Carbon saving from existing federal policy is not good enough

The US Energy Information Administration’s April 30th Today In Energy post presented a graph similar to the one shown here. The figure compares CO2 emissions with and without the extension of policies that encourage conservation and promote low-carbon energy production. The figure shows that extending existing policies (orange line) reduces CO2 emissions relative to the reference, no extension case (blue line).
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Aquaculture production of exotic species by country

Blue Frontiers: Managing the environmental costs of aquaculture (Hall et al., 2011), from the World Fish Center is an incredibly data rich report. It is a must read for anyone interesting in the promise of aquaculture and the challenges involved in moving towards more sustainable practices.
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Aquaculture feed conversion ratio and related metrics

Environmental impacts of aquaculture vary depending on the type of organisms grown and the technologies used to grow them. In the 2007 paper Indicators of Resource Use Efficiency and Environmental Performance in Fish and Crustacean Aquaculture, Boyd et al. propose a set of indicators to compare different production techniques.
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Does “sustainable” have any meaning at all?

Ocean waves are a source of renewable energy.  Which is why I find the use of the word sustainable in this press release odd.  Take this line for example:

monitoring underwater noise generated by wave energy conversion devices, represents a significant step toward the ability to successfully and sustainably utilize the ocean as a new renewable energy resource.

The sustainability of a activity has to do with meeting our current needs without compromising the the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Wave energy conversion is sustainable.  Sure, harvesting wave energy causes environmental impacts.  All human activities cause environmental impacts.  Knowing as much as we can about these impact is important. Which is why the research IBM is doing to evaluate noise emissions is of value. However, suggesting that the technology can not be considered sustainable if some sound threshold is exceeded puts the focus in the wrong place.  Wave energy, like wind and sunlight are by their nature non-consumptive. Current use does not prevent future use.

Wave energy conversion is much more sustainable than burning fossil fuels.  This should be the starting point.  The goal then becomes to minimize, as much as is possible, the environmental impact of exploiting this abundant, sustainable resource.

This is more than a simple semantic argument.  Focusing on the study as an assessment if the impacts of an sustainable activity, puts the research into an appropriate comparative context. The questions this research is addressing are

  • How does the noise pollution caused by this technology compare to current ocean uses such as oil exploration and shipping?
  • How does the environmental impact of wave energy conversion compare with the impact from other energy sources?

How loud would this technology have to be to make compare unfavorably with climate change driven by continued dependence on carbon based fuels?  How much noise would the system need to produce to make  risking another deepwater horizon spill look good?


The challenge of sustainable agriculture

In the book The Town that Food Saved, Ben Hewitt presents a rather jaundiced view of the term sustainable. The following quote touches on a number of substantial issues.  It is a wonderful starting point for discussing what a more environmentally sound food production system might look like:

“Sustainable,” like “green” and “organic” is an easily corruptible concept that, not surprisingly, has been willfully corrupted by people who would very much like to sell you a hybrid SUV or an Energy Star- rated flat-screen TV with no money down and zero percent interest for 60 months. There is very little about agriculture that is truly sustainable. At its core, agriculture is a human manipulation of a natural process. Is there are version of agriculture that is truly sustainable? Probably so. Is there a version of agriculture that is truly sustainable and able to feed 7 billion people? Almost certainly not.

Sustainability is an overused and often misappropriated word, but I am not ready to abandon it to TV and SUV marketers.  If we view sustainability as a trajectory rather than a near term endpoint, it is an idea with value.  Understanding the degree to which one option is more or less sustainable than another does have merit. Of course for this to work, comparisons must go beyond simple labels to detailed information about how and to what degree different options measure up.

As for there being a version of sustainable agriculture that can feed 7 billion people, I don’t know.  I can’t envision 7 billion people consuming the 3,000 to 4,000 calories the average American consumes.  But, people don’t need anywhere near that many calories and our agricultural systems can certainly be made more sustainable.

Of course, a world in which resources are distributed more equitably and where the costs associated with over-consumption are paid by those that over-consume (present company included), looks very different from the world we have today.  The amount of education and behavior change that is needed is enormous.

I believe we, as a society, have the technical ability and the fortitude to address the challenges we face. What is missing is a broader recognition of the problem and the determination to address it.