Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Is an electric car really better for the environment?

The Question

A family member recently asked me this...

"I read that hybrid cars are not environmentally friendly because they use rare minerals (from China) that destroy the land as they are mined.  Also, the battery does not last long so when it is tossed, it also pollutes the soil. Regular petrol cars have improved in mileage and pollutants and are pretty much environmentally safe."

She also forwarded an article from The Economist that reviews a published paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focusing on the number of lives lost from air pollution over the life cycle of various cars. 


The Short Answer

Electric cars are better for the environment. 

The Long Answer

I recently attended a lecture at the Commonwealth Club. One of the guest speakers was Dr. Mark Jacobson, a professor of environmental engineering at Stanford. He had three points about the current state of things. 

1. Electricity is more efficient than gasoline. In an electric car, 80% of the energy is used to propel the car forward and 20% is lost to waste heat. In a conventional car, 20% is used to propel the car and 80% is lost to heat. 

2. Mining for oil is indefinite. Mining for rare minerals is not. Mining for minerals is "orders of magnitude better for the environment" than mining for fossil fuels. 

3. Given the current energy mix, air pollution from conventional cars leads to significantly more deaths (more on this topic a bit later). And those deaths disproportionately affect the poor.  

He also had a few things to say about the likely future state of things.

1. Scientists are currently studying how to efficiently recover rare minerals from recycled consumer products. In the future, it is possible that the majority of rare minerals will come from existing stock, not mining. 

2. Electric cars can support a smarter, more flexible energy grid by using their batteries to store up energy in off-peak times.

3. Renewable energy (wind, water, solar, etc) is getting cheaper and more efficient every year. 

Now let's tackle that article from The Economist....

First off, the article grossly misinterprets the findings from the scientific paper. In the paper, the authors state that they ran a variety of simulations to see which scenarios were better or worse in terms of the number of deaths caused from air pollution. For example, in scenario A all cars were conventional. In scenario B all cars were electric cars, where the electricity came from coal power plants. In scenario C all cars were electric and the electricity came from solar and wind. And so on for 11 different scenarios. In the scenario where all cars are electric and the electricity comes from coal power plants, there were more deaths than the scenario with conventional cars. 

But the current mix of energy is nowhere near 100% coal. In fact, coal has been declining as a source of energy over the last few decades in the United States (currently it is near 30% of the mix). The authors are very upfront about the fact that their assumptions have obvious limitations. They realized that they could not predict what the energy mix will be years into the future, so they had to create baselines. 

Let's be clear that I am not blaming the scientists who wrote that paper. I think that their underlying methodology was clearly explained, along with the pros and cons. The fault lies with The Economist. The newspaper used a provocative title to draw in readers, but waited until the very last paragraph to discuss where the energy comes from. 

Just to reiterate, given current trends, the most likely scenario is where electricity comes from sources other than coal. Under those conditions, the scientific paper states that electric cars will save vastly many more lives. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Environmentally friendly options for outdoor plants

A while back I did a post on household plants that filter indoor air pollution. I selected those that, in my experience, were hardy and could do well if neglected (I also had a special subset that were non-toxic, and thus safe for homes with cats and dogs). You can check out the post here.

Today, I'm looking at outdoor plants. Like most city dwellers, I do not have a lot of room (or time) for outdoor plants. Also, I am not a very good gardener (Okay, fine, I'm a terrible gardener). But I do have a little balcony, and I would like to look out from time to time and see some nice flowers or something. For my situation, I'm looking for plants that are 1) pretty, 2) drought tolerant (i.e., low maintenance), 3) well suited for containers, and 4) native and/or beneficial to local butterflies and bees.

Thankfully, my sister is an amazing gardener. And trained horticulturalist. And specializes in natives and xeriscaping (drought tolerant landscaping). And, did I mention, amazing? Anyway, her main advice is to buy organic plants and potting soil. Too often the plants and soil is laced with pesticides that hurt bees and butterflies.

Here are the plants that even I can't kill. Not all of them are native, but none are invasive and they otherwise meet the conditions of growing well in pots, being drought tolerant, and providing food for butterflies and bees.

Top left: nasturtium; top right: cape honeysuckle; bottom left: sage; bottom right: California poppy and cacti; middle: lavender.

Here's a great resource I found while researching the topic.


Comedy Saves the Earth

I don't know where I first read it, but I believed it then and I believe it now. One of the best ways to fight ignorance, especially embattled ignorance, is through comedy. There is no rational way to persuade people who do not believe in science or empirical evidence. So, instead of pursuing a logical path, you have to find a way around it.

Comedy is one of those ways (narrative is another way, but that is a topic for another day). By using jokes, you can break the ice, catch the other person off guard, and stick something in his or her brain that will last a lot longer than an impersonal and disregarded fact.

Here is my small collection of ammunition, to which I hope to add more as time goes on.

1. Obama talking about climate change with help from his "anger translator".


2. Daily Show's John Oliver on the real global warming debate. God bless Bill Nye!


3. Sierra Club's Eco-Comedy Video Competition Winners -- This one is from 2013 on plastic bags. Hilarious!


4. Bikini's as proof of global warming

Should I upgrade to LED bulbs?

The Question

A family member recently asked for my opinion about an article from Wired that urges readers to go out and buy new Philips LED bulbs (the subtitle is "Officially too cheap to ignore"). 


The Answer

You absolutely can if you want to. There is no downside to doing it (excepting figuring out the best way to dispose of the old bulbs). However, the upside is probably smaller than you imagine. My advice would be to buy new LED bulbs as your old bulbs burn out. Prices will keep going down, so there is no need to rush out and buy them now (plus, newer models of LED bulbs are getting better for enclosed and recessed lighting fixtures). 

The average home uses 5-10% of their energy on lighting. Unless you have a large number of bulbs that you are using very, very frequently, I would not expect any noticeable savings on the energy bill. 

Much more of your overall energy use comes from heating (anywhere from 35 to 50% from the estimates I've read, see graphic below). It would be much better to focus on more efficient ways of heating a room than to focus on lighting. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

What's up with the "Dirty Dozen"?

The Question

Recently a friend asked for my opinion of an article out of Life Hacker (see link below). The author recommends that people not buy organic produce based on the "Dirty Dozen" list produced by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The article has 3 main points.

1. Organic produce still has pesticides on it.

2. The methodology is inherently flawed because the dirty dozen is based on ranking rather than absolute amounts of pesticides. As an example, the author states, "if farmers increased their pesticide use by a million times overnight, or if they abandoned pesticides in droves, next year's list wouldn't reflect the change in your actual risk."

3. The current amount of pesticides on most foods is already below the level that the USDA considers to be safe. 


The Answer

1. True, organic produce can have pesticides. Organic farmers are legally allowed to use certain pesticides. However, I am not concerned by that. Here's why.

USDA certified organic is like the lowest common denominator -- it is merely a standard that people could agree to. Many think it is too lax and some think it is too strict. But I would be willing to bet money that the certified-organic farmer at the local farmers' market in California is using much less pesticide than the limit allowed under the certification standards. (If you are buying your organic produce from a huge corporate giant, then I might worry.)

2. True, but that's the point. If consumers drive down the total amount of pesticides being used, that would be fantastic!

The dirty dozen just gives people something to focus on if the goal of going totally organic seems overwhelming.

3. Not true. 

I have read too many cases where the USDA or some similar agency declares that something is safe, only to be proven wrong later. And I'm not talking about edge cases, complex interactions, or other "gotchas". The process by which the federal government determines whether a new chemical is safe for public consumption is inherently flawed.

But here's the real problem....

The EWG provides a wonderful service to people. The database that they have put together is a truly amazing resource. But it is just that, a resource. It is not a definitive guide. It can not tell you what you should and should not do. Only you can determine that for yourself.

At the end of the day, the EWG needs to drive people to their website to justify their continued existence. Sometimes they use fear mongering to generate views. That's what bothers me most about EWG. Their messages should be about empowerment, not fear. There is no such thing as zero risk, so let's stop pretending we can get there. We need to view things holistically and figure out where we can reduce the most amount of risk.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Do this, not that! The water dilemma

Question # 1

A friend recently asked if it's better to waste a cup or use the water to clean a reusable thermos every day. We are in California, which is experiencing an extreme drought, so conserving water is top of mind for all of us.


Technically, yes, using a disposable paper cup uses less water than washing a thermos, but only at an extremely local level. If you look at the larger picture, it takes a half gallon of water to make the cup (plus more water to make the sleeve and the lid). Let's just round off the numbers and say it takes about 1 gallon of water for your average starbucks cup.

By comparison, washing the thermos by hand should use less than 2 cups of water (let's estimate it at 1 cup of hot water for soaping and 1 cup for rinsing) or about 1/8th of a gallon.

What if you use a dishwasher? Modern dishwashers use about 4 gallons per load (older models use about 6 gallons) and can fit anywhere from 30 to 50 items (not including utensils). Even using the more conservative numbers, if you only run the dishwasher when you have a full load (and I know you do!) that's about 1/5th of a gallon per item (30 items per 6 gallons is 5 items per gallon, so 1/5th gallon per item).

Still way less than the paper cup!!

Of course, there are many, many more reasons not to use a paper cup. They use huge amounts of petroleum to make, they are covered in plastic to make them waterproof, they can't be recycled and there are potential issues with composting them. But here is one new reason I came across when researching this article.

Every time you use a paper cup you are supporting the Koch brothers.

Holy crap! That's a shocker, right?! The Koch brothers, the billionares that fund the extreme wing of the Republican Party, aren't just in the oil business. They have an entire empire of evil including oil, chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, mining, and, yes that's right, paper products. Their subsidary, Georgia-Pacific, makes cups, plates, napkins, towerls, and toilet paper. Support democracy and forgo the paper cup!

Question # 2

This spawned a related question: How many gallons of water does it take to make a paper diaper versus wash a cloth diaper?


Okay, so this is a trickier question. In the first analysis, we basically ignored the amount of water used to create the reusable thermos because the average person only needs one thermos over the course of his or her lifetime. This means that the environmental costs of the mug are amortized out to nearly nothing.

Things are a little different with diapers. For cloth diapers you might need 5 in a day (so maybe 40 total diapers to get you through the week till you have enough for a load of laundry) and will only use them for 2 or 3 years. In this case, it might make sense to include the water used to make the cloth as part of the analysis. If you threw away the diapers after your toddler is potty trained, then cloth diapers actually use more water.

But let's assume that you plan to use the same cloth diapers on the next child and then after that as rags for cleaning around the house. This allows us to disregard the amount of water used in growing and manufacturing cotton (which is actually a darn lot of water!). Now we are left only with the amount of water used to clean the diaper. The average washing machine uses 40 gallons per load (15 gallons if you use a high efficiency, front loading washer). Let's also assume that you fit all 40 diapers in to that one load -- that's about 1 gallon per diaper.

How about the disposable diaper? I found a UK study that calculated the total amount of water used to manufacture all the diapers a child needs (4,200 diapers assuming 2.5 years and 4.6 changes per day). Its about 34,000 kilograms, so that works out to about 2 gallons per disposable diaper.

Based on these assumptions, the cloth diaper wins!

Of course, there are a number of other reasons to use cloth diapers. Disposable diapers are made with tons of nasty chemicals, use non-renewable resources (we're looking at you, petroleum!), and so on.

Beyond just the absolute amounts of water or energy or chemicals, I'd like to make a pitch for reusable products. Forgoing disposables makes us think more about the consumer products we buy: how long they'll last and what we'll do with them when they're no longer of use to us. It's a fundamentally different frame of mind that I think is better for our health and for the environment. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Changing how we talk about the Earth

Lately I've been thinking about mental frames. Frames are powerful tools for persuasion that work at a nearly subconscious level. We use frames every day, often without thinking about it.

What is framing?

To briefly illustrate how framing works, I'll summarize a clever study done by two researchers from Stanford (see endote for citation). 

Two groups of students each read a fictitious news article about crime. In one version, the article refers to crime as an infection; in the other, crime is a wild animal. In all other ways, the two articles are otherwise identical. After reading the article, the students are asked what they think should be done to prevent crime. 

Students who had read about crime as a "beast preying on the city" thought that there should be more enforcement. Students who read about crime as a "virus infecting the city" thought more should be done about social reform. When asked to identify what in the article had influenced their thinking, most students pointed to the stats in the article, not the metaphor. 
So what do frames have to do with environmentalism?

Lately, I've wondered if we are framing our relationship to Earth in the wrong way. We always say "Mother Earth". But, at least in the United States, you do not take care of your mother. You respect your mother, but your mother is not your responsibility in the same way your child is your responsibility. 

The connotation of mother brings along other images besides one of respect. For example, I associate my mother with caring for me and for punishing me when I've been naughty. Let's explore those two frames a little more. 

The "caring mother" frame is pretty obvious to identify in mainstream media-- take, for example, movies like Avatar. Interestingly enough, the "punishing mother" frame is ALSO frequently reflected in the general media. For example, apocalytpic movies like The Day After Tomorrow show Mother Earth as finally reaching the breaking point and giving us a really bad spanking. Alternatively, Mother Earth can ground us (sending us to bed without dinner, not letting us watch TV, etc) by turning into a post-apocalytpic world wherein our old standards of living can not be met. We see examples of this type of "punishing mother" frame in movies like Water World or Wall-E. 

What I am wondering is if maybe there is a better frame for Earth. What if we thought about the Earth as our BABY? If the Earth was our child, it would be our responsibility to care for it. It would also bring up feelings and images of parental love. These sorts of feelings, I believe, are often associated with campaigns protecting charistmatic mega-fauna. That these campaigns have worked well would suggest that we should capitalize on this framing. 

Seems like an idea at least worthy of a little more exploration. Your thoughts?

Thibodeau & Boroditsky (2011). Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS One 6(2).