Sunday, October 29, 2006

Carbon Offsets : More snake oil

Saw Al Gore's An Inconvenient truth the other day . The film is quite
convincing to somebody who doesn't need convincing , it just reaffirms one's faith in reducing one's footprint on planet earth . I believe it is
also quite convincing to the skeptics that one needs to take action. I
heard my boss spewing the need to go green . And what better way to be
green than to buy green !! I mentioned this need to buy green in a
previous blog. Coming back to the movie , the
movie suggests to take action and sends you to Climate Crisis to learn more
about global warming and action we as individuals can take. I agree
with everything in varying degrees to what the site promotes until it
comes to the point of carbon offsets/credits . The site points to the Cool driver site that allows you
to clean your conscience . It proclaims at the top of the site "You do
not have to stop driving to fight global warming "

The idea is that you clean your conscience by buying green credits that go towards seting up green energy like wind power , planting trees etc , very much akin to
absolving yourself of your sins by giving to the temple/priest/poor . I
understand the logic of carbon credits and I am for it but when somebody
starts promoting it as a tool to take care of one's sins , it really
gets my goat .
Rather than promoting a lifestyle that involves reduction of consumption
and using a car only when necessary it says , go and drive and we will
clean up the mess afterwards which is a lot of bull !!
The argument advanced by the likes of SinksWatch, Carbon Trade Watch or The Corner House is that such schemes fail to address (or, worse, deliberately disguise) the fact that the real problem is our excessive burning of fossil fuels. The Corner House’s uncompromising position is that “the only realistic approach to the dangers of climate change is to stop production of coal, oil and gas as soon as possible, leaving the great bulk of fossil fuels safely underground”.
Offsetting, in this view, merely salves consciences, while creating the
illusion that consumption (cheap air travel being a prime example) and
production patterns in the richer countries can be maintained without
harming the climate . Businesses offer the option to neutralize
everything from buying a plane ticket or cars by buying equivalent green
credits with ready calculators online .
The subtext that
these adverts forget to write is " We are a corporation that makes money doing green power
projects and we use suckers to pay for it . "


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Biodiesel : Snake oil ?

Wikipedia defines Biodiesel as
Biodiesel refers to a diesel-equivalent, processed fuel derived from biological sources. ...biodiesel refers to alkyl esters made from the transesterification of both vegetable oils and/or animal fats. Biodiesel is biodegradable and non-toxic, and has significantly fewer emissions than petroleum-based diesel when burned. Biodiesel functions in current diesel engines, and could in theory supplement fossil fuels as the world's primary transport energy source.

Which loosely translated means that biodiesel is a fuel from vegetable/animal sources that does not need to be taken out from the earth's crust , is less polluting and since it is not extracted from beneath the surface , it doesn't add to the carbon in the system . And so it is being touted as the next saviour in our effort against global warming . Biodiesel can be synthesised from waste vegetable oils , vegetable oils , animal fat , waste agricultural produce and algae . So theoretically one can pop over to the local felafel/fish 'n chips shop , get all the waste oil which needs to be disposed off and through a simple process make it ready to be poured into the car !! Alternatively you can buy a load of oil from the supermarket . So if we shifted to biodiesel we would be doing a lot of good to the environment .

Wikipedia defines Snake oil as
a traditional Chinese medicine used for joint pain. However, the most common usage of the words is as a derogatory term for medicines to imply that they are fake, fraudulent, and usually ineffective. The expression is also applied metaphorically to any product with exaggerated marketing but questionable or unverifiable quality. In short, it refers to a product sold as part of a hoax.

As the title suggests I am pointing out to the discrepancies in the theory .

  • The local felafel shops can provide a very limited quantity of waste oil that can be used as a fuel .

  • If biodiesel is to be used extensively one needs to grow oil producing crops specifically for biodiesel . Since the arable land under cultivation is also finite , oil producing crop can come intead of food producing crop . shortage of food , starvation is a likely scenario. ..more

  • Or else forests could be cut down to make room for oil producing plants. This as we know is not a very smart thing to do as well

We can see the effect of deforestation here

The need is to regulate the production of biodiesel . Biodiesel from wastes or from industrial waste sites can provide a fraction of our needs .
According to an article by George Monbiot
In 2003, the biologist Jeffrey Dukes calculated that the fossil fuels we burn in one year were made from organic matter “containing 44×10 to the 18 grams of carbon, which is more than 400 times the net primary productivity of the planet’s current biota.”(1) In plain English, this means that every year we use four centuries’ worth of plants and animals.

Biodiesel as I see is not a sustainable option at all. In it's billed avatar as a solution to all our woes is not just snake oil , it is something much more destructive .

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Save money as well as the environment

According to the Sightline Institute an economy car releases 0.59 pounds of carbon dioxide per mile , loosely converted that is about 0.16 kg/km . As per my commuting logs till the end of September I rode about 3200 kms with an yearly projection of about 4300 kms. Simple math shows that for my commute I would be releasing 688 kgs of carbon lesser than my neighbour who makes a similar commute using a car instead of cycling .
If we assume that his car gives about 10km/ltr of city driving using 95 grade petrol at 5.20 NIS/ltr he would be spending 2236 NIS or $ 527 dollars on the gas . The insurance would put him back another 2500 NIS or $ 588 (Compulsory and third party insurance only ) , the license for the car would cost him about a 1000 NIS or $ 235 . Maintainence of the car would set him back $ 150 ( based on AAA's very conservative estimate of 0.056 $/mile ) . To sum it up, using a car for a very basic commute of 15-20km round trip would cost my neighbour $ 1500 . This doesn't include the initial cost of the car , depreciation , parking fees , the occassional parking fine and the inevitable big repairs .
Now what's stopping me from buying the Trek Madonne ridden by Lance Armstrong ? I can easily make up the cost of the bike in three years by riding to work . I can also take a longer ride everyday and save more :-) .


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Grass is for the cows

When Ivan Lendl blurted this out in frustration at not being able to win on grass at Wimbledon yet again , little did he realise he was voicing a very sound ecological principle . Grass is definately for the cows where it doesn't grow naturally . But for some reason grass and garden have become synonymous and people will go to absurd lengths to grow it everywhere , Jerusalem included . Most grasses guzzle water in enormous quantity , need generous amounts of fertilizers , herbicides and a lot of your time when you could have laid back and watched your local flora grow virtually unaided. Looks like some people have a similar idea about grass as this story inTreehugger
The rich really are different from you and me. Where many of us are planting green roofs and permeable paving to increase the amount of green in the world, many of the rich have "garden fatigue" and are paving it over. According to the Wall Street Journal, "Here's what's on the way out in landscaping: grass, flowers and trees.

They got the part about getting rid of the grass right but then they lost track of the script . Grass does one thing right and that is to maintain a permeable surface . So instead of losing water as surface runoff the water sits in and percolates gradually to the acquifer . In Urban areas with high percentage of paved area , surface runoff is a big issue during rains . The drainage system has to be designed for the worst possible scenario to prevent flooding and top it all , it is done at the expense of the groundwater . So if you live in an area where the climate supports grass , by all means go and plant a lawn . In areas not suitable for grasses the same can be replaced with permeable surfaces and vegetation that is native to the place . I bet the cow is also more accustomed to the local vegetation than to an imported grass .


Bike Sunday

We all know the Bike friday , the incredible folding bike , but this is about the Bike Sunday or saturday here in Israel . I am talking about the Yom Kippur or he Day of Atonement . Something increddible happens on Yom Kippur , while the religious fast , all vehicular traffic comes to a standstill and everyone who is not weak from fasting comes out on the streets with their bikes , skateboards and what nots . Imagine your three year old riding in the middle of the main traffic artery !! It is an incredibly liberating feeling to so kids , people with prams , dogs and almost everybody else walking bang in the centre of the road assured that they will no one will run them over . There is a skeleton essential services traffic but with the silence so complete it is not difficult to amble away from the road .

Now why can't we have Yom Kippur everyday ?!!