The number is ZERO

October 26, 2009

“If you ask a scientist how much more CO2 do you think we should add to the atmosphere, the answer is going to be none.”

– Gavin A. Schmidt, climate scientist quoted by Andy Revkin in Sunday’s NY Times.

Ken Caldeira, the now famously injured party in the SuperFreakonomics fiasco, says:

I believe the correct CO2 emission target is zero….

Every carbon dioxide emission adds to climate damage and increasing risk of catastrophic consequences. There is no safe level of emission.

It is a clarifying moment perhaps. I’d like to think this is a teachable moment brought to us by the irresponsibility of Levitt and Dubner. I’d like to think it is a moment where our artificial greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) take a big step toward becoming a social outcast akin to smoking, and that we may recognize these emissions are an unforgivable liability being passed to our children and grandchildren.

As we know any amount of smoking is bad for our health, a carcinogen – so it is that any amount of GHG emissions are bad for the health of our climate and the civilization as we know it, delivering catastophe.

It is time we all take a closer look at our lives – individually and as a society. How do our daily actions needlessly imperil our planet? How does the extravagance of our travel and entertainment, our business and household activities? How do we take concrete steps, incremental and wide ranging steps to reduce our carbon footprint?

Yes, like it has taken government action to banish smoking from work and public places, so to our government will need to lead in transforming our world economy to one based on clean energy. And as Bill McKibben notes in Revkin’s article, we need to hit a “wartime footing”.

But as I see it, the most important step may be the awakening in so many that no additional GHG emissions are acceptable. NONE ARE ACCEPTABLE. Many are now recognizing the self-destruction in our actions, transforming how we see our lives and how we live. As we must stop smoking to live a healthy life and so too we must stop emitting GHGs.

As our grandparents and parents frugality was bred from Depression and WWII era scarcities, our lives today now demand we be frugal with our GHG emissions.

Our emissions are the single biggest liability we are passing on to our children and grandchildren – a liability unlike mere monetary debt which can be “restructured”. Our emissions liability is one that will be unforgiving and ruthless, utterly destroying the quality of life for generations to come. Our careless emissions today are sealing a hellish fate for our babies.

A new ethic of frugality toward emissions must take hold.

Zero is the number.

Best Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb Guide

September 26, 2009

Environmental Defense FundWhile LEDs look to be the future, for the time being compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are the mass market answer to efficiency.    So as we just brought up lighting, see: I Love This Light Bulb! –  I want to share  a great guide to CFLs.

The Environmental Defense Fund’s Find an Energy-Saving Light Bulb.   It is an easy to use, common sense and comprehensive guide to the myriad of options, including dimmable, 3-way and  outdoor CFL light bulbs.

People hesitate to get CFLs for many reasons:  they don’t dim, the color can be off, or the quality poor.   But there are great CFLs out there – dimmable, with excellent color and are long lasting.   This site simply and comprehensively guides you to the CFL bulb you can be happy with.    (Hopefully they will start adding LEDs soon.)  Check it out.

I love this light bulb!

September 26, 2009

LED vs. IncandescentIt’s a new LED by Philips that very well matches the color quality of our beloved round incandescent bulbs, yet use one sixth the energy – thereby leapfrogging compact fluorescents in both energy savings and reliable light quality – and in the process, win the Department of Energy’s L Prize. Best part, they’ve been designed to screw into our standard sockets.

Build a Better Bulb for a $10 Million Prize by Eric A. Taub and Leora Broydo Vestel brings us the story.

Of course they’ll cost an arm and a leg at first. But like other new technology we should expect the costs to precipitously drop. I just want to get my hands on one to test it out. They don’t seem to have hit the dealers yet. But when I do find one I’ll report back my – informal – results.

“A Tale of Two (Passive) Houses” Presentation

August 25, 2009

headerOn the heels of the Energy Circle blog posts, I’m pleased to announce that I will be presenting my firm’s Brooklyn Cohousing project at this year’s Urban Green Expo in New York City on September 22nd.  The presentation, A Tale of Two (Passive) Houses, will include a second project, R-House, a single family house in Syracuse NY, by Stephen Cassell of Architecture Research Office.   David White of Right Environments will offer an overview of the Passive House methodology and James Lima of HR&A Advisors will address proactive public policy encouraging high efficiency construction.   The presentations will conclude with a roundtable discussion and Q&A.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Passive House construction it should make for an interesting hour.

Title:  A Tale of Two (Passive) Houses,  Session #25

Time:  Tuesday, September 22nd at 3:30pm

Place:  Urban Green Expo, Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18th Street, New York, NY

Passive House Introduction Posts at Energy Circle

August 23, 2009
Levenson McDavid Architects P.C.

Levenson McDavid Architects P.C.

I’m pleased to announce that the great effeciency website Energy Circle has posted two of a series I’m writing, introducing Passive House methodology to a wider audience. (Part 1 & Part 2.)To quote myself from the first post:

Simply put, Passive House is the most rigorous energy standard today. Passive House methodology focuses on cost-effectively optimizing, in a truly integrated and highly controlled and predictable manner, those building elements essential to providing thermal/environmental comfort: the exterior (building) envelope and ventilation systems.

In the second post I discuss in some detail the typical characteristics of Passive House such as thermal comfort:

The combination of air-tightness, superinsulation and high performance windows eliminates typical air temperature stratification – so that the temperature at the floor is the same as that at the ceiling, and is virtually the same at the exterior wall as it is at the interior wall. Because the fresh filtered airflow is constant in all occupied rooms, there is much less dust in the space. All these improvements not only lead to greater occupant comfort and health, but occupant comfort at higher temperatures in the summer and lower temperatures in the winter than would be typical.

To illustrate the approach I discuss our ongoing work for our wonderful clients Brooklyn Cohousing. The two posts are short and very readable – I hope you have a look as I believe the Passive House approach to building will play a significant part in addressing our climate challenge.  

Future posts in the series will take a detailed look at specific aspects of Passive House.  Stay tuned.

The (7 billion) Population Problem

August 23, 2009

peopleThe world is headed toward 7 billion people and soon. As reported by Jeremy Hance at Mongaby.com (here) – in 2011 to be precise. That’s just 12 years after hitting 6 billion in 1999. 12 years earlier still we were at 5 billion. As the article notes:

“The great bulk of today’s 1.2 billion youth—nearly 90 percent—are in developing countries,” said Carl Haub, PRB senior demographer and co-author of the data sheet. “During the next few decades, these young people will most likely continue the current trend of moving from rural areas to cities in search of education and training opportunities, gainful employment, and adequate health care.”

Let’s say it: if 90% of the population growth were happening in America the planet would’ve been toast years ago, as we Americans (and Canadians and Australians) are now at the disgraceful level of emitting approximately 22 tons of CO2 per person per year. Yet on a world-wide basis 2 tons of CO2 emissions per person per year is generally now thought to be the necessary limit. Hence, we are morally and practically required to drop our emissions by 90% as fast as possible, certainly well before 2050.

BUT, with this population explosion in the developing world there’s a bigger problem still. Because places like India are fast approaching that mythical 2 tons per person – as reported by G.S. Mudur in Calcutta’s The Telegraph (here). The developing countries are now heading into the red – and it won’t take much per capita emissions growth for them to have a huge impact.

As India heads into the red and beyond, what’s the measure?

Given its population, per capita emissions of 6 tonnes for India would translate into more than 6,000 million tonnes of emissions per year — approaching or even exceeding the current US emissions.

And as the article notes, right now India and China alone are projected to account for 56% of world-wide emissions growth through 2030.

Consequently the ongoing population explosion makes our Herculean task of radical emissions reductions seem downright Sisyphean too.

Quantum leap in Permafrost destructive power – and feedbacks are intent on unleashing it

August 18, 2009

The vast amount of carbon stored in the arctic and boreal regions of the world is more than double that previously estimated…

Reported in July of this year, by Science Daily – it’s a staggering amount:

“We now estimate the deposits contain over 1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, about twice as much carbon as contained in the atmosphere”, said Dr. Charles Tarnocai, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa, and lead author.

So the fact that the permafrost is now permamelt becomes a concern truly second to none. More worrying still is that the melting is not the product of a single amplifying feedback but, at a minimum, a tag team of three feedbacks each reinforcing each other while attacking from different angles: Land, Sea and Air. There is a comprehensive and devastating attack underway on the permafrost that would make General William Tecumseh Sherman proud.

From the Land:

A new article by Tracey Logan in New Scientist reports:

The fire that raged north of Alaska’s Brooks mountain range in 2007 left a 1000-square-kilometre scorched patch of earth – an area larger than the sum of all known fires on Alaska’s North Slope since 1950.

Now scientists studying the ecological impact of the fire report that the blaze dumped 1.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – about the amount that Barbados puts out in a year. What’s more, at next week’s meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Albuquerque, New Mexico, two teams will warn that as climate change takes hold tundra fires across the Arctic will become more frequent.

The concern is two-fold:
1. It transforms the tundra, traditionally a carbon sink, into an carbon emitter.
2. More importantly it radically increases the ground’s solar absorption.

Pristine tundra takes up about 30 to 70 grams of carbon per square metre during the summer months, whereas the severely burned site lost about 40 to 120 grams per square metre. The team also found that the most severely burned terrain absorbed 71 per cent more solar radiation than normal…

The really big problem: The burnt tundra – a newly minted solar heat collector – is sitting on the permafrost.

“Along with the melting ice in the permafrost, you’re also exposing more old carbon that was stored in that freezer [as organic material] and is being allowed to decompose and reintroduce itself to the atmosphere.”

Helping drive the Tundra fires is the air assault.

From the Air:

The average surface air temperature warming in the arctic has been many times greater than Earth’s average warming. The warming is concentrated where it can likely do the most damage.

The NOAA 2008 report card notes a shockingly number:

Autumn temperatures are at a record 5º C above normal, due to the major loss of sea ice in recent years which allows more solar heating of the ocean. Winter and springtime temperatures remain relatively warm over the entire Arctic, in contrast to the 20th century and consistent with an emerging global warming influence.

As the excerpt states the feedbacks are reinforcing each other. On to the the sea attack.

From the Sea:

Permafrost threatened by rapid melt of Arctic sea ice – reported the American Geophysical Union in 2008.

The team finds that, during episodes of rapid sea-ice loss, the rate of Arctic land warming is 3.5 times greater than the average 21st century warming rates predicted in global climate models. While this warming is largest over the ocean, the simulations suggest that it can penetrate as far as 1500 kilometers (about 900 miles) inland. The simulations also indicate that the warming acceleration during such events is especially pronounced in autumn. The decade during which a rapid sea-ice loss event occurs could see autumn temperatures warm by as much as 5 degrees C (9 degrees F) along the Arctic coasts of Russia, Alaska, and Canada.

What’s to worry about? It’s not like we’ve been losing all that much sea ice – NOT.

The rapidly melting Arctic permafrost is now our biggest existential threat – as it was the Soviet ICBMs raining down from the Arctic circle we so feared growing up. And while we and the Soviets were restrained by self-interest, the hard-charging feedbacks have no such restraints. We must restrain the feedbacks.

Another Climate Rubicon

August 4, 2009

While we dither in driving down our carbon emissions there was always some comfort in the fact that while India’s and China’s emissions are rapidly growing, on a per capita basis they were still low.   And they are low.   Yet an ominous milestone seems certain to be reached quite soon.Chunk-of-coal-on-fire-001

On a world-wide basis two tons of emissions per person per year is generally now thought to be the necessary limit.  Americans (and Canadians and Australians) are now at the disgraceful level of approximately 22 tons per person (and so we need to drop 90% as fast as possible, certainly well before 2050).

But in India they’ve now reached a meager 1.8 tons per person – with 2 tons a short time away.   An perhaps more ominously, as the article notes, right now India and China alone are projected to account for 56% of world-wide emissions growth through 2030.

We will soon all be in the red.  If we don’t start radically reducing our emissions India and China will have little incentive to impede their own emissions growth.   And as it’s imperative that they be encouraged to hold the line at 2 tons – doesn’t it follow that we must show that we are serious about getting down to 2 tons ourselves?

However imperfect, Waxman-Markey is a first important national step.  Let’s all take millions of personal steps too.   See the checklist.

Leaders not Politicians?

July 20, 2009

greenpeace Obama protestI love Greenpeace and I admire the Presidents carved in Mt. Rushmore BUT…reality check please.

Wouldn’t Greenpeace have torn these giants down in their day for being rank politicians of the lowest order? Somehow me thinks yes, yes….

If anything the Greenpeace protest draws attention to the fact that the best leaders are often terribly compromised and conflicted politicians.

And while it is clear we must engender dramatic changes in our energy production/consumption, the path and political moves are not so clear. My money is still on Obama.

and The Bad News….

January 27, 2009

It is now inexcusable for us to not radically drop our CO2 emissions….. NOAA reports.     To do otherwise is to doom our decendents to hell on earth.   Read the checklist and do what you can now.