Other pollution – the scope of the problem

For the sake of understanding the basic terrain of the really big sustainability problems, I think that it makes sense to lump together all of the pollution outside of greenhouse gases, so that the really big problems are: biodiversity and ecosystem loss, global climate change, and ‘other’ pollution. This is certainly a vast oversimplification, but a useful one. I say this because biodiversity loss and climate change are ‘existential’ threats, meaning that if we don’t get these problems under control, we threaten the very future of humanity on the planet. In comparison, most of the other sorts of pollution that we create and are exposed to aren’t a threat to humanity as a whole, even though they cause massive health problems, increased mortality and other problems to those who are most exposed. Every major pollution pathway ought to be improved to reduce the damage to human health and to the living environment, but any one of these problems isn’t as dire as those of biodiversity loss and climate change.

A massive amount of the pollution that we produce is the byproducts of industrial processes and energy production. We want to build and drive cars, construct and heat homes, make medicines, kill weeds, and so on. Unfortunately all of this activity can produce substances that are toxic to human health, causing everything from lung disease to cancer, neurological problems to heart attacks. Many of these pollutants can be and often are cleaned up so that people are not exposed to them, but others are released into the air, water and earth.

Much of air pollution comes from burning, fossil fuels and wood for their energy, and the cooking involved in industrial processes to separate or refine the products that we need. The greatest threats from air pollution appear when people breathe this contaminated air. Being in the proximity of factories, or in the middle of cities that have smog problems, or poorly vented indoor cooking fires in developing countries, all contribute to increased mortality. Recent estimates of the effect of air pollution show that around 9 million extra deaths occur every year due to air pollution, mostly in the developing world. And for each death, there are many more who experience other serious negative health outcomes. Cutting the use of fossil fuels, particularly coal, would make enormous strides for human health as well as reducing the release of greenhouse gases.

Water pollution is often caused by the dumping of wastes into waterways. Water is a great means of transporting wastes, whether they be from factories, or mines, or even human sewage. The problem comes when these wastes aren’t remediated, neutralizing and removing the toxic parts before letting that water enter rivers, lakes and the oceans. Other wastes, known as non-point sources, fall into waterways after being distributed over a large area of land. Rain carries fertilizers and pesticides from farm fields, or oil and other chemicals from roadways, and puts those materials into streams and rivers. Slowing the movement of water over land, having healthy wetlands and vegetation along shores, all help to keep wastes from entering the water.  Water pollution causes massive problems to human health, including the spread of disease from untreated sewage, or illness of all kinds from toxic chemicals that may get into the water we drink and use.

Finally there is the pollution of solid wastes, also known as garbage. It turns out that from a sustainability standpoint, non-toxic garbage isn’t a grave concern. We are in no danger of running out of places to dig big holes in the ground where we can stack up and bury our discarded stuff. Throwing away so much material may be wasteful, which carries a significant impact in itself, but the disposal doesn’t pose such large risks. The problems of physical wastes more often come when toxic materials leach into the surrounding soil and groundwater, or otherwise escape from a landfill. There are some particular problems that come from wastes like plastics, which are now accumulating but not breaking down out in the oceans, but these problems make for more localized threats to wildlife. There is much to be done to divert wastes from landfills, composting all the organic and food wastes, recycling more of the plastics and metals, and so on, but garbage is relatively far down the list as a sustainability concern.

Mostly I wanted to include this short essay to mention all of the wastes that we produce, even though this site is mostly to focus on addressing biodiversity loss and climate change. Very early in any discussion of environmentally sound behavior the topics of these sorts of pollution are going to come up. Often the same solutions can address many problems at once. For instance, increasing the efficiency of our energy and resource use means less greenhouse gas emissions so reducing global warming, less disturbance of ecosystems, and less production of other forms of pollution that have negative impacts on health.

Loss of biodiversity – the scope of the problem

A very quick version of the problem of biodiversity loss:

  • The earth’s ecosystems consist of the interconnected webs of species (plants, animals, fungi, micro-organisms) living together in different locations around the world.
  • Humanity relies on these ecosystems for our very survival – they produce the fresh water, clean air, food, wood and other natural products that are indispensable to our lives.
  • The earth’s ecosystems are currently being vastly disrupted by human activity causing species to go extinct, and the health of ecosystems to diminish
  • We need to change how humanity acts in the world so that we can preserve and repair ecosystems and stop extinctions, if not for the sake of other forms of life, then for ourselves.

And for a little bit longer version…

There are millions of species on the earth. The exact number is not known, but best estimates are that there are as many as ten million, with over one million having been identified by scientists. Ten million is a huge number, but a finite one. It has taken billions of years to produce these species, all of the animals, plants, fungi, and micro-organisms on the planet. Though there are many species, each is unique, and if they go extinct, they are gone forever.

 

Ecosystems are groups of species that all live together in a certain area. There can be many thousands of species, and they constantly interact and rely on each other to maintain the integrity of the whole. Plants form the basis of the food chain, taking energy from the sun and turning it into living tissue. Different plants fill different niches, some as tall trees, as grass, as climbing vines, some dropping their leaves for the winter and others keeping them all year. There are animals eating plants, other animals eating those animals, fungi decomposing everything that dies to recycle nutrients and begin the growth anew. Micro-organisms are found by the trillions in every nook and cranny.

While some (myself included) could wax poetic about the grandeur of wild spaces, of the beauty of old growth forests, or the thought of herds of bison roaming the prairies, providing beauty is far from the only thing that ecosystems do for us. Critical to the very survival of humanity are all of the things that ecosystems do for us, often called ecosystem services. Intact ecosystems provide us with soil, food, water, medicine, wood and other plant fiber, they maintain climate and rainfall patterns, and more. To provide all of these functions that we hold so dear, ecosystems need to be maintained in a healthy state. There are innumerable instances where people’s damaging of lands and waters led directly to massive problems in human society. Floods, soil erosion, desertification, wildfires, polluted water, can all be caused by poor management practices, and can threaten the very foundations of societies. In today’s world, climate change is linked tightly with ecosystem damage, as poor forest management and poor agricultural practices are some of the main drivers of a warming planet. In terms of species extinction, it is estimated that current human practices are causing the rate of species extinction to be a thousand times higher than what it was before the modern age, and we are currently be losing thousands of species every single year.

People need to act now to preserve ecosystems and species. We know that ecosystems are resilient, but it is unclear how much abuse they can take before problems may spiral out of control. There is something called the precautionary principle that tells us that we shouldn’t take dangerous actions when we are unsure of how risky they are. The cost of doing nothing could be absolutely immense, whereas if we act now to change ‘business as usual’, we know that this is likely to lead to great outcomes for both people and the planet. There will be some costs associated with making these changes, but the long-term benefits to saving ecosystems and species far outweigh the short-term benefits of massive scale clear-cut logging or agricultural practices that destroy the fertility of the soil.

Global climate change – the scope of the problem

The super short version of the problem of global climate change is as follows:

  • Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap heat from the sun
  • People are vastly increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which means we trap more heat, which means the temperature of the planet is rising
  • A fast rising temperature causes massive problems for humanity and all other life on earth
  • We need to stop putting extra greenhouse gases into the atmosphere if we want a livable and sustainable world

I’ll unpack it a bit further in the following paragraphs, but will keep it to a few paragraphs as there are a great many resources that outline the ins and outs of climate change.

First, there is a natural carbon cycle on the planet. Carbon is a basic physical element, found in great quantities both on the surface and in the center of the earth, though it makes up only a small proportion of all of the matter of the earth. Most of this carbon is under the surface, bound up in rocks, in the earth’s core, or in fossilized plants that have been buried by the action of water, wind, geology and time. Then there is the carbon found on or near the surface that cycles back and forth between the air, the water, the rocks the soil, and living things. All life that we know is built out of carbon molecules, and all living things spend much of their time and energy bringing carbon into their bodies. Plants draw it from the air while animals eat other living things made out of carbon. The earth’s cycle of carbon is always in flux, plants are growing and dying, animal populations rise and fall, rocks and water absorb and release it. The main point to make about the cycle is that the amount of carbon actively moving around the surface, the waters, and the atmosphere, stays at roughly the same level and changes only on the scale of thousands of years. The equilibrium amount of carbon in the atmosphere, mostly as carbon dioxide, has stayed about 300 parts per million (a quite small proportion of the air) for at least hundreds of thousands of years up until about one hundred years ago.

The problem that we face today is that people have thrown off this balance, as human activities have drastically increased the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere, much more than the natural systems and cycles can absorb. The most notorious source has been the fossil fuels of coal, oil, and natural gas. These substances once were living organisms, and were trapped underground and transformed into concentrated carbon based energy. When we burn them, we release carbon back into the atmosphere that has been out of circulation for millions of years. Another huge contributor to carbon in the atmosphere is poor land use. For example, forests are cut down, poor agricultural practices destroy soil, cows produce lots of methane (another carbon based greenhouse gas), all of which lead to the carbon stored in these places being released to the atmosphere. Industrial processes can also add carbon to the atmosphere. One such process is the production of cement. Cement is made by heating rock (limestone) that is high in carbon, leading both to a useful product as well putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The sum of these activities cause the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to rise at rates that have seldom, if ever, been seen during the history of the planet. Today, in the winter of 2018, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by a third, to 405 ppm. Current human activities are causing a continued 1 ppm increase each and every year.

Now, the biggest reason that all of this extra carbon in the atmosphere is a problem is due to the greenhouse effect. The basic analogy of the greenhouse effect is that the glass walls of a greenhouse trap some of the energy from the sun, allowing the inside of a greenhouse to be warmer than the air outside. It turns out that the earth’s atmosphere does the same thing. An enormous amount of energy from the sun hits the earth, with some staying and some bouncing back into space. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere do the same thing as the glass in the greenhouse walls, they trap heat inside. The more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the warmer the earth stays. This has mostly been a great thing for life on earth, as the greenhouse effect is the reason that we have such moderate temperatures today that life on earth is so well adapted to. As mentioned in the last paragraph, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by a third, and this has trapped more heat through the greenhouse effect. So far, this rise in atmospheric carbon has increased the earth’s temperature by nearly one degree Celsius. If current trends of humanity’s resource and land use continue, this could reach 5 or 6 degrees Celsius (10 degrees Fahrenheit) by the year 2100. Humanity now stands at a point where we are cooking ourselves out of house and home. It is impossible to predict all the effects of this warming, but we do know that it would be catastrophic. Sea levels would rise, weather extremes of flood, drought and wildfire would increase, some ecosystems would collapse and many species would go extinct, and there would be millions of climate refugees fleeing these effects.

Put all together this makes for a very simple goal in fighting climate change, though it will be difficult and complex to achieve: humanity needs to stop putting excess greenhouse gases into the atmosphere if we want to save ourselves and our planet.

A few groups that are working hard to change our trajectory and to stabilize the climate include:

  • Drawdown. A comprehensive guide to all of the things that human society could do to reduce climate change through 2050, including how much they would cost, and how much they would reduce emissions.
  • 350.org. An advocacy organization that seeks to stop use of fossil fuels, build renewable energy, and other activities in order to attempt to return atmospheric carbon to a safer level, 350 parts per million (hence the name of the organization).