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December 31, 2008

What's a Little Ammonium Sulfate Between Friends?

As if we need another reminder of the extent to which our food system (like our politics, our financial system and our love lives) rely as much on good behavior as on regulation. The Sac Bee (via the Daily Green) details a scandal involving the company California Liquid Fertilizer, organic certification, a bit of ammonium sulfate fertilizer and a lot of lettuce. The company in question makes organic liquid fertilizer (in California, natch). Its product worked really really well. Or rather not well enough, since they felt the need to spike it with ammonium sulfate:

The company's fertilizer was effective, inexpensive and approved by organic regulators. By 2006, it held as much as a third of the market in California.

But a state investigation caught the Salinas-area company spiking its product with ammonium sulfate, a synthetic fertilizer banned from organic farms.

As a result, some of California's 2006 harvest of organic fruits, nuts and vegetables - including crops from giants like Earthbound Farm - wasn't really organic.

Ah, well. Other than the fact that regulators knew for years that the company was spiking the punch going back almost a decade and the fact that the company never faced any penalties or litigation for its violations of both the spirit and the letter of the law (though nor did farms that used the product lose their certification), what caught my eye was the Bee's observation that there is a bit of an arms race going on among organic farms in terms of fertilizer.

As organic farms scale up, they need to find better and better ways to replenish their soil's nitrogen content since without somehow adding nitrogen back in to agricultural lands, the soil eventually becomes effectively sterile. It can be done organically via cover crops like beans, manure or liquid fertilizer made from fish parts or chicken feathers. But concentrating nitrogen from natural sources is much harder than chemically pulling it out of the atmosphere (which is a step in the ammonium sulfate production process).

Meanwhile, ammonia products are the conventional farmer's ne plus ultra of fertilizers - but require huge petrochemical and energy use and are one of the main elements of conventional farming that organic farming defines itself in opposition to. So we've got irony as far as the eye can see. Along with a warning flag. Was this product embraced because it led to a marginal, but crucial, increase in yields at large-scale organic farms? Or was it considered a significant innovation in organic fertilizer that allowed organic farms to make a leap that wouldn't have otherwise happened? Is there an iceberg lurking about of which we have found the tip?

The indications aren't good. The article quotes an executive from a lab that tests fertilizers who "found that a number of fertilizers sold to organic farmers show signs of being from synthetic sources." Not to mention the fact that the products are so heavily processed, despite their "natural" sources, that it can be difficult to easily determine if something came from synthetic sources or not.

While I very much hope that we can file this in the "isolated case of a product whose performance turned out to be too good to be true" department, it's looking like we may need to instead file it in the "organic yields are too low without conventional fertilizer" department. I hate that department and try never to go there.

Photo by Michael Davidson used under a CC license

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December 30, 2008

Spend, Baby, Spend

Dave Roberts at Grist flags this Bloomberg article on the Obama stimulus with some concern. Turns out that when you throw infrastructure money at states with a "use it or lose it" clause, they end up wanting to spend it on roads:
Missouri's plan to spend $750 million in federal money on highways and nothing on mass transit in St. Louis doesn't square with President-elect Barack Obama's vision for a revolutionary re-engineering of the nation's infrastructure.

Utah would pour 87 percent of the funds it may receive in a new economic stimulus bill into new road capacity. Arizona would spend $869 million of its $1.2 billion wish list on highways.

There's a legitimate conflict here, of course. If the point is to get money into the economy, it needs to happen fast. Since many states have de-prioritized mass transit during the Lost Years (if it ever was a priority in places like Utah), there are far fewer such projects "ready to go." Keynes once opined that during a depression government funding for "digging holes in the ground" would be worthwhile even if they were to be filled right back up again. In fact, given our warming world, empty holes would likely be better in the long run than building more capacity into highway systems that don't need it or encouraging sprawl when smart development is the way to go.

This will be hard nut to crack, though. Dave Roberts calls it a "missed opportunity" if we just end up building roads. But I don't think that properly acknowledges the sizable, ahem, roadblocks in the way of reorienting infrastructure spending. At the state and federal levels, there are powerful interests intent on keeping the road money flowing and, with the recession gaining speed, any worker getting an honest paycheck is looked on as a blessing. The fact is our current system is fundamentally designed to build roads and bridges at the expense of just about everything else. Which is why Obama during the campaign supported a National Infrastructure Bank that included a panel of experts to determine spending priorities.

It will thus be interesting to see how Obama squares his support for such an entity vs. the dambusting flood of road pork that his stimulus plan threatens to unleash. We haven't really heard anything yet on how the money might be structured - it's possible that Obama may yet use it as an opportunity to establish an infrastructure bank of some kind, even if some money is released upfront to allow states a head start on the projects that really are ready to go (as opposed to those that are on the wishlist). And we're not just whistling into the wind on this one. In Obama's Meet the Press appearance a few weeks ago, he acknowledged that states will want to get going on their "shovel-ready" projects but first:

...We're going to have to prioritize it and do it not in the old traditional "politics first" wave. What we need to do is examine what are the projects where we're going to get the most bang for the buck, how are we going to make sure taxpayers are protected. You know, the days of just pork coming out of Congress as a strategy, those days are over.
At the end of the day, it's hard to believe that Obama will give states a blank check. The true missed opportunity, in my view, will not be over which transit projects go unbuilt but rather over the chance to remake the pork-barrel infrastructure spending system that got us in this crazy wishlist business in the first place.

Photo by Beige Alert used under CC license

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December 29, 2008

The Barn Door

The TVA slams it shut now that the horse has finally gone. Maybe. According to the AP, the TVA is now "reviewing storage options" with the idea that maybe they should do something different with all that coal ash.

As Atrios would say, no one ever could have imagined that this would happen. Storing 1.7 5.4 million tons of coal ash in giant ponds next to rivers is just such a fantabulous idea. Flushing toxic sludge down nature's toilet sure doesn't seem clean to me. What would the caroling coal lumps say?

Photo by Steffe used under CC license

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Visual Aids
Joe Romm points to Double Exposure - an exhibit that "documents one aspect of the warming climate through fine-art photography that brings the viewer into panoramas of glaciers once grand but now receding."

Some of the most effective aspects of Al Gore's Oscar-winning slideshow involved the photographic evidence that global warming was altering our world RIGHT NOW. This should help, too. Although it would be nice if it traveled to more cities - why should Boston, Greenwich CT, Vegas and a couple cities in California have all the fun?

Here's the Matterhorn, first in 1960(!) and then in 2006.


The ultimate before and after, no?

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December 27, 2008

Does This Seem Normal to You?
Not your grandfather's winter, via weather.com:
A springlike storm complex brought severe thunderstorms and heavy, flooding rains from the western Great Lakes to the southern Plains on Saturday...

A handful of tornadoes were reported along the Missouri-Illinois border north of St. Louis, resulting in some structural damage.

...Combined with the very warm air ahead of a cold front, the heavy rain caused rapid melting of the deep snow pack across the Midwest.
Oh, and after all this it's supposed to snow tomorrow in the upper Midwest. Just like with the stock market, it's not the overall trend that gets you so much as the volatility.

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December 24, 2008

Christmas Cheer
As you may have noticed, things have been quiet here at Beyond Green. Mrs. Beyond Green and I, along with the Beyond Greenlets, have been busy with this and that. But on this Christmas Eve, I thought I'd share with you a heart-to-heart I had tonight with my visiting sister-in-law who's a paleoclimatologist. We were talking, as you might expect on a festive night like this, about deep ocean currents - her specialty, as it happens.

She assured me that, no, Virginia, the oceans will not start spewing poison gas any time soon. In fact, the doomsday scenario I was ruminating upon recently isn't really possible except on a geologic timescale, i.e. millions of years. While it's true that the deep ocean currents will be affected by climate change, it will be a result of the change in salinity due to melting glaciers rather than warmer ocean water per se. That's sure to cause alterations in the climate, but at least on the "human" timescale of the next few thousand years, won't be enough to cause the oceans to go anoxic. And it won't cause Europe to plunge into an instant ice age the day after tomorrow, either. All of which I found rather cheering.

With that thought to warm you, I wish everyone Happy Holidays. Posting will be light over the next week. So keep an eye on things for me.

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December 19, 2008

Defrosted

The annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union or, as I like to call it, the Doomsday Society, has just concluded. The topics of the moment were ice, as in melting, and methane, as in releasing lots of. And the methane they're talking about isn't the stuff coming out the back of the front of farm animals. It's the methane that's been trapped in the permafrost, both in the frozen tundra as well as underwater (did you all know there was undersea permafrost?). Turns out there's a lot it - as much as there is carbon in the atmosphere right now. Which would be fine and dandy, if only the permafrost weren't melting. Melting permafrost is, as Joe Romm observes, a tragically under-reported story. That's surprising since, via Romm:
  • Siberian tundra contains probably the world's largest amount of carbon locked away in the permafrost.
  • As it defrosts, much of the tundra's carbon would be released as methane, which is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
  • "The year 2007 was the warmest on record for the Arctic," according to NOAA.
  • NOAA reported that methane levels rose in 2007 for the first time since 1998 (see here).
  • Scientific analysis suggests the rise in 2007 methane levels came from Arctic wetlands (see here).
  • The tundra feedback, coupled with the climate-carbon-cycle feedbacks, could easily take us to the unmitigated catastrophe of 1,000 ppm.
Now, I wouldn't run for the hills just yet. But I will say this. Whenever scientists talk about something triggering the climate "tipping point" aka "point of no return" aka "the human race's terrible, horrible, no good, really bad day," they invariably talk about a catastrophic release of all that methane.

Thanks to the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event (aka "the Great Dying") when, as I recall Wikipedia tells us, "96 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of terrestrial vertebrate species" went extinct (not to mention the fact that it was "the only known mass extinction of insects"), we have a pretty good idea what happens when there's a massive release of methane and catastrophic heating. Fun fact: many scientists now believe that all the heat in the ocean back in the Permian caused the deep ocean currents to shut down, which in turn caused a build-up of sulfides underwater that then bubbled out of the ocean as hydrogen sulfide gas (a "broad spectrum poison" Wikipedia says) which floated onto land and killed almost everything. I swear I'm not making this up. Point being, running for the hills won't really help anyway.

So forgive me a brief quake in the boots when a scientist studying underwater permafrost talks about "large clouds of methane bubbles observed in the water column over hundreds of square kilometers" - bigger than they've yet seen. This melting permafrost might explain why those methane levels rose. Combine that with the 2 trillion tons of ice lost in the Arctic since 2003 and you get some seriously bad climate mojo.

You know what? I'm scaring myself. I think I'll wrap up there. Perhaps I'll spend the holidays in the hills.

Photo by Ludovic Hirlimann used under CC license

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The Practical Politics of Food
Tom Philpott's not entirely unfair hit on Steven Chu got me thinking. And commenting on his post. Here's an expansion on what I said:

With all the upset stomachs in the food movement over Tom Vilsack as the new Ag Sec, one thing I haven't yet heard is an explanation of how a true reformer, one to whom the farm lobby and agribusiness is actively hostile, could get anything done at the USDA. Many bloggers, myself included, have written on the institutional difficulties, specifically in the Senate, inherent in agricultural reform. Even Pollan recognizes this and suggests House and Senate committee reform (itself a near impossibility) to deal with it.

I'm not a fan of some of Vilsack's positions (especially on ethanol and GMOs), but I'm unclear on how anyone more progressive than he could accomplish the change we want at the USDA - he/she would be blocked at every turn. Assuming that a reformer could even be confirmed, which in my view would be incredibly unlikely. The Senate, remember, allows a single member to place a secret hold on any vote - a noisy reformer with the intent of undoing subsidy regimes that have enriched agribusiness, factory farmers, lobbyists and lawyers would be a prime candidate for such a maneuver. The politics of reform are prohibitive, though Steph Larsen at the Ethicurean is right that much can be done by the second and third tier jobholders at Ag - the operational folks who can make change on a daily basis.

All that said, I do still think that Vilsack does have the potential (working with Sen. Tom Harkin - who I've seen pointed out is relatively reform-minded himself, especially with regards to conservation efforts) to start to turn this battleship. But this is a multi-year project. I think the history of health reform in this country provides a good guide (Ezra Klein would be the one to flesh out the comparison). The institutional barriers for health care reform are just as high as for the food system. It's been 15 years from the first, disastrous attempt at massive reform. Only now are we facing the possibility of success - it took that long to move the institutions in the right direction.

As for the food system, you can argue we may not have that long. In my opinion, if indeed climate science takes the lead in the Obama administration, the potential for swifter change is there. I think the debate on ethanol, for example, has really just begun in Washington, and it's going to be the scientists, not the politicians, taking the lead. And that points to a major problem for food policy reform - unlike most other "movements" in US politics, the food movement doesn't have a significant institutional presence in Congress, the place where reform is actually enacted. Ezra Klein has alluded to the lack of high-profile political "leaders" of the food movment. But there's an even greater structural deficiency. Labor, environment, reproductive rights, health reform - they all have organized groups within Congress (not to mention sizeable, well-funded lobbies) pushing the debate. The food movement is in its infancy there - and it shows.

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A Moratorium on the Moratorium
Remember that watershed ruling by the EPA's Environmental Appeals Board that seemed to require the EPA to study carbon emissions from coal plants before allowing new ones to be built? Well, the Bushies may be enemies of freedom, the environment and capitalism and all that, but they are careful readers. According to a report in the NYT, the ruling did not in fact require the EPA to consider carbon emissions in the permitting proces. It just said they "can" - a detail that was noticed by the EPA's lawyers, if not the rest of us. And that, as Robert Frost might say, has made all the difference.

Outgoing EPA administrator Stephen Johnson, so effectively filleted in a recent series of Philadelphia Inquirer articles, has stuck one more of his substantial collection of shivs into the back of the environmental movement by declaring Thursday, "The current concerns over global climate change should not drive E.P.A. into adopting an unworkable policy of requiring emission controls." And so it won't. With that statement, so went the moratorium on new plants. You can still hear the coal industry cheering.

In the end, the Obama administration can indeed require carbon emissions controls under the Appeals board ruling for new plants. But it looks like several thousand megawatts of new coal-fired power will come online before they get to it. Oh well. It's just the climate, right?

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December 17, 2008

The Corn Solution

For those of you terrified by Obama's comment at yesterday's press conference that "the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oil fields abroad but in our farm fields here at home," allow me to sum up the biofuel future in one word: Agrichar. Okay, two words because it's sometimes called biochar.

I just wish someone would say it to our President-elect, since, though he's clearly outside the "Iraq bubble," he appears to still be in the "ethanol bubble." Perhaps Time Magazine's Person of the Year might like to peruse the April 2008 issue of said mag in which Michael Grunwald popped that bubble so effectively for the rest of us. Said he:
...Several new studies show the biofuel boom is doing exactly the opposite of what its proponents intended: it's dramatically accelerating global warming, imperiling the planet in the name of saving it. Corn ethanol, always environmentally suspect, turns out to be environmentally disastrous. Even cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass, which has been promoted by eco-activists and eco-investors as well as by President Bush as the fuel of the future, looks less green than oil-derived gasoline.
Time Magazine. Last April. It's nice that Obama reads the NYT Sunday Magazine but he needs to broaden his horizons a bit. I think it's pretty clear that Obama wants to move away from corn ethanol - he said as much yesterday and, as previously noted, incoming DOE head Steven Chu is quite hostile to it as well. But switching from corn to cellulose as the source 1) will take too long 2) probably won't work and 3) if Grunwald is to be believed, is misguided anyway.

At a minimum, the much discussed five-to-ten year window to get cellulosic ethanol up to scale is five to ten years' worth of money and effort that we waste on the corn ethanol program or, as Ezra Klein calls it, "Agribusiness's get-rich-quick scheme masquerading as an energy policy." Even the "promising" alternative that Vilsack appears to support of importing our ethanol from Brazil isn't really worth much optimism. Brazil may be good at making ethanol from sugar but, according to Grunwald, the process is causing "the destruction of the world's greatest ecological jewel" - the Amazon rain forest. But wait, there's less:
Brazil now ranks fourth in the world in carbon emissions, and most of its emissions come from deforestation...

...This land rush is being accelerated by an unlikely source: biofuels. An explosion in demand for farm-grown fuels has raised global crop prices to record highs, which is spurring a dramatic expansion of Brazilian agriculture, which is invading the Amazon at an increasingly alarming rate.
Pass the sugar ethanol? No way. Which brings us back to that funny word at the top of the post that points to a solution that can keep US corn farmers (relatively) happy and that doesn't involve ethanol at all. And, via Scientific American, it's all based on a fancy-pants way to make charcoal.

By using a special kiln, you can take agricultural wastes such as - are you listening, Iowa? - corn leaves and stalks, burn it in the absence of oxygen and then use the gas byproducts to create electricity. You also get large nuggets of pure carbon (okay, charcoal). The charcoal can then be plowed back into the soil and, according to the latest research, will nourish the soil and stay there possibly forever. The upshot is that a good chunk of the carbon "fixed" by the plant matter is now permanently sequestered in the soil. And there's even some indication that the burning and "gasification" process itself may be carbon negative. Zowie.

Interestingly, there's an especially hopeful cameo buried in the Scientific American article on agrichar. Who should turn out to be a big supporter of agrichar research? No, not Tom Vilsack. Rather, Ken Salazar, the newly minted Interior Secretary who has many environmentalists up in arms. And none of this is news to the USDA, which already funds agrichar research. Perhaps Ken, Tom and Steve could have a little sit-down and hash all this stuff out? In the Bush administration, having three cabinet secretaries sit down together would generally lead to a war, the destruction of an inconvenient personal liberty or a tasty giveaway to some favored industry. But this troika has it within its power to revolutionize agriculture and energy. If, that is, they're willing to pop that darn bubble.

Photo by SantiMB used under CC license

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December 16, 2008

Vilsack'd Indeed
After all that, Obama has picked former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to head the USDA. I think a lot of people will be listening very carefully to tomorrow's news conference to see what the agriculture priorities sound like. Jill at La Vida Locavore has a good survey of the faint praise with which this pick will be damned. Meanwhile I refer you all to some more of that sort of thing that I featured last month which contained this nugget from Grist's Tom Philpott:
Big Ag commodity groups had mounted a backroom campaign against Vilsack's bid for USDA chief. Evidently, the former governor is more of a champion of conservation programs than they can tolerate.
Though YMMV, as we say on the internets.

But as I observed back when Vilsack's name had first been floated (which was of course before we thought he had subsequently been passed over), this may all be about climate change (a subject which Vilsack is passionate about). From Hillary at State, through Richardson at Commerce, now Vilsack at Ag, and into the "Green Team" of Chu, Jackson, Salazar, Sutley and Browner, this is a group that has a singular passion about the subject. When the time comes for the agriculture sector to submit to limits on carbon emissions (and despite his ill-considered support for both flavors of ethanol), Tom Vilsack has the credibility and the commitment to deliver on them. Presumably, Obama thinks so, too.

[Updated 11:40am, Wednesday] Some folks have been trying to square the circle of Vilsack's denial last month to the Des Moines Register that he was under consideration for the post. I would merely speculate that he may have been truthful. There's the distinct possibility that Obama went back to Vilsack more recently based on dissatisfaction over his other choices and/or an inability to get the farm lobby to swallow more reformist picks. Given Obama's amazing needle-threading instincts with his Veterans Affairs pick Shinseki, along with Chu at DOE and Duncan for Education, it's hard to believe he would have abandoned them for Ag. I'm not suggesting that Vilsack is necessarily a closet reformer. I'm just saying the politics of the situation might have led Obama to him in a way that doesn't necessary indicate what Obama's policy priorities really are. I'm hoping we find out more at the press conference today.

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Hazard vs. Risk
Since last June, the EU has been in the process of implementing a major revision of its pesticide laws. As a result, the use of several of the most common agricultural pesticide ingredients in Europe may soon be phased out - perhaps beginning as soon as January. Which would, naturally, cause the END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT. Or so says the UK Crop Protection Association. I'll let you guess who they're really protecting.

The world will only end, of course, if the ban goes through without significant weakening. From what I can tell, the law will pass in some form or another. It's mostly a question of who ends up in the driver's seat. The bill has over the last six months been a political football (being Europe, this would presumably be the round kind) kicked between the national-level politicians, who try to weaken it in order to aid their farm lobbies, and the European Parliamentarians who try to strengthen it.

One interesting element is that the law doesn't actually delineate a set of banned substances. Rather, it changes the way the EU assesses the threat posed by a particular chemical. As Reuters explains:
The new rules would push Europe towards a hazard- rather than risk- based approach, meaning that pesticides could be banned if they are dangerous at any dosage. At present, they can be allowed if they are safe at the level at which they are used.
That sounds like a good idea to me. Given that scientists have repeatedly misjudged "safe" levels of exposure for various chemicals, traditional risk assessment for this sort of thing deserves to be shelved. More often than not, when it's time to determine acceptable levels of human exposure to a given chemical and the precise science is lacking, regulators just make a graph with zero exposure on one end and deadly exposure on the other. Then they draw a line from the former to the latter. Somewhere close to but not quite at zero becomes the acceptable limit.

The current disasters with melamine, which now appears to be ubiquitous in the US food system, along with bisphenol-A (in every food and drink can lining, baby bottle and most plastics) are prime examples. And now, as Enviroblog tells us, having discovered that melamine is indeed in baby formula here in the US, the FDA has simply declared this existing level of contamination to be "safe" since babies here are clearly not all going to the hospital with melamine poisoning. The logic is simultaneously inescapable and deeply flawed.

As for that European pesticide law, in the event it passes as currently proposed, it will represent both a huge victory as well as a wonderful agricultural experiment. There is, after all, general agreement between supporters and opponents of the ban about one thing. In Europe at least, farming based on heavy use of the banned chemicals will no longer be possible. Whether that will lead to total armageddon or not depends on your point of view.

If the UN is to be believed (not to mention the Rodale Institute), weaning farmers off of chemicals should have no great effect on yield. But you wouldn't know it to hear the complaints from the European farm lobby - chemicals may be icky, they say, but you can't farm without them. At the same time, they readily admit that the greatest risk from the ban lies in the existing immune resistance to many pesticides among pests. These folks act like soldiers down to their last bullet with a marauding horde at the gates. Just using one pesticide isn't enough, the conventional farmers declare - it takes multiple products to keep those yields nice and high. To listen to them is to hear the addict's plea - the dose may be high, but it needs to be to have an effect.

If the European Parliament can withstand the farm lobbyists (and agricultural ministers') onslaught, Europe will provide a big test for proponents of organic (or even other farming techniques, such as Integrated Pest Management). If the yields don't collapse, one of the main pillars supporting the logic behind conventional agriculture will. Hopefully, Tom Vilsack will take note.

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December 15, 2008

Moving Target
The recently concluded climate talks in Poland generated very little heat (which is possibly one of the only cases where more heat would actually be good for the climate). But one interesting development was the acknowledgment that maybe, just maybe, as far as cutting our emissions goes, we're still aiming at the wrong target. Since addressing climate change went from scientific debate to treaty obligation, one of the main tasks has been to determine the safe or "target" level of atmospheric carbon - currently at 387 parts per million - necessary to maintain past the year 2100 "a planet", as NASA's James Hansen recently put it, "similar to that on which civilization developed, and to which life on earth is adapted."

About 10 years ago, 550 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere seemed right - and achievable. Since then, however, the warming effects we're already seeing combined with improved climate modeling brought that number down to 450 parts per million. Difficult to achieve, certainly, but possible - if we turned all our global efforts toward it and made a serious commitment over the next 40 years to move to a low-carbon economy. Now the science suggests that not only is 450ppm not enough to stop catastrophic warming and sea level rise, but once we get there, we may not be able to stop a slow increase to 550ppm and beyond. Beyond, as I've described before, is very very bad place. Believe me when I tell you that you don't ever want to go to there.

It was James Hansen himself who recently published the paper declaring that keeping the planet the way we like it means keeping atmospheric carbon levels at no more than 350ppm. Unfortunately, the difference between 450ppm and 350ppm is a yawning chasm both in scientific and political terms. It's one thing to figure out how to slow down a hurtling freight train and bring it to a halt. It's another thing to have to throw it into reverse.

And so, when Al Gore spoke in Poland last week and declared "Even a goal of 450 parts per million, which seems so difficult today, is inadequate... We... need to toughen that goal to 350 parts per million" and he didn't get laughed out of the room, it meant that maybe we could move the goalposts and the big kids (i.e. China, Russia, the US and Europe) wouldn't take their balls and go home. Because without unanimity on this front, you're likely to see lots of responses like Australia's, who recently proposed wimpy emissions cuts since wimpy "targets are broadly consistent with other developed countries" and their wimpy climate laws. Wimpy's added.

As Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, a group dedicated to moving those goalposts as soon as possible, put it:
These interminable [climate treaty] talks are designed to build a machine that would halt the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide somewhere in the neighborhood of 450 to 550 parts per million. They're so loaded with loopholes, and the timetables are so slow, that they probably wouldn't accomplish even that, but that's the goal. The theory is that the world we need is a 450 world, based on the science from five and 10 and 15 years ago.
That there is movement to have a climate treaty reflect current science may, in the end, be the difference between saving the planet and, well, not.

So as Obama introduces his environmental team today, it's worth keeping an ear out for that new magic number of 350. You may not hear it today, but it will undoubtedly come up at Steven Chu's, Lisa Jackson's or Carol Browner's confirmation hearings. Whether or not the Obama administration formally endorses this lower target for all of our climate change efforts is quickly becoming the only question that matters. I sure hope someone asks it.

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December 12, 2008

Chu's Choices
When Steven Chu of the DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Lab was first announced as Secretary of Energy, Matt Yglesias' joy was somewhat muted. After acknowledging the benefits of Chu's appointment, Yglesias pointed out a certain reality:
Unfortunately, the Department of Energy isn't actually the policy juggernaut one might think it is. In the real world, the department's responsibilities are pretty limited, and a lot of them relate to our nuclear weapons arsenal rather than energy policy as such.
All of which is true. But I would respond with an answer to Andy Revkin's question as to whether this country needs a Department of Innovation. We don't need one because we already have one - it's called the Department of Energy. And that fact has everything to do with why Steven Chu may soon become the most important scientist in America.

Just look at what the DOE has given us so far. Joe Romm runs the numbers and they are stunning. He quotes from a National Academy of Sciences study on the return on investment from:
... 17 R&D programs in energy efficiency and 22 programs in fossil energy funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). These programs yielded economic returns of an estimated $40 billion from an investment of $13 billion.

Three energy-efficiency programs, costing approximately $11 million, produced nearly three-quarters of this benefit. Most significant were advances made in compressors for refrigerators and freezers, energy-efficient fluorescent-lighting components called electronic ballasts, and low-emission, or heat-resistant, window glass. Standards and regulations incorporating efficiencies attainable by these new technologies ensured that the technologies would be adopted nationwide, thus dramatically compounding their impact.
Now that's bang for the buck. And his impact in guiding DOE research will probably be further amplified given the expected drop in corporate R&D dollars during this recession. As an aside, it's worth mentioning that the low-e windows referred to above were developed in the late 1970s at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. It cost $3 million to develop the underlying technology while their use has saved close to $1 billion in energy costs over the last 30 years (a detailed history is here). And it was something that private industry had no interest in working on. Not bad for a bunch of government scientists. Innovation indeed.

This may explain why energy efficiency is already atop Chu's wishlist. But what about all the money spent on fossil fuel projects? Aside from coal-related projects, spending on fossil fuel research is being slowly supplanted by alternative energy projects.

But which of the various alt energy paths should Chu have the labs take? Stanford scientist Mark Jacobson provides a helpful list. He studied the cumulative benefits of various forms of alternative energy. The result has wind, solar thermal, geothermal and waves at the top and, surprisingly, ethanol of all types (corn and cellulosic) at the bottom - below even coal and nuclear. USDA take note. It turns out that when you start to take account of land use issues along with the risk of deforestation, ethanol simply can't compete. Wind on the other hand is surprisingly efficient in its use of land. For example:
The entire U.S. vehicle fleet could be operated on power produced by 3 square kilometers of land planted as wind farms, he claimed. Getting the same amount of energy from corn or cellulosic ethanol would take 30 times the amount of land.
Thanks to Tom Philpott, we already know that Chu is not a believer in corn ethanol. But he does seem very supportive, along with Obama, of cellulosic ethanol (his lab has received major funding for their cellulosic research). Ideally, Chu will put more effort into things like the DOE's potentially breakthrough wave power research rather than into billion dollar ethanol plants. But even so, Chu represents a chink in the armor of corn ethanol, which is a very good thing. After all, he'll be in charge of one of the two major ethanol subsidy programs. While the USDA pays growers for the raw materials (i.e. the corn), the DOE pays the companies that make it into fuel. If he reduces DOE support for corn ethanol, the USDA will have to follow. Depending on Obama's USDA pick, it could make for some interesting cabinet meetings.

All this focus on innovation is, in my view, doubly important because it's becoming clear from what's going on in California and Europe, that implementing a cap-and-trade system is going to be a nightmare. Congress, the EPA and the Commerce Department (along with the DOE) are going to have their hands full trying to put one together. Given the complexities, cap-and-trade can't be relied on to be one of the magic bullets for climate change. Those may very likely be supplied by Dr. Chu.

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December 11, 2008

The Power of Chu
Obama's naming Dr. Steven Chu as head of the Department of Energy is a very big deal. Ezra Klein and Joe Romm have good posts on the importance of this specific appointment. I'll add to their comments my observation that it's impossible not love a guy who says, "Coal is my worst nightmare." True that. Suffice it to say that there is no stronger signal to send on the priorities of the DOE than to have the Nobel Laureate scientist who runs Laurence Berkeley, a DOE National Lab, and who is a vocal supporter of the fight against climate change and of energy efficiency now running the entire Department.

It would be hard to find a more illustrious or accomplished Energy Secretary ever. That's not too surprising since it has historically been a place where you park lobbyists or energy industry types (Bill Richardson being a notable exception). But with the DOE's National Labs doing crucial research on cleantech and energy efficiency while other important large-scale DOE projects like FutureGen, a zero-emission coal-fired power plant, are currently on hiatus due to mismanagement, Chu seems like a guy who can really make a difference.

Having now wrested one cabinet position from the lobbyists who typically run it, Obama will be, I hope, reluctant to hand another over to the lobbyist class that clearly expects it. With Nick Kristof in the NYT spreading the gospel of a "Department of Food" rather than a Department of Agriculture, the momentum for a reformer there is stronger than ever. I think we can take it as another good omen then, that (via Swing State Project) Colorado's Rep. John Salazar is reportedly taking a seat on the House Appropriations Committee. He will thus withdraw from consideration for Secretary of Agriculture which, given that he's a "conventional ag man", is a good thing. It would be cruel, having been given Steven Chu, for us to have to accept a conventional pick for Agriculture chief. One more bold cabinet move from our President-elect wouldn't suck.

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Enough with the CAFOs Already!

I suppose this post could also be titled "More Fun with Regulations." Because trashing the regs on mountain-top mining wasn't enough, now the Bush EPA is trying to help chicken CAFOs in their longstanding quest to drown us all in chickensh*t ammonia pollution. Kudos to The Daily Green for picking up this new report from the Environmental Integrity Project, a group formed by dissident EPA officials (i.e. EPA officials who actually wanted to do their jobs).

Of course, as we know CAFOs are already effectively exempt from environmental regulations. But if the Bushies get their way, the CAFOs won't have to admit to anyone how much they're spewing either. Ammonia pollution is another in a long list of things about which, according to George W Bush, Americans don't have a "right to know." And, by they way, the numbers are absolutely staggering. In terms of ammonia emissions, chicken farms from just the top ten producing states out-pollute ALL of US industry by a factor of 8 to 1 (and far more if you include egg-laying operations). According to the report:
Based on data from multiple studies, broiler producers in the top 10 states released an estimated 481,764,049 pounds of ammonia in 2007, or more than eight times the combined total reported by industrial sources -- such as steel mills and oil refineries -- to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI)... Based on a recent study for USEPA in Indiana, egg laying operations in the top ten states released an estimated 221,551,888 pounds of ammonia in 2007...
Factory farm chickens are worse ammonia polluters than steel mills, oil refiners and chemical manufacturers combined? Um. Yuck?

And it's not just the USDA and the EPA in on this. The FDA is trying to lend a hand as well. The WSJ is reporting that the FDA has reversed itself and will continue to allow CAFOs of all kinds to routinely use the antibiotic cephalosporin. La Vida Locavore has more, but in sum, the FDA announced a ban back in July based on research that indicated the antibiotic's widespread use in livestock would further encourage the spread of drug-resistant bacteria. Naturally, that fear is totally unfounded. How comforting.

The odd thing is that fixing this isn't complicated - it's just hard. Enforcing current law combined with even a modicum of concern for public health - just think of the recent infant mortality study - will put CAFOs out of business almost overnight. Assuming, that is, the Bushies leave any of these laws on the books. But to do it, Team Obama has to be willing to take on some seriously vested (and deep-pocketed) interests. And if that isn't daunting enough, Obama et al do indeed appear to have quite a bit on their plate already.

Photo by hddod used under a CC license.

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December 10, 2008

Save the Bees, Save the World

First it was the frogs and now it's the bees. Yes, Colony Collapse Disorder is old news here in the US (although they're dying even faster now). But now Europe is getting hit hard with Italy alone having lost half its bee population in the last couple of years. According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor:
Italy, which is home to some of the continent's highest numbers of hives and one of the most valuable fruit and nut harvests, has already suffered $100 million in losses from the decline of bees, according to Italy's beekeepers association. Experts are now saying that southern Italy's entire cherry crop could be wiped out within a few years. Europe-wide, an estimated $1.25 billion in agriculture has already disappeared with the bees.
Dead bees are a problem. And not just because we'd lose a species that is possibly able to interact with quantum fields. No more fruits or vegetables either. According to the USDA (via the Yale Sustainable Food Project) "a third of all food" relies on bees as pollinators (though corn - that scourge of sustainable foodies - does not). But the percentage in Europe is more like three-quarters.

CCD has been blamed variously on mites, climate change (too rainy), pesticides and fungi. The Monitor article adds another item to the list: poor nutrition.
A study published in May... suggests other factors are playing big roles, including the lack of nutritional food for bees.

Indeed, certain kinds of flowers, including white clover and wild mustard, produce nectar that is particularly rich in protein and other nutrients that are useful to the well-being of insects, according to the research. The cultivation of much of Europe's arable land with crops and vegetables that are favored by humans, but poor in nutritious nectars, have deprived bees of a major protein source.

Oh, the irony. Industrial farming is not only failing at feeding the world, it can't feed the bees either.

Europe is trying to solve the bee problem by mandating "recovery zones" for the bees, which are just untilled fields of flowering grasses. But perhaps it's time to attack this problem at the source and save the bees by changing the way we farm.

The Rodale Institute, one of organic farming's founding institutions and located about an hour and a half from Philadelphia, now claims to have developed an organic no-till system that can operate at scale with yields as good as or better than conventional farming (lower yields being one of the prime arguments against mass adoption of organic practices). No-till farming, which involves growing cover crops on the field (hello, flowering grasses!) rather than plowing the old crop under, has been around for a while - the USDA even has a conservation program which pays farmers to use it.

But it's also been the subject of great debate. According to Scientific American, it reduces soil erosion and run-off (good) but if used "conventionally" requires a lot of herbicides to keep the weeds from choking the soil (bad). At one point, no-till seemed like a good, "easy" climate option since cover cropping would appear to sequester more carbon in the soil. The data on conventional no-till is, however, inconclusive at best leading climate expert Joe Romm to come out strongly against no-till farming as a climate fix.

But the Rodale folks claim to avoid both failures of conventional no-till farming through a complicated regime, which they call "organic regenerative farming," and new farm machinery. According to their research, the process ultimately leads to greater drought resistance (a good thing given that climate change is bringing drought to agricultural areas around the world) as well as significant increases in soil carbon sequestration over conventional no-till techniques. All this with a major reduction in hydrocarbon use. And they claim their techniques are perfectly adapted for the developing world.

But, aside from all its other benefits, it's fundamentally a system that incorporates more flowering grasses and no pesticides. Practically a ready-made blueprint for Michael Pollan's "resolarization" of the farm, it will not only help the climate, the soil and our tables, but will also be just the thing for the bees. I love it when a plan comes together.

Photo by autan used under a CC license

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December 9, 2008

Fun with Regulations
You know you've crossed a line when US Circuit Court judges repeatedly compare your legal logic to something out of Alice in Wonderland. But as an article in yesterday's Philly Inquirer details, that's exactly how things go down in court with the Bush EPA. As we watch the Bushies in their final throes of environmental degradation, it's worth our reviewing the EPA's recent history. Boy, were they bad - though it was no accident. From attempting to gut New Source Review (which was apparently the reason Bush's first EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman quit) to setting a mercury limit so high that no power plant would actually have to reduce its emissions, these evildoers let no bad deed go undone.

The highlight, though, has to be their efforts to limit sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution from power plants. The cap-and-trade system that the Bush EPA came up would have at least made some reductions, however meager. Power companies were indeed investing in billion dollar scrubbers to comply so it was by no means a total smoke and mirrors system. But the implementation of the rules was so flawed as to be irreparable - the court felt compelled to junk the whole system. As a result, "the court took a big anti-pollution rule off the books - the one that the EPA believed could prevent thousands of premature deaths annually." In other words, when they weren't derelict in their duties, they were incompetent.

It will take years to rewrite the regulations (although Congress could act sooner to reinstate the system in some form). So now coal plants, like the Brunner Island plant which dates from the 1960s and sits outside of Harrisburg, no longer have the incentive to finish their scrubber systems. What looked to be a competitive advantage when the companies were facing emissions limits is now perceived by them to be a disadvantage. And of course, the power companies all lost tens of millions of dollars each when the bottom fell out of the emissions trading market after the court ruling. Meanwhile:
Twelve thousand tons of coal arrive by railcar daily at the... Brunner Island plant, and, until the scrubber goes online, it will continue to spew sulfur dioxide and particulate matter into the air. The pollution wafts from a 600-foot-high smokestack and drifts east toward Philadelphia.
Now that's a legacy to be proud of. If you're an industry lackey, that is. Can we just declare tomorrow to be January 20th, 2009 and get this over with?

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We Can Write Letters, Too
Tom Philpott invites us to make our voices heard on Obama's choice for USDA head. The group of 88 foodies behind the recent open letter to Obama have opened it up to anyone who want to sign. If you want to add your name to those supporting an agricultural reformer for the post, go here.

Philpott and Kate Sheppard, both at Grist, also supply some other aggie tidbits. First, Philpott points to Obama's endorsement of a recent study that showed how giant environmentally toxic CAFO's have gamed the system (with help from the USDA) to receive most of the money from the recent farm bill's main conservation program as possible evidence that he will settle on a reformer in the end. Meanwhile, Sheppard links to an article from the WaPo indicating Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sibelius has withdrawn her name from consideration for any and all cabinet posts (Ag Sec included) - whether out of concern for Kansas or because she was passed over, we'll never know.

On the one hand, the selection process for ag chief hasn't exactly been inspiring. On the other, anyone who had the political instincts to choose Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki as head of Veterans Affairs (the guy who was right about Iraq and told truth to power, not to mention was one of only a few active duty amputees), seems unlikely to put an ag lobbyist or backpocket pol of the Farm Lobby in charge of the USDA. Maybe I'm fooling myself, but I don't think so.

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December 6, 2008

Mr. Fix It

I think it's worth taking a moment to let the impact of Obama's weekend announcement of the details of his stimulus package sink in by reviewing the NYT's writeup from Sunday. What stunned me was not so much the dollar figure (which is still up in the air anyway) but rather the breadth of what he's talking about. The favored comparison has been to Eisenhower's federal interstate highway program. But even on the low end of the dollar estimate - $400 billion - it would be about double what was spent (in today's dollars) to build the entire interstate highway system. So it should come as no surprise that the list of projects under consideration goes way beyond building roads:
Although Mr. Obama put no price tag on his plan, he said he would invest record amounts of money in the vast infrastructure program, which also includes work on schools, sewer systems, mass transit, electrical grids, dams and other public utilities. The green jobs would include various categories, including jobs dedicated to creating alternative fuels, windmills and solar panels; building energy efficient appliances, or installing fuel-efficient heating or cooling systems.
Those projects directly or indirectly impact every aspect of the economy. Part of this, of course, is the need to find ways to spend $400+ billion - not so easy to do as it turns out. But the scope of this plan is still staggering - we're talking about addressing in a single shot infrastructure shortcomings (if not outright crises) that have been festering for decades. We all knew that Obama represented change - but this is more like an outright transformation of the country.

I'd also take issue with the NYT's "green jobs" category in the above list. Money spent on "mass transit, electrical grids, dams and other public utilities" (and probably investment in our broadband infrastructure, which is also being discussed) should certainly be considered green investments given the outlook of the incoming administration. It's fair to say that the country will be almost unrecognizably greener at the end of this buildout.

In fact, along with funding for winterizing homes and making government buildings more energy efficient (whose importance you can read more about here and here), investing in the national grid may be, from a green perspective, the most significant aspect of the entire stimulus plan. Modernizing and expanding the grid to, among other things, bring it closer to the where our sun and wind resources are is the number two priority of Al Gore's climate plan. For a while, it seemed like the grid improvements would be something that flew under the radar, invisible to congressional appropriators in the competition for limited funding. Now it's just another tick mark on Obama's list.

From a political perspective, that's the most notable thing to me about the stimulus plan. It literally cuts off debate on whole areas of investment that have represented fairly significant conflict over the last decade or so. And this doesn't just apply to new projects - fully funding chronically underfunded existing programs and likely allowing the government to properly staff its departments (hello, new food inspectors!) are some pretty nice fringe benefits to this plan. I guess it's a lot easier to find the money for things when you can just print more of it.

And if he does indeed sign it on January 20th, I'd say it would represent a pretty good first day's work.

Photo by jphilipg used under CC license.

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The Continuing Saga Continues
According to Reuters, we'll finally get the word on who will run the USDA (along with Energy, EPA, Veterans Affairs and Trade) this week. And if you believe the article which anonymously quotes "two farm lobbyists," it's now between Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sibelius and Rep. John Salazar of Colorado. With Sibelius also in the running for Energy Secretary, selecting her for the USDA would certainly cement climate change as central to Obama's governing philosophy. Given that her agricultural track record (outside of the fact she's from Kansas) is less well-defined, I'll take what I can get.

As for Salazar, who currently sits on the House Agriculture Committee, Grist's Tom Philpott observes that he's a "conventional ag man through and through." Philpott also provides the insight that this process has played out more like a series of "trial balloons" rather than a true winnowing so who knows where we'll end up. At least we now know when we'll know.

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December 5, 2008

Auto Destruct
Well. That happened.

The Three Amigos appeared before Congress this week and went over like a lead Edsel. As Ben Mack at Wired's Autopia blog put it, "the Big Three have rarely missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity." And this past week was no exception. Honestly, it's probably even overly generous to refer to them as the Big Three at this point. Indeed, Robert Nardelli, CEO of Chrysler, which tried to merge itself into oblivion right before this whole process started, could barely justify his presence at the table.

Meanwhile, as Joe Romm observed, GM's announced "plan" is a bunch of warmed over boilerplate that includes paeans to ethanol and hydrogen. While they do feature their own potential potential gamechanger, the Chevy Volt, it's disheartening to see GM flogging hydrogen-powered cars so prominently. Hydrogen is that permanent gleam in George W. Bush's eye and the anchor of the sine qua non of greenwashing campaigns (the coal industry learned a lot from the Big Three if "clean coal" is any indication). Let it go, guys.

Only today's horrific jobs report provided congressfolks with any incentive to open their/our wallets. All indications are that while, as Rep. Barney Frank put, Congress will "do something" - probably bridge loans with various strings attached - they will punt anything more significant to the new administration. And why shouldn't they? Saving these companies is hard!

I suppose this whole fiasco was predictable. If the Big Three's management was truly visionary they wouldn't be in this pickle in the first place. That said, Romm did find the silverish lining in Ford's plan, which included some promising tidbits such as a focus on cutting hybrid costs by 30%, on a return to profitability on small cars and on revamping supplier relationships - all crucial elements of any auto industry recovery according to analysts.

After all this, though, I think I'll just reformulate my original assertion into a nifty metaphor. Congress, and ultimately the Obama administration, should worry less about fixing the Big Three's house and more on transforming the landscape around it. With US car sales (not to mention employment and consumer spending) in freefall, it's incumbent upon the government to offer the bridge loans to get the companies past this roughest of economic rough patches. But we shouldn't delude ourselves - the Big Three will shed thousands of jobs even in the best-case scenario if only because the car market itself continues to shrink.

The real energy for reform, however, should go towards new requirements and consumer incentives surrounding fuel efficient cars and transforming the car into a [mostly] electric vehicle that is powered by renewable fuel. There's lots to be done in that regard that has nothing to do with the car companies themselves. The sudden success of A Better Place's car charging system demonstrates that the ball has started rolling. Let's spend our billions on pushing it along and see if any of the Big Three can it pick it up and run with it. If we don't make that the goal, then our aid to the automakers will simply have been a bridge loan to nowhere.

[Updated 10:30pm:] Looks like they'll get their bailout after all.

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Cap'n Trade's Coup
A minor brou-ha-ha (or given the season, perhaps I should say brou-ho-ho) has broken out over the possibility that Obama might use the Clean Air Act to impose a carbon cap-and-trade system by executive fiat. Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic Monthly recently raised the possibility. Dave Roberts, an environmental activist as well as a writer for Grist, is inclined to support it and sources the idea to comments made in an October interview by Jason Grumet, one of Obama's lead energy and climate advisors. Meanwhile Mother Jones' Kevin Drum thinks doing it without congressional involvement is both inflammatory to conservatives and frankly undemocratic.

I don't claim to understand the CAA in any meaningful detail but I'm certainly not going to let a minor detail like that prevent me from weighing in. It's the blogosphere after all! Anyway, much of this argument rests on two legs. The first is the 2007 Supreme Court decision that declared that the EPA has the jurisdiction to regulate carbon emissions, which in theory protects the EPA from further litigation on the subject. This ruling has already been put into practice with the recent Environmental Appeals Board ruling that the EPA must come up with carbon emissions standards for new coal plants. The other leg involves the growing number of regional carbon markets coming on line in the Northeast, the West, and the Midwest. Knit them together, require all states to join one and poof! instant national system!

What's missing from the analysis above is the fact that these systems only cover power generation and possibly manufacturing, not all industries and certainly not transportation systems, much less the economy as whole. Just doing what Obama and some of his advisors have apparently hinted they might would be a far cry from a complete cap-and-trade system. Plus, if you look at what Grumet actually said, he's talking about starting the process with the EPA, not ending it.
"The EPA is obligated to move forward in the absence of Congressional action," Grumet told Bloomberg. "If there's no action by Congress in those 18 months, I think any responsible president would want to have the regulatory approach."
Kevin Drum already observed that the supposed shortcut of using the EPA would take a long time to enact - just implementing the aforementioned emissions standards for coal plants will take up to a year as the EPA determines what exactly the "Best Available Control Technologies" for carbon emissions are. A national carbon market is no sweater to be quickly knitted together and thrown on when the sweater is the size of the continental United States.

Still, watching how strategically Obama has operated so far - a prime example being his arm's length treatment of the auto bailout - I would think he probably will hang the CAA like a sword of Damocles over Congress. If he should charge the EPA with regulating carbon or creating a national cap-and-trade system for power plants and manufacturers using the statute, that would clearly prod Congress to action. Given the time required to develop standards, Congress - with Henry Waxman in the House and probably Barbara Boxer in the Senate taking the lead - would have ample opportunity to endorse or even broaden any proposed system before any deadline. Should they fail, the sword would fall and the EPA's version would go into effect. All in all, a pretty nifty play on Obama's part. But then, that's why he's the President of the United States and you're not.

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December 4, 2008

And the Internets Explode
The USDA chief speculation is really rising to a fever pitch - so much so that I needed to post again on the subject. The NYT Diners Journal (via TPM) reports that almost 90 "notable" foodies including Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and His Eminence Wendell Berry have sent a letter to Obama listing their priorities (and some candidates) for the position. At the same time, local papers in Colorado are reporting that House Rep. John Salazar (a potato farmer as well as brother to Colorado Sen. Ken) has been added to the Ag sec shortlist.

This whole mishegas involving people dropping from and being added to various shortlists leaked to various news outlets suggests to me that 1) the field may really be wide open and 2) all the players realize how high the stakes are and are acting accordingly. I suspect Obama, having cleared his plate of the main course, is really just now tucking into the USDA pick and, in fact, might now have slightly different priorities than the people running his agriculture transition team. Whether he had those same priorities at the start of the transition process (that is to say, months ago and well before the election), I wouldn't presume to know.

I would however hazard to guess that there's quite a raucous backroom battle going on. My sincere hope is that Obama is trying to thread a very small needle which he has hopefully already pulled from the haystack. Let me also categorically state that I now officially have no idea who's going to get the nod (why would I?). But then again I don't think anyone but the POTUS-elect does either (and even he may not have it figured out yet). I'm convinced of one thing, though. At the end of this process, both sides - the Farm Lobby and the foodies - will profess to be disappointed in the pick. And in this case, satisfying no one may be the best possible outcome.

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Meat Makes the Front Page
Well, what do you know. Today's New York Times has a front page article (below the fold, but still) on the environmental impact of meat. It sure looks like the issues surrounding meat production and consumption we've been talking about for a while now are finally going mainstream. Which is a good thing since, as a nice companion piece by Ben Adler in the American Prospect points out, the environmental bigwigs to this point haven't really wanted to dwell on the subject at all.

And why should they? When Rajendra Pachauri who heads the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the Nobel prize with Al Gore, did it various luminaries, um, attempted to rip him a new..., well... let's just say they weren't happy. Adler describes the response:
"How convenient for him: He's a vegetarian," sneered a Pittsburgh Tribune Review editorial. "Dr. Pachauri should be more concerned about his own diet. A new study shows that a deficiency of vitamin B-12, found primarily in meat, fish and milk, can lead to brain shrinkage." Boris Johnson, London's outspoken mayor, posted a long screed on his blog, declaring, "The whole proposition is so irritating that I am almost minded to eat more meat in response."

...In fact, the environmental movement has largely ignored meat consumption... Al Gore has never mentioned the environmental impact of meat consumption. Green groups tell their conscientious constituents to trade in their SUV for a Prius and buy compact-fluorescent light bulbs but haven't dared suggest that they give up steak.

Perhaps even more so than cars, meat is deeply embedded in American culture. Apple pie may be the quintessential American food, but McDonald's hamburgers aren't far behind. We carve turkey on Thanksgiving and host Fourth of July barbeques. Without meat, how do you know it's a meal? To most Americans, veggies and tofu are a laughable substitute. "It was a reaction to the '60s hippie cooking that gave this important idea of vegetarianism a bad name," says Alice Waters, the chef and author who is widely credited with creating the organic-food revolution. Environmentalists, who know they must change the stereotype that they are all either tree-hugging radicals or self-righteous scolds, may be reluctant to embrace vegetarianism because of those easily caricatured cultural connotations.
Well, that explains the deafening silence. But, lo and behold, it looks like meat will finally be on the agenda (though probably still on the menu) at the new climate treaty talks in Poland. And the challenge isn't just cultural, as the NYT illustrates with this nifty chart: meat consumption and production which, if you believe the UN figures, accounts for 18% of worldwide carbon emissions, has skyrocketed and, if nothing is done, will continue up into the stratosphere:


The easiest solution - for everyone to eat less meat (not no meat, by the way, just less) - may be one of the hardest of our many and varied environmental nuts which need cracking. Though, if you want to try, Mark Bittman has some good suggestions. Attacking the problem less directly, by making meat more expensive through cracking down on CAFOs, forcing agriculture to participate in emissions pricing systems and stopping deforestation (not to mention educating consumers on the true impact of meat) is hard enough. But to have to simultaneously guard against biotech companies' introducing "magic" cows and pigs who fart less methane or thrive more quickly seems well nigh impossible.

There is some good news, however. Europe is, once more, paving the way, at least as far as what can be done with animal poop. The paved way can be simple but effective as in Denmark where law requires manure to be injected under the soil rather than left on the ground or in pools. Or it can be electrifyingly complex, such as on this Dutch pig farm where:
the refuse from thousands of pigs is combined with local waste materials (outdated carrot juice and crumbs from a cookie factory), and pumped into warmed tanks called digesters. There, resident bacteria release the natural gas within, which is burned to generate heat and electricity.

The farm uses 25 percent of the electricity, and the rest is sold to a local power provider. The leftover mineral slurry is an ideal fertilizer that reduces the use of chemical fertilizers, whose production releases a heavy dose of carbon dioxide.

For this farm the scheme has provided a substantial payback: By reducing its emissions, it has been able to sell carbon credits on European markets. It makes money by selling electricity. It gets free fertilizer.

And, in a small country where farmers are required to have manure trucked away, it saves $190,000 annually in disposal fees.
That's my kind of win-win. With the fronts on the climate battle literally everywhere. I suppose the best news really is that this story has finally broken through. That's something, right?

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December 3, 2008

Down to the Wire
The empty chairs in Obama's cabinet are getting fewer and fewer. The ones that are left - Labor, Housing and Urban Development, US Trade Representative and EPA Administrator - all have names attached. In the case of the EPA, it looks like Lisa Jackson, the head of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, is likely to get the nod. Read this to see why it should make you happy. And what, pray tell, is the one major cabinet position that's not on the above list? That's right, foodies. Whither the USDA?

This is leading to near panic in some circles. Almost laughably, rumors are circulating that hometown Pennsie boy Dennis "our rBST lips are sealed" Wolff (i.e. current head of the PA Agriculture Department) is the man. Other rumors say there's no chance he'll get the gig, no matter how nicely Ed Rendell asks (maybe Rendell just wants him out of Harrisburg). One good piece of news is that the worst candidate, House representative Collin "I'm the Farm Lobby's Best Buddy" Peterson (D-Minn), has apparently taken himself out of the running. It's worth noting that there's a long tradition in politics of withdrawing one's name from consideration once it has become clear that one will not, in fact, get the job.

But whatever the reason, it's all to the good. That Collin is a bad, bad man, ag-wise. I would guess it's because of the extra "l", but Tom Philpott tells us really why. According to Philpott, at one point it was going to be either Peterson or the Democratic House member from South Dakota Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin. Herseth-Sandlin is a far more moderate choice (she tends to be categorized as "Not So Bad" by the progressive food policy folks which is to say she's a "radical" by Farm Lobby standards) and this latest news would suggest that Herseth-Sandlin is going to get it.

But then up comes the name of former GOP House member Jim Leach as someone who has gone from longshot to likely. What's interesting about him is that, based on his legislative record, he's not a farm policy guy (his specialty was banking and foreign policy - he didn't even have a seat on the Agriculture Committee). While he used to be a farmer and he is from Iowa, from a policy perspective he's sort of an outsider, perhaps even a bit of a blank slate to both the Farm Lobby as well as to the progressives. Anyway, it's all making my head spin. But I'm betting a guy like Leach or Herseth-Sandlin (see here for a bit more info on her), that is to say a moderate, will get the job in the end. While Obama has made it clear he's at least sympathetic to the so-called second Green Revolution of GMOs, I don't think he's prepared to throw his lot in totally with the farm lobby. Given how we're running out of seats to give away, I think we'll find out soon enough.

[Disappointing Update:] Jill at La Vida Locavore points to a WaPo article that the shortlist is different / worse than suspected. rBST man Dennis Wolff is still on it. As is former House Ag Committee Chair, current farm lobbyist Charlie Stenholm. Herseth-Sandlin isn't on the WaPo list. But Kathleen Sibelius, governor of Kansas (and formerly on Obama's veep shortlist), is. It's Sibelius or bust, I guess.

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Rip-offsets
That's the term coined by Joe Romm for the practice of buying credits from companies that claim to use your money to fund projects that cut carbon emissions. He helpfully reminds us of what happens when carbon offsets become an integral part of a cap-and-trade system: things get ugly. According to Reuters:
The U.N. climate change body has suspended one of the largest auditors of clean energy projects under Kyoto Protocol, a move highlighting problems long aired by critics of the climate pact's greenhouse gas trading scheme.

Norway's DNV had their accreditation as project auditors suspended late last week for five "non-conformities" relating to its practices, the U.N. said after performing a spot check of the company's operations in early November.

This company handles most of the $13 billion trade in carbon off-sets enabled by the Kyoto Treaty and it turns out that DNV wasn't doing its job of making sure that offset related projects wouldn't have happened anyway (i.e. without someone paying for it via the carbon market).

This isn't exaclty the first time problems have arisen. Romm also refers to the now-closed "loophole" in the Kyoto accords that allowed Chinese companies to receive $6 billion to collect and destroy greenhouse gas refrigerants. It was a task that 1) cost a tiny fraction of the "fee" to perform and 2) they were planning on doing anyway. I could use a loophole like that. The examples of malfeasance are too numerous to mention here, but Romm takes a shot at it.

That's not to say you shouldn't use offset providers like Terrapass or NativeEnergy (both of which swear up and down they are rigorous about the "additionality" of their offsets, i.e. that purchasing their offsets pays for emissions cuts that wouldn't have otherwise happened). Though it's true that Joe Romm would rather you forgo offsets and instead participate in a service called Carbon Retirement, whereby you can purchase emissions permits on the European carbon market and simply never use them.

The fact is that, like the Kyoto countries themselves, you'd be better off reducing your carbon footprint by, you know, emitting less carbon. Here's a suggestion, if your power company offers the ability to purchase renewable power for an extra fee (like we can in Philly with PECOWind) then do it. That said, as individuals our options at the moment are limited and sometimes offsets can be useful. Yet neither should they be relied on as were the sale of papal indulgences of old when the rich got to sin because they could afford to buy absolution.

We do therefore have to ensure that offsets play a minor to non-existent role in any US cap-and-trade system. We'll never become a low-carbon economy if you can simply, Pilate-like, wash your hands of your emissions and let someone else deal with the cuts. And it's clear that the GOP will try to make offsets a central part of climate change legislation - John McCain's plan did. This is a major worry for two reasons: 1) it pushes the day of emissions cutting reckoning far off into the future and possibly past the climatic point of no return and 2) offset regimes appear to be a goldmine for companies willing to game the system. And if that's not enough to scare you then consider this: the same companies that brought you the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression are salivating for a chance to start playing in the carbon market. Consider yourselves warned.

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December 2, 2008

The Three Amigos

No, not those guys. I'm referring, of course, to Rick, Bob and Al - the CEOs of GM, Chrysler and Ford. They've got shiny new recovery plans in their tin cups this time, which they're bringing to Congress today this week in hybrid cars instead of on corporate jets. And they're all prepared to take a 99.99999% pay cut, if that's what it takes to get government money. I'm sure it will be a bumpy ride.

As I said earlier, I don't have a particular prescription for the auto industry. Presumably some combination of building better, greener cars, getting smaller and improving management strategies will result from all this sturm und drang. Steve Benen at Washington Monthly has a good run-down on the best of the expert analysis on this subject.

But frankly, I think the best ideas for the car companies are the ones that consider radical new business plans - something that seems to be anathema to the US car companies. I learned early on during my time in the technology startup biz that some of the best innovation coming out of Silicon Valley, for example, wasn't technology per se, but rather in the development of alternative business methods and business plans - heck, in the case of Microsoft, that's the only kind of innovation they've ever had. Which is to say that it's a shame there's isn't a greater willingness on the part of the Big Three to embrace radical change. After all, the status quo isn't going so well for them.

What would a radical new business plan look like? Maybe like Shai Agassi's Better Place. Agassi is a tech wunderkind who left a top job at business software company SAP to try and remake the auto business. Wired Magazine explains:
Agassi reimagined the entire automotive ecosystem by proposing a new concept he called the Electric Recharge Grid Operator. It was an unorthodox mashup of the automotive and mobile phone industries. Instead of gas stations on every corner, the ERGO would blanket a country with a network of "smart" charge spots. Drivers could plug in anywhere, anytime, and would subscribe to a specific plan--unlimited miles, a maximum number of miles each month, or pay as you go--all for less than the equivalent cost for gas. They'd buy their car from the operator, who would offer steep discounts, perhaps even give the cars away. The profit would come from selling electricity--the minutes.
He has since partnered with Nissan to build the cars, is launching trials in Israel, Denmark, California [updated: and announced a statewide trial in Hawaii] - and just landed a $667 million deal to create a system of car charging stations in Australia. Gee, someone's having success in the auto business.

Meanwhile, the NYT points out that one of the biggest obstacles for the success of the Chevy Volt is the $15,000 battery that runs the car. Which begs the question: why should you have to buy the battery? Why not riff on Agassi such that you own the car but rent the battery? Could that be an answer?

I haven't the foggiest. But why isn't anyone else asking these sorts of questions? If we're going to remake the auto industry, I say we remake it. Let one hundred flowers bloom. Obviously, the Big Three make aircraft carriers look small - they're more like space stations the size of small moons - and turning them is beyond hard. But turn they must. And if you ask me, if they want to turn into something other than industrial roadkill, they better think not just outside the box, but in, through and beyond it.

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December 1, 2008

The Devil and the Details
It's amazing what a little thing like a new President can do for certain policy debates. Suddenly, thought experiments on how to cut emissions by 95% in 20 years bubble up to the surface of the political blogosphere rather than collect unread on the edge. What's notable about Gar Lipow's lengthy prescription for a low-carbon economy is that it's long on emissions pricing and government regulation and short on conditional "first we need to invent a faster/cheaper/better xyz..." statements. Lipow focuses on the here and now. Note to Mr. Yglesias: Lipow's plan happens to involve huge cuts in emissions via energy efficiency in new and existing buildings.

In fact, one bit that caught my eye involves the introduction of per square foot emissions limits for buildings (as they now have in Britain) along with new entities called "efficiency utilities" that would pay for efficiency upgrades in order to bring an existing building in compliance with the limits. Owners/tenants would pay for these improvements via a monthly bill and, though they would be part of the building, the improvements' cost wouldn't require "recouping" by the owner in the form of rent hikes or higher a sales price. A particular unit would simply have a particular monthly cost for "efficiency" like it has a monthly cost for heating.

And like electric service, the "efficiency" bill can be stopped - if an apartment sits unrented, for example. Because both the utility as well as the bill itself could be subsidized in various ways it would, according to Lipow, remove a major stumbling block to making improvements in existing buildings. For the record, an efficiency utility could cover the costs associated with:
weather and duct sealing, roof, floor, window, duct, and pipe insulation... Leak repairs, faucet aerators, kick-pedal sink controls, and water-saving shower heads. Lighting, and large-scale water and electrical appliances... and replac[ing] existing space heaters and air conditioners with either solar equipment or ground source heat pumps.
Do that over a couple decades and you're looking at serious emissions savings.

It turns out that you really can just about solve our carbon problem with existing technology. Not that it's easy, but it is possible. That applies to alternative energy expansion, as well. There's been a lot of excitement recently about what's known as solar thermal (sometimes referred to as solar baseload) power. Solar thermal systems involve pointing a series of mirrors at a large tank of oil. The oil is superheated by the sun and is then used to make steam to generate electricity. The big knock on solar power generated with photovoltaic panels is that a passing cloud (not to mention the daily scourge known as nighttime) can cause dozens of megawatts of power to instantly disappear from the grid.

The "innovation" of solar thermal is that, unlike its photons, the sun's heat can be stored and used to make electricity during the evening (or in the case of a Spanish project in the works, all through the night). And it doesn't take some exotic and pricey space age polymer to store the heat. Try a block of concrete. Or you can use pig iron. The holdup on solar thermal isn't the systems themselves - it's building the grid to get the power where it needs to be. That's a very different problem than waiting for some technological holy grail.

The point is that for all the excitement over the just-over-the-horizon innovations, the boring unsexy stuff like regulatory structures and basic infrastructure improvements can do a lot of the heavy lifting. And Lipow is also right that, though emissions need to be regulated nationally, each industry should be able to come up with its own solution to the problem. Trying to play whack-a-mole with various industries will just result in the kind of calculated outrage we're seeing due to farmers' somewhat misplaced fear of an EPA-inflicted methane fee (aka "The Cow Tax"). If everyone has to contribute to the reductions, it becomes that much harder to resist doing your part.

Let me make one more point. Ezra Klein is concerned that once Congress gets involved, whatever we try to do with climate legislation will turn into a "corn-encrusted" subsidy regime. After all, Congress' answer to alternative energy was ethanol. As a result, "79 cents of every dollar the federal government invests in renewable energy goes towards corn ethanol, a heavily subsidized boondoggle that is little better than gasoline." The problem, says Klein, is that:
The incentives are too poorly aligned. We know that a certain segment of powerful senators and representatives will use their jurisdiction to force the leadership to buy their vote. And after they do it, the next most powerful group of legislators will do the same, as they need to get reelected to, and it's not as if there's a pristine bill to protect any longer. And then will come the next most powerful group. And so on. The public choice critique is actually quite convincing here.
But then in a post on health care, Klein talks up the potential of Max Baucus's health plan, which involves an Independent Health Coverage Council charged with actually making the hard decisions about what to cover and how much to pay for health care. As he puts it:
One of the Baucus plan's embedded assumptions is that Congress should not define too much. In this, it's taking a page from the successful passage of the Massachusetts reforms, which offloaded a series of thorny questions -- including the definition of "affordability" and the specific premium subsidies [onto a similar entity].
Meanwhile, Obama has already committed to a National Infrastructure Bank in which an expert panel determines how to spend infrastructure dollars rather than allow the easily corrupted federal earmark process to give us bridges, tunnels, roads and rail-lines to nowheresville.

It's entirely feasible to do the same thing with climate change legislation. Congress shouldn't be picking winners in technology or alternative energy - but they can create the entities or the conditions to allow winners to be picked. After all, they've done it before. Silicon Valley, created almost whole cloth by the Defense Department, may not be a perfect model, but certainly points to ways in which government financing can lead to the development of revolutionary technologies, products and services. Clearly, no Defense Department procurement officer simply ordered up the microprocessor, much less the Internet. But DoD dollars gave us both. The fact is that the public-private partnership that is the Valley has delivered decade after decade of innovations.

So it's true - Congress on its own might not be able to successfully craft something so complicated as a new low-carbon economy. The good news is, they don't have to.

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