Week of 03/25/2007

Dear EarthTalk: Which countries that signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, which set goals for reducing global warming emissions, are fulfilling or surpassing their commitments? Which are falling short and why?

—Dan S., via e-mail

As of the end of 2006, 169 countries had signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement forged in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 calling on the world"s industrialized nations to reduce emissions of so-called "greenhouse gases" thought to be contributing to global warming. The agreement called for a 5.2 percent reduction overall in the release of six pollutants—carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs)—by 2012 in relation to 1990 levels.

Although the agreement was hammered out 10 years ago, its emissions reduction standards did not take effect until two years ago, in February 2005. As such, signatory countries have only barely begun to make changes, and no one has yet conducted a comprehensive study of progress toward reaching targets. United Nations research does show, however, that a majority of the 36 European countries that signed onto the Kyoto Protocol are currently not on track to meet their goals by 2012.

However, the 27-member-nation European Union (EU), which as a block is one of the largest global warming polluters, is likely to meet its collective goal. This is due in large part to Eastern European states having shut down or modernized heavy polluting Soviet-era industries during the 1990s. Also helping the EU effort is the United Kingdom, which is on track to meet its goals, thanks mostly to a switch from coal-fired power plants to cleaner burning natural gas. Germany and France also hope to meet their Kyoto commitments, largely through a program of subsidies for the development of non-polluting energy sources. And Sweden expects to overachieve on its Kyoto targets thanks to the imposition of a hefty carbon tax on polluting industries and big investments in alternative energy sources.

Topping the list of Kyoto slackers is Canada, which last year became the first signatory country to announce that it would not meet its Kyoto target of a six percent emissions cut by 2012. New oil production in the tar sands of Alberta has instead forced Canada"s greenhouse gas emissions up significantly, as the government has chosen to pursue economic growth as a priority over meeting its Kyoto commitments. Japan is also lagging behind. If no additional measures are taken, the United Nations forecasts that Japan"s emissions will instead grow six percent by 2012. But Japan"s environment ministry says that implementation of some market-based incentives in 2008 should help Japan meet its goal.

Regrettably, the United States and Australia don"t have to worry about meeting any commitments, as neither country agreed to sign the Kyoto agreement, even though together the two major industrial powers account for 30 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. President George W. Bush does not support mandatory caps on emissions, arguing that such a move would cause irreparable harm to the U.S. economy. He also complains that developing nations are not being held up to the same standards as the rest of the world. Unfortunately, with the U.S. on the sidelines, the good faith efforts of dozens of other nations could end up being quite immaterial in the fight to stave off global warming.

CONTACTS: Kyoto Protocol; United Nations Climate Change Page

Dear EarthTalk: I saw warnings on bags of charcoal that said carcinogens are released when the briquettes are burned. Is it safe to breathe in the smell of a charcoal grill?

—Joe Sliwa, via e-mail

Barbecue grills can be problematic for two reasons. First, both charcoal and wood burn "dirty," producing not only hydrocarbons but also tiny soot particles that pollute the air and can aggravate heart and lung problems. Secondly, the grilling of meat can form two kinds of potentially carcinogenic compounds: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs).

According to the American Cancer Society, PAHs form when fat from meat drips onto the charcoal. They then rise with the smoke and can get deposited on the food. They can also form directly on the food as it is charred. The hotter the temperature and the longer the meat cooks, the more HCAs are formed.

HCAs can also form on broiled and pan-fried beef, pork, foul and fish, not just on grilled meats. In fact, National Cancer Institute researchers have identified 17 different HCAs that result from cooking "muscle meats" and that may pose human cancer risks. Studies have also shown increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic and breast cancers associated with high intakes of well done, fried or barbequed meats.

According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Air Quality, Texans who like to say that they "live and breathe barbecue" may be doing just that to the detriment of their health. A 2003 study by scientists from Rice University found that microscopic bits of polyunsaturated fatty acids released into the atmosphere from cooking meat on backyard barbecues were helping to pollute the air in Houston. The city at times registers air quality levels that rank it one of the more polluted U.S. urban areas, though emissions from barbecues are certainly dwarfed by those generated by motor vehicles and industry.

Both briquettes and lump charcoal create air pollution. Lump charcoal, made from charred wood to add flavor, also contributes to deforestation and adds to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Charcoal briquettes do have the benefit of being made partly from sawdust (a good use of waste wood), but popular brands may also contain coal dust, starch, sodium nitrate, limestone and borax.

In Canada, charcoal is now a restricted product under the Hazardous Products Act. According to the Canadian Department of Justice, charcoal briquettes in bags that are advertised, imported or sold in Canada must display a label warning of the potential hazards of the product. No such requirements presently exist in the United States.

Consumers can avoid exposure to these potentially harmful additives by sticking with so-called natural charcoal brands. Noram de Mexico"s Sierra Madre 100 percent oak hardwood charcoal contains no coal, oil, limestone, starch, sawdust or petroleum products and, to boot, is certified by the Rainforest Alliance"s SmartWood program as sustainably harvested. The product is available at select Sam"s Clubs across the U.S. Other manufacturers of all natural charcoal include Greenlink and Lazzari, both of which can be found at natural food outlets across North America.

CONTACTS: Rainforest Alliance SmartWood Program; Greenlink Charcoal; Lazzari