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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental implications of the so-called “driverless car” that Google and others are working on right now? ­-- April Jackman, Barre, MA

Just a decade ago most of us wouldn’t have dreamed we’d live to see driverless cars whisking people around, but things are changing fast and analysts now think they will be common by 2020 and account for the majority of cars on the road by 2040. And with Google’s recent unveiling of its latest prototype—complete with no pedals or steering wheel—the future is indeed closer than we ever imagined.

Proponents argue that driverless cars—also called “autonomous cars”—are inherently more sustainable than their manned counterparts. For one, they say, once they are widely available many of us will forego owning our own cars in favor of car-sharing, whereby the autonomous vehicle comes to you, charged and ready to go, as needed. Thus the result could be far fewer cars on the road than today. According to Steve Gutmann of the Seattle-based sustainability think tank Sightline Institute, such a car-sharing scenario would also obviate the need for many parking spaces. Today the typical private car spends upwards of 90 percent of its time parked. Once we have more driverless cars, we’ll need far fewer parking spaces, leading to less land being paved and reducing storm water runoff and heat island effects accordingly.

The networked brains of these vehicles will also reduce inefficient routes and decrease overall driving time, leading to better air quality and lower carbon emissions. Also, the increased safety of driverless vehicles—they obey speed limits, can sense people, bikes and other cars coming toward them, and accelerate and brake much more gradually than human drivers—will mean that the cars can be lighter and require far fewer resources in manufacturing, reducing their overall environmental impact even further.

On the flip side, the advent of driverless cars means that many of us now not able to drive because of age or physical handicaps will be able to use these cars to get around, potentially leading to an increase in the number of cars on the road. And Chandra Bhat of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas points out that just because a car is driverless doesn’t mean we’ll want it to be smaller, lighter and more fuel efficient. He fears that driverless cars will engender a return to larger vehicles because people will want “more comfortable space” when they are free to stretch out, relax, read, videochat, text or even nap during their trips. He adds that driverless cars could lead to more urban sprawl as car commuting becomes more tolerable without the hassle of actually driving.

Bhat also wonders what will become of the public transit systems we’ve invested so heavily in if driverless cars offer the same advantages—using the time en route to do whatever one pleases—with the added benefit of privacy and route/timing flexibility.

Today four U.S. states—Nevada, Florida, California and Michigan—allow driverless cars on their public roads for the purpose of testing; several other states are considering similar allowances. Likewise, in 2013 the United Kingdom began allowing the testing of driverless cars on its public roadways. Besides Google, several leading automakers and other companies have developed their own prototypes. Car enthusiasts can expect to see such examples from the likes of Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, Nissan, Toyota, Audi, Volvo, Tesla and others at auto shows over the next few years, and can look forward to getting “behind the wheel” of one within a decade. Whatever happens, it certainly is going to be quite a ride.

CONTACTS: Sightline Institute, www.sightline.org; Chandra Bhat, www.ce.utexas.edu/prof/bhat/home.html.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: How is it that our more effectively managing ocean resources could help us better feed the world? -- Missy Jenkins, Boone, IA

Hunger is a growing problem around the world, in both developing and developed countries. As our population continues to rise, the amount of arable land per capita is declining and climate change is either drying out or flooding many formerly productive agricultural belts, making it more and more difficult to keep up with the growing demand for food. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that we must produce 70 percent more food globally if we are to feed the world’s increasing numbers of hungry people in the coming decades.

While more efficient agricultural practices can help, conservationists are increasingly looking to the ocean as a potential way out of our hunger woes. According to Oceana, a leading non-profit dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans and marine biodiversity, wild seafood “requires no fresh water, produces little carbon dioxide, doesn’t use up any arable land and provides healthy, lean protein at a cost per pound lower than beef, chicken, lamb and pork, making it accessible to the world’s poor.”

But like other natural resources, fish stocks have also been in decline in recent years as a result of decades of overfishing. “The global fish catch peaked in the late 1980s and has been declining ever since,” reports Oceana. Indeed, data show the amount of fish caught around the world has fallen by some 18 percent over the last three decades. “If current trends continue, we’ll only have enough wild seafood to feed half the world’s population in 2050,” says the group.

But that downward trend could be reversed by overhauling fisheries management, protecting fish spawning and breeding habitat and reducing by-catch (the incidental catch of species not targeted by fishermen). In areas where fisheries managers have been able to set catch limits based on fish biology instead of industry interests, seafood populations have started to bounce back. Likewise, fish stocks have recovered significantly in the water column in and around Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and other critical “no-fish” zones.

“These are steps that have been proven to restore stocks of fish wherever they have been implemented,” adds Oceana. “While it’s counterintuitive, by imposing limits to what we catch today we will actually be able to increase the amount of fish that we catch tomorrow.” The group cites research showing that “sensible management” could increase fish yields up to 40 percent and increase the biomass in the oceans by almost 60 percent. “If managed wisely, our fisheries could provide the world with 700 million nutritious meals every day.”

Through its “Save the Oceans, Feed the World Campaign,” Oceana is focusing its efforts on convincing national governments in countries that dominate the world’s fish catch to manage their own fisheries better. The fact that each coastal country is in control of an “exclusive economic zone” extending 200 nautical miles from shore and that these shallow near-shore waters contain the vast majority of marine life means that convincing a few key governments to reign in overfishing can make a world of difference.

CONTACT: Oceana, www.oceana.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What can communities do to keep polluters out of their neighborhoods? -- Wendell Bovey, Los Angeles, CA

It’s unfair that communities which are less organized and less wealthy often shoulder the burden of hosting polluters like landfills, incinerators and power plants. “Frequently, these facilities end up in the places that put up the least resistance, either because residents are unaware of the projects planned for their area, or because they don’t have the money, organization, knowledge or political clout to mount effective opposition,” says the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading non-profit.

The key, says NRDC, is to stay informed: “A lot of bad projects slip into communities under the radar,” they caution. Companies looking to site unpopular projects that need approval from local zoning boards count on local residents being absent from the public meetings where the projects get discussed.

Attending planning & zoning or city council meetings is a first line of defense against letting polluters in. Be prepared by getting meeting agendas in advance and looking for red flags that can be discussed with the powers-that-be in person or at public sessions. And keep up with the Public Notices section of the local paper, where public hearings concerning local land use must be announced by law.

Staying informed is one thing, but knowing what to look and listen for is another: “Certain types of development pose potential environmental and health problems for host communities,” reports NRDC. “They need not be automatically opposed, but they should be carefully scrutinized.”

NRDC recommends paying close attention to plans for incinerators, landfills, waste transfer stations, water pollution control or sewage treatment plants, bus or truck depots and parking lots, power plants, highways, airports, metal plating and auto body or auto repair shops. Beyond looking out for these and other types of polluting projects, community residents should be aware of and ask questions about any proposed change in zoning or in the local municipal or county “Master Plan” or “Community Environmental Plan.”

Finding out about a bad project coming your way is only the beginning: “If you find that a proposed change might adversely affect your community, gather as much information about the proposal as possible and inform your neighbors about your concerns,” says NRDC. Arranging for a time and place where locals can meet to discuss what’s happening and organize around preventing it is the next step.

Some of the tasks necessary to mounting a good defense include thoroughly researching a proposed facility’s potential impacts (including contacting people in other areas where similar types of facilities have been sited), bringing in experts and reaching out to more community members to align them accordingly.

If community members are focused on their goals and have enough support from neighbors they can succeed in either blocking a proposed new facility or expansion, or at least in increasing pollution controls. Another positive outcome could be a revision to local ordinances to prevent future polluters from moving in. For more information, see NRDC’s free online guide, “You Can Beat City Hall,” which outlines how to watch out for and organize against polluting entities in our own backyards, so to speak.

CONTACT: NRDC’s “You Can Beat City Hall,” http://www.nrdc.org/cities/living/local/guide.asp.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

thTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: How does the Rocky Mountain Institute think we can get off of oil and coal by 2050 and save money in the process? -- James Greenville, Redding, CT

Colorado-based sustainability think-tank Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) was founded in 1982 by American physicist and environmentalist Amory Lovins to research and promote market-based solutions to our energy crisis without breaking the bank. The group is focusing efforts on transforming domestic and eventually global energy use to create a clean, prosperous and secure energy future by mid-century.

“We can eliminate our addiction to oil and coal by 2050 and use one-third less natural gas while switching to efficient use and renewable supply,” says Lovins, adding that doing so could actually cost less and support a more robust economy than continuing with business-as-usual: “Moreover, this transition needs no new inventions and no acts of Congress and no new federal taxes, mandate subsidies or laws…”

To get there, Lovins acknowledges that we have to start thinking differently now. RMI is advocating cutting U.S. electricity consumption by 18 percent over the next 10 years while almost doubling renewable energy’s share of generation from 16 to 30 percent.

Few would argue with the cost savings and environmental benefits of such a plan—implementation is the challenge. According to Lovins, we already have the technologies to help foster a rapid evolution of our electricity system, but we still need the political and institutional will to make it happen. RMI has begun a dialogue with utilities and other entities to align incentives and create more opportunities for electricity users to contribute clean power to the grid themselves through technologies like rooftop solar power.

One key feature of RMI’s plan is rate structures that reflect the true benefits and costs of moving to more distributed (small scale/decentralized) energy resources. The group is working with utilities to launch six “Electricity Innovation Labs” nationally as well as a “Solar Development Excellence Center” to highlight the feasibility of distributed renewables. RMI also wants to simplify commercial photovoltaic financing, incorporate renewables into real estate finance and make solar financing affordable to underserved markets.

RMI also wants to make large buildings much more energy efficient, and aims to make a billion square feet of commercial space 35 percent more efficient by 2025 through so-called “deep energy” retrofits, including the adoption of more renewables. RMI is targeting four of the largest, most influential segments of the buildings market—major companies, the General Services Administration, the Department of Defense and “activist” cities (those already on the green cutting edge)—for major energy retrofits, and is working to persuade private investors to consider overall impact and long-term costs, not just short term gains.

Another major part of RMI’s plan is to work with large metro regions with upwards of 10 million residents, and with university campuses, to make major efficiency gains. Other keys to getting us off oil and coal by 2050 include transforming how we design and use vehicles, and getting Fortune 500 corporations to rejigger their energy supply chains to facilitate procurement of more renewable energy. Beyond the U.S., RMI is working along similar lines with China and other large developing countries to help them avoid some of the energy development missteps undertaken here at home.

CONTACT: Rocky Mountain Institute, www.rmi.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.


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