Friday, May 29, 2009

The Low Down on (Green) Air Travel

It's no secret that air travel is hard on the environment; but it's also one of the key ingredients to a robust global economy.

The World Intellectual Property Organization says that air travel accounts for 35 percent of goods traded internationally (by value) and over 40 percent of international tourism. On the upside, aviation generates 5.5 million jobs and contributes over $400 billion to global GDP. On the downside, aviation also accounts for roughly 13 percent of global transport emissions and 2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

So, what's a business traveler to do?

For starters, if you don’t have to fly, then stay at the home office and teleconference. You’ll save time and money as well as the planet. If you absolutely have to be there, though, then there are a couple of options:

(1) Take the trip but buy carbon offsets from one of several organizations, such as:

Note: ClimateBiz recently published an excellent article about carbon offsets. Long story short, they “represent the act of reducing, avoiding, destroying or sequestering the equivalent of a ton of greenhouse gas (GHG) in one place to ‘offset’ an emission taking place somewhere else.” Not everyone is convinced this is the best way to go, however, which brings us to the next option.

(2) You can opt to take the mode of transport which emits the least. According to Planet Green, busses emitted the least amount of carbon dioxide on long-distance trips, followed by trains, cars, and airplanes (trains emitted less CO2 than busses on shorter trips). In other words, virtually any mode of transportation beats airplanes, which emit carbon dioxide, water vapor, nitrogen oxides, and methane at higher altitudes, contributing to what is known as radiative forcing.

(3) Last but not least, you can try to find the commercial airline that has done the most to create the smallest environmental footprint. Greenopia recently came out with a ranking of the 10 greenest commercial airlines, which included:

1. Virgin
2. Continental
3. Horizon
4. Jet Blue
5. Southwest
6. Northwest
7. Delta
8. American
9. United
10. US Airways

Currently, there are several ideas on the drawing board for making air travel more eco-friendly, including newer, more fuel efficient airplane designs; the use of bio-fuels, fuel cells, and even solar power for air travel; and more efficient air traffic controlling practices to reduce time circling in the air or idling on the ground. Airbus recently announced five finalists in its “Fly Your Ideas” contest, whose concepts ranged from utilizing a more eco-efficient cabin design to flying in V formation to reduce energy consumption.

Whether or not any of these ideas fly, they are fuel for thought. So, which one do you like the best?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What's all this about cap-and-trade?

This past week the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, commonly known as the Waxman-Markey bill. At the core of this legislation is a cap-and-trade program, designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 83 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2050.

Proponents claim that the legislation will create millions of clean-energy jobs, at the same time reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions which cause global warming. However, opponents say that it will drastically increase the cost of energy and actually cause the loss of millions of jobs in this country. As one opponent reportedly summed it up, “This bill is the biggest energy tax in the history of the United States.”

If you don’t understand the intricacies of this 900+ page bill, count yourself in good company. According to Rasmussen Reports, only 24 percent of Americans understand that the cap-and-trade proposal currently winding its way through Congress has to do with environmental issues. Others incorrectly guessed that it had to do either with regulating Wall Street or reforming our health care system.

So, what is cap-and-trade?

The Environmental Defense Fund explains that a “well-designed” cap-and-trade program consists of the following elements:

(1) The government must place a mandatory emissions cap—in this case a limit on carbon dioxide emissions—on the total tons of emissions that may be emitted by all polluting entities in a given compliance period.
(2) The government must allocate—either by giving away or at auction—a fixed number of allowances for each polluting entity. Each allowance gives the holder the right to emit one ton of pollution.
(3) Companies that emit less than they are allowed may either bank their unused allowances for future use or trade them to those companies which are emitting more than they are allowed.
(4) At the end of the compliance period, each company must meet clear performance criteria and prove that their tons of emissions have not exceeded their allowances.
(5) Throughout this process, companies have the flexibility to choose when and how they will reduce their emissions. They do not have to reduce emissions right away; they can do it on their own timeline. If it is more cost-effective for them to buy allowances from another company than to install the technologies necessary to reduce their own emissions, they may do so. As long as their emissions do not exceed their allowances, whether those allowances were allocated by the government or bought from another polluting source, they will not be penalized.

Proponents say the cap-and-trade system was a huge success in this country during the 1990’s when it was used to reduce the sulfur dioxide emissions which caused acid rain. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, “the U.S. acid rain cap and trade program achieved 100 percent compliance in reducing sulfur dioxide emissions.”

However, opponents such as the American Legislative Exchange Council say carbon dioxide is far more ubiquitous than sulfur dioxide. In addition, while the technologies necessary to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions were widely available in the 1990’s, the technologies for reducing carbon dioxide emissions are currently still in the research and development stage, with no clear timeline for when they will become commercially viable.

There are, of course, a number of other details that have become sticking points for both sides in this legislation and a number of larger issues being considered; and doubtless there will be hours of heated debate about those in the coming months. But even if a cap-and-trade bill does finally pass through Congress, it will do little to eliminate the link between our productivity and our carbon emissions. And, ultimately, if we are to succeed, we must innovate clean technologies that will do just that.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Walking-the-Walk, Week 4

Friends ask me if I’m still doing “that walking thing.” The short answer is “yes.” The long answer is a bit more complicated. I started walking-the-walk as a kind of experiment, a game, a challenge to be met or not, and it wasn’t that important either way; after all, if it didn’t work out, I could always drive. It’s not like I invested thousands of dollars in some new technology.

Since I started this adventure, though, I have learned that I am an addict. I never thought of myself as one, but I am addicted to my automobile. During the past three weeks, I have gone the gamut of emotions: From decision to dedication to doubt to the vehicular version of delirium tremens (this when the bus I was waiting an hour-and-a-half for never came) and finally onto a determination to just do it.

I haven’t always succeeded. Yesterday, I had to jump in my car and rush to a last-minute appointment that I simply could not miss; there was no way the bus would have gotten me there on time. And, twice, I had to accept a ride to the airport when there was no means of mass transit available. Then there were the judgment calls: Does carpooling my son to school with his friends count? What about asking my husband to pick up a gallon of milk while he was out? I’ve tried to be as honest with myself as possible; if it wasn’t at least close to being on someone else’s way, then I haven’t ridden with them or asked them to run a quick errand for me. But automobiles are such a pervasive part of our lives that it is difficult to steer clear of them completely.

Oh, how I have yearned for my car! Just to get a loaf of bread. Just a short little trip to the corner store. Just a quickie to the dry cleaners or the bank or the post office. Who would that hurt, really? Who would even need to know? But I have resisted. And, over time, I have come to realize I didn’t really need to get that loaf of bread. Or, if I did, I could just as easily walk over to the store and back. Same thing with the dry cleaners. Not so much with the bank or the post office; they’re too far away to walk. But I could ride a bike. Or I could bundle my errands into one trip rather than two or four or more. With a little planning, I could, in a word, be more efficient. The truth is: most of the trips we take are not necessary and those that are would be much more enjoyable if taken in the company of our fellow human beings.

So now I’m going on week 4. But, really, I don’t think this will end next week. I’ve broken my addiction…at least as much as possible, given my physical environment. Tonight, I am going to University of California, Irvine for CalIT2's Clean Energy Challenge; and it seems only natural that I should take the bus there and get a ride back with my son, who has music practice nearby. This coming week will be a bit more problematic because I will be up at University of Southern California for their News Entrepreneur Boot Camp and there is no way to go there 100% via public transportation. I can take the Metrolink or Amtrak up to LA, and I can take the shuttle to-and-from Union Station; but there simply are no busses running from my house to the Irvine train depot at the times I need to go.

I’ve had people tell me, “I can’t possibly walk-the-walk because I have small children.” Or “I work sales; I live in my car.” Or “I live out in the boonies where there is no public transit.” However, there is always a “but.” “…but I carpool with other moms.” “…but I have a hybrid, so at least I get good gas mileage.” “…but I drive into the city with my husband, and we run all our errands on the way back home.” And, as far as I’m concerned, these people are all walking-the-walk. They are not just getting in their cars and driving as a knee jerk reaction to life. They are giving it some thought. And, yes, they may be making some compromises. But, until we have better infrastructure or more efficient technologies, that may be the best they can do. At the end of the day, we’re all taking baby steps.

Friday, May 8, 2009


It's been two weeks, and I'm still walking the walk. Today, I'm visiting my friend Sonia's blog at to tell her all about time in San Francisco. Sonia is a good friend and writer with a background in environmental science who left the fast lane in the OC and moved her family to a hut in Belize for a year. So please come visit me at Sonia's place. I'll be back here on Monday.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Death by Suburbs

I have developed a love-hate relationship with the suburbs. On the one hand, I enjoy the tree-lined walkways and greenbelts. On the other, I yearn for stores and offices within reasonable walking distance. There’s no getting around it: If you live in the ‘burbs, you’re going to have to drive your car. Driving is simply the most practical (sometimes only) way to get from Point A to Point B.

Once considered the ideal nesting ground for the all-American family, suburban communities that sprawl out from urban epicenters to the countryside beyond are now blamed for a variety of societal ills from the destruction of farmland to traffic congestion and air pollution and even, peripherally, to obesity in a society that has become almost slavishly dependent upon the automobile. However, that may be changing.

Currently, there are individuals, businesses, and community leaders who are developing alternatives that will revitalize urban centers and create a healthy, affordable space for people to live and work more productively. The Congress for the New Urbanism is one such group. A non-profit organization that promotes “walkable, neighborhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl,” the CNU is currently working with the U.S. Green Business Council to draft a LEED rating system for neighborhood development, called LEED-ND.

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System™ is an internationally-recognized certification program that has been around for 10 years. Builders cannot just claim to be green; they have to have an independent, third party verify that their projects have met consensus-based criteria. More and more builders and project managers are recognizing the benefits of building to LEED standards, not just from a sales and marketing perspective but from a bottom-line perspective. Though the up-front costs may be more expensive, proponents claim the costs of operation are considerably less, leading to significant overall savings. In addition, many cities are now providing incentives; Austin, Texas' Green Building Program and Portland, Oregon’s proposed “feebates” for green builders are two examples. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) has information about rebates, permit waivers, and other incentive programs within the U.S. and its territories.

While building individual homes and office buildings to green standards is a laudable goal, unless there is a bigger sustainable picture, sprawl is still an issue. The Form-Based Codes Institute consists of city planners, urban designers, architects, policy experts and others who are interested in developing alternatives to conventional or land-use zoning policies, which tend to ignore the overall form of development within a given area and focus instead on the individual use of land on a given parcel. The FBCI recommends the use of form-based codes that “address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks.”

Other groups, such as the Smart Growth Network, formed in 1996 by the EPA and other government and non-profit organizations, offer tips to those communities which want to—among other things—preserve open spaces and farmland, create walkable neighborhoods, and provide a variety of transportation choices. According to the SGN, the top walking cities in the United States are San Francisco, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago; however, any community can implement the basic principles of smart growth. Last year, downtown Silver Spring, Maryland won the EPA’s National Award for Smart Growth Achievement award for Overall Excellence in Smart Growth. Like so many downtown centers, Silver Spring was once a vital hub but, over the years, lost many of its businesses to enclosed malls in surrounding areas. Today, the city center is once again a hub of activity, with a wide variety of offices, residences, retail outlets, and even a refurbished 1937 theater along pedestrian-friendly streetscapes that connect to public transportation facilities.

All of this gives me great hope, as I trod along my suburban streets. With more and more communities beginning to embrace the concept of…well…community, maybe walking-the-walk will no longer be any big deal and urban sprawl—death by suburbs—will be a thing of the past.