Earth911 Reader: $150 Billion in Wildfire Damage, Pantanal Wetlands Burn, & Top Plastic Polluters

We keep an eye on the news for useful information about science, business, sustainability, and recycling to save you time. Read us every week to get a useful, concentrated dose of sustainability and recycling news, sustainable business developments, and the science of climate.

IN SCIENCE

2018 California Wildfires Caused $150B in Damages

The wildfires that ravaged California in 2018, which were less than half the size of this year’s blazes, resulted in $150 billion in damage, the University of California, Irvine, reports. Direct costs due to building damage accounted for 19% of the total, health effects from smoke for 22%, and 59% from the economic disruptions caused by the fires. With wildfire risk rising globally due to climate change in regions like Siberia, which previously did not burn frequently, are turning into ongoing fire hotspots that could result in hundreds of billions of dollars in damages annually. While forest management can reduce wildfires’ severity, the only way to lower our fire risk in the aggregate is to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels to help refreeze the Poles and restore the weather patterns our grandparents knew.

Climate-Related Health Issues “Have Reached ‘Worrying’ Levels”

New Scientist reports that a University College of London research team found that climate change has aggravated 16 critical indicators of human health impacts. The five-year study found heat-related deaths among the elderly have increased by 54% since 2000. More than half of the 196 nations studied reported growing risk to people from wildfires. “Climate action is a prescription for health,” said Renee Salas, lead author of the report, according to EcoWatch. Grist digs into other aspects of the story related to the loss of green urban spaces and rising red meat consumption that contribute additional stresses on human health.

One-Third Of Brazil’s Pantanal Wetlands Burned This Year

Nature reports that the largest wetland in the world, Brazil’s Pantanal region, has lost one-third of its savannah to fire during 2020. This comes with the news that deforestation in Brazil has reached a 12-year high under the hostile administration of Brazilian president Jair Bolsanaro. Reforestation programs are desperately needed. But as the breadth and severity of fires and logging increase, the annual cost of global forest restoration is estimated at $393 billion, according to non-profit research firm RTI International. That investment would help sequester up to 6 gigatons of CO2 annually by 2055, about one-sixth of the current human emissions each year. But the fight is over money, not just trees. EcoWatch calls out fossil fuel companies in a new report about ongoing oil drilling leases.

The Long Journey of Plastic Waste Documented

Researchers at the University of Exeter in the U.K. used GPS trackers to follow 25 discarded plastic bottles. They found they can trace up to 1,800 miles in just a few months, New Scientist reports. The bottles were released in the Ganges River and entered the Bay of Bengal, where they could travel as much as 13 miles each day. Bottles that came to rest beside the river were picked up and deposited in the ocean during flood seasons, which flush trash into the Indian Ocean.

2020 Is Second Hottest Arctic Year on Record

It’s not over, and it cannot end soon enough for us, but 2020 keeps on shoveling misery on the world. This year’s National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Arctic Report Card 2020 confirms that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, Phys.org reports. To see this visualized over time, visit The New York Times, which has an excellent story and time-lapse map of Arctic ice cover that will, frankly, scare you. The “blue sea event” representing a complete loss of summer ice is much closer than scientists and environmentalists feared.

 

IN BUSINESS

Disinvestment in Fossil Fuels, Renewables Investments Make Progress

The New York Common Retirement Fund (NYCRF), the state’s pension program, announced this week it would divest from its fossil fuel holdings entirely by 2040. Some of that money will flow to renewables. In the U.K., the state energy regulator has created incentives to drive £40 billion in renewables investments, The Guardian reports. We see progress on many fronts. Although we’d like to see a more rapid transition by the NYCRF, it represents the beginning of a resilient infrastructure organized around electricity instead of oil and gas. The Environmental Defense Fund writes that utilities, which often ignore the need to plan for infrastructure resilience, must start by acknowledging their climate impacts and factor them into new investments. It is still early days, but the transition to renewables now appears to be inevitable. GreenBiz has an interesting story on the challenge of tracking sustainable financing outcomes and how someday “‘sustainable finance’ will become … just finance.”

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé Are the Top Plastic Polluters

Green Matters reports that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé lead the world in generating plastic pollution, according to a new report from Break Free From Plastic. Based on volunteer audits of 575 brands in 55 countries, the report found that of 346,494 plastic debris items collected, 63% were branded packaging. The top polluter, Coke, accounted for 3.9% of plastic waste. The research provides a useful quantification of the often abstract issues surrounding “producer responsibility,” the requirement that a company that makes a product or packaging is also responsible for collecting and recycling it. Extended Producer Responsibility laws already exist in the E.U. and Canada, and several U.S. states are implementing programs. They impose a fee on each item to support the recycling infrastructure needed to collect and process the materials. Visit the Break Free From Plastic site to explore how brands pollute in different countries. Nestlé this week also announced a plan to reduce its reliance on virgin plastic, reduce emissions, and support regenerative farming in its supply chain, GreenBiz reports.

More Companies Receive “A” Grade for Environmental Action

Business is stepping up to the climate challenge, the Carbon Disclosure Project reports. The organization gave an “A” grade to 45% more companies this year than in 2019, albeit that growth is from a low base. The data shows the growing commitment to achieving sustainability by more than 300 companies, including Danone, L’Oreal, Alphabet (Google), Best Buy, CVS, and others. Likewise, WasteDive reports that more than 80% of companies surveyed by accountancy KPMG now deliver public sustainability reports. That represents a 75% increase over last year. But the content of those reports is varied. For instance, only 43% of the companies “acknowledge the financial risk of climate change.” These corporate efforts add up to significant impacts on national sustainability capabilities. The latest Global Sustainable Competitiveness Index report shows Scandanavia and Northern Europe far in the lead, with the U.S. in 32nd place — inside the top quartile but a disappointing result.

Apple’s Wozniak Launches Blockchain Renewable Energy Financial

Steve Wozniak, a cofounder of Apple, introduced EFFORCE, a Blockchain-based platform for supporting and profiting from renewable energy and efficiency programs that drive investment in energy transformation, CleanTechnica reports. Blockchain is a ledger technology, an accounting system, that can be applied to any supply chain, company, or project. The EFFORCE token, a unit of value energy project supporters receive in exchange for funding, accrues value based on the success of the project they support. It is a breakthrough project from the developer of the device that made computing a household phenomenon. Keep an eye on it.

Classic Car EV Conversion Kit Introduced

Maybe you love that old gas-burner in the garage too much to get rid of it, and you’d like to convert it to an EV. But there has not been a standard platform for car conversions, which made the project too expensive, until now. Zero Labs introduced an electric vehicle platform for converting classic internal-combustion cars, trucks, and SUVs to electric, CleanTechnica reports. The platform, or “skateboard,” can support the old vehicle’s chassis and deliver the performance of an EV.

There’s Food Waste in H&M’s New Couture

H&M, the luxury clothing company, introduced the Conscious Exclusive A/W20 Collection this week, which uses materials made from recycled materials and food waste. Triple Pundit explains that the new fashion line includes yarn made from wood fibers and plastic waste, hemp- and food waste-based fibers, as well as shoes that use winemaking waste. Model Zinnia Kumar, who is also an ecologist, said in a statement that “As consumers, we will no longer need to differentiate between fashionability and sustainability, as they will become one and the same. As an ecologist working in fashion, this fills me with hope.” Indeed, we are fascinated to see how fashion will lead to public acceptance of sustainability as a foundational consumer value.

 

IN SUSTAINABILITY

One of Trump’s Arctic Drilling Projects Rejected by Federal Court

The Trump administration’s approval of an offshore drilling project, known by the ill-fitting name “Liberty,” was blocked by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit this week. But the planned sale of drilling rights inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) continues despite widespread objections. If completed on January 6, as announced, it will allow drilling on the ANWR Coastal Plain, an area spanning 1.6 million acres, about 8% of the refuge. The damage to Brazil’s Pantanal could occur in this vast Alaskan wetland as warming weather and drilling rigs produce more fires. Think about that.

Warming World Leads to Pandemic Era

Rolling Stone provides a comprehensive look at the implications for infectious diseases during the Anthropocene. The potential for a mosquito-borne illness like Dengue Fever or species-hopping viruses to infect humans will rise sharply in warmer climates and as people move into formerly wild areas. The article notes that an estimated 1.7 million unidentified viruses could jump species are thought to be waiting in the urban-wilderness boundary. You may come away from the read fearful of new viruses, including Nipah and Hendra, in addition to Marburg and Ebola. Still, it is critical to understand the profound changes in our environment that will result from continued inaction on climate.

Decarbonization Requires Long, Steady Investment

The renewables transition can be kickstarted with aggressive investments now but will require consistent capital injections over the next 20 years to achieve decarbonization, an Aarhus University, Denmark, study concludes. “In some years, we will have to install more than a 100 Gigawatts of solar P.V. and wind power, and to achieve full decarbonization the CO2 prices will have to be a lot higher than today,” lead researcher Marta Victoria said, according to Solar Daily. This year, about 42 Gigawatts of new solar capacity is expected to be installed in the U.S., while the global total could reach 142 Gigawatts.

Integrated Solar in Urban Buildings Could Reduce Emissions

As urban populations grow from today’s 3.6 billion people to 6.3 billion by 2050, emissions from inefficiently heated and cooled high-rise buildings present a challenge for planners. Engineering and Technology reports that the use of novel organic solar could reduce the environmental burden. High-rise buildings are 2.5 times more energy-intensive than shorter structures. Gas consumption for the tallest buildings is 40% greater than others. Building integrated photovoltaics (BIPVs) that use organic solar compounds to generate energy from light hitting the building and passing through windows and adding passive heating or cooling systems has the potential to reduce energy use in tall urban structures by half before 2050.

Flooding Threatens 57% of the Global Economy by 2040

The impact of climate change threatens 57% of the global economy and 41% of the world’s population with flooding risks within 20 years. Environment + Energy Leader reports on new research from Four Twenty Seven, a firm owned by Moody’s, the credit rating company. Floods could disrupt up to $78 trillion in GDP. The study also found that water stress — failures of aquifers, drought, and related issues — will affect two-thirds of global farmlands. Finally, the study reports that continued migration into urban-rural interfaces will lead to as must as one-third of the population facing ongoing threats from wildfire.

 

IN RECYCLING

Clothing and Textile Recycling Hits Pandemic Snags, Opens New Opportunities

Recycling clothing is a massive problem — in 2018, 66% of annual U.S. textiles produced went to landfills and only 14.7% was recycled — the pandemic exacerbated that. Waste Dive explores the evolution of curbside textiles recycling programs, which were taking off as COVID-19 emerged and are now shutting down. For example, Simple Recycling of Avon, Ohio, shuttered about 50 of its 200 textiles programs this year as excess clothing piled up and drove the price of the material down. Yet new competitors, such as Warwick, R.I.-based Curbside Textiles Recycling, are emerging. As the next normal delivers people from the lockdown, there could be a renaissance in clothing recycling.

Aluminum Cans Recycling Faltered in 2019

Recycling Today reports on the latest aluminum recycling report from the Aluminum Association and the Can Manufacturers Institute. Last year, aluminum cans were recycled at a lower rate than 2018, falling 7.7% to 55.9%, even though the material remains the most valuable in the food packaging market at $1,210 a ton in 2019. The report blamed changes in production processes. During 2020, however, there is a global shortage of aluminum, and beverage can makers are scrambling to find more material. The report also suggests that glass currently has a “negative value of $21 per ton,” and plastic was worth only $237 per ton.

Canada-U.S. Recycling Agreement Questioned

The U.S. recently negotiated a recycled materials agreement with its northern neighbor to preserve current recycling export levels to Canada. It was necessary because the Trump Administration left the Basel Convention that governs International transportation of waste, and the U.S. will soon lose access to several markets. A group of environmental organizations raises concerns that the agreement was negotiated in secret and could put Canada in violation of its Basel requirements. The Trudeau government has asserted its right to keep open a loophole that allows it to trade with Basel non-members, but the treaty could be used to force it to stop accepting U.S. plastic.

 

ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE

Save Monarch Butterflies

Friends of the Earth is raising funding to litigate to reduce the use of Roundup, which kills milkweed, the Monarch butterfly’s primary food source. Consider donating as part of your year-end giving. Funds will be used to sue Monsanto, maker of Roundup.

Support the Sightline Institute

The 27-year-old Seattle-based Sightline Institute conducts research and action to help the Pacific Northwest become a “global model of sustainability—strong communities, a green economy, and a healthy environment.” The organization publishes useful research about energy, housing, sustainable living, and the green economy. It can play a larger role nationally during the Biden Administration but needs support to continue to study the widening range of green issues we face as a nation. Consider sending a few dollars Sightline’s way.

Recent Posts

Leave a Comment