Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sydney first major city to mark Earth Hour

The floodlit cream shells of the famed Opera House dimmed Saturday as Sydney became the world's first major city to plunge itself into darkness for the second worldwide Earth Hour, a global campaign to highlight the threat of climate change.

From the Great Pyramids to the Acropolis, the London Eye to the Las Vegas strip, nearly 4,000 cities and towns in 88 countries planned to join in the World Wildlife Fund-sponsored event, a time zone-by-time zone plan to dim nonessential lights between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Involvement in the effort has exploded since last year's Earth Hour, which drew participation from 400 cities after Sydney held a solo event in 2007. Interest has spiked ahead of planned negotiations on a new global warming treaty in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December. The last global accord, the Kyoto Protocol, is set to expire in 2012.

Despite the boost in interest from the Copenhagen negotiations, organizers initially worried enthusiasm for this year's event would wane with the world's attention focused largely on the global economic crisis, Earth Hour executive director Andy Ridley told The Associated Press. Strangely enough, he said, it's seemed to have the opposite effect.

"Earth Hour has always been a positive campaign; it's always around street parties, not street protests, it's the idea of hope not despair. And I think that's something that's been incredibly important this year because there is so much despair around," he said. "On the other side of it, there's savings in cutting your power usage and being more sustainable and more efficient."

Most electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, a process that emits carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas tied to warming. While renewable energy sources like solar and wind have no direct carbon emissions, they have yet to displace fossil fuels due to costs and efficiencies.

Bathed in shadows
In Australia, people attended candlelit speed-dating events and gathered at outdoor concerts as the hour of darkness rolled through the country. Sydney's glittering harbor was bathed in shadows as lights dimmed on the steel arch of the city's iconic Harbour Bridge and the nearby Opera House.

Earlier Saturday, the Chatham Islands, a group of small islands about 500 miles east of New Zealand, officially kicked off Earth Hour by switching off its diesel generators. Soon after, the lights of Auckland's Sky Tower, the tallest man-made structure in New Zealand, blinked off.

Forty-four New Zealand towns and cities participated in the event, and more than 60,000 people showed up for an Earth Hour-themed hot air ballooning festival in the city of Hamilton.

At Scott Base in Antarctica, New Zealand's 26-member winter team resorted to minimum safety lighting and switched off appliances and computers.

China was participating in the campaign for the first time, with Beijing turning off the lights at its Bird's Nest Stadium and Water Cube, the most prominent venues for the Olympics, according to WWF. Shanghai was also cutting lights in all government buildings and other structures on its waterfront, while Hong Kong, Baoding, Changchun, Dalian, Nanjing and Guangzhou were also participating, WWF said.

However, the official WWF Earth Hour Web site appeared to be blocked in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin on Saturday afternoon. While China rarely gives reasons for blocking Web sites, the campaign coincided with the 50th anniversary of the suppression of an uprising in Tibet that forced the Dalai Lama to go into exile.

'Symphony of Lights' takes break
In Hong Kong, the government planned to suspend its nightly "Symphony of Lights," which beams lasers and lights into the sky from 44 buildings on the city's famed Victoria Harbor. Landmarks along the harbor also were to switch off nonessential lights for an hour.

Later Saturday, Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva planned to press a button to turn off the lights at Khao San Road, a famous haven for budget travelers in Bangkok that is packed with bars and outdoor cafes.

Lights were to go down at the Grand Palace and other riverside monuments, and businesses along some of the Thai capital's busiest boulevards were also asked to participate, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration said in a statement.

The capital hoped to reduce electricity consumption in the city of more than 8 million people by at least 30 percent — or 1,400 megawatts — during the event. Earth Hour organizers say there's no uniform way to measure how much energy is saved worldwide.

Earth Hour 2009 has garnered support from global corporations, nonprofit groups, schools, scientists and celebrities — including Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett and retired Cape Town Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

McDonald's Corp. planned to dim its arches at 500 locations around the Midwest in the United States. The Marriott, Ritz-Carlton and Fairmont hotel chains and Coca-Cola Co. also planned to participate.

'Nonsense' or urgent priority?
New studies increasingly highlight the ongoing effects of climate change, said Richard Moss, a member of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and WWF's climate change vice president.

"We have satellites and we have ships out at sea and we have monitoring stations set up on buoys in the ocean," Moss said. "We monitor all kinds of things people wouldn't even think about. The scientific research is showing in all kinds of ways that the climate crisis is worsening."

But not everyone agrees and at least one counter-protest is planned for Saturday.

Suburban Philadelphia ice cream shop owner Bob Gerenser believes global warming is based on faulty science and calls Earth Hour "nonsense." The resident of New Hope, Pa., planned to illuminate his store with extra theatrical lighting.

"I'm going to get everyone I know in my neighborhood to turn on every light they possibly can to waste as much electricity as possible to underline the absurdity of this action ... by being absurd," he said.

In the U.S., 220 cities, towns and villages have signed on — from New York City to Igiugig, population 53 on Iliamna Lake in southwestern Alaska.

Among the efforts in Chicago, 50,000 light bulbs at tourist hotspot Navy Pier will dim and 24 spotlights that shine on Sears Tower's twin spires will go dark.

"We're the most visible building in the city," said Angela Burnett, a Sears Tower property manager. "Turning off the lights for one hour on a Saturday night shows our commitment to sustainability."

The Commonwealth Edison utility said electricity demand fell by 5 percent in Chicago and northern Illinois during last year's Earth Hour, reducing about 840,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Polluters, Beware: These Eco-Police Officers Are for Real

The woman at the desk of A & L Collision, an auto repair shop in Brooklyn, eyed Officer Neil R. Stevens suspiciously.

Librado Romero/The New York Times
Officer Neil R. Stevens investigated an oil spill at a traffic accident in the Bronx.
“You’re not from here,’” she said.

“Yes I am,” Officer Stevens replied.

“You dress differently,” she insisted.

She had a point. Officer Stevens’s uniform is olive green, not blue, and he wears a Stetson hat that gives him a friendly Smokey Bear look. But drivers of smoke-bellowing trucks, owners of oil-oozing body shops, vendors of undersize fish and other city dwellers underestimate him at their peril.

As a member of a small force of police officers whose sole focus is enforcing environmental laws, Officer Stevens carries a gun and handcuffs and can haul a suspect off to jail. These environmental conservation officers number barely 20 in New York City, out of about 300 around the state, but issue about 2,000 summonses for violations and criminal charges annually.

And while Officer Stevens, a self-described farm boy from upstate New York who is and looks 24, can be a nice guy, his patience has its limits.

Investigating a neighbor’s complaint, he had come looking for the owner of A & L Collision twice before to get an explanation for the wrecked cars on the sidewalk discharging oil, antifreeze and other noxious substances. When the officer was told that the owner was on the road and unreachable by cellphone — again — he asked for the manager’s driver’s license and wrote the shop a ticket for a misdemeanor. Within minutes, the owner, Victor Debiasi, materialized to apologize profusely and promise that “all this stuff will be out of here today.” The summons stayed written.

Created in 1880, when they were known as “game protectors” and watched over game and fish, these eco-police officers are now part of the State Department of Environmental Conservation and have become more prominent in recent years as public consciousness about the role of pollution in global warming has grown. They now answer complaints and respond to dispatchers’ calls in addition to carrying out spot inspections and longer investigations.

Over two shifts this month, Officer Stevens responded to incidents ranging from fuel spilled from a tanker truck involved in a traffic accident in the Bronx to a store’s refusal to redeem the deposit on cans and bottles.

Violations of the bottle bill, as it turns out, are the most common complaint the officers deal with in the city, said Maj. Timothy Duffy of the environmental police force, who oversees New York City. Over all, he said, environmental complaints in the city almost tripled in 2007 — to 621 a year from 226 in 2006 — and criminal summonses more than doubled, from 993 to more than 2,000.

The numbers stayed high last year, with more than 1,700 summonses and 600 complaints, the major said.

Officer Stevens, who grew up working on his family’s dairy farm in Cayuga County in central New York and graduated from Cornell with a degree in natural resource conservation, said he was drawn to the job because he liked the outdoors. But in New York, the outdoors means not only traditional conservation work like cracking down on illegal trade in fish and wildlife but also things like pulling over trucks that spew smoke in low-income neighborhoods with high asthma rates. It also involves making sure that New Yorkers are able to redeem those empty bottles and cans for a nickel apiece.

So on a Monday morning, another environmental officer, Matthew Baker, 25, dressed in jeans and baseball cap, walked into a Pathmark supermarket in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn with a plastic bag filled with empty cans. When he found the return machines for recyclables locked and was turned away by a store employee, an officer in uniform, Gregory Maneeley, walked in and handed the store manager a summons.

Adina Kornegay, 65, a restaurant hostess, sounded surprised and appreciative when Officer Stevens, who had joined the other officers that morning, called her to tell her that an “enforcement action” had taken place at the Pathmark.

She had called 311, the city’s help line, because she had repeatedly found the machines locked, she said in an interview. And the last time she visited the store, employees were “very rude,” she added.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t think someone would look into the problem,” she said.

The store manager declined to comment.

Yet many interactions between Officer Stevens and ordinary New Yorkers are less pleasant.

Robert Thompson was not at all happy when he was stopped the next day because of blue smoke emitted by his flatbed truck as he drove along McGuinnes Boulevard in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

“Blue smoke?” he asked, looking dumbfounded as he was handed a summons.

“Just make sure the violation is corrected when you come to court,” Officer Stevens told him.

Mr. Thompson looked at the officer as if he should be elsewhere, stomping out campfires

Stimulus money starts flowing for Green Tech

After weeks of supportive words from the president, U.S. green-tech professionals saw something else this week: money starting to flow.

The Department of Energy said last Friday that it expects to provide $535 million in loans to California start-up Solyndra, which has a novel design for rooftop solar arrays. The alternative-energy loan, the first of its kind in four years from the DOE, is a positive sign for the finance-challenged green-tech industry, investors and entrepreneurs said this week.

"I'm happy to see our government supporting advanced research initiatives particularly in regards to energy because the country needs it," said John Walecka, a founding partner at RedPoint Ventures, one of the investors in Solyndra.

"The government doesn't have any intention of running businesses. But from what I can see, they are sophisticated and thoughtful in how to structure deals--that's very clear," he said.

Because of the troubled credit markets, the DOE program has become the "provider of last resort" to companies that need financing to expand and build manufacturing plants, said venture capital investor Paul Holland of Foundation Capital, who was in Washington this week at a meeting of energy professionals at the White House.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has revamped the DOE's loan-vetting process to break the logjam of these loans, which many high-profile green-tech start-ups such as Tesla Motors and battery maker A123 Systems have applied for. Meanwhile, the government's economic stimulus plan calls for $1.6 billion for research through the national laboratories and for investments to bulk up and modernize the transmission grid to transport solar and wind power.

In anticipation of a big inflow of money, green business people have reported spending a lot of time in Washington, D.C. Everyone--from small start-ups to established wind project developers--is hiring lobbyists to influence policy.

"If you just take wind, every developer in the country will be knocking on the DOE's door and asking to get a piece of the pie," Jim Barry, chief executive of renewable energy project developer NTR said at the Jefferies Global Clean Technology conference in New York earlier this month. "The higher quality projects will rise to the top."

Wind and solar benefit
Businesses involved in building large wind farms or solar projects will directly benefit from stimulus spending, according to investors. Companies that sell smart-grid equipment and software to utilities, meanwhile, could benefit indirectly from investments to modernize the grid.

In the short term, loans and changes in the way the federal government subsidizes renewable energy will help finance projects that might have been stalled because a lack of tax equity, Kevin Walsh, managing director of renewable energy at GE Energy Financial Services, said at the Jefferies conference. Utilities are also expected to invest in their own renewable energy projects, rather than rely on third parties.


Solyndra's rooftop solar arrays are made up of hundreds of tube-shaped solar cells. Will more green start-ups get government assistance this year?

(Credit: Solyndra)But even with the hefty commitment to clean energy in the stimulus plan, many of the rules surrounding those policies still need to be worked out, Walsh said. He called the current period "the implementation phase" and noted that there is more energy-related legislation in the works, including an expected energy bill this year and climate regulations.

Depending on the industry within green tech, the financial impact from stimulus-related investments won't necessarily be felt this year, Mark Bachman, an equity analyst with Pacific Crest Securities, said in a research note Monday.

"Investors should expect neither loans for renewable energy, manufacturing facilities and transmission projects nor matching smart grid and facility construction grants to add materially to 2009 expectations. The lion's share of these funds will be released in 2010 and impact sales and EPS (earning per share) in late 2010 and beyond," Bachman wrote.

Government-funded bubble?
In all, the stimulus plan has $39 billion in direct investments through the DOE and another $20 billion in tax incentives, Obama said earlier this week. The challenge with implementing these policies is setting subsidies at the right level to promote nascent industries without funding flawed companies, said Paul Clegg, an equity analyst from Jefferies.


"There is a risk that we overstimulate or we keep some of the wrong companies in business," he said. "We're likely to see a lot of boom and bust cycles and, as a result, a lot of volatility."

Even though the DOE made a point in acting quickly by approving a loan to Solyndra, bureaucratic delays or mismanagement are another risk.

"Any time you have a big new initiative, you have to assume a certain amount of waste and a certain amount of mistakes," Foundation Capital's Holland said. "However, directionally, these are really the right things for the country."
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How to Recycle Unusual Household Items

Whether doing major spring cleaning or just sorting through old household supplies, occasionally, we all run into a recycling stumper—crayons, foam peanuts, old VHS tapes? Good grief. The more obscure an item, the harder it is for us to resist throwing it out the easy way—in the trash can. But the truth is we really are doing ourselves (and our planet!) a big favor by repurposing used parts and pieces. So, the next time clutter is being banished from the house, refer to this list of wacky recycling tips. We promise it really is useful.

1. Batteries
Environmental, Health and safety Online have initiated a national program called Call2Recycle, which has collected and recycled more than 42 million pounds of rechargeable batteries, and have partnered up with retailers and recycling programs nationwide for our recycling convenience. Visit their site ehso.com to find a location near you.


2. Candle Jars
I’m a jar-candle addict, but who wants to melt out the leftover wax so you can recycle the jar? I found a new trick: Put the used jar in the freezer, and an hour later, you can tap the bottom a few times and pop the wax right out. Better yet, stick to tea lights. As long as the package says that the metal cups are aluminum, you can pull out the used wick and toss the metal in the recycling along with your cans.


3. CDs and DVDs
Mails discs to Back Thru The Future (cdrecyclingforfree.com), a woman-owned electronics recycling and data destruction company.


4. Crayons
In my house, the most unpopular crayon colors are gray and pale yellow. I never thought twice about tossing the duds in the trash, but it turns out that crayon wax spends eternity in a landfill. Instead, put them in a small box and send them to the recycling program run by Crazy Crayons, where your castoffs will be melted down and turned into a new generation of crayons. For details, go to crazycrayons.com.


5. Foam Peanuts
Some are now made from vegetable starch. To test, toss one under water—if it disintegrates, you’ve got nontoxic, biodegradable peanuts. As for the nonrecyclable plastic kind, call The Peanut Hotline (800-828-2214) for a list of businesses that accept them.


6. Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs
Recycle them through your town's hazardous waste program. If your town doesn't have one, put bulbs in a thick plastic bag to keep mercury from leaking; tie shut and place in the garbage.


7. VHS Tapes
Have taken over, everyone has a pile of old VHS tapes gathering dust. To keep them out of landfills, drop them in the mail to Alternative Community Training, a nonprofit Missouri company that provides jobs to people with disabilities.

Workers erase the tapes, reselling the ones that are in good shape and recycling the plastic parts of the rest. They’ve recycled more than 1 million tapes so far. Mail the tapes (at the cheaper USPS media mail rate) to:

ACT
2200 Burlington
Columbia, MO 65202


8. Paint
Go to earth911.org/recycling to find out where to recycle it in your zip code. Or donate it to your local Habitat for Humanity ReStore (habitat.org).


9. Trophies
Yes, it’s hard to part with past awards that remind you of when you were the fastest, strongest or, quite frankly, the best, but if you must, here’s how: Send them to Art Inc.; they’ll take your award and, with it, make new art that they will give children’s groups or worthy causes like the Special Olympics. Or, ship them off to Awardex.com, where they’ll use you old trophies to make new awards.


10. Phone Books
Yes, they're recyclable, but you can't just toss them in with your regular stuff. Who knew? Instead, wait for your town's phone book pickup. If there is none, go to yellowpages.com/recycle to find out what to do in your area.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Northeast US Could Be Hardest Hit by Rising Sea Levels

WASHINGTON - The northeastern U.S. coast is likely to see the world's biggest sea level rise from man-made global warming, a new study predicts.

However much the oceans rise by the end of the century, add an extra 8 inches or so for New York, Boston and other spots along the coast from the mid-Atlantic to New England. That's because of predicted changes in ocean currents, according to a study based on computer models published online Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience.

An extra 8 inches — on top of a possible 2 or 3 feet of sea rise globally by 2100 — is a big deal, especially when nor'easters and hurricanes hit, experts said.

"It's not just waterfront homes and wetlands that are at stake here," said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who wasn't part of the study. "Those kind of rises in sea level when placed on top of the storm surges we see today, put in jeopardy lots of infrastructure, including the New York subway system."

For years, scientists have talked about rising sea levels due to global warming — both from warm water expanding and the melt of ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica. Predictions for the average worldwide sea rise keep changing along with the rate of ice melt. Recently, more scientists are saying the situation has worsened so that a 3-foot rise in sea level by 2100 is becoming a common theme.

Boston singled out
But the oceans won't rise at the same rate everywhere, said study author Jianjun Yin of the Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies at Florida State University. It will be "greater and faster" for the Northeast, with Boston one of the worst hit among major cities, he said. So, if it's 3 feet, add another 8 inches for that region.

The explanation involves complicated ocean currents. Computer models forecast that as climate change continues, there will be a slowdown of the great ocean conveyor belt. That system moves heat energy in warm currents from the tropics to the North Atlantic and pushes the cooler, saltier water down, moving it farther south around Africa and into the Pacific. As the conveyor belt slows, so will the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic current. Those two fast-running currents have kept the Northeast's sea level unusually low because of a combination of physics and geography, Yin said.

Slow down the conveyor belt 33 to 43 percent as predicted by computer models, and the Northeast sea level rises faster, Yin said.

So far, the conveyor belt has not yet noticeably slowed.

A decade ago, scientists worried about the possibility that this current conveyor belt would halt altogether — something that would cause abrupt and catastrophic climate change like that shown in the movie "The Day After Tomorrow." But in recent years, they have concluded that a shutdown is unlikely to happen this century.

Other experts who reviewed Yin's work say it makes sense.

"Our coastlines aren't designed for that extra 8 inches of storm surge you get out of that sea level rise effect," said Jonathan Overpeck, director of an Earth studies institute at the University of Arizona.

Other areas estimated
While Boston and New York are looking at an additional 8 inches, other places wouldn't get that much extra rise. The study suggests Miami and much of the Southeast would get about 2 inches above the global sea rise average of perhaps 3 feet, and San Francisco would get less than an extra inch. Parts of southern Australia, northern Asia and southern and western South America would get less than the global average sea level rise.

This study along with another one last month looking at regional sea level rise from the projected melt of the west Antarctic ice sheet "provide a compelling argument for anticipating and preparing for higher rates of sea level rise," said Virginia Burkett, chief scientist for Global Change Research at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Burkett, who is based in Louisiana, said eventually New Englanders could be in the same "vulnerability situation" to storms and sea level rise as New Orleans.

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