Fossil Fuels Yield to Solar and Data in Upstate New York
By Molly Taft
Lisa Marshall isn't your typical activist. For one thing, she's not into crowds. "I don't really like rallies," Marshall, a mom of three from upstate New York, said. "They're a little stressful — not my favorite thing."
Marshall, who has two degrees in earth science, remembers being concerned about fossil fuels when New York activists began to push Governor Cuomo to ban fracking in the early 2010s. But she didn't know the best way to become involved. "At that time, one of the main strategies, which was very effective in New York, was to just show up wherever [Cuomo] was and make sure he had no peace from the activist community until he banned fracking," she said. "It just was very overwhelming."
Then, at one of her first organizing events for the activist group Mothers Out Front, Marshall realized that organizing wasn't just about making noise. "They handed out a form, with what we might be interested in doing [to help]," she said. "The form said, 'Are you interested in research?' I don't want to go to a rally, but research? Sign me up."
The Cayuga power plant
Source: Philip Cohen
The Finger Lakes area of New York, where Marshall lives, has been a key hotspot for the state's anti-fracking movement for years. Local activists were part of an important coalition to convince Cuomo to ban fracking in 2014. Now, as New York state signs its own Green New Deal and sets one of the most aggressive emissions reductions targets in the world, newer local activists are joining with the older guard and further turning the tide on fossil fuels.
Most notably, in Tompkins County, a coalition including Mothers Out Front recently scored a big clean-power win. In May, owners of the coal-fired Cayuga Power Plant, nestled on the shores of Cayuga Lake just north of Ithaca, announced that instead of switching to gas-fired power, the plant will become a data center partially powered by an on-site solar field. The rest of the electricity will come from other power sources. The power plant's owners have asked for an all-renewable allocation from regulators but that decision hasn't been announced yet. At the very least, the shift marks a transition for the location from dirty power producer to clean(er) power user.
Just three years ago, the plant was at a crossroads. The longtime owner of the plant had filed for bankruptcy in 2011, as low natural gas prices began to push up the cost of coal. The state decided to help the plant hobble along on subsidies, which cost taxpayers $4 million per month. And as coal's fate began to decline, the taxable value of the power plant also took a turn for the worse, losing $100 million in value between 2009 and 2014.
In 2016, the plant faced even more hurdles. In February of that year, state regulators denied an application from the owners for more subsidies to power the plant with coal and natural gas, deciding to spend the money requested on transmission upgrades that would achieve the same reliability for ratepayers without adding more fossil fuels to the mix.
But the lure of natural gas was too great. Last May, the plant's new owner, Beowulf Energy, filed another application with state regulators to switch the plant to primarily run on natural gas. Beowulf Managing Director Michael Enright told the Lansing Star that the company thought the switch would save jobs and help the town's tax base.
"I called it a really bad summer sequel," said Irene Weiser, a longtime fracking activist in the region. Weiser, coordinator of the group Fossil Free Tompkins, and other activists had been instrumental in pushing for the transmission upgrades in 2016 and against transitioning the plant to natural gas. "We were having to fight this all over again."
This time around, seasoned activists weren't alone. Since the protests at Standing Rock that fixated the country in 2016, more and more communities across the country have become involved in opposing local gas pipelines and power plants.
"I think there's just been a growing consciousness over the years that we needed to get further away from fossils, including gas," Weiser said.
While helping her daughter research famed environmentalist Rachel Carson for a high school project last year, Marshall connected with Sandra Steingraber, a noted environmental activist in the area. After speaking with Marshall's daughter for the project, Steingraber told Marshall about several local oil and gas projects that could use additional organizing for opposition — and Marshall decided to tell her "mom network" about the Cayuga project.
The fresh energy from Mothers Out Front helped galvanize new voices to speak about the project to the Tompkins County Legislature. "[The legislature] even said, 'We're seeing all these people we've never seen at any meeting before,'" Marshall said. "People were getting up, our people that we mobilized, and saying, 'I've never come to the county legislature before. I would rather do almost anything other than stand here, but I'm really concerned about this.'" In November of last year, the legislature sent a letter to Albany officially opposing the Cayuga plant's proposal to transition to gas.
The activists' argument was also helped by changing market forces. Natural gas enjoyed a streak of no-questions-asked years in the early 2010s, as rock-bottom prices and the boom in fracking made gas the No. 1 choice for power suppliers. But the crashing price of renewables and fast technological innovations in storage have made many analysts and utility companies look towards a fossil fuel-free future.
The looming targets of the Paris agreement, which seeks to limit global temperature increases to no more than 1.5 degrees C, set additional constraints on natural gas. That's because while natural gas emits less carbon than coal, climate and energy experts note that methane emissions from fracking and burning natural gas make it much harder to meet the targets in the short-term. Locking in more natural gas infrastructure, activists say, delays the adoption of renewable energy and would impede the international targets — as well as New York state's new emissions goals.
Ed LaVigne was elected as Lansing town supervisor in 2012, and says his priority is helping the town maintain its tax revenues and its jobs — which means helping businesses like Beowulf stay in Lansing. "As I tell [the company], I say, 'We're the barnacle,'" he said. "'You're the whale. You're going to take us places we can't go by ourselves.'"
But for LaVigne, the company's decision to look to future technologies makes sense. "When I went to pharmacy school in the late '70s, it cost you $100 and a nine-volt battery to have a calculator that adds, subtracts, multiplies and divides," he said. "You now can get them to run off of indoor light and they're free when you open up a checking account. That's how these dynamics have changed. So let's just put the adult pants on and fast forward to see how we can develop these systems."
Regardless of the temporary victory for anti-fracking activists, challenges remain for the project. Data centers are notorious energy sucks: the one planned on the Cayuga site cannot get all of its energy from the solar panels it will install, and it has asked New York regulators for a substantial allocation of clean energy to power the facility. If Beowulf does not get this energy allocation, it will switch back to its plan of powering the plant with gas. And locals are concerned about whether the data center will retrain current plant workers to help them keep their jobs.
"I don't count my chickens before they're hatched," Weiser, the anti-fracking activist, said of the plan. She pointed out that the data center's energy allocation ask is larger than any other facility in the state. "That said, it's an interesting new development."
Marshall is cautiously optimistic — but also heartened — about the power of organizing to transform local politics. "If you mobilize, if you organize and build power and then mobilize that power strategically, that's how all of the important things usually happen."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
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By Agustín del Castillo
For 20 years, the Colima fir tree (Abies colimensis) has been at the heart of many disputes to conserve the temperate forests of southern Jalisco, a state in central Mexico. Today, the future of this tree rests upon whether the area's avocado crops will advance further and whether neighboring communities will unite to protect it.
The Nevado de Colima volcano stands 4,260 meters (13,976 feet) above sea level. Agustín del Castillo<p>According to biologist José Villa Castillo, the director of Nevado de Colima National Park and Nevado de Colima Cloud Forest State Park, it is imperative to stop the commercialization of the tree's timber and to create policies that conserve the forests in which it lives. Villa Castillo also supported the inclusion of the tree on the endangered species list.</p><p>Villa Castillo acknowledged the enormous challenge of conserving this tree, and he said the pressure to exploit its timber without sustainable management is far from the only problem. The expansion of the nearby avocado industry also threatens its survival.</p><p>When allowed to grow, the Colima fir tree can become monumental: It can reach 60 meters (196 feet) in height and 2 m (6.5 ft) in diameter. To protect this giant, specialists and communities often promote ecotourism and conservation projects inside the national and state parks that surround the Nevado de Colima volcano.</p>
Fires That Clear Land for Avocado Crops<p>In 2012, a group of researchers from the University of Guadalajara proposed to the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) the recognition of the <em>A. colimensis</em> as a unique species to differentiate it from the sacred fir (<em>A. religiosa</em>), which is the dominant fir tree in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, a collection of volcanoes in central Mexico.</p><p>The Colima fir tree "has extremely low genetic diversity; it has the lowest known genetic diversity among all the species in the Abies genus in Mesoamerica and one of the lowest among all the species of trees on the planet," according to the authors of the proposal to recognize the tree as an endangered species. The area it occupies "is very limited": just 15,002 hectares (37,071 acres), or 0.007% of the territory of Mexico.</p><p>The Nevado de Colima volcano, which stands 4,260 meters (13,976 feet) above sea level, is one of only eight peaks that exceed 4,000 m (13,123 ft) in Mexico. It is only 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Pacific Ocean and is considered an "evolutionary island" because the ecosystems in its high-altitude areas drive unique adaptations in species and are cut off from other ecosystems by hundreds of kilometers. The Colima fir tree is an example of the area's biological differentiation, according to Libertad Arredondo, a researcher and expert on the ecology of high mountains.</p>
The fir forests are mainly located in the middle of slopes or in ravines. Agustín del Castillo<p>Even though the tree has remained on that "evolutionary island," its situation has become increasingly complicated by the impact of deforestation, which was propelled by the issuance of permits for forest exploitation. Fires, started to convert the land to agriculture or other uses, also present a threat to the ecosystem, according to the experts who suggested the tree should be considered endangered.</p><p>The researchers said the tree's future prospects are further complicated by its slow growth rate, its high degree of genetic erosion, the effects of climate change, and the movement of clouds to higher altitudes. The position of clouds is crucial because they act as an essential source of moisture for fir trees.</p><p>Villa Castillo, an expert in pine genetics and reproduction, said the Colima fir tree has never been successfully reproduced in nurseries, which would likely make it impossible to conduct reforestation efforts to help repopulate the species.</p><p>The forests that contain the Colima fir tree are in cold, humid climates, with very little light reaching the understory, and they're mainly located in the middle of slopes or in ravines. The species thrives when surrounded by oak trees, coniferous trees and other types of vegetation common in mountainous cloud forests. The tree also requires a primary habitat with little disturbance from humans.</p><p>According to Villa Castillo, fire kills most Colima fir tree seedlings, as it kills seedlings of other species in the <em>Abies</em> genus. In recent years, more fires have been started in the forest to clear the way for avocado trees.</p>
A tree and other vegetation in the cloud forest surrounding the Nevado de Colima volcano. Agustín del Castillo<p>Sonia Navarro Pérez, a researcher from the University of Guadalajara who has monitored and conducted biological inventories in the area, has seen firsthand how the growth of the avocado industry has led to the loss of important forested areas.</p><p>She described the case of the indigenous community of San José del Carmen, which is in the municipality of Zapotitlán de Vadillo, near one of the patches of forest.</p><p>"We were working with them to establish productive alternatives that are good for nature," Navarro Pérez said. "But when the avocado came, it overwhelmed us completely."</p><p>Since 2013, the coniferous forests around the Nevado de Colima volcano have lost nearly 6,600 hectares (16,300 acres) due to illegal logging, livestock rearing and intentionally set fires, according to Mexico's deforestation risk index developed by the <a href="https://www.gob.mx/inecc" target="_blank">National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change</a>.</p>
A section of cloud forest in San José del Carmen, inside the state park created in 2009. Community members have been protecting the forest voluntarily for over two decades. Agustín del Castillo<p>"[What was once] an original area of 7,000 hectares [17,300 acres] of fir-specific forest is now cut in half," said Villa Castillo, the director of the Nevado de Colima national and state parks.</p><p>The expansion of the avocado crops is the most recent threat in a series of events that have negatively impacted the conservation of the forests in the area.</p><p>Between the 1940s and the 1990s, the Atenquique Industrial Company had exclusive rights to use the timber from these forests under a concession from the Mexican government. The result was "that the forests were skimmed — that is, they took the best parts," Villa Castillo said.</p><p>When the concession expired in 1995, the forests did not experience a transition to a sustainable timber extraction method. Those who, along with landowners who held small plots, had rights to the shared land were limited to selling the forested areas, at very low prices, to the new logging industries located in Ciudad Guzmán. "Then, there were many abuses against the communities. The money was given to the caciques" — families who have always controlled the shared land — "alms were left for the community, and our forests were very poorly managed," said Rafael González Merín, the former president of Huescalapa, a collective of communally owned farmland known as an <em>ejido</em>.</p><p>As a result, many residents of the community believe the solution is to conserve the forests with productive projects.</p>
Communities Pitch in to Save Their Trees<p>Unlike the communities that have been overtaken by the avocado industry, Huescalapa has largely managed to resist its arrival. The community of shared land, which spans more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres), is home to pine and fir trees within its shady temperate forests.</p><p>The residents of Huescalapa have also set aside the proposals they've received from the forestry industry, which has expressed interest in buying their trees.</p><p>According to Gerardo Bernabé Aguayo, logging activity in this area of Jalisco "has been very negative because the industry has managed delicate areas — with very limited species — poorly, so we are supporting and launching projects with the communities." Bernabé Aguayo is the president of the board of trustees of Nevado de Colima and Adjacent Basins, a civil association created about 20 years ago after being promoted by the government of the state of Jalisco. To support the conservation of the national and state parks, the board has financing from the regional private sector.</p><p>The board manages about 6 million pesos ($268,000) contributed by the federal government in 2020. With resources from the private sector, it has been able to access an additional 1.5 million pesos ($67,000).</p>
An area of fir trees that has been destroyed by logging. Agustín del Castillo<p>Rodrigo Cantera Hernández, the president of the El Alcázar Ecotourism Center, said that in Huescalapa, the caciques removed timber from the fir forests, "but they did not report any money to the other community members, so we fought to eject them and were able to do so a couple of years ago."</p><p>In Huescalapa, three main conflicts over timber have taken place in the past 20 years. First, in 1999, a group of community members sold part of the forest to a forestry industry from Ciudad Guzmán. A movement led by citizens put an end to the logging five months later.</p><p>Next, in 2012, environmental authorities granted permission for forest exploitation in these areas, so fir trees continued to be cut down. An opinion by the <a href="https://www.ideaac.org.mx/" target="_blank">Institute of Environmental Law</a>, a civil society organization, cited scientific evidence that demonstrated the uniqueness of mountain fir trees and forced SEMARNAT to withdraw these permissions.</p>
The citizens of Huescalapa formed a cooperative to launch the El Alcázar Ecotourism Center. El Alcázar Ecotourism Center<p>Then, in 2015, a federal judge suspended a new authorization to exploit timber in the cloud forest.</p><p>For communities like Huescalapa to have economic options that do not involve the use of timber because of the detrimental effects that this may have on the remaining population of Colima fir trees, ecotourism and similar activities are promoted.</p><p>According to Bernabé Aguayo, the goal is for the natural forest to be conserved as "a key area for contemplation, enjoyment, the preservation of environmental services, and research."</p><p>In 2019, the cooperative in El Alcázar received 1 million pesos ($44,600), which allowed it to have the basic infrastructure for the ecotourism center. The cooperative may receive an additional 3 million pesos ($133,800) in 2020 to purchase more equipment and improve the roads, but support for this funding was blocked in a community assembly. "They have not understood that it is for the benefit of everyone, that it is not money for our pockets," said Cantera Hernández, the president of the cooperative.</p><p>In Huescalapa, one of the challenges that interferes with efforts to promote the ecotourism center is the division that exists between community members. Many seek to use the timber, but others are already convinced of the importance of conservation.</p><p>Villa Castillo, the director of the Nevado de Colima national and state parks, emphasized that projects similar to the El Alcázar Ecotourism Center are being promoted in San José del Carmen and Zapotitlán de Vadillo, which are very close to the border between the states of Jalisco and Colima.</p>
María de la Luz Cortés Reyes, the leader of the Amixtlán cooperative, which was created in San José del Carmen. Agustín del Castillo<p>The Amixtlán Ecotourism Center is located in the community of San José del Carmen. A cluster of cabins marks the entrance to the cloud forest, designated a state park since 2009.</p><p>"We decided to protect our forest long before they declared the state park, 20 years before then," said María de la Luz Cortés Reyes, a community leader in San José del Carmen. She recalled that when loggers came with offers to buy the forest, members of the community believed that they offered very little payment and that "the damage [that the loggers left] was too much." For that reason, they decided "not to touch the forest, because it produces water for the crops and for our houses."</p><p>Cortés Reyes said the community was able to construct the ecotourism center because it had resources managed by the Nevado de Colima Cloud Forest State Park and by the Board of Trustees of Nevado de Colima and Adjacent Basins. However, she said it is important that more promotion is given to the area and that urgent problems, such as those with the water supply system, are resolved.</p>
A view of the Nevado de Colima volcano from the Amixtlán Ecotourism Center in San José del Carmen. Agustín del Castillo<p>In the community of Zapotitlán de Vadillo, citizens also promoted the Puerta de la Hacienda Ecotourism Center, where administrators support the biocultural production of mezcal, an alcoholic beverage made from agave. The drink is made by two <em>mezcaleros</em>, or people who are experts in creating mezcal: Marcario Partida from Zapotitlán de Vadillo, and Rosario Pineda from Tetapán, a small community in Zapotitlán de Vadillo.</p><p>Other productive projects that are promoted in the communities include the organic production of eggs, such as by Efigenia Larios, a small producer from the community of El Tecuán. Additionally, the shared land communities of Zapotitlán de Vadillo, San José del Carmen and Huescalapa are provided with equipment for fire prevention and materials to help restore the forest soil.</p><p>Artists have painted murals that shine a spotlight on forest conservation in San José del Carmen and Zapotitlán de Vadillo.</p><p>The intention of these efforts is to allow those who own land or have rights on this fragile mountain to "understand that there are other options besides logging, and that they, too, can generate development," said Arredondo, the researcher who specializes in the ecology of high mountains.</p><p>Despite the strong pressure for land use changes brought by the avocado agroindustry and fostered by the high level of impunity that often prevails in rural areas, many of the area's landowners continue to search for a model in which their forests can remain standing.</p><p>"Many neighbors say that we are foolish for not wanting to sell this beautiful forest that we have, but that money only lasts for a short time," said José Avalo Lino, a farmer in San José del Carmen. "We are so certain of [the importance of] preventing logging that, long before the declaration of the natural protected area, our community assembly had already decided to save this forest. We will continue to be 'foolish' in this decision."</p>
By Jeanette Cwienk
This summer's high street fashions have more in common than styles and colors. From the pink puff-sleeved dream going for just €19.99 ($22.52) at H&M, to Zara's elegant €12.95 ($14.63) halter-neck dress, clothing stores are alive with cheap organic cotton.
"Sustainable" collections with aspirational own-brand names like C&A's "Wear the change," Zara's "join life" or H&M's "CONSCIOUS" are offering cheap fashion and a clean environmental conscience. Such, at least, is the message. But is it really that simple?
Going Green, or Just Greenwashing?<p>"Fashion brands are capitalizing on the fact that consumers are interested in buying fairly and ecologically produced items," said Katrin Wenz, an expert in agriculture at Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND). "Organic cotton is certainly a step in the right direction, because neither <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/patents-on-plants-is-the-sellout-of-genes-a-threat-to-farmers-and-global-food-security/a-49906072" target="_blank">genetic modification</a> nor synthetic pesticides can be used in its production. But these own-brand sustainability labels rarely tell us anything about what happens later on in the production chain."</p><p>Viola Wohlgemuth, a textiles expert at Greenpeace, says companies create their sustainability labels and criteria themselves. "Sustainability is not a protected or specific term, which leaves the door wide open for so-called greenwashing," she told DW.</p>
Independent Certifications Trustworthier<p>Both experts emphasize that independent environmental certifications offer a better indicator of a product's eco credentials, including labor conditions for workers involved in production. Examples include the Global Organic Textile Standard label (GOTS) and the IVN Best certification, which is awarded by the International Association of Natural Textile Industry (IVN).</p><p>Heike Hess, head of IVN's Berlin branch, says using organic cotton alone "is not enough to make fashion really sustainable," and that producing clothes involves a more involved production chain. After being grown in the fields, cotton fibers have to be separated from their seeds, spun, dyed, printed and sewn to create finished items of clothing.</p><p>"Ecological and social standards are important at every stage of production," Hess said. "That includes minimizing the use of harmful chemicals, managing water usage and waste, limiting CO2 emissions and ensuring human rights, fair wages, protections for workers and much more. Only then can fashion really be called sustainable."</p><p>And that comes at a price. <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/heres-why-your-next-t-shirt-should-be-made-of-organic-cotton/a-39083921" target="_blank">Organic cotton</a> summer dresses certified with the GOTS label usually cost somewhere between €60-100 (about $67-113). </p>
Water Polluted and Wasted<p>Textile production often uses harmful chemicals, especially during the wet processing stage when threads are formed, dyed and woven, says Wohlgemuth. According to the UN Environment Program, around 20% of global wastewater is generated during textile dyeing and processing. Communities and ecosystems in <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/bangladeshs-textile-industry-works-towards-becoming-more-eco-friendly/a-50983898" target="_blank">textile producing countries across Asia</a> are worst affected.</p><p>Since launching its <a href="https://www.greenpeace.org/international/act/detox/" target="_blank">'Detox My Fashion'</a> campaign in 2011, Greenpeace has secured commitments from some 80 global companies in the fashion industry to eliminate hazardous chemicals by the end of this year.</p><p>But that alone doesn't imply sustainability. Growing cotton also requires a huge amount of water and vast areas of land, says Sabine Ferenschild from the Südwind Institute for Economics and Ecumenism in Bonn.</p><p>"Organic cotton is only sustainable when grown in rainy regions such as India, and planted in combination with food crops rather than in competition with them," she said. "But we have seen that cotton farming is increasingly being shifted to desert regions. That can never be sustainable."</p>
Eco Collections Remain a Market Niche<p>Ferenschild is critical of major fashion brands' attempts to go green with their own criteria and labeling for certain products, while the majority of what they're selling is still produced conventionally.</p><p>Germany is pursuing a new approach to green certification with its government-backed <a href="https://www.bmz.de/en/issues/textilwirtschaft/gruener_knopf/index.html" target="_blank">'Green Button' label</a>. A company can only use the label if all its products comply with high environmental and labor standards. These standards are not as strict as those demanded by organic certifiers, but experts say the 'Green Button' label is a step in the right direction, as it prevents producers offloading responsibility to subcontractors in the production chain.</p>
An 'Eco' Dress for €20 ($22.60): Too Good to Be True?<p>According to the Bremen Cotton Exchange, organic cotton costs between 10 and 50% more than conventional cotton. Premium fibers boost prices the most; the raw material is not necessarily the most important factor in terms of cost.</p><p>Global fashion brands like H&M are able to keep their prices down, even for the products in their "sustainable" ranges, due to the huge volume of items they produce, textiles expert Ferenschild told DW.</p><p>H&M uses its own "CONSCIOUS" label for products which contain "at least 50 percent sustainable materials, such as organic cotton and recycled polyester." It is not clear to consumers what percentage of organic cotton is used in the items labeled as such. In response to DW's request for clarification, H&M wrote: "Across our entire range, H&M uses 16 percent organic cotton according to our most recent figures."</p><p>According to the Bremen Cotton Exchange, just 0.7 percent of the global cotton harvest in the 2017/18 season was organic.</p><p><strong>The Real Problem Is One of Quantity</strong></p><p>Even if the big fashion brands wanted to move further towards truly sustainable production, current consumption habits would make that almost impossible. The real problem is that far too many clothes are being produced. According to a 2015 Greenpeace study, there are more than five billion items of clothing in German wardrobes alone. </p>
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