Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Measuring a Plastic Footprint

Just as the term "carbon footprint" has become common in the business and consumer lexicon, a new footprint (one we also want to shrink!) is on the horizon. Through an alliance between The Association for Sustainable and Responsible Investment in Asia, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Overbrook grantee Project Kaisei's co-founder Douglas Woodring, the Plastic Disclosure Project will provide a centralized web space for the tracking and reporting of plastics.

Kicked off by former President Bill Clinton at an opening plenary of the Clinton Global Initiative earlier this fall, the Plastic Disclosure Project will encourage awareness of the ubiquitous use and "linear system" trashing of plastics, and the vast environmental impacts of this practice. (Check out the difference between a linear system and a closed loop system on Overbrook grantee Story of Stuff's online glossary.)

Disclosure and comparisons of plastic footprints among companies will encourage investors and stakeholders to value their brands not just in terms of today's profits, but also in relation to toxicity, pollution, waste, and human health. Annual surveys of industry participants will be voluntary, with the hope that new businesses will join once the value of PDP becomes clear to investors and consumers. The first go-'round for the PDP will create a baseline for waste, design inputs, and recycling rates, and subsequent surveys will compare plastic footprints between years and among participants.

Why is the Plastic Disclosure Project necessary? The PDP site relays the following information, showing that even modest cut-backs in plastic footprints could yield significant results:

"Industry estimates state that 300 million tons of virgin plastic are made every year. If just one tenth of one percent can be saved through efficiencies, better design, or increased recycling, then 3 million tons could be saved, which is roughly what some conservative estimates say are floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean."

A yearly summary report of the PDP will be available online to industry groups, governments, educational institutions and the public.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mayors Commit, Sending a Pre-Cancun Message

One week before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, over 130 mayors from cities all over the world signed a voluntary pact to reduce greenhouse gases and adapt to climate change. The World Mayors Summit, which convened in Mexico City yesterday, aims to set climate change mitigation and adaptation goals for global cities that are, in the words of the pact, "measurable, reportable and verifiable." Cities that sign the pact will join an online registry where climate data, goals and progress will be logged and easily accessed by government officials as well as city residents.

After sustaining the disappointment of a lackluster Copenhagen agreement, (described here, post-Copenhagen, on Grist.org), city leaders from around the world decided their constituents could no longer wait for national leaders to act. The timing of the Mayors' agreement immediately preceding Cancun could inspire (or possibly shame) global leaders into taking concrete action against climate change. At the very least, if no binding treaty comes out of Cancun, the mayors are hoping for increased financial support, and the open acknowledgment that climate change has become an overwhelming issue requiring immediate, ongoing, large-scale attention.

A Wall Street Journal article from last month describes the "peer pressure" element of environmentally friendly behaviors. Researchers found that people respond most effectively, and in greatest numbers, when their behaviors are compared to those of their peers. Signs on doors informing homeowners they should use fans instead of air conditioning on hot summer days were most effective when they used an "everyone's doing it" approach as opposed to a "use a fan to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions" approach. The mayors' online registry of city climate data could benefit from that psychology. Cities that can track their own progress in relation to others' will, with luck, have a similarly persuasive effect.

As the UN Climate meeting in Cancun approaches amidst a sea of bad news, the Mayors Summit is a sign that tides may be turning.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Story of Stuff Project Launches a New Video

In collaboration with the Electronics TakeBack Coalition and Free Range Studios, the Story of Stuff Project launched its newest video early this week: The Story of Electronics.

Following in the footsteps of the Project's previous four videos, (click here to browse and watch them all), the Story of Electronics pulls no punches in its explanation of the "designed for the dump" mentality under which computers, phones, power cords -- you name it -- are manufactured. The video also illuminates some of the toxic chemicals used to make these devices, and calls into question what really happens when a computer is "recycled." Project creator, spokeswoman and movie star Annie Leonard tells it all with humor and ease.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Another Setback for Renewables

The Wonk Room posted a run-down late last week (cross-posted here by Overbrook grantee Grist.org) on the prospective Republican Representatives vying to lead the House Energy Committee. Until now led by Representative Henry Waxman, co-author with Rep. Edward Markey of last year's ACES (American Clean Energy and Security Act), the House Energy Committee had been poised to influence substantive change in the Federal regulation of greenhouse gases. Not so any longer -- perusing the cast of characters lining up to fill Waxman's spot, it is a disheartening day for environmentalists and businesses promoting renewable energy.

Michigan Representative Fred Upton, as the most senior member of the contenders, is a likely choice to head the House Energy Committee. Although Upton is not a blatant climate change denier, he has characterized proposed energy legislation as "job-killing," and his top donors are energy utilities. Other contenders are John Shimkus, who described proposed climate legislation as a threat greater than terrorism and war, Cliff Stearns, an ardent proponent of drilling in ANWR and Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who bizarrely apologized to BP this summer for what he perceived to be unfairly harsh treatment by Congress in the aftermath of the Gulf disaster.

This news coupled with two New York Times stories this weekend prove once again the growing need for grassroots watchdogs and activists. One article discusses the competitive trouble wind power companies are having against fossil fuel utilities, because the upfront costs of wind are higher. A line from the story explains, "a growing number of projects are being canceled or delayed because governments are unwilling to add even small amounts to consumers’ electricity bills." This, while consumers seem willing (if chagrined) to pay steadily rising bills for cable television.

The other weekend Times story profiles individuals who, in exchange for payment, have leased their private land to oil companies for hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," one of the most environmentally-destructive methods of extracting oil and natural gas there is. Read about fracking here on Overbrook grantee Earthworks' web site.

It seems as though a main obstacle to weaning off of fossil fuels toward a renewable economy is, once again, the behavior and attitudes of consumers and voters. A challenge for environmental groups in coming years will be to shift focus away from the instant gratification of cheap energy, (which, considering oil spills, blow-outs, carbon emissions, deleterious health effects and more, is far from "cheap") toward a longer-term view of the greater benefits to come through clean energy. This is no easy feat in the midst of an economic crisis, for sure. But once voters begin to view a clean environment, health, and greater savings over time as rights and expectations rather than special "perqs," national energy trends will surely change, along with the congressmen and women who represent us.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Changing the Climate Conversation

In a new study out of the University of Michigan, researcher Andy Hoffman attempts to answer the question many conservationists have been asking: why, with scientists worldwide corroborating that climate change is: 1) happening, and 2) caused by human activity, are people so slow to demand policy and behavioral change? Scientists have been researching and quantifying climate change scenarios for decades, yet comparatively little has been investigated from a sociological standpoint. And with today's election predictions warning of a U.S. government even more resistant to greenhouse gas regulations, it may be time to try a new angle in communicating climate change. Perhaps it has been a cultural issue all along, rather than a scientific one.

Hoffman compares lackadaisical responses to climate change to societal battles we've already fought in this country, battles such as the abolition of slavery or the sweeping bans on public smoking. While allowing slavery exists in a whole other realm of offense than public smoking, Hoffman bundled the two examples because they both represent practices that at one time were common, accepted, and economically beneficial to some. Both smoking and slavery took years to overcome, and continued as accepted practices even after large factions of the public denounced them.

"The issue was not just whether cigarettes cause cancer. It was whether people believed it. The second process is wholly different than the first," Hoffman said.

Hoffman is hoping conservationists can look back at these two examples to inform the fight against climate change. The issue now is not whether biking to work or weatherizing your home make a difference, the issue is whether people believe it.

The National Academy of Sciences recently published a similarly-focused study, a series it calls "America's Climate Choices." Risk communication relating to climate change has been comparatively ignored, so the NAS determined to get to the bottom of the societal factors that have been preventing meaningful progress. One of the study's findings describes the majority of Americans as feeling apathetic about their own contribution to mitigating climate change, while a significant percentage (though at 34 percent far from a majority) described themselves as "disengaged," "doubtful" or "dismissive" of the idea of climate change.

One recommendation from the study is to change the way climate change action is framed, to emphasize immediate individual benefit. For example, a person trying to lose weight would be more likely to bike to work if the action were framed as saving emissions as well as preventing obesity, rather than serving only as an altruistic act with long-term results that are unmeasurable on an individual basis.

Another recommendation from the NAS study is for local, web-based movements to keep up the good work. When people see others in their own communities making positive change, they are more likely to step up and pitch in. And while individual actions can feel like a drop in the bucket, people do have quite an influence on emissions in their daily lives. The Environmental Health Perspectives article on "America's Choices" quotes a finding by Michael Vandenbergh, director of the Climate Change Research Network at Vanderbilt University: eight percent of the entire world's total emissions come from individual households in the United States.

It seems like some facts should be able to speak for themselves. But as skeptics abound, it may be time to change the conversation.