For the First Time in 40 Years… Economic Growth Hasn’t Lead to an Increase in CO2 Emissions.

On an average, people tend to commonly associate CO2 emissions with the economy. So, what I am trying to get at is that many people think that if there is a global economic growth, in correlation, we expect to see an increase int he CO2 emissions as well. However, for the first time in over 40 years, we are seeing that this is not the case. This my friends is amazing news for all of us who care about the environment. While this is great news, the question still remains; what has triggered this trend to finally changed? Well, there are several factors and the International Energy Agency has evaluated all of the reasons that they believe that there hasn’t been an increase, but rather a decrease in the CO2 emissions, even though there was an increase in economic growth.

China is the worlds largest CO2 emitter and it is also the country where a majority of the worlds industrial work takes place. Over the past two years, China has taken an initiative to reduce the amount of CO2 that they emit by shifting towards using renewable sources of energy, rather than using non-renewable sources of energy. In China’s case, they have led the world in the amount of solar installations with the hope of cleaning up the countries polluted air. In figure 1, you will see that by the end of 2015, China hopes to add as much as 15 gigawatts of solar energy, which will power around 16 million houses. They want to accomplish this task by installing cheap solar panels on top of commercial buildings, rather than just confiding panels in the rural areas.

Figure 1.

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Additionally, the second factor that has attributed for there to be a decrease in the amount of energy used is the idea that awareness causes people to change their behaviors. People are greedy. Unfortunately,  this is the hard truth. If you tell them that they will save money by buying certain types of technology, they will be willing to do it. This has been happening all over the U.S. The more aware people become about the energy that they are using, the more willing they are to change their behaviors and their electronics. Over the past year, home energy efficiency has decreased drastically, causing there to be an overall decrease in energy. In figure 2, you will see that there is a decrease in the amount of energy in a per capita basis as well as a GDP basis. 

Figure 2.

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The third, which can be overruled, but it is still just as important. The IEA has reported that one of the reasons there is a decrease in CO2 emissions is because transportation has become more efficient. Cars are now being made in order to be more efficient.

Now, the final reason that CO2 emissions have decreased, while the economy prospers, is due to the fact that there was a natural gas boom, due to fracking. Robert Starvins, a leading environmental economist said, “This has, in turn, led to significant increases in dispatch of gas-fired electricity generation, relative to dispatch of coal-fired generation, as well as increased investment in new gas-fired electric generation capacity, and cessation of investment in new coal generation in the United States.” 

Now, lets rejoice. While the world still needs to make huge strides to bettering the environmental conditions, the progress we are making is incredible. China, the worlds leading CO2 emitter has come to its senses and so is the rest of the world.

Flying Where The Sun Don’t Shine

As most already know, solar energy is the energy released by the sun, which is used to heat and light Earth’s surface.  However, it is less likely that many of us know much specifically about the invention of the solar-powered aircraft!  I recently was intrigued by this phenomenon after coming across an article titled, “Solar Powered Aircraft: A Flight Of Fancy?” written by Anmar Frangoul, that focuses on the exciting journey of two “innovators” (paragraph 1), as Frangoul puts it, who plan to fly all the way around the world (beginning in Abu Dhabi) aboard the “Si2” or the “Solar Impulse 2”.

“The Solar Impulse 2”:

Figure 1: Nighttime                                                    Figure 2: Daytime:

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Figure 3: Carbon Fiber:

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The Si2 (shown above in Figure 1 and 2) was built with a 72-meter wingspan (designed using carbon fiber- see Figure 3 above), and receives its power to charge its 633-kilogram lithium batteries by use of sunlight energy.  Therefore, it can be inferred that the batteries for the solar-powered aircraft are only able to charge during the daytime when the sun is out and shining.  Remember, the plane’s wingspan is 72 meters – that’s more than 220 feet!  This giant wingspan is covered with cells that collect the sun’s rays.  With the help of its 17, 000 solar cells, the plane actually receives enough charge throughout the day, and the powerful batteries charge quickly enough, so that the plane could continue to successfully run during the entire night, without help from the sun.

The solar powered aircraft is interesting to me mainly because it is different from other vehicles that run on sunlight energy.  For example, in comparison with solar-powered cars, the aircraft is not hybrid. Instead, it is completely electric and solely powered by solar energy.  This means that it really is totally clean when it runs, and emits no pollution.  And because it’s efficient enough, with enough charging capability and capacitance or storage, it can go seemingly forever.  I wonder about the lithium batteries, if they need to be discarded now and then replaced, and what the pollution impact is from one of these batteries. In addition to its uniqueness, the future capabilities of the solar-powered aircraft (such as the Si2) excite me because of the potential benefits.

Figure 4: The “innovators”- Bertrand Piccard (left) and Andre Borschberg (right):

Test flight Pilot equipement

Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg (pictured in Figure 4 above), who invented the plane’s technology, are currently flying it around the world. One of the goals of this flight is to demonstrate the amazing storage power of the batteries, and that the plane can fly across an entire ocean overnight, with no sunlight.   If this Si2 mission is successful, then a whole new window will open up for solar energy.  Solar energy, which is currently determined to be clean, but extremely inefficient and costly, (low percentage of solar energy actually gets converted into electricity and used, especially compared to energy powered by gas or coal), will suddenly be deemed a cost-effective form of energy.  The Si2 plane is quite large, but if we can make the solar cells be twice as efficient as they are now, then we only would need half those cells.  If solar energy were made more efficient, we could do a lot more with it, for other than the efficiency issue, solar energy is quite remarkable!

Its Hard Not To Care When There Is So Much Smog In The Air

Living in New England, we have all encountered several blizzard warnings in which we are advised not to leave our homes. But can you imagine not being able to leave your home due poor air quality. For many of us this is unimaginable. How could the air quality within a whole country be so poor that one could not leave their home? For me, I actually lived through a smog epidemic during the summer of 2013 (Figure 1). This epidemic was so bad that the government made it illegal for individuals to leave their homes for about 3 days. Smog and excess air pollution is a chronic problem in Asian countries. This week I decided to dive in deeper and truly understand how smog build up occurs and why we see it so often in Asia.

Figure 1

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Smog by definition is the combination of smoke and fog. Smog is a black haze comprised of a mixture of pollutants (Figure 2). But how exactly is smog created? As previously mentioned, smog is essentially a combination of pollutants in the air. When these pollutants are burnt the fumes are then released into the air.  These fumes come directly from things such as heavy traffic, high temperatures, sunshine and calm winds.The smog we see today is called photochemical smog. Photochemical smog is when sunlight reacts with nitrogen oxides and at least one volatile organic compound (VOC) in the atmosphere. Examples of nitrogen oxides include car exhaust, coal power plants, and factory emissions. Examples of VOCs are include gasoline, paints, and many cleaning solvents. When the sunlight hits these particles it sparks the creation of fumes thus creating smog. Asian countries tend to have high populations thus resulting in an increase in the number of automobiles and heavy traffic. In addition, Asia being located near the equator makes for high temperatures and plenty of sunshine. These factors double the effects of smog and amplifies the effect. 

Figure 2

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Smog can be extremely detrimental to ones health and in some cases it can be fatal. Smog gives off an immediate effect and theres no gradual build up. Smog can cause minor health issues such as a cold and pneumonia. Although this is the case, smog can also be responsible for major health issues such as lung cancer. Smog is most commonly known for causing irritation  in the eyes and increasing the difficulty to breathe (figure 3). Smog also deteriorates plant life. With several pollutants in the air, this makes it difficult for plant life to prosper and continue to grow. More often than not plant life can completely die as a result of smog. 

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So what can you do to help? There several small actions one can do to reduce the amount of smog emitted in urban areas. First and for most, avoid driving if it is not necessarily. Try walking, carpooling, and or using bikes if everyone tries to do this smog emissions will slowly begin to decrease. In addition, fill your automobile with gasoline during the cooler hours of the day; this prevents gas fumes from heating up and producing ozone. Finally, if one cuts down on gas powered appliances and uses electrically powered appliances in stead this will also reduce the amount of smog.

The smog epidemic personally effected me and I am fearful that the problem will increase if we dont do anything about it. This problem can be reduced as long as we are aware and try and put forth our best effort to reduce the number of gas powered appliances we use!!! What will you do to reduce the effects of smog on our community?

Solar Energy: Abundant, but Inefficient!

This week I read an article from the University of Colorado website, “Solar Power”, which focused on the abundance and cost of solar energy. What intrigued me about this article was its description of how much solar energy is available, but not really useful to us now. This is due to the fact that the solar panels are simply not efficient enough. However, there is so much solar radiation in our atmosphere, the article claims, that we have 16,000 times our current needs of energy available to us. The only problem is that we cannot efficiently convert solar energy to electricity, or store it cheaply. This class has looked a lot at new technologies springing up around coal, oil, and other fossil fuels. Coal is very dirty, and hydraulic fracturing presents many dangers of its own as well. In fact, just last week, a train carrying oil from a fracking industry, blew up in West Virginia. This was because it was carrying both coal and oil, which are polluted and non-renewable resources. People around our country are praising the fossil fuel industry for bringing the cost of gas down in recent years. On the other hand though, this article actually informed me that there is far more renewable energy available from the sun than we will ever need. Our current problem in this area comes from photovoltaic panels (See below in Figure 1)

Figure 1: Active Solar Photovoltaics:

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A solar panel uses two layers of silicon with different charges, sandwiched between other kinds of metal to produce an electric current from sunlight. Right now, most solar panels available are only 10% efficient: if the panel absorbs 100 joules of sunlight energy, it only produces 10 joules of electric energy. Therefore, the technology is also expensive! The article shows how 1 kilowatt hour of electricity from coal can cost as little as 10 cents, and the same electricity from a solar panel can cost 50 cents, or as much as 85 cents on a cloudy day.

There has been such a focus of money and energy on coal and oil recently. If those same resources were put towards solar efficiency, solar panels might look a lot more attractive to consumers, and we might be able to tap into the vast resources from the sun.

From Cotton Field to Vagina to Landfill: The Story of Tampons and Other Sanitary Products

Wait, My Menstrual Cycle Is Contributing to Environmental Degradation?

I know this not a topic that everyone wants to talk about. However, it has been a fact of life since the beginning of time. The average woman menstruates for 38 years in her lifetime. Unfortunately, in today’s world, 38 years’ worth of menstrual cycles translates into a lot of waste and energy. To be exact, there is approximately 62,415 pounds of sanitary products that end up in landfills[1]. Not to mention the countless tons of fuel that goes into producing these necessities. The truth of the matter is that sanitary items are one of the most unsustainable used products. In North America, over 20 billion pads and tampons are only used once before they are tossed. [2] But how exactly do sanitary items hurt our environment?

How the Waste Affects the Environment

 Cotton

Since most pads and tampons are made up of conventionally produced cotton, there has already been damage done before it even reaches the store self. Conventional cotton farmers usually treat the cotton with toxic pesticides such as aldicarb, phorate, methamidophos and endosulfan[3]. These chemicals are harmful to the people working with them and wildlife. Once sprayed, these toxins often move through the air to other nearby communities contaminating water sources, killing soil micro-organisms, bees, and other beneficial insects.[4]

This image displays all of the toxic chemicals that can be found in pads.

This image displays all of the toxic chemicals that can be found in pads.

Also, most of the cotton is then bleached with chlorine gas.[5] Once the cotton bleached chlorine enters a landfill, it becomes deadly to organisms living in water and the soil.[6] Another harmful chemical found in most sanitary products is called dioxin. Dioxin is a carcinogen that over time accumulates in the food chain. Within an organism it can trigger biological effects such as hormonal disturbances and alterations in cell functions[7] as well as adding to the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and liver damage in humans.[8]

Plastic

It’s not only the cotton that’s harmful, but it is also the plastic applicators and the plastic wrapping. The manufacturing process of producing these disposables consumes a lot of energy[9] and nonrenewable resources which contributes to global warming. Most disposable pads and tampons are made from 90 percent plastic derived from crude oil.[10] When crude oil based plastics reenter the environment it releases large amounts of toxic pollutants which ultimately leads to devastating damage to wildlife and the natural landscape.[11] Combined with other super absorbent materials, the manufacture of sanitary items releases greenhouse gases: nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, and carbon dioxide which are causing our planet to heat up.[12]

Alternatives

I too was shocked to realize that not only are these feminine products not good for the environment, but they are also harmful to my own health. Fortunately, there are healthier and eco friendlier alternatives. Natracare is a company that produces organic chemical-free pads and tampon. These products are more eco-friendly because they are bio degradable and do less damage to the environment since they are bleached without harsh chemicals or sprayed with pesticides.[13]

However, the best alternatives are menstrual cups or reusable pads which have life uses of 15 years. Products such as the Keeper menstrual cup claims those 40 years’ worth of disposables can easily be converted into as few as four menstrual cups![14] Similar to The Keeper, Lunapads claim to divert more than 1 million disposable pads and tampons from landfills every month. Over the course of one year, that is more than 12 million less feminine products contributing to environmental issues. [15]

This image shows how 4 menstrual cups can replace a truck load's worth of sanitary waste.

This image shows how 4 menstrual cups can replace a truck load’s worth of sanitary waste.

How Much Do We Know About Fracking?

Many people have heard of fracking and the controversy that surrounds it, but few know what it actually means, or what the environmental cost is. Fracking is a word that has a lot of politics behind it, and triggers a lot of immediate reactions, but many people do not even understand what it is.

Natural gas is a nonrenewable fossil fuel, but burns cleaner than coal or petroleum. Natural gas is used in many domestic and commercial applications. It is composed of simple hydrocarbons, mostly made up of methane. It is traditionally mined from gas fields using wells, but a large amount of gas trapped in shale formations cannot be mined in this way. Fracking allows that gas to be mined. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, works by injecting a high-pressure mixture of water, chemicals and proppant (solid material used to keep fractures open) into the shale, causing the shale to fracture and release the gas.

Fracking is a new way of mining natural gas, and there has been little time to see what long term negative effects it has on the environment. There are several specific concerns about fracking’s environmental impact. Fracking uses an estimated 70 to 140 billion gallons of water each year. This raises concerns about the impact on drinking water resources and the effect on aquatic ecosystems. Proppant used in the fracking, usually silicone based sand, needs to be mined, and can contaminate groundwater. Various chemicals are also added to the fracking fluid, some of which have very serious health consequences. Pollution from the fracking fluid can seep into drinking water reserves and aquatic ecosystems, threatening both natural and human health. The concerns about fracking are not just theoretical. There are multiple examples of spills like this occurring. In addition to the spills, there is a worrying lack of accountability, with gas companies failing to report the spills to the government.

Natural gas may be the cleanest burning fossil fuel, but if mining for it involves fracking, the trade offs may not be worth it. We still do not know the full potential to cause damage to the environment that fracking has, but that has not stopped numerous companies from setting up fracking sites. There over 2 million hydraulically fractured wells in the U.S., and around 95% of new sites use the procedure. To continue this trend of using technology without any consideration for its environmental impact is irresponsible and near-sighted.

 

 

Sources:

http://www.earthworksaction.org/issues/detail/hydraulic_fracturing_101

http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-and-you/affect/natural-gas.html

http://www.csg.org/pubs/capitolideas/May_June_2012/fracking101.aspx

http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/campaigns/global-warming-and-energy/The-Problem/fracking/

Could Cheaper Oil and Energy Be Dangerous?

In the article titled, “Preserving Ancient Art In Land Marked For Solar Energy Development” by Jeremy Miller, we get a look at the dangers that come along with the benefits of the new fracking industry that has boomed in the US. Cheaper oil and energy seems to be a good thing, but there are prices to pay, including increased carbon in the atmosphere, which only speeds up climate change.  In fact, Figure 1 shows a chart of all the amounts of carbon dioxide emissions by the United States alone. (2)  As you could have guessed from Figure 1, carbon dioxide is the most popular greenhouse gas being released into the atmosphere by humans, harming the environment.

Figure 1: All U.S Carbon Dioxide Emission Estimates (2)

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Alternatives would give us a brighter future, but they also come with problems. One example is the BrightSource Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, almost operational on the southern border between California and Nevada. This will be one of the larges utility facilities in the United States, “supplying nearly 400 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 140,000 homes during peak sunlight hours.” (1) This means 400 million joules of electrical energy every second. Compared with fracking, and the damaging pollution that it brings, an array of solar panels seems like a great idea. However, a whole list of issues has come up in the recent months while the solar panels were being installed. For example, the air around an active solar panel becomes heated. A large array of panels can create a “solar flux” (1), which is a pocket of super heated air that could rise and kill birds. This utility is built in the remote Mojave Desert, and may be endangering a rare species of desert land tortoise. This article shows that there is no easy answer to our energy needs. Even though peak energy consumption dropped off slightly after the 2008 recession, our country still needs to find clean, new, and efficient sources of energy that will have minimal impact on the environment. 

I always assumed that solar energy was good, and I was surprised at how many problems were arising from one energy plant. Another one that really struck me was the cultural impact: the land contains some ancient rock art from early Aztec people. Now the archeology is endangered. The descendants of those first natives still live in the area, but their communities are cut across by the array, and some of their native languages, which are only spoken by a handful of people today, are also now endangered by the solar panels. The result is that any new source of energy comes with problems, and these problems and issues need to be weighed against each other.

Sources:

(1) http://www.hcn.org/blogs/goat/preserving-ancient-art-in-land-marked-for-solar-energy-development

(2) http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/co2.html