As a geoenvironmental consultant I’m often asked for my opinion on environmental issues. For example:
- Should everyone drive electric cars?
- Should we buy locally produced goods?
- Should we limit the amount that we travel?
My experience suggests that there is never an easy answer to these questions as everything we do has an environmental consequence. Politicians and the media often over simplify the environmental issues or have an agenda which may not provide the best holistic solution.
In order to explain the complexity of the situation I ask people how they would dry their hands if they wanted to minimise their environmental impact: would they take a paper towel or use the hand drier? Everyone has a different opinion and in reality it is not possible to determine the best solution without further information (and a lot of analysis).
For example, with respect to the paper towel we would need to know:
- Is it made from recycled paper?
- What happens to the paper after you have thrown it away?
- Does the paper end up in a landfill site or recycled?
On the other hand for the hand drier, questions that would need to be asked include:
- How is the electricity produced?
- Is the electricity from a coal or a renewable source?
- How efficient is the drier?
- Does the drier automatically cut out or does it keep on running for a set period of time?
This relatively simple example hopefully demonstrates how many different aspects need to be considered in order to make an informed decision.
My biggest issue is that governments and the media tend to concentrate on one environmental consequence at a time. In recent years there has been a massive push to reduce greenhouse gases and in particular carbon dioxide. While reduction of greenhouse gases is extremely important I’m not sure that this should be done to the detriment of all other environmental consequences. The UK government has been promoting the use (via tax incentives) of diesel cars as the green choice. This was primarily due to their lower carbon dioxide emissions compared with petrol cars. However, diesel cars emit many other gases including nitrogen dioxides, which result in an increase in air pollution particularly within our cities. Recent reports in the media have suggested that this air pollution is likely to be causing reduced life expectancy for a large number of people.
Electric cars are often seen as the most green option. However, the electricity used to charge the batteries is still produced by coal power stations and therefore there is still an element of carbon dioxide production. I agree that the amount of carbon dioxide produced per mile is less than for a diesel or petrol car but there are also other environmental consequences associated with electric cars that appear to be rarely considered. This is associated with the production of the battery and the environmental damage that is caused by the mining of the lithium, copper and aluminium. The mines are often found in countries where environmental pollution is not as well controlled as it could be. In addition, the processing and transportation of the metals once they are mined also relies on fossil fuels.
I would like to reiterate that I am not against electric cars but they are not the perfect solution that the media sometimes makes them out to be. My message is that there are some simple changes that everyone can make to their lives which could help reduce the impact we have on the planet.
I really like the concept of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. While this concept was initially developed in order to help divert waste from landfill I believe it can be used in a much wider sense in order to reduce our individual impact on the environment. Wherever possible we should try to reduce our consumption of electricity, fuel, packaging and products. We then should look at how we can reuse what we already have: either by retaining it for longer or passing it on to someone else to use. Finally when it is no longer possible to reuse the product in its original form we should then look at how to recycle the individual components. This helps to reduce the future mining of our limited resources. If everyone makes small changes to the way that they live, then this will go a long way to help improve the environment for everyone including future generations.