Before we get into the chemical compounds and statistical trends and tonnage numbers sure to scare the hair right off a hippie, let’s you and I define a word. Ambitious. The definition of this adjective, I think we both can agree, rests in the details of one particular plan of President Barack Obama.
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Obama made it the goal of our nation to cut our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 80 percent by the year 2050. And on April 17, word leaked that Obama’s EPA plans to propose regulating GHG emissions, a sharp reversal of the previous administration’s policy.
This plan is ambitious because, as we’ll see from the 12 local examples that follow, even a place like Charlottesville—home to greenies and tree-huggers galore—produced 919,991 metric tons of GHG in 2006, up from 868,952 in 2000. At this rate, our fair city will belch forth a little more than 1.1 million tons in 2020. In 2007 alone, UVA produced almost 300,000 tons of GHG, nearly a 15 percent increase from 2000.
In another word—yikes.
But these are not head-in-sand type times, people. Charlottesville has been Sam Cooke-in’ it for more than a couple of years, working on the change that’s gonna come. Thanks to energy-efficiency upgrades and retrofits to its buildings through the Energy Performance Contract, the city saved roughly $450,000 in energy costs during one fiscal year. It’s “greened” its vehicle fleet with fuel-efficient and hybrid cars and trucks.
But as you’ll see below, there is still work to be done. What follows, then, is what a few people with access to a printing press consider to be the face of climate change in this home of ours. Let’s take a minute and look at these pictures and see if we can, if only for a small moment, see our reflected selves, looking hard at this, together. Ecologically speaking, 2050 is right around the corner.
According to the EPA, this country’s landfills accounted for approximately 23 percent of all anthropogenic methane (CH4) in 2006. No matter how hardcore we as a community get about our curbside recycling programs, this is where tons upon tons of our waste already rests—the Ivy Landfill. But it’s not all bad news. Recently, the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority was recognized by the Virginia Environmental Excellence Program for continually—and let’s quote the press release here—“minimizing the effect of operations on the environment.”
From 1990 to 2006, however, CH4 emissions from landfills dropped by 16 percent. But this drop isn’t due to reduced usage. It’s attributed to the increases in the amount of landfill gas collected and combusted, even as the amount of solid waste that ends up in our landfills keeps increasing.
You walk into the office, another day on the job, and what’s the first thing you do? Probably not turn on the lights: They’re already on. Same goes for your computer, the copier, etc. We spend so much time in our offices, like these at UVA’s Fontaine Research Park, that we hardly stop to consider the resources these buildings expend.
And we’re not alone. A 2007 survey by the American Institute of Architects showed that just 7 percent of respondents could identify the top cause of greenhouse gas emissions—buildings. In 2000, the city’s municipal buildings alone produced 12,387 metric tons of GHGs.
Our buildings, especially large cubicle farms, produce 48 percent of all GHG emissions and consume 71 percent of all electricity produced at U.S. power plants. They are buzzing gobblers of resources, whose appetites continue long after the likes of us have left for the day.
One of the city’s newest buildings, however, represents a change in course. The Downtown Transit Center is certified LEED Gold, and according to Kristel Riddervold, the city’s environmental administrator, the center performs 33 percent better in terms of energy conservation than current building standards require.
Really, where else do so many of our resources go to benefit so few? Whether it’s the amount of gasoline used for the daily cutting of fairways and greens, or the electricity or gas used to shuttle around no more than two golfers on a cart, or the synthetic nitrogen fertilizers used on the grasses, golf courses are both a bucolic retreat and a highly engineered cultural symbol for the idea of such a retreat.
About those synthetic nitrogen fertilizers: Only a small percentage of total usage is applied to golf courses in the country. The vast majority of these fertilizers are used in the agricultural sector (a whole other can of [synthetic] worms). But the amount of resource consumption relative to the communal benefits of golf courses should cause us to take a hard look at this pastime. And we have. As of 2003, the EPA has been working with the United States Golf Association and Cornell University, among other groups, to minimize nitrogen fertilizer in surface and ground water.
Charlottesville, though, has sworn off such fertilizers. In fact, no chemicals are used on the McIntire Park’s golf course (pictured here), says Riddervold. At the Meadowcreek Golf Course, the city switched from gas-powered carts to electric, lessening the course’s carbon footprint.
Look, we’ll be honest with you, this is just a mess. According to the United Nations, deforestation contributes between 25 and 30 percent of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere each year. And why are we clearing land, as at this hefty red-dirt site on 29N in Ruckersville? So we can move up to that bigger, better house, that much farther away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s time to take another look at that American dream. Meanwhile, from 2000 to 2006, Charlottesville residents increased their electricity use by 20.5 percent, a figure that was consistent with the national average.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (a hard-partying bunch, to be sure) has estimated that U.S. forests absorb roughly 1 to 3 million metric tons of CO2 each year. That’s an offset of about 20 to 26 percent of the U.S.’s greenhouse-gas emissions. That said, expanding our (sub)urban ring around Charlottesville by developing forest land into tracts of houses that are bigger than we need, along with attendant strip malls, is probably going to look really, really dumb to our grandkids.
As anyone who’s been paying attention to the American book publishing industry knows, the ways in which we feed ourselves are utterly bizarre. This has been covered: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, etc. Supply lines span the world.
So when we dig into that steak at a place like Applebee’s (not to single out Applebee’s, which really is a Great American Eatery, but still, it is Applebee’s), we are cutting into one of the major sources of GHG emissions. Because chances are, that steak was shipped from a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) somewhere in EPA Region 7 (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska), burning fossil fuel all the way to your plate.
In 2006, enteric fermentation (i.e. cow burps and farts) and manure management (i.e.…never mind) combined to contribute 30 percent of all CH4 emissions. Add that to the CO2 emissions caused by trucking your food from Nebraska, and the 5,313 metric tons of GHGs that food waste produced in Charlottesville in 2000, and all of a sudden hippies begin to make a lot of sense.
Even though electricity production is the biggest source of greenhouse gases in the U.S., transportation seems to get all the press. This could have something to do with America’s love of the open road or the independence that comes with owning several boat-sized automobiles or several other half-baked schemes dreamed up by marketing assholes that we will quickly have to dump into the garage heap of history if we want this here “Climate Change” deal to turn around.
Passenger cars pour out the three major GHGs, most of all CO2, which represents about 85 percent of total GHG emissions. Transportation is the second leading source of CO2 emissions, and emissions—while dipping recently—have been increasing since 1990. But transportation is more an auxiliary cause than anything else. Most of us don’t drive just to drive; we’re going somewhere or hauling something. So addressing the way we handle New Development and Food will do a whole lot more than taking the bus to work once a week.
Industrial processes produced 5 percent of all U.S. GHG emissions in 2006, and that’s not factoring in the energy consumption of the companies involved. Overall, though, the industrial sector only produces 1 percent of Charlottesville’s total GHG emissions.
And while Charlottesville’s economy has moved from being industrial to more service-related (a move Harvard economist Theodore Panayotuo has argued will lessen an area’s environmental impact), there are certain industries that there’s almost no going without. For instance, cement production is the second leading source of CO2 in the industrial sector, and, as the Downtown Mall has shown, bricks are kind of a pain-in-the-ass alternative.
If you’re looking for the nexus of all GHG emissions, look no further than our own Fashion Square Mall. Most of us drive our cars to walk around the florescent-lit retail space, neon signs demarcating separate stores selling goods produced in other countries flown, then trucked, right here, just for us, only to end up, inevitably, in our landfills.
While the commercial sector—of which malls, schools, and office buildings are a part—produces 1 billion metric tons of CO2, the shopping mall is today’s shining symbol of our disposable, shrink-wrapped culture. Charlottesville’s commercial sector (which, it must be said, includes UVA) produced 530,386 metric tons of GHGs in 2006, up from 475,258 in 2000. When John Winthrop wrote “we shall be as a city upon a hill,” it is doubtful that he envisioned a community propped up by a pile of discarded batteries, used Pepsi cups and cardboard Nike boxes.
Wastewater treatment plants
While issues like transportation and electricity production might get all the attention, treating our sewage or wastewater, as at this facility in Woolen Mills, can produce both CH4 and N2O emissions. In 2006, domestic wastewater treatment released 16 teragrams of CH4, the equivalent of 16 million metric tons of CO2.
CH4 emissions have decreased since 1998, although N2O emissions have increased. Why? According to the EPA, the increase is “a result of increasing U.S. population and protein consumption.” Are Applebee’s steaks hurting us in more ways than one?
Once upon a time conventional wisdom told us all to buy big houses because oversized suburban tract housing was the same as buying a stock that would never go down. And that worked…for a while. Now, of course, the real estate sector is in the economic dumpster and we’re left with houses that were bought under the real estate market equivalent of ordering an extra-large pizza after eight hours of heavy drinking.
This being the morning after, we’re left with the soggy mess—extra rooms we don’t really need and longer drives to the things we do. And, of course, we’ve got all these buildings. In Charlottesville alone in 2006, residential buildings like these in Crozet accounted for 20 percent of GHG emissions. These are also the buildings that are producing 48 percent of GHGs, consuming 70 percent of the U.S. electricity, where CO2-eating undeveloped land used to be. Between 2002 and 2007, the Daily Progress reported, the Charlottesville region lost almost 8 percent of its farmland.
The health care industry ranks just behind restaurants as our most energy-intensive industry, and as the country’s largest GHG producer. And it’s not difficult to understand why when you consider hospitals’ 24-hour dependence on electricity, the massive buildings and use of one-shot (and essential) petroleum-byproduct items—surgical gloves, syringes and even antibiotics.
As energy costs continue to rise, the Premier Healthcare Alliance, made up of roughly 2,100 U.S. hospitals, has launched SPHERE, an initiative to reduce health care’s impact on climate change. By creating target energy usage numbers, partnering with experts and offering a reverse auction, SPHERE hopes to reduce the industry’s impact while increasing its use of cleaner, renewable energy.
It may say something that one of our largest national newspapers (The New York Times) considered it big news when it discovered that kids in an Italian town actually walk to school. Schools, like hospitals, are on the whole large buildings that suck up GHG-producing resources, never mind how students get to them. In 2000 alone, Charlottesville schools produced 9,132 metric tons of GHGs.
In a way, they are the end result of most of the above categories—food with a long paper trail, fossil-fuel-burning travel, large buildings and—despite recycling programs—the production sites of large amounts of landfill-bound waste. Charlottesville’s Facilities Maintenance group, however, oversees services for city schools, so each school is a part of the ongoing energy management program.