On August 10, police and security for the massive palm oil corporation Wilmar International (of which Archer Daniels Midland is the second largest shareholder) stormed a small, indigenous village on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. They came with bulldozers and guns, destroying up to 70 homes, evicting 82 families, and arresting 18 people. Then they blockaded the village, keeping the villagers in — and journalists out. (Wilmar claims it has done no wrong.)
The village, Suku Anak Dalam, was home to an indigenous group that observes their own traditional system of land rights on their ancestral land and, thus, lacks official legal titles to the land. This is common among indigenous peoples around the world — so common, in fact, that it is protected by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Indonesia, for the record, voted in favor of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. Yet the government routinely sells indigenous peoples’ ancestral land to corporations. Often the land sold is Indonesia’s lowland rainforest, a biologically rich area home to endangered species like the orangutan, Asian elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros, Sumatran tiger, and the plant Rafflesia arnoldii, which produces the world’s largest flower.
So why all this destruction? Chances are you’ll find the answer in your pantry. Or your refrigerator, your bathroom, or even under your sink. The palm oil industry is one of the largest drivers of deforestation in Indonesia. Palm oil and palm kernel oil, almost unheard of a decade or two ago, are now unbelievably found in half of all packaged foods in the grocery store (as well as body care and cleaning supplies). These oils, traditional in West Africa, now come overwhelmingly from Indonesia and Malaysia. They cause jawdropping amounts of deforestation (and with it, carbon emissions) and human rights abuses.
“The recipe for palm oil expansion is cheap land, cheap labor, and a corrupt government, and unfortunately Indonesia fits that bill,” says Ashley Schaeffer of Rainforest Action Network.
The African oil palm provides two different oils with different properties: palm oil and palm kernel oil. Palm oil is made from the fruit of the tree, and palm kernel oil comes from the seed, or “nut,” inside the fruit. You can find it on ingredient lists under a number of names, including palmitate, palmate, sodium laureth sulphate, sodium lauryl sulphate, glyceryl stearate, or stearic acid. Palm oil even turns up in so-called “natural,” “healthy,” or even “cruelty-free” products, like Earth Balance (vegan margarine) or Newman-O’s organic Oreo-like cookies. Palm oil is also used in “renewable” biofuels.
A hectare of land (2.47 acres) produces, on average, 3.7 metric tons of palm oil, 0.4 metric tons of palm kernel oil, and 0.6 tons of palm kernel cake. (Palm kernel cake is used as animal feed.) In 2009, Indonesia produced over 20.5 million metric tons, and Malaysia produced over 17.5 million metric tons. As of 2009, the U.S. was only the seventh largest importer of palm oil in the world, but as the second largest importer of palm kernel oil, it ranks third in the world as a driver of deforestation for palm oil plantations.
Indonesia has lost 46 percent of its forests since 1950, and the forests have recently disappeared at a rate of about 1.5 million hectares (an area larger than the state of Connecticut) per year. Of the 103.3 million hectares of remaining forests in 2000, only 88.2 million remained in 2009. At that time, an estimated 7.3 million hectares of oil palm plantations were already established, mostly on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Indonesia plans to continue the palm oil expansion, hoping to produce an additional 8.3 million metric tons by 2015 — this means a 71 percent expansion in area devoted to palm oil in the coming years.
At stake are not only endangered species and human lives, but carbon emissions. One of the ecosystems at risk is Indonesia’s peat swamps, where soil contains an astounding 65 percent organic matter. (Most soils contain only two to 10 percent organic matter.) Laurel Sutherlin of Rainforest Action Network describes the draining and often burning of these peat swamps as “a carbon bomb.” Destruction of its peat swamps as well as its rainforests makes Indonesia the world’s third largest carbon emitter after the U.S. and China.
Among the horror stories coming out of Southeast Asian palm oil plantations are accounts of child slave labor. Ferdi and Volario, ages 14 and 21, respectively, were each met by representatives of the Malaysian company Kuala Lampur Kepong in their North Sumatra villages. They were offered high-paying jobs with good working conditions, and they jumped at the opportunity. According to an account by Rainforest Action Network: “The two worked grueling hours each day spraying oil palm trees with toxic chemical fertilizers, without any protection to shield their hands, face or lungs. After work, Ferdi and Volario were forced inside the camp where they’d stay overnight under lock and key, guarded by security. If they had to use the bathroom, they’d do their best to hold it until morning or relieve themselves in plastic bags or shoes.” They escaped after two months and were never paid for their work.
What is the industry doing about such horrific claims? It has established the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Kuala Lampur Kepong, Wilmar International, and Archer Daniels Midland are all members, and so are their customers, Cargill, Nestlé and Unilever, as well as environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International. But, according to Sutherlin, membership in RSPO means nothing — other than that an organization paid its dues. “That’s the first level of greenwash,” says Sutherlin.
RSPO certifies some products and companies, and Sutherlin says that does have some meaning, but leaves major loopholes open. For example, there are no carbon or climate standards, and there have been problems with the implementation of social safeguards. “It’s been a spotty record about their ability to enforce the standards for how people are treated and how communities are affected,” notes Sutherlin. Yet, he says, RSPO is “the best game in town.”
Rather than simply relying on RSPO’s certification, Rainforest Action Network has focused its campaign on the U.S. agribusiness giant Cargill, which has a hand in fully 25 percent of palm oil on the global market. Rainforest Action Network is asking Cargill to sign on to a set of social and environmental safeguards and to provide public transparency on its palm oil operations. If Cargill cleans up its act, perhaps it will help put pressure on other major multinationals like Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Nestlé, which also source palm oil from unethical suppliers like Wilmar International.
Journalists have also criticized environmental groups for “cozy relationships with corporate eco-nasties.” The World Wildlife Fund has come under attack for its partnership with Wilmar, the corporation that attacked a Sumatran village. Its involvement in RSPO serves as a reminder of the accusations in a 2010 Nation article, which claimed that “many of the green organizations meant to be leading the fight are busy shoveling up hard cash from the world’s worst polluters–and burying science-based environmentalism in return.” (WWF says it received no payment from Wilmar in this particular case.)
The ugly issue of palm oil even touches the beloved American icon, the Girl Scout cookie. When Girl Scouts Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen began a project to save the orangutan for their Bronze Awards, they discovered the link between habitat loss and palm oil. Then they looked at a box of Girl Scout cookies and found palm oil on the list of ingredients. The two 11-year-olds — who are now ages 15 and 16 — began a campaign to get the Girl Scouts to remove palm oil from its cookies.
It took five years to get a response from the supposedly wholesome Girl Scouts USA (whose 2012 slogan is “Forever Green“). While the organization ignored its own members for several years, it was unable to ignore the coverage the girls received from Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and several major TV networks. Once the story was so well-covered by the media, Girl Scouts USA responded, promising it would try to move to a sustainable source of palm oil by 2015. In the meantime, it would continue buying palm oil that could have come from deforested lands or plantations that use child slave labor, but would also buy GreenPalm certificates, which fund a price premium that goes to producers following RSPO’s best practice guidelines.
So what should consumers do? For the time being, avoiding products containing palm oil is probably your best bet. Since palm oil is so ubiquitous this will likely mean opting to buy fewer processed foods overall. Don’t forget to check your beauty and cleaning products, too. In a handful of cases, such as Dr. Bronner’s soaps, palm oil comes from fair trade, organic sources. But this is hardly the norm, and with the immense amount of palm oil used in the U.S., it’s unlikely that sustainable sources could cover all of the current demand.
By Christine StebbinsPosted 2011/10/24 at 10:49 am EDT
CHICAGO, Oct. 24, 2011 (Reuters) — Crop scientists in the United States, the world’s largest food exporter, are pondering an odd question: could the danger of global warming really be the heat?
For years, as scientists have assembled data on climate change and pointed with concern at melting glaciers and other visible changes in the life-giving water cycle, the impact on seasonal rains and irrigation has worried crop watchers most.
What would breadbaskets like the U.S. Midwest, the Central Asian steppes, the north China Plain or Argentine and Brazilian crop lands be like without normal rains or water tables?
Those were seen as longer-term issues of climate change.
But scientists now wonder if a more immediate issue is an unusual rise in day-time and, especially, night-time summer temperatures being seen in crop belts around the world.
Interviews with crop researchers at American universities paint the same picture: high temperatures have already shrunken output of many crops and vegetables.
“We don’t grow tomatoes in the deep South in the summer. Pollination fails,” said Ken Boote, a crop scientist with the University of Florida.
The same goes for snap beans which can no longer be grown in Florida during the summer, he added.
“As temperatures rise we are going to have trouble maintaining the yields of crops that we already have,” said Gerald Nelson, an economist with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) who is leading a global project initially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to identify new crop varieties adapted to climate change.
“When I go around the world, people are much less skeptical, much more concerned about climate change,” said David Lobell, a Stanford University agricultural scientist.
Lobell was one of three authors of a much-discussed 2011 climate study of world corn, wheat, soybean and rice yields over the last three decades (1980-2008). It concluded that heat, not rainfall, was affecting yields the most.
“The magnitude of recent temperature trends is larger than those for precipitation in most situations,” the study said.
“We took a pretty conservative approach and still found sizable impacts. They certainly are happening already and not just something that will or might happen in the future,” Lobell told Reuters in an interview.
Scientists at an annual meeting of U.S. agronomists last week in San Antonio said the focus was climate change.
“Its impact on agriculture systems, impacts on crops, mitigation strategies with soil management — a whole range of questions was being asked about climate change,” said Jerry Hatfield, Laboratory Director at the National Soil Tilth Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.
“The biggest thing is high night-time temperatures have a negative impact on yield,” Hatfield added, noting that the heat affects evaporation and the life process of the crops.
“One of the consequences of rising temperatures … is to compress the life cycle of that plant. The other key consequence is that when the atmosphere gets warmer the atmospheric demand for water increases,” Hatfield said.
“These are simple things that can occur and have tremendous consequences on our ability to produce a stable supply of food or feed or fiber,” he said.
Boote at the University of Florida found that rice and sorghum plants failed to produce grain, something he calls “pollen viability,” when the average 24-hour temperature is 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 Celsius). That equates to highs of 104 F during the day and 86 F at night, he said.
The global seed industry has set a high bar to boost crop yields by 2050 to feed a hungry world. Scientists said that the impact of heat on plant growth needs more focus and study.
“If you look at a lot of crop insurance claims, farmers say it is the lack of water that caused the plant to die,” said Wolfram Schlenker, assistant professor at Columbia University.
“But I think it’s basically different sides of the same coin because the water requirement of the plant increases tremendously if it’s hot,” he said.
“The private sector understands the threats coming from climate change and have significant research programs in regards to drought tolerance. They focus less on higher temperatures, but that’s a tougher challenge,” Nelson said.
“We are responding with a number of initatives…the primary one is focusing on drought tolerance,” said John Soper, vice president in charge of global seed development for DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred, a top U.S. seed producer.
Pioneer launched a conventionally bred drought-tolerant corn hybrid seed in the western U.S. Corn Belt this spring, selected for its yield advantage over other varieties.
“We have some early results in from Texas that show that is exactly how they are behaving. They currently have a 6 percent advantage over normal products in those drought zones,” Soper said.
Roy Steiner, deputy director for agricultural development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said the foundation is focused on current agricultural effects of climate change.
“It’s amazing that there are still people who think that it’s not changing. Everywhere we go we’re seeing greater variability, the rains are changing and the timing of the rains is creating a lot more vulnerability,” Steiner said.
“Agriculture is one of those things that needs long-term planning, and we are very short-cycled thinking,” he said. “There are going to be some real shocks to the system. Climate is the biggest challenge. Demand is not going away.”
|Producer||:||Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Alex Garcia.|
|Release||:||March 8, 2017|
|Country||:||United States of America.|
|Production Company||:||Warner Bros., Legendary Entertainment.|
|Genre||:||Science Fiction, Action, Adventure, Fantasy.|
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ScienceDaily (Sep. 25, 2011) — While water-related conflicts and shortages abound throughout the rapidly changing societies of Africa, Asia and Latin America, there is clearly sufficient water to sustain food, energy, industrial and environmental needs during the 21st century, according to two special issues of the peer-reviewed journal, Water International (Volume 35, Issue 5 and Volume 36, Issue 1), released September 26 at the XIV World Water Congress.
The report from the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) of the CGIAR finds that the “sleeping giant” of water challenges is not scarcity, but the inefficient use and inequitable distribution of the massive amounts of water that flow through the breadbaskets of key river basins such as the Nile, Ganges, Andes, Yellow, Niger and Volta.
“Water scarcity is not affecting our ability to grow enough food today,” said Alain Vidal, director of the CPWF. “Yes, there is scarcity in certain areas, but our findings show that the problem overall is a failure to make efficient and fair use of the water available in these river basins. This is ultimately a political challenge, not a resource concern.”
“Huge volumes of rainwater are lost or never used,” he added, “particularly in the rain-fed regions of sub-Saharan Africa. With modest improvements, we can generate two to three times more food than we are producing today.
While Africa has the biggest potential to increase food production, researchers identified large areas of arable land in Asia and Latin America where production is at least 10 percent below its potential. For example, in the Indus and Ganges, researchers found 23 percent of rice systems are producing about half of what they could sustainably yield.
The analysis — which involved five years of research by scientists in 30 countries around the world — is the most comprehensive effort to date to assess how, over vast regions, human societies are coping with the growing need for water to nurture crops and pastures, generate electricity, quench the thirst of rapidly growing urban centers, and sustain our environment. The findings also present a picture of the increasingly political role of water management in addressing these competing needs, especially in dealing with the most pressing problem facing humanity today: doubling food production in the developing world to feed a surging population, which, globally, is expected to expand from seven to 9.5 billion people by 2050.
The 10 river basins that were studied include: the Andes and São Francisco in South America; the Limpopo, Niger, Nile and Volta basins in Africa; and the Ganges, Indus, Karkheh, Mekong, and Yellow in Asia. The basins — distinct and gargantuan geographic areas defined by water flows from high-ground to streams that feed major river systems — cover 13.5 million square kilometers and are home to some 1.5 billion people, 470 million of whom are amongst the world’s poorest.
According to Vidal, the 10 basins were selected for study because they embody the full measure of water-related challenges in the developing world. The research examines the role of policy and governance in managing water resources in ways that reduce poverty and improve living standards for the greatest number of people
“The most surprising finding is that despite all of the pressures facing our basins today, there are relatively straightforward opportunities to satisfy our development needs and alleviate poverty for millions of people without exhausting our most precious natural resource,” said Dr. Simon Cook, of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and Leader of the CPWF’s Basin Focal Research Project (BFRP).
For example, Cook and his colleagues found that if donors and government ministries put more emphasis on supporting rain-fed agriculture, food production can increase substantially and rapidly. In Africa, it was found that the vast majority of cropland is rainfed and researchers found that only about four percent of available water is captured for crops and livestock.
“With a major push to intensify rainfed agriculture, we could feed the world without increasing the strain on river basins systems,” said Cook.
The authors also note that boosting food production in the basins studied requires looking beyond crops to consider more efficient uses of water to improve livestock operations and fisheries. Water policies often ignore the role livestock and fish play in local livelihoods and diets. For example, the researchers found that in the Niger basin, freshwater fisheries support 900,000 people while 40 million people in the Mekong depend on fisheries for at least part of the year. In the Nile, researchers note that almost half of the water in the basin flows through livestock systems.
“The basin perspective is critical in order to assess the upstream and downstream impacts of water allocation policies, and to determine opportunities for optimizing the sum of benefits across many residents,” said Dennis Wichelns, Deputy Director General at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), which was a major partner in the research.
The researchers contrast the poor use of water resources within river basins observed in many areas — which they refer to as “dead spots” for agriculture development — to “bright spots” of water efficiency. They said bright spots can be found in the large areas of the Ganges, Nile and Yellow River basins, where farmers and governments have responded to development challenges by vastly improving the amount of food produced from available water. They also single out “hot spots” — which can be found in the in the Indus, Yellow, Nile and Limpopo river basins — where there is mounting concern and conflict over sharing water resources and reaching consensus on development approaches.
Confronting the “Complete Fragmentation” of Water Management
Cook and his colleagues caution that while globally there is enough water to sustain human development and environmental needs, water-related conflicts will continue if particular issues like food security and energy production are considered in isolation from one another. Cook observed that in most areas there is a “complete fragmentation of how river basins are managed amongst different actors and even countries where the water needs of different sectors — agriculture, industry, environment and mining — are considered separately rather than as interrelated and interdependent.”
“In many cases, we need a complete rethink of how government ministries take advantage of the range of benefits coming from river basins, rather than focusing on one sector such as hydropower, irrigation or industry,” the authors stated.
Seafood could be going off a lot of menus as the world warms. More than half of a group of fish crucial for the marine food web might die if, as predicted, global warming reduces the amount of oxygen dissolved in some critical areas of the ocean – including some of our richest fisheries.
The prediction is based on a unique set of records that goes back to 1951. California has regularly surveyed its marine plankton and baby fish to support the sardine fishery. “There is almost no other dataset going back so far that includes every kind of fish,” says Tony Koslow of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, who heads the survey. The survey records also include information on water temperature, salinity and the dissolved oxygen content.
Koslow’s team studied records of 86 fish species found consistently in the samples and discovered that the abundance of 27 of them correlated strongly with the amount of oxygen 200 to 400 metres down: a 20 per cent drop in oxygen meant a 63 per cent drop in the fish. There have been several episodes of low oxygen during the period in question, mainly in the 1950s and since 1984.
Global climate models predict that 20 to 40 per cent of the oxygen at these depths will disappear over the next century due to warming, says Koslow – mainly because these waters get oxygen by mixing with surface waters. Warmer, lighter surface waters are less likely to mix with the colder, denser waters beneath.
Of the 27 species most affected by low oxygen, says Koslow, 24 were “mesopelagic”: fish that spend the daytime in deep, dark waters below 200 metres to avoid predators such as squid that hunt by sight. There are 10 billion tonnes of mesopelagic fish globally – 10 times the annual global commercial catch – and they are a vital food for other fish and marine birds and mammals.
In large segments of the Indian, eastern Pacific and Atlantic Oceans called oxygen minimum zones (OMZs), patterns of ocean currents already permit little downward mixing of surface water, so the dark depths where mesopelagics hide have barely enough oxygen for survival. Worldwide, OMZs are expanding both in area and vertically, pushing “hypoxic” water – water with too little oxygen for survival – to ever-shallower levels. Last year, Japanese researchers reported that this has nearly halved the depths inhabited by Pacific cod.
The California coast is an OMZ. When oxygen levels are even lower than usual, the hypoxic zone starts up to 90 metres closer to the surface. This means fish must stay in shallower, more brightly lit water, says Koslow, at greater risk from predators – which, he suspects, is what kills them. In the California data, predatory rockfish in fact boomed during periods of low oxygen.
“This is important work,” says William Gilly of Stanford University’s marine lab in Pacific Grove, California. He studies Humboldt squid, an OMZ predator whose recent movements seem consistent with Koslow’s idea.
“These findings are an example of the kinds of changes we will see more broadly throughout our oceans in coming decades, especially in OMZs,” says Frank Whitney of the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, British Columbia, Canada. Unfortunately, he notes, water and nutrient movements within OMZs make them among our richest fishing grounds.
Journal reference: Marine Ecology Progress Series, DOI: 10.3354/meps09270
Jute, a vegetable fibre that can be spun into sackcloth, used to be the ‘golden fibre’ of Bangladesh.
It brought much-needed foreign income to the impoverished nation.
But it lost its lustre in the 1980s after synthetic materials like polythene and plastics were introduced.
Now the natural fibre has made a spectacular comeback.
Exports of jute and jute products from Bangladesh this fiscal year crossed a record billion dollars as demand for the natural fibre is steadily increasing.
With growing environmental awareness, jute, which is bio-degradable, has become the preferred alternative to polluting synthetic bags.
Jute is considered to be the second most important natural fibre after cotton in terms of cultivation and usage. It is mainly grown in eastern India, Bangladesh, China and Burma.
Until recently the fibre was used mostly as a packaging material. With a diversification of jute products, the demand for jute has increased.
“By processing the fibre mechanically and by treating it chemically, now jute can be used to make bags, carpets, textiles and even as insulation material,” says Mohammad Asaduzzaman, a scientist at the Bangladesh Jute Research Institute in Dhaka.
When synthetics like polythene bags came into widespread use, the demand for jute declined and many jute mills in countries like Bangladesh were shut down.
Thousands lost their jobs and farmers shifted from jute to more profitable rice cultivation.
Today, as demand increases, more farmers are returning to this traditional crop.
It is estimated that nearly five million farmers are involved in jute plant cultivation in Bangladesh. It plays a key supportive role to the rural economy of Bangladesh.
Once the jute plants are harvested they are bundled together and immersed in running water and allowed to rot.
Then the fibres are stripped from the plant. The stripped fibre is dried and later sent to mills for processing.
Golam Moazzam, a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, in Dhaka says: “It is important to note that policy support also contributed to its widespread use of jute both locally and internationally.
“For example, the Bangladeshi government has made it compulsory to use jute bags for packaging of food grains.”
Jute is also versatile, strong and long-lasting and scientists say they are discovering more uses for it in different sectors.
For example, Geotextiles, a diversified jute product, is used for soil-erosion control and also used in laying roads to give more durability. The natural fibre is also used to make pulp and paper.
Bangladeshi scientists are now working on an ambitious project to blend jute fabric with cotton to produce denim fabric.
They say if the jute plant is harvested earlier than the usual period of 120 days, then it gives a softer fabric.
“If this special quality of fibre is chemically modified and bleached then it becomes softer. If we can blend it with cotton then we can manufacture denim fabric and diversified textile products,” says Mr Asaduzzaman
If this process can be commercialised, he says, it will bring down the demand for cotton, which is also becoming dearer day by day.
The price of fabric can be reduced by a half, bringing benefits to the country’s garment sector.
However, there are bottlenecks.
Special machines are required to blend this fibre with cotton and they are yet to be produced commercially. Scientists hope spinning factories will be able to install these machines in the near future.
“Unfortunately, there is not much research going on in terms promoting diversified jute products,” says Mr Moazzam.
“Countries like Bangladesh and India, who are the major jute exporting countries, should conduct collaborative research to find out diversification of jute products.”
In December leaders from around the world will meet in Copenhagen to try to agree on cutting back greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come. The most effective step to implement that goal would be a massive shift away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources. If leaders can have confidence that such a transformation is possible, they might commit to an historic agreement. We think they can.
A year ago former vice president Al Gore threw down a gauntlet: to repower America with 100 percent carbon-free electricity within 10 years. As the two of us started to evaluate the feasibility of such a change, we took on an even larger challenge: to determine how 100 percent of the world’s energy, for all purposes, could be supplied by wind, water and solar resources, by as early as 2030. Our plan is presented here.
Scientists have been building to this moment for at least a decade, analyzing various pieces of the challenge. Most recently, a 2009 Stanford University study ranked energy systems according to their impacts on global warming, pollution, water supply, land use, wildlife and other concerns. The very best options were wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and hydroelectric power—all of which are driven by wind, water or sunlight (referred to as WWS). Nuclear power, coal with carbon capture, and ethanol were all poorer options, as were oil and natural gas. The study also found that battery-electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles recharged by WWS options would largely eliminate pollution from the transportation sector.
Our plan calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations. The numbers are large, but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle; society has achieved massive transformations before. During World War II, the U.S. retooled automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more. In 1956 the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.
Is it feasible to transform the world’s energy systems? Could it be accomplished in two decades? The answers depend on the technologies chosen, the availability of critical materials, and economic and political factors.
Clean Technologies Only
Renewable energy comes from enticing sources: wind, which also produces waves; water, which includes hydroelectric, tidal and geothermal energy (water heated by hot underground rock); and sun, which includes photovoltaics and solar power plants that focus sunlight to heat a fluid that drives a turbine to generate electricity. Our plan includes only technologies that work or are close to working today on a large scale, rather than those that may exist 20 or 30 years from now.
To ensure that our system remains clean, we consider only technologies that have near-zero emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants over their entire life cycle, including construction, operation and decommissioning. For example, when burned in vehicles, even the most ecologically acceptable sources of ethanol create air pollution that will cause the same mortality level as when gasoline is burned. Nuclear power results in up to 25 times more carbon emissions than wind energy, when reactor construction and uranium refining and transport are considered. Carbon capture and sequestration technology can reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants but will increase air pollutants and will extend all the other deleterious effects of coal mining, transport and processing, because more coal must be burned to power the capture and storage steps. Similarly, we consider only technologies that do not present significant waste disposal or terrorism risks.
In our plan, WWS will supply electric power for heating and transportation—industries that will have to revamp if the world has any hope of slowing climate change. We have assumed that most fossil-fuel heating (as well as ovens and stoves) can be replaced by electric systems and that most fossil-fuel transportation can be replaced by battery and fuel-cell vehicles. Hydrogen, produced by using WWS electricity to split water (electrolysis), would power fuel cells and be burned in airplanes and by industry.
Plenty of Supply
Today the maximum power consumed worldwide at any given moment is about 12.5 trillion watts (terawatts, or TW), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The agency projects that in 2030 the world will require 16.9 TW of power as global population and living standards rise, with about 2.8 TW in the U.S. The mix of sources is similar to today’s, heavily dependent on fossil fuels. If, however, the planet were powered entirely by WWS, with no fossil-fuel or biomass combustion, an intriguing savings would occur. Global power demand would be only 11.5 TW, and U.S. demand would be 1.8 TW. That decline occurs because, in most cases, electrification is a more efficient way to use energy. For example, only 17 to 20 percent of the energy in gasoline is used to move a vehicle (the rest is wasted as heat), whereas 75 to 86 percent of the electricity delivered to an electric vehicle goes into motion.
Even if demand did rise to 16.9 TW, WWS sources could provide far more power. Detailed studies by us and others indicate that energy from the wind, worldwide, is about 1,700 TW. Solar, alone, offers 6,500 TW. Of course, wind and sun out in the open seas, over high mountains and across protected regions would not be available. If we subtract these and low-wind areas not likely to be developed, we are still left with 40 to 85 TW for wind and 580 TW for solar, each far beyond future human demand. Yet currently we generate only 0.02 TW of wind power and 0.008 TW of solar. These sources hold an incredible amount of untapped potential.
The other WWS technologies will help create a flexible range of options. Although all the sources can expand greatly, for practical reasons, wave power can be extracted only near coastal areas. Many geothermal sources are too deep to be tapped economically. And even though hydroelectric power now exceeds all other WWS sources, most of the suitable large reservoirs are already in use.
The Plan: Power Plants Required
Clearly, enough renewable energy exists. How, then, would we transition to a new infrastructure to provide the world with 11.5 TW? We have chosen a mix of technologies emphasizing wind and solar, with about 9 percent of demand met by mature water-related methods. (Other combinations of wind and solar could be as successful.)
Wind supplies 51 percent of the demand, provided by 3.8 million large wind turbines (each rated at five megawatts) worldwide. Although that quantity may sound enormous, it is interesting to note that the world manufactures 73 million cars and light trucks every year. Another 40 percent of the power comes from photovoltaics and concentrated solar plants, with about 30 percent of the photovoltaic output from rooftop panels on homes and commercial buildings. About 89,000 photovoltaic and concentrated solar power plants, averaging 300 megawatts apiece, would be needed. Our mix also includes 900 hydroelectric stations worldwide, 70 percent of which are already in place.
Only about 0.8 percent of the wind base is installed today. The worldwide footprint of the 3.8 million turbines would be less than 50 square kilometers (smaller than Manhattan). When the needed spacing between them is figured, they would occupy about 1 percent of the earth’s land, but the empty space among turbines could be used for agriculture or ranching or as open land or ocean. The nonrooftop photovoltaics and concentrated solar plants would occupy about 0.33 percent of the planet’s land. Building such an extensive infrastructure will take time. But so did the current power plant network. And remember that if we stick with fossil fuels, demand by 2030 will rise to 16.9 TW, requiring about 13,000 large new coal plants, which themselves would occupy a lot more land, as would the mining to supply them.
The Materials Hurdle
The scale of the WWS infrastructure is not a barrier. But a few materials needed to build it could be scarce or subject to price manipulation.
Enough concrete and steel exist for the millions of wind turbines, and both those commodities are fully recyclable. The most problematic materials may be rare-earth metals such as neodymium used in turbine gearboxes. Although the metals are not in short supply, the low-cost sources are concentrated in China, so countries such as the U.S. could be trading dependence on Middle Eastern oil for dependence on Far Eastern metals. Manufacturers are moving toward gearless turbines, however, so that limitation may become moot.
Photovoltaic cells rely on amorphous or crystalline silicon, cadmium telluride, or copper indium selenide and sulfide. Limited supplies of tellurium and indium could reduce the prospects for some types of thin-film solar cells, though not for all; the other types might be able to take up the slack. Large-scale production could be restricted by the silver that cells require, but finding ways to reduce the silver content could tackle that hurdle. Recycling parts from old cells could ameliorate material difficulties as well.
Three components could pose challenges for building millions of electric vehicles: rare-earth metals for electric motors, lithium for lithium-ion batteries and platinum for fuel cells. More than half the world’s lithium reserves lie in Bolivia and Chile. That concentration, combined with rapidly growing demand, could raise prices significantly. More problematic is the claim by Meridian International Research that not enough economically recoverable lithium exists to build anywhere near the number of batteries needed in a global electric-vehicle economy. Recycling could change the equation, but the economics of recycling depend in part on whether batteries are made with easy recyclability in mind, an issue the industry is aware of. The long-term use of platinum also depends on recycling; current available reserves would sustain annual production of 20 million fuel-cell vehicles, along with existing industrial uses, for fewer than 100 years.
Smart Mix for Reliability
A new infrastructure must provide energy on demand at least as reliably as the existing infrastructure. WWS technologies generally suffer less downtime than traditional sources. The average U.S. coal plant is offline 12.5 percent of the year for scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. Modern wind turbines have a down time of less than 2 percent on land and less than 5 percent at sea. Photovoltaic systems are also at less than 2 percent. Moreover, when an individual wind, solar or wave device is down, only a small fraction of production is affected; when a coal, nuclear or natural gas plant goes offline, a large chunk of generation is lost.
The main WWS challenge is that the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine in a given location. Intermittency problems can be mitigated by a smart balance of sources, such as generating a base supply from steady geothermal or tidal power, relying on wind at night when it is often plentiful, using solar by day and turning to a reliable source such as hydroelectric that can be turned on and off quickly to smooth out supply or meet peak demand. For example, interconnecting wind farms that are only 100 to 200 miles apart can compensate for hours of zero power at any one farm should the wind not be blowing there. Also helpful is interconnecting geographically dispersed sources so they can back up one another, installing smart electric meters in homes that automatically recharge electric vehicles when demand is low and building facilities that store power for later use.
Because the wind often blows during stormy conditions when the sun does not shine and the sun often shines on calm days with little wind, combining wind and solar can go a long way toward meeting demand, especially when geothermal provides a steady base and hydroelectric can be called on to fill in the gaps.
As Cheap as Coal
The mix of WWS sources in our plan can reliably supply the residential, commercial, industrial and transportation sectors. The logical next question is whether the power would be affordable. For each technology, we calculated how much it would cost a producer to generate power and transmit it across the grid. We included the annualized cost of capital, land, operations, maintenance, energy storage to help offset intermittent supply, and transmission. Today the cost of wind, geothermal and hydroelectric are all less than seven cents a kilowatt-hour (¢/kWh); wave and solar are higher. But by 2020 and beyond wind, wave and hydro are expected to be 4¢/kWh or less.
For comparison, the average cost in the U.S. in 2007 of conventional power generation and transmission was about 7¢/kWh, and it is projected to be 8¢/kWh in 2020. Power from wind turbines, for example, already costs about the same or less than it does from a new coal or natural gas plant, and in the future wind power is expected to be the least costly of all options. The competitive cost of wind has made it the second-largest source of new electric power generation in the U.S. for the past three years, behind natural gas and ahead of coal.
Solar power is relatively expensive now but should be competitive as early as 2020. A careful analysis by Vasilis Fthenakis of Brookhaven National Laboratory indicates that within 10 years, photovoltaic system costs could drop to about 10¢/kWh, including long-distance transmission and the cost of compressed-air storage of power for use at night. The same analysis estimates that concentrated solar power systems with enough thermal storage to generate electricity 24 hours a day in spring, summer and fall could deliver electricity at 10¢/kWh or less.
Transportation in a WWS world will be driven by batteries or fuel cells, so we should compare the economics of these electric vehicles with that of internal-combustion-engine vehicles. Detailed analyses by one of us (Delucchi) and Tim Lipman of the University of California, Berkeley, have indicated that mass-produced electric vehicles with advanced lithium-ion or nickel metal-hydride batteries could have a full lifetime cost per mile (including battery replacements) that is comparable with that of a gasoline vehicle, when gasoline sells for more than $2 a gallon.
When the so-called externality costs (the monetary value of damages to human health, the environment and climate) of fossil-fuel generation are taken into account, WWS technologies become even more cost-competitive.
Overall construction cost for a WWS system might be on the order of $100 trillion worldwide, over 20 years, not including transmission. But this is not money handed out by governments or consumers. It is investment that is paid back through the sale of electricity and energy. And again, relying on traditional sources would raise output from 12.5 to 16.9 TW, requiring thousands more of those plants, costing roughly $10 trillion, not to mention tens of trillions of dollars more in health, environmental and security costs. The WWS plan gives the world a new, clean, efficient energy system rather than an old, dirty, inefficient one.
Our analyses strongly suggest that the costs of WWS will become competitive with traditional sources. In the interim, however, certain forms of WWS power will be significantly more costly than fossil power. Some combination of WWS subsidies and carbon taxes would thus be needed for a time. A feed-in tariff (FIT) program to cover the difference between generation cost and wholesale electricity prices is especially effective at scaling-up new technologies. Combining FITs with a so-called declining clock auction, in which the right to sell power to the grid goes to the lowest bidders, provides continuing incentive for WWS developers to lower costs. As that happens, FITs can be phased out. FITs have been implemented in a number of European countries and a few U.S. states and have been quite successful in stimulating solar power in Germany.
Taxing fossil fuels or their use to reflect their environmental damages also makes sense. But at a minimum, existing subsidies for fossil energy, such as tax benefits for exploration and extraction, should be eliminated to level the playing field. Misguided promotion of alternatives that are less desirable than WWS power, such as farm and production subsidies for biofuels, should also be ended, because it delays deployment of cleaner systems. For their part, legislators crafting policy must find ways to resist lobbying by the entrenched energy industries.
Finally, each nation needs to be willing to invest in a robust, long-distance transmission system that can carry large quantities of WWS power from remote regions where it is often greatest—such as the Great Plains for wind and the desert Southwest for solar in the U.S.—to centers of consumption, typically cities. Reducing consumer demand during peak usage periods also requires a smart grid that gives generators and consumers much more control over electricity usage hour by hour.
A large-scale wind, water and solar energy system can reliably supply the world’s needs, significantly benefiting climate, air quality, water quality, ecology and energy security. As we have shown, the obstacles are primarily political, not technical. A combination of feed-in tariffs plus incentives for providers to reduce costs, elimination of fossil subsidies and an intelligently expanded grid could be enough to ensure rapid deployment. Of course, changes in the real-world power and transportation industries will have to overcome sunk investments in existing infrastructure. But with sensible policies, nations could set a goal of generating 25 percent of their new energy supply with WWS sources in 10 to 15 years and almost 100 percent of new supply in 20 to 30 years. With extremely aggressive policies, all existing fossil-fuel capacity could theoretically be retired and replaced in the same period, but with more modest and likely policies full replacement may take 40 to 50 years. Either way, clear leadership is needed, or else nations will keep trying technologies promoted by industries rather than vetted by scientists.
A decade ago it was not clear that a global WWS system would be technically or economically feasible. Having shown that it is, we hope global leaders can figure out how to make WWS power politically feasible as well. They can start by committing to meaningful climate and renewable energy goals now.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030.”
Backyard vegetables can fight crime, improve health, and boost the economy.
By transforming its vacant lots, backyards and roof-tops into farming plots, the city of Cleveland could meet all of its fresh produce, poultry and honey needs, calculate economists from Ohio State University. These steps would save up to $155 million annually, boost employment and scale back obesity.
“Post-industrial cities like Cleveland are struggling with more and more unused land, these become sources of crime,” said Parwinder Grewal co-author of a study “Can cities become self-reliant in food?” published July 20 in Cities.
“I was motivated to show how much food a city could actually produce by using this land,” he said. “We could address global problems through this way of gardening.”
Urban gardening improves health, reduces pollution, and creates local businesses, Grewal said. The population of Cleveland, what Grewal considers a typical post-industrial city, peaked near one million in 1950, and has been declining since. Today scarcely half a million people call Cleveland home.
As industrial jobs have dried up, the city’s exodus has accelerated. Unable to keep up their properties, many former residents have abandoned their homes. Vacant lots are proliferating, and currently number more than 20,000, according to the Cleveland City Planning Commission.
Ten percent of Clevelanders have been diagnosed with diabetes, as compared to the national average of 8 percent, and more than a third are obese. Among cities with a population between 100,000 and 500,000, it is the seventh most dangerous, according to one crime ranking. Growing tomatoes and beans, and keeping bees and chickens, would change all this, Grewal said. Studies have shown that gardens improve community health, reduce crime and increase property values.
Cleveland city planners have placed special emphasis on programs to foster urban gardening in the past five to 10 years, however, Grewal’s visions are on a more ambitious scale.
In the most intensive scenario he outlines 80 percent of all vacant lots, 62 percent of business rooftops, and 9 percent of residential lots would be tied to food, allowing the city to meet up to 100 percent of its fresh food needs. Grewal, who grows the bulk of his own food in his backyard, believes that his propositions are realistic and practical. The largest barrier is convincing citizens to garden.
“No discredit to the value of Grewal’s study,” said Kim Scott, a Cleveland City Planner and urban gardening specialist, “but articulating an idea is a different experience from implementing it.”
While Cleveland might have enough land to be self-sufficient, it doesn’t yet have the labor force to make it happen, Scott said.
“A mental shift has to take place,” said Scott. “Many people don’t have a clue about farming. They lack the patience to eat whole foods, they lack the desire.”
Both Scott and Grewal hope that shift is coming. Cleveland now has hundreds of community gardens. Some residents are growing market gardens, cultivating and selling produce as a full-time job. The city is seeing the grandest show of large public gardens since the Victory Gardens of World War II, when 40 percent of U.S. vegetables came from private and public gardens.
“If we could do it then,” said Grewal, “we can do it now. And if we design cities that are as self-sufficient as possible, the longer human civilization can sustain itself.”
Image: Parwinder Grewal