Earth Day 2014: Where Do We Stand?

(Justmeans/3BL Media) - As I sat at my desk trying to find a suitable subject for the 44th annual Earth Day, I scoured my Twitter feed and my inbox looking for the story that would capture the essence of where we stand right now in our battle to save the planet. While there is plenty of interesting news coming out every day, it is so strongly divided into good news and bad news, that there is no way that one story can possibly sum it all up.

Take the IPCC, for example. Earlier this month, Working Group II, responsible for studying the impacts of climate change issued a frightening report that was hard to view as anything other than a call to action. The impacts are already occurring, chain reactions have been set in motion, and we can expect things to get quite bad, especially if we don’t begin to substantially escalate our efforts to curb emissions. IPCC chairman Rajendra K. Pachauri, said. “nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.” This will be particularly true for those most vulnerable, including low-lying and poorer countries, as well as the poorest residents of all countries. But the same report (which still is yet to be officially published) also said that the economic cost of a 2.5 degrees Celsius rise is going to be somewhere between 0.2 and 2.0% of the global GDP, far less than expected. That might be considered good news, though it might also encourage politicians to defer action on the bad news contained in the report.

Then there is the question of natural gas. There can be no doubt that the large-scale replacement of coal with natural gas for electric generation purposes, accelerated by the drop in natural gas prices, has led to a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions. Coal has been the largest source of carbon pollution, and natural gas emits only half as much carbon. Unfortunately, this boom in natural gas production has come to us via hydraulic fracking, a method that is fraught with problems of its own, ranging from earthquakes, to sizable methane releases (methane is twenty times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas), to contamination of drinking water. These concerns are substantial enough for the National Renewable Energy Lab to declare natural gas less climate-friendly than diesel fuel, though still better than coal. Producers are also pressing to increase natural gas exports, which is not only bad for the environment, but will also raise gas prices here in the US.

Renewables have been an unbridled success story, with installations exceeding forecasts by a sizable margin. Solar prices continue to drop, allowing solar to contribute 29% of all new electric generation capacity. Yet Congress has delayed renewal of the Production Tax Credit for wind power, leading many to believe that the trend could begin to reverse. Congress is expected to take action on this measure soon. Renewal will allow developers to take the credit on any project that begins before the end of 2015.

Every story seems to be one of good news-bad news, which is indicative of a hard-fought battle. Entrenched interests are fighting changes every step of the way.

Which brings us to the first industrial scale plant to manufacture cellulosic ethanol from wheat straw and corn stover. This plant will be followed by others from several producers including: Abengoa, Poet, and DuPont. This will greatly improve the efficiency and environmental benefit of biofuels. But no sooner do we find ourselves on the verge of breaking through to the promised land, when the EPA, giving in to pressure from lobbyists, has begun backing away in their support.

Technology development continues at a breathless pace, bringing new clean energy options to the table every day. That is certainly encouraging, as is the fact that as Mark Tercek of the Nature Conservancy says, more and more people are finally getting it and coming out in support of conservation. More areas are being protected and more communities are beginning to incorporate nature into their planning.

When all is said and done, I’m going to weigh in just over the line on the slightly optimistic side. Polar ice is still melting and the smokestacks are still spewing, but every week that goes by, change is happening that might just be inching us back from the brink. If we continue to take the planet into consideration  in all the choices we make each and every day, and if we act as citizens to press for those policies that will best benefit future generations, we might just pull this thing out yet.

But, then again, we haven’t heard the Keystone XL decision yet.


Happy Earth Day everyone.


[Image credit: Don Kennedy: Flickr Creative Commons]