Blue Marble

Food Miles & Your Carbon Footprint

| Mon Apr. 21, 2008 9:57 PM EDT

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.

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How Fishing Screws With Ecosystems

| Wed Apr. 16, 2008 9:06 PM EDT

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 5:32 PM EDT

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

Some Corals Survived A-Bombs, Others Didn't

| Tue Apr. 15, 2008 7:17 PM EDT


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.

Half Australia's Shorebirds Gone, Cambodia's Recovering

| Tue Apr. 15, 2008 1:56 AM EDT

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 2:18 PM EDT


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.

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

| Fri Apr. 11, 2008 8:51 PM EDT


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 9:26 PM EDT

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.

Flower Scent Destroyed by Air Pollution

| Thu Apr. 10, 2008 8:16 PM EDT

86496697_f9d2addeda_m.jpg Air pollution is destroying the fragrance of flowers and preventing pollinating insects from following scent trails to their source. The research from the University of Virginia indicates that power plants and automobiles are behind at least some of the decline of wild pollinators, like bees.

According to Jose Fuentes, co-author of the study, the scent molecules produced by flowers in the less polluted environment of the 1800s could travel up to 4,000 feet. Today, downwind of major cites, they may travel only 700 feet. This makes it increasingly difficult for pollinators to find flowers. The result, potentially, is a vicious cycle where pollinators struggle to find enough food to sustain their populations, and populations of flowering plants don't get pollinated sufficiently to proliferate and diversify. [Sound familiar?]

The scent molecules produced by flowers are highly volatile and quickly bond with pollutants such as ozone, hydroxyl and nitrate radicals, which destroy their aromas. So the flowers no longer smell like flowers. This forces pollinators to search farther and longer and possibly to rely more on sight and less on smell. Using a mathematical model of how scents travel with the wind, the team found it apparent that air pollution destroys the aroma of flowers by as much as 90 percent from periods before automobiles and heavy industry. The more air pollution in a region, the greater the destruction of the flower scents.

Just in case we don't already have enough reasons to tackle emissions.

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.

Bright Lights, Green City

| Wed Apr. 9, 2008 4:04 PM EDT

time_square_york_271314_l.jpgIn the city that never sleeps, where the lights of Times Square blaze 24/7, electricity is at a premium for the more than 8 million New Yorkers. Yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that New York City is seeking proposals for the greening of NYC. Private developers will be contracted do all the legwork to outfit city-owned buildings with solar power—by purchasing, installing, and maintaining the solar installations. Developers can choose from among 11 potential sites throughout the cities 5 boroughs.

The solar power installations will have a total capacity of two megawatts, which is more than the 1.6-megawatt Google headquarters' solar array installation—the largest corporate installation in the United States. It is estimated that Google's solar panels will generate 2.6 megawatt hours—enough to power 1,000 homes in California—and offset 3.6 million pounds of CO2 emissions per year.

New York City is just one of 25 cities chosen to participate in the Solar America Initiative, which has partnered with the Department of Energy in order to make solar energy costs competitive with those of traditional energy sources. By 2015, the city hopes to increase its solar capacity to 8.1 megawatts, more than 5 times Google's current capacity.

—Joyce Tang