California is now experiencing the effects of a climate crisis: hotter summers with world record-breaking temperatures, even more devastating fire seasons, more extreme droughts, and rising sea levels that erode our coastlines.
Scientists tell us that greenhouse gasses released by human activities, like landfilling food and yard waste, cause climate change.
To respond to this climate crisis, California is implementing statewide organic waste recycling and surplus food recovery.
Fighting Climate Change by Recycling Organic Waste
In September 2016, Governor Edmund Brown Jr. set methane emissions reduction targets for California (SB 1383 Lara, Chapter 395, Statutes of 2016) in a statewide effort to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants (SLCP). The targets must:
Reduce organic waste disposal 75% by 2025.
Rescue for people to eat at least 20% of currently disposed surplus food by 2025.
Landfills Are Third Largest Source of Methane in California
Organic waste in landfills emits:
20% of the state’s methane, a climate super pollutant 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Air pollutants like PM 2.5, which contributes to health conditions like asthma.
Organics like food scraps, yard trimmings, paper, and cardboard make up half of what Californians dump in landfills.
Reducing Short-Lived Climate Super Pollutants like organic waste will have the fastest impact on the climate crisis.
SB 1383 Regulations
The Office of Administrative Law approved SB 1383 regulations.
Starting in 2022, some food service businesses must donate edible food to food recovery organizations with others starting in 2024. This will help feed the almost 1 in 4 Californians without enough to eat.
California has a 2025 goal to redirect to people in need 20% of edible food currently thrown away.
SB 1383 requires counties to take the lead collaborating with the jurisdictions located within the county in planning for the necessary organic waste recycling and food recovery capacity needed to divert organic waste from landfills into recycling activities and food recovery organizations.
California has a 2025 goal to redirect to people in need 20% of edible food currently thrown away.
The enforcement provisions in SB 1383 will assist jurisdictions, non-local entities, local education districts, state, federal facilities, and CalRecycle to achieve the state’s climate goals and the 75 percent organic waste diversion goal by 2025 and into the future.
Regulated entities are required to maintain records that demonstrate how they are complying with the law. These records will assist regulated entities with preparing for compliance inspections required by local and state agencies.
If certain conditions are met, CalRecycle may issue waivers and exemptions to jurisdictions, local education agencies, and non-local entities that exempt them from some or all of these collection requirements.
CalRecycle has developed a recycling services and edible food collection complaints portal where the public can file complaints for lack of recycling services, improper labeling of bins, and other solid waste concerns.
Each jurisdiction plans for and implements its own solid waste management programs, including organics recycling. Each local program is based on state minimum standards, including collection service options, container color and labeling requirements, and contamination monitoring. Hauler requirements at the local level vary depending on the type of hauler.
SB 1383 regulations direct entities not subject to oversight by a jurisdiction to implement new organics recycling infrastructure, including, school districts, chapters, and county office of education.
SB 1383 regulations direct entities not subject to oversight by a jurisdiction to implement new organics recycling infrastructure, including, state agencies, county fairgrounds, public universities including community colleges, facilities operated by state parks system, prisons, federal facilities, and special districts.
Every department within a jurisdiction will be affected by the implementation of SB 1383 and will have a role to play. Staff in every department will need to understand how SB 1383 impacts their work, and implementation may require adding staff or contracting with other entities, such as environmental health inspectors or consultants.
The California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) completed the first comprehensive update to the General Plan Guidelines (GPG) since 2003. One of the major changes includes an expanded section addressing the need for additional recycling, anaerobic digestion, composting, and remanufacturing facilities in the land use element.
As a climate reporter, I was well aware of the growing concern about the gas stoves in people’s homes leaking dangerous pollutants, like methane, a potent greenhouse gas and explosive hazard; nitrogen dioxide, which worsens asthma; and benzene, which causes cancer. But I was a renter who had no control over my appliances. So I mostly ignored it — until one day last fall when I smelled the rotten-egg odor of leaking natural gas while baking focaccia.
I borrowed a $30 gas leak detector from a friend (a fellow climate reporter, of course). When I turned on the oven in my New York City apartment, the lights for a “significant” leak lit up. My kitchen was filling up with methane. According to the user manual, that meant I should “VENTILATE THE AREA IMMEDIATELY and move to a safe location” in case of an explosion. I opened the windows and ignored the evacuation advice (don’t follow my example), too intent on taking a video of the leak as proof for my landlord before turning off the oven. Then I vented my frustration by panic-texting friends and eating too much focaccia — after cutting it into pieces and baking it in my toaster oven. Luckily, my landlord replaced my faulty stove within days. I made sure to check the new stove (still gas, alas) for leaks after it was installed.
“People still don’t recognize that there are health downsides to cooking with gas in your home,” said Regina LaRocque, a Harvard Medical School professor who does research on medicine and public health. “This is the 21st century, and we have better ways of cooking than over a fire.”
LaRocque uses a traditional electric coil stove at home. But she and other experts advocated for induction stoves, which use electromagnets to heat up food. These stoves are growing in popularity as consumers choose them for climate, health and safety reasons, though they can cost more than twice as much as a gas range.
The federal Inflation Reduction Act will provide rebates to upgrade to electric or induction home appliances (here’s a Wirecutter guide on that program). Some states, including Massachusetts, offer their own rebates as well.
Induction stoves are much more common in Europe, LaRocque said. That cultural shift has yet to occur in the United States, where more than a third of households use gas stoves. As Mother Jones reported, the gas industry embraced the term “cooking with gas” in the 1930s; an executive even made sure to get it worked into Bob Hope’s comedy routines. More recently, the industry has opposed electrification efforts with lobbying and social media influencers who tout gas as a “super cool way” to cook.
I consulted multiple experts on the hazards of gas stoves and what people can do about them. Their advice boiled down to this: homeowners who can afford it should switch to an induction or electric stove. For renters and others who can’t replace their appliances, the experts provided tips on lowering the health risks.
What Are the Risks of Gas Appliances?
Methane is a greenhouse gas. The gas that’s piped into your house is virtually all methane. When you burn methane to cook food, it turns into carbon dioxide. But unburned methane trickles out from loose fittings and faulty stovetop igniters. Every pound of methane released into the air is 30 to 86 times more effective at warming the planet than a pound of carbon dioxide.
When researchers analyzed 53 homes in California last year, they found methane leaking from almost every stove. More than three-quarters of that methane came from stoves that were turned off. The act of igniting a burner or oven released additional puffs of methane. If these leaks are consistent across the nation, then annual methane emissions from U.S. gas stoves would equal the greenhouse gas emissions of half a million cars.
These leaks are “pretty much universal,” said Robert Jackson, a Stanford University professor and a study co-author. Jackson, who’s spent more than a decade studying methane leaks from gas wells, pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure, said it can be hard to predict where the leak is coming from. Based on the description of the leak in my kitchen, he told me it likely was caused by ignition problems with the oven. Jackson’s research has inspired him to ditch his gas stove, furnace and hot water heater in favor of induction and electric appliances.
“I did not expect to see the high levels of indoor air pollution we saw consistently,” he said. “It strongly motivated me to replace my own stove.”
Large methane leaks can cause explosions. If you smell gas in your home, leave the building and call your gas company. The distinctive rotten-egg odor comes from chemicals that gas companies add to the methane to make it easier to detect, since the gas is naturally odorless.
Some people are much more sensitive to the smell than others, so it’s not a foolproof warning for explosive risk. Eric Lebel, lead author of the methane study Jackson worked on, recalled smelling gas in some of the homes where he did the testing, even though the homeowners couldn’t smell anything. Lebel is a senior scientist at PSE Healthy Energy, a nonprofit science and policy research institute.
Burning natural gas releases nitrogen dioxide, a respiratory irritant. Nitrogen dioxide exacerbates asthma and impairs lung function. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates these emissions from cars and power plants with national air quality standards, but those regulations don’t apply to indoor air.
The Lebel and Jackson study measured nitrogen dioxide and a related compound. They found steadily rising emissions after turning on burners and ovens.
“Simply having a combustion stove in your home is a health risk,” LaRocque said. In poorly ventilated kitchens, nitrogen dioxide levels could exceed outdoor air standards. “It would be like standing behind an idling car, or standing in a smoke-filled room,” she added. “I think if my child had asthma, I would definitely want to intervene.”
Gas stoves leak benzene, a carcinogen that can cause leukemia. In a separate study published last fall, Lebel and his colleagues analyzed gas samples from residential kitchens. Out of 160 samples, all but one contained benzene.
“If there’s a leak from that appliance, it likely contains benzene,” Lebel said. “It’s a rather unavoidable cost of owning a gas appliance.”
Raw natural gas contains a mix of methane and toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene or formaldehyde. Gas companies strip out the impurities before piping the processed gas to homes, but they don’t eliminate all the toxins.
Lebel’s team modeled the benzene concentrations from the leaking stoves and found a handful that failed to meet California’s benzene safety guidelines. They also found traces of other harmful compounds, including toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene, which can cause dizziness, nausea and liver damage. A separate study of gas appliances in the Greater Boston area found benzene in 95% of samples, though at lower levels than Lebel’s study.
How Can I Protect Myself?
Turn on the range hood above your stove. Paul Francisco, associate director of building science at the University of Illinois Urbana, Champaign, suggests cooking on the back burners and using the hood whenever you turn on the stove or the oven. The fans improve ventilation and will pull benzene, methane and nitrogen dioxide outdoors.
However, this only works if the hood connects to the outside of your house. Follow the piping on the hood: If the top of the device goes through the ceiling or the wall, then it should help with air quality.
Another type of range hood, called a “ductless” hood, simply recirculates indoor air. If your hood has grilles or vents on the front, then it’s likely, but not guaranteed, to be ductless, Francisco said. These fans won’t cut down on harmful gases, but they might be able to reduce particulate matter — tiny particles created during cooking, which can cause or exacerbate respiratory illness. A 2014 study found that cooking on induction stoves produced far fewer particles than cooking on gas or electric stoves.
Open a window to improve ventilation. At a minimum, an open window will dilute toxic gases.
If your kitchen is in the upper half of a building, opening the window should draw the contaminants outside as long as there’s no wind and it’s warmer inside than outside, Francisco said. If you live in the lower half of a building, opening a window in the winter won’t be as effective, he said, though any ventilation is better than none.
During last summer’s heat waves, when I couldn’t fathom lighting a fire inside my kitchen, I did almost all my cooking using an induction hot plate, an Instant Pot and an electric toaster oven. Excessive heat is another reason why some chefs advocate for induction burners.
What about air purifiers? These devices have become more popular as a way to improve air quality and reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections. Most air purifiers won’t have any effect on toxic gases, though they do remove particulate matter, Francisco said. Some specialty models filter out volatile organic compounds, a class of chemicals that includes benzene.
It’s much harder to monitor for benzene or nitrogen dioxide. The types of instruments used by Lebel and Jackson cost tens of thousands of dollars and require users to undergo extensive training.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District, a regulatory agency in California, maintains a list of “low-cost” air quality sensors (less than $2,000) that can be used by citizen scientists and advocacy groups. These sensors can be used to detect particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds.
Lebel said it shouldn’t be up to individuals to solve a systemic issue. It seems problematic, he said, “to be asking citizens to be scientists and try and discover if their stove is leaking.”
Repost from PostCarbon Institute [Editor: A lengthy article, well-worth your time. This is by Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow-in-Residence of the Post Carbon Institute and widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost Peak Oil educators. – RS]
Renewable Energy After COP21: Nine issues for climate leaders to think about on the journey home
Richard Heinberg, December 14, 2015
COP21 in Paris is over. Now it’s back to the hard work of fighting for, and implementing, the energy transition.
We all know that the transition away from fossil fuels is key to maintaining a livable planet. Several organizations have formulated proposals for transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy; some of those proposals focus on the national level, some the state level, while a few look at the global challenge.David Fridley(staff scientist of the energy analysis program at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory) and I have been working for the past few months to analyze and assess many of those proposals, and to dig deeper into energy transition issues—particularly how our use of energy will need to adapt in a ~100 percent renewable future. We have a book in the works, titledOur Renewable Future, that examines the adjustments society will have to make in the transition to new energy sources. We started this project with some general understanding of the likely constraints and opportunities in this transition; nevertheless, researching and writing Our Renewable Futurehas been a journey of discovery. Along the way, we identified not only technical issues requiring more attention, but also important implications for advocacy and policy. What follows is a short summary—tailored mostly to the United States—of what we’ve learned, along with some recommendations.
1. We really need a plan; no, lots of them
Germany has arguably accomplished more toward the transition than any other nation largely because it has a plan—theEnergiewende. This plan targets a 60 percent reduction in all fossil fuel use (not just in the electricity sector) by 2050, achieving a 50 percent cut in overall energy use through efficiency in power generation (fossil fueled power plants entail huge losses), buildings, and transport. It’s not a perfect plan, in that it really should aim higher than 60 percent. But it’s better than nothing, and the effort is off to a good start. Although the United States has a stated goal of generating 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, it does not have an equivalent official plan. Without it, we are at a significant disadvantage.
What would a plan do? It would identify the low-hanging fruit, show how resources need to be allocated, and identify needed policies. We would of course need to revise the plan frequently as we gained practical experience (as Germany is doing).
What follows are some components of a possible plan, based on work already done by many researchers in the United States and elsewhere; far more detail (with timelines, cost schedules, and policies) would be required for a fleshed-out version. It groups tasks into levels of difficulty; work would need to commence right away on tasks at all levels of difficulty, but for planning purposes it’s useful to know what can be achieved relatively quickly and cheaply, and what will take long, expensive, sustained effort.
Level One: The “easy” stuff
Nearly everyone agrees that the easiest way to kick-start the transition would be to replace coal with solar and wind power for electricity generation. That would require building lots of panels and turbines while regulating coal out of existence. Distributed generation and storage (rooftop solar panels with home- or business-scale battery packs) will help. Replacing natural gas will be harder, because gas-fired “peaking” plants are often used to buffer the intermittency of industrial-scale wind and solar inputs to the grid (see Level Two).
Electricity accounts for less than a quarter of all final energy used in the U.S. What about the rest of the energy we depend on? Since solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal produce electricity, it makes sense to electrify as much of our energy usage as we can. For example, we could heat and cool most buildings with electric air-source heat pumps (replacing natural gas- or oil-fueled furnaces). We could also begin switching out all our gas cooking stoves with electric stoves.
Transportation represents a large swath of energy consumption, and personal automobiles account for most of that. We could reduce oil consumption substantially if we all drove electric cars (replacing 250 million gasoline-fueled automobiles will take time and money, but will eventually result in energy and financial savings). But promoting walking, bicycling, and public transit will take much less time and investment, and be far more sustainable in the long-term.
Buildings will require substantial retrofitting for energy efficiency (this will again take time and investment, but will offer still more opportunities for savings). Building codes should be strengthened to require net-zero energy or near-net-zero-energy performance for new construction. More energy-efficient appliances will also help.
The food system is a big energy consumer, with fossil fuels used in the manufacturing of fertilizers, in food processing, and transportation. We could reduce a lot of that fuel consumption by increasing the market share of organic, local foods. While we’re at it, we could begin sequestering enormous amounts of atmospheric carbon in topsoil by promoting farming practices that build soil rather than deplete it.
If we got a good start in all these areas, we could achieve at least a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions in ten to twenty years.
Level Two: The harder stuff
Solar and wind technologies have a drawback: they provide energy intermittently. When they become dominant within our overall energy mix, we will have to accommodate that intermittency in various ways. We’ll need substantial amounts of grid-level energy storage as well as a major grid overhaul to get the electricity sector to 80 percent renewables (thereby replacing natural gas in electricity generation). We’ll also need to start timing our energy usage to better coincide with the availability of sunlight and wind energy. That in itself will present both technological and behavioral hurdles.
Electric cars aside, the transport sector will require longer-term and sometimes more expensive substitutions. We could reduce our need for cars (which require a lot of energy for their manufacture and de-commissioning) by densifying our cities and suburbs and reorienting them to public transit, bicycling, and walking. We could electrify all motorized human transport by building more electrified public transit and intercity passenger rail links. Heavy trucks could run on fuel cells, but it would be better to minimize trucking by expanding freight rail. Transport by ship could employ modern fsails to increase fuel efficiency (this is already being doneon a tiny scale), but re-localization or de-globalization of manufacturing would be a necessary co-strategy to reduce the need for shipping.
Much of the manufacturing sector already runs on electricity, but there are exceptions—and some of these will offer significant challenges.
Many raw materials for manufacturing processes either are fossil fuels (feedstocks for plastics and other petrochemical-based materials including lubricants, paints, dyes, pharmaceuticals, etc.) or currently require fossil fuels for mining and/or transformation (e.g., most metals). Considerable effort will be needed to replace fossil fuel-based materials and to recycle non-renewable materials more completely, significantly reducing the need for mining.
If we did all these things, while also building far, far more solar panels and wind turbines, we could achieve roughly an 80 percent reduction in emissions compared to our current level.
Level Three: The really hard stuff
Doing away with the last 20 percent of our current fossil fuel consumption is going to take still more time, research, and investment—as well as much more behavioral adaptation. Just one example: we currently use enormous amounts of cement for all kinds of construction activities. Cement making requires high heat, which could theoretically be supplied by sunlight, electricity, or hydrogen—but that will entail a nearly complete redesign of the process.
While with Level One we began a shift in food systems by promoting local organic food, driving carbon emissions down further will require finishing that job by making all food production organic, and requiring all agriculture to sequester carbon through building topsoil. Eliminating all fossil fuels in food systems will also entail a substantial re-design of those systems to minimize processing, packaging, and transport.
The communications sector—which uses mining and high heat processes for the production of phones, computers, servers, wires, photo-optic cables, cell towers, and more—presents some really knotty problems. The only good long-term solution in this sector is to make devices that are built to last a very long time and then to repair them and fully recycle and re-manufacture them when absolutely needed. The Internet could be maintained via the kinds of low-tech, asynchronous networks now being pioneered in poor nations, using relatively little power.
Back in the transport sector: we’ve already made shipping more efficient with sails in Level Two, but doing away with petroleum altogether will require costly substitutes (fuel cells or biofuels). One way or another, global trade will have to shrink. There is no good drop-in substitute for aviation fuels; we may have to write off aviation as anything but a specialty transport mode. Planes running on hydrogen or biofuels are an expensive possibility, as are dirigibles filled with (non-renewable) helium, any of which could help us maintain vestiges of air travel. Paving and repairing roads without oil-based asphalt is possible, but will require an almost complete redesign of processes and equipment.
The good news is that if we do all these things, we can get to beyond zero carbon emissions; that is, with sequestration of carbon in soils and forests, we could actually reduce atmospheric carbon with each passing year.
Plans will look different in each country, so each country (and each state) needs one.
2. It’s not all about solar and wind
These two energy resources have been the subjects of most of the discussion surrounding the renewable energy transition. Prices are falling, rates of installation are high, and there is a large potential for further growth. But, with a small number of exceptions, hydropower continues to serve as the largest source of renewable electricity.
The inherent intermittency of wind and solar power will pose increasing challenges as percentage levels of penetration into overall energy markets increase. Other renewable energy sources—hydropower, geothermal, and biomass—can more readily supply controllable baseload power, but they have much less opportunity for growth.
Hopes for high levels of wind and solar are therefore largely driven by the assumption that industrial societies can and should maintain very high levels of energy use. If energy usage in the United States could be scaled back significantly (70 to 90 percent) then a reliable all-renewable energy regime becomes much easier to envision and cheaper to engineer—but the system would need to look very different. Solar and wind would serve as significant sources of electricity and with usage timed to its availability, but hydro, geothermal, and some biomass (when environmentally appropriate) would serve as baseload power.
3. We must begin pre-adapting to less energy
It is unclear how much energy will be available to society at the end of the transition: there are many variables (including rates of investment and the capabilities of renewable energy technology without fossil fuels to back them up and to power their manufacture, at least in the early stages). Nevertheless, given all the challenges involved, it would be prudent to assume that people in wealthy industrialized countries will have less energy (even taking into account efficiencies in power generation and energy usage) than they would otherwise have, assuming a continuation of historic growth trends.
This conclusion is hard to avoid when considering the speed and scale of reduction in emissions actually required to avert climate catastrophe. As climate scientist Kevin Anderson points out ina recentNature Geosciencepaper:
According to the IPCC’s Synthesis Report, no more than 1,000 billion tonnes (1,000 Gt) of CO2 can be emitted between 2011 and 2100 for a 66% chance (or better) of remaining below 2 °C of warming (over preindustrial times)… However, between 2011 and 2014 CO2 emissions from energy production alone amounted to about 140 Gt of CO2… [Subtracting realistic emissions budgets for deforestation and cement production,] …the remaining budget for energy-only emissions over the period 2015–2100, for a ‘likely’ chance of staying below 2 °C, is about 650 Gt of CO2.
That 650 gigatons of carbon amounts to less than 19 years of continued business-as-usual emissions from global fossil energy use. The notion that the world could make a complete transition to alternative energy sources, using only that six-year fossil energy budget, and without significant reduction in overall energy use, might be characterized as optimism on a scale that stretches credulity.
The “how much will we have?” question reflects an understandable concern to maintain current levels of comfort and convenience as we switch energy sources. But in this regard it is good to keep ecological footprint analysis in mind.
According to the Global Footprint Network’sLiving Planet Report 2014, the amount of productive land and sea available to each person on Earth in order to live in a way that’s ecologically sustainable is 1.7 global hectares. The current per capita ecological footprint in the United States is 6.8 global hectares. Asking whether renewable energy could enable Americans to maintain their current lifestyle is therefore equivalent to asking whether renewable energy can keep us living unsustainably. The clear answer is: only temporarily, if at all . . . so why attempt the impossible? We should aim for a sustainable level of energy and material consumption, which on average is significantly lower than at present.
Efforts to pre-adapt to shrinking energy supplies have understandably gotten a lot less attention from activists than campaigns to leave fossil fuels in the ground, or to promote renewable energy projects. But if we don’t give equal thought to this bundle of problems, we will eventually be caught short and there will be significant economic and political fallout.
So what should we do to prepare for energy reduction? Look to California: its economy has grown for the past several decades while its per capita electricity demand has not. The state encouraged cooperation between research institutions, manufacturers, utilities, and regulators to figure out how to keep demand from growing by changing the way electricity is used. This is not a complete solution, but it may be one of the top success stories in the energy transition so far, rivaling that of Germany’sEnergiewende. It should be copied in every state and country.
4. Consumerism is a problem, not a solution
Current policy makers see increased buying and discarding of industrial products as a solution to the problem of stagnating economies. With nearly 70 percent of the United States economytied to consumer spending, it is easy to see why consumption is encouraged. Historically, the form of social and economic order known as consumerism largely emerged asa response to industrial overproduction—one of the causes of the Great Depression—which in turn resulted from an abundant availability of cheap fossil energy. Before and especially after the Depression and World War II, the advertising and consumer credit industries grew dramatically as a means of stoking product purchases, and politicians of all political persuasions joined the chorus urging citizens to think of themselves as “consumers,” and to take their new job description to heart.
If the transition to renewable energy implies a reduction in overall energy availability, if mobility is diminished, and if many industrial processes involving high heat and the use of fossil fuels as feedstocks become more expensive or are curtailed, then conservation must assume a much higher priority than consumption in the dawning post-fossil-fuel era. If it becomes more difficult and costly to produce and distribute goods such as clothing, computers, and phones, then people will have to use these manufactured goods longer, and repurpose, remanufacture, and recycle them wherever possible. Rather than a consumer economy, this will be a conserver economy.
The switch from one set of priorities and incentives (consumerism) to the other (conservation) implies not just a major change in American culture but also a vast shift in both the economy and in government policy, with implications for nearly every industry. If this shift is to occur with a minimum of stress, it should be thought out ahead of time and guided with policy. We see little evidence of such planning currently, and it is not clear what governmental body would have the authority and capacity to undertake it. Nor do we yet see a culture shift powerful and broad-based enough to propel policy change.
The renewable economy will likely be slower and more local. Economic growth may reverse itself as per capita consumption shrinks; if we are to avert a financial crash (and perhaps a revolution as well) we may need a different economic organizing principle. In her recent book on climate change,This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein asks whether capitalism be preserved in the era of climate change; while it probably can (capitalism needs profit more than growth), that may not be a good idea because, in the absence of overall growth, profits for some will have to come at a cost to everyone else. And this is exactly what we have been seeing in the years since the financial crash of 2008.
The idea of a conserver economy has been around at least since the 1970s, and both the European degrowth movement and the leaders of the relatively new discipline of ecological economics have given it a lot of thought. Their insights deserve to be at the center of energy transition discussions.
5. Population growth makes everything harder
A discussion of population might seem off-topic. But if energy and materials (which represent embodied energy) are likely to be more scarce in the decades ahead of us, population growth will mean even less consumption per capita. And global population is indeed growing: on a net basis (births minus deaths) we arecurrently adding 82 million humans to the rolls each year, a larger number than at any time in the past, even if the rate of growth is slowing.
Population growth of the past century was enabled by factors—many of which trace back to the availability of abundant, cheap energy and the abundant, cheap food that it enabled—that may be reaching a point of diminishing returns. Policy makers face the decision now of whether to humanely reduce population by promoting family planning and by public persuasion—by raising the educational level of poor women around the world and giving women full control over their reproductive rights—or to let nature deal with overpopulation in unnecessarily brutal ways. For detailed recommendations regarding population matters, consult population organizations such asPopulation Institute andPopulation Media Center. Population is a climate issue.
6. Fossil fuels are too valuable to allocate solely by the market
Our analysis suggests that industrial societies will need to keep using fossil fuels for some applications until the very final stages of the energy transition—and possibly beyond, for non-energy purposes. Crucially, we will need to use fossil fuels (for the time being, anyway) for industrial processes and transportation needed to build andinstall renewable energy systems.We will also need to continue using fossil fuels in agriculture, manufacturing, and general transportation, until robust renewable energy-based technologies are available. This implies several problems.
As the best of our remaining fossil fuels are depleted, society will by necessity be extracting and burning ever lower-grade coal, oil, and natural gas. We see this trend already far advanced in the petroleum industry, where virtually all new production prospects involve tight oil, tar sands, ultra-heavy oil, deepwater oil, or Arctic oil—all of which entail high production costs and high environmental risk as compared to conventional oil found and produced during the 20thcentury. Burning these heavier, dirtier fuels will create ever more co-pollutants that have a disproportionate health impact and burden on low-income communities. The fact that the fossil fuel industry will require ever-increasing levels of investment per unit of energy yielded has a gloomy implication for the energy transition: society’s available capital will have to be directed toward the deteriorating fossil fuel sector to maintain current services, just as much more capital is also needed to fund the build-out of renewables. Seemingly the only way to avoid this trap would be to push the energy transition as quickly as possible, so that we aren’t stuck two or three decades from now still dependent on fossil fuels that, by then, will be requiring so much investment to find and extract that society may not be able to afford the transition project.
But there’s also a problem with accelerating the transition too much. Since we use fossil fuels to build the infrastructure for renewables, speeding up the transition could mean an overall increase in emissions—unless we reduce other current uses of fossil fuels. In other words, we may have to deprive some sectors of the economy of fossil fuels before adequate renewable substitutes are available, in order to fuel the transition without increasing overall greenhouse gas emissions. This would translate to a reduction in overall energy consumption and in the economic benefits of energy use (though money saved from conservation and efficiency would hopefully reduce the impact), and this would have to be done without producing a regressive impact on already vulnerable and economically disadvantaged communities.
We may be entering a period of fossil fuel triage. Rather than allocating fossil fuels simply on a market basis (those who pay for them get them), it may be fairer, especially to lower-income citizens, for government (with wartime powers) to allocate fuels purposefully based on the strategic importance of the societal sectors that depend on them, and on the relative ease and timeliness of transitioning those sectors to renewable substitutes. Agriculture, for example, might be deemed the highest priority for continued fossil fuel allocations, with commercial air travel assuming a far lower priority. Perhaps we need not just a price on carbon, but different prices for different uses. We see very little discussion of this prospect in the current energy policy literature. Further, few governments even currently acknowledge the need for a carbon budget. The political center of gravity, particularly in the United States, will have to shift significantly before decision makers can publicly acknowledge the need for fossil fuel triage.
As fossil fuels grow more costly to extract, there may be ever-greater temptation to use our available energy and investment capital merely to maintain existing consumption patterns (likely for the rich above all), and to put off the effort that the transition implies. If we do that, we will eventually reap the worst of all possible outcomes—climate chaos, a gutted economy, and no continuing wherewithal to build a bridge to a renewable energy future.
7. Equity within and between nations has to be addressed
The ability to harness energy creates wealth and confers social power. With the advent of fossil fuels came a rush of wealth and power such as the world had never before seen. Naturally, humanitarians saw this as an opportunity to spread wealth and power around so as to lift all of humanity above drudgery, eliminate hunger, and even put an end to war. And to a large degree that opportunity has been seized: overall,child mortality rates are down, life expectancy is up,infectious diseases are on the decline,hunger has been reduced(even as population has dramatically grown), andmortality from violence has declinedsince the end of World War II.
Yet globally, wealthy industrial nations have disproportionately benefitted from the fossil fuel revolution while poorer nations have disproportionately borne the costs. And a similar disparity also exists within nations, both rich and poor ones. Further, the injustice of energy wealth vs. energy poverty is increasingly magnified by climate impacts, which fall disproportionately upon energy poor societies—both because of geographical happenstance and because they do not have the same level of resources to devote toward adaptation.
Now we arrive at a crossroads, where the wealth-generating energy sources of the past two centuries (fossil fuels) must give way to different energy sources. While the decades ahead may see declining per capita energy consumption in the industrialized world, the transition to renewable energy does not automatically herald a more egalitarian future. Entrenched economic interests that benefited disproportionately during the fossil fuel era may seek to maintain their advantages as everyone else adjusts to lower consumption levels, attempting to ensure that their slice of a diminishing pie is left untouched. It is also possible that nations, and wealthy communities within nations, will build robust, largely self-contained renewable energy systems while everyone else continues to depend upon increasingly dysfunctional and expensive electricity grids that are increasingly starved of fuel. In either case, current levels of economic inequality could persist or worsen.
Pursuing the renewable energy transition without equity in mind would likely doom the entire project. Unless the interests of people at lower economic levels are taken into account and existing inequalities are reduced, the inevitable stresses accompanying this all-encompassing societal transformation could result in ever-deeper divisions both between and within nations, and lead to open conflict. On the other hand, if everyone is drawn into a visionary project that entails shared effort as well as shared gains, the result could be overwhelmingly beneficial for all of humanity. This is true, of course, not only for the renewable energy transition but also for our response to impacts of climate change that are by now unavoidable.
8. Everything is connected
Throughout the energy transition, great attention will have to be given to the interdependent linkages and supply chains connecting various sectors (communications, mining, and transport knit together most of what we do in industrial societies). Some links in supply chains will be hard to substitute, and chains can be brittle: a problem with even one link can imperil the entire chain. This is the modern manifestation of the old nursery rhyme, “for the want of a nail…the kingdom was lost.”
The graphic above shows the various components, each with its own manufacturing sector somewhere in the world. Planning will need to take such interdependencies into account. As every ecologist knows, you can’t do just one thing.
9. This is not plug-and-play; it is civilization reboot
Energy transitions change everything. From a public relations standpoint, it may be helpful to give politicians or the general public the impression that life will go on as before while we unplug coal power plants and plug in solar panels, but the reality will probably be quite different. During historic energy transitions, economies and political systems underwent profound metamorphoses. There is no reason to suppose that it will be different this time around. If this is done right, the changes that must take place will bring with them opportunities for societal improvement and the greater wellbeing of everyone—including the rest of the biosphere.
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For every answer David Fridley and I identified to the problem of how to power a modern industrial society with 100 percent renewable energy, it seemed that one or more questions popped up. For example, a massive deployment of electric cars would drastically reduce our dependence on oil—but how will we make electric cars without fossil fuels for plastics and tires? The high temperatures for industrial processes used to make glass and steel for those cars could be supplied by renewable electricity, but at what price? And how will we build and repair roads?
Studies showing an easy and affordable path to 100 percent renewable energy typically have an agenda with which we entirely concur: the transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy must occur, whatever the roadblocks. Some of those roadblocks take the form of simple inertia: companies—indeed, whole societies—will invest in fundamental changes to their ways of doing business only when they have to, and most are quite comfortable with their current fossil-fuel-dependent processes, supply chains, and of course sunk costs.
Studies claiming that a transition to renewable energy will be easy and cost-free may allay fears and thus help speed the transition. However, sweeping actual difficulties under the carpet also delays confronting them. We need to start now to address the problems of energy demand adaptation, of balancing intermittency in energy supply from solar and wind, and of energy substitution in thousands of industrial processes. Those are big jobs, and ignoring them won’t make them go away.
If many of the unknowns in the renewable energy transition imply roadblocks and speed bumps, some could turn out to be opportunities, and we cheerfully acknowledge that many conundrums may be much more easily solved than currently appears likely. For example, it is conceivable that new technical advances could result ina zero-carbon cementthat is cheaper to make than the current carbon-intensive variety. But that’s extremely unlikely to happen until serious attention is given to the problem.
At the end of the renewable energy transition, if it is successful, we will achieve savings in ongoing energy expenditures needed for each increment of economic production, and we may be rewarded with a quality of life that is acceptable and perhaps preferable over our current one (even though, for most Americans, material consumption will be scaled back from its current unsustainable level). We will get a much more stable climate than would otherwise be the case, along with greatly reduced health and environmental impacts from energy production activities.
But the transition will entail costs—in terms of money, regulation, and the requirement to change our behavior and expectations. And delay would be fatal.
Below are some suggestions geared specifically to environmental nonprofits and funders.
Create social momentum to support a global powerdown, helping prepare society for an effort and a shift as huge as the Industrial Revolution. While the concern about providing opponents with ammunition is understandable, downplaying or ignoring the real implications of the energy transition may not only engender distrust, it might also waste an opportunity to provide people with a sense of agency.
Where key uses of fossil fuels are especially hard to substitute (aviation fuel, for example), argue for work-arounds (such as rail) or for the managed, gradual scaling down of those uses.
Take a leadership role in initiating visionary projects to further the energy transition, then enlist communities to take those projects on, and to benefit from them. These could be renewable energy, local food, transport, import substitution, recycling, or energy efficiency projects—the possibilities are nearly endless.
In addition to resisting the dominance of fossil fuels, engage with communities to create persuasive models of how people can live and thrive with much reduced reliance on fossil fuels.
Advocate for a just transition to renewable energy that benefits all people and communities. If the NGO world doesn’t do this, who will? And without such advocacy, the energy transition could actually exacerbate existing inequity.
The philanthropic sector inevitably exerts a very large influence over the priorities of nonprofit organizations that it funds. Funders should increasingly support:
Efforts to educate and inspire citizens about the energy transition.
Projects that involve development of new economic models that enable people to live with less energy, but in ways that bring greater life satisfaction.
Replicable models of community development that include taking charge of local energy production and reducing fossil fuel demand across many sectors.
Funders could also help the nonprofit community view the energy transition as a systemic transformation, one that only begins with shutting down coal power plants.
The technical coordination of the renewable transition is itself an enormous task, and currently nobody is handling it. It will likely require a global authority to determine how to direct the use of the world’s remaining burnable fossil fuels—whether toward the further growth of conventional manufacturing and transportation, or toward the build-out of renewable energy-based generation and consumption infrastructure. Only such an authority could globally prioritize and coordinate sectoral shifts (in agriculture, transport, manufacturing, and buildings) to reduce fossil fuel consumption as quickly as possible without reducing economic benefits in unacceptable ways.
But in the absence of such an international authority, the onus of this work will fall largely upon nonprofit environmental organizations and their funders, along with national and local governments.
One way or another, it’s time to make a plan—as comprehensive and detailed as we can manage—and run with it, revising it as we go. And to “sell” that plan, honestly but skillfully, to policy makers and our fellow citizens.
OPINION | Jessie Mehrhoff, November 12, 2015 11:21 a.m. EST
It’s the fundamental connection between environmental degradation and human health that has me concerned about the prospect of Congress lifting the U.S. oil export ban, which will worsen climate change and threaten our communities with toxic spills.
The list of risks climate change poses to human health is long. Increased temperatures will spread tropical diseases to new latitudes. Heat waves will cause more deaths across the world. Warmer temperatures will lead to more health-threatening smog and decrease crop yields. Detailing these impacts and more in 2009, “The Lancet,” one of the world’s most respected medical journals, labeled climate change ‘the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”
These aren’t just future consequences, to be experienced on the other side of the globe. In New Jersey, we still face the impacts of superstorm Sandy three years later. Climate scientists at Rutgers University predict even more extreme weather if climate change goes unchecked.
In addition to these consequences, the American Lung Association’s 2015 State of the Air report card has given Monmouth County an “F” for the number of high-ozone level days, and finds more than 56,000 people in the county suffer from asthma. Climate change is only going to make numbers such as this climb as our air quality worsens.
To avoid global warming’s most devastating health impacts, we must end our dependence on fossil fuels and transition to pollution-free, renewable energy. Lifting our decades-old ban on the export of U.S.-produced oil represents the opposite course.
If the oil companies have a larger distribution market for oil produced in the U.S., they will drill more — upward of another 3.3 million barrels per day for the next 20 years, by some General Accounting Office estimates. Even if only a fraction of all this extra oil is burned, global warming pollution could still increase 22 million metric tons per year — the equivalent of five average-sized coal power plants.
In addition to worsening climate change, there’s the public health threat of transporting additional oil across the country. While most crude oil is shipped around the U.S. by pipeline, shipments by rail have been increasing. To keep up with increased demand, oil trains have grown larger and tow more tanker cars than ever before.
Currently, trains carrying highly flammable crude oil travel through 11 of the 21 counties in New Jersey —Mercer, Middlesex, Gloucester, Somerset, Hunterdon, Bergen, Camden, Essex, Hudson, Union and Warren — en route to refineries. These oil trains are an accident waiting to happen, and have spurred trainings across the state where firefighters, police and other emergency responders have prepared courses of action in an oil derailment emergency.
The fear of oil train accidents — where toxic crude oil is spilled into our communities — is not hyperbole. Accidents have been on the rise, with more oil accidentally dumped into our environment in 2013 alone than during the previous three decades combined.
In 2015, we’ve already seen three major oil train accidents. In Mount Carbon, West Virginia, a rail oil spill led to evacuations and a governor-declared state of emergency. In Galena, Illinois, a spill threatened to pollute the Mississippi River. A spill in Heimdal, North Dakota, forced the evacuation of a town.
If we are to prevent these accidents from taking place in the 11 New Jersey counties through which these trains travel, we must work to reduce the amount of oil these trains carry. Transporting the increased oil we would produce domestically if the oil export ban were lifted could require enough trains to span the country from Los Angeles to Boston seven times over.
Increasing our nation’s crude oil drilling and transportation by lifting our decades’ old ban on exports leads to more risk, not less. And the inconvenient truth of lifting the oil export ban means more drilling, more global warming pollution, and more threats to public health.
There is a way around lifting the oil export ban in the first place. President Obama is against lifting the ban, and the measure only narrowly cleared a Senate committee earlier in the month. That’s why we need Sen. Cory Booker to join Sen. Bob Menendez in standing strong against the oil industry and to vote to keep the ban in place — for the sake of the environment and public health.
Jessie Mehrhoff is lead organizer with Environment New Jersey, a citizen-based environmental advocacy organization.
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