29 March 2009

Earth Hour Went Off OK, Then Back On

During Earth Hour many cities, public buildings, companies and individuals turned off some lights, and maybe other electrical devices, for one hour. Then they turned them back on again. Here is how the Wellington, N.Z. railway station looked during Earth Hour:

Nice and dark. I presume the trains continued to run. But then, New Zealand is well-supplied with hydroelectric power, so perhaps they didn't really save any carbon to speak of. (A quick check of N.Z. stats shows that about 70% of its electricity is generated from renewable resources, geothermal, hydro, biomass, wind, etc.)

Here is what Wellington Station looks like the other 364 nights of the year:

What is wrong with this picture? I don't mean Wellington Station, I mean everywhere. Public buildings, monuments, corporate headquarters, even the pyramids of Giza are lit up extravagantly, and just for decoration. Not for safety, or for any useful purpose. Why does this go on, even as it goes off for an hour once a year? And who is paying (directly) for all that electricity? We know we are all paying indirectly for the carbon emitted in producing it.

Maybe New Zealand could cut its electricity use by 30% and then it wouldn't have to use any fossil fuels for electricity production. Why not?

23 March 2009

Development Must Be Green

Here is the situation:

India congratulates itself for having among the lowest per-capita rates of greenhouse gas emission in the world. India's GHG emissions are about 1.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per capita. India claims it "is not a significant contributor" to global GHG emissions (though it is the fifth largest, and will probably be the 3rd largest within a few years). It says won't exceed the per capita emissions of the industrialized countries even as it develops. (It should be careful about this promise, since industrialized countries could cut their per-capita rates substantially if they wanted to. These goalposts can be moved, and such promises forgotten.)

But India achieves this low rate of emissions because of the millions who are so poor that they generate no greenhouse gases to speak of. If it raises them out of poverty they will want vehicles, electric lights and appliances, air conditioning, and many other amenities they have been denied. Their GHG emissions will climb toward those of the middle class, which already equal those of most industrialized nations. (If the Indian "middle class" (and above) includes 50 million people, and they account for half of India's 1.5 billion metric tonnes of GHG emissions, each is already emitting more than the average citizen of the U.K., Japan, Spain or France, and twice as much as the average Swiss.)

The atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases that we believe will not trigger catastrophic climate disruption is about  350 parts per million of CO2. Since the level is already at 385 ppm that means we have to reduce global GHG emissions below the rate at which the planet can absorb those emissions, until we get back down to a sustainable level. We are already in "overshoot".

We need to get global human-caused emissions down to about 14 billion tonnes of CO2 per year just to keep atmospheric CO2 levels from rising. Since population is also increasing we should target a global rate of emissions of about 1.8 tonnes per person per year.

Well, that was a lot of introduction, but now you can see the implications:

  • India already approaches the total per-capita emission level that all of us (or our descendants) will have to attain to keep the earth from going over the edge, climate-change wise.
  • India has the relatively easy job of raising living standards while not increasing GHG emissions.
    • The US, for example, has the harder task of reducing per-capita emissions by 95% without reducing living standards, and while burdened with a huge legacy of carbon-intensive infrastructure.
  • India will be building infrastructure as it develops, and its people will be deciding how to live with greater personal wealth.
India must build toward a less carbon-intensive society, rather than mimicking the high-carbon excesses, the mistakes, of the industrialized countries. Do it right the first time or you will have to do it twice, setting back development and prolonging the poverty of the nation.

21 March 2009

Earth Hour: Fiat Obscurum

Earth Hour is an eco-event next Saturday, 28th March. At 8:30 in the evening, local time, people around the world will switch off their lights for one hour. (Will they also turn off their televisions, computers, radios, video game consoles, air conditioners and other electric appliances?) This will demonstrate that lights can be turned off, then back on again. I am going to participate.

Its exact purpose is a bit vague, but here is what its web site says:
In 2009, Earth Hour is being taken to the next level, with the goal of 1 billion people switching off their lights as part of a global vote. Unlike any election in history, it is not about what country you’re from, but instead, what planet you’re from. VOTE EARTH is a global call to action for every individual, every business, and every community. A call to stand up and take control over the future of our planet. Over 74 countries and territories have pledged their support to VOTE EARTH during Earth Hour 2009, and this number is growing everyday.

Here is my problem with Earth Hour

Many people, having switched off the electric lights, will light candles. These give a warm glow to accompany the moral glow of satisfaction in being part of a global eco-happening. These candles will emit many thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. A candle emits the same amount of combustion products as a 60 Watt incandescent lamp running on electricity from a coal-fired power plant. But it gives only one-seventieth as much light.

Most candles are made from fossil hydrocarbons (80%). Some are made from beeswax or plant oils, so at least they are not as large net contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. If you are going to light up (a candle) during Earth Hour use one made from a renewable form of wax, or use an oil lamp.

WWF, the global conservation organization which is promoting the event, says "Earth Hour 2009 aims to reach more than 1 billion people in 1000 cities around the world, inviting communities, business and governments to switch off lights for 1 hour and send a global message that we need to take action on climate change."

I hope those one billion people use the time to write, or at least compose, letters to their political leaders urging real action on climate change. Darkness is cheap. Change is work.

17 March 2009

It's Easy Being Green--If You Lie

There was a story in the Bombay Times recently about a fabric it claimed was both "green" and "glam": viscose rayon.

Where did anyone get the idea that rayon was "green"? They even called it "organic". Or maybe I am wrong and rayon really is a "green" material.

Rayon is a synthetic fiber made by dissolving cellulose in strong organic chemical solvents then extruding it into filaments the same way nylon and other synthetic polymer threads are made. The fibers are spun and woven into fabrics.

The main chemicals used are caustic soda (produced by electrolysis, a very energy-intensive process) , carbon disulfide (made from natural gas) and sulfuric acid. Grasim Industries of the Aditya Birla Group is the world's largest producer of Rayon.

It was invented in the 1850s and the current commercial technology for "viscose rayon" dates from 1894. The cellulose can come from wood pulp. Bamboo was mentioned in the article, I think. I suppose the source materials could be grown organically (withouth the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers or pest control agents). But rayon is something not found in nature, an industrial product, made by intensive chemical treatment with clearly un-organic chemicals. (The plants that make it are usually big polluters.)

Perhaps the designers have been deceived by the textile manufacturers, but I am sure they didn't put up much of a fight. Perhaps the journalists misinterpreted the information they were given, though usually they just uncritically repeat what they are told. That the manufacturer could fail to know the untruth of these assertions is unbelievable. Someone is deliberately confusing consumers for commercial gain.

Some are willing to exploit consumers' ignorance to make a quick rupee. Consumers should fight back and make it clear that they do not like being duped.

Crossposted from HaraBara's blog