As I walked through the gates of the primary school in Xiangyang City in Hubei Province with Middle Han Waterkeeper, Yun Jianli, I was greeted by six and seven-year-old voices raised in song. They clapped their hands in time to the rhythm of the songs, waved tinsel-studded pom poms and crayon-colored artwork. The songs and the pictures contained messages about the need for humans to do a much better job of taking care of the Earth by preventing pollution of our air and water.
As I watched these beautiful and talented children sing songs imploring the grown-up stewards of their future to bequeath them a livable planet, I was haunted by the devastating reality of the world they will inherit from us.
In the last four months, pollution levels in China have climbed to levels never before recorded in the history of our planet. More than 1.2 million Chinese per year are dying early due to pollution while birth defects soar. Education officials in the most polluted regions of China have moved beyond educational programs to try to change adult behavior that robs children of the possibility of a healthy life in their own country.
Affluent parents are buying expensive air filters to try to give their children some semblance of a normal life. Schools in the wealthier districts are also installing sophisticated air filtration equipment even as some parents recognize that it won’t be enough to protect their children, so they dream of leaving the country altogether. For the vast majority of Chinese, who have no means of escaping the pollution, athletic fields covered with giant domes might at least allow kids to play soccer or just run and play tag without their lungs burning and filling with high concentrations of particulate matter that cause cancer.
As I journeyed across six provinces of China with Waterkeeper Alliance’s Asia Regional Coordinator Charles Depman earlier this year and met with our Waterkeepers in Hangzhou, Lanzhou, Hefei, Beijing, Dalian and Xiangyang City, we went to cancer villages, investigated pollution and interviewed people about increasing levels of death and disease. The people we talked to moved us deeply.
The basic human right to clean air and water is universal. In order to achieve it in China, a grassroots movement is emerging. It may surprise people outside of China to learn that a people-powered revolution is possible there. And while it isn’t as raucous and rowdy as some civil society shifts in other countries, there are inspiring Chinese success stories to use as a road map.
For example, the people of Qiugang village worked with Green Anhui, the parent organization of the Middle Huai Waterkeeper, to end the pollution from a nearby chemical factory. Documentary filmmaker Ruby Yang captured the story in the academy-award-nominated documentary Warriors of Qiugang. The film poignantly illustrates the courage it took for Chinese villagers to stand in defiance against the status quo. They had a deep desire to see the next generation given the chance of a bright future, and when it was threatened by the deadly effects of pollution it motivated them to risk speaking out and seek the changes they needed.
The Middle Huai Waterkeeper and lawyers at Green Anhui work with citizens and government to solve pollution problems throughout the watershed. So while China’s pollution problems have never been worse, the good news is that a growing number of people are rolling up their sleeves and working together to fight the sources of sickness and disease.
Hundreds of miles away, in Zhejiang Province, the Qiantang Waterkeeper has established an award-winning web-based pollution reporting system that allows mobile phone users to take a picture of water pollution and report its exact location to the Waterkeeper. While I was in China, I got to see how effective that system is at triggering a response.
The polluted water in the photo above comes from coal-fired power plants, cement factories, chemical manufacturers and textile mills, all concentrated in a five kilometer area near Hangzhou, China. By the time the Xian Feng canal empties into the Qiantang River, it is pure black. Villagers report cancer and other diseases are common in almost every family. After we concluded our investigation, the Qiantang River Waterkeeper began creating a long-term plan to clean up the pollution that involves citizens engaging the government to make changes.
Across the country to the west, in arid, water-starved Gansu Province, we accompanied our Upper Yellow River Waterkeeper team to coal-fired power plants and coal mines across the region. We tested air for particulate matter greater than 2.5 micrometers and water for several pollutants.
Air pollutants from coal-fired power plants contain a toxic collection of heavy metals that cause brain and respiratory damage. They include arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, selenium, manganese and particulate matter 2.5. They are one of the largest contributors to China’s staggering pollution problems.
In the U.S. there are currently about 600 coal-fired power plants. Many of them have been required to install air-pollution-control technology or shut down in an effort to clean up the vast amounts of air and water pollution they produce. In contrast, China has 3,000 coal-fired power plants either built or planned. Most of them do not have technology that eliminates air and water pollutants.
While I was in China last month I joined Kristen McDonald and Zhao Zhong of Pacific Environment for meetings with Nautral Resources Defense Council-China, Greenpeace East Asia and Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. In each of those meetings we discussed strategies to strengthen and build the burgeoning grassroots environmental movement to confront coal pollution in China. In one of those meetings I met Sun Qingwei. A former assistant professor in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Dr. Sun grew up in a coal miner’s family. He left academia, where he could have enjoyed the security of a university career, to have the freedom to tell the truth about the devastating human toll of coal pollution in China. He has been the lead coal campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia since 2011.
Over the last two years, he has worked to expose the environmental and human health risks of coal mining and use. Growing up in a coal-mining region himself, he has first-hand knowledge of the toll it is taking on communities in his country. His stories provide a stunning and sad portrait of the enormity of the challenge of shifting away from coal consumption in the country that mines and consumes more coal than any other. Waterkeeper Alliance, Pacific Environment, San Francisco Baykeeper, Sierra Club and Wilson Center will host an educational forum with Sun Qingwei in San Francisco on May 7. Join us to hear his powerful stories, see his pictures and learn about these issues facing the people of China.
Pacific Environment, Waterkeeper Alliance and our partners across China are committed to building a successful grassroots movement that will shift China away from coal use towards a more sustainable energy mix. Together we can save China’s beautiful children from a poisoned future.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Alexandra Rowles
Oregano is a fragrant herb that's best known as an ingredient in Italian food.
However, it can also be concentrated into an essential oil that's loaded with antioxidants and powerful compounds that have proven health benefits.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued a list of 431 products that are effective at killing viruses when they are on surfaces. Now, a good year for Lysol manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser just got better when the EPA said that two Lysol products are among the products that can kill the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
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For all its posturing on climate change, the Democratic Party has long been weak on the actual policies we need to save us from extinction. President Barack Obama promised his presidency would mark "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow," and then embraced natural gas, a major driver of global temperature rise, as a "bridge fuel." Climate legislation passed in the House in 2009 would have allowed industries to buy credits to pollute, a practice known to concentrate toxic air in black and brown neighborhoods while doing little to cut emissions.
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Bayer's $10 billion settlement to put an end to roughly 125,000 lawsuits against its popular weed killer Roundup, which contains glyphosate, hit a snag this week when a federal judge in San Francisco expressed skepticism over what rights future plaintiffs would have, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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