Earth911 Reader: 2020 Ties Hottest Year Record

The Earth911 Reader collects and comments on useful news about science, business, sustainability, and recycling to save you time.

IN SCIENCE

The Stratosphere Is Reshaping Extreme Weather Globally

The polar vortex, a frigid weather pattern that circles the North Pole, is splitting and will send icy weather into Canada and the northern U.S. This week, Phys.org reports that a weather researcher, Daniela Domeisen of ETH Zurich’s Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, has linked the high-altitude stratosphere to extreme weather around the planet. Domeisen’s research confirms cold air moving far above the top clouds contributes to cold snaps and droughts at ground level. The mechanism for the transfer of energy between layers of the atmosphere is not yet well understood. “Our research is about understanding these global interactions so we can then use what we learn to improve weather and climate models,” Domeisen said. In related news, researchers in China reported that they analyzed water vapor concentrations and temperature in clouds to predict extreme precipitation. As we gain greater insight into the Earth’s atmosphere, humanity will have more tools to address global warming.

Regions Prone to Water Shortages Could Double Drought Severity

A research team has complete an analysis of the water cycle and found that terrestrial water storage capacity is heavily impacted by global warming. By the end of the century, the amount of land and number of people affected by drought could “more than double,” according to Nature Climate Change. For example, they found the Amazon river basin is becoming drier as temperatures rise. The American Southwest is also receiving less rainfall and retains less water than before greenhouse gas emissions began. As people migrate to find water supplies, they will come into conflict with one another. The methodology developed for this research will assist in identifying drought risk. Still, only human action to reverse global warming can prevent the geopolitical consequences of widespread drought.

Food Waste Made Into Graphene Safely Without Emitting Toxins

The sheer volume of food waste is a global problem. As much as 40% of the food grown in the U.S. is sent to landfills annually. What if it could be turned into useful materials? Rice University researchers have developed a method for converting food waste into graphene, a material with many applications in advanced materials and low-carbon concrete. Since the concrete industry contributes as much as 8 percent of annual human emissions, the breakthrough is notable. Graphene is used in electronics, advanced materials, and to strengthen metals, making them lighter to reduce, for example, vehicle or plane emissions. The material previously cost as much as $200,000 a ton to produce. The Rice team said it could produce graphene by flash-burning it at high temperatures with a process that is “quick and cheap.” Adding graphene to concrete could reduce the CO2 footprint of the essential material by a third, the researchers claim.

 

IN BUSINESS

Nike’s Low-Carbon European Supply Center Demonstrates That Green Thinking Can “Just Do It”

Supply Chain reports on a visit to the new Nike Court Distribution Centre in Ham, Belgium. It explores how the company eliminated environmental impacts and supply chain emissions to serve customers in the E.U., the Middle East, and Africa. The campus is efficient, fossil fuel-free, and operates as a closed-loop system that produces no waste. It’s also notable that Nike has relied on digital direct sales to reduce its footprint. Nike is proving a post-retail model can be greener by reducing unsold inventory in its European stores and focusing on delivering customized products on-demand.

Apple’s EV May Be Built by Hyundai in the U.S.

Reports are swirling that Apple, which recently announced its recommitment to delivering an electric vehicle this decade, is talking about a partnership with Korean carmaker Hyundai. According to CleanTechnica, Hyundai would build Apple-designed cars in the U.S. But Apple is also talking to a variety of potential partners. After declining to buy Tesla when the company was struggling during the middle of the 2010s, Apple intends to bring its technical and design prowess to the E.V. market.

Bloomberg and Rockefeller Asset Management Introduce Green Investment Index

Investors who want to pick environmentally friendly stocks have a new tool. The Bloomberg Rockefeller US All Cap Multi-Factor ESG Improvers Index launched this week, Environment + Energy Leader reports. The index is currently available only to Bloomberg Terminal subscribers. It collects 40 years of environmental, social, and governance data to analyze stocks’ potential growth s. The service also provides information about how investors can engage companies to encourage them to make Earth-friendly business decisions. We look forward to seeing these types of tools for all investors. We hope that Bloomberg will make them available so that all investors can become activists for the planet.

Carbon-tracking Is Essential to Corporate Accountability

Without something to measure as a common point of reference, it is difficult or impossible to establish accountability and assign responsibility for environmental damage. Daniel Goldman, a cofounder of Clean Energy Ventures, writes at GreenBiz about the importance of carbon tracking to the financing of the green energy transition. The project will take as much as $90 trillion per the next several decades and create new jobs, reduce the economic impact of global warming, and drive the green ethos into every corner of our lives. The tracking technology is key to preventing fraudulent carbon offset sales and supporting fines on stubborn polluters. Since almost a quarter of Fortune Global 500 companies have committed to reaching carbon neutrality, one way or the other, society needs tools to recognize the winners and call out the polluters. Carbon tracking also provides the basis for measuring progress. As Nick Stansbury, head of climate solutions at Legal & General Investment Management, told the Reuters Next conference this week, “Setting a 2050 net zero target is easy for a chief executive to do when they know they will be gone by the time it becomes clear whether or not the company has met that target.” Carbon tracking can hold those CEOs to their word along the path to carbon neutrality, not just at the finish line.

 

IN SUSTAINABILITY

2020 Ties 2016 as Hottest Year on Record

The New York Times reports the bad news: “Last year effectively tied 2016 as the hottest year on record.” The planet is now an average of 2.25 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than before the industrial revolution took off in the mid-1800s. At the same time, there was some good news, though it may only be temporary. The Guardian reports that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell by 10.3% in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel and reduced commuting. Additionally, 30 countries have committed to preserving 30% of the planet’s land and oceans, roughly the amount of wilderness estimated to be essential to preventing runaway global warming. What are we to make of all this? The world has felt the deadly impact of wildfire, extreme weather, drought, and air pollution in 2020; it also has proof in the COVID-driven decline in greenhouse gases that collective action can make a difference. 2021 is the pivotal year for climate action. Scientists at the U.K Cabinet Office COP 26 unit have identified several important changes that could accelerate the progress toward a net-zero economy, raising hopes that aggressive action can succeed. We can all participate by calling and writing our legislators and deciding to make real changes to what we eat and consume. We will make the future together, or our children will fight over the modern world’s scraps. It’s our choice.

Trump’s Climate Deniers Spread Disinformation, Block Climate Policy

According to The New York Times, two Trump appointees, David Legates and Ryan Maue, have attempted to enter fossil-fuel sponsored research that denies climate change into the public record. They were reassigned this week. A review under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Scientific Integrity Policy will question their efforts to upload the inaccurate and ethically compromised research to U.S. government websites. Scientists would have recognized the spurious claims that climate change is not the product of human activity. The appearance that the government endorsed the compromised work could have fooled lay readers and energized climate denialists. Legate and Maue’s actions are just one of several 11th-hour attacks on future climate regulations by the Trump team. The Environmental Protection Agency also introduced a rule that Politico reports “will effectively prohibit the future regulation of greenhouse gases from any stationary industry other than power plants.” The new EPA decision prevents rulemakings that limit CO2 emissions for an industry that does not account for more than 3% of greenhouse emissions. As a result, “[t]he 3 percent threshold would appear to exclude every stationary greenhouse gas polluter in the U.S. aside from power plants,” Politico writes.

U.S. Fuel Efficiency Progress Stalled

Gas prices, not environmental impact, have determined U.S. vehicle emissions standards. Between 2008 and 2019, there was virtually no progress, ArsTechnica reports. The Trump administration backtracked on aggressive Obama era targets of 54.4 mpg, announcing a 40.4 mpg last year. But the Green Car Congress reports that actual efficiency has increased by only 0.4 mpg, said researcher Michael Sivak. If you’re not ready for an electric vehicle, look for the most efficient internal-combustion options, and drive less to reduce your emissions.

Pacific Northwest Climate Commitments Failed Comprehensively

Promises by the governments of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia to reduce emissions have failed. Instead of remaining flat or falling, “emissions rose by about 5, 6, and 7 percent in Washington, Oregon, and B.C., respectively,” while other “fast-growing economies such as California and Germany released fewer greenhouse gas emissions,” Grist reports. The article examines specific actions, such as cap-and-trade programs and coal-fired energy plant retirements, that can reduce emissions in the region. A long, informative read we highly recommend for readers who want to understand the legal and policy options that can be applied anywhere to reduce emissions.

An Internet-of-Things Approach to Litter Detection

Technology can help control plastic pollution and litter tracking generally, according to researchers from CSIRO, the Australian national science agency writing in The Conversation. Take a global tour to understand how fixed cameras placed under bridges and along waterways can help identify trash using artificial intelligence. By understanding the waste flowing into the environment, science can guide companies toward more sustainable packaging and clean up the approximately 5,500 tons of plastic that end up in the oceans every day.

 

IN RECYCLING

Global Plastics Rule Has Swift Impact on Recycling Values

Just days after new, more aggressive rules were added to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, companies that buy recyclable plastic have seen supplies fall by half, Resource Recycling reports. Manufacturers in Asia, in particular, are now paying higher prices but for less contaminated plastic. The result of the new stringent contamination rules will improve the recyclability of scrap plastic sold overseas. Much of the contaminated plastic sold globally before the Basel changes ended up in landfills in low-income countries because it was not profitable to recycle. Now, there is less material, but it is more profitable to turn into new products. In the long run, plastic waste will eventually be recognized as the manufacturers’ responsibility, Alex Trulove of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group writes at EcoWatch. If you’d like to make a difference, consider disinvesting in banks that support ongoing plastic pollution. Portfolio Earth released a report, Bankrolling Plastics, which identifies 20 banks that loaned $1.4 trillion to plastic polluters between 2015 and 2019. All the major U.S. banks are culprits. There are two ways to act as an investor. Buy a few shares of these banks’ stock, then register your complaint by voting out those banks’ sitting directors. Or refuse to put your money into these banks.

Department of Energy Announces Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Prize Winners

Batteries will play a key role as electrification displaces internal-combustion and fossil fuel power. Currently, only 5% of these used batteries lithium-ion batteries are recycled, and the process is expensive, Recycling Today reports. Lithium is a rare element mined with severe environmental impacts, mostly in South America. The U.S. Department of Energy awarded its Phase II Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Prizes in December to seven companies making headway toward the goal of recycling 90% of spent lithium-ion batteries. Each receives a modest $357,000 cash prize and $100,000 worth of services from the National Labs and other organizations. The winners include LI Industries of Blacksburg, Va., which developed a smart battery sorting system, San Diego-based Smartville, which created a battery reuse and recycling system, and Titan Advanced Energy Solutions of Sommerville, Mass., a provider of battery market intelligence systems that improve market efficiency.

U.S. EPA Offers Interim PFAS Disposal Guidance, Leaving Questions to Answer

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl (PFAS) are a long-lasting humanmade substance found in food packaging, household products, drinking water, and many workplaces. PFAS can reduce resistance to disease and the efficacy of vaccines, another other suspected health impacts. Without federal laws governing their disposal, citizens must rely on waste processing facilities to isolate PFAS-containing materials in landfills, which is not an exact science. PFAS end up in groundwater and leach into the soil. They also appear in body tissue during animal and human studies. The EPA guidance is roughly in line with current industry practices, WasteDive reports in a comprehensive analysis of the recommendations. The Biden Administration is expected to declare PFAS a hazardous substance and use the Safe Water Drinking Act to nationally enforce contamination levels.

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