Dear EarthTalk: Every day when I pick up my kids at school, all the parents wait in their cars with the engines running. Is all this idling a significant contributor to the atmosphere’s carbon burden or am I being a worry wart over nothing? ~ Mary B., Burlington, VT
Idling is indeed a scourge on the environment, given the noxious emissions coming out of our engines. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), a single vehicle dropping off and picking up a kid at school each day adds three pounds of air pollution to the atmosphere per month from idling. The 250 million personal vehicles on the road in the U.S. alone generate about 30 million tons of carbon dioxide every year just by idling. DoE reports that eliminating unnecessary idling by personal vehicles would be equivalent in emissions reductions to taking five million vehicles off the road.
Personal cars are only part of the problem. About half of the six billion gallons of fuel we waste on idling each year in the U.S. comes from commercial vehicles. We’ve all seen those delivery trucks with their engines humming while the driver eats his lunch inside or makes his rounds of deliveries on foot. But this kind of irresponsible behavior is actually against the law in 41 U.S. states (some of these restrictions are in municipalities but not necessarily state-wide). The rules vary by jurisdiction. A few states have outlawed idling altogether with the majority of others limiting it to five minutes before fines kick in.
Environmental activist George Pakenham made news last year by collecting some $9,000 in bounty payments for reporting commercial vehicle idling around New York City as part of a new anti-idling ordinance (successful tattlers get 25 percent of the fines they call in, which range from $300-$2,000).
What’s surprising is how much idling still goes on, given that most modern engines run better—and warm up faster—while in motion. And you won’t cause any measurable wear-and-tear on your car or truck by turning it off and on instead of idling, given the sturdiness of modern-day starters and batteries.
The non-profit Sustainable America launched its #TurnItOff campaign to spread awareness about the need to reduce or eliminate wasteful automotive idling. The group recommends that if you’re pulled out of traffic and going to be waiting for more than 10 seconds, do everyone around you and the environment a favor by turning off your engine. (If you have a hybrid or electric car —or a newer internal combustion car with so-called “stop-start” technology—you’re already part of the solution, as these vehicles shut themselves off when at a complete stop and then come back to life when the driver steps on the gas.)
While preventing automobile idling may be an up-hill battle, the shift to hybrid and electric engines is a step in the right direction. Maybe one day when all the vehicles on the road are zero-emission EVs, idling won’t be an issue anymore. But until then, whether you’re a mom at school pick-up or a delivery driver between drops, be responsible and shut it off while you wait.
Dear EarthTalk: If we already know how to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) and turn it into fuel, why aren’t we doing more of it? ~ M.N. Daly, Springfield, MA
With recent measurements detecting the highest levels of atmospheric CO2 in human history—and experts warning we have less than a dozen years to turn around our profligate emissions to avoid cataclysmic changes—the time is nigh to start ratcheting down our carbon footprints. One solution that seems obvious but has been slow to get out of the starting gate is scrubbing large amounts of CO2 from the air and recycling it as a feedstock to produce carbon-neutral fuels to power our machines.
We have known how to capture CO2 from the air at large scale since the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that environmentalists started looking to so-called “Direct Air Capture” (DAC) as one of a suite of tools at our disposal for dealing with the greenhouse effect. Since then, researchers have been scrambling to come up with the most efficient ways to capture CO2.
Massachusetts-based start-up Carbon Engineering formed in 2011 in an effort to produce and eventually commercialize DAC technology that can use captured CO2 to make fuel at costs competitive with producing conventional fossil fuels. After several years of research and development and implementation of its technologies at a pilot plant in British Columbia, the company has been able to get the costs of capturing CO2 down to ~$100/ton—six times less than previous models predicted was possible.
But it’s what happens next that has environmental advocates jazzed. Carbon Engineering’s solar-powered electrolyzer splits water into hydrogen and oxygen, and then combines the hydrogen with previously captured CO2 to make carbon-neutral gasoline, diesel or even jet fuel. Assuming a $100/ton cost for capturing atmospheric CO2, the company can produce these eco-friendly fuels for about $1/liter, which is only marginally more expensive than their fossil-fuel counterparts. The hope is that costs will come down to below fossil fuels as demand grows and facilities scale up. Also, as more states follow California’s lead in requiring increasingly significant portions of their fuel mixes to come from “low-carbon” sources, demand for these green alternative fuels will rise and prices will likely drop even more.
R&D like this isn’t limited to the U.S. Spain’s SUN-to-LIQUID project uses unique solar concentration technologies that combine sunlight with oxygen and atmospheric CO2 to get three times as much energy out of the sun’s rays as existing solar “reactors.” The resulting “synthesis fuel” combines hydrogen and carbon monoxide and could be used to power vehicles or any type of engine equipped to deal with it.
And a team of Swiss and Norwegian scientists wants to put such technologies to use on millions of solar-powered floating islands at sea that could suck CO2 out of the air and turn it into fuel without taking up any land or bothering human neighbors. Such a plan may seem far-fetched, but we need to be open to new idea if we are going to turn the tide on climate change before we reach the dreaded “point of no return.”
Dear EarthTalk: A friend’s dad said it was such a shame that video gaming causes so much global warming, but I don’t see the connection. ~ Jake, Windham, VT
The connection between video gaming and global warming is mostly about energy use. In short, the huge growth in gaming, and the inefficiency of the consoles from the major manufacturers like Microsoft and Sony, has led to a surge in electricity demand associated with kids’ enjoyment of Fortnite, Minecraft, Roblox and other popular gaming platforms.
The first video games came out in the 1950s, but their popularity has increased exponentially since then with the advent of better computer graphics and processing. What’s more, when technology in recent years enabled mobile gaming to be set in motion, the industry’s potential skyrocketed. In 2018, the revenue for gaming products in the United States was $18.4 billion; industry analysts expect the figure to be closer to $230 billion a year by 2022.
But this popularity doesn’t come without an environmental price. For starters, the mass production of boxed video games—the kind that come on CDs or DVDs and which you load into your computer or console—generates tons and tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the leading greenhouse gas. Researchers have found that ~0.39 kilograms of carbon dioxide are released into surrounding airspace with the production of each single boxed game. While less than half a kilogram of pollution doesn’t seem like much, it adds up when you figure in how many individual games are produced. In the last year alone, the production of just one popular new Xbox and PlayStation game, FIFA 20, led to the emission of almost 600,000 kilograms of CO2, roughly equivalent to the energy needed to run 100 cars for a year.
The carbon emissions linked to video gaming don’t just end at production. Once the game is purchased, it requires a gaming console to actually play it; these consoles are especially energy-inefficient. Certain gaming devices such as the Xbox Series X produce 0.07 kilograms of CO2 for every hour played.
Another way that video gaming contributes to the climate crisis is that there are a multitude of ubiquitous games that have extensive “play times,” squandering substantial quantities of energy. Popular video games such as Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto V can take upwards of 35 hours to complete—and that’s just the main storyline, disregarding freeplay and extra “missions.” The average gamer will use more kilowatt hours of energy in a year than an energy-efficient washing machine. Meanwhile, heavy gamers consume almost three times as many kilowatt hours annually as typical moderate users.
But eco-conscious gamers (and parents) can be happy that Sony, Microsoft and other console makers are streamlining production processes to align with wider efforts to curb CO2 emissions, and consumers can expect future iterations of Xbox and PlayStation to sip electricity compared to current models. Likewise, most new games are available for digital download these days which spares the packaging and shipping—and related greenhouse gas emissions—of individual CDs and their plastic-wrapped boxes.
EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk.
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