Natural Environment Blog

Blogging for the Natural Environment

Month: May 2008 (Page 1 of 3)

Nanotechnology Breakthrough could Reduce Cost of Solar Energy

Australian researchers have made a ground breaking discovery that could revolutionize the way solar energy is harvested.

Professor Max Lu, from University of Queensland‘s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) said they have done what was previously thought of as “almost impossible”. That is, they have grown the world’s first titanium oxide single crystals with large amounts of reactive surfaces.

Professor Lu says “Titania nano-crystals are promising materials for cost-effective solar cells, hydrogen production from splitting water, and solar decontamination of pollutants.” He goes on to say “the beauty of our technique is that it is very simple and cheap to make such materials at mild conditions.”

Affordable solar energy isn’t the only potential benefit to be had from this discovery. The crystals are also great for purifying water and air. The crystals could be painted onto a window or wall in order to purify the air in a room.

Professor Lu estimated that air and water pollution applications could be commercially available in 5 years. He said that the solar energy conversion would take a bit longer – between 5 to 10 years.

The work wasn’t done in isolation by the University of Queensland though. Professor Lu said that it was a result of a collaboration with Professor Huiming Cheng’s group from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

It’s great to see that potential solutions are emerging to reduce the cost of harvesting and using solar energy. Another solution for affordable solar panels (also developed in Australia) is SLIVER technology, developed by the Centre For Sustainable Energy Systems, which is part of the Australian National University.

Anniversary of First Successful Ascent of Mount Everest

Today is the anniversary of the first successful ascent of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain.

At 11:30 a.m. local time on May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay from Nepal reached the summit of Mount Everest. The pair were part of a two pair expedition aiming to conquer the peak.

The first pair, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, came to within 100 meters of the summit when they had to turn back due to exhaustion. Their work wasn’t in vain though, as their route finding and trail breaking paved the way for the following pair. They also had extra caches of oxygen that came in handy.

Although the team had always maintained that it was a team effort, Tenzig later revealed that Hillary was the first to actually put his foot on the summit.

What is a Localvore?

You’ve probably heard of the terms carnivore (those who eat meat) and herbivore (those who eat plants). But one term you might not be as familiar with is localvore – a relatively new term being thrown around today.

Localvore a term to describe a person committed to eating food grown and produced locally. Eating local food can have provide many benefits for the person, their community, and for the environment.

Benefits of Becoming a Localvore

Here are some benefits from eating local produce:

  • Better for the environment. For example…
    • Less transporting requirements. Your food doesn’t need to be transported thousands of kilometers. This saves fuel and other resources required to transport your food.
    • Less packaging. Most supermarket food uses plastic or tin packaging, thus requiring more fossil fuels.
  • It supports the local community. By purchasing local produce, you are supporting your local farmers. More money stays within your local community.
  • Healthier food. Local produce doesn’t need to be processed or contain preservatives. This is because the food doesn’t need to travel as far.
  • Tastes better. Local food will typically taste better than food that has been mass produced for the supermarkets. Supermarkets will do all sorts of things with their produce (such as inject them with hormones) in order to extend the shelf life of their “fresh” produce.

All or Nothing?

Some people are “die-hard” localvores – they won’t eat anything unless it was grown and produced within say, a 100 mile radius from their home. Others are not as strict – they try to eat locally when they can, but still purchase some groceries from the supermarket.

Depending on where you live, some foods can be difficult to source locally. For example, you might have trouble finding local coffee beans. Local olive oil could be difficult to find too. But of course, I’m sure a true localvore will at least, try their hardest to source everything locally!

Now, unless you’re planning to go on a 100 mile diet or something similar, you’ll probably find yourself eating non-local cuisine most days. Don’t let that deter you though. You can use your awareness of the localvore concept to become more interested in where your food is sourced from. And if you prefer to switch to a local provider for some of your groceries – great!

And if you’re still wondering if becoming a localvore is your cup of tea, the 100 mile diet website offers 13 good reasons to eat locally.

Looking for Sustainable Accommodation in Latin America or the Caribbean?

If you’re planning a vacation to Latin America or the Caribbean, read on…

The Rainforest Alliance has created an “Eco-Index” for sustainable tourism.

The Eco-Index Sustainable Tourism is a website providing information for environmentally conscious travelers and tour operators. If you intend to visit this area, the Eco-Index can provide you with up to date information on eco-friendly businesses, as well as tips to help you stay as eco-friendly as you can.

A main feature of the website is a database containing eco-friendly businesses in the area. The businesses, most of which provide accommodation, have been deemed environmentally and socially friendly by reputable environmental organizations and/or ecotourism certification programs. Each business in the database has already been certified as sustainable by an internationally known program or has been recommended by an organization or government agency with knowledge of sustainable tourism principles.

To see the kind of information provided by the Eco-Index database, check out this listing for Xandari Resort & Spa in Costa Rica. From the listing, you can see that Xandari was certified with Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) in November 2007. You can also see that 90% of Xandari’s staff are local residents. And, here’s Xandari’s take on making a difference for the environment:

Preserving nature is indispensable for Xandari; we live in a world that increasingly needs our help. We reforest and recycle, don’t use chlorine in our pools, make our own organic fertilizer, use efficient light bulbs, and educate our neighbors and employees about environmental subjects. Ninety percent of our employees are local. We donated 25 student desks to the local school and we maintain the green areas of the school and the local Catholic Church.

Generally, we fight to conserve nature in our country; by visiting a sustainable destination like ours you are helping to preserve nature.

Of course, this is just one of the many businesses listed in the database. So, if you’re planning a trip to this destination, be sure to check out the Eco-Index Sustainable Tourism website.

Astronauts Reveal Top 10 Photos of Earth

Mt Cleveland erupting in 2006NASA astronauts have shared their top ten photographs of Earth as taken from space.

The photos have been taken as part of the Crew Earth Observations (CEO) experiment. The CEO experiment is an ongoing mission to provide people on Earth with data about our ever changing planet.

Astronauts have been taking photos of Earth since the early 1960s. Nowadays, the CEO experiment continues on the International Space Station (ISS), which hovers around 220 miles (354 kilometers) above Earth.

The photos to the right are included in the top ten Earth observations. The top photo was taken when Mt Cleveland erupted for about two hours in 2006.

Himalayas as seen from the International Space StationThe second photo shows what the Himalayas look like from the International Space Station. This photo includes Mount Everest (the world’s highest mountain) and Mount Makalu (world’s fifth highest mountain).

The astronauts on the International Space Station spend between 10 and 20 minutes per day taking photos of Earth. They use hand held cameras, which include 35 and 70 mm cameras.

Areas to be photographed are both pre-determined, and decided by the crew. The pre-determined areas are generally regions of Earth that have undergone change or are indicators of global change.

Many of the pre-determined sites include major deltas in south and east Asia; coral reefs; smog-prone urban regions; areas experiencing major floods or droughts triggered by El Niño cycles; high altitude glaciers, which reflect longer-term climate changes; faults associated with major tectonic plate boundaries; and unusual features on Earth, like impact craters comparable to structures on other planet.

CITES – Protecting the World’s Fauna and Flora

CITES (which stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between the world’s governments. It was established to ensure that international trade does not threaten the survival of specimens. This includes wild animals and plants.

CITES exists because so many plants and animals are traded internationally. Without an international agreement to protect each species, many of these plants and animals could become extinct. Therefore, co-operation between each country is required in order to safeguard each species from over-exploitation.

The full text of the CITES convention was agreed to by 80 countries in 1973. Then in 1975 it was put in place. Back when CITES was first being considered, general public awareness of environmental issues barely existed. Nowadays, it’s an essential part of wildlife protection.

Today, over 5,000 species of animals and 28,000 species of plants are protected by CITES.

Which Species are Protected by CITES?

To see which plants an animals are protected by CITES, you can do one of the following:

About the CITES Appendices

You’ll notice that there are three appendices. This is done because there are three different levels of protection. Here’s CITES’ explanation of the three appendices:

  • Appendix I lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. They are threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species except when the purpose of the import is not commercial, for instance for scientific research. In these exceptional cases, trade may take place provided it is authorized by the granting of both an import permit and an export permit (or re-export certificate). Article VII of the Convention provides for a number of exemptions to this general prohibition.
  • Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. It also includes so-called “look-alike species”, i.e. species of which the specimens in trade look like those of species listed for conservation reason. International trade in specimens of Appendix-II species may be authorized by the granting of an export permit or re-export certificate. No import permit is necessary for these species under CITES (although a permit is needed in some countries that have taken stricter measures than CITES requires). Permits or certificates should only be granted if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.
  • Appendix III is a list of species included at the request of a Party that already regulates trade in the species and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation. nternational trade in specimens of species listed in this Appendix is allowed only on presentation of the appropriate permits or certificates.

For more information on CITES, check out the official CITES website.

100 Million Hectares of Forest is now FSC Certified

The FSC certification is widely recognized as the most rigorous social and environmental certification program in the forestry industry. Basically, FSC certification helps save the world’s forests by ensuring that land owners manage their forests responsibly.

The good news is that the amount of forest that is being FSC certified is increasing at an impressive rate.

he following chart demonstrates the amount of land that has been FSC certified since 1995:

Furthermore, as of March this year, over 100 million hectares of forest is now FSC certified. To be more precise, 103,456,399 hectares of land across 79 countries is FSC certified.

This represents a significant increase in the amount of forestry land that has been approved for certification. Consider these facts:

  • Within 10 years, FSC certified land has increased from less than 10 million hectares to more than 100 million.
  • In 2006, FSC certified acreage grew by 33 percent.
  • Globally, FSC certified land now represents 7 percent of production forests.

Andre de Freitas, FSC Head of Operations, commented…

The larger the forest area certified to FSC standards, the larger the forest area that is managed socially and environmentally responsibly. Each additional hectare certified to FSC standards brings us closer to achieving our mission: to improve forest management world wide.

About FSC

Established in 1993, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international organization that brings people together to find solutions which promote responsible stewardship of the world’s forests.

As mentioned, the FSC certification program is a rigorous social and environmental certification program for the forestry industry.

To learn more about FSC, visit the official FSC website.

Polar Bear Now on U.S. Endangered Species List

Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne has announced that the polar bear will now be protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The listing is based on scientific findings that the loss of sea ice is threatening, and will continue to threaten the survival of the polar bear. Studies last year by the U.S. Geological Survey found that as many as 15,000 polar bears could be lost in the coming decades. Given there are only 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears worldwide, this is a huge problem.

The big question appears to be; “When will the lawsuits begin?”.

Adding the polar bear to the endangered species list has a number of repercussions, particularly for the oil companies. About 15 percent of the U.S. oil supplies is produced in Alaska (where polar bears reside).

According to this article, Marilyn Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association said:

We now have a species threatened which is both healthy in size and population; the real risk is litigation that will follow,

She goes on to say…

Lawsuits will continue to be filed opposing individual operations, lease sales and permits, and that could have a significant impact on business up here

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association represents 17 oil and gas companies, as well as the owners of a trans-Alaskan pipeline.

Environmental groups aren’t happy either. The problem here is in the wording used in the announcement. The Department of Interior was quite clearly pointed out that this decision is not intended to regulate climate change.

Another big question is; “How accurate is the scientific data?”. Because the polar bear population has actually increased from about 5,000 to 12,000 in the 1960s (depending on who you believe), some people suggest that the Department of Interior’s decision is absurd.

Either way, if this ruling helps prevent the polar bear from becoming extinct, that’s got to be a good thing.

Australian Government Spends $200 Million to Protect the Great Barrier Reef

As I mentioned the other day, the Australian government, in its 2008 federal budget, announced increased spending on environmental issues.

This includes $200 million to go towards protecting the Great Barrier Reef. The package is being called “Reef Rescue” and aims to tackle climate change and improve water quality around the Great Barrier Reef. Given the Great Barrier Reef is one of the natural wonders of the world, this is welcome news.

A large part of the funding will go towards grants to landowners and managers. The main aim with this is to reduce sediment from entering the waters around the Great Barrier Reef. Currently, water quality around the reef is being affected by this pollution from the land.

Reef Rescue Allocation

Reef Rescue is divided up into 5 different parts:

  • Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Grants ($146 million)
  • Healthy Reef Partnerships program ($12 million)
  • Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Research and Development program ($10 million)
  • Water Quality Monitoring and Reporting program ($22 million)
  • Land and Sea Country Indigenous Partnerships program ($10 million)

Here’s an explanation of each of these parts (taken from the official budget website):

Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Grants ($146 million)

The majority of these funds will be provided in the form of matching grants (with matching funding) to landowners and managers who commit to implementing proven practices that reduce loss of nutrients and sediments, while improving farm productivity. This will be delivered in partnership with peak industry groups and existing regional Natural Resource Management groups.

Healthy Reef Partnerships program ($12 million)

A program to build partnerships between peak industry organisations and non-government organisations that support landowners with increased local expertise and extension staff. It will build on existing programs in rural industry bodies and regional NRM groups.

Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Research and Development program ($10 million)

To improve our understanding of the link between land management practices and environmental impacts. Research priorities will be determined in consultation with the Queensland Government, universities and research organisations, and other stakeholders.

Water Quality Monitoring and Reporting program ($22 million)

This funding will allow further development and implementation of a coordinated catchment-wide water quality monitoring and measurement program with established criteria and targets. The funding will also provide for the annual publication of a Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Report Card.

Land and Sea Country Indigenous Partnerships program ($10 million)

This program will build the capacity of traditional owner groups in sea country management. The funds will be used to strengthen communications between local communities, managers and reef stakeholders and build a better understanding of Traditional Owner issues about the management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Funding will also be available for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) to allow for the expansion of the Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreements across the Great Barrier Reef catchment.

Reef Rescue will play an important role in the survival of the Great Barrier Reef. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

Reusable Bags Result in Less Plastic Bag Orders

I just read this article on the CBCNews website regarding the reduction in orders for plastic bags across Manitoba. It seems that, ever since supermarkets started selling reusable bags, the number of orders for plastic bags has dropped by about 5 percent.

Great news for the environment.

This is a recurring theme too. As soon as retailers offer reusable bags, orders for plastic bags take a dive.

Another example is Australia. Between 2002 and 2005, plastic bag usage dropped from 6 billion to 3.92 billion. That’s around 35 percent less plastic bags! This was helped by the federal government’s campaign to encourage Australian’s to carry reusable bags to the supermarket. This campaign spawned the “Green Bag”, which is available at many supermarkets across Australia.

Individual retailers can make a difference too – regardless of the government’s policy. For example, Fred Meyer has revealed that it used 3.5 million less plastic bags in 2006 than in 2005. The reduction was a direct result of their reusable grocery bag program.

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