Earth911 Reader: Your Weekly Sustainability, Business, and Science News Summary

The Earth911 team combs news and research for interesting ideas and stories about the challenges of creating a sustainable world. We call it the Earth911 Reader and we hope you find it useful.

IN SCIENCE

COVID Emissions Data Shows Potential Impact of E.V. Transition

The Berkeley Environmental Air-quality & CO2 Network, known as BEACO2N, tracked a 25% decline in San Francisco Bay Area CO2 emissions during the pandemic. After traffic on the roads fell by 50%, the data suggests that a rapid transition to electric vehicles could quickly reduce emissions, Phys.org reports. But emissions are on the rise as more people return to work and driving. The innovation here is the someone measures CO2, said Ronald Cohen, a University of California professor and lead author of a new study about COVID emissions. His team figured out a way to replace $200,000 sensors with $8,000 models to make widespread tracking feasible. Cohen envisions a publicly available CO2 level rating similar to existing air quality data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A simple numeric score would inform citizens and policymakers’ decisions, carbon pricing and other mechanisms for reducing CO2.

Human Noise and Light Disrupt Bird Reproduction Cycles

As we noted last week, light pollution is a growing issue for plants and animals. An additional study reported in Nature adds the results of a citizen-science program that tracked 142 bird species’ reproductive cycles. Birds that nest in noisy areas are less productive than others and disrupts communication between birds, contributing to lower reproductive success. The results are based on an analysis of a Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology project, the NestWatch program. Citizen scientists contributed observations over 14 years to create the database, which was released this week. The data suggest that birds vary in their response to “sensory pollution,” and some seem to benefit from more noise or light. But the overall impact on bird species was negative, resulting in lower reproductive rates across many species.

Climate Change Extends the Life of Hurricanes After Landfall

Warmer Atlantic waters are fueling longer-lived hurricanes in the U.S., according to a new report in Nature. With more energy, these storms produce more damage to homes, coastal erosion, and longer-lasting storm surges. The data confirms that hurricanes are slower to decay compared to 50 years ago. They used to expend 75% of available energy during the first day after landfall but now lose only 50% of storm energy during the same time. Storm tracks have also shifted eastward during the past half-century, putting more inland populated areas at risk. The study suggests that storms will continue to grow in size and duration as the planet warms. Insurance and public-policy decision-makers must factor the new information into their planning, the team concludes.

Mammalian Genome Study Identifies Species At Risk of Extinction

Phys.org reports that the Zoonomia Project, a study of 80 percent of mammalian species over approximately 110 million years, found that species most likely to become extinct have lower biodiversity than other animals. As we map more species’ genomes, we achieve greater insight into the potential for species loss, including among human populations. A lack of biodiversity limits a species’ available responses to environmental changes, including disease and food supply disruptions. The option to adapt may not be available to them. The project team suggests that analyses of animal genomes can identify remediation strategies. If a species has a prominent genetic marker related to environmental stressors, scientists and wildlife managers could adjust their environment to preserve it through local climate changes.

Science Has Its First CO2 Storage Calculator For Understanding Carbon Sequestration

How much CO2 can we store in the ground, and how long will it stay there? Until now, scientists have estimated the potential for geologic carbon sequestration. A new open-source simulation announced this week provides reliable estimates, Environment + Energy Leader reports. GEOSX, a project of Total, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Stanford University is “the first tool able to simulate the geological storage of CO2 at the gigaton scale,” said Total’s Chief Technology Officer Marie-Noëlle Semeria. “We are making its source code openly available to provide the scientific community the means to participate in the development of [Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage]” strategies.

couple laying on a natural green bed and smiling

 

IN SUSTAINABILITY

Trump Fires National Climate Assessment Leader

Between now and Inauguration Day, President Trump appears poised to do considerable damage to the U.S. government’s ability to monitor and regulate pollution, pursue climate change prevention, and protect public lands. He fired Michael Kuperberg, the long-serving executive director of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which assembles the National Climate Assessment, the basis for U.S. climate policymaking. Climate change skeptic David Legates will likely replace him. After a flurry of firings and appointments of political cronies this week, Trump seems intent on dismantling as much as he can of the climate expertise available within the government by his departure from office. Typically, a lame-duck president would be engaged in the next administration’s transition by a week after the election. As we all know, Trump is ignoring the election results. Now is a parlous time in American history, particularly for the future of the Earth’s climate.

Must Sustainability Cost Us Our Privacy?

Information can help organize the production and distribution of products and services, creating substantial efficiency compared to the pre-information era. With more data, we can waste less, reuse more, and reduce environmental damage. More data sharing means a potential loss of privacy, Phys.org reports. Data protection laws could block environmental progress if new privacy protections are not carefully crafted to preserve anonymity while exposing useful economic information. For example, a Blockchain technology that provides tracing of waste was introduced this past week, according to Waste360 — it could include information about who sold, used, or returned materials for recycling if not regulated to prevent sharing of that information. Yet, it is also debatable whether knowing that information could enhance efficiency. New circular economy models, such as in the auto industry, may track every part used in a car throughout its life. Privacy laws could stop that data sharing. Of course, privacy is a critical issue — I got involved in that debate in the early 1990s. To learn more about privacy, look into the vendor relationship management (VRM) movement hosted by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society‘s Doc Searls to get a full briefing on the state of privacy technology. We’ve learned much about augmenting privacy from COVID tracking programs. There are lessons for sustainability-related data collection in our shared COVID experience.

Renewables Will Be Dominant Source of Energy by 2025, IEA Reports

The International Energy Agency announced recent renewable energy usage gains that rose by 7% during the last year despite the COVID pandemic, Common Dreams reports. The agency said renewables, including wind and solar generation, will become the largest source of energy globally by 2025. It pointed to a 15% increase in renewable energy options purchased by investors at auctions as evidence that generating capacity is poised to accelerate. Overall, renewable energy generating capacity rose 4% this year after large investments by China and the U.S., and the IEA expects Europe and India will contribute up to 10% new renewables capacity in 2021. Total wind and solar power generation will pass natural gas in 2023 and coal in 2024; they will be the “largest sourcde of electricity generation worldwide in 2025,” accounting for a third of all energy produced.

Plastic’s Killer Lifecycle Hidden By Sustainable Spin

The plastic industry uses faulty lifecycle assessment (LCA) analyses to misrepresent the sustainability of its products, a team of academics writing in The Conversation argue. Yet plastic is a global environmental and health concern, and the U.S. remains the leading plastic polluter. By asking selective questions and focusing on plastics benefits rather than its polluting impacts on land, sea, and mammalian bodies, an LCA can present plastic in a favorable light compared to aluminum, steel, and glass. “The packaging industry capitalises on [plastic’s benefits] to distract, delay and derail progressive plastics legislation,” they write. And it is difficult to fight back because LCA studies are expensive and time-consuming. One example of plastic’s success is a New Zealand study that only mentions that plastic compares favorably when the pollution and health consequences of plastic in the environment. However, LCA studies can be productive if they ask comprehensive questions. It is time to turn the industry’s weapon back on it by doing thorough plastic LCAs that include all the negative impacts.

Tree and Plant Starch Are Coming to Food Additives

A little animal fat can make eggs and water a delicious mayonnaise, but it is an unappetizing gruel without fat. A new form of plant starch, nanocellulose, can stand in for fat, Ragnhild Aaen, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology told Phys.org. The water-based starch binds ingredients on long fibers that mimic the way fats to create a smooth consistency in foods. The development of the technology to make nanocellulose is only now beginning. It could lead to a wave of new “light” food alternatives.

 

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IN BUSINESS

Business and Communities Must Collaborate to Achieve Just Sustainability

GreenBiz’ VERGE 2.0 virtual conference heard from several speakers about the importance of close collaboration between business and the communities where they operate if society wants to build an equitable, sustainable economy. Although many companies still subscribe to the idea that they exist outside communities and are not accountable for their pollution and negative economic impacts, more are coming around to seeing their role as a partnership with cities and towns dedicated to sustainable living. Drawing on the experience of several community programs, speakers emphasized the importance of listing to all stakeholders. Additionally, beginning conversations with local leaders is essential to refining ideas as they appear, and learnings are shared. You can watch the Verge sessions here, and we urge you to read through the ideas shared during the community engagement session.

Tupperware Embraces Recycled Plastic

A new Tupperware Eco product line uses recycled plastic, which it calls “circular polymers,” Recycling Today reports. Making food-grade plastic from recycled material is a relatively new territory. Food-grade plastics require mixing recycled and new plastic polymers. Tupperware will deploy the new process at a new factory in 2021 and continue making its reusable Eco Straw and Eco To-Go Cups products using recycled plastic. In the meantime, Tupperware said it would add return and reuse programs in the future and committed to reducing single-use plastic packaging by 50% in 2022. In related news, Google announced that its new Pixel 5 phone and Nest smart thermostats now include recycled material. Progress toward more recycled materials in everyday products is proceeding slowly, but steadily.

Pilgrim’s Pride U.K. Farms Aim For Net-Zero In Industry First

It may not achieve its goals, but Pilgrim’s Pride Ltd, the British arm of the well-known U.S. brand, has committed to reducing its pig farming footprint to zero by 2030. Meat production, which is justifiably under attack for its massive contribution of 14.5% of global annual CO2 emissions, can be much more sustainable, Food Navigator reports. Pilgrim’s Pride argues that by combining efficiency and regenerative farming techniques, pork can become a net-neutral source of protein and prove that “meat isn’t evil.” That categorical statement about evil reveals precisely how pressing the move to sustainable practices is for the company. Consumers are increasingly aware of the environmental impact of meat. The company’s claims about regenerative farming — the idea that pigs can fertilize the land and move on to make way for carbon-sequestering crops — would require rethinking the concentrated farming techniques of the last 100 years. However, there are moves in the farming community to embrace perennial pasture farming to regenerate farmland. A transformation of meat farming may be ahead.

Without Standards, “Net-Zero” Could Become Meaningless Marketingspeak

Inspired Energy, a consulting company, has warned that business leaders are concerned that “carbon jargon” threatens to obscure the goals and prevent progress toward a sustainable economy, The Energyst reports. A survey of 100 leading experts showed that 88% of companies are working to become sustainable. They are concerned that terms for “carbon reduction” are becoming less precise and confused. Among those experts, the definition of “carbon reduction” varied. 42% said the term refers to carbon offsetting, which means purchasing carbon credits to store carbon equal to or greater than what the company produced. 36% said it means carbon or emissions elimination, and 17% said the phrase refers only to cutting carbon emissions. Companies and policies can become lost in inexact jargon, preventing concrete and measurable progress toward CO2 goals. “There should be no room for interpretation: businesses need clear guidance to understand what is expected of them and what strategies they can pursue to achieve it,” Dan Crowe of Inspired Energy said. A science-based approach to certification of environmental programs is essential to society’s transition to a clean, climate-restoring economy.

B.P. Announced Its First Hydrogen Production Facility

The oil giant BP, which recently announced it would focus on renewable energy investments, announced a new hydrogen processing facility in Lingen, Germany, near the North Sea by 2024. After the first year of operations, hydrogen will displace 20% of the existing oil refinery’s fossil fuel output at the location, Greentech Media reports. The facility will use offshore wind energy to power the electrolyzing process required to purify hydrogen, which can serve as a feedstock for fuels that produce only water as a by-product of combustion. Germany is considered the most promising market for hydrogen in Europe. B.P. hopes to replace 10% of its current production with clean energy by 2030 and eliminate carbon-emitting fuels by 2050.

Move Over McRib, McPlant Is Coming

McDonald’s will launch a plant-based meat alternative to hamburger and chicken during 2021, the company announced on its blog. McDonald’s introduced “McPlant – a delicious plant-based burger crafted for McDonald’s, by McDonald’s, and with the kind of craveable McDonald’s flavor our customers love,” in a statement fit to produce late-night comedy. After trialing Beyond Meat patties in Canada last year, the fast-food giant decided to introduce its own meat substitute. The maker of the McPlant patties was not disclosed. McDonald’s follows Burger King, White Castle, Carls Jr., and others into the U.S. market for plant-based fast food items.

 

IN ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE

Support the Power Shift Network

The Power Shift Network is a non-profit that supports youth-led environmental justice, equitable access to clean energy, and climate policy. The organization is raising its 2021 budget to address a year of significant changes in the U.S. In particular, they want to ensure the availability of aid for COVID-19 relief in low-income communities and equitable treatment of people of color. The Power Shift Network will use donations to provide training and support for youth activists. If you’re an adult, consider a donation. If you are a young person on a mission, check out the Power Shift Network’s library of training resources.

Hear from the Dalai Lama. Treasure Our Only Home

Sometimes, just a few words will make a tremendous difference. The Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism, recently released a new book about the climate crisis, Our Only Home. He declares, “Buddha would be green.” National Public Radio’s interview with the spiritual leader is a great way to spend a few minutes this Saturday morning.

Green Organizations Suggest 10 Actions for Biden’s First 10 Days

A coalition of environmental groups, including Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Friends of the Earth, have a list of immediate actions to transform U.S. policy during the first 10 days of President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, EcoWatch reports. The Climate President Plan includes calls for a declaration of a climate emergency, halting fossil fuel exports and pipeline approvals, the extension of the Clean Air Act to include science-based caps on greenhouse gas pollution, a roadmap for 100% renewable energy in the U.S. by 2030, and fees on fossil fuel polluters. Biden has already indicated that he will rejoin the Paris Climate accord, the 10th item on the list. You can share these ideas using the hashtag #climatepresident to raise awareness among your family, friends, and community.

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