Environment & the World

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Biking in Beijing

Filed under: China, Transportation — Cathy @ 3:50 pm

Having now spent a few weeks in Beijing, I’ve learned that its public transportation system leaves something to be desired.  In the United States, I am mainly familiar with the mass transit systems in Washington DC and New York, so when I arrived in Beijing I assumed that I would primarily be using the subway to get around.  Beijing’s subway is actually extremely nice; in terms of cleanliness, I rate it higher than New York.  For an American, it’s also quite cheap (less than a dollar to get to any stop in the city).  And, unlike in Washington DC, it costs the same amount to get anywhere within the inner city; DC’s subway charges different fares depending on how far you go, which can be unfair to poor people who have a long commute to their work.  The problem is that the subway system just isn’t that big.  Tsinghua University, where I live, is very close to a subway stop, but I found that I often had to walk for half an hour once I got off of the subway to get to my final destination.

As for buses, Beijing’s bus system is much more extensive and, unlike in most cities I’ve visited in the United States, people really do use the buses.  On the weekends (the only times I’ve traveled by bus), they can be jam packed and you are lucky if you have a square foot to stand on, let alone finding a seat.  But, because there are no designated bus lanes, the buses run into the same traffic jams as cars and taxis.  And there are a lot of traffic jams in Beijing.

I’ve decided now that biking is the best way to get around in Beijing.  Factoring in the time it takes to walk from a subway stop to my final destination, biking is sometimes just as fast as the subway.  And, although I’ve never timed it, I suspect that biking may compare favorably to buses as well.  I’ve certainly enjoyed speeding past long traffic jams on my bike.  Even though Beijing’s traffic is just as crazy as New York’s (if not worse), Beijing is actually more bike-friendly than New York or Washington DC in my opinion.  This is largely because most major roads have designated lanes for bicycles.  Also, there are so many people who get around by bike that cars are very used to looking out for cyclists.  At intersections, there are usually at least 5 cyclists crossing the street at any given time, so the cars basically have to stop for them.  Although I am aware of the statistic that China has 600 biking fatalities a day, I still feel safer biking through Beijing than I would in New York.  (And I suspect that a large factor in that statistic is the fact that nobody wears a helmet.  Even the other foreigners I’ve seen have given up on helmets because they look so out of place.  I’m still wearing mine, so I get plenty of weird looks.)

Even though I prefer biking to other means of transportation, I am probably in the minority.  According to a professor I know who has lived here for the last five years, the number of cars has increased noticeably in that amount of time; cars are a big status symbol here.  This is obviously a serious problem, both in terms of air pollution and traffic jams.  It may soon reach the point where owning a car is just as inconvenient as biking everywhere (actually, it seems to me that it has already reached that point – I would never want to own a car here).  But for the majority of people, it seems that the “status symbol” factor is still overwhelming the inconvenience and air pollution factor.

So clearly Beijing has some serious transportation issues.  In my next post, I’ll try to write more of my thoughts for how Beijing might be able to manage some of these problems.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Greetings from Beijing

Filed under: China — Cathy @ 10:38 am

Greetings from Beijing!  I moved to Beijing 2 weeks ago and will be living here for a year, so many of my future posts will probably be related to my impressions of China and my work here.

My initial thought is that, in terms of environmental issues, China is in many ways similar to the United States, but on a larger scale.  Here there are so many people that the problems really can’t be overlooked.  The United States may emit 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but global warming is not a high priority for a large majority of people.  Here in Beijing we have daily reminders of the energy problem just from the terrible air pollution.  For example, Beijing is surrounded to the north and west by mountains, but yesterday was the first day that the air was clean enough that I was able to see any of them!  But they are actually quite close (about 25 km, I think).  Today they were again concealed by smog.

In the United States, many of our environmental problems have been made invisible to the middle and upper classes, because so many of our most blatant environmental problems have either been shipped overseas (many manufacturing jobs), located in poor neighborhoods (coal plants, etc), or are in remote areas (oil drilling).  Here in Beijing, even living the life of a middle-upper class university student, environmental issues stare me in the face.  Certain courtyards smell like sewage.  It’s a noteworthy event if the sky is blue instead of yellow/brown.  A recent issue of an English-language newspaper has cover stories about severe water shortages in Beijing and a town where children have serious lead poisoning problems as a result of industrial contamination.  And it is virtually impossible to go anywhere at any time of day without getting stuck in a traffic jam.  Nevertheless, as in the United States, people seem to display the universal capability to get used to things.  I am hoping to find out more about the nascent environmental movement in China and see if it faces the same apathy and skepticism often found in the United States.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Toxic Waste Shipment Pollutes Ivory Coast

Filed under: Environmental Justice, Politics, Waste — amirj @ 8:25 pm

Slate has a great article by Jeremy Kahn about the politics of international toxic waste transport in light of a recent shipment of toxic waste that was improperly dumped in the Ivory Coast and resulted in the hospitalization of tens of thousands of locals.

“On Aug. 19, a Panamanian-flagged ship owned by a Greek firm and chartered by a leading Dutch commodities broker docked in Abidjan, the country’s commercial capital. The ship unloaded between 400 tons and 600 tons of toxic petrochemical waste, which was summarily dumped in open-air sites around the city and poured into the sewer system.”

Kahn points out that this incident is merely one example of a broader scheme in which developed countries export their toxic waste to developing nations. While the export is often conducted under the condition that the developing nations will treat this waste, or properly recycle it, the waste often goes untreated. As a result, many citizens of developing nations literally become sick just by drinking water or breathing air that is polluted by trash from economically developed nations. Kahn discusses the Basel Convention–an international “treaty governing the shipment of hazardous waste,” and the role of the U.S.A. in this international waste trading regime. Kahn rightly laments the fact that despite the gravity of events like the one that just occured on the Ivory Coast, Western media mostly fails to report on these issues. Not that this blog is a significant media source, but here’s our little contribution to spreading the word.  

9/26/06 Update: This story is starting to gain some international attention. Eight people have died in the Ivory Coast as a likely result of exposure to the toxic waste, and things are starting to heat up. From the International Herald Tribune:

“Hospitals in Abidjan have provided free consultations to 80,000 people, many of them complaining of nausea, headaches and breathing difficulties caused by the fumes… [The Dutch Company that commissioned the shipment] Trafigura’s director Claude Dauphin and another executive were jailed in Ivory Coast last week and charged with poisoning and breaking toxic waste laws after they went to the country to distribute medicines and assist authorities with an investigation.”

Greenpeace has blockaded the ship, which is now docking in Estonia, that dumped the toxic chemicals in the Ivory Coast. From Greenpeace News:

“At 17.00 local time, the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise moved slowly towards the poison ship. Bearing a banner warning that “Toxic Trade Kills” the Arctic Sunrise dropped anchor at 18.00 local time, some 100 metres away, effectively barring the ship from leaving port. Our demands: Estonia should impound the ship. The European Commission, acting for the European Union, should ensure that the ship is held until a full criminal investigation is carried out and those responsible for the illegal waste export, and ensuing deaths, are brought to justice. … The fact that the toxic waste was dumped openly on the streets of a city is shocking enough. The fact that the waste was delivered by a ship chartered by Trafigura LTD (controlled by Dutch firm Trafigura Beheer BV), who claimed they thought the waste would be ‘properly treated’ in a poor African nation raises serious questions about why they sent it to Africa.”

Friday, September 22, 2006

Beckett Talks Climate Change at UN General Assembly

Filed under: Climate Change, Politics — amirj @ 1:40 pm

British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Margaret Beckett devoted a good chunk of her speech at the 61st UN General Assembly to climate change, urging the world to cooperate in addressing it. Here’s an excerpt from her speech.

“If we don’t act on climate change, we risk undermining the very basis of the prosperity and security we are seeking to achieve. That is why we must recognise that talk of having either a successful economy or a stable climate is a false choice; we must work together to find paths for economic growth which protect our climate.

The truth is that we already have much of the technology we need to move to a low carbon economy. But we must now deploy it very much more rapidly. What we do in the next ten years will count the most.

It is the developed, rich world which bears a large responsibility for the present level of greenhouse gas emissions. But it is the poorest in our global commuinity — those least able to bear it — who will bear the brunt of climate insecurity. We all need to do more–but the rich world should continue to lead the effort, applying the principle of common but differentiated responsibility which must continue to be our guide.”

You can read her entire speech. The part about climate change begins on page five, paragraph 17. 

Branson and CGI Investments

Filed under: Climate Change, Corporate Sustainability, Energy — amirj @ 9:42 am

Money talks. So when billionaire Richard Branson announced yesterday an estimated three billion dollar investment in renewable energy initiatives over the next ten years people listened. It was nice to see that when Neil Cavuto suggested that some people believe climate change is still debatable (so why invest so much money in it?) Branson just wasn’t having it. I guess if people can’t be convinced by the scientists, maybe they’ll listen to the billionaires. That in and of itself might be a little irksome, though.

Anyway, back to the investment. You can trust that Branson’s being a savvy businessman about this. The three billion dollars will come from the proceeds of Virgin Group’s airline and train operations, and this money will be reinvested into a new Virgin company: Virgin Fuels. So shareholders and such need not fret–the money won’t wander far.

Virgin Fuels, which will initially focus on bio-fuels, will however share the wealth in the form of international investments. To kick-start the giving bonanza, Virgin Fuels gets $400 million over the next three years, some of which will go to their first investment in Cilion, Inc.–a California based company that will build seven new, cheaper, greener ethanol plants by 2009.

More bits and pieces about the Branson/Virgin investment at the Clinton Global Initiative website.
Bill Clinton has also been making headlines this week thanks, in part, to his 2006 Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting. The summit brings together a global elite of big names, spanning dozens of political heavyweights, celebrities, business people, academics, philanthropists, and others. The goal is to discuss four progressive global challenges and to secure commitments from these people to invest in projects that will alleviate these problems.

Energy and Climate Change is one of the four areas. You can read some of the issues they’re addressing and also watch taped webcasts of the sessions. One session about Cities of the Future features the Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, William McDonough, and Jamie Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba. Indeed the discussion will be interesting, and these people have plenty of great stuff to say.

So far the Clinton Global Initiative has secured $5.7 billion in commitments to invest in projects related to the four focus areas: Energy and Climate, Global Health, Poverty Alleviation, and Mitigating Religious and Ethnic Conflict. On the one hand, it’s great to see high-profile discussions of these issues, and it’s equally great to know that so much money will translate into efforts to address these problems. On the other hand, one wonders if these megaconferences do more to raise the profile of these global leaders than change the realities on the ground. Furthermore, while I do not doubt that close to $6 billion in investments will make some real differences, one has to wonder what it means when so much of these investments and progressive global leadership and change is couched in the language of business deals and/or relegated to the privilege and whims of a global elite of leaders.

What this sort of project also accomplishes is to strengthen the current patterns of hegemony, to reinforce social hierarchies. So, we might be able to go carbon neutral thanks to corporate leadership without doing too much to change the social structure of our societies. At the same time, one must also wonder how self-defeating these projects might be in other realms, such as mitigating religious and ethnic conflict, when these conflicts might be the very product of the unequal social structures that currently exist.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

25 x ’25 Renewable Energy Plan Gets a Boost

Filed under: Energy, Politics — amirj @ 3:00 pm

Taking a step closer to actualizing the vision that Al Gore outlined in his recent NYU speech, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Agriculture Committee approved today the 25 x ’25 resolution. This resolution expresses the sense of Congress that the U.S. should produce 25% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. The resolution boasts bi-partisan sponsorship, and will now go to the House for a vote.

H.Con.Res. 424 states,

“Expressing the sense of Congress that it is the goal of the United States that, not later than January 1, 2025, the agricultural, forestry, and working land of the United States should provide from renewable resources not less than 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States and continue to produce safe, abundant, and affordable food, feed, and fiber.”

There’s some pretty good language in the resolution. It goes on to recognize that these resources can help ensure a sustainable energy system, that this initiative would improve national security and provide affordable energy for all citizens, that it would create economic growth and develop new jobs, and that it would reduce our dependence on imported energy.

The 25 x ’25 resolution has broad support. The Apollo Alliance, Environmental Defense, Ford Motors, General Motors, the NRDC and Union of Concerned Scientists are among dozens of national organizations, foundations, and corporations that have endorsed the plan. The 25 x ’25 coalition even has a website with lots of information, press, a full list of supporters, and updates on implementing the vision.

Of course, the resolution isn’t perfect. As it stands now, it’s nonbinding and lacks funding appropriations to achieve this goal. Nor does it include any penalties, benchmarks, or any sort of plan to implement the 25 x ’25 goals. All this doesn’t mean it’s useless, though. Sometimes it’s good to have a goal work towards; and if the U.S. Congress throws its weight behind this goal, it gets the real sense that this is the direction towards which the country will move. Finally.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Al Gore Emphasizes Solutions at NYU Speech

Filed under: Climate Change — amirj @ 10:06 pm

On the heels of a hot summer of heatwaves, massive forest fires, drought, and the Inconvenient Truth movie/book tour/lecture series campaign to educate the American public about the perils of global warming, Al Gore delivered a new kind of speech yesterday at NYU. Practically ditching the science, the graphs, charts, figures, and images that prove the existence and consequences of anthropogenic global warming; Gore expounded upon solutions.

This time, there was little to none of the stuff most people find depressing about climate change lectures. In fact, Gore’s speech was a hopeful one. Referencing the United States’ “can do” spirit and its legacy of leading the world in innovation, the tone of the speech was neither scathing, disappointed, nor judgmental. Instead, it almost leads one to naturally assume that the U.S. will indeed rise to this challenge by taking the essential steps to prevent climate change from spiraling into a global disaster. Take the following excerpt, for example.

“After all, many Americans are tired of borrowing huge amounts of money from China to buy huge amounts of oil from the Persian Gulf to make huge amounts of pollution that destroys the planet’s climate. Increasingly, Americans believe that we have to change every part of that pattern.”

In this paragraph, as in the rest of the speech, Gore links a diversity of socioeconomic and political issues to climate change. In this example, national nuisances like the U.S. foreign debt, reliance on imported oil, and air pollution all connect to the climate change issue in a clear way. Suddenly, we’re just as eager to rid ourselves of the threat of climate change as we are with regard to foreign debt, air pollution, and our reliance on foreign oil.

Any skeptics who believe we lack solutions to address this crisis or who believe the solutions are out of reach would be conviced otherwise after reading Gore’s lecture. Few to none of the ideas he proposes are new. He does, however, present in a palatable way a rather exhaustive lists of solutions spanning alternative auto fuels, renewable energy, improved building standards, carbon sequestration, support for international treaties, emissions cap and trade, and more decentralized energy grids among others. Beyond highlighting our ability to address climate change effectively, Gore makes doing so sound attractive. In true Apollo style, Gore argues that implementing these solutions would promote our energy and economic security, create jobs in the U.S., and encourage innovation.

Combine this speech with rumors that Bush may soon strengthen his climate policy and with an inspiring look at the many U.S. achievements in this arena thus far without national leadership on the issue (most notably and recently the new California law to reduce CO2 emissions) and one might begin to believe that the tide really is a’changin’.

Think Progress has the full text of Gore’s speech.

More coverage at Grist.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Tufts’ New, Green Dorm

Filed under: College/University, Energy, Water — amirj @ 6:36 am

            Kudos to Tufts University for opening its first environmentally friendly dorm last week. Sophia Gordon Hall (SGH), which houses 126 students, will apply for Silver LEEDS certification. SGH boasts an array of positive features. It was built with a solar thermal system to heat some of its water and with photovoltaics to generate some of its own electricity (23.8Kw at peak). To offset greenhouse gas emissions from SGH’s regular grid electricity consumption, Tufts has purchased Green-e wind certificates. The building was also built with 10% recycled/renewable materials and with less harmful chemical products. Other sustainable design elements include building material to reflect summer heat and retain heat in the winter, and a storm-water management system. Tufts believes that by implementing all of these elements into the design SGH will require 30% less energy and water than it otherwise would.

            On top of all that, Tufts has launched a great, informative website about SGH that details all of the dorm’s environmentally friendly features. This is part of an initiative to educate its residents and others about sustainable design. Residents are able to see real-time energy and water consumption data for the dorm as well as how much energy its solar array produces daily. For those of us not fortunate enough to live in the dorm, we can access the data online.

            Sophia Gordon Hall continues what is perhaps a trend among colleges and universities to implement sustainable building practices into their new dorms and halls. In the fall of 2004 Cornell University opened two dorms that also received LEEDS certification. I was fortunate enough to live in one of these dorms last year. Besides the motion-sensor timed lights and the constant visual reminder of the green roofs that grew all kinds of grasses and plants it felt like any other dorm. Cornell is undertaking a massive West Campus Initiative to build several new upperclassmen dorms, as well as a new student union. From the Cornell University News Service, “Not all upcoming building projects will seek LEED certification, he [Steve Beyers, the services team leader for Cornell’s Environmental Compliance Office] noted, because doing so incurs extra fees to prepare the proper documentation. However, many building projects will incorporate sustainable design features.”

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

BMW to Introduce Hydrogen Fuel Technology

Filed under: Energy, Transportation — amirj @ 7:49 pm

BMW announced yesterday that it will introduce hydrogen fuel technology in its 7-Series car in April 2007. Since hydrogen fueling stations are not yet readily available, the car will actually have two separate fuel tanks to enable it switch between regular gasoline and hydrogen. More is available from this Reuters article, including:

“A spokesman said the car would be leased to selected customers rather than sold because of its high price. Leasing rates would be similar to those for a top-end BMW 760LI with a full-service package.”

The Green Car Congress has also picked up on this story. They provide more interesting information about the car, and there’s a lively debate with a healthy dose of skepticism going on there about the car and the technology. From the GCC:

“BMW Group has given preference to the use of liquid hydrogen as the appropriate source of energy for the automobile…

The cruising range in the hydrogen mode is more than 125 miles (200 km), with another 300 miles (500 km) available in the gasoline mode.”

GCC also explains some of the challenges to using liquid hydrogen (as opposed to gas) as a fuel source. I hope I summarize this correctly, but go over there for the details. For one, hydrogen exists in a liquid state at extremely cold temperatures (around -250°C–you won’t want to be dripping any of that stuff at the fuelling station!). Therefore, the car’s fuel tank must be able to keep the liquid hydrogen very well insulated or else it will boil off. When it boils the vapor pressure in the fuel tank increases, and as the pressure increases some vapor must be let off. So essentially as the fuel sits unused over time you’ll eventually start losing it. In fact, GCC writes,

“The period in which a half-full hydrogen tank will be emptied completely in a controlled process is about 9 days, and even then the car is still able to cover approximately 12 miles (20 kilometers) in the hydrogen mode with the fuel remaining in the tank.” 

So beyond the obvious lack of availability of liquid hydrogen fueling stations, another drawback is the loss of fuel. Also, while the hydrogen engine won’t emit carbon mono-/dioxide, it will still emit nitrogen oxides.

Before launching into any further analysis or criticism, I think it’s worth applauding BMW for taking the first step to realize an environmental goal. The Bush administration and the environmental community have largely hailed a hydrogen economy as THE long-term energy solution, and while much thought has gone into that decision some healthy debate and reality checks won’t hurt.

First of all, the advantages of using hydrogen as an alternative to greenhouse gas emitting fuels would be nullified if our source of hydrogen is fossil fuels. Other lingering issues, some of which may be insignificant or easily overcome: pressure release of hydrogen gas from fuel tanks (loss of purchased fuel), hydrogen flammability, problems with water vapor tail pipe emissions (for example, deposition of water vapor onto roads in the winter could create nightmare driving; water vapor as a greenhouse gas/effects of pumping water vapor into the atmosphere on a large scale)?

All this aside, we still have several good years (decades?) to wait until we really start seeing a robust hydrogen economy. Aside from proving that a hydrogen-fueled car can be a reality, the BMW push does little to make it available on a large scale. The price of the car is prohibitively high, and the car will clearly be marketed to high-end customers. In this sense, the BMW initiative probably won’t do for hydrogen what the Prius did for hybrids.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Implications of Oil Below $64

Filed under: Economics, Oil — amirj @ 6:15 pm

After a week of plummeting oil prices, the same thing happened today. The markets closed with oil below $64 per gallon at a six month low. This is not terribly surprising. The hurricane season has been quite calm, despite threatening words this summer Iran and Venezuela haven’t cut off oil supplies, the summer vacation/driving season is coming to a close, etc. While the news of this short-term slump is at odds with the first post I made to this blog, in which I predicted that oil prices will continue to rise into the future, I stand by my contention. Since global economies are so heavily reliant on petroleum products to generate energy and to fuel transportation (among other uses) and since we live in a capitalist regime that is predicated upon economic growth, we can only expect that future growth and dwindling supplies of oil will cause prices to climb in the future. Inasmuch as this is true, this sort of logic drives environmentalists crazy because they believe that economic growth should not be linked so heavily to oil consumption for all of its harmful effects on climate change, air pollution, etc. Others take their concerns about oil a step further–dismayed by the very notion that progress equals economic growth and also concerned about the power dynamics of the global oil economy which facilitate megacorporate concentrations of power and turning a blind eye to human rights violations in oil-exporting nations.

 Even though most consumers will be celebrating lower gas prices, this dip has some negative consequences as well. For one, it helps us forget, or, at least, rationalize the status quo. It gives us a little reason to stop complaining about rising gas prices, and it quells our yearning for the days when oil sold for $30 per barrel and we could fill up a tank of gas at around $1 per gallon just a few short years ago. Unfortunately, what we lose along with this are the anger and frustration at high gas prices, and with it, the impetus to do something about it. In terms of impetus, the weeks that brought higher and higher oil prices also ushered in heightened interest in renewable energy, carpooling, cheaper mass transit, and interest in fuel efficient and hybrid cars. These are the times when people most readily accept the argument that environmental protection and sustainable development make economic sense and when political impetus to attain energy independence coincides with environmental interests. The convulted irony of oil economics is that these rare eclipes, by definition, occur when oil prices are high and households, corporations, and governments are pinching pennies due to higher gas and other energy expenses. So when the will finally exists, the money to realize it lacks more than ever.

Now that oil is at a six-month low, by virtue of our culture’s short-sightedness, many people will breath a sigh of relief and feel empowered to maintain the status quo of our energy consumption habits. The allure of a few saved dollars has a funny way of assauging concerns over climate change, air pollution, and global power structures. Nevertheless, these environmental and social concerns still stand legitimate and insufficiently addressed. It’s a vicious cycle of sorts that I hope we can break free of. I just hope we can find the political will and strength to overcome the inertial comfort of temporarily lower oil prices to do something before we find ourselves helpless in a world of irreprable damage and paralyzed by unafforable energy costs.

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