Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Choose Organics for a Healthy Body and Planet

Despite many attempts to weaken it by industry lobbyists, the organic standard in the United States is one of the few strong standards we can still count on for ensuring that products were made free from toxic chemicals and genetic modification. As such, we can generally rely on the “organic” label to help guide us towards wiser purchases. Unlike the word “natural”, which has essentially zero meaning, when we buy things that have been grown organically, we are not only choosing something that is likely to be much better for our family's health, but we are casting votes for a better planet for all of us.

Pesticide and GMO Hazards
So why should we care about organic products? First of all, if it's not organic, there's a good chance it's been cultivated with copious amounts of extremely toxic chemicals–pesticides which were developed from WWII chemical warfare research–aimed at killing anything that may harm crops. Unfortunately, these extremely toxic chemicals (many of which are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and other diseases) have a huge negative impact on the natural environment and on our bodies’ health. Secondly, many popular non-organic crops are composed of genetically modified organisms, GMO's for short. These new genetic laboratory creations—which have been largely rejected by Europeans—can be strange conglomerations of dramatically different life forms into one “food” product. Examples include crossing flounder fish genes with strawberries to make them more resistant to frost, and crossing bacteria with potatoes to make them lethal to insects that eat them. I personally believe that the use of GMO's in consumer products is an unfortunate mass human experiment which has been foisted upon us. We are only now just beginning to understand some of the many negative impacts of GMO's on us and the environment. Look for more information in future posts on this topic.

Organic Guidelines
In order to be certified organic, farmers must follow strict guidelines to ensure that not only no chemicals are used in growing the current crop but that no chemicals have been used on that land for some period of prior years. This includes chemical fertilizers, chemical pesticides, and other chemical treatments. And, so far, the organic label also ensures that the crops were grown without GMO's. The organic standard in the US also precludes the use of irradiation, antibiotics (for animals), and sewage sludge on crops.

Priorities for Buying Organic
Can I honestly say that 100% of what I buy is organic? Of course not. Organic options do not even exist for many things. However, I certainly aim to buy mainly organic products–especially when it comes to foods and personal care products–as these are the ones which not only have a large impact on the environment but have the largest impact on our health. Further, there are some things that given the choice are more important to be organic than not. For example, I refuse to buy soybean or corn products which, if not organic, at least are non-GMO since most of the other corn and soybean crops are grown with chemical pesticides and GMO's. I tend to make fruit and vegetables in which we eat the skin a higher priority to be organic than the ones in which we throw away the peel–given that much of the chemical contamination happens externally in the form of spraying. I also make a high priority of using organic personal care products (as well as those without other nasty chemical compound ingredients period). I would also make a high priority of buying organic products—especially food—for pregnant & nursing mothers, babies, and young children who are especially susceptible to the ill effects of chemicals.

Keep Increasing the Demand
Organic crops have traveled from the fringes to land squarely in the mainstream and are now purchased by a vast majority of people in the US. Production of organic crops has doubled since the 1990’s and demand has been even higher. This is a trend that should continue to be stoked by our consumer clout—for healthier families and a sustainable environment. So, when you have a choice, choose organic!

Resources for more info:
Organic Trade Association
Wikipedia on Organic Certification
Organic Consumers Association

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Super-Efficiency with Renewables to Forge a Stabilized Climate: Inspiration from the US Passive House Conference

I won't attempt to do justice to the whole 5th Annual US Passive House conference recently held here in Portland, but I do want to highlight a few points from the event which I found inspirational and insightful.

The welcome by Portland Mayor, Sam Adams, set the tone for the conference when he noted, "being recognized as the most sustainable city in the US is high praise on a low standard.” He spoke of the intention in Portland to orient neighborhoods around a 20-minute walk given that two thirds of transportation use is not commuting to work, but for shopping and other trips. And he spoke of the need for increased building efficiency by underscoring that, “the most valuable thing is the watt not used from the grid.”

Jens Lausten, senior energy efficiency policy analyst at the International Energy Agency, highlighted energy efficiency as the critical part of a sustainable energy future saying, “If we can't do buildings right, we might as well forget about climate change.” Lausten was responsible for the IEA recommendations on energy efficiency in buildings and other G-8 related policy work on buildings. He said that energy efficiency alone needs to deliver more than half of the needed abatement, energy efficiency and renewables need to make up more than 75%, while nuclear—in the best case—could only make up 10%. In other words, we have to focus on efficiency. Further he pointed out that when we increase building efficiency we become richer since we get the reduction for free versus carbon sequestration, which we'd have to pay for.

Lausten claims that most studies on energy efficiency are wrong because they're based on particular techniques like better roof insulation, better windows etc. He says instead, we need to focus on concepts and a holistic approach to efficiency which he summarized as:
1.    Passive House which is feasible in many cases,
2.    Zero energy buildings, zero carbon, and plus energy buildings (which generate a surplus of energy)
3.    Intelligent design
4.    Factor 10 efficiency renovations to Passive House standard or nearly Passive House. First, we need to get new buildings to Passive House standard, and then work to retrofit existing buildings.

He says that if we want large-scale reductions in energy and carbon, we need to address policies, and pointed out that if we don't put these requirements for efficiency in building codes, we don't get a lot of results.
Affordable townhomes being built to Passive House standard
by Habitat for Humanity in Washington, DC

Robert Hastings, professor emeritus of the Donau University Krems-Austria and an energy consultant and architect, compared the American and European paths to super-efficient buildings and Passive House from the solar air heated parlor developed in 1881 by Edward Morse, to the early solar air systems developed in 1900 that soon led to commercialized solar collectors, to the MIT solar house of 1939, and on through the present. Having been involved in so much of the recent history himself, in both the USA and Europe, he brought a rich personal experience to this exploration. Some points he made that hit home with me include the need to look at the whole energy picture covering three sectors–industry, transportation, and buildings, and the difficulty of industry and transportation to take on a large percentage of renewables. As he says it’s “difficult to run a steel plant” or “fly large aircraft on solar power”. Therefore buildings must be the “trendsetters” and take the “brunt” of the shift to efficiency and renewables. He points to an approach of combining passive solar with day-lighting, solar thermal and solar PV generation, coupled with an extremely efficient envelope, which gives the combined result of very high renewables coverage within a dramatically reduced demand. He stated that zero energy buildings, is the path in North America.

Dr. Wolfgang Feist—the physicist founder and director of the Passive House Institute in Darmstadt, Germany—discussed the implementation of the Passive House standard worldwide. Dr. Feist pointed out that almost all countries in Europe have Passive House buildings—mostly with no incentive or government financing—and the long-term studies of Passive House buildings in action show an incredibly consistent picture of low energy use. For example, Passive House buildings in Vienna demonstrate three times less energy use than the local low-energy code buildings, while they are nearly the same cost to build. On top of that, those low energy buildings often have humidity problems that require costly remediation. There are now two Passive House buildings completed in Japan and there is even a demonstration Passive House building in Antarctica.
North Carolina's first Passive House has recently been completed

In the keynote address, physicist Amory Lovins—chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute—pointed out that saving fuel now cost less than new energy sources, although Copenhagen somehow forgot this. He said that if we drop 3-4% we could stabilize the climate and given that we've already seen cuts in some areas by 6 to 16%, it shows that such reductions are feasible. He made the point that wind power could replace 40% of coal energy generation, and that photovoltaic now cost more than a new coal plant, but soon it won't. And the total of nonnuclear alternatives can replace coal power more than 23 times, but we only need to do it once. He too focused on efficiency as critical to the whole shift that needs to happen and cited examples of the super-efficient Rocky Mountain Institute building (which BTW was a key inspiration for Dr. Feist in developing the Passive House standard) which has no furnace and uses no fossil fuels and the renovation of the Empire State building that will cut energy use by 35% and will have a payback time of just three years.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Super-Efficiency is Available Now

In honor of the fifth annual US Passive House conference taking place in our fair city of Portland, Oregon this week, I want to introduce this exciting and relatively new standard for building efficiency known as Passive House.

I have been interested for many years in efficient building approaches. In the mid 80’s I had the opportunity to visit what Amory Lovins jokingly referred to as his “banana plantation in the Rocky Mountains”—his home and office of the Rocky Mountain Institute—and saw for myself the banana trees that grew well in the middle of the snowy Rocky mountain winters (they even had to keep windows open in the winter because it was too warm). I knew, and this proved to me, that there was a better way than the terribly inefficient standards of typical home and commercial construction being pursued here. Unfortunately, we haven’t advanced much in standards of efficient construction, but there are now some inspiring opportunities if given the proper focus and support.

In January 2009 I had the pleasure of hearing about a still relatively new approach to construction that was inspired by Amory Lovins and others experimenting in the US with super-insulated buildings that was later developed—in Germany with great attention to building science—into what has become the most rigorous standard in the world for energy efficiency, what’s called in German Passivhaus and translated into English, Passive House.

While the name in English is awkward and a bit confusing (people tend to confuse it with passive solar), Passive House could be the new gold standard in efficient building. The Passive House standard does not focus on a wide range of green building elements and therefore is not a replacement of LEED and the Living Building Challenge, it does however, zero in on the linchpin of green building: energy use. The Passive House standard also does not dictate a particular construction method, but sets an extremely high—but reachable—standard for energy efficiency which ensures that homes meeting this standard use 70 to 90% less energy than typical new homes built in the US (other building types find similar reductions in energy use).

In short, the Passive House standard requires the building to meet three stringent measures of performance:
•    Maximum annual heating and cooling demand that does not exceed 15 kWh/m2/year (4.75 kBtu/sf/yr),
•    Total energy consumption of not more than 120 kWh/sq m (38.1 kBtu/sf/yr) per year, and
•    Airtight building shell of no more than 0.6 ACH @ 50 pascal pressure, measured by a blower-door test.

So what does this all mean? In short, it means that the focus is on an extremely efficient building envelope with ample insulation, strategically placed high-performance windows, very minimal thermal bridging (where heat and cold can easily transfer from inside to outside and vice versa), and efficient lighting and appliances. Further, this means that instead of a typical furnace, a single family home can be heated with a small auxiliary heater of 1000-2000 watts—when needed at all. In other words, we can trade our furnaces for something the size of a hairdryer. Also, since it creates an airtight envelope, a device (HRV-Heat Recovery Ventilator or ERV-Energy Recovery Ventilator) is used to constantly bring in fresh outside air which is warmed by the heat of the outgoing stale air from in the building, so it also enjoys an extremely high level of fresh, healthy indoor air quality.

Given the fact that US buildings currently consume ¾ of the electricity in the US—more than any other single sector—and is one of the key contributors to greenhouse gases, the opportunity to shift our new and existing building stock to this level of efficiency should be a top priority. Although the Passive House standard is just getting started in the US, it is growing quickly—following Europe’s lead, which has already built over 15 thousand buildings to this standard.

Look for more details on this in coming posts. Meanwhile, check out these links for more information:
Passive House Institute of the US
Passivhaus Institut (Germany) English site
Green Without Gizmos, Fine Homebuilding, April/May 2010
Can We Build A Brighter Shade of Green? New York Times story Sept. 2010 
Snug and Tight House, New York Times graphic 

Monday, November 1, 2010

How’s Your Food Karma?, Part II: Eco Impacts

The famous writer, Michael Pollan—himself a meat eater—said, "a vegan driving a Hummer has a smaller carbon footprint than a meat eater driving a Prius." While this comparison may be closer to a tie, the reality is our current and projected consumption of animals and all that entails—massive water consumption, nitrate pollution, methane emissions, and concentrated factory farming practices to name a few—is taking an enormous toll on our natural environment and contributing significantly to global warming.

My intent is not to make enemies out of those who—out of habit or conscious choice—consume animals for food. My intention is to point out some of the consequences and encourage people to at least practice and promote consuming less meat.

The United nations FAO undertook a comprehensive study—Livestock's Long Shadow - Environmental Issues and Options—regarding the environmental impacts of consuming animals for food in 2006. Based on that study, the FAO concluded that livestock are responsible for a larger share of greenhouse gas emissions than even transportation—18%. Further, the report estimates that livestock contributes to about 9% of total anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, 7% of methane and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions. They further conclude that we must take urgent action to correct the massive negative impact that animal production is having and is his projected to have on the environment.
Intensive animal farming produces massive amounts of waste

I remember being shocked years ago by the fact from the book Cadillac Desert that the largest water user in the state of California was not the city of Los Angeles but growing grass to graze cattle. A few other facts about animal consumption and its negative impacts on the environment include the following (from John Robbins’ Diet for a New America):
•    Three times more fossil fuels are needed to produce food for a meat centered diet than a meat free diet,
•    85% of topsoil loss is directly related to raising livestock,
•    55 square feet of tropical rainforest is destroyed for every ¼ pound of rainforest beef produced,
•    300,000,000 pounds of meat are imported to the US annually from Central and South America,
•    More than half of all water used in the US for all purposes is used for livestock production,
•    It takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat, it takes 5000 gallons of water to produce a pound of California beef,
•    If every human follows a meat centered diet the world's known oil reserves will only last 13 years, if human beings no longer ate meat they would last 260 years,
•    33% of all raw materials consumed in the US are devoted to production of livestock, 2% of all raw materials consumed in the US are needed to produce a complete vegetarian diet,

It's your choice what you eat, but let's make it a conscious choice based on the facts. We all have to decide for ourselves, and everyone has a different approach. I chose to give up animals for food all at once; some choose to wean themselves off of meat slowly. I hope you will consider giving up meat consumption entirely, and if that doesn't work, I hope you will choose to consistently reduce your consumption of animals starting now by going meat free one or two days a week, increasing the number of days each month from there.

There are lots of great resources for how to eat healthy, tasty food free from animal products. One good source is Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which has a free vegetarian starter kit.

According to Captain Paul Watson, "The bottom line is that to be a conservationist and an environmentalist, you must practice and promote vegetarianism or better yet veganism."

Here are some related links:
vegan hummer vs meat eater in a prius:
NYT article: Rethinking the  Meat Gussler