By Kevin Dufour, Chapter Member & LEED AP O+M, Environmental Scientist for Viridis Advisors
By Kevin Dufour, Chapter Member; LEED AP O+M
As an environmental scientist and sustainability consultant, I try to stay current with the latest research about our environment and particularly in climate change. Often times the flow of information is relentless and sometimes downright depressing. Constantly hearing such stories as how the California drought and Australian Heatwave have been definitively linked to to climate change or that birds ranges have been pushed further toward the poles and that many species may face future extinction can eventually get you down. Why even the mangroves, that iconic symbol of the tropics, have been relentlessly marching away from the equator due to warmer winters. It can be hard not to devolve into pessimism.
A Reason for Hope.
However, I recently had an enjoyable and encouraging conversation about climate change. The information was correct, current, and even nuanced. My partner in conversation knew about ocean acidification, the natural drivers of climate change, attempts at mitigation and resiliency, feedback loops, and the basic principles of atmospheric science. He was ten years old. If he is that knowledgeable, then perhaps others in his generation are also so informed. This is a cause for optimism indeed. I thought that I should share some positive stories and that such would help those of us in the vanguard of the green movement carry forward. Perhaps such items would help keep the wolves of despair at bay for a while longer.
There have been several news stories that have focused on the potentially positive efforts. These include stories of technological innovation and political will. I was particularly encouraged by the development of floating solar panels. What a great idea! This helps solve the issue of devoting so much productive land to solar power generation. The panels can be deployed on reservoirs, industrial/agricultural lagoons, even at sea. Obviously care must be taken to not disrupt the ecosystems with the shade these will create, but it can turn non-productive water areas into electrical generators.
The second area of innovation that i believe may hold much promise is in the area of agriculture. Agriculture is often vilified due to its impact on erosion, chemical run-off, and the detrimental effects of monoculture cropping. Major advances have been made that go a long way to minimizing those impacts. A consortium of companies and governments has launched the climate smart agriculture initiative. This seeks to use technological and agronomic practices to both work with a changing climate and to mitigate its impact as much as possible. It will be vital to continue to produce food, in as a sustainable manner as possible, to feed the world, despite the increasing pressures climate change will present. There are critics and such a program would need to monitored, but its about spreading best practices around the world, increasing yields, and reducing or eliminating environmental impacts. All ideas must be on the table and this is a good start.
The precision agriculture movement works hand-in-hand with climate-smart agriculture by leveraging technology to minimize impacts and maximize productivity. At first glance this seems like science fiction, but it is real and it is being used today. Precision agriculture involves the use of advanced sensors to detect drought stress and pest pressure on crops. It uses guided applications of nutrients, pesticides, and water to alleviate those issues. Rather than using a crop duster to bombard a field or broadcasting fertilizer where it may not be needed, the applications are targeted to the individual plant in need. Water is only applied exactly where needed and in a manner to minimize evaporation. The end result is greater productivity, less costs, and far less impacts than current practices. As I mentioned before, this is being done now. The higher yields and lower use of nutrients and chemicals reduces cost to such an extent that the return on investment can be as little as 2-3 years. No matter how you slice it, that is good news.
China, Business, and Citizens stepping up.
Another area of positive movement is world wide acceptance of the challenges we face. That has become evident in the burgeoning environmental awakening that is taking place in China. Make no mistake about it, China is a mess and will continue to be a mess for a long time. With that, they are making dramatic strides in a developing environmental protection system. They have begun instituting trial cap and trade systems and plan to have banned all coal burning in Beijing by 2020 as well as placing limits on coal burning power plants. The most transformational of all has been their establishment of a system that allows for public interest lawsuits as a means of driving environmental change. Even if they are harvesting the “low hanging fruit”, China is making substantial gains and putting the US to shame.
While I have been disappointed by the United States' congressional lack of leadership on climate change, I have been heartened by the actions of its citizens. A huge crowd gathered in NYC to march for climate action. Just a couple of days earlier, Gov. Christie – who pulled New Jersey from the Regional Green House Gas Initiative – was in NYC to speak before a donor convention for the climate change while denying that the Koch brothers backed Americans for Prosperity super PAC. I guess its two steps forward and one step back. Students have taken the lead in advocating for college endowments to divest themselves of carbon intensive investments. This strategy is not just ethical investing from the days of combating apartheid, but it also makes simple economic sense. If in order to meet the 2 degrees C climate benchmark, we must leave large amounts of oil, gas, and coal in the ground – do these proven reserves have any value? Even the Rockefellers, of Standard Oil fame and fortune, have announced plans to divest up to 50 Billion from fossil fuels including tar sands.
The Rockefeller Fund is not the only corporate citizen pushing for action on climate change. Many corporate citizens have stepped to the plate. You can argue whether or not it is ethics or profits that drive this new found idealism, but I care not because the end result is the same. Google, Microsoft and even News Corp. have announced plans to withdraw all funding and support from the climate change denial bill mill of the American Legislative Exchange Council. A sure sign that corporate citizens are viewing climate change as a risk to their bottom line is the alliance between Henry Paulson, Michael Bloomberg, and Tom Steyer. This project, funded by heavy hitters from all sides of the political spectrum, illustrates how climate change can, if thoughtfully addressed, cross all political boundaries. The Risky Business project “focuses on quantifying and publicizing the economic risks from the impacts of climate change.” In my mind, it's the action that matters more than the motivation. I don't care if climate change is addressed to preserve corporate profit and minimize risk or if it is being done to save the world, so long as action is taken.
We are starting to see some positive outcomes from actions that have already been taken. This past year, 2014, is the first year that we have not recorded a single exceedence of the Ozone standard (Smog) in Massachusetts.
In fact, air quality all over Massachusetts and the United States has been getting steadily better and better. This is a clear testament to the impact that forward-thinking governmental policies can achieve when driven by an educated and motivated populace. The image below and the fantastic animation at this link shows the reduction in air pollution over the last several years as imaged from a NASA satellite.
Finally, the antarctic ozone hole has been healing itself. Ever since the Montreal Protocol banned chlorofluorocarbons and other stratospheric ozone depleting chemicals, the earths atmosphere has been steadily healing. This again is illustrative of the fact that concerted collective action can effect great change.
Even the Economist has pointed out that the greatest advances in climate change have come from large governmental action including treaties, energy standards, efficiency, and even building codes. Progress is happening and its happening in unlikely places and with unlikely partnerships. And hey, even the Economist is covering climate change and that's a reason to be hopeful!
Kevin Dufour is an Environmental Scientist with Viridis Advisors. He collaborates with Tom Irwin on creating greener greenscapes. The opinions expressed by member bloggers are their own and not necessarily those of the USGBC Massachusetts Chapter.