The myths we tell ourselves about American farming

“If you were to guess America’s biggest source of water pollution, chemical factories or oil refineries might come to mind. But it’s actually farms — especially those raising cows, pigs, and chickens.
The billions of animals farmed each year in the US for food generate nearly 2.5 billion pounds of waste every day — around twice as much as people do — yet none of it is treated like human waste. It’s either stored in giant pits, piled high as enormous mounds on farms, or spread onto crop fields as fertilizer. And a lot of it washes away into rivers and streams, as does synthetic fertilizer from the farms growing corn and soy to feed all those animals.

“These factory farms operate like sewerless cities,” said Tarah Heinzen, legal director of environmental nonprofit Food and Water Watch. Animal waste is “running off into waterways, it’s leaching into people’s drinking water, it’s harming wildlife, and threatening public health.”

Yet in practice, the Environmental Protection Agency appears to be largely fine with all that.”

“While the entire food sector benefits from agricultural exceptionalism, animal agriculture is especially privileged. Meat and dairy producers get far more subsidies than farmers growing more sustainable foods, like beans, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.”

“Big Ag often argues its exceptional status is justified because farming is indeed exceptional, given the essential nature of its product: food. But Secchi argues this is the wrong way of thinking about it. Since the early days of American agriculture, farming has been a business like any other, focused on high output, which has led to excess supply and profitable exports around the world.

And we don’t apply exceptionalist logic to any other industry. Energy production, for example, is highly polluting but essential to human flourishing, just like food, so we push to make our laws and economy limit the industry’s externalities and scale renewable forms of energy.”

“Jefferson’s vision never came to pass. Small farms have been squeezed out by big farms, due in part to American farm policy advocated for by the same elected officials who evoke the Jeffersonian ideal.

What’s left is a highly consolidated agricultural sector, with many farmers precariously employed as contractors for corporations, and a radically uneven distribution of farm wealth”

The air we breathe was getting better. Then climate change hit.

“For the first 40-something years of the Clean Air Act of 1963, the Environmental Protection Agency could show progress toward cleaner air — even if it was sometimes slow or uneven. The agency issued regulations for sources of the pollutants it was set up to tackle, like diesel car tailpipes and coal power plants, and over time, the air quality improved.
But the trend changed abruptly about five years ago, when pollution from wildfires, heat, and drought — trends worsened by climate change — began to overtake these gains.”

“Ozone and fine particulate matter affect the entire body in all stages of life. They impact the young and old, pregnant people and the developing fetus, and can cause and worsen respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and worse cognition. Their sources can be a bit different, though. Burning oil, gas, and coal, whether at the tailpipe or power plant, releases pollutants that cause both ozone and particulate matter. Ozone also is more likely to form in hot weather, while wildfires tend to be much worse for particulate matter.”

4 winners and 1 loser in the EPA’s historic move to limit power plant pollution

“The proposed rules are a less elegant and splashy solution than the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, but the complex set of proposals also stands a better chance of withstanding court scrutiny. The EPA breaks down requirements based on the type of plant, its size, and how often it is in use. Utilities, working with states, would ultimately decide how to meet the EPA’s emissions rates by choosing among available technologies. Coal plants, for instance, could fire less carbon-intensive fuels such as hydrogen and gas, to supplement coal. Coal and gas plants can also install carbon capture and storage or sequestration, a technology that removes carbon dioxide at the smokestack to eventually store it underground. Or a plant could bypass all this if it sets a retirement date in the medium term.
As a result, existing coal plants would cut their carbon pollution 90 percent by the end of the decade, unless a plant sets a retirement date before 2040. Existing gas plants get more leeway — only the largest gas plants, less than a third in operation, will have to slash their pollution by 90 percent by 2035.

The EPA makes a dent in coal pollution especially, but it doesn’t eliminate power plant pollution entirely. It leaves a mixed bag of winners and losers.”

Biden’s Earth Day order aims to ease pollution in poor communities

“Under current procedures, regulators typically assess pollution from new facilities or projects on a plant-by-plant basis rather than in conjunction with existing emissions from other sources. This method underestimates the health risks, community advocates say.
By instructing agencies to research and incorporate new data on those cumulative impacts and involving communities early in the process, Biden marries two of the “four historic crises” he identified on the campaign trail in 2020: climate change and racial inequality. Most people who face outsized health and climate vulnerabilities from concentrated pollution sources are people of color and low-income households.”

The pollution from Russia’s war will poison Ukraine for decades

“Ukraine covers less than 6 percent of Europe’s land area, but it’s home to more than a third of the continent’s biodiversity. It’s also highly industrialized, with hundreds of chemical plants, nearly 150 coal mines, and more than a dozen nuclear reactors — including Europe’s largest.

So, one obvious problem is the destruction of these facilities. In March, shelling in the northern Ukrainian town of Novoselytsya caused an ammonia leak at a fertilizer factory, threatening residents by contaminating groundwater and soil. Then there are those exploding tanks of nitric acid. Meanwhile, damage to coal-fired power plants can cause electrical water pumps to fail, allowing contaminated water in mines to spill over and pollute the groundwater.”

“Russia has also attacked oil and gas storage facilities, lighting up the sky with explosions that pollute the air and release carbon dioxide.”

“The stuff inside the rockets that both sides are using can poison the environment, too, according to the Ukrainian advocacy group Center for Environmental Initiatives Ecoaction. When they explode, artillery rockets can produce a number of noxious substances including hydrogen cyanide vapor and nitrogen oxides, which can cause acid rain, Ecoaction said.

In April, the Ukrainian army shot down a Russian missile, and some of the debris fell on an agricultural site, leaking toxic chemicals into the soil and water, CNN’s Ivana Kottasová reported. Officials told people living nearby not to drink water from wells and there were reports of dead fish in a river several miles away, Kottasová reported.”

How to clear the air in the most polluted cities on Earth

“While the 2008 Games were marked by some of the worst air quality in Olympic history, China’s “war against pollution” has advanced so much since that Olympians this month could glimpse the previously smog-enshrouded mountains surrounding the city. Air pollution in the capital has decreased by 50 percent since the 2008 Olympics, which if maintained will lead to four years of additional life for the average Beijing resident.”

“Thousands of miles away in Delhi, air pollution has remained at pervasively high levels for the past few months. The Indian capital’s winter air pollution spike is coming to an end, but the annual cycle — driven by cooler air, cooking and heating fires, seasonal agricultural burning, and the Diwali festival — will persist without further action.
Winter in Delhi is accompanied by a pervasive smell of toxic smoke, by coughing and nausea indoors and outdoors, and by increased hospitalizations for respiratory and cardiac-related illnesses. This past November, Delhi even instituted a partial lockdown for non-Covid reasons, shutting down schools and construction for several days and imposing a work-from-home order for government employees in an effort to reduce air pollution. Throughout the winter into January, Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted the city’s bad air pollution levels every day, raising awareness about the issue.

Air pollution in Delhi comes from nearly every source possible: power plants, vehicle emissions, construction dust, agriculture, and the burning of coal for home cooking and heating. All of these activities create particulate matter — minuscule air pollution particles that contribute to cancer, lung and cardiovascular disease, and even cognitive decline.”

“Millions of deaths per year are attributed to air pollution, and it reduces average global life expectancy by 2.2 years. Air pollution is one of the most pressing public health problems in the world, and one of the most neglected, as Vox’s Dylan Matthews has written. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, poverty, malaria, pneumonia, and diarrheal disease deaths were on the decline, along with maternal and child mortality rates; air pollution, on the other hand, was getting worse in many places.”

“For decades, public health officials have known that bad air quality can increase the risk of conditions like heart disease, stroke, lower respiratory infections, lung cancer, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), dementia, mental illness, premature births, and more. But the true extent of the problem — such as the fact that air pollution can be worse for health than heavy smoking, for example — is only now becoming clear, as is the full extent of the threat.”

“Since the fuel sources that produce air pollution also provide necessities such as electricity, vehicles, factory-made goods, and heating, policymakers face tough decisions on how to deal with air pollution-related health concerns while not eroding well-being in other ways.”

The latest data on US climate pollution is very bad

“The world is still trapped in the same cycle where rising growth means rising use of fossil fuels. Rhodium’s new data shows how easy it is for the economy to become more polluting even if there’s still growth in renewables. What the US needs to do to address climate change is break this pattern: “The best way to solve our climate problems is continue our economic growth, but to have emissions decline,” Larsen said.

The promise of the $555 billion in climate spending in the pending Build Back Better legislation is that the US can still build an offramp. Its investments in renewables and utilities would accelerate a clean power sector and the closure of coal-fired plants, and expand access to electric vehicles. It would also encourage electric vehicles for last-mile deliveries that are needlessly polluting. The bill’s climate provisions are historic, in that they invest in “off-the-shelf, ready-to-go technologies that are commercially available and easy to build up in America today,” said Jesse Jenkins, an environmental engineering professor at Princeton University who is advising lawmakers on the bill.

In December, the House passed the Build Back Better bill, which would inject funding into deploying these readily available solutions and incentivizing research into the harder-to-tackle emissions. One important part of the bill incentivizes renewable electricity and transmission that will help finally close the remaining 183 aging coal-fired power plants in the country.

For rising freight emissions, the bill helps electrify more vans and vehicles that deliver packages to your door, and run equipment used at airports and ports on renewables. Some of its other provisions include $3 billion in direct loans for manufacturing zero-emissions trucks and aircraft, and another $2.5 billion for using offshore wind to power equipment at ports. For heavy-duty trucks, there’s $5 billion to replace polluting trucks with cleaner vehicles. The infrastructure bill that Biden signed into law last year also helps make a dent in transportation emissions by paying for more electric vehicle charging stations and cutting pollution at ports.

Without Build Back Better and other economic and political interventions, domestic emissions could actually be on the rise again above 2019 levels. (This comes from separate Rhodium modeling that’s based on the pessimistic assumption that there will be no federal legislation, no new EPA regulation, and no further state action.) In this world, pollution levels in 2030 would remain just 15 to 25 percent below the US peak in 2005.

The US doesn’t have to be headed down this path. Larsen explained that it is important for this transition “to happen very quickly if we’re going to be able to begin to see a reduction in emissions by the end of this decade.””

How humans could live two years longer

“A recent study on the mortality cost of climate change found that every 4,434 metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted — about the combined lifetime emissions of 3.5 Americans, the study estimates — will cause a heat-related death this century.

But the situation is even worse than that number suggests. Danny Bressler, the environmental economist who authored the paper, notes his estimate leaves out some other potential climate-related deaths, like those from flooding and reduced food supply. He’s just estimating what higher temperatures alone will do, writing that he “does not consider likely mortality co-benefits of stricter climate policies, such as decreases in particulate matter pollution.”

That’s a technical way of putting it. Here’s a simpler way: When we burn fossil fuels, not all the resulting pollution goes up high into the atmosphere. Some of it accumulates in the air that we breathe every day.

And it kills us. A lot of us. The Global Burden of Disease study, a common benchmark for public health work, estimates that 3.4 million people die prematurely every year due to air pollution. More recent research puts the total even higher, at 10 million a year. A recent paper suggested that 90 percent of the world’s population lives in areas with air pollution higher than World Health Organization guidelines (guidelines that the organization itself is toughening).

The particles in question here are invisible to the naked eye — but their effects are anything but.”

The infrastructure law aims to clean up pollution in your community

“a bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes $350 billion to address long-ignored environmental threats. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is the largest sum in recent memory directed at cleaning up pollution, from replacing lead pipes to capping methane-spewing oil wells.
The funding could make a serious dent in air and water pollution for certain communities by preventing runoff from abandoned mines and cleaning up old, toxic manufacturing sites. People who live near busy roadways, airports, and ports may benefit from the boost to electric vehicle charging stations, school buses, and cranes that will replace gas- and diesel-burning cars and equipment.

Other investments will improve public health more indirectly: One of the law’s major provisions includes expanding transmission that can move more clean energy across the grid. By increasing the mix of renewables, states and the utilities they regulate ultimately would need to burn fewer fossil fuels to power the economy.

The biggest criticism of the new law is what it leaves out: Environmental advocates say the funding only meets a fraction of the nation’s needs for addressing water and air pollution, and falls far short of the transformative change Biden promised on the campaign trail.

This is also not the transformative climate bill that climate activists had hoped for.”

It’s time to freak out about methane emissions

“In the public conversation about climate change, methane has gotten too little attention for too long. Many people may be unaware that humans have been spewing a greenhouse gas that’s even more potent than carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate not seen in at least 800,000 years. It harms air quality and comes from sources as varied as oil and gas pipelines to landfills and cows. But methane and other greenhouse gases, including hydroflurocarbons, ozone, nitrogen dioxides, and sulfur oxides, are finally getting the attention they deserve — thanks largely to advances in the science.

Until the past few years, methane’s relative obscurity made sense. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is by far the largest contributor to climate change, and it comes from recognizable fossil fuel sources such as car tailpipes, coal smokestacks, and burning gas and oil. The most troubling part is that it sticks around in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, making climate change not just a problem for us now, but generations well into the future. Carbon is now embedded in our language, from “carbon footprint” to “zero-carbon lifestyle.””

“Even though methane is not nearly as well understood as carbon, it’s playing an enormous role in the climate crisis. It’s at least 80 times as effective at trapping heat than carbon in a 20-year period, but starts to dissipate in the atmosphere in a matter of years. If this is the “decisive decade” to take action, as the Biden administration has said, then a methane strategy has to be at the center of any policy for tackling global warming.

Methane could mean the difference between a rapidly warming planet changing too quickly and drastically for humanity to handle, and buying the planet some much-needed time to get a handle on the longer-term problem of fossil fuels and carbon pollution.”

“Identifying the millions of sources of methane around the globe isn’t so simple. Cattle release methane, and so does decomposing organic material. All the food waste that goes into landfills release methane. And natural gas is almost entirely methane.

If you’ve heard politicians call natural gas a “bridge fuel,” what they mean is that natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal. It’s wrong to call it clean, because burning methane still releases carbon — and methane that escapes without burning is a powerful warmer.”

“Environmental Defense Fund, which has commissioned flights to monitor methane over Texas oil and gas fields, has found that oil fields in the US are leaking 60 percent more methane than the Environmental Protection Agency estimates. University of Michigan scientist Eric Kort found methane spewing from offshore wells at far higher rates than previously understood. The environmental group Earthworks, using expensive, on-the-ground camera equipment, helped track down some sites that were repeat offenders of venting methane into the atmosphere.

The scientific papers have mounted: Since 2013, at least 45 scientific papers have highlighted the disproportionate role of oil and gas operations, according to a review by the advocacy group Climate Nexus.”

“There’s widespread agreement, even from some in the fossil fuel industry, that the place to start is tackling leaks. This will get easier as scientists gather better data about where methane is leaking. From the industry’s perspective, companies are losing product and dollars.”

“Fractions of degrees could translate into wild swings in extreme weather, or tipping points we don’t even fully understand. In the effort to prevent climate catastrophe, methane will count tremendously.”