Monthly Archives: December 2007

Cheap shots at LEED standards

I’m a little disappointed by Daniel Brook’s Slate essay “It’s Way Too Easy Being Green,” on the supposed slackness of the U.S. Green Building Council’s “LEED” standard for environmentally sound construction. It starts promisingly, ripping the fact that a Mumbai tycoon’s private skyscraper is officially considered green, but devolves quickly into nitpicking. At heart, Brook’s criticism is that LEED standards reward people who have neither the green mentality nor the inclination to work really hard to be friendly to the environment.

The LEED checklist points system is to blame, Brook writes:

Installing a $395 bike rack is worth the same under the LEED checklist system as installing a $1.3 million environmentally sensitive heating system. Which is the cynical builder going to choose? A builder more interested in good PR than being good to the environment can even get points purely by chance. A new casino project in Philadelphia, which the city is requiring to pursue LEED certification, is located, like most downtown buildings, within a quarter-mile of a subway stop, earning a LEED point for transit accessibility. But the developer on the project, which includes a 3,200-car garage, won’t commit to running a shuttle bus between the subway stop and the casino to encourage customers to take transit. No points in that.

Well, maybe there ought to be points deductions for some of your more flagrant anti-environmental choices. But the underlying argument strikes me as practically meritless. Does it matter that bike racks are cheap and easy to install, when considering their actual environmental value? If there were nowhere to lock up my bicycle, I and maybe two dozen other people where I work couldn’t use them to get to and from work day in and day out, eight or nine months of the year. An efficient heating system brings long-term payback for the builder and/or landlord; a bike rack is really worth nothing, financially, most places. Putting a good one in (the checklist requires capacity for five per cent of the building’s occupants at peak times, plus changing and shower facilities) should be worth a point or two.

And as for proximity to subways, it’s true that most downtown buildings would pick up that point easily, but it’s a pressing concern that many builders are not, in fact, building downtown. Those that are should be acknowledged somehow.

You need to rack up 26 points like this for minimal certification, and most aren’t this easy.

I carry no brief for the green building council, and I’m not particularly qualified to say that its rating system is perfect. It’s not a fair criticism that the LEED standards don’t judge people’s attitudes well enough, though.

Why conservatives should care

Climate Progress has a two-part post on why (mostly U.S.) conservatives should care about climate change that’s worth a read.

Climate Progress’s idea of conservatism is a little simplistic — Part Two talks about the potential of emissions-reducing R&D to create jobs as if the means by which those jobs are created is immaterial, for instance, which isn’t the way my kind of conservative sees the question — but the basic argument stands. I particularly liked this line from a Republican state governor noted in the piece:

“The real inconvenient truth about climate change,” says Republican Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, “is that some people are losing their rights and freedoms because of the actions of others — in either the quality of the air they breathe, the geography they hold dear, the insurance costs they bear or the future environment of the children they love.”

That’s just right, and should be reason enough for a lover of freedom to care about the issue regardless of anything else. The principle matters.

(Via Grist Mill.)

Job lots on the Green executive

The release doesn’t seem to be on the Ontario Green Party’s website yet, but by e-mail I’m informed the party has a new interim female deputy leader, Melanie Mullen, the existing female deputy leader, Victoria Serda, having stepped down to focus on her work as a town councillor in Saugeen Shores.

Nothing against Mullen, who’s unpolished but obviously knowledgeable, and pulled 11.4 per cent of the vote as a candidate in Niagara Falls in the last provincial election … but why the heck does the party specifically have male and female deputy leaders, and male and female regional representatives?

This is the sort of thing that makes the party look like leftover hippies, ascribing more value to intrinsic characteristics than personal qualities and ideas in choosing officers.

The party just acclaimed Jeanie Warnock as its eastern region female representative — who was, of the dozens of provincial candidates I met in the last election, one of the two weakest, least prepared, most ill-suited to the task of winning office that she’d set for herself (the other possibility was the New Democrat in her riding, whom she beat by 60 votes). The only reason she’s on the Ontario Greens’ executive now is because of a party quota. It’s not a recipe for success.

Some kind of a beginning

Possibly the United States is starting to turn the corner on energy efficiency. Not there yet, but the Energy Bill President George W. Bush has signed is a beginning.

It is, like a Farm Bill, too complex an omnibus for one human brain to grasp. You have to study it in chunks, so many disparate elements does it draw together. Phasing out incandescent bulbs by 2020! Ethanol in the gasoline! Fuel-efficiency standards for cars! Renewables research! What would you like? A bit of it’s in there.

The ethanol stuff — a federal mandate for up to 15 billion gallons (which is a lot) by the middle of the next decade, and a total of 36 billion gallons of non-corn-ethanol renewable fuels by 2022 — is basically, as one commenter at Green Car Congress says, liquid pork, possibly better news for farmers than even the straight agricultural subsidies the U.S. federal government hands out. Doubtless a massive ethanol mandate was the only way to get the thing through the farm-staters in the House of Representatives.

There is much to be dissatisfied about in the bill, since it’s essentially a subsidy-and-regulation package rather than an effort to shift the market toward more sensible choices by making people pay the costs of their externalities. Eliminating electricity subsidies, for instance, would be a much better way to get people to switch away from incandescent lightbulbs than simply imposing an efficiency standard by fiat that only compact fluorescents can currently meet.

But on balance, there’s more good than bad. You have to start somewhere.

Bali: so what?

BaliPathway

(“A Pathway to Heaven.” Credit: Flickr/^riza^)

The redoubtable Olive Heffernan of Climate Feedback agonizes, like many, over whether the participants at the Bali climate-change conference achieved consensus at the expense of effectiveness. It’s difficult to glean from most general-audience news reports, but the nature of the talks’ result is that every country in the world formally agrees that the climate-change problem is very bad and we need to do something, but we’ll only say what (a cut of developed countries’ greenhouse-gas emissions of 25 to 40 per cent below 1990 levels) very, very quietly. In a footnote to the preamble of the final agreement, to be precise, making general reference to the latest series of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, which reached that conclusion.

Wrangling over just how loudly the countries of the world will state those targets can be expected to occupy most of the next two years’ worth of climate talks.

These meetings seem to end up in one of a handful of ways. They can reach consensus on meaningless things (Bali), reach consensus on meaningful things many will ignore (Kyoto), or achieve basically nothing at all (Montreal). Because envirocrats hail each one as a historic/landmark/watershed/breakthrough event, they give the illusion of progress — and then when the breakthroughs fail to yield detectable policy changes (the U.S. is already backtracking on the meaningless commitment it made just days ago), green-skeptics get to say it’s all a scam ginned up for the benefit of the negotiators.

Consider Lorne Gunter:

Every year, these same signatories meet. Every year, they go over (and over) the same territory. Every year, they dicker, blather, preach, assail, negotiate, draft and redraft (not to mention flying from one exotic location to another eating, drinking and living off fat publicly funded expense accounts). And every year, they leave claiming to have reached an historic consensus to save the UN climate change process.

The “historic” Bali agreement is no agreement at all. Rather, it is a compromise on a promise to negotiate an actual deal within the next two years. It contains no emissions quotas on any countries, developed or developing.

I hardly agree with Gunter on anything, but he’s not wrong. He’s taking an exceptionally hard line, it’s true, asking a lot of fabulously complex and difficult negotiations among dozens of parties with conflicting agendas. Progress in these things is made in millimetres, and to condemn the UN process for not serving up kilometres of improvements with every session is not entirely fair.

But seriously — what good does this all do? The IPCC and its science are certainly useful, but what positive effect has the Kyoto Protocol had aside from being a supernova-sized distraction?

I say screw it. We should stop going. Stop sending words to do the work of deeds. Instead, let’s recognize that reducing greenhouse-gas emissions makes sense not only on its own account, but because it means economic improvements (in the name of efficiency) and more tangible environmental improvements at the same time. Less spewing means less wasting means more money in our pockets. We can even find ways to support investments in efficiencies abroad without having to necessarily play by the Kyoto Accord’s Clean Development Mechanism.

Do not take this as an endorsement of the Harper government’s foolishness, by the way. Canada’s Environment Minister John Baird obviously went to Bali to be a spoiler and he mostly failed and was embarrassed and that’s good. I do believe he didn’t even want to send words, let alone deeds; in the case of Canada’s current government, having to cough up some words was progress.

But for serious people, attending meetings is not a substitute for getting on with the job. That’s all.

The value of efficiency

UPS is, basically, in the driving business. Driving costs money — more and more all the time, given the cost of fuel these days. So UPS decided to get smart, and plan its routes better. Reports the New York Times:

The company employs what it calls a “package flow” software program, which among other hyperefficient practices involving the packing and sorting of its cargo, maps out routes for every one of its drivers, drastically reducing the number of left-hand turns they make (taking into consideration, of course, those instances where not to make the left-hand turn would result in a ridiculously circuitous route).

Last year, according to Heather Robinson, a U.P.S. spokeswoman, the software helped the company shave 28.5 million miles off its delivery routes, which has resulted in savings of roughly three million gallons of gas and has reduced CO2 emissions by 31,000 metric tons.

The business with the left-hand turns is about reducing the amount of fuel wasted running engines while waiting for breaks in oncoming traffic. It’s not realistic for the average person — calculating which left turns are worth the wait and which ones are better achieved with three rights is no doubt stupendously complex — but when this much fuel and money can be saved thanks to economies of scale, I’m glad to hear UPS is doing it.

This sort of thing gives me hope. The biggest companies — consider Wal-Mart, which, like the military, is mostly in the business of transporting large amounts of stuff over large distances — take a lot of heat for wasteful practices, but they also have the most direct incentive to clean up their acts.

Assuming that price signals work, of course.

A dizzying calculation

Trying to figure out whether local produce is more environmentally sound than stuff brought in from hundreds or thousands of miles away?

Might as well give up.