The stalled economy reduced demand for gasoline and diesel and electric power. People drove less, bought fewer items and used less energy as a result. The production of greenhouse gas — carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases — peaked in 2007 at 2.752 billion metric tons, dipped to a low of 6.608 billion in 2009 before showing a little robust “recovery” by increasing to 6.821 billion in 2010, the most recent year for which numbers are available.
These and other fascinating facts can be found in 2012 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While that may sound encouraging, a deeper look at the numbers shows that U.S. consumers, business and government continued to show a prodigious hunger for fossil fuels.
Bad air on the rise
Production of greenhouse gases just from fossil fuel combustion (that’s vehicles and stuff like energy generation) rose to 5.388 billion metric tons in 2010, a 13.7 percent increase from 1990.
The culprits? Electricity generation accounts for 34 percent, transportation 27 percent and industry 20 percent. The rest comes from agriculture, commercial, residential and other sources. Just for a little perspective, an average automobile produces 5.2 metric tons of greenhouse gases each year.
This stuff isn’t good. In addition to mucking up the skies, the EPA ruled in 2009 that greenhouses gases are the primary cause of climate change. This leads to higher temperatures and longer heat waves and, among other things, threatens the health of Americans. Increases in ground-level ozone pollution, which is created by chemical reactions between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, have been linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Forecast in the 60s
The information is hardly new. A prediction can be found in the original Broadway cast recording of “Hair.” The song, “Air,” is as real now as it was then: “Welcome sulphur dioxide, Hello carbon monoxide. The air, the air is everywhere. Breathe deep, while you sleep, breathe deep.” And so on. The lyrics are permanently seared into my brain, courtesy the first record I laid my hands on.
Strange to think that “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” debuted off Broadway in October 1967. Seems like yesterday. I’m kidding. Seriously, I tried getting my arts friendly son Calvin, now in his first year at Seattle University, interested in the soundtrack.
Nothing. No response. Nor did any of my kids seem to get Cheech & Chong. Oh well.
Aiding the cause
The bigger plan is getting them thinking about the air. Facts and figures do little to inspire most people, but add an effective anecdote of how it affects somebody and interest can increase geometrically. We learned this in the newspaper business. A good photo, a great story people can relate to and a writer and photographer could fill a city council chamber.
But I’m no longer a journalist and this will never appear in newsprint. Still, the axiom holds. I offer up an observation many in the San Joaquin Valley can relate to: On sunny hot days in the depths of summer, the skies often look like they’ve been coated with a fine layer of mud. The views of the Sierra from Valley towns and farms, which were once so crystalline and vibrant, just don’t exist. And the air kind of tastes like dirt.
The solution is obvious. We’ve got to reduce the national production of greenhouse gases. The alternative is something I’d rather not contemplate. Sure, we could experience total economic meltdown. For instance, Spain just reported an unemployment rate pushing a quarter of its work force. That’s one way. But hardly optimal.
One building at a time
Another approach has been adopted by many colleges, government agencies and private sector organizations. It involves reducing the climate footprint. This can be done relatively painlessly through building retrofits, practices like benchmarking energy use and policies that encourage reduction in water and waste as well as electricity.
California Gov. Jerry Brown took the plunge, issuing an executive order that state agencies reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 10 percent by 2015 and 20 percent by 2020. The order also said that all new state buildings and major renovations after 2025 be designed and built to meet requirements of net-zero facilities. That means they generate as much energy as they use.
Brown’s Order also says that as of 2020 half of new facilities should meet the net-zero requirement and that state agencies should make half their existing facilities meet the rule. It also includes reducing water use and adding plug-ins for electric cars and other changes.
“Doing something real about the growing threat of global warming requires more than just new laws. We must lead by example,” Brown says in a statement. “Greening the state’s buildings will shrink our environmental footprint and save taxpayers millions of dollars.”
No new world order
Pursuing climate friendly policies costs money. Not so much when it comes to green buildings but more so when looking to retire fossil-fuel-burning power plants.
Even the governments of Germany and Japan, which earlier pledged to push all out for green energy, are having trouble sticking to their goals. National Public Radio’s Richard Harris, reporting from a meeting in London of energy ministers from around the world, says, “It turns out that right now, just about everything is conspiring to make it harder to clean up the world’s energy supply.”
Harris reports the International Energy Agency warned that nations are nowhere near being on track to avert significant climate change. He quotes David Victor at the University of California, San Diego, who says, ”What’s happened across the industrialized world is the governments are feeling poor these days.”
Feed-in tariffs, which provide subsidies to make renewable energy competitive, are drying up and other incentives are being lost. The result has been a contraction of solar and wind companies in Europe and the United States. The reduction in price of natural gas, a direct result of hydraulic fracturing tapping new reserves, also has compounded the clean energy industry’s problems.
The solution is to continue plugging along. Economic pressures will continue. The forecast continues to be in positive territory but disappointing.
So breathe deep, this won’t be easy. And if you’re looking for a way to help, 350.org is a great place to start.
By: Mike Nemeth