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The latest news on Environment from Business Insider

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    The United States uses about 3.7 million gigawatt-hours of electricity each year. That’s an unfathomably huge number. But the next time someone tries to make the argument that 100% renewable energy is out of reach for the US, show them this image:

    screen shot 2016 03 30 at 10 06 13

    All of US electricity usage is down there at the bottom right. Everything else is the States’ renewable potential.

    Earlier this year, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory released a report that said the United States’ upper ceiling on rooftop solar generation potential was around 39% of all US electricity sales. That’s the tiny yellow circle in the middle. The potential of utility-scale solar? 350 times that little guy.

    In a new report from Environment America Research & Policy Center — where this image appears — researchers lay out the attainability of a US transition to 100 percent renewable energy. “There’s no question of whether or not there’s enough renewable energy,” said Rob Sargent, a program director at Environment America, on a press call. It’s more a function of how to achieve such a transition.

    The recommendations in the report will sound familiar. If we want to make it to a 100% renewable future, we need to start by ramping up solar and wind production, shifting toward electric vehicles, pumping dollars into energy storage research, and taking advantage of energy savings and efficiency programs.

    But maybe more than anything, we need to take a good long gander at that bowling ball of renewable generation potential and convince ourselves that carving out a grape’s-worth is within our power.

    SEE ALSO: Europe has adopted clean energy with so much gusto that it's created a strange new problem

    MORE: These 10 countries are ramping up clean energy more than any others

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Giant floating solar panels are saving a water company millions of dollars

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    solar panels

    Let's all take a moment to appreciate the roofs over our heads.

    They're great at keeping snow, rain, and harsh sun from getting to us, day after day.

    Sure, sometimes they have their issues, but whether flat or gabled, generally roofs are always there, providing us with shelter. They might also be an untapped resource for electricity production.

    The Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) issued a report last week that analyzed the ability of America's roofs to host solar panels.

    They looked at rooftops in 128 cities across the country, analyzing buildings large and small for their suitability for hosting photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, and how much power could be generated in each location.

    The estimates varied by state and by region, but overall, the report found that 39 percent of the country's energy could be generated by rooftop solar panels.

    That's a lot. Especially when you consider that the NREL estimate is only looking at a small subsection of solar power.

    "It is important to note that this report only estimates the potential from existing, suitable rooftops, and does not consider the immense potential of ground-mounted PV," co-author Robert Margolis said.

    "Actual generation from PV in urban areas could exceed these estimates by installing systems on less suitable roof space, by mounting PV on canopies over open spaces such as parking lots, or by integrating PV into building facades. Further, the results are sensitive to assumptions about module performance, which are expected to continue improving over time."

    Yes, the total amount of energy that the country could get from solar panels is much higher if you add in ground-based or water-based solar plants. And if you want to add in self-replicating solar panels built on the moon, the amount of energy available from the sun goes off the charts.

    But land is a precious commodity here on Earth, and solar panels in space are still a thing of the future. Roofs, on the other hand, are right over our heads, just waiting to be put to work.

    This article originally appeared on Popular Science. 

    SEE ALSO: These 10 countries are leading the world in solar energy

    MORE: Here's how much of the world would need to be covered in solar panels to power Earth

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Animated map reveals the 113,000 miles of cable that power America's internet

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    hurricane sandy

    The West Antarctic Ice sheet is melting. And it's happening a lot faster than researchers originally thought it would, according to a new study

    The ice sheet in question is larger than Mexico, and it'll only take a small amount of global warming to cause the whole thing to disintegrate.

    This in turn could potentially raise the sea level by more than 3 feet — as soon as the year 2100, the study's coauthor, Robert M. DeConto, told The New York Times

    And by 2500, if the warming continues at the same rate, the entirety of Antarctica will push sea levels up by roughly 50 feet, according to the new paper. 

    The new projection "nearly doubles" prior estimates of sea-level rise because previous models only accounted for a "minimal contribution" from Antarctica, DeConto told The Washington Post

    Previous projections of sea-level rise relied simply on the melting of "relatively small" glaciers, and didn't account for the complete disintegration of the massive Antarctic ice sheets, reports The Washington Post.

    Scientists who developed previous models didn't fully comprehend how vulnerable Antarctic ice is to small increases in temperature, reports The New York Times

    "You could think of all sorts of ways that we might duck this one," said Richard B. Alley, a scientist at Pennsylvania State University told The New York Times. "I’m hopeful that will happen. But given what we know, I don’t think we can tell people that we’re confident of that."

    This amount of sea level rise could completely devastate many of the world's coastlines

    Major cities, like New York, Miami, and Hong Kong could become uninhabitable in just a few hundred years, if we don't slow down emissions-related warming. 

    "We are not saying this is definitely going to happen," David Pollard, the study's coauthor, told The New York Times. "But I think we are pointing out that there’s a danger, and it should receive a lot more attention."

    Building upon previous research, Pollard and DeConto theorized that as warming continues, the smaller ice sheets surrounding the West Antarctic Ice sheet would melt. This would cause the formation of massive, unstable ice cliffs facing the ocean. 

    battery park wave surge sandy

    The authors then programmed their model with future human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions. The result: The massive ice cliffs of West Antarctica would start to disintegrate as soon as 2050, rapidly accelerating sea-level rise and quickly pushing us into the gloomy scenario that DeConto's and Pollard's study predicts. 

    Other scientists agreed with the paper's findings. 

    "People should not look at this as a futuristic scenario of things that may or may not happen. They should look at it as the tragic story we are following right now," Eric Rignot, an expert on Antarctica’s ice sheet and an earth-sciences professor at the University of California at Irvine, told The Washington Post. "We are not there yet … [But] with the current rate of emissions, we are heading that way."

    SEE ALSO: You can now tour the Arctic Ocean on a luxury cruise thanks to climate change

    RELATED: Bill Nye offers up one scientific fact to shut down climate-change deniers

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: This 30-mile-wide crack in Antarctica is headed for a massive breaking point

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    In case you haven't noticed, our planet is under duress.

    Drought conditions and dwindling access to fresh water are rippling across the US and the world. Climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions are at an all-time high. Sea-level rise looks increasingly frightening. And food shortages are looming.

    With worldwide populations expected to soar to 9.6 billion by 2050, food production will have to increase by 70% worldwide and by 100% in developing countries to keep up.

    But you need land and water to harvest food — and unfortunately, both of these resources are heavily stressed.

    So what can you do to help? Take shorter showers to save water? Ride your bike to work to curb emissions? Compost all of your coffee grounds, egg shells, and vegetable waste into soil?

    All of these ideas are great. But by far, the most important thing you can do is shockingly simple: You can stop eating meat.

    Support for this advice seems to grow by the day.

    A 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) suggests the meat industry soaks up more than 8% of water used by humans globally. And Vice reports that more than 1,800 gallons of water is behind every pound of meat.

    The livestock sector is suggested to be the largest source of water pollution across the globe. Animal waste, antibiotics, hormones, fertilizers, pesticides used on feed crops, bacteria, viruses, and sediments from eroded land wash into our waterways, sometimes leaching into drinking water supplies.

    And this is all not to mention the meat industry's impact on global warming. The livestock sector as a whole is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. That's more than the emissions of the entire global transportation sector.

    Farm animal emissions of methane alone — a greenhouse gas that is capable of warming the planet tens, hundreds, or possibly thousands of times more efficiently than carbon dioxide — accounts for a whopping 37% of methane originating from human activities.

    Livestock pastures and the crop fields used to feed them also take up a staggering 70% of farmland, according to FAO, and a whopping 30% of land surfaces across the entire globe.

    farmer cow field

    As the population and demand for food grows, global production of meat is expected to double, from 229 million tonnes produced from the year 2000 to 465 million tonnes by the year 2050, according to FAO.

    Studies have shown that adopting a vegetarian lifestyle can not only cut food-related greenhouse gas emissions by more than two-thirds, but can also avert five to eight million deaths worldwide every year by 2050 (largely due to a projected decline in obesity).

    This isn't to say that everyone should give up meat. Animal products provide many essential vitamins, nutrients, and fats — especially for developing children and pregnant women.

    If you're worried about not getting enough protein, there are plenty of other protein-rich foods such as beans, lentils, and peanut butter.

    But if you're otherwise healthy and can do without meat, even if it means just cutting your consumption down by half or three-quarters — not entirely — you can help make yourself and the planet healthier.

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Scientists debunked these 5 common myths about eating meat

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    Fish populations around the world have been decimated by overfishing — but new research suggests that this could soon change if the world got its act together.

    Fishermen around the world could haul around 16 million more metric tons of fish than they do today and generate $53 billion more in profits while more than doubling the amount of fish left in the oceans by 2050 if they adopted sustainable fishing practices, according to a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Those practices would involve a so-called "catch share" model of fisheries management. In catch share systems, regulators figure out the maximum number of fish that can be hauled from the sea without hurting future fish populations. The regulators then divvy up that amount of fish into shares that are distributed to individual fishermen. Each fisherman has a set amount of fish they are can catch in the year.

    "If you can reform fisheries and eliminate their competitive nature, there's enormous room for profits, catch, and abundance," said Ray Hilborn, a professor of marine biology and fisheries science at the University of Washington who co-authored the study with researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the Environmental Defense Fund.

    In contrast, traditional fishery regulations set quotas for the total amount of fish that fleets can catch and imposes limits on the amount of days fishermen can fish or the equipment they can use. This leads to a free-for-all where individual fishermen try to net as much as they can before regulators declare the quota met and the fishing season over. It also can cause overfishing and makes the business needlessly unpredictable, according to Amanda Leland, senior vice president for oceans at the Environmental Defense Fund.

    "When you give fishermen a secure share of the catch and they know on January 1 the total catch for the year, they slow down their fishing, they burn less fuel, they cut their costs, they go when the weather is good, and they are able to provide a much more predictable supply," Leland said.

    thai fishingCatch share programs apply to around 107 species in the United States as of last year, according to the Environmental Defense Fund — an increase from 24 species in 2000.

    The industry adopted the system in 2007 in the red snapper fisheries of the Gulf of Mexico, where fish populations nearly collapsed in the 1990s. The red snapper has since rebounded.

    "There are more red snappers in the Gulf of Mexico now than there has been in a long time," said Eric Brazer, deputy director of Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance, a group that represents around 50 commercial fishermen. "The average side of the red snapper is bigger."

    The US isn't really the problem, however. Hilborn noted that if sustainable practices were adopted worldwide, many of the gains cited in the report would occur in South and Southeast Asia, where overfishing is rampant.

    "There's two kinds of fisheries in the world — those that are managed effectively and those that are not," he said. "They just don't have fisheries management. There's a closed season during the monsoons."

    But there's little sign of Asia adopting sustainable fishing. Singapore's daily English-language newspaper Todayreported on Wednesday that Southeast Asian countries are angry about Chinese trawlers that are allegedly entering their waters to fish illegally.

    fishingThough promising, catch share has its skeptics. Robert Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, a fishing industry trade group, pointed out that doling out shares of available fish can be controversial. Once the shares are distributed, newcomers might need to wait years to enter the fishery.

    "It tends to consolidate ownership," Vanasse said. "It makes it exceedingly difficult for new people to enter the fishery. If you are a growing company and you don't get enough to survive, you're screwed."

    But Hilborn said fishing laws in the US and elsewhere already tightly control competition because of overfishing that wiped out fish such as the cod in the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland.

    "Limiting access to fishing is the primary tool we've had to improve fisheries," he said. "In very few fisheries can anyone go fishing who wants to go fishing."

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Here's when buying organic produce is a must and when it doesn't really matter

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    A video of huge gray whales that got incredibly close to a tourist boat in a Mexican lagoon is shaking up the internet after it was shared on YouTube by the British wildlife photographer Steve Trewhella.

    Trewhella, 52, from Dorset, captured the footage of the mammals on a family holiday to Mexico in March.

    The female whales were spotted by tourists enjoying a wildlife watching tour in the San Ignacio lagoon in Baja California.

    None of the tourists appeared to be worried about the colossal creatures swimming right up toward their small boat. Instead, they petted the sea animals, which lapped up the attention as they lay on their sides.


    "If you are on a 10ft boat and had a 50ft mammal coming towards you, you would probably get away from it," Trewhella told The Daily Mail. "It was a bit of a funny experience knowing it could smash your boat to pieces if it so wished — but they are not aggressive at all."

    The photographer, who was on a trip organised by Naturetrek, wanted to see the gray whales before they become extinct. 

    "The gray whales are in such decline you have to go to the other side of the world to see them," he told the newspaper.

    The San Ignacio lagoon — which is protected by the Mexican government — is known to be a prime nursery area for female gray whales who feed their calves until they are able to swim back into the sea. 

    According to Trewhella's account in The Daily Mail, the lagoon is "an extraordinary place and is believed to be the only location in the world these gray whales interact with human beings on this level."

    Watch the full video below:

    READ NEXT: The Los Angeles mountain lion who’s gone viral reveals something disturbing about wildlife today

    SEE ALSO: I went to the source of the world's best coffee — and saw firsthand why the industry is in trouble

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Dutch tulip fields look absolutely psychedelic from above

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    solar desert

    Though we have a long way to go, the world is already making progress against climate change.

    Renewables like wind and solar now make up 10% of the energy used around the world.

    This is according to a new United Nations-backed report released March 24, with research from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

    If we hadn’t started using these renewable energy sources, the researchers write in the report, we would have released 1.5 gigatonnes (GT) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere last year alone.

    "That's about 15% of the gap that needs to be closed to stay within the 2 degree threshold or temperature increase," report co-editor Eric Usher, officer in charge of the UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative, said in a press conference.

    So we're 15% of the way to keeping the planet from rising 2 degrees Celsius, the temperature that experts agree will ward off the worst effects of climate change.

    Now, 15% seems slight. But it's better than the doom and gloom we've heard about our environmental progress, which sometimes makes it sounds like we might be closer to 0%.

    The world is finally starting to head in the right direction.

    Last year, for the first time, the world invested more in renewable energy than in carbon-polluting fossil fuels like coal and oil, the report found.

    TI_Graphics_developing countries energy2Nearly every nation agreed to a landmark climate pact in Paris that will help us stay within that 2 degree threshold.

    And developing countries are starting to lead the way, which is welcome news since the previous assumption was that nations like China and India would have to keep polluting and using fossil fuels if they were going to pull their people into an industrialized future.

    In fact, China spent more on renewables than any other country last year, and its $103 billion investment in clean energy made up over one-third of the entire world’s contribution.

    TI_Graphics_developing countries energy 1

    Simply adding more renewable energy won’t solve our climate crisis, though. Usher said energy will have to be more efficient, too. And we’re going to have to develop better ways of storing power so we can make the most of solar and wind when it isn’t sunny or windy outside.

    Coal and natural gas power plants have long lifespans, too, so at some point, we’ll probably have to bite the bullet and switch them over to renewables, leaving the rest of those natural resources in the ground.

    Sure, we have a long way to go. But it’s nice to know that we’re making some progress.

    Imagine what we can do when renewables go from 15% to 100% of our energy. It’s no longer “if,” but, “when?”

    SEE ALSO: Europe has adopted clean energy with so much gusto that it's created a strange new problem

    MORE: These 10 countries are ramping up clean energy more than any others

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: This incredible energy-generating tidal lagoon could provide power to thousands

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    Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon

    The early Pueblo civilisation colonised the Four Corners of the US for thousands of years until being abandoned for reasons unknown from the 13th century. Scientists have now discovered four major phases of societal collapse that took place in the last 500 years of the civilisation's existence.

    Researchers from Washington State University found all of the collapses coincided with periods of climate change, and that times of drought led people to discard their spiritual beliefs and rituals and reform the society accordingly.

    Published in Science Advances, scientists combined tree ring data indicating rainfall and heat over time with archaeological research from over 1,000 ancient Pueblo sites. This provided researchers with a view of how the society reacted to periods of climate change, which would significantly affect crop production, and therefore food availability.

    They found a recurring theme. People would hold onto certain rituals and spiritual beliefs (that dealt the crop success) until they 'stopped working' (until a period of drought ensued). "Then there's a point where people say, 'this isn't working'," said study author Tim Kohler.

    Four phases were identified between around 700–1400:

    The precursory period, between 600 and 700 AD ended with a mild drought and was followed by one known as Pueblo I. This was characterised with the storing of maize in underground chambers, suggesting a shift from unrestricted sharing of food to a more restrictive system.

    This came to an end around 890 following a longer drought. Pueblo II (1035 to 1145) is known for the great houses and shows huge coordination of society. As well as the large buildings, there were also smaller houses, suggesting some sort of hierarchical social structure had been introduced.

    Pueblo III peaked around 1250 and involved restricted access to ceremonial and civic spaces, suggesting extreme inequality in society. This ended with the longest and most widespread drought recorded. Significantly, all three periods ended with increasing amounts of violence, most notably after Pueblo II and III.

    Pueblo IV (1285–1400) saw larger rectangular pueblos containing apartments and shared civil and ceremonial spaces, marking a move back towards an equal society. "There's a total reorganisation," Kohler said.

    Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon

    Researchers say the civilisation developed new ways of living whenever the old one was failing by coming up with new rituals and adapting to the changing climate: "The process of releasing one's self from those canons, the process of breaking that down, can occur very quickly and occurred very quickly four times in the Pueblo past," said researcher Kyle Bocinsky. "[After a collapse] there's a new period of wealth creation, investment in architecture and culture change," said Kohler.

    While the ultimate cause of the disappearance of the Pueblo civilisation is still unknown, researchers say the findings could be used to chart the decline of Neolithic societies: "Neolithic societies everywhere shared relatively large and sedentary populations that faced two novel problems: how to coordinate ever-larger groups and how to avoid degrading local environments.

    "Solutions to these problems inevitably involved ritually sanctioned norms and practices whose development might take generations but whose destruction could happen quickly when sets of integrated economic, organizational, and ritual practices in which people had heavily invested repeatedly failed to deliver on their constituents' expectations that their basic subsistence needs would be met."

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Here's when buying organic produce is a must and when it doesn't really matter

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    china wine

    The global winemaking map could soon change forever.

    Rising temperatures are threatening some of France's most esteemed wine-growing regions, researchers from NASA and Harvard discovered in a study published earlier this month in the journal Nature.

    The study found that hotter climates have made early grape harvests more frequent in France. 

    That's generally a good thing — warmer climates lead to faster grape maturation, and higher-quality wines. But in the next few decades, global warming could make regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy completely inhospitable for its signature grapes.

    And France isn't the only country affected. A 2013 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences predicted that as much as 73% of today's wine-growing land will be lost to climate change by the year 2050.

    As Old-World wine bastions like France, Spain and Italy start overheating, previously unthinkable regions will suddenly become the world's next wine hotspots.

    Take a look at where the great wines of the future could be coming from:


    China is undertaking a multibillion-dollar project to transform its Ningxia desert region into a wine oasis.

    There are about 50 wineries in Ningxia, which is about 500 miles west of Beijing.

    The region boasts 80,000 acres of vineyards, and that number is expected to more than double by 2020, according to CBS News. That would triple the acreage of California's famed Napa Valley.

    Within the next 20 years, Chinese consumption of wine is expected to exceed that of the US, making it the top wine-consuming nation in the world, according to The Wall Street Journal.

    However, like any other emerging wine market, it could take a while before consumers around the world take Chinese wine seriously, said Gregory Jones, an environmental studies professor at Southern Oregon University.

    "If we see Chinese wine on our shelves in the US, do we buy it? How long does it take before we trust that product?" Jones told Business Insider.  "Until they reach a place where they can produce enough where they can market it to another region, it's going to be difficult."


    While most of Sweden is far too chilly to support grapevines, a softening climate has opened the door for vineyards along the southern coast. 

    There are 330 grape-growing farms and counting in this traditionally vodka-drinking nation, according to a Södertörn University researcher.

    “It is clear that we now have an extra month in the growing season each summer,” winemaker Håkan Hansson told The Guardian.

    Still, Swedish viticulturists face more than just climatic challenges — the nation's strict alcohol laws forbid vineyards from selling their bottles on-site.


    Montana boasts just eight wineries now, but PNAS researchers expect the western half of the state to be a player in the wine scene by 2050.

    “I’ve been growing grapes here 15-plus years, and I’ve seen a distinct warming pattern,” said Andy Sponseller, co-owner of the Missoula, Montana-based Ten Spoon Vineyard and Winery, according to The Missoulian.

    "We had three 26-degree days after May 13. We had two sub-freezing days in mid-September," Sponseller said. "Fifteen years ago, it was not unusual to have those after Labor Day, but in the past 10 years, that’s become an erratic event.”

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Agriculture Farming

    Coastal dead zones, global warming, excess algae blooms, acid rain, ocean acidification, smog, impaired drinking water quality, an expanding ozone hole and biodiversity loss. Seemingly diverse problems, but a common thread connects them: human disruption of how a single chemical element, nitrogen, interacts with the environment.

    Nitrogen is absolutely crucial to life — an indispensable ingredient of DNA, proteins and essentially all living tissue — yet it also can choke the life out of aquatic ecosystems, destroy trees and sicken people when it shows up in excess at the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong form. And over the past century, people have released so much of this type of nitrogen— known as reactive nitrogen — that scientists say we’ve passed the limitof what the planet can safely handle.

    The result of releasing so much nitrogen to the environment — through excessive and inefficient fertilizer use, agriculture-related nitrogen emissions and nutrient-laden wastewater, along with fossil fuel and biomass burning — is this slew of adverse environmental impacts. These impacts are occurring worldwide and are exacerbated by warming temperatures. Though the nitrogen problem gets far less press, we’ve now upset the naturally occurring balance of nitrogen even more than that of carbon.

    While many things contribute to the problem — including energy use, urban runoff and sewage — agriculture is the largest source of environmentally damaging nitrogen. According to scientists studying this problem, approximately 80 percent of the nitrogen currently used in agriculture (primarily synthetic and other fertilizers, like manure) is lost to the environment at some point in the food supply chain.

    These losses occur on farms and in food production, sales, distribution, preparation and consumption. Or, as University of Virginia professor of environmental sciences Jim Galloway puts it, losses occur “all along the way from the field and bare soil to the sewage plant.”

    A big part of the problem, according to Jan Willem Erisman, University of Amsterdam professor of integrated nitrogen studies and CEO of the Louis Bolk Institute in the Netherlands, is that “people don’t connect it to food and food production.”

    In fact, in the U.S., European Union, Japan and likely China and elsewhere, food accounts for more than 75 percent of the average person’s nitrogen footprint (individual contribution to nitrogen pollution), according to University of New Hampshire natural resources and environmental studies Ph.D. candidate Allison Leach, who is among the scientists working on the Nitrogen Footprint, a project designed to raise awareness of the issue. And it turns out that meat and other top-of-the-food-chain animal products — those that consume the most resources before they themselves become food — are among the biggest culprits in contributing to excess nitrogen in a form that can be damaging to the environment.

    White Tailed Deer buck in front of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge

    Such nitrogen pollution is responsible for the harmful algae blooms plaguing Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico; for last year’s drinking water crisis in Toledo; and for “blue baby syndrome,” a potentially fatal oxygen depletion disorder that harms infants around the world — among other effects. Part of the difficulty in making people aware of these connections is that they often show up as “disruptions in distant places,” Erisman explains.

    What happens on a farm field can show up as algae many miles downstream and offshore, for example, or show up in groundwater that supplies well water to residents without direct connections to the source of contamination. Connecting water pollution or air pollution with food choices is even more of a stretch.

    But before unraveling why a cheeseburger will expand your nitrogen footprint more than rice and beans, it helps to understand how we got to where we are now — with excess nitrogen creating dangerous river-choking algae blooms, fish-killing dead zones, unsafe drinking water and unhealthy levels of smog in cities worldwide — and how nitrogen works in the environment.

    First, it’s important to know that the type of nitrogen that makes up a large part of the Earth’s atmosphere is not reactive but inert. For that nitrogen to be used by plants and other organisms, it must be converted into what’s called a “fixed,” or reactive, form. The main way this happens in nature is through microbes that live in soil and plant roots and convert inert nitrogen to ammonia, a reactive form that can be used in — and is essential to — plant growth.

    While plants need this reactive nitrogen to thrive, if excessive amounts enter the environment, they contribute to a suite of adverse effects. And ammonia is not the only form of reactive nitrogen; others — nitrous oxide,nitrogen oxides, nitrate and nitrite— can also become serious air and water contaminants and prompt respiratory, cardiovascular and other diseases. Key to understanding this problem — and its solutions — is that this overload didn’t happen on its own.

    Without human intervention of some sort, the world’s naturally occurring supply of reactive nitrogen essential to plant growth is relatively limited. So by the beginning of the 20th century it became apparent that there wasn’t going to be enough of this form of nitrogen available to produce the volume of food needed to adequately feed a growing population.

    A combine harvester reaps winter wheat at a field in Koesching near Ingolstadt July 26, 2012.    REUTERS/Michaela Rehle (GERMANY - Tags: AGRICULTURE ENVIRONMENT) - RTR35D61

    This problem was solved by the invention of synthetic fertilizers that supply plants with nitrogen in a “fixed” form they can use. Agricultural productivity soared. But the use of these fertilizers has not been very efficient, resulting in the release of large amounts of reactive nitrogen into the environment. According to Galloway, Leach and colleagues, so much anthropogenic reactive nitrogen has been produced that by 2010, human activity was creating at least five times as much as were natural systems.

    These releases, scientists have discovered, can last for decades. Not only is the nitrous oxide that comes off fertilized fields a potent greenhouse gas, but a new study of fertilizer use in the U.S. Midwest shows that excess nitrogen can accumulate in soil and result in decades-long pollution of surface and groundwater — including drinking water wells —with unsafe levels of nitrates that can lead, for example, to blue-baby syndrome. Even if fertilizer use were stopped today, the nitrogen pollution would persist for years, writes study co-author Nandita Basu, University of Waterloo professor of earth and environmental sciences and civil and environmental engineering.

    Meanwhile, as agricultural productivity soared in the early 20th century, ever-greater quantities of fossil fuels were being burned, releasing yet more reactive nitrogen into the atmosphere. Urbanization and growing populations have also added to this burden, but about three-quarters of this reactive nitrogen comes from agriculture. And given increasing demand for meat and dairy, an enormous amount of what we now grow — from aboutone-third of the world’s arable land, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations — ends up as livestock feed.

    Meat's big nitrogen footprint

    “The choice of meat or plant is very important,” says Erisman. “Plants’ nutrient-use efficiency is much higher than that of meat.” Plus, to produce meat you must first grow grain or other forage — whatever plant products the animals eat. As a result, many more times the amount of nitrogen is involved in producing meat than plant-based food. This means that stocking the fridge with meat plays a big role in contributing to the global reactive nitrogen burden.

    “We’re growing meat,” says Tom Fisher, professor at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Laboratory. “Much of the agriculture on the Delmarva Peninsula, where I am, is growing grain for the poultry industry. … People have chosen to eat meat, and they’ve created a market for chickens, and the poultry industry created a market for grain.”

    Cows are seen on a pastoral farm near Hamilton August 6, 2013. REUTERS/Nigel Marple And it takes even more feed to produce beef and pork than it does chicken. The exact numbers vary depending on how resource use is estimated, but according to Erisman and other researchers it typically takes 6 kilograms (about 13 pounds) of reactive nitrogen to produce 1 kilogram (about 2 pounds) of beef, about 3 kilograms (almost 7 pounds) for 1 kilogram of pork and about 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) of nitrogen for 1 kilogram of chicken. Erisman also points out that, due to lopsided food choices, about 20 percent of the world’s population consumes about 80 percent of the fertilizer.

    “When it comes to food choices, frequency and portion size of animal foods and the mix of animal products can have a big effect on the end [nitrogen] footprint,” says Eric Davidson, professor and director of the Appalachian Laboratory at University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science.

    A look at the N-Print project’s Nitrogen Footprint Calculatorillustrates this well. According to its figures, the average U.S. nitrogen footprint for food — an estimate of all of the nitrogen involved in this food’s life cycle, production through consumption — is 61 pounds (28 kilograms) per year. A vegetarian who eats only two eggs a week and limits dairy products — including cheese — to no more than 15 one-cup servings a week reduces that load to 24 pounds (11 kilograms).

    For non-vegetarians, if meat consumption is limited to eating only poultry (no beef or pork) four times a week (based on 7-ounce [30-milliliter] servings), the nitrogen footprint would decrease by about one-third even with no other changes to “average” U.S. eating patterns (eating five eggs and 26 servings of dairy and cheese a week).

    While raising livestock and poultry has a particularly large nitrogen footprint, another load comes when food is processed. “There’s a lot of waste in the food processing step,” Erisman explains, and food wasted means nitrogen lost because that food is not being consumed. Still more nitrogen is ultimately lost to the environment through food waste in retail and by consumers.


    Given that about one-third of the food produced globally each year is wasted or lost, this is significant since replacing that food means using and releasing still more reactive nitrogen. Onerecent estimate puts the amount of nitrogen lost to the environment because of global consumer food waste at 2.7 million metric tons (2.9 million tons) per year.

    So along with increasing nitrogen-use efficiency in farming, reducing fossil fuel use and curbing urban runoff, changing food choices and reducing food waste can contribute significantly to reducing the global reactive nitrogen burden.

    Leaving the Farm

    Still, “the single largest source [of nitrogen pollution] is from cropland,” says Adam Chambers, leader of energy and environmental markets with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. When synthetic fertilizer or manure is applied to agricultural soil but not fully taken up by plants it will enter the environment, either by volatilizing or washing off fields, he explains: When it evaporates, this nitrogen typically enters the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas; when more fertilizer is applied than plants can use, excess nitrogen runs off with rain and irrigation water.

    Certain farming practices and methods exacerbate this runoff, says Valerie Dantoin, who teaches sustainable agriculture at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and with her husband, Rick Adamski, runs an organic dairy farm. When fields get too heavily tilled, soil microbes that fix nitrogen are destroyed, she explains. “The solution is perennial roots and leaves in cover crops” along with building up soil’s organic matter, she says, which “encourages the microbial life of the soil.” This results in slow releases of nitrogen to plants, which is more effective and efficient than synthetic fertilizers that can be easily washed away.

    Efficient nitrogen use — key to what’s sometimes called “precision agriculture” — reduces nitrous oxide emissions, Chambers says, and also runoff to streams and ultimately to places like Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. Timing of fertilizer application is also key to reducing runoff. Rainstorms play a big role in this, Chambers explains. If it “rains 2 inches [5 centimeters] one night and plants weren’t ready to take up the nitrogen, you can get a huge spike in emissions.” Even two such events in a year can make a difference, prompting big runoffs of nitrogen — some of which also evaporates, he says.

    toxic algae bloom

    “In our region, 70 percent of our agricultural runoff occurs in 17 days of the year,” Dantoin says — during big spring rains, which typically happen at the time of year just before or just after the annual crop has been planted, when plants are not yet up and making full use of the nitrogen. The rains also come in the fall, when crops are no longer using nitrogen. To correct the problem, she says, “all we have to do is fix those 17 days.” This would mean applying fertilizer at the precise time plants can make the best use of it and — to avoid excess lingering in the soil to be washed off with those big rains — not applying any more than plants can use.

    Some farmers, like Dantoin and those Fisher is working with in Maryland as part of a watershed-scale experiment to reduce nutrient runoff to Chesapeake Bay, are planting cover crops and setting up drainage systems that absorb water rather than let it careen off the land. Others are using products designed to help plants absorb nitrogen fertilizers more efficiently.

    These include products that work with fertilizer in ways that stabilize or inhibit loss of nitrogen to the environment, explains Greg Schwab, director of agronomy at Koch Agronomic Services, one company in this market. “It helps farmers use fertilizer more efficiently,” he says — efficiency that can ultimately improve crop yield. Using fertilizer effectively and applying just the right amount at the right time is key, say Davidson and others, because such practices eliminate financially and environmentally costly waste and help crops.

    There are now so many such nitrogen-efficiency products on the market that the Environmental Defense Fund has launched a program called NutrientStar to help farmers compare nitrogen management tools. Choosing correctly is important because “nitrogen is hard to manage,” says Steve Sibulkin, CEO of a company called Adapt-N that makes a nitrogen data management tool. “Lots of things affect how nitrogen behaves: crops, soil type, weather,” he says, so what works for one farm — or even a particular field on a single farm — might not work well elsewhere.

    Large-scale nitrogen reduction — still in the works

    While there are enforceable limits on many nitrogen-based pollutants in the U.S. — including under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act — efforts to decrease nitrogen releases do not currently include specific targets for comprehensive reductions.

    Towers and smokestacks are silhouetted at an oil refinery in Melbourne June 21, 2010. REUTERS/Mick Tsikas  U.S. and European efforts to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from fossil fuel burning, however, have been remarkably effective. These measures include regulations requiring technology to reduce industrial smokestack emissions and clean-burning engines. They also include government and company policies on greenhouse gas emission reductions — some mandatory, some voluntary — that also reduce harmful nitrogen releases. And with the growing recognition of agriculture’s contribution to nitrogen-based air pollutants, policies are beginning to focus on these as well, but specific measures in the U.S. vary depending on farm size and location.

    Polices in the Netherlands and Denmark that have effectively pushed farmers to implement measures that reduce emissions from manure — through agricultural waste containment and fertilizer application techniques — have succeeded in reducing ammonia releases by 70 percent in the Netherlands and 40 percent in Denmark, helping to significantly reduce overall reactive nitrogen releases.

    While there is nothing comparable in the U.S., the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency — and some individual states, including California — have programs to help states and farmers reduce nitrogen emissions and runoff. But right now, these efforts don’t yet take what might be described as a holistic approach to nitrogen releases throughout agriculture and food production.

    “Denmark and the Netherlands are way ahead of the others in taking measures on nitrogen,” says Erisman, but Germany, Austria, France and Italy are beginning to follow this example. Public perception of the problem, he says, is still very low, though.

    “We need solutions on both ends” — at the farm scale but also on the consumer end — says Leach. “It’s so critically important to talk to all the stakeholders in this, not just the producers but also the consumers,” says Galloway. But one way or another, the problem “is caused by humans, by the growing of food and disposal of waste,” says Fisher. Raising awareness of this issue is an important step in getting a grip on nitrogen footprints. Something to think about, perhaps, next time you contemplate a veggie versus a beef burger.

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Here’s why even one drop of water confuses your smartphone screen

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    India pollution

    Last week, the World Health Organization reported that an estimated 8.2 million deaths a year are linked to air pollution. 

    And that number is on the rise.

    The most harmful pollutant to human health is called PM 2.5, short for particle matter that's less than 2.5 microns in diameter. It's found in soot, smoke, and dust and lodges in the lungs causing long-term health problems like asthma and chronic lung disease.

    PM 2.5 starts to become a health problem when there is more than 35.5 micrograms of PM 2.5 per cubic meter (written like 35.5 µg/m3) of air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But WHO recommends that PM 2.5 shouldn't even exceed 10 µg/m3.

    The most polluted cities on Earth have anywhere from nine to 15 times that amount — based on information from the WHO — and you might be surprised which make the top 10 list. Check them out:


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    10. Lucknow, India - 96 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

    Lucknow, a city in northern India, starts off the top 10 cities with the worst air pollution levels list. It still significantly has a high average air pollution level that falls into the "unhealthy" category. Vehicle emissions are a major factor in Lucknow's air pollution problem.

    9. Ahmedabad, India - 100 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

    India's western city Ahmedabad gets its air pollution in part from the major construction happening in the city.

    8. Khorramabad, Iran - 102 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

    Khorramabad, a city in western Iran, had the country's highest air pollution levels. One of the most populous cities in Iran, Khorramabad is an agriculture hub, which likely contributes to its air pollution problems.  

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    tesla gigafactory

    Everyone's excited about Tesla's new Model 3 car, but mass-producing that electric vehicle is going to require a ton of batteries.

    That's where Tesla's Gigafactory comes into play.

    For those unfamiliar, Tesla describes its massive 5.5 million-square-foot Gigafactory as a way to "accelerate the world's transition to sustainable transportation."

    The first Gigafactory, outside Sparks, Nevada, is an ambitious manufacturing facility that plans to build batteries for Tesla's electric cars for the foreseeable future. To make these batteries, Tesla will use "economies of scale, innovative manufacturing, reduction of waste, and the simple optimization of locating most manufacturing process under one roof."

    The Gigafactory is also notable since it will be powered completely by renewable energy, according to Tesla.

    Its first Gigafactory aims to start building battery cells by 2017 to coincide with the launch of the Model 3, reaching full capacity by 2020. But for now, all we can do is view the Gigafactory from the outside. And thanks to a drone pilot and his low-altitude quadrocopter, we can see how construction on the $5 billion building is coming along.

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    Here's Tesla's first Gigafactory, just outside Sparks, Nevada.

    Tesla spent an estimated $4.5 million to build the first phase of the Gigafactory's roof, according to work permits obtained by the Reno Gazette-Journal.

    Construction on the roof is mostly complete. Solar panels are coming later, but the white foundation will ensure that the roof stays cool, thus optimizing the efficiency of the solar panels.

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    For the first time, NASA scientists have the technology to measure the actual size of rain drops. And the data is giving them an unprecedented look into how extreme storms develop. 

    Video Courtesy of NASA

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    Grey whales screenshot

    Wildlife photographer Steve Trewhella was on a tourist boat in the San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja, California when he spotted a couple of female gray whales in the water near their boat.

    The whales — which can reach 45 feet long and weigh up to 30 tons — could easily flip the boat over, or even crush it. 

    And after a few minutes of monitoring the tourists from a distance, the whales began to approach.

    Surprisingly, as one of the large females made its way towards the boat's edge, Trewhella and the other tourists on board didn't panic. Instead, they reached over and began to pet their curious guest. Amazingly, the huge whale merely floated on her side on the water's surface, allowing the tourists to pet her. It almost seemed like she was savoring the attention.

    This type of interaction doesn't happen everywhere.

    In fact, Trewhella, 52, told The Daily Mail that the lagoon is "believed to be the only location in the world these gray whales interact with human beings on this level."

    Watch the stunning interaction captured by Trewhella below:

     The San Ignacio Lagoon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is protected by the Mexican government, is a critical stop on the whales' yearly journey from their feeding grounds around Alaska in the Bearing Sea, Beaufort Sea and Chukchi sea, where they mate and bear their young. This annual journey is a mammoth 12,400 miles round trip.

    Here's a GIF of a whale and her calf approaching curious tourists:

    Protection of this lagoon is vital since gray whales are currently found only in the North Pacific. There used to be a population of whales in the Atlantic Ocean, but it was completely wiped out by whalers by the mid-1700s. Of the populations in the North Pacific, these whales belong to the Eastern North Pacific stock that feed around Alaska, and migrate down the west coast of America to breed in Mexico. The Western North Pacific stock feeds near the Sakhalin Islands on the east coast of  Russia during the summer, and are believed to migrate to the South China Sea in the winter.

    Here's a look at their international route:

    Gray whale migration pattern map

    In the 1900s, both the Eastern and Western North Pacific populations of gray whales were classified as endangered due to heavy commercial whaling. Nearly five decades after commercial whaling was banned in 1947 by the International Whaling Commission, one group of them — the Eastern North Pacific Stock — was removed from the endangered list. 

    However, the Western North Pacific stock has not had the same luck. 

    Watch a grey whale breach near a tourist boat below:

    Countries surrounding the Western North Pacific Stock continued to practice whaling until at least 1966, prohibiting them from signing on to the ban. According to a joint Russia-US research program, the population size of this stock was just approximately 130 animals in 2013. Experts suggest their ranks are growing, but very slowly.

    This small population is on the endangered list even though commercial whaling is banned. The main hazards to the stock are still human activities — entanglement in fishing gear and disturbance from offshore oil and gas activities. 

    It is believed that the oceans once supported a population of 100,000 gray whales. Only a fifth of that number of gray whales still remain. While many like Trewhella get the chance to fearlessly interact in close proximity with these mammals, and be amazed, on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean, those across the water are not so lucky.

    SEE ALSO: The Los Angeles mountain lion who’s gone viral reveals something disturbing about wildlife today

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    fruit farmers market

    It's no surprise that changing climates will have an impact on our overall health.

    But one of the more shocking effects of a warmer planet, as outlined in a massive new report from the US Global Change Research Program, an environmental research group comprised of government agencies such as NASA, EPA, and the NOAA, is what it will do to our food.

    Here are some of the main changes that could affect the food we eat every day: 

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    1. Food will go bad quicker.

    The warmer the temperature, the happier the disease-causing microbes. Apart from norovirus, which prefers cooler climates, most foodborne illness-carrying bugs love warmer temperatures. The bacteria E. Coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter in particular are most likely to thrive in warmer temperatures, particularly on fruits, vegetables, and seafood.

    Microbes overall will love warmer temperatures, which could lead to foods spoiling quicker, and fungal toxins could get moved around much farther, wreaking havoc on a wide range of crops like corn.

    2. Many of our staple crops could get less nutritious.

    Hotter temperatures mean there's more CO2 in the atmosphere. And that could have a huge impact on the nutrition present in the foods we eat. For example, the report cites, protein will decrease as C02 levels increase from 520 parts per million to 960 ppm. Beyond protein, essential elements such as iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and nitrogen will decrease as CO2 goes up, according to the report.

    Although studies have established the connection between higher CO2 and less nutritious plants, researchers still aren't quite sure why it's happening.

    3. Our fish will be higher in potentially harmful substances like mercury.

    One of the ways we get mercury in our bodies is from fish, which pick up an organic kind of mercury called methylmercury. As the report notes, fish in warmer temperatures have an easier time absorbing this mercury, which then get into our diets. Mercury poisoning at high enough levels can cause serious symptoms, such as impaired vision, hearing, speech, and muscle weakness.

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    gmo corn

    In the past week you’ve probably eaten crops that wouldn’t exist in nature, or that have evolved extra genes to reach freakish sizes.

    You’ve probably eaten “cloned” food and you may have even eaten plants whose ancestors were once deliberately blasted with radiation. And you could have bought all this without leaving the “organic” section of your local supermarket.

    Anti-GM dogma is obscuring the real debate over what level of genetic manipulation society deems acceptable.

    Genetically-modified food is often regarded as something you’re either for or against, with no real middle ground.

    Yet it is misleading to consider GM technology a binary decision, and blanket bans like those in many European countries are only likely to further stifle debate. After all, very little of our food is truly “natural” and even the most basic crops are the result of some form of human manipulation.

    Between organic foods and tobacco engineered to glow in the dark lie a broad spectrum of “modifications” worthy of consideration. All of these different technologies are sometimes lumped together under “GM”. But where would you draw the line?

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    1. (Un)natural selection

    Think of carrots, corn or watermelons – all foods you might eat without much consideration.

    Yet when compared to their wild ancestors, even the “organic” varieties are almost unrecognizable.

    Domestication generally involves selecting for beneficial traits, such as high yield. Over time, many generations of selection can substantially alter a plant’s genetic makeup. Man-made selection is capable of generating forms that are extremely unlikely to occur in nature.

    2. Genome duplications

    Unknowing selection by our ancestors also involved a genetic process we only discovered relatively recently.

    Whereas humans have half a set of chromosomes (structures that package and organize your genetic information) from each parent, some organisms can have two or more complete duplicate sets of chromosomes. This “polyploidy” is widespread in plants and often results in exaggerated traits such as fruit size, thought to be the result of multiple gene copies.

    Without realizing, many crops have been unintentionally bred to a higher level of ploidy (entirely naturally) as things like large fruit or vigorous growth are often desirable. Ginger and apples are triploid for example, while potatoes and cabbage are tetraploid. Some strawberry varieties are even octoploid, meaning they have eight sets of chromosomes compared to just two in humans.

    3. Plant cloning

    It’s a word that tends to conjure up some discomfort – no one really wants to eat “cloned” food. Yet asexual reproduction is the core strategy for many plants in nature, and farmers have utilized it for centuries to perfect their crops.

    Once a plant with desirable characteristics is found – a particularly tasty and durable banana, for instance – cloning allows us to grow identical replicates.

    This could be entirely natural with a cutting or runner, or artificially-induced with plant hormones. Domestic bananas have long since lost the seeds that allowed their wild ancestors to reproduce – if you eat a banana today, you’re eating a clone.

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Scotland has met one of its key targets for renewable energy consumption.

    As reported by The Herald, 57.7% of Scottish electricity consumption was derived from renewable energy sources last year, ahead of the 50% target set by ministers.

    Scotland is now more than halfway to meeting its ambitious target of producing its entire annual electricity needs from renewable energy sources by 2020.

    This finding certainly fits the renewable trend driven by the current Scottish government: just last November, it green-lit the construction of the world’s largest floating wind farm.

    “This is great news and an important step in creating a fossil-free Scotland,” Dr. Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, told The Herald.

    “Despite the UK government's ideological assault on renewable energy, Scotland is storming ahead, smashing through our 50% target for 2015.”

    Putting this in perspective, Scotland accounted for 26.4% of the UK's total renewable electricity generation in 2015, according to figures published by the U.K. Department of Energy and Climate Change. England’s share was 65%, with the remainder divvied out by Wales and Northern Ireland.

    All in all, thanks to largely solar and wind power, the UK’s renewable electricity generation accounted for 25% of its power consumption in 2015, up from 19.1% in 2014. So, although Scotland’s achievement is laudable, the UK as a whole is actually doing surprisingly well when it comes to improving its reliance on renewables.

    wind farm

    The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently declared that over a quarter of the world will be powered by renewable energy by just 2020. Evidence of this can be clearly seen across the globe: Morocco is nearing completion of its advanced, concentrated solar power plant, which could soon power the entire region 24 hours a day; Sweden is aiming to become the world’s first fossil fuel-free nation; Costa Rica, Denmark, and Hawaii are all actively focusing their energy production on renewable energy sources.

    Even China, the world’s foremost greenhouse gas emitter, is contributing to this trend. Not only is it going to sign up to the Paris agreement along with the US, but it is currently responsible for 40% of global renewable capacity growth – enough to power the UK three times over.

    Switching from fossil fuels to nuclear and renewable energy sources is a smart move by any measure, and Scotland’s recent 57.7% renewables figure is a welcome addition to this somewhat surprising global uptick. However, Scotland’s government isn’t as scientifically conscientious as it may appear.

    It recently decided to ban genetically modified (GM) crops based on a “consumer backlash,” and presented no scientific evidence backing their decision. The scientific and agricultural world cried out in disbelief, rightly stating that GM crops, once approved by rigorous testing, are safe for humans, animals, and the environment.

    At least on climate change, the Scottish government appears to have the right idea. Saying that, it has just invested a large amount of money in research and development in the North Sea oil field.

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    solar energy panels

    Clean energy is killing fossil fuels. 

    Investment in renewable energy technology — solar and wind power — is now seeing twice as much global funding as fossil fuels, according to Bloomberg.

    The reason: the economics of renewable energy are drastically improving.

    Solar power is a technology, not a fuel, so efficiency increases and prices fall as time goes on, reports The Economist.

    So renewable energy is getting cheaper all the time, independent of oil prices, according to McKinsey

    The cost of solar power has fallen to 1/150th of its level since the 1970s, while total solar installation has increased 115,000 fold, reports ETF Trends

    Developments like the Tesla Powerwall, and other rechargeable batteries have also smoothed over the inconsistency of solar power when the sun isn't shining. 

    The story is similar for wind. 

    The amount of global electricity produced by wind power has doubled four times over since 2000 to almost 6% of total electricity production, per Bloomberg

    Fossil fuels are getting dominated by falling oil prices, and more recently, a lack of investment. The number of oil rigs in the US is the lowest it has been since 1940, according to Bloomberg

    It's important to note, however, that renewable energy and oil do operate in different markets. Oil is used primarily for transportation, while renewables are used for electricity production. That's why renewable energy investment is largely independent of the price of oil, according to McKinsey.

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    grocery list

    Supermarkets regularly toss unsold bread and produce at the end of each day, but there's another, less obvious, waste product: heat.

    Not so in Denmark, where 20 supermarkets around the country have started repurposing the heat that's lost through refrigeration as a utility people can buy, often at a lower cost than what energy companies can offer.

    "What we typically say in Europe," explains Lars Tveen, president of Danfoss, the company that has installed the technology, "is that we start saving all the energy possible. And the energy we can't save, we turn green."

    A small supermarket can heat up to 30 homes, Tveen says. Larger ones, like those that typically dominate American suburbs, could heat hundreds more.

    "There's a huge opportunity there if you start breaking down the silos and think about a supermarket not only as a supermarket, but as an energy producer," Tveen says.

    When ordinary supermarkets want to heat their stores, they generally rely on the heat that gets produced by their massive refrigeration systems, which can represent up to half the entire energy consumption. If there is too much heat, the store will send it back through the ground to dissipate in the local area.

    Danfoss offers another solution: Send the residual heat to the local energy company so people can buy it to heat their homes.

    Using this model, Tveen says, supermarkets can expect to start turning a profit in roughly a year and a half. That's how long it takes to recoup the money they spend on the infrastructure to redirect the residual heat.

    In theory, all supermarkets located relatively close to an energy supplier are capable of making the switch. Tveen says there are a number of locations in Europe and more than 1,500 stores in New York City alone that he has his eye on, for just that reason.

    "If we start considering those 1,500 supermarkets as small energy producers, we could make a significant impact actually," he says. "The US can make some big steps in the green energy arena."

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    GettyImages 454279722

    Half a billion people are going to die in the next decade — and we can't keep cramming their caskets into the Earth.

    Every year, tens of millions of the 7.4 billion people on Earth will die.

    Some will be cremated, and millionswill be buried in the ground, accompanied by pounds of steel, wood and toxicembalming fluid.

    As the population on Earth grows, so too does the one right below its surface — rendering the ground useless for new growth.

    The question is this: Are traditional burials selfish? 

    "Americans are funny about feeling like they own a 4-by-8 plot for eternity," Kate Kalanick, executive director of Green Burial Council, said in a phone interview Wednesday. "In an environmental sense, traditional burial is selfish for the impact it has. I don't think people really think about how their death affects the land or our world."

    Let's break down the numbers. Traditional caskets are hundreds of pounds of wood, metal and whatever cushioning goes inside. Ronald Reagan's casket — a big mahogany tank of a box — allegedly weighed 400 pounds. Burial vaults, the enclosures that barricade each casket from the elements, can be around 3,000 pounds of cement, sometimes steel. For embalming, it seems the golden rule is one gallon of fluid per 50 pounds of body. Add it all up and you've got around two tons of material per body — plus a few gallons of an occasionally hallucinogenic embalming juice — chilling in the earth forever.

    Now zoom out. For all of the 7.4 billion people breathing on the planet right now, there are around 15 dead and buried beneath them. The Population Reference Bureau estimated 107 billion people have, ever, roamed the planet, Live Science reported. We don't know exactly how many of those dead people had traditional burials. But even if 10% of them were buried in a cement-tombed, mahogany casket, that's still a colossal amount of shellacked, nonbiodegradable, poisonous crap going in the ground every year.

    GettyImages 481403336

    Here's the deal: Every body decomposes eventually; all the casket, cement enclosure and formaldehyde do is slow down the process. But sooner or later, the whole body — even the gallons of toxic, carcinogenic embalming fluid — end up in the water table of whatever place they're buried.

    Despite the downsides of burial, not everyone wants to be cremated. Plus, there's plenty of evidence suggesting the energy it takes to burn a body down wreaks significant damage on the environment.

    If we're going to put bodies in the ground, we need smart ways to do it. That's where organizations like Kalanick's Green Burial Council come in.

    The burial of the future: The idea of a green burial is to make as little an impact on the natural environment of the burial site as possible.

    "Green burials negate that environmental selfishness," Kalanick said.

    Green burial grounds look a lot like the land did before it got filled up with bodies. The headstones are often rocks or trees indigenous to the landscape. There's no cement vault. The casket is biodegradable and the embalming fluid is plant-based. 

    "If you look out across the site, it would look like a field or a wooded area," Kalanick said. "It all depends on the natural landscape. But they aren't maintaining the grass with chemicals."

    There's even a green way to get cremated. Jose Vazquez is an architect and designer who created the Spíritree, an urn that takes the ashes of someone and turns them into a seeding ground for a new tree. 

    The problem with traditional cemeteries is you can't do anything else with the land once bodies are under the ground, Vazquez said over the phone. 

    "The idea of my product is this continuation through nature," he said. "You become a memory through a tree. The whole forest could be the collective memory of loved ones."

    A whole forest of grandparents sounds like the beginning of a horror movie. But at least it's a horror movie that provides oxygen to people walking through the woods. And it's less scary than all of those "dead" cemeteries that are a few hundred years old, turning into eyesores in middle-of-nowhere, Nevada.

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    Funeral trends are changing. Thanks to a recent shift in the funeral industry, new cemeteries won't be taking up more and more of the Earth's surface.

    At least that's according to Julie Found, funeral director of Found and Sons Funeral Home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She said cremation is more common than it once was, cutting down on the amount of space your body occupies after death.

    "I think traditional burials — the embalming, the casket, visitation — are, for lack of a better word, dying," Found said in a phone interview March 29."It's a weird time in the funeral industry. The public ... doesn't see the reasoning in paying $10- to $15,000 to bury a person in a cemetery."

    The environmental impact is starting to make a difference too, Found said — especially when the younger generation takes over their families' funeral homes.

    "The older generation, the people burying their parents right now, still don't feel that impact," Found said. "But my generation is concerned with the environment."

    Here's a weird proposition: Young folks need to get less precious about how we treat our dead. Yes, loved ones need to be memorialized. But who's to say thousands of pounds of metal and wood is still the best way to do it?

    Maybe now it's about letting their bodies become part of the land. Or turning them into trees. Because while a haunted forest grown out of your mom's side of the family sounds frightening, it's a hell of a lot less scary than a corpse- and chemical-addled Earth where nothing new can grow.

    SEE ALSO: Humans changed a life-giving nutrient into a deadly pollutant

    MORE: The most effective thing you can do to save the planet is shockingly simple

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