Air Pollution

power plant image

Our Air Pollution

Ever since the formation of our earth some 4.5 million years ago, our earth has slowly but surely been orbiting closer and closer to our son and naturally in the process caused the surface temperature of the earth to increase ever so slowly and slightly.   Some 245 million years ago a large meteorite hit the earth causing over 95% of the species existing at the time to become extinct (including the decimation of our dinosaur population about 243 million years ago).   This natural event sent a massive plumb of debris and dust into the atmosphere polluting the air and severely impacting upon the climate, culminating in the most dramatic impact upon life on earth.   Some 20-10,000 years ago our earth entered its most recent Ice Age (its 5th in the history of earth), which again wiped out many species and radically reduced certain population species like mankind.  Such natural cycles of events arise from the changing orbit of the earth and shifts in our titanic plates.    In summary the natural temperature of the earth’s surface has changed over its 3.5 billion years of relative stability, is changing now and will continue to change, together with associated air pollution. 

To what extent has air pollution changed since the advent of modern man?    How are we humans fairing as our population growth exceeds 6 billion and what impact has this growth had on our most precious commodity – the air we breathe and depend upon.   Our Air pollution is the contribution mankind makes towards the inclusion of foreign chemicals and gases into our air that are not a normal part of the Earth’s air or would not normally be in these amounts were it not for human existence and our associated pollution.   Few disagree that global air pollution has worsened significantly since the industrial revolution.  Air pollution is our silent killer, responsible for the greatest number of deaths across the world, even greater than malaria, HIV/AIDS put together.  

In earlier discussion on pollution, its was explained how our water, air, earth, vegetation and all living creatures inter-playing in one complex ecosystem designed to support and sustain life on earth. Our economic system and planetary system are now at war. Unfortunately when there is an imbalance that never gets rectified, this inevitably leads to the destruction of our inter-related ecosystems. Our greatest human induced air pollutants are recognised as the collective dumping of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases into our precious atmosphere.  Some argue that our insatiable demands for living food (animal and vegetable) products are also contributing to our excessive carbon emissions?

Humans have three main addictions to unnatural air pollution:-

  1. Coal-burning power plants, primarily for electrical energy.
  2. Vehicle emissions (carbon dioxide), primarily in our large cities.
  3. Smoke from burning and commercial waste, mainly sulphur dioxide.

The greatest of the above human air polluters is unquestionably our coal-burning power plants used in the delivery of electrical power. In 2013 global carbon emissions rose by a staggering 2.3%. We seem to take the air in our atmosphere for granted, as a given no matter how badly we treat it.  We tend to use it as an infinity dumping ground for all our air-born garbage. Somehow we expect nature will miraculously accommodate it and somehow recover of its own accord. This human mindset has to shift.  Nature’s oceans are warming and thereby doing their bit by absorbing carbon, but at a cost to global warming and rising sea levels as the water expands and polar caps give-up ice to water. Even nature cannot keep up with this level of emissions growth.  Nature has happily dealt with natural bush fires, rotting vegetation, animal expulsions, volcano eruptions over the centuries.  The natural course of nature is able to recover over a long period but our persistent dumping of pollution into the atmosphere is having a devastating effect on both ourselves and our ecosystem.  These massive injections of carbon and green-house gases are claimed to be contributing to the acceleration of natural global warming, with dire consequences.  Yet there are sceptics who do not accept that human induced air pollution is causing unnatural climate change.  Climate change impacts being rising sea levels, shrinking ice-packs, severe weather events and increased surface and ocean temperatures.  What is the root cause of this problem – the current mindset of mankind, as an aggregated summation of how we choose to live our life?  Too much self-centred care about self and not that of others (less fortunate) and our defenceless environment.

Some of the best preventative measures are occurring through the advent of “renewable energy” initiatives, like solar power, wind power and hydro-electric power generation, etc. It is claimed by 2020, 20% of all energy will be derived from renewable energy and that the more of this type of energy generation and energy storage are deployed, the lower electricity process will become eventually.  This problem is discussed at length under Energy Management.  The critical mass of support for increased use of renewable energy seems to be shifting in favour of replacing our coal-burning power stations with renewable energy sources (mainly solar and wind). Natural gas is viewed as a far better alternative to coal-burning, even though it is only partially renewable and does give off carbon emissions. The jury is still out on nuclear power, because of its potential for failure and the resultant environmental impact.

Western economies are built on the promise of endless growth. Endless growth at any cost is incompatible with reduced emissions. This is a non-sustainable strategy. Individuals are going to have to consume less by reducing the amount of current wastage. Corporate profits are going to have to be reduced to a reasonable level in some cases, especially the biggest polluters. Governments are going to have to engage in the kind of long-term planning that’s anathema to free Marketeers. Rather than our greatest innovative minds being preoccupied with tactical gadgets designed to make quick profits, human innovation should reward those with innovative strategic alternative energy sources: sources that don’t pollute our atmosphere but rely upon renewable energy sources. The current economic imbalance arises because use on non-renewable energies (coal and oil), that give off copious amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, remains the cheapest approach to satisfying our insatiable energy demands.  Because enormous infrastructure is already in place to support the use of our non-renewable, the infrastructure costs to put in place renewable energy resources is naturally contributing to them being comparatively more expensive. As more renewal energy infrastructure is put in place the economic and social benefit cost-benefit improves.

More than any other big hard problem, air pollution’s relationship with energy production could become the most galvanising force for humanity for positive strategic change. If treated as a true planetary emergency it could become the catalyst for positive change across the board. It could be the best argue for controlled progressive change in the way we live on earth. It could become the triggers for a major shift in mindset towards the other big hard problems facing the world, as we realise the survival of humans as a species is being put at risk if we continue behaving as we have been. Growth at all costs is not sustainable. Serious consideration could be given to a “2000-Watt Society”, where ordinary people cap their carbon energy usage to 2000 watts per hour. This would require developed countries (US & EU) reducing their existing carbon footprint by 80% (through innovation) and developing countries by 50%, which would slow carbon emissions and the warming of our planet by 2 degrees, sufficient to progressively remove much of the human contribution to global warming.

Western society does not want to give up air travel, air-conditioning, HDTV, driving cars, and a myriad other things that soak up energy at 5000-8000 watts per hour.

Current examples of the consequences from obsessive growth at all costs – China’s Beijing & India’s Mumbie air pollution.   The main preventative and reversal activities are:- alternative energy sources, (especially in the generation of electricity), obeying laws, etc.

Air Pollution – caused by Green House Gas emissions from Carbon fossil fuels 

A significant proportion of scientists across the globe believe there is compelling evidence proving that air pollution, induced by mankind, is causing our climate to change at an unprecedented and dangerous rate (melting ice-caps, rising sea levels. global warming, major weather events – bush fires, tornadoes, high rain fall and winds, etc.).  The main forms of this human induced air pollution are seen to be our excessive carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are the leading cause of global warming.   This is any gaseous compound in the atmosphere that is capable of absorbing infrared radiation, thereby trapping and holding heat in the atmosphere.  By increasing the heat in the atmosphere, greenhouse gases are responsible for the greenhouse effect, which ultimately leads to global warming.   The most significant greenhouse gases are water vapour (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).   According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “While oxygen (O2) is the second most abundant gas in our atmosphere, O2 does not absorb thermal infrared radiation,” 

Carbon emissions enter our atmosphere when fossil fuels are burnt.   The most popular forms of fossil fuels are those able to produce much energy when burnt with Oxygen (Carbon Dioxide – CO2 and Carbon Monoxide); for example motor fuels and our coal-powered electricity generators.  Energy is seen to be essential to sustaining economic growth, especially as our population grows and prospers.  Greenhouse Gas emissions from the likes of non-renewable fossil fuels such as coal, oil, gas, timber, etc. contribute to global warming and climate change.

Treating our air as an infinite resource impervious to abuse has brought about a critical ecological imbalance that nature is struggling to deal with.  While some say that global warming is a natural process and that there have always been greenhouse gasses, the amount of gasses in the atmosphere has skyrocketed in recent history. The Industrial Revolution had a big part to play in the amount of atmospheric CO2 being released. Before, CO2 fluctuated between about 180 ppm during ice ages and 280 ppm during inter-glacial warm periods. Since the Industrial Revolution, though, the amount of CO2 has dramatically increased to 100 times faster than the increase when the last ice age ended, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

As described by Pope Francis in his “Laudate SI” encyclical “Some forms of pollution are part of peo­ple’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes mil­lions of premature deaths. People take sick, for example, from breathing high levels of smoke from fuels used in cooking or heating. There is also pollution that affects everyone, caused by transport, industrial fumes, substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water, fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agro toxins in general.”

In recognition that excessive global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions is a very real threat to the future of humanity, institutions around the globe have sought solutions to reducing our increasing level of GHG and carbon emissions.  While there are many forms of natural GHG from carbon emission (trees, animals, volcanoes, bush fires, etc.), it’s the human induced contributions that are causing GHG increases to be above and beyond that which nature is usually able to cope with (eg. carbon absorption by our oceans and vegetation). 

Emission Reduction Target (ERT) or Carbon Emission Reduction Target (CERT)

In 2015 the Paris Climate Change Agreement was signed by the major developed nations contributing to greenhouse gas emissions with the aim of containing the rate of increase in the earth’s surface temperature to no more than 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2050.   To achieve this objective a Carbon Emission Reduction Target (CERT) was agreed and nations committed to various forms of carbon and GHG emission reduction.  The Australian Government has agreed to a target of a 26-28 % reduction, below 2005 levels by 2030 – Australia’s CERT.  To achieve such CERTs an array of national strategies are either under serious consideration or in some cases being implemented.   Below is an outline of some of these major strategies.  The purpose of this is an attempt to simplify for ordinary people what has become a very confusing and overly complex collection of solution names/terms.  

  1. Carbon Tax (CT) or Carbon Pricing Scheme (CPS/CPM)

A carbon pricing scheme (or CP Mechanism) in Australia, commonly dubbed by its critics as a “carbon tax”, was introduced by the Gillard Labour Government in 2011 as the Clean Energy Act 2011 – it was subsequently repealed in 2014.   The CPM is a two-stage approach to pricing carbon. In the first stage, liable companies are required to pay a fixed price per tonne of the covered greenhouse gas (GHG) they emit into the atmosphere each year. The second-stage was a transition to an emissions trading scheme (ETS) where the available permits become limited in line with a pollution cap.    The term “carbon tax” has become political poison.  This term is either avoided now or used in a derogatory manner to put down a proposed CPS/CPM as already having failed and thereby not to be considered again.

  1. Emission Trading Scheme (ETS)

An ETS was first devised by the European Union (EU) in 2010 to combat climate change with a tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  A cap is set on the total amount of certain greenhouse gases that can be emitted by companies, falling within the scope of the scheme. The cap is reduced over time so that total emissions fall accordingly.

Within the cap, companies receive or buy emission allowances which they can trade with one another as needed. They can also buy limited amounts of international credits from emission-saving projects around the world. The limit on the total number of allowances available ensures that allowances have a ($) value.

After each year a company must surrender enough allowances to cover all its emissions, otherwise heavy fines are imposed. If a business reduces its emissions, it can keep the spare allowances to cover its future needs or else sell them to another company that is short of allowances.

Trading is meant to introduce a degree of flexibility that ensures emissions are cut where it costs least to do so. A robust carbon price is seen to promote investment in clean, low-carbon technologies (renewables such as solar, wind turbine, hydro, etc.).

  1. IP (Interaction Permits)

Provisions for price floors in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) trading schemes can be found in several recent legislative proposals for emissions trading.  These are mechanisms whereby government commitments can:-

  • buy back emission permits
  • reserve carbon prices (4) at auction
  • implement extra fees or taxes on acquittal of emissions permits
  • adopt more general hybrid approaches to emissions pricing
  • guarantee minimum abatement efforts if prices are lower than expected
  • help manage cost uncertainty, possibly as complements to price ceilings
  1. CPRS (Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme) is a strategy being proposed by the Australian Labor Party – a proposed cap-and-trade emissions trading scheme (ETS). With the main objective of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
  1. EIS (Emission Integrity Scheme) is a strategy recommended by Australia’s Chief Scientist and the CSIRO. It is a principled approach to the design of an emissions trading scheme (ETS) which avoids the imposition of unnecessary costs on ordinary people.  The integrity, efficiency and effectiveness of the scheme will require:
  • establishment of an independent carbon bank with all the necessary powers to oversee the long-term stability of the scheme
  • implementation of a transition period from 2010 to the conclusion of the Kyoto period (end 2012) involving fixed price permits
  • credits to trade-exposed, emissions-intensive industries to address the failure of our trading partners to adopt similar policies
  • no permits to be freely allocated
  • no ceilings or floors on the price of permits (beyond the transition period)
  • scheme coverage that is as broad as possible, within practical constraints
  1. DA (Direct Action) is the strategy currently being followed by the Australian Federal Government (Liberal Coalition Party). An Emissions Reduction Fund is created to call for companies to submit tenders for projects that will either lower emissions or offset them.  Auctions are run by a Clean Energy Regulator to determining what emission reductions can be achieved through a range of projects, such as cleaning up power stations, capturing landfill gas, reforesting marginal lands or improving soil carbon, etc.

          A project needs to meet two criteria to win a contract from the Fund:

  • The emission reductions must be additional measures and not just business-as-usual
  • The reduction estimates must be credible and verifiable

           Only the projects with the lowest cost per amount of abatement will be taken on by the Reduction Fund.

           Direct Action is not seen to be sustainable and would need to transition towards an ETS.   The nature of this ETS is yet to be determined but will            surely take upon a different term, as ETS is becoming politically toxic as well, just like the term “Carbon Tax”. 

All these above political arguments and/or schemes have confused ordinary people, who are demanding that an agreed global approach be adopted as the resource involved (air) is a global commodity required for life on earth.   It belongs to nobody yet we have become its custodian, so long as we are the dominant species on earth with the mind power to either destroy us all or to solve the problem.   I vote we solve this human-inflicted problem! 

The question arising is “How can an ordinary person like Yourself make a worth while sustainable contribution to stop/reduce the pollution of this precious veneer of air that surrounds our unique planet?”   The answer(s) to this vexing question needs to be provided by Subject Matter Experts (SME) is this field, not a mere novice like myself.   

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