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 the 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.
Contacts: “Is playing video games making climate change worse?” euronews.com/living/2020/02/17/is-playing-video-games-making-climate-change-worse; “Gamers in the U.S. create as much carbon dioxide as 5 million cars, study says,” digitaltrends.com/gaming/green-gaming-report-us-gamers-global-warming-climate-change/; Microsoft Sustainability, microsoft.com/en-us/corporate-responsibility/sustainability; Sony’s “Playstation & The Environment,” playstation.com/en-gb/footer/about-us/playstation-and-the-environment/.
Dear EarthTalk: Cargo shipping creates huge amounts of air and marine pollution. What’s being done to change this, given the large number of everyday goods that travel this way? — JJ, Newark, NJ
The vast majority of goods we use and enjoy have spent at least some time traveling on cargo ships. In fact, such ships facilitate more than 80 percent of global trade. Unfortunately, these huge ships that ply the world’s oceans and waterways burn lots of fossil fuels — some individual ships burn upwards of 100 tons of oil a day. If the global cargo shipping industry were a country, it would rank sixth overall in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (higher than South Korea, Iran and Canada).
Cargo ships have several other negative environmental effects, as well. They also emit large amounts of fine particles, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide — all bad for us and our environment. As if the emissions weren’t bad enough, cargo ships also run into marine life at an alarming rate: ship strikes are one of the leading causes of death for many of the world’s whale species.
But as bad as all this sounds, cargo shipping is one of the most efficient and eco-friendly ways to get items from point A to B. Big ships emit only about half as much CO2 as trains, 1/5 as much as trucks and only 1/50 of what airplanes would emit to transport the same load.
Nonetheless, environmental concerns continue to dog cargo shipping. In response, shipping companies have started to employ innovative strategies to save fuel and reduce pollution, such as so-called “slow steaming” whereby ships can burn less fuel and reduce emissions by traveling more slowly than usual.
Transitioning to cleaner fuels — such as liquified natural gas — is another obvious short-term solution, but it can only get us so far. Another band-aid fix is the installation of exhaust scrubbers, which spray a fine mist of water to remove pollutants from ships’ exhaust before they can make their way up into the atmosphere. But scrubbers require energy, which leads to more fuel being burned. Also, the waste water they generate is sometimes dumped into the ocean, which negatively affects marine organisms.
Longer term, environmental advocates are hoping for the wholesale decarbonization of the shipping industry. Plans are on the table for clean-burning hydrogen-powered cargo ships. Meanwhile, the first electrically propelled cargo ship, Norway’s Yara Birkeland, is nearing completion. This 260-foot long vessel will carry chemicals and fertilizer on a relatively short 30-mile route.
Despite these advances, cargo shipping will continue releasing large amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere for the foreseeable future. Though battery-powered ships are finally moving off the drawing board and into the water, their range is simply too limited to allow for mass replacement of existing cargo fleets. The energy density of batteries will need to increase by a factor of ~30 before such replacements can begin taking place en masse. Given the likely slow pace of change, buying local is probably the average citizen’s best option for reducing shipping-based emissions in the short term.
Contacts: “The environmental cost of shipping stuff is huge…” vox.com/2015/12/23/10647768/shipping-environmental-cost; “CO2 emissions for shipping of goods,” timeforchange.org/co2-emissions-for-shipping-of-goods/; “Shipping and climate change,” transportenvironment.org/what-we-do/shipping-and-environment/shipping-and-climate-change; The uncounted cost of shipping’s environmental impact, greenbiz.com/article/uncounted-cost-shippings-environmental-impact.
Dear EarthTalk: Now that Earth Day is 50 years old, I’m wondering how it originally started and whether the coronavirus put a damper on the celebration this year? — Mary W. Seattle, WA
Indeed, on April 22, Earth Day celebrated its 50th anniversary. Back in 1970, some 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate against pollution and other environmental ills stemming from 150 years of industrial development.
The idea for that first Earth Day sprung from Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who was troubled by the environmental deterioration he witnessed around the country and thought he could borrow some of the organizing tactics from the student-led anti-Vietnam War movement to infuse youth energy into raising public consciousness about air and water pollution. Nelson brought on a young lawyer/activist named Denis Hayes to make it happen. At first the idea was to hold a nationwide “teach-in” on college campuses, but it soon morphed into a nationwide celebration that all Americans could join, with thousands of rallies happening simultaneously within communities and on college campuses coast-to-coast.
Earth Day continued to be celebrated across the country throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and in 1990 it went global. Hayes and company mobilized leaders on every continent, with some 200 million people in 141 countries taking part in the festivities. Environmentalists credit the 1990 celebration with giving a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide and helping pave the way for 1992’s Earth Summit in Brazil.
While organizers of this year’s 50th anniversary of Earth Day had big plans for mass global events focusing on reducing waste, fighting climate change and transitioning to clean energy, the global coronavirus lockdown led them down a different path. Instead of getting together and locking hands in person to show popular support for strong environmental protections, activists and sympathizers gathered virtually all week, tuning into live talks and other streaming and interactive online programming curated by Earth Day Network and its partner Exponential Roadmap.
Although it’s too early to tell, just because green-minded people all over the world couldn’t get together physically to celebrate doesn’t mean this year’s Earth Day will be less impactful. For one, we’ve all now gotten a taste of how clean our environment could be if we kept up just some of the restraint on resource use that the lockdown has caused. Covid-19 may also be helping more of us to contemplate other aspects of our human relationship with our environment, especially since the virus was brought on in part by human-induced climate change and by dangerous forms of animal agribusiness.
As we enjoy cleaner air, more birdsong and parades of wildlife in our own backyards, not to mention the huge uptick in multi-generational residential gardening efforts, Earth Day has provided all of us with at least one day to focus our daily activities — even in quarantine — through the lens of the planet and what we can do to leave it better than we found it. Quarantine or not, the annual celebration of Earth Day serves as a reminder that Earth Day is every day. So if you didn’t plant a tree, re-think your household waste stream, or resolve to start biking to work once the office opens back up, maybe now is the time?
Dear EarthTalk: What’s the current thinking on the safety of genetically engineered or modified products with regard to environmental, farm worker and consumer health? — A.J. Cary, NC
Few topics are as divisive as genetic engineering. Plants and animals that have had their genomes artificially altered now dominate the world of agriculture. The vast majority of U.S.-grown corn and soybeans are genetically engineered. In grocery stores, over 60 percent of processed foods contain at least some components derived from GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Given all this, it makes sense to ask whether or not these altered forms of life have deleterious effects on humans or the environment.
When it comes to human health, the evidence suggests GMOs are harmless. Exhaustive meta-analyses of scientific studies on GMOs have generally found no links between their consumption and negative health outcomes. However, there are some caveats. One is that the biotechnology companies responsible for the creation of GMOs have also been responsible for a large portion of the research on their health effects. Therefore, financial conflicts of interest may have tainted the research. Additionally, many scientists still feel that the jury isn’t out on the safety of GMOs. A 2015 scientific paper signed by 300 independent researchers from around the world states that the effects of GMOs on health remain “unclear.”
Another factor is that scientific studies on GMO-related health risks have generally been short term. We can’t extrapolate the effects of years of GMO consumption on human health by looking at the seemingly null results from a year-long study on rodents. It could still be that GMOs are causing health issues, but we’ve failed to establish a causal link because of how long these issues take to manifest. That said, it’s quite possible that most (if not all) GMOs on the market today are completely safe to eat. Regardless, testing should continue, especially for new varieties of GMOs that aren’t well studied.
Environmentally, GMOs are a mixed bag. Most crops are genetically modified in an effort to fight pests. There are two ways to accomplish this goal. The first is to create plants that produce pest-killing toxins “endogenously”: When pests eat such plants, they die. These types of GMOs can actually be good for the environment in that they often don’t require as many pesticides as unmodified plants.
Unfortunately, an alternate pest fighting strategy that also uses genetic modification — engineering plants to be resistant to pesticides and herbicides — has the opposite effect, generally leading to an increase in agricultural waste. Also of concern is the genetic contamination of wild species due to cross breeding with GMOs. This is particularly a risk in the case of GMO farmed salmon. If these fish escape fish farming operations and contaminate wild stocks, the ecological consequences could be severe.
All in all, GMOs are still shrouded in uncertainty. They seem to have some benefits, and many scientists believe they can help address world hunger. However, there’s still a chance GMOs could cause health issues, and they have already caused some environmental issues. If you’re not convinced by the research to date, and prefer to avoid GMOs altogether, look for the non-GMO project label on the foods you buy.
Contacts: “No scientific consensus on GMO safety,” bit.ly/no-consensus; GMOs: Pros & Cons, healthline.com/health/gmos-pros-and-cons; “5 big takeaways from the most thorough review of GMOs yet,” vox.com/2016/5/18/11690992/gmos-review-evidence-safety-health.