Every week, the Earth911 team combs news and research for interesting ideas and stories about the challenges of creating a sustainable world. We pick the science, sustainability, recycling, and business stories to give you a summary of the week’s changes, along with ideas you can act on to support the environment and Earth-friendly initiatives. Sometimes it is good news we can all celebrate, sometimes it is bad news or a seemingly intractable challenge that should make us double-down on finding new solutions. We call it the Earth911 Reader and we hope you find it useful.
Nature Explores the Scientific Issues Where Biden Would Make the Most Impact
The journal of science, Nature, departed from its usual arms-length distance from politics to examine the implications of the U.S. Presidential election for five major scientific issues: pandemic response; climate change; research and respect for scientific conclusions; space exploration, and; international research collaboration. Citing the Trump Administration’s reliance on misinformation and suppression of scientific research that contradicts its ideology, the article suggests Biden’s approach to the COVID pandemic would be based on aggressive testing. With comprehensive testing, the disease’s scope and how to deploy vaccines and therapies effectively will be easier to understand. Trump, by contrast, has essentially wished away the results of testing programs. Robust space exploration is another headline topic, one Trump has talked up but does not invest in supporting. But it is the return to apolitical research agendas that will make the most significant long-term difference to progress and, specifically, addressing climate change. Read it for yourself and decide, then vote on Nov. 3.
Urban Populations Are Just as Nice and Helpful as Rural Folks
A new U.K. study busts the myth that people living in cities are colder and less helpful toward their neighbors than rural populations. “There’s no evidence for this idea that city living makes us unfriendly,” Nichola Raihani of the University College London told New Scientist. The researchers conducted 37 different experiments in urban and rural neighborhoods across the U.K. between 2014 and 2017. For example, they dropped stamped but unmailed letters to see if people would place them in a post box, a classic test of the willingness to help others. They found no difference between cities and rural towns. They found that people are less inclined to be helpful in low-income urban neighborhoods than in wealthy locales. We all need to acknowledge that people everywhere can be pleasant, helpful, and friendly instead of distrustful because of where they live. That is the basis for shared concerns and constructive debate sorely needed to solve the climate crisis and provide shared prosperity for all.
Tracking Aerosol Pollution From Wildfires, Pollution, and Natural Events
Colorado State University researchers have determined how it takes long small-particle pollution, such as the smoke from wildfires or car exhaust, to settle on the ground. Previous research had underestimated the lifetime of the smallest airborne particles. The insight is a key component of an improved climate model that better assesses the short- and long-term impact of natural and human-emitted particles in the atmosphere. The information can also help assess health risks from particulate pollution. Science had not established how “dry deposition,” the settling of particles not caught by rainfall, works. “Wet deposition” from rain captures about 80% of aerosol pollution. “[T]he longer a particle hangs out in the atmosphere, the more opportunity it has to travel farther, or make clouds, or impact human health. So getting the removal process right is essential for predicting particle concentrations—and their effects,” Delphine Farmer, the lead researcher, told Phys.org.
Everyone Can Prosper in a Green Economy by 2050, Study Shows
The University of Leeds in the U.K. assessed the energy requirements needed to provide “decent living standards” for everyone on Earth. It found that prosperity can be provided for all using only 40% of the energy we expended by society today. Technical progress is critical to achieving the required efficiencies for prosperous living. The study confirms that a sustainable economy does not mean lifestyles must revert to pre-industrial levels of subsistence, Science Daily reports. Researchers looked at life in 119 countries and discovered an immense amount of waste, described as “surplus.” They also found that rising incomes in emerging economies will increase energy efficiency, not draw away resources from wealthier nations. They estimate that 17% of the world’s energy is renewably sourced today. However, renewables already represent half of the energy needed to deliver decent lives to the entire planet. “Overall, our study is consistent with the long-standing arguments that the technological solutions already exist to support reducing energy consumption to a sustainable level,” study author Dr. Joel Millward-Hopkins said. “What we add is that the material sacrifices needed for these reductions are far smaller than many popular narratives imply.”
The Amazon Rainforest Is Becoming a Savannah
As much as 40% of the Amazon now receives only enough rainfall to support a savannah grassland, The Guardian reports. A team of researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University warn that climate change has pushed the Amazon toward a tipping point that could erase the habitat of tens of thousands of species over a few decades. The loss of dense rainforest will drastically reduce the region’s ability to absorb CO2. It also supports vast numbers of uncatalogued species that could help humans develop technology and medicine through biomimicry. While the researchers say the Amazon could recover over many decades, the transition to wooded grasslands may be irreversible without immediate restoration action. Once lost, many trees, plants, animals, and microorganisms will not be recoverable. Wake up, humanity, we’re destroying the world, and there is no denying it in the face of this and so much other evidence.
Public Transit on Many Ballots This November, Could Face Cuts
Bloomberg CityLab reports that nine states and 15 localities will vote on cumulative funding for public transit of at least $1.4 billion on Nov. 3. Public transportation is a keystone of many CO2 reduction strategies. If local transit funding is cut due to voter apathy in the face of COVID, it could cripple efforts to reduce internal combustion vehicle traffic. Commuter trains in California, light rail and a subway in Texas, and rail service around Atlanta are just a few of the issues voters will consider. The pandemic has lowered transit usage by about 24% compared to a year ago. Will the short-term disruption of public transit lead to failed referendums? You can learn about and support campaigns for public transit by joining Voices for Public Transport.
2020 City Clean Energy Scorecard Released, and New York, Boston, and Seattle Lead
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) released its review of 100 American cities’ clean energy progress this week. The organization found that 20 cities are on track to meet their goals, increasing nine cities since the last ranking in 2019. But only 63 of the cities surveyed have established plans for migrating to clean energy. The report suggests that laggard governments should consider investing in renewables to kickstart local energy transformation and adopt clear, scientific goals for reducing greenhouse gas and introducing clean energy generation. Support for low-income communities is also essential to enduring progress, the ACEEE said. Read the complete report. And for inspiration, check out what Helsinki, Finland, is doing to accelerate its move away from coal-fired power generation entirely by 2035.
Climate Denial Has Ideological Roots That Disrupt Educational Efforts
While people on the political left welcome climate change information, right-leaning people are naturally resistant to the same lessons because of ideology, a study of 64 countries published this week in Nature shows. The effect is especially pronounced in low-income countries but even in advanced economies, right-wing ideology “attenuates (but does not reverse) the positive effects of education.” We point to this not to condemn right-wing people but to ask them to simply recognize that their perceptions are shaped by what and how they’ve learned to think about politics. Every citizen needs to examine their assumptions to make well-informed decisions, and the left has its blind spots, too. But the climate issue is no longer a hypothetical concern, it is a real danger to human society. The researchers from Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, found that U.S. ideological bias about climate change is more pronounced than in other countries.
Your Diet Can Change History
Earth911 urges you every week to make changes to your diet because it can make a big difference to the climate. Phys.org reports on a new paper in the journal Environmental Justice that confirms Americans can adopt dietary recommendations sensitive to cultural differences and still reduce global environmental degradation by 38%. We eat a lot more than many nations, so our impact is outsized. “We found that shifting to increased vegetable and nuts intake while decreasing red meat and added sugars consumption would help Americans meet EAT-Lancet criteria and reduce environmental degradation between 28% and 38% compared to current levels,” said Joe Bozeman, of the University of Illinois Chicago Institute for Environmental Science and Policy.
Transform HVAC Technology To Prevent 600 Billion Tons of CO2
Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a family of potent greenhouse gases, are used in air conditioning systems worldwide. Banned by the Kigali Amendment to the United Nations’ Montreal Protocol that halted most chlorofluorocarbons responsible for the ozone hole at the South Pole, HFCs will be phased out by 2050. A report from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis finds that a rapid transition could prevent the release of 600 billion tons of CO2 emissions this century, Phys.org reports. Rising “temperatures will drive more HVAC use, so finding alternative coolants is a pressing issue. “We found that if technical energy efficiency improvements are fully implemented, the resulting electricity savings could exceed 20% of future global electricity consumption, while the corresponding figure for economic energy efficiency improvements would be about 15%,” senior IIASA researcher Lena Höglund-Isaksson said.
U.K. Aims for All Homes To Use Offshore Wind Power by 2030
Promising to “build back green,” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told his annual Conservative Party Conference that he has a 10-point plan to transform the British power grid to renewables by 2030. Although the full details were not disclosed, Johnson announced a goal of adding 40 gigawatts of wind generation capacity, raising the country’s previous goal by 50%. That would increase U.K. renewable generation by 1,500%, Business Green reports. The Guardian added that Johnson told Conservatives that Britain would “become the world leader in low-cost, clean power generation – cheaper than coal and gas.”
Brands Must Embrace Ocean Plastic Recycling To Turn the Tide
Vanessa Coleman, CEO of Oceanworks, writes for Sustainable Brands that companies must “[make] recycled plastic content part of your brand story is hands down the most important way to move the needle.” Take a few minutes to read her analysis of the historical causes of low recycling rates for ocean plastics. She argues that brands must build into their pricing the cost of plastic recycling and engage consumers to increase recycling rates. That can be a practical step toward recovering the microplastics that kills sea life, are displacing life in the ocean with microplastic particles, and recently found in human organs.
Exxon Mobil Will Increase Carbon Emissions by 17%
We wrote recently about the flood of oil companies acknowledging that oil consumption will decline in the face of renewable alternatives. Going against that trend, Exxon Mobil plans to increase its CO2 emissions by up to 17% in 2025. This counter-intuitive decision in the face of plainly visible climate impacts was reported by Bloomberg Green. “The largest U.S. oil producer has never made a commitment to lower oil and gas output or set a date by which it will become carbon neutral. Exxon has also never publicly disclosed its forecasts for its own emissions,” Kevin Crowley and Akshat Rathi. Bloomberg got hold of a chart that shows the company will add 21 million tons of CO2 outputs each year. However, the company responded that it was a “preliminary internal assessment.”
China’s Tiny $4,200 EV Is Selling Like Hotcakes
The Wuling Hong Guang Mini E.V., announced in July, has collected more than 50,000 pre-orders. That’s Tesla-level excitement. But this vehicle starts at $4,200, less than a 10th of the cost for a Tesla. A commuter vehicle, the E.V. can only go 62 miles per hour and up to 105 miles on a single charge, SingularityHub reports.
Green Bonds Hit $1 Trillion Mark
The financing of green corporate and government investments, known by the name green bonds or sustainability bonds, crossed the $1 trillion level after a series of huge deals this Summer. Google parent Alphabet raised $5.57 billion in early August. More than $50 billion in green bonds were issued during September to bring the 2020 total to more than $200 billion, BloombergNEF reports. First introduced in 2007, this type of bond finances renewable energy transitions and green infrastructure. The Alphabet bonds will support its social and environmental programs, including wind, solar, and carbon-free operational improvements. While they represent only about 1/40th of the total bond market now, increased interest in green bonds represents a barometer of future environmental remediation spending.
Union of Concerned Scientists Warns EPA Rulemaking Deeply Flawed
Genna Reed, lead science and policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, writes in CleanTechnica about her organization’s meeting with the White House Office of Management and Budget to discuss the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) upcoming rulemaking on Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science. She calls it a “trap” because it opens scientific research to industry scrutiny without exposing private-sector scientists to the same “transparency” requirements. In particular, the concept of reanalysis will allow companies to fight regulations by demanding access to data. “The goal of the rule is clearly not to increase transparency, but to introduce a new avenue for stakeholders with enough time and resources to recalculate study data to better meet desired outcomes,” Reed wrote. She offers a comprehensive list of criticisms that raise concerns that the EPA is working to diminish science’s influence in regulatory decision-making.
Shoppers Want Third-Party Sustainability Certification
Americans are more concerned about climate change (43%), ocean plastic pollution (41%), and environmental losses (39%). In 2020, more basic survival concerns are prominent during COVID. Still, Americans do want better sustainability guidance when shopping, Suzanne Shelton writes on GreenBiz. She adds that 87% of respondents value third-party certifications instead of relying on a company’s claims about its sustainability. “Americans are increasingly working to manage their environmental concerns via their purchases,” Shelton writes. Indeed, shoppers are looking to put their money behind sustainable products but are discouraged by jargon and greenwashing marketing messages. Third-party certification by independent labs or organizations provide an accountable source of guidance. But individual certificates, like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative Shelton points to as a model may address only part of the production, distribution, and use of a product. Because certification requires specialization, there will be many green marks. Eventually, many certificates will need to be consolidated into an overall score that reflects the total impact of a product and its supply chain. This demonstrates the complexity of modern life, not the intractability of the certification process.
Builders and Utilities Fighting Electric Transformation Regulations
The Guardian reports on growing resistance in the United States to a global, but mostly American, regulatory change that, among other matters, would require new buildings to provide electric outlets near gas stoves to support conversion to electric appliances. In the simplest terms, the new building codes reduced built-in obsolescence in new homes and apartment buildings. Upgrades will cost owners substantially more when they convert to electric appliances, electric vehicles, and other renewable energy-powered home technology. The Leading Builders Association, American Gas Association, American Public Gas Association are among the organizations fighting the new regulations. Industry claims it will raise prices and that homeowners don’t want to switch from gas. Yet, these rules lower the cost of future migration to electric options that will reduce emissions. The small incremental cost during construction will make the transition easier and cheaper when it comes.
U.S. Recycling Rate Ranks 18th Worldwide; 19th in Composting Rate
Rajapack, a British sustainable packaging maker, released an analysis of the recycling, composting, and incineration rates in 29 countries. Try exploring the interactive ranking on the site to see how the U.S.’s strengths and weaknesses compared to other countries — we are very much in the middle of the pack. Americans recovered 47.6% of its waste but recycled only 25.57% and compost only 9.22% of total waste. At 100%, Switzerland and the Nordic countries, which have recovery rates above 90%, lead the world. But, as Rajapack points out, Switzerland incinerates most of its municipal waste Instead of recycling it. There’s room for improvement everywhere when it comes o recycling, composting, and, before any waste is created, consciously shopping to reduce packaging and materials waste.
Environmental Protection Agency Releases National Recycling Strategy
The U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled a draft National Recycling Strategy for upgrading recovery rates and materials processing and support a new set of national recycling rules that are expected in November, Recycling Today reports. It correctly assesses the industry’s challenges, including the need for consumer education to reduce contamination rates and investment in the collection and processing infrastructure. But the EPA does not take the step of mandating standards and industry practices, favoring state and local level decision-making that has contributed to the immensely complex recycling environment. The Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries responded to the proposal with a call for “clear and consistent” recycling goals and metrics for progress. It is an idea that suggests greater standardization of recycling systems, which appears to be absent from the EPA thinking.
Compostable Products Guidance Introduced
WasteDive reports that the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) recently introduced guidelines for labeling compostable and biodegradable products and packaging that seek to reduce contamination levels. Non-compostable materials mixed in with biodegradable content, in particular, prevent many composters from accepting products that manufacturers claim will break down in a pile. A BPI spokesperson said that a recent Washington state law, H.B. 1569, could serve as a model for the rest of the country. It calls for “compostable” labels on products and authorizes the state’s attorney general to pursue violators and greenwashers making false claims.
Changing Global Plastic Transportation Rules May Prevent U.S. Plastic Export
The United States is not a party to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. Nevertheless, a new plastic import/export rule in the Basel regime could stop U.S. recyclers from sending plastic overseas, Resource Recycling reports. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently briefed recyclers on the rules. They require plastic exports to be less contaminated than current U.S. standards and that materials must be bound for “environmentally sound recycling” to prevent materials from being dumped in poor countries. Because the U.S. is not a signatory of the Basel Convention, it may be prevented from transporting any plastic waste without negotiating separate treaties with each recipient nation. Even the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), of which the U.S. is a party, may cut off plastic exports within advanced economies, the EPA warned industry leaders.
Plastic Manufacturers, Recycling Partnership Announce Recycling Fees Proposal
The Recycling Partnership and American Chemistry Council recently announced a proposal that would require the makers of products and packaging to pay a fee for each ton of product material received by landfills, waste incinerators, and waste-to-energy plants, Resource Recycling reports. The proposal is a significant step, the first time an industry group that would be required to pay such fees has endorsed the idea. According to the proposal, various materials, including plastic, would be subject to the fees. The revenue would support residential recycling and consumer education programs, as well as “equalize the costs of disposal versus recycling.” The move is also a gambit to head off extended producer responsibility laws now in force in the European Union to support recycling programs. “Embedded in collaboration across government, non-profits, and for-profits, this uniquely American approach outlines how brands are key to supporting expanded infrastructure and innovation while communities gain much-needed funding to operate programs,” Keefe Harrison, CEO of The Recycling Partnership, wrote in a statement.
ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE
Join 630,000+ Petitioners Asking Amazon To Use Less Plastic in Packaging
Nicole Delma started a petition asking Amazon to add a “Plastic-free” option during checkout to request no bubble wrap be used in the delivery package, as well as a label on plastic-free products. The petition has 630,017 signatories at this writing. Take a moment to add your name and reduce the amount of plastic flowing into your home.
Try Localizing Your Shopping in Central Texas With SquareDeal
SquareDeal is an Austin, Texas-based marketplace for goods, foods, and plants. Think Etsy, but across a broader range of products and a local pick-up option. Founder Davis Jones explained that SquareDeal will help people diversify their income by selling homemade products, such as fresh-baked bread, prepared meals, and crafts locally. The company will remain focused on the Central Texas region. It represents an emerging approach to local business that does not rely on retail storefronts. Sustainability will move some production back to the home, where it resided before the industrial revolution. SquareDeal moves the storefront to the front porch. Watch your area for similar local commerce programs and let us know when you find them!
Listen to Nature’s Podcast About Science Under Trump or Biden
The Presidential election will set America’s relationship with science and climate policy for decades because science and climate awareness have been under intense attack during the Trump years. Listen to Nature‘s weekly podcast about what’s at stake, the history of Trump’s attacks on science, and what Joe Biden’s election would mean for five key science issues. 2020 is the year the U.S. will decide if it is working for planetary survival or short-term and suicidal profits.
Learn About Wetlands on the Earth911 Podcast
This week, we spoke with Jeremy Schewe, a wetlands scientist who is chief science officer and cofounder of Ecobot, an app company that helps to accurately inventory wetlands. Schewe shares the state of more than 110 million acres of wetlands in the U.S. and progress in understanding the role wetlands play in the carbon cycle, their influences on local weather and environmental diversity, and policymaking to protect these valuable natural resources. Wetlands are estimated to provide up to $14 trillion dollars in environmental services to humans annually by processing CO2, providing a home to fish and game, serving as a source of biological solutions to human disease and food production, and other functions humans cannot perform. Listen to this week’s podcast.