Media Mayhem: 7 environmental stories that are free of doom and gloom
From an eco-city in China to a coffee producer in Uganda to 'towers of power' in Spain and California, some good news from the green frontier.
Mon, Jul 20 2009 at 5:57 AM
Climate change looks as if it’s coming quicker than previously imagined. The strongest response that our politicians can manage may actually be worse than taking no action. And a huge chunk of one state is expected simply to disappear -- even if we do manage to take effective action against global warming.
With news like that, it’s easy to lose sight of hopeful news that’s lurking just outside the media’s spotlight. Often, it’s those hopeful stories -- the ones that are about steady, quiet progress rather than political conflict -- that make the larger difference in our lives.
And you don’t read about them after they’ve had their effect either. Who cares, for example, that “persistent organic pollutants” no longer show up in the bloodstreams of American women because the chemicals were banned 40 years ago and industry was able to find substitutes; or that new diesel engines required by the EPA put out just 10 percent of the soot and smog that they did just a few years ago.
Here are seven developments that may play a role in solving climate change and other burning problems of the future -- and that may never get the headlines they deserve:
1) China’s building an eco-city. If you’ve been to China, “eco” isn’t the prefix you’d use before the word “city”: Some of the world’s worst smog. Neighborhoods that look like landfills. Landfills that look like somebody’s neighborhood. Toxic dumping into drinking-water sources. And an unfortunate, burgeoning love affair with sprawl. Oh, great.
An earlier attempt to wed New Urbanism to authoritarian planning on a mega-city scale flopped. But now, with the help of financiers from Singapore, the Chinese government is mapping out an ecotopia of 350,000.
Among the goals: recycle 60 percent of garbage; design the city and its buildings to conserve water; and cut down on car trips by 90 percent by building neighborhoods around an extensive light-rail network.
An eco-city in China would be a more relevant model for the rapidly growing cities in other developing countries than say Portland, Oregon. According to the Guardian, “investors said the 10-year scheme was intended to be ‘scalable and replicable’ so it could be used across China, India and other developing nations.”
2) Third World efforts to lock up carbon in trees may not be a Ponzi scheme after all. Exhibit A has got to be a project already underway in Ghana that’s designed to grow 24 million trees in exchange for carbon credits. The BBC reports:
The first million seedlings are being planted in a pilot scheme in an area that has been heavily logged in recent years. The trees are all tropical hardwoods, mostly indigenous, and it is believed this project could eventually become the largest of its kind.
Ghana -- a West African democracy highlighted favorably this month in a visit by President Obama -- has lost 80 percent of its tree cover over the last half century. That deforestation threatens to bring desert conditions to the small country and badly diminishes one of its most valuable natural resources.
Carbon-credit trading is derided by some as a shell game that allows multinational firms to pretend they’re offsetting emissions when they’re really doing what they’d do anyway. And some local environmentalists have expressed misgivings about the Ghana project. But ArborCarb, the British firm that’s behind this so far seems to be taking the right steps: It’s planting biologically diverse seedlings of indigenous trees, and is promising not to buy up land, but instead to empower local owners.
In the project’s life cycle, ArborCarb says, the new trees will suck up nine million metric tons of carbon.
3) Renewable energy is getting closer to “grid parity.” By their very nature, renewable systems suffer from a competitive disadvantage: They have a hard time storing energy to use when the wind’s calmed or the sun’s down.
But Yale University’s Environment 360 website reports that new storage approaches -- among them advanced lithium-ion batteries, networks of batteries in homes, and “schemes to store energy as huge volumes of compressed air in vast geologic vaults” -- are becoming more economically viable.
That’s a big step toward leveling the playing field between clean systems and the carbon-intensive systems that are so 20th century. Says Environment 360: “Large-scale electricity storage promises to be a game-changer, unshackling alternative energy.”
4) Large-scale solar plants seem to have a future. Grid parity certainly helps. But one of the brightest lights in the solar field is California-based BrightSource Energy, which is starting construction on the first of 14 planned plants that are expected to generate enough electricity to power 1.8 million homes.
Rather than using photovoltaic cells, BrightSource relies on mirrors that aim solar heat toward a central tower, where it’s used to create steam that then drives a turbine to generate electricity. Another company has operated a similar “tower of power” system near Seville, Spain, since 2007.
But plans for “concentrated” solar-energy farms of all sorts improves the odds that one technology could emerge as a replacement for coal.
5) At the same time, the prospect for solar systems in many homes looks better than ever. One reason is a 30 percent tax credit approved this year by Congress. Another reason is that manufacturers are finding less costly ways to make photovoltaic cells.
But grassroots ingenuity and marketing is an important part of bringing the solar panels to market. One Block of the Grid (1BOG) is a year-old San Francisco non-profit that helps neighbors join together to demystify the solar-installation process and to increase bargaining power with solar suppliers and. That can lower the cost to each home by around 30 percent.
1BOG already is expanding from California -- where it claims to have helped nearly 12,000 homes move to solar -- to Denver and New Orleans, with plans eventually to go national.
6) China is making a big commitment to clean energy. Yes, this is one story that’s gotten a bit of coverage -- finally. But didn’t news that China’s invested $12 billion in renewable energy kind of sneak up on you?
The world’s most populous nation is supposed to be the place that’s putting a lump of coal in every pot and a dirty-coal power plant in every garage, right? And more development there threatens to swamp the combined carbon-reduction efforts of Western nations. That’s still the case.
All the more reason though that China’s seriousness about alternative energy truly is heartening. Utilities there already are supposed to generate three percent of their energy from renewables, and 15 percent by 2020. So far, projects range from household bio-digesters to laying the groundwork for the world’s largest wind farms.
The Chinese need to do more and to do it more quickly. But if the country’s investment in renewables results in breakthroughs that drive the cost of wind and solar below that of conventional methods, maybe the world’s biggest carbon-emitting country will be able to say bye-bye to coal plants someday.
7) We’re all in this together. That’s the only thought I can come up with to characterize what simply is the inspirational story of a smalltime Uganda coffee roaster who produces non-char briquettes made from agricultural waste. No wonder Kampala Jellitone Suppliers Ltd. just won the Ashden International Award for Avoided Deforestation.
Abasi Musisi, the head of the coffee company, started using agriculture waste to create a briquette that burns cleaner and more efficiently that wood or charcoal. He started selling the briquettes to area businesses, and is now working to market them to homes.
In the award citation, Ashden International cites the company for reducing carbon dioxide emission by around 800 tons a month, while it also reduces deforestation in the Ugandan countryside and air pollution in the capital city of Kampala.
Journalist Ken Edelstein writes the Media Mayhem column for the Mother Nature Network. He blogs about media, pop culture and the environment at cultofgreen.com.
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