Calculate your food’s impact this Thanksgiving


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Thanksgiving dinner (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska| November 27, 2019

As Thanksgiving is a holiday both reflectance AND eating a ton, Americans who are grateful for both the food on their plate and the planet that provided it might be interested in the BBC’s “Climate Change Food Calculator,” published in August.

The food calculator provides estimates of annual greenhouse gas emissions, water use and land use for one person’s consumption different food items based on how frequently the user says they eat those foods. Results are based on global averages.

The food calculator does not have information on turkey specifically, but below are results for daily consumption of other foods often shared on Thanksgiving:

  • Potatoes: 16kg greenhouse gases
  • Wine: 114kg greenhouse gases, 5,026 liters of water
  • Bread: 21kg greenhouse gases, 8,995 liters of water
  • Chicken: 497kg greenhouse gases, 33,294 litres of water, 616m² land
  • Beans: 36kg greenhouse gases, 8,888 liters of water
  • Pork: 656kg greenhouse gases, 95,756 liters of water, 926m² land

So enjoy your feast tomorrow, if you are having one, but remember to thank the Earth for the resources it took to get your meal on your plate, too.

Poet plant ‘production pause’ furthers cellulosic ethanol’s historic challenges


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Cellulosic ethanol is produced from crop residue, like the material depicted above (via Creative Commons) .

Julia Poska | November 20, 2019

An Iowa plant that produces ethanol from cellulose found in corn residue announced Tuesday that it will stop commercial operations in February.

Cellulosic ethanol is widely regarded as a more environmentally friendly version of the plant-based fuel because it provides a use for waste products like cobs and stalks rather than an incentive to put more land into industrial corn production.

Typical ethanol, made from corn kernels, has an “energy return on investment” (EROI) of less than 2:1, most sources agree. This means that the fuel supplies only about as much energy as was put into growing and refining the product. Researchers believe EROI for cellulosic ethanol could be somewhat higher than for corn-based ethanol, but still much lower than for other energy sources.

Despite the apparent benefits, cellulosic ethanol has been slow to take off. The Renewable Fuels Association 2019 Ethanol Industry Outlook report indicated that cellulosic sources provide only about 3.4% of U.S. ethanol production capacity.

The Des Moines Register reported that personnel of the plant, owned by POET, blamed the “pause” in production on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for granting Renewable Fuel Standard exemptions to oil refineries in recent years. The RFS sets minimum levels of biofuel that gasoline and diesel must contain, so exemptions reduce what would otherwise be a guaranteed demand for biofuel.

Cellulosic ethanol production has lagged behind forecasts since it first entered commercial purview, however.  In 2007, the Bush administration called for 100 million and 250 million gallons of commercial cellulosic ethanol production in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Actual commercial production did not begin until 2012, according to MIT Technology Review.

In July 2018, ethanolproducer.com thought national production of cellulosic ethanol could top 15 million gallons, far behind the EPA’s goal of 7 billion gallons for that year.

The POET cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa opened in 2014, according to the Register. The facility cost $275 million to build and received about $120 million in state and federal incentives. The plant has a capacity to produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually, according to POET, and has spent years working on “optimizing” the production process to reach full capacity.

The plant will continue doing “research and development” on cellulosic ethanol while producing regular corn ethanol at another plant next door, according to the Register. Another cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa closed in 2017, the Register also reported.

Midwest agriculture sector hit by climate change


By Julia Shanahan | October 18th, 2019

The FED central bank released a report this week reviewing the economic strength of various sectors and regions and concluded the agriculture industry is still not doing well economically — a lot of which can be attributed to climate change.

The report said that adverse weather effects has impacted farming conditions, market prices, and has disrupted trade. The Midwest has been hit particularly hard, and the FED reported that midwest sources have concerns about the outcome of this year’s harvest. Iowa experienced heavy flooding in the spring, which damaged grain and farmland. Because Iowa also experienced a period of dry weather over the summer months, some farmers were able to bounce back.

This summer, economic experts at the USDA issued a report that said increasing crop losses will drive up the prices of crop insurance, with climate change being a leading factor in crop loss. There are several government cost-share programs that work to mitigate risk in agriculture, and the average annual cost of these programs amounts to $12 billion using data from the last decade. As severe weather becomes more frequent, the amount of federal dollars is expected to increase.

The report says that all anticipated climate scenarios are expected to lower yields of corn, soybeans, and wheat — but yield volatility is not always impacted by severe weather. In a scenario that greenhouse gas emissions increase at a high rate, the cost of today’s Federal Crop Insurance Program is expected to increase 22 percent.

Veggie Rx coming to Johnson County


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Kasey Dresser| September 30, 2019

A $50,000 grant from MidWestOne Bank has been awarded to Johnson County community organizations for the creation of the Veggie Rx Pilot Program. This 26-week program aims to help individuals with diet-related diseases by providing them with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Participants of the program will receive care from the University of Iowa Health Care’s upstream clinic and their food from either the Coralville or North Liberty Community Food Pantry. With routine access to locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, individualized dietary guidance, and educational activities related to healthy food, the participants will hopefully see positive changes in their daily life. Food will be purchased directly from Sundog Farm in Solon, Wild Woods in Iowa City, and Echollective in Mechanicsville.

MidWestOne Bank CEO Charlie Funk said the bank was “delighted to lend support to the Veggie Rx Program,” which will give back not only to local residents but provide business to local farms as well.

Monday’s U.N. Summit highlights progress and stagnation for climate urgency


Greta Thunberg
A photo of Greta Thunberg from Creative Commons. 

By Julia Poska | September 29, 2019

At the United Nations Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit in New York on Monday, international government officials, business leaders and change-makers gathered to promote efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at present and in coming decades.

The United Nations website touts achievements from this summit, including increasing participation in programs like the “Powering Past Coal Alliance.”

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced his country’s launch of the new “Climate Ambition Alliance” at the conference, as well. Sixty-five countries and the European Union, as well as numerous cities, businesses and investors signed-on to achieve net‑zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Others have indicated intention to ramp up current efforts in the next year.

Several U.S. states, cities, businesses and investors were among the early signers, but the nation as a whole has not joined the alliance. New York Times reporters Somini Sengupta and

Star teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg noted her disappointment with world leadership’s overall lack of urgency during a speech to the assembly.

“How dare you? ” Thunberg said, accusatorially. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words…. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you are doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.”

That same day, Thunberg and 15 other youth activists filed an official complaint to the United Nations, CNN reports. The children alleged that Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey collectively violated a human rights treaty by taking inadequate steps to curb emissions.

Iowa environmental groups say proposed Alliant rate hike is uneconomical


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Two Iowa environmental non-profits are concerned about proposed cost increases for Alliant Energy customers(via flickr).

Julia Poska | September 11, 2019

The Iowa Environmental Council and Environmental Law and Policy Center last month submitted testimony  from five “expert witnesses” to the Iowa Utilities Board regarding Alliant Energy’s proposed base rate increases, currently under review.

The environmental groups disapprove of the proposal overall and said they believe they have identified alternative “solutions that will save customers money while cleaning up Alliant’s generation mix.”

Below are summaries of Alliant’s proposal and the environmental groups’ critique.

About Alliant’s proposal

On April 1, 2019, Alliant customers began seeing an interim base rate increase (about $8 for the typical residential customer) on their energy bills.

The company plans to further raise the rate beginning January 1, 2020. The total increase of $20 (24.45%) for typical  residential customers would bring about $203.6 million in revenue into the company annually.

In a proposal to customers, Alliant said the company is “investing in new wind farms, energy grid technologies including advanced metering infrastructure, and environmental controls that reduce emissions.”

The company has also said that the additional cost to customers would be offset over time by reductions in other costs like energy efficiency.

 The proposed increases are awaiting a hearing in November from the Iowa Utility Board. If the increases are not approved, Alliant would have to refund customers for excess paid during the interim increase. 

The IEC/ELPC perspective 

The IEC and ELPC have both economic and socioeconomic concerns about the proposal, as outlined in their testimony to the IUB. The testimony also provided economic analysis of the utility’s current coal power generation. 

A few highlights from the testimony include:

  1. Coal generation costs more than renewables. An analysis by Rocky Mountain Institute Principal Uday Varadarajan on behalf of the two organizations found that the cost of Alliant’s coal generation exceeds that of projected renewable energy costs. Retiring three Alliant coal plants and purchasing market energy or purchasing or generating wind energy could save customers $16 million in 2020, he found.  This was proposed as an alternative move for Alliant to make, increasing renewables while reducing rather than increasing cost to consumers. (Read more from U.S. Energy News).
  2. Revenue would be spent on wasteful initiatives. The groups call out one initiative Alliant has proposed — putting power lines underground — as a poor use of consumer funds.
  3. Proposed solar programs could undermine the industry. The groups believe Alliant’s new community solar program (implied to be funded in part by the rate increase) would compete with solar businesses and potentially create a monopoly. They said the proposal also includes measures similar to those proposed in the “Sunshine Tax” legislation earlier this year to increase cost for solar customers.

 

 

The world’s protein companies still failing to address their environmental impact


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(Mike Myers/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| September 9, 2019

The Coller FAIRR Protein Producer Index, in its second active year, just released their report analyzing the environmental, social, and governance risks of meat, dairy, and farmed fish producers. One large take away from this year’s study was the lack of attention given to environmental and animal welfare by some of the world’s largest protein producers.

The FAIRR Index looked at 60 different companies and found evidence of lacking sustainability efforts for greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, food waste, conditions for workers, antibiotic use, and animal welfare. Only 30% of the analyzed companies were able to give the researchers specific environmental strategy plans which focused only on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. One-quarter of the companies refused to even disclose their use of antibiotics on their animals.

As more research regarding climate change emerges, this isn’t just a problem for consumers. The conversation is shifting toward some of the financial consequences of severe weather for these large companies.

“What we’re seeing is that companies in the sector are contributing to many of the risks we discuss in the report, but they’re also deeply vulnerable…to the impacts of climate change,” says FAIRR’s Head of Research, Aarti Ramachandran. In an interview with Forbes, Ramachandran gave an example of an Australian Agricultural Company that lost over $100 million in damages due to extreme flooding.

Ramachandran does leave the report on a positive note acknowledging the increased investments in plant-based proteins by meat and dairy companies. He stated, “we think that, overall, there should be a rebalancing of protein so that animal protein consumption doesn’t continue to grow at the same trajectory, and so that there is a sustainable balance between plant-based and animal-based food.”

On The Radio- Water quality standards for microcystin


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Iowa River (flickr/resourcesforlife)

Kasey Dresser| August 12, 2019

This weeks segment looks at the Environmental Protection Agency’s new recommendation for keeping lakes clean.

Transcript:

The Environmental Protection Agency is recommending a new water quality standard for microcystin – a bacteria known to create blue-green algae that inhabits many bodies of water in Iowa.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Iowa does not currently have a water quality standard for microcystin. When this toxic bacteria is ingested in large amounts, it can cause nausea, rashes fatigue and damage to the nervous system, liver, and kidneys. This is especially harmful for children and animals who use lakes and streaks for recreation.

The EPA’s new recommendation is 8 micrograms of microcystin per Liter of water. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources does issue swimming advisories if a body of water exceeds a threshold of 20 micrograms per Liter. The body of water would still be open for recreation.

According to the Iowa Environmental Council, if the Iowa DNR were to apply the new EPA standard to bodies of water in the summer of 2018, there would have been 11 more swim advisories, for a total of 17 that summer.

Under the Clean Water Act, a state is required to submit a list of impaired waters from time to time. As of 2016 in Iowa, there are over 50 lakes and stream segments that are impaired to a “total maximum load,” according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Microcystin is created from a photosynthetic bacteria called cyanobacteria, which blooms on warm, sunny days when there are nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. Cyanobacteria can quickly multiply, and the bloom is what creates the blue-green algae.

Adverse health effects can occur after direct contact of water, or after inhaltation of water droplets – this can occur from recreational activities like fishing or boating. When the blue-green algae decays, that process consumes oxygen, which could cause a fish kill, according to the Iowa Environmental Council.

For more information, visit Iowa Environmental Focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

Experts encourage towns to invest in composting


Photo by Plan for Opportunity, Flickr.

By Julia Shanahan | August 2nd, 2019

Composting all organic waste could eliminate one-third of materials sent to landfills and trash incinerators, according to a study from Composting in America, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Environment America Research, and Policy Center and Frontier Group.

The reports says that each year the U.S. disposes of enough organic material  to fill 18-wheelers stretching from New York to Los Angeles ten times over. Only 326 U.S. towns nationwide provide curbside food pickup, leaving people no option but to throw food scraps in the trash.

The report says that increasing composting would help replenish soil and prevent erosion, reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, and help combat climate change. Composting excess organic material would help pull carbon out of the atmosphere and return nutrients to the soil. 

In Iowa, some small compost facilities are exempt from solid-waste permits, but must adhere to a list of requirements: facilities must be greater than 500 feet away from any inhabited residence, outside of wetlands, 200 feet away from any public well, and runoff from the composting operation must be correctly managed – according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

The national report lists several things that would make composting more accessible and user-friendly, saying that towns should offer curbside pickup for organic waste, make composting programs affordable, require commercial organic-waste producers to compost excess materials, and to encourage local markets to buy back compost materials to distribute to public projects or community projects.

On The Radio- Carbon dioxide’s effect on record high temperatures


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Sunrise (flickr/uditha wickramanayaka)

Kasey Dresser| July 8, 2019

This week’s segment looks at the influence of carbon dioxide on the record high-temperature levels this year. 

Transcript: 

Ocean carbon dioxide levels hit a new record early this month, as it was 84 degrees near the Arctic Ocean.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Temperatures rose to 84 degrees in the northwest of Russian near the entrance of the Arctic Ocean, a rural area in eastern Russia where the average high temperature is around 54 degrees this time of year. 

Many locations around Russia set record high temperatures. This particular heat wave, a manifestation of the arrangement of weather systems and fluctuations in the jet stream, fits into what has been an unusually warm year across the Arctic and most of the mid-latitudes.

In the meantime, the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere surpassed 415 parts per million for the first time in recorded history — the highest in at least 800,000 years, and possibly the highest levels in over 3 million years. Carbon dioxide levels have risen by nearly 50 percent since the Industrial Revolution.

These numbers altogether serve as indicators of the damages done by modern civilization to the environment and the contributions humans have made towards climate change.

For more information, visit Iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org. 

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.