By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Amongst the general chaos of January news, there was a topic that didn’t really make it to the top of the story pile: In the plague year of 2020, greenhouse gas emissions went down 10 percent.
There are photos out there of clean water, empty streets and smogless skies. By September, air pollution in New York dropped 50 percent, according to Tanjena Rume in Heliyon. Cars and airplanes contribute 72 percent and 11 percent of the transportation sector’s emissions respectively, and lockdowns pushed the use of both into a steep decline.
And we aren’t in the office as much, meaning big buildings don’t need to be heated or cooled.
The sharp drop means we can start to think about the future. For decades now, there’s been a push to reduce our production of greenhouse gases.
We’re following the framework created by Project Drawdown (www.drawdown.org) because it’s useful and understandable, and you can dig deeply or just skim the surface, depending on how much you want to know.
“Drawdown” is the point when greenhouse gas emissions have climbed their highest and begin shifting downward. “This is the point when we begin the process of stopping further climate change and averting potentially catastrophic warming,” Project Drawdown writes. “It is a critical turning point for life on Earth.”
Human activities, from burning heating oil to plowing soil to driving a car, release carbon dioxide into the air. “Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have been steadily rising from approximately 315 ppm (parts per million) in 1959,” states science journal Nature, to 409.8ppm in 2019, according to Climate.gov.
Landfills, electric plants and growing rice all release methane. Nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases come from cities, refrigeration systems and farmland. All of them trap heat in the atmosphere.
Processes like photosynthesis can trap carbon dioxide in the earth, in plants, or in the ocean. Creating more “sinks” for greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, is one of Project Drawdown’s major efforts.
But creating sinks isn’t the whole focus of their efforts. You have to cope with greenhouse gases from all angles: managing the sources of the gas, reducing existing gas and dealing with the social conditions that result in countries adding to the problem—and in countries who least add to the problem yet are most affected.
Stopping carbon dioxide at its source
We’ll focus on carbon dioxide, which accounted for 81 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. (Methane constituted 10 percent, and nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases made up the rest.)
Burning fossil fuels for energy and transportation produces the most carbon dioxide equivalents. That includes running power plants for electricity.
Drawdown wants to bring emissions to zero. To get there, they’ve targeted these areas:
The goal is to “shift production and enhance efficiency,” Project Drawdown says. Their solutions outline the cutting edge of power production. Alternative sources of electricity range from biomass to ocean power to geothermal to wind power. And they include nuclear energy, acknowledging the “complicated dynamics.”
Last year, River Reporter covered a hydropower project in Sullivan County, NY, currently in development, that can generate up to 45 percent of the county’s electrical load.
And in Wayne County, PA, SEEDS (Sustainable Energy Education and Development Support) is full of advice on solar energy, its cost and savings. Solar farms are springing up everywhere because we have the land and the will to use it. The Highlights Foundation is on a mission to reach either net-zero or net-positive energy usage at its Boyds Mills campus. Stourbridge Project in Honesdale, PA is going solar—also covered by River Reporter. Back in Sullivan County, the government building in Liberty, NY uses solar panels.
Check out Cornell Cooperative Extension in New York and Penn State Extension in Pennsylvania for even more information.
(Read the July 29, 2020 article “Working toward zero” and the October 14, 2020 articles “Energy flows” and “Stourbridge Project to go solar” at www.riverreporter.com for more information about the local projects mentioned here.)
Food, agriculture and land use
Agriculture is central to Wayne and Sullivan counties. People have farmed here for centuries, and traveling indigenous people found food growing (and running around) as they passed through.
Even in 2020—particularly in 2020—farmers’ markets connected people with the farmers that grew their food, simplifying and localizing the food supply chain.
Wayne County’s Food Relief Fund added local produce, along with instructions on how to cook it, to their food drive. Catskill Mountainkeeper has been exploring ways to make quality farm-grown food more available while ensuring that workers are treated equitably.
And cooperative extensions in both states have plenty of information on agriculture, food and nutrition.
On a global level, Project Drawdown looked at land use, exploring conservation agriculture and improving nutrients in the soil and in food. Plant-heavy diets are covered, as well as ways to reduce food waste: All topics that apply here.
It’s not really something we think about. We’re rural. Industry seems far away. But to Project Drawdown, “industry” also encompasses recycling, composting, refrigerants, methane capture in landfills and more.
County waste services in both Wayne and Sullivan recycle, and trash hauler Waste Management picks up recycling, too. (See July 15, 2020 article “Trash on the rise” for more information on what people threw out in lockdown).
It’s one thing if you live in a place with public transport (never mind that it’s in upheaval due to the pandemic). Public transportation certainly reduces the number of cars on the road, which—remember the dramatic drop in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020—makes a big difference.
Here, while MOVE Sullivan is operating in the Liberty/Fallsburg/Monticello area, and the shopping bus is still running, that still leaves a lot of the county without a public transportation option yet. This is even more true of Wayne County, where the only public transportation is a van that offers limited transport for the elderly and non-drivers.
Establishing buses is a complicated and expensive undertaking. This might be why Project Drawdown emphasizes bicycling, carpooling and teleworking (which relies on quality broadband, and both counties are working on that.)
Granted, right now it’s winter and we’re focused on heating our homes. Come summer, we’ll be trying to stay cool. Heat pumps are a significant solution (see page 14 for more information). Proper insulation means that the heating and cooling bills go down.
The materials we build with matter, too. Modern synthetics, including in furniture, burn much more quickly than hardwoods and plaster do, so you have less time to escape in a fire emergency. For example, fibreboard, a common synthetic, ignites after 50 seconds, according to the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services. They also contribute to health problems from asthma to heart conditions.
Support and develop sinks
Drawdown examines three kinds of greenhouse-gas sinks: land, water and engineered.
Land sinks include soil and plants, which both store an enormous amount of carbon dioxide. To help them grow, we should try to reduce food waste and eat more plants, follow sustainable agricultural practices, reclaim abandoned land and protect our ecosystems.
Oceans cover 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and have absorbed at least 90 percent of the excess heat generated in recent years, Project Drawdown reports. But this has consequences: Water temperatures are rising and oceans are becoming more acidic. Work is ongoing to find ways to address these problems.
Relying on human-created sinks may be the quickest way to trap more carbon, Project Drawdown says. Pull it out of the atmosphere and trap it in something or bury it. Scientists have created a liquid metal catalyst that can turn carbon dioxide into a “carbon-containing solid.”
It seems non-sustainable to rely on people to come up with ways to deal with the overheating atmosphere. But as we plant more trees or clean up the oceans, the work of scientists proceeds apace and provides an alternative. The more help, the better.
Create support to ease reliance on fossil fuels
It starts with health and education—especially educating girls—and, Project Drawdown says, promoting family planning. “Honoring the dignity of women and children through family planning is not about governments forcing the birth rate down (or up, through natalist policies). Nor is it about those in rich countries, where emissions are highest, telling people elsewhere to stop having children. When family planning focuses on health care provision and meeting women’s expressed needs, empowerment, equality and well-being are the results; the benefits to the planet are side effects.”
There’s still more to be done, of course. How do war-torn countries embrace sustainability? Can poverty be eliminated at the same time? Can sustainable solutions be presented in America as a non-partisan good?
In River Reporter’s sustainability coverage throughout 2021, we’ll tackle some of these questions and pose others. It’s January. Think of this as a resolution: We’re working out how sustainability looks here, talking about what’s being done and looking to what the future holds.