In Latin America, Forests May Rise to Challenge of Carbon Dioxide

A new study reports that recently established forests on abandoned farmland in Latin America, if allowed to grow for another 40 years, would probably be able to suck at least 31 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. That is enough to offset nearly two decades of emissions from fossil-fuel burning in the region. Abandoning additional pastures and allowing them to revert to tropical forest could soak up another seven billion tons of the gas, the scientists found. Their paper, published in Science Advances, offers the most detailed estimates to date for a promising approach to combating climate change. Many Latin American governments have promised to encourage forest regrowth, as well as to combat the destruction of existing forests, in their long-term climate plans. But how hard they will push on either issue is unclear. “This is a potential contribution that is sitting right under our noses,” said the lead author, Robin L. Chazdon, a University of Connecticut ecologist who is working at the International Institute for Sustainability in Rio de...

The Value and Gaps in a Big San Francisco Clean-Energy Conclave

Around San Francisco through the rest of this week, government ministers, investors, engineers, climate campaigners and wonks of all stripes will be discussing ways to provide the energy necessary to sustain human progress without overheating the climate. This is a huge challenge (watch the late great Nobelist Richard Smalley) and a long march, no matter how much one shouts “urgency.” Are such meetings worth the carbon combustion it took for hundreds of participants to get to the Bay Area? Over all, I’d say yes, just as was the case last week with the United Nations Environment Assembly meeting on sustainable development that I attended in Nairobi. The value is less in proclamations and joint statement than in creating and sustaining conduits for sharing and shaping ideas, as I explained here in the Nairobi context. A “super wicked” problem like the climate/energy challenge will inevitably have no universal solution applicable everywhere. But discourse can clarify what works where – whether it’s a new financial instrument fostering solar panel deployment or a new battery design. So what’s happening in San Francisco? The main event is the seventh “Clean Energy Ministerial” – the latest in a series of annual intergovernmental meetings largely shaped by the Obama administration but built on a Bush-era template – the “major economies” meetings on energy and climate. The clean energy meeting brings together top energy officials and other representatives from 23 countries and the European Commission and attracts all manner of interested parties (some paying $10,000 a table to be at certain events). The top American official at the conference, secretary of energy Ernest Moniz, explained the strategy this way...

NASA’s global air quality map shows we have the power to reduce pollution

A 10-year study conducted by NASA scientists using satellite technology to track pollutants in the atmosphere has shown localised human efforts to improve air quality can have a remarkable impact – as well as revealing areas where emissions have worsened in the past decade. The scientists monitored nitrogen dioxide levels in regions encompassing 195 cities around the globe between 2005 to 2014, creating high-resolution air quality trend maps that highlight which cities and countries are improving their air quality and which ones aren’t. “These changes in air quality patterns aren’t random,” said Bryan Duncan, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. “When governments step in and say we’re going to build something here or we’re going to regulate this pollutant, you see the impact in the data.” Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a toxic yellow-brown gas that’s emitted from cars and industrial infrastructure such as power plants, largely through the burning of fossil fuels. It contributes to the formation of the smog that hangs over urban environments, which constitutes a major respiratory pollutant. NASA tracked the emissions using its Aura satellite, which carries a Dutch-Finnish Ozone Monitoring Instrument on board that can detect nitrogen dioxide in addition to other airborne chemicals and pollutants. The equipment let the scientists see year-to-year movements in nitrogen dioxide levels around the world. To help them make sense of the changing data, they compared the NO2 readings for localised regions with information such as the area’s emission control regulations and urban growth. What’s amazing about the trend maps is how quickly the level of the pollutant can change from year to year. In...

Delhi has banned half the cars on its roads to combat dangerous pollution

Just weeks after Beijing declared its first red alert status and initiated emergency restrictions to combat dangerous smog levels, another of the world’s most polluted capitals has implemented similar measures. Delhi, the capital territory of India, has embarked upon a two-week trial designed to halve the number of privately owned cars on public roads. Under the scheme, four-wheeled vehicles with registration plates ending in odd numbers are prohibited from driving on even dates of the month, and vice versa. The prohibition began last Friday, but authorities were particularly concerned about what would happen this Monday, as millions of workers returned to work after the New Year weekend. “There were doubts about what would happen when all the offices opened,” said Delhi Transport Minister Gopal Rai, as reported by Atish Patel at BBC News. “We are glad that people are following the rules.” Under the plan, privately owned cars banned from driving on a particular day must stay off the roads between 8am and 8pm daily, except on Sundays. The scheme will stay in effect until January 15, but already Delhi’s government is reporting early success in terms of air quality levels. “The first results of ambient air data collected by mobile units of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee on 24 locations across Delhi on the New Year Day show an encouraging trend of reduction in air pollution in both PM2.5 and PM10 categories,” a government release stated. “The implementation of the plying of four-wheeled vehicles on an odd-even basis was received with warmth by the residents of the national capital on the first day, and results of the ambient...

Beijing has declared its first ever red alert for pollution as smog engulfs city

China’s capital Beijing has issued a red alert for air pollution for the first time ever, with a heavy cloud of dangerous smog blanketing the city. The red alert – which is the most serious warning level on a four-tier system introduced in 2013 – is predicted to remain enforced until Thursday, at which point the air is expected to clear with the arrival of a forecasted cold front. Until that time, however, school lessons have been cancelled, with kindergartens, primary schools, and high schools all suspending class. Outdoor construction has been shut down, and some industrial plants have also been closed. “People should to the best of their ability reduce outdoor activities,” cautioned Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau on social media. “If you are engaging in outdoor activities you should wear a mask or take other protective measures.” While the red alert is in effect, half of Beijing’s privately owned cars will be forced off the roads, with locals being permitted to drive on alternate days depending on whether they have odd or even numbers on their licence plates. Up to 30 percent of government vehicles will also be parked. According to China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, this restriction will place a heavy burden on Beijing’s public transport system, with an extra 2 million passengers expected to use buses and trains each day. The city will add up to 25,000 buses to the roads to shoulder the people load. Beijing isn’t the only city taking emergency steps, with Hebei, Shandong, Baoding, and Tianjin Municipality all implementing similar precautions in a first-of-its-kind collaborative action seeking to maximise the gains of...

This Dutch town will grow its own food, live off-grid, and handle its own waste

It’s no secret that today’s aggressive agricultural techniques can take a heavy toll on the environment, both on the land used for crops and livestock, and in the surrounding atmosphere. But a new vision of a more sustainable ‘integrated neighbourhood’ community is being implemented in the Netherlands, with the first of a series of high-tech farm villages set to be completed next year. The project, being built just outside of Amsterdam, is the brainchild of California-based developer ReGen Villages, and after its pilot community is finished in 2017, the company plans to bring the concept to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Germany. Of course, communal farms aren’t exactly a new idea, with communities like the Amish people and more recent kinds of farming collectives having long lived off the grid. But we’re not talking about another attempt to recreate simple, pastoral living here. ReGen Villages wants to harness the power of today’s technology to create “off-grid capable neighbourhoods” that provide the comforts of a regular modern lifestyle, but which are entirely self-reliant and sustainable: growing their own food, generating their own energy, managing waste locally, and recycling water. “We’re really looking at starting off as the Tesla of eco-villages,” ReGen Villages CEO James Ehrlich told Adele Peters at Fast Company. “We are redefining residential real-estate development by creating these regenerative neighbourhoods, looking at first these greenfield pieces of farmland where we can produce more organic food, more clean water, more clean energy, and mitigate more waste than if we just left that land to grow organic food or do permaculture there.” The idea is that by combining sustainable farming and...