Environmental groups speak out about consequences of holiday consumerism


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This holiday season, environmental groups are reminding consumers that increasingly short-lived gadgets have an impact on the natural environment. (Curtis Palmer/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | November 29, 2017

U.S. shoppers spent $5 billion in 24 hours on Friday, making Black Friday 2017 a record haul for retailers. Whether it’s purchased online or in stores, the new Hatchimal or the Nintendo Switch, environmental activists warn that consumers should think twice about the impact these goods have on the environment.

Greenpeace, an independent global campaigning organization, reported that electronic goods alone are expected to generate 50 million tons of waste in 2017. Electronic goods like smart phones and laptops make up the quickest growing waste stream worldwide, less than 16 percent of which is expected to be recycled this year. About one-third of e-waste that is recycled is sent overseas to countries like Kenya and Pakistan to be taken apart by workers that are not protected from the toxic materials that can be found inside electronic gadgets.

Plastic is also a primary contributor to waste during the holiday season. Used for everything from toys to wrapping paper to grocery bags, more than 300 million tons of plastic is produced each year with about 8 million tons of it dumped into oceans annually. Plastic can take more than 400 years to break down and has mounted to form two enormous plastic islands in the Pacific Ocean, one of which is estimated to be more than one million square miles in size.

Friends of the Earth environmental activist Julian Kirby asked of holiday shoppers, “If you don’t need it or want it then don’t give them your money. If you are going to take advantage of what’s purported to be lower prices then don’t rush into it, think about whether it’s the most sustainable and ethical product and whether you might be able to get a second hand version that’s able to do just as good a job.”

4th National Climate Assessment public draft released


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St. Paul, Minnesota, like many U.S. cities, has developed its own climate adaptation plan. (U.S. Global Change Research Program)
Jenna Ladd | November 21, 2017

The U.S. Global Change Research Program released the first public draft of the 4th National Climate Assessment this November.

The assessment, which is projected to be complete in late 2018, is required through the Global Change Research Act (GCRA) of 1990 to “analyze the effects of global change on the natural environment, agriculture, energy production and use, land and water resources, transportation, human health and welfare, human social systems, and biological diversity.”

Findings from the report are separated into several geographic regions of the United States, with Iowa included among the Midwestern states. Scientists say that Iowans and others in the Midwest region can expect longer growing seasons and increasing carbon dioxide levels to bump yields for some crops, but that positive effect will be reversed over time. As the climate continues to change, increased humidity, severity and frequency of heat waves along with poorer water and air quality are expected to endanger agricultural yields.

Gene Takle and Charles Stainer, both CGRER members, were recently interviewed on Iowa Public Radio’s River to River about the program’s findings. Takle said,

“Humidity has been going up for the last 30 years, and it continues to go up. This fields a number of different consequences, heavy rainfall, the 5, 6, or 7 inch rainfall events that we seem to be experiencing every year. We’re also experiencing a rise in both summertime and wintertime temperatures which are going to be bumping up against our crops.”

To drive home the economic impact of a changing climate, Takle added, “In 2013, we were not able to plant 700,000 acres in Northwest Iowa.”

Scientists point out that Midwesterners burn through 20 percent more carbon emissions per capita than the national average. That said, they argue, the region has incredible potential to take actions that reduce those emissions that cause climate change.

The current draft of the 4th National Climate Assessment can be found here.

UN Environment calls for action regarding mining pollution


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Pollution (eltpics/ flickr)
Kasey Dresser | November 17, 2017

On November 5th 2015, Germano mine, an iron-ore mine in southeast Brazil, collapsed killing 19 people and destroying 650 kilometers of fertile valley before spilling into the ocean. More than 33 cubic meters of tailing was released. This disaster was detrimental to the economy as the local fishing community was practically eliminated; meaning no fish for food and tourists became scarce as the water was no longer swimmable.

Joca Thome, a local resident who works for Brazil’s Chico Mendes Institute of Biodiversity Conservation, describes how these kind of incidences are too physically and psychologically severe for the victims. They need to be eliminated.  “As well as monitoring the impact in the estuary and the ocean, I am trying to help the community and the fishermen to understand what has happened to them,” Thomé says. “They are getting compensation from the mining company to keep them going. But thousands of people have had their lives upended and they do not know what their future will be.”

Mine tailing is a sludgy- mud like material leftover from mining facilities. There have been 40 tailing failures in the last decade alone. There is no exact statistic for the number of tailing dams in the world or the volume of each but there are 30,000 industrial mines worldwide. More mining failings could lead to long-term damage to the environment while destroying the surrounding cities.

The new Rapid Response Assessment was released a few days ago by UN Environment and GRID-Arenal. It calls for international action and a “safety-first” methodin regards to management and on the ground procedure. The report states, “safety attributes should be evaluated separately from economic considerations, and cost should not be the determining factor.”  This could create a mining database to develop the best technical methods for stopping failure completely. If regulations expand this might create an independent monitoring system of waste dams that could result in financial or criminal punishment for non-compliance. The report also mentions developing cleaner processes with new technology and re-using materials to reduce waste.

December 4-6, the UN Environmental Assembly will meet to discuss more effects of pollution on the environment. The report also recommends a specific stakeholder forum to put international policy in place to regulate mining tailings dams.

 

 

Climate change endangers World Heritage Sites


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Elephant populations at one Ivory Coast Natural Heritage Site have been replenished. (Guillaume Mignot/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | November 14, 2017

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced this week at the 23rd Conference of the Parties in Bonn, Germany that climate change now threatens one in four natural heritage sites.

There are a total of 206 Natural World Heritage properties, or sites elected by UNESCO to have “outstanding universal value.” Sixty-two of these sites are now considered to be at risk due to climate change by the organization, up from 35 in 2014.

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) director general Inger Andersen said in a statement, “Climate change acts fast and is not sparing the finest treasures of our planet. The scale and pace at which it (climate change) is damaging our natural heritage underline the need for urgent and ambitious national commitments and actions to implement the Paris Agreement.”

Coral reefs, wetlands, deltas and glaciated areas are among the most threatened ecosystems. Rising sea temperatures have killed off colorful algae that used to adorn the Aldabra Atoll Reef in the Indian Ocean, the Belize Barrier Reef in the Atlantic, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, resulting in a “devastating” bleaching effect. The Everglades are also threatened by climate change as sea level rise brings salt water into the wetland ecosystem.

Although countries are responsible for protecting and managing natural heritage sites within their boarders, the report noted that natural heritage site management has decreased since 2014, mostly due to decreased funding.

Proper management can reduce risk for some threatened sites. The report tells of replenished elephant and chimpanzee populations in Ivory Coast’s Comoé national park due to improved management and international support.

Coffee grounds to carbon-neutral fuels


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Coffee by Rudolf Vlček
Kasey Dresser | November 10, 2017

In the U.S, 1.5 million tons of coffee grounds are wasted each year. Bio-Bean is a company founded in 2013 by Arthur Kay, a London based entrepreneur. His idea takes excess coffee grounds and turns it into clean fuel to power buildings, vehicles, appliances and more. Coffee grounds are not only carbon neutral but they burn hotter and slower than wood.

To begin the process, bags of coffee ground waste are gathered from businesses, transportation stations, factories, stores, etc. The bags are shredded and separated. Next they’re dried to extract the water and put under a high pressure system to create “Coffee Logs.” Right now, “Coffee logs” are the most popular for hearth fires and stove top cooking. The company already recycles thousands of tons of coffee grounds annually and plans to keep going. According to National Geographic research every ton of coffee grounds Bio-beans keeps out of landfills, saves 200 trees. Not only is this an effective environmental protection plan but it saves coffee shops and instant coffee factories a lot of money that would have gone to disposing of the excess waste.

Climate change to cause chocolate scare


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Cacao trees do best within about 20 degrees of the equator. (Rain/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 31, 2017

Trick-or-treaters will bound from door-to-door this evening hoping to take home one of the world’s sweetest treats: chocolate.

While Halloween may feel like business-as-usual tonight in Iowa, chocolate producers across the globe are feeling the heat of climate change.

Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, which can only be cultivated very close to the Earth’s equator. This part of the world provides little temperature variability, lots of humidity and rain, nitrogen-rich soils and protection from wind that cacao trees need to thrive. Most of the world’s chocolate comes from cocoa beans grown in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Indonesia.

If the climate change continues unabated, these regions of the world are expected to warm by  3.8°F before 2050. It’s not necessarily the heat that will hurt cacao trees, it’s a decrease in humidity. About two-thirds of the world’s chocolate comes from Western Africa, where precipitation is not increasing to offset the effects of a hotter climate and drought has been a major problem in recent years.

Kevin Rabinovitch, a spokesperson for Mars, Incorporated, told Yale’s Climate Connections, “As temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change, some of the current cocoa-producing regions may become less suitable for producing cocoa.”

Rising temperatures and less rainfall may push cocoa growing operations in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana up some 800 feet in elevation in order to keep up with demand, according to NOAA.

For its part, Rabinovitch explained that Mars is taking steps to reduce carbon emissions from its products by 67 percent before 2050. Cacao farmers are adapting to drought and temperature spikes by selectively breeding more drought resistant crops and planting cacao trees under taller rainforest trees for shade cover.

On The Radio – Economic cost of changing climate is growing


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Members of the the National Guard in Puerto Rico work to clear roads after Hurricane María devastated the island. (Puerto Rico National Guard/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 30, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the growing economic consequence of climate change. 

Transcript: Human-induced climate change costs more than the U.S. economy can afford according to a recent report from the Universal Ecological Fund.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Titled, “The Economic Case for Climate Action in the United States,” the report found that severe weather intensified by climate change and the health impacts associated with burning fossil fuels have cost the U.S. economy $240 billion per year in the last decade.

The authors point out that the number of extreme weather events resulting in $1 billion or more in damages has increased by 400 percent since the 1980s. Iowa, for example, has endured three floods costing more than $1 billion in the last decade, up three-fold since the 1990s.

If climate change is not curtailed, researchers predict costs associated with severe weather and the health impacts of emitting greenhouse gases will reach $360 billion annually.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

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