The latest ideas and inspiration from around the world
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? Click here 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. The decision comes on the heels of research showing 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
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.
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 — February 12, 2014
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) — February 6, 2014
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.
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) — January 30, 2014
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. — January 29, 2014
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) — January 22, 2014
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) — January 17, 2014
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
Photo courtesy of Jeff Tabaco (Creative Commons | Flickr) — January 16, 2014
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 — January 10, 2014
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. — January 8, 2014
More Precious Than Gold
What’s worth more, gold or rhino horn? Turns out it’s not even close. According to a recent infographic by The Huffington Post, a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of 24 carat gold fetches approximately $42,322, whereas the same amount of ground rhino horn powder goes for around $100,000 on the black market.
Earlier this year Ensia delved into the complex topic of wildlife poaching in a piece by Adam Welz titled “The Race to Save Rhinos.” In 2013 a record number of rhinos were killed in South Africa – home to 80 percent of the world’s remaining rhinos. As pressure mounts on governments around the world to slow illegal wildlife trade, Ensia is poised to cover new solutions that might emerge in 2014.
Photo by colin the scot (Creative Commons | Flickr) — January 3, 2014
Energy in Motion
The same source of electricity that makes a spark jump from your finger to the doorknob on a dry day is gearing up to power smartphones, medical devices and more, thanks to an experiment gone awry that alerted scientists to the promise of turning small-scale movements into portable sources of power.
As reported in R&D magazine, it all started when Georgia Tech engineering professor Zhong Lin Wang and colleagues found themselves producing way more power than they expected from some piezoelectric generators they were studying. They discovered that the experimental apparatus had been put together wrong, causing two pieces of polymer material to rub against each other and generate extra electricity through what is known as the triboelectric effect. The effect occurs when two materials – one an electron acceptor, and the other an electron donor – come into contact and then separate through the application of some external force. When the materials touch, electrons move from the donor to the acceptor. When they move apart, the electrons seek to move to equalize the charge. All it takes to create current is a conduit for electron movement.
The unexpected event turned Wang’s attention to triboelectrification as a potential source of usable power. Manipulating materials and configurations, Wang and colleagues are now working to develop triboelectric generating systems that can harness the movement of electrons to do useful work and refining them to increase the range of materials that can be used and the amount of electricity they can generate. The researchers envision the phenomenon eventually being used to transform the mechanical energy of motion from sources such as walking, wind, waves and wheels into electrical energy to power personal electronics, medical devices, remote monitoring equipment and more.
Photo from video by Georgia Tech. — December 27, 2013
The Gift of Indigenous Knowledge
Policy makers designing strategies to protect biodiversity and ecosystems would do well to tap the wisdom of indigenous peoples, say advisors to a new international forum.
Representatives of the 115 nations comprising the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services met in Antalya, Turkey, earlier this month to formulate an action plan to protect biodiversity and the benefits it offers. Among the topics addressed: Bridging the gap between science and traditional knowledge.
At the meeting, the IPBES considered recommendations from a panel of experts from around the world on how and why indigenous knowledge should inform its future work. IPBES offers a number of examples of areas in which resource managers can benefit from such knowledge, including management of reindeer and other herd animals in the Arctic; rice-fish co-culture, developed more than 1,200 years ago in China; indigenous fire management, found in Asia and South America; promotion of plant diversity in agriculture; rotational farming as practiced in Tanzania and Thailand; sustainable fisheries management in Pacific Island communities; and rainwater harvesting practices originating more than 6,000 years ago in India.
Among other things, the expert panel noted that “the term ‘science’ is often used in too narrow a sense, excluding the social and human sciences,” and recommended IPBES replace the word in its deliberations with “knowledge,” which would better encompass indigenous and local perspectives.
“We must identify gaps in knowledge and build capacity for the interface between policy and knowledge — in all its forms,” IPBES founding chair Zakri Abdul Hamid said in a press release. “That means developing a process through which scientific and policy communities recognize, consider and build synergies with indigenous and local knowledge in the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystem services.”
Photo by Aleksi Aaltonen (Creative Commons | Flickr) — December 24, 2013
A survey of 1,000 of the world’s largest investment funds by the Asset Owners Disclosure Project suggests that a large number are vulnerable to a “carbon crash” — a loss in investment value that would occur if climate change considerations caused businesses to leave fossil fuel reserves in the ground rather than extract them.
According to the Daily Climate, of 458 asset owners responding to the survey, 431 failed to meet the project’s standard for responsibly managing climate risk. The survey considered a number of factors, including transparency, risk management and low carbon investment.
The Daily Climate reported that AODP board member Sharan Burrow called the situation outrageous. “It must be remembered that much of the money being held by these organizations is the product of workers’ lifelong savings,” she said.
Executive director Julian Poulter found hope, however, in the actions of the companies that did hit the mark.
“What is clear is that the world has an investment system capable of driving the low carbon transition,” he said. “If all the funds we surveyed has a triple AAA rating, we would be well advanced on meeting the global climate challenge upon us.”
Photo by Images_of_Money (Creative Commons | Flickr) — December 20, 2013
A study by the Science for Environment Policy arm of the European Commission finds that recycling is a good way to reduce reliance on new rare earth element. Trouble is, the short-term recovery rates are low, meaning that some foresight will be necessary to maximize the potential of long-term recycling.
Since the United Nations has named 2014 the International Year of Family Farming, the organization Food Tank has partnered with the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization to support the IYFF throughout the year with research into family farming, articles and petitions to support family farms around the world. Their first effort is a video highlighting “the crucial importance of family farming and its potential to help create a more sustainable and just food system.”
What’s this video from Unilever’s new initiative Project Sunlight selling? Ostensibly, hope. Some cynics have their doubts. Others, though, think that a company of Unilever’s size partnering with various environmental and social organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy, The Rainforest Alliance and Oxfam to draw attention to issues such as sanitation, water conservation, sustainable farming and food waste may be enough to get past the cynicism. What do you think?
Photo of neodymium by images-of-elements.com (Creative Commons | Wikipedia) — December 13, 2013
Pasta la Vista
Rumor is that college dining hall fare today is better than ever. Still, sometimes even the hungriest students have trouble eating it all. What to do with the leftovers? Campus food services around the country are now finding a second life for the meals they make, thanks to a new nonprofit known as the Food Recovery Network. Launched by University of Maryland – College Park students in 2012, FRN shares surplus soups, salads, sandwiches and more from college cafeterias with hungry people in the surrounding communities. Volunteers pack food and deliver it to homeless shelters, food banks and other distribution centers — not only nourishing those in need, but also planting in tomorrow’s leaders the seeds of a deep personal awareness of the challenges and opportunities revolving around food security, supply, waste and distribution.
Photo by I Believe I Can Fry (Creative Commons | Flickr) — December 11, 2013
Turning Risk Into Opportunity
Resource scarcity and pressure are complex issues, traversing borders and cultures. One country’s deforestation leads to booming economies elsewhere. A dam powers one city and floods another. Not to mention the security issues that come with resource acquisition — all the more heightened when paucity is a factor. Now the Earth Security Initiative is out with a report meant to help businesses, societies and governments respond to such issues and risks in a solutions-focused, collaborative way.
Looking at eight themes (land governance, water security, climate security, crop performance, population growth, food security, fiscal stability and energy security) across 17 countries, the ESI points to opportunities to move toward a more prosperous and secure future, such as viewing a transition from water-intensive coal-fired power to renewable energy in China as a way to improve the country’s water security, or using Brazil’s tropical rainforests as an insurance policy against adverse impacts of future weather extremes on agriculture.
“Understanding the risks, involving all sectors, considering the inter-connections and mutual interests are necessary conditions in order for leaders to identify the opportunities before them,” writes Michael Schaefer, chairman of the BMW Foundation and former ambassador of Germany to China, in the report’s foreword. — December 6, 2013
Need another reason to protect and value green spaces? Here’s an intriguing one: the benefits humans receive from being exposed to the microscopic organisms found in nature. In a paper published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University College London clinical microbiologist Graham Rook notes that such microorganisms, which he calls “Old Friends,” are an important part of our evolutionary history, and reduced exposure caused by distancing ourselves from the natural environment is likely one of the reasons behind the growing epidemic of immune disorders worldwide. Rook recommends policy makers and others factor in exposure to beneficial microbes when enumerating the services ecosystems provide to humans, and calls for stepped-up research “that will enable us to design urban green spaces that provide not only the psychological input to our brains but also an optimized microbial input to our immune systems.”
Photo by EMSL (Creative Commons | Flickr) — December 4, 2013
Today U.S. citizens across the country are preparing to observe two uniquely American events: Thanksgiving and Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. If you are among them, consider including in your holiday plans some food for thought: 19 minutes with British economist Tim Jackson as he explores what compels us to “spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about” — and, more importantly, what we might do about it.
In his classic 2010 TED talk, “An Economic Reality Check,” Jackson, professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey and author of Prosperity Without Growth, begins with the etymological roots of “prosperity” — the Latin word for “hope.”
Humans’ penchant for novelty and our tendency to use material things as a proxy for our importance, Jackson says, have caused a deep rift between that original meaning of prosperity and the meaning we ascribe to it today. Ironically, he points out, “we have now grown our economy so much that we stand in real danger of undermining hope.”
The solution? Jackson draws what he calls “a map of the human heart” — a four-slice pie depicting two sets of diametrically opposed desires that compel us: novelty vs. tradition and self vs. other. Rather than corraling ourselves in the novelty-self quadrant, Jackson suggests, why not embrace all four? He points to innovations such as B corporations as ways to bring the other dimensions into economic practice and create meaningful prosperity.
“This is not about standing in the way of development, overthrowing capitalism, changing human nature,” he concludes. “What we’re doing is taking a few steps toward a more credible, robust, realistic vision of what it means to be human.”
Photo by CHARMERS (Creative Commons | Flickr) — November 27, 2013
Energy Savings in 3-D
Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3-D printing, is among the many world-saving ideas favored by techies, as well as by a general population enamored with the next cool thing that seems likely to translate well out of the lab and into society at large. But is additive manufacturing any better for the planet than traditional subtractive manufacturing? Recently, as we’ve written about previously, researchers at Michigan Technological University found that the answer is yes, and now analysts at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory agree.
The difference between “additive” and “subtractive” is important, the ORNL researchers found. Manufacturing cabin brackets on airplanes from titanium using computer-aided software that optimizes the design and then prints in 3-D saved a manufacturer 1.56 pounds of titanium per bracket because the process built them from titanium powders instead out of titanium ingots. That may not seem like a lot — until you multiply it by the number of brackets involved. “Some of the more basic technical cabin systems have more than 250,000 [brackets] installed,” says Sachin Nimbalkar, a scientist at ORNL. When the researchers then looked at the life cycle of the different manufacturing processes, they found 3-D printing helped reduce carbon dioxide emissions per plane by 4,141 metric tons over a plane’s 30-year lifespan in part due to lower fuel demand from the lighter planes.
Photo by edenpictures (Flickr | Creative Commons) — November 22, 2013
Not About Money
You might think putting a price tag on energy would help motivate people to trim their use. Not so, says a UCLA study that looked at the effectiveness of 156 energy information campaign experiments conducted between 1975 and 2012. In fact, the research, published in the journal Energy Policy and reported at Science for Environment Policy [pdf], suggests such a strategy might actually be counterproductive: When cost savings or monetary rewards were the focus of energy-saving messaging, recipients on average actually increased their energy use.
A smarter approach? Programs that involved giving people customized advice on how to save energy turned out to have the greatest impact, with a 13.5 percent average reduction in consumption. Also effective were information campaigns that compared people’s energy use with that of others, which yielded 11.5 percent savings.
Worth noting: The study also found that conservation efforts tended to drop off over time, suggesting a need for periodic nudges to keep energy-saving energized.
Photo by Digitalnative (Flickr | Creative Commons) — November 20, 2013
All the corners of the globe have been explored, right? Think again. An international team of field biologists studying the mountainous region of southeastern Suriname — a wilderness area virtually without human influence and among the most remote and unexplored tracts of rainforest left on Earth — recently discovered 60 species, including reptiles, amphibians and insects that are likely new to science and may exist nowhere else on Earth. The team of researchers, led by Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program, also documented the vast array of ecosystem services in the region, including providing clean water for downstream uses such as food production, transportation and sanitation.
Suriname is located in the Guiana Shield, a vast wilderness expanse in South America that contains more than 25 percent of the world’s rainforest. According to expedition leader Leeanne Alonso, a former Conservation International scientist who is now with Global Wildlife Conservation, “southern Suriname is one of the last places on Earth where there is a large expanse of pristine tropical forest. The high number of new species discovered is evidence of the amazing biodiversity of these forests that we have only just begun to uncover.”
(The photo above shows a sleek, chocolate-colored “cocoa” frog (Hypsiboas sp.) that may be new to science. This species is arboreal, using circular discs on their fingers and toes to adeptly climb into the treetops. Image courtesy of Conservation International) — November 15, 2013
The Value of Water
Given its use for drinking, irrigation, sanitation and recreation, water has a tremendous impact on our physical and mental well-being. But water has a tremendous impact on our economic well-being as well. Just how tremendous is the focus of a new report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “The Importance of Water to the U.S. Economy.”
The report notes that because energy, water supply and food production sectors are intertwined and directly depend on water as a commodity, every part of the economy is susceptible to disruption from changes in water supply. It also noted that water is undervalued — and predicted that more accurate valuation could drive big changes in water use efficiency and sustainability. And while determining the exact economic value of water is nearly impossible, EPA sees both increased demand and increased value in the future. “Competition for water will increase as consumption rises, water quality decreases, and the impacts of climate change are felt,” commented agency acting assistant administrator for water Nancy Stoner in a blog post on the report.
What’s next in the quest to quantify the economic value of water? The report identifies various opportunities for further research and projects already underway, including a National Water Census tracking potential changes in water availability to guide future water management and decision-making. Article by John Sisser; photo by @Doug88888 (Flickr | Creative Commons) — November 13, 2013
Over the past several years, companies have been racing to buy land in developing countries. Such large-scale acquisitions enable them to grow commodity food crops for export or to turn into biofuel. But they often overlook the legal rights and wishes of local communities, and so the practice, known as land grabbing, has been raising eyebrows.
Now Coca-Cola, after coming under pressure from a campaign by the nonprofit Oxfam, has announced a “zero-tolerance“ policy for land grabs in its supply chain. It’s a significant step: Sugar is one of the biggest ingredients driving land grabs, and Coke uses a lot of it.
Chris Jochnick, Oxfam’s director of private sector development who led negotiations with Coke, explains that companies don’t need to stop investing in land altogether. (Coke and many other large companies often don’t do so directly; their suppliers do.) “It’s that they have to do it in a way that respects community rights and legal title,” he says. In land grabbing, “the land is either just taken outright or it’s bought at fire sale prices.”
Coke’s new policy, announced Nov. 7, includes disclosure of the top three countries and suppliers of its cane sugar; adherence to the principle of free, prior and informed consent and a requirement that Coke suppliers do the same; and an agreement to third-party social, environmental and human rights assessments, including of land conflicts in seven key sourcing countries.
Oxfam notes that although Nestlé has a land-grab policy in place, it doesn’t include supply chain disclosure and isn’t zero tolerance — so Coca-Cola appears to be leading the way on this issue. Jochnick says Oxfam will be following through to ensure the company upholds its commitments. Article by Rachel Cernansky; photo by C_Columbus (Flickr | Creative Commons) — November 11, 2013
Are businesses responding appropriately to risk brought about by future water uncertainty? Yes and no, according to a new report from CDP and Deloitte. The CDP Global Water Report 2013 finds that although more companies are recognizing risks to their bottom line due to water stress, scarcity, quality, price and other reasons, their response is lacking, focusing too often on reducing use and reuse.
The report, titled “A need for a step change in water risk management,” is based on responses from 180 companies, including General Motors, Wal-Mart and General Electric. Recommending water stewardship as a road to water security, the report sees shortcomings between the amount of risk certain business sectors face and the response they have in place to address that risk. Take the energy sector, for example: Although 82 percent of respondents recognize risk to their direct operations due to water uncertainties, “only half of respondents report having board-level oversight of water issues and set concrete targets or goals.”
In a foreword to the report CDP CEO Paul Simpson draws a line between those companies that recognize risk and put in place concrete plans to address it and those that don’t, writing, “Investors and companies that understand the complexities of water and devise and implement a strategy that drives water stewardship will be the long term winners in an increasingly water stressed world.” Photo by pdorsey (Flickr | Creative Commons) — November 8, 2013
Making Light of Gravity
Combine a weight, a rope, an LED, inspiration and some savvy crowdfunding, and what do you get? GravityLight. Developed by British inventors Martin Riddiford and Jim Reeves in response to a challenge by SolarAid to find inexpensive substitutes for health- and environment-harming kerosene lamps in areas without electricity, this pulley-based lamp produces up to 30 minutes of light each time the bag at the other end of the rope is hoisted. Buoyed by resources garnered in a beyond-their-wildest-dreams successful Indiegogo fundraising campaign, Riddiford, Reeves and team started rolling GravityLights off the production lines last month. The first lights will be provided free of charge to beta testers in Africa and Asia — with a goal of eventually being able to sell them for $5 each, bringing new light to some of the estimated 1.5 billion-plus people around the world who lack reliable access to electricity. — November 6, 2013
Think Like an Octopus
Preparing to deal with climate change? Take a lesson from the octopus and other organisms, suggests University of Arizona ecologist and policy analyst Rafe Sagarin in an interview with Douglas Fischer of the Daily Climate. Living things, Sagarin points out, are remarkably good at adapting to new circumstances. How do they do it? He points to four key strategies for dealing with risk and uncertainty we humans would do well to keep in mind as we get ready for a future shaped by climate change: Be decentralized, have redundant parts, form symbiotic networks and build from success rather than from failure. Photo by Morten Brekkevold (Flickr | Creative Commons) — November 1, 2013
The Survey Says…
What are the biggest challenges facing corporate sustainability experts today? According to the just released BSR/GlobeScan State of Sustainable Business Survey 2013, 62 percent of respondents listed the integration of sustainability into core business operations as their primary concern. Coming in a distant second at 28 percent was convincing investors about the value of sustainability.
When asked about the extent to which sustainability is integrated into the core of their business, only one in five companies reported that they were close to achieving this goal. Perhaps of bigger concern, sustainability executives noted a lower level, and decreasing, engagement between sustainability and corporate functions such as investor relations, human resources, R&D, marketing and finance (a mere 16 percent said they engage with the finance side of the operation). On a positive note, the survey revealed ongoing high levels of interaction with corporate communications, public affairs, supply chain and the CEO’s office. Photo by epSos (Flickr | Creative Commons) — October 31, 2013
The Worth of a Tree
Trees provide communities with many benefits: They offer energy-saving shade and shelter from wind, absorb carbon dioxide, create habitat for birds and other wildlife, and add beauty and value to homes and businesses. But how to quantify that benefit so it can be factored into decision making? The USDA Forest Service’s i-Tree suite of public domain software gives urban foresters, homeowners and others a way to put a dollar value on the ecosystem services urban trees offer for better planning, education and action. Tools include i-Tree Eco, which calculates the value of the entire city forest, i-Tree Streets, which puts a price tag on street trees, i-Tree Hydro, which simulates effects of changes in tree cover on watersheds, and i-Tree Design, which lets users see what benefits would accrue if they planted trees in various locations around their homes. Photo by Andreas (Flickr | Creative Commons) — October 29, 2013
Bum Rap for Invasive Species?
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “The negative consequences of invasive species are far-reaching, costing the United States billions of dollars in damages every year. Compounding the problem is that these harmful invaders spread at astonishing rates.” On that last point a group of researchers from the Center for Limnology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison say not so fast. In a paper just published in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers found that invasive species follow a “nearly universal pattern in ecology … that species are rare in most locations and abundant in a few.” According to Gretchen Hansen, a scientist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the study’s lead author, “high abundance is the exception, not the rule.” The authors hope that the study will focus the lens of invasive species management on those exceptions where the invaders do in fact spread like wild fire. Likening the fight against invasive species to that of human disease outbreaks, the study’s authors suggest attempting to identify “hot spots” where prolificacy is most likely and concentrating efforts in those places—in other words, spending the hundreds of millions of dollars the U.S. dedicates to invasive species management where it will have the greatest impact. Photo by David Perez (Wikipedia | Creative Commons) — October 25, 2013
Nine out of 10 Americans discard food unnecessarily thanks to a nonuniform labeling system that blurs the relationship between food safety and dates listed on food packaging. That’s one of many sobering food-waste facts found in a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, The Dating Game: How Confusing Labels Land Billions of Pounds of Food in the Trash. The report, released last month, looks at the dysfunctional evolution of the current food-dating system, discusses how current practices cause billions of pounds of edible food to be thrown away every year, and proposes three concrete solutions to reducing one of the major sources of food waste in America: 1) make “sell by” dates invisible to the consumer, 2) establish a uniform dating system for consumer use, and 3) improve the use of safe food handling instructions. — October 23, 2013
What will the world be like in 2030? Your guess is as good as ours — but the National Intelligence Council’s is probably even better. Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds offers an insightful look at where current trajectories are taking us, along with suggestions as to what we might do to shift them toward a future we desire. Included are discussions of four megatrends (individual empowerment; diffusion of power; demographic patterns; and food, water, energy nexus), six game-changers (crisis-prone global economy, governance gap, potential for increased conflict, wider scope of regional instability, impact of new technologies and role of the United States), and four potential worlds (Stalled Engines, Fusion, Gini-out-of-the-Bottle and Nonstate World).
Among other things, the report predicts growth in global food, water and energy demand by 35, 40 and 50 percent, respectively, noting, “We are not necessarily headed into a world of scarcities, but policymakers and their private sector partners will need to be proactive to avoid such a future.” — October 18, 2013
Fly the Solar Skies
Can a plane fly around the world using only solar energy? Google thinks so. The company recently announced a new partnership with the Switzerland-based long-range aircraft project Solar Impulse. Swiss pioneers Bertand Piccard and Andre Borschberg are the founders, pilots and driving force behind the first airplane that can fly day and night without fuel.
Future360 — an online video network showcasing cleantech innovation — recently produced a video update of the project and this new collaboration. The revolutionary carbon fiber airplane covered with solar panels has the wingspan of a Boeing 747 but only weighs about as much as a small car. After several European flights, Solar Impulse successfully crossed the United States in May 2013 — flying from Moffett Field in Mountain View, Calif., to New York City’s JFK airport over a two-month period. The partnership with Google helps bring Solar Impulse closer to its goal of flying around the world using only solar energy in 2015.
Does this mean we’ll all be flying around in solar-powered airplanes soon? Probably not, but the project is helping advance solar technologies by pushing the boundaries of future applications in the aviation industry and beyond. Photo courtesy of Solar Impulse — October 17, 2013
When looking at the environmental problems we face today, the challenges can quickly add up to a seemingly insurmountable pile. Big-picture issues like climate change aside, when you really look closely, everything seems to have a consequence attached to it. What should you do with those inline skates in the basement that are too broken down and beat up to give to the Goodwill? And wouldn’t it be nice if your favorite restaurant would stop using styrofoam to-go containers, so you could enjoy your food without the slight taste of guilt?
Well, the folks at EcoApprentice feel your pain. The site looks to use the popular social tool of crowdsourcing to come up with “EcoSolutions” to “EcoChallenges.” Members post their challenges — often what to do with the byproduct of some business operation — and the site’s social network of students and professionals chimes in with possible solutions. Rewards for chosen ideas range from recognition in helping to solve a problem to sizable cash payments.
— October 15, 2013
The Papaya Cure
Heavy metals released by industries such as gold mining and battery manufacturing can make water unfit for human consumption. Developed countries have technologies for removing such pollutants from drinking water, but in developing countries the cost of conventional water purification systems is often too high to make them practical.
Now, researchers from Redeemer’s University in Nigeria and the University of Pottsdam in Germany have hit upon a possible economical alternative: papaya seeds mixed with clay. Combining Nigerian kaolinite clay with papaya seeds obtained from local markets and dried in the sun, the scientists were able to produce a “hybrid clay” that successfully filtered lead, cadmium and nickel from contaminated water. Noting that it is easy to make, employs readily accessible materials, and can be used over and over, the team called the new adsorbent “a highly efficient alternative to activated carbon for water treatment.” Photo by Tatters:) (Flickr | Creative Commons) — October 9, 2013