By Manish Bapna
The U.S. is awash in oil and natural gas. China’s air pollution is so bad some cities were nearly shut down. A massive typhoon wreaked havoc in the Philippines. These are some of the top stories of the past 12 months.
Amid these developments, however, there are signs that some businesses, consumers and governments are moving toward a growing understanding of the risks of climate change. The question is whether we will shift course quickly enough to reduce the incoming threats of more extreme weather events and other climate impacts.
As we prepare to turn the corner to a new year, here’s our take at five of the standout climate and energy stories of 2013.
1. CHINA AIR POLLUTION
A lasting image of 2013 will be Beijing, with thick smog blanketing the city’s streets. In January, Beijing reached a jaw-dropping 755 on the Air Quality Index, more than twice what the World Health Organization considers ‘hazardous.’ With more smoggy days in 2013 than any of the last fifty years, China’s pollution problems won’t soon be forgotten.
With China’s coal-fired power plants and vehicles largely responsible for the emissions, the country’s leaders have taken note. In August, the government announced a plan to reduce the number of new coal-fired plants and to invest $275 billion to improve air quality.
2. U.S. TO BE WORLD’S LARGEST PETROLEUM AND NATURAL GAS PRODUCER
In one of the most important geopolitical developments this year, the U.S. is expected to become the world's top producer of petroleum and natural gas, surpassing Russia and Saudi Arabia. Last month, the White House announced that for the first time in nearly two decades, the country produced more crude oil than it imported.
U.S. natural gas production is likewise still booming and is projected to jump 56 percent by 2040, according to the Department of Energy. While natural gas is touted as a cleaner fuel source, these benefits are lost if the potent methane emissions released during its extraction and distribution are not contained.
3. PRESIDENT OBAMA UNVEILS A CLIMATE ACTION PLAN
In June, President Obama took the podium at Georgetown University to announce a comprehensive Climate Action Plan—the first national plan to address climate change across U.S. federal agencies.
Among the most notable actions, the plan calls for reductions in carbon pollution from U.S. power plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced rules for new power plants in September and is expected to announce standards for existing plants by June 2014. The power sector represents one of the biggest opportunities to cut emissions and if implemented ambitiously, these rules can help the U.S. to meet its commitment of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.
4. COAL FEELING THE HEAT
Faced with price competition from natural gas and growing concerns about emissions, domestic coal power faced some considerable headwinds in 2013. The U.S. Treasury, along with several European governments, including the U.K., ended most public financing of new overseas coal-fired power. The World Bank, European Investment Bank and United States Export-Import Bank similarly introduced policies restricting financing of new coal-fired power plants. Meanwhile, a recent study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that roughly one-third of U.S. coal plants will likely face retirement in the coming years due old age, economic competitiveness or lack of modern technology.
Even still, global demand for coal power remains strong, with the U.S. exporting 120 million tons. The World Resources Institute estimates that there are still around 1,200 new proposed coal plants worldwide.
5. RENEWABLE ENERGY HITS A BUMP
While 2013 likely saw an overall decline in investments in renewable energy, there were some bright spots. In many places, solar and wind technology is becoming increasingly cost-competitive with traditional fossil fuels, and consumers and investors alike are taking note.
U.S. solar installations surpassed Germany’s for the first time in 15 years. Just this week, Warren Buffett announced an order of $1 billion in wind turbines for a wind farm in Iowa. In California, a recent study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that, on average, a home with solar panels installed fetches a premium of just under $25,000. Meanwhile, in Spain, the first major solar installation financed without any subsidies has come online. Brazil is also rapidly expanding its wind production with an aim to produce 10 percent of power from wind by 2021.
The past year was clearly a mixed bag for energy and climate. We’ll look for greater clarity in 2014—especially to see if government officials and business leaders send clearer signals that they are ready to embrace a low-carbon trajectory. Abundant energy supplies can be an economic blessing, but we cannot afford to ignore the warning signs of our rapidly changing planet.
Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jeanette Cwienk
This summer's high street fashions have more in common than styles and colors. From the pink puff-sleeved dream going for just €19.99 ($22.52) at H&M, to Zara's elegant €12.95 ($14.63) halter-neck dress, clothing stores are alive with cheap organic cotton.
"Sustainable" collections with aspirational own-brand names like C&A's "Wear the change," Zara's "join life" or H&M's "CONSCIOUS" are offering cheap fashion and a clean environmental conscience. Such, at least, is the message. But is it really that simple?
Going Green, or Just Greenwashing?<p>"Fashion brands are capitalizing on the fact that consumers are interested in buying fairly and ecologically produced items," said Katrin Wenz, an expert in agriculture at Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND). "Organic cotton is certainly a step in the right direction, because neither <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/patents-on-plants-is-the-sellout-of-genes-a-threat-to-farmers-and-global-food-security/a-49906072" target="_blank">genetic modification</a> nor synthetic pesticides can be used in its production. But these own-brand sustainability labels rarely tell us anything about what happens later on in the production chain."</p><p>Viola Wohlgemuth, a textiles expert at Greenpeace, says companies create their sustainability labels and criteria themselves. "Sustainability is not a protected or specific term, which leaves the door wide open for so-called greenwashing," she told DW.</p>
Independent Certifications Trustworthier<p>Both experts emphasize that independent environmental certifications offer a better indicator of a product's eco credentials, including labor conditions for workers involved in production. Examples include the Global Organic Textile Standard label (GOTS) and the IVN Best certification, which is awarded by the International Association of Natural Textile Industry (IVN).</p><p>Heike Hess, head of IVN's Berlin branch, says using organic cotton alone "is not enough to make fashion really sustainable," and that producing clothes involves a more involved production chain. After being grown in the fields, cotton fibers have to be separated from their seeds, spun, dyed, printed and sewn to create finished items of clothing.</p><p>"Ecological and social standards are important at every stage of production," Hess said. "That includes minimizing the use of harmful chemicals, managing water usage and waste, limiting CO2 emissions and ensuring human rights, fair wages, protections for workers and much more. Only then can fashion really be called sustainable."</p><p>And that comes at a price. <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/heres-why-your-next-t-shirt-should-be-made-of-organic-cotton/a-39083921" target="_blank">Organic cotton</a> summer dresses certified with the GOTS label usually cost somewhere between €60-100 (about $67-113). </p>
Water Polluted and Wasted<p>Textile production often uses harmful chemicals, especially during the wet processing stage when threads are formed, dyed and woven, says Wohlgemuth. According to the UN Environment Program, around 20% of global wastewater is generated during textile dyeing and processing. Communities and ecosystems in <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/bangladeshs-textile-industry-works-towards-becoming-more-eco-friendly/a-50983898" target="_blank">textile producing countries across Asia</a> are worst affected.</p><p>Since launching its <a href="https://www.greenpeace.org/international/act/detox/" target="_blank">'Detox My Fashion'</a> campaign in 2011, Greenpeace has secured commitments from some 80 global companies in the fashion industry to eliminate hazardous chemicals by the end of this year.</p><p>But that alone doesn't imply sustainability. Growing cotton also requires a huge amount of water and vast areas of land, says Sabine Ferenschild from the Südwind Institute for Economics and Ecumenism in Bonn.</p><p>"Organic cotton is only sustainable when grown in rainy regions such as India, and planted in combination with food crops rather than in competition with them," she said. "But we have seen that cotton farming is increasingly being shifted to desert regions. That can never be sustainable."</p>
Eco Collections Remain a Market Niche<p>Ferenschild is critical of major fashion brands' attempts to go green with their own criteria and labeling for certain products, while the majority of what they're selling is still produced conventionally.</p><p>Germany is pursuing a new approach to green certification with its government-backed <a href="https://www.bmz.de/en/issues/textilwirtschaft/gruener_knopf/index.html" target="_blank">'Green Button' label</a>. A company can only use the label if all its products comply with high environmental and labor standards. These standards are not as strict as those demanded by organic certifiers, but experts say the 'Green Button' label is a step in the right direction, as it prevents producers offloading responsibility to subcontractors in the production chain.</p>
An 'Eco' Dress for €20 ($22.60): Too Good to Be True?<p>According to the Bremen Cotton Exchange, organic cotton costs between 10 and 50% more than conventional cotton. Premium fibers boost prices the most; the raw material is not necessarily the most important factor in terms of cost.</p><p>Global fashion brands like H&M are able to keep their prices down, even for the products in their "sustainable" ranges, due to the huge volume of items they produce, textiles expert Ferenschild told DW.</p><p>H&M uses its own "CONSCIOUS" label for products which contain "at least 50 percent sustainable materials, such as organic cotton and recycled polyester." It is not clear to consumers what percentage of organic cotton is used in the items labeled as such. In response to DW's request for clarification, H&M wrote: "Across our entire range, H&M uses 16 percent organic cotton according to our most recent figures."</p><p>According to the Bremen Cotton Exchange, just 0.7 percent of the global cotton harvest in the 2017/18 season was organic.</p><p><strong>The Real Problem Is One of Quantity</strong></p><p>Even if the big fashion brands wanted to move further towards truly sustainable production, current consumption habits would make that almost impossible. The real problem is that far too many clothes are being produced. According to a 2015 Greenpeace study, there are more than five billion items of clothing in German wardrobes alone. </p>
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A herdsman in the Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia was diagnosed with the bubonic plague Sunday, The New York Times reported.
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By Matt Kasson, Brian Lovett and Carolee Bull
Home gardening is having a boom year across the U.S. Whether they're growing their own food in response to pandemic shortages or just looking for a diversion, numerous aspiring gardeners have constructed their first raised beds, and seeds are flying off suppliers' shelves. Now that gardens are largely planted, much of the work for the next several months revolves around keeping them healthy.
Start With Prevention<p>Just as preventive steps like maintaining a balanced diet help keep humans healthy, home growers can take many actions to help their gardens thrive.</p><p>One key step is assessing soil fertility – the ability of soil to sustain plant growth – which can vary widely depending on your location and soil type. Low soil fertility limits food production and predisposes plants to disease and pests. University extension <a href="https://soiltesting.wvu.edu/" target="_blank">soil testing labs</a> can help evaluate the quality of garden soil and identify nutrient deficiencies and acidic soils, often at no charge.</p>
Using weed barrier landscape cloth for planting rows and mulching between rows is an effective way to suppress weeds. Matt Kasson, CC BY-ND
Diagnosing Problems<p>Common plant pathogens include <a href="https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/disandpath/viral/introduction/Pages/PlantViruses.aspx" target="_blank">viruses</a>, <a href="https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/disandpath/prokaryote/intro/Pages/Bacteria.aspx" target="_blank">bacteria</a>, <a href="https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/disandpath/nematode/intro/Pages/IntroNematodes.aspx" target="_blank">nematodes</a>, <a href="https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/disandpath/oomycete/introduction/Pages/IntroOomycetes.aspx#:%7E:text=The%20oomycetes%2C%20also%20known%20as,foliar%20blights%20and%20downy%20mildews." target="_blank">oomycetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/disandpath/fungalasco/intro/Pages/IntroFungi.aspx" target="_blank">fungi</a>. All of these microorganisms, especially at an early stage of infection, are too small to see. But when they proliferate, they cause changes in plants that we can recognize.</p><p>Unlike insects, which move around on six legs or on wings through the air, pathogens can move unseen and unchecked from leaf to leaf on the wind, through the soil or in droplets of water. Some microbes have even formed intimate relationships with insects and use them as vehicles to move from plant to plant, which makes these pathogens even more challenging to manage. Unfortunately, by the time some pathogens make their presence known, the damage is already done.</p><p>We recently conducted a <a href="https://twitter.com/kasson_wvu/status/1265989041725624323" target="_blank">Twitter poll</a> of gardeners nationwide to find out which culprits plagued their gardens. People named <a href="https://ento.psu.edu/extension/factsheets/aphids" target="_blank">aphids</a>, <a href="https://ento.psu.edu/extension/factsheets/squash-vine-borer" target="_blank">squash vine borers</a>, <a href="https://ento.psu.edu/extension/factsheets/squash-bug" target="_blank">squash bugs</a> and <a href="https://ento.psu.edu/extension/factsheets/flea-beetle" target="_blank">flea beetles</a> as the most problematic insect pests. Their most troublesome pathogens included <a href="https://extension.wvu.edu/lawn-gardening-pests/plant-disease/fruit-vegetable-diseases/powdery-mildew" target="_blank">powdery mildew</a>, <a href="https://plantpath.ifas.ufl.edu/rsol/Trainingmodules/BWTomato_Module.html" target="_blank">tomato bacterial wilt</a> and <a href="https://extension.wvu.edu/lawn-gardening-pests/plant-disease/fruit-vegetable-diseases/downy-mildew" target="_blank">cucurbit downy mildew</a>.</p><p>To manage such perennial challenges, the first step is to spend time closely looking at your plants. Do you notice any insects consistently hanging around, or molds colonizing leaves or other plant parts? How about symptoms such as blight, stunting, or leaves that are yellowing, browning or wilting?</p>
This white fungal growth is an early sign of powdery mildew on a leaf of susceptible summer squash. Matt Kasson, CC BY-ND
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By Emma Charlton
The effects of climate change may more far-reaching than you think.
Hotter temperatures have been linked to a rise in energy poverty, with more people struggling to meet their energy bills from their household income, according to a new study published on ScienceDirect by researchers from Italy's Ca' Foscari University.
Value of air conditioning imports in selected OECD countries. ScienceDirect
The ‘Golden Thread’<p>The <a href="https://www.endenergypoverty.org/reports" target="_blank">Global Commission to End Energy Poverty</a> calls access to energy the "golden thread" that weaves together economic growth, human development, and environmental sustainability. And one of the <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/archive/sdg-07-affordable-and-clean-energy" target="_blank">United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals</a> is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030.</p><p>Sustainability also has a large role to play in the future of energy and failing to embed green policies in COVID-19 stimulus packages and underinvesting in green infrastructure are current risks, according to the <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_COVID_19_Risks_Outlook_Special_Edition_Pages.pdf" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</p><p>In its vision for a 'Great Reset' – building a better world after the pandemic – the Forum and the IMF jointly backed the <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/06/end-fossil-fuel-subsidies-economy-imf-georgieva-great-reset-climate/" target="_blank">transition to a green economy</a> and called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies.</p>
As if the surging cases of coronavirus weren't enough for Floridians to handle, now the state's Department of Health (DOH) has confirmed that a person in the Tampa area tested positive for a rare brain-eating amoeba, according to CBS News. The Florida DOH posted a warning to residents to remind them of the dangers of the rare single-celled amoeba that attacks brain tissue.