conservation biology Family Planning Greenhouse gases Hope

Offset Your Carbon Impact with PopOffsets





Below, underlined, is the preview of the version of the article that I sent out by email in July.

Gail and I will be sailing across the Atlantic to France–in the stratosphere–the day that this essay appears in the Durango (Colorado) Herald. We love to travel and we have a good reason for this trip. I have wondered for years why conservation biologists don’t pay more attention to human population: after all, if human numbers were smaller, biodiversity wouldn’t be so threatened. It’s kind of like a dentist ignoring candy!
Roger Martin (of the British organization Population Matters) and I will be hosting a roundtable to listen to conservation biologists at the International Congress of Conservation Biologists in Montpellier, France. We want to learn what their attitudes are toward human population, and why they don’t pay the issue more attention. Maybe I’ll have more information about this in another essay!
Thanks for reading.

PopOffsets picture handing BCPs


We all benefit from using fossil fuels. As a consequence we all cause carbon emissions, and thus contribute to climate change. Is it possible to compensate for our greenhouse gas emissions?

“Yes and no” is the answer. Once CO2 is in the atmosphere it is almost impossible to take it out. Fortunately there are some actions we can take to decrease our impact.

The most important action is to decrease emissions in the first place. In many cases decreasing emissions has the added benefit of also saving money. Thus there are at least two advantages to walking instead of driving, turning off lights you don’t need and—well, you know the litany.

I’m retired and love to travel. How can I make up for the trip to the south of France (largely for business) this summer? Offsets offer a partial solution.

I am writing about voluntary programs where a person voluntarily pays to compensate for his carbon emissions. The PopOffsets website explains this concept well:

“Offsetting is a way of compensating for our residual “footprint”: the level we won’t or cannot reasonably expect to go below. The idea is to pay for projects – which would not otherwise be implemented – which take emissions out of the system to compensate for what we put into it. In other words if an individual or organisation has done what it reasonably can to reduce its emissions (insulation, green energy, efficiency measures, waste reduction, etc), it can compensate for the remainder by investing in projects designed to reduce the amount released to the atmosphere and/or to capture what is being released. Typical projects have traditionally ranged from hydro-electric, solar and wind energy schemes to more efficient cooking stoves to (re)forestation to biofuels to Carbon Capture & Storage (Sequestration).”

There are many different organizations that will help you calculate your carbon emissions, then figure the amount of money that would offset those emissions. One of them is American Forests. Trees absorb CO2 as they grow as well as providing many other benefits. This organization’s website has a carbon calculator to help estimate your carbon footprint, and thus the number of trees that need to be planted to offset that footprint. It also makes it easy to make a donation to so they can plant those trees for you.

Where does human population fit into this? If there are fewer emitters, then there will be fewer emissions. Family planning programs are a good way to slow emissions and thereby slow climate change. Indeed, sophisticated calculations suggest that voluntary family planning programs can make a significant step toward limiting greenhouse gas emissions. A team headed by Brian O’Neill has shown “…that slowing population growth could provide 16–29% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.”

My column shares its name with an organization in England. The British Population Matters has recognized the advantages of making family planning available to more people. In order to put this noble idea into action they started a unique offset program, PopOffsets. It collects money to support family planning programs. Remember World Vasectomy Day, in which men all over the world get snipped? it received funding from PopOffsets. So has a “backpack nurse” who provides family planning services to people in rural Kenya, and WINGS, a Guatemalan organization that provides reproductive healthcare. PopOffsets has also supported a Population, Health, Environment program in Ethiopia with contraceptive supplies. More surprising is that they also made a grant to an agency close to home—the Utah Population and Environment Coalition.

The goal of PopOffsets is “less carbon, smaller families”. They are apparently unique in the world, and would like to see similar organizations in other countries.

Back to my trip to France. It is roughly 5400 miles from Bayfield to Montpellier, France where my conference will be held. Doubling that for a round trip, we can round up to 11,000 miles, most of which will be flying. The PopOffsets website says that 230 grams of CO2 are emitted for every passenger mile or about 2 ½ tons for this trip. They estimate that $15 spent on family planning will offset one ton of CO2, thus my payment to them should be $37.50. I made a donation for more than that amount knowing that it will support good projects.

For the future of the planet it is important to minimize your carbon footprint. What you cannot get rid of you can offset with PopOffsets!

© Richard Grossman MD, 2015

Environment Greenhouse gases

Acknowledge the True Cost of Electricity

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Courtesy of Dr. Drew Shindell

Did you know that the federal government is shortchanging us citizens by a billion dollars a year? Cozy deals with the feds are allowing private enterprise to underpay for natural resources.

Last month I wrote about pressuring educational institutions to divest from fossil fuel investments. Our future health and that of the planet depend on using as little carbon-based fuel as possible.

Now there is more evidence that divestment is the proper path to follow. A New York Times article examines the most common energy source for generating electricity (coal) and suggests that the public is being cheated. Another article in a scholarly journal looks at atmospheric externalities from five different methods of electrical generation and comes up with estimates of the true cost of each. Any way you look at it, short-term gains by big business are robbing citizens of money and health.

Coal on our federal lands belongs to us citizens. Congress set the royalty rate for private companies at about 12% of the sale price for coal strip-mined on federal land. Almost all of that coal is used for generating electricity.

Often a small fraction of the price is actually collected, however. The General Accounting Office found that the effective royalty rate was only 5.6% in Colorado in 2012—less than half of what it should have been! Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research group, estimates that the loss each year to US citizens is between 1 and 5 billion dollars. Somehow we are being cheated out of this money. But that isn’t the only bad deal that is robbing us of money and health.

“Externalities” are hidden costs of a product. In La Plata County 2/3 of our electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. There are many externalities that don’t appear on our La Plata Electric Association bills, including greenhouse gases, mercury and health-robbing particulates.

One third of CO2 greenhouse gas emissions in the USA result from electrical generation, but we don’t pay directly for emissions that are causing disasters. Instead, our taxes pay for damage caused by storms and other symptoms of the climate-havoc that CO2 causes. Pregnant women are forbidden from eating many fish because they are contaminated with mercury from burning coal. Some of us pay both with money and with shortened lives for the asthma and other respiratory diseases caused by smokestack particulate emissions. The list of hidden costs goes on and on.

What is the true cost of electricity? LPEA charges domestic customers 11.9 cents per kWh—but that is far from the whole cost. (A kilowatt-hour is a measure of electricity.) Professor Shindell at Duke University has attempted to determine the true cost of energy. His paper “The social cost of atmospheric release” looks at two categories of cost—the core cost and externalities. Interestingly, the core costs of wind, solar and nuclear are all about 10 cents/kWh. None of these sources has significant externalities, according to Shindell. This obviously ignores the possible disasters associated with nuclear, however, as demonstrated by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Furthermore, these costs do not include power distribution.

According to Shindell, the cost of generation with natural gas is the least expensive at about 6 cents/kWh, but the externalities add another dime of hidden expense. Coal is a loser: its core cost is a dime, but the externalities add another 27 cents to the true cost! That means that the true cost of electricity generated by coal-fired power plants is 37 cents/kWh.

Shindell’s study just looked at air pollution externalities. Water, in this year of drought, is another externality. While renewable energy uses little or no water, generation with coal requires a huge amount for cooling.

We are lucky to live where forward-thinking LPEA provides our power. Regrettably, more than 2/3 of its power is currently generated by coal. Fortunately it makes renewably generated “Green Power” available for tiny increment in cost. It has programs to encourage energy efficiency, such as paying half the cost of LED light bulbs. It promotes local renewable power generation with wind, hydro and photovoltaic systems, and has encouraged “planting” solar gardens.

What can the electrical consumer do? The first step is to use electricity frugally. Turn off lights when you don’t need them, unplug electrical “parasites” that draw current even when they’re “off” and replace your old refrigerator with an Energy Star one. Next, spend a few dollars a year to get “green” power. Always keep in mind that electrical generation with coal is robbing us of both money and health.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2015