Environment: Trees good. Plastics bad. Why don’t governments turn it around?Mar 19, 2023
Trees are good for the climate and human health. Plastics are bad for the environment and bird health. Where are the good governments when you need them?
Forests reduce global warming
… and not just by absorbing and storing carbon.
Forests also have non-carbon processes that interact with the atmosphere to influence global and local temperatures, rainfall patterns and climate:
- Aerosols, such as pollen and chemical compounds, are released by forests. These interact with the atmosphere in complex ways that, for instance, change ozone and nitrate concentrations and the colour and reflectivity of clouds;
- The dark green foliage of forests absorbs more solar energy than lighter, more reflective surfaces. The leaves warm up and then release some of that heat into the surrounding air;
- When surface water on leaves and the water released through the leaves’ pores evaporates it has a cooling effect on the leaf surface and the surrounding atmosphere (remember your high school physics lessons);
- The unevenness of the forest canopy affects wind speed and turbulence which lifts heat and moisture away from the Earth’s surface and has a cooling effect.
Together, these processes interact to generate cloud cover which increases the amount of incoming solar energy reflected back into space before it reaches the Earth’s surface.
The overall outcome of the non-carbon processes is to give forests a cooling effect, although its exact nature varies somewhat based on the latitude.
Globally, tropical deforestation contributes 50% more to global warming than counting the carbon effects alone. Deforestation also affects regional rainfall patterns, particularly decreasing rainfall downwind, and can increase local temperatures by several degrees Centigrade, magnifying the heat stress suffered by humans, livestock and crops.
‘Trees: The forgotten heroes for our health’
That’s the title of a recently released report by Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) and WWF Australia. The well-referenced report identifies multiple ways in which trees in urban, rural and forest environments improve our health and well-being. They:
- improve our air quality
- are rainmakers
- house our pollinators
- are good for our mood
- aid healthy development in children
- help curb climate change
- encourage physical activity outdoors
- cool our communities
- provide connection to Country
- help provide safe, clean water
- reduce infectious diseases
- are a source of medicines.
‘The science is clear: we need trees in order to live healthy, happy lives. Human health and the health of our trees and forests are inextricably linked.’
But trees and their benefits are disappearing. Australia is the only developed nation on the world’s list of deforestation hotspots – currently, two of our trees are lost every second, 70 million a year.
Climate change in Hollywood
None of the films nominated for an Oscar last weekend included a theme about climate change. Only 2.8% of 37,000 scripted films and TV episodes made in the USA between 2016 and 2020 included any reference to the climate. Anna Jane Joyner has established a non-profit consultancy to help screenplay writers include climate in their stories. There are also organisations advocating for more stories about Black people, Indigenous people and immigrants.
Joyner has four recommendations for a climate watch party:
- “First Reformed,” a 2017 movie about a pastor, played by Ethan Hawke, who encounters a radical environmentalist and his pregnant wife.
- “Woman at War,” a 2019 Icelandic film about a 50-year-old activist fighting a local aluminium company while she is in line to adopt a child.
- “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a dreamy 2012 story about a little girl whose father is dying while her community floods.
- “Extrapolations,” an upcoming TV series starring Meryl Streep, Kit Harington and others, about the choices people are forced to make as the climate crisis gets worse.
Transitioning out of coal is possible
Britain, the birthplace of the industrial revolution – the steam engine, coal from local mines powering factories, Blake’s dark satanic mills belching pollution over towns and cities and into the streams and rivers – has kicked its addiction to coal.
Not for a moment would I say that Britain is doing all that is necessary to combat climate change but it has dramatically reduced its greenhouse gas emissions over recent decades and on its current trajectory will reach net zero in 2050.
Over the last 30 years Britain has halved its greenhouse gas emissions while increasing its GDP by 75%. This is not, to my mind, evidence of Britain decoupling economic growth from emissions, there are other factors not considered in this simple relationship, but it is evidence that more can be done than Australia is currently doing to combat climate change.
Just for comparison, here are Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions (top) and coal use (in 1000s of short tons, a short ton being 907kg) over recent decades. Note that the baseline for the coal graph is not zero. The reduction between the peak around 2008 and now is a just a tad more than 25% and current consumption levels are the same as 30 years ago, not 270.
To avoid any misunderstanding, I am not saying that what Thatcher did to coal mining communities in the 1980s was all worth it in terms of reducing the UK’s coal consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Nor am I saying we should install more nuclear as the UK has done.
The simple point I am making is that governments can and do make decisions that change the future. They are not flotsam drifting uncontrollably on global currents. Good governments would make decisions in the best interests of the nation’s current and future populations rather than to protect the privileges of the currently powerful and/or with an eye on their own electoral prospects. Unfortunately, good governments seem to be unbelievably rare at present.
Twiggy: ‘End of the line for fossil-fuel plastics’
Many people are, rightly, concerned about and want more done to combat plastic pollution, particularly from single use plastics. The ‘many people’ include Andrew Forrest whose Minderoo Foundation have released ‘The Plastic Waste Makers Index 2023’, part of a project to ‘create a world without plastic pollution, where fossil fuels are no longer used to produce plastics’. The report aims to bring greater transparency to the material and financial flows, the environmental impacts and who is doing what to promote sustainability in the plastics supply chain.
Forrest himself contributed the Foreword and was very clear in his message to the oil and gas industry: ‘Growth in fossil-fuel plastics cannot be the “soft landing” for the oil and gas industry. The evidence is now overwhelming that your products are harming human health, and devastating our planet’s wildlife and most remote ecosystems. It’s the end of the line for fossil-fuel plastics’.
The production of ‘virgin’ plastics by petrochemical companies continues to increase every year. Apart from being a pollution crisis, single-use plastics are also a climate crisis, contributing about the same greenhouse gases to the atmosphere each year as Australia – around 500 million metric tons of CO2e. Recycling has the potential to reduce pollution and emissions but is a marginal activity – in 2019-21 growth in single-use plastics made from virgin polymers was 15 times greater than the growth in recycled plastic. Recycling is and is likely to remain a marginal activity for the plastics sector.
The report recommends ‘three big interventions to deliver a step change in single-use plastic waste and associated greenhouse gas emissions’:
- Limit fossil fuel plastic production and consumption
- Increase plastic products and materials that are designed for circularity and – this is the crucial part – are circulated in practice
- Eliminate leakage of plastic to the environment across its whole lifecycle through environmentally sound, plastic waste management.
To achieve these outcomes, specific recommendations are directed at polymer producers, investors, policy makers and other companies in the plastics value chain.
Plasticosis in birds
We’ve all seen pictures of birds with pieces of plastic around their feet, necks, bills etc. and of dead ones with their stomachs full of plastic. Evidence is now emerging, here in Australia, that the mere presence of plastic in a bird’s stomach is enough to cause chronic irritation and pathological changes to the stomach lining. Laboratory studies have previously demonstrated a link between plastic ingestion and tissue damage in birds, and exposure to plastics in wild birds is known to reduce chick growth and survival. But evidence has been lacking about actual tissue damage caused by the mix of weathered environmental plastics encountered by wild birds.
The stomachs of dead Flesh-footed Shearwater fledglings from Lord Howe Island exhibit widespread and potentially irreversible scarring and changes to the stomach lining in association with plastic in their stomachs. Such scarring and changes are not associated with the presence of pumice and other indigestible substances naturally found in the fledglings’ stomachs. Comparing the Shearwaters’ problem to the similar tissue damage that occurs in human lung diseases such as asbestosis and silicosis, the authors have called this plastic-induced fibrotic disease ‘Plasticosis’.
The great picture below was recently taken by Libby Kalucy in the Succulent Garden in the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.