Carlos Rymer

Sustainability, Life, and More…

Archive for the tag “Transportation”

China: The New Big Hope on Climate Change

This past week, it became very clear that the United States will never get around to doing what it takes to lead on climate change. Last December, President Barack Obama went to Copenhagen promising the world the U.S. would cut its emissions 17% by 2020. That target by itself, while an important milestone, didn’t even come close to what the science says we need to do to avert catastrophic climate change. After tough health care and financial reform battles, Obama chose not to embrace a battle for climate change legislation, instead sending his own lobbyists  to work on “getting the votes” in the U.S. Senate. The bill in consideration, initially focusing on capping greenhouse gas emissions, got so watered down that it basically became an energy bill like the one passed in 2005 under the Bush administration, with no goals on cutting greenhouse gas emissions nor any renewable energy targets. All of this in a Democrat-controlled Congress that promised swift action to end our addiction to fossil fuels and spur a clean energy economy that creates hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

So, after more than 10 years of fighting and high public support for action on climate change since the days of Kyoto, the U.S. Senate has confirmed what we refused to admit. The United States will NOT lead on climate change, so we must not put our hopes on this nation. It seems that no matter what we do locally or globally, the ideology-based members of Congress will simply not agree to ensuring the U.S. economy doesn’t miss the great jobs and growth opportunity that clean-tech would bring. They will only agree to enriching the pockets of their fossil fuel friends, and ONLY with fossil fuels, as to them it seems that fossil fuel money is very different than clean energy money. As a result, it’s time to think not about nation-building through problem-solving, but about human survival through problem-solving. In other words, we have to think about how we can avert climate catastrophe at whatever cost instead of how we can do so at benefits to us (“us” being U.S. citizens). In the end, we’ll be better off averting climate catastrophe even if it’s not us who take the biggest piece of the clean-tech pie.

As it stands, the best hope we have right now to avert climate catastrophe is China. With all the press that people read about coal burning and ever-increasing consumption in China, it is the only country showing the incredible capacity we’ll need to muster to make the transition to clean energy. In only four years, China has become the world’s leader in wind and solar, beginning exactly from nothing. It took the developed world decades to get to where China has gotten in just a few years. On top of that, it takes China very little to make a decision that will strengthen their capacity to lead on clean energy, such as creating feed-in tariffs, investing twice as much on clean energy than the United States, and even creating a cap-and-trade system to price carbon directly. It can do this even while having one of the biggest supplies of coal. If what China has done in a few years is any indication of what’s to come, we MUST begin to put our hope on China as a major innovator in clean energy and, as such, the only leader that can and should be responsible for leading the world away from climate catastrophe.

To make this clear, let’s put out some numbers about how impressive China’s clean energy sector has been over the last few years. Five years ago, China wasn’t even up on the charts in the wind energy sector. In 2005, it approved major policy to drive growth of wind turbine manufacturing and wind energy installations. In 2009, it led the world in total installations of wind energy, installing a stellar 13.8GW of wind energy (compared to 9.9GW in the U.S.; China is expected to pass the U.S. in installed capacity in 2010). At the same time, it became the world’s top manufacturer of wind turbines, with 3 firms already in the global top 10. In photovoltaic (solar power or PV), it supplied nearly 40% of the world’s panels last year, making it the leader in PV manufacturing. In addition to these key technologies, it has broken it’s own goals in solar hot water, biomass, and hydro consistently. It is also building the world’s largest and most advanced high speed rail systems, and has one of the world’s most ambitious programs to manufacture electric vehicles, having its own target of becoming the world’s leader in just three years. A very long walk for such little talk.

We can’t fool ourselves. China is clearly today’s most capable nation of turning this crisis into an incredible opportunity. While the U.S. still has incredible capacity, its gridlocked politicians will never let it pick up momentum, especially now after everything indicates politics will just get worse after November 2010. In spite of the reality that there are key issues in relation to China’s jump into clean-tech (such as quality), these are gradually going away as China’s clean-tech sector matures. It is time for the world’s attention to shift away from the U.S. and onto China when it comes to climate change. Chinese authorities know they will lead, and it is why their game has been very simple: obstruct international negotiations that could lead to the U.S. being more aggressive on clean-tech. This buys China time to create its industries, fix any issues they might have, and drive them to incredible growth that can not only meet domestic clean energy targets, but also easily take the rest of the world on a transition to clean energy, EVs, high-speed rails, etc.

The sooner we admit this, the sooner the rest of the world can shift its attention to China, putting pressure on its authorities to drive the clean-tech bandwagon fast enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions on a scale that would prevent Greenland’s melting, the Amazon’s burning, and the Arctic’s disappearance. For us, it’s no longer about whether we will lead. It’s about whether we will survive.


Cellulosic, Plug-in Hybrids are Biofuels Substitutes? Think Again?

Originally posted in It’s Getting Hot In Here.

After a long break from blogging, I’m glad to have the time to get back! First of all, from my title you will have probably noticed that I’m partially against cellulosic and plug-in hybrids as the solution to the world food crisis that biofuels and oil are helping to fuel. Sure, cellulosic can ensure we don’t use corn for ethanol and we don’t change wheat, barley, and other crops to corn fields for ethanol production. Sure, we can use plug-in hybrids and, if we’re lucky to scale renewables enough, power them with clean electricity and wean ourselves off of coal and oil. But have you stopped to think about what that means? I bet Mr. Henry Ford would have told you that you don’t have to think about it, that you should just go ahead and support the “real” solutions… Right!

In the last two weeks, biofuels have been attacked more than ever before from many angles. The world food crisis has become so severe that anybody who supports any biofuel that either uses food crops or takes land that would have otherwise gone to food production is criticized sharply. The arguments against biofuels, especially corn ethanol, are clear.

· First, ethanol produced from corn takes a chunk away from the corn that would otherwise go to direct human purposes, excluding livestock (of course, nobody ever questioned before the fact that directing corn and soybeans to cows makes the supply available for exports lower, and therefore keeps prices relatively higher; in other words, food prices before the current crisis could have been much lower if it wasn’t because of the luxury of eating high quantities of meat; maybe a big tax on meat can lower other food prices, which politician will be smart enough to propose this?).

· Second, as the demand for corn and soybeans surges, land that was used for other purposes is converted to corn and soy fields, therefore increasing the cost of the other crops (wheat, barley, etc.) because they’re less available.

· Lastly, using ethanol has no impact on how much oil we use because the energy balance is 0 or negative. On top of all this, we are losing benefits from cheaper ethanol that could be imported from Brazil if our goal was really to get rid of oil at the lowest possible cost.

So, we know all these things. We also know that the increasing price of oil, now nearly $125 per barrel, is also pushing food prices up, and that decreasing water supplies and crazier weather is also pitching in into the food price hikes we’re seeing. What we also know is that every policymaker and the public at large is thinking that the way out of this is making ethanol from something that doesn’t take up food or converting our cars to plug-in hybrids to have them run on electricity. So lots of money is going into cellulosic research and lots of venture capitalists are fully funding new ventures that hope to bring to market “environmentally-friendly” plug-in electric vehicles. At the same time, GM, Ford, Toyota, Honda, and other car companies are stepping up their development of these same technologies to bring such cars to market soon. What’s the problem with this?

From all the press going on about these things, you might be led to think it’s the right thing to do. Sure, if we can replace our carbon-producing cars with carbon-free cars we’d be on our way to a climate neutral world! But folks who talk about these issues in this way don’t understand key principles of sustainability or sustainable development. They don’t understand that the old way of thinking will not work for the 21st century, and that a whole-system approach is really what will get us out of this big mess. Thinking about carbon from cars alone leaves a lot out. What are we trying to achieve? What needs are we trying to meet? Cars are not simply responsible for the carbon they emit. They’re responsible for the carbon of sprawl, the carbon of congestion, the carbon of treating people’s health problems related to sprawl and dirty air, and the list goes on!

In thinking about transportation, we need to think about how we can first reduce the need for the car. This is what the big automakers in Detroit will not want to hear, but it’s the truth. Why should we give up over 50% of our city’s space to cars when we can have the same needs met without them and with a lot more space for different needs and a whole lot less carbon? Urban sprawl and the negative effects it brings are being largely left out of the picture when we talk about ethanol and other ways of powering cars.

Nobody talks about the fact that every year we give up $300 billion in congestion alone in the United States, enough money to make you sick of public transportation being so damn easy (and this, of course, leaves out the multiplier effect $300 billion can have on total economic output). What about deaths by accidents? Over 250,000 per year globally. How much do we value human lives? What about health costs because of obesity, depression, dirty air, and global warming? What about the huge subsidies the government hands out to maintain roads and build new ones. The huge amounts of money banks lend out to allow people to buy cars. Could that money be loaned instead for better purposes, such as solar and wind? The irony here is that you never see someone who buys a car calculating the payback time of the car as you see them calculating it for solar and wind. And then, of course, is all the space we give up in our cities, space that could go instead to green urban parks, greenways, community gardens (things that reduce crime, improve education, and lower health and energy costs), sports complexes, businesses, and everything else you wish you had in your city!

The car culture has been here for too long and it seems like nobody is blaming it for high oil prices and the world food crisis we’re currently suffering from. Nobody wants to blame the car for the cyclone that hit Myanmar, or for the fact that 100 million people around the world are now at risk of going into poverty. At some point, we have to come to grips and ADMIT that the car is a huge part of this entire mess. Cellulosic ethanol, plug-in hybrids, and whatever else you may say is the solution don’t matter. What matters is that we have given up 30+ years in which we could’ve developed efficient, widespread mass transportation systems that could have probably kept our need for the car at a very low level. Instead of investing in mass transportation in all our cities, we have invested in sprawl, global warming, high food prices, and much more! And the sad part is that we still don’t seem to get it.

If the Presidential candidates want to make a good case about getting out of the huge mess we’re in, they’re gonna have to face reality and admit that the car has to go. The car will only be necessary for long distance trips or trips to places outside our urban/suburban areas that we cannot reach through mass public transit. In these cases, it’ll be useful to have plug-in electric vehicles; obviously, they will still have an important use. But we cannot go on in the 21st century thinking that the independent car is the only answer to transportation.

The public has to demand that we invest the $300 billion we needlessly lose each year due to congestion or the $100+ billion we needlessly send to Iraq annually in mass transit. It doesn’t matter whether it is government-managed or privately managed. The point is that we need mass transit to free ourselves out of this mess. So, we need to make it a point that in dealing with global warming, the new President in 2009 will work with Congress to scale up investments in mass public transit, which will lead to smart urban development and much more. If it doesn’t get done soon, we may run out of time. It’s up to us to begin recognizing that the car must come to an end and to begin getting this notion into the press if it will ever get to the halls of Congress for consideration. Just like the car drove us into this mess, if we do nothing the car will drive us into the ground.

Transportation in a Climate Neutral World

Originally published in It’s Getting Hot In Here.


So we all want the world to be climate neutral, right? Yea, some people spit out numbers like 50% and 80%, but in the end we just want to get rid of fossil fuels for good. Those that claim that fossil fuels are going to be an important part of the energy mix for the world in the future are either ignorant, are not aware of what global warming is already doing, or are simply obsessed with fossil fuels. Sorry if it annoys anybody, but this is true. So, assuming we want a climate neutral world (with no net greenhouse gases coming from humans) or perhaps a climate positive world, we need to address sectors like electricity and transportation, among others. In the transportation sector, there has been a huge push for different fuels (biofuels) and for increased fuel mileage. Unfortunately, proponents of these seem to also be obsessed with fossil fuels and, particularly, cars.

Let’s start with biofuels. Ethanol and biodiesel are the big ones today. Ethanol from corn, sugar cane, and cellulose (which is far away into the future anyways), and biodiesel from vegetable oil from any source. Ethanol from corn is simply an extremely bad choice. First of all, there isn’t even consensus on whether corn ethanol is energy positive. The numbers range from slightly energy positive to slightly energy negative. The energy positive folks are simply supported more widely because people want to jump into the lucrative corn ethanol bandwagon. If positive, the small gains are extremely small and are largely outweighed by the fact that we’re depleting more farmland to do this. At the same time, it’s taking a huge amount of corn agriculture and shooting up prices like crazy, which may be good for the big food companies, but bad for people in Mexico and elsewhere. So those people investing in corn ethanol are investing in something that will come to an end. At best, they’ll cash out of the boom, but many will be left severely hurt.

Sugarcane ethanol is a different deal. It is clearly energy positive. It is helping create lots of jobs in Brazil (though it enslaves and removes others). Brazil is vying to become the Middle East for ethanol. The country requires that all gasoline is blended with 25% ethanol, and 40% of the gasoline-type fuel is ethanol. They are also exporting a lot of ethanol. The businesses doing this are making returns on their investments of up to 40%. And now, they’re looking into how to get into the U.S. market without the 50 cent tax that is currently imposed on ethanol imports. The Caribbean, of course, is a key player.

But what folks don’t say is that ethanol only meets about 8% of all fuels in Brazil. That’s right, only 8%. Diesel use is huge in Brazil. Regardless of this, it is a great thing to export for Brazil. It is also better than fossil-derived fuel. And the claim that it is taking away rainforest is not well founded, as sugarcane is only about 4-6% of total agricultural land in Brazil. Before blaming sugarcane, soybeans have to be blamed. But ethanol does not deal with the real problem, and that is mobility. We don’t just want to get rid of fossil fuels. We want to end the car obsession that is sprawling cities everywhere. Brazil, for example, continues to sprawl because of cars. Regardless of what fuel we use, the solution at hand should be ending high car use and making sustainable mobility mainstream. Sustainable city development is therefore a key to reducing emissions. Sprawled out cities increase emissions, regardless of whether people use an electric car or not.

Biodiesel is another one of those stories. First of all, biodiesel reduces emissions by about 70% in combustion. In the European Union, a lot of it comes from palm oil in Indonesia. The recent stories have all been the same. Palm oil is destroying Indonesian rainforests at the expense of “being green”. No biofuel that promotes car use can be called “green”, just like no car that is more efficient should be called “green”. Norway was right on making sure this was the case. Biodiesel is converting large tracts of rainforest into palm oil monocultures, sending countless species into threatened or extinct status. All of this to meet less than 5% of the EU’s fuel use. Biodiesel may be a good thing for some poor countries with depleted soils where drought-resistant plants like Jatropha can grow, but it’s only temporary because high car use cannot continue under a climate neutral world.


Leaving biofuels behind, we enter the Prius world. Toyota came out with its very “successful” Prius, a hybrid vehicle that achieves very high fuel efficiency compared to other vehicles in the U.S. market. What nobody talks about is how much congestion or road costs increase when these new vehicles (any vehicle, really) is sold in the market. In New Jersey, where I’m from, congestion is an endless problem. We keep building more and more roads, and the cars just keep coming. Because of that, we are one of the most sprawled out states in the country, and soon enough, by 2015, we are set to have no more developable land. All because of cars!

If you go to any car-obsessed city, you’ll see something weird. Cars taking up more space in the city than people (outside of homes). It’s incredible; there are more parking spaces and parking lots than what you can imagine, and more are on the way. And all of this is because of cars. We are wasting so much city space that could be used for open space or business all because we can’t think of anything else to move ourselves other than cars. So, those of you who gave a “yes” vote to the piece in the Energy Bill that boosts CAFE standards are supporting congestion. If you support more fuel efficient cars as a solution (the hybridists and such), you are supporting unsustainable development, costly congestion, and high individualism. Bill McKibben and others have emphasized the fact that global warming will not be solved without a comeback of “community”. Cars don’t promote “community”. They promote sprawl and more sprawl and the waste of space and money. The U.S. bill for congestion is more than $200 billion a year! That’s enough money a year to change the world’s transportation system to one of new mobility!


New mobility! That’s what we need. Instead of cars, why not spend on light rail and personal rapid transit (an overhead, modernized, on-demand rail system). Personal rapid transit (PRT), in particular, has the huge potential of eliminating congestion and making our cities way more livable. These systems are automated and on-demand, taking you from location to location within a large city at the fastest mobility rate possible. Theoretically, studies have confirmed that it saves time, money, and it is cheaper. The plus is that it uses electricity, not fuels! It can thus be electrified with solar, wind, whatever renewables we use to electrify the world. I say theoretically because PRTs have not been deployed, though a lot of R&D has gone on since the 80’s. The theoretical cost is about $10 million per mile, with prospects of much lower costs as economies of scale take effect. These systems need right of ways, and with a car- and road-obsessed society, right of ways are not easy to get. A couple of examples will come around in Europe, and there is work to hopefully get one for Ithaca, NY, Seattle, the Mall of America in MN, and other places. Nevertheless, PRT-type systems will need to be larger to accomodate people in a community setting and will need to deal with any of the real issues the theoretical models don’t take into account. In any case, on-demand mobility is promising.


A climate neutral world can’t keep counting on cars. Cities without cars have so much more space for walking, biking, green space, more businesses, and a higher quality of life, not to mention the elimination of smog (one of the types of pollution recently blamed for 40% of all world deaths). People in the climate movement cannot keep talking about CAFE standards without talking as seriously and as much about light rail and PRTs. People need to start attacking cars and promoting the true, sustainable solutions to sprawl- and congestion-causing transportation. I don’t care if you’re from some lowly densely populated state and congestion is not a problem for you. It is a problem for the 50%+ people who live in cities. So don’t promote higher CAFE standards. Promote NEW MOBILITY!

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