Author Archives: Erin X. Wong

About Erin X. Wong

Erin is a rising sophomore at the University of Southern California, majoring in Political Economy with a minor in Social Entrepreneurship. She started working in the environmental sector with Climate Solutions, a nonprofit in the Pacific Northwest. A Seattle native, Erin is working towards a career at the intersection of sustainable and international development.

How far can wind, water and solar take us?

The Danish island of Samsø is entirely powered by renewable energy. (Ph: VisitSamsø)

The Danish island of Samsø is entirely powered by renewable energy. (Photo: VisitSamsø)

Solving climate change means replacing our energy system: the climate change problem is largely a zero carbon global energy development problem.

But changing the world’s energy system is easier said than done: economics, global politics, domestic politics, technology, and our personal energy use have to align to make change possible. Each factor influences the next, and time is limited. For example: China is close to exceeding the 2°C target already if all existing and planned coal-fired power plants are run for their operating lifetimes. They need inexpensive energy to make our stuff for us, as well as to modernize China, where the Chinese people only have a third of the per capita emissions of Americans.

What we build now, and the energy we demand now, determines our future, and every nation is dependent on the actions of others to succeed in the overall goal of staying within the 2°C limit.

What are our options to replace fossil fuels? James Hansen, former director of NASA’s climate research, believes nuclear power is the best source to replace coal for China, the nation with the largest demand. Mark Jacobson, professor of engineering at Stanford, has drafted plans for the entire world relying on a combination of renewables: wind, hydropower, and solar. Jacobson has also mapped out a plan for the US to be entirely powered by renewables by 2050. Britain’s national energy discussion, led by David MacKay, professor of physics at Cambridge, envisions building a mix of sources, including both nuclear and renewables.

Saul Griffith, engineer and inventor, concisely summarizes the world’s energy demands on the website for the Long Now seminars. His conclusion: we need not only a massive program to build a new energy supply, but a rapid drop in our personal energy use. (Scroll down this page for the text.) Video highlight here. British climate scientist Kevin Anderson concurs with Griffith: behavior change is crucial to the 2°C target. In his own behavior change, meteorologist and writer Eric Holthaus has quit flying.

Below, Erin Wong takes a look at Mark Jacobson’s proposals, which would be a new step forward to a very different looking America, and the reactions to them.

Two updates to the story while it was in production: Jacobson’s proposals gained the public spotlight as part of the Solutions Project, promoted by anti-fracking leaders including Mark Ruffalo. One of the strongest arguments for fracking, assuming it is done safely, is that natural gas emits less CO2 than coal, and replacing America’s (and China’s) coal electric power with a plentiful supply of natural gas is a first step to deeper emissions cuts. But a new report described in National Geographic finds that this may not be the case, and that natural gas emissions, when all factors are included, are about the same as coal: “Switching from coal to natural gas for power generation won’t do much to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and might even raise them slightly, in part because it will discourage the use of carbon-free renewable energy.”

This new report strengthens Jacobson’s case; so do two economic reports that shifting to clean energy systems will essentially cost zero, when the health benefits are factored in.

• • •

Fighting climate change is no longer a question of if we can, but when and how we will. A collaborative study by the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College recently took a poll of American support for a carbon tax, and found that an encouraging 60-percent were in favor if the revenue was used to develop renewable energy. As sustainability rises on the American agenda, public interest in clean energy solutions grows.

Mark Jacobson, a climate scientist at Stanford University, and a team of his colleagues published two major plans for a full transition from fossil fuels. A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030, released in 2009, claimed that the entire planet could be powered with hydropower, wind, and solar energy in just two decades. This February, Jacobson’s team released a second paper that devises strategies for the United States, showing the way for each the 50 states to be fossil fuel free by 2050. The plans for the US have been built into an interactive website, the Solutions Project, showing the proposal for each state on a map. The actor Mark Ruffalo, an anti-fracking activist, is a supporter of the Solutions Project program, with the premise that a rapid path to renewables could replace gas generation, removing the need for fracking new wells across the country.

The two papers contained ambitious goals and controversial analysis, which ignited strong reactions of both praise and criticism. The aftermath of Jacobson’s papers shows the underlying challenge of the evolving climate debate: how we generate energy, and how much demand renewables can fulfill.
For New York State, Jacobson’s 2014 plan incorporates seven different methods of harvesting power from natural resources: the traditional solar photovoltaic, onshore wind, and hydroelectric sources, and the relatively new methods of offshore wind, wave devices, geothermal capture, and tidal turbines. Wind is the greatest projected contributor, slated to produce 50-percent of the energy for the state with the majority of the turbines located offshore.


The Solutions Project is implementation of Mark Jacobson's WWS Roadmap

The Solutions Project  presents Mark Jacobson’s 100% renewable energy plan for the US.

Since its release, Jacobson’s latest proposal has been used to support the claim that the US can achieve carbon neutrality without nuclear energy or fracking for natural gas to use as a lower emission ‘bridge fuel’ while new systems are built. The anti-fracking community applauded the plan, because they believe it proves that the US does not need fracking to transition from coal. Others saw it purely as a defensive tactic against fracking and nuclear power. Even those who advocate for renewables questioned the plan’s technical assumptions and its social feasibility.

Edward Dodge of the Methane Project published one critique via the Energy Collective. Dodge points out that much of the technology that Jacobson’s New York plan relies on, such as battery-operated or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and offshore wind farms, does not have the market to be produced on the large scale called for in Jacobson’s plan. Dodge also notes that the capacities of the windmill and solar PV panel models used by Jacobson vastly underestimate the massive economic and land costs of the plan. Essentially, Dodge claims that the plan does not have time for common practice to catch up with its ambition.

How much time and social commitment do we need to transition to renewables?

In 2012, however, Science Daily featured a study by the University of Delaware and Delaware Technical Community College that projected the costs of renewables in 2030 to be roughly 50 percent of their price today. Already we’ve begun to see the market for renewable energy take massive steps towards price parity and adoption, if not at the breakneck speed of Jacobson’s plan.

Dodge did not choose to criticize the plan because he doesn’t believe in the development of solar and wind energy. He did so because he sees it as “being hailed for political purposes by those with an agenda opposing drilling for natural gas,” and believes that its analysis lacks technical credibility. Yet, both Jacobson’s paper and Dodge’s criticism have value for sustainable progress if criticism is applied constructively.

If France uses nuclear safely and sustainably, why can’t we?
In another critique, Rod Adams, founder of the dissolved company Adams Atomic Engines, Inc., defends nuclear power against Jacobson’s renewable energy vision. Adams points to the power infrequencies of solar and wind power plants, barriers to renewable energy storage, and the fact that France transitioned from 5 to 80 percent nuclear in just 20 years, which could be a model for the US to go fossil free. If France uses nuclear safely and sustainably, why can’t we?

Charles Frank of the Brookings Institution recently made another case for nuclear by using a cost-benefit analysis to compare the carbon offset of nuclear and renewables, accounting for the intermittent nature of wind and solar. Pricing the carbon ton at $50, Frank calculated that nuclear power plants, which run at 90 percent of capacity, would replace more than $400,000-worth of carbon emissions per megawatt (MW) of capacity. Because wind and solar are only effective during periods of breeze and daylight, they only run at 25- and 15- percent capacity, saving only $107,000 and $69,500-worth of carbon emissions per MW, respectively. The considerable cost of disposing of nuclear waste is not included in Frank’s conclusions, but he does weigh in the upfront capital costs and makes a compelling economic argument for nuclear energy, backing up Adams’s claims against all renewable plan. [New reactor designs, such as the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), can limit the production of waste, and consume existing nuclear waste as fuel.]

As a pro-nuclear advocate, Adams disagrees with covering our country in sprawling renewable energy farms instead of building many fewer, smaller nuclear plants to produce the same amount of power. It is important to note that both strategies can work and neither is the ‘right’ way.

Don Duggan-Haas made an interesting point in his online interactive presentation on Marcellus Shale: controversial issues tend to pit sides against one another, but we must recognize that each of us has limitations to our own worldviews and everyone has something to lose from change. There are trade-offs to any solutions, yet Duggan-Haas begs us to look at the greater issue from a systems perspective. We might think that fracking or nuclear power will lead to environmental destruction, but in the bigger picture, every low carbon source of energy has its own importance in fighting climate change. All that is required for a perfect balance is a fast transition away from carbon output. Most likely, we will end up with everything in the energy mix.

Jacobson chose to respond to two critiques, one by Ted Trainer, a lecturer of the University of New South Wales and author of several academic pieces against an all-renewable energy system, and one by Nathaniel Gilbraith, a doctoral student in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and several of his colleagues.

Can renewables adequately power an energy-intensive consumer economy? Or should the economy change, too?
 Trainer’s critique questions Jacobson’s solutions for the world to handle the variability of a renewable-based system, and the 2009 plan’s quantitative analysis of investment costs. Like Adams, Trainer argues that periods of over-supply, dumping, and calm that come with weather fluctuations cannot be avoided with the proposed methods of weather forecasting and demand-response management, and he questions the plan’s options of hydrogen and electric storage. Trainer insists that there should be a discussion of the cost of a back up system, and believes that, “Renewables can enable a satisfactory quality of life for all, but not in energy-intensive, consumer-capitalist societies.”

In Jacobson’s rebuttal, Jacobson and his co-author, Mark Delucchi, cited his Monte Carlo approach to portfolio planning which concluded that “up to >99.8% of delivered electricity could be produced carbon-free with WWS [wind, water, and solar] resources over multiple years.” The gap would be addressed by “demand–response measures, storage beyond CSP [concentrated solar power], electric vehicle charging and management, and increases in wind and solar capacities beyond the inflexible power demand.” Surprisingly, Jacobson even suggests natural gas as a reasonable backup, if only in the immediate future. Jacobson and Delucchi also explain that they would not be using a conventional electricity system, but a “large-scale all-renewables” system, or an international ‘supergrid,’ not contained to one nation or continent.

Trainer, Jacobson, and Delucchi’s exchange tells us that there are often disagreements about what would theoretically work. To let academics, engineers, or politicians lead the conversation into an unending discussion of hypothetical optimization is to slow the development of actionable plans. No plan is without fault, and the next step is to move forward with one plan and be prepared to deal with its externalities.

Gilbraith’s critique calls attention to the New York plan’s social feasibility. Energy decisions, in the state of New York and elsewhere, are made “within a landscape of interested parties, governing bodies, laws, and cultural norms,” Gilbraith concludes, and all of these various groups and interests are unlikely to agree on the single goal of carbon neutrality. Jacobson and his team defended their original claims, but did not fully address the social and political challenges of implementing an all-renewable plan.

Because of the urgency imposed on us by emissions, there will be consequences to choosing any plan, and to no plan at all.
 On the other hand, Gilbraith and Jacobson’s other critics failed to note the societal difficulties that will arise if America doesn’t decide on a way forward. Despite the shortfalls of Jacobson’s vision, it does not take an engineer to know that inaction is unacceptable. We continue to argue because the thought of choosing a strategy that isn’t perfect is terrifying, but what we have to realize is that there will be consequences to every plan we choose.

A slide presentation by Saul Griffith, founder and CEO of Otherlab, suggests that no easy global transition from fossil fuels will keep us within a safe range of global warming. (Full video here.) His study theoretically kept energy below 450 ppm by 2033 using an estimated fuel mix based on the world’s abundant natural resources.

According to the study (already outdated by six years of underinvestment), if we are to remain under 450ppm, the global community would need to create 100 meters square of solar cells and 50 meters square of solar thermal mirrors every second, twelve 3-megawatt wind turbines every hour, three 100-megawatt steam turbines every day, and one 3-gigawatt nuclear plant every week for the next 25 years. For reference, Griffith notes that General Motors produces one car every two minutes. Not to mention that we’ll have to build all this renewable energy infrastructure while developing biofuels and simultaneously terminating deforestation. [The IEA’s “Roadmap for Solar” report shows that the world installed about 36GW of solar cells in 2013, at a rate which would reach 0.72TW in 20 years, which would fall far short of the 2TW Griffith’s plan calls for. But production rates are increasing. The IEA plan is even more ambitious, and calls for 4.6TW of solar PV by 2050.]

Saul Griffith's Longnow Presentation in January projected our global fuel mix in 2033, and the daunting task of converting to renewable energy that lies ahead of us.

Saul Griffith’s Long Now Presentation  (2009) projected our global fuel mix in 2033, and the daunting task of converting to renewable energy that lies ahead of us. To make this goal in (now) less than 19 years would require a frenzy of building equivalent to the war effort in World War Two, but it would give us a chance at holding to the 2°C limit.

We are also looking at a $48 trillion price tag on our path to meeting the world’s energy supply in 2035. Earlier this summer, the International Energy Agency released a study that calculated what we must spend between now and 2035 in order to meet our future energy demands. The study calls for a steady rise in global investment for renewable energy and energy efficiency to more than $2 trillion a year to account for the explosive growth in our energy needs.

To meet civilization’s skyrocketing demands with renewable energy will require worldwide support for sustainable development. Despite the seemingly gargantuan task ahead, if all of our efforts were united and directed towards carbon neutrality, it would not be impossible for our world to create these renewable energy systems. Griffith’s and the IEA’s takeaways, however, do draw somewhat pessimistic conclusions about the feasibility of Jacobson’s plan. Without nuclear, the amount of wind, water, solar, and geothermal systems increases tremendously. Cutting out fossil fuels from our energy mix will cause the total cost of powering the world to soar.

Unprecedented political will and global unity aside, we have to address the limits of what it is possible for the human race to create in the next few decades, and look realistically at how much we are willing to spend to make it happen.

But there is reason for us to hope. Wind power, for example, has become the cheapest source of energy in Denmark, due to cost just 5 euro cents a kilowatt hour in 2016, according to the Danish Energy Association. By 2020, 50 percent of the nation’s power will come from wind. If New York, the US, and other nations of the world can rally to follow world leaders of Denmark and those countries that have already taken significant strides towards carbon neutrality, if we choose a united course of action and turn criticisms to collaboration, then can we succeed in curbing our damage to the atmosphere. Will we decide to build 11.5 terawatts of renewable energy and spend almost fifty trillion dollars to cut our fossil fuel dependency?

In an interview with the Smithsonian, Griffith said, “I am optimistic that the world’s energy problems can be solved, because I know that they can be solved. I’m not optimistic that we will solve them, because people are people.”

And he is right. We are unpredictable. But now, more than ever, is the time to have faith in our abilities, and share confidence in one another to develop and implement the solutions to offset climate change. Any progress is also disruption in our dynamic world. The best plans are constantly evaluated and modified to meet the unpredictable demands and constraints of the world. Technological lock-in is one of the reasons we are so dependent on fossil fuels today—it’s difficult to stray from the status quo, but will be even harder to do so in fifty years. Rather than remain divided as a movement, we have to remember our common ground and move forward. We have the means, we have the will, and we have more than enough ways how. What we do not have is time. More than ever, we need action, and we need to work together.

Getting to know transition culture at COFFEED

Photo by Erin Wong

Photo by Erin Wong

The scent of warm coffee welcomed me as I stepped into COFFEED beneath Brooklyn Grange. The café’s interior was decorated with burlap sacks nestled over aged wood furniture, evidence of fair trade imports and artfully brewed beverages. People sat coupled in intimate conversation, while a large stuffed bear smiled out from a corner, as though I was returning to some place like home.

COFFEED is known for its coffee bought directly from family farms in Burundi, Columbia, Panama, and Ethiopia. Much of its food is locally grown at Brooklyn Grange, and all organic waste is composted daily, while 5-10 percent of COFFEED’s revenue is given back to the Queens community through charities in New York.

Brooklyn Grange

Brooklyn Grange is a community farm sown atop the roof of a vast industrial building.

Brooklyn Grange 2

COFFEED’s proximity to the urban garden enhances their mission of sustainability.

Environmentalists of all kinds were gathered for a movie screening of In Transition 2.0. There were construction managers, farmers, teachers, and curious New Yorkers who had come by for quality coffee and conversation, which ranged from permaculture to personal endeavors to aboriginal lifestyles.

The movie is the second documentary covering the rising transition movement in which local communities—neighborhoods, blocks, or small towns—band together on a grassroots level to prepare for the challenges of climate change and economic crisis. Rather than leave change to politicians, individuals across the globe are now taking it upon themselves to organize and create systems such as farms, local electricity, and local markets.

‘Transition’ includes several stages: Raising awareness, Deepening, Connecting, and Building. The process begins with rallying people together, then the group brainstorms projects based on the community’s unique resources and demands. In Bolton, UK, the transition town located on a large hill plans to use simple rope technology and gravity to transport large shipments down to their homes—a process completely unique to their community, but utterly ingenious. 

Local food products are often one of the first steps in a transition project
The last step of transition culture is to make sustainable ideas reality. A group in Deventer, Netherlands is setting up Repair Cafés, free meeting places where people repair their things together and help others who don’t know how. Because of a mutual pressure to make these projects work, people feel compelled to show up and be a part of the community’s success. Gathering a network of interdependent people is one of the main ways transition culture works.

Transition also includes Dreaming, Planning, Creating, and Celebrating. In Transition 2.0 stressed the importance of celebrating final products to foster community spirit. Most transition projects serve the three-fold purpose of strengthening the community, building environmental and economic resilience, and sustaining each individual’s well-being for the future.

Local food products are often one of the first things that give a transition project momentum. One local farm provides employment and community service for troublemakers; another provides a way for low-income citizens to feed themselves. The Kensal to Kilbern transition town in the UK now provides fresh weekly batches of organic foods at affordable prices through their Field to Fork Cooperative, with plans to expand to a greater ‘patchwork garden’ throughout London.

By now, most transition towns have their own websites that document their various successes, raise awareness for their citizens to participate, and provide a medium for community organizing. How else would we, across the planet, know of the efforts of a couple in Mashhad, Razavi Khorasan, Iran? Thanks to their ability to share their success with us, we are able to learn about their projects of a permaculture farm and a School of Nature.

In Transition 2.0 asks how can ordinary people withstand challenges like climate change or market failures? And transition culture answers that “It’s not about the change from all over the world, but [the change within] our own community.” Local transition can save our own communities, and if every community shares this perspective, it can save the world too.

Local power systems can build resiliency into transition towns
Transition culture fortifies the local community when everyone puts in a little. Care for one another. Generate food and electricity ourselves.  Keep the money local. “Every time we pay our energy bills,” one leader explained, “that money leaves the community.” The movie depicted this problem using a bucket analogy, in which the community is a full bucket of water, and in poured grants, wages, and currency. Suddenly holes were punched in the bucket to represent imports, bills, and energy. Then, with the help of transition culture, local food, local currency, and local power can plug the holes and allow the community bucket to remain full.

An example of local power is community solar panel grids, such as those in Transition Town Lewes in the UK. Together, their town pooled their money and raised 31,000 pounds to invest in a set of solar panels for the roof of their local brewery. The money they saved by no longer paying for electricity goes directly back to the people and boosts their local economy. Similarly, Transition Town Brixton created the Brixton pound, a form of local currency transferred through a smart phone app, which allows Brixtoners to pay local vendors and services directly, reducing the outflow of wealth from the town.

Perhaps the best examples of transition culture occur naturally …because it is natural for neighbors to want to take care of one another
Local money is particularly important in times of disaster. Transition culture can be a powerful tool when the community is suffering, as shown in Japan after the Earthquake of 2011, where regions of the country banded together to provide relief for those who had lost everything. Before the earthquake, Transition Fujino had implemented ‘Yorozuya’, their form of local currency, and the network thrived by connecting one another and offering help with simple tasks, like connecting a vendor to a buyer. Post-earthquake, Fujino could gather and sort their relief materials efficiently because of this network, and together sought renewable energy in response to the damage done.

Perhaps the best examples of transition culture are not necessarily tied to the greater movement, but naturally occur — it is natural for neighbors to want to take care of one another. Just think of how New York banded together following Sandy, or how many organizations such as COFFEED support, and are supported by, the local community.

Transition begins with the responsibility and power of all the individuals involved. The movie introduced the concept of inner transition, the process of melding your needs and solutions with the community’s. This notion of ‘social cohesion’ is a bottom-up approach to the climate change movement.

We cannot take on climate change alone, and our communities have strengthened in response to its impending consequences. Fear, however, need not be the primary motivator of such strength. Transition culture helps us realize that strong communities improve our lifestyles beyond sustainability.  Small-scale structural change also encourages those who would not ordinarily take action, because the infrastructure has been put in place by fellow citizens.

After the movie, we discussed existing models in NYC, such as bike sharing, crowd-funding, installing renewable energy to local grids, and Freecycle, the free version of Craigslist. There are already several Transition communities in and near the five boroughs, including Hastings-on-Hudson, which has been launched and remains well coordinated, as well as Brooklyn NYT Mullers, Sustainable Forest Hills, and Transition New York City, most still in the early stages. There are also strong initiatives in Marbletown, Westchester, and New Jersey. 

Transition NYC began as a collaboration between many preexisting organizations, including New York City Peak Oil Meetup, Beyond Oil NYC, Neighborhood Energy Network, Sustainable Forest Hills, and Sustainable Flatbush. It remains in the early stage of Raising Awareness and Deepening, but it is kick-starting the participation of New York in the global transition movement.

Simply by bringing us all together for the screening, COFFEED created an example of transition culture while we discussed the potential strategies for strengthening New York’s resilience. Just a couple of hours together gave us a sense of greater community, and a greater will to adapt. A platform for conversation, a group of willing individuals, and comfortable café atmosphere can lead to a perfect storm for sparking creativity—and action.

Update: COFFEED has a new branch opening in Chelsea, in partnership with the charity New York Foundling.

Relax and recharge at Brighton Beach

Taken by Erin Wong

Photo: Erin Wong

Recently, I made the B-train trek to Brighton Beach on the south side of Brook­lyn and found the open beach brim­ming with relax­ing New York­ers, all thought of work and con­flict left behind in the con­crete city. The beach is only a few blocks from the train stop; just fol­low the salt air and you’re there. Once you emerge from the urban jun­gle and get onto the board­walk, the Atlantic pulls you into familiar childhood memories of days on sand, the smell of sunscreen, and eating ice cream.

People spill across the beach, which sprawls for almost a mile along the Brooklyn coast. Amid the oddly inspired clash of music and cul­tures, one thing was clear: Brighton Beach is a des­ti­na­tion for all. Brook­lyn fam­i­lies, Brook­lyn teens, seniors, tod­dlers, tourists, and New York­ers coex­ist peace­fully beside the steady ocean rhythm.

Brooklyn teens, families, and tourists coexist peacefully beside the steady ocean rhythm
Although the wind might some­times pick up, brush­ing your cheeks and dust­ing your towel with sand, the breeze will be warm and sooth­ing. True, the water is still cold enough to make your mus­cles tense up, but don’t let that keep you from dip­ping your feet in. And there are plenty of dry activ­i­ties to do at the beaches in New York. Brighton Beach offers vol­ley­ball nets for the more ath­let­i­cally inclined, not to men­tion plenty of room for soc­cer or ulti­mate. Beach-goers do every­thing from people-watching to read­ing to tan­ning, and some­times all at once. Relax­ation is the real high­light here, but the beach also offers an oppor­tu­nity for cre­ativ­ity out­side the city.

Stretch out for some yoga and prac­tice sun salu­ta­tions, bring a stereo and spread the good vibes, build sand­cas­tles with great big moats and bury some treasure—or your friends.

I would plan to leave a few hours before sun­set, as the sum­mer hasn’t peaked yet and the winds pick up as dusk begins to fall. Unless the day is scorchingly hot. But before you leave Brighton, check out the clas­sic board­walk and the sur­round­ing streets. If you’re look­ing for student-friendly restau­rant prices, it’s easy to lose your­self in Lit­tle Odessa, in the vibrant street scene and company of immi­grant Rus­sians. The neigh­bor­hood is per­fect for fam­ily day-trips or day-long dates.

When I returned to my City Atlas desk the fol­low­ing day, I felt refreshed and revi­tal­ized. It helped to escape the grid for a while, to finally kick off my shoes and walk bare­foot at the water’s edge. On the ride back to Manhattan, I had thought of our maps; a bit of sea level rise could put Brighton Beach under­wa­ter, and the tide could over­flow the com­mu­nity of Lit­tle Odessa. To my sur­prise, that gives me greater deter­mi­na­tion in the other part of my life, to work on climate solutions.

For all cli­mate war­riors: if we don’t cel­e­brate the lives we have, we can for­get what we’re fight­ing for. Maybe global warm­ing isn’t going to pause while we try to get poli­cies through our gov­ern­ment, but there is time if we need to take a day to stretch out our toes and clear our heads.

Because after soak­ing up the sun, I remem­ber that I love what I’m doing. I’m fighting for invaluable moments like a day at the beach.

Seeking individual responsibility, Part 2: Balance


Surfing = challenging, low carbon fun, especially if you take the subway to the beach. (Photo: Maureen Drennan)

Surfing — no batteries required. (Photo: Maureen Drennan)

As the US political process gradually moves forward on climate, new candor has appeared among economic analysts about the reality of global emission targets and our regulatory tools to reach them. That overdue discussion is really just beginning in earnest in the mainstream media in the US, but some advocates aren’t waiting for regulations to guide our behavior, and are doing it themselves. Here’s Part 2 of Erin Wong’s look at personal responsibility and our options to act. 

Nearly every climate expert will put ‘use less energy’ at the top of the list of fast climate fixes. Outstanding advice on how to do it comes from Eric Holthaus, writer and meteorologist for Slate (and former meteorologist of the Wall Street Journal), and Saul Griffith, a leading inventor of sustainable technology, co-founder of a Google-funded wind energy project, and MacArthur “genius grant” winner. Both Griffith and Holthaus believe that we must reduce our demand for fossil fuels now, as we work toward political and industrial reform.

How much of our lives should we change for the benefit of the world and how much are we allowed to keep for ourselves?
In an appearance on The Colbert Report, Saul Griffith told viewers that he was planning to increase his quality of life while simultaneously using only 1/10th of the carbon he did previously. On the way to his Colbert interview, Griffith chose to ride in a pedicab instead of taking a car, an experience, he said, that was not only more enjoyable than a taxi ride, but entirely emissions-free. In addition to the occasional pedicab ride, Griffith never drives above the speed limit, eats meat only once a week, and has reduced both the number of flights he takes and the items he purchases to nearly zero.

Griffith explains that we are not capable of solving climate change with technology, at least not yet. While we develop more efficient infrastructure and renewable energy, we must also tackle our high energy demand. “We do have to change some of our behaviors,” Griffith says, “It’s hard to imagine that 7 billion people could live the way Americans live today and you still get a solution for climate change that you want.”

If everyone were to aim for Griffith’s personal reduction goal, we would vastly reduce our carbon use. Mass individual behavioral adaptations would steer markets to lower carbon methods of production and prompt greater political action in response to climate change.

Griffith is an optimist, and his faith in personal behavior is essential. For collective change to happen, we need to believe in our own power. Eric Holthaus of Slate shares Saul Griffith’s perspective.

Last year in October, following the release of the fifth IPCC report, Holthaus decided to give up flying. Holthaus, also a vegetarian in the name of sustainability, became a symbol of personal responsibility for the climate movement.

While doing a recent Reddit Emergency Climate Ask Me Anything (AMA), Holthaus noted that “Becoming vegetarian is more of an impact than buying a hybrid car…[and] if we could get an economy-wide price on carbon, the cost of meat will go up and people will make the switch for monetary reasons.”  During the AMA, when asked about the greatest change one could make to protect our climate, Holthaus pointed to the vast national emissions of the U.S. and China; “since neither you or I are U.S. or China,” he added, “we should bring that down to our individual level.”

We continue to run up against the same question: How much of our lives should we change for the benefit of the world and how much are we allowed to keep for ourselves? Yet this question presents a false dichotomy. Personal carbon reduction benefits both our world and our own lives.

Globally-minded citizens tend to fly more than other Americans, and even a little flying can offset all one’s other environmental lifestyle changes. 

In my own life there are many changes I can make to reduce my carbon impact. With family in Hong Kong and my university in a different state than my home, I can’t refuse to take flights, but I can consolidate the number of trips I take and reserve travel for special occasions. On a student budget, and living in the city, I can’t grow my own food or afford to purchase only locally grown, but I can buy basic groceries from the farmer’s market and eliminate meat from my diet. I can’t avoid using a car to travel in areas where there is no public transportation, but I can make the decision not to own a car. I can’t make my friends and family reduce their own carbon footprints, but I can educate them on the latest information about how dangerous climate change will be if we do not each take steps to ease our fossil fuel dependency.

Ian Monroe, the CEO of, invented a climate impact tracker that compares your carbon footprint with that of your friends, which led him to discover the surprising fact that many people who say they care about climate change actually have footprints that are far larger than average.

Globally-minded citizens tend to fly more often and travel farther than other Americans, Monroe explains, and even just a little flying can offset all the other environmental lifestyle changes because of the immense amount of fuel airplanes use. “You have a lot of people who are using reusable bags and water bottles, driving a Prius, maybe eating a bit more of a veggie friendly diet,” Monroe explains, “but then they’re flying to Bali or South Africa or something once a year.”

Ways to track your energy use abound. Eric Holthaus suggests the University of California Berkeley’s carbon footprint calculator, a powerful but simple online tool that determines the user’s carbon demand. will sync your Mint financial statements with the Berkeley calculator to give you a monthly dashboard.

Saul Griffith helped develop WattzOn (now run as a separate initiative), a personal energy management platform which compiles the data of each user’s carbon footprint, and becomes more accurate over time. We also like a free calculator built by a recent Columbia University graduate, And a site called offers tips on effective lifestyle changes. [Saul Griffith’s illuminating summary of the global energy outlook can be found by scrolling down the page for his Long Now talk from 2009.]

While scientists and politicians are more likely to discuss energy supply than demand, our energy supply can’t change fast enough to limit climate change. And to get started on the rapid downward emissions trajectory that we need, we all have a part to play, and individual choice, which can begin when you wake up tomorrow, is the fastest method on Earth.

Bike-lovers united

Jumble visitors lock up on a nearby street in Red Hook

Jumble visitors lock up on a nearby street in Red Hook
Photo by Erin Wong

Have wheels, will travel—carbon-free! This past Sunday, New York City’s Bike Jumble was teeming with bicycles and bicyclists alike. Shiny new bikes, second-hand bikes revamped, bike accessories, bike apparel—you name it; vendors sold all things bike-related from U-locks to graphic tees. Proudly dubbed New York City’s only bicycle flea market, the jumble modeled the modern approach to a more sustainable market place: half newly produced items, half sharing economy.

If you’re looking for a ride, prices for both new and used bicycles range from $50 – $1000, with the average rate in the $175-$350 range. For quality bikes, jumble vendors have the best deals in town, without store policies collecting tax and other sale prices. Better yet, you can ride it up and down the waterfront to be sure you’ll love it before buying. If you’ve already got a bike but you’re looking for a fix, nearly every booth is willing to lend a helping hand. As a third option, you can rent a bike to fit your needs and time constraints. Spinlister is a type of Craigslist for bike rentals, accessed through a smart-phone app. Most price listings hover at $18/day, or less for longer periods of time. If you’re in the city for a while, you can also buy a used bike and then sell it back to a vendor before you leave. Shane DaBikeJack will buy the bikes he sells at the end of an agreed rental period and you will get 40-percent of your original purchasing price back.

Most booths offered an array of new gear such as bike lights, helmets, reflective jerseys, and new tracks for your wheels. There were some vendors who offered replacement parts, bike accessories, or even bicycle artwork, including bike prints and paintings, graphic t-shirts, postcards, jewelry, and more. Promotion booths for organized rides and activism included Time’s Up!, an environmental nonprofit of bikers, the New York Bicycle Messenger Foundation, and WE Bike (Women’s Empowerment through Bicycles).

The sales were foremost utilitarian, without many flashy lights or decorations, but the jumble itself was not without style. The crowd is a unique mix of recreational riders, competitive racers, and lifelong bike commuters, mixed together to create a welcoming community that is always happy to have new members and share the love of riding. There are vendors from all over the East Coast, who can’t help but draw in bystanders or shy visitors into the vibrant sales and conversations. You don’t need to be a strong biker or even someone who knows a lot about bikes; many visitors simply ride on over and relax on the grass in good company.

Sustainability is one goal, but happiness is another. Bicycling fulfills inventor Saul Griffith’s criteria of improving our lives with less carbon – the simultaneous reduction of personal carbon emissions and enhancement of your quality of life.

Don’t fret if you missed this weekend’s event: the next revival of the New York Bike Jumble is coming up this fall in Park Slope at 5th Ave and 4th Street. Exact time and date to be announced; check out the official New York Bike Jumble and stay tuned for more bike-lover gatherings. If you can’t wait ’til then, several bike vendors are also available at the Brooklyn flea market every weekend. In NYC, there is always a place for bikers to convene.

Seeking individual responsibility, Part I: Prioritize

Photo by Jenny Jimenez (See more photography at

Taken by Jenny Jimenez (See more photography at

This week President Obama revealed a new plan to address climate change by regulating emissions from power plants, including those powered by coal, reducing CO2 from the plants by 30% from 2005 levels. Great strides towards a more stable climate come from cutting the major sources of fossil fuel emissions through policy change and technological developments. To see such powerful action is to gain hope.

But when one takes time to study the issue, it becomes apparent that these latest political efforts will likely not be enough to curb U.S. emissions at a rate that can meet the global target for a safe climate. Even a carbon tax may no longer be fast enough, or fair enough, at levels that would be politically viable.

Global warming is an issue that calls for systematic overhaul of infrastructure and individual action. In this case, individual action is the conscious effort to change one’s behavior and lifestyle to reduce one’s carbon footprint. We are responsible for our consumption, for everything that we own, purchase, and use. Every time we take a flight, or drive a car, or buy a new gadget, we are pushing the climate system, because our energy supply to travel or to manufacture things is still mostly based on fossil fuels.

To think of personal reduction of demand as essential, rather than optional, creates an entirely different mindset.

Therefore, to take action on climate change also means to restrain our own demand for energy, even while building clean energy sources as quickly as possible. The call for personal responsibility has been used before, but as the outlines of the challenge become more clear, some researchers see a new understanding of energy and behavior as key parts of an overall solution.

To that end, the United Kingdom’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) created online simulators that model the UK’s fossil fuel reduction goals. The simplified ‘my 2050’ “pathways calculator” breaks down the possible action scenarios the government can take. The calculator gives online users the opportunity to try to balance the supply and demand energy equation while reaching an 80 percent reduction of fossil fuel use by 2050, a target, which on a global scale, gives the world a chance to peak at or below +2°C warming. (We’re at about +1°C now, and 2°C is recognized as the highest safe level by the IPCC, the world scientific body that reports on climate.)

On the supply side, along with the options of wind, solar, and hydropower, the ‘my 2050’ simulator includes nuclear power, carbon storage, biomass, geothermal, and imported electricity. The demand side includes areas in which to focus possible reform: home insulation (and lower heating), electricity, cooking, transportation (mass transit, electric cars), etc. The user determines the levels of each energy source, and also controls the levels of demand, including which categories to reduce entirely, partially, or not at all.

As you adjust the supply levels, you will realize that no matter how much you reduce your supply of fossil fuels in favor of renewable sources of of energy, it is impossible to reach an 80-percent reduction in fossil fuel use and still meet our current energy demands. Changing how or from where we get our energy is not enough to balance the equation. New infrastructure and technological solutions must be accompanied by behavioral change to reach the 80-percent target in emission cuts.

In other words, the British government is relying on the effect of sweeping behavior change among British citizens in order to meet its own emissions targets. (How to facilitate that social change is the subject of a recent report from the Royal Society of the Arts.)

Screengrab from When you play, notice that the TV changes in size as you move the 'Home Efficiency' slider.

Screengrab from When you play, note the TV changes as you move the ‘Home Efficiency’ slider.

Though the simulator is a UK-based model, its lessons apply to the rest of the world, particularly to the United States. The United States has far more land area than the UK, and thus more opportunity to develop renewable energy. However, like our counterparts in the UK, American citizens must also make behavioral changes if we are to reduce our fossil fuel use enough to remain within 450 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere by the end of this century, which has been the target of world negotiations. (450 ppm is expected to be equivalent to a 2°C maximum increase in temperature.)

David MacKay, University of Cambridge physicist and Chief Scientific Advisor of the DECC breaks down the numbers a bit in a piece for The New York Times which considers the average European daily energy use of 120 kwh. To sustain such an appetite entirely on renewable energy would require setting aside 300 square meters of desert for remote solar energy production–or 1980 square meters of land for wind energy–for each person.

MacKay points out that to generate a modern European lifestyle for everyone on Earth, and to do it from renewable resources, would bury much of the planet’s remaining natural land in energy facilities. (More detail on MacKay’s research is in his online book on energy.)

That’s what happens if we don’t scale down demand. Alternatively, a nation’s population can import energy from foreign countries, or—get this—reduce their personal consumption. He has no doubt that with “lifestyle changes and determined switches to more efficient technologies for transport and heating,” it would be possible to keep a comfortable life and cut in half a person’s energy consumption. And this is much easier than building power stations and coping with an increasingly chaotic climate system.

It’s obvious that our own action—and the collective action of everyone—is not only desired, but necessary to curb the effects of climate change. To think of personal reduction of demand as essential, rather than optional, creates a mindset which is entirely different than that shared by most in our world today.

Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, a research consortium of British universities, makes the case that a reduction in personal footprints is also the crucial first step in combating climate change. In a presentation for the Tyndall Centre, Anderson graphed the projected increase in carbon emissions due to economic growth, showing that by 2050, we will have secured our path to a 4-6 degrees Celsius rise in global temperature, a rise widely accepted as a catastrophic increase for the U.S. and the world. There is, however, an alternative future. If we constrain our emissions, and began to turn the clock backward around 2025, a rapid downward trajectory towards 2050 will allow us to remain within the 2-3 degree Celsius range.

You can check Anderson’s predictions on an MIT simulator that allows you to set a rate at which to decarbonize our global economy in order to prevent catastrophic climate change later in the century. To play the MIT simulator, choose ‘Experiment 2’ and select ’20 year delay.’ Remember that you cannot fairly begin to decarbonize before 2014, as we can only start in the present–or near future.

Anderson’s goal of peaking emissions at 2025, however, is too soon for the development of enough renewable energy capacity to make an impact. For that, we need to change our behavior while the technology catches up.

The upward tra­jec­tory ris­ing towards 70 GT of CO2 is the path our soci­ety is cur­rently on. The down­ward slop­ing curve is an alter­na­tive future in which we dra­mat­i­cally curb our car­bon emis­sions. With this graph, Kevin Ander­son illus­trates that change must first come from a reduc­tion in demand, while we wait for polit­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments to take effect. Graphic by Max Reice, based on the Tyn­dall Cen­tre pre­sen­ta­tion by Kevin Anderson.

The upward tra­jec­tory ris­ing towards 70 GT of CO2 is the path our soci­ety is cur­rently on. The down­ward slop­ing curve is an alter­na­tive future in which we dra­mat­i­cally curb our car­bon emis­sions. With this graph, Kevin Ander­son illus­trates that change must first come from a reduc­tion in demand, while we wait for polit­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments to take effect. Graphic by Max Reice, based on the Tyn­dall Cen­tre pre­sen­ta­tion by Kevin Anderson.

“What we know,” Anderson explained in an interview with Transition Culture, “is that in the short term, because we need to start this now, we cannot deliver reduction by switching to a low carbon energy supply, we simply cannot get the supply in place quickly enough. Therefore, in the short to medium term the only major change that we can make is in consuming less.”

Anderson’s stark numbers expose the most challenging aspect of climate policy – is economic growth possible while rapidly decarbonizing our societies? Anderson believes that we cannot have continued economic growth if we are to avoid a 4-6 degrees temperature rise, which is a deal-breaker for politicians, business leaders and most economists.

Anderson and MacKay’s perspectives align in the belief that the reduction of one’s own personal demand for fossil fuels is not only necessary, but must also come first, before the big strides, such as energy storage, widespread renewable generation, and political change are fully realized. Whether that curtails growth – which is, in part, a question of how growth is measured – is something we will look at in future City Atlas posts.

If we choose a diet with less beef, fly less, drive less, insulate our buildings to reduce our electricity needs for heating and cooling, and more, our collective effort can reduce demand for energy. Furthermore, the change in demand will shift the market towards less high-carbon practices, incentivize elected officials to push for greater political initiative, spur investment in R&D, and snowball momentum for a majority of the population to recognize and take action against climate change. Anderson explains this as the ‘bottom-up approach.’

According to MacKay and Anderson, we need to address our own demand for energy before we can rely on a fix from the political system or new technology. Our culture will not make these profound and necessary changes without some of us leading the way, establishing new norms, and changing first.


Addenda: a forthcoming article in Harpers includes the assertion from John Podesta, White House aide, that the recent EPA ruling on power plants does not represent a strong enough measure to achieve the 2°C target. ““Maybe it gets you on a trajectory to three degrees,” [Podesta said] “but it doesn’t get you to two degrees.”

Economic columnist Eduardo Porter on the EPA initiative in the New York Times.

A review of climate trends and impacts for the United States is available in the National Climate Assessment.


This summer: free outdoor movies in NYC

In Bryant Park

Surrounded by the bright lights of New York City, it can be hard to see stars in the night sky. So, on these warm summer nights, why not step outside and check out the stars on the silver screen instead?

This summer, the City of New York will again be hosting a series of outdoor movie screenings, to be held at various venues, ranging from Bryant Park to The Intrepid’s flight deck to the self-sustaining, solar-powered SolarOne center. Film choices include classics such as Top Gun, West Side Story, and The Breakfast Club, as well as new favorites, among them, American Hustle and The Hunger Games. Shows are frequent, family-friendly, and one-hundred percent free to the public. Check out this summer’s schedule on Thrillist and find the perfect occasion for a reunion of friends, romantic date, or family night out.

Don’t let light pollution keep you from seeing the stars this summer! In between vacations, celebrations, and catching up with old friends, take the opportunity to appreciate nature, twilight cinema, and the free things in life all at once, with New York’s summer movie screenings—on the house.

A scene from American Hustle. Courtesy: The Guardian.

A scene from American Hustle. Courtesy: The Guardian.