Eco Buzz

This timelapse serves up some deforestation with your World Cup

Gristmill - Tue, 2014-07-01 20:22

We all know that this World Cup, however magnificent the saves, comes with its fair share of fouls. But it’s one thing to know that Brazil built a stadium in the capital city of Amazonas, and another thing entirely to SEE 30 years of satellite images in which a little patch of mostly green is slowly and almost completely colonized by concrete.

(To be fair, FIFA can only take the blame for the stuff that happens after 2007, when Brazil was named this year’s tournament host … in fact, most of the deforestation was already fait accompli by then, but you didn’t click on this for quibbles, you clicked on this because you wanted to watch a depressing timelapse.)

That, my friends, is what deforestation looks like — otherwise known as what happens when you build a road into a rainforest. While development is heaviest on the peninsula that is Manaus, you can also see little seams of roads stretching out into the virgin green of the surrounding forest, bringing more construction with them. SkyTruth, who pointed out this timelapse, had this to say about Manaus:

Playing soccer in the middle of the rainforest is tough (80+ degrees with 80+% humidity), but building in this region proved even tougher.  Most of the materials had to be shipped up the Amazon, and a sizeable part of the stadium was shipped all the way from Portugal.  Workers fought with high humidity that allegedly caused steel to buckle (?!) and three people died during the construction efforts.

None of which will stop us from declaring war on Belgian waffles and waving ye olde stars and stripes today. But don’t worry — the knockout match is in the town of Salvador, where the Yanks and the Red Devils will face off in a venue that, in a nod to basic thriftiness, can at least be reused in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

P.S. If you like to watch the world in fast forward, you can check out other views at Timelapse.


Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Out of land and almost underwater, the country of Kiribati may move to Fiji

Gristmill - Tue, 2014-07-01 19:50

Moving is such a bitch. You’ve got to find a buddy with a truck, friends willing to work for food, and tranquilizers for the cat. It’s even tougher when you’re moving a whole country, a situation the tiny island nation of Kiribati faces. Do you know how hard it’s going to be finding enough boxes to move 100,786 people? Kiribati’s pizza bill is going to be shocking. And crossing 2055 miles of open ocean ain’t like moving out to the county — your pal’s pickup is going to need excellent ground clearance.

Lawrence Caramel (who sounds delicious) at The Guardian has the story, complete with weird British spellings and distances measured in kilometers:

The people of Kiribati, a group of islands in the Pacific ocean particularly exposed to climate change, now own a possible refuge elsewhere. President Anote Tong has recently finalised the purchase of 20 sq km on Vanua Levu, one of the Fiji islands, about 2,000km away.

The Church of England has sold a stretch of land mainly covered by dense forest for $8.77m. “We would hope not to put everyone on [this] one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it,” Tong told the Associated Press…

Within a few decades, small islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans risk being extensively or even completely submerged. In places the sea level is rising by 1.2cm a year, four times faster than the global average.

Kiribati may be the first to pull the trigger and purchase lands for a new home, but it is unlikely to be the last. “We are the canary,” Kiribati president Anote Tong told CNN. “But hopefully, that experience will send a very strong message that we might be on the frontline today, but others will be on the frontline next.”

Pity Kiribati’s mailman. He’s gonna have a stack of forwarding requests 137 feet high.

 


Filed under: Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

How to Make Your Home Smart and Energy Efficient

Triple Pundit - Tue, 2014-07-01 17:59

When it comes to electrical usage, one should think of the age-old economic theory, the Tragedy of the Commons. The principle is simple: Individuals acting rationally and in their own self-interest can actually act against the best interests of the group, by wasting a common resource needed by the collective whole. You may not believe that you're using an exorbitant amount of electricity, but over time, this usage adds up.

The post How to Make Your Home Smart and Energy Efficient appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

Ocean acidification could be creating friendless fish

Gristmill - Tue, 2014-07-01 16:42

Fish seem like chummy enough creatures, often schooling with fish they’re familiar with to avoid predators and increase the chances of finding a mate. But as carbon dioxide levels rise worldwide, they could lose their ability to recognize each other, in effect becoming “friendless” wanderers who will hang out with just about anybody.

That’s the short version of new research on climate change and fish behavior out of James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. A team led by Lauren Nadler wanted to know how fish will react to ocean acidification caused by more and more human-generated CO2 in the atmosphere. So they created two experimental setups, one with regular ocean water and the other enriched with CO2, and into them dumped a bunch of tropical damselfish. Here’s what those guys look like out on the reef:

Lauren Nadler

Juvenile damselfish ordinarily take about three weeks to bond to the point that they’ll recognize each other. And that is indeed what happened with the control-environment fish, who later chose to school with their childhood buddies. But in the altered one, which had CO2 levels comparable to what the IPCC estimates for 2100, the fish showed signs of developmental impairment: When put among schools of fish they grew up with and with ones they didn’t, they displayed no preference for hobnobbing with their old tank mates. They’d just as soon swim with strangers.

This odd behavior might be caused by higher concentrations of CO2 altering fish-brain neuroreceptors. “This impairs basic senses, such as sight and smell, which are vital for recognition in fish,” write the researchers. Whatever the cause, losing the ability to find friends spells possible trouble for damselfish, as well as other species more valuable to the international economy, according to the study:

These results could have serious implications for tropical fish, whose habitat is already threatened by climate change. “Familiarity is an important trait for defence, particularly in a predator-rich environment like a coral reef,” says Miss Nadler. “Since half of all fish species in the world school at some point during their lives, including economically important species, these effects could be critical for species that rely on group-living to avoid predators.”

The Australian research adds another clue to the mounting pile of evidence that climate change will rock the ocean in ways we are just beginning to understand. In warmer, more acidic waters, coral reefs lose the ability to regrow themselves, creating problems for millions of species that live among them, and some fish become so anxious they hide in the dark. On what’s perhaps the plus side, having more CO2 in the ocean seems to make certain tropical fish want to have a lot more sex.

This story was produced by The Atlantic’s CityLab as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.


Filed under: Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

With one more nail in its coffin, is Keystone XL history?

Gristmill - Tue, 2014-07-01 14:06

This past weekend, on June 29, TransCanada’s permit from the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission to build the Keystone XL pipeline quietly expired.

Well, sort of quietly. The Cowboy & Indian Alliance, which marched on Washington in opposition to Keystone XL earlier this year, held a celebratory buffalo roast at the Rosebud Sioux Spirit Camp and raised a flag with an image of a black snake cut into three parts.

The flag referenced an old prophecy about a black snake that would threaten the community’s land and water. Earlier interpretations had held that the snake was the railroad, and then the highway system. But when the plans for Keystone XL emerged, it seemed clear that, since both black snakes and Keystone XL traveled underground, this was definitely the black snake — or at the very least another one.

With South Dakota’s permit expired, Nebraska’s held up in litigation, and Montana blocked from the already-completed portions of Keystone XL in Kansas by South Dakota and Nebraska, the snake is cut up in three parts, at least for now.

The expired permit means that TransCanada will have to go through the application process all over again, facing a much more unified resistance than it did the first time around. The fracking boom in places like North Dakota will also make it much harder for TransCanada to argue — as it did the first time around — that Americans need Canadian crude so urgently that a Canadian pipeline company should be given powers of eminent domain to bring it here.

Keystone XL could still get built, of course. But as time goes on, and the date of the State Department’s yes/no ruling on it keeps getting pushed farther and farther into the future, it seems less and less likely.

KXL’s opponents shifted the balance of power by using many different tactics at once — massive national protests; small-scale civil disobedience along the path of the pipeline’s construction; and grassroots politicking and organizing at the local level by groups all along the pipeline’s proposed route.

The fight against the pipeline is a vindication of the “everything but the kitchen sink” school of organizing, where small groups — like the Cowboy & Indian Alliance — join forces with other organizations for large short-term events, but continue working solo on the kind of gradual, incremental struggles that take years. This is not the kind of organizing that makes it into the history books, because its story is complex and it often lacks obvious heroes. But it’s an approach that, at least in this case, is making history.


Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

Cool roofs offer a salve for hot cities — and the climate, too

Gristmill - Tue, 2014-07-01 11:03

From his office in the Berkeley hills, Art Rosenfeld looks out on the heart of California’s Bay Area. The 87-year-old scientist keeps a pencil and a small notebook in his breast pocket, ready to jot down a quick note or make a calculation. With these simple tools he has been able to influence state and national energy policy over the years. But for now they stay tucked away as he enjoys the scenery. “I get a pretty good view of San Francisco,” Rosenfeld says.

While his vantage point has remained unchanged since beginning his career at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1955, the view outside his window has changed considerably. The buildings are taller and more densely packed in on all sides of the bay. And from Rosenfeld’s bird’s-eye view, he sees that many of these buildings now boast noticeably brighter rooftops than they did even a few years ago.

Hallie Bateman

This brightening is a direct result of Rosenfeld’s vision. For decades he has promoted “cool” roofs, which are lighter in color than traditional black slabs and therefore reflect more of the sun’s heat. Cool roofs save money by keeping indoor temperatures more comfortable in warm weather and reducing the need for air conditioning. And since smog forms more rapidly at higher temperatures, reducing excess urban heat can also make city air safer to breathe. To top it off, cooler temperatures can make heat waves less hazardous to city-dwellers.

On a larger scale, the impact can be even greater. A global campaign to brighten cities could cancel out some of the warming caused by greenhouse gases. This is because reducing energy absorption at Earth’s surface decreases the amount of heat these gases can trap in the atmosphere. Of this planetary conversion, Rosenfeld says “it’s like taking half of the world’s cars off the road for 20 years.”

With the United States leading the charge, that reality may not be far away. Cities from San Francisco to New York are combating rising temperatures and improving air quality – dampening the effects of climate change in the process – by brightening their roofs. In a way, it’s as though Rosenfeld has taken his pencil to city skylines; instead of shading in the changes he has influenced, though, he uses the other end to erase black roofs.

Art Rosenfeld: Mr. Cool Roofs himself.

Art Rosenfeld got his Ph.D. in 1955 at the University of Chicago, where he was one of the final disciples of legendary physicist Enrico Fermi. From there, he built a career in nuclear particle physics at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, one in a network of Department of Energy research institutions. Then the oil embargo of 1973 sent him down a new path. “Americans knew so little about how their automobiles worked that there were long lines of cars waiting to drive into gas stations with their engines idling, running out of gasoline as they sat there,” he says.

One Friday evening that fall, with the embargo in full effect, Rosenfeld noticed that across the bay in San Francisco, office buildings were “ablaze with lights.” All those lights would burn until Monday morning, while the workers who used them were away for the weekend. Using his trusty pencil and notepad, he calculated that shutting off the lights in one office floor over the weekend would save about as much energy as a tank of gasoline produced.

Intrigued by the prospect of reducing energy waste, Rosenfeld began studying how buildings can use energy more efficiently. “My wife thought I was overqualified for the job of going into energy efficiency,” he says.

In the 40 years since then, his work has revolutionized the energy performance of refrigerators, light bulbs, windows, and other building components. He is even credited with keeping Californians’ per-capita electricity use steady since the early 1970s while it has climbed steadily elsewhere—a phenomenon familiarly called the “Rosenfeld effect.”

Rosenfeld first pitched cool roofs more than 30 years ago as an unconventional solution to air quality issues, with energy savings as a bonus. In 1980, recognizing that smog had become a problem, Los Angeles officials convened a panel of experts – Rosenfeld included – to discuss potential fixes. Smog is a noxious gas that forms when certain emissions, such as car exhaust, mix with ultraviolet sunlight. Because high temperatures catalyze this reaction, Rosenfeld saw cool roofs as a way to limit the rate at which smog forms.

“We came up with a plan to use cool roofs and plant shade trees in order to reduce air conditioning needs considerably,” Rosenfeld says. “We figured this could knock 4 degrees [Fahrenheit] off the temperature on a hot afternoon, which would reduce smog by 5 or 7 percent.”

Rosenfeld calculated that installing white roofs throughout the Los Angeles basin would save Angelenos $170 million each year in energy costs and health-related expenses. But air quality officials instead focused efforts on limiting the emissions that react to form smog (which has been fairly successful, but arguably leaves room for improvement).

Undeterred, Rosenfeld continued pushing his idea forward. After spending six years in Washington, D.C., as an energy policy adviser in the Clinton administration, Rosenfeld was appointed to the California Energy Commission in 2000. Five years later, he instituted the nation’s first cool roof mandate, which requires that all new and retrofit commercial flat roofs in the state be white. More recently, the directive has expanded to include residential homes in the very hottest parts of the state – but notably not Los Angeles. Federal agencies such as the Department of Energy are also transitioning to cool roofs on all their facilities, which account for roughly 3 percent of the nation’s buildings.

After he retired from the California Energy Commission in 2010, Rosenfeld returned to Berkeley Lab, where he continues to promote technologies that can create cooler cities. Meanwhile, his ideas continue to spread.

Popcorn and VodkaJuan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza, founder of the White Roof Project.

When Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza first heard Rosenfeld’s selling points for cool roofs several years back, he recalls wondering, “How did we ever decide to paint all of the roofs in our city black?”

So Piñeiro Escoriaza and a few friends began approaching nonprofits throughout the city, offering to coat their roofs white for free. News of their first project spread quickly through word-of-mouth, and when they showed up for the job, more than 100 other volunteers were there to help. That was when Piñeiro Escoriaza says they went from being “an intrepid group of activists to actually starting a movement.”

Not long after, Piñeiro Escoriaza formalized this movement as a nonprofit called the White Roof Project, which has brightened more than 100 buildings in New York.

In 2011, around the time the White Roof Project was getting off the ground, the Big Apple passed a roofing requirement similar to California’s. Chicago had already joined the cool roof club in 2008. And the Los Angeles city council recently approved the most stringent reforms yet, requiring cool roofs not just for commercial buildings, but for new homes and major home renovations as well. The rules were spurred by a study projecting that the region’s temperature would rise by up to 7 degrees by 2050, prompting concerns over air quality, energy use, power reliability, and public health. Homeowners can get a rebate of up to 30 cents per square foot when they purchase a cool roof product.

Rosenfeld believes that recent efforts aimed at cooling Los Angeles – including the new roofing regs – have righted its course. When he first started studying energy efficiency in the 1970s, the city’s average temperature had been going up about 1 degree every 12 years. He attributed this trend to its rapid urban expansion, which required the use of more and more dark surfaces. If that kept up, Rosenfeld predicted that “by about 2020, L.A. would be hotter than any city in the Western Hemisphere was at that time.” Now, he says, “That’s been stopped.”

Google EarthCool roofs in Almeria, Spain.

Some remain leery of these reflectance requirements, particularly in northern cities, where roofs that absorb less sunlight in the winter can drive up heating bills. Chicago-based architect Tom Hutchinson notes that what is suitable in one place may be detrimental in another. “Roofing needs to be a decision based on a lot of things like location, sun, wind, rain, microclimates – there’s no one solution to fit all of those,” Hutchinson says. “Buildings are made up of systems, so you can’t prescribe just one component of the system like a white roof.”

For example, roof reflectance doesn’t address insulation, which can reduce energy bills by slowing the flow of heat into or out of a building. “Insulation is very effective; with enough insulation, roof reflectance doesn’t matter,” Hutchinson says.

Rosenfeld agrees that insulation can be a good way to make buildings more energy efficient, but he says that it has none of ancillary benefits of reflective roofs. “It’s surely a lot cheaper to make a city’s roofs white when they need to be replaced anyway than to bring all their insulation up to code,” Rosenfeld says. Besides, as he points out, “Insulation can’t make the air cooler during a heat wave.”

Rosenfeld also believes in the global benefits of brighter cities, which can make up for a portion of the brightness that is being lost as glaciers and sea ice melt. The ice that has traditionally occupied the poles is bright white, which allows it to regulate the planet’s temperature by reflecting sunlight. As global temperatures rise and this ice melts, it gives way to dark water that absorbs sunlight. While making cities brighter won’t stem sea-level rise, it might slow rising temperatures.

And the movement toward cool roofs is picking up steam around the world. Brazil, China, India, Japan, Mexico, and South Africa have all made commitments to prioritize reflective roofing.

Even where cool roofs have caught on, however, it could take 20 or more years for all structures to transition. Only then will the large-scale climate impacts be known, and it is likely that they are only a small part of the solution to climate change.

But Rosenfeld doesn’t let this slow him down. As long as there are still black roofs and hot cities, his eraser has more work to do. And as the movement he has inspired pushes forward, his handiwork will be ever more visible in the brighter, cooler metropolises of the future.


Filed under: Cities, Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

How the Citi Foundation is Helping to Build a Marketplace for U.S. Community Investments

Triple Pundit - Tue, 2014-07-01 04:41

Senior Program Officer Kristen Scheyder describes the Citi Foundation’s efforts to increase investment in CDFIs (community development financial institutions) through a joint project with Aeris, the information service for community investors.

The post How the Citi Foundation is Helping to Build a Marketplace for U.S. Community Investments appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

Killing 6 Birds with 1 Stone: Harder Than It Sounds

Triple Pundit - Tue, 2014-07-01 04:40

CleanStar Mozambique's audacious clean cookstove plan was ultimately unsuccessful. But that doesn't mean it wasn't worth trying.

The post Killing 6 Birds with 1 Stone: Harder Than It Sounds appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

Why We Care: Valuing Both Economy and Environment

Triple Pundit - Tue, 2014-07-01 01:48

To protect something, we have to love it. And to love it, we have to take the time to appreciate its beauty and value. Last week, I took some time to do just that.

The post Why We Care: Valuing Both Economy and Environment appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

The not-so-hidden climate messages in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-06-30 22:50

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing, listed by the late, great critic Roger Ebert as one of America’s greatest movies. It wasn’t Lee’s first film, but it was the one that launched him into legendary cinematic status and comparisons to other lauded New York filmmakers like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. In celebration of the anniversary, Lee held a block party over the weekend on the Bed-Stuy block where the movie was filmed, with performances from Public Enemy, Erykah Badu, and Dave Chappelle. The First Family even streamed a video message to the party, noting that Do the Right Thing was the movie Barack and Michelle saw on their first date.

While “Do the Right Thing” is best known for its commentary on race relations, there are some prophetic moments and prognostic themes in the film for those concerned about climate change and cities.

1. The heat is on

The temperature is set in the first few scenes of the movie: It’s freakin’ hot. Radio DJ Love Daddy (Samuel Jackson) warns people with Jheri curls that the heat might melt their hairstyles into plastic helmets. Da Mayor, played by the late Ossie Davis, wakes up in what looks like a hellhole, shirtless and sweating profusely, his old age signalling that he might not hold up under the sun. Italian pizzeria owner Sal (Danny Aiello) pulls up to his shop with his two sons immediately bomoaning the humidity. His son Pino (John Turturro) complains that the maintenance guy still hasn’t come to fix the air conditioner. Sal responds that maintenance won’t come to this Bed-Stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn without a police escort. Motha Sista, played by the recently deceased Ruby Dee (Ossie Davis’ wife at the time), warns Spike Lee’s character, Mookie, not to work too hard or he “might fall out from all this heat.”

Bed-Stuy is an urban heat island, one of the most lethal killers under climate change, as the recent U.S. National Climate Assessment points out. When this movie debuted, we were experiencing inexplicably hot summers. At the time, NASA found that the three hottest years in its 134 years of tracking were during the decade of the 1980s. This was, of course, later eclipsed by the 21st century’s hottest years of all-(recorded)-time. Do the Right Thing was filmed after the deadly North American drought of 1988, which, combined with intense heat waves, led to upwards of 10,000 deaths.

When we think of heat-related deaths, we envision elderly people with heart problems who can’t manage under extreme temperatures. But Lee’s film also shows how heat exacerbates underlying tensions and anxieties in our communities, especially those where racial, cultural, and class differences are apparent. Broken air conditioners don’t get fixed because the maintenance guy won’t come into a black neighborhood. Labor is affected. Motha Sista wants Mookie, Sal’s pizza delivery guy, to take it easy. But when he takes work breaks, Sal chastises him for being “lazy.” And when Mookie takes a shower break at home, his sister scorns him some more for being irresponsible with his job. Do the Right Thing’s suspense builds as the temperature rises. The destruction at the movie’s conclusion is an apt metaphor for what will happen as the Earth’s temperature rises under climate change, enflaming communities’ socioeconomic problems in the process.

2. The first movie to bring melting polar caps to our attention

Before EPA and scientists began tying climate change to urban heat islands and asthma, the impacts most associated with global warming were melting polar caps and sea-level rise. Do the Right Thing made direct mention of this long before Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth brought it to the big screen. When we first meet the neighborhood jesters ML, Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris R.I.P.), and Coconut Sid, global warming is one of the first topics at hand.

“Well, gentlemen, the way I see it, if this hot weather continues, it’s going to melt the polar caps and the whole wide world,” ML tells his friends, “and all those parts that ain’t already water will surely be flattened.”

His partners laugh him off, but ML is unbothered. When the world starts drowning, ML will float off on a boat. “And I ain’t gonna drop you no rope, no life preserver, no nothing,” he tells the crew. This only invites more ridicule from them. “How you gonna buy a boat?,” asks Sweet Dick Willie. “You 30 cents away from a quarter.” ML displays his solution: a lottery ticket.

ML might not be a “climate hawk.” He’s definitely no millionaire who can afford to adapt when the worst of climate change comes. His position — trapped in an overheated, concrete jungle — makes it more likely that he’ll be a victim rather than a survivor. Sixteen years later, on another urban heat island hundreds of miles south of Brooklyn, Katrina happened. We saw many people like this movie’s characters who were left stranded in the waters — no boat, no car, no lottery-ticket luck. Just death. When I first saw this scene in Do the Right Thing, as a 12-year-old, I had no context for what these men were talking about. I joined Sweet Dick Willie and Coconut Sid in laughing at ML. Today, I know this ain’t no joke.

3. Whose water is it?

One of the most fragile of our natural resources under climate change’s worst scenarios is water, and not just for the reasons ML references. When the heat gets turned up, the freest, most plentiful solution is cold water. In one scene, the neighborhood teens pry the lid off a fire hydrant and use cans to spray the other kids and anyone in the vicinity. It’s done in fun, but also to cool everyone down on the scorching hot day. When the driver of a convertible gets drenched while driving by, he summons the police, who close up the hydrant and end the festivities, disappointing the neighborhood kids. “You wanna get wet, go to Coney Island,” says one officer. But as I’ve written about here, here, and here, many black kids have been shunned or excluded from pools and beaches — Coney Island in particular, even today — which is why many don’t swim. Spraying from the fire hydrant has been a favorite pastime of many black youth since as long as I can remember.

Problem is, the city controls the hydrants, and super-soaking is not an authorized use of the equipment. It’s for putting out fires. At the movie’s conclusion, though, the fire department weaponizes the hydrant to spray at black and brown folk when they respond angrily to the police for killing the community giant Radio Raheem. These kinds of tensions over who can use water and for what reason will flare up even worse as water becomes a scarcer resource in a climate-changed world.

I want to be clear: This movie was not about global warming. It was a movie about the unresolved problems in our cities and communities — racism, classism, sexism, police brutality — and what happens when you apply heat and pressure. Since the film was released 25 years ago, our summers have only gotten hotter. Back then, we did not have the climate change facts and vocab we have today. Now that we have them, it only makes sense to do what the movie’s title tells us.


Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Hopefully NASA won’t screw up its CO2-measuring satellite this time

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-06-30 20:51

The last time NASA tried to launch a satellite to measure carbon dioxide levels from space, within minutes the $273 million project plopped into the Southern Ocean (oops). Tomorrow they’re giving it another go. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2 will blast off at 2:56 a.m. PDT from the Vadenburg Air Force Base in California. This time, it’ll hopefully make it to 438 miles above the planet, where it will be in a prime position to obsessively watch Earth breathe.

JPL/NASA

Which sounds stalker-esque, but don’t get too creeped out. OCO’s main goal is to figure out where, exactly, atmospheric CO2 currently comes from – and, more mysteriously, where it ends up. While fossil fuel emissions have tripled since the 1960s, levels of atmospheric CO2 have risen by less than a quarter (but unfortunately that’s still enough to cause big global change). That’s because somehow our oceans and plants have, on average, been able to keep pace with absorbing half of the total atmospheric CO2. But scientists still don’t know a lot about the dynamics of how this is happening, which leaves them wondering: How long can we expect these carbon sinks to keep sucking the stuff down?

“Understanding what controls that variability is really crucial,” OCO project manager Ralph Basilio said at a press conference in Pasadena. “If we can do that today, it might inform us about what might happen in the future.”

The satellite will carry a 300-pound instrument that measures the colors of sunlight that bounce off the earth, because that color intensity indicates how much CO2 the light beams through. While it will only take in a square mile at a time – an area smaller than New York’s Central Park – scientists say that it will tell a much more complete story of the comings and goings of atmospheric CO2 than the 150 land-based stations from which they currently get their measurements. It will collect 24 measurements a second, which means a million a day, but scientists predict that only a tenth of them (100,000/day) will be clear enough of clouds to be usable.

If they can get it up there in the first place, that is. Ground control to Major Tom, take your protein pills and put your helmet on …


Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

Drug users buy local, snack heavily

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-06-30 20:14

The U.N.’s annual World Drug report is in and — good news! — it turns out that crocheted hackie sack isn’t the only local artisanal product those hippies on the quad are supporting. The world’s drug market is also hitting the locavore trend.

Here in the States, for instance, imported cocaine is on the decline and home grown (well, not necessarily grown so much as distilled from only the finest household cleaning products in a vintage trailer park bathtub) drugs are taking its place.

Joshua Keating at Slate has the story:

The report notes that in Europe, “cannabis herb produced locally or regionally now gaining ground over cannabis resin, largely sourced from Morocco, which previously was the dominant cannabis substance” on the continent.

When it comes to cocaine, use has fallen in North America likely due a lack of supply. Supply’s steady in Europe, but demand has fallen. The main area where cocaine is expanding in South America, where it is almost exclusively produced. Also, “users in some European countries are replacing heroin with synthetic opioids.” The production of methamphetamine in the U.S. and Mexico is also increasing.

According to the report, law enforcement and supply interruption are a major force in this trend, but in Colorado, for instance, laws legalizing marijuana also mandate that it be grown, sold, and used within the state. Whatever the reason, the trend toward greater localization is probably a good thing, seeing as drug cartels aren’t really known for minding the carbon emissions of their narco-submarines.

I guess if you’re gonna smoke ‘em, keep ‘em in the neighborhood and save the long-distance travel for your hallucinations.


Filed under: Article, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Climate change making emperor penguins’ feet a lot less happy

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-06-30 18:01

As the largest living penguin species, the emperor penguin reaches four feet in height and 100 pounds in weight. In some ways, this iconic bird could be considered one of the most successful bird species in the world. While most birds spend half their lives flying south, emperors got as far south as you can get, put on a nice tuxedo, and then gave up flying all together.

Now the dapper dressers are in trouble — these emperors may have no clothes, but that doesn’t mean they’re looking forward to a warming world, according to a new study in Nature Climate Change:

The researchers’ analysis of the global, continent-wide Emperor penguin population incorporates current and projected future [sea ice concentration] declines, and determined that all of the colonies would be in decline — many by more than 50 percent — by the end of the century, due to future climate change.

“If sea ice declines at the rates projected by the IPCC climate models, and continues to influence Emperor penguins as it did in the second half of the 20th century in Terre Adélie, at least two-thirds of the colonies are projected to have declined by greater than 50 percent from their current size by 2100,” said Jenouvrier. “None of the colonies, even the southern-most locations in the Ross Sea, will provide a viable refuge by the end of 21st century.”

The authors of the study recommend not only adding emperor penguins to the endangered species list, but beginning the search now for possible refuges.

These estimates only go out to the end of the century. Perhaps climate change will be mindful of our Gregorian calendars, but if the world continues to warm past Dec. 31, 2100, the loss of sea ice will be even worse. In addition to the loss of ice, the penguins are up against declining food supplies. Antarctic krill, tiny shrimp-like animals, form the pillar of the Antarctic food chain. Climate change could reduce their range 20 percent over the coming century and in some areas their biomass could take a staggering 68 percent hit, affecting birds, fish, and whales that depend on them. Combined with the loss of sea ice, the loss of the krill would make for a devastating one-two punch to the emperor penguin.

The danger faced by emperor penguins is poignant. No animal stands as a greater symbol of the icy Antarctic than the emperors, and sadly, just as the equally imperiled polar bears, the face of climate change in the Arctic, they share the same fate as their increasingly less frozen home.


Filed under: Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

How One Social Entrepreneur is Changing Education Through Technology

Triple Pundit - Mon, 2014-06-30 13:58

A more fertile market created by the Common Core and digitalization, and futile attempts to convince a publisher to build the curriculum program she needed, prompted teacher-turned-social entrepreneur Eileen Murphy to launch thinkCERCA.

The post How One Social Entrepreneur is Changing Education Through Technology appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

B.C. put a price on carbon. What happened next will surprise you

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-06-30 11:09

When I pull up to the pumps in my small hometown on the coast of British Columbia, Canada, I pay more for a tank of gas than in California, my new home. Why? Because regardless of where gas prices hover at the moment, the B.C. government tops off every gallon with a 25-cent tax.

Complaining about gas prices is almost as ubiquitous as small talk about the weather, so it seems counterintuitive for politicians to hike costs up even further. Yet somehow the province’s Liberal party managed not only to do just that, but also to win an election centered on the issue in 2009. They did it by designing the tax in a way that benefits the province’s robust middle class.

Hallie Bateman

The B.C. carbon tax is built on a simple tenet of human behavior: When the price of something goes up, people will consume less of it. It actually applies to not just gasoline, but to all sources of atmospheric carbon, including natural gas and propane, and is based on how much carbon they emit. For example, since natural gas burns cleaner than gasoline, it is taxed at a lower rate. This ensures emissions are priced in proportion to their impact on the climate.

As a result, British Columbia’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are now nearly 20 percent below the rest of Canada’s. This put the province “within spitting distance” of its goal to reduce emissions 6 percent below 2007 levels by 2012 a year ahead of schedule, says Mary Polak, B.C.’s minister of the environment.

Sustainable Prosperity, a research and policy institute that measured the tax’s impacts, reported that the policy reduced fuel consumption seven times more than if the price of gas had naturally increased by the same amount due to market fluctuations. The tax drove consumption down not just by pushing gas prices up, but also by raising awareness about why we need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

All that happened in the span of just five years.

The carbon tax’s environmental accomplishments are certainly noteworthy, but many people are even more excited about how the economy has responded. While the levy is the highest of its kind in the world, the regional economy has still continued to grow on pace with, and in the last couple of years slightly faster than, the rest of the country. Researchers from Sustainable Prosperity caution that saying the tariff has led the economy to grow would be pure speculation. But just showing that a carbon tax doesn’t flat-line the economy is remarkable, considering that for years, vested interests have been claiming such a measure would cause economic collapse.

Minister Polak also points out that emissions continued to decline even as society emerged from the recession. “It’s not that difficult to lower your emissions when your economy is in the tank,” Polak says. “Where it’s difficult is when your economy is growing.”

The fee was implemented gradually to give people a chance to adapt to the increased cost of fuel. Between 2008 and 2012, the price climbed from $9 to $27 per ton of carbon emitted, the amount that would be released by burning seven tanks of gas. (All dollar amounts have been converted to American figures.) This gave individuals and businesses a chance to switch to greener alternatives before the highest fees kicked in.

Climate scientists and economists have been saying for years that the environmental costs of carbon are much higher than what we traditionally pay. But figuring out the true cost of carbon pollution to society is hard to do. For example, climate change will cause storms to become more frequent and intense, but exactly when and where they will hit can’t be predicted precisely, which means neither can the price tag that accompanies them. The United States government estimates the cost is somewhere between $12 and $116 per ton. Even this estimate is likely conservative, given climate disruption is proving to be more severe than previously anticipated.

Environmental benefits aren’t the only reasons why 64 percent of British Columbians support the levy, though. It’s because we benefit in a tangible and ongoing way from it. The revenues collected don’t get funneled into a government slush fund. Instead, the tax is “revenue neutral,” meaning that the money collected goes right back to the taxpayers in the form of lowered income taxes or checks.

How much you get depends on your income. If you earn less than $29,300 annually, and wouldn’t benefit from a tax credit, you get a check four times a year. As a grad student and someone who falls into the low-income bracket, I look forward to the checks I receive, these days totaling $105 a year. (This number increased incrementally as the fee went up.) Rural and northern residents, who inevitably endure harsher winters, travel longer distances, and face greater obstacles to reducing their dependence on fossil fuels than their urban counterparts, receive an additional sum.

People in the next two tax brackets, earning up to $111,300 a year, receive a rebate on their income taxes. As a result, middle class families, which make up about 60 percent of the population, enjoy the lowest income taxes in the country. The highest income earners, however, don’t get a tax break. And because the tax is applied at the source when a fossil fuel is purchased, similar to a sales tax, it makes getting out of paying difficult.

Herein lies the cornerstone of broad support for the initiative: Whether you care about taking action on climate change or not, chances are good that you benefit from the tax, either in the form of regular checks or via the lowest income taxes in the country. The fact that the tax structure promotes equity is an added bonus.

And if you’re careful about how much fuel you burn, you could even get more back than you paid in the first place. I’m sure that’s true for me because I walk or cycle when possible and don’t own a car. Others who reduce their emissions, by grouping trips, carpooling, or switching to a more efficient vehicle, stand to benefit similarly. In this way, the tax rewards green behavior.

Shutterstock

My father, a small business owner on Vancouver Island, can’t avoid driving because he needs to travel to the properties that he appraises for work. But his priorities have shifted. “The carbon tax makes up a significant enough percent of the increasing price of fuel that it has definitely tipped the scale on how much I drive,” he says.

So when he had to replace his truck last year, he bought a more fuel-efficient model, and he bundles his errands, rather than taking a separate trip for each. “It also changes the way that I drive,” he says. “Now I’m more conscious about accelerating more slowly and driving at slower speeds because it burns less gas.”

Even the Chamber of Commerce, which represents small and medium-sized business, endorses the policy. Jon Garson, the chamber’s vice president of policy, explains that although there were some initial qualms, chamber members largely understand that the future costs of climate change are going to outweigh the costs of taking action now. As business executives, they also favored an economics-driven solution.

“The most efficient way to address greenhouse gases is to do what any economist will tell you,” Garson says: “Put a price on them.”

Lawmakers padded the blow for business by reducing the tax rates they pay as well. Corporate and small business income taxes have each been reduced by a percent and the threshold for higher tax rates has been deferred by $100,000, meaning that businesses pay a lower rate for earnings up to half a million dollars.

Even so, big businesses have been less enthusiastic about the tax, although they supported the concept when it was initially proposed. The Business Council of British Columbia, which represents the 250 largest companies in the province, contends that exports, a driver of the region’s economy, have been harmed.

Denise Dalmer, the council’s director of sustainability and environment, says that the tax has increased the price of products made in British Columbia. When BC producers export locally made goods to places without the tax, the products are relatively more expensive, putting manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage. It’s especially unfair, the business council argues, because British Columbia is a relatively small emitter compared to the rest of North America.

One particularly carbon-intensive industry that claims it has suffered as a result of the tax is cement manufacturing. When there are manufacturers just south of the border in Washington who make the same product but sell it at a cheaper price, there is an obvious discrepancy. The obvious answer? Create a better product — and that’s what B.C. has done: The two largest cement makers in the province have generated a new product that boasts a 10 percent smaller greenhouse gas footprint than conventional cement. In addition to a new selling point, these lowered emissions mean a smaller tax on the product as well.

Concerns about regional competitiveness may soon be put to rest if a recent agreement between several West Coast states is ratified. Last October, Washington and Oregon signed the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy, pledging to join California and British Columbia by putting a price on carbon.

California already has a cap-and-trade scheme in place, which limits the amount of emissions from the state’s largest polluters and distributes tradable permits. Big polluters can lower their emissions or buy credits from cleaner companies that don’t need them to meet their reductions requirements.

But a carbon tax has a much lower administrative burden than a cap-and-trade scheme like this. The government does not need to decide the exact level of emissions to allow, track credits and pollutant levels to prevent corruption (which has plagued cap-and-trade in Europe), or enforce the rules when companies exceed their output allowance. The tax also galvanizes broader public involvement in lowering emissions because it impacts everyone.

So while in isolation, big business north of the border might see the carbon tax as only resulting in negligible change, our potential impact as a region is significant. British Columbia has a population of 4 million. If you add the three Pacific Coast states, that number becomes 53 million residents, creating the fifth largest economy in the world. If Washington and Oregon pass a carbon tax, the West Coast could soon be the world’s first coordinated carbon pricing zone. And Washington is already making strides in that direction, as the state’s governor signed an executive order in April to accelerate the development of clean energy and to cut carbon pollution in the state.

Such a show of international cooperation could be as important as the greenhouse gas reductions that result: When international climate change negotiations have failed to produce a global deal and when the European Union recently announced that it will back away from its emissions reductions targets, the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy has the potential to be a rare beacon of hope on bilateral climate action.

The leadership of one Canadian province, and now western American states, is sending the message that if national governments won’t commit to building a sustainable future, smaller governments will take matters into their own hands. It will require action by more than one region in North America to slow climate change, but the closer we get to paying for the true cost of carbon and debunking the myth that doing so harms our economies, the faster other places are likely to follow suit.

Whether we do it for the planet or the economy, the sooner the better.

 


Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

Hacking the climate: The search for solutions to the world’s greatest challenge

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-06-30 11:01

In recent years, weather patterns around the world have grown fiercer than ever. Blizzards paralyze daily life across large areas of the nation, while intense heat waves and enduring droughts cripple food production in the West. Huge storms threaten to sweep away coastal communities. These, and other symptoms of climate disruption, have led to growing recognition that something must be done.

Yet few know what to do about climate change. Even some who do know don’t act for fear of the consequences of weaning humanity off of fossil fuels. Politicians and vested interests have bombarded the public with the myth that slowing or halting climate change will lead to devastating effects on people, jobs, and nation’s economies.

It’s time to bust that myth.

In 2006, I co-taught a graduate-level journalism coursewith writer Sandy Tolan called ‘Early Signs’. The class produced a series of nine stories that reported on how people were experiencing the first signs of impacts of climate change around the world. The series appeared on Salon and aired on NPR’s Living on Earth over nine weeks, and the entire project won a George Polk award in investigative journalism.

Eight years have passed since we produced that series. Today, around the world, governments as well as everyday people are taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the primary drivers of climate disruption. They’re finding the results of these actions go far beyond curbing global warming: They are also creating jobs, enhancing water quality, increasing crop yields, reducing waste, and improving health. These are the co-benefits of combatting climate change.

The public needs to know about these co-benefits. And so, with considerable input from journalism faculty at UC Berkeley, I led a follow-up graduate-level course, entitled “Early Solutions: Stories from the frontlines of the battle against climate change,” focused on the co-benefits of taking steps to deal with climate change.

The result is five stories, each exploring the various ways individuals and communities throughout the world are addressing climate change and, in return, enjoying the many co-benefits of their actions. Grist will run one of these stories each day this week. Here is a brief synopsis. We’ll update the links as the stories go up.

1. A Canadian province started taxing carbon, which not only reduced its greenhouse gas emissions but also helped the economy grow. The revenue goes right back to the people through tax breaks, so both consumers and businesses benefit. Now, several U.S. states are considering similar measures.

2. A visionary scientist has showed that if we modify the color of the roofs we live under, we can hugely reduce the need for air conditioning and improve air quality. Now, Los Angeles is mandating brighter rooftops to alter the city’s upward temperature trajectory and remedy its age-old smog problem.

3. A team of ranchers and scientists are proving that something as simple as spreading compost on grasslands can pull carbon out of the air and store it safely in the soil. In addition to the climate benefits, this practice makes pastures more resistant to drought.

4. Urban pioneers are leading the effort to reduce food waste, which many don’t realize is a large contributor to climate change, by recovering unwanted food and redistributing it to those in need. Such food rescue activities feed hungry people and promote healthy nutrition, all while reconnecting city dwellers with their community.

5. A rural community in Colombia has entered into an international agreement that pays them to protect their native forest for the carbon in the trees. The added income from this project allows them to improve their livelihoods, while also preserving their unique natural habitat and water resources.

The scope and scale of these stories range from the local to the international, but all five describe human accomplishment that could be achieved anywhere. In contrast to those who predict doom and gloom if we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, the individuals in these narratives do not forecast the future … they are shaping it.


Filed under: Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

Ask Umbra: Should I find a rideshare for my trip — or just go Greyhound?

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-06-30 10:05

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. I would like to take a Greyhound bus with another family member on a short trip from Toledo to Cincinnati. It would be more relaxing than driving, and better for the planet. But we have an appointment we can’t miss. How do I find out how reliable the schedule is? Also, I have heard there are rideshare websites one can go to. Any information on them? Are they safe?

Kathy
Southeast MI

A. Dearest Kathy,

I’m revved to hear your enthusiasm for transportation options beyond the personal automobile. Given the choice, I, too, would happily hand the wheel over to someone else and spend those road hours catching up on my crossword puzzles. It’s the surest cure for road rage I know.

Planet-wise, the bus is an excellent option for your trip to The Queen City. Not only do Greyhounds have wifi these days, but buses are among your lowest-carbon choices: According to a Union of Concerned Scientists report, you and your relative will cut your carbon emissions almost in half over even a hybrid car by busing. The downside to this option over, say, a high-speed train is that you’re still tied to the ebb and flow of highway traffic.

Still, Greyhound reports pretty good overall numbers: A company spokesperson shared a fleetwide on-time performance rate of 89.3 percent. It’s tougher to suss out stats for individual lines, but I’ll bet a call to the local operators at your destination can give you a better idea. A few more tips for punctuality on the community chauffeur: Opt for express routes with fewer stops whenever possible. Pick an earlier bus to build in some buffer time for traffic slowdowns or other delays. If you have only a few daily departures to choose from and they’re too close for comfort, you might even consider making an excursion of it and arriving the day before. No stress, and you’ll have time to visit the art museum!

But if the bus won’t work for you, a rideshare is a solid runner-up. Rideshare websites operate like a digital version of the dorm bulletin board I had in college: They connect passengers looking for a lift to drivers seeking someone to share gas costs, and maybe her favorite road-trip playlist. It takes cars off the road, saves cash, and at its best, introduces you to fascinating new friends.

The simplest version of this burgeoning new scene is the rideshare section of Craigslist, but I’d encourage you to look into one of the more detailed sites, such as Ridejoy, Zimride, eRideShare, or Ridester. These dedicated sites offer driver and passenger profiles, “user” reviews from past trips, and/or links to Facebook profiles so you can do some pre-trip vetting and perhaps unearth some mutual friends. Some of these sites even arrange for passengers to pony up their share through PayPal or guarantee a refund in case of a dud ride, adding a layer of security to the transaction.

That said, Kathy, you’re wise to hearken back to childhood lessons about getting in cars with strangers. The majority of rideshares cruise along smoothly between likeminded neighbors, but you should follow some safety guidelines before hitting the gas. Most of the abovementioned sites feature their own safety procedures, which you should investigate: But in general, be smart and do your homework.

Meeting your prospective road buddy in a public place ahead of time is an excellent idea (bring your relative along too), both to get a feel for the person and to make sure he/she doesn’t plan to smoke or speed or blast didgeridoo music for four hours straight. If you get a weird vibe from the encounter, trust your gut and look elsewhere for your ride. But if you give it the green light from there, check each other’s driver’s licenses or IDs, and make sure the driver’s insurance is valid. (Some sites even recommend running your own background checks.) Leave a detailed itinerary with someone at home, including your new buddy’s name and contact information, car make and model, and license plate number. If the person balks at any of this, put on the brakes. Finally, don’t underestimate the peace of mind that comes with emergency pepper spray.

Safe travels, whatever you choose. And if you do go with a rideshare, write back in and tell me how it went, won’t you? I hear Cincinnati is lovely this time of year.

Trippily,
Umbra


Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

The secret to richer, carbon-capturing soil? Treat your microbes well

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-06-30 09:15

Imagine if someone invented machines to suck carbon out of the atmosphere — machines that were absurdly cheap, autonomous, and solar powered, too. Wouldn’t that be great? But we already have these gadgets! They’re called plants.

The problem is, plants die. So there’s one hurdle remaining: We have to figure out how to lock away the carbon in dead plants so that it doesn’t just return to the atmosphere. The obvious place to put that carbon is into the ground. And so, for years, scientists and governments have been urging farmers to leave their crop residue — the stalks and leaves — on the ground, so it would be incorporated into the soil. The trouble is, sometimes this doesn’t work: Farmers will leave residues on a field and they won’t turn into carbon-rich soil — they’ll just sit there. Sometimes, the whole process ends up releasing more greenhouse gasses than it locks away.

This has left people scratching their heads. But now a simple idea is spreading that could allow farmers to begin reliably pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and into their soil.

Clive Kirkby was one of those government agents urging farmers to leave dead plant residues in their fields. He was working in New South Wales, Australia, where farmers traditionally have burnt off their wheat stubble after harvest. Kirkby implored farmers to stop. Instead of torching all that plant residue and releasing the carbon into the air, he told them, let it stay on the ground. It seemed like a win-win: The carbon was harmful in the air, where it contributed to the greenhouse effect, and beneficial in the ground, where it made the soil rich.

As he was proselytizing, Kirkby began to bump heads with an agronomist named John Kirkegaard. “Look, Clive,” Kirkegaard would say, “the best treatment here is burn and cultivate — that’s the one that’s growing the best crops.”

This made Kirkby crazy. Burning was bad enough, and cultivation, which essentially means plowing, was also exactly the opposite of what he wanted. When farmers break up the soil with cultivation it releases some of the carbon stored there, according to conventional wisdom. But Kirkby had to admit that Kirkegaard had data on his side. The agronomist would show him the numbers, and it was clear that the soil organic matter (which holds the carbon) wasn’t increasing. In some cases, it was decreasing.

“I’ve been returning the stubble to the ground now for six years, and it’s just not going into the soil,” Kirkegaard told him.

The way that soil locks up greenhouse gas has been frustratingly mysterious, but the basics are clear: After plants suck up the carbon, the critters (microbes and fungi and insects) swarming in the topsoil chew up plant molecules, subjecting them to one chemical reaction after another as they pass through a fantastically complex food web. If everything goes right, the end result is microscopic bricks of stable carbon, which form the foundation of rich black soil.

Kirkby knew that there must be some mysterious quirk of this topsoil ecosystem that was thwarting him. But how do you investigate a complex, microscopic community that lives underground? There are just so many different organisms eating each other, and cooperating, and parasitizing one another, that we have no clue what’s going on there. People are studying it — but mostly they are reporting that the soil microbiome, as it’s called, is far more confusing than anyone suspected.

Kirkby, however, came up with an idea, that in theory, might allow farmers to manipulate the soil microbiome without having to understand everything that was going on in that black box. He pursued this idea for years, and though he was already nearing retirement age, went back to school and earned a PhD as he assembled evidence. If he’d simply tried to win his original confrontation with Kirkegaard, they’d have remained locked in a stalemate. Instead, because they allowed their minds to be shifted by the evidence, that adversarial relationship was tremendously productive. Kirkby came full circle when Kirkegaard took him on as a post-doctoral fellow (at the age of 66, Kirkby had to be one of the oldest postdocs ever).

The idea that drove Kirkby was elegant in its simplicity. “The way you get carbon into the ground,” he said, “is to take plant residue and turn it into microorganisms.” To grow microorganisms you have to feed them.

They will eat corn stalks and wheat straw, but that, alone, is not a balanced diet. That’s like giving people nothing to eat but a mountain of sugar. There are certain elements that all creatures on earth need to build the bodies of the next generation: carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, oxygen, and hydrogen. These six elements are the basic ingredients of living organisms. By leaving stalks and stems on the fields they were providing a lot of carbon, and oxygen and hydrogen comes easily from the air, but the bugs were lacking in nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus. Provide enough of these missing building blocks, Kirkby figured, and the soil microbes would finally be able to consume the plant residue. He tried it. It worked.

One lab test provides a dramatic visual of how this works. The scientists added wheat straw to two pans of sandy soil, and fertilized one with nutrients. That pan looks like rich compost. The untreated control looks as lifeless as the surface of Mars.

 

Courtesy of CSIRO Plant Industry / CSIRO Agriculture (CA Kirkby, JA Kirkegaard, AE Richardson)

I saw this picture recently when I met, via Skype, with Kirkby, Kirkegaard, and another collaborator named Alan Richardson. All work at the Australian government’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. They crowded together in front of the computer in Kirkegaard’s Canberra office.

“That’s moist soil with chopped up wheat straw on the left,” Kirkegaard said. “There’s no reason why that shouldn’t have decomposed, except for the fact that nutrients are missing. When you give them the nutrients, all the wheat straw is gone, and you get the results of the microbial activity and their bodies and it creates a whole lot of…”

“Humus!” cried Kirkby. He spoke with enthusiastic, rapid-fire intensity, his accent pinching the vowels through the nose: “With the right balance of nutrients you get a population explosion. And that’s what you want. The carbon is in the soil’s organic matter, and that’s essentially dead bug bits. And live bugs. Humus!”

Richardson, who stood leaning against the far wall, chimed in, gruff and sedate compared to Kirkby. “Historically we’ve fertilized the crop,” he said. “We’ve been interested in the crop. The paradigm shift is in thinking that you have to fertilize the system, the microbes and all that. And through that you support the crop.”

Instead of simply trying to optimize for the plants, they’ve realized, you can optimize soil along with the plant – you can optimize the whole system.

The three men explained that, when they looked at soil organic matter from around the world, the proportions of nutrients — the ratio of carbon atoms to nitrogen, for instance — are stunningly consistent. The organic matter is microbes. And if you want to build more of it, you have to give the microbes the right ratios of nutrients to build more tiny, cellular bodies.

Instead of trying to identify every soil microbe and understand what it’s doing, they have hit upon a way of treating the whole mess like a super-organism that responds in predictable ways.

The scientist Richard Jefferson, who introduced me to this work, calls it breeding by feeding: We don’t actually know what these microbes are that we’re breeding; we only know that when we set out the right proportions of food, they click into high gear.

All this helps explain why organic farms often capture more carbon. In adding compost to amend the soil, organic farmers are adding the same ratios of nutrients. The organic claim that fertilizing with synthetic nitrogen kills off soil life actually makes sense, Kirkby said; it’s just that the problem has nothing to do with the nitrogen’s artificiality. The trouble is that farmers are applying the nitrogen without the other nutrients necessary to nurture the microbiome.

“As agronomists, we talk about nutrient-use efficiency,” Kirkegaard said. “Now, the best way to have high nutrient-use efficiency is to mine the organic matter, because that comes to you for free. You’re wanting to put on juuuust enough nutrients to feed the crop and not have any left over. And that just means the other crop, under the soil, the microbial crop, misses out. As a result, we’ve lost about half the organic matter in land we’ve been using for agriculture.”

I wanted to get a reality check from another scientist, because this all sounded almost too good to be true. So I got in touch with a true authority in the field, Rattan Lal, president elect of the International Union of Soil Sciences. Lal took a look at look some of the work and pronounced his judgment: “I agree,” he said. “This phenomenon is well understood.” A colleague of Lal’s was teaching students to apply exactly the same ratios of nutrients 50 years ago, he said.

This stopped me. If this is old news, why haven’t we been putting it to work? Why the confusion when no-till fails to capture carbon? Why the mystery surrounding the ability of organic farming to do so?

Sometimes good information simply doesn’t spread everywhere it should go, Lal said, with a note of weariness. This isn’t a exactly breakthrough, he said, but he welcomed the work and said he hoped people would pay attention this time. When he followed up with an email, he wrote: “The theme addressed is very important and it must be brought to the attention of general public and policy makers.”

When I initially spoke with Kirkby, Kirkegaard, and Richardson, they had been forthright in telling me that we’ve known about this golden ratio of nutrients for a long time. They also noted that there were other scientists like Sébastien Fontaine publishing similar papers. In a follow-up email, Richardson wrote, “What we think is new is the direct connection between the soil microbiome and the [soil organic matter], which is mediated by [the ratio of nutrients].  We think that our set of recent papers provides some of the first real evidence that underpins this connection and shows evidence that the dynamics can in fact be changed.”

Jefferson says the Australians are being modest, and conservative with their claims. Connecting the well-known nutrient ratios with the microbiome truly is a breakthrough, he said.

“Now they have a mechanism to explain how this works, which allows you to make predictions, so you can imagine experiments driving this forward. One of the things that’s exciting for me is that this really bridges empiricism and scholarly science nicely. There have been tens of thousands of anecdotes noted about the performance of small scale, traditional agriculture — empirical studies or stories of small farmers who do exciting things in terms of performance and resilience. It has been largely dismissed by the hard-core science community because it has not been scalable and replicable. We can’t take one farmer’s success and move it to the next farmer or the next ecosystem because we have no understanding of how it works — complex systems don’t extrapolate well, they don’t work out of context.”

In other words, when we see an organic farmer building up the soil and achieving amazing results, it’s hard to copy it because we don’t know what to imitate. What is it that makes this work? The type of fertilizer? The local microclimate? The prayer the farmer says before breakfast? The work coming out of Australia provides the traction to separate superstition from the stuff that gets results.

Both Lal and the Australian scientists agree that there’s still one more major hurdle, which may have kept this information from spreading: These nutrients cost money. If farmers were paid for locking up carbon, they would gladly buy the fertilizers, Lal said, but right now the reimbursements are far too low. Even at the high point of the carbon markets, when people were paying $30 per ton, it would not be enough to reimburse farmers. “It costs $800 a ton of CO2 to do geological sequestration, you know, pumping carbon underground,” he said. “If farmers could get even a tenth of that, $80 a ton, I know many soil-poor farmers would participate.”

Kirkby thinks that, by tinkering with the soil microbiome, farmers might see enough gains to pay for the extra inputs. There’s already evidence that the soil microbes can help suppress plant disease and improve dirt quality. Extending this concept of growing a healthy system, not just a healthy crop, could yield profits.

“We’re probably not going to increase yields incredibly, but we might be able to improve incrementally,” Kirkby said. “In a sandy soil we might improve water-holding capacity. In a heavy clay soil we might reduce diseases a little bit — added together it might pay for the nutrients at the end of the day.”

One thing is certain: If agriculture were able to switch from an emitter of carbon to an absorber of carbon, the effect would be huge. Plants, those cheap carbon-removal machines that nature has given us, work well. If we can get them to make our dinner while they are also sucking up greenhouse gas, what a coup that would be.

But it would be an even greater coup if we could begin, as these scientists have done, to understand how to manipulate whole ecological systems — rather than just systems that have been simplified and stripped down to easily controllable parts.

Further reading:


Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Food
Categories: Eco Buzz

Report Shows the Benefits of Cradle to Cradle Certification, But Is It Enough?

Triple Pundit - Mon, 2014-06-30 05:51

The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute recently commissioned Trucost, a leading global environmental data and insight company, to determine the value of C2C certification for companies. The result is a 145-page report in which Trucost presents its analysis of 10 C2C-certified products from different companies (and industries), including Aveda, Desso, Ecover, PUMA, Shaw Industries, Steelcase and Van Houtum.

The post Report Shows the Benefits of Cradle to Cradle Certification, But Is It Enough? appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

Michael Dell, U.N. Join Forces to Advance Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries

Triple Pundit - Mon, 2014-06-30 05:47

The United Nations Foundation recently named Michael Dell as the Foundation’s Global Advocate for Entrepreneurship.

The post Michael Dell, U.N. Join Forces to Advance Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz
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