Telling the Truth About Carbon Emissions

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday November 12, 2009 - 09:42:00 AM

A figure cited by a letter writer in a recent issue of the British magazine New Scientist grabbed my attention this week: 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the manufacture of steel and concrete.  

A bit of internet research persuaded me that this estimate is roughly credible from a scientific perspective, though of course subject to clarification when you get down to details.  

Many of the local policy discussions exhibit our politicians’ ignorance—willful or innocent—of this fundamental concept. The foolish idea that we can build our way out of global warming surfaces in all kinds of ways. Three local controversies which have been extensively covered in these pages are illustrative. 

First, we have the Berkeley city council's rush to up-zone almost everything in sight to accommodate big buildings.  

The now-discredited new Downtown Plan was an attempt to make room for new structures so tall that they had to be built of—yes—steel and concrete, totally ignoring the wealth of information available from a myriad of sources that shows that re-using old buildings and infilling only with new wood-frame structures under four stories is the best way to go.  

PG&E even provided an expert who talked about this at one of the DAPAC meetings, but his advice was ignored by the City Council when it came time to vote.  

And they’re at it again in West Berkeley. The word on the street is that if the council tries the same kind of ploy, attempting to overturn the balanced West Berkeley Plan with spot re-zoning to cater to large landowners, another referendum is inevitable.  

One more time, guys and gals. The fact that Measure G passed overwhelmingly means that we should not be rebuilding in a functional industrial zone with steel and concrete behemoths intended to provide offices for biofuel entrepreneurs. The idea that biofuels are a climate-change panacea is also increasingly suspect, but that’s another day’s topic. 

It does provide a segue to another panacea, however, the dream of thwarting climate change with public transport. While it’s true that single-passenger gasoline-powered vehicles generate excessive greenhouse gases, putting huge empty diesel buses and a lot of concrete islands down Telegraph in Berkeley will not materially reduce the number of single-passenger car trips—check the environmental documents that have already been produced for the Bus Rapid Transit boondoggle for confirmation.  

The intelligent answer to the gasoline engine problem is the progress now being made on inventing more efficient propulsion methods for cars, which many smart people think is much less than 20 years from success.  

Finally, on a smaller scale, we have the Safeway Corporation’s lust to build a Walmart-competitive superstore on the site of what is now a perfectly adequate neighborhood grocery story at the corner of College and Claremont. The name for the project on the most recently released version of the plans has morphed into “shopping center.” The gas station on the corner has sold out to Safeway—it closed last week—so the site is getting bigger. 

Does anyone think that the purpose of building a much much bigger store with eight satellite retail bays is to enable Claremont and Rockridge neighbors to “shop local”? Not likely, since these neighborhoods are already very well served by excellent walk-to independents like the Star Grocery, Verbrugge Meats, La Farine Bakery and Yasai Produce.  

Safeway’s obvious goal is to create a regional draw, bringing ever more cars into an already congested area with merchandise delivered by mammoth trucks from far away. 

Oh, they say, but it will be a LEED-certified building. Not nearly good enough. It will still be a new building, and an unnecessary one. 

The Planet's in-house science adviser, who reads widely about the climate change problem and gets a lot of detailed information about scientific progress in solving it from his Caltech alumni magazine, explains it this way: 

Every ton of carbon which we emit in the form of carbon dioxide in 2009 will stay in the atmosphere for 1000 years. Half-measures, reducing our contribution to greenhouse gasses by 20 percent or 50 percent or even 80 percent, are not going to work.  

Large scale solutions for using solar and wind and other renewable sources of energy which won’t add to our carbon footprint are very close but not here yet. Until these are on line, it's much better not to produce any new CO2 unless it's absolutely necessary. Then future generations won't have to deal with it at all. 

That means continuing to use the perfectly adequate old Safeway until it really wears out, not building a new one, no matter how LEED-pretty it seems to be, because all building adds carbon. It means thinking twice about that new Prius, if your old Corolla is still perking along. Operating a new model would be somewhat more efficient, true, but consider the energy it takes to manufacture the Prius.  

It means telling UC administrators that instead of building a forest of new high rises downtown, they should take pay cuts and give their service employees raises so that they can afford existing Berkeley housing.  

The bible for scientifically-minded people who worry about the plethora of phony small-time solutions to the climate change dilemma is Sustainable Energy—without the hot air by University of Cambridge Professor of Physics David J.C. MacKay.  

It’s available all sorts of ways, including free online at withouthotair.com. His prose is pungent, and his facts are compelling.  

A small example from page three:  

“The result of this lack of meaningful numbers and facts? We are inundated with a flood of crazy innumerate codswallop. The BBC doles out advice on how we can do our bit to save the planet—for example “switch off your mobile phone charger when it's not in use;” if anyone objects that mobile phone chargers are not actually our number one form of energy consumption, the mantra “every little [bit] helps” is wheeled out. Every little helps?  

A more realistic mantra is: if everyone does a little, we'll achieve only a little. 

This book should be required reading for every politician who wants to make conscientious decisions on the environmental matters that come before them.  

Instead, sadly, officials are most often influenced by the green-washing proganda produced by self-serving profiteers in the building industry, both developers and union representatives, or by corporations like Safeway whose only motive is the profit motive.  

Anyone who wants to see this process at work should drop in next week on the first discussion of the Safeway proposal, the scoping session which will kick off the environmental review of the plans.  

The Oakland Planning Commission will have the EIR Scoping Hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Report at Oakland City Hall, Hearing Room 1, next Wed., Nov. 18, beginning at 6 p.m. The progress of this ill-advised venture through the Oakland political system could be an environmental education in itself.