The Worst Problem You've Never Heard Of


    The Worst Problem You've Never Heard Of

    What’s Going On?

    In 2009 scientists named a series of process and systems that are crucial to keeping Earth stable. Crossing any of these "planetary boundaries" could radically alter the state of the Earth as we know it and lead to irreversible damage.

    Planetary Boundaries

    We've already crossed four of them. You've most likely heard three of those mentioned: climate change, deforestation, and biodiversity loss. But what about nitrogen pollution?

    Quick history lesson: nitrogen is essential for growing food. For most of human agricultural history, farmers fertilized their crops using natural sources of nitrogen, like animal manure, crop waste, and by growing legumes, which fix their own nitrogen. In the 1960's fertilizer-hungry crops (like corn and rice) were adopted worldwide to feed rising populations (called the "green revolution"). And as fertilizer remains cheap, farmers continue to pour it on. The modern excessive use of synthetic fertilizer (120 million tons per year) is the root of the pollution problem — more than half of it washes into nearby bodies of water. When nitrogen gets into waterways, it causes an algal bloom (or "red tide"), starving the water of oxygen, creating a dead zone, and killing fish and other marine life. The problem is greatest in Asian countries — a third of all lakes in China contain algal blooms.

    Algae Infographic

    The Silver Lining

    A new study published in Nature this week discovered that crops can be both nitrogen-hoarding (good!) and high-producing at the same time. Previously the general school of thought was that crops had to be one or the other, slow-growing nitrogen hoarders (preventing nitrogen from entering the atmosphere or running off into the ocean) or fast-growing nitrogen burners.

    Why You Should Care

    Nitrogen pollution is a huge problem that gets little attention. Many scientists consider our overuse of nitrogen as one of the greatest dangers we face. Breakthroughs in nitrogen-hoarding plants would be a big win for the planet.

    Good News? Yes, For Real!

    What’s Going On?

    Sometimes it feels like its nothing but bad news in the environmental world, but there are plenty of smart and innovative people finding solutions to humanity's biggest problems. This week Grist released a list of 50 "fixers" doing high-impact work paving the green path forward in 2018. Here are a few of our favorites:

    Peter Kalmus - Author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution

    Personally slashed his yearly carbon budget of 23 tons of CO2 (roughly the US per person average) to just 2 tons.

    Chadwick Manning - Co-Founder of ElectrIQ

    Aims to level out surges in the household demand for electricity by allowing houses to store electricity like a battery. Houses can then spill electricity onto the grid when needed, providing power to one another, and creating a distributed power plant.

    Ayana Elizabeth Johnson - Founder and President of Ocean Collectiv

    Brings policy experts, scientists, filmmakers and artists together to save coral reefs, reduce waste in the global seafood supply chain, and fight plastic pollution, just to name a few.

    Leslie Samuelrich - President of Green Century Funds

    Helps you put your money where your mouth is by investing your money (mutual funds owned by environmental nonprofits) in companies with environmental profiles like renewable energy and sustainable agriculture. Green Century is one of the first mutual funds to ditch fossil fuels.

    Shantha Ready Alonso - Executive Director of Creation Justice Ministries

    Educates members of 38 different Christian faiths about injustices ranging from childhood asthma to climate change. The nonprofit brings faith leaders to capitol hill, talking about issues in nonpartisan ways, and encourages members to contact their representatives.

    You Can Blow Up Those Windmills, They Fall Down Real Quick

    What’s Going On?

    The Trump administration is replacing the Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule. Let's back up. The Clean Power Plan was proposed under the Obama administration in an effort to curb climate change by moving the energy sector away from coal towards more renewable sources. The plan's goal was to cut carbon emissions from power plants by a third by 2030. However, the plan never went into effect, as energy companies, industry groups and some states challenged the regulation on the grounds that it was unlawful federal overreach. This week, acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler signed a proposal to weaken the regulation of coal power plants and to give states more authority to regulate greenhouse gases emissions from coal power plants. The EPA's own analysis shows that this new proposal could lead to 1400 premature deaths annually by 2030 due to increased particulate matter pollution. Despite all of this, the energy sector is moving away from coal as natural gas and renewables are becoming much cheaper, and many experts think it's too late to save the coal industry.

    And What Does Trump Think?

    "And you know, that’s indestructible stuff. In times of war, in times of conflict, you can blow up those windmills, they fall down real quick. You can blow up pipelines, they go like this. You can do a lot of things to those solar panels, but you know what you can’t hurt? Coal."

    Why You Should Care

    Energy production is the second highest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, second only to transportation. The Affordable Clean Energy Rule will give the states the choice to do absolutely nothing or very little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many scientists are calling this a disaster to the planet and to public health.

    What You Can Do

    The public has 60 days to submit comments before it is finalized.

    Side Note

    Germany, who has long led efforts to curb climate change, is struggling to end its reliance on coal power. Coal generates 40% of the country's electricity because, unlike in the US, its plants are still the cheapest to operate. Despite the country investing over $500 billion in clean energy and scaling up its wind and solar, it is still in danger of missing its ambitious goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Some are calling it "the biggest climate story no one is talking about."

    Weekly Scraps

    Chinese Regulators Say Trout Can Be Sold as Salmon

    How One Kid Stopped the Contamination of a River

    A bill in New York mandates huge energy use cuts in big buildings

    Miami Hurricanes football team unveils 'environmentally conscious' uniforms

    A solar powered car that charges as you drive

    An Inter-Tribal 'Canoe Journey' Is Helping Scientists Fight Climate Change

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