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Getting the carbon out of electricity
June 2, 2014

EPA unveils plan to cut electricity’s impact on climate

The Obama administration rolled out rules to reduce the carbon emitted for U.S. electric generation 30 percent by 2030, the most sweeping U.S. climate policy yet enacted. The cuts are reckoned by comparison to 2005, the peak year for carbon-intensive electricity; emissions are already about 15 percent lower. Each state can craft its own path to meet its target through energy efficiency, fuel-switching, or renewables. Deadlines for state plans could stretch into 2018, handing enforcement to Obama’s successor. Prognosticators are gaming the political impact of the rules, which have polled well nationally; and it’s already an issue in key Senate races and fodder for lobbying on both sides.

EU backs off food-based fuel goals, but algae looks promising

The European Union last week dialed back its goals for transportation fuel made from edible crops, out of concern for impacts on food prices, subsistence crops, and habitat. The decision cuts the EU target for renewable fuels in 2020 from 10 to 7 percent. In a nod to other varieties of biofuel, the EU set a voluntary target for the use of advanced fuels made of feedstocks such as municipal waste or non-food biomass. Utah researchers also announced findings that algae—extracted using processes such as this one—could generate 2,500 gallons of oily fuel per acre per year on the most favorable sites.

Native protests obstruct oil, coal projects

A band of native people has encamped on its traditional territory in northern British Columbia, squarely in the path of the Northern Gateway Pipeline from the oil sands of Alberta to the port of Kitimat. The Wet’suwet’en First Nation has vowed to stop Enbridge from moving forward with the project, arguing that it never gave up its sovereignty over its lands and promising to halt the pipeline in court. Hundreds of miles south on the Columbia River, a protest by members of the Yakama Nation has delayed the Morrow coal export dock permit, while an Oregon state agency studies the project’s impact on fisheries.

Carbon in ancient soil sheds new light on global carbon cycle 

New research suggests the world’s soils—already thought to be bigger store of carbon than the atmosphere and vegetation combined—may hold much more carbon than previously thought. Scientists typically measure carbon only to a depth of one to three feet, assuming that most carbon in deeper layers would have decomposed. A recent study of Great Plains soils reveals that fires and dust storms 10,000 years ago produced a carbon-rich layer of soil as deep as 20 feet below the surface. These soils are found worldwide, suggesting that soil-disturbing activities like agriculture and deforestation could release this carbon into the atmosphere.

Public responds more to ‘global warming’ than ‘climate change’

‘Global warming’ evokes greater understanding and support for action than the term ‘climate change,’ according to a new study released by the Yale Project on [ahem] Climate Change Communication. ‘Global warming’ also conveyed that humans cause the phenomenon and that it poses a personal threat. The findings echo Republican pollster Frank Lutz's 2003 memo, which recommended ‘climate change’ as a way to diminish the issue’s traction. Meanwhile, the NYT reports that most Americans acknowledge that global warming is real, although exact proportions vary with the weather: extreme heat elicits greater belief among people who distrust scientists. Ironically, the Grey Lady had just been taken to task for qualifying global warming with the attribution, “scientists say.”

Carbon pricing choices explored

Key choices await Washington state in designing a carbon-pricing scheme, and if you can get past the cheesy metaphor, Sightline offers a typically thorough and thoughtful analysis of the main options at hand: how high to set the price and what to do with the resulting revenue. One option for Washington would be to join the California cap-and-trade system; if it does, part of the carbon price Washingtonians pay might support projects like this Wisconsin dairy’s climate-friendly biogas digester that is supported with offset payments from the Golden State.

Self-driving cars roll out for test drive

Google unveiled its prototype for a self-driving car with no steering wheel, brakes, or accelerator pedals—a technology that could be disruptive on multiple levels. Self-driving technology and intelligent transportation infrastructure, either through Google technology or otherwise, could help enable autonomous taxis, too.  Along similar lines, mass transit is becoming increasingly personalized, according to The Atlantic’s CityLab, with more tailored options such as Zipcar, Uber, and Lyft, as well as mobile apps such as One Bus Away and NextBus that increase travelers’ access to real-time trip information.  

How are bicycles and car2go like the tortoise and the hare?

Speaking of cutting-edge transit, with the proliferation of alternatives to car, bicycle, bus, and taxi, a Seattle Times reporter and her team of confederates raced across town using a variety of new car-sharing services, as well as the traditional four options. The results of their race reveal some of the strengths and shortcomings of each of the new options, in both speed and cost. Without spoiling the suspense, perhaps the greatest surprise was the slim advantage in time between biking and driving.


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Author Bio

For over 20 years, Seth has covered issues of natural resources and the environment as a freelance journalist for numerous publications, including The Nation, Sierra, Orion, Newsweek, and the Christian Science Monitor.  He is the co-editor and co-author of Salmon Nation: People, Fish, and Our Common Home (Ecotrust, 1999) and author of Saving Our Ancient Forests (Living Planet Press, 1991). He taught environmental journalism for two semesters at Brown University and directed the forestry programs of northern California’s Mattole Restoration Council from 2006 to 2011. Seth’s work with Climate Solutions marks a return to his academic roots: he holds an A.B. from Stanford in Energy Studies (1983), and an M.S. from UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group (1990).