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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: What have we learned from storms like Katrina, Sandy and Harvey about protecting our coastal cities better from the warming-intensified major storms hitting them?

-- Mitch Wyndam, Burlington, VT

Major storms like Katrina, Sandy and Harvey were devastating to local populations and reformed the landscapes of the regions where they made landfall. They also changed the way we think about—and design—our coastal cities. Let’s hope we’ve learned about where (and where not) to site habitable buildings as well as the importance of maintaining—even expanding—natural buffers that protect the places where people live from unnecessary property damage and/or loss of life.

New York City has gotten busy bolstering itself against future “super storms” like 2012’s Sandy. Code changes like requiring electrical transformers to be in the upper floors (not basements) of commercial buildings, and developing feasible strategies for shuttering tunnels, airports and subways, are just a few of the changes wrought by Sandy.

Developing resilient infrastructure is another way that city planners are hoping to mitigate future flooding issues, like at the recently opened Hunter’s Point South Park along the East River in Queens. One especially climate-resilient feature of this park is a big playfield made of synthetic turf that can “detain” a half million gallons of water when the East River overflows during a high tide or storm surge. When the tide goes back out—or the storm moves on—the detained water is slowly released back into the river through a network of exfiltration channels hidden beneath landscape features. An outer wall protects natural barrier marshes that filter water and can also absorb and detain more stormwater as needed.

It was surprising just how walloped New Orleans was by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, given that the city’s leaders and residents were used to regular flooding during storm events. But the damage, displacement and loss of life from this “100-year-storm” event spurred long overdue efforts to bolster the city’s defenses against floodwaters—including efforts to conserve and expand outer marshlands which serve as

buffers against storm surges and flooding.

New Orleans also bolstered its infrastructure and capacity to handle flood waters. “Given similar evacuation conditions to those seen in Katrina, the [new] system is expected to reduce potential loss of life by as much as 86 percent without pumping and up to 97 percent with 50 percent pumping for a 100-year flood event,” reports Wolfgang Kron of insurance giant Munich Re. He adds that New Orleans’ post-Katrina flood mitigation system should reduce property damage by 90 percent for a 100-year flood event and 75 percent for a 500-year event, compared to the pre-Katrina situation. While New Orleans hasn’t been tested on such a major scale since Katrina, everyone is hoping the projections bear out when the next major storm hits.

As for lessons learned from 2016’s Hurricane Harvey, it’s too soon to tell, as many Houston-area residents are still in recovery mode. But no doubt some of the lessons from Katrina and Sandy will be applied in Houston and other coastal cities around the world getting ready for rising sea levels and more extreme flooding and storm surges as global warming heats things up.

CONTACTS: Hunter’s Point South Park, nycgovparks.org/parks/hunters-point-south-park; Munich Re, munichre.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Are any companies in the “one-for-one” charitable space pioneered by shoe maker TOMS focusing specifically on environmental sustainability? -- Becky B., Los Angeles, CA

TOMS may have been the first company to implement a “one-for-one” model, whereby it matches customer purchases with donations of free shoes to those in need in developing countries. But dozens of other businesses are now following suit with their own so-called “in-kind aid” programs. And yes indeed, several are focused on improving environmental conditions one way or another.

To wit, Brooklyn-based MPOWERD makes and sells solar powered task lights and other related off-grid gear—and donates another of each item sold to someone in need through partnerships with 650 “on-the-ground” non-profits in one of six developing countries. The company’s mission is to distribute clean energy options that provide a more economical and environmentally friendly approach to everyday tasks, whether users are in New York City or the Andes mountains. MPOWERED is a Certified B Corporation, meaning it pledges to use the power of business to build a more inclusive and sustainable economy and to operate in an ethical and environmentally responsible manner. Maybe it’s finally time to order some solar-powered string lights for that patio you’ve been ignoring?

Another eco-friendly business in the “one-for-one” sector is LifeStraw, which makes pocket-sized water filters that remove 99.99 percent of waterborne bacteria so users can stay hydrated and healthy even if there’s no clean water source around. While LifeStraws are great for backpackers or others who choose to go off-grid on adventures, they are also handy—and potentially life-saving—in developing countries, where the company donates one filter for every actual customer purchase. In many cases, LifeStraw partners directly with schools in remote areas of developing countries to ensure that students can focus on their studies instead of worrying about where their next sip of water might come from—and whether or not it will make them sick.

While these one-for-one programs look good from a public relations standpoint and often actually really benefit those in need, critics wonder if the companies behind them could have a bigger impact through alternative models of charitable giving. “Handing out aid in kind gives plenty to worry about,” reports The Economist. “It could suck life from local markets, and foster a culture of aid-dependency.” Another criticism of the model is that handing out goods instead of cash runs the risk of spending money on things people don’t need and won’t use.

Even TOMS itself seems to be shying away from the in-kind donation model it pioneered in favor of making direct contributions to worthwhile charities. The company recently started channeling some of the profits from its new line of coffee to non-profits like Water for People, which provides sustainable, community-owned water systems (and safe drinking water as a result) to impoverished communities in seven developing countries. These donations are not tied directly to sales and represent a new direction for TOMS charitable giving.

While it may have its issues, the “one-for-one” model remains a great sell to consumers who like to know just how their purchasing power is being harnessed for the betterment of humanity and the planet.

CONTACTS: TOMS, toms.com; MPOWERD, mpowerd.com; LifeStraw, lifestraw.com; Certified B Corporation, bcorporation.net.

Dear EarthTalk: What is so-called “Flying Shame” and what’s the climate connection?

-- Bridget J., New York, NY

“Flying shame” is one of those memic terms that has sprung up recently to describe guilting people out of taking airplane trips given the massive carbon footprint of air travel. Some call it “The Greta Effect” in a nod to Swedish teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who swore off air travel given its disproportionate drag on her efforts to slash her own carbon footprint.

Of course, Thunberg isn’t alone. In fact, the original concept of flying shame (“Flygskam”) actually started in Sweden, where “flying is becoming the new tobacco” in the words of Andy Rowell of the non-profit Oil Change International (OCI). A recent survey by the World Wildlife Fund found that 23 percent of Swedes have abstained from air travel in the past year to reduce their carbon footprints—a jump of six percentage points from a year ago. Meanwhile, 18 percent of respondents opted to travel by train instead of airplane over the course of the year.

And the Swedes aren’t the only ones cutting back on flying. Other Europeans are following suit, which makes sense given the excellent rail and ferry systems transecting Europe as practical alternatives to flying. The concept has been slower to catch on in the U.S. given greater distances and limited passenger rail options.

Regardless, air travel is growing by leaps and bounds overall worldwide. “The problem is that, as the science demands we radically reduce carbon emissions, the number of passenger aircraft is set to double by 2035,” worries OCI’s Rowell. Meanwhile, each and every day the aviation industry consumes five million barrels of oil. In 2017 alone, the backs of airplanes emitted 859 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, burning jet fuel contributes roughly 2.5 percent of total carbon emissions worldwide. Analysts think this proportion could rise to 22 percent by 2050 as other sectors clean up their acts quicker.

Meanwhile, there are no truly green, practical alternatives to kerosene-based jet fuel on the horizon. “Aircraft are becoming more fuel-efficient, but not quickly enough to offset the huge demand in growth,” reports The Conversation. “Electric planes remain decades away, weighed down by batteries that can’t deliver nearly as much power per kilo as jet fuel.”

So what’s to be done? Swear off flying, that’s what. Flight Free USA is a grassroots campaign trying to get at least 100,000 Americans to commit to not flying at all during the calendar year 2020 in order to send a “clear signal to industry and politicians—and also to each other—that there are many who are willing to change their lifestyles to protect the climate.”

Yet another slice of the apple is called A Free Ride, an idea which assigns an escalating flight tax depending on how many flights you take per year. One flight per year would be free of tax, while 14 flights a year would cost a pretty penny in taxes, with the proceeds going to offsetting the jet fuel with green energy projects elsewhere.

CONTACTS: Oil Change International, priceofoil.org; “Direct carbon dioxide emissions from civil aircraft,” eprints.soton.ac.uk/368576; “It’s time to wake up to the devastating impact flying has on the environment,” http://bit.ly/2VoSW2e; Flight Free USA, flightfreeusa.org; A Free Ride, afreeride.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Since China stopped accepting American recyclables for processing in 2017, is it still worthwhile for us to even bother recycling here in the U.S.? -- Jim M., Norfolk, VA

The short answer is yes, it’s still worthwhile for us to recycle, even if it’s not as easy and more expensive than it used to be—especially when you consider the costly and environmentally dubious alternative of creating new products out of all-virgin materials. That said, China’s decision to stop accepting most recyclables from other countries beginning in January 2018 did send shockwaves around the world. For the previous 25 years, China was gladly importing more than half of the world’s plastic garbage for reprocessing into new products.

It seemed like a win-win situation, but the Chinese started to tire of dealing with a deluge of soiled recyclables from abroad. Also, years of economic growth and rising consumption means the Chinese are now producing plenty of waste on their own; they no longer need to rely on waste imports to keep their recycling plants humming. It’s for these reasons that the Chinese government invoked its “National Sword” policy, banning the import of 24 types of solid waste and setting a much tougher standard for contamination levels on the recyclables it would accept. Waste handlers in the U.S. and other developed countries where landfill space is short were left in the lurch and forced to rethink how to move much of their “feedstock” along now that China is no longer willing to take it.

In the meantime, a few Southeast Asian countries (Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and India) stepped up to fill the void by taking larger loads of our waste. But poorly run waste management practices and lack of government oversight lead to conditions where only about 10 percent of potentially recyclable waste sent to these countries gets recycled. According to a recent World Bank report, much of what doesn’t get recycled ends up in “unregulated dumps or is openly burned…[creating] serious health, safety and environmental consequences.” But more recently, many of these countries are now following in China’s footsteps by tightening up their own rules about what kinds of waste they are willing to accept.

These changes have put some U.S.-based recyclers out of business, but it may have strengthened those left standing, since they have been forced to find new ways of dealing with the waste streams they are responsible for collecting and processing. Instead of shipping it all off, they are recycling as much as possible themselves. While China’s “National Sword” program may have been a headshot to the American waste industry, the result might just be a greener, cleaner, more self-sufficient United States.

American consumers and businesses can help bolster recycling efforts by sorting waste appropriately—don’t mix soiled food containers in with recyclables, keep non-recyclable plastics out of the blue bins, etc.—and encouraging friends and neighbors to do the same so that more of what we do discard can live another day and provide other consumers with a guilt-free way to enjoy whatever came in that plastic bottle or cardboard box.

CONTACTS: “After China's import ban, where to with the world's waste?” dw.com/en/after-chinas-import-ban-where-to-with-the-worlds-waste/a-48213871; World Bank’s “What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050,” openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/30317.

Dear EarthTalk: I see more and more EVs out of the road. When will they start to outnumber internal combustion cars on American roads? -- Jane L., New Bern, NC

Electric vehicles (EVs) have been around about as long as cars themselves. In fact, primitive EVs were the dominant form of automotive transportation at the dawn of the auto age in Europe and the U.S. in the late 19th century. It wasn’t until the 1920s—when the U.S. road system was starting to be built out and cheap oil was available from newly tapped Texas oil fields—that internal combustion cars began to take over as the predominant vehicles across the United States.

And we never looked back. Until recently, that is. Nowadays, EVs (Teslas, Leafs, Bolts, etc.) are indeed everywhere. Analysts estimate the EVs will be cheaper to buy than internal combustion cars as soon as 2022. Beyond that, it’s probably only a matter of two decades before EVs represent the majority of cars, light trucks and SUVs plying American roads.

In 2018, EVs made up only about six percent of total U.S. new car sales, but that figure represents an astonishing 70 percent growth from the year prior. Moving forward, analysts expect around 13 percent annual compound growth in the EV sector for the foreseeable future. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research arm of the New York-based media company, expects sales of passenger EVs to overtake conventional internal combustion-based vehicles by 2038 (with EV sales topping 50 million a year as compared to conventional vehicle sales of 47 million by then). After that, EVs, with their lower ongoing fuel and maintenance costs, will continue taking over more and more of the market every year, calling the very future of the internal combustion engine passenger car into question.

As technologies mature (allowing for better battery storage and extended driving range) and manufacturers ramp up production and prices come down accordingly, consumers will begin to look exclusively at EVs when shopping for new cars. Indeed, a recent survey of 2,000 adults living in either California or the Northeast Tristate Area (NY, NJ, CT) by consulting firm West Monroe Partners found that the majority (59 percent) of respondents think their next vehicle will be an electric car. Not surprisingly, the survey found that Gen Zers (those born after 1996) are especially inclined toward EVs.

That said, only 16 percent of respondents are driving around in EVs today, and concerns including short battery life and lack of charging stations (limiting the vehicles’ range), as well as high up-front purchase costs, are still holding many of us back from taking the all-electric plunge. But the writing is on the wall for gas guzzling passenger cars as we overcome these short-term hurdles. With about 15 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the tailpipes of our internal combustion cars and light trucks, and gasoline becoming more and more expensive, the inevitable switchover to EVs—despite efforts by the Trump administration to reduce national fuel efficiency standards and bolster the ailing oil industry—is going to be a win-win for consumers and the planet. 2038 can’t come too soon!

CONTACTS: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, bnef.com; “Who is Leading The Charge on Electric Vehicles?” bit.ly/leading-charge; “Yes, Electric Cars Will Be Cheaper,” bit.ly/ev-cheaper.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org

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