Earthtalk is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: What are some of the leading proposed technological fixes for staving off global warming, and how feasible are they? – James Harris, Columbus, Ohio
While most of the world fixates on how to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases we emit into the atmosphere, scientists and engineers around the world are busy working on various “geo-engineering” technologies—many of which are highly theoretical—to mitigate global warming and its effects. Many scientists oppose using new technology to fix problems created by old technology, but others view it as a quick and relatively inexpensive way to solve humankind’s most vexing environmental problem.
One of the theories proposed for reducing global warming involves deflecting heat away from the Earth’s surface with solar shields or satellites with movable reflectors. Computer models suggest that blocking eight percent of the sun’s Earth-bound radiation would effectively counteract the warming effect of our CO2 pollution. The idea was inspired by the cooling effects of large volcanic eruptions—such as Mt. Pinatubo in 1991—that blast sulphate particles into the stratosphere. These particles reflect part of the sun’s radiation back into space, reducing the amount of heat that reaches the atmosphere.
Another technological fix involves “sequestration,” the storage of CO2 either deep underground or deep in the ocean. Some of the nation’s largest utilities, which are also “washing” coal to filter out impurities, are working on ways to capture the CO2 they emit and store it miles below the Earth’s surface. Costs of such technologies have been prohibitive, but new regulations could force the issue in the near term.
Another leading theory, “ocean fertilization,” entails scattering iron powder throughout the world’s seas, providing nutrients to boost the amount of phytoplankton that thrive in the water’s upper layers. Through photosynthesis, these plants absorb CO2, which in theory stays with them when they die and fall to the ocean floor. Initial experiments have not lived up to the hype, however, but more research is underway.
Yet another take on altering the seas for the sake of the climate, “engineered weathering,” entails replacing some of the oceans’ carbonic acid with hydrochloric acid. This, the theory goes, accelerates the underwater storage of CO2 otherwise destined for the atmosphere. According to Harvard Earth and Planetary Science Ph.D. Kurt Zenz House, engineered weathering “dramatically accelerates a cleaning process that nature herself uses for greenhouse gas accumulation.”
While the cost of many of these so-called “geo-engineering” fixes would not necessarily be prohibitive in light of the cost of transforming our global energy economy, the risks of unintended consequences weigh heavily on even the researchers proposing them.
Personally, as a citizen not a scientist, I don’t like geo-engineering because of the high environmental risk,” Ken Caldeira, a researcher at California’s Carnegie Institution of Washington, told New Scientist. “It’s toying with poorly understood complex systems.” But he also wonders: “Is it better to let the Greenland ice sheet collapse and let the polar bears drown their way to extinction, or to spray some sulphur particles in the stratosphere?”
Dear EarthTalk: I’m a musician and am curious about what the guitar industry is doing to ensure that the wood it uses is not destroying forests. – Chris Wiedemann, Ronkonkoma, NY
Though it has not received a lot of press to date, the industry is on the case—in part for the sake of its own survival, and thanks to the hard work of a handful of green groups, guitar makers and wood suppliers.
In 1996, Gibson, one of the world’s premier guitar brands, became the first in the industry to make some of its instruments using wood certified as “sustainably harvested” by the non-profit Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). By 2006, some 42 percent of the wood purchased by the company for its Gibson USA electric guitars came from FSC-certified sources. By 2012, Gibson expects to increase that to 80 percent.
Gibson isn’t the only instrument maker greening up its footprint: Taylor, Fender, Martin, Guild, Walden and Yamaha, along with Gibson, have signed on as partners with the Music Wood Coalition, a project of the leading environmental non-profit Greenpeace. The coalition, which is also made up of a half-dozen tonewood suppliers, hopes its efforts will protect threatened forest habitats and safeguard the future of trees critical in manufacturing instruments of all kinds. Eco-advocates and guitar makers alike fear that the spruce, maple, mahogany, ebony and rosewood trees that have been the foundation of the wooden instrument industry for years are being cut down faster than they can be replaced.
The coalition’s initial focus is on halting the aggressive deforestation going on in Southeast Alaska. Greenpeace has been in talks with Sealaska Timber Corporation, one of the biggest logging operations in Alaska, to get 190,000 acres of the company’s privately owned Southeast Alaska timberland—a prime source of Sitka spruce, a wood coveted by instrument makers for its use in guitar soundboards—certified by FSC. Greenpeace Forest Campaign Coordinator Scott Paul views getting these forestlands certified as an important win-win opportunity for Sealaska, which wants to maintain a viable income stream, and for instrument makers who need a dependable source of resonant, durable and beautiful woods.
“These [private] lands are going to be logged,” says Paul. But with FSC oversight, he says, the forests can be managed sustainably. And the process is already underway, with the first part of the two-step certification process already completed. “Our goal is to create a demand…for FSC certified ‘good wood’ as the only acceptable music wood from the North American coastal temperate rainforest,” adds Paul.
Guitar makers know that the woods they’ve used for years might not continue to be had at the quantities and low prices they’re used to, but they are willing to adapt: “Alternative woods are the key to successful guitars,” says Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars, which has been a pioneer in the use of exotic and sustainably harvested tonewoods in their high quality acoustic guitars. “But the market needs to go there all together.”
Tradition is a huge driving force, agrees Paul. “Players expect a spruce soundboard, a mahogany neck, an ebony or rosewood bridge.” There needs to be a leap of faith in changing markets, he says, where people are becoming more environmentally conscious.
Image Credits: Justin Brockie, courtesy Flickr and Wikipedia
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