Climate Change – You can help

by Robert D. Vines PE, C.P.M.

Note – Robert D. Vines is on the Board of Directors of the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition, one of the Zoo’s most important education partners. He says “If you are in a hurry, skip this first section and drop down to “El Paso Actions.”

Climate Change Conundrum  – Part 1

My nature is to want to fix things that are broken or change things if I can improve them. That is probably why I ended up in engineering. I often find myself, however, reaching for a quick solution. Those are the times when I usually regret the fast action and have to backtrack and rethink the problem. I then try to look for the root cause instead of the quick fix.  

For example, as an engineer, it is easy to see that we are in the process of ruining our planet for humans. The earth will not mind. It has been hot and cold many times in its past. The problem is that fewer and fewer humans will be able to comfortably live on this rapidly warming planet with its dystopian future. We have created a suicide global economy by cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds.

My first solution was simply saying: “Let’s get out of here, leave the planet.” So, Mars is out because it would take trillions to make a habitable environment for a handful of people. (But don’t tell Elon Musk because he is too much fun to watch.) On the other hand, science has recently discovered a good “earth-like” candidate only 4.3 light-years away in the Alpha Centauri system. 

I immediately got out my calculator to plan my trip. Using our fastest spaceship (New Horizons) at 36,373 miles per hour would only take me 78,000 years to get there. (Yuck!) (I remembered that light could travel around the earth seven times in one second. It goes a really long way in an entire year.) But, say I figure out how to go ten times as fast as we now know how to do. It only takes me 7,800 years. (Yuck again!) Well, say we find an earth-like planet only two light-years away. Now, it only takes me 3,600 years! (Still too long!) It is beginning to look like I will have to fix the planet I am on.

I also assumed that I would be welcomed by who or whatever was already occupying my new planet. When you realize that life occurred on our earth immediately after it had cooled enough to support life, you must conclude that my new world would also be inhabited by life. And you have to conclude that if aliens have never visited us, it is because if we can’t get there, they can’t get here. That means that no one is going to show up to help us fix our planet. We are going to do it by ourselves. Of course, another possible reason we have never seen aliens is that life self-destructs at this point in the evolution of intelligent life. That possibility may be where we are headed with global warming, but it doesn’t have to be. We really have to fix this problem ourselves, and right now. 

There is an enormous volume of analysis on how bad we humans are ruining our planet, but much less on how to fix it. Moreover, most solutions seem to focus on only one of the many contributors to the problem. The most thorough analysis of how to fix this problem that I have seen can be found in a book (“Drawdown” by Paul Hawken and Tom Stayer). In this effort, scientists spent years analyzing global warming causes which resulted in a prioritized set of actions to address the root cause.  

That work yielded a book that lists the 100 most substantive actions that must be addressed to reverse the global warming trend. A surprising result for me was to see that when we combine educating women and family planning, which the author suggests are the same issues, that becomes the number one issue for immediate action. I was surprised until I realized that when I was born, there were less than 3 billion people on the planet (now over 7 billion), and people are causing the problem. One study found that slower population growth could achieve up to 41 percent of emissions reductions by 2050.

The number two item is refrigeration management. When I saw that, I wanted to say, “wait a minute, I thought I was supposed to work on black smoke belching out of coal-fired power plants.” It turns out that all that Freon we have been using eventually escapes into the air, where it is many times worse than carbon dioxide.  

I had to get to number three before getting to wind power which would help with my perception problem with smoke stacks. Then, I remembered that wind power is not an easy solution because we still do not have the storage and distribution infrastructure to support a large-scale implementation. In addition, today, we do not have the ability to move large amounts of power from windy areas to high population areas. And this is not a trivial problem. It will require major changes in how we convert and distribute power.

Another solution I assumed to be on top was solar power, and I was disappointed to see that it falls to number eight. Although, I do realize that it also suffers from the same infrastructure hurdle as wind.     

I was not surprised to see the emphasis on plant-based food, and food waste, is in the top five actions. I had already learned that the terrible atmospheric methane was primarily caused by two factors: livestock and swamp gas. The swamp gas contribution is feared to worsen as enormous permafrost areas continue to thaw, releasing methane as the planet warms. (We will discuss methane caused by eating red meat in more detail to follow.) The methane escapes from oil and gas production are relatively low in the US, where regulations are strict. Most global methane escapes from oil and gas production come from the Middle East and Russia.     

The more I understood the 100 solutions, the more I realized how complicated this urgent issue is. It is so complex that it is easy to become overwhelmed and give up, like my first reaction for leaving the planet. But, of course, if we give up, the science is pretty clear on where we end up. We end up with a world suitable for about 2 billion humans instead of the 9 billion we are headed toward. We end up having to abandon most of Florida because it is underwater. We end up with millions of climate refugees to deal with, from not only the African and Latin American countries, but also countries like India and Pakistan. We end up with a world we don’t want to live in.

This predicament will take thoughtful and dedicated effort rather than the kind of knee-jerk reaction that I first made. It will take all of us acknowledging the problem and taking personal action. With that in mind, here are some things we can each do:

El Paso Actions

Think Environmental Effect – The most fundamental action we can all take to contribute to mitigating global warming is to include the environmental effect of all our actions, and in all our thinking. There is no magic to figuring out actions that we each can take to help with this escalating problem. It is all common sense. If everyone could simply understand the problem and accept responsibility for doing what they can to help, this runaway global warming could be reversed.

Work from home. No car – no carbon

Don’t take an UBER instead of driving. – UBERS mostly drive around waiting for a call and often use twice the carbon, as they come to pick you up before taking you somewhere. This means that the total number of miles your trip takes up, is more than just the distance you travel. For example, one study in Denver found that rideshares increased the average miles driven by 84 percent for each trip. Plus, all these extra cars on the road are making traffic worse.

Carpool if possible – no need to explain this 

Electric Cars – Not Now, But Soon – Electric cars are going to be a big part of our future. They offer a real plus for city dwellers because they move the nitrogen dioxide and other air pollutants away from the inner cities. They will hopefully become how we think of transportation in the future. However, they can be an environmental negative today. First, it takes three times as much carbon to create an electric car than a gasoline-powered car. (For example, one typical 1,000 lb. battery means digging up, moving, and processing more than 500,000 pounds of raw materials.) 

Second, most of the electricity used to charge the electric cars comes from burning fossil fuels. Therefore, depending on where the electric vehicle is located in the US, it can contribute more CO2 than a modern gas-powered vehicle. An extensive analysis conducted by Climate Central on “lifecycle emissions” shows that over 100,000 miles, in only three states, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, are electric vehicles the lowest-emissions choice today. These three receive almost all of their power from nuclear and hydroelectric. 

In some ways, the trend to go all electric is getting the cart before the horse, as the real need is to transition to renewal sources for power generation. Additionally, nationwide the average gasoline tax is over $.47 per gallon. That equates to 3 cents per mile that gas cars pay for building and maintaining the roads. A plus with that system is that the cars that use the roads the most, pay the most. How do we do that for electric vehicles when there is no automatic road use tax? This means that some type of road use tax will have to be addressed as the industry has committed to a future dominated by electric. California and New York are leading the way on legislating a solution. Current proposals include consideration of vehicle size, per mile tax, congestion factors (when driven and where), along with possible toll factors. They may also attempt to make the system less regressive than the current system which affects lower income individuals more than higher income individuals. 

These issues will surely be solved with billions invested in electric technology. However, in Texas hybrids offer the better choice from an environmental standpoint, but only if you must replace your current vehicle. Today’s most environmentally friendly option is to keep your old car longer if it is reasonably efficient due to the hugely carbon-intensive process of producing any new car.  

The International Energy Agency report says that globally, 10 million all electrics were in service by the end of 2020 but expects that to be 185 million by 2030. Still, that report expects the in-service gas-driven vehicles to also increase from 1.2 billion to 1.9 billion during that same time frame.  

Stop eating Red Meat. – A 2006 UN FAO study reported that livestock generates more greenhouse gases as measured in CO2 equivalents than the entire transportation sector. Livestock accounts for 9 percent of anthropogenic CO2, 65 percent of anthropogenic nitrous oxide, and 37 percent of anthropogenic methane. A senior UN official and co-author of the report, Henning Steinfeld, said, “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems.”

Drink oat and soy milk instead of cow or even almond milk. – It takes more than a gallon of water to grow one single almond. And of course, cow milk shares the same negatives as eating red meat due to methane and land use issues which makes it the worst environmental milk.

Paint roofs white or replace with white metal or light shingles. – This can cut air conditioning costs by as much as 30%.

Switch to LED lighting – LED lights use only 15% of traditional light’s electricity and last 10 times as long.

Install smart thermostats. – This provides the means of programming personal heating and air conditioning timing while enabling the electric company to shut down residential air conditioning briefly during peak periods.  

Subscribe to El Paso Electric’s solar power plan (when offered) – (agree to pay slightly more for electricity to fund solar generation)

Add insulation to attics – (Attics are the number one heat loss and gain for a house) 

Add insulation to all air ducts – Duct losses due to the temperature differential in unheated areas can represent more energy loss than the entire attic.

Install solar hot water – Heating water is the second-largest energy user in the average household. A solar preheater can cut 50 to 70 percent of that energy cost. In Israel, which has less sunlight than El Paso, 85 percent of households get hot water from solar.  A government credit, similar to solar, would be a helpful incentive for this obvious opportunity.

Support the switch from Fossil Fuels for Generating Electricity – Although this was not one of the highest-rated climate change actions, it is the one everyone identifies with. It is also an essential item to push for long-term solutions. The problems are enormous: the current grid infrastructure will not support the need to move power from sunny and windy areas to the eastern states. Nuclear power suffers from public ignorance of current technology, and hydroelectric has fallen out of favor due to negative publicity. These clean alternatives need immediate focus and investment as well as research on new technologies. 

Additionally, battery technology needs a major focus. Two critical materials, Lithium and Cobalt, are in very short supply. Lithium is actually in abundant supply on the ocean floor. However, recovery is being held up by some environmentalists who are concerned about disturbing the ocean floor by picking up the ore. Also, Cobalt is almost exclusively found in the Belgian Congo (DRC). Recognizing the strategic value of this mineral, the Chinese government seems to have secured exclusive contracts for that resource. As electric cars currently depend on this battery technology and solar/wind generation will need battery power to provide backup, continued development must be a high funding priority. In addition, new technologies like the sodium-ion battery being developed by CATL in China need major focus as it is not dependent on rare earth materials.

Buying new, more sustainable versions of anything you already have. – Any new product requires energy and raw materials to construct. Sure, some are worse than others, but anything new you buy has been made and probably shipped halfway around the world to get to you. Although that new item may be more efficient, the efficiency rarely offsets the cost of building the new product. It’s reduce, reuse, recycle for a reason. First and foremost, use less stuff. 

However, if you already have ten water bottles, maybe don’t get an 11th, no matter if it’s labeled “eco-friendly.”

International Monetary Fund, Wikimedia Creative Commons
Cover – Jason, , Wikimedia Creative Commons

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