biofuels explained

A biofuel is a form of fuel that is produced from renewable organic materials, such as sugar crops, oil seed crops, and animal fats. They are considered to be potential substitutes for carbon-based fuels, i.e. extremely old, biofuels. There are two varieties: plant-based and animal-based.

The plant-based products are fermented sugars which create the fuels like ethanol.

rfa-dry-mill-ethanol-process-web
Courtesy of: http://www.ethanolrfa.org

The animal-based products are processed by combining an alcohol with an animal fat in order to create biodiesel.

how_biodiesel_is_made
Courtesy of http://www.enginebuildermag.com

At present, biofuels are a hot topic in modern society. As carbon-based fuels become more expensive and scarce and political tensions rise, biofuels appear to be a viable replacement and potential source of energy independence. In the United Sates, it has been asserted that most vehicles can use gasoline with up to 10 percent ethanol – the most widely produced and used biofuel. However, consumers take issue with the effect of the ethanol on motors as well as increases in gas prices associated with biofuel production. There are also demands to stop government subsidies for the production of crops for fuel production. Globally, there are issues with the destruction of rainforest for the production of raw material for biofuel, e.g. sugarcane or palm

Likewise, there is controversy as to whether the finite resources necessary for producing biofuels should be allocated to fuel rather than food when an estimated billion people are faced with hunger on a yearly basis. However, this issue is in the process of being solved via the use of waste products for biofuel production, rather than the edible portion of the product. Alternative options, such as the use of algae, are also being explored in an effort to reduce the environmental impact of biofuels.

What role ethanol and other biofuels will play in the future of energy production is uncertain, although the Energy Independence Act of 2007 encourages the production of biofuels to reach 36 billion gallons by 2022. If their use continues to expand, potential benefits include increases in domestic energy productions, a reduction in some air pollutants, the opportunity for a new source of income for farmers, and the possibility that production can be developed in a sustainable manner. Biofuels also emit fewer greenhouse gasses when burned. Conversely, biofuels may result in land-use changes, an increased need for agricultural subsidies, greater use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that can compromise water, soil and air quality, and prices for food crops may increase because of shifts in production.

biofuels-chart
Courtesy of: http://www.americanprogress.org

sources:

https://www.epa.gov/environmental-economics/economics-biofuels
https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/topics/renewable-energy/biofuels
https://www.nrel.gov/workingwithus/re-biofuels.html
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/biofuel/

geoengineering explained: the benefits and challenges of stratospheric aerosols

Stratospheric aerosols are minute particles suspended in the atmosphere designed for solar radiation management (SRM). When these particles are sufficiently large, their presence becomes noticeable as they scatter and absorb sunlight, which can reduce visibility (haze) and redden sunrises and sunsets. Aerosols interact both directly and indirectly with the Earth’s radiation budget and climate. As a direct effect, the aerosols scatter sunlight directly back into space. As an indirect effect, aerosols in the lower atmosphere can modify the size of cloud particles, changing how the clouds reflect and absorb sunlight, thereby affecting the earth’s energy budget. Aerosols can also act as sites for chemical reactions to take place. Stratospheric aerosols introduce small, reflective particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect some sunlight before it reaches the surface of the Earth. This is accomplished by releasing sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere.

BENEFITS

CHALLENGES

  • Very potent method and could off-set all the warming from the doubling of CO2
  • Affordable and relatively easy
  • Proven effective by large, natural volcanic eruptions
  • As with all sunshade schemes, overall rainfall is reduced
  • Regional weather climates will be dramatically affected which may cause dangerous outcomes, such as famine
  • Doesn’t cool poles to pre-industrial temperatures, so polar ice sheets will continue to melt
  • Will not prevent ocean acidification
  • Sky will become whiter
  • Without efforts to reduce overall CO2 production, the planet would warm rapidly if we stopped injecting SO2 into the stratosphere

see also:

Question: What is geoengineering?

Albedo Enhancement

Space Reflectors
Stratospheric Aerosols

Afforestation
Ambient Air Capture
Biochar
Bioenergy Capture and Sequestration
Ocean Fertilization
Enhanced Weathering
Ocean Alkalinity Enhancement

source:
LePage, M. (2012, September 20). The pros and cons of geoengineering. Retrieved from New Scientist: http://www.newscientist.com/gallery/geoengineering/

industrial agriculture described + a comparison of the benefits and disadvantages

Industrial agriculture is a form of food production based on the assertion that a farm is a factory that requires inputs, such as pesticides, hormones, feed, fertilizer and fossil fuels, in order to produce outputs like meat, cereals, and plant products. The goal of industrialized agriculture is to increase yields as effectively as possible while reducing costs. These efforts are generally dependent on synthetic chemicals, large quantities of water, major transportation systems and mechanical technologies.  However, this system has dramatically increased the amount of food produced – between 1960 and 2010 the production of cereals increased from 900 million to 2,500 million tons. Some assert this is the most important argument due to a burgeoning global population.

Production is also more efficient. Since 1977, the inputs required for 1 kg beef have dramatically decreased. There are 69.9% fewer animals; 81.4% fewer feedstuffs; 87.9% less water; and 67.0% less land needed for current output. Negative outputs produced have also been reduced: 81.9% less manure; 82.3% less CH4; 88.0% less N20; and 16.3% less CO2.

Similar reductions have occurred in the production of milk since 1944. Today 1 kg milk requires 23% fewer feedstuffs, 35% less water; and 10% less land. Fewer waste products are also produced: 24% less manure; 43% less CH4; 56% less N20; and 37% less CO2.

Stemming from such a dramatic shift in production techniques, food manufacturing has become increasingly concentrated, reliant on biotechnology, heavily dependent on non-renewable resources and food economics have become vertically integrated.

Currently, the legislation regulating industrialized agriculture is subjective as it lacks measurable standards. Furthermore, operations like CAFOs are exempt from the restrictions imposed by the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. The EPA is also limited in the actions that it can take when abuses are identified.

CAFOs emit ammonia which contributes to acid rain, hydrogen sulfide which becomes hydrosulfuric acid when combined with water and particulate matter into the air. This affects the water in areas downstream from these operations. It has been found that the number of antibiotic resistant bacteria dramatically increases while the number of species is dramatically decreased to only macroinvertebrates and fish communities able to survive in water with very low oxygen levels.

Industrialized agriculture is also dependent on the heavy use of antibiotics in order to keep animals in extremely close, dirty, and unventilated spaces. In the United States, 80% of all antibiotics purchased are designated for use in livestock and 70% of those antibiotics are administered to healthy animals. Of those antibiotics, 30% to 60% pass through human and animal systems unchanged. Furthermore, water treatment systems are unable to filter the antibiotics from the water. As the existence of antibiotics becomes more concentrated in ecological systems, it becomes more toxic to animals starting at the microbial level. Microorganisms are the foundation of all ecological systems.

Industrial agriculture also requires massive quantities of fossil fuels for long-distance transportation, fertilizers, and pesticides. David Pimentel, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University, quantified the impact of widespread pesticide use in the United States:

  • Despite there being a 10 fold increase in the amount of pesticides applied, there is double the crop damage by pests than past decades. This is attributed a lack of crop rotation;
  • $1 in pesticides equals $4 in protected crops, but 37% of crops are still destroyed by pests;
  • 18% of pesticides and 90% of fungicides are carcinogenic;
  • Food is only tested for 40 of 600 agrochemicals and 3% of all chicken sold has illegal residue;
  • Bees contribute $40 million worth of labor annually, but 20% of bee colonies are adversely affected by pesticide application and 5% die outright;
  • 50%-70% of pesticides applied by aircraft never make it to their intended location;
  • 520 mite, 150 plant pathogens, and 273 weed species are resistant to pesticides and require reapplication. Likewise, 10% of all pesticide applications are due to resistance;
  • 72 million wild birds are estimated to die from pesticides each year [this is a conservative estimate]

sources:

KERSHEN, D. L. (2013, August). The contested vision for agriculture’s future: sustainable intensive agriculture and agroecology. Creighton Law Review, pp. 591-618.
Rodriguez, J. M., Molnar, J. J., Fazio, R. A., Sydnor, E., & Lowe, M. J. (2009). Barriers to adoption of sustainable agriculture practices: Change agent perspectives. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 24(1), 60-71.
West, B. M., Liggit, P., Clemans, D. L., & Francoeur, S. N. (2011). Antibiotic resistance, gene transfer, and water quality patterns observed in waterways near cafo farms and wastewater treatment facilities. Water, Air & Soil Pollution, 217(1-4), 473-489.
Patel, P., Centner, T. J. (2010) Air pollution by concentrated animal feeding operations. Desalination & Water Treatment. 19(1-3) 12-16.
Bleshman, R. (2011). National Pork Producers Council v. U.S. EPA: Striking Down Clean Water Act Rule for Factory Farms, the Fifth Circuit Strips the EPA of Effective Regulatory Power. Tulane Environmental Law Journal, 25(1), 207-219.
http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-04-11/features/chi-food-policy-fda-issue-new-guidelines-on-antibiotic-in-animals-20120411_1_growth-promotion-animal-health-institute-food-animal-production
http://ec.europa.eu/environment/integration/research/newsalert/pdf/333na6.pdf
Pimentel, D. (2005). Environmental and economic costs of the application of pesticides primarily in the United States. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 7(2), 229-252.

environmental management defined

It is not difficult to argue that the environment can manage itself in the event that humans are not available to intervene. However, humans are at present an integral part of the natural environment and our interactions with the environment often negatively impact the environment by altering its normal functionality, subsequently resulting in the emergence of a need to engage in environmental management practices.  

Based on the principles of ecology, environmental management is a decision-making process that relates to natural resources, pollution and the modification of ecosystems. This is achieved by analyzing and monitoring the way that the environment changes in relation to human activities, indicating that environmental management focuses on human interaction with the environment. The information garnered from this process is used to predict future changes in order to maximize human benefits while reducing the negative impact of human presence.  Through the management process, resources and their use are organized. Accordingly, activities are controlled in order to conserve and avoid the pollution of physical resources.

When deciding on what management activities should be engaged in, there are several questions that must first be posed:

  • What are the possible environmentally desirable outcomes?
  • What are the physical, economic, social, cultural, political and technological constraints for achieving the outcomes?
  • What are the most feasible options for achieving those outcomes?

Moreover, it should not be forgotten that conditions change over space and time. This fact must be anticipated and incorporated into any prescribed efforts via the development of dynamic management strategies. Concurrently, the structure of the management efforts must be enforceable and equitably employed.

Should environmental management efforts be successful in nature, there are four types of benefits that can be enjoyed:

  1. Ethical: knowing that the ‘right’ thing is being done
  2. Legal: knowledge that the practices being engaged in are not illegal or in conflict with any laws
  3. Commercial: environmentally-friendly business practices are often seen favorably by consumers
  4. Economic:  practices that are favorable are often money-saving in nature, e.g. via a reduction in energy costs

The fourth benefit of environmental management noted above states that effective environmental management should result in economic benefits. However, this is (unfortunately) not always the case. This may manifest in the form of opportunity costs or increased investment in capital or infrastructure. Typically, a cost-benefit analysis is performed in order to determine the potential (positive or negative) of any sort of new development plan. However, such an estimate – which is undoubtedly pragmatic in nature and representative of current economic needs – begs the question: How do we put an accurate price tag on the environmental system that sustains the world. Likewise, it is necessary to examine the morality of actions taken and work towards conflict resolution as a means of promoting investment in positive growth (i.e. sustainability), rather than negative growth (i.e. reactive).

the greenhouse effect

The term greenhouse effect has some pretty negative connotations.  On the one side, there are those who hate all the tree-hugging hippies who are against progress and technology, and think that global warming is a giant scam developed by Al Gore in order to ruin the United States’ economy and turn the country into a communist paradise.  On the other side, there are those that think that the evil meat-eating fascists are trying to destroy the planet and the only way to stop them is by buying all the coolest, newest, greenest, most environmentally-friendly items.

sunearthdiagram
Photo Credit: wunderground.com

However, truth be told, if it were not for greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere, the world would be a very cold place.  In fact, greenhouse gases are what keeps the earth warm through a process called the greenhouse effect.

The earth gets energy from the sun in the form of sunlight.  The earth’s surface absorbs some of this energy and heats up.  This is why the surface of a road can feel hot even after the sun has gone down.  The earth cools down by giving off a different form of energy called infrared radiation.  Before this radiation can escape to outer space, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere absorb some of it, which in turn makes the atmosphere warmer.

However, it does not have to be quite so warm here on planet earth and it is best to mitigate the environmental effects of human activities when possible.  In order to do this, the discussion needs to shift to other types of greenhouse gases because CO2 is relatively harmless when compared with many others.  Furthermore, CO2 gases can be dramatically reduced simply by planting a whole lot more plants and not destroying the ones that already exist and/or ending the world’s love affair with fossil fuels.

sources-agriculture
Greenhouse Gas Production by Sector             Photo Credit: epa.gov

A few of the other types of much more concerning greenhouse gases include:

  1. Methane: produced via:
  • livestock production – sheep and cows produce methane as a byproduct of their digestion process and methane as released as manure decomposes
  • trash decomposition in landfills
  • sourcing and transport of natural gas – natural gas is mostly methane and can easily leak through pipes
  • coal mining – pockets of methane are released as the earth is mined

Methane stays in the atmosphere for 12 years and traps 20 times more heat than CO2.

2. Nitrous Oxide: produced via:

  • farming – the introduction of synthetic nitrogen which is oxidised by plants
  • the burning of fossil fuels
  • some manufacturing and industrial processes

Nitrous oxide stays in the atmosphere for 114 years and traps 298 times more heat than CO2.

3. Fluorinated gases: produced via:

  • leaking coolants – produced by certain devices, such as refrigerators and air conditioners
  • manufacturing and industry – computer chip production is a major contributor

The length of time that these gases stay in the atmosphere varies, but ranges from several to thousands of years.  The heat-trapping properties also vary but range from a few hundred to 23,000 times that of CO2.  It is expected that fluorinated gas production will increase dramatically faster than any other greenhouse gases.

So, the greenhouse effect is a cause for concern, but it also a fundamental component of our existence.  As such, it is best when we stop focusing on how to stop this process and start focusing on how we as humans can make more conscientious decisions in order to preserve this special place we live and let mother nature do her job.

question: why are humans reluctant to take global warming seriously?

“A new idea is first condemned as ridiculous and then dismissed as trivial, until finally, it becomes what everybody knows.”

– William James

Folks, I am just going to come right out and say it: Denying that there is no human impact on the global climate is foolish. Of course, there is valid evidence demonstrating that there have been periods of heating and cooling throughout the earth’s history. This is not the source of debate. However, the changes that have been taking place over the past decades are severe and fast in nature and the latter quality is not typical of nature. Which begs the question: why is the belief that humans – the most dominate living force on the planet who change every landscape we touch in an attempt to mold it to our personal preferences – cannot impact our climate and weather systems still so widespread?

It may have to do with the way that the information is presented.

At first, the critics said there is no evidence. Then evidence was found, but it indicated that the problem was not anthropological in nature. Then global warming was said to be caused by humans but would only have a trivial impact on the world. Now, it has evolved to be known as climate change as is generally accepted as a threat with effects which are not negligible. Nonetheless, despite this knowledge, only limited action is taken. Moreover, those who oppose the notion that climate change exists do so in such an adamant and vehement manner that it becomes impossible to develop a dialogue about how to proactively address this very real issue.

Why is this so?

According to Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University, it is difficult for people to take global warming seriously because it does not take human form. This makes it difficult for us to see it as an enemy. Furthermore, because climate change has materialized so slowly our minds have normalized it. However, that is not to say that people do not agree that it is getting warmer. People justify this threat as a purely natural occurrence.

Moreover, there are four major types of threats: intentional, moral, imminent and instantaneous, which trigger us [humans] to spur into action. Global warming does not have any of these properties. Global climate change is not trying to kill us. It doesn’t confront us with anything immoral, nor does it seem to have anything to do with food and sex. It poses no clear and present danger which our brains have developed to effectively deal with, rather it is a long-term threat which our brains have only begun to learn to deal with.

So, it appears that until we can blow up, eat or fuck climate change, or it becomes corporeal in nature and starts shaming us, getting people on the behavior-changing-bandwagon is [unfortunately] unlikely to happen.

question: what are the causes of air pollution in china? how serious is this problem, and how does it impact other countries?

There are a variety of reasons for air pollution in China. Demand for cheap goods throughout the world prompt huge manufacturing efforts that are poorly regulated. A lack of enforceable energy and environmental standards enable production systems to exploit resources with few or no repercussions. An expanding middle class is also contributing to the increases in demand for transportation and electricity. Both produce a significant amount of air pollution, especially since electricity supplies in China are primarily dependent on some of the dirtiest sources of energy like coal.

Such a problem is incredibly serious. Citizens are subjected to terrible environmental conditions that are likely to cause various health ailments. The pollution also travels to the United States which contributes to already poor environmental conditions. For example, in California residents are subjected to at least one additional day of air conditions that exceed the federal limits for air pollution because of the influx of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide emitted by China and on other days at least one-quarter of sulfate pollution on the west cause is a result of exported goods from China. China also produces black carbon which is a known cause of asthma, emphysema, heart and lung disease, and various cancers. This type of pollution is not removed from the environment with rain.