The Planet Post-Pandemic: People, Pollution, and Possibilities

Young male hipster holding and carrying the Save The Earth tote handbag in green nature environment background – ecology and recycle concept

We are living in the Anthropocene age, a new geological epoch born from our direct impact on the entire system of the Earth as a whole.

As far back as April, the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) wrote that “rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases.”  They got that one right.

From the living nightmare of the pandemic, potentially come from the consumption of bats and/or pangolins (or at the very least wild animal consumption, when such creatures should be left well alone and certainly kept far from our mouths), to rabbits bleeding to death from an ebola-like virus and worrying news of bubonic plague found in a squirrel, as well as prairie dogs, in the States (while, in Mongolia, a boy died from it after eating a marmot) – the planet and its non-human creatures, it seems safe to say, are not in a very hospitable mood at the moment.  Perhaps because we are so very destructively bad at cohabitating with them.

How could harmony with the natural world be enjoyed when we blatantly and repeatedly abuse it?  There might have been a pause in our polluting ways when lockdown was in full, restrictive force, but with summer now behind us – all those months of semi-freedom come and gone as we step into autumn – it has quickly become clear that people don’t really change.  So many, too many went straight back to bad habits: litter dropped wherever and whenever, long drives and even flights swiftly booked and undertaken (quarantine be damned), convenience foods and heaps of meat for the barbecue… Despite masks firmly fitted to faces (most of which protective gear was and is disposable, but not for the environment, sadly), the planet became a receptacle for Man’s detritus once more.

So, what’s to be done if you actually do care and suffer from (rather understandable) eco-anxiety?  As it turns out, such people are what bring a little hope to a dire situation: they’re the ones buying the recycled and the recyclable, the ones happy to take their holidays within the British Isles and walk or cycle to work (if a practical distance) or car share to cut down on exhaust fumes.  For these people, the pandemic signalled a carpe diem moment. 

Additionally – and to evidence the compassion that is yet possible within the human heart – donations to charities were up during the lockdown, most notably those providing food for those in need.  Groups such as The Vegetarian Society rallied around for donations to provide care packages for those afflicted by food insecurity, for whatever reason.  The box scheme continues even now, in fact, with ongoing concerns over a second wave of coronavirus as winter approaches and while there is yet increasing anxiety over affordability of food and shelter for those struggling whilst the economy is still in recovery. 

In addition to the benefits which Kitchen Social and GroceryAid saw, separately Waitrose & Partners reported a £75,000 equivalent donation to FareShare, Britain’s network of charitable food redistributors.  Taking in good quality yet surplus food that would otherwise go to waste in the food industry, on a national level FareShare supplies approximately 11,000 frontline charities and community groups with donated produce.  This includes school breakfast clubs, homeless shelters, lunch clubs for older people, and community cafes.  Overall, FareShare provides nearly a million meals of in-date and nutritious food to vulnerable people.  In these difficult times, community spirit is certainly crucial.

Back to the topic of vegetarianism, however, and as we’ve reported before, it really is a major means of offsetting climate change (though veganism goes that one step further, of course).  According to One Green Planet, global animal agriculture uses 2,422 billion cubic metres of water (a quarter of the world’s total water footprint).  19% of that quantity relates to the dairy industry (hence wholly plant-based being the cleaner veggie way to live).  It might seem obvious, but water is needed for the cows to drink, for cleaning and cooling all facilities, and mixing into calves’ formula and solid feed for the heifers.  Then there’s the water needed to make the dairy products that consumers actually purchase: 159 litres for a scoop of ice cream or a cup of yogurt; 409 litres if that is Greek yogurt; and 496 litres for a stick of butter.  Dairy is a thirsty business.

Indeed, according to AHDB (the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board), there are approximately 1.9 million dairy cows in the UK with each cow drinking circa 150 litres of water a day.  Furthermore, according to Medium, the water used directly and indirectly by one cow in one day equates to the drinking water one person would potentially go through in 22 years.  Process that for a minute…

In the pollution stakes, as well, water is very far from being pure.  Although the warm early summer raised a craving for a dip, pools were of course shut due to the pandemic.  People who were near the coastlines indulged in gorgeous sea swimming, but some were close only to rivers and lakes, and some not even that.  However, no UK river – our nation’s “blue arteries”, according to Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) – has bathing status and only 16 of its lakes can officially be swum in.  To put this in perspective, France has 573 designated rivers, 1,059 lakes.  A huge issue as regards nurturing and making official our wild swimming areas lies with proper water quality management.  Currently, there is a campaign to make Warleigh Weir in Avon the country’s first; so too for the River Wharfe in Ilkley, Yorkshire.

When you consider that even our birdlife, particularly those species which live along waterways and rivers, are consuming fragments of plastic (pre-digested by the very worms and insects they survive on), time really must be called on widespread plastic use.  The pandemic didn’t help matters, of course: in order to keep going, pubs and restaurants resorted to providing takeaways and plastic cutlery use proliferated to shocking levels. 

With all the will in the world, there is always a backwards step.  At the start of June, a criminal investigation was opened, looking into an extensive oil spill in the Siberian Arctic.  More than 20,000 tonnes of diesel were spilt in Norilsk on the 31st May, contaminating 135 square miles of water.  Dmitry Klokov, spokesperson for Russia’s Federal Fisheries Agency, sadly estimated the clean-up would take decades.  As reported by the BBC, Oleg Mitvol, former deputy head of Rospirodnadzor, estimates that the clean-up could in fact cost as much as $1.5 billion.

If we consider our adaptive capacity – that is, the ability of humankind as a whole to adjust to the anthropogenic damage we’ve done and transform the way we live or accept the consequences, so to speak – the future is very bleak.  That is to say, without change, there won’t be one: we cannot just say, “Oh well.”  One country which has changed its tune in this regard is New Zealand.  One of the first nations to include climate change on the school curriculum, teaching students all about the damage that meat and dairy consumption cause, it has thus paradoxically been a country with a 60% export economy based on animal agriculture that saw the need for our children to be the harbingers of a better, more compassionate world.  Italy followed not too far behind in this academic inclusion and no doubt more countries will follow suit in time: there is hope on the horizon.

To repeat, then: what’s to be done?  Well, carbon sinks are a primary means of offsetting our carbon footprint, so they must be preserved.  In basic terms, they are “holding tanks” for carbon and carbon compounds (i.e. carbon dioxide and such).  Natural carbon sinks (the main ones being plants, the soil, and the oceans) can reduce carbon dioxide levels by up to 50%.  One of largest is the Earth’s hard rock crust.  To expand these categories, natural carbon sinks further include grasslands and boreal forests, peat bogs and tropical rainforests, freshwater lakes and coral reefs, and other such locations which are all vital foci of conservation. Carbon moves between these and the atmosphere in a continuous cycle called the “global carbon cycle”.  Some estimates state that a single tree holds up to 1 tonne of carbon dioxide by its 40th year, while plants – having absorbed CO2 during photosynthesis – transfer carbon to the soil when they decompose.

Blue carbon is that captured by coastal living organisms and stored in biomass and sediments.  This is why mangroves and salt marshes and seagrasses are critical not just in marine ecosystems but the overall planetary environment.  The ocean, in fact, acts as a carbon sink in two main ways.  As a biological pump, it moves carbon dioxide from the surface to the depths, storing it (or sequestering it) for quite literally ages (or eons).  As a solubility pump (or in the process of diffusion), carbon dioxide literally dissolves (or diffuses) into the ocean when the pressure of CO2 is higher in the air than on the surface of the water.  A cold ocean absorbs more than a warmer ocean: hence the need to arrest global warming now.

Manmade carbon sinks, on the other hand, include landfills in the main, but ongoing research is being conducted into the efficacy of capturing carbon dioxide and storing it through injection into the ocean floor and beneath empty rock formations that once held fossil fuels.  There are also studies into the benefit of replicating mineral carbonation processes (involved in the formation of limestone and the like), as well as creating “artificial trees”, where the leaves have been treated with sodium carbonate and similar chemical compounds for the purpose of soaking up atmospheric CO2.

Other methods involve greater use of biomass (living or recently dead organic material) and biogas technology, as well as biochar (a carbon-rich product of biomass that has been heated in a low-oxygen environment and is useful for carbon sequestration).  In addition, carbon capture and storage (or CSS) and bioenergy production (or BECCs) are effective, while biofuel is another option: produced from biomass as well, there currently exist bioethanol (made from sugarcane or maize), biodiesel (made from canola or soybeans), or black liquor (from paper-manufacturing). 

Otherwise, we should look to our very abodes, or green infrastructure.  The biophilic urbanism of constructing green-roofed properties, or designing city architecture with green walls and balconies incorporated, helps both the world and its inhabitants, human and non-human animals alike.  Indeed, our homes are the worst offenders, followed by transport and food.  Currently, annual household emissions are approximately 10 tonnes in the UK, as opposed to 17 tonnes in the US.

On the topic of food waste, Australian researchers are currently exploring the conversion of the waste products from jackfruit and dorian production – popular meat alternatives – into “supercapacitators for sustainable energy storage”.  Based out of the University of Sydney, it was found that the cores of both fruit were perfect for this purpose due to the “large surface area, mesoporous structure, and intrinsic nitrogen”.  The waste portions, or biomass, are heated and freeze-dried in order to transform them into “stable carbon aerogels”.  The energy stored by a supercapacitator is sufficient to charge laptops, tablets, and mobile phones within a few seconds.

Lastly, the BBC analysed approximately 7,000 studies on climate change to discern the best means to reduce one’s carbon footprint.  The average reduction per person per year in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent were as follow:

  • Living Car-Free = 2.04
  • Driving a Battery Electric Car = 1.95
  • Taking One Less Long-Haul Flight Each Year = 1.68
  • Using Renewable Energy = 1.60
  • Taking Public Transport = 0.98
  • Renovating a House to Be Energy Efficient = 0.895
  • Eating a Vegan Diet = 0.8
  • Using a Heat Pump = 0.795
  • Using Improved Cooking Equipment = 0.65
  • Using Renewable-Based Heating = 0.64

To conclude, then, there are plenty of possibilities; myriad means by which to ensure a healthier planet for tomorrow.  We just have to decide to employ them.  What choice a future, not simply for us, but our innocent children and beyond them?

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