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The latest ideas and inspiration from around the world
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Climate change’s effects on humankind may prove most severe on the African continent, due to widespread poverty and unstable governance in many countries. Yet scientists and policy-makers on the continent suffer from a serious lack of access to climate science data. Future Climate for Africa aims to change the tide by conveying the latest scientific information to those who need it most as well as identifying knowledge gaps and filling them. In that vein, FCFA just published a new report that provides easy-to-digest fact sheets on climate trends and implications in various regions throughout the continent.

“Africa’s Climate: Helping Decision‑Makers Make Sense of Climate Information” compiles the latest science into 15 fact sheets. The first five fact sheets provide general climate information for central, east, southern and west Africa, with one additional fact sheet on southern Africa aimed at scientists. The next four fact sheets address “burning questions” related to climate science in the four regions. The report concludes with general reader-level fact sheets on six of the countries in which FCFA works: Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Central Africa: Due to lack of climate data, the central region is severely understudied. Few weather stations exist through the Congo Basin, for example. With the second largest carbon stock of any country, the Democratic Republic of Congo is critical to offsetting greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change. Yet it’s difficult given the current state of the science to predict how climate will affect rainfall or how changes in rainfall will affect carbon stores in the country’s rainforests. Many people in Central Africa rely on rain-fed agriculture, so understanding rainfall changes will be critical to preventing harmful impacts on health and livelihoods.

East Africa: Models show that East Africa will become hotter, with less predictable yet more intense rainfall, along with longer dry seasons in the coming decades. On the other hand, models sometimes provide conflicting and uncertain results, particularly with rainfall. Tropical Africa has two rainy seasons, “short rains” and “long rains,” interspersed with dry seasons. East Africa has experienced droughts during recent long rains seasons, yet models predict increasing rainfall in the decades ahead. Adaptation projects in this region will require flexibility so nations can respond to whatever changes actually occur. Floods are likely to affect sanitation in urban areas. Uganda relies on hydroelectric power and exports energy to Kenya, and will have to adapt to increased or decreased rainfall and address water release rules to hold more in high rainfall years.

Southern Africa: The subtropical area of southern Africa experiences four seasons and has a series of mountain ranges that influence weather. Oceans on either side of the region influence rainfall. Southern Africa is relatively well studied, with over 40 climate models simulating the next 5 to 50 years and some simulating up to 100 years. This fact sheet includes a primer on how climate simulations work and how they model uncertainty.

West Africa: People’s daily lives in the West Africa region are substantially affected by year-to-year climate variability, due to reliance on rain-fed agriculture and limited availability of clean water, among other things. The region has already experienced an average temperature rise of 1 °C (1.8  °F) since 1950, and in the Sahel average temperature has increased even more, mostly due to hotter nights. Climate models show increased temperatures, although predicted changes in rainfall vary among models.

Check out the full report here. View Ensia homepage

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Cities are hubs of commerce, politics, population — and evolution? Yep. Due to human-wrought environmental change, biological evolution moves more quickly in cities than in other areas, according to a new paper published by an international team of researchers in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study, based on analysis of 89 previously published studies, found that for animals and plants, models based on whether urbanization was in play best explained speedy evolution of observable traits such as body size, anatomy, life cycle, behavior and physiology.

“What is the very important implication of this study is that the urban habitat is not simply reducing the number and diversity of species,” says Marina Alberti, lead author of the study and director of the University of Washington’s Urban Ecology Research Laboratory. “We are selectively determining which species can live in cities.”

Alberti gives the example of electrical transmission towers. One study from the United Kingdom found that in soils polluted with zinc due to the towers’ presence, different grasses, such as sheep’s fescue and tufted hairgrass, have evolved different levels of zinc tolerance. However, genes needed for tolerance don’t appear in every individual of a species; if tolerant plants are absent in some local habitats, this could affect the ecosystem by changing the local community composition. Urban environments are the backdrop for many such interactions, which can happen at a speed that hasn’t always been associated with evolution.

“[E]volutionary biologists have been aware of the interactions between ecology and evolution for a long time,” Alberti noted in a follow-up email, “but the potential ecosystem feedback on a contemporary scale has been overlooked until very recently because we thought that evolution was occurring on a very long timescale.”

To take a stab at determining which aspects of urban development hasten evolution’s pace, the researchers coded different kinds of urban disturbance into their models. They found that introduction of new species — predators, prey, hosts and competitors — had a large association with the changes they looked at.

Another potentially major driver of rapid urban evolution is the number and speed of interactions between people and people, people and animals, and people and plants. Counterintuitively, changes to habitat correlated with relatively low evolutionary change, a finding the researchers said might be due to limitations to the study’s methods.

A few words of caution, though: This research is the first to systematically and explicitly examine, using a large global data set, how urbanization affects evolution, so other researchers have not yet replicated it, a process that could help confirm the findings. Meta-analyses like this study rely on already published research, and it’s impossible to get a truly random sample of phenotypic (observable) changes from across the globe, so over- or under-representation of studies from particular areas, ecosystems, or organisms could affect the results. In particular, the authors acknowledge that their conclusions about the relative importance of different urban processes to evolution should be viewed with caution because those results might be influenced by factors including both which species the academic literature considers and the way in which the authors classified interrelated variables that affect evolutionary change.

Still, they recommend that conservation biologists consider this apparent evolutionary change of pace. As plants and animals respond to human reshaping of their environments by evolving in ways that further change the ecosystem, these changes, in turn, can circle back and affect human life. View Ensia homepage

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Manmade chemicals may alter ecological processes, yet few scientists are studying the role of these chemicals in global environmental change, say a group of researchers from the U.S. and Germany in a scientific paper published today in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

In recent decades, humans have increased production of chemicals faster than we’ve made other changes to Earths land, air and water, such as increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and destroying habitat. Yet by and large, science isnt studying the ecological consequences of chemical contaminants, the researchers conclude. Less than 2 percent of funding from a major U.S. source and studies published in mainstream ecological journals and presented at an international meeting deal with the study of synthetic chemicals.

The researchers analyzed trends since the 1970s in the quantity and number of different synthetic chemicals produced using global trade value as a stand-in for the total quantity of chemicals produced.

“The rate of increase in the production and diversification of pharmaceuticals and pesticides exceeds that of most previously recognized agents of global change and matches the rate of increase in global [nitrogen] fertilizer use,” reports the team, led by Emily Bernhardt, an ecologist at Duke University. The researchers don’t report the quantity of produced chemicals entering the environment as contaminants.

Synthetic chemicals are one of the hallmarks of the modern era. Some such chemicals and their breakdown products degrade slowly. They can enter the food web and create long-lasting problems in the environment. Other chemicals, while they may break down quickly, are so ubiquitous that theres a constant risk of environmental exposure.

Despite environmental concerns about the rapid proliferation of synthetic chemicals, scientists rarely study the ecological impacts, the researchers found. Fewer than 1 percent of published ecological studies over the past 25 years mentioned synthetic chemicals according to the researchers, who looked at papers in 20 mainstream ecology journals. At an international ecological conference in 2015, 1.3 percent of presentations included mention of contaminants. And just 0.006 percent of all current funding from the U.S. National Science Foundations Division of Environmental Biology — a major source of funding for U.S. ecologists — was devoted to studying the effects of synthetic chemicals on the environment. It was a single grant worth $20,252.

The resulting “knowledge gap,” say the researchers, may make it harder to achieve sustainability goals such as ocean health and biodiversity protection. They say NSF should fund more ecological contaminants research — especially research that looks at how chemical pollution might compound the effects of other stressors, such as warming temperatures, on plants and animals. View Ensia homepage

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For public land managers, policy-makers, natural resource specialists, farmers, ranchers and others in the business of protecting and renewing the world’s diverse ecosystems, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of studies and strategies. How does a person determine which solutions will yield the best results in any given situation?

What Works in Conservation 2017, a free online book just published by University of Cambridge conservation specialists, aims to help conservation workers navigate that sea. With the guidance of an international team of experts, the book summarizes, organizes and evaluates the outcomes of specific conservation practices reported in more than 150 scientific journals as well as in unpublished reports and other literature from around the world. By providing detailed information on various practices and outcomes, it attempts to answer the questions: What worked? What looked promising, but didn’t end up making a difference in the long haul? What actually ended up doing more harm than good? And in what context?

The results are categorized by type of organism, type of threat, type of conservation action and whether the intervention is likely to be beneficial, have unknown effectiveness, or be ineffective or harmful. Each action is rated on a scale, based on the quality of evidence available, potential risks and harms, and overall effectiveness.

Take bird conservation, for example. On a global scale, agriculture is a threat to biodiversity — bird biodiversity included. What Works in Conservation assessed 38 studies of agricultural lands and found that 32 showed that growing grassy buffer zones around plowed fields reduced soil erosion and boosted bird and small mammal biodiversity. On the flip side, the report rates efforts spent cleaning bird after bird in the wake of an oil spill before releasing them back into the wild as “unlikely to be beneficial” based on studies from South Africa, Australia the U.S. and Canada that found cleaning oil-burdened birds such as penguins, plovers and guillemots in most cases did not benefit them and in some instances even lowered their chances of survival.

Other topics covered in the book include conserving amphibians, bats and farmland species; controlling freshwater invasive species; enhancing soil fertility; and protecting forest ecosystems. To learn more, read the book free online or download the PDF, click here. View Ensia homepage

world map with highlighted sustainability projects  

Want to solve big problems? Start small.

Seeds of Good Anthropocenes, a website created by an international team of sustainability scientists, seeks to do just that. The site showcases more than 500 initiatives from around the world that, while not widespread or well known, might contribute to a sustainable future.

The purpose of the project, according to its founders, is to provide a middle ground between gloom-and-doom reports, which may inadvertently spur feelings of powerlessness and resignation, and those that are overly optimistic and risk inciting complacency. Writing in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the founders argue that we should break through this dichotomy by looking to “seeds” — environmentally beneficial tools and techniques that are neither untested proposals nor established practices. Each seed offers an idea that helps in some way to address challenges posed by the Anthropocene, such as environmental awareness, urban sustainability and equitable decision-making.

“Seeds are initiatives (social, technological, economic, or social–ecological ways of thinking or doing) that exist, at least in prototype form, and that represent a diversity of worldviews, values, and regions, but are not currently dominant or prominent in the world,” the team wrote. The founders hope these seeds help identify values and approaches that people organically gravitate toward when facing the Anthropocene. Seeds can inspire similar projects in new areas.

The project maintains information on hundreds of seeds, which users can access via topic tags and an annotated map. Seeds came mostly from sustainability researchers and practitioners.

One highlighted seed is the Satoyama Initiative, a joint endeavor of the Japanese government and the United Nations University, which promotes traditional Japanese farming over large-scale industrial agriculture.

The traditional satoyama landscape varies land use and preserves biodiversity to balance agricultural needs with ecosystem stability. The Satoyama Initiative hopes to revitalize this agricultural approach in part by connecting with city dwellers to solicit financial donations and volunteered time.

Another seed is Project Tamar, a Brazilian marine conservation effort launched in 1980 that works with coastal communities to shield the country’s five sea turtle species from extinction.

Yet another seed, the Finland-based Robin Hood Coop, is an unusual hedge fund: Its staff work as unpaid volunteers, all members have equal voting power on major decisions, and a portion of the fund’s profits go to projects that it says benefit wider society and create “shared space, resources or means of production.”

Seeds of Good Anthropocenes is on the lookout for new initiatives to add to the database, with an online form soliciting contributors for information about additional seeds.

Since environmental challenges like climate change, species extinctions and corporate greed are systemic and interconnected, as are their solutions, it’s important to not miss the forest for the trees. But before looking too long at either, perhaps it’s time to sow the seeds — or take a lesson from what’s already been sown. View Ensia homepage

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What should we be thinking about when we think about the future of biodiversity, conservation and the environment? An international team of experts in horizon scanning, science communication and conservation recently asked that question as participants in the eighth annual Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity. The answers they came up, just published in the scientific journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution and summarized below, portend both risks and opportunities for species and ecosystems around the world.

“Our aim has been to focus attention and stimulate debate about these subjects, potentially leading to new research foci, policy developments, or business innovations,” the authors wrote in introducing their list of top trends to watch in 2017. “These responses should help facilitate better-informed forward-planning.”

Altering Coral Bacteria

Around the world, coral reefs are bleaching and dying as ocean temperatures warm beyond those tolerated by bacteria that live in partnership with the corals. Scientists are eyeing the option of replacing bacteria forced out by heat with other strains more tolerant of the new temperatures — either naturally occurring or genetically engineered. Although the practice holds promise for rescuing or resurrecting damaged reefs, there are concerns about unintended consequences such as introduction of disease or disruption of ecosystems.

Underwater Robots Meet Invasive Species

If you think getting rid of invasive species on land is a challenge, you haven’t tried doing it in the depths of the ocean. Robots that can crawl across the seafloor dispatching invaders with poisons or electric shock are being investigated as a potential tool for combating such species. The technology is now being tested to control crown-of-thorns starfish, which have devastated Great Barrier Reef corals in recent years, and invasive lionfish, which are competing with native species in the Caribbean Sea.

 

Electronic Noses

The technology behind electronic sensors that detect odors has advanced markedly in recent years, leading biologists to ponder applications to conservation. Possibilities include using the devices to sniff out illegally traded wildlife at checkpoints along transportation routes and to detect the presence of DNA from rare species in the environment.

Blight of the Bumblebees

We tend to think of pollinating insects as our ecological friends, but in the wrong place nonnative bees can spell trouble instead by competing with native insects, promoting reproduction in nonnative plants and potentially spreading disease. And they’re doing just that, thanks to people who transport them internationally for plant-pollination purposes. Out-of-place bumblebees are already spreading through New Zealand, Japan and southern South America, and there is concern they could do the same in Australia, Brazil, Uruguay, China, South Africa and Namibia.

Bumblebees imported to pollinate crops are a growing threat to native pollinators around the world. Photo © iStockphoto.com/bigemrg

Bumblebees imported to pollinate crops are a growing threat to native pollinators around the world. Photo © iStockphoto.com/bigemrg

 

Microbes Meet Agriculture

Select bacteria and fungi are emerging as potential agricultural allies for their ability to help kick back pests or stimulate growth in crops. As research advances in this area, questions are being raised about potential implications for nontarget species, ecosystems, soils and more.

Sand Trap

Sand is mined for a wide range of uses, from making concrete, glass, asphalt and electronics to reclaiming land and aiding in the extraction of fossil fuels. And with sand mining comes disruption and loss of habitat in sand sources such as quarries, rivers, lakes and oceans. As demand for sand grows, efforts are underway to develop strategies for restoring areas from which sand has been removed and to advance the use of alternative materials such as mud or recycled construction material where possible to reduce stress on existing stocks.

Sand mining is growing rapidly around the world with big consequences for creatures that inhabit shorelines, rivers, lakes, and the land overlying terrestrial sources. — and Photo © iStockphoto.com/ollo

Sand mining is growing rapidly around the world, with big consequences for creatures that inhabit shorelines, rivers, lakes and the land overlying terrestrial sources. Photo © iStockphoto.com/ollo

 

Trends in Fences

Fences are notorious for challenging wildlife by restricting migrations and limiting contact among populations. As political leaders in the U.S. and Europe make plans to build more border fences to limit movement of our own species across national boundaries, scientists are assessing implications for wolves, sheep, bears, birds and more.

Downside of Cleanups

Landfills have altered animal behavior, distribution and abundance around the world in a variety of ways, from increasing abundance of storks to fragmenting populations of bears. As changes in regulations cause landfills to be cleaned up, covered and closed, scientists expect the behavior of scavenging animals to change — with potential consequences for other species, ecosystems and human-animal interactions.

Well-intentioned efforts to clean up waste dumps are having unintended consequences for animal scavengers. Photo © iStockphoto.com/rudiuks

Well-intentioned efforts to clean up waste dumps are having unintended consequences for animal scavengers. Photo © iStockphoto.com/rudiuks

 

Ocean Air on Overdrive

Things can be rough on the open ocean — and they appear to be getting rougher, with increased average air speed, wave height, and frequency of strong winds and large waves over the past two decades. Implications for ecosystems and the species that inhabit them include disruptions to beaches, coastal vegetation and reefs; ocean-going birds and transoceanic migrants also could be affected.

Floating Wind Farms

Floating turbines hold huge promise for capturing wind energy over Earth’s oceans. With the first large floating wind farm — off the coast of Scotland — approved for development in 2016 and some 40 more in planning, it’s high time to take a look at potential implications for conservation. Possibilities include the creation of de facto marine reserves as fish cluster under the fields of floating turbines, loss of birds that fly into the turbines, entanglement of sea creatures in cables used to tether the turbines to the seafloor, and disruption of movement patterns of underwater animals.

 

Bionic Leaves

Plants have the renewable energy storage problem pretty well figured out: Capture photons from the sun, use them to split water into hydrogen and oxygen to make sugars, then extract the energy from the sugars when it’s needed. New “artificial leaf” technologies use sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, then feed the hydrogen to bacteria that make energy-storing alcohol — at energy conversion efficiencies approaching 10 times that of nature’s version. The technology opens the door to an exciting new approach to capturing, storing and using solar energy in locations remote from electrical grids.

Lithium-Air Batteries

The lack of dense energy storage systems is a big barrier to widespread adoption of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, which are only intermittently available, as well as to the advancement of technologies such as electric vehicles. A new kid on the energy-storage block, lithium-air batteries, can theoretically hold 10 times as much energy per volume as its conventional lithium-ion counterparts. Although scientists expect the technology to take 10 years or more to mature, when it does it could revolutionize renewable energy markets with cascading impacts for land use, water quality and more.

Better Biofuel Production

A class of enzymes known as lyctic polysaccharide monooxygenases is emerging as a potentially powerful tool for use in converting plant material to liquid fuel and industrial chemicals. By dramatically improving the speed and efficiency of conversion over conventional approaches, these enzymes could stimulate efforts to grow crops for fuel, with implications for biodiversity in the form of increased land use for this purpose, potential shifts away from fossil fuel use and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Socking Away CO2

Researchers in Iceland have come up with a promising strategy for storing carbon dioxide underground: Dissolve it in water and inject it into basaltic rocks. After two years of monitoring an experimental site, they’ve discovered the approach does a remarkable job of long-term storage, with 95 percent of the CO2 injected turning into rock. Although the process is energy- and water-intensive, there is hope it could play a role in reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and minimizing the impact of climate change on the rest of the world.

 

 

New Jobs for Blockchain

Best known for enabling a Web-based currency known as bitcoin, blockchain technology in a more generalized sense offers the ability to track transactions without the need for a centralized record keeper. As the technology matures, potential applications with implications for conservation include tracking land claims, providing a system for buying and selling power generated by distributed renewable sources, ensuring the validity of sustainability claims for products such as seafood and lumber, and uncovering illegal wildlife trade.

Wondering how last year’s projections have fared so far? Check them out here.

people on planet  

Good news: more people across the globe have improved access to safe water and sanitation. Bad news: air quality is a growing problem in lower-income countries. The Population Reference Bureau’s 2016 World Population Data Sheet, released in August, offers valuable insights into not only current and projected demographic measures, but also health, energy and environment trends around the world.

The report predicts that Africa’s population will reach 2.5 billion by 2050, accounting for 54 percent of the total world population growth. However, Asia will remain the most heavily populated region with a gain of nearly 900 million (36 percent of global population growth), and India will replace China as the nation with the most people. The number of people in the Americas is slated to rise by only 223 million, and Europe will experience a slight decline of 12 million.

Significant to managing health and environmental concerns, the report projects that the combined population of the world’s least developed countries will double by 2050 to 1.9 billion. But these people are on the move, and migration could have an unpredictable impact on regional population estimates and resource management. Africa, for example, is expected to more than double in population by 2050 but is also expected to lose more people to emigration than it gains from immigration. Europe is currently absorbing many of these migrants. As a result, European nations may not see the anticipated population decline and could face increased environmental and health challenges.

Air quality is becoming a more pressing issue as global population increases, particularly in less developed regions. According to the report, the highest national-level concentrations of fine particles of airborne dust, dirt and soot occur in middle-income nations like China and Bangladesh, where pollution control measures are not keeping up with industrial growth. Although particulate air pollution is dropping in higher income countries, it still exceeds World Health Organization target levels.

A focus on water over the past 25 years has improved access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation in many parts of the world. The data sheet reports that 91 percent of the global population now has piped water available close to home. Progress in sanitation is also reported; however, more than 2.4 billion people still lack access to basic sanitation services.

The report paints a fascinating country-by-country picture of carbon emissions, access to electricity and use of renewable energy. Annual carbon emissions increased 60 percent globally between 1992 and 2013, with individual country changes ranging from a 280 percent increase in China to a 57 percent reduction in Ukraine. The United States held increases to under 6 percent, yet remains second only to China in total carbon emissions. Access to electricity varied from 100 percent in more developed countries to less than 10 percent in some of the least developed countries. Percent of energy coming from renewables spanned from zero to 97 with a global average of 18 percent. Country breakdowns are also presented for several other demographic, health and environmental metrics, including life expectancy at birth and percent of land under protected status.

The 2016 World Population Data Sheet is accessible in both print and interactive digital formats for further exploration of the balance between providing for human needs and managing the natural resources on which people depend. View Ensia homepage

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Self-driving taxis, parking lots replaced by parks, quiet freeways, clean air, Wi-Fi-enabled traffic control, light rail trains zipping from one end of town to another — sounds like the stuff of science fiction. But experts at McKinsey & Company and Bloomberg New Energy Finance argue that these technologies aren’t so far-fetched in some urban areas, given today’s market trends. Their new report, An Integrated Perspective on the Future of Mobility, paints a picture of what transportation could look like in leading-edge cities 15, 20, 30 years from now that should be of great interest to urban planners, public officials and professionals in the digital technology, communication, environmental and automotive industries — along with the estimated 500 million people who will be directly affected.

This analysis suggests that several key trends can help predict future transportation patterns: a global shift toward using more renewable energy and reducing air pollution, a “decentralized” or more flexible and accessible electrical grid, and advances in internet and digital communication technologies. It foresees spikes in electric vehicle sales and dips in demand for internal combustion engines, and predicts a slide in vehicle ownership as cities invest in better public transit and as on-demand ride-hailing services like Uber continue to grow.

The projection identifies three kinds of cities most ravenous for shared transportation, electric vehicles, refreshed public transit and self-driven cars: places like Delhi and Istanbul, which are low-income and densely populated and have mounting urbanization and air pollution; cities with large suburban sprawl, such as Sydney, Houston and Los Angeles; and high-income metropolises such as Singapore, London and Shanghai that demand a competitive variety of convenient mobility options. It then goes on to suggest how each type can successfully transition to a more sustainable transportation system.

Though it emphasizes positive business models for how different city types can best incorporate these trends, this study also mentions how they can go south. For example, in Los Angeles, where people commute into the city and pay for parking, self-driving vehicles might become more common. The upside to that is that more people like the elderly, the blind and children, would be able to access easy and ideally safe transportation. The downside? Lower-emission options such as ride sharing and cycling might fall by the wayside, and commuters might send their empty vehicles long distances to find cheaper parking.

The report suggests that, if done right, the world could reap big environmental and economic benefits from the urban mobility transition. What do you think? Download the full white paper here. View Ensia homepage

person making online purchase  

Reducing the carbon footprint of what we buy isn’t easy, but the opportunity for impact is substantial: In the United States, producing and delivering consumer purchases releases twice as much carbon into the atmosphere as home energy use and personal travel. By gathering and sharing information on carbon emissions associated with their products, companies can make environmentally friendly choices easier for consumers and boost their own reputations as planet-friendly businesses.

Advances in online technology provide effective and inexpensive opportunities to do this, according to a recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

To explore strategies for sharing carbon footprint information and evaluate the impact of offering consumers carbon offset options, NREL researchers designed a series of experiments focused on four industries — online retailing, ride sharing, video streaming and short-term lodging.

Using crowdsourced online survey services, they reproduced the online interfaces of actual companies to track the decision process of participants offered green choices. Follow-up questions explored participants’ reactions to these options. Their findings demonstrate that providing green choices can lower their overall carbon footprints and improve customer satisfaction.

Researchers reproduced the online interface of a major U.S. online retailer, Amazon, to test carbon-reducing strategies in online retailing. Amazon Prime members receive free two-day shipping, but can also select free no-rush shipping and earn a US$1 credit. In one experiment, the researchers asked participants how they would respond if they were given a chance to accept carbon offsets instead of the credit, and how their opinion of Amazon would change if the company offered carbon neutral no-rush shipping. Researchers found that green shipping was as popular as the credit and improved Amazon’s environmental image. In addition, since the carbon offsets were generally less expensive than the dollar credit, offering this service to customers could save the company money.

A second experiment gave customers the option to add carbon offsets for shipping to their bills, with the cost of this offset varying with the product and the shipping option selected. When adding the carbon credit was the default, 88.2 percent of customers chose to do so. When the carbon credit was not the default option, 40 percent of customers still chose to add it.

The researchers used Uber as a model system for exploring the potential for carbon offsets in the ride-share industry. The experiment was similar to that conducted using the Amazon interface, providing customers an option to add the cost of carbon offsets to their bill. The cost of the offset was varied between US$0.02 and US$0.20 per trip based on estimated costs of carbon of US$6/metric ton (1.1 tons) and US$50/metric ton (1.1 tons) and assuming a 10-mile (16-kilometer) trip and the 2012 U.S. average fuel economy for light-duty vehicles. Given the scenario of a 10-mile (16-kilometer) trip every weekday for a year, participants were then asked if they would be willing to add the cost of carbon offsets to their bill for every ride. Depending on the carbon price, this would increase the total cost by either US$5.95 or US$49.58. Results showed close to three-quarters of customers were willing to add the offset for a single trip at either carbon price and to offset emissions associated with all of their Uber trips when the total yearly cost was US$5.95. Even when the cost for all future trips was high, half of all participants remained willing to purchase offsets.

For video streaming the research team used the model of Netflix. Content can be streamed in standard, high or ultrahigh definition — with the carbon footprint increasing with increased definition. Subscribers may not realize that higher definition streaming isn’t necessary for all content. The researchers provided information on the carbon footprints of the three streaming options to the Netflix user and found that participants tended to choose a lower resolution stream. Not only that, but 42 percent of participants said they would allow Netflix to automatically provide the least carbon-intensive streaming resolution, adjusting the definition level to the needs of the type of video being streamed. “This response could represent an opportunity for Netflix to reduce operating costs, lower its corporate environmental footprint and improve customer satisfaction with one simple innovation,” the researchers noted.

In the realm of short-term lodging, the researchers used the example of Airbnb, a company that connects customers with hosts who offer space in their homes as an alternative to hotels. The researchers found that, on average, potential Airbnb hosts could expect to receive just under US$7 more per booking if they qualify as providing an energy-efficient rental. However, when participants were given the option to add between US$0.50 and US$3.00 to their bills to make their stays carbon neutral, less than 13 percent indicated that they would be willing to purchase these carbon offsets.

The researchers noted that their results support two basic “design principles” for initiatives aimed at helping consumers reduce their carbon emissions: provide credible information at the point of decision and keep things simple.

“These experiments indicate significant untapped potential for firms to reduce the climate impact of their product chains and improve customer satisfaction at very low or even negative cost,” the researchers concluded, adding, “Such opportunities certainly exist in other industries as well.” View Ensia homepage

 

 

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What covers up to 600,000 square kilometers (230,000 square miles) of Earth’s surface, provides benefits worth an estimated US$570 billion or more each year, and is rapidly being lost due to human activity?

If you have not a clue, you’re far from alone. Scientists who study the underwater feature known as a seagrass meadow call it a “marginalized ecosystem” that ranks with coral reefs and mangrove swamps as among the most endangered marine habitats but is “often overlooked, regarded as merely an innocuous feature of the ocean.”

And they’re hoping that will change: The World Seagrass Association has released a statement urging the world’s conservation leaders to protect seagrass meadows from human harm through policies, education and action.

“These important ecosystems can no longer be ignored on the conservation agenda,” the statement says. “Seagrass loss should not be an option.”

Seagrasses are flowering plants that evolved from land-based counterparts millions of years ago. Vast swaths stretch along coastlines around the world, sheltering countless forms of marine life, from manatees and turtles to seahorses, shrimp and fish. And they provide a spectrum of services to humans, including sequestering millions of metric tons of carbon each year, protecting shorelines, providing nurseries for marine life, contributing to global food security, supporting biodiversity and keeping ocean water clean.

But at the same time, humans are impairing their ability to do so through a perfect storm of onslaughts: runoff from cities, factories and farms; port construction and dredging; and food production activities such as trawling and aquaculture. All told, the Ocean Health Index estimates the planet has lost more than one-quarter of all seagrass meadows since 1900. And as human population booms and coastlines develop, the destruction is accelerating — with particularly heavy losses being documented in such diverse settings as Singapore, Canada, the Caribbean and the British Isles.

Efforts by folks already in the know, such as reducing nutrients flowing from wastewater treatment plants and cropland, promoting sustainable fisheries, and replanting demolished meadows, have made some inroads into reducing the rate of decline. By issuing the latest statement, scientists hope the rest of us will not only become aware of seagrass ecosystems, but do our part to protect them, too. View Ensia homepage

sustainability charts  

For many businesses, sustainability is a nice idea that looks better on paper than in practice. Yet, research shows that sustainability doesn’t just sound good — it’s smart, and it works. Sustainable Brands has compiled a list of 22 research studies that show sustainable practices lead to long-term benefits. The studies cover multiple benefits, from global reach and stock market value to brand trust and product sustainability. For example:

  • Project ROI, an initiative created in partnership with billion-dollar corporations Verizon and Campbell, the research firm IO Sustainability, and Babson College, drew from hundreds of research studies to quantify the benefits of strong sustainability programs. When done right, the project concluded, sustainable initiatives can increase sale revenue by up to 20 percent, increase market value by nearly 10 percent, lead to lower investment risk and cut employee turnover rates in half.
  • Sustainability can boost profits through the little actions employees take on a routine basis. Research shows that WeSpire Sustainability, an online employee engagement project based on behavioral science, has helped MGM Resorts save about US$5 million annually by engaging nearly a third of its employees (19,500 people) in a social media platform that guides green actions related to waste, water, fuel, emissions and energy. The site offers tips such as taking the stairs, unplugging your cellphone after it’s fully charged and using energy-efficient office equipment. Participants rack up points, compare their progress to other co-workers, exchange ideas and learn about the impacts that these small actions have on the environment. The program suggests that companies can save millions by integrating sustainable practices across departments, committing to meet environmental regulations and targets, and boosting the energy efficiency of everyday workplace functions.
  • As globalization strengthens communication across the world, relationships with local communities are more important than ever for multinational corporations to achieve success, according to business, international relations and public policy scholar Witold Henisz. His book, Corporate Diplomacy: Building Reputations and Relationships with External Stakeholders, describes studies documenting the trials and failures of multinational companies that alienated themselves from local realities and concerns. More importantly, Henisz presents solutions that real companies have found to develop trust, collaboration and respectful communication among communities with differing social, political and cultural perspectives or histories of colonization, for example. Instead of perceiving external stakeholders as “external,” he argues, entities such as government officials, locally employed workers, legislators and NGOs should be an integrated part of decision-making. In the long term, developing a partnership with local populations leads not only to positive, long-term profits for business but also to work that more closely aligns with global sustainability goals.

Like to learn more about links between positive ROI and corporate sustainability? Check out all 22 studies showcased by Sustainable Brands here. View Ensia homepage

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Wind energy is soaring around the world, thanks to technology advances and energy policies that have reduced its cost. And things are only going to get better — with prices dropping substantially by mid-century, according to a survey of 163 of the world’s leading wind energy experts.

The results, published in the journal Nature Energy, suggest that the cost of electricity from wind could drop by 24–30 percent by 2030 relative to 2014 prices, and by 35–41 percent by 2050.

The key driver of this price drop? Bigger, more efficient turbines, according to the experts. Taller turbines with larger rotors make it possible for turbines to better harness stronger winds, generating more power.

Global wind power capacity more than quadrupled between 2006 and 2015. Over 97 percent of this came from onshore wind, but offshore wind capacity has also been increasing, especially in Europe. Whether or not wind energy continues to play an important role in the future will rest squarely on its costs. So researchers have tried in the past to predict wind energy costs by looking at historical data and trends, then extrapolating into the future.

Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory instead conducted what’s called an “expert elicitation” survey. These carefully designed surveys are designed to eliminate bias and are often considered the best tools to develop estimates of unknown or uncertain quantities.

The researchers asked experts about three wind power applications: onshore wind, fixed-bottom offshore wind and floating offshore wind. The results indicate that onshore wind should remain cheaper than offshore. But the actual cost of offshore wind will drop more by 2050 than onshore, which makes sense since offshore wind is a relatively immature technology, hence there’s more room for improvements.

The reasons for dropping prices varied by type of wind installation. For all types, one key factor was larger turbines with wider rotors, which increase the amount of energy a project actually generates. Another common reason was lower upfront capital costs and, for offshore wind, lower financing cost. View Ensia homepage

Republished with permission from Conservation. View the original article here.

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Agroforestry — integrating trees into cropland or pastureland — is often discussed as a promising strategy for helping to ease the threat of climate change because trees are particularly good at sucking carbon dioxide from the air and socking it away for the long term. However, most global and regional calculations of carbon capture and storage, including those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ignore farm forests. That could change, thanks to a new study published in Scientific Reports that takes a look at trees on agricultural land and quantifies the powerful role they play in sequestering carbon.

Using estimates of global farmland tree cover derived from remote sensing observations, a team of researchers from Asia, Africa and Europe calculated the amount of carbon captured and stored by trees growing on farmland. When carbon stored by these trees was included, total carbon storage for agricultural land measured more than four times higher than current IPCC default values. “These results show that existing tree cover — thus far ignored in most global and regional calculations — makes a major contribution to the carbon pool on agricultural lands,” the researchers wrote.

The study found that as the world’s forest resources decline, tree cover on agricultural land is expanding. Analysis of the remote sensing results revealed that 43 percent of the world’s agricultural land was forested in 2010, a 2 percent increase over the previous 10 years. Looking at regional patterns in the distribution of agricultural tree cover, the researchers found high percentages of tree cover occurring in humid regions such as Southeast Asia, Central America, eastern South America and central and coastal Africa. Tree cover was moderate in the majority of agricultural areas in South Asia, sub-humid Africa, Central and Western Europe, Amazonian South America and Midwestern North America. Agricultural areas with low tree cover included Southwest Australia, Eastern China, the northern prairies of North America, and the southern border of the Sahara.

Heavily populated areas tended to have less tree cover, despite their climate, so regional variations and trends were also investigated. This analysis revealed many areas where higher tree cover density and carbon storage are possible. Encouraging agroforestry in these regions through policy and incentives, the researchers noted, could be an “achievable and relatively fast” path to increasing greenhouse gas absorption.

The researchers also examined the amount of carbon stored on agricultural land in individual countries and found insightful differences. Places where forests are regarded as nationally important, for example Brazil or Indonesia, have high and increasing carbon storage levels on agricultural land. In Brazil, some of the increase may stem from policy initiatives and the adoption of agroforestry practices. Argentina, on the other hand, has experienced substantial loss of carbon capture and storage, most likely due to widespread adoption of large scale mechanized soy cultivation over the past decade. The report notes that more research is necessary to understand what is driving these trends so effective policies and market incentives can be developed to both reduce forest conversion and encourage more trees on farmland.

In addition to being an efficient strategy to offset carbon losses due to deforestation, the researchers noted that integrating trees into the agricultural landscape also benefits small farmers around the globe by helping to optimize soil moisture, boosting soil nitrogen, and in general encouraging a more diverse, productive, profitable, healthy and sustainable use of land.

“In summary,” they conclude, “our analyses highlight that agroforestry, and tree cover on agricultural land in general, has clear potential to contribute to climate change mitigation while providing an array of adaptation benefits.” View Ensia homepage

UPDATED 09.22.16: The journal citation was corrected to Scientific Reports.

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How much raw material does it take to support you? If you’re an average African, about 3 metric tons (3.3 tons) — the equivalent of an elephant’s worth of biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and nonmetallic minerals — per year. But if you’re an average North American, make that a whopping eight elephants.

And those elephants are getting heftier. Even as a growing population puts more pressure on Earth’s resources, we’re becoming less efficient in our use of raw materials — essentially using more than ever to generate a specific amount of economic activity. That’s according to “Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity,” a report released recently by the United Nations Environment Programme that summarizes trends in material use worldwide.

The report reveals some startling patterns in the use of materials around the world. Total materials use tripled between 1970 and 2010, from 22 billion metric tons (24 billion tons) to more than 70 billion metric tons (77 billion tons). Even more unsettling, per capita materials use grew from 7 metric tons (7.7 tons) to 10 (11) in 2010. And overall material efficiency — the amount of raw material needed per unit of GDP — has actually decreased worldwide since 2000.

In addition to increases in overall consumption, the flow of materials has also shifted. Materials increasingly are being shipped around the world as individual countries become specialized sources of particular resources. Between 1970 and 2010, according to the report, direct trade increased fourfold.

If we continue on the current trajectory, the report predicts, we’ll be using nine times as much material in 2050 as we are today — and with that, similarly multiplying the production of environmental-harming by-products such as waste, air and water pollution, and greenhouse gases.

Introducing a new indicator, “material footprint of consumption,” the report shows clearly that the entire world can’t consume at the level of the richest among us. It encourages policy-makers and others to work to boost material efficiency and to set into place policies that incorporate social and environmental costs into the price we pay for natural resources.

“Decoupling material use and related environmental impacts from economic growth is essential for ensuring the prosperity of human society and a healthy natural environment,” the report concludes. “A prosperous and equitable world calls for transformative changes in lifestyles and consumption behavior.”

Download “Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity” or a summary for policy-makers here. View Ensia homepage

Builder fitting insulation into roof  

The most valuable tool we have to meet the world’s growing energy demand while reducing greenhouse gas production could be figuring out how to use energy more efficiently. Investing in energy efficiency can also save money, reduce pollution, encourage development and create new jobs. Yet, efficiency is often passed by in favor of more expensive energy solutions.

Exactly how much room for improvement there is in this department is the subject of the 2016 International Energy Efficiency Scorecard, published last month by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. To compile the scorecard, researchers examined efficiency policy in 23 of the world’s top energy-consuming countries as well as actual energy-efficiency performance in the three largest energy use categories: buildings, industry and transportation. Germany came in first place with 73.5 out of 100 possible points. Italy and Japan tied for a close second. The United States came in eighth. Saudi Arabia was the lowest-scoring country at 15.5 points. Brazil and South Africa were also at the bottom.

“Our results indicate that there are substantial opportunities for improvement in all the economies evaluated in this report,” the authors noted.

A closer look reveals numerous policies and practices that are effectively increasing efficiency. Germany’s leadership, for example, is grounded in strong national policies and targets — most notably its National Action Plan on Energy Efficiency, which focuses on reducing energy demand in German buildings, establishing business models for energy efficiency and generating data consumers can use to make decisions regarding their energy use. The country also stood out as a leader in building efficiency, with national energy performance requirements for both new buildings and those undergoing major renovation backed by strong financial support. The reported also called out the United States, for its efficiency-promoting building codes as well as strong appliance and equipment standards.

Industry accounts for over half of the world’s total energy demand, and the report applauded Germany, Japan and Italy for encouraging industrial efficiency through a mix of regulatory measures, voluntary actions and financial incentives. Manufacturers in Germany, motivated by tax exemptions and other financial incentives, are voluntarily working to consume less energy and meet greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. Japan and Italy mandate energy efficiency and require large energy consuming companies to appoint energy managers and periodically audit and report on energy use. Germany and Japan have also set goals and provide financial incentives to encourage use of combined heat and power systems, which capture heat normally wasted in conventional power generation for use in industrial processes.

In general, most countries did not score as well in transportation as they did in industry, with many countries’ transportation systems reflecting heavier investments in roads than in public transit. The report called out Italy and Japan for practices that include stringent fuel economy requirements for new cars (in Italy’s case, part of a broader European Union initiative) and investments in public transit.

The report noted that many of the countries with the lowest scores in energy efficiency policy are also emerging economies with an increasing demand for energy. As these countries construct new buildings, develop their industries and design transportation systems, they have the amazing opportunity to include energy efficient best practices from the start. At the same time, the report called on more-developed countries to “lead by example” with even more ambitious energy-efficiency practices and policies. View Ensia homepage

Hong Kong city and forest  

When it comes to climate change, a city’s significance stretches past its skyline.

Cities, of course, are a source of abundant greenhouse gas emissions from electricity, transportation, construction and more. But that look alone is too narrow, according to Can a City Be Sustainable?, the 2016 installment of the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World series. In the report Tom Prugh, senior researcher at Worldwatch, contends that a full account of urban greenhouse gas emissions is incomplete without considering two uniquely urban burdens borne beyond municipal boundaries: changes in land use as cities expand and changes in people’s diets as cities grow.

Both of those trends spur deforestation, which releases greenhouse gases. Forest loss in the tropics is responsible for about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions each year, equivalent to annual emissions from 600 million cars. Many of those emissions are, in effect, exports from the world’s cities.

Urban expansion is one cause. As people move in, cities spread out, often into natural areas such as forests. To combat this, the report says, municipalities can try to limit sprawl and promote higher density development (a strategy that comes, however, with its own issues).

A thornier threat is dietary change. Moving to a city often means higher wages for workers, who then tend to buy and eat more meat. Growing crops to feed livestock is less efficient than growing crops to feed people, since animals only pass on a fraction of the energy they consume to the humans who consume them. Because farmers get fewer calories per acre when producing meat, richer diets demand more farmland.

“Even in relatively highly productive European agriculture, it takes an estimated 0.3 square meters [0.4 square yards] to produce an edible kilogram of vegetables,” Prugh writes in the report, “but 1.2 square meters [1.4 square yards]  for a kilogram of milk, 3.5 [4.1] for eggs, 7.3 [8.7] for chicken, 8.9 [10.6] for pork, 10.2 [12.2] for cheese, and 20.9 [24.9] for beef.” Clearing land to produce that food often comes at the cost of more deforestation.

Potential solutions to the diet dilemma mentioned in the report include cutting food waste and discouraging excessive meat consumption. Shifting meat production from cows and other ruminants to pigs and poultry, which require less land for the final product, might also help put a damper on city-driven deforestation, in turn shrinking urban areas’ less obvious impacts on Earth’s climate.  View Ensia homepage

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Elementa wordmarkEditor’s note: This piece was produced in collaboration with the academic journal Elementa. It is based on “Carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural land: Ten diet scenarios,” published July 22 at Elementa.

Vegetarian? Omnivore? Vegan? What should we eat if we want to feed a growing population while minimizing the need to farm more land? We know that meat-based meals require more farmland than plant-based ones. But which diet is the best fit for the mix of croplands and grazing land that supports agriculture today? That’s a different question with a potentially different answer, since much of the land we use to produce our food is better suited for grazing livestock than growing crops.

A new study published in Elementa explores this perplexing question of the “foodprint” of different diets. Researchers calculated how much land is needed to feed people under 10 diet scenarios ranging from conventional American to vegan. The study considered land currently farmed throughout the entire continental United States and looked at not only the amount of land needed to support each diet, but also how much of the available land each scenario could use.

The 10 scenarios included a diet based on current U.S. food consumption patterns and another that reduced fats and sweeteners to bring the calorie level in line with U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The remaining eight scenarios maintained healthy calorie levels but moved toward increasingly vegetarian eating patterns, including ovo-lacto vegetarian, lacto vegetarian and vegan.

The baseline diet — what Americans are eating today — required the most land at 1.08 hectares (2.67 acres, or more than two football fields) per person per year, followed by the reduced-fats-and-sweeteners diet at 1.03 hectares (2.55 acres) per person per year. Land requirements decreased steadily as the proportion of food derived from animals declined, with the three vegetarian diets requiring 0.13 to 0.14 hectares (0.32 to 0.35 acres) per person per year.

Land needed to support different diets

The amount of grazing land, perennial cropland and cultivated cropland needed to support different diets varies widely. Image courtesy of Elementa. Click to expand.

Since production of different types of food requires different types of agricultural land, researchers distinguished among three distinct categories of land: grazing land, cultivated cropland and perennial forage cropland. They found that the five diets containing the largest quantities of meat used all of the available cropland and grazing land. The five diets containing little or no meat still used the maximum available area of cultivated cropland but varied widely in their use of forage and grazing land. The vegan diet relied solely on the land suited to growing crops, using none of the available grazing or forage land.

When the number of people who can be fed from the available agricultural land was estimated, results revealed that reducing meat in the diet increases the number of people who could be supported by existing farmland. Estimates of the number of people who could be fed ranged from a 402 million people for the “business as usual” diet to 807 million people in the lacto vegetarian scenario. The vegan diet, surprisingly, fed fewer people than two of the omnivore diets and both of the other vegetarian diets, suggesting food choices that make use of grazing and forage land as well as cropland could feed more people than those that completely eliminate animal-based food from our diets.

The researchers concluded that a strategic shift toward a plant-based diet could reduce the amount of land needed to feed U.S. consumers and at the same time increase the number of people who can be fed from our agricultural resources. The result could be more food — without the need to clear more land — for hundreds of millions of people around the globe. View Ensia homepage

freshwater fish  

Inland fish play critical roles in North American ecosystems and economics: In the U.S. alone in 2011, freshwater anglers spent more than $30 billion on their hobby, generating $73 billion in economic output. And fish are important parts of healthy ecosystems, feeding on aquatic plants and animals and in turn providing sustenance to iconic species such as eagles, bears and osprey.

It’s no surprise, then, that as climate changes, 30 experts gathered last year in Bozeman, Montana, to explore implications for the well-being of North American fish populations.

Reporting earlier this month in a special issue of Fisheries magazine, the researchers summarized a range of actual and anticipated changes in North American inland fish identified by 31 previous studies. The changes relate to shifts not only in temperature but also in other climate-related environmental factors such as salinity, oxygen levels, and size and connectedness of water bodies.

Although they noted that it’s difficult to conclusively attribute changes to changing climate due to confounding factors — including other impacts of human activity — the researchers found indications that North American ecosystems are seeing alterations in distribution, timing of spawning, abundance, and growth of fish associated with changing climate. Coldwater species such as trout seem to be particularly affected.

Specific changes observed include a northward shift of smallmouth bass in Ontario; slower growth associated with increased temperature in Arctic char and cisco; and faster growth in species such as sockeye salmon and black bass. Some fish species are showing reduced ranges, while for others distribution is increasing. Predator-prey interactions appear to be changing, too, as population redistribution results in new mixes of species within waterways.

In addition to reporting on past observations, the scientists also used models to predict that anticipated increases in drought will bring more changes, stressing fish and so increasing mortality.

The researchers concluded by calling for further elucidation of how climate change will affect fish health and reproduction. They also encouraged fisheries managers to better document changes and develop systems for adapting management as circumstances change. The hope is that through activities such as identifying habitats protected from temperature fluctuations and using them as refuges, determining where assisted migration might be appropriate, and adapting regulations as needed, conservation workers can help ensure that fish, fisheries and fishing all continue to thrive in tomorrow’s warmer world. View Ensia homepage

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Wild cousins aren’t always appreciated at family gatherings. But when it comes to crops, the opposite is often true: Plant breeding has historically relied on genes from plants growing in the wild as a source of diversity that can be introduced into crop plants to produce new crop varieties that are more resilient, nutritious and productive than those currently cultivated. As human populations increase and shift away from traditional diets, demand for food is expected to increase dramatically — and genes from wild relatives could play a huge role in ensuring we have the raw materials we need to sustainably intensify crop production for future global food security. But will they be available?

Crop relatives that grow in the wild are in danger of disappearing, threatened by habitat destruction, invasive species competition, climate change and pollution. Adaptive plant research and breeding initiatives assume wild relatives’ genetic material will be conserved and accessible in gene banks. Unfortunately, according to a recent study published in Nature Plants, the diversity of crop wild relatives is poorly represented in these gene banks, and it’s now time to collect genetic material to fill the gaps. To better target what and where to collect, an international group of scientists collaborated on a model to quantify the diversity of crop wild relatives available in gene banks and set global conservation priorities for wild genetic material.

The Nature Plants study analyzed 81 crops — ranging from apricots to zucchini — selected for their importance to food security, income generation and sustainable agricultural production. Using information collected from biodiversity, herbarium and gene bank databases, the researchers created a map depicting the geographic distribution of 1,076 wild plant groups related to the selected crops. They then compared the potential geographic and ecological diversity described by this model to the actual diversity currently accessible in gene banks, demonstrating that crop wild relatives are underrepresented.

To address conservation strategies, researchers developed a final priority score, ranking wild relatives on a scale from 0 to 10 based on the need for further collection of genetic material. Over 70 percent of the crops analyzed were ranked as high priority for further collection of wild relatives, and over 95 percent were rated as insufficiently represented. Researchers also noted geographic “hot spots” where particularly rich concentrations of high-priority wild relatives grow.

Entities such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Convention on Biological Diversity have already begun to address wild crop relative conservation gaps. Informed by this study, global organizations can boost the efficiency and effectiveness of initiatives to collect and conserve at-risk populations. View Ensia homepage

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Elementa wordmarkEditor’s note: This piece was produced in collaboration with the academic journal Elementa. It is based on “Melting Ice, Growing Trade?”, published May 20 at Elementa.

Visions of safe passage for cargo ships across the Arctic between Europe and Asia have sprung up in recent years as ice-free zones have appeared along the northern coasts of Russia and Canada. Some shipping companies already have begun taking advantage of the change. But dreamers and schemers may want to think twice about the long-term promise of the so-called Northern Sea Route for boosting trade, caution scientists from the U.K., U.S. and Germany in a study published earlier this month in the journal Elementa.

The study, led by Sami Bensassi of the University of Birmingham, brought climate modeling experts and economists together to explore how both sea ice conditions and the economics of shipping are likely to change between 2050 and 2100 as the the planet warms. Researchers began by plotting a likely trade route, then using projections from 33 climate models and two emissions scenarios to predict how long a likely trade route would be open for shipping each year. Finally, they looked at the resulting picture through an economic lens to determine how changes in environmental conditions would likely translate into actual changes in international maritime trade between Europe and Asia.

They found that in the second half of this century, climate change is unlikely to dramatically shift cargo ships from their current route through the Suez Canal even if variables such as transit fees, insurance and availability of ports are put aside to focus on uncertainties regarding ice-free dates and distance reduction. Even under the most “aggressive” emissions model and six months’ possible navigation toward the end of the century, the economic models predicted that the NSR would likely boost trade by 7 percent at best between Europe and Asia by the end of the century — the equivalent of an annual growth rate of 0.072 percent.

“These results suggest that use of the NSR is unlikely to significantly alter international trade patterns, and will not be a leading economic force in transforming the Arctic,” the researchers concluded. View Ensia homepage

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The U.S. Department of Energy just jumped on the podcast train — and what it’s bringing on board just might surprise you.

Far from a dry, self-promoting description of government-funded research or admonishment to buy energy-efficient appliances and drive less, the first installment of “Direct Current” offers an informative — and entertaining — dive into an important but little-covered topic: the hidden costs of rooftop solar power.

Even if you’re not that interested rooftop solar, you might enjoy the conversation about the alternative names the podcast developers considered (“Planet Moniz”? “Electric Car Talk”?) or the tongue-in-cheek monologue by Ira Fiberglass of “This American Lightbulb.”

It’s clearly too early to tell whether “Direct Current” will be able to hold its own against audio blockbusters like “Stuff You Should Know” and “Serial.” But we would not at all be surprised if many of those who take the leap and listen to the first episode find themselves eagerly awaiting the next one.

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Forget laughter: Biodiversity could be the best medicine, at least when it comes to keeping plants healthy.

Scientists have long been intrigued by how the number of plant species in an area affects plants’ risk of getting slammed by disease. In general, viewpoints boil down to two competing theories. The first, known as amplification, contends that the more plant species there are at a site, the more hosts there will be, and so the more disease there will be as well. The other, known as dilution, suggests that the more plant species, the less likely it will be that a disease organism can find its particular host, so the impact will be less.

Past experiments testing whether diversity offers protection against disease tend to support the dilution theory. However, those experiments have not distinguished well between species richness — the number of different species in an area — and phylogenetic diversity, which also takes into account the relative numbers of plants from the different species. And for the most part they have been performed in highly controlled planting experiments rather than in natural settings.

In a study published this month in the journal Ecology, researchers from China and Australia dug deeper into the question by artificially altering plant diversity in an alpine meadow in Tibet in a way that kept the abundance of plants from the various species constant. Measuring the diversity of pathogenic fungi that attack leaves as well as the amount of damage the fungi caused, they found that higher plant species richness was associated with higher fungus diversity but also, interestingly, with less leaf damage.

Extending the research, the team also looked at how increasing temperature and nitrogen fertilizer affected the relationship. Both changes, they found, increased the severity of infection in the experimental plots.

The bottom line: In this case at least, the more diverse a plant community, the better the individual species that comprise it can ward off damage from disease. And as humans alter global temperature and other environmental conditions, we would do well to prepare for changes in plant disease susceptibility, too. View Ensia homepage

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Elementa wordmarkEditor’s note: This piece is published in collaboration with the academic journal Elementa. It is based on a commentary, “Mobilizing the power of higher education to tackle the grand challenge of sustainability: Lessons from novel initiatives,” published February 23.

Universities seem like they should be great seedbeds for advancing sustainability — after all, they’re all about discovering new things and sharing them with the rest of the world. In reality, however, their ability to do so is constrained by their culture, which often rewards working within disciplinary lines and focusing on research per se rather than on applying the results of that research to creating solutions to real-world problems

In a paper published recently in the journal Elementa, leaders from a half-dozen U.S. academic institutions with dedicated sustainability programs shared five recommendations, distilled from their own experiences, for universities seeking to improve their ability to both create tools to advance sustainability and empower individuals and institutions to use them.

1. Focus on solutions. Universities tend to focus on problems rather than solutions. To move the needle on sustainability, the authors call for a new, solutions-focused “social contract” for academia. That may seem like adding more work to already stressed workloads, but in practice, the authors say, the emphasis on solutions has yielded bountiful rewards. Faculty and students alike, they write, “speak of the satisfaction of being part of something larger than themselves, and of using their knowledge to make a difference in the wider world.” And the shift also found support from policy-makers, business leaders and citizen groups.

2. Embrace interdisciplinary collaborations. More than perhaps any other endeavor, advancing sustainability demands collaboration among a wide range of disciplines. That makes universities an ideal setting for this pursuit, since they are by definition multidisciplinary. The challenge, though, is to get experts from different disciplines talking to each other. Strategies for overcoming the institutional roadblocks to interdisciplinary collaboration include engaging faculty who want to make a difference, earmarking funding for work focused on solving problems, being patient with the process and recognizing the critical importance of participation from disciplines outside natural science and engineering.

3. Build partnerships. It’s not easy to build, maintain and use bridges between academia and government, industry and citizens — but to advance sustainability, it’s exceedingly important. External stakeholders have important knowledge and perspectives to share. Partnerships also provide an opportunity to build relationships, mutual understanding and bonhomie that are key to getting things done. The authors point to the Cooperative Extension Service as a valuable model for engaging with stakeholders outside universities. An important part of the equation: Make sure the relationships are two-way.

4. Innovate and persevere. “[R]isk-taking, creative thinking and tenacity are key ingredients in reshaping universities to meet sustainability demands,” the authors write. Particularly important are ownership at the faculty, not just administrative level; strategic use of space and location to cultivate cohesion among disparate parties; integral involvement of students; creation of novel roles (e.g., “professors of practice”) for faculty; and administrative support for boundary crossing.

5. Gather and share lessons learned. Universities are premier research institutions, so what better place to study the dynamics of institutional change? As higher education embraces innovative approaches to addressing sustainability challenges, it would do well to conduct research on what works and doesn’t and share the knowledge gained with others interested in engaging in collaborative problem-solving.

The authors note that the common themes are applicable not only to sustainability initiatives, but to other efforts that are part of the growing trend in higher education to not just study and teach, but also become involved in solving societal challenges.
“The timing is right for solutions-oriented sustainability programs that are responsive to environmental and societal needs, to student and faculty interests, and to opportunities in emerging career paths,” they conclude. “We are confident that universities will become an increasingly vital and valued partner in the quest to create a sustainable world.” View Ensia homepage

Editor’s note: One of the authors on the Elementa paper is affiliated with the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, which provides support to Ensia.

 

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Worsening wildfires endanger communities. Invasive insects imperil forests. In the American West, many worry about these threats — but fewer fret about climate change, a major force behind both the burning and the bugs.

Why? Apparently, because lots of people don’t see the local connection. Polling residents of eastern Oregon, a new study published by University of New Hampshire sociologist Lawrence C. Hamilton and colleagues in the journal Regional Environmental Change found that although regional temperatures there have climbed twice as fast as the global average, only 40 percent of respondents recognized that fact. Echoing previous studies on global warming, local Republicans were more likely to say that temperatures haven’t increased, while Democrats were more likely to acknowledge that they have.

In the seven northeastern Oregon counties polled, average summer temperatures have risen over the past century, with heightened warming since the 1970s linked to more frequent wildfires. Compared with an average person, Republicans surveyed were 30 percent less likely to say that summers in their county were growing hotter. Among supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement, this number was even higher. For Democrats, the opposite relationship held.

Groups the researchers thought might be more attuned to the rise in temperature — long-term residents, year-round residents and forest landowners — are no more or less likely to know that summers have become warmer.

The researchers found that education matters, too, not because it makes people uniformly more informed, but because it intensifies preexisting partisan convictions. Among Democrats and independents in the study, college graduates were more likely than non-graduates to acknowledge local warming.

But among Republicans, especially Tea Party supporters, this effect flipped: higher levels of education went hand in hand with a higher probability of saying that Oregon summers haven’t become warmer.

Previous work has found this same educational gradient on global warming at a larger scale, and sure enough, when the researchers asked participants about human-induced climate change, the responses fell into the same pattern. Democrats and independents with a college education were more likely than Republican with higher education to acknowledge that humans are changing the climate.

The study was based on phone interviews with approximately 1,700 randomly selected residents of northeastern Oregon in 2014. The authors note that although eastern Oregon’s warming trend is statistically significant, the change is small relative to, say, the difference between a warm and cool summer day. That said, survey participants did have the option to say they weren’t sure whether summers were warming or not. Only 10 percent did so, leaving a clear partisan divide in perceptions of local warming.

This study presents a new twist on an old tale. Global climate change is, by definition, a worldwide phenomenon bigger than any one place. In contrast, local climate threads through people’s everyday experiences. If we can expect an informed, honest appraisal of climate anywhere, it’s in our own backyards. But if this study rings true on a larger scale, we can’t.

That underscores a core challenge of communicating climate change: Facts don’t seem to matter. And for local and global perspectives alike, the culprit appears to be the powerful pull of politics and social identity. View Ensia homepage

Double stranded DNA and enzyme with wheat, oranges, cow, pig, etc.  

Back in 2011, Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist and molecular biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, now at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Germany, grew intrigued by the way bacteria use a molecular system known as CRISPR-Cas9 to respond to viral attacks. For years, bacteria were assumed to be primitive creatures with rudimentary immune systems. But CRISPR-Cas9 revealed a startlingly sophisticated memory-response scheme. The bacteria store DNA samples from invading viruses by tucking them into a DNA library called CRISPR that is part of the bacteria’s natural genome. If the same virus should attack again, the Cas9 enzyme is primed by the CRISPR library to cut (and thus disable) viral DNA with the same sequence.

RNA-guided DNA cleavage by Cas9

In the native bacterial system (a), a structure that’s formed by crRNA and tracrRNA and includes a “guide” segment (gold) guides the Cas9 protein (light blue blob) to a spot in the viral DNA that corresponds to the guide segment. The cRNA is critical in targeting while tracRNA stabilizes the structure and activates Cas9 to cleave the DNA. To turn this natural system into a useful tool for genetic manipulation (b), researchers created an artificial single guide RNA molecule (sgRNA, in green) by fusing the crRNA and tracrRNA. Image courtesy of Elsevier

After months of trying to tease apart how the system works, Doudna’s team determined that two RNA molecules play central roles: CRISPR RNA (crRNA), which leads Cas9 to a particular location on the viral gene, and a trans-activating RNA (tracrRNA), which helps activate Cas9. Together, these two RNA molecules empower Cas9 to make its cuts.

Still, it was not clear that CRISPR would be all that exciting or useful outside of bacteria. Microbes have very different cell structures than animals and plants, and it was quite possible that the system would only work in bacteria. The real breakthrough occurred in 2012 when Doudna, Charpentier and then-postdoctoral fellow Martin Jinek realized it would be possible to combine the crRNA and the tracrRNA into a single, artificial guide RNA (sgRNA). By adding to the sgRNA a customized “guide segment” matching a particular DNA sequence in an organism of interest, they could aim Cas9 to cut any organism’s genome in any spot they wished.

Often likened to a word processor, CRISPR can be used to target whole gene “words” or a few nucleotide “letters” with precision and speed that far outpaces conventional genetic engineering. It’s a superb tool for deleting chunks of DNA and for facilitating precise substitutions when researchers want to swap a few key nucleotide sequences.

Less often emphasized is that CRISPR can also be used to add new genes or parts thereof. The key here is understanding what happens after Cas9 makes its cuts.

Genome editing with site-specific nucleases

A Cas9-caused break in DNA can be repaired in four different ways, two of which open the door to inserting a new gene of choice. Image courtesy of Elsevier

 

The cell’s DNA repair machinery typically takes over in one of two different modes. In the first mode (called “non-homologous end joining,” or NHEJ), it usually glues the two pieces back together, but imperfectly, deactivating the gene (see “a” above). Such “gene knockouts” don’t involve any foreign DNA but can eliminate traits that affect food quality, confer susceptibility to diseases or divert energy away from valuable end products such as grain or fruit. Occasionally, say researchers, this pathway may leave a DNA cut with “sticky ends,” enabling foreign genes of interest to be directly spliced in (b) — a double-stranded DNA insertion somewhat akin to “old-fashioned” genetic engineering.

A second kind of repair (called “homology-directed repair” or “homologous recombination” — HR) is much less common but far more accurate. In HR, the cut ends aren’t just jammed back together; the cell machinery copies a nearby piece of DNA to fix the damaged sequence. By providing a DNA snippet of their choice, scientists can induce the cell to fill in any desired sequence, from a small mutation (c) to a whole new gene (d). This HR pathway, says Fuguo Jiang, a postdoctoral fellow in Doudna’s lab, is not yet fully understood. But, as this illustration shows, it involves a meticulous process of one strand of donor DNA being stitched into the host gene, providing the template for cellular repair. View Ensia homepage

Editor’s note: For more on CRISPR, please see “CRISPR is coming to agriculture — with big implications for food, farmers, consumers and nature.”

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