Monday, November 25, 2013

Farming Amazonia

An article in the NYT by an ecology professor at Brown University takes a surprising look at a soybean farm in Brazil, on land that used to be rainforest. To me, that's already kind of wrong: rain forest supports huge biodiversity and carbon sequestration, among other environmental issues: there's a reason it's called the "lungs of the planet," and turning that into Iowa (as the article title suggests) just seems to me to be a Bad Idea. The author goes to look at it, though, and unsurprisingly sees more than I would.

It's sure not all good news: 15% of CO2 emissions comes from land use change. Still, the original people who converted the forest into pasture weren't very productive farmers, and these new mega-fields of soy are apparently more efficient. More efficient = less waste = less environmental damage and less need to convert more land, so that's good, right?

Did you know that there was a 61 mile long conveyor belt in Morocco moving phosphate ore to the Atlantic to become our fertilizer? Whoa.

A last quote: "One thing is clear: In the coming decades we will need to produce a lot more food. I’m not suggesting Mato Grosso’s farms are the answer, far from it. But it’s time to move beyond the oversimplification that large-scale agriculture is incompatible with environmental goals....We need to admit that food production is going to be the dominant use of land in the 21st century, and to decide whether we are going to farm more land or farm more intensively. Then we can move on to the grand challenge of making our farms sustainable."

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Green Revolution

Y'all just need to know what this is. I think this may be the first time I've ever linked to a wikipedia page, but that kind of general overview is good enough for a minimum level of awareness. You folks at least need to know what it is! There is likely to be some kind of short essay question related to this topic on the reading quiz: be sure you know what this is, and then, say, some of its good and bad characteristics. Hint: saving a billion lives is a good thing!

Out with the coal, in with the nukes

    Poland is one of the most coal dependent countries in the world. 88% of the electricity generated for Poland is through the use of coal. In order to decrease their carbon emissions, Poland has decided to go with nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy is the most cost efficient plan for Poland. The government intends to build a three gigawatt nuclear plant. It is expected to cost about 16,178,100,000 billion dollars. They hope to have the plant completed by 2023. This would increase their spending on power infrastructures to 8.3-11.8 billion dollars a year on top of the current 18 billion dollars. After the plant is operational, Poland can generate money by connecting their power grid with neighboring countries and selling electricity. Poland believes that this plant would help them meet the EU requirements to reduce carbon emissions. In 2010, the UN signed a climate treaty that would hold the rise of global temperatures to below 3.6 Fahrenheit. However, the current carbon emissions make this goal unattainable.
    After reading these two articles, I believe that this would be a good idea for Poland. They are too dependent on coal as a source of energy. I always thought that nuclear energy should be the next step in using energy more efficiently, at least until we have cost efficient green energy sources. One of my biggest concerns with the use of nuclear power plants is the risk of a meltdown. If something were to happen to Poland’s plant, how would they respond? Japan is still struggling with issues at Fukushima Daiichi. The problems from Fukushima Daiichi are one of the main reasons that Japan will not meet its requirement to reduce carbon emissions. This makes me wonder what type of precautions the Polish government will take in order to prevent a disaster similar to Japan’s.
--Seung Shin

Blood Ivory

    Since ancient times, ivory (“the hard white substance, variety of dentin, composing the main part of the tusks of an elephant”) has been deemed a very precious and valuable element.  It was mainly used for the creation of jewelry and other intricate objects as a symbol of wealth and status.  Today ivory is still considered a prized possession (mainly in Asia) where people use it for the same status symbol of the past.  The issue with these ivory symbols is that it stimulates a lucrative illegal trade that fostered the murder of an estimated 25,000 elephants in 2011. 
    Although the trade of most African elephant ivory has been prohibited since 1990 in over 170 countries, the black market business not only still exists but has been thriving better than ever before. It is estimated that illegal trade of ivory boast a profit of $8 to $10 million dollars annually, which raises the issue at hand.  With so much money to be made how can we destroy an industry that is killing off an important species of animal in Africa (“The forest elephant population in Central Africa shrank more than 60% to roughly 100,000 in 2011 from about 322,000 in 2002”)? (See Blackboard for the article if the link is gated for you.)
    This past Thursday, November 14 2013, the United States took a bold approach in the attempt to try and discourage the trade of ivory.  In Commerce City, Colorado, the U.S. Government along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife services crushed  6 tons (approx. 2,000 elephants) worth of illegal ivory that they have collected over the past 25 years.  The demonstration was designed to show illegal traders around the world that the ivory no longer holds value and should not be accepted as a precious element any longer. 
    In my opinion, the illegal trade of ivory is an issue similar to the illegal drug trade.  While we all know that elephant poaching is wrong and should be avoided, we also can see that the business brings illegal traffickers huge profits.  I believe that while crushing the ivory has brought a positive light to the U.S. amongst many environmentalist groups and people around the world, it may not even create a dent in the trafficking world.  If anything, I think that by crushing 6 tons of ivory may have only stimulated the industry more by showing that the amount of ivory is even scarcer than before. The best remedy for this situation in my opinion would most likely be to legalize the trade of ivory while at the same time creating boundaries on the amount of elephants allowed to be killed per year and setting aside certain areas where elephant poaching is strictly prohibited.  While I understand that this solution is very expensive, (government regulation cost/possible increase in taxes) I think that it would be the most effective first step in combating an industry that has thrived for as long as we can remember.
--Bernard Mathis

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Fracking: a technical word or just cursing?

Five years ago when the TV series "Battlestar Galactica" was popular people used to imitate the show by using the word "frak" or "frack" as a curse word. Today many people opposed to extractive industries continue to see "fracking," now a common shorthand for the technology of hydraulic fracturing, as something of an expletive. In Joe Nocera's NYT column today, he calls out the people who can't get past fracking as an obscenity to see it for the good it provides. He notes that the process is not totally environmentally benign, but that increases in the state of the art are minimizing the impact, and the state of Colorado is putting into place numerous safeguards to try to get the benefits with as few costs as possible. On the other hand, some groups won't hear anything good about it and just find the whole process objectionable. 

I think it's a little too easy to vilify your opponents, and that's happening on both sides here. Joe is angry at the knee-jerk opposition, and they are angry at fracking. It's the same, "I'm not talking to you!" attitude that shut down the government. Disappointing!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Environmental Impacts of Ethanol

Nice long piece by the Associated Press about the impacts of ethanol. Everything that we've talked about last month and some issues we'll discuss soon such as the Conservation Reserve Program come up. A short summary: five million acres set aside for conservation have been put under the plow as corn prices rose, and about 45% of the produced corn is for ethanol. (Another about 45% goes for animal feed.) Although they've done and redone the math estimating the effects of the ethanol policy, the final conclusion is that the program is at best a wash with respect to the environmental impacts. However, like any other program, it has taken on a life of its own: now all of the beneficiaries are willing to spend a lot of money to make sure that the mandate to produce a certain amount of corn ethanol continues to be the law of the land. Rural areas depend upon the policy and come to see it as their right. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack talks about how it has locked in farm income at record high levels, and so he doesn't want to change it. He says that air and water quality have improved, but the article notes that the billions of pounds of fertilizer used over the past few years lead to poisoned water sources. Maybe it's not worse than burning that much fossil fuels, but it's no free lunch.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Sumatran Tiger Decline

    The Sumatran tiger has seen a significant decrease in numbers over the past 30 years, dropping from about 1,000 in the wild to about 400. Benjamin Otto, writer for the Wall Street Journal, explains how habitat loss is the biggest factor in the population decline. The Sumatran tiger is a jungle cat found mainly in Indonesia, residing in thick forest areas. However, these forests have become a major economic source, bringing in a $20 billion business for the small country. Pulpwood is the main natural resource that big businesses Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL) have taken advantage of for years. Otto cites Greenpeace in stating that APP and APRIL have accounted for almost half of all tiger habitat loss in Sumatra between 2009 and 2011. He grimly asserts that unless these big businesses can find more sustainable practices, the Sumatran tiger is at serious risk of extinction. However, Lee Poston, a special guest writer for CNN, blames the main reason for decline on poaching. Poston explains that in order to protect villagers and livestock, humans will kill the tigers despite their dwindling numbers. Poston does mention how habitat loss is a factor in the decline, but he uses that point to further strengthen his poaching argument. He empathizes with the villagers, noting how without the livestock, they would have no source of income. However, this does not give them the right to further endanger the tiger. The two authors present issues affecting the health of the Sumatran tiger, both accusing human actions as the main source of decline.
     Although poaching is a major concern, the bigger, overall critical issue revolves around habitat destruction. The abundance in pulpwood has provided Indonesia with a very profitable source of income, so it is clear that the industry will not stop for just a few hundred tigers. Habitat destruction also comes with several other related problems, further exacerbating its effects. Because there is less habitat for the tigers, crowding will occur in the little habitat they have left. This disrupts the established ecosystem and possibly may lead to a scarcity in food. Habitat destruction also drives the tigers to look elsewhere for food, namely in the local villages. This leads to the killing of local livestock and therefore poaching as a result. Poston made the point that if the poaching would cease and the tigers were left to recover on their own, the population would skyrocket. However, as mentioned before, eventually a scarcity in food will prevent the population from growing to a substantial number unless there is enough habitat to accommodate to it. Poston is not incorrect in stating that poaching is a concern for the health of the tiger population, but he does not explain the overall effects of habitat destruction like Otto. Otto clearly states why habitat destruction is detrimental to the tigers and why the cost of losing the tigers may not enough to outweigh the $20 billion pulpwood industry. Poston does note the villagers’ dependence on livestock and the economic costs of having the tigers around on a more local level. However, habitat destruction is the main trigger in a series of events that could mean the end of the Sumatran tigers.
--Natalie Yee

Where do old phones go to die?

        This article talks about the situation of electronics recycling around the world, the result is: the situation does not look pretty. In many countries, such as Ghana, India, and China, women and children collect electronic waste and burn them so they can extract the metals- copper wires, gold, silver and other materials inside, which they can sell for money. When electronic products are burning or cooking, the waste can produce toxic smoke that would cause huge problems for human health. And the working process can cause water and air pollution. The article also mentioned that European Union and Japanese government has doing really good job to avoid electronic waste pollutions by requiring electronic factories to collect and recycle their own products, or working with other company to do the recycling job. Around the world many countries have joined together to protect the global environment, the Basel Convention was an example. It is an international treaty that makes it illegal to export toxic electronic waste. However, the United States remains the only industrialized country that has not joined the treaty. Unfortunately, the United States’ government has not taken any actions to address electronic recycling.
        After reading this article, I think the public should not only rely on government regulation or industry’s action: consumers should also take steps to protect the environment. For example, we could carefully use our electronics and keep them in good working condition to extend their usefulness. Also we can recycle the ones we no longer use through certified recycling services. On the other hand, the public should push government to pass a law or an act which require the electronics factories to take responsibility to recycle their own products.
--Jian Jiao

Typhoon Haiyan

    Typhoon Haiyan is 2nd category 5 typhoon to hit the Philippines this year, and one of the strongest storms on record with wind speeds reaching 195 mph. The impact Haiyan has had on the Philippines is massive. The actual death toll is unknown as its current number is still rising and is expected to reach 10,000. The effects of this storm are devastating and many people are still not accounted for. Many roads are not navigable, and officials in the country are still trying to gather information on the extent of the damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan. The impact this storm will have to the Philippines’ economy is not as adverse as the devastation on the ground. Although aid is being given to the Philippines by 29 nations little aid is reaching victims, especially those in remote locations. The Typhoon would shave between 8 to 10 percent off the region's gross domestic product next year, and roughly 1-2 percent of the Philippines's overall growth. Much of the damage to the economy may be limited to the agricultural sectors of the areas hit hardest by the storm.
     I was surprised at the differences in the tones of the different articles. The articles that cover this story were very different: one was very cut and dry and focused more on the current and future economic effects the storm will have,  and the other focused on what effect this storm is having on the areas effected and the people currently. With climate change producing larger and more violent storms like Haiyan, Katrina, and Sandy I think it is important that we provide as much aid as needed. Without the current efforts of the nations involved in relief efforts a natural disaster like this affecting a country like the Philippines would be much more extreme. As this is an unpreventable natural disaster I think it is also important that we help better prepare areas before a storm like this makes land fall in the future. I think that developed countries should provide future aid and make large investments to build better more storm tolerant infrastructure in the Philippines.  
--Michael Sarlo

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Republicans for Green Energy

Interesting article on Bloomberg today about one part of the Republican coalition that advocates for solar energy. The "Green Tea Party" wants people to be able to free themselves from dependence on large power companies, and they support people's rights to allow third parties to install rooftop solar on their homes in exchange for a share of energy sold to the local utility. (The rights had been blocked by laws in Georgia and North Carolina in part to protect the power companies from being forced to buy energy they say they don't need from these third party providers.) Some choice quotes:

Utilities “don’t like the competition,” said Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the late senator and presidential candidate. “I’m a conservative Republican and I think people should have a choice.”

[On the other hand,] “We’ve had disagreements over solar,” said Virginia Galloway, director of Americans for Prosperity’s chapter in Georgia. [Americans for Prosperity is a group founded by the Koch brothers that often supports Tea Party causes.] Coal and gas both can generate electricity cheaper than solar, and requiring utilities to buy it will boost costs. “We oppose any mandates that would raise utility rates.”

Solar panel prices have fallen 59 percent since the start of 2011 to about 83 cents a watt, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That means solar power costs an average $143 a megawatt-hour worldwide now, down from $236 in the first quarter of 2011, according Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Nuclear costs about $101 and natural gas $70, by comparison.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Gold Mining and Peru's Rainforest

The Peruvian Amazon rainforest is the home of a diverse number of plants, fish, birds, mammals, reptile and amphibians. It is also a place that is visited by tourists from around the world. The Amazon rainforest produces around 20% of the planet's oxygen, and it absorbs carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. Gold mining is affecting the rainforest in Peru, destroying the habitat of a diverse number of plants and animals.
Years of illegal gold mining have affected the Amazon rainforest in Peru. The Carnegie Institution of Science and Peru’s Minister of the Environment, using satellite images were able to map and know the extent of the damage caused by gold mining. They discover that this process affects the water of the area, because it contaminates the water with mercury, which is used to extract the gold from the soil. This is so important becaue  “twice the size of California, the Peruvian Amazon is one of the largest surviving stretches of tropical rainforest anywhere on Earth”.
  With the increase in the price of gold in 2008, the number of small miners in the Amazon has increased significantly. Some of the miners are local poor people that do this type of job in order to support their families, and others are rich businessmen that use expensive equipment in order to extract the gold from the mine.
Until 2008, Peru's mining regulation decisions were all made by the Ministry of Energy and Mines — a clear "conflict of interest." Around 50,000 small-scale miners in Peru are mining without permits or any government regulation…”  Because of conflicts of interest in the policies of Peru, I think that an international organization that cares about the environment should try to impose some type of control of the situation and implement stronger regulations. If we don’t take care of the problem now, we are going to be affected in the future with environmental consequences.
Justin Catanoso, a journalist who recently was in the Peruvian rainforest, proposed a solution. He said that richer countries should work together on an international level in order to pay countries that have diverse and important forests that have not been touched. In my opinion countries should think about the future not only about the present, because what is happening on the Amazon rainforest in Peru is going to affect us in the future when climate change continues to increase in a dangerous way.
--Josmayre Soler

Deforestation in the Congo Basin

     The Congo Basin in Central Africa encompasses the second largest rainforest area after the Amazon but the region remains one of the least developed in the world. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Central Africa lost approximately 91,000 km2 to deforestation in the 10 years between 1990 and 2000. The size of the region's forests was estimated at 2,403,000 km2 in 2000. Recent studies indicated that Congo Basin forests are under increased pressure with an average gross rate of deforestation two times higher over 2000-2005 than over 1990-2000 mainly due to agriculture expansion. The realization of the transportation infrastructures, which are already planned and funded, could multiply deforestation by three. Global forests have lost 130 million hectare (321 million acre) between 1990 and 2009 and carbon emissions from deforestation represent around 12% of total global green house gas emission.
     However, there’s a more serious factor affecting the prospects of the Congo Basin forests: unrelenting timber demand from around the world. China, Europe and the US are importing vast quantities of wood products; these are powerful incentives for the continued extraction of wood from the Congo Basin forests.
     Since 2008, the Reducing Emission from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) Initiative has become an important part of the discussion around the post Kyoto Agreement on climate change. The main principle of REDD+ is that the international community should transfer money to developing countries which make efforts to reduce deforestation and improve forest management.
     Since forest clearance for subsistence farming and the logging industry are crucial causes of the massive deforestation, the principal issue in this case is not just how to stop forest depletion, but how to manage forest resources effectively and efficiently. These articles discuss environmental damages that Africa can face if some resolutions are not taken on forest management. The unique solution is not just the compensation from international community, but Congo Basin’s countries must improve their forest management locally. For instance, they should start by environmental education of rural populations. Local governments should promote planting trees, and promote national parks to protect endangered plants and animals. Since large-scale timber operators are also involved in the deforestation process, local governments should impose higher taxes on wood extraction licenses. Those companies must also contribute financially on the process of planting trees. Additionally, Congo Basin countries should provide alternative forms of energy such as hydroelectric and solar power to reduce massive fuel wood use.
     Furthermore, Congo Basin’s countries can follow initiatives such as the Green Belt Movement (GBM) founded in 1977 by the late Nobel Peace Price winner, Prof. Wangari Maathai. The GBM has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya. The GBM works at the grassroots, national, and international level to promote environmental conservation, to build climate resilience and empower communities, and to foster democratic space and sustainable livelihoods. Finally, since carbon emissions from deforestation in Congo Basin represent around 12% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, with an estimated forest carbon reserve of 46 billion tons, this problem of deforestation will have negative environmental impacts on the entire world. Therefore, the international community must definitely help countries in that region to solve the problem of deforestation.
--Abdel Mouncharou

Operation 1-1-1

Operation 1-1-1 is a campaign pushing policymakers to support environmental restoration in local communities in states surrounding the Gulf Coast such as Florida, Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It provides a platform or forum for business owners, fisherman, all coastal residents, and any supporters of a cleaner coast to share stories and ask for help from these policymakers directly. The campaign is supported by the Walton Family Foundation, a group that promotes lasting environmental and economic growth, who previously invested $91 million in environmental initiatives in 2012.
The reason this campaign is so important is because the Gulf States are in the process of receiving millions of dollars from fines due to the 2010 oil spill. The Walton Family Foundation is using this campaign to attempt to have those millions of dollars allocated towards the restoration of the Gulf. The restoration will produce many jobs, help businesses around the coast, and boost the economies of the five states.
I believe this campaign is a great idea and the principles behind it make a whole lot of sense. The Yahoo article states that the Gulf Coast environment is the “backbone” of the region’s economy. The pristine beaches and marine life brings in thousands of tourists which generate $2 billion in spending each year in Mississippi alone and 18% of Mississippi Coast jobs are related to tourism. This shows how much of the economy in these states rely on tourism and with restoration of these areas tourism will increase and therefor cause the economy to grow.
Besides tourism the Gulf Coast produces around 40 percent of seafood to the lower 48 states of the U.S and brings in $41 billion in recreational fishing (Yahoo, 2013). With restoration these figures will be maintained or improve which will also cause the economy to grow. I think all or most of the fine money should be put towards restoration of the Gulf Coast also because the fines are from damage done to the Gulf in the first place.

--Dan Mazzone

Friday, November 8, 2013

Sochi Olympics not waste-free after all

In the past few days news has come out of Sochi Russia, that Russian contractors have broken their “Zero Waste” Olympic pledge, a pledge that was part of the foundation for Sochi’s bid for the Olympics. Contractors who are building railroads, and roadways are currently dumping round the clock into an illegal Sochi landfill. The government only fined the contractors three thousand dollars, but continued to let the landfill stay open. The landfill resides in an area protected by the Russian Water Code. This is what makes the landfill illegal to be in existence. Environmental experts are stating that water and liquid from the landfill has begun to seep through porous rocks into underground water springs, therefore contaminating about 50 percent of the water in Sochi. Experts expect the water to be contaminated for 10-15 years after the dumping is over. The contractors are saying that they have stopped dumping, but residents of Sochi have stated that they see dumping round the clock in the landfill.
There is no room in the budget to spend to extract the waste from Sochi so the money needs to come from somewhere. In my opinion I think that the contractor should have to pay to correct all of the environmental damage. However part of the blame falls on the Russian Government, if they are going to write a pledge to have no waste and claim they are going to set up recycling plants, and ways to dispose of the waste in a green format and then not do anything, that is a problem at least in my eyes. Nobody forced them to make the waste free Olympic pledge but instead they made it themselves. If they can't achieve what their own pledge set out to do then what’s the point of the pledge at all? The government along with the contractor needs to provide clean water to the residents of Sochi and reimburse any costs the residents face during this time of water contamination. It will be interesting to see if in these next 100 days more environmental issues come up in Sochi or if this is the only speed bump the pledge has hit.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Reinjection of produced water

I just wanted to get something up on the blog since we talked about it today and I didn't know. Reinjection of produced water is definitely a big deal, according to two sources. The first talks about the Marcellus shale (in PA-NY, among others), where produced water contains a fair amount of radioactive material as well as chlorides and barium. He differentiates "injection wells" from "production wells," so maybe the produced water is injected into different wells nearby? The produced material is so nasty that it shouldn't even be exposed to the air: it should be sent right back down after the gas is extracted. If the water is cleaned, it can be reused in the next well, but that's expensive. The second source is more geared to the non-professional and gives more or less the same information: most produced water is indeed reinjected, because it's too expensive to clean it up enough to dispose of it in other ways. It also reminds us that fracking really uses a large amount of water.

Looks like I still have plenty to learn myself! I can't do economics without good awareness of the environmental science.