To Counter Climate Change, We Need to Stop Burning Things – The New Yorker

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If one wanted a basic rule of thumb for dealing with the climate crisis, it would be: stop burning things. Human beings have made use of combustion for a very long time, ever since the first campfires cooked the first animals for dinner, allowing our brains to get larger. Now those large brains have come to understand that burning stuff is destroying the stable climate on which civilization depends.

By this point, it’s pretty clear to almost everyone that we’d be better off not burning coal, the first fossil fuel that we learned to set on fire in a big way. The explosions set off by a billion spark plugs every second around the world are—for serious motorheads—being replaced by the electric engines in the most admired cars on earth. Even natural gas, long heralded as the clean fossil fuel, is now widely understood to be climate-dangerous, spewing both CO2 and methane. That leaves the original fuel for fires: wood.

In the early years of the climate crisis, scientists thought that “biomass” was an exception to the burning rule. That’s because, when you cut down a tree and burn it, another one eventually grows in its place, theoretically sucking up the carbon dioxide that the burning emitted. But, in recent years, researchers have upended those calculations. For one thing, wood burns inefficiently, producing large amounts of carbon for each unit of energy that it produces. Worse, it takes decades for those forests to regrow and suck up that carbon—decades that we don’t have. We’re breaking the back of the climate system in real time and, as we’ve known for years, burning wood hurts, not helps. So far, large-scale biomass-burning to produce electricity has not become a major factor in the United States, but the fight is on: in Massachusetts, for example, where there’s a proposal to build an enormous wood-burning plant in Springfield, opponents are trying to insure that biomass isn’t counted as renewable energy under state guidelines.

In Europe, where official E.U. policy still treats biomass as “carbon-neutral,” the dystopia is much further advanced. Big coal-powered stations have been reconfigured to burn wood, and, as Hazel Sheffield recently made clear in a long exposé for the Guardian, the demand for pellets to keep those boilers fired—particularly in the Netherlands, Denmark, and the U.K.—is stripping forests in places such as Estonia and Latvia. As Timothy Searchinger points out, in the Los Angeles Times, the Dutch and the Danes may start phasing out subsidies, but the British plan on giving ten billion euros by 2027 to the giant Drax power plant, in the North of England, one of the world’s largest woodstoves. And much of the wood to stoke that conflagration is actually being shipped from the Southeast United States, where, according to a long investigative piece in The Daily Climate, by Danielle Purifoy, the industrial-scale deforestation—hold your surprise—“is bringing air pollution, noise and reduced biodiversity in majority Black communities.” As one North Carolina resident put it, “When I looked at the officer that was choking George Floyd, and he said ‘I can’t breathe,’ this is the same thing that the industries are doing to our communities.”

A pair of recent scientific studies in the journal Frontiers in Forests and Global Change make even clearer the utter folly of what we’re doing: one, conducted in the Pacific Northwest, by researchers, including Beverly Law’s team at the Oregon State University College of Forestry, shows that big trees are superb carbon sinks (three per cent of the largest trees contain almost half the forest’s carbon); the other, led by the eminent climate scientist William R. Moomaw, compares planting trees with simply preserving existing groves: “growing existing forests intact to their ecological potential—termed proforestation—is a more effective, immediate, and low-cost approach that could be mobilized across suitable forests of all types.”

It’s possible to stop burning things on planet Earth because of our solar system’s star, ninety-three million miles away. The sun’s not quite like a campfire—it’s a ball of gas heated by nuclear fusion—but close enough. And, for at least the next billion years, we can expect it to send the light that activates solar panels, and to heat the earth in ways that drive our winds. Since the large brain originally underwritten by those fire-cooked meals has figured out how to take advantage of that distant force (check out the newest wind turbine from G.E., roughly twice the size of the London Eye Ferris wheel and able to power a town of twelve thousand homes), we can, and must, bring the combustion age to a swift end.

Passing the Mic

Judith Enck has spent her career working on crucial environmental issues. During the Obama Administration, she was a regional administrator for the E.P.A. She’s currently a visiting professor at Bennington College and the president of Beyond Plastics, a campaign that seeks to engage young people and citizens in what’s emerged as one of the biggest environmental fights on the planet.

Plastic has gone from watchword in “The Graduate” to curse word in our moment. Just how worried should we be about plastic pollution?

Very. The effects of plastic pollution are more far-reaching than most people realize. In addition to the fifteen million metric tons of plastic entering our oceans each year, scientists have found plastic particles in the most remote places on earth, from the peak of Mt. Everest to thirty-six thousand feet underwater, in the Mariana Trench.

Microplastics can be found in everything from drinking water to soil to beer to table salt to a cup of tea. In fact, we’re all ingesting roughly a credit card’s worth of plastic each week. Stunningly, scientists recently found plastics in human placentas. That study just stopped me in my tracks.

We know that plastics are literally everywhere, but we don’t yet know the full extent of the danger they pose to our health. We do know that plastics are made with a host of toxic chemicals that can interfere with endocrine systems, fertility, and more. And we also know that plastic production and “disposal” are major contributors to climate change.

How does this tie into the fossil-fuel industry?

Plastic production is the fossil-fuel industry’s Plan B. With the demand for fossil fuels falling—due to the increased use of renewable energy, electric cars, and the like—the industry is banking on plastics to boost its profits and provide a market for all the ethane created as a byproduct of hydrofracking. And it’s important to note that the fossil-fuel industry, the chemical industry, and the plastics industry are one and the same: a three-headed monster.

The industry is planning a massive buildout, with hundreds of new ethane-cracker facilities [that turn fossil fuels into the plastic pellets that can be made into many products] proposed in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Louisiana, and Texas. Almost all these plastic-production facilities would be built in low-income areas and communities of color, continuing our nation’s sad history of environmental racism. If they were proposed in more affluent communities, they would never be built.

Most policymakers do not know that this is happening. If plastic production continues to grow, by 2030 the greenhouse-gas emissions from plastic production will be the equivalent of two hundred and ninety-five new coal plants.

How do we bring real pressure to bear?

There’s a promising piece of federal legislation called the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act that we’re suddenly feeling a lot more optimistic about. A key feature shifts responsibility for dealing with plastic waste to where it belongs—the companies that produce it. This concept is known as extended producer responsibility, and it’s required by law in parts of Canada and Europe.

The bill also recognizes that we can’t recycle our way out of the plastic-pollution crisis—we have to turn off the plastics tap and make a lot less of it. Plastics had a paltry 8.5 per cent recycling rate even before China closed its doors to our waste, in 2018. The bill would spur innovation and press the pause button on new plastics facilities. The bill bans plastic bags nationwide and some polystyrene food packaging; it also requires deposits on beverage containers—known as “bottle bills”—which have successfully reduced litter and boosted recycling in nine states.

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