The greenhouse in Hinwil where Climeworks uses carbon dioxide pulled from the air to grow fruits and vegetables. Luca Locatelli for The New York Times
When this platform started in 2011 it was two young men, one a senior at Amherst College and the other a sophomore at Cornell University, who thought it would be useful to share their experiences with other students. It continued beyond their summer internships. At some point, hard to pinpoint the date, it started serving as a daily exercise for me. It became an exercise in finding something in the world that is worthy of attention, as much as possible something that inspires hope rather than reinforces dread (though that has been unavoidable from time to time).
The title I give to today’s post is impossible to justify with any metrics, but read on and you may see my point. Jon Gertner, for this first time featured in our pages, and for what is likely the longest of any longform treatments of any topic in the New York Times, thank you for making it about this:
Christoph Gebald, left, and Jan Wurzbacher, the founders of Climeworks, at their plant in Hinwil, Switzerland. Luca Locatelli for The New York Times
Two European entrepreneurs think they can remove carbon from the air at prices cheap enough to matter.
A pilot project at a Swiss university that uses Climeworks equipment to make methane out of airborne CO₂. Luca Locatelli for The New York Times
Just over a century ago in Ludwigshafen, Germany, a scientist named Carl Bosch assembled a team of engineers to exploit a new technique in chemistry. A year earlier, another German chemist, Fritz Haber, hit upon a process to pull nitrogen (N) from the air and combine it with hydrogen (H) to produce tiny amounts of ammonia (NH₃). But Haber’s process was delicate, requiring the maintenance of high temperatures and high pressure. Bosch wanted to figure out how to adapt Haber’s discovery for commercial purposes — as we would say today, to “scale it up.” Anyone looking at the state of manufacturing in Europe around 1910, Bosch observed, could see that the task was daunting: The technology simply didn’t exist.
Over the next decade, however, Bosch and his team overcame a multitude of technological and metallurgical challenges. He chronicled them in his 1932 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Chemistry — an honor he won because the Haber-Bosch process, as it came to be known, changed the world. His breakthrough made possible the production of ammonia on an industrial scale, providing the world with cheap and abundant fertilizer. The scientist and historian Vaclav Smil called Haber-Bosch “the most important technical invention of the 20th century.” Bosch had effectively removed the historical bounds on crop yields, so much so that he was widely credited with making “bread from air.” By some estimates, Bosch’s work made possible the lives of more than two billion human beings over the last 100 years. Continue reading
Slat cares deeply about the environment, but, for him, the appeal of cleaning the oceans is also about puzzle solving. Illustration by Cristiana Couceiro
In the pantheon of writers we have linked out to since 2011, of those who focus on science and/or environmental issues Carolyn Kormann is a relatively recent arrival. Since I started noticing her work three years ago she has started 2019 with an especially strong duo of stories. One is a longform profile and a must-read if you have been even just glancing at the headlines about giant garbage patches swirling in the ocean. How to deal with epic waste after the fact, after the out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach that has been building this mess for decades, is no simple matter. Nor is the man she introduces us to.
Last year, the U.S.’s carbon-dioxide emissions increased by an estimated 3.4 per cent, the second-largest gain in the past two decades.Photograph by Fernando Moleres / Panos Pictures / Redux
The profile of Slat is compelling, disturbing and inconclusive–hallmarks of the type of profile I most appreciate when the subject involves seemingly intractable environmental challenges. The other item is shorter, with a pair of metaphors for economic periods that I wish I had known earlier. If you only have time for one, read about William Nordhaus’s many contributions to the otherwise dismal science, especially his description of the economic transformation from my lifetime to that of the next generation:
In 1974, the economist William Nordhaus described the transition from a “cowboy economy” to a “spaceship economy.” In the former, he wrote, “we could afford to use our resources profligately,” and “the environment could be used as a sink without becoming fouled.” But, in the spaceship economy, “great attention must be paid to the sources of life and to the dumps where our refuse is piled.” He added, “Things which have traditionally been treated as free goods—air, water, quiet, natural beauty—must now be treated with the same care as other scarce goods.” Toward the end of his landmark paper, “Resources as a Constraint on Growth,” Nordhaus discussed the possible adverse effects of energy consumption, most notably the “greenhouse effect.” Continue reading
REEF FISH, BAHAMAS Fish congregate near a shallow reef in Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. © Jeff Yonover
Those familiar with our work will recognize the word valorization, which is an essential element of what we write about and what we do. It’s increasingly important to note that Nature, made more fragile with each passing year by human impact climate change, requires human efforts to protect and hopefully, turn back the clock on damage already done; and it appears to be human nature that maintain a direct correlation between how something is valued and the amount of attention it gets.
We’re particularly impressed by this example of tech collaboration. Thanks to the Nature Conservancy for highlighting these stories…
AI and social media are helping quantify the economic value of coral reefs
The Caribbean region is more dependent on tourism than any other region in the world—the sector accounts for over 15 percent of GDP and 13 percent of jobs in the region. And almost all visitors to the Caribbean take part in some activity that relates to coral reefs—either directly, like snorkeling and scuba diving, or indirectly, like enjoying sandy beaches, eating fresh seafood and swimming in crystal waters. That means the health of the Caribbean’s tourism industry—and thus the whole regional economy—is dependent on the health of its coral reefs.
But just how much value do reefs produce? After all, “what gets measured gets managed and improved.” The Nature Conservancy (TNC) recently released the results of a study that focused on reef-adjacent activities and the value they generate for the tourism industry, island governments and Caribbean communities. This study, which builds on an earlier body of globally focused research produced by TNC, found that reef-adjacent activities alone generate an estimated $5.7 billion per year in the Caribbean from roughly 7.4 million visitors. When combined with reef-dependent tourism activities, they generate $7.9 billion total from roughly 11 million visitors.
In other words, a major draw for people traveling to the Caribbean are activities related to coral reef ecosystems, and both the tourism industry and other aspects of the local economies depend on healthy coral reefs to keep this relationship afloat. This evidence offers a pivotal opportunity for advancing coral conservation initiatives not only in the Caribbean but around the world, as it can catalyze both the tourism industry and local governments and communities to invest in protecting and restoring coral reefs for the benefit of economies and incomes.
We now know that these natural wonders are responsible for generating billions of dollars, sustaining livelihoods and anchoring economies in the Caribbean as well as other tropical destinations across the globe. And that should translate into a major incentive to conserve them. Continue reading
The illustrative video above is on its own worth a couple minutes of your time. But the innovative approach to one of the world’s most pressing problems is the thing to take note of. Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for bringing Evelyn Wang and Omar Yaghi’s work to our attention in this story:
A prototype MOF-based water-collection device is set up for testing on the roof of a building on the MIT campus.
Courtesy Evelyn Yang, MIT
Researchers have come up with a new way to extract water from thin air. Literally.
This isn’t the first technology that can turn water vapor in the atmosphere into liquid water that people can drink, but researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, say their approach uses less power and works in drier environments. Continue reading
To help protect the planet and promote good health, people should eat less than 1 ounce of red meat a day and limit poultry and milk, too. That’s according to a new report from some of the top names in nutrition science. People should instead consume more nuts, fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, the report says. The strict recommended limits on meat are getting pushback. Westend61/Getty Images/Westend61
Preparing ahead for a meal to be cooked today, I was reading this recipe, whose image (below) was competing for my attention with the image above. The picture above is eye-catching, at least to me, a visual cue leading me to the type of meal I should be thinking about more often. It is a big picture picture. I have red lentils in the cupboard, and I intend to prepare them today, so the recipe won the race for my attention.
The story by National Public Radio (USA) waited. It is about diet, with the kind of explanatory information that motivates me to find lentils more appealing, and to understand why meals like this should dominate the weekly menu:
What we eat – and how our food is produced – is becoming increasingly politicized.
Why? More people are connecting the dots between diet and health – not just personal health, but also the health of the planet. And the central thesis that has emerged is this: If we eat less meat, it’s better for both.
So, how much less? A new, headline-grabbing report — compiled by some of the top names in nutrition science — has come up with a recommended target: Eat less than half an ounce of red meat per day. That works out to about 3.5 ounces — or a single serving of red meat — per week. And it’s far less red meat than Americans currently consume on average: between an estimated 2 and 3 ounces per day. Continue reading
After two decades of drought, Lake Mead in Nevada is just 40 percent full. TED WOOD
Thanks to Jim Robbins and Yale e360 for this second installment, and especially to Ted Wood for photography as visually compelling as the implication of the story:
CRISIS ON THE COLORADO: PART II
With the Southwest locked in a 19-year drought and climate change making the region increasingly drier, water managers and users along the Colorado River are facing a troubling question: Are we in a new, more arid era when there will never be enough water?
Scientists at the University of Arizona are using tree rings to study centuries of drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin.
In the basement of the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, the fragrant smell of pine hangs in the air as researchers comb through the stacks of tree slabs to find a round, 2-inch-thick piece of Douglas fir.
They point out an anomaly in the slab — an unusually wide set of rings that represent the years 1905 to 1922. Those rings mean it was a pluvial period — precipitation was well above average — and so the trees grew far more than other years.
“In 1905, the gates opened and it was very wet and stayed very wet until the 1920s,” said David Meko, a hydrologist at the lab who studies past climate and stream flow based on tree rings. “It guided their planning and how much water they thought was available.”
The planning was that of the states that share the water of the Colorado River. Worried that a burgeoning California would take most of the water before it was fairly divvied up, representatives from the other Colorado River Basin states, presided over by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, came together in 1922 to develop an equitable apportionment. They looked at flow measurements and figured that the river contained an average of 15 million acre-feet. They divided the Colorado River states into two divisions – the upper basin and the lower basin, with the dividing line in northern Arizona near the Utah border. The upper basin states — Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico — agreed not to take more than a total of 7.5 million acre-feet and to allow the other half to flow south to the lower basin. The agreement they signed was called the 1922 Colorado River Compact, also known as the Law of the River. Continue reading
The ban on chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gases has been an incredible success story. Composite: Alamy/Guardian Design
Thanks to Jonathan Watts for this reminder:
Amid the anti-globalist chest-thumping of Brexit, Donald Trump, and the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, it may sound like the stuff of folklore. But there was a time in the recent past when all the countries of the world moved quickly to discuss a common threat, agreed an ambitious plan of action and made it work.
The Montreal protocol, which came into effect 30 years ago, was drawn up to address the alarming thinning of the ozone layer in the Earth’s stratosphere. It was the first agreement in the history of the United Nations to be ratified by all 197 countries. Since it came into effect on 1 January 1989, more than 99% of the gases responsible for the problem have been eradicated and the “ozone hole” – which, in the late 80s, vied for headline space with the cold war, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Madonna – is receding in the sky and the memory. Continue reading
Drying coffee beans in Ethiopia. More than half of all species are at risk of vanishing in the wild because of climate change and deforestation. Maheder Haileselassie/Reuters
As much as I thought I learned in the last year about coffee, I got a hint just now, reading the article below, how steep my learning curve remains. 124 species of coffee? So much to hunt, so little time! Thanks to Somini Sengupta for this story:
Aaron Davis, a British botanist, has spent 30 years trekking across forests and farms to chronicle the fate of one plant: coffee.
He has recorded how a warming planet is making it harder to grow coffee in traditional coffee-producing regions, including Ethiopia, the birthplace of the world’s most popular bean, arabica. He has mapped where farmers can grow coffee next: basically upcountry, where it’s cooler. He has gone searching for rare varieties in the wild. Continue reading
How the United States generated electricity from 2001 to 2017. Percentage of power produced from each energy source
America isn’t making electricity the way it did two decades ago: Natural gas has edged out coal as the country’s leading generation source … and renewables like wind and solar have made small yet speedy gains. But, each state has its own story.
Nadja Popovich an explainer of complicated things with visualization techniques that have impressed us so far, now has this.
In Nevada, natural gas surpassed coal as the top source of electricity generation in 2005, earlier than in many other states. Coal’s role in the state’s power mix has continued to decline since then.
We cannot do justice to it, other than suggest you go see it for yourself. A state by state graphic representation of electrical generation methods:
Overall, fossil fuels still dominate electricity generation in the United States. But the shift from coal to natural gas has helped to lower carbon dioxide emissions and other pollution. Last year, coal was the main source of electricity generation for 18 states, down from 32 states in 2001.
Beef cattle stand at a ranch in this aerial photograph taken above Texas. Meat and dairy accounts for just 18% of all food calories and around a third of protein. Photograph: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Them refers to the kinds of mammals in the photo above. Us refers to us humans. In keeping with yesterday’s post, Oliver Milman’s op-ed provides an excellent reminder that virtually all mammals living on planet earth today are we humans and the animals we farm for eating. There are still other species of mammals holding on, if barely, but they are being pushed to extinction largely due to the amount of meat we eat. Another good reason to go vegetarian, or vegan, or more simply just eating much less meat:
Partially submerged houses in Kerala, India last August. REUTERS / SIVARAM V
Any picture of a houseboat reminds me of our good fortune to live among the people of Kerala’s backwaters from 2010-2017. The photo below is no exception and I thank Fred Pearce, writing for Yale e360, for bringing to my attention the scale of misfortune facing our old neighbors from the most recent flooding. I knew about the disaster, but had not read in any detail until now what this implies for the future. Maybe this fortune could be applied to address those challenges:
The picturesque Kerala backwaters in southern India, increasingly popular with tourists, form a network of engineered canals, lagoons, lakes, and rice paddies. But a fatal monsoon deluge has highlighted the global problem of how developed wetlands often lose their capacity to absorb major floods.
Floodwaters inundated much of Kerala’s low-lying coastal plain, including the village of Pandanad, pictured here. MANJUNATH KIRAN / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
In India, they call the state of Kerala in the country’s far south “God’s own country.” That wasn’t how it felt last August, when monsoon floods devastated its densely populated low-lying coastal plain. Around 500 people drowned, in an area best known to outsiders for its placid backwaters, a network of brackish lakes, lagoons, and canals where growing numbers of Western tourists cruise the picturesque waterways aboard luxury houseboats.
A luxury houseboat moored along Lake Vembanad near the tourist town of Kumarakom in Kerala. FRED PEARCE / YALE E360
Now that the floodwaters have abated, questions are being raised about whether the disaster was made worse by water engineering projects in the backwaters designed to feed the state’s population and attract tourists. Increasingly, Kerala residents are wondering if “God’s own country” is damned as well as dammed.
The floods came out of the Western Ghats. This chain of mountains down the west side of India is one of the country’s wettest places, drenched from June to September in monsoon. In early August, the rains there were exceptionally intense and unremitting. The rivers flowing from the mountains west toward the Arabian Sea dumped their water into the backwaters on a coastal plain that is largely below sea level.
Sixty-mile-long Lake Vembanad, at the heart of the backwaters, rose up and flooded surrounding wetlands and rice paddies, cities, and farming villages. A quarter-million people took refuge in 1,500 relief camps; 6,200 miles of roads and 115 square miles of farmland were damaged. Cochin International Airport was awash. Continue reading
Researchers studied the carbon storage of deep-water seagrasses living at Lizard Island, Australia. Education Images/UIG via Getty Images
Thanks to National Public Radio for this:
Amid a sea of dire climate change news, researchers say they’ve found a rare bright spot.
A meadow of seagrass among Australia’s Great Barrier Reef — estimated to be twice the size of New Jersey — is soaking up and storing carbon that would otherwise contribute to global warming.
Scientists call this carbon-removal powerhouse a “blue carbon sink.” The term refers to an ocean or coastal ecosystem — including seagrasses, salt marshes and mangrove forests — that captures carbon compounds from the atmosphere, effectively removing carbon dioxide, a known greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Continue reading
‘Eco-warriors’ and ‘climate hawks’: is it time to ease up on the war metaphors? Photograph: Amelia Bates/Grist
We connected a series of dots that we felt told a story. Get mad. I know I sure have felt mad in the midst of such alarming inaction. Maybe there is a better way to motivate and get something tangible done. Considering the stakes, I am willing to listen to and try just about anything. And in this essay Kate Yoder reminds me that when we launched this platform in 2011 we felt sure that wordsmithing was part of the solution we wanted to highlight. All that we have been saying since then, and how we have been saying it, was meant to be about a better future–so back to the words for inspiration:
When we talk about saving the planet, we employ the narrative of war. Does it only deepen our divisions?
A study found the language of war was effective in conveying urgency to participants. But does it work for everyone? Photograph: Damian Klamka/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock
Each dead house fly was worth a quarter, my mom told us kids, but I never earned any money. Every time I cornered a fly, I pictured goo marks left on the wall – spots splayed with tiny black guts and twisted legs. My halfhearted swats gave even the most sluggish fly time to escape.
That I genuinely couldn’t hurt a fly might have been something I picked up in church. I grew up attending a Mennonite congregation in Indiana. We weren’t the bonnet-wearing, buggy-riding sort, but we embraced some traditions, like the Anabaptist teaching of nonviolence. This sometimes expressed itself in an instinct for conflict avoidance.
So I was surprised when violence crept into my speech three years ago when I started working as a journalist covering climate change. Some ancient spirit took hold of me, and I found myself deploying the narrative of war. Carbon tax proposals were “battles” to be fought. Greenhouse gas emissions had to be “slashed”. “Eco-warriors” and “climate hawks” were leading the charge. Continue reading
Thank you Norway, for demonstrating that we can do better than neutrality:
The country now has a suite of buildings that generate more energy than they use.
The European Union has a target of making all new buildings zero-energy by 2020, but in Norway, carbon neutrality isn’t enough.
A consortium in Oslo made up of architects, engineers, environmentalists, and designers is creating energy-positive buildings in a country with some of the coldest and darkest winters on Earth. “If you can make it in Norway, you can make it anywhere,” says Peter Bernhard, a consultant with Asplan Viak, one of the Powerhouse alliance members. Continue reading
Illustration by João Fazenda
Tired as we may be of reading about, talking about, posting about it, enough is not enough on this topic, so here goes (thanks as always to Elizabeth Kolbert):
As negotiators from around the world gathered in Poland to discuss how to lower carbon emissions, the Trump Administration unveiled two schemes promoting fossil fuels.
Last week, representatives from around the world gathered to begin another round of climate negotiations in Katowice, a city in the heart of Poland’s coal-mining country. Delegates arriving at the meeting, known in United Nations-speak as a Conference of the Parties, or cop, were treated to an outdoor performance by a Polish coal miners’ band. Inside the convention pavilions, they found mounds of coal displayed behind glass, like objets d’art, as well as arrangements of coal-based cosmetics and coal-encrusted jewelry. Poland gets about eighty per cent of its electricity from coal, the most carbon-intensive of carbon-based fuels, and the Polish President, Andrzej Duda, noted in his opening remarks that the country had enough as yet unmined supplies to last another two centuries. “It would be hard not to use them,” he said.
Depending on how you look at things, a coal-stuffed climate summit is either completely absurd—“beyond parody,” as one commentator put it—or merely appropriate. With each passing month, the threat posed by global warming grows clearer. And so, too, does the world’s failure to take that threat seriously. “We are in trouble,” the United Nations’ Secretary-General, António Guterres, said at the cop’s opening session. “It is hard to comprehend why we are collectively still moving too slowly—and even in the wrong direction.” Continue reading
Yesterday I was struck by a set of graphics that helped me see an old story in a new light. That was not a particularly important old story, as history of the planet goes; but it gave the manufacturing consent theme a new shine–in technicolor, black and white, and finer shades of gray. Today, on a story that is definitely of historic proportions related to the planet, my thanks again to Brad Plumer and his occasional writing partner Nadja Popovich, especially for its accompanying graphics: