Monday, January 27, 2014

Desert Plants to be Put to the Test for Aviation Biofuel Production

Whenever the topic of plant-derived biofuels is raised, the issue of turning valuable arable land over to the task of growing feedstock is generally not far behind. A discovery by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SRBC) that desert plants fed by seawater can produce biofuel more efficiently than other well-known feedstocks could help alleviate such concerns.

The SRBC, which is affiliated with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, is receiving funding from Boeing, Etihad Airways and Honeywell UOP to develop and commercialize a sustainable biofuel that emits 50 to 80 percent less carbon through its lifecycle than fossil fuels. Plants called halophytes, which are highly salt tolerant, could be the answer.

SRBC researchers found that halophyte seeds contain oil suitable for biofuel production and that the entire shrub-like plant can be turned into biofuel more effectively than many other feedstocks.

To test their findings, the SRBC team will create a test ecosystem over the coming year that will see two crops of halophytes planted in the sandy soil found in Abu Dhabi. The test site will use waste seawater from a fish and shrimp farm to nourish the plants, with the water then flowing into a field of mangroves before being returned to the ocean.

"The UAE has become a leader in researching desert land and seawater to grow sustainable biofuel feedstocks, which has potential applications in other parts of the world," says Dr. Alejandro Rios, Director of the SBRC. "This project can have a global impact, since 97 percent of the earth's water is ocean and 20 percent of the earth's land is desert."

Source: Masdar Institute

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Air Pollution from Asia Affecting World's Weather

Jan. 21, 2014 — Extreme air pollution in Asia is affecting the world's weather and climate patterns, according to a study by Texas A&M University and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory researchers.

Yuan Wang, a former doctoral student at Texas A&M, along with Texas A&M atmospheric sciences professors Renyi Zhang and R. Saravanan, have had their findings published in the current issue of Nature Communications.

Using climate models and data collected about aerosols and meteorology over the past 30 years, the researchers found that air pollution over Asia -- much of it coming from China -- is impacting global air circulations.

"The models clearly show that pollution originating from Asia has an impact on the upper atmosphere and it appears to make such storms or cyclones even stronger," Zhang explains.

"This pollution affects cloud formations, precipitation, storm intensity and other factors and eventually impacts climate. Most likely, pollution from Asia can have important consequences on the weather pattern here over North America."

China's booming economy during the last 30 years has led to the building of enormous manufacturing factories, industrial plants, power plants and other facilities that produce huge amounts of air pollutants. Once emitted into the atmosphere, pollutant particles affect cloud formations and weather systems worldwide, the study shows.

Increases in coal burning and car emissions are major sources of pollution in China and other Asian countries.

Air pollution levels in some Chinese cities, such as Beijing, are often more than 100 times higher than acceptable limits set by the World Health Organization standards, Zhang says.

One study has shown that lung cancer rates have increased 400 percent in some areas due to the ever-growing pollution problem.

Conditions tend to worsen during winter months when a combination of stagnant weather patterns mixed with increased coal burning in many Asian cities can create pollution and smog that can last for weeks. The Chinese government has pledged to toughen pollution standards and to commit sufficient financial resources to attack the problem. "The models we have used and our data are very consistent with the results we have reached," Saravanan says.

"Huge amounts of aerosols from Asia go as high as six miles up in the atmosphere and these have an unmistakable impact on cloud formations and weather."

Zhang adds that "we need to do some future research on exactly how these aerosols are transported globally and impact climate. There are many other atmospheric observations and models we need to look at to see how this entire process works."

Yuan Wang, who conducted the research with Zhang while at Texas A&M, currently works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a Caltech Postdoctoral Scholar.

The study was funded by grants from NASA, Texas A&M's Supercomputing facilities and the Ministry of Science and Technology of China..


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Updating Air Pollution Measurement Methods

Jan. 7, 2014 — Launching a natural research experiment in Kathmandu, Nepal, this month using advanced monitoring methods to assess health risk from air pollution, environmental health scientist Rick Peltier at the University of Massachusetts Amherst hopes to demonstrate for the first time in a real-world setting that air pollution can and should be regulated based on toxicology variables rather than simply on the volume of particles in the air.

Recent technological advances in air quality measurement methods now make it possible and practical to monitor air pollution in a much more sophisticated way than before, Peltier says. Researchers now use X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to measure air pollution metal content, ion chromatography to identify other chemicals and other tactics to assess organic and elemental carbon levels.

Peltier says, "We're interested in how air pollution directly affects health. The current regulatory method doesn't take into account the relative toxicity of components, that is the specific chemical makeup of the air we breathe. There has been a void in the science in this field. But with this experiment, for the first time we'll have biological measurements coupled with high-quality air pollution measurements in a cohort of traffic police exposed to extreme levels of pollution."

At present, the Environmental Protection Agency monitors air quality components every three days at 350 stations across the United States, but there are no such sites in Nepal. Particulates are an important signature of traffic. A poor air quality day in Los Angeles may see 40-50 micrograms of particulates per cubic meter, Peltier says, while in Kathmandu the level can be 800-900, or about 20 times worse.

Ethically, the environmental scientist adds, it would be impossible to expose people to such pollution levels in a laboratory-based experiment, and ambient levels such as those typically observed in Kathmandu are never routinely encountered anywhere in the United States. Peltier and colleagues' study will take advantage of the fact that the traffic officers already are exposed to high air pollution levels in their normal workday.

Funded by a multinational partnership led by UMass Amherst and including the Himalayan region's Intergovernmental Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, the investigation will follow a cohort of 32 traffic control officers in Kathmandu during two seasons: Cold, dry winter from this month into March, with a second study in the hot, rainy monsoon season from June to August, when air pollution levels are lower.

Peltier observes that Nepal's capital city region has poor air quality because two-stroke gasoline and diesel engines, high pollutant emitters, are common. Also, people heat their homes with coal and kerosene and routinely burn garbage and tires outdoors. For the 3 million inhabitants this poses substantial, demonstrable health risks.

"Unfortunately, the Kathmandu metropolitan area has quite poor air quality, and it's in a valley so it is a persistent problem," he adds. "We hypothesize that toxicity is related to the chemical components of pollution. We know this is true in a Petri dish, but now we'll be able to measure it in study subjects."

Participants are 16 men and 16 women, 25 to 35 years old who have similar education and income levels. For a six-day work week, each will carry a small waist pack containing research-grade, solar-powered portable air samplers. The filters will be collected for airborne metals, ions, organic carbon and black carbon analysis. The experiment will include an intervention component, as well: For half of each study week, participants will wear high-quality, particle-filtering face masks that greatly reduce air pollution exposure.

In addition to the air filters, researchers will collect blood samples and ask the traffic officers to use a spirometer several times a day to assess lung function. Their location, activity and electrocardiogram will be continuously measured in both conditions: Breathing polluted air with and without protective face masks.

Air quality samples and the health measurement data will be analyzed at UMass Amherst and compared between the different exposure conditions. Peltier and his postdoctoral fellow Kabindra Shakya will collaborate with researcher Arnico Panday of ICIMOD, Kathmandu, which along with UMass Amherst supported the work, plus Maheswar Rupakheti of the sustainability institute in Potsdam.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Political Scientist's New Book Examines Role of Private Enterprise in Environmental Preservation

Jan. 3, 2014 — Business gets blasted for not only ignoring the world's environmental problems, but for contributing to them. But a new book by Jessica F. Green, associate professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University, explains how private firms, in many cases, are emerging as leaders in tackling the world's climate concerns.

Some, Green writes in Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance (Princeton University Press, 2014), are actually creating and enforcing climate-friendly rules that exceed those of international treaties and government regulations. For example, Walmart set long-term goals in 2005 for renewable energy, waste reduction and other sustainability measures. The world's largest retailer also created an index to help its suppliers evaluate the sustainability of their products and performance -- with the requirement that those companies either meet the standards or lose Walmart as a customer.

"For better or worse," writes Green, "Walmart is now a global rule-maker for sustainability."

And, in anticipation of legislated environmental measures, Walmart recently announced it would cut 20 million metric tons of carbon emissions from its supply chain by 2015, further pressing suppliers to comply or else. Other companies are following suit.

Green argues that many companies want to make changes, but sometimes do not know how to do so. For example, in the early 2000s, many companies anticipated a carbon-restricted future, but did not know how to measure their carbon footprint, let alone reduce it.

In response to this demand, two nongovernmental groups, established standards companies could use to gauge their success. Today, corporations and organizations have widely and voluntarily accepted those private standards.

Elsewhere, timber producers are changing their practices to conform to sustainability rules, such as those created by the non-governmental organization, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Now retailers like Home Depot only sell wood products certified by the FSC.

The Carbon Disclosure Project has successfully made climate reporting a regular practice among Fortune 500 companies; now investors representing $10 trillion in assets can make investment decision based on companies' vulnerability to climate change, Green said.

These examples show the breadth and depth of private authority -- situations in which non-state actors serve as de facto regulators to solve global environmental problems. In the book, she traces a century of private environmental rulemaking, from 1900 to the present day.

"Increasingly," she writes, "private actors assume duties normally considered the province of governments. They are taking on the role of regulators as they create, implement and enforce rules to manage global environmental problems."

Green's account provides important historical context for understanding current approaches for solving environmental problems. Although firms and NGOs are becoming increasingly prominent in global environmental politics, they are not acting alone; governments are still very much part of the picture. They decide whether, when and how they will relinquish control.

However, private authority is another important tool in the arsenal. Environmental problems are complex, Green argues, so are the regulatory solutions required to solve them in a timely of tipping points so as to better anticipate and prepare ourselves for the inevitable surprises.


Thursday, January 2, 2014

Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises

Authors: Committee on Understanding and Monitoring Abrupt Climate Change and Its Impacts; Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate; Division on Earth and Life Studies; National Research Council

Description: Climate is changing, forced out of the range of the past million years by levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases not seen in the Earth's atmosphere for a very, very long time. Lacking action by the world's nations, it is clear that the planet will be warmer, sea level will rise, and patterns of rainfall will change. But the future is also partly uncertain -- there is considerable uncertainty about how we will arrive at that different climate. Will the changes be gradual, allowing natural systems and societal infrastructure to adjust in a timely fashion? Or will some of the changes be more abrupt, crossing some threshold or "tipping point" to change so fast that the time between when a problem is recognized and when action is required shrinks to the point where orderly adaptation is not possible?

Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change is an updated look at the issue of abrupt climate change and its potential impacts. This study differs from previous treatments of abrupt changes by focusing on abrupt climate changes and also abrupt climate impacts that have the potential to severely affect the physical climate system, natural systems, or human systems, often affecting multiple interconnected areas of concern. The primary timescale of concern is years to decades. A key characteristic of these changes is that they can come faster than expected, planned, or budgeted for, forcing more reactive, rather than proactive, modes of behavior.

Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change summarizes the state of our knowledge about potential abrupt changes and abrupt climate impacts and categorizes changes that are already occurring, have a high probability of occurrence, or are unlikely to occur. Because of the substantial risks to society and nature posed by abrupt changes, this report recommends the development of an Abrupt Change Early Warning System that would allow for the prediction and possible mitigation of such changes before their societal impacts are severe. Identifying key vulnerabilities can help guide efforts to increase resiliency and avoid large damages from abrupt change in the climate system, or in abrupt impacts of gradual changes in the climate system, and facilitate more informed decisions on the proper balance between mitigation and adaptation. Although there is still much to learn about abrupt climate change and abrupt climate impacts, to willfully ignore the threat of abrupt change could lead to more costs, loss of life, suffering, and environmental degradation. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change makes the case that the time is here to be serious about the threat of tipping points so as to better anticipate and prepare ourselves for the inevitable surprises.

Original article and full report available at: