Blue Marble

Boeing, Airbus Agree to Reduce Aviation's Environmental Impact

| Tue Apr. 22, 2008 12:11 PM PDT

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Today, two of the world's largest aircraft manufacturers played nice for the camera at the third annual Aviation & Environment Summit in Geneva, Switzerland. Boeing president and CEO Scott Carson and Tom Enders, his Airbus counterpart, signed a document pledging their companies' to work together to enlist the help of the U.S. and various European governments to reduce air travel's carbon emissions. This would primarily be accomplished, say the executives, through modernization of air traffic management systems.

The move is not altogether surprising, given that the price of oil now hovers around $117 per barrel—higher for airlines, which rely on more costly jet fuel. The aviation business is scrambling to improve efficiency (translation: cut costs) by whatever means necessary. (Just consider that the fact that a mixed drink in flight now costs five bucks—exact change, please!—and that five leading airlines now plan to charge passengers twenty-five dollars for a second checked bag.)

The Boeing/Airbus agreement, if successful in modernizing air traffic management systems, could reduce carbon emissions by 10-12 percent in Europe alone, according to Agence France-Presse. "We set a good example and hopefully it will be exportable on how to organize air traffic management," says Enders.

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Growing Up Nuclear: Author Kelly McMasters Tells Her Story

| Tue Apr. 22, 2008 10:17 AM PDT

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The following is a guest blog post by Kelly McMasters, author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir From an Atomic Town. The book, which hits stores this week, recounts McMasters' childhood in the beautiful town of Shirley, bucolic home to nuclear power plants and, later, to cancer clusters and polluted waterways.

I grew up in a blue-collar town on the east end of Long Island. Just north of the town, the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a federal nuclear facility, sits deep within a thick forest of towering pine trees. As a child, I imagined the lab's buildings were made of an igloo-like substance, and the rooms inside were full of metallic file cabinets, clinking glass test tubes, and notebooks full of secret codes. Men and women in crisp white lab coats and plastic goggles coaxed new species of frogs and lizards out of mottled purple eggs. Others hovered over milky glass globes of light whose kinked antennas sparked blue shots of electricity into the dim, silent air. My neighbor worked as a maintenance man at the lab, and he often teased that he glowed in the dark. After he died of brain and lung cancer, my imaginary lab became a much darker place—a small, sinister pocket hiding in the pines.

Food Miles & Your Carbon Footprint

| Mon Apr. 21, 2008 7:57 PM PDT

ee_foodmiles.jpg The number of miles your food travels from farm to plate makes a difference in your personal climate-change footprint. But not as much as eating red meat and dairy, which are responsible for nearly half of all food-related greenhouse gas emissions for an average U.S. household. New research published in Environmental Science & Technology finds it's how food is produced, not how far it's transported, that matters most for global warming. Christopher Weber and Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University conducted a life-cycle assessment of greenhouse gases emitted during all stages of growing and transporting food. They found transportation creates only 11% of the 8.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases that an average U.S. household generates annually from food consumption. The agricultural and industrial practices that go into growing and harvesting food create 83%.

Switching to a totally local diet is equivalent to driving about 1000 miles less per year. Yet a relatively small dietary shift can accomplish about the same. Replacing red meat and dairy with chicken, fish, or eggs for one day per week reduces emissions equal to 760 miles per year of driving, say the study's authors. And switching to vegetables one day per week cuts the equivalent of driving 1160 miles per year.

Why not all of the above? Though there are other factors to consider when we choose our foods, everything from the ecological costs of hunting wildlife (fish), to fertilizer runoff and oceanic dead zones (dairy), to cruelty issues (eggs). As always, and as your mama said, veggies rule.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

How Fishing Screws With Ecosystems

| Wed Apr. 16, 2008 7:06 PM PDT

800px-Pieni_2_0139.jpg Fishing provokes volatile fluctuations in the targeted populations, though no one really knows why or how. Until now. Researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography have found that current methods of fishing decapitate the "age pyramid:" lopping off the few large, older fish who make up the top of the pyramid and leaving a broad base of faster growing small fish. This rapidly growing base is unstable, a finding with profound implications for fisheries management. The reason being that even though fishing typically extracts the larger members, fishing regulations often impose minimum size limits to protect the younger fishes.

For example: Imagine a container of water with one 500-pound fish. With food, it grows a little bigger. Without food it gets a bit smaller. Imagine the same container with 500 one-pound fish. They eat, reproduce and the resulting thousands of fish boom, quickly outstripping the resources and the population crashes. These many smaller fish—with the same initial biomass as the larger fish—can't average out the environmental fluctuations, and in fact amplify them through higher turnover rates that promote boom and bust cycles.

"The type of regulation which we see in many sport fisheries is exactly wrong," said George Sugihara of Scripps. "It's not the young ones that should be thrown back, but the larger, older fish that should be spared. Not only do the older fish provide stability and capacitance to the population, they provide more and better quality offspring." These more valuable (to the ecosystem) older fish are what some researchers have called the BOFFFs: the big old fat female fish.

Cindy Crawford Is Your Eco-Everywoman

| Wed Apr. 16, 2008 3:32 PM PDT

cindy-crawford100x150.jpgCindy Crawford—remember her? From the 1990s?—is back. But she's not modeling or acting: she's pimping PUR water in Vanity Fair's blog. This "working mom" is, she says, "changing world by changing her lifestyle. Think of me as your eco-everywoman." Fair enough. We should all try to unplug our appliances when not in use and recycle our plastic bottles.

Just a few paragraphs later, this "eco-everywoman" begins a rather heavy-handed, PR-ish thread about how she had an epiphany when she realized "I loved the taste of water after it had been through a PUR filter." Turns out Crawford is now designing a re-usable aluminum water bottle with PUR for a campaign called "Thirsty for Change." It launches next month, and Crawford wants us all to check in on her future blog posts and "wish me luck!" Once again, Vanity Fair's green coverage is heavy on the celebrities, light on the cause celebre.

Photo from VanityFair.com

Some Corals Survived A-Bombs, Others Didn't

| Tue Apr. 15, 2008 5:17 PM PDT

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Fifty years ago the last atomic bomb test shook the Pacific's Bikini Atoll. Now corals are flourishing here again—though with 42 fewer species than prior to the bomb blasts. At least 28 of the missing corals appear to be genuine local extinctions, victims of the 23 bombs exploded at Bikini between 1946 and 1958. An international team has been surveying biodiversity at the atoll, including diving into the 1954 Bravo Crater, site of the most powerful American atomic bomb ever exploded (15 megatons, 1,000 times bigger than Hiroshima). The Bravo bomb vaporized three islands, raised water temperatures to 100,00 degrees F, shook islands 125 miles away and left a crater 1.25 miles wide and 240 feet deep.

The 1946 point of view.

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Half Australia's Shorebirds Gone, Cambodia's Recovering

| Mon Apr. 14, 2008 11:56 PM PDT

20_1.jpg First the good news. Storks, pelicans, ibises, and other rare waterbirds from Cambodia's famed Tonle Sap region are making a comeback. Some of the waterbird species have rebounded 20-fold since 2001. That's when the Wildlife Conservation Society partnered with the Ministry of Environment of the Royal Government of Cambodia to employ former hunters and egg poachers as round-the-clock park rangers to monitor the birds. The upshot is that the colonies of Tonle Sap (Great Lake), including the largest, and in some cases, only breeding populations of seven globally threatened large waterbird species in Southeast Asia, have increased from a total of 2,500 breeding pairs in 2001 to 10,000 pairs in 2007.

Now the bad news. An alarming new study reveals that Australia's shorebirds have suffered a massive collapse in numbers over the past 25 years. A large scale aerial survey study covering the eastern third of the continent by researchers at the University of New South Wales has identified that migratory shorebirds populations there plunged by 73% between 1983 and 2006. In the same timeframe, Australia's 15 species of resident shorebirds have declined by 81%. The study is published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation.

"This is a truly alarming result: in effect, three-quarters of eastern Australia's millions of resident and migratory shorebirds have disappeared in just one generation," says Richard Kingsford, one of the study authors. Of the 10 wetlands supporting the highest number of shorebirds, four had been substantially reduced in size during the survey period. And not only in Australia. "The wetlands and resting places that they rely on for food and recuperation are shrinking virtually all the way along their migration path, from Australia through Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and up through Asia into China and Russia," says Kingsford.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Oil Trumps Whales

| Sat Apr. 12, 2008 12:18 PM PDT

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Northern right whale with calf,
Eubalaena glacialis. Photo: Georgia Department of Natural Resources

The Bush administration wants to open 5.6 million acres in the Bering Sea off Alaska to oil and gas leasing, including an area north of the Aleutian Islands near Bristol Bay designated critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale. The proposal was published in Tuesday's Federal Register by the Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS), as reported by the Center for Biological Diversity. North Pacific right whales once ranged from California to Alaska and across the North Pacific to Russia and Japan. They were decimated by commercial whaling and remain the most endangered large whale in the world. Fewer than 50 individuals remain in the Bering Sea population.

"Drilling in Bristol Bay would be drilling through the heart of the most important habitat of the most endangered whale on the planet," said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. "If the North Pacific right whale is to have any chance of survival, we must protect its critical habitat, not auction it off to oil companies." The CBD reports the leasing proposal was made the same day the National Marine Fisheries Service, another federal agency, published a final rule in the Federal Register naming portions of the lease area as critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale. Ooops.

"Unfortunately, for the right whale it's one step forward, two steps back," said Cummings. "One branch of the federal government is acting to protect the critical habitat of the North Pacific right whale, while another branch is simultaneously proposing to destroy it." It's also reminiscent of the recent MMS decision to lease important polar bear habitat in the Chukchi Sea at the same time the US Fish and Wildlife Service was considering offering the bears protection under the Endangered Species Act. Both agencies are part of Dirk Kempthorne's Department of the Oilterior, uhm, Interior.

The latest leasing proposal would sell the North Aleutian Basin lease in 2011… One more reason we need the Right President to protect the Right Whales. Not to mention the right one to wean us off the oil economy rather than enable it.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Gavin Newsom's San Francisco: The New Windy City?

| Fri Apr. 11, 2008 6:51 PM PDT

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It is the greenest home in the city of San Francisco, and one of the greenest in the world. Nestled in the city's Mission district amidst old and colorful Victorians, La Casa Verde is built entirely from sustainable and recycled materials, has a green roof and solar panels, and draws 40% of its energy from a single wind turbine (.pdf), which rises 45 feet in the air.

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom loves it—unsurprising, considering the many green initiatives he's supported in the city. He couldn't stop talking about how "great" and "fantastic" he thought La Casa was as he toured the building this morning, and listened attentively as homeowner Robin Wilson described the building's many green features: the countertops made from discarded rice hulls, the recycled flooring, the chandelier whose shimmering LED lights will last for over 15 years. "This is not a modest or symbolic effort," he commented. "This is real. This is not fanciful."

And for San Francisco residents, "real" green housing is about to be a lot more attainable. Speaking to reporters after the tour, Newsom announced that he is creating a residential wind working group, tasked with figuring out how to revamp the city's zoning and building codes to allow wind turbines on private lots. If implemented, it would be the first urban program of its kind.

Lock Up CO2 In DVDs

| Thu Apr. 10, 2008 7:26 PM PDT

71519130_a643617ede_m.jpg Here's an idea. Carbon dioxide removed from smokestack emissions could become a valuable raw material for the production of polycarbonate plastics in eyeglass lenses, car headlamps, DVDs, CDs, and drink bottles. The processes involved would offer less expensive, safer and greener products, researchers suggested in two separate reports presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.

"Carbon dioxide is readily available, especially from the smokestack of industries that burn coal and other fossil fuels," says chemist Thomas Müller. "And it's a very cheap starting material. If we can replace more expensive starting materials with CO2, then you'll have an economic driving force." There's already a huge market, and millions of tons of polycarbonates are sold each year. But what hasn't been factored in is that these hard, tough materials represent what Müller calls "intriguing sinks" for exhaust carbon dioxide. In fact, there's no other consumer product with such potential for removing CO2 from the environment.

So, we may be drinking from a CO2 plastic bottle (well, hopefully not) and watching movies on waste-CO2 DVDs (well, preferably streaming) soon. "I would say it's a matter of a few years before CO2-derived polymers are available to the public," says Müller.

Good idea: make polycarbonates from waste CO2. Better idea: make less pollution and less polycarbonate plastics.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.