But Baby, It’s Cold Outside

It happens every winter. It is cold outside, there are kids to think about, our cars are old, and we need some way of looking out the windshield. All perfectly good excuses to go outside and warm our car up for a couple of minutes. While your car is warming up, it is spewing out carbon dioxide from its back end. A major greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.

The average car emits 411 grams of CO2 per mile (USEPA, 2014). But how much CO2 is coming out of your car in the several minutes it warms up in the driveway? Let’s say the average person warms their car up for 10 minutes (Motavalli, 2012). And on average, that person drives at a speed of 40 miles an hour. Hence it takes 1 and half minutes to drive 1 mile (If I did my math correctly). Leaving their car idling in the driveway in those ten minutes means they could have driven 15 miles! This is also assuming they are going at a constant speed the moment they start driving, with no stopping. So, the real amount of miles is probably 10-15 miles. 15 miles times 411 grams of CO2 emitted per mile gives you a total of 6165 grams of CO2 emitted from the car idling in the driveway in that 10 minutes. That is a good amount of CO2 spewed into the atmosphere and they haven’t even started driving yet!

The fuel used to warm up cars, could have been used to produce more food.

But if I, just one person, warm up my car for a couple minutes it is okay right? Well, if only a handful of people do this, it wouldn’t be too bad. However, if everyone thinks this and warm up their car anyways, then we have millions of people each emitting 6165 grams on CO2 into the atmosphere. This is called tragedy of the commons, when individuals neglect the well-being of society in the pursuit of personal gains (Investopedia, 2009). In this case, individuals are neglecting to think about our atmosphere in the hopes of having a slightly warmer car.

Is there a benefit to starting up your car a couple minutes early? People normally warm up their car to get the engine warmed before driving. Or if your car is like mine, the power steering stinks and warming up your car is supposed to help with that. But it doesn’t. Warming up your car only warms up the engine and the interior of the car. It does not warm up the steering, wheel bearings, or the tires (Natural Resources Canada, 2015). The only way to warm up these parts of the car is to drive it.

We all have been guilty of this at some point. Warming up the car to have it be a little warmer before actually driving it. But this small benefit has major consequences, especially if a lot of people do it. It causes over 6000 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Next time, it gets chilly outside (as it does every winter), put on some gloves or a hat instead of warming up your car. Try scrapping the ice of your windshield instead of waiting for it to defrost. If you need to warm up your car, try cutting down the amount of time you let it idle. This small change can make a huge impact on the amount of CO2 that goes into our atmosphere.



  1. Epa, U.s. Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle (EPA-420-F-14-040a, May 2014) (n.d.): n. pag. US Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Transportation and Air Quality, May 2014. Web. 7 Feb. 2016.
  2. “Tragedy Of The Commons Definition | Investopedia.”Investopedia. N.p., 22 Nov. 2009. Web. 07 Feb. 2016.
  3. Natural Resources Canada. “Vehicle Warm-Up.” Natural Resources Canada. Government of Canada, 1 Dec. 2015. Web. 07 Feb. 2016.
  4. Motavalli, Jim. “Better to Warm Up Your Car Or Not?” Esquire. N.p., 28 Jan. 2012. Web. 07 Feb. 2016.

The Grass is Always Greener

When it comes to energy, grass is the greener option. In the quest to phase out fossil fuels, researchers have recognized perennial grasslands as a practical and effective source of green energy. Grasses may hold the key to lower greenhouse gas emissions, lower energy costs, and healthier more sustainable agriculture.

Among the leading alternatives to fossil fuels, biomass is a low carbon emission and low cost alternative [3]. Other renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, also perform well on the low cost/low carbon scale. However these sources – which are better suited for electrical energy – are unable to fulfill our fuel demands. Transient in nature and more vulnerable to variable weather conditions, wind and solar may prove better suited for supplemental energy [3]. Biomass, on the other hand, can be grown continually and converted directly to liquid fuels.

switchgrasscropWhen considering the viable sources of biomass, perennial grasses deliver a rather impressive resume. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and Eurasian elephant grass (Miscanthus giganteus) are perennials characterized by resilience, versatility, and high productivity [2,4]. With low moisture and high sugar content, these grasses are a great source of cellulosic material [2]. This material can be used as feedstock for anaerobic digesters to produce liquid biofuel or used as a combustion facility to produce energy or heat [2].

lIn a world facing increasing global hunger, the use of food crops for fuel production has come under great scrutiny. To address this issue, many countries have moved away from food crops – or food cropland – for biofuel production. In come perennial grasses! Switchgrass and elephant grass are resilient in nature and ideal for cultivation on land unsuitable for food crop production [4,5]. Even when grown on marginal lands, these grasses require little to no fertilizer, chemical assistance or mechanical maintenance [1,3,4]. Allowing for large-scale cultivation with limited impact on food crop production. In fact, if implemented properly, these grasses have the potential to improve food crop yields.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 2.19.56 PMSince these grasses are perennials, tilling can occur less frequently. This allows for higher levels of sequestered carbon to remain in the ground [1]. Switchgrass in particular, has exceptionally thick deep-set root systems, making it a highly effective carbon sink [4]. This sequestration process reduces greenhouse gases, while also improving soil quality. The increased carbon content in soil improves agricultural productivity by acting like an organic fertilizer [4].

The switch from corn to grass could have an immense impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Approximately 40% of the US corn harvest is currently being grown for biofuel (ethanol) [1]. Imagine the impact if this land was converted to perennial grasslands! Evan DeLucia, and his research team at the University of Illinois, created a climate model to test this impact. The results suggest that a shift to perennial grasses could transform the Midwest from a net source of greenhouse gases to a net sink! [1]

Shifting from corn to perennial grasses comes with additional advantages. Prairies and perennial grasslands provide considerable ecosystem services [5]. Ben Werling, and his research team at Michigan State University, compared ecosystem services in perennial grasslands and cornfields. They found nearly all ecosystem services, including methane consumption, pest suppression, pollination, and conservation of grassland birds, were higher in perennial grasslands [5].


These grasslands also improve biodiversity, naturally reduce invasives, and improve soil health [4,5]. If croplands are surrounded or intermixed with perennial grasses, they too may benefit from these services.

When it comes to the issues of climate change, cellulosic biofuels are just a bandaid on the bullet hole of excessive consumption. We the consumers must realize our impact and actively work to reduce our waste and energy demands. It’s important to be informed of our options when it comes to the future of energy. Prior to writing this post I had little knowledge of the diverse prospects for biofuel. Learning about the services that perennial grasses provide and the innovation of cellulosic bioenergy, I now have a brighter outlook on the future of biofuels. If we are able to transition away from food crop fuels toward a well-implemented mix of biomass, we may see benefits far beyond energy production. Through reduced consumer demand and help from cellulosic biofuels, we can foster a future of cleaner and greener energy. With perennial grasses at the forefront of biomass production, there is hope for low cost energy – both economically and environmentally.


[1] Grasses’ growing role for American cars http://climatenewsnetwork.net/grasses-growing-role-for-american-cars/

[2] Can Grass Be a New Biofuel? http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/articles/2014/01/can-grass-be-a-new-biofuel.html

[3] Biomass versus fossil fuels, solar and wind http://www.viaspace.com/biomass_versus_alternatives.php

[4] Switchgrass Carbon Sequestration http://climate.org/smart-solutions/?p=220

[5] Perennial grasslands enhance biodiversity and multiple ecosystem services in bioenergy landscapes http://www.pnas.org/content/111/4/1652.full?tab=author-info

Crisis Drives Creativity in California’s Search for Water Solutions

As a kid scrambling around in the Vermont woods, I never thought much about water: where it came from, where it went, whether there was enough of it. It was all around me, all the time, and I gave it as little thought as I gave to air. It wasn’t until I moved to the stark desert mountains of eastern California that I suddenly understood the power of water to shape and explain a place. This magic force could carve huge canyons, nurture narrow ribbons of cottonwoods and willows, fill the saline basins of inland seas, and – it seemed to me – dictate the course of politics, culture, and human endeavor.

mono lake 2128

Woods Creek in the Sierra Nevada.

Water in California is both highly visible and desperately scarce. Throughout history, water conflict has played out as the principal drama of the California stage. Farmers have dynamited aqueducts, cities have battled one another through decades of litigation, and governments have imposed restrictions on water consumption that would be unthinkable in the East1, but the problems have only intensified. While drought has plagued the state off and on for all of American memory, the last four years were among the warmest and driest in more than a century of record-keeping2,3. Increasing population pressure and a greater understanding of global climate change have brought water shortage to the tip of every tongue in the state.

Human ingenuity is spurred by crises, and California’s plight has prompted widespread brainstorming. Proposed solutions range from the prosaic (mandatory water rationing, public education about water conservation) to the resourceful (desalinization, improved stormwater retention and treatment) to the bizarre (cloud-seeding, harvesting fog, or reducing evaporation from an open-water reservoir in Los Angeles by filling it with 96 million plastic “shade balls4). While idea generation is rampant, actual implementation lags behind.


Shade ball deployment in August 2015.

The Los Angeles basin is home to almost twenty million people5 and has a long history of redirecting water to suit its needs, from the aqueduct that drains 1,600 cubic feet per second of the Colorado River into the coffers of the Metropolitan Water District6, to the gravity-fed pipeline that appropriates Sierra Nevada snowmelt to fill the taps of city customers7. Today, in the face of the latest drought, Los Angeles is contemplating increased reliance on water that reaches the city in another form: rain.

Not long ago, stormwater was seen only as a threat to infrastructure. Cities were built to funnel rain out of the streets and into the ocean as efficiently as possible. But as reservoirs shrink and snowmelt dwindles, city planners have turned their attention toward salvaging the water that falls out of the sky. In August 2015, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) published a Stormwater Capture Master Plan that proposes to increase the amount of captured stormwater in the basin by as much as 114,000 acre-feet each year8. For reference, a California household’s average water use clocks in at less than one acre-foot per year9. The savings may seem insignificant, but the message is clear: water must be saved however and wherever it can be. There are no more rivers to divert or lakes to drain. Los Angeles must search for and exploit any possible source of increase to its water stores.

The Stormwater Capture Master Plan is ambitious and far-reaching. The plan identifies potential water-saving initiatives from the level of a single house (rebates for rainwater barrels) to that of several-hundred-acre spreading grounds where stormwater is trapped in shallow ponds to encourage its infiltration into underground aquifers. LADWP lays out a twenty-year implementation schedule and promises “immediate, significant, and sustained efforts” in pursuit of these goals8.

Los Angeles River in 2014

Los Angeles River in 2014

Yet there are those who find this approach unsatisfactory. LADWP’s plan is too broad to pick up on every fine-scale opportunity for stormwater retention in the basin, and the plan does little to promote public awareness of and involvement in the process. Peter and Hadley Arnold, architects at the Arid Lands Institute in Burbank, CA, have another idea.

“How do we craft cities and buildings that consciously and visibly mitigate, anticipate, and even celebrate, hydrologic variability?” This is the question the Arnolds pose in their 2013 article “Pivot: Reconceiving Water Scarcity as Design Opportunity10. Their answer: a geospatial model of the San Fernando Valley that blends runoff predictions with detailed surface mapping to identify where – at the scale of individual rooftops, gutters, sidewalks, and curbs – stormwater can be trapped or transported most efficiently. The model traces the likely path of water through the city, pinpoints ideal locations for cisterns or permeable substrates, and even accounts for contaminated areas where stormwater should be channeled off-site and prevented from entering a polluted aquifer. They call the software Hazel, after the wood traditionally used in divining rods. The Arnolds estimate that if the model became reality, it could save the San Fernando Valley 92,000 acre-feet per year of runoff water11. The Valley is about 260 square miles in area12; imagine those savings at the scale of the 4,850 square mile Los Angeles metropolitan area5.

Sample output from the Arnolds' model.

Sample output from the Arnolds’ model.

The Arnolds’ intention is not simply to create a more detailed stormwater retention plan. They envision a paradigm shift. As Hadley put it in a 2014 interview with Architect Magazine, “We first have to break through the invisibility of water systems…the idea that water is just something that shows up in a pipe”13. Instead, water availability and consumption should be transparent public knowledge. Woven into the Arnolds’ design are schemes to prompt a new consciousness of water: water meters as urban art installations, a “smart water grid” that helps private homeowners optimize their water collection, a house that showcases stored water in its walls. They hope for a new generation of planners, builders, and citizens whose eyes are trained to understand the water retention possibilities of a landscape, just as we’re trained to orient our windows toward the sun or build our foundations on level ground13.

For many people in urban Los Angeles, water has always been exactly what it was to me as a child in Vermont: something that comes from who knows where to pour out of the tap, and goes down the drain to who knows where when you’re done with it. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that water, while powerful, is not so mysterious. We have the technology to understand its trajectory in minute detail. The next task is to embrace an approach that capitalizes on that technology. Water can shape not only our creekbeds and canyons, but also the way we design our cities and homes. This new ideology could be a path to extraordinary and unlooked-for solutions.

1. Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, B. Thompson. 2011. Managing California’s water: from conflict to resolution. Public Policy Institute of California.

2. United States Geological Survey. The California Drought.

3. California Department of Water Resources. 2015. California’s most significant droughts: comparing historical and recent conditions. State of California.

4. Howard, B.C. 2015. Why did L.A. drop 96 million ‘shade balls’ into its water? National Geographic.

5. Wikipedia. Los Angeles metropolitan area.

6. Wikipedia. Colorado River Aqueduct.

7. Wikipedia. Los Angeles Aqueduct.

8. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in collaboration with TreePeople. 2015. Stormwater Capture Master Plan.

9. Water Education Foundation. What’s an acre-foot?

10. Arnold, H. and P. Arnold. 2013. Pivot: reconceiving water scarcity as design opportunity: mapping a more absorbent landscape. Boom: The Journal of California 3:95-101.

11. Tory, S. 2015. Could Los Angeles design its way to water independence? High Country News.

12. Wikipedia. San Fernando Valley.

13. Karaim, R. 2014. Woodbury’s Arid Lands Institute rethinks water in the west with “Divining LA.” Architect Magazine.

Sustainable Industrial Agriculture?

The term industrial farming is often linked to animal cruelty and unsustainability. It has now become mainstream to criticize farming at huge, industrial scales. People are now more aware that industrial farming is harmful to the surrounding environment, dumping tons of excess nutrients into water ways and producing greenhouse gasses. Agriculture is the largest contributor to nitrous oxide which has a global warming potential 298 times more than CO2 (2). The agriculture industry is also a large producer of methane. The movement is to move towards small to medium sized farms which generate a variety of crops and have less impact on the environment. There has been a substantial amount of studying showing the benefits of this type of farming. Dairy systems that use rotational grazing have shown to be better for the environment and the cows but there is a downside. Farmers do not get as much milk from their cows forcing them to charge more per gallon of milk. With many people living on low income wages in this country switching to this type of farming in the future may not be the answer. A dairy farm co-op has been working and investing on a way to make their production more sustainable.

In Indiana, The Fair Oaks farming co-op is a 36,000 acre dairy production with $2 billion in annual revenue. The cows there produce 430,000 gallons of manure every day (1). This co-op is well aware of its effect on the environment. For over ten years this co-op has been investing in a sustainable future for their farming operation. The average carbon footprint for a gallon of milk, production to consumption, is 17.6 pounds of carbon dioxide. The Fair Oaks farming co-op has brought that down to 10 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon of milk (1). Their path to large scale sustainability starts with poop.

The manure from the cows in this large operation supplies enough energy for the entire co-op. The manure is transported to a digester. With microbes and anaerobic conditions the digester produces methane. The Fair Oaks operation produces enough methane to fuel their own fleet of 42 trucks. The water from the manure is then pressed out so the manure can be used a fertilizer. The leftover water still doesn’t have a use but the co-op is planning on using it to create an artificial wetland where they can grow high-protein duckweed. Then they want to use the water that filters through the wetland for brewing beer.

Whether you like it or not industrial scale farming is a part of our food system. These large scale, mechanized farming operations have helped to create a cheap food market. On the environmental side this has led to the degradation of our rivers and atmosphere. I have heard in many other classes that the path to sustainable farming is to have small and medium sized farms. This would create a diversity of crops, decrease the amount nutrient runoff and help local economies. I have always questioned this because the further you go out west the big the farms become. This might not be a feasible goal for the future of the food system. The Fair Oaks goal to be carbon neutral is an innovative way of mass producing dairy and meat product in an environmental conscious way.


(1) http://fortune.com/2016/01/27/fair-oaks-dairy-farm-manure-fuel/?iid=sr-link1

(2) http://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gwps.html

Catch the Bug

He ate not one, but two daddy longlegs. Cricket Powder

It was the day our Phys. Ed. teacher successfully grossed out a busload of unruly preteens and impressed an image that I –nor any of my classmates – would ever forget. The teacher was my father, and my friends recount the story even to this day.

Any culture carries its share of taboos, many of which fall into the culinary category. Americans shun the idea of eating insects (or arachnids), while two billion people around the world don’t give it a second thought. We love our hotdogs and cheeseburgers, but insects may be a novel weapon in our battle against climate change. This global crisis offers us an opportunity to get creative, and fast. What do bugs have to offer that bovines don’t?

Sustainability: The buzzword that makes environmental scientists groan and businesses “green”. Unfortunately, the word sustainability has lost much of its luster in episodes of overuse and misinformation. It has become a trendy term that no longer carries much weight. But insects may actually be a sustainable addition to our food systems. That is, a food system with “a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” (Merriam Webster). Our current agricultural system is littered with waste, with estimates of over 30% of our food being lost or tossed around the globe (1). Some of our food waste can be attributed to food labeling and improper portions, while other problems arise at the farm itself. With 40% of a cow edible, 60% is waste. For chickens and pigs, the figure lowers to around 45% waste. Meanwhile, a whopping 80% of a is cricket edible, with only 20% regarded as byproduct (2). Organic waste (wasted food or wasted cow) emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas (GHG). Move towards a more efficient food system, and GHG emissions will decline. Right now, agriculture accounts for about 10% of America’s greenhouse gases. Adding insects to the equation may help lower that percentage.  On a per gram basis, protein produced from certain insects emits 1% of the GHG of protein production from beef (3).

Courtesy of theguardian.com

Courtesy of theguardian.com

Some people will refuse to ever have grasshopper sushi or fried silkworm. For the fainter of heart, insects can supplement meals in a subtler way. Companies around the world have created nutritious ground insect products full of protein, iron, calcium and more. The bonus? A protein bar or shake without the worry of a stray cricket leg. Further down the food chain lies an even more promising idea for the most squeamish among us. Mealworms and black fly larvae have become an excellent supplement to chicken, pig, and fish feed. Insect farms in places as different as South Africa and Ohio have learned the benefits for this supplement. Let’s look at the current trends and future options.

Livestock and farmed fish are fed ground products and meals that require commercial production. Whether commercial grade fish meal or soybean meal, the assembly necessitates conversion of land and depletion of fish stocks, and GHG emissions permeate production. Not to mention, the method is an inefficient way to convert protein. On average, beef, pork, and chicken respectively require 10, 5, and 2.5kg feed to produce 1kg of meat (2).  In come maggots. Black soldier larvae (Hermetia illucens) don’t require such an intense supply chain. They are simply fed food scraps and farm waste without an an enormous planetary burden. They are earth’s recyclers. The industrious insects-to-be convert the waste to protein and compost. The plump larvae are then converted to insect meal for livestock and aquaculture. A model that sustains on inputs of waste is more efficient by nature.

Eating bugs will not save the world, nor is this a suggestion to end all traditional meat production. Our climate crisis can only be approached with a cooperative and creative character. We need solutions that inspect all aspects of our food systems, but we also need a willingness to change. Crickets aren’t all that different from lobsters and chickens would rather eat maggots than soy beans. We live in an interconnected world; it is time for our food system to mimic relationships that nature reveals.

We all need to refocus the lens we use to look at food. Oysters, milk, hot dogs, and honey could easily gross us out. Honey is bee vomit. These things exist in our culinary traditions, but someone somewhere overcame the ick-factor of mammary gland excretions from a four-legged ungulate, to give us the delicious decedents of dairy. I am not at the forefront of the insect-eating movement (people have been eating insects for millennia) but I gave it a try and I caught the bug. We don’t have to develop investment portfolios to support insect farming and alternative food systems; we make our investments with our shopping cart. Start easy with insect-based flours and try cricket and coconut chocolate chip cookies. Maybe, like me,  you can work your way up to crunchy cricket tacos. Soon enough you’ll catch the bug in no time.

(1) UNEP Food Waste Facts. Retrieved 26 January 2016, from http://www.unep.org/wed/2013/quickfacts/

(2) Van Huis, A. et al (2013). Edible insects. org. Retrieved 26 January 2016, from http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e.pdf

(3) Oonincx, D. et al (2010). An exploration of greenhouse gas and ammonia production by insect species suitable for animal or human consumption. PLoS ONE 5(12). Retrieved 26 January 2016, from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0014445


China Cuts Coal Consumption

People visit the Olympic Park amid thick haze in Beijing

The Olympic Park in Bejing, obscured by smog (photo cr Reuters)

China is now expanding bans on burning coal so that the ban applies not only to city centers but to China’s sprawling suburbia as well.

Smog in the area is an environmental health concern as much as an emissions nightmare. Urban residents in China account for more than half of the country’s sizable population, yet of those city dwellers only around one percent of them live in areas where air quality is regularly within safe particulate counts. Additionally, recent data has shown that during the Beijing summer Olympics, when air pollution emissions were strictly enforced,  fetal health in the area improved—babies born in the period following the Olympics had higher, healthier average birthrates.

The smog also is at times so thick that it is close to a “nuclear winter”—blocking out sunlight so that crops cannot photosynthesize, prompting fears over economic losses and food insecurity. . Sometimes the particulate count reaches 20X the WHO guidelines for air quality, and schools are closed to keep citizens inside, to try to mitigate the health risks.

The cuts in coal use in the suburbs are aiming to cut consumption of coal by 80 million tons of coal by 2017 with a reduction of over 160 million tonnes by 2020. (China’s consumes about 3.7 billion tons of coal annually, which accounts for two thirds of China’s annual energy use.) On whole, China aims to cut their current energy use by three percent in the next two years, and cap coal at sixty five percent of China’s total energy use by 2017.

The Forbidden City in Beijing under a haze of smog (photo cr. fotolia.com)

The Forbidden City in Beijing under a haze of smog (photo cr. fotolia.com)

The new regulations will target industrial coal-powered boilers, all of which will be required to switch from high-sulfur, high emitting coal, to natural gas, “clean coal” or other “alternative fuels that will be subsidized by the government. However, the inclusion of clean coal is problematic, as “clean coal”, which uses processing methods or “scrubbers” to reduce emissions, does not address environmental degradation that originates in the extraction process. So though this measure will reduce smog and airborne pollution, as well as carbon dioxide emissions from the poorest quality coal, issues of land acquisition and water and soil contamination will not really be addressed here.

However, even with the inclusion of “clean coal”, there are signs that China’s energy demand is on the wane. In 2014, China saw a decline in coal use for the first time in years, of around three percent from the previous year. China has invested close to 90 billion dollars in renewable energy, and is has of the fastest-growing solar industry in the world. Meanwhile, Shenhua Energy Company, China’s largest coal producer and the second largest coal producer in the world, has projected a ten percent decline in their domestic sales for 2015, suggesting China’s movement away from coal is swiftly gaining momentum.










US announces cuts to greenhouse gas emissions

At the beginning of April, the US submitted plans to the UN to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% within 10 years. They were joined by over thirty other countries including all EU nations, Switzerland, Norway, Mexico, and Russia in submitting plans prior to this winter’s UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris. These countries currently account for 58% of emissions with the US responsible for 17% of that so these plans are a step in the right direction. However, India and Brazil, both major CO2 emitters, among other countries did not submit plans, though they may (hopefully) make formal commitments in future months before the meeting in Paris. The climate policy advisor for the US had positive comments, saying these goals proposed by the Obama administration are achievable. The US is already underway in working towards this goal. There are proposed plans to reduce CO2 emissions from coal-powered energy plants as well as methane emissions by at least 40% by 2025. Improved standards for fuel economy of cars and trucks have also been implemented. These plans are definitely noteworthy, especially in light of the recent political climate with Republicans criticizing the White House for bypassing Congress and having the EPA establish new power plant emission regulations. However, some say these steps are not enough. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations says much steeper cuts at power plants will be needed to meet these goals i.e. a 75% reduction in coal use at these plants, up from the 40% currently proposed. If these countries can meet their pledges, these cuts in emissions will go a long way towards keeping us at or below the 2 degree C increase limit, and it is optimistic that steps are already being taken to implement these plans.

This news is applicable to yesterday’s climate negotiations in class. That activity was eye opening to how quickly and how much needs to be done to keep us below that 2 degree limit. It is definitely a good sign that these plans have been submitted but will they be enough, especially since some fast developing countries have not committed? It would be interesting to run the program we used to see how successful these goals are. The negotiations this winter are expected to produce a global commitment that will be implemented by 2020. Although, based on yesterday’s results, coming up with an agreement will undoubtedly be difficult. This UN conference is the 21st annual meeting since the first UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 and the 11th since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. 196 countries will be in Paris to attempt to create an agreement that will take productive action on climate change. This year seems hopeful as significant breakthroughs have been seen since the chaotic meeting in 2009 in Copenhagen. Efforts by both the US and China, among other countries, also provide some optimism. Many countries are working towards a feasible outcome that will enable individual countries to act due to a framework that will make it easier for nations to work together. Success at these negotiations will also give a clear signal to businesses to invest in low carbon outcomes. It seems that implementing a global commitment within five years and reductions of emissions within ten years will begin definitive action to mitigate climate change.




Green Roofs – Growing Popularity

France approved a law in March that requires the roofs of new commercial buildings be covered—at least in part—by either Green_Roof_Layersv2solar panels or plants. Green roofs, roofs covered in vegitation, have an isolating effect, helping reduce the amount of energy needed to heat a building in winter and cool it in summer. They also retain rainwater, thus helping reduce problems with runoff, while favoring biodiversity and giving birds a place to nest in the urban jungle, ecologists say.

Green roofs have many environmental benefits, especially in urban settings. First, they help reduce energy use. Green roofs absorb heat and act as insulators for buildings, reducing energy needed to provide cooling and heating. Many conventionalgreen-roof-save-money-1 roofs are made of black tar, attracting and absorbing heat and adding to the ‘urban heat island’ effect in cities. Green Roofs also reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. By lowering air conditioning demand, green roofs can decrease the production of associated air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Vegetation can also remove air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions through dry deposition and carbon sequestration and storage. In addition, they are a tool for stormwater management and improved water quality. Where much of the landscape is impermeable concrete, green roofs can reduce and slow storm water runoff in the urban environment. They also filter pollutants from rainfall.

Although more expensive to install initially, green roofs last longer than conventional ones.
Because green roofs protect thed92165596b0e083ece4be07fca13e6cf roof membrane from harsh weather and UV radiation, they can last twice as long traditional roofs. Money is then also saved on energy costs. Green roofs can also add aesthetic value or be used for food production. From usable gardens to large scale farms, green roofs can provide more use than just environmental benefit.

France is following in the footsteps of some other major cities and countries by implementing this law. Toronto, Canada and Basel, Switzerland also require green roofs on all new commercial buildings, for example. Green roofs in cities can help reduce urban heat islands and also help with water quality and storm water runoff issues. Laws requiring solar or vegetation on roofs of newly constructed buildings is a trend that should continue to many more cities across the world. As the majority of population lives in urban settings and most of the worlds CO2 emissions are emitted from cities, it seems like a very sensible law.





Earth Science Information Partners – Acquiring, Managing and Utilizing Data

One of the greatest advantages we have with all this “cheap” carbon energy is our technological advancement and ability to acquire more knowledge about our system. We are able to imagine, engineer, create, gather and analyse information like never before. This flood of data that we are obtaining, especially in the Earth Sciences arena, can be extraordinarily useful, but also quite overwhelming. Analyzing various satellite and in situ measurements of temperature, precipitation, soil type, land cover and land use, is imperative to identify patterns and begin to understand how our system is reacting to and participating in concentrations of greenhouse gases.

The sheer amount of data we have is overwhelming. For NASA missions alone, hundreds of terabytes are gathered every hour. Just one terabyte is equivalent to the information printed on 50,000 trees worth of paper, and all of this information is potentially useful, in helping us to predict and manage our world – if we can sift through it. I have had the privilege of working with an organization that is working on generating data as well as making these data useful. Working with Earth Science Information Partners Federation (ESIP Fed) has given me hope for the future of climate-data world.

ESIP Fed is comprised of many different work groups and work clusters, and the cluster that I am involved with is specifically the Agriculture and Climate Cluster. Since January, I have worked with the cluster to discuss and identify data sources and inventories related to Agriculture, and specifically data that are useful for agricultural adaptation and management for responding to and mitigating climate change. One such data inventory that we have been involved with recently is the Climate Resilience Toolkit (CRT). This toolkit is able to be utilized by farmers (or any “end users”) to help sift through important datasets that could be useful in making management decisions.

The goals set by the CRT team are as follows:

  • Moving from data acquisition to action
  • Provide things that will help with risk and uncertainty
  • Help to look at things from a value perspective
  • Provide decision making building blocks, and relat the data to what people care about

The CRT presents information and data in an easy-to-utilize form by highlighting case studies. Users can look at problems that other people are solving in relation to climate resilience and see the datasets and tools that could be utilized to take action. For example, farmers may be interested in precipitation data as it results to potential drought, which they can access through the Climate Explorer tool to see how this information may be useful in helping them with resilience:


Climate Resilience Toolkit: climate.data.gov accessed April 2015

The CRT is just one exciting way to think about utilizing Earth Science data. There are many other groups and clusters in ESIP Fed working on different aspects of obtaining data, managing data, and utilizing data related to Earth Sciences. Envirosensing (looking at instruments and tools we have currently to collect information about our environment), Data Stewardship (managing data and metadata such that it is easily usable), Disaster Response, and even a recently formed Drone Cluster, combining the engineering expertise of Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) engineers with researchers to obtain higher resolution remotely sensed data.

ESIP Fed brings together large organizations like NASA, NOAA and the USGS along with researchers and decision makers, and I believe that these collaborations will help to acquire more data about our earth system, manage that data so that it is usable and helpful for us all to answer questions about our Earth system especially in relation to understanding the patterns and affects of our climate. The more collaborations of this level, the more hope I have for the future.

Pumping the brakes on accelerated warming due to permafrost thaw

A recent scientific synthesis of permafrost carbon dynamics, published by lead author Ted Schurr and other scientists from the Permafrost Carbon Network (PCN: http://www.permafrostcarbon.org/) on April 9th, 2015 in Nature, predicts greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide and methane) release from thawing permafrost soils will be a more drawn out process than originally believed. Figure 1 (dashed line) shows the predicted potential carbon release from the thawing of Arctic and sub-Arctic permafrost soils estimated by the study (92 ± 17 Pg C by 2100), which the authors arrived at by averaging estimates from several studies conducted by PCN working groups. The majority of these studies ran their simulations based on Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 8.5 – the worst-case climate change scenario in the latest IPCC report (AR5).


Figure 1. Model estimates of cumulative carbon emissions from permafrost thawing (from Schuur et al. 2015 – see additional image caption).

It is important to emphasize that the authors still predict a significant increase in atmospheric carbon from permafrost thaw over time – but how does this new information change our way of thinking regarding the emission rate? The pervasive view of the past was that the accelerated warming of permafrost soils, which have risen in temperature almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit from 18° to 28° over the past 30 years alone, would result in a large release of carbon into our atmosphere (a carbon “bomb”). According to co-author A. David McGuire, U.S. Geological Survey senior scientist and climate modeling expert with the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, “The data from our team’s syntheses don’t support the permafrost carbon bomb view. What our syntheses do show is that permafrost carbon is likely to be released in a gradual and prolonged manner, and that the rate of release through 2100 is likely to be of the same order as the current rate of tropical deforestation in terms of its effects on the carbon cycle.”

The authors further note in their analysis, “Our expert judgement is that estimates made by independent approaches, including laboratory incubations, dynamic models, and expert assessment, seem to be converging on, 5%–15% of the terrestrial permafrost carbon pool being vulnerable to release in the form of greenhouse gases during this century under the current warming trajectory, with CO2-carbon comprising the majority of the release. There is uncertainty, but the vulnerable fraction does not appear to be twice as high or half as much as 5%–15%, based on this analysis. Ten percent of the known terrestrial permafrost carbon pool is equivalent to,130–160 Pg carbon. That amount, if released primarily in the form of CO2 at a constant rate over a century, would make it similar in magnitude to other historically important biospheric sources, such as land use change (0.960.5 Pg carbon per year; 2003–2012 average), but far less than fossil-fuel emissions (9.760.5 Pg carbon per year in 2012).”

This is good news, as the carbon bomb theory holds that the Earth’s warming climate will be significantly accelerated as large amounts of previously-frozen carbon are abruptly thawed and released into the atmosphere via aerobic and anaerobic soil respiration (microbial processes). However, these initial models did not account for increased carbon uptake by plants as thaw increases and the growing season lengthens, or that newly-formed lakes and wetlands from abrupt thaw would accumulate new carbon under anaerobic conditions (see Figure 2 for a depiction of this cycle). These factors are accounted for in the new synthesis described here, leading to the protracted estimate of GHG emissions from permafrost thaw.


Figure 2. The updated carbon dynamics of permafrost thaw from Schuur et al 2015 (see additional image caption).

So what’s the upshot? Essentially, the new estimates allow us more time to develop and implement carbon mitigation strategies to avoid accelerated future warming of the planet. If we also bear in mind that the majority of the emissions estimates used in this study were conducted under the worst-case RCP scenario, there is much hope to be found in our ability to find technological and lifestyle-based solutions under this new time-frame. This is particularly true given human sources of GHG emissions, notably fossil fuel burning and land use change, remain more pertinent to short-term carbon dynamics. The next step is to implement the new permafrost models into the global climate change models constructed by the IPCC. This is imperative to knowing the scope of climate mitigation needed, as noted by McGuire, “If society’s goal is to try to keep the rise in global temperatures under two degrees C and we haven’t taken permafrost carbon release into account in terms of mitigation efforts, then we might underestimate that amount of mitigation effort required to reach that goal.”


E. A. G. Schuur, A. D. McGuire, C. Schädel, G. Grosse, J. W. Harden, D. J. Hayes, G. Hugelius, C. D. Koven, P. Kuhry, D. M. Lawrence, S. M. Natali, D. Olefeldt, V. E. Romanovsky, K. Schaefer, M. R. Turetsky, C. C. Treat, J. E. Vonk. Climate change and the permafrost carbon feedback. Nature, 2015; 520 (7546): 171 DOI: 10.1038/nature14338

University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Scientists predict gradual, prolonged permafrost greenhouse gas emissions, allowing us more time to adapt.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 April 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150408133047.htm>.

IPCC AR5: http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/index.shtml