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A New Shade of Green

By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Hurtling into the 21st century. Or not.

Uploaded: Oct 27, 2019
I live from the past most of the time. I expect many of you do as well. What I mean by that is that our experience and expectations are largely colored by the past rather than some vision of the future. It makes sense since all we know is the past; it forms the basis of our memories, our attachments, our habits. I was reminded of this orientation the other day, when my (teenaged) daughter was upset that I had put the Halloween pumpkin in a new spot. There’s generally nothing wrong with this perspective. We enjoy a sense of stability and have less day-to-day stress by maintaining continuity from past to present.


Not living from the future…

But there are times when we intentionally aim from the other direction and live from the future. I expect most of you are familiar with that as well. When you are moving or remodeling, you get to a point where you push hard to accelerate the switch; you get impatient for the future you have imagined for so long. When your kid is going off to college, you keep a lid on the sentimentalizing, and instead help yourself and your child to look forward to the change. Athletes watch videos and replay mental images of how they want to throw or kick or run, envisioning their great effort. When you adopt a perspective that looks back from the future, it can bring the future around more quickly and help you adapt to it. After all, you’ve already gotten part way there, in your head.

I feel like we need to collectively do that to meet and exceed our 2030 and 2050 climate goals. We know that our future involves electric vehicles, efficient electric heat, a more vegetarian diet, and so on. So why fight so hard against the changes? Why not get started now? That way we can help the younger generation to adapt and move more quickly towards our goals. As an example, I do not understand why we continue to make it so easy to manufacture and sell new gas-powered vehicles. We know we need to stop. There are already so many available, including a substantial used car market. Why continue to dig ourselves a hole? (1)

On the housing front, we are finally seeing some good progress locally. Two months ago Menlo Park established an almost-all-electric building code for new construction in 2020 (gas fireplaces and stoves are allowed exceptions). And just a few days ago Mountain View took a big step towards approving theirs as well (there is one more reading by City Council). It similarly requires (mostly) all-electric new construction beginning in 2020.

While new buildings are not an enormous part of our emissions -- they constitute only about 5% of Palo Alto’s planned emissions reductions prior to 2030 -- they represent a no-brainer from a “live from the future” perspective.


New construction is 5% of Palo Alto’s needed emission reductions by 2030 (source)

On November 4, Palo Alto’s City Council will be reviewing a proposal from staff for a revised 2020 building code that encourages electrification but nevertheless allows new gas buildings for two more years. All new construction (except ADUs) will need to be configured for electric heat, drying, and cooking. Electric panels will need to be adequately sized, with outlets and ducts in the right places, and even a sufficiently large space around the water heater to accommodate a heat pump. But staff is proposing a two-year grace period during which gas is still an option. It’s not clear to me why that is. The staff report indicates that residential consumers have “limited awareness” of alternatives, but that seems eminently fixable. Are we doing people a favor by letting them install gas heaters that community volunteer Tom Kabat refers to as “stranded assets”? Decarbonization advocate Panama Bartholomy likes to say that “It’s time for our buildings to match our ambitions.” I agree. So why the two-year delay? (2)

It’s funny, this blog post talks about the benefits of adopting a “live from the future” perspective to speed up changes like this. But much of this isn’t even particularly new, it’s just new to us. It would be just as helpful to adopt a “live from Japan” perspective, or Europe, or even New Zealand, where they are much farther along with efficient heating technology. Heck, even the southern US heats primarily with electricity, though it’s traditionally old-style (inefficient) electric.


Prevalent fuel used to heat homes. Gas is in light blue, electric in purple, wood in brown, oil or kerosene in red, bottled or tank gas in yellow, and no fuel at all for Hawaii in green. Source: MetricMaps.

People may point to the recent power shut-offs as a reason to keep using gas heat. But aren’t we just perpetuating the problem that way? Climate change is here; there is no two-year delay. Let’s adapt, work together to get off of gas, celebrate the cleaner energy and air while finding ways to reduce fire impacts, and keep pushing forward. We are very adaptable when we choose to be. Let’s choose!

If you need any more motivation, the die-hard futurists among us have their sights set on our living on other planets. Prefer that? Or taking steps today to save our own?



Notes and References

1. Speaking of moving away from gas-powered cars, I was happy to see this editorial by Senator Schumer in the NY Times recently. He outlines a plan to swiftly move the nation to all-electric vehicles, with the support of auto manufacturers and labor unions, with a goal of being a world leader in the technology. We need more of this kind of thinking.

2. A bigger issue is retrofitting existing homes and buildings. Palo Alto will be offering a number of incentives to encourage adoption of electric heat. Retrofits constitute a larger share of the City’s projected emissions reductions -- almost 40% -- so the rebates will be meaningful amounts. Hopefully this encourages more tradespeople to come up to speed on heat pumps and offer them in our area.

Current Climate Data (September 2019)

The global land and ocean surface temperature departure from average for September 2019 tied with 2015 as the highest for the month of September in the 140-year NOAA global temperature dataset record, which dates back to 1880.

Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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Comments

 +   3 people like this
Posted by Brit, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Oct 27, 2019 at 9:14 am

Modern life is wasteful.

As a child we had milk delivered in bottles by electric vehicles and we put out the empty bottles every night to be taken away and used again. My mother always used shopping bags and a small trolley type bag to bring our food home and went shopping to the nearest shops, about 1/2 mile away on foot. Vegetables were all put in her string bag. We rarely ate out and convenience foods were expensive and something I can't remember having. Takeaway food was wrapped in newspaper and in fact old newspapers were used for all sorts of things. We had one dustbin per family and no recycling as such, but we used old jam jars for many purposes. When we went out for a day, we took our own drinks along with us, a thermos flask for tea or coffee and we took sandwiches wrapped up in old bread wrappers.

As children we all wore hand me downs, I had clothes from a cousin and my younger sister wore mine and hers were passed on to another cousin when she outgrew them. Shoes were mended. Household appliances were mended. My mother knitted most of our scarves, hats, gloves and of course cardigans and jumpers. She sewed most of our clothes, often from remnants. This was cheaper than buying new clothes all the time. Our schools had uniforms and swap shops for outgrown uniform.

I can't begin to describe how wasteful life is today.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Oct 28, 2019 at 10:59 am

Brit makes an interesting point; in some ways, behaving "the old way" can be more green. I don't think that takes away from the value of new technologies that allow us to do the same thing more efficiently. Rather, the desire for the convenience of disposable products and of always wanting the latest fashion or gadget we never knew we needed drives us to be wasteful.

The most efficient clothes-drying technology is probably the clothesline - old tech!

Sherry is addressing a willingness to change, when a different (often new) way of doing things is clearly more green, but habits keep us in our old ways. Obviously, she's not endorsing those "new" aspects of modern life that lure us into being more wasteful; too much of the "latest and greatest" is exactly that.

Nostalgia for a favorite old shirt that's a bit worn can be good for the environment.

(An irony is that some people I know - who don't believe in human caused global warming - are, by their nature, very frugal, and may be less wasteful that some who say the right things about global warming.)

Old or new, habit or something new, people should be mindful of waste.


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Actual envronmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 29, 2019 at 9:10 am

I would suggest that if you want change, you read the following:

1) Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by the Heath brothers

2) Democratizing Innovation by MIT professor Eric von Hippel - free environmentally friendly e-version can be found
Web Link

It's all well and good to say "we need to do this" and "we need to do that" -- what you're saying usually is "we" need to MAKE other people do something. How well does that usually work out in the long run with humans? Read those books.

That is of course assuming that you remember your goal, like reducing carbon emissions, and stop using proxies that may not actually be getting you your goal (like density for density's sake, when there are no walkable amenities and no walkability because of the density, and walking actually goes down just because of the density, and a two-digit percentage of the population with mobility problems that you are grossly discriminating against get left out, i.e., maybe thinking a little more holistically about the actual problem is the thing to pursue...)


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 29, 2019 at 10:39 am

Nice map. Folks here may tend to look mostly at the West on the map, but, for a thought experiment, consider that the majority in New England use home heating oil. It is also the case that heat pumps are not practical there, because of the cold temperature extremes-- you need a technology that is still working at 40 below (C or F). I'm never sure what to tell people there. Home heating oil is $2.50/gal now, but, someday soon it will be $10/gal. People know it will go up, but, as long as it is cheap, there is no incentive to do something now. But, even if they want to change, the options aren't always appealing.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 30, 2019 at 9:15 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Re Brit and Alan's point, I wonder how much of the reason for our wastefulness is a shortage of time vs a desire for novelty. Though at this point we are losing the skills even if we did have the time. I was talking to my mechanic a few weeks ago, and he was bemoaning the fact that people don't have fix-it skills any more. My daughter has a terrific class at Gunn, Auto Shop, in which they are learning that kind of thing, along with general problem-solving. If we all worked, say, a half a day, would we be less wasteful and more conservative? Or would we just shop more?

@Actual, ha, I read Switch a while back, though I've forgotten it. Your point is a good one. So much of the work needed is social engineering rather than technical engineering. How do we get our best people working in that area?

@Anon, yeah, the cold areas are tougher. I think that is where we need to figure out carbon capture at the plants, or hand out wildly discounted home PV/battery to provide cheaper power for less efficient electric heat. (Though I'm not sure how PV works in the snow/ice.)

Great comments...


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 5, 2019 at 9:26 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Great news: Palo Alto's City Council came through, approving a 2020 ban on gas, with no exceptions, for one- and two-story residential buildings, with other buildings TBD by end of 2020. This is clearer and faster than staff recommended, and shows that we are not taking climate change lightly. Thank you Palo Alto City Council! https://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2019/11/05/palo-alto-to-ban-natural-gas-in-new-buildings



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