The corn industry must be feeling the pressure from PBS's King Corn, Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, and such articles as High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Not So Sweet for the Planet from the Washington Post. Check out these hilarious commercials on why high-fructose corn syrup isn't bad for you: video 1, video 2.
Last month, I had a debate with my friend J.S. about China's increasing role in polluting the world. For the purposes of this discussion, we focused solely on electric power consumption. Since most electric power is generated by coal plants, the consumption of electricity is directly proportional to greenhouse gas emissions. And regardless of your position on whether humans are responsible for the current greenhouse gas levels, hopefully we can all agree that we should try to reduce our emissions as much as possible so that we don't aggravate the problem.
My position is that the future of global pollution control lies solely in China and India. In order to fuel their economic ascendency, these countries are trashing the environment. A New York Times article entitled Pollution From Chinese Coal Casts a Global Shadow is over a year old but still provides a good summary of the situation.
J.S.'s position is that it's hypocritical to judge China and India when we in the United States are flagrant abusers of electricity. Further, we are tacitly implicated since our addiction to low-cost imports from China provides the demand that fuels their consumption.
Recent numbers on global electricity generation from the Energy Information Administration do support J.S.'s claim. In 2004, the United States produced 3.979 trillion kWh of energy for 303 million people, or 13,405 kWh annually per capita. Europe's population of 492 million people consumed 3.443 trillion kWh, or 7,089 kWh annually per capita. Which means that Europeans use about half the power of Americans per capita. And at 1,795 kWh annually per capita (2.080 trillion kWh for 1.320 billion people), China uses about one-seventh the power that the U.S. does per capita.
But none of this math really matters. In the US and Europe, both the population and manufacturing base are well established, stable, and slow-growing. This means that power consumption won't grow much either. And while it may be hypocritical to tell others that they need to curtail their power consumption while not following that same advice, it doesn't change the calculus. If China and India don't change their plans, then what the US and Europe do is irrelevant.
So what do we do about it? The NY Times article makes some suggestions. Subsidizing coal scrubbers and more efficient power plants in China and India is a good place to start. Nuclear power is an oft-overlooked but balanced solution that unfortunately will probably fall victim to politics. A tariff on imports from countries with poor energy generation practices would certainly be controversial. Certainly reducing our own per capita energy consumption in the US as a symbolic gesture wouldn't hurt.
But we do need to start the conversation... soon!
Last month's New Yorker had a great article by Elizabeth Kolbert on Canada's tar sands. Unfortunately the full article isn't available online, but the abstract of Unconventional Crude has a decent summary. If you can find the original, give it a read. Very enlightening. And potentially terrifying!
Third in a series, here is an update on the "atonement phase" of Aimee's and my carbon load:
We just received our most recent power bill. It reflects the switch to 100 percent wind power. While the actual cost per kilowatt-hour is not that much higher, it turns out that due to a deal that PGE has with the government, consumers who use regular electric power get a fairly sizable credit from PGE. This is to compensate for the fact that hydroelectric power comes from dams on the rivers, which are owned ultimately by the people. Unfortunately, if you switch to wind power, the power company doesn't think they should give you that credit any more. This resulted in the loss of about $10 of credits per month.
Getting to the math, the new 100 percent wind power rate is approximately 11.4 cents/kWh including all taxes and fees. The old regular power rate was 8.9 cents/kWh.
Multiplied by our annual usage of 11,074 kWh, that translates into an increase of $284 per year for using 100 percent wind power. A tad more than I wanted to spend, but a small price to pay to help the environment. And, as my friend Brent put it so perfectly in an earlier comment, "dollars prove priorities in a way that businesses understand. Every extra subscriber gets PGE closer to the next volume discount."
My earlier post on calculating carbon impact definitely spawned a lot of comments and follow-up conversations. These talks made me realize a few things.
First, I've decided that the online calculators that I linked to earlier are not really the best way to calculate carbon load. For example, they focus on the individual, whereas I now believe that one's entire family or household should be considered. For example, the heating and electric bill for my condo is really divided among two people. Further, my girlfriend doesn't own a car, so if we need to drive somewhere, it's in my car. These details are lost unless we consider the household and not the individual.
Second, it's so ridiculously easy to get the actual usage numbers for utilities that everyone should just calculate their actual carbon load rather than using the online estimators.
So, with these two things in mind, I used the following conversion factors to calculate our carbon impact (all information from carboncounter.org):
- 19.36 pounds CO^2 per one gallon gasoline burned
- 0.968 pounds CO^2 per one mile flown
- 1.3925 pounds CO^2 per one kWh electricity used
- 12.0593 pounds CO^2 per one therm natural gas used
I then gathered my actual usage numbers as follows (all figures are for the trailing twelve months ended February 2007):
- Car: Looked at my car emissions certificate from 2 years ago, which lists my mileage at the time, and compared it with my most recent car emissions certificate. [10,000 miles total over 2 years, or 5,000 miles per year]
- Electric: Obtained monthly kWh usage from portlandgeneral.com [11,074 kWh]
- Natural gas: Obtained monthly therm usage from nwnatural.com [139.7 therms]
- Air travel: Obtained actual mileage flown (for personal trips only!) from my frequent flier statements. [12,354 miles each for me and Aimee]
Using the above information, a formula for computing annual household carbon load using actual usage numbers is:
19.36(Car miles driven)/(Car MPG) + 1.3925(kWh electricity used) + 12.0593(therms natural gas used) + 0.968(Air miles flown)
Which, for us, translates to:
19.365000/27.5 + 1.392511074 + 12.0593139.7 + 0.96812354*2
For a grand total of 44,543 pounds of carbon dioxide for both me and Aimee (22,304 pounds each).
This concludes the assessment phase. Next up: Atonement phase :)
I took Wired magazine's Carbon Quiz today. According to the calculator, my carbon load is 21,198 pounds of carbon dioxide annually, thereby earning me a rank of "fair-weather ecofriend." (The Wired articles on The Resurrection of Al Gore and Rise of the Neo-Greens are also worthwhile reading.)
A big surprise was how little a difference recycling makes: Being a militant recycler only reduced my carbon impact a measly 1 percent! The thing that really killed me was air travel, which added almost 9,000 pounds.
I'm going to take the site's advice and atone for my sins by donating $100 to $200 for carbon credits. A bit of Googling uncovered this Oregon Environmental Council web site which has some suggested charities. The other thing I'm going to do is to switch over to one of the renewable power options available from the power company.
Small steps, yes... but it's a start!