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The latest ideas and inspiration from around the world
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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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Earth’s rising temperatures mean more glacier melt, sea-level rise and severe weather, and this translates to heightened threats for coastline communities. In response, SCAPE Landscape Architecture — powered by President Obama’s Rebuild by Design Initiative — has proposed an innovative way to protect coastlines that also promotes biodiversity, environmental education and traditional livelihoods.

Instead of creating one conventional levee to protect the coastline from storm surges, Living Breakwaters uses innovative design to address the ecological and social impacts of wave mitigation. With community input, the design team developed a system of layered breakwaters — thick sections between land and water — that provides multiple rows of protection parallel to the shoreline. Layers consist of sloped mounds that help dissipate waves before they hit the shore. Each breakwater layer is designed to accommodate one specific type of naturally occurring underwater ecosystem. Called “reef streets,” these pocket ecosystems provide habitat for oysters, lobsters, juvenile fish and other organisms.

Unlike traditional levees, which often barricade the beach. Living Breakwaters provides recreational shoreline and makes it possible to preserve water-based traditions. Coastline accessibility fosters economic resilience and education, and local schools are able to gain hands-on experience learning about oyster ecology.

The system was recently named winner of the 2014 Fuller Challenge for socially responsible design by the Buckminster Fuller Institute. SCAPE has proposed pilot testing the project on the south shore of Staten Island, New York, and aims to one day adapt the system to shorelines across the United States.  View Ensia homepage

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Between 2009 and 2013, impact investors poured close to $23 billion into conservation projects such as water quantity and quality conservation, sustainable agriculture, and habitat conservation around the world.

That’s according to a report, Investing in Conservation: A landscape assessment of an emerging market, from EKO Asset Management Partners and The Nature Conservancy. The $23 billion valuation comes from surveys conducted with 56 investors — five for-profit and nonprofit development finance institutions and 51 private investment organizations.

“[The] report puts real numbers to what we’ve long suspected: private investors are deploying more capital than before toward investments that lead to both greater conservation and bring a definable financial return,” said Ricardo Bayon, EKO Asset Management partner and an author of the report, in a press release. “But more needs to be done.”

The report, which also included guidance and analysis from representatives of the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and JPMorgan Chase & Co., doesn’t include investments in clean tech or renewable energy, and in fact only covers a portion of the money being invested by governments, multilateral agencies and philanthropic sources on conservation, which some sources estimate could total about $50 billion annually. And the report’s authors acknowledge that the total amount is a far cry from the $300 billion annually that a recent Global Canopy Programme report says is needed to help address the world’s conservation challenges.

There are efforts, such as NatureVest (launched earlier this year by The Nature Conservancy with support from JPMorgan Chase & Co.), that attempt to broaden investments in conservation projects around the world and help close this gap. Specifically, NatureVest pools investment capital and provides long-term funding support to help move conservation projects from the early stages through to completion.  View Ensia homepage

Disclosure: The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is one of Ensia’s funders.

Photo by iStopckPhoto.com/RusN

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Solve two problems with one filter? That’s what Drinkwell aims to do. Begun through a collaboration between researchers at Lehigh University and the Bengal Engineering and Science University, the Boston-based social venture — recently named winner of the 2014 SXSW Eco Social Impact for Profit competition — offers an innovative approach to removing arsenic, an odorless, colorless carcinogen, from drinking water while providing a business enterprise to local people.

Arsenic occurs naturally in groundwater in many parts of Southeast Asia. The World Health Organization reports it affects more than 200 million people in 70 different countries. Not only that, but according to Drinkwell, the contamination has cost Bangladesh alone billions of dollars in lost GDP.

Drinkwell’s solution? A resin-based filter that is far more energy- and water-efficient than conventional reverse osmosis approaches to cleaning up arsenic-contaminated water. To boost local economies while reducing the arsenic health risk, the company has developed a “select, build, sell, collect” approach that engages local entrepreneurs to market the systems, teaches community members how to maintain the technology, provides jobs, and shows members how to collect data and monitor their results. The technology has already been successfully deployed in 200 communities across Laos, India and Cambodia.  View Ensia homepage

Photo © iStockphoto.com/Likhitha

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The textile industry uses copious amounts of water to dye fabrics — by some estimates, 25 liters of water just to dye a T-shirt. Not only that, but many textile factories are located in Eastern Asia, where chemical-laden water is sometimes dumped directly into local rivers.

A technology recently showcased by Sustainia has the ability to substitute carbon dioxide for the water. Applied Separations developed a technique that uses supercritical CO2 to take up the dye. Supercritical fluids are highly compressed gases that exhibit properties of both gases and liquids and can simultaneously move through solids and dissolve materials.

Supercritical carbon dying allows color pigment to penetrate fabrics easily without the use of harmful chemicals, salts or water. The method cuts dyeing time in half, and fabric emerges already dried. This means energy and costs could theoretically be reduced by 50 percent. The process also removes CO2, a greenhouse gas, from the air.

Hefty start-up costs deter many East Asian factories from adopting supercritical dying systems. Nonetheless, supercritical carbon technology has the potential to revolutionize the textile industry, and a small number of plants are taking hold across East Asia and the United States.  View Ensia homepage

Photo by Adrian Wiggins (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Plastic’s versatility renders it almost indispensable in today’s world, but plastic waste is a huge environmental burden. To make it possible to both benefit from plastics and reduce their environmental costs, the Plastic Disclosure Project, a global initiative of the Ocean Recovery Alliance, is challenging businesses and others to commit themselves to measure, manage, reduce and even productively use plastic waste. By tracking their “plastic footprints” and developing a closed-loop approach to using plastic, organizations can recognize inefficiencies, streamline production, increase customer loyalty, benefit from waste recovery and cut costs. According to PDP, improved management of plastic could save consumer goods companies up to $4 billion per year.

To that end, PDP provides a central registry where companies, governments, universities and other entities can sign up to disclose how much plastic waste they produce and receive support and encouragement as they work to reduce its environmental toll. In addition, it provides information on the impacts of plastics and curates a “Solutions” page that provides links to specific opportunities and strategies for reducing plastic waste as well as recycling and even upcycling plastic products.

This past summer PDP partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme and the environmental impact assessment company Trucost to release a report on the natural capital cost of plastic in the consumer goods industry. The first to assign monetary value to the impacts of plastics on marine environments, the study provides information organizations can use to internalize environmental costs of plastics and change their risk management accordingly.

PDP sees an opportunity for businesses to act on plastics before most legislators, consumers, investors and NGOs. There is an impending demand for change, and as the PDP reminds us, “Companies that act first are usually the ones to profit most.” View Ensia homepage

Photo by mbeo (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s first-ever Disruptive Innovation Festival debuts online Oct. 20. Over the course of four weeks, the DIF will provide an online space for entrepreneurs, businesses, thought leaders and learners from around the world to explore how we might shape a circular economy.

DIF aims to challenge our current “cradle-to-grave” mindset and replace it with a closed-loop system that values natural resource conservation. The international event will feature live broadcasts from William McDonough, Ellen MacArthur, Janine Benyus and others. Speakers will address collaborative consumption, new business models, design innovation and more. The DIF will also host a variety of forums and competitions, with English as the main language and facilitation in Spanish, French and Russian.

One focal point for the event will be three global design competitions revolving around the Biomimicry Challenge, Generation Z and Smart Cycles. The Biomimicry Challenge, for example, asks participants to “radically improve an aspect of the food system” by targeting a deficiency in the way our food travels from plow to plate. Entries should harness biomimicry and make the food system more affordable, accessible and efficient. Ideas could revolutionize the way we package food, irrigate crops, harvest produce, rear livestock, distribute food or mitigate waste, all while bring us closer to a circular economy. Entries for the Biomimicry Challenge and Generation Z are due Oct. 22, and entries for Smart Cycles are due Nov. 8. Top innovations will be featured on the DIF website.

To learn more about DIF, grab free tickets, enter a global design competition or join the conversation visit thinkdif.co. View Ensia homepage

Photo by mattwalker69 (Creative Commons | Flickr).

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In 2013, more than 200 million tourists sunbathed on Mediterranean beaches. You can bet that most of them applied sunscreen. That sunscreen may be valuable for preventing skin cancer for humans, but it can also wreak havoc on marine ecosystems.

A new study published in Environmental Science & Technology found that when sunscreen washes off a person into the ocean, certain ingredients react with sunlight to form hydrogen peroxide, which can be toxic to phytoplankton.

Researchers Antonio Tovar-Sánchez and David Sánchez-Quiles took to the waters near Majorca Island to verify the impacts of Mediterranean tourists on marine life. They sampled water under different sunlight conditions. Using a combination of data from ultraviolet radiation, tourist numbers and seawater samples, the team concluded that sunscreen alters oceanic composition and affects phytoplankton populations.

It turns out titanium dioxide — a common ingredient in LEDs, solar cells, surface coatings and sunscreen — is the chemical culprit. When titanium dioxide nanoparticles enter the water, their protective coatings dissolve. This allows the compound to react with ultraviolet light and form new compounds, such as hydrogen peroxide.

Hydrogen peroxide generates high levels of stress on phytoplankton, the cornerstone of the oceanic food web. All marine life depends on these primary producers to survive. Phytoplankton also play a key role in carbon sequestration, thus contributing to overall climate stabilization.

How can beachgoers stay healthy and maintain healthy ecosystems, too? One strategy is to cover up with long sleeves or wide-brimmed hats before resorting to sunscreen. If sunscreen is necessary, just make sure it is fully absorbed before hitting the waves. Photo by HJL (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Think liberals and environmental hipsters are leading the way on carbon pricing? Think again. According to a report just published by nonprofit environmental information organization CDP, hundreds of corporate giants, including Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil and Bank of America, are already including carbon pricing in business decisions — and many are working to advance related legislation as well.

The report, Global Corporate Use of Carbon Pricing, summarizes information gathered from companies around the world in response to a 2014 questionnaire. Of those participating in the survey, 150 major corporations, including 29 in the U.S., reported that a carbon price figures into their business strategies, with prices used ranging from $6 to nearly $90 per metric ton. More than 200 of the respondents said they support carbon pricing legislation, and more than 600 — including 112 in the U.S. — reported that they consider carbon pricing regulation to be a business opportunity.

“Companies in the U.S. and worldwide are already advanced in their use of carbon pricing,” the CDP report notes. “They are ahead of their governments in planning for climate change risks, costs and opportunities. These companies want, and are calling for, clear pricing and regulatory certainty to help them plan their climate-related investments, and they want to see more certain, internationally linked carbon markets.”

Hat tip to Chemical & Engineering News for calling our attention to this story. Photo by Blatant World (Flickr |Creative Commons)

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Among other benefits, trees are valuable for their ability to clean the air around us. Last week, researchers from The Nature Conservancy, Dow Chemical Company and the University of Florida published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences attesting to that fact. The team found that planting trees around urban areas could contribute to the abatement of ozone and a precursor of ozone, nitrogen dioxide. Not only that, but in many cases trees could do the job at a cost equal to or lower than technological fixes.

There are cases where trees don’t necessarily pencil out — such as if land would have to be purchased for reforestation. And if planting trees comes at a cost to habitat such as important grasslands or wetlands, it may not be the right option. Still, TNC’s chief scientist Peter Kareiva writes in a blog post about the study, “Kroeger and colleagues show that forests can be added to the engineering solutions in a significant way. … And unlike the engineering solutions, forests bring numerous extra benefits as a bonus — they sequester carbon and help to mitigate climate change, they can cool air temperatures, they can help improve water quality and reduce flood risk, and they are habitats for wildlife and sites for recreation.” Photo by USFS Region 5 (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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As seen in California’s ongoing drought, water acquisition is not just an issue in the developing world. Climate change, industrial and residential use, and inefficient irrigation all contribute to water scarcity. However, researchers from Utrecht and McGill universities offer solutions to significantly reduce water stress (when more than 40 percent of an area’s water is withdrawn) for the one-third of the global population affected by it.

Recognizing that there is no silver-bullet solution, the researchers in a paper published in Nature Geoscience outline six “wedges” that, when combined — in various ways in different places — can mitigate water stress. Each wedge represents a different strategy that could theoretically reduce water stress by 2 percent in a little over 35 years. In combination, all six wedges have the potential to reduce the number of people facing water stress by 12 percent by 2050.

The water-stress wedges are defined as either “hard path” solutions, such as increasing water storage in reservoirs and desalination of seawater, or “soft path” solutions, such as irrigation efficiency and limiting population growth.

While hard-path options might require more initial capital, soft-path wedges necessitate significant social and socioeconomic changes. However, overcoming these challenges could mean greater water security. Article by Kayla Walsh. Photo by Marcelo César Augusto Romeo (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Invertebrates — including insects, worms and crustaceans — are usually pretty small, but they have a big impact when it comes to providing ecosystem services. In fact, insects alone are responsible for pollinating around 75 percent of the world’s crops, and invertebrates play a major role in recycling waste and improving water quality.

That’s why scientists are more than a little concerned about the decline in invertebrate populations. Studying all 1.4 million named invertebrate species is impossible, but of the one percent evaluated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 40 percent were considered threatened. Other studies suggest that invertebrate populations showed an overall decline of 45 percent in the last four decades.

So where’s the silver lining on this cloud of vanishing invertebrates? Understanding invertebrate loss may be the first step toward saving them. Scientists are hoping their research on invertebrate loss will improve conservation efforts by determining what successful invertebrate species are doing to maintain their populations. Photo by Christian Guthier (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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