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  • Lawrence Bailey

What will it take to clean up our act?

Most weekday mornings I check out a site where high-level public affairs gurus share their thoughts on issues of the day.

I fully expected the week to start with the usual commentary on Brexit machinations. Instead, the chatter focused on irritation about a new exhaust emission zone that has come into effect in London.

The authorities hope the move will cut the number of polluting cars in the capital. They estimate about 40,000 vehicles will be affected every day.

This isn’t going down too well with the Federation of Small Businesses who reckon smaller firms in particular will be hit by the new levy.

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading that tackling pollution through extraction of harmful gases like carbon dioxide from the atmosphere could soon become something of a business itself.

I’m guessing that you share my ignorance about the fact that despite its increasingly negative impact, there's not actually a lot of CO2 about, proportionally speaking. For every million particles of air there are just over 400 of carbon dioxide.

This low concentration has previously frustrated researchers looking to neutralise the greenhouse effect but new techniques are now available that could bring about a breakthrough.

Recent news stories report how a Canadian company has developed a process capable of converting the gas into a liquid fuel. They are claiming remarkable success rates so far.(1)

Much closer to home, Swansea University academics are working with Tata Steel on an intriguing project that could use captured CO2 to produce an algae that can feed fish stocks.

Impressive as these measures may be however, the underlying message is that there is no technological magic bullet that’s going to save the planet any time soon.

The battle to clean up our act requires decisive action on a number of fronts. Not least of these requires confronting the auto-industry about its claimed commitment to cleaner vehicles.

The European Commission has been uncovering a few dirty secrets among car makers. Investigations centre around technical meetings held by BMW, Daimler, and Volkswagen's VW, Audi and Porsche brands.(2)

Suspicions are growing that measures to reduce exhaust output were held back on cost grounds. This is separate to the scandal over faked emissions data; nonetheless the situation is worrying for consumers in more ways than one.

Equally perplexing is that vehicle emissions can have a lesser impact on the greenhouse effect than agriculture, livestock and deforestation.

Clearing forests for conversion into agricultural lands means less trees to absorb carbon dioxide. At the same time, animal agriculture releases not just CO2 but several other greenhouse gases.

According to one scientific journal, producing beef releases four times more methane than a calorie-equivalent amount of pork, and five times as much as an equivalent amount of poultry. Who knew?

Forests play a huge role in the carbon cycle. Once cut down, not only does carbon absorption cease, but stored carbon is released as the wood is burned or left to rot.

It’s estimated that more than 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide gets released into the atmosphere due to deforestation every year. The area cleared annually equates to over 30 million acres of forests and woodlands. To put things into perspective, that’s an area six times the size of Wales.

So let’s be clear. Pollution charges and emission zones are symptoms, not solutions.

We’re going to need to do a lot more in the way of action and be a lot less indulgent in our lifestyles if we ever hope to make a difference.

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