German court gives cities authority to ban diesel vehicles

Munich is one of the German cities that routinely exceeds European Union NOx emission limits. (Vladimer Shioshvili/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 1, 2017

Germany’s federal court ruled on Tuesday that cities can ban diesel vehicles in order to lower air pollution.

Environmental Action Germany has been filing lawsuits against cities for years to encourage municipalities to implement policies that curb air pollution. German government statistics reveal that some 6,000 people die each year from nitrogen oxide pollution, 60 percent of which comes from vehicles on the road. Diesel engines in particular spew more NOx than gasoline engines and are more popular in Europe.

The ruling does not require communities to ban diesel driving, rather it grants them the legal authority to do so if air pollution in their city remains above the European Union limit for NOx in the air. Seventy German cities surpassed that threshold at least once last year.

Banning diesel vehicles would have negative implications for the country’s automotive industry. Since the ruling, the German government has proposed some measures to decrease pollution and avoid the ban, which include providing free public transportation and refitting existing diesel vehicles to meet clean air standards. However, it is unclear how the government would pay for such measures.

Germany is merely the latest country making a move away from diesel engines. Paris, Madrid, Mexico City and Athens have policies in place to ban diesel vehicles from city centers before 2025.

Simple way to recycle methane discovered

Methane flaring from a hydraulic fracking well in Pennsylvania. (WCN/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 9, 2018

Scientists have recently discovered a way to simply convert excess methane into the building blocks for plastics, agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals.

A study funded by the Department of Energy by researchers at the University of Southern California has identified a one-step chemical process to change methane into basic chemicals ethylene and propylene. Methane is known to be 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, especially in terms of short-term greenhouse gas effects. The gas’ sources include hydraulic fracking wells, organic matter breaking down in landfills or large livestock operations.

The U.S. produces more methane than almost any other country, but the new research presents an opportunity to trap and use the gas. Currently, methane must be shipped via large pipelines from release points to processing areas in order to be converted into anything useful. The study’s authors point out that this practice is cost-prohibitive for many producers, but their research offers a solution. The one-step process means that methane can be captured on-site and transformed into ethylene and propylene without costly transportation.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who sued the agency several times before becoming its leader, has spoken about the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas in recent public addresses. He claims the agency will work to address the issue, but government spending plans say otherwise. A 2019 federal budget plan proposes a 72 percent funding cut for the Department of Energy renewable energy and energy efficiency program, the very same program that funded this study.

Coal plants closing at unprecedented rate

A coal plant spews pollutants on the Navajo reservation near Page, Arizona. (Photo Kent/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 2, 2018

Coal’s role in the U.S. energy picture is rapidly shrinking according to a report from the independent, non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists.

From 2008 to 2016, the portion of the U.S.’s energy derived from coal decreased from 51 percent to 31 percent. Of those coal units that are still up and running, about 25 percent of them plan to retire or switch to another energy source soon. While some coal units are retiring completely, many of them are switching to natural gas. Either way, the report found that the decreased coal production has provided the following environmental health benefits:

  • 80 percent less sulfur dioxide, a source of acid rain
  • 64 percent less nitrogen oxide, a key component in smog
  • 34 percent less carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas

Scientists estimate these changes have saved residents about $250 billion in public health costs related to breathing polluted air from 2008 to 2016.

The driving force behind coal’s decline is primarily economic. Natural gas is cheaper than the dirty fuel, and new research found that newly constructed wind and solar plants are more cost effective than new coal plants.

The researchers also looked at the challenges faced by economies in former coal-mining areas to learn more about how residents cope with closing plants. The results were decidedly mixed. For example, after one especially dirty plant in Chicago closed down following years of activism, area residents found that the city planned to redevelop the building into a transportation center–posing additional air quality risks. In contrast, an organization in West Virginia is working to train laid off coal-workers in construction, agriculture and solar energy jobs. As the shift to cleaner energy sources continues, the Union of Concerned Scientists call on lawmakers. They write,

“As more coal plants close, the importance of investing in these and other impacted communities will only grow. Policy makers should prioritize economic development and job transition assistance, alongside other investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

On The Radio – United Nations Environment Programme seeks to tackle air pollution

The United Nations warned of the many human health impacts pollution poses. (United Nations/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 11, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how the United Nations released an anthology with suggested methods for reducing pollution worldwide. 

Transcript: As global pollution increases, action is needed now more than ever. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

United Nations Environment Programme recently released The Executive Director’s Report: Towards A Pollution-Free Planet, an anthology that pulls environmental data from every continent and suggests general methods for reducing pollution globally. 

The report suggests that nobody is free from the effects of global pollution. Around one in four deaths globally are caused by environmental degradation, and governments must take action to reduce pollution in all its forms if they want to reduce the negative side effects of a damaged environment. 

Every aspect of global environmental damage must be examined and monitored, from waste disposal to the burning of fossil fuels. The people most effected by pollution are working class laborers in cities, since around 80% of big cities internationally do not meet the UN standards for clean air. 

Children, elderly and other vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected by air pollution. 

The statistics are sobering, but the report suggests that with better government control and a serious approach to pollution, we can all work together to better the environment and our health. 

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

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone. 

On The Radio – Cumulative CO2 levels reach record high

Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels, like coal, are combusted. (Kym Farnik/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | November 20, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how carbon dioxide levels soared to record highs in 2016. 

Transcript: Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels rose to a record-high during 2016 according to the World Meteorological Organization.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The organization measures carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at 51 sites around the globe. Average accumulated CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere reached 403.3 parts per million last year due to human activity and an El Niño weather event, which brought drought to much of the world’s CO2-capturing vegetation. Last year’s increase of CO2 was 50 percent higher than average year-to-year increases over the last ten years.

Scientists say that Earth has not had the same concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere since about three to five million years ago, when temperatures were two to three degrees Celsius warmer and sea levels were several dozen feet higher.

World Meteorological Organization scientists warn that greenhouse gas emissions should be cut drastically and immediately to avoid “dangerous temperature increases” by the end of the century.

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

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

On The Radio – Cedar Rapids power plant retires coal burning unit

A view of industrial Cedar Rapids in 2013. (Arlen Breiholz/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | November 13, 2017

This On The Radio segment discusses how Alliant Energy recently added Cedar Rapids to its list of Iowa cities moving away from coal and toward natural gas.

Transcript: Alliant Energy began burning natural gas instead of coal in one of its largest energy units in Cedar Rapids last month.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Crews converted one of four coal-burning units at Prairie Creek Generation Station so that it could operate using natural gas last month. Upgrades to the more than 100 megawatt unit are expected to reduce the plant’s carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent and sulfur dioxide, mercury, and particulate matter pollution by 50 percent.

Alliant Energy has also recently transitioned from coal to natural gas at plants in Marshalltown, Dubuque, Council Bluffs, Bettendorf and Clinton. Prairie Creek Generation Station is expected to be coal free by 2025.

While coal still provides 47 percent of Iowa’s energy, that number has decreased significantly in recent years. Wind energy provides the second largest percentage of Iowa’s electricity, making up 36.6 percent of the total energy picture.

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

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

CGRER co-director delivers UI Presidential Lecture

Dr. Gregory Carmichael (left) and University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld (right) at the 34th Annual Presidential Lecture on Sunday. (Jake Slobe/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | February 21, 2017

UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research co-director Dr. Gregory Carmichael delivered the 34th Annual Presidential Lecture to a crowded assembly hall at the Levitt Center for University Advancement on Sunday.

The lecture, titled “What Goes Around, Comes Around: The Global Reach of Air Pollution” featured opening remarks from University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld. Quoting Dr. Jerry Schnoor, Carmichael’s co-director at CGRER, President Harreld joked, “Greg is now more traveled than George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, four million miles and counting.” Carmichael’s extensive research of the long-range transport of air pollution has taken him to many parts of Eastern Asia, South America, Africa and Europe, among other locations.

Carmichael’s lecture was organized into three parts: the global reach of air pollution, the link between climate change and air pollution, and a finally, a discussion about the action necessary to curb air pollution worldwide. The lecturer made a strong case for air pollution research, citing that it is the root cause of 7 million avoidable deaths per year. Carmichael pointed out that air pollution has economic consequences too; each year, it leads to loss of 10 percent of U.S. soybean yields.

The lecture encouraged a sense of urgency when it comes to cleaning up the atmosphere. Carmichael warned, “That molecule that we put in the air today will stay in the air for a long time.” He went on to say that 20 percent of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere today will remain there for thousands of years. Professor Carmichael’s research focuses primarily on the utilization of comprehensive computer models and big data to simulate the interplay of air pollutants with weather and climate.

His work has been instrumental in understanding the way in which air pollutants from China move across the Pacific Ocean and affect the Western U.S. He said, “Fifteen to twenty percent of clean air policies in the Western U.S. are being offset by Chinese emissions.”

Above all, the Karl Kammermeyer professor of chemical and biochemical engineering emphasized his passion for instructing and advising students. Carmichael has supervised the research of 40 PhD and 35 Masters of Science students at the University of Iowa.

To learn more about Dr. Carmichael’s career, check out episode 5 of CGRER’s EnvIowa podcast.