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by The Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What do organizers hope to accomplish at the upcoming (December 7-18, 2009) United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Copenhagen? -- F. Rojas, Oakland, CA

The upcoming COP15 meeting in Denmark—so named because it is the 15th such international gathering of the Conference of the Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—is the world's next big chance to take decisive multi-lateral action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions substantially enough to ward off cataclysmic climate change.

Negotiators from all over the globe hope to come to terms on a binding agreement regarding emissions reductions that both developed and developing nations can agree to. The stakes are high: This conference represents the final step in negotiations years in the making—and the results could chart a course toward success or failure in human efforts to control the carbon beast we set free in the industrial revolution.

Officially, the stated goal of COP15, according to United Nations organizers, is "to stabilize the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that prevents dangerous man-made climate changes." They add that "this stabilization must occur in such a way as to give the ecosystems the opportunity to adapt naturally" without compromising food safety or hindering sustainable social and economic development around the world. Organizers, delegates and a wide range of other participants—some 10,000 people are expected to attend—are still holding out hope for the establishment of an ambitious, legally binding global emissions reduction agreement to take effect beginning in 2012. That is when initial commitments made under the Kyoto Protocol, an earlier international climate treaty that the U.S. refused to join, expire.

One sticking point is whether or not the Obama administration will risk agreeing to major emissions reductions without the prior consent of Congress. The most promising U.S. climate legislation, the so-called Kerry-Boxer Bill, is currently under consideration in the Senate but likely won’t be voted on until February 2010 or later; traditionally the American government likes to iron out its policy legislatively at home before agreeing to international commitments. But bi-partisan backers of the bill in the Senate say they can agree on terms now that will be acceptable to enough to their colleagues for later passage, enabling American negotiators at Copenhagen to have some guidelines at the COP15 bargaining table.

China and much of the developing world would like to see industrialized countries cut their greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, but analysts say such drastic cuts are unlikely to fly with U.S. politicians. Climate champion Al Gore is urging COP15 delegates to create a binding legal framework where commitments can be ratcheted up with time as governments begin to realize the benefits of switching to larger amounts of renewable energy and participating in the development of green technology.

Beyond the big question of U.S. participation, COP15 negotiators will be trying hard to forge a consensus on a wide range of related issues, including: what year should be set as the baseline against which specific reduction targets will be measured; the duration of the emissions reduction commitment period; whether or not to call for curbs on deforestation, especially in developing countries’ tropical rainforests; and whether or not to tighten rules governing the methods used to reduce emissions.

CONTACT: COP15, www.cop15.dk.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I recently heard the term “living building.” Can you explain?

-- Rebecca Gordon, Seattle, WA

Over the past couple of decades, architects and builders looking to green their projects turned to the addition of various piecemeal elements to save water here or cut down on electricity there. Those who added more than a few green touches could apply for and get certified by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) under its Leadership in Energy and Efficient Design (LEED) program. While these efforts have been laudable—essentially launching the green building industry as we know it today—they represent merely the infancy of what green building might someday become.

The concept of the “living building” has now emerged as a new ideal for design and construction. The Cascadia Region Green Building Council (CRGBC)—the Pacific Northwest chapter of the USGBC—defines a living building as a structure that “generates all of its own energy with renewable non-toxic resources, captures and treats all of its water, and operates efficiently and for maximum beauty.” The group has been pushing for adoption of the concept by construction industries here at home, and also helped to launch the International Living Building Institute to promote the concept internationally.

“We view our role as the organization that is meant to ask the really tough questions, to push the boundaries as far as possible,” says Jason McLennan, CEO of CRGBC. To this end, in 2006 the group launched its Living Building Challenge (LBC), a “call to the design and construction community to pursue true sustainability in the built environment.” So far 60 different projects around North America are vying to meet the high standards of the LBC, which exceed even the highest status of LEED certification.

The first building to be completed for consideration under the LBC program is the Omega Center for Sustainable Living, in Rhinebeck, NY. The 6,200 square-foot, one-level building, which serves as headquarters for the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, features a geothermal heating and cooling system, solar panels, rain gardens that direct water run-off to irrigate plantings, a 4,500-square-foot greenhouse that helps filter wastewater for reuse, “daylighting” design that brings natural light indoor to minimize electric light usage, and eco-friendly building materials all around. It was designed—per LBC criteria—to be “net-zero,” meaning it uses no more energy than it generates itself. Once the building has been in operation for a full year next summer, CRGBC will audit it to see if its performance lives up to the green hype. Dozens of other LBC contenders around North America will be audited as well.

Of course, the costs of creating a living building today are very high. Achieving net-zero can be especially costly, and stands out as one of the biggest obstacles to greater interest in the living building concept. Another challenge is finding materials that meet LBC standards, since many common building materials—such as PVC piping for wastewater transport—off-gas chemicals and have other hazardous attributes. LBC also expects builders to source locally as many materials as possible to boost local economies and make efficient use of nearby natural resources. McLennan remains confident that costs will come down as green materials, technologies and methods become more commonplace within the general building industry.

CONTACTS: USGBC, www.usgbc.org; CRGBC, www.cascadiagbc.org; International Living Building Institute, www.ilbi.org; Omega Institute, www.eomega.org.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

Dear EarthTalk: Celebrities and billionaires are shelling out big bucks for cutting edge green-friendly cars like the Tesla Roadster. But what are the rest of us—who live in the budget-constrained real world—to do about buying a new car that does right by the environment?

-- M.G., Stroudsburg, PA

With so many new energy efficient cars in showrooms today, there’s never been a better time to go green with your next car purchase. A few years ago the Toyota Prius was the go-to model for those with an environmental conscience and up to $30,000 to pay for the privilege of getting 35-40 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city and 45-55 on the highway. But today there is such a wide selection of fuel efficient and low-emissions vehicles that even those on a budget can afford to go green.

To wit, Honda’s new Insight is the first hybrid gasoline-electric car available new for less than $20,000 (starting at $19,800). With fuel efficiency ratings of 40 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city and 43 on the highway, the Insight surely won’t cost much to operate either.

There are plenty of other hybrids to choose from today, too, though most cost at least a few thousand dollars more than equivalent non-hybrid models. Toyota’s Prius, which is only available as a hybrid, still leads the pack as the world’s top selling and most fuel efficient hybrid. Its cost has dropped some, now starting at $22,400, and the “3rd generation” Prius 10 now claims an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) combined city/highway rating of 50 mpg. This most recent edition even features a whimsical solar panel on the roof to power a ventilation system that keeps the interior of the car cool even on scorching hot days. Hybrid versions of Honda’s Civic ($23,800), Nissan’s Altima ($26,780), Ford’s Fusion ($27,625) and Escape SUV ($31,500), Mercury’s Milan ($31,590) and Mariner SUV ($29,995), Toyota’s Camry ($26,150) and Highlander SUV ($34,700) are also in showrooms in dealerships across the U.S.

Many smaller cars with regular gasoline engines also get great mileage with low emissions for even less money. Some examples include the Corolla ($15,350), Matrix ($16,550) and Yaris ($12,355) from Toyota, Honda’s Fit ($14,900), the Mazda 3 ($16,045), Chevy’s Aveo ($11,965) and Cobalt ($14,990), the Hyundai’s Accent ($9,970) and Elantra ($14,145), Pontiac’s G3 ($14,335), the Kia Rio ($11,495), the MINI Cooper ($19,500), Ford’s Focus ($15,995), and the Smart Car ForTwo ($11,990).

Diesel fuel is now cleaner than ever, and a few automakers are going down that road. Volkswagen’s Jetta TDI ($22,660), Audi’s A3 TDI ($29,950) and BMW’s 335d ($43,900) are three examples of high performance vehicles with solid green credentials regarding fuel efficiency and emissions. An added bonus is that such cars can run on carbon-neutral biodiesel as well as petroleum-based diesel fuel.

Consumers just starting their search for a new ride should check out GreenCar.com, which provides detailed information on the many greener vehicles available today as well as those on the horizon. Also, the federal government’s website FuelEconomy.gov provides detailed mileage and emissions information on dozens of new cars every year, and provides users with an easy and free way to compare different vehicles along the lines of environmental impact.

CONTACTS: GreenCar.com, www.greencar.com; FuelEconomy.gov, www.fueleconomy.gov.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Why is the plankton in the oceans dying? And what does this mean for the health of the oceans and marine life? -- Marilynn Block, Portland, OR

As the lowest link on the marine food chain, plankton—that tiny aquatic plant, animal and bacterial matter floating throughout the world’s oceans—is a vital building block for life on Earth. Besides serving as a primary food source for many fish and whales, plankton plays a crucial role in mitigating global warming.

Indeed, the ocean is the world’s largest “carbon sink”: As much as one-third of man-made CO2 emissions are stored in the oceans and therefore do not contribute to global warming. This is because its plant component, phytoplankton (its animal component is called zooplankton), pulls massive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere as it photosynthesizes.

But various environmental factors are taking their toll on plankton the world over. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported recently that marine phytoplankton is declining across the oceans. Even Canadian cod fishermen are noticing that the plankton-feeding fish they catch are often nearly starving as a result of lack of this crucial food source.

A 2007 study published in the scientific journal Nature found that human-caused increase in CO2 pollution is altering the pH (acidity) levels in the oceans. This change in chemistry is expected to have adverse effects on the entire ecosystem. More acidic ocean water inhibits the ability of shell-forming marine organisms—from plankton to mollusks to corals—to form properly. Smaller and less healthy populations of plankton would be bad news for all the other creatures above it on the ocean’s food chain.

Higher water temperatures, also attributable to our fossil fuel addiction, can also have a devastating effect on plankton. A recent report in the Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom noted that, in the Adriatic Sea cooler winter conditions—which are less frequent in a warmer world—are needed for plankton production and nutrient availability. Furthermore, warmer sea temperatures can cause “blooms” of other sea life (such as happens with algae), resulting in oxygen starvation in the water, a condition that is devastating to plankton and other marine creatures and organisms.

In other situations, blooms of phytoplankton themselves—the tiny plants can gorge on the nutrients from the run-off from farms and lawns on land—can lead to oxygen starvation in the water. “The decomposition of these multitudes of phytoplankton removes oxygen from seawater, creating oxygen-poor ‘dead zones’ where fish cannot live,” reports Carly Buchwald, a researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Satellite imagery shows that these “dead zones” are expanding. Some scientists are advocating “iron fertilization”—the spreading of large amounts of iron across the world’s seas—to spur plankton growth. But others worry that such tinkering with complex ecosystems could have potentially harmful effects.

CONTACTS: Nature, www.nature.com; Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, www.journals.cambridge.org/action/displayJournal?jid=mbi; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, www.whoi.edu.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com.  Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

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