The majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from
by futurist Kit Worzel
These days, everyone is more environmentally aware, and and I’m thankful it is so. The amount of damage done to the environment by human sources is immense, so every step we take to mitigate this is a good one. Recycling, using compact florescent or LED lights, turning off lights in empty rooms, taking shorter showers and reducing the output from your furnace or AC are all good, environmental steps. Some people are going further, with solar panels on their roof, rain barrels for water conservation, and getting hybrid or even electrical cars. Clearly, all these steps are having a major impact, right?
Well, no, actually.
Of all greenhouse gasses produced, about 8% come from electricity for commercial and residential use, and another 6% come from buildings, including non-electric heat and cooking. That’s less than 15% of the worldwide emissions, with perhaps another 5% from personal vehicles. That means over 80% of all greenhouse gasses are produced by non-residential sources – meaning industry, agriculture, commerce, and transportation.
Fight the Power
Worldwide, the worst producer of greenhouses gasses is undoubtedly energy generation. Powering the various machines and marvels that make modern life possible is incredibly expensive and wasteful. Progress in being made here, with a significant push to greener energy, such as solar and wind, but it’s slow, and until we have better storage capacity, these sporadic, non-polluting sources won’t be able to fully take over. A further issue is that while people appreciate the benefits of green energy, most don’t want them in their backyards. Wind turbines are large and noisy, and hydroelectric generators disrupt natural water patterns, including fish migration and other aquatic wildlife. Most of the best places for hydroelectric generator are environmentally protected reserves, meaning they can’t be built there. These issues slow down the proliferation of green energy production, but it is absolutely critical that it is pushed forward. Because it accounts for so much of the greenhouse gas emission, anything else that is done to reduce our carbon footprint is almost irrelevant in comparison. As an example, China produces more greenhouse gases for energy than the entire world produces on a residential basis.
Burning the Midnight Oil
Unsurprisingly, industry is the second largest sinner when it comes to pollutants. By its nature, industry tends to be both power intensive, using a large percentage of the energy generated and therefore responsible for those greenhouse gases, and also produces a great deal of their own. Smelting, refining, fracking, and manufacturing are all dirty jobs, and create their share of airborn toxins. While in some cases, like manufacturing, there is a move towards more environmentalism and having a cleaner process, other cases, like fracking, move in the opposite direction, making more mess and creating more pollution than alternative methods. All of these industries are power and machine intensive, requiring massive amounts of electricity and fuel to run. With the energy allocated proportionally, industry creates just under one quarter of the greenhouse emissions worldwide, just behind energy generation itself.
An Ill-Wind Blows
Agriculture seems to be a strange place for greenhouses gasses, being seen as the closest to nature that humans get. But while it isn’t as power and fuel intensive as industry, there certainly are pollution issues that arise from most types of farming.
First off, land has to be cleared for fields, and while most current farmland has been clear for generations, that means that there are no longer trees there, soaking up the carbon dioxide.
Secondly, there are the pesticides and weed-killer used to prevent plant loss.
But last, and certainly the worst, is cow farts. No, that’s not a joke. Methane is indeed a greenhouse gas, one far worse than carbon dioxide. Only because it’s produced in much smaller amounts than carbon dioxide is it not vilified in the press.
There are ways that to reduce the greenhouse gas emission in farming, some of which are becoming more common. Many types of organic farming have a smaller carbon footprint, as well as being much more environmentally aware. Methane capture is also possible, if livestock are kept in an indoor facility. Farms also turn to green energy solutions, as they tend to have large amounts of space, some of which can be converted into solar or wind farms.
Getting There Isn’t Half the Fun
Cars are always seen as a major source of greenhouse gases, and for a good reason. Burning gasoline or diesel does create carbon dioxide, and one of the go-to images of air pollution is that of a gridlocked highway. Pair that with more than an quarter of a billion passenger vehicles, and you have a bleak picture.
However, emissions standards and testing have progressively improved over the past seventy years, meaning that while personal vehicles and cars do contribute to the issue, they aren’t a major part of it. Commercial vehicles, of which there are more than 120 million on the roads in the US, use more fuel, and are on the road more often. Their contribution is larger, but still not the largest part.
Air travel, both commercial and passenger, certainly contributes, but the limitations of size and the price relegate it to a less prominent role as a greenhouse gas producer. It’s not a negligible contribution, but it is certainly overshadowed by the worst contributor.
Ocean transports are the biggest offenders when it comes to transportation greenhouse gasses, with large engines burning carbon-rich fuels prodigiously to move truly massive loads across oceans. International trade has made it cheap to produce goods on one continent and ship them vast distances across an ocean to another, but the shipping process is about as environmentally friendly as a fleet of Humvees.
As with everything, it’s possible to reduce the impact from transport pollution. More efficient engines, next-generation fuels and keeping things local all help with reducing transport greenhouse gases.
With a Bow on Top
Even if you drive an old, cranky diesel rig with a faulty catalytic converter to your poorly-insulated house where you keep your incandescent lightbulbs on 24/7, as well as your hot-tub and your old appliances that were built before “efficiency” became an industry watchword, you’re still contributing less to greenhouse emissions than even a modest business. It’s vital to realize that while personal contribution to reducing greenhouse gasses are important, they are miniscule compared to the other sources worldwide. The best thing we can do is vote with our dollars. Buy local, from companies that have a strong green record. Write or call your local government and ask them not only about green regulations, but also if they are energy and carbon aware. Personally tell stores you shop at that you will switch if they don’t improve efficiency, and write a comment card to that end as well. See if there are green electricity alternatives near you, and if not, contact one or more of them as ask if they are planning to expand into your area.
It’s not easy, but this is the only world we have. We should do our best to take care of it.
© Copyright, Kit Worzel, July 2018.