As they catch my eye, I plan to post links to important, controversial or outstanding stories on the environment and green biz. Here are few recent picks.
In the “The Truth About Recycling,” The Economist (June 7th, 2007) offers up a surprisingly riveting and typically data-packed tale about the global flow of recycled waste — paper, cardboard, glass, electronics, crashed cars and the like — pouring into junk yards. The good news is that the US recycles more, by weight, then other developed nations, according to OECD data. The bad news: that’s the case because we consume so much in absolute terms. As a percentage of total waste, the US recycles less than other developed nations. A growing share of this waste is carted off to China, where a raging hunger for paper, metals, plastics and other raw materials is driving demand for our castoffs. Plus, in China, lower cost labor and lax environmental rules make it cheaper to process there instead of here. (An aside: New York City’s largest export, by volume? Paper pulp. Yep, countless tons of Times, Posts, New Yorkers, and BWs are bundled up and boated to China, eventually to become boxes in which goods are exported back to the US.)
The Economist piece is mostly sanguine about the merits of the global traffic in recyclables. Since this waste has significant value, fears that it is just dumped once sent to China are mostly unfounded. Yet worries about the health and environmental effects of recycling practices in China are valid, as is made stunningly clear in a photo essay by Natalie Behring at Foreign Policy. “Inside The Digital Dump” looks at China’s recycling yards, where mountains of e-junk are manually chopped up, stripped down and remade. Re-use is good, for the most part, but these images reinforce worries that the conditions at these sites are unsafe for the adults — and children — who do the dirty work.
Concerns over China’s growth-first, environment-second approach to development are weighing more heavily than ever on foreign corporations operating there. In “Scorched Earth: Will Environmental Risks in China Overwhelm Its Opportunities?”, the June 2007 Harvard Business Review looks at what businesses can expect to find and “how to handle it”.
In the US, following a period of grain-alcohol fueled euphoria last year, the outlook for corn ethanol is getting cloudier. Questions are multiplying as fast as ethanol plants in the plain states: Is an ethanol bubble shaping up? Who will survive if it bursts? Is corn ethanol energy efficient? How much will energy demand drive up food prices? The last issue is the focus of “How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor” in Foreign Affairs’ May/June 2007 issue. The piece takes a highly critical look at the implications of this tradeoff in international food markets. Two years into the US ethanol boom, it’s been well reported that demand for corn ethanol is driving up food prices here and abroad. At a recent meeting in New York of the Council on Foreign Affairs, C. Ford Runge, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota and a co-author of the paper put the issue down in stark terms: “Filling up the tank of a 25 gallon SUV with ethanol requires about 450 bushels of corn. That’s about enough to feed a single person for a year.” Runge’s worry is that the proponents of ethanol backing corn ethanol -- including farmers, their congressmen, auto makers and big-agra companies -- are so strong they are pushing through bad investments and bad publice that could hurt the US economy, and the poor here and overseas.
Speaking of subsidies, the debate over how much public support to rain on what industry is never ending. At RenewableEnergyAccess.com, Dave P. Buemi, of Prescient Marketing, makes a sharp point reminding us that the green energy sector is often accused of sucking up subsidies unfairly. Those charges, he points out, typically foget to reference to the mega-flows of direct and indirect support that incumbent energy industries, like big oil, coal, and utilities already get. It’s a helpful reminder that subsidies are dangerous tonic: once given, they’re hard to stop, and the more powerful an industry becomes, the more politically savvy it becomes about protecting its subsidies.
On the green building front, two pieces of note. Check out the New York Times Magazine’s special issue on green design in late May. In “Why Are They Greener Than We Are?” Nicolai Ouroussoff traces the deep roots of Europe’s romance with green building. They go back to rebuilding after World War II, when Europe was poor, and materials and energy were costly. Today in Europe, with long standing green building habits and codes, high efficiency structures are the norm, not the exception. Not so in the US, where some cities encouraging green building haven’t gotten the policy quite right yet. In “Green Gone Wild in Vegas” (5/30/07, subscription required), The Wall Street Journal offers a lesson on what happens when green building codes go bad. In Las Vegas, planners didn’t think through the long term implications of tax rate reductions for green buildings. The plan became so popular the city now faces a fiscal crisis.
Next, to the roads. It was only 30 years ago when “automatic transmissions” were an exotic performance add-on for new cars. Just 20 years ago, power windows were still a luxe extra. These days, both are ho-hum features. Advanced technology has a way of going from rare to everyday, and its transforming faster with each tech wave. At Toyota, its happening with hybrid technology. MotorAuthority.com highlights how Toyota's plans to become an all-hybrid car maker sooner than it originally planned. The announcement, while expected, means that by 2020 all of Toyota’s fleets will be high efficiency electric-gas hybrids. When that happens, will each car still get that little green leaf on the back?
Lastly, let's step back and recall why hybrid sales are booming. Toyota’s all-time sales of hybrids eclipsed 1,000,000 this month. It took eight years to hit 500,000 but just two more to double that. Have a look at the sleek info-graphic in the May issue of Wired, "Atlas: Where to Gas Up Around the Globe (Or Take the Bus)". The image shows what it costs to gas up around the globe. A gallon costs the least in Tehran, at 33c. It’s averaging about ten times that in the US today. And the most costly fill up? London, at $6.65 per gallon.