Tag Archives: At The Front Door

Fatal Fallout of Fossil Fuels

At the Front Door: Renewable and Carbon-Free Energy –  a column on climate change in our lives

Renewable and carbon-free energy is cheaper than fossil fuels!

Don’t believe me? Look at your energy bill.

San Jose has a program called San Jose Clean Energy, which is one of 23 Community Choice Energy (CCE) programs in California. In fact, the vast majority Bay Area communities are part of CCE programs. These programs provide “competitively priced clean energy options to customers” and reinvests any revenues into local communities. The majority of San Jose residents were automatically enrolled in this program in 2019, and once enrolled your power bill would have gone down. That’s right, the default option from San Jose Clean Energy provides consumers with 45% renewable energy at a cost that is approximately 1% less than what you would pay for traditional energy generation (which is currently about 29% renewable). For $5 more a month you can opt for a plan with 100% renewable sources. All it takes is the click of a button on your PG&E account.

But money isn’t the only way we pay for our fixation with fossil fuels. An article published in Nature in 2017 stated that “all energy production has environmental and societal effects.” Another way to term ‘effects’ is to say ‘costs’. But what, exactly, does that mean? 

To calculate the true cost of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, we must factor in the social and environmental cost of their carbon emissions. Let’s take coal as an example. In 2011 the perceived cost of coal was 3.4 cents per kilowatt-hour. However, a report by the National Academies of Science noted that each kilowatt-hour also cost 5.6 cents in adverse health impacts.

Another study put the cost of coal’s ‘externalities’- meaning releasing carbon dioxide – at between 9.4 to 26.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. They averaged their guess to about 17.8 cents, this may not seem like a lot but that puts the cost of the United States coal addiction at “a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually” in unaccounted for costs. And it turns out that these numbers are likely too low. Recent research has indicated that the costs of carbon are more severe and one of the study’s authors noted that a higher number is more realistic. 

And some countries will pay much, much, more than others. A paper recently released in Nature Climate Change used recent climate model projections and economic and social damage estimates to devise a country-specific social cost of carbon (CSCC). The CSCC is, in short, the projected “economic damages from carbon dioxide emissions” by country – and it highlights that the consequences of carbon emissions will fall unevenly across the globe. And it turns out that India, struggling under a cost of $86 per ton of carbon, will pay the most. In fact, the next closest country is the United States, which will end up paying just over half of what India will pay at $48 per ton of carbon. 

The non-monetary costs of fossil fuels have already become apparent in industrializing countries like India. A study published by the Mumbai-based Conservation Action Trust found that “[a]s many as 115,000 people die in India each year from coal-fired power plant pollution, costing the country about $4.6 billion.” The number of fatalities includes 10,000 children under the age of five.

India’s demand for energy, and thus its coal use and subsequent negative health impacts, will likely continue to rise. Despite its reliance on fossil fuels, the Indian government has placed a tax on coal with the aim of spurring developments in renewables. If India is able to take this initiative, why can’t we?

The money that comes out of our monthly budget isn’t actually what we pay for energy. We pay with our health in the form of lower air quality, higher asthma rates, and higher COVID-19 mortality. We pay social costs with environmental degradation, increased social inequality, and a reduced quality of life. In short, we pay with shorter, sicker, less-equitable, and less-enjoyable lives. And worst of all, we pay with the lives and the future of our children. 


Erin Zimmerman is trained as a Climate Reality Leader in 2019 by the Climate Reality Project, but has been active in the environmental movement for over a decade. Erin holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Adelaide, where she focused on environmental degradation and its impacts on country and regional stability in Asia. She is currently the Chair of the Speakers’ Bureau of the Santa Clara Chapter of the Climate Reality Project  and an active member of the Legislative and Policy team.

Edited by Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor at India Currents.

Image credit: Hermina Oláh Vass

Bibliography

Friedman, Lisa. (2013). “Coal-Fired Power in India May Cause More Than 100,000 Premature Deaths Annually.” Scientific American. URL: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/coal-fired-power-in-india-may-cause-more-than-100000-premature-deaths-annually/

Greenstone, M and Looney, A. (2011), “The Real Costs of U.S. Energy.” Brookings Institute. URL: https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-real-costs-of-u-s-energy/

Gres, E. (2017). “The Real Cost of Energy.” Nature, URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-017-07510-3 

Harvey, C. and Gronewold, N. (2019). “CO2 Emissions Will Break Another Record in 2019.” Scientific American. URL: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/co2-emissions-will-break-another-record-in-2019/

Meyer, R. (2015), “This Is the Real Cost of Coal.” Mother Jones, URL: https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/08/coals-cost-climate-change/

Ricke, K., Drouet, L., Caldeira, K., Tavoni, M. (2018). “Country-Level Social Cost of Carbon.” Nature Climate Change, Vol.8: 895-900.

San Jose Clean Energy. (2020). URL: https://sanjosecleanenergy.org/totalgreen/

Children volunteering at a Save The Bay project

Saving The Bay On A Sunday Morning

At the Front Door: Climate Change & the Bay Area –  a column on climate change in our lives

A few years ago, I started to wonder what success means to me. I came across the story of Watsi, the first non-profit to join Y-Combinator. In his startup school video, Chase Adams, the founder, talks about his journey building Watsi. The most impactful part of his story is the message that success to him meant helping just one more person and trying to do something that mattered more than his personal needs. This message resonated with me. The companies we work at, the job titles we hold, the money we make, the size of our homes, the cars we drive, the holidays we take, are not a measure of how successful we are.

The question to ask is, can we make a positive impact on at least one life, human or otherwise? If so, it is impossible for us to fail. 

I started on my journey to find something that mattered more than just my personal needs and wants. I found that environmental related charities received only 3% of all charitable donations and volunteering hours. This was a surprise to me given that climate change is the biggest threat we face. There were large gaps in awareness of the climate change crisis and a lack of  involvement from governments, business leaders and communities to solve the problem.

I started looking into how to be part of the solutions and where to start. 

Through friends at work, I connected with  organizations such as Save the Bay and  started seeking out other local organizations. I found that Our City Forest held several volunteering events over the weekend to plant trees in the Bay Area. It was a perfect opportunity to engage our children in something we can do together outdoors while also helping to make our community greener.

Kids participate in tree planting with Our City Forest in the Bay Area
Seema’s son volunteering with Our City Forest

I enrolled in Climate Reality Leadership Corps training led by Al Gore and engaged with my employer’s Green Employee resource group. As I started to become more aware of the various problems we face, so did the kids. They started to ask questions about things that didn’t look right.

“Mom, why is there so much plastic packaging?” “Why are there so many cars on the road?”

I encouraged them to pose the same question to business leaders and government officials – how will they solve these problems? I helped my kids write letters to the head of BART, the mayor of San Jose and to business leaders at Emirates, Kiwi Crate, and Amazon. Sometimes we heard back, but more importantly, we talked about how important it is to use our voice and refuse to accept the status quo in situations that can be harmful to our future. Kids are now using their skills to help create media to spread the message of climate change and what each of us can do about it.

Last year, on a cold November Saturday morning, I woke up my 7 year old son and 4 year old daughter early, packed some snacks and headed towards Marin. We were going to volunteer with Save The Bay at Bel Marin Keys to help restore wetlands. This was our first volunteering event together and we had a blast being outdoors, working to help restore nature. Since then, as a family, we have volunteered to plant trees, created videos and stories to share information about climate change, written to business leaders and government officials to do their part to tackle climate change and designed clothing to promote climate advocacy.

At home, we started with small changes to reduce our personal impact. We switched to bamboo toothbrushes, started to buy used books, exchange clothes instead of buying new ones, limit water wastage, use refillable bathroom products and to limit the use of products that have plastic materials or packaging. But we know that the biggest impact that we can have at a personal level is transitioning to clean energy for heating, cooling and transportation and changing our diets to be meat and dairy free. 

We have taken advantage of the opportunity to switch to 100% clean electricity through TotalGreen San Jose and are looking into how to transition to electric heaters from natural gas. And, while being vegetarian is an easier change for us, growing up with dairy products makes this change harder. However, black tea is turning out to be just as satisfying!  

When we think about sustainability, what we have to give up is not as important as t what we will gain. We will gain a healthier life, breathe cleaner air, drink purer water, live in a world where nature and biodiversity are thriving, giving us the opportunity to explore nature at its best. 

Start with small changes and work your way towards a truly sustainable lifestyle that becomes second nature to us. 


Seema Jethani is a sustainability advocate and a Climate Reality Leader with the Climate Reality Project.  She lives in San Jose with her husband and two elementary school age kids with whom she has been actively working in the community on the climate crisis, through various initiatives such as volunteering, social media engagement and petitioning elected officials and business leaders.

Edited by Meera Kymal, the contributing editor at India Currents.