The good and the bad of the UN’s GEO


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Natalia Welzenbach-Marcus | April 17th, 2019

The UN recently released their Global Environmental Outlook report, and the news is a mixed bag. There are some negatives, but a few, if small, positive points.

The Global Environmental Outlook report is one of the most thorough environmental assessments, taking data from almost 200 global experts who compiled their research over the course of 18 months to bring to light a better picture of our climate.

The GEO paints something of a grim picture of our globe’s health, but it also offers up solutions and some definitive proof that reducing the use of fossil fuels greatly improves the health of different populations.

The bad news is that many of our climate issues have already reached some considerable extremes. Air pollution affects 6 to 7 million people’s lifespans, causing premature deaths, and the most common forms of agriculture are unsustainable at best and actively harmful at worst. Through these in depth reports and assessments, we get a better picture of our planet’s health and wellbeing. We also get a warning, a sign that we need to further improve our environment through the tools we’re given.

Environmental groups suing for Raccoon River water quality


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The Raccoon River in Des Moines (Michael Leland on flickr).

Julia Poska| April 11, 2019

Two environmental groups filed a lawsuit against Iowa late last month over degraded water in the Raccoon River, a drinking water source for 500,000 people.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch are suing the Iowa Departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture and  two state environmental boards, according to the Des Moines Register. They are seeking a ban on building or expanding animal feeding operations in the Raccoon River watershed until nutrient reduction compliance for farmers becomes mandatory.

“There’s too much at stake to bet on voluntary practices,” the plaintiffs wrote in an op-ed for the Register. “We want to force elected officials to think about a food and farm system that works for farmers, workers, eaters and the environment, not just industrial interests.”

Runoff of fertilizer and manure from farms contributes to harmful algae blooms, which  leech toxins into local waters and create a lifeless Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  The environmental groups say the state has failed to uphold the “Public Trust Doctrine,”  which states that the government must protect certain natural resources for public uses, like drinking and recreation. As of now, tried-and-true nutrient reduction strategies like planting cover crops are incentivized but not mandated for farmers.

Others, like the Iowa Soybean Association CEO and the Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, told the Register the “potentially divisive” lawsuit disappointed them. For many, this case recalls the 2015 Des Moines Waterworks lawsuit against drainage districts in three north Iowa counties, which attempted to force compliance with federal clean-water standards for “point-source” polluters but was ultimately dismissed.

 

On The Radio- BP Oil


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Photo taken on April 3rd 2013 in Mauritania near Tiguent Parc-National-Diawling (jbdodane/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| April 8, 2019

This weeks segment looks at BP’s place in the coming decades with rising demands for renewable energy.

Transcript:

BP Oil and Gas has made energy demand predictions about the future—but are they accurate?

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

After the massive oil spill along the Gulf Coast in 2010, BP became known globally in a decidedly negative light.

Almost a decade later, and with settlement payments still being paid out, the energy company has thrown its weight behind renewable energy. BP outlines in its annual energy outlook that the planet could run on mostly renewable sources by 2040.

There is a small detail that some environmentalists find troubling, however; the BP report also lists an estimated rising global demand for energy well into the 2040s, while other scientific reports estimate that global demand will taper off and even out by the 2030s.

A rising global demand for energy is a given, as underdeveloped countries begin working on their infrastructure and making improvements for their citizens. But overestimating how much energy will be needed globally in the future could allow oil companies to continue selling more fossil fuels, even as renewable energy use grows.

For more information, visit Iowa environmental focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

Presidential hopefuls discuss sustainable ag at last weekend’s Heartland Forum


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Photo by Julia Poska, 2019. 

Julia Poska | April 4, 2019

Last weekend, four 2020 presidential candidates and one likely contender gathered in Storm Lake, Iowa to discuss their visions for struggling rural America at the Heartland Forum. Here’s what each said about sustainability and agriculture:

Julián Castro: The former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama was asked a question about promoting eco-friendly family food farmers for economic, social and environmental resiliency.

“Our family farms help feed America—and the world, really—so we need to make sure that they can succeed, and also that people in these rural areas and rural communities can have clean air and water. Number one, I would appoint people to the EPA who actually believe in environmental protection,” he said. He specifically discussed boosting funds to enforce the Clean Air and Water Acts.

Rep. John Delaney (D-MD): Delaney’s “Heartland Fair Deal,” which he discussed at the forum, lays out plans for investing in negative emissions technology and focusing on climate resiliency and flooding.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN): Klobuchar said she would re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement on her first day in the White House. She also discussed her experience on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“What we’ve learned over time, is that [if] we’re going to get [the Farm Bill] passed… we need to have a coalition of people who care about nutrition, people who care about farming and people who care about conservation,” she said.

She said she wants to keep Farm Bill conservation programs strong.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH): Hailing from the industrial “Rust Belt,” Ryan has little experience with rural areas, but he said he believes the two regions face many of the same issues and should come together politically. He spoke to opportunity in the clean energy and electric vehicle industries, which he would like to see driven into “distressed rural areas” to replace lost manufacturing jobs.

He also spoke about Farm Bill conservation programs; “These are the kind of programs we need to ‘beef up,’ no pun intended,” he said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA): Senator Warren did not speak about sustainability directly. Her platform mainly focused on addressing monopolies in agribusiness to support small, family farmers. One of her proposals is to break up the Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto, a merger that was heavily criticized by environmentalists. 

The Heartland Forum was moderated by Pulitzer prize-winner Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times, and two reporters from HuffPost. Those news organizations organized the event alongside Open Markets Institute and the Iowa Farmers Union.

 

Iowa City Youth Climate Strike


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Kasey Dresser| March 19, 2019

On March 15th across the nation, youths gathered to raise awareness for climate change and its effect on our world. In the Ped Mall in Iowa City, over 50 students from Southeast Jr. High gathered to speak to the community about their concerns.

The students came prepared with a bullhorn and took turns sharing their opinions for two hours. They were holding hand made signs and handing out a sheet of climate change facts. While young, the passionate students created quite an audience stating, “the bigger the fuss we make, the more politicians will listen.” Congressman Dave Loesback was present and talked with the students in his office following the event.

From the climate change fact handout:

  • 408 parts per million. The concentration of carbon dioxide (C02) in our atmosphere, as of 2018, is the highest it has been in 3 million years.
  • 800 million people or 11% of the world’s population is currently vulnerable to climate change impacts such as droughts, floods, heat waves, extreme weather events, and sea-level rise.
  • Thermometer records kept over the past century and a half show Earth’s average temperature has risen more than 1 degree Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius), and about twice that in parts of the Arctic.
  • We have 11 years to reverse the effects of climate change. We must act now.

Fixing the renewable energy storage problem


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Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | March 13th, 2019

Electricity may seem like an intangible force, but, like other resources, it is stored when not in use.

There are currently many different methods of storing unused energy, but renewable sources of energy are more difficult to store than their fossil fuel conterparts. There are ways to store energy generated from the sun, for example, but the thermal method is still a costly one.

Many solar plants use large on-site batteries to store excess energy, but the energy from these batteries generally only provide a few extra hours of electricity for the plant’s respective grid.

Two different research teams–one lead by Sossina Haile at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and one by Ryan O’Hayre in Colorodo School of Mines–have developed lab versions of a more effective fuel cell that could store significantly more energy.

So much renewable energy is going to waste when it’s not stored to its full capacity. That’s why the development of a smaller, more cost-efficient fuel cell is exciting.

The teams warn that their improved fuel cells have only been tested on a small scale in labs, and that more work needs to be done before they can be used. If developed on a larger scale, the cell could make renewable energy cheaper overall.

 

 

On The Radio- The Green New Deal


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Foggy Atmosphere in Seattle, Washington (flickr/Danny Seidman)

 

Kasey Dresser| March 11, 2019

This weeks segment looks at The Green New Deal, a bill for clean transportation.  

Transcript:

The newly proposed Green New Deal gives some framework for a future of clean transportation.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Green New Deal, proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, may not end up passing, but the deal serves as a blueprint for potential environmental policies to follow. Some interesting broad goals for the future include high-speed rail and zero-emission public transportation.

The Green New deal also brings up concerns with transportation access. Many low-income communities of color suffer disproportionately from poor transportation infrastructure and vehicle-related pollution.

The deal focuses on public policy, but will likely need private investors backing it to meet its many lofty goals.

Even if the deal does not come to pass, it’s sparked a conversation in Washington and the country about the desperate need for clean, affordable, and accessible transportation.

For more information, visit Iowa environmental focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.