Between a shale rock and a hard place: How I grew to love Earth Day

Earth Day is a beautiful and necessary institution but it ironically presents something of a dilemma to environmentalists who have a grasp on the state of the planet.

For how can we celebrate a “greener” world when Bill McKibben already convincingly has told us that we already may be beyond the “point of no return”? How can we celebrate environmental progress when we’re told carbon emissions in the United States are at their lowest point in 20 years, yet it is caused by the use of the allegedly environmentally unfriendly drilling technology of fracking?

These questions stick people like me between a (shale) rock and a hard place. How can we enjoy a day of green without feeling guilty?

I find that it may be best to take a leaf out of George Costanza's book and go against my instincts, as in a 1994 "Seinfeld" episode, "The Opposite":

George Costanza: “My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat … it’s often wrong.”

Jerry Seinfeld: “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”

Lesson learned. If there's no good news of environmental progress we can enjoy, then maybe we should revel in the bad. With that in mind, I plan to embrace Earth Day this year by focusing here on pollution and technology.

Pollution

In major cities of China — perhaps the most industrially active, populous nation in the world — pollution ranges from being unhealthy to very unhealthy nearly every day of the year. In fact, China’s deputy minister for environmental protection, Wu Xiaoqing, announced that only three out of 74 major cities met national air quality standards in 2013. The country’s hazardous air pollution is rising at such a fast pace that electronics company Panasonic decided to pay hardship bonuses to every Japanese employee sent to work in China.

Lest you think only China has environmental problems, be aware that Paris banned half the cars from its streets in mid-March due to excessive air pollution. Public transportation and bike sharing services were made free to alleviate the inconvenience caused to commuting motorists.

For readers wondering what there is to celebrate here, the answer lies in the signs of change. While there is no such thing as a “free lunch” with a bad environment, there may be higher pay and free subways.

Now, when the going get tough, the tough occasionally does get changing. And that's truly something to celebrate. I witnessed it first-hand, growing up in California where excessive urban pollution became a powerful catalyst for change. The greatest economic challenge that Silicon Valley and Los Angeles faced in the 1970s and 1980s were the heavy levels of smog that were making them undesirable places to live. I, for one, was ready to move away from San Jose after one too many runs left me winded and hacking. Clearly, others felt the same way I did.

The message was heard, and action was taken. To date, smog levels in Los Angeles are down 98 percent from their peak. As environmentalists, we can only hope that the terrible environmental news in China leads to a similar reversal.

For as goes China (PDF), so goes the future of global warming. China is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide with a 29 percent share. The U.S. trails in second place with 16 percent.

Carbon dioxide emissions in China are largely a result of the country’s reliance on coal-burning power plants, which produce 75 percent of all pollutants. As a result, the U.S. effort to decrease emissions is futile if China continues to grow its emissions at the current rate.

Maybe, just maybe, China will react with new policies in 2014. China’s Premier Li Keqiang pledged to "declare war" on pollution, echoing California’s sentiment from years ago. The government plans to shut down 50,000 small coal-fired furnaces in 2014, clean up major coal-burning power plants and remove 6 million high-emission vehicles from the roads. Now this action is something that environmentalists can stand behind! As we celebrate Earth Day, I would like to take the George Costanza opposite approach and cheer that the terrible conditions in China lead to a different path in 2014.

Technology

For those uncomfortable with toasting misfortune, there are plenty of positive green achievements worth celebrating. I am a firm believer in the advancement of technology to combat environmental issues. Two particular breakthroughs are especially appealing to me: solar power and a cleaner way to burn garbage.

Solar power, driven by innovative financing and lower costs, is taking off. A solar module costs about 1 percent of what it did 35 years ago, and prices for solar panels have plummeted since 2010 with an average price per watt for modules falling from $1.81 in 2010 to less than 70 cents today.

Storing solar energy is the one missing ingredient for mass acceptance. Tesla’s announcement that it will build a lithium-battery gigafactory to lower the costs of storage may signifiy that an answer to this problem is just around the corner. Excitingly, Tesla (through SolarCity) is testing the combination of its lithium batteries and solar panels in California homes.

On a different renewable-energy front, NRG Energy has developed an innovative way to burn garbage without creating emissions or dangerous ash byproducts. Through their process, garbage is transformed into electricity and gas that can be turned into gasoline. The company estimates that using its technology to burn all the municipal waste in the U.S. would generate enough electricity to make obsolete 175 nuclear and coal power plants (the U.S. currently has about 600 coal power plants). This technology already is being put into place in England and China — another reason to celebrate.

As Earth Day comes and goes every year, it gives us an opportunity to pause and evaluate how humanity is embracing a global approach to being green. We may be separated by borders, languages and political beliefs but we all look up at the same sky, breathe the same air and live on the same Earth. So on Earth Day and every day, let's celebrate technologies, companies and innovations everywhere that lead to a greener, more sustainable future.

Top image of a back-filling machine in an open coal mine by claffra via Shutterstock