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Busting the 10 Most Common Eco Myths

By Will Harlan and Graham Averill

You’ve heard these myths before. Your uncle likes to repeat them at the dinner table, corporations tout them on TV ads, and politicians spew them during stump speeches. They’ve been used over and over to justify poor environmental policy, and they’re just plain wrong. Here are the top ten most dangerous eco myths.

1. Clean coal technology will solve our energy problems.

The coal industry has spent millions marketing their new “clean coal” technologies to the public. In 2008, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Technology spent $40 million on TV and radio ads, and $1.7 million went to street teams who handed out clean coal schwag at the Democratic and Republican conventions. More troublesome, every politician from Obama to John Boehner tout clean coal as a viable workhorse for our energy needs.

Yet the truth is this: clean coal does not exist. According to MIT, the leader in clean coal technology research, the first coal plant able to capture its carbon emissions won’t come online until 2030 at the earliest, which makes carbon capture and sequestration a theoretical possibility at best.

But here’s the real kicker: clean coal isn’t even clean. Even if coal plants were able to capture its carbon emissions, turn them into liquid form, and inject them into the ground or ocean (which presents its own environmental pitfalls), we still would end up with even more polluted skies and waters. That’s because carbon is just one of over 100 toxic pollutants emitted from burning coal, including mercury, smog-forming nitrous-oxides, and particulate matter, which are responsible for higher rates of birth defects, asthma-related illnesses, and heart and lung diseases. Carbon capture does nothing to mitigate these other pollutants. But it does increase the amount of mountaintop-removal mining, sludge ponds, buried streams, coal ash dams, and other toxic legacies—hardly deserving of the word clean.

2. The U.S. shouldn’t cap carbon emissions until China addresses the issue.

There is no doubt that China’s carbon footprint is huge. In the last four decades, China’s carbon footprint has quadrupled, and recently, China became the world’s greatest emitter of carbon dioxide, just surpassing the U.S. But when you consider the population difference, the massive Asian country doesn’t even come close to our level of emissions. There are one billion people in China, emitting essentially the same amount of carbon dioxide as the 300 million people in the U.S., and we’ve been leading the CO2 emissions for over 100 years.

A new study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research indicates there is no way to avoid warming during the 21st century, but reductions of greenhouse gas emissions by 70% could stabilize the most drastic negative affects of that warming.

It is no longer an option to wait for China to address global warming if the world as a whole is going to hit the estimated global CO2 stabilization targets and avoid the worst impacts. As the largest piece of the emissions pie, and as the wealthiest and most technologically advanced country in the world, the U.S. has to lead the way in reducing emissions. We already have the technology to do so: a study by the international auditing agency McKinsey and Company found that if the U.S. just adopted stricter energy efficiency codes in its buildings and appliances, we could reach one third of our greenhouse gas reductions target.

3. Alternative energy is too expensive and coal is cheap.

Even if you set aside the environmental and public health costs of coal-fired power (how much are healthy lungs worth, anyway?), solar and wind are cheaper than coal when all of the government subsidies for coal are removed. Coal power claims to deliver power at $2 per kilowatt, but that price includes billions of federal funding. The only so-called clean coal power plant in the works—an experimental station called FutureGen in Illinois—is already pricing out at $6 per kilowatt, and that does not even include the cost of extracting and transporting the coal. A coal plant lasts only 20 years before it must be upgraded, and the coal must constantly be mined and transported.

Meanwhile, right now most solar can deliver solar power to the company for roughly $3 per kilowatt. And that energy continues indefinitely into the future, with no cost of mining or transport.

And renewable energy becomes cheaper with every new solar panel or wind turbine installed, while coal prices—because it’s a finite source—will only continue to climb higher. And this coal is actually going to cost you, the taxpayer and rate payer, a fortune: The Department of Energy just spent $2.4 billion for clean coal projects in its 2009 budget request, the largest increase in public funding for coal research in 25 years. While the government is subsidizing the research of clean coal, a new study by the University of Massachusetts shows that investing in clean energy creates three to four times more jobs than investing the same amount of money in the coal industry.

4. The population boom in third world countries threatens our resource supply. Someone make those poor people stop having babies!

Global population is a serious concern. There are an estimated 6.7 billion people in the world right now and U.N. projections put global population at 9.2 billion by 2050. Whether earth can sustain 9 billion people is at best debatable, and the rapid growth in developing countries is troubling.

But the scariest statistics hit closer to home. The United States is growing at a faster rate than almost every other developed country in the world. Our population has doubled in the last 60 years, and we’re expected to grow to add another 100 million Americans by 2050.

A hundred million more people doesn’t seem like a lot when India is expected to grow by 500 million, but we’re talking about 100 million more Americans, who already consume a quarter of the world’s natural resources. The average American uses four trees worth of paper products per year, twice as much as the average European. We’re worried about India’s population boom, too, but Americans consume 35 times more resources than the average Indian.

Our resource consumption is already taking a toll on our planet right below our feet. Half of our population currently relies on ground water for drinking water. Ground water tables have dropped hundreds of feet in western states, and Florida’s freshwater table has been so drastically depleted that saltwater intrusion is becoming a serious concern. In California and elsewhere in the West, the diminishing groundwater reserves are compounded by shriveled reservoirs and reduced average snowpacks in the Sierra and other ranges.

5. Green power can’t meet U.S. energy needs.

Eight hundred gigawatts. That’s how much power America uses. And to suggest that alternative energy sources like wind and solar can’t provide that amount of energy is simply wrong. Jon Wellinghoff, the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, recently told Congress that the U.S. may never need to build a new nuclear or coal-fired power plant again because renewable energy and improved efficiency can meet America’s future energy needs. He cited the 500-700 gigawatts of wind in the Midwest and ample solar potential in the Southwest.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently said wind energy replacing coal is “a very real possibility.” The world’s largest wind farm, Titan Wind Project in South Dakota, will have 2,000 turbines producing 5,050 megawatts, enough to power every home in South Dakota and North Dakota. In 2008 alone, there was a 50% increase in the installed wind capacity in this country, with more projects scheduled to come online in 2009 and 2010.

As for solar, it alone could supply 90% of our energy needs, according to the Department of Energy’s own data. Every state in the union is an ideal candidate for solar power. The 800 gigawatts that America needs translates to 17 square miles of photovoltaic panels per state. It sounds like a sizeable amount of real estate, but there’s a movement afoot to build these solar centers in industrial brownfields. There are five million acres of abandoned industrial sites throughout the country. Many of them are situated near large population zones, which would eliminate the need to build extensive electric grids.

6. The Prius has a bigger carbon footprint than a Hummer.

This popular myth is based on a study that claimed the Hummer was actually greener than the Prius and other hybrids because it had less of a carbon footprint over the entire lifecycle. The study was cited by a number of journalists, bloggers, and hybrid-haters. It even made it onto an episode of Boston Legal.

The trouble with this scientific study was that it wasn’t scientific at all. An independent group, the Pacific Institute, did a thorough analysis of the study in 2007 and discovered several troubling factors: The study was produced by a marketing firm for the auto industry and funded by that same auto industry, and data was manipulated in order to create the desired outcome.

No peer review was conducted on the survey either, which enabled the authors to make numerous false assertions and assumptions. For example, the Hummer was given a life cycle of 35 years and 379,000 miles, whereas the Prius was given a lifecycle of only 12 years and 109,000 miles.

7. CFL’s contain too much mercury to be green.

Yes, there is a small amount of mercury in a CFL, so if you break one, don’t lick up the mess. But no, you don’t have to call an EPA cleanup crew to dispose of a broken CFL.

The mercury content in a CFL is about 5 milligrams. The mercury content in traditional thermometers is 500 milligrams. Since your home is likely powered by a coal-fired power plant, which emits an average of 50 tons of mercury every year and is the largest source of mercury poisoning in your community, switching your light bulbs to CFLs will significantly reduce the amount of mercury that’s in your ecosystem.

How? Because CFLs use 10 times less energy than a traditional light bulb, and less energy used means less mercury emitted from that coal-fired power plant down the road.

8. Temperatures were hotter in the Middle Ages than now.

Flat out false. Temperatures have indeed fluctuated over the centuries, but the 20th Century was the hottest on record. According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, there was a “warm period” between the 9th and 13th centuries when temperatures were warmer than the following 15th to 19th centuries. However, the temperatures during this Middle Age “warm period” weren’t as high as the temperatures we’re experiencing now in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

In fact, we’re now living in the warmest period the earth has seen in at least the last 1,200 years. And based on all projection models, it’s only going to get hotter. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, depending on how well we curb greenhouse gas emissions, the average global temperature will rise anywhere from 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit to 6 degrees Fahrenheit.

9. Cows pollute more than cars.

Cows do emit a good bit of greenhouse gases in the form of methane. Agriculture is responsible for 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and a sizable portion of those emissions come from the 1.5 billion cows currently grazing across the globe. The average cow emits anywhere from 26 to 130 gallons of methane gas a day through flatulence and belching. That’s roughly the same amount of pollution the average car emits in a day.

However, the assumption that this methane production from cows is perfectly natural is false. Back in the day, cows munched on native grasses and flowers, which were high in nutrients and easy to digest. When agribusiness agriculture took over, they switched the feedstock from natural grasses to cheap ryegrass, which has almost no nutrient value and inhibits digestion in cows, resulting in much greater methane emissions than normal.

So, much of the methane emissions from cows actually is manmade. The solution? Smaller, organic cattle farms have returned to the native grass feed, and some industrious farmers in New Zealand are capturing the methane from cow poop and using it to power their farms.

10. Going green is too expensive.

Going green is actually the smartest way you can save money right now. The golden rules of the “green lifestyle” are reuse and reduce, a message that often gets lost in the eco-chic hysteria of our consumer culture.

You really want to reduce your carbon footprint and live green? Buy a smaller house, a smaller car (or no car), and less plastic crap. Organic vegetables are tasty, so why not grow your own? Watch less TV and only turn on one light in your house at a time and you’ll save a fortune on your energy bill. Ride the bus—it’s cheaper than a tank of gas. Buy used gear. Get your clothes from a consignment store. Yes, that soy-based paint is more expensive than latex, but the cheapest and greenest paint, is the paint you don’t buy.

There’s a difference in living green and buying green, so you have to ask: Are you going green to make a difference, or are you going green so you can get the newest, shiniest stuff?

This story originally appeared in Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine, part of the Outdoor Adventure Media network of regional outdoor publications that includes Adventure Sports Journal.