Climate Wars: Cropland Destruction and Improvement

cereals-agriculture-earClimate Change is currently recognized as one of the greatest threats to the stability and well being of the world and its people. But far worse than rising sea levels, unpredictable weather patterns, and an increase in forest fires is the threat that it could have on the global food supply. As our population increases by several billion over the next few decades, these problems will make it even harder to feed everyone.

Up until now, predictions and projections have taken into account rising temperatures, drought, erosion, and longer growing seasons. But a recent study, produced by researchers at MIT and Colorado State University shows that air pollution is also a major factor. In their report, which was published in Nature Climate Change, they claim that ground-level ozone could exacerbate the effects on staple food crops like wheat, soybeans, maize, and rice.

crop_failureUsing two scenarios, researchers mapped out the tandem relationship between pollution and climate change. As a baseline, the MIT and Colorado State researchers estimate that climate change alone will result in a 11% decrease in global crop production. But if countries fail to substantially curb greenhouse gas emissions (the first scenario), the scientists’ model shows that air pollution could trigger an additional 4% of crop failures.

That means that barring significant changes, croplands could see a 15% drop in productivity in the next 40 years. But if countries work to decrease greenhouse gas emissions after 2040, the researchers’ model shows that reduced air pollution could actually offset other negative impacts of warming on crops. They calculate that reduced air pollution in this second scenario could actually increase yields by 3%.

Pollution over Mexico CityThe link between air quality and food production may seem a bit odd, but the logic is actually very straightforward. Basically, the atmosphere forms ozone when sunlight energizes pollutants generated from sources like cars and power plants. Ozone concentrations can also increase at higher temperatures, the kind that already wither temperature-sensitive crops like maize. On top of the heat, increased ozone levels attack pollution-sensitive crops, like wheat.

In the climate scenario where emissions decrease after 2040, the reduction in ozone alone would be enough to increase wheat production in the U.S. and China, the researchers say. Their findings show that reducing air pollution could slow the negative impacts of climate change–even enough to reverse some of them. But some regions will be negatively impacted no matter what.

trafficAs Amos Tai, one of the study’s co-authors, explained:

It appears that South Asia will be the most hard-hit by the combination of warming and ozone trends, where ozone is expected to increase even in the more optimistic scenario. African countries with low domestic production and heavily reliant on food imports are also expected to suffer more in terms of climate-pollution-driven food insecurity.

In short, food production is likely to suffer no matter what, but the effects could be confined to certain areas of the world. With proper management, and the provision of food to these regions from those that are unaffected (say, a pollution-fighting US and China), the worst could be avoided. And there’s some good news coming from another report, which claims we can further increase our food production without taxing the environment.

crop_growthAccording to a new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, by focusing efforts to improve food systems on a few specific regions, crops and actions could make it possible to both meet the basic needs of three billion more people while simultaneously decreasing agriculture’s environmental carbon footprint. The report, published in Science back in July, may sound like fantasy, but the argument offered is logical and compelling.

The report focuses on 17 key crops that produce 86 percent of the world’s crop calories and account for most irrigation and fertilizer consumption. It then proposes a set of key actions in three broad areas that have the greatest potential for reducing the environmental impact of agriculture while boosting production. For each, it identifies specific “leverage points” where NGOs, foundations, governments, businesses and citizens can have the greatest impact.

agriculture_indiaThe biggest opportunities cluster in six countries – China, India, U.S., Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan – along with Europe. As the report’s lead author Paul West, co-director of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative, explains:

This paper represents an important next step beyond previous studies that have broadly outlined strategies for sustainably feeding people. By pointing out specifically what we can do and where, it gives funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good.

Overall, the report identified a number of major areas of opportunity and key leverage points for improving the efficiency and sustainability of global food production. First, there is reducing the “yield gap” – i.e. the difference between potential and actual crop yields – in many parts of the world. Currently, the largest gaps are to be found in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, and reducing it by just 50% could provide enough calories to feed 850 million more people.

china agriculture researchSecond, there is improving growth efficiency. The study identified two key areas where major opportunities exist to reduce climate impacts and improve efficiency of crop growth. These included the reduction of emissions of global greenhouse gas – which agriculture is responsible for 20 t0 35 percent of – in the form of CO2, tropical deforestation and methane, as well as improved efficiency in water usage.

In the case of emissions, the biggest opportunities are in Brazil and Indonesia where deforestation is a major problem, and in China, India and the US, where the production of rice, livestock, and crop fertilization all lead to sizable carbon and methane emissions. With respect to nutrient use, the study found that worldwide, 60 percent of nitrogen and nearly 50 percent of phosphorus applications exceed what crops need to grow.

agribusinessIn the case of water usage, the greatest opportunities are in China, India and the US, where the production of rice, wheat and corn create the most demand for irrigation. India, Pakistan, China and the U.S. also account for the bulk of irrigation water use in water-limited areas. Thus, by boosting crop water use efficiency could also reduce water demand by 8 to 15% without compromising food production.

Third, the report calls for improved efficiency in crop use, which can be done by shifting crops from livestock to humans use and reducing food waste. Currently, the amount of crops fed to animals is sufficient to meet the calorie needs of 4 billion people. The U.S., China and Western Europe account for the bulk of this “diet gap,” with corn being the main crop diverted to animal feed. Shifting these crops could also form a “safety net” in the event of an unforeseen shortfall.

Last, but not least, the report calls for the elimination of food waste, which accounts for some 30 to 50 percent of food production worldwide. Again, the U.S., China and India are the major players, and reducing waste in these three countries alone could yield food for more than 400 million people. All told, these changes could allow for enough food for an additional 3 billion people, which is what the world population is expected to reach by 2050.

world_hungerOverall, West summarizes the report and its recommendations as follows:

Sustainably feeding people today and in the future is one of humanity’s grand challenges. Agriculture is the main source of water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and habitat loss, yet we need to grow more food. Fortunately, the opportunities to have a global impact and move in the right direction are clustered. By focusing on areas, crops and practices with the most to be gained, companies, governments, NGOs and others can ensure that their efforts are being targeted in a way that best accomplishes the common and critically important goal of feeding the world while protecting the environment. Of course, while calories are a key measure of improving food security, nutrition, access and cultural preferences must also be addressed. But the need to boost food security is high. So let’s do it.

As always, the good news is contained within the bad. Or more precisely, every crisis present us with an opportunity for change and advancement. Though Climate Change and air pollution may threaten current and future levels of food production, there are solutions. And in all cases, they present opportunities for healthier living, more efficient use of land and water, and a more sustainable way of meeting our most basic needs.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, sciencedaily.com

The Future of Currency: Bitcoin Hitting the Streets

bitcoinFor those familiar with digital currencies, the name Bitcoin ought to ring a bell. Developed back in 2009, this “cryptocurrency” – i.e. it uses cryptography to control the creation and transfer of money – was created as a form of online payment for products and services. Since that time, it has become the subject of scrutiny, legislative bans, volatile pricing, and a hailed as a hardinger of the coming age of “distributed currency”.

Unlike precious metals or more traditional forms of currency, which hold value because they are backed by a country or are used to manufacture goods, Bitcoin is only buoyed by market demand. There are only 12.3 million virtual Bitcoins in circulation and those “coins” are traded through a Peer-to-Peer computer network, much as people used to share music files.

bitcoin1What’s especially interesting is the fact that the creator of this new form of currency remains unknown. It is assumed that it originated with a programer from Japan, due to the fact that its first mention came in a 2008 paper published under the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto”. It became operational roughly a year later with the release of the first open source Bitcoin client and the issuance of the first physical bitcoin.

And in an interesting and personally-relevant development, it now seems that a Bitcoin ATM is coming to my old hometown of Ottawa. In this respect, the nation’s capitol is joining other major cities around the globe as municipalities that dispense the crypto currency, in spite of the fact that it is still not recognized by any national banking institutions, or financial regulating bodies.

future_money_bitcoinWhat’s more, the publicly-traded cryptocurrency has seen its stock go through repeated highs and lows over the past few years, being subject to both bubbles and price drops as countries like India and China prohibited its use. But with these machines hitting the streets, a trend which began back in November with the distribution of Robocoin ATMs, there is speculation that the digital currency might just be here to stay.

Part of the appeal of cryptocurrencies is that they allow for anonymity, hence why bitcoin has been linked to a number of illegal activities, such as on the shuttered drug marketplace Silk Road. And because its value is strictly tied to speculators, and not backed by any tangible measure or authority, speculators are able to ratchet up demand and push the stock value higher.

future_money2But Bitcoin is also starting to be accepted as a mainstream form of payment for U.S.-centric sites like OkCupid and WordPress. And back in October of 2013, China’s web giant Baidu accounced that it would start accepting Bitcoin payments for a firewall security service it sells. And though the Chinese government put the brakes on Bitcoin exchanges by December, the number of mainstream institutions opening up its coffers to it is growing.

These include Richard Branson’s private space tourism company Virgin Galactic, the Sacramento Kings, the e-commerce giant Paypal, and Overstock.com, a major online retailer. And popular use is also growing, as evidenced by the visualization below which shows downloads of bitcoin client software since 2008, broken down by different operating systems.

bitcoin_globalWhat the graphic shows is quite indicative. All over the world, particularly in developed countries and areas of economic growth – the Eastern US, Europe, Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, Australia and Southeast Asia – the Bitcoin software is being downloaded and used to oversee online exchanges in good and services.

And ultimately, those who believe in the service and choose to invest in it are doing so based on the promise that it will someday streamline monetary transactions and free the world from the financial manipulation of big government and big banks, breakdown the financial walls between nations, and remake the worldwide economy. In short, it will breakdown centralized economies and allow a “distributed economy” to takes its place.

bitcoin_popmapAdmittedly, the service is still flawed in a number of respects. For example, people who chose to collect bitcoins in the past were dissuaded from spending them since their value kept going up. The problem is, if economic incentives encourage people to hoard their bitcoins rather than spend them, the currency will never fulfill its role as the future of money.

Another problem is the one arising from the currency’s “deflationary nature”. Because the system was designed to allow the creation of only a finite number of bitcoins, there will come a point where, as demand rises, the value of the currency will only go up (making the price of goods and services fall, hence the term deflation). And that could lead to hoarding on an even larger scale.

bitcoin-atm-flagshipBut according to many economists who have closely followed the progress of the digital money, Bitcoin’s recent ups and downs are to be expected from a currency so young, and one that is just now attracting major attention from the mainstream population. The bottom could fall out of the market, but the currency could just as easily stabilize and reach a point where its value is consistent enough that people no longer hoard the stuff.

So at this point, its difficult to say what the future will hold for the new miracle money known as Bitcoin. But when it comes to cryptocurrencies in general, time seems to be on their side. Ever since the Internet Revolution took off, the possibilities for creating a new, de-centralized world order – research, development, politics and business are open and inclusive in ways like never before – has been emerging.

Sources: ottawacitizen.com, wired.com, fastcoexist.com, bbc.co.uk, uxblog.idvsolutions.com

Climate Crisis: The Smog Vacuum

china smog 2013 TV bldgIn recent years, strategies aimed at combating Climate Change have evolved to become a two-pronged attack. In addition to finding ways to reduce how much we pollute, a number of methods are being devised to deal with the pollution we have already created. And one such device is being deployed to where it is needed the most: Beijing.

For many years now, China’s capitol has been notorious for its poor air quality. But last Tuesday, in the northeast city of Harbin, roads, schools and even the local airport were closed for two days straight due to a thick, choking haze that was due to unseasonably warm temperatures and very little wind coinciding with the smoke from local farmer’s burning straw and the initiation of Harbin’s coal-powered municipal heating system.

https://i1.wp.com/beijingcream.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Harbin-smog-5.jpgThe resulting haze measured 1000 micrograms per cubic meter. That’s three times the concentration deemed hazardous by the World Health Organization, and many dozen times what is considered safe. To remedy the situation, city authorities are now coordinating with Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde to launch what he calls an “electronic vacuum cleaner” to suck up 50 meter-high cylinders of polluted air.

Two weeks ago, Roosegarde successfully demonstrated his smog machine in a 25 square meter room, in which he used an electrostatic field from copper coils to magnetize and pull down pollution from the air above. The effect could be replicated, he says, if those coils were deployed in public spaces. Now, Roosegaarde is working with Bop Ursem, a professor at the Technical University of Delft, to scale up the technology in Beijing.

https://i0.wp.com/cdni.wired.co.uk/620x413/k_n/Lidi%20en%20Daan%20-%20testing%20smog.jpgRoosegaarde has had experience working with electrostatic fields in the past. Last year, he proposed using electromagnetic charging strips to charge cars on “smart,” communication-enabled highways, which won the designer an INDEX award in 2013. He also claims the project is safe, “pacemaker proof”, and really no different than the waves of WiFi downtown areas are already inundated with.

In addition, electrostatic air filtering is already used on a much smaller scale, in hospitals where clean air is a matter of hygiene and sanitation. But part of Roosegaarde’s challenge will be creating a clean 50-by-50 meter space, controlling for factors like wind. He also concedes that his smog machine won’t solve the problem of all of Beijing’s pollution, but is meant to serve as an awareness-raising exercise.

https://i0.wp.com/i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02709/harbin2_2709592b.jpgAs for the resulting particles that are collected from the air, Roosegaarde believes they could be refashioned into useable products, such as jewelry. But as he himself put it, the concept is about dealing with a serious problem in a practical, new way:

I think it’s quite feasible in a weird way. Every project has its beauty and bullshit, so to speak. Of course you’ll have influences like wind, how high is the smog, but these are the pragmatics. In principle, this is doable… It is a statement to show [that] this is the new world, why do we accept the old world? In a world which is changing, it’s all about finding the missing links between imagination and innovation, between science and art.

Given the historic problem of smog in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, London, and Southeast Asia, the concept is likely to catch on. While it is primarily intended on removing harmful particulates, like heavy metals and toxic chemicals, it stands to reason that such devices will be paired with Carbon Capture technology to ensure that all harmful pollutants are scrubbed for our cities air.

trafficReducing the amount of pollution we have to contend with while making sure we generate less. At this point in the game, it’s the only way the worst effects of Climate Change will be avoided in the coming decades. Stay tuned!

Sources: fastcoexist.com, cnn.com