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Bright Green Gore
Jon Lebkowsky, 20 Sep 06

windmills.jpgGuest post by John Quarterman

How business can continue increasing productivity without taking it out of the workers: Since pollution is, after all, waste, business and industry usually become more productive and efficient when they systematically go about reducing pollution. Check out Al Gore's NYU Law School speech

Gore's speech is full of good ideas like that, going beyond his recent climate crisis movie and book.

He proposes a freeze on CO2 emissions, followed by sharp reductions:

An immediate freeze has the virtue of being clear, simple, and easy to understand. It can attract support across partisan lines as a logical starting point for the more difficult work that lies ahead. I remember a quarter century ago when I was the author of a complex nuclear arms control plan to deal with the then rampant arms race between our country and the former Soviet Union. At the time, I was strongly opposed to the nuclear freeze movement, which I saw as simplistic and naive. But, ¾ of the American people supported it -- and as I look back on those years I see more clearly now that the outpouring of public support for that very simple and clear mandate changed the political landscape and made it possible for more detailed and sophisticated proposals to eventually be adopted.

When the politicians are paralyzed in the face of a great threat, our nation needs a popular movement, a rallying cry, a standard, a mandate that is broadly supported on a bipartisan basis.

A carbon freeze is new to me; has anyone else heard of it? (Yes, outside of Star Wars.)

As a participant in the former nuclear freeze movement, I agree with his analysis. We heard later that even Reagan (via Nancy) was influenced by the freeze movement.

Elsewhere in his speech, Gore also spells out why he's mostly talking specifically about the U.S.

Third, a responsible approach to solutions would avoid the mistake of trying to find a single magic "silver bullet" and recognize that the answer will involve what Bill McKibben has called "silver-buckshot" -- numerous important solutions, all of which are hard, but no one of which is by itself the full answer for our problem.

One of the most productive approaches to the "multiple solutions" needed is a road-map designed by two Princeton professors, Rob Socolow and Steven Pacala, which breaks down the overall problem into more manageable parts. Socolow and Pacala have identified 15 or 20 building blocks (or "wedges") that can be used to solve our problem effectively -- even if we only use 7 or 8 of them. I am among the many who have found this approach useful as a way to structure a discussion of the choices before us.

Vision and practicality together: that could accomplish something.

I don't agree with everything Gore said. I think he's mistaken to support no-till agriculture as an environmental solution. No-till is a creature of the petrochemical industry; it substitures pesticides and herbicides for plowing and cultivating. Its proponents claim no-till helps prevent erosion and soil loss, but as the owner of some land that the renters have no-tilled, my experience is that other solutions, such as terraces, are simpler, more effective, and less hazardous to people, animals, and plants. This may seem arcane, but much of the cotton you're wearing was grown using no-till, and cotton accounts for more than a quarter of all petrochemicals used in the U.S.

Still, it's refreshing to read a speech by a politician and find myself in agreement with 99% of it. Yet he doesn't claim to know all the answers:

My purpose is not to present a comprehensive and detailed blueprint -- for that is a task for our democracy as a whole -- but rather to try to shine some light on a pathway through this terra incognita that lies between where we are and where we need to go. Because, if we acknowledge candidly that what we need to do is beyond the limits of our current political capacities, that really is just another way of saying that we have to urgently expand the limits of what is politically possible.

He's actively soliciting participation:

Over the next year, I intend to convene an ongoing broad-based discussion of solutions that will involve leaders from government, science, business, labor, agriculture, grass-roots activists, faith communities and others.

I hope Worldchanging will be in the thick of that.

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So we tax pollution out of existence. Then we have no tax revenue. According to some folks I've talked to in the EHS community, this has already happened in some, local situations. I support a zero emissions approach to production but I'm not sure that a pollution tax actually makes it happen. More details please.

Ross Gelbspan still supports a tax on international financial transactions to deal with the world-wide costs of climate change. This was an alternative that had much discussion a decade or so ago but seems to have vanished down the memory hole.

I wish Gore had spoken more specifically about the particular "wedges" as proposed by Prof Socolow of Princeton. I also wish Gore was training 1000 people to give a presentation on solutions as well as the 1000 he's training to give his "Inconvenient Truth" presentation.

But that's just me.

Posted by: gmoke on 20 Sep 06

"So we tax pollution out of existence. Then we have no tax revenue."

Well, that'd be a better problem to have than what we are facing now!

But seriously, here's a simple solution: as the absolute amount of pollution decreases, you can just increase the price of a unit of pollution to keep revenues up and make sure that it stays worth people's while to keep cutting pollution.

Posted by: Michael G. Richard on 20 Sep 06

Also, as pollution decreases, so do a lot of the things tax revenue is used for. A safer world needs less military (itself a huge polluter), cleaner air means less health care costs, less CO2 means fewer subsidies to fossil fuel co's...

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 20 Sep 06

Carbon freeze is one way of putting the Pacala/Socolow proposal (which Gore quotes) to "stabilize" carbon emissions. But it turns it into a regulatory enforcement issue, rather than a matter for government investment in technology areas in particular.

The Kyoto accord was essentially a "freeze", though with a much more (too) complicated formula.

Unfortunately, while a "freeze" helps the US at our extremely high current carbon emissions levels, it hurts those who aren't as wealthy or polluting, if you "freeze" everybody. Which was an equity problem Kyoto tried to address. Obviously it didn't go over well...

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 20 Sep 06

...hence the 'silver buckshot', which can be applied to geographical regions as well as to systems. Thus, while America might 'freeze', India might 'go slow' and China might 'sidestep'.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 20 Sep 06

I don't agree with everything Lebkowsky said. He said, "No-till is a creature of the petrochemical industry . . ." and ". . . but much of the cotton you're wearing was grown using no-till. . ."

No-till was practiced even before there was a petrochemical industry. Many in the petro side of the petrochemical industry don't support no-till as it cuts fuel consumption more than 50%. Likewise, many manufacturers don't fully support no-till as sales of tractors and tillage equipment (steel) goes down. There are environmental benefits when less fuel is consumed and there is less manufacturing as well as less tillage.

Surveys show that more than 90% of the cropland receives ag chemicals (some surveys as high as 98%), yet only 22.6% of the US cropland is no-till (CTIC, 2004). No-till is not driving ag chemical use, increased productivity and crop protection is.

Also, only 17.7% of the cotton acres in the US are no-till (CTIC, 2004). If truely "much of the cotton you're wearing was grown using no-till", it shows why producers are no-tilling, it's because it's more productive and more profitable.

"No-till is a creature of" necessity for survival. Producers save fuel, labor, and machinery investments, while increasing productivity, profitability, timeliness, and efficiency, all while reducing erosion, runoff, dust, pollution, and other environmental risks.

Crop rotations, diversity, wise ag chemical use, and other tools of integrated pest management usually allow no-till producers to reduce ag chemical use compared to their tilled neighbors. Yes, there are even certified organic producers using no-till production practices.

Saying that only terraces and tillage should be used is similar to saying that we should still be traveling by horseback and farming with horses. Yes, they work, but no-till works better and producers are adopting no-till and other new technologies to make farming more productive and profitable while reducing environmental risks.

Posted by: Paul Jasa on 21 Sep 06

Terraces, as practiced on broadacre crop production, are almost entirely useless for controlling erosion -- a fact that is now admitted by many NRCS personnel. The only known method of reducing water erosion from slopes is to increase infiltration of precipitation into the soil, and this only occurs with a mulch on the soil surface and an abundance of channels for fluids and vapors to move within the soil. These channels occur naturally, via biology primarily, and are often called soil aggregation or crumb structure. Aggregation cannot be maintained if the soil is exposed to raindrop impact, excessive oxygen from tillage (soil disturbance), or if the soil biology is deprived of plant roots and dissolved organic materials from surface mulch.

Further, when contemplating erosion by wind, it should be obvious that terraces don't do anything at all. Solutions such as hedgerows create other problems, such as sapping moisture from the crop, and reducing airflow and increasing foliar diseases in the crop. They are also expensive to install and maintain.

For erosion control, the emphasis, then, is on 1) maintaining surface mulch, and 2) not disturbing the soil with tillage. No-tillage cropping is the only known method to achieve this. Whether weeds are controlled via herbicides (petrochemicals) is up to individual preference and economics. As for total energy inputs, a producer can spray herbicides on a tract for a fraction of the energy requirements of doing tillage (and this analysis includes the cost of manufacture and transport of the herbicide).

Posted by: Matt Hagny on 21 Sep 06

My apologizes to Jon Lebkowsky when I said I don’t agree with his statements. It was after I
submitted my post that I saw that this article was a Guest Post by John Quarterman. Sorry Jon, it's the other John's statements regarding no-till and cotton that I was commenting about in my post of Sept 21.

Posted by: Paul Jasa on 22 Sep 06



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