The Most Interesting News Today

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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:

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Christoph Gebald, left, and Jan Wurzbacher, the founders of Climeworks, at their plant in Hinwil, Switzerland. Luca Locatelli for The New York Times

The Tiny Swiss Company That Thinks It Can Help Stop Climate Change

Two European entrepreneurs think they can remove carbon from the air at prices cheap enough to matter.

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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

Consumerism’s Up(cycled) Side

Sustainability in both concept and practice has a long history in Scandinavian cultures in general, and Sweden in particular. As consumers become more conscious of the finite nature of materials, upcycling has to eventually be considered more mainstream. We applaud this type of public and private sector leadership that is the very definition of entrepreneurial conservation.

Thanks to the BBC for this story.

‘Welcome to my high-fashion, trash shopping mall’

Anna Bergstrom had a dilemma. She loved the glitzy world of high fashion, but had also come to feel that it was unsustainable and bad for the planet. She’s now found peace of mind by running a stylish shopping mall in Sweden, where everything is second-hand.

“Do you notice the smell?” Anna Bergstrom says, as she surveys her mall from the mezzanine level. “It smells nice here, doesn’t it?”

It’s very important to Anna that this place is enticing, because she feels it is making a statement. Everything for sale here, in 14 specialist shops covering everything from clothes to DIY tools, is recycled.

She is usually turned off by the smell of second-hand stores, she explains, even though she adores vintage fashion. For most people flea-markets and charity shops carry a stigma, she thinks – a mark left by countless bad experiences. Too often they are worthy but depressing, Anna says. Her mission is to bring second-hand shopping into the mainstream.

The mall itself is spacious and appealing, almost Ikea-like. An art installation – a tree and circular bench all fashioned from recycled materials – greets customers at the entrance. There is even a coffee shop and gift-wrapping service.

The mall is called ReTuna. “Tuna” because that’s the nickname for the city where it is based – Eskilstuna, an hour’s train journey west of Stockholm – and “Re” because the goods on sale have been recycled or repurposed.

It was set up by Eskilstuna’s local government in 2015, in a warehouse which used to house trucks for a logistics company. Continue reading

Part Of The Solution

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Harvesting soybeans in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Credit Yasuyoshi Chiba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Thanks to Brad Plumer, whose reporting on environmental issues has been illuminating, for this fifth feature in our links out to stories that help us understand what we might do to be part of the solution:

Can We Grow More Food on Less Land? We’ll Have To, a New Study Finds

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A farm in the Pays de la Loire region of France. Cows have an especially large environmental footprint. Credit Loic Venance/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

WASHINGTON — If the world hopes to make meaningful progress on climate change, it won’t be enough for cars and factories to get cleaner. Our cows and wheat fields will have to become radically more efficient, too.

That’s the basic conclusion of a sweeping new study issued Wednesday by the World Resources Institute, an environmental group. The report warns that the world’s agricultural system will need drastic changes in the next few decades in order to feed billions more people without triggering a climate catastrophe.

The challenge is daunting: Agriculture already occupies roughly 40 percent of the world’s land and is responsible for about a quarter of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. But with the global population expected to grow from 7.2 billion people today to nearly 10 billion by 2050, and with many millions of people eating more meat as incomes rise, that environmental impact is on pace to expand dramatically. Continue reading

Urban Farming Meets Upmarket Retail

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Delia Danciu, 24, a gardener, works at the Galeries Lafayette department store rooftop in Paris. Credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

In our quest to brighten up each day with a story, a picture, or personal observation that helps us better understand the world around us, Doreen Carvajal is our source for this story in the New York Times from the former hometown of several of our long-time contributors:

Rooftop Gardens Are Turning the Urban Shopping Scene Green

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Galeries Lafayette rooftop garden is part of a plan to transform city farming into a deluxe shopping attraction. Credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

PARIS — It’s a swift ride by elevator from Galeries Lafayette’s perfume section to the grand department store’s 10th-floor luxury farm with its signature scent of sage, rosemary and compost.

The rooftop garden, lush with climbing plants, tomatoes, marigolds and strawberries, is part of a plan to transform city farming into a deluxe shopping attraction for customers yearning for an exclusive green refuge — and perhaps a taste of beer brewed from the store’s homegrown hops. Continue reading

Keeping Track Of Renewables

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Despite the rapid decline in the cost of solar-energy technology and battery storage, Arizona gets only six per cent of its electricity from solar. Photograph by Joshua Lott / Bloomberg / Getty

Thanks to Carolyn Kormann, making her fifth appearance since early 2016 in our pages, including this recent item that I particularly favored, for the article below that helps us understand what is happening with renewable energy these days in the USA. It is easy to forget, amidst all the noise of a federal government working to deregulate and reduce environmental protection, that important work continues:

The Battle for Solar Energy in the Country’s Sunniest State

In late September, the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank that receives donations from fossil-fuel companies, published a blog post titled “California Billionaire’s Renewable Energy Initiative Makes Arizona Ballot.” The billionaire in question was Tom Steyer, whose year-long effort to pass Proposition 127, an amendment to Arizona’s constitution that would require power companies to generate fifty per cent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030, has faced aggressive opposition from the state’s largest utility, Arizona Public Service, or A.P.S. The blog post lamented a failed lawsuit filed by Arizonans for Affordable Energy, a political-action committee funded by A.P.S.’s parent company, to keep Prop 127 off the ballot, and quoted several opponents who believed the measure, now up for a vote in November, would be a costly mistake. “Prop 127 would tie Arizona’s future to technologies that do not deliver baseload electricity,” Mark Finchem, a Republican state representative, said, “and are arguably worse for the environment as a whole than the dependable technologies we already have.” The photograph accompanying the post depicted a wind-turbine farm, and, in the foreground, a dead bald eagle.

Arizona is the sunniest state in the country, with more than three hundred bluebird days per year. It is also projected to endure an additional month of hundred-degree days in the coming decades owing to climate change. Yet, despite the rapid decline in the cost of solar-energy technology and battery storage—to the point that, as an A.P.S. director told me, it now frequently outbids fossil fuels, even natural gas—in 2017, Arizona generated only six per cent of its electricity from solar, according to the ballot initiative’s advocates. The state currently requires utilities to generate eight per cent of their power from sources like solar and wind, scaling up to fifteen per cent by 2025. Natural gas, the largest source of Arizona’s net electricity generation, is imported from out of state. “Our most abundant resource in Arizona is our sunshine,” D. J. Quinlan, a spokesman for Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona, the Phoenix-based political-action committee that Steyer is funding, said. “We need a nationwide transition to renewables. One of the first places we should be doing it is where it’s most efficient and cost-effective, and that’s here.” Continue reading

Scotland, Land Of Regret-Reducing Renewable Resources

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Scottish Power’s Whitelee windfarm on Eaglesham moor, just south of Glasgow. Photograph: Global Warming Images/REX

My daily contribution to this platform is a habit vaguely in the tradition of meditation–finding something each day that is worthy of gratitude, or otherwise worthy of sharing with friends, family, and anyone else who cares to listen. Because of the good fortune I have had to visit and work in many amazing places, it is important to me to never regret the places where I still have not been. Scotland is one of those places that, if I were a regretter, I would be feeling it now. I owe that place a visit (even if the company name sounds like a Bond villain):

Scottish Power shifts to 100% wind generation after £700m Drax sale

Big six energy firm drops fossil fuels for generation and say cheap green energy is the future

Scottish Power has ditched fossil fuels for electricity generation and switched to 100% wind power, by selling off its last remaining gas power stations to Drax for more than £700m.

Iberdrola, Scottish Power’s Spanish parent company, said the move was part of its strategy to tackle climate change and would free it up to invest in renewables and power grids in the UK.

The deal also marks a significant expansion and diversification for Drax, whose main business is a coal- and biomass-fired power station in North Yorkshire. Continue reading

Have Some Salad With Your Plastic

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Credit Photo Illustration by Stephanie Gonot for The New York Times

Thanks to Jonah Engel Bromwich for asking it clearly:

Is Your Salad Habit Good for the Planet?

Popular fast-casual chains brag of sustainability, as customers toss their compostable and recyclable bowls into the trash with wild abandon.

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One word: plastic.CreditPhoto Illustration by Stephanie Gonot for The New York Times

Every weekday, shortly after 11 a.m., a line forms at the Broadway and 38th Street location of Sweetgreen, the eco-conscious salad chain. By noon, the line has usually tripled in size. It often takes more than 15 minutes to get to the front.

The scene is similar at the Chop’t at 41st and Broadway, or the Dig Inn on West 38th, or the Just Salad one block south. In the heart of Midtown Manhattan, the evidence is hard to dismiss: Greens, once so unappetizing that parents all over the country had to beg and bribe their children to eat them, have never been hotter. (Almost as hot: their denser, younger cousin, grains.) Continue reading

Analyzing Local Sources Of Big Carbon Footprints

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GOOGLE

What gets measured gets managed. In the realm of climate science, national governments have the scale and responsibility to be involved in measurement. But if a skeptic is in charge of the government apparatus, good luck with that. With the national government of one of the big carbon footprint countries abandoning science and dropping out of the fight to reduce climate change, one of that country’s biggest companies is stepping up to offer an alternative. It may be too little too late but under the circumstances we may have no choice but to cheer it on:

Google’s New Tool to Fight Climate Change

The company will begin estimating local carbon pollution from cities around the world.

In the next decade or so, more than 6,000 cities, states, and provinces around the world will try to do something that has eluded humanity for 25 years: reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, which warm the atmosphere and cause climate change.

The city-level leaders overseeing this task won’t have the same tools available to their national peers. Most of them won’t have an Environmental Protection Agency (or its equivalent), a meteorological bureau, a team of military engineers, or nasa. So where will they start? Never mind how to reduce their city’s greenhouse-gas emissions; how will they know what’s spewing carbon dioxide in the first place?

Maybe Google will do it for them. Or, at least, do it with them.

Google has started estimating greenhouse-gas emissions for individual cities, part of what it recently described as an ambitious new plan to deploy its hoard of geographic information on the side of climate-concerned local leaders. Continue reading

Riverford, A Model Of Organic Farming In The UK

We first heard the name of the farmer on a favored music-oriented podcast, and then the name of his farm. After listening to his story, and his musical tastes, we had to learn more:

guy-singh-watson-4.jpgSelf-confessed veg nerd, Guy Singh-Watson has over the last 30 years taken Riverford from one man and a wheelbarrow delivering homegrown organic veg to friends, to a national veg box scheme delivering to around 50,000 customers a week.

Guy is an inspirational, passionate, opinionated and admired figure in the world of organic farming, who still spends more time in the fields than in the boardroom. Continue reading

Greening Indian Cities

Another creative commitment to Green Innovation. Thanks to the Times of India for this story about how Ahmedabad embraces green walls, goes vertical:

Aapnu Amdavad has a lot to boast about. From being the first city to have been declared India’s first Unesco World Heritage City to being home to some prime educational institutes, this city has gained prominence on the global map. Having said that, the city has its share of dark spots too. The fast diminishing green cover in the city is one of them. India’s fifth largest city has a tree cover of approximately 35 crores (as per a 2017 census), which although is 13% more than the number of trees in 2013, is still not enough. The ongoing metro project has also led to a lot of felling of trees. Taking into consideration all this, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) has decided to build vertical gardens in the city. It recently set up a small vertical garden along one of the pillars at the flyover at Helmet crossroads.

What are vertical gardens? Essentially vertical gardens are the kind of gardens that grow vertically, along walls or pillars, with the help of trellis (which are wooden frames) or similar support systems. Continue reading

Behavioral Science & Green Innovation

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Green registration plates are already in use in China. Photograph: Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE/Rex/Shutterstock

The UK, whatever other challenges it may be experiencing, is proving itself creatively committed to green innovation:

Green number plates ‘could boost sales of electric cars’ in UK

Behavioural insights unit proposes new colour for registration plates to help ‘normalise the idea of clean vehicles’

Wind Powering 590,000 Homes

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 Drone footage shows world’s largest offshore windfarm – video

Thanks to the Guardian for this news about harnessing wind at a record scale:

World’s largest offshore windfarm opens off Cumbrian coast

Walney Extension will power 590,000 homes amid fears Brexit could stifle growth

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Guardian Graphic | Source: Renewable

The world’s biggest offshore windfarm has officially opened in the Irish Sea, amid warnings that Brexit could increase costs for future projects.

Walney Extension, off the Cumbrian coast, spans an area the size of 20,000 football pitches and has a capacity of 659 megawatts, enough to power the equivalent of 590,000 homes.

The project is a sign of how dramatically wind technology has progressed in the past five years since the previous biggest, the London Array, was finished.

The new windfarm uses less than half the number of turbines but is more powerful.

Matthew Wright, the UK managing director of Danish energy firm Ørsted, the project’s developer, said: “It’s another benchmark in terms of the scale. This – bigger turbines, with fewer positions and a bit further out – is really the shape of projects going forward.” Continue reading

A Time and Place for the Public Service Announcement

One of the many Advocacy Priorities of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA)

While indoor plumbing is more or less taken for granted, not everything that can flush, should. Thanks to the NYTimes for clarifying the basics.

Should I Flush It? Most Often, the Answer Is No

It might seem harmless at first: a thread of dental floss tossed in the toilet, a contact lens swirling down the drain of the bathroom sink. But even the tiniest of items can contaminate waterways.

The small fragments of plastic contact lenses are believed to be contributing to the growing problem of microplastic pollution. Pharmaceuticals, which are also frequently flushed down the drain, have been found in our drinking water, and the consequences are not fully known.

Larger products like wipes and tampons are also clogging sewer systems, resulting in billions of dollars in maintenance and repair costs.

Wondering what’s safe to flush or wash down the drain? We spoke with several wastewater management experts who explained why many frequently disposed items belong in a garbage can, not the toilet. Continue reading

Off Halogen, On With LED

Switching to LEDs has been estimated to save consumers up to £112 a year. Photograph: imageBroker/Rex/Shutterstock

Arthur Neslen at the Guardian shares the news, in Europe to ban halogen lightbulbs, that we have been waiting to hear for years:

After nearly 60 years of lighting homes halogens will be replaced with more energy efficient LEDs

After nearly 60 years of brightening our homes and streets, halogen lightbulbs will finally be banned across Europe on 1 September.

The lights will dim gradually for halogen. Remaining stocks may still be sold, and capsules, linear and low voltage incandescents used in oven lights will be exempted. But a continent-wide switchover to light-emitting diodes (LEDs) is underway that will slash emissions and energy bills, according to industry, campaigners and experts.

LEDs consume five times less energy than halogen bulbs and their phase-out will prevent more than 15m tonnes of carbon emissions a year, an amount equal to Portugal’s annual electricity usage. Continue reading

The Aha Moment Explaining One Challenge To Recycling

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Color-coordinated waste baskets for waste recycling in New York City. Credit Ramin Talaie/Corbis, via Getty Images

Thanks for this interview full of incisive interview quetions by David Bornstein, who is co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. Thanks to Mitch Hedlund, executive director of Recycle Across America, for the explanatory answers in the interview that follows:

The Conflict of Interest That Is Killing Recycling

Some of the biggest recycling operations are owned by landfill companies whose profits improve when recycling doesn’t work well.

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Mitch Hedlund, executive director of Recycle Across America. Credit Shelly Mosman/Recycle Across America

In the past few years, one of the core pillars of the environmental movement — recycling — has fallen on hard times. News dispatches reveal hundreds of cities and counties scaling back their recycling programs because of the high costs associated with processing recyclables and the lack of demand for the materials. A new conventional wisdom is gaining ground suggesting that recycling may not be worth the effort.

But is that true? And has recycling ever gotten a fair shake? After decades, less than a third of municipal solid waste is recycled — and much of that is contaminated with garbage, which diminishes or destroys its value. Almost 50 years after the first Earth Day, are we really ready to admit defeat and return to the “Mad Men”-era ethos of the “throwaway society”?

There may be another way. For most of the past decade, Recycle Across America, a nonprofit organization I covered in this column six years ago, has been demonstrating that it’s quite possible to get people to recycle properly, just as it’s possible to get most people to wear seatbelts, quit smoking and stop driving drunk. But the recycling industry has never taken the logical steps needed to create a successful societywide recycling habit — and today it may not be in the economic interest of some of the big recycling companies to build it. Recently, I spoke with Mitch Hedlund, the founder of Recycle Across America, about this dilemma and the possibility that a recycling collapse can be avoided. Continue reading

Plant-Based Diets Boost UK Chia Farming

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Thanks to Rebecca Smithers, consumer affairs correspondent for the Guardian, for this:

First UK-grown chia seeds to go on sale this week

The popularity of plant-based diets has created huge demand for the oil-rich seeds, prompting a farm in Essex to plant a crop

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Essex grown Chia seeds by Peter Fairs for Hodmedod’s Photograph: Rebecca Noakes/Courtesy of Hodmedod’s

The first UK-grown chia seeds go on sale this week, as demand for the plant native to the Americas is fuelled by the explosion in the popularity of plant-based diets.

The company Hodmedod, pioneers of British-grown pulses, grains and seeds, has been working with farmers Peter and Andrew Fairs, of Great Tey in Essex, to bring the new British crop to market.  Continue reading

Sustainability & Land-Use Choices

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Along the back of this field of sugar snap peas, sunflowers and bachelor buttons at Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center is a buffer of maturing big-leaf maples and red-osier dogwoods. It’s a combination of forest and thicket that the farm has left standing to help protect water quality in the river and aquifer. Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center

Another day, another sunflower because, why not? But this story is about much more than the overwhelming attractiveness of sunflowers:

Which Vision Of Farming Is Better For The Planet?

OxbowFarmers face a growing dilemma. Specifically, a food-growing dilemma.

How do you feed an increasing number of people without harming the environment?

As it turns out, growing as much food as possible in a small area may be our best bet for sustainably feeding the world’s population, according to new research.

It all comes down to how we manage greenhouse gases and climate change. Continue reading

Wilderness, Massive Infrastructure Projects & Changing Global Norms

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Construction of the second phase of the Chinese-financed Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya crosses through Nairobi National Park, as pictured here in June. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/ AFP/ GETTY IMAGES

Thanks to William Laurance for this informative opinion essay that gives a bit of hope for wilderness preservation:

Is the Global Era of Massive Infrastructure Projects Coming to an End?

The world’s wild places have been badly carved up by decades of roadbuilding, dam construction, energy exploitation, and other megaprojects. Now, as the financial community, environmental groups, and local citizens increasingly oppose big infrastructure development, the tide of environmental destruction may be turning.

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Malaysia’s former Prime Minster Najib Razak, third from left, looks at a model of the China-backed East Coast Rail Link in 2017. Malaysia has since canceled the project due to mounting costs. AP PHOTO

We are living in the most explosive era of infrastructure expansion in human history. To meet the United Nations’ development goals, we would need to invest tens of trillions of dollars in new roads, railways, energy ventures, ports, and other projects by 2030 — dramatically amplifying an infrastructure tsunami that is already shattering the world’s biologically richest ecosystems. But this great wave of infrastructure development is suddenly looking shaky — and it might just be the best outcome for nature and humanity alike. Continue reading

Helping Plants Make Their Own Nitrogen

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Poplar trees at the Snoqualmie River in Washington State. The river is fed mostly by snow melt and is extremely low in nitrogen, yet the trees thrive thanks to endophytes. Sharon Doty

Thanks to our friends at the salt, and National Public Radio (USA) for this:

Microbial Magic Could Help Slash Your Dinner’s Carbon Footprint

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Endophytes are microbes that live inside plants — the ones tagged with a fluorescent dye in this image are found in poplars. The microbes gather nitrogen from the air, turning it into a form plants can use, a process called nitrogen fixation. Researchers are looking at how these microbes could be used to help crops like rice and corn make their own fertilizer.
Sam Scharffenberger

If you’re interested in sustainability, you’ve probably thought about how to reduce your carbon footprint, from how you fuel your car to how you heat your home. But what about carbon emissions from growing the food you eat?

Most of the crops in the United States are grown using chemical fertilizer – a lot of it: American farmers used over 24 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer in 2011. And making nitrogen fertilizer requires fossil fuels like natural gas or coal. Continue reading

Rise Products Reduce Waste

 

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Bertha Jimenez milling flour at Rise Products’ temporary kitchen in Long Island City, Queens.
Ms. Jimenez, an Ecuadorean immigrant with a doctorate in engineering, helped develop a method for making flour from the grain left over after brewing beer. 
George Etheredge for The New York Times

Thanks to Larissa Zimberoff for this:

From Brewery to Bakery: A Flour That Fights Waste

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In a temporary commercial kitchen in Long Island City, Queens, Rise Products dries spent beer grains in an oven before they are ground, milled and sifted into a fine flour. George Etheredge for The New York Times

For some people, beer is the perfect end to a workday. For Bertha Jimenez, it’s the start of a new way to eliminate food waste.

Breweries throw out millions of pounds of used grain every day that could have other uses. While some is repurposed as animal feed, compostable products or heating fuel, little has been exploited for its value as food.

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Because of the growing interest in reducing waste, many chefs and bakers are already eager to work with the flour. George Etheredge for The New York Times

But Ms. Jimenez, 35, has created a small start-up, Rise Products, that converts the grain into a flour that is finding its way into sustainable bakeries and kitchens in New York and as far away as Italy.

The potential for recycling beer waste first came into the cross hairs of Ms. Jimenez, an immigrant from Ecuador, while she was working toward her doctorate in 2015 at the Tandon School of Engineering at New York University. Intent on finding ways to reduce industrial waste, she started a side project with like-minded friends — most of them also immigrants — and craft beer provided an easy target: Everyone loved it, but it had issues.

Ms. Jimenez lives in Brooklyn, which at last count had 20 craft breweries that are tossing out grain. Ms. Jimenez and Ashwin Gopi, a classmate and a founder of Rise, began asking around for samples so they could figure out how best to reuse them. Continue reading