A refreshing approach to the bacterial exposure issue

Readers may recall the media uproar over a scientist’s finding of elevated levels of bacteria on the structures of a kids’ playroom associated with a well-known brand of fast food restaurant. GallonDaily’s editor was sceptical, not about the findings but over the interpretation that children were at high risk of sickness caused by the bacteria. Now the results of research undertaken in the New York city subway that found much more elevated levels of many more types of bacteria, some previously unknown to science, are being reported in what GallonDaily considers to be a much more responsible fashion.

The research article, with the unhelpful (to ordinary people) title of Geospatial Resolution of Human and Bacterial Diversity with City-Scale Metagenomics, is the first article published as part of a new Elsevier journal Cell Systems. The researchers, a huge team led by Weill Cornell Medical College professor Christopher Mason, took swab samples at every station in the New York City subway system and in some other locations around the City. Among the findings:

  • identified organisms spanned 1,688 bacterial, viral, archaeal (a type of single-celled microorganisms), and eukaryotic (a broad category of microorganism) taxa (species).
  • nearly half of the DNA (48%) identified does not match any known organism.
  • predicted ancestry of human DNA left on subway surfaces can recapitulate U.S. Census demographic data, and bacterial signatures can reveal a station’s history, such as marine-associated bacteria in a hurricane-flooded station.
  • some evidence of pathogens, eg the bacterium that causes anthrax, was found. but a lack of reported cases in NYC suggests that the pathogens represent a normal, urban microbiome.
  • densely populated, highly trafficked areas of human transit show strong evidence of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and some presence of potentially pathogenic organisms.

The authors state that their baseline metagenomic map of NYC could help long-term disease surveillance, bioterrorism threat mitigation, and health management in the built environment of cities.

GallonDaily particularly applauds the author’s conclusion that the potentially infectious agents found in the subway and elsewhere in the City are not creating widespread sickness or disease. Instead, they likely represent normal co-habitants of a shared urban infrastructure, and they may even be essential to maintaining such an environment and likely represent a normal “healthy” metagenome profile of a city. They conclude: “Indeed, these data indicate that the subway, in general, is primarily a safe surface. Although evidence of B. anthracis, Y. pestis, MRSA, and other CDC infectious agents was found on the subway system in multiple stations, the results do not suggest that the plague or anthrax is prevalent, nor do they suggest that NYC residents are at risk.”

Maybe other researchers who go around testing public surfaces for evidence of infectious agents will take notice of this perspective and, more important though less likely, perhaps society can begin to wean itself off its current infatuation with antibacterial cleaning agents, at least some of which are causing more environmental harm and more evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria that may in future cause a much greater problem that the bacteria presently ubiquitous in urban environments.

The full article can be found at http://www.cell.com/pb/assets/raw/journals/research/cell-systems/do-not-delete/CELS1_FINAL.pdf




Petroleum spills may cause release of arsenic to groundwater

Scientists from the Department of Geosciences at Virginia Tech and the US Geological Survey have found that the natural breakdown of petroleum hydrocarbons underground, such as from petroleum spills or from fracking wastewater, can promote the chemical release of naturally occurring arsenic into groundwater. Normally arsenic is tightly bound to soils and presents no environmental or health risk but the metabolization of carbon–rich petroleum by microbes in anoxic (low oxygen) conditions can cause the release of the arsenic into groundwater flows. The article provides information on the likely chemical processes involved.

Fortunately the arsenic may be readsorbed by contact with downstream soils but the researchers theorize that once released the arsenic may be much more easily made soluble by other chemistry going on in the soil layers. The research found arsenic concentrations associated with a hydrocarbon plume of up to 23 times the current drinking water standard.

Arsenic is known to be toxic and is a powerful carcinogen associated with numerous forms of skin, bladder, and lung cancer. It is a common and problematic contaminant of drinking water in several regions of the world.

An abstract of the research article, published in the journal Groundwater, and a link to the full article, fee or subscription required, is available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gwat.12316/abstract


Carbon tax or cap and trade?

The debate over carbon tax or cap and trade seems, with the support of many business organizations, to be tilting in Canada in favour of carbon tax. GallonDaily wishes to present a contrary opinion, in favour of cap and trade.

Before making our key argument we wish to stress:

  • either economic instrument is better than nothing. GHG emitters in most of Canada currently experience no mandated carbon emission reduction incentive
  • both tools are complex: a well designed program of either genre is better than a poorly designed program of any kind.
  • program design can easily tilt our opinion from the one to the other.

Having stated the above, let us explain briefly why we lean towards cap and trade.

Experience suggests that entrepreneurs, and business people in general, are much more incented (incentivised, if you must) by the opportunity to earn direct profits than they are by the opportunity for reducing costs. If that is not obvious, let us suggest as an example the relatively poor uptake of energy and other input efficiency programs. Even when a company is presented with the opportunity to reduce costs by a substantial amount through an energy or resource conservation program the likelihood is that they will sit on their hands until the government either mandates the program or provides a substantial economic incentive over and above the cost savings that the company will realize. Saving money is not something that corporate leaders get too excited about, at least until it comes to laying off employees.

On the other hand, if there is a new product on the radar or if a company faces the opportunity to increase revenue, many business leaders and entrepreneurs get very excited. More is better!

A carbon tax falls into the first category. The tax will increase costs and many companies will face the opportunity to reduce costs by reducing carbon emissions, but they will not face an opportunity to increase revenues or sell more products. A cap and trade program, on the other hand, presents carbon emitters and a multitude of entrepreneurs with an opportunity to make money and increase revenues by selling carbon credits and by implementing initiatives which create carbon credits. There is already evidence that this excites many CEOs and independent entrepreneurs much more than a less tangible reduction of costs. Cap and trade creates a new market for products – carbon credits – whereas a tax presents only a much more uncertain (or so it seems) opportunity to reduce input costs.

Given the above, we’ll plump for a cap and trade program. We are not surprised that many industry associations plump for the carbon tax, mainly because many industry associations are fundamentally anti-competitive, even if they expose that tendency in very muted ways.

GallonDaily supports a competitive marketplace in goods and services associated with a low carbon economy. Our 26 and more years of experience leads us to predict that we will see much more competition for low carbon goods and services, as well as products such as carbon credits, arise from a cap and trade program than we will from a carbon tax initiative. We hope that governments currently considering economic instruments for a low carbon economy are listening and will see the benefit of a competitive marketplace in low carbon instruments such as carbon credits.

The above is a GallonDaily opinion column.

Appropriate use of compost can sequester a large quantity of carbon dioxide

Research at the University of California, Berkeley, has shown that proper use of compost on rangelands can sequester very large quantities of carbon dioxide.

The researchers have found that if a quarter-inch to one-half inch layer of compost were applied to 5 percent of California’s rangelands, it would sequester 28 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere—the equivalent to the annual emissions of 6 million cars. California’s grasslands evolved under the influence of with great herds of ungulates, tule elk among them. These herbivores would typically graze an area intensely, then move on. This pattern resulted in the periodic “harrowing” (with hooves) and fertilizing (with dung) of the land, encouraging the lush growth of native grasses which sequester carbon more effectively than the dense weeds that grow on vacant lands.

One study compared soil carbon levels at 35 sites on beef cattle and dairy operations in Marin County, California. They found a range of carbon levels, but the sites that registered a lot of carbon had one thing in common: Ranchers and farmers had spread raw manure on the land. Even though raw manure is known to emit prodigious quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, somehow carbon was getting down into the soil—and staying there. A study using compost found that four years after application, 90 percent of the compost’s carbon was still in the soil. Computer models indicated carbon levels would remain high for 30 to 100 years as a result of a single application of compost. Surprisingly most of the carbon did not come from the compost, it came from the atmosphere. The compost, it turned out, was a catalyst for a cycle of sequestration of atmospheric carbon.

Now the American Carbon Registry has certified application of compost to rangelands as a technology appropriate for production of saleable carbon credits to the voluntary carbon credit market. This means that, in an economic framework known as ‘carbon farming’, ranch owners can earn income by applying compost to their land.

An interesting article on this research is available at http://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/just-in/2014-11-19/new-global-warming-remedy-turning-rangelands-carbon-sucking

While this research comes from California it is quite possible that similar results could be obtained in Canada, especially on the prairies where large herds of bison were once common but have now almost completely disappeared. The presence of the bison maintained much higher soil carbon levels, and more ecologically sound and productive plant communities, than modern day agriculture. The California researchers note that their findings run counter to conventional wisdom among some climate change activists who tend to view cattle – major producers of methane – as a part of the problem. Their research suggests that rangelands, essential to cattle production, could be a major tool for addressing climate change. Businesses that send food waste to compost facilities instead of to landfill, with the compost subsequently going to agricultural land, could be making a more significant contribution to mitigation of climate change than previously recognized.


Some multinationals are endorsing and promoting green power

Under the name RE100 a group of international business leaders are making firm commitments to be 100% renewable as an integral part of their business strategies. Corporate partners of RE100 currently include IKEA, Swiss RE, BT, Commerzbank, Formula E, H&M, Sarasin, KPN, Mars, Nestle, Philips, Reed Elsevier, SAP, SGS, and YOOX Group. More details about the partners of RE100 and the actions they are taking towards being 100% renewable powered at http://there100.org/actionat RE100 has recently published a 2015 Briefing Report describing current global trends in corporate demand for, and investment in, renewable power. Among the key points made:

  • the smartest companies are making firm commitments to be 100% renewable as an integral part of their business strategies.
  • such decisions will help them meet their future energy needs in a carbon-constrained world.
  • the journey to 100% renewable is not an easy one but it is achievable; and the rewards are demonstrably worth the commitment required.
  • the International Energy Agency suggests that to stay within a two-degree global temperature rise scenario, 42% of electricity must be generated from renewables by 2030, and 57% by 2050.
  • a report from sustainability non-profit Ceres found 14% of the Fortune 100 have specific renewable energy commitments.
  • the biggest energy users included in the dataset used for this report are making the largest investments in their own renewables installations. This suggests companies see real value in direct investment in renewable power, whether they are on-site or off-site installations, and prefer direct investment to paying higher and likely rising energy costs through existing power providers.
  • the most financially attractive direct investments made by the companies reviewed in the data used for this report are in biomass energy to produce heat and power for industrial processes. However, solar projects are also proving popular, and in some cases, wind makes commercial sense.
  • across all business sectors, working with electricity companies and power providers to set up power purchase agreements is a popular choice for companies that want to switch to renewable power, but don’t want to invest directly in power generation.
  • the total investment in renewable power technologies from companies included in the data analysis for this report amounted to US$9.8 billion.

The 13 page RE100 2015 Briefing Report can be downloaded at http://there100.org/resources

Renewable power now competitive with fossil power

According to a report just published by the International Renewable Energy Agency, the cost-competitiveness of renewable power generation technologies has reached historic levels. Biomass for power, hydropower, geothermal and onshore wind can all now provide electricity competitively compared to fossil fuel-fired power generation. IRENA research finds:

  • Installed costs for onshore wind power, solar PV and concentrating solar power (CSP) have continued to fall, while their performance has improved.
  • Solar PV module prices in 2014 were around 75% lower than their levels at the end of 2009.
  • Between 2010 and 2014 the total installed costs of utility-scale PV systems have fallen by 29% to 65%, depending on the region.
  • The most competitive utility-scale solar PV projects are now regularly delivering electricity for just $0.08 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) without financial support, compared to a range of  $0.045 to $0.14/kWh for fossil fuel power plants. Where excellent resources and low-cost finance are available, utility-scale solar PV can deliver electricity as low as 0.06/kWh
  • Onshore wind is now one of the most competitive sources of electricity available. Technology improvements, occurring at the same time as installed costs have continued to decline, mean that onshore wind is now within the same cost range, or even lower, than for fossil fuels. The best wind projects around the world are consistently delivering electricity for $0.05/kWh without financial support.
  • Where untapped economic resources remain, biomass for power, geothermal and hydropower can provide some of the cheapest electricity of any source.

IRENA, an international agency dedicated to renewable energy, arose out of the 1981 United Nations Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy. Currently, IRENA has 139 member countries and more than 35 countries have started the formal process of becoming Members. Canada is not a member.

The full 149 page report, Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2014, and an executive summary are available at http://www.irena.org/menu/index.aspx?mnu=Subcat&PriMenuID=36&CatID=141&SubcatID=494 

All amounts given in this article are in USD.

World Economic Forum identifies top global risks

For each of the last ten years the World Economic Forum has compiled and published the results of a survey of global experts identifying the key risks facing the world. This year’s report was published last week and notes that “2015 differs markedly from the past, with rising technological risks, notably cyber attacks, and new economic realities, which remind us that geopolitical tensions present themselves in a very different world from before. Information flows instantly around the globe and emerging technologies have boosted the influence of new players and new types of warfare. At the same time, past warnings of potential environmental catastrophes have begun to be borne out, yet insufficient progress has been made – as reflected in the high concerns about failure of climate-change adaptation and looming water crises in this year’s report.” GallonDaily notes that environment and sustainability risks have assumed a much higher risk profile in the 2015 report than in previous years.

The report identifies the top ten global risks in terms of likelihood and in terms of impact. The two overarching lists are:

In terms of likelihood:

  1. interstate conflict
  2. extreme weather events
  3. failure of national governance
  4. state collapse or crisis
  5. unemployment or underemployment
  6. natural catastrophes
  7. failure of climate change adaptation
  8. water crises
  9. data fraud or theft
  10. cyber attacks

In terms of impact the top ten global risks are identified as:

  1. water crises
  2. spread of infectious diseases
  3. weapons of mass destruction
  4. interstate conflict
  5. failure of climate change adaptation
  6. energy price shock
  7. critical information infrastructure breakdown
  8. fiscal crises
  9. unemployment or underemployment
  10. biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse

Much more analysis, including identification of connections and cross-cutting challenges and in-depth review of these and many more challenges is available in the 60 page report and tables available at http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2015/ and http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Global_Risks_2015_Report.pdf

Corporate sustainability becoming more robust and more collaborative

New research by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Management Review, The Boston Consulting Group and the UN Global Compact, shows that a growing number of companies are turning to collaborations – with suppliers, NGOs, industry alliances, governments, even competitors – to become more sustainable.

Among some of the key findings of the survey research:

  • Most businesses understand that their sustained success depends upon the economic, social and ecological contexts in which they operate.
  • The physical environment is becoming more unpredictable, a more interconnected global economy is altering social conditions, and technological innovation is transforming the nature of consumption and production.
  • Corporate sustainability has evolved from expressing good intentions and looking for internal operational efficiencies to addressing critical business issues involving a complex network of strategic relationships and activities.
  • As sustainability issues have become more global and pivotal to success, companies are realizing that they can’t go it alone. Through their strategic networks, business can, and arguably must, tackle some of the toughest sustainability issues, such as access to stressed or nonrenewable resources, avoiding human rights violations in value chains or moderating climate change.
  • The network of interdependencies among companies, governments and the public has created a world of mutual reliance, in which collaboration is a necessary route to progress.
  • Companies need to reach out to others if they want to address sustainability challenges, help shape the social context in which they operate and even explore vital new market opportunities.
  • Businesses across the globe are partnering to surmount sustainability challenges that can impact a company’s viability and success.
  • 90% of respondents to the survey (2,587 executive and manager respondents from commercial enterprises in 113 countries) agree that businesses need to collaborate to address the sustainability challenges they face.
  • Only 47% of businesses surveyed are engaging in sustainability-related partnerships. A majority (61%) of those assesses their collaborations as “quite” or “very” successful.
  • 86% of respondents believe that their boards of directors should play a strong role in driving their company’s sustainability efforts, but only 42% of boards are perceived to be at least moderately engaged with the company’s sustainability agenda. Organizations where the board is actively engaged in sustainability collaborations are twice as likely to report success with those efforts.
  • The number of companies that have sustainability as a top management agenda item jumped from 46% in 2010 to 65% in 2014.
  • As strategic collaborations become more commonplace, prolonged tensions between corporations and NGOs are waning.

This highly recommended article, including much more information as well as case studies and survey results, can be found at http://sloanreview.mit.edu/projects/joining-forces/?utm_source=Sloan&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=susrpt15

Latest ethical travel destinations list published

A California-based organization, Ethical Traveler, seeks to  “empower travelers to change the world”, using the economic clout of tourism to encourage protection of human rights and the environment. Ethical Traveler is a project of the well-known Earth Island Institute, The organization has been publishing an annual ‘World’s Ten Best Ethical Destinations’ since 2006.

To compile the annual list Ethical Traveler conducts a survey of developing nations, focusing on four general categories: environmental protection, social welfare, human rights, and animal welfare. The organization reviews current and past information in each of these categories so that decisions are based not only on the current state of a country, but also on how it has changed over time. This helps select nations that are actively improving the state of their people, government and environment. Each country selected as a Best Ethical Destination must also offer unspoiled natural beauty, great outdoor activities and the opportunity to interact with local people and cultures in a meaningful, mutually enriching way.

The 2015 Best Ethical Destinations list, in alphabetical order, includes:

  • Cabo Verde
  • Chile
  • Dominica
  • Lithuania
  • Mauritius
  • Palau
  • Samoa
  • Tonga
  • Uruguay
  • Vanuatu

It is instructive to look not only at the currently listed countries but also at those dropped from the list this year. Dropped from the list this year are Latvia, Barbados and the Bahamas. Latvia became the second Baltic state to achieve status as a “developed country” and therefore is no longer eligible for the list. Although Barbados reaffirmed its commitment to environmental preservation, it did not make it onto this year’s list because no evidence was found that the country is addressing some of its most serious problems: human trafficking, police brutality and discrimination against LGBT citizens. The Bahamas was removed from the list largely because of its ongoing construction of captive dolphin facilities. Although many NGOs and animal rights groups have brought lawsuits to halt the development of a fourth such park at Blackbeard Cay, the government is still pushing the project ahead.

In addition to the top ten list, Ethical Traveler provides a list of ‘destinations of interest’. This year that list includes

  • Malawi
  • Grenada
  • Madagascar
  • Ghana
  • Cuba

Of the world’s 150 or so developing nations the Ethical Traveler lists provide a robust selection for those wishing to support and vacation in countries with good social and environmental responsibility performance. A complete report along with a useful summary and much more information can be found at http://www.ethicaltraveler.org/explore/reports/the-worlds-best-ethical-destinations-2015/ 

Business parks can play a role in supporting endangered raptors

Research from Professor Charles Nilon, professor of fisheries and wildlife at the University of Missouri, and graduate student Jonathon Hogg, is providing useful information on how business campuses can contribute to protection of endangered and at risk species, specifically hawks and owls. Among the findings of the research:

  • raptors, or birds of prey, some of which are endangered species, typically live in environments that provide natural land cover, such as forests and grasslands.
  • protecting endangered raptor species helps maintain food chain balance and prevents overpopulation of common raptor prey, such as snakes and rodents.
  • as more businesses are built on the edges of urban areas, land where raptors once lived becomes industrialized, which raises concerns about the consequences of habitat destruction on raptor populations.
  • businesses can contribute to raptor preservation efforts by engaging in less development of lawn areas and increased planting or preservation of native grasslands and woodlots.
  • in areas with more natural land cover of tall grass, woodlands and tree cover, we saw a higher number of raptors. Simply adding certain trees and leaving tall grass can attract this wildlife.”
  • the research found that even minor landscape changes can make areas more welcoming to raptors.
  • raptors avoid business parks with large areas of pavement and lawns because they can’t find food, protection and nesting areas in these open spaces.
  • for each five percent increase in lawn cover, the number of raptors decreased by 12 percent. Urban businesses can contribute to raptor conservation efforts by planning and preserving grassland and woodlots, and by leaving lawn areas undeveloped.
  • smaller areas of non-lawn habitat throughout the property, or on the edges of a business park, are adequate to increase the presence of these birds. Retaining natural habitat on the edges of the development, on slopes, or along streams contributes to biodiversity in the urban landscape with virtually no impact on the usefulness of the property.

A summary of the research and a link to the full research paper, fee or subscription required, is available at http://research.missouri.edu/news/story.php?455

GallonDaily’s publisher maintains a natural restoration 60 hectare parcel of land in Haldimand County, Ontario, as a raptor preserve.