Environmental challenges in the 21st century and potential solutions

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11884155879018.jpg’, ‘Photo Provided’, ‘The polar ice caps are in a meltdown: the above graphic shows the observable Arctic sea ice in September 1979 (left) and September 2005.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118841562316567.jpg’, ‘Photo Provided’, ‘Combining demand-side technologies, California produces a green jail.‘);

In his presentation at this year’s energy fair, Bill Stigliani from Northern Iowa University considered new understandings of earth’s systems resulting in new technologies as a means to solve environmental challenges facing us.

Today, global warming is melting polar ice caps and intensifying the strength of hurricanes as they pass over warmer ocean waters. Climate changes will affect generations of people far into the future. In some ways, the problem appears distant and abstract, so it is difficult to convince people it is real and not another propaganda ploy. For Stigliani, the debate regarding human contributions to global warming is over, and it is time to move on to solutions. It is time to replace the old industrial paradigm of indifference to waste and degradation of natural systems with green technologies that minimize both waste and degradation.

His presentation could have been titled “Reasons for Hope,” as it was a refrain he returned to. His first reason for hope rests with the dramatic increase in investments in research and development of green technologies. He cites an article in the New York Times that pointed out investments in clean technologies climbed from $50 million in the first quarter of 2006 to $300 million by the third quarter. (An interesting side note is that in the Friday renewable energy investment seminar, Jim Greenberger called attention to venture capitalist opportunities for clean technologies in the midwest.)

Stigliani’s vision of green technologies involves overlapping developments in nanotechnology, biotechnology and information technology. He cites examples of promising new developments in LED lighting and hyper cars, which offer substantial energy savings.

Another reason for hope is the dramatic speed with which technological change occurs as exemplified by the reduction in computer size and the increase in capacity and speed of newer models. Attention was called to dramatic changes in transportation from the horse and buggy of the 1900s to the Mars Buggy.

The mere lack of progress in generating electricity was also considered a reason for hope. The fact that the newest coal-fired power plant is based on a steam engine similar to that first used more than 100 years ago indicates many opportunities exist for innovation in electrical generation. Similarly, the efficiency of incandescent light bulbs remains unchanged from the first bulbs put into use 128 years ago.

Many technologies needed to improve the efficiency of our energy use already exist and await our purchase. If residents of Cedar Falls, Iowa, replaced their existing appliances with Energy Star appliances, their annual consumption per family could fall from 10,300 kWh/year to around 5,000 kWh/year.

Still another reason for hope is economic evidence that in some cases, investing money in restoring ecosystem services can be both less expensive and less environmentally damaging than solutions relying on massive construction projects. When New York city was faced with declining water quality, they chose to purchase open land to protect the watershed and provide incentives for people to upgrade their septic systems at a cost of $1.3 billion rather than spend $6 to $8 billion on a new water treatment system that would require continuous use of fossil fuels.

A final reason for hope was that models for sustainable societies already exist and that we know how to build them. The real challenge is implementing them, which requires personal, social and political change.

Since existing technologies played a major role in degrading the global climate and ecosystems, not everyone will embrace technological solutions. However, many cleaner technologies are now available to us to lessen our ecological footprint.

Based on a presentation by Dr. William Stigliani at the Sixth Annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair, Aug. 11, Oregon, Ill.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are also active in preserving natural areas. They are retired professors from Northern Illinois University.

from the Aug. 29-Sept. 4, 2007, issue

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