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Solutions & sustainability - Apr 12

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Is it OK ... to have a barbecue?

Leo Hickman, The Guardian
...The big debate among "grill jockeys", as they're known in the barbecue heartlands of Texas and the Deep South, is what type of fuel to use. Barbecue, in its strictest sense, means food slowly cooked and smoked using wood smoke and the indirect heat of charcoal. Grilling, in contrast, is cooking at pace directly over hot coals. Most purists agree that the superior fuel, from a culinary point of view, is proper charcoal, not propane gas, nor "charcoal" briquettes. It also happens to be the best environmental option, too.

Briquettes are the most popular fuel, with 63% of barbecues heated this way, but this is fast changing in favour of gas. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, charcoal briquettes release 105 times more carbon monoxide per unit of energy than propane. More significantly, they also produce many more particulates in the form of smoke as well as harmful "volatile organic compounds" (VOCs).

The VOCs are largely a result of the fact that most briquettes are now impregnated with a hydrocarbon solvent, similar to lighter fuel, to help them ignite. Some even include coal dust. The manufacturing process also consumes a lot of energy. Typically, waste timber, such as pallets, sawdust and bark, is burned in near-airless conditions over the course of a week, and then cooled over two weeks, to carbonise it. It is then pulverised into dust under huge hammers and "cooked" again before being mixed with a binding agent such as corn starch and set hard by further baking.

Propane, on the other hand, is a by-product of the petroleum industry. It is also referred to as liquid petroleum gas, or LPG, and is sometimes mixed with butane. While it burns more cleanly than charcoal briquettes, leading to less localised pollution, it is a fossil fuel and a net contributor to global atmospheric CO2 levels.

Charcoal, however, is "carbon neutral" in as much as it is produced from timber that is part of the planet's natural carbon cycle. But up to 90% of the 40,000 tonnes of charcoal we burn each year is sourced from abroad, often from vulnerable tropical forests. The only truly sustainable option is to buy charcoal from the rising number of charcoal producers in the UK who are reviving the near-extinct art of coppicing. By cutting stems from trees on a 10-15 year cycle, as well as using thinnings (poor quality stems) and waste wood from fallen mature trees, coppicers are able to harvest fuel from a wood without destroying it. Charcoal is then created using the traditional method of carbonising the wood as it smoulders for a few weeks under mounds of turf or in kilns.
(11 April 2006)
Environmental questions we always wanted to ask... Leonard Hickman seems to be working the same side of the street as Grist's indispensable columnist Umbra Fisk (Ask Umbra).


The vision thing

David Roberts, Gristmill
Over on Worldchanging, Alex addresses a subject that's dear to my heart, namely what George Bush Sr. famously called The Vision Thing.

He rightly points out that the kinds of solutions being discussed fall absurdly short of what's needed to avoid the worst of climate change. Scientists now say we need to cut global GHG emissions by 70 percent in the next decade or so; Kyoto would cut them by 5.5 percent, and it's the best we've got right now, and the U.S. hasn't ratified it, and the countries that have aren't meeting its targets.

This is to say nothing of the "change a light bulb and properly inflate your tires" school of solutions one often finds in mainstream media outlets.

Why the gap? Alex suspects, as do I, that what's missing is a clear vision: a picture of what a sustainable world would look like. (Regular readers will be familiar with my obsession with this topic.)

Worldchanging being Worldchanging, they focus pretty heavily on technical solutions. And thank gawd somebody's bringing all that stuff together.

But I am equally fascinated by the psychology and sociology of change.
(11 April 2006)


Silicon Valley venture capitalist sees big opportunity in green technology

Associated Press via ENN
SAN FRANCISCO — Venture capitalist John Doerr made his name and fortune with early investments in Netscape Communications Corp., Amazon.com Inc., Google Inc. and other pioneering tech firms that went from scrappy startups to household names.

Now Doerr and his firm, Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, are placing big bets on an emerging sector he calls "green technology," one he believes could become as lucrative as information technology and biotechnology.

Menlo Park-based Kleiner Perkins plans to set aside $100 million of its latest $600 million fund for technologies that help provide cleaner energy, transportation, air and water. That's on top of more than $50 million Kleiner Perkins had already invested in seven greentech ventures.

"This field of greentech could be the largest economic opportunity of the 21st century," Doerr said. "There's never been a better time than now to start or accelerate a greentech venture."
(11 April 2006)

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