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3 Reasons to Be Hopeful About Our P​lanet in 2018

Climate
3 Reasons to Be Hopeful About Our P​lanet in 2018
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By Elizabeth Sturcken

Feeling down about our planet in 2018? Don't!

There are many reasons to be hopeful around environmental action in the new year—and if the following developments don't make you feel better, I've prescribed some action steps at the end that are guaranteed to set you on a healthier, happier path.


Don't get me wrong, I know full well that 2017 was a hard year for the planet. I've lost count of the hurricanes, floods, droughts and fires—many linked to climate change—that rained upon us. It was a record-setting toll on the U.S. in 2017, with 16 enormous weather and climate events costing a total of $306 billion in damage (not sure how to calculate the emotional cost).

And don't get me started on Scott Pruitt's dramatic and dangerous dismantling of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But, rather than dwell on the negative, I'm choosing a different path, a path of positive action. I'm like the kid in that old joke who, encountering a room full of horse shit, grabs a shovel and starts to dig: "With all this manure there's got to be a pony in here somewhere!"

And you know what? I've found a whole herd of ponies. Here's why I'm feeling hopeful for a fresh start in 2018:

1. Despite government inaction, companies continue to lead. As the State of GreenBiz 2018 just put it, "company commitments and achievements continue, unfettered by political winds." Why? Because once companies see the business value creation that sustainability brings, they desire to do more. They also know that customers, employees and investors demand it. Believe me, if sustainability weren't good for business, so many companies would not be so engaged in initiatives such as:

  • Walmart's Project Gigaton, which is attracting new players, driving ambitious goal-setting and devising solutions across supply chains. Does Walmart know exactly how they will avoid 1 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions in their supply chain? Nope. But they've learned that setting big goals drives innovation, and by partnering with their suppliers, they will get there.
  • McDonald's takes a further step to close the loop on its packaging. The world's largest restaurant company, with 37,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries serving more than 69 million customers daily, is aiming to make its packages with renewable, recyclable or certified materials and then ensure that 100 percent of packaging is recycled by 2025. This is a bold, and challenging, step forward that will require partnering with others to achieve—including municipalities, waste haulers, NGOs and customers. Bold goals that address products' full lifecycles recognize the need for outside expertise and collaboration that will help us solve the world's biggest environmental challenges.
  • We Are Still In, in which thousands of companies and communities are stepping out of their comfort zone to comment on policy issues such as the Paris agreement and the Clean Power Plan. They know that smart regulation provides clear pathways for planning and levels the playing field.
  • RE 100, in which 119 major companies, including IKEA, Google, Citibank, Facebook, GM, Nike and Starbucks have committed to powering their businesses with 100 percent renewable energy. Why? Renewable prices are falling, concerns about resiliency are increasing, and smart CEOs are investing in the future, not the past.

2. We're seeing real movement on tackling our toxic chemical problem. For years now you, me and our families have been living in a toxic chemical soup, where tens of thousands of chemicals—many not tested for safety—comprise the myriad of consumer products we use each and every day. The good news? After years of non-action, we're finally seeing companies start the grueling task of identifying the worst offenders in their chemical supply chain, removing them from product formulations and finding safer alternatives as replacements. There's a long way to go here, but here are some first, big steps on the start of that journey:

  • Walmart's Sustainable Chemistry Policy 2.0 is scaling action by setting a strong new commitment to reduce the company's chemical footprint (the total mass of chemicals of concern in their product portfolio) by 10 percent—reducing more than 55 million pounds of priority chemicals from consumable products on their shelves—by 2022.
  • Beauty and Personal Care Leadership group, where companies such as Target, CVS and Sephora have joined together to drive much-needed alignment on a common approach to evaluating product sustainability in this $85 billion industry. In doing so, it will ultimately create clearer market signals for more sustainable products.

3. Innovation is pushing environmentalism to new heights. Emerging technologies and unlikely collaborations are enabling us to observe, measure and solve environmental problems in ways we've never dreamed of before—and take those solutions to scale. Innovations like:

  • Methane detectors mounted on cars, drones and satellites are quantifying and mapping this once-invisible threat to the atmosphere (and to companies' bottom lines).
  • Cheaper renewables, improved battery storage and the advance of Zero Emission Vehicles continue to improve our relationship with energy reduce the environmental impact of our businesses, homes, trucks and cars. At the same time, microgrids coming online are keeping us more resilient in the face of extreme weather events.
  • Blockchain: Business teams are now timing how long it will take before someone brings up blockchain on a call. But it's no joke: Walmart and IBM are already experimenting with how to track food throughout the supply chain, and this is just the very beginning of how it will help green our global shopping cart.

Feeling better yet? If not, here are three, concrete actions you and your company can take in 2018 to become part of this wave of positive change:

1. Publically comment on the Clean Power Plan: Just because the Trump administration repealed it doesn't mean it's dead: They are required by law to replace it, which means the business voice can and will be critically important to what comes next. The deadline has been extended to April 26—your customers, employees and shareholders will reward you for walking the walk.

2. Set science-based sustainability targets: Goals designed to achieve science-based, measurable outcomes will drive tangible innovation in your company, and will show your customers, employees and shareholders that you're actually walking the walk.

3. Partner up and talk about this work: Working together is needed to solve the big challenges we face. Find a like-minded NGO you can work with to jump in and do the hard work of change. Or partner with another company to spark pre-competitive innovation and get change happening now. Finally, talk about it all—the successes, the struggles, the goals and the aspirations. Only when we can learn from each other will we be able to make the kind of progress that we need to make.

So, Happy New Year, all! We've got a lot to do to protect our planet. But there is much to be hopeful for this year that will energize us all to fight this fight.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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