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EarthTalk®

by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer


Dear EarthTalk: What’s the difference between a carbon tax and “cap-and-trade” system for reducing greenhouse gas emissions? -- Marina Brown, New York, NY

Most of us can agree that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a must given the rapid warming of the planet; just how to do it best is another question entirely. The two leading market strategies are a carbon tax, whereby polluters are simply taxed for the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases they spew, and “cap-and-trade,” whereby government sets an overall cap on the amount of greenhouse gases that each industry or sector can emit without penalty and issues permits or allowances accordingly that companies can buy and sell to each other based on their own business and sustainability priorities. Each approach been shown to effectively cut down emissions, but many nations are now weighing which way to go as they prepare to make new commitments as part of the potentially decisive international climate talks (COP21) coming up in Paris in December 2015.

Cap-and-trade allows affected businesses to choose how much pollution reduction they can tolerate and then leverage market forces to buy or sell allowances accordingly. Such systems effectively penalize polluters who exceed allowable limits (those who therefore must “buy” credits) while rewarding those who not just meet emissions target levels but get down below them (the difference being what they can then “sell”). Cap-and-trade markets are designed to encourage flexibility in allowing companies to decide how they want to meet emissions reduction targets. 

Of course, cap-and-trade isn’t a new concept. The first national cap-and-trade market limited emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that were causing acid rain in 1990s. The European Union later launched the first major market in greenhouse gas emissions trading in 2005 in order to meet commitments made under the Kyoto Protocol, the first international treaty to limit carbon emissions. In North America, three regional carbon cap-and-trade plans have been in place since the mid-2000s (the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Midwest Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord, and Western Climate Initiative), but there hasn’t been enough political will at the federal level yet to support a nationwide carbon emissions market.

Not everyone thinks cap-and-trade is the way to go to reduce emissions. Carbon tax proponents argue that cap-and-trade scenarios can cause unnecessary price volatility to energy prices, are overly complicated, and are easily manipulated by those that learn to game such systems to their advantage without reducing greenhouse gas output. “Carbon taxes will lend predictability to energy prices, whereas cap-and-trade systems will aggravate the price volatility that historically has discouraged investments in less carbon-intensive electricity generation, carbon-reducing energy efficiency and carbon-replacing renewable energy,” reports the Carbon Tax Center.

Critics counter, however, that it’s easier for companies to pass the costs of a carbon tax onto consumers by raising prices—and that lower income households bear a disproportionate amount of those economic costs. Perhaps the world’s biggest experiment in carbon taxation ended last year when Australians voted to repeal their carbon tax due to rising costs of living, saving the average household more than $500 a year. Meanwhile, a recent analysis of Norway’s carbon tax—the highest in the world on a percentage basis—found that emissions reductions there were negligible over the first decade of implementation.

While both systems have their pros and cons, either can be effective in reducing emissions if there is enough political will behind it. A key component to the upcoming COP21 Paris climate talks is flexibility in allowing participating nations to choose how they want to reduce emissions. Environmental leaders are keeping their fingers crossed that whether through cap-and-trade or taxation, the nations of the world will finally agree on enough greenhouse gas cuts to finally stem the still surging tide of global warming.

CONTACTS: COP21, www.cop21.gouv.fr/; Carbon Tax Center, www.carbontax.org.


Dear Earthtalk: I’ve heard that making and installing concrete takes a big toll on the environment. What’s being done to clean up this industry? - Jenn Chadwick, Washington, DC

The 20 billion tons of concrete produced around the world annually account for an estimated five to 10 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Concrete is one of the most widely used materials in the world, and the energy-intensive process to create it is the third largest source of planet warming CO2. According to a 2012 study from Scotland’s University of Aberdeen, making a ton of concrete releases about a ton of CO2 into the atmosphere. While the concrete industry has actually reduced its carbon emissions by a third over the last few decades, it still has a long way to go before becoming part of the solution to our collective climate woes.

Part of the reason concrete is so energy- and CO2-intensive to make is that it requires heating the mineral feedstock, alite, to 1,500 degrees Celsius in order to make it malleable. Researchers are working to develop mixtures using alternatives to alite that do not require such high temperatures during processing. The leading contender, belite, has a much lower temperature threshold while maintaining similar strength. But belite takes months to set completely, while alite sets in just a few hours. Concrete makers continue to tinker with the mix as well as with other chemicals and additives in search of greener alternatives to alite.

Dust pollution generated by concrete’s manufacture and disposal is another big concern. Quarrying entire mountainsides worth of rock for the aggregate that makes up the majority of concrete’s material sends massive amounts of rock dust into the atmosphere. The back end of concrete’s lifecycle is similar as demolition of buildings emits large amounts of concrete dust into the air. New technologies that trap and reduce dust emissions are making inroads, but not nearly fast enough, say environmental leaders.

Another green trend among concrete makers is recycling in one form or another. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), some are using waste ash products from other industries to create an entirely new, greener concrete mix. Others are focusing on collecting concrete chunks from demolition sites and crushing them to re-use in new construction projects. Such efforts require less energy and less water and as a result can reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing concrete significantly.

Of course, all that finished concrete around us not only inhibits biodiversity—wildlife doesn’t find paved-over areas particularly hospitable—it also leads to pollution, erosion and flooding as torrents of run-off can’t naturally percolate through soils as they make their way downstream. So-called permeable concrete seeks to address this issue by absorbing much more water than traditional concrete, slowing down and significantly reducing urban run-off. Yet another concern is that concrete absorbs much more heat than does soil, so cities are often significantly warmer than rural areas, exacerbating the greenhouse effect. One solution to this so-called “urban heat island effect” may be lighter-colored concrete, which has been shown to reflect up to 50 percent more light than its more traditional darker counterparts.
 
While there is much innovation afoot within the concrete industry, the vast majority of concrete produced still isn’t particularly green. Until some of these forward-thinking techniques and technologies become more mainstream, the pavement beneath our feet will continue to be a thorn in the side of those working to fight climate change and clean up our environment.

CONTACT: EPA, www.epa.gov.


Dear Earthtalk: My neighbor uses Roundup in her yard routinely and tells me it’s harmless to people and pets, but I’ve heard that it is carcinogenic. Can you set the record straight?
      -- Maise Alexander, New Hope, PA

Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides contain three key components: the active ingredient glyphosate, water, and a soap-like surfactant blend. The agricultural application of glyphosate has skyrocketed over the past 20 years. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s “Estimated Agricultural Use for Glyphosate” map, in 2012 over 250 million pounds of glyphosate were used on crops in across the country—a substantial increase from the less than 22 million pounds used in 1992.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified the cancer-causing potential of glyphosate as Category E (“evidence of non-carcinogenicity for humans”), but the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently re-classified it as a group 2A “probable” carcinogen. IARC’s recent evaluation of glyphosate found “limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma” and “convincing evidence that glyphosate also can cause cancer in laboratory animals.”

Monsanto struck back, stating that the IARC’s conclusion “conflicts with the overwhelming consensus by regulatory bodies and science organizations around the world…which have found no evidence of carcinogenicity.” Monsanto added: “Further, the 2A classification does not establish a link between glyphosate and an increase in cancer. ‘Probable’ does not mean that glyphosate causes cancer; even at 100 times the exposure that occurs during normal labeled use glyphosate is not a human health risk.”

In September 2015, in response to the IARC findings, the California EPA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) announced its intent to list glyphosate as a carcinogen under the state’s Proposition 65 law. In California, businesses are required to provide “a clear and reasonable warning” before knowingly and intentionally exposing anyone to a Proposition 65 listed chemical. Once a chemical is listed, businesses have a year to comply with the warning requirements. OEHHA is accepting public comments until October 20 on whether glyphosate should be listed under Proposition 65.

“If they decide to list this chemical [under Proposition 65] and it survives the inevitable legal challenges, I think it’s possible that every bottle of Roundup or glyphosate formulation sold in the state of California would have to be labeled as known...to cause cancer,” Nathan Donley, a staff scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, told Pacific Standard. “It would be a huge deterrent for the purchase of this product, at least in that state.” He added that Monsanto has created a “false narrative” that glyphosate is safe. “That position clearly can’t be maintained anymore…and I think it will probably be a precursor for hopefully federal action, at least federal acknowledgment that glyphosate does cause cancer.”

In addition to the threat of a warning label on their glyphosate products in California, Monsanto is currently facing lawsuits by two people claiming that Roundup caused their cancers. Enrique Rubio filed suit on September 22nd in Los Angeles, claiming that the bone cancer he was diagnosed with back in 1995 was a result of spraying fields of crops with Roundup and other pesticides. The second lawsuit, filed on the same day in New York by Judi Fitzgerald, claims she was exposed to Roundup when she worked at a horticultural products company in the 1990s. Fitzgerald was diagnosed with leukemia in 2012. 

CONTACTS: Monsanto, www.monsanto.com; EPA, www.epa.gov; IARC, www.iarc.fr; Center for Biological Diversity, www.biologicaldiversity.org.


Dear Earthtalk: Where do the leading Democratic candidates for president stand on environmental issues? -- Leslie Mazur, Hauppauge, NY

President Obama, with his recent push to join the world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, will be a tough act to follow on the environment. But each of the Democratic candidates has shown a willingness to continue fighting the green fight and working with industry and other nations to rein in emissions and promote sustainable development.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders stands out in terms of environmental commitment. He has been a vocal defender of the need for an international climate accord, initially championing U.S. participation in 2000’s Kyoto Protocol, a climate pact that ultimately failed due to lack of participation by China and the U.S. Since then, he has remained one of the most outspoken advocates for climate action in Congress. His current platform includes instituting a nationwide carbon tax and using the funds to finance the development of renewable sources of energy. He would like to see the country move quickly toward “fossil fuel independence” and is advocating that at least 25 percent of U.S. energy come from renewable sources by 2025. He is against letting the Keystone XL pipeline cross the United States with Canadian tar sands oil. He would like to see the federal government cut subsidies to large animal “factory farms” and move that money toward stimulating the organic agriculture sector. And he backs efforts to require labeling for any products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Frontrunner Hillary Clinton is no slouch on the environment, either. Like Sanders, she supported U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol and has been outspoken about the need to address climate change ever since. She terms the effort to achieve carbon neutrality nationwide as our “modern Apollo moon shot” and would like the federal government to pledge $100 billion annually to mitigate the effects of climate change. She recently came out in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, and shares Sanders’ desire for achieving 25 percent clean energy nationally by 2025. She is also pushing for more research and development in the alternative energy sector paid for out of funds otherwise earmarked to subsidize Big Oil. Otherwise, Clinton generally supports efforts to conserve sensitive lands and protect endangered species, and has consistently backed efforts to beef up the Clean Air and the Clean Water acts.

The remaining candidates for the Democratic nomination also boast strong environmental track records. As Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley spearheaded a statewide effort to protect roughly a million acres of land around Chesapeake Bay to bolster waning blue crab and oyster populations. He supports helping the clean energy sector get off the ground to protect the environment and provide jobs, and wants to double the nation’s energy efficiency in just 15 years and get the U.S, off of fossil fuels fully by 2050.

For his part, former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee supports increasing federal funds for fighting climate change and is a staunch opponent of drilling in Alaskan wildlife refuges. Historically, he has supported raising mileage standards, increasing public transportation infrastructure, and federally subsidized remediation for brownfields (contaminated lands previously used for industrial purposes).

Environmental advocates have their fingers crossed that, regardless of the outcome of the 2016 elections, the U.S. can maintain the momentum of the Obama administration on climate and related issues.

CONTACTS: Bernie Sanders, berniesanders.com; Hillary Clinton, www.hillaryclinton.com; Martin O’Malley, www.martinomalley.com; Lincoln Chafee, www.chafee2016.com.

EarthTalk® is produced by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network Inc. View past columns at:www.earthtalk.org . Or e-mail us your question:  earthtalk@emagazine.com


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