Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist

Discovering Global Environmental Interconnections

Sneak peak of my new book: Your Water Footprint

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Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 10.28.00 AMYour Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products

Informing people about the enormous amounts of  ‘hidden’ water we consume every day.

Do you know you’re wearing water? It takes more than 7,600 liters (2,000 gallons) of water to make a single pair of jeans and another 2,460 liters (650 gallons) to make a T-shirt. And you’re eating water too. That morning cup of coffee required 140 liters (37 gallons) of water before it found its way to your table—water that was used to grow, process and ship the coffee beans. If you include toast, two eggs and some milk in your coffee, the water footprint of your breakfast totals about 700 liters (185 gallons).

Furniture, houses, cars, roads, buildings— practically everything we make uses water in the manufacturing process. When we spend money on food, clothes, cellphones or even electricity, we are buying water. A lot of water. Generating electricity from coal, oil, gas, and nuclear or hydro power involves the world’s second biggest use of water after food production.YWF graphic -YWF shirt

Making paper is another very water-intensive process. This book required about 980 liters (260 gallons) of water to produce, or more than your morning breakfast.

Twitter folks: #ywf

….

Coming September October 1, 2014, 160 pages, 125 unique infographics, $19.95 paperback 

Click here to pre-order on Amazon

Environmental Journalism in the Public Interest

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I’m an independent journalist who covers international environmental issues in the public interest.copenhagen press pass

My work has been published in publications around the world including National Geographic, The Guardian (UK), Vice Magazine, Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS), Al Jazeera, Earth Island Journal, The Toronto Star, Common Dreams, and DeSmog Canada.

Co-winner of the 2012 Prince Albert/United Nations Global Prize for reporting on Climate Change.

News media have cut their coverage of environmental issues so I launched Community Supported Environmental Journalism

Swiss journalist Daniel Wermus in 2010 article: “Stephen Leahy, a Canadian, and one of the world’s best-known investigative reporters on environmental issues, has launched a challenge:
if corporations won’t pay for the news, then it is up to communities and the public to fill the gap.“

I am asking people to provide some financial support so I can continue to research and write articles millions will read*.  Just $10 a month helps guarantee more articles like the ones on this site. All supporters receive a personal, one-page weekly newsletter. Without your support I can’t work for all of us — Stephen

Contributions can be made safely and easily via PayPal or Credit Card

Monthly support options starting @ $10 a month

Click here to make a single, one-time donation

“Multiple environmental crisis represent “the greatest challenge in the history of our species” – Thomas Lovejoy, professor, George Mason University,  former chief scientist of the World Bank

“We need people like you. In tough economic times, where information flow is increasingly channeled and controlled…” – E. Ann Clark, Associate Professor, University of Guelph

*Yes, millions of readers. My articles are used by newspapers and magazines around the world and reprinted on news websites such as Reuters AlertNetthe GuardianAl JazeeraAlterNet, Common Dreams, Truthout,  InfoSudNone of these pay me for this reuse. Unfortunately I only average $175-$200 payment even if it took a week or more to research and write the article.

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We Have Five Years to Stop Building Coal Plants and Gas-Powered Cars

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Measurement of CO2 levels in atmosphere

By Stephen Leahy

[Authors note: One of the most difficult and important articles I've written in 20 years of journalism. Originally published Sept 6 2014 @Vice Motherboard]

 

Here’s the frightening implication of a landmark study on carbon emissions:

By 2018, no new cars, homes, schools, factories, or electrical power plants should be built anywhere in the world, ever again, unless they’re either replacements for old ones or carbon neutral. Otherwise greenhouse gas emissions will push global warming past 2˚C of temperature rise worldwide, threatening the survival of many people currently living on the planet.

Every climate expert will tell you we’re on a tight carbon budget as it is—that only so many tons of carbon dioxide can be pumped into the atmosphere before the global climate will overheat. We’ve already warmed temperatures 0.85˚C from pre-industrial levels, and the number rises every year. While no one thinks 2˚ C is safe, per se, it’s safer than going even higher and running the risk that global warming will spiral out of our control completely.

Last year, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report established a global carbon budget for the first time. It essentially stated that starting in 2014, the carbon we can afford is up to around 1,000 billion tons of CO2. In other words, our cars, factories, and power plants can only emit 1,000 billion tons (1,000 Gt, or gigatons) of CO2 into the atmosphere if we want to have a greater than 50/50 chance of keeping our climate below 2˚C of warming.

Even considering that humanity pumped 36 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere last year alone, 1,000 Gt still seems like a big budget. It might even seem like we have room to spare.

Maybe not.

WORLDWIDE, WE’VE BUILT MORE COAL-BURNING POWER PLANTS IN THE PAST DECADE THAN IN ANY PREVIOUS DECADE

New research shows that we may not have been paying attention to the entire CO2 emissions picture. We’ve only been counting annual emissions, and not the fact that building a new coal or gas power plant is in reality a commitment to pumping out CO2 for the lifespan of a given plant—which usually ranges from 40 to 60 years. These future emissions are known as a carbon commitment.

A new study has tallied the carbon commitments from all existing coal and gas power plants by looking at their annual CO2 emissions and current age. The study assumes an operating life of 40 years. A 38-year old coal plant will have far smaller future CO2 emissions, and thus smaller carbon commitment than one built today. The study, “Commitment accounting of CO2 emissions,” determined that most new power plants that went online in 2012 have a very large carbon commitment—19 Gt of CO2.

Building new power plants means more carbon commitments to eat into our 2˚C carbon budget. Build enough giant coal plants today, and their future emissions would tie up the entire budget, leaving no room for any other source of CO2 emissions.

Meanwhile, the rate at which new plants are built far outpaces the closure of old plants. Many US coal plants operate for longer than 40 years; the oldest is currentlyaround 70 years.

“Worldwide, we’ve built more coal-burning power plants in the past decade than in any previous decade, and closures of old plants aren’t keeping pace with this expansion,” said study co-author Steven Davis of the University of California, Irvine.

Image: Flickr

Fossil Fuels Power Plant Carbon Commitment: 300 Gt

In the study, Davis and co-author Robert Socolow of Princeton University calculated that the existing coal and gas power plant carbon commitment turns out to be very large—more than 300 Gt.

Non-Power Plant Carbon Commitment: 400 Gt 

The reality of carbon commitment applies to any new fossil-fuel burning infrastructure, including office buildings and homes using gas heating or automobiles and planes burning jet fuel. All of these have an operating life of several or many years during which they will emit CO2 from now until they are ‘retired.’ These future emissions also count as a carbon commitment. In another upcoming study, Davis calculated the carbon commitments from other CO2 sources, including from the transport, industry, commercial and residential sectors. He estimates that as of 2013 this carbon commitment exceeded 400 Gt.

Together with the power plant commitment of 300 Gt laid out in the current study, that’s more than 700 Gt in carbon commitments on a global carbon budget of 1000 Gt. That leaves less than 300 Gt for future power plants, steel mills, cement plants, buildings, and other stuff that burns fossil fuels.

At current rates we’ll have accounted for the remainder of the budget in only five years. Here’s how it breaks down:

Estimated Annual Emissions 2014-2018: 200 Gt

Global CO2 emissions from all sources amounted to 36 Gt in 2013. Annual emissions have been growing at a rate of 2 to 3 percent per year. Without major efforts to reduce emissions, another 200 gigatons of CO2 will be emitted between 2014 and 2018.

Estimated New Carbon Commitments 2014-2018: 100 Gt

Davis and Socolow determined that carbon commitments from new fossil fuel burning infrastructure will average at least 20 Gt per year, totaling 100 Gt over five years.

300 + 400 +200 +100 = 1,000 Gigatons of Carbon, Locked in by 2018

Unless coal and gas power plants or other major sources of CO2 are shut down before the end of their life span, the 1,000 Gt global carbon budget will be fully allocated sometime in 2018. No one will notice, because things won’t look or feel too much different than today. CO2 is akin to a slow, trans-generational poison. The climate impacts of blowing the carbon budget won’t be felt until 2030 or 2040 —and for a long time after.

WE’VE BEEN HIDING WHAT’S GOING ON FROM OURSELVES: A HIGH-CARBON FUTURE IS BEING LOCKED IN BY THE WORLD’S CAPITAL INVESTMENTS

Even the climate experts won’t notice much, because annual CO2 emissions have been the sole focus of countries and the United Nations process to address climate change said Davis.

“That’s like driving down the highway and only looking out of the side window,” Davis told me.

Politicians, business leaders, investors, planners, bureaucrats and whole lot of other people should be looking out the front window and paying attention to the hard reality of carbon commitments. If Davis and Socolow’s calculations are correct, it means no new coal or gas power plants can go online after 2018 unless they’re replacing retired plants. It means freezing the size of the global automobile fleet, and the industrial and commercial sectors, unless their energy efficiency increases. And so on.

The fact that much of our current and future infrastructure carries huge carbon commitments is blindingly obvious, but receives little attention.

Can’t solve a problem by making it worse

“If you build it, there will be emissions year after year. This should be a fundamental part of the decision to build most things,”” Davis said.

Ignoring the reality of carbon commitments means we’re investing heavily in technologies that make the problem worse, he said.

“We’ve been hiding what’s going on from ourselves: A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments,” said co-author Robert Socolow. Any plan or strategy to cut CO2 emissions has to give far greater prominence to those investments. Right now the data shows “we’re embracing fossil fuels more than ever,” Socolow told me.

So what can we do to begin to prepare for a jam-packed carbon budget? First, we need to stop building fossil fuel-reliant power plants.

Surprisingly, it appears the Australia is a pioneer here, despite recently rolling back its pioneering carbon tax. Thanks to wide-spread adoption of solar energy on homes and business the country’s electricity use is in steep decline. For the first time in its history, no new coal or gas power capacity will be needed to maintain supply over the next 10 years, according to the Australian Energy Market Operator. Germany too is rapidly adopting clean energy sources like wind and solar, so as to avoid building coal or nuclear power.

Next, we need to think about meeting energy demand by improving efficiency, instead of building more power generation.

Potential energy efficiency gains of 50 percent are possible across many sectors in most countries, Socolow said, and could reduce the number of fossil fuel energy power plants.

The US is the king of energy waste by most estimates. This costs Americans an estimated $130 billion a year, according to the Alliance to Save Energy. But despite the potential for huge cost and emission reductions, governments everywhere put nearly all their energy research efforts into new sources of energy like new power plants rather than helping to develop energy-efficient cars, buildingsm and appliances. Its 2012 international study also found that improving energy efficiency provides by far the best bang-for-the-buck for energy security, improved air quality, reduced environmental and social impacts and carbon emission reductions.

However, efficiency improvements take time, and there is precious little time left to make the CO2 emissions cuts to stay below 2˚C, said Socolow.

While refusing to say a planet that’s 2˚C hotter is inevitable, he did say that all efforts to reduce emissions must be undertaken as soon as possible: “3˚C is a whole lot better than 5˚C, the current path we’re on.”

My breakfast took 1100 litres (290 gal) of water to make – how much was yours?

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meat sample

( Graphic from  ‘Your Water Footprint’) 

I have a confession: I used 1100 litres of water to make my breakfast today. It was nothing special, just a small glass of orange juice, a cup of coffee, two eggs, toast and two pieces of bacon. But it did take 1100 litres of water to grow and process the ingredients. Thats a whole lot of water considering the average bathtub only holds about 80 litres.

Even after 20 years of covering environmental issues in two dozen countries I had no idea of the incredible amounts of water needed to grow food or make things. Now, after two years working on my book Your Water Footprint Im still amazed the T-shirt Im wearing needed a whopping 2500 litres to grow and process the cotton. Or that 140 litres was needed to grow and process the coffee beans to make my morning coffee. Since a litre of water weighs a kilogram, thats 140 kilos of water, imagine having to haul that much in a bucket every morning!

Water more valuable and useful than oil

Stephen Leahy is an award-winning environmental journalist based in Uxbridge, Ontario, Canada. He is the author ofYour Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products.

Researching all of this I soon realized were literally surrounded by a hidden world of water. Although we cant see it, there is water in everything we eat, everything we use and buy. Almost anything you can think of – cars, furniture, books, dishes, TVs, highways, buildings, jewelry, toys and even electricity would not exist without water.

Its no exaggeration to say water is far more valuable and useful than oil.

Unfortunately, water is often taken for granted and undervalued, resulting widespread misuse and waste. The idea behind my book is to increase awareness of huge quantities of the hidden water our entire way of life depends on. Your Water Footprint uses colourful infographics to illustrate the size of the water footprints of a wide range things from shoes to whiskey. A water footprint is the amount of water consumed’ to make, grow or produce something. I use the word consumed to make it clear this is water that can no longer be used for anything else. Water can often be cleaned or reused, so those amounts of water are not included in the water footprints in the book.

For example, when you drink a half-litre of bottle water youre actually consuming 5.5. litres. Why so much? Making the plastic bottle consumed 5 litres of water.

After poring through many studies on water footprints, I was really surprised to see how tiny my direct use of water for drinking, cooking, showers and so on was by comparison. Each day the average North American uses 300 to 400 litres. (FYI: Flushing toilets is the biggest water daily use, not showers.) Now, 400 litres is not a trivial amount of water, and we can all get by using less by employing some water-savings tips.


How big is your water footprint? Take a quick test


 

However, compared to the hidden water, also known as virtual water, thats in the things we eat, wear and use for a day averages an incredible 7500 litres. That means our daily water footprint is almost 8,000 litres (direct + hidden freshwater use). Carrying all this water would be like trying to haul the weight of four mid-size cars every day.

Peak water is here

Water scarcity is a reality in much of the world. About 1.2 billion people live in areas with chronic scarcity, while two billion are affected by shortages every year. That’s two in seven people. And as the ongoing drought in California proves, water scarcity is increasing reality for many of us in the US and Canada. Water experts estimate that by 2025, three in five people may be living with water shortages.

While low-flow shower heads and toilets are great water savers, the water footprint concept can lead to even bigger reductions in water consumption. If a family of four replaced beef with chicken in all their meals, they would reduce their water use an astonishing 900,000 litres a year. That’s enough to fill an Olympic-sized pool to a depth of two feet. The reason is the water footprint of beef is four times larger than chicken.

Vegetables have an even smaller water footprint. If the average family liked the idea of “Meatless Mondays,” they’d save 400,000 litres of water a year.

My hope with Your Water Footprint is to give you enough information to make water-wise choices to reduce your water use which will help you save money, be prepared for shortages and ensure our children and grandchildren will have abundant fresh water. This is all about smart substitutions and changes, rather than sacrifice and self-denial.

To do this we need to know how much we are currently using. We can’t make the water-wise choices unless we begin to see and understand the invisible ways in which we rely on water.

(First published Yahoo Canada News – Mon, 8 Sep, 2014)

Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products 

Coming October  2014, 160 pages, 125 unique infographics, $19.95 paperback 

Click here to pre-order on Amazon

Or pre-order a signed copy, please complete the form below.  

 

Poor Countries Need to Green, Low -Carbon Economies to End Poverty

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Originally posted on Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist:

Small-scale gold mining in West Africa

Small-scale gold mining in West Africa

“If we can’t get this right, we will be in big trouble

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 15 (TerraViva)

Poor countries that green their economies will lift millions of their citizens out of poverty and generate higher incomes while protecting invaluable natural ecosystems, says a report released here in Rio Thursday.

Some developing countries are actively pursuing a transition towards low-carbon, resource-efficient economies, it found.

“Our message is that economy and ecology can be brought together for the greater benefit of all people, but especially the poorest,” said Peter Hazlewood, director of Ecosystems and Development at the World Resources Institute (WRI), and co-author of the report “Building an Inclusive Green Economy for All”.Rio+20 logo

“This transition will not be easy. It will require new policies, targeted investments and reforms of government institutions,” Hazlewood said.

Governmental departments like agriculture, environment and economic development that…

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Written by Stephen

15/09/2014 at 6:16 am

Posted in News

Rising Wealth Spells Disaster for the Planet, Study Finds

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Stephen:

The last thing the planet needs – or the rest of us – is more millionaires

Originally posted on Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist:

Wealthy Countries Export Environmental Impacts to Poor [New Article]

By Stephen Leahy

BERLIN, Jun 3, 2010 (IPS)

Rising global wealth spells disaster for the planet, with environmental impacts growing roughly 80 percent with a doubling of income, reports the first comprehensive study of consumption.

It adds to the mountain of evidence that the gospel of economic growth must be urgently transformed into the new gospel of resource-efficient green economies, a U.N. expert panel concluded Wednesday.

What are the biggest planetary criminals?

Fossil fuel use and agriculture, the study found. Ironically, these are also the two most heavily subsidised sectors, noted Ernst von Weizsaecker of Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and co-chair of the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management.

Do you find this article interesting? It is funded by contributions from readers. Please click here to learn more about Community Supported Journalism.

“In the case of CO2…

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Written by Stephen

10/09/2014 at 8:32 pm

Posted in News

Fracking and Shale Gas Accelerating Global Warming

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Stephen:

More evidence piling up that shale gas is little better than coal for the climate and slowing the shift to renewables and that’s a very bad thing.

Originally posted on Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist:

UPDATE Jan 2013:

Yet another study reveals fracking has a huge problem of gas leaks. Up to  9% of the gas pumped out of the ground leaks into the atmosphere according to a study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published in Nature this week. Natural gas (methane) is a powerful greenhouse gas. If these leaks are widespread, fracking is worse than burning coal, accelerating global warming.

In Jan 2012 I detailed new research in the article below showing that replacing coal with natural gas from fracking does little to fight climate change (see below). Now two studies published that since then make an even stronger case that fracking for natural gas is a HUGE MISTAKE:

From Nature: Air sampling reveals high emissions from gas field. Methane leaks during production may offset climate benefits of natural gas.

From Environmental Research Letters: New study demonstrates switching to natural…

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Written by Stephen

08/09/2014 at 3:29 pm

Posted in News

Inside The International Climate Treaty Negotiations

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What:  A 15 minute informal update on current state of the UN climate negotiations by award-winning journalist Stephen Leahy including his personal observations on the process.

Who: Stephen Leahy is an indpendent, environmental journalist who has covered climate negotiations around the world. He is co-winner of the 2012 Prince Albert/United Nations Global Prize for reporting on Climate Change.

Where: Part of a public forum in Toronto last June titled CLIMATE CHANGE EMERGENCY.

 

Thanks to Peter Biesterfeld for making the recording.

Keystone XL Pipeline Carbon Emissions Top 100 Million Tons a Year

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The Keystone XL oil pipeline could put up to 110 million tons of additional climate-heating CO2 into the atmosphere every year for 50 years, according a study publishedSunday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

If Keystone XL was a country, its 110 million tons of CO2 emissions would be comparable to those of the Czech Republic, Greece, and a number of other mid-sized European nations. And it could have a real shot at making the top 35 worst carbon polluting countries in the world.

The study notes that 110 million tons of CO2 is four times more emissions than the US State Department’s highest estimate for the controversial pipeline, which is currently undergoing an environmental review.

The State Department failed to account for the potential emissions from the increase in the global supply of oil, said study co-author Peter Erickson, a researcher with the US office of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), an independent international research institute.

This new study is an update to an SEI working paper Motherboard reported on last December. At that time the estimated CO2 emissions from Keystone were 93 million tons, but that’s climbed higher with the benefit of updated information.

“This time it’s gone through the ringer of peer-review and is a far clearer and more direct version of the previous paper,” Erickson said in an interview. “It’s also generated a lot more media interest this time.”

The study shows how Keystone XL’s projected daily volume of 830,000 barrels of Canada’s bitumen oil could slightly lower oil prices on the global market and increase global consumption. More precisely, for every barrel of increased production, global oil consumption could increase by 0.6 barrels owing to the incremental decrease in global oil prices, Erickson said.

This finding is potentially crucial because of President Obama’s prior statement that he will only approve Keystone, “if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

The decision remains largely in Obama’s hands because Keystone XL crosses national borders. The current plan is for a 1,200-mile, 36-inch diameter pipe to be built from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska. The $7 billion pipeline will bring tar sands bitumen from under the frozen forests and lakes of northern Alberta to the world market, and will help the region’s booming oil operations expand even further. XL is part of a larger 2,500-mile Keystone pipeline system that terminates on the Texas Gulf Coast and is owned and operated by energy company TransCanada.

In 2012, Obama rejected TransCanada’s application because the pipeline route was through Nebraska’s environmentally sensitive Sandhills region. A few months later, TransCanada re-applied with a new pipeline route. The State Department is now doing an environmental review using energy consulting company Environmental Resources Management, which is expected to be completed next year.

Building more oil infrastructure is exactly the wrong thing to be doing when the world is struggling to reduce CO2 emissions. The SEI report pegs global investment in oil and gas infrastructure at $700 billion per year for the next 20 years, based on data from the International Energy Agency, along with considerable investment in coal.

That investment will only burn through our carbon budget faster than we are now. According to the IEA’s 2013 World Energy Outlook, which is one of the top energy reports annually, some two-thirds of our proven fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground to avoid heating the planet by more than two degrees Celsius by 2050. That’s a threshold set by the US and other nations who have made climate change mitigation pledges.

However, SEI study co-author Michael Lazarus said last December that the CEOs, board members, bankers, and government officials who make the decisions to build new infrastructure won’t even talk about cutting back. “It seems to be off limits to talk about cutting back on fossil fuel extraction,” he said.

Presumably, these folks also aren’t talking about the disastrous environment all of us will be trapped in if we heat the planet by those two degrees and beyond. We can’t quit oil immediately because it will take time to build an alternative energy infrastructure. However, at this point it makes little environmental sense to build new pipelines like Keystone XL to increase access to tar sands bitumen, the world’s dirtiest form of oil.

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