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The latest ideas and inspiration from around the world
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Conservation has been at a crossroads for awhile now, with new approaches being tried that sometime clash with established ones. Writer Hillary Rosner covered this issue last year in Ensia in “Is Conservation Extinct?” “As the world shrinks, effective conservation policy will need to set the course instead of simply steering the ship around obstacles,” Rosner wrote. “Fortunately, choosing that course may be less contentious than it seems, particularly since there’s broad consensus that we need new maps. It’s as good a starting point as any for the long voyage ahead.”

Now The New Yorker has gotten into the discussion with a lengthy profile of The Nature Conservancy and its president and CEO, Mark Tercek, and chief scientist, Peter Kareiva, in which writer D.T. Max addresses some of the conflicts the organization has had with “traditional” environmentalists. And Tercek and Kareiva have replied with their own defense of the work they’re doing.

“[T]hose of us who do and who support conservation don’t have the time to get caught up in debates over ‘traditional’ vs. ‘new,’” they write. “We have to focus on what works — discovering it, testing it, replicating it and amplifying it.” Instead of getting caught up in such debates, Tercek and Kareiva write, “It’s time to get back to work.”

Check out the New Yorker article and TNC’s response about this interesting and important debate shaping the future of conservation. Photo by Ian Shive from TNC blog post.

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Is there a link between hot, muggy weather and asthma? Will more or fewer people suffer fall-related sprains as cold-season climate warms? It would be (relatively) easy to answer questions like these if the huge masses of data that have been collected worldwide on  environment, climate, weather and health could easily be linked. But differences in scale, scope and data collection methodology have made such linkages virtually impossible — until now.

Joining a growing number of efforts to bring big data to bear on solving human problems, the University of Exeter and partners have launched the Medical and Environmental Data Mashup Infrastructure project, a three-year initiative to bring together databases for climate, environment and human health; build compatibility among them; and make them accessible through a single Web portal. With the help of sophisticated statistics and geographic information system technology, MEDMI will provide data resources that allow researchers, public health practitioners and others to, for instance, explore correlations between climate and infectious disease or issue health alerts based on weather forecasts.

“We’re imagining a world where a regional cold snap can be associated with flu cases and hospital admissions as it happens,” writes Lora Fleming, director of the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at Exeter, in a post at The Conversation. “We’re hoping that long-term predictions about climate and human health hot spots can help us to plan our cities so that they are more resilient.” Photo courtesy of Iko (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Twelve straightforward strategies could slash food-related greenhouse gas emissions 50 to 90 percent, says a report just released by Climate Focus and California Environmental Associates.

According to the report, which was commissioned by the Climate and Land Use Alliance, actions such as eating less beef, reducing food waste and better managing nutrients on farms could reduce global emissions by up to 5 billion metric tons per year by 2030 — equivalent to the emissions of the entire world’s fleet of cars — while boosting production and food system resilience. Specific recommendations range from improving catering portion control in China to changing the feed regimen for beef cows in Brazil. The report calls out China, the European Union, India, the United States, Southeast Asia, Brazil and sub-Saharan Africa as having the greatest opportunity to reduce agriculture’s climate footprint. Learn more at Strategies for Mitigating Climate Change in Agriculture. Photo by Vilseskogen (Flickr | Creative Commons).

 

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Imagine going from sea level to the top of Mount Everest in just a few seconds. That’s the type of pressure change most fish feel when they travel through the turbulent waters near hydropower dams.

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory reported recently in the journal Fisheries that modifying turbines to minimize dramatic shifts in pressure could help protect fish from the phenomenon known as barotrauma — a sudden expansion of the fish’s swim bladder that often leads to injury or death.

To reduce incidence of barotrauma, the researchers recommend considering the species of fish in question and depth of the water where they usually reside when siting new facilities. Once this is known, factors such as the amount of water flowing through a turbine and turbine design can be modified to reduce fish kills. According to the researchers, the most fish-friendly dams are ones that maintain a minimum higher pressure around the turbines.

Working with colleagues from around the world, the researchers are applying lessons learned in three countries — Australia, Brazil and Laos — where hydropower is booming. In Brazil alone, several dozen dams are planned that could impact more than 5,000 species of fish.

“Hydropower is a tremendous resource, often available in areas far from other sources of power and critical to the future of many people around the globe,” said Richard Brown, senior research scientist at PNNL and the lead author of the paper, in a recent news release. “We want to help minimize the risk to fish while making it possible to bring power to schools, hospitals and areas that desperately need it.” Photo by Margaret Killjoy (Flickr | Creative Commons).

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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).

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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.

Learn more — and find inspiration for your own enterprise — by downloading SustainAbility’s report, Model Behavior: 20Business Model Innovations for SustainabilityPhoto by Yoel Ben-Avraham (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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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.

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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.

Article by John Sisser.

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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:

  1. Assess and classify hazards to people and the environment.
  2. Apply GreenScreen benchmarks to produce an overall score.
  3. 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.

Photo by Carolina Biological Supply (Flickr|Creative Commons)

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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.

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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)

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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.”

Photo by NOAA National Ocean Service (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Do you have an idea that could change the world but you aren’t sure how to get the ball rolling? The Buckminster Fuller Institute might just be able to help out. The Brooklyn-based institute is now accepting proposals for the 2014 Fuller Challenge for socially responsible design. Started in 2007, the challenge encourages designers, architects, entrepreneurs and others to submit holistic solutions to some of the world’s most complex problems, then awards $100,000 to the winning entry to help move it from idea to reality. Past winners include design programs like the Living Building Challengeinnovative biomaterials packaging and a new sustainable economic model for Appalachia. If you think you’re up to the challenge, send in your application by Friday, April 11.

Article by John Sisser. Photo by PNNL (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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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)

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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.

Article by John Sisser. Photo by NOAA/NASA GOES Project (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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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.

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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)

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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.

Photo by Jenn and Tony Bot (Creative Commons | Flickr )

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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.

Image courtesy of CSIRO

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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)

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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.

Photo by photologue_np (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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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)

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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.

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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)

Photo by Espen Faugstad  

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)

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