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Let’s face it, for a large part of the country, the polar vortex has been a huge pain. Freezing temperatures ranged into dangerous territory as businesses, heating systems, shelters, public transportation, and more, strained under the pressure. While the extreme temperatures seem to be on their way out, for now, it seems about the right time to look at one of the potentially positive outcomes of the deep freeze.

Invasive species, particularly those from the southern United States, have been working their way north as temperatures have risen during the past century. Insects like the woolly adelgid and the southern pine beetle have been wreaking havoc on local tree populations. Population management of these species has been the concern of entomologists for some time, but this week, mother nature has stepped in to do her part.

For non-native insect species like the woolly adelgid and the southern pine beetle, temperatures below 5 degrees Fahrenheit represent a fatal environment. Even for native species, like deer ticks, the cool down represents natural population control, and a break from the negative side effects of an ecosystem that is out of balance.

Unfortunately, insect experts are quick to point out that this is likely only a temporary impact as not all of the invasive species populations will be eliminated and the general warming trend is expected to continue. Despite this, the natural “reset” by the extreme cold won’t hurt in the larger effort to minimize ecosystem damage.

In the wake of terrible weather catastrophes, and waning interest in emissions regulations and renewable fuel use, we could stand to hear some good news. In the state of New York, the Open Space Institute is hard at work identifying, purchasing, holding, and reselling or donating land that is considered to be a “significant landscape.” The Institute works quickly to purchase land on the margins of state parks in order to hold it and sell it at or below cost to New York State, when the state is able. 

The outcomes have been outstanding. Minnewaska State Park, about 70 miles north of New York City initially consisted of 10,400 acres of cliffs, lakes, and forest and now, after nearly 25 years of attention by the Open Space Institute, measures 21,190 acres. Another 1,000 acres are to be added to the park before year’s end. Fahnestock State Park, Sterling Forest State Park, and Thacher Park have also been helped by The Institute, with each park at least doubling in size as a result of the focused land acquisitions.

While these are just a few parks in one state, in one nation, the impact is lasting and important. It serves as a reminder that for every challenge or frustration, there is an equal victory. 

Just last weekend, as I was making my weekly trip into rural Massachusetts to visit a friend, I noticed an electric car next to me on the desolate stretch of highway. My pulse quickened, I became nervous, and beads of sweat formed on my brow. All from just wondering, imagining, worrying about where, exactly, this poor environmentally conscious individual planned to power up. Being one of those people that never let’s her highly efficient vehicle’s gas levels get below a quarter full, the idea of requiring an electric charging station may have led to my slight overreaction. 

The reality, though, is that Massachusetts has a little over 230 EV charging stations; most highly organized around urban areas in Boston and Worcester. Unfortunately (and perhaps due to perceived difficulties in long distance travel), even these stations are under-used. And Massachusetts is not alone.

In an effort to encourage the purchase and use of electric vehicles, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont have formed a coalition with the goal of meeting 3.3 million electric vehicles sold by 2025. Not surprisingly, most of the coalition’s focus is centered upon EV charging stations – creating maps of available stations, uniformed signage, and standardized payment options. Additionally, there is talk of altering building codes so that workplaces, multi-family residences, parking garages, etc. are required to install charging stations. 

Other plans to support the purchase of zero-emission vehicles include use of the HOV lane, preferential parking, reduced tolls, “off-peak” pricing, and use of electric vehicles for municipal fleets. 

Current sales of electric vehicles hover around 45,000 per year. Maybe in the near future, with the help of this coalition, the sight of electric vehicles on the road won’t make me break out in hives. 

 

As of 2012, flights originating and landing in Europe have been responsible for offsetting their carbon emissions by purchasing carbon permits from traders and/or governments. The law was originally designed to impact all flights landing in Europe, however, international airlines have refused to pay for their offsets thus far.

Developing nations India and China are concerned about the strain carbon offsets would place on their airlines and economies. President Obama signed the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act in 2012 to exempt American carriers from being required to pay offset fees. Most countries sight a concern over what could become a “patchwork” of domestically maintained airspace.

To encourage international engagement in airline carbon offsets and reduce the burden placed on international airlines, the EU has suggested adjustments to the original plan. Instead of requiring international carriers to offset entire flights in and out of Europe, the EU has conceded to only require carbon offsets for travel taking place within European airspace. However, in exchange for this adjustment, the EU is requesting an additional international agreement that would govern airline emissions across all international airspace.

So far, international players are hopeful that the adjustment of the Union Emissions Trading Scheme and request for an international agreement will be successful. The United States State Department has responded positively to the paring back of the original scheme but has not yet commented on the larger global regulation.

What better way to make a very overdue appearance here than to discuss President Obama’s new Climate Plan? 

Yesterday, President Obama spoke from Georgetown University where he outlined his administration’s Climate Plan report. The plan focuses on several domestic and international action items designed to curb climate change and promote clean energy technologies. Not mentioned was the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, to be decided upon later this year or in early 2014. 

Domestically, the main focus of the Climate Plan is upon controlling green house gas emissions from new and existing power plants. The EPA has been directed to come up with emissions regulations by June 2014 and to have them finalized a year later. It is estimated that 40% of the United States’ carbon emissions come from our power plants.

Additionally, President Obama has requested that the EPA develop a plan for mitigating methane emissions – a request especially important considering the growing prevalence of natural gas, which is 95% methane. Methane is known to be 20% more potent in terms of warming potential than carbon dioxide.

The plan also outlines the availability of $8 billion in loan guarantees for advanced fossil-fuel projects such as those relating to “clean coal” technologies. Prior domestic efforts are furthered in this report as well, including: loosening permit requirements for renewable energy development on public lands, enhanced energy-efficiency standards, and improved fuel-economy standards for vehicles.

Internationally, the Climate Plan expresses an interest in global free-trade of environmental goods such as solar and wind technologies. In addition, the president will end US government financial support of new coal plant development overseas, unless coal is the only economically viable option.

Despite the fact that this plan seems well overdue, it is an exciting look at the steps that could and will be taken to advance the United States towards more environmentally conscious policy. It is worth noting that none of the action items identified in the Climate Plan require congressional approval. In other words – full steam ahead!  

In most senses, I could be described as someone who, for better or worse, thinks in black and white. While I can intellectually recognize the feasibility of “grey” in this life, when it comes down to it, my natural thoughts and emotions tends towards the rigid identification of a thing as “this” or as “that.” 

I have developed this myopic tendency, I believe, as a method of protecting myself from the discomfort associated with fear, pain, confusion, obscurity… We can essentially remove ourselves from a situation by taking a high-level rational approach to say, the death of Old Yeller: “Well, Mom, he had to die; he was dangerous…” said me, age 8.

In terms of my thoughts on sustainability and environmental protection, I tend to stay true to form – there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” and we should all be doing whatever we can to protect our futures and the future of our environment (which are really one and the same). However, I was recently reading an article about cod harvesting limits that stand to heavily impact the livelihoods of fishermen working in Northeastern cities like Gloucester and New Bedford Massachusetts. 

On the one hand, it makes sense. If we don’t reduce the numbers of cod being harvested, the fish populations will be depleted into oblivion. On the other hand, I have a very strong concern for these fishermen that happen to be my neighbors and happen to face a grim future without the ability to fish as necessary. We’re essentially deciding whether or not to “choose” the fish or “choose” the fishermen.

Enter a world of pain grey. I think that most people on the side of environmental sustainability would argue for the fishermen to adapt, for towns like Gloucester and New Bedford to somehow transform their economies. For us to prevent overfishing and potentially permanent damage to our marine ecosystem. But we know that this is no easy feat. That for fishermen who come from families of fishermen that have been fishing for decades, they can’t just pick up and start fresh. Not without training and support and…jobs to move to. That towns like Gloucester and New Bedford cannot just “come up” with the funds and resources and marketing to create a new economy. And that they certainly can’t expect to change overnight.

I think the bottom line in this case, and in all matters concerning sustainability (or everything!?) is that we cannot simply rest on black and white ideas of right and wrong to guide our decisions. The truth is that every decision has a tradeoff and every opinion a counter opinion. The only way to work together and solve large problems is to realize that there aren’t sides, only a series of ever-evolving challenges and decisions. And maybe, at the end, we can reconcile the head and the heart. Now, let’s hang our heads for poor Old Yeller.

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COP 18 in Doha, Qatar

Today kicks off the 18th annual UN climate change Council of the Parties (COP) talks in Doha. This is the first time in the history of the talks that the conference will be held in an Arab country.  Because Qatar and surrounding Arab nations have dealt with extreme weather, like desertification and drought, for thousands of years, many are hopeful that this will lend a new perspective on dealing with and preventing climate change. While many associate drylands with lack of fertility and water, these COP talks will center around water systems, conservation efforts, and innovation that has helped people living in drought-prone areas to thrive.

What will be interesting to see is the new role Middle Eastern countries will adopt in preventing climate change . To this point, many have been quiet or even “obstructionist” in the process.  However, COP18 has made it apparent that there is clear concern over climate change within Middle Eastern civil society – a new Arab Youth Climate Movement has been formed – as well as within the public and private sectors.

Of course, this conference is not only a way for Middle Eastern nations to step up into the international climate change arena, it is also a last chance to replace or renew the expiring Kyoto Protocol. Agreement stands to be reached regarding when party nations are required to commit to serious declines in carbon emissions. So far, the largest emitters like China and the United States are the most timid to sign on. The talks will continue until December 7; let’s hope they are fruitful!

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