Former Vice President Al Gore's recent visit to Buffalo underlined the growing threat from global warming pollution. As a result of our use of fossil fuels and the carbon dioxide they emit when burned, the Earth is warming.
A succession of scientific reports is delivering increasingly bad news, and it is getting harder and harder to deny the magnitude and urgency of this life-threatening problem.
For example, in early May a report from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies predicted that in 80 years U.S. East Coast cities will have average summer temperatures 10 degrees warmer than they are now and that Chicago's average July and August temperature would be between 100 and 110 degrees. Buffalo's glorious summer weather will vanish in unbearable heat waves.
The NASA report was quickly followed by a new study from the British charity Christian Aid, which said at least 1 billion people will be forced from their homes between now and 2050 as the effects of climate change make survival difficult and deepen an already burgeoning global migration crisis. Last year, this organization predicted that more than 180 million people would die in Africa alone by the end of the century because of the consequences of climate change.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest projection is that global average temperature will increase between 3 and 8 degrees by 2100 unless we transition away from fossil fuels.
Expert climatologist James Hansen has pointed out that a five-degree temperature rise would make the Earth warmer than it has been in more than a million years. Then, sea levels were 75 feet higher than they are now. Hansen says that if the Earth experiences more than a single additional degree of warming, it may be impossible to avoid the worst consequences of climate change and our legacy to future generations may be an unrecognizable planet.
While all of this bad news can be hard to take, the good news is that we know what to do to slow down global warming. All of us can take immediate action to reduce our fossil fuel use by 50 percent or more, and switch over to renewable energy by installing solar panels or at least buying wind energy through our electrical utilities' green power programs.
But to address this problem in a meaningful way, local businesses, schools, institutions and governments on all levels need to develop and implement policies and programs to significantly reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
h Greening Local Business1
Addressing the growing threat of climate change and renewing local economies are not mutually exclusive propositions -- a point made by national environmental leader Denis Hayes when he spoke in Buffalo in April. The experience of Seattle, Portland, and Chicago demonstrate that we can "green" our environment and economies at the same time.
New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, with support from the Natural Resourcse Defense Council and many other groups, has launched an aggressive campaign to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent from current levels by 2030, with both economic and environmental benefits.
Consider the challenge of making our region's buildings and transportation systems much more energy efficient and therefore less reliant on fossil fuels. These conservation efforts would produce many jobs and could pay for themselves through energy dollar savings. Moreover, projects of this type keep dollars in the local economy, creating a ripple effect.
Green technologies like the graceful giant wind turbines of BQ Energy's Steelwinds project in Lackawanna not only provide energy without greenhouse gas emissions, but speak to the future and inspire us to do more.
Setting a leadership example here and internationally is HSBC Bank, which embarked on a program a few years ago to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero, achieving that goal in 2005. HSBC is one of the largest purchasers of renewable energy in the United States. In late May, the bank announced that it was donating $100 million to climate change research.
Green businesses are sprouting up everywhere -- with national and international firms out front getting much of the spotlight. Home Depot just gave away a million compact fluorescent light bulbs for Earth Day. DuPont has been a leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Wal-Mart has also announced a program to boost energy efficiency, cut waste and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Locally, Warren Emblidge, president of McCullagh Coffee, has expressed an interest in going green and reducing the climate change impact of his company. McCullagh, a member of the Rainforest Alliance, is establishing a network of local companies committed to action that results in meeting established sustainability criteria. According to Emblidge, "all are welcome to join."
>Local government must step up
During his presentation at the University at Buffalo in April, Gore celebrated the fact that Buffalo is a signatory to the U.S. Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement. That commits the city to implementing the Kyoto Protocol by reducing greenhouse gas emissions (primarily carbon dioxide) by 7 percent by 2012, compared to 1990 levels. More than 500 U.S. cities now have signed this agreement, and thus are not waiting for the Bush administration and Congress to commit to Kyoto and get serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Buffalo's participation in the mayors' agreement may be a surprise to many, including Mayor Byron W. Brown. The commitment was made by Buffalo's former mayor, Tony Masiello. Brown has been silent on the issue of climate change -- though perhaps with some friendly encouragement from his constituents that could change. It is essential that the current mayor prioritize climate change and begin working with community and business leaders to develop a strong greenhouse gas reduction program for Buffalo.
Other local municipalities, including such affluent towns as Amherst, should sign this agreement too, and become part of the solution and not the problem.
At the urging of the local environmental groups, Buffalo Common Council President David A. Franczyk and Delaware District Council Member Michael LoCurto sponsored a climate protection resolution that was adopted by the full Council on May l. The resolution outlines a comprehensive program of energy efficiency, renewable energy, and greenhouse gas emissions reduction measures, such as:
*An outreach and incentive program to attract renewable energy businesses.
*More rigorous energy codes.
*Energy efficient affordable housing.
*Green building design standards.
*Improvements to and expansion of public transit.
*Build-out of regional wind energy.
*Solar energy systems on all public buildings.
A similar resolution is being considered by the Erie County Legislature. These action plans need to be enthusiastically endorsed and vigorously acted on.
>UB to go climate neutral
UB President John Simpson recently took a major step and signed the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, pledging UB to achieve climate neutrality at the earliest possible date. Nationally, a growing number of other schools are following UB's lead -- though none so far in Western New York.
There is a critical need for other local and regional colleges to sign this important agreement. Colleges and universities need to lead and set an example. They need to be out front in serving the public.
The climate neutrality pledge, sponsored by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, is a concrete way institutions of higher education can address the most critical environmental problem that we, as a species, have ever faced.
Climate neutrality can be defined as "having no net greenhouse gas emissions." What that means in practical terms is maximizing energy efficiency and renewable energy (solar, wind, and biomass) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible, and then using carbon offsets or other measures to mitigate the remaining emissions.
Offsets would produce emissions reductions off-campus to cancel out emissions from the continued use of some fossil fuel on campus -- for example, natural gas for heating.
Offsets can be a burden or a blessing. Instead of buying these offsets on the national market, UB and other local colleges committed to climate neutrality could work together, investing their intellectual and material resources in projects which would save energy, bolster renewables and cut greenhouse gas emissions right here in Western New York as a public service.
Climate protection strategies first and foremost should concentrate on the demand side -- reducing the energy intensity and the energy wastefulness of our activities. Conservation and efficiency reduce both energy costs and the amount of energy we will need to generate by cleaner, non-carbon based fuels and technologies.
While it is unrealistic to suppose we will do away with fossil fuels soon, not all fossil fuels are equal. Per unit of energy produced, burning coal releases much more carbon dioxide than burning oil or natural gas. That means there is great urgency to either quit using coal altogether or find ways to burn and use it cleanly, capturing and permanently sequestering its carbon emissions.
When you turn on a light bulb here in Western New York, the odds are that the electrons lighting the bulb came from a coal burning power plant. We have four coal burners on our end of the state: two plants operated by NRG Energy (in Tonawanda and Dunkirk), one in Somerset on Lake Ontario, and one operated by the Board of Public Utilities in Jamestown. Reducing or eliminating the greenhouse gas emissions from these plants is central to an effective regional greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategy.
>Jamestown's proposed power plant
The City of Jamestown, an hour and 15 minutes' drive south of Buffalo, wants to replace its aging dirty coal plant with a new $145 million coal plant. Closing down the old coal-burner is definitely a good idea, but that's not a good argument for building a new one.
While the new plant would emit significantly less acid rain-producing emissions, its design would hardly affect carbon emissions. In fact, the volume of greenhouse gas emissions from the proposed new plant would probably be more than from the old plant because Jamestown intends to run it more than they do their existing plant, selling more coal-generated electricity to a larger customer base and the statewide electricity grid.
In addition to a concerned citizen group in Jamestown, the Sierra Club, National Resource Defence Council, Great Lakes United, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, New York Public interest Research Group, Environmental Advocates of New York, the American Lung Association, and the WNY Climate Action Coalition all are opposed to Jamestown's new coal plant. Stopping it is one of the most important things we can do regionally to address the threat of climate change.
The proposed Jamestown plant would use dated fluidized bed combustion technology without carbon sequestration. Even though the plant would be relatively small at 43 megawatts, it would annually emit 340,000 tons of carbon dioxide (emissions equal to those of over 50,000 cars and trucks) when operating at 75 percent capacity.
Not only is this environmentally unacceptable but the expensive plant also would pose a significant economic and financial risk which Jamestown city leaders and their municipal utility have chosen to ignore. In coming years, power plant operators will have to purchase carbon allowances under Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). But RGGI is just the start. Inevitably, as the magnitude of the climate crisis sinks in, the cost of operating coal-burning power plants will increase as well.
Luckily, Jamestown has cheaper, cleaner options. Eighty percent of Jamestown's electricity is now low-cost hydropower purchased from the New York Power Authority. Jamestown's modest remaining electric needs easily could be met by a combination of energy conservation and efficiency and wind energy or biomass generation -- supplemented, if necessary, by very modest occasional buying off the grid.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued Jamestown a preliminary air pollution permit for the proposed plant. This was not surprising, given the Bush administration's denial of the climate change threat. The next hurdle for Jamestown power plant proponents is to secure a permit from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
>Spitzer's climate leadership
As Attorney General, Eliot L. Spitzer distinguished himself as an environmental champion, suing polluting coal burning power plants both outside and inside New York State. Spitzer also joined other attorneys general in the recent successful Supreme Court case against the EPA. This case established that, under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has legal right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
Gov. Spitzer appears poised to continue his environmental leadership, having established a new climate protection office within the DEC. Also, the governor's recent energy policy speech called for a 15 percent reduction in state energy use by 2015. But what about state policy on building new conventional coal plants like the one proposed for Jamestown?
In a demonstration of united concern about the dangers of continued coal-burning, 14 of New York's leading environmental groups have sent a letter to Spitzer calling for a moratorium on new conventional coal plants. Spitzer's climate protection program will suffer a crushing loss of credibility if the DEC approves the construction of Jamestown's unnecessary coal-burner or any other new conventional coal plants in New York.
If new coal gasification plants -- like NRG's proposed large IGCC plant for Tonawanda -- go forward, it is essential that carbon sequestration be incorporated into their design and guaranteed by a date certain.
So welcome to the future. It's going to get a lot hotter unless we stop burning and releasing so much carbon into the atmosphere.
To stabilize climate, scientists are telling us that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent. That's a huge challenge, one we will never meet if we delude ourselves into thinking "more of the same" or "business as usual" will work.
Climate leaders like Gore, Hayes and Hansen have done us a favor by sounding the alarm and issuing an unambiguous call for action. Now it's our job to come to the rescue of our only planet -- you know, the one we are leaving our children and grandchildren.
Walter Simpson is a local energy professional who is active with the WNY Climate Action Coalition and WNY Sustainable Energy Association. Ashok Gupta is air and energy program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading national environmental organization.
Some likely local climate change impacts
*As much as 7 to 12 degrees higher average temperatures during all seasons
*Summer heat waves with many days above 100 degrees
*More extreme weather and precipitation events, e.g. sudden downpours, lake effect snow
*Generally wetter winters and drier summers
*Snow that falls will melt more quickly, reducing opportunities for winter sports
*Longer growing season but increased chance of drought and less soil moisture
*Warmer Lake Erie water temperatures - affecting lake ecology
*Lower Lake Erie water levels, adversely impacting shipping, shorelines, wildlife
*Reduced Niagara River water flow will reduce hydropower from the Niagara Power Project
*More pressure to export Great Lakes water to increasingly water-starved areas in the Southwest
*Reduced urban air quality
The probability and intensity of these outcomes depends on what energy path we follow. Reference: Union of Concerned Scientists