Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Clean Coal

Just a quick bit of news that shouldn't get missed in this holiday season, from Grist:

More than a billion gallons of coal ash have spilled from a coal-burning power plant in eastern Tennessee since Dec. 22, when a retention wall at the plant burst. That's billion with a "B," which means the amount of gunk spilled is about 100 times larger than the mess from the Exxon Valdez disaster. Gray sludge has spread across 300 acres, wiped out three homes, oozed into a tributary of the Tennessee River, and made a lot of local residents worried about their health and water supplies. Coal ash contains mercury and traces of heavy metals like arsenic and uranium. In the wake of the spill, high levels of arsenic have been found in some rivers and wells near the spill site, though authorities insist that drinking water is still safe. Enviros are seizing the opportunity to point out that "clean coal" is an oxymoron.

For those of you in Massachusetts interested in eliminating the local impacts of coal pollution (or really those of you anywhere wanting to help eliminate the global impacts of coal pollution) - sign this petition to shut down Dominion's Salem coal plant: http://www.stoptheplantnow.org/petition.htm

Stay going...

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Passive House

At the AASHE 2008 Conference, I met a rep from the Passive House Institute which was very encouraging to see - passive solar design is a key concept to green building and one that unfortunately too often gets overlooked or glossed over. The other day my father sent me this NYT article about passive homes in Germany that have no furnaces are kept warm with great insulation, solar gain, and body heat. Again, very exciting stuff – it helps to show one element of how through good design we can create a climate neutral, sustainable future – but still, it generated some confusion on my part as to why this one (very important) element of green building is being broken out as its own thing, seemingly separate. Maybe it’s because it has been glossed over too often in casual converstaions about green building, or maybe it's because it’s less complex, and more understandable to look at one piece at a time. Of course this one piece in and of itself is quite complex – it integrates he building envelop, insulation, windows, site orientation, ventilation system (with heat exchange), and room layout, and again is a big central part of green building generally. So maybe it’s just that the terminology “passive house” is a better description of “green building” – no confusion with exterior paint colors. Whatever the reason, it’s a great trend – and one we really need to develop here, quickly.

We had a blower door test done recently and found all of our leaks and under-insulated spots. There were a lot of them, and we’ve got a guy coming soon to fill in the parts of the roof with no insulation as an immediate first step. The next steps are to seal up all of the holes and gaps in the floor, get the walls insulated, update the windows, and hopefully put in some new windows on a Southwest wall. Before sealing up that tight though, we need to find a good solution to air quality and moisture – a ventilation system with a heat exchange that can work in our old house. It will be interesting to see how close we can get to a ‘super-insulated’ house that we can heat with the sun and some body heat. Starting from scratch it’s easier – I always think of the Rocky Mountain Institute headquarters that doesn’t need a heating system, and on cold overcast days, they throw tennis ball down the hall for the dog for auxiliary heat.

Stay going…

Friday, December 19, 2008

Education for a Green Economy

Here's an exciting piece co-authored by many of our colleagues working in the education for sustainability movement. The shift in language is I think a good one, "green economy" probably makes a lot more intuitive sense to a lot of people than does "sustainability" ... a green economy of course is not just about the environment - the trees and owls - but about people meeting their needs. Some might say "green/blue" to make that more explicit - but the social and environmental aspects of all of this are so interrelated that they are indeed one in the same.

Education is too often overlooked in these matters, yet it is vitally important - it shapes our thought and patterns of thought that create our unsustainable systems (and then say "we didn't do it, there's nothing we can do about it"). This is key both for the immediate-term green jobs training, particularly in our community colleges, but also in all disciplines and throughout our education systems to breakout of these thought-traps and create sustainable systems - economic, infrastructure, social, energy, engineering, building, health, transportation, monetary - all kinds of systems.


OPINION: Letter to the New Education Secretary

by Worldwatch Institute on December 19, 2008

Worldwatch is pleased to publish this open letter from prominent education and environment leaders urging the newly nominated U.S. education secretary, Arne Duncan, to consider the importance of education in carrying out President-elect Barack Obama's environmental agenda.

Dear Mr. Duncan:

Congratulations on your nomination. As you jump into the daunting challenge of bolstering our sagging education system, you have a powerful opportunity presented by the need to create a carbon-free economy.

President-elect Obama has astutely perceived the linkages between climate change, economic stimulus, energy security, and job training by declaring that the transition to a green economy is his "top priority." The missing link in this system is the critical role that education can play in quickly making the green economy a reality. By working with him to include a major role for education in his green economy plans, you'll help advance his agenda - and yours.

Transforming our nation's economic, energy, and environmental systems to move toward a green economy will require a level of expertise, innovation, and cooperative effort unseen since the 1940s to meet the challenges involved... Read the rest at the Worldwatch site.


Stay going...

Monday, December 15, 2008

New MSLS Brochure

Check out the new MSLS brochure - some great updated info about the program in a snazzy technical online book-thing. Also, if you go to the program you learn how to jump super-high in a business suit, as evidenced on the cover shot.

Check out the new Brochure from the MSLS Programme at BTH!

Friday, December 05, 2008

350 in the bathtub

350 is a number that’s becoming a movement. The most important number on the planet. More and more people are coming to the realization that the relative measures of rates of greenhouse gas emissions really don’t matter – it’s how much is in the atmosphere that will drive global warming, which drives climate change, which drives climate disruption, which f’s up our civilization.

350 also makes things a bit simpler. For a long time negotiators and organizations, countries, regions making climate commitments have called for percentage reductions – 10% reductions by 2010 – reduced from what? Usually 1990 levels, but sometimes from emissions rates in 2000, or 2005, or 2006… sometimes the answer depended on what the emissions rates were like in a given baseline year. So it was getting confusing. And it also wasn’t that relevant.

We often get the dynamics of even the simplest systems confused. It’s just how our brains work. So to help, we often use the example of the bathtub. The facet is GHG emissions. The tub is the atmosphere. The drain are carbon “sinks” that remove carbon from the atmosphere. The highest the bathtub was ever full of water – over the 800,000 years that ice-core data shows was about 280 – that’s 280 parts per million. The lowest was about 180. Now 180 or 280 in a million might not sound like a lot, but it’s the difference between warm periods and ice ages. Since the industrial revolution, we’ve busted through that 280, and are sitting around 380. Scientists are calling for a return to 350 as a safe level for keeping our climate relatively stable, and hence limiting the disruption and destruction brought to our civilization.

Now think about what that means for the bathtub. We’re at 380. If we cut global emissions by 90% next year… we’ll still be moving in the wrong direction. At the end of the year, we’ll have more than 380 in the bathtub. Right now a lot of the strongest commitments out there, are talking about 20-30% cuts by 2020. Cuts in emissions. Think of the bathtub. The Sustainability Institute has developed a helpful simulator that allows you to play around with the faucet and see what it means in terms of emissions and atmospheric concentrations.

The colleges and universities that are building the ACUPCC have agreed to make plans for climate neutrality. That’s net-zero emissions. That’s turning the faucet off. (Recall if every institution in the world did that tomorrow, we’d still be at 380, and need to get carbon negative to get down to our safe 350). Now, the ACUPCC is still quite flexible, most schools, at least at first, will still create plans with much longer time horizons than we really need – but they will get started, with an end goal in mind that is necessary, not convenient. And I bet as they get going – and as everyone else gets going (the government, businesses, each of us) we’ll find we can pull those long range dates in and hit targets much more aggressively, at the pace we need to.

So 350 helps us get our heads around the scope of this challenge. The need for really dramatic action, quickly. It’s a rallying cry we need. It’s having a real impact in the COP negotiations going on in Poland right now. Check out www.350.org. Check out the 350 video. Rate it. Pass it on. Stay going.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

We are all Bill Buckners

Well, it’s been two months since I last posted – and it’s been a hell of a stretch. Among the highlights: first African American President, global economic meltdown, the end of Wall St, $700 billion bailouts, looming collapse of the Big 3, we got to go to Bioneers, the AASHE conference and Greenbuild, IPCC researchers gave up on safe climate scenario as we haven’t acted fast enough, Greenspan found “a flaw” in his thinking… It is this last one that I think may be the most significant.

I’ve seen some attempts to articulate how this meltdown is another symptom of “un-sustainability” – not separate from all of the other symptoms – climate change, toxins in the soil, air, water, and breast milk, erosion, terrorism, the wealth gap, etc… I’ll try to give my own here, but given the complexity of it all, it’s no easy task.

The story, and Greenspan’s own thinking about the “flaw” – that the banks would keep this from happening (wouldn’t take on so much risk) to protect their own self-interest – has been presented in the old “free-market” vs. “regulation” dichotomy. I think this is a false dichotomy and misses the point. It’s not a big “I told you so” moment for those who favor strong government regulation – though it should be a significant opportunity for “no regulation at any cost” crowd to take pause, and rethink the assumptions on which that theory (much abused and misrepresented overtime and when put into practice) is based. It’s that blind faith to a theory – a construct of human thought – unwavering in the face of significant evidence to the contrary is dangerous.

In his testimony Greenspan said “I was shocked because I'd been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.'' And indeed that evidence was there, but only if you only look at the evidence you want. Of course, standards of living rose, technology developed, we are able to have more stuff and (theoretically) more leisure time (although we ironically have less). But at the same time we’ve been responsible for mass extinctions, an unthinkable plummet in cultural diversity, spreading toxins throughout the globe and our own bodies, and a breakdown in the social fabric. Our economic system is too complex to let run wild towards a goal that doesn’t necessarily improve our lives (GDP growth). It’s also too complex to simply regulate this and that as problems arise.

But if we step back, and look at how the system operates on the principle level, it’s impossible not to see the evidence that this is just a minor foreshadowing of what’s to come if we don’t make some fundamental changes to how our global society operates. Our population is growing exponentially, our technological prowess is growing exponentially, our demand for more stuff is growing exponentially (site China and India, or Wal-Mart death stampedes), and to drive this economic engine in our foolish pursuit of a false goal… we systematically weaken the natural systems we depend on – physically destroying them and flooding them with foreign substances (from the earth’s crust, or that we produce) at rates far faster than they can handle…. And undermine the social systems we depend on through abuses of power that create barriers to people’s capacity to meet their needs. This is a very big flaw. I don’t think Greenspan really saw the light, or appreciated the magnitude of the flaw in our way of thinking, but he saw a hint of it.

The underlying assumptions were further revealed through this defense: “We cannot expect perfection in any area where forecasting is required,” he said. “We have to do our best but not expect infallibility or omniscience”…“If we are right 60 percent of the time in forecasting, we are doing exceptionally well; that means we are wrong 40 percent of the time. Forecasting never gets to the point where it is 100 percent accurate.” This reliance on forecasting dismisses the notion that we have self-determination, that we can create the future we want. It says that because we built such a big and complex society, we’re stuck riding this rollercoaster – even as we see the end of the tracks hanging over the canyon. And this type of tinkering – changing interest rates, adjusting money supply – is like trying to make little steering corrections to stay on the tracks. Of course the answer isn’t to instead create a giant regulator for the rollercoaster. It’s to get off the rollercoaster. And to backcast – to be realistic about where we are and intentional about where we want to end up. Then we can get to work together to get there.

What was amazing was to see the “shock” – he obviously believed it to be true, absolutely. His worldview was shattered (a little bit). And he didn’t try to hide it – he showed us how strong our blind-spots can be, and how when we recognize them, we can acknowledge that (and hopefully start thinking differently). I give him great credit for getting up and stating it plainly.

Representative John Yarmuth called Greenspan, Former Treasury Secretary Snow, and SEC Chairman Cox “three Bill Buckners” for letting this slip by. Hopefully we will all find the big flaw before all of humanity experiences the proverbial '86 Series on the global scale. Stay going…