flawed.

According to Greentech Media, 76 percent of all federal renewable energy subsidies went to corn ethanol in 2007. Under mandates directed under the Energy Independence and Security Act, 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol is required to be blended into the U.S. gasoline supply by 2015.  Assuming similar corn yield levels, we will soon be dedicating almost 50 percent of our corn crop to produce a fuel with debatable energy and carbon savings.

But hope is not lost. There are non-food crops that can be used for biofuel. The federal government has awoken to this and is heavily promoting "second generation" cellulosic biofuels. Cellulosic refers to the "non-food" component of a plant or tree-like the husk of the corn or tree trimmings-that contain lots of energy in the form of carbohydrates called polysaccharides that can, in turn, be processed into biofuels. The next installment in this series discusses what is cellulosic ethanol, why you need to know about it, why you are not wrong if you find it ironic that cutting down trees is a carbon mitigation strategy, and how algae is really the future of biofuels. 
The Dark Side of the ‘Green’ City
Andrew Ross, professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and author of “Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World’s Least Sustainable City.” 

The struggle to slow global warming will be won or lost in cities, which emit 80 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. So “greening” the city is all the rage now. But if policy makers end up focusing only on those who can afford the low-carbon technologies associated with the new environmental conscientiousness, the movement for sustainability may end up exacerbating climate change rather than ameliorating it.

While cities like Portland, Seattle and San Francisco are lauded for sustainability, the challenges faced by Phoenix, a poster child of Sunbelt sprawl, are more typical and more revealing. In 2009, Mayor Phil Gordon announced plans to make Phoenix the “greenest city” in the United States. Eyebrows were raised, and rightly so. According to the state’s leading climatologist, central Arizona is in the “bull’s eye” of climate change, warming up and drying out faster than any other region in the Northern Hemisphere. The Southwest has been on a drought watch 12 years and counting, despite outsized runoff last winter to the upper Colorado River, a major water supply for the subdivisions of the Valley of the Sun.

Across that valley lies 1,000 square miles of low-density tract housing, where few signs of greening are evident. That’s no surprise, given the economic free fall of a region that had been wholly dependent on the homebuilding industry. Property values in parts of metro Phoenix have dropped by 80 percent, and some neighborhoods are close to being declared “beyond recovery.”

In the Arizona Legislature, talk of global warming is verboten and Republican lawmakers can be heard arguing for the positive qualities of greenhouse gases. Most politicians are still praying for another housing boom on the urban fringe; they have no Plan B, least of all a low-carbon one. Mr. Gordon, a Democrat who took office in 2004, has risen to the challenge. But the vast inequalities of the metro area could blunt the impact of his sustainability plans.

Those looking for ecotopia can find pockets of it in the prosperous upland enclaves of Scottsdale, Paradise Valley and North Phoenix. Hybrid vehicles, LEED-certified custom homes with solar roofs and xeriscaped yards, which do not require irrigation, are popular here, and voter support for the preservation of open space runs high. By contrast, South Phoenix is home to 40 percent of the city’s hazardous industrial emissions and America’s dirtiest ZIP code, while the inner-ring Phoenix suburbs, as a legacy of cold-war era industries, suffer from some of the worst groundwater contamination in the nation.

Whereas uptown populations are increasingly sequestered in green showpiece zones, residents in low-lying areas who cannot afford the low-carbon lifestyle are struggling to breathe fresh air or are even trapped in cancer clusters. You can find this pattern in many American cities. The problem is that the carbon savings to be gotten out of this upscale demographic — which represents one in five American adults and is known as Lohas, an acronym for “lifestyles of health and sustainability” — can’t outweigh the commercial neglect of the other 80 percent. If we are to moderate climate change, the green wave has to lift all vessels.

Solar chargers and energy-efficient appliances are fine, but unless technological fixes take into account the needs of low-income residents, they will end up as lifestyle add-ons for the affluent. Phoenix’s fledgling light-rail system should be expanded to serve more diverse neighborhoods, and green jobs should be created in the central city, not the sprawling suburbs. Arizona has some of the best solar exposure in the world, but it allows monopolistic utilities to impose a regressive surcharge on all customers to subsidize roof-panel installation by the well-heeled ones. Instead of green modifications to master-planned communities at the urban fringe, there should be concerted “infill” investment in central city areas now dotted with vacant lots.

In a desert metropolis, the choice between hoarding and sharing has consequences for all residents. Their predecessors — the Hohokam people, irrigation farmers who subsisted for over a thousand years around a vast canal network in the Phoenix Basin — faced a similar test, and ultimately failed. The remnants of Hohokam canals and pit houses are a potent reminder of ecological collapse; no other American city sits atop such an eloquent allegory.

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