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Aerial panorama over picturesque river valley meandering between rolling hills of patchwork pasture, agricultural crops, rural homes and green summer landscape.  

When people think of turning the tide on climate change, we often think of reforming energy use. But there’s another group of actions with big potential for averting climate crisis: improving our interactions with the land. A report released last September by Conservation International in partnership with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, WWF and Exponential Roadmap Initiative describes how altering agricultural and other land use practices could make a substantial contribution to stabilizing climate for future generations.

Currently, the way we use land adds some 12.5 gigatons (Gt) of greenhouse gases to Earth’s atmosphere every year, one-quarter of humanity’s total contribution. The biggest opportunities to reduce this come from improved farming and grazing, eating more plant-based diets, reducing food waste, and improving forest management.

The report, “Exponential Roadmap for Natural Climate Solutions,” outlines a specific strategy for bringing net land-sector emissions to zero by 2030 and enlisting land in soaking up another 10 Gt by 2050. The plan focuses on three broad categories: protect “natural lands,” better  manage land we use for our own needs and restore damaged land to a healthier condition. Specifically, it describes a need for four key categories of action:

●     Boost carbon storage in soil, plants and other natural systems
●     Improve food production and consumption
●     Tap into traditional practices to improve how we use land
●     Stop destroying and start restoring forests

If followed, the researchers say, the roadmap could make a substantial contribution to putting the planet on the path to a more stable climate. It also can provide ancillary benefits in the form of reducing hunger, protecting biodiversity and more.

“In the next decade we need to turn working lands — from agriculture and grazing lands to forestry — from vast emitters of greenhouse gases to enormous stores of carbon. At the same time we must scale up carbon storage in existing ecosystems: forests, wetlands, peatlands and grasslands,” Potsdaam Institute for Climate Impact Research director Johan Rockström writes in a foreword to the report. “If we start today, we can safeguard the climate, our societies, and the Earth for future generations. This is a golden opportunity. Let’s take it.”

aerial photo of ocean and land  

As the impacts of climate change become more visible in everyday life, attention is increasingly turning to ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and so minimize further harm. A new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides a valuable overview of various approaches to doing so.

In November 2020, NOAA’s Carbon Dioxide Removal Task Force was charged with looking at research needs around various carbon dioxide removal strategies, from direct air capture to boosting land and ocean ecosystems’ ability to absorb the gas. Its newly released report summarizes pros and cons of various approaches and describes what we need to learn and how NOAA can contribute.

Strategies assessed were:

Direct air capture: using absorbent material to trap CO2 from the air and then converting it into a substance that prevents it from easily escaping back into the atmosphere.

Soil carbon: boosting the ability of soil to store carbon.

Afforestation and reforestation: planting trees.

Macroalgal cultivation: farming CO2-absorbing seaweed or encouraging its growth in nature.

Ocean alkalinity: increasing ocean water’s ability to store carbon by increasing its pH.

Direct ocean capture: removing CO2 from ocean or other water so it can trap more.

Ocean fertilization: adding nutrients to ocean water to accelerate carbon uptake by photosynthesizing organisms.

Artificial upwelling/downwelling: bringing nutrient-rich water up from the depths of the ocean to the surface where it can feed carbon-trapping life forms and/or sending carbon-rich surface water to the depths.

Coastal blue carbon: Storing carbon that runs off upland areas or is absorbed by plants that inhabit ocean coasts in the soil.

Ecosystem recovery: rehabilitating ocean ecosystems to enhance organisms’ ability to absorb carbon and eventually store it on the ocean floor.

For each strategy, the group summarized research related to how long the approach could store carbon, its ability to scale, its relative cost and the extent to which it can be deployed with existing capabilities.

The figure below summarizes various attributes of the Carbon Dioxide Removal approaches assessed. The darker the blue shading, the more favorable the approach with respect to the attribute. Circles indicate NOAA’s ability to address the particular approach and attribute. Click the image to expand.

Figure summarizing the various attributes of the Carbon Dioxide Removal approaches assessed. The darker the blue shading, the more favorable the approach with respect to the attribute. Circles indicate NOAA’s ability to address the particular approach and attribute.

Image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

“[N]egative emissions strategies will be essential for keeping global temperatures at or below target levels,” the authors write. “Many of these techniques are promising in theory, but require additional research to evaluate their effectiveness and scalability, and explore potential co-benefits and environmental risk.”

Nurse with blue gloves adjusting IV  

What’s in that IV bag besides saline and medication? As we become more aware of the harms of chemicals embedded in plastics and other materials, consumers — including patients — are demanding a higher standard.

Research suggests that the presence of certain chemicals in some healthcare equipment can compromise the benefit of the treatment the equipment enables. For example, the presence of chemicals in intravenous equipment could reduce the effectiveness of the medication being administered and alter hormonal function in patients. 

In response, the nonprofit organization Clean Production Action recently created a process to certify health-care products that do not contain specific chemicals such as polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are associated with cancer, altered brain development, endocrine disruption and other health harms.

To earn certification for a product under the new GreenScreen Certified Standard for Medical Supplies & Devices, health-care product manufacturers must follow basic principles of green chemistry and prove it is formulated without disallowed chemicals through rigorous testing. They also need to recycle or otherwise address waste implications of both the product and its packaging.

Various levels of certification are available depending on the level of strictness the manufacturer wishes to pursue with respect to different chemicals. Manufacturers can use the certification to show consumers that they are conscientious about avoiding harm and to identify products that contribute to meeting consumers’ environmentally preferred purchasing (EPP) goals.

In addition to healthcare equipment, Clean Production Action also offers certifications that apply to textiles, cleaners, degreasers, firefighting foam, fabrics, furniture and food service equipment.

Cattle in Brazil  

When it comes to advancing sustainable agriculture, customized, in-person guidance makes a difference. That’s the conclusion of a study on improving Brazilian cattle ranching published earlier this month in the scientific journal PNAS.

Researchers from the U.S. and Brazil led by Arthur Bragança of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro wanted to find out how well various approaches to sharing climate-friendly practices with cattle ranchers influenced whether those practices were actually used. They provided 56 hours of coursework on practices such as restoring pastures, cultivating forests and using no-till agriculture to a group of 706 ranchers who operate mid-sized ranches in Brazil’s Cerrado biome. Of these, 311 were also offered a series of 24 in-person visits from agricultural extension agents over a period of two years, along with advice customized to their individual circumstances.

Producers who received the training alone by and large did not increase adoption of the climate-friendly practices, while those who received the technical assistance did. The researchers found that the implemented changes increased productivity and also reduced carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by an estimated 1.11 million metric tons (1.22 million tons) per year and provided additional carbon sequestration benefits as well. And adoption was not only good for the environment, it also offered an 8–45% return on investment in the form of increased profits for producers.

“Our analysis provides strong empirical evidence that customized, individual agricultural extension can provide farmers with the knowledge and skills needed to restore pastures and adopt new management practices that support sustainable intensification and increase income,” the researchers conclude.

The work is important because livestock farming is responsible for nearly 15% of the greenhouse gas burden humans are adding to the atmosphere, and Brazil is among the top cattle-producing countries in the world. The practices that the training and technical assistance encouraged can reduce the need to destroy carbon-sequestering forests and enhance the ability of the ranching practices to keep carbon in the soil.

crustaceans in a heap  

Lobster claws and insect exoskeletons may seem like unlikely candidates for sustainable packaging feedstock. But researchers are hot on the trail of turning a molecule these structures contain into the basis of packaging for food and other products that’s not only made from a resource that can be renewable if sourced in a sustainable way, but also has a spectrum of desirable traits, from extending food shelf life to imparting antioxidant properties.

The compound, chitosan, is readily derived from chitin — one of the most abundant biological polymers in the world, second only to cellulose and found in fungi as well as insects and crustaceans. Chitosan offers plenty of potential benefits to the packaging industry in addition to being made from a compound that’s available pretty much everywhere. It’s biodegradable and naturally impedes the growth of bacteria and fungi. It could substitute for fossil-fuel-based feedstocks for plastics, reducing the demand for materials that contribute to climate change. Because it’s nontoxic, it has potential to be used for edible protective coatings for foods such as fruits, vegetables, eggs and coffee beans. But it also poses some challenges: Films made from chitosan tend to brittle and permeable to water.

Assessing strategies for capitalizing on the benefits and reducing the downsides of chitosan-based packaging is the focus for a team of researchers from Malaysia, Iran, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia and Australia writing in the February 2022 issue of Carbohydrate Polymers. With an eye to moving the functionality forward, the researchers reviewed the state of knowledge regarding various ways to modify chitosan and combine it with other substances to enhance its potential for packaging.

They found numerous research efforts that shine light on potential strategies for moving the substance toward commercial use. Modifications shown to improved characteristics useful for packaging materials include:

  • Cuttlefish skin gelatin increased tensile strength of packaging film.
  • Zinc oxide nanoparticles and nettle leaf extract boosted antibacterial properties.
  • Aloe vera, oregano, thyme, anise or cinnamon helped reduce fungal growth.
  • Kombucha tea improved water vapor permeability and antioxidant properties.

“Although the research on practical applications of chitosan packaging films is at its infancy,” the researchers concluded, “we believe that with the recent emergence of nanomaterials and/or bioactive ingredients, the face of chitosan-based packaging will drastically evolve and open several interesting new window of opportunities for the design of scalable and low-cost hybrid materials over the next few years.”

Single black male in his 30s smiling while commuting to work by bicycle  

Would you alter the way you do things to help reduce the severity of climate change? If so, you’re not alone. A recent survey of individuals in 17 “advanced economies” found that 80% of respondents were willing to modify some aspects of their work and lifestyle to help mitigate the threat.

The survey, conducted in early 2021, assessed the opinions of 16,254 individuals from 16 “advanced economies” by phone and another 2,596 in the U.S. via the internet. It included a broad range of questions related to beliefs and attitudes regarding climate change actions. Countries included in the survey were Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the UK, the U.S., Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

A drill-down into the data by traits such as gender, nationality and political persuasion offers insights for individuals, organizations, governments and others seeking to mobilize individuals to help mitigate risks. Among the more specific findings:

  • Individuals on the political left tended to be more willing to make changes than those on the ideological right.
  • Young adults were more likely to be amenable to change than older adults.
  • Higher educational attainment was positively correlated with more willingness to change.

The survey also found that willingness to change varied from one country to another. The range in proportion of respondents “willing to make … changes about how you live and work to help reduce the effects of global climate change” ranged from 93% for respondents from Italy to 55% for those from Japan.

The survey also assessed a number of other attitudes and beliefs related to climate change and climate action. These included how concerned respondents were that climate change would harm them personally; how well they think society is responding; and whether climate action is good for the economy. Again, responses were broken down by demographic group, yielding some additional insights:

  • Except for Sweden, most respondents were at least somewhat concerned that climate change will hurt them. This was generally more true for ideological left than right, for women than for men, and for young people than for older adults.

Respondents were generally favorable regarding how well their own society is dealing with climate change. Results were mixed as to whether the international community is doing a good job.

Overall, the survey offered encouraging news for those hoping to make inroads into climate change, noting that while it “reveals a growing sense of personal threat from climate change among many of the publics polled,” it also indicates that “[p]ublic concern about climate change appears alongside a willingness to reduce its effects by taking personal steps.”

photo of concentric terraces believed to once be an agricultural laboratory used by the Incas  

Archaeological records have long helped scientists discover past important events, learn about extinct species and explore past ways of life. Might ancient history inform efforts to deal with climate change as well? Researchers from the U.S., Canada and France think so. In their recent study, the researchers tapped archaeological records to show how humans have faced climate challenges in the past — providing valuable insights into how various degrees of warming affect current and future droughts, erratic weather, sea-level rise, and more.

The researchers note that many current efforts to deal with global warming are ineffective. “Planning a sustainable response to climate change requires us to identify the critical climate thresholds capable of disrupting social, economic, or political systems and culturally appropriate strategies for countering such disruptions,” they write. Because the archaeological record encompasses cultural, geographic and temporal diversity, it can show how a wide range of human cultures have responded to a wide range of unpredictable climate events in the past — and shine a light on how we might best do so in the future.

We have a lot more technology for understanding and interpreting the archaeological record now than we did in the 20th century. And methodological and theoretical advances in climate research in recent decades have made it possible to study past human-environmental interactions, which enhance understanding of the underlying reasons for change in the archaeological record. A glance at the record, with help from increasingly sophisticated climate modeling and advanced computing, is shedding light on human responses to a changing climate. Awareness of past distribution of plants and animals, for example, helps climate scientists fine-tune models that predict future conditions.

“The archaeology of climate change has an important role to play, highlighting the importance of cultural diversity and encouraging scientists, policymakers, and stakeholders to engage with the past to help plan a sustainable future.”

Insight into past human behavior and perspectives from various past cultures are relevant because scientists expect climate change to alter our food supply and farming practices. Looking at the adoption of farming in Southwest Asia during the most recent glacial/interglacial cycle, for instance, the researchers found that climate changes produced different outcomes depending on social and geographic circumstances. Based on this, they determined that “periods of favorable climate led to economic and cultural experimentation, which acted as an investment, making the society more resilient against future periods of climatic downturn.”

The researchers looked to ancient indigenous communities as examples of resilient communities that take an ecosystem-based approach to working with the land that protects biodiversity and themselves. For example, as glaciers melted, ancestors of today’s Cree people tended to settle in places that experienced fewer transformations due to the changing climate. Long-ago farmers in the southern hemisphere were able to adapt to disruptions brought on by El Niño events. This knowledge underscores the importance of protecting cultural diversity.

“[M]any past adaptations to climate change were highly successful and could be readapted to modern contexts,” the researchers write. “A comparative, cross-cultural study of the human past demonstrates that cultural diversity has been, and remains, a key element of human resilience.”

As population rises, climate changes, food security declines, and the need for sustainable farming practices and ethical water management grows, archaeological perspectives will become increasingly important for informing decision making.

“The archaeology of climate change has an important role to play, highlighting the importance of cultural diversity and encouraging scientists, policymakers, and stakeholders to engage with the past to help plan a sustainable future,” the researchers conclude. By bringing together perspectives across disciplines, archaeologists, climate scientists and others can use the past to help shape better informed, equitable decisions for the future.

Coastal street flooding in Norfolk, Virginia during the passage of tropical storm Hermine.  

In 2021, we are no strangers to the throes of climate change, with examples including the ongoing drought in the Western United States and recent flooding in Germany and Belgium. Flooding, particularly on coasts, threatens families and communities.

In a recent study published in the academic journal Earth’s Future, researchers looked at the costs of coastal flooding through an equity lens, finding that flooding comes with both monetary and social risks, suggesting that many people who own or rent homes at risk from rising sea levels may not have enough money to pay for the associated damages.

“The impact of coastal flooding on communities hinges not only on the cost, but on the ability of households to pay for the damages,” the researchers write.

The study, which analyzed counties in the San Francisco Bay Area, projected flooding impacts from 2020 to 2060, determining that coastal flooding disproportionately impacts lower-income households. Climate change has already altered the risk of certain natural disasters, like flooding, and is projected to worsen other hazards and potentially create future threats.

“The ramifications for the financial security of individual households and for the communities as a whole depend sensitively on the socioeconomic context,” the researchers write, emphasizing the social risk that comes with not being able to afford flooding damages.

That seems to hold true in the Bay Area: Using computer modeling, the researchers analyzed the risks associated with coastal flooding in the region, concluding that San Mateo County is particularly at risk — with a future financial burden possibly totaling as much as US$835 million — due to the high number of flooded buildings and a low average household income.

Future financial instability, the researchers observe, also threatens homelessness for those who cannot afford to pay for flood damages. The study notes that approximately 9,871 households in the Bay Area could be pushed into financial instability between 2020 and 2060, as flooding becomes more common alongside rising global temperatures and sea levels.

While their “estimates are specific to the San Francisco Bay Area,” the researchers write, “our granular, household-level perspective is transferable to other urban centers and can help identify the specific challenges that different communities face and inform appropriate adaptation interventions.”

The researchers note that with continued greenhouse gas emissions, the severity of flooding may increase, which could manifest as larger coastal flooding damages in the mid-21st century — leaving a short, valuable runway of time to mitigate that risk. The study suggests that in order to mitigate flooding risk, researchers and practitioners may need to differentiate communities’ peril into two categories: monetary risk and social risk.

The researchers float potential ideas for change, including improvements to the National Flood Insurance program to better assist people facing monetary risk. Such an update could create a voucher program to help individuals pay for the damages to their homes, ideally shielding households from at least some future financial instability.

Sea walls, the study proposes, could strengthen coastal infrastructure, protecting buildings and the people that live within them.

However, the researchers note, these avenues alone may not amount to a fully equitable approach: While flood insurance, as an example, offers vital protection for some people, it’s not always affordable, even with public assistance. The study suggests that community action, when aided by county, state and federal action, could help to develop support plans for financially unstable households to prevent further social risk.

Ultimately, “instead of adopting a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that only targets monetary risk,” the researchers write, “we suggest co-producing a wider spectrum of adaptation strategies that is conscious of social risks and prioritizes community needs.”

Editor’s note: The main image is courtesy of D. Loftis/VA Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Vegetable Vendor Pudu Wet Market  

For many of us, March 2020 marked a pivot point in our lives, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Since then, we have heard the term “wet market” thrown around in science and in the news, as a wet market in Wuhan, China is the site of the first cluster of cases of COVID-19.

In the wake of the pandemic’s emergence, some public health officials, lawmakers, celebrities, and average citizens called for a blanket closure of wet markets. However, a recent study published by researchers at Princeton University suggests that an across-the-board ban on wet markets would do more harm than good. Many people depend on wet markets, which often resemble the farmers markets of Europe and the U.S., for essential goods and services. Banning them altogether, the study contends, would spark pushback from vendors and customers and likely push wildlife trade further underground.

Another problem is that not all wet markets are the same: “Wet markets are often incorrectly conflated with live-animal or wildlife markets,” the researchers write. In fact, vendors at many wet markets simply sell fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and meat, with meat only from dead, domesticated animals. The study notes that imprecise language — statements conflating one type of traditional, innocuous market, commonly found in countries like China, with different kinds of markets — can inflame xenophobia against people from east and southeast Asia, regions where wet markets are the main, or only, source of food for many people.

As an alternative to sweeping generalizations and complete closures, the researchers offer what they call a “taxonomy of wet markets,” classifying risk based on whether the markets feature live or dead animals, and whether the animals sold were domesticated or wild. More targeted approaches to regulation, they conclude, might be a more viable way to safeguard human health.

One way that some markets might pose a threat to human health is by potentially fostering emerging infectious diseases (EIDs). “In general, the building blocks of an EID event (the emergence of a novel infectious disease in humans) consist of interspecific zoonotic transmission, viral amplification, and viral modification,” the researchers write.

The study identified key risk factors for diseases making the jump from animals to humans at markets: the presence of high disease-risk taxa and live animals, hygiene conditions, market size, the density of animals, interspecies mixing and the length and breadth of animal supply chains.

Potential dangers aren’t limited only to human health, either, since some markets also pose risks to biodiversity. Currently, the study notes, wet markets only assess biodiversity risks based on the types of animals being sold, rather than the condition in which the animals are sold. Certain markets have become a conduit for the sale of threatened or declining wildlife species, an illegal practice, and it is those markets, the researchers write, that pose the highest threat to biodiversity.

To guide effective regulations, the researchers have divided wet markets into four categories. The first includes wet markets that sell no live animals except seafood, which historically carries less risk of pathogens jumping to humans. The second classification covers markets that sell live domesticated animals, while the third covers markets that also sell dead wild animals. The final classification encompasses all of the above — plus markets that sell live wild animals. The risks to human health and biodiversity increase with the third and fourth classifications.

Based on these classifications, the researchers suggest that policymakers should prioritize regulating markets that pose the most risk — those in the fourth category, selling live, wild animals — to allow for the least amount of disruption in communities that depend on wet markets for food. “Most wet markets probably pose comparatively little risk to human health or biodiversity, but a few pose a disproportionately large risk,” the researchers write. Targeting such harmful wet markets, they contend, could help mitigate the threat of future pandemics and reduce risks to biodiversity.

Editor’s note: Main image, Street Vendor | Pudu Wet Market,” by John Ragai is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

bee and flower pollination  

Spring typically marks that time when insect pollinators begin the work that helps produce so many of the fruits and vegetables we love. In fact, researchers estimate that pollination accounts for about 9.5% of global agricultural production’s economic value.

However, global warming potentially threatens to cause mismatches, now and in the future, between these pollinating insects and the flowering plants that they help fertilize, according to a study published last summer by researchers from the University of Mons in Belgium. It’s a risk that merits more research: When it comes to plants, pollinators and the climate crisis, there’s still a lot we don’t know, the researchers write, and “to address this current knowledge gap, we need ambitious strategies for monitoring plants and their pollinators.”

Pollinating insects and flowering plants have a mutually beneficial relationship: The plant provides food to the insects, which spread pollen from one flower to another — helping the plant reproduce. But when warming temperatures alter one side of this relationship, there’s a risk that the whole process might be thrown off, potentially harming the insects, the plants and the broader ecological community.

According to the report, there is “growing empirical evidence” that bad timing can cause what scientists call phenological mismatches between plants and their pollinators. Global warming can influence living things’ life cycles, annual patterns and other activities, spurring situations where cycles that were once in sync no longer line up. If a plant flowers earlier than usual, for example, it might miss the window of time when its main pollinators are at work, leading to a potential decrease in seed production.

Observers most often note cases of bad plant/pollinator timing in the spring, so the researchers remark that spring-flowering plant communities could be more severely impacted. “Mismatches between the emergence of bee species and the blooming of their main resources have been specifically recorded,” the researchers write.

The researchers also point to another important, albeit more speculative, climate-related driver of plant-pollinator discordance: geography. Models simulating the future suggest that such geographical mismatches could happen if global warming shifts these species ranges and different species fail to match up and make pollination happen.

Plants and pollinators must be in the same area to help each other out, so if a changing climate pushes either party out of places they’ve long lived, it could sever that mutualistic relationship. Reductions in that spatial overlap could possibly leave some plants and pollinators without their essential counterparts. While changes relating to timing and life cycles are more established in scientific research, the study emphasizes that geographic mismatches could also be potential risks in a warming climate.

“Mismatches in the interactions between plants and pollinators will lead to the emergence of new biological networks and communities,” the researchers conclude. Some communities may lose interactions due to the changes in climate, but some may also gain new interactions. Better understanding of these dynamics is vital in a warming world because, the researchers write, “evidence for phenological mismatches as a result of microevolutionary responses has already been observed, thus a critical challenge is now to assess if the pace of adaptive evolutionary changes will be fast enough [to] track climate warming and prevent species extinctions.”

Author note: This article is dedicated to my grandfather, Stuart Bernstein, who died on January 4th after a long battle with heart disease. My Papa Stu inspired me to pursue a career in the environment and I know how much he would have loved to read this piece.

Main image, “Pollination,” by hernanpba is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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If it did nothing else, the emergence of Covid-19 a year ago underscored for all of us the importance of anticipating and preparing for — and, as appropriate, steering the course of — things that might happen in the future.

That is, in a nutshell, the goal of the 2021 Horizon Scan of Emerging Global Biological Conservation Issues, recently published in the scientific journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution by Cambridge University conservation biologist William Sutherland and a team of 24 other conservation practitioners and researchers from around the world.

The team started by identifying 97 trends with potentially large impacts on conservation and biodiversity, then trimmed the list down to the top 15 that they agreed “society may urgently need to address.”

“Recent global assessments of biological diversity and climate change indicate negative trends and a rapidly narrowing window for action to reverse these trends,” the researchers wrote. “We believe that identification of novel or emerging issues for global biological conservation should inform policy making in the context of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and encourage research, discussion, and allocation of funds for continued tracking, in addition to informing management and policy change.”

The 2021 horizon scan is the latest in a series that stretches back more than a decade (read summaries of the most recent five here). In addition to making their predictions for the year ahead, the team members reviewed selections from the first horizon scan, published in 2009. They found that one-third of the issues identified in that scan “have since developed into major issues or caused considerable environmental impacts.”

Here are the issues that bubbled to the top in this year’s scan: 

Suffocating Reefs

Coral reefs have come under siege from many threats in recent decades, from invasive species to warming waters to harmful fishing practices. Increasingly worrisome is hypoxia-associated coral mortality — suffocation from a lack of oxygen due to an influx of nutrients from land or aquaculture facilities into ocean waters. Because warm water holds less oxygen than cold water, scientists fear that climate change will only make this problem worse. Deoxygenation of ocean waters already has harmed corals in relatively small spaces such as bays and lagoons. Although we know relatively little about how resilient corals might be to low oxygen, there is concern that in some cases it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for these valuable and beleaguered ecosystems.

Iron-Fortified Coasts

Ocean coastlines are abundant sources of plant and animal life — and those in polar zones are becoming increasingly so due to climate-change-induced melting of glacial and floating ice that contains relatively large amounts of iron. Plants need iron to photosynthesize, so melting ice stimulates plant growth. This increases coastal ecosystems’ ability to soak up planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and potentially harmful nutrients running off land and boosts the food supply for other living things in the area. But as the trend continues, it also is likely to alter biodiversity and ecosystem structure and complexity along polar coastlines in unknown ways, even as it enhances biological communities’ ability to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration.

Waves of Change

Heads up, ocean ecosystems: Global energy trends are about to bring major waves of change. Numerous offshore oil and gas rigs as well as first-generation offshore wind turbines are slated for decommissioning in the near future. A variety of strategies might be deployed for doing so, from removing all or part of an installation, to converting it to an artificial reef, to simply abandoning it. At the same time, new ocean-based wind energy installations and natural gas wells will be coming on line. These upcoming changes in ocean-sited infrastructure could have big impacts on habitat in the vicinity — for better, for worse, or for both, depending on the location, the extent to which existing infrastructure has been colonized by marine life, and specific implementation strategies.   

Seabird Patrol

Ocean-going vessels carrying out illegal fishing activities have ways of covering their tracks, from deactivating electronic tracking systems to avoiding the use of lights at night. The difficulty of finding such covertly operating boats on the vast open seas can be a limiting factor in efforts to prevent illegal activities that lead to overfishing and biodiversity degradation. In an interesting twist on surveillance, scientists are looking at enlisting albatrosses and other ocean-going birds to help track down troublemakers. The birds, which naturally follow fishing vessels in hopes of grabbing morsels, can be fitted with transmitters that can clue enforcement officials in to their location. Work is already underway to evaluate the approach — including consideration of the extent to which it might put the birds themselves at risk of harm.

Location Spoofing

Although seabirds may be attracted to fishing boats, they’re not quite as helpful when it comes to tracking vessels that aren’t flinging fish bits off the back. Currently it’s possible to identify and pinpoint the location of most such ships using Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) and Automatic Identification Systems (AIS). However, technologies are emerging that allow those wishing to avoid detection due to surreptitious activities to muddle their identification and coordinates. Such technologies, conservation biologists speculate, could make it easier to transport illegal animals or animal parts, engage in illegal mining, or conduct other covert activities. Efforts are underway to develop technologies to thwart such deceptive practices, but it could be a decade before they are ready to deploy. 

Long-tail Hormones 

It’s bad enough for pollutants to harm animals that come in contact with them. But now there’s evidence that some water-polluting chemicals that alter endocrine systems in fish can get passed to future generations as well. By mimicking or blocking the proper function of hormones, such compounds, which include many used in households and on farms, can cause deformities and fertility issues. And now it appears that in some species, parents can pass those disruptions to the next generation. Concerns are growing that this long-tail impact will be found in other animals as well.

Low-Hanging Clouds

Among the little-known prospective victims of climate change are the low clouds that hang over coastal oceans near the equator, helping to cool the atmosphere. The nature and extent of these clouds depend on a variety of conditions that are expected to change as our climate warms, including ocean temperatures, air movement in the atmosphere and the layout of coastal lands. Changes in the cloud cover, in turn, could affect the clouds’ ability to counteract global warming, preserve the conditions in which human settlements and ecosystems have evolved to thrive, and exacerbate fire risk in the region.

Trillion Tree Trouble?

Numerous groups have begun promoting extensive planting of carbon-dioxide-absorbing trees as a way to help counter the climate-disrupting rise in the concentration of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. But massive tree-planting efforts are not without concerns. Even as proponents tout the approach to climate change mitigation, others warn of potential problems. For one thing, poorly sited plantations could end up replacing ecosystems that actually sequestered more carbon than the trees do. For another, biodiversity could take a hit in the process as species-rich native habitats are replaced by monoculture plantations with the primary goal of socking away CO2. Careful planning will be needed to ensure such initiatives don’t do more harm than good in the long run. 

Fire Prevention Logging

As climate and other conditions change, the intensity and severity of wildfires are increasing in North America, Australia, central Africa and elsewhere around the world. One strategy that’s been proposed to reduce the risk is to reduce the number of trees available to burn. Some research suggests that such a strategy could do little to decrease the likelihood of harm to humans and property, and in some instances could even increase it. Nevertheless, with strong public pressure to do something about this growing problem, there is a real likelihood that policy makers will turn to tree thinning as a way to prevent wildfires — with certain but unknown impacts to the ecosystem and multiple species that call forests home. 

Super Sustainable Farming

A quiet revolution is underway in India: the wide-scale adoption of sustainable intensification as a farming practice. Across the world’s second-most-populous country, state-level policies are incentivizing farmers to adopt a suite of practices that reduce the adverse environmental impacts of agriculture while boosting crop yields, income, health and well-being. To date, more than a quarter-million farmers have adopted the new approach, which includes eliminating synthetic inputs, enhancing crop diversity, rotating crops and more. Millions more are expected to follow the practice, which is also known as natural, community-based or zero-budget farming. As success stories roll in, the initiatives could set off a snowball effect, leading other countries and farmers to follow suit.

Navigation Miscues? 

If you’ve ever mistaken a satellite for a star in the night sky, you’ve had a taste of the confusion scientists fear might face some birds, mammals and insects in the future. Some 2,600 artificial satellites currently circle our planet, and booming communications technologies are expected to catalyze the deployment of thousands more. What do these plentiful extra points of light mean for animals that use the stars for navigational cues? No one know for sure — but it’s a question worth investigating before permanent damage is done to populations already beleaguered by human impacts on the surface of the Earth.

Stranded Energy Meets Bitcoin

At certain times and in certain places around the world, the ability to generate electricity exceeds demand, as limited by economics or logistics. The excess capacity — whether methane byproducts from oil drilling or wind or solar power that exceeds local demand — may just go to waste due to market logistics. But what if a pop-up demand were available to use this “stranded energy” on an as-needed basis, at a discounted (but better than throwing it away) price? Recently, Bitcoin mining — an energy-intensive process required to keep transactions fair — has been emerging as a possible contender. Bitcoin mining is relatively flexible when it comes to time and place, so it could create a low-payout-but-better-than-nothing use for these resources. There is some concern by those working to mitigate biodiversity-compromising climate change that using Bitcoin to close the use-capacity gap could boost use of fossil fuels — but also optimism that it might help make renewable energy sources more economically desirable.

We’re All Detectives Now

If officials don’t notice or respond to environmental problems, are they still problems? Environmental quality in many regions around the world is limited by insufficient monitoring, detection, prevention and mitigation of pollution or other assaults. But that could change, thanks to emerging technologies. Because of the growing adoption of smartphones and internet connectivity, private citizens around the world are being empowered to act as environmental detectives, identifying and calling out problems they identify through social media mining. This approach already has been used to document locust swarms in East Africa. As more and more people connect, it could be applied around the world to detect and encourage responses to environmental assaults of all sorts, from water pollution to wildlife poaching.

Self-Healing Buildings

In the Department of Good News, the development of self-healing building materials bodes well for biodiversity in a variety of ways. Such materials, which are based on a variety of inputs, including chemicals and bacteria, aim to enhance the ability of build structures to bounce back from damage without the need to repair or replace them. They could be beneficial in a number of ways. For one, they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the need to produce concrete and carry out construction projects to repair or replace damaged structure. For another, they can reduce the need to mine or quarry new materials, processes that often involve destroying habitat for plants, animals and other living things. In addition, they can reduce the production of construction debris and the accompanying increased demand for landfill space.

Baltic-Black Connection

A 2,000-kilometer (1,200-mile) river-and-canal system will have environmental impacts under any circumstances. But conservation biologists are particularly concerned about the one being considered for connecting the Baltic and Black seas in Europe. Known as the E40 Waterway, it would cross the Polesia wilderness area, one of the largest on the continent, and likely affect more than 70 wildlife reserves and conservation areas. It also would pass near, and potentially disrupt, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and radioactive materials in the area. The project, which is already in motion, is expected to have numerous economic, social and environmental benefits. However, it also carries risk to biodiversity in terms of disrupted ecology and hydrology and enhanced dispersion of nonnative invasive species.

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From research scientists to political organizers, people around the planet are working to thwart a threat whose scale has become increasingly clear: Global heating is spurring a climate crisis of megafires, superstorms and record-setting heat waves that current policies are not enough to address.

Many climate activists, driven in part by the youth movements of Gen Z, are joining major scientific bodies in calling for economic and social transformation, while other onlookers are hoping for “moonshot” technology to step in as climate “savior.”

How did we end up here? Answers to that vary, but research published earlier this year in the journal Nature Climate Change puts at least some of the blame on a surprising villain: computer modeling–based on wishful thinking.

In the paper, Duncan McLaren and Nils Markusson, social scientists with the UK-based Lancaster University’s Lancaster Environment Centre, note that speculative technologies promising big climate benefits down the line have been included again and again in computer models used to inform government policies. That relieves some of the political pressure to cut or sequester greenhouse gases here and now, helping to stall tangible reductions in the near term. But it also spurs scientists creating the next round of models to rely, however unintentionally, on even more hoped-for innovations to make established climate goals appear feasible. We need to “recognise and break this pattern to unleash more effective and just climate policy,” the researchers conclude.

The root of the issue is that, in sketching potential fates for Earth and its climate, scientists, economists and other researchers use models that simulate complex systems like the atmosphere and the economy. The models provide an idea of how different things ping off each other — how money changes what people eat, how energy use affects carbon emissions, how everything ties into everything else — that policymakers can use to design laws and programs to keep climate change in check.

While useful, these models (called integrated assessment models) typically simulate the least expensive way to achieve cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, while at the same time applying an economic discount rate: counting future efforts to mitigate carbon emissions as having a lower price tag than immediate action today.

Given those conditions, if you give a model the choice of incorporating some future technology or some existing strategy for mitigating climate change, McLaren says, “the model will take [the future technology] preferentially over things that are short term and apparently expensive, like stopping people flying or like changing diets or like going from house to house and installing solar panels.”

In 1997, governments gathered in Kyoto, Japan, to negotiate a commitment for industrialized nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. McLaren and Markusson note in their paper that many policies at the time emphasized energy efficiency, fuel switching and a technology that wasn’t ready for deployment on a large scale: carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS, the researchers write, “was widely adopted in [models] to optimize costs by enabling a slower transition away from fossil power generation, especially coal.”

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its fourth assessment report in 2007, the models it drew on included another innovation: bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), an idea to extract energy from plants, trap the CO2 emitted, and bury it underground instead of spewing it into the atmosphere. Although the IPCC report noted that modeling of BECCS relied on “a limited and uncertain understanding of the technology,” it has remained in models and major assessments.

“Like CCS before it,” McLaren and Markusson write, “BECCS promised ways to cut the costs of meeting a particular target, slowing the transition even more by its promise to effectively reverse emissions at a future date.”

The result, the paper argues, has been to postpone actions, such as swift cuts to carbon emissions, that would mitigate climate threats: With the allure of potentially powerful yet largely speculative technologies in mind, policy makers were less compelled to mitigate climate change sooner rather than later.

Not everyone agrees with this perspective. Sabine Fuss, head of the sustainable resource management and global change working group at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, questions whether the slow pace of action from governments has much to do with the modeling dynamics outlined in the new paper.

“I haven’t really observed that as such a strong argument in the political debate, saying, ‘Oh, we can do carbon removal later on so let’s postpone climate change mitigation,’” she says. “I think there are a lot of other factors at work here, and interests at work here, that will also continue to be important.”

Even if mainstream modeling’s approach of kicking the can down the road is not the only — or even primary — reason for limited progress in mitigating climate change, we should still pay attention to that possibility in the future, McLaren and Markusson contend.

As the IPCC prepares its sixth assessment report, which will form the foundation for climate talks in 2023, McLaren and Markusson worry that the next generation of integrated assessment models might incorporate proposals to use unproven technology to block some sunlight from reaching Earth.

“By drawing attention to the cycles of prevarication sketched here, we wish to encourage more researchers to examine the potential relationship between climate delay, the emergence of new technological promises and the repeated reframing of targets and redrawing of modelling parameters,” they conclude. “It is critical that problems arising in policy and target formulation are not treated naively and simply as knowledge deficits. There is scope for modellers to be more reflexive about how the risk of technology disappointment is represented in scenarios, both in single scenarios and across modelling efforts, and how such risk is communicated to policy makers.”

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The coronavirus pandemic and resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement have many environmentalists paying attention to the inextricable links between marginalized peoples and environmental pollution.

The history of disproportionate environmental impacts on Black, Indigenous, and people of color often goes back for centuries. A recent review of 141 Indigenous groups by University of Helsinki conservation researcher Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares and colleagues published in the journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management shows how colonialism directly led to the development of environment-polluting infrastructure built without the consent of — and differentially affecting — communities in their territories.

The study, which dug through nearly 700 studies covering six continents to reveal impacts of pollution on the environment, health and culture of Indigenous peoples, points out that this pattern continues today.

“The literature reviewed clearly shows that [Indigenous peoples] are among the populations at highest risk of impact by environmental pollution of water, land, and biota through both exposure and vulnerability,” the authors wrote.

The study notes that landfills, pipelines, toxic waste storage facilities, sources of radioactive contamination and mines are still being forced upon Indigenous people and directly affect community well-being. In Canada, for example, 20% of drinking water advisories come from Indigenous communities, which make up just 5% of the population. In the western United States, more than 600,000 Native people live within 10 kilometers (6 miles) of an abandoned mine.

A recent paper by Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares and colleagues brought together case studies documenting pollution impacts upon indigenous peoples around the world. Map used with permission of Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares. Click to expand.

Pollution from industrial activities literally flows through Indigenous environments. Contaminants from mines and factories can move into the water, air and soil, where they affect the flora and fauna Indigenous people rely on for traditional hunting, fishing and gathering. Exposure to contaminants has been associated with stark impacts on health.

“Indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of pollution due to their high and direct dependency on local natural resources, limited access to health care, and relatively low levels of governmental support,” the authors say. Diabetes, hypertension, childhood leukemia, autism, cardiovascular disease, neurological impacts, anemia, cancer, changes in age of menstruation, contaminants in breast milk and anxiety all have been associated with polluting practices on Indigenous territories, the study reports.

Many impacts, however, are not easily measured. The authors write, “While cultural impacts have often been overlooked, the literature suggests that they are substantial in extent and scope.” Environmental degradation, the study notes, has led to the gradual loss of traditional cultural practices that rely on local plants and animals that Indigenous communities hold sacred. Ceremonies that involve drinking water from historical sources can heighten exposure to contaminants. Traditional basket-weaving practices that involve holding reeds in the mouth can become a health risk, for example.

Pollution also affects the spiritual and social health of Indigenous communities. Societal roles are often intimately related to the complex relationships Indigenous peoples have with their environment. Language, culture and community roles surrounding subsistence activities have been abandoned due to contamination and degradation. Spiritual practices involving sacred water sources or sites have similarly been left unviable because of environmental pollutants.

At the same time it documented adverse impact on Indigenous peoples of exposure to contaminants and toxins that they, for the most part, did not create, the study also noted positive impacts Indigenous people have on the environment. Indigenous peoples around the world campaign and resist polluting activities through protests, resistance, demands for policy action and occupation of pollution-producing infrastructure. Many Indigenous communities lead the way at preventing environmental destruction through their direct actions as part of networks of scientists, activists and others, tapping into legal systems when possible. While often framed in public discourse simply as struggles against pollution, the study notes that these actions are directly related to issues of Indigenous sovereignty, justice and land rights.

The study also underscores how traditional management systems help prevent pollution. Indigenous spirituality and social structures tied to the environment protect, remediate and restore sacred sites and community areas. In some cases, these practices have been shown to even support recycling of nutrients in local ecosystems, and Indigenous water cultures have been key to preventing pollution in freshwater environments.

The study concludes that Indigenous people, like many marginalized or oppressed communities, are on the receiving end of disproportionate impacts of environmental pollution. At the same time, these communities are not just victims of pollution. They have long led resistance against pollution-generating industries and activities and worked to protect biodiversity around the world. To reduce the toll of pollution and to maximize the benefits of their environment-protecting actions, the researchers recommend bringing Indigenous people and their perspectives front and center in environmental action.

“Greater engagement of IPs on environmental governance can help to incorporate IPs’ social, spiritual, and customary values in environmental quality and ecosystem health,” they write. “We argue that IPs should be part of any conversation on policy options to reduce risks of pollution to human well‐being, ecosystem services, and biodiversity.”

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Some things we’re glad to see grow: trees, children, our bank account balance, goodwill. But other things, not so much.

One of those “other things” is e-waste — outdated computers, broken cellphones, old appliances and other electronic castoffs of 21st-century life. According to the just-released Global E-waste Monitor 2020, last year people around the world generated 53.6 million metric tons (59.1 million tons) of e-waste — the equivalent of 9 million full-grown African elephants. That figure represents a 21% growth since 2014. The largest category of waste was small equipment, including microwaves, calculators, electronic toys and video cameras.

The report, an update on similar studies published in 2015 and 2017, was released July 2 by the Sustainable Cycles Programme, an initiative of the United Nations University, the U.N. Institute for Training and Research, the International Telecommunication Union, and the International Solid Waste Association. Interestingly, the e-waste generated in 2019 already exceeds the 52.2 million metric tons (57.5 million tons) the 2017 report projected for 2021.

e-waste around the world

Asia led production of e-waste in 2019, followed by the Americas, Europe, Africa and Oceania. Graphic courtesy of the United Nations University/United Nations Institute for Training and Research and the International Telecommunication Union licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.

According to the report, documented e-waste recycling also increased between 2014 and 2019, from 7.5 million metric tons (8.3 million tons) to 9.3 million metric tons (10.3 million tons). About 17.4% of the discards were known to be recycled last year, compared with 17% in 2014. “The recycling activities are not keeping pace with the global growth of e-waste,” the report says.

Trashing e-waste is a problem for many reasons. It adds bulk and toxic substances to already brimming landfills. It can contaminate air and water and pose health risks for people. It contributes to the climate crisis both in the form of fossil fuel energy required to produce and handle it and in greenhouse gases released, the report says.

Not only that, but it also represents a waste of valuable raw materials, including copper, silver, gold and platinum. The report estimates that the raw materials embodied in e-waste generated in 2019 alone are worth some US$57 billion.

What to do? At the global level, the report recommends reducing the production of e-waste, improving recycling, preventing inappropriate disposal, and creating jobs aimed at refurbishing and recycling electronics. At the level of individual countries, it encourages improving understanding of the magnitude of the problem, setting goals for collection and recycling, allocating funding to reduce e-waste, and prioritizing regulations and policies.

e-waste solutions

Graphic courtesy of the United Nations University/UN Institute for Training and Research and the International Telecommunication Union licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.

The report notes that although 17 countries have added e-waste policies, regulations and/or legislation since 2014, enforcement limits effectiveness.

“Having the best policy or regulatory framework in the world means nothing unless it is setting reachable targets and effectively enforced,” it says. “This is, unfortunately too often not the case, while at the same time, the overarching e-waste management system in many countries is not appropriately financed — if it is financed at all.”

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Editor’s note: As we continue to share stories of importance to the long-term well-being of people and our planet, we acknowledge the profound challenges the COVID-19 pandemic poses today. We express our solidarity with all of humanity and commit to using the lessons we learn through this crisis to help shape a more positive future together.

Over the course of 20 years, a molecule of methane heats the planet by 84 times as much as a molecule of carbon dioxide. It’s one cause of the climate crisis — and more methane now hangs in Earth’s atmosphere than at any time since monitoring began, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

A preliminary tally, with final numbers slated for release by November, it’s no surprise given expert projections: More and more methane pours into the air each year, with the trend line set to keep climbing in coming decades as societies generate more garbage and companies produce more unconventional natural gas.

But a new study in the journal Environmental Research Communications finds that the world could defy that forecast and cut methane emissions using existing tools. By bringing already available technologies and techniques into wider use, the researchers say, we could avoid nearly 40% of the methane the world is projected to emit by 2050.

The researchers, a team from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, estimate that without new action, methane emissions will grow by about 3 million metric tons (3.3 million tons) annually. Add that up year after year, and we’re staring down global methane emissions in 2050 that are 30% higher than in 2015.

“Mitigating methane will partly require different strategies and policies than those used to eliminate carbon dioxide from our energy systems,” paper co-author Lena Höglund Isaksson, an environmental economist at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, wrote in an email to Ensia. While energy from fossil fuels is one source of methane, people also put the gas into Earth’s atmosphere when disposing of trash, growing rice, raising farm animals and doing other activities.

Improve Waste Management

Yard waste and uneaten food decomposing in landfills vent methane into the air, so the study finds lots of potential in improved garbage management. The researchers estimate that separating waste by source, with better recycling and schemes to capture energy from some trash — plus a ban on organic waste in landfills — could help the world avoid emitting 778 million metric tons (858 million tons) of methane that would otherwise make its way into the air between now and 2050.

Repair Leaks

Ultimately, fossil fuels will also need to be phased out, Höglund Isaksson writes. But in the meantime, the study finds that we could slow the growth of methane emissions by taking steps such as implementing programs to detect and repair leaks in oil production and the extraction and transportation of natural gas. Coal mines could consistently implement degasification and improve ventilation, and oil drillers could try to recover associated gas. Such steps — with leakage detection and repair being the biggest — could prevent 2.35 billion metric tons (2.57 billion tons) of methane emissions by 2050.

Modify Agricultural Practices

Methane emissions from agriculture, the study finds, will be the hardest area for technical improvements. Rice cultivation’s footprint could decrease if farmers used alternative hybrids, improved water management and added materials to improve soil properties. These steps could avoid 335 million metric tons (370 million tons) of emitted methane by 2050. Livestock breeders could continue efforts to raise more productive animals: If farmers could use fewer cows to produce the same amount of milk, for example, that would cut back on emissions. This approach could yield different emissions results in cows, pigs, sheep and other livestock.

To sketch a picture of global methane emissions, the researchers used a model that sums up the estimated emissions from different sources, including landfills, beef cattle, dairy cows and oil refineries. The researchers had to make some assumptions where data were incomplete, and there’s always uncertainty about projections of the future, although the model aligns pretty well with other estimates of future “business as usual” methane emissions.

“Getting methane emissions anywhere close to zero will be hard, especially in agriculture. The paper highlights many priorities and places to start,” writes Rob Jackson, a Stanford University Earth systems scientist who was not involved in the study, in an email to Ensia. Technical fixes identified in the paper as providing relatively large impact with relatively low cost include modifications of waste and wastewater management and fossil fuel production practices.

The new study concludes that technical solutions to cutting back on methane won’t be enough to solve the problem. People might have to change their diets, for example, and governments may need to improve health care and boost farmers’ access to credit.

To keep methane in line with international goals — and keep global temperatures from exceeding 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) above preindustrial conditions — we’ll need social and political change to reduce the amount of methane we generate. While we work toward that, technical solutions can start to make a difference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet many insects around the world are in decline.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Regulate pharmaceutical companies to ensure more responsible production. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ensure collaboration across the life cycle of medications.

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

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

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

Nanotech Meets Land Use

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

Forests as Fuel

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

Better Buds for Bees?

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

Long-horned Trouble

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

Disappearing Kelp

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

Antarctic Ice Dark Horse

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

Mini Hydro Meets River Ecology

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

Circular Aquaculture

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

Mosquito-Murdering Fungi

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

Bag Babies

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

Asian Cures, Biodiversity Ills

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

Mystery Blockchain

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

CSI: Environment

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

Assuaging the Impacts of War

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

Internet Slippery Slope

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

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

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

Double Counting Strikes Back

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

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

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

Other Issues

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

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

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

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