Afterimage Review

Introduction To Greenwashing: Don’t Believe Everything You Hear!

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So, what we can do to make our governments implement green technologies? There’s actually a lot we can do, writes Scott Benowitz.

At the time that I’m writing this article, we do not yet know who Trump/ Pence will select for our next Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, our next Secretary Of Energy or our next Secretary Of Transportation will be.

Myron Ebell, Robert Grady, Jeffrey Holmstead and Leslie Routledge are being considered for Administrator of the EPA.  James Connaughton, Kevin Cramer, Robert Grady, Harold Hamm, J. Larry Nichols, and Rick Perry are being considered for Secretary Of Energy.

Elaine Chao, John Mica, Harold Ford Jr., Mark Rosenker and James Simpson are being considered for Secretary Of Transportation.

Earlier this year, I wrote a series of articles about green technologies.  In our August 28th, 2016 issue, I wrote an article in which I’d discussed photovoltaic rooftop panels and rooftop mini wind turbines, in our September 4th, 2016 issue, I wrote an article in which I’d discussed ethanol and biodiesel, and for our September 25th, 2016 issue, I wrote an article in which I’d discussed recycling municipal wastewater into drinking water as well as desalination of sea water.

I’d proposed that if those two technologies were to be implemented on a large enough scale, the U.S. would likely continue to have a plentiful supply of clean drinking water for the 21st, the 22nd as well as the 23rd centuries, without harming anymore ecosystems.

In those three articles, I discussed green technologies which I believe will likely not only contribute towards ending global warming, but will actually contribute towards reversing it.

In this article, I will discuss  technologies which have been marketed as being environmentally beneficial, which I feel will actually accomplish a lot less than the people who had designed or who manufacturer, implement or distribute these technologies had initially promised.

Some of the technologies that I will be discussing in this article were actually very well intentioned and were based on sound scientific research.  Scientists around the world have learned a lot in the decades that have passed since these technologies had initially been patented and improved, and we now know that these technologies will result in only minimal contributions to reducing soil contamination, preserving clean air, clean water as well as the upper atmosphere for the duration of the 21st century.

Other technologies that I mention in this article were seemingly designed to exploit loopholes in laws or regulations which are ambiguously worded, and these technologies merely replace on problem with another problem.

Greenwashing”- (from the word “whitewashing”) to give the impression of solving an environmental issue or pollution problem without actually solving it at all, but by diverting attention away from the problem, and in reality, simply replacing one problem with another problem.

Greenwashing and “Clean” Coal Technologies

Clean coal” does not actually exist.  Since the 1980’s, chemists have found a number of different methods which do effectively reduce the toxic emissions that result from burning coal, but ultimately, we’re still left with the same toxic chemicals- only smaller quantities of them.  Briefly- the “clean coal” technologies that chemists in a number of countries have developed in recent years essentially all rely on two concepts; the first half of the process involves the methods of burning the coal itself.

Coal has been used as a fuel source since the beginning of the industrial revolution; scientists understand a lot more today about the chemical components of coal as well as the compounds that are produced by burning it than was understood in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries.  There are a number of additives that can be added to coal, coal can be refined and the actual structure of the power plants where coal is burned have been modernized, and all of these technologies do now successfully reduce sulphur dioxide, NO2, CO2 and CO emissions from burning coal.  And indeed, this is cleaner than not attempting to implement these technologies at all, but we can reduce these emissions to zero (0) by eliminating burning coal entirely.

The second half of “clean coal” technologies involves capturing the emissions, usually by using industrial chimney filters or scrubbers, and I’m now going to take a closer look at carbon capture.

Carbon Capture

Carbon capture is one of the newer concepts in attempting to address industrial pollutants.  Because this technology is relatively new, quite obviously we won’t yet be able to know the long term effects for at least another half century.

Geologists, chemists, oceanographers and climatologists around the world are divided as to whether or not carbon capture and storage will be an effective means of reducing the effects of CO2.

I do want to point out here that I am not an expert in this field, I have a layperson’s knowledge of this particular technology.  Common sense would tell us that if you pump enough of any gas deep into the ground or beneath the sea beds under the world’s oceans, then some of it will eventually permeate up to ground level- in which case this technology solves absolutely nothing at all, it merely postpones the effects of CO2.

By burying CO2 in deep subterranean wells, CO2 won’t damage the atmosphere for several years or decades until it permeates up to ground level and escapes into the air.  This is not to say that carbon capture cannot work, I’m merely pointing out here that many highly credible scientists in quite a few countries believe that burying it will not actually work as a permanent solution.  Techniques which recycle CO2, such as pumping industrial CO2 into algae tanks which may have potentially useful applications for agriculture are being researched right now.

Natural Gas

Natural gas is becoming increasingly popular, especially in recent years.  New drilling and extraction technologies are making it easier for energy companies to extract natural gas in Arctic regions in northern Alaska, northern Canada and northern Russia.   Is burning natural gas for electricity or as a fuel for vehicles clean?  No, absolutely not.  Is it cleaner than burning coal?  Yes.  So problem solved?  No, not at all.

Methane itself is actually a very potent greenhouse gas, though only minimal amounts of methane usually escape during the extraction, capturing, storage and shipping of natural gas.  The industry is quite careful about preventing leakages because they want to keep all of the methane that they are extracting.

The main byproducts of burning methane are CO2 and water, with smaller amounts of NO, SO2 being produced, and a minimal amount of radon is also released when natural gas is burned.  Burning natural gas does produce a lot less CO2, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide than coal, but in my opinion, natural gas is not a permanent solution to anything and it should only be viewed as being a temporary source of feedstock for power plants as we attempt to transition to wind, solar, wave and tidal power.  The process of burning natural gas is in fact the cleanest of the fossil fuels, but ultimately we should be trying to eliminate fossil fuels entirely, rather than replace once fossil fuel with another fossil fuel.

The Nuclear Power Option

This is what many scientists consider to be the most obvious example of greenwashing.  Political candidates throughout Europe and the U.S. in recent years have been promising that they have proposals which can meet the long term electricity needs of growing populations by implementing a balance of coal based electricity plants, nuclear power plants and solar, wind, wave and tidal based power.  These are nice sounding campaign promises because it means that people who work in all of those industries will have job stability, but these promises are in fact impossible.  There’s nothing clean about nuclear power at all.  The CO, CO2 and sulphur emissions are 0.00, that is correct.  So, problem solved, right?  Well, not quite.  The spent fuel rods from nuclear plants will remain radioactive for somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 years.  Until 2011, spent fuel rods from power plants were being stored at the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, and the Department Of Energy is now in the process of looking for a new location for long term storage of radioactive waste materials.  The process of finding a suitable location, safely transporting the waste to the location, storing the waste materials and then guarding the facility is all costly, and the long term effects of storing spent fuel rods will manifest themselves throughout the course of the 21st, the 22nd and the 23rd centuries.  It will only take one (1) earthquake or landslide to destabilize the entire facility.

Greenwashing And Vehicles- Electric Cars

The engineers who were designing the earliest prototype automobiles of the 1890’s tried kerosene, ethanol, methyl alcohol, early forms of diesel fuel and in the early decades of the 1900’s, people were experimenting with developing battery powered automobiles too.  In the 1920’s, leaded gasoline won out as the preferred fuel for automobiles and trucks around the world, and in the 1970’s, leaded gasoline was replaced by unleaded gas for environmental reasons.

The early 2000’s, and the return of the electric car- problem solved.  Again, no.  Electric cars are only as clean as the source of the electricity that people are using to charge them.  If people live in cities, suburbs or rural areas where their electricity is still coming either from coal based power plants or from nuclear power plants, then when they charge the fuel cells or the batteries in their cars, they are simply creating a higher demand for electricity which is coming directly from those plants into their garages.  Some newer models of cars are now using lithium ion batteries instead of lead-acid batteries.  In both instances, if the batteries are not recycled, then the lead or the lithium ends up in landfills, where it will eventually permeate into the groundwater.

Greenwashing And Buildings: Compact Mini Fluorescent Bulbs

One of the most commonly cited example of “greenwashing” is compact mini fluorescent light bulbs.  As elementary school, junior high school and high school students learn in science classes, the early prototype designs for incandescent bulbs date back to the mid 19th century, and in the early 1900’s, when the tungsten filament became commercially available, the technology of indoor electric lighting became very popular very quickly in the industrialized world.  The design of the tungsten filament incandescent bulb is not energy efficient, most of the power that goes into tungsten filament bulbs is lost as radiant heat.  100 years after tungsten filament bulbs became popular, the manufacturing process had become more efficient, but the basic design of the bulbs themselves had hardly changed at all.  In the 1980’s, electrical engineers began to experiment with CF bulbs.  In the early 2000’s, CF bulbs became popular, and in many countries, in recent years, governments have enacted legislation which has banned the incandescent bulbs.  The new CF bulbs are far more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs, most of the power that goes into CF bulbs is illumination, only a small amount of the power that enters into CF bulbs is lost as heat.  So, problem solved right?

No.  When tungsten ends up in landfills, it is harmless, it does not pollute the soil or groundwater.  CF bulbs contain mercury, when CF bulbs are discarded and end up landfills, mercury ends up in the soil, which means that mercury will eventually end up in the groundwater.  While the amount of mercury in an individual CF bulb is very minimal, we need to remember that billions of CF bulbs are being used worldwide now, and in many areas, these bulbs are not recycled.  The newer LED bulbs and halogen bulbs are cleaner and are now becoming commonplace too.

Rooftop Gardens

This is a new idea that is being experimented with.  In recent years, some architects have been designing buildings which have gardens which grow shrubs and flowers on the roofs, as a form of insulation.  The basic concept is quite simple, let nature be the insulation for your building.  And yes, this will successfully prevent heat from the top floor of these buildings from escaping through the roof.  This concept is very new, it is very experimental, only a comparably small handful of buildings in most major cities have implemented this technology so far, so we don’t really know about the effectiveness of this concept.  Personally, I’m skeptical- once again the idea does sound promising, but- Firstly, roots have a way of permeating all but the most solid surfaces.  This means that over the course of many years, the roofs of these buildings are vulnerable to damage from the gardens themselves.  Secondly, this technology is based on the assumption that the owner of the building plus all of the tenants are willing to accept that birds and bats will likely be nesting on the roof, they can expect birds and bats to fly into their windows, and gardens tend to attract insects too.

Yes, a rooftop garden is a natural form of insulation- but we need to remember what insulation actually does.  Insulation neither heats nor cools a building, it simply traps air within a building- air which is already heated won’t escape during the winter months, and once the internal air is cooled in the summer months, it won’t escape through the roof.  You’ll still need to heat and cool the building, presumably with radiators and air conditioners.  I wrote an article which appeared in our August 28th issue in which I discuss photovoltaic rooftop panels and rooftop mini wind turbines, which I believe are more useful than planting shrubs, vines and flowers on the roof of a building, because photovoltaic panels and mini wind turbines will actually provide electricity directly for the building, and can feed electricity back into the power grid.  By contrast, while notably more decorative, the insulating properties of a rooftop garden accomplishes the same effect as sheet fiberglass insulation or polyol- isocyanate resin insulation (“spray- foam” insulation.)

Furthermore, rooftop gardens obviously only serve to insulate a rooftop.  The owners of these buildings will still need to insulate the walls.  A handful of architects in recent years in some cities throughout the world have even experimented with growing flowers, shrubs or grasses on the outsides of walls of buildings.  Cultivating flora on the outside of the walls of apartment buildings or offices does offer a limited degree of insulating properties, but this won’t actually solve the issues of heating or cooling a building, and this uses space that could be used for photovoltaic panels.

Greenwashing And Our Computers And Televisions- LCD Monitors

Once again, back to elementary school, junior high school and high school science classes:  The concept for the cathode ray tube monitor dates back to the early 1900’s, scientists around the world tinkered with the concept throughout the 1910’s and the 1920’s, and the earliest design for what we would recognize as a CRT television was patented in the early 1930’s.  Televisions became affordable and popular during the latter half of the 1940’s, and by the mid 1950’s, antennae were on the rooftops of homes on almost every street in industrialized countries.

The earliest prototype computers date back to the 1940’s, and electricians throughout the world continued to expand upon the early designs- by the 1960’s, government agencies and large corporations were using computers, and by the early 1980’s, personal computers were beginning to catch on.  The design for CRT computer monitors was the same concept as the CRT television.  The resolution quality of the images on the screens were good, but the monitors were not at all energy efficient, and they contained lead.

By the late 1990’s, liquid crystal display monitors were replacing the CRT monitors, and today, you’ll find CRT televisions and CRT computer monitors on display in the “20th century technologies” sections of science museums.  LCD monitors are far more energy efficient than the CRT monitors, they produce a clearer picture, they weigh less, they use far less electricity and they do not contain lead.  So, problem solved, right?

Once again, not so fast.  Yes, the LCD monitors use less electricity, and because they weigh less, they use less energy in shipping them.  But instead of lead, they contain mercury, and if they are not recycled, then we’re sending mercury into landfills, which means that we’re sending mercury into soil and then into groundwater.   The same is true for plasma televisions- they use less electricity, but they do still contain toxic chemicals.  The newer LED televisions contain fewer potentially toxic chemicals than LCD monitors, but we’ve not eliminated toxic chemical from our computer screens and from our televisions yet.  Scientists around the world are probably presently working on designing cleaner monitors, but at present, unless all televisions and computer monitors are recycled, we’re sending toxic chemicals directly back into the ground when we dispose of them.

Greenwashing And Municipal Water Supply- Aquifers

As far back as the 1950’s, a number of countries throughout the world, including the U.S. have been tapping into subterranean aquifers as a source for drinking water and for irrigating crops.  I don’t really believe that the engineers of the 1950’s and the 1960’s are at fault here- a lot less was known about how healthy mountains, forests, streams, lakes, ponds and seas are all dependent upon subterranean ecosystems and the interdependence of ecosystems and habitats 50+ years ago.  The engineers of the mid 20th century were doing the best that they could given the knowledge of the era.  Today, we now know better and we simply have to stop.  Aquifers do contain pure uncontaminated water.  And when we drain them, we’re draining the water that supports entire ecosystems, and this will have long term damaging effects on all other ecosystems.  I wrote an article which appeared in our September 25th, 2016 issue in which I discuss recycling municipal wastewater and desalination of sea water as the cleanest methods of producing drinking water and water for irrigation.

Greenwashing And Food Sourcing: “Farm- To- Table”/ Locally Grown

Sounds good- “think globally, act locally.”  And the idea is very well intentioned, but the flaw in the reasoning is obvious enough that children notice it.

Fruit, vegetables and meats that are produced 2,000 miles away from you and are shipped to your local stores in trucks that operate on biodiesel is far healthier for the environment than if those same goods are produced 200 miles away from you and are shipped to your local stores in trucks that operate on gasoline/ regular diesel.

Ultimately, people will always have an interest in consuming foods and cosmetic products that are produced in other regions of the world- we’ll solve air pollution problems by encouraging politicians to enact legislation that would require that the vehicles which ship food products around the world operate on clean fuels (such as biodiesel).

So, What Can We Do?

There’s actually a lot we can do.  First, research the issues- don’t believe everything a candidate says when they’re running for office and they promise that they have a plan which will balance existing technologies with emerging new technologies.  Many times when candidates make these statements, they actually do have very reasonable plans, but just as often, they’ve not thoroughly researched these issues themselves, and neither has their campaign staff.

Updating the terms to international treaties such as the 1992 Kyoto Protocol are accomplished by national leaders, bear these issues in mind when you vote in future elections.

Closer to home, talk to your town, village, city, county and state politicians and candidates for city, county and state offices.

If ensuring that we’ll have clean air and clean water for the duration of the 21st century as well as the 22nd and the 23rd centuries is important to you, then let candidates and politicians know that it is time to implement green technologies in government owned buildings and vehicles, that they need to enact legislation which would grant tax breaks for people who are implementing these technologies in our homes and for businesses which utilize these, and that the many practices which are based on 20th century technologies need to be phased out and ultimately banned.



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About the author

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Scott lives in Rye, N.Y. photo credit: Liza Margulies