By Diane Shohet
Earlier this month, Indonesian officials sounded the alarm that "haze" from forest fires was making its way towards neighboring Malaysia and Singapore.
Haze is a benign word for the toxic smog that swamps the region every year between August and October when smallholder farmers in Indonesia clear their old oil palm crops using traditional slash and burn methods.
A 10M hectare palm oil plantation in Borneo.
Hearing the news took me back to last year's fires, which were unlike anything the region had ever seen before and which I experienced first-hand, while living in Malaysia.
In 2015, dry El Nino conditions and drained peat bogs fueled these crop fires, causing them to quickly spread. From July to November, 2.6 million hectares of forest, peat and other land on the Indonesian islands Kalimantan (Borneo) and western Sumatra burned and a thick, toxic haze engulfed Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.
By the time the worst of the fires were contained, financial damage to the region's economy was estimated to be as high as $47bn. The human cost: an estimated 500,000 cases of respiratory tract infections and potentially more than 100,000 premature deaths. The 2015 Indonesian fires quietly became one of the largest ecological disasters in recent times and were labeled a "crime against humanity" by many.
A Personal Story
In 2013, my family moved from Boston, Massachusetts, to Penang, Malaysia. Before living in the area, we had little awareness of palm oil production. Our early drives through Malaysia provided our first glimpse: forests gone, hilltops cleared and dotted with new plantings, and hundreds of miles of palm oil plantations. A family trip to Borneo in search of its dense jungles and orangutans yielded an even more sobering reality: a five-hour drive across the interior of Borneo with only palm oil plantations to view.
In July 2015, we had been in the U.S., but returned to Penang in August. Visibility was low as haze from the fires in Indonesia descended on the city. Many people wore cotton masks that offered little protection from the fine particulate pollution. Our eyes watered and stung. The smell of smoke was everywhere. The Air Quality Index (AQI), a measure of pollution levels, was at an Unhealthy 150.
By mid-October, the AQI was a Very Unhealthy 250. During the previous weeks, millions of school children were unable to go outside. And finally, as AQI readings neared a Hazardous 300, schools throughout Malaysia were cancelled. Many businesses temporarily closed as they are located in open-air structures, the mainstay of tropical climates. Airports shut down or restricted flights.
During the third week of October, I was forced to go to the hospital. Unable to breathe, I was put on a nebulizer, an inhaler and other drugs. A 45-year old doctor who had lived her entire life in Penang and who had been seeing an influx of respitory infections, stated, "I have never seen the haze as bad as it is."
In Riau, Indonesia, during this same week in October, the AQI in the region rose above 1,000 for over a week while visibility fell below 100 meters. All babies under six months of age were evacuated.
Like millions of other mothers throughout Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, I now wonder about the health of my child. How will exposure to months of toxic pollution affect him? And, how can we keep this type of environmental disaster from happening again?
First, some background on the drivers of this disaster.
The Palm Oil Story
Globally, we crave palm oil. It is found in 1 in 10 food products and up to 50 percent of household products in countries like the U.S. and Canada. It is used for soaps, cosmetics, plastics, detergents, biofuels and much more. In 2013, 58 million tons of palm oil was produced.
Almost all the world's palm oil—85 percent—is produced from the fruit of the oil palm in just two countries: Indonesia and Malaysia. Currently, in Indonesia, 10 million hectares of palm are under cultivation and that is projected to grow to 13 million by 2020. Between 2009-2011, 25 percent of all forestland in Indonesia was cleared to plant oil palms. While restrictions on deforestation exist, Indonesia is clearing its forests faster than any other tropical nation.
And it is not just tropical forest being cleared, peat land forest is being cleared and drained. When each hectare of peat land is cleared for oil palm production, 3,750-5,400 tons of carbon dioxide is released over 25 years, making Indonesia the third largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the U.S., before the 2015 fires.
On many days in September and October 2015, in fact, the CO2 emissions from the fires in Indonesia exceeded the daily average emitted by the U.S. In fact, in those two months alone, the fires released more CO2 than what Germany emits in a year.
The Indonesian government is stepping up efforts to control the spread of the fires this year, but what can we do to get to the root of the problem?
Efforts to stop the deforestation include the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a multi-stakeholder organization founded in 2004, that provides third-party certification of sustainable palm oil production. Some major brands and investors don't think it goes far enough, however, and have urged RSPO to adopt stricter guidelines and more robust enforcement protocols. In 2013, in fact, a wave of companies adopted groundbreaking "no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation" commitments to supplement the certification scheme.
Indonesia has also placed a moratorium on issuing new clearing permits until 2017; however, previous moratoriums only slightly slowed deforestation.
There are key barriers to sustainability: Government corruption is rampant in Indonesia and corporate corruption can flourish when there is little regulation or oversight. Add to that a lack of support for smallholder farmers who often continue to rely on slash-and-burn farming techniques.
Many rely on palm oil for their livelihoods in Indonesia where 28.6 million still live below the poverty line and approximately 40 percent of all people live just above the national poverty line. So, this story needs to end with sustainable palm production, and that means supporting livelihoods in Indonesia and protecting the environment in the context of growing international demand for palm oil.
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By Alexandra Rowles
Oregano is a fragrant herb that's best known as an ingredient in Italian food.
However, it can also be concentrated into an essential oil that's loaded with antioxidants and powerful compounds that have proven health benefits.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6bd9fda1316965a9ba24dd60fd9cc34d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/3KaMnkmf0tc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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