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January 31, 2009

A Little More Quo, If You Please

Here's something someone should run with. Via Green Inc. I learned that Sen. Ben Nelson just introduced a bill that would encourage development of the agricultural biogas industry with hopes of including it in the stimulus package. Biogas is a renewable form of natural gas derived from any methane source, like, say, manure. While burning biogas does create carbon emissions, it's more than offset by its effect in eliminating methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas (Marc from the Ethicurean explains it in detail here).

In many ways, it's not a particularly high-tech approach and it's currently in common use in China and India - although unlike with the digesters in use in the developing world, the US biogas industry is attempting to significantly increase biogas content to almost pure methane. Because biogas can be produced and used on site as well as shipped via pipeline to power stations, it's theoretically possible for farms to become energy self-sufficient AND deal with excess manure. This isn't a magic bullet, of course, and in the future, farms are likely to use a lot more manure as fertilizer (remember Peak Phosphorus?). But, even in the post-CAFO world we all dream about, there will continue to be excess manure around. Indeed, this is exactly the sort of thing USDA chief Tom Vilsack means when he talks about developing "new technologies and expanded opportunities in biofuels and renewable energy."

Meanwhile, Sen. Nelson isn't generally what you would call a reform-minded guy when it comes to agriculture. Clearly, any biogas subsidies should be tied to something. How about strict enforcement of environmental laws on CAFOs? Now, I don't want to make CAFOs' lives any easier by giving them a way to profit from their lakes of manure and I definitely wouldn't want to pay for this renewable power source at the cost of ensuring CAFOs' survival lest this become the next beef tallow boondoggle. But I also don't want to see such a nifty little proposal become one more ad hoc item slipped into the stimulus without a real strategy behind it. While there's a prime opportunity for a little agricultural quid pro quo here, there isn't a structure in the Senate that really enables it outside of the once-every-five-years Farm Bill (and we know how well reformers fared with that the last time around). Things really would be a lot easier if there were some way to tie energy, the environment and agriculture together that doesn't go through the Senate (or House) Ag Committee. A guy can dream, right?



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January 29, 2009

Peak Everything

Felix Salmon mused on the subject of Peakniks recently (and what a neologism THAT is!) after reading Ben McGrath's entertainingly morbid piece "The Dystopians" in The New Yorker ($ub req'd). While it's worth observing that "peaknik" has typically referred to Peak Oilers, I think it's safe to say that we're all peakniks now.

McGrath talks mostly about financial doomsayers, i.e. Peak Debt and Peak Dollars, but refers generally, if somewhat dismissively, to the "Peaknik Diaspora" and some of its adherents. These would be folks who "believe" in Peak Oil, Peak Carbon, Peak Dirt, Peak Fish. Personally, I think Peak Carbon is a not terribly useful way to refer to climate change - although "climate change" is itself a not terribly useful way to refer to climate change (something that Gar Lipow has taken it upon himself to fix). Peak Things, in my humble opinion (speaking of which, why did IMHO go out of favor? Is there no longer any humility on the Internet?), should only refer to resource maximums. Switching that around for carbon - i.e. we're trying to stop producing carbon so we can declare/achieve Peak Carbon and continue reducing from there - is just plain confusing. So let's dispense with Peak Carbon.

Peak Dirt (aka Peak Soil), on the other hand, is very real. Or rather the underlying problem of soil erosion is very real. Industrial agriculture with its "fencerow-to-fencerow" monocropping techniques and mass applications of synthetic fertilizer further exacerbates the problem (although there's a peak for fertilizer, too - Peak Phosphorus). Anyway, I happen to think "Peak Dirt" is also confusing - I prefer "The Soil Crisis." Yes, we're losing topsoil at an alarming rate. But we're also expanding the amount of land under the till in many parts of the world. Ironically, we're doing it in most cases via deforestation or through expansion into marginal or ecologically fragile land, which only increases the rate of erosion. Indeed, farmers in the US responded to spiking prices and damaging floods last summer by making a forceful but failed attempt to get government permission to plant on land protected under federal conservation programs.

Meanwhile, development pressures in urban and suburban areas continue to reduce farmland in and around cities - which has nothing to do with erosion. The land is still fertile, it's just more valuable with a house on it. Well, maybe not at the moment - which begs the question, when will we start plowing all those McMansions under and planting organic vegetables on top of them? No one wants big houses anymore, right? And, of course, none of this takes into account the coming conflicts over land use for alternative energy as solar, wind and biofuel development contend with agriculture for acreage around the world. Definitely less of a Peak than a Crisis.

Some even argue that soil is a more precious resource than any of our other supposed peak resources. As food progressives Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson declared in their NYT op-ed on soil, "Unlike oil, it has no technological substitute." Without soil, there is no agriculture, full stop. Does that mean food is a candidate for Peak-hood now?

As for oil, yes, Salmon is right that peak oilers tend towards shrillness. But their number includes the International Energy Agency (a 28 member intergovernmental body that has historically assumed oil production would simply increase with demand. Not anymore) along with several CEOs of major oil companies. Oh, and half of oil company CFOs cotton to the idea as well (thanks for all that, Joe). Are they shrill, too? They seem more like Very Serious People.

Of course, the mother of all Peaks is one that McGrath didn't even mention - Peak Water. Sure, we're surrounded by it - but most of it is too salty. And though we drink, bathe in and flush a lot of it, agriculture uses the most by far. The water cycle doesn't itself increase the amount of freshwater in the world and we're draining most underground aquifers far faster than they are replenished (especially this one). Meanwhile, soil erosion contributes to flooding and leads to less efficient watersheds. And climate change is expected to bring superdroughts. It's enough to make you wonder how we'll have enough of the wet stuff to satisfy the needs of 9.2 billion people by 2050. Let's hope GE is right that soon we'll be able to drink the ocean thanks to clean-powered desalination.

So I will leave to others the worries over Peak Debt and Peak Dollars. I've got enough on my plate as it is.

Photo by Inaz used under CC license

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January 28, 2009

The Opposite of Safety
I did this one for Ezra, but I liked it so much I'm keeping it for myself.

It's been a bad week for food safety. First, it was the peanut butter, then it was the High Fructose Corn Syrup and now it's deadly antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria (aka MRSA) in CAFO pigs (and their minders). And of course, as Bill Marler - litigious scourge of the food industry - reminds us, we're continuing to lose the fight against E. coli.

Much has been written about the efforts to track down the sources of contamination. And invariably the companies involved quickly close the their doors (which is how we lost one of the largest ground beef distributors in the country virtually overnight and why the Peanut Corporation of America is no more). But what's truly worrisome is that in each case, the USDA and the FDA (who have joint responsibility for food safety) had information at hand about all of these problems.

In the case of the peanut butter outbreak, the plant in question had a long-documented history of health violations - discovered, not by the FDA, but by local Georgia authorities to whom the FDA had contracted out inspection services. In essence, short of allowing self-regulation, the FDA managed to find an entity that enjoys even cozier relationships with industry than the FDA itself has. In theory, the Georgia Agriculture Department should have forwarded on reports of violations to federal officials. There's no word yet on where in the lines of communication the breakdown occurred.

Meanwhile, the HFCS situation would be comical if not for the fact that mercury is, like, a poison. And, according to a report in Environmental Health (pdf, abstract), it might be in that Coke you're drinking right now. As Tom Philpott dryly points out, despite the fact that HFCS processing requires a witch's chemist's brew of industrial solvents and genetically engineered enzymes, the FDA still considers it a "natural" ingredient. As for the source of the mercury, two of the chemicals used in HFCS manufacturing, caustic soda (aka lye) and hydrochloric acid, are still commonly harvested as byproducts from the industrial chlorine manufacturing process. That process involves forcing mercury through seawater - and now it appears some of the mercury is passed on all the way through to HFCS. The research exposing all this states unequivocally that this discovery represents a "significant additional source of mercury" exposure. But, hey, mercury is natural, too!

And who was the brave investigator toiling in obscurity who uncovered all this? None other than a former FDA scientist who performed the mercury tests way back in 2005 while she was working at the FDA. Oddly, the FDA showed no interest in investigating at the time and it was only after she left the agency that she was able to finalize the research and conclusively demonstrate that mercury contamination in HFCS is a real threat. Another case of food contamination, another potential cover-up.

Finally, we get to the pork problem. This one goes back at least to last spring when a researcher released preliminary results suggesting pigs in CAFOs were contaminated with MRSA. At the time, the FDA issued assurances that there was no evidence that pork sold for retail from any source was infected with MRSA. They could say this with great confidence and no cover-up potential whatsoever. Because, of course, the FDA has never tested for it. And surely, now that the study has been released, they'll start testing? Sadly, no.

If this research is borne out, by the way, it represents a significant threat to public health and safety. MRSA is one of those superbugs that the folks at the CDC lose sleep over. If CAFOs harbor MRSA in any significant numbers, the whole industry, which relies on routine doses of antibiotics to keep animals healthy, faces a serious crisis (which some of us think is a good thing). The FDA, naturally, has repeatedly ruled the practice safe, despite objections from public health officials.

It's understandable then, that USDA chief Tom Vilsack is less concerned with creating whole new regulatory structures for food safety and more concerned with making the ones that we have actually work. But continuing to mix boosterism and regulation - as many of our federal agencies including the FDA and the USDA do - will inevitably lead to these kind of breakdowns. And though you can come up with laundry list after laundry list of changes to penalties, enforcement, inspections and agencies that would improve matters, the frequency and seriousness of each outbreak suggests good intentioned reform may not be enough.

That the output of one contaminated peanut processing plant could require the recall of hundreds of varied and unrelated products and could kill 8 and sicken over 400 in more than 40 states across the country suggests we may have reached the limits of consolidation in the food industry. You'd think that such centralization of food production would make regulation easier. Indeed, the ease of regulation, along with low cost, was one of the prime alleged advantages of consolidation. Now, however, we're seeing not just production failures, but the wholesale failure of the regulatory structures themselves. Well, food is cheap anyway.

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January 27, 2009

Tuesdays with Ezra
Here's what did today. A little something on the supposed split between coastal Democrats and moderate Midwestern Democrats. A little something on Tom Vilsack's latest doings as the new Secretary of Agriculture. And a little something more tying up some loose ends from my earlier climate posts.

Whew. I'm exhausted.

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January 26, 2009

Over at Ezra's Place
I'm referring, of course, to Ezra Klein. You know, one of the 25 most influential liberal voices in the US media. But not this week he's not, as he'll be on vacation. In his place (along with several other folks), I'll be adding my $0.02. All week long. My shot at Big Media Blog stardom.

Up first: cap-and-trade! And, next, because I didn't mention them in the first post: carbon taxes!

[Update 5pm] Oh, and because things were a little quiet over there, I did a little something on Clinton's newest hire.


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January 23, 2009

King Coal Hit Where it Hurts
Well, that was quick. In power 48 hours and already putting the kaibosh on new coal plants. Via the Sierra Club:
This is a great day for clean energy and people's health: Today the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) overturned the State of South Dakota's approval of the massive Big Stone II coal-fired power plant. The EPA's decision comes after the state failed to require state-of-the-art pollution controls for the coal plant - controls that would address harmful soot, smog and global warming pollution.

...The proposed Big Stone II 500-megawatt coal plant would have emitted more than 4 million tons of global pollution annually. The Sierra Club and Clean Water Action have been working to stop the Big Stone II project... for more than three years.
And THAT, my friends, really is change you can believe in.

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Gristwork

I've started a series over on Gristmill looking at all the various policy areas that affect food policy in this country. Not willing to shrink from the challenge, I took on international trade policy first. Don't worry, though. I make it a laugh riot.

Also, I put up something in response to the recent Pew poll that suggests global warming has dropped far down the list of American voters' priorities as well as indicates more people than ever doubt that the phenomenon is caused by human activity. In my view, it's all about lousy science education.

In that vein, it's not just American voters who are horribly misinformed. Just check out Chuck Schumer's comments last month in response to the false rumor that the EPA was poised to start taxing cow farts methane releases from livestock production (h/t The Ethicurean). The rationale for his desire "to put a stake through [the] heart" of the proposal? "Cows can’t change the way they are." Props for pith, Senator. But your logic is wrong-headed to say the least. I've talked before about the need to address emissions cuts on an economy-wide basis rather than trying to do it piecemeal. The "grand bargain" is the policy model to foll0w - not Whack-a-Mole. Thanks go to Senator Schumer for showing us why.

A close second for misinformed legislator of the moment may be Sen. Jay Rockefeller, whose rambling, digressive climate and energy-related questions during the confirmation hearings for Treasury Secretary-designate Tim Geithner displayed his clear desire to address the problem backed up by a disastrously weak grasp of the issues at hand. In fairness, Rockefeller, who as the new Senate Commerce Committee chair definitely wants to tackle the problem, seems like someone who's been cramming but hasn't yet mastered the material. Still, it's nothing that a few briefings from the Obama Green Team can't fix. Hoo boy. Our Man from Illinois sure has his work cut out from him, doesn't he?

Photo by Marc Benton used under a CC license

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January 22, 2009

Cleanish Coal?
Now, don't anybody throw shoes at me just because I'm talking about coal. It's still bad and we should stop using it. That said, the Illinois legislature just approved a new coal-fired power plant with some interesting implications. True, Sean Casten at Grist isn't happy. The idea that his home state of Illinois, having just bequeathed us The. Best. President. Ever, is now gifting us another coal plant has prompted no small amount of teeth-gnashing. But despite his clenched teeth, he did take a moment to observe the that the state law under which the plant will be built will require the capture and sequestration of at least 50% of the plant's carbon emissions.

No, I'm not jumping for joy at the news. But it's worth pointing out that this will be an IGCC (Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle) coal plant, which means it turns the coal into gas before burning it. IGCC lets you take out most of coal's impurities (such as mercury and sulfur dioxide) and is the leading technology for so-called "carbon capture-ready" coal plants. There are only a few such plants currently in existence because - wait for it - they're really really expensive to build - up to triple the cost of conventional coal plants. Sorta takes the "cheap" out of what's billed as a cheap and abundant power source.

But back to the Illinois plant. Thanks to Casten's math and Kevin Drum's insights, most of the blog work is already done. Casten calculated that once you include rate increases, the new plant - which won't come online until 2014 - will generate power at about 20 cents/kWh. For the sake of comparison, I can buy baseload wind power today through a local power co-operative here in Philadelphia at an "unsubsidized" cost of 16.2 cents/kWh. Better not tell the Illinois legislature.

Moreover, Casten did even more math and determined that Illinois ratepayers are being charged about $400 per ton of carbon. Which is, as Kevin Drum points out, a market price for carbon that environmentalists would kill for and about 25 times the market price for carbon on the European carbon exchange (the only fully functioning carbon market in the world right now).

But here's where things get interesting. The EPA is supposed to develop carbon emissions standards for coal plants. The Supreme Court and the EPA's own Environment Appeals Board said so. And now we know that capturing 50% (and possibly as much as 60%) of carbon emissions from coal plants can be done without much effort. Even the Illinois legislature's plan calls for capturing 90% of carbon emissions for any plants coming on line after 2017. The question will be - is 50% going to be the standard for the EPA? Why not shoot for that 90% target right away? Lisa? Any thoughts?

And finally, to temper your own gnashing of teeth, the Sierra Club observes on its terrific coal-fired power plant tracking page (ah, the Internets) that this law really just kicks off a cost study, which could take up to a year to complete. And even then, the legislature could vote not to proceed (not to mention the fact that Blago's replacement may not be quite so coal friendly). In the interim, any number of cheaper renewable projects could come up for consideration with a lower cost and a quicker turnaround.

All in all, I actually see in this a small victory. To get a coal plant off the ground, Illinois:
  • set a short window for coal-fired power that incorporates anything less than 90% emissions capture
  • set a market price of at least $400 per ton of carbon emissions
  • could stop this plant in its tracks well before construction starts.
Not exactly a "shovel ready" project. I'm not a betting man (as far as you all know) but I wouldn't put money on this thing ever making it off the drawing board.

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January 21, 2009

Naturally Raising a Ruckus

Some of the final rule-making acts of the Bush administration came, chillingly, out of the USDA. One involved the USDA announcing a new "naturally raised" label for meat. Now, food labeling is a definitely a mess and standards are important. The USDA Organic label, while it remains a battleground, has to be judged a success - so far. Anyway, the new "naturally raised" definition was hotly debated during the public comment period. Sustainable ag folks lobbied hard for criteria that would, besides ensure that the label live up to its name, effectively disallow meat from factory farms to be considered in any way "naturally raised." Via The Ethicurean, here's what they wanted:
  • Grassfed
  • Outdoor access
  • No breeding via artificial insemination
  • Human treatment of animals
  • Pollution restrictions
Now, I think there's a legitimate question as to whether grain-fed meat should be considered "naturally raised." But the other items on that list sound pretty reasonable. Here, according to the USDA, is what they got:
The naturally raised marketing claim standard states that livestock used for the production of meat and meat products have been raised entirely without growth promotants, antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control), and have never been fed animal by-products.
Needless to say, the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is not amused. Their basic point is that the new "naturally raised" standard is more accurately a "hormone and antibiotic free" standard. So why confuse consumers with a label that promises a whole lot more than that?

They are undoubtedly right. But it begs a question. How many factory farms or even large-scale producers could qualify even for this new, attenuated "naturally raised" label? If you take antibiotics out of the equation (not to mention growth hormones) aren't the big guys pretty much out, too? I don't know the answer and I'm also not cheering the USDA on this one. I'm just asking.

I should also point out that this rule may fall under President Obama's first executive order freezing, and potentially rolling back, last-minute regulations issued by the outgoing Bush administration. Certainly this will apply to the USDA's last-minute ruling that genetically engineered meat and fish do not need to be labeled as such. Both Obama and new USDA chief Tom Vilsack are big supporters of labeling, including for Country of Origin and GMOs. Hard to believe they'd give Franken-cows a pass.

Photo by foxypar4 used under a CC license

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January 20, 2009

Inauguration Blogging
Really. What is there to say? I think back to my initial reaction to Barack Obama when I saw his convention address back in 2004. I turned to Mrs. Beyond Green and said something that truly sums up what we're all feeling right now.

"Wow."

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January 19, 2009

The Unbearable Heaviness of Climate Politics
I'm a bit late to the party on this but it's still worth some attention. There's been a flurry of activity on the climate front, both scientifically and politically. First, via Joe Romm, comes news that the latest climate models suggest that the emissions targets President-almost Obama outlines in his climate plan of going back to 1990 levels by 2020 aren't aggressive enough. This news, combined with Stephen Chu's recent, and surprisingly robust, endorsement of coal power during his confirmation hearing, tempts Matt Yglesias to throw up his hands:
...If you look at [Chu's] testimony at his confirmation hearings, you'll see that good personnel doesn't repeal the mechanics of the political system and so there he was walking back earlier remarks he'd made about the evils of coal and the virtues of high gasoline prices.

Long story short, my best guess is that Obama's climate proposals are too ambitious to be enacted and too timid to avert catastrophe.

That would be bad since, if we do nothing, the Earth as we know it goes away. But I'm not ready to give up just yet. Obama certainly needs to get something done in the US during his first term - 2012 is now bandied about as the drop-dead date for the start of aggressive climate action. But it may be that Obama's greatest climate priority in the next year or so may be bringing China into the fold. Romm has been a big promoter of this idea and he finds some excellent evidence that the politics of the climate debate may require it. Here's what Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh had to say during Chu's confirmation hearing:
...Because [cutting emissions is] an important issue, we have to make sure it's going to work. And without China participating, it's not going to work, and I don't think it will get enacted. And a skeptic viewing their past behavior would have to say that's going to be a heavy lift. So, in a way that is, you know, verifiable and transparent, it's just going to be very hard to get them there. And so I think we're going to have to focus on that component early on in this process.
Bayh's a moderate and it will be the moderate Senators, both Democratic and Republican, who'll decide whether we get cap-and-trade or not. If Bayh says China needs to get its act together first, you can be sure his moderate colleagues are thinking the same thing. Perhaps this is why House Speaker Pelosi said earlier this month that the House may wait on cap-and-trade until 2010 (though don't tell Henry Waxman). The trick will be getting a climate bill that isn't riddled with loopholes, offsets and "safety valves." It may be that only with China singing from the same hymn book that we'll have any hope of that.

One final thought on coal: the Obama Green Team's comments have to be taken with, if not a grain of salt, than at least with the recognition that confirmation hearings are minefields to be carefully navigated, not bully pulpits from which to preach. There's no need to step on a Republican hair-trigger if you can avoid it - and making nice about coal to the Senate Energy Committee when you're still a Secretary-designate (not to mention a President-elect) seems good manners as well as good politics. And why shouldn't we spend the next few years trying to make carbon capture and sequestration for coal plants a reality? Better to push forward with such research during a time of free spending and economic stimulus rather than a time when the zero sum rules of research funding are in effect. Who knows? It may even work...

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January 16, 2009

Dept. of Unintended Consequences

Over at Grist, Sean Casten observes that many innovations which seem like perfect solutions at a small scale often bring massive unintended and damaging consequences at a large scale. He uses some nifty examples from the past to illustrate his point. My favorite item, though, is the fact that, at its introduction a century ago, the automobile was hailed as a miraculous, trouble-free solution to the reigning urban pollution crisis of the day - fetid air and streets full of animal "byproducts." No one at the time imagined that hundreds of millions of cars worldwide might ever exist, much less one day create pollution problems of their own.

Casten goes on to list the likely but unintended consequences of scaling up the alternative energy technologies required for our transformation to a low-carbon economy.
  1. The solar industry depends on massive volumes of silicon, which must be mined from quartz and purified of its oxygen with a healthy dose of coal and/or charcoal. Do we comprehend the increased size of quartz mines and (char)coal use to meet a solar-dependent grid?

  2. Any central power generation technology requires prodigious amounts of copper in the wires, which must be mined and purified, often with significant acid leaching.

  3. Any battery-intensive future -- whether for automotive or electricity storage -- is implicitly a world that puts us homo sapiens in much closer contact with large concentrations of heavy metals, from lead to cadmium or lighter metals like lithium.

  4. Fuel cells require large volumes of rare earth metals (platinum, rhodium, etc.) that tend to be concentrated in parts of the globe not always known for political pleasantry.
Efficiency, unsexy but powerful - you know, like Dick Cheney - holds the key. We need to squeeze every last joule out of our power and waste energy sources without relying on a 1 for 1 replacement of dirty power with "clean" power. We can't just scale up alternative energy sources to the same level as our fossil fuel-based system - we need to scale down our power demands, too. The good news is that Dr. Secretary Stephen Chu (or is it Secretary Dr.?) at the DOE is a big efficiency fan.

The even gooder news is that a slew of old, highly efficient technologies that had been washed away by the 20th century flood of cheap oil are reappearing as the floodwaters recede. greentechmedia offers a fun list for those keeping score at home. To some extent, the list simply confirms the fact that many of the technologies central to our low-carbon future have actually been around for upwards of a century. Things like geothermal cooling, solar thermal water heaters, gas plasma lighting, zinc batteries, biodiesel and even electric cars are all in that category. Tidal power, meanwhile, goes back a nifty 900 years. But there are also old and, in some cases, ancient technologies like "swirly water" - which involves using vortexes to purify water, dung "gasification" and ambient cooling systems that are just now being "rediscovered" as having commercial-scale potential.

But the fact remains, whether we're traveling back to the future or in, through and beyond, we're going to have to focus on doing more with less power. Anything else is a waste.

Photo courtesy the US National Archives

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January 15, 2009

Gristwork

I have a couple of food-related posts on Gristmill that you all might enjoy. First, there's this speculating that reforming food and eating in this country is really about battling "convenience." And then there's this one looking at the implications (or lack thereof) to House Agriculture Committee reform. Thrilling, no?

Photo by Marc Benton used under a CC license

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The Dirty Dozen

No, not THAT Dirty Dozen - though it is one of the greatest WWII movies of all time. The Dirty Dozen I want to talk about is the list of the most pesticide-laden foods hence the ones worth buying organic or not at all. I've always found it a helpful guide, especially during the winter when local produce is mostly unavailable. The list typically focuses exclusively on fruit and vegetables - which isn't a bad thing, of course - but pesticides aren't exactly limited to those foods. So it's nice to see the Daily Green updating the Dirty Dozen to include a broader range of foods. They are:
  1. Meat
  2. Milk
  3. Coffee
  4. Peaches
  5. Apples
  6. Bell Peppers
  7. Celery
  8. Strawberries
  9. Leafy Greens
  10. Grapes
  11. Potatoes
  12. Tomatoes
A food qualifies for membership if it 1) absorbs pesticides at a high rate or 2) it faces abundant threats of pests that require heavy use of multiple pesticides. Potatoes are the prime example of the latter. I vividly recall the chapters in Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire where he details the lengths to which conventional potato farmers must go to protect their crop. They first chemically sterilize the soil (i.e. kill every living thing whether good or bad) and then add back in via synthetic fertilizers just the nutrients potatoes require. It's only then that they douse the plants with huge amounts fungicides and pesticides. Yummy!

Meanwhile, I do like the fact that meat, milk and coffee make the list. The reasons for the first two should be obvious to readers of this blog. But coffee deserves special mention as another crop whose production can incorporate the extremes of either conventional or sustainable agriculture, depending on how it's done. It used to be ridiculously difficult to find fair trade organic coffee - Starbucks as recently as a few years ago had a single fair trade blend for sale. It's now too easy to find to excuse drinking anything else. And for more on coffee's role in agriculture in the developing world, I point you to a resident of Sao Paolo, Brazil who commented on an otherwise ill-advised anti-coffee screed from Treehugger:
Coffee is one of the few remaining crops that is some sort of permaculture, with even 30 year old plants regularly being harvested. Our region has seen a dramatic shift from coffee, literally being ripped out, to cane production for ethanol... Coffee, like anything, is wonderful in moderation... Coffee provides many jobs to people who NEED them and can be farmed in an eco-friendly manner.

Of the dominant crops in our region - corn, cane, beef, soy and coffee - java for certain is the most environmentally friendly crop, from a feet on the ground perspective. It is normal for field workers to reach deals with land owners where rows between coffee plants are used for family plots, beans, corn, even lettuce can be found in between the endless rows of coffee plants. This is not done with any of the other local crops. No way the land currently occupied by coffee, if torn out, gets planted with anything that does not have a more costly environmental impact on the world, and... shade grown is catching on, even in this area where quantity coffee is 99% of the crop...

Wait - drinking more coffee means less ethanol! Hot Damn! Hmm. Perhaps you noticed my sensitivity on the coffee subject? Moving on.

The Daily Green also provided the Dirty Dozen's converse (or is it obverse? contrapositive? I was never good at that stuff), the list of foods for which it is less important to always buy organic. It doesn't have a catchy, Lee Marvin-inspired nickname so this list is clearly less significant. But still, I must serve the public interest, so here it is:
  1. Asparagus
  2. Avocado
  3. Bananas
  4. Broccoli
  5. Clean Cabbage
  6. Kiwi
  7. Mango
  8. Onions
  9. Papaya
  10. Pineapple
These fruits and vegetables all have impermeable skins or lack pests. Several are also tropical fruits that frankly I don't by all that often anyway. But broccoli and onions are certainly staples - so that's something.

That's all I got. Now go have a cup of organic fair-trade coffee.

Photo from moviegoods.com

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January 13, 2009

The Lobstermen Know All

Looks like we should put the lobstermen of Maine in charge of all the fishes. A study has now confirmed what they've known for years - you just can't kill all the grownups. According to the NYT, scientists have determined that when you set minimum sizes to a legal fishing catch, evolution kicks in and causes the fish to mature earlier, i.e. when they're still too small to be kept. Clever, yes. But too clever by half - these early developers don't reproduce as effectively and aren't as healthy.

As the article observes, "in some areas, as much as 50, 60 or even 80 percent of the stock may be caught every year," which is to say almost all the adults end up in the nets. Meanwhile, up in Maine, lobstermen pioneered a technique of saving reproducing females from the traps - any female lobster caught with eggs under her tail receives a permanent Get Out of Jail Free card thanks to a notch cut in her tail. Lobsters with notched tails, with or without eggs, get thrown back whenever they're caught. That allows for a higher percentage of the adult population to survive each year, which means more growth which means better population health overall. For those so inclined, you can read about lobstering in great detail here.

Lobstermen, of course, have the advantage of personally handling every lobster that gets hauled up and the lobsters themselves oblige with obvious qualifications for the Notch of Life. Still, it appears that fisheries will only truly recover if we set quotas even lower than planned. A higher survival rate of adult fish is the only way to reduce the selection pressure. In other words, catch less. I swear it will work. Just ask the lobsters.

Photo by slack12 used under a CC license

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January 12, 2009

Grist for the Mill
One programming note: the good folks at Grist have invited me to post on their blog at gristmill.grist.org. Which I will occasionally do. But I promise to tell you whenever it happens - there are no secrets at Beyond Green. Here's my first post on fisherman deserving a bit of the stimulus money.

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January 9, 2009

Locavorism May Be Hazardous to Your Health!
I'd like to chalk this up to mere stupidity, but I have a feeling this isn't the last we'll hear of the "dangers" of buying local. The Seattle PI's food writer, Rebekah Denn, uncovered a Top Ten List created by the food-borne illness outbreak super-lawyer, Bill Marler. You may not recognize his name, but food giants like Jack In the Box, Odwalla, KFC, ConAgra and Cargill do. Anyway, he listed "Local Food" as the number 2 "challenge" to the food system in 2009, second only to globalization. Marler frames the risks like this:
Outbreaks linked to local food and/or farmer's markets. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups and food co-ops need to demonstrate knowledge and practice of food safety, and be inspected. In addition to produce and meats/fish, prepared items are currently unsupervised in some, but not all locations.
That's right, your local farmer/coop/food producer is trying to poison you!!! As if it's the produce you buy at your local farmers market that could be contaminated with poisons, industrial chemicals, antibiotics or E. coli. We know where to look if we want to get that stuff - and it's not through our CSA.

Other than being ridiculous, however, his rationale for suspicion of local food isn't baseless - no one should get a free pass. In fact, his "fears" provide a partial rationale for our current system of "industrialized" large-scale food production. By centralizing food production and distribution, it's supposed to allow for easier regulation, inspections and safety. Only it hasn't really turned out that way, has it? Meanwhile, where are the big "local" outbreaks? Small scale food doesn't lead to nationwide food outbreaks and hundreds of deaths.

It's like arguing that it's dangerous to eat in local restaurants - there are so many of them! Who knows what they're doing! Better stick to the big chains! Local health boards have their troubles, but by and large they do a pretty good job with local food safety - and they're in charge of farmers markets and CSAs, too. It's a system that could use improvement, but is it the second greatest challenge to food safety? I think Marler is confusing his livelihood with our food safety - he knows better than anyone that suing a small farmer leaves you with dirt, not paydirt.

It's true that you do hear a lot of complaints from small food producers about the burden of complying with complex regulation. It's also true that product labeling, especially for small producers, is a disaster, running the gamut from confusing to outright dishonest. Still, this seems like scare-mongering rather than consumer education - although it doesn't help when food safety scientists board this particular bus. I wish I could just ignore this kind of drivel, but I'm always looking for the backlash to any "trend" that turns out to be prescient - and locavorism is already getting some. So, I'm just saying. Locavores, watch your backs.

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January 8, 2009

The Way to Cook

Mark Bittman's recent article in the NYT Dining section was a sustainable cooking guide masquerading as a mere pantry reorganization exercise. If you look closely, as everyone should, you will see that - in the name of ease and simplicity - he encourages home chefs to ditch the packaged and/or prepared ingredients. Out with the spray oil cans, pregrated cheese and bottled salad dressings and in with equally easy alternatives like refillable hand pump oil containers, whole parmesan hunks and quickie homemade salad dressing.

But his most notable suggestions (if you're paying attention) involve a wholesale abandonment of canned goods. Though he never mentions it - and lest we forget - almost all food and drink cans are lined with a resin made with bisphenol-A, which has all but been confirmed as dangerous even in tiny doses. It's to the point that the feds are finally admitting the stuff may really be bad for you. Bittman, meanwhile, offers quick alternatives to using things like canned beans, vegetables and tomato paste, along with tips for getting the most out of his zippy preparations. They don't call him "The Minimalist" for nothing. The whole article is a must-read.

This isn't the first time that Bittman has quietly pushed sustainable eating. Back in June, he wrote an article on eating less meat that was long on useful cooking advice and short on meatless dogma. And I'm not saying this in a conspiratorial vein at all. I'm just glad when this sort of advice comes from a well-known chef (or at least a mainstream food writer) and makes the front page of the Dining section of the New York Times.

Photo by Francesco Tonelli for The New York Times

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Farmers and Health Care
Ezra Klein and Steph Larsen, of the Center for Rural Affairs, found a new report from the Access Project that demonstrates, once again, why we need health care reform. Without it, it'll be awfully hard to reform agriculture. Says Ezra:
Small farmers get their health insurance on the individual market. They are not protected by an employer's bargaining power. They do not get to deduct their insurance costs, as employers do. And the individual market is bad, pricey place to get your health insurance. The median amount that farmers on the individual market get paid out-of-pocket for health insurance was $11,200. Those who got their insurance from an employer paid $5,600 out of pocket (they of course paid more out of potential wages redirected to health care, but that's a different sort of burden).
As Larsen adds, "Farming is a dangerous and risky business, and it becomes a whole lot less attractive when a farmer knows that he or she is one fall from the hay loft away from losing their land." It's no mystery that health care concerns play a significant and underestimated role in job decisions for all sorts of people. But its affect on farmers seems especially tragic given the role they play in our society. Talk about biting the hands that feed us. I'd call this sort of societal negligence an isolated incident, but it's not.

Anyway, for those who dream of a thousands strong "New Farmer Corps," which sounds like a great idea to me, or want just to reform agriculture in a meaningful way, it looks like Obama's health care priorities aren't a bad place to start.

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Hardcore Subcommittee Action
In a development that has been rumored but is now confirmed by the Boston Globe (via Green Inc.), Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts will take over the House Energy and the Environment Subcommittee from Rep. Rick Boucher of West Virginia. Markey is a close ally of newly minted chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee Henry Waxman.

The Globe reminds us that Markey was the guy House Speaker Nancy Pelosi originally turned to in her failed attempt at the old "Select Committee End-Around" to bypass the auto-industry advocate (and climate change foot-dragger) Michigan's John Dingell - Waxman's predecessor. In the House's Monopoly: Green Politics Edition, Markey and Waxman are pretty much Boardwalk and Park Place. Both are champions of strong cap-and-trade, energy efficiency (including higher mileage standards) and all that legislative goodness we'll need to combat climate change.

As we know from environmental as well as agricultural policy, these committees matter - as I mentioned, Pelosi has been trying for some time to work around these particular committees, whose previous chairs, while progressive in other respects, chose to protect dirty industires (coal in the case of Boucher, cars in the case of Dingell) rather than the environment. With the Senate and its 60 vote requirement representing "centrist" pressure, the House is now guaranteed to provide a nice leftward push to any legislation. Waxman and Markey will make it their business to ensure that no wimpy bills escape their committees. A big deal for sure - and very good news.

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January 7, 2009

The War on Food

I'm starting to think that Obama's recent reticence on the subject of food and agriculture is because he knows what's good for him. I mean that, by the way, in the Tony Soprano, rather than the Michael Pollan, sense. As I follow the recent food policy debate, I feel like I'm watching a slow-motion train wreck with another car going off the rails every day.

The crack in the track was the rumor going around that Tom Vilsack may take the disgraced Bill Richardson's Commerce appointment rather than Agriculture. Based on the original post, color me skeptical. Some "well-placed source" says that it's an "option under consideration" and that Vilsack would be "the perfect choice." I'm not holding my breath on that one. Neither am I looking forward to the possibility of dragging that old ag nominee short list out again - it was mostly just short on promising choices.

But what really sent things off the rails (and has caused some food policy folks to lose faith) was when one of Obama's top agriculture advisers (along with George McGovern) took to the pages of the Chicago Tribune with a full-throated defense of industrial agriculture to go along with a fatherly pat on the head for sustainable practices. The heart of this defense, and the reason for despair, is the desire for a continued availability of cheap food that minimizes labor costs and provides raw materials for fuel production. If that's what's for dinner, I'll pass.

One of the best things about Paul Roberts' book The End of Food is his careful analysis of how food conglomerates, large retailers and fast-food companies have overwhelmed our food production systems with their outrageous demands for unimaginable quantities of dirt cheap "inputs" (i.e. crops, meat and dairy products), in order to make and sell food - much of which is, by any reasonable definition, fake. At this point, it's their agricultural system; we just eat in it.

Sustainable practices by definition can't supply the Nestles, McDonalds and Wal-Marts of the world. Meeting their demands is what created this teetering CAFO-ridden, monocultural, hydrocarbon-fueled, GMO-based agricultural mishegas in the first place. If the debate is between organic vs. conventional practices, organic will always lose. This is because an organic system exists in opposition to the food companies and retailers whose requirements cannot and should not be met. And there's the rub. What do you get when you cross organic with industrial? An ungainly beast that has begotten little things like a fertilizer scandal and big things like the recent "split" between the so-called commercial organic and the sustainable organic movements.

Does anyone think that a world full of fake and fast food can really transition to a sustainable agriculture? We're addicted to cheap and convenient food just as we're addicted to cheap oil. And if the War on Drugs has taught us anything, it's that until you eliminate demand, supply will keep coming and coming and coming. No one - not Obama, not Tom Vilsack or whoever else sits atop the Agriculture Department, certainly not the American consumer - has shown any willingness to turn his back on the fake stuff. That is the true challenge, and I don't see any indication that we're ready as a nation to face it.

Image by Dan Rhett used under a CC license

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January 6, 2009

Tour de News
Strap in for a whirlwind tour of recent articles that caught my attention. They point to all the moving parts involved with addressing climate change, from cap-and-trade to climate treaties to investment to regulation. First we've got news via Joe Romm that cap-and-trade legislation may have to wait until 2010. According to Environment and Energy Daily (sub req'd):
...Pelosi said she has sufficient backing in the Democratic-controlled House to move a cap-and-trade bill, but will not force the issue. "I'm not sure this year, because I don’t know if we'll be ready," Pelosi said. "We won't go before we're ready."
This somewhat complicates the latest round of negotiations for a new international climate treaty which requires countries to have domestic cap-and-trade deals in place in advance of a meeting in Copenhagen later this year. Of course, no one really expected the US to manage it and, given the last eight years, serious progress on the legislation will likely be enough to satisfy most negotiating partners.

Next we move to Dot Earth, where Andy Revkin reports that China's power generation growth and associated carbon emissions fell off a cliff in 2008 due to the world financial and credit crisis.


Romm observes that this may help the international situation since it presents Obama with an opportunity to get China on board the emissions-cutting bus. It's easier when a lousy economy does some of the work for you.

Which brings us to the UK, where the Transportation Minister Lord Adonis (really. Lord Adonis. Could there have been a better nom de plume for me? Ah well.) announced plans for a British SUPERTRAIN. Via Business Green.

The plans... would see new 200mph rail lines built linking the existing channel tunnel rail link with new high speed lines heading north to Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Scotland, and West to Bristol.

The new lines would centre on a new 12 platform rail hub at Heathrow, allowing travellers to easily reach the airport by car and also cutting rail journey times to the continent. A trip from Birmingham to Paris for example would be almost three hours quicker than it is now.

Clearly, we need one of those here in the US. The bad news for the Brits is that their supertrain may be used as a carrot to cram a much-maligned Heathrow expansion down UK environmentalists' throats (or is that not how you use a carrot?). Anyway, it's an awfully big, sweet, tasty carrot.

It's all part of the UK's stimulus package, which Prime Minister Gordon Brown is touting as a way "to take the next step towards building a far more environmentally sustainable economy." The opposition Tories, of course, think that's a load of hogwash because the ruling Labor Party's plans DON'T GO FAR ENOUGH. In a recent speech, opposition leader David Cameron, again via Business Green, denied:
Brown's claims that the UK had established itself as a genuine leader in the emerging clean tech market, arguing that the government had not done enough to encourage investment in low carbon initiatives.
You mean it's not normal to have the opposition be foot-dragging, anti-science climate deniers? Who knew?

Finally, we see an example of how regulation can beat the pants off a tax. California is planning to limit power consumption of flat panel tvs, effectively banning power-hogging plasma tvs. From the LA Times:
LCD -- liquid crystal display -- sets use 43% more electricity, on average, than conventional tube TVs; larger models use proportionately more. Plasma TVs, which command a relatively small share of the market, need more than three times as much power as bulky, old-style sets.
If you just added some kind of powerhog tax on those tvs, they'd still sell like hotcakes - people who spend that much on a tv aren't sensitive to a tax. Sometimes the government needs to step in and just say no. What kind of difference would it make? Try this on for size:
During a peak viewing time when most sets are on, such as the Super Bowl, TVs in the state collectively suck up the equivalent of 40% of the power generated by the San Onofre nuclear power station running at full capacity. Televisions account for about 10% of the average Californian's monthly household electricity bill.
Second only to refrigerators as the single most power hungry daily-use item in most people's homes. So it's no coincidence that refrigerators are the regulatory model for the new tv plan. Interestingly, some California utilities like PG&E are getting behind the proposed regulations since it would take so much stress off the grid.

There you have it. This disparate collection of news provides a good demonstration that, when presented with the various choices for addressing climate change, the answer is all of the above.

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January 5, 2009

It's the Feds! Quick! Hide the Honey!

Though the articles appeared last week, I still nominate "honey-laundering" for best phrase of 2009. The Seattle Intelligencer just published a series of articles on the honey trade last week (via the Ethicurean). And it's ugly. Says the PI:
The business is plagued by foreign hucksters and shady importers who rip off conscientious U.S. packers with honey diluted with sugar water or corn syrup -- or worse, tainted with pesticides or antibiotics.
Charming. Once again China plays the heavy, having used a powerful, toxic (and illegal for food production) antibiotic to combat a bee plague in the 90s. This in addition to all sorts of other bad behavior like watering down the honey or mis-labeling it "rice syrup" to avoid inspections and tariffs. As a result, no one wants their honey, though it remains legal to import it. But with US honey consumption more than double domestic production, there's a roaring smuggling trade going on. The operations themselves would make John le Carre proud:
In August, 350 drums containing 223,300 pounds of Chinese honey were shipped from Hubei Yangzijiang Apiculture Co. in Wuhan, China, and loaded on a ship in Shanghai. Within a month, the shipment arrived at Tuglakabad, an import warehouse near New Delhi.

There, according to Indian Customs reports, the honey marked "for re-export purposes" was accepted by Apis India Natural Products. The drums still contained instructions from the Chinese company, saying the load was to be shipped to America's biggest and oldest honey cooperative -- Iowa-based Sue Bee Honey. Two containers of the honey reportedly were shipped to Norfolk, Va., and three more went to Jacksonville, Fla.; all were later routed to Iowa.
But it's not just about where the honey comes from. Unlike with maple syrup or other products, there is no "grading" system or even true organic standards. Any claim or "grade" on a honey label is no better than a lie. Ouch.

So, yes, let's all buy our honey at our local farmers market. It's clear from the series that, unless you're buying truly local honey from a trusted source, you simply cannot know where the honey is really from and what's really in it. Certainly, any private-label supermarkert honey is suspect.

But this story is really about a food system that's diffuse, international and impossible to regulate - in other words, broken. After all, what's pushing the honey supply to the limit isn't really that Americans are using honey instead of sugar in their coffee. It's that food companies have adopted honey as a value-enhancing ingredient in processed food. And when food companies want something, they want a lot of it. Markets usually respond when demand outstrips supply with more supply. But when your suppliers are all dying and none of the links in the supply chain have any interest in blowing the whistle on bad product, you get "honey-laundering" instead.

What's scary about this situation is that there isn't a clear solution. More regulation may be on the way - Florida, for example, is trying to come up with honey standards. But are we really about to invest in a vast army of inspectors defending a set of unassailable standards for imported honey? And even if we did, that "seal of approval" 1) would be extremely valuable 2) would demand a premium price and 3) would attract an even larger army of counterfeiters and smugglers interesting in cashing in on the ever more valuable honey trade. Which is where we already are.

And they tell me locavores are the problem.

Photo by LollyKnit used under a CC license

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January 3, 2009

The Carbon Debate Debate
There's a vigorous debate going on among a group of bloggers over a gasoline/carbon tax and what role it will play in addressing climate change which was kicked off by a Tom Friedman column on the subject in the NYT. For the basic outlines, see this from Mother Jones' Kevin Drum and this from Dave Roberts at Grist.

Suffice it to say that while everyone agrees that a gas or carbon tax would need to be really high to have an effect, even then it would be muted by the fact that a lot of people will still drive (or heat their homes). For his part, Roberts maintains that you'll never be able to tax or cap carbon out of existence - while both policies are useful and necessary, the ultimate solution will be regulation (e.g. super-high mileage standards) and public investment in alternative fuel and mass transit.

But in an article that lifts the curtain on the Obama administration's climate change plans, the NYT tells us that Obama has already decided: there will be no carbon tax. So much for all that vigor.

However, if you believe the article, we will be getting cap-and-trade - assuming of course that Larry Summers lets us have it. For, if nothing else, the NYT confirms that this country really has been in an almost decade-long snooze. We're waking up to the same internal administration debates the Clinton folks were having back in the nineties. And, while the political (not to mention the scientific) landscape has changed significantly, the arguments on each side, along with the people making them, haven't.
In the fall of 1997, when the Clinton administration was forming its position for the Kyoto climate treaty talks, Lawrence H. Summers argued that the United States would risk damaging the domestic economy if it set overly ambitious goals for reducing carbon emissions...

His view prevailed over those of officials arguing for tougher standards, among them Carol M. Browner, then the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and her mentor, Al Gore, then the vice president...

While Mr. Summers's thinking on climate change has evolved over the last decade, his views on the potential risks to the economy of an aggressive effort to limit carbon emissions have not.
Indeed, of all things, Summers, along with incoming OMB head Peter Orszag, favors a carbon tax. Browner, not surprisingly, doesn't like that idea, having been burned back in '93 when President Clinton's proposed version of a carbon tax cratered. And apparently, Obama agrees with her. So no carbon tax for now. You have to leave something for the second term, after all.

But having lost the cap-and-trade debate to Browner, Summers threatens to wield his +5 Green Eyeshade of Market Power and force "a maximum price or 'safety valve' cost [for carbon] in case permits become prohibitively expensive." Such a safety valve would render any cap-and-trade system toothless since it would only be triggered when we were all finally feeling the bite of a market price for carbon. In addition, Summers wants:

a phase-in of several years for any carbon restraint regime, particularly if the economy continues to be sluggish, a slower timetable than many lawmakers and environmentalists are pressing.

So now we know what to look for. Yes, Summers has already lost a big argument on environmental policy despite his much ballyhooed powers of persuasion. But he still has the ability to undercut serious cap-and-trade. When and if the administration talks about the need for a safety valve or long phase-ins, we'll know Summers won this one.

What makes this debate important, though, isn't really the particulars of administration infighting, especially because it doesn't answer how a market price for carbon fits into a plan to move us to a low-carbon economy. What really concerns me is the question of how we are going to do all the things that need to be done if we can't even implement a cap-and-trade system with teeth. Anyone?

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