Posts Tagged ‘energy conservation’

Community Resilience, Ecosystems and Sustainable Economics

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

This is the first in a series of three articles on community resilience and building a sustainable economy (second article, third article). It is a modified version of an article originally appearing in my syndicated newspaper column “Your Ecological House.”

~PSW

Contemplate, if you will, the concept of  “resilience in complex adaptive systems.”

“What’s that all about? ” you might well ask. “And what’s it got to do with me?”

I’ll answer the second question first. In recent columns I have pointed out that humanity is living in a state of environmental overshoot. We are using up the earth’s resources faster than nature can replace them. We are also filling up the earth’s “waste” sinks — the oceans and atmosphere — faster than nature can reprocess the byproducts of our global economy, bringing us to the verge of ocean ecosystem collapse and the onset of disruptive climate change.

Although these conditions potentially could be rectified by an international crash program of environmental restoration, our current population, economic growth trajectories and politics make such a late-hour campaign seem unlikely — at least until quite a bit more environmental damage has been done and the concomitant economic chaos ensues, forcing the issue.

Although the environmental crisis is global, its effects will be felt locally — by you, your family and your neighbors. And as the global economy weakens, the burden of response to the crisis will fall increasingly on local communities.

That’s why some communities are developing “community resilience strategies.” Those communities that have anticipated the changing conditions, invested in sustainable local economies and prepared resilient responses to “systemic perturbations” (trouble), will have a better chance of prospering, or at least of weathering the crisis, than those that do not.

Modeling Community Resilience on Ecosystems

But how can you prepare a resilient response to unknown or unpredictable developments?

That’s where studying “resilience in complex adaptive systems” such as ecosystems and human communities comes in. Ecosystems and human communities are complex because they are comprised of many elements that are constantly interacting with one another and the environment. They are adaptive, because they are capable of changing to meet new conditions imposed by internal and external forces.

Yet they also seek stability to maintain their core function — supporting life in an ecosystem, supporting people in a town. How do ecosystems — and, by inference, how can human systems — maintain their core functions when subjected to stress?

First, the life forms in an ecosystem are completely adapted to local environmental conditions including available sunlight, temperature and nutrients. That provides them with a strong basis for stability and self-correcting behavior to resist perturbations that fit within predictable or previously experienced parameters — “normal” environmental fluctuations such as cyclical changes in weather patterns or periodic fires.

Although humans can create environmental systems that are not constrained by location — we can live at the South Pole, if we so desire — there are significant costs to living in an environmentally inappropriate fashion. For example, consuming too much water by growing lawns in the desert is environmentally destructive and, therefore, ultimately self-destructive. If desert communities adopt strict water-conservation rules that require people to choose between, say, growing a lawn or taking showers, those communities will increase their chances of remaining viable. (They can landscape with native plants that are suited for the environment.)

Second, ecosystems conserve energy — and thus make sufficient energy available for the life forms they support — by closing nutrient loops. Once plants store the sun’s energy in their tissue, that energy is circulated as food up and down the food chain until it is once again reduced to basic plant food: nothing goes to waste.

Humans are notorious energy wasters, using far more energy than is required for the maintenance of their systems. By closing loops within their local economies — for example, reprocessing recycled materials locally, rather than sending them to distant countries for reprocessing, and reusing local food and human “waste” to grow food— communities can conserve energy while increasing local economic opportunity. Simultaneously, they will reduce their reliance on increasingly unreliable external energy, material and food supplies.

While seamless adaptation to local conditions and energy efficiency stabilize ecosystems against normal environmental fluctuations, additional strategies have evolved to protect against unique or extreme events or conditions. They include biodiversity, which ensures redundancy within an ecosystem’s living components; feedback mechanisms that regulate energy imbalances; and innovation potentials that allow for entirely new systems to evolve in response to severe perturbations.

In the next article in this series, Community Resilience, Diversity and Feedback Loops, I’ll discuss how to adopt these strategies to enhance community resilience at our ecological house.

~PSW

 

Global Warming Solution? Energy Conservation and Carbon Biostorage

Friday, February 17th, 2012

This is the second in a series of articles outlining proposed solutions to the problem of global warming. Read the first article here

Good design gives us the most for the least — the biggest bang for our buck. For example, a properly engineered steel beam is no larger than it has to be to carry its anticipated load and provide a little extra margin of safety. A bigger beam would be uneconomical, while a smaller beam would be unsafe.

The same principle applies to tackling complex problems. Any proposed global warming solution should try to mitigate and adapt to global warming’s negative effects by the least costly and disruptive means, while recognizing that costs and changes to “business as usual” are inevitable. Our strategy should be to try to turn the costs into benefits, and the changes into long-term economic stability and positive cultural evolution.

In the first article in this series I discussed design parameters and called for a three-part global warming solution of conserving energy, lowering existing greenhouse gas levels (not just curbing future emissions), and transitioning to appropriate energy technologies. All three strategies can and should be implemented simultaneously and immediately.

Energy conservation is fundamental to the sustainability of any dynamic system, because it takes energy to get energy. Fortunately, energy conservation is the cheapest, most effective and most easily implemented measure we can take to reduce global warming — while simultaneously addressing a host of other environmental problems.

The 2009 McKinsey Report on energy efficiency  establishes that investments of $520 billion in efficiency measures — not counting energy used for transportation — can save $1.2 trillion in energy expenditures by 2020-2025, with most of the investments delivering savings for the decades to come. (Other studies predict similar results.)

The investment could come from all sectors, public and private, and in small and large amounts. For example, houses represent 35 percent of the possible gains in efficiency, so there is a large role for homeowners to play.

The Biostorage Global Warming Solution

Removing greenhouse gases, mostly CO2, from the atmosphere must begin immediately. We are already close to the safe limit (450 parts per million) of CO2 loading, and we’re seeing the early effects of global warming. The carbon emissions of both developed and developing countries, particularly China and India, will push us past the safe limit in about 20 years, and CO2 persists in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, locking in warming trends.

While many schemes for capturing and sequestering “carbon” have been proposed, most involve developing new machines, some of which are energy intensive and all of which are expensive. But nature has been sequestering carbon for millions of years — look at all that coal and oil! — through a mechanism known as “biostorage.” Plants, with their combined millions of square miles of leaf and algal-cell surfaces, use free solar energy to capture atmospheric CO2 and convert it into billions of tons of botanical biomass (tissue).

In nature, this process is mostly reversible: when plants die and decompose, most of their carbon is released back into the atmosphere. However, as coal and oil illustrate, a portion of that carbon can remain buried in the earth.

By mimicking nature’s processes, humans can convert up to 30 percent of farm and forest waste biomass into a form of charcoal called “biochar,” a soil amendment, and bury it in the soil, where it will remain for hundreds or even thousands of years.

So biostorage is a two-step process of growing plants, which quickly but temporarily store carbon in their biomass, and storing some of that carbon permanently as biochar or in other forms.

Trees dwarf other plants in their carbon storage capacity and planting millions of them is an obvious carbon sequestering strategy. But other forms of plant cultivation are also promising.

For example, pioneering agronomist Wes Jackson has developed “perennial grains” — hybrids of native prairie grasses and food crops such as wheat and sorghum — at The Land Institute in Kansas. Prairie grasses have huge root systems that live for years beneath the soil. If perennials overtake annuals as a primary food source, and if millions of acres are planted, billions of tons of carbon can be sequestered in the living roots, and recycled into new plants as the old ones die and are broken down to make new “plant food.”

In upcoming articles in this series, I’ll discuss other biostorage ideas and the technological, cultural and economic transition needed to shepherd humanity through the global warming era.

~PSW

This post is a modified version of an article that was originally written as syndicated newspaper column, published in various locations around the U.S. in February, 2012. 

Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make, without raising your cost one cent. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, David Archer

(Note, David Archer, the teacher of a popular course on global warming for non-scientists at the University of Chicago, now offers a version, “Open Climate 101” — online and for free. If you complete the online course, he’ll send you a signed certificate. Read a good review of Online 101 on the NY Times Dot Earth environmental blog.)

Storms of My Grand Children, James C. Hansen
Hell and High Water, Joseph Romm
Forecast, Stephan Faris
Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Mark Lynas

Related Links On Ecotecture:

Global Warming Solution? The Framework for a Plan (1st article in this series)

How Can We Stop Global Warming? Brains, Bodies or Biochar? 

Is It Too Late for Renewable Energy to Slow Global Warming? 

Man-Made Global Warming: It’s Real, Get Over It!

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.

 

Global Warming Solution? The Framework for a Plan

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

So many solutions to global warming have been proposed that we can’t see the forest for the trees. Confusion over how to approach the growing threat abounds in all quarters, from those of government policy makers to the scientific establishment to the thousands of environmentalists confronting the problem.

This is to be expected, because the scope and complexity of the challenge is unprecedented. Left unabated, global warming — which is ubiquitous and without borders — threatens to disrupt the global economy and even the stability of the ecosphere (see “Relevant Reading,” below).

It’s no wonder then, that there is confusion about the appropriate responses to the developing crisis. Global warming will affect everyone; therefore almost everyone has an idea about what should be done.

But few coherent, systemic solutions have been proposed. Instead, there is a hodgepodge of disconnected ideas, often half-formulated, often contradicting each other, either because of a lack of understanding of the dimensions of the problem or the failure to take an overview of its myriad aspects. Or, because of conflicting agendas between, say, developed and developing nations or vested interests and the public good.

The numerous partial global warming solutions include proposals for abandoning fossil fuels and adopting new energy sources ranging from solar, wind, geothermal and wave energy to nuclear energy; assorted plans for limiting greenhouse gas emissions including taxing “carbon” and burning “clean coal”; dubious schemes for atmospheric geoengineering; manufacturing more electric cars; increasing rail service; deploying artificial trees; burying biochar; and on and on.

Given enough time, humanity might have the luxury of allowing these proposals to develop, compete, evolve and coalesce into (pardon the phrase) a new world order that addresses global warming and its underlying socioeconomic causes in a pervasive, beneficial fashion. But we don’t have the luxury of allowing such “creative destruction” to act out for the century or more that would be needed to yield tangible results.

A Comprehensive Global Warming Solution

We need to formulate a comprehensive global warming solution now that will address the problem within the next 20 years, while we still have a chance of curbing its worst effects or, ideally, reversing warming to some extent. We should start by laying out the parameters for a realistic plan that could ultimately meet with success.

The objective is straightforward enough: to reduce the causes and curb the effects of global warming by means that can be implemented with affordable, existing, appropriate technology; are scalable and therefore “democratic”; can work with or without government support; are environmentally nurturing and regenerative; and will advance a relatively smooth transition to sustainable economic and cultural institutions worldwide.

That’s a mouthful, but it’s not necessarily an impossibly tall order. If you look at some of the key concepts — affordable, appropriate, scalable, regenerative, smooth —  you’ll see that it’s a minimalist approach to the problem, seeking to do the most with the least.

For example, Ecotecture’s three part proposal for curbing global warming, to be elaborated upon in subsequent articles, involves: 1) energy conservation, 2) biostorage of greenhouse gases (growing trees and conserving forests, revitalizing prairies, transforming agriculture and cultivating algae for fuel and sequestration) and, 3) adopting regionally appropriate, minimal-investment energy technologies to displace our current unsustainable energy regime.

Note that there is no call for “developing new energy sources to meet our growing needs” in developed countries. That’s because numerous studies have shown that energy conservation and efficiency measures can reduce U.S. energy consumption by 20 percent or more, without even counting the transportation sector. The reductions can save us over a trillion dollars, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs and obviate the need for new energy development in the near future. Since it takes energy to get energy, we need to conserve the energy we have as our first priority, while simultaneously converting to renewable energy sources.

The “scalable and therefore ‘democratic’” parameter means that the measures can be undertaken by individuals or communities or scaled upward to national or multi-national efforts. A homeowner can choose to insulate her house, a state can mandate stringent “green” building codes; the world’s nations can agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Working with or without government means that individuals, NGOs or companies can initiate projects — massive tree plantings, for example — when government help is restricted by funding or the inability to formulate policy.

Everyone can join the fight against global warming.

~PSW

A modified version of this article was originally written as syndicated newspaper column, published in various locations around the U.S. in February, 2012. 

Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, David Archer

(Note, David Archer, the teacher of a popular course on global warming for non-scientists at the University of Chicago, now offers a version, “Open Climate 101” — online and for free. If you complete the online course, he’ll send you a signed certificate. Read a good review of Online 101 on the NY Times Dot Earth environmental blog.)

Storms of My Grand Children, James C. Hansen
Hell and High Water, Joseph Romm
Forecast, Stephan Faris
Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planett, Mark Lynas

Related Links On Ecotecture:

How Can We Stop Global Warming? Brains, Bodies or Biochar? 

Is It Too Late for Renewable Energy to Slow Global Warming? 

Man-Made Global Warming: It’s Real, Get Over It!

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.