Week of 2/19/2006

Dear EarthTalk: Do government "Energy Star" ratings for major appliances take into account their "cradle-to-grave" impacts, or are they just concerned with energy efficiency?

—Fred von Mechow, via e-mail

The Energy Star program, set up back in 1992, is designed to help consumers determine the energy efficiency of various appliances, home electronics, office equipment and lighting. All such items for sale in the U.S. come with an EnergyGuide label, which indicates how much energy they will consume over the course of a typical year, and how much that energy will cost, detailing how it compares to similar models.

Those units that are especially energy-efficient—based on standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy (DoE)—receive an Energy Star, signifying them as preferred environmental choices. Clearly the program is designed as an incentive for competing brands to lower their products" energy consumption and costs over time.

The program is very helpful to consumers who want to do the right thing environmentally while also saving on energy bills, but it is not a "cradle-to-grave" assessment. "Cradle-to-grave," as the term implies, measures an appliance’s environmental impact over the course of its entire life, and it counts other factors besides energy use and costs.

German and Scandinavian manufacturers, for example, thanks to stringent "Extended Producer Responsibility" (EPR) laws in place there, must do more than maximize the energy efficiency of their products. They must also eliminate hazardous materials from both the appliances" components and their manufacturing processes (i.e. "cradle"), and make them in such a way that maximizes their recyclability and reusability so as to keep them out of landfills ("grave"). In fact, European EPR laws even require companies to take back some of their products at the end of their useful life, removing the burden from the consumer as well as from local community waste handling systems.

And with passage last year of "Directive 2005/32/EC" by the European Union (EU), similar laws will apply for any manufacturer—domestic or otherwise—that wants to sell appliances to Europe’s 400-million-strong consumer market. The goal is to encourage manufacturers to assess the full lifecycle impacts of their products, which would ideally also lead to the elimination of unnecessary parts and of wasteful, extraneous packaging. The directive becomes law across the continent in 2007.

Meanwhile, strong industry lobbies have thus far prevented similar legislation from taking hold in the U.S., though some state and local governments have expressed interest in European-style take-back laws. A few forward-thinking computer makers, including IBM and Hewlett-Packard, have started take-back programs voluntarily in order to salvage some components for re-use while looking good to environmentally-conscious consumers. But for the most part the trend has not caught on for American manufacturers and there are no laws in place to force them to abandon that age-old and not-so-green-friendly principle of "planned obsolescence."

CONTACTS: Energy Star, www.energystar.gov; European Union Directive 2005/32/EC, http://europa.eu.int/comm/enterprise/eco_design/.

Dear EarthTalk: What are "El Niño" and "La Niña" and what relationship do they have with global climate change?

—Ralph Carpio, Delray Beach, FL

Simply put, El Niño and La Niña are different stages in a cyclical pattern of climate turbulence otherwise known by meteorologists as the Southern Oscillation. First noticed by 16th century fishermen on the Pacific coast of South America, these phenomena were not scientifically documented until the 1920s when scientists noticed periodic occurrences every three to seven years in the eastern Pacific. Since the 1970s, though, El Niño and La Niña have been occurring with more frequency and intensity.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the El Niño part of the cycle involves warmer-than-usual sea temperatures, great amounts of rainfall (in the northern hemisphere) and low atmospheric pressure. The most extreme results of an El Niño event have included flooding from Ecuador to the Gulf of Mexico, massive marine life die-offs in the Pacific, hurricanes in Tahiti and Hawaii, and concurrent droughts in many other parts of the world from Southern India to Australia to Central America.

In contrast, cooler sea temperatures, high atmospheric pressure and drier air characterize the La Niña phase of the Southern Oscillation. During La Niña, currents bring nutrients up from the deep water, providing feast, rather than famine, for marine organisms. And accompanying strong winds blow moisture away, making for cloudless skies and dry conditions in equatorial countries from the International Date Line east to South America.

Some scientists believe that the increased intensity and frequency—now every two to three years—of El Niño and La Niña events in recent decades is due to warmer ocean temperatures resulting from global warming. In a 1998 report, scientists from NOAA explained that higher global temperatures might be increasing evaporation from land and adding moisture to the air, thus intensifying the storms and floods associated with El Niño.

Another take on what’s happening is from Kevin Trenberth, a climatologist at the Colorado-based National Center for Atmospheric Research. Trenberth believes that the Southern Oscillation may be functioning like a pressure release valve for the tropics. With global warming driving temperatures higher, ocean currents and weather systems might not be able to release all the extra heat getting pumped into the tropical seas; as such an El Niño occurs to help expel the excess heat.

CONTACTS: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, www.noaa.gov; National Center for Atmospheric Research, www.ucar.edu/communications/factsheets/elnino/.