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On the Environment

Monday, October 31, 2011
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Hallo-green?  The Growing Environmental Focus of Halloween

By Guest Author, Anthony Moffa, JD Candidate '12, Yale Law School

This week we celebrate one of the stranger holidays on the calendar: We dress our kids up in cheap, plastic costumes and send them to strangers’ homes for candy. This custom is one that arguably has led to millions of pounds of waste generated by the disposal of outfits that are generally used only once. In recent years, though, efforts have sprouted up to tackle that problem – trying to mitigate the wasteful nature of the costuming and candy-eating tradition (there’s even a website and blog dedicated to this cause specifically at http://greenhalloween.org/). In the spirit of the holiday I thought I would take this opportunity to highlight some of the easier ways each of us can make Halloween a bit more green.

Costume Swap

Probably the most obvious, but also the most effectual, environmental twist on the holiday is the concept of a “Costume Swap.” The idea is quite simple. Instead of throwing away last year’s Halloween costume, trade it with someone else who has a different one for use this year. This is recycling in its most pure form. Costumes that would be part of the waste stream, because they are either out of favor with a particular child or no longer fit, are instead reused year after year. This year, October 8 was National Costume Swap Day. Parents in all parts of the country designated local outposts where they could exchange costumes; information about the locations and times was made available on social networking sites. According to Green Halloween swapping half of the costumes worn by children on Halloween would reduce annual landfill waste by 6,250 tons, which is the equivalent of 2,500 midsize cars.

Buy Organic and Local

The growing popularity of the organic and local food movement has made some reconsider the source of the traditional Halloween decorations and treats. (see this article from Slate). For the environmentally conscious, the criteria for the perfect pumpkin for this year’s jack-o-lantern included two more traits besides size and shape – organic and local.  Fortunately, a pumpkin is a type of produce that for many of us has always been locally sourced – a fall weekend outing to pick a pumpkin complete with the obligatory hayride is almost an American tradition. Finding an organically grown one is slightly more challenging, though by no means impossible. Much more trying, however, is the task of procuring organic, yet still tasty and affordable, treats to delve out on Halloween. Despite the difficulty of this task, it is an environmentally important one, as separate studies by environmental scientists in Sweden and Great Britain have suggested that consumers cut the amount of sugary foods in their diets by as much as 50 percent.  With the National Confectioners Association projecting that at least $2.2 billion worth of candy will be sold this Halloween season, if a larger portion of that were spent on organic candy the environment and our health might be improved.

Give Moderately

The final tip is the simplest of them all, and it has the dual benefit of saving money and the environment, though it may upset some children. On October 31, when trick-or-treaters come knocking, by all means bring out the candy, but instead of allowing them to take handfuls from a giant bucket, consider giving only one piece to each child. This simple act of moderation will not only serve a similar function as buying organic in that it reduces the amount of sugary foods in our diets, but it will also reduce the waste created by candy wrappers. Though most candy wrappers are made from plastic they are generally not recyclable and therefore end up in landfills.  Different from the one-type plastic used to make soft drink bottles, candy wrappers are usually made up of mixed materials, making the recovery of useful materials difficult and expensive. Taking even a fraction of this waste out of the stream will undoubtedly help the planet.

YCELP wishes you and yours a Happy (and Green) Halloween!

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Friday, October 21, 2011
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Clearing the haze

By Guest Author, Angel Hsu, PhD candidate, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

The news late last month from China’s environment ministry that it plans to bring one of the country’s most destructive and widespread pollutants – tiny particulates widely known as PM 2.5 – into national air quality standards suggests that attitudes to pollutant data, once deemed too politically sensitive to gather, may be shifting. 

Air particulates with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less (hence “PM 2.5”) have serious health implications. Small enough to penetrate human lung tissue, they can cause asthma, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. In most parts of China, PM 2.5 has beenfound to account for more than half of air particulate pollution.  But despite these serious pollution levels and impacts, national air-quality standards in China have lacked requirements for monitoring PM 2.5, or specific reduction targets – until now.

Speaking at Seventh Environment and Development Forum on September 22, China’s pollution control secretary Zhao Hualin announced that the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) intends to revise its national ambient air quality standards to include PM 2.5 measurements. Recognising the contribution of PM 2.5 pollution to poor visibility and air quality, Zhaotold the audience, “We have now started to address the haze problem, which is precisely a PM 2.5 problem”. 

The idea is for China’s so-called “model cities” to pilot particulate measurement, themselves something of a shifting phenomenon. In late August, the MEP made revisions for the second time as to what criteria are necessary to qualify as a National Environmental Protection Model City – a title given to cities to reward special efforts in the green sphere – and PM 2.5 measurement is among the requirements. 

Under these new standards, only 11 cities now qualify as model cities, vastly fewer than the 77 reported to have carried the title before the changes. They are: Wujiang, Liaocheng, Qingpu District of Shanghai, Linyi, Dongguan, Xuzhou, Yinchuan, Yichang, Linan, Huai’an and Foshan. Three more have undergone review and are in the process of being designated as model cities, while the remaining locations previously considered model cities are under review. 

The strengthening of air quality metrics suggests that the political tides surrounding pollutant data may be changing. When the MEP released draft amendments to its Air Pollution Index (API) in late February of this year, the inclusion of PM 2.5 was notably absent, despite the addition of ozone and a number of other considerable improvements.  

The omission was criticised as a political maneouvre rather than a decision stemming from a lack of technical capacity in Chinese cities to measure the pollutant. Ma Jun, who directs the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, told the Global Times, “Government agencies feel the [inclusion of PM 2.5 in the] index may hurt the image of many cities that want to attract investment or that they may not be able to improve PM 2.5 pollution in a short time.”  

Secret US diplomatic cables, released by Wikileaks, further corroborated such suspicions, reporting research by local scientists that revealed PM 2.5 levels five to 10 times higher than World Health Organisation guidelines was deemed “too sensitive” for authorities and therefore not systematically measured in major Chinese cities. But just months after the release of draft API revisions and the diplomatic cables, secretary Zhao has claimed that measurement of PM 2.5 is “technically no longer a problem”. So, how big a step is this?

The first thing to make clear is that Zhao was most likely referring to the question of technical capability to measure PM 2.5, and questions remain as to whether political sensitivities around environmental data still exist. The memory of a failed attempt to quantify economic losses attributable to environmental harms is still fresh in the MEP’s memory. In 2007, the conclusions of China’s “Green GDP” project met stiff resistance from provincial leaders who feared yet another performance metric, and the results of the report were never officially released. The then-State Environmental Protection Agency and National Bureau of Statistics were left quibbling over data and methodology – a testament to how contentious attributing numbers to pollution can be.  

However, recent signs that China is embracing a more transparent approach to its environmental challenges are evident. In early June, the MEP released a franker assessment of China’s environment than seen previously in the latest annual State of the Environment Report. Vice-minister Li Ganjie stated that while some aspects of the environment showed modest improvement, “the overall environmental situation is still very grave and is facing many difficulties and challenges”. Only 3.6% of the 471 cities monitored in the most recent report garnered top ratings for clean air. 

Deborah Seligsohn, principal advisor to the World Resources Institute’s Climate and Energy Program, has also noted a dramatic shift in language since the 1990s when the annual reports claimed that China’s environmental situation was “basically good” or, later, “basically unchanged”. Not until the State Environmental Protection Agency achieved ministerial status in 2007 did the reports become more critical, describing the environment as “not inspiring”.

Including the politically sensitive PM 2.5 in air-quality standards signals a push for greater transparency in China’s environmental governance. Over the course of a few months the MEP has already taken significant strides to improve air quality measurements and standards. This will bring China’s policies closer to international best practices for air quality monitoring.  

Piloting measurement in model cities makes political sense as a way of easing China into eventual binding PM 2.5 targets for all provinces – a mandate that will likely be included in the 13th Five-Year Plan. By first signaling that PM 2.5 is an aspiration for “model cities”, the government is taking an important step toward lessening political stigma surrounding the pollutant: instead of being punished, cities will be rewarded.

PM 2.5’s inclusion is also indicative of a broader trend: China’s transition to a political culture that is more open about environmental conditions. Importantly, if it continues, this openness will allow greater public access to data and information, in turn spurring better results for the environment.

Angel Hsu is a doctoral student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and project director for the 2012 Environmental Performance Index.

This piece was originally posted on the China Dialogue website on October 19th.

Posted in: Environmental Performance MeasurementEnergy & Climate
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
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The Nuclear Power Endgame in Germany

By Guest Author, Erin Burns Gill, MEM '12, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

In the second event of the webinar series Climate Change Solutions: Frontline Perspectives from Around the Globe, the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy welcomed Mr.  R. Andreas Kraemer, Director of Ecologic Institute, Berlin, to the stage to address the nuclear power phase out in Germany.  Speaking both to our international online audience and a live audience in Berlin, Mr. Kraemer offered a fascinating discussion on the true causes and triggers of Germany’s decision to cease production of electricity from nuclear power plants by 2022.

Though general perception (particularly outside of Germany) points toward the tragic catastrophe at Fukushima earlier this spring as the trigger for the dramatic shift, in truth, the nuclear endgame has been in play for years.  Economics, rather than emotions, underlie the decision.

The decision to phase out nuclear is significant. No exception to the trend among many industrialized nations, Germany deployed nuclear power plants in the 1950s as a safe and reliable source of electricity, as well as a way to try to redeem nuclear technology after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.  In 2010, nuclear provided 23 percent of Germany’s electricity.[1]  Phasing out this substantial industry will not be easy, but it does make sense.

The economics of nuclear are clear: Nuclear power is economically unsustainable without public subsidies. Private investment in the industry simply has not demonstrated willingness to pay for the associated risks.  At the same time, political and public dissatisfaction with nuclear has grown, matched by increasing support for renewable energy.

Mr. Kraemer explained how the successful deployment of renewable energy in Germany has shifted the way Germans envision electricity grids. Rather than maintaining a grid of large, centrally placed power plants, Germany seeks a smarter, more efficient grid fed by distributed generation supplemented by strategic and economical larger plants.  Widespread public support for renewable energy justified the creation of German policies that promote renewable energy. These policies ultimately jumpstarted Germany’s now self-sustaining renewable energy industries. In a climate constrained world, this robust and growing portfolio of renewable energy opens the door to phasing out nuclear.

A far cry from simply shutting down plants, the German government orchestrated a strategic, orderly phase-out of nuclear, working in collaboration with the nuclear industries to smooth the transition for the industry and the public. Essentially, the phase-out strategy allows nuclear plants to continue running through the end of their useful life, but there will be no investment in extending plant life and certainly no new nuclear.

Can the US catch up with Germany? Mr. Kraemer says “yes!” The US has plenty of energy from the sun and wind – more “energy potential,” in fact, than Germany. What’s missing is political will and, to some extent, maturity of the renewable energy industries. We need to learn from Germany’s experience. Looking at the economics (in which nuclear power has no self-sustaining business case) and the environmental and social risks associated with the technology, Mr. Kraemer’s proposition is that the United States (as well as the European Union and other global countries) should admit that our investment in nuclear power was a mistake and begin to phase it out in an orderly way.

You can hear Mr. Kraemer’s full discussion on the nuclear power endgame in Germany here.



[1]
Federal Statistical Office, Germany. “17% of Germany’s electricity consumption was met by renewable energy in 2010” Press release No. 144, April 11, 2011.

Posted in: Energy & Climate
Monday, October 17, 2011
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Why Environmentalists Can’t Ignore Development Economics, and Two Books to Get Us Started

By Guest Author, Ainsley Lloyd, MEM '12, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

Picture rural Ghana: Orange-brown yam fields with hand-piled dirtmounds stretch for miles in any direction, a silent testament to the fact that half the country’s population makes its living from agriculture. The farmers wait for rain; the yams need it – but for all of its life-giving properties, it complicates life when it comes, carving deep gullies into dirt roads and bringing anopheles mosquitoes and their bellyfuls of the malaria parasite, which kills nearly one million people annually.

The developing world is tightly intertwined with the environment. Indeed, the U.N. calls ecosystems “the GDP of the poor,” because of the dependence this portion of society has on the environment. Now consider just how many people this portion represents: more than half of the earth’s population earns less than $3,000 per year. 

With paved roads, financial metropoles and first-world medical care it’s easy to forget how visceral our connection to the environment is. But our task as environmentalists--understanding the complex relations between humans and the environment--cannot be accomplished without a close look at the developing world.


Though academic articles within the discipline can be daunting, two excellent, accessible books covering development economics research have been released this year. Written in a narrative style, Karlan and Appel’s More than Good Intentions and Banerjee and Duflo’s Poor Economics summarize key developments in the past decade. The authors are all involved in two cutting-edge development research organizations: Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) and The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). IPA and J-PAL have pioneered the use of randomized controlled trials, methodology borrowed from medical trials that has brought the rigor of hard science to development research.

Important reading for all environmentalists.

Posted in: Energy & Climate
Monday, October 10, 2011
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The Klamath River: How the 100-Year Old Crisis is Finally Coming to an End

By Guest Author, Laura Johnson, MESc '13, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

In a recent Yale Environment 360 video, photographer Pete McBride navigates the Colorado River from its source in the Rocky Mountains to its historic mouth in Mexico. It’s a sobering account. The Colorado River, Pete says, has become a “dry river cemetery.”

Over 20 dams were installed along the Colorado River to divert water for industrial, agricultural, and urban life. These ever-increasing demands exceed the river’s capacity, and droughts are spreading throughout the basin. Similar water management problems exist worldwide, but another example close to home is California’s Klamath River. Officials recently announced that four of the major dams along the Klamath will be removed in the coming years – and the situation there may offer some hope for the Colorado.

In 1909, developers installed the first of four major dams on the Klamath River as part of the PacifiCorp Klamath River Hydroelectric Project. The installation of these hydroelectric dams had a number of negative effects: Coho salmon and steelhead trout populations throughout the Klamath River Basin declined, migratory salmon were kept from reaching spawning grounds up river, and algal blooms developed behind the dams, creating an additional source of stress for fish populations.

Stakeholders – including Indian tribes, the US Department of Interior, farmers, environmental groups, and private citizens – called for improved management strategies and, in 2003, the National Research Council (NRC) released a set of recommendations for overhauling the Klamath River, including a call for dam removal. The NRC based its decisions on data and risk analyses, and provided stakeholders the indicators they needed to analyze potential effects of various water management strategies.

The inclusion of indicator data allowed stakeholders to come to an eventual agreement on how to best manage the Klamath River’s water resources; the various groups signed the Klamath Restoration Agreement and Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement in 2010 and are waiting approval from Congress. The dam-removal project is expected to begin in 2020, allowing PacifiCorp time to raise money for the project without increasing power rates to its customers.

The Klamath River Restoration Agreement offers a successful example of social learning through adaptive management and stakeholder involvement – and it underscores the importance of metrics and data in environmental decisionmaking.

For more information on the Klamath River restoration visit http://klamathrestoration.org/

Posted in: Environmental Performance MeasurementEnergy & Climate
Thursday, October 06, 2011
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Key Steps on Global Warming Agreed in Cancun… Now What?

By Guest Author, Jonathan Smith, Yale Law School, J.D. '12; Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, M.E.M. '12

The binding international greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets of the Kyoto Protocol are set to expire next year, but global greenhouse gas emissions show no signs of halting themselves.  All eyes are focused on this December’s Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban, South Africa to see how, if at all, the emissions reduction targets of Kyoto will be extended past 2012. The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy invited NRDC’s International Climate Policy Director, Jake Schmidt, to talk about recent developments in international climate negotiations, and what we can expect from Durban, as part of the Center’s new Climate Change Solutions: Frontline Perspectives from Around the Globe webinar series.

Jake’s presentation, entitled Key Steps on Global Warming Agreed in Cancun… Now What? (recording available here) focused on the major unresolved issues from last year’s conference in Cancun that are likely to be discussed and negotiated at Durban, including the transparency of each country’s emissions data, accountability of each country’s emissions reduction targets, and new funding pathways such as the Green Climate Fund. But of course, the elephant in the room is the conclusion of the Kyoto Protocol obligation period. With Kyoto as the ostensible driver of national greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitments the world over, significant changes to, or non-continuation of, Kyoto has the potential to throw a wrench in the best-laid plans of politicians, negotiators, and activists.

But, as Jake highlighted, many countries have recently been taking decisive emissions reduction action seemingly without direct relation to obligations under Kyoto. For example, neither of the top two emitting countries, China and the United States, has binding reduction targets under Kyoto, but both are nevertheless taking political action to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions. China is a party to Kyoto but not listed as an Annex I country, and thus has no binding emissions targets. Yet its most recent Five-Year Plan has made emissions reduction promises formed at the Copenhagen conference into binding domestic law, and Chinese investment in clean energy technologies continues to rise. The United States, which has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, is nevertheless also following through with policies to reduce emissions such as higher fuel efficiency standards and revising emission standards for power plants. The U.S.’s energy-related CO2 emissions have decreased since 2005, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that just with the policies of today, emissions will stay below 2005 levels until at least 2035.

Globally, clean energy investments increased 30% from 2009 to 2010, and 2010 was the first year that nearly half of new energy capacity was non-fossil in nature. It is statistics like these, and proactive national emissions reduction actions like those above, that provide glimmers of hope for climate policy post-Kyoto. As Jake notes, the question is no longer if countries will take action, but rather how much action will they take?

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Monday, October 03, 2011
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The Environmental Performance Index Enters the Next Generation

By Guest Author, Diana Connett, MEM '12, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

On September 26 and 27 experts from around the world gathered in New Haven to review the preliminary analysis on the 2012 Environmental Performance Index. Difficult questions about making data criteria more stringent, including time series analysis, and issues around aggregation were debated as investigators move the EPI into the next generation. As organizations and countries around the world construct environmental indicators and aggregate environmental data, the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy and Columbia’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network are continuing to innovate research and communication of policy-relevant environmental data at an international scale. Stay tuned for the release of the 2012 EPI in January 2012.

Related Links:
2010 Environmental Performance Index

Posted in: Environmental Performance Measurement

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