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Posts Tagged ‘climate solutions’

Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.”    —Albert Einstein

When I left for the Futaleufu, I thought of it as a once-in-a-lifetime sort of trip.  Now, fully in thrall of the most enchanting landscape and culture I’ve ever visited, I ache to return.  I want to run the bigger water I haven’t made it to yet.  I want to learn some more Spanish and feel less like an alien.  I want to bring my family.

If my only barriers were time and money, I’d feel pretty confident that the chance will come around again, that my trip-of-a-lifetime could evolve into a repeat pilgrimage.  Sadly, however, time may be running out for the Futaleufu Valley as the government of Chile edges toward a course of massive multi-river hydropower development that would profoundly alter all of Patagonia.  The Futaleufu itself has two proposed dam sites that would not only submerge the river’s whitewater but also destroy the local economic base of ranching and tourism.

It’s a depressingly familiar story—the local people stand to lose their lands, their livelihoods, their way of life, and their connection to their heritage, all in the name of economic development for people living elsewhere.  The whole HidroAysen project would both drown the major rivers draining Patagonian Chile and create in the world’s largest clearcut in the form of a 1200 mile long high-voltage transmission corridor.  The audacity of such a scheme in a region as remote and beautiful and culturally unique as Patagonia is nothing short of breathtaking.  I’d compare it to the kind of thinking in this country that led to proposals for dams and reservoirs in the Grand Canyon only forty years ago, culminating in an environmental battle that seems patently preposterous today.  Chileans, I am told, love Patagonia with the same sort of national pride that we have for our own signature National Parks; will the HidroAysen proposal be the undoing of unspoiled Patagonia or a catalyst for its sustainable future?

Even as opposition grows throughout the region, however, the latest headlines detail new proposals by the Chilean government to throw around enough money to try to hush the locals.  “Here, tell us what you think of this idea—we’ll take away your honest livelihood, destroy your way of life, and rape the landscape you call home, but you get to live on energy-project-supported welfare from this day forward.”

Now, I understand Chile has its own energy crisis to deal with and is in desperate need for solutions.  And I appreciate that hydropower is a renewable and “clean” energy source.  But before you try to sell me on the need for and the righteousness of damming the Futaleufu, can we try some simple alternatives?  Madam President Bachelet, for the cost of one dam, how many inefficient light bulbs in Santiago could be replaced with CFL or LED technology?  How many roofs could be fitted with solar panels?  How many homes could be insulated?  What about large-scale solar-thermal generation in the Atacama Desert or geothermal development anywhere in your narrow country (which sits smack-dab on top of the infamous Ring of Fire)?

Forty years from now, I think future generations of Chileans will look back and find it preposterous that we could even contemplate damming the Futaleufu.  I just hope they don’t look back in sorrow for our lack of vision.  That said, I’ve got one or two quick emails to send.

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One of the RSS feeds I follow comes from the website SustainableBusiness.com, their news feed being the best layman’s source I’ve found for following developments in environmental technology and green business. In a time when news from the climate science community seems to get progressively gloomier, it’s reassuring to get news that some of our best minds are thinking about viable solutions.  And occasionally, we get word of a potential breakthrough like the potential of “biochar” as both fuel source and carbon sink—this news courtesy of the good folks at my beloved University of Georgia.  Money quote in the article, from UGA’s Christoph Steiner: “The potential of biochar lies in its ability to sequester—capture and store—huge amounts of carbon while also displacing fossil fuel energy, effectively doubling its carbon impact.

Now I’m nowhere near qualified to scrutinize his research or portend the implications, but the premise is simple enough.

The appeal of bioenergy is that it is theoretically carbon neutral—burning biofuel simply returns to the atmosphere much of the same carbon dioxide that growth of the plant stock had pulled out (as opposed to liberating carbon from fossil fuels pulled from deep within the earth).   The problems have been (as I understand them) that 1) some types of biofuel (read ethanol) actually generate a sizeable carbon footprint because processing is energy intensive, 2) competition for plant stock (corn) between food and energy production has resulted in serious global food shortages, and 3) repeated production and removal of biomass from agricultural land causes soil depletion (you just can’t escape the basic ecology of nutrient cycles) that itself requires energy and carbon intensive measures to rectify (I didn’t realize until recently that much industrial fertilizer essentially comes from processed natural gas).

Evidently the biochar process 1) not only produces renewable, non-fossil fuel bioenergy but can potentially sequester billions of tons of carbon for hundreds if not thousands of years, 2) does not compete with food production, and 3) actually recycles nutrients back to the soil.  Perfect.  I don’t know that this or any other scientific breakthrough will be the single silver bullet to get us out of the mess we’re in, but I sleep better knowing that we have an ever-growing field of partial solutions at hand.  We just need to muster the political will to reach for them (maybe a good cap-and-trade regulatory system might lead Georgia Power to tear down the dirty coal plant across the river from my neighborhood and replace it with a sustainable power plant that runs off of peanut shells or chicken poop).

We’ll see.  At least come January 20 we won’t have myopic paranoids like this guy essentially setting our nation’s energy (non)policy any more.

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Read this today in the Washington Post.  After seeing the huge lodgepole die-offs in Colorado, I’ve found it to be the most uplifting thing I’ve read in a long time.  I just don’t have a lot of patience for the crowd ready to scream “the economic sky is falling” when measures to combat climate change are discussed.  Tree huggers are not out to eviscerate the economy.  We may save it.

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