Monthly Archives: November 2013

Plant Plastics

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An Australian company named Zeoform has been in the news recently for its patented technology of producing a new kind of plastic that uses neither fossil fuels nor toxic chemicals in its production or materials.

The input materials are water, and anything from landfill fiber-based material such as old newspapers or used clothing. The end material is both fire resistant, and compostable.

According to an article in HuffingtonPost, “Zeoform’s manufacturing process exploits the natural process of hydrogen bonding, taking a patented matrix of cellulose fibers and activating it with water (no glues required) to create a fire-resistant material that can be sprayed, shaped or molded into any form.

Zeoform guitar Source: Zeoform

Zeoform guitar
Source: Zeoform

“Zeoform can also be made to different densities — from cork-like to as hard as ebony — resulting in a wide range of possibilities: home construction, plastics in the aviation and automotive industries, (and) musical instruments.”

I couldn’t find any information on the energy input necessary to make this product, so it’s hard to say what its final carbon footprint would be. It’s hardly the first plant-based plastic, but the lack of toxic ingredients is a major step forward.

Even if it would take longer than most of us can imagine, massive success of any manufacturing technology based on waste would, at some point, ideally run out of ‘raw’ materials when the waste runs out (yes, an unlikely scenario, but it’s nice to dream).

That wouldn’t be a problem for Zeoform plastic, which can use plant fiber when needed.

An interesting product, and one to watch.

Zeoform chair Image: Zeoform

Zeoform chair
Image: Zeoform

Turkey Rafter

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Wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) Photo: Donald M. Jones

Wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)
Photo: Donald M. Jones

The wild turkey is a conservationist success story. Almost extinct at the beginning of the 20th century due to hunting and habitat loss, the wild turkey is now present in most states of the United States.

What saved the turkey was a combination of federal legislative intervention and cooperation between conservationists and hunters.

The introduction of the Pittman-Robertson Act (also known as the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act) in 1937 created a federal excise tax on gun and ammunition sales collected from manufacturers and, rather than streaming that revenue into the general federal tax coffers, allocated that revenue to a federal fund that supported state habitat and wildlife conservation efforts.

This Act, which came into effect in 1937 under Franklin D. Roosevelt, has generated billions of dollars for conservation. It has been frequently modified, and it is still in effect today.

Wild turkey in flight. Unlike the domesticated turkeys, wild turkeys are good fliers and roost in trees. Photo: S. Matull/MendonomaSightings

Wild turkey in flight. Unlike the domesticated turkeys, wild turkeys are good fliers and roost in trees.
Photo: S. Matull/MendonomaSightings

Yet it was only in 1956 that things really turned around for the wild turkey.

Domestically raised wild turkeys did not thrive in initial reintroduction efforts, but researchers devised a system of catching wild turkeys and redistributing them to other areas. The wild turkeys, collectively known as a rafter rather than a flock, are common enough in some areas to be considered a nuisance.

Would the wild turkey have fared so well if it didn’t have such iconic status in the United States? After all, before the bald eagle won the day, the wild turkey was Benjamin Franklin’s choice of national symbol for its courage and intelligence.

In any case, the wild turkey is a positive symbol of what can be achieved when the stars align for an endangered species.

Inside and Out

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Green sea urchins
Photo: R. Wollocombe

Ocean acidification has been studied in relation to marine animals with calcium carbonate shells. Oysters, sea butterflies, shrimp – all are affected by acidification when their outer shells don’t develop properly.

According to this article, ocean acidification has increased by 25-30% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

A new study published in Nature Climate Change looks at a different key species in kelp forests in temperate and subpolar oceans, green sea urchins. But it’s not their shells that are at risk.

In a first demonstration that ocean CO2 levels can affect the digestion of a marine creature, German and Swedish researchers showed that the larval stage of green sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis) have difficulty digesting in water with higher levels of acidity.

Green sea urchin Source: OhDeer

Green sea urchin
Source: OhDeer

The sea urchins compensate by eating 11-33% more, but if additional food is unavailable, their growth, fertility and survival can be compromised.

So while some studies have shown that ocean acidification varying levels of impact on different marine life.

Unlike the effects on oysters and sea butterflies, increased acidity (up to a given threshold) has less of an effect on certain marine animals with substantial shell coverings – like the temperate sea urchin.

Unfortunately, being protected by a thick shell may not be all that’s necessary to survive in an acidified ocean.

Green sea urchin endoskeleton Photo: galewhale/Project Noah

Green sea urchin endoskeleton
Photo: galewhale/Project Noah

The Proverbial Drop

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The recent Warsaw Climate Change Conference ended with a couple of modest successes, the main one being that the conversation will continue between nations as to what to do about man-made impact on the climate.

An initiative to support efforts at slowing deforestation received funding to the tune of $280 million from three countries.

Developed countries couldn’t quite bring themselves to say more than they would be willing to ‘contribute’ to emission cuts, rather than ‘commit’ to them.

Mainly, the nations who use the most keep insisting that change will be slow, and expensive.

Developing countries requested the twenty developed nations which have contributed to and profited most from the fossil fuel economy to pledge funds to mitigate, adapt and readjust this economy and its effects.

Amounts requested were between $70 billion per year by 2016, or  $100 billion by 2020.

Meanwhile, an editorial piece by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in the New York Times today states that the developed countries currently subsidize the fossil fuel economy to the tune of $485 billion.

That’s $485 billion every single year.

Not all expensive habits are worth keeping.

So here’s hoping that even a drop in the bucket will create enough ripples to make a change.

A Larger Slice

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Click to go to interactive infographic. Graphic: Duncan Clark and Kiln, drawing on work by Mike Bostock and Jason Davies via The Guardian

Click here to go to interactive infographic.
Graphic: Duncan Clark and Kiln, drawing on work by Mike Bostock and Jason Davies
via The Guardian

The infographic above came out in The Guardian, and is an exploration of the role played by private companies, nation-states and state-run companies in the generation of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. There are 90 companies listed – all but seven are companies that deal mainly in fossil fuels.

The infographic below is an exercise in refinement. Lars Boelen was reading the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, edition 2013 that came out in early November. He came across the small pie chart here,

Carbon budget for 2 C° Source: IEA via Stormglas

Carbon budget for 2 C°
Source: IEA via Stormglas

which illustrates the ‘remaining budget’ of carbon emissions left for humanity to generate if the goal is to limit a global temperature increase to 2 C°.

Mr. Boelen was irritated by the simplicity of the chart, which had the largest slice allocated to 1750 – 2011.

The pie chart implies, to me at least, that we – meaning the current generations – aren’t necessarily responsible for the cumulative effect of carbon emissions because, after all, this is a process that has been going on since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Why should we take all the blame and by extension, have to make drastic changes?

Mr. Boelen thought the pie chart needed a bit of refinement, and lo, the distribution of culpability looks a bit different when we find out that the vast majority of ‘carbon budget’ has been ‘spent’ (or perhaps more accurately, ‘squandered with profligacy’) since 1970.

Almost all the major fossil fuel companies in the top infographic, at least in their original forms, were founded in the glory years of oil and gas discovery between 1870 and 1920, although the past 30 years have seen countless mergers. The companies have grown ever larger. As for nation-states, China accounts for 8.5% of emissions, with a continued rise due to its dependence on coal.

Together, according to the soberly-titled report published in the journal Climate Change, Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010, these companies account for two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions since the dawn of the industrial era.

Half of all emissions have occurred in the past 25 years alone.

So when we hear about how hard it will be to curb emissions, or that ‘this is the way things are done’ and how expensive it will be to change course, keep in mind that there is no long history or tradition behind our current carbon spending spree. This is as new as cars that are still driving on the road today.

Carbon Budget  Graphic: Lars Boelen

Carbon Budget
Graphic: Lars Boelen

First Slap

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Early morning garden, first snow. Photo: PK Read

Early morning garden, first snow.
The little plum tree had several birds nestled in among the branches,
I could see them waiting and watching as the leaves above them became heavy with snow.
Photo: PK Read

 

Old Man Winter gave us a sharp flick of his icy finger this past week.

We had the first real snow of the season at our elevation of 480 m (1570 ft) in the foothills of the Jura mountains.

I decided that leaving the house is an overrated activity, put on another sweater and an extra pair of socks, and sat inside, feeling guilty about all the garden work I haven’t yet completed.

Snowy garden gate, seen from the warmth of the house. Photo: PK Read

Snowy garden gate, seen from the warmth of the house.
Photo: PK Read

The cats took up all the space on the bed, the first load of wood was hauled in for the fireplace, and the first batch of winter squash soup was cooked out of necessity because anything else would have required leaving the house and as stated above, that had already been ruled out as a voluntary option.

First wood at the bottom of the stairs. Photo: PK Read

First firewood at the base of the stairs.
Photo: PK Read

Today, though, the snow is all but gone, and I have no excuse not to go out and do the garden tasks that await. The cats, of course, will continue to do what they do best.

The cats Supermanning it across the bed. Photo: PK Read

The cats Supermanning it across the bed.
Photo: PK Read

Murmurations

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A friend posted these images of ‘starlings’ in flight on his Facebook page, and I was intrigued by their beauty.

So I followed the bread crumb trail of the photographer credit, and found out an unexpected fact about these images. Finally, I came upon the photographer himself, Alain Delorme, a French artist based in Paris.

When I requested permission to post his images here, he sent me a friendly word of warning about his Murmurations series that confirmed what I had discovered on my own: The images aren’t of starlings. They are composites of plastic sacks, in the configurations of starling flocks.

The images are meant to confound, to confuse expectations, to mingle beauty and dangerous debris that can take beautiful forms.

This week, the UNFCCC COP 19 conference has been taking place in Warsaw, Poland. This Climate Change Conference is the world’s key forum for discussing climate change, environmental issues, progress and solutions.

A large public-private initiative was announced that would oversee programs to alleviate deforestation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with funding pledged by Norway, the United Kingdom and (to a much smaller extent) the United States.

Good news, a lovely formation of proposals that take flight.

The initiative will be overseen by the World Bank, which demands reductions in greenhouse gases while continuing to support and fund the large-scale development of coal projects around the world. The World Bank track record on projects that succeed at both economic and environmental sustainability has been mixed.

(And in a nice ironic twist that did not go unnoticed by COP19 commentators, Warsaw also hosted the completely separate International Coal & Climate Summit at the same time, just down the road, and sponsored by the World Coal Association.)

Hm, maybe those aren’t starlings taking flight, after all.

For me, the level of global cooperation manifested in gatherings like the UNFCCC, however conflicted, still represents a major step forward in world governance just two generations after World War II.

Having said that, all major environmental groups staged a collective and resounding walkout of the Warsaw Climate Change Conference this week in protest against what they say is the one-sided, obstructive control of the conference by nations and groups not truly interested in climate change solutions.

According to this article on the science of starling flocks and their murmurations, their synchoronized movements “are best described with equations of ‘critical transitions’ — systems that are poised to tip, to be almost instantly and completely transformed, like metals becoming magnetized or liquid turning to gas. Each starling in a flock is connected to every other. When a flock turns in unison, it’s a phase transition.”

The Warsaw conference closes today. I’ll close with a short film of real starlings in flight, in the hope that real progress, and the positive, coordinated movement of groups and entities that are undeniably connected, will win out over something that looks like progress, but is actually something quite different.

Input and Loss

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At the UNFCCC COP19 in Warsaw this week, a new programme was launched under the auspices of the World Bank: The BioCarbon Fund Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes (ISFL).

The initial funding amount is set at $280 million USD. Norway has pledged up to $135 million to the initiative, Britain $120 million and the United States $25 million. The fund also hopes to attract further private and public funding.

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to use the Global Forest Change tool released this week to look at forest change in each of the contributing countries, also in relation to their contribution to this new initiative.

Forest change Norway 2000-2012. The blue and red colors indicate net forest gain and loss, respectively. The colors here are almost exclusively seen on the Swedish side of the border. Norway does not rank among the top 50 nations in terms of deforestation, Sweden ranks 13th. Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Forest change Norway 2000-2012. The blue and red colors indicate net forest gain and loss, respectively. The colors here are almost exclusively seen on the Swedish side of the border. Norway does not rank among the top 50 nations in terms of deforestation, Sweden ranks 13th.
Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Engine Partners

With a goal of encouraging reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the land sector, including REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), ISFL is intended to “help countries identify and promote climate-smart agricultural and low-carbon land-use practices in selected geographical areas where agriculture is a major cause of deforestation.”

The deforestation culprit in question is, by and large, commercial agriculture in regions including Latin America; subsistence and commercial agriculture contribute equally to an estimated two-thirds of deforestation in other areas like Africa and subtropical Asia.

The initiative sets itself the task of “adopting a landscape approach, (which) means implementing a development strategy that is climate smart, equitable, productive and profitable at scale and strives for environmental, social, and economic impact.”

Forest change in the United Kingdom 2000-2012, which is not among the top 50 nations in terms of forest loss.  Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Forest change in the United Kingdom 2000-2012, which is not among the top 50 nations in terms of forest loss.
Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Measures include “protecting forests, restoring degraded lands, enhancing agricultural productivity, and improving livelihoods and local environments.”

According to this Reuters article, one of the key problems faced by initiatives seeking to reduce deforestation is that “parties are focusing all their energy arguing about the politics of who governs REDD+ finance, when the real issue is a lack of demand.”

This is according to Matt Leggett, head of policy at forest think-tank Global Canopy Programme, who also stated that “the program must create demand for nearly 1.5 billion tones of carbon dioxide equivalent to cut deforestation by half, but current projects are only set to cut emissions by 160 million tones.”

Forest change in the United States 2000-2012. The US ranks 3rd globally in terms of net forest loss.  Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Forest change in the United States 2000-2012. The US ranks 3rd globally in terms of net forest loss. (Canada ranks 4th.)
Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Global Forest Map

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A gorgeous new tool for assessing gain and loss in global forests was released this week by University of Maryland researchers, the result of a five year, broad-based collaborative project. The interactive map of Global Forest Change is powered by Google’s computing cloud will offer a means to establish forestry baselines around the world, with a great amount of detail.

Animation showing forest loss in Riau, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Much of this deforestation was to establish plantations for pulp and paper, timber, and palm oil production. Click image to enlarge.
Source: Mongabay.com

This excellent Mongabay.com article quotes the project’s lead author Matthew Hansen on the map and accompanying study (published in Science): “This is the first map of forest change that is globally consistent and locally relevant. Losses or gains in forest cover shape many important aspects of an ecosystem including, climate regulation, carbon storage, biodiversity and water supplies, but until now there has not been a way to get detailed, accurate, satellite-based and readily available data on forest cover change from local to global scales.”

It didn’t surprise me that Brazil and Indonesia are among the top five countries with the highest level of deforestation since 2000. The policies of those countries favor development of heavily forested, biodiverse areas.

Global Forest Map The red areas indicate net forest loss. Click on the image for the interactive map. Source: Earth Engine Partners

Global Forest Map
The red areas indicate net forest loss.
Click on the image for the interactive map.
Source: Earth Engine Partners

As an Indonesian palm oil representative once told me, we shouldn’t worry about the loss of rainforest because it was mostly all cut down already, anyway. In its place, palm oil plantations. “Trees are trees, so we have offset deforestation with sustainable new forests.”

The new Global Forest Change tool accounts for this as well, with layered levels of data allowing users to see whether the forests in question are old growth, diverse habitats, or newer second-growth utility forests.

It did come as a surprise that Russia has lost more forest than any other nation, and that the top five are rounded out by the United States and Canada.

From Mongabay.com, “Improved understanding of the state of forests through tools like these should boost the ability of decision makers — from lawmakers to business leaders — to establish policies that better protect forests.”

Cross-species Collaboration

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A basic caddisfly cocoon Credit: Ashley Pond V /Wikipedia

A basic caddisfly cocoon
Credit: Ashley Pond V /Wikipedia

Over the past year, I’ve highlighted a few examples of land art by some wonderful artists. Land art is the integration of land, space, and natural elements as art. The works are often impermanent, or subject to slow alteration and deterioration, as part of the artist’s intent. Art that is written in the sand and sketched on water.

Caddisfly  Photo: heatherkh/Flickr

A fancier caddisfl cocoon y
Photo: heatherkh/Flickr

I hesitate to call the caddisfly an artist in the human sense of the word. But to the extent that artwork is a manifestation of intuition, instinct and functionality, then the caddisfly – related to moths and butterflies – is an artist when it comes to its cocoon. Like moths and butterflies, the caddisfly larva builds a cocoon of silk in which to pupate.

What makes the caddisfly different is that it often uses a variety of materials as a part of its cocoon, seeking objects and weaving them together into unique home.

Caddisfly cocoons, made in water tanks filled with gold flakes, semi-precious and precious stones.  Credit: Hubert Duprat

Caddisfly cocoons, made in water tanks filled with gold flakes, semi-precious and precious stones.
Credit: Hubert Duprat

It should come as no surprise that this predisposition has been put to human use. I’m not sure the caddisfly is any happier whether using pebbles or gold and precious gems for its cocoon, but the results – by human standards – are undeniably interesting.

And it is a collaboration of sorts between artist, Hubert Duprat and the larvae, even if the larvae seems to be providing an unwitting service.

According to a gallery featuring his work (he works in many other mediums), artist Hubert Duprat is “a supporter of an artistic tradition inherited from the Renaissance that does not compartmentalize the different forms of inquiry and curiosity; the artist sees the world as an inexhaustible repertoire of images mineral, plant, animal and cultural.”

Caddisfly cocoons made solely from their own silk. Image:  James C. Hodges, Jr.

Caddisfly cocoons made solely from their own silk.
Image: James C. Hodges, Jr.