Dear EarthTalk: Why are environmentalists so scared of Donald Trump winning a second term? — Jay W., Modesto, CA
When Donald Trump made good on his anti-environmental campaign promises within a year of taking office, no one was surprised. Environmental advocates had been holding out hope that he would listen to the likes of daughter Ivanka — and her climate-crusading friend Leonardo DiCaprio — and change his mind on the need to cut back environmental regulations. But cooler heads didn’t prevail, and today we’re left with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule instead of the Clean Power Plan (cuts U.S. power plant emissions by 1.5 percent instead of 32 percent), the consternation of the international community for pulling out of the Paris climate accord, and an Environmental Protection Agency so weakened as to be almost unrecognizable and patently ineffectual. According to Inside Climate News, these dramatic actions have taken place against the backdrop of ongoing administration efforts to promote unfettered oil, natural gas and coal extraction while undermining clean energy development and suppressing climate science.
Environmental supporters are bracing for what a second Trump term could bring. A top Trump priority in 2020 is to gut the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a landmark environmental law enacted in 1970 that requires federal agencies to prepare environmental assessments or impact statements preceding any projects. The White House is pushing for climate change to be excluded from such analyses, and would also like to shorten and, in some cases, eliminate environmental reviews altogether under NEPA.
Beyond NEPA, many also worry that another four years of White House apathy on climate could condemn us all to a grim, warming-compromised future. We already lost valuable time in just three years as Trump rolled back the Obama administration’s progress on climate mitigation. But four more years of Trump would, in the words of The Atlantic’s Paul Starr, “put off a national commitment to decarbonization until at least the second half of the 2020s, while encouraging other countries to do nothing, as well.”
Starr points out that further delaying our response to the climate challenge makes our eventual response more economically and politically difficult, while compounding the problem. Global Carbon Project research shows that if decarbonization had begun globally in 2000, an emissions reduction of around two percent annually would have been sufficient to stay below what experts say is the tipping point of two degrees Celsius of warming. “Now it will need to be approximately 5 percent a year,” he says. “And if we wait another decade, it will be about 9 percent.” Whether or not our already brittle political system can bear such change when the time finally comes to make it happen is anybody’s guess.
In the short term, environmentalists are working hard to get anyone but Trump into the White House in 2020. Luckily for eco-conscious voters, just about all the Democratic contenders are in favor of strengthening climate and environmental protections. Indeed, voting against Donald Trump in 2020 might be the most important act in favor of the environment that any of us can take this year.
Contacts: “Trump’s NEPA ambitions hinge on his reelection,” eenews.net/stories/1062022777; “Donald Trump’s Record on Climate Change,” https://insideclimatenews.org/news/19122019/trump-climate-policy-record-rollback-fossil-energy-history-candidate-profile; “Trump’s Second Term,” theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/05/trump-2020-second-term/585994/; Global Carbon Project, www.globalcarbonproject.org.
Dear EarthTalk: What’s the environmental impact of these dockless e-scooters I see all over town now? — Jim M. Salisbury, CT
By now, you’ve certainly seen dockless e-scooters in your town or somewhere nearby. Some 85,000 of these electric-powered, phone-unlockable mini-vehicles crowd the streets and sidewalks of 100 different metro areas across the U.S. In 2018 they surpassed dockless e-bikes as the most common app-rentable transport option nationwide, with riders taking them on some 38.5 million trips.
These e-scooters are often marketed as “green” or “carbon-neutral” because they run off electric batteries instead of fossil fuels, but consumers shouldn’t think they’re getting a completely guilt-free ride. A recent lifecycle analysis from North Carolina State University assessing the “cradle-to-grave” environmental impact of e-scooters found that bicycling, walking and buses are all “greener” ways to get around.
A rider hopping on an e-scooter doesn’t necessarily think about the carbon emissions and other impacts involved with manufacturing, transporting and maintaining these otherwise low-impact electric vehicles. “If you only think about the segment of the life cycle you can see, which would be standing on the e-scooter where there’s no tailpipe, it’s easy to make that assumption,” says Jeremiah Johnson, an NC State professor and study co-author. “But if you take a step back, you can see all the other things that are a bit hidden in the process.”
While relatively light and small, e-scooters must carry a battery in addition to their basic frame and electronic systems. Producing these batteries takes a heavy toll on the environment, although no worse than similar types of batteries used in e-bikes and even electric cars. Besides the batteries, the aluminum used to create the e-scooters’ frames and the rubber for their tires add to their environmental footprint.
The NC State researchers found that about half of an e-scooter’s carbon footprint is created during production, while most of the rest (43 percent) comes from collecting and recharging them every night. In general, e-scooters are charged by freelance workers known as “juicers.” At the end of each day, they take e-scooters off the street and typically charge them up at home via their own power outlets (likely not from renewable sources). Furthermore, the majority of juicers pick up e-scooters in gas-powered cars or trucks. The upshot is that the common charging process is a long way from being carbon neutral.
That said, e-scooters are currently about twice as efficient as the average car in per passenger miles per gallon (in this case CO2 units emitted per passenger carried a distance of one mile). However, a car carrying more than one passenger can reach the same or even better levels of efficiency as an e-scooter. Buses, when fully loaded, easily beat e-scooters in per passenger efficiency, while bicycles easily beat buses.
Of course, e-scooters are sure to become more efficient in the future as both the production and pick-up processes get greener. As a consumer, you can improve the situation by using e-scooters to replace car trips, but bikes or buses are still a better choice as far as the planet is concerned.
Contact: “Are E-Scooters Polluters? The Environmental Impacts of Shared Dockless Electric Scooters,” iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab2da8.
Dear EarthTalk: Every day when I pick up my kids at school, all the parents wait in their cars with the engines running. Is all this idling a significant contributor to the atmosphere’s carbon burden or am I being a worry wart over nothing? — Mary B., Burlington, VT
Idling is indeed a scourge on the environment, given the noxious emissions coming out of our engines. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), a single vehicle dropping off and picking up a kid at school each day adds three pounds of air pollution to the atmosphere per month from idling. The 250 million personal vehicles on the road in the U.S. alone generate about 30 million tons of carbon dioxide every year just by idling. DoE reports that eliminating unnecessary idling by personal vehicles would be equivalent in emissions reductions to taking five million vehicles off the road.
Personal cars are only part of the problem. About half of the six billion gallons of fuel we waste on idling each year in the U.S. comes from commercial vehicles. We’ve all seen those delivery trucks with their engines humming while the driver eats his lunch inside or makes his rounds of deliveries on foot. But this kind of irresponsible behavior is actually against the law in 41 U.S. states (some of these restrictions are in municipalities but not necessarily state-wide). The rules vary by jurisdiction. A few states have outlawed idling altogether with the majority of others limiting it to five minutes before fines kick in.
Environmental activist George Pakenham made news last year by collecting some $9,000 in bounty payments for reporting commercial vehicle idling around New York City as part of a new anti-idling ordinance (successful tattlers get 25 percent of the fines they call in, which range from $300-$2,000).
What’s surprising is how much idling still goes on, given that most modern engines run better — and warm up faster — while in motion. And you won’t cause any measurable wear-and-tear on your car or truck by turning it off and on instead of idling, given the sturdiness of modern-day starters and batteries.
The non-profit Sustainable America launched its #TurnItOff campaign to spread awareness about the need to reduce or eliminate wasteful automotive idling. The group recommends that if you’re pulled out of traffic and going to be waiting for more than 10 seconds, do everyone around you and the environment a favor by turning off your engine. (If you have a hybrid or electric car — or a newer internal combustion car with so-called “stop-start” technology — you’re already part of the solution, as these vehicles shut themselves off when at a complete stop and then come back to life when the driver steps on the gas.)
While preventing automobile idling may be an up-hill battle, the shift to hybrid and electric engines is a step in the right direction. Maybe one day when all the vehicles on the road are zero-emission EVs, idling won’t be an issue anymore. But until then, whether you’re a mom at school pick-up or a delivery driver between drops, be responsible and shut it off while you wait.
Contacts: DoE’s Idling Reduction for Personal Vehicles, afdc.energy.gov/files/u/publication/idling_personal_vehicles.pdf; Idling Laws By State, cdllife.com/2014/idling-laws-state/; “Idle Threat” Film, videoproject.com/Idle-Threat.html; #ITurnItOff, iturnitoff.com.
Dear EarthTalk: Are climate change and other environmental issues affecting or informing mainstream (Wall Street) investment strategies, or is sustainability-oriented investing still just a do-gooder niche? — Mary S. New York, NY
It wasn’t long ago that so-called “triple bottom line” investing — factoring in not just financial returns but also social and environmental impacts — was purely the domain of a small set of outliers willing to forego profits for the sake of proving that investing could be used as a tool to drive change. Just two decades ago, the only real way to have an eco-friendly investment portfolio would be to put your money with one of a handful of mutual funds focused on “Socially Responsible Investing” (SRI) — or research and invest in often speculative individual “green” companies directly.
But in intervening years, many investors’ perspectives have changed. It turns out that “green” investments are not only safer than their conventional counterparts, given the actuarial risks of rampant climate change, but they also tend to perform better. Generation Investment Management (GIM), founded in 2004 by former VP Al Gore and ex-Goldman Sachs exec David Blood, was one of the first well-heeled firms devoted exclusively to sustainable investing — and shocked analysts 10 years in by how profitable they were. GIM’s 12.1 percent annual average increase over its first decade ranked it second in profitability of over 200 competitors, including many of the biggest names in conventional investing. The lesson is that those companies prepared for and even poised to profit from a warmer future are most likely to succeed.
A 2019 report by BlackRock, the world’s largest investment firm with more than $7 trillion under management, confirms what GIM’s founders claimed all along: Going green pays. Not only has funding/investment in the environmental, social and governance (ESG) space almost doubled over the last five years, but these investments outperformed non-ESG bets overall. ESG-focused equity benchmarks in the U.S. yielded an annual return of 14.5 percent, compared with 14.4 percent for non-ESG investments. Meanwhile, globally ESG-based investments also bested non-ESG antes 8.1 percent to 7.7 percent.
Perhaps this new reality is why BlackRock recently announced a sweeping new set of policies aimed at making sustainability the “new standard for investing.” The firm plans to launch new active and passively managed SRI-based funds in the short term and will look into other ways to align the rest of its investments according to its investors’ increasingly pro-environment values.
Environmental advocates are glad to hear about BlackRock’s plans, especially given the need for the private sector to step in and take an active role in carbon drawdown in lieu of federal action. Ben Cushing of the non-profit Sierra Club considers BlackRock’s shift “a major step in the right direction and a testament to the power of public pressure calling for climate action.”
But he would like to see BlackRock — still the world’s largest investor in coal, oil, and gas — go a giant step further and divest entirely from fossil fuels. “BlackRock should expand on its commitments and other financial institutions should follow suit.”
Contacts: GIM, generationim.com; BlackRock report, blackrock.com/corporate/insights/blackrock-investment-institute/publications/sustainability-the-future-of-investing.