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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: How is it that bitcoin, a virtual currency that few of us have heard of and no one I know uses, is becoming a major contributor to carbon emissions? – Troy Sussman, Bowie, MD

It’s hard to believe that bitcoin, the best known of a group of new “cryptocurrencies” that many believe to be the future of money, could be the final nail in the coffin causing irreversible climate change. But a recent study from University of Hawai’i at Manoa researchers found that “projected bitcoin usage, if it follows the rate of adoption of other broadly adopted technologies, could alone produce enough carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to push warming above 2°C within less than three decades.” According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we can only hope to avoid the most cataclysmic effects of global warming if we can limit the rise in average global temperature to 2°C.

The reason bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies generate so much CO2 is that they require massive amounts of electricity, and our grid is still supplied primarily by fossil fuels. Bitcoin transactions are recorded and processed by dispersed individuals known as “miners” who group them together in blocks and add them to larger “chains” which serve as public ledgers of transactions.

“The verification process by miners, who compete to decipher a computationally demanding proof-of-work in exchange for bitcoins, requires large amounts of electricity,” reports study co-author Randi Rollins. Rollins estimates that bitcoin transactions accounted for some 69 million metric tons of CO2 emission in 2017 alone—and expects bitcoin-related emissions to rise sharply in the near future as the payment technology is adopted by millions around the world. If society adopts bitcoin as quickly as it adopted previous wildly popular “technologies” (e.g. credit cards, dishwashers), increased electricity demands could overwhelm efforts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.

“We cannot predict the future of Bitcoin, but if implemented at a rate even close to the slowest pace at which other technologies have been incorporated, it will spell very bad news for climate change and the people and species impacted by it,” says the study’s lead author Camilo Mora.

“With the ever-growing devastation created by hazardous climate conditions, humanity is coming to terms with the fact that climate change is as real and personal as it can be,” she adds. “Clearly, any further development of cryptocurrencies should critically aim to reduce electricity demand, if the potentially devastating consequences of 2°C of global warming are to be avoided.”

Critics of the report counter that the global electric power sector—not to mention computers and cryptocurrency “rigs”—are getting significantly more energy efficient every year. Also, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies might not be as widely adopted as researchers assume. But isn’t it better we know now about the potential climate risks of bitcoin so we can work to direct the technology’s development in as environmentally friendly a way as possible? It certainly would be a shame to suffer the effects of runaway climate change after doing so much to lower our carbon footprints just because we neglected to hold cryptocurrencies to the same efficiency standards as the rest of the technologies we rely on.

CONTACTS: Bitcoin, bitcoin.org; “Bitcoin emissions alone could push global warming above 2°C,” Nature Climate Change, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-018-0321-8.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Has the recent “border wall” shutdown affected the federal government’s ability to safeguard our air and water quality and otherwise protect our environment and public lands? -- Peter Nicholson, via e-mail

No one is happy about the recent partial shutdown of the federal government in the U.S. as President Trump plays hardball with Congress on allocating funds for his “border wall.” While essential government services typically remain open in any government shutdown, it’s up to individual agencies and their administrators to decide how much of a presence to maintain during a shutdown and whether or not to furlough some or all staff.

For its part, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) curtailed the vast majority of its work once federal funding dried up on December 28, with only national security and emergency staff staying on. Some 13,000+ EPA employees have been furloughed with more than 100 agency offices across the country now closed until further notice. Until the border wall impasse is broken, the EPA has no staff to continue hazardous waste clean-up work at Superfund sites, inspect power plants to ensure compliance with air quality standards, review toxic substances and pesticides nor respond to Freedom of Information requests.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the environmental protections we otherwise take for granted “grind to a halt” during a shutdown: “Chemical facilities are not inspected. Agricultural technical assistance projects are shut down. The protection of species stops. Research is also disrupted, which can lead to gaps in data or entire lost field seasons (and huge wastes of taxpayer dollars).”

As for national parks, about two-thirds remain open but have limited services, so visitors shouldn’t expect the same level of sanitation or monitoring that is customary. While there is no one to collect entrance fees, likewise there is no one to pump out toilets, empty trash or intervene in case of interpersonal disputes or wildlife encounters. All National Parks Service (NPS) personnel (except firefighters monitoring active burns or watch areas and essential leadership at headquarters) have been furloughed.

The Department of Interior has authorized individual parks to dip into their entrance and recreation fees to help pay for essential/emergency services during the shutdown, although the use of these funds will likely slow down maintenance projects by months or years as a result.

While this closure of national parks is an annoyance to Americans planning a visit, it’s also an economic problem. The non-profit National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) reports that NPS has lost upwards of $5 million in entrance fee revenue since the shutdown began, while local businesses and concession operators dependent upon servicing park visitors are also losing out on much-needed income.

Despite closures at the EPA, the NPS and other agencies related to the environment, the federal push to open up more land and offshore waters to fossil fuel extraction continues unabated. According to The Guardian, the Interior Department hasn’t slowed down efforts to issue permits for oil drilling on federal land and in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s Arctic. “While he’s closed the government to the American people, Trump has hung up an ‘open for business’ sign for corporate polluters,” reports Melinda Pierce, legislative director at the non-profit Sierra Club.

CONTACTS: EPA, www.epa.gov; UCS, www.ucsusa.org; NPS, www.nps.gov; NPCA, www.npca.org; Sierra Club, www.sierraclub.org.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Is so-called eco-friendly dry cleaning a reality? – Jane Krause, Garden City, NJ

Although some greener alternatives exist, most dry cleaners still use perchloroethylene (“perc” for short), a petroleum-based solvent that can be hazardous to the human central nervous system, with exposure causing headaches, nausea, dizziness and memory problems for some people.

Perc’s constituent components—phosgene, vinyl chloride, carbon tetrachloride and trichloroacetic acid (TCA)—have also been linked to a range of other health issues, including liver and kidney malfunction, reproductive abnormalities and even cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates perc under the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Luckily for consumers, safer alternatives to perc for dry cleaning are available. The most common comes from a company called GreenEarth Cleaning, whose products and process form the backbone of a large network of independent “green” dry cleaners across the United States. GreenEarth’s process uses biodegradable liquid silicone—essentially liquified sand—in place of petrochemicals. Since liquid silicone is chemically inert, it doesn’t chemically react with fabric fibers, and is safe to use on delicate garments—beads, lace, silk, cashmere—and won’t cause shrinkage.

And perhaps best of all, it breaks down into natural elements (sand, water and carbon dioxide) that are safe for air, water, soil and people. In fact, liquid silicone is so safe that it is often a base ingredient in many everyday shampoos, conditioners and lotions that we put right onto our skin with no ill effects.

From its humble beginnings in a lab back in 1998, GreenEarth’s system is now used by some 6,000 dry cleaners globally. You can find one near you via a zip code search on the company’s website.

Another green alternative to dry cleaning is so-called professional wet cleaning, whereby fabric is laundered in a computer-controlled washer and dryer that uses water along with specialized soaps and conditioners instead of solvent—and spins its contents much more slowly than a typical home washing machine. The result is that it’s much gentler on fragile clothing.

Yet another eco-friendly choice is liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) cleaning, which uses pressurized CO2 in combination with other gentle cleaning agents to dissolve dirt, fats and oils in clothing instead of perc.

One often-overlooked option is simply to hand-wash delicate clothes and fabrics in Woolite or some other non-toxic detergent, and then hang them to dry. If you need your hand-washed clothes to have a finished pressed look, you can take them to a standard cleaner for pressing only.

Despite the existence of greener alternatives, four out of five dry cleaners still use perc. Consumers should beware of dry cleaners that advertise their process as organic, given that perc can be considered organic because its petroleum-based chemicals do come out of the ground. If you aren’t sure about that neighborhood dry cleaner, ask them a few questions to find out what makes them consider themselves green. Just because they might recycle hangers or plastic bags doesn’t get them off the hook as polluters if they use perc or other hazardous substances or processes.

CONTACTS: GreenEarth, www.greenearthcleaning.com; EPA’s “Outdoor Air - Industry, Business, and Home: Dry Cleaning Operations,” archive.epa.gov/airquality/community/web/html/drycleaning.html.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org . Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

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