Interactive Climate Change World Map

Really intuitive to explore map of records of temperature change:

Accompanying video and article in the New Scientist:




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Illegal wildlife trade

Alarming: “America is the second largest destination for smuggled goods made from endangered wildlife.”

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Green Crude

The Yale Environment 360 blog has an article with a good background and history of developing algae as an alternative to fossil fuels.

There’s also additional information on the US Department of Energy website along with a video which puts visuals to the information:

And investigation of its potential internationally for developing countries:

Maybe algae is more than superfood, superfuel?

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UNFCCC in Doha

The 18th annual Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) concluded on 8 December, 2012 in Doha, Qatar. The meeting, which began on 26 November (and was expected to conclude on 7 December) was set to advance on the Durban Platform of last year’s COP that promoted, amongst other issues, to extend the Kyoto Protocol due to end this year and create a Green Climate fund for climate change mitigation in developing countries. During this round of climate talks, many decisions were adopted by the countries in attendance.

Of note, the Kyoto Protocol was extended until 2020 for a second commitment period, to be finalized by 2015, unfortunately several of the original signatories will not being renewing the agreement, a few of those countries are Canada, Russia, and Japan. The mobilization for a $100 billion a year fund by 2020 has been put forth but does not have date that it will come into effect, however a novel new mechanism called Loss and Damage will see that richer nations (with higher emissions) will compensate developing nations for the impacts of climate change.

There are a few articles that summarize the outcomes well:

From a more US-based perspective, the BBC article’s commentary on the effect of the destruction on the East Coast caused by Hurricane Sandy that positively influenced Congress to provide funds for Loss and Damage seemed to be perhaps, if not a move towards binding agreements or reductions on the part of the US, at least a cooperative step with the rest of the world. This might not be related, however, the USAID launched a new resilience policy which actually means more than dealing with the consequences of climate change, although the greater occurrence of natural disasters will increase the need for good work towards resilient populations.

The more skeptical article from Reuters, pointed out the irony of a major fossil fuel exporting country hosting talks on curbing climate change, but also had unique input on the attendance by CEO and business. This is attributed by the writers of the article to the role of the UN in global “pollution allowances” and by the Global Director for Energy and Climate Policy of Dow Chemical Company as due to more business leaders “talking about sustainability and resource efficiency”; whatever the case may be it is certainly a set in the right direction.

Many other news outlets, websites, and blogs have further information and more in-depth commentary on the Doha climate talks and are worth seeking out and reading.

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Damming on the “Mother River”

The Mekong River is the 12th longest river in the world and has the largest freshwater fisheries capture at about 2.3 million tons per year. The Mekong headwaters begin in the Tibetan plateau in China, pass the countries of Myanmar, Lao P.D.R., Thailand and Cambodia before forming the delta of southern Vietnam and flowing into the South China Sea. It plays a key role in the livelihoods of the basin populations since, in addition to the important fishery mentioned above; the basin area also supports irrigation for agriculture.

However, although there are 3 existing hydro-power dams in operation and another 2 currently under construction within the Chinese stretches of the Mekong, the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) comprised of most of Lao and Cambodia, as well as parts of Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar has as yet untapped energy potential – an estimated 30,000 MW, of which only 10% has been developed thus far. All that will soon change, on 5 November, 2012 the government of Lao approved of its first hydrological dam project on the main stem of the Mekong River and the first of 11 main stem dams planned for the LMB. The $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam will have a capacity of 1260MW of energy production potential.

So what are the implications and why does this matter? According to World Bank data for the region, kWh electricity consumption is rising (although, Lao specific data is lacking), and will surely only increase as populations grow and economies develop. The average price of electricity per kWh is $0.159 in Philadelphia (where I currently reside) whereas I paid $1 per kWh while living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia – and if my math isn’t off, that is a bit more than 6 times the price, yikes. In that case, shouldn’t there be dams built on the Mekong to harness all of that renewable energy, reduce the costs of living, and provide more and reliable sources of electricity? The answer to that question should take into account many more factors than the bottom-line of energy output.

As mentioned previously, the Mekong River is an enormously productive fishery and the fish migration along the River is a major feature of this, as can be seen on the (clickable)map below.

Fish migration MEKONG

These fish migrations, along with the continued flow of the Mekong’s waters, are key factors in the food security for the 60 million people of the LMB. Especially within the lower income countries, primary and secondary employment in the fishing sector is important to their livelihoods.

The area is also home to many unique species; this biodiversity is threatened by habitat loss and land-use changes which come about with infrastructure projects of all kinds.

Another factor to be taken into consideration are the issues of regional cooperation. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is non-implementing agency created support collaboration of the Mekong basin countries (not including China). The MRC has made available transparent information about the Mekong, however, it is non-binding and despite several delays in the building of the Xayaburi dam and protest for more information about its potential impacts from the downstream countries of Cambodia and Vietnam, the government of Lao has proceeded with construction. This sets a precedent for inter-regional relations when dealing with future necessary development, countries might be less inclined take the pause to research and consider the implications of, or the other growth options to, their country’s economic imperatives. Additionally, as the dam will be built and financed by Thailand, with electricity initially going for the most part to Thailand, this raises questions of overall benefit to Lao and whether operations and energy output will be transferred to Lao later if there will be reduced capacity because of sedimentation, i.e., is Lao taking on all of the long-terms risks and gaining very little in exchange.

There isn’t a readily available answer, nor will there be a win-win solution. It seems that, in addition to main stem dams, 70 are being planned on the tributaries with greater negative predicted impacts. To learn more, there are many resources available online.

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Of sustainability and scale

Recently, two (unconnected) facebook friends posted interesting articles on the possibility of sustainable agriculture at an industrial scale. By now, it is assumed that most know or have at least heard that there are too many people on this planet to continue to support our consumption and we should be doing something about it. How we choose to act and what – if anything – we choose to do can solicit many differing answers and opinions which is why I found it to be such a happy coincidence to find two related links on a social networking site about the Marsden Farm of Iowa State University.

The above link is to the peer-reviewed paper in the PLOS One journal, however, the articles I first read about the study appeared in Mark Bittman’s New York Times column and Wired magazine. The former article, is in a section of the NYT that is called “Opinionator”, and true to its name, Mark Bittman writes about what he knows best which is: food and how you should be eating it. In contrast, Wired, while it does cover a wide range of news about science, would probably be classified as more of a geeky tech publication. But both immediately zero in on the major finding of the study: that a large scale and highly productive form of agriculture is possible with studied and involved techniques rather than continuing the current methods of industrial farming.

To briefly summarize the methods and results of the research (I would recommend reading the paper for more in-depth information and discussion), over the course of 8 years there were four rotation types tested :

  • 2 year rotation between crops of maize and soybean. Similar to adjacent commercial farms with adopting the same herbicide and fertilizer used on said farms.
  • 3 year rotation between crops of: maize, soybean, small grain (either triticale or oat), and red clover. Reduced nitrogen fertilizer and herbicide applications with occasional cattle manure compost input.
  • 4 year rotation between crops of: maize, soybean, small grain (either triticale or oat), and alfalfa-alfalfa. Same nutrient and herbicide inputs as 3 year rotation.

The parameters tested and indicators are well captured in the spider-graph from the PLOS One paper below:

spider graph

Even with comparably significantly less use of herbicide and fertilizer than the current conventional industrial methods of farming (i.e., the 2 year rotation), the longer rotations show similar weed decline, profit levels, as well as, biomass harvest and yields. In contrast, the longer rotations reduced toxicity potential for surrounding freshwater sources and reduced fossil fuel inputs needed, which are both very outcomes in terms of reducing potential negative effects on the environment from farming and maintaining ecosystem services. The final indicator which was monitored was labor, which shows that longer rotations required more inputs as management was more involved and intensive with the potential to increase opportunities for employment.

Based on these results the NYT blog has heralded this as the “most important agricultural study of year” with “no downside”. I, too, agree that there really doesn’t appear to be any reason not to adopt these methods of farming. However, I wonder about feeding ruminants alfalfa-alfalfa and red clover. Legumes fix nitrogen in the soil and play an important role in plant growth. Would using the livestock perhaps negate or increase net green house gas emissions (I’m thinking of methane’s particularly potent effect) that are initially reduced from less mechanical use for 3 and 4 year rotations?

Even though USDA is a funder of study, Bittman is correct to point out that the higher echelons of the Department may not have even heard of results. Unfortunately, lobbying seems to be a major factor in decision making in both the USDA and FDA which do not necessarily benefit the health of consumers or the environment. On a different note, though, perhaps it’s not a completely fair assessment to say that integrated farming with more crop rotations isn’t being employed because “farmers haven’t heard of it” as is mentioned by Bittman. If the film Food, Inc. is anything to go by then there might be pressure from corporations to adopt their commercial practices over the ones that farmers have used in the past.

Clearly, agriculture is not like assembling IKEA furniture nor should it be treated like a car manufacturing plant, in other words, there is no “fool-proof” clearly delineated formula to growing plants in a way that has no impact on the Earth and natural systems. Now it’s time to bridge science and research with policy-making to effect change for a more conscience and sustainable way to grow our food.

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‘Vilification’ of ocean fertilization

While I don’t think that I have enough information to make a judgement call on Russ George or on the concept of geoengineering, per se, since it encompasses many different types of activities. I do, however, have a serious problem with the idea that altering an ecosystem can solve another environmental issue. Let’s hope that the CBD signatories continue to make steps to comply and report on monitoring and enforcement of the existing international moratorium on ocean fertilization.

The Guardian broke the story on 15th of October:

Then followed up yesterday at the end of the CBD COP11:

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