Geoengineering: A congressman’s thumbs up

Before we get to today’s topic–engineering the climate– let me call your attention to a couple of news items that got my attention last week.

First, a Chinese company called the Shanghai Electric Group signed a $10-billion deal to sell 42 coal-fired thermal-generation units to an Indian conglomerate called the Reliance ADA Group, the Wall Street Journal reported. Forty-two! I hate to say it, but all the efforts by enviromentalists to stop new coal plants in the U.S. won’t do much to curb global warming if India and China expand their coal-powered generation.

Second, The Nature Conservancy released a video and poster about the upcoming UN climate negotiations in Cancun saying “This is not a vacation!” and inviting people to submit videos calling for action on climate. Yes, it has come to this: So futile are the UN’s efforts to bring about a global climate treaty that environmentalists have to reassure people that there’s more to COP16  than sand and surf.

No wonder a thoughtful Tennessee congressman named Bart Gordon said this in a report published last week:

It is the opinion of the Chair that broad consideration of comprehensive and multi-disciplinary climate engineering research at the federal level begin as soon as possible in order to ensure scientific preparedness for future climate events.

Gordon, a Democrat, and his staff on the House Committee on Science and Technology, have been studying geoengineering. They held three public hearings, pored over research and worked with legislators in the UK to better understand climate engineering—which they define as

the deliberate large-scale modification of the earth’s climate systems for the purpose of counteracting and mitigating anthropogenic climate change.

Gordon’s 56-page report about climate engineering comes in the wake of a similar study from the General Accounting Office. Both favor a coordinated government research program, albeit with plenty of cautions.

In his report, Gordon notes that reducing greenhouse gas emissions must remain the top priority of dealing with global warming. This is smart because climate engineering won’t resolve the global warming threat; it will only buy more time to deal with it. Gordon goes on to say:

However, we are facing an unfortunate reality. The global climate is already changing and the onset of climate change impacts may outpace the world’s political, technical, and economic capacities to prevent and adapt to them. Therefore, policymakers should begin consideration of climate engineering research now to better understand which technologies or methods, if any, represent viable stopgap strategies for managing our changing climate and which pose unacceptable risks.

Translation: Environmentalists and forward-thinking politicians have been trying for years to come up with a way to curb GHG emissions. They have little to show for it. So it’s time to consider alternatives.

I’ve written about climate engineering more than most environment reporters  — see this, this and this – not only because it fascinates me, but also because I’m convinced we need to learn more about it. Plus, the debate is heating up. Last week, as the GAO and Congressman Gordon spoke out, ministers at a UN meeting on biological diversity in Japan called for a moratorium on geoengineering. [click to continue…]

What’s your “water footprint”?

What’s the best way to save water?

Hint: It’s not by taking a quick shower. Or using a dual-flush toilet. Or planting native grasses rather than a thirsty lawn.

Those are all good practices, but you’ll make more of a difference if you skip your next cheeseburger. Or — surprisingly — order a Coke instead of a glass of orange juice.

A smaller footprint

This, at least, is one conclusion to be drawn from a report issued today by The Coca-Cola Co. and the Nature Conservancy, with the decidedly unsexy name of Product Water Footprint Assessments: Practical Application in Corporate Water Stewardship [PDF, download].  The name may be uninspired but the 48-page report makes for interesting reading and not only if your business, like Coca-Cola’s, depends on access to clean water.

“We don’t have a business without water,” says Denise Knight, who is the water and sustainable agriculture director for Coca-Cola. As the world’s largest beverage company (2009 revenues: $31 billion), Coca-Cola has focused on water as an environmental issue for nearly a decade. Knight, who joined in 2005 to spearhead the company’s water and ag work, spoke to me by phone from Stockholm, where it’s World Water Week, an occasion for thousands to gather to discuss global water issues.

Coca-Cola has recognized for years that water is a risk factor in its business; the company got a wake-up call after it was accused of hogging too much water in India. About five years ago, it set a number of aggressive water conservation goals, mostly focused on the efficient use and treatment of water when making its products.

It made sense for the company and its bottlers to begin by focusing on their own operations, which they can control.  But a big reason why Coca Cola now sees value in measuring the water footprint of its products (as opposed to the efficiency of its bottling plants) is that product footprints place water in a wider context,  one that encompasses not just the direct use of water in a factory but its indirect use in the company’s supply chain–in the fields, if you will.

Agriculture, in other words, matters a lot  when it comes to using water wisely. One data point: It takes 1,000 times more water to grow food for an individual than to meet that person’s needs for drinking, according to the report.

So what’s a water footprint? The report says:

A product water footprint is the total volume of freshwater consumed, directly and indirectly, to produce a product.

That may sound simple, but it’s not. The Nature Conservancy and Coca-Cola report uses methodology developed by academics and others who are part of the Water Footprint Network, a Dutch nonprofit. It makes distinctions among three kinds of water–green water which is the rainwater stored in soil and used for growing crops, blue water which is the water from rivers, lakes and acquifers used for growing crops or in manufacturing or in the products themselves, and grey water which is the volume of freshwater needed to assimilate pollutants created in agriculture and manufacturing. (And you thought carbon footprints were complicated!) Further complexity arises from the fact that water, unlike carbon, is a local resource, and usage should therefore be considered in the context of the local watershed. [click to continue…]