Friday, April 28, 2006

A bit about hybrids

"If you want to stop global warming, drive a hybrid". Not exactly. Drive less may be a better suggestion.

Here are some important facts if you're thinking about a hybrid car:

1) A hybrid has both a standard gas engine and an electric engine. You do not plug it in to charge the engine - like the original electric cars - though there is a push to develop "plug-in" hybrids. The energy that is normally lost during breaking is used to charge the electric engine. The gas engine shuts off when it is not needed. That is why a hybrid like the Toyota Prius can get disproportionately good mileage in the city. And why if you walk by a hybrid on a side street or stopped an intersection it is practically silent (the gas engine is off, no idling).

2) Not all hybrids are created equal. The efficiency depends on the car and design. First, the Prius is one of the most efficient because of the aerodynamic design and light construction materials. It would be a good car without the hybrid engine. Second, the newer SUV hybrids are still SUVs. At best, they only get the mileage of a decent sedan. A 1980 Datsun would get better mileage than both simply because it is not as heavy. Third, some car companies are using the hybrid technology to bump up the car's acceleration, rather than save fuel. For example, the Honda Accord hybrid has good pickup, but it is barely more efficient than a normal Accord. The moral: read up - try this site - before shopping.

3) Fuel efficiency depends on how you drive, not just what you drive. Many hybrid buyers complain their car does not come even close to getting the mileage promised in the advertisements. Why? They drive fast, slam on the acceleraor, use the a/c a lot, don't maintain proper tire pressure, etc.


Sunday, April 23, 2006

Future climate policy

Jonathan Pershing from the World Resources Institute gave a terrific talk about climate change and international climate policy in our department a few weeks back. He is one of the experts on climate policy, and has some terrific insight on the challenges of current and future international agreements. His presentation materials can be downloaded from our website – the slides are well-prepared and easy to follow without the narrator.


Global warming vs. climate change

The popular news and entertainment media have been all abuzz about “global warming”. Time Magazine, Vanity Fair and the cable channel HBO have all had major features on the subject in the past two weeks.

They say global warming, I say climate change. Why the to-may-toes and to-mah-toes?

Most scientists prefer “climate change” - a short form for global climate change or human-induced climate change - to "global warming". The term global warming is not necessarily wrong. The planet is, and is expected to continue, warming. But it is misleading.

Two reasons. First, the observed and predicted changes in climate due to increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere include much more than an increase in mean temperature of the planet. You read about these things in the news every day: increases in hurricane intensity, reductions in mountain snowpack or increases in drought frequency. Second, the changes in climate are not globally uniform. The poles, for example, are warming faster thanks to a feedback that involves the melting of ice.

I know what you are thinking: Oh, those scientists are such sticklers for detail. They don't understanding marketing. Climate change is too nuanced, it sounds too innocuous sounding. Global warming has better optics. Scarier headlines, flashier graphics, a more ominous soundtrack.

I admit, I still think branding is something you should only do to cattle. But there is a danger of relying on the less accurate term.

The use of “global warming” and constant talk of “global average temperature” has led too many to imagine a very linear problem, that a great climatic switch has been flipped, and we are slowly warming by 0.0025 deg C every day until it is 3 deg C warmer everywhere. And they think, 3 degrees? that’s not so bad. It’ll be a bit hotter. I’ll get a tan.

Tell someone in my parent’s hometown of Winnipeg – a town famous for the expression “sure, it’s -40, but it is a dry cold” – that “global warming” is a problem and they will laugh. Tell them about more severe flooding, more droughts and the unthinkable, even more mosquitoes in the summer, and they will understand that climate change is a real problem.


Thursday, April 20, 2006

Too hot not to handle

Last night, I went to an advance screening of the global warming documentary "Too hot not to handle". It will be premiering on Saturday (Earth Day) at 7 pm on HBO.

The one-hour film is a good introduction to the causes and the consequences of global warming, and the things that North Americans can do to solve the problem. It is based on interviews with a number of top scientists, including two of my colleagues, Michael Oppenheimer, who brought me to Princeton, and Jon Foley, who put up with me at the University of Wisconsin.

The film is produced by Laurie David, a global warming activist, and the wife of Larry David, the co-creator of "Seinfeld" and star of the HBO show "Curb your Enthusiasm" creator (in which he drives a hybrid Toyota Prius)

Watch if you can! A preview is available online.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The land of the rising sun

More on Hollywood and global warming tomorrow. For now...

The media coverage of climate change and emissions reductions is usually confined to North America, Europe and China. It was nice to see a thoughful article in last weekend's San Francisco Chronicle about Japan's efforts to meet its Kyoto emissions target.

You might expect efficient and technologically savvy Japan to lead the way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In some ways, that is true. The Japanese have made gains in energy efficiency since signing the Kyoto Protocol, through a variety of strict government policies and private initiatives, all worth a read.

Going further might be a challenge. First, Japan is, as a whole, already far more energy efficient than North America. Second, Japan can be very influence by American culture. There is a small, but growing interest in the bigger lifestyle - cars, homes, meals - preferred by Americans. The best evidence is a shift to more North American diets (more saturated fat, more red meat) that has been causing increased heart disease among adult men and obesity among children.


Monday, April 17, 2006

Global Warming and Hollywood

The latest issue of Vanity Fair is all about the environment, especially global warming. It is a reflection of Hollywood's recent interest in the subject.

The issue includes a long essay by Al Gore. Say what you will, but Gore is a real, committed expert on global warming. The former US VP's crusade to convince the world to combat global warming is the subject of an upcoming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.


Kyoto and how we got here (1)

There has been a lot of talk lately by the media and by the Conservative government in Canada about how it will be "impossible" for Canada to meet the Kyoto Protocol commitment. It can be confusing and misleading. The details are important to Canadians, to Americans, to everyone.
To explain, I need to begin with a bit of history:

In the early 1990s, almost every country in the world joined an international agreement known as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UN FCCC stated that the world must try to reduce global warming and adapt to any inevitable changes in climate.

The backbone of the agreement is article II, which committed to stabilizing the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere avoiding "dangerous anthropogenic interference" in the climate system. A lot of scientists have worked to determine just what would be dangerous, like a collapse of major ice sheets, a shift in ocean circulation, or the subject I study, devastation to the world's coral reefs (see a recent article).

The UNFCC had no binding commitments. So in 1997, a subset of countries from the developed world drafted the Kyoto Protocol, an addition to the original agreement.

Under Kyoto, Canada agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 6% below 1990 levels by the years 2008-2012. Why 6%? Probably because it was 1% more than the total reduction in the agreement. Every country or bloc agreed to different commitments, depending on their ability to meet the commitments, politics, etc. It averaged out to 5%. Frankly, I thought Canada would commit to an 8% reduction, purely because the US agreed to 7%.

In order for Kyoto to come into force, countries representing at least 55% of the emissions of the whole group in the Protocol, had to ratify the agreement (ie. get Parliament or Congress to give a thumbs-up). It took a long time. The prime reason is that the US decided not to ratify. That made everyone nervous. And that also made getting to 55% very difficult.

Canada ratified in late 2002, at the urging of then PM Chretien. A couple years later, Russia finally agreed. The Kyoto Protocol officially came into force in February, 2005.

The problem is that between the drafting (1997) and coming into force (2005) of Kyoto, greenhouse gas emissions in Canada and many other countries increased. So not only is there little time left to meet the commitment, it will be even harder to do. More on that in the next post.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Reason this blog is necessary (Part 1 of ?)

The new Conservative government is planning to cut the funding for climate change programmes in Canada by 80%. Read the cover story in today's Globe and Mail.

The politics of climate change in Canada are complex -- the previous government signed an agreement and took very little action, leaving the country in a quandry. But this is colossally stupid. Write a letter. Call your MP.

The process actually began a couple weeks back, when the One Tonne Challenge (OTC) - favourite of mine - was quietly, well, quieted. Regardless of your political orientation, your feelings about climate change or your hatred of the TV ads, killing the OTC is dumb, dumb, dumb. The OTC is a simple, easy way to promote and encourage activities that would reduce emissions and improve air quality. Most importantly, it was cheap. Cancelling a program like this is not about balancing the budget -- it won't make a dent in the budget -- it is about politics.

Was the OTC having a huge impact? Perhaps more than it seemed -- the OTC was starting to inspire grassroots efforts around the country. Just type "One Tonne Challenge" into Google and you'll see.


Two for one?

My colleague and fellow paddler Jason West just published a great study about the how cutting methane emissons could save thousands of lives worldwide.

In addition to being an important greenhouse gas, methane plays a big role in global air pollution by promoting the creation of tropospheric ozone (the ugly chemical term for smog). Reducing methane emissions could be a two for one deal - improved air quality and reduced global warming.

Jason and his colleagues answer two important questions:
i) how many lives might be saved - through reduced smog-related mortality - by reducing methane?
ii) do these health benefits offset the costs of reducing methane emissions?

Check out the media coverage in the Washington Post and the story on the Princeton site.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Arnold crusading against climate change?

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, yes him, announced a plan to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Last year, he bought into the idea that California, the 12th leading source of GHGs on the planet, should reduce emissions by 80% by the year 2050 to reduce threats posed by global warming. Now the state is giving the idea some teeth.

The teeth are weaker than many would have hope - the governor balked at setting mandatory emission caps until 2010 for fear of business leaving the state. The gov's claim is it gives time for businesses to prepare and the emissions trading system to be established. But it leaves open the possibility of stalling or that a future administration would simply ignore the program.

Regardless, many people in the climate policy world, resigned to a lack of federal action, believe regional initiatives like this and an agreement between 11 northeast and mid-altantic states can be an effective substitute. According to a study in Nature, the states enacting GHG reduction programs include 24-35% of the US population and represent 27-49% of US GDP. Two good consequences: i) the GHG reduction themselves can be significant, ii) it builds momentum for other states, and for national action.

For the Canadians out there -- this could be a lesson for the provinces that have complained as the new [and arguably the old] federal government basically gave up on the Kyoto Protocol. It is also a reminder that the federal government can't keep using the old "the US isn't taking action, and they are our largest trading partner" argument to justify waffling. But more on Canada and Kyoto later.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Go west, bring water

And now, some science. A new study by David Schindler, one of the world's premier limnologists /water scientists, points out that the the praries and western Canada are expected to experience more prolonged and severe droughts in the future. It could spell disaster for an already water-stressed region and rapidly growing cities like Calgary.

It was mentioned in last week's Globe and Mail. There's a summary here. Some of you may be able to access the article in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study highlighst an important concern about the current westward migration in Canada and the US, driven by clear skies, open spaces and jobs. Under current demographic growth scenarios, no one is sure where communities like Calgary, but even moreso, places like Phoenix and Las Vegas, will get enough water.

That’s with no change in climate. If the climate continues to change as expected, the consequences will be much worse than having to shut off the fountain at the Bellagio. Before buying property in Arizona or Nevada, you may want to check out some of this research. Or maybe read up on the Anasazi in Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse.