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EarthTalk®

by The Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: As we get into the throes of the Democratic primaries, which of the remaining contenders are actually the greenest? -- C. Benton, St. Louis, MO

Each of the remaining Democratic candidates has plenty of environmental cred—especially compared to Donald Trump. Frontrunner Bernie Sanders has been a backer of the omnibus Green New Deal, which calls for 100 percent clean energy by 2040 and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 across all sectors, including homes and buildings.

Joe Biden is a solid contender on climate and environment, and has embraced the Green New Deal as a “central framework”—and as such supports efforts to get the U.S. to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. He intends to do so by spending some $1.7 trillion in federal dollars over the next decade alongside another $3.3 trillion in investments by the private sector and state and local governments.

Tom Steyer has parlayed some $250 million in hedge fund profits into powerful Political Action Fund campaigns to oust climate-denying Congresspersons and combat the political monies being thrown around by fossil fuel magnates like the Koch Brothers. As for his plans if he’s elected, Steyer will tap into National Emergency resources to activate support for the initiatives laid out in the Green New Deal.

Meanwhile, Mike Bloomberg has quietly donated $150 million over the last decade to supercharge Sierra Club efforts to close down half the nation’s coal-burning power plants and reduce our reliance on coal as a power source from 42 percent in 2011 to under 25 percent today. Bloomberg has committed another $500 million to the next phase of the campaign which aims to retire the nation’s remaining coal plants by 2030 while also halting construction of new natural gas plants and helping get “climate champions” elected to public office.

When Washington governor and climate crusader Jay Inslee dropped out of the primary race a few months ago, Elizabeth Warren adopted his omnibus climate action plan as her own. Similar in scope to the Green New Deal (which she co-sponsored) but more inclusive of flexible solutions, the ambitious plan calls for all new buildings nationwide to be zero-emission by 2028, with all new passenger cars and trucks zero-emission and all electricity carbon-neutral by 2030.

For her part, Amy Klobuchar also co-sponsored the Green New Deal from her seat in the Senate, but now calls the plan “aspirational” rather than “prescriptive.” Nevertheless, Klobuchar’s no slouch on the environment and has pledged to rejoin the Paris climate agreement on Day One of her presidency and bring back President Obama’s clean power rules and gas mileage standards on Days Two and Three.

Pete Buttigieg also hopes to have the opportunity to implement his own ambitious climate mitigation plan aiming for nationwide “net-zero” emissions by 2050 through the expansion of clean energy jobs and domestic development of exportable green technologies. Buttigieg’s climate plan represents a scaled down version of the Green New Deal but puts an interesting twist on U.S. climate change mitigation efforts through the lens of national security and military preparedness.

Of course, if Donald Trump wins a second term, environmentalists will uncross their fingers—and throw their hopes and dreams that the 2020s will be America’s green decade out the window.

CONTACTS: Green New Deal, congress.gov/116/bills/hres109/BILLS-116hres109ih.pdf; League of Conservation Voters’ “Change the Climate 2020,” changetheclimate2020.com 

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that Sweden incinerates most of its trash. Why don’t we do more of this in the U.S., given that we’re running out of landfill space? -- Oscar Gentry, New Bern, NC

Sweden does burn the vast majority of its trash—only one percent of the country’s waste ends up in landfills—and even makes a profit by importing trash from neighboring countries to process in its high-efficiency, low emission incinerators. And it makes a lot of sense, given the huge toll landfills take on the environment, leaking liquids into surrounding soils and polluting groundwater while sending huge amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

Burning waste in an uncontrolled setting is undeniably terrible for the environment, given the huge load of carbon dioxide, dioxin and volatile organic compounds sent skyward. But in a modern waste incineration facility, excess gases leftover after the trash is burned undergo a thorough filtering and scrubbing process that complies with stringent environmental standards (delineated in the Clean Air Act here in the U.S. and by even stricter rules across the European Union). Furthermore, incinerating trash reduces its volume by 87 percent, which directly translates to an equivalent reduction in the amount of space required for landfills.

At this point, much of the world has adopted waste-to-energy (WTE) technologies, with almost 800 facilities around the world. In the EU, there are about 400 WTE facilities currently in operation. In the U.S., however, there are only 77. This is somewhat surprising, especially given that landfills are America’s third largest methane emitter. Additionally, America is one of the largest waste producers in the world, both as a nation, and per capita. Why not convert all this waste into energy?

But WTE has faced many stumbling blocks in the U.S. Public stigma against WTE has played a significant role in preventing widespread adoption of this technology here. It seems Americans just can’t accept the idea that burning trash could actually be a good thing for the environment or public health. While this attitude is understandable, it would likely fall apart if more of us knew the facts.

Another issue for WTE in the U.S. is economics. In Europe and other countries, WTE plants receive government funding, and landfilling rates are often higher. In the U.S, it is still often cheaper to landfill waste than to turn it into energy.

However, WTE could still have a future in America. In many areas where landfill rates are expensive, WTE is increasingly looking like a promising solution. If these rates continue to rise, and the government decides to reallocate some of its funding, we might be seeing more WTE plants come online before long.

More data coming in from other countries about the benefits they’re deriving from WTE operations could also accelerate this adoption process. Finally, advances in scrubbing and cleaning technologies will likely reduce the negative impact of incineration even more.

You can help facilitate the transition to WTE by encouraging local officials to consider it as a viable option for expanding waste management capacity given the shrinking amount of landfill space available to municipalities everywhere and lack of other good options for getting rid of our garbage.

CONTACTS: “Canada produces the most waste in the world. The U.S. ranks third,” www.usatoday.com/story/money/2019/07/12/canada-united-states-worlds-biggest-producers-of-waste/39534923/; “Ethiopia has an innovative power plant that turns waste to energy,” youtube.com/watch?v=K2SBjf1O0HU

Dear EarthTalk: I feel weird asking, but is there an environmental bright side to the spread of the Coronavirus? And is there an environmental cause of the pandemic? -- Jane K., Miami, FL

Coronavirus has killed thousands of people and sickened hundreds of thousands (if not millions) more around the world. It has also caused mass hysteria and public health officials are bracing for the worst.

The situation is mostly bad news, but the “silver lining” for the environment might be a downturn in carbon emissions and other pollution due to reduced manufacturing, people staying home, less air travel, far fewer cars on the road—and generally less overall physical movement and economic activity.

A recent analysis by Carbon Brief, a UK-based website covering news in climate sciences and climate and energy policy, found that measures to contain the Coronavirus in China have resulted in reductions in output of 15 percent to 40 percent across key industrial sectors there, with an overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by some 25 percent below normal over the course of February 2020.

Only time will tell if the situation here gets as dire as in China. “Some data indicate school closures and work-from-home mandates have already reduced traffic flow around Seattle,” reports E&E News. “Similar statistics have suggested that rush-hour traffic is down in New York City, as well.” Meanwhile, BART ridership in and around San Francisco is down 25 percent so far in March as a result of people staying home. These examples don’t add up to a huge downturn in emissions yet, but we’re still in the initial stages of the pandemic’s spread.

For those who would like to see this reduced output continue even after we are over the hump with this outbreak, don’t count on it. We’re all used to the conveniences and creature comforts that a buzzing economic system brings us, and fat chance if the Chinese, Europeans or Americans are going to voluntarily return to a more ascetic lifestyle once the Coronavirus eases its chokehold. To wit, the Chinese government is already hyping a stimulus package designed to make up for the months of lost economic opportunity for businesses there. And we aren’t far behind with President Trump promising a payroll tax cut, an infrastructure push, paid sick leave for hourly employees and the potential delay of estimated tax payments as ways to stimulate the economy in the wake of the pandemic.

As for whether there’s an environmental “cause” of the pandemic, we don’t think so—except in as much as it probably came to us from wildlife. But according to the World Health Organization, environmental factors that lead to human congregation—such as sunny weather—could theoretically increase the rate of spread. On the other hand, studies suggest that warmer temperatures reduce the spreading of respiratory infections, due to their effects on the dynamics of cough droplet flight. But all in all, the research shows that environmental conditions do little to affect the transmission rates of viruses such as Coronavirus.

CONTACTS: Analysis: Coronavirus has temporarily reduced China’s CO2 emissions by a quarter, https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-coronavirus-has-temporarily-reduced-chinas-co2-emissions-by-a-quarter; How the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Affecting CO2 Emissions, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-affecting-co2-emissions/; “Environmental factors influencing the spread of communicable diseases,”

https://www.who.int/environmental_health_emergencies/disease_outbreaks/communicable_diseases/en/.

 

Dear EarthTalk: How is melting permafrost affecting communities in the Arctic and beyond?

-- William James, Barre, VT

In the northern regions of the world, a great change is taking place. Permafrost, which covers around 25 percent of exposed land in the Northern Hemisphere, is melting. Defined as a layer of soil that remains completely frozen for over two years at a time, permafrost is often located a meter or so below the surface. Its thawing creates issues for both the environment and human infrastructure.

These issues result largely because that water expands and hardens when it freezes, and does the opposite when it melts. When the water in soil freezes, it acts somewhat like cement, maintaining structure and stability. Initial efforts to develop cities and towns in these northern regions over the last century led to countless buildings and roads being built on top of ground held together by permafrost. Now, thawing is putting this infrastructure in jeopardy.

In the remote Arctic settlement of Tuktoyaktuk in Canada’s Northwest Territories, thawing permafrost is a huge problem for the 1,000 or residents who live there. Melting permafrost there means that houses that have stood for decades are now collapsing. And it’s not just buildings. The entire coastline, once held in place by the permafrost, is rapidly disappearing into the ocean. In some Arctic areas, coastal land is eroding at a rate of up to two meters per year. The thawing permafrost also compromises both land and sea transportation. All across the northern parts of the world, roads are beginning to buckle as the ground beneath them shifts. In some instances, roads are rendered impassable. On the ocean, erosion driven by thawing permafrost is filling in shipping channels, some of which are already too shallow for boat traffic.

Unfortunately, all of these issues pale compared to the effects that the thawing permafrost could have on the climate. While frozen, the organic matter stored in permafrost is relatively inert. Once it thaws, however, bacteria and other microorganisms immediately begin to digest it. Two of the primary byproducts of this digestion are methane and carbon dioxide, both potent greenhouse gases. Around three times more organic (and digestible) material is stored in the permafrost than there is in all the forests left on the planet. All in all, the permafrost stores more carbon than humans have released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

The digestion of this organic matter could create a dangerous feedback loop, whereby warming triggers increased bacterial activity—and greenhouse gas emissions—in turn triggering more warming. Researchers worry that by 2100, 70 percent of the world’s permafrost may have thawed. If it does it will likely release about 10 percent of total permafrost-stored carbon (150 billion tons) into the atmosphere.

The solution is in our hands. If we can start ratcheting down our emissions significantly, we can reduce the total thawing to just 30 percent of the permafrost by the end of the century. Traveling and consuming less—and spreading the word to your family, friends, neighbors and coworkers—are the two most important things you can do to move the needle in the right direction for everybody, human or otherwise.

CONTACTS: E Magazine’s “Is Our Tundra In Trouble,” emagazine.com/is-our-tundra-in-trouble/; NRDC’s “Permafrost: Everything You Need To Know,” nrdc.org/stories/permafrost-everything-you-need-know; Columbia Earth Institute’s “Why Thawing Permafrost Matters,” blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/01/11/thawing-permafrost-matters/

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://earthtalk.org. Send questions to: questions@earthtalk.org



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