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Think environmental change happens too slowly to matter to your lifetime? “Your Life on Earth,” an intriguing  interactive developed by the BBC, just might get you thinking otherwise. Enter your birth date, gender and height, and up pops a personalized infographic showing how much you and the world around you have changed and are expected to continue to change in your lifetime, from how much sea level has risen since you were born to how old you’ll be when oil, coal and natural gas supplies are projected to dry up. Give it a try and gain a whole new respect for how quickly conditions can become worse — or, if we so choose, improve. View Ensia homepage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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And now for some good news: It looks like some market-driven agreements around beef production in Brazil may be slowing deforestation in the country’s rainforests. That’s the finding reported by Holly Gibbs, an assistant professor of geography and environmental studies at University of Wisconsin–Madison, and a team of researchers in a paper published recently in Conservation Letters. 

The researchers focused on the world’s biggest meatpacking company, JBS, which is located in the region. In 2009, under pressure from Greenpeace and the country’s government, JBS and other large meatpacking companies committed to “zero-deforestation agreements,” meaning they wouldn’t buy cattle raised on recently deforested land. This study shows that these agreements led ranchers that supply to JBS to register their land in an environmental registry and deforest less because JBS became more likely to refuse to purchase cattle from ranches with recent deforestation. In 2013, the study found, only 4 of 100 direct suppliers to JBS had recent deforestation on their land, whereas before 2009 that number was 4 in 10. 

That “direct suppliers” is important, though. Slaughterhouses only keep track of suppliers selling directly to them, which means that cattle can be raised and fattened on other ranches only to be transferred to a zero-deforestation ranch as their penultimate stop. The ranches in the earlier stages could still be cutting down trees for cattle pastures. 

Still, Gibbs sees these developments as a sign that the market can play a much-needed role in reducing deforestation across supply chains. “Public enforcement of environmental laws is a formidable task in the Brazilian Amazon, which covers an area six times the size of Texas,” Gibbs says in a press release about the study. “But these market-based interventions are leading to rapid changes in the beef industry within a period of months, even in very remote areas.” View Ensia homepage

Photo by Public.Resource.Org (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Is it possible to reduce pesticide use without compromising crop yields? Yes — and then some, according to a new study published in the journal Insects.

Researchers at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom measured pesticide use and crop yield at 85 project sites in 24 Asian and African countries practicing integrated pest management — an agronomic approach that taps nature’s strategies, such as competition, diversification and predation, to reduce the toll of insects, weeds and other yield-reducing pests on crops, supplementing with conventional pesticides as needed. They found that crop yield on the study sites increased an average of 41 percent while pesticide use dropped more than two-thirds after IPM was adopted. Crops involved in the study included rice, maize, wheat, sorghum, soybean and potato.

“Through these farming strategies crop yields can be increased while reducing pesticide application and costs,” the researchers wrote in a related article at The Conversation. “Farmers get more, and the environment wins, too.”

The researchers noted that even though we use 7.7 billion pounds (3.5 billion kg) of pesticides worldwide each year, pests still destroy enough food to feed 1 billion people. IPM, they suggest, can play a key role in sustainable intensification of agriculture — efforts to increase productivity while reducing negative environmental impacts and supporting ecosystem services — as we work to feed an increasing (and increasingly affluent) global population. Reviewing four kinds of IPM projects, the researchers estimated that adoption of IPM has the potential cut pesticide use in half in Asia and Africa.

The researchers also underscored the importance of the human dimension in advancing the adoption of IPM, since it involves making customized, strategic decisions about the proper mix of a number of strategies, each with its own costs and benefits. They noted the importance of educational systems such as farmer field schools if initiatives to advance IPM are to succeed. View Ensia homepage

Photo by IFPRI -IMAGES (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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You might not think of eastern Australia as one of the hot spots of global deforestation. But it ranks right up there with the Amazon and Sumatra in a new report by WWF highlighting key areas of focus for efforts to protect forestlands around the world.

Forests are of particular importance to global efforts to maintain a healthy environment because they contain much of the world’s plant and animal diversity, and trees are particularly adept at sucking carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming, from the air. The analysis, Saving Forests at Risk (Chapter 5 in WWF’s ongoing Living Forests Report), delineates 11 sites on four continents totaling some 420 million acres (170 million hectares) that together comprise more than 80 percent of the forest area most at risk of destruction or severe degradation in the next 15 years. Threats range from increased demand for agricultural land to unsustainable logging and mining to use of trees for charcoal and firewood.

Noting that identifying such hot spots is an important first step in protecting them, the report suggests five strategies for stopping “the march of deforestation”:

  • expand and strengthen protected areas
  • recognize the value of ecosystem services
  • expand REDD+
  • encourage corporations to eliminate deforestation from supply chains
  • incorporate forest protection into infrastructure development plans.

“It’s possible to meet human demands for food, energy and raw materials in the coming decades without sacrificing precious forests,” the report concludes. “With better planning, management and collaboration at a landscape scale, we can sustainably increase production and meet local development needs while conserving critical ecosystems.”

Read more and view a map of the threatened forests here. View Ensia homepage

Photo by Jeannie Fletcher (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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There may be no more important documents being produced today for governments, policy makers and the general public to understand than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments. Yet these reports have to go through a series of filters — government aides, the media, non-governmental organizations, etc. — before their messages reach the final audience. While the IPCC assessments have sections called “Summary for Policymakers” to address this, Richard Black, a former science and environment correspondent for the BBC, argues in the April issue of Nature Climate Change that these SPMs don’t effectively reach the audience their title implies because they are actually nothing more than “Summaries for Wonks.” 

Black contends there’s no reason the SPMs can’t and shouldn’t be two-page briefs summarizing the findings that resemble more closely the documents busy leaders are used to seeing come across their desks. Creating documents that are actually digestible for the nonexpert is hugely important, according to Black, because “[i]f the SPMs are to allow science to speak directly to power, they must be appropriately constructed for time-poor generalists who spend virtually all of their working lives outside the climate ‘bubble.’” 

“If the IPCC does not provide summaries of this simplicity and clarity, others will,” Black continues. “Many government delegations produce their own two-page briefings for ministers and senior bureaucrats. NGOs and think tanks produce summaries for the public and for reporters. Some are well written; but all contain a degree of adjustment, depending on the priorities of the particular organization, and none carries the gold standard imprimatur of the IPCC itself. By this early stage in the chain of communication, the IPCC has already lost control of its conclusions.” 

If the IPCC wants to retain control of its findings, it needs to rethink its mode of communication, Black contends, and take a page from journalism, in particular radio broadcasts where the reporter only has one shot at getting the information across to the listener — once the words are spoken, there’s no going back or rereading for clarity. 

Black gives a number of specific ways the IPCC and each Working Group can retool their methods and procedures to produce documents that actually live up to the name Summary for Policymakers.

Beyond the IPCC, this is an important piece for anyone thinking about better ways to communicate science.  View Ensia homepage

Photo by Raymond Bryson (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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When we think of e-waste, we tend to think of phones, computers, printers and the like. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to a first-ever global look at the production, impacts and management of electrical and electronic waste released this week by the United Nations University, of the 46.1 million tons (41.8 million metric tons) of e-waste produced in 2014, nearly two-thirds was made up of far more mundane objects such as vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, toasters, washing machines and other home and business equipment.

According to the report, “Global E-Waste Monitor 2014,” the e-waste problem is growing fast, thanks to increasing demand for, and shortening useful lives of, electrical and electronic products. At the same time, relatively little is recycled or reused, so huge amounts of valuable materials end up landfilled or in developing countries, where lax standards create huge environmental and health hazards. By illustrating how much e-waste is produced worldwide, where it’s generated and its fate, the report seeks to showcase the tremendous opportunities for recyclers, reusers and take-back programs to turn trash to treasure.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Just two countries — the U.S. and China — produced nearly one-third of all e-waste in 2014.
  • Per capita leaders were Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark and the United Kingdom.
  • Less than one-sixth of end-of-life electrical and electronic products are estimated to have been recycled or reused in 2014.
  • The 2014 e-waste burden included an estimated 18.2 million tons (16.5 million metric tons) of iron, 2.1 million tons (1.9 million metric tons) of copper and 330 tons (300 metric tons) of gold, as well as silver, aluminum and other valuable materials.
  • The “intrinsic material value” of global e-waste in 2014 was an estimated US$52 billion.
  • The amount of e-waste is predicted to increase to 54.9 million tons (49.8 million metric tons) by 2018.

“Worldwide, e-waste constitutes a valuable ‘urban mine’ — a large potential reservoir of recyclable materials. At the same time, the hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a ‘toxic mine’ that must be managed with extreme care,” U.N. under-secretary-general David Malone said in a news release announcing the report’s release. “[This] provides a baseline for national policymakers, producers and the recycling industry to plan take-back systems. It can also facilitate cooperation around controlling illegal trade, supporting necessary technology development and transfer, and assisting international organizations, governments and research institutes in their efforts as they develop appropriate countermeasures.”

Download the 80-page report here. View Ensia homepage

Photo by Remko Tanis (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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There’s no question that plants are better than most other life forms at converting carbon dioxide and sunlight into the sugars that form the basis of our global food web — and eventually, humans’ entire food supply. But fact of the matter is, with conversion rates hovering around 2 percent for our best crop fields, they’re by no means great. Even a slight increase in the efficiency with which they turn solar energy to biomass could dramatically boost crop productivity and so reduce the need to clear more land as demand for food skyrockets and the yield gains garnered by the Green Revolution level out in the years ahead.

As reported at SciDevNet, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently published a paper in the journal Cell that proposes using supercomputing and genetic engineering to do nature one better.

The paper, “Meeting the Global Food Demand of the Future by Engineering Crop Photosynthesis and Yield Potential,” calls for exploring and, if possible, exploiting, a number of modifications to photosynthesis that could improve its efficiency, from better balancing the light-capturing and sugar-making parts of the process to making the most of the sun energy captured and optimizing the system for current atmospheric CO2 levels. One approach, for example, would be to take genes from plants such as maize and sorghum that use the efficient “C4″ photosynthesis process and insert them into wheat, rice and others that use the less efficient but more common “C3″ process. Another would be to use genetic modification to expand the spectrum of light waves crop plants can use to photosynthesize.

The authors assert that the time is right to take on the task of improving photosynthesis, thanks to recent advances in knowledge of how photosynthesis works at the molecular level, high-performance computing that lets us model and optimize biochemical processes, and genome editing and synthetic biology capabilities. What’s needed yet: an even better understanding of photosynthesis, enhanced capability to strategically modify plant genomes, and greater societal acceptance of the concept of using genetic engineering to improve agriculture.

“Photosynthesis, which has been improved little in crops and falls far short of its biological limit, emerges as the key remaining route to increase the genetic yield potential of our major crops,” they conclude. View Ensia homepage

Photo © iStockphoto.com/Elenathewise

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In some places “fighting for the environment” means writing letters to elected officials or marching in protest against a polluter. In others, it means quite literally risking life and limb. Now media, governments, justice organizations and others have better access than ever to the stories of environmental heroes who put their lives on the line with the release last month of an upgrade of the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice, an interactive online map showcasing the faces and places of local resistance to assaults on the environment.

Like its predecessor, the updated atlas offers concrete descriptions of instances of environmental injustice around the world, including location, type and source of conflict, players, impacts, status and possible alternatives. Improvements over the previous atlas, which has received more than a quarter of a million visits since it launched a year ago, include expanded coverage in countries such as China and Western Sahara; easier sharing via social media; and a more customizable search function that allows users to sort by types of activity, tactics, country, company and other parameters.

According to coordinator Leah Temple, the atlas is used by academics, students, activists, affected communities, policy makers and the general public for a variety of purposes, from satisfying their own curiosity to informing advocacy campaigns to uncovering case studies for educational purposes. The atlas is supported by the European Union and is coordinated by Joan Martinez Alier, member of the Autonomous University of Barcelona faculty. View Ensia homepage

 

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It will come as no surprise to Ensia readers that nature has a lot of answers we could use to solve our most dire problems related to the environment. We’ve touched on the topic a number of times, from short notables to op-eds to feature stories. But figuring out how exactly nature pulls off its tricks isn’t always an easy job, much less translating that into human technology to make our systems more circular and efficient and less wasteful. 

In an effort to “pave the way to new bioinspired technology for alleviating global water shortages,” researchers in Japan took an extremely close look at plants with hairs on their leaves that collect water from the air, for example through mist. Plants included tomato, balsam pear, Berkheya purpurea and Lychnis sieboldii, the last of which led to this video, which shows the change in the plant’s morphology that occurs when it’s capturing water during wet periods for use in drier times. Essentially, the hairs on these plants’ leaves create a cone shape when collecting water and then twist perpendicularly to release the stored water onto leaves when it’s needed. Fibrous materials within the hairs, the researchers speculate, are part of the water collection and release process. In the article, which appeared in this week’s issue of Applied Physical Letters, the researchers show through simulations what’s happening on the leaves in an effort to show how the process could be translated into biomimetic water storage systems in areas facing water shortages.  View Ensia homepage

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A study published today in JAMA Psychology outlines the negative impacts of prenatal exposure to air pollutants on childhood brain development. Researchers at the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health followed the development of 40 children from before birth through ages 7 to 9.

The study’s authors specifically looked at polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — chemicals formed during the “incomplete burning of coal, oil and gas, garbage or other organic substances” — and discovered pre- and postnatal exposure led to slower processing speed, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms and overall disruption of brain development.

This research builds on earlier studies showing the impacts of environmental pollutants and chemicals on childhood brain development as previously reported by Elizabeth Grossman for Ensia.

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Businesses can barely use the word “water” today without also adding “risk,” “crisis,” “shortage” or another similarly miserable modifier. With a 40 percent shortfall predicted by 2030, it’s no wonder the World Economic Forum has pegged increasing water stress as a top global trend.

What’s up? And what can we do about it?

With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, sustainable business promoter SustainAbility recently took a stab at answering both questions, exploring what’s behind growing global demand for water as well as innovative approaches to meeting it.

In its subsequent report, “Evaporating Asset: Water Scarcity and Innovative Solutions,” the company begins by characterizing current and projected global demand for water by sector (agriculture, industry, municipal); identifying regions at particular risk; and delineating key factors — including system failures — contributing to growing water scarcity.

After describing water challenges, the report describes and applauds signs that businesses are starting to take water supply and demand issues seriously and gives a shout-out to innovative approaches to reducing water risk. In particular, it describes four promising tools that are drawing increasing attention: watershed payments; natural capital valuation; markets for water benefits, rights and quality; and water-resource-protecting bonds.

Finally, the report calls on the private sector to take the lead in implementing novel solutions, noting that it “is in a unique position to leverage its financial capacity and unique ability to test and scale new solutions.”

“By more accurately evaluating the economic costs and benefits of water use and taking a systems-level approach to water management,” the report concludes,”countries and companies have the ability to successfully navigate the water scarcity challenge.” View Ensia homepage

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Over the past year one of the hottest tech trends has been the race to develop autonomous — or driverless — cars. The journal Nature even featured these vehicles on the cover in early February and quoted experts saying they could hit the road in less than a decade. But this rapid evolution in transportation isn’t limited to passenger vehicles.

Lead by companies such as Peloton, “linked” semi trucks are already being tested on America’s interstate highway system. The technology works by essentially connecting two trucks traveling in tandem via a high-powered, wireless signal and radar-based active braking systems. This connection allows the two trucks to travel closer than usual following distance and at the same speed without sacrificing safety, as seen below in the video from Peloton.

The upside? The lead semi reaps up to 5 percent in fuel savings due to reduced drag, while the back truck garners a 10 percent or greater reduction in fuel use by drafting, which as we’ve previously written about can be a huge expense. For an industry that accounts for 10 percent of U.S. oil use annually, this new technology could be a huge boon for the bottom line while helping reduce harmful emissions.

Photo by Ryan Holst (Flickr | Creative Commons)

Earthworm  

Looking for inspiration for your innovation? The AskNature collection of National Geographic’s Great Nature Project could be a good place to start. The AskNature photo gallery showcases eight of more than 1,800 sources of ideas for achieving desired outcomes described in detail at AskNature, which bills itself as “the world’s most comprehensive catalog of nature’s solutions to human design challenges.” Examples highlighted at the Great Nature Project range from tapping into leaf-cutter ants’ expertise in optimizing efficiency in resource accession and transportation to analyzing earthworms’ ability to move through tight spaces. When you’ve exhausted those, you can turn to AskNature itself, where a handy interactive allows you to enter your customized question — say, “How does nature create strong yet flexible structures?” — and see what the collection has to offer in terms of potential solutions previously invented by plants, animals and other living things. View Ensia homepage

Photo © iStockphoto.com/Antagain

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When it comes to shade-grown coffee, “there is shade and there is shade,” says University of Utah biologist Çağan Şekercioğlu. At least for birds, anyway. In research published at Biological Conservation Feb. 11, Şekercioğlu, doctoral student Evan Buechley and colleagues found that at study sites in southwestern Ethiopia, all bird species found in intact forests were also found in shade-grown coffee farms, suggesting that “Ethiopian shade coffee is perhaps the most ‘bird-friendly’ coffee in the world.”

The researchers found that certain specialized birds, such as insect-eaters, appeared more frequently in nearby forests than in the coffee farms. That could be an important finding for coffee farmers, because those birds could minimize the need to use costly pesticides. But birds that aren’t specialists and can live in different environments were found in greater numbers in the shade coffee farms than in the forests, pointing to the farms’ significance for migratory birds. Overall, bird species diversity (a measure of both number of birds and number of species) was similar for the coffee farms and forest sites, but species richness — the number of species — was higher on the farms.

Şekercioğlu attributes the finding to the fact that coffee is native to Ethiopia — the only one of the world’s top 10 coffee-exporting countries for which this is the case. “It is grown where it belongs in its native habitat with native tree cover and without chemicals,” he said in a press release. That setting, he says, creates a far friendlier habitat for birds than nonnative coffee grown under nonnative trees.

Most importantly, the study underscores the value of shade coffee farms broadly for bird conservation and the importance of preserving intact forest alongside coffee farms. “Conserving all types of forested habitat is increasingly important for biodiversity conservation in the tropics,” the researchers concluded. View Ensia homepage

Photo of a Tacazze sunbird — which was caught and released during the study — by Evan Buechley.

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What do termites have to do with climate change? Potentially a lot, according to research recently published in Science (subscription required to read the full text of the study). Through their excavations, termites actually change the composition of soil in the African savanna. The tunnels the termites create hold water better and the insects will add clay or sand to soil depending on whether its too loose or stiff, turning their mounds into “nutrient islands” where both vegetation and other animals thrive better than in the surrounding land. Even in times of low rainfall the researchers show that termite mounds keep vegetation while vegetation around the mounds decreases. And when rains return, the termite homes help bring vegetation back to the entire area. This means “that the termite mounds are an insurance policy against climate change, protecting the vegetation on them from water scarcity,” writes Science senior correspondent Elizabeth Pennisi about the research. The research suggests that if land with termite mounds is turned into farmland the resiliency the mounds offer could be lost as well, making it much easier for the landscape to become degraded for good. View Ensia homepage

Photo by Cliff (Flickr | Creative Commons)

Milk, eggs and wheat  

The concept of resource use peaking and then declining first gained ground in the 1950s when M. King Hubbert projected the arrival of peak oil use around 2000. That failed to materialize, but according to researchers from Germany and the U.S. writing in the journal Ecology and Society, peak use rate (defined as year of maximum resource appropriation rate) already has been achieved for a lot of other resources — and, because most of them are renewable resources, we would do well to pay attention to the fact.

Wondering how resource use has changed over time and what important messages might lie in the patterns perceived, mathematician and landscape ecologist Ralf Seppelt and colleagues decided to calculate whether and when 27 of the most important resources humanity depends on have reached peak rate of use. They found that three of seven nonrenewable resources examined — cropland, irrigated area and peat — have already reached peak rate of use, along with 18 of 20 renewable resources, including wheat, rice, meat, dairy, cotton, wood and milk. Strikingly, the vast majority of resources found to have hit their peak did so between 1989 and 2008.

Discovery of that rapid-fire timing offers an important perspective on potential solutions, the researchers noted.

“The synchronization of peak-rate years for global resource appropriation can be far more disruptive than a peak-rate year for one resource,” they wrote in their conclusion. “Peak-rate year synchrony suggests that the relationship among resource appropriation paths needs to be considered when assessing the likelihood of successful adaptation of the global society to physical scarcity.” View Ensia homepage

Photo © iStockphoto.com/eAlisa

 

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A recent survey of over 6,000 public and private sector leaders in 21 countries reveals strong confidence in sustainable growth opportunities during 2015.

The Global Opportunity Report from DNV GL, UN Global Compact and Monday Morning Global Institute / Sustainia identifies five major global risks — the lack of freshwater, unsustainable urbanization, continued dependence on fossil fuels, the rise in noncommunicable diseases, and extreme weather — that respondents say can be turned into 15 sustainability opportunities.

The opportunities include investments in resilience, advancements in water-efficient agriculture, enhanced data analytics for smart cities and increased use of distributed renewable energy.  The report goes on to mention 120 specific and readily available solutions within these 15 areas of opportunity.

Among the topics covered by the survey, respondents said addressing water risk and scarcity presented the greatest chance for near-term success. Specifically, 37 percent of the leaders responding viewed improvements in water-efficient agriculture as the most likely opportunity to be seized upon over the coming year.

According to a news release accompanying the report’s release earlier this week, 48 percent of respondents from China were highly confident that sustainability opportunities would be acted upon in 2015. Indians (44 percent) and South Americans (37 percent) were second and third most optimistic, respectively, whereas Europeans (23 percent positive response rate) where still concerned with continued unsustainable growth on a global scale.

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In the late 1900s, as per-acre grain yields moved to 3 metric tons per hectare in South and Southeast Asia and Latin America, 5 metric tons per hectare in China, and 10 metric tons per hectare in North America, Europe and Japan, there’s one place where production stagnated big time: sub-Saharan Africa, where loss of soil fertility on small farms trapped grain production at an unsustainable 1 metric tons per hectare. With population growing, that earned the region the dubious distinction of being the one part of the world where food production per capita is falling.

Writing in the scientific journal Nature PlantsPedro Sanchez, Director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, says that stark picture is starting to shift, thanks to a wave of political, social and economic reform sweeping the continent.

Democracy and foreign investment are on the rise, Sanchez reports, as are education, life expectancy and income. Crop yields, too, are starting to grow in some places, thanks to “seeds of change” planted by governments, non-governmental organizations and private sector interests working to achieve the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals for 2015. In fact, Sanchez suggests, with continued advances in four key food production domains — inputs and financing, production practices, processing and storage, and markets and institutions — “sub-Saharan Africa could become one of the world’s breadbaskets by 2050.” View Ensia homepage

 Photo by Anne Wangalachi/CIMMYT (Flickr | Creative Commons)

Air quality egg  

Two big stories from 2014 were the amount of air pollution in cities, especially in China, and the rise of “wearables” and other personal technologies people use to track things about themselves, often having to do with health and fitness measurements, such as steps taken, hours slept, heart rate and more. Now, the journal Nature reports, there’s a trend making a mash-up of these issues: Personal sensors that track pollution. “Built on the principle of openness, such do-it-yourself (DIY) efforts are part of a push to democratize air-quality monitoring so that it no longer remains solely in the domain of governments and academic researchers,” writes journalist and chemist Kat Austen in Nature. As with any citizen-science effort, quality control is an issue, especially among trained researchers, some of whom question the validity of data collected from these DIY pollution trackers. Yet, while some organizations refuse to work with the current data from such trackers, others, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, have started exploring how they can be of use in the larger picture of pollution measurement. “This new tech is potentially very valuable,” Tim Watkins, acting deputy director of the EPA’s National Exposure Research Laboratory, tells Austen. “And it’s coming, whether or not we are investing or using it.” View Ensia homepage

Photo of the Air Quality Egg, one of the technologies mentioned in the Nature piece, by Smart Citizens (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Each year, over two million long-haul trucks crisscrossing America consume nearly 36 billion gallons of diesel fuel. Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have discovered that adding drag-reducing devices to trucks could result in billions of gallons of fuel savings. The devices tested included trailer skirts — panels along the lower sides of the trailer that reduce undercarriage drag — and a rear tail fairing — essentially funnel-like panels added to the back of the trailer around the doors that reduce the wake produced by airflow traveling over and around the vehicle.

In a recent news release, lead researcher Kambiz Salari explained, “Even a minor improvement in a truck’s fuel economy has a significant impact on its yearly fuel consumption. For example, 19 percent improvement in fuel economy, which we can achieve, translates to 6.5 billion gallons of diesel fuel saved per year and 66 million fewer tons of carbon dioxide emission into the atmosphere.” At present, only 3 to 4 percent of the nation’s semi trucks use the drag-reducing components tested by the researchers. Adding these devices to a typical long-haul truck could significantly reduce aerodynamic drag and fuel consumption. View Ensia homepage

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How on Earth are we going to figure out how to feed the 9.5 billion people who will be inhabiting this planet by 2050? Perhaps by looking to the ultimate problem-solver — nature.

On Jan. 19, the Biomimicry Institute and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation will launch a worldwide design challenge. Their goal? “To show how modeling nature can provide viable solutions to reduce hunger, while creating conditions conducive to all life.”

Scientists, architects, planners, college students, high school students and others are invited to submit their ideas for a marketable solution that uses inspiration from nature to improve the global food system. Challenge participants will have access to biomimicry design resources and expert advice, and will have a chance to compete for cash prices of up to $160,000.

If you have a nature-inspired idea to reduce food spoilage, improve food packaging, boost production or soil conservation, or otherwise enhance food security, gather your forces and get ready to apply to the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge: Food Systems starting Jan. 19.  View Ensia homepage

Photo courtesy of Groasis.

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Mary Kang wasn’t even originally looking at methane emissions. The Princeton doctoral candidate was trying to get to the bottom of another issue: carbon dioxide escaping after being stored underground. During that research, she got to wondering about methane emissions from old oil and natural gas wells. What Kang, now a Stanford postdoctoral researcher, and other researchers found could be a significant and previously unidentified source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Studying 19 abandoned wells in Pennsylvania, all but one of which were not on a list of abandoned wells kept by the state, the researchers found that, while all the wells were releasing some methane, some of the wells — about 15 percent — were releasing thousands of times more methane than the wells at the lower levels of release. Stressing that their findings are preliminary given they only tested 19 wells — some of which are over 100 years old — the team estimates that the amount of methane coming out of all the abandoned wells in Pennsylvania could be 10 percent of the total amount released due to human activities.

The silver lining in these findings, though, is that 15 percent number related to the so-called super-emitting wells. If such a small percentage were to hold nationwide, then focusing on identifying and capping the super-emitting wells or capturing the methane from those wells is a more realistic option than trying to plug all of the nation’s 3 million abandoned wells — but one that could still have a significant effect.

Read the paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesPhoto by Greene County, Pennsylvania Photo Archive Project (Flickr | Creative Commons)  View Ensia homepage

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California-based PAX Pure hopes to offer a new solution to water scarcity with its groundbreaking water purification tool. Developed by Jay Harman and Tom Gielda, PAX Pure technology desalinates and demineralizes water without membranes, moving parts or chemicals. Instead, the technology simply mimics high-altitude conditions.

The big challenge with conventional desalination and demineralization is the energy needed to separate the impurities from the water by boiling. However, PAX Pure boils water at lower temperatures by mimicking low atmospheric pressures. By increasing the velocity of water to create an area of low pressure, PAX Pure systems achieve optimal operation at the low boiling point of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The process is not only cheaper and more efficient than conventional desalination, it can run on energy from the sun or waste heat from industrial manufacturing.

PAX Pure was recently named co-winner of the SXSW Eco Greentech competition, a contest for start-up technologies that fulfill market demand while reducing environmental impacts. While PAX Pure technology could be applied to agriculture, marine desalination, food and beverage manufacturing, and more, founder and CEO Philip O’Connor sees greatest potential in the hydraulic fracturing industry.

Water transportation can account for 60 to 80 percent of total fracking costs due to the fact that many U.S. fracking sites are located in water-stressed regions. Onsite demineralization of water would allow fracking companies to reuse their wastewater. “Pax Pure is looking to treat water during hydraulic fracturing at well sites for reduced trucking miles in the transport of water,” O’Connor says. This onsite approach to the demineralization of wastewater could significantly “clean up” the fracking industry. View Ensia homepage

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The illegal exportation of waste throughout the European Union, the trafficking of endangered species, and surface-water pollution were all recognized in a repot today by Eurojust, the European Union agency set up to deal with cross-border crime, as areas where reporting is low and conviction is even lower. Additionally, in the cases of illegal trafficking of endangered species and waste, the crimes are often linked to organized crime groups.

“Eurojust launched the Strategic Project in spring 2013 on the basis of an intriguing paradox: there was growing evidence of an increasing understanding that environmental crime is a serious crime, often involving a cross-border dimension and organised crime groups (OCGs), while at the same time, statistics on prosecutions of environmental crime in the Member States did not appear to reflect the real impact of this crime,” the authors write. “The number of cases referred to Eurojust, at that time, was also very low.”

Eurojust points to a number of reasons why this is the case, including a lack of communication and coordination between EU member states; lax, if any, specific legal action for environmental crime; and the technical and often complex nature of environmental issues. Still, the agency was able to point to a number of best practices and possible solutions, including better cooperation between partners, member states working more closely with Eurojust, more consistency in definitions of environmental crimes across countries, freezing and confiscating assets related to these crimes, and more.

“Environmental crime is threatening human life, health, and natural resources,” Věra Jourová, the EU’s commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, said in a press release. “These crimes affect the whole of society. They must therefore be targeted with the same seriousness as other criminal offenses.” View Ensia homepage

Photo by David J (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Forests provide habitat for over half of the world’s terrestrial plant and animal species, mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon, and contribute to the livelihoods of more than 1 billion people around the world. But they’re rapidly disappearing: 13 million acres of forests have been leveled each year over the past decade, largely due to the global demand for beef, palm oil, paper and soy production. From food to fuel, these four commodities appear in almost every company’s supply chain.

To help companies recognize and reduce their risk related to global deforestation, the international nonprofit CDP recently released a report detailing the business case for assessing and managing risks related with forest commodities. Entitled Deforestation-Free Supply Chains: From Commitments to Action, the report offers insights from 152 leading businesses, including Cargill, Unilever and Sodexo.

Nearly three quarters of the companies participating reported they recognize the need to address deforestation, and 89 percent said they have seen business benefits from sustainably sourcing forest-based commodities. Nineteen major companies, including Cargill, L’Oreal and Kellogg, have already adopted zero deforestation policies. Still, the report cites a need for a greater commitment to moving from understanding deforestation-related risks to changing business practice accordingly. It recommends setting roadmaps and targets addressing deforestation, and calls out mechanisms such as certification, supply chain management and product tracing as useful tools for reducing deforestation-associated business risk. View Ensia homepage

Photo by Wagner T. Cassimiro “Aranha” (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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