I hope you enjoy the Happy Eco News Top 5 for this week.
Guest Blog Post by Melissa V.
When I think about my journey to sustainability awareness, the word “teacher” springs forth. Perhaps it’s the same for you? When you look back, do you remember an elementary school teacher introducing you to “do not litter” campaigns? Or did a science teacher teach you about atoms, molecules, energy, and waves?
Perhaps it was a personal life experience outdoors that made you curious about the world. Did Nature show you that, like the trees, you have a trunk and limbs? Think of your teachers… family, friends, authors, professors, pastors, priests, rabbis, and songwriters, for instance.
Do you remember specific moments of guidance that helped you see something differently? As we learn, we start connecting the dots, which can lead us in really interesting directions. For me, some of these connections prompted me to get involved with environmental issues… [read more]
The Happy Eco News – Weekly Top 5:
After 3,000 years, the endangered Tasmanian Devil, recently returned to the Australian continental mainland. Formerly found only on the Australian island state of Tasmania, the marsupials have had a rough go since the arrival of settlers. Named “devils” after their dramatic vocalizations and aggressiveness to others when competing for food or in territorial disputes, they are the largest carnivorous marsupials on the planet and are found nowhere else on earth. With estimates of their historic numbers close to a million animals on Tasmania alone, the early settlers viewed them both as a (false) threat to livestock and as a source of food. In 1830, a bounty was placed upon them and they were hunted mercilessly until 1941 when they were officially protected by the Australian government. Their numbers bounced back until the late 1990s, with their population reaching approximately 200,000 animals before disaster struck. A contagious and deadly cancer called devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) caused their population to again drop, and ultimately be listed as an endangered species. The population has stabilized and is now estimated to be between 20,000 and 50,000 individuals. Conservation efforts are focussed on isolated “island” populations that do not have any cases of DFTD, and the relocation of Tasmanian Devils to mainland Australia is a part of this program.
Why it’s important: Establishing a viable population of healthy devils is critically important to the survival of the species. Physical isolation from infected populations is easily done in a location like the Barrington Tops National Park, with a body of water between it and the infected groups. As a national park, it is already protected and has limited vehicle and human traffic. It is similar in climate and geography to Tasmania and it is likely the creatures would have thrived there for millennia before dingoes were introduced, approximately 4,000 years ago. The reestablishment in this region will eventually comprise more than 60 animals over the next 2 years and the hope is to establish a breeding population there. But while it’s important to save the species, it is also important for the health and natural ecology of the Australian mainland. Introduced species have taken a huge toll on wild species there. Dingoes, a type of wild dog, are thought to have been introduced by Sulawesi voyagers around 4,000 years ago. With no competition, they fed upon and out-competed Tasmanian Devils for food and habitat, eventually rendering them extinct on the Australian mainland. Other introduced species have been equally destructive; feral cats, foxes, rabbits, and even toads wreak destruction on a habitat that never evolved to support them.
It is expected that the reintroduction of an apex predator species such as the Tasmanian Devil will help to balance the natural ecosystem and slow the demise of the wild native creatures that live there.
Is the same thing that happened to coal is now happening to natural gas? Remember back in 2019 when solar became cheaper than coal? The fact that it became cheaper to design, engineer, procure, and build a new solar plant than to simply maintain an existing coal plant changed the coal industry forever, forcing it into a not-so-slow decline. The entire industry, once considered to be too big and too established to fail, is now in process of going by the wayside. Even the vocal and ineffective support of the president of the United States has failed to stop its inevitable demise. Now, the same thing is predicted to happen to the natural gas industry. A recent study by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) indicates that the low cost of solar is beginning to have a very serious effect on other fossil fuel type power generation industries, like gas-fired power plants.
According to RMI, in 2018, there was already 45 percent more clean energy than gas capacity in development queues. Since then, projects that were already in development have subsequently completed, meaning that slightly more gas capacity has come online than wind, solar, and storage. But in recent years, while the clean energy queue has more than doubled, the gas queue has been cut in half, with over $30 billion worth of gas projects canceled or otherwise abandoned. Currently, there are over 10 times the capacity of wind, solar, and storage projects slated for construction compared with new gas projects!
Why it’s important: The natural gas industry often touts its product as a clean alternative to coal-powered generation. This marketing spin is accurate – on the surface. But when you look a little deeper you soon realize that it’s just as dirty, maybe more considering the active deception. It is true that natural gas wells do not require the same type of destructive methods as are common in coal, such as mountain top removal, but the industry commonly uses fracking to access underground deposits of gas. The term fracking refers to how the rock is fractured apart by the practice of injecting a high-pressure mixture of chemicals and water into the rock where the gas deposits are located. The fractured area releases the gas, allowing it to be captured and removed. The practice is controversial because of the damage to the local environment. Oftentimes fracking is permitted in rural areas where family farms have operated for generations and the practice can be particularly egregious in its impact on agricultural operations. Contamination of clean well water by the introduction of natural gas or fracking chemicals is well documented and can force local family farms to spend large amounts of money looking for new sources of uncontaminated water, legal action, or sometimes simply packing up and moving away, their land now worthless. In areas prone to drought, the huge demands fracking places on a precious water resource directly impacts the amount that is available to farmers, crops, and livestock. But if that wasn’t bad enough, there is mounting evidence that the act of fracturing the earth’s crust causes an increased incidence of seismic activity. Earthquakes now occur in regions that never had any history of this type of activity – until the fracking rigs arrived.
But wait, there’s more. That clean energy that is achieved from burning the gas itself? While it is true that natural gas when burned emits less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, it is primarily made up of methane. Recent science has shown that methane is 86 to 105 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at disrupting the climate. Methane slip is the dirty little secret that the natural gas industry doesn’t want you to know about. It occurs every time the gas is transferred from one location to another – a small amount is released to the atmosphere. Well to pipe? Slippage. Pipe to compressor? Slippage. Compressor to road, rail, or ship transport? Slippage. Every time it is moved, a small amount is released. Unfortunately, it is probably only a few pennies worth of product so there is no economic incentive for the industry to even attempt to prevent the losses. Lastly, when a well no longer produces enough gas to be economically viable, it is usually not completely empty – many wells leak methane for decades after they are decommissioned, further contributing to the unaccounted environmental cost of the fossil-based fuel.
Just like all the other false-economy type products that do not count the real cost to society of their products, it appears that the natural gas industry will too soon fall victim to the rise of renewables, thankfully soon.
“Your kettle, your washing machine, your cooker, your heating, your plug-in electric vehicle, the whole lot of them will get their juice cleanly and without guilt, from the breezes that blow around these islands,” Boris Johnson pledged at the U.K. Conservative party conference last month. It is an about-face in a lot of respects, especially for the man who has never voted in favour of climate action, has taken campaign contributions from prominent anti-climate groups, and publicly stated his disbelief of climate science in op-ed pieces. While Johnson now talks about the importance of an energy transition, his voting record suggests otherwise. Regardless, it wouldn’t be the first time a politician has flip-flopped on an issue and likely it won’t be the last.
Why it’s important: The UK has historically been a global financial capital with huge influence internationally. The world follows their lead in many respects, and when the highest elected official in one of the greatest democracies ever, makes a huge statement like that, others take notice. This type of influence is extremely important in international policy. With the UN climate conference COP26 postponed until December 2021, it is vitally important that leading governments like the UK show their climate leadership in advance. With Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent announcement that his country would transition to carbon neutrality by 2060, and other, smaller economies with even more aggressive timelines, the competition is fierce. But why would they bother, especially at risk of alienating their campaign donors or international business partners? It’s obviously more than just bragging rights, there must be more at stake. Unlike the cold war era, it would be wonderful to see an “arms race” type of movement amongst superpower type countries toward sustainability and post-carbon economies. It is not beyond the realm of possibility, especially with the increasing movement toward carbon trading via a free market. This new trading economy is driven by caps or taxes on carbon by industry and nations and there will soon be ample financial reason to compete in the space. Countries that have invested heavily in clean technology such as wind power will be positioned best to not only export their technology but also to benefit from carbon credits and trading.
For average citizens of the UK who may vote for Boris Johnson someday, the idea of dominating financial markets or developing foreign technology export markets probably doesn’t seem so interesting. I’d reckon that clean air to breathe, a lower cost to heat their homes, cheaper operation of their cars, good jobs, and a strong economic future are probably far more important. I’d also surmise that Mr. Johnson and his advisors understand this as well and know that come election time, there will be strong demand from constituents for tangible climate accountability. When the public speaks, generally politicians listen, and this time it is good news for the environment.
Imagine a modern, sleek building made of concrete, that is self-heating in the winter and self-cooling in the summer. Heating the space where we live or work is responsible for a third of all the energy consumed in Europe, and currently, 75% of this is produced by burning fossil fuels. The energy transition is underway, but in order for it to be successful, there needs to be an economical way to store the energy created by renewable generation for longer time periods. Maybe even most importantly, it needs to be inexpensive. Researchers at the Polytechnic University of Turin and from the Advanced Energy Technology Institute of the Italian National Research Center, think they have found a way to make this reality. Certain salts, when mixed with water are known to release heat energy. Now, what if you create a type of cement that contains these salts, that may be activated with water and “turned off” by drying it? If this cement was strong and stable, buildings could be self-heating, and roads and paths would stay ice and snow-free throughout the winter, at a cost not much more than conventional concrete construction.
Why it’s important: There is a growing need for energy independence in the world, but the sun only shines in the day, and solar provides its peak power producing intensity during summer months. The energy must be stored for later use, this is a given. With an energy storage medium contained in a form like concrete, the thermal energy created on a hot summer day could be stored until it is needed during dark winter months. The energy produced by solar panels on a rooftop, or in a community could be stored not only in the form of electricity to power lights and appliances but also to directly create heat – right in the locations where it is needed. Most experts agree that a distributed grid with a combination of clean energy generation from wind and solar, combined with energy storage is the way forward for the low cost of development, construction, maintenance, and reliability.
Eat local. It seems easy enough to say but in the book The 100-Mile Diet, Canadian writers Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon recount their trials, tribulations, and restrictions trying to do just that. According to the book, it was not always easy. Certainly buying a locally produced item supports the local economy, but it also helps to reduce global carbon emissions. Worldwide, approximately 13.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2e) is emitted through the food supply chain each year, and 10% of that is from transportation. We know the tomatoes from Spain in the winter months come at a high cost for carbon, and we know they often don’t even taste as good as the local summer grown crops, but we want our tomatoes, and they don’t cost that much anyway. Well if you were a shopper at The Climate Store, by Felix, a Swedish food brand, you might rethink that notion. The new store prices its products based on the carbon footprint of said product. If the footprint is higher, the price is higher too.
Why it’s important: The majority of the industrialized agriculture and distribution system is unsustainable for a bunch of reasons, but one of the main ones is similar to many problems in other sectors all over the world. The true cost of a product is not actually being measured. In many cases, neither is the true value of some very important assets. In the case of the grocery store, the true cost of the products is now apparent. Locally produced goods will have a lower cost than those from far away, customers will have to choose these goods to avoid going over budget. But maybe, more importantly, this brings up the question and ideas that surround sustainability, true cost, and true value. What is the true value of a tree, a forest, a healthy ecosystem? Is the value of a forest full of trees and wild animals only determined by how many board/feet of lumber it can create, or is it the carbon it can sequester, the food it can produce, or the well-being humans can derive from it if it remains as a living entity?
These questions must be addressed as a society and companies like Felix are making a strong statement by introducing them to us. Nobody is forcing the shoppers at The Climate Store to spend their money there, but they do. Thankfully, customers are embracing this idea, and like all great ideas, it is sure to spread.
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