Multo Bene: Milan is ready to shift…

…from cars to walking and biking:

Milan is to introduce one of Europe’s most ambitious schemes reallocating street space from cars to cycling and walking, in response to the coronavirus crisis.

The northern Italian city and surrounding Lombardy region are among Europe’s most polluted, and have also been especially hard hit by the Covid-19 outbreak.

Under the nationwide lockdown, motor traffic congestion has dropped by 30-75%, and air pollution with it. City officials hope to fend off a resurgence in car use as residents return to work looking to avoid busy public transport.

The city has announced that 35km (22 miles) of streets will be transformed over the summer, with a rapid, experimental citywide expansion of cycling and walking space to protect residents as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.

I hope this idea is contagious.

A Mutant Bacteria That Breaks #Plastic Down?

Of course, that would be a good thing:

A mutant bacterial enzyme that breaks down plastic bottles for recycling in hours has been created by scientists.

The enzyme, originally discovered in a compost heap of leaves, reduced the bottles to chemical building blocks that were then used to make high-quality new bottles. Existing recycling technologies usually produce plastic only good enough for clothing and carpets.

The company behind the breakthrough, Carbios, said it was aiming for industrial-scale recycling within five years. It has partnered with major companies including Pepsi and L’Oréal to accelerate development. Independent experts called the new enzyme a major advance…[snip]

…“It makes the possibility of true industrial-scale biological recycling of PET a possibility. This is a very large advance in terms of speed, efficiency and heat tolerance,” McGeehan said. “It represents a significant step forward for true circular recycling of PET and has the potential to reduce our reliance on oil, cut carbon emissions and energy use, and incentivise the collection and recycling of waste plastic.”

Scientists are also making progress in finding biological ways to break down other major types of plastic. In March, German researchers revealed a bug that feasts on toxic polyurethane, while earlier work has shown that wax moth larvae – usually bred as fish bait – can eat up polythene bags.

But there is always a hitch:

Waste bottles also have to be ground up and heated before the enzyme is added, so the recycled PET will be more expensive than virgin plastic. But Martin Stephan, the deputy chief executive at Carbios, said existing lower-quality recycled plastic sells at a premium due to a shortage of supply.

And you can be sure as long as recycled plastic is more expensive to make (and buy) than virgin plastic, recycled plastic will struggle.

In fact, this is the sort of scientific discovery that reveals that there really are no technological silver bullets (and why breathless reporting on them is actually harmful). What really needs to happen is that governments need to take the initiative to re-price plastic, so that its cost better reflects the environmental impact it inflicts on our health and on the oceans, which will also make recycled plastic more competitive. If that happened, both manufacturers and consumers would get a lot more careful about making, marketing and using plastic.

Pricing social, health and environmental impacts into all sorts of products is the one silver bullet that really could change what is made, how it is made, and what is purchased, and start to slow the relentless pollution and destruction that results from rampant consumption and worshipping the  God Of Convenience. That is the real breakthrough we should all demand.

How To Address Overpopulation Without Talking About Overpopulation

“Stop hassling us about population growth. Instead help empower our women and stop consuming so much yourselves!”

Rapid growth in human numbers is a key variable of any equation related to climate, conservation and stress on the planet. But you don’t often hear about it.

Vox writer David Roberts explains why, and argues that it is far more constructive to talk about policies that can help address population and its environmental impact (empowering women and global income inequality) than it is to directly plunge into the morally sticky and inevitably controversial topic of population control:

The first way to look at population is as a pure numbers game. More people means more consumers and more emitters, so the thing to do is slow the rise of population. Specifically, since most of the new people are going to come from poor or developing countries, the question is specifically how to slow population growth there.

Luckily, we know the answer. It is family planning that enables women to have only children they want and choose, and education of girls, giving them access to income opportunities outside the home. We know that women, given the resources and the choice, will opt for smaller families.

Those are the two most powerful levers to bend the population curve. They are also, in and of themselves, an enormously powerful climate policy. When Paul Hawken and his team investigated and ranked carbon-reduction solutions for their Drawdown project, they found that the combination of the two (call it the female-empowerment package) carried the most potential to reduce greenhouse gases later this century, out of any solution. (Together they could prevent 120 gigatons of GHGs by 2050 — more than on- and offshore wind combined.)…

One way to prevent the creation of new high-consumers would be to persuade the wealthy to have fewer babies and to close off the borders of wealthy countries, preventing low-consumers from immigrating and becoming high-consumers. You could try, in short, to engineer population decline in wealthy countries.

That seems … fraught.

For one thing, fertility tends to decline with wealth anyway. For another, any targeted attempt to engineer population decline is going to run into an unholy thicket of moral and political resistance.

Another way to approach the problem would be, rather than prevent the birth of extremely wealthy people, prevent the creation of extremely wealthy people. In other words, prevent the accumulation of massive wealth. You could do that by, for instance, taxing the shit out of wealthy people.

If you approached the problem that way, under the banner of reducing global income inequality, you would find many allies. Income inequality is a top-line concern of people and organizations all over the world, even some conservatives these days.

He’s right. And I’d stress that when wealthy populations preoccupy themselves with the environmental impact of growing developing world populations, instead of their own overconsumption,  they are aiming at the wrong target.

Photo Of The Times: Realism Rather Than Romanticism

“Sewage Surfer.” Photo by Justin Hofman / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

This photo is both very sad and very powerful, and tells you all you need to know about what we are doing to our oceans. Fittingly, it is a finalist in the Wildlife Photographer Of The Year competition, and that is a good thing because it is important that wildlife photography do more to show things as they are instead of romanticizing a pristine and unspoiled natural world that no longer exists.

Here is the explanation of the photo provided by the UK Natural History Museum:

Hopping from one floating object to another, seahorses often hitch rides on currents and grasp onto ocean debris with their delicate tails.

But the subject of photographer Justin Hofman’s lens swam into trouble when it let go of a piece of seagrass and seized a thin piece of clear plastic. As a brisk wind picked up at the surface of a reef near Indonesia’s Sumbawa Island, the small swimmer’s ride became a rough one.

In search of a more stable raft, the seahorse then landed upon a waterlogged cotton bud that washed in on the incoming tide.

Indonesia is known for having the broadest selection of marine biodiversity in the world. But the country is also second only to China in its contribution to marine plastic – fuelling the growing concern that unnatural ocean waste could outweigh fish by 2050.

Justin not only captured the seahorse and its unnatural vehicle, but also murky water filled with debris.

Indonesia has pledged that by 2025 it will reduce the amount of waste being discharged into the ocean by 70%.

You can get more of the backstory of the photo, and comments from Justin Hofman, here. And follow Justin’s Instagram here.

The Graphic Reality Of Extinction

The journal Nature sums up the threat of the Sixth Great Extinction in one mindblowing graphic (click here, or on graphic for zoomable  version):

Here’s the data and thinking that are behind the graphic:

Studies that try to tally the number of species of animals, plants and fungi alive right now produce estimates that swing from less than 2 million to more than 50 million. The problem is that researchers have so far sampled only a sliver of Earth’s biodiversity, and most of the unknown groups inhabit small regions of the world, often in habitats that are rapidly being destroyed.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) highlighted the uncertainty in the latest version of its Red List of Threatened Species, which was released in November. The report evaluated more than 76,000 species, a big increase over earlier editions. But that is just 4% of the more than 1.7 million species that have been described by scientists, making it impossible to offer any reliable threat level for groups that have not been adequately assessed, such as fish, reptiles and insects.

Recognizing these caveats, Nature pulled together the most reliable available data to provide a graphic status report of life on Earth (see ‘Life under threat’). Among the groups that can be assessed, amphibians stand out as the most imperilled: 41% face the threat of extinction, in part because of devastating epidemics caused by chytrid fungi. Large fractions of mammals and birds face significant threats because of habitat loss and degradation, as well as activities such as hunting.

Looking forward, the picture gets less certain. The effects of climate change, which are hard to forecast in terms of pace and pattern, will probably accelerate extinctions in as-yet unknown ways. One simple way to project into the future would be to assume that the rate of extinction will be constant; it is currently estimated to range from 0.01% to 0.7% of all existing species a year. “There is a huge uncertainty in projecting future extinction rates,” says Henrique Pereira, an ecologist at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig.

At the upper rate, thousands of species are disappearing each year. If that trend continues, it could lead to a mass extinction — defined as a loss of 75% of species — over the next few centuries.

I find it hard to believe that this is not screaming headline news every day. The media, like the public, simply doesn’t know what to do with the catastrophic implications of climate change and human impact on the planet. That is not good.

(H/T The Dodo–very appropriate, no?)

Oceans Of Plastic

This stuff is ashore so it doesn’t even count.

 

Dr. Evil, who deals only in millions, would be shocked by this:

A major new study of the world’s oceans has reached a shocking conclusion: Thanks to humans, there are now over 5 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing more than 250,000 tons, floating in water around the world.

With a global population of about 7.2 billion, that’s nearly 700 pieces per person.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One by Marcus Eriksen of the Five Gyres Institute in Los Angeles and a large group of colleagues, is based on data from 24 separate ocean expeditions, conducted between 2007 and 2013, to sample plastic pollution. Plastic was either observed from boats, or hauled up from the ocean by nets, in 1,571 locations. The data were then used to run an ocean model to simulate the amount and distribution of plastic debris.

That’s a nearly incomprehensible amount of plastic. What’s worse, though, is that there is probably a lot more than that:

The authors stress that they suspect their estimate is “highly conservative” — there could be a lot more plastic out there than that. For as they note, there is also a “potentially massive amount of plastic present on shorelines, on the seabed, suspended in the water column, and within organisms.”

In particular, the authors cite a figure from the trade group Plastics Europe, which suggests that 288 million tons of plastic are produced annually. Compared to a figure like this, the 250,ooo tons described in this study represent “only 0.1 % of the world annual production” — again underscoring that the numbers reported in the study, large though they are, are probably a low end estimate.

The American Chemistry Council responded to the study by stressing the importance of recycling. Okay, hard to argue. But with these sorts of stories about humanity laying waste (literally) to the planet, I keep coming back to the same thing. Consumables need to be priced differently, to reflect their environmental impact and cost. Adopting that approach–which is the only thing that radically changes industry and consumer behavior–is really the only hope of limiting human impact on the planet.

In the meantime, I will put plastic alongside the internal combustion engine as a two-edged human invention that created wealth and progress while simultaneously destroying natural capital.

Threat Assessment Gone (Very, Very) Wrong

 

So, we are filling our oceans with plastic:

I have just returned with a team of scientists from six weeks at sea conducting research in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — one of five major garbage patches drifting in the oceans north and south of the Equator at the latitude of our great terrestrial deserts. Although it was my 10th voyage to the area, I was utterly shocked to see the enormous increase in the quantity of plastic waste since my last trip in 2009. Plastics of every description, from toothbrushes to tires to unidentifiable fragments too numerous to count floated past our marine research vessel Alguita for hundreds of miles without end. We even came upon a floating island bolstered by dozens of plastic buoys used in oyster aquaculture that had solid areas you could walk on.

Plastics are now one of the most common pollutants of ocean waters worldwide. Pushed by winds, tides and currents, plastic particles form with other debris into large swirling glutinous accumulation zones, known to oceanographers as gyres, which comprise as much as 40 percent of the planet’s ocean surface — roughly 25 percent of the entire earth.

And we are filling our atmosphere with greenhouse gases:

Runaway growth in the emission of greenhouse gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem, raising the risk of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” over the coming decades, according to a draft of a major new United Nations report.

Global warming is already cutting grain production by several percentage points, the report found, and that could grow much worse if emissions continue unchecked. Higher seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain and other climate extremes are also being felt around the world as a result of human-produced emissions, the draft report said, and those problems are likely to intensify unless the gases are brought under control.

Sylvia Earle On The Oceans

Speaking of the future of the planet’s watery realms, here’s an excellent podcast of Sylvia Earle talking about humanity and its impact:

If you’re inspired by Earle’s ability to pull this off at age 78, just wait: The real inspiration lies in her stunning plea for ocean conservation. In this episode of Inquiring Minds (click below to stream audio), Earle doesn’t shy away from giving us the really, really big picture. She explains that we’re the first generation of humans to even know what we’re doing to 96 percent of the Earth’s water—through assaults ranging from over-fishing to noise pollution to global warming’s evil twin, ocean acidification.

Older generations just didn’t get it; they simply had no idea they could have this effect. “We have been under the illusion for most of our history, thinking that the ocean is too big to fail,” Earle says. Now, thanks in large part to the work of ocean adventurer-scientists like Earle, we know better. And we’re right at that crucial moment where knowing something might actually help us make a difference.

Actually, I think knowing something about 50 years ago might have really helped us make a difference. We often don’t want to know until we are on the edge of disaster, and that is naturally very late in the game. Still…

Breaking: Ocean Trash Cleanup Solved?

Who says humans can’t come up with a workable device for cleaning plastic and garbage from the ocean? I’d say this dude, who has affixed a net to his SUP paddle, has nailed it, no?

Explanation:

The EnviroNet is about 10 inches long and six inches wide and temporarily attaches to any paddle using a bungee cord. It’s easy to use and doesn’t interfere with paddling. All paddleboarders have to do is fasten the net to the paddle, put a basket on their board to put the trash in and they are all set to clean up the coast.

Since inventing the EnviroNet, Captain Macias has made it his mission to pick up more trash and recruit others to help him. He even made a pledge not to cut his beard until he collected 2,200 pounds of ocean trash! Nine-inches of facial hair later (about a year in real time), he made his goal.

Just need a few million SUP-ers to adopt this thing and we might see a dent in the problem. And a lot of long beards.