Category: Environment

How much of the world’s arable land is used to grow food?

food vs fuel&feed
Crops grown for food (green) versus for animal feed and fuel (purple)

Just 55 percent of the world’s crop calories are actually eaten directly by people. Another 36 percent is used for animal feed. And the remaining 9 percent goes toward biofuels and other industrial uses…

The proportions are even more striking in the United States, where just 27 percent of crop calories are consumed directly — wheat, say, or fruits and vegetables grown in California. By contrast, more than 67 percent of crops — particularly all the soy grown in the Midwest — goes to animal feed. And a portion of the rest goes to ethanol and other biofuels.

Some of that animal feed eventually becomes food, obviously — but it’s a much, much more indirect process. It takes about 100 calories of grain to produce just 12 calories of chicken or 3 calories worth of beef, for instance.

The map itself comes from Jonathan Foley’s fascinating, visually rich exploration in National Geographic of how we can possibly feed everyone as the world’s population grows from 7 billion today to 9 billion by mid-century…

There are lots of possible strategies here. Farmers could increase agricultural productivity by boosting crop yields — either through new farming techniques or through improved crop genetics. But even if the rapid rate of improvement in crop yields over the 20th century continued, that still wouldn’t produce enough food for everyone…

One implication of that is that, as countries like China and India grow and consume more milk and meat, the pressure on global farmland will grow. But, alternatively, if the world shifted even a small portion of its diet away from resource-intensive meats or grew fewer biofuels, we could wring more food calories out of existing farmland.

There are many more strategies – which almost always fall under the category of tweaks. Poisonally, I’d rather see the production of flavorful vegetable-based protein continue to move forward, become practical and affordable. Yes, flavorful means “tastes like meat, tastes like chicken, tastes like fish”.

I think philosophical discussions about the life and death of animals that evolved along omnivore humans won’t change public opinion anymore in the next couple of centuries than was achieved in the last couple. Make veggie-based stuff that consumes fewer calories of potential energy and tastes like the stuff we grew up consuming, furry, finned or feathered – and costs less – and you have a winner.

Fortunately, there are a number of folks working on that. That’s the side I’m on.

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Fracking banned in New York State as public health risk

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration has announced…that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State because of concerns over health risks, ending years of uncertainty over the disputed method of natural gas extraction.

State officials concluded that fracking, as the method is known, could contaminate the air and water and pose inestimable dangers to public health.

That conclusion was delivered during a year-end cabinet meeting Mr. Cuomo convened in Albany. It came amid increased calls by environmentalists to ban fracking, which uses water and chemicals to release oil and natural gas trapped in deeply buried shale deposits…

Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat who has prided himself on taking swift and decisive action on other contentious issues like gun control, took the opposite approach on fracking. He repeatedly put off making a decision on how to proceed, most recently citing a continuing — and seemingly never-ending — study by state health officials.

On Wednesday, six weeks after Mr. Cuomo won re-election to a second term, the long-awaited health study finally materialized.

In a presentation at the cabinet meeting, the acting state health commissioner, Dr. Howard A. Zucker, said the examination had found “significant public health risks” associated with fracking.

Holding up scientific studies to animate his arguments, Dr. Zucker listed concerns about water contamination and air pollution, and said there was insufficient scientific evidence to affirm the long-term safety of fracking.

Dr. Zucker said his review boiled down to a simple question: Would he want to live in a community that allowed fracking?

He said the answer was no.

“We cannot afford to make a mistake,” he said. “The potential risks are too great. In fact, they are not even fully known.”

Good enough for me. I still have a few reservations about environmental reservations. Those mostly reflect the paucity of studies on fracking and health. Everything raised by Dr. Zucker can be raised about every form of drilling for fossil fuels. And I think if we’re to ban one technique – we may as well ban them all.

Incidentally, that wouldn’t upset me, either.

Thanks, Mike — GMTA

Former Seattle mayor urges divesting from fossil fuel

Sometimes the best measure of a movement’s momentum is the reaction of its critics. When, in early October, the Australian National University (ANU) announced that it would sell its shares in seven fossil-fuel and mining companies, it triggered a chorus of criticism from the country’s conservative politicians.

These nominal champions of the free market were quick to tell the university what it should do with its money. The Treasurer of Australia, Joe Hockey, disparaged the ANU’s decision as being “removed from reality.” Others chimed in, calling it “a disgrace,” “very strange,” and “narrow-minded and irresponsible.” Never mind that the sums involved were relatively small – making up less than 2% of the university’s estimated $1 billion portfolio.

As the drive to divest from fossil fuels picks up speed, such panicky responses are becoming increasingly common. The outrage of Australia’s conservatives reminds me of the reaction I received when I testified before the US Congress in 2013 that we should “keep our coal in the ground where it belongs.” David McKinley, a Republican congressman from West Virginia, in the heart of America’s coal country, replied that my words “sent a shiver up [his] spine,” then changed the subject to the crime rate in Seattle, where I was Mayor.

…The fossil-fuel industry clearly sees the divestment movement as the political threat that it is. When enough people say no to investing in fossil-fuel production, the next step has to be keeping coal, oil, and gas in the ground.

That is a necessary step if we are to head off the most dangerous consequences of climate change. To prevent world temperatures from rising above the 2º Celsius threshold that climate scientists believe represents a tipping point beyond which the worst effects could no longer be mitigated, we will need to leave approximately 80% of known fossil-fuel reserves untapped…

…reality implies another compelling case for divestment. To be sure, some will claim that the world will never change and that we will continue to depend on fossil fuels forever. But one has only to look to Seattle, where gay couples marry in City Hall and marijuana is sold in licensed retail outlets, to see the human capacity to reexamine deeply held assumptions. The prudent investor, and the wise business leader, will look where the economy is headed, not where it has been.

We need more courage like that shown by the ANU. Its leaders bucked the power of coal and oil interests, which wield enormous power in Australia. If they can do it to popular acclaim, others can, too.

Hear, hear!

Pic of the Day


Click to enlargeREUTERS/Toby Melville

One of Reuters’ environment pictures of the year. A graveyard is seen underwater in the village of Moorland in south west England, February 7, 2014.

But, don’t worry. Dick Cheney says climate change isn’t anymore likely to occur than the United States torturing people.

There’s only one source for the plastic in our oceans — us!

kelly_pogo_earthday

There are at least 268,000 tonnes of plastic floating around in the oceans, according to new research by a global team of scientists.

The world generates 288m tonnes of plastic worldwide each year, just a little more than the annual vegetable crop, yet using current methods only 0.1% of it is found at sea. The new research illustrates as much as anything, how little we know about the fate of plastic waste in the ocean once we have thrown it “away”.

Most obviously, this discarded plastic exists as the unsightly debris we see washed ashore on our beaches.

These large chunks of plastic are bad news for sea creatures which aren’t used to them. Turtles, for instance, consume plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish. In Hawaii’s outer islands the Laysan albatross feeds material skimmed from the sea surface to its chicks. Although adults can regurgitate ingested plastic, their chicks cannot. Young albatrosses are often found dead with stomachs full of bottle tops, lighters and other plastic debris, having starved to death.

But these big, visible impacts may just be the tip of the iceberg. Smaller plastic chunks less than 2.5mm across – broken down bits of larger debris – are ubiquitous in zooplankton samples from the eastern Pacific. In some regions of the central Pacific there is now six times as much plankton-sized plastic are there is plankton. Plankton-eating birds, fish and whales have a tough time telling the two apart, often mistaking this plastic – especially tan coloured particles – for krill.

However, even this doesn’t quite tell the whole story. For technical reasons Marcus Eriksen and his team weren’t able to consider the very smallest particles – but these may be the most harmful of all.

We’re talking here about tiny lumps of 0.5mm across or considerably less, usually invisible to the naked eye, which often originate in cosmetics or drugs containing nanoparticles or microbeads. Such nanoparticles matter as they are similar size to the smallest forms of plankton (pico and nano plankton) which are the most abundant plankton group and biggest contributors in terms of biomass and contribution to primary production…

Plastic pollution of the marine environment is the Cinderella of global issues, garnering less attention than its ugly sisters climate change, acidification, fisheries, invasive species or food waste but it has links to them all and merits greater attention by the scientific community.

I’ve mentioned many times how – growing up in a southern New England factory town – my family relied on subsistence fishing to get by. That meant we ate fish at least 5 days a week, whatever was running at the time. My poor mom was an inventive workingclass cook; but, there’s a limit to how many ways you can make bluefish appetizing.

If we continue to destroy the greatest natural source of food for our species – and many others – we’re in deep trouble. So deep we may not recover to live long enough to witness all the other disasters those who profit the most from our industrial revolution continue to visit upon the planet.

RTFA. Read the research. Get on board.

Oil trains are virtual pipelines – with secret routes and fewer safety regulations


Click to enlargeTom Stromme/Associated Press

The Wall Street Journal has a story on issues surrounding the “virtual pipeline,” and it’s hard to know where to begin sorting out what’s what. The easy part is defining our terms: a virtual pipeline is the mile-long, or longer, hookup of railroad tanker cars that carry oil from places like North Dakota to refineries throughout the country. The issue in the Journal piece is that the oil trains aren’t bound by the same safety regimen as traditional pipelines, and that their routes are often state-mandated secrets due to the fear of a terrorist attack. With the virtual pipelines moving through dense urban areas, the report appears to contend that such constraints on safety and knowledge put the public at higher risk if something goes wrong, if not outright danger.

The controversy isn’t new, nor unusual…As the energy boom has, well, boomed, and railroad companies have looked for freight business to supplement and remedy the decline of coal shipping, rail transport of crude oil products has increased magnificently. With that, cities here in the US and in Canada have asked a lot more questions about how to keep that liquid black economy running and keep everyone safe, worried about first responder preparedness and the quality of train manifests meant to detail the cargo. The Lac-Mégantic train derailment and fire in Quebec in 2013 that killed 47 people only pressed the urgency.

Questions about the secrecy make sense, all the more so because the attempt at secrecy seems absurd; how much of a secret is a train that’s a mile long, that has DOT hazardous materials placards identifying the kind of substance in each car, has passed amateur trainspotting bloggers all along its route, and that can sit still in the middle of a city for hours at a time waiting for space to open up at the destination?

Yet we wonder why the transport of crude is what’s banging the alarm bells – trains carry all kinds of hazardous materials through cities every day, including radioactive substances. When the Department of Homeland Security put together a document called “National Planning Scenarios” in 2004, examining terrorist targets, it was rail cars full of chlorine that ranked alongside dirty bombs and the nerve gas sarin; a story in the Washington Post referenced the suggestion that a single 90-ton tanker car of chlorine could put three million lives at risk in an urban area, while the EPA said an attack at a chlorine plant near New York City could endanger 12 million people. And guess what: almost all chlorine is transported by rail, every car carrying it slapped with a DOT 1017 placard on its side. On the other hand, there’s a lot more crude in transit than chlorine.

From where I sit the question of rail transport of dangerous materials is amplified by the increase in flammable crap carried by these invisible pipelines. They’re only invisible in that the public rarely notices their passage. If no one is hollering our elected officials feel secure in ignoring dangers. They can always blame the railroads themselves, anyway.

Perish the thought that the portion of American bureaucracy charged with legislation and regulation actually get off their rusty-dustys long enough to earn their keep.

Early warning signals of wide-ranging climate change to affect Europe and Africa


Reindeer in Scotland might not be so rare

Research, published…in the journal Nature Communications, used a simulation from a highly complex model to analyse the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), an important component of the Earth’s climate system.

It showed that early warning signals are present up to 250 years before it collapses, suggesting that scientists could monitor the real world overturning circulation for the same signals.

The AMOC is like a conveyor belt in the ocean, driven by the salinity and temperature of the water. The system transports heat energy from the tropics and Southern Hemisphere to the North Atlantic, where it is transferred to the atmosphere.

Experiments suggest that if the AMOC is ‘switched off’ by extra freshwater entering the North Atlantic, surface air temperature in the North Atlantic region would cool by around 1-3°C, with enhanced cooling of up to 8°C in the worst affected regions.

The collapse would also encourage drought in the Sahel — the area just south of the Sahara desert — and dynamic changes in sea level of up to 80cm along the coasts of Europe and North America.

“We found that natural fluctuations in the circulation were getting longer-lived as the collapse was approached, a phenomenon known as critical slowing down,” said lead author Chris Boulton.

We don’t know how close we are to a collapse of the circulation, but a real world early warning could help us prevent it, or at least prepare for the consequences” adds co-author Professor Tim Lenton.

The study is the most realistic simulation of the climate system in which this type of early warning signal has been tested.

It’s everyone’s wildest sci-fi movie. Wild only because climate change deniers have focused their paid-for-stupidity only on the aspects of climate change indicating environments with rising temperatures. Actually the whole North Atlantic current from the Gulf Stream via the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation warms the north and west of Europe and the UK from what would be normal temps absent that elevator.

The Benelux countries and the UK might become more like Lapland.

My curiosity extends to changes in humidity and precipitation. The report indicates desertification south of the Sahara. I wonder if the affected areas of Europe might end up with increased precipitation. Folks in the west of Scotland, Wales and England might have to sprout webbed feet.

Thanks, Mike – GMTA

New NatGas power plant will integrate renewable energy power plants into grid

GE just announced the largest debt financing this year for a thermal power plant in the US. Located in Riverside County, California, the massive 800 MW Sentinel Facility will help facilitate the integration of renewable energy into the power grid. The plan is being funded by a union of mega companies including GE Energy Financial Services, Diamond Generating Corporation and Competitve Power Ventures, and when it is completed it will produce enough power for 239,000 homes.

The thermal plant is part of California’s program to derive 33% of its power from renewable energy by the year 2020. In addition to the CPV Sentinel Facility, Riverside will welcome the Blythe Solar Project, a 968 megawatt solar power plant, driving the state even further toward their goal.

Aside from generating power, the $2 billion project will also give way to 300 construction jobs and 400 employment jobs — expected to inject $55 million into the local economy. Sales tax alone from the project will bring $30 million, and property taxes will provide the county with an additional $6.4 million.

And it ain’t going to buy coal from the Four Corners and PNM.

Oh yeah – that’s more post-construction direct permanent jobs than the whole Keystone XL pipeline.

Thanks, Mike

Do Nothing-Congress did all it could to protect Big Oil

A new report by Oil Change International…demonstrates the huge and growing amount of subsidies going to the fossil fuel industry in the U.S. every year. In 2013, the U.S. federal and state governments gave away $21.6 billion in subsidies for oil, gas, and coal exploration and production.

The value of fossil fuel exploration and production subsidies from the federal government have increased by 45 percent since President Obama took office in 2009 – from $12.7 billion to a current total of $18.5 billion – a side effect of his Administration’s “All of the Above” energy policy that promotes the U.S. oil and gas boom and amounts to nothing less than climate denial.

President Obama has repeatedly tried to repeal some of the most egregious of these subsidies, but these attempts have been blocked by a U.S. Congress that has been bought out by campaign finance and lobbying expenditures from the fossil fuel industry.

In addition to exploration and production subsidies to oil, gas, and coal companies, the U.S. government also provides billions of dollars of additional support to the fossil fuel industry to lower the cost of fossil fuels to consumers, finance fossil fuel projects overseas, and to protect U.S. oil interests abroad with the military.

Finally, while the fossil fuel industry enjoys record profits, U.S, taxpayers will pay the bill for external health and environmental costs from local pollution and climate change impacts.

Big Oil is an equal-opportunity purchaser of political loyalty. It doesn’t matter which of the two TweedleDee or TweedleDumber parties you belong to. Show the least inclination to favor fossil fuel anything and you will be awash in campaign contributions, “independent” supporters and PACs.

It’s the American Way.

Thanks, Mike

George Shultz hasn’t gone anti-science with the rest of the Stupid Party


What a rational conservative like Shultz now drives, BTW

As Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz faced off against Muammar Qaddafi, the Soviet Union and Chinese communists.

His latest cause, though, is one few fellow Republicans support: fighting climate change.

Two years ago, Shultz was alarmed when a retired Navy admiral showed him a video of vanishing Arctic sea ice and explained the implications for global stability. Now, the former Cold Warrior drives an electric car, sports solar panels on his California roof and argues for government action against global warming at clean-energy conferences.

Living a life powered “on sunshine,” Shultz, at 93, has a message for the doubters who dominate his own party: “The potential results are catastrophic,” he said in an interview. “So let’s take out an insurance policy…”

When Obama announced an agreement on carbon controls with Chinese President Xi Jinping three weeks ago, incoming Senate leader Mitch McConnell dismissed it as an “unrealistic plan” that would boost electric rates and kill jobs.

Shultz, now a distinguished fellow at Stanford University, said the reality was driven home for him during a visit to the California campus by Gary Roughead, the U.S. Navy’s retired chief of naval operations. Roughead shared a time-lapse video of the Arctic ice cap shrinking over the last quarter-century.

That certainly was an eye-opener,” Shultz said in an interview last week in San Francisco, where he spoke at an energy conference. The video showed what Shultz called “new oceans” being unlocked from the ice.

It’s a long article and not much from Bloomberg is going to choose policies considered overtly anti-business by the most reactionary elements in American capitalism. They aren’t dumb enough to tell folks to ignore science either – just say the jury is out and people should try to be open-minded.

Try that on the Flat-Earthers and Know-Nothings.

There is a fair amount of interesting anecdotal stuff from and about Shultz. He is an old-fashioned American conservative; so, he’s willing to examine facts and draw real conclusions – unlike the cloud-cuckoo-land tea party-types like Palin and Cruz.

Thanks, Mike