Earth911 Reader: Reassessing Environmental Impacts & Evolution Can’t Keep Up With Global Warming

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We keep an eye on the news for useful information about science, business, sustainability, and recycling to save you time. This week in the Earth911 Reader, plants absorb less greenhouse gas than expected, major corporations commit to buying EV fleets, the benefits of ending Trump’s solar tariffs, and much more.

IN SCIENCE

Uh-oh, Plants Don’t Absorb as Much CO2 as Previously Thought

As CO2 levels rise, plants absorb less of the greenhouse gas than traditional climate models led us to expect. Consequently, humans must reduce emissions or capture more CO2 than previously thought to offset rising global temperatures, a Nanjing University research team found. New Scientist reports that the expected “fertilization effect” created by introducing more CO2 in small trials does not perform the same way in nature. Trees and plants do respond to more CO2 initially but lose their capacity to absorb more CO2 over time. Overall, the plant kingdom’s CO2 capture rate has declined faster than existing models predicted since the early 1980s. The report follows a recent trend in discoveries that our climate assessments have been too optimistic or have discounted certain environmental factors’ negative impact — that’s science in action, always checking its assumptions. For example, Nature reports this week that the Technical University of Munich found that assessments of the climate impact of meat-based diets have consistently underestimated the cost of CO2 related to animal husbandry and meat production.

Greenland’s Melting Glaciers Could Add 7 Inches to Sea Level by 2100

Phys.org reports that Greenland’s ice sheet is melting 60% faster than previous estimates suggested. By the turn of the century, the water released from Greenland could add 18 centimeters (7 inches) to sea levels globally. And that does not count Antarctic and Arctic ice loss’ impact on oceans. Earlier estimates were that Greenland would contribute only 10 centimeters (about 3.9 inches) to rising seas over the same time. Led by scientists from the Universities of Liège and Oslo, the study suggests that the total volume of Greenland’s ice sheet, if melted over centuries, would add almost 23 feet to global sea levels. Another study released this week by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) reports that wetter weather expected by some to relieve Western droughts — an oft-discussed “benefit” of climate change — will not develop. Winters will get drier. “An important implication of this work,” Lu Dong of the PNNL told Phys.org, “is that a reduction in estimated winter precipitation will likely mean a reduction in spring runoff and an increase in spring temperature, and both increase the likelihood of wildfire risk in California.”

Higher Temperatures Shorten Tropical Trees’ Lives

In a breakthrough study, a team from the Leeds’ School of Geography in the U.K. identified the critical temperature at which tropical trees can no longer thrive. If correct, we have a hard target at which rainforests worldwide may fail to capture and store CO2: 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 Centigrade). The global average temperature of tropical rainforests is between 69.8 F and 86 F. So many areas where extreme heat occurs are already past the tipping point. “[I]t is unavoidable that the critical threshold for tree longevity will increasingly be exceeded in the tropics and thus it is even more important to protect tropical forests and curb greenhouse emissions,” said Giuliano Locosselli of the Institute of Biosciences at the University of São Paulo, according to Phys.org.

Evolution Can’t Keep Up With Global Warming

Animals cannot move fast enough to stay ahead of warming climates. According to a new study spearheaded by the University of Glasgow, they can’t evolve new traits to keep up with the rapidly changing environment. The researchers identified a fish species, the zebrafish, that can evolve to adapt to warmer water, but they cannot adapt fast enough to keep ahead of climate change. “We see that zebrafish can develop heat tolerance, and we have developed lines of zebrafish that can better withstand the heat. That’s good news,” lead researcher Rachael Morgan told Phys.org. “The problem is that evolution takes many generations. Evolution only increased the heat tolerance in the fish by 0.04 degrees C per generation. This is slower than the warming experienced by many fish in many places.” By the end of the century, the seas may not be boiling, but sea life in the tropics may feel as though they’ve been cooked.

Birdsong Contributes to Lower Stress in Humans

A study by the California Polytechnic State University shows that birdsong contributes to a greater sense of wellbeing, which is related to lower levels of stress, Phys.org reports. The researchers interviewed hikers that passed through an area with controlled, recorded birdsong. They found that hikers exposed to birdsong reported a “greater sense of wellbeing.” The findings support previous research and demonstrate that local human-generated noise can reduce that sense of calm. And hikers related their feeling that there were more birds in the area to their heightened sense of peace. “I’m still kind of flabbergasted that only 7-10 minutes of exposure to these sounds improved people’s wellbeing,” said study lead Clinton Francis. “It really underscores how important hearing is to us and probably to other animals.”

 

IN BUSINESS

Major Corporations Embrace EV Fleets

Ceres, a Boston-based nonprofit, launched the Corporate Electric Vehicle Alliance (see the organization’s principles) to support faster electrification of corporate fleets. The group includes IKEA, Hertz, Amazon, T-Mobile, and Uber, among other companies. The spending power of these organizations will be committed to buying from a wide range of EV makers to encourage competition and diversity of technical solutions while promoting the standardization of parts and charging equipment to drive prices lower. Taking learning from past transitions, such as the digitization of the workplace that made PCs cheap and common appliances, these standards-based approaches can accelerate the price parity of EVs with internal-combustion vehicles, as well as the deployment of charging stations nationally.

Amazon’s Plastic Waste Would Wrap the World 500 Times, Group Claims

Oceana, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting plastic waste, reports its analysis of the plastic waste generated by Amazon delivery packaging and product packaging would circle the Earth up to 500 times if converted into air pillows, according to Phys.org. Amazon contests the finding. Nevertheless, 2020’s booming home delivery industry produces record levels of plastic (and cardboard) waste. Amazon needs to find ways to reduce its waste footprint. (An excellent place to start would be refusing to accept goods from producers that come in traditional retail plastic packaging designed to prevent theft.) On the other side of the environmental ledger this week, Amazon announced an agreement to purchase 3.4 gigawatts of new renewable energy generation capacity, making it the largest consumer of green power in the world with 6.5 GW in green electricity in its system. Companies are becoming their own utilities providers, following the pattern of Boeing, which had a private national phone system by the early 1970s.

Business Collaboration and Social Responsibility Rising

Sustainable Brands reports on the 10 trends reshaping business during 2020, and sustainable, equitable outcomes are the focus of all the ideas. From companies collaborating to ensure sustainable sources of materials and social outcomes, including large and small business allying to create greater efficiency and more robust local economies, to putting employees’ health and wellbeing first, the list is a fascinating read full of concrete examples. While the national political debate may remain divided over these issues, business is charging ahead despite some stubborn laggards. The article notes that companies are making time available for employees to vote after recognizing the importance of the 2020 election.

 

IN SUSTAINABILITY

When Net-Zero Isn’t Enough, Climate Recovery Comes Next

Grist reports on the growing awareness of and support for “climate restoration” strategies. There is growing evidence of climate change’s direct health impacts, including recent research showing that heat-related deaths have increased by 50% in two decades. Now, activists are turning to the idea not just of reducing CO2 emissions to zero by 2050, but also to the use of technology to remove excess CO2 from the air — climate restoration. Removing carbon is a topic we’ve covered several times in recent years, including this interview with Healthy Climate Alliance founder Peter Fiekowsky. Both reductions of emissions and removal of CO2 from the atmosphere are required to restore the climate to pre-industrial conditions. The old average temperatures will help refreeze the poles and support historical weather patterns in which we emerged as a species.

Ending Solar Panel Tariffs Carries Big Returns

President Trump’s 2018 tariffs on solar panel imports have suppressed residential solar adoption in the United States. While other nations have surged ahead in solar generation, only 2% of U.S. electric generation comes from PV panels. Artificially high solar panel prices created by the Trump action are the culprit, Common Dreams reports. By contrast, Australia generates up to 5% of its electricity from rooftop solar. Removing the tariffs would lead to as much as $473 billion in energy savings by 2050 and create more than 2 million jobs, a new report by solar advocacy and marketing companies suggests. Solar is already the cheapest form of electric generation. Solar-related jobs can provide better-paying work than the increasingly obsolete coal and oil-fired alternatives. And widespread solar adoption could reduce CO2 emissions to 1990s levels, according to Michelle Lewis of Elektrek.

It’s Time for the Press to Declare a “Climate Emergency”

Journalists must take the initiative to treat climate change with the gravity it deserves and declare a climate emergency, Mark Hertsgaard writes at CoveringClimateNow.org. That would galvanize the public debate, which has not recognized that the threat to human wellbeing is as severe as a war. Hertzgaard argues that journalists should shoulder the same obligation to raise the alarm as scientists have embraced. Even climate skeptics in the press should report based on the well-proven numbers behind climate science rather than focusing on the implied politicization of research often raised as an objection by deniers. “The coming months will be a pivotal time in the climate emergency,” Hertzgaard writes. “In Washington, the question will be whether the incoming Biden administration can implement reforms matching the scope and severity of the emergency and whether Republicans continue to obstruct progress and thereby knowingly condemn young people to a future hell on earth.”

U.S. Zero Emissions by 2050 Is Expensive, but Very Affordable Compared to the Alternative

A new comprehensive study of the many factors that contribute to the cost and benefits of the renewable energy transition from Princeton University shows the path to net-zero emissions will be long but achievable. Based on a detailed state-by-state analysis, the report indicates that the nation can reach net-zero without spending more than it does on energy today, between 4% and 6% of the GDP. “Following a ‘business-as-usual’ pathway without concerted decarbonization efforts, the country would spend about $9.4 trillion on energy over the next decade,” Phys.org reports. Going green over the same period would add only $300 billion to U.S. energy prices over the full decade but would create millions of new jobs. In a related study published in Science Daily this week, North Carolina State University researchers document how the benefits of the solar transition vary from one region to another, based on the local energy generation’s cost. Varying costs, of course, offset benefits. Both reports show the economic and environmental benefits will be enormous.

EPA Slips In Last-Minute Climate Policy Blocking Rule

The former coal industry lobbyist who leads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, announced what the agency refers to as “benefit-cost analysis” rules for changing climate policy, the Environmental Defense Fund reports. It is a last-minute flipping of the bird at the environmental community. “Thanks to President Trump’s leadership, we are ensuring that future rulemakings under the Clean Air Act are transparent, fair, and consistent with EPA governing statutes, the American public deserves to know the benefits and costs of federal regulations,” Wheeler said in an EPA press release. But the EDF’s Ben Levitan said, “This rule will distort EPA’s assessment of the benefits of Clean Air Act safeguards, making it harder to establish vital, life-saving protections against unhealthy air pollution.” The EPA decision places economic gain above environmental and public health costs. It effectively makes industry the source of clean air policy because they will define rule changes’ potential value. Yet even the EPA’s research shows the benefits of the 1990 Clean Air Act outweigh the cost of complying with stricter regulations by 90 to one.

 

IN RECYCLING

Waste and Recycling Jobs Rank Sixth Most Dangerous in U.S.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that garbage and recycling collection jobs were the sixth most-dangerous occupation in the nation during 2019, a slight improvement since 2018. Recycling Today reports that waste collection and processing resulted in 44.3 fatalities per 100,000 full-time workers in 2018. These folks do back-breaking, dangerous work and deserve to be recognized as heroes on the frontline of the war against waste. Only loggers, pilots and flight engineers, roofers, and construction workers face higher odds of death at work than waste management employees. These essential workers should be compensated for the danger they face. Each of us needs to think about their safety whenever we toss anything in the trash or recycling bin.

Compostable Plastics Could Be Part of a Circular Economy, Says Closed Loop Partners

The adoption of compostable bioplastics could alleviate some of the worst environmental impacts of petroleum-based plastics. Still, the collection and recycling infrastructure needs a significant upgrade to keep up with rising plastic use, Waste360 reports. A new study from investment firm Closed Loop Partners suggests that rapid expansion of food composting programs and recycling systems is necessary to prevent a glut of unprocessed plastic. Bioplastics are widely touted as superior to conventional plastics because they are biodegradable, but only under certain conditions. The study identified only 1,185 commercial composting sites in the U.S. capable of processing bioplastic. These compost piles reach the higher temperatures required to breakdown bioplastic, which is often mixed with or contaminated with food waste that makes it unrecyclable. GreenBiz adds to the discussion with an analysis of the Biden Administration’s prospects for reducing and recycling plastic waste, which it reports has become a bipartisan issue. A massive investment in recycling infrastructure is an essential platform for realizing a circular economy, in addition to creating many good-paying jobs. But we are skeptical that Senate Republicans will work with the Democratic House and President to achieve anything they consider a political “win” for the opposition. Oh, how we ache for the spirit of bipartisan cooperation and compromise.

 

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