Category Archives: Environment

King Coal Is Abdicating Its Throne

By JOHN BUTERBAUGH

China is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, but its rate of growth is slowing down. In the past few decades, especially since 2000, China’s growing energy consumption has made a huge impact on the environment. Generating 80% of China’s electricity, coal has allowed China to develop at the rate that it has. However, it has also caused significant problems. Beijing’s smog is 40 times higher than is deemed safe; urban dwellers certainly don’t want to go outside without a mask. As a result, China’s government seeks ways to get people to switch from coal-fired stoves to electric ones. Untreated coal releases 10 times more pollutants than electric power plants. However, only 10% of Beijing’s population has made the switch. Why the lack of action? The government and private enterprises make money by selling land to real estate developers who then provide housing to peasants and migrants. These new residents use a lot of coal. Coal in China has gotten cheaper, but electricity hasn’t.

According to the EIA, coal production in the U.S. has dropped 10% just this past year and is now at a 30-year-low, and coal producers have lost 76% of their value. While coal generates the plurality of America’s electricity (39% of it to be precise), that number will decline as natural gas and renewable energy sources become cheaper. Coal companies may blame Obama for their quandary. Their miners fear losing their often six-figure salaries as coal mines continue to close in Kentucky. These men say that Obama is no friend of coal. Yes, Obama has favored natural gas and renewable energy over coal, but Mr. Obama’s role in bringing down coal is minimal. Coal is facing competitors that are taking away its business.

Back in China, 1,000 coal mines are scheduled to close and coal consumption is set to drop. China is looking to use more nuclear and natural gas to reduce carbon emissions. The planned decrease in demand for American coal in China hurts American coal even more. More importantly, natural gas and renewable energy are the biggest culprits in the death of coal. Increasingly common hydraulic fracturing (or simply fracking) is making it easier to access once inaccessible natural gas from underground. Natural gas usage has increased 20% since 2009, and prices have dropped so much that the Coal Commonwealth of Kentucky is less able to afford its own coal.

There are still some things that keep coal alive. Federal coal is a deal — it only makes up one-third of reserves, but it constitutes 41% of coal production. That’s because the government leases out public land to coal companies for a very low royalty rate. This has cost American taxpayers $30 billion in revenue. President Obama has stated he wants to increase the royalty rate to discourage coal and oil production.

With the slow death of coal, a new leader must emerge. Any time a “regime change” occurs, the new leader will face more scrutiny. Natural gas producers hope to become that leader. There are some benefits to natural gas such as that it is more energy efficient and releases half as much CO2 as coal. It generates more electricity than renewable sources like solar, wind, or biomass.

However, fracking on public land for oil and gas has caused a great deal of methane emissions (not to mention the water pollution concerns and mini-earthquakes). Making up 80% of natural gas, methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas, more so than carbon dioxide. As such, release of methane during fracking has the same climate impact as 34 coal-fired power plants. To reduce methane emissions, companies conduct a process called flaring in which methane is burned to become less impactful carbon dioxide.

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Where the Sidewalk Ends

By JOHN BUTERBAUGH

America as a whole is an automobile-dependent nation. With the development of new roads and the Interstate Highway System, the average American has seen the automobile as one of the only means of getting around. Millions of Americans commute to work by car, eat out with a car, pick up groceries with a car, go to the gym with a car, go shopping with a car, go shopping for a car with a car. Just about every errand we need to do seems to involve hopping into a car and driving it.

Just about every American looks forward to their Sweet Sixteen (or other age depending on the state), the age at which they can legally drive. To many, owning a car is not just a rite of passage, but a staple of freedom. No longer does the young person need to ask mom and dad to drive them somewhere. No longer does the young person need to take a bus that will drop them off at a spot that may or may not be their final destination. No longer does the young person need to walk two miles just to get a Slurpee at 7-11.

And this is a problem. Automobiles contribute to pollution and global warming because it uses gasoline. However, we have not found a viable alternative to gasoline fuel and electric cars derive 40% of their electricity from coal. The idea here is not to simply use different, but to use less. Growing up in the Village of Skaneateles, I remember being able to walk to school everyday. I remember being able to walk to some restaurants nearby to grab a bite to eat. I remember being able to walk to the park or walk to the Y for fun. I didn’t have to spend a lot of money to refuel my car. I didn’t have to wait for a bus or train to drop me off at its will. I had more freedom over where I was going. That is what makes the village such a great community. We value walkability.

And most New York City residents would agree. New Yorkers can walk just about everywhere, and if they don’t feel like walking, they can take a taxi or a bus or a train. At an absolute level, New York City emits the greatest amount of greenhouse gases of any major city. However, at a per capita level, New York City emits the lowest amount of greenhouse gases of any major city. You tell a New Yorker that, and they’ll be surprised. But it’s true! And it’s because a New Yorker doesn’t need to own a car or even have a driver’s license!

Europe has been doing what America should have been doing for years. Not only does Europe develop densely populated cities with public transit and sidewalks, bicycle use is ingrained into the culture in many countries. Owning a bike is as important in much of Europe as owning a car is in the U.S. Plus, Europe actually has an extensive network of high-speed rail lines. We’re still waiting for California and the rest of the U.S. to match European train speed standards. This keeps air fares cheap because more modes of transportation equals more competition which begets more competitive prices.

This is not just an environmental issue. This is also a public health issue. People who do not have access to sidewalks in their neighborhood lack a means of jogging safely. People who live in cities with an extensive network of sidewalks are often fitter than people who live in rural areas with no sidewalks. It’s not a coincidence. Have sidewalk, will run. There are exceptions, but yes, if you give people the option of a sidewalk, you are not taking a liberty away from them. You’re giving them another choice. And it’s a choice that will pay off in the end not just for the earth, not just for our pocketbooks, but also for the personal well-being of present and future generations.

We have to look at how sidewalks have discouraged car use and encouraged walking and exercising. Sidewalks connect our communities. Sidewalks bring our neighbors closer together. When you start to see detached neighborhoods or a place with no pedestrians, that is where the sidewalk ends. We can bicker all we want about how global warming is caused or if it even exists, but you can’t deny all the wonderful things sidewalks do for us.

Climate Changed

By JOHN BUTERBAUGH

This may be the single most defeatist post I’ve ever written, but in many ways, I feel relieved. After watching a Season 3 episode from The Newsroom, I was strangely relieved to hear that any action on climate change would be pointless. We have passed multiple tipping points: the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland are melting, and we have already arrived at 400 parts per million of CO2. For many years, political inaction and climate change denial had irked me to no end. Knowing that no action could result in reversing climate change eliminated this frustration.

I could instead refocus my energy on studying climate change adaptation strategies. We think that we have beaten natural selection through our intellectual prowess. We are the species that invented clothing, medical cures, and agriculture, to name a few. However, our invention of industry has presented a paradox of progress. Sure, productivity and standards of living have risen. Still, industrialization has introduced pollution that causes health issues and global warming. Yes, we do have to live with the cost of our capacity and the price of our progress.

Sea levels will rise. We don’t know exactly by how much. The forecasts vary, but we’re already seeing island nations such as The Maldives in big trouble. Some areas will experience floods or hurricanes; others droughts. Some animal and plant species will become extinct or severely endangered. Other species will adapt by mutating or migrating to new homes.

Human beings will need to adapt as well. Farmers may have to grow different crops, especially in developing countries near the Equator. Persian Gulf states will eventually become uninhabitable, and this will result in mass migration and social unrest. Already the drought in Syria has sparked rebellion against Assad’s regime, possibly leading to the rise of ISIS.

Because we have not accepted preventative strategies, we must accept the new reality: constantly having to adapt to a global problem. We will have to manage even scarcer resources lest we want billions of us rising up and taking drastic measures just to survive. If we cannot prepare to reduce our impact on the climate, we must prepare ourselves to survive the impact of future climates.