'I've been working on the turbine, all the live-long day ...'

A study that came out of Germany this week theorized that investments in renewable energy could pump as much as 600 billion euros into the European Union’s economies. The study, by Germany’s Institute for Climate Impact Research, forecasts a construction boom as owners retrofit homes and businesses to cut their energy costs, and as electrical utilities upgrade their existing grids into efficient “smart” grids.
So naturally, that made me think of railroads. Let me explain how the playpen of free association in my mind arrived at that comparison.
The railroads were the first quantum leap from colonial to modern America. Pre-railroad, the U.S. population huddled around harbors and rivers and lakes because they were the best means of transporting goods over long distances. Most of the American interior might as well have been Venus for all the good it was doing us. The massive agricultural plains of the Midwest were so far from major markets that it didn’t make economic sense to cultivate them on a large scale. There was no way to get the product to market. Then along came the railroads, and all of a sudden those empty acres in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas et al were a treasure trove. The railroads sparked one of the greatest economic expansions in history. As historian Chris Butler puts it on his site “The Flow of History,” “By 1900, railroads had virtually revolutionized overland transportation and travel, pulling whole continents tightly together (both economically and politically), helping create a higher standard of living, the modern consumer society, and a proliferation of new technologies. Although airplanes and automobiles would continue this revolution, it was the railroad that paved the way.”
The U.S. government subsidized railroad growth with land grants and military protection. It could have the same role in developing the renewable energy economy. Today, Congress and the White House are debating how much to support renewable energy economy’s development. President Obama put $16.8 billion for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development into the 2008 recovery act. Deficit-conscious legislators in the House of Representatives want to scale that back.
The question is whether federal renewable energy spending is a drag on the economy (through deficits) or a growth path, as the German study suggests. The study’s author, Carlo Jaeger, doesn’t mince words.
“What we are showing here is that by credibly engaging in the transition to a low-carbon economy through the adoption of an ambitious target and adequate policies, Europe will find itself in a win-win situation of increasing economic growth while reducing greenhouse gases,” he writes.
What do you think? Is clean energy investment the next railroad, or interstate highway system, or Internet? Or is it just another debt to be paid off by the next generation?

One person will die today because of climate change

Climate change could wipe us out someday. That’s the story line, yet it doesn’t seem to be resonating on a broad scale. The truth is climate change is already killing us – if by us you mean humans on this planet.

According to a new report,

  • 350,000 individuals die every year as a result of climate change we’ve already experienced;
  • More than 99 percent of the mortality is occurring in developing countries;
  • 5 million will die over the next 10 years if we don’t change;
  • Nearly 1 million will die every year starting in 2030 if action isn’t taken; and
  • Climate change drains $150 billion from the global economy every year.
The report, by DARA and the Climate Vulnerable Forum, reflects death due to climate-related diseases and weather disasters; loss of habitat due to rising seas and desertification; and economic stress, including loss of natural resources.
How you receive these stats depends heavily on what you believed about climate change prior to reading this post. But even if you’ve bought in to the idea that climate change is occurring and is perilous, big numbers have a way of overshooting emotions.
The truth is we care more about individual suffering than group suffering. It’s human nature. That’s because of the way people regulate their emotions, according to another new study, out of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming,” the authors write. “As a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion.”
So when you read the stats, don’t picture 350,000 people dying. That’s a data point. Picture the suffering of just one person – say, an infant – starving to death because the local farmland has dried into a brick.

Insulating against revolution?

This blog post is from our colleague, Ed Marshall

insulated coolerIn New England where I'm writing this, insulation is typically thought of as a way to keep the cold out and heating costs down. In hot climates, however, it's a way to keep the air conditioned cold in and the hot out. Think of your beach cooler keeping the ice from melting and, in turn, your beer cold. Same concept.

A recent Reuters story notes that the Saudi government is undertaking an ambitious program to cut energy use by some 40 percent, “largely by enforcing investment in insulation”. So, why the Saudi push to insulate? They need the money - specifically, the money made selling oil. The Reuters story quotes a Saudi official noting that 70-80 percent of their energy use goes to air conditioning and they use oil to generate the majority of their electricity. With a growing population and an extreme dependence on fossil fuels to subsidize the amenities of a comfortable life (cheap electricity, plentiful food, cars, roads, etc), the Saudis are staring at a classic export land problem.

Almost half of Saudi Arabia's GDP is directly related to oil exports. Some 75 percent of its government revenue comes from the oil industry. The more oil the Saudis use, the less is available for export, even as production from their aging oil fields slowly declines. The reduction in exports helps push up prices on the open market, increasing cash flow which encourages domestic economic growth and energy use. Eventually, this domestic demand increases enough to materially reduce revenue from oil exports, squeezing subsidies that support things like cheap and plentiful food and fuel. Exposing the national population to unsubsidized prices is politically perilous. Hello Cairo.

Saudi marketIran is caught in a similar rock-and-a-hard-place bind. Indonesia dropped out of OPEC in 2008 when declining production and increasing consumption pushed it from being a net exporter to net importer of petroleum.
 
So, what does the export land issue mean to us, the oil importers? We don't generate much electricity in the United States with oil these days, but it certainly is vital to our transportation system. Whether by car, truck, train or plane, our consumer lifestyle is powered by petroleum. Gasoline, diesel and kerosene move everything from people, food and building materials to toys, toothpaste and auto parts. As oil prices rise, transportation costs increase, putting a drag on an already weak recovery. Hard to insulate our way out of that.

Unnatural resources: a reindeer case study

St. Matthew IslandAccording to the World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet Report, we're currently consuming 50% more natural resources than the earth can sustain, which means we'll require the resources of at least two whole earths by 2030 to avoid humanity's version of bee colony collapse.  

Chicken Little hyperbole? Perhaps.

But Aussie cartoonist Stuart McMillen provokes chilling thought on the matter when he asks and illustrates "What happens when you introduce a couple dozen or so reindeer to an isolated island of untouched natural resources?"

Football, Fritos and the killer analogy

 
If you’ve got good stats to back up the value of your clean technology product, congratulations.
 
Quantifying the benefits your product delivers – e.g., pollution reduced, revenue generated, costs lowered, or time saved – can make a big difference to the communities you are trying to engage. Great stats, however, only work when the context is clear. How much is, say, 37 percent? 10 tons? A nanoliter? Compared to what?
 
To deliver that context and drive home the impact of your numbers, try drawing a simple, concrete analogy. That’s exactly what Reno Contracting of San Diego did a couple of weeks ago with a news release that began…
 
Reno Contracting has recycled more than 60,000 tons of waste from construction projects since the beginning of 2009, accounting for an average 72% of construction debris diverted from going to a landfill.
 
Great stats, but did they not get a lot better when the analogy kicked in?
 
This amount is the equivalent of three football fields, each 100 feet deep.
 
… and when the analogy was reinforced by this simple graphic?
 
 
 
 
 
While 60,000 tons of waste and 72 percent diversion are impressive, they operate on the cerebral level. Football field imagery, coming in the heat of playoffs for the country’s most popular sport, adds emotional impact.
 
So valuable is emotion that we’re in New England blogging about a West coast construction firm after seeing news that somehow caught the eye of Inhabitat, which gets 100,000 readers a day. Although I have no way of proving it, I think the football fields comparison made all the difference between obscurity and publication by one of the world’s premier green blogs. Okay, two, including us ;).
 
Ten days later, the Boston Globe rolled out three tangible comparisons in a front page story about coins that went missing in an armored car transfer. The coins weigh 4,317 pounds, equivalent to an average hippopotamus. Stacked, they’d be three times taller than the city’s iconic Hancock Tower. And, in case you hadn’t heard about the NFL championship tournament, the coins weigh more than the starting linemen of the two Super Bowl teams. There were graphics for all three of these analogies. Pounds are abstract. Analogies deliver emotional, or at least sensory, impact.
A client of ours offers up high-impact comparisons like these through their software. The product’s main function is performing forward-looking environmental impact assessments on manufactured goods while they’re still in the design stage. The software measures carbon, energy, air and water impacts of a design, not only in the straight-up metrics you’d expect, but also in their layman’s equivalents, such as:
 
Energy consumption – hours of TV watching, light bulb burning, laptop operation
 
Carbon production – miles driven (European car, American car, hybrid)
 
Air impact – liters of sulfuric acid created, Kg of corn grain produced in the USA, and (my favorite) bags of corn chips produced
 
Water impact – Deep ponds depleted, shallow ponds depleted, Kg of corn grain produced in the US.
 
Take your pick. If you can say your clean technology product can do the equivalent of taking 10,000 cars off the road, unscrewing 30,000 light bulbs and preventing 50,000 ponds from drying up, people will listen.
 
What other effective comparisons have you seen?

 

 

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