Climate-related disasters cost American taxpayers $96 billion last year

May 15, 2013 2:18 PM

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By John Upton @ Grist.org

Schools and roads are nice to have. But what American taxpayers are really dropping serious money on, through no direct choice of their own, is cleaning up and helping out after all those climate-related disasters.

A new analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that the federal government dished out $96 billion last year on what the NRDC calls “federal climate disruption costs.” That works out to $1,100 per taxpayer, or one-sixth of the government’s non-defense related spending. It’s more than the feds spent last year on education or on transportation.

The unwelcome spending spree came during the second most expensive year on record for such disasters. Superstorm Sandy hit last year, as did the drought-induced failures of federally insured crops. Floods and forest fires also racked up sizable bills.

That’s what insurance is for, you say? From an NRDC blog:

Overall the insurance industry estimates that 2012 was the second costliest year in U.S. history for climate-related disasters, with over $139 billion in damages. But private insurers themselves only covered about 25% of these costs ($33 billion), leaving the federal government and its public insurance enterprises to pay for the majority of the remaining claims. As a result, the U.S. government paid more than three times as much as private insurers did for climate-related disasters in 2012.

Here’s a graph from the new report that illustrates the alarming annual disaster outlay:

The old saying about “an ounce of prevention” comes to mind, but Americans are apparently not heeding it. Again, from the blog:

[F]ederal spending to deal with extreme weather made worse by climate change far exceeded total spending aimed at solving the problem. In fact, it was eight times EPA’s total budget and eight times total spending on energy.

Perhaps we’d be wise to tuck a few dollars away for an extremely rainy, or really, really dry day.

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles toFacebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants: johnupton@gmail.com.

Indian Man Single-Handedly Plants 1,360 Acre Forest

April 18, 2012 12:40 PM

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Deforestation and desertification are critical problems in India that have led to barren land, increased soil erosion, decreased agricultural production, and devastated local wildlife. However one Indian man has made a stand – by single-handedly planting and cultivating a 1,360 acre forest that is home to a complex, thriving ecosystem.

Jadav “Molai” Payeng started his project 30 years ago when he was still a teenager. Then, in 1979, flood waters washed a large number of snakes ashore on the local sandbar in Jorhat, some 350 km from Guwahati. When the waters receded, Payneg (who was 16 at the time) noticed the reptiles had died due to a lack of forestry.

“The snakes died in the heat, without any tree cover. I sat down and wept over their lifeless forms. It was carnage. I alerted the forest department and asked them if they could grow trees there. They said nothing would grow there. Instead, they asked me to try growing bamboo. It was painful, but I did it. There was nobody to help me. Nobody was interested,” said Payeng, who is now 47, to The Times of India.

Payeng chose to live on the sandbar, starting a life of isolation as he began work to create a new forest. Planting the seeds by hand, watering the plants in the morning and evening, and pruning them when required, he cultivated a huge natural reserve. After a few years, the sandbar was transformed into a bamboo thicket.

“I then decided to grow proper trees. I collected and planted them. I also transported red ants from my village, and was stung many times. Red ants change the soil’s properties . That was an experience,” Payeng recalled.

Over the years, the reserve has seen a huge variety of flora and fauna blossom on the sandbar, including endangered animals like the one-horned rhino and Royal Bengal tiger. “After 12 years, we’ve seen vultures. Migratory birds, too, have started flocking here. Deer and cattle have attracted predators,” claims Payeng . Unfortunately, locals reportedly killed a rhino which was seen in his forest, something that Payeng clearly disapproves of.  ”Nature has made a food chain; why can’t we stick to it? Who would protect these animals if we, as superior beings, start hunting them?”

Amazingly, the Assam state forest department only learnt about Payeng’s forest  in 2008 when a herd of some 100 wild elephants strayed into it after marauding through villages nearby. It was then that assistant conservator of forests Gunin Saikia met Payeng for the first time.

“We were surprised to find such a dense forest on the sandbar. Locals, whose homes had been destroyed by the pachyderms, wanted to cut down the forest, but Payeng dared them to kill him instead. He treats the trees and animals like his own children. Seeing this, we, too, decided to pitch in,” says Saikia. “We’re amazed at Payeng. He has been at it for 30 years. Had he been in any other country, he would have been made a hero.”
Read more: Indian Man Single-Handedly Plants 1,360 Acre Forest | Inhabitat – Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building

Al Gore Asks How Many Climate Disasters Will It Take For Us To Act

June 22, 2011 10:11 AM

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By Brad Johnson @ Climate Progress
Jun 22, 2011 at 11:54 am

Vice President Al Gore has rejoined the public fight on global warming, issuing a clarion call to take action to address the climate crisis. Twenty years ago, he participated in the international mobilization against the future threat of fossil fuel pollution heating up our atmosphere. For decades, he and other leaders have battled the fossil fuel industry and their corporate and political allies to mobilize for a sustainable civilization. Now, the crisis of dangerous climate change is upon us. Speaking before the Games for Change festival on Monday, Gore delineated a few of the catastrophic disasters caused by our superheated climate system in the past twelve months:

Look what’s happened in the last twelve months:

– The twenty million people displaced in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country, one of the biggest flood events in their history.

– An area of Australia the size of France and Germany combined, flooded.

– The nation of Colombia, they’ve had five to six times the normal rainfall. Two million people are still homeless. Most of the country was underwater for a portion of last year.

– My hometown, my home city of Nashville, a thousand-year flood. Thousands of my neighbors lost their homes and businesses. They had no flood insurance because there had never been a flood in areas that were flooded.

– Drought. Russia, biggest drought in their history, biggest fires in their history, over 50,000 people killed, and then all of their wheat and other food crops, along with that of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, taken off the world markets, leading to an all-time record spike in food prices.

– Texas, right now. The drought raised from “extreme” to “exceptional.” 254 counties in Texas, 252 of them were filed in the major disaster.

– Today, biggest fire in the history of Arizona, spreading to New Mexico.

– Today, biggest flood in the history of the Mississippi River valley underway right now.

At what point is there a moment where we say, ‘Oh, we ought to do something about this?’

Watch it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvH_0etJ1cs&feature=player_embedded

SOURCE: Climate Progress

A Father’s Day essay on the world we’re leaving our children

June 20, 2011 11:11 AM

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By Joe Romm @ Climate Progress
Jun 19, 2011 at 9:49 am

On the one hand, should I be blogging on Father’s Day?  On the other hand, what more important day is there to blog on climate change than Father’s Day?  So as a compromise, I’m doing some cross-posts and reposts.

Last year, Salon published my Father’s Day essay. It was a sequel of sorts to “Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme?“  Sadly, it needs to be updated since, of course, we didn’t pass a climate bill and thus took a quantum leap closer to leaving our children a ruined climate.

As parents, we constantly admonish our children to share with others. The joke is that as adults, we hardly like to share anything at all. Who likes to lend out their car? Or their tools or books? We’re so worried they won’t come back in the same condition — or won’t be returned at all.

But the truth is that the people we like to share the least with are our own children. “We do not inherit the Earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children,” the saying goes. Right now, though, we’ve borrowed the entire Earth, trashed much of it, and don’t plan to give back the rest of it.

We are plundering the world’s “renewable resources” — arable land and tropical forests and fisheries and fresh water. And we are using an ever-greater fraction of nonrenewable energy resources, especially hydrocarbons, with devastating consequences.

As one example, our carbon pollution is acidifying all of the oceans simultaneously, while heating them up to record levels, threatening mass extinction of aquatic life. Australian marine science professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, the lead author of a major study on acidification, says the result is that “we are entering a period in which the very ocean services upon which humanity depends are undergoing massive change and in some cases beginning to fail.” He adds: “It’s as if the Earth has been smoking two packs of cigarettes a day” — except, of course, the smoke comes from our addiction to fossil fuels, not the Earth’s.  (Sew Nature Geoscience study: Oceans are acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred).

The website RealClimate points out that the amount of dangerous carbon dioxide we spew into the air each day from burning fossil fuels and deforestation is roughly equivalent to “five thousand spills like in the Gulf of Mexico, all going at once … every day for decades and centuries on end.”

And if we listen much longer to those anti-science disinformers who have been counseling inaction, we won’t just be trashing the climate for our children — we will be destroying a livable climate for countless future generations. A 2009 study led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that “the climate change that is taking place because of increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop.” What kind of changes? Well, besides destroying the oceans, the study warns of “irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the ‘dust bowl’ era and inexorable sea level rise.”

The dust bowl that will hit the American Southwest and a half-dozen other heavily populated regions around the Earth will likely last far, far longer than the one that devastated the Great Plains in the 1930s (See NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path). And the sea level rise could hit 4 to 6 feet by century’s end and then continue rising a foot or more a decade, until all the land-based ice on the planet is gone and seas are more than 200 feet higher Sea levels may rise 3 times faster than IPCC estimated, could hit 6 feet by 2100). How will our children’s children and their descendants adapt to that?

Conservatives have demagogued even the most moderate, business-friendly proposal to put a price on carbon, falsely labeling it and “energy tax.” President Obama has never given a single major speech to the American public on the greatest threat we face — the threat posed by unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions, the urgent need to make polluters pay for emitting carbon dioxide.  He failed to press hard for the passage of a Senate bill  As a result, the prospects have dimmed for serious climate legislation for the foreseeable future (see “The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 2“).

To refuse to place a price on carbon dioxide pollution is to ignore the damage your actions today will inevitably have on the health and well-being of your children and everyone else’s children. Something to think about on Father’s Day.

SOURCE: Climate Progress

How climate change is starving the world

June 7, 2011 9:37 AM

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It was supposed to take until 2080 for food prices to double. Sure, climate change can make arable land into irrigation-hungry desert, and increase the likelihood of crop-destroying severe weather (and wildfires). But ironically, increased carbon dioxide also helps plants grow, so this was all supposed to be under control for the foreseeable future. Turns out: Nope. Prices had already doubled or even tripled for some staples before the recession, and they’re on their way back up. World hunger is poised to increase at a speed not seen in decades. And climate change is to blame.

Changes in weather have a big effect on crops even when they’re not as showy as a deadly snowstorm or hurricane. Rain and heat at the wrong time can mean water shortages or flash floods. Changes in weather conditions have also led to new pest and disease threats. The growing seasons have gone all cockeyed: There’s too much rain in the dry season, too much dryness in the rainy season, and not enough cold season at all. Meanwhile, plants do grow a little better with extra CO2, but not as much as previously thought — and not enough to offset all the other negative effects of climate change.

All this means that food prices are projected to double again, from already high levels, by 2030. And as many as 940 million people in the world went hungry last year. In the mid-90s, that figure had been muscled down to 800 million.

So, this is awesome! Are we totally doomed? Not yet, apparently:

Agronomists emphasize that the situation is far from hopeless. Examples are already available, from the deserts of Mexico to the rice paddies of India, to show that it may be possible to make agriculture more productive and more resilient in the face of climate change. Farmers have achieved huge gains in output in the past, and rising prices are a powerful incentive to do so again.

But this will take new farming techniques and new kinds of crops (like flood-tolerant rice), and that takes research funding and time. Alternately, I hear great things about this stuff called “Soylent Green” …

straight to the source

Source: Grist.org

Ecuador looks to its own people in the battle against climate change

September 22, 2010 10:46 AM

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Ecuador’s indigenous peoples are proactive in adapting society to deal with global warming, effectively guiding the government

by: John Vidal

 Yasuni National Park, in Ecuador's northeastern jungle
Ecuador’s Yasuni park where, as part of the climate change battle, oil will be left in the ground if donors pay half its value. Photograph: Dolores Ochoa/AP

We left thirsty Peru and have reached Quito in Ecuador on the great Oxfam/Guardian Andean climate journey. First stop is to meet the government and community leaders of a state that stretches from the Pacific coast, over the mountains, and deep into the Amazon forest.

The environment minister is the redoubtable Maria Fernanda Espinoza, who is grappling with the contradictions of having a revolutionary new constitution that guarantees the rights of nature and all living entities, yet depends on vast oil reserves. She is adamant that Ecuador wants to find ways to get out of the petrol economy and invest in renewables to avoid climate change.

One plan is to guarantee to leave nearly one billion barrels of oil – nearly 20% of the country’s reserves – in the ground if rich countries and individuals give them $3.6bn, half the oil’s value. The money from the Yasuni project would go to a UN-run fund to pay for national park conservation, as well as health and education. It would save nearly 400m tonnes of emissions and is being hailed as an innovative climate change solution.

Hmmm. No one knows if this will catch on – even as we meet the minister, the press is reporting that the plan’s biggest western backer, Germany, is having second thoughts – but the radical government led by Rafael Correa will push it at the global climate change talks in Mexico in November.

(Less remarkable, but something I have never seen before in 20 years of interviewing politicians, is the way Espinoza gets a senior civil servant to hold, brush and lovingly arrange her long brown hair throughout the hour-long interview. It’s a cross between a hairdresing salon and a Vanity Fair photo-shoot.)

The leaders of the country’s powerful, 12 million-strong indigenous peoples are also image conscious. Delfin Tenesaca, who runs the largest group, Ecuarunari, gives us an audience in front of a giant scarlet banner proclaiming human, water and other rights. The group sees climate change as an urgent social issue that can only be addressed by communities organising themselves.

Even though Ecuador is right on the equator and is somewhat protected from climate change by the vast Amazon rainforest, its glaciers are melting fast and rainfall is decreasing steadily.

For the indigenous peoples, the “Pachamama” – or Mother Earth – is ill. We are going through a period of “vaciacad”, or melancholy, and we need to embrace “Sumak Kawsay”, the good way of living to restire Mother Earth’s balance, says Tenesaca.

Interpreted, that means the world must abandon the neo-liberal policies that favour the rich. It must redistribute land, make the right to water universal and protect biodiversity. Any other way guarantees climate change, poverty and inequality.

But the indigenous peoples’ relationship with government is complex. The new constitution gives them far more than what they had before, but they bitterly complain that the state has not passed the laws needed to make the constitution workable.

Indigenous peoples throughout Latin America are gaining confidence. They are at the forefront of the new political philosophies emerging from Bolivia to Venezuela. Climate change – specifically the right to water – is central to the political revolution taking place.

One of the architects of the Ecuadorean constitition is Humerto Cholango, the man tipped to lead all Andean indigenous peoples.

This intellectual onion grower, a friend of Bolivia’s radical president Evo Morales, shares four hectares with his eight brothers on the slopes of the ice-capped volcano Coyambe. He has led a remarkable struggle to protect and provide water for thousands of small farmers.

They have, by consensus and without the help of the central or local state, redistributed land and water, conserved the high pastures of the mountain (which acts as a giant sponge), increased water supply by 10%, and repaired thousands of miles of water channel. It is a model of “Sumak Kawsay”. If this had been a World Bank project, it would have cost billions and probably would not have succeeded.

What is impressive is that the indigenous peoples of Ecuador are proactive in adapting society to climate change. Government now gets its ideas from them.

Source: The Guardian

Antique Pressed Orchids Used as Climate Change Data

September 22, 2010 10:40 AM

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Plants picked by Victorian collectors up to 150 years ago are a valuable new source of data for ecologists seeking to understand how climate change will affect the timing of flowering plants.

Scientists have used the carefully labeled and dated specimens of the early spider orchid, Ophrys sphegodes, to examine the affect of spring temperatures on flowering. The flowers were collected between 1848 and 1958.

The results, in Journal of Ecology September 21, found that for a 1.8 degree Fahrenheit increase in the spring temperature, the orchid flowered 6 days earlier.

The results are nearly identical to field observations collected between 1975 and 2006. The fact that the response to temperature changes has remained constant, despite accelerated temperature increases since the 1970s, lends support to the use of museum specimens for climate change studies.

“There is an enormous wealth of untapped information locked within our museums and herbaria that can contribute to our ability to predict the effects of future climate change on many plant species,” ecologist Anthony Davy of the University of East Anglia, co-author of the study, said in a press release. “It may well be possible to extend similar principles to museum collections of insects and animals.”

There are approximately 2.5 billion plant and animal specimens held in natural history collections in museums and herbaria. Some date back to the time of Linnaeus, who devised the system of naming plants and animals about 250 years ago.

Understanding how climate effects the timing of developmental and seasonal events for plants and animals — such as flowering, egg laying, or migration — is essential for predicting future impacts on individual species and ecosystems. The data required for these predictions must be gathered over a number of years, and little of it is available.

Source: Wired Science

Images: 1) An herbarium sheet of the early spider orchid collected May 1, 1900./ K. Robbirt. 2) Early spider orchid.

Does cold weather disprove global warming?

September 22, 2010 10:36 AM

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The skeptic argument…

It’s freaking cold!

“Austria is today seeing its earliest snowfall in history with 30 to 40 centimetres already predicted in the mountains. Such dramatic falls in temperatures provide superficial evidence for those who doubt that the world is threatened by climate change.” (Mail Online)

What the science says…

It’s easy to confuse current weather events with long-term climate trends, and hard to understand the difference between weather and climate. It’s a bit like being at the beach, trying to figure out if the tide is rising or falling just by watching individual waves roll in and out. The slow change of the tide is masked by the constant churning of the waves.

In a similar way, the normal ups and downs of weather make it hard to see slow changes in climate. To find climate trends you need to look at how weather is changing over a longer time span. Looking at high and low temperature data from recent decades shows that new record highs occur nearly twice as often as new record lows.

New records for cold weather will continue to be set, but global warming’s gradual influence will make them increasingly rare.

Source: Skeptical Science

How can we de-politicize climate change?

September 16, 2010 1:03 PM

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climate-de-politicize.jpg
Image via Dispatch Politics

Is such a thing even possible?
The existence of climate change itself has clearly become a political issue, and the trend is only looking to deepen. Look, for example, at the current crop of Senate GOP candidates: Every single one of them opposes policy to address climate change, and nearly all of them question man’s role in global warming. After the midterm elections, the GOP’s stance on climate change will be further removed from the science than even the Bush administration’s was. Meanwhile, polls show liberals growing slightly more concerned about climate change. The question is, how do we stop this divisive descent?

Sometimes the ol’ question-in-a-headline tactic is a ploy to entice the prospective reader to find the answer in the article below. But not this time. I’m posing a genuine question (perhaps against my better judgment, as the comment trolls may run with this one).

Now, I certainly don’t think that every one of these candidates is stupid, or distrusting of science (though there are surly some dim bulbs running on both sides of the aisle). No, the greater problem is that it’s become politically expedient to dismiss climate change.

At the moment, much of this has to do with the fact that the hard-right Tea Party — the group that is currently galvanizing conservative voters to head to the polls — is deeply skeptical of climate change, and is forcing conservative politics to adapt accordingly. Not all of those in this group believes climate change is a hoax (though some certainly do), but just about all agree that governmental regulation is not the answer. It was a recurring phenomenon this primary season: If a conservative hoped to appeal to the base, he or she would have to attack climate policy. But even before the Tea Party became a national political force to be reckoned with, conservatives were generally uneasy (to put it lightly) with climate change — due largely to the solutions government was able to come up with to address it.

Hating the Solutions, Not the Science
And that, more than anything, is the root cause of the public’s unease with so-called anthropogenic global warming (that, and serious funding from industry groups, who view its acceptance as a threat, to disseminate contrarian ideologies): Nobody — not individuals, not car-owners, not fossil fuel execs, nobody — wants to change their behavior on the recommendation of a seemingly obfuscated scientific theory. I, for one, don’t. Of course, we know that the immediate individual costs of enacting, say, the climate bill passed in the House, would be minimal in reality (very slightly higher electricity bills is pretty much the extent of it). But that doesn’t ease the impression that climate change stirs in many.

Yet as the science grows stronger, it gets harder to dismiss the need for solutions — so naturally, the focus has shifted to questioning the science itself. Whereas even the Bush administration acknowledged the existence of climate change, it’s in vogue now to brush it off altogether. As a result, now more than ever, those who recognize that man is contributing to climate change and those who don’t are likely to fall neatly along the same lines — liberal and conservative. Which is very unfortunate.

Understanding an accepted scientific theory should demand nothing of political values. People should be able to look at climate change, which 97% of scientists in the field confirm is real and caused by man, and have an open discussion about it.

De-politicizing Climate Change
So the question is, what can we do to move the conversation in that direction? How do we de-politicize climate change? Is it even possible?

Some argue that as the economy stabilizes, people will be more receptive to discussing unpleasant things like climate change again, and the discussion will proceed from there. Others say that a natural disaster of the sort that climate change makes more probable — like the heatwave in Russia or the flooding in Pakistan — may spur genuine dialogue again.

But I worry that, at least for the next couple years — key years to act at that — the ideology opposed to climate science will be firmly planted in Congress. Unless we find some way to steer the conversation to more productive grounds on a national level, I fear we may lose some valuable time in addressing the issue. Grassroots action and activist movements like 350.org are a potential answer — that’s how the Tea Party grabbed the spotlight, after all — and could, if executed properly, bring climate action back into the common discourse on an even ground. It could, however, also further politicize the issue — perceived eco-protests are pretty firmly rooted in the popular imagination as deeply liberal.

It’s a worrying question indeed, but I can’t help but believe there’s a solution out there — be it more public involvement from climate scientists themselves, a louder voice for clean energy business advocates, grassroots action, a scaling down of ‘anti-science’ name calling (which I myself am guilty of), and so on — I’m just at a bit of a loss for what it is.

Source: Treehugger

The U.S. Clean Air Act is 40! Happy Birthday!

September 15, 2010 5:16 PM

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clean air act photo
Photo: Flickr, CC

Time Flies When You’re Cleaning the Air
The Clean Air Act was signed by President Richard Nixon on December 31, 1970, and so it is 40 this year. To celebrate, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is looking back at the past few decades to see how things have changed and what kind of impact this important piece of legislation had on air quality in the U.S. (and around the world, since there’s only one atmosphere, and many other countries follow U.S. regulations pretty closely). Read on for more details.

clean air act photo
Photo: Flickr, CC

According to an EPA analysis, the first 20 years of Clean Air Act programs, from 1970 – 1990, has prevented:

-205,000 premature deaths
-672,000 cases of chronic bronchitis
-21,000 cases of heart disease
-843,000 asthma attacks
-189,000 cardiovascular hospitalizations
-10.4 million lost I.Q. points in children – from lead reductions
-18 million child respiratory illnesses

Of course, these numbers are estimates. Nobody knows exactly the impact of such a far-reaching legislation, and it’s always especially hard to find out about things that didn’t happen rather than things that did. But there’s no doubt that the impact was immense and positive.

Many of the benefits of the Clean Air Act might have appeared without it, just from normal technological improvement and market pressure. But clean air is one of these things that markets have a hard time pricing in, so it’s fair to say that air quality would probably be significantly worse without it.

There’s also the 20th anniversary of the 1990 amendments:

In 1990, the Act was revised with overwhelming bipartisan support and signed into law by President Bush. From 1990 thru 2008, emissions of six common pollutants are down 41%, while gross domestic product has grown 64%. Emissions of volatile organic compounds have dropped 31%, carbon monoxide dropped 46% and sulfur dioxide dropped 51%.

Today’s new cars, light trucks, and heavy-duty diesel engines are up to 95 percent cleaner than past models, and new non-road engines such as those used in construction and agriculture have 90 percent less particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions.

But let’s not stop there! Our cars might be cleaner, but there’s also a lot more of them, and “cleaner” isn’t “clean”. No time to rest on our laurels!

Via Treehugger, EPA, ABG