November U.N. climate conference aims for universal agreement

(Elliot Gilfix/Flickr)
(Elliot Gilfix/Flickr)
KC McGinnis | September 1, 2015

World leaders will gather in Paris this November in hopes of reaching an international agreement on climate change and mitigation standards.

The 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP21, will be held from November 30 to December 11. There, delegates from the 196 states that have ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will seek to reach a unanimous and legally-binding agreement on a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming to 2°C that can be implemented by 2020.

“We therefore have a historic responsibility, as we are the first generation to really become aware of the problem and yet the last generation that can deal with it,” said French minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development in a Youtube statement.

To reach this agreement, member countries will be required to submit documentation of their contributions to greenhouse gas reductions, which will be summarized to give a broad picture of their efforts. Participants will then discuss tangible steps and options for reducing their carbon footprints, such as renewable energy, carbon taxes, technological innovations and sustainable agricultural practices.

The challenge for COP21 will be to prove that international negotiations between large member states with complex agendas can in fact be fruitful. Last year’s COP20 conference in Lima, Peru was blasted by the convention’s Women & Gender Constituency, who claimed that it “failed to move substantially forward towards the ultimate goal of agreeing on a plan to avert climate catastrophe.”

“Governments should be immediately implementing a renewable and safe energy transformation,” wrote Bridget Burns, of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, “but here at COP 20 in Lima, in spite of working almost 2 days overtime, they did not come close to reaching this goal.”

COP21 could prove to be either a crucial point in the fight against climate change or another failed attempt at the kind of global cooperation scientists agree is necessary to prevent catastrophic effects of climate change like rapid sea level rise.

On The Radio: Iowa cattle producers honored with environmental award

Glenn and Bev Rowe on their Union County farm. (IowaAgribusiness/YouTube)
Bev and Glenn Rowe on their Union County farm. (IowaAgribusiness/YouTube)
August 31, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at two Iowa cattle producers and their efforts to maintain an environmentally-sustainable operation. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Iowa cattle producers honored with environmental award

Two southwest Iowa cattle producers were recently honored for their efforts to maintain an environmentally-sustainable operation.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Earlier this year, Glenn and Bev Rowe of Lorimor  were named regional winners of the National Cattle Association’s Environmental Stewardship Award Program. The Rowes were honored because of several sustainability projects they partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for, including rotational grazing, rural pipeline installation, and stream bank stabilization.

The couple first started with a small cattle herd in rural Dallas County in 1969 and now manage roughly 1,000 acres in Union County. In addition to cattle grazing land, the farm also includes 250 acres of no-till cropland as well as about 40 acres of wildlife refuge.

The Rowes will now compete with the winners from six other regions for a change to take the top spot in the nation which will be announced during the Cattle Industry Annual Convention and Trade Show in San Diego this January.

For more information about the Rowes and their award visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

UI Study: More consumers choosing locally-produced foods

A shot from the Iowa City Farmers Market in 2011. (Alan Light/Flickr)
A shot from the Iowa City Farmers Market in 2011. (Alan Light/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | August 27, 2015

A new study by researchers at the University of Iowa finds that American consumers are choosing to shop at local food markets more than ever before.

The study was led by Ion Vasi, an associate professor with joint appointments in the Department of Sociology and the Tippie College of Business, who shared his findings during the American Sociology Association Annual meeting in Chicago last weekend. Vasi found that consumers are supporting local food producers not just because they think the food tastes better but also because they like knowing who grows their food.

“It’s not just about the economical exchange; it’s a relational and ideological exchange as well,” Vasi told Iowa Now.

Farmers markets, food cooperatives, community-supported agriculture providers (CSAs), and other local food markets create what sociologists call a “moralized market,” which allows consumers to combine economic activities with their social values. Vasi’s research found that communities with a strong commitment to civic participation, health, and the environment were more likely to be supportive of local food markets. These markets were also more likely to thrive in areas with higher levels of education and income and where institutions of higher education are located. Researchers on this project conducted 40 interviews with producers and consumers in different local food markets in Iowa and New York.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show there were 8,268 farmers markets in the U.S. in 2014 compared to 3,706 in 2004. The data also show that Iowa currently has 229 farmers markets.

Public tours UI power plant, miscanthus fields

(Clarity R. Guerra/UI Office of Strategic Communications)

Nick Fetty | August 26, 2015

The University of Iowa on Tuesday hosted a field day to allow members of the public to tour the power plant as well as plots of a renewable energy source known as miscanthus.

Tuesday’s event was the third field day the UI has hosted for its Biomass Fuel Project which “aims to assess and improve university power plant facilities, biomass feedstock, and community awareness and education in biomass energy.” The Biomass Fuel Project is one part of the UI’s 2020 Vision which outlines ways for the UI to generate 40 percent of its on-campus energy usage from renewable sources by the 2020.

U.S. Congressman Dave Loebsack spoke at Tuesday’s event and lauded the UI’s efforts on this project.

“It’s about making sure we create energy that is cleaner than what we did traditionally, and what we do to some extent today,” he said. “Economically it’s the right thing to do, and in so many other ways it’s the right thing to do.”

Loebsack also praised the UI for its effort to collaborate with Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa on the project. Emily Heaton is a professor of agronomy at ISU and she also spoke at Tuesday’s event. Heaton studies the science behind miscanthus, a perennial tall grass native to Asia, which the UI hopes to begin using to fuel the power plant. She said miscanthus offers “ecosystem services” not available with other renewable energy sources. Those services include miscanthus’ ability to pull carbon dioxide from the air and return it to the soil. Additionally, miscanthus’ deep root system helps prevent soil erosion and nutrient runoff into nearby waterways.

In addition to partnering with the other regent universities, UI has also partnered with landowners and growers in Johnson, Linn, and Muscatine counties to harvest the crop. The project started with a 16-acre plot in 2013 and today the UI maintains approximately 350 acres. Miscanthus’ height (at 10 to 12 feet) allows it to produce a higher yield per acre when compared to other similar biomass options.

Though UI officials are still in the experimental stages for using miscanthus as a fuel source, they hope that it will eventually be able to supply 10 percent of the campus’ energy usage.

VIDEO: KGAN – UI Using More Sustainable Energy

MidAmerican Energy to convert +100,000 Iowa streetlights to LED

(MidAmerican Energy)


Nick Fetty | August 20, 2015

MidAmerican Energy recently announced plans to convert more than 100,000 Iowa streetlights to Light Emitting Diode (LED) units over the next 10 years.

The project will  encompass all Iowa cities within MidAmerican’s service territory. Major cities within this territory include: Des Moines, Sioux City, Sioux Falls, Council Bluffs, Waterloo, Iowa City and the Quad Cities. Smaller communities also expected to participate in the project include Carroll and Storm Lake, among others.

“This is a true partnership between MidAmerican Energy and our communities as we work together to show our commitment to energy efficiency and cost savings as well as contribute to a greener environment,” said Kathryn Kunert, vice president, business and community development for MidAmerican Energy.

As existing high-pressure sodium (HPS) bulbs burn out they will be replaced by LED fixtures and bulbs. LEDs have several advantages over HPSs including: lower energy consumption, less frequent maintenance, longer life span, instant-on performance, improved night visibility due to improved color index, reduced spill light, and no mercury, lead or other known disposable hazards. LED units, however, have an initial cost that is about four times that of their HPS counterparts.

Cities and other municipalities eligible for this project must complete MidAmerican Energy’s LED streetlighting agreement. Streetlights owned by municipalities and other utility companies will not be part of the project. The conversion will come at no cost unless municipalities opt for an accelerated installation plan.


Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts cold, snowy winter

A barn and snow covered field in southern Linn County. (Rich Herrmann/Flickr)
A barn sits on a snow covered field in southern Linn County during the 2014-2015 winter. (Rich Herrmann/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | August 19, 2015

If predictions in the Old Farmer’s Almanac are correct, Americans should brace for a cold and snowy winter even in parts of the country that typically see more mild temperatures.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac – which has been in publication since 1792 – predicts that the Midwest will see frigid conditions while the Northeast will experience below-average temperatures. Parts of the South are expected to see icy conditions and the traditionally temperate Pacific Northwest will experience its snowiest weather beginning around the middle of December and possibly continuing through February.

“Just about everybody who gets snow will have a White Christmas in one capacity or another,” Almanac editor Janice Stillman told the Associated Press.

Some meteorologists and other critics question the scientific accuracy of the Almanac’s method for predicting weather patterns. Criticis cite that the Almanac’s formula fails to “account [for] the finer nuances of meteorology, like pressure systems, cyclical weather patterns, and—of late—climate change.” Meteorologists also cite that El Niño will likely be a more accurate indicator of winter weather patterns that the Almanac’s formula.

Though the exact formula is a secret, the Almanac’s writers and editors focus on three main factors.

“We employ three scientific disciplines to make our long-range predictions: solar science, the study of sunspots and other solar activity; climatology, the study of prevailing weather patterns; and meteorology, the study of the atmosphere. We predict weather trends and events by comparing solar patterns and historical weather conditions with current solar activity.”

The first day of winter (the winter solstice) begins on December 21.

NASA astronauts consume lettuce grown in space

The International Space Station orbits above the United States's east coast in 2012. (NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr)
The International Space Station orbits above the east coast of the United States in 2012. (NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | August 12, 2015

Astronauts in the International Space Station did something this week that’s never been done before: grow and eat food in space.

The astronauts on Expedition 44 harvested red romaine lettuce from NASA’s experimental plant growth system called Veg-01. This system consists of a “microgravity environment in which plants grow from seed ‘pillows’ under primarily red and blue LED lights.” The first “pillows” were activated and nurtured by the crew on Expedition 39 in May 2014. These plants grew for 33 days in space before returning to earth and undergoing a food safety analysis at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The current crew will eat half of the lettuce harvested and preserve the other half for scientific analysis when the crew returns to earth. NASA scientists cite that developing methods for sustainable food production in space will be crucial in the agency’s Journey to Mars mission, which aims to send humans to Mars by the 2030s.

“The farther and longer humans go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling and psychological benefits. I think that plant systems will become important components of any long-duration exploration scenario,” NASA Project Scientist Gioia Massa said in a statement.

The Expedition 44 crew consists of astronauts from Japan, Russia, and the United States. The crew is expected to return to earth in December.