Blue Marble

$1 Ethanol Isn't Innovation, It's a Commitment to Business as Usual

| Fri Jan. 25, 2008 5:10 PM EST

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Americans do not reduce. We may reuse, and we may recycle, but our economic system is predicated on steady consumption. So it makes sense that while trying to invent our way out of the consequences of global warming, we would seize upon those ideas that encouraged us to, well, consume. In other words, business as usual.

Today's quick fix is brought to us by Coskata. This Illinois-based energy startup, thanks to a hefty investment from GM, has already announced its triumph in the race for a new global energy source. The winning product? Bargain ethanol. Coskata's innovative technology, which lets anaerobic "patented microorganisms" eat syngas (a carbon monoxide and hydrogen compound formed by processing biomass such as corn husks), allows the company to produce waste-free ethanol from almost anything you give them: tires, factory waste, switchgrass, you name it.

What's more, says the company, because its process can convert so many different types of material into essentially pure ethanol, the fuel could be locally produced anywhere in the world. Each gallon will generate nearly eight times as much energy as it takes to make it, and the product reduces carbon emissions by 84%. The production cost of this miracle fuel? $1 per gallon.

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Insects Creep Out of Asia - And Into Your Backyard?

| Fri Jan. 25, 2008 2:42 PM EST

asian-tiger-mosquito.jpgInvasive species like the Asian tiger mosquito are on the rise in Europe, French researchers recently reported. Nineteen new invasive species made Europe their home every year from 2000 to 2007. (From 1950 to 1975, only about 10 species per year established themselves.)

Antarctica Is Melting, After All

| Fri Jan. 25, 2008 12:44 PM EST

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A while back, I blogged about how global warming skeptics were all smug and glowy (and wrong) about how Antarctica's not melting. If the sea ice in the South Pole is actually increasing, the reasoning went, then how could the planet be warming? Huh? Huh? Well, for a number of reasons, that logic is false, but guess what? It may be moot point anyway, since it turns out that the western part of Antarctica is melting—and fast: Ice loss in the region has increased by 75 percent over the past ten years.

A team of researchers led by scientists from UC Irvine discovered that the underlying cause for the melting was accelerated glacier flow, which is, in turn, caused by warming oceans. All that melting means higher sea levels:

They detected a sharp jump in Antarctica's ice loss, from enough ice to raise global sea level by 0.3 millimeters (.01 inches) a year in 1996, to 0.5 millimeters (.02 inches) a year in 2006.

That level of melting puts western Antarctica almost on par with Greenland, a dubious distinction, to say the very least.

Has California's Low-Carbon Fuel Standard Actually Increased Carbon Emissions?

| Thu Jan. 24, 2008 1:53 PM EST

Last year California passed a much-heralded law requiring oil companies to cut the carbon intensity of their fuel 10 percent by 2020. The state is allowing ethanol to be used as one low-carbon substitute, and recently raised the cap on ethanol in gasoline from six to ten percent. You've probably read about the ways the ethanol craze contributes to higher food prices around the world, but what nobody has calculated, until now, is how this affects ethanol's true carbon footprint. In an analysis released January 17th, two UC Berkeley researchers found that ethanol actually produces more carbon emissions than gasoline. As a result, the carbon intensity of California fuel has ironically risen, between 3 and 33 percent.
 
The researchers, professors Michael O'Hare and and Alexander Farrell, take issue with the model state regulators used to calculate ethanol's carbon output, arguing that it did not factor in the indirect effects on the global food supply. Among other things, higher corn prices cause farmers half-way around the world to convert more forests into farmland, and those trees are then burned or decay, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. The professors pointed this out in a letter sent earlier this month to the California Air Board, which is discussing changing its carbon model in light of the findings.

The Nobel Laureates Have Spoken: We Need a Presidential Science Debate

| Thu Jan. 24, 2008 1:05 PM EST

Eleven Nobel laureates, nine congressmen, multiple university presidents, and the heads of numerous science organizations have signed a petition calling for a presidential science debate this year. "Science and engineering have driven half the nation's growth in GDP over the last half-century, and lie at the center of many of the major policy and economic challenges the next president will face," says Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "We feel that a presidential debate on science would be helpful to America's national political dialogue."

It's not surprising that the candidates haven't jumped at the idea. Global-warming- and evolution-denying Republicans would look hilarious in such a forum, but even Democrats might worry about making a gaffe while weighing in on debates that are normally left to the experts. Still, it seems like an idea Democrats should take seriously. By signaling to voters that science is important, it would drum up support for the party's ideas, and, more fundamentally, lay out how post-Middle-Ages worldview translates into superior leadership.

How High Gas Prices Are Making Us Safer. Seriously.

| Wed Jan. 23, 2008 2:37 PM EST

traffic-jam.jpgGas prices, thanks to the Global War on Terror and Hurricane Katrina, are now the highest in the nation's history. Gas easily tops $3 per gallon in San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, and other cities across the nation, making driving an expensive way to get around. For reference, gas prices have increased roughly 100% since 9/11.

What's the upside? That ridiculously expensive petroleum is prompting people to drive more slowly on highways, drive less often, buy more fuel-efficient cars, and take mass transit more often. A recent Congressional Budget Office report found that based on statistics from 2003 to 2006, a theoretical 15-year, 10% increase in gas prices would reduce consumption by 4% as consumers replaced their gas-guzzlers with more fuel-efficient cars.

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Prince Charles (in Hologram) Lauds UAE's Green Cities Investment

| Tue Jan. 22, 2008 5:18 PM EST

abu_dhabi.jpgWhich is more bizarre? Prince Charles' hologram walking and twiddling his way across a stage, or a proposal for a no-waste, carbon-neutral city in a desert where searing temperatures make air conditioning a must?

Both the hologram and the city plan made appearances at the World Future Energy Summit, in Abu Dhabi, which began yesterday and runs through tomorrow. It might seem strange to discuss energy efficiency and global warming in a country that sells oil for a living, but 2,500 delegates from around the world are doing just that. Some tidbits from the summit thus far:
-Prince Charles, OB Wan Kenobi-style, called for immediate climate change action.
-Abu Dhabi, partnering with MIT, will build an alternative energy university.
-A British architect announced an elaborate plan for a car-free, zero-emissions city for 50,000 to be powered by solar panels.
-Abu Dhabi will spend $15 billion on a green energy initiative and will build the world's largest hydrogen power plant.

Now, if only Las Vegas would follow in the footsteps of Abu Dhabi, that'd be something to hologram about.

Richard Branson's Friendly Skies of Pond Scum?

| Tue Jan. 22, 2008 3:05 PM EST

Next month, Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic airline plans to fly a Boeing 747 from London to Amsterdam, powered (in part) by an unspecified, but supposedly clean and sustainable biofuel. It will be the first bioful test flight of a commercial jet, and, if successful, could augur a new age of ecofriendly aviation. Among the fuels Branson might test, that green muck from your fish tank... Read more here.

30 Million Years to Recover From Extinction?

| Fri Jan. 18, 2008 3:02 PM EST

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Scientists have been saying for a while that by the end of this century, half of all species could be extinct. And a new study says that it could take an awfully long time for Earth to recover—30 million years, to be specific.

Back in the Permian era, Earth lost more than 90 percent of all life. Scientists once thought that species rebounded quickly from the hit, but it turns out they were sort of missing the fine print, according to researchers at Bristol University:

Sahney and Benton looked at the recovery of tetrapods – animals with a backbone and four legs, such as amphibians and reptiles – and found that although globally tetrapods appeared to recover quickly, the dramatic restructuring that occurred at the community level was not permanent and communities did not recover numerically or ecologically until about 30 million years later.

And when the species were struggling to rebound back then, they didn't even have to deal with us.

FDA Approves Cloned Animals for Store Shelves

| Tue Jan. 15, 2008 7:50 PM EST

cloned-pigs.jpgThe FDA announced today that cloned animals (and offspring and milk produced by said clones) are safe to consume. The agency said that cloned cows and pigs and other farmed animals "are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals." Which, as you may have read, isn't saying much.

But with cloned animals costing tens of thousands of dollars each, it's unlikely they will become a staple of our diet unless the technology that produces them is radically less expensive. Their offspring, instead, may be killed to provide consistent meat and milk products.

If you don't want to buy clones or cloned offspring, caveat emptor: the FDA "is not requiring labeling or any other additional measures for food from cattle, swine, and goat clones" or their offspring because the agency considers clones and non-clones identical. Food retailers and consumers, I think, will see the issue differently. I can just see the ads now: "the Carl's Jr. 100% ORIGINAL beef burger! No clones!"