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What’s possible in a post-carbon world

It doesn’t have to be the end of the world. Buildings, electricity production, transportation, and food & forestry contribute the bulk of the greenhouse gases. But climate-friendly options are ready. Author Guy Dauncey outlines some down-to-earth solutions.

BUILDINGS

Carbon-neutral homes and elegant towers

ELECTRICITY

Sun or coal, wind or nukes? You get to vote.

TRANSPORTATION

Feet, bikes, buses, and an all-electric fleet.

FOOD & FORESTS

Changes from the ground up


The crisis of global warming is deeply serious, yet many are finding that it is also powerfully energizing.

Instead of trying to squeeze our existing way of life into a post-carbon life-jacket out of fear of a climate catastrophe, these people see the transformation as a great adventure. They are drawing on their imagination and courage to create the building blocks of a sustainable, post-carbon world—one in which all beings—not just humans—will flourish and find fulfillment, within the harmony and limits that Nature provides.

Here are just a few examples of what is already being achieved. The only question is how quickly we can spread these innovations, knowing that the dark shadows of climate change are fast approaching.

San Francisco Federal Building. Photo by Tim Haley www.timhaleyphotography.com
The San Francisco Federal Building, completed in 2007, harvests sun and breezes to replace electric lighting and air conditioning. Stainless steel panels retain accumulated solar heat as a thermal blanket over the building’s facade. When that air warms, it floats upward, coaxing cooler air through the building via windows that open automatically when instructed by sensors. The result is carbon-free air conditioning.
Photo by Tim Haley timhaleyphotography.com

Buildings

Buildings use a lot of energy, so it’s no surprise they’re responsible for 30–40 percent of CO2 emissions. The challenge involves two tasks—creating new buildings that are carbon neutral, and retrofitting all existing buildings to eliminate their carbon footprint.

The first task is easier. In Germany, Passivhaus homes consume 95 percent less energy for heating and cooling by using super insulation, solar gain, and efficient heat recovery. There are 6,000 homes in Europe built to Passivhaus specifications. Building codes should require that all new houses are built to this standard.

There is no shortage of innovation. In Guangzhou, China, the 69-story high Pearl River Tower will generate more energy than it consumes, using wind turbines inside two floors of the building, solar photovoltaics (PV), and solar heated water. In Målmo, Sweden, the Turning Torso tower, in addition to being powered by local wind and solar energy, recycles organic wastes into biogas that can be used for cooking and to power the city’s buses. In the Chinese city of Rizhao, 99 percent of buildings in the city center use solar hot water. In Spain, all new buildings and renovations are required to get 30-70 percent of their hot water from solar panels.

Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China and the Turning Torso Tower in Sweden. Photo by Karl Ericsson
LEFT: Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China will generate more energy than it consumes.
RIGHT: The Turning Torso Tower in Sweden uses local wind and solar energy, and recycles organic wastes into biogas. Photo by Karl Ericsson

The Architecture 2030 initiative is pressing to have all new buildings and major renovations in the United States be 100 percent carbon neutral by 2030—a goal that has been unanimously approved by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Britain is moving faster—it is requiring that new buildings all be carbon neutral by 2016. The U.S.-based LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standard for green buildings needs to move in the same direction.

The challenge is much tougher for existing buildings. Most building owners could achieve a 20 to 50 percent reduction in energy use by investing in new windows, super-insulation, heat-recovery systems, and efficient appliances and boilers. Solar PV and solar hot water can be added, and carbon-neutral heat can be obtained from heat exchange with the air, earth, water, and sewage. There are furnaces that burn biofuels, and Sweden’s district heating systems circulate hot water for 50 miles without significant heat loss. Super-insulation, combined with shade trees and white-painted roofs, can also reduce air conditioning load.

To encourage rapid renovation, we need tax credits, self-financing mechanisms, and rules like the Residential Energy Conservation Ordinance, which requires owners in San Francisco and Berkeley to upgrade a building before it’s sold. Germany is paying for a complete retrofit of all older apartment buildings. London has launched a Green Homes Concierge Service to help home-owners upgrade. Since 1993, the small Austrian town of Güssing (population 4,000) has reduced its CO2 emissions by an incredible 93 percent, by switching, among other things, to biofuel district heat for its buildings. It’s just a matter of vision and determination.

 

Lummi Island Wild Co-op's first solar-powered fishing vessel. Photo by Rod del pozo, delpozophoto.com
Lummi Island Wild Co-op in Washington state launched the world’s first solar-powered fishing vessel last year and is converting the rest of the reefnet salmon fleet this year. Reefnetting dates back more than 2,000 years; it uses little machinery and minimizes by-catch. The boats use the solar panels to operate seven heavy winches that position the stationary reefnet boat into the tide and haul in the nets. They use no other power sources on the boats.
Photo by Rod del Pozo, delpozophoto.com

Electricity

Our story of energy begins when humans discovered the secret of fire. We burned wood and brush to protect ourselves from predators, cook food, and, later, to survive the ice age. In 12th-century Europe, with the forests fast disappearing, we started burning the strange black stones we called coal. Later, we used coal to produce steam, launching the Industrial Revolution.

It is astonishing how far we have come. To anyone from the 18th century, our world today would be unbelievable. We burned the black stones, and their fossilized relations, oil and gas, and for those who have had abundant access to these resources, it has been good. But today the over-use of these fossil fuels is threatening life on Earth.

Now we are poised to move into our next era. We are coming to terms with the havoc we are creating by burning millions of years of the planet’s stored sunlight in the blink of a geologic eye. And we are realizing that it is time to lay down these fossil fuels, while understanding that we could never have developed a solar photovoltaic (PV) cell, electric car, or super-efficient LED light bulb without the energy gift of those ancient life-forms. The sunlight they stored over millions of years has enabled us to build the intellectual capital necessary to meet our needs using current renewable energy from the sun, wind, earth, and oceans.

Solar energy, for example, offers an abundance of energy. Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation has calculated that each year, a square kilometer of hot desert receives solar energy equivalent to 1.5 million barrels of oil. Worldwide, this is several hundred times more energy than we need. Similarly, analysts who have evaluated the solar resources in the southwest United States found that concentrating solar power could provide nearly 7,000 gigawatts of capacity, seven times more than the current total U.S. electric capacity. (Concentrating solar power uses parabolic mirrors to focus solar energy to heat a gas or liquid.)

We can also gather solar electricity directly using photo-voltaics as many people are already doing in Germany, Japan, and California. We can gather energy from the wind—North Dakota alone has enough wind energy for 33 percent of current U.S. demand for electricity. We can gather energy from the waves and tides, and from underground, where the potential store of geothermal energy in granite, six to 10 kilometers down, could power all U.S. needs for 20,000 years.

The numbers do add up, especially when you look at the full global potential of each technology. The challenge is to ramp up fast enough to make the transition in time. The numbers improve considerably when you consider that we could improve efficiencies throughout our economy by two to 10 times, using today’s technologies, and that the transition to electricity instead of liquid fuel for transport reduces the energy needed considerably.

Why, then, is there talk of nuclear power when it carries such dangers, and of as-yet unproven “clean” coal, with carbon capture and sequestration? The answer is probably financial—investors find it hard to walk away from their investments. They continue to side with the coal and oil industries that pay for their jet planes and mansions, even though they are fueling a climate catastrophe.

We need non-corrupted governments to cap the oil wells; lock up the coal mines; require super-efficiency in buildings, cars, and appliances; and redirect investments into renewable energy—as Sweden’s government is doing with its commitment to end the country’s dependency on oil by 2020. It is all doable: we just need the courage and belief to do it.

 

Photo by Amanda Kovattana, amandakovattana.blogspot.com
Inside an electric Sparrow car.
Photo by Amanda Kovattana, amandakovattana.blogspot.com

Transportation

Ten years ago, many people thought the transportation fuel of the future would be hydrogen. Then came the hopes of biofuels. Today, both dreams have gone, fallen to the reality of their full life-cycle energy equations and unsustainable sources.

There will still be a role for hydrogen, and for biofuel where it can be harvested sustainably from sewage, algae, seaweed and prairie grass. The emerging winner, however, is electricity. The electric vehicle, far from being dead, is being reborn as both pure electric (EV) by Tesla, G-Wiz, and Modec and as a Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV).

Our exploration of post-carbon travel should start with our legs, however. Our ancestors walked all around the -planet, so let us reclaim the right to walk in safety and -beauty on our Earth. Let us redesign our communities and suburbs with winding lanes that lead to woodlands and village stores. If 5 percent of our post-carbon travel is by foot, that’s a 5 percent reduction in our need for liquid fuel.

Next comes the bicycle. In Copenhagen, Denmark, 33 percent of commuters bike to work. In Davis, California, where they have been building bike routes since the 1960s, 17 percent of commuters do the same. In Paris, the government has placed 20,000 Vélib’ (“vélo liberté,” or “bicycle freedom”) bikes on the city’s streets for anyone to use for a small charge. If your muscles ache, a quick electric conversion will make your bike fly up the hills. In snow-clad winters, cyclists ride with studded tires. If 10 percent of our trips are by bike, that’s a cumulative 15 percent reduction.

Then there’s transit. Boulder, Colorado, has redesigned its service to make the buses smaller and more frequent—increasing ridership five-fold. Hasselt, Belgium, has made its buses free, paid for by city taxes—increasing ridership 10-fold. In transit-friendly cities, buses have GPS and electronic timetables, so you know exactly when they’ll come. We need to make a huge public investment in transit, bus rapid transit (like light rail transit, but on regular roads) and luxury commuter coaches with laptop plug-ins and frappuccinos. If 20 percent of our trips are thus, that’s a cumulative 35 percent reduction, but since hybrid buses still need liquid fuel, we’ll call it 30 percent.

Add teleworking and teleconferencing for 5 percent, trains and high speed trains for 5 percent, and ridesharing for 5 percent, and we’ve reduced our liquid fuel need by 45 percent. Now turn to cars. Since 80 percent of the car trips we take are within battery range of an EV or PHEV, this can further reduce our need for liquid fuel. If we use modern lightweight materials, trimming a vehicle’s weight by as much as 80 percent, demand falls to around 5 percent, which could be covered by biofuels from wastes or algae.

To reduce the need for long-distance trucking, we must rebuild our local economies to meet most of our needs, and use hydrogen-enhanced hybrid biofueled trucks for what’s left. For ocean shipping, the answer may be wind-powered SkySails and hydrogen harvested on mid-ocean platforms from the sun, wind and waves. For flying, maybe slow biofueled helium dirigibles, but otherwise, no easy answers.

A hundred years ago, most people were either walking, or riding a horse. The carbon age has provided us with a stepping stone between the past and the future. It is time to step off it, and into the future.

 

Eighteen percent of the climate change problem is associated with raising, feeding, and transporting meat. Cutting back on meat consumption is a way to immediately reduce climate impact. Picture of Cow. Photo by Dagmar Nelson, milkaway.smugmug.com
Eighteen percent of the climate change problem is associated with raising, feeding, and transporting meat. Cutting back on meat consumption is a way to immediately reduce climate impact. Photo by Dagmar Nelson, milkaway.smugmug.com

Food & Forests

The farm industries that put beef, pork, and dairy on our dinner tables account for 18 percent of global greenhouse emissions—a larger share than all the world’s transportation.

Animal agriculture unleashes some of the most baneful greenhouse gases—methane from cows’ stomachs (25 times stronger than CO2) and nitrous oxide from animal manure and the use of nitrogen fertilizer (298 times more potent than CO2). And too often, both cows and animal feed are raised on slashed and burned rainforest land, releasing more CO2.

The solution lies on our dinner plates. We need to eat less meat and dairy, turning instead to the tastes, pleasures, and health benefits of vegetarian food. If locally grown and organic, so much the better, since organic farming stores carbon in the soil, and eating locally grown reduces the carbon emissions from shipping. Research shows that organic farming can produce as much food as industrialized farming in the developed world and increase yields two to three-fold in developing countries (because many of their existing farming methods are less productive to begin with).

The destruction of the world’s tropical rainforests releases 17 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. We must go out of our way to protect the forests in the Amazon, Congo, and Indonesia by buying threatened forests, placing them in trust for indigenous inhabitants, and paying for policing against illegal loggers.

Gaviotas, a social experiment in the barren savannah lands of eastern Colombia, provides one inspiring model. The visionary Gavioteros have created a thriving carbon-neutral community complete with hospital, solar water treatment plant, and wind turbines. By planting trees, they have begun changing local rainfall cycles and restoring ancient rainforest—all in what was an almost uninhabitable landscape, proving that anything is possible.

Another miracle goes by the name terra preta—rich, black charcoal soil that stores huge quantities of carbon while making the land more fertile.

As we enter the post-carbon world, we must learn how to reharmonize farming and forestry with nature’s carbon cycles.


Guy Dauncey wrote this article as part of Stop Global Warming Cold, the Spring 2008 issue of YES! Magazine, on Solutions to Climate Change. Guy is a speaker, organizer, consultant, and author with Patrick Mazza of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change, New Society Publishers. Photo of Guy Dauncey
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