Earth Policy

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  1. Emissions shrank rapidly during the recession, then bounced back slightly as the economy recovered. But shifting market conditions, pollution regulations, and changing behaviors are also behind the decline. Oil is the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States. After a steep drop following the 1979 oil crisis, emissions from oil climbed steadily until 2005, when they peaked at 715 million tons of carbon. Since then, these emissions have fallen by 14 percent, or 101 million tons of carbon - the equivalent of taking 77 million cars off the road. (See data.) Oil is mostly used for transportation, so vehicle fuel efficiency and the number of miles driven determine the amount of emissions. On both fronts things are improving. Average fuel efficiency, which had been deteriorating for years in the United States, started to increase in 2005 and keeps getting better. Americans are traveling farther on each gallon of gas than ever before. Furthermore, people are driving less. For many years Americans as a group drove billions more miles each year than the previous one. But in 2007 this changed. Now more cars stay parked because more people live in urban areas, opt for public transit, work remotely, or retire and thus no longer commute to work. Coal - the dirtiest fossil fuel - has dominated the U.S. power grid, but its grip has weakened in recent years. As the price of natural gas has fallen, utilities are dropping coal. They are also deciding to retire old, inefficient coal plants and invest elsewhere rather than pay for retrofits in order to meet increasingly stringent pollution regulations. Strong grassroots work, too, is helping to close the curtain on coal even faster. The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, which coordinates efforts across the country to retire old plants and prevent new ones from being built, tallies 149 coal plants that plan to retire or switch fuels out of more than 500. As falling natural gas prices, pollution regulations, and shrinking electricity demand reduce coal use, U.S. carbon emissions from coal have fallen 20 percent from their peak in 2005. Meanwhile, natural gas consumption for electricity generation and heating has increased. Carbon dioxide emissions from burning natural gas hit an all-time high of 373 million tons of carbon in 2012, up 17 percent above 2006 levels. They are projected to remain at that level in 2013. Natural gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy as coal does. With domestic production on the rise, the share of carbon emissions from natural gas are likely to continue to increase. But electricity does not have to come with a huge carbon hangover. Wind and solar power - carbon-free energy sources with no fuel costs - have been taking off. U.S. wind power capacity has more than tripled since 2007 and now produces enough energy to power over 15 million homes in the United States. Solar power capacity, starting from a smaller base, increased 14-fold in the same time period. Although wind and solar power currently account for only a small share of total energy production, their prices will continue to drop as deployment increases. In some areas wind is already cheaper than coal. This is just the beginning of reductions in carbon dioxide emissions as the explosive growth of wind and solar power cuts down the use of dirty fossil fuels. The switch to renewables cannot come soon enough. Accumulating greenhouse gas emissions from the United States and other countries have led to a global temperature increase of 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius) since the Industrial Revolution. Higher emissions will lead to higher temperatures that will bring more heat waves, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels. In 2009, President Obama set a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Putting a price on carbon would help accelerate the trends that are cutting the United States' carbon contribution and allow the country to exceed this goal. By Emily E. Adams. For more information on the U.S. transition to wind power, see "Iowa and South Dakota Approach 25 Percent Electricity from Wind in 2012," by J. Matthew Roney. Photo credit: freefotouk (cc).
  2. U.S. Nuclear Power in Decline

    Nuclear power generation in the United States is falling. After increasing rapidly since the 1970s, electricity generation at U.S. nuclear plants began to grow more slowly in the early 2000s. It then plateaued between 2007 and 2010 - before falling more than 4 percent over the last two years. Projections for 2013 show a further 1 percent drop. With reactors retiring early and proposed projects being abandoned, U.S. nuclear power's days are numbered. The nuclear industry's troubles began well before the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear plant sowed public mistrust of atomic power. In 1957, the country's first commercial nuclear reactor was completed in Pennsylvania. By the mid-1960s, excitement over an energy source predicted to be too cheap to meter had created a frenzied rush to build reactors. But utilities soon pulled back on the throttle as the realities of construction delays and cost overruns sank in. Annual orders for new reactors, which peaked at more than 40 in 1973, fell sharply over the next several years. The two reactor orders placed in 1978 would be the last for three decades. Of the 253 reactors that were ordered by 1978, 121 were canceled either before or during construction, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists' David Lochbaum. Nearly half of these were dropped by 1978. The reactors that were completed - the last of which came online in 1996 - were over budget three-fold on average. By the late 1990s, 28 reactors had permanently closed before their 40-year operating licenses expired. A number of factors played a role in this, including cost escalation, slower electricity demand growth, and a changing regulatory environment. Despite these closures, the United States was still left with 104 reactors totaling some 100 gigawatts (100,000 megawatts) of generating capacity”by far the most of any country. Then, spurred on by new tax credits and loan guarantees promised in the 2005 Energy Policy Act - as well as by high prices for natural gas, a competing fuel - the industry has recently had visions of a nuclear renaissance. By 2009, utilities were planning more than 30 new reactors. But in the years since, the vast majority of these plans have been shelved. Even with huge subsidies, private lenders still see new nuclear projects as too risky to finance. Meanwhile, the U.S. shale gas production boom sent natural gas prices plummeting, further darkening nuclear's prospect. In 2012, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved four new reactors for construction, two each at the Vogtle plant in Georgia and the Summer plant in South Carolina. These reactors are all of the same commercially untested design, purportedly quicker to build than previous plants. Both projects benefit from fairly new state laws that shift the economic risk to ratepayers. These advanced cost recovery laws, also passed in Florida and North Carolina, allow utilities to raise their customers' rates to pay for new nuclear plants during and even before construction - regardless of whether the reactors are ever finished. Construction at both sites began in March 2013. Even as the first concrete was poured at the $14-billion Vogtle project, it was reportedly 19 months behind schedule and more than $1 billion over budget. The Summer project, a $10 billion endeavor, also quickly ran into problems. In June its owner, Scana Corp., admitted that it was running about a year behind and faced $200 million in additional costs. With these delays, the earliest projected completion date for any of these reactors is some time in late 2017. The only other reactor currently under construction in the United States is Watts Bar 2 in Tennessee. It broke ground in 1972 and, after being on hold for two decades, was finally scheduled for completion in 2012. But that year, the owner - the Tennessee Valley Authority - announced it would be delayed again until 2015 and that the cost of the project would rise by up to 80 percent, to $4.5 billion. Several utilities have recently dropped plans for new reactors or for uprates, where an existing reactor's generating capacity is increased. For example, in May 2013 Duke Energy suspended its application to the NRC for two proposed reactors in North Carolina, citing slow electricity demand growth. Then in August, Duke pulled plans for a two-reactor, $24.7-billion project in Florida, on which it had already spent - and mostly recovered from its ratepayers - $1 billion. The company worried that mid-2013 amendments to the state's advanced cost recovery law would make it more difficult to fund ongoing projects with higher customer bills. In June, the nation's largest nuclear utility, Exelon, canceled uprate projects at plants in Pennsylvania and Illinois. (These are two of at least six uprates dropped by utilities in 2013 as of early September.) Just over a month later, the French utility EDF announced it was bowing out of a partnership with Exelon that operates nuclear plants in New York and Maryland. In fact, EDF will no longer pursue U.S. nuclear projects at all, instead focusing its U.S. efforts on renewables. This year has also already witnessed the permanent shutdown of four reactors totaling 3.6 gigawatts of capacity. The first to fall was Duke's Crystal River reactor in Florida. Although the plant was licensed to run until 2016, Duke decided to close it rather than pay for needed repairs. Then Dominion Energy's 39-year-old Kewaunee reactor in Wisconsin closed, citing competition from low gas prices. It had recently been approved to operate through 2033. And in June, Southern California Edison shuttered its two San Onofre reactors after 18 months of being offline due to a leak in a brand new steam generator. These retirements leave the United States with 100 reactors, averaging 32 years in operation. (France is second, with 58 reactors.) More closures will soon follow, particularly among the roughly half of U.S. reactors in so-called merchant areas where nuclear competes with other technologies and prices are set by the market. A 2013 report by Mark Cooper at the Vermont Law School indicates that there are nine merchant reactors that, like Kewaunee, were granted 20-year life extensions but are especially at risk of closure. Epitaphs are already being written for two of them: Vermont's lone nuclear power plant will close in 2014, and the country's oldest reactor, Oyster Creek in New Jersey, will retire by 2019. Regulated areas, where state authorities set electricity prices such that nuclear operators are guaranteed a profit, contain the rest of the U.S. reactors. Even for many of these plants, the economics may not allow for survival much longer. According to Credit Suisse, the cost of operating and maintaining the aging reactor fleet is rising at 5 percent a year and the nuclear fuel cost is growing even faster, at 9 percent annually. Wind and solar power costs, on the other hand, continue to drop as their electric output grows rapidly. Dealing with nuclear waste is another expensive proposition. Over the past 30 years, the U.S. government has spent some $15 billion trying to approve a central repository for nuclear waste, and for most of that time the only site under consideration has been Nevada's Yucca Mountain. Amid concerns about the site's safety and its extreme unpopularity in Nevada, the Obama administration has moved to abandon the project entirely and explore other options. A federal appeals court ruled in August 2013 that the NRC must resume reviewing the site's suitability. In the meantime, the waste keeps accumulating. The 75,000 tons of waste now stored at 80 temporary sites in 35 states is projected to double by 2055. All this has implications for nuclear power's prospects for expansion: nine states, including California, Connecticut, and Illinois, have prohibited new nuclear plants until a solution to the waste issue is found. The low level of liability for nuclear operators in case of an accident also puts taxpayers on the hook. Plant owners pay into an insurance pool of just $12 billion; the public would cover any further damages. For comparison, cleanup and compensation for the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan is projected to cost at least $60 billion. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that a catastrophic accident at New York's Indian Point plant could cost 10 to 100 times that amount. This risk will be underscored on September 29, 2013, when one of Indian Point's two reactors becomes the first ever to operate with an expired license. If the reactors now under construction in Georgia and South Carolina actually come online, they are projected to generate electricity that is much more expensive than nearly any other source, including wind and solar power. New nuclear plants are simply too expensive to replace the aging fleet. And with uprate proposals for existing reactors being pulled, it appears the industry cannot depend on this option to increase capacity much either. The NRC has approved 20-year operating life extensions for more than two thirds of existing U.S. reactors; most of the rest will probably be granted extensions as well. Even if these units reach the end of their licensed life”which past experience says is unlikely”if no new plants come online to replace them, the last U.S. reactor will be shut down by the late 2050s. Any industry hopes ride heavily on the success of the Vogtle and Summer projects. As U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a recent interview, if these plants now under construction keep racking up huge cost overruns and delays, it is very hard to see a future for nuclear power plants in the United States. By J. Matthew Roney. Data and additional resources available at Photo credit: Jim Muckian (cc). The photo shows a reflection of the abandoned nuclear power plant in Elma, WA.
  3. The Global Land Rush

    Between 2007 and mid-2008, world grain and soybean prices more than doubled. As food prices climbed everywhere, some exporting countries began to restrict grain shipments in an effort to limit food price inflation at home.Importing countries panicked. Some tried to negotiate long-term grain supply agreements with exporting countries, but in a seller's market, few were successful. Seemingly overnight, importing countries realized that one of their few options was to find land in other countries on which to produce food for themselves. Looking for land abroad is not entirely new. Empires expanded through territorial acquisitions, colonial powers set up plantations, and agribusiness firms try to expand their reach. Agricultural analyst Derek Byerlee tracks market-driven investments in foreign land back to the mid-nineteenth century. During the last 150 years, large-scale agricultural investments from industrial countries concentrated primarily on tropical products such as sugarcane, tea, rubber, and bananas. What is new now is the scramble to secure land abroad for more basic food and feed crops - including wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans - and for biofuels. These land acquisitions of the last several years, or "land grabs" as they are sometimes called, represent a new stage in the emerging geopolitics of food scarcity. They are occurring on a scale and at a pace not seen before. Among the countries that are leading the charge to buy or lease land abroad, either directly through government entities or through domestically based agribusiness firms, are Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, and India. Saudi Arabia's population has simply outrun its land and water resources. The country is fast losing its irrigation water and will soon be totally dependent on imports from the world market or overseas farming projects for its grain. Land acquisitions, whether to produce food, biofuels, or other crops, raise questions about who will benefit. Even if some of these projects can dramatically boost land productivity, will local people gain from this? When virtually all the inputs - the farm equipment, the fertilizer, the pesticides, the seeds - are brought in from abroad and all the output is shipped out of the country, this contributes little to the local economy and nothing to the local food supply. These land grabs are not only benefiting the rich, they are doing so at the expense of the poor. As land and water become scarce, as the earth's temperature rises, and as world food security deteriorates, a dangerous geopolitics of food scarcity is emerging. The conditions giving rise to this have been in the making for several decades, but the situation has come into sharp focus only in the last few years. The land acquisitions discussed here are an integral part of a global power struggle for control of the earth's land and water resources. By Lester R. Brown. From Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester R. Brown. Read the full report here.
  4. The opening of the San Francisco Bay Area bike share on August 29, 2013, brings the combined fleet of shared bikes in the United States above 18,000, more than a doubling since the start of the year. The United States is now home to 34 modern bike-sharing programs that allow riders to easily make short trips on two wheels without having to own a bicycle. With a number of new programs in the works and planned expansions of existing programs, the U.S. fleet is set to double again by the end of 2014, at which point nearly 37,000 publicly shared bicycles will roll the streets.The largest bike share in the United States is in New York City, where some 6,000 bicycles are available at 332 stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The program opened at the end of May 2013, and in less than 3 months hit 2 million trips. On busy days, each bike gets checked out seven times or more, a remarkably high borrowing rate. The city ultimately hopes to expand the program to other boroughs and grow to 10,000 bikes. The other large bike-sharing debut in 2013 was in Chicago, where 1,500 Divvy bikes now grace the streets. The program hopes to double to 3,000 cycles by the end of the year, ultimately growing to 4,000 strong”reinforcing the city's efforts to dramatically boost biking. In addition to making shared bikes readily accessible transit, Chicago plans to extend the path and trail network to within a half-mile of all residences. Before New York and Chicago came on the bike-sharing scene, Washington, DC, held America's top spot. Its program has grown to over 2,000 bikes, spreading into neighboring communities. Transport planners from cities around the country have made the pilgrimage to Washington to ride one of the cherry-red Capital Bikeshare bikes and see firsthand how the popular program works. Since 2007, biking in the nation's capital doubled to 3.5 percent of all commuter trips, and bike sharing has made it more convenient to travel the expanding web of marked cycle lanes. Other large bike shares include Nice Ride in Minneapolis and St. Paul (1,550 bikes), Hubway in the Boston area (1,100 bikes), and DecoBike Miami Beach (1,000 bikes). Aspen, Columbus, Fort Worth, and Salt Lake City are among the more than a dozen programs that opened in 2013, joining a list of cities that have enjoyed bike sharing for longer, including Denver, San Antonio, Chattanooga, Madison, and Fort Lauderdale. On the international scene, the United States is just catching Europe and Asia's bike-sharing tailwind. Worldwide, more than half a million cycles can be picked up in well over 500 cities in 51 countries. Italy and Spain have the greatest number of programs, while China is home to two thirds of the global shared bike fleet. New York is the only American city to make it onto the list of the world's 20 largest bike-sharing programs. In fact, five cities have more shared bikes than the entire U.S. fleet. Four of them are in China, where Wuhan reportedly has some 90,000 shared bikes for its 9 million people. Hangzhou has 69,750 bikes that are well integrated with that city's mass transit. The world's third largest bike share is Vélib' in Paris, the first large-scale program to gain worldwide attention. Since its 2007 launch, riders have taken 173 million trips. According to the program, one of the nearly 24,000 Vélib' bikes gets checked out every second of the day. Vélib' claims to have the highest bike density among the world's top programs, with one bike available for every 97 city residents. Within the next year, the U.S. bike-sharing fleet will have caught up with Paris. New entries in Florida could push the country past that mark, with launches expected in Miami (500 bikes, an expansion from Miami Beach), St. Petersburg (300 bikes), and Tampa (300 bikes). Phoenix is also hoping to launch a 500-bike program that will double in size as neighboring cities join in. Rollouts hoped for in 2014 include large offerings in Los Angeles (some 4,000 bikes) and San Diego (1,800 bikes), as well as 500+ bike programs in Portland (Oregon), Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Seattle, along with a number of smaller markets. The new San Francisco Bay Area scheme is starting out relatively diffuse, with 700 bicycles split between San Francisco and other cities along the 50-mile rail line south to San Jose. Planners note that it ultimately could grow to a network of 10,000 bikes, better allowing rail riders to travel the first and last mile or so of their commute on two wheels. As communities continue to improve their biking infrastructure and as enthusiasm for an efficient, environmentally friendly, healthy, and enjoyable form of transportation grows, bike sharing has a bright future in the United States. (For full list of current and planned U.S. bike-sharing programs, click here.) For more information on bike-sharing in the United States and globally, see Dozens of U.S. Cities Board the Bike-Sharing Bandwagon and Bike-Sharing Programs Hit the Streets in Over 500 Cities Worldwide, by Janet Larsen.
  5. The world installed 31,100 megawatts of solar photovoltaics (PV) in 2012"”an all-time annual high that pushed global PV capacity above 100,000 megawatts. There is now enough PV operating to meet the household electricity needs of nearly 70 million people at the European level of use. While PV production has become increasingly concentrated in one country - China - the number of countries installing PV is growing rapidly. In 2006, only a handful of countries could boast solar capacity of 100 megawatts or more. Now 30 countries are on that list, which the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects will more than double by 2018. PV semiconductor materials convert the sun's rays directly into clean, carbon-free electricity. Traditional solar cells - made of crystalline silicon - are combined into flat panels or "modules." While residential rooftop systems are measured in kilowatts, large ground-mounted systems can reach thousands of megawatts of capacity. (One megawatt equals 1,000 kilowatts.) Today roughly 60 percent of PV is manufactured in China. A decade ago, China produced almost no PV. But in a kind of gold rush spurred by easy bank loans and government tax incentives and subsidies, China hurtled past PV technology pioneers the United States (in 2006) and Japan (in 2008). The flood of new companies entering the Chinese PV industry over the last several years created a massive oversupply of panels at the global level and accelerated the already fast-paced drop in world PV prices. Many firms in other countries went bankrupt or shut down factories, and now even some Chinese companies are folding as the industry consolidates. Worldwide, PV production in 2012 declined 2 percent from 2011, the first annual drop on record. But this contraction will be short-lived as demand continues to rise. Solar power installations are growing more than 40 percent annually, and falling PV prices are making solar power more affordable. China, where PV had previously been too expensive to be widely adopted, may soon lead the world in generating electricity from PV. Each year since 2006 China has at least doubled the amount of new PV installed nationwide. After installing 5,000 megawatts in 2012, China is number three in the world with 8,300 megawatts of total PV capacity, trailing only Germany and Italy. And in July 2013, the government officially set a new national PV capacity goal of 35,000 megawatts by 2015. Depending on China's 2013 final tally, Japan could well install the most PV this year, perhaps more than 9,000 megawatts. This would give Japan some 16,000 megawatts of solar capacity"”over halfway to its official 2020 target of 28,000 megawatts. Historically, Japan has been the world's leading market for residential rooftop PV; in 2011, some 85 percent of PV capacity added there was residential. After the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, though, the government introduced a generous incentive encouraging larger projects, thus spurring huge investment in utility-scale PV capacity. The other big Asian solar story comes from India, a country of 1.2 billion people where an estimated 290 million still lack electricity. According to the solar energy consultancy Bridge to India, the country had 1,700 megawatts of PV installed by May 2013, with 80 percent of it in the sun-drenched northwestern states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Bridge to India projects that figure will jump to 12,800 megawatts by 2016. India's National Solar Mission calls for 22,000 megawatts of solar power nationwide by 2022, including 2,000 megawatts of off-grid PV. Going solar is becoming increasingly attractive in India due to notoriously frequent blackouts and climbing grid power prices - not to mention that solar is now cheaper than diesel for electricity. Even though Asia's PV installations are soaring, it will be some years before it can unseat the European Union (EU) in regional PV dominance. The EU boasts 68 percent of world PV capacity. In 2012, for the second year running, the EU added more PV than it did any other electricity-generating technology. EU countries now annually installing hundreds or thousands of megawatts include Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, France, Greece, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Germany remains the world's solar capital, home to nearly one third of global PV capacity. For the third straight year, Germany added more than 7,000 megawatts of PV in 2012, reaching 32,000 megawatts. Accounting for some 5 percent of national power use, the electricity flowing from Germany's solar panels in 2012 was enough to supply more than 8 million homes. After adding a world-record 9,400 megawatts of new PV to the grid in 2011, Italy connected 3,400 megawatts in 2012 to keep its second-place spot in installed PV, with 16,300 megawatts total. Italy got 5.6 percent of its electricity from PV in 2012. (See data.) The main policy driver that has allowed Germany and Italy to amass their world-leading solar capacity is the feed-in tariff (FIT), which guarantees renewable energy generators a long-term purchase price for the electricity they supply to the grid. As these markets mature and solar system costs decline, FIT incentives are being reduced. But worldwide more than 70 countries - the majority of them now in the developing world - use some form of FIT. Until recently, the United States lagged badly in PV capacity despite its abundant solar resources. (Nearly every state gets more sun than Germany does.) But annual U.S. solar installations doubled in 2011, and nearly did so again in 2012, when 3,300 megawatts of PV came online. As of mid-2013, U.S. PV capacity had passed the 10,000 megawatt mark. Renewable portfolio standards (RPS) - laws now in 29 states typically requiring that renewables account for a specified share of the electricity that utilities sell - have historically driven U.S. PV development. In California, the U.S. solar leader, utilities must get one third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Federal tax credits and cash grants are also PV catalysts, as are the increasingly popular arrangements allowing homeowners to lease a system from solar developers like Sunrun and SolarCity rather than footing the entire upfront cost. More than half of U.S. residential systems are now leased. Another solar-rich country finally starting to seriously ramp up its PV capacity is Australia. Residential rooftops host the majority of its 2,400 megawatts, 42 percent of which were installed in 2012. In the state of South Australia, one in five homes is solar-powered. Large PV projects are announced seemingly every week in countries with little or no previous solar capacity. For example, in mid-2013 construction finished on an 84-megawatt project in Thailand. The 96-megawatt Jasper Solar Project, financed in part by Google, is under way in South Africa. And two projects of over 100 megawatts gained local approval in Chile. These large projects illustrate another global PV trend: the rise of the mega-project. Only a few years ago, the 10 largest solar farms were between 30 and 60 megawatts. Now PV parks of 100 megawatts or more are becoming commonplace. Arizona's Agua Caliente PV project became the world's largest at 250 megawatts when its fourth phase finished construction in 2012. (It will eventually be 290 megawatts.) Developers have announced a 475-megawatt PV farm in Nagasaki, Japan, due in 2016. Several projects between 500 and 3,000 megawatts are under development in California. Even as PV deployment moves toward larger applications, it is well worth noting the virtues of smaller-scale solar, especially for developing countries. In rural areas with no grid access, installing solar PV at the home level is often cheaper than building a central power plant and electric grid. Bangladesh, working for over a decade with the World Bank, had installed 1.4 million rural solar home systems as of mid-2012, for example. Peru recently announced that the first phase of its national home electrification program will equip a half-million off-grid homes with PV. Analysts expect a new PV installation record of 35,000 megawatts in 2013. Even with the possibility that Europe's annual installations will fall below 10,000 megawatts over the next few years, China, Japan, and the United States, along with the growing number of "newcomer" PV countries, will more than pick up the slack. The IEA estimates, perhaps conservatively, that world PV capacity will more than triple by 2018 to 308,000 megawatts - at peak power, the generating equivalent of 300 large nuclear plants. By J. Matthew Roney. For a plan to stabilize the Earth's climate, see "Time for Plan B." Data and additional resources at
  6. Increasing global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), a heat-trapping gas, are pushing the world into dangerous territory, closing the window of time to avert the worst consequences of higher temperatures, such as melting ice and rising seas. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels have grown exponentially. Despite wide agreement by governments on the need to limit emissions, the rate of increase ratcheted up from less than 1 percent each year in the 1990s to almost 3 percent annually in the first decade of this century. After a short dip in 2009 due to the global financial crisis, emissions from fossil fuels rebounded in 2010 and have since grown 2.6 percent each year, hitting an all-time high of 9.7 billion tons of carbon in 2012. Carbon emissions would have risen even faster were it not for the 7 percent drop among industrial countries since 2007 - a group that includes the United States, Canada, Europe, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. The United States, long the world's largest emitter until it was eclipsed by China in 2006, cut carbon emissions by 11 percent over the past five years to 1.4 billion tons. The biggest drop was in emissions from coal - which is primarily used to generate electricity - as power plants switched to cheaper natural gas and as the use of carbon-free wind energy more than quadrupled. U.S. emissions from oil, mostly used for transportation, also dipped. (See data.) Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning in Europe, as a whole the third largest emitter, fell 9 percent from 2007 to 2012. Emissions in Italy and Spain shrank by 17 and 18 percent, respectively. The United Kingdom's emissions dropped by 11 percent to 126 million tons. Germany's emissions fell by 4 percent to 200 million tons. These countries have been leaders in either wind or solar energy or both. Russia and Japan are two industrial countries that did not see an overall decline in carbon emissions over the past five years. Russia had an uptick in oil use, increasing its emissions by 2 percent to 449 million tons. And in Japan, the quick suspension of nuclear power generation after the Fukushima disaster led to more natural gas and oil use, pushing emissions up 1 percent to 336 million tons in 2012. CO2 emissions in developing countries surpassed those from industrial countries in 2005 and have since continued to soar. China's carbon emissions grew by 44 percent since 2007 to 2.4 billion tons in 2012. Together the United States and China account for more than 40 percent of worldwide emissions. Emissions in India, home to more than a billion people, overtook those in Russia for the first time in 2008. From 2007 to 2012, India's emissions grew 43 percent to reach 596 million tons of carbon. Carbon emissions in Indonesia, another fast-growing economy, have exploded, growing 52 percent to hit 146 million tons in 2012. Although emissions from developing countries now dominate, the industrial countries set the world on its global warming path with over a century's worth of CO2 emissions that have accumulated in the atmosphere. Furthermore, emissions estimates discussed here include only those from fossil fuels burned within a country's borders, meaning that the tallies do not account for international trade. For example, emissions generated from producing goods in China destined for use in the United States are added to China's books. When emissions are counted in terms of the final destination of the product, the industrial countries' carbon bill increases. On a per person basis, the United States emits 4.4 tons of carbon pollution - twice as much as in China. The highest per capita carbon emissions are in several small oil and gas producing countries. In 2012, Qatar spewed out 11 tons of carbon per person. Trinidad and Tobago is next with 9 tons of carbon per person, and Kuwait follows at 7.5 tons. Fossil fuels are not the only source of CO2 emissions. Changing the landscape, for example by burning forests, releases roughly 1 billion tons of carbon globally each year. Brazil and Indonesia have high levels of deforestation and are responsible for much of the current carbon emissions from the land. About half of the CO2 that is released through fossil fuel burning or land use changes stays in the atmosphere. The other half is taken up by the oceans or by plants. As more CO2 is absorbed by the world's oceans, the water becomes more acidic. This change in ocean chemistry can strip away the building blocks of coral reefs, weakening an important link in the oceanic food chain. Scientists warn that the oceans could eventually become saturated with CO2, compromising their capacity to absorb our carbon emissions, with serious consequences for the global thermostat. For some 800,000 years, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere did not go above 300 parts per million (ppm). But in the 250 years following the start of the Industrial Revolution, enough CO2 built up to bring the average concentration to nearly 394 ppm in 2012. Throughout each year, the concentration of the gas fluctuates, reaching its annual peak in the spring. In May 2013, the CO2 concentration briefly hit 400 ppm, a grim new milestone on the path of climate disruption. Never in human history has the atmosphere been so full of this odorless and colorless yet powerfully disruptive gas. CO2 acts like the glass of a greenhouse, trapping heat. Since humans began burning fossil fuels on a large scale, the global average temperature has risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius), with most of the increase occurring since 1970. The effects of higher temperatures include rising sea levels, disappearing Arctic sea ice, more heat waves, and declining yields of food crops. More warming is in the pipeline as the climate system slowly responds to the higher CO2 concentrations. Reports from international institutions, such as the International Energy Agency, based on work by thousands of scientists emphasize that little time remains to cut emissions and avoid a climate catastrophe. The World Bank notes that absent any policy changes, the global average temperature could be 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by the end of this century, well above what human civilization has ever witnessed. But a different future - one based on a clean energy economy - is within our reach. Germany, not a particularly sunny country, has harnessed enough of the sun's rays to power some 8 million homes, for example. The United States has enough wind turbines installed to power more than 15 million homes. Kenya generates roughly a quarter of its electricity from geothermal energy. This is but a glimpse of the enormous potential of renewable energy. The question is not whether we can build a carbon-free economy, but whether we can do it before climate change spirals out of control. By Emily E. Adams. For a plan to stabilize the Earth's climate, see "Time for Plan B" and more at
  7. At the time of the Arab oil export embargo in the 1970s, the importing countries were beginning to ask themselves if there were alternatives to oil. In a number of countries, particularly the United States, several in Europe, and Brazil, the idea of growing crops to produce fuel for cars was appealing. The modern biofuels industry was launched. This was the beginning of what would become one of the great tragedies of history. Brazil was able to create a thriving fuel ethanol program based on sugarcane, a tropical plant. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, however, in the United States the feedstock was corn. Between 1980 and 2005, the amount of grain used to produce fuel ethanol in the United States gradually expanded from 1 million to 41 million tons. Then came Hurricane Katrina, which disrupted Gulf-based oil refineries and gasoline supply lines in late August 2005. As gasoline prices in the United States quickly climbed to $3 a gallon, the conversion of a $2 bushel of corn, which can be distilled into 2.8 gallons of ethanol, became highly profitable. The result was a rush to raise capital and build distilleries. From November 2005 through June 2006, ground was broken for a new ethanol plant in the United States every nine days. From July through September, the construction pace accelerated to one every five days. And in October 2006, it was one every three days. Between 2005 and 2011, the grain used to produce fuel for cars climbed from 41 million to 127 million tons - nearly a third of the U.S. grain harvest. (See Figure 4-1.) The United States is trying to replace oil fields with corn fields to meet part of its automotive fuel needs. The massive diversion of grain to fuel cars has helped drive up food prices, leaving low-income consumers everywhere to suffer some of the most severe food price inflation in history. As of mid-2012, world wheat, corn, and soybean prices were roughly double their historical levels. The appetite for grain to fuel cars is seemingly insatiable. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon fuel tank of a sport utility vehicle with ethanol just once would feed one person for a whole year. The grain turned into ethanol in the United States in 2011 could have fed, at average world consumption levels, some 400 million people. But even if the entire U.S. grain harvest were turned into ethanol, it would only satisfy 18 percent of current gasoline demand. With its enormous growth in distilling capacity, the United States quickly overtook Brazil to become the new world leader in biofuels. In 2011, the United States produced 14 billion gallons of ethanol and Brazil produced under 6 billion gallons; together they accounted for 87 percent of world output. The 14 billion gallons of U.S. grain-based ethanol met roughly 6 percent of U.S. gasoline demand. Other countries producing ethanol from food crops, though in relatively small amounts, include China, Canada, France, and Germany. Most ethanol production growth has been concentrated in the last several years. In 1980, the world produced scarcely 1 billion gallons of fuel ethanol. By 2000, the figure was 4.5 billion gallons. It was still increasing, albeit slowly, expanding to 8.2 billion gallons in 2005. But between then and 2011, production jumped to 23 billion gallons. A number of countries, including the United States, are also producing biodiesel from oil-bearing crops. World biodiesel production grew from a mere 3 million gallons in 1991 to just under 1 billion gallons in 2005. During the next six years it jumped to nearly 6 billion gallons, increasing sixfold. Still, worldwide production of biodiesel is less than one fourth that of ethanol. The production of biodiesel is much more evenly distributed among countries than that of ethanol. The top five producers are the United States, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, and France, with production ranging from 840 million gallons per year in the United States to 420 million gallons in France. A variety of crops can be used to produce biodiesel. In Europe, where sunflower seed oil, palm oil, and rapeseed oil are leading table oils, rapeseed is used most often for biodiesel. Similarly, in the United States the soybean is the leading table oil and biodiesel feedstock. Elsewhere, palm oil is widely used both for food and to produce biodiesel. Although production from oil palms is limited to tropical and subtropical regions, the crop yields much more biodiesel per acre than do temperate-zone oilseeds such as soybeans and rapeseed. However, one disturbing consequence of rising biofuel production is that new oil palm plantations are coming at the expense of tropical forests. And any land that is devoted to producing biofuel crops is not available to produce food. Not only are biofuels helping raise food prices, and thus increasing the number of hungry people, most make little sense from an energy efficiency perspective. Although ethanol can be produced from any plant, it is much more efficient and much less costly to use sugar- and starch-bearing crops. But even among these crops the efficiency varies widely. The ethanol yield per acre from sugarcane is nearly 600 gallons, a third higher than that from corn. This is partly because sugarcane is grown in tropical and subtropical regions and it grows year-round. Corn, in contrast, has a growing season of 120 days or so. In terms of energy efficiency, grain-based ethanol is a clear loser. For sugarcane, the energy yield - that is, the energy embodied in the ethanol - can be up to eight times the energy invested in producing the biofuel. In contrast, the energy return on energy invested in producing corn-based ethanol is only roughly 1.5 to 1, a dismal return. For biodiesel, oil palm is far and away the most energy-efficient crop, yielding roughly nine times as much energy as is invested in producing biodiesel from it. The energy return for biodiesel produced from soybeans and rapeseed is about 2.5 to 1. In terms of land productivity, an acre of oil palms can produce over 500 gallons of fuel per year - more than six times that produced from soybeans or rapeseed. Growing even the most productive fuel crops, however, still means either diverting land from other crops or clearing more land. The capacity to convert enormous volumes of grain into fuel means that the price of grain is now more closely tied to the price of oil than ever before. If the price of fuel from grain drops below that from oil, then investment in converting grain into fuel will increase. Thus, if the price of oil were to reach, say, $200 a barrel, there would likely be an enormous additional investment in ethanol distilleries to convert grain into fuel. If the price of corn rises high enough, however, as it may well do, distilling grain to produce fuel may no longer be profitable. One of the consequences of integrating the world food and fuel economies is that the owners of the world's 1 billion motor vehicles are pitted against the world's poorest people in competition for grain. The winner of this competition will depend heavily on income levels. Whereas the average motorist has an annual income over $30,000, the incomes of the 2 billion poorest people in the world are well under $2,000. Rising food prices can quickly translate into social unrest. As grain prices were doubling from 2007 to mid-2008, food protests and riots broke out in many countries. Economic stresses in the form of rising food prices are translating into political stresses, putting governments in some countries under unmanageable pressures. The U.S. State Department reports food unrest in some 60 countries between 2007 and 2009. Among these were Afghanistan, Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Haiti. International food assistance programs are also hit hard by rising grain prices. Since the budgets of food aid agencies are set well in advance, a rise in prices shrinks food assistance precisely when more help is needed. The U.N. World Food Programme, which supplies emergency food aid to more than 60 countries, has to cut shipments as prices soar. Meanwhile, over 7,000 children are dying each day from hunger and related illnesses. When governments subsidize food-based biofuel production, they are in effect spending taxpayers' money to raise costs at the supermarket checkout counter. In the United States, the production of fuel ethanol was encouraged by a tax credit granted to fuel blenders for each gallon of ethanol they blended with gasoline. This tax credit expired at the end of 2011. Still in place, however, is the Renewable Fuel Standard, which is seen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of a strategy to "help recharge the rural American economy." This mandate requires that biofuel use ramp up to 36 billion gallons annually by 2022. Of this total, 16 billion gallons are slated to come from cellulosic feedstocks, such as cornstalks, grass, or wood chips. Yet for the foreseeable future, production of those cellulose-based fuels has little chance of reaching such levels. Producing ethanol from sugars or starches like corn or sugarcane is a one-step process that converts the feedstock to ethanol. But producing ethanol from cellulosic materials is a two-step process: first the material must be broken down into sugar or starch, and then it is converted into ethanol. Furthermore, cellulosic feedstocks like corn stalks are much bulkier than feedstocks like corn kernels, so transporting them from distant fields to a distillery is much more costly. Removing agricultural residues such as corn stalks or wheat straw from the field to produce ethanol deprives the soil of needed organic matter. The unfortunate reality is that the road to this ambitious cellulosic biofuel goal is littered with bankrupt firms that tried and failed to develop a process that would produce an economically viable fuel. Despite having the advantage of not being directly part of the food supply, cellulosic ethanol has strong intrinsic characteristics that put it at a basic disadvantage compared with grain ethanol, so it may never become economically viable. The mandate from the European Union (EU) requiring that 10 percent of its transportation energy come from renewable sources, principally biofuels, by 2020 is similarly ambitious. Among international agribusiness firms, this is seen as a reason to acquire land, mostly in Africa, on which to produce fuel for export to Europe. Since Europe relies primarily on diesel fuel for its cars, the investors are looking at crops such as the oil palm and jatropha, a relatively low-yielding oil-bearing shrub, as a source of diesel fuel. There is growing opposition to this EU goal from environmental groups, the European Environment Agency, and many other stakeholders. They object to the deforestation and the displacement of the poor that often results from such "land grabbing." (See Chapter 10.) They are also concerned that, by and large, biofuels do not deliver the promised climate benefits. The biofuel industry and its proponents have argued that greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels are lower than those from gasoline, but this has been challenged by a number of scientific studies. Indeed, there is growing evidence that biofuel production may contribute to global warming rather than ameliorate it. A study led by Nobel prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany reports that the nitrogen fertilizers used to produce biofuel crops release "nitrous oxide emissions large enough to cause climate warming instead of cooling." A report from Rice University that carefully examined the greenhouse gas emissions question concluded that "it is uncertain whether existing biofuels production provides any beneficial improvement over traditional gasoline, after taking into account land use changes and emissions of nitrous oxide. Legislation giving biofuels preferences on the basis of greenhouse gas benefits should be avoided." The U.S. National Academy of Sciences also voiced concern about biofuel production's negative effects on soils, water, and the climate. There is some good news on the issue of food or fuel. An April 2012 industry report notes that "the world ethanol engine continues to sputter." U.S. ethanol production likely peaked in 2011 and is projected to drop 2 percent in 2012. An even greater decline in U.S. ethanol production is likely in 2013 as oil prices weaken and as heat and drought in the U.S. Midwest drive corn prices upward. For many distillers, the profit margin disappeared in 2012. In early July 2012, Valero Energy Corporation, an oil company and major ethanol producer, reported it was idling the second of its 10 ethanol distilleries. Numerous other distilleries are on the verge of shutting down. If the ethanol mandate were phased out, U.S. distillers would have even less confidence in the future marketability of ethanol. In a world of widely fluctuating oil and grain prices, ethanol production would not always be profitable. Beyond this, the use of automotive fuel in the United States, which peaked in 2007, fell 11 percent by 2012. Young people living in cities are simply not as car-oriented as their parents were. They are not part of the car culture. This helps explain why the size of the U.S. motor vehicle fleet, after climbing for a century, peaked at 250 million in 2008. It now appears that the fleet size will continue to shrink through this decade. In addition, the introduction of more stringent U.S. auto fuel-efficiency standards means that gasoline use by new cars sold in 2025 will be half that of new cars sold in 2010. As older, less efficient cars are retired and fuel use declines, the demand for grain-based ethanol for blending will also decline. Within the automobile sector, a major move to plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars will further reduce the use of gasoline. If this shift is accompanied by investment in thousands of wind farms to feed cheap electricity into the grid, then cars could run largely on electricity for the equivalent cost of 80¢ per gallon of gasoline. There is also a growing public preference for walking, biking, and using public transportation wherever possible. This reduces not only the demand for cars and gasoline but also the paving of land for roads and parking lots. Whether viewed from an environmental or an economic vantage point, we would all benefit by shifting from liquid fuels to electrically driven vehicles. Using electricity from wind farms, solar cells, or geothermal power plants to power cars will dramatically reduce carbon emissions. We now have both the electricity-generating technologies and the automotive technologies to create a clean, carbon-free transportation system, one that does not rely on either the use of oil or the conversion of food crops into fuel. By Lester R. Brown. From Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester R. Brown (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.). Supporting data, video, and slideshows are available for free download at
  8. Eroding Soils Darkening Our Future

    In 1938 Walter Lowdermilk, a senior official in the Soil Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, traveled abroad to look at lands that had been cultivated for thousands of years, seeking to learn how these older civilizations had coped with soil erosion. He found that some had managed their land well, maintaining its fertility over long stretches of history, and were thriving. Others had failed to do so and left only remnants of their illustrious pasts. In a section of his report entitled "The Hundred Dead Cities," he describes a site in northern Syria, near Aleppo, where ancient buildings are still standing in stark isolated relief, but they are on bare rock. During the seventh century, the thriving region had been invaded, initially by a Persian army and later by nomads out of the Arabian Desert. In the process, soil and water conservation practices used for centuries were abandoned. Lowdermilk noted, "Here erosion had done its worst. If the soils had remained, even though the cities were destroyed and the populations dispersed, the area might be repeopled again and the cities rebuilt. But now that the soils are gone, all is gone." The thin layer of topsoil that covers the earth's land surface was formed over long stretches of geological time as new soil formation exceeded the natural rate of erosion. Sometime within the last century, soil erosion began to exceed new soil formation. Now, nearly a third of the world's cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming, reducing the land's inherent fertility. Soil that was formed on a geological time scale is being lost on a human time scale. Scarcely six inches thick, this thin film of soil is the foundation of civilization. Geomorphologist David Montgomery, in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, describes soil as "the skin of the earth - the frontier between geology and biology." The erosion of soil by wind and water is a worldwide challenge. For the rangelands that support 3.4 billion head of cattle, sheep, and goats, the threat comes from the overgrazing that destroys vegetation, leaving the land vulnerable to erosion. Rangelands, located mostly in semiarid regions of the world, are particularly vulnerable to wind erosion. In farming, erosion results from plowing land that is steeply sloping or too dry to support agriculture. Steeply sloping land that is not protected by terraces, perennial crops, strip cropping, or in some other way loses soil during heavy rains. Thus the land hunger that drives farmers up mountainsides fuels erosion. In the United States, wind erosion is common in the semiarid Great Plains, where the country's wheat production is concentrated. In the U.S. Corn Belt, in contrast, where most of the country's corn and soybeans are grown, the principal threat to soil is water erosion. This is particularly true in the states with rolling land and plentiful rainfall, such as Iowa and Missouri. Water erosion of soil has indirect negative effects, which can be seen in the silting of reservoirs and in muddy, silt-laden rivers flowing into the sea. Pakistan's two large reservoirs, Mangla and Tarbela, which store Indus River water for the country's vast irrigation network, have lost a third of their storage capacity over the last 40 years as they fill with silt from deforested watersheds. Evidence of wind erosion is highly visible in the form of dust storms. When vegetation is removed either by overgrazing or overplowing, the wind begins to blow soil particles away, sometimes creating dust storms. Because the particles are small, they can remain airborne over great distances. Once they are largely gone, leaving mostly larger particles, sandstorms begin. These are local phenomena, often resulting in dune formation and the abandonment of both farming and grazing. The emergence of sandstorms marks the final phase in the desertification process. The vast twentieth-century expansion in world food production pushed agriculture onto highly vulnerable land in many countries. The overplowing of the U.S. Great Plains during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, led to the 1930s Dust Bowl. This was a tragic era in U.S. history - one that forced hundreds of thousands of farm families to leave the Great Plains. Many migrated to California in search of a new life, a movement immortalized in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Three decades later, history repeated itself in the Soviet Union. The Virgin Lands Project, a huge effort between 1954 and 1960 to convert grassland into grainland, led to the plowing of an area for grain that exceeded the current grainland in Canada and Australia combined. Initially this resulted in an impressive expansion in Soviet grain production, but the success was short-lived, as a dust bowl quickly developed there too. Kazakhstan, at the center of the Virgin Lands Project, saw its grainland area peak at 25 million hectares in the early 1980s. After dropping to 11 million hectares in 1999, the area expanded again, reaching 17 million hectares in 2009, but then began once more to decline. Even on this reduced area, the average grain yield today is scarcely 1 ton per hectare - a far cry from the 7 tons per hectare that farmers get in France, Western Europe's leading wheat producer and exporter. The precipitous drop in Kazakhstan's grain area illustrates the price that countries pay for overplowing and overgrazing. Today two giant new dust bowls have formed. One is centered in the Asian heartland in northwestern China and western Mongolia. The other is in the African Sahel - the savannah-like ecosystem that stretches across Africa from Somalia and Ethiopia in the east to Senegal and Mauritania in the west. It separates the Sahara Desert from the tropical rainforests to the south. Both of these newer dust bowls are massive in scale, dwarfing anything the world has seen before. China may face the biggest challenge of all. After the economic reforms in 1978 that shifted the responsibility for farming from large state-organized production teams to individual farm families, China's cattle, sheep, and goat numbers spiraled upward. A classic tragedy of the commons was unfolding. The United States, a country with comparable grazing capacity, has 94 million cattle, a somewhat larger herd than China's 84 million. But when it comes to sheep and goats, the United States has a combined population of only 9 million, whereas China has 285 million. Concentrated in China's western and northern provinces, these animals are stripping the land of its protective vegetation. The wind then does the rest, removing the soil and converting rangeland into desert. Wang Tao, one of the world's leading desert scholars, reports that from 1950 to 1975 an average of 600 square miles of land turned to desert each year. Between 1975 and 1987, this climbed to 810 square miles a year. From then until the century's end, it jumped to 1,390 square miles of land going to desert annually. A U.S. Embassy report entitled "Desert Mergers and Acquisitions" describes satellite images showing two of China's largest deserts, the Badain Jaran and Tengger, expanding and merging to form a single, larger desert overlapping Inner Mongolia and Gansu Provinces. To the west in Xinjiang Province, two even larger deserts - the Taklimakan and Kumtag - are also heading for a merger. Highways running through the shrinking region between them are regularly inundated by sand dunes. In some places, people become aware of soil erosion when they suffer through dust storms. On March 20, 2010, for example, a suffocating dust storm enveloped Beijing. The city's weather bureau took the unusual step of describing the air quality as hazardous, urging people to stay inside or to cover their faces if they were outdoors. Visibility was low, forcing motorists to drive with their lights on in daytime. Beijing was not the only area affected. This particular dust storm engulfed scores of cities in five provinces, directly affecting over 250 million people. Nor was it an isolated incident. Every spring, residents of eastern Chinese cities, including Beijing and Tianjin, hunker down as the dust storms begin. Along with having difficulty breathing and dealing with dust that stings the eyes, people must constantly struggle to keep dust out of their homes and to clear doorways and sidewalks of dust and sand. Farmers and herders whose livelihoods are blowing away are paying an even higher price. These huge dust storms originating in northwestern and north central China and western Mongolia form in the late winter and early spring. On average more than 10 major dust storms leave this region and move across the country's heavily populated northeast each year. These dust storms affect not only China but neighboring countries as well. The March 2010 dust storm arrived in South Korea soon after leaving Beijing. It was described by the Korean Meteorological Administration as the worst dust storm on record. Highly detailed media accounts of these storms are not always readily available, but Howard French described in the New York Times a Chinese dust storm that had reached South Korea on April 12, 2002. The country, he said, was engulfed by so much dust from China that people in Seoul were literally gasping for breath. Schools were closed, airline flights were cancelled, and clinics were overrun with patients who were having trouble breathing. Retail sales fell. Koreans have come to dread the arrival of what they call "the fifth season" - the dust storms of late winter and early spring. The situation continues to deteriorate. Korea's Ministry of Environment reports that the country suffered dust storms on average for 39 days in the 1980s, 77 days in the 1990s, and 118 days from 2000 to 2011. These data suggest that the degradation of land is accelerating. Unfortunately, there is nothing in prospect to arrest and reverse this trend. While people living in China and South Korea are all too familiar with dust storms, the rest of the world typically only learns about this fast-growing ecological catastrophe when the massive soil-laden storms leave that region. On April 18, 2001, for instance, the western United States - from the Arizona border north to Canada - was blanketed with dust. It came from a huge dust storm that originated in northwestern China and Mongolia on April 5th. Another consequence of dust storms is the economic disruption that they cause in cities, whether it is Beijing or any of dozens of other cities in northeastern China or South Korea. Dust storms can disrupt business, reduce retail sales, close schools, and even temporarily close governments in some cases. Each of these disruptions brings its own cost. Sometimes the effects are remote from the site of the dust, as when dust particles from African storms damage coral reefs in the Caribbean, adversely affect fishing and tourism. Africa is suffering heavy losses of soil from wind erosion. Andrew Goudie, Emeritus Professor in Geography at Oxford University, reports that dust storms originating over the Sahara - once rare - are now commonplace. He estimates they have increased tenfold during the last half-century. Among the countries most affected by topsoil loss via dust storms are Niger, Chad, northern Nigeria, and Burkina Faso. In Mauritania, in Africa's far west, the number of dust storms jumped from 2 a year in the early 1960s to 80 in 2004. The Bodélé Depression, a vast low-lying region in northeastern Chad, is the source of an estimated 1.3 billion tons of dust a year, up tenfold from 1947, when measurements began. Dust storms leaving Africa typically travel west across the Atlantic, depositing dust in the Caribbean. The 2-3 billion tons of fine soil particles that leave Africa each year in dust storms are slowly draining the continent of its fertility and hence its biological productivity. Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, is losing 868,000 acres of rangeland and cropland to desertification each year. The government considers the loss of productive land to desert to be far and away its leading environmental problem. No other environmental change threatens to undermine its economic future so directly. Conditions will only get worse if Nigeria continues on its current population trajectory toward 390 million people by 2050. While Nigeria's human population has increased from 47 million in 1961 to 167 million in 2012, nearly a fourfold expansion, its population of livestock has grown from roughly 8 million to 109 million head. With the forage needs of Nigeria's 17 million head of cattle and 92 million sheep and goats exceeding the sustainable yield of the country's grasslands, the country is slowly turning to desert. (See Figure 5-1.) In fact, Nigeria presents a textbook case of how mounting human and livestock population pressures reduce vegetative cover. Most notably, growth in the goat population relative to sheep and cattle is a telltale indicator of grassland ecosystem deterioration. As grasslands deteriorate from overgrazing, grass is typically replaced by desert shrubs. In such a degraded environment as Nigeria's, sheep and cattle do not fare well, but goats - being particularly hardy ruminants - forage on the shrubs. Between 1970 and 2010, the world cattle population increased by 32 percent, the sheep population was unchanged, but the goat population more than doubled. This dramatic shift in the composition of the livestock herd, with goats now in such a dominant role, promises continuing grassland deterioration and accelerating soil erosion. Growth in the goat population has been dramatic in some other developing countries as well, particularly in Africa and Asia, which combined account for 90 percent of the world's goats. While Pakistan's cattle population more than doubled between 1961 and 2010, and the sheep population nearly tripled, the goat population grew almost sevenfold. In Bangladesh, cattle and sheep populations have grown only modestly since 1980, while the population of goats has quadrupled. In 1985, Mali had roughly equal populations of cattle, sheep, and goats, but while its cattle and sheep populations have remained relatively stable since then, its goat population has more than tripled. Meanwhile, on the northern fringe of the Sahara, countries such as Algeria and Morocco are attempting to halt the desertification that is threatening their fertile croplands. Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika says that Algeria is losing 100,000 acres of its most fertile lands to desertification each year. For a country that has only 7.7 million acres of grainland, this is not a trivial loss. Among other measures, Algeria is planting its southernmost cropland in perennials, such as fruit orchards, olive orchards, and vineyards - crops that can help keep the soil in place. India is also in a war with expanding deserts. With scarcely 2 percent of the world's land area, India is struggling to support 18 percent of the world's people and 15 percent of its cattle. According to a team of scientists at the Indian Space Research Organization, 25 percent of India's land surface is slowly turning into desert. It thus comes as no surprise that many of India's cattle are emaciated. In Afghanistan, a U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) team reports that in the Sistan region in the country's southwest "up to 100 villages have been submerged by windblown dust and sand." The Registan Desert is migrating westward, encroaching on agricultural areas. In the country's northwest, sand dunes are moving onto agricultural land in the upper Amu Darya basin, their path cleared by the loss of stabilizing vegetation due to firewood gathering and overgrazing. The UNEP team observed sand dunes as high as a five-story building blocking roads, forcing residents to establish new routes. An Afghan Ministry of Agriculture and Food report sounds the alarm: "Soil fertility is declining,...water tables have dramatically fallen, de-vegetation is extensive and soil erosion by water and wind is widespread." After three decades of armed conflict and the related deprivation and devastation, Afghanistan's forests are nearly gone. Seven southern provinces are losing cropland to encroaching sand dunes. And like many failing states, even if Afghanistan had appropriate environmental policies, it lacks the law enforcement capacity to implement them. Iraq, suffering from nearly a decade of war and recent drought and chronic overgrazing and overplowing, is now losing irrigation water to its upstream riparian neighbor - Turkey. The reduced river flow - combined with the deterioration of irrigation infrastructure, the depletion of aquifers, the shrinking irrigated area, and the drying up of marshlands - is drying out Iraq. The Fertile Crescent, the cradle of civilization, may be turning into a dust bowl. Dust storms are forming with increasing frequency in western Syria and northern Iraq. In July 2009 a dust storm raged for several days in what was described as the worst such storm in Iraq's history. As it traveled eastward into Iran, the authorities in Tehran closed government offices, private offices, schools, and factories. Although this new dust bowl is small compared with those centered in northwest China and across central Africa, it is nonetheless an unsettling new development in this region. Iran - with 76 million people - illustrates the pressures facing the Middle East. With 9 million cattle and 80 million sheep and goats - the source of wool for its fabled rug-making industry - Iran's rangelands are deteriorating from overstocking. Mohammad Jarian, who heads Iran's Anti-Desertification Organization, reported in 2002 that sandstorms had buried 124 villages in the southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan, forcing their abandonment. Drifting sands had covered grazing areas, starving livestock and depriving villagers of their livelihoods. As countries lose their topsoil, they eventually lose the capacity to feed themselves. Among those facing this problem are Lesotho, Mongolia, North Korea, and Haiti. Lesotho, one of Africa's smallest countries, with only 2 million people, is paying a heavy price for its soil losses. A U.N. team visited in 2002 to assess its food prospects. Their finding was straightforward: "Agriculture in Lesotho faces a catastrophic future; crop production is declining and could cease altogether over large tracts of the country if steps are not taken to reverse soil erosion, degradation, and the decline in soil fertility." Michael Grunwald reported in the Washington Post that nearly half of the children under five in Lesotho are stunted physically. "Many," he wrote, "are too weak to walk to school." Over the last decade, Lesotho's grain harvest dropped by half as its soil fertility fell. Its collapsing agriculture has left the country heavily dependent on food imports. A similar situation exists in Mongolia, where over the last 20 years more than half of the wheatland has been abandoned and wheat yields have started to fall, shrinking its harvest. Mongolia now imports nearly 20 percent of its wheat. At the same time, North Korea, largely deforested and suffering from flood-induced soil erosion and land degradation, has watched its yearly grain harvest fall from a peak of almost 6 million tons during the 1980s to scarcely 3 million tons per year today. In the western hemisphere, Haiti - one of the early failing states - was largely self-sufficient in grain 40 years ago. Since then it has lost nearly all its forests and much of its topsoil, forcing it to import over half of its grain. It is now heavily dependent on U.N. World Food Programme lifelines. The accelerating loss of topsoil is slowly but surely reducing the earth's inherent biological productivity. The shrinking area of productive land and the earth's steadily expanding human population are on a collision course. Soil erosion and land degradation issues are local, but their effect on food security is global. By Lester R. Brown. From Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester R. Brown (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.). Supporting data, video, and slideshows are available for free download at
  9. Farmed Fish Production Overtakes Beef

    The world quietly reached a milestone in the evolution of the human diet in 2011. For the first time in modern history, world farmed fish production topped beef production. The gap widened in 2012, with output from fish farming - also called aquaculture - reaching a record 66 million tons, compared with production of beef at 63 million tons. And 2013 may well be the first year that people eat more fish raised on farms than caught in the wild. More than just a crossing of lines, these trends illustrate the latest stage in a historic shift in food production - a shift that at its core is a story of natural limits. As the global demand for animal protein grew more than fivefold over the second half of the twentieth century, humans began to press against the productivity constraints of the world's rangelands and oceans. Annual beef production climbed from 19 million tons in 1950 to more than 50 million tons in the late 1980s. Over the same period, the wild fish catch ballooned from 17 million tons to close to 90 million tons. But since the late 1980s, the growth in beef production has slowed, and the reported wild fish catch has remained essentially flat. (See data.) The bottom line is that getting much more food from natural systems may not be possible. Much of the world's grassland is stocked at or beyond capacity, and most of the world's fisheries are fished to their limits or already crashing. Overstocked rangelands become obvious as the loss of protective vegetation leads to soil degradation, which at its worst can cause punishing dust and sand storms. Overexploited fisheries are less readily visible, but fishing patterns over time reveal that more effort is required to achieve the same size catch as in years past. Boats are using more fuel and travelling to more remote and deeper waters to bring in their haul. Fishers are pulling up smaller fish, and populations of some of the most popular food fish have collapsed. Historically, people's taste in eating animal protein was largely shaped by where they lived. In places with extensive grasslands, like in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia, people gravitated toward grazing livestock. Along coasts and on islands, as in Japan, wild fish tended to be the protein staple. Today, with little room for expanding the output from rangelands and the seas, producing more beef and fish for a growing and increasingly affluent world population has meant relying on feedlots for fattening cattle and on ponds, nets, and pens for growing fish. While open waters and grasslands can be self-sustaining if managed carefully, raising fish and livestock in concentrated operations requires inputs. Grain and soybeans have been inserted into the protein production food chain. Cattle consume 7 pounds of grain or more to produce an additional pound of beef. This is twice as high as the grain rations for pigs, and over three times those of poultry. Fish are far more efficient, typically taking less than 2 pounds of feed to add another pound of weight. Pork and poultry are the most widely eaten forms of animal protein worldwide, but farmed fish output is increasing the fastest. Average annual growth rates over the last five years have mirrored the relative efficiency of feed use, with the global production of farmed fish growing by nearly 6 percent a year, poultry by 4 percent, and pork by 1.7 percent - fast outpacing beef, which barely increased at all. As grain and soybean prices have risen well above historical levels in recent years, the cost of producing grain-eating livestock has also gone up. Higher prices have nudged consumers away from the least-efficient feeders. This means more farmed fish and less beef. In the United States, where the amount of meat in peoples' diets has been falling since 2004, average consumption of beef per person has dropped by more than 13 percent and that of chicken by 5 percent. U.S. fish consumption has also dropped, but just by 2 percent. Beyond economic considerations, health and environmental concerns are also leading many people in industrial countries to reduce their beef intake. Meanwhile, fish are touted as healthy alternatives (save for the largest types, which have accumulated mercury from environmental pollution). Diets heavy in red meat have been associated with a higher risk for heart disease and colon cancer, among other ailments. Beef production has garnered a negative reputation for having a large carbon footprint and for destroying habitat, notably in the Brazilian Amazon. And excess nitrogen fertilizer applied to the fields of feed corn grown to satisfy the world's livestock runs off into streams and rivers, sometimes flowing to coastal waters where it creates large algal blooms and low-oxygen "dead zones" where fish cannot survive. While it is only recently that the limitations of natural systems have emerged on a global scale, the practice of aquaculture dates back millennia. China, which accounts for 62 percent of the world's farmed fish, has long cultivated different types of carp that eat different things - phytoplankton, zooplankton, grass, or detritus - together in a mini ecosystem. Today carp and their relatives are still the mainstay of Chinese aquaculture, making up nearly half the country's output. Filter-feeding mollusks, like clams and oysters, account for close to a third. Carp, catfish, and other species are also grown in Chinese rice paddies, where their waste can fertilize the grain crop. This is also practiced in Indonesia, Thailand, and Egypt. (Other top aquacultural producers include India, Viet Nam, and Bangladesh.) Unfortunately, not all aquaculture works this way. Some of the farmed fish that are quickly gaining popularity, like salmon and shrimp, are carnivorous species that eat fishmeal or fish oil produced from forage fish from the wild. Yet most forage fish stocks (think anchovies, herrings, and sardines), which typically make up about a third of the world oceanic fish catch, are dangerously overharvested. Fish farmers are working to reduce the amount of fish meal and oil in their rations, but in the rush to meet ever-expanding world demand, the share of farmed fish being fed has increased because they can reach market size quickly. Norway, the world's top farmed salmon producer, now imports more fish oil than any other country. China, the world's leading shrimp producer, takes in some 30 percent of the fishmeal traded each year. As cattle ranches have displaced biologically rich rainforests, fish farms have displaced mangrove forests that provide important fish nursery habitats and protect coasts during storms. Worldwide, aquaculture is thought to be responsible for more than half of all mangrove loss, mostly for shrimp farming. In the Philippines, some two thirds of the country's mangroves - over 100,000 hectares - have been removed for shrimp farming over the last 40 years. Another problem with intensive confined animal feeding operations of all kinds, whether for farmed fish or for cattle, is not what gets extracted from the environment but what gets put in it. On a small-scale farm with livestock, animal waste can be used to fertilize crops. But putting large numbers of animals together transforms waste from an asset into a liability. Along with the vast quantities of waste, the antibiotic and parasite-killing chemicals used to deal with the unwanted disease and infestations that can spread easily in crowded conditions also can end up in surrounding ecosystems. The overuse of antibiotics in livestock operations can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, threatening both human and animal health. In the United States, for instance, 80 percent of antibiotics use is in agriculture - and often not for treating sick animals but for promoting rapid weight gain. Thus the solutions to our collision with the limitations of the natural systems that have long provided food have created their own host of problems. On a per person basis, beef consumption - now averaging less than 20 pounds (8.9 kilograms) each year globally - is unlikely to rebound to the 24 pounds eaten in the 1970s. But annual world fish consumption per person of 42 pounds - up from 25 pounds in the 1970s - is set to keep rising. With the additional fish coming from farms rather than the seas, the urgency of making aquaculture sustainable is clear. On the fish feed front, fishmeal producers are incorporating more seafood scraps into their products; today roughly a third of fishmeal is made up of food fish trimmings and other by-products. And some fish farmers are substituting livestock and poultry processing wastes and plant-based feeds for fishmeal and oil, which does not sound particularly appetizing, but does reduce pressure on wild stocks. From a sustainability standpoint, however, it would be preferable to shift the balance back in favor of farmed fish raised without feeds based on food grains, oilseeds, and protein from other animals. Our global population of 7 billion people, growing by nearly 80 million per year, cannot escape the limits of nature. To live within Earth's natural boundaries requires rethinking meat and fish production practices to respect ecology. Most important, it means reducing demand by slowing population growth and, for those of us already living high on the food chain, eating less meat, milk, eggs, and fish. By Janet Larsen and J. Matthew Roney.
  10. Half the world's pigs - more than 470 million of them - live in China, but even that may not be enough to satisfy the growing Chinese appetite for meat. While meat consumption in the United States has fallen more than 5 percent since peaking in 2007, Chinese meat consumption has leapt 18 percent, from 64 million to 78 million (metric) tons - twice as much as in the United States. Pork is by far China's favorite protein, which helps to explain the late-May announced acquisition of U.S. meat giant Smithfield Foods Inc., the world's leading pork producer, by the Chinese company Shuanghui International, owner of China's largest meat processor. China already buys more than 60 percent of the world's soybean exports to feed to its own livestock and has been a net importer of pork for the last five years. Now the move for Chinese companies is to purchase both foreign agricultural land and food-producing companies outright. People in China ate 53 million tons of pork in 2012 - six times as much as in the United States. On a per person basis, consumption in China first eclipsed that in the United States in 1997, and it has never looked back. Now the average Chinese eats 86 pounds (39 kilograms) of pig meat each year, compared with 59 pounds in the United States. As demand rises, pork is starting to shift from household- or farm-scale production into larger factory-like operations. Overcrowding in these facilities has been blamed for pollution and the spread of disease, as well as for the recent dumping of thousands of dead pigs into a river flowing into Shanghai. Chinese chicken production and processing have also consolidated, as sadly seen in the recent fire at a large poultry plant in northeastern China that reportedly killed at least 120 people. China's chicken intake just recently caught up with that in the United States, with 13 million tons eaten in each country. It took China just 25 years to make the consumption leap achieved by the United States over a half-century. Chicken is America's meat of choice, and U.S. individual diets are four times heavier with poultry than Chinese diets are. However, as fast-food restaurants in China multiply, chicken consumption is rising. If the Chinese ate as much chicken per person as Americans do, their flocks would need to quadruple - as would the grain and soybeans used in the feed rations. As for beef, grazing land limitations and higher costs have made this meat far less popular in China than in the United States, with 5.6 million tons consumed in 2012, or 9 pounds per person. The average American, in stark contrast, ate 82 pounds of beef that year. Total beef consumption in both countries appears to have peaked. The Chinese eat nearly as much mutton and goat (close to 7 pounds per person annually) as they do beef, while those meats barely register in U.S. diets. New steakhouses are trying to lure affluent Chinese toward red meat, but they are unlikely to reach the masses. If the Chinese ate as much beef as Americans do today, they would need 50 million tons of it, 90 percent of current world consumption. With the average income in China poised to reach U.S. levels as early as 2035, heavier beef consumption theoretically could become economically feasible. Ecologically, though, it may never be possible. Grasslands are unable to sustain herds much larger than the existing ones, as evidenced by the vast dust bowl forming in northern China, largely from overgrazing by sheep and goats. Thus, getting more beef would mean intensive use of feedlots. But cattle take more grain and soybean meal per pound than all other livestock and poultry. In recent years China has imported some grain, though imports still make up a small share of its total supply. China's soy production, however, has barely budged since 1995, while soy use (mostly for feed rations) has shot up fivefold. Imports have made up the difference. (See data.) Hogs put on about twice as much weight as cattle per pound of feed, and chickens grow even faster. Smithfield Foods in the United States has become remarkably "efficient" at fattening hogs en masse; such expertise is a big attraction for China. Yet even though the United States has a better reputation on food safety than China, U.S. factory farms have their problems as well in terms of the contamination of meat and the massive quantities of waste generated by large groups of animals. The widespread use of antibiotics in U.S. industrial meat production has been linked to growing bacterial resistance to antibiotic treatment. And one feed additive still used in the United States to help pigs gain lean weight - ractopamine - has been banned in China because of feared negative health effects. According to reporting by Reuters, Smithfield began limiting the use of ractopamine on some, but not all, of its animals last year, with an eye on the Chinese market. Given the existing land degradation and pollution that are making it harder for China to produce more - and safer - food, it is not difficult to see why foreign acquisition of both land and food producers is becoming increasingly attractive. Yet just as the American diet has been shown to be a dangerous export - accompanied by spreading obesity, heart disease, and other so-called diseases of affluence - ramping up American-style factory meat production is not without risk. By Janet Larsen. For more information, see "Meat Consumption in China Now Double That in the United States," by Janet Larsen, and the latest book from Earth Policy Institute, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, by Lester R. Brown.
  11. When New York City opened registration for its much anticipated public bike-sharing program on April 15, 2013, more than 5,000 people signed up within 30 hours. Eager for access to a fleet of thousands of bicycles, they became Citi Bike members weeks before bikes were expected to be available. Such pent-up demand for more cycling options is on display in cities across the United States - from Buffalo to Boulder, Omaha to Oklahoma City, and Long Beach in New York to Long Beach in California - where shared bicycle programs are taking root. At the start of 2013, the United States was home to 22 modern public bike-sharing programs. By spring 2014, that number will likely double as a flurry of cities joins the more than 500 bike-sharing communities worldwide. (Read more about bike sharing around the globe here.) With the expansions of current programs and new openings in larger markets like New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, the nationwide fleet of shared bikes is poised to quadruple in the next couple of years, from nearly 9,000 to above 36,000. And with a growing list of American communities exploring the possibility of setting up bike shares, this number is expected to continue to climb. Bike-Sharing Programs in the United States, 2007-2014. People are fond of quipping that nothing good comes out of Washington, but many of the American cities launching bike-sharing programs got turned on to the idea of bikes-as-transit by watching the nation's capital. Capital Bikeshare began operation in September of 2010, replacing a smaller short-lived program that started in 2008 but was never expansive enough to be successful. (In 2007, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was actually first in the country to open an automated bike-share system, with a couple dozen bikes at three solar-powered stations.) During its reign as the largest bike-sharing program in the United States, Capital Bikeshare has been enormously popular among residents and visitors alike, who together have logged more than 4 million rides. Now with more than 1,800 bright red bicycles stationed at 200 locking docks within DC and the northern Virginia communities of Arlington and Alexandria, Capital Bikeshare soon will expand into neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland. The total fleet is expected to reach 3,700 bikes at more than 300 stations by the end of 2013. As in many of the programs, people can sign up for a short-term or an annual membership with a credit card online or in person at a station kiosk. They then can unlock a bicycle and return it to any station within the system. All rides under 30 minutes are free, after which escalating fees kick in, encouraging people to make short trips and to keep more bikes available for other riders. After test runs of bike sharing with temporary programs installed for the 2008 national presidential nominating conventions, nonprofit organizations in the Twin Cities and in Denver opened programs in 2010. Nice Ride Minnesota covers Minneapolis and St. Paul with 1,550 bikes at 170 stations. Among the nearly 60,000 users in 2012 were more than 200 employees of the Minneapolis city government, who save the city money when they use the bikes to travel to meetings and make inspections. Nice Ride is one of the seasonal bike shares that closes during the coldest months, even though the area's burgeoning bicycle culture makes it a priority to plow snow from some of the 177 miles of bikeways - a lane-mileage-to-resident ratio that rivals even the bike mecca of Copenhagen. The cycling improvements are paying off: bike commuting in Minneapolis increased from 1.9 percent of trips in 2000 to 3.5 percent in 2011. Denver's program of 540 bikes at 53 stations is expecting to have at least 700 bikes and 80 stations in 2013. It is part of the B-cycle family of bike shares covering more than 15 locations, including Fort Lauderdale/Broward County in Florida, Nashville, Houston, and Boulder. Members can use their cards to unlock bikes in any of the other public B-cycle programs. At its Madison and San Antonio operations, B-cycle is testing out a utility tricycle, which could appeal to a wider variety of users by providing increased stability and allowing cargo hauling. Charlotte B-cycle showed how quickly a bike share can get off the ground when it opened in 2012, barely a year after the project's conception. Number of Bicycles in Existing Bike-Sharing Programs, as of 10 May 2013. Boston started its Hubway bike share to great acclaim in 2011, quickly surpassing ridership projections. The program has since grown from 600 to 1,100 bikes in Boston and neighboring locales. The Boston Public Health Commission provides low-cost annual membership to low-income residents ($5, including a helmet, instead of the regular $85). Another large bike share that opened in 2011 was in Miami Beach. The operator, the private company DecoBike, boasted nearly 1.3 million rides in 2012, making its bikes there the busiest in the country. With a high influx of tourists to this barrier island resort community, more than 300,000 people already use the system each year. The program will soon be expanded to the city of Miami, adding 500 bikes to the current fleet of 1,000. In the largest of the new wave of 2013 bike-share openings, New York City is poised to roll out some 6,000 bicycles at 330 stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn in late May, with the long-term goals of expanding to other parts of the city and growing to 10,000 bikes. This is one of several new programs to be run by Alta, the same company operating schemes in DC, Boston, and Chattanooga. While New York's launch has been delayed several times, first due to software glitches and then because of damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, it continues an ongoing series of improvements for bikers in a city where fewer than half of residents own cars. Some 300 miles of lanes have been carved out of New York's busy streets as part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's sustainability strategy for the city. Bike commuting has more than tripled since 2000. Annual membership in Citi Bike (named this because of its sponsorship by Citibank) costs close to $100 - like so many things in Manhattan, higher than in most other cities - but, as Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan points out, this is still less than the price of a monthly subway pass. Members are likely to save money if biking replaces even some bus, subway, and especially taxi journeys. DC bike sharers found that annual membership saved them an average $800 in transportation costs. And bike sharing is far, far cheaper than the $7,800 cost that AAA estimates for the average person to own a car and drive it 10,000 miles a year (depreciation and gasoline expenditures included). Current and Future Number of Bicycles in Large Bike-Sharing Programs in the United States. Bike shares in Chicago and San Francisco will also be operated by Alta. Chicago's program, named Divvy, is planning to have 300 stations docking 3,000 bikes by the end of August 2013, hoping to grow to 400 stations and 4,000 bikes in 2014. Meanwhile the city already claims the most bike parking in the country and is expanding its bikeways to span 645 miles, bringing paths and trails to within a half-mile ride of all residents. Mayor Rahm Emanuel explains that his "vision is to make Chicago the most bike-friendly city in the United States," attracting energetic tech workers from historically bike-friendly areas like Seattle. An expansive bike share is being planned in the San Francisco Bay Area, where 700 bikes are planned to roll in August. About half will be in San Francisco proper and the rest in cities along the 50 mile transit corridor south to San Jose. Overseen by the regional air quality control agency, the program aims to get more people out of private vehicles in order to cut tailpipe pollution and reduce crowding on public transportation. The Caltrains that run between San Francisco and San Jose already carry over 4,000 bikes each month and end up turning away riders when the special bike cars are full. Bike sharing has the potential to free up some of that space by allowing commuters to pick up a bike on either end of their train ride, addressing what is known as the first- and last-mile problem. The long-term goal is to reach a regional fleet of up to 10,000 shared bikes. Southern California, with its bike-friendly climate, is also riding in to the bike-sharing game. DecoBike is planning an 1,800-bike system in San Diego. Another firm, Bike Nation, plans to open a program in Long Beach with 250 bikes by year's end. The fleet could grow to 2,500 in the next four to five years, capitalizing on the new bike lanes and separated tracks that have helped biking in Long Beach jump 70 percent over the last 4 years. As more riders have taken to their bikes, both car and bike accidents have fallen precipitously. Bike Nation is also bringing up to 4,000 bikes to Los Angeles and neighboring communities this year. This sprawling car-centric city has been on a bike improvement crusade since Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was cut off by a taxi cab while cycling and broke his elbow in 2010. In the years since, the city has installed 123 miles of bike lanes and sponsored several CicLAvia's - one-day events inspired by the ciclovías of Bogotá and Mexico City, when selected major streets are closed off to motor vehicles, allowing bikes and pedestrians to take over in a festival-like atmosphere. The April 2013 event attracted an estimated quarter-million people. Other cities with large public cycling programs on the horizon include Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and Seattle. (See Table.) Portland, Oregon - America's quintessential bike town, where bikes are given out to low-income residents, bike lanes are ubiquitous, and certain traffic lights are engineered to give priority to cyclists - first got into the sharing game with a "yellow bike" program that started in 1994. Donated bikes were painted bright yellow and scattered around the city for free use. Twenty years later, Portland plans to open a modern bike share with 750 bikes at 75 automatic docking stations. The city hopes that having more bikes readily accessible for spontaneous jaunts could boost cycling even more, from its current 6 percent of trips (already up from 1 percent in 1990). One of the communities with a smaller program opening in 2013, Hoboken, New Jersey, plans to begin a unique hybrid bike-sharing and bike rental scheme in June, less than two months after achieving unanimous City Council approval. Bike and Roll, which currently rents out 2,000 bikes in New York City - the nation's largest traditional bike rental fleet - will open a pilot scheme in Hoboken with 25 rental bikes for longer-term usage and 25 bike-share bikes for short trips. The goal is to develop a synergy between bicycles and the ferries that efficiently move commuters and tourists between New Jersey and New York. Hoboken's bike-share bikes are from Social Bicycles (SoBi), one of a few startup companies that have removed the requirements for electronic docking stations by integrating the locking component and GPS tracking into the bicycle itself. While users are still encouraged to leave the bikes at specified hubs, they also can lock them to regular bike racks or other street fixtures, a feature that is common in bike-sharing schemes in Germany, for example, but not so far in the United States. For its first public initiative, SoBi delivered a set of bikes to Buffalo for a venture connected with a car-sharing company. It plans to take this technology to Tampa for a 300-bike system at the end of 2013. Another smart-lock bike share is scheduled to open later in 2013 as part of a downtown revitalization initiative in Las Vegas. The initial pilot program will involve 50 to 150 high-tech bikes from ViaCycle, which currently operates smart-lock bike shares on the campuses of Georgia Tech and George Mason University, two of the handful of American campuses that have gone beyond traditional bike rentals and bike libraries into the world of modern bike sharing. Forgoing the electronic docking stations in favor of smart-locking bikes can theoretically drop the pro-rated capital cost of a bike-share bicycle from in the neighborhood of $6,000 to closer to $1,500. Either way, bike shares and bicycling infrastructure give a big bang for the buck. For example, Capital Bikeshare in Washington could double its bikes and docking stations at the same cost of constructing just one mile of one lane of highway. While cars have brought pollution, congestion, and road rage to cities, bicycles can lead to cost savings from improved mobility, reduced wear and tear on roads, and less valuable real estate devoted to parking. Bike shares can also boost business. Each ride in the Twin Cities' Nice Ride system was found to bring $7-14 to the local economy. Forty-four percent of Capital Bikeshare riders surveyed used bike share to make a trip they otherwise would have skipped, largely for entertainment, socializing, and dining out. A bicycle places people within a city landscape, allowing them to easily make stops, as opposed to merely shuttling through it sequestered inside a private car. Shops and restaurants often report a surge in business after the creation of a bike lane on their street. On a given weekend afternoon in vibrant downtown Long Beach, California, there are often more bikes parked than there are spaces for cars. Nationwide data from the National Sporting Goods Association indicate that over the last 20 years the number of bikers has fallen from more than 50 million to below 40 million. Yet while there are fewer people who climb on a bicycle in a given year, the number who ride frequently, like for commuting or regular activities, has actually risen over the past decade. Bike sharing can help facilitate this increase and put more folks back on two wheels. The high visibility that comes with a bike-share system reminds people that biking is a viable transit option and encourages more riding overall. In San Antonio and Washington, DC, for instance, retail bike sales have increased since the start of bike sharing. Furthermore, as cities are improving their cycling infrastructure, the health benefits of the bicycle are becoming more obvious. Studies show that regular utilitarian cycling to get to work can beat out the gym for improving fitness. During the first year that people abandon regular driving to become a bike commuter, they can lose 10 pounds or more. Such health benefits are part of the reason why the health care company Humana houses a bike share for its employees in Louisville and was one of a trio of businesses (along with bicycle manufacturer Trek and advertising firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky) that came together to develop B-cycle. Blue Cross Blue Shield, another health insurer, is a major sponsor for several bike-sharing programs, including those in Charlotte, Houston, Omaha, and the Twin Cities. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, representing more than 1,300 cities across the country, noted at its 2012 meeting that "communities that have invested in pedestrian and bicycle projects have benefited from improved quality of life, a healthier population, greater local real estate values, more local travel choices, and reduced air pollution." The group passed a resolution "in support of alternative modes of transportation, such as bikesharing programs, as a means to increase transportation mobility and mode choice." Along with these benefits, bike shares can bring the freedom, convenience, and joy of cycling to people who may not have ridden a bike since childhood. As programs mature and new ones are added, bike-sharing could become a standard feature of the urban habitat, a must-have for any forward-thinking community.
  12. Politicians, lobbyists, and tourists alike can ride bicycles along a specially marked lane between the White House and the U.S. Capitol, part of the 115 miles of bicycle lanes and paths that now crisscross Washington, DC. In Copenhagen, commuters can ride to work following a “green wave” of signal lights timed for bikers. Residents in China’s “happiest city,” Hangzhou, can move easily from public transit onto physically separated bike tracks that have been carved out of the vast majority of roadways. And on any given Sunday in Mexico City, some 15,000 cyclists join together on a circuit of major thoroughfares closed to motorized traffic. What is even more exciting is that in each of these locations, people can jump right into cycling without even owning a bicycle. Welcome to the era of the Bike Share. Cyclists have long entreated drivers to “share the road.” Now what is being shared is not only the road but the bicycle itself. Forward-thinking cities are turning back to the humble bicycle as a way to enhance mobility, alleviate automotive congestion, reduce air pollution, boost health, support local businesses, and attract more young people. Bike-sharing systems—distributed networks of public bicycles used for short trips—that integrate into robust transit networks are being embraced by a growing number of people in the urbanizing world who are starting to view car ownership as more of a hassle than a rite of passage. Today more than 500 cities in 49 countries host advanced bike-sharing programs, with a combined fleet of over 500,000 bicycles. Urban transport advisor Peter Midgley notes that “bike sharing has experienced the fastest growth of any mode of transport in the history of the planet.” It certainly has come a long way since 1965, when 50 bicycles were painted white and scattered around Amsterdam for anyone to pick up and use free of charge. Unfortunately, many of those bikes quickly disappeared or were damaged. In the 1990s, several Danish cities began more formal systems, with designated racks and coin deposits to check out bicycles. Copenhagen’s famed Bycyklen (“City Bike”) program, which has been an inspiration to many cities, finally closed at the end of 2012 after operating for 17 years with more than 1,000 bicycles. It is set to be replaced by a modern system in 2013, which could help Copenhagen meet its goal of increasing the share of commuting trips on bike from an already impressive 36 percent to 50 percent. Modern bike-sharing systems have greatly reduced the theft and vandalism that hindered earlier programs by using easily identified specialty bicycles with unique parts that would have little value to a thief, by monitoring the cycles’ locations with radio frequency or GPS, and by requiring credit card payment or smart-card-based membership in order to check out bikes. In most systems, after paying a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual membership fee, riders can pick up a bicycle locked to a well-marked bike rack or electronic docking station for a short ride (typically an hour or less) at no additional cost and return it to any station within the system. Riding longer than the program’s specified amount of time generally incurs additional fees to maximize the number of bikes available. Although the Netherlands and Denmark had far more pervasive cycling cultures, it was France that ushered the world into the third generation of bike sharing in 1998, when advertising company Clear Channel began the world’s first public computerized program with 200 bikes in the city of Rennes. The country moved into the big leagues in 2005 when Lyon, France’s third largest city, opened its Vélo’v program with 1,500 bikes at some 100 automated self-service docking stations. Its success—an apparent 44 percent increase in bicycle ridership in the first year—paved the way for large-scale bike sharing’s early shining star: the Vélib’ in Paris. Vélib’ was launched in 2007 with 10,000 bicycles at 750 stations, and it quickly doubled in size. By the end of 2012, Vélib’, which is funded in a 10-year contract with advertising firm JCDecaux in exchange for street-side ad space, could claim more than 224,000 annual members and had surpassed 130 million trips. Since the system’s launch, the number of cyclists on the streets has risen 41 percent, with more than one out of every three bicycles on Paris streets being a shared bike. With bikes accounting for just 3 percent of traffic, though, there is still room for growth, and that is the plan. Bike sharing is part of a broader initiative to reduce automotive traffic and pollution in Paris, which includes closing prominent streets to cars on weekends, reducing speed limits, marking dedicated bus lanes to help move people en masse more efficiently, and extending the bike lanes network to 430 miles (700 kilometers) by 2014—all championed by Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who has said that “automobiles no longer have a place in the big cities of our times.” Meanwhile, programs were popping up throughout Italy and Spain like mushrooms after a rainfall. According to figures maintained by Peter Midgley, Italy had 47 bike-sharing programs in 2007, Spain had 36, and France had 18. Many were smaller scale, with tens of bikes rather than thousands. But a few stand out. Spain’s signature program in Barcelona became so popular soon after its launch in 2007—getting many new riders to try bike commuting for the first time—that by 2008 it had quadrupled its fleet to 6,000 bikes and planned extensions to the surrounding communities. Seville also began bike sharing in 2007 as part of a rapid transformation to make the central city more accommodating to people, not just cars. In less than 5 years, cycling leapt from close to nothing to cover 6 percent of trips. As of late 2012, Spain leads the world with 132 separate bike-share programs. Italy has 104, and France, 37. With a wave of new openings in 2009 and 2010, Germany joined the group of leading countries and now has 43 programs, including some with stationless bikes that can be located and accessed by mobile phone. (See data.) Other European countries have fewer programs, but some are very active. Dublin’s 550-bike system boasts a high membership and frequent rides on each bike. London’s Barclays Cycle Hire system launched in 2010 with 6,000 bikes and has grown beyond 8,000. As part of Mayor Boris Johnson’s “cycling revolution,” London is introducing several new cycle paths and “superhighways” in hopes of doubling the number of cycling trips within the next decade. In the Netherlands, a different breed of bike sharing run by the national railroad makes some 5,000 bikes available at more than 240 rail stations and other popular commuting spots. In Eastern Europe, which appears to be on the brink of a bike-sharing bonanza, Warsaw opened a program in August 2012 with 1,000 bikes that were ridden 130,000 times in that first month. The city now has some 2,500 shared bikes. Bike-sharing enthusiasm has spread to Eastern Asia, Australia, and the Americas as well. Russell Meddin, who along with Paul DeMaio has chronicled and mapped the world’s bike-sharing programs, reports that even Dubai launched a program in February 2013. In the Americas, where the car has long been king, the first big third-generation bike-sharing program opened in Montreal in 2009. It now has 5,120 bicycles and over 400 stations, facilitating use of the city’s robust network of bike lanes and paths. Toronto plans to expand its 1,000-bike scheme, and Vancouver and Calgary, along with several other Canadian cities, are expecting to start programs in the next couple of years. When Mexico City launched its Ecobici program with some 1,000 bikes in 2010, it quickly reached its limit of 30,000 annual members and started a waiting list of eager would-be cyclists. The program has since quadrupled in size and remains the largest of Latin America’s dozen or so programs. Most of these are in Brazil; in fact, São Paulo even hosts multiple bike-sharing ventures. In Argentina, Buenos Aires opened a pilot program in 2010 and currently has 1,200 shared-bikes, allowing more two-wheelers to brave the traffic, even crossing what is known as the world’s widest street. Santiago, Chile, currently has a program operating with 180 bikes at 18 manned stations in one city neighborhood, but later this year plans to roll out a larger automated system that could grow to 3,000 bikes at 300 stations within four years. Throughout the United States bike-sharing programs are springing up at a fast clip; in fact it is hard to find a sizable U.S. city that is not at least exploring the bike-sharing option. As of April 2013, there were 26 active modern public programs in the United States, a number poised to double within the next year or two. The largest U.S. program in early 2013 was Capital Bikeshare, with more than 1,800 bicycles spread across 200 stations in Washington, DC, and neighboring communities. Nice Ride Minnesota, which covers the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, was second, with 1,550 bikes at 170 stations. The Boston metropolitan area is home to 1,100 shared bikes. Miami Beach is planning to add 500 bikes to its current fleet of 1,000 as it extends into Miami this year. And Denver, which is looking to grow from near 500 to 700 bikes in 2013, is one of more than 15 public systems in the B-cycle family that give members access to bikes when they travel to different cities, including Madison, Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale, San Antonio, Charlotte, and Kansas City. Several of the new players coming online in 2013 will dwarf the existing American field. New York’s highly anticipated Citi Bike program is poised to roll out 5,500 bicycles at 293 stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn in May, with the ultimate goal of reaching 10,000 bikes. Chicago plans to start in June, ramping up to 4,000 bikes at 400 stations in 2014. Southern California will be rolling into bike sharing in a big way with programs opening in Los Angeles (4,000 cycles), Long Beach (2,500), and San Diego (1,800). In northern California, a pilot project of up to 1,000 bikes in San Francisco and Bay Area cities south along the rail line hopes to begin what could ultimately be a 10,000-bike program. Impressive as these additions are, they are hard-pressed to hold a candle to some of Asia’s massive developments. According to Susan Shaheen and colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley, Asia got into the game in 1999 with a program in Singapore that lasted until 2007. The city now has two bike-sharing systems: one conventional and one run by a car-sharing company offering electric bikes. South Korea rolled out six programs between 2008 and 2010, including one in Changwon that now has 4,600 bikes and one in Goyang with 3,000. Japan, where commuters have a long history of using bikes to get to train stations (witness the 2.1 million bicycle parking spaces in the Greater Tokyo metropolitan area), has nine bike-sharing programs that began between 2009 and 2012. Taiwan, a high grossing bicycle exporter, has two bike-sharing programs as well. But it is the “bicycle kingdom” of China that is showing the world how big bike sharing can get. In early 2013, China was home to 79 bike-sharing programs, with a whopping combined fleet of some 358,000 bicycles. According to a paper prepared in late 2012 for the Transportation Research Board’s 92nd Annual Meeting by Yang Tang and colleagues at Tongji University, expansions and new projects could soon balloon China’s public bike fleet to just under 1 million cycles. The world’s largest bike-sharing program is in Wuhan, China’s sixth largest city, with 9 million people and 90,000 shared bikes. Wuhan recently claimed the number one spot from Hangzhou, which has 69,750 bikes in its bike-share scheme. Hangzhou launched mainland China’s first computerized bike-share system in 2008, integrating stations with bus and subway networks, allowing the same transit card to be used across all modes and granting extra free bike riding time with a bus transfer. By 2020 Hangzhou’s system could grow to 175,000 bikes. The growth in bike sharing and bike infrastructure may help buck the pervasive motorization that has turned rush-hour roadways in China’s fast-growing cities into virtual parking lots. In Zhuzhou, after a program of 20,000 bikes opened in 2011, the share of trips made by bicycle—which had slipped to a meager (by Chinese standards) 5 percent—reportedly jumped to 10 percent. An estimated 70 percent of the bike trips were made on shared cycles. In Hangzhou, the cycling share dropped from 43 percent in 2000 to 34 percent in 2007, but then it rebounded to 37 percent by 2009 after bike sharing was introduced. In Beijing in the 1980s, more than half of all trips were made by bicycle; by 2007 this had fallen to 23 percent. Yet as more cars and trucks filled Beijing’s roads, the average car speed fell to less than 8 miles per hour in 2003, down from 28 in 1994. It is too early to gauge the impact of Beijing’s municipal bike-share program, which opened in 2012 with 2,000 cycles and plans to jump to 50,000 by 2015. Bike-sharing cities are finding that promoting the bicycle as a transport option can lead to more mobility and safer streets for all. Bike-sharing programs are well positioned to hook people up with a bus or metro system, accommodating the last mile or so between home or work and mass transit. Having bikes ready to go on the streets encourages more people to try out biking, and once they experience its convenience, speed, and lower cost, they then advocate for further improvements to cycling infrastructure—like bike lanes, paths, and parking—making it even easier for more riders to join in. This “virtuous cycle” means that it is increasingly likely that bike sharing could soon show up in a city near you. Stay tuned for a forthcoming release delving into more detail on bike sharing in the United States.
  13. Even amid policy uncertainty in major wind power markets, wind developers still managed to set a new record for installations in 2012, with 44,000 megawatts of new wind capacity worldwide. With total capacity exceeding 280,000 megawatts, wind farms generate carbon-free electricity in more than 80 countries, 24 of which have at least 1,000 megawatts. At the European level of consumption, the world’s operating wind turbines could satisfy the residential electricity needs of 450 million people. China installed some 13,000 megawatts of wind in 2012, according to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC). This was a marked slowdown from the previous two years, when new installations averaged 18,000 megawatts annually. Reasons for the drop-off include concerns about project quality and inadequate electricity transmission and grid infrastructure, which prompted the government to approve fewer projects and to restrict lending. Still, all told, China leads the world with 75,000 megawatts of wind capacity: more than a quarter of the world total. In a country more readily associated with coal-fired electricity and nuclear power ambitions, wind reached some impressive milestones in China’s energy mix in 2012. Wind-generated electricity increased more than coal-fired electricity did for the first time.  Even more remarkable, the electricity produced by wind farms over the course of the year exceeded that produced by nuclear power plants. And this is just the beginning: with massive wind projects under development across its northern and eastern provinces, and 19 ultra-high-voltage transmission projects connecting windy rural areas to population centers (all to be completed by 2014), more milestones lie ahead in China. Consulting firms GTM Research and Azure International project that China will reach 140,000 megawatts of wind by 2015 and nearly 250,000 megawatts by 2020. The U.S. wind industry made headlines too. More new wind electricity generating capacity was added in 2012 than any other generation technology, including natural gas—a record 13,100 megawatts. An incredible 5,200 megawatts, spread among 59 wind farms, came online in December alone as developers raced to qualify for the federal production tax credit before it expired at the end of the year. The United States remains second only to China, with 60,000 total megawatts of wind capacity—enough to power more than 14 million U.S. homes. Several U.S. states have more installed wind capacity than most countries do. The 12,200 megawatts in Texas and the 5,500 megawatts in California, for example, would rank them sixth and eleventh, respectively, on the world wind power list. In Texas, a further 21,000 megawatts of wind projects are under consideration, much of which could be accommodated by the “Competitive Renewable Energy Zones” high-voltage transmission projects scheduled for completion by the end of 2013. These new lines will connect wind-rich West Texas and the panhandle with high-demand markets to the east. (See data.) Wind farms generated at least 10 percent of the electricity produced in nine states in 2012, up from five states the year before. Iowa and South Dakota got nearly a quarter of their electricity from wind. Oregon’s 845-megawatt Shepherd’s Flat wind farm, commissioned in 2012, is North America’s largest. But in Carbon County, Wyoming, a project of up to 3,000 megawatts is under development. To the north, Canada’s 6,500 megawatts of wind power are sufficient to meet the electricity needs of nearly 2 million households. As Ontario, the country’s most populous province, works to phase out coal-fired power by 2014, its wind generation is growing—in fact, Ontario’s wires carried more electricity from wind than from coal for the first time in 2012. The European Union (EU) added more megawatts of wind in 2012 than it did natural gas, coal, or nuclear, even as fiscal austerity measures cut renewable energy incentives. Several EU member states lead the world in the share of electricity they get from wind farms. Spain and Portugal typically have a 16 percent wind share. In Germany, whose 30,000 megawatts of wind capacity are the third highest in the world, the national wind share is 11 percent. Four of Germany’s northern states now get roughly half of their electricity from wind. But it is Denmark that sets the bar for wind’s role in electricity production. The Danish Wind Industry Association reports that wind farms generated 30 percent of Denmark’s electricity in 2012, up from 28 percent in 2011. The government pledged in late 2011 to boost this share to 50 percent by 2020. Looking eastward, Romania and Poland each added roughly 900 megawatts of wind in 2012, reaching 2,500 and 1,900 megawatts, respectively. Turkey’s goal is to reach 20,000 megawatts of wind in the next 10 years, nearly 10 times its current capacity. Aside from China, India is the other big Asian wind market. With over 18,000 megawatts installed, India ranks fifth worldwide in wind capacity. The government plans to spend roughly $8 billion on grid and transmission upgrades by 2017 through its “green energy corridors” plan. This is sorely needed in a country where nearly 300 million people do not have access to electricity. Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Oceania have enormous wind potential but little actual development thus far. Activity in each of these regions, however, indicates seriousness about harnessing the wind. In Latin America, Mexico more than doubled its wind capacity to almost 1,400 megawatts in 2012. Brazil, where wind installations grew 75 percent in 2012, could add another 1,500 megawatts in 2013 to reach 4,000 megawatts total. Just 100 megawatts of wind were installed in all of Africa in 2012, split between Ethiopia and Tunisia. Kenya’s long-awaited 310-megawatt Lake Turkana wind farm, which could generate more than 10 percent of national electricity, has suffered multiple setbacks but may begin construction in 2013. No new wind projects came online in the Middle East. Jordan is looking to grow its currently negligible wind power to 1,200 megawatts by 2020, however, and plans are also under way in Israel and Saudi Arabia. In Australia, the goal is to get 20 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Half of the country’s current 2,600 megawatts of wind is in the state of South Australia, where wind farms generated 24 percent of all electricity in 2012. The January 2013 commissioning of the 420-megawatt Macarthur wind farm in the state of Victoria gets the country halfway to its expected 30 percent wind growth for the year. Most of the world’s installed wind capacity is land-based; just 2 percent—roughly 5,400 megawatts—has been built offshore. Recently, however, offshore development has accelerated, more than tripling over the last five years. Ten of the 12 countries with offshore wind farms are European. The United Kingdom hosts more than half of the world’s offshore capacity and aims for 18,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2020; its offshore wind resources are actually estimated to be 16 times larger than its electricity consumption. In Denmark, some 15 percent of electricity is expected to come from offshore wind farms by 2014. China and Japan are the only offshore wind producers outside of Europe, hosting 390 megawatts and 25 megawatts, respectively. With 130 megawatts installed in 2012 alone, China has quickly amassed the world’s third largest offshore capacity figure; the country’s near-term offshore targets are 5,000 megawatts by 2015 and 30,000 by 2020. In the wake of the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Japan is looking to harness more of its offshore wind, a resource plentiful enough to meet national electricity needs nearly three times over. And in South Korea, numerous offshore projects are under way, as the country’s wind industry aims to reach 23,000 megawatts of wind power by 2030. According to Navigant Research, new wind installations worldwide will fall to some 40,000 megawatts in 2013. This would be the first instance in at least 17 years when annual additions did not increase year-to-year. Much of this deceleration will likely be the result of a slowdown in U.S. development. Still, the annual market is expected to rebound in 2014 as costs continue to fall, as major players recover, and as newcomers in Africa, the Middle East, and the Baltic region begin to realize their wind ambitions. GWEC and Greenpeace International project at least 425,000 megawatts of wind capacity worldwide by 2015—enough to generate electricity for all of Central and South America. The world is starting to realize that wind’s potential is almost without limit. By J. Matthew Roney.
  14. Defying conventional wisdom about the limits of wind power, in 2012 both Iowa and South Dakota generated close to one quarter of their electricity from wind farms. Wind power accounted for at least 10 percent of electricity generation in seven other states. Across the United States, wind power continues to strengthen its case as a serious energy source. The United States now has 60,000 megawatts of wind online, enough to meet the electricity needs of more than 14 million homes. A record 13,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity was added to the country’s energy portfolio in 2012, more than any other electricity-generating technology. Wind developers installed close to two thirds of the new wind capacity in the final quarter of the year. Nearly 60 wind projects, totaling over 5,000 megawatts, came online in December alone as developers scrambled to complete construction by the end of the year to qualify for the federal wind production tax credit (PTC) that was scheduled to expire. Texas, the U.S. leader in overall wind development, saw its wind power capacity grow to 12,200 megawatts in 2012, an increase of 18 percent over 2011. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the grid manager for 23 million customers in the state, reports that wind farms generated over 9 percent of the electricity it delivered in 2012. Only four countries outside the United States have more installed wind capacity than the state of Texas. California added more than 1,600 megawatts of wind in 2012 to reach 5,500 megawatts, overtaking Iowa for the country’s second highest overall wind capacity. State law requires utilities in California to get one third of the electricity they sell from renewable sources by 2020. Similar requirements have been adopted in each of the other top 10 states in installed wind capacity except for Oklahoma. But that state may have already exceeded its non-binding 2015 goal of 15 percent renewable electricity. At the national level, wind farms generated 3.5 percent of U.S. electricity in 2012, up from 2.9 percent the year before. Compared with conventional sources, this is still a small share. But wind generation has quadrupled since 2007, growing by more than 30 percent per year. Among the five leading sources of electricity in the United States, none comes close to matching wind’s recent rate of growth. In fact, generation from nuclear and coal plants is declining at 1 percent and 5.5 percent per year, respectively. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign reports that more than 140 of the roughly 500 U.S. coal-fired power plants are slated to retire, indicating even greater drops to come in coal-derived electricity. As part of the broader federal budget deal in early January 2013 to avert the “fiscal cliff,” the wind PTC was extended for one year and modified to allow projects that begin construction by the end of 2013 to qualify. Unfortunately, wind turbine manufacturers had seen new orders plummet in anticipation of the credit’s expiration, making it likely that new wind capacity additions in the United States in 2013 will be much less impressive than 2012—perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 megawatts. Actual wind electricity generation, on the other hand, should see a substantial boost as the wind farms completed in late 2012 spend their first full year in operation. According to Windpower Monthly, analysts expect installations to rebound to between 5,000 and 8,000 megawatts in 2014. Looking beyond the next year or two, a coherent, long-term national energy policy—one that levels the playing field for renewables relative to conventional sources—is needed to finally leave behind the boom-bust cycle of wind development and begin to take full advantage of this vast resource. By J. Matthew Roney. Data and additional resources available at
  15. Where Has All the Ice Gone?

    As the earth warms, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and seas are rising. Over the last century, the global average sea level rose by 17 centimeters (7 inches). This century, as waters warm and ice continues to melt, seas are projected to rise nearly 2 meters (6 feet), inundating coastal cities worldwide, such as New York, London, and Cairo. Melting sea ice, ice sheets, and mountain glaciers are a clear sign of our changing climate. In September 2012, sea ice in the Arctic Ocean shrank to a record low extent and volume. The region has warmed 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 1960s—twice as much as lower latitudes. With less snow and ice to reflect the sun’s rays and with more exposed ocean to absorb heat, a vicious cycle leads to even warmer temperatures. Thinner ice combined with rising temperatures makes it increasingly difficult for the sea ice to recover. The historically ever-present white cap at the top of the globe could disappear entirely during the summer within two decades. The Arctic plays a pivotal role in large-scale weather patterns. The stark contrast between cold air at the North Pole and warmer air in the temperate zone drives the jet stream over North America, Europe, and Russia. As the Arctic continues to warm faster than the rest of the globe, this contrast diminishes. This can change the path of the jet stream and slow it down, leaving weather systems in the same place for a longer time. A rainy spell that sticks around can turn into flooding, while a sunny spell can turn into a drought. Warming in the Arctic is particularly important because of its effects on Greenland’s enormous ice sheet. Greenland’s ice loss has accelerated from 51 billion tons per year in the 1990s to 263 billion tons per year today. In July 2012, an iceberg twice the size of the island of Manhattan calved off Petermann glacier in northwestern Greenland. This was the second large calving event off this glacier in just two years: the iceberg that broke away in August 2010 was twice as large. While Greenland’s ice loss is astonishing, on the other side of the globe, parts of Antarctica’s vast ice sheet may be even less stable. The continent is flanked by 54 major ice shelves, which act as brakes slowing the movement of ice in land-based glaciers out to sea. Twenty of them show signs of thinning and weakening, which translates into accelerated ice loss. After the 3,250-square-kilometer Larsen B Ice Shelf collapsed in 2002, for instance, the glaciers it was bracing flowed up to eight times faster than before. The most dramatic thinning is in West Antarctica. Pine Island glacier, which flows into the Amundsen Sea, is one of the main outlets for West Antarctic ice. A rift now stretches 29 kilometers across the glacier’s ice shelf, threatening to release an iceberg 14 times the size of Manhattan. Warm deep ocean water has penetrated beneath it, causing an astounding rate of retreat. In the past 20 years, the grounding line where the bottom of the glacier meets the ocean retreated by 25 kilometers, whereas over the previous 10,000 years it only moved back by 90 kilometers. The movement of land-based ice to the ocean raises sea level. Together the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets contain enough ice to raise seas by 12 meters, if they disintegrate entirely. Just a one-meter rise—well within the projections for this century—would flood half of the riceland in Bangladesh and much of the Mekong Delta in Viet Nam, two countries that are leading rice producers. Melting mountain glaciers contribute to sea level rise as well, but they are of more immediate concern because of their roles in the everyday lives of millions of people. They provide drinking water for villages and cities, irrigation water for farms, and fuel for hydropower plants. These vital services are in jeopardy because mountain glaciers worldwide are shrinking at accelerating rates. For instance, 37 reference glaciers studied by the World Glacier Monitoring Service shrank three times faster from 2000 to 2009 than from 1980 to 1989. (See data.) The glaciers in the Himalayas—the largest concentration of ice outside of the two poles—have been dubbed Asia’s “water towers” because of their large water storage capacity. Their runoff feeds Asia’s great rivers, including the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra, which support hundreds of millions of people. Climbers attracted to the one-of-a-kind peaks tell their own stories of melting ice. In many places, what had been blinding white ice and snow fields in the days of the first explorers are now bare rock. More avalanches and more crevasses add risk to already dangerous treks. Data collected by the Chinese Academy of Sciences validate these anecdotes, showing that glacier melt in the Eastern and Central Himalayas has sped up. This will continue as temperatures rise. Glaciers in the Alps perform a similar water tower function for Europe, and they too are shrinking. Switzerland’s Great Aletsch glacier, the largest in the Alps, has retreated by more than 2 kilometers since 1900. In Germany, a local ski company concerned by the rapid shrinkage of Zugspitze glacier resorted to covering the ice with a 9,000-square-meter reflective blanket. But this is just a Band-Aid; without addressing the real problem of rising temperature, 90 percent of all Alpine glaciers could be wiped out by 2100. Such a dramatic loss can already be seen in the nearby Spanish Pyrenees Mountains, where close to 90 percent of the glacier cover has disappeared over the past century. In the United States, almost all of Alaska’s glaciers are retreating or thinning. For example, data collected at Gulkana glacier each year since 1966 reveal an ice loss trend that has sped up since the early 1990s. In Montana, Glacier National Park may be “glacier” in name only within two decades. Only 25 of the park's 150 original glaciers remain. Nearly all of the world’s tropical glaciers are found in South America in the Andes. Rising temperatures have more than tripled the rate of ice loss from these glaciers since the mid-1970s. In Peru, more than 2 million people depend on runoff from the Cordillera Blanca (the White Range). As the mountain range’s glaciers began to waste away, water runoff temporarily increased. But glaciologist Michel Baraer of McGill University in Canada estimates that runoff has already peaked and is now in decline. Bolivia’s famous Chacaltaya glacier, once a popular ski site, can now be found only on old maps. The runoff from Zongo glacier flows through 10 hydropower plants that currently generate some 25 percent of Bolivia’s electricity. But Zongo’s ice is retreating by 9 meters per year. As water supplies dwindle, competition among hydropower stations, farmers, and cities will get worse. The last remaining glaciers in the tropical Pacific, on Indonesia’s Puncak Jaya Mountain, also are melting fast. Between 1936 and 2006, this mountain lost close to 80 percent of its ice cover. During world-renowned glaciologist Lonnie Thompson’s recent expedition to sample the ice before it disappears—along with the historical climate data trapped inside the ice—heavy rains thinned the ice around his campsite by 30 centimeters in just 13 days. Tropical glaciers in Africa are wasting away too. Less than 10 percent of the original ice cover remains atop Mount Kenya. In 2009, Nairobi had rolling blackouts due to the diminished runoff from the mountain flowing to hydropower stations. The problems are more than just practical; the glacier has long held cultural and spiritual significance. Neighboring Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains could be ice-free within 20 years. The race is on between disappearing ice, which is melting faster than predicted, and reductions in carbon emissions, which is happening slower than hoped. The world will need a World War II–type mobilization to shift from climate-disrupting fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy if we are to stand a chance of preventing runaway global warming and unstoppable melting. By Emily E. Adams. For a plan to stabilize the Earth’s climate, see “Time for Plan B."