Can spending less on renewable energy be a good thing? It can if the reason is that renewables are becoming more affordable.
The United Nations Environment Programme, Frankfurt School–UNEP Collaboration Centre for Climate and Sustainable Energy Finance, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently released a report showing that renewable energy investments are dropping, but renewables are generating more power around the world than ever before. While investment in wind, solar, biomiass, geothermal and marine energy sources dropped 14 percent, the researchers attribute this to the improved efficiency and cost-effectiveness of renewables, particularly solar.
According to the Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2014 report, renewables accounted for nearly 44 percent of newly installed generating capacity and saved 1.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere in 2013. Read the report’s key findings here.
“While some may point to the fact that overall investment in renewables fell in 2013, the drop masks the many positive signals of a dynamic market that is fast evolving and maturing,” said UNEP executive director Achim Steiner. Article by John Sisser. Photo by Kevin T. Houle (Flickr | Creative Commons). — April 16, 2014
You wouldn’t expect an MP3 player to play 8-track tapes, or the operating system from your first computer to run today’s software. Then why would anyone expect an old business model predicated on unsustainable assumptions (such as natural capital being endlessly available, free of charge) to successfully support sustainable enterprise? Yet many companies do just that — resulting in situations such as large, integrated utilities being unable to take advantage of the benefits of decentralized, smaller scale approaches to providing energy.
To help companies think outside the business-as-usual box, the sustainable enterprise think tank SustainAbility identified 87 innovative business models, dissected and analyzed them to see what makes them tick, then organized them into 20 types others can use as inspiration for their own reinvention. Specific types include:
physical to virtual — switching from tangible infrastructure to virtual services
inclusive sourcing — supporting the product source in producing the product
product as a service — selling the service a product provides rather than the product itself
freemium — offering a product or service at no cost, but charging for extras or upgrades.
Last June, University of Minnesota geography student Daniel Crawford starred in the video for “A Song of Our Warming Planet” — a composition that expressed 130 years of global temperature records as notes on the cello. Since then the video has received over 140,000 views in nearly every corner of the world.
Now Crawford has produced a version of the composition for guitar in tablature format that’s available for download here. He’s also added a new note to signify the Earth’s average annual temperature for the year 2013.
The latest data from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies showed 2013 was tied for the seventh warmest year since 1880. Following Dan’s scheme to convert temperature data to a musical score, 2013’s temperature of 0.6 degrees warmer than the mid-20th century baseline works out to an A sharp. — April 4, 2014
The impacts of climate change are being felt around the world, but have you ever wondered how they might affect your neck of the woods? If so, the U.S. Geological Survey has a resource for you. The agency, in collaboration with Oregon State University, utilized data sets NASA created from climate models in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report to create maps of the U.S. showing climate history and predictions down to the county level. NASA’s data set is known as the NASA Earth Exchange Downscaled Climate Projections, or NEX-DCP30. The USGS’s tool, aptly named the NEX-DCP30 Viewer, averages NASA’s temperature and precipitation data into 25-year increments to create one user-friendly package. Users can compare monthly high temperatures, low temperatures and rainfall predictions for their county through the end of the century. Interested in seeing what summer might feel like in 85 years where you live? Visit the NEX-DCP30 Viewer to find out.
Inventors and others who want to factor in environment and health as they formulate new chemicals or make policy or procurement decisions have a welcome helper in GreenScreen. Created by the nonprofit Clean Production Action, GreenScreen offers a three-step process for comparing chemicals in order to choose the best options:
Assess and classify hazards to people and the environment.
Apply GreenScreen benchmarks to produce an overall score.
Use information gathered to make informed choices.
Users to date include Nike, Hewlett-Packard, the states of Maine and Washington, and the University of California, Davis.
As part of a recent panel of environmental journalists convened at the Wilson Center, Coral Davenport of The New York Times said that President Obama “sees climate change as his legacy. He wants to get as much done as he possibly can before he leaves because he doesn’t know what the next administration is going to do.” This effort has taken shape in, among other ways, new CAFE standards, in Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent call for U.S. ambassadors to prioritize climate change, and in last year’s Executive Order 13653 — Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change. Executive orders can be a mouthful, though, and hard to understand, so the Sustainable Facilities Tool of the U.S. General Services Administration has created a useful annotated version of EO 13653 with explanations for and links to many things mentioned, including government organizations, previous executive orders, definitions of climate change-related terms and best practices. Though the executive order itself is meant to be of use to Federal agencies, the annotations from the Sustainable Facilities Tool make EO 13653 a useful document for anyone considering climate resilience strategies. — March 18, 2014
Contaminated water sickens or kills millions of people each year, mostly in developing countries where people lack access to the high-tech water filtration systems most Westerners take for granted. But is high-tech the only option? Maybe not. A new study shows that Mother Nature can do the same thing — for free.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently reported that sapwood can filter out more than 99 percent of E. coli bacteria from water. By pouring water with red dye through white pine filters, the team discovered that xylem — porous plant tissue — can eliminate particles as small as 70 nanometers. While the team plans to test different tree species for even higher filtration potential, the results of the first study are promising, particularly for places with limited access to clean drinking water. “Ideally, a filter would be a thin slice of wood you could use for a few days, then throw it away and replace at almost no cost,” co-author Rohit Karnik told MIT News. “It’s orders of magnitude cheaper than the high-end membranes on the market today.”
Article by John Sisser. Photo by Mark Turnauckas (Creative Commons | Flickr) — March 14, 2014
Indonesia recently established the world’s largest manta ray sanctuary. Nearly 6 million square kilometers of ocean surrounding the island nation will now serve as a protected area for both oceanic and reef manta rays. Recent research shows the tourism value of mantas globally is nearly $140 million per year. Mantas are currently being targeted by fisherman for their gill plates — a purported medicinal tonic in Southeast Asia.
Indonesia’s decision is a step in the right direction, says Sarah Lewis, Indonesian Manta Project leader with the Manta Trust. “Coming from one of the world’s largest manta fishing nations, this news marks a milestone for manta conservation and awareness not just nationally but on a global scale.”
Speaking at the 2014 Science Online Together conference today, Mónica Feliú-Mójer, manager of outreach programs in the department of biostatistics at the University of Washington, argued that science is rarely contextualized for lay audiences — meaning that there’s nothing making it relate to their own lives. When those audiences are underserved and underrepresented, it’s contextualized even less. As one way to engage those audiences, the nonprofit Ciencia Puerto Rico produces stories and podcasts from scientists for lay audiences that positions those scientists as role models. Though Ciencia Puerto Rico is specific to communicating scientific ideas to Puerto Ricans, Feliú-Mójer, who is also the vice director of the organization, says other organizations can replicate the model by helping scientists make their messages relevant and relatable to underserved communities. Specific examples include producing content in more than one language, providing context for scientific ideas and choosing storytellers that will resonate with diverse communities.
Photo by Joe Shlabotnik (Creative Commons | Flickr) — February 28, 2014
Some 126,000 described species rely on freshwater habitats, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. How can we target conservation efforts to best protect them? Identifying freshwater biodiversity hotspots is crucial, particularly in developing countries with limited resources. So experts with the European Union–funded BioFresh Platform created the Global Freshwater Biodiversity Atlas, bringing together data from a wide range of sources to create a global map of freshwater-dependent amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and more. The online tool can be customized to create maps focusing on specific locations and biodiversity categories, and includes options for exploring the effects of climate change and invasive species. New contributions are encouraged in order to make the atlas an even more robust tool for conserving freshwater biodiversity.
If you’re in the market for a new place with a natural setting surrounded by lush vegetation and trees, you’re probably not looking at high-rise apartment buildings in urban centers. But catch a glimpse of some new plans released by architecture firm Milroy Perera Associates and you may want to reconsider. The company teamed up with Mäga Engineering to design the Clearpoint Residencies, a 46-story apartment complex that, when completed in 2015, will be the world’s largest residential vertical garden. Located 10 kilometers from the center of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city, the structure incorporates trees and vegetation along all four sides to create a ground floor experience on every level. As noted in Inhabitat, the greenery not only gives the building a unique appearance, but also serves as a heat and sound buffer helping reduce cooling costs and noise. And that’s not the skyscraper’s only green feature: The building also includes a high-efficiency drip irrigation system, rainwater collection, gray water recycling and solar panels to power elevators, lobby lighting and more.
Article by John Sisser; photo courtesy of Clearpoint Residencies. — February 21, 2014
More than 1.8 billion phones were sold around the world in 2013, according to the research firm Gartner — a 3.4 percent increase over the previous year. Along with all those phones comes an abundance of toxic e-waste that’s often shipped to developing countries and ends up harming both people and the environment. Which is why the Basel Action Network’s e-Stewards Initiative might be more important now than ever. An accredited third-party certification program, e-Stewards allows both electronics producers and consumers to identify recyclers that abide by a strict set of guidelines, such as keeping hazardous e-waste out of landfills and restricting the use of child labor or sweatshops. A complete list of companies and recyclers participating in the program can be found on the e-Stewards website.
Photo by JonJon2k8 (Creative Commons | Flickr) — February 19, 2014
Do you like generating novel ideas? You can have fun thinking them up and put them to good use, too, as a participant in a Challenge Driven Innovation competition. A number of such contests — some with cash prizes — have sprung up in recent years as a way to bring crowdsourced solutions to bear on solving seemingly intractable problems. Among the environment-benefiting applications are a number of challenges aimed at boosting the application of green chemistry with an eye to minimizing production, use and disposal of hazardous or toxic chemicals.
A stunning new collection of maps published this week in the journal Nature shows how fast and in which direction temperatures on land and sea have shifted around the world over the past 50 years. The research team from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) discovered that warmer temperatures are pushing many species toward the coasts, to higher elevations, into shaded areas and away from the equator. The maps and research have wide-ranging implications for predicting future shifts due to climate change in species distributions at both global and local scales, while also influencing conservation decisions on the ground.
It’s hard to imagine a place where solar power makes more sense than in communities in sun-drenched countries that are not yet connected to the electric grid. Unfortunately, even though access to electricity would offer huge social and environmental benefits — making it possible for children to study after dark, reducing reliance on smoky kerosene lanterns, improving access to empowering mobile phone technology, to name a few — inadequate funding often makes it difficult to get something going.
Enter SunFunder. Founded in 2012 by Ryan Levinson, then vice-president of environmental finance at Wells Fargo, the crowdfunding initiative channels investments as small as $10 from anyone, anywhere, into prescreened solar energy companies in countries such as Kenya, Uganda and the Philippines to help them build their business. Once a recipient is generating enough revenue to repay the loan, investors can get their money back or reinvest it — along with “Impact Points,” which are essentially nonmonetary interest — in another project.
Photo by gr33n3gg (Creative Commons | Flickr) — February 6, 2014
What do companies Novo Nordisk, Adidas, Outotec and Statoil all have in common? They’re in the top 10 on Corporate Knights’ 2014 Global 100 Index, a list of the most sustainable companies in the world. Using 12 KPIs, or key performance indicators — including environmental indicators like energy, carbon, water and waste productivity — the Canadian media company aims to break down the term corporate sustainability to its core ingredients in order to fairly rank companies against one another. “On the one hand, [sustainability] means doing more with less; squeezing more output out of every capital input, including financial, human and natural capital,” Doug Morrow, vice president of research at Corporate Knights, told Ensia partner Forbes. “But the hallmark of a sustainable enterprise is not just efficiency, but also mechanisms to encourage meritocracy, diversity, innovation and long-term planning. Management teams at sustainable corporations are afforded room to think and plan beyond the next financial quarter.” As the list’s name suggests, the companies are from across the globe, but the United States and Canada led the way with 18 and 13 companies on the list, respectively.
How are communities across the United States responding to our changing climate? Climate Central recently launched a new series — the Front Lines of Climate Change — that aims to answer this question by reporting from cities across the country over the coming year. In the second installment, senior science writer Bobby Magill homes in on Colorado — a state that’s seen more than its fair share of natural disasters over the past few years. Is there a connection between the recent spate of extreme weather and climate change, though? As Magill writes, “Climate change could make these disasters worse, fueling bigger and more frequent flooding and wildfires while possibly extending the severity of the state’s drought and making its water supply less secure.” Visit Climate Central to read more about the ongoing challenges facing Colorado and how communities across the state are racing to develop climate adaptation plans.
Photo by Bert Kaufman (Creative Commons | Flickr) — January 30, 2014
Too much plastic trash. Not enough resources to get out of poverty. Social entrepreneur David Katz looked at these two trends together and figured out a way to make them add up to opportunity, not despair. Last spring Katz and partner Shaun Frankson founded a company called Plastic Bank that plans to set up plastics recycling centers in developing areas around the world. Local community members will be encouraged to collect plastic trash and bring it to the centers, where they will be able to exchange it for basic necessities, the opportunity to use 3-D printers to create things they can use to set up their own enterprises, and more. Meanwhile, the plastic is recycled and waterways, beaches and roadsides are renewed. Katz and Frankson plan to open the first center in Lima this April, and have their eyes on establishing additional centers in Asia and Africa. — January 29, 2014
When it comes to conservation, what you don’t know really can hurt you. That’s why a group of more than a dozen horizon scanners, researchers and others gather each year to identify relatively obscure threats and opportunities that could, if they bubble to the surface, have a big impact on our ability to protect biological diversity. This year’s prognostication, published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution earlier this month, identifies 15 hot topics lurking in the wings. Among them: Response of financial markets to unburnable carbon, land loss in Southeast Asia from subsidence of peatlands, the discharge of polyisobutylene into ocean water and the resurrection of extinct species.
Photo by april-mo (Creative Commons | Flickr) — January 22, 2014
In a provocative commentary just published in Nature,Robert Costanza, public policy professor at the Australian National University in Canberra and editor in chief of Solutions journal, along with colleagues from around the world, called for an end to using gross domestic product as a measure of success. While GDP is a fine measure of market activity, the authors write that it “ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality” and “blinds developing countries to possibilities for more sustainable models of development.” As an example of GDP’s shortcomings, the authors describe how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricane Sandy both contributed positively to GDP by spurring economic development through cleanup and rebuilding efforts.
Looking at alternatives, Costanza and colleagues review a range of measures of well-being including economic metrics inclusive of social and environmental impacts plus additional indicators such as “housing, life expectancy, leisure time and democratic engagement.” While none of these measures is perfect, collectively they offer the building blocks for moving beyond GDP.
Photo by Espen Faugstad (Creative Commons | Flickr) — January 17, 2014
Interdisciplinary collaboration is like a colonoscopy – though important and instructive, it can also be a real pain in the behind.
“We need pooled interdisciplinary expertise to solve real life problems,” a recent article in SciDevNet notes, “but experts can clash over language, divergent perspectives and knowledge gaps. Recognizing these barriers — and discussing how to overcome them — is crucial.”
Jessica Thompson, assistant professor of environmental and organizational communication at Northern Michigan University and author of the piece, argues that challenges arise because each discipline has its own language, theories and practices. Without deliberate efforts to acknowledge and accommodate them, these distinctions can hamper progress toward mutual goals.
Thompson goes on to offer concrete advice for overcoming those barriers. Among her tips:
Acknowledge and clarify at the outset differences in terms, definitions and jargon
Accept and accommodate perspectives that vary due to discipline, culture, nationality or gender
For years algae-to-oil biofuels have been too expensive to compete with fossil fuels, but a new breakthrough may be a game-changer. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed a process that converts algae to biocrude in a matter of minutes. The process essentially heats the algae biomass to temperatures approaching 350 degrees Celsius (662 degrees Fahrenheit) and then squeezes it at pressures of around 3,000 pounds per square inch.
“It’s a bit like using a pressure cooker, only the pressures and temperatures we use are much higher,” says Douglas Elliott, lead researcher on the project. “In a sense, we are duplicating the process in the Earth that converted algae into oil over the course of millions of years. We’re just doing it much, much faster.”
The system operates in a continuous loop using a slurry made up of wet algae — dramatically reducing the biomass-to-biofuels production time to less than an hour.
“Not having to dry the algae is a big win in this process; that cuts the cost a great deal,” says Elliott.
In addition to biocrude oil, other products coming out of the process include fuel gas that can be used to produce electricity, water, and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that can be used to grow more algae.
Utah-based Genifuel Corp. has licensed the technology and is moving forward with plans to build a pilot plant.
Except for those pesky safety issues, nuclear energy has a lot going for it — a small carbon footprint, minimal air pollution, a plentiful fuel supply. In search of a work-around for the downsides, The Daily Climate reports, entrepreneurs in the U.S., Russia and Korea are developing a new class of reactor that would come in a kit and be installed underground, reducing the threat of terrorist attack or meltdown. Proponents say the so-called small modular reactors, ranging from 25 to 300 megawatts, could pair well with intermittent renewable energy sources to provide round-the-clock power in remote locations. — January 8, 2014
What’s worth more, gold or rhino horn? Turns out it’s not even close. According to a recent infographic by The Huffington Post, a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of 24 carat gold fetches approximately $42,322, whereas the same amount of ground rhino horn powder goes for around $100,000 on the black market.
Earlier this year Ensia delved into the complex topic of wildlife poaching in a piece by Adam Welz titled “The Race to Save Rhinos.” In 2013 a record number of rhinos were killed in South Africa – home to 80 percent of the world’s remaining rhinos. As pressure mounts on governments around the world to slow illegal wildlife trade, Ensia is poised to cover new solutions that might emerge in 2014.
Photo by colin the scot (Creative Commons | Flickr) — January 3, 2014