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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: Freight companies like FedEx, UPS and all those 18 wheelers on the highways probably generate a lot of pollution and global warming. Is anything being done to address this?
—Michael Brown, Washington, DC

Freight shipments are responsible for about a quarter of all transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. Heavy duty trucks are the biggest villains, accounting for 77.8 percent of freight transportation's total. Running mostly on diesel fuel, they are also major emitters of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, which are linked to a wide range of human health problems.

Photo © Thinkstock

Freight companies operating in the U.S. and beyond do generate significant amounts of pollution. While transportation technologies and fuels have gotten more efficient in recent years, freight demands have grown considerably over the past two decades. Today, in the U.S. alone, for example, freight is responsible for about a quarter of all transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.

Most freight trucks, locomotives and ships run on diesel engines, which are major sources of emissions of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and carbon dioxide (CO2). Repeated exposure to nitrogen oxide-based smog and particulate matter has been linked to a wide range of human health problems, and we all know what CO2 emissions are doing to the planet’s atmosphere and ecosystems in terms of global warming.

According to a 2005 analysis by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHA), heavy duty trucks are the biggest villains, accounting for 77.8 percent of total U.S. freight greenhouse gas emissions. Boat, train and airplane freight contribute10.8, 8.7 and 2.8 percent respectively.

Besides filling up loads completely and keeping equipment well tuned, shippers can reduce emissions via smarter operations and procedures. Software developed by UPS’s Roadnet helps logistics managers re-engineer their fleet routing, preventing tons of emissions and saving millions of dollars and in the process.

Newer Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emissions standards aim to reduce nitrogen oxide and particulate matter pollution from freight operators upwards of 60 percent by 2020. They are a step in the right direction, but the failure of Congress to pass substantive federal legislation limiting CO2 emissions means that a growing freight sector will continue to pump out more and more greenhouse gases.

A recently released report by the tri-lateral North American Free Trade Agreement’s (NAFTA’s) Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) lays out a vision for how to make freight—the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in North America after electricity generation—more efficient and less polluting across Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.

The report identifies some scary trends. For example, emissions from freight-related vehicles grew 74 percent between 1990 and 2008—some 40 percent more than emissions growth from passenger vehicles over the same time span. Also, while emissions by light duty vehicles are expected to drop 12 percent by 2030, freight truck emissions are expected to grow by 20 percent. To start turning the freight sector around, CEC recommends that the three countries party to NAFTA start shifting to lower carbon fuels, putting a price on carbon emissions and replacing crumbling infrastructure. These fixes won’t be cheap, but CEC claims they will save money in the long run and clean up of North American freight altogether.

CONTACTS: FHA’s “Assessing the Effects of Freight Movement on Air Quality at the National and Regional Level”; Roadnet Technologies; Commission for Environmental Cooperation.

 
 

 

Dear EarthTalk: I know that polar bears are losing ice cover due to climate change, but what are other ways that global warming affects wildlife around the globe?
—Hanna Bond, Hartford, CT

Climate change is affecting many more species than polar bears. The National Audubon Society found that 60 percent of the 305 avian species in North America during winter have shifted their ranges northward by an average of 35 miles, thanks to warming temperatures. The American Goldfinch, pictured here, has moved some 200 miles north in the last 40 years.

Photo © Thinkstock

Although perhaps the best known examples, polar bears certainly aren’t the only wildlife species already suffering as a result of global warming. With the sea ice that they depend upon as hunting platforms and places to rest during long swims quickly melting, polar bears were added to the federal list of threatened species in 2008. This contentious listing decision was significant in that it represented the first time the federal government acknowledged that global warming was not only having a noticeable effect on the environment but could also be blamed for the decline of particular species. Environmentalists claimed the listing was reason enough to reign in our carbon emissions sharply, but of course that has yet to happen.

While all organisms on the planet are affected in one way or another by climate change, some are more at risk than others. “Species with small population sizes, restricted ranges, and limited ability to move to different habitat will be most at risk,” reports the National Audubon Society. “Similarly, different habitats and ecosystems will be impacted differently, with those in coastal, high-latitude, and high-altitude regions most vulnerable.”

Audubon, which is primarily concerned with birds, recently published a report based on 40 years of data that found some 60 percent of the 305 avian species in North America during winter have been on the move in recent decades—shifting their ranges northward by an average of 35 miles, as habitat shifts thanks to warming temperatures. The Brant (a coastal bird), the Ring-necked Duck (a water bird), and the American Goldfinch (a land bird), all moved about 200 miles north over the last four decades. While it’s questionable whether some birds will find suitable habitat to the north—we may have paved that piece of land over—the picture looks even more grim for those species not willing or able to abandon old roosts. Also, Audubon reports that the timing of reproductive events (egg-laying, flowering, spawning) across different interdependent species is occurring earlier than ever “in some cases interrupting delicate cycles that ensure that insects and other food are available for young animals.”

Another leading conservation group, Defenders of Wildlife, details how a long list of other North American fauna is in decline as a result of global warming. The gray wolf, trout, salmon, arctic fox, desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, Edith’s checkerspot butterfly, golden toad, Hawaiian monk seal, lobster, manatee, painted turtle, penguin, streamside salamander and western toad are just a few of the species on Defenders’ list that are negatively impacted by our profligate fossil fuel use. Meanwhile, the Wildlife Conservation Society adds the Irrawaddy dolphin of Southeast Asia, the Arctic’s musk ox, the ocean-going hawksbill turtle and others to the list of species that are “feeling the heat” from global warming.

While it may seem futile given the scope of the problem, everyone can still take steps to be part of the solution. Switch out your incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents or, even better, the new generation of LED bulbs. Bike, walk and take mass transit more; drive your car less. Telecommute when you can. Try to source as much of your food and other goods locally to cut down on carbon-heavy transcontinental freight shipping. If not for yourself, do it for the polar bears, turtles, foxes and toads.

CONTACTS: National Audubon Society; Defenders of Wildlife; Wildlife Conservation Society.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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