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by The Editors of E/Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Has China been making any progress reducing its output of global warming gases, and/or in tackling other environmental problems? –Bill W., Saugus, MA

Decades of rapid-fire development and lack of government oversight has meant that China now faces some serious environmental challenges. According to research by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, China surpassed the United States as the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases in 2006—and hasn’t looked back. (While the Chinese emit some eight percent more carbon dioxide than their American counterparts, the U.S. still leads the world in greenhouse gas emissions per capita, due to its significantly smaller population size and higher standard of living.)

Beyond its contribution to global warming, China is also a world leader in other forms of pollution, given its huge population and its ambition to become the next international economic superpower. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), current levels of air pollution in China far exceed international environmental standards. A recent analysis found, for example, that the air in some four dozen Chinese cities contained as much as seven times as much particulate pollution—which can get lodged in human lungs and cause a wide range of health problems—as deemed safe by WHO.

But critics say blaming China for its rampant pollution is unfair, given all the manufacturing the world’s developed countries outsource to Chinese companies. Qin Gang, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, refers to China as the “world’s factory” and says: “A lot of what you use, wear and eat is produced in China… “On the one hand, you increase production in China; on the other hand you criticize China on the emission reduction issue.” Yang Ailun of Greenpeace China agrees: “All the West has done is export a great slice of its carbon footprint to China and make China the world’s factory.”

Despite its efforts to go green, China still depends on coal—the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels—for some two-thirds of its energy needs. Chinese officials have strenuously opposed the binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions set by developing countries, arguing that already industrialized nations are to blame for most of the emissions already in the atmosphere.

According to Isabel Hilton, a journalist with the UK’s Guardian, industrialized countries should feel an obligation to shoulder at least some of the burden of helping China become a greener nation. “This means drastically reducing our own emissions and helping China with the finance and technology required to move to a sustainable, low-carbon economic system.”

There is progress afoot: Meetings between top Chinese and U.S. officials earlier this year led to the creation of a joint research center to address issues related to clean energy, with each country contributing $15 million to pay for initial research efforts.

CONTACTS: Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, www.pbl.nl; World Health Organization, www.who.int; Greenpeace China, www.greenpeace.org/china.

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that hybrid engine technology is now being used to power boats. What’s happening with that? -- D. Smith, Portland, ME

With concerns about climate change and the fate of the world’s imperiled oceans and waterways at an all time high, it makes sense that the boating industry would be looking into greener ways to try to do their part and to attract some of those increasing numbers of environmentally conscious customers.

Americans spend 500 million hours zipping around in recreational boats each year. But until recently the engines on these boats were held to much lower efficiency standards than their automotive counterparts. Last year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new more stringent emissions standards for marine engines—both in-board and outboard—that will go into effect in 2010. In fact, several hybrid boats are already on the market, boasting emission ratings well below the new standards.

The 24-foot Endeavor Green Electric Hybrid can run all day on an electric charge that costs only 11 cents and generates no emissions, kicking into a small diesel generator only if the boat’s eight batteries run dry. And when owners can charge the batteries via solar or wind power, the boats have a zero carbon footprint. Florida-based Craig Catamaran Corp. last year launched a hybrid version of its compact catamaran-style speedboat. The sporty little two-seater, which is light enough to be towed by a Mini Cooper or Smart Car, can run for eight hours on less than a gallon of gas, and costs less than $6,000 all in.

For those looking for a larger, more luxurious ride, the 25-foot Frauscher hybrid might be just the ticket. The speedy $155,000 Austrian-built pleasure boat combines an electric engine with a 256 horsepower Steyr diesel motor to allow for emissions-free harbor cruising or high octane speeding across open water.

If you’re not quite ready to take the plunge on a hybrid boat yourself, check out one in action on your next visit to San Francisco. The recently retrofitted Hornblower ferry to Alcatraz and Angel islands is powered by several alternative energy sources, including a hybrid diesel-electric system powered by solar cells and wind turbines right on deck. Alcatraz Cruises, the private company that runs the service claims the Hornblower is the first hybrid ferry boat in the country. The 64-foot vessel has an advanced power management system that regulates when and how the different power sources are used so it can make best use of its energy and minimize emissions. Passengers can see many of the technological advancements on the vessel, making for not only a fun and scenic but educational ride.

In another development, the U.S. Navy has reportedly contracted with Solomon Technologies, makers of the famous Zodiac line of rugged inflatable boats, to create a series of hybrid boats where fuel efficiency and stealthy (quiet) passage is of paramount importance. Recreationists, pacifists and Greenpeace anti-whaling activists alike may get the chance to check one out soon, too, as Solomon is already looking into incorporating hybrid technologies into its recreational and commercial product lines as well.

CONTACTS: Endeavour Green, www.endeavourgreen.com; Craig Catamaran, www.craigcat.com; Frauscher Boats, www.frauscherboats.com; Alcatraz Cruises, www.alcatrazcruises.com; Solomon Technologies, www.solomontechnologies.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Hunting seems to be a real controversy among environmental advocates. Can you set the record straight: Is hunting good or bad for the environment? -- Bill Davis, New York, NY

Like so many hot button issues, the answer to this question depends upon who you ask. On the one hand, some say, nothing could be more natural than hunting, and indeed just about every animal species—including humans—has been either predator or prey at some point in its evolution. And, ironic as it sounds, since humans have wiped out many animal predators, some see hunting as a natural way to cull the herds of prey animals that, as a result, now reproduce beyond the environment’s carrying capacity.

On the other hand, many environmental and animal advocates see hunting as barbaric, arguing that it is morally wrong to kill animals, regardless of practical considerations. According to Glenn Kirk of the California-based The Animals Voice, hunting “causes immense suffering to individual wild animals…” and is “gratuitously cruel because unlike natural predation hunters kill for pleasure…” He adds that, despite hunters’ claims that hunting keeps wildlife populations in balance, hunters’ license fees are used to “manipulate a few game [target] species into overpopulation at the expense of a much larger number of non-game species, resulting in the loss of biological diversity, genetic integrity and ecological balance.”

Beyond moral issues, others contend that hunting is not practical. According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the vast majority of hunted species—such as waterfowl, upland birds, mourning doves, squirrels and raccoons—“provide minimal sustenance and do not require population control.”

Author Gary E. Varner suggests in his book, In Nature’s Interests, that some types of hunting may be morally justifiable while others may not be. Hunting “designed to secure the aggregate welfare of the target species, the integrity of its ecosystem, or both”—what Varner terms ‘therapeutic hunting’—is defensible, while subsistence and sport hunting—both of which only benefit human beings—is not.

Regardless of one’s individual stance, fewer Americans hunt today than in recent history. Data gathered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for its most recent (2006) National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, show that only five percent of Americans—some 12.5 million individuals—consider themselves hunters today, down from nine percent in 2001 and 15 percent in 1996.

Public support for hunting, however, is on the rise. A 2007 survey by Responsive Management Inc., a social research firm specializing in natural resource issues, found that 78 percent of Americans support hunting today versus 73 percent in 1995. Eighty percent of respondents agreed that “hunting has a legitimate place in modern society,” and the percent of Americans indicating disapproval of hunting declined from 22 percent in 1995 to 16 percent in 2007.

Perhaps matching the trend among the public, green leaders are increasingly advocating for cooperation between hunters and environmental groups: After all, both lament urban sprawl and habitat destruction.

CONTACTS: The Animals Voice, www.animalsvoice.com; HSUS, www.hsus.org; National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/fishing.html; Responsive Management Inc., www.responsivemanagement.com.

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What are the pros and cons of feeding babies formula versus breast milk? And if I purchase formula, should I spend the extra money on the organic variety? -- Suzy W., via e-mail

It is generally acknowledged within the medical community that breast milk is the ideal first food for babies, though modern formula brands can get the job done, too. Human breast milk naturally contains the vitamins and minerals a newborn requires. According to the website KidsHealth.org, breastfed infants have less difficulty with digestion than their formula-fed counterparts. And since breast milk is easily digested, breastfed babies have fewer incidences of diarrhea or constipation.

Also, researchers have found that infants fed with human breast milk have lower rates of hospital admissions, ear infections, diarrhea, rashes and allergies than bottle-fed babies. Meanwhile, a raft of studies suggest that infants who are fed breast milk may have lower incidences of asthma, diabetes, obesity and other health problems later on in life.

“Human milk is made for human infants, and it meets all their specific nutrient needs,” says Ruth Lawrence, M.D., spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and professor of pediatrics and obstetrics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York. “We’ve known for years that the death rates in Third World countries are lower among breast-fed babies,” she adds. “Breast-fed babies are healthier and have fewer infections than formula-fed babies.”

Another related upside to breast milk is cost savings—both for families and the larger health care system. Mothers who can’t or choose not to breast feed end up spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars per year on formula, and higher incidences of illness and disease down the road means higher costs for all.

One concern with breast feeding is that toxins present in mom’s bloodstream can make their way into baby. But a 2007 study by Ohio State and Johns Hopkins University researchers found that levels of chemicals in breast milk were far below U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maximum acceptable levels for even drinking water, and that indoor air in typical American homes contains as much as 135 times as many contaminants as mother’s milk. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control maintains that the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh any chemical exposure risks. “To date, effects on the nursing infant have been seen only where the mother herself was clinically ill from a toxic exposure,” reports the agency.

Of course, not all mothers are able to breastfeed, and in such cases formula can be a healthy alternative. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates all baby formulas to ensure purity and that they meet nutritional requirements. Parents should know, however, that they may not be avoiding chemical exposure by opting for formula. Non-organic formula can contain the same or higher amounts of chemical residues left over from its raw materials. One way around this is to buy organic formula. Leading makers include Nature’s One, Earth’s Best and Bright Beginnings. Enfamil and Similac also now offer organic varieties.

CONTACTS: Kids Health, www.kidshealth.org; American Academy of Pediatrics, www.aap.org; U.S. Food and Drug Administration, www.fda.gov; Consumer Reports, www.consumerreports.org.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

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