Tuesday, March 28, 2017

An unintended (positive) spillover of the US elections for my trade (LCA)

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is framework for quantifying all the various types of environmental burdens (green house gas emissions, the different criteria air pollutant regulated by the EPA (particulate matter, photochemical oxidants (including ozone), carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and lead)numerous other hazardous chemicals, water pollutants, water depletion, fossil fuel consumption etc.) associated with the consumption of a given good (such as electricity, gasoline, or a pair of jeans) or activity (such as driving, having a meal or shopping online). 

I am passionate about LCA because this passion is ultimately driven by a desire to have a positive impact on our environment, and of course, the lives of fellow human beings. And so while I would like to see more public and private interest in LCA, if our policy makers did their job well (sadly, the exact opposite of what happened today!) the need for LCA might actually decrease, but I will be totally fine with that. Let me explain why

Because LCA is about specific products whereas the pollution is associated with each and every product or service we consume, LCA can be a complicated and costly way to improve environmental outcomes. For instance, how is one to determine, if and at what cost are we impacting the environment simply by changing our consumption of one product using LCA. No single product might be superior when you take all the various different types of burdens mentioned above into account. On the contrary, if the whole world took global warming seriously, of course, (the US is a big culprit here) and we had a global policy for what is a global problem then we need not worry how much carbon emissions come from driving a small car vs a bigger car, a gasoline car vs EV, or driving vs public transit etc. Likewise, if we took each different type of environmental burden seriously and had the best policy in place for each then we don't have to worry about the impact of each different decision for the products in the market would reflect the true cost of each. This is of course policy utopia.On the contrary, america has voted for ushering in dystopia, at least from an environmental standpoint.

Fortunately, there is a large section of this society (in fact a majority of American voters) care about our environmental footprint. So what actions might these enlightened sections of society take that can help overcome obstacles at higher level of government? I feel that LCA has become an ever more important lens and tool to help identify what actions, individual consumers and firms of course, but more importantly city administrations and state governments could take such without federal support. So while purely from an environmental perspective things might seem gloomy, I am looking forwarding to applying my trade in the coming years!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Scientists and engineers are pulling their weight but may be the rest of us aren't?

I produced the chart below for a formal talk and I called it the green choice gap (actually, the credit for suggesting this phrase goes to Prof. Peter Kareiva, the Director of my Institute). It shows that the best EV today is about six times more efficient in converting fuel to distance travelled relative to the average car on the road today.  But in plain speak, I interpret it as may be scientists and engineers are doing their part to help make personal transportation more sustainable but it is the rest of society that is shirking. Perhaps I am letting the scientific community get off too easy for one could easily point out perhaps that the initial cost of EV's still much higher for most people to afford it. And that is an excellent come back. No refuting that. But sitting on our back expecting science and technology to deliver EV's and other cutting edge technologies for the same "artificially" low price as dirty and mature technologies is not smart either. So much of my current energy is focussed on identifying new ways to encourage the adoption of EV's (and other similar investments i.e., clean and efficient but high upfront cost) that do not involve oft-repeated recommendations by academics such as pollution tax,  clean vehicle subsidy or various types of regulations and most recently nudges. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

What is the effect of google maps on our transportation footprint

I am getting ready to teach my Spring quarter Life cycle assessment class which begins in a couple of weeks time. While LCA might be an integral part of the toolkit for environmental and economic sustainability assessment, teaching LCA is challenging. It is easy to lose the attention of your class once you get into the details of the actually of carrying out an LCA. Therefore, I am hoping to get my students to think of doing an LCA on some cool topics (see here for past topics) such as what has happened to the footprint of entertainment (watching movies or sitcoms, sports etc.) or vacation. After all we work to be able to afford leisure. I hope to write a separate blog on each of these later.

For now, I am wondering about the question of how google maps affects our transportation footprint.
I can tell you that just as far back as a decade, one could even afford to forget to carry a wallet as you set out to drive some place new but not forget to pack a Rand McNally road atlas. Hardly would you have turned the corner that you would realize you cannot get to where you want to go! In fact, I became AAA member so that I go pick up unlimited free maps rather than as an insurance against unexpected car break downs or getting locked out of your car. But alas, smart phones have rendered printed maps obsolete, and perhaps even conserved a few trees along the way!

However, this post is not about smart phones per se but about maps, specifically google maps as I am android user. Until recently I was of the opinion that Google maps is a boon for non-auto modes of road travel. By integrating various modal options in one convenient place along with detailed schedules for buses/trains you can be comfortable using public transit as a visitor let alone your own city.

But now I'm not sure for google maps now also shows you how cheap (and quick as well except during rush over) Lyft and Uber are compared to public transit. It would be really great to get some insights on the effect of this information on decision to take public transit. In any case, I think it might be worthwhile to nudge people by also attaching information about pollution or some sort of social cost information. I think I have found an exciting motivating discussion to open my LCA course and hopefully convince a team to do a project along these lines this quarter. But, this comes with a cost, the more exciting the first lecture, the harder it is to sustain excitement for the rest of the quarter! I know all about that from my experience sitting on the other side of class.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Autonomous cars could be a killjoy

As a researcher, I can review academic manuscripts blindfolded (ofcourse, I haven't but if a need arose, I am confident I can do a reasonable job using a good pdf to voice software). But, reviewing popular movies, and more generally, artistic work is beyond my depth. That said, when it comes to matters related to sustainability, it is my belief that an unexpected event, a movie or just a photograph (unfortunately, these need to be about something depressing in order to bring about positive change) can have an impact that is zillion times larger than any rigorous scientific work that shows a small tax on pollution can be a game changer. So, when I got an opportunity to review a hit movie but from an environmental perspective I went o la la! Below is my light-hearted attempt at contriving an environmental perspective on a good movie (that is not about environmental sustainability). A link to the posting on the Huffingtonpost site along with reviews of other movies by my colleagues is at the bottom.

                                         Picture excerpted from Huffington post

What will a sustainable L.A. and less cars on the streets mean for Hollywood?

As someone passionate about the unintended consequences of new innovations, watching La La Land makes me fear for the future of my beloved Los Angeles. But my concern is not about adapting to the hotter and drier reality that climate change is forecast to bring. I dread a future in which L.A. has become so sustainable that it threatens our bread and butter—the film industry.

Imagine the most consequential scenes in this wonderful movie, except in a future where driving your own car, being stuck in traffic, finding parking or getting towed—life in L.A. as we know it—has been rendered obsolete because we’re being hauled around by Uber and Lyft autonomous vehicles on sparsely filled roads. People stuck in gridlocked traffic won’t have a reason to sing and dance on freeways. Forget about a chance meeting with the love of your life in a parking lot, let alone changing plans because of bad traffic and ending up in a bar only to run into your first true love who drove a red 1982 Buick Rivera convertible.

I hope a sustainable L.A. will not lose its charms and become boring. Meantime, go see La La Land while my silly concerns still make sense.

– by Deepak Rajagopal, assistant professor

For more see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/and-the-environmental-oscar-goes-to_us_58b0d17de4b02f3f81e44788

Environmental impact of shipping vs shopping

This is a classic from about a year ago. I am just kidding. My interest in blogging has just been rekindled and I am trying to beef up the number of posts overnight and so I am posting stuff that has accumulated in a list of blog topics I have maintained while in hibernation.

About a year ago, I was invited to discuss the environmental implications of shipping vs shopping on KPCC radio. In true academic style, the gist of my utterances is that it all depends, how profound! If you want to hear on what does the sustainability of online shopping depend check out