The Global Fool

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Soils Are Threatened: Can We Halt The Problem?
Dec04

Soils Are Threatened: Can We Halt The Problem?

By Roberta Attanasio Today, December 4, 2015, is World Soil Day — a day to connect people with soils, and raise awareness of their critical importance in our lives. Soils — the reservoir for at least a quarter of global biodiversity — have been neglected for too long. We fail to connect soil with our food, water, climate, and life. The maintenance or enhancement of global soil resources is essential to meet the world’s need for food, water, and energy security. Soil loss is an unfolding global disaster that will have catastrophic effects on world food production, according to scientists from the University of Sheffield’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures.  “At the moment, intensive agriculture is unsustainable — under the intensive farming system current crop yields are maintained through the heavy use of fertilizers, which require high energy inputs to supply inorganic nitrogen via the industrial Haber-Bosch process. This consumes five per cent of the world’s natural gas production and two per cent of the world’s annual energy supply.” The scientists’ research is published in a report (A sustainable model for intensive agriculture) presented at the recent climate talks in Paris. But soil is important not only for agricultural practices. “Soil is a vital part of the natural environment. It is just as important as plants, animals, rocks, landforms, lakes, and rivers. It influences the distribution of plant species, and provides a habitat for a wide range of organisms. It controls the flow of water and chemical substances between the atmosphere and the earth, and acts as both a source and store for gasses in the atmosphere. Soil, together with the plant and animal life it supports, the rock on which it develops, its position in the landscape and the climate it experiences, form an amazingly intricate natural system. Soil may look still and lifeless, but this impression couldn’t be further from the truth. It is constantly changing and developing through time. Soil is always responding to changes in environmental factors, along with the influences of man and land use. Some changes in the soil will be of short duration and reversible, others will be a permanent feature of soil development.” So, what is the current status of soils, considering the influences of man and land use? We know that soil loss is an unfolding global disaster. There is another report that adds more information: The Status of the World’s Soil Resources, which has been produced by FAO’s Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils, and it has been released today, on Soil World Day. The report, which brings together the work of 200 soil scientists from 60 countries, concludes that...

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Circular Economy: Turning Waste into Resources
May09

Circular Economy: Turning Waste into Resources

By Roberta Attanasio We take, we make, we dispose — in this daily process, we deplete irreplaceable natural resources and generate not only massive waste, but also extensive environmental and health hazards. Our current economy — or linear economy — is based on the take-make-dispose approach. However, this approach is not sustainable. We need to ask ourselves a crucial question: how can we generate clean prosperity today, while preserving resources and ecological functions for use by future generations? In other words, how can we build a sustainable economy? The answer is: we can do so by adopting a new approach, one based on the so-called circular economy. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy is one that is restorative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles. In the circular economy, materials and products are reused, repaired, refurbished and recycled. Waste can be turned into resources. The inspiration for the circular economy approach is nature. Waste does not exist in nature, because ecosystems reuse everything that grows in a never-ending cycle of efficiency and purpose. Thus, the circular economy approach is based on an economic system in which no materials are wasted. In such a model, “Instead of selling products, we should retain ownership and sell their use as a service, allowing us to optimize the use of resources. Once we sell the benefits of the products instead of the products themselves, we begin to design for longevity, multiple reuse, and eventual recycling. This requires a new generation of materials as well as innovative development and production processes. In addition, we need to define new business models and redefine the concept of legal ownership and use, public tendering rules, and financing strategies. And we need adaptive logistics and a leadership culture that embraces and rewards the circular economy.” The video below, by the European Commission, is a fascinating tour of different creative approaches that are now being used to move towards a circular economy....

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Clean Air: The Effects of U.S. Power Plant Carbon Standards on Human Health
May04

Clean Air: The Effects of U.S. Power Plant Carbon Standards on Human Health

By Roberta Attanasio A little more than a year ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that in 2012 around 7 million people died — accounting for one in eight of total global deaths — as a result of exposure to air pollution. These estimates more than doubled the previous ones, and confirmed that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. The WHO concluded that reducing air pollution globally could save millions of lives. But, what policy changes would be most effective at saving lives? The answer comes from a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change (May 4, 2015.) The study, (US power plant carbon standards and clean air and health co-benefits), was based on data from the Census Bureau as well as detailed maps of the more than 2,400 fossil-fuel-fired power plants operating across the U.S. It outlines how changes in carbon dioxide emissions could lead to considerable health benefits for the U.S population. According to the WHO, the diseases caused by air pollution include ischemic heart disease (40%), stroke (40%), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (11%), lung cancer (6%), and acute lower respiratory infections in children (3%). For the new study, the researchers analyzed three possible policy options for power plant carbon standards. The policy option leading to the biggest health benefits was the one that included changes proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on June 2, 2014, in the Clean Power Plan. Modeling analysis indicated that this option could prevent an expected 3,500 premature deaths in the U.S. every year, and avert more than a thousand heart attacks and hospitalizations annually from air pollution-related illness. Thus, according to the study, the formula presented in the draft Clean Power Plan is on the right track to provide large health benefits, and these health benefits depend entirely on critical policy choices that will be made by the EPA in the final Clean Power Plan expected in July. The Plan is the nation’s first attempt to establish standards for carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. It is also viewed as an important signal of U.S. leadership in the run-up to international climate negotiations in Paris in December. Jonathan Buonocore, one of the researchers involved in the study, said in a press release: “If EPA sets strong carbon standards, we can expect large public health benefits from cleaner air almost immediately after the standards are implemented.” Power plants are the nation’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change. However, they release not only carbon dioxide, but also other pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter — precursors to smog and...

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Climate Change: A Key Driver of the Syrian Conflict?
Mar11

Climate Change: A Key Driver of the Syrian Conflict?

By Roberta Attanasio Climate change is happening here and now, with significant damage to natural systems and society. The shrinking of the Arctic sea ice, the melting of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets, the acidification of the oceans, the sea level rise, the shifting patterns of precipitation, and the amplified threat of wildfires, are some of its well-recognized effects. There are also significant concerns related to the consequences that climate change could have on freshwater availability and agricultural productivity worldwide — resulting in increasing poverty and further weakening of fragile governments. Indeed, climate change has been identified as a “threat multiplier” — it can exacerbate political instability in the world’s most dangerous regions. “Droughts, floods, food and water shortages and extreme weather can uproot communities, cause humanitarian crises and increase the chances of armed conflict.”   Now, results from a study carried out by researchers at Columbia University and the University of California Santa Barbara (published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on March 2, 2015) show that the Syrian conflict has been caused, at least in part, by a record drought. The drought occurred approximately from 2007 to 2010, and was worsened by global warming. The researchers wrote: “For Syria, a country marked by poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies, the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest.” The Syrian uprising began in the Spring of 2011 and then escalated into an ongoing civil war, leading to one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history — neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are struggling to accommodate the displaced populations. According to the BBC, “Almost 200,000 Syrians have lost their lives in the escalating conflict between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to his rule. Syria’s bloody internal conflict has destroyed entire neighborhoods and forced more than nine million people from their homes.” In addition, the war has now acquired sectarian overtones. In their published study, the researchers point out that the 2007−2010 record drought caused widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers. In 8 years, the Syrian urban population rose by 50%. But what caused, precisely, the widespread crop failure? According to the researchers, unsustainable farming practices led to a massive depletion of groundwater while the region was experiencing a long-term decline in rainfall. At the same time, summer temperatures rose, drying out much of the remaining moisture in the soil. Colin Kelley, leading author of the study, wrote in The Conversation: “We found that there is very little evidence to suggest that long-term trends toward higher...

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Global Threats: Soil and Topsoil Erosion and Degradation
Aug09

Global Threats: Soil and Topsoil Erosion and Degradation

By Roberta Attanasio “Soil anaemia also breeds human anaemia. Micronutrient deficiency in the soil results in micronutrient malnutrition in people, since crops grown on such soils tend to be deficient in the nutrients needed to fight hidden hunger. (…) Managing our soil and water resources in a sustainable and equitable manner needs a new political vision.” M.S. Swaminathan — the “Indian Father of Green Revolution”. Soil, the earth’s skin, is one of our most valuable resources — it’s a dynamic and complex ecosystem that acts as a growing medium. Plant and animal life depend on the recycling of primary nutrients through soil processes. It plays a major role in determining the composition of the atmosphere by emitting and absorbing carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor and, due to its water filtering function, is essential for the clean water supply of our planet.  Soil degradation is the decline in soil quality caused by its improper use.  Examples of soil degradation are loss of organic matter, decline in soil fertility, decline in structural condition, erosion (soil is naturally removed, for example by the action of water or wind), adverse changes in salinity, acidity or alkalinity, and the effects of toxic chemicals, pesticides, pollutants or excessive flooding. Back in 1984, a study by the Worldwatch Institute defined the erosion of agricultural topsoil a ”quiet crisis” that could lead to “pockets of famine” around the world. At the time, Lester R. Brown told the New York Times: ”Grave though the loss of topsoil may be, it is a quiet crisis, one that is not widely perceived. Unlike earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters, this disaster of human origin is unfolding gradually.” Then, in 1992, the World Resources Institute published the results of the first global assessment of land degradation. It reported that, since World War II, about 11 percent of the world’s vegetated surface area had become degraded, mostly due to farming, overgrazing and deforestation. It pointed out that the continuation of activities leading to soil degradation would seriously affect the ability of providing growing populations with food, fuel, and fiber. Now, more than twenty years later, The Global Soil Partnership — which brings together a broad range of government and non-government stakeholders — recognized that urgent action is required to improve the health of the world’s limited soil resources and stop land degradation, so as to ensure that future generations have enough supplies of food, water, energy and raw materials. Thus, it has endorsed a series of action plans to safeguard soil resources which provide the basis for global agricultural production. Maria Helena Semedo, Deputy Director-General of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), said: “Soil is the basis for food, feed, fuel and fibre production. Without soils we...

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