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Boosting Bicycling’s Benefits

For many, sitting alone in a vehicle in a traffic jam on the way to work is a fact of life. But are there policies cities could consider to encourage commuters to ditch the automobile for a bike, improving public health and reducing the environmental toll of motorized transportation?

That was what researchers in New Zealand attempted to answer in a new study, “The Societal Costs and Benefits of Commuter Bicycling: Simulating the Effects of Specific Policies Using System Dynamics Modeling.” The study explored different policy options to encourage commuter bicycling in Auckland, a high-income, car-dependent city.

The verdict? Investing in bike infrastructure pays off. Using a simulation model, the authors determined that policy options such as creating separate bike paths and reduced-speed, bike-friendly streets can yield benefits 10 to 25 times greater than the cost.

“To our knowledge, this is the first integrated simulation model of future specific bicycling policies,” the authors write. “Our projections provide practical evidence that may be used by health and transport policy makers to optimize the benefits of transport bicycling while minimizing negative consequences in a cost-effective manner.” Photo by sfbike (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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The Bright Side of the Megacity

Writing in Foreign Policy, journalist Jonathan Kalan argues that the media, environmentalists and non-governmental organizations focus too much on problems in the world’s megacities (cities where the population is greater than 10 million), such as air pollution and traffic. “Megacities hold enormous value for the developing world,” Kalan writes, “and ensuring that they deliver this value starts, fundamentally, with no longer seeing them as utter catastrophes.”

Kalan breaks his piece, “10 Million Sardines in a Sea of Skyscrapers,” into six sections based on what he sees as major myths about megacities, such as, among others, “Megacities pose the most dire development crisis of the 21st century” and “Megacities can’t be ‘healthy,’ because they’re killing the planet” — and then gives his response, first in pithy answers and then by way of in-depth analysis.

As more and more of the world’s people become urban dwellers, critical examinations of where we will be living, such as Kalan’s, are important to make sure we get the future right. Photo by Deepak Gupta (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Playing It Cool

On a hot, sunny day, dark roofs and pavements in Houston reach a smoldering 160 degrees. Startling facts like this spurred action at the municipal level, including passing an energy conservation code requiring cool roofs on certain buildings and initiating an effort to plant a million shade trees in just three to five years.

Cool Policies for Cool Cities: Best Practices for Mitigating Urban Heat Islands in North American Cities”— a report published recently by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy — documents actions 26 cities around the U.S. and Canada have taken to address urban heat island challenges as a way to provide other cities with ideas of their own. From Boston to Cincinnati to Los Angeles, cities are employing a spectrum of strategies to reduce urban heating, including modifying stormwater management, installing reflective pavement and planting rooftop gardens. After surveying the cities and analyzing their findings, the study’s authors recommended, among other things, that city governments lead by example, implementing heat island policies and integrating new technologies on their own buildings.

A key takeaway from the report is that cities are making progress when it comes to urban heat island policies and programs, but more can be done.

“More than half the cities noted that they have made significant progress on policy or program implementation,” the study says. “However, no city reported that they had met or nearly met any of their UHI-related goals. Additional or improved mitigation actions are still clearly needed.” Photo by Andrew Dallos (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Chemicals Are Skin Deep

Ever wonder if all those strange sounding ingredients in your shampoo, deodorant or lipstick are healthy or harmful for you and the environment? The Environmental Working Group has the answer. The D.C.-based public interest group is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of its Skin Deep cosmetics database. According to EWG, people in the U.S. apply “an average of 126 unique ingredients on their skin daily.” The Skin Deep website and mobile app rate and review 70,000 products and almost 11,500 ingredients. Simply enter the product name or scan a bar code and you’ll be able to tell in seconds if your hair gel or sunscreen contains ingredients known to cause allergies, developmental issues or even cancer. Photo by Pomo Mama (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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A Moving Study

As the world’s climate changes and severe weather events become more common one phenomenon of particular concern is human migration. How will people respond as precipitation patterns change, storms batter coastlines, crops struggle after continual years of drought? A study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compares how natural disasters and variations in climate influence migration, finding that the latter seems to have a greater effect than the former.

The study looked at more than 7,000 households in Indonesia over a 15-year time period. Though sudden disasters obviously do create situations where people are forced to move, the researchers found that such moves are more likely to be temporary or short-distance, whereas climatic variation more often results in permanent moves. Photo by United Nations Photo (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Old News

Be prepared: The world is not only getting more crowded, it’s also getting older. A recent Pew Research Center report looked at population trends for the U.S., China, India and 20 other countries and surveyed public opinion about them. According to the report, by 2050:

  • Three times as many people will be 65 or older
  • Most people in Japan, South Korea and Germany will be over 50
  • One in five Americans will be 65 or older
  • Most countries will have more people over age 65 than under age 15
  • The number of dependents (people under 15 and 65+) per 100 workers will grow to 66 in the U.S. and a whopping 96 in Japan

The opinion survey portion of the study found that almost 9 in 10 Japanese and 7 in 10 Chinese consider aging a major problem in their countries. Only a quarter of Americans consider aging a problem in the U.S. Potential challenges of aging cited by the report include economic slowdown and stressed social support system.

Learn more at Attitudes About Aging: A Global Perspective. Photo by Eric Montfort (Flicker | Creative Commons)

 

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World of Solutions

In a world where climate disasters, pollution, and biodiversity loss dominate the news cycle, it’s easy to lose sight of the exciting, sustainable solutions being developed everyday. Enter Sustainia100 2014, a guided tour of 100 promising, outside-the-box innovations addressing today’s environmental challenges.

Unveiled last week in Oslo, Norway, Sustainia100 2014 showcases solutions in 10 sectors, including buildings, fashion, transportation and health. From clay refrigerators that cool using evaporation to a saltwater air conditioner that reduces energy consumption by 40 percent, the publication is filled with ideas intended to energize readers about sustainability and move beyond the doom-and-gloom dialogue.

“Reading about how projects and technologies are innovating transportation, advancing our food production, slowing down fashion, and speeding up resource efficiency, you cannot help but be amazed by the opportunities present to start creating sustainable industries, communities and cities,” Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, wrote in the Sustainia100 foreword. “Sustainia100 is a guide to a green and desirable future within our reach and it is a guide away from threats and insecurities.” Download your free copy — and nominate projects for inclusion in Sustainia100 2015 — at sustainia.me/solutions.

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Getting Wind Energy off the Ground

When it comes to wind power, the sky isn’t the limit — it’s the opportunity. Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Delaware and energy firm DNV GL are investigating the potential of airborne wind energy to boost the renewable energy source’s effectiveness.

In a recent study published in Renewable Energy, the researchers determined that winds between Earth’s surface and about 10,000 feet could produce over 7.5 terawatts of electricity, more than triple the global demand. One of the keys to this airborne wind power is using recurring atmospheric features called “low-level jets.” The jets, which usually blow at 30–50 mph, offer stronger, steadier winds than those that turn turbines on the Earth’s surface. The best locations for airborne wind energy include the Horn of Africa, tropical ocean locations and the U.S. Great Plains.

Tapping into wind sources miles above the ground won’t be easy, but it’s far from impossible. Airborne wind power industry leaders are looking at tethered devices that could capture energy at various altitudes to maximize efficiency.

The next step? The team is now working on developing a study to look at higher-level wind energy potential year round. Photo by Niels Linneberg (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Here Comes the Megacity

Earlier this week, in the second installment of our Envision 2050 series, in which experts from around the world describe their ideal for human systems in 2050 and what it would take to get there, we asked five visionary urban planners, designers and architects for their views on what cities would be like in 2050. One of those experts, Tony Chan, associate director of the design firm Arup, noted that China’s current urbanization is unprecedented and pointed to a startling fact: “Over the next two decades China will potentially build 20,000 to 50,000 new skyscrapers and have more than 220 cities with populations of more than 1 million.” The country, Chan said, has cities that embody both a romantic and dystopian view of future cities — with smart, connected and green technologies alongside high pollution and resource scarcity.

For more on the future (and present) of China’s cities, you might want to check out the new three-part series in the South China Morning Post about the rise of Asia’s megacities and the issues they face. The first installment was published last week and in it writer Vanessa Collingridge has some startling figures of her own. “In 2010,” she writes, “just nine of the world’s megacities were located in Asia; scroll forward 15 years and 21 of the projected 39 megacities will be situated here, with the biggest growth in population expected to take place in the new or lesser-known cities in South and East Asia.” Photo by sebastien batardy (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Reducing Food Waste — Naturally

Feeding a growing planet means getting food waste under control. With one-third of all food being wasted or lost, that’s no small task. But here’s some good news. Researchers are hot on the trail of some promising new solutions, with a bonus: They don’t involve synthetic, environmentally damaging chemicals.

The scientists, working at the Centre of Excellence for Post-harvest Biotechnology at Nottingham University’s Malaysia Campus, have been finding ways to turn natural products such as chitosan obtained from crustacean shells and gum arabic — acacia tree sap — into small particles that can be sprayed on fruits and vegetables to delay ripening and lengthen shelf life. So far, nature’s food waste solutions are working. The researchers found that particles created from these natural products delayed ripening of tomatoes and increased dragon fruit life by 28 days.

“We believe that developing post-harvest management techniques using natural products is the way forward, especially since these natural biodegradable products we are researching can also contribute to traditional medicine and pharmacology as we learn more about our natural environment,” CEPB director Asgar Ali wrote in an article for The Conversation. “Hopefully too, we can develop better ways of reducing the huge amount of food loss that takes place and focus on getting food to those who need it.” Photo by the_ewan (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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How’s My Waterway?

Want to know what the water quality is like in the lake down the street? What’s being dumped in the river at the edge of town? Or how your local drinking water sources are being protected? Good news: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has an app for that.

The EPA recently released an enhanced version of its “How’s My Waterway” website and smartphone app, giving interested individuals anywhere access to water quality reports, pollutant discharge permits and restoration efforts at their fingertips. Users can enter either a ZIP code or a city name or use the program’s GPS technology to find nearby water bodies. The agency even released an application designed for museum kiosks with touch screens.

So what’s the point in making a water quality app? “Communities and neighborhoods across the U.S. want to know that their local lakes, rivers and streams are healthy and safe to enjoy with their families, and providing that information is a priority for EPA,” Nancy Stoner, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water, said in a press release.

Check out the “How’s My Waterway?” website hereArticle by John Sisser. 

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Share and Share Alike

It’s one of the first lessons we learn as kids — sharing is the right thing to do. Now, a new study by marketing communications agency Havas Worldwide reports that consumers are becoming more and more interested in reusing, donating or sharing goods and services as an alternative to owning them.

The New Consumer and The Sharing Economy” reports the findings from a 10,574-person survey across 29 markets around the world. The survey found that more than two-thirds of mainstream consumers responding (69 percent) agreed with the statement that overconsumption is putting our society and planet at risk. At the same time, 52 percent said consuming less would destroy jobs.

The report presents the idea of collaborative consumption as “the next wave of consumerism,” with around 65 percent of mainstream consumer respondents agreeing with the statement that society would be better if people shared more and owned less.

What’s the draw? For 69 percent of these respondents, saving money was the biggest benefit, with feeling active and useful, reducing one’s carbon footprint and supporting small companies also topping the list. The report’s authors suggest businesses may want to take note of the sharing trend — nearly three quarters of mainstream consumer respondents admired brands that encourage customers to recycle or resell their company’s products. Article by John Sisser, with a hat tip to Sustainable Brands for calling our attention to the story. Photo by malenga (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Documenting Our Changing Coasts

The U.S. Geological Survey appears to subscribe to the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words — and to the power of citizen science. We previously reported on the organization’s effort to create long-range surveys of native bee populations that relies on specimens sent in by citizen scientists, biologists and others. Now the USGS is tapping the public again with “iCoast – Did the Coast Change?”

After hurricanes and other storms along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the USGS takes aerial photos and compares them to pre-storm images. The practice, which has taken place since 1995, has led to nearly 150,000 photos — too many for the USGS to analyze on its own. So the organization launched iCoast, which crowdsources identification of changes to coastal lands after extreme storms by inviting everyday people to tag affected areas for issues such as beach and dune erosion, overwash, and dead vegetation. The tool isn’t just meant to tell the story of what’s happened as a result of these storms; the USGS sees it as a way to better predict coastal erosion, which will help residents and community managers understand where coasts might be most vulnerable.

“Computers cannot yet automatically identify damages and geomorphic changes to the coast from the oblique aerial photographs,” said Sophia B. Liu, a fellow in the USGS’s Mendenhall Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program, in a statement. “Human intelligence is still needed to finish the job.” Photo from the U.S. Geological Survey

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The Front Line of Climate Change

The impacts of climate change to America’s coasts have been well documented, but what about challenges already unfolding in remote inland sections of the country? This week Climate Central’s Bobby Magill visits the sprawling Navajo Nation in the Southwest U.S. to see how local communities are dealing with a 20-year drought while slowly adapting to a warmer world. As Magill writes, the Four Corners region “is truly the front line of climate change.” Photo by Wolfgang Staudt (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Counter-Car Culture

Millennials have been labeled the Me Generation, the Facebook Generation and the Peter Pan Generation. But a recent survey funded by the Rockefeller Foundation suggests a new name may be fitting: the Public Transportation Generation.

The survey, supported by Transportation for America, sampled 18- to 34-year-olds across 10 U.S. cities with public transportation systems in varying stages of development: mature (e.g., New York City), growing (e.g., Minneapolis–St. Paul) and aspiring (e.g., Indianapolis). Researchers found that public transportation access is among the top three criteria for 66 percent of Millennials when choosing where to live. Furthermore, 86 percent of Millennials felt it was important for their city to offer low-cost, affordable public transportation.

The prioritization of public transportation access was accompanied by a desire for less automobile dependence. Nearly two-thirds of Millennials (64 percent) said they want to be less reliant on a car primarily because of the cost involved, and a majority of those surveyed in all cities thought opportunities to live and work in their city without relying on a car was important.

“These findings confirm what we have heard from the business and elected leaders we work with across the country,” James Corless, director of Transportation for America, said in a statement issued by the Rockefeller Foundation. “The talented young workforce that every region is trying to recruit expects to live in places where they can find walkable neighborhoods with convenient access to public transportation. Providing those travel and living options will be the key to future economic success.” Article by John Sisser. Photo by Sakeeb Sabakka (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Start Your Electric Engines!

What has a top speed of 270 kilometers per hour (167 mph) and doesn’t use a single drop of gasoline or diesel? The new Spark-Renault SRT_01E race car. The supercharged, zero emissions electric vehicle was designed specifically for the inaugural Formula E race series. Launching this fall, Formula E will feature races through the streets of some of the world’s most iconic cities, including London, Buenos Aires and Los Angeles.

Speaking at the recent Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, Calif., Formula E Holdings CEO Alejandro Agag said the series has several goals, including connecting race fans with environmental issues through sport and serving as a test bed for emerging electric vehicle technologies.

To overcome the fact that the cars can only run about 25 minutes on a single charge, Formula E races will include multiple drivers and cars on the same team. When asked what the cars sound like, Agag responded that the high-intensity buzzing from the pod race scene in “Star Wars: Episode I” is a good approximation.

The series kicks off Sept. 13, 2014, in Beijing. Photo courtesy of Formula E

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Using Water to Clean Water

Clean drinking water is a basic necessity, and figuring out more efficient ways to purify water will be more important than ever as we move into a more crowded and less predictable future. At Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Selma Mededovic Thagard is using a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant to scale up a water purification method that avoids chemicals, such as chlorine, common in other treatment methods. Instead, “we are pretty much using water to treat water,” Thagard says, “when we apply very high voltage and we create plasma, we create lightning inside of the water” to purify it. Watch the video below for a full explanation from Thagard.

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Resonate!

The winners of the inaugural Resonate Awards were announced today at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, Calif. Sponsored by the California Institute of Technology’s Resnick Sustainability Institute, the awards recognize innovative and potentially game-changing solutions to some of Earth’s most pressing energy and environmental challenges.

The five recipients of this year’s award represent a diverse array of disciplines. Thomas Francisco Jaramillo of Stanford University has developed catalysts that drive chemical reactions needed for renewable energy production and storage. Shinichi Komaba from Tokyo University of Science and Kyoto University has created safer lithium-ion batteries for energy storage. Javad Lavaei of Columbia University has advanced sophisticated mathematics for optimizing the electric smart grid. Sarah Kearney, founder and director of PRIME Coalition, has started a new investment model to fund innovative ventures focused on global social problems. And Jay Whitacre, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University and founder and CTO of Aquion Energy, is commercializing an energy storage solution for intermittent renewable energy sources.

“Our goal is to bring hope for the planet by shining a light on unheralded innovators who are on the cusp of big, important ideas,” said Harry Atwater, director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute and Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics at Caltech, in a press release announcing the awards. “While many computer and health innovations get honored, those in sustainability are often overlooked because they are hard to explain, and their impact has a very long time horizon. But without these, the future is at risk.”

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Better for Biodiversity

There is a long-standing sense that organic farms are better for biodiversity than are conventional farms. But how much better? The answer to that is important when weighing the trade-offs between focusing on boosting biodiversity on farmed land  (“land sharing”) versus using less land more intensively with higher-yielding conventional farming (“land sparing”).

A study just published in the Journal of Applied Ecology provides strong evidence that the benefits are indeed bountiful. Gathering results of 94 previous studies of farmland biodiversity into one giant meta-analysis, researchers from the U.K., Sweden and Switzerland looked at both species richness (the number of different taxonomic groups represented) and functional diversity (the types of ecological functions performed). They found that across all study sites, biodiversity was an average of 34 percent higher on organic farms than on conventional farms.

The biggest beneficiaries? From a species standpoint, plants showed the greatest biodiversity boost, with insects, birds and microorganisms also substantially higher on organic farms. Functionally, pollinators appeared to benefit most from organic farming, with decomposers showing little difference.

“This analysis affirms that organic farming usually has large positive effects on average species richness compared with conventional farming,” the researchers concluded. “Given the large areas of land currently under agricultural production, organic methods could undoubtedly play a major role in halting the continued loss of diversity from industrialized nations.” Photo courtesy of Sally (Creative Commons | Flickr), and a hat tip to Science for Environment Policy for sharing the story.

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Climate Solutions in Action

Earlier this week in an op-ed for this magazine, Cara Pike, founder and director of the Social Capital Project, welcomed the shift in the climate conversation from debate about science to emphasis on impacts, but said that a further step is needed: More focus on solutions to show that change is possible. “This is not about putting on rose-colored glasses and minimizing the very real threat we face — it’s about shifting attention to what we have to be hopeful for when we move to low-carbon innovations,” Pike wrote in “There’s Hope at the End of the World as We Know It.”

Now, two projects doing just that have come to our attention. The first, Momentum for Change, is an annual initiative from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat. Through an application process, the UN secretariat selects entries that show concrete examples of people, industries, cities and countries already applying successful responses to climate change. This year Momentum for Change is looking for applications that show climate action positively affecting the urban poor and the important role women play in responding to climate change, among other areas. Check out the video below for more information, and apply here.

The second project is from Nuin-Tara Key and Tom Miller. Key, a research and policy consultant in climate change and urban development, and Miller, a filmmaker, are setting out on a project that will take them from the Caribbean to Finland in the late summer and fall of 2014. Dubbed Our Place on Earth, the duo’s project will be made up of three components: 1) a documentary about community-based responses to climate change already having an impact, 2) a tool kit with ways to replicate local solutions in other places around the world, and 3) video workshops for communities to help them learn how to share their stories about successfully responding to climate change. Photo from Momentum for Change video.

Momentum for Change – Change for Good from Momentum for Change on Vimeo.

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This Website Will Make Your Head Spin

How many hectares of forest have been destroyed worldwide this year? How many bicycles have been built? How many days until the world runs out of oil? You can find (literally) up-to-the-minute estimates for these and dozens of other environment, health and related statistics at Worldometers.info. The site’s researchers, developers and volunteers gather data from sources such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization, apply a projection algorithm to approximate actual current numbers, then display the results in a rolling counter format. Users can view the latest statistics on the website for free, or license counters for embedding on a Web page or exhibiting at an event. Photo courtesy of mollycakes (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Shrimp Shells to Plastic

Researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed a revolutionary new alternative to petrochemical-based plastics. Using chitosan — the same material found in the shells of shrimp and other crustaceans — the team has developed a process for creating a fully degradable bioplastic. The discovery has the potential to make large-scale manufacturing of a wide range of everyday objects — from toothbrushes to televisions — more sustainable. “There is an urgent need in many industries for sustainable materials that can be mass produced,” said Don Ingber, founding director of the Wyss Institute and a lead researcher on the project. “Our scalable manufacturing method shows that chitosan, which is readily available and inexpensive, can serve as a viable bioplastic that could potentially be used instead of conventional plastics for numerous industrial applications.” Photo courtesy of Phu Thinh Co (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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What’s the Future of Conservation?

Conservation has been at a crossroads for awhile now, with new approaches being tried that sometime clash with established ones. Writer Hillary Rosner covered this issue last year in Ensia in “Is Conservation Extinct?” “As the world shrinks, effective conservation policy will need to set the course instead of simply steering the ship around obstacles,” Rosner wrote. “Fortunately, choosing that course may be less contentious than it seems, particularly since there’s broad consensus that we need new maps. It’s as good a starting point as any for the long voyage ahead.”

Now The New Yorker has gotten into the discussion with a lengthy profile of The Nature Conservancy and its president and CEO, Mark Tercek, and chief scientist, Peter Kareiva, in which writer D.T. Max addresses some of the conflicts the organization has had with “traditional” environmentalists. And Tercek and Kareiva have replied with their own defense of the work they’re doing.

“[T]hose of us who do and who support conservation don’t have the time to get caught up in debates over ‘traditional’ vs. ‘new,’” they write. “We have to focus on what works — discovering it, testing it, replicating it and amplifying it.” Instead of getting caught up in such debates, Tercek and Kareiva write, “It’s time to get back to work.”

Check out the New Yorker article and TNC’s response about this interesting and important debate shaping the future of conservation. Photo by Ian Shive from TNC blog post.

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Connecting Health and Environment Data Dots

Is there a link between hot, muggy weather and asthma? Will more or fewer people suffer fall-related sprains as cold-season climate warms? It would be (relatively) easy to answer questions like these if the huge masses of data that have been collected worldwide on  environment, climate, weather and health could easily be linked. But differences in scale, scope and data collection methodology have made such linkages virtually impossible — until now.

Joining a growing number of efforts to bring big data to bear on solving human problems, the University of Exeter and partners have launched the Medical and Environmental Data Mashup Infrastructure project, a three-year initiative to bring together databases for climate, environment and human health; build compatibility among them; and make them accessible through a single Web portal. With the help of sophisticated statistics and geographic information system technology, MEDMI will provide data resources that allow researchers, public health practitioners and others to, for instance, explore correlations between climate and infectious disease or issue health alerts based on weather forecasts.

“We’re imagining a world where a regional cold snap can be associated with flu cases and hospital admissions as it happens,” writes Lora Fleming, director of the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at Exeter, in a post at The Conversation. “We’re hoping that long-term predictions about climate and human health hot spots can help us to plan our cities so that they are more resilient.” Photo courtesy of Iko (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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12-Step Plan for Climate-Friendly Food

Twelve straightforward strategies could slash food-related greenhouse gas emissions 50 to 90 percent, says a report just released by Climate Focus and California Environmental Associates.

According to the report, which was commissioned by the Climate and Land Use Alliance, actions such as eating less beef, reducing food waste and better managing nutrients on farms could reduce global emissions by up to 5 billion metric tons per year by 2030 — equivalent to the emissions of the entire world’s fleet of cars — while boosting production and food system resilience. Specific recommendations range from improving catering portion control in China to changing the feed regimen for beef cows in Brazil. The report calls out China, the European Union, India, the United States, Southeast Asia, Brazil and sub-Saharan Africa as having the greatest opportunity to reduce agriculture’s climate footprint. Learn more at Strategies for Mitigating Climate Change in Agriculture. Photo by Vilseskogen (Flickr | Creative Commons).

 

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Fish-friendly Dams

Imagine going from sea level to the top of Mount Everest in just a few seconds. That’s the type of pressure change most fish feel when they travel through the turbulent waters near hydropower dams.

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory reported recently in the journal Fisheries  that modifying turbines to minimize dramatic shifts in pressure could help protect fish from the phenomenon known as barotrauma — a sudden expansion of the fish’s swim bladder that often leads to injury or death.

To reduce incidence of barotrauma, the researchers recommend considering the species of fish in question and depth of the water where they usually reside when siting new facilities. Once this is known, factors such as the amount of water flowing through a turbine and turbine design can be modified to reduce fish kills. According to the researchers, the most fish-friendly dams are ones that maintain a minimum higher pressure around the turbines.

Working with colleagues from around the world, the researchers are applying lessons learned in three countries — Australia, Brazil and Laos — where hydropower is booming. In Brazil alone, several dozen dams are planned that could impact more than 5,000 species of fish.

“Hydropower is a tremendous resource, often available in areas far from other sources of power and critical to the future of many people around the globe,” said Richard Brown, senior research scientist at PNNL and the lead author of the paper, in a recent news release. “We want to help minimize the risk to fish while making it possible to bring power to schools, hospitals and areas that desperately need it.” Photo by Margaret Killjoy (Flickr | Creative Commons).

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When Spending Less on Green Energy Is Good

Can spending less on renewable energy be a good thing? It can if the reason is that renewables are becoming more affordable.

The United Nations Environment Programme, Frankfurt School–UNEP Collaboration Centre for Climate and Sustainable Energy Finance, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently released a report showing that renewable energy investments are dropping, but renewables are generating more power around the world than ever before. While investment in wind, solar, biomiass, geothermal and marine energy sources dropped 14 percent, the researchers attribute this to the improved efficiency and cost-effectiveness of renewables, particularly solar.

According to the Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2014 report, renewables accounted for nearly 44 percent of newly installed generating capacity and saved 1.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere in 2013. Read the report’s key findings here.

“While some may point to the fact that overall investment in renewables fell in 2013, the drop masks the many positive signals of a dynamic market that is fast evolving and maturing,” said UNEP executive director Achim Steiner. Article by John Sisser. Photo by Kevin T. Houle (Flickr | Creative Commons).

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Model Behavior

You wouldn’t expect an MP3 player to play 8-track tapes, or the operating system from your first computer to run today’s software. Then why would anyone expect an old business model predicated on unsustainable assumptions (such as natural capital being endlessly available, free of charge) to successfully support sustainable enterprise? Yet many companies do just that — resulting in situations such as large, integrated utilities being unable to take advantage of the benefits of decentralized, smaller scale approaches to providing energy.

To help companies think outside the business-as-usual box, the sustainable enterprise think tank SustainAbility identified 87 innovative business models, dissected and analyzed them to see what makes them tick, then organized them into 20 types others can use as inspiration for their own reinvention. Specific types include:

  • physical to virtual — switching from tangible infrastructure to virtual services
  • inclusive sourcing — supporting the product source in producing the product
  • product as a service — selling the service a product provides rather than the product itself
  • freemium — offering a product or service at no cost, but charging for extras or upgrades.

Learn more — and find inspiration for your own enterprise — by downloading SustainAbility’s report, Model Behavior: 20Business Model Innovations for SustainabilityPhoto by Yoel Ben-Avraham (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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The Sound of 2013

Last June, University of Minnesota geography student Daniel Crawford starred in the video for “A Song of Our Warming Planet” — a composition that expressed 130 years of global temperature records as notes on the cello. Since then the video has received over 140,000 views in nearly every corner of the world.

Now Crawford has produced a version of the composition for guitar in tablature format that’s available for download here. He’s also added a new note to signify the Earth’s average annual temperature for the year 2013.

The latest data from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies showed 2013 was tied for the seventh warmest year since 1880. Following Dan’s scheme to convert temperature data to a musical score, 2013’s temperature of 0.6 degrees warmer than the mid-20th century baseline works out to an A sharp.

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A Long-term Forecast

The impacts of climate change are being felt around the world, but have you ever wondered how they might affect your neck of the woods? If so, the U.S. Geological Survey has a resource for you. The agency, in collaboration with Oregon State University, utilized data sets NASA created from climate models in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report to create maps of the U.S. showing climate history and predictions down to the county level. NASA’s data set is known as the NASA Earth Exchange Downscaled Climate Projections, or NEX-DCP30. The USGS’s tool, aptly named the NEX-DCP30 Viewer, averages NASA’s temperature and precipitation data into 25-year increments to create one user-friendly package. Users can compare monthly high temperatures, low temperatures and rainfall predictions for their county through the end of the century. Interested in seeing what summer might feel like in 85 years where you live? Visit the NEX-DCP30 Viewer to find out.

Article by John Sisser.

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Screen for Safer Chemicals

Inventors and others who want to factor in environment and health as they formulate new chemicals or make policy or procurement decisions have a welcome helper in GreenScreen. Created by the nonprofit Clean Production Action, GreenScreen offers a three-step process for comparing chemicals in order to choose the best options:

  1. Assess and classify hazards to people and the environment.
  2. Apply GreenScreen benchmarks to produce an overall score.
  3. Use information gathered to make informed choices.

Users to date include Nike, Hewlett-Packard, the states of Maine and Washington, and the University of California, Davis.

Photo by Carolina Biological Supply (Flickr|Creative Commons)

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EO 13653 for Dummies

As part of a recent panel of environmental journalists convened at the Wilson Center, Coral Davenport of The New York Times said that President Obama “sees climate change as his legacy. He wants to get as much done as he possibly can before he leaves because he doesn’t know what the next administration is going to do.” This effort has taken shape in, among other ways, new CAFE standards, in Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent call for U.S. ambassadors to prioritize climate change, and in last year’s Executive Order 13653 — Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change. Executive orders can be a mouthful, though, and hard to understand, so the Sustainable Facilities Tool of the U.S. General Services Administration has created a useful annotated version of EO 13653 with explanations for and links to many things mentioned, including government organizations, previous executive orders, definitions of climate change-related terms and best practices. Though the executive order itself is meant to be of use to Federal agencies, the annotations from the Sustainable Facilities Tool make EO 13653 a useful document for anyone considering climate resilience strategies.

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Filtering for Free

Contaminated water sickens or kills millions of people each year, mostly in developing countries where people lack access to the high-tech water filtration systems most Westerners take for granted. But is high-tech the only option? Maybe not. A new study shows that Mother Nature can do the same thing — for free.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently reported that sapwood can filter out more than 99 percent of E. coli bacteria from water. By pouring water with red dye through white pine filters, the team discovered that xylem — porous plant tissue — can eliminate particles as small as 70 nanometers. While the team plans to test different tree species for even higher filtration potential, the results of the first study are promising, particularly for places with limited access to clean drinking water. “Ideally, a filter would be a thin slice of wood you could use for a few days, then throw it away and replace at almost no cost,” co-author Rohit Karnik told MIT News. “It’s orders of magnitude cheaper than the high-end membranes on the market today.”

Article by John Sisser. Photo by Mark Turnauckas (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Manta Rays of Hope

Indonesia recently established the world’s largest manta ray sanctuary. Nearly 6 million square kilometers of ocean surrounding the island nation will now serve as a protected area for both oceanic and reef manta rays. Recent research shows the tourism value of mantas globally is nearly $140 million per year. Mantas are currently being targeted by fisherman for their gill plates — a purported medicinal tonic in Southeast Asia.

Indonesia’s decision is a step in the right direction, says Sarah Lewis, Indonesian Manta Project leader with the Manta Trust. “Coming from one of the world’s largest manta fishing nations, this news marks a milestone for manta conservation and awareness not just nationally but on a global scale.”

Photo by NOAA National Ocean Service (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Up to the Challenge?

Do you have an idea that could change the world but you aren’t sure how to get the ball rolling? The Buckminster Fuller Institute might just be able to help out. The Brooklyn-based institute is now accepting proposals for the 2014 Fuller Challenge for socially responsible design. Started in 2007, the challenge encourages designers, architects, entrepreneurs and others to submit holistic solutions to some of the world’s most complex problems, then awards $100,000 to the winning entry to help move it from idea to reality. Past winners include design programs like the Living Building Challengeinnovative biomaterials packaging and a new sustainable economic model for Appalachia. If you think you’re up to the challenge, send in your application by Friday, April 11.

Article by John Sisser. Photo by PNNL (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Reaching a Broader Audience

Speaking at the 2014 Science Online Together conference today, Mónica Feliú-Mójer, manager of outreach programs in the department of biostatistics at the University of Washington, argued that science is rarely contextualized for lay audiences — meaning that there’s nothing making it relate to their own lives. When those audiences are underserved and underrepresented, it’s contextualized even less. As one way to engage those audiences, the nonprofit Ciencia Puerto Rico produces stories and podcasts from scientists for lay audiences that positions those scientists as role models. Though Ciencia Puerto Rico is specific to communicating scientific ideas to Puerto Ricans, Feliú-Mójer, who is also the vice director of the organization, says other organizations can replicate the model by helping scientists make their messages relevant and relatable to underserved communities. Specific examples include producing content in more than one language, providing context for scientific ideas and choosing storytellers that will resonate with diverse communities.

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Where in the World?

Some 126,000 described species rely on freshwater habitats, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. How can we target conservation efforts to best protect them? Identifying freshwater biodiversity hotspots is crucial, particularly in developing countries with limited resources. So experts with the European Union–funded BioFresh Platform created the Global Freshwater Biodiversity Atlas, bringing together data from a wide range of sources to create a global map of freshwater-dependent amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and more. The online tool can be customized to create maps focusing on specific locations and biodiversity categories, and includes options for exploring the effects of climate change and invasive species. New contributions are encouraged in order to make the atlas an even more robust tool for conserving freshwater biodiversity.

Article by John Sisser. Photo by NOAA/NASA GOES Project (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Growing Up

If you’re in the market for a new place with a natural setting surrounded by lush vegetation and trees, you’re probably not looking at high-rise apartment buildings in urban centers. But catch a glimpse of some new plans released by architecture firm Milroy Perera Associates and you may want to reconsider. The company teamed up with Mäga Engineering to design the Clearpoint Residencies, a 46-story apartment complex that, when completed in 2015, will be the world’s largest residential vertical garden. Located 10 kilometers from the center of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city, the structure incorporates trees and vegetation along all four sides to create a ground floor experience on every level. As noted in Inhabitat, the greenery not only gives the building a unique appearance, but also serves as a heat and sound buffer helping reduce cooling costs and noise. And that’s not the skyscraper’s only green feature: The building also includes a high-efficiency drip irrigation system, rainwater collection, gray water recycling and solar panels to power elevators, lobby lighting and more.

Article by John Sisser; photo courtesy of Clearpoint Residencies.

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Responsible Recycling

More than 1.8 billion phones were sold around the world in 2013, according to the research firm Gartner — a 3.4 percent increase over the previous year. Along with all those phones comes an abundance of toxic e-waste that’s often shipped to developing countries and ends up harming both people and the environment. Which is why the Basel Action Network’s e-Stewards Initiative might be more important now than ever. An accredited third-party certification program, e-Stewards allows both electronics producers and consumers to identify recyclers that abide by a strict set of guidelines, such as keeping hazardous e-waste out of landfills and restricting the use of child labor or sweatshops. A complete list of companies and recyclers participating in the program can be found on the e-Stewards website.

Photo by JonJon2k8 (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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We (Heart) Innovation

Do you like generating novel ideas? You can have fun thinking them up and put them to good use, too, as a participant in a Challenge Driven Innovation competition. A number of such contests — some with cash prizes — have sprung up in recent years as a way to bring crowdsourced solutions to bear on solving seemingly intractable problems. Among the environment-benefiting applications are a number of challenges aimed at boosting the application of green chemistry with an eye to minimizing production, use and disposal of hazardous or toxic chemicals.

Photo by Jenn and Tony Bot (Creative Commons | Flickr )

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On the Move

A stunning new collection of maps published this week in the journal Nature shows how fast and in which direction temperatures on land and sea have shifted around the world over the past 50 years. The research team from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) discovered that warmer temperatures are pushing many species toward the coasts, to higher elevations, into shaded areas and away from the equator. The maps and research have wide-ranging implications for predicting future shifts due to climate change in species distributions at both global and local scales, while also influencing conservation decisions on the ground.

Image courtesy of CSIRO

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Rays of Hope

It’s hard to imagine a place where solar power makes more sense than in communities in sun-drenched countries that are not yet connected to the electric grid. Unfortunately, even though access to electricity would offer huge social and environmental benefits — making it possible for children to study after dark, reducing reliance on smoky kerosene lanterns, improving access to empowering mobile phone technology, to name a few — inadequate funding often makes it difficult to get something going.

Enter SunFunder. Founded in 2012 by Ryan Levinson, then vice-president of environmental finance at Wells Fargo, the crowdfunding initiative channels investments as small as $10 from anyone, anywhere, into prescreened solar energy companies in countries such as Kenya, Uganda and the Philippines to help them build their business. Once a recipient is generating enough revenue to repay the loan, investors can get their money back or reinvest it — along with “Impact Points,” which are essentially nonmonetary interest — in another project.

Photo by gr33n3gg (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Top Sustainable Companies

What do companies Novo Nordisk, Adidas, Outotec and Statoil all have in common? They’re in the top 10 on Corporate Knights’ 2014 Global 100 Index, a list of the most sustainable companies in the world. Using 12 KPIs, or key performance indicators — including environmental indicators like energy, carbon, water and waste productivity — the Canadian media company aims to break down the term corporate sustainability to its core ingredients in order to fairly rank companies against one another. “On the one hand, [sustainability] means doing more with less; squeezing more output out of every capital input, including financial, human and natural capital,” Doug Morrow, vice president of research at Corporate Knights, told Ensia partner Forbes. “But the hallmark of a sustainable enterprise is not just efficiency, but also mechanisms to encourage meritocracy, diversity, innovation and long-term planning. Management teams at sustainable corporations are afforded room to think and plan beyond the next financial quarter.” As the list’s name suggests, the companies are from across the globe, but the United States and Canada led the way with 18 and 13 companies on the list, respectively.

Photo by photologue_np (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Colorado’s Changing Climate

How are communities across the United States responding to our changing climate? Climate Central recently launched a new series — the Front Lines of Climate Change — that aims to answer this question by reporting from cities across the country over the coming year. In the second installment, senior science writer Bobby Magill homes in on Colorado — a state that’s seen more than its fair share of natural disasters over the past few years. Is there a connection between the recent spate of extreme weather and climate change, though? As Magill writes, “Climate change could make these disasters worse, fueling bigger and more frequent flooding and wildfires while possibly extending the severity of the state’s drought and making its water supply less secure.” Visit Climate Central to read more about the ongoing challenges facing Colorado and how communities across the state are racing to develop climate adaptation plans.

Photo by Bert Kaufman (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Plastic Bank

Too much plastic trash. Not enough resources to get out of poverty. Social entrepreneur David Katz looked at these two trends together and figured out a way to make them add up to opportunity, not despair. Last spring Katz and partner Shaun Frankson founded a company called Plastic Bank that plans to set up plastics recycling centers in developing areas around the world. Local community members will be encouraged to collect plastic trash and bring it to the centers, where they will be able to exchange it for basic necessities, the opportunity to use 3-D printers to create things they can use to set up their own enterprises, and more. Meanwhile, the plastic is recycled and waterways, beaches and roadsides are renewed. Katz and Frankson plan to open the first center in Lima this April, and have their eyes on establishing additional centers in Asia and Africa.

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Conservation Crystal Ball

When it comes to conservation, what you don’t know really can hurt you. That’s why a group of more than a dozen horizon scanners, researchers and others gather each year to identify relatively obscure threats and opportunities that could, if they bubble to the surface, have a big impact on our ability to protect biological diversity. This year’s prognostication, published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution earlier this month, identifies 15 hot topics lurking in the wings. Among them: Response of financial markets to unburnable carbon, land loss in Southeast Asia from subsidence of peatlands, the discharge of polyisobutylene into ocean water and the resurrection of extinct species.

Photo by april-mo (Creative Commons | Flickr)

Photo by Espen Faugstad  
Goodbye GDP

In a provocative commentary just published in Nature, Robert Costanza, public policy professor at the Australian National University in Canberra and editor in chief of Solutions journal, along with colleagues from around the world, called for an end to using gross domestic product as a measure of success. While GDP is a fine measure of market activity, the authors write that it “ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality” and “blinds developing countries to possibilities for more sustainable models of development.” As an example of GDP’s shortcomings, the authors describe how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricane Sandy both contributed positively to GDP by spurring economic development through cleanup and rebuilding efforts.

Looking at alternatives, Costanza and colleagues review a range of measures of well-being including economic metrics inclusive of social and environmental impacts plus additional indicators such as “housing, life expectancy, leisure time and democratic engagement.” While none of these measures is perfect, collectively they offer the building blocks for moving beyond GDP.

Photo by Espen Faugstad (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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How to Be Interdisciplinary

Interdisciplinary collaboration is like a colonoscopy – though important and instructive, it can also be a real pain in the behind.

“We need pooled interdisciplinary expertise to solve real life problems,” a recent article in SciDevNet notes, “but experts can clash over language, divergent perspectives and knowledge gaps. Recognizing these barriers — and discussing how to overcome them — is crucial.”

Jessica Thompson, assistant professor of environmental and organizational communication at Northern Michigan University and author of the piece, argues that challenges arise because each discipline has its own language, theories and practices. Without deliberate efforts to acknowledge and accommodate them, these distinctions can hamper progress toward mutual goals.

Thompson goes on to offer concrete advice for overcoming those barriers. Among her tips:

  • Acknowledge and clarify at the outset differences in terms, definitions and jargon
  • Accept and accommodate perspectives that vary due to discipline, culture, nationality or gender
  • Trust others’ expertise in their fields
  • Make time for team building
  • Be open to new thinking and viewpoints
  • Decide as a group how you will share your work.

Learn more at “How to Communicate in an Interdisciplinary Team.”

Photo courtesy of Jeff Tabaco (Creative Commons | Flickr)

Photo by PNNL  
Instant Oil

For years algae-to-oil biofuels have been too expensive to compete with fossil fuels, but a new breakthrough may be a game-changer. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed a process that converts algae to biocrude in a matter of minutes. The process essentially heats the algae biomass to temperatures approaching 350 degrees Celsius (662 degrees Fahrenheit) and then squeezes it at pressures of around 3,000 pounds per square inch.

“It’s a bit like using a pressure cooker, only the pressures and temperatures we use are much higher,” says Douglas Elliott, lead researcher on the project. “In a sense, we are duplicating the process in the Earth that converted algae into oil over the course of millions of years. We’re just doing it much, much faster.”

The system operates in a continuous loop using a slurry made up of wet algae — dramatically reducing the biomass-to-biofuels production time to less than an hour.

“Not having to dry the algae is a big win in this process; that cuts the cost a great deal,” says Elliott.

In addition to biocrude oil, other products coming out of the process include fuel gas that can be used to produce electricity, water, and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that can be used to grow more algae.

Utah-based Genifuel Corp. has licensed the technology and is moving forward with plans to build a pilot plant.

Photo by PNNL

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Backyard Nuclear?

Except for those pesky safety issues, nuclear energy has a lot going for it — a small carbon footprint, minimal air pollution, a plentiful fuel supply. In search of a work-around for the downsides, The Daily Climate reports, entrepreneurs in the U.S., Russia and Korea are developing a new class of reactor that would come in a kit and be installed underground, reducing the threat of terrorist attack or meltdown. Proponents say the so-called small modular reactors, ranging from 25 to 300 megawatts, could pair well with intermittent renewable energy sources to provide round-the-clock power in remote locations.