Global Whitewash?

At the end of the day, the color that saves the environment may not be green, but white.

Last year, at a brainstorming symposium of Nobel laureates in London, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu recommended dealing with the world’s climate crisis by painting “white roofs everywhere.” (See update below.)

The idea—first explored by his colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—would reflect enough of the sun’s energy back into space from white roofs and pavement to “be the equivalent of . . . reducing the carbon emissions due to all the cars in the world [for] 11 years,” he said.

Now a Peruvian inventor is taking the idea to the next level—he wants to save Peru’s shrinking Andean glaciers by painting them white, too.

The visionary Eduardo Gold was one of 26 winners of a World Bank competition to honor the best “Ideas to Save the Planet” with seed grants of up to $200,000.

Even before the money comes through, he’s enlisted men from the village of Licapa to ascend the slopes of Chalon Sombrero, a peak 15,600 feet high west of Ayacucho, to splash the rocks with a native formula for whitewash (lime, egg white and water).

Gold said his aim is to increase the mountains surface reflectivity to decrease microclimate temperatures and reverse glacial melting. His other goal is to have the project qualify for carbon credits in order to finance future initiatives.

The locals are happy to help paint their mountain, since their water supply and pasture for their livestock depend on restoring the glacier.

“When I was around 15-20 years old, Chalon Sombrero was a big glacier, all white, then little by little it started to melt,” said one supporter. “Forty years on and the river’s never been lower, the nights are very cold and the days are unbearably hot. It wasn’t like this when I was growing up… it was always bearable. So we’re happy to see this project to paint the mountain.”

The World Bank reported last year that more than a fifth of Peru’s glaciers have melted just in the past 30 years.

Update: Energy Secretary Chu today announced a series of initiatives “to more broadly implement cool roof technologies on DOE facilities and buildings across the federal government. Cool roofs use lighter-colored roofing surfaces or special coatings to reflect more of the sun’s heat, helping improve building efficiency by reducing cooling costs and offsetting carbon emissions.”

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