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Editor’s note: As we continue to share stories of importance to the long-term well-being of people and our planet, we acknowledge the profound challenges the coronavirus pandemic poses today. We express our solidarity with all humanity and commit to using the lessons we learn through this crisis to help shape a more positive future together.


As the novel coronavirus ravages the world — and economic signs point to a severe recession on the way — environmental emergencies remain real and capable of creating further catastrophe within just a few short years.

“At a time when many countries have to cope with economic challenges and painful trade-offs, this tests governments and businesses alike,” says Environment at a Glance 2020, a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “To be effective, policies need to be based on sound and reliable information.”

The report shines a spotlight on one such source of information that can help guide environmental protection priorities in the critical but resource-limited months and years ahead: Environment at a Glance, a comprehensive look at the state of pollution, ecosystems, natural resources and the climate crisis in the OECD’s 36 member countries.

In this moment of multiple crises, action requires knowing exactly what we’re up against. And as it becomes increasingly clear how much humans rely on ecosystems, environmental knowledge is crucial.

Environment at a Glance offers graphs, maps and downloadable spreadsheets. Users can access the platform free online and click into the domain they want to explore: air quality, water resources, garbage disposal, wildlife or climate change.

For air pollution, which kills millions of people each year, the OECD site offers data on key environmental indicators including sulfur, nitrogen and particulate matter — soot, dust and other polluting particles in the air. Also available are health statistics tracking exposure to air pollution and the deaths resulting from it.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of clean water for hand washing and healthy living, Environment at a Glance offers statistics on freshwater stress and the extent of sewage treatment. It also presents key data on freshwater withdrawals from rivers, lakes, aquifers and other sources.

The platform describes how OECD member countries manage their material resources and the resulting trash, a key link between economy and environment. Factors measured include how much waste nations produce — in total amounts, or adjusted for population and GDP — and where that garbage goes: landfills, compost bins, recycling facilities, waste-to-energy incinerators or other sources.

In its biodiversity section, the site offers fresh insights on land use, land cover, protected areas and threatened species.

On the challenge of climate change, data address energy , fossil fuel subsidies and greenhouse gas emissions from OECD nations.

The OECD reports that all its data are regularly updated and free to access. Plans are in place to introduce more indicators and new topics over time, starting with a set of statistics on ocean resources later this year.

The organization does acknowledge the need to interpret the data with some caution: National averages might obscure big deviations from the average within countries, and differences in indicators  between countries aren’t always statistically significant.

Plus, OECD members are mostly wealthier nations in Europe and North America, while those countries suffering the brunt of crises like climate change — with the fewest financial resources to respond — are low-income societies in the global south.

Environment at a Glance 2020 lends context to the data and outlines how OECD countries are doing on sustainability, noting that the way people live depends on patterns of economic production that put pressure on ecosystems and natural resources.

“How does this pressure evolve over time?” the report asks. “How successful are we in breaking the link between economic growth and environmental degradation?”

Equipped with data, we can try to answer these questions — and take proactive action to save our ecosystems and ourselves.

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Modern-day food production is one of the largest known contributors to the climate crisis. In fact, it generates up to 30% of known global emissions, mainly through the production of livestock.

If raising livestock for the production of meat and dairy is such a big problem, why don’t we simply switch to plant-based diets? This idea is much easier said than done.

A new study on climate change and the American diet from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication reports that Americans don’t seem to know much about the environmental impacts of their food. “More than half of Americans think that the production of beef, pork, dairy, and/or poultry contribute to global warming at least ‘a little,’” reports the study, published through the Earth Day Network earlier this year. About 65% of Americans “rarely” or “never” research the impacts of their diets on the environment and don’t often bring these ideas up with family and friends.

But what about people who are aware of how agriculture is contributing to climate change? What is stopping them from changing their food choices?

According to the study, over half of Americans are willing to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets. But to do so, they need to overcome a variety of barriers, such as lack of access to plant-based foods, economics, flavor and, in some cases, the effort it takes to prepare plant-based foods.

In other words, “cost, taste, and convenience.”

Lower-income households in particular report barriers. One in five lower-income individuals say that they don’t have a grocery store or market nearby. Many of these individuals also report they lack access to fresh produce, do not have the funds to purchase plant-based foods, claim they don’t know what plant-based foods to buy, and have issues with the taste.

All told, about half of Americans think plant-based meals are more expensive than other meals, and 83% say that taste is “moderately important” when it comes to their food choices. In fact, 67% of Americans say they would have no problem eating more plant-based foods if they tasted better. Most of these Americans agree that a plant-based diet would be more adoptable if the food not only tasted better, but was cheaper, more accessible, and offered more variety.

Among the individuals who would consider eating more plant-based foods, 91% would do so for their health, 71% would be motivated by a desire to reduce the environmental impact of food companies, and 64% would make changes because reducing global warming is at least “moderately important.”

As the study points out, research shows that out of 80-some top strategies for reducing global warming, eating a plant-rich diet is in the top four, yet three out of 10 Americans are unaware of the benefits that can accrue from eating a plant-based diet. Although the study itself didn’t offer any potential solutions, it is clear that not only eating more plant-based foods, but also helping people recognize the positive impacts of eating more plant-based foods, could go a long way toward reducing the threat of climate change for generations to come.

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Butterflies and bees, ants and beetles, cockroaches and flies — whether loved or feared, insects help humans. Just sample the ways these animals enable life as we know it: they pollinate crops, give us new medicines, break down waste and support entire ecosystems.

Yet many insects around the world are in decline.

Writing in the journal Biological Conservation, more than two dozen scientists from countries around the world are warning of a wave of insect extinctions — and urging swift steps to curb the crisis. In a paper sketching solutions, the scientists say that to save insects we must give them the space they need to survive in the face of climate change: livable, interconnected habitats flush with a rich diversity of plant and animal life.

Ensuring that insects have room to thrive means setting aside local habitat, including parks, gardens, roadsides and the edges of farm fields. It also entails protecting continent-scale migratory passages like the corridor that monarch butterflies traverse from Minnesota to Mexico.

Not just any areas will do, the researchers caution. Insects need quality space, too. The closer an area is to the condition it was in before humans altered it for the worse, the better. “We need to move the needle of novel landscapes towards one of greater ecological integrity and more complex interaction networks,” Michael Samways, one of the paper’s authors and an insect conservationist at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, wrote in an email to Ensia.

In South Africa, a network of conservation corridors — composed mainly of native grassland — cuts through plantations of non-native pine trees. “These corridors enable insects to ebb and flow across the landscape as they would in a nature reserve,” ecologist Michael Samways wrote in an email to Ensia. Photo courtesy of Michael Samways

Space that’s free from pollution and invasive species, with diverse plant life and a varied landscape, will best help insects — and that includes enough room for the six-legged critters to find food, seek mates and just rest.

“Part of being able to move around is to be able to ‘dodge’ natural enemies, from bats and birds, to other insects like predatory ladybugs and parasitic wasps,” Samways explained.

Our changing climate pushes many insects to evolve, move or die — a dynamic that often puts them up against the extensive transformation humans have wrought on Earth’s surface. Habitat fragmentation exacerbates the threat by limiting insects’ ability to traverse the landscapes separating them from more suitable surroundings.

But with quality space that’s connected by conservation corridors and other adequate habitat, the researchers write, insects can leave enough healthy offspring to sustain their species.

Scientists know what insects need, but scaling proven strategies up to the massive level needed to make a dent in extinctions is a different challenge entirely.

“Especially when you’re thinking about insects, you have to get public buy-in,” says DeAnna Beasley, an ecologist at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who was not involved in the paper. Highlighting this key hurdle, the report authors bemoaned “the current lack of sufficient collective political will and concerted effort” to save insects.

To build that will, the scientists call for greater efforts to communicate the value of insects to society. For example, Beasley has used cicadas — a kind of insect that needs “a large, contiguous space” to sustain big populations — in citizen science research, getting more data for science while building more appreciation for insects among the public. In one project the paper spotlights, students at schools in Austria successfully assessed the quality of space for butterflies, laying the groundwork for follow-up by trained scientists.

With many insects unnoticed or misunderstood, the researchers also recommend the continued use of “insect icons” and “flagship species” to promote support for conservation.

“Highlighting the animals that people know best is vital for our effort to get people engaged in invertebrate or insect conservation,” says Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, who was not involved in the new paper. Black also underscores that charismatic insects are just a starting point.

“We need people to understand the consequences of not taking action and give them solutions that they can enact in their own lives,” Black says. “As well as getting them to push their governments to take action.”

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To fund, or not to fund? That is the question for organizations backing research on the world’s climate crisis — the question they must ask about every proposal that crosses their desks.

A new analysis of money that governments and independent organizations spend on climate change research indicates that just 5% of funds over the past three decades have gone toward projects studying political, psychological, economic and other social science dimensions of mitigation. Most climate research funding instead flows to the natural and physical sciences.

That’s a lopsided picture, argue Indra Øverland and Benjamin Sovacool, the two European social scientists who authored the paper. While advances in science and technology have delivered new tools in the fight against climate change, the researchers contend, one of the “most urgent unsolved puzzles” is getting people and institutions to use those tools and stop global temperatures from spiking higher than 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) over preindustrial levels.

“Natural scientists and policymakers tend to just assume that if the natural and technical sciences identify the problem and solutions, society will automatically solve the problem,” Øverland, head of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs’ Centre for Energy Research, wrote in an email to Ensia. “I think the past three decades have proven that assumption does not hold.”

Published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, the study reviews grants from hundreds of government agencies and other organizations around the world that fund academic research, such as the European Commission and the U.S. National Science Foundation. Grants assessed were from the Dimensions database.

Between 1990 and 2018, the natural and technical sciences received billions of dollars in climate change-related research funding. The social sciences and humanities? Just US$393 million for climate change mitigation, the researchers estimate.

The numbers aren’t exact, since the researchers identified relevant studies using climate-related keywords rather than reading unfathomable numbers of research papers in full. Also, some funding organizations aren’t included in the Dimensions database.

When it comes to changing attitudes, social norms and economic incentives to fight global heating, many options are on the table. “Choices need to be made about institutional design, negotiating strategies, communication strategies, incentives and so on,” Øverland wrote. “Finding out which ones are effective is a social science task.”

Some funders have restrictions that limit their ability to invest in social science research. Michael Dwyer, a spokesperson for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada noted in an email to Ensia that legislation directs the agency’s efforts only toward engineering and the natural sciences.

In another email, Magdalena Schaeffer, a spokesperson for the publicly financed German Research Foundation (DFG) — an organization whose grants were analyzed in the study — wrote that the DFG determines grants according to the excellence of research proposals and has “no specific funding initiative for social science research on climate mitigation.” Some other German agencies do target funding specifically for social science on the subject.

Other funding organizations contacted by Ensia did not comment on the record, including the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, South Africa’s National Research Foundation and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research.

Øverland and Sovacool, a University of Sussex energy policy professor, write in the paper that funding organizations should boost funding for climate mitigation “to match the magnitude of the threat.” At the same time they call for social scientists to work toward greater “rigor and validity” in their studies while doing more research on areas emitting the most greenhouse gases.

Climate change, the paper contends, is a global social challenge. “Will the Paris Agreement work? What are the concrete suggestions for an alternative and more binding global solution?” the authors write. “How could households be convinced to adopt low-carbon lifestyles? How can decarbonization be promoted across cultures and market economies as diverse as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and the United Kingdom?”

With more funding, social scientists might gain actionable insights into these questions and others whose answers shape the future of everyone on Earth.

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In 2015, 193 countries agreed on 17 global objectives for ending poverty and protecting the environment by 2030. These Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) included SDG 14, to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”

A new study by two former diplomats with the CONOW Competence Centre for International Relations published in the journal Marine Policy estimates that to hit the targets needed to achieve this SDG the world must spend US$175 billion per year.

Reducing marine pollution will take more than half the money needed, according to the paper. At over USD$90 billion, that cost includes programs to clean up ocean trash, better manage waste and improve wastewater treatment plants. It also means investing in research on biodegradable plastics, all while working to limit plastic pollution of any kind in the first place.

About one-fifth of the needed funding, the researchers say, is for protecting and restoring wetland ecosystems, coastal habitats, coral reefs and other environments. For wetlands, that could entail setting aside new areas under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty that aims to conserve wetland wildlife and ecosystem services.

For seaside ecosystems, it could mean investments in integrated coastal management. This approach brings together scientists, managers, community members and other stakeholders to cooperate on unified oversight and administration of activities in coastal areas, aiming to balance competing interests for sustainable development — all while prioritizing the preservation of biological resources and ecosystems.

Other priorities, the study says, are promoting sustainable fishing, directing resources to low-income island countries, supporting efforts to manage fisheries and fight pollution, and dealing with climate change, which acidifies oceans.

To estimate the price tag for achieving the goal, the researchers drew heavily from a 2012 report by countries involved in the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international conservation treaty. The authors adjusted the report’s marine conservation cost estimates for inflation, while noting the high degree of uncertainty for some of the estimates.

Can we make these big investments? While the data are hazy, the researchers estimated that the money pledged right now for ocean conservation totals just about US$25 billion yearly. If that uncertain estimate is correct, it leaves an annual funding gap of around US$150 billion.

At the United Nations’ first Ocean Conference in 2017, 44% of commitments to take action on SDG 14 came from governments, while 20% came from non-governmental organizations. Businesses promised just 8%.

The biggest commitment was from the European Investment Bank, which committed US$8 billion to help small, developing island nations become less vulnerable to climate change.

To bring the needed funding and urgency to SDG 14, the researchers issue 10 recommendations:

  1. Acknowledge how wasteful lifestyles mar our oceans, then shift our culture and consumption in a more sustainable direction.  “For too long we have taken nature for granted, and this needs to stop,” the study states.
  2. Keep SDG 14 on local and international political agendas. The last few years have seen more attention, which is a good development — if it continues.
  3. Invest in institutions that can implement ocean solutions, particularly in developing countries.
  4. Put effort into developing knowledge and technology that builds the capacity to protect ocean health.
  5. Target spending better. This could be accomplished in part by ending the some US$20 billion in harmful subsidies to fisheries. At the same time, decision-makers should bring the SDG 14 targets into more development and environmental policymaking.
  6. Scale up traditional funding. Most of the money spent on biodiversity efforts, the report says, come from national governments and international organizations, which could mean big impact if these states and groups up their contributions even further.
  7. Engage the private sector. Businesses might help do their part by paying for ecosystem services or investing in financial innovations like blue bonds.
  8. Get more money from philanthropists, who the research estimates currently contribute just US$1 billion per year to ocean health.
  9. Support trust funds dedicated to ocean conservation.
  10. Coordinate overall financial efforts for SDG 14 by working for sustainable ocean financing.

“Our Ocean is vital for our ecosystem and for our economy,” the researchers write. “It provides us with most of the oxygen that we breathe, water that we drink… and is the foundation for an economic activity estimated at around US$3 trillion per year.” Given that reality, the price tag of saving the seas seems worth it.

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If the 2010s were the decade when we confirmed we were right about climate change — with a growing number of people worried as fires, floods and droughts announce a climate emergency here and now — then the 2020s will be the decade when we’ll need to face the crisis head on.

Even as we strive to stop the globe from getting hotter still in order to avoid another “lost decade,” we’ll also have to adjust to changes already happening.

The good news: There’s no need to start from scratch, thanks to the Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange (CAKE), a collection of more than 2,000 vetted resources on climate adaptation compiled since 2010 by EcoAdapt, a nonprofit based in Washington state.

The site’s centerpiece is a database of practical tools, case studies, state and regional action plans, and other resources exploring how people and communities have adapted — and might adapt — to shifts brought about by climate change and other environmental degradation. Users can browse the material using a visual list or interactive map.

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CAKE’s website bills it as “the world’s largest and most used source of climate adaptation case studies and resources.” Users can search for relevant materials with a visual list or an interactive map.

Featured tools include actionable resources designed to help decision makers, including an online application for analyzing an area’s drought risk, a bird’s eye visualization of the future of rising seas and a U.S. government–issued guidebook outlining how various entities within a region can work together to become more resilient to natural disasters.

Case studies give visitors a chance to learn from real-world projects already in motion. One recent example spotlights the town of Branford, Connecticut, which created a Coastal Resiliency Fund last year, setting aside money for strategic investments in both green and built infrastructure.

Other case studies range from a briefing on how scientists monitor ecological change in the North Pacific Ocean to an overview of how the U.S. government works with stakeholders such as ranchers, researchers, hikers and local governments to build climate resilience in Arizona’s deserts. Another case study looks at how Australia’s natural resource managers use climate science to inform management of in the Great Barrier Reef.

Users can filter tools and case studies by their geographic scale, type of climate impact and sector — with options spanning from conservation to transportation to disaster risk management. After creating an account, users can submit their own suggestions for possible inclusion in the database.

On top of helping practitioners share resources, CAKE maintains a directory of individuals and organizations working on climate adaptation. The site’s community page hosts a calendar of adaptation events such as webinars and in-person conferences, plus a board for relevant job and educational opportunities.

The project’s goal, according to its website, is to “build a shared knowledge base for managing natural and built systems in the face of rapid climate change.” With climate change impacts worsening around the world, such a knowledge base is likely to become increasingly invaluable in 2020 and beyond.

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Droughts striking Asia, Africa, the U.S. and elsewhere have meant steep water shortages, while inequities in infrastructure leave some drinking water worldwide unsafe even when it’s technically available. These realities underscore the need to improve water resilience: The water systems we rely on must be able to meet our needs even when faced with dramatic change.

Over the past few years, United Nations reports have noted that making water systems more resilient is “key to maintaining access in a climatically uncertain future” and “much more work is needed” to accomplish this goal. But what should that work be? A new study published in the journal Ecology and Society suggests top priorities should be restoring healthy ecosystems, planning for uncertainty and enhancing our ability to respond to changing circumstances. The study also found strong support among experts for recycling water and diversifying water supply to boost resilience to drought, while working across sectors such as stormwater management and wastewater management to make communities more resilient to flooding.

These findings are based on a survey sent by researchers from the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability to more than 5,000 water researchers, planners, engineers and others. Most of the 420 complete responses were from academic researchers, and the majority were from white men.

Analyzing the survey results, the researchers found that keeping ecosystems healthy was the top priority for experts surveyed. That’s at odds with the conventional laser focus on building or upgrading water infrastructure, and more in line with an eco-hydrological outlook that aims to manage watersheds by connecting environmental benefits to human well-being. Water systems research seldom makes that connection clear.

The strategy respondents rated second most important was to acknowledge the “looming uncertainty” water systems face. As an example, the study points to the unexpected and severe drought that hit Cape Town, South Africa, spurring a water crisis that pushed the city to severely restrict water use. Creating resilient water systems, the study says, will require proactively discussing and dealing with the potential for unanticipated shifts in the water cycle.

Other strategies the experts deemed important included responding quickly to change, being open to institutional change and drawing water from a diverse array of sources.

When asked specifically about building resilience to drought, those surveyed said that diversifying water supply sources — drawing, for example, on surface water, groundwater and recycled water — was the most important tactic. Four in five experts said water recycling was important or very important for resilience to drought. Experts also pointed to conservation as a priority.

To boost resilience to flooding, experts endorsed using an integrated approach in which various sectors work together to develop green infrastructure.

The authors noted that the study focused on the opinions of academic experts, not on the views of people actually managing water systems. Although the research offers one window into available strategies, the future of water resilience will depend on how these strategies are implemented on the ground.

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Prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications sometimes end up in water — with worrying fallout.

Studies show that antibiotics, painkillers, antidepressants, anti-cancer drugs, and other pharmaceuticals entering the environment after passing through people and farm animals or being thrown out improperly have made fish more vulnerable to predators, disrupted frog hormones and aggravated antibiotic resistance. That last piece is particularly concerning: Drug-resistant infections already kill 700,000 people each year, a number that a United Nations report says could grow to 10 million by 2050. And pharmaceutical use is likely to grow as people live longer, economies grow bigger and climate change worsens disease.

A recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an intergovernmental group whose member countries are mostly in Europe and North America, offers five recommendations for reducing the risk:

1. Improve understanding of the fate of pharmaceutical residues in the environment. 

There is still a lot we don’t know about what happens when drugs get into freshwater, sewage systems and drinking water. The report recommends that governments support more research on the chemical constituents of drugs to figure out how they influence water quality, ecosystems and human health.

What about cases where the science is unclear? “Adopt precautionary measures,” the report says — especially when doing nothing might mean big harm down the line.

2. Regulate pharmaceutical companies to ensure more responsible production. 

Efforts to keep drug residues out of water can start as drugs are being developed and go all the way through regulatory approval and marketing. Governments could use economic incentives to encourage practices like calibrating consumption to individual patients (and so reducing loss to the environment) and designing drugs using principles of green pharmacy.

Policymakers could also tighten regulations on medications that pose more of an environmental threat, mandating eco-labeling, making those drugs prescription only and more closely monitoring them once they’re on the market. Such measures could also include procedures for pinpointing and preventing drinking water pollution.

3. Enact policies to halt the overuse of medications for both people and animals. 

One way to drop the need for drugs is to lessen the spread of infection and disease in the first place. Public health initiatives can boost sanitation and hygiene for people, while agricultural efforts can reduce the need to use antibiotics on livestock.

In the United Kingdom, the report notes, a voluntary stewardship program has helped the poultry industry cut antibiotic use while bringing more meat to market. Governments could also promote best practices on safely storing livestock manure to prevent feces from drug-treated animals from entering ecosystems.

For humans, the report says, improved diagnostics could help doctors avoid prescribing unneeded pills.

Promote safety at the end of the pharmaceutical life cycle, from production to disposal. 

Switzerland has levied a tax to pay for improving the ability of wastewater treatment plants to remove drug residues from water. But the report cautions, “[u]pgrading wastewater treatment with new technologies will not solely solve the problem.”

There are numerous measures governments can take to help prevent medications from getting into the water in the first place. Information campaigns can educate the public to not dump unused drugs in the sink or flush them down the toilet. Other campaigns could speak to veterinarians and farmers about proper disposal of drugs for animals.

Meanwhile, organized collection of unused medications can provide an alternative. Australia, for example, has implemented a national program in which many pharmacies collect unwanted drugs and dispose of them safely. The report also encourages policymakers to think about ways to hold drug makers responsible for end-of-life-cycle disposal.

Ensure collaboration across the life cycle of medications.

From research to production and consumption to disposal, the report encourages policymakers to keep every stage of a drug’s life cycle in mind.

It also encourages governments to involve all stakeholders and departments. “Action on pharmaceuticals in the environment is much more likely to be extended and sustained,” the report says, “if it is mainstreamed into broader health, agricultural and environmental policies and projects.”

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What are the biggest emerging opportunities and threats the year ahead holds for efforts to conserve biodiversity? Nearly two dozen scientists, conservation professionals and future scanners recently came together to ask and answer that question as part of an annual “horizon scan” led by Cambridge University conservation biologist William Sutherland. The group narrowed a list of 89 issues to 15 emerging or anticipated trends that have a strong potential to benefit or harm living things but are not yet on the radar for most conservationists. Here are their top picks, published this week in the scientific journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution:

Nanotech Meets Land Use

Cellulose, one of the main components of wood, is proving to be remarkably useful when broken into nano-sized bits. As inventors find new uses for the versatile material, demand is growing a hefty 18% per year. Use of nanocellulose for packaging and construction can help remove carbon dioxide, a primary contributor to climate change, from the atmosphere, and reduce demand for environment-harming plastics. But it could also increase pressure to turn diverse forests into biodiversity-bereft plantations and otherwise disrupt habitat.

Forests as Fuel

The European Union has adopted a directive classifying wood as a renewable energy source and has plans to dramatically increase renewables’ share of the energy mix by 2030. Ironically, these moves are spurring actions that are seen as detrimental from both climate change and biodiversity perspectives: The import of wood into the E.U. from countries such as the U.S. and Canada has increased in recent years, and there are concerns for disruption of forest habitat in Europe as well. A lawsuit is now challenging the classification, but the problem could worsen if countries outside the E.U. decide to follow suit.

Better Buds for Bees?

Bees and other pollinators have been in big trouble lately as changing land use and perils like pesticides and disease decimate their populations. Recent research in the U.S. has shown that pollen of sunflowers and relatives, though not as nutritionally valuable as pollen from other plants, appears to reduce the severity of a gut infection that decreases reproductive success in bumblebees. If this research were to lead to massive plantings of sunflowers, it could adversely affect other wild bees that depend on more nutritious plants or on host-parasite interactions to thrive.

Long-horned Trouble

The Asian long-horned tick arrived in the U.S. in 2017, bringing a most unwelcome guest: a bacterium that kills cattle. The tick tolerates a wide range of conditions and has potential to spread along the coasts of North America as well as into Central and South America, carrying its deadly companion along with it. This duo is likely to catalyze land use change as cattle growers adjust their operations. Because the tick has been known to infest mammals and birds, there is concern that it may harm wildlife as it spreads as well.

Disappearing Kelp

Massive “forests” of kelp, a type of brown algae, grow along coastlines around the world, protecting shores from erosion and sheltering commercially important fish and other ocean life. Despite their reputation for enduring environmental stress, many of these kelp forests have been declining in recent years, possibly due to rising ocean temperatures, pollution, harvesting and non-native species. Further declines could disrupt ocean ecosystems and result in economically impactful losses of the billions of dollars worth of services they provide to humans.

Antarctic Ice Dark Horse

It’s well known that a warming atmosphere is eating away at ice surrounding both of our planet’s poles. What’s less common knowledge — and only gradually being understood by scientists — is how the ozone hole over the Antarctic affects this. The hole in Earth’s ozone layer has been shrinking due to reduced emissions of pollutants that cause it to enlarge, and this alteration could contribute to changes in wind and other weather patterns over the South Pole. The changing weather in turn is likely to cause more Antarctic ice to melt, exacerbating global sea-level rise and further threatening coastal communities and habitat.

Mini Hydro Meets River Ecology

Small hydropower dams are becoming increasingly popular for powering local communities in Asia and elsewhere. Though they can have less land use impact than megadams, they still disrupt river flow and sediment movement and so can alter habitat in ways that affect animals and plants that inhabit rivers and streams. With more than 80,000 such dams in existence and a development push for more, there is a need for a better understanding of potential ecological impacts and what we can do to minimize harm to fish and other living things.

Circular Aquaculture

Ocean fish farming can produce large amounts of food, but it takes tons of water and can pollute the environment with nutrients and other chemicals. One approach being explored to reduce adverse impacts is the use of recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), which reduce water demand by 97%–99%. Limiting factors for this approach are the price tag as well as concerns about downsides such as feed sourcing and energy use. If these factors are addressed, farms could help boost ocean fish supply in a more sustainable manner than conventional approaches.

Mosquito-Murdering Fungi

As conventional insecticides such as pyrethroids become less effective at killing malaria-carrying mosquitoes due to the evolution of resistance, scientists are searching for innovative alternatives. One recently developed is a mosquito-infecting fungus that has been genetically engineered to produce a toxin found in spider venom. This biological control could benefit biodiversity by working synergistically with, and so reducing the use of, conventional insecticides. However, it also could cause problems by affecting other organisms besides malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Bag Babies

Among the latest advances in assisted reproduction is the development of an artificial “biobag” womb that can be used to carry developing fetuses through to full term. Although still in early stages, such a device could potentially be used to increase reproductive capacity of endangered mammals in instances where the availability of females to gestate the next generation is a limiting factor to recovery. Yet to be explored are possible behavioral and immune system implications and other unintended consequences of bypassing mom’s natural accommodations.

Asian Cures, Biodiversity Ills

Traditional Asian medicine is flying high these days with inclusion in the World Health Assembly’s International Classification of Disease in early 2019, a growing market push by the Chinese government, and booming sales in countries involved in China’s Belt and Road initiative. Whether or not that’s good for human health, implications for endangered species are a concern because some treatments require harvesting threatened species. Not only that, but the Belt and Road development could enhance access to hard-to-reach sources of such species, further increasing opportunities to harvest high-demand plants and animals.

Mystery Blockchain

The distributed tracking technology known as blockchain is finding an increasingly broad array of applications, including managing energy and other natural resources. With no universal standards or oversight, however, it opens to door to disconcerting applications such as a Germany-based demonstration in which a forest essentially was empowered to sell its own timber. The lack of convention and regulation could create impacts on biodiversity outside of existing political and regulatory structures. At the same time, the technology could be used to improve governance of natural resources, protect indigenous land rights and more.

CSI: Environment

Is harming the environment a crime? Under the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court can hold individuals and governments responsible for destroying natural resources in certain situations. Efforts are now underway, however, to extend the definition of prosecutable crime beyond the current limits of the statute to include ecocide — harm to the environment that affect the ability of those who live there to peaceably coexist with it. Several initiatives are moving toward this goal, with potential for making common activities such as producing greenhouse gases and destroying habitat prosecutable under international law.

Assuaging the Impacts of War

The United Nations’ International Law Commission recently adopted a set of draft principles aimed at protecting the environment in conflict situations. The principles not only require warring parties to prevent environmental damage, but also call for including environmental restoration in the peace negotiations and repairing damage after conflicts end. With the ubiquity and damage potential of modern wars, these principles could offer a tremendous conservation benefits worldwide.

Internet Slippery Slope

From disseminating new research to tracking the movement of invasive species and sharing threats with citizens, much of the business of biodiversity depends on access to the internet. But in 2018 the United States repealed “net neutrality” rules that required internet service providers to give equal access to all websites. If this change spreads to other jurisdictions and results in preferential access for some clients, it could dramatically alter — for better or for worse — the conservation community’s ability to advocate for and protect species around the world.

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In 2015, 195 countries adopted an international treaty aiming to limit global warming to less than 2 °C (3.6 °F) above average preindustrial temperatures in order to avert the worst of Earth’s climate emergency.

How exactly will these countries implement that treaty, the Paris agreement? That’s a key question for the thousands of people set to attend the COP 25 negotiations, the 25th annual Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Despite a last-minute change of location from Chile to Spain, the talks are still slated for December 2–13. Representatives of countries around the world are preparing to negotiate rules for international carbon markets, finalize details on climate finance and ready the world for the crucial next decade of action on the climate crisis. Chilean environmental minister Carolina Schmidt will preside over the negotiations.

Double Counting Strikes Back

According to Schmidt, “COP 25 will be the COP of implementation.” The main goal is to fill in the legal and technical details of the Paris agreement. That work began at COP 24, which was held last year in Poland.

Left unresolved last year were the rules for voluntary carbon emissions markets, which would let nations meet their pledged emissions cuts by trading reductions with other countries. In a June interview, Schmidt said that these rules, covered under Article 6 of the Paris treaty, would be a major focus of COP 25.

Finishing the work of COP 24, this year’s negotiations should finalize the details of the Paris agreement. But consensus could be difficult to reach. During the last climate talks, according to Carbon Brief, draft rules for the carbon markets would have prohibited double counting of emissions, a scenario in which reductions would be counted by both the country that achieved them and the country purchasing those reductions as emissions offsets. But the delegation from Brazil rejected that prohibition, pushing the conversation off to this year.

Other Issues

Other issues will be on the table, too. Countries at COP 25 will discuss details for climate finance to support countries designated as developing as they adapt to climate change and mitigate their carbon emissions.

Outside the halls of power, COP 25 could see street demonstrations and other protests. Last year’s talks coincided with protests worldwide, including 3,000 who marched in Katowice, Poland, where the talks were held.

U.S. diplomats will be among the negotiators — but potentially for the last time. President Donald Trump notified the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on Nov. 4, 2019, that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris agreement. The U.S. is scheduled be officially out of the deal by Nov. 4, 2020, less than a week before COP 26 will begin in Glasgow, Scotland. A U.S. delegation will still be invited to attend the conference — but not to negotiate, in an official capacity, the future of the Paris accord.

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To avoid heating the world 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) or more above average preindustrial temperatures, climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles need to fall dramatically — and soon.

survey published last month in the journal Climate Policy gives insight into U.S. public opinion on this change. It suggests that Americans support efforts to begin phasing out fossil-fuel-dependent cars within the next 11 years, rather than kicking the can down the road.

Conducted by a team of researchers from the U.S., Switzerland and Italy, the survey polled people in the U.S. during October 2018. It asked participants to rank pairs of hypothetical government policies according to their preferences.

Respondents preferred phase-out proposals set to begin in or before 2030 over those set for later this century. Compared to a 2030 start date, they were less likely to support phasing out fossil fuel-based transportation starting in 2020, although plans to wait until 2040 or later attracted less support than either of the earlier exits for gas-guzzling vehicles.

Nearly 70% of Democrats support a phaseout via subsidies in 2030 or even 2020, compared with around 50% of Republican and independent participants.

The survey also explored what policies the participants would like to see drive the phase-out. It found that subsidies for low-emission transportation options, such as tax credits for electric vehicles, were more popular than taxes or bans on fossil fuels. However, the survey researchers say that subsidies as a standalone policy seem unlikely to achieve the phase-out, especially on the timescale necessary. But outright prohibitions, such as those discussed in China, the European Union and California, haven’t yet been implemented. Meanwhile, taxes designed to make gas and diesel more expensive can draw opposition, as illustrated late last year when gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protestors forced French President Emmanuel Macron to reverse course on a proposed fuel tax increase.

The study’s authors concluded that subsidies are the type of policy most likely to gain support early on. While subsidies also have the greatest backing among proposals for 2030, support for bans and taxes rises if delayed until then.

The survey’s focus on the timing of fossil fuel policy comes as scientists become evermore vocal about the urgency of the climate emergency. Last year a report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made headlines when it declared that the world had just over a decade left to take big action that could keep Earth below 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) of warming. Meeting that target, the IPCC reported, will require a 45% cut to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, with net zero emissions by 2050. In 2017, transportation — including cars, trucks and planes — overtook electricity generation as the largest source of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

One path forward, according to the study’s authors, is what they call “smart sequencing” of policies. “[A] sequencing approach that starts with introducing incentives for alternative technologies (subsidies) and proceeds with hard regulations (bans, taxes),” they write, “might obtain wider public acceptance.”


UPDATED 11.13.19: The description of the research team was corrected.

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The black rhinoceros is critically endangered, with fewer than 6,000 left in Africa. But last year, Kenya’s Sera Rhino Sanctuary welcomed the births of three black rhino calves. Sera is part of the Northern Rangelands Trust, which started with just two projects in northern Kenya and now includes dozens of community conservancies aiming to protect species while conserving natural resources. It’s an example of a conservation initiative starting small and spreading.

For biodiversity conservation efforts to have a big impact, they must scale up. But how does that happen? A study published earlier this month in Nature Sustainability offers some insights into what helps and hinders the dissemination of conservation programs, policies and projects.

An international team of researchers led by Morena Mills, a member of the faculty of the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, picked 22 conservation initiatives from around the world and analyzed how they spread over time. “Decision makers across the world are seeking conservation initiatives that display both rapid uptake and large-scale adoption,” the researchers wrote. But none of the case studies they examined had done both.

conservation study sites

Graphic courtesy of Morena Mills. Click to enlarge.

Roughly 80% of the case studies followed what the researchers called a “slow-fast-slow” dynamic. Under this pattern, conservation initiatives start small, with just one or a few government agencies, non-governmental organizations, communities or individuals adopting them. But as those adopters share their experiences, others adopt the strategy and share it, more stakeholders embrace the program and growth snowballs. Growth later slows again as the pool of possible adopters shrinks.

In the study’s data set, approaches that followed a slow-fast-slow dynamic include terrestrial and marine protected areas. This includes Ramsar sites, which are wetlands set aside for protection under an international treaty to conserve biodiversity and ecosystem services.

conservation scale infographic

Click for summary infographic

Other initiatives — about 20% of the case studies — saw fast adoption early on, after which the limited remaining pool of possible adopters caused adoption to slow. This “fast-slow” growth pattern, the researchers wrote, was associated with tighter regulation or more involved bureaucracy, including many programs mandated by governments or run by nonprofit groups. Wildlife management areas in Tanzania and marine protected areas created by municipal ordinances in the Philippines followed this pattern. So did Chile’s territorial use rights in fisheries (TURF) system, under which traditional fishers work within set-aside waters, collaborating with the government to promote sustainability while maintaining their livelihoods.

A range of factors appear to influence how quickly and widely a conservation model is adopted. Take, for example, Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs), an arrangement under which coastal villages govern resources sustainably in their local waters. The researchers noted that in Samoa, the government gave boats and aquaculture resources to communities that adopted the approach. That top-down intervention led to a quick spread of LMMAs, after which growth slowed. In contrast, the researchers explained, people in Fiji and the Solomon Islands had “a stronger bottom-up role.” In those countries, communities were slower to embrace LMMAs, but their implementation lent more weight to community empowerment.

Bigger data sets on the implementation of biodiversity conservation initiatives, the authors wrote, will help future researchers better understand the nuances of how such initiatives spread. The study’s data included some conservation sites that were abandoned, so one avenue for future research is to track the success of initiatives on an ongoing basis instead of just whether they are formally adopted.

The researchers hope future work will shed more light onto how conservation efforts go from proof of concept to actually preserving natural resources and protecting endangered species like the black rhino and so enable more of them to do so. After all, they wrote, “[t]he persistence of biodiversity and ecosystem services depends on the adoption of effective conservation initiatives at a pace and scale that match or exceed environmental threats.”

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Improved energy efficiency can make a big contribution to U.S. efforts toward dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to a new report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

The report, “Halfway There: Energy Efficiency Can Cut Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Half by 2050,” determined that major energy savings could be attained by a combination of measures, including moving to electric vehicles, strategically managing industrial energy use and decarbonization, improving aviation efficiency, upgrading existing commercial buildings and homes, better designing new buildings, and improving appliance efficiency.

ACEEE’s analysts also note the role that collective individual action can play in improving energy efficiency and reducing the threat of climate change. By creating greater demand for energy-efficient cars, appliances and well-insulated homes, consumers can push industry to develop new, more innovative green technology.                                                                                      

According to the 63-page report, “if pursued aggressively” energy efficiency can reduce energy-related carbon emissions in the U.S. in 2050 by as much as 57% relative to current projections. This could put the country a lot closer to the goals of the White House’s 2016 strategy for deep decarbonization, which aims for an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2050.

In coordination with other efforts to cut emissions, energy efficiency has huge implications for lowering U.S. contributions to global climate change. But this does not have to be the sole reason for such change. ACEEE also estimates dramatic reductions in energy use will save US$700 billion by 2050’s economic standards.

There are multiple paths to reach these projections, but a widely accessible option is updating buildings and equipment to ENERGY STAR standards. Though U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) regulations have been relaxed in recent months, ACEEE holds hope that stricter energy standards will be implemented in the future, with long-term potential for significantly influencing energy efficiency.

Though the report mentions that the incorporated models based on policy analysis are dependent on “rapid model energy code improvements, quick adoption across the country, and effective compliance,” these ambitions still represent the range of what is attainable.

Similar to many other environmental issues, however, the problem of energy efficiency requires large-scale change on a governmental and industrial level. These changes — in almost all realms — stem from investment and federal legislation. By investing in more energy efficient industries, setting in place appropriate government standards and contributing individually to the energy efficiency cause, the U.S. can win half the battle toward achieving its 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goals.

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Energy lies at the core of efforts to address climate change. Worldwide, the electricity, heat and fuel consumed by buildings and transportation systems accounts for 55% of the greenhouse gas emissions heating the planet. But 45% of global emissions come from making things, everyday products like cars and clothes, and managing land.

Addressing those emissions will require rethinking how we make and use products and transitioning to a circular economy, according to a new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK-based nonprofit that promotes the circular economy, and Material Economics, a consulting firm based in Sweden.

To tackle the emissions from producing products and managing land the report, “Completing the Picture: How the Circular Economy Tackles Climate Change,” urges international organizations, lawmakers, businesses, investors and researchers to work together in “moving away from today’s ‘take-make-waste’ linear model towards an economy that is regenerative by design.”

The report outlines three principles for a circular economy that could help combat the climate crisis.

1. Design products and systems to avoid emissions-producing waste and pollution from the very beginning. 

Materials like bamboo or bio-based plastics, the report says, can substitute for inputs with higher emissions. Bamboo, for example, is in some ways as strong as concrete and steel. But bamboo products and living plants can sequester 6.4 metric tons per hectare (2.9 tons per acre) of carbon dioxide each year.

The food system also presents opportunities to design out waste. In the Czech Republic, for example, Prague-based company MIWA, which won a 2017 award from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, lets people buy food online in precise amounts stored in reusable containers.

Meanwhile, manufacturers could design lightweight cars and other vehicles that guzzle less fuel, cutting emissions from vehicle use before wheels ever hit the road.

2. Cut energy use by using products and materials for longer in more ways.

Manufacturing new products with raw materials is energy-intensive and thus carbon-intensive. A circular economy addresses this, according to the report, by making products durable, reusable and recyclable.

Shampoo containers sold by the U.K.-based company Splosh, for example, can be reused 20 or more times, which cuts down on the need for raw materials by over 95%. That means far fewer emissions from the energy used to make containers.

The same principle holds true for many products. Using clothing items longer than you normally would can reduce the emissions associated with making new ones.

Recycling can also address emissions. Take steel, for instance: While recycling it does require energy, the report says, it uses just 10% to 15% of the energy needed to produce new steel.

3. Employ agricultural methods that regenerate ecosystems and sequester carbon in the soil. 

Regenerative farming aims to produce food while boosting the health of the soil and the biodiversity of local ecosystems.

On the 1.5 billion hectares (3.7 billion acres) of Earth’s land devoted to cultivating crops, a range of practices can put carbon into the soil and prevent the loss of soil carbon — keeping it out of the atmosphere. The report recommends that farmers plant cover crops, avoid tillage, and apply organic fertilizers.

Livestock can play a role, too. If just 20% of the world’s 3.3 billion hectares (8.2 billion acres) of grazing land were managed carefully to improve soil health, the report estimates that we could avoid emissions equivalent to 1.4 billion metric tons (1.5 billion tons) of carbon dioxide per year by 2050.

Concerted Action

Transitioning to a circular economy, the report notes, will take “concerted action from multiple stakeholders.”

The report recommends that international institutions emphasize the circular economy in climate action and that policymakers include circular economy measures in national climate plans. It also recommends that other stakeholders, including businesses, investors and academia, collaborate.

“Only a systems-level approach will enable us to achieve the 1.5 ̊C target by 2050,” the report says, “while building greater resilience to climate change.”

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Can a cardboard cereal box go into the office paper recycling bin? How about a shiny magazine insert? And which plastics are OK: No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7?

It can be a baffling world for those who want to avoid putting all of their waste into the trash can. DIYSigns, a new online repository of ready-to-edit labels and posters that can be used to provide visual cues for proper sorting into multiple bins, aims to help reduce the confusion.

Created by The Recycling Partnership, a Virginia-based nonprofit funded by corporations, trade associations and other entities, DIYSigns is free with an email sign-up. It provides templates to help people understand what kinds of items can be put into different kinds of recycling containers — in the form of curbside labels, office labels, posters, dumpster signs and drop-off signs. Accessing the tool opens a series of folders containing more than 50 designs.

In the U.S., cities typically determine which materials can be recycled, sometimes with input from state governments. DIYSigns enables businesses, communities, schools and others to create a customized visual guide to what can be recycled tailored to their local context.

Visuals help illustrate what kinds of items are allowed to call the recycling bin home. Users can select simple outlines of material types or choose branded icons, such as a Dasani water bottle to represent plastics or a Cheerios box to denote paper and cardboard. The recognizable brands are mostly products made by companies who give money to The Recycling Partnership.

The Recycling Partnership funders include Coca-Cola, General Mills, ExxonMobil, Keurig Dr Pepper, PepsiCo, Target, Amazon, the American Chemistry Council and others. But even as they encourage recycling, some of these companies have faced criticism for profits that depend on environmental damage.

“[W]hile privately fighting against more responsibility, some of these same corporations also tout their million dollar donations to industry funded non-profits including Keep America Beautiful and the Recycling Partnership as proof of their good intentions around recycling,” writes Gina Wu Lee, founder of sustainability advocacy group The Upcyclers Network. “But digging deeper, are these donations a ruse to shift the costs for recycling to consumers and governments and avoid their own culpability?”

While The Recycling Partnership’s DIYSigns aims to help reduce the environmental impact of materials like plastic, funder ExxonMobil is expanding its plastic production. Keurig Dr Pepper is fighting a lawsuit that alleges the beverage company misled consumers by claiming its single-serve “K-Cup” coffee pods are recyclable when, in reality, most recycling facilities can’t isolate the small plastic cups from the rest of the waste stream. Meanwhile, Amazon has moved toward mailing more products in plastic packaging that can choke up processing facilities when people throw them into recycling bins. Target uses similar packaging, according to The Washington Post.

This dynamic highlights a big question for waste disposal: Does the solution lie in recycling, or should we focus more on not producing waste in the first place?

Whatever the answer, local recycling programs are struggling to ensure consumers properly sort materials and keep contamination levels down, especially in the wake of China’s decision to sharply restrict waste imports. As some cities curtail their recycling efforts, proper sorting could help improve the situation.

women and climate change in Africa  

When it comes to addressing climate change, gender matters.

That’s the major takeaway from a new policy briefing published by the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the South African Institute of International Affairs. The report covering climate nowexamines why gender equality is necessary for efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change in Africa, and how governments and other stakeholders can integrate the two.

Most low-income people worldwide are women, and many women face gender discrimination in addition to poverty. Both factors mean greater vulnerability to extreme events like droughts and floods as the climate crisis intensifies. The report underscores the point that gender shapes how climate change affects humans — and how we respond to it.

One example is the impact of tropical cyclones and hurricanes, which scientists say will likely intensify as the world continues to heat up. When Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe in March, killing over 1,000 people and causing some US$2 billion worth of damage, women and girls suffered disproportionately.

Nearly 75,000 pregnant women were particularly threatened, without access to clean water, sanitation or reproductive health care, the policy briefing says. In the camps set up for people displaced by the cyclone, women and girls were at higher risk of abuse than men — even as they were saddled with a disproportionate share of the extra domestic and caregiving work created by the disaster.

To handle realities like this, the report urges policymakers to take into account how programs and policies might differentially affect women and men, a process it calls “gender mainstreaming.” This entails collecting data that are disaggregated by gender and then using them to make decisions that consider the experiences and needs of different gender and age groups.

Some progress has occurred on this front, the report notes. Mozambique in 2010 became the first country to create a Climate Change Gender Action Plan (ccGAP), detailing a strategy for gender equity and equality in climate mitigation and adaptation. Egypt, Tanzania, Liberia and Zambia followed.

Since 2010, the report notes, activists and non-governmental organizations have succeeded in making gender an official part of the conversation within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a treaty signed by African countries. A decision coming out of UN climate talks in 2012, for instance, created a commitment to “improve the participation of women” in climate negotiations.

Still, the report warns about an “implementation gap” — the difference between policy commitments to gender equality and the reality of the situation on the ground.

Part of the implementation challenge is simply opposition to gender mainstreaming, sometimes rooted in misconceptions about equity.

“Calling for gender equality in combatting climate change, for example, is often mistaken for supporting only women,” the report states. “There is therefore a need to correct this narrative.”

The report recommends that governments and non-governmental organizations cultivate awareness on issues of climate and gender and equip communities with information to help them advocate for change. It also suggests that governments and other groups “invest in women and girls,” empowering them to be part of climate solutions.

The report doesn’t mention gender non-binary people, although the Women and Gender Constituency, a stakeholder group of the UNFCCC, has urged decision-makers to address how non-binary people — and other LGBT women and girls — “face multiple forms of violence and exclusion from social, economic and environmental services.”

Climate and gender are both complex, as are the ways they intersect. So effectively combating climate change, the report contends, will demand that societies move toward “profound and systemic change,” repealing sexist laws and addressing patriarchal social norms.

“[W]ithout gender equality,” the report states, “there is no climate justice.”

biodiversity map  

The astronomer Carl Sagan famously referred to Earth as a “pale blue dot” against the dark backdrop of space.

Our planet is blue, yes, but also green — teeming with life, from preening birds to leafing trees to fleeting microbes. Down but not out, living organisms span the globe in immense diversity, and meaningful action could make a difference in their conservation.

That’s the message of the Half-Earth Project Map. Spearheaded by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, the interactive map was created by the design firm Vizzuality with data drawn mostly from the Map of Life.

By clicking on various element options, users can explore the diversity of life on land and at sea and discover where various groups as broad as mammals and as narrow as hummingbirds are common and rare. Other maps depict the human pressures that threaten living organisms by destroying habitat and areas currently devoted to conservation.

From a drop-down menu on the left side of the screen, users can click to map the geographic range of birds, mammals, amphibians, marine fish and other living things. This biodiversity data comes in two flavors: “Richness” describes how many species inhabit an area, while “rarity” pinpoints just how unique an organism is to any particular place.

A drop-down for human impacts can reveal where farms and cities place pressure on the biosphere. Users also can look at a menu for “existing protection” to see which parts of the planet are covered by conservation areas.

Users can glean new insights by layering data on top of each other — for example, by mapping the locations of protected conservation areas over a display of biodiversity.

Most of the data are global, so the map can’t show much detail when zoomed in. But one of the project’s stated goals is to chart the geographic distribution of organisms “at high enough resolution to drive decision-making” on how to best protect the highest number of species.

To showcase the potential for more precise information, the Half-Earth Project includes options to map high-resolution ranges for a handful of animals and plants. One map displays the species diversity and rarity of hummingbirds across North and South America at a resolution of 1 square kilometer (0.4 square miles), meaning that users can zoom much closer to Earth’s surface before the map starts to appear blotchy or blocky.

Another high-detail map presents biodiversity statistics for selected organisms in South Africa, including amphibians, birds and restio (a grass-like group of plants native to the country).

The Half-Earth Project is a campaign to increase the portion of Earth’s terrestrial and marine area covered by conservation commitments. Globally, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, protected areas cover around 15% of land and 7% of oceans. The Half-Earth campaign’s goal is to raise those numbers to 50%.

That call, associated with movements like Nature Needs Half, was promoted by famed biologist (and Half-Earth Project lead scientist) E. O. Wilson in his 2016 book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. The ambitious target has been hailed by scientists who say it’s necessary to halt “massive displacement of other species.” Critics, however, contend that the 50% goal ignores needed economic changes and, with conservation’s typical focus on low-income tropical countries, could spur the displacement of “communities that are poorest and least responsible for our current environmental predicament.”

Whatever the solution, the problem of species extinctions remains real, and the Half-Earth Map offers one more way to see that problem — and think about how we might create a better future.

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You probably know you can’t believe everything you see on the Internet. But you may still be surprised to find how easily fake science makes its way through YouTube and other social media sites — and how intentionally it’s being promoted.

A new study from a researcher at Aachen University in Germany about the prevalence of inaccurate climate science and conspiracy theories on YouTube illustrates the grim reality, but also a way to fix it.

The study used 10 different search terms on YouTube, such as “climate change,” “climate science,” “geoengineering” and “climate hacking,” and analyzed the results to see which videos supported the scientific consensus around climate change and which did not.

It also used an internet tool called Tor, which anonymizes users, in order to avoid YouTube’s practice of personalizing search results based on previously watched videos, location and other demographics.

Overall, most videos in the 200-video sample disagreed with the scientific consensus around climate change, and of those, 85% actively spread conspiracy theories. Videos that agreed with scientific consensus received more total views than those that disagreed, but by only 2,300 views — and both categories had almost 17 million views each.

YouTube has taken some steps to counter this, outlined in an update it published on its blog in July 2018. One major change was the addition of blurbs drawn from Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica next to videos on “well-established historical and scientific topics that have often been subject to misinformation,” such as the moon landing.

But the study’s author, Joachim Allgaier, explores another solution that doesn’t involve YouTube changing its guidelines or algorithms. In the study, he writes, “YouTube and other online video-sharing websites have an enormous potential as tools for science and environmental education … [T]he professional communities from these subject areas will do well to engage effectively with these communication channels.”

In other words, scientists should step up to the plate and produce more YouTube videos that fit with the facts.

Getting more scientists actively engaged in science education is no easy feat — but, at least on YouTube, it is already happening. Channels like SciShow, Physics Girl, The Brain Scoop and more provide a wide range of science content. In Allgaier’s study, four videos from “Science YouTubers,” including SciShow, appeared in the sample and had the third highest views of all videos in the sample.

Scientists don’t necessarily have to create a new YouTube channel, buy fancy video equipment and hire a team of script writers or video editors in order to have an impact. SciShow, for instance, is hosted by non-scientist YouTuber Hank Green and others, but hires scientists as consultants to develop curriculum and video ideas. Crash Course, a channel owned by the same education company as SciShow (it’s called Complexly, and it’s owned by Green and his brother), also hires chemistry and geography experts.

There’s another angle on this that Allgaier notes. When he used the search term “chemtrails,” all but one of the videos in the sample actively supported the common conspiracy theory. If someone did search for that information, there might not be any scientifically accurate videos to counter all the conspiracy content. A similar pattern appeared with the term “geoengineering,” and Allgaier writes that the scientific term has been “hijacked” by conspiracy advocates to push their own agenda.

So, there’s something to be said for using those terms to intentionally push more real science videos into the search results for common conspiracies like chemtrails, and possibly reclaim words like “geoengineering” that have been corrupted.

Fixing misinformation and fake science online is not an easy task, and it won’t happen overnight. But maybe, as Allgaier says, instead of waiting for YouTube to take action, scientists can start their own ball rolling.

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Can you sue to save the world? As the global climate crisis intensifies, people are increasingly taking governments and corporations to court in a bid to slow runaway greenhouse gas emissions.

Most climate lawsuits have been filed in the United States, but recent years have brought an increase in litigation in low- and middle-income countries, according to a new report published by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy.

The report offers a snapshot of climate-related lawsuits around the globe. It found that some recent court cases have shed light on what climate change means for human rights, although no systematic research has yet established exactly how these lawsuits translate into action outside the courtroom.

Human rights are increasingly important in climate lawsuits, according to the report. In a key 2015 case, for example, a court in Pakistan pointed to “fundamental rights” and ruled in favor of a farmer who sued the government for failing to quickly implement the country’s climate policy. A stream of other lawsuits, investigations and international claims focus on human rights, and the report predicts that trend will extend into the future.

The report covers legal cases from two databases, Climate Change Laws of the World and U.S. Climate Change Litigation. It found that at least 28 countries and several international courts have heard roughly 1,330 climate cases. While plaintiffs have been largely activists, non-governmental organizations and local governments suing for stronger climate action, some of the cases covered in the report were filed by businesses and organizations challenging environmental regulation.

And what have the courts said? A review of U.S. lawsuits between 1990 and 2016 finds mixed results, with litigants that support more restrictive environmental regulation tending to lose cases slightly more often than anti-regulation litigants. But under the Trump administration, the report states, “no rollback of climate regulation brought before the courts has survived legal challenge.” Many cases, including the high-profile Juliana v. United States fight over whether greenhouse gas emissions violate the constitutional rights of young people, are still winding their way through the judicial system.

After the U.S., the jurisdictions home to the highest number of climate-related lawsuits are Australia, the EU, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and Spain. In the Netherlands, an environmental group sued in the first legal case to end with a ruling directing a government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than lawmakers had originally proclaimed.

While climate litigation is more common in wealthier countries responsible for a disproportionate share of emissions throughout history, other areas aren’t absent. The report says that climate lawsuits in low- and middle-income nations have grown in number and importance.

New lawsuits in places like Pakistan, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Colombia and Brazil have expanded the geographic reach of climate litigation. In 2018, for instance, the Supreme Court of Colombia ruled that climate change threatens the rights of young people, while also granting environmental personhood to the Colombian Amazon, declaring that the ecosystem has its own rights to conservation and restoration.

Lawsuits over the climate crisis could influence public policy, business decisions and media coverage in complex ways. But little research has been done on that influence, so the report calls for more study on how court cases shape the world “beyond the courtroom.” On the overall impact of climate litigation, the jury is still out — for now.

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The climate crisis has hit hardest for low-income people in the Global South, widening the economic gap between rich and poor countries by about 25%, according to one study. Meanwhile, natural disasters such as floods and droughts push millions of people into poverty each year, even as climbing temperatures raise the likelihood of such disasters going forward.

When it comes to poverty, even cautious estimates confirm that warming of 1.5 °C to 2 °C by 2050 could be devastating, particularly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where climate catastrophe could trap 250­–500 million people in poverty for years or even decades more.

Besides working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, what can we do to lessen the toll of climate change on the world’s poorest people?

Make government assistance programs climate smart, suggests a new report from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

Drawing on a review of 65 national and global studies, plus a survey of low-income people in India, the report recommends that governments reform social protection programs such as welfare and social services, cash transfers and job guarantees to deal directly with the challenge of climate change.

Based on the previously published studies, IIED concluded that social protection programs in low-income countries tend to boost people’s resilience to climate-related risks such as drought. Existing social protection policies are typically most helpful when households need to handle risks that are relatively small and infrequent, or for aiding people as they attempt to bounce back better when climate shocks happen.

Where today’s programs fall short, however, is in transformative resilience: helping households “fundamentally change” so they’re less vulnerable to climate shocks in the first place.

To illustrate opportunities for reform, the researchers behind the report examined one of India’s top social protection programs, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), which promises paid work to rural households. In theory, the program guarantees 100 days of work and wages each year to any rural resident who wants it, although full implementation of the policy is uneven. While providing jobs to low-income people who are temporarily unemployed, the program provides labor for infrastructure and other projects in rural areas.

To assess the impacts of MGNREGS, the researchers surveyed 651 low-income households in four Indian states: Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Sikkim. Of that group, 34% reported that the program helped them absorb climate-related shocks. Irrigation channels built by workers in the program, for example, helped drain farmable but waterlogged land after cyclones, while wages from MGNREGS employment helped families rebuild while keeping children enrolled in school. In the survey, 26% of MGNREGS beneficiaries reported even greater gains, saying that the program not only helped them handle individual shocks, but also enabled them to adapt to the changing climate.

Few of the people surveyed reported that MGNREGS enabled them to move beyond a state of vulnerability, however. To further improve people’s lives, the report recommends that policy-makers reform the program to account for climate change. This could entail paying wages that account for climate hazards, including the fact that households tend to need more income during droughts. It could also include training people in “climate-smart livelihoods” such as small-scale renewable energy efforts. Better coordination with government environmental programs could also boost sustainability while fighting poverty, the report suggests.

Today’s social protection policies already bring some measure of climate resilience to their beneficiaries. But it’s clear they can become even better.

“Such a creative shift is not only possible,” the report concludes, “it is a critical and obvious next step in a world whose people and communities, species and ecosystems are increasingly threatened by unprecedented climate challenges.”

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We hear a lot about how different food choices influence the climate crisis. But exactly how much does each bite you eat heat the planet? The answer depends on how you do the math.

With demand for plant-based foods on the rise, a study published in the journal Sustainability offers a new way to measure the climate cost of different foods. Like most estimates, the new math assesses greenhouse gas emissions throughout a meal’s life cycle, from cropland to landfill. But the method also looks at the quality of protein, and tries to rate environmental impact with serving size in mind.

In crunching the numbers, the study points to protein powders as one of the more climate-friendly ways to get the nutrient in your diet. Peanuts, tuna, salmon and grasshoppers also score well. Coming in with a big carbon footprint, however, are cheeses, grains, beef and white rice.

Compared with prior findings, the new ranking paints a more positive picture of some foods, like protein powder. Other foods, such as spaghetti, come out looking worse for the climate under this math.

Why the differences? After scientists estimate the emissions that come from every stage of making a given food, a big decisions remains: how to compare different items. Ranking foods based on the emissions per gram — or some other unit of mass — is one typical way, but the researchers say that weight doesn’t reflect the nuances of nutrition.

“For instance, comparing beef against broccoli on a per-kilogram basis would be inappropriate,” they write, “given that both are usually eaten in different amounts and for different reasons.”

To analyze the amounts people actually eat, the study compares climate impacts using the standard serving sizes developed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

As for the reasons people eat certain foods? Getting nutrients like protein is a big one, particularly for climate-conscious consumers trying to avoid meat products.

But the nutritional point of consuming protein is to digest amino acids, molecules that make up proteins and help the body function. To get an accurate assessment, the researchers assess the amount of a particular amino acid that’s actually absorbed, a metric called the digestible indispensable amino acid score (DIAAS).

These new rankings add to our knowledge of how our diets influence climate change. But while the study’s results can be the basis for quick comparisons, the researchers note that their findings are just a draft, “subject to change.”

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Commercial buildings represent nearly one-fifth of total energy consumption in the U.S., and industrial consumption takes up another third. In the public sector, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that state and local government buildings could reduce annual energy costs by US$6 billion just by boosting energy performance by 20%.

One major barrier to reducing consumption is finding the money to fund energy projects. That’s what the Better Buildings Initiative’s new tool, called the Financing Navigator, is intended to do.

The navigator provides options and information for financing energy efficiency in commercial, health care, higher education, industrial, public sector and multifamily buildings. For each category, it provides a fact sheet that outlines common financing options as well as common barriers different companies or individuals might experience.

For example, owners of multifamily buildings commonly use lease financing or power purchase agreements for these types of projects, but often lack technical expertise about financing and face personal restrictions on debt and loan amounts. Companies in the industrial sector often use internal funding or loans to pay for energy projects but have competing budget priorities and hesitate to take on more debt.

There are also fact sheets for each type of financing supported by the tool — and there are many. Some, like an efficiency-as-a-service plan, allow the customer to contract for the use of equipment and pay lower energy costs immediately.

Others, like on-bill financing, provide direct funding for the customer to install the equipment. Some plans stay with the building if it’s sold, others have lower interest rates, some involve the utility company, and others involve private lenders

Beyond the fact sheets, the interactive tool allows users to plug in the specifics of a project and see the best options. The tool asks questions about type of customer, cost, who owns the building and more. It also asks about preferences: Do you want a long-term or short-term financing contract? How quickly do you need it? How complex of a financing structure are you willing to have?

Once the questions are answered, it generates a comparison chart of options that match the user’s requirements and wants, and also links to approved, reliable providers that can begin financing the project.

For customers who may need help navigating the world of renewable energy financing, this tool provides an opportunity to see all the options in one place — and maybe finally start that energy project that’s been waiting in the wings.

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What happens to water after washing your hands or flushing the toilet? Worldwide, over 80% of wastewater is released untreated into the environment. Cleaning that water and recycling it for use in agriculture could cut down on pollution of lakes and streams and slow the rate at which food production depletes freshwater. And, the nutrients in partially treated wastewater can nourish plants, diminishing the need for fertilizers.

A new paper in Agricultural Water Management by researchers at the University of Alicante in Spain analyzed 125 studies for themes related to the acceptance and use of recycled wastewater for irrigation in agriculture. It found that while the public is concerned about health risks, farmers also consider the long-term effects of the wastewater on the quality and health of their soil, which can vary. And beyond practical considerations of risks and benefits, recycling wastewater has an inherent “yuck factor” to be overcome.

The Yuck Factor

Eating a green bed of lettuce grown with recycled wastewater might trigger concern or even disgust — a response known as the “yuck factor.”

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that the yuck factor is less of an issue for farmers during times of drought or when the quality of the recycled wastewater is high. Economics can overcome the yuck factor, too. In the Thessaly region of Greece, 57.9% of farmers responded that they would pay for reclaimed water if it cost half the price of freshwater. Only 8.4% would pay for recycled water if it cost only a little less than freshwater.

Consumers, on the other hand, appear more likely to accept the use of wastewater to irrigate crops if they trust the institutions managing the water and if they understand the treatment process, environmental benefits and issues of water scarcity. One strategy to build trust in wastewater treatment, the researchers say, is to build and run small-scale demonstrations before implementing full-scale water reuse programs so the public can see the quality of the water themselves. Because seeing is believing.

Risks and Benefits

Recycled water is treated to different extents depending on its future use. For example, recycled water entering the drinking water supply is treated more than recycled water used for irrigation.

When adequately treated for a given use, recycled water is safe. But, about 10% of irrigated land globally uses untreated or partially treated wastewater, according to a paper cited in the review.

That presents clear risks for human health and for the environment. Pathogens can be transported in undertreated wastewater, as can metals, pharmaceuticals and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Disease organisms can move from reused water to food. Metals and salts from the water can build up in soil, changing soil properties such as pH and affecting plant growth.

But other compounds in the water are actually nutritious for soils, replacing or diminishing the need for fertilizers. One study highlighted by the researchers found that in Hyderabad, India, farmers believed the partially treated wastewater contained nutrients that were beneficial to their crops. However, growers also changed which crops they grew because of increasing soil salinity.

Some places are finding success. In Israel, most treated wastewater is recycled and accounts for 40% of the water used for irrigation. A 2012 report found that California reused 13% of its municipal wastewater, with 37% of that going to agriculture. In the dust of the state’s recent drought, cities like Los Angeles are looking to move beyond reuse in agriculture to bring recycled wastewater back to the tap.

Regulations Matter

The World Health Organization and the United Nations issued recommendations for safe reuse of water in 1973 and 1987, respectively. Those guidelines, along with others from the European Union, the United States, and elsewhere, have informed development of wastewater reuse regulations around the world. But some cities and countries have limited ability to reliably uphold water treatment regulations.

Moving forward, “the main challenge in using wastewater for irrigation is to shift from informal, unplanned uses of untreated or partially treated wastewater to planned safe uses,” according to a 2017 United Nations report. As this paper points out, education is an important part of that picture.

“As citizens become more familiar with the technology and general understanding of the associated benefits of increasing water reuse,” it concludes, “officials, planners and managers may come up against less opposition to additional applications and achieve greater water savings through the widespread implementation of water reuse programs” — a move that could prove crucial to meeting the needs of an increasingly thirsty world.

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You can’t see them, but it’s time to start trying.

Microorganisms, tiny creatures invisible to the naked eye, play a “central role” in our climate crisis, more than 30 microbiologists contend in a new report in Nature Reviews Microbiology. “The microbial world constitutes the life support system of the biosphere,” the researchers write in what they call a “scientists’ warning to humanity.”

Despite living everywhere that larger organisms inhabit, and in many extreme environments in which they don’t, bacteria and other microbes are “rarely the focus” of climate change research, the scientists say.  To adequately address the climate challenge, they say, that needs to change.

Take the greenhouse gas methane, whose molecules heat the planet by 86 times as much as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. A key source of methane emissions is agriculture — or, more precisely, microorganisms that live in agricultural systems. The microbiologists’ warning notes that while rice helps feed half of all people on Earth, the microbes that live in rice paddies produce one-fifth of agricultural methane — hundreds of millions of tons of the gas.

Meanwhile, the researchers point out, the No. 1 way humans spurt methane into the air is by raising ruminant livestock, animals like sheep and cattle, who carry methane-producing microbes in their guts. These tiny bacteria, protozoa and fungi help break down food, a process that releases methane on the other end. That’s why the climate footprint of ruminant meat production is 19 to 48 times higher than some plant-based protein.

The amount of methane in the atmosphere has been climbing, especially since 2014. While researchers haven’t reached a consensus on exactly what’s driving the recent spike, it likely involves both fossil fuels and microbial methane-makers in wetlands and farmland.

In the oceans, the report says, warming waters may change the communities of microorganisms that live in corals, which could in turn boost the risk of coral bleaching and disease. And as oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the air, they become more acidic, which might be damaging the tissue of fish and other organisms, weakening their immune systems and opening an opportunity for bacterial infection.

Small marine algae known as phytoplankton coat the oceans, and they suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Half of photosynthesis worldwide is the work of these plankton, which churn through their life cycles far faster than trees and other plants. That speed, the study notes, makes them “respond rapidly on a global scale to climate variations.”

On land, melting permafrost serves up a meal of formerly frozen carbon to microbes that decompose it, releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the air above.

The researchers urge more research investigating the role of microorganisms in climate change, and call for climate models to include microbial processes in order to improve predictions of future climate scenarios.

In addition, the scientists recommend that policy-makers and natural resource managers factor microorganisms into their decisions and actions such as efforts to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. That may seem like a big emphasis on such tiny creatures — but if these researchers are right, it will be to everyone’s benefit to size up the small stuff.

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Freshly cut grass is a quintessential smell of summer. While the smell might conjure memories of lemonade stands and kids playing outside, it also serves another purpose. Plants — not just grass — with leaves damaged by lawn mowers or, more often, plant-eaters out for lunch, release smells that subtly manipulate the behavior of plants and insects around them.

The subtle odors plants emit are made up of small molecules called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Neighboring plants can detect some of those VOCs and recognize them as a warning signal that insects or other herbivores are nearby. In response, those plants can produce molecules that make them toxic or unappealing to the herbivore. Moreover, the predators of those herbivores can, in some cases, detect VOCs released by plants. To them, the VOCs are like the dinner bell.

Not only that, but VOCs also can inhibit the growth of bacterial and fungal pathogens, stymie weed growth, and help plants cope with stressful conditions like drought.

Now, researchers are exploring ways to harness VOCs to trim the need for pesticides in some farming systems while protecting the harvest and bolstering plant production in stressful environments. And they’re learning from the smallholder farmers who, year after year, already take advantage of VOCs.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, they note that more than 120,000 smallholder farmsteads use VOCs to improve crop performance. In southwestern Kenya, some growers plant maize varieties that, upon detection of egg-laying stemborers, emit VOCs that attract stemborer parasitoids. While these maize varieties have lower yield than common commercial varieties, this intrinsic protection from pests make them attractive to many growers, particularly those who cannot afford commercial seeds and pesticides.

In another application, sub-Saharan African farmers grow their crops alongside companion plant species with VOCs that either repel plant-eating insects or attract their predators. Some companion plant species can also capture nitrogen, control weeds, help crops tolerate drought, or provide food for livestock.

So “Why are VOCs not more intensively used in agriculture for integrated and eco-friendly plant protection?” the researchers ask.

Convincing growers to switch to lower-yielding varieties to cut back on pesticide use is a tough sell. And although laboratory studies show promise, in many cases the approach has not been thoroughly tested in the field. We don’t know how each VOC affects other organisms or ecosystems; for example, one VOC that suppresses the growth of a stone-fruit fungus is also toxic to some stone fruits. According to these researchers, further work is needed to understand how VOCs interact with the plants, insects and microbes of an ecosystem before the technique can successfully expand to different farming locations and systems.

Such research and expansion might take advantage of breeding or genetic technologies to reintroduce VOC production into high-yielding commercial crop varieties. Alternatively, research could focus on identifying or breeding ideal companion plants that bring the specific benefits needed to a given agro-system. The companion crops best suited to the pests and climactic challenges in sub-Saharan Africa might not be best for other growers around the world. Another option is to expose seedlings to manufactured synthetic VOCs in greenhouses, tricking the seedlings into making insect-deterring molecules before being planted outside.

To encourage integration of VOCs into current farming systems, researchers, growers, breeders and agricultural advisers might build mutually beneficial collaborations with growers who already use VOCs in their agricultural systems. VOCs may not be the solution to plant pest problems, but if the smallholder farmers using them and the researchers studying them are correct, they certainly could be a solution worth pursuing.

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