January 24, 2008 | General

Climate Change Connections: Forest Through The Trees

BioCycle January 2008, Vol. 49, No. 1, p. 21
Sally Brown

There are a lot of sayings. My own personal favorite is “wherever you go, there you are.” It would have helped me a lot to listen to that one in my 20s with trips to Australia and an ill thought out move to Vancouver, British Columbia because it was true: wherever I went, there I was. Now I wish that more people in this country, including those in the government, those in the public sector and those concerned neighbors would see the wisdom in this one: “Can’t see the forest through the trees.”
Let me give you a few examples. In Detriot, car makers have designer models of different SUVs. You can get the Eddie Bauer model, the L.L. Bean model. In a big step towards sustainability (one might call this a small nod or a tick in the direction of sustainability) you can even buy a hybrid SUV that gets over 20 mph. Last I heard, the cash hadn’t started flooding into the U.S. big three.
Daimler Mercedes-Benz, on the other hand, is poised to start selling Smart Cars in the U.S. These come in a range of cool colors, can be parked in Manhattan and average over 40 mpg, with diesel models available in Europe that get over 60 mpg. To get one of these initial release cars, you could sign up on the web site and make a down payment or pay in full. There have been so many people signing up for these that the manufacturer is not sure how it will meet demand.
I just read an article in the New York Times about wind turbines for homeowners. They gave examples of people who had installed turbines and were now able to watch their meters go backwards. There are even states that subsidize the purchase of these turbines. The article quoted a figure of one turbine per home being equivalent to 1.3 cars off the road. Not too shabby.
The article also talked about the neighbors and local governments in other areas that are against the turbines. It cited the noise (equivalent to an additional residence) and the poor birds. Birds can fly into the turbines and are killed. In Field Notes From A Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert points out that biologists have estimated that the percent of total species that will become extinct as a result of global warming is somewhere between 15 and 37 percent. Sparrow or species – now there is a tough call.
Recently I attended a regional biosolids management conference in Massachusetts. I gave a talk about how these times required thinking outside of the “box.” I talked about using wastewater treatment plants to make energy rather than use energy … about expanding anaerobic digestion to include new and different feedstocks that are currently being landfilled but that could be used to generate methane for electricity (see article on page 53). By doing this, wastewater treatment utilities could once again prove themselves as valuable environmental stewards. Most people in the audience looked at me like I had a screw loose. One pointed out that I really was from Seattle. As I still think of myself as a New Yorker, that got me mad.
At that meeting, a municipal official spoke about efficiency innovations in the city’s wastewater treatment process. The plant treats wastewater for just under one million people and the biosolids from this process are incinerated on site. The speaker showed a graph of energy costs versus labor costs for the facility. Labor costs had stayed relatively stable. Energy costs, however, increased in much the same manner that atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased. The plant operators had increased efficiencies on a range of the operations and have saved some money. They boasted that they were almost able to run the incinerator without any additional power. That didn’t reflect energy use in the wastewater treatment process itself. This is good, but we’re still looking at trees here.
Coming back to Seattle, I attended a tour of the treatment plant here. We walked under one of the anaerobic digesters. The tour guide, one of the plant operators, pointed out with pride that last year the facility had sold $2 million worth of electricity from the digesters to the local power utility. That is in addition to using a portion of the power to operate the facility itself. Suddenly I was glad to be from Seattle, a city surrounded by forests.
At the conference in Massachusetts, another speaker talked about wastewater treatment and global warming. He noted, as has the International Panel on Climate Change, that greenhouse gas emissions from wastewater treatment in the U.S. were minimal. He glossed over energy use at these facilities, which can be very high. One of his major conclusions was that the big challenge for wastewater treatment authorities regarding global warming would be to deal with the different flow rates into the plants as a result of more dramatic weather events. No one asked if a submerged treatment plant, like the one in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, was included in his classification of climate change-related challenges.
In her book, Kolbert talks about climate change and history. She notes that small variations in climate have resulted in extreme changes such as prolonged droughts. These droughts have resulted in the end of some very major civilizations including the Mayas and the Babylonian Empire. This whole thing reminds me of another saying.
Again in my 20s, I had just purchased a six-wheel truck to carry produce for a business I had started. I was just learning how to drive the truck when the transmission blew on the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx as the sun was setting. When the tow truck arrived, an older and wiser man patiently listened to my saga of my worst day on record. He then told me that “everyday on this side of the ground be a good day.” Even then I realized the wisdom of his words.
One of my greatest concerns these days is that unless we, at all levels, start seeing the forest even with those trees, the potential for my son to spend lots of days on the right side of the ground may be limited.
Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – is a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board, and will be authoring this regular column on the connections of composting, organics recycling and renewable energy to climate change. E-mail Dr. Brown at

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