Tag Archives: environment

LED-equipped fishing nets help protect wildlife from unintentional captures

Green light-emitting diode (LED) lights can help protect wildlife from fishing nets, new research reports.

Image credits Paul Lee.

Affixing green LED lights to fishing nets can significantly reduce the catch of nontargeted animals such as sharks, squids, or turtles, according to a team led by researchers from the Arizona State University. The addition of these lights doesn’t impact the quantity or quality of desired catch species (i.e. commercially-available fish), which helps raise confidence that fisheries will adopt the measure. That being said, the installation of these lights comes with a significant upfront cost per net, which many fisheries may not be able to afford.

Beyond practical concerns, however, the findings showcase that it is possible to maintain our current fishing efficiency while insulating species that aren’t desired from capture.

Lights in the deep

Coastal fisheries routinely use gillnets, devices that resemble chain-link fences, to capture fish. These nets are deployed for up to several days at a time and capture virtually every kind of marine wildlife that cannot fit through their holes. Undesired captures (“bycatch”) are tossed overboard once the nets are recovered. These animals experience very high rates of death following this, adding up to significant pressure on marine species such as dolphins and sea turtles. It also impacts the fisheries’ bottom line, as personnel waste time removing these animals from the nets.

In other words, both business and nature lose out from the use of gillnets.

John Wang, a marine ecologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and his colleagues previously designed illuminated nets in order to protect turtles from becoming bycatch, back in 2016. Turtles seem to be particularly good at noticing green light, and these nets cut down on turtle bycatch by 64%. The current study builds on those findings, examining whether other marine animals could benefit from the same idea.

It turns out, they would. The authors worked with small-scale grouper and halibut fisheries in Baja California, Mexico, as the area is known for its large populations of turtles and other large marine species. They deployed 28 pairs of nets, one of each being equipped with groups of green LED lights every 10 meters. The team gauged their efficiency by identifying and weighing the animals each net captured overnight.

Nets outfitted with lights captured 63% less bycatch overall. Per species, they reduced bycatch by 51% for turtles, 81% for squid, and 95% for elasmobranchs (sharks and rays) — the last one being the most “gratifying” result for the authors, as shark bycatch in the Gulf of California is “a huge issue”.

Fish capture was not affected by the lights. However, the LEDs cut down on time wasted by fishermen on hauling and unloading bycatch, and on untangling the nets, by half. The only drawback so far, according to Senko, is the upfront installation costs of the lights: around $140 per net. Some fisheries, especially those in poorer areas such as Indonesia and the Caribbean, simply can’t afford this price per net, they add. The team is toying with using fewer lights and having them be solar-powered rather than battery-powered to reduce some of these costs. Meeting the needs of fisheries is essential for the success of this project, as they are the ones who will decide on using the LED nets or not.

Exactly why some animals seem to avoid lights, and why they do so more than others, is still up for debate. While it is possible that some species’ better eyesight helps them perceive the lights more clearly, it’s very unlikely that this is the cause — any species with sight can see these lights, after all.

The paper “Net illumination reduces fisheries bycatch, maintains catch value, and increases operational efficiency” has been published in the journal Current Biology.

The swarm is near: get ready for the flying microbots

Imagine a swarm of insect-sized robots capable of recording criminals for the authorities undetected or searching for survivors caught in the ruins of unstable buildings. Researchers worldwide have been quietly working toward this but have been unable to power these miniature machines — until now.

A 0.16 g microscale robot that is powered by a muscle-like soft actuator. Credit: Ren et al (2022).

Engineers from MIT have developed powerful micro-drones that can zip around with bug-like agility, which could eventually perform these tasks. Their paper in the journal Advanced Materials describes a new form of synthetic muscle (known as an actuator) that converts energy sources into motion to power these devices and enable them to move around. Their new fabrication technique produces artificial muscles, which dramatically extend the lifespan of the microbot while increasing its performance and the amount it can carry.  

In an interview with Tech Xplore, Dr. Kevin Chen, senior author of the paper, explained that they have big plans for this type of robot:

“Our group has a long-term vision of creating a swarm of insect-like robots that can perform complex tasks such as assisted pollination and collective search-and-rescue. Since three years ago, we have been working on developing aerial robots that are driven by muscle-like soft actuators.”

Soft artificial muscles contract like the real thing

Your run-of-the-mill drone uses rigid actuators to fly as these can supply more voltage or power to make them move, but robots on this miniature scale couldn’t carry such a heavy power supply. So-called ‘soft’ actuators are a far better solution as they’re far lighter than their rigid counterparts.

In their previous research, the team engineered microbots that could perform acrobatic movements mid-air and quickly recover after colliding with objects. But despite these promising results, the soft actuators underpinning these systems required more electricity than could be supplied, meaning an external power supply had to be used to propel the devices.

“To fly without wires, the soft actuator needs to operate at a lower voltage,” Chen explained. “Therefore, the main goal of our recent study was to reduce the operating voltage.”

In this case, the device would need a soft actuator with a large surface area to produce enough power. However, it would also need to be lightweight so a micromachine could lift it.

To achieve this, the group elected for soft dielectric elastomer actuators (DEAs) made from layers of a flexible, rubber-like solid known as an elastomer whose polymer chains are held together by relatively weak bonds – permitting it to stretch under stress.

The DEAs used in the study consists of a long piece of elastomer that is only 10 micrometers thick (roughly the same diameter as a red blood cell) sandwiched between a pair of electrodes. These, in turn, are wound into a 20-layered ‘tootsie roll’ to expand the surface area and create a ‘power-dense’ muscle that deforms when a current is applied, similar to how human and animal muscles contract. In this case, the contraction causes the microbot’s wings to flap rapidly.

A microbot that acts and senses like an insect

A microscale soft robot lands on a flower. Credit: Ren et al (2022).

The result is an artificial muscle that forms the compact body of a robust microrobot that can carry nearly three times its weight (despite weighing less than one-quarter of a penny). Most notably, it can operate with 75% lower voltage than other versions while carrying 80% more payload.

They also demonstrated a 20-second hovering flight, which Chen says is the longest recorded by a sub-gram robot with the actuator still working smoothly after 2 million cycles – far outpacing the lifespan of other models.

“This small actuator oscillates 400 times every second, and its motion drives a pair of flapping wings, which generate lift force and allow the robot to fly,” Chen said. “Compared to other small flying robots, our soft robot has the unique advantage of being robust and agile. It can collide with obstacles during flight and recover and it can make a 360 degree turn within 0.16 seconds.”

The DEA-based design introduced by the team could soon pave the way for microbots that work using untethered batteries. For example, it could inspire the creation of functional robots that blend into our environment and everyday lives, including those that mimic dragonflies or hummingbirds.

The researchers add:

“We further demonstrated open-loop takeoff, passively stable ascending flight, and closed-loop hovering flights in these robots. Not only are they resilient against collisions with nearby obstacles, they can also sense these impact events. This work shows soft robots can be agile, robust, and controllable, which are important for developing next generation of soft robots for diverse applications such as environmental exploration and manipulation.”

And while they’re thrilled about producing workable flying microbots, they hope to reduce the DEA thickness to only 1 micrometer, which would open the door to many more applications for these insect-sized robots.

Source: MIT

We need to protect 50% of the planet — but even that’s not enough

Image credits: Lingchor.

Protected areas are advocated for by scientists and conservationists alike because of their clear environmental benefits. Due to the constant expansion of our species, environments and ecosystems are under more and more pressure, and having safe havens like these protected areas is essential for the wellbeing of our planet.

Primarily, protected areas protect biodiversity and ecosystems while also often functioning as natural climate solutions. Protected areas also come with a host of benefits for goals beyond environmentalism. These include social and financial benefits for residents within protected areas and safeguarding against the emergence of new zoonotic diseases. Simply put, protected areas are not just good for the planet — they’re good for us as well.

Currently, around 15% of Earth’s land surface (and around 7% of Earth’s ocean surface) is protected. There is therefore a long way to go before we reach the 50% protection goal.

However, in urging our governments to reach this 50% target, some scientists have warned us there is a risk that we can get so caught up in the quantity of protected land and seas that we don’t also consider how effective those protected areas are in the first place. But before we talk about the quality of protected areas, let’s talk a bit about quantity.

Where does this 50% figure come from anyway?

Prominent voices that are calling for half the Earth to be protected include the aptly named Half-Earth Project based on the book written by E. O. Wilson, as well as Nature Needs Half, an international organization that advocates for half of the planet to be protected by 2030. Their choice of 50% of the Earth, however, is not an arbitrary one, but one that is supported by science.

The Global Safety Net is a tool developed by a team of scientists that combines a number of different data layers and spatial information to estimate how much of Earth’s terrestrial environment needs to be protected to attain three specific goals. Those goals were 1) biodiversity conservation, 2) enhancing carbon storage, and 3) connecting natural habitats through wildlife and climate corridors.

The researchers found that using this framework, a total of 50.4% of terrestrial land should be conserved to “reverse further biodiversity loss, prevent CO2 emissions from land conversion, and enhance natural carbon removal”. Interestingly, these results concur with prior calls to protect half the planet.

This data also found that, globally, there is significant overlap between the land that needs to be protected for conservation and Indigenous lands. The authors of the paper write that by enforcing and protecting Indigenous land rights, we can combine biodiversity and climate goals with social justice and human rights. They emphasize that “with regard to indigenous peoples, the Global Safety Net reaffirms their role as essential guardians of nature”.

Biodiversity inside and outside protected areas
From The Guardian

Why it can be detrimental to only look at the numbers

Scientists are absolutely right in saying we should aim to protect half the planet. But there’s more to it than that. An equally important consideration is how effective those protected areas are at achieving their stated goals.

Worryingly, some scientists estimate the true quantity of protected land is much lower than the official 15% when effectiveness is considered. One paper found that “after adjusting for effectiveness, only 6.5%—rather than 15.7%—of the world’s forests are protected”. Importantly, the authors caution their readers against assuming that protected areas will completely eliminate deforestation within their boundaries. On average, they found that protected areas only reduced deforestation by 41%.

Another team of scientists analyzed over 50,000 protected areas in forests around the world and their impact from 2000-2015. A major finding from their paper was that a third of protected areas did not contribute to preventing forest loss. In addition, the areas that were effective only prevented around 30% of forest loss. The authors call for improving the effectiveness of existing protected areas in addition to expanding protected area networks.

Finally, a team of researchers recently authored a paper that analyzed protected areas established between 2000 and 2012 and found that significantly more amounts of deforestation could be avoided if existing protected areas were made more effective — this was despite the authors stating that protected areas already reduce deforestation by 72%. This is a notably higher effectiveness than is stated by those other papers – perhaps because the team analyzed only protected areas that were established relatively recently. Multiple papers have found that newer protected areas tend to be on average more effective than older ones.

So how can we make protected areas more effective then?

One of the most important considerations is that protected areas tend to prevent more deforestation in areas where deforestation is higher. However, it is still important to protect lands currently at low risk of degradation. In that way, future forest loss can be prevented before it becomes a significant problem.

Indirectly, other attributes of a country can predict how effective or ineffective the protected areas within that nation will be. Countries that have higher human development, higher GDP per capita, better governance, and lower agricultural activity tend to host more effective protected areas than countries with lower human development and GDP per capita, lower government effectiveness, and higher levels of agriculture.

Finally, as mentioned before, there is a huge amount of overlap between potential land for protection and Indigenous land. Engaging with, and granting property rights and legal recognition to, Indigenous people is a cost-effective way to protect forests while also addressing a human rights issue at the same time.  

What all of this data shows us is that the conversation surrounding environmental protection needs to be considered in a broader context, and take into consideration economic, political, and social justice concerns. And it is an issue that is far too complex for its success to be measured by a single number.

Sharks and seahorses found living in the Thames waterway

After a period in which there seemed to be no hope for a ‘green’ Thames, the river is now booming with life, showing that environmental recovery is possible when serious conservation methods are enforced. However, concerns still exist about the health of the river.

Water levels have been increasing since monitoring began in 1911 in the Tidal Thames. Image credits: ZSL.

The Thames is, in many ways, the very lifeblood of the city of London. But being so close to the Industrial Revolution has come at a big price for the river’s natural inhabitants. By the 18th century, the Thames was one of the world’s busiest waterways, as London became the center of the vast British Empires. As more and more docks were built, more and more ships were sailed, and more and more coal was burned, the Thames suffered. The fact that the population of London and its industries discarded their rubbish in the river made things even worse. By the 19th century, the Thames was already horrid.

Things got a bit better in the 20th century as road transportation developed and river transportation became less prominent, but not much better. The river was declared “biologically dead” in 1957.

But in the past few decades, things started to change. Especially after 1990, conservation measures have borne fruit, and with stricter environmental regulations and careful management, the quality of the water has improved dramatically. We’ve reported in 2017 that delicate seahorses had been discovered in the waters of the Thames and now, a new report (State of the Thames Report, led by the Zoological Society of London or ZSL) notes that more unexpected species were discovered in the river’s waterways, including multiple bird species, eels and three different species of shark.

Venomous sharks

It’s the first major report on the Thames in 60 years, and there’s a lot to be happy about. There are now 115 fish and 92 bird species around the Thames. Seahorses, eels, seals and even sharks have been spotted. There’s even a porpoise population in the estuary river. The river is “home to myriad wildlife as diverse as London itself,” the report reads.

“The water quality of the Tidal Thames has exhibited some promising improvements. Dissolved oxygen concentrations, critical for fish survival, show long-term increases. Further, phosphorus concentrations have reduced in both the long and short term, showing the effectiveness of improved sewage treatment works to reduce harmful levels of nutrients entering water bodies,” the report reads.

The presence of sharks is perhaps the most curious. ZSL researchers believe the sharks use the Thames estuary to give birth and nurse their young — an indication that the water quality has improved substantially.

The Thames Estuary, where the river’s water flows into the sea. Image credits: NASA.

Sharks including the tope, starry smooth hound, and spurdog have been spotted in the Thames, although you’re unlikely to see them around London. The spurdog, in particular, is a rather interesting spotting.

The spurdog is a slender shark that feeds on bony fish and sometimes, even smaller sharks. It’s a vulnerable creature, hunted in some parts of the world for its fin. The spurdog is actually venomous — its spines in front of the two dorsal fins secrete a venom that can cause pain and swelling in humans.

There’s no reason to worry, however. While some outlets made it seem like London is teeming with big bad sharks, the truth is that sharks have not been spotted in London, but rather in the Thames Estuary. All in all, this is good news, because it shows that the river is teeming with life.

Alison Debney, for ZSL, said:

“Estuaries are one of our neglected and threatened ecosystems. They provide us with clean water, protection from flooding, and are an important nursery for fish and other wildlife. The Thames Estuary and its associated ‘blue carbon’ habitats are critically important in our fight to mitigate climate change and build a strong and resilient future for nature and people.”

“This report has enabled us to really look at how far the Thames has come on its journey to recovery since it was declared biologically dead, and, in some cases, set baselines to build from in the future.”

Not all good

However, some long-term trends are concerning in the Thames as well. In particular, researchers say, the number of fish is slowly declining, for reasons that are not exactly clear.

Climate change could be a major culprit. Temperatures in the Thames are rising by a whopping 0.2 °C a year, much faster than the global average. Sea levels are also increasing, by 4 mm a year. Just like in other parts of the world, this climate change is bringing with it extreme weather events and storms which may be affecting the local environment.

Plastic pollution was also found to be a problem, although researchers have only recently started gathering this type of data.

Image credits: ZSL.

The report also highlights the potential problems associated with London’s sewage and the need for the Thames Tideway Tunnel — often called London’s “super sewer” project. This £4.2bn, 15-mile (24km) long, 200ft (61m) deep sewer would capture 39 million tons of untreated sewage that currently makes its way into the Thames every year.

ZSL is also working to create special estuarine habitats. These would protect the Thames’ ecosystem, while also acting as a natural defense protecting London from water surges and storms.

Cities are getting quieter: birdsong declining across the Western world

North America and Europe are becoming quieter — as far as birdsong is concerned, according to a new paper.

Image via Pixabay.

A declining trend in bird communities is making the developed world a quieter and less varied place in regards to birdsong, according to new research. While this might not sound like a pressing concern on the face of it, the findings do point to greater ecological issues brewing in the background. Songbirds perform important services in natural environments and their decline could impact the health of our immediate surroundings.

At the same time, for those living in densely urbanized environments, birdsong can be a very powerful element helping us maintain a connection to nature. Its loss could thus have important implications for public health and our overall well-being.

Songless

“The results suggest that one of the fundamental pathways through which humans engage with nature is in chronic decline, with potentially widespread implications for human health and well-being,” reads the study’s abstract.

For the study, the authors collected bird counts via annual survey data and recordings of birdsong taken over the past 25 years at various sites across North America and Europe. Data from citizen science monitoring programs across more than 200,000 sites in 22 cities in Europe, the USA, and Canada was also used.

Starting from this dataset, the team matched all recorded vocalizations to the relevant bird species in order to better understand exactly which birds inhabit which cities across the investigated area. The recordings were also used to produce a ‘composite soundscape’ for each year at each site.

All in all, this showed that the total amount of birdsong and its diversity have been steadily declining across all sites. In other words, the soundscapes most of us in the USA, Europe, or Canada experience have been getting quieter and less varied over time. This suggests that bird species are experiencing an ongoing decline both in numbers and variation across the investigated area.

The first conclusion to be drawn from these results is that, if we want to prevent further deterioration of the soundscapes we’re exposed to, we need to start conservation efforts for the birds that inhabit our cities and beyond. According to the authors, that’s definitely something we should want to do: natural soundscapes are one of the few remaining ways that city inhabitants get to connect with nature. Such experiences have a direct and beneficial effect on our well-being. The loss of soundscapes or degradation of their richness can thus have a negative effect on the well-being and quality of life for whole communities at the same time.

With half of the world now living in cities, it would be in our best interest to heed warnings like those offered by this study.

The paper “Bird population declines and species turnover are changing the acoustic properties of spring soundscapes” has been published in the journal Nature.

We could store car exhaust and use it to fuel our crops, in about a decade or so

Could car exhaust be captured and used to grow crops? Researchers at Texas A&M University are saying yes. A new white paper published by three faculty members is proposing that CO2 and water from car exhaust can be captured for this purpose, and outlines a general approach on how to do so. Although such an idea might seem quite exotic, it’s not the first time it’s been proposed, the authors argue.

Image credits Andreas Lischka.

The current paper doesn’t intend to offer an exact solution to such an approach, or the exact way through which it is to be implemented. Rather, it is a white paper — it outlines the basic issue and the authors’ initial analysis and thoughts on how to best address it. The team hopes that this paper will help to attract the funding needed to perform in-depth, formal research on the topic.

From tailpipe to table

“I started reading the related literature and did simulations of what was possible,” says Maria Barrufet, professor and Baker Hughes Endowed Chair in the Harold Vance Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M. “This is entirely realistic.”

“Several proposals have already been written for large trucks and marine vehicle applications, but nothing has been implemented yet. And we are the first to think of a passenger car engine.”

Such an approach would help massively reduce humanity’s overall environmental impact by reducing our output of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. At the same time, it would help us increase agricultural productivity without placing any extra strain on natural processes and the ecosystems that provide them.

In broad lines, what the authors propose is to integrate a device into car engines that would capture and compress these waste products. The device in question would operate on the organic Rankine cycle (ORC) system and would be powered by waste heat given off by the engine. Organic Rankine cycle systems operate very similarly to steam engines on a smaller scale, using an organic fluid in lieu of water. This fluid has a lower boiling point than water, meaning that the device requires much lower temperatures to produce physical work than a traditional steam engine.

In turn, this ORC system will power components such as a heat exchange and pumps which will cool down and compress CO2 from a gas into a liquid, to enable storage.

The team explains that the CO2 and water captured from exhaust engines could prove to be very useful for agriculture, especially in high-intensity urban greenhouses. Such greenhouses employ artificial atmospheres that are highly enriched in CO2, generally containing around three times as much of it as the air we breathe. In combination with other systems supplying vital nutrients, this higher concentration of CO2 helps foster plant growth and leads to increased yields, as plants primarily grow using carbon from the air. Farms like these already spend money purchasing CO2, but making the gas widely available for cheap from traffic — maybe even for free — could go a long way towards promoting intensive urban agriculture. The team explains that on average, urban farms purchase roughly 5 pounds (2 kg) of CO2 and nearly six gallons (22 liters) of water for every two pounds (1 kg) of produce they grow.

Another argument in favor of such a scheme is that growing produce locally further reduces costs and environmental impact related to storing, handling, transporting, and refrigerating produce from farms to groceries. It would also help reduce traffic.

Beyond the benefits to agriculture, the sheer environmental benefits such a scheme can produce would be immense. In 2019, there were 1.4 billion private vehicles in operation globally, producing an average of 4.6 tons of CO2 per year each — which adds up to a lot.

“Years ago, we didn’t think we could have air conditioning in a car,” Barrufet said. “This is a similar concept to the air conditioning that we now have. In a simple way, it’s like that device, it will fit in tight spaces.”

For us driving the cars, the ORC system wouldn’t make any noticeable impact. Since it operates using waste heat, the authors are confident that it will not lead to any significant loss of engine power, increase in fuel use, or maintenance needs (although special coatings will be needed to prevent corrosion in the heat exchange systems). As far as emptying the system, the team envisions drivers simply turning in cartridges of water and CO2 in specialized centers, or even at gas stations, in exchange for empty ones. There’s nothing preventing them from using the products in their own greenhouses, however, but the authors stress that this process should be done responsibly to ensure that the CO2 is fully absorbed by plants and does not escape into the atmosphere — which would defeat the purpose of this whole exercise in the first place.

Not everything is settled, however. There is still work to be done determining how large these cartridges should be, how the water produced by the system should be handled (water cannot be compressed like a gas), and technical details, such as determining how the weight of these cartridges would affect the car’s performance and handling across all possible levels of weight.

Realistically, we’re probably looking at roughly 10 years or so of development before such systems are ready to be implemented commercially. We already have all the individual components needed, but we still need to figure out how to put them all together in the most efficient way.

“All of these independent ideas and technologies have no value if they cannot connect,” Barrufet said. “We need people concerned about the future to make this happen soon, energized students in petroleum, mechanical, civil, agricultural and other engineering disciplines who can cross boundaries and work in sync.”

The paper “Capture of CO2 and Water While Driving for Use in the Food and Agricultural Systems” has been published in the journal Circular Economy and Sustainability.

The first climate change famine is here: Madagascar is desperate

Thousands of people in Madagascar are suffering “catastrophic” levels of hunger and food insecurity as the country is hit by the worst drought seen in four decades, devastating isolated farming communities in the south. The situation could even worsen soon as Madagascar enters the traditional “lean season” before the harvest. 

Experts believe this is the first famine to be driven entirely by climate change.

A farmer in Madagascar. Image credit: Flickr / US Mission to the UN.

“The hunger season is coming,” Issa Sanogo, the UN resident coordinator on the Indian Ocean Island nation said in a chilling statement. “People may be left without the means to eat, without money to pay for health services, or to send their children to school, to get clean water, and even to get seeds to plant for the next agricultural season.”

Low levels of rain in the past two years have cause the most severe drought since 1981, especially in the Grand Sud area of the country. People are taking desperate measures to survive, eating locusts, raw cactus fruits, or wild leaves to survive, explains ReliefWeb, an information service provided by the United Nations. 

The UN estimates that about 1.4 million people are in high levels of acute food insecurity, with 30,000 experiencing the highest internationally recognized level of food insecurity. This is driven by a “devastating drought” and the global health crisis of the Covid-19, which has steeply increased food prices due to low availability, the UN said.

The worst is yet to come. The situation is likely to deteriorate further in the very near future. Over 500,000 children under the age of five are expected to be acutely malnourished through April 2022, of which over 110,000 are likely severely malnourished and require urgent life-saving treatment. Such a severe crisis is unprecedented, said UN resident Sanogo. 

“The drought has gone on for longer than expected, and the funds received are insufficient to cover current and future needs. We must act now: annual crops are a problem that will probably become a new crisis in the next agricultural season. There is an urgent need to implement long-term solutions,” Sanogo said in a statement.

Non-governmental organization such as the World Food Program (WFP) are carrying out emergency programs that involve food assistance and distribution, prevention and treatment of acute malnutrition. They are also working with small-hold in the south of Madagascar, helping them procure land and make the right decisions on what to grow. However, given the scale of the crisis, this is unlikely to be enough.

The role of climate change

Madagascar is the world’s largest grower of vanilla, most of which is produced in the northeast of the world’s fourth-largest island. Citizens in the south rely on subsistence agriculture from small landholdings. Shelley Thakral, a spokeswoman for the WFP, told local media the south is “vulnerable” as it’s dry, while the north has plenty of tropical rainforests and is more shielded by the effects of climate.

While Madagascar frequently experiences droughts and is also affected by the change in weather patterns caused by El Niño, experts argue that climate change can be directly linked to the current crisis. In 2016, the El Nino effect caused a rainfall drop of 75% compared to past 20 years in the south. This caused harvest losses of up to 95%. 

The people have also been affected by sandstorms. Their croplands are now filled with sand and cannot produce anything.

The recent landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported an increase in aridity in Madagascar, which is expected to increase if climate change continues, Rondrgo Barimalala, a Madagascar scientist told BBC. The current crisis should be a powerful argument for people “to change their ways,” he said.

Chris Funk, director of the Climate Hazards Center in California, told the BBC there’s a link with “warming in the atmosphere” and the current crisis in Madagascar and said the local government has to work to improve water management. They could forecast when there’s going to be above normal rains so farmers can use that information.

The situation in Madagascar, even taken on its own, is troubling. But given that we’ll be feeling the effects of climate change more and more, this is likely one of many such events to come. As families in Madagascar starve, we’ll have to contend with this thought

Conservation efforts can really help forests regrow naturally

With millions of hectares of forest disappearing every year, conservationists are putting a larger emphasis on forest regeneration – an approach through which natural forests are allowed or encouraged to recover under their own steam.

The efforts seem to be paying off. Almost 59 million hectares of forests have already grown back worldwide since 2000, according to a new study — an area larger than the surface of Spain. The regrown forest area is estimated to store almost 5.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is good news amid the global climate crisis.

Image credit: Flickr / Walkers

The study is part of a two-year research project from a team lead by WWF researchers which analyzed more than 30 years of satellite imaging data and survey local experts at more than 100 forest regeneration sites in 29 countries. The results can be seen in an interactive map created by the researchers.

“It would take decades or even centuries for a regenerated ‘secondary forest’ to become as rich in carbon and wildlife as an existing, old-growth forest, and some ecosystems can never recover from deforestation. Nevertheless, restoring and expanding forests are central parts of the global challenge to absorb carbon, stabilize the climate and restore wildlife,” the researchers wrote.

Forest regeneration means letting nature take the lead and allowing the forest heal naturally, instead of mass plantations. Some areas need nothing more than to be left alone to begin regenerating, while others need active encouragement to grow back, depending on the condition of the soil and the local land use. It’s a different approach to forest restoration or reforestation, which have been questioned.

One of the simplest ways to remove carbon dioxide from the air is to plant trees. But scientists say the right trees must be planted in the right place if they are to be effective at reducing carbon emissions. That’s why the researchers are instead encouraging regeneration, which can secure even more carbon storage and biodiversity.

“We’ve known for a long time that natural forest regeneration is often cheaper, richer in carbon, and better for biodiversity than actively planted forests,” William Baldwin-Cantello, director of nature-based solutions at WWF, said in a statement. “This research tells us where and why regeneration is happening, and how we can recreate those conditions elsewhere.”

Regeneration efforts

A quick look at the regeneration map shows that, while deforestation hotspots are concentrated in the tropics, most regeneration has taken place in the northern hemisphere. As countries grow richer, they move towards manufacturing and service industries, freeing up land for regeneration, the researchers explained.

Image credits: WWF.

But not all is well. A closer look shows that some of the regeneration hotpots also sit alongside areas known for the high deforestation rates in Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Brazil. This isn’t necessarily surprising, as some of the land cleared for timber or agriculture is usually abandoned shortly after – allowing areas to regenerate naturally. Examples of this include the Atlantic Forest, along the coast of South America, a forest area that once occupied more than a million squared kilometers but now only 15% remains. The mapping study showed an estimated 4.2 million hectares have regenerated in Brazil since 2000, much of it focused around the Atlantic Forest biome.

At the same time, in Mongolia’s boreal forests, conservation efforts have helped to regenerate 1.2 million hectares of forest, the study showed. There has been an increased emphasis from the Mongolian government on protected areas, preventing fires and illegal activities such as logging and mining, in line with natural regeneration.

Despite these encouraging signs, the researchers warned that deforestation levels are still very high around the world. The rate at which the world’s forests are being destroyed increased sharply last year, with at least 42,000 sq km of tree cover lost in key tropical regions, a study by Global Forest Watch showed earlier this year.

Two-thirds of global forest cover loss is occurring in the tropic and subtropic regions of the world, where vast clusters of deforestation hot spots are destroying the important ecosystem services forests provide. There are 24 of these hot spots that are spread across Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania, the WWF showed.

The new climate normal: The US is already one degree hotter

Every 10 years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) releases an analysis of the weather in the US over the past three decades. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the past decade has been hotter and wetter than any other in recorded history — by a mile.

Most of the country has warmed, except for the north-central US. Image credit: NOAA

In its report, NOAA looked at the weather from 1991 to 2020 and calculated average values for temperature, rainfall, and other conditions, using information from 9,000 daily reporting stations. NOAA refers to these averages as the “climate normal” and well, this normal isn’t looking normal at all.

The US has warmed 1.7 degrees (1 degree Celsius) since 1901-1930, the first period for which climate normal were calculated. That’s in line with the global rate of warming over that period. Still, the US was behind the world’s average until recently. The country has seen its biggest jump in temperatures during the last two 30-year periods.

“We’re really seeing the fingerprints of climate change in the new normals,” Michael Palecki, manager of NOAA’s effort to update the climate normals, said at an April news conference, in anticipation of the new report. “We’re not trying to hide that. We’re in fact reflecting that.”

Over the entire country, the yearly normal temperature is now 53.3 degrees (11.8 degrees Celsius). Twenty years ago, it was 52.3 degrees (11.3 degrees Celsius) based on data from 1971 to 2000. The new normal annual U.S. temperature is 1.7 degrees (0.9 Celsius) hotter than the first normal calculated for 1901 to 1930.

Some regions have warmed more than others and, over short time periods, some smaller areas haven’t warmed at all. Image credit: NOAA

Temperatures dropped slightly for 1991-2020 compared with 1981-2010 across a part of the north-central United States. Still, more than 90% of the U.S. has warmer normal temperatures now than 10 years ago. The US map is getting redder and redder.

Charlottesville, Virginia, saw the biggest jump in normal temperatures among 739 major weather stations. Other large changes were in California, Texas, Virginia, Indiana, Arizona, Oregon, Arkansas, Maryland, Florida, North Carolina, and Alaska. In Chicago, the new yearly normal temperature rose 1.5 degrees (0.8 Celcius) in the last decade.

Not just warmer — also wetter

The new normal shows not just in higher temperatures, but also in more precipitation. NOAA’s data estimated a national precipitation average of 31.31 inches for 1991-2020. This is 0.34 inches higher compared to the 1981-2010 value of 30.97 inches. The 20th-century average was 29.94 inches.

Speaking with the Washington Post, Palecky said most of the US has been turning into a “much wetter environment”, quoting NOAA’s data. Still, precipitation trends vary by region more than temperature. Between 1981-2010 and 1991-2020, it turned wetter across much of the eastern two-thirds of the nation but drier across most of the southwest.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the last four maps in the series — the 1961-1990, 1971-2000, 1981-2010 and 1991-2020 Normals — are nationally the four wettest maps in the collection.

At least some of that wetness relative to the 20th-century average is linked to the overall climate warming, NOAA explained.

Image credit: NOAA

Large parts of the US are expected to get even wetter over time, especially the northern states, because of climate change. However, rainfall and snowfall appear to be trending toward clusters of intensified precipitation, separated in some cases by longer dry periods. Plus, there are signs of a megadrought over the southwest United States.

“What we’re trying to do with climate normals is to put today’s weather in a proper context so we understand whether we’re above normal or below normal and also we’re trying to understand today’s climate so people know what to expect,” Palecki told the Washington Post.

Once published, NOAA’s reports come in handy for many across the country, enabling policymakers to prepare mitigation measures (should they so desire). Weathercasters also call on the values to tell how a day’s temperatures compare to the norm for that calendar date, state regulators use climate averages when setting rates for the electricity and natural gas and farmers can plan what to plant and when.

Still, climate change is hard to quantify. Increases in greenhouse gas emissions might mean that the 30-year average doesn’t capture the true likelihood of a given temperature right now, and this small difference can have a big effect on the interests of utilities, where temperature increments can translate into big costs. Simply put, some days (or weeks) can still be abnormally cold or dry, even as the country as a whole is getting hotter and wetter.

That’s why NOAA is looking at new ways to report climate normal that might reflect more accurately what to expect in the 2020s. Researchers have suggested using climatological periods shorter than 30 years, for example. Following the advice, NOAA’s climate normal included a supplemental set of 15-year data for the period 2006-2020.

Humanity is making everything saltier around us, and it’s hurting the environment (and our infrastructure)

Road salts, applied to sidewalks, streets, and highways to melt out snow and ice, represent a serious and growing global threat to freshwater supplies and public health, a new paper reports.

Image via Pixabay.

Cold winters make for dangerous roads, and salt has long been used as a tool to de-ice roads. Since it’s a natural product, it was assumed that such procedures wouldn’t cause harm to the environment. A new paper, however, says they do. Salt used for de-icing can negatively impact public health and freshwater sources, it explains, through the chemicals it leeches into the environment.

Salting the wound

“We used to think about adding salts as not much of a problem,” said Sujay Kaushal, a professor in UMD’s Department of Geology and Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center and lead author of the study. “We thought we put it on the roads in winter and it gets washed away, but we realized that it stuck around and accumulated.”

“Now we’re looking into both the acute exposure risks and the long-term health, environmental, and infrastructure risks of all these chemical cocktails that result from adding salts to the environment, and we’re saying, ‘This is becoming one of the most serious threats to our freshwater supply.’ And it’s happening in many places we look in the United States and around the world.”

Weather-related car accidents claim thousands of lives globally every year, and the application of salt on roads is an important tool in our arsenal towards saving as many as possible. Salt is sometimes also used as a fertilizer on crop fields, and a host of other purposes.

But this salt eventually finds its way into the environment and accumulates, creating a growing global threat.

Previous work by Kaushal’s team found that salt in the wild can interact with soils and man-made infrastructure, drawing out a cocktail of chemicals including metal and radioactive compounds. They called this cascading process the Freshwater Salinization Syndrome (FSS), and found that it can lead to contaminated drinking water sources, impact public health, agriculture, infrastructure, wildlife health, and ecosystem stability.

The current paper explores how the Freshwater Salinization Syndrome impacts human health and the environment. The findings point to freshwater supplies facing serious threats from this syndrome on a local, regional, and global level. The team calls on officials to improve the management of salt usage, and to better regulate it, in order to protect these sources. The team explains that the effects of the FSS is a threat on par with acid rains or biodiversity loss.

For the study, they compared data from freshwater monitoring stations around the world and reviewed studies on the subject, finding a general increase in chloride levels all across the planet. Chloride is a main component in many types of salt like table salt (sodium chloride) or calcium chloride, which is commonly used for de-icing roads. Judging by data from specific regions of interest, the team says we’re seeing a 30-year trend of growing salinity levels; they note the Passaic River, New Jersey and a 100-mile-plus stretch of the Potomac River, which supplies drinking water to Washington, D.C., as areas affected by this trend.

Leeching out

The most important sources of human-related salt in the Northeastern U.S. is road salts, the team explains. Other important sources include sewage leaks and discharges, water softeners, agricultural fertilizers, and fracking brines. Indirect sources of salt in freshwater include road, bridge, and building weathering — salts leech out of limestone, concrete, or gypsum — and ammonium-based fertilizers used in urban or agricultural settings. Sea-level rise can also lead to saltwater intrusion.

Chemicals released from all these sources harm both anthropic and natural environments. For example, changes in environmental salt levels can allow invasive, salt-tolerant species to take over a stream. These compounds can change the microflora in soil and water, which can lead to even more changes, as bacterial communities underpin the health of whole ecosystems. For built environments, salts can lead to corrosion in roadways and broader infrastructure. This can lead to the leaching of heavy metals in drinking water, as was the case in Flint, Michigan.

“I am greatly surprised by the increasing scope and intensity of these problems as highlighted from our studies,” said study co-author Gene E. Likens, founding president emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and a distinguished research professor at the University of Connecticut.

“Increased salinization of surface waters is becoming a major environmental problem in many places in the world.”

For now, the team explains, there are still a lot of unknowns. Exactly how these higher salinity levels will impact the environment is still poorly understood. Furthermore, every body of water presents its own conditions and unique management issues in regards to salt. The best way to go about fixing these issues is to treat salt the same way we do nutrient loads: look at all the different sources on a watershed-ecosystem level and prioritize regulation accordingly, the team explains. Sadly, they also note that work has been done to create technological solutions to nutrient runoff, but similar methods do not exist for salt.

“Ultimately, we need regulation at the higher levels, and we’re still lacking adequate protection of local jurisdictions and water supplies,” Kaushal said. “We have made dramatic improvements to acid rain and air quality, and we’re trying to address climate change this way.”

“What we need here is a much better understanding of the complicated effects of added salts and regulations based on that. This can allow us to avert a really difficult future for freshwater supplies.”

The paper “Freshwater salinization syndrome: from emerging global problem to managing risks” has been published in the journal Biogeochemistry.

World’s polluter elite has to shift behavior to meet global climate targets

The wealthiest citizens, described as a polluter elite, have to make dramatic changes to their lifestyles in order to meet the global targets on climate change, according to a new report by a group of behavior experts. For the richest 1%, this means reducing their emissions by a factor of at least 30 by 2030, they argued.

Image credit: Flickr / Daniel Lobo.

Tackling the climate crisis requires everyone to change their behavior, but the responsibility isn’t evenly shared. From 1990 to 2015, nearly half of the growth in absolute global emissions was due to the richest 10%, with the wealthiest 5% alone contributing over a third (37%) of that figure, according to the new report’s findings.

The report was developed by the UK-based Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change. It’s a panel of 31 individuals who study people’s behavior relating to the environment. They were tasked to find the most effective way of scaling up action against climate change, unveiling the responsibility of the polluter elite.

“We have got to cut over-consumption and the best place to start is over-consumption among the polluting elites who contribute more than their share of carbon emissions by far,” Peter Newell, lead author of the report and researcher, told BBC. “These are people who fly most, drive the biggest cars most and live in the biggest homes.”

Newell and the team of researchers addressed the deeply divided views about how best to achieve emissions reductions, with some more focused on new technological innovations and others on making individuals accountable. They found that the transition to a low-carbon economy will require a collective effort, especially by those who pollute the most.

The researchers argued that tree-planting schemes and carbon capture projects haven’t been fully proven and are highly contentious. Instead of betting on those, the rich should just drive and fly less. “Even if they own an electric SUV that’s still a drain on the energy system and all the emissions created making the vehicle in the first place,” Newell said.

They even suggested a series of actions to scale up change. These include immediate steps to target the elites leading high-emission lifestyles and to develop new infrastructure to make low-carbon choices more viable for poor households. They suggested bans on the selling of high-polluting vehicles, setting up frequent flyer levies, and promoting electric public transportation.

For the researchers, the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change (signed in 2015) cannot be achieved without radical changes to lifestyles and shifts in behavior, especially among the wealthiest members of society. “If change across society is to be brought about at the speed and scale required to meet agreed climate targets, we need to shrink and share,” they wrote.

Fairness has been a controversial topic as part of climate discussions. Developing countries like India or Bolivia have long argued they should be allowed to increase their emissions as they haven’t polluted as much as developed countries. The Paris Agreement asks every country to act but taking into account the differences.

Is this the year European cities start banning cars?

As anyone who’s used the public transportation in Birmingham, UK, can tell you — it’s not great. There’s no subway, train stations are few and far between, and buses often find themselves delayed by traffic.

But Birmingham is confident in its ability to compensate for all that and reduce people’s reliance on personal cars. Under plans being considered by the council to reduce emissions, the city would ban private cars from the city center completely, allowing only lorries, buses, and taxis.

Birmingham is far from alone in this quest. Cities all over Europe are starting to ban cars. It’s usually a partial ban — only for some types of cars, for some days, or for some areas. But European cities (and a few outside of it) are starting to take this idea more and more seriously.

This year may be the year we finally see car bans becoming mainstream.

Different approaches, same goal

The city of Dubrovnik became famous as the filming site of some of the most iconic scenes in Game of Thrones. But travelers have known about it for years. Its medieval buildings, Mediterranean cuisine, and clear blue sea have drawn millions, and few did not enjoy it.

But in recent years, people have probably enjoyed it even more. In early 2016, the city banned private cars from its historic center. “We are doing it to reduce congestion”, said then Dubrovnik Mayor Andro Vlahušić .

The argument is simple and straightforward: Dubrovnik’s small, windy streets were not built to deal with high levels of traffic. There are too many cars on the streets, they cause traffic jams and inefficiency. In Dubrovnik, like in most other places, cars usually contain only one or two people, and cars needlessly fill up the streets (and often sidewalks). After the car ban, the city center became much more walkable and friendly, encouraging both locals and tourists to explore its beauty on foot or bikes.

Dubrovnik is no longer an exception.

As of  January 2020, the most polluting cars have been banned from Ghent, Belgium. This comes after several areas in the city were already car-free. ‘The streets are more alive’, one local was quoted as saying, and despite expected protests from some motorists, the ban was well-received overall. Local owners of high-emission cars can apply for grants to trade their vehicle for a lower-emission one.

There is another argument, and it’s surprising that Vlahušić did not emphasize it more given his medical background: health. Pollution is a well-known trigger of asthma and other respiratory diseases. Emissions from cars are known to cause a number of health issues.

‘The air tastes better’, said journalist Tine Hens, commenting on Ghent’s car ban.

Pandemic changes

The pandemic has, of course, also had an impact on plans to ban cars. In many parts of Europe, the pandemic has sparked interest in cycling and walking. The city of Milan, one of the first to be hard-hit by the virus, announced ambitious plans to reallocate street space from driving to cycling and walking. It’s not a new idea, but it has massive popular support for a change.

“We tried to build bike lanes before, but car drivers protested,” says Pierfrancesco Maran, Milan’s deputy mayor for Urban Planning, Green Areas and Agriculture. “Someone said to me: ‘You needed coronavirus to [introduce them] here!'”

Milan is far from the only town to do so. From Bucharest to Brussels, and from Lisbon to Lyon, Europe’s appetite for cycling lanes has been fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, triggering unprecedented investment. It’s not just Europe: pop-up bike lanes have appeared in cities including Berlin, Budapest, Mexico City, New York, Dublin and Bogotá. The lockdowns drastically reduced the number of cars on the street, and some saw a possibility to keep it that way. This has contributed to a drop in carbon dioxide and pollutant emissions, and encouraged people to replace driving with other forms of transportation. In the Colombian capital of Bogotá, mayor Claudia López closed 117km (72.7 miles) of streets to cars to make cycling and walking easier during the lockdown. In Paris, mayor Anne Hidalgo’s had already promised to make every street cycle-friendly by 2024 and remove 72% of Paris’s on-street car parking spaces. But a post-lockdown plan was also announced, including the creation of temporary cycle lanes on metro line routes. 

Though these are temporary measures for the most part, they may last in the long-term. London’s mayor Sadiq Khan has made it clear he wants these changes to last and not just return to a business-as-usual scenario, and in many cities, people seem to overwhelmingly support these measures. A recent survey in Toronto demonstrated overwhelming support for these initiatives. It found that 84 per cent of respondents supported the construction of protected bike lanes and 85 per cent wanted the city to do more to protect vulnerable road users.

Making cities unfriendlier to cars can also save lives, as was observed in Norway’s capital, Oslo. In the past year, Oslo has not had a single fatality on its streets, and this is largely owed to anti-car and pro-pedestrian measures.

Larger cities, such as Barcelona, Paris, and Berlin, are also launching similar schemes. In Paris‘ central areas, the first Sunday of every month is free of cars, and cars made before 1997 have been banned from the city center on weekdays. Berlin was less ambitious than other German cities and only banned some cars from select shopping streets. But Barcelona took a more decisive approach.

In Barcelona, the poor air quality is responsible for more than 350 premature deaths annually. This is not an unusual figure — most major cities have poor air quality, and this poor air quality translates into premature deaths. Barcelona designated an area of 95 km2 as a low-emission zone — essentially covering the entire metropolis — and all petrol cars registered before 2000 and diesel cars bought before 2006 are banned from entering it.

Spain’s capital Madrid also has a similar area. It’s much smaller but more restrictive. It’s still a step in the right direction, but it’s only a step.

A total ban?

These attempts are varied in their approach and scope, but they all have one thing in common: they’re incomplete.

Calling it a car ban is not exactly true. It is a partial car ban, but the “partial” part still refers to a minor part of all cars — the worst offenders, but still a minor part.

The next logical step is a total car ban.

Barcelona’s beautiful streets without cars might not be a pipe dream. Image credits: Alfons Taekema.

In December 2016, Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis joined the mayors of Paris, Madrid, and Mexico City in a pledge that they would ban all diesel vehicles from the cities by 2025. Kaminis hoped to eventually ban cars altogether from city’s core. But here’s the thing about these pledges: they extend beyond the mayor’s mandate. It’s something common to all long-term pledges, particularly when it comes to things like climate change: sure, you can promise that you’ll do this or that in 20 years, but how can you guarantee it with electoral cycles of 4 years?

Similarly, the pledges to keep cities car-free ring somewhat hollow. In Madrid, the newly-elected mayor pledged to reverse the partial car ban, even as most of the population supported it. Madrid eventually kept its car ban, but it goes to show just how easily this type of project can be undone.

A definitive car ban would be more permanent and harder to overturn, but it would also need to be carefully planned. Roads still need to be maintained not only for lorries, but also for emergency access. Public transport would need to be improved — if you take cars away from people, you have to offer an easy transportation method to replace it. New cities could be carefully designed with this in mind, but older cities (especially European cities, many of which are based on medieval or ancient cities) cannot be easily retrofitted.

In addition, partial attempts to reduce congestion and the number of cars on the streets can often have unpredicted effects — as some cities are already noticing.

London’s woes

Cabs and Ubers are driving London congestion despite expectations. Image credits: Garry Knight.

Perhaps no city has struggled as much with fighting car congestion as London. The British capital introduced a congestion tax all the way in 2003, adding another, additional tax for older diesel cars. This additional tax alone is £24 ($31) — a hefty sum for a day’s driving. But despite all these measures, and despite London’s reliable, world-class public transport, the city still struggles with congestion.

Why does this happen? A mixture of more vans and Ubers, sprinkled with reckless cycling.

Lorries and buses are realistically impossible to eliminate. You’d condemn all commercial activity in the area and make cities accessible. The goal behind car bans is to make cities just as (or even more) accessible.

But London’s problems show that simply taxing or banning private cars isn’t going to solve the problem.

For a brief while, there was a big change. Buses were dominant in the ecosystem, encouraging more people to travel by bus, which seemed to lead to a righteous cycle. But with fewer cars on the road, people have started taxi-ing in, and shops started using lorries more often to ship things in and out. Bike lanes (a positive idea on its own) slowed traffic down, and this affects buses the most. With buses running slower, people are discouraged from using them and take taxis instead — and we have a vicious cycle instead of a righteous cycle.

But the major problem, and one that wasn’t properly anticipated in London, is the taxis. I mean, taxis and Ubers. In 2013, there were 49,800 Uber drivers in London. In 2017, the number almost doubled to 87,400. Uber experienced a massive surge worldwide, and London is one of the hotspots of Uber development. London is an expensive city, so Uber’s low-cost approach fit like a glove. Uber might lose its license in London, but that’s due to safety issues and has nothing to do with congestion — even if Uber disappears, there are already a bunch of companies ready to take its place.

As a result, even though London’s measures effectively reduced the number of cars on the road, it did little to reduce congestion. This seems to be at least good pollution-wise — but as the traffic draws to a standstill, cars produce more emissions.

Despite all its struggles and well-intended measures, London has not managed to make a major dent in its car traffic outside of the pandemic. Mexico City, another city at the forefront of traffic bans, prohibited cars from driving on Saturday, but a study showed that air pollutants haven’t changed that much as a result of this measure.

This is another nod to the idea that partial car bans are not as effective as we’d hope. This could mean that more decisive measures are necessary, or that car bans just don’t work.

Are car bans even good?

In the end, are urban car bans even desirable? Sure, it would be great to have lower levels of pollution, congestion, and emissions (tackling the climate emergency is another argument in the favor of urban car bans) — but can that really work?

Venice is one of the very few truly car-free cities. This is owed, of course, to its unique geography. Venice is built on more than 100 islands, and apart from a few proper streets, it virtually has no cars.

Venice gets very crowded due to the overflowing stream of tourists, but if we put tourism aside, Venice is doing just fine. It’s one data point, and Venice has its fair share of problems, but the city is functional. It doesn’t collapse. It’s an example that even without cars, cities work.

Sure, excellent planning is required. Even so, there will likely be a set of unanticipated problems that will need to be required. But is there anything that innately prevents cities from banning private cars? Not likely.

The politic and social stars also seem to be aligned. Europe (and much of the developed world) seems to have has reached peak traffic. Driving seems to be on the decline, and Millennials aren’t nearly as fond of cars as previous generations. This suggests that future generations will be less likely to oppose traffic bans (making the push political more feasible), and are also less likely to be dependent on cars.

A set of legal decisions is also pushing in this direction. In September 2018, a federal court ordered Germany’s financial capital to ban 60,000 cars — all but the newest diesel vehicles and electric cars. Berlin has received a similar order. Germany is one of six countries taken to court by the European Union for exposing their own citizens to too much pollution. It’s ironic that the larger political body is pushing countries to do what’s right for its citizens, but this could all work for the best in the end.

Outside of Europe

Europe has a set of distinct peculiarities that push it to ban cars. A relatively small and affluent population (with a relatively high interest in the environment), generally good public transit, and old cities with perpetual congestion and parking issues — all these are stepping stones paving the way for potential traffic bans. But that doesn’t mean that this is a moot topic outside of Europe.

Bogotá, Colombia, has been running a car-free program called Ciclovía since 1974. Every Sunday, the program shuts down more than 75 miles of roads to cars. This attracts a whopping 1.7 million pedestrians — some 25% of the city’s population. Runners, skaters, and bicyclists take to the streets, as aerobics and yoga in parks are quite common. It’s become a tradition by now, and when a Colombian congressman tried to eliminate Ciclovía in 2007, his proposal was widely criticized.

New York City has also taken notable car-free initiatives. These initiatives, while still not as ambitious as those of some European cities, put it way above the pack in the US. Cars are banned from the streets of Central Park, as well as popular areas such as Times Square or Madison Square Park. Biking is popular in New York, in part thanks to an impressive number of bike lanes.

In addition to creating permanent, pedestrian-only zones in popular areas like Times Square, Herald Square, and Madison Square Park, the city has banned cars from the internal streets of Central Park, which receives around 42 million visitors each year.

How far this trend will go is hard to say, but 2020 and the pandemic brought some major changes in how we operate in cities. Whether or not these changes will be long-lasting remains to be seen but, for now at least, urban netizens seem to be more willing than ever to take cars away from cities.

This is the first rib-eye steak that didn’t require killing an animal

Image credits: Aleph Farms / Technion — Israel Institute of Technology.

It’s almost shocking to see how quickly lab-grown meat technology is progressing. It seems that it was sci-fi almost yesterday and now already, we have the first government-approved lab meat in Singapore, in the form of chicken nuggets.

But chicken nuggets only get you so far. If we want to get people to eat lab-grown meat, you need to make a good steak, and that’s exactly what a new start-up managed to produce.

Why go to all this trouble

Why would you go to all the trouble of developing a new technology and a complex process when you could just, you know, cut a cow?

Meat production is one of the most environmentally damaging food industries out there. Its climate impact roughly equivalent to the driving of every car in the world — and it’s not just the emissions.

The meat industry is also associated with deforestation and environmental degradation, and calorie per calorie (or protein per protein), it uses much more water and land than alternatives. There’s also the fact that you’re killing an animal to eat, which for many is reason enough.

Alas, meat tastes good, and for many, it’s just too hard to pass up. So researchers have come up with a way around that: growing meat in a laboratory.

Essentially, you get real animal cells but without having to slaughter animals. It’s cruelty-free meat, and (researchers hope) it can also be done with fewer resources and emissions than regular meat.

The basis of the technology comes from regenerative medicine, where cell samples are used to grow entire tissues and organs. With cultivated meat, you use cells to grow fat and muscle tissues, and grow them on a scaffold that allows them to develop in three dimensions. All it takes is a starter pack of cells obtained from an animal biopsy.

Unlike regular 3D printing though, this uses actual living cells that are incubated in a broth rich in nutrients, and then grow and develop like a living tissue. Several companies are showing remarkable progress. Recently, one such company, Aleph Farms, presented the first lab-grown rib-eye steak.

Image credits: Aleph Farms / Technion — Israel Institute of Technology.

It incorporates muscle and fat just like the real deal, and it’s reportedly as juicy and tasty as a prime steak from the butcher.

“With the realization of this milestone, we have broken the barriers to introducing new levels of variety into the cultivated meat cuts we can now produce. As we look into the future of 3D bioprinting, the opportunities are endless,” says Technion Professor Shulamit Levenberg, Aleph’s Co-Founder, Chief Scientific Advisor and a major contributor behind the company

The steak was grown in partnership with the Faculty of Biomedical Engineering at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and is reportedly, the first grown rib-eye steak in the world.

Creating diverse types of lab-grown meat is important if the approach is ever to become mainstream — and according to a new report that claims Europe and the US will reach “peak meat” by 2025, this seems more important than ever.

Technion researchers: Iris Ianovici, Professor Shulamit Levenberg, Aleph’s Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Advisor; and Yedidya Zagury, PhD. Credit: Nitzan Zohar: Office of the Spokesperson, Technion - Israel Institute of Technology

Many questions still remain, especially about the scalability of the operation and the price. The price, in particular, is a concern. Meat isn’t particularly expensive in most parts of the world, and in order to compete, lab-grown meat needs to be at least in a comparable price range.

But for now, the creators of this rib-eye steak seem to be relishing their achievement.

“This breakthrough reflects an artistic expression of the scientific expertise of our team,” enthuses Didier Toubia, Co-Founder and CEO of Aleph Farms. “I am blessed to work with some of the greatest people in this industry. We recognize some consumers will crave thicker and fattier cuts of meat. This accomplishment represents our commitment to meeting our consumer’s unique preferences and taste buds, and we will continue to progressively diversify our offerings,” adds Toubia. “Additional meat designs will drive a larger impact in the mid and long term. This milestone for me marks a major leap in fulfilling our vision of leading a global food system transition toward a more sustainable, equitable and secure world.”

Researchers find a way to grow wood in a lab, and it could curb global deforestation

You’ve probably heard about lab-grown meat, sparing animals from slaughter, and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Well, it turns out this isn’t the only thing researchers are trying to recreate at a laboratory. A team at MIT in the United States is already working on “growing” wood without relying on sunlight or even soil.

Image credit: Flickr / Chuck Coker

The process is strikingly similar to lab-grown meat. The researchers create structures made of plant cells that mimic wood, but without having to clear down forests. The cells don’t come from trees but instead from a flowering plant called Zinnia originally from Mexico. They are then turned into a rigid structure using plant hormones. They essentially “grow” the wood.

They chose the Zinnia plant because it grows fast and is well studied. The cells reproduced before being transferred to a gel for further development. Once they grew in volume, the cells were tested against different variables such as pH and hormone concentration. It will be a long road to make this cost-effective but the work represents a starting point for novel approaches to biomaterial production, reducing the environmental pressure from forestry and agriculture.

Between 1990 and 2016, over 500,000 squared miles of forests were lost due to wood consumption and the clearing of wooded areas to access arable lands.

The researchers highlighted a number of inefficiencies inherent to agriculture and forestry, some that can be managed such as fertilizer draining off fields, and some that are out of the control of the farmer, such as weather and seasonality. Also, only a fraction of the harvested plant ends up being used for food or materials production.

“The way we get these materials hasn’t changed in centuries and is very inefficient. This is a real chance to bypass all that inefficiency,” Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, who is overseeing the MIT research, said in a statement. “Plant cells are similar to stem cells in the sense that they can become anything if they are induced to.”

To achieve wood-like properties, the researchers used a mix of two plant hormones called auxin and cytokinin. They varied the levels of these hormones so to control the cell’s production of lignin – an organic polymer that gives wood its firmness. The cellular composition and structure of the final product were assessed using fluorescence microscopy.

The researchers acknowledged that they are in a very early stage with these lab-grown plant tissues. They have to keep working on the specifics, such as the hormone levels and the Ph of the gel. “How do we translate this success to other plant species? It would be naïve to think we can do the same thing for each species,” Velázquez-García said in a statement.

David Stern, a plant biologist and President of Boyce Thompson Institute, who was not involved with the research, told Wired that scaling up the study would take “significant financial and intellectual investment” from government and private sources. “The question is whether the technology can scale and be competitive on an economic or lifecycle basis,” he added.

The study was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

Finally, some good environment news : the 2020 ozone layer hole closed down

In 2020 the Ozone Layer above the Antarctic was big compared to previous years, both in depth and area. Data from the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service shows the maximum occurred in October with more than 20 million square kilometers.

Every year, humans emit chemicals into the atmosphere, some of which can alter the ozone layer. But the ozone layer is pretty robust. In order for the depletion of ozone to start, temperatures in the stratosphere must be below -78°C so chemicals become active enough to destroy ozone molecules. This doesn’t always happen, but a very stable Antarctic vortex helped keep temperatures below this threshold.

Credits: NOAA

Polar vortexes are low-pressure systems, which form in the upper atmosphere. Whenever the polar Jetstream (a fast-flowing, meandering, narrow wind band) is strong, the vortex is more stable. The counterpart is a wavy polar vortex due to a weaker Jetstream. When the polar vortex is wavy, North America faces a cold winter. Australia, on the other hand, faces a wetter season.

If the polar vortex is both stable and strong, stratospheric clouds get colder, which creates the perfect conditions for the chemical reactions to start depleting the stratospheric ozone. The 2020 season had such a strong vortex. Researchers feared it could keep active for a long time and reach the maximum depletion detected. Luckily, this didn’t turn out to be the case.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. The image below shows the comparison between previous depletion and the one from 2020. The 2020 hole’s area wasn’t as big as in 2017, but it was very stable and lasted longer. It only really started receding after mid-December.

Ozone Layer area from year to year. Credits: Coperninus ECMWF.

The lowest record of the ozone layer’s hole happened in 2019 . The entire season can be seen in the video bellow from NOAA Ozone Watch. The colors alter from blue/purple, smaller concentrations of ozone, to green/yellow, bigger concentrations.

From year to year, there may be a bigger or smaller hole, but in the end, if we wouldn’t produce the ozone-depleting chemicals, this wouldn’t be a problem in the first place. We still need to reduce emissions, and there’s no real substitute for this.

Making the average ozone hole small enough not to be so harmful is still a challenge, however. We still emit ozone-depleting chemicals, which may not be yet banned. The Montreal Protocol list needs to be continuously changed, policies concerning the environment need to be as developing as the science behind it.

The most important news on the environment, climate and energy of 2020

Despite the coronavirus pandemic overtaking most of the 2020 agenda, this was also a big year for environmental, climate, and energy news. There were some positive developments (such as the falling cost of renewable energy and the surge of solar and wind power) but also a lot of bad news, especially in regards to greenhouse gas emissions and plastic pollution.

We selected what we consider some of the environmental highlights of the year and compiled a 2020 list. With 2021 around the corner, we hope this review will help to reflect on what has happened over the year and consider how to take to better take care of the planet.

2020 set to be one of the warmest years on record

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) published in December its State of the Climate Report, which showed that 2020 is on track to be one of the three warmest ever recorded as emissions continue to rise, despite the pandemic which kept us more time inside. The average global temperature is set to reach about 1.2º above pre-industrial levels.

To make matters even worse, this year has been unusually hot despite the cooling effect of La Niña, the climate phenomenon associated with below-normal sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean with global implications. Its impact has been more than offset by heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gasses.

Arctic sea ice reached its second-lowest level in the 42-year-old satellite record. Arctic sea ice for July and October 2020 Almost 10 million people were displaced, largely due to hydro-meteorological hazards and disasters, mainly in South and South-east Asia and the Horn of Africa. Two ice caps in Nunavut, Canada have disappeared completely, confirming predictions of a study published in 2017 that they would melt completely within five years.

Deforestation record in Brazil

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil reached a 12-year high. A total of 4,281 square miles (11,088 square kilometers) of the forest were destroyed in the 12 months to August 2020, according to Brazil’s space agency PRODES program, which monitors deforestation.

In recent years, satellites and drones have revealed the true scale of Amazon deforestation. Image credits: Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon.

While most of the Amazon lies in Brazil, the rainforest affects all of us. Rainforests like the Amazon play a key role in controlling climate as they absorb carbon, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. Nevertheless, when they die or burn, trees release carbon back into the environment.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro came to power in 2019 promoting an agenda based on more extractive activities in the Amazon. He even asked Congress to change environmental protection laws and cut the budget and the staff of the federal environmental protection agency IBAMA. Many high-ranking politicians, including French President Emmanuel Macron and president-elect Joe Biden have criticized Brazil for not doing enough to protect the forest.

Australian wildfires

The 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season started in June 2019. Several uncontrolled fires were reported. Amplified by drought, the fires continued to spread, and by January 2020, fires had burnt an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres). For comparison, the California wildfires burnt 800,000 hectares (2,000,000 acres) and the 2019 Amazon rainforest wildfires burnt 900,000 hectares (2,200,000 acres) of land.

A collage of the Australian 2019-2020 wildfire season. Image credits: Patrick Gom / Wikipedia.

It was the worst bushfire season on record and the “worst wildlife disaster in modern history,” according to a report by the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF), with three billion animals affected. This includes 143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 180 million birds, and 51 million frogs which were harmed.

Authorities and firemen (both professional and volunteers) put up a tremendous effort to limit the fire, but all they could do was limit the scale of the damage. Much of the affected areas had been in drought for three years and the lack of water transformed green plants into perfect fuel for the fire, helping spread the damage. As Australian researchers had predicted for over a decade, higher temperatures are starting to take a toll.

The world’s largest offshore wind farm

The UK, already the world’s leader in offshore wind, is getting ready to start construction of what will be the world’s biggest offshore wind park, Dogger Bank. The British utility company SSE and the Norwegian energy firm Equinor agreed to invest $8 billion in the project, which will be used to build the first two phases. The wind farm is being developed in three phases and each phase will have an installed generation capacity of up to 1.2 gigawatts (GW).

The construction of the first two phases, with 2.4 GW capacity, will be financed by a group of 29 banks and three credit export agencies. They will be built at the same time starting in 2021 to maximize the synergies due to their geographical proximity and make use of common technology and contractors. Offshore wind in the UK now powers the equivalent of 4.5 million homes per year and in many areas, and wind is now the lowest cost option for new power in the UK.

US set to rejoin the Paris Agreement under Biden

Democratic candidate Joe Biden won the presidential elections in the United States and he’s already lining up big changes on climate change as soon as he takes office on 20 January. The biggest change will be rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change, following President Donald Trump’s decision to leave the pact.

Biden has promised measures to put the US will on track for net-zero emissions by the middle of the century. This would have a big effect on meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals. An analysis by Climate Action Tracker, a non-profit organization, said Biden’s climate plan could put the Paris’ goals “within striking distance”.

Biden vowed to eliminate carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2035 and spend $2 trillion on investments ranging from weatherizing homes to developing a nationwide network of charging stations for electric vehicles. If he can’t implement it through Senate, he’ll have to rely on executive orders to advance his agenda.

Air pollution drops with the pandemic

Images from the NASA Earth Observatory show a stark drop in pollution in Wuhan, when comparing NO2 levels in early 2019 (top) and early 2020 (bottom).

The lockdown measures implemented across the world at the start of the pandemic improved air quality and averted thousands of deaths in regions with severe air pollution, according to several studies. Scientists are increasingly calling for more ambitious policies to achieve larger air quality improvements in the future.

A team of scientists at the University of Notre Dame found that particulate matter concentrations in China and parts of Europe dropped by 29.7% and 17.1% respectively during the lockdown. They measured air quality between February and March in China and February and May in Europe, when stay-at-home orders were in place. The European Environmental Agency (EEA) published the report “COVID-19 and Europe’s environment” and showed how concentrations of NO2 — a pollutant mainly emitted by road transport — fell sharply in many European countries. Reductions variated between countries, depending on how severe was the lockdown.

Particulate matter, small airborne particles, comes from combustion-related sources such as industrial emissions, transportation, wildfires, and chemical reactions of pollutants in the atmosphere. This has turned air pollution into the leading environmental cause of death, according to the World Health Organization.

Record number of storms

The 2020 hurricane season broke several records, especially regarding the number of storms in the tropical Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea.

In May, the Climate Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasted that 2020 would be an above-average hurricane season. The main reason for this is the above normal sea surface (SST) in tropical Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea and stronger West African monsoon, key conditions for the formation of tropical cyclones. But few would predict what ended up happening.

Image credit: NOAA

To the surprise of everyone, it wasn’t long before we reached a point where there were no more new names for storms. Tropical Storm Arthur was the first to form on May 16th and lasted until May 19th. Eight days later another tropical storm was formed and the list continued until the last name, Wilfred, on September 13th. It’s not just the number of storms, its intensity was also pretty scary. During this season, there were four simultaneous events, at least 2 storms happening at the same time. Laura and Marco, both hurricanes, started together and continued staying active almost at the same time. Laura was the strongest storm to hit Louisiana in the US.

Over 80% of 2020’s new energy is renewable

Led by solar power, renewable energy could account for 80% of the growth in electricity generation over the next decade, according to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). It’s now consistently cheaper to generate electricity from the sun than by burning coal or natural gas in most countries, IEA said.

The IEA, an intergovernmental organization, said electricity costs from large-scale solar photovoltaic installations have fallen from roughly 38 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2010, to a global average of 6.8 cents per kilowatt-hour last year. This means solar could become “the new king” of the world’s electricity markets, IEA head Fatih Birol said.

At the same time, a report by the energy consultancy Ember found that wind and solar doubled their share of global electricity generation since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2015, reaching almost 10% in the first half of the year.

Coral reefs take a big hit

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has lost more than half of its coral population in the last three decades, according to a new study, with climate change being the main driver of this loss. The researchers found that all types of coral had suffered a decline here, in the world’s largest reef system.

The year 2020 was not kind to the reefs. A third mass coral bleaching event in five years was recorded at the Great Barrier Reef, showing that for the first time, all the major regions in the Barrier Reef experienced severe bleaching. This is largely caused by global warming and ocean acidification — which is also a result of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere and then absorbed by the oceans.

Coral reefs are some of the most vibrant marine ecosystems on the planet. They are called the rainforests of the sea, as between a quarter and one-third of all marine species rely on them at some point in their life cycle. Fishes and other organisms’ shelter, find food and reproduce near them. The Great Barrier Reef covers nearly 133,000 square miles and is home to more than 1,500 species of fish, 411 species of hard corals, and 4,000 types of mollusk.

Carbon neutrality targets

Around the world, countries have started committing to carbon neutrality targets by 2050 or 2060, a vital step to addressing global warming. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in September that China will aim to reach peak emissions before 2030 and then carbon neutrality by 2060. The country is the world’s largest source of carbon dioxide, accountable for about 28% of the global emissions. Emissions in China rose in 2018 and 2019.

South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, declared in October that the country will go carbon neutral by 2050. He vowed to end its dependence on coal and replace it with renewables as part of its Green New Deal, a multibillion-dollar plan to invest in green infrastructure, clean energy, and electric vehicles.

Several countries have already mandated carbon neutrality by law. France, Germany, Hungary, Denmark, New Zealand, Scotland, the UK, and Sweden have legally committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, while several other countries (including South Africa, Belgium, Norway, and Portugal) have adopted policies to do so.

A list of country pledges towards carbon neutrality, via Wikpiedia.

Microplastics, microplastics everywhere

The world’s seafloor is riddled with 14 million tons of microplastics, broken down from the masses of rubbish entering the oceans every year, according to a study. It’s the first global estimate of sea-floor microplastics and the amount registered is 25 times greater than that shown by previous localized studies.

Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans is an internationally recognized environmental problem. Millions of tons of plastic enter marine ecosystems every year, and quantities are expected to increase in the coming years. Over time, plastic items in the ocean can degrade or break down into smaller pieces, known as microplastics.

Another study published in July found that about 1.3 billion tons of plastic will be dumped into our environment by 2040, both on land and in the ocean, according to a global model of the scale of the plastic problem. Roughly 460 million tons will end up on land on land and 250 million tons in watercourses.

Lack of biodiversity action

World leaders have failed to meet a set of important biodiversity goals, according to a United Nations report. In fact, not one single biodiversity target has been met ten years after they were proposed, and ecosystems all around the world are still experiencing massive strain.

The Global Biodiversity Outlook, published by the Convention of Biological Diversity (CDB), showed the progress the world has made (or hasn’t made) since we first laid down solid biodiversity goals ten years ago. They are the equivalent to the Paris Agreement on climate change but on biodiversity — and none of them have been achieved.

According to scientists, we are currently causing a sixth mass extinction, with wildlife populations dropping more than two thirds since 1970 and continuing to decline in the past decade, according to the report. Meanwhile, governments are falling short on funding to protect biodiversity.

A not so green recovery

Activists, academics, and politicians are drawing attention to the need for the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic to be a green one that can help the world to tackle climate change. Nevertheless, most countries have gone in the opposite direction, giving trillions to fossil fuels.

A report by Climate Transparency found that the G20 spent US$393 billion on support to the energy sector, with 53.5% going to fossil fuels ($175 billion to oil and gas, and $16.2 billion to coal). Of this, 86% has been provided without conditions for improved environmental action or performance.

G20 economies represent more than 80% of global GDP and three-quarters of global trade. The group is also responsible for 75% of global emissions and therefore has a major role in fulfilling the goal of the Paris Agreement to avoid a temperature increase of more than 2C, or ideally 1.5C, above the pre-industrial levels.

No-meat diets won’t fix the climate — too many poor countries can’t adopt them

Removing all meat from the human diet to protect the environment isn’t a workable solution outside rich countries, a new paper reports.

Image credits Ulrike Leone.

Calls to remove all meat from our diets to limit CO2 emissions are only realistic in rich, industrialized regions. In low- or middle-income countries, livestock can represent a critical source of income and food, the paper argues, making such changes practically impossible for locals.

Let’s meat halfway

“Conclusions drawn in widely publicized reports argue that a main solution to the climate and human health crisis globally is to eat no or little meat but they are biased towards industrialized, Western systems,” said Birthe Paul, the lead author and environmental scientist at the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

Animal sourced foodstuffs such as meat and dairy are a much heavier burden on the environment than plant-sourced items. As such, many governments and organizations around the world are urging citizens to reduce their intake of the former and include more of the latter. As a bonus, plant-based items tend to be healthier, too.

But we should not delude ourselves into thinking this is all it will take to address climate change. For many people, such a shift is simply impossible without a massive blow to their and their families’ financial and food security. Livestock are extremely important sources of food and repositories of value for people in low- and middle-income countries. Asking them to give up animal products is asking them to shoot themselves in the foot, the team argues.

Of all scientific literature published since 1945 on the subject of livestock only 13% covers Africa, they note — yet Africa houses around 20%, 27% and 32% of global cattle, sheep, and goat populations, respectively. Although livestock makes up a key pillar of local economies in Africa, eight of the world’s top 10 institutes publishing livestock research are based overseas. Only two, including the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), are headquartered in Africa.

The authors argue that this has left us biased in regards to research on livestock. As western nations focus more and more on climate change, they’re driven to understand the effects the livestock industry has on climate. This leaves out a lot of the picture, they add, including the positive role such animals can play, both from an environmental and socio-economic point of view. It also leaves out a huge difference — animals in Africa are rarely reared the same way that they are in highly-industrialized nations.

“Mixed systems in low- and middle-income countries, where animal production is fully linked with crop production, can actually be more environmentally sustainable,” said An Notenbaert, from the Alliance of Bioversity International, co-author of the paper.

“In sub-Saharan Africa, manure is a nutrient resource which maintains soil health and crop productivity; while in Europe, huge amounts of manure made available through industrialized livestock production are overfertilizing agricultural land and causing environmental problems.”

A common approach in African savannas is to keep herds in pens at night, which has been shown to increase the levels of nutrients available in the whole ecosystem, the authors argue. Feed is produced more locally and in more sustainable fashion, whereas industrialized nations import most of their feed (which means more fuel and infrastructure is needed to transport it). Such imports are also a driver of ecological damage — the authors note that soybean produced and exported as feed to animals in Vietnam and Europe is a leading cause for deforestation in the Amazon.

While livestock are an important source of greenhouse gases, we simply don’t have the data needed to establish national mitigation strategies in this regard. The authors also urge that we look beyond making animals more productive, and turn instead to looking at how we can be more resource efficient and what systems can be put in place to limit emissions from them.

“Meat production itself is not the problem. Like any food, when it is mass-produced, intensified and commercialized, the impact on our environment is multiplied,” said Polly Ericksen, Program Leader of Sustainable Livestock Systems at the International Livestock Research Institute and co-author of the paper.

“Eliminating meat from our diet is not going to solve that problem. While advocating a lower-meat diet makes sense in industrialized systems, the solution is not a blanket climate solution, and does not apply everywhere.”

Meat consumption in sub-Saharan Africa is much lower than that in developed countries, also. The paper cites estimates of the Food and Agriculture Organization, according to which average yearly meat consumption per capita here will be roughly 13kgs by 2028; in the US, this figure is expected to reach 100kgs in the same timeframe.

The authors point to a range of higher-impact environmental solutions. Among them, improved animal feed so animals emit less greenhouse gases like methane per kilogram of milk or meat. Better land management and approaches such as using manure and crop byproducts for fertilizers (by plowing them into the soil) would have a significant positive impact on farm output as well as the environment.

The paper “Sustainable livestock development in low and middle income countries – shedding light on evidence-based solutions” has been published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

In the Red Sea, an oil tanker rots — it could create the largest spill in human history

The Red Sea is at risk of becoming an oil-drenched waste, according to a new paper. It draws attention to the need of removing an abandoned, decaying tanker from the sea that holds approximately one million barrels of oil.

Image via Pixabay.

The ship, named quite ironically the “FSO Safer”, was employed as a floating storage and offloading unit (FSO) for several years before being abandoned due to the Yemeni Civil War. Now it’s essentially a floating, derelict oil container. Although no longer in use, it still carries around one million barrels of oil, which is four times as much as spilled from the Exxon Valdez in the infamous 1989 spill. Removing the tanker before its current seepage can turn into a full-fledged oil spill is critical for the health of local marine ecosystems and the communities they support.

The study follows on the coattails of an announcement on November 24th that the Yemeni Houthis will allow a United Nations (UN) team to board, inspect, and repair the vessel in the near future.

Biggest oil can

“The time is now to prevent a potential devastation to the region’s waters and the livelihoods and health of millions of people living in half a dozen countries along the Red Sea’s coast,” says Karine Kleinhaus, MD, MPH, an Associate Professor of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) at Stony Brook University and lead author of the paper.

“If a spill from the Safer is allowed to occur, the oil would spread via ocean currents to devastate a global ocean resource, as the coral reefs of the northern Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba are projected to be among the last reef ecosystems in the world to survive the coming decades.”

The paper calls for the removal of oil currently held inside the Safer before a spill occurs. It outlines a policy brief required to do so, and has been authored by an international team of researchers.

The Safer started its life as the Esso Japan in 1976 and was converted to an unpropelled storage vessel in 1987, acquired by the Yemeni government in 1988, and anchored off the coast of Yemen. Rechristened as the Safer, it was used as temporary storage for oil extracted in the area awaiting export. In 2015, when Houthi forces took control of its surrounding coastline, they also in effect took ownership of the vessel. Due to a lack of proper maintenance, the Safer’s structure suffered extensive wear and tear over the following years.

Storage ships typically use inert gas chambers to prevent combustion of oil or oil vapors on board, and the Safer was no exception. However, its advanced level of deterioration means that some of its gas chambers have likely vented by now, posing an explosive risk. The aging metal plates could also give way, leading to a massive spill. The Safer still holds an estimated US$80 million worth of oil onboard, some 1.14 million barrels. Its value has thwarted any hope that the Houthi forces and Yemeni government would reach an understanding on how to proceed with the ship (as both parties claim rights over the ship and its cargo).

Leaks first started being reported around the Safer in 2019 through Al Jazeera, although subsequent satellite imagery found no signs of oil spills. Still, the risk is very real. The Houtis granted permission for a UN team to board and inspect the vessel in the near future, as announced by The New York Times on November 24th of this year.

The Red Sea is a unique environment, so I’m very happy that they did. Coral reefs in the sea are particularly at risk from any spills, and they’re different from reefs anywhere else. Corals in the Red Sea have adapted to survive in higher temperatures than anywhere else. Researchers have pinned much hope that these organisms can be used to seed reefs throughout the world that are currently dying due to global warming (such as the Great Barrier Reef, for example). Communities in all countries bordering the sea also rely heavily on its wildlife for food and income, and the Red Sea is a hotbed of biodiversity. A spill here would cause immense damage to nature and people.

The current paper used computer simulations to estimate the impact of a spill from Safer. The projections show that it would spread massively during winter due to local current patterns, and less in summer. On simulations with longer run times, the oil would spread farther away from the ship, suggesting that the issue could grow out of hand quickly if allowed. Especially as it’s winter right now.

According to the authors, seawater breached the Safer reaching its engine compartment in May 2020, and there have been reports of associated leaks.

“Emergent action must be taken by the UN and its International Maritime Organization to address the threat of the Safer, despite political tensions, as a spill will have disastrous environmental and humanitarian consequences, especially if it occurs during winter,” the paper notes.

“With millions of barrels of oil a day passing through the Red Sea, a regional strategy must be drafted for leak prevention and containment that is specific to the Red Sea’s unique ecosystems, unusual water currents, and political landscape.”

The paper, titled “A Closing Window of Opportunity to Save a Unique Marine Ecosystem,” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

We are losing the battle in a “suicidal” war against nature, UN head warns

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres painted a bleak picture when presenting a report on this year’s state of the planet, claiming that a green recovery from the pandemic could the last chance for a reset to save Earth.

Image credit: UN

Guterres gave a speech at Columbia University in New York to introduce the provisional 2020 State of the Global Climate report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). This year is on course to be one of the three warmest ever recorded, according to the report, and as emissions continue to rise, temperatures are also expected to do the same.

“To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken,” Guterres said. “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back — and it is already doing so with growing force and fury. Biodiversity is collapsing. One million species are at risk of extinction. Ecosystems are disappearing before our eyes.”

The UN head said climate and environmental policies have failed to rise to the challenge, as emissions this year are 60% higher than in 1990. The current emissions put the world on a trend of a temperature rise between 3ºC and 5ºC by 2100, Guterres said. Still, there’s still hope, as countries can build a “truly global” coalition for carbon neutrality — but we need to act now.

The Paris Agreement on climate change, set up in 2015, asks countries to present climate pledges (nationally determined contributions, or NDCs) to avoid the temperature going over 2ºC by the end of the century. While that goal seems impossible now, countries are expected to present new pledges over the next few months to address the gap.

“Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere,” Guterres said. “In this context, the recovery from the pandemic is an opportunity. We can see rays of hope in the form of a vaccine. But there is no vaccine for the planet. Nature needs a bailout.”

Countries have already spent trillions of dollars as part of the recovery from the pandemic, amid calls by scientists and campaigners to use those funds for a green recovery. Guterres said it’s time to “flick the green switch” as a sustainable economy would create jobs, cleaner infrastructure, and a resilient future. In other words, we can build a greener future while also fostering a thriving economy, while the opposite might not be an option.

While we are dealing with a true planetary emergency, the UN head said he’s hopeful. Many cities are becoming greener, the circular economy is reducing waste and environmental laws have growing reach. A new world is taking shape, he said, as people are understanding the need to reduce their carbon footprint.

“This is a moment of truth for people and planet alike. COVID and climate have brought us to a threshold. We cannot go back to the old normal of inequality, injustice and heedless dominion over the Earth,” he said. “Instead we must step towards a safer, more sustainable and equitable path.”

The worrying state of the planet

The average global temperature is set to reach about 1.2ºC above pre-industrial levels and there’s at least a one in five chance of it exceeding 1.5ºC by 2024 — an important benchmark, and an unfortunate one to pass.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of leading climate experts from around the world, warned that 1.5ºC is the danger line for global warming. Exceeding that threshold would trigger severe climate effects around the world that might be irreversible, such as the loss of 99% of the coral reefs.

The WHO said this year has been unusually hot despite the cooling effect of La Niña, the climate phenomenon associated with below-normal sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean with global implications. Its impact has been more than offset by heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gasses. In the past, unusually warm years matched with a strong El Niño event, which is the opposite of La Niña and causes higher sea surface temperatures and warmer global temperatures. This is no longer the case, WMO’s secretary-general Petteri Taalas said in a statement, leaving 2020 as another extraordinary year for the climate.

“We saw new extreme temperatures on land, sea and especially in the Arctic. Wildfires consumed vast areas in Australia, Siberia, the US West Coast and South America, sending plumes of smoke circumnavigating the globe. We saw a record number of hurricanes in the Atlantic and flooding’s in parts of Africa,” Taalas said.

Arctic sea ice reached its annual minimum in September, as the second-lowest in the 42-year-old satellite record. Arctic sea ice for July and October 2020 was the lowest on record. Meanwhile, Antarctic ice in 2020 was close to or slightly above the 42-year mean and Greenland also continued to lose ice.

The number of tropical cyclones globally was above average this year, with 96 cyclones as of 17 November in the 2020 Northern Hemisphere and 2019-2020 Southern Hemisphere seasons. The North Atlantic region had an exceptionally active season, with 30 tropical cyclones as of 17 November, more than double the average.

Approximately 10 million displacements, largely due to hydro-meteorological hazards and disasters, were recorded during the first half of 2020, mainly concentrated in South and South-east Asia and the Horn of Africa. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has added a further dimension to human mobility concerns.

“The current global recession caused by the pandemic makes it challenging to enact the policies needed for mitigation, but it also presents opportunities to set the economy on a greener path in order to boost investment in green and resilient public infrastructure,” the WMO said in a statement.

Feeling blue with the pandemic? A dose of nature can make a big difference

The pandemic has left us all to deal with unprecedented changes in our day-to-day lives, including making many people spending most of their time at home, isolated from others. While this can be effective in reducing the spread of the virus, it can also have negative consequences on our mental health and wellbeing.

But we have a pandemic-proof ally: nature. During this extraordinary time nature around our homes can actually play a key role in mitigating against the risk of adverse mental health outcomes, studies are increasingly showing.

Credit image: Flickr / Luis Alberto Martinez

“Studies have proven that even the smallest bit of nature can generate health benefits,” Kathleen Wolf, a researcher at the University of Washington, said in a statement. “Look closely in your neighborhood, and the bit of nature you may have taken for granted up until now may become the focus of your attention.”

With more people working from home, many have been inspired to explore nature in their neighborhood as they refocus on their immediate surroundings. Factory and car emissions have declined due to the pandemic so taking a walk to a near-by park and listening to the birds can even be more enjoyable than before.

Even if you can’t go out due to the pandemic you can still receive mental health benefits from nature from within your home. One notable “less immediate” experience of nature is viewing nature from the home (through the balcony or even the window) — we all do this more or less and it helps a bit, even though we might not feel it.

People all around the world have also seen a greater interest in gardening. Google Trends shows a doubling of worldwide online searches for compost and seeds compared with a year ago. U.S. seed company W. Atlee Burpee & Co sold more seed than any time in its 144-year history in March, for example.

Dr Mathew White, from the University of Exeter, told the BBC that even a brief nature fix such as ten minutes of wind brushing across our cheek, or the sun on our skin can lower stress. Connecting with nature makes us happier and more energized, with an increased sense of meaning and purpose, he added.

In fact, many studies have shown exactly that. Researchers from the University of Tokyo did an online questionnaire to 3,000 adults in Japan to quantify the link between menthol health outcomes and measures of nature experiences. They found a link between more frequent green space use with higher levels of happiness.

“Our results suggest that nearby nature can serve as a buffer in decreasing the adverse impacts of a very stressful event on humans,” said lead author Masashi Soga. “Protecting natural environments in urban areas is important not only for the conservation of biodiversity but also for the protection of human health.”

A study from last year found that spending time with nature produced a significant drop in the stress hormone cortisol, with the duration of the nature experience contributing to the amount of stress reduction. Another research from 2004 showed having access to a garden has a significant positive impact on stress.

Peter Kahn from Washington University explained that being in touch with nature can slow down the mind’s natural process of rumination through which we think about the past and worry about the future. “When your mind isn’t ruminating, it can then open to a wider world, where there’s great beauty and healing,” he said in a statement.

Slow movements such clouds moving across the sky place effortless demands on our working memory but enough to distract us from rumination. Researchers such as Kahn call this capacity to hold our attention the “soft fascination” of nature. A similar effect is caused by tending to plants, giving us a sense of achievement when they flourish.

Other tips that you can do at home include:

  • Open a window to hear the sounds of the leaves or enjoy the scent of fresh rain
  • Walk first in the morning or before the sunset when the warm colors highlight the textures of the natural world
  • Plant seeds. You can even use the ones you find in fruits or near trees
  • Use natural design elements in your home
  • Think of nature when you are cooking. When you take your morning coffee, imagine the rainforest birds that helped pollinate coffee plants.