What's Up With the Rainforest: Are biofuels an ethical solution?

While scientists make strides in researching solutions towards a better future, we have become apathetic to our environmental crisis. Are we falling back on the idea that technology will save us? We need technology and innovation combined with the power of human action and devotion in order to win the fight for a sustainable, clean environment. This week the Rainforest Newsladder has brought to light both encouraging scientific advancements, as well as sobering truths about the way we see the world. Along with our partner Rainforest Alliance, we hope you become an active participant towards a brighter tomorrow. 

As we have seen in the past weeks, biofuels, especially palm oil, are being scrutinized for their negative environmental, economic and social effects. Our first group of stories looks into the new energy alternatives being studied to provide a solution that will be both beneficial to the environment and to our lifestyle. One option scientists are considering is using "biochar - charcoal created in an oxygen-free environment - to improve soil quality and sequester carbon". Still in the early stages of research, it is impossible to tell, with certainty, biochar's impact on the environment, but the lab results so far have been promising, suggesting that biochar would lead to less carbon in the atmosphere while also improving crops and soil fertility. 

Another possible solution could be growing right in your backyard, grass. The Carbon Trust has recently announced it will be working with the University of York to "research how using microwave technology could turn garden and wood waste into biofuel". According to the Carbon Trust, the environmental benefits could be substantial, with this new pyrolysis biofuel producing a carbon footprint that could save "95 per cent of carbon compared to fossil fuels". In relation, a new consortium of British businesses led by Axion Energy has been created in order to enhance existing technology to produce biofuels created from organic waste materials en masse, with hopes of having a pilot plant up and running by 2014. 

Although scientists continue to develop innovations and new strategies, the drive towards a sustainable future must be carried by all of us. Unfortunately, as indicated in this next article, environmental concerns are at a 20-year low in the US. An annual Gallup survey saw "record-low levels of concern in all but two if its categories - global warming and maintenance of fresh water supply". What caused the drop in numbers? Gallup speculates it could be "due in part to Americans' belief that environmental conditions in the U.S. are improving", as well as "greater public concern about economic issues, which is usually associated with a drop in environmental concern". This study reveals the "alarming disconnect from the problems that still face the planet", we don't live in a world where we can afford to ignore our environmental crisis, yet we continue to act that way. 

However, Daniel Janzen, pioneer biologist, reminds us how hard it is for the youngest generation to not be apathetic about what the world now looks like, because "they don't have any idea of what they...could be seeing, or what they could have in their backyard". That combined with the digital age means the only kind of biodiversity they become exposed to is through their laptop or television screen. But Janzen has an idea on how to instill a new perspective - through a DNA barcoder that fits in your back pocket and would allow you to identify "anything, anywhere, anytime". Janzen hopes that "if people can 'read' biodiversity, they will then find it much more valuable to be interested in". 

The environment and climate change can be a complicated web to understand, but becoming informed on the issues that face our planet today, each of us can become a passionate advocate for a better world. Start your journey by checking out the Rainforest Newsladder to discover the top stories happening around the globe, and then connect with other concerned citizens to continue the conversation by visiting our Facebook page.

Weekly Mulch: What's Missing from the New Clean Energy Agenda?

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

Nuclear power, biofuels, clean coal: These are the Obama administration’s answers to climate change. The 2011 budget, released this week, promised new loans for the construction of nuclear power plants, and on Wednesday the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), White House, and other departments detailed steps to encourage ethanol and clean coal production.

These initiatives may garner support from conservatives, but their ascendancy comes at a price. Support for renewable fuel sources, like wind and solar, has dwindled. President Barack Obama did encourage Senate Democrats to pass a climate change bill, but some moderates are bucking the cap-and-trade provisions that could tamp down carbon emissions. Those moderates are pushing for legislation that leaves carbon caps out entirely.

It hasn’t been a good week for climate advocates. On top of the Obama administration’s overtures to crusty, old energy industries, Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has had to fend off pressure to resign. The IPCC published a report with a badly sourced fact about the rate at which Himalayan glaciers are melting, and when scientists pointed out the error, Pachauri would not cop to the mistake. (If you missed the beginning of this to-do, Mother Jones‘ Kate Sheppard covered the controversy back in January.)

Given this country’s weak efforts to tamp down carbon emissions, though, perhaps the IPCC’s prediction that those glaciers likely will disappeared by 2035 will turn out to be accurate.

New nuclear plants—but at what cost?

Obama’s budget, as Sheppard reports at Mother Jones, is upping funding for nuclear plant development, even though previous nuclear projects have run wildly over budget. The president has always supported increased nuclear production. As an Illinois Senator, Obama had Exelon Corporation, the country’s largest nuclear operator, in his constituency. The company continued to support him as a presidential candidate. The proposed funding runs in the neighborhood of $54.5 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear projects. That’s good news for an industry that’s in need of cash. As Sheppard explains, without governmental backing, these plants would have little chance of being built.

Even as public opinion toward nuclear power has warmed, projected construction costs for new plants have soared, with a single reactor now estimated to cost as much as $12 billion,” she writes. “In fact, the outlook for nuclear plants looks so dire that even Wall Street banks have balked at financing them unless the government underwrites the deal.”

The Obama administration is also backing research into nuclear waste disposal, a prerequisite for nuclear expansion. No matter how “green” nuclear energy production might be, so far there’s no safe, sustainable way to deal with its by-products. Finding a long-term solution for nuclear waste disposal will not come cheaply.

Biofuels move us backwards

The administration’s support for biofuels was bigger slap in the face to environmentalists, though. Just a few years ago, ethanol made from corn or switchgrass ranked high on the list of renewable fuels that could spring America from its Middle East oil addiction. In practice, however, biofuels have proven more environmentally destructive and less efficient than advocates had hoped. With farmers in the Midwest knee-deep in corn marked for ethanol production, though, backing away from biofuels is politically dicey.

The consequences are more than political, however. At Grist, Tom Philpott argues that support for biofuels will ultimately drive global carbon emission up, rather than down.

“As ethanol factories continue sucking in more and more corn, plantation owners in places like Brazil and Argentina will put more grassland and even rainforest under the plow to make up for the shortfall, resulting in huge carbon emissions,” Philpott writes. “That dire effect of our ethanol program, known as indirect land-use change, likely nullifies any scant climate benefits from ethanol.”

It’s not just corn and switchgrass that pose a problem, either. As Gina Marie Cheeseman reports at Care2, algae farms, another potential source of biofuel, face their own challenges. Algae demands high energy input and could release more carbon dioxide emissions that it would save, according to a new report from the University of Virginia.

There’s more research to be done before writing algae energy production off, however. In January, the Department of Energy said it would sink $44 million into work on algae pools. Industry players like ExxonMobile are also underwriting research on the subject, Cheeseman writes.

No room for innovation

Moving towards energy sources like nuclear power and ethanol does take the country a step closer to responsible energy production. But right now, the Obama administration is not leaving room for new or ambitious ideas that could do more. Wind and solar, which would form the best foundation for a sustainable energy future, have few advocates in Congress. They also seem to have no role in the near-term energy plan.

Ethanol was the Midwest’s first green industry, for instance, but there are other possibilities for juicing up the region’s clean energy production. In The Nation, Lisa Margonelli lays out the case for “gray power,” which is recycled energy produced by the old, dirty smokestacks that ring cities like Cleveland.

In this vision, twentieth century industry can produce twenty-first century energy. Waste energy, Margonelli argues,  “can be profitably “recycled” onto the grid to create power as clean as that from solar and wind but far cheaper.”

“In fact, energy now lost as steam and gases by the region’s manufacturing plants, as well as municipal and agricultural waste, could create as much energy as sixty-nine nuclear power plants, according to figures commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency,” she says. “This power could strengthen the region’s electrical grid and preserve jobs by making local manufacturing plants more economically stable, while making the region a leader in greener technology.”

A project like Margonelli imagines, however, would require significant commitment and vision from the federal government, both of which are lacking right now.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.


Progressive Democrat Newsletter Issue 202

I am continuing to discuss Bank of America. Have to say that now I have been hit by a frivolous fee from BoA on a credit card that I am paying off the balance on. Only bank I know that STILL charges you even when you pay off the full balance. I have stopped using my BoA credit cards and am using my Discover Card and USAA card. As far as I can tell they are better than Bank of America or Citibank, another lousy bank according to Co-op America's Responsible shopper site. I also received an email from a reader who also had a bad customer service experience with Bank of America. This is not surprising because Bank of America is the bank that receives the most complaints from customers, according to the Office of Comptroller of the Currency. To remind you, here is the list of complaints:

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Vilsack confirmation hearing linkfest

Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack appears to be on track for unanimous confirmation by the Senate as Secretary of Agriculture in Barack Obama's cabinet. At his confirmation hearing yesterday, Republicans didn't ask hostile questions, and Vilsack didn't have to explain away any embarrassing behavior like Treasury Secretary-nominee Timothy Geithner's failure to fully meet his tax obligations over a period of years.

Despite the lack of drama, Vilsack made a number of noteworthy comments during the hearing. Join me after the jump for some highlights and analysis.

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My Hair; His Energy Policy

Bush Oil Dancing!

copyright © 2008 Betsy L. Angert.  BeThink.org

"Drill baby, drill," is the now ever-present and popular battle-cry for many Americans.  From Presidential candidates to everyday people, those who wish to consume sweet light crude as they have for a more than a century remind me of my hair, and the current President's energy policy.  I ponder the parallels and invite you to consider . . .

During a recent press conference, as I gazed upon the President of the United States, noticeably aged after years in the Oval Office, I thought of my hair and my history.  His wavy gray locks are not as the strands that fall from my head.  Nor did the diminutive curl that danced on his brow remind me of my own tresses.  The style the Chief Executive donned did not resemble the permanent waves, pompadours, or ponytails I once wore.  As George W. Bush spoke of his energy policy, I pondered.  His approach to petroleum and power were as the methodology I embraced when I colored my hair.

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