Common Misconceptions About the Environment


Misconceptions about the environment and the changes wrought upon it by human activity are widespread. In some cases they are deeply held beliefs, resistant to challenge. In others they are simple misunderstandings. But they are certainly legion, in a variety of areas concerning the environment, changes to it, and to its future. Whether one accepts changes to the environment or not, those same changes will inevitably affect their lives, in ways both seen and unseen.

Even among the many who claim to be environmentally conscious there are many misconceptions. Discussions of the environment include erroneous beliefs regarding the role of the rainforests, greenhouse gases, fossil fuels, biofuels, and what is and is not biodegradable. Misconceptions about what is good or bad for the environment extend to the production of food and the quality of drinking water. Here are 10 misconceptions about the environment and the steps taken by humanity which affect it.

10. Clean coal is better burning, producing less greenhouse gases

Clean coal is a misnomer. The coal which comes from mining is not clean, though many believe it to be so. It’s as if a new strain of coal suddenly appeared, which burns cleanly, thus saving the coal industry from pesky environmental regulations. Clean coal became a catchphrase for supporting the coal mining industry in the late 20th century, in response to regulations designed to control acid rain. It refers to technologies designed to entrap emissions released during the burning process, eventually returning them to the ground. In fact, clean coal is expensive for the coal industry, when applied to facilities which burn coal as a source of power. Applying the technologies required to achieve clean burning of coal is expensive, in many cases, unfeasible due to plant age, and often simply not cost-effective.

Burning coal releases several toxic gases into the atmosphere, including mercury, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and many others. It is simply not possible to burn coal without creating numerous toxins, which must be recovered or allow them to enter the environment with damaging results. Mining of so-called clean coal is itself a process harmful to the environment, as well as dangerous for miners. The belief that clean coal is a panacea for the world’s energy needs, without harm to the environment, is simply incorrect. There is no such thing as clean coal. There are many means of cleaning up following the mining and burning of coal. Their use, or non-use, is a matter of public will.

9. The Earth will run out of oxygen if the tropical rain forests are destroyed

Misconceptions of the role of the world’s rainforests are common, most of them centering on the ecosystems’ role in the quality of the earth’s air. A commonly held misconception is the rainforests creating much of the world’s oxygen. Loss of the rainforests would cause the world to run out of oxygen, to the point it becomes insufficient to support life. The Amazonian rainforest is often cited as producing 20% of the world’s oxygen supply. The belief is incorrect, and all of the rainforests being lost simultaneously would have an insignificant impact on the oxygen supply of the globe. That doesn’t mean, though, that losing the rainforests is a good thing for the environment.

Destruction of the rainforests would cause a significant increase in the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It would also slow the ability of other forests and biomass to absorb the newly released carbon dioxide. The rainforests, while they do produce oxygen, serve as carbon traps and should they be destroyed, that service is lost. At the same time, the carbon gases which they formerly trapped would be released into the air. The loss of the rainforests would be insignificant as regards the earth’s oxygen supply, but catastrophic regarding the release of carbon gases into the atmosphere.

8. Biodegradable means eco-friendly

Not necessarily. Biodegradable means breaking down into original parts. A dead tree in a forest, untouched by human hands, is biodegradable. As it gradually rots away, it releases greenhouse gases. Other biodegradable items release other gases, including methane and carbon dioxide, both of which contribute to increased greenhouse gases. Many so-called biodegradable plastics really aren’t biodegradable at all. They degrade into the constituent recycled plastics from which they were made, rather than their original chemical bases.

According to research conducted for the benefit of the German parliament, many plastics labeled as bioplastic (made from organic raw materials) are not biodegradable at all in seawater. They degrade, but only into smaller bits of plastic, rather than into organic material. Nearly all plastics labeled as biodegradable will continue to exist in the environment as plastic, rather than dissolving into harmless organic matter. Plastic in all its many forms, be it petroleum based or bioplastic, remains harmful to the environment, and a major problem for waste management organizations.

7. Paper bags are better for the environment than plastic

A commonly held belief is that paper bags, since they are made from a biodegradable and often recycled product, are better for the environment than the plastic alternative. This is, at best, only partially true. Paper breaks down easily, especially when wet. That’s one reason paper bags were replaced with plastic, which offer more durability and longer life. But as noted, biodegradable products, including paper, produce greenhouse gases as they degrade. Paper manufacturing and recycling also produces greenhouse gases, contributing to environmental changes.

Of course, if one reuses bags, either paper or plastic, it is better for the environment, but unfortunately most people don’t. Many stores offer drop-off stations for used plastic bags for recycling, but more new plastic bags leave most stores every day than old bags being returned. The best solution, environmentally speaking, is the use of cloth bags, or even a return of the market basket, a quaint reminder of past shopping habits. How many times a bag will be reused is the key to how environmentally friendly it is, regardless of the material of which it is made.

6. Biofuels are better for the environment

At first glance it seems biofuels, a renewable energy source from plants, offer a completely environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels. They do burn more cleanly than fossil fuels, releasing fewer toxic gases, and in some cases lower levels of carbon dioxide. Their efficiency depends though on the types of plants from which they were manufactured. European studies have shown some are only marginally cleaner than fossil fuels. They also showed up to half of all biofuel mixtures were environmentally more damaging than petroleum based fuels.

An often overlooked aspect of the environmental impact of biofuels is the growth stages of the biomass used to produce the fuel. Heavy fertilization of the crops used to manufacture the fuels leads to increased runoff into streams and absorption into the groundwater, particularly of nitrates. Biofuels manufactured from waste cooking oils are among the most environmentally friendly, while fuels manufactured from soy, potatoes, and some grains proved more damaging to the environment than petroleum based fuels, such as gasoline.

5. Global consumption of coal is on the rise

It’s true that in developing countries and in China and India coal consumption continues to increase annually. Globally though, coal consumption peaked in 2013, and has declined, slowly but steadily, in the years since. In the Asian Pacific region, countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia increased consumption in double digit rates, as did India and China. In Western Europe and the United States, coal consumption declined, as much as 15% in the latter in 2019. The reason? Alternative energy sources and cheaper natural gas.

Coal consumption in the United States declined from its overall peak in 2005 by more than 50% in 2019. At the same time, consumption and production of coal in China leaped. By 2019, China led the world in both consumption and production. Over 47% of global coal production came from China that year with much of it consumed internally. In western countries, both production and consumption continue to decline, leading to an overall reduction of coal consumption across the globe. The drop is a good thing for the environment, since coal is considered the least environmentally friendly of all fuels, both because of the gases it releases when burned, and the environmental hazards linked with its production.

4. Bottled water is safer because its tested by government agencies

Incidents such as those affecting drinking water in Flint, Michigan, have led many to believe that bottled water is safer, monitored by governments for quality and purity. Yet bottled water is not routinely tested by most governments, and the sell-by dates on bottles are voluntarily imprinted by manufacturers. On average, it requires about 1.3 quarts of water to produce one quart of bottled water, which does not include the water used in other areas of the supply chain, such as packaging. There are some governmental bodies which establish regulations for bottled water around the globe, but they do not make bottled water safer than tap.

In fact, in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration’s requirements for bottled water are that it meets the requirements for tap water. Similar regulations exist in India, while Australia limits the amount of fluoride in bottled water. In many developing areas of the world bottled water is safer, though in the wealthier nations it is generally not. The environmental impact of the global industry is substantial. Production, packaging, shipping, and distribution all have a negative effect on the environment. It also contributes significantly to the growing problem of plastic waste all over the world.

3. Organic foods do not contain herbicides or pesticides

Organic farming initiatives setting aside ever-increasing lots of land are occurring in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the United States. The attraction of organic foods is that they contain none of the pesticides and herbicides present in conventional farming. In fact, many do, leeched from the soil during growth, or from the processing facilities through which they pass on their way to markets. Another misconception regarding organic farming is that it is friendlier to the environment than conventional farming. The belief is centered on the use of only natural fertilizers and methods of pest control. In a Swedish study, evidence presented organic farming as actually more harmful to the environment as regards greenhouse emissions.

Organic farming provides smaller yields than conventional farming of the same sized area of land. To be competitive, organic farming requires larger fields than conventional farming. The Swedish summary, published in the scientific journal Nature, found that organic farming produced up to 50% more greenhouse gases than conventional farming of the same sized acreage. Yet organic farming continues to expand in Europe, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. In 2016 the Indian state of Sikkim announced it had completed the conversion of its agriculture system to 100% organic.

2. The greenhouse effect is destroying the environment

The greenhouse effect is one of the most misunderstood areas of the environment. To many people concerned about global warming and climate change it is the boogieman. In truth, life on earth couldn’t exist without the greenhouse effect. The effect is the entrapment of the radiation from the sun, in greenhouse gases, which re-radiate the warmth to the surface. Among the many gases which are part of the greenhouse effect is water vapor, aka, clouds. Yet there are many other greenhouse gases which contribute to the effect, some naturally occurring and some man-made.

The principal problem with the greenhouse effect is the enhancement of gases which trap the sun’s warmth and hold it within the atmosphere. Increases in greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, are the primary cause of the phenomena known as global warming. The increased greenhouse gases are mainly the result of burning fuels, both fossil fuels and biofuels. The environment is changing as a result, affecting growing seasons, weather patterns, sea levels, and the polar ice caps. Eliminating the greenhouse effect is impossible. Reducing the amounts of gases which daily enhances it is not.

1. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for oil and gas does not harm the environment

Hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, revolutionized the oil and gas industry beginning in the late 20th century. Basically, holes are drilled in rock, either horizontally or vertically, and high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals are forced into the cavity, freeing natural gas to flow to a well-head. The process requires vast amounts of water, which becomes contaminated during use. It also potentially contaminates groundwater with toxic chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic. Studies have connected fracking with ground tremors and potential earthquakes. Yet the oil industry claims the process is safe for the environment, and even environmentally friendly. It makes the latter argument because natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, reducing carbon emissions.

Concerns about the environmental impact of fracking led to its being banned in France, Germany, and Bulgaria. It was stopped for several years in the United Kingdom over concerns of its triggering damaging temblors. Studies have shown it has a negative effect on drinking water in several areas where its use is extensive. As far as the environment is concerned, the point of fracking is to obtain fossil fuels, which when burned add to the enhancement of the greenhouse effect. Both its process and its product are harmful to the environment, though it is widespread in the United States and Canada, as well as in China.

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