Quantcast
Popular
Even pocket parks in cities (e.g. Duane Park in Lower Manhattan) can shelter wildlife. Read below for ideas about urban biodiversity. Aude / CC BY-SA

Creating a Sustainable Future: 5 Essential Reads

By Jennifer Weeks

Much news about the environment in 2017 focused on controversies over Trump administration actions, such as proposals to promote more use of coal and budget cuts at relevant federal agencies. At the same time, however, many scholars across the U.S. are pursuing innovations that could help create a more sustainable world. Here we spotlight five examples from our 2017 archives.


1. Restoring the Rio Grande

Although many Americans may not realize it, the U.S. and Mexico work together on many environmental issues along their joint border, including drinking water, sanitation and flood control. Gabriel Diaz Montemayor, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, proposed a bolder vision: greening the entire Rio Grande Valley, which forms more than half of the border.

Restoring vegetation along the river and creating more green space along both sides would help improve river flow and water quality, Montemayor wrote. And it could make the border region an attraction that brings Mexicans and Americans together:

"As the Rio Grande advances to the Gulf of Mexico, it cuts through incredibly valuable, beautiful and remote landscapes, including Big Bend National Park in Texas and the Cañon de Santa Elena, Ocampo, and Maderas del Carmen reserves in Mexico. Traveling its length could become a trip comparable to hiking the Appalachian Trail, with opportunities to see recovering natural areas and wildlife and learn from two of the world's richest cultures."

View of Tule Canyon and the Rio Grande from Burro Bluff, Big Bend National ParkNational Park Service

2. Making jet fuel from sugarcane

Jet airplane travel is one of the world's fastest-growing greenhouse gas emissions sources. For this and other reasons, including concerns about oil price spikes, there is growing interest in producing jet fuel from non-petroleum sources.

Researchers at the University of Illinois are working on making jet fuel from sugarcane, an abundant and low-cost source. But they are doing it with a twist. Instead of fermenting cane juice into an alcohol-based fuel, as Brazil already does for motor vehicles, they have engineered the cane to produce oil that can be used to make biodiesel.

This engineered version, which they call lipidcane, could become a lucrative crop. "We calculate that growing lipidcane containing 20 percent oil would be five times more profitable per acre than soybeans, the main feedstock currently used to make biodiesel in the United States, and twice as profitable per acre as corn," the authors wrote. They also are engineering it to be more cold tolerant so that it can be grown on marginal land in the southeastern U.S.

3. A legal right to a clean environment

Are all humans entitled to live in a clean and healthy environment? West Virginia University legal researcher Nicholas Stump and his colleagues are exploring this proposal in a challenging setting: Appalachia, where mining and logging have severely damaged the environment and polluted the air, water and soil. Appalachia is well-suited for a bottom-up, critically informed approach that focuses on human rights at the grassroots level, he wrote:

"Discussing rights at the local level will give people opportunity to describe specific harms they have experienced from activities such as mountaintop removal and fracking. It also will help to promote participatory democracy for citizens who have long been denied real self-determination."

This work is part of West Virginia University's new Appalachian Justice Initiative, which will include research, advocacy and direct legal services and outreach to Appalachian communities. "Our goal is to help people in our region call for laws and actions that actually guarantee the right to a healthy Appalachian environment," Stump explained.

4. Stemming world hunger with marine microalgae

Feeding a growing world population sustainably in the coming decades will be a major environmental challenge. Large-scale farm production pollutes air and water, generates greenhouse gas emissions and degrades soil.

William Moomaw, professor of international environmental policy at Tufts University, and Asaf Tzachor, a Ph.D. candidate at University College London, see marine microalgae as a key untapped resource. These tiny organisms live in fresh and salt water, and form the base of marine food chains. They are the sources of the omega-3 fatty acids and amino acids that humans get by eating fish. Moomaw and Tzachor call for "cutting out the middle fish" and developing foods based directly on microalgae.

"Most algae-based products are marketed in the United States as dietary supplements, but we believe the time has arrived to introduce algae-based foods to the dining table," they wrote.

Microalgae can be grown in open ponds or sealed tubes in a laboratory. Moomaw and Tzachor calculate that producing one kilogram of beef-sourced essential amino acids would require 148,000 liters of freshwater and 125 square meters of fertile land. In contrast, producing the same amount from an omega-3 rich microalgae called Nannochloropsis oculata, raised in an open pond with brackish water, would require only 20 liters of freshwater and 1.6 square meters of nonfertile land.

Growing algae indoors in photobioreactors conserves land and water. IGV Biotech, CC BY-SA

5. Understanding biodiversity in cities

Sustainable strategies for the future don't have to be technically complex or sweeping. Geographer Christopher Swan of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, studies biodiversity in parks, backyards and other natural areas around the city of Baltimore. Swan wants to see what species thrive in cities and how human activities affect them.

As urban dwellers build and remodel houses and develop neighborhoods, they divide urban space into small units with many edges, Swan has found:

"This benefits species that thrive at edges, like white-tailed deer and nuisance vines, but harms others that require larger interior habitats, such as certain birds. As human activities create a more fragmented environment, it becomes increasingly important to create linkages between natural areas, such as preserved forests, to maintain populations and their biodiversity."

Humans also move species around: They bring plants into their yard, and trap and remove nuisance animals such as squirrels.

Swan is working with his students to identify native plant species that can thrive in poor urban soils, and to identify species traits—such as offering habitat for pollinating insects—that can make species valuable in urban settings. With information like this, city managers can restore and support urban wildlife, making cities more inviting places to live.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.


Show Comments ()
Sponsored

How Big Is Your Environmental Footprint?

If you want to make a positive change this Earth Day but don't know where to start, one of best things you can do is take an honest look at your environmental footprint. For instance, how much water are you wasting? How much plastic are you throwing out? How much planet-warming carbon are you producing?

Luckily, there are many online calculators that crunch through your consumption habits. While the final tally might be daunting, it's the first step in living more sustainably.

Keep reading... Show less
Shopping at farmers markets can help minimize your waste.

6 Simple Tips to Reduce Waste So Every Day Is Earth Day

Earth Day 2018 is focused on the all-important theme of reducing plastic litter and pollution. Of course, we shouldn't just reduce our plastic footprint, we should try to reduce waste in all shapes, sizes and forms. It's said that the average American generates a staggering 4 pounds of trash every day—but you don't have to be part of that statistic.

Here are six entirely manageable tips and tricks to help you cut waste.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

Earth Day Tips From the EcoWatch Team

At EcoWatch, every day is Earth Day. We don't just report news about the environment—we aim to make the world a better place through our own actions. From conserving water to cutting waste, here are some tips and tricks from our team on living mindfully and sustainably.

Lorraine Chow, reporter

Favorite Product: Dr. Bronner's Castile soap

It's Earth-friendly, lasts for months and can be used as soap, shampoo, all-purpose cleaner and even mouthwash (but I wouldn't recommend that).

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Will Rose / Greenpeace

7 Things You Can Do to Create a Plastic-Free Future

By Jen Fela

We're celebrating a huge moment in the global movement for a plastic-free future: More than one million people around the world have called on big corporations to do their part to end single-use plastics.

Now we're taking the next big step. We're setting an ambitious new goal: A Million Acts of Blue.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular

5 Environmental Victories to Inspire You This Earth Day

Planet Earth is at a crisis point. Researchers say we have to begin reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 if we want to meet the temperature goals outlined in the Paris agreement and avoid catastrophic climate change.

The work to be done can seem overwhelming. A survey published this week found that only 6 percent of Americans think we will succeed in reducing global warming.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
A fin whale surfacing in Greenland. Aqqa Rosing-Asvid / CC BY 2.0

Iceland to Resume Killing Endangered Fin Whales

By Kitty Block

Iceland seems to be the most confused of nations when it comes to whales. On the one hand it attracts international tourists from all over the world to go out and see whales as part of their encounters with Iceland's many natural wonders. On the other hand it kills whales for profit, with some portion of the kill even being fed to some of the same tourists in restaurants and cafes.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
A.millepora in the Great Barrier Reef. Petra Lundgren, Juan C Vera, Lesa Peplow, Stephanie Manel and Madeleine JH van Oppen

Hope for Great Barrier Reef? New Study Shows Genetic Diversity of Coral Could Extend Our Chance to Save It

A study published Wednesday had some frightening news for the Great Barrier Reef—the iconic marine ecosystem is at "unprecedented" risk of collapse due to climate change after a 2016 heat wave led to the largest mass coral bleaching event in the reef's history.

Keep reading... Show less
Business
Lyft

Lyft Announces Carbon Neutrality Drive

Lyft will make all of its rides carbon neutral starting immediately by investing millions of dollars in projects that offset its emissions, the company announced Thursday.

The ridesharing service, which is part of the We Are Still coalition, provides more than 10 million rides worldwide each week. "We feel immense responsibility for the profound impact that Lyft will have on our planet," founders John Zimmer and Logan Green wrote in a Medium post.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!