Plastic Bag Bans or Fees Cover 49 Million Americans

By Janet Larsen

With the signing of a plastic bag ban in California on September 30, 2014, the number of Americans who will be affected by anti-bag legislation by 2015 climbed to 49 million. California is the first state to ban the bag. Nationwide more than 150 cities and counties are implementing bans or fees in attempts to reduce the estimated 100 billion plastic bags used in the United States each year.

Population Under Plastic Bag Bans and Charges in the United States, 2007-2015

Americans use on average nearly one plastic bag each day, taking something made from fossil fuels formed over millions of years and generally using it for mere minutes before throwing it away. The energy required to make 12 plastic bags could drive a car a mile. While plastic bags are recyclable, the vast majority never make it that far. Instead they end up in landfills or blow out of trash bins or garbage trucks—clogging storm drains, getting snagged in trees, or littering streams, lakes, and beaches. In nature, plastic breaks into smaller pieces, but it never fully disappears. Plastic refuse poses dangers to wildlife and to humans as chemicals leaching from discarded plastic enter water supplies and travel up the food chain.

In 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags. By 2014, when a ban in Los Angeles went into effect, nearly a third of Californians were covered under municipal or county plastic bag bans. Other sizable U.S. cities banning the bag include Chicago, Austin, Seattle, and Portland in Oregon. County bans in Hawaii cover almost the entire state.

Washington, D.C., is among a smaller group of U.S. cities taking an alternate route in an effort to limit single-use bags: a 5¢ fee per bag has been applied at the checkout counter since 2010. Dallas is following suit with a fee going into effect in January 2015.

In less than 30 years, plastic grocery bags have moved quickly from novelty to entitlement. But the throwaway-and-forget mentality that allowed these bags to proliferate has proved a liability, wasting resources and marring landscapes.  As the list of places working to scrap the bag expands, both in the United States and around the world, this could be the beginning of the end for the single-use plastic bag.

To read more about U.S. cities taking action against the plastic bags, see “Plastic Bag Bans Spreading in the United States,” along with a timeline illustrating “A Short History of the Plastic Bag.” Global action to limit plastic bags is discussed in “The Downfall of the Plastic Bag.”


Data and additional resources available at

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Fossil Fuel Development in the Arctic is a Bad Investment

By Emily E. Adams

Even master chess players can miss a great move when they have been primed to look for a different one. To explore this phenomenon, researchers tracked master chess players’ eye movements when given chessboards with different layouts. With the first board, players could reach checkmate using a familiar move. When given the second chessboard, the players’ eyes kept looking at the pieces involved in the familiar move instead of scanning the whole board. In effect, the initial solution blinded them to new and better opportunities.

In a similar fashion, the world has become blinded by oil and gas as the familiar ways to run the economy and so is proceeding to look for them in hard-to-reach places like the Arctic, even as the costs mount and the returns diminish. An example of the world being set in its ways was the announcement on August 28th that Royal Dutch Shell, despite many setbacks in recent years, submitted plans to the U.S. government to again drill for oil offshore of Alaska as early as summer 2015.

Currently, about 10 percent of the world’s oil and one-quarter of its natural gas production come from the Arctic region, which has warmed by more than 2 degrees Celsius since the mid-1960s. Countries that border the Arctic Ocean are staking claims to expand their rights beyond the traditional 200-mile exclusive economic zone in anticipation of future oil and gas prospects. According to current estimates, the United States has the largest Arctic oil resources, both on and offshore. Russia comes in second for oil, but it has the most natural gas. Norway and Greenland are virtually tied for third largest combined oil and gas resources. Canada comes in fifth, with almost equal parts oil and natural gas.

In developing these resources, Russia is leading the pack. Production has started at almost all of the 43 large oil and natural gas fields that have been discovered in the Russian Arctic, both on land and offshore. Russia drew its first oil from an offshore rig in Arctic waters in December 2013. On August 9, 2014, ExxonMobil and Russia’s Rosneft together began drilling Russia’s northernmost oil well offshore of Siberia. Russia’s Novatek is working with France’s Total and the China National Petroleum Corp to develop a liquefied natural gas plant in the Arctic. However, tightening U.S. and European sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis threaten the future of these joint ventures.

Norway—where the oil and gas industry accounts for almost a third of government revenues—currently boasts the only operating liquefied natural gas facility north of the Arctic Circle, operated by Statoil in the Barents Sea. Along with Italy’s Eni, Statoil is also involved with the development of the Goliat oil field, expected to come online in 2015. This will be the first oil production in the richly endowed Barents Sea, bordered by Norway and Russia. To the north and west, Greenland eagerly auctioned off drilling licenses first in the late 1970s and more recently in the 2000s, but so far all of its wells have turned up dry.

Canada had exploratory drilling in its Arctic territory in the 1970s and 1980s, but this dropped off in the 1990s. Since then, only one offshore exploratory well has been drilled, in 2005–06, but it was subsequently abandoned. One impediment to further development is the lack of infrastructure to bring the fossil fuels to market, which often requires large resource finds in order to finance its construction.  In Alaska, the onshore Prudhoe Bay oil field—one of North America’s largest—has served this role. Discovered in 1967,  it was large enough to finance construction of the TransAlaska Pipeline. Once that was built, development of smaller nearby oil fields became commercially viable.

Royal Dutch Shell has come the closest to developing Alaska’s offshore oil. As oil prices rose in the 2000s, so did Shell’s interest. Then Shell’s plans were delayed by court cases and a U.S. government moratorium on Arctic activity following BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Further delays followed the damage to a Shell containment dome, which is designed to catch oil in the event of a spill, during testing in Puget Sound in Washington State. In 2012, Shell had a stop-start drilling season, interrupted by drifting icebergs, which was capped off by one of its drill rigs running aground in a heavy storm. The company opted to skip drilling entirely in 2013.

In early 2014, a federal court ruled that the U.S. government made a fundamental mistake when calculating the impact of oil and gas development on the Arctic environment. Therefore Shell’s licenses to drill were invalid and it missed another drilling season. Thus far, Shell does not have a drop of oil to show for the $5 billion it spent on its recent efforts off of Alaska, yet it has taken the first steps to try again in 2015.

As Shell has seen, operating in the Arctic brings great risks. The shrinking Arctic sea ice allows waves to become more powerful. The remaining ice can be more easily broken up into ice floes that can collide with vessels or drilling platforms. Large icebergs can scour the ocean floor, bursting pipes or other buried infrastructure. Much of the onshore infrastructure is built on permafrost—frozen ground—that can shift as the ground thaws from regional warming, threatening pipe ruptures. Already, official Russian sources estimate that there have been more than 20,000 oil spills annually from pipelines across Russia in recent years.  Arctic operations are far away from major emergency response support. The freezing conditions make it unsafe for crews to be outside for extended periods of time. Even communication systems are less reliable at the far end of the Earth. Why take such risks to pursue these dirty fuels when alternatives to oil and gas are there for the taking?

Rather than searching for new ways to get oil, we can look for better ways to move people and goods. Bus rapid transit, light rail and high-speed rail can move more people for less energy than a car can. And for the cars that remain on the road, electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles—powered by a clean energy grid—are much more efficient than those with a traditional internal combustion engine. Encouraging bicycle use through bike lanes and bike-sharing programs gets people active and out of cars.

Natural gas, which is mainly used to produce electricity, can be replaced with power generated by wind, solar and geothermal projects. Many countries are demonstrating what is possible with renewables. Denmark already gets one-third of its electricity from wind. Australia is now dotted with 1 million rooftop solar systems. Iceland generates enough geothermal power to meet close to 30 percent of its electricity needs. These are just a few examples of looking past the old familiar solution to a better cleaner one. The risky search under every rock and iceberg for oil and gas deposits is a costly distraction from investing in a clean energy future.

For data and additional resources visit

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Geothermal Power Approaches 12,000 Megawatts Worldwide

By J. Matthew Roney

In 2013, world geothermal electricity-generating capacity grew 3 percent to top 11,700 megawatts across 24 countries. Although some other renewable energy technologies are seeing much faster growth—wind power has expanded 21 percent per year since 2008, for example, while solar power has grown at a blistering 53 percent annual rate—this was geothermal’s best year since the 2007-08 financial crisis.

World Cumulative Installed Geothermal Electricity-Generating Capacity, 1950-2013

Geothermal power’s relatively slower growth is not due to a paucity of energy to tap. On the contrary, the upper six miles of the earth’s crust holds 50,000 times the energy embodied in the world’s oil and gas reserves. But unlike the relative ease of measuring wind speed and solar radiation, test-drilling to assess deep heat resources prior to building a geothermal power plant is uncertain and costly. The developer may spend 15 percent of the project’s capital cost during test-drilling, with no guarantee of finding a viable site.

Once built, however, a geothermal power plant can generate electricity 24 hours a day with low operation and maintenance costs—importantly because there is zero fuel cost. Over the life of the generator, geothermal plants are often cost-competitive with all other power sources, including fossil fuel and nuclear plants. This is true even without considering the many indirect costs of fossil- and nuclear-generated electricity that are not reflected in customers’ monthly bills.

The top three countries in installed geothermal power capacity—the United States, the Philippines, and Indonesia—account for more than half the world total. California hosts nearly 80 percent of the 3,440 megawatts of U.S. geothermal capacity; another 16 percent is found in Nevada.

Geothermal Electricity-Generating Capacity in Leading Countries, 2013

Despite having installed more geothermal power capacity than any other country, the United States currently generates less than 1 percent of its electricity from the earth’s heat. Iceland holds the top spot in that category, using geothermal power for 29 percent of its electricity. Close behind is El Salvador, where one quarter of electricity comes from geothermal plants. Kenya follows at 19 percent. Next are the Philippines and Costa Rica, both at 15 percent, and New Zealand, at 14 percent.

Geothermal Share of Electricity Generation in Top 10 Countries, Latest Year

Indonesia has the most ambitious geothermal capacity target. It is looking to develop 10,000 megawatts by 2025. Having only gained 150 megawatts in the last four years, this will be a steep climb. But a new law passed by the government in late August 2014 should help move industry activity in that direction: it increases the per-kilowatt-hour purchase price guaranteed to geothermal producers and ends geothermal power’s classification as mining activity. (Much of Indonesia’s untapped geothermal resource lies in forested areas where mining is illegal.) Even before the new law took effect, geothermal company Ormat began construction on the world’s largest single geothermal power plant, a 330-megawatt project in North Sumatra, in June 2014. The plant should generate its first electricity in 2018.

Indonesia is just one of about 40 countries that could get all their electricity from indigenous geothermal power—a list that includes Ecuador, Ethiopia, Iceland, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, and Tanzania. Nearly all of them are developing countries, where the high up-front costs of geothermal development are often prohibitive.

To help address this mismatch of geothermal resources and funds, the World Bank launched its Global Geothermal Development Plan in March 2013. By December, donors had come up with $115 million of the initial $500 million target to identify and fund test-drilling for promising geothermal projects in the developing world. The Bank hopes that the experience gained from these projects will lead to lower costs for the geothermal industry overall. This would be good news on many fronts—simultaneously reducing energy poverty, air pollution, carbon emissions, and costly fossil fuel imports.


Data and additional resources available at

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Water Resources Fact Sheet

Water scarcity may be the most underrated resource issue the world is facing today.

Seventy percent of world water use is for irrigation.

Each day we drink nearly 4 liters of water, but it takes some 2,000 liters of water—500 times as much—to produce the food we consume.

1,000 tons of water is used to produce 1 ton of grain.

Between 1950 and 2000, the world’s irrigated area tripled to roughly 700 million acres. After several decades of rapid increase, however, the growth has slowed dramatically, expanding only 9 percent from 2000 to 2009. Given that governments are much more likely to report increases than decreases, the recent net growth may be even smaller. 

The dramatic loss of momentum in irrigation expansion coupled with the depletion of underground water resources suggests that peak water may now be on our doorstep.

Today some 18 countries, containing half the world’s people, are overpumping their aquifers. Among these are the big three grain producers—China, India, and the United States.

Saudi Arabia is the first country to publicly predict how aquifer depletion will reduce its grain harvest. It will soon be totally dependent on imports from the world market or overseas farming projects for its grain.

While falling water tables are largely hidden, rivers that run dry or are reduced to a trickle before reaching the sea are highly visible. Among this group that has limited outflow during at least part of the year are the Colorado, the major river in the southwestern United States; the Yellow, the largest river in northern China; the Nile, the lifeline of Egypt; the Indus, which supplies most of Pakistan’s irrigation water; and the Ganges in India’s densely populated Gangetic basin.

Many smaller rivers and lakes have disappeared entirely as water demands have increased.

Overseas “land grabs” for farming are also water grabs. Among the prime targets for overseas land acquisitions are Ethiopia and the Sudans, which together occupy three-fourths of the Nile River Basin, adding to the competition with Egypt for the river’s water.

It is often said that future wars will more likely be fought over water than oil, but in reality the competition for water is taking place in world grain markets. The countries that are financially the strongest, not necessarily those that are militarily the strongest, will fare best in this competition.

Climate change is hydrological change. Higher global average temperatures will mean more droughts in some areas, more flooding in others, and less predictability overall.

(PDF version)

Data and additional resources available at
Research Contact: Janet Larsen (202) 496-9290 ex. 14 or jlarsen (at)


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Population Fact Sheet

When assessing the adequacy of basic resources such as land or water over time, population is the universal denominator: as population expands, per capita availability shrinks.

The world population took until the start of the 19th century to reach 1 billion people. As population growth has picked up momentum, we have passed new milestones much more quickly. In 2011, the world reached 7 billion. Overpopulation in India

Tonight 219,000 people will be at the dinner table who were not there last night—many of them with empty plates.

While world population growth has slowed from the peak of 2.1 percent in 1967 to 1.1 percent in 2014, the global population is still projected to grow to 9.5 billion by 2050.

With populations stabilizing in much of the industrial world, almost all population growth in the near future is expected to occur in developing countries.

A major consequence of explosive population growth is that human demands outrun the carrying capacity of the economy’s support systems—its forests, fisheries, grasslands, aquifers, and soils.

Half of the world’s people now live in countries that are depleting their aquifers by overpumping, including China, the world’s most populous, and India, which is expected to surpass China by 2028.

As human populations grow, so typically do livestock populations.

Nigeria, geographically not much larger than Texas, now has 178 million people and is projected to double by 2041, reaching 440 million in 2050.

Ethiopia, one of the hungriest countries, could grow from 96 million to 188 million by 2050.

Pakistan, with 185 million people living on the equivalent of 8 percent of the U.S. land area, is projected to reach 271 million by 2050—nearly as many people as in the United States today.

More than 200 million women around the world like to prevent or delay pregnancy but lack access to family planning information or effective contraception.

Iran experienced one of the fastest rates of fertility decline in world history, dropping growth from 4.1 percent in 1985 to 1.3 percent in 1995 by supporting education and family planning.

Worldwide 44 countries, including nearly all those in both Western and Eastern Europe, have reached population stability as a result of gradual fertility decline over the last several generations.

(PDF version)


Data and additional resources available at
Research Contact: Janet Larsen (202) 496-9290 ex. 14 or jlarsen (at)


Updated July 2014

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China’s Solar Panel Production to Double by 2017

By J. Matthew Roney

China installed a world record amount of solar photovoltaics (PV) capacity in 2013. While this was the first time the country was the number one installer, China has led all countries in making PV for the better part of a decade. China now accounts for 64 percent of global solar panel production—churning out 25,600 megawatts of the nearly 40,000 megawatts of PV made worldwide in 2013—according to data from GTM Research.

Annual Solar Photovoltaics Module Production in China, 2007-2013, with Projection to 2017

Five of the top 10 solar panel manufacturing firms in 2013—including Yingli at the top and runner-up Trina—were Chinese companies. Coming in third was Canadian Solar, which produces 90 percent of its modules in China. Two Japanese companies and one each from the United States and Germany rounded out the top 10. (See data.)

As demand for increasingly affordable solar power continues to climb around the world, GTM Research projects that China’s annual solar panel output will double to 51,000 megawatts by 2017, representing close to 70 percent of global production at that time. Beijing no doubt had such a quick industry ramp-up in mind when in May 2014 it announced a new national PV capacity goal: 70,000 megawatts of installed PV by 2017, up from 18,300 megawatts at the end of 2013. To put that in perspective, if it meets that goal China will add more solar electricity-generating capacity in four years than the entire world had in place in early 2011.

For more information, see the latest Solar Indicator from Earth Policy Institute, at

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Climate Change Fact Sheet

Stabilizing the earth’s climate depends on cutting carbon emissions fast.

Global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2)—the principal climate-altering greenhouse gas—come largely from burning coal, oil, and natural gas.

Coal, mainly used for electricity generation, accounts for 44 percent of global fossil-fuel-related CO2 emissions.

Oil, used primarily for transportation, accounts for 36 percent of CO2 emissions.

Natural gas, used for electricity and heating, accounts for the remaining 20 percent of CO2 emissions.

Worldwide, fossil fuel subsidies topped $620 billion in 2011, while renewable energy received just $88 billion in subsidies.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the planet has warmed by roughly one degree.

2013 marked the 37th consecutive year of above-average temperatures. Fully 4 billion people alive today have never experienced a year that was cooler than last century’s average.

If we continue with business as usual, burning ever more oil, coal, and natural gas, the global average temperature is projected to rise some 11 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius) by the end of this century.

In addition to more widespread drought and more numerous wildfires, climate change brings more extreme heat waves.

In the last decade, daily record high temperatures outnumbered record lows in the United States two to one, and that ratio is increasing.

Crop ecologists have a rule of thumb that each 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature above the norm during the growing season lowers wheat, rice, and corn yields by 10 percent. Field tests show that this may be conservative.

This century, as waters warm and ice continues to melt, seas are projected to rise some 2 meters (6 feet), inundating coastal cities worldwide, such as New York, London, and Cairo, and agricultural hotspots, like rice-growing river deltas.

Earth Policy Institute’s Plan B shows the steps needed to cut global carbon emissions 80 percent.

Cutting carbon emissions involves shifting from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy, dramatically ramping up efficiency, and protecting and restoring forests and other natural systems.

(PDF version)


Data and additional resources available at
Research Contact: Janet Larsen (202) 496-9290 x14 or jlarsen (at)

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