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What I shoulda said…

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What a load of garbage! (about to get burned...)

What a load of garbage! (about to get burned…)

Don’t you hate it when, just after leaving a meeting or a party, you replay a conversation in your head and come up with the punchy retort, the perfect repartee? You realize, after the fact, that you had a great opening – and flubbed it. D’oh. I had one of those moments recently.

Last month I was invited to be a speaker in one of SFU’s Carbon Talks. Sitting next to me was Douw Steyn, a UBC expert on air pollution. The topic of our talk was “Waste-to-Energy, low carbon future?

You can watch the whole thing here , but it’s a full hour long, so here’s the gist (I spoke first, then Douw, then questions):

Paul: air pollution from incinerators is well controlled, and anything that displaces fossil fuels for heat or electricity is positive.
Douw: air pollution in the Lower Mainland (ozone in particular) is getting worse, and anything that adds air pollutants is not good, including incinerators.

Now Douw is a fine speaker and debater (watch him here), and he managed to keep much of the talk focussed on conventional air pollution rather than climate change. Air pollution is certainly a very valid concern. In my understanding, a modern incinerator produces very little of the nitrogen oxides and volatile organics that produce ozone and the grey or brown haze that we see in the valley; but any extra amount adds to the problem. And the problem is important, from increased asthma to reduced crop yields. Douw, cleverly, didn’t talk about what really scares people about incinerators: toxic smoke full of dioxins and heavy metals. That’s because he knows full well that it’s a non-issue: modern incinerators don’t emit those.

(Of course, if garbage is taken to a landfill, impacts on air pollution and greenhouse gases are much worse than if it went to an incinerator; see here and here, for instance. But we didn’t talk much about that; instead, we talked about recycling. My bad: I should know better how to frame an issue.)

But here’s what I should have said: global warming trumps any other concern. Any progress you make on controlling air pollution is undone by global warming. That is because ozone, the air pollutant of concern, is created by a chemical reaction in the air, and the warmer the air, the faster the reaction, so the more ozone (there’s hardly any ozone in winter, for instance). So, with climate change, there would be more days with high ozone, everything else being equal.

Except that everything else wouldn’t remain equal – they would get worse. The main effect of climate change, which we’re already experiencing, is more common extreme weather events. More rain and floods, and also longer, hotter droughts. And this means a lot for air quality: during a long spell of hot dry weather, ther is no rain to wash away the pollutants; there is much more dust; and of course there is more ozone. To say nothing of the higher risk of forest fires.

Don’t take my word for it: these are the conclusions of a recent study published in the journal Nature (Air Quality to Suffer with Global Warming, June 22 2014).

Bottom line: say no to incineration, and you’ll get worse air pollution, not better. Incinerators prevent methane from seeping out of garbage, and the garbage they burn creates electricity and heat that doesn’t need to come from burning coal or natural gas – so incinerators fight climate change. Ignore global warming, and the things that fight it, and ordinary air pollution gets worse.

In an aside to me before the talk, Douw had said that “surely you don’t want to sacrifice air quality on the altar of climate change concern.” But in fact, it is climate change that will make air quality much worse – and our current concerns about incineration may seem to us, later, quaint niceties.

But that’s in hindsight. And that’s what, in hindsight, I should have said. Would it have clinched the argument? Nah, who am I kidding; I’m sure Douw would have found a good rebuttal. But, at least, the point would have been out there. Oh well.




Written by enviropaul

July 13, 2014 at 9:38 am

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