Saturday, May 31, 2008

The quest for ecological efficiency in food (redux)

Photo of Braeburn the barrow, a fine hard-working woodland pig we had, who fed a lot of folks a few years ago

"So, operationally, all effectively renewable energy on planet earth comes from sunlight. So we need an agriculture sponsored energetically from sunlight, in which fossil fuels are a minor input, or no input at all."

That's what I said a few weeks ago. The relevant experiment I was working on is the smallholding/homestead that Aimee and I have in Jackson, Maine. Now that spring is almost over and we are running primarily on on-farm sunlight, it's time for an update on our efforts to reduce fossil energy inputs to our many and various food-growing projects.

The sheep are currently kept very busy making a living from several small rotational grazings, but their main job is keeping three acres of lightly wooded pasture well-grazed. I fenced this in early spring, not without bloodshed, since I got bit by hundreds of blackflies and quite a bit of fence wire for my trouble. Four sheep per acre of productive pasture is the rule in Maine, and we have 12 on three, just right, but currently this particular land is scrawny, not having yet had the full "treatment." The system we worked out last year includes logging off all the saplings and many of the larger trees for firewood, leaving only the best forestry and conservation trees widely spread, to let on lots of sun, but also provide shade so it doesn't get dry, then scarifying with the York rake and spreading timothy and red clover seed. The tree stumps coppice, but the sheep make short work of the sprouts. There's a total of another acre of lush grass regularly grazed right now on which we use portable electric fence, and several more acres of varying quality available if we need it.

Three scrawny acres and one satisfactory one, is how I would summarize the land we actually use so far, out of our 15 1/2 available acres. The bottleneck in using more is twofold: if we are to utilize it, we need more animals to graze it, and more fence to keep them in. Both are expensive. We would also prefer not to keep too many more critters through the winter. The sheep herd will grow naturally over the years, and we can add to fence as we have dollars available. We have hoped for a couple small work ponies to aid in getting the firewood and a few sawlogs out of the woods. Fjords are the breed we want, because if we got a mare, the foals might be sold on at a good price, and they can handle our terrain and the small to medium size of our trees well.

Ewes with lambs to nurse need a little grain if they to be on such scrawny pickings. They now get oats, which come from from Aroostook County, as their main grain, reducing the embodied fossil energy in their feed. This is the big new thing, an experiment. They still need a little mixed feed, for Selenium, without which sheep get white muscle disease. But the oats replace 60-80% of the expensive bagged, mixed grain, and the cost savings is quite large. A bag of "Coarse 16" mix for sheep from Blue Seal feeds, their previous ration, is about 12 dollars for 50 pounds, or 24 cents a pound, while the oats are 10.9 cents a pound. In summer, with the switch to oats, it takes about 60 cents a day to keep our sheep.

The last of the mixed feed will soon be gone, at which point we'll shift to 100% oats and a protein/mineral block. The protein block is for selenium and trace minerals in the absence of the formulated bagged feed. We can reduce their oat ration yet further this summer when the smallest lamb is large enough to be weaned. Until the mid fall, this will be the picture: a little oats for energy and protein, with most, 90-95% by weight, of their feed coming from the land. A little boost of grain in tupping season, then we will switch to local hay with oats for energy and winter maintenance until the ewes start to grow new lambs in January.

Next, the poultry: The chickens are earning 90-95% of their living from bugs and small plants they peck at while roaming free for the daytime hours. They needed a little calcium supplement to their diet -- the eggshells were very thin, and so we added some calcium. They still get a little free choice bagged feed, but they eat very little of this, preferring to clean up after the sheep and pigs. The chickens are thus currently very sustainable in terms of fossil versus sunlight energy input. The four baby chicks get formula. We can't take chances with such young animals. But they're still so tiny, they don't each much, and they were just shifted to the chicken tractor yesterday, in which device they will learn to eat grass.

Now for swine: The pigs are still young, and so for good growth and until their gut develops the power and performance of a full-grown pig gut -- which is a truly powerful thing -- we have to be careful. But they'll eat the oats from Aroostook too. Pigs need 15-16% protein, and so the oats at 13% or so are not a strong feed. We have some cornmeal and cracked corn to experiment with, but that's not strong either, although it is a complementary protein, and so we will be are looking to get some local soybean meal or soybean pellets too for this purpose, but the current notion I have is to put a half ration of their remaining bagged, mixed feed on the bottom of their communal feed pan each feeding, and add free choice oats, as much as they will eat, on top, and see how they do until the mixed feed is gone, then switch to our own blend of soy, corn and oats, using the soy and the oats as the mainstay. They also get regular fork-loads of manure from the sheep's winter bedding, in which they love to root for tasty piglet morsels. Yum. Eventually, when they get a little bigger, they'll be put in a pen with tons of this stuff to go through, which they'll help break down and enrich for garden compost. They also get all the garden and kitchen waste. Running the waste through the pigs reduces the attraction for a bear, coyote, raccoon or other predator, which are a threat to the chicks, chickens and lambs.

In general, our Aroostook oat experiment will be ongoing all summer. We've already reduced our expenses for bagged mixed feed considerably, and replaced about 60-70% of the imported feed with locally produced feeds. The trick will be to find the mix that keeps everyone healthy and the meat animals (the three wethers and the two piglets) growing steadily.

We'll be monitoring this all very carefully.

We do this kind of experiment all the time, either formally or informally. Aimee makes fairly detailed lab notes of her work with plants. I tend to prefer the old mechanics approach of trail and error, and the nostrum, "if it ain't broke don't fix it."

I don't keep notes, unless I write them up like this. May be I should. Aimee is a much better scientist than I am though.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Parry et al try to get us square with reality

This is a good summary of the current climate risks. The graphical approach, I believe borrowed from the Stern Review, is very useful.

Squaring up to reality

Martin Parry, Jean Palutikof, Clair Hanson & Jason Lowe

Both emissions reduction and adaptation will need to be much stronger than currently planned if dangerous global impacts of climate change are to be avoided. June's UN talks in Bonn and July's G8 summit present opportunities for world leaders to face this challenge.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Cranberry Crossing

George Callas (of Newforest Institute) and I went to the Cranberry Isles yesterday to consult with the Cranberry Isles Sustainability Initiative, a group of concerned citizens worried about energy independence and climate change. The height of land on Islesford (according to Google Earth) is 25 meters, and many houses are close to sea level, while fuel costs there are higher than the mainland because fuel must be barged in. On the upside, there is a lot of blowdown spruce firewood available for free, or more correctly for the cutting and hauling, and the islanders typically burn several cords each a year.

We gave some talks, had a lot of nice conversations around the kitchen table with our hosts, and walked through some buildings to look at efficiency savings. We took pains to make sure folks knew that a walk-through is not a proper Home Energy Audit -- that would take several hours and quite a bit of puzzling to do properly. But George is a Maine certified Home Energy Auditor.

Me, I'm just a guy who likes to work on buildings, who happens to have a PhD in environmental policy. I really have no business giving building advice. But I am qualified to talk about the US policy environment for climate change and energy efficiency, which is really my gig, and as a sideline, of course, like all policy wonks, I am quite able with cost benefit analysis, which is the basis of energy audit (and climate mitigation) theory. So I am perfectly within my rights and street-legal to talk about payback and the costs and benefits of different energy technology.

That doesn't stop me opening my big mouth, though, if I can see daylight through the cracks in someone's basement. I have several ongoing home energy experiments, including the Bale House. And I am inordinately fond of spray foam.

As is the case all over Maine, few buildings on Little Cranberry that we saw, although all nice comfortable houses, were anywhere near their optimal tightness and insulation standards, and in each case we could identify several steps that homeowners could take, if they had time and money, to save energy, with possible heat energy savings up to 60% or more easily available.

George and I, being used to the colder temperature regime of northern Waldo County, took a few walk-throughs to adjust to the energy use data that islanders were reporting. An ordinary home with no serious upgrades as yet on Little Cranberry might only use 4-5 cords of mixed softwood/hardwood, and 200 gallons of heat oil. Here in Northern Waldo, that would be a more likely energy consumption for a more efficient home. Our old Great Farm farmhouse, which at this point is quite well insulated and medium tight, with upgrades throughout, still uses five cords hardwood and about 50-70 gallons of heat oil, and even George's celebrated earth-bermed mansion uses three cords. But the islanders can still save some energy despite their more temperate climate. And given the need to barge in fuel oil and propane, the costs savings per gallon are higher.

Funnily enough, on the ferry over we ran into a climate denier. George and I were chatting amiably about the things we usually chat about -- climate policy, energy efficiency, homesteading, and he was right across the aisle from us listening in. Eventually he piped up. He was more than a little derisory and very hard to talk to, being an aggressive interrupter, among other less-than-pleasant and less-than-reasonable conversational traits.

Regular readers will know that I've run into climate deniers before, and have more than a few theories about why they do what they do. I actually studied the former Wise Use movement, a similar backlash, for part of my dissertation, identifying both funding pathways and mental models which might be used by any future climate backlash. That prediction, of course, came true, and the climate backlash is now well and truly with us and has been for a while. The funding pathways for backlash theory have morphed from the former "Greening Earth" coalition, to ExxonMobil's funding of the George Marshall Institute and other groups. The mental models remain similar to former backlashes like the Wise Use Movement and John Birch society.

In the same way that a visible (and predictable) trace of antisemitism ran through German society, through German romantic poets and philosophers through Hegel to Haeckel to Hitler, a trace of super-conservative, hyper-Protestant, "backlash" theory runs through American society, from the Know-Nothings through the Isolationists to the John Birchers and Wise Users.

Don't get me wrong here. It isn't the same theory. Climate deniers are not Nazis, but their own very different thing. But the peculiar thread of American political tradition they come from in US society is quite old and definitely predates the climate issue. In the same way that Swiss society, for instance, remains influenced by Calvin hundreds of years after Calvin's death.

Once you know what you're dealing with here, you can try to predict outcomes.

Unlike the Nazi movement in Germany, this particular thread of political theory has never really gained full political power in the US. Instead, it wields occasional influence. Our current President, as I also showed in my dissertation, is or has been influenced by their trace of thought, but has other more powerful influences from the Republican mainstream than are in some tension with the backlash, such as the current quite strong business lobby for climate policy.

What happens is that events overtake the movement, events that negate the movement's theory, the American public shifts its interest, and the movement fades, although is never quite eliminated. This can take a long time, and events in some ways have to proceed until the movement's theory is reduced to an absurdity.

So the isolationists were believable and many of the American public, unbelievably, believed them, right on through the invasions of the Rhineland, the Sudetenland, Austria and Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and France. Somehow the American public just kept on believing the isolationist theories, which were multiple, that either Nazi Germany wasn't so bad and wouldn't kill the Jews and other victims of the holocaust (did they bother to read Mein Kampf?), or that even if war did break out, America should somehow keep peace with Germany and worry only about Japan. There were other versions, all of which seem absurd now, to various degrees.

Climate change, in the same way, will claim more and more territory for itself until this theory is reduced to an absurdity.

Unlike a lot of Europeans, I have a good deal of faith in America and Americans. This probably comes from knowing my British and my family history very well. Britain, alone, could only prevent Hitler from winning, primarily through the actions of my former service, the RAF, in the Battle of Britain, and through the foresight of Winston Churchill. We couldn't defeat him without the US. This is personal for me. My hometown was blitzed, dad was bombed out of his house, my mother was buzzed by a buzz bomb, and I'm quite sure I would not have liked growing up in Nazi-dominated England. The first black man my mother saw was an American GI, and he was, in no small way, one of her personal saviors, and rightly a hero. Too many Europeans have conveniently forgotten these American heros.

I haven't. I see them everyday, everywhere I go, even on the Isleford Ferry. But we need to remember that just a year or two or less before Pearl Harbor, most of these heros were isolationists.

They are the decent independent minded American, who comes to his or her own conclusion in his or her own sweet time, but when he or she does, well, watch out.

The US is a mighty vessel and takes a while to swing around. The Isolationists, Know-Nothings, Wise Users or Climate Deniers are standing in the bridge, yelling at the Captain at the top of their lungs to get him to keep the vessel on track. But the Captain is getting yelled at by lots of other folks on the bridge too. Eventually, he gives the order and the vessel swings around and, once again, civilization is saved. The Know-Nothings slink away to wait for their next opportunity.

The Captain, by the way, is not the President. We need to remember this too. The Captain is the Ameican people, and the order is that small thing called the vote.

In the meantime, the enemy is gaining territory. Pacific Islands, Bangladesh, Burma, these are succumbing to increased cyclone and storm frequency, combined with the slightly higher sea level. Sub-Saharan and North Africa, Australia, Southern Europe, and parts of the American west are succumbing to drought and in some cases wildfire. Millions of people are already at risk and thousands dying, mostly from the increased wars and competition for resources that hits when climate changes, but also from climate insecurity itself, particularly extreme weather.

The climate denier position is reduced more and more to an absurdity with each passing year. But they are still yelling at the Captain, and they haven't slunk away yet. A few of them are beginning to. Read this article below to read about the latest:

Exxon to cut funding to climate change denial groups

* David Adam
* Wednesday May 28 2008

The oil giant ExxonMobil has admitted that its support for lobby groups that question the science of climate change may have hindered action to tackle global warming. In its corporate citizenship report, released last week, ExxonMobil says it intends to cut funds to several groups that "divert attention" from the need to find new sources of clean energy.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Monbiot begs Abduallah

I thought this was better from Monbiot. He usually annoys me, but this was funny. And anyone who thinks we can pump our way out of the oil peak is delusional.

An open letter to the leader of Opec's biggest oil producer, the one man who can force Britain to cut its carbon emissions

* George Monbiot
o The Guardian,
o Tuesday May 27 2008

King Abdaullah of Saudi Arabia

Your Majesty,

In common with the leaders of most western nations, our prime minister is urging you to increase your production of oil. I am writing to ask you to ignore him. Like the other leaders he is delusional, and is no longer competent to make his own decisions.


Monday, May 26, 2008

Coming soon at your local hardware store: Aisle 28 and 7/8

Nanosolar solar panel printer

Regular readers may remember previous posts on this California company. They have proprietary technology that I believe will easily revolutionize the municipal and home energy industries. Basically, they print a solar panel onto a sheet of metal film, using less than tenth the materials of a regular panel.

I've been keeping up with them occasionally by reading news articles and their web site, and I was reminded to check in on them yesterday when Aimee and I visited two Home Depots in one day - the old Bangor Home Depot, which was having a moving sale - who could resist $25 a cart-load? - and of course the new one, where shopping was surprisingly muted for a holiday weekend because everyone was over at the old one, filling their boots, stealing from each other's carts, fighting over stuff they didn't really want, and generally doing the strange things people do at sales.

(We also had to go drop her computer off at Best Buy for a $350 refit. There goes 29.16% of our economic stimulus package, thanks to the authors of the Cyberlog-X virus, a nasty piece of work created by nasty people. A special message to virus breeders everywhere: My wife thinks you are the lowest form of life. She's a marine biologist, so she knows her slime. And you are that slime.)

Anyway, the power of retail to shape culture has to be properly appreciated, and it often isn't by folks in the sustainability business. Here in Maine, too many sustainability buffs are pure-as-snow back-to-the-landers. Aimee and I are definitely back-to-the-landers, but we're never pure. In fact, I get thoroughly annoyed by the search for purity wherever I find it, and generally feel an overwhelming, even obsessive, need to fight it on every front. Think of a cross between Lewis Black and Amory Lovins.

(I plowed a whole ten pound bag of chemical fertilizer into my otherwise fertilizer-and-pesticide-free garden last year just so it could never quite be organic for a few more years. It was worth every dollar and every minute. Eat manure, organic purists everywhere. We'll never be like you!)

Anyway, to cut a long rambling post short, on that Great Day when you can go down to your Home Depot and visit the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency aisle (it already exists for Harry Potter fans - aisle 28 7/8), and select from a large choice of household energy efficiency and renewable energy products: inverters, wind turbines, solar panels, laser thermometers, insulation packages, triple-glazed windows, etc, etc, then we will finally be on track to combating climate change with a force that is equal to the challenge.

American Retail. Your friendly sustainability giant.

I can hear the howls of derision from sustainability purists everywhere. Consumption, they will say, is our enemy, not our friend.

But everyone must consume, or die. And it isn't so much consumption that is our enemy, but our culture of wasteful over-consumption. To change culture, use a cultural weapon. To change a culture of wasteful over-consumption, use suppliers of consumer goods.

What if, instead of peddling fixtures, fittings, and building materials for the current average American dream home of 4,500 wasteful oil-heated, 200 amp, regular-grid-supplied square feet, American retailers sold fixtures, fittings and building materials for the new super efficient, 1,500 square foot or less, solar-and-wind-powered, super-insulated average American cottage home? Park a Prius, or better yet a Tesla sedan, outside this new average American home, and you have 40% of the climate emissions reduction problem solved right there.

I know lots of purist sustainability buffs who still have incandescent light bulbs and oil heat. They haven't quite made the connection yet.

What I got out of my Nanosolar update was the sly hint they dropped on their blog about creating a household scale product. At today's high oil prices, with their solar panel-printing technology, Nanosolar can probably turn out a household scale solar product at about half to one quarter the cost per watt of current products, increase total volume by an order of magnitude, and still make a huge profit. It's really just a matter of changing the configuration of the printing so it prints a different circuit, one that produces a lower voltage suitable for today's grid-tie inverters.

I am so looking forward to buying some of this stuff.

To sell this product, they're going to need that Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency aisle at Home Depot, Lowes, True Value Hardware, and all other good box store and franchise vendors of home improvement products nation- and world-wide.

Aisle 28 and 7/8. And a smidgin (in home improvement-speak). A hair. A gnat's...

If you're tired of this silly measuring/Harry Potter analogy, go to the Nanosolar blog here...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

In our Backyard

From Stef 06 at the DEP:

Help Reduce the Pollutants, In Our Back Yard

Thinking about resealing the driveway this summer, might want to think twice ….

There are basically two types of driveway sealants on the market today. The first type is made from coal tar and the second from asphalt bases. The bases make the difference in how toxic these products are for you and the neighborhood stream or lake.

You might be thinking, wait a minute what does my neighborhood stream or lake have to do with driveway sealant? Research conducted in Austin, Texas found high levels of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons or PAHs in some of their local streams. PAHs are linked to various health issues including cancer.

Researchers in Austin found hot spots of PAHs in streams and were able to trace them back to pavement sealers used on parking lots and driveways. They found that the average concentration of PAHs to be 1,600 times higher in coal tar based sealants than asphalt based sealants. For this reason, coal tar based sealants are a potentially higher health risk than asphalt based sealants.

But wait, how do these PAHs get from the driveway or parking lot into the neighborhood stream? When it rains or the snow melts, the stormwater carries with it little hitchhikers of whatever it hits or runs across, in this case, pavement sealants. The polluted stormwater runs off the pavement to a storm drain or ditch which drains to the local stream. In Austin they found that particles in runoff from parking lots sealed with coal tar sealants were 65 times higher in total PAHs than runoff from unsealed asphalt and cement.

A report from the Great Lakes Environmental Center in March, 2005 showed that coal tar sealants in sediments were toxic to the life in the streams at the concentrations observed in Austin streams.

So if you are considering sealing your driveway or parking area this summer read the labels and use asphalt based sealant; avoid coal tar based sealants. The asphalt based sealants may cost a bit more but they are more environmentally friendly and less toxic for you and our waters. Please do your part to keep Maine's lakes, rivers and streams healthy.

This column was submitted by Kathy Hoppe, an Environmental Specialist IV with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Bureau of Land and Water Quality. In Our Back Yard is a weekly column of the DEP. E-mail your environmental questions to or send them to In Our Back Yard, Maine DEP, 17 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

CDM discredited

This isn't really news. We've known for several months that the CDM was being terribly abused. But what I'd like to know, is what will happen next? The major unknown factor will be the outcome of the US election, and the nature of the federal climate policy that will result.

Discredited strategy

Increasing allegations of corruption and profiteering are raising serious questions about the UN-run carbon trading mechanism aimed at cutting pollution and rewarding clean technologies

* Patrick McCully
* The Guardian

The world's biggest carbon offset market, the Kyoto Protocol's clean development mechanism (CDM), is run by the UN, administered by the World Bank, and is intended to reduce emissions by rewarding developing countries that invest in clean technologies. In fact, evidence is accumulating that it is increasing greenhouse gas emissions behind the guise of promoting sustainable development. The misguided mechanism is handing out billions of dollars to chemical, coal and oil corporations and the developers of destructive dams - in many cases for projects they would have built anyway.

According to David Victor, a leading carbon trading analyst at Stanford University in the US, as many as two-thirds of the supposed "emission reduction" credits being produced by the CDM from projects in developing countries are not backed by real reductions in pollution. Those pollution cuts that have been generated by the CDM, he argues, have often been achieved at a stunningly high cost: billions of pounds could have been saved by cutting the emissions through international funds, rather than through the CDM's supposedly efficient market mechanism.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Highlands movie

Thrice now I've sent students to Scotland on self-designed field study trips, once from the University of Montana, and twice from Unity. But I really want to take them myself, so I can spend time in the western Highlands in the wind and rain and sun (in that order of frequency!) and live the lifestyle I used to live a little. I particularly enjoy the remote islands and peninsulae, and have spent a lot of time in years past in places like Raasay, Erraid, and Knoydart. This was one reason for our recent visit -- to scope out field study sites.

Unfortunately, the carbon produced by air travel makes this kind of field study increasingly irresponsible, but maybe there's a way using offsets...

This movie shows Hugh Piggott, one of the correspondents students have met with in years past, on the Scoriag peninsula, building a wind turbine with an informal group of students. The videographer manages to catch the lifestyle of the Highlands so very well, it made me nostalgic.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Carbon trend is bad news

I quickly ran some stats to accompany the article below. This is an exercise I do in class to teach some statistics and some climate change together. The first graph shows the full annual Mauna Loa carbon dioxide record in parts per million, the second show the last eight years. The best fit lines are conventional least squares regression analyses.

The coefficient, or slope of the line, for the full record is about 1.42, meaning that the average increase per year from 1959 to 2008 is 1.42 ppm. For the last eight years it is 2.1 ppm. Each analysis has a p-value of zero to four decimal places, meaning that the chance that we get these results in error is very, very small.

You can use this exercise to teach the use of best fit lines, to teach the comparison of averages, to teach p-value, and to teach about atmospheric carbon.

This new, higher number, which climate wonks like myself have been watching like hawks for several years, is the worst news I've ever heard in my life. Worse than 9/11, worse even then the current Chinese earthquake which has killed and unhoused more folks than the blitz.

The explanation is in the article below.

World carbon dioxide levels highest for 650,000 years, says US report

· Rise in chief greenhouse gas worse than feared
· Earth may be losing ability to absorb CO2, say scientists
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached a record high, according to the latest figures, renewing fears that climate change could begin to slide out of control.

Scientists at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii say that CO2 levels in the atmosphere now stand at 387 parts per million (ppm), up almost 40% since the industrial revolution and the highest for at least the last 650,000 years.

The figures, published by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on its website, also confirm that carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas, is accumulating in the atmosphere faster than expected. The annual mean growth rate for 2007 was 2.14ppm - the fourth year in the last six to see an annual rise greater than 2ppm. From 1970 to 2000, the concentration rose by about 1.5ppm each year, but since 2000 the annual rise has leapt to an average 2.1ppm.

Scientists say the shift could indicate that the Earth is losing its natural ability to soak up billions of tonnes of CO2 each year. Climate models assume that about half our future emissions will be reabsorbed by forests and oceans, but the new figures confirm this may be too optimistic. If more of our carbon pollution stays in the atmosphere, it means emissions will have to be cut by more than is currently projected to prevent dangerous levels of global warming.

Martin Parry, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's working group on impacts, said: "Despite all the talk, the situation is getting worse. Levels of greenhouse gases continue to rise in the atmosphere and the rate of that rise is accelerating. We are already seeing the impacts of climate change and the scale of those impacts will also accelerate, until we decide to do something about it."

Perched some 11,000ft up a volcano, the Mauna Loa observatory has been measuring carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since 1958. It is regarded as producing among the most reliable data sets because of its remote location, far from any possible source of the gas that could confuse the sensors.

Over the decades, the Mauna Loa readings, made famous in Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth, show the CO2 level rising and falling each year as foliage across the northern hemisphere blooms in spring and recedes in autumn. But they also show an upward trend as human emissions pour into the atmosphere, and each spring, the total CO2 level creeps above the previous year's high to set a new record.

Robin Oakley, head of Greenpeace's climate change campaign, said: "We're now witnessing a key moment in the climate change story, and it's not good news. The last time the atmosphere was this choked with CO2 humans were yet to evolve as a species. To even consider building new runways and coal-fired power stations at this juncture in history is an unpardonable folly, but Gordon Brown seems determined to stumble forward regardless with his ill-conceived plans in the face of the science and widespread public opposition."

A study last year suggested that the recent surge in atmospheric CO2 levels was down to three processes: growth in the world economy, heavy use of coal in China, and a weakening of natural "sinks", forests, seas and soils that absorb carbon. The scientists said the increase was 35% larger than they expected.

They said about half of the carbon surge was down to the Chinese reliance on coal, which has forced up the carbon intensity of the overall world economy since 2000, reversing a trend of increasing energy efficiency since the 1970s.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Climate, conservation, and biodiversity

I've been telling our conservation students, faculty and supporters for several years now that climate change is the major conservation and biodiversity issue. It wasn't entirely deaf ears, but I guess my message wore out its welcome with some. In particular, students who came to college with more conservative political attitudes were reluctant or hostile to the notion that their future "blue-collar" conservation jobs as game wardens, foresters, wildlife and fisheries biologists and park rangers were anything at all to do with something as "hippy-ish" a notion as climate change. This was culture wars lite, as those of us who teach climate change and sustainability at this college, where the classes have been required since 1999, struggled to find ways to get inside the heads of our most conservative students.

As time wore on, the news about climate change worsened, and the degree of certainty about its effects on conservation and biodiversity increased. But each year a new clutch of students shows up fresh from high school, and while I've noticed a difference in the degree of interest and level of existing knowledge in students who come into the more pure science majors such as ecology, or the environmental policy major, many of whom now arrive just knowing climate change is their personal life-time problem and just thirsting for knowledge to deal with it (very gratifying), every year a new clutch of conservative students also arrives, barrelling onto campus in their eight cylinder pick ups, lugging big ole boat-and-snowmobile-trailer-loads of bad attitude about climate change and sustainability.

One surprising thing that has helped me in this is that I'm the guy who mentors the SAR team. Search and rescue is a necessary skill for game wardens and park rangers. I have 29 years of experience in SAR. It's hard to be dismissive about that. With this background, I can get these particular students' respect in short order where other professors may struggle. I also now teach the Introduction to Conservation Law Enforcement labs, a required first semester class for future park rangers and game wardens. My job is to teach them their map and compass skills. I'm more than expert at land navigation, especially in the woods and mountains. Hard to be dismissive of that. And in general, for the guy who teaches sustainability, I'm a serious drill sergeant, and I take zero BS from 18 year olds.

Who's the hippy now, dudes?

I'm happy enough to get out in the fresh air with these students and hike in the woods and learn to read maps, let them get themselves thoroughly lost and give them a hard time when they do. They need to have someone get tough with them, because the minute they get out on the job as uniformed conservation officers, for most of them, there will be a real sergeant, and a real rank hierarchy with real discipline and real standards, and real standard operating procedures and real emergencies to respond to.

I use the credibility it gives me later, when they have to take their required third year class in sustainability. This is one way inside their heads, and with luck we can turn out more and better game wardens, foresters, wildlife and fisheries biologists and park rangers who know about and understand the effects of climate change on biodiversity. It doesn't hurt that, additional to staffing the Maine Warden's Service which is responsible for SAR, a significant minority of these students will join police and other emergency services all over the country. We are going to need more and more folks in the emergency service world who can prepare to deal with natural disasters from extreme weather events.

But our ability to address the most serious issue on planet earth should not be trammeled by "culture war" attitudes. I shouldn't have to prove my blue collar, drill sergeant "cred" and woodsman and SAR skills to college frosh, to get the respect I need, to get them to work on their knowledge of the most serious problem humanity has ever faced.

They came to college to become leaders for society. Studying climate change is what they're supposed to be doing right now.

We all need to grow up and get over the culture wars thing. Climate change is neither a Republican nor a Democratic thing, it's not just an issue for wealthy bleeding heart two-coast liberals. It's a problem right now for all kinds of folks all over the country, as we get hit by more tornadoes and more hurricanes each year, it will ruin our hunting and fishing in short order, and in the worst possible case, reduce civilization to a shadow of its former self, where we'll be lucky to have a democracy at all, let alone the right to bicker over which party or which subculture of American society is best.

Time to grow up.

World's wildlife and environment already hit by climate change, major study shows

· 90% of damage caused by rising temperatures
· Conclusions based on reports going back to 1970

Guardian, Friday

Global warming is disrupting wildlife and the environment on every continent, according to an unprecedented study that reveals the extent to which climate change is already affecting the world's ecosystems.

Scientists examined published reports dating back to 1970 and found that at least 90% of environmental damage and disruption around the world could be explained by rising temperatures driven by human activity.

Big falls in Antarctic penguin populations, fewer fish in African lakes, shifts in American river flows and earlier flowering and bird migrations in Europe are all likely to be driven by global warming, the study found.

The team of experts, including members of the UN's intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) from America, Europe, Australia and China, is the first to formally link some of the most dramatic changes to the world's wildlife and habitats with human-induced climate change.

Read more....

Thursday, May 15, 2008

5,000 visitors in 150 days

That's 30-40 visitors a day to this blog. A regular clientele. Hopefully, Anders, Jake, Clay, Sara, and myself have together provided interesting reading material, ideas and pictures.

If you have any suggestions or there's material you want to see more of, be sure to drop us a line.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ecological efficiency in food, local, organic, or otherwise

The barn is the heart of the Womerlippi Farm, because that's where the fertilizer (manure and winter bedding) is concentrated and processed.

This is in response to Anders article below, but it's also part of the current thread on the food crisis, oil prices, climate change, and my own musings on civil emergencies that result from climate change, particularly extreme weather.

The primary question is, what is the most ecologically efficient way to grow food? That's at the root of the current local food craze. It's also the problem with our current fossil-energy intensive food systems in the west, which we are still exporting rapidly to the developing world -- a very dangerous thing to do, given the oil price crisis. And it will be the key future problem in sustaining human life in the coming world of rapid climate change and associated extreme weather events.

I'm reminded of the tough lesson I learned from my forestry school advisor, Al McQuillan, who had a back-to-the-lander farm in Montana way back in the first back-to-the-land movement in the 70s. When I asked him why he gave it up, his reply was that he realized that if there ever was a food crisis, and he had food, then he wouldn't keep it very long because guys with more guns would come take it away. This is of course what is happening now in Burma, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Darfur, other places where there is not enough food for market or social provisioning to work well or fairly.

That single brutal answer to an otherwise harmless question was probably what got me started on a policy career because then I realized that even as an otherwise somewhat isolationist back-to-the-lander, I needed to live in a functioning, fair, democratic society where civil rights and rule of law were respected.

So my primary academic problem is not food, nor even climate change, but the ethics and morality of society as it relates to political power, law, the economy and economic distribution, the police powers of the state, and of course the military. This is of course the focus of the book my Quaker Institute for the Future co-authors and I have coming out soon.

Ecologically efficient food systems are thus only part of the problem. But they are important.

Let's be clear what is meant by ecological efficiency. The ecological economics position states that the ultimate resource is low entropy matter-energy, which for the lay person means sunlight, its renewable energy derivatives such as wind, wave or hydro power (all driven by sunlight), or fossil fuels (stored sunlight from millions of years ago) or nuclear fuels (stored fusion energy retained from the pre-sunlight Big Bang, which is of course where sunlight comes from.

So, operationally, all effectively renewable energy on planet earth comes from sunlight. So we need an agriculture sponsored energetically from sunlight, in which fossil fuels are a minor input, or no input at all.

There's no reason to try terribly hard to cut fossil fuels out of agriculture completely -- that's probably more than purist and not realistic, since even the humble shovel has to be made from smelted iron called steel which requires coal. But we need upwards of 95% of the energy of the food we consume to be embodied from sunlight, and we need it to be current sunlight, not stored fossil sunlight. If we could do this, we would at least disassociate the food crisis from the oil price crisis, and contribute to reducing the climate crisis by creating a more resilient agriculture as well as reducing climate emissions from food.

So we need more sunlight and less fossil fuel in food.

Now we've figured that out, lets explore the "local" and "organic" food concepts.

Local food would indeed contribute to increasing the proportion of sunlight energy embodied in food versus fossil energy if it meant reducing fossil fuel inputs to food. For deciding if this is indeed occurring we would need a comparative energy audit of individual food production systems, farm-by-farm, because farmers use such unique systems that we can't really tell just by looking at a local food item if there is much fossil energy embodied in it or not. Maine tomatoes out-of-season are probably really embodied heat oil, given that the hoop houses need to be heated. Even local AND organic food could have a lot of fossil energy if the organic fertilizers and organic feed for organic livestock were trucked from the midwest. Which they often are, by the way. It's very hard to get organic fertilizer in industrial quantities from Maine, for instance. There are very few suppliers. And in the case of livestock farms, organic feed is expensive and not very easy to get from Maine.

Does this mean that both "local food" and "organic" are red herrings as far as policy is concerned, that neither one clearly helps. I tend to think so. Although helpful, neither label, if "local food" is a label, is a guarantee that food contains primarily embodied sunlight.

What would be a sufficient guarantee? That's not really my research problem, since I don't study agriculture per se. I study policy, and am particularly worried about society and agriculture in the coming climate crisis, and would more likely advocate, for instance, that we begin to stockpile fossil fuel and fossil-fuel derived fertilizer and seed in suitable places as a hedge against the societal instability that could result from a combined food, oil, and extreme weather crisis, than I would advocate abandoning the use of fossil fuel fertilizer and fossil farm fuel.

But what I do notice, since I'm a hobby farmer as well as a policy wonk, is that you can't beat a big manure pile, properly turned, as energy-efficient fertilizer. And that the easiest way to turn my manure pile is not with my tractor, but with pigs and chickens. I notice how much better the soil is in our third summer on this farm than it was in our first. This is largely because we already turned several tons of composted animal bedding into the soil, never mind the winter rye.

I also notice how cheap hay is in Maine, and how easy it is to get at prices like $1.75 a square bale (if you're willing to pick it off the field and sling it yourself), or $25 a round bale (for Farmer Ward's stuff that the sheep love -- they can't eat enough of it).

Aimee and I, although MOFGA members, don't run a local food farm, nor an organic one. I used a little fossil-fuel derived industrial fertilizer to kick-start in-soil decomposition on our garden plot. And we buy imported grain feeds to supplement the local hay and grass the sheep eat. The pigs and chickens both get a grain subsidy. The tractor consumes about 30-40 gallons of diesel a year.

So the question is, how ecologically efficient is all this in combination?

This is a chicken-egg problem, so I'm not sure where to start. Try the garden. The garden gets the composted manure, about two tons a year, and to spread that around and turn it in takes about three to four gallons of diesel run through a 12-horse Kubota "pocket" tractor.

The composted manure came from the sheep's winter bedding, and is primarily poop, urine, and waste hay, which took a little tractor fuel and gas to get to the barn. The chickens have worked it over already, but most of the energy comes from the sunlight in the hay, which is a bulk local crop, and generally locally fertilized even when grown conventionally. The sheep eat the hay and what they waste becomes their bedding. We get the hay from farmers within 5-25 miles, depending on price, quality, and quantity.

Conventional farmers around here keep their hayfields fertile, if they bother about it at all, by occasionally "seeding through" with clover, and by rotating forage crops every six or so years with corn-silage, usually growing the flint corn after a good spread of lime, liquid dairy manure, and sewage sludge, mostly the first two. While the sewage sludge is nasty stuff, it has to go somewhere, and it is a local and energy-efficient fertilizer, and the least used fertilizer compared to clover and manure, and so not very much of it finds its way into the hay that is generally sold off the farm around here. So I think hay grown here in Waldo County is a pretty efficient basis for the farm energy budget and thus fertility. The sheep flock helps process and concentrate the energy in the hay as three-to four tons of fertilizer, more than we need, and also produce about 150-200 pounds of very good meat, which requires a subsidy of about 30 bags or 1500 pounds of commercial processed grain-and-alfafa feed. The embodied fossil energy in that feed is reflected in the increased price recently -- it has almost doubled in price.

The pigs are more efficient converters of grain to meat, doing about 30% to the sheep's 10%. They also eat kitchen waste, orchard waste, chicken poop, and garden waste, as well as helping to process and concentrate the sheep bedding. Two pigs will produce about 300 pounds of meat for about 20-30 sacks of grain and all the kitchen waste and orchard waste we can give them. (Pigs love apples. So do sheep.)

Chickens eat bugs, grass, and a little grain, about 5-8 bags a year.

If you think about it, then, our farm is run primarily on hay, secondarily on about 70 bags of imported grain, and thirdly on about 30 gallons of tractor fuel. It grows about 450 pounds of premium meat, about 150 dozen eggs, and we hope and expect this year to get over 1,000 pounds of herbs and veggies and 2-300 pounds of apples. Is this particularly ecologically efficient? Probably not particularly, as farms go. It is likely no better and no worse than most farms. But it's probably much, much more efficient than buying food from the supermarket. It also produces 90% of our winter fuel, as we are cutting firewood from the same land we use to raise sheep. That's a great efficiency there, easily equivalent to 1,000 gallons of heat oil. I have an idea to use sheep fleece, of which we get several hundred pounds, as household insulation, but we currently get yarn instead. Add these to the energy budget on the "black" side of the balance sheet, and we're definitely way ahead.

What do we need to work on? I think the main remaining inefficiency turns out to be the grain subsidy as currently contrived. It has a big embodied fossil fuel component. We use bagged feed, primarily corn-and-alfafa mixes that come from Blue Seed Feeds.

I think I need to find a way to buy and store a much more local grain in bulk to feed to sheep and pigs and chickens. At that point, I'd say we have it down and would be as about efficient as we could get without driving ourselves crazy trying to be pure.

Those of you who know me know just how unlikely it is I'd ever do that.

We're going to get this thing figured out

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Brit biofuel

~Peter Knipper welcoming all to the grease car garage.

Of course, Unity College students have been making biodiesel, or making cars and trucks to burn raw vegetable oil, for several years. Jake is getting ready to test some home grown Waldo County soy oil we got from Farmer Perkins down the street in Albion, just as soon as he can use up the tankful of french fry grease he's running right now. (It takes a while to burn up the grease what with the gas mileage and the size of the tank in his Mercedes.) But this article shows how the market for biodiesel is working out in Britain.

BTW, at £1.18 a liter, and 3.8 liters to the US gallon, that makes UK diesel £4.72 a gallon, which is about $7-8. And you thought $4 was bad?

At 15p a litre, home-brew biodiesel is fuel of the future

Drivers spurn forecourt for the pub restaurant when they need to fill their tanks

* John Vidal, environment editor
* The Guardian,
* Saturday May 10 2008

Every few weeks Gordon Elliott drives 22 miles to the Hare and Hounds pub in Marple, Cheshire, collects a barrel of waste cooking oil from his stepdaughter and takes it back to his personal oil refinery in his garage in Leigh, near Bolton. The retired construction site manager then decants the liquid into a machine and adds a few chemicals.


Friday, May 9, 2008

Is It better to eat locally or eat differently?

A recent article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology compares the impacts on greenhouse gas emissions associated with eating local foods vs. changing what one chooses to eat. Their findings may surprise you! Link here.

Thanks to local farmers in this part of Maine, we have the opportunity to choose both what we eat and where it comes from. I'm looking forward to the publication of the local food guide which will make it easier to find out who is producing what foods in our area.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

NWF -- Detailed assessment of climate bill

National Wildlife Federation is supporting Warner-Lieberman. Their breakdown is available below and online here.

Assessment of America’s Climate Security Act of 2007

November 1, 2007

The bipartisan America’s Climate Security Act is sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Warner of Virginia.


1) Starting within five years, the bill will reduce global warming pollution from major emitters such as power plants and oil refineries by about two percent each year from current levels. Emissions from these sources will be reduced by 15% below current levels between 2012 and 2020. Over the longer term, the bill will reduce global warming pollution from major emitters by one-third (33%) below current levels between 2012 and 2030, and by 70% below current levels between 2012 and 2050. The bill regulates power plants, oil companies and big industrial emitters, accounting for about 80% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The bill provides National Academy of Sciences reviews to assess the scientific adequacy of progress under the bill and recommend adjustments in the long-term targets to Congress.

2) The bill is the first to provide detailed provisions to aid a just transition to a clean energy future for low- and middle-income families. The bill returns an estimated $350 billion to low- and middle-income consumers thru the year 2030. The funds will be used for programs such as the Low Income Weatherization Assistance Program. This funding –and all the funding for other needs in this bill – will be generated by payments from large polluters for emission permits. (Note: All dollar estimates are based on NWF calculations and will depend on the actual market prices for emissions permits, which will fluctuate over time).

3) The bill will provide an estimated $160 billion thru the year 2030 to protect America’s fish and wildlife, great waters, and other natural resources from the climate changes that can no longer be avoided. Funding will be distributed to well established and successful wildlife conservation and natural resource management programs at the federal and state level. Federal actions will be guided by a new comprehensive strategy to assist fish and wildlife and their habitat in adapting to and surviving the impacts of climate change.

4) The bill invests an estimated $500 billion thru 2030 in zero- and low-carbon technologies to accelerate our transition to a new energy future. This funding supplements the much larger market-based incentives that will be generated from the emission limits and trading provisions. The funding includes resources to help retool automobile manufacturing to produce cleaner, more fuel efficient cars and trucks. Advanced biofuel technologies and practices funded by the bill will need to improve or maintain habitat quality and protect scarce water supplies. Coal plants funded under the program must capture and store at least 85% of carbon emissions, as well as meet new EPA safety regulations that will be promulgated under this legislation.

5) The bill provides an estimated $40 billion thru 2030 to provide access and training to a clean energy workforce that promises to create millions of new jobs in America, and to provide fair treatment for affected workers and their communities.

6) The bill provides financial resources to tribes to mitigate price impacts on tribal families, to protect tribal wildlife resources, to promote public transportation and energy efficiency, to address local impacts of climate change, and for other purposes.

7) The bill completely phases out all free giveaways to polluters over time, providing bipartisan support for the principle that the public has a right to a safe climate and polluters should pay to emit greenhouse gases. The bill provides the majority of revenues to public benefit purposes in the first years of the program before phasing to 100% over time.

8) The bill protects the rights of states to develop more stringent programs, and it provides special resources (bonus allocations) to states with more aggressive state laws than the federal system.

9) The bill includes new building codes designed to cut the energy usage of new homes and buildings in half by the year 2020, as well as new appliance standards.

10) The bill promotes domestic U.S. projects to store carbon in forests and soils, which can enhance habitat for fish and wildlife. Some of these projects will reduce the net U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases beyond the stated reduction targets (that is, help achieve even stronger net emission reductions than the targets in #1, above). The bill favors the use of native species and prevents the use of destructive invasive species to earn credits, and the bill excludes projects that harm the environment or public health.

11) The bill promotes efforts to protect forests globally.

12) The bill provides some funding for international efforts to help vulnerable human populations and natural resources adapt to, endure, or avoid negative global climate change impacts. However, these provisions should be strengthened (see “areas for improvement”).

13) In addition to the measures outlined above, the bill contains several important policy design elements that protect the integrity of the cap-and-trade system:

• The bill does not include the “safety valve” loophole that undermines the emissions reductions goals of some legislation.

• The bill is largely implemented and enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

• The bill limits the quantity of domestic offsets and largely limits the scope to forestry, agricultural and land-use projects. Projects must be real, verifiable, additional, permanent, and enforceable.

• The bill limits international trading of permits to nations with comparable emission limits in place.

Areas for Improvement

1) The bill should set aside a strong package of financial resources to aid least developed nations with reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and protecting themselves from the climate changes that can no longer be avoided. This will also help foster international cooperation toward a global agreement to slash emissions. The bill has some significant provisions in this area from the perspective of national security that should be expanded in scale and scope.

2) The bill is one piece – although the most important piece – of the comprehensive set of climate and energy policies needed to fight global warming. Enacting the fuel economy (CAFE) and renewable electricity standards in the Senate and House energy bills, for example, would provide an important and complementary down payment on emissions reductions. These bills would also provide consumers with low-carbon technology options and speed technology deployment.

3) Current science suggests that an 80% reduction target by 2050 would be more appropriate for the U.S. to do its share of a science-based global action plan on climate. While the bill provides opportunities in the coming decades to update the 70% reduction target and accelerate the timetable, the bill could be strengthened by including the stronger long-term target. Importantly, the bill’s scientific review provisions should be strengthened to authorize EPA to tighten emission targets over time in response to the National Academy of Sciences reports mandated in the bill.

4) The phase out of free allocations to industry takes too long and is not complete until the year 2036. This timetable should be shortened.

5) The bill could be strengthened by including measures to reduce other air pollutants, such as toxic mercury, from power plants, and to put greenhouse gas performance standards in place for new power plants.