Brenda Cooper

Backing into Eden Chapter 18: The Element of Air

Every year, we science fiction fans are given the opportunity to vote on a host city for a future World Science Fiction convention.  This year, the vote will be between Kansas City and Shanghai.   I’m certain that I’ll be voting for Kansas City.  I’d LOVE to see the Great Wall, but I’ve seen pictures of the air in China lately, and my instincts suggest I may not want to take the health risks associated with a visit.  I’ve read that some of China’s elite are leaving for health reasons.  China is also beginning to have a hard time convincing people from western countries to work there.  Other places have even worse air.  A recent Guardian article wonders if Kathmandu is actually “unlivable” because of poor air quality.   India is only ranked slightly ahead of Kathmandu at 174th out of 178, based on the Yale Environmental Performance Index.  There are plenty of other pain points in air quality:

  • It’s only March, and carbon dioxide levels have already exceeded 400 PPM this year, a number that wasn’t crossed until May in 2013.  The “safe” levels are below that number, and many think they are below 350 PPM or even lower than that.  What’s at risk?  According to many, life as we know it.
  • Depending on which source you focus on, air pollution is estimated to kill between two and four million people a year right now.  This isn’t a future climate-change scenario.  It’s happening now.  Slow, painful, and early death doesn’t get the press of dramatic death, but it’s just as real.
  • A recent article suggested that the pollution in China is so bad that it impedes photosynthesis (and thus the uptake of carbon dioxide and creation of oxygen).  Severe pollution is yet another scary feedback mechanism, where the damage we’re doing increases the damage (like open ocean in the arctic absorbed more heat and creates more open ocean in the arctic).

There’s more, but that’s enough bad news to convince almost anyone that as much as we need to pay attention to water, we also need to focus on air.

Exhaust smoke and air pollutionThe elephant in the room is the collection of pollution that is damaging the atmosphere and leading to climate change. Carbon is the most talked about part of this elephant.  Programs to reduce carbon in the atmosphere are being developed and implemented in many places, but the amount of carbon is still rising dangerously.

The problem is complex, but nonetheless there are three primary sources of air pollution.  These are fossil fuel use (from coal plants to gasoline cars), deforestation, and the release of methane.  If we focus on those three items, we can make a significant difference.

We can directly affect the amount of carbon released by personal transportation. “Alternative transportation” includes walking, bicycles, electric cars, subways, trains, shared cars, bus rapid transit, and more.   Most have a carbon cost, but they are all better choices than gas-powered cars with single occupancy drivers.

For the coal plants, we need regulation with teeth, and to capture that carbon at the source.  There is technology for that now, and we should be using it.  MIT keeps a page with a list carbon capture projects worldwide, and it appears that there is a lot more planning than implementation happening at the moment.   Mostly, we need to move away from coal, but to do that while maintaining a healthy economy we may need to spend a few decades in ‘capture and sequester’ phase.

Deforestation has a lot of causes.  One simple way to look at it is deforestation is a result of the inability to express and move value around.  The value to the world of a plot of healthy rainforest is far greater than corporation or individual farmers get from the land after they burn the forest off.  But we don’t have any way to recognize that.  Even though some programs are trying to do just that, in general the hungry farmer can’t use conservation to feed his or her family.  This is changeable.

We’re back to another root I’m seeing.  Cattle.  Cattle-ranching drives a lot of the deforestation.  Eating beef, of course, drives cattle-ranching.  The vast water-cost of feeding cows came up in last week’s blog about water, and cattle come up again in this blog under the topic of methane.  I didn’t set out to write about becoming vegetarian,  but it’s beginning to look important.  More on that topic in a future whole chapter.

Deforestation fills the atmosphere with black carbon, or soot.  In addition to deforestation, soot is released from diesel engines, from fires (including household fireplaces and cooking fires), and from some industrial processes.  Soot absorbs solar radiation, and interacts in complex ways with forces for both warming and cooling.  Scientific sentiment is beginning to suggest that reduction in soot worldwide may slow global warming significantly.

In the United States, we are reducing black carbon emissions through more controls on diesel fuels and other methods.  Since soot is not as persistent in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, reductions in the release of soot can have a fairly quick payoff.

Methane is another abundant greenhouse gas.  There are a number of natural reasons for this, but there are also anthropogenic causes.  Coal and coal plants and even natural gas production, transportation, and use release methane.  And for a nearly comical source of even more methane?  Cows. One more reason we should seriously consider shifting our sources of protein.

Air pollution comes from a lot of sources, and the intricacies of our atmosphere are not completely understood yet.  I suspect that before we made the air dirty enough to see after the industrial revolution, humanity simply took it from granted that air was free and clean.  We need to both act now on the things we do understand (it can be done; California’s air is far cleaner than it used to be) and to do a lot more basic research.

We breathe each other’s air.  The wind mixes our air together and blows it across political boundaries.  Chinese air affects the United States, and our air affects China.  Even more than water, the same air flows across all of us, and it is up to all of us to work together to clean it up and keep it clean.  Think of it as housekeeping 101.

As always, here are a few links to follow if you are interested in diving any deeper: