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Jan 172014

The more current the currency, the better kids eat,  according to a study that looked at how payment methods in public school lunch systems affect food choices.

Fries or Fruit

Fries or fruit, the decision may be influenced by how you’re paying.

The study, by Cornell researchers funded with a government grant, looked at two types of payment methods in public school cafeterias, those that accept only pre-loaded debit cards and those that accept cash or debit card.

Like other studies comparing cash and debit card spending, the study found that students spent more carefully when cash was involved. But the quality of those purchases also changed depending on how they were being paid for.

Students in the cash/debit cafeterias, where at least a portion of the kids were using cash, bought more fruits and vegetables (47 percent vs. 31 percent in the debit-only cafeterias) and fresh vegetables (31 percent vs. 11 percent in the debit-only cafeterias.)

The immediacy of the spending (cash vs. a card), seemed to have an impact on food choices. Researchers hypothesized that when the students were more aware of their spending, they were also seemingly more attuned to the consequences of their food choices.

In other words, the immediacy of the spending seemed to serve as a reminder or trigger for considering the healthfulness of the food. One  sneaky factor may have been that the kids were more aware that they were spending mom and dad’s money.

But there was another factor in play. Limited by a finite amount of cash in hand, versus a debit card backed by a fuzzy and deep well of cash, students were more likely to buy the full meal deal offered in public schools. The full meal, an entree with vegetable and fruit sides is a better value, more food for the money, and also healthier, because it follows government guidelines. This was another facet tilting the kids toward choosing better foods.

Those with with debit cards, by contrast, were more likely to buy more expensive, and less healthy ala carte items, fried sides and sweet desserts.

Here’s a synopsis from the study, published in the journal Obesity:

Without debit cards, students use cash to purchase lunch, in most cases provided by their parents. Those receiving the free lunch would only be allowed to purchase the standard lunch under either system. For those not receiving the free lunch, parents may give their child just enough cash each school day to purchase the standard lunch. Thus, in order to buy a la carte items, which are often less healthy options, a child must forego purchasing the standard lunch. Spending is limited to the amount of money physically present in hand. Alternatively, with debit accounts, a child is typically endowed with a large amount of money that can be drawn down daily. Parents pay for several weeks’ or months’ worth of lunches in advance, resulting in little to no control over individual transactions. With such large sums of money, it may be difficult for parents to gauge how long the money should last if spent wisely. This may lead children to generally greater spending on lunch.

The researchers concluded:

School payment systems with cash options are associated with a lower purchase incidence of less healthy foods and higher purchase incidence of more healthy foods. It should be noted that some debit systems (e.g., NutriKids®) allow parents to set daily limits on spending or to restrict purchases of certain items. Such systems still provide schools with convenience while allowing parents to guide or control student lunch choices. . . .

Importantly, these results point toward payment systems as being a potentially overlooked means to guide the selection of foods in schools. If the use of cash versus credit or debit cards can nudge a student into making slightly healthier choices, there may be a wide range of interventions—such as a “cash for cookies” policy—that encourages students to think twice before making their selection. More work, including experimental studies, is needed to examine the long-term impacts of various debit systems on student purchases and determine whether this association is causal in nature.

Aug 142013

From Green Right Now Reports

For the past 7 years, Sierra magazine has ranked the “Coolest Schools” in the U.S.

Farming at the University of Connecticut, the No. 1 Cool School.

Farming at the University of Connecticut, the No. 1 Cool School. (Photo: Sierra magazine)

This has nothing to do with the concentration of hipsters or chilled beer kegs on campus, however. It’s all about cooling the planet and applauding the colleges that are taking major strides toward fighting climate change and resource depletion by reducing their carbon footprint.

The contest rates the participating schools on a wide range of programs, giving points for waste reduction, recycling, energy conservation, green power, verifiable carbon emissions reductions, energy efficient buildings, local food programs, sustainability course offerings, sustainability “literacy” and research into carbon-lowering strategies that can be used on campus and in the wider world.

The University of Connecticut, which won this year’s top spot, has embedded green ideas in its curriculum and daily activities, according to Sierra magazine which today released its rankings of 162 participating schools.

UConn offers nearly 600 sustainability-related classes, which are taught by a faculty that’s focused on the environmental  aspects of  research that spans many topics.

Cool School 2, Solar at Dickinson College

Installing a solar panel at Dickinson College, the No. 2 Cool School. (Photo: Sierra magazine)

The Sierra contest gives a lot of weight to a college’s green curricula because, as Sierra blogger Avital Andrew says, “the most powerful renewable energy resource these campuses generate is freshly educated young people.”

In addition, UConn has cut its water use by 15 percent in two years, retrofitted 13 buildings to be more energy efficient and converted its cafeteria menu options to be 30 percent vegetarian (because commercial livestock production contributes heavily to carbon pollution and forest loss). Some of the food is harvested on campus and more than 25 percent is processed locally.

What’s more, the University of Connecticut has risen on the Cool Schools list from No. 49 three years ago, showing that any campus can transform itself into a green community if chooses to make sustainability a priority.

Campus size also is no hindrance to going all out for the planet. Tiny Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, is the No. 2 Cool School this year. It has a student population of just 2,380, but has been pursuing big plans for recycling and energy reduction for several years.

Since  2006 Dickinson students have been collecting grease from local restaurants to power the campus vehicles. The school aims to be carbon neutral (net zero emissions) by 2020, and has already bought enough wind power to offset all its electrical use. It has also reduced its paper consumption by 60 percent since 2009, an issue some campuses are still just beginning to address.

Other campuses on the 2013 top 10 list include several that appear perennially near the top of the Cool School rankings. These  include the University of California at Davis (#4)…at Irvine (#3) and at  Santa Barbara.

UC Irvine students study Mono Lake, and how to save it.

UC Irvine students study Mono Lake, and how to save it. (Photo: Sierra magazine)

UC Irvine is a hot bed of green energy experimentation, with solar panels, a 19 megawatt cogeneration facility and a requirement that all new buildings be Silver LEED certified by the US Green Building Council.

UC Davis, which was last year’s No. 1, is known for agricultural research and its on-campus farmer’s market. The school diverts 60 percent of its trash from the landfill and is aiming for 100 percent diversion by 2020.

UC Santa Barbara boasts 44 LEED certified buildings and 321 classes pertaining to sustainability. About half of the food served is grown locally (albeit by leveraging the California advantage) and 75 percent of the waste is diverted to recycling and composting.

These campuses have shown a consistent commitment to green living, as have others that made the Top 10 this year, such as Green Mountain College (#6) American University (#9) and Georgia Institute of Technology (#8).

Green Mountain College in Poultney, VT, bases its entire curriculum on environmental sustainability, and has already achieved carbon neutrality with the help of a biomass plant that burns local wood chips, heating and powering much of the small campus of 637 students. It also powers itself via methane from cow waste, a green two-fer that harnesses methane gases instead of letting them rise into the atmosphere.

Georgia Tech in Atlanta is a Tree Campus USA, a builder of energy efficient LEED certified buildings and a believer in mass transit. Students car pool, ride natural gas-powered buses and bike to the urban campus of 21,000 students. In addition, students have been recycling for a couple decades, diverting 600 tons of waste annually.

American University won plaudits for its campus-wide composting program and its goal to be carbon neutral by 2020. The university of 12,700 students, nestled in the nation’s capital, was last year’s RecycleMania national champion and also counts 30 buildings on track for LEED silver designation.

Cool School 5 Cornell

Cornell students collecting recyclables. (Photo: Sierra magazine)

Just one Ivy League college made this year’s Top Ten (though Harvard University put in a respectable appearance at #15).

Cornell University (#5), which can now lay claim to being the greenest Ivy (per Sierra anyway), makes a return appearance in the Top 10. The Ithaca, NY, university offers 340 sustainability-related classes across many disciplines as well as a minor in climate change. The campus has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050 and has recently added 1 million square feet of new buildings without increasing energy consumption, due to energy reduction programs.  Cornell students also grow food at a campus farm, where they also try out sustainable agriculture techniques, an exercise vital to those studying agriculture, forest and land management at this land grant college.

Stanford University (#7) also makes a return appearance on the list, cited for its plans for a new energy facility that will halve campus’ carbon emissions and reduce water use by 20 percent. This selective university has only about 15,000 undergraduates and graduates, but still offers about 700 sustainability-related classes. “The Farm” as it’s known, has its own farm for local food production, as well as an ambitious food reclamation program that involves donating excess to hunger relief.

Check for your school on the full listing at Sierraclub.org.

Aug 132013

Whether or not you believe a global food crisis is looming as humans continue to test earth’s ability to provide, you’re likely to be intrigued by some of the fascinating solutions being proposed to relieve pressures on traditional agriculture.

One idea that’s taken root, though not necessarily in the soil, involves building vertical farms in urban centers by employing hydroponics and aeroponics — growing edibles without soil or pesticides — by creatively using spaces already available within the urban environment.

Cornell Hydro wall II Carly Dean

The Hydroponic Bottle Wall grows herbs in wine bottles, while providing light and a focal point for Stella’s Bar and Restaurant. (Photo: Carly Dean)

Dr. Dickson Despommier, a Columbia University professor, has been developing and promoting this idea, with fascinating results in various places, including just down the road in upstate New York.

Students XXXXXX, XXXXXX, and Carly Dean with Dr. Despommier (left center).

Students Nicholas Cassab-Gheta, Peter Gudonis and Carly Dean with Dr. Despommier (left center).

Inspired by Dr. Despommier, who was a visiting professor, and the possibilities of “productive technologies” and “growing facades,” a team of students at Cornell University created an urban agriculture wall that is an art installation, lighting solution, indoor herb garden and homage to recycling.

The Hydroponic Bottle Wall, installed at Stella’s Bar and Restaurant in Ithaca this past spring, is both “productive” and beautiful. It shows how urban design can help push sustainability forward.

Fourth-year architecture students Peter Gudonis, Carly Dean and Nicholas Cassab-Gheta designed and built the wall, with funding from the Cornell Council for the Arts, Stella’s Bar and Restaurant and GreenTree.

A detail shows how the herbs are exposed to light and irrigated.

A detail shows how the herbs are exposed to light and irrigated. (Photo: Carly Dean)

The 8 x 6 foot wall (made of plywood) holds 24 used red wine bottles, which are filled with clay pellets (the soil substitute) and irrigated from a system behind the wall. A grow light, which doubles as lighting for Stella’s lower bar, completes the system.

This demonstration project shows how even a small-scale installation, made from all local and recycled products, can help augment local food supplies. The restaurant, which already focuses on local and sustainable foods, uses the mint, chives and basil grown on the wall in food dishes and drinks.

Jul 102012

From the Cornell University Press Office

ITHACA, N.Y. – No matter how you drill it, using natural gas as an energy source is a smart move in the battle against global climate change and a good transition step on the road toward low-carbon energy from wind, solar and nuclear power.

Natural gas burner (Photo: Naturalgas.org.)

That is the conclusion of a new study by Cornell Professor Lawrence M. Cathles, published in the most recent edition of the peer-reviewed journal Geochemistry, Geophysics and Geosystems. Cathles, a faculty member in Cornell’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, reviewed the most recent government and industry data on natural gas “leakage rates” during extraction, as well as recently developed climate models.

He concluded that no matter the time frame considered, substituting natural gas energy for all coal and some oil production provides about 40 percent of the global warming benefit that a complete switch to low-carbon sources would deliver.

“From a greenhouse point of view, it would be better to replace coal electrical facilities with nuclear plants, wind farms and solar panels, but replacing them with natural gas stations will be faster, cheaper and achieve 40 percent of the low-carbon-fast benefit,” Cathles writes in the study. “Gas is a natural transition fuel that could represent the biggest stabilization wedge available to us.”

Cathles study, Assessing the Greenhouse Impact of Natural Gas,” includes additional findings about expanding the use of natural gas as an energy source, and the climate impact of “unconventional” gas drilling methods, including hydraulic fracturing in shale formations. They include:

  • Although a more rapid transition to natural gas from coal and some oil produces a greater overall benefit for climate change, the 40-percent of low-carbon energy benefit remains no matter how quickly the transition is made, and no matter the effect of ocean modulation or other climate regulating forces.
  • Although some critics of natural gas as a transition fuel have cited leakage rates as high as 8 percent or more of total production during drilling – particularly hydraulic fracturing extraction – more recent industry data and a critical examination of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data supports leakage rates closer to 1.5 percent for both conventional and hydrofractured wells.
  • Even at higher leakage rates, using natural gas as a transition to low-carbon energy sources is still a better policy than “business as usual” with coal and oil, due to the different rates of decay (and hence long-term global warming effect) of CO2 released in greater amounts by burning coal and oil and any methane released during natural gas extraction.*
  • Using natural gas as a transition fuel supports the push to low-carbon sources by providing the “surge capacity” when needed, or a buffer when solar and wind production wanes.

“The most important message of the calculations reported here is that substituting natural gas for coal and oil is a significant way to reduce greenhouse forcing, regardless of how long the substitution takes,” Cathles writes. “A faster transition to low-carbon energy sources would decrease greenhouse warming further, but the substitution of natural gas for other fossil fuels is equally beneficial in percentage terms no matter how fast the transition.”

Cathles’ research received no outside funding.

*[Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas, but it diminishes in the atmosphere after several years, whereas carbon emissions take decades to decline, or "decay". -- editor]







Jun 062012

From Cornell University

ITHACA, N.Y. – The dramatic melt-off of Arctic sea ice due to climate change is hitting closer to home than millions of Americans might think.

Arctic Sea Ice Extent Sept. 2011 (Image: NASA)

That’s because melting Arctic sea ice can trigger a domino effect leading to increased odds of severe winter weather outbreaks in the Northern Hemisphere’s middle latitudes – think the “Snowmageddon” storm that hamstrung Washington, D.C., during February 2010.

Cornell’s Charles H. Greene, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, and Bruce C. Monger, senior research associate in the same department, detail this phenomenon in a paper published in the June issue of the journal Oceanography.

“Everyone thinks of Arctic climate change as this remote phenomenon that has little effect on our everyday lives,” Greene said. “But what goes on in the Arctic remotely forces our weather patterns here.”

A warmer Earth increases the melting of sea ice during summer, exposing darker ocean water to incoming sunlight. This causes increased absorption of solar radiation and excess summertime heating of the ocean – further accelerating the ice melt. The excess heat is released to the atmosphere, especially during the autumn, decreasing the temperature and atmospheric pressure gradients between the Arctic and middle latitudes.

A diminished latitudinal pressure gradient is associated with a weakening of the winds associated with the polar vortex and jet stream. Since the polar vortex normally retains the cold Arctic air masses up above the Arctic Circle, its weakening allows the cold air to invade lower latitudes.

The recent observations present a new twist to the Arctic Oscillation – a natural pattern of climate variability in the Northern Hemisphere. Before humans began warming the planet, the Arctic’s climate system naturally oscillated between conditions favorable and those unfavorable for invasions of cold Arctic air.

“What’s happening now is that we are changing the climate system, especially in the Arctic, and that’s increasing the odds for the negative AO conditions that favor cold air invasions and severe winter weather outbreaks,” Greene said. “It’s something to think about given our recent history,”

This past winter, an extended cold snap descended on central and Eastern Europe in mid-January, with temperatures approaching minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit and snowdrifts reaching rooftops. And there were the record snowstorms fresh in the memories of residents from several eastern U.S. cities, such as Washington, New York and Philadelphia, as well as many other parts of the Eastern Seaboard during the previous two years.

Greene and Monger did note that their paper is being published just after one of the warmest winters in the eastern U.S. on record.

“It’s a great demonstration of the complexities of our climate system and how they influence our regional weather patterns,” Greene said.

In any particular region, many factors can have an influence, including the El Nino/La Nina cycle. This winter, La Nina in the Pacific shifted undulations in the jet stream so that while many parts of the Northern Hemisphere were hit by the severe winter weather patterns expected during a bout of negative AO conditions, much of the eastern United States basked in the warm tropical air that swung north with the jet stream.

“It turns out that while the eastern U.S. missed out on the cold and snow this winter, and experienced record-breaking warmth during March, many other parts of the Northern Hemisphere were not so fortunate,” Greene said.

Europe and Alaska experienced record-breaking winter storms, and the global average temperature during March 2012 was cooler than any other March since 1999.

“A lot of times people say, ‘Wait a second, which is it going to be – more snow or more warming?’ Well, it depends on a lot of factors, and I guess this was a really good winter demonstrating that,” Greene said. “What we can expect, however, is the Arctic wildcard stacking the deck in favor of more severe winter outbreaks in the future.”

Jan 202012

From Green Right Now Reports

Groups protesting natural gas drilling have focused on the threat to water supplies. They point to the modern drilling or “fracking” methods, which shatter rock deep beneath the earth, opening fissures that threaten water stores; and they cite cases of wells being contaminated near fracking operations in Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

Now new research by three Cornell University scientists suggests that fracking could cause even more havoc with the atmosphere

They say the natural gas industry is responsible for about 39 percent of US methane emissions, which calls into question whether natural gas can be the cleaner “bridge fuel” that it’s been portrayed to be by the industry and many policymakers. Natural gas has won favor from many government leaders because it burns more cleanly than gasoline or coal.

The Cornell research, however, looks at the pollution caused by natural gas production, as opposed to consumption, concluding that its extraction contributes greatly to climate change.

The natural gas industry currently accounts for about 17 percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions, when carbon dioxide, methane and other gases are counted, according to the researchers. They predict that will grow to around 23 percent as fracking methods replace conventional drilling techniques.

Because methane is many times more potent than carbon dioxide in acting as a warming blanket in the earth’s atmosphere, the methane releases from fracking will be particularly damaging, they said.

“We believe the preponderance of evidence indicates shale gas has a larger greenhouse gas footprint than conventional gas, considered over any time scale,” said Robert W. Howarth, David R. Atkinson professor, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University.

“The greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas also exceeds that of oil or coal when considered at decadal time scales, no matter how the gas is used.  We stand by the conclusion of our 2011 research: ‘The large [greenhouse gas] footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming.’”

The report, “Venting and Leaking of Methane from Shale Gas Development,” is being published by Climatic Change and can be seen online. Its authors, Howarth and Renee Santoro, are researchers in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. Co-author Athony Ingraffea is a professor in the School of Civil an Environmental Engineering.

The study follows up on their April 2011 paper, which analyzed greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas obtained by hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” The research looked at emissions from shale gas used for electricity generation (about 30 percent of US usage) and heat generation, according to a Cornell statement.

Ingraffea, Dwight C. Baum professor, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Cornell University, says the findings call into question the plans to use natural gas as a bridge fuel for heating and power plants.  “Upgrading the pipelines alone for this type of project would require large expenditures, he said.

“Should society invest massive capital in such improvements for a bridge fuel that is to be used for only 20 to 30 years, or would the capital be better spent on constructing a smart electric grid and other technologies that move towards a truly green energy future?”

Nov 182011

From Green Right Now Reports

Gotham City now has its own bee, one of 11 new bee species discovered by a Cornell University researcher collaborating with the American Museum of Natural History.

Lasioglossum gotham is one of 11 new bees discovered in the Eastern U.S. It earned its “Gotham” tag because it is one of four found living in New York City and its suburbs. All 11 new bees were detailed in the article, “Revision of the metallic Lasioglossum (Dialictus) of eastern North America,” in the peer-reviewed journal Zootaxa in October.

Jason Gibbs, the Cornell post-doctoral researcher in entomology who discovered the bees and author of the Zootaxa paper, used the extensive bee collections at Cornell University, York University in Toronto, and the American Museum of Natural History, among others, to confirm the new species. All 11 of the newly discovered species are tiny “sweat bees,” which earned their name from their innate attraction to the salt in human sweat.

“It’s remarkable that so many bees are able to live in such a major urban area,” Gibbs said in a statement. “Natural areas like urban parks and rooftop and botanical gardens provide the nesting sites and floral diversity that bees need.”

The Gotham bee has been a busy bee, quietly living in anonymity in New York City, pollinating flowers in parks and people’s small gardens.

More on the Web:

Apr 122011

From Green Right Now Reports

A Cornell review of natural gas extraction methods reveals that ‘fracking’ gas from the Marcellus Shale region of New York and Pennsylvania could release dangerous amounts of methane gas, causing more damage to the atmosphere per pound than even carbon dioxide.

Natural gas, which burns cleaner (producing less carbon dioxide) than gasoline, diesel fuel and coal has been touted as a greener “bridge fuel” that could power cars and replace coal in power plants. Tailpipe emissions from natural gas-powered vehicles emit few greenhouse gases.

But Cornell ecologist Robert Howarth warns that the natural gas extraction or drilling process releases dangerous amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. The methane leakage is the worse when the gas is accessed by the hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ methods that have become popular with the industry. Fracking is a way of teasing out deeply embedded gas deposits using high pressure water injections in wells that run both vertically and horizontally through shale deposits.

Natural gas, in fact, is mostly methane, and pound for pound has 105 times more warming impact than carbon dioxide, says Howarth, in a statement on the Cornell study, which is being published in the May issue of the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change Letters.

Even small leaks from gas wells can be damaging, Howarth says, because as much as 8 percent of the methane in shale gas leaks into the air during the lifetime of a hydraulic shale gas well. The leakage can be double that of a conventional gas well.

“The take-home message of our study is that … shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil,” Howarth said. “We are not advocating for more coal or oil, but rather to move to a truly green, renewable future as quickly as possible. We need to look at the true environmental consequences of shale gas.”

Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology, Tony Ingraffea, professor of engineering, and Renee Santoro, a research technician in ecology and evolutionary biology, analyzed data from published sources, industry reports and the Environmental Protection Agency to compile their study.

They compared estimated emissions for shale gas, conventional gas, coal (surface-mined and deep-mined) and diesel oil, taking into account direct emissions of CO2 during combustion, indirect emissions of CO2 necessary to develop and use the energy source and methane emissions, which were converted to equivalent value of CO2 for global warming potential, according to a Cornell University statement on the study.

Aug 092010

By Brett Kessler
Green Right Now

This year is well on its way to becoming the hottest year the world has seen since scientists began record-keeping in 1880. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the rising worldwide temperatures are responsible for erratic weather – including severe droughts and heat waves.

A Weeping Willow (Photo: Green Right Now)

What does this mean for your lawn and trees? Two experts from Cornell University have some advice that may surprise you.

“Let the lawn go dormant,” says Frank Rossi, professor of horticulture. “Most of the lawn grasses will survive four to six weeks without significant rainfall. In most cases, they’ll green up again in late summer or early fall when the rain returns and the temperatures moderate.”

Cool-season lawn grasses, he says, are adapted to the harsh heat of summertime. Watering, in many cases, only “encourages lawn diseases and weeds.”

That’s not the case for trees and shrubs, which stand to benefit the most from additional moisture, says Nina Bassuk, also a Cornell professor of horticulture.

“Don’t give up on trees and shrubs that have shed their leaves,” she says. In times of drought, many plants dry up, but this doesn’t mean they have died. “Go ahead and water them. It’s better late than never. If they’re still alive, they’ll grow new leaves.”

“Newly planted trees and shrubs are particularly vulnerable,” Bassuk warns, ”because their root systems aren’t fully developed. They have a harder time foraging for moisture. Depending on the species, site and planting practices, that might mean keeping two- to five-year-old plantings carefully watered during dry periods, hopefully preventing drought-caused leaf damage or loss in the first place.”

For more tips for helping your plants beat the heat, visit the Cornell University Department of Horticulture blog.

Copyright © 2010 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

Jul 192010

By Francesca Rheannon
Green Right Now

Biochar has emerged over the last couple years as a ray of hope on the otherwise bleak horizon of the planet’s environmental future. It has been hailed as a possible solution to climate change, world hunger, and rural poverty — though doubts are being raised in some quarters.

Last year, some of the world’s most eminent biochar experts gathered for a biochar conference at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to discuss this ancient technology that is getting a new look by scientists, governments and investors.  To the packed audience, this promising technology sounded like a panacea for a whole host of problems. Biochar, the speakers said, could soak up large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, supercharge soil fertility to feed the world’s hungry, promote jobs and economic opportunities for farmers, safely get rid of animal and plant waste, heat buildings greenly, and slash the kind of fertilizer use that is creating vast dead zones in coastal waters from nitrogen runoff.

“We see the synergisms in terms of food security, energy security, rural economic development and climate change working together,” the USDA’s David Laird explained between conference sessions. Laird runs the biochar research program at the agency’s National Laboratory For Agriculture and The Environment in Ames, Iowa.

Created by burning plant matter or animal wastes at low temperatures (pyrolysis), biochar has been around for centuries. The ancient indigenous civilizations of the Amazon may have supported their large populations on the rich soil, called “terra preta”, they created when they made charcoal – soils far more fertile than even those naturally occurring in the rainforest. These soils not only yield more crops, they also – critically for our warming planet — store carbon, sequestering it in the ground where it can be kept safely out of the atmosphere for hundreds or even a thousand years.

But can what the ancients did be replicated today?

Critics charge that the Amazonian terra preta was built up slowly over centuries in a process we still don’t understand. They question whether we know how to make biochar stable enough to sequester carbon over the centuries we will need to bring the earth’s atmosphere back within pre-fossil fuel era limits.

Biochar and the carbon cycle (Image: Cornell University)

But Cornell soil scientist Johannes Lehmann, author of the definitive scientific study of biochar, said in an interview last week that the evidence is getting stronger that biochar can store carbon in the soils safely over the long term.  “Biochar is stable,” he says. “Charring prolongs the life and increases the stability by 1.5 and 2 orders of magnitude; instead of half of the carbon in the soil decomposing in ten years, it will take a thousand years to decompose.”

How long it really takes depends on where you are, Lehmann cautioned. “For a leaf falling in Alaska, the carbon will normally stay in the soil in a hundred years (without charring); in Nigeria, it will only stay a week,” he says “but the critical point is that charring increases stability everywhere.”

David Laird says the problem is that biochar is not a simple system. “We think of charcoal and immediately we think of having a barbecue in the backyard and a bag of charcoal. But the reality is, there are many different forms of charcoal.” There’s good char and bad char, he told me – and what may be good on one type of soil may be bad for another – something biochar entrepreneurs need to know to make sure they use the right kind of char under the right conditions. “We need to think about char by soil, by crop, by climate interactions, and ultimately optimize systems that work.”

But other problems may not be so easily remedied by providing better scientific information to entrepreneurs.  Climate change journalist George Monbiot set off a fierce debate last year when he lambasted biochar as more hype than hope and charged that “charleaders” like NASA climatologist Jim Hansen and scientist James Lovelock (creator of the Gaia Hypothesis) would be “pyrolising the planet in the name of saving it.”

The problem stems not so much from the science as from the business model for biochar. Bringing biochar into the market for trading carbon credits – which is being considered by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)  for inclusion in UN Certified Emission Reductions (CER) and Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – would kickstart biochar production on an industrial scale. It would create a market for biochar carbon offsets that polluters would buy. That means biochar companies would need enough biomass to fuel their furnaces – and their bottom lines. That could mean more than a billion hectares worldwide devoted to biochar.

Where would the biomass on such a massive scale come from? From monocultural tree plantations, which could take over arable land, be carved out of existing natural forests, or displace pastoralists and nomads from so-called “marginal” lands – lands that don’t have a commercial value on the global market, but that provide habitat for diverse species and sustenance for the largely poor people who depend on them. And if native forests are cut down to feed biochar furnaces, their ability to capture carbon out of the atmosphere will be lost.

Johannes Lehmann says carbon trading mechanisms must look at the full life cycle of the biochar getting the credits. For example, is it displacing natural forests without replacing them? Is it being transported long distances using fossil fuels? Is it using more energy to produce char than it saves? Is it staying long enough in the soil? He advocates using agricultural waste, like rice straw in India, which is already being burned but not being turned into char or being returned to the soil.

But biochar doesn’t have to be produced on a large-scale commercial basis in order to accomplish the wonders for which it’s been touted. Small farmers all over the world can pyrolize their agricultural waste, turn it into energy for heat and use it to enhance soil fertility. Small-scale biochar technology is not expensive – you can build a tin-can pyrolizer in your garage, and backyard inventors are creating models that can be used on the small to medium scale for farms and communities.

Municipal governments can use it to turn garbage into compost and energy. Portable biochar furnaces could, for example, be leased from local manufacturers in western states to turn forests devastated by the pine bark beetle into usable fertilizer. (They may have to compete with those who want these dead pine trees for biofuel).

The real question is: Will biochar become a feedstock for profits by global companies who use their clout to water down or kill environmental regulations? Or will it be a feedstock fueling solutions to humanity’s most pressing problems? The jury is still out.

For more about biochar see these resources:

Francesca Rheannon writes about sustainability and corporate social responsibility. She is a contributing writer for CSRwire.com and co-manages the CSRwire blog, Talkback. She is also host and producer of the weekly radio show and podcast, Writers Voice.

Copyright © 2010 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

Jul 152010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Gulf-area biologists and researchers from Cornell University have discovered that birds on previously unaffected Raccoon Island have been newly oiled, apparently because of waves of crude driven in by winds from Hurricane Alex.

Brown Pelicans at Raccoon Island show contact with oil. (Photo: Gerrit Vyn, Cornell Lab of Ornithology).

The AP reported Wednesday that the oil appears to affect a population of 300 pelicans nesting on the island and hundreds of terns on Louisiana’s largest coastal bird colony, raising questions about whether the federal government’s tallies of affected birds are underestimating the number of oiled birds. The government counts only birds brought in for rehabilitation or found dead from oil exposure.

The damage also is an ominous portent for chicks that hatched on the island, but now face a murky future as oil continues to pollute their habitat.

Raccoon Island, a  rookery off the coast of Louisiana, had escaped earlier damage when the team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology visited in mid June. Then, it found that the large water bird colony, home to some 10,000 birds, was oil free and it inhabitants in good health.

But when the team, led by biologist and multimedia producer Marc Dantzker, visited earlier this week (on July 11-12), it found oil present on rocks and all along the beaches, as had been reported by local biologists. Almost all of the young brown pelicans had some visible oil on them, about 30-40 percent had significant oiling and an estimated 10 percent were deemed “badly oiled,” according to a statement from the Cornell researchers.

Oiled boom off the coast of Raccoon Island, a narrow strip of land along Louisiana's coast (Photo: Gerrit Vyn, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

Higher waves from the hurricane and the full moon likely caused floating oil to breach the boom protecting the area, Dantzker said.

“The island has a single line of inshore boom on the bay side, and in some places this boom showed signs that oil splashed over the top and there was oil on shore behind these booms,” Dantzker said. “What Gulf-side boom there previously was has been destroyed and is washed up in piles, or deep into the island.”

Dantzker said the damage to Raccoon Island is the worst he’s seen since the BP oil spill began, and that many of the birds will die as a result of their contact with the oil.

An oiled pelican, brown in places where the plummage is normally white, on Raccoon Island. (Photo: Gerrit Vyn, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

Raccoon Island, part of the state’s barrier islands, was seriously damaged by Hurricane Andrew in the 1990s. But it has been restored, with the state planting vegetation and building up the shoreline.

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Jul 132010

From Green Right Now Reports

While tar balls, oil-covered birds and dying turtles are the prevailing images of the Gulf oil spill, at least one marine biologist believes the public many not fully grasp the scope of the disaster.

“Birds, sea turtles, and dolphins get most of the press, but all marine organisms in the Gulf of Mexico are threatened by the catastrophic oil spill,” says Paula Mikkelsen, a visiting fellow in Cornell University’s department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and an associate director of the Cornell-affiliated Paleontological Research Institution. “Every habitat – from intertidal oyster bars and mangroves to deepwater sand plains — depends upon clean water to survive.”

Mikkelsen is no stranger to the Gulf Coast region, having spent 20 years at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, Fla.

“Over 15,000 species of animals and plants are known to inhabit the Gulf of Mexico,” she said. “Most of these live well below the surface, and so little attention has been paid to them by the clean-up efforts.

“The trouble is, there is no rescue or clean-up procedure for these organisms. Oil in the water or their food sources will kill them. It’s one, big, complex marine ecosystem out there – and when one part of it fails, others will follow.

“The Gulf of Mexico is intimately connected to South Florida by the Loop Current, a main source of larvae for America’s only living coral reefs off the Florida Keys – the third largest reef system in the world. Oil has already been detected in the Loop Current. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

“Is everything going to die? Probably not – marine animals and plants, despite their delicate nature, can and often do rebound from disasters such as this. But we can expect that there will be loss, and we can expect substantial, perhaps permanent, changes to the marine communities of the Gulf of Mexico and possibly the Florida Keys for a long time to come.”