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Science Ecology

mr peabody

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It takes less than 30 days to compost a human body

by Jef Akst | The Scientist | 17 Feb 2020

In a small trial of deceased volunteers, a Seattle-based company called Recompose demonstrates that its method for “natural organic reduction” of a human body completely breaks down soft tissue.

In less than a month, six dead people became dirt, according to results presented yesterday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle. The trial, run by Seattle-based company Recompose, the first-ever human composting company, set out to test the effectiveness of its technique and ensure that the resulting soil product met Environmental Protection Agency safety standards for heavy metals and other contaminants.

Last year, Washington became the first state to legalize this practice of human composting. Katrina Spade, Recompose’s founder and chief executive officer, tells the BBC that compared with cremation or traditional burial, the process of composting a body—or “natural organic reduction,” as Recompose calls it—can avoid the atmospheric release of nearly one-and-a-half tons of carbon and therefore is a motivating factor for people concerned about climate change. Compared with traditional burial, composting avoids the risk that formaldehyde and other embalming agents will leach into groundwater and eliminates the land space needed for coffins.

Composting “is a fabulous option,” University of Tennessee environmental microbiologist Jennifer DeBruyn tells Science News. The approach has long been used to process animal carcasses, she notes. “The idea of applying it to humans, to me, as an ecologist and someone who has worked in composting, it just makes perfect sense, honestly.”

Recompose’s recipe includes woodchips, alfalfa, and straw grass. A body is placed in a closed vessel with these materials and rotated slowly to encourage microbial breakdown of the tissues. In a month’s time, the composted material—a couple cubic yards of bone-riddled soil that meets EPA safety standards—is made available to relatives, who can spread it in their garden or use it to plant a tree.

Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a soil scientist at Washington State University in Pullman who led the small trial of six volunteers, found that the bodies got warm during the composting process—stabilizing at around 55 °C (131 °F) for some time. “We are certain that there has been a destruction of the vast majority of disease-causing organisms and pharmaceuticals because of the high temperatures that we reached,” she tells the BBC.

DeBruyn adds to Science News that the heat generated during composting also helps destroy pathogens. Prions, however, are not killed by heat, Carpenter-Boggs adds, meaning that composting “wouldn’t be allowed for people who have diagnosed Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease,” she tells Science News.

Washington’s new law to add compositing as an acceptable means of human remains disposal goes into effect in May. Recompose plans to open for business soon. Colorado is currently considering legislation to legalize human composting, according to the BBC.

It’s an interesting concept,” Edward Bixby, the president of the California-based Green Burial Council, tells The Guardian. “I’m curious to see how well it’s received.”

 
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mr peabody

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Water-Gen


Water-Gen can pull clean drinking water out of thin air

by Dana Varinsky | Business Insider | 21 Sep 2016

When kids learn about the planet’s water cycle, they’re taught a simple concept: our atmosphere is filled with water vapor that has evaporated from the bodies of liquid water we see around us. When the vapor’s temperature gets low enough, it gets turned back into water.

The presence of that vapor becomes especially apparent in the summer, when droplets collect on glasses of ice water and air conditioning units drip onto unsuspecting passersby.

An Israeli company called Water-Gen does not think of that condensation as a byproduct; instead, it has built machines specifically designed to create and harvest as much condensation as possible. Using a system that uses a set of plastic “leaves” to funnel air in various directions, the team has developed water generators that appear to create pure drinking water out of nothing.

“The target is to extract water from the air with minimum energy,” founder and co-CEO Arye Kohavi tells Business Insider. “We think our solution can solve the problem on the level of countries. It’s an immediate solution — governments don’t need to spend decades to make a big project.”

The company currently makes three sizes of water generating machines, each of which must be plugged into a power source. At 80 degrees and 60% humidity, the biggest can yield about 825 gallons per day, but Kohavi says the technology is easily scalable. The company’s medium sized unit produces 118 gallons per day under the same conditions, and the smallest — which is intended for use in a home or office — produces just under 4 gallons per day.



Water-Gen estimates that at current energy prices, the water generated will cost less than ten cents a gallon.

The Water-Gen team is looking to bring the technology to two types of places: areas that don’t have drinkable tap water, and locations that are warm and humid.

“If it’s hotter or more humid, the system produces more than average, and if it’s colder and dryer it produces less,” Kohavi explains, adding that as long as temperatures are high enough, there is enough water in the air for the machines to work regardless of humidity levels.

Luckily, those two sets of conditions often overlap. “Places that do not have drinking water in pipes are usually hot and humid — Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa — so those two rules are almost equal,” Kohavi says

Water-Gen is currently doing field tests of its products in cities like Mumbai, Shanghai and Mexico City, as well as more rural locations. The company’s products are expected to be commercially available by the end of next year.



Maxim Pasik, the chairman of Water-Gen, says that because climate change and the growing world population are making the issue of accessible drinking water increasingly important, the company hopes to bring its technology directly to governments. Implementing it on a large scale would be cheaper and faster, he says, adding that the company is already in discussion with several governments.

That kind of negotiation is not new for Water-Gen — the company started in Israel by creating military equipment to help get water to soldiers on the front lines. It has since sold that technology to several other armies, including those in the US, UK and France, as well as undisclosed Arab countries.

In addition to the water generation machines, the company also makes a water purifier that can be powered via batteries or solar panels, and is capable of filtering out everything from water-born parasites like Giardia to poison like cyanide, though it can’t desalinize salt water.

“Water from air is for places that you don’t have any water to filter,” Kohavi says.

A few years ago, Water-Gen decided to turn its attention to civilian applications of its technology. The smallest water-from-air machines were a product of that, as was dehumidifying technology that’s now used in clothing dryers sold by Siemens and Beko.

But Pasik says those commercial applications are not the company’s main focus.

“We think it’s possible to bring drinking water to all countries. Humidifiers, army solutions, etcetera are a secondary issues,” Pasik says. “What’s important for us is to bring water to the people. This is a basic human right.”

 
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mr peabody

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'Air-gen' generates electricity out of thin air

by University of Massachusetts Amherst | PHYS.ORG | 17 Feb 2020

Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have developed a device that uses a natural protein to create electricity from moisture in the air, a new technology they say could have significant implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change and in the future of medicine.

As reported today in Nature, the laboratories of electrical engineer Jun Yao and microbiologist Derek Lovley at UMass Amherst have created a device they call an "Air-gen." or air-powered generator, with electrically conductive protein nanowires produced by the microbe Geobacter. The Air-gen connects electrodes to the protein nanowires in such a way that electrical current is generated from the water vapor naturally present in the atmosphere.

"We are literally making electricity out of thin air," says Yao. "The Air-gen generates clean energy 24/7." Lovely, who has advanced sustainable biology-based electronic materials over three decades, adds, "It's the most amazing and exciting application of protein nanowires yet."

The new technology developed in Yao's lab is non-polluting, renewable and low-cost. It can generate power even in areas with extremely low humidity such as the Sahara Desert. “It has significant advantages over other forms of renewable energy including solar and wind,” Lovley says, “because unlike these other renewable energy sources, the Air-gen does not require sunlight or wind, and it even works indoors."

The Air-gen device requires only a thin film of protein nanowires less than 10 microns thick, the researchers explain. The bottom of the film rests on an electrode, while a smaller electrode that covers only part of the nanowire film sits on top. The film adsorbs water vapor from the atmosphere. A combination of the electrical conductivity and surface chemistry of the protein nanowires, coupled with the fine pores between the nanowires within the film, establishes the conditions that generate an electrical current between the two electrodes.

The researchers say that the current generation of Air-gen devices are able to power small electronics, and they expect to bring the invention to commercial scale soon. Next steps they plan include developing a small Air-gen "patch" that can power electronic wearables such as health and fitness monitors and smart watches, which would eliminate the requirement for traditional batteries. They also hope to develop Air-gens to apply to cell phones to eliminate periodic charging.

Yao says, "The ultimate goal is to make large-scale systems. For example, the technology might be incorporated into wall paint that could help power your home. Or, we may develop stand-alone air-powered generators that supply electricity off the grid. Once we get to an industrial scale for wire production, I fully expect that we can make large systems that will make a major contribution to sustainable energy production."


Air-gen tech harvests humidity to generate electricity

Continuing to advance the practical biological capabilities of Geobacter, Lovley's lab recently developed a new microbial strain to more rapidly and inexpensively mass produce protein nanowires. "We turned E. coli into a protein nanowire factory," he says. "With this new scalable process, protein nanowire supply will no longer be a bottleneck to developing these applications."

The Air-gen discovery reflects an unusual interdisciplinary collaboration, they say. Lovley discovered the Geobacter microbe in the mud of the Potomac River more than 30 years ago. His lab later discovered its ability to produce electrically conductive protein nanowires. Before coming to UMass Amherst, Yao had worked for years at Harvard University, where he engineered electronic devices with silicon nanowires. They joined forces to see if useful electronic devices could be made with the protein nanowires harvested from Geobacter.

Xiaomeng Liu, a Ph.D. student in Yao's lab, was developing sensor devices when he noticed something unexpected. He recalls, "I saw that when the nanowires were contacted with electrodes in a specific way the devices generated a current. I found that that exposure to atmospheric humidity was essential and that protein nanowires adsorbed water, producing a voltage gradient across the device."

In addition to the Air-gen, Yao's laboratory has developed several other applications with the protein nanowires. "This is just the beginning of new era of protein-based electronic devices" said Yao.

 
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mr peabody

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Can negative emission technologies avert a climate catastrophe?

by Brian Owens | Chemistry World | 7 Feb 2020

Humanity is running out of time to deal with the climate crisis. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that we need to limit atmospheric carbon dioxide to less than 450 parts per million in order to have a chance to keep average global surface temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C by the end of the century. That’s been identified as the safety margin that would avoid irreversible, adverse climate change effects.

But CO2 levels keep rising, and the amount in the atmosphere topped 415 ppm in 2019. Given current trends in emissions, it seems likely that we will surpass the 450 ppm threshold within 13 to 15 years, according to Klaus Lackner, director of Arizona State University’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions.

Even to meet the more modest goals of the Paris Agreement, we would need to eliminate net emissions in industrialised countries by the middle of the century – a target that many scientists see as unrealistic.

We have the technology to do this for most emissions, but for some – like agricultural methane and aviation – we can’t,” says Stephen Pacala, an ecologist at Princeton University who chaired a committee for the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that issued a report on negative emissions technologies (Nets) back in 2018.

Nets offer the hope of not just stopping new emissions, but reclaiming some of the CO2 that has already been released into the atmosphere. While every effort must be made to reduce such emissions, in some cases Nets may be less expensive and disruptive, according to the report by Pacala’s committee.

We will probably overshoot the target even if we work as hard as we can to reduce emissions, so we need to think about balancing the books,” says Lackner. “Either we stop using fossil fuels altogether, or for every tonne of carbon we release, we also sequester one tonne.”

Natural balance upset

Before the industrial revolution, the planet’s carbon cycle was mostly in balance. CO2 dissolves in and out of the surface of the oceans, and is sucked out of the atmosphere by photosynthetic plants and algae, which then release it again when they die. Every year these two carbon sinks exchange around 367 billion tonnes of CO2 each with the atmosphere, according to Britton Stephens, who studies the carbon cycle at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Slowly, large amounts of carbon also get locked away long-term at the bottom of oceans and in fossil fuels.

But, as humans began burning those fossil fuels, that long-dormant carbon went back into the cycle faster than the land and ocean could remove it. “The system is inherently in balance,” Stephens explains. “But that little bit extra matters – the coal and oil we dug up is screwing up that balance.”

Humans are pumping around 36 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year, with another 5.5 billion coming from land use changes like deforestation. The oceans and terrestrial plants have sped up their carbon sequestration in response, sucking up about 9 billion and 14 billion tonnes respectively, leaving around 18 billion tonnes piling up in the atmosphere every year.

The hope is that Nets, in combination with reductions in new releases, will help us to drive that 18 billion tonne annual net increase in CO2 emissions down to zero, and then beyond. This would begin lowering global atmospheric CO2 concentrations to closer to where they were before the industrial revolution.

We haven’t cleaned up the litter from the past 200 years,” says Lackner. “We have to go backwards and clean up not just the future, but the past.”

The job will be huge. Not only will the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere need to be removed, but as that concentration starts falling, the carbon previously sequestered by the ocean and land biomass will begin coming back out, as the system strives to remain in equilibrium. In order to bring the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere down by 100ppm, Lackner estimates that about 40 billion tonnes of CO2 would need to be removed from the air every year for 40 years. That figure is roughly equal to the total amount of carbon dioxide humanity releases every year.

Going green

There are several different Nets that could help to turn back the clock on Earth’s carbon emissions. The simplest, and cheapest, of these is not really a technology at all – it’s just changing our land-use practices to reduce deforestation, and planting more trees to expand existing forests.

As those new trees grow, they will take up CO2 from the atmosphere and store it for decades. Reforestation and afforestation efforts have the potential to make a significant contribution to negative emissions, but the process is land-hungry, according Pacala.


Reforestation is taking place around the world, like this project in Brazil, and can help to
capture some of the CO2 that humanity is producing.


Some experts, however, argue that there is enough land available to begin major reforestation efforts without needing to encroach on farmland or cities. A study led by researchers at Swiss university ETH Zurich, published last year, found there is room for almost an extra 1 billion hectares of tree cover on the planet using currently available land. They estimated that these extra trees could ultimately capture two-thirds of human-made carbon emissions since the industrial revolution, and store more than 750 billion tonnes of CO2 – around a quarter of what’s currently in the atmosphere.

Countries and environmental groups are already moving forward with reforestation efforts. The UN’s Trillion Tree Campaign supports tree-planting efforts around the world, and claims that 13.6 billion trees have already been planted on its watch. In Canada alone, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged during the last election campaign to plant 2 billion trees in the country over the next 10 years.

Most scientists, however, don’t think that planting trees can provide all of the negative emissions that the world needs. For example, many experts say the ETH Zurich study did not take into account the CO2 that will be released by the oceans as the atmospheric concentration drops, so they say even a billion more hectares of trees would be insufficient.

I don’t think photosynthesis can deliver what we need without a huge impact on the land,” says Lackner. “We’d need to almost double existing forests if we want to hide that much carbon.”

There are other options, however, that might be effective in concert with expanding forests.

Grow, burn, repeat

One option, known as Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (Beccs), aims to extract bioenergy from biomass and capture and store the carbon. The process involves using the same land to grow forests over and over again, burning the wood to provide energy while capturing and sequestering the carbon elsewhere.

It’s a mechanism for transferring CO2 that was originally in the air to underground,” explains Chris Rayner, an organic chemist at the University of Leeds in the UK. “Exactly the opposite of what we’ve been doing for the past 200 years.”

The basic process for biomass carbon capture is similar to the carbon capture and storage (CCS) units that are being demonstrated at scale at coal-fired power plants around the world, which mainly use amine chemistry to remove CO2 from the gas stream of the plant. The main difference is that biomass emissions contain fewer impurities like sulfur, so desulfinates are not required before the releases go to the capture unit. Although there are successful examples of coal CCS at scale, so far there is no full-scale demonstration of CCS for biomass energy.

Rayner, however, is hopeful that will soon change. A company he helped to found in Leeds, called C-Capture, is working with the Drax power plant in northern England to prove that BECCS works. Underlying C-Capture’s technology is an entirely new chemistry developed by Rayner and his colleagues, which is not based on amines.

We went back to first principles and developed a new chemistry which has better performance, reduced toxicity, and is compatible with a wider array of building materials,” Rayner says.


Drax’s pilot carbon capture facility can capture around 1 tonne of CO2 per day.

He is not yet ready to share the details of that chemistry, but confirms that a small demonstration unit has been operating at Drax since February 2019, capturing about one tonne of CO2 daily. The project will soon expand to about 100 tonnes per day, with the ultimate goal of reaching 10,000 tonnes each day at full scale. This could enable Drax to become the world’s first negative emissions power station, the company says.

The IPCC estimates that globally, BECCS could potentially remove around 10 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year. But Stephens is less optimistic that the technology will play a big role in decarbonisation. The emissions associated with harvesting, processing and transporting the wood means that there are very few places where there would be a net benefit.

It doesn’t seem to have as big a potential as reforestation or just not cutting the trees down in the first place,” he says.

Something in the air

A third promising negative emissions technology is direct air capture – sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere without any biological intermediary. Under this method, huge industrial scrubbers push air over the same chemical sorbents used in CCS systems to catch CO2, which can then be concentrated for storage. While the process is currently energy-intensive and expensive, its one advantage over CCS systems is that it can be done anywhere.

One of the nice features of air capture is the plant can go where you want the CO2 to end up, not where it is produced,” Lackner explains. “Air capture plants can also be sited to leverage renewable energy sources – for example, in areas where wind does the work of moving the air for you, or in places where solar energy can provide much of the electricity required.”

Once the CO2 is captured, there are many options for dealing with it. It can be stored in underground reservoirs, turned into natural gas, sold as a raw material to fill fire extinguishers or make fizzy drinks, or injected into basalt formations where it mineralises into rock.

One company based in Zurich, Climeworks, is already operating commercial direct air capture plants in several countries across Europe, including Switzerland, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Iceland. The company has a variety of corporate and private customers, and offers a monthly subscription for those who want to decrease their carbon footprint. “They’re interested in reducing their emissions directly, they want to do more than just offset them,” says Climeworks spokesperson Louise Charles.


Climeworks’ plant supplies greenhouses with carbon dioxide.

Depending on the method of carbon sequestration chosen, the potential for direct air capture is huge. Geological storage, for example, could provide almost limitless long-term storage, according to the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. The capture units themselves are modular, allowing as many to be used as necessary for any given project. The only significant limiting factor on the technology is the cost – since the market for CO2 as a raw material is small, there is no real commercial driving force for deploying the technology at large scales.

For Climeworks, the cost to capture one tonne of CO2 is currently around $600. That’s still too high for widespread adoption of the technology, according to Lackner. The target is $100 per tonne and the cost of direct capture is expected to come down fairly quickly in the future, as the technology improves and the price of renewable energy falls. The price tag on capturing all the excess CO2 that humanity produces at $100 per tonne would still be $1.8 trillion every year – global GDP is around $80 trillion.

However, once the price reaches about $100 per tonne, Lackner says it becomes feasible to treat carbon capture as a simple waste management issue. In the same way that we pay to have our rubbish taken away he and others predict that carbon capture through tree planting, biomass energy plants, or direct air capture will become a service industry.

For household waste we pay someone to deliver a service, rather than make a product,” Lackner tells Chemistry World. “The same will have to happen with CO2.”

 

mr peabody

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Sunkirum, one of the solar-powered canoes, sails on the Pastaza river.


Here comes the sun canoe, as amazonians take on big oil

by Francesc Badia i Dalmases in Kapawi, Ecuado | The Guardian | 31 Mar 2020

Ecuadorian indigenous groups hope innovation will reduce amount of oil taken from forest only to be brought back as pollution.

A canoe slides noiselessly upstream through a landscape of luminous bright clouds reflected in the water. A team of young indigenous people are onboard.

Such vessels are an essential and ubiquitous part of life in the Ecuadorian Amazon, but this one boasts a hugely symbolic difference from its predecessors. It is powered by the sun.

The nine members of the Achuar indigenous group on board are returning home after learning about solar power and installation. It is a technological development they hope to use in their battle with a more traditional power source that threatens their very existence. Oil.

“They have sold us out, they have sold our resources,” says Nantu, 31, referring to the authorities in Quito. “And they are expanding the oil wells. They are stealing from us without us noticing. That’s why we are now standing up, to defend what’s ours, our territories, our way of life.”


Nantu and his colleagues check the state of a canoe’s solar panels.

Ecuador’s oil industry has wrought tremendous disruption and destruction on the peoples of the Amazon rainforest. It is not just the pollution, heavy machinery and deforestation. It is roads as well.

A highway that starts in the town of Puyo has already penetrated dozens of kilometres into the territory of the neighbouring Shuar indigenous group, and it is about to enter Achuar territory. “The road is a poison,” says José, Nantu’s companion. “The road doesn’t respect us. It’s been imposed on us from the city. It’s a very dangerous territory for us.”

The solar canoes are a defiant attempt to stand up to this incursion. The project, conceived by the Quito-based Kara Solar Foundation, aims to connect nine communities in Achuar territory with public transport powered by the sun.

The project envisages an Amazon teeming with solar canoes that will potentially replace the tens of thousands of vessels that burn thousands cubic metres of fuel each year.

As Kara Solar’s founder, Oliver Utne, puts it: “Sustained and truly intercultural collaborations can create technological solutions that serve indigenous communities, rather than destroying them.”


A team of indigenous technicians installs solar panels on the roof of a new canoe.

Ecuador’s oil industry pumps about 500,000 barrels a day, most of it extracted from reserves in the Amazon rainforest. The oil is then piped to the coast and shipped thousands of miles north for refining. Much is sold for export, but some is transported back to Ecuador and driven by road back to petrol stations.

From there it is poured into drums and transported in trucks or cars to to be used in canoes that in turn are propelled by two- or four-stroke outboard engines or smaller long-tailed engines known locally as peque-peques. The oil goes back into the rainforest from where it was extracted as pollution.

The solar canoes are an attempt to forge an alternative. As with any research project, the two boats in operation have had technical problems and there have been accidents in the tricky territory. The river floods periodically and there are often currents, whirlpools and underwater obstacles to overcome.

The surface of the canoe’s solar panel needs to be optimised so that it can carry the greatest number of photovoltaic cells without endangering the vessel’s stability. The durability and storage capacity of the batteries also need to be improved, to make them lighter and ideally to replace the lead with lithium without increasing the cost.


Nantu shows the battery pack of one of the solar-powered canoes.

There is a long list of other improvements that are needed, but the process is well under way. During the next phase of development, solar recharging stations will be installed along the canoe route. Seven young Achuar people are being trained in using the technology. These are “intercultural training” programmes taught by peers, who are also instructed by indigenous technicians.

Concerned about the future of a growing population, the Achuar community is gradually diversifying economically in terms of moving beyond self-sufficiency toward sustainability. There is already an ecotourism project where as many as 24 people can stay in two cabins managed by the community, and a balanced food project that uses a solar power plant. The main and imminent threat, however, is undoubtedly the proximity of the road.

Nantu makes a very clear complaint to the authorities in Quito: “I would tell the government not to carry out projects without consulting the indigenous peoples. They should carry out projects in consultation with the people, who are the owners of the territories. They should stop expanding oil frontiers and the arteries that reach the outer corners of the Amazon. It’s becoming very dangerous for us.”

Nantu is aware that changes are taking place in the climate and of how global heating affects the territory and the world. “There is some variation of life here in the jungle. The flowering cycle has changed by one to two months. The rains are too intense, and the sun is too strong.”

He has a vision for the future of his five children. He imagines an Amazon capable of being economically self-sufficient, a few community tourism centres managed by indigenous people and solar canoes managed by the Achuar with recharging stations along the river – no roads, no pipelines, no oil.

 
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Climate change: The rich are to blame, international study finds

by Roger Harrabin | BBC | 17 Mar 2020

The rich are primarily to blame for the global climate crisis, a study by the University of Leeds of 86 countries claims.

The wealthiest tenth of people consume about 20 times more energy overall than the bottom ten, wherever they live.

The gulf is greatest in transport, where the top tenth gobble 187 times more fuel than the poorest tenth, the research says.

That’s because people on the lowest incomes can rarely afford to drive.

The researchers found that the richer people became, the more energy they typically use. And it was replicated across all countries.

And they warn that, unless there's a significant policy change, household energy consumption could double from 2011 levels by 2050. That's even if energy efficiency improves.




Transport gulf

The researchers combined European Union and World Bank data to calculate how different income groups spend their money. They say it’s the first study of its kind.

It found that in transport the richest tenth of consumers use more than half the energy. This reflects previous research showing that 15% of UK travellers take 70% of all flights.

The ultra-rich fly by far furthest, while 57% of the UK population does not fly abroad at all.

The study, published in Nature Energy, showed that energy for cooking and heating is more equitably consumed.

But even then, the top 10% of consumers used roughly one third of the total, presumably reflecting the size of their homes.

Solutions?

Co-author Professor Julia Steinberger, leader of the project at Leeds, asked: “How can we change the vastly unequal distribution of energy to provide a decent life for everyone while protecting the climate and ecosystems?”

The authors say governments could reduce transport demand through better public transport, higher taxes on bigger vehicles and frequent flyer levies for people who take most holidays.

They say another alternative is to electrify vehicles more quickly, although previous studies suggest even then demand for driving must be reduced in order to reduce the strain on resource use and electricity production and distribution.

Rich Brits

The research also examined the relative energy consumption of one nation against another.

It shows that a fifth of UK citizens are in the top 5% of global energy consumers, along with 40% of German citizens, and Luxembourg’s entire population.

Only 2% of Chinese people are in the top global 5% of users, and just 0.02% of people in India.

Even the poorest fifth of Britons consumes over five times as much energy per person as the bottom billion in India.



The study is likely to ignite future UN climate negotiations, where the issue of equity is always bitterly contentious.

In the USA, libertarian politicians have typically portrayed climate change as a harbinger of global socialism.

Normal lives?

But Professor Kevin Anderson, from the Tyndall Centre in Manchester, who was not involved in the study, told BBC News: “This study tells relatively wealthy people like us what we don’t want to hear."

“The climate issue is framed by us high emitters – the politicians, business people, journalists, academics. When we say there’s no appetite for higher taxes on flying, we mean WE don’t want to fly less"

“The same is true about our cars and the size our homes. We have convinced ourselves that our lives are normal, yet the numbers tell a very different story,”
he said.

The study says transport energy alone could increase 31% by 2050. “If transport continues to rely on fossil fuels, this increase would be disastrous for the climate,” the report says.

It suggests different remedies for different types of energy use. So, flying and driving big cars could face higher taxes, while energy from homes could be reduced by a housing retrofit.

The authors note that the recent Budget declined to increase fuel duty and promised 4,000 miles of new roads. It did not mention home insulation.

The Treasury was contacted to discuss the taxation issues raised in the research, but declined to comment.

 
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The people preparing for society to fall apart

by Jack Hunter | BBC News | 16 Mar 2020

An article by a British professor that predicts the imminent collapse of society, as a result of climate change, has been downloaded over half a million times. Many mainstream climate scientists totally reject his claims, but his followers are already preparing for the worst.

As the last light of the late-winter sunset illuminates her suburban back garden, Rachel Ingrams is looking at the sky and pondering how long we have left.

Her hands shielded from the gusts of February air by a well-worn pair of gardening gloves, Rachel carefully places tree spinach and scarlet pimpernel seeds into brown plastic pots.

Over the past year, Rachel, 45, has invested in a greenhouse and four bright blue water butts, and started building a raised vegetable patch out of planks of wood. It's all part of an effort to rewild her garden, and become as close to self-sufficient as she can, while society continues to function.

Within the next five to 10 years, she says, climate change is going to cause it to fall apart. "I don't see things lasting any longer than that."



So every evening, after picking up her children from school and returning to their former council house, she spends about two hours working outside.

"I find the more I do it, the less anxious I am," she says. "It's better than just sitting in the living room looking at the news and thinking, 'Oh God, climate change is happening, what do we do?'"

Rachel is unsure about how much to tell her three daughters. "I don't say to them that in five years we won't be here," she tells me. "But they do accept that food will be difficult to find."

Every six weeks, she takes her two youngest daughters on an 450-mile round trip from their home in Sheffield to an organic farm in South Wales, where they learn how to forage for food. "It's vital for them to learn skills we'll be able to use in the natural world when all our systems have broken down," she says.



"I don't think what they're learning in school is the right stuff any more, given what we're facing. They need to be learning permaculture self-sufficient agriculture and other stuff, ancient stuff that we've forgotten how to do. We just go to Tesco."

But she's not at all confident her efforts will make much difference, in the long run. "I don't think we can save the human race," she says, "but hopefully we can leave the planet with some organic life."

---

Around a year ago, a video of a talk by a British professor called Jem Bendell appeared on Rachel's Twitter feed.

"As soon as I saw it, everything seemed to make sense in a terrifying way," Rachel says.

"It felt like a bolt from the blue: 'We're all going to die.' I felt it in my bones that we are at the beginning of the end."



Bendell, a professor in sustainable leadership at the University of Cumbria, is the author of an academic article, Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, which has become the closest thing to a manifesto for a generation of self-described 'climate doomers.'

In it, he argues that it is too late for us to avoid 'the inevitability of societal collapse' caused by climate change. Instead, we are facing a 'near-term' breakdown of civilisation - near-term meaning within about a decade.

The paper was rejected for publication by a peer-reviewed journal, whose reviewers said its language was 'not appropriate for an academic article.'

It is certainly unconventional, with its disturbing descriptions of what's to come. "You won't know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death," Bendell writes.

After the journal's rejection, in July 2018 Bendell self-published the 34-page article online.

It soon went viral. It has now been downloaded over half a million times, translated into a dozen languages, and sparked a global movement with thousands of followers - called Deep Adaptation, because Bendell calls on people to adapt their lifestyle to cope with the harsh conditions in his vision of the future.

But Bendell's stark predictions have been dismissed by prominent climate scientists.

Prof Michael Mann, one of the world's most renowned, describes Bendell's paper as 'pseudo-scientific nonsense.'


Prof Michael Mann

"To me, the Bendell paper is a perfect storm of misguidedness and wrongheadedness," Mann says. "It is wrong on the science and its impacts. There is no credible evidence that we face 'inevitable near-term collapse.'"

What's more, Mann claims, Bendell's 'doomist framing' is 'disabling' and will "lead us down the very same path of inaction as outright climate change denial. Fossil fuel interests love this framing. Bendell is a poster child for the dangerous new strain of crypto-denialism," he says.

Myles Allen, professor of Geosystem Science at the University of Oxford, is just as critical.

"Predictions of societal collapse in the next few years as a result of climate change seem very far-fetched," he tells me.

"So far, the system's responded to greenhouse gas emissions almost exactly as predicted. So to say it's about to change and become much worse is speculation."

"Honestly this kind of material is at the level of science of the anti-vax campaign."


Allen agrees with Mann that the paper's pessimism is liable to make people feel powerless. "Lots of people are using this kind of catastrophism to argue that there's no point in reducing emissions," he says.

Bendell rejects the scientists' claims and says people have been inspired by his paper to demand radical government measures to tackle climate change.

"I hope Michael Mann gets to meet some more climate activists on the streets, so he can meet the new breed of fearless people taking peaceful direct action after being moved by uncompromising assessments of our situation," he says. "Many of the leaders of Extinction Rebellion read my paper and quit their jobs to go full time to try to reduce harm and save what we can."


Jem Bendell

Other climate scientists say they have more time for Bendell.

"With global emissions continuing to rise, and no signs that the Paris targets will be respected, Jem Bendell has some justification in taking the strong position that it is already too late and we'd better prepare to deal with the collapse of the globalised economic system," says Prof Will Steffen, from Australia's Climate Change Council.

"Jem may, in fact, be 'ahead of the game' in warning us about what we might need to prepare for."

He adds "there is a 'credible risk' that even a 2C rise in global average temperatures above pre-industrial levels could initiate a 'a tipping cascade... taking our climate system out of our control and on to a Hothouse Earth state."

"I can't say for sure that Jem Bendell is right… but we certainly can't rule it out."


---

In its bleak forecasts and direct language, Bendell's paper has had an electrifying effect on many who have read it. Almost 10,000 people have joined a 'Positive Deep Adaptation' Facebook group and about 3,000 are members of an online forum.

Here, the movement's followers exchange ideas about how they can adapt their lives, businesses and communities in accordance with Deep Adaptation doctrine.

In the paper, Bendell proposes a 'Deep Adaptation Agenda' - a conceptual roadmap for how to cope with the economic, political and environmental shocks he believes are coming our way.

He urges people to think about the aspects of our current way of life we will be able to hold on to and those we will have to let go of, referring to these two ideas as Resilience and Relinquishment.

He also talks about a third R, Restoration, which refers to old skills and habits that we will have to bring back. For some, such as Rachel, 'restoration' means rewilding their gardens and local neighbourhoods, learning foraging skills and imagining how to survive in a world without electricity.

For others it's about leaving the city or heavily populated areas of the country and heading for the hills.

Lionel Kirbyshire, a 60-year-old former chemicals engineer, says he began getting deeply worried about the climate a few years ago. He read, among other things, some of the writings of Guy MacPherson, a controversial American scientist unaffiliated to Deep Adaptation, who predicts humans will be extinct by 2030.

His head was soon 'boiling with all this information that no-one wants to know.'

"There was a moment about a year ago when it hit me and I thought, 'We're in big trouble,'" he says. "When you look at the whole picture it's terrifying. I think we've got 10 years, but we'll be lucky to make it."


Lionel and Jill Kirbyshire, enjoying the wide open spaces of Fife.

A few months after reading the Deep Adaptation paper, Lionel and his wife, Jill, decided to move north. They sold their house in densely populated Bedfordshire and relocated to a three-bedroom terraced house in the small town of Cupar, Fife.

"In the back of my mind, I think when the crunch comes, there'll be a lot of people in a small area and it's going to be mayhem - and we'll be safer if we move further north because it's colder."

They expect their grown-up children will join them in the coming years. In the meantime Lionel is investing in some growing boxes, in order to create raised vegetable beds in his garden, a foraging manual and water purification tablets.

"We're not stockpiling food but as the years go on I can't see us having much left."


Some of Rachel Ingrams' books about foraging and self-sufficiency.

Another Deep Adaptation follower, who didn't want his name to be published, told me he was planning to relocate from the South-East to the Welsh countryside.

"The basic things we'll need will be food, water and shelter," he says.

He plans to live off-grid, either joining an existing eco-community or 'going it alone' with like-minded friends in a house clad with straw bales for insulation.

"Deep Adaptation isn't a bunker mentality of doing it yourself. You want a mix of people with different skills," he says.

But he also says he has been taking crossbow lessons, 'because you never know.'

"It seems like a pretty useful weapon to have around to protect ourselves. I'd hate the thought I'd ever have to use it but the thought of standing by and not being able to protect the ones I love is pretty horrifying."

---

Jem Bendell says Deep Adaptation advocates non-violence. Its online platforms ban members from discussing 'fascistic or violent approaches to the situation.'

Though it didn't appear in Bendell's first paper he later added a fourth R, Reconciliation, which is all about living in peace. And when I finally get through to him, after two months of unreturned emails and conversations with his colleagues in the Deep Adaptation 'core team,' he puts a big emphasis on love.

"People are rising up in love in response to their despair and fear," he tells me. "Deep Adaptation seems to have reached people in all walks of life, at least in the West - heads of banks, UN agencies, European Commission divisions, political parties, religious leaders..."

His message, he says, is one of 'putting love and truth first.'

At present, the professor's followers often feel that their truth they believe in is ignored and dismissed by the rest of society.

Lionel says that among people he meets 'no-one wants to talk about it.'

He's joined several online groups - with names like Near-Term Human Extinction Support Group and Collapse Chronicles - where he can share his despair.

"Sometimes I say that I'm feeling quite low and someone will say they're feeling the same," he tells me. "So you know you're not in it alone."

Rachel tells me that she also sometimes feels isolated. Her attempts to get her neighbours to collaborate in a community compost heap have mostly fallen on deaf ears, so she turns to Deep Adaptation's online forums to find support.



"It's much easier when you have a group to face the tragedy unfolding before us. If I am feeling anxious, hopeless or full of grief, I can go on there and tell them how I'm feeling."

"There are 9,000 people all over the world, so you can post on there in the middle of the night and get support. I post ideas about my compost bin and get lots of messages back with people being encouraging."


However, she thinks there will be a day when the electricity is cut off, so she is learning to recite poems by heart, in case she finds herself alone, with no internet or possessions.

"At least I'll have something to carry with me."

 
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mr peabody

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Around 85% of homes now use gas-fired central heating, and a large proportion of gas
cooking still takes place.


Is hydrogen the solution to net-zero home heating?

by Dr. Stuart Clark | The Guardian | 21 Mar 2020

Last year, the energy and clean growth minister Chris Skidmore signed papers that committed the UK to reduce carbon emissions to effectively nothing by 2050. If we are to stand any chance of meeting this target, known as “net zero,” there is one enormous challenge that we will have to tackle: home heating.

Warming our homes is responsible for between a quarter and a third of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than 10 times the amount of CO2 created by the aviation industry. Around 85% of homes now use gas-fired central heating, and a large proportion of gas cooking still takes place. Greening this system is a huge challenge by any measure. But if recent reports are to be believed, there could be a simple and efficient way to do it: change from using natural gas to hydrogen gas.

Hydrogen is abundant in the natural world and according to its advocates could power the next generation of gas appliances cleanly and efficiently.

“The attraction of hydrogen is that for a lot of consumers, they wouldn’t notice any difference. Customers would continue to use a boiler to heat their homes in a similar manner to natural gas,” says Robert Sansom of the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s energy policy panel. He is the lead author on a study conducted by the institute called Transitioning to Hydrogen.

Together with colleagues, Sansom assessed the engineering risks and uncertainties associated with swapping our gas network to hydrogen. Their conclusion is that there is no reason why repurposing the gas network to hydrogen cannot be achieved.

That’s not to say it would be easy, though. Technological and practical hurdles exist because there is no blueprint for such a conversion: there is nowhere in the world that supplies pure hydrogen to homes and businesses. The UK would have to pioneer everything.

Interest in hydrogen as a way to heat homes began in 2016 with a report called H21. It was conducted by Northern Gas Networks, the gas distributor for the north of England, and looked at whether it was technically possible and economically viable to convert Leeds to 100% hydrogen instead of natural gas.

“They went into a lot of detail, from the hydrogen production plants right the way down to people’s homes,” says Sansom.

The report drew a parallel to the way the gas industry converted from town gas to natural gas in the 1960s and 70s. Town gas was a combination of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and methane. It was mostly produced from the distillation of coal and oil and had been used for the first 150 years of the UK’s gas industry. With the discovery of natural gas in the North Sea, which is predominantly methane, the UK undertook a nationwide programme to convert 40m appliances over a decade.

Whole streets would be converted at a time. Engineers would inspect the gas appliances, and then convert them. Simultaneously, the town gas was disconnected and the pipelines were purged with an inert gas. Finally, the natural gas was pumped into the system and the engineers would make sure each appliance worked correctly before moving to the next street along.

Some manufacturers are now so convinced that a similar thing can happen with hydrogen that they have already begun to develop new household appliances. In February, Worcester Bosch unveiled the prototype of its hydrogen-ready boiler. It would run first on natural gas and then, after a servicing visit, hydrogen.

Also working in hydrogen’s favour is that for the past 20 years, the gas industry has been systematically replacing the metal pipes in its “iron mains” network with yellow polyethylene ones. Around 90% of the pipes will have been replaced by 2030. This is good news for hydrogen because the gas reacts with the old metal pipes, making them brittle. But the polyethylene is safe.

“Effectively we started a programme of hydrogen-proofing our gas network without knowing we were doing it,” says Sansom, who found himself becoming more and more impressed by the concept. “From a personal point of view, I was very much on the fence when I kicked off with this work. But I found myself slipping down on the hydrogen side in terms of its viability as a low carbon alternative to natural gas,” he says.


Worcester Bosch’s hydrogen-fired boiler.

But not everyone is convinced by this sudden interest in hydrogen. Richard Lowes of the University of Exeter Energy Policy Group says that until recently the received wisdom had been that heating would have to be electrified in some way to meet our climate-crisis commitments. “That has basically come out of years and years of technical and economic modelling to look at how you get to fully decarbonised heating in the UK,” says Lowes.

Switching heating from gas to electricity would mean relying on heat pumps. These use electricity to extract heat from either the air or the ground. In the case of an air source heat pump, it works like a fridge but instead of sucking heat out of a food compartment, it pulls it out of the air and channels it into the home, where it is used to heat water, which is piped to radiators for central heating, and stored in a tank for hot water.

But because this technology works at a lower temperature than existing boilers, it requires many homes to be much better insulated, or to have larger radiators, capable of delivering more heating power. For those who have switched to heat-as-you-go combi boilers, it will necessitate the reinstallation of a hot water tank.

It’s extensive work but worth it, according to Lowes, who has removed his own gas boiler and is now using an air source heat pump to heat his home. “It was a lot of work but my home and heating system are now a lot more efficient. It’s always warm, there’s always hot water and it’s basically the same cost to run as gas,” he says.

The third approach is called district heating. It envisages water being heated at a central facility using waste heat from industry or green sources such as solar power. The hot water is then delivered to many homes simultaneously through a network of heavily insulated underground pipes. Both methods can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of home heating but the downside is that they require extensive work to roll them out on a national scale.

District heating would require water pipes to be laid under homes, and the widespread use of heat pumps would necessitate the National Grid’s electricity circuits being upgraded. It is this kind of disruption that hydrogen’s advocates say could be avoided because much of the national infrastructure has already been upgraded. That argument cuts no ice with Lowes. “It seems a bit hypocritical for the gas industry to say we can’t dig up the roads when they’ve been doing it for the past 20 years,” he says.

He points out that although the consumer may not experience so much disruption, significant challenges for the gas industry remain. For example, the National Transmission System, which is the network of pipes that supplies gas from the coastal terminals to the gas distribution companies and other major users, is made of metal. This would need to be protected from embrittlement in some way before any switch to hydrogen could take place.

“Hydrogen is certainly not a silver bullet,” says Lowes. "And if we get distracted by it, we could be getting ourselves into more trouble, missing the 2050 energy target altogether."

But if there is so much uncertainty with hydrogen, why is the gas industry, which funds many of the studies, pushing it so hard? According to Chris Goodall, energy economist and author of What We Need to Do Now for a Zero Carbon Future, it is a matter of survival.

“They do not wish for their industry to be eaten up by a switch to electricity for heating. So they are moving as fast as they can to persuade us about hydrogen,” he says. And it all comes down to how the gas is produced.

Hydrogen is not found on Earth in a pure state. Instead, it has to be extracted from other substances, and the best one to extract it from is methane – in other words natural gas. Hence, the gas companies could effectively keep their current operations running.

But the extra steps involved in extracting the hydrogen would push the price up. Additionally, the extraction creates carbon dioxide as a byproduct, so large scale carbon capture technology would need to be developed to prevent it escaping into the atmosphere. Although this is a technology that the UK will have to develop anyway in order to reach net zero by 2050, it will add to the cost.


Northern Ireland’s first sustainable hydrogen fuel cell bus, the Wrightbus, unveiled in January.

But natural gas is not the only substance that contains hydrogen. Water does too, and the hydrogen can be freed by a process called electrolysis, which doesn’t create any carbon dioxide. To make it totally green, which is the ultimate hope, electrolysis could be powered by wind farms. At the moment, however, the price of such electricity is expensive, and that would push the price of hydrogen up still further.

Goodall hopes that the cost will decrease as technology improves, but warns: “You can be accused of mindless optimism just by saying this.”

The UK’s future energy landscape is without doubt a difficult realm to navigate. Perhaps the best route will be revealed by not pitting the various solutions against one another. “All three have strengths and weaknesses and I expect that there’ll be a major role for each as a replacement for natural gas,” says Sansom. Even hydrogen’s detractors acknowledge this. “As a niche technology it can have real value,” says Lowes. He goes on to paraphrase the Heineken lager adverts of the 70s and 80s, saying that hydrogen could potentially reach the parts of the country that other energy solutions can’t.

Goodall also sees a role for hydrogen to “store” energy generated from renewable resources such as wind and solar power. The idea is that in windy months, any extra electricity generated from renewables will be used to make hydrogen, which would then be stored. When there is extra demand on the National Grid, or a seasonal drop in the power produced from renewables, the hydrogen can be burned to produce electricity.

The truth is that all options for us to decarbonise our heating systems will require significant disruption and cost. And while government continues to deliberate, the clock ticks towards 2050.

“There is no need to wait. We can deploy stuff now that works fine,” says Lowes, referring to his own experience of changing his gas boiler for a heat pump. “The urgency of climate change means there really isn’t any reason to delay.”

Others believe that there is a role for hydrogen and think it is worth taking a little more time to consider. But there is one truth that everyone agrees upon. “None of this is easy. If anyone is saying to you this is easy, they are misleading you,” says Lowes.


A hydrogen filling station in Seoul, South Korea.

Hydrogen-powered cars

Hydrogen can also power vehicles, but in a different way than it would heat houses. Instead of being burned, the hydrogen reacts with oxygen inside a device called a fuel cell. Electricity and water are produced. The electricity runs the car, the water drips from the exhaust pipe.

An attempt to switch to hydrogen vehicles in the 1990s was thwarted byelectric cars, which store their energy in an onboard battery. But a new push for hydrogen vehicles is coming from Asia. China, Japan and South Korea have all set ambitious goals to have millions of hydrogen-powered vehicles on their roads by 2030.

Toyota and Hyundai are both offering hydrogen vehicles in the UK, but there are currently less than 20 hydrogen filling stations across the UK, mostly clustered around the M25.

“It will be really interesting to see what happens,” says Lowes. But he himself is not convinced: “Hydrogen is much more expensive than electricity, and the car is more expensive than the electric vehicle.”

 
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Sika deer cross a road in Nara, Japan. The animals have been wandering through city streets and subway stations.


Wild animals venturing into locked-down cities

by Maanvi Singh | The Guardian | 22 Mar 2020

Deer, raccoons, turkeys and other creatures have made their way into urban settings they normally avoid.

As cities around the world mandate coronavirus lockdowns, there are some early signs that animals – especially the creatures that lurk in the periphery of big cities and suburbs – are feeling emboldened to explore.

In Nara, Japan, sika deer wandered through city streets and subway stations. Raccoons were spotted on the beach in an emptied San Felipe, Panama. And turkeys have made a strong showing in Oakland, California, home of one Guardian editor.

“Normally, animals live in the parts of our cities that we don’t use,” said Seth Mangle, who directs the Urban Wildlife Institute at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. “It makes them an unseen presence, kind of like ghosts.”

Gangs of wild turkeys aren’t an uncommon sight in parts of the Bay Area but it seems they’ve got a bit more room to wander through neighborhoods they might not normally visit. Boars have been known to descend upon European cities – but Barcelonans on lockdown have marveled at how the wild animals romp through quiet, deserted streets.



In American cities under shelter in place orders, walks and jogs are one of the few excuses for people to go outside. “It’s going to be a really cool time to spot wildlife,” Mangle said.

In San Felipe, where restaurants and bars have closed and tourist traffic is almost nonexistent, Matt Larsen has noticed some new visitors on the beach near his home. “There were three raccoons, just frolicking along right at the edge of the surf,” said Larsen, the director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “I’ve lived here six years, and it was something I had never seen before.”

The beach, which is right by the presidential palace, is usually kept clear by security guards, said Larsen, who directs the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “But normally there are people all around; the streets are almost always crowded with foreign visitors and Panamanian tourists,” he said.

Larsen, who has been teleworking from home with his wife, was "happy to see nature maintaining itself,” he said. “It was nice to see something a little out of the ordinary.”

Quarantines could continue to affect wildlife in unexpected ways, said Paige Warren, an ecologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “I’ll be interested in whether creatures like coyotes and foxes start acting more bold in American cities,” she said. "At the same time, fewer people in the streets could drive some species away," she said, "especially those who subsist on whatever humans feed them – or leave behind in the trash."

That is the case in Nara Park, where the sika deer – which look like Bambi – have grown accustomed to tourists lining up year-round to feed them rice crackers. Now that the park is devoid of human visitors, the deer have begun wandering into the city looking for food. They’ve been spotted crossing city streets and walking through subway stations, snacking on potted plants.



In Lopburi, Thailand, the absence of tourists and their tasty snacks left local monkeys brawling over what appeared to be a cup of yogurt.

"But just as many urban animals have adapted to humans, they’ll find ways to adjust during the quarantine," said Warren.

Mangle concurred: “As they said in Jurassic Park, life tends to find a way.” Though his team in Chicago has been working from home and practicing social distancing, Mangle said they were trying to find a way to set up equipment around Chicago for their annual study of urban wildlife and track how the coronavirus crisis may shift animal behavior.

The changes will probably be subtle, the researchers said. Urban foxes and coyotes might venture out of their hiding spots a bit more. Birds might roam, graze and hunt new pastures.


Monkeys hang from cables on a street in front of Prang Sam Yod temple amid declining
tourism in Lopburi, Thailand.


The narrative that wildlife populations will dramatically rebound and retake cities is fantasy – albeit one that might comfort those looking for meaning amidst the crisis. “If anything, these times may serve as a reminder that animals have always lived in our area,” Mangle said. “We may not think of our cities as a part of nature, but they are.”

 
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Delay is deadly: what Covid-19 tells us about tackling the climate crisis

by Jonathan Watts | The Guardian | 24 Mar 2020

Rightwing governments have denied the problem and been slow to act. With coronavirus and the climate, this costs lives

he coronavirus pandemic has brought urgency to the defining political question of our age: how to distribute risk. As with the climate crisis, neoliberal capitalism is proving particularly ill-suited to this.

Like global warming, but in close-up and fast-forward, the Covid-19 outbreak shows how lives are lost or saved depending on a government’s propensity to acknowledge risk, act rapidly to contain it, and share the consequences.

On these matters, competence and ideology overlap. Governments willing to intervene have been more effective at stemming the virus than laissez-faire capitalists. The further right the government, the more inclined it is to delay action and offload blame elsewhere. International comparisons suggest this could be making infection and death rates steeper.

Take the US, where Donald Trump is only now acknowledging the seriousness of the pandemic after weeks of claiming fears were exaggerated. Until recently, his government put more money into shielding the oil industry than providing adequate testing kits. He reportedly ordered officials to downplay early warnings because he did not want bad news in an election year. The US now has one of the fastest rising numbers of new cases in the world.

In Brazil, the ultra-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, is equally reckless. He claimed the risks of coronavirus were overblown, until 17 of his aides and security detail tested positive after a trip to the US. Last weekend, he ignored his own government’s advice and chose to shake hands and pose cheek-to-cheek for selfies at a mass rally of supporters. As cases and deaths surge, his support has plummeted.

In the UK, Boris Johnson acknowledged the risk, but did little about it. Though not as extreme in his denial as Trump or Bolsonaro, Johnson’s government first dithered, then dabbled with a policy of “herd-immunity”that was reportedly driven by Dominic Cummings’ desire to protect the economy, even if it cost pensioners’ lives. The UK has since shifted tack and enforced a lockdown, but its controls are still haphazard. Last week, daily deaths in the UK were reckoned to be on a steeper upward curve than Italy was at the same stage.

By contrast, more interventionist governments – generally but not exclusively those which are centrist or leftwing – have acted more quickly and shared the burden of risk more widely. Norway, Denmark and Sweden already appear to have flattened the coronavirus curve. Spain and France implemented lockdowns at around 200 deaths, which the UK and US have far surpassed.

In Asia, China initially attempted to hide the problem from the public when the virus emerged in Wuhan, then mobilised huge public resources to enforce a strict lockdown and provide extra hospital beds. South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand also appear to have turned the corner thanks to different combinations of extensive testing, quarantine measures and public health education.

Other factors are at play. Asian countries with prior experience of the Sars epidemic appear to have been better prepared. Italy, one of the worst affected countries, has one of the world’s oldest populations. In Japan’s case, the relatively flat curve of confirmed cases may also be a result of the government’s unwillingness to do widespread testing because it could jeopardise the Olympics.

Similarly, the relatively low number of cases in the global south has raised hopes that warmer weather might slow the disease – but this is far from certain. A comparatively low number of coronavirus cases could be the result of a lag caused by distance from the origin of the disease, relatively lower levels of international traffic, and fewer resources for testing.



This pandemic has amplified the importance of assessing and controlling risk before it gets out of hand. But the political champions of the neoliberal right, such as Trump and Bolsonaro, are more inclined to deny and delay, as climate politics have shown us in recent years.

When it comes to a pandemic like Covid-19, that position is untenable. No leader can deny the science, nor can they endlessly delay action as they have done on global heating. Muddling through until the next election is not an option; leaders will be judged on deaths next week, not emissions reductions in 2050.

The demographics are also completely different. Unlike the climate crisis, the virus predominantly threatens the elderly – the right’s core support group – rather than millennials. So far, the worst affected regions are also closer to the centre of economic power: the cool industrialised north rather than the warmer developing south (though the latter may suffer more in the future due to weaker healthcare systems).

For the right, this makes the pandemic a greater political threat than the climate crisis has ever been. Unless they can quickly get on top of the disease, they will lose any claim to being champions of national security. It is entirely possible that the effects of this pandemic could be one of the most catastrophic failures of free-market capitalism.

This should also be a lesson for the left. If state intervention and scientific advice is effective in dealing with the virus, the same principles should be applied more aggressively towards the still more apocalyptic threats of climate disruption and the collapse of nature. Until now, the left has recognised these dangers, but done little to act on them because economic growth has always taken precedence.

The pandemic has proved that delays are deadly and expensive. If we are to avoid a cascade of future crises, governments must think beyond a return to business as usual. Our conception of what is “normal” will have to change. We’ll need to invest in natural life-supporting systems such as a stable climate, fresh air and clean water. In the past, those goals have been dismissed as unrealistic or expensive, but recent weeks have shown how quickly the political compass can shift.

First though, we need to accept – and share – risk. Instead of deferring risks to future generations, weaker populations and natural systems, governments need to transform risks into responsibilities we all bear. The longer we hesitate, the fewer resources we will have at our disposal, and the more risk we will have to divide.

 
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St Paul’s cathedral, in London.


Covid-19 is nature's wake-up call to a complacent civilisation

by George Monbiot | The Guardian | 25 Mar 2020

The bubble has finally been burst – but will we now attend to the other threats facing humanity?

e have been living in a bubble, a bubble of false comfort and denial. In the rich nations, we have begun to believe we have transcended the material world. The wealth we’ve accumulated – often at the expense of others – has shielded us from reality. Living behind screens, passing between capsules – our houses, cars, offices and shopping malls – we persuaded ourselves that contingency had retreated, that we had reached the point all civilisations seek: insulation from natural hazards.

Now the membrane has ruptured, and we find ourselves naked and outraged, as the biology we appeared to have banished storms through our lives. The temptation, when this pandemic has passed, will be to find another bubble. We cannot afford to succumb to it. From now on, we should expose our minds to the painful realities we have denied for too long.

The planet has multiple morbidities, some of which will make this coronavirus look, by comparison, easy to treat. One above all others has come to obsess me in recent years: how will we feed ourselves? Fights over toilet paper are ugly enough: I hope we never have to witness fights over food. But it’s becoming difficult to see how we will avoid them.



A large body of evidence is beginning to accumulate showing how climate breakdown is likely to affect our food supply. Already farming in some parts of the world is being hammered by drought, floods, fire and locusts (whose resurgence in the past few weeks appears to be the result of anomalous tropical cyclones). When we call such hazards “biblical”, we mean that they are the kind of things that happened long ago, to people whose lives we can scarcely imagine. Now, with increasing frequency, they are happening to us.

In his forthcoming book, Our Final Warning, Mark Lynas explains what is likely to happen to our food supply with every extra degree of global heating. He finds that extreme danger kicks in somewhere between 3C and 4C above pre-industrial levels. At this point, a series of interlocking impacts threatens to send food production into a death spiral. Outdoor temperatures become too high for humans to tolerate, making subsistence farming impossible across Africa and South Asia. Livestock die from heat stress. Temperatures start to exceed the lethal thresholds for crop plants across much of the world, and major food producing regions turn into dust bowls. Simultaneous global harvest failure – something that has never happened in the modern world – becomes highly likely.

In combination with a rising human population, and the loss of irrigation water, soil and pollinators, this could push the world into structural famine. Even today, when the world has a total food surplus, hundreds of millions are malnourished as a result of the unequal distribution of wealth and power. A food deficit could result in billions starving. Hoarding will happen, as it always has, at the global level, as powerful people snatch food from the mouths of the poor. Yet, even if every nation keeps its promises under the Paris agreement, which currently seems unlikely, global heating will amount to between 3C and 4C.

Thanks to our illusion of security, we are doing almost nothing to anticipate this catastrophe, let alone prevent it. This existential issue scarcely seems to impinge on our consciousness. Every food-producing sector claims that its own current practices are sustainable and don’t need to change. When I challenge them, I’m met with a barrage of anger and abuse, and threats of the kind I haven’t experienced since I opposed the Iraq war. Sacred cows and holy lambs are everywhere, and the thinking required to develop the new food systems that we need, like lab-grown food, is scarcely anywhere.

But this is just one of our impending crises. Antibiotic resistance is, potentially, as deadly as any new disease. One of the causes is the astonishingly profligate way in which these precious medicines are used on many livestock farms. Where vast numbers of farm animals are packed together, antibiotics are deployed prophylactically to prevent otherwise inevitable outbreaks of disease. In some parts of the world, they are used not only to prevent disease, but also as growth promoters. Low doses are routinely added to feed: a strategy that could scarcely be better designed to deliver bacterial resistance.



In the US, where 27 million people have no medical cover, some people are now treating themselves with veterinary antibiotics, including those sold, without prescription, to medicate pet fish. Pharmaceutical companies are failing to invest sufficiently in the search for new drugs. If antibiotics cease to be effective, surgery becomes almost impossible. Childbirth becomes a mortal hazard once more. Chemotherapy can no longer be safely practised. Infectious diseases we have comfortably forgotten become deadly threats. We should discuss this issue as often as we talk about football. But again, it scarcely registers.

Our multiple crises, of which these are just two, have a common root. The problem is exemplified by the response of the organisers of the Bath Half Marathon, a massive event that took place on 15 March, to the many people begging them to cancel. “It is now too late for us to cancel or postpone the event. The venue is built, the infrastructure is in place, the site and our contractors are ready.” In other words, the sunk costs of the event were judged to outweigh any future impacts – the potential transmission of disease, and possible deaths – it might cause.

The amount of time it took the International Olympic Committee to postpone the Games could reflect similar judgments – but at least they got there in the end. Sunk costs within the fossil fuel industry, farming, banking, private healthcare and other sectors prevent the rapid transformations we need. Money becomes more important than life.

There are two ways this could go. We could, as some people have done, double down on denial. Some of those who have dismissed other threats, such as climate breakdown, also seek to downplay the threat of Covid-19. Witness the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, who claims that the coronavirus is nothing more than “a little flu”. The media and opposition politicians who have called for lockdown are, apparently, part of a conspiracy against him.

Or this could be the moment when we begin to see ourselves, once more, as governed by biology and physics, and dependent on a habitable planet. Never again should we listen to the liars and the deniers. Never again should we allow a comforting falsehood to trounce a painful truth. No longer can we afford to be dominated by those who put money ahead of life. This coronavirus reminds us that we belong to the material world.

 
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