From today’s ClimateWire newsletter — green buildings, smart growth, obesity



From today’s ClimateWire newsletter — green buildings, smart growth, obesity

1. AGRICULTURE: Change your menu and save the planet? (05/22/2008)

Sara Goodman, ClimateWire reporter

Climate change means different things to different people. To Tim LaSalle, chief executive of the Rodale Institute, it has brought opportunity: the acceleration of a trend his group has been pushing for years. He wants to make people more aware of where their groceries come from and how they are produced. To the Rodale folks, saving the planet can begin by altering your dinner menu.

“People are concerned about their health, and they’re getting worried about the chemicals and pesticides that are in regular farming,” LaSalle said. “They’re trying to get cleaner, safer food and many understand they’re making an environmental commitment.”

What’s new is that this message is resonating well beyond the crunchy granola set. In recent months, organically grown food has been a better bet than the stock market. Food producers are beginning to prick up their ears. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, a consortium of Iowa State University, Kansas State University and the University of California, the organic food market has grown nearly 20 percent per year for the last seven years as climate-consciousness has spread.

“If you go organic, you eliminate fossil fuel, which is the primary carbon footprint around food,” LaSalle said. “If we converted every farm in the United States to our methods, we could take out about a quarter of the greenhouse gases. There is nothing else that big out there.”

Rodale has studied organic farming compared with conventional farming and found that organic farming can sequester carbon by using composting, cover crops and crop rotation, pulling carbon dioxide from the air and storing it as carbon in the soil. If the world’s 3.5 billion tillable acres used biological, regenerative practices, they could sequester up to 40 percent of current carbon dioxide emissions, the research found.

The U.S. food system contributes nearly 20 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to data from U.S. government research.

Conventional farming uses synthetic fertilizers, which break down organic material in the soil faster than is natural and release it into the air, LaSalle explained. For example, in the Midwest, prairie soils that once were 20 percent carbon are now between 1 percent and 2 percent, he said, meaning that carbon is now in the air.

A report released in 2005 showed that soil carbon in organic systems increased by 15 to 28 percent, the equivalent of taking about 3,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per hectare out of the air.

The same report, funded by Rodale, pointed to other benefits of organic farming, including restoring soil erosion and improving water quality. It showed that organic farming produces the same yields of corn and soybeans as does conventional farming, but uses 30 percent less energy, less water and no pesticides.

‘Quality rather than convenience’

It is a market movement that you might not see reflected in television commercials or at your local supermarket, but it’s going on in many communities. At a farmers’ market recently in Falls Church, Va., for example, Carol Rice was on the prowl for fresh produce with her husband and 6-year-old daughter. She was looking for two components: organic and local.

“A big draw is buying local because it saves resources, and there are certain things you know you can only buy here,” she said.

Howard Herman has been running the Falls Church farmers’ market for more than 20 years, and he has seen a growing number of people who are concerned about where their food comes from.

“More and more people are thinking about the ramifications of getting their food from the supermarket,” Herman said. “Buying local makes more sense from an environmental standpoint. People understand there is a value in having farmland stay farmland and not converted to more housing.”

Just what current price spikes in the commodities markets and the resulting high food prices may do to the pricier organic food market remains a mystery. “It’s a time of uncertainty, to know whether historic interest in organic will continue for the course of 2008 in light of sharply increased costs,” said Greg Bowman, an editor at Rodale. “People who used to buy organic fare are now saying they can’t afford it.”

Still, he thinks the upward trend in organic foods will have staying power. “I think people are going to want to have the kind of food for their family that links them to the region they’re in, and they’ll start putting dollars in for quality rather than convenience.”

The onslaught of the ‘locavores’

In one sign that the movement to eat locally is growing, the “New Oxford American Dictionary” named “locavore” — a person who eats only locally grown foods — as its 2007 word of the year.

The word locavore was coined in 2005 by a group of four women in San Francisco who challenged local residents to try to eat only food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius for the month of August. The movement has spread, and other regional movements have emerged since then.

Some estimates put the average distance that grocery store produce travels at about 1,500 miles before reaching the table.

But a recent study published in Environmental Science & Technology found that despite the long distances, the dominant greenhouse gas emissions come from the production phase, so a product’s food-miles do not necessarily reflect a negative impact.

“We suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than ‘buying local,'” the report concluded. “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more [greenhouse gas] reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”

The benefits of buying locally surpass the basic carbon footprint calculations, though, because it is important to factor in the other values, supporters of the movement say. For one, it supports local farmers and producers. “You’re investing in the local community,” LaSalle said. “One dollar can turn around seven times if it’s spent with the local farmer. In a chain store, there’s a two-and-a-half time turnaround because most of the money leaves town.”

At the Falls Church farmers’ market, vendors are required to sell produce they have themselves grown or made. Herman, who in addition to running the market is the general manager of community services for the city of Falls Church, sells honey he makes from his beehives in northern Virginia, a hobby he has had for the past 15 years.

“It’s an amazing hobby — the challenges are so rewarding,” he said. “There’s a pattern to watch, to see the hive develop and grow. You look to see if it’s a good queen or a bad queen, and see how the hive accepts her or doesn’t.”

That idea of doing something for the community is one of the market’s main appeals, Herman said.

“There’s a value in community,” he said. “You have to experience it to understand it, but there’s knowing you’re doing something to help local farmers stay in business.”

4. GREEN BUILDINGS: Will the green building movement have enough cash? (05/22/2008)

Christa Marshall, ClimateWire reporter

The federal government is shortchanging green building research and missing an opportunity to boost technology that would slash greenhouse gas emissions, an environmental design expert said Wednesday.

“Green building research is 0.2 percent of federal research dollars, which is nothing,” said Vivian Loftness, a professor at at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture.

Speaking at a conference organized by the Environmental Protection Agency, Loftness said the result has been that the United States lags behind Europe and Asia in studying green architecture.

“The consequences are very serious at universities and in national labs,” she said.

Currently, buildings are responsible for 38 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, according to EPA figures. When the manufacturing that is necessary for construction is included, the percentage approaches 50 percent.

The ultimate shape of a building, or its “form design,” is key in reducing its carbon footprint, said John Kennedy, president of Green Building Studio Inc., a California-based software company recently acquired by Autodesk. He pointed to the large ballroom in Washington, D.C.’s Ronald Reagan building where Wednesday’s EPA conference was held, noting the lack of natural light filtering into the room.

Ten percent of electricity in the United States goes toward illuminating buildings, and three-fourths of that happens during daytime, Loftness said, adding that training designers and architects to make maximum use of the sun should be a priority.

“We’ve also got to come up with technology that gives an occupant of a building more control to easily turn off lights,” she said.

EPA is trying to coordinate multiple green building programs, instead of having “five different programs bombarding the American Institute of Architects and the National Association of Homebuilders,” said Ken Sandler, co-chairman of EPA’s Green Building Workgroup.

The agency also distributes grants to universities like Stanford University — which recently constructed a green dormitory with Uncle Sam’s help — and companies like Green Building Studio, which developed software to help builders make their blueprints eco-friendly in a matter of minutes rather than spend months and as much as $30,000 on a redesign plan.

Software that ‘makes a carbon-neutral building in less than 5 minutes’

In a demonstration of the software, Kennedy showed how an architect could turn on his computer, upload a design of a building and figure out how to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions drastically by clicking on a few buttons.

After showing an original computer shot of a brown house, Kennedy changed the type of glass and other materials slated for its construction, then moved to an output screen, complete with a breakdown on the level of carbon emissions saved.

The final data even categorized the greenhouse gas savings according to the emissions of several Hummers H3 SUVs driving 15,000 miles, with a computer voice congratulating the designer.

With a few more clicks of the mouse, Kennedy had changed the architectural blueprint from a carbon emitter to a carbon creditor.

Currently, there are about 6,000 users of the software, which costs about $795 per year for individuals and $4,995 per year for corporations, Kennedy said.

To make sure that others are aware of the promise of green buildings, EPA is stepping up its outreach efforts to the general public and trade associations, Sandler said.

“People who are the decision-makers and the owners of the buildings need to have enough information,” said Bob Thompson, EPA’s indoor environments management branch chief.

The report says the WTO must let countries make laws to protect workers and the environment without fear that they will be overturned in WTO courts. It also advocates keeping track of emissions from the World Bank and its partners.

6. TRANSPORTATION: Feds should fund smart growth, think tank says (05/22/2008)

Debra Kahn, ClimateWire reporter

As the link between development and greenhouse gas emissions solidifies in the public mind, an influential think tank is pushing the federal government to fund smart-growth programs, with the aim of shrinking emissions on a local level.

The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Clean Air Policy, which is drafting a proposal making the case for increased funding, argues that failing to address urban sprawl could negate all emissions reductions from fuel efficiency increases in the sweeping energy bill Congress passed last year and in the Transportation Department’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.

Advocates say smart growth, which straddles the line between mitigation and adaptation, has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating the need to drive to the grocery store. It can also provide a solution for societies dealing with quality-of-life issues caused by high energy and gas prices.

Steve Winkelman, director of the Center for Clean Air Policy’s transportation and adaptation program, noted that local governments are and should continue to be the “first responders” to the effects of climate change. But spurring changes in development practice also will take money and federal support, he said.

At a conference earlier this month in Washington, Winkelman proposed that the money should come from transportation and climate bills. The organization has suggested that about 5 percent of allowance auction revenues in any U.S.-passed climate legislation go toward smart-growth programs. Winkelman noted that the idea of taking the funding from climate legislation had won broad agreement from conference participants “largely because it’s new money, so no one’s ox is being gored.”

Are smart-growth policies at odds with transportation funding?

There is also strong support among policymakers for requiring states and metropolitan planning organizations to set vehicle miles traveled (VMT) goals in order to get federal funding, he said. Winkelman pointed to a six-county California region that created a smart-growth blueprint in 2005 as a shining example of VMT policymaking.

The blueprint, which mapped out the Sacramento region’s development strategies through 2050, is now part of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments’ draft metropolitan transportation plan through 2035. It has found ways to reduce vehicle CO2 and particulates 14 percent from business-as-usual levels by 2050, through providing various enticements to walk, bike and take public transit instead of driving.

Getting funding from the next transportation bill will be a trickier proposition, Winkelman said, due to the current state of transportation policy in general. The gas tax is structured to produce more revenue the more gasoline is consumed, he pointed out.

“You can’t turn the ship overnight on the transportation bill,” he said. “If you look at it from a climate perspective, the more you pollute, the more you get. If you had a chunk of funding for green projects, would they be swamped by everything else?”

Mike McKeever, executive director of the Sacramento Council of Governments, said that as gasoline prices rise and stay high, the demand for increased mass transit funding will only grow. According to the American Public Transportation Association, the number of public transit trips rose 2.4 percent from the fourth quarter of 2006 to the same period in 2007.

“There are definite challenges all around the country to raising enough money to put high-quality transit service on the ground, and there is a fair amount of evidence that because of high gas prices and a slow economy, many more people are trying transit than were willing to in the past,” McKeever said. “For some transit systems and routes, there’s not enough money to put the level of transit on the ground that there is market demand for.”

The next step, Winkelman said, is to trace the threads of VMT even further, to see where they intersect with other quality-of-life indicators. “The standard practice assumes more driving means more economic activity,” he said. “But gas prices and house foreclosures may have decoupled that now.”

8. PEOPLE: Obesity contributes to global warming — study (05/22/2008)

Greenhouse gases are not the only factor contributing to global warming. Obesity is making an impact as well.

Obese and overweight people require more fuel for transportation, both for themselves and for the food they eat, according to a new report released last week in the journal Lancet.

The problem will likely worsen as the population gets — literally — larger.

“We are becoming heavier and it is a global responsibility,” said Phil Edwards, a researcher at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and an author of the report. “Obesity is a key part of the big picture.”

At least 400 million adults worldwide are obese. The World Health Organization projects that by 2015, 2.3 billion adults will be overweight and 700 million will be obese.

Thinner people eat less and are more likely to walk, Edwards said. Therefore, a slimmer population would lower fuel demands for transportation and agriculture, he said, adding that 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture (Reuters/, May 16). — KJH