An honest look at sustainability.

The term "sustainability" is heard more every day - from the impassioned pleas of those protecting nature, to the halls of corporate America, the clinics of spin doctors and TV ads. But whenever words become stylish, thus over-used, they tend to confuse and mask rather than inform and inspire.

Consider the true meaning of "sustainable" in contrast with its current use.

Sustainability, like liberty, requires eternal vigilance. To be sustainable in any realm of human activity, there must be disciplined use of reliable and relevant information to understand the consequences of continuing the practices that are claimed to be sustainable. To be eligible for sustainability, relevant practices cannot impair the replenishment or long-term quality of vital resources like air, water, healthy communities and recreational areas, fisheries and wildlife. And sustainable activities cannot export problems to other locations or hide them by misrepresenting causalities or collateral damage.

Unfortunately, often these requirements aren't being met. Ponder the false claims of sustainability in Georgia's energy policies.

The use of coal-burning power plants is perhaps the least sustainable of all sources of energy, but Georgia keeps approving them. At every stage - from extraction, to shipping and combustion - using coal takes a heavy toll on both natural resources and human health, even when all applicable regulations are enforced. Coal ash pollutes groundwater and fish, and can even pollute human lungs when wind-blown. Stack emissions, including mercury, speak for themselves - the most common and riskiest form of pollution in Georgia's fish is mercury, much of it directly resulting from burning coal, made artificially cheap by ignoring the massive scale of its harm.

More misunderstood are the unsustainable penalties of using nuclear power, such as the expansion of Plant Vogtle, now underway. The true costs of nuclear power are seldom tallied - including pollution released in processing radioactive fuels and power-plant construction, the risks of storing and handling radioactive materials, and liability expenses of insuring against major catastrophes - which are silently absorbed by the federal government (hence tax payers). Also ignored are enormous water demands for powerplant cooling at a time when water is scarce and Georgia's needs are growing with population.

Added to these are the enormous construction costs for nuclear plants that are consistently much higher than originally budgeted. Considering the totality of these costs, it's troubling that false 'cheap-energy' claims by power companies are commonly accepted as fact by taxpayers and energy users.

Perhaps the most vexing factor in misled beliefs about nuclear power is that sixty years after the 'peaceful atom program' was launched, there is still no reliable solution for storing spent radioactive materials - which remain deadly for thousands of years and vulnerable to accidents and terrorism.

A more subtle analysis of sustainability is required in evaluating the use of bio-fuels - including plant by-products (husks, mulch, peanut shells, wood scraps, etc.). When such fuels or their derivatives are burned in producing energy, they release carbon, the most common greenhouse gas causing global warming. It's frequently argued that biofuels are both renewable, since plants can be regrown, and that those plants store carbon.

Over a well-managed life-cycle, using biofuel sources can, theoretically, be carbon neutral.

However, sustainability must be measured using a practical diversity of criteria: short-, mid- and long-term, as well as local, regional, and global. Even if carbon neutrality can be achieved by using bio-fuels over the long term, to avoid the worst consequences of a warming climate - including destructive storms, droughts, floods, and crop loss - we must do as much as possible in the short term to reduce carbon emissions. This means cutting carbon, whether in the guise of burning "green" fuels or any other form. Likewise, when combusted, bio-fuels - like fossil fuels - release toxic compounds, which is by no means sustainable.

Many other examples of woefully unsustainable practices persist while being touted as sustainable. Of all energy choices now available, wind and solar power are, by far, the most sustainable, yet they are often marginalized in policy debates and at a distinct political disadvantage.

To achieve appropriate influence in shaping responsible public policy, sustainability must be accurately defined, rigorously monitored, and objectively reported to the public.

David Kyler, Executive Director Center for a Sustainable Coast
February 4, 2013

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