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Solutions and Sustainability

The Next Petroleum

Stefan Theil, Newsweek
With oil prices going through the roof, so-called biofuels are at last becoming a viable alternative to gasoline and diesel.
Has the inevitable transition from petroleum to next-generation fuels begun, right under our very eyes? Certainly no one expects oil to disappear overnight—or even in the next one or two decades. Even after the recent surge, farm-grown biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel still account for only a small fraction of fossil-fuel use, as do other renewables such as wind and solar power.

But thanks to skyrocketing oil prices, worries about climate change and growing anxiety over the future security of the world’s supply of crude, the prospects for ethanol and other biofuels to make major inroads in oil use are bright. Even as much of the world has focused on hydrogen cars, which may still be decades away, biofuels have, in the words of a Canadian report, begun to pose “the first serious challenge to petroleum-based fuel in a century.”
(8 August 2005 issue)
I wish the article would have addressed the contention of a recent study which found that “Producing ethanol and biodiesel from corn and other crops is not worth the energy.” -BA

Food – Origin unknown

Tim Lang, Guardian
A new government report wants us to cut ‘food miles’ – the distance our meals travel from farm to plate. Tim Lang, who coined the term, goes supermarket shopping to try to do just that, but finds it almost impossible
The term “food miles” has quietly entered the food language. Two colleagues and I came up with it 14 years ago for a Channel 4 documentary because we wanted to capture the hidden distance that food travels before it miraculously pops up on the supermarket shelf. It is now featured on The Archers, dropped into conversations, and last month received official status by being the subject of a report from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The idea behind food miles – or food kilometres, as they should probably now be known – was and remains simple. We wanted people to think about where their food came from, to reinject a cultural dimension into arcane environmental debates about biodiversity in farms. The Defra report confirms that there is a real problem. Food miles have rocketed in recent years. Between 1978 and 2002, the amount of food trucked by heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) increased by 23%. And the distance for each trip increased by over 50%. In 2002, food transport accounted for an estimated 30bn vehicle kilometres. Food now accounts for a staggering 25% of all HGV kilometres in the UK.

But consumers also contribute to the food-miles problem. Car use for buying food in towns has risen by 27% since 1992. The average distances to get to the shops has risen from 3.3 miles to 4.2 miles over the past 10 years; not far, but too far to carry heavy bags home unless as weightlifting practice (maybe not a bad idea, given obesity rates). We now travel an average 898 miles a year to get to and from the shops. This is largely due to the rise and rise of supermarkets; the Big Five, then Four, now Three, seem to be able to bend planning laws to their will. I was taught that 25% of a market should trigger monopoly inquiries. This is regularly exceeded at a local level, let alone regional or national levels. Competition policy is failing in its own terms and certainly failing the environment.

So what can shoppers do? Simple: shop locally and buy local produce. Well, perhaps not that simple.

…So food miles are complex. When foods are processed or assembled from many sources – like the mueslis we inspected – gaining information about food miles is virtually impossible. For example, there were 16 ingredients in one muesli. If the government wants consumers to reduce their food miles, this will require not just a relocalisation of shopping, but energy audits on the shelves to help us choose wisely. Until that happens, the “informed-consumer” policy is a joke.

The Defra food miles report was a big step forward, however. The government is realising that food isn’t just about nutrition, or the environment, or questions of sustainable farming, or food industry practice, or ethics, or trade justice, or affordability. It is all these things. But the labels currently don’t help consumers. In fact, they only give us a headache.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University. He is co-author, with Michael Heasman, of Food Wars (Earthscan, 2004) and, with Erik Millstone, of The Atlas of Food (Earthscan, 2003).
(3 August 2005)

Organic farms ‘best for wildlife’

Organic farms are better for wildlife than those run conventionally, according to a study covering 180 farms from Cornwall to Cumbria. The organic farms were found to contain 85% more plant species, 33% more bats, 17% more spiders and 5% more birds.

Scientists – from Oxford University, the British Trust for Ornithology, and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology – spent five years on the research. Funded by the government, it was the largest ever survey of organic farming.

“The exclusion of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers from organic is a fundamental difference between systems,” the study says. Other key differences found on the organic farms included smaller fields, more grasslands and hedges that are taller, thicker and on average 71% longer.

Dr Lisa Norton, of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said: “Hedges are full of native, berry-producing shrubs, which are great for insects and the birds and bats that feed on them.” Increased biodiversity was a “happy by-product” of sustainable farming practices and farmers working with “natural processes” to increase productivity, she added.

The fact the organic arable farms were more likely to have livestock on them also made them richer habitats for wildlife.

The study’s lead author, British Trust for Ornithology habitat research director Dr Rob Fuller, told BBC News: “There were very large benefits right across the species spectrum.” The study had looked at a “very, very high” proportion of England’s organic arable farms, he said.

More organic farming would help “restore biodiversity within agricultural landscapes”, Dr Fuller added. “Less than 3% of English farmland is organic so there is plenty of scope for an increase in area.”

Soil Association policy manager Gundula Azeez said: “A greater area of organically-managed land in the UK would help restore the farmland wildlife that has been lost from our countryside in recent decades with intensive farming.”
(3 August 2005)

The Trouble with Organics
Organic food is not necessarily the automatic choice for the ethical consumer

Joanna Blythman, The Ecologist Online
Over the past two decades, the organic movement has made formidable progress in Britain. Organic food has gone from being seen as a slightly cranky obsession of an eccentric few and touched the mainstream. Most consumers now have some appreciation of the principles underpinning organic farming. Many people are fed up with having to shop defensively, trying to protect themselves and their families following unpalatable revelations about the provenance of our food. Organics have come to represent a safe house in a disturbing world where food quality and safety are constantly under siege.

…But while organics once seemed like the nearest we could get to a total solution to our food ills, now it is being tested on several fronts. A growing number of people have reservations about its practicalities and how they overlap with other ethical concerns. Somehow,the old mantra if you’re worried and want better food, then buy organic seems too glib. That was ‘Understanding Food Stage one’.Now we need stage two, and that, inevitably, is more complicated.

The biggest challenge to organics currently is to do with local food and distribution. There is a persistent and growing feeling that it makes sense to buy locally, or at least regionally or nationally. The organic movement, of course, thoroughly approves of eating local food. It is one of its cherished goals. But in practical terms, it seems to struggle to make this goal a reality.
(17 June 2005)

Editorial: Hybrid hypocrisy
Gas guzzlers get breaks too.

Editorial, Sacramento Bee
Hybrid cars, which can switch between battery-powered electric motors and gasoline engines, are the latest, hippest symbols of green technology. They are widely viewed as a way for Americans to save money, lessen the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and reduce pollution. The early hybrid models did just that. But in a quest for better performance, many of the latest models, which critics have dubbed “muscle hybrids,” sacrifice fuel economy for power.

The federal transportation and energy bills awaiting the president’s signature recognize hybrids’ fuel saving potential. Unfortunately, neither measure makes a useful distinction between good hybrids and bad.

The bill expands tax breaks for all hybrid cars, giving hybrid buyers not just tax deductions, as previous laws did, but straight, dollar-for-dollar tax credits of up to $3,000.

Under the bill, the higher the fuel efficiency, the higher the credit. That’s not a bad thing – except that the tax credit is based on weight class. So buyers of gas-guzzling hybrids, a big SUV or pickup that uses some hybrid technology, but gets as little as 15.1 miles per gallon, can still qualify for a federal tax credit. That’s absurd.
(3 August 2005)

Garbageland – Elizabeth Royte
The Current, CBC (Canada)
Transit strikes are inconvenient, construction strikes can hurt the economy, and postal strikes are, well, predictable. But if you want to hit people wear it hurts, stage a garbage strike in the summer, of course. Stacked garbage offends just about all the senses. We like our waste to be out of sight and out of mind. But it’s a constant companion to a consumer society. And should we really be ignoring it?

Elizabeth Royte decided it was time to become a garbage detective starting from inside her own home to all the way stations and resting places of waste. She discovered a world many of us would never want to face or indeed smell but it’s a world that threatens us all. Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash is the account of her modern odyssey. Elizabeth Royte was in Albany, New York today.
(2 August 2005)
The interview is in Part 2 of the program. (Matthew Simmons is interviewed about Saudi oil in Part 1.

Greening the National Map

Gary Moll, American Forests
A new feature allows this compilation of country-wide geographic data to show communities just how their land cover is changing.
…Regardless of whether the use is homeland security or a small town’s land-use planning, the data and tools on the National Map and CUES offer a clear picture of the changing landcover in and around the places where we live. Seeing how the country has developed over time gives us a chance to make changes to improve the health of the world around us.

That’s important because the current picture shows that what’s under our feet is going from good to bad. We are exchanging healthy, natural landscapes that provide clean air and water for manmade surfaces that are expensive to build and maintain.

But with data and tools like the National Map and CUES provide, anyone can log on and-using an ecosystem analysis program developed by American Forests-produce a report that shows just how natural space is changing in their community. The report can be the basis for action by your community leaders. Does your city or town have a tree cover goal? Is tree cover considered when development decisions are made? Is thought given to integrating the “gray” and “green” infrastructure?
(no date)

Petrol price hike fuels small car sales

Staff, The Age (Au)
Soaring petrol prices have fuelled a surge in small car sales in Australia. The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) said on Wednesday demand for small cars rose 26 per cent in July.
That compared to a five per cent fall in demand for sports utility vehicles while sales of large cars plunged by more than 13 per cent. “The results clearly point to a growing consumer trend towards more fuel-efficient vehicles,” said FCAI chief executive Peter Sturrock….
(3 August 2005)


Climate change draws senators north to Alaska
McCain, Clinton want firsthand info on greenhouse gas effects

Richard Mauer, Anchorage Daily News
Two senators with presidential ambitions are planning a trip to Alaska in two weeks to see first hand the consequences of global climate change in the high latitudes, Alaska’s two senators told reporters Monday.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the co-author of a bill to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., are expected to tour Alaska and northwestern Canada, where permafrost is melting, glaciers are in rapid retreat and coastal villages are threatened with increasing erosion
(2 August 2005)

‘Strange things’ along Pacific Coast waters
Warmer ocean and fewer birds, fish and plankton worry researchers

Terence Chea, Associated Press via MSNBC
SAN FRANCISCO – Marine biologists are seeing mysterious and disturbing things along the Pacific Coast this year: higher water temperatures, plummeting catches of fish, lots of dead birds on the beaches, and perhaps most worrisome, very little plankton — the tiny organisms that are a vital link in the ocean food chain.

Is this just one freak year? Or is this global warming?

Few scientists are willing to blame global warming, the theory that carbon dioxide and other manmade emissions are trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and causing a worldwide rise in temperatures. Yet few are willing to rule it out.
(2 August 2005)
Worldchanging has commentary.

In San Joaquin Valley, Cows Pass Cars as Polluters

Miguel Bustillo, LA Times
Air district says bovines on the region’s booming dairy farms are the biggest single source of smog-forming gases. The industry takes issue.
Got smog?

California’s San Joaquin Valley for some time has had the dirtiest air in the country. Monday, officials said gases from ruminating dairy cows, not exhaust from cars, are the region’s biggest single source of a chief smog-forming pollutant.

Every year, the average dairy cow produces 19.3 pounds of gases, called volatile organic compounds, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District said. Those gases react with other pollutants to form ground-level ozone, or smog.

With 2.5 million dairy cows — roughly one of every five in the country — emissions of almost 20 pounds per cow mean that cattle in the San Joaquin Valley produce more organic compounds than are generated by either cars or trucks or pesticides, the air district said. The finding will serve as the basis for strict air-quality regulations on the region’s booming dairy industry.

The San Joaquin Valley, Houston and Los Angeles have the three worst air-pollution problems in America. Their relative rank varies from year to year depending in part on weather conditions. Over the last six years, however, the San Joaquin Valley has violated the federal limit on ozone smog over an eight-hour period more than any other region. That “eight-hour standard” is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s main barometer for the severity of smog.
(2 August 2005)

Rolling back Iceland’s big desert

Boris Maksimov, BBC World Service
“Iceland is a doomsday scenario for the rest of the world,” says Andres Arnalds calmly. He should know, since he is the deputy director of the Soil Conservation Service in Iceland. And the country desperately needs such an agency. It has the biggest desert in Europe.

Yes, a large chunk of the country – almost a third – is an official desert. Sand, sand dunes, no vegetation – the works; and in the sub-Arctic. The only difference with the Sahara is that the sand here is black. Pitch black – with glaciers towering above and the sea shimmering in the distance. And the wind howling in between.

It wasn’t always thus. Despite the rather frightening name of the country, Iceland was green when Vikings came to settle. About 60% of the country was covered in bushes, trees, grass and all that. As one of the sagas says: “At that time, Iceland was covered with woods, between the mountains and the shore.”

There were no native people and no grazing animals. But the Vikings, aside from chopping down trees for their own needs, also brought along their sheep. And what do sheep do best? They eat anything that is green. As a result, there is an incredible soil erosion that started centuries ago.

Andres Arnalds says that Iceland is a prime example of what would happen to the rest of the world if people in other countries, on other continents, continue cutting down trees and overusing the land at the rate they are doing it now.
(3 August 2005)