For a Change, Some Good News on the Environment

Amid the steady stream of troubling environmental news – severe weather events, dying coral reefs, nonstop deforestation in Brazil and Borneo – it is easy to be disheartened. But to assume everything is headed in the wrong direction would be a mistake. In fact, there has been major, underappreciated progress on at least two critical fronts.

Perhaps the most significant has been the huge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States over the past few years. This has been an unintended consequence of the boom in natural gas production, enabled by techniques like fracking and horizontal drilling.

Utilities and other power producers are shutting down or converting coal-fired plants to run on newly cheap natural gas. Burning natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide of an equivalent amount of coal, and far less of the other nasty pollutants in coal.

As a result, according to @CharlesCMann in the current issue of The Atlantic, “U.S. energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions have dropped to figures last seen in 1995.”

In fact, as MIT Professor Ernest Moniz said at a World Affairs Council event I attended in San Francisco last October, U.S. carbon emissions have fallen below even the levels called for by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that the U.S. refused to ratify. (In March, President Obama nominated Prof. Moniz to become Secretary of Energy).

Of course, this environmental good news is solely a happy accident of economics. Had the world suddenly discovered a way to produce coal at a quarter the price of natural gas, electricity production would have shifted toward the dirtier fuel and carbon emissions would have soared.

A second underappreciated change is the ongoing reduction in emissions by the cargo movement industry. This piece of progress is being achieved by intention and through a lot of hard work.

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach – through which 40 percent of U.S. imports pass – have reduced diesel emissions from all sources by 75 percent since 2005, according to Renee Moilanen at the Port of Long Beach, as quoted in Monday’s Journal of Commerce. That includes a 90 percent reduction in truck emissions from the ports’ Clean Truck Program, Moilanen told JOC’s @billmongelluzzo.

I’m happy to report that my client PierPass has played a crucial role in cleaning the air around the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. Under the OffPeak program run by PierPass, the container terminal operators at the two adjacent ports established new nighttime and Saturday shifts that now handle 55% of container-moving truck trips, reducing the congestion and resulting air pollution the ports previously experienced during peak daytime hours. PierPass has also worked with the two ports to enforce a ban on older, dirty trucks under the Clean Truck Program, and its members are now building the infrastructure to let ships run on electric power rather than dirty bunker fuel while in dock.