11 May 2011

The End of "Green" Products

When Ford Motor Company attributed much of its recent earnings boost to "green" products (see TriplePundit item), did it signal that "green products" has become a meaningless, obsolete category? Has "green" gotten so mainstream that most products can be labeled by their manufacturers as "green"?

Obviously it is possible to identify products which are not green. Like gasoline from tar sands, coal, or rayon. And some products are greener than others. For instance most analyses would find electricity from wind to be greener than bioethanol. But maybe we are approaching the point when it makes more sense to single out the products that are "not green" rather than those which are green, which will over time become the vast majority.

When "green" becomes main stream, maybe it only makes sense to single out products that are "even greener". At one time compact fluorescent light bulbs were considered "green", in spite of their heavy metal content. But today how can they be considered green when LED bulbs are much more energy efficient and have no mercury? CFLs went from green to gray.

This is a good argument for a green rating or score. The problem with such ratings is that they must be able to compare apples and oranges. (It is easy to compare apples and oranges of course, but here I am using the figure of speech in which the fruits play a metaphorical role. But you knew that, didn't you?) Which is greener, a Prius, an organic apple, a second-hand dress, permeable paving on a parking lot, or a solar hot water heater?

"Green" has many dimensions. Something can be considered "greener" if it
  • Emits less greenhouse gases when it is being manufactured, transported, used, or disposed of than other similar products
  • Causes the release of less toxic or environmentally harmful chemicals in its manufacture, transportation, use, or disposal
  • Causes less ecological damage or negative land use changes in its production or disposal
  • Causes less negative changes in biodiversity in its production, use, or disposal
  • Uses less water in its production, use, or disposal
  • There must be other dimensions. Tell me about them in the comments.
  • Of course if we are considering "sustainability" more broadly then questions of effects on people, their rights, and equity must be considered. 
It is possible to measure or calculate the emission of greenhouse gases or use of water, but the weights to assign to these factors when trying to construct a one-dimensional score will be subjective.

In any event, we are rapidly arriving (at least in developed countries) at the point where "green" is the rule, rather than the exception.

10 May 2011

Rapid Change in the Arctic

The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) has issued its latest Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic report (SWIPA), with recent data on changes in the arctic and how they will affect us all. [Crossposted from A Very Different Earth.]

The major finding is that changes the Arctic is changing faster than previously projected. The report calls attention to the social and economic implications of these changes. But most of us don't live in the Arctic, so why should we care what happens up there?

Sea Level

Many news reports (see two examples below) have focused on the statement that sea levels will rise up to 1.6 meters above 1990 levels by 2100. This is not strictly a finding of the SWIPA study. In fact it just quotes other model results, saying:
High uncertainty surrounds estimates of future global sea level. Latest models predict a rise of 0.9 to 1.6 m above the 1990 level by 2100, with Arctic ice making a significant contribution.
SWIPA itself doesn't say why this warming is happening, but agrees with the IPCC:
In attributing the cause of warming in the Arctic, SWIPA refers to the findings of the Fourth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This states that "Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely [> 90% probability] due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG [greenhouse gas] concentrations".
It does conclude, however, that "melting glaciers and ice sheets worldwide have become the biggest contributor to global sea level rise," and that "These contributions from the Arctic to global sea level rise are much greater than
previously measured."

Key Findings

The English executive summary is in PDF here. The key findings it lists are:
  1. "The past six years (2005–2010) have been the warmest period ever recorded in the Arctic."
  2. "Snow and sea ice are interacting with the climate system to accelerate warming" (positive feedbacks--see finding 12 below).
  3. "The extent and duration of snow cover and sea ice have decreased across the Arctic. Temperatures in the permafrost have risen by up to 2 °C. The southern limit of permafrost has moved northward in Russia and Canada."
  4. "Multiyear sea ice, mountain glaciers, ice caps and the Greenland Ice Sheet have all been declining faster since 2000 than they did in the previous decade."
  5. "Model projections reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 underestimated the rates of change now observed in sea ice."
  6. "Average snow cover duration is projected to decline by up to 20% by 2050."
  7. "The Arctic Ocean is projected to become nearly ice-free in summer within this century, likely within the next thirty to forty years."
  8. These and other changes are altering "the characteristics of Arctic ecosystems and in some cases loss of entire habitats. This has
    consequences for people who receive benefits from Arctic ecosystems."
  9. "The observed and expected future changes to the Arctic cryosphere
    impact Arctic society on many levels," creating both threats and opportunities.
  10. "Transport options and access to resources are radically changed by differences in the distribution and seasonal occurrence of snow, water, ice and permafrost."
  11. "Arctic infrastructure faces increased risks of damage."
  12. "Loss of ice and snow in the Arctic enhances climate warming by increasing
    absorption of the sun’s energy at the surface of the planet. It could also dramatically increase emissions of carbon dioxide and methane and change large-scale ocean currents."
  13. "Arctic glaciers, ice caps and the Greenland Ice Sheet contributed over 40% of the global sea level rise of around 3 mm per year observed between 2003
    and 2008. In the future, global sea level is projected to rise by 0.9–1.6 m by 2100 and Arctic ice loss will make a substantial contribution to this."
  14. "Everyone who lives, works or does business in the Arctic will need to adapt to changes in the cryosphere", and this will require significant investment.
  15. Considerable uncertainty remains and more research is needed. (The traditional coda to any scientific report.)

About AMAP

The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme is a leading, authoritative, scientific program to understand what is going on in the arctic:
AMAP is an international organization established in 1991 to implement components of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS).

Now a programme group of the Arctic Council, AMAP's current objective is "providing reliable and sufficient information on the status of, and threats to, the Arctic environment, and providing scientific advice on actions to be taken in order to support Arctic governments in their efforts to take remedial and preventive actions relating to contaminants".
So its findings carry considerable weight.

Reuters story

Huffington Post story

02 May 2011

Osama bin Laden and Green Business

Will the death of Osama bin Laden have any impact on clean tech, green and sustainability trends and businesses? It might, via a potential boost to President Obama.

Many comentators immediately suggested that the successful elimination of bin Laden, a goal which eluded former President George W. Bush, could boost President Obama's chances of re-election. If it does, that will affect the policies that will be followed in the future. It might mean more federal support for clean technology, more aggressive enforcement on the part of the EPA, and other policies that would encourage the development and adoption of low-carbon energy sources.

graph of Obama's chances on Intrade
Spike in Obama's Re-election Chances on Intrade Prediction Market

The Intrade® reading on Obama's chances jumped to 69%, though it dropped back to 62% on Monday, after the market had digested the news. That's still significantly above the trend during April. Check the latest market action here.
Intrade is a "prediction market" [Wikipedia article here], an exchange where traders can buy or sell contracts the ultimate values of which depend on whether the a particular future event occurs. They are a way of aggregating the opinions of thousands of traders, each of whom thinks he or she knows more than the rest of the market, and hopes to profit if he or she correctly predicts how the market will settle. Sort of a "wisdom of crowds" system.
Here are the immediate reactions of some commentators* observers who suggest President Obama will benefit from success in liquidating Mr. bin Laden:
  • The "Democracy in America" blog at The Economist says, "It means Barack Obama is probably getting re-elected."
  • Jeff Mason says in commentary at Reuters, "His dramatic announcement about bin Laden's death will switch the U.S. public's attention to his success as commander-in-chief, creating an image of strength."
  • Gary Langer blogs at ABC News that "While some bump for the president is entirely possible, how big it is and how long it lasts is an open question," and interprets some past poll results.
  • Nate Silver's New York Times blog says, "To state the obvious, this is good news for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign."
It would appear that the President may have gained some political capital that will help him keep the EPA moving forward on greenhouse gas issues, will help him maintain support for clean tech innovation, and will otherwise enable him to stand firm on sustainability issues. At least a little firmer than he could have stood a few days ago.

Obama may not be as green a president as Al Gore would have been, but he's certainly greener than most, if not all, of the Republican field. Bin Laden's demise is a little bit of good news for clean tech.

The graph is from https://data.intrade.com/graphing/jsp/closingPricesForm.jsp?contractId=743474&tradeURL=https://www.intrade.com.

* Shouldn't that be "commentors" or "commenters" Is "commentate" really a word? Maybe it comes from "commentary" rather than "comment", but darned if I can see how. "Commentate" is defined as "to serve as commentator". No further commentation.