CSS3Pie trigger
Menu  University of Minnesota

Notables

The latest ideas and inspiration from around the world
Post thumbnail  

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

Nanotech Meets Land Use

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

Forests as Fuel

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

Better Buds for Bees?

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

Long-horned Trouble

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

Disappearing Kelp

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

Antarctic Ice Dark Horse

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

Mini Hydro Meets River Ecology

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

Circular Aquaculture

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

Mosquito-Murdering Fungi

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

Bag Babies

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

Asian Cures, Biodiversity Ills

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

Mystery Blockchain

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

CSI: Environment

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

Assuaging the Impacts of War

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

Internet Slippery Slope

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

Post thumbnail  

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

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

Double Counting Strikes Back

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

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

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

Other Issues

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

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

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

Post thumbnail  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Post thumbnail  

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

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

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

conservation study sites

Graphic courtesy of Morena Mills. Click to enlarge.

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

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

conservation scale infographic

Click for summary infographic

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

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

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

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

Post thumbnail  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post thumbnail  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concerted Action

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

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

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

Post thumbnail  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

women and climate change in Africa  

When it comes to addressing climate change, gender matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

biodiversity map  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post thumbnail  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post thumbnail  

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.

Post thumbnail  

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.”

Post thumbnail  

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.”

Post thumbnail  

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.

Post thumbnail  

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.

Post thumbnail  

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.

Post thumbnail  

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.

Post thumbnail  

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.

Post thumbnail  

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.

Post thumbnail  

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.

Post thumbnail  

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?

Post thumbnail  

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

Click to expand

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.

Post thumbnail  

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

Click to expand

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.

Click to expand

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.”

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

You care about environmental issues. So do we!

Sign up now for our bi-weekly newsletter and you'll get the latest stories from Ensia delivered straight to your inbox.

You’re in! Watch your email for weekly links to environmental stories that expand your mind — and change your world.

Share This