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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: Do wealthy people generate more pollution and/or carbon emissions than the less fortunate? -- George P., Greenwich, CT

In a word, yes. The richest 10 percent of humanity was responsible for 52 percent of global emissions between 1990 and 2015, according to a 2020 Oxfam report. The richest one percent alone produced 15 percent of global emissions during that time, more than double that of the entire poorest half of humanity. This phenomenon is called emissions inequality: Wealthier nations and individuals emit excessively large amounts of greenhouse gases, while poorer nations and individuals suffer the bulk of the consequences.

The result is that pollution is harming those least responsible—and least equipped to combat its effects—more severely than those who are most to blame. In the United States, this is partially a result of systemic racism. Factories and power plants that emit toxic pollution have overwhelmingly been built near non-white and poor communities, which often lack adequate resources to resist powerful fossil fuel companies. The most famous example of this power imbalance is “Cancer Alley,” a region of Louisiana where the predominantly Black residents face some of the worst air quality in the nation and suffer from chronic health issues as a result.

Global income data tracks closely with emissions data: The World Inequality Lab’s 2022 report found that the wealthiest 10 percent earn 52 percent of all income, while the poorest half of all people earn just 8.5 percent. Why does wealth correlate so closely to emissions? On an individual level, people with more wealth are more likely to own cars, travel by airplane and own big homes that consume lots of energy.

Wealthy people are also more likely to invest in the stock market, a significant but harder to measure source of emissions: By giving a company money, investors tacitly greenlight the company’s business practices. And because those investors expect a positive return on their investment, profitable companies tend to avoid potential risks like reorganizing their supply chain to be more environmentally friendly, since there might not be an immediate financial payoff for doing so.

Though corporations seem huge and impossible to change, individuals still have the power to influence them. If you invest in the stock market, you can ensure that the companies you put money into don’t contribute to the oil industry or deforestation, and you can consider pulling your investments from those that do. The website Good with Money is a helpful place to start.

Still, the blame for greenhouse gas emissions falls squarely on the shoulders of corporations and governments, not individuals. While many companies have taken modest steps to reduce pollution, overall emissions are still increasing and will likely stay that way until the governments of major polluters like the U.S., China and the European Union force companies to transition away from fossil fuels. Until then, the wealth gap will continue to grow, and emissions inequality will grow along with it.

CONTACTS: Carbon emissions of richest 1 percent more than double the emissions of the poorest half of humanity, oxfam.org/en/press-releases/carbon-emissions-richest-1-percent-more-double-emissions-poorest-half-humanity; World Inequality Report 2022, wir2022.wid.world/www-site/uploads/2021/12/Summary_WorldInequalityReport2022_English.pdf; Welcome to Cancer Alley, Where Toxic Air Is About to Get Worse, propublica.org/article/welcome-to-cancer-alley-where-toxic-air-is-about-to-get-worse; Good With Money, good-with-money.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Is the recent lifting of quota restrictions on wolf hunting in Montana north of Yellowstone National Park a threat to the reintroduced wolf population there? -- J. W., Bend, OR

When the last gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park was gunned down in 1926, park managers and ranchers on neighboring lands alike rejoiced together that the dark predator of the range would no longer torment them. Wolves were blamed for poaching livestock as well as wreaking havoc on populations of traditional “game” animals like elk and deer. But a funny thing happened once the wolves were gone. Elk numbers started to skyrocket. In essence, without the wolf around to keep its population numbers in check, the elk were eating everything in sight, including the new young shoots of willow, aspen and other trees key to keeping Yellowstone’s ecosystems in balance.

By the 1990s biologists managed to convince the federal government that these predators are essential to the health of the ecosystem, and gray wolves were famously reintroduced back into Yellowstone. The results have been nothing short of amazing with regard to ecosystem recovery and the return of various species of wildlife that used to be common there a century ago.

But ranchers on the periphery of the park (Wyoming, Idaho and Montana all border Yellowstone) have maintained their antipathy toward wolves given the primal canids’ predilection for killing domesticated cows outside of the park for a quick and easy meal. Such situations are rare given that there is plenty of wild game for the wolves to hunt within their home base inside of Yellowstone’s borders. Nevertheless, anti-environmentalists and otherwise conservative pundits have joined forces with ranchers to politicize the wolf reintroduction issue. No doubt, there is a lot of political pressure from those who make their living outside of the national park to lift all hunting restrictions on wolves that stray onto state lands.

So, it comes as no surprise that Montana would lift quotas limiting hunters and trappers to just two gray wolf kills each in regions bordering Yellowstone. A similar move in Idaho months earlier means Yellowstone’s wolves are now getting it from all angles.

And, indeed, with more than 15 wolf kills in the Montana borderlands alone so far this winter, it remains to be seen whether or not the easing of the state’s wolf hunting restrictions is such a good idea after all. Back in 1995-1997, 42 gray wolves were relocated from Western Canada and northwestern Montana to Yellowstone; today 123 gray wolves spread themselves across nine different packs free-roaming within the national park. While the population has grown nicely and remained stable for the last decade or so, increased hunting could send these packs into dangerous territory when it comes to their ability to reproduce themselves.

Sadly, for the wolves (and for us), a false dichotomy persists that we can’t have successful livestock agriculture and preserve the ecological integrity of the world’s first national park at the same time. But the fact remains that we can, especially with programs to reimburse ranchers for their rarely occurring losses to wolf predation. In the meantime, the states are likely to make it easier and easier to shoot or trap wolves that unwittingly cross over into state lands, and politics will continue to be behind it all.

CONTACTS: 15 wolves hunted directly north of Yellowstone National Park this winter, bozemandailychronicle.com/news/environment/fwp-15-wolves-hunted-directly-north-of-yellowstone-national-park-this-winter/article_3ef839fe-9bf5-5748-9a95-c52e677ad70e.html; NRDC’S Save the Wolves, nrdc.org/save-wolves.

Dear EarthTalk: How will the homes of the future look and feel different as a result of global warming? -- A.G., Silver Spring, MD

No doubt, homes are changing dramatically as the planet warms. Recent data from the United Nations Environment Programme shows that construction and use of residential buildings accounts for 17 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. As architects and engineers look to reduce their environmental footprint, homes are starting to change in several key ways.

In general, new construction homes are the most likely to be the most resilient to climate change. New forms of concrete that are made from recycled or waste-based material save a large share of carbon emissions associated with the production of virgin concrete. Painting the roof white or another light color can reduce air conditioning use extensively by reflecting the sun’s rays and their heat back toward the sky instead of absorbing them into the building structure. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that painting your roof white or another light color enables it to reflect solar radiation and keep up to 50 degrees colder than a typical roof on a hot day.

As for winter, making sure a house’s shell is tight and free of drafts is one key to efficiency, as well as the use of eco-friendly insulation in walls and roofs. Strategically placed windows can help reduce winter heating bills through so-called “passive solar” heating.

The use of integrated systems and smart home technology to link up appliances and lights and run them only when needed is another hallmark of the home of the future. Likewise, design and materials considerations will play a large role in making these new homes as energy and water efficient as possible.

The geographic distribution of housing is also changing due to global warming. Cities across the U.S. are debating proposals to build high-density housing along bus and rail lines, with the hope that easier access to public transportation will reduce vehicle emissions. Inside, the homes of the future are likely to be chock full of eco-friendly innovations to reduce energy usage, from space age insulation materials to hyper-efficient electric appliances and lights that turn on and off as needed.

Finally, some places are taking an entirely new approach to housing. The Netherlands, a nation at extremely high risk of flooding, is pioneering floating homes, which are anchored tightly to the shore but can rise and fall with the tide. Unlike houseboats, the Dutch floating homes are connected to their local electricity and sewage systems and are stabilized in the water with a concrete hull, according to YaleEnvironment360. Though they function essentially the same as any other house, their ability to ride out a flood will protect them from damage long into the future. As seas rise and coastal communities around the world lose their land to the water, the Netherlands’ floating houses could be harbingers of what the homes of the future will look like.

CONTACTS: UNEP 2021 Global Status Report For Buildings and Construction, globalabc.org/resources/publications/2021-global-status-report-buildings-and-construction; Construction21, construction21.org

Cool Roofs, energy.gov/energysaver/cool-roofs; Embracing a Wetter Future, the Dutch Turn to Floating Homes, e360.yale.edu/features/the-dutch-flock-to-floating-homes-embracing-a-wetter-future

Dear EarthTalk: Is Amazon.com an environmental hero or villain? -- J. West, Orange, CA

Not surprisingly, Amazon.com’s environmental performance is a mixed bag. One charge often levied by critics is that Amazon’s low pricing and expedited shipping encourages customers to spend more on more unnecessary stuff, further exacerbating our already rampant consumerism. Likewise, critics charge that the company’s “Prime” service encourages customers to order single items that must be rush-shipped to them instead of combining multiple orders in bigger boxes, which would be more energy efficient.

Others criticize Amazon for introducing huge commercial operations into hundreds of otherwise residential and predominantly minority communities across the country. An analysis by Consumer Reports found that 69 percent of Amazon warehouses have more people of color living within a one-mile radius than the median neighborhood in their metro areas. Residents complain of increased air pollution from the preponderance of trucks and vans going to and fro, more dangerous walking and biking conditions for neighborhood kids, traffic congestions and significant upticks in noise.

In 2019 the company’s carbon emissions were in the spotlight when hundreds of employees (“Amazon Employees for Climate Justice”) called on corporate leadership to commit to net-zero pollution by 2030. For its part, Amazon reports it is moving quickly toward net zero carbon emissions. It won’t practically be able to get there until 2040, but the company is aiming to run on 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.

Other green initiatives from the e-tailing juggernaut include a $100 million investment in nature-based climate solutions like reforestation projects, a recent purchase of 100,000 fully electric delivery vehicles, and collaborations with manufacturers to improve and reduce packaging that has led to a 27 percent reduction in packaging weight and the elimination of 810,000 tons of packaging material since 2008.

Another area where the company garners green kudos is its leadership in cloud computing. Amazon’s servers no doubt use a lot of electricity (much of which is derived from renewables nowadays), research suggests that companies who move their server infrastructure to cloud-based services—like industry leading Amazon Web Services—could save 87 percent on energy. The upshot is that as more and more companies ditch their own servers, energy consumption and carbon emissions can decline rapidly.

And let’s not forget Amazon.com founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos’ $10 billion pledge to fund global warming resilience and mitigation efforts around the world over the next 10 years. So far, the so-called Bezos Earth Fund, while not officially tied to Amazon.com but built on Bezos’ wealth stream from the company, has donated some $947 million to various programs, organizations and research efforts working on climate and environmental justice issues—and the philanthropic giving has just started.


CONTACTS: Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, amazonemployees4climatejustice.medium.com; When Amazon Expands, These Communities Pay the Price, consumerreports.org/corporate-accountability/when-amazon-expands-these-communities-pay-the-price-a2554249208/; Berkeley Lab Study Finds Moving Select Computer Services to the Cloud Promises Significant Energy Savings, newscenter.lbl.gov/2013/06/11/berkeley-lab-study-finds-moving-select-computer-services-to-the-cloud-promises-significant-energy-savings/

Dear EarthTalk: Has anyone figured out how to build wind farms that don’t negatively impact birds, bats and other wildlife? Does building them off-shore help? -- Mary B, Hyannis, MA

As the U.S. tackles the issues of climate change, the Biden administration is investing in wind power as a key strategy for sustainably meeting the country’s energy needs. Federal officials estimate that the U.S. coastline could host 30,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2030, which would be enough energy to power as many as 10 million American homes.

Wind power is a necessary tool for fighting climate change, but it can be a threat to birds. A 2013 study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute found wind turbines to be responsible for killing up to 328,000 birds annually in the U.S. alone. Bats, another species playing a vital role in ecosystems, are also seeing negative impacts by wind farms. Research has shown that larger, migratory bats are at the greatest risk. In response to these problems, the federal government has allocated $13.5 million specifically earmarked to addressing the impact of windfarms on birds, bats and marine species.

Scientists are focusing their efforts on site analysis, species monitoring and wildlife deterrents. Large birds of prey are the bird species most at risk. In response, some wind farm developments are incorporating new technology that can recognize eagles, hawks and other raptors as they approach in enough time to pause any turbines in the flight path. This tool, called IdentiFlight, can detect 5.62 times more bird flights than human observers alone, and with an accuracy rate of 94 percent.

Developing the best strategies for protecting bats is a bit more of a challenge, but the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is investigating migratory bat behavior with an interdisciplinary approach that will analyze migratory movements, mating and feeding behaviors to determine if they can find patterns that play a role in turbine collisions.

Locating wind farms offshore has been identified as a potential solution to species loss caused by on-land wind turbines. But as with any man-made structure, it is important to subject this potential solution to environmental impact assessments to have a clear understanding of the risks and possible benefits. One study in the United Kingdom found evidence that offshore wind farms could actually increase biodiversity if siting and timing of construction are chosen carefully. The study describes the structures acting as artificial reefs, mimicking natural habitat that can then be colonized by a diverse set of species.

Indeed, as we move towards utilizing more renewable energy, efforts to mitigate impacts on wildlife and surrounding ecosystems will take on increased importance to optimize the overall benefit to humanity and the environment we depend up on to sustain us.

CONTACTS: Bat Conservation International, batcon.org; “Is it possible to build wildlife-friendly windfarms?” bbc.com/future/article/20200302-how-do-wind-farms-affect-bats-birds-and-other-wildlife

“White House Announces Plans for Massive Expansion Of Offshore Wind Farms,” huffpost.com/entry/white-house-offshore-wind-farms_n_6167846fe4b0f26084f0178b;

The Habit-Creation Potential Of Offshore Windfarms, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/we.324; “Bat Fatalities at Wind Turbines—Investigating the Causes and Consequences,” usgs.gov/centers/fort-collins-science-center/science/bat-fatalities-wind-turbines-investigating-causes-and.

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: question@earthtalk.org.




 


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