The Earth911 Reader collects and comments on useful news about science, business, sustainability, and recycling to save you time and keep you informed. This week, we focus on scientific and political developments.
Polar and Greenland Ice Melting 60% Faster Than in the 1990s
Earth’s ice sheets have lost 28 trillion tons of ice mass since the 1990s and may continue accelerating as warmer oceans undercut glaciers along coasts, The Washington Post reports. A new study published in the journal Copernicus says that between 1994 and 2017, the Arctic lost 7.6 trillion tons of ice, Antarctic ice shelves on the coast decreased by 6.6 trillion tons, mountain glaciers shed 6.1 trillion tons, Greenland’s main ice sheet declined by 3.8 trillion tons, and the Antarctic ice sheet gave up 2.5 trillion tons – 58% of the loss was in the Northern Hemisphere.
The most worrying statistic is that annual ice loss rates jumped by 60% over the era studied. Scientific American points out that Antarctic sea ice has increased in some areas as the ozone hole over the South Pole heals. Scientists expect that to reverse as oceans get warmer. A University of Leeds study published in The Cryosphere also found dramatic ice loss. “It was a surprise to see such a large increase in just 30 years,” Thomas Slater, co-author of the Leeds report, told EcoWatch.
Extreme Weather Is Provably Related to Climate Change and Can’t Be Ignored Any Longer
Billions of dollars in storm damage, economic losses from crop failures, and flood and wildfire damage have made climate change impossible to ignore, Richard Betts writes in Nature. He estimates the chances of extremely hot weather and drought are 43% higher than only a few decades ago. Based on all the evidence, it is time to stop asking if climate change is responsible and start planning to combat atmospheric warming’s disastrous effects, Betts argues. He suggests that citizens now have the evidence in hand to demand that corporations and governments take action. Betts also offers that institutions can now be held accountable for preventable damages. “We must also learn to adapt, and fast,” Betts concludes.
Yet, the available evidence is not limited to extreme weather and disasters. Consider the Botanical Society of Britain’s tenth New Year Plant Hunt. It’s a citizen-scientist effort to collect data about how wildflowers behave. For years, the report found that warmer winters result in more blooming plants during early January. Compared to 2018, the previous record year, 2020’s survey found 13.2% more wildflower species in bloom at the New Year. “We are seeing fluctuations on the number of wildflowers flowering over the New Year that appears to be linked to changes in weather patterns, with warmer temperatures leading up to the New Year having a higher number of species flowering,” researcher Ellen Goddard of Loughborough University told Phys.org.
Plastic Pollution Is Choking Asia’s Rivers and Mangrove Forests
Several studies published this week found dire impacts on river ecosystems in South Asia. As many as 3 billion microplastic particles are flowing from the Ganges River into India’s Bay of Bengal, the National Geographic Society Sea to Source program reported, according to Phys.org. Most – more than 90% of the materials – came from clothing, including rayon and acrylics. Note that these particles are in addition to the later plastic items polluting the oceans and can be more insidious when eaten by wildlife in the sea.
A second study centered in the region discovered that Mangrove ecosystems are suffering damage from plastic pollution. More than 54% of Mangrove forests, which grow along coastlines, are within 12.4 miles (20 km) of a river that disgorges more than one ton of plastic waste annually. The plastic – large items like bottles and six-pack rings or microplastics – become trapped in the Mangrove root system. This may sound like nature cleaning up humanity’s mess, but the consequences are disastrous. “You can look at [Mangrove] roots as snorkels,” environmental researcher Celine van Bijsterveldt told Phys.org in December. “When plastic waste accumulates in these forests, the snorkels are blocked.” The trees suffocate.
A study of British rivers by the University of Nottingham found that litter is becoming an alternative to natural habitats. Urban rivers have more invertebrate wildlife, such as snails and insects, living on debris instead of rocks. “Our research suggests that in terms of habitat, litter can actually benefit rivers which are otherwise lacking in habitat diversity,” Hazel Wilson of Nottingham’s School of Geography told Phys.org. Maybe this, too, sounds like an upside, but it makes cleaning up river systems more difficult. Now those invertebrates need to be relocated during a river restoration. We make our problems worse every day, even though homo sapiens has, or can develop, the technology and insight to solve many of these problems.
Sea Change Underway: General Motors and Boeing Pivot Towards Sustainability
After embracing President Trump’s efforts to reduce emissions standards, General Motors has entered the Biden era with an announcement that it will phase out internal combustion engines in its car and light truck lines by 2035. The Washington Post reports the company will also invest in becoming carbon neutral by 2040. These are important and laudable goals because they mark a change of direction by the largest American automaker, which will drive its competitors to follow suit. Bloomberg suggests that GM’s decision was motivated by President Biden’s efforts to reinstate the $7,500 tax credit for electric vehicles. He is also working to fund a plan to build a national charging station infrastructure.
Boeing joined the green chorus, announcing a plan to build a commercial aircraft flying on 100% sustainable aviation fuels by 2030. The move would reduce an aircraft’sCO2 emissions by as much as 80%, Environment + Energy Leader reports. However, it would take decades to complete the transition of the world’s commercial air fleet. Amazon also contributed to the good news for flying. Infinium, a startup financed by Amazon to pursue green fuel alternatives for its planes, trucks, and vans, announced a CO2-based fuel made from captured factory CO2 emissions. In the long run, Fast Company writes, Infinium plans to use direct air capture technology to pull CO2, the raw material for its products, from the atmosphere.
The advent of carbon capture technology, we think, is the best news of the week. The technology promises to remove carbon from the air, which is necessary even after society achieves net-zero emissions to bring global temperatures back to pre-industrial levels. All this activity is good news.
However, these are also responses to the end of the Trump era. Commitments are easy to make and hard to deliver on, especially when the CEOs making the promise will be retired by the time they need to be commercialized.
Where Will Green Business Go in 2021? Looks Like Up.
Joel Makower of GreenBiz writes about his company’s 14th State of Green Business Report. He concludes that despite the pandemic and a divided society, “the forward march of progress not only continued but accelerated” because it has become profitable to be green. Net-zero commitments are becoming everyday table-stakes decisions as consumers recognize the importance of sustainable products. Companies are also waking to the existential peril of ignoring climate change. As the weather becomes more violent and destructive, business faces trillions of dollars in losses, and social disruptions will prevent consumers from spending on anything but essentials.
Likewise, Triple Pundit acknowledges that climate policy must be treated as a component of national security to avoid war over arable land and water sources and prevent waves of climate immigration that threaten to overwhelm borders around the planet. People on the move remains the most significant geopolitical threat to security, which the Defense Department first addressed in its Newly appointed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin declared on Wednesday that the Pentagon would integrate climate change into all its decision-making, including how it procures supplies and fuels its warships, planes, and supply chain. “There is little about what the [Defense] Department does to defend the American people that is not affected by climate change. It is a national security issue, and we must treat it as such,” Secretary Austin said.
The impact of the world’s largest customer for almost everything, the U.S. Government, deciding to make green buying decisions will drive the price of green products and services lower. Fossil-fuel-based industries more expensive to sustain as demand declines, and that will drive the green transition. GreenBiz’s Makower points out that the combined effect of the end of the pandemic – it will eventually be manageable – and migration to green energy and sustainable business practices could be transformative. The green evolution could even provide the basis for addressing our most profound socioeconomic and justice problems. It’s a terrible time, but Makower sees “glimmers of hope” in recent events.
Ordinary citizens and activists must keep the heat on both government and business to make progress, or this post-inauguration exuberance will give way to pessimism and backsliding.