We are now all aware of the danger faced in runaway climate change. The thing is, it’s not just about the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2).
CO2, in the family of greenhouse gases, is just one of a family of treacherous members.
CO2 released from man-made pollutants, such as burning of fossil fuels, is widely understood and patiently described to us by 99 per cent of climate scientists as a major driver of increasing the greenhouse effect leading to runaway climate change. But what about the other menacing, more toxic pollution that is destroying planet Earth?
Human activities since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution produced a 40 per cent increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, from 280 parts per million in 1750 to 400 parts per million in 2015. Anthropogenic CO2 emissions (emissions produced by human activities) come from combustion of fossil fuels, primarily coal, oil, and natural gas, along with deforestation, soil erosion production of concrete and animal agriculture.
The family of greenhouse gases (GHGs) has increased exponentially in recent decades. They are ruthless and largely go undetected by most of us, wreaking havoc on the planet. If this family of dangerous individuals where human, they would make for great television, rivalling "The Sopranos".
The dirty six members of this described criminal syndicate are:
- Carbon dioxide
- Nitrous oxide
- Sulphur hexafluoride
The dirty six were identified by the Kyoto Protocol as the main GHGs of anthropogenic climate change in 1997.
CO2 is the front man and has become a household name. CO2 makes up the highest percentage of GHGs combined, and can last for 200 years in the atmosphere.
CO2’s brothers in crime, methane and nitrous oxide, wreak havoc like invisible hitmen, largely sneaking through conventional agriculture. Methane is about 40 times more power than CO2 and lasts in the atmosphere for over a decade, whereas nitrous oxide about 300 times stronger than CO2 and lasts for around 100 years in the atmosphere.
The last three members of the dirty six are, hydrofluorocarbons, Fluorocarbons, and sulphur hexafluoride. They're the climate change mafia, hiding in plain sight, and they can be found in our homes, in everyday items from our refrigerator to our running shoes. These last three members of the dirty six, are thousands of times stronger than CO2 and can last thousands of years in the atmosphere.
Yes, we need to curb our reliance on fossil fuels and move to a renewable energy production future, but that is just the beginning. We are toxifying ourselves and the planet and its time we talk about the other members of this gangster institution of GHGs and their extended associates of pollutants.
CO2 is the well-known leader of this dangerous syndicate, but we must highlight and monitor the behaviour of all the members of the dirty six. The dirty six GHGs should all be household names.
Conventual agriculture adopts growing food using chemical fertilizers and pesticides that release nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. These fertilizers, primarily nitrogen-based, are produced through the burning of fossil fuels. What is not taken up by the plant is wasted and leached into the environment during irrigation and precipitation events. Some 80,0000 tonnes per year of nitrogen enter the Great Barrier Reef lagoon each year. It is now well understood that this process is an additional component of the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef.
Weening conventional agriculture off this drug addict-like cycle and moving toward sustainable agricultural processes, with a focus on soil and environmental health, will make great change. The Australian government stimulated this health service of methadone clinic-like initiatives through the Reef Program from 2008- 2013. In 2016, experts from around the globe congregated in Melbourne for an international symposium addressing the effects of nitrogen based fertilizers on global health. The Great Barrier Reef 2017 coral bleaching event is now being reported by authorities again.
When agriculture production relies on chemical fertilizers, it destroys soil health and soil biology, leading to plants with lower immune systems that are susceptible to pest and disease. This reliance on chemicals becomes a never-ending loop. Pesticides lead to further destruction of soil health and have, to date, many unknown and not well understood impacts to the wider environment and delicate ecosystems. An example of this is colony collapse disorder in global bee populations.
The Kyoto Protocol has acknowledged that soils represent one of the largest known carbon sinks.
Sequestering CO2 in plants and soil can provide a mechanism we can adopt right now to reduce and remove CO2 out of the atmosphere, in turn arresting runaway climate change. Through large or extreme scale sustainable agriculture, we will inherently remove the need of chemical use in farming, and take fertilizer driven atmospheric nitrous oxide out of the equation, which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.
Now, let’s flip the coin, and move to the urban environment. For the ever-increasing numbers of people living in urban environments, we are surrounding and bathing ourselves in a complex soup of toxins. From in-home chemical use that we ingest, inhale and shower ourselves, to the toxic air we breathe when we venture outside, urban pollution is becoming an unprecedented critical issue at a global scale. In urban environments, CO2 is an obvious concern. How many of us wind that window up when we travel through a major city tunnel? What is not widely considered or discussed is the plethora of additional substances combining into a toxic soup that we breathe in continuously every second of our lives.
Some in our community are aware that methane production in animal farming is significant and more powerful than CO2 as a GHG. Is methane production only an issue in the country areas, well away from urban sectors?
Darebin Parklands located in the suburb of Alphington, in Melbourne, Victoria, is former wasteland that was converted into a 37-hectare inner city green space. In 1973, through community engagement, the former dump site was caped and converted into parklands for residents to utilize.
Formerly a quarry site up to 65 metres deep, it was filled in an astonishingly rapid period of seven years. This inner-city hole in the ground was used to dump a relatively unknown and unregulated amount of urban, industrial, and agricultural waste.
Today, this large inner city green space is visited by people walking, riding, having picnics and generally enjoying the outdoors, unaware of the site’s history.
A couple of decades ago, residents observed a black leachate coming from the former dump site. This leachate was found to contain many toxic compounds, including 46 per cent ammonium, which can effectively dissolve metal such as aluminium. This leachate was entering the environment because the hole in the ground was spilling over like a bathtub with the tap left on. Authorities quickly moved to contain the issue and mitigate it through various means of natural remediation.
One issue that proved more difficult to contain was the methane production from microbial degradation of the organic carbon contained in the quarry dump site. Today, this methane production can be observed from methane bubbling up through the various lakes onsite.
Peter Wiltshire, the ranger in charge of the site has been involved in managing, monitoring, and remediating the site since the leachate came to the attention of authorities. With a background in natural wetland science, Wiltshire is charged with the difficult job of maintaining and improving some sort of ecosystem. Wiltshire explains “in 150 years you might as well bring the flamingos in, because these water bodies will turn pink from the total dissolved salt levels.”
When asked about the methane being released, he said “well people think all the roads cars and industry around here is an issue, but we have a greenhouse gas producer far beyond that!”
Climate change is undoubtedly the greatest challenge faced by modern man. CO2 production through our insatiable lust and reliance for cheap energy production through the burning of fossil fuels must be curtailed to prevent a catastrophic future. Renewable energy uptake will need to increase to far beyond our current commitment level. But this is just the beginning.
We must engage a discussion and increase household awareness of the other dangerous greenhouse gases that comprise the dirty six. Policing CO2's criminal associates such as methane and nitrous oxide, which are far more powerful than their front man, must become household general business.
After a wider understanding of the activity and prevalence of the dirty six and their devastating pressure on global societies is achieved, we should then look at the bigger picture of population limits, consumerism, global toxification and ecosystem decimation, that we are all responsible for in some form or another.