Chicago Youth Alliance for Climate Action

Chicago Youth Alliance for Climate Action

My childhood up in smoke: What Beijing, Chicago, and my memories have in common

As a part of CYACA's new initiative, we will be publishing articles from our general assembly board for the public! This week, we will hear from Suzy Xu, a freshman from Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, and her experiences living in China and the United States: 

An issue that’s important to me is the increasingly dire consequences of pollution in large cities. I grew up in Beijing, but instead of remembering smog and bleak skies, I have a distinct memory of how it smelled like spring every time it rained, of playing in playgrounds with neon swings and hot pink slides. A life that was about as blissful as ice cream on a hot summer afternoon. And so, after moving to Chicago when I was eight, I heard all these tales of how horrid conditions were in Beijing, of how the fog was so dark and thick that you couldn’t see ten feet in front of you, how cars piled up for miles and miles and traffic crawled like broken clocks. All of this was in shocking juxtaposition to how I had painted the Beijing of my childhood, and I refused to believe it. Of course, now I know that in 2008, when I left China, pollution was already terrible and that all the happy memories I had were distorted under the closed bubble of my planned community. But then, I chose to believe that reports of children fainting in classrooms from monoxide poisoning, of cars crashing from the cloak of smog, were mere fabrications. That refusal to believe the truth is terrifyingly like how policymakers choose to deny the existence of climate change and erase lives that are ruined by it.

Then two summers ago, I went back to my “small town” of over 21 million people for the first time over five years, and upon arrival, I felt like I had been shattered. Gone were the trees and parks and flowers and blue skies and sunbeams and slowly melting popsicles and gleaming playgrounds and everything that I had treasured in the time capsule of my childhood. It was gut-wrenching to see that everything was gray, black, dusty, and dirty, a valley of cars honking weakly through the ash of burning factories. I walked in concrete jungles for two weeks, and I can’t remember seeing a single blade of real grass.

The point is not to contribute even more to the history of scapegoating China, or India, or other developing nations for being the only emitters of CO2. I fell to the belief that nothing bad could touch me, to the idea of myself being necessarily separate from the negative effects that reached everyone else. It was painful for me to see my little bubble pop, but imagine what it would mean for the entire population of the United States if we kept turning a blind eye to all the darkening patches in our summer days, what it would mean for the parks and golden beaches and streets to overfill with smog, and how devastating it would be when all of us finally realized just how much we had poisoned ourselves.




Biomass Energy for Dummies: What You Need to Know

The election has passed, and no matter what candidates you supported all the way down the ticket, hopefully you did enough research that you were exposed to the growing form of energy known as biomass. Senators, Representatives, and more may be in support or against biomass, and even though they have already been elected, it is important for the citizens to know and understand biomass.


Technically speaking, the word biomass has nothing to do with energy. It is first identified to have originated in 1934, and according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of biomass is “ the amount of living matter (as in a unit area or volume of habitat).” While the origin may not be tied to energy, biomass as a fuel source gets tossed around so much these days with little actual understanding by the people.


Biomass power, also known as biomass energy, biofuel, etc., is using living matter, rather than fossil fuels, to provide energy. The process typically starts with five energy sources: garbage, wood, waste, landfill gases, and alcohol, which are either burned, or converted into other fuel forms (through the fermentation of corn and other crops) such as ethanol and diesel.


Here’s the key part: Biomass is considered “renewable energy,” and while many people think this means zero carbon emissions, that is not the case. What classifies an energy source as renewable is its ability to resupply itself within a relative lifetime. So, since biofuel comes from crops which can be grown in a year or less, this is considered biofuel. However, biomass (not unlike humans), is comprised mainly of carbon, so when we burn biomass or use it as ethanol, we are still releasing large amounts of carbon into the air at a rapid rate.


Politicians and biomass partners will tell you that while they do emit carbon, biofuels are significantly better than coal and natural gas, so they are a step in the right direction. Truthfully, biofuels do emit less carbon than most fossil fuels because of the lower carbon concentration in the plant and animal based sources. However, this standpoint completely ignores the other costs of biomass which demonstrate why we shouldn’t hop on the biomass train.


First and foremost, just because biomass emits less carbon, that does not mean it wouldn’t release unhealthy amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. We should be investing in energy sources with zero carbon emissions because we don’t have time to take it slowly and reduce bit by bit.


Next, greater reliance on biomass means more investing in farming and agriculture. America’s farming system is already bad enough. Only 1% of our farmland actually goes to producing food for human consumption. The majority is used to produce animal feed, and what’s left is grown for biofuel. Not only would it be nearly impossible to shift our agricultural system to support more crop development for biomass due to our shrinking farmland, but it would also create a greater strain on the system.

In addition to the actual lack of land, a growing dependence on farming would only increase the environmental impacts of our agriculture. Our topsoil lacks nutrients, our water sources are contaminated due to fertilizers and pesticides seeping into the ground, and the runoff of those chemicals flows right into our oceans and other bodies of water, absolutely devastating huge ocean life populations. We cannot afford to increase our farm production, as the environmental effect of agriculture is already too great.


So, there are many negative aspects of biomass. That being said, if the only two options were biomass vs fossil fuels, biomass would win everyday. Luckily, we have many truly renewable, zero-emission energy sources available right at our fingertips and even more being developed with every passing day. Rather than go halfway in our commitment to sustainability, let’s go the whole distance.


Hopefully you are a little more educated on biomass and the environmental impacts. Now, you must take action, teach your friends and family, and urge your politicians, no matter their position, to support fully-renewable energy sources such as wind and solar instead of biomass energy.

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