Hogwarts Achieves Carbon Neutrality: Living in a Closed Loop

Imagine an isolated castle surrounded by sloping hills and a glassy lake with the looks similar to the circa 1900 era: Welcome to Hogwarts School of Whichcraft and Wizardry. For those of you who don’t know, Hogwarts is the school of magic in the well known Harry Potter series. After much musing, I’ve determined Hogwarts (though fictional) is probably the greenest, most carbon neutral school in the (wizard and muggle) world.

There are a few things that really stand out when I think of Hogwarts being the greenest school–the fact that there is no electricity is a huge one–but there are other nuances that allow the school to operate on a virtually closed loop system.

I’ll go ahead and get big one out of the way since I’ve already mentioned it: no electricity. Hogwarts is lit solely by fires, lanterns, and the efficacy of your lumos spell. During drafty nights in the library you’d be forced to get a thicker cloak to wear. On hot days you’re better off spending the afternoon in the dungeons than plan on turning on air conditioning. Furthermore, there aren’t computers, copy machines or other pesky vampires (no, this isn’t a jab at Twilight–apparently it’s an actual term) to keep the kilowatt clock running at all hours of the day and night.

School districts in the US spend six billion dollars a year on energy which translates to over 64 billion kilowatt hours of energy. If you’re using coal to generate that electricity, we’ve just emitted about 133 billion pounds of carbon dioxide. Hogwarts is skipping right over those carbon emissions (not to mention the other emissions associated with electricity generation) by not being connected to the grid.

It’s never quite discussed how the kids of Hogwarts are fed day in and day out, but I’m going to assume a good deal of that food is grown on the grounds thanks to Hagrid’s garden. Thankfully, the use of magic appears to have eliminated the need for pesticides and fertilizers, so they’re operating on a fairly organic basis (I’m not sure if enhancing food with magic could really be considered “organic”, but roll with me). Growing their own food–or most of it–diminishes the costs associated with food transportation.

Transporting food into California alone emitted 70,000 tons of carbon in 2005. Whatever isn’t grown on the Hogwarts premises can be obtained in the nearby village, Hogsmeade, and visiting the village is a great way for the students to support their local wizard economy.

If something isn’t readily available locally, the students of Hogwarts can always order from Diagon Alley. Unlike regular mail, all deliveries in the wizarding world are made by owl post–eliminating the carbon emissions associated with postal fleets.

Like electricity, another huge factor in keeping Hogwarts’–and really all of the wizarding world’s–carbon emissions at bay is their unique transportation systems. Whether traveling by broomstick, floo powder, or apparating, wizard’s modes of transportation rarely contribute to greenhouse gases (the exception being the Hogwarts Express train and the few wizards that drive cars).

According to the EPA, a car’s average carbon dioxide emissions is 11,450 pounds per year–this doesn’t include the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the gasoline used in each vehicle. Multiply that by the 250 million vehicles registered in the US and you have a whole lot of carbon dioxide.

My final point regarding Hogwarts virtually carbon free system is water. Granted, this issue is probably a bit of a stretch, but it’s fun to imagine anyway. In my mind, Hogwarts runs solely on recycled water–toilet to tap, if you will. The only conceivable way I can structure this is by having an underwater waste water treatment plant in the lake, most likely operated by the merpeople. Like I said, bit of a stretch, but obviously J.K. Rowling doesn’t go into much detail on the inner workings of the Hogwarts sewage system, so I’m left to my own devices.

Even though I’ve taken a few liberties with my analysis of Hogwarts’ carbon neutrality, I think it’s important to think of different ways to create closed (or more closed) loop systems in our society and make big moves to lower our greenhouse gas emissions. In my Earth Day post, I touched on simple things people can do–conserving electricity, buying local, not wasting water–and basically that’s all that’s done at Hogwarts, but at a much larger scale which allows them to live in a closed, carbon neutral loop.

We need to think a little bit outside the box, get creative, and take a leaf out of Hogwarts’ book to make a difference in our society and live greener lives.

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“Yes” to Carbon

I went sailing once. Using the inordinate amount of tact I clearly possess, I mentioned to my partner–a girl who happened to have a dramatic lazy eye–that she would be an optimal sailing buddy as she could keep one eye on the tiller while simultaneously watching the ropes.

After reading an article in Inside Climate News on Obama’s “Yes” to tar sands and “No” to coal, I was reminded of my unfortunate comment to my sailing partner: Obama is trying to keep one eye on his election poles and one eye on his long term carbon and energy goals. Unlike my lazy-eyed friend however, his vision seems to be mostly focused on the poles.

People are a bit flabbergasted with Obama at present: he is endorsing the tar sand moving  Keystone XL pipeline and all the while is creating initiatives that will put more stringent regulations for future power planets. A portion of the new regulations would limit carbon emissions from those new plants to 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour. Current coal fired power plants hover around 1,800 pounds.

Opponents of Keystone point out that any reductions seen in carbon emissions from the EPA’s new regulations may be moot if the entire 1,702 mile behemoth pipeline is erected. The predicted 900,000 barrels of tar sand extracted, transported, and refined per day will emit 27 million metric tones more carbon dioxide than emissions from conventional crude oil. The EPA estimates that’s equivalent to to the annual emissions from 7 coal-fired power plants.

As power plants remain in commission usually for 50 some odd years, the EPA’s rules for new plants are key in preparing for what we want future emissions to look like. It’s important to note, however; that the EPA’s rule’s impact will be meager until existing plants are retired as they aren’t required to adhere to the same standards. It’s also important to realize the rules don’t apply to the dozen or so power plants that have already obtained building permits and breaking ground in the next year. As plants breaking ground today will be around for the next 50 some odd years they will still be polluting the same amount into the next few decades.

As of now, there are no new proposals in the queue that would need to be held accountable to the EPA’s new standards.

As Robert Walther, an energy adviser with the think tank Third Way states, “Coal was already falling away as an option. It can’t compete in the marketplace.”  If the EPA is basically ensuring no new coal fired power plants will come online, what is the point of their new regulations that solely apply to future power plants? Walther says it will sow the seeds for new regulations for existing power plants, which would only happen post-November, if Obama is reelected. At this time, it just seems to be a way for the Obama administration to appear to be making headway as far as limiting the emissions from coal fired power plants.

Obama’s support of the Keystone pipeline may just be a symbolic gesture to ease the public’s gas pump woes, but that doesn’t discount the fact that at least half of the pipeline is being constructed and it will create a huge carbon bomb on the planet. Obama supporting the EPA’s new rules to regulate emissions from new power plants may be a way to cut carbon emissions, but it doesn’t discount the fact that no new power plants are being built and the rules don’t apply to the hundreds of carbon spewing electricity generators.

We can’t just switch from one dirty energy source to another and expect to accomplish much. It seems that Obama is just saying, “Yes” to carbon at this point.

Energy Efficiency, the Rebound Effect, and Climate Policy

You would think that if you needed less energy, you would use less energy. Oddly enough this isn’t the case. In a recent series of articles in Grist, author David delves into the idea of the rebound effect, how it effects energy efficiency, and the implications of these in terms of Climate policy.

It takes energy to make energy for the services we use. Energy efficiency refers to the use of technological innovations that give us the same level of energy service using less primary energy.

Energy efficiency is also less expensive–you can pocket the money saved from getting a more fuel efficient car, investing in solar–what have you. But what do you do with the money you save? If you buy an energy efficient car you may respond to the decreased costs by increasing your demand for that particular service; meaning, you might actually end up buying more  gas because you’re driving more. This is called the direct rebound effect.

On the other hand, you might choose to indulge yourself with the purchase of a new phone or a tablet or something you’ve always wanted but haven’t been able to get. But it takes energy to manufacture the item of your deepest desire, so though you might be driving less, your total energy use will increase–this is called indirect rebound effect.

If the economy as a whole is more energy efficient, it will decrease the cost of energy, which means faster growth. But growth is almost always accompanied by more energy use which overshadows the energy savings made by efficiency.

But we’re banking on energy efficiency.  Models to decrease climate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions 50% (and in some cases more) is due to energy efficiency–but these models are not factoring in the rebound effect. Policy projections could be anticipating energy efficiency savings at 30% by 2030, but including the rebound effect that number might be as low as 15% efficiency.

Unfortunately, the rebound effect is difficult to quantify and based on a variety of factors (the type of energy, socioeconomic statuses, time, location…other economist metrics I don’t understand), which makes it hard to predict how much the rebound effect will actually be. But it’s important to acknowledge the fact we’re overestimating the amount of efficiency that can be achieved.

Does the rebound effect in any way diminish the validity of energy efficiency? Absolutely not. Energy efficiency stimulates productivity, creates jobs, and decrease pollutants. It just means it is more important than ever to take into account the rebound effect–even if it is just anticipating it and having a backup plan, or “wedge“, that will close the gap.

Even if we found a carbon neutral way to generate energy, it would still take years to implement on a world wide scale. We need to decrease energy consumption to stay within our carbon budget–whether you think that’s 450 ppm or 350 ppm–and we need to do it quickly. Grist reports 6 tactics that need to be implemented to stay in the climate safety zone:

1. Aggressive innovation and deployment of clean energy sources, storage, and smart grids.
2. Aggressive innovation and deployment of energy efficient solutions.
3. Aggressive pricing of climate emissions–increasing the price of dirty energy (coal) to keep energy demand from spiking.
4. Behavioral and economic alterations, especially in developing countries, to increase conservation and stave off materialistic driven growth.
5. Behavioral and economic alterations in developing countries to skip the carbon intensive technologies that are usually found in the beginning stages of development.
6. (My personal favorite) “Any f*ckingthing else we can think of.”

In terms of climate policy, the rebound effect is definitely not good news. It means we’re overestimating the amount of efficiency we can achieve compared to what we’re actually going to get. In reality though, it doesn’t discount the importance of energy efficiency and how large a role it will have in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and shaping climate policy. It does however, show how daunting our task is–even more so than perhaps previously thought–and that we need to stop the masochistic behavior of denying and delaying change.