“Energy consumed by the United States in one year equals the energy made by the Sun in one millionth of a second”, tweeted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at the weekend. With that in mind, Joseph Iddison looks at the impact of human culture, behaviour and policy on the uptake of clean, limitless energy.
Solar power is one of the most crucial streams of energy for life on Earth. Yet, at the moment at least, mankind’s ability to capture and harness it to meet the global energy demand is a few years behind from where it needs to be.
“If the world could convert 0.03% of the sunlight that falls on Earth into energy, we could meet all of our projected needs for 2030”, says inventor Ray Kuzweil in a TED talk from 2005.
“We can’t do that today because solar panels are heavy, expensive and very inefficient. But there are designs that show the potential for these panels to be very lightweight, very inexpensive and very efficient.”
In one hour, the sun beams onto Earth enough energy to satisfy our global energy needs for an entire year. Solar power is the technology we use to harness the sun’s energy to power our homes, buildings and vehicles. But the technology currently only accounts for just over 0.2% of global energy demand.
One of the reasons for this is our dependence on fossil fuels, both economically and politically. Yet with supply running low, demand increasing and oil companies dictating prices, it seems bizarre that we would continue to allow such reliance to happen, especially when renewable alternatives are in abundance.
Burning fossil fuels is essentially burning captured sunlight from millennia ago. It is worth noting that back in 2007; oil giant ExxonMobil was worth more than all the car manufacturing companies put together.
“People wonder why politicians aren’t responding to the global climate crisis. It’s because they are responsive to a higher power – that higher power is the fossil fuel industry”, says Michel Gelobter, president of Redefining Progress.
“The political system has failed us. It’s this chasm between public opinion – of wanting efficient and sustainable cars – to public policy, to government. That’s where the failure has been.”
Meanwhile, Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, notes some of the solutions that the human race has at its disposal right now, and what financial cost there would be to restoring the Earth.
“The total budget would be around $160 billion per year to undo what has happened”, he says.
“This includes reforestation, soil conservation, and a whole series of things designed to stabilise the Earth’s ecosystem. It also includes stabilising poverty and even eradicating poverty. Now $160 billion of extra expenditure is a lot, but it’s only a third of the US military budget.”
The late, great Ray Anderson, founder of Interface in the US, highlighted the importance of making the most of what is already in abundance – even our waste from food and packaging.
“We’ve already tapped into the landfill to capture the methane being produced by the garbage. We then pipe that to our factory and substitute it for natural gas, representing 20% of our energy”, he explains.
As well as demonstrating good business for his company – as methane is cheaper than natural gas – Anderson believed everyone benefits from landfill methane extraction: most importantly the Earth.
“When you burn methane to capture its energy content and reduce it to carbon dioxide, you’re reducing its global warming effect 23 to one. The city gets money from us for purchasing the methane, but this also means that we are postponing the day for a new landfill because, as you draw off the methane, the landfill level comes down, extending its useful lifetime.”
Anderson feels that such a form of energy, which is already there and essentially free to use, is not being capitalised on. “There are about 10,000 landfills in America, and only 300 businesses or institutions capturing the methane produced from them.”
Not all waste can be converted into something beneficial, however, Anderson noted.
“The entire industrial system has to be reinvented. For every truckload of product there are 32 truckloads of waste. So we have a system that is a waste making system. We cannot continue to dig up the Earth and turn it into waste. In nature, there is no waste – one organism’s waste is another’s food. That is the model for the industrial system – a waste free system.”
To see Ray Anderson in action, watch his TED talk here.
However, people have begun to adopt more environmentally-friendly strategies to their ways of life; most importantly, perhaps, their source and consumption of energy. Steven Strong, an environmental author, acknowledges this change, placing emphasis on the problems of mass energy output as well as the positives of independent energy generation.
“We’ve all seen the vulnerability of our systems, with power failures and blackouts”, he describes.
“There is a fundamental shift underway in the way that we generate and distribute energy – from a highly centralised infrastructure of large central power plants and vast transmission and distribution network, to a more decentralised infrastructure where you have customer-sited generation of many forms. This provides a much higher level of autonomy and independence, but moreover, a much higher level of resiliency, and therefore reliability.
“Energy needs to come from the sun. Life runs on sunlight. We, at the moment, run on ancient photosynthesis and fossil fuels.”
Maximising the effect and benefit of existing technologies is important to how we progress forward in the future. According to statistics, with all of the technologies we have today, as well as technologies very close to being developed in the future, we could reduce our carbon footprint by 90%. Whether enough people can change their habits is difficult to predict. What is clear, however, is that policy can have the largest impact of all.
Joseph Iddison is a student in his final year of an English degree at the University of Leicester. He intends to do a master’s in geographical information science and human geography.
2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage
Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.
Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.
Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each
The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.
Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey
Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.
Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.
Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.
That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.
Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.
Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.
Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.
The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.
Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity
Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.
Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.
It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.
Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight
The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.
The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.
2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded
People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.
Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.
Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.
Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.
Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.
How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018
Nowadays, more and more people are talking about being more eco-responsible. There is a constant growth of information regarding the importance of being aware of ecological issues and the methods of using eco-friendly necessities on daily basis.
Have you been considering becoming more eco-responsible after the New Year? If so, here are some useful tips that could help you make the difference in the following year:
1. Energy – produce it, save it
If you’re building a house or planning to expand your living space, think before deciding on the final square footage. Maybe you don’t really need that much space. Unnecessary square footage will force you to spend more building materials, but it will also result in having to use extra heating, air-conditioning, and electricity in it.
It’s even better if you seek professional help to reduce energy consumption. An energy audit can provide you some great piece of advice on how to save on your energy bills.
While buying appliances such as a refrigerator or a dishwasher, make sure they have “Energy Star” label on, as it means they are energy-efficient.
Regarding the production of energy, you can power your home with renewable energy. The most common way is to install rooftop solar panels. They can be used for producing electricity, as well as heat for the house. If powering the whole home is a big step for you, try with solar oven then – they trap the sunlight in order to heat food! Solar air conditioning is another interesting thing to try out – instead of providing you with heat, it cools your house!
2. Don’t be just another tourist
Think about the environment, as well your own enjoyment – try not to travel too far, as most forms of transport contribute to the climate change. Choose the most environmentally friendly means of transport that you can, as well as environmentally friendly accommodation. If you can go to a destination that is being recommended as an eco-travel destination – even better! Interesting countries such as Zambia, Vietnam or Nicaragua are among these destinations that are famous for its sustainability efforts.
3. Let your beauty be also eco-friendly
We all want to look beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes (or very often) it comes with a price. Cruelty-free cosmetics are making its way on the world market but be careful with the labels – just because it says a product hasn’t been tested on animals, it doesn’t mean that some of the product’s ingredients haven’t been tested on some poor animal.
To be sure which companies definitely stay away from the cruel testing on animals, check PETA Bunny list of cosmetic companies just to make sure which ones are truly and completely cruelty-free.
It’s also important if a brand uses toxic ingredients. Brands such as Tata Harper Skincare or Dr Bronner’s use only organic ingredients and biodegradable packaging, as well as being cruelty-free. Of course, this list is longer, so you’ll have to do some online research.
4. Know thy recycling
People often make mistakes while wanting to do something good for the environment. For example, plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, paper coffee cups and shredded paper cannot be recycled in your curb for many reasons, so don’t throw them into recycling bins. The same applies to pizza boxes, household glass, ceramics, and pottery – whether they are contaminated by grease or difficult to recycle, they just can’t go through the usual recycling process.
People usually forget to do is to rinse plastic and metal containers – they always have some residue, so be thorough. Also, bottle caps are allowed, too, so don’t separate them from the bottles. However, yard waste isn’t recyclable, so any yard waste or junk you are unsure of – just contact rubbish removal services instead of piling it up in public containers or in your own yard.
5. Fashion can be both eco-friendly and cool
Believe it or not, there are actually places where you can buy clothes that are eco-friendly, sustainable, as well as ethical. And they look cool, too! Companies like Everlane are very transparent about where their clothes are manufactured and how the price is set. PACT is another great company that uses non-GMO, organic cotton and non-toxic dyes for their clothing, while simultaneously using renewable energy factories. Soko is a company that uses natural and recycled materials in making their clothes and jewelry.
All in all
The truth is – being eco-responsible can be done in many ways. There are tons of small things we could change when it comes to our habits that would make a positive influence on the environment. The point is to start doing research on things that can be done by every person and it can start with the only thing that person has the control of – their own household.
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