• This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
home_icon-01_outline
star
  • Earth.Org Newsletters

    Get focused newsletters especially designed to be concise and easy to digest

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Earth.Org PAST · PRESENT · FUTURE
SHOP Support

While the majority of fires throughout the history of the US have been started by careless human actions, they have in recent years become more ferocious because of the climate crisis. In fact, rising temperatures are making them more intense, frequent, and destructive. Here are 15 of the largest wildfires in US history.

1. The 2021 Dixie Fire, California

Following an unprecedented heat wave in June 2021, California was once again engulfed in raging wildfires. According to CalFire, the fire has burned more than 463,000 acres in Northern California, taking hundreds of buildings down with it and threatening nearly 14,000 structures. Experts have warned that the Dixie Fire’s dramatic growth and size are fuelled by severe drought conditions and global temperature increase. The Dixie Fire of 2021 was named the second-largest fire in California history.

2. The 2020 Bay Area Fire, California

Starting in the Bay Area, the Bay Area fire was one of the largest wildfire in US history and tore through parts of California, Oregon and Washington state. By September 15, they burned almost one million acres of land and killed at least 35 people. At one point, every 24 hours, an area the size of Washington DC was being burned. The North Complex fire alone was responsible for more than 300 000 acres of scorched land, killing 16 people in its wake. Five of the six largest blazes in the state were recorded in 2020. Meanwhile, Stanford researchers estimate that the smoke and resulting poor air quality eventually led to hundreds of excess deaths in California cities and across the west coast in Washington and Oregon.

worst wildfires in history

This wildfire map uses near and shortwave infrared data collected between July 24 and September 26th, 2020, to track changes in the landscape’s green spaces. The bar at the bottom measures the severity of the burns from the deadliest wildfire in US history (Source: Earth.Org). 

3. The 2018 Camp Fire, California

The Camp Fire was reported on November 8 2018 in Butte County. The fire grew rapidly and became the deadliest and largest fire in California history. It burned 153 336 acres, destroyed nearly 19 000 homes and killed at least 85 people. While it was contained on November 25, search and rescue efforts continued into December.

4. The 2017 Tubbs Fire, California

The Tubbs Fire started in October 2017 in Northern California and was one of more than 200 fires that hit the state that year. The wildfire burned more than 36 800 acres across Sonoma and Napa counties. The fire killed 22 people and destroyed thousands of homes; the city of Santa Rosa lost 5% of its housing stock.

You might also like: What Causes California Wildfires?

5. The 2013 Yarnell Fire, Arizona

The Yarnell Hill Fire started on June 28, 2013 in Yarnell Arizona. The wildfire is believed to have been started by a lightning strike and it burned more than 8 000 acres of land. The fire killed 19 firefighters, making it the deadliest and largest wildfire in Arizona history. 

6. 2004 Alaska Fire Season

The 2004 fire season in Alaska was the worst on record in terms of area burned by wildfires in the history of the US state of Alaska. More than 6.6 million acres of land were burned by 701 fires. 215 of these were started by lighting strikes; the other 426 were started by humans. The summer of 2004 was extremely warm and wet in comparison to typical interior Alaska summer climate, which resulted in record amounts of lighting strikes. After months of this lighting and increased temperatures, an uncharacteristically dry August resulted in the fires that continued through September. 

7. The 1991 Oakland Hills Fire, California

This famous wildfire started on the hills of Oakland, California on October 19 1991. It started as a wind-driven brush fire, but turned into a firestorm that tore through residential neighbourhoods and charred 3000 homes and apartment buildings. In just two days, the fire spread across 1 520 acres of land. 25 people were killed and at least 150 more were injured. 

8. The 1988 Yellowstone Fires

These fires collectively formed the largest wildfire in the recorded history of the Yellowstone National Park in the US. Spurred by drought conditions and winds, the fire quickly spread out of control and turned into one large fire that burned for several months. Only cool, moist autumnal weather extinguished the fires. A total of 793 880 acres, or 36% of the park, were affected by the fires. More than 9 00 firefighters fought the fires at its peak and at one point, more than 4 000 US military personnel were brought in to assist. 

9. The 1918 Cloquet Fire

On October 12, 1918, sparks from a railroad led to a wildfire in Carlton County, Minnesota because of extremely dry conditions. More than 250 000 acres of land was burned and at least 550 died, while a further 12 000 were injured or displaced. 

10. The Great Fire of 1910, Connecticut

Also called the Big Burn, Big Blowup or the Devil’s Broom fire, this wildfire roared through the states of Idaho and Montana during the summer of 1910. The fire burned for just two days, but strong winds caused the initial fire to combine with other smaller fires to form one massive blaze that destroyed 3 million acres and killed 85 people, making this one of the worst wildfires in Us history. 

You might also like: The Impact of Wildfires on Biodiversity and the Environment

11. The 1902 Yacolt Burn

This is the collective name for dozens of fires in Washington state and Oregon that occurred between September 8 and September 12 1902. They collectively caused 65 deaths and burned through 500 000 acres. In addition to careless human action, the summer of 1902 had been drier than usual and there was a build up of slash left from loggers that had not been burned off properly in the preceding two summers which acted as fodder for the fires. 

12. The 1871 Great Michigan Fire

In October 1871, the Great Michigan Fire started out as a series of smaller fires that merged. The fire ravaged the towns of Holland, Port Huron and Manistee, as well as the shoreline of Lake Michigan. The fire is estimated to have burned at least 3 900 square miles in Michigan and killed around 500 people.

13. The 1871 Peshtigo Fire, Wisconsin

The blaze started on October 8 1871 and burned around 1.2 million acres. At least 1 152 people were killed, making this the worst fire that claimed more lives than any of the other wildfires in US history. It happened on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, which overshadowed the Wisconsin fire. 

14. The 1884 Great Hinckley Fire

In September 1884, the Great Hinckley Fire broke out near the town of Hinckley, Minnesota. At that time, trees were commonly stripped of their branches before cutting them down for lumber, but that left pine forests filled with dry, dead branches. This fuelled the fire and caused it to burn 250 000 acres in just four hours. Officially, 418 people were killed but historians believe that hundreds of Native Americans were killed and were left out of the fatality count.

15. The 1881 Thumb Fire, Michigan

One of the largest wildfires in US history started on September 5 1881 in the Thumb region of eastern Michigan. The fire is thought to have been exacerbated by dry summer conditions and drought. Burning around 1 million acres, it spread from Lapeer County to Huron, Tuscola, Sanilac and Lapeer counties. At least 282 people were killed. The flames produced so much soot and ash that the sun was partially obscured in the East Coast, turning the sky a yellowish colour.

These are just some of the worst wildfires in US history; there are many more that have caused extensive damage to communities and landscapes. Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires around the world, but especially in the US and will continue to do so until the causes of climate change- including burning fossil fuels- are addressed urgently. No state can afford to deal with the carnage of these crazy fires every year, making curbing climate change absolutely vital

Featured image by: EO Photographer Justin Sullivan

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like: Top 12 Largest Wildfires in History

America is the global leader of food waste, which has catastrophic environmental, financial and social fallout. With growing urgency to tackle these issues, how can this problem be solved? 

Food Waste in America

In the US, an estimated 30% to 40% of the total food supply ends up as waste. A large portion of this occurs at the consumer level, with 43% of food waste being generated in people’s homes. A further 40% of the waste comes from consumer-facing businesses such as supermarkets and restaurants, while the remaining waste occurs on farms (16%) and during processing (2%). 

This food waste accounts for between an estimated USD$161 billion and $218 billion wasted in America each year, with the bulk of this financial stress falling on consumers who pay higher prices than those at the sourcing or wholesale stages. Moreover, this food waste continues while, according to the US Department of Agriculture, nearly 12% of American households (about 15 million) “were food insecure at least sometime during the year in 2017, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” 

What’s more, the food wasted is often edible, healthy produce and the amount generated is more than enough to tackle a problem that has no place in a developed country. 

Food waste is the single largest component of US landfills, accounting for 22% of municipal solid waste (MSW). This takes up land but also breaks down to create significant amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that, for the first two decades after its release, is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Additionally, food waste has serious environmental impacts long before it reaches a landfill, with around 21% of all freshwater in America going to the production of food that will be wasted, along with 19% of all fertiliser and 18% of all cropland. 

You might also like: European Space Agency Signs Off on First-Ever Space Junk Cleanup Mission

What Causes Food Waste in America

At the production stage, waste before harvest in America can be caused by economic factors like a drop in demand for a certain product or a lack of labour. There are also natural causes such as weather, disease and pests. The largest cause for waste on farms post-harvest is culling, whereby produce is discarded based on quality and appearance, such as its size, colour, weight, blemishes and sugar content.

At retail stores, food waste in America is caused by overstocked displays of fresh produce for marketing purposes, the demand for perfection (which also leads to culling), oversized packs of produce and the need to have fresh goods (such as those from in-store bakeries) available until closing. Food outlets face similar issues, with the need to stock far more fresh produce than they can sell in order to offer an abundant menu for customers.

When it comes to consumer food waste, the largest source of waste, the main problem is a lack of information. First, about the amount that the average American household actually needs to buy. The “abundance” issue seen in stores and restaurants ripples into homes, where people buy more than they need and place a lower value on it. Second, there is significant confusion over sell-by, use-by and best-before labels that are frequently found on packaging. Not knowing what these mean, and relying on them rather than our senses and experience, leads American households to regularly waste perfectly good food.

What is Being Done to Tackle Food Waste in America 

America has begun to tackle the food waste problem, and the USDA and the US Environmental Protection Agency banded together in 2015 with the goal of cutting food waste in America in half by 2030. They set out to do this by creating and following their own Food Recovery Hierarchy, which outlines the most effective ways to address the problem of food waste.

This inverted pyramid follows the same structure as other waste management hierarchies, whereby the first and most effective option is prevention. With food waste, this can be achieved by shifting  attitudes to only purchase what is needed. For retailers and restaurants, this means not having an abundance of produce on display or a vast menu that requires excessive stock. For consumers, this means writing grocery lists and recognising how much a household actually consumes. 

If an excess of food is produced at any point along the supply chain, the next step in the hierarchy is to ensure that this is distributed to where it is needed, rather than wasted. This is currently being done in America by organisations that are teaming up with farmers to pick and distribute crops that would otherwise rot in the field, as well as at the retail stage through cooperation with food banks, soup kitchens and other distribution centres.

If food can’t be recovered, then there must be better food waste management. This means using food waste for animal feed, industrial processing and composting, which can then be directed to agriculture and back into the food supply chain. 

These steps are just the beginning of a journey to tackle food waste in America, but they are proof that something is being done. As individuals and companies continue to take action to limit their impact, the social, financial and environmental issues associated with food waste in America can finally be addressed. 

In complete contrast to the climate skepticism and inaction that has dominated the Trump administration’s environmental policies, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), a federal government agency, issued a report acknowledging that frequent and devastating shocks from climate change are a menace to the financial stability of the US. Central banks and corporates are waking up to the crisis and taking steps to build resilience, but political inertia can stand in the way.

“It’s the first time something like this has been done under the auspices of a US financial regulator,” said Dave Jones, a former insurance commissioner for California and one of the 34 industry leaders who put the report together. The 200-page report gives a comprehensive look at climate-change-induced risks to all financial markets, translating data and scientific revelations into language that Wall Street professionals and regulators understand. It includes projections of the fiscal impact that climate change and subsequent inaction could have on the US ‘ troubled economy amid the coronavirus pandemic and predictions of intensifying downpours and more potent hurricanes. It also offers 53 recommendations on how the sector and policymakers can address the elephant in the room.

The warning could not have come at a more vital time. The risks of climate change (and inaction) are looming and ever-growing across the US and around the world. The impacts of climate change are already manifesting in the largest state economies. The “one-two punch” of hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, the blazes sweeping across California and the now-routine flooding in Florida are only a fraction of the climate-related calamities that have wreaked havoc on US soil.

“By the end of this century, the negative impacts on the United States from climate change will amount to about 1.2 percent of annual gross domestic product (GDP) for every 1 degree Celsius increase,” the report estimates. This is tantamount to wiping out nearly half of the average annual GDP growth rates in recent years. “There is great uncertainty about how those losses may be distributed across the US and within any given sector or asset class,” but how some sectors are impacted can hint towards what could come in the next decade.

You might also like: UK Health Experts Call for Carbon Tax on Meat

(Source: CTFC, 2020). 

The farming industry, which contributed USD$1.053 trillion to US gross GDP in 2017- a 5.4% share according to the Economic Research Service– now bears the brunt of the damage caused by climate change. In 2019, historic rainfall and flooding devastated the Midwest, costing the region more than $400 million worth of livestock and more in damage and flooded farmland. 

The scorching heat can be just as damaging to the health of an economy as excessive precipitation. By 2090, total impacts from extreme heat attributed to climate change could result in more than 2 billion lost labour hours, representing $160 billion (2015) in lost wages. “Companies that rely on outdoor and manual labour may face physical risks from declining labor productivity and higher costs associated with workers’ compensation, health insurance and general liability insurance,” the report says. 

Physical risks such as these have taken up much of the media’s front pages. Less visible, but just as powerful, are the transition risks that constitute a bigger part of the story of the economic threats. Transition risks arise when companies fail to adapt to changes in policy, technology and consumer behaviour as the world moves towards a net-zero economy. 

(Source: CTFC, 2020

These risks are already nascent in banks and companies’ balance sheets. In 2018, Germany saw its weakest economic performance in five years. The recession hit in part due to the new EU emission tests, which have hampered auto production, one of the country’s pillar industries. That same year, Jaguar and Land Rover wrote off £3.6 billion, largely due to uncertainties around Brexit and diesel engines. Their depreciation could make them a risky investment to investors and banks. 

What happened in Germany could happen to the US at any time. The report says that the financial system might be able to absorb the effect of climate change here and there, but when its spillover effects start to happen, more fundamentally, it is the underlying drivers of these risks that need to be addressed. 

“A fundamental flaw in the economic system lies at the heart of the climate change problem- the lack of appropriate incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” the report says. For decades, economists have contended that pricing carbon emissions is one of the simplest and most efficient ways to address the “negative externalities” of fossil fuels. Negative externalities are situations when there is an external cost that accrues to other people or society as a whole. 

In the case of greenhouse emissions, an additional cost has been shifted to society as a negative externality in the form of future climate impacts. As estimated in 2016 by the federal government, the quantifiable economic damage associated with a small increase in carbon emissions amounts to $52 per metric ton of CO2 in today’s dollars. However, many experts agree this is far lower than the true costs of carbon pollution. In the absence of an “economy-wide price on carbon that reflects the true social cost of the emission,” all manner of financial instruments- stocks, bonds, futures and bank loans- will not factor in those risks in their calculus. Hence, the mismeasurement of known risks, which, as they build up, can eventually cause “a disorderly adjustment of prices.”

Undeniably, there has been a growing nervousness among US investors about swiftly mounting environmental risks in the sector. Last year, executives from more than 75 companies, which altogether represented a market value of $2.5 trillion and employed over 1 million US workers, traveled to Capitol Hill to call for a federal carbon price. More companies, including energy companies such as Equinor and Shell are providing some climate-related disclosure as a measure to mitigate the risk. Still, actions such as this have primarily been voluntary- and disordered, “presenting a challenge for investors and others seeking to understand exposure to and management of climate risks.” 

For the past few years, carbon pricing efforts have largely remained at the state level as Congress remains gridlocked on climate policy. “While there is an ongoing debate about the right price for emissions, what we do know is that inaction creates a large and growing liability,” says subcommittee chair Bob Litterman, a founding partner of the investment adviser Kepos Capital, in his foreword to the report.

How will these recommendations be taken forward? Some deem it likely that they will be shelved. Others remained hopeful that it could be a policy roadmap for the next administration now that Joe Biden is the president-elect. That said, the task force agrees that whoever comes next to the Oval Office should not make the same mistake twice. Likening climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caught the ill-prepared country off guard and thrown it into an economic crisis, Litterman writes, “time is of the essence. We do not know precisely when the planet’s climatic system will be pushed past catastrophic tipping points. But what we do know is that the cost of delay in responding to the risk can be devastating.”

Featured image by: Flickr

A new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) has found that global renewable energy electricity installation will hit record levels in 2020 compared to the sharp declines in the fossil fuel sectors caused by COVID-19. 

The report says that almost 90% of new electricity generation in 2020 will be from renewable energy sources, with 10% powered by gas and coal. This puts renewable energy electricity on track to become the largest power source by 2025, overtaking coal which has dominated the global power grid for the past 50 years and supplying one-third of the world’s electricity. 

Hydropower will continue to supply almost half of global renewable electricity, followed by wind and solar PV. 

The report forecasts that net installed renewable capacity will grow by nearly 4% this year, reaching almost 200 GW, driven by China and the US. 

Solar power capacity has increased 18-fold since 2010 and wind power four-fold, according to IEA data. Hydropower provided 77% of green power in 2010, but this has fallen to 45% in 2020.

Additionally, renewable energy is becoming increasingly appealing to investors. The report shows that shares in renewable equipment makers and project developers have outperformed most major stock market indices and that the value of shares in solar companies has more than doubled since December 2019. 

Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director, says, “Renewable power is defying the difficulties caused by the pandemic, showing robust growth while others fuels struggle. The resilience and positive prospects of the sector are clearly reflected by continued strong appetite from investors.” 

You might also like: Australia Will Supply Power to Singapore With the World’s Biggest Solar Farm

India and the EU will be the driving forces of even stronger predicted growth in 2021, according to the IEA. However, growth could decline slightly in 2022 under current policies. Birol says, “Renewables are resilient to the COVID crisis but not to policy uncertainties. Governments can tackle these issues to help bring about a sustainable recovery and accelerate clean energy transitions.

He continues, “In the US, for instance, if the proposed clean electricity policies of the next US administration are implemented, they could lead to a much more rapid deployment of solar PV and wind.”

Recent analysis by Vivid Economics for the Guardian shows that more of the COVID-19 recovery funds being spent by governments is going to fossil fuel sectors than green projects.

Jason Eis, the chief executive of Vivid Economics, says, “The natural environment and climate change have not been a core part of the thinking in the bulk of recovery plans. In the majority of countries we are not seeing a green recovery coming through at all.”

The EU is a frontrunner in this aspect, devoting 30% of its €750bn (USD$886bn) Next Generation Recovery Fund to green projects. France and Germany have set aside about €30bn ($35bn) and €50bn ($59bn) respectively of their own additional stimulus packages for green projects. 

China, however, is devoting just 0.3% of its €1.2bn ($1.4bn) package for green projects, while in the US, before the election, around €22bn ($26bn), or just over 1%, of the announced package was slated for green projects. 

Featured image by: Flickr 

On November 4, the US officially left the Paris Agreement, three years after President Donald Trump vowed to do so. However, this may be short-lived, as President-elect Joe Biden reaffirmed his commitment to rejoin the Paris Agreement later that day. The move has drawn praise from experts and environmentalists alike.

In the afternoon of November 4, Biden tweeted, “Today, the Trump administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it.” 

Why Does This Matter?

Further, on his campaign website, Biden has promised not only to rejoin the agreement, but to lobby for more significant international climate ambition. The site says, “He will lead an effort to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets. He will make sure those commitments are transparent and enforceable, and stop countries from cheating by using America’s economic leverage and power of example.”

You might also like: The US Leaves the Paris Agreement Today. How Can it Get Back In?

Scientists around the world are breathing a sigh of relief. Trump and Biden have taken opposite positions on how to address the climate crisis. Biden has proposed to spend USD$2 trillion over four years to boost green jobs and infrastructure and achieve a carbon-free power sector by 2035 and net-zero emissions nationwide by 2050. In contrast, incumbent president Trump has repeatedly denied climate science and has rolled back nearly 100 climate policies throughout his term, including standards for power plant and vehicle emissions. He has also appointed former energy lobbyists to head both the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as a climate change denier at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

If Biden rejoins the agreement on January 20, the US would officially be back in 30 days later.

However, Joe Biden has his work cut out for him if he does rejoin the Paris Agreement. Other countries may be reluctant to trust US leadership on the issue; after all, this is the second time that the US has helped to negotiate an international climate deal and then been unable to garner domestic support- the Clinton administration was unable to get the Senate to support the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Featured image by: Flickr

The US officially withdrew from the Paris Agreement on November 4 2020, completing a years-long process started in 2017. The US is the only big country (besides Iran and Turkey) not signed on to the agreement. Now that Joe Biden has been officially declared the winner of the US election by the Electoral College after a series of lawsuits put forward by Trump to nullify the results, how can the US rejoin the Paris Agreement, as Biden has promised to do?

Trump has criticised the agreement, calling it economically detrimental and saying that it could cost the country 2.5 million jobs by 2025. He also claimed that it gave other major emitters, like China, a “free pass.” However, if the US found the goals it set for itself in 2015 to be too ambitious, it could have simply changed them, rather than withdraw from the agreement altogether. 

Going Forward

By the time Biden could rejoin, the US would be in arrears on its previous promise to reduce emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 (in 2019, US emissions were down 12%). The country has also not kept its commitment to double funding for innovation and clean energy research development by 2021. 

Additionally, it would have to quickly put together a new goal, as all members of the agreement will meet in Glasgow next November to unveil their new, upgraded commitments for 2030. Even though these goals aren’t legally binding, they are an important part of the “name-and-shame” system used for countries to watch each other’s carbon pollution levels. 

However, in their commitments, countries also need to show that they have a plan to achieve them, something that the US doesn’t have much to speak of. When President Obama signed the agreement in 2016, he wasn’t able to pass any meaningful climate legislation through Congress because Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate. He promised to shift the US electricity grid toward renewables and away from fossil fuels with what was called the “Clean Power Plan.” The plan got held up in courts and was never implemented. In 2019, Trump repealed it entirely. 

You might also like: Global Emissions Likely Peaked in 2019- Report

The US’ poor record in this sense means that Biden will have to show proof that the US has started taking action in Glasgow. According to Grist, this may mean that Biden will have to pass a stimulus bill that prioritises clean energy. He has already pledged to put USD$2 trillion towards climate action efforts, and the plan is actually favoured by a majority of American voters. 

However, to do this, Democrats will have to win back the Senate and get any legislation past the filibuster. However, with any luck, the Paris Agreement will push slow-moving countries- like the US- to take action. 

In 2009, Obama assisted in negotiations at the Copenhagen summit that paved the way for a joint commitment by the US and China to make joint announcement on their intent to take solid action on climate change in 2014. These actions eventually led to the creation of the Paris Agreement. When leading emitters set ambitious goals, it raises the bar for all other countries.

Doing so is critical for the planet. This is the most critical decade for Earth, and already methane levels are at their highest ever recorded. While an analysis found that global emissions may have peaked last year, carbon emissions nevertheless need to be cut urgently and drastically. Some countries and blocs have pledged significant climate action, such as the EU, Japan and South Korea- who have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050- and China- who has vowed to go carbon-free by 2060. If the US- the second-largest emitter- wants to catch up, it will have to act fast.

Featured image by: Flickr

In 2018, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that burning wood, along with other forms of biomass, would be considered carbon neutral. The logic behind this is simple – any carbon released into the atmosphere when wood is burnt is “balanced out” when new trees that are planted reabsorb it. Since then, the industry has seen rapid growth, with US exports of wood pellets in 2019 reaching 6.9 million tons, more than triple the 2012 export levels. The nation exported 2.31 million tons in the first four months of 2020 alone, up from 1.96 million tons during the first 4 months of 2019. But there has been a growing number of voices challenging the assertion that burning wood is truly “carbon neutral,” and that the growth of this industry could instead generate significant levels of carbon emissions.

In 2019, wood and wood-derived biomass accounted for the majority of all biomass consumed for energy use in the US, comprising 46% of all biomass burnt. While traditionally unprocessed wood or “raw biomass” is burnt, burning wood processed into pellets has emerged as an alternative, both for home and industrial use.

Pellets mostly consist of waste from wood products, such as sawdust, refined into pencil-sized pellets uniform in size, shape, density and energy content. This improves the fuel efficiency of pellets compared to unprocessed wood biomass as moisture and other impurities are removed during the processing into pellets. 

Enviva, a US-based bioenergy company and the world’s largest producer of wood pellets, claims that pellets produce lower sodium oxide compared to fossil fuel counterparts such as coal. But perhaps the greatest advantage of wood pellets is that they are compatible with existing coal power infrastructure with minor modifications. This has led to wood pellets being touted as a renewable replacement for coal, with the potential to quickly “decarbonise” the coal industry. 

You might also like: Millions of Highly-Polluting Used Cars “Dumped” on Developing Countries- UN

Certain members of Congress and the forestry industry had long pushed for a “environmentally friendly label” for the utilisation of wood as a biofuel, which the designation of “carbon neutral” has now provided. This also means that these industries now qualify for bonuses that were previously allocated to the development of other renewables, such as tax breaks and loan guarantees under the 2005 Energy Policy Act. It is estimated that the US provided $6.7 billion in subsidies towards renewable energy in 2016, consisting mostly of tax breaks, with 51% of these going to the biofuels industry. These subsidies have undoubtedly assisted in the massive growth of the wood pellets industry in the US.

Despite the supposed benefits of using wood as a biofuel, the US remains primarily a producer of wood pellets, exporting 73.3% of its total wood pellet production in 2017. Of these exports, 99.1% went to the EU. In 2018, the EU was the top consumer of wood pellets, consuming 26.05 million metric tons, followed by China with 17.6 million metric tons. In comparison, all of North America consumed 2.78 million tons of wood pellets.

This demand by the EU has largely been fuelled by its Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which requires the EU and its member-states to generate at least 20% of its energy needs through renewables by 2020. Like the US, the EU declared that wood harvested for bioenergy would be treated as a “carbon-free”, allowing for its use as a fuel to count towards the 20% quota. 

Wood pellets are now being seen as an easy way to meet the targets of the Renewable Energy Directive. This is because it can be used as it is in existing coal power plants with minimal modifications, allowing producers to quickly switch into generating “renewable” energy. The Drax Power Station, one of the largest coal-fired stations in the UK, converted three of its generators to partly burn wood pellets, which now generate 15% of the UK’s renewable energy. The UK government has also pledged to completely phase out coal power by 2025, which could be made possible by burning biomass instead.

However, many voices in the scientific community have voiced concerns about designating burning wood as “carbon neutral”. In the EU, 796 scientists wrote an open letter to the European Parliament in opposition, while in the US the EPA has faced similar criticism. 

A key concern is that while burning releases the carbon stored in trees immediately, there is a significant amount of time before trees can reabsorb that carbon. This extra carbon that needs to be reabsorbed by the new trees is called the “carbon debt” of burning the wood. Until this “debt” is repaid, the levels of carbon in the atmosphere will be higher than before. 

Research from John Sterman, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that repaying the carbon debt of substituting coal for wood would take around 44-104 years, depending on the type of forest. During this time, increased amounts of carbon in the atmosphere would intensify ongoing processes of climate change instead of alleviating it, and though in the long run the carbon debt would be repaid, the damage will already be done. 

While the wood pellet industry adamantly claims that only waste wood is used to make pellets, it has been argued that the demand for wood as a fuel has encouraged deforestation. There have been increased cases of logging in the American South with the growth of the pellet industry, and a 2015 report from the American Forest and Paper Association concluded that the majority of wood pellets produced in the US came from whole trees, with only 24% coming from mill and forest residue. There have also been reports of illegal logging to meet the demand for wood in sensitive areas such as national parks in Slovakia and the Carpathian Mountains in Romania.

This is not taking into account the other costs in the wood pellet industry. As the majority of wood pellets are exported to other countries, emissions from the transportation of the pellets is a significant factor. The process of refining raw biomass into pellets also releases pollutants and causes air pollution in rural communities in the American South. With all this in mind, even if the carbon debt is repaid, all of these extra emissions will hinder achieving carbon neutrality.

These are just a few of the problems described by some as loopholes in carbon accounting, which are the standards by which countries measure their emissions. When it comes to exporting wood pellets, countries are not required to report the emissions produced at the destination where the wood is burned. Producers are also assumed to replenish their carbon stock, but there are few mechanisms in place for authorities to check whether trees have really been replanted. Most importantly, currently carbon accounting does not take into account the lag time for the carbon debt to be repaid, again acting on the assumption that it will be repaid, and ignoring the immediate impact on emissions that burning wood creates.

Does this mean we should stop using wood as a fuel? The problem is less with the use of wood as a fuel but instead with the huge demand of the fuel as governments scramble to reach sustainable energy goals within tight deadlines. Regulatory and labelling loopholes have encouraged the wood pellet industry to grow at an unsustainable rate, adding to the emissions that they are trying to reduce.  

But this may be due to a lack of alternatives. While renewables such as wind and solar power have a small carbon debt, they are not efficient enough at current levels of technology to meet the demands of renewable energy mandated by the Renewable Energy Directive or Paris Climate Agreements. It is much simpler and cheaper to simply convert existing coal plants such as the Drax Power Plant into wood pellet plants, instead of investing millions into developing more efficient solar energy.

A viable plan of action going forward would be to rethink the way we measure emissions, for example tracking carbon over time to take into account the lag time of repaying the carbon debt. With a better system of carbon accounting, we can better discern what is truly “carbon neutral” and prevent misuse of this term by profiteers and make some real progress towards cutting down our emissions.   

America generates more plastic waste than any other country in the world and is the third-largest contributor of plastic pollution in coastal environments, according to a new study. The country produced 42 million metric tons, or 130 kg per person, in 2016. 

The study, using World Bank data on waste generation in 217 countries, shines a light on the global waste export system, showing that wealthier countries often ship their waste to less developed countries with inadequate recycling methods. A 2019 investigation found that US plastic was being sent to some of the world’s poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal. 

Previous work had suggested that Asian countries contributed the most to marine plastic pollution and placed the US in 20th place, however this research neglected US waste exports or illegal dumping in the country. 

Nick Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas programme and co-author of the study, says, “The United States generates the most plastic waste of any other country in the world, but rather than looking the problem in the eye, we have outsourced it to developing countries and become a top contributor to the ocean plastic crisis.”

Why Does This Matter?

Less than 10% of plastic waste in the US was collected for recycling in 2016, according to the study. Half of this was exported, 88% of which went to countries with ineffective waste management systems. The report says that “up to 1 million metric tons of US-generated plastic waste ended up polluting the environment beyond its own borders.”

The study also found that between 2-3% of plastic waste generated in the US in 2016 was either discarded as litter or illegally dumped. 

You might also like: How China Could Become Carbon Neutral by 2060

Combined with waste exports, America contributed 2.25 million metric tons of plastic waste to global pollution levels. 1.5 million of this ended up in coastal environments, five times more than in 2010. 

After the US, India and China produced the second- and third- most plastic waste, but their large populations meant that their figures for per capita plastic waste was less than 20% of that of US consumers. In terms of plastic waste ending up in the ocean, Indonesia and India ranked highest, followed by the US. 

Mallos says, “America is 4% of the world’s population, yet it produces 17% of its plastic waste. The US needs to play a much bigger role in addressing the global plastic pollution crisis.” 

In 2018, China banned the import of plastic waste, and Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India and Indonesia have followed with their own restrictions. 

A focal point of the tumultuous US election has been Senate Republicans’ persistence in forcing through Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court following the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. With a Republican majority in the full Senate and Senate Judiciary Committee, Barrett was sworn in last week, giving conservatives a 6-3 super-majority in the highest court of the land. The confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett as the Supreme Court’s ninth justice could fundamentally reshape the US for decades to come, not only because she is predicted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and overturn Roe v Wade if and when given the chance, but also because of her views on climate change. We will take a look at what Barrett’s confirmation could mean for environmental law.

Is Climate Change Real? Barrett Refuses to Respond

With more than 1 million acres of the West Coast engulfed in flames and the East Coast sheltering from a relentless barrage of hurricanes, 6 in 10 Americans see climate change as a major threat and 7 in 10 believe that global warming is happening. Amy Coney Barrett, unlike the majority of Americans, refused to acknowledge the very existence of climate change when asked directly to do so by Senator Kamala Harris at her confirmation hearing, instead choosing to describe its existence as a “very contentious matter of public debate.” Her evasive response to basic questions about the climate crisis- with excuses that she isn’t a scientist and that she does not have firm views on the crisis- was at odds with her willingness to state other obvious scientific facts, including that smoking causes cancer and that coronavirus is infectious, suggesting that Barrett has an interest in associating herself with a climate denialist perspective.

Besides being backed by Trump, who has called climate change “mythical,” “nonexistent” and an “expensive hoax,” Barrett’s father was a lawyer for Shell when it was covering up the true extent of the climate crisis, which may shed light on her vested interests when it comes to the environment. Compared to Ginsburg, who repeatedly affirmed not only the existence and severity of the climate crisis, but also the US Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases in landmark court cases Massachusetts v EPA and American Electric Power v Connecticut, it is clear that Barrett’s appointment is likely to be a major setback for environmental protections. 

You might also like: Africa’s Sahel Region is at the Centre of the Climate Crisis- UN

Barrett’s Treatment of Climate Change in Past Cases

Barrett is no stranger to being a judge: She was a Trump nominee to the Federal Appeals Court in 2017. Although her past judicial record on environmental cases is slim, we have already seen several red flags that may foreshadow her approach towards climate change now that she has been confirmed. 

Barrett has taken a narrow view of public interests groups’ power to sue on environmental issues, which could disqualify environmental groups with legitimate claims from accessing courts. In a case this May brought by Protect Our Parks (POP), a park preservation group, to stop the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago’s Jackson Park, Judge Barrett found that POP did not have standing, partly because they could not “repackage in injury to the park as an injury to themselves.” Conversely, Ginsburg in Friends of the Earth v Laidlaw Environmental Services established a broad view of standing, holding that citizens and groups with a “reasonable concern” that their use of natural resources was harmed by the violation of environmental laws had standing to sue. 

Additionally, Barrett’s past writings have challenged stare decisis– a legal principle whereby courts adhere to principles established in earlier cases. While the implication of her attitudes on stare decisis has been widely scrutinised with regards to the right of abortion, this may also open the possibility of her overruling key environmental cases like Massachusetts v EPA and American Electric Power v Connecticut, thereby stripping the power of the EPA to regulate carbon pollution and leaving a crucial aspect of environmental regulation to the whims and budgets of individual states.

Finally, Barrett is predicted to follow other conservative judges like Neil Gorsuch in rejecting the Chevron deference, which liberal justices have used to defer to environmental agencies’ application of science to interpret laws and justify their actions. If this occurs, the dominant legal approach among Supreme Court judges may be to substitute their own policy preferences for expertise-based, scientific environmental regulation and to parse the climate science themselves. This is likely to cause problems considering Barrett’s denial of the existence of the climate crisis thus far.

What Now?

Trump’s presidency has rolled back countless environmental protections, but the courts were a critical bulwark to preventing 83% of the administration’s attempted rollbacks. Barrett’s appointment is especially important, because if Trump is reelected, courts are expected to rule on issues like carbon emissions from power plants and water pollution in streams, wetlands and groundwater. With Barrett’s confirmation looming, a right-leaning Supreme Court could make it significantly easier for Trump or a future president to remove climate regulation and significantly more difficult to pass new and much-needed climate regulation. Of course, given that Supreme Court justices have defied expectations in the past, it is premature to say with certainty how Judge Amy Coney Barrett would vote on climate change issues, especially as the effects of global warming are becoming impossible to ignore. While we have some indication of how she might vote when it comes to the environment, only time will tell.

Featured image by: Flickr 

On October 19, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) in China issued two documents criticising the US on its track record on environmental and climate policies, saying that under President Trump, the US “is widely viewed as a consensus-breaker and a troublemaker,” compromising international environment cooperation. 

In a fact sheet, the Ministry blamed Trump’s “negative stance” and “retrogression on climate change” for undermining progress on the Paris Agreement, which the US will officially withdraw from on November 4, the day after its presidential election. Beijing added that Trump had “seriously undermined the fairness, efficiency and effectiveness of global environmental governance.”

Besides the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the two documents, called “A List of Facts on the Environmental Damages of the US” and “Report on the US’s Destruction of Global Environmental Governance,” outlined other issues, including present and historical carbon emissions, arrears on payments to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, failure to ratify the Convention on Biodiversity, deforestation and desertification and poor management of chemicals and waste. It also criticised Trump for rolling back nearly 70 domestic policies and failing to honour the US agreement to pay its share of Green Climate Fund contributions. It said the US accounts for 95.7% of total international arrears to the fund. 

“America’s conduct on the issue of the environment is already beyond explaining to American citizens, and the people of the world are owed an explanation,” the Ministry said. 

You might also like: Public Outcry in India Over New ‘Anti-Environment’ Legislation

This came after the US issued “China’s Environmental Abuses Face Sheet” on September 25, which said that Beijing “threatens the global economy and global health by unsustainably exploiting natural resources and exporting its wilful disregard for the environment through its One Belt One Road initiative.” The fact sheet from the US also criticised other climate policies from China, including its dams on the Mekong River, marine debris, plastic product waste, illegal logging, mercury emissions and air quality.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “too much of the Chinese Communist Party’s economy is built on wilful disregard for air, land, and water quality. The Chinese people- and the world- deserve better.”

Speaking to the Washington Post, James Bordoff, director of Columbia University’s global energy centre, said of the Chinese report, “This seems like a reminder that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. We put out a statement attacking their environmental record and they put out an even stronger one, and the Trump administration has given them a lot to work with.” 

China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, but its emissions per capita are half that of the US’ and its population is five times as big.

Joanna Lewis, director of Georgetown University’s science, technology and international affairs programme, said, “China’s fact sheet on US damage to the environment is a slap in the face for a country that normally prides itself on its environmental leadership. It demonstrates how the US has lost almost all of its moral high ground when it comes to engaging with China and other emerging economies on the environment and climate change in particular.”

She adds, “While China’s environmental record is highly problematic, the country has made impressive gains in many areas while the current U.S. administration continues to roll back many hard-won environmental protection laws.”

While China and US have criticised each other on human rights, trade and the expulsion of diplomats and reporters, climate policies have tended to escape this national competition and rivalry, but Trump has adopted an attitude of hostility towards China throughout his presidency, and relations between the two countries have only worsened since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Greenpeace climate negotiations analyst Li Shuo took to Twitter, saying that “this represents the bilateral war of words extending to a new area. Will this US bashing continue after the election? We will see.”

During President Barack Obama’s presidency, he managed to get China to support broad policies to slow the growth in greenhouse gases and shift the Chinese economy toward renewable sources of energy. 

A cordial US-China relationship depends on the results of the US presidential election, with a potential Biden presidency looking to re-engage with China on the climate crisis. However, the MoFA’s tone in these documents is concerning. Following China’s surprise announcement that it will aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, this could be seen as MoFA’s attempt to capitalise on the reputational gains of it. 

Featured image by: Flickr 

Subscribe to our newsletter

Hand-picked stories once a fortnight. We promise, no spam!

SUBSCRIBE
Instagram @earthorg Follow Us