Ecology is making the front page of many a magazine. While information on this “clean planet” topic is everywhere, misconceptions persist. It’s worth clearing some received ideas right up. So here are 5 answers to gain a better understanding. .
The Amazon rainforest is the lungs of the Earth: it’s false!
Yes, the Amazon rainforest and its plant life produce oxygen whilst capturing CO2 (carbon dioxide or carbonic acid gas) with their leaves. But plants don’t produce oxygen at night – they consume it. Their oxygen production mainly supports their own breathing, not really ours. In addition, the amount of oxygen emitted depends on the condition of the trees, and the Amazon rainforest is not getting any younger. According to scientists, it produces about 10% of the oxygen that human beings breathe.
The real lung of the Earth is the sea. It’s the top producer of O2 and recycler of CO2 thanks to phytoplankton, or plant plankton, which absorbs CO2 and discharges oxygen according to the same principle as photosynthesis. These plant micro-organisms and minute algae constitute a much bigger biomass than forests, making the sea a major natural carbon well. Some species of such organisms store carbon in their skeletons. These then settle on the sea bed, trapping CO2 in marine sediment, forever preventing it from contributing towards global warming. So let’s protect this blue lung, and also fight deforestation of the Amazon rainforest which is primordial in protecting biodiversity, regulating the climate of South America and maintaining moisture levels.
Plastic is infinitely recyclable: it’s false!
Even if plastic items are sorted correctly and actually shipped to a recycling facility, they cannot be used to reproduce the same items, which is the very definition of recycling. A glass bottle can be used to make another one, but when it comes to plastic, there’s a limit to what can be done. This is because when reprocessed over and over, the material deteriorates and loses certain qualities. Some virgin plastic also needs to be added in to maintain the quality of the end product.
However, recycled plastic can be turned into items or building materials. Unfortunately, these “by-products” can only be made with the use of additives. These prevent them from being recycled again, and the items end up in landfill or in the incinerator. So it’s a new lease of life, but the end of the line. Hence the merit of ceasing to buy any items made of or packaged in plastic.
Nuclear power plants emit CO2: it’s false!
Most people, here in France at least, think nuclear power contributes towards global warming. In fact, nuclear power emits very little CO2 – less than solar panels – considering the quantity of energy that it generates. Because this electricity generation through the fission of uranium atoms generates heat, which turns water into steam. The steam drives a turbine connected to an alternator, which in turn generates electricity. So there’s no combustion. The construction and maintenance of these power plants, and uranium extraction, do emit a little CO2, as all renewable energies do. But overall, nuclear power is clean energy.
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is even looking at developing nuclear power as a solution to combat global warming! However, radioactive waste, which can be very dangerous, is processed and subject to very stringent regulations to avoid any contamination.
Eating organic food takes care of the soil: it’s false!
Although the organic farming charter prohibits synthetic pesticides, it permits those that come from “natural substances or substances derived from natural substances”. It also permits a few that are on the list of exceptions (slaked lime, paraffin oil even though it’s made from oil, sulphur and copper sulphate).
Natural does not mean harmless to human health or without detrimental effects on the environment. So the schedule of specifications targets chemicals, but does not prohibit other aspects like practices that are punishing for the soil. Organic farming can involve just as much ploughing as conventional farming, whereas it’s one of the most disruptive practices when it comes to the soil and biodiversity.
Excluding those in the “mass-produced” organic segment, organic farmers fortunately subscribe to a more comprehensive, virtuous philosophy, even if it’s not mentioned in the schedule of specifications. Bear in mind non-organic conservation farming, which advocates virtuous practices: not ploughing the soil, and avoiding stripping the topsoil by sowing a “cover crop”, which prevents it from deteriorating and losing its precious organic matter. Unfortunately, this type of farming dictates that glyphosate must be used to remove the cover between crop cycles.
To do the right thing, organic farming would have to be combined with soil conservation best practice: measuring the amount of organic matter in the soil, the presence of earthworms, crop rotation and crop diversity. Some people are already referring to this as organic conservation farming (in French, the ABC). Is it the farming of tomorrow?
Electric cars are not polluting: it’s false!
Electric cars are not necessarily less polluting than petrol-engine cars. And they are polluting in a different way.
It’s primarily the electric car’s batteries (which require rare-earth metals to work) that make its construction polluting.
Moreover, even though the motor doesn’t generate pollution while the car is being driven, the electricity needed to power it may be from more or less polluting sources, like:
- Fossil fuels (like coal, oil and gas)
- Green or “decarbonised” energies like nuclear power, hydroelectricity and renewable energies (solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, etc.) that emit very little greenhouse gas
Each country uses a mix of these energies to generate its electricity. So an electric car charged in France, where 75% of electricity is generated via nuclear power, involves very low CO2 emissions. However, an electric car in China or India is powered by electricity generated mainly from coal, which is the most polluting energy in terms of CO2 and fine particles.
As for the petrol- or diesel-engine car, it’s a little less polluting in terms of its production process, but much more so over time whenever it’s being driven.