Can Organic Farming Really Reduce GHG Emissions?

Posted by akeenan | Posted in Carbon Footprint, Greenhouse Gas, Life Cycle Assessment, Pollution, Sustainability | Posted on 17-02-2011

Earlier we looked at how cutting red meat and adopting a more vegetarian diet can shrink your carbon footprint, but what about organic food? The term “organic” gets tossed around a lot, so let’s lay out the definition right here. Organic farming attempts to maximize crop and water quality by eliminating “external inputs,” or synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as well as genetically modified crops.

While there are many ways to achieve this effect (Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma looks at, among other things, the comparison of these very different organic farming methods), the main characteristic is that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are not used.

Click to Enlarge

On a per-land area basis, organic wins big: The graph above shows the environmental impacts of conventional and organic farming, and as we can see, the organic farming method was cleaner in every metric, from carbon footprint to toxicity to humans. Read the rest of this entry »

Green Electronics Guides Galore

Posted by akeenan | Posted in Consumers, Education, Green, Pollution | Posted on 09-12-2010

From toxic chemical leaching and e-waste to high levels of energy consumption, electronics are a significant purchase, both economically and environmentally. So how does one determine which products are considered “green electronics”? Since green electronics covers several areas, like energy consumption, toxic chemical use and e-waste/recycling, there are plenty of guides compiled by non-profit organizations. Here’s a list of a few of the bigger examples:

Greenpeace – Rates companies on their chemical use policy, e-waste and energy efficiency. They then provide a weighted ranking so you can eyeball how environmentally conscious electronics companies appear to be.

NRDC – Provides annual energy consumption and estimated 10-year energy costs for television sets. They also categorize the list by screen size.

Electronics Takeback Coalition (ETBC) – Rates companies on an A-F scale comparing their recycling and takeback programs.

Center for Environmental Health – Compiles, in alphabetical order, every electronics company that is mentioned in the Greenpeace and ETBC lists and records their summary scores.

These lists should not necessarily dictate which company you should patronize, but it should provide some insight as to what is in your device and how it potentially can be recycled at the end of its life. Since companies seem to focus on one target area, none of them are clearly the best choice, so let this be what it truly is: a guide.

Fuel Economy Stickers

Posted by akeenan | Posted in Automotive, Carbon Footprint, Consumers, EPA, Education, Greenhouse Gas, Pollution | Posted on 23-11-2010

In 2012, EPA will release window stickers for cars to mitigate consumer confusion about fuel economy ratings. This push is due to the increasing supply and demand of electric cars, whether they are plug-in hybrids or all-electric. Automakers have actually supported this plan because of the marketing and increased awareness of electric and hybrid cars, so EPA has churned out two possible sticker designs (click on the images to get a thorough explanation of each sticker).

Label Option 1

The primary tool in this design is the use of letter grades, which are determined based on general classification:

A+: All-electric

A: Plug-in hybrids

A-: Gas-electric hybrids

B+, B: Fuel-efficient gasoline

B-: Average fuel-efficiency

C+, C: Below-average fuel-efficiency/Pickup trucks

D: Very fuel-inefficient (SUVs)

The sticker also shows the consumer how much money they will save on five years of fuel, based on an average fuel cost of $2,000 a year. The remainder of the statistics, like non-GHG air pollution and carbon emission per mile, are relatively small and are placed at the bottom of the sticker.

Label Option 2

The primary tools here are combined MPG and annual fuel costs. The slider designs are more prominent, and 5-year fuel costs are removed.

For electric cars, both labels mention the range and electricity used per mile. This kind of information is necessary for consumers and has been shown to be some of the biggest obstacles for EV adoption.

Since the letter grades merely represent either the vehicle type or above/below-average fuel economy, the combined mpg and slider should suffice. The five-year savings number seems arbitrary, so we prefer the one-year fuel costs since they are more relatable. The sliding scale graphics give consumers a better idea of what the numbers mean, so we also like that they have more space devoted to them. Overall, we prefer the second design option, but you can let EPA know what you think on their design site.

40 Years of the Clean Air Act

Posted by akeenan | Posted in Climate Change, EPA, Economy, Greenhouse Gas, News, Pollution | Posted on 22-09-2010

Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, recently spoke in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Clean Air Act (CAA). She spent equal time discussing both the environmental and economic impacts that the bill and its amendments have made in its four decades since its signing into law by President Nixon.

The environmental and public health impacts are expectedly positive and fairly straightforward. Many problematic pollutants, including lead, ground-level ozone, and particulate matter, have been reduced nationwide. Through the 1990 CAA amendments, a cap-and-trade system was implemented to dramatically drop sulfur dioxide and acid rain quantities and initiate the phase-out of ozone-depleting chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) in the US.  Looking ahead, new vehicle standards (fully implemented by 2030) will effectively offset about 1 billion tons of CO2 from the air.

But what are the economic costs to all of these effects? Billions of taxpayers’ dollars are used to fund and sustain these regulations, and industries such as electrical utilities and automotive manufacturers must spend money to update their production methods. But there are indirect economic benefits which include averting premature deaths and medical conditions that amount to large medical bills. These include childhood asthma, cardiovascular disease, skin cancer from penetrating UV rays, and lost IQ points due to leaded gasoline. Aside from saving lives, the CAA has saved Americans $2 trillion through these indirect benefits; the CAA has achieved a 40:1 return on money invested.

The results of the CAA challenge the long-standing belief in the dichotomy between economic growth and environmental cleanliness. Just as the Clean Air Act was passed with strong bipartisan support 40 years ago, the achievements of the bill today should convince those of all political agendas that “cleaning up” does not mean cutting profits. Through mechanisms like cap-and-trade (for sulfur dioxide reductions), technology, competition, and innovation always seem to be underestimated with regards to environmental action.

Your Summer Vacation’s Environmental Impact

Posted by akeenan | Posted in Pollution | Posted on 20-08-2010

In the summer months, nothing sounds better than going on vacation at the beach.  But beach-goers impose more of an impact on the surrounding ecosystem than one would think.
In Saint Tropez, a high-profile beach community in France, business owners are fighting legislation that would limit beach development in an attempt to save local flora and fauna.  The mayor argues that reducing the tourism season and private beach area would preserve a dune that is home to many endangered species, while the locals say the proposed laws are a ploy to allow large resort corporations to take over the area.
Worldwide, “beach nourishment”—rebuilding a beach that has been eroded—is a common practice among heavily-populated coasts.  Although dumping new sand on the beach and building barriers to prevent erosion keeps tourism local, it can be costly on an economic and environmental level.  It costs millions of dollars to upkeep small sections of beaches in Miami, for example, and the process can bury and kill native organisms, ruin turtle nesting grounds and deprive coral reef systems of access to sunlight.
 By trying to get enjoyment out of a natural landscape, the thousands of tourists who frequent beaches are actually damaging the environment.  Do businesses have the right to maintain permits because they have been given the right in the past, or rebuild a beach that nature is determined to knock down?

The Sleeping Giant - EPA

Posted by | Posted in Climate Change, EPA, Economy, Greenhouse Gas, Pollution | Posted on 05-08-2010

If you read our blog on a regular basis you’ve seen us write about the “Carrot and the Stick” in relation to greenhouse gas (GHG) regulation from the government. We saw the demise of the senate bill to address GHGs through a cap-and-reduce (a.k.a., cap-and-trade or cap-and-tax) program, most recently known as the American Power Act. When it comes to difficult decisions, congress does not have the ability to lead. That is fine. As someone I know well says, “you have to lead, follow or get out of the way.” Congress just got out of the way. We predict they will follow next.

For the past several years while congress has failed to pass comprehensive legislation to combat climate change, the EPA has been pushing carbon reduction every step of the way. First, they had GHGs classified as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. At the start of 2010 they asked big emitters to start measuring their CO2e levels. Along the way the EPA has even withstood legal questions about their ability to regulate GHGs.  Now that lawmakers have failed to act do you think the EPA will sit back and do nothing?

The older members of congress remember that back in 1991 cap and trade was originally proposed by Republicans as a way to stop the EPA from directly regulating acid rain-producing SOx and NOx. (That first experiment in cap and reduce worked so well that the Europeans adopted a similar system to abide by the Kyoto Protocol.) History has a way of repeating it’s self and we predict that within the next six months the EPA will introduce a laundry list of GHG regulations that will have even the staunchest climate denier pleading for a cap-and-reduce bill.

So if you think cap-and-reduce legislation is dead, think again.  There is a sleeping giant that is about to wake up.

Food Waste to ?

Posted by | Posted in Green, Pollution, Science | Posted on 03-08-2010

Verus Carbon Neutral is fortunate to be part of a group that is looking to turn Food Waste to renewable sources. An Atlanta-based company called Elemental Impact has identified some ways to do this:

Furnace Plasma

Uses high-temperature thermal plasma to convert waste to syngas, molten metal and vitreous slag. The syngas is used to generate electricity, which is sold to the power grid. The molten metal is cast as scrap steel and the slag is cast as building material aggregate or spun into mineral wool.  (From Plasma Waste Recycling)

Plasma Arc Gasification

The idea is that “biomass feedstock is fed into a plasma reactor, which holds one or more plasma arc torches. These plasma torches heat the biomass to roughly 5,000 degrees Celsius to transform all organic components into a clean and useful synthetic gas containing principally carbon monoxide and hydrogen gases. (From Solena)

Anaerobic Digestion / Biodigesters

Naturally occurring microorganisms break down the waste into methane and carbon dioxide – also known as “biogas” – which is captured in gas-tight enclosures. The biogas can be combusted to produce renewable electricity, cleaned to pipeline natural gas standards, or further processed into compressed natural gas. (From Harvest Power)


The “greenest” way to use food waste is through composting. Composting is nature’s process of recycling decomposed organic materials into a rich soil known as compost. By composting your organic waste you are returning nutrients back into the soil in order for the cycle of life to continue. Finished compost looks like soil–dark brown, crumbly and smells like a forest floor (From Wikipedia). It holds moisture and keeps weeds down as the high temperatures in the natural process kills off seeds. Composting also avoids the creation of methane, a potent greenhouse gas found in landfills.

Polluting with a Bang

Posted by akeenan | Posted in Pollution | Posted on 12-07-2010

Last weekend, an estimated 275 million pounds of fireworks were ignited to celebrate the fourth of July.  And although they are beautiful, the pyrotechnic display that has come to represent our nation’s freedom doesn’t come without a cost to the environment.
Fireworks rely on the combustion of different chemicals to work, but this releases a slew of air pollution.  All fireworks – from at-home bottle rockets to huge city-funded displays – use gunpowder to become airborne, sending particulate matter that is made up of charcoal and sulfur into the air.  The coloration of fireworks comes from adding different compounds, including strontium, magnesium, dioxin, barium, calcium and sodium nitrate.  Some of these chemicals are toxic, and the majority of them are not found in the atmosphere naturally.  Additionally, fireworks contribute to litter because of their packaging and use outdoors.
Air pollution was particularly bad this year in Lincoln, Nebraska. There was pollution at ten times the normal levels, as well as severely limited driver visibility, because of firework use in the city.  The particulate matter that normally would have blown to higher altitudes instead sunk and stayed in the air right above the ground because of high humidity and a lack of wind.
For the sake of our nation’s air, it’s a good thing Independence Day is celebrated only once a year.

Trains, Trucks and Ships

Posted by | Posted in Carbon Neutral, Pollution, Supply Chain | Posted on 05-05-2010

I am used to hearing on NPR about how CSX “can move a ton of freight 423 miles on a single gallon of fuel, and one train can carry the load of more than 280 trucks.”

The Association of American Railroads claims an energy efficiency of 457 ton-miles per gallon of diesel fuel in 2008. Either way this looks pretty Green. Especially compared to a truck. The AAR says that a truck uses 27 gallons of fuel compared to 7 gallons for a train to move one ton from coast to coast.

Not so fast – Meijer , a supermarket chain, is buying the first fleet of U.S. EPA 2010 trucks from Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) that feature near-zero emissions technology. The 75 Freightliner Cascadia trucks are equipped with DD13 engines that represent a family of new fuel efficient, reduced-emission engines developed by Detroit Diesel in collaboration with the Department of Energy 21st Century Truck Partnership Program. With the introduction of these trucks, Meijer expects to see a 47% reduction in particulate matter, a 55% reduction in nitrous oxide and a 3% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. The Cascadia fleet will reduce CO2 emissions by 9,300 U.S. tons, while virtually eliminating 525 U.S. tons of smog-creating nitrogen oxides from the air.

Not to be outdone, the shipping industry (ocean) is targeting a 15-25% reduction in fuel use. Most people don’t realize that shipping is already fairly greenhouse gas efficient manner to move freight.  However, it is such a large portion of transportation that reductions are important. Shipping moves 90% of the worlds internationally moved goods, represents 4.5% of global emissions at 1.2 billion tons a year. By comparison, the aviation industry, is responsible for about 650 million tons of CO₂ emissions a year.

The good news is that transportation understands the need to clean up their act. More good news is that the industry is so large that any changes have a large effect. The bad news is that changes are hard to come by especially when freight has been so hard hit in the global recession.

No-Till Farming Makes More Sense Than Ever

Posted by | Posted in Carbon Offsets, Pollution | Posted on 28-04-2010

Phosphorus is not something that makes headlines very often. If you were a commercial farmer, however, you’d know that it’s the primary ingredient used in fertilizer.  Most phosphorus comes from Morocco and Florida.  According to the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative, we are running out.

If you’re an environmentalist, you know that phosphates (contains phosphorus) can be pretty nasty especially if they are allowed to enter the waterways. They can cause algae blooms that drown out other organisms—reeking havoc on eco-systems.  The mining process of phosphorus also creates tailings of heavy metals such as cadmium and chromium.

Demand for phosphorus continues to increase because it’s such an effective factor in food production for the world. Without it millions of people would starve.

Phosphorus is different than fossil fuels in that it can be used over and over again.  The problem is that this important asset gets washed away because of poor soil management.  Farmers are caught in a cycle: They till their fields, apply fertilizer, the rains come, the fertilizer gets washed away and the cycle starts all over again–very inefficient.

So what should we do?

There is a method of farming called no-till.  No-till farming methods do not open or turnover all the soil, but instead always have either cover or cash crops growing. The crops get flattened or mowed after harvest and are parted so the new crop can be planted in the part. This process leaves the soil relatively undisturbed (watch this video to learn more). No-till has been around for a long time but has recently been recognized for reducing CO2 into the atmosphere (compared to conventional tilling), thus qualifying as an offset project on the CCX.

Offsets provide an extra incentive for farmers to change their practices and now that fertilizer prices are going to rise we can only hope that we can get everyone onboard.