Category Archives: Environment

Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam near Vanuatu on March 13. Image via Wiki Commons.

‘Monster’ Cyclone Damages 90% of buildings in Vanuatu’s Capital, Leaders Address Climate Change

The Pacific island nation of Vanuatu has lost years of development progress following the devastating effects of Cyclone Pam. Already regarded as the worst natural disaster in the history of Vanuatu, the cyclone’s  damage has not yet been thoroughly estimated.

Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam near Vanuatu on March 13. Image via Wiki Commons.

Ironically, president Baldwin Lonsdale and several members of his team were attending a disaster conference in Japan when the cyclone hit the country.

“This is a very devastating cyclone in Vanuatu. I term it as a monster, a monster. It’s a setback for the government and for the people of Vanuatu,” the president said.

Image via BBC.

Red eyed and visible affected, Lonsdale said that Pam damaged 90% of the buildings in the country’s capital, and stressed that the effects of climate change are contributing to the destruction caused by the cyclone. He also said that with communication lines being down and the airport not working, it’s impossible for now to estimate the full extent of the damage.

“There is a breakdown of communications, we cannot reach our families and we do not know whether our families are safe or not,” Lonsdale said.

Image via NBC.

Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas, who is reporting from Port Vila, described the capital as “badly damaged but not quite devastated” with majority of the buildings sustaining some damage or totally destroyed.

“Aid agencies have not been able to land there. So far, they have done reconnaissance flights, and anecdotally what I have been told, from the air, it does look like total destruction on those islands.”

The number of human casualties can only be guessed for now. Aid workers, mostly from Australia and New Zealand are scrambling to help and limit as much as possible the number of human casualties.

“Homes have been lost, crops are destroyed. The damage is enormous, and people need our help,” said Aurelia Balpe, head of the Red Cross in the Pacific. “Yet it will still take some time before we really understand the full extent of the damage.”

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that we are now dealing with worse than the worst-case scenario in Vanuatu,” said Helen Szoke, executive director in Australia for the aid group Oxfam. “This is likely to be one of the worst disasters ever seen in the Pacific.”

Image via Indian Express.

Some 60,000 children are in need of assistance in Vanuatu, UNICEF reported Sunday.

Vanuatu is an Oceanic Island located in the South Pacific Ocean. The archipelago, which is of volcanic origin, is some 1,750 kilometres (1,090 mi) east of northern Australia and is currently inhabited by some 250,000 people. It cannot be said for now (and probably this won’t be settled anytime soon) if global warming did contribute to this disaster, but this is once again a reminder of the risks small islands are subjected to when it comes to extreme weather events and rising sea levels. 

alternative energies

For the first time in history, CO2 emissions decouple from economic growth

Historically, CO2 emissions follow the world’s economy, either dropping during recession or raising with growth. Today, we’re expelling more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than ever; not coincidentally, we’re also experiencing the greatest wealth ever. Not anymore, however. According to the International Energy Agency, for the first time in 40 years of monitoring, CO2 emissions flat lined relative to the previous year, while the economy grew. In effect, we’re experiencing the first carbon decoupling from the economy, a sign that the world is shifting away from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources.

Image: Wikimedia

Previously, CO2 emissions had dropped relative to past years in only three instances: early 1980s (peak oil), 1992 and 2009. But all of these periods where associated with times of economic weakness, according to the IEA. Last year’s decoupling can be explained by China’s 2.9% drop in coal use (the first drop this century), as well as OECD countries’ energy efficiency and renewable energy measures. The economy grew by 7% in the OECD space, while emissions fell 4%.

This decoupling of emissions from economic growth is said to be due to the use of less fossil fuels, more renewable energy and increased energy savings. The main emitters, accounting for 55% of the global total, were China, the US and the European Union. In 2013, emissions from China increased by 3% but this was a significant slowdown compared to annual increases of around 10% over the past decade.

The news couldn’t have arrived at a better time considering the world’s governments will meet in Paris to discuss a CO2 cut at a global level. Hopefully, an agreement might be reached to curb emissions worldwide, in addition to the measures already announced independently: 40% less CO2 by 2030 in the EU,  26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 in the USA, and peak emissions for China by 2030 (China surpassed the EU in per capita emissions last year).

All this “provides much-needed momentum to negotiators preparing to forge a global climate deal in Paris in December,” explained IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol, who was just named the next IEA Executive Director. “For the first time, greenhouse gas emissions are decoupling from economic growth.”

via Think Progress

Ecuador’s flower business employs about 50,000 people on about 550 farms across the country and is indirectly responsible for 110,000 jobs. The country ships $120 million in flowers in advance of Valentine’s Day alone, experts say. Image: Getty

Growing flowers locally is important too, not just food

Between 1992 and 2007, the number of products sold by farmers directly to consumers increased three fold and twice as fast as total agricultural sales. This gives to show that recent policies and campaigns aimed at improving the sale of local food have been largely successful. Local food is fresher, has more flavor and a longer shelf life, supports small business from the local community, preserves the use of farmlands and open spaces by making them economically viable. But not all agricultural sectors have received equal attention – take flowers, for instance. Some 80% of the flowers sold in the $7 billion-$8 billion  American market come from South America, according to the California Cut Flower Commission (CCFC).

Ecuador’s flower business employs about 50,000 people on about 550 farms across the country and is indirectly responsible for 110,000 jobs. The country ships $120 million in flowers in advance of Valentine’s Day alone, experts say. Image: Getty

During busy holidays, like Valentine’s Day, flowers fly into Miami six days a week, seven times daily. This trails to a huge carbon footprint, while also making business very difficult to local flower farmers who most often than not can’t compete with South American varieties. These fly in at very low prices from places like Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Here, the labor is cheap and often exploited. Year-round balmy conditions also mean that flowers can be grown much easier and in larger quantities than in the US or Canada.  The  Andean Trade Preference Agreement, also plays an important part as well. The act was instated in 1991 and gives preferential treatment to some produces coming from South American countries to support alternative economies and deter drug trafficking (which has great implications for the US, the most important narcotics market in the world). Debra Prinzing, a journalist and flower activist, recognized the situation and launched a “slow flower” movement – mimicking the slow food campaign – to raise awareness and help the local flower farmers.

In 2013, she published a book called  Slow Flowers: Four Seasons of Locally Grown Bouquets from the Garden, Meadow and Farmas well as a weekly podcast called “Slow Flowers with Debra Prinzing,” where she frequently covers matters concerning flowers in the US and regularly hosts interviews with farmers, florists, scientists and other leading figures in the industry. All these efforts are fortunately beginning to pay off.

“Some people call it the field-to-vase phenomenon. It’s exciting to see that flowers are catching up with where food has gone [in 20 years],” says Prinzing.

“It became interesting to me that [these farmers] were a forgotten part of agriculture,” she says. “The pendulum has swung so far over to [being] all about food that non-food agriculture had been completely ignored and wasn’t even considered legitimate agriculture.”

The number of small flower farmers grew more than 20 percent across the country from 5,085 in 2007 to 5,903 in 2012. Most importantly, last year the CCFC introduced the “Certified American Grown” labeling for domestically grown flowers, which retails can use. So, if you’re buying local food (as you ought to), next time you’re at the florist looking for a nice bouquet for someone special take a moment to offer the same consideration.

Photovoltaic power plant in Diriamba, about 25 miles from Managua. Image: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

Nicaragua covers 50% of its energy demand with renewables, and expects 90% by 2020

The central American republic of Nicaragua is nothing short of a renewable energy paradise: great winds, a scorching tropical sun and 19 volcanoes that can be tapped for geothermal. Not too long ago, the country had been enslaved by its over-dependence on foreign oil imports, since it practically has no performing oil rigs. Since 2005, the country has embarked on a series of reforms which included serious tax rebates and incentives to foreign investors to develop its renewable sector. Today, Nicaragua meets 50% of its energy needs from solar panel, wind farms and geothermal plants and wants to expand to 90% by 2020, according to the World Bank.

Photovoltaic power plant in Diriamba, about 25 miles from Managua. Image: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

Decades of turmoil, civil war and unrest have taken its toll on Nicaragua and its people. Energy has always been a problem in the country and 12 hour long outages were the norm. This were particularly devastating on the economy, especially on local businesses who relied on the centralized grid. Carpenters sat idle because their power tools were useless and mills couldn’t grind corn, recalls Silverio Martinez, who runs a general store in the farm town of San Jacinto. Today, only a few miles away from Martinez lies a $400 million geothermal plant.

“We try to locate where a hot rock resource is, which is usually about 5 to 7 kilometers below the earth’s crust,” says Antonio Duarte, the plant’s manager for NPR.

The energy output of its geothermic resources is considered the best in Central America, with estimated potential reserves of 1,500 MW. So far, 154 MW have been tapped by the country’s power plants, Polaris and Momotombo.

“You must recall that this is taking place in the second-poorest country in Latin America  and amid the worst financial, economic social and increasingly political crisis of world capitalism since the Great Depression of the 1930s,” said Nicaraguan presidential advisor Paul Oquist.

Eolo wind park about 75 miles south of the Nicaraguan capital, Managua. Image: Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images

Nicaragua is also focusing on another renewable energy source: wind. The country’s roads are now littered with three bladed turbines. Some 22 wind turbines supply 44MW of energy to the national network thanks to the Eolo project that will help the province of Rivas become completely free of fossil fuel. Nicaragua’s largest wind farm lies on the shores of giant Lake Nicaragua, which stretches halfway across the country. It’s one of the best places to build a wind farm.

“You have all the opening here from the lake all the way to the Caribbean, so it’s like a tunnel,” says Javier Pentzke, manager of the Amayo wind farm. “And it’s very steady. It’s not too gusty.”

Nicaragua is only at the dawn of its new renewable future. Soon enough, the country expects to begin exporting electricity to neighboring Central American countries. But while Nicaragua’s energy policy serves as a model for other countries to follow (the US only generates 13% of its energy from renewables), elsewhere in the country sustainability isn’t prized. The government recently sealed a deal with Chinese contractor to built a transoceanic canal. The $50 billion project will connect the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean through Nicaragua. This will help boost the country’s economy greatly, but at the expense of wildlife, habitats, ecosystems and the local community (30,000 people will be relocated). Ultimately, while seemingly noble, wind farms and solar panels are developed out of economic considerations. Let’s not kid ourselves, the environment, wildlife and even people aren’t that important.

China polluted waters

At least 81% of China’s coastline is heavily polluted

It’s not just Chinese air that’s dirty and polluted, it’s the coastline too. According to  the Chinese State Oceanic Administration (SOA)  some 41,000 sq km of coastline is polluted with inorganic nitrogen, reactive phosphate or oil, to name a few. This amounts to roughly 81% of its entire coastline, which actually marks a mild improvement over 2013 despite an increase in ecological incidents such as red tides and algal blooms.

A boy swims in the algae-filled coastline of Qingdao, Shandong province, highlights the China pollution problem.(Photo: China Daily/Reuters)

Roughly 90% of coastal cities suffer from intermittent water shortages. China’s mangrove swamps have decreased in area by 73% and coral reefs by 80% since the 1950s, and coastal wetlands have shrunk by 57%. This past decade has arguably seen the most damage done to the Chinese coastline, along with its fragile ecosystem, as more and more  pollution was discharged into estuaries. Three quarters of the 445 major waste discharge points along coastlines failed environmental requirements, and a tenth are contaminated  heavy metals, the insecticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and petroleum hydrocarbons. These are the most dangerous pollutants to the local wildlife.

The run-off chemical fertilizers in combination with discharged animal manure from farmland built up excessive amounts of nutrients in the waters and spur algae blooms.  Over the past 20 years, China’s coastal waters have seen an average of 83 ‘red tides’ a year — harmful algal blooms characterised by the red pigment of the dominant phytoplankton species — mostly in the East China Sea. ‘Green tides’, dominated by green plankton, occur mostly in the Yellow Sea and hit the economy harder. In 2008, the direct economic loss was 1.3 billion Chinese yuan (US$208 million). In 2009, China was hit by ‘brown tides’, which kill shellfish.

While the area of polluted coastal waters dropped from 44,340 sq km in 2013 to 41,000 sq km in 2014 the number of serious incidents such as red tides and algal blooms increased in 2014. These serious incidents will not be without consequences, both economic and for the local ecosystem. Fishery resources are already stretched very thin.  Krill in the East China Sea are on the brink of extinction, for instance.

“There is an urgent need to set up a long-term monitoring network to access changes in coastal water chemistry and their impact on marine ecosystems,” Gao Kunshan, a marine ecologist, at Xiamen University,



Electric cars could cut oil imports 40% by 2030, says study

Switching massively to electric cars could save UK drivers up to £1,000 a year on fuel costs, reducing oil imports by almost half by 2030; a similar trend could be replicated in other countries in Western Europe or in the US.

Image via AoL.

Electric car drivers will save, on average, a thousand pounds per year ($1500), sparking a 47% reduction in total carbon emissions in the UK, said the Cambridge Econometrics study. The paper, which was commissioned by the European Climate Foundation, said that the more we use electric cars instead of conventional cars, the less we will see air pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and particulates.

If 6 million UK residents go electric, this would indirectly cause health benefits from reduced respiratory diseases valued at over £1bn. The UK’s GDP would profit from from reduced oil costs and increased vehicle spending could amount to between £2.4-£5bn by 2030, the study says. Between 7,000-19,000 jobs would also be created. But adding 6 million electric cars to the grid is no trivial feat, and would require massive infrastructure investments.

“There will be a transition in the next five-10 years but you won’t see a sudden shift to electric vehicles until consumers have got over their ‘range anxiety’ concerns and that will only happen with infrastructure spending,” said Philip Summerton , one of the report’s authors.

Two years ago the European Commission proposed a €10bn (£7bn) public works programme, which would have dramatically increased the number of recharging stations across Europe, but the UK government somehow managed to reject the project, because of the costs involved in ensuring that a minimum 10% of recharging stations were publicly accessible in every country. Despite this, more and more recharging stations were built across the continent.

“It can no longer come as a surprise to anyone that reducing emissions delivers commercial benefits to industry as well as benefits to the environment and consumers,” said Darren Lindsey, a spokesman for the tyre-maker, Michelin. “To maximise those benefits, however, international policymakers have to create a consistent and robust regulatory framework.”

These changes could also ride a wave of mentality change that’s sweeping many parts of Europe.

“Our research shows that drivers’ attitudes are changing when it comes to choice of car. Drivers want fuel efficient cars that are also reliable, safe, comfortable and easy to service. However there is still a massive leap of faith to be made before drivers fully embrace full zero emission vehicles,” said Edmund king, the AA president.

What do you think? Are electric cars the future, or is the necessary infrastructure simply to difficult to implement at the moment? Leave your thoughts in the comment section!

Tou can read the entire report here.

Antarctic octopuses survive in cold waters by holding higher concentrations of blue blood proteins. Image: National Geographic

How Antarctic octopuses survive in freezing waters

Octopus species that live in ice-cold Antarctic waters employ an unique strategy to transport oxygen to its tissue and survive, according to German researchers. The study suggests the octopuses’ specialized pigments, analogous to hemoglobin in vertebrates, are in higher concentration in the Antarctic region than in warmer waters. This would help to explain why octopuses are more adapted to climate change and warming waters.

Antarctic octopuses survive in cold waters by holding higher concentrations of blue blood proteins. Image: National Geographic

Despite the inhospitable temperatures, the Antarctic waters host a wide variety of marine fauna. That’s mostly because the waters already contain diffused oxygen which helps compensate for the lower oxygen transport resulting from more viscous blood and lower tissue diffusion. This is why Antarctic icefish, for instance, don’t need  hemoglobin at all - the iron-rich protein that cells use to bind and ferry oxygen through the circulatory system from heart to lungs to tissues and back again. They’re the only vertebrates that don’t use hemoglobin. The adaptive measures employed by  blue-blooded octopods to sustain oxygen supply in the cold are less understood, however.

Michael Oellermann from Alfred-Wegener-Institute, Germany, and colleagues studied the  Antarctic octopus Pareledone charcoti, as well as two other warm water species: the South-east Australian Octopus pallidus and the Mediterranean Eledone moschata. Octopods have not one, but three hearts, and instead of hemoglobin use a blue blood pigment called haemocyanin. The researchers found Pareledone charcoti had 40% haemocyanins than the other warm water species. The researchers say that these high blood pigment concentrations may be compensating for the haemocyanin’s poor ability to release oxygen to tissues while in cold environments, and could help to ensure sufficient oxygen supply. Findings appeared in Frontiers in Zoology.

“This is important because it highlights a very different response compared to Antarctic fish to the cold conditions in the Southern Ocean. The results also imply that due to improved oxygen supply by haemocyanin at higher temperatures, this octopod may be physiologically better equipped than Antarctic fishes to cope with global warming,” Oellermann said.

For instance, the octopuses – including the cold hearted Pareledone charcoti – were found to shuttle  haemocyanin much better at temperatures of 10 degrees Celsius than at zero degrees.  At 10°C the Antarctic octopod’s haemocyanin had the potential to release far more oxygen (on average 76.7%) than the warm-water octopods Octopus pallidus (33.0%) and Eledone moschata (29.8%). The Antarctic Peninsula is currently experiencing a warming trend from which  Pareledone charcoti might benefit, seeing how it’s already well adapted.

This is the first study providing clear evidence that the octopods’ blue blood pigment, haemocyanin, undergoes functional changes to improve the supply of oxygen to tissue at sub-zero temperatures. It might be why octopods remain so populous across a wide spectrum of ecological niches.