Obligatory “I Lived in California Once and It Was Terrible” Anecdote: You have not truly known existential peril until you have sat in an idling car, emitting all kinds of carbons and pollutants, trying to get onto the 405 from the 101 during rush hour. It can be a literal 90 minute prospect just to get onto the ramp. So when I read that America decreased its carbon emissions by over 10% in the last six years, I almost did a spit take.
The Home Front
The Energy Information Administration reports that the United States’ energy-related carbon dioxide emissions declined by 3.8% in 2012, which puts them at the lowest level they’ve been since 1994 and down 12% from a particularly bad peak in 2007. Half of this decline was from the residential sector, which was aided by the fact that the first part of 2012 was very warm and required less energy usage, offsetting the effect of energy usage during the summer time. Another factor in residential energy use was an increase in the use of cleaner-burning (but equally problematic) natural gas fuel, as opposed to coal.
Vehicles played a major part in the reduction of emissions, as well. The reason given by the EPA itself is that the amount of miles travelled in the US remained the same as it had in 2011, while each vehicle that entered the market (not just EVs, Hybrids and Plug-Ins) was more energy efficient than that same vehicle the year before.
One thing to remember about this though, is that just because we did better doesn’t mean we did well. Earth Overshoot Day, a concept developed by the New Economics Foundation, is the day each year beyond which our resources are operating in overdraft; it’s a rough estimate, but this year it fell on August 20, so in about 8 months, our planet used up all the budgeted resources we had to spare.
Meanwhile, on the Other Side of This Watery Blue Marble
Smog is one of those former hot-button issues that we tend to forget about in America, unless it’s the middle of July and there’s a smog alert that we can use as an excuse to stay out of the blistering heat. In Shanghai and other Chinese provinces, however, the smog has gotten to the point that they often have days where they cannot see the sun. Earlier this month during the US government shutdown, air quality reached 40 times the international safety standards. It clocked in at 775mcg (micrograms per cubic meter); the World Health Organization considers the maximum safe daily level to be 25mcg. They’re calling it, without a trace of irony, an “airpocalypse.”
They shut down six expressways between Shanghai, Harbin, and Tianjin, and cancelled 47 flights from Beijing Capital International Airport for a day. Imagine the DC Beltway and JFK Airport both shut down on the same day, and imagine the clustercuss that would happen in America. Now add about a billion people and change to the amount of angry travelers. Yeah. It was a big deal.
Luckily, Dutch designer and self-proclaimed “techno-poet” Daan Roosegaarde has a plan for all the smog that’s affecting the People’s Republic: just vacuum it all up.
China and the Amazing Dutch Smog Vacuum
Roosegaarde’s plan doesn’t involve some colossal, Sears-Tower-sized Hoover or the new Dyson Sphere; the vacuum aspect is really more of an illustrative metaphor. What Roosegaarde really wants to do is to create large magnetic coils with a light electrostatic charge. In what can only be described as the city-sized equivalent of attracting strands of hair with a static-charged balloon, the coils will bring the smog down to the ground, where they can be vacuumed up to create pockets of clean air about 60 meters in diameter.
The best part about the coils is that they can be buried underground in parks and other areas where the air needs to be particularly clean, and they won’t be some gargantuan eyesore. They also release no toxic residue, which seems like damning them with faint praise, but hey, what do I know? I’m just a guy with a computer.
Roosegaarde plans to spend the next 18 months developing the technology before deploying it in one of Beijing’s parks. Meanwhile, he is also working on a dance floor that generates energy when you dance, and smart highways that produce their own light. Check out the video below to see a computerized demo of his smog vacuum.
Don’t take this article as a screed, or as alarmist, or what have you. America’s reduction of carbon emissions is a big deal, sure, and it’s a good sign. But we can do better. We can always do better. We need to continue on this track and keep making progress, or else this planet is going to be a lot more difficult to live on. Whether it’s a change in lifestyle to reduce our carbon emissions and polluting ways, or if it’s giant electrostatic coils that help us make it easier to clean up our messes, change has to keep happening.
Fingers crossed for good news next year, folks.