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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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Some 80% of wastewater worldwide goes back into ecosystems without getting treated for pollution. Human-caused climate change is making droughts more common and water more scarce, threatening to displace tens to hundreds of millions in the next decade. People use water to grow crops, cool power plants, flush toilets and more. And global demand for water keeps climbing, with a projected rise of 20–30% over the next 30 years.

But if you just looked at sketches of the water cycle — the diagrams that pop up everywhere from elementary school textbooks to scientific publications — you wouldn’t know about this human impact. In fact, most water cycle diagrams don’t show humans affecting water at all, according to a study published in Nature Geoscience earlier this month by researchers from North America and Europe. Of 464 diagrams from a dozen countries they examined, only 15% depicted humans interacting with water.

“Correct depictions of the water cycle will not solve the global water crisis,” the researchers write. But they call for better diagrams as an “important step” toward equitable policy, sustainable development and new ways of thinking at a time when humans are changing the face of the planet.

After doing a Google (or Baidu) image search for “water cycle,” the researchers investigated the top 30 results for 12 countries including the U.S., China, India, Mexico, Tunisia and more. They also looked over additional textbooks, scientific articles, government publications and online sources in English.

Fewer than 1.5% of those diagrams showed the effects of climate change. Water pollution made an appearance in just 2%. That’s concerning, the researchers contend, since “these diagrams both influence and represent the understanding of researchers, educators and policymakers.” A shift to diagrams that illustrate how human societies relate to oceans, lakes, rivers and groundwater could present a more accurate picture.

Water diagrams could also do a better job conveying just how much water is actually available for humans, the researchers argue. None of the diagrams in the review specified what fraction of the water shown could be used within sustainable bounds, nor did any mark the difference between saltwater lakes and lakes filled with drinkable freshwater. Plus, none of the inspected diagrams noted that 97% of groundwater on Earth is effectively nonrenewable on a timescale of centuries.

In the paper, the authors offer their own diagrams that seek to correct some of the flaws they see in typical depictions of the water cycle. Unlike the standard images they reviewed, the researchers’ version shows renewable and nonrenewable groundwater in different colors, and illustrates how water enters and exits human usage.

water cycle with humans

This new water cycle diagram includes human impact, a key component neglected by most depictions. Courtesy of Benjamin Abbott. Click to enlarge.

The new diagrams also highlight flows of water from soil moisture, water bodies and pollution — often referred to as green, blue and gray water, respectively — which appeared in only a handful of illustrations assessed in the study. The researchers also created an additional image that covers some of the big ways human impacts interfere with the water cycle, such as land-use change, melting glaciers and flood damage attributable to dams.

There’s no way to know exactly how much the omissions in typical water diagrams affect people’s attitudes and government policy, if at all. But the researchers note that the flaws they’ve found in the diagrams line up with some of the biggest failings in water management, such as neglecting to pay attention to change over time and tending to view water quality and water quantity as separate issues.

Either way, the study illustrates how we can illustrate the water cycle to better represent our changing planet — and the profound ways in which humans are driving that change.

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Think chemistry classes should be all about balancing chemical equations and memorizing the periodic table? Think again.

In a paper published last month in Nature Sustainability, researchers from North America and Western Europe recommend that educators put chemistry in context by devoting more time to how the discipline affects society and the environment.

Take, for example, the Haber-Bosch process, which reacts nitrogen from the air with hydrogen from natural gas to create ammonia — an essential ingredient in many of the fertilizers used to grow the crops that feed the world. Chemistry curricula almost always mention this process, the study says, but rarely cover how immensely important it is in global agriculture.

Getting even less attention? Overproduction of ammonia. Companies now create so much of the chemical that nitrogen pollution is a real threat to waterways and nitrogen production a real contributor to the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

Chemistry, the researchers say, has long focused on “creating new products and materials” without considering how those products and materials will affect environmental systems. The authors, who are members of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry’s task force on Systems Thinking in Chemistry Education, contend that until chemistry classes cover issues like this, students won’t get the full picture.

The solution? The researchers recommend that chemistry educators make sustainability a central theme of their classes, adopting a “systems thinking” approach that examines how the effects of chemical reactions ripple out into social and environmental systems in complex ways.

That Haber-Bosch process, for example, is deeply intertwined with environmental frameworks such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals in multiple ways. While ammonia fertilizer relates to the objectives of ending hunger and poverty, overproduction is a threat to life on land, life underwater and clean water sources for humans. Students, the authors posit, should hear about these implications as well as about the process itself.

Similarly, the study says, students could apply chemical principles to explore the implications of greenhouse gas production instead of just studying scientific gas laws outside of their real-world context.

Some groups have taken practical steps to bring these ideas into the classroom. The authors point out that the American Chemical Society is developing a road map for bringing “green chemistry” into curricula. And at the K–12 level, the Next Generation Science Standards, which have been adopted by 19 states so far, include “systems and system models” as a crosscutting concept for all scientific disciplines, including chemistry.

With chemistry and chemicals at the center of numerous environmental crises — and their solutions — incorporating sustainability into chemistry education could make a big difference.

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In 2007–08, the cost of fertilizer soared — driven in part by a 400% spike in the price of phosphate rock, a key ingredient. The shock especially hurt poor subsistence farmers, spurring protest and rebellion in Kenya, Vietnam, India, Nepal, Nigeria, Egypt and elsewhere.

But while crops need phosphorus to grow, mineral phosphate — concentrated in a handful of nations, leaving many dependent on the whims of international markets — isn’t the only source. A study published earlier this year in the journal Earth’s Future looks at how, by recycling phosphorus, countries could become less dependent on uncertain global trade while cutting down on pollution from fertilizer.

The international team of researchers sought to identify “hot spots” for recycling phosphorus. Since animal manure, human waste and uneaten food contain the element, the team mapped places around the world where crop production coincides with high densities of livestock or people.

map of phosphorus recycling Stephen Powers et al. paper

Researchers mapped places around the world where crop production coincides with high densities of livestock or people in order to identify “hot spots” for recycling phosphorus. Photo courtesy of Stephen Powers. An edited version of this paper was published by AGU. Copyright 2019 American Geophysical Union.

Hot spots are on every continent except Antarctica. They tend to be in countries that rely on imported phosphorus to cultivate crops, or in nations where demand for fertilizer has grown substantially since the beginning of this century.

Hot spots for recycling phosphorus from sewage and food waste occurred mostly in China, India, Southeast Asia, Europe, Central Africa, East Africa and Central America. Those focused on using animal manure are mostly in China, India, Southeast Asia, Europe and Brazil. Roughly 70% of recycling hot spots are in countries in which the net import of phosphorus fertilizer accounts for at least 40% of the phosphorus fertilizer used.

Identifying places where phosphorus-laden waste products occur near agriculture could help nations develop local phosphorus recycling and contribute to “agricultural independence,” the researchers write. And phosphorus recycling can also have environmental benefits. Phosphorus from human and animal waste can end up in waterways, where it can spur the growth of harmful algae, so keeping it out is beneficial.

By developing ways to efficiently recycle phosphorus, countries reduce water pollution at the same time as they build food systems less prone to price shocks.

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A crowd gathered in Hudson, Wisconsin, earlier this month for a public forum on whether the federal government should remove gray wolves from the endangered species list and turn management over to the state. “I literally beg you” to de-list the wolf, said one farmer concerned about wolves attacking livestock, according to the Hudson Star-Observer.

“I have no confidence in the state of Wisconsin … to manage wolf hunting,” said another attendee, siding with concerns that de-listing would result in trophy hunting that could bring the gray wolf back to the brink of extinction.

Another day, another debate on wildlife management.

A recently released study sponsored by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies seeks to understand increasing disagreement about how to manage wildlife by exploring attitudes about fish and wildlife and how they vary with time, geography and demographics. As part of the study, researchers polled people across the country about their attitudes toward fish, wildlife and the environment.

“Conflict is increasingly common in contemporary fish and wildlife management,” write the researchers in their report, America’s Wildlife Values. “The source of conflict is typically not a matter of biology; rather, it involves a clash of goals among stakeholders.”

The survey found that about 35% of respondents can be classified as mutualists, a group that regards animals as family or companions and value habitat protection. Some 28% are traditionalists, believing wildlife should be managed primarily for human uses like hunting and research.

Comprising 21% of respondents, people with pluralist outlooks express either mutualist or traditionalist values depending on the situation. Roughly 15% of people who took the survey, meanwhile, don’t give much thought to wildlife at all.

Attitudes appear to be shifting over time. Between 2004 and 2018, the number of traditionalists fell by about 6% across 19 western states for which the researchers had historical data. In that time, those same states saw a 5% rise in mutualists on average.

While the exact changes varied by state, they do carry implications for attitudes about wildlife management. Mutualists tend to worry about declines in animal populations, while traditionalists are more concerned with private property rights and public access to fish and wildlife.

The researchers attribute the shift in mutualist and traditionalist values to “processes of modernization.” Comparing state-level statistics, they found that states whose residents have higher incomes and live in larger cities tend to be states where mutualists made up a larger fraction of the population. Places with more college graduates also had more mutualists. For those three factors, the reverse held true with regard to traditionalists.

These trends could continue into the future, the report suggests, as more people live in cities removed from day-to-day contact with wildlife.

On top of their broad overview, the researchers also released survey data for each of the 50 U.S. states, which can be downloaded on the study’s website.

“Our findings do not dictate any specific type of managerial response,” the authors write. But, they add, the results raise important questions for state wildlife agencies: How can agencies serve traditional clientele while embracing new stakeholders? How will changes in values affect wildlife management efforts? And what will the situation look like going forward, two or three decades into the future?

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Biodiversity, the variety and number of living things, may drive conservation conversations. But it’s far from the only way to look at life on Earth.

Enter biomass: not the energy source, but the total amount of matter bound up in plants, animals, bacteria and other organisms. A worldwide “census” of biomass, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, estimates how living groups compare — and highlights how much we still don’t know about the biosphere.

The study’s numbers are the basis for two new infographics from Our World in Data.

The census researchers considered the weight of carbon molecules in organisms, one way to measure biomass. After reviewing hundreds of prior studies, they found a lot of uncertainty for some groups and even entire environments. But they came up with a best estimate: Biomass across all forms of life sums up to about 550 billion metric tons (610 billion tons) of carbon. (The authors have since suggested the number may be closer to 500 billion metric tons, or 550 billion tons, still a massive figure.)

global biomass by taxon

Click to expand

If the published estimate is accurate, it would put the total dry weight of organisms on our planet at roughly double that — a mass equivalent to more than 80 billion school buses.

About 80% of Earth’s biomass is in plants, which mostly live on land. The scientists estimate that the next largest group is bacteria, coming in at around 15% of the planet’s biomass.

Fungi and archaea, a group of single-celled organisms that may be more closely related to plants and animals than to bacteria, come in third and fourth place, respectively. Trailing fungi and archaea? The rest of the tree of life, including all animals.

Animal life amounts to just about two gigatons of biomass, mostly arthropods (like crustaceans and insects) and fish. Humans account for around 3% of that animal carbon, which is still larger than that of wild mammals (a paltry 7 million metric tons, or 8 million tons).

Biomass tells a different story than measurements of biodiversity. Take Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), for example: Per the researchers’ estimates, that one species accounts for more biomass than literally all  9,000 to 18,000 bird species combined.

Similarly, the total weight of domesticated poultry, which are mostly chickens, is about three times the total of wild birds.

These estimates do carry uncertainty. The researchers are fairly confident in their estimate for the biomass of plants, which draws on multiple sources, including remote sensing and international surveys. But with groups like protists, land-based arthropods and amphibians, limited data make conclusions quite uncertain.

distribution of biomass land water subsurface

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The authors note that while the world has paid close attention to how humans are altering biodiversity, we know much less about how we’re impacting the planet’s biomass, which they say complements biodiversity as a measure of the well-being of the biological component of our planet.

“Biodiversity, which is very important, does not capture the absolute abundance of organisms,” write Ron Milo and Yinon Bar-On, biologists at the Weizmann Institute of Science who worked on the study, in an email to Ensia. They give the example of wildebeest in East Africa’s Serengeti ecosystem, which are important because they contribute to the diversity of species — but also due to the sheer number of wildebeest. Massive population losses among these antelopes would harm the ecosystem, even if the number of species stayed the same.

Despite the uncertainty, the census gives us a different perspective on the living groups that make up the biosphere. Future research can further clarify the state of life on Earth, and hopefully inform action to save it.

Photo of teenagers playing video games  

Some 2.4 billion people play video games on computers, consoles and phones. Defying stereotypes, gamers are diverse in terms of age, gender and even geography, with gaming hot spots including countries like China, the United States, India, Nigeria and Vietnam.

With so many players worldwide, video games present an opportunity for boosting environmental awareness and action, according to a new report from UN Environment and GRID-Arendal, “Playing for the Planet: How Video Games Can Deliver for People and the Environment.”

“Video games — if seen and approached as serious and transformative tools — could empower billions to contribute to urgently needed solutions” to climate change and other environmental crises, the report says. It offers seven strategies for moving in that direction:

1. Nudge players toward environmental awareness and action.  

Game developers can incorporate environmental messaging into the fun. For example, Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game that users play on their smartphones, offered in-game rewards when players participate in Earth Day cleanups. RuneScape, a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, partnered with United for Wildlife and gave an in-game pet to players who correctly answered questions on a rhino conservation quiz.

Another option? “Reminding players to switch off or reset console defaults so that they consume less power (in exchange for points) could be a quick-fire way to save energy,” the report says.

2. Organize impact campaigns with a focus on sustainability. 

Companies can highlight environmental concerns in many ways, such as donating a portion of revenue from game sales to conservation causes or releasing adapted versions of games and characters that support environmental awareness.

If industry leaders team up for concerted, monthlong efforts to spotlight particular environment-related themes, they can raise awareness around important issues. Such campaigns could not only bring attention to environmental concerns but also promote participating game titles.

3. Raise money for global causes. 

In April 2016, for instance, Apple donated money from the sales of certain apps to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In-app purchases or free media space could also help raise money for environment-related causes.

4. Combat e-waste and embrace energy efficiency. 

Since making and shipping cartridges, discs and packages produces greenhouse gases, use of digital downloads rather than physical, packaged games can reduce climate impacts. Ditto for gaming consoles that have energy efficiency settings as the default.

The report also calls on companies to cut down on e-waste. This can include educating customers, recycling the waste through buyback programs and lobbying for public policies to support a more sustainable circular economy.

5. Incentivize games that spotlight sustainability. 

While they can also be entertaining, so-called “serious games” seek to send a message or let players explore nuanced concepts related to sustainability. Government incentives such as subsidies or tax breaks could encourage developers to create serious games with an eye toward the environment. For example, the U.S. Department of Education helped fund Eco, an online multiplayer game that challenges players to build a civilization on a virtual planet and reckon with how their use of resources affects the ecosystem.

6. Use personalities and incentives to promote the environment. 

The report floats the idea that sustainability stakeholders could work with gaming stars, “who have a massive reach and influence on young people,” to promote “climate smart” behavior. Some gaming stars have millions of subscribers on YouTube, so the potential impact is huge.

The gaming industry could also help out with efforts such as offering an annual award for best environmental game.

7. Get parents involved.

To keep kids connected to nature and help them make good decisions in the digital world, the report calls on parents to engage with their children around gaming. “If parents approach these challenges with their children, video games can help us leave the planet on a better trajectory than the one it has been on since we were born,” the report says. “We can learn and do most, in the healthiest way, if (outdoors and in) we play together with our children.”

Climate change lifestyle  

The sheer scale of the individual and societal shifts needed to avoid the worst of climate change might seem immobilizing. But real progress remains within reach if we can make those transformations soon, according to a new report from the public interest foundation Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Aalto University and D-mat ltd, a sustainable production and consumption consultancy.

Instead of looking at the climate impact of particular products, organizations or entire countries, the researchers examined greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the goods and services individual people consume in their daily lives.

In 2016, governments around the world agreed to limit global warming to 2 °C (3.6 °F) above preindustrial levels, and to aim for an even tougher target of 1.5 °C (2.7 °F).

To achieve those targets, we need hefty cuts in the emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that create a greenhouse effect. Using five countries — Finland, Japan, Brazil, China and India — as case studies, the new report calculated that to meet the Paris targets, people’s carbon footprints in wealthy, industrialized countries must drop 80 to 93 percent by 2050. Depending on the nation, individuals in lower-income countries need to reduce their emissions 23 to 84 percent per person by mid-century.

As daunting as that might sound, the report notes that opportunities for creating the needed change abound.

To show how different lifestyle choices can contribute to the needed reductions, the authors delve into the examples of Finland and Japan. In both countries, the options that could help most include ditching car travel for public transportation, shifting to vegetarian or vegan diets, and abandoning fossil fuels in favor of on- and off-grid renewable energy. In Finland, the researchers found, using heat pumps to warm and cool homes could also have a huge impact — underscoring the value of tailoring emission reduction strategies to local contexts

With the gaping gulf between today’s emissions and where we need to get by 2050, however, focusing only on the big ticket items won’t be enough. Other lifestyle shifts identified in the report include ride sharing, living closer to work, consuming less dairy and living in smaller homes. The more people who make these changes, the more climate benefits we will see.

But it’s not up to individuals alone. While the report attributes emissions to people based on their use of goods and services, it notes that public policy is essential to achieving the 1.5-degree target. A truly low-carbon world will require a “radical rethink” of governance and the economic system, it says.

In calculating each country’s emission reduction targets, the researchers used population projections and assumed that each person on the planet in a given year should have the same level of emissions, a premise that the authors concede doesn’t consider “whether emission allowances were equitable in terms of historical emissions.” The report also doesn’t consider rebound effects, the unintended consequences that sometimes result when people try to decrease their emissions.

Whatever the study’s specific limitations, its general conclusions add to a groundswell of evidence: We still have a chance to keep average global temperatures within 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) of the only climate humans have ever known, but to do so we need to take immense action — and soon.

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Three out of every 10 people on Earth lack access to a reliable supply of clean drinking water. Six out of 10 lack safe sanitation. And human demand for water is expected to grow 20% to 30% between now and 2050.

A problem this massive has many dimensions — and so do its solutions, according to the United Nations’ 2019 World Water Development Report, “Leaving No One Behind.”

“Water is the essence of life,” the report states. “Safe drinking water and sanitation are recognized as basic human rights, as they are indispensable to sustaining healthy livelihoods and fundamental in maintaining the dignity of all human beings.”

Yet around the world many are denied these basic rights. Technical and scientific solutions are crucial to meet all people’s water needs, the report says, as are social and economic strategies to broaden access by changing institutions and funding.

world basic drinking water map

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To tackle the world’s water problem, the report recommends several major responses for policymakers, water resource managers and others working in this area:

More (and More Targeted) Funding

Most of the 5.2 billion people who have access to safe drinking water get it through pipes. Many low-income people, however, lack piped water and instead rely on wells or water they purchase, typically at several times the cost of water in piped systems.

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The report says governments need to “dramatically increase” the amount of money they spend to expand water, sanitation and hygiene services. But increased investment alone won’t be enough to ensure water access for marginalized people, so the report also stresses transparent, targeted subsidies to vulnerable groups. Involving community members in the planning process for water infrastructure is one proposed tactic to boost accountability.

Policymakers should also structure water rates for equity and affordability, the report says, while balancing these goals with the need to adequately fund water systems.

Research and Innovation to Inform Action

Research and innovation are key. Economic studies, for example, can help identify equitable water rates. Better data on how water and sanitation access varies along lines of gender, age, income, ethnicity, geography and the like can inform efforts to reduce disparities.

On the technical side, scientists and engineers should continue research to improve technology such as toilets and portable water filters.

Context-dependent Systems

In some places, water supply is limited by physical or environmental constraints. That calls for a focus on effective water resource management.

Where and how people live is another factor in designing solutions that work. In dense urban areas, for instance, centralized water infrastructure can be more cost-effective, while rural regions might see quicker gains with a focus on just bringing adequate facilities closer to people’s homes. When it comes to picking the right technologies and systems for water, sanitation and hygiene, the report says, it’s less about “best practice” and more about “best fit.”

Good Governance

The report describes direct discrimination, in which laws and practices intentionally shut particular groups out of services, and indirect discrimination, in which policies are supposedly neutral but still have the end result of denying people access to water and sanitation. Good governance entails rejecting both practices and moving toward values like transparency, justice and public participation.

Refugee camps are one example. To create access equality, the report says, governments must provide refugees and internally displaced people with the same level of water and sanitation service as other communities.

“Discrimination, exclusion, marginalization, entrenched power asymmetries and material inequalities are among the main obstacles to achieving the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation for all and realizing the water-related goals of the 2030 Agenda,” the report notes, concluding that “these goals are entirely achievable, provided there is a collective will to do so.”

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When it comes to conservation, it’s tempting to think that science is the only guide to good policy. But biodiversity is linked to culture, argues a new study on pollinator conservation recently published in Nature Sustainability, so we should embrace a diversity of knowledge systems, acknowledging both academic science and traditional cultural practices.

“Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ knowledge is really grounded in evidence collected over centuries,” says Rosemary Hill, lead author on the study and a principal research scientist with CSIRO, Australia’s national science research agency.

The paper — which builds on the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) — explores how indigenous and local communities around the world approach the conservation of pollinators like bees, birds and bats. Academic researchers reviewed academic and community writings about traditional knowledge pertaining to pollinators, while participating indigenous and local people held dialogues in their communities to decide which parts of their cultural practices to share.

The result is a list of seven policy recommendations for protecting pollinators and respecting the practices of deeply rooted communities that can be applied, not just to pollinator conservation, but to conservation issues more broadly:

  1. Require informed consent from indigenous people and local communities for conservation and development initiatives. As an example, the researchers point to India’s Forest Rights Act, which they say has ensured forest access for indigenous honey hunters, thus helping to sustain indigenous communities’ knowledge about bee conservation.
  2. Support customary land management practices. Allowing indigenous people to manage land according to their own practices can strengthen traditional practices that help conservation.
  3. Bolster indigenous and community conserved areas (ICCAs). These ecosystems are voluntarily conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities with a focus on traditional practices and customs.
  4. Bring together different forms of knowledge. Efforts to monitor pollinator populations, for example, should consider local indigenous metrics as well as the ways science tracks trends, since people relate to their environment in different ways.
  5. Promote listing of heritage sites. International organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) document cultural and natural heritage around the world, and the awareness that heritage listing brings to landmarks, areas and cultural practices can aid conservation. The UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List, for instance, lists the traditional knowledge of the Totonac people, an indigenous group in Mexico. Totonac agroforestry protects pollinator habitat and stingless beekeeping.
  6. Foster environmentally friendly beekeeping. With support from governments, traditional beekeeping practices can sustain people’s livelihoods.
  7. Champion food sovereignty. Food sovereignty pushes back on industrial agriculture in favor of local farming and agroecological approaches. The researchers say this helps keep landscapes varied and limits use of agrochemicals.

Pasang Dolma Sherpa, executive director of the Center for Indigenous Peoples’ Research and Development (CIPRED), praises the proposals. However, she also argues that policy alone is not enough. She says it’s crucial that indigenous people continue to cultivate pride in their traditional practices, particularly among younger generations, and direct skepticism toward industrialized agriculture involving chemical fertilizers, hybrid seeds and new technologies.

Both Sherpa and the paper pointed to the importance of native languages in sustaining traditional conservation knowledge and strategies. Governments have suppressed indigenous languages in Nepal, the United States and elsewhere across the globe.

“As indigenous persons, my cry is [that] it is very, very important to be educating ourselves on the values that we have contributed” to conservation, Sherpa says, “and also to educate the policymakers … on what we have implemented on the ground.”

Photo: Academic researchers and local experts walk with the bees in the forest surrounding the Hin Lad Nai community in Thailand. Courtesy of J. Bumroongchai

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In 2015, the United Nations’ 193 member states established an agenda for the future: 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to meet by 2030. The goals encompass economic, social and environmental dimensions of development.

To evaluate environmental targets, the United Nations in 2018 identified 93 indicators: statistics such as the material footprint of nations, the national recycling rate and the extent of government subsidies for fossil fuels.

With 2030 just over a decade away, how are we doing? In large part, we don’t exactly know.

That’s a big finding from Measuring Progress, a recent review released alongside Global Environment Outlook 6 (GEO6), a report from the UN Environment Programme. For 68 percent of the environmental indicators, the report concludes that there is “too little data to formally assess” progress.

The report offers eight recommendations to secure the data needed to appraise progress and to take real steps toward that progress:

1. Do more.

Right now, the world is not on track to meet environmental targets. We can still achieve the SDGs, but to do so we’ve got to ramp up efforts to cut down on pollution, use resources efficiently, and better protect the environment.

2. Improve environmental monitoring and analysis.

By boosting support for open source software, open data management, open algorithms, and other technologies, governments and businesses could help cut costs while increasing data coverage.

3. Create clear methodologies for sustainable development indicators

Without an established process for collecting data and producing statistics, the report argues, it’s difficult to build awareness of environmental issues, evaluate the effectiveness of environmental interventions, and hold institutions accountable for their action — or lack of action — on the SDGs.

4. Improve national statistical systems.

Countries need to invest more in their capacities to collect (and use) geospatial and environmental data.

5. Make data more accessible.

Data often aren’t shared between government agencies. This hinders analysis of the relationship between people and their environment and makes it hard for scientists and other experts to access environmental information relevant to their work.

6. Focus on local and regional contexts.

Countries are at different stages in the process of reaching SDGs. And many of the goals demand specific attention to the needs of individual communities, such as support for local water management plans, local breeds for agriculture, and disaster risk reduction by local governments.

7. Get serious about sustainable consumption and production.

This is the 12th SDG, and it’s an important part of achieving other goals. But UN member states don’t direct enough funding toward it, and it’s the goal most lacking in data.

8. Overcome water resource challenges.

Without quality, available freshwater, sustainable development is impossible — food security, poverty reduction and public health, for example, all suffer.

If stakeholders around the world can take action to close these knowledge and information gaps, the report makes clear, we’ll have a better grasp of the challenges ahead — and the resources we’ll need to meet them — on the road to 2030.

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Drought, extreme temperatures, salt in the soil: Because of conditions like these — which scientists call abiotic stresses — the fields that feed the planet yield just half the amount of food crops they have the potential to provide. With climate change, some of these stresses are worsening, even as rising population means more mouths to feed.

One solution to this challenge? Naturally stress-resistant plants, or NSRPs, which thrive despite difficult environments and challenging conditions. That’s the argument from a paper by a team of Chinese researchers in the academic journal Nature Plants. People already eat some NSRPs, and the paper contends that genetic modification of these crops could give them the boost they need to be produced more widely.

The researchers point to millets as one example. These edible grasses are a staple crop in parts of Africa and Asia, and they’re adapted well to one of the most formidable abiotic stresses: drought. Plus, millets can usually withstand high soil salinity and grow without much nitrogen fertilizer. An issue with millets, though, is that they often have low yields, the paper says, although scientists are working to change that.

Another NSRP suited for human consumption is quinoa, which tolerates high levels of salt in the soil and can grow in a variety of climates.

Higher yields would allow these and other NSRPs — such as amaranth, kaniwa and buckwheat — to be cultivated more broadly, the researchers argue. They say that advances in gene editing technology, such as CRISPR, can and should be used in conjunction with other techniques to keep the plants’ stress resistance and nutritional value in place while raising yields.

The paper doesn’t address potential limitations to the argument. The authors begin their plea for a turn toward NSRPs by quoting the often cited number that “food production must increase by at least 70%” by 2050, focusing on scientific and technological solutions. They don’t address political dynamics, the reality that government policies influence the distribution of existing food resources and the composition of people’s diets.

And commercialization of plants like quinoa holds the potential to funnel farmers’ resources toward a select few varieties of a given crop, at the expense of the very diversity that helps such crops withstand environmental change. Plus, some people still have concerns over genetic modification and CRISPR.

Still, as the human population climbs and climate change intensifies, the world will be looking for solutions. “For better food security and a healthier diet,” the paper’s authors write, “the world needs many more stress-resistant crops. As both researchers and global citizens, we look forward to a sustainable future with many stress-resistant, resource-efficient and nutrient-diverse grain, vegetable and fruit crops.” View Ensia homepage

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More than two dozen futurists, environmental scientists and others from around the world recently put their heads together to do a “horizon scan” of emerging trends that are getting relatively little attention but have the potential to have substantial impact on biodiversity conservation in the future.

The research team, led by William Sutherland, professor of conservation biology at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, then narrowed the list down to 15 top trends poised to affect biodiversity for better or for worse in the months ahead.

“By increasing recognition of the issues described in this paper, we aim to encourage dialogue about their potential negative and positive impacts on conservation, in order to guide proactive solutions and harness future opportunities,” the researchers write.

This year’s report, the 10th annual, was published today in Trends in Ecology & Evolution. (Read previous trend summaries for 2016, 2017 and 2018.)

Here are the issues that bubbled to the top for 2019:

Antarctic Sea Floor

Antarctic ice is melting faster than we thought. As meltwater flows to the ocean, it’s likely to change the salinity of near-shore waters and carry sediments that settle on and kill creatures living at the bottom of the sea. It also may stimulate plankton growth, changing how ecosystems function in the area. These alterations all stand to alter the flow of carbon dioxide into and out of the atmosphere, potentially affecting the trajectory of climate change. Some changes are likely to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, while others could increase its release. How these changes will affect the carbon cycle is currently unknown.

More-than-ever Mercury

Recent research suggests that permafrost holds more than 1.6 million metric tons (1.8 million tons) of mercury, far more than previously estimated and about twice the amount found everywhere else on Earth. As climate warms and permafrost thaws, much of this mercury will be released into the water cycle and transported to distant locations. Because mercury is toxic to humans and other animals, harms brain and reproductive function, and alters the function of plants and microbes, this release could have consequences for life around the world.

Plastic Solutions as Problems

Heightened awareness of plastic’s downsides has led to numerous efforts to produce more benign substitutes and/or ways of managing conventional plastics. Little has been done to consider the full life-cycle implications and potential unintended consequences of deploying these new approaches. But from changes in recycling approaches, to the use of biological agents to degrade materials, to the manufacture of substitutes for conventional plastics from plants, all alternatives will have ramifications of their own for food security, water use, ecosystem integrity and more. Not only that, but the promise they offer — whether it’s realized or not — could defuse other efforts to reduce rather than shift plastic consumption.

Sunscreen Switchout

Concerns that active ingredients in conventional sunscreens contributing to coral reef bleaching have led to a search for substitutes that can block ultraviolet rays from reaching beachgoers’ skin with less adverse environmental impact. One such compound, shinorine, is drawing increasing interest, with recent research yielding a method for production in commercial quantities. Shinorine is known to cause inflammation in humans but little else is known of its biological activity. Widespread adoption of shinorine without sufficient research could expose corals or other aquatic and marine organisms to a new substance with unknown impacts.

A New River for China 

A massive new irrigation canal called the Hongqi River has been proposed for northern China. Although the project is still in the conceptual stage, it is drawing attention of scientists and policy-makers alert its potential impact on ecosystems in the vicinity and far beyond. Carrying 60 billion cubic meters (2 trillion cubic feet) of water per year, the channel would have tremendous implications for the environment and biodiversity along its route, from accelerating conversion of land to agriculture to changing hydrology across the region and affecting water supplies downstream in India, Bangladesh and beyond. It also holds the potential to affect climate and even increase the frequency of earthquakes.

DIY Weather on the Tibetan Plateau

China is developing plans to set up a battery of rocket-based devices along the edges of the Tibetan Plateau to release silver-iodide particles that will create clouds and produce rain over some 1.6 million square kilometers (600,000 square miles) of land with the goal of improving water security for people downstream. The technology, if deployed, could dramatically alter weather in the area, potentially leading to the deterioration of alpine cold steppe and meadow ecosystems and loss of habitat for species that inhabit them. It also could affect flow in river systems throughout much of Asia with ancillary impacts on both humans and ecosystems along the way.

Salt-Tolerant Rice

The development of salt-tolerant strains of rice is good news for food security, since it allows continued production of this important staple crop in areas where rising sea level and irrigation have increased the salinity of traditional rice-growing regions. However, because the development also holds promise for being able to expand the crop along ocean coastlines and on inland salt steppes, it raises new concerns for the integrity of ecosystems. In addition, commercial growth of salt-tolerant strains could increase demands on freshwater resources, since they may be needed to dilute saltwater to appropriate salt concentrations.

Open Season on Gene Editing

Now that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has elected not to regulate the use of gene editing in plants in many instances, techniques such as CRISPR are drawing increased attention from the research and development world. The implications of increased innovation for conservation are uncertain. Gene editing applications that reduces the use of farm chemicals or makes it possible to produce more crops on less land could bode well for biodiversity. Those that bring unintended consequences to wild species or that result in increased use of agro-chemicals could lead to adverse outcomes instead.

Fishy Oilseed Crops

The (perhaps) good news: Genetic engineers have figured out a way to get other oilseed crops to produce the omega-3 fatty acids that are normally found in fish and prized for their health-promoting capabilities. Application of this technology might not only improve the nutritional value of vegetable oil, but also reduce harvest pressure on strained wild fish populations. The (perhaps) bad news? By displacing other oils within the oilseed plants, these alterations could diminish the plants’ ability to provide sustenance to insects. In fact, one study has already shown that caterpillars that feed on the genetically altered plants are more likely to develop into butterflies with deformed wings than are other caterpillars.

Cherry-picking Plant Microbiomes

Growing demand for sustainable agricultural may usher in a new agricultural revolution based on modifying plant microbiomes — complex communities of microbes that affect growth, disease resistance, drought tolerance and more. Because of their complexity, microbiomes have not been extensively manipulated in the past, but recent technological advances may change that. Increasingly cheap DNA sequencing and developments such as machine learning have led to an explosion in start-up companies aimed at modifying plant microbiomes to benefit agriculture. Other applications could include improving our ability to restore damaged ecosystems. The implications of manipulating plant microbiomes are unknown, but may be both positive and negative for biodiversity, ranging from reduced pesticide and fertilizer use to the expansion of farmland into areas currently unsuitable for agriculture.

Extinction in the Indo-Malay islands

Only 2 percent of land in the Indo-Malay islands are formally protected from development, despite the region’s rich biodiversity and exceptional number of organisms found nowhere else. Oil palm plantations on the islands are small relative to more-established plantations in nearby island nations, but deforestation is increasing and there are indications the palm-oil industry is expanding. Because so many species are unique to the Indo-Malay islands, further expansion of plantations could lead to a large number of extinctions.

Deeper Sea Fishing

The slice of the ocean that stretches from 200 to 1,000 meters (656 to 3,280 feet) below the surface teems with fish, but economics and technology have limited human exploitation for food — until now. As demand for ocean fish grows, a number of countries, including Pakistan and Norway, have begun to explore harvesting this “mesopelagic zone.” Fish in this zone perform important functions in ocean food webs and carbon capture; they also tend to reproduce and grow slowly. Because ocean fishing is currently not effectively regulated on a global scale, this trend raises red flags for the sustainability of their populations and ultimately of these functions.

Microbial Protein for Livestock

Livestock production places hefty demands on the environment in the form of land use, nitrogen cycle disruption and greenhouse gas emissions. As demand for protein from animal-based sources grows, so does interest in finding ways to reduce food animals’ environmental impact.  One approach under consideration is to supplement traditional feed sources with proteins made by industrially produced microbes. Whether such a practice is a net gain or drain for biodiversity, however, depends on the details. Some proposed systems could reduce land use impacts but increase energy demand, while others could reduce nitrogen and greenhouse gas pollution but lead to more disruption of habitat. Industrial production and use of of microbial proteins for livestock feed would also have as yet unknown implications for people working in the industry.

Buying Insurance on Earth’s Behalf

Could the insurance industry play a role in protecting natural areas and helping damaged habitat recover from disasters? That is the idea behind a joint project involving the Mexican government, hotel owners, the insurance industry and The Nature Conservancy. A trust fund known as the Coastal Zone Management Trust has created an insurance policy for a portion of the Mesoamerican Reef in the Caribbean Sea. In the case of a severe storm, the insurance policy will provide funds for restoration projects. In this way, natural assets are able to continue to provide benefits to the people who depend on them. Such a strategy could hold promise for protecting the integrity of other natural systems as well.

The Montreal Protocol: Regulation or Guideline?

The presence of CFC-11, a manmade chemical responsible for depleting Earth’s protective ozone layer, has declined more slowly than anticipated after the 1987 Montreal Protocol established an international commitment to limit its production. As a result, the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching Earth could increase — with troubling implications for humans and other species. An investigation suggests that China is using the chemical to produce insulation for construction. With this apparent challenge to the authority of the Montreal Protocol, the question arises: If this multilateral agreement can’t be enforced, what could any attempt at global environmental governance accomplish? The world’s response to this situation could have great implications for the future of international environmental agreements. View Ensia homepage

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Batteries are ubiquitous yet often ignored, humming in the background while powering appliances, smartphones, and other parts of our lives. They’re also a pivotal piece in the environmental puzzle, as batteries better able to store energy will boost intermittent renewables like wind and solar.

But batteries themselves have environmental drawbacks, too. They contain toxic and in some cases flammable materials. And they require lots of energy to manufacture, which means high greenhouse gas emissions.

These are among the issues raised in Future Brief: Towards the Battery of the Future, a recent report from the European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy service. As researchers continue to experiment with new materials and designs — and as regulators look to shape policy — the report (and its accompanying infographic) outlines several areas for improvement.

Mining & Refining

During any battery’s lifetime, the report says, some of the worst environmental impacts come from mining and refining. Metals like cobalt and nickel are essential for conducting electricity in many batteries, but digging them out of the ground leaves behind waste that can leak toxic substances into surrounding areas.

Once these materials are mined, workers must then extract them from the rocks they’re embedded in, a process that emits large amounts of the pollutant sulfur oxide. To mitigate these harms, the report calls for more reuse and recycling of battery materials.

Researchers are working to develop higher density batteries, which the report points to as another helpful solution. By storing more energy in a smaller space, such batteries use less metal. And compared with batteries that are less dense, they can power a device for a longer stretch of time, so, for example, that electric vehicles can travel farther before needing to be recharged.

better batteries infographic

Infographic courtesy of Science Communication Unit, University of the West of England, Bristol (2018). Science for Environment Policy Future Brief: Towards the battery of the future. Report produced for the European Commission DG Environment, September, 2018. Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/science-environment-policy. Click to enlarge.

While batteries are made to store energy, the report also highlights the massive amounts of energy used to make them. “The most efficient way of reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions from the production of batteries,” the report says, “is to manufacture cells in facilities powered entirely by renewable energy sources.”

Other Considerations

Limiting energy loss, the report argues, can also have big returns. Rechargeable batteries are able to unload most, but not all, of their energy to power phones, cars, and other devices. The remaining portion is lost, with the amount varying: Standard lead-acid batteries waste 20 to 30 percent of their energy over a lifetime, while lithium-ion batteries have energy loss closer to 10 percent. Improving efficiency by even small amounts can cut down on the environmental harms of producing electricity to charge batteries, according to the report.

Other considerations covered by the report include lengthening the lifespan of batteries, recycling the materials used to make them, and, where possible, reusing batteries for less intensive functions once they’ve lost the capacity to meet their original purpose. Batteries from electric vehicles, for instance, are sometimes refurbished and used for energy storage. For their part, battery designers can make recycling and reuse more feasible by creating batteries with easily separable parts, clear labels, a relatively low number of components, and fewer dangerous materials.

Development & Invention

Many battery technologies are in development, and the report spotlights three of them as case studies:

  • Solid-state lithium batteries replace the electrolyte, a key component of the battery that’s typically liquid, with solid ceramic or polymer material. The report says that these batteries will be safer and last longer, but it will be at least a decade before they become commercially available.
  • Redox flow batteries store energy differently than conventional alternatives. They’re not as efficient but they last longer, which would ease demand for the natural resources and polluting production processes that batteries rely on. Researchers are working to reduce the cost and size of redox flow batteries so they can reach their full potential.
  • Printed batteries have already found some commercial success. Sometimes thinner than a millimeter, they’re used in cards, tags and medical monitoring devices. According to the report, little is known about the environmental impact of printed batteries.

Batteries will always have adverse environmental impacts, but ongoing development and invention can do much to minimize them, the report concludes, noting that “changes in design and production could bring about substantial environmental benefits.” View Ensia homepage

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With Earth in the throes of what many scientists consider our planet’s sixth mass extinction — as living organisms disappear, and even many of those seen as “species of low concern” are stricken by plunging populations and increasingly constricted ranges — conservation is a global concern.

Part of the problem is space: Humans take up a lot of land, with farming alone hogging almost 40 percent of land on Earth. Even if we muster the other resources needed for conserving endangered and threatened species, the question remains: Where do we put plants and animals we want to save?

One answer: Devote retired agricultural land to species on the edge.

In a review paper published in August in Ecosphere, Chris Lortie, senior fellow with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, and colleagues reported the results of their investigation into exactly that strategy. They zoomed in to California’s San Joaquin Valley, or San Joaquin Desert.

Today, agriculture and industry cover some 90 percent of the area, which has one of the continental United States’ highest concentrations of at-risk species. In 2014, the state passed groundwater legislation that could require retirement of hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in the area, creating stretches of otherwise unused land that could be adopted for conservation purposes. In the new study, the researchers synthesized findings from more than 250 scientific journal articles relevant to using retired farmland for conservation in the San Joaquin desert.

“This review suggests that retired agricultural land is a viable asset for threatened and endangered species,” the researchers wrote. But the specifics vary from place to place, and in the San Joaquin Desert, as in other areas, they say that specialists would need to test various restoration techniques and figure out how much such efforts would cost.

San Joaquin kit fox

The endangered San Joaquin kit fox is among many animals that could benefit from turning retired farmland back into wildlife habitat. Photo © iStockphoto.com/brentawp

To gain insight into how agricultural land might be turned toward conservation purposes, the researchers focused on three endangered animals: the San Joaquin kit fox, the giant kangaroo rat and the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, all of which are found only in the San Joaquin Valley. After poring over the journal articles and additional materials from universities and government agencies in California, the researchers summarized some key conclusions.

First, they found that large amount of land in the San Joaquin Valley was once suitable habitat for the three species, but habitat loss has left them struggling for places to live. Retired agricultural land, the authors say, could be useful not only as habitat for endangered endemic species, but also as pathways allowing animals to move between existing populations, which might help those populations maintain genetic diversity.  The researchers also say that retiring agricultural land near existing animal habitat will boost the chance of successful conservation.

But it’s not just a matter of setting land aside for conservation. Restoration efforts would need to cut down on the prominence of exotic plants and find ways, such as mulch and irrigation, to combat the challenges recent droughts pose for reintroduced native species.

While the researchers gleaned this information from the hundreds of studies they reviewed on the San Joaquin Desert, they found few projects directly experimenting with restoration on the ground. They also turned up no information on how much it might cost to turn former farmlands into new habitat.

While the study used the San Joaquin Desert as a case study, its main lessons likely hold true in many other areas as well. The bottom line: retired farmland could be a valuable asset for conserving endangered and threatened species, but the more we know about how to do it right — and the more we pay attention to those lessons — the more effective conservation strategies will be. View Ensia homepage

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Transitions by definition are disruptive. Whether it’s switching jobs, electing new leaders, passing laws or adopting innovative technologies, some people gain while others lose. So it’s no surprise that, just as manure shovel manufacturers found the switch to horseless carriages shaking up their world, the current shift from fossil fuels to low-carbon energy sources, though ultimately beneficial to all of us, will cause pain to some people in the form of lost jobs, destabilized communities and more.

If we move into the energy transition with eyes wide open to the costs involved, we can work to eliminate or minimize them where possible, and justly distribute and compensate for them where not. But first we need a way to figure out what those costs are and who is bearing them.

In a paper published earlier this month in Nature Energy, Sanya Carley of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs and colleagues propose a strategy for doing just that. Based on a framework developed more than a decade ago to characterize vulnerability to climate change, the researchers created and tested a tool for quantifying and comparing the impact of changes in energy policy or practice on different populations.

Determinants of vulnerability to energy policy changes

Vulnerability to negative impacts of energy policy is influenced by exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity. Reprinted by permission from Springer Nature, Nature Energy, A framework for evaluating geographic disparities in energy transition vulnerability, S. Carley et al, 2018. Numbers refer to references in original paper. Click to expand.

The tool, known as the vulnerability scoping diagram (VSD), merges three core elements of vulnerability: exposure (the extent to which a population experiences the consequences of the change), sensitivity (the extent to which the population is likely to be harmed) and adaptive capacity (the ability of the population to minimize the severity of the harm). Numbers representing the magnitude of each are combined to create a vulnerability score that can then be used to visualize the relative impact of the change on individuals, communities or regions.

To demonstrate the tool’s usefulness, the researchers applied it to mapping adverse impacts of state renewable portfolio standards (RPS). The exposure they looked at was the effect of RPS on electricity price. Susceptibility was based on past research that shows the elderly, very young, communities of color, people in poverty and people who spend a large proportion of their income on energy are most affected by increases in energy prices. As a measure of adaptive capacity, the researchers used access to national energy assistance programs. The results showed a wide range in vulnerability from county to county in states with an RPS.

Vulnerability to adverse impacts from renewable portfolio standards can vary dramatically. Reprinted by permission from Springer Nature, Nature Energy, A framework for evaluating geographic disparities in energy transition vulnerability, S. Carley et al, 2018. Click to expand.

The researchers acknowledged that the approach has some limitations. For one, the vulnerability map would likely change over time (for instance, as new businesses arose based on new energy sources) and vary depending on which impacts are considered. In addition, the VSD provides only part of the picture of the societal impacts of an energy transition, since it does not look at the positive impacts and their distribution or at the costs of not implementing the practice under consideration.

Despite these caveats, the team concluded that the metric can serve as a valuable tool for suggesting areas where policy-makers and service providers might focus their efforts as they work to anticipate, minimize and justly distribute adverse impacts as society moves toward a clean energy future. View Ensia homepage

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Whether it’s using plants to power muscles, ancient buried carbon to transport ourselves, or nuclear reactions to light up the dark, humans always have — and always will — depend on energy to meet the basic needs of life. Exactly how we do that, though, is undergoing a change today as profound as the ones that moved us from depending on our own labor to horsepower, or from horsepower to fossil fuels. Underlying changes in geopolitics, environmental and health concerns, economics, technology, consumer demand and business models are driving a global transition toward more sustainable, inclusive, secure and affordable energy production, distribution and consumption systems.

How smoothly the transition takes place, and how the benefits and costs of undergoing it balance out, likely will depend on the extent to which we strategically direct it, rather than just let it happen. To that end, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has established a Systemic Initiative on Shaping the Future of Energy as a way to argue for, and provide tools for shaping, a good energy transition.

As part of that effort, WEF, with help from McKinsey & Company, just released a new guide aimed at stimulating policies, corporate actions and public-private collaborations that promote a healthy shift.

global energy transition readiness

Countries around the world vary dramatically in how well their current energy system works and their readiness to move to more sustainable systems. Courtesy of World Economic Forum. Click to enlarge.

The guide, Fostering Effective Energy Transition: A Fact-based Framework to Support Decision-Making, presents an Energy Transition Index (ETI) that makes it possible to quantify for individual countries how well the current energy system is working (measured along the three dimensions of security and access, environmental sustainability, and economic development and growth) and the country’s readiness to undergo a transition to a new energy system, taking into account factors such as infrastructure, institutions, capital and political commitment.

Applying the index to 114 countries around the world, WEF draws three main conclusions. First, though most countries assessed have improved their energy systems in recent years, there is still plenty of room for improvement. Second, energy transitions can be encouraged by 1) creating conditions that facilitate desired change; 2) making sure to make improvements across all three areas of access, sustainability and economy; and 3) pursuing strategies that provide multiple synergistic benefits. Third, it’s important to recognize that each country needs to follow its own path — yet each can still learn from others.

WEF plans to update the index regularly to provide further benchmarks and feedback across time in hopes people will use the ETI to better understand how prepared various countries are to undergo an energy transition, motivate less-prepared countries to prepare, and provide ideas for how to best go about doing so. View Ensia homepage

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Tallgrass prairie, and the rich diversity of plants and animals it supports, covered 150 million acres (61 million hectares) of the central United States when white settlers began plowing it under in the 19th century to make room for crops. In today’s agriculture-dominated Midwest and eastern plains, about 4 percent of that prairie remains.

Now, a team of Iowa State University researchers, educators and extension agents is turning up evidence that weaving strips of prairie into row-crop farms can provide valuable wildlife habitat while blunting some of the worst environmental impacts of modern agriculture in the midwestern U.S.

Those impacts are significant. Excess nutrients from fertilizers and manure have fueled a New Jersey–size “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, sparked legal fights in Iowa about polluted drinking water and blanketed parts of the Great Lakes in algae. At the same time, corn and soybean fields displace grassland habitat for wildlife and are sloughing off soil at an unsustainable rate.

“All of these are concerns for people who own land, who farm, who live in these landscapes,” says Matt O’Neal, an associate professor of entomology at Iowa State who has been part of the research team for about a decade. “There are a bunch of solutions for any one of them. But what makes prairie strips really cool is that a single practice can address all of them.”

In a paper published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the group reported a decade’s worth of data showing that covering just 10 percent of cropland in prairie strips — planted in ribbons about 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 meters) wide, perpendicular to the land’s slope as a barrier to runoff — cut soil loss from fields where they were planted by 95 percent and reduced phosphorus and nitrogen runoff by 77 and 70 percent, respectively. The strips also more than doubled the abundance of birds and pollinators.

The researchers also found that the strips didn’t cost as much as many other conservation practices, and did not reduce yield in the area planted in crops. Nearly 50 farms have planted prairie strips in Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri and Wisconsin, and a handful more will soon join them. Those growers want to be good stewards of their land, the researchers say, and see prairie strips as an affordable conservation tool that may ultimately help their bottom line by boosting soil health and attracting beneficial insects. Many farmers can offset the cost of strips by enrolling them in farm bill conservation programs and by using GPS and other technology to plant prairie in a field’s least productive areas.

As more farmers adopt prairie strips, research into their benefits continues. Some team members, for instance, are investigating strips as a way to halt the spread of antibiotic-resistant microbes. O’Neal and collaborators, meanwhile, are conducting research that suggests nectar- and pollen-rich prairie strips may help honeybees — and, presumably, native pollinators — survive winter by maintaining a healthy weight after crops stop flowering.

Though not the main selling point for using prairie strips, the benefit to pollinators is well worth noting, O’Neal says.

“If prairie strips are a hamburger, the nutrient reduction is the meat, soil erosion is the bun, and the sesame seeds on the top of that bun—that’s improvements for honeybees,” he explains. “It’s not going to sell you the hamburger, but it makes it look even better.”   View Ensia homepage

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When your phone stops working or you trade up for a newer model, where does it go? Like any electronic device — from laptops to lamps, washing machines to flat screen TVs — it doesn’t just disappear. It becomes electronic waste, or e-waste — a fast-growing category of trash that in 2016 alone added up to a hefty 44.7 million metric tons (49.3 million tons) worldwide, according to The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, a new report published by the United Nations University, the International Telecommunication Union and the International Solid Waste Association. That’s the weight equivalent of close to 25 million passenger cars.

Even though that e-waste contains billions of dollars’ worth of precious metals and other valuable components, just 20 percent was officially tracked and properly recycled in 2016, according to the new report. The remaining 80 percent? It’s not consistently documented, and most of it is likely dumped, traded or recycled in haphazard, potentially harmful ways. When disposed of incorrectly, for instance by open burning, e-waste can harm people and the environment.

The three organizations produced The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017 to draw attention to the threat of e-waste, which they project will climb to 52.2 million metric tons (57.5 million tons) by 2021. By building awareness of the nature and scope of the problem, they aim to increase global reporting on e-waste as a first step toward minimizing waste production, reducing illegal disposal and boosting recycling and the economic benefits it offers.

The report notes that of the more than 190 countries on Earth, only 41 collect international statistics on e-waste, leaving much of the world’s people with little more than anecdotal awareness of where their e-waste ends up. And while experts know that wealthier nations dump lots of e-waste in lower income countries, there are no decent statistics tracking exact numbers.

The amount of electronic waste generated (WG) and collected varies dramatically among regions. From: Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017. United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna.

The amount of electronic waste generated (WG) and collected varies dramatically among regions. From: Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann, P. The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017. United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna. Click to enlarge.

Because global data aren’t available, the report’s findings are estimates based on a series of statistical procedures. After noting the total weight of all electronic devices sold since 1980, the researchers calculated when products were likely discarded based on their estimated lifespan. By comparing estimates of discarded devices with recorded e-waste statistics, they approximated how much waste is generated and recycled in each of five regions — Asia, Europe, the Americas, Africa and Oceana.

Some governments are responding. By 2017, 66 percent of the world’s population was covered by some sort of national e-waste regulation, compared to 44 percent just three years prior — a jump largely due to India, which tightened its e-waste management rules in 2016. The report notes, however, that no guarantee exists that regulations are enforced effectively, and even among countries with rules on the books, many don’t cover all kinds of e-waste. It calls for enhanced efforts to develop e-waste policies and improve e-waste reporting as key steps toward correcting these deficits. View Ensia homepage

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