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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: Cargo shipping creates huge amounts of air and marine pollution. What’s being done to change this given the large number of everyday goods that travel this way? —JJ, Newark, NJ


The vast majority of goods we use and enjoy have spent at least some time traveling on cargo ships. In fact, such ships facilitate more than 80 percent of global trade. Unfortunately, these huge ships that ply the world’s oceans and waterways burn lots of fossil fuels—some individual ships burn upwards of 100 tons of oil a day. If the global cargo shipping industry were a country, it would rank sixth overall in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (higher than South Korea, Iran and Canada).


Cargo ships have several other negative environmental effects as well. They also emit large amounts of fine particles, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide—all bad for us and our environment. As if the emissions weren’t bad enough, cargo ships also run into marine life at an alarming rate: Ship strikes are one of the leading causes of death for many of the world’s whale species.


But as bad as all this sounds, cargo shipping is one of the most efficient and eco-friendly ways to get items from point A to B. Big ships emit only about half as much CO2 as trains, one-fifth as much as trucks and only one-fiftieth of what airplanes would emit to transport the same load.


Nonetheless, environmental concerns continue to dog cargo shipping. In response, shipping companies have started to employ innovative strategies to save fuel and reduce pollution, such as so-called “slow steaming” whereby ships can burn less fuel and reduce emissions by traveling more slowly than usual.


Transitioning to cleaner fuels—such as liquified natural gas (LNG)—is another obvious short-term solution, but it can only get us so far. Another band-aid fix is the installation of exhaust scrubbers, which spray a fine mist of water to remove pollutants from ships’ exhaust before they can make their way up into the atmosphere. But scrubbers require energy, which leads to more fuel being burned. Also, the waste water they generate is sometimes dumped into the ocean, which negatively affect marine organisms.


Longer term, environmental advocates are hoping for the wholesale decarbonization of the shipping industry. Plans are on the table for clean-burning hydrogen-powered cargo ships. Meanwhile, the first electrically-propelled cargo ship, Norway’s Yara Birkeland, is nearing completion. This 260-foot long vessel will carry chemicals and fertilizer on a relatively short 30-mile route.


Despite these advances, cargo shipping will continue releasing large amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere for the foreseeable future. Though battery-powered ships are finally moving off the drawing board and into the water, their range is simply too limited to allow for mass replacement of existing cargo fleets. The energy density of batteries will need to increase by a factor of ~30 before such replacements can begin taking place en masse. Given the likely slow pace of change, buying local is probably the average citizen’s best option for reducing shipping-based emissions in the short term.


CONTACTS: “The environmental cost of shipping stuff is huge…” vox.com/2015/12/23/10647768/ shipping-environmental-cost; “CO2 emissions for shipping of goods,” timeforchange.org/co2-emissions-for-shipping-of-goods/; “Shipping and climate change,” transportenvironment.org/what-we-do/shipping-and-environment/shipping-and-climate-change; The uncounted cost of shipping's environmental impact, greenbiz.com/article/uncounted-cost-shippings-environmental-impact.

Dear EarthTalk: A friend's dad said it was such a shame that video gaming causes so much global warming, but I don't see the connection. -- Jake, Windham, VT

The connection between video gaming and global warming is mostly about energy use. In short, the huge growth in gaming, and the inefficiency of the consoles from the major manufacturers like Microsoft and Sony, has led to a surge in electricity demand associated with kids’ enjoyment of Fortnite, Minecraft, Roblox and other popular gaming platforms.

The first video games came out in the 1950s, but their popularity has increased exponentially since then with the advent of better computer graphics and processing. What’s more, when technology in recent years enabled mobile gaming to be set in motion, the industry’s potential skyrocketed. In 2018, the revenue for gaming products in the United States was $18.4 billion; industry analysts expect the figure to be closer to $230 billion a year by 2022.

But this popularity doesn’t come without an environmental price. For starters, the mass production of boxed video games—the kind that come on CDs or DVDs and which you load into your computer or console—generates tons and tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the leading greenhouse gas. Researchers have found that ~0.39 kilograms of carbon dioxide are released into surrounding airspace with the production of each single boxed game. While less than half a kilogram of pollution doesn’t seem like much, it adds up when you figure in how many individual games are produced. In the last year alone, the production of just one popular new Xbox and PlayStation game, FIFA 20, led to the emission of almost 600,000 kilograms of CO2, roughly equivalent to the energy needed to run 100 cars for a year.

The carbon emissions linked to video gaming don't just end at production. Once the game is purchased, it requires a gaming console to actually play it; these consoles are especially energy-inefficient. Certain gaming devices such as the Xbox Series X produce 0.07 kilograms of CO2 for every hour played.

Another way that video gaming contributes to the climate crisis is that there are a multitude of ubiquitous games that have extensive “play times,” squandering substantial quantities of energy. Popular video games such as Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto V can take upwards of 35 hours to complete—and that’s just the main storyline, disregarding freeplay and extra “missions.” The average gamer will use more kilowatt hours of energy in a year than an energy-efficient washing machine. Meanwhile, heavy gamers consume almost three times as many kilowatt hours annually as typical moderate users.

But eco-conscious gamers (and parents) can be happy that Sony, Microsoft and other console makers are streamlining production processes to align with wider efforts to curb CO2 emissions, and consumers can expect future iterations of Xbox and PlayStation to sip electricity compared to current models. Likewise, most new games are available for digital download these days which spares the packaging and shipping—and related greenhouse gas emissions—of individual CDs and their plastic-wrapped boxes.

CONTACTS: “Is playing video games making climate change worse?” euronews.com/living/2020/02/17/is-playing-video-games-making-climate-change-worse; “Gamers in the U.S. create as much carbon dioxide as 5 million cars, study says,” digitaltrends.com/gaming/green-gaming-report-us-gamers-global-warming-climate-change/; Microsoft Sustainability, microsoft.com/en-us/corporate-responsibility/sustainability; Sony’s “Playstation & The Environment,” playstation.com/en-gb/footer/about-us/playstation-and-the-environment/

Dear EarthTalk: What are some ways environmentalists use civil disobedience to accomplish their goals? -- Robert P., Portland, OR

The concept of civil disobedience (defined by Merriam-Webster as the “refusal to obey laws as a way of forcing the government to do or change something”) dates back to the dawn of civil society. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are primary examples of non-violent resistors using civil disobedience as a tool to achieve their goals. Of course, environmental proponents have been practicing civil disobedience in various forms for decades if not longer. After all, proto-environment Henry David Thoreau wrote his seminal essay on the topic in 1846 after spending the night in jail for refusing to pay his back taxes. He feared the money would go toward funding the Mexican-American War, which he opposed, by a U.S. government that also happened to permit slavery, which he also opposed.

“If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood,” wrote Thoreau. “This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.”

While not an environmental essay per se, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience makes the case for nonviolent resistance as “a counter friction to stop the machine.” While democracy might be the best form of government we can hope for, the dominance of the majority inevitably leads to the trampling on the hopes, dreams and rights of the minority. In Thoreau’s mind, individuals shouldn’t let governments doing the will of an amoral or immoral majority overrule their own consciences and thus enlist them as collaborators in injustice.

Even though its focus is more general, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience has certainly fueled many an environmental campaign in the intervening years. Cut to the present, and we have Extinction Rebellion (XR), a two-year-old UK-born movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience “in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimize the risk of social collapse.” Activists working on behalf of XR’s cause have been in the news lately for various “monkeywrenching” antics, such as supergluing themselves to infrastructure like roads, trains and buildings and attempting to shut down oil rigs and airports. Last Spring the group brought traffic in parts of London to a halt for hours by parking a hot pink sailboat in the middle of a busy intersection, while activists threw black paint at the London headquarters of Shell Oil and blockaded entry to the company’s corporate headquarters. Seven-hundred XR activists were hauled off to jail as a result of the protest, which won’t likely be forgotten by any London commuters trying to get home that day at least. More recently, activists from the group have been generating controversy by threatening cyberattacks if the UK government bails out its ailing airline industry.

While XR may be attracting the headlines lately, they are following a civil disobedience trail blazed by many others over the last half century. Activists from groups such as 350.org, Sea Shepherd, the Hambach Forest Occupation, EarthFirst!, Greenpeace, and thousands of others engage in acts of civil disobedience every day all over the world in their pursuit of protecting wildlife, the environment and/or the health and safety of humans.

CONTACTS: Extinction Rebellion, rebellion.earth; 350.org, 350.org; Julia Butterfly Hill, juliabutterflyhill.com; Sea Shepherd, seashepherdglobal.org; Hambach Forest Occupation, hambachforest.org; EarthFirst!, earthfirst.org; Greenpeace. greenpeace.org.


Dear EarthTalk: Do you suppose the drop in carbon emissions that resulted from transportation and industry slowdowns during the Coronavirus pandemic will continue—or will we just go right back to normal once the threat has been neutralized? -- Jane Smith, Cranston, RI

No one is happy about the havoc the Coronavirus has wreaked, but one bright side has been the reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that occurred. Global CO2 emissions during April 2020—while the world was largely locked down—were 17 percent lower than the same time a year earlier, according to researchers from the UK’s University of Anglia. But emissions are already starting to go back up with the easing of stay-at-home restrictions.

This decrease was an unwitting occurrence and it won’t do much to stave off climate change. Dan Gearino, writing in Climate News, says: “…don't expect this to be the silver lining of the disastrous pandemic. Climate scientists and environmental advocates say any short-term drop in emissions gives a misleading sense of progress. This could do harm if it saps some of the urgency to address climate change at a time when there are many competing demands for public money and attention.”

Indeed, the United Nations Environment Programme says that global CO2 emissions would have to fall by 7.6 percent every year this decade—slightly more than the overall reduction we’ll see in 2020—to limit overall warming to less than the 1.5 Celsius rise scientists warn could turn our world upside down.

Stay-at-home orders around the world have no doubt had a positive environmental impact in the short term as fewer cars, trucks and planes ply our roads and airways. But the longer-term outlook isn’t so good, especially when factoring in the damage done to public transit systems. Alon Levy and Eric Goldwyn of NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management report in CityLab that public transit ridership in major cities in the U.S., Europe and China is down 50-90 percent.

Unfortunately, attracting riders back to potentially crowded buses and trains won’t be so easy, given the germ factor. Who wants to share tight quarters with dozens of strangers on a bus or train given the transmission risks? The irony is that public transit options have been starting to proliferate as various metro areas fund light rail and other mass transit infrastructure projects to boost usage and keep drivers and their cars and trucks off the road.

While environmental advocates aren’t optimistic that we can keep up the emissions reductions achieved over the last few months, they are hopeful that the world’s reaction to the pandemic—people and governments coming together to protect human health and minimize loss of life—bodes well for our ability to handle the climate crisis as it gets more critical over the next two decades.

CONTACTS: “Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement,” https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-020-0797-x; “Analysis: Coronavirus set to cause largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions,” https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-coronavirus-set-to-cause-largest-ever-annual-fall-in-co2-emissions; “Coronavirus: When Meeting a National Emissions-Reduction Goal May Not Be a Good Thing,” https://insideclimatenews.org/news/31032020/Covid-virus-coronavirus-emissions-energy-germany-paris-agreement-targets; “How U.S. Public Transit Can Survive Coronavirus,” https://bit.ly/can-transit-survive-coronavirus.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.


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