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Samso: World’s First 100% Renewable Energy-Powered Island Is a Beacon for Sustainable Communities

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Little did I know after being invited by Sustainia to participate in a climate symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark, that I'd have the opportunity to visit Samso, the first island in the world to be completely powered by renewable energy.

At the climate event, I sat next to Soren Hermansen, director of Samso's Energy Academy and mastermind behind the transformation of his hometown, as the group discussed new ways to communicate the seriousness of global warming in anticipation of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that will be released this October.

I shared with Hermansen my desire to visit Samso, as I wanted to see firsthand the progress the island has made since implementing their master plan more than 16 years ago. Within an hour, after several emails were exchanged, plans were set for me to spend one night and one day touring the island later that week.

After a couple hour train ride from Copenhagen to Kalunborg, I boarded a ferry and arrived in Samso two hours later. I was met by Jesper Roug Kristensen, Samso Energy Academy's business accounting and development manager. Already aware that Kristensen was a generous man, as he offered to host me at his family's beautiful home, I was still pleasantly surprised by the incredible dinner and breakfast offered to me, and the following day's itinerary that was arranged so I could meet the many people who have contributed to making Samso a world leader in sustainability.

The next day began with Kristensen providing an overview of Samso's 10 year Renewable Energy Island Project while we ate homemade bread and jam, local cheese, fresh squeezed organic orange juice and of course espresso. The project began after Denmark's Minister for the Environment—Svend Auken—returned from the Kyoto Climate Talks in Japan, enthusiastic about his country reducing its carbon emissions. In 1997, Auken announced a competition asking local communities or islands to present the most realistic and realizable plan for a 100 percent transition to self-sufficiency through renewable energy. Four islands and one peninsula participated in the competition. In October of that year, Samso was announced the winner and received funding by the Danish Energy Authority to formulate the details of their master plan.

Ten years later, Samso was generating more electricity from renewable energy than it consumed, mainly from 11 onshore and 10 offshore wind turbines, totaling 34 megawatts. Samso's CO2 footprint is negative 12 tons per inhabitant, which includes the 10 offshore turbines that were built to compensate for carbon emissions from the transportation sector. The average CO2 footprint in Denmark is 10 tons per inhabitant. If the offshore turbines were not included, the Samso footprint would be 4.5 tons per inhabitant. Samso's longterm goal is to be a fossil free island, phasing out oil, gas and coal by 2030.

After listening to Kristensen for nearly an hour, it was clear that the success of the island project was based on its bottom up approach. Nine of the 11 onshore wind turbines were bought by farmers, and the remaining two bought by more than 500 people who live on the island or have summer homes there. Each 1 megawatt wind turbine powers approximately 630 homes.

Ten, 2.3 megawatt offshore wind turbines were installed more than two miles south of Samso to offset the CO2 emissions from the transportation sector on the island, including cars, ferries and farming equipment. Five of the offshore wind turbines were purchased by the Samso municipality, three by Samso farmers and two by an investment company selling smaller shares to stakeholders.

Ownership of the wind turbines by locals made them an integral part of the project and helped contribute to the success of the master plan. Samso has become a global example of how to create a sustainable community through local ownership and community engagement.

After one more espresso, we were off to visit one of the onshore wind turbines owned by a local farmer.

“We are now standing here in front of Jorgen Tranberg's private wind turbine. He's a big farmer, but if you ask him if he's a farmer, he says 'No, I'm an energy producer.' He also has a lot of solar cells on his roof," said Kristensen.

Kristensen detailed how the 11 onshore wind turbines were placed democratically, so if the turbines needed to be moved a little to the right or a little to the left to make everyone in the community happy, that's what they did. They had a lot of coffee together, and sometimes beer, to discuss how their island could implement renewable energy and other sustainability initiatives. The approach was to ensure buy-in from all the locals, and it worked.

Tranberg grows corn, raises cattle and produces biomass for the local district's heating plants. He delivers straw to the plants on contract, instead of burning it in his fields. The transition to local heating plants provided additional income to farmers and reduced overall carbon emissions by making a waste by-product a commodity for the farmer.

Tranberg also grows potatoes, which are called Samso Gold. Potatoes are a basic crop of Samso, especially when farmers grow first crop potatoes under plastic and harvest them just two months after planting. The potatoes are then sold to restaurants in Copenhagen for around 1,000 Danish Kroner per kilo ($185 USD), making a very nice income for the potato farmer.

I enjoyed seeing where these Samso Gold potatoes were grown, as I had been told at a restaurant in Copenhagen, “You haven't had a potato until you've had a Samso potato."

The next stop was to one of the four district heating plants. Three of the heating facilities use straw, a by-product of growing barley, and one uses wood chips from local forests in Samso combined with solar thermal panels used to heat water. One plant is owned by 240 households, one by a private farmer and two by the energy company NRGi. Conversation is underway regarding the ownership model of the district plants with thoughts on new heating concepts that would combine straw and solar power with heating pumps. These plants would use less straw, thereby providing the opportunity to build a new biogas plant that would fuel cars and a new gas ferry that will soon be available in addition to the diesel-powered ferry.

"This local district heating plant was established in 2004 and 2005, costing around 16 million Danish Kroner, or $2.9 million USD. They are using straw as the main resource for heating. Each straw block weighs about 600 kilos [1,300 pounds], which is the equivalent to 200 liters [53 gallons] of oil. So instead of sending the money down to Saudi Arabia, we actually keep the money here in Samso. It's a better solution for the locals," shared Kristensen as he stood in front of a mountain of straw.

"This plant uses around 1,200 tons per year and services 240 homes. It is owned by the community."

Our next stop was an organic produce farm. Though the majority of crops grown on the island are conventional—using a significant amount of pesticides—there's a growing movement towards organically grown produce, dairy products and grains.

Kristensen took me to the organic farm Okologiske Grontsager (translation: ecological vegetables), which is run by Johannes Find Loeb and Rasmus Lund Jensen. Loeb and Jensen recently finished organic farming school and were given the opportunity to rent this 35 acre farm, which has been organic since 1987.

Loeb and Jensen received a warm welcome when they arrived in Samso as there's great concern regarding the next generation of farmers. The population of Samso has been decreasing every year with a current count of 3,750 year-round residents. Kristensen said it's refreshing to see young people on the island working to improve the soil and becoming part of Samso's sustainability initiatives.

The plan is for the land to be bought by a foundation to ensure it will remain organic and provide opportunities for younger generations to farm. Due to the high cost of farms, it's almost impossible for new generations to take over. This new ownership model is being developed to attract new generations to grow organic food.

Loeb and Jensen are using 125 different varieties of seeds. They plan to sell their produce to stores in Aarhus, a city on the mainland northwest of Samso, and to local Samso restaurants. They will also have a vegetable stand near the harbor to sell produce to the 75,000 tourists that visit Samso from June to August.

We stopped for lunch at the Energy Academy where Kristensen and Hermansen work. The Energy Academy functions as a conference center where companies, scientists and politicians can come to discuss renewable energy, energy savings and new technologies, and learn firsthand how Samso successfully implemented their 10-year renewable energy plan combined with its current focus of becoming a fossil free island by 2030.

Inspiration is felt on many different levels at the Energy Academy. In addition to a wealth of information to help ignite the most elaborate sustainability plans, the building itself eloquently showcases green building principles. It has a natural ventilation system and uses rainwater to flush toilets and provides hot water through a small thermal solar system. Walls and windows are highly insulated to minimize energy consumption and the building is heated by the local straw-based district heating plant. All electric appliances are A-class energy savers, the electric lighting is low energy and the windows are positioned to maximize passive solar energy. Electricity is supplied by a battery of PV solar cells, supplemented by Samso grid electricity, which for the most part is delivered by the island wind turbines.

We lunched with a group of people who live on several different islands surrounding Finland that was visiting the Energy Academy to learn from the experiences of Samso in hopes of implementing similar plans back home.

While eating another delicious meal, I learned about the many challenges faced in Finland to gain support for renewable energy projects. After coffee and dessert, Kristensen quickly showed me the rest of the Energy Academy and we were on our way to another local farm.

"My husband is a fourth generation farmer. He has been a farmer for many years and has been an organic farmer since 2002. He makes wheat for bread production," said Ida C. Holst who toured us around her farm where they grow wheat, rye and oats.

"This windmill is ours. My husband was one of a few farmers that had the possibility of getting his own windmill. He saw it as a very good investment."

Their company, Samso Mel, sells organic flour to retail outlets and restaurants on the island. They recently began selling their products direct to consumers via their website and to other parts of Denmark.

On our drive from Samso Mel, we quickly stopped at one of the city buildings where they have a 120 kilowatt solar carport that powers electrical vehicles owned by the Samso municipality.

Photo credit: Stefanie Spear

Next, I met Bent Degn Aage Mikkelsen who produces organic cheese and butter on his dairy farm on the south end of the island. He makes three different types of cheese and sells it to restaurants, especially in the summer when the tourists flock to the island.

I met with Mikkelsen at the Oekologisk Samso (translation: Samso Eco-Store) where his dairy products are sold along with other sustainable products from around the island. The eco-store is in the center of town and owned by a unique community of farmers and consumers. Monthly meetings are held at this location to educate community members about the importance of organic products and sustainability initiatives underway.

The idea of Organic Samso, where organic farmers from the island and outside experts established a common agricultural fund, was born at one of these meetings in the fall of 2012 in collaboration with the Energy Academy.

The main objective of the fund is to purchase the Okologiske Grøntsager farm so that it can be rented by organic farmers and increase the availability of organic food on the island, while also creating green jobs and increasing the Samso population.

In the winter of 2013, the project was expanded to include organic consumers, personal gardeners and sustainable living communities.

The last official stop was to the Samso Golf Club. Kristensen, an avid golfer, was very much looking forward to showing me all the sustainability initiatives at the local golf course.

First I had a look at the solar powered lawn mower, which I later got to drive. We were toured around on electric golf carts by the manager of the grounds, Greenkeeper Thomas Pihlkjaer. He explained how they use seaweed liquid extract instead of chemical fertilizers and are experimenting with different types of clover. The clover captures nitrogen from the air thereby fertilizing the grass. No irrigation is needed, so the grass stays green even during drought, and no herbicides are needed as the clover out-competes weeds.

The 3.4 kilowatt solar system powers a pump to bring water to other parts of the golf course for irrigation. The old pumps at the golf course have been replaced by new modern pumps saving an estimated 30 percent of electricity.

With just a little time left before I needed to board the ferry, Kristensen took me to a beautiful park, Stavns Fjord Fredning Og Vildtreservat (translation: Stavns Fjord Wildlife and Nature Reserve), and we visited the island's lighthouse.

For only spending 20 hours on Samso, I clearly got to see a lot. Thanks to Kristensen for touring me around the island and introducing me to the many people working to make Samso one of the world's most sustainable communities. The Samso Energy Academy is a beacon for the rest of the world, illustrating how we can create sustainable communities through local ownership and local engagement.

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New research shows that there's actually a larger quantity of plastic in the ocean than previously thought. Susan White / USFWS / Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Elizabeth Claire Alberts

In 1997, Charles Moore was sailing a catamaran from Hawaii to California when he and his crew got stuck in windless waters in the North Pacific Ocean. As they motored along, searching for a breeze to fill their sails, Moore noticed that the ocean was speckled with "odd bits and flakes," as he describes it in his book, Plastic Ocean. It was plastic: drinking bottles, fishing nets, and countless pieces of broken-down objects.

"It wasn't an eureka moment … I didn't come across a mountain of trash," Moore told Mongabay. "But there was this feeling of unease that this material had got [as] far from human civilization as it possibly could."

Captain Charles Moore looking at a piece of floating plastic in the ocean. Algalita Marine Research and Education

Moore, credited as the person who discovered what's now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, returned to the same spot two years later on a citizen science mission. When he and his crew collected water samples, they found that, along with larger "macroplastics," the seawater was swirling with tiny plastic particles: microplastics, which are defined as anything smaller than 5 millimeters but bigger than 1 micron, which is 1/1000th of a millimeter. Microplastics can form when larger pieces of plastics break down into small particles, or when tiny, microscopic fibers detach from polyester clothing or synthetic fishing gear. Other microplastics are deliberately manufactured, such as the tiny plastic beads in exfoliating cleaners.

"That's when we really had the eureka moment," Moore said. "When we pulled in that first trawl, which was outside of what we thought was going to be the center [of the gyre], and found it was full of plastic. Then we realized, 'Wow, this is a serious situation.'"

Captain Charles Moore holding up a jar of plastic-filled seawater from a research expedition in 2009. Algalita Marine Research and Education

Since Moore's discovery of the plastic-swirling gyres, there's been a growing amount of research to try and understand the scale of the plastic pollution issue, including several studies from 2020. This new research shows that there's actually a larger quantity of plastic in the ocean than previously thought, and that the plastic even enters the atmosphere and blows back onto land with the sea breeze. Recent studies also indicate that plastic is infiltrating our bodies through food and drinking water. The upshot is that plastic is ubiquitous in the ocean, air, food supply, and even in our own bodies. The new picture that is emerging, scientists say, is of a biosphere permeated with plastic particles right down to the very tissues of humans and other living things, with consequences both known and unknown for the lifeforms on our planet.

How Much Is Really in the Ocean?

In the past 70 years, virgin plastic production has increased 200-fold, and has grown at a rate of 4% each year since 2000, according to a 2017 study in Science Advances. Only a small portion of plastics are recycled, and about a third of all plastic waste ends up in nature, another study suggests.

While new research indicates that plastic is leaking into every part of the natural world, the ocean has long been a focal point of the plastic pollution issue. But how much is actually in the sea?

Moore says it's "virtually impossible" to get an accurate estimate because of the ongoing production of plastic, and the tendency for plastic to break down into microplastics.

"This count is constantly increasing, and it's increasing at a very rapid rate," he said. "It's a moving target."

One commonly cited study, for which Moore acted as a co-author, estimated that there are more than 5.25 trillion plastic pieces floating in the ocean, weighing more than 250,000 tons, based on water samples and visual surveys conducted on 24 expeditions in five subtropical gyres. But even at the time of publication in 2014, Moore said he knew "that was an underestimate."

A more recent study published this year, led by researchers at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, indicates that there's a lot more microplastic in the ocean than we previously thought. When taking samples from the ocean, most researchers use nets with a mesh size of 333 microns, which is small enough to catch microplastics, but big enough to avoid clogging. But the team from Plymouth Marine Laboratory used much finer 100-micron nets to sample the surface waters in the Gulf of Mexico and the English Channel.

"Our nets clogged too, so we used shorter trawls and a specialized technique for removing all the plankton — microscopic plants and biota — from the sample to reveal the microplastics," Matthew Cole, a marine ecologist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and author of the study, told Mongabay in an email. "This process is quite time-consuming, so it'd be challenging for all samples collected to be treated this way."

The research team at Plymouth Marine Laboratory collecting water samples. Matthew Cole

The researchers found there were 2.5 to 10 times more microplastics in their samples compared to samples that used 333-micron nets.

"If this relationship held true throughout the global ocean, we can multiply existing global microplastic concentrations ascertained using 333-micron nets, to predict that globally there are 125 trillion plastics floating in the ocean," Cole said. "However, we know these plastics keep on degrading, and these smaller plastics would be missed by our smaller 100 micron net — so the true number will be far greater."

Another team of researchers delved down to the seafloor in the Tyrrhenian Sea in the Mediterranean to take sediment samples. They found that microplastic accumulated at depths of 600 to 900 meters (about 2,000 to 3,000 feet), and that certain spots in the ocean, termed "microplastic hotspots," could hold up to 1.9 million pieces per square meter — the highest level ever to be recorded on the seafloor. The results of this study were published in Science in June 2020.

"We were shocked by the sheer number of [microplastics]," Ian Kane, the study's lead author, told Mongabay in May. "1.9 million is enormous. Previous studies have documented much smaller numbers, and … just talked about plastic fragments, but it's fibers that are really the more insidious of the microplastics. These are the things that are more readily consumed and absorbed into organisms' flesh."

A water sample containing plastic. Algalita Marine Research and Education

While these studies shine light on the fact that there's definitely more plastic in the ocean than we think, it still doesn't complete the picture, says Steve Allen, a microplastic expert and doctoral candidate at the University of Strathclyde in the U.K. Large quantities of microplastics still appear to be "missing" from the ocean, he said. For instance, one study suggested that 99.8% of oceanic plastic sinks below the ocean surface layer, making it difficult to detect, but Allen says this doesn't fully explain what's happening to all of the plastic that enters the ocean.

"We're finding some of it," Allen told Mongabay. "But we're … trying to explain where the rest of it went."

Allen and his wife, fellow scientist Deonie Allen, also from the University of Strathclyde, have been working to find their answer, or at least part of it, in an unlikely place: up in the sky.

‘Microplastics Are in Our Air’

As the ocean churns and breaks waves, air is trapped in tiny bubbles. When those bubbles break at the sea's surface, water rushes to fill the void, and this causes tiny, micro-sized particles, like flecks of sea salt or bacteria, to burst into the atmosphere. A new study, published in PLOS ONE, suggests that microplastics are entering the air in the same way.

"[Bubbles] act a little bit like velcro," Deonie Allen told Mongabay. "Rather than the bubble going through the plastic soup and coming to the surface and not bringing any of the plastics with it, it actually collects [the plastic] and hangs on to it as it comes up. And when it bursts, the energy from the creation of the jet to fill the hole that's left in the sea … is what gives it the force to eject the plastic up into the atmosphere."

A lot of previous research on plastic pollution in the ocean has assumed that plastic remains in the seawater and sediment, or gets washed ashore. But this study takes a pioneering step to suggest that ocean plastic is entering the atmosphere through the sea breeze.

"This was just the next logical step to see whether what we're putting into the ocean was actually going to stay there, or whether it would come back," Steve Allen said.

A device used to collect air and mist samples to test for microplastics. Steve Allen

To obtain the necessary data for this study, the research team collected air and sea spray samples on the French Atlantic coast, both onshore and offshore. They found that there was a high potential for ocean microplastics to be released into the air, and suggested that each year, 136,000 tons of microplastics were blowing ashore across the world, although Steve Allen said this number was "extremely conservative."

This study specifically looked at microplastics, but the much smaller nanoplastics are likely going into air by the same means, according to the Allens. But detecting nanoplastics in the water or air can be challenging.

While this is the first study to look at the ocean as a source of atmospheric plastics, other research has examined the capacity of land-based plastics to leach into the air. One study, authored by the Allens and other researchers, found that microplastics were present in the air in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, even though the testing site was at least 90 kilometers (56 miles) from any land-based source of plastic, such as a landfill. This suggests that the wind can carry microplastics over long distances.

"We know that microplastics are in our air everywhere, from the looks of it," Deonie Allen said.

More research needs to be done to understand the implications of atmospheric microplastics on human health, but according to the Allens, it can't be good for us.

A "cloud catcher" used to collect data for research on microplastics in the atmosphere. Steve Allen

"Microplastics are really good at picking up the contaminants in the surrounding environment — phthalates, flame retardants, heavy metals," Deonie Allen said. "That will get released into the body, relatively effectively."

Enrique Ortiz, a Washington, D.C.-based ecologist and journalist who writes on the plastic pollution issue, says that this evidence should be a "wake up" call to humanity.

"The oceans are picking up the plastic that we throw in it, and that's what we're breathing," Ortiz told Mongabay "And that's the part that really … amazes me."

"But it's not just happening in coastal cities," he added. "No matter where you go, [even] in the middle of the Arctic … the human imprint is already there."

We're not just inhaling microplastics through the air we breathe — we're also getting it through the water we drink and the food we eat.

‘Our Life Is Plasticized’

Plastic waste isn't just leaking into the ocean; it's also polluting freshwater systems and even raining or snowing down from the sky after getting absorbed into the atmosphere, according to another study led by Steve and Deonie Allen. With microplastics being so ubiquitous, it should come as no surprise that they are also present in the food and water we drink.

Drinking water, including tap and bottled water, is the largest source of plastic in our diet, with the average person consuming about 1,769 tiny microplastic particles each week, according to a 2019 report supported by WWF. Other primary sources of microplastics include shellfish, beer and salt.

A new study published this year in Environmental Research found that microplastics were even present in common fruits and vegetables. Apples had one of the highest microplastic counts, with an average of 195,500 plastic particles per gram, while broccoli and carrots averaged more than 100,000 particles per gram.

"The possibility of plastics in our fruit and vegetables is extremely alarming," John Hocevar, ocean campaign director for Greenpeace USA, said in a statement. "This should prompt additional studies to assess how much plastic we are consuming through our produce each day and examine how it is impacting our health."

"Decades of plastic use have contaminated our air, water, and soil," Hocevar added. "Eating just a bite of an apple could now mean eating hundreds of thousands of bits of plastic at the same time."

Through normal water and food consumption, it's estimated that the average person consumes about 5 grams of plastic each week, equivalent to the size of a credit card, according to the WWF report.

"Plastic is everywhere," Thava Palanisami, a microplastics researcher at the University of Newcastle, Australia, and contributor to the WWF report, told Mongabay. "We live with plastic and our life is plasticized — that we know. But we don't know what it does to human health. That's the biggest question mark."

While it's not entirely clear how plastic affects human health, research suggests that the inhalation of fibrous microplastics can lead to respiratory tract inflammation. And another study, referenced in the WWF report, shows that fish and other marine animals with high concentrations of microplastics in their respiratory and digestive tracts have much higher mortality rates. Another study, published in 2020, indicates that plastic accumulates in the muscle tissue of fish.

"If you look at what happens, for example, in fish — it [plastic] stays in their muscles," Ortiz said. "It's scary. If you look at the numbers, you're eating something in the order of one kilo of plastic every three years. I wonder, in our lifetime … if a percentage of our weight will be plastic that is still in our muscles."

"The problem is serious," Palanisami said. "We've got to stop using unwanted plastic and manage plastic waste properly, and … work on new plastic alternates."

Stemming the Tide  

Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business at WWF, and leader of the organization's packaging and material science program, says the key to curbing the plastic pollution issue is making sure that plastic doesn't leak into nature in the first place.

"If you had a leaky faucet, would you bring out the mop first, or would you turn off the water?" Simon told Mongabay. "We're trying to stem that tide of plastic flowing into the ocean and into nature in general … but at the same time, trying to identify the different root causes of that leakage."

While Simon says there are various ways to try and stop plastic from entering the natural world, such as well-managed recycling and composting programs, she also said that large companies can play a critical role in helping to reduce plastic waste. WWF is currently spearheading a new program called ReSource, launched in 2019, that helps analyze companies' plastic footprints in order to work toward sustainable solutions. The program's website says 100 companies could prevent 50 million tons of plastic waste.

"We have three targets that we're looking at when we're partnering with companies," Simon said. "One, get rid of what you don't need. At the end of the day, we do need to reduce our demand for virgin nonrenewable plastic. Once you get rid of that, you think about the stuff that you do need — the things [for which] plastic is the right material choice. Where am I sourcing that from? Am I getting it from recycled content? Am I getting it from a sustainably-sourced bio base, or is it virgin non-renewable [plastic]? And then finally … how are you, as a company … making sure it comes back? Are you designing it in a way that it's technically recyclable into the places that it's ending up?"

Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore. Susan White / USFWS

While recycled plastic may seem like a satisfactory alternative to virgin plastic, a new study, published in July 2020, showed that children's toys made out of recycled plastic contained high levels of toxic chemicals, comparable to levels found in hazardous waste.

Moore, who has been studying plastic pollution since his discovery of the floating debris in the North Pacific Ocean, says he doesn't believe there's an easy fix to this issue, especially when it comes to the businesses that are producing large amounts of plastic.

"There's no change that corporations can make under the current system that will successfully combat plastic pollution," Moore said. "There is no technical fix to the plastic problem. It's not in the corporate portfolio to reduce sales of your products — the corporate portfolio is about increasing sales. The idea that [corporations] can be convinced to reduce their production and sale of the products that they make is a fantasy."

However, Moore says a solution could be found in "radical change," and that this moment of time, with the Black Lives Matter movement spreading across the world, could provide the opportunity for that change.

"Now is the time when a world historical revolution would be possible, when the people of the world could unite to change the system as a whole," Moore said.

"There won't be a techno fix and science won't develop … a new product that will get us out of the problem of plastic pollution," he said. "It will only come with the world as a whole agreeing to charter a new course towards a non-polluting future."

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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