How to save the world from disposable plastics

CNN reports:

It’s the early 1960s. Girls are fainting over the Beatles, Sean Connery is James Bond and a revolutionary trend is sweeping the United States: Plastic.

Plastic is about to have its breakthrough moment in the food industry. The plastic milk jug, specifically, is on the brink of taking off: the “market potential is huge,” the New York Times correctly notes.

To American families, a third of which are still getting their milk from a milk man, plastic is a wonder package. It’s lighter than glass. It doesn’t break. Unlike paper cartons, it’s translucent. You can see how much liquid is left in the jug. With a plastic container, everybody wins.

Except for the milk man. And, as it would turn out, the planet.

Fast forward to now. Plastics are expected to outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050. Marine life is choking on the debris: Microplastics are in our soil, our water, our air, getting into our bodies with potential consequences that we don’t fully understand yet. Massive amounts of plastic have piled up in landfills, some emitting greenhouse gases and contributing to global warming over the seeming eternity they take to degrade. Plastics are threatening the health of the planet and its inhabitants, and they’re not going away.

Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Danone, Mars Petcare, Mondelēz International and others — some of the world’s largest consumer goods companies — are partnering on a potential solution to limit future waste. They’re working together on a project known as Loop, announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Thursday. It offers consumers an alternative to recycling — a system that isn’t working well these days.

At this point, the partners are testing the waters. It’s an experiment they’ll roll out to several thousand consumers in New York and Paris this May, with plans to expand to London later in 2019 and Toronto, Tokyo and San Francisco in 2020.

Loop is a new way to shop, offering about 300 items — from Tide detergent to Pantene shampoo, Häagen-Dazs ice cream to Crest mouthwash — all in reusable packaging. After using the products, customers put the empty containers in a Loop tote on their doorstep. The containers are then picked up by a delivery service, cleaned and refilled, and shipped out to consumers again.

In other words, it’s the 21st century milk man — here to save the world from single-use plastics.

Maybe. [Continue reading…]

Civil penalties for polluters plummeted in Trump’s first two years

The Washington Post reports:

Civil penalties for polluters under the Trump administration plummeted during the past fiscal year to the lowest average level since 1994, according to a new analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data.

In the two decades before President Trump took office, EPA civil fines averaged more than $500 million a year, when adjusted for inflation. Last year’s total was 85 percent below that amount — $72 million, according to the agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online database.

Cynthia Giles, who headed the EPA’s enforcement office in the Obama administration and conducted the analysis, said the inflation-adjusted figures were the lowest since the agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance was established.

The decline in civil penalties could undermine the EPA’s ability to deter wrongdoing, some former agency officials said, because they help ensure it is more expensive to violate the law than to comply with it. [Continue reading…]

As climate warms, plants will absorb less carbon dioxide

The New York Times reports:

The last time the atmosphere contained as much carbon dioxide as it does now, dinosaurs roamed what was then a verdant landscape. The earth’s lushness was at least partly caused by the abundance of CO₂, which plants use for photosynthesis. That has led to the idea that more CO₂ in the atmosphere could create a literally greener planet.

Today, plants and soil around the world absorb roughly a quarter of the greenhouse gases that humans release into the atmosphere, helping the Earth avoid some of the worst effects of climate change. In an ideal situation, as levels of carbon dioxide increased, plants would soak up more of these emissions, helping to fuel their growth.

But in a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, researchers found that under a warming climate, rather than absorbing more greenhouse gas emissions, plants and soil may start absorbing less, accelerating the rate of change.

“We have this image of the planet getting very, very green as we move into the future,” said Pierre Gentine, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University and an author of the study. “But it may be the opposite.” [Continue reading…]

Insect collapse: ‘We are destroying our life support systems’

The Guardian reports:

“We knew that something was amiss in the first couple days,” said Brad Lister. “We were driving into the forest and at the same time both Andres and I said: ‘Where are all the birds?’ There was nothing.”

His return to the Luquillo rainforest in Puerto Rico after 35 years was to reveal an appalling discovery. The insect population that once provided plentiful food for birds throughout the mountainous national park had collapsed. On the ground, 98% had gone. Up in the leafy canopy, 80% had vanished. The most likely culprit by far is global warming.

“It was just astonishing,” Lister said. “Before, both the sticky ground plates and canopy plates would be covered with insects. You’d be there for hours picking them off the plates at night. But now the plates would come down after 12 hours in the tropical forest with a couple of lonely insects trapped or none at all.”

“It was a true collapse of the insect populations in that rainforest,” he said. “We began to realise this is terrible – a very, very disturbing result.”

Earth’s bugs outweigh humans 17 times over and are such a fundamental foundation of the food chain that scientists say a crash in insect numbers risks “ecological Armageddon”. When Lister’s study was published in October, one expert called the findings “hyper-alarming”.

The Puerto Rico work is one of just a handful of studies assessing this vital issue, but those that do exist are deeply worrying. Flying insect numbers in Germany’s natural reserves have plunged 75% in just 25 years. The virtual disappearance of birds in an Australian eucalyptus forest was blamed on a lack of insects caused by drought and heat. Lister and his colleague Andrés García also found that insect numbers in a dry forest in Mexico had fallen 80% since the 1980s.

“We are essentially destroying the very life support systems that allow us to sustain our existence on the planet, along with all the other life on the planet,” Lister said. “It is just horrifying to watch us decimate the natural world like this.” [Continue reading…]

Hotter oceans mean we are in the emergency phase of climate change

Eric Holthaus writes:

The Earth’s surface is 70 percent water, but even that underestimates how vital ocean health is to our planet’s ability to maintain life. Recent results from scientists around the world only further confirm that our waterworld is in serious danger.

Last week, a bombshell study confirmed that the oceans are warming 40 percent faster than many scientists had previously estimated. The finding partially resolved a long-running debate between climate modelers and oceanographers. By measuring the oceans more directly, scientists again came to a now-familiar conclusion: Yes, things really are as bad as we feared.

The ocean stores more than 90 percent of all excess heat energy due to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. From the standpoint of heat, global warming is almost entirely a story of how rapidly the oceans are changing.

Warming oceans work to melt polar ice, of course, thereby raising sea levels. But hotter oceans change how the atmosphere works, too. More heat energy in the oceans means more heat energy is available for extreme weather: Downpours of rainfall are happening more often, hurricanes are shifting in frequency and growing in intensity, freak ocean heat waves are spilling over into temperature records on land. Melting Arctic and Antarctic sea ice is also increasing wave height, which is accelerating coastal erosion — worsening the effects of sea-level rise. [Continue reading…]

Luxembourg makes all public transport free

CNN reports:

With a population of 602,000, Luxembourg is one of Europe’s smallest countries — yet it suffers from major traffic jams.

But that could be about to change. Last month, it announced plans to make all public transport — trains, trams and buses — free from March 2020.

The government hopes the move will alleviate heavy congestion and bring environmental benefits, according to Dany Frank, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Mobility and Public Works.

Landlocked Luxembourg is one of the richest countries in Europe, with the highest per capita GDP in the European Union. [Continue reading…]

How Trump is poisoning America

The New York Times reports:

Had Donald J. Trump not won the presidency in 2016, millions of pounds of chlorpyrifos most likely would not have been applied to American crops over the past 21 months. It would not have sickened substantial numbers of farm workers, or risked what the Environmental Protection Agency’s own studies suggest could be continued long-term health problems for others exposed to the chemical at low levels.

Widespread concerns about chlorpyrifos led to its removal for nearly all residential uses in 2000. Environmental groups kept pushing, and two filed a petition with the E.P.A. in 2007 to ban it entirely on food crops. The E.P.A. eventually agreed in 2015, released its revised human health risk assessment in November 2016, and was ordered by a court to “take final action” by the end of March 2017.

Days after the assessment was released, Mr. Trump won the election. DowDuPont, the leading maker of the pesticide, donated $1 million to his inauguration. One of the early acts of the man Mr. Trump appointed to head the E.P.A., Scott Pruitt, was to quash the chlorpyrifos ban on March 29, 2017.

Since taking office, Mr. Trump has consistently sided with powerful economic constituencies in setting policy toward the air we breathe, the water we drink and the presence of chemicals in our communities.

In the process, he has frequently rejected or given short shrift to science, an instinct that has played out most visibly in his disdain for efforts to curb global warming but has also permeated federal policy in other ways. [Continue reading…]

Japan to resume commercial whaling, defying international ban

The New York Times reports:

Japan said on Wednesday that it would withdraw from an international agreement and resume commercial whaling, a defiant move to prop up an industry that still has cultural significance there, despite plummeting demand for whale meat.

Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said the country would leave the International Whaling Commission, which established a moratorium on hunting whales that took effect in 1986.

The international agreement never stopped Japanese whaling, because it allowed the country to continue killing whales for scientific research while selling the meat. Critics considered the research a sham, little more than a cover for commercial whaling.

In recent years, Japan has had an annual quota in the Antarctic of 333 minke whales, which in the 2017-18 hunting season included 122 pregnant females. As part of its withdrawal from the international commission, Japan will stop its annual hunts in the Antarctic and limit whalers to its own waters. Commercial whaling will resume in July, Mr. Suga said.

Mr. Suga said the International Whaling Commission focused too much on conservation and had failed to develop a sustainable whaling industry, which is one of its stated goals.

“In its long history, Japan has used whales not only as a source of protein but also for a variety of other purposes,” Mr. Suga said in a statement. “Engagement in whaling has been supporting local communities, and thereby developed the life and culture of using whales.”

Whaling has long been abhorred by conservationists trying to protect the animals. Sam Annesley, the executive director of Greenpeace Japan, condemned the government’s decision. [Continue reading…]

The Japan Times reports:

Japan is the biggest donor to the IWC, and there are concerns its departure will lower the commission’s profile and undermine its conservation efforts.

But of more concern for Tokyo is the reputational damage it could suffer from pulling out, similar to the criticism the United States has faced for withdrawing from international frameworks such as the Paris agreement on climate change, in the view of some experts.

Yuichi Hosoya, professor of international politics at Keio University, said Japan’s move was “symbolic of a wave of populism spreading over the world.” [Continue reading…]

Brazil’s Amazon rain forest is in the crosshairs, as defenders step up

Andrew Revkin writes:

By now, anyone worried about the fate of the Amazon rain forest or the indigenous and traditional communities depending on this vast, rich ecosystem knows the litany of potentially devastating steps [Brazil’s newly elected far-right president, Jair] Bolsonaro has threatened to take.

He won on a platform mainly built around change and order after the worst string of corruption scandals and economic troubles in Brazil’s modern history.

But he also wooed rural landowners and businessmen, appealing to Brazil’s “beef, Bible, and bullet” political bloc. A big theme for this former military officer was taming and exploiting the country’s vast Amazon expanse. Beneath and within the extraordinary biological bounty of the lacework of rivers and towering forest canopies, enormous mineral and timber and hydropower resources remain unexploited.

Bolsonaro disparaged Brazil’s minorities and indigenous tribes and discounted their land claims, pledged to loosen forest and environmental regulations and enforcement, to open reserves to mining, and to ban international environmental groups. [Continue reading…]

Risks of ‘domino effect’ of ecological tipping points greater than thought, study says

The Guardian reports:

Policymakers have severely underestimated the risks of ecological tipping points, according to a study that shows 45% of all potential environmental collapses are interrelated and could amplify one another.

The authors said their paper, published in the journal Science, highlights how overstressed and overlapping natural systems are combining to throw up a growing number of unwelcome surprises.

“The risks are greater than assumed because the interactions are more dynamic,” said Juan Rocha of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. “The important message is to recognise the wickedness of the problem that humanity faces.”

The study collated existing research on ecosystem transitions that can irreversibly tip to another state, such as coral reefs bleaching and being overrun by algae, forests becoming savannahs and ice sheets melting into oceans. It then cross-referenced the 30 types of shift to examine the impacts they might have on one another and human society.

Only 19% were entirely isolated. Another 36% shared a common cause, but were not likely to interact. The remaining 45% had the potential to create either a one-way domino effect or mutually reinforcing feedbacks. [Continue reading…]