The latest ideas and inspiration from around the world
What Are Birds Trying to Tell Us?
When songbird populations started dropping across the U.S. in the 1950s, conservationist Rachel Carson saw disaster waiting in the wings. Something was going terribly wrong with the natural world, she concluded in her 1962 book Silent Spring — something that could harm humans, too, if we didn’t figure it out and fix it. Subsequent actions to ban DDT and gain tighter controls on other pesticides averted what could have been a full-blown disaster not only for birds but also for humans and other species that ultimately depend on the integrity of natural systems.
In a striking 16-part series of articles that began this week and will continue into October, Environmental Health News, in partnership with National Geographic, is documenting similarly disturbing observations in bird populations around the world today. From chickadees with malformed beaks in Alaska to waterfowl with brain lesions in the southeastern U.S., the series is looking at a spectrum of emerging issues with bird populations and asking what these anomalies might be trying to tell us today.
“When it comes to environmental health, birds are on the front line,” says EHN editor in chief Marla Cone in a video summary of the series. “‘Canary in the coal mine’ isn’t just a proverb anymore. Birds around the world are telling us what ails in their environment, and possibly what ails us as well.”
Read the first five installments and watch for the rest at Winged Warnings. Image by Dyniss Rainer (Flickr | Creative Commons) — August 29, 2014
You’ve heard about the problem of environmental crime, from poaching to murder. Individuals interested in becoming part of the solution have a unique opportunity in Michigan State University’s online Conservation Criminology graduate certificate program.
Marine protected areas are a popular way to try and combat the massive decline of coral reefs around the world, in part due to overfishing. But, what if, once damaged, the fish and coral you need to make the area healthy again don’t want to move back in? Turns out you might be left with a seaweed protected area.
In a study published today in Science, researchers from Georgia Tech found that in Fiji, damaged coral reefs that have been taken over by seaweed give off a chemical that Pacific fish and coral can smell, which deters them from settling in those areas. “If you’re setting up a marine protected area to seed recruitment into a degraded habitat, that recruitment may not happen if young fish and coral are not recognizing the degraded area as habitat,” said the study’s first author, Danielle Dixson, in a statement.
Pointing to a way to maximize the recovery of protected areas, the researchers say intervention may be necessary to get rid of seaweed that discourages fish and coral from coming back to the ecosystems and promote healthy coral that will once again attract them.
— August 22, 2014
With record-breaking droughts, rising temperatures and more than half of the United States population living in cities with vulnerable water supplies, water scarcity has gone from distant doomsday scenario to a natural resource reality. But at 98 gallons of water per person, the United States’ daily water use is among the highest of any nation in the world, over seven times the 13.2 gallons needed for basic human needs. So what should your household be doing to conserve water?
A recent study published in Environment magazine by Benjamin Inskeep and Shahzeen Attari put common conservation practices to the test, finding out which ones hold water and which should be left out to dry. In “The Water Short List: The Most Effective Actions U.S. Households Can Take to Curb Water Use,” the authors determined that the greatest indoor water saving potential comes from toilets and washing machines, accounting for 38 and 26 percent of total indoor water savings, respectively. Seemingly simple practices such as installing a low flush-toilet or only washing full loads of laundry can reap tremendous conservation benefits.
Outdoor water use accounts for 29 percent of residential consumption, so conservation can’t stop at the door. Replacing turfgrass with water-wise landscaping is one of the most effective conservation measures. Watering plants in the morning or simply using a hose instead of a sprinkler can cut outdoor water consumption by up to 40 percent.
“Clear and accurate communication of the potential savings associated with specific actions can draw the attention of households to actions that are relatively easy for them to implement and effective at curbing water use,” the authors write. “As water availability is expected to become an increasingly urgent issue in the coming decades, it is heartening to find that substantial reductions in household water use are readily available to U.S. households.” Photo by Jodimichelle (Flickr | Creative Commons)
— August 21, 2014
Not Such a Nutty Idea
It’s an unconventional question: What do you get when you mix coconut husk fibers and recycled plastics? The answer: A sustainable material that can reduce petroleum consumption and carbon emissions while boosting economic development.
Researchers with Essentium Materials in College Station, Texas, are making everything from vehicle trunk liners to wall planters out of coconut husk fibers, long considered an agricultural waste in the production of coconut milk and oil. Elisa Teipel came up with the idea as a graduate student working to find a marketable product for farmers and community members in Papua New Guinea. Since then, Teipel and her husband, Blake Teipel, along with colleagues Ryan Vano and Matt Kirby, have used a National Science Foundation small business innovation research grant to ramp up production of the new material.
The researchers estimate that the coconut husk product could double the annual incomes of the world’s 10 million coconut farmers. But using coconut husk fibers isn’t just good for local economies in developing nations, it’s also good for the environment: The researchers figure that replacing synthetic polyester fibers with the new materials could cut back on 2 to 4 million barrels of petroleum and reduce carbon dioxide output by 450,000 tons each year. Photo by Horia Varlan (Flickr | Creative Commons) — August 20, 2014
The Cost of Environmental Crime
For $200 billion, you could buy two International Space Stations, Facebook or Peru’s economy. But according to a new report from the United Nations Environmental Programme and INTERPOL, you could not match the value of illegal wildlife trade and environmental crime worldwide.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The report cites a wide range of efforts that organizations and governments are making to take a bite out of environmental crime. In Tanzania, rangers are getting specialized training to address poaching, and in Brazil, satellite monitoring and police operations reduced deforestation in the Amazon in 2012 to the lowest level since 1988. Photo by ukhomeoffice (Flickr | Creative Commons) — August 15, 2014
One Billion Devices
Increasing standards of living mean more — literally hundreds of millions more — computers, cell phones and other electronic devices are being deployed in developing nations. But what happens when these hot new devices are no longer wanted?
Researchers from two institutions in India — the PEC University of Technology in Chandigarh and Surya World Technical Campus in Punjab — recently published a study in the International Journal of Environmental Technology and Management estimating the number of desktop and laptop computers that will be disposed of in the developing nation by 2025. In the next 10 years, 126 million desktops and 900 million laptops are expected to exceed their life expectancy, flooding Indian e-waste facilities with over a billion devices containing environmentally toxic arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and more.
Ants are mighty little creatures. They inhabit every continent on Earth except Antarctica. They can lift 10 to 50 times their body weight. And now, one new study suggests, they may have the potential to help curb global warming.
In “Ants as a Powerful Biotic Agent of Olivine and Plagioclase Dissolution,” Ronald Dorn of Arizona State University studied calcium-magnesium silicate mineral dissolution by ants, termites, tree roots and bare ground at six sites in Arizona and Texas over 25 years. Ants emerged as the leader in promoting mineral decay, a process in which calcium and magnesium released by mineral decay combine with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce limestone or dolomite. In fact, ant nests appear to enhance mineral dissolution by two to three orders of magnitude.
So what does this mean for carbon and the climate? Dorn suggests ant-based carbon sequestration may have contributed to Earth’s cooling during the Cenozoic Era, and proposes using ants as a model for developing new strategies to combat human-induced climate change through enhanced mineral dissolution and more efficient accumulation of calcium carbonate from atmospheric CO2. Photo by Troup Dresser (Flickr | Creative Commons) — August 8, 2014
A Smarter Solution to Smog
Last year, Beijing’s concentration of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) averaged nearly four times the World Health Organization’s recommended safe level of 25 micrograms per cubic meter. On bad days this January, that number soared to over 600. It’s safe to say factories, power plants and automobile usage in the region are leaving the city’s 20 million residents smothered in smog.
Now, the Chinese government is enlisting the help of tech industry giant IBM to reach its cleaner air goals. By using sensors, satellites and analytics, IBM will be able to predict smog levels up to three days in advance. Perhaps more importantly, the company’s models will be able to pinpoint the sources of smog down to the street level, helping government officials with policy, planning and decision making.
This partnership with IBM comes as Beijing officials are investing $160 billion in an effort to reduce PM 2.5 concentrations by 25 percent by 2017. IBM’s effort to closely monitor pollutant levels and sources may be the city’s strongest weapon in its “War on Smog.” Photo by Safia Osman (Flickr | Creative Commons) — August 6, 2014
Fishing for a Solution
As writer Rowan Jacobsen explores in our recent feature “Has Meat Met Its Match?,” animal agriculture’s hefty environmental footprint is creating interest in exploring ways to meet humans’ growing appetite for animal protein that extend beyond beef, chicken and pork. In some places, that exploration is going underwater.
Aquaculture, or fish farming, is the fastest growing sector of animal food production in the world, providing half of all seafood consumed by humans. That number is expected to rise, with another 40 million tons of seafood needed by 2030 to meet demand.
Is a fish sandwich any better for the environment than a cheeseburger or pork tenderloin? It is more efficient from a feed perspective. Nine pounds of feed will produce around 7.5 pounds of salmon, a far better feed conversion ratio than those for cattle and swine. In addition, aquaponics — raising fish and edible plants in a single system in which fish wastes serve as plant food — is being hailed as a particularly efficient solution to the challenge of feeding a booming population.
It’s not all smooth sailing on the aquaculture seas, however. Organic wastes from aquaculture can foul waterways. Growing feed for fish farms already requires a land area the size of the United Kingdom, and harvesting wild species for fishmeal strains marine resources. And at the end of the day, critics argue that jam-packed fishponds aren’t much different than regular feedlots, requiring antibiotics, creating a genetic monoculture and polluting the surrounding landscape.
But, much like traditional agriculture, sustainable practices exist for aquaculture, including only cultivating nonnative species in fish tanks or using lower stock densities to prevent disease. When it comes to satisfying the world’s carnivorous cravings, aquaculture and aquaponics may be a few more tools to add to the sustainability toolbox. — August 1, 2014
Have Your Steak and Eat It, Too
In our recent feature, “Has Meat Met Its Match?,” writer Rowan Jacobsen explores ways people can (now and possibly in the future) reduce the environmental and food security impacts of their diets, including entomophagy (bug-eating), synthetic meat and vegetarian substitutes. If none of those fits your needs, there are plenty of other ways to eat meat more sustainably.
Maybe cutting back would work for you. Meatless Mondays — an idea initiated during World War I to conserve resources — is being revived as a way to encourage people to forgo meat one day a week for environment and health benefits, including water conservation and reduced fossil fuel dependence.
Another approach is to do a species switch-out. It takes far less grain (and therefore cropland) to produce a pound of pig or poultry than to produce a pound of cow — so choosing chicken fajitas over beef tacos could help.
If you’re really craving a burger or succulent steak, buying beef from well-managed grazing systems can be another easy swap for sustainability. Compared to feedlots, such systems reduce soil erosion, water pollution and biodiversity loss (though production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, may be higher). Scientists are also working to reduce cattle’s environmental footprint through improved diet, genetics and manure management. — July 30, 2014
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?
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) — July 25, 2014
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) — July 23, 2014
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) — July 18, 2014
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) — July 16, 2014
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) — July 11, 2014
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.
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. — June 25, 2014
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) — June 20, 2014
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) — June 17, 2014
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) — June 13, 2014
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 here. Article by John Sisser. — June 11, 2014
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) — June 5, 2014
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 — June 3, 2014
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) — May 30, 2014
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) — May 28, 2014
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 — May 23, 2014
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.
— May 21, 2014
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.” — May 19, 2014
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. — May 16, 2014
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.
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) — May 14, 2014
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) — May 8, 2014
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. — May 6, 2014
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) — April 30, 2014
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).
— April 25, 2014
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). — April 18, 2014
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). — April 16, 2014
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.
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. — April 4, 2014
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. — March 27, 2014
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:
Assess and classify hazards to people and the environment.
Apply GreenScreen benchmarks to produce an overall score.
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.
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. — March 18, 2014
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) — March 14, 2014
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.”
Article by John Sisser. Photo by PNNL (Creative Commons | Flickr) — March 5, 2014
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) — February 28, 2014
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.
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. — February 21, 2014
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) — February 19, 2014