When Local Food Helps Fight Climate Change — and When It Doesn’t

by Luc Reid
This article originally appeared in the Williston (Vermont) Observer

Burlington Farmers Market

Burlington Farmers Market

We Vermonters have it made where it comes to local food. While our growing season is short, we’re long on Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) options, farms, farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and gardens.

After Hurricane Sandy, I got interested in local food as a way to help fight climate change. On average, food is the fourth biggest household contributor to climate damage (after transportation, electricity and combined home heating and hot water). Unfortunately, it turns out that “local” doesn’t always mean “low climate impact,” but a few pointers can help us know when it does.

One of the best ways to lower our food footprint is to eat more plant products and less meat. For example: according to carbon footprint expert Mike Berners-Lee, half a pound of strawberries grown nearby in season has only about 1/20 of the climate change impact of, say, a cheeseburger. Cows (as well as sheep, goats, llamas, buffalo, deer, etc.) eat grass and emit methane, a greenhouse gas more than twenty times as bad as CO2. This gives dairy products a larger footprint and puts red meat among the worst climate offenders compared to pork (not as bad), poultry and fish (better), or in-season vegetables and grains (best). Some plant-based alternatives to meat include tofu, seitan (“wheat meat”), and beans.

Local grass-fed beef, though there are very good things about it, unfortunately has about the same climate impact as anonymous beef from far-away factory farms.

The other big climate troublemaker among foods, believe it or not, is the evil twin of those local strawberries. Fruits and vegetables grown in hothouses or flown in from distant places can have a hugely inflated carbon footprint. For example, hothouse or air freight strawberries are almost twelve times as bad for the climate as local, seasonal ones. Other big offenders include out-of-season cherry tomatoes and asparagus.

Some plant foods from distant parts aren’t so bad. Bananas, for instance, are usually shipped by low-impact methods like boats, and they don’t have to be rushed or refrigerated, so their footprint is quite small.

In Vermont, we have root vegetables, apples, and preserved plant foods (like pickles, dried tomatoes, kimchi, and frozen strawberries) available throughout the winter. Additionally, Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury, which offers weekly food pickups throughout the state, grows foods like spinach and mesclun right through the winter in greenhouses that are heated with used vegetable oil instead of fossil fuels.

Of course, there’s no fresher, more local food than what comes from your own back yard. Gardening isn’t always easy, but it can be a fun and relaxing hobby at home or in a community garden, and there’s no way to beat your own fresh corn or tomatoes. Beyond the garden, other great home growing opportunities for Vermonters include blueberries, hazelnuts, and stone fruits like plums. Even if you don’t have a yard, it’s often easy to grow some greens or strawberries in containers on a porch or stoop, and beyond the great taste, eating your own produce connects you with your food in a way nothing else can.

Even food grown at home generally isn’t free of climate impact, though. Careful use of water and building materials, together with avoiding chemical fertilizers and sprays, can keep that footprint small.

Here are a few tips for shrinking your climate foodprint:

  • Include more plant foods and less meat in your diet as well as you can while still meeting nutritional needs
  • Local and regional foods usually have a smaller impact than ones from far away
  • Organic foods are usually more climate-friendly than non-organic ones
  • Poultry and some kinds of fish and shellfish have a lower footprint than pork and dairy, which in turn have a lower footprint than red meat
  • It’s estimated that in the U.S., we waste up to half of the food we produce! Buy no more than you need and use what’s in your refrigerator to keep waste down and save money.

If You’re Feeling Despair

If your faith in our country and our people is shaken, if you see this terrible reversal as a catastrophe about which you can do nothing, please remember: now you are needed in a way you would never have been needed if nothing had gone wrong. We need your good efforts, your willingness to work to uphold what is right and what is compassionate. We need your good sense, to point the way when many compasses will be spinning and useless. We need your patience, to wait until this has passed so that we can pick up the pieces and move on, but we also need your stubbornness, your unwillingness to be plowed under by ignorance and hate, your best ideas and strongest convictions, your anxieties made into understanding, your hopelessness made into acceptance.

Thank you for being willing to hold fast onto the things you can protect and to make those small gains that may be possible. I know you may want to crawl under a rock for four years and come back out when this is over. I would love to join you there. But we can’t, because now we have work to do, and it is time to get started.

Luc

PS – If you’re having a really bad day and could use some ideas on how to turn it around, here are some suggestions gleaned from psychological research: How to Stop Having a Bad Day.

Which kills more people, climate change or terrorism?

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Climate or terrorism?

Some sources for related information:

The Engine on the Electric Bus Goes (silence) …

By now you’ve probably heard of electric cars, but have you heard about electric buses? They have all of the advantages of good electric cars in a larger size. For example, they’re very quiet, don’t put out any exhaust, have a low carbon footprint, and require much less maintenance than an ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle.

Drive Electric Vermont today shared a photo of an electric bus visiting the University of Vermont. Take a look:

Proterra electric bus

While electric buses currently cost more than ICE buses, they pay for their extra costs with fuel, maintenance, and repair savings, and once they’ve done that they start saving money for taxpayers. Proterra buses are one option; another is Nova Bus. With EV technology improving practically before our eyes and an ever-wider network of charging stations, maybe it’s time to start thinking about about bringing some of these amazing vehicles into our municipal and school bus fleets.

Bill Nye’s Book on the Science of Climate Change Solutions

Science Guy Bill Nye’s new book on climate change, Unstoppable, is an outstanding and (I’m fairly certain) unique book about climate change, focusing on the science behind the many solutions available to us. With a friendly, down-to-earth, entertaining delivery, Nye provides clear and useful explanations of both current and just-over-the-horizon technologies and related scientfic phenomena. The result is a book that will appeal both to science enthusiasts and to anyone interested in a constructive, hopeful, extremely well-informed book about the science of fighting climate change.

Unstoppable

Nye for the most part takes no sides except that of the science, so that when discussing controversial topics (like nuclear energy, for instance), he provides not a prebaked opinion, but rather a careful description of pros, cons, and unintended consequences. Because he focuses on the scientific realities and near-term possibilities, his perspective is as refreshing as it is informative.

Some of the solutions Nye describes are available right now, like home energy efficiency improvements and solar power generation. Others should emerge in the next few years, like self-driving cars and widespread use of home power battery packs, which still others are only hopes for the future, like entirely new kinds of power transmission lines made from carbon fiber and truly sustainable biofuels.

One shortcoming I see in the book is an incomplete treatment of carbon footprints–although to be fair, few sources I’ve seen take an in-depth approach in calculating carbon footprints (Mike Berners-Lee’s How Bad Are Bananas? is a stand-out exception). For example, Nye more than once refers to nuclear power as carbon-free, which may be true if all you’re looking at is direct emissions from the power plant itself, but which fails to take into account the carbon footprint from construction of these extremely resource-intensive facilities or of mining their fuel (and later handling the resulting nuclear waste). As another example, when discussing self-driving taxipods, Nye doesn’t examine the extra impact of these vehicles having to drive to where their are passengers in the first place, which is probably a negligible concern in urban areas but much more significant elsewhere.

The Nye Home in Studio City, CA

The Nye Home in Studio City, CA

Another problem with the book is Nye’s multi-chapter discussion toward the end of the book about space exploration, a section has virtually nothing to do with climate change. Nye being the C.E.O. of the Planetary Exploration Society, I can well understand his support, but rocket launches (which are required even for, to give an example, the solar-powered spacecraft he discusses) are among the very worst offenders in terms of greenhouse gas emissions of any human activity. Climate impact expert Mike Berners-Lee estimates a space shuttle launch emits at least 4,600,000 kilograms CO2 equivalent, roughly similar to 200 years of emissions for an average American, 1,500 years of emissions for an average citizen of China, or 46,000 years of emissions for the average Malawian.

Space boosterism emphatically doesn’t belong in a book on climate change, but you can safely skip chapters 31 to 33 without missing anything important climate change information, or read them if you are curious about space travel (though I’d encourage everyone to think of that as something to explore further after we’ve dealt with climate change). Either way, those chapters don’t much detract from what otherwise, on the whole, is an excellent set of insights into climate change and its solutions.

New, Engrossing Climate Visuals Site Boosts Climate Change Communication

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This gallery contains 4 photos.

The new Web site ClimateVisuals.Org offers both copyrighted and free images that explain the causes, consequences, solutions, and stories behind climate change. It’s a remarkable new resource developed from thoughtful and careful research into how people respond to and understand … Continue reading

Electric Cars vs Fuel Cell Cars: One Clear Loser

It may not seem like cars are going through their most radical change since Henry Ford’s assembly line, but they are. Electric vehicles (EVs) are a small but growing fraction of vehicle sales in the U.S., and this is with limited public knowledge, short range among affordable EVs, relatively few charging stations, and high price tags.

Early electric car

You may be amazed to learn, as I was, that electric cars were widely popular from the dawn of the automobile until the electric starter replaced the hand crank and made gas-powered cars less of a pain in the neck.

But the 2016 model year brings at least two strides forward: the Chevy Volt has improved gas mileage, lowered price, and increased electric range from 38 to 53 miles, while the 2016 Leaf’s range expands from 84 to 107 miles. With used EVs becoming available plus the likelihood of more battery innovations and dropping battery costs, EV’s are crossing the line to becoming a cheaper than gas cars, on top of their many other advantages, like powerful acceleration, quietness, and greatly reduced maintenance costs.

By the way, if you’re concerned that EVs might not be a good choice for the climate in some parts of the country, you’ve probably heard the comparison of oil to coal-generated electricity. There’s a fundamental error in this, because it’s comparing “tailpipe” emissions for the gas car to “lifecycle” emissions for the EV. Lifecycle emissions are the total climate impact of obtaining, processing, and using something. When we calculate lifecycle emissions for gas cars and compare apples to apples, gas cars are a clear and universal loser: see “Wait, Gas-Powered Cars Do WHAT?!?“.

But EVs aren’t the only climate-friendly car revolution in progress: fuel cell cars (FCVs), which run electric motors by producing electricity from combining hydrogen from the fuel tank with oxygen in the air to produce water, are also becoming progressively more efficient and less expensive. Having electric engines, they have most of the advantages of EVs, too, and while in recent years they’ve been widely written off as being impractical, their technology has advanced to the point where they’re now a reality, including Toyota’s Mirai, currently being sold in Japan, as well as a number of other models, some of which are affordable and being sold in the U.S..

Toyota Mirai

Toyota Mirai – photo by Turbo-myu-z

“Affordable” is a relative term, of course. EVs and FCVs are mainly available new, and the only way they currently compete with ICE (internal combustion engine) cars in the U.S. is because of government subsidies.

However, unlike ICE cars, EVs and FCVs are experiencing an ongoing burst of innovation in batteries, fuel cells, and electric engines that shows no sign of slowing. With every improvement, these cars become a better value proposition compared to ICE cars, and when we calculate in the cost to the climate, they are arguably a much better value already.

All of this is without any increase of gas prices–and if there is one thing we know about gas prices, it’s that they never stay steady for long–and without a carbon tax. If carbon taxes become widespread, as for all our sakes I hope they will in the near future, suddenly EVs and FCVs will become much more economically attractive, which will fuel larger-scale manufacture and more innovation, which will make them cheaper in a virtuous cycle that could continue for many years.

So which will win, the EV or the FCV? To answer that question, we should start by realizing that these are just two varieties of the same thing: a car with an electric engine and a way to store electrical energy. EVs store that energy in batteries; fuel cells require electricity to generate hydrogen from water, and the hydrogen is then pumped into the car to return most of that electricity when it’s converted back.

Hydrogen filling station

Hydrogen filling station in Iceland – photo by Jóhann Heiðar Árnason

In the near term, it seems unlikely either will gain a decisive upper hand unless it experiences a sudden and outsize technological leap. Some car companies are putting their weight and huge amounts of funding behind EVs, while others are doing the same thing with fuel cells. Both technologies have widespread uses apart from automobiles, including local grid electricity storage, mass transit, and industry, and both are likely to benefit from outside advances.

In the long term, if one technology pulls well ahead of the other in terms of how well it stores energy compared to size, weight, and cost, that technology may eventually take over. If I had to bet on one, I’d bet on EVs, which have wider early adoption, are easier to understand, and can easily be charged at home. One of the great advantages of owning an EV is that you never have to go to a gas station, and even when you do fuel up away from home, the energy is often free, at least these days. That said, fuel cells take only minutes to refuel, compared to much longer battery charging times, and a big enough breakthrough in fuel cell efficiency could wipe EVs off the map.

Still, there is one clear loser in this game: ICE cars, our familiar gas guzzlers. The only real advantage of ICE cars is that they’re established. We’re familiar with them, there’s a huge supply and a wide variety of ICE cars, and gas stations are everywhere. True, they also fuel up faster than EVs, but they don’t have that advantage over FCVs, and EVs can be charged at home, overnight or during the work day. As electric ranges increase, the need to fuel up away from home will only apply for long trips, and when fast charging stations are more widely available, it won’t be difficult to charge your car while you stop for a break or meal every few hours.

So ICE cars are louder, perform less well, smell worse, are terrible for the environment, will become less convenient, and soon will be more expensive than both EVs and FCVs. Will the force of habit be enough to make us stick with them as this equation becomes more and more unbalanced? History suggests that it won’t: no matter how used to the horse and buggy we were, no matter how unusual microwaves seemed at first, or how much of a change it was to start streaming video rather than simply watching TV, we Americans–and most other people in the world–have proved we are always ready to change our habits if something strikingly better comes along. Now not one, but two things have.