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The US Department of Agriculture has conditionally approved the first vaccine for honeybees in history. The new vaccine protects bees from a deadly disease known as the “American Foulbrood”. The news comes at a critical time when environmental degradation caused by encroaching climate change is threatening bees and other insect pollinators who are essential for the health of people and the planet.

The First Vaccine for Honeybees

Developing a vaccine for insects is no easy task and the difficulties lie in their immune system, which is quite different from the ones of mammals. For the latter, vaccine solutions work thanks to their ability to produce new antibodies. Insects, however, do not have an “immune memory” capable of recording information against a disease and reproducing it in the future.

In the early 2010s, two Finnish scientists, Heli Salmela and Dalial Freitak, began working on a scientific solution to this – so far insoluble – insect vaccine problem. After studying how diseases affect bees, the team developed a better understanding of how their immune memory works. Indeed, there is a possibility, through the queen of the hive, to transmit immunity against a disease to its offspring. The vaccine is inserted into the food brought back by the worker bees. In turn, the latter will transmit it to the royal jelly which is reserved for the hive’s queen. Once ingested, the queen will pass along the vaccine to all larvae and future bees.

Now the ball is in the hands of US-based start-up Dalan Animal Health. The company, co-founded by Freitak, was granted permission from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to market the vaccine for the next two years. According to the terms of the authorisation, the distribution must be limited in quantity to commercial beekeepers. Once the two-year period is over, the USDA will evaluate the results of the vaccine and could then give it a full right to commercialisation without restraints. 

“Our vaccine is a breakthrough in protecting honeybees. […] We are ready to change how we care for insects,” said Annette Kleiser, CEO of Dalan Animal Health. 

Is This the End of the Deadly Disease?

The American Foulbrood is a well-known and much feared disease among beekeepers worldwide. Indeed, the disease has many dreadful particularities. It is extremely contagious while slowly destroying all life in a hive and it is quite difficult to detect quickly enough to act upon it.

The American Foulbrood kill cycle has a pattern. As a spore, the disease is brought back into the hive by worker bees, where it rapidly spreads among larvae, killing most of them. The spore will then continue to spread in the hive as the corpses of the larvae attempt to be evacuated by the bees. Once all the inhabitants of the hive are infected by the disease, they will slowly be weakened until they all die. The destruction does not stop here as the disease often spreads to surrounding hives, either through other bees or through the tools used by beekeepers that move from one hive to another.

Until now, few solutions existed. At an early stage of the disease, beekeepers could try to use antibiotics in the hope that they would not be resistant to it. This had a low success rate. However, the best solution was often to set the hive on fire in order to prevent the disease from spreading further.

Why Do Pollinators Matter? 

Bees are pollinators. In other words, these small insects actively participate in the fertilisation and therefore the reproduction of flowering plants. Pollinating insects, including beetles, butterflies, flies, and of course bees, are responsible for 75% of the reproduction of flowering plants and thus play a crucial role in food production and ecosystem preservation.

Despite their importance, human activities such as the use of pesticides and deforestation as well as climate change are compromising their existence. The Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a term used to designate the abnormally high mortality of these insects since 1998 in Europe and 2006 in the United States. This has led to the disappearance of one species of bees out of four worldwide since the 1990s.

The consequences of this disaster for biodiversity are constantly pointed out by scientists. For example, experts warned that larger species of bees are disappearing to make way for the smaller ones. Smaller bees show greater adaptability to global temperature changes. This is also the reason why many European species of bees migrate north to new ecosystems in order to avoid rising temperatures. The abandonment of their old environment will have consequences which are, for now, difficult to fully assess. 

In this context, the creation of a vaccine for honeybees is a major turning point for their protection and paves the way for new solutions to protect all pollinators and insects. 

 You might also like: How Climate Change Is Threatening Honey Bees and Other Endangered Bee Species

The US Treasury has broadened the definition of SUVs, allowing more vehicles to classify for the EV tax credit.

More crossover SUVs will qualify for the EV tax credit, the Treasury Department announced on Friday following lobbying by automakers. The Biden administration has broadened the definition of sport-utility vehicles, effectively allowing more SUVs to qualify for the $7,500 consumer tax credit. The adjustment is retroactive to January 1, meaning that even those who already bought a vehicle this year can claim the credit. 

Under the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the $369 billion climate bill approved in August, only SUVs priced up to $80,000 and cars, sedans, and wagons up to $55,000 qualified for the EV tax credits. The IRA also introduced stricter rules concerning EV batteries – most of which are produced with minerals, components, and battery cells imported from China. More precisely, the law stipulates that at least half of all car batteries must come from the US, Mexico, or Canada by 2024, rising to 100% by 2028.

Automakers including Tesla, GM, and Ford welcomed the government’s decision. John Bonzella, president of Washington-based trade group Alliance for Automotive Innovation, told Bloomberg that the move is a “very good decision that clears up some EV tax credit confusion and instantly helps customers shopping today (and tomorrow) for an electric crossover or SUV.” 

Despite recent challenges and rising production costs as a result of increasing raw material prices, battery-powered vehicles are taking over the automobile market. Compared to 2020, sales of new EVs more than doubled in 2021 with an increase of 51.8%. Revenue in the EV market is projected to reach $61.18 billion in 2023.

Last year, New York and California announced a ban on fossil fuel car sales by 2023 in a bid to cut transportation-related emissions and increase EV adoption. The transportation sector accounts for the greatest share of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the state. In 2018, this was equal to approximately 47% of all GHG emissions, or 175.9 million metric tons of CO2. Despite ranking quite favourably at the national level, in 2020, New York and California together account for 18% of the 103.8 million registered passenger vehicles in the US. 

You might also like: Why Electric Cars Are Better for the Environment

Vertical farming is a modern farming technology that uses environmentally controlled agricultural technology to make the most of indoor farming techniques and many describe it as “future farming”. This is especially true given that by 2050, a major portion of the world’s population will have moved to cities. In such a setting and with an ever-expanding population, the desire for local food that is both organic and natural will grow, too. Here are 7 vertical farming companies that are paving the way for an agricultural revolution. 

Why Do We Need Vertical Farming?

Vertical farming is an innovative agricultural practice that has the potential of solving the impending food crisis. Instead of growing our crops horizontally, produce is grown in stacked vertical layers. By doing so, crops require less or even no soil at all, and water efficiency is increased at the same time. Vertical farming can guarantee regular produce output and boost crop yields based on its controlled environment including temperature, light, humidity, and artificial intelligence.

This green technology can easily be built into buildings, cities and even shipping containers. It can also produce food closer to its consumers, reducing transportation costs and emissions.

Yet, vertical farming is still a relatively new technology. Maintenance costs of automation and watering processes are sky high, and most farms are limited to leafy greens, salad leaves and herbs based on these costs. Here are some vertical farming companies that are leading the way and helping the sector to expand globally.

You Might Also Like: Ways in Which Vertical Farming Can Benefit Our Environment

Top 7 Vertical Farming Companies

1. Futurae Farms (US)

Yaheya Heikal and Erin James – co-founders of Futurae Farms, a vertical farming company founded in 2021 and based in Los Angeles – are on a mission to find solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems through the use of urban vertical farms. These farms will bring more nutritious and sustainably made fresh foods to people around the world (mainly in urban centres) while helping lower global emissions. After traveling abroad and experiencing first hand the difference in quality of grown vegetables outside the US, Yaheya and Erin saw and tasted the difference in food that had less time from farm to table. The next-generation farming and technology company is now working to create food that is more accessible and nutritious, without sacrificing the environment. “We’re using vertical farms to reduce supply chain issues and mitigate the effects of climate change while ensuring we can feed future generations.” – the founders said. “Climate change is increasingly affecting our ability to produce food using traditional farming methods due to events including flooding, warming climate, wildfires, soil degradation, and desertification. We need to find large-scale alternatives to help supplement food supply.”

2. CubicFarms (Canada)

The origin of the company dates back to 2008, when Jack Benne and his son Leo Benne, both farmers, committed to developing indoor growing technologies to grow fresh produce while minimising their impact on the environment. One such technology is the HydroGreen Grow System, which can grow up to 25 million pounds (11.3 million kilogrammes) of fresh livestock feed every year using just one-tenth of the water needed in traditional livestock feed grown in irrigated fields. This way, they managed to save over 500 million gallons (1.8 billion litres) of fresh water per year – enough to give one glass to every person on the planet. The Canadian company also uses 54% to 62% less energy than typical vertical farms by moving plants according to the light rather than having dedicated lights for each one. 

3. AeroFarms (United Arab Emirates)

Since 2004, AeroFarms implements the latest breakthroughs in indoor vertical farming, artificial intelligence and plant biology to fix our broken food system and improve the way fresh produce is grown and distributed locally and globally. As a sector leader and owner of the world’s largest vertical farm for research and development – located in the Abu Dhabi and completed in the first quarter of 2022, AeroFarms was awarded the inaugural Global SDG Awards celebrating private-sector leadership in the advancement of the United Nations 2030 Agenda. The company partnered up – among others – with US retail giants Whole Foods and Walmart to sell its leafy greens, from baby bok choy and arugula to spinach and micro broccoli.

4. InFarm (Germany)

Founded in Berlin in 2013 by Osnat Michaeli and the brothers Erez and Guy Galonska, InFarm is one of the largest vertical farming companies in Europe. The company uses an innovative technique known as cloud farming – a network of high capacity, self-learning growing centres that improve plant yield, taste, and nutritional value constantly, while further reducing the use of natural resources. With over 1,200 farms in stores and distribution centres, InFarm has partnered with more than 30 major food retailers including German Aldi Süd, Kaufland, and Edeka as well as Amazon Fresh, Marks & Spencer, and Whole Foods Market in Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States and Switzerland.

5. Spread (Japan)

One of Asia’s leading vertical farming companies is Spread. Established in 2006 with the vision of “creating a sustainable society where future generations can attain peace of mind”, Spread is commitment to facilitate the mutually beneficial coexistence between conventional agriculture and local communities while reducing food waste and improving productivity. The company is known for its crispy and soft lettuce as well as its sweet strawberries, both of which are sold in more than 4,500 grocery stores across Japan. The innovative vertical farming technique implemented by the company ensures high quality and yield year-round, regardless of weather conditions. Moreover, this method only requires 1% of the water needed to grow food with conventional farming techniques and 30% less food is lost during production.

6. Farm66 (Hong Kong)

Sixth on our list of vertical farming companies is Farm66, one of Hong Kong’s largest state-of-the-art indoor aquaponics farms and in 2016, it was awarded the Technological Achievement Certificate of Merit (HKAI). Since its establishment in 2013, the company has been developing and practising the concept of urban farming. Inside its indoor aquaponics farming eco-system, free of weather impact, birds’ problems, pests and bacteria and huge space requirements, Farm66 grows products such as leafy greens, herbs (basil, dill) and fruits. These are then sold by many local retailers including CitySuper Hong Kong, SOGO and Pacific Coffee. Given its limited space and extremely dense population, Hong Kong is almost totally dependent on imports for its food supply. “Vertical farming is a good solution because vegetables can be planted in cities,” said Gordon Tam – co-founder and CEO – in an interview with Forbes. “We can grow vegetables ourselves so that we don’t have to rely on imports.”

7. iFarm (Finland)

Last but not least on our list of vertical farming companies is the award-winning iFarm, founded in 2017 in Helsinki, Finland. Vertical farms built with the iFarm technology use 90% less water, 75% less fertilisers and zero pesticides. They also save huge amounts of energy by optimising technology and reducing the ‘human factor’ and labor costs. All this allows to grow crops in a sustainable and economic manner all year round. iFarm products, such as leafy greens and different types of vegetables but also fruit such as strawberries, are sold worldwide, from Switzerland and France to Saudi Arabia and India. In 2019, the company was awarded the “Best Social Impact Startup” in Nordic Startup Awards and in 2020, it was named Europe’s Hottest AgFood Tech startup by The Europas.

Research for this article was conducted by Earth.Org research contributor Chloe Lam

You Might Also Like: 10 Leading Sustainable Food Companies to Support

Exxon set a historic high for the Western oil industry, taking home about $6.3 million per hour last year as oil prices surged amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

ExxonMobil reaped a record US$55.7 billion in profit last year, bringing home about $6.3 million per hour, the oil giant said on Tuesday. The total was more than double 2021’s figure and far exceeded the prior record of $45.2 billion set in 2008, making it the most profitable year ever for any American and European fossil fuel company.

Exxon chairman and CEO Darren Woods credited “a favourable market” for the stellar annual profits – a combination of record-high gasoline prices and increased home-heating costs since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and recovery activity after the pandemic – but also praised the company for taking advantage of the undersupplied, post-Covid19 market.

“While our results clearly benefited from a favourable market, the counter-cyclical investments we made before and during the pandemic provided the energy and products people needed as economies began recovering and supplies became tight. We leaned in when others leaned out,” Exxon boss said.

While Woods celebrated the figure, the White House called it “outrageous” in a statement released on Tuesday.

The latest earnings reports make clear that oil companies have everything they need, including record profits and thousands of unused but approved permits, to increase production, but they’re instead choosing to plow those profits into padding the pockets of executives and shareholders while House Republicans manufacture excuse after excuse to shield them from any accountability,” said White House’s spokesman Abdullah Hasan.

Besides Exxon, other energy companies also posted record earnings. Last week, Chevron Corp. announced profits of $35.5 billion for 2022, more than double those of 2021, driven up by a record annual cash flow from oil operations of $49.6 billion. 

Exxon, Chevron, and other oil giants BP, Shell, and TotalEnergies are poised to record a combined $190 billion in profits for 2022. Together, the companies are responsible for more than 10% of global carbon emissions since 1965. 

A 2021 research examining their clean energy transition activity found that, despite a marked increase in climate action and pledges on decarbonisation as well as the use of keywords such as “climate”, “low-carbon’”, and “transition” between 2009 and 2020, there is no real evidence of a transition towards clean energy business models.

“The companies are pledging a transition to clean energy and setting targets more than they are making concrete actions”, the researchers write in the study. On the contrary, evidence points that companies are increasing rather than decreasing oil exploration. Moreover, while none of the companies directly releases data on their clean energy investments, according to the Carbon Disclosure Project, ExxonMobil has reportedly only spent 0.2% of its annual capital expenditure on clean energy, whereas BP dedicated 2.3%. 

You might also like: Accusations of Greenwashing Against Oil Companies are Well-Founded- Study

Utilising an innovative mixture of advanced, high-resolution aerial mapping technology and geotag information data-scrapped from social-media giant Instagram, researchers from Arizona State University and Princeton University recently discovered a “strong correlation” between overtourism and coral reef degradation. The research highlights not only the importance of understanding the intricate relationships between coral reef health and tourism but also how essential high-resolution data is in determining how influential local stressors affect coral reef health. Furthermore, the study also touches upon the subject of Hawaiian water quality and pollution, a topic that Greg Asner, director of the ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory and co-author of the paper, suggests should be taken more seriously in light of Hawaii’s limited wastewater-treatment infrastructure.

Regardless of where they are on the planet, coral reefs are universally beloved for their vibrant colours, their beautiful shapes, and their incredibly alien-like, awe-inspiring appearance. Coral reefs are so prized by the global community that the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef on the planet, is considered one of the world’s seven natural wonders, and is diligently conserved by the Australian government through funding equivalent to billions of dollars each year.

As beautiful as coral reefs are, their conservation is not solely due to their attractive appearance. According to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), coral reefs support approximately 25% of all marine life that live within the Earth’s oceans. They are known as foundational or architect species, providing homes for an incredibly biodiverse ecosystem of oceanic organisms.

Not only that, coral reefs provide food and income for hundreds of millions of people across the planet, while also protecting shores from as much as 97% of potentially damaging waves and flooding. In truth, it is estimated that the benefits coral reefs provide are worth approximately US$11.9 trillion per year to the global economy.

coral reefs

So, If you plan to go coral reef snorkelling on your next vacation, you may want to reconsider how you interact with these cherished, essential organisms. They may look like rocks, but they are quite susceptible to damage– even by the average person.

In fact, recent research into coral reef degradation conducted by scientists from Arizona State University and Princeton University has brought to light the damages that the average person can cause to coral reefs, specifically the destructive nature of the seemingly innocuous, leisure activity of coral reef snorkelling, scuba diving, and tourism in Hawaii.

You might also like: What Are Coral Reefs and Why Are They So Important?

‘Strong Correlation’ Between Overtourism and Coral Reef Degradation

Co-authored by Greg Asner, director of the ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, and leader of the largest coral reef monitoring program on the planet, the study in question found that there was a “strong correlation” between what has been dubbed  “overtourism” and significant coral reef degradation. 

“I know these reefs extremely well, so I’m careful to not say correlation is causation,” explains Asner. “But there was a really strong correlation – even I was impressed.” 

While wearing flight suits and oxygen masks, Asner and his colleagues accrued the data necessary for this study from as high as 18,000 ft (5,486 metres), utilising the most advanced airborne mapping technology available in the civil sector today. Known as the Global Airborne Observatory (GAO), the plane Asner and his team worked with – a highly modified Dornier 228-202 aircraft – was used to take  high-resolution images of the Hawaiian coastlines below. They then gathered the spectroscopic data from the pixels of each of those images to determine where the coral reefs were, and even the degree to which they had degraded.

 “A spectroscopic signature is far beyond the visual range. It’s in the near-infrared and it allows us to see the absorption and scattering of different molecules,” explains Asner. “We’re able to convert the molecular information into chemistry, and then the chemistry into ‘Is it a living coral or is it a dead coral?’” 

However, this was not the end-all to their study. 

“Ingredient number two is what my friends at Princeton brought to the table,” he adds.

The “ingredient” Asner is referring to are 275,724 public Instagram posts from the years 2018 to 2021, spread across 333 bays and beaches of the main Hawaiian islands. The posts were painstakingly data-scraped by Princeton researchers specifically for the geotag information associated with them. 

By combining the datasets harvested through both the GAO and Instagram, Asner and his colleagues were able to map out exactly where tourism hotspots were (measured as both overall and on-reef coastal tourism), and if those hotspots were centred around living coral or dead coral. As far as they could see from the data, tourists in Hawaii really liked coral, an obsession that could be causing serious problems for the health and well-being of these sensitive, living reefs. 

“They want to go to where there’s coral. And then where there’s a lot of tourism, there’s a lot of degraded coral,” says Asner. 

According to the study, of the hundreds of thousands of Instagram posts, 9,231 were associated with on-reef visitation. Specific on-reef visitation was associated with not only a higher hotel density, but also with higher quality of water and higher total and average coral reef coverage. This suggests that on-reef tourism is driven by both high-quality water and high-quality coral reefs. 

That being said, overall coastal visitations were found to be highest where accessibility was greatest – near hotels and roads – but also associated with greater levels of nearshore effluent, and thus, poorer quality of water.

The study also points out that visitation is highest where absolute live coral reef coverage is greatest, however, at the most popular sites, there is evidence that live coral coverage nearer to the shore is also being suppressed. These findings, as they state, suggest that areas with greater live coral coverage may attract more visitors, but the increase in visitation may also stifle the living coral – an effect that lessens the further the coverage is from land. 

Overtourism likely to Blame for Poor Coral Reef Health

As the study shows, the likely culprit behind coral reef degradation in Hawaii is tourism; or rather, overtourism.

“Tourism is good for the economy, but overtourism is bad for the environment,” says Asner. 

In the past, overtourism has often been associated with the negative impacts it can have on the quality of life for people–both tourists and residents. Today, the term has found new ground within the topic of conservation and sustainability as environmental scientists begin to notice how significantly the two are intertwined. Some, like Asner, are even seeing the consequences firsthand.

“We’re starting to see the effects of overtourism in specific locations. It’s not wall-to-wall yet. It’s not the entire coastline of all four of these islands, but it’s certain areas, certain bays, that attract a huge number of tourists. And I can tell you, I live near one that gets tourism monitoring, they say that sometimes they get 300 people per hour on only about 10 acres of reef,” he explains.  

According to the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaii, in 1960, Hawaii had a mere 300,000 visitors. By 1980, that number rose to approximately 3.9 million. By the start of the new millennium, the amount of visitors reached a staggering 7 million; today, the numbers are unprecedented. 

“Hawaii has ten and a half million visitors per year, and most of those visitors are on just four of the eight main Hawaiian islands,” says Asner. 

He also clarifies that with global warming heating oceans around the world, having so many visitors at once is a serious concern for the health of coral reefs, which are known to be very sensitive to changes in temperature.

“The reef becomes stressed as the temperature goes up, and then the effects of people directly on those warming reefs is exacerbated,” says Asner. “It’s like an amplifier. It takes a little bit of heat to stress a reef, and then you put people on it, and the reef goes belly up.”

What are Tourists Doing to Cause the Degradation of Coral Reefs in Hawaii? 

Though there is a strong correlation between overtourism and coral reef degradation, there is still the question of what exactly tourists are doing to cause such harm to coral reefs in Hawaii. 

Asner explains that there are a few reasons tourists are causing coral reef degradation. The first, and most obvious problem being physical contact with the reefs themselves.

As he stated, overtourism has filled certain coastal coral reef locations with more and more people every year. These hotspots become so overcrowded that abrasive contact with the coral reefs is almost guaranteed; and despite their rock-like appearance, they are still very susceptible to direct physical damage. 

Secondly, what Asner is clear to say is only circumstantial evidence, the water at these locations is in many cases polluted with not only debris and garbage, but also the urine of the tourists who swim there. An individual’s urine can contain all kinds of unwanted and harmful chemicals, the kind that can cause serious harm to coral. Ibuprofen, and even caffeine can be very detrimental to the health of a living coral reef, especially if exposure occurs on a daily basis.  

However, as Asner further elaborates, it is not only the chemicals tourists put into their bodies that are causing harm, it’s also the chemicals that they are putting on to their bodies. In a separate study published by Environmental Health Perspectives, it was found that the chemicals in sunscreen can cause “abrupt and complete bleaching of hard corals,” even at extremely low concentrations. Rather disturbingly, the researchers found that the chemicals – paraben, cinnamate, benzophenone, and camphor derivatives – stimulated dormant viral infections in their zooxanthellae (the symbiotic algal component of coral) subjects, which in turn, caused them to explode. This explosion then spread viruses outwards into the surrounding seawater, which resulted in further infections to nearby coral communities. 

You might also like: What is Coral Bleaching?

Residential Effluent a Serious Concern for Coral Reef Health

Although overtourism has proven to be unsustainable for natural ecosystems like coral reefs, it is not the sole reason for coral reef degradation in Hawaii. There is another, less obvious reason; one that many may not even be aware of.

“It’s really well known here, but I think the rest of the world doesn’t know about it,” says Asner. “We have 88,000 cesspools – just holes in the ground – that human waste and laundry detergent goes into.”

According to Asner, the government of Hawaii attempted to circumnavigate this issue by developing septic tank infrastructure, however the tanks still require leach fields, which only capture the toilet paper and other solids, while expelling the liquids regardless. 

Furthermore, because younger islands like the Big Island (as it’s known by locals) are mainly composed of basalt, there is less soil available in comparison to the older islands. This means that the liquids expelled by both septic-tank leach fields and cesspools have nowhere to go but back out into the ocean. In a study published by the Journal of Hydrology: Regional Studies, researchers from the University of Hawaii at Hilo used dyes to follow how far the effluent from septic tanks, otherwise known as onsite sewage disposal systems, traveled. Their findings suggest that the effluent from these tanks is quite capable of reaching shorelines, thereby polluting coastal waters. 

“Scientists have very clearly shown that both are equally a problem, septic tanks and cesspools,” explains Asner. 

What Can Be Done to Prevent Coral Reef Degradation in Hawaii? 

In regards to overtourism, Asner explains that there are two ways that tourists can help mitigate and possibly even prevent damages to coral reefs on their trips to Hawaii. 

“One, educate yourself about these problems, and become part of the story of addressing them. We want people to come here, but we want them to come here really educated. And not social media educated, but really educated about what the situation is,” says Asner.

He explains that every swimmer visiting Hawaii’s coastlines should be wearing rash guards and, contrary to what your mother may tell you, absolutely no sunscreen. He also recommends that people stay as far from the coral reefs as possible, at least a 20-foot distance. 

The second method of damage mitigation, as Asner states frankly, is to use the washrooms on the mainland, rather than the ocean as a toilet. 

“At least it’s not right on the reef. You know?” he says.

As for residential waste, Asner believes that the focus should be on upgrading and streamlining their wastewater-treatment infrastructure, a task that not only involves the government, but the people of Hawaii. “We have got to work together to get our wastewater treatment fixed. The county and state want to do it, but they need communities to want to as well.” 

He explains that although there is money available to implement more refined and modern wastewater-treatment infrastructure, many residents of Hawaii are unwilling to go through the process of installation; a process that entails extensive excavation, construction and manipulation of their yards and homes.

“A lot of people are just not lifting a finger about it. And there isn’t enough federal regulation to force it fast enough. So it’s really a collaborative process where there is money to do these wastewater treatment facilities, but people are going to have to dig up a small part of their yards,” says Asner.

Help is Needed to Save Coral Reefs in Hawaii

Currently, Asner and his colleagues are building the largest coral reef restoration facility in the Pacific, a venture that will require as many hands on deck as possible. In light of this fact, Asner is asking anyone, especially tourists and the residents of Hawaii, to help out by cleaning the land, particularly where coral reefs are most prominent.

“We need people to clean up the land,” says Asner. “If we restore coral reefs in areas where land is still being polluted, the reef will just die again.”

In addition, they’ll eventually need help collecting what are known as COO’s, or “corals of opportunity,” which are essentially coral that have been separated from their communities due to storms, ship-groundings, anchors, and other mishaps. By June of this year, their restoration facility will be fully functional, allowing for the storing of half a million COO’s within coral nurseries, for the purpose of not only rehabilitation, but propagation.   

“We can take one coral, and we can create 10 or 20 out of that same coral. They’re called clones–coral clones.” explains Asner. “We can take those corals into the nursery, propagate them, and then we can go out and plant them back on the reef.”

You might also like: 5 Coral Reefs That Are Currently Under Threat and Dying

While we await data to reveal the overall progress made in 2022 for renewable energy sources, we figured it is worthwhile to get an early analysis of the key headlines in US renewable energies of 2022. The key terminologies associated with renewable energy are environmentally friendly and sustainable. This can include electricity consumption, heating/cooling power, and transportation methods. By 2050, renewable energies are expected to project over 42% of the country’s electricity as compared to 20% today.  As of this time, the US renewable energy market is considered the second largest in the world.  

The United Nations defines renewable energy as energy that replenishes faster than it is consumed. The most common forms include solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower, and bioenergy.  The framework of the analysis in this article is based on developments in the US renewable energy market based on these power sources.  In 2022, renewables are estimated to constitute 22% of the US electricity generation and experts predict the percentage for 2023 will be even higher.  As for total renewable consumption (Industrial, Transportation, Residential, Commercial), renewables accounted for 12.7% as the main sources of those consumptions.  Below are the analysis and related statistical developments for each of these main energy power sources in 2022.  As we are still early into 2023, many of these statistics will be on a rolling basis as more data starts incoming as we progress further into the year.      

As is often the case, macro-economic developments of 2022 (The Federal Reserve’s interest hike mandate targeting inflation, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, China’s zero-Covid policy, etc.) often overshadow another major, contemporary crisis: climate change. Last year was marked by more wildfires in the US and Europe, devastating flooding in Pakistan, as well as massive droughts that impacted major countries around the world, compromising food and water security.  Despite the severity of all these issues, major initiatives were established to combat the looming climate threat and set forth a precedent for change.  Globally, COP27 in November saw the establishment of a “loss and damage” fund for vulnerable countries. In the US, the Biden Administration passed the inflation Reduction Act, the country’s largest piece of federal legislation to ever address global warming. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the US will invest US$391 billion in provisions relating to energy security and climate change. There will be significant investments in renewables, particularly solar and offshore wind.   

There will also be new incentive credits for nuclear power production and clean hydrogen to develop more facilities that produce clean energy inputs and components.  This will create the framework for the US to take the necessary steps in its carbon neutrality transition.  As the Paris Agreement was set into motion in 2015, countries around the world set a global mandate of keeping the increase in global average temperatures below the 1.5C threshold.  There is no doubt that improvements in renewable energy infrastructure within the US, the world’s second-largest polluter behind China, are a key breakthrough that can put the world on the right path. We take a look at the advancements made in the US renewable energy market in 2022 and what is to expect moving forward.

State of the US Renewable Energy Market: A Preliminary Analysis

1. Solar Energy

Of our sun’s energy, only 34% actually reaches the Earth’s surface, with the remaining energy scattered and absorbed by the atmosphere.  And of that 34%, only a tiny fraction is captured and used efficiently.  Humans worldwide use approximately 13 terawatts of energy each day, which is only a small fraction of the total global energy output from the sun.  Humans use approximately 0.01% of the sun’s total energy each day.  The total amount of energy reaching the Earth’s surface from the sun daily is 173,000TW. This is more than 10,000 times the world’s total energy use.  The amount of energy that we use daily is much less than the amount of energy produced by the sun, but it is still a considerable amount.  On a global scale, solar energy is currently the fastest-growing form of renewable energy and is only expected to keep expanding. Common forms of solar energy include photovoltaic (PV panels), which are used to generate electricity, as well as solar thermal systems, which use heat from the sun to produce hot water and steam.  

how a solar panel converts sunlight into energy to provide electricity for a range of appliances; how do solar panels work

Image 1: How solar panels work 

Despite the developing infrastructure and policy incentives in utilising solar energy, it only accounts for 2.8% of total US energy consumption. This figure is expected to increase as technological developments decrease solar costs and better infrastructural designs are set to facilitate solar energy. The rapid growth has contributed to a decrease in the cost of solar generation.  The cost of photovoltaic electricity in 2020 was around $0.06 per kilowatt-hour, a decrease of more than 85% since 2010. 

Currently, the states with the most effective solar policies are California, New Jersey, New York, Hawaii, and Arizona, which offer various incentives and subsidies for residential and commercial installations, including net metering and tax credits. In 2020, Hawaii had more than 19.6% of its total energy consumption coming from solar. California comes in second with an estimated 7.1%.    

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2. Wind Energy

Common forms of wind energy are onshore (on land) and offshore (at sea) wind farms.  The top five companies in the US for wind energy capacity are NextEra Energy, Invenergy LLC, EDP Renewables, Duke Energy, and Berkshire Hathaway Energy. Currently, wind energy accounts for 9.2% of total US renewable energy consumption, making it the largest source of renewable energy in the country behind hydropower. In the US, Texas uses the most wind energy, generating over 92TWh of electricity in a year, and more than the next three top states (Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas) combined. The abundance of open land in those midwestern states ensures the steady flow of wind power. 

Today, nearly 70,000 wind turbines across the country generate clean, reliable power. Wind power capacity totals nearly 140 GW, making it one of the largest sources of electricity generations in the country.  This is enough wind power to serve the equivalent of 43 million American homes. 

types of wind turbines

Image 2: Four types of wind energy

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3. Geothermal

Geothermal energy, a form of energy derived from the heat of the Earth’s core, is the most used type of renewable energy in the US for heating and cooling. Similar to solar and wind power, geothermal energy can also be used to generate electricity.  The market size of geothermal energy in the US is relatively small compared to other renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. However, it is still significant, with an estimated installed capacity of around 3.86 GW in 2021.  Geothermal is expected to account for about 0.4% of total US renewable energy generation in 2022. The geothermal energy market in the US is valued at several billion dollars annually. In 2020, the total annual revenue of the US geothermal energy industry was around $2.7 billion.  Worldwide, International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) forecasts that geothermal power generation will increase from 78GW in 2019 to 103 gigawatts in 2022. The US, Philippines, Indonesia, and Mexico utilize the most in geothermal power generation and thus the largest consumers.  Cumulatively, these countries represent about 75% of global geothermal power generation. The most efficient uses of geothermal energy technologies are direct-use systems, ground source heat pumps (GSHPs), and enhanced geothermal systems (ESG). For GSHPs, a loop of tubing is placed underground to capture the Earth’s natural heat. EGS involves drilling deep wells to access hot rocks which can generate electricity.

Currently, the states with the largest geothermal energy capacity annually are:

  1. California (1,927 MW)
  2. Nevada (1,377 MW), 
  3. Utah (940 MW), 
  4. Oregon (447 MW), 
  5. Idaho (395 MW). 

Together, these five states accounted for 83% of the total installed geothermal energy capacity in the US for 2021/2022.  

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4. Hydropower

Hydroelectric power, or hydropower, is one of the oldest sources of renewable energy. In this case, the natural flow of moving water is used to generate electricity, water supply, and irrigation. Hydropower currently accounts for about 6.3% of total US electricity generation, making it the second largest source of renewable energy in the US.  It was only around 2020 that wind energy surpassed hydropower to be the largest source of US electricity generation.  The three largest hydropower companies in the US are PacifiCorp, Xcel Energy, and Dominion Energy.

Common forms of hydropower are traditional large-scale hydroelectric dams and smaller-scale “run-of-river” projects. Large-scale hydro-projects use impoundment dams to store water and generate electricity on demand, while run-of-river projects take advantage of naturally occurring flows of rivers and streams as they pass through a dam to generate power.  

Future hydropower developments in the US include more investment in both large and small-scale projects seeking to make more efficient use of existing infrastructure and water resources and the exploration of alternative techniques such as pumped storage and water-to-wire technologies. Additionally, the US Bureau of Reclamation is working to develop new hydropower projects at existing dams, which could add an additional 10GW of capacity to the nation’s energy grid by 2030. 

The main advantage of hydropower over other forms of renewable energy like wind and solar is that this type of renewable energy is the least reliant on seasons or weather. It also benefits from greater efficiency, as the ability to store water is a form of technology that society has already perfected. Weaknesses, however, include that hydropower is more difficult to build and thus has a major reliance on costly infrastructure investments. Better technology and considerate reservoir management practices that mitigate effects on downstream ecosystems are key developments that will help hydropower expand as a renewable energy use.       

he Grand Coulee Dam; US renewable energy market

Image 3: The Grand Coulee Dam has a capacity of 6,809 megawatts (MW) and generates an average of 21 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year, enough to power over 2 million households (Image by Ted McGrath/Flickr)

5. Biomass

Biomass, renewable organic material that comes from plants and animals, was the largest source of total annual energy consumption in the US until the mid-1800s. Today, it only accounts for around 5.4% of the total energy produced in the country. Bioenergy includes electricity and heat generated from biomass, biogas, and liquid biofuels.  The residential, commercial, and industrial sectors make up nearly 60% of total bioenergy consumption. The agricultural sector is also a major consumer of bioenergy in the country.  Future developments include the introduction of more efficient technologies and processes, the expansion of existing resources, and the development of new sources of biomass, biogas, and liquid biofuels.

Image 5:  The 6 types of biomass energy 

US Renewable Energy Market: What’s Next?

Today, fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, petroleum, etc.) still account for nearly 81% of total US energy consumption, while the remaining energy outputs are through renewables. Yet, positive initiatives and supporting policies on an international scale have contributed to speeding up the development of renewable energy, which is now on track to overtake coal and become the largest source of global electricity in perhaps 3 years’ time. For reference, renewables generated 19.5% of the US’s net electricity production, while coal plants generated 19.3% and nuclear plants 19.7%.  Electricity net generation refers to the “amount of gross electricity generation a generator produces minus the electricity used to operate the power plant”.  Renewables are not as far off as many people would believe, and clearly has the potential to be more efficient.  The US generates more renewable electricity than Germany, Japan, and the UK combined.  Thus, the US plays an important role in the global initiative to gradually transition out of fossil fuels.      

According to early estimates, the global market size of renewable energies is expected to reach two trillion USD by 2030.  The US renewable energy market in 2022 was valued at US$269 billionThe International Energy Agency (IEA) also expects renewables to become the largest source of global electricity by 2025.  With US revenues from fossil fuels responsible for $138 billion annually, the amount is expected to fall given the infrastructure and cost improvements in renewable energy as well as further government policies to decrease the reliance on fossil fuels.  For electricity generation, solar and wind are the fastest and most popular methods  Supporting renewable energy initiatives in local jurisdictions and implanting them within our lives if it is cheaper and more practical to do so are all actions we can control as individuals.  Technology will continue to cut the costs of renewable energy infrastructures, and this decade is showing a lot of promise for this continued growth trajectory.       

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It is no secret that the U.S. is drastically behind other countries in terms of public transportation. However, once Americans begin to treat public transport as an essential resource instead of a social welfare programme, the solutions become cheaper, easier, and more effective. Spoiler alert: they do not include building expensive subway stations. 

11:45 pm on a Friday night. I’m traveling home from Hong Kong’s Central District back to my apartment, a 45-minute commute. I’m alone, a 19-year-old female, with several bags on me and little knowledge of the city’s local Cantonese language. I scan my prepaid transportation card, enter the clean, practical station, and immediately hop onto a metro car. The journey home takes only 35 minutes, costing a total of HK$6 (US$0.77).

One year ago, I was living in Los Angeles. To visit North Hollywood, my friends and I once waited 40 minutes for a bus in the suffocating heat. 15 minutes into the US$3 ride, we had to sprint off, escaping a man who was threatening to harm us. 

Why are these two experiences so vastly different? 

After living with Hong Kong’s incredibly safe, efficient, and cheap public transportation network, I continue to ponder why the U.S. is so behind in public transportation. Efficient transport is not only an environmental issue, it is also essential to the welfare of a city. It isn’t about getting everyone to ditch their cars, it’s about providing citizens a practical, greener alternative to driving. For the majority of the US population, this alternative is virtually nonexistent. 

When discussing American transport with Americans, the answer is always the same. “The U.S. is just different,” everyone says. “We’re a country of suburbs, highways, and towns; it is impossible to develop good public transportation.” 

The truth is, their argument is partially correct. It’s unlikely that new shiny, expensive subway stations will make Americans ditch their cars for good. Nearly 75% of the U.S. is comprised of suburban or rural areas, making it impractical to replicate urban transport networks like Hong Kong’s throughout most of the U.S. However, similarly suburban-heavy countries—such as Canada— have proven that an efficient U.S. public transport system is possible. The answer lies in a mindset shift. 

Making Commuter Rails More Frequent 

The key to effective US transportation systems lies in using existing structures, such as commuter rail networks. Take the Chicago Metra Rail, for example. A network expanding into the suburbs with over 1,200 miles (1931 km) of track, the rail is almost exclusively used by workday commuters hoping to escape rush hour traffic. Fares are high (US$8-15 per trip), trips to the city center are slow, and trains typically only ride every 1-1.5 hours after 8 AM. 

Instead of paying an exuberant amount to create new subway systems, Chicago (and other cities), can take advantage of these existing rail lines and turn them into high-capacity, high-frequency, low-fare routes. 

Hong Kong mtr; public transport; public transportation system

Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) serves nearly 5 million passengers a day. Photo: GovHK.

Sounds impossible? Ottawa did it, transforming their outer commuter rail lines into trains that arrive every 15 minutes, for a total cost of $16 million. In Munich, Germany, the underground metro system is even smaller than Washington DC’s. However, an extensive network of commuter rail—the so-called S-Bahn—rides all day every 20 minutes, offering a cheap and viable option to travel between suburbs. 

Ultimately, the suburban American model makes it impractical to build a Hong Kong replica, urban-centred subway network. However, commuter rails are widely underused across the country. If remodeled, these train tracks can link suburban Americans to not only cities, but also other suburbs. 

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Robust Busing Systems to Make Existing Trains Accessible 

Even with a more frequent, reliable train system, how do cities transport people to these commuter rail and subway stations? Canada may have the solution. 

Toronto, a car-dependent metropolis like many U.S. cities, has created an efficient suburban bus network to feed the older subway system. Virtually every Toronto commuter lives within a 15-minute walk to a 24-hour bus station, and nearly every major road has a bus route that arrives every 10 minutes. These bus routes and subways often look like typical suburban America (Toronto’s York Mills station, for example, is surrounded by a golf course and huge houses), but they get the job done. Around 70% of the Toronto Transit Commission’s costs are covered by fares, proving that the routes have significant ridership. Although lots of Torontonians own cars, many choose to ditch them for these more convenient options. 

By making use of its existing bus fleets, the U.S. could also make transport to and from train stations, as well as across suburbia, more convenient. 

Ensuring Safety, and Partnering With Businesses 

Frequent commuter rails and robust bus networks are great, but here’s the problem. These options are already available in many cities across the U.S, but remain unsafe for the average commuter. In 2022 alone, the NYC subway saw 25 incidents where people were pushed into the tracks, including 2 deaths. In 2022, the Chicago Transport Association reported 491 violent crimes on the rail system. On the Los Angeles metro, I repeatedly witnessed incidents such as passengers urinating in train cars or threatening others with knives. 

Ultimately, this is where the U.S. can learn from Hong Kong’s MTR network. In Hong Kong, the subway’s (often floor-to-ceiling) glass doors shield the tracks to ensure no one falls onto them, while also maintaining quiet and clean stations. Most trains come every two minutes. Simple, understandable signage and color-coded stations make it easy to navigate the lines. Station attendants and cameras monitor entrances, providing a sense of safety at all times of the day. WiFi is freely available, and stations and train cars boast stroller and wheelchair accessibility. 

This safety and hygiene is maintained by small train fees. Hong Kong’s MTR is cheap, but it’s not free. Easy-to-use touch-and-go payment cards, which work for any of the city’s trains, buses, or trams, track distance and make payments convenient and fair. 

Hong Kong’s station safety upgrades, such as floor-to-ceiling glass doors, do involve substantial funding. Moreover, the MTR’s engineering projects have been extremely costly, due to expensive tunnel digging through Hong Kong’s mountains and under its harbours (most notably, the recent Sha Tin Underwater Railway). However, through a combination of business partnerships, such as the leasing of retail shops located in every station, the Hong Kong MTR actually manages to make a profit despite high construction costs. Given its difficult geographic conditions, the MTR’s success can serve as a reminder to Americans that with proper investment, profitable transport networks are possible.

Like Hong Kong, by charging similar small fees for transportation, the U.S. can sustain station hygiene and safety, while also preventing crime. People shouldn’t have to risk their well-being, travel in groups, or carry pepper spray to ride public transportation. This is the reality of current American stations, and without reform, we cannot work towards socially and environmentally responsible cities. 

What About Small Towns? 

Robust busing systems and expanded commuter rails sound incredible for further linking U.S. cities. However, nearly 14% of US citizens live in rural areas, which makes it necessary to consider methods of expanding public transportation into more isolated areas of the country.

Ride-sharing, vanpooling, bike sharing, and even micro-transit shuttles are all options that are currently being tested across the country. Microtransit serves as a more comprehensive, cheaper UberPool. Multiple riders, moving in the same direction, are paired into one vehicle. Unlike UberPool, however, passengers walk to “virtual bus stops” located on main roads, streamlining the pickup process and reducing detours. Smaller American towns such as South Bend, Indiana, are now testing this system.  

To improve this “demand-response” microtransit in rural areas, many countries are now using satellite imagery, drones, and smart phone data to collect information on rural ridership. The World Bank, for instance, is gathering data for the Rural Access Index using these methods. 

These investments are essential for America’s small towns. Low income households, the elderly, and school-aged children are particularly limited by inaccessible transport. Although a radical transition to car-free, rural transportation is unlikely in the near future, developing these microtransit solutions can provide solutions to vulnerable rural populations. Public transportation isn’t impossible in rural communities, but it will take innovation.

Final Thoughts

The US is an intersection of diverse traditions: religions, cuisines, languages, and more. With a little creativity, the U.S. can apply this same diversity to its public transportation network, weaving together various countries’ public transportation models to create a unique, successful, American experience. The real question is, when will the U.S. take initiative to start?

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About the Author:

Madeleine Lawler is a current undergraduate student from the World Bachelor in Business program, earning a business degree from the University of Southern California, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Bocconi University. She is currently working for Encompass HK, a social enterprise which provides SDG consultancy services to organizations. In the future, she aspires to work as an environmental management consultant and eventually lead corporate sustainability policies. Outside of climate activism, Madeleine enjoys hiking, backpacking, and exploring different cultures. 

Last month, scientists reported a breakthrough in nuclear fusion research when a reaction resulted in a net energy gain. Against a backdrop of fuel shortages, energy crises and blackouts across the globe, the possibility of powering the world with nuclear fusion is seemingly positive. However, critics have advised that there is still a long way to go to make nuclear fusion a viable, clean energy source, stressing that perhaps the recent news is not quite the ‘breakthrough’ they’d hoped for.

Nuclear energy now provides about 10% of the world’s electricity from about 440 power reactors located across 32 countries. However, this method generates electricity by splitting atoms (also known as nuclear fission). 

Instead, nuclear fusion is a relatively new concept, confined largely among the scientific community as it is yet to be a commercialised method of producing nuclear energy. In a nutshell, nuclear fusion is the exact opposite of nuclear fission; instead of splitting up, multiple smaller and lighter nuclei such as hydrogen are combined to form a heavier nucleus such as helium, which produces significant energy during the process. In other words, nuclear fusion generates energy by combining nuclei instead of splitting it up.

Learn more about nuclear fusion here: What is Nuclear Fusion?

Scientists have claimed that the reaction could provide ample clean energy, which is vital for the planet’s future, and some of the world’s major developed and emerging economies, including the EU, US, China, India, Japan, Korea, and Russia, are backing efforts to scale up nuclear fusion.

In December last year, reports that a successful nuclear fusion reaction achieved a net energy gain in the US generated excitement among the scientific community. The project – described as having “the power of the sun” – has sparked discussions on the reality of powering the world with nuclear fusion.

The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California reported that lasers delivered 2.05 million joules (MJ) of energy to the target, which resulted in a release of 3.15 MJ of energy – generating 54% more energy than went into the reaction (also described as an energy net gain). The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory director, Kim Budil, described the achievement as “the fundamental building block of an inertial confinement fusion power scheme.”

nuclear power plant

Nuclear energy now provides about 10% of the world’s electricity from about 440 power reactors located in 32 countries.

Research into the fusion process and capabilities has been ongoing since the early 1950s, but this is reportedly the first time that the laboratory produced more energy than it consumed. Initially, the news was hailed as a ‘milestone for future clean power’, but critics have highlighted the reasons why it may not be as great an achievement as it first seemed, and provide explanations for why nuclear fusion may not be available everywhere and soon enough. 

Firstly, many have highlighted that the NIF project has been running behind schedule for several years, and was initially intended to achieve ignition by 2012; however, delays and cost overrunning have affected the speed of success of the project. 

One of the key explanations for this is that NIF was not originally designed with the efficiency required for commercial fusion energy, but was instead designed “to be the biggest laser we could possibly build to give us the data we need for the [nuclear] stockpile research programme”, as David Hammer, a nuclear energy engineer at Cornell University (US), explained

Following the net gain reaction in December, many have questioned what the US Department of Energy will decide to do, as the drive for weapons research continues against a backdrop of the possibility of a laser programme focussing on fusion energy research.

In the past, the NIF project has been slow to achieve real results. For example, The New York Times reported that construction of the NIF began in 1997 and when it became operational in 2009, hardly any fusion was achieved. In 2014, the first successful project was reported, however, the energy produced was almost insignificant. 

Just weeks after the US projects’ success, a facility in France announced that their attempts to achieve the same result would likely face delays after problems emerged at the facility’, such as corrosion in a thermal shield used to protect the outside world from the enormous heat created during the nuclear fusion. 

The US$22-billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) project explores ways to feasibly provide nuclear fusion as a ‘large-scale and carbon-free source of energy’, however, Pietro Barabaschi – the project’s director general – conveyed that fixing the issues “is not a question of weeks, but months, even years.” The project’s goal was to create the plasma by 2025 and enter the full phase in 2035. Although it is possible that Iter may make up for the delays, this is a key reminder of just how long the journey to utilise nuclear fusion as a viable energy source worldwide really is. As Tony Roulstone, a nuclear-energy researcher at the University of Cambridge (UK) put it: “Although positive news, this result is still a long way from the actual energy gain required for the production of energy”.

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Despite being less intense and mostly contained to the Northwest, Wednesday’s atmospheric river offered little relief for the state already battered by record rainfall, gale-force winds, and devastating floods. At least 17 people have lost their lives since the start of the year, while millions remain under evacuation orders and severe weather warnings.

Northern California was hit by the seventh consecutive atmospheric river since Christmas on Wednesday. While this deluge was less intensive than previous ones, meteorologists have warned that a more powerful storm is on the way and is expected to hit most of the state this weekend.

Gale-force winds have downed power lines, leaving more than 160,000 people without electricity. Authorities have been working incessantly to restore power but as of the early hours of Thursday, more than 45,000 homes and businesses were still without electricity, according to data from Poweroutage.us

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) describes an atmospheric river as a “relatively long, narrow region in the atmosphere” akin to rivers in the sky that can carry “up to 15 times the volume of the Mississippi River.” When they make landfall, dumping extraordinary amounts of rain, they often result in floods and mudslides.

According to a 2018 study, climate change will cause atmospheric rivers to become 25% longer and 25% wider and thus carry more water and thus become more calamitous.

atmospheric river; california floods

Image by NOAA

Since December 26, several areas in central California received over half their average annual rainfall. In just 16 days, California averaged 8.61 inches (21.9 cm) of precipitation, while the San Francisco-Oakland metropolitan area averaged 13.34 inches (33.9 cm), the National Weather Service (NWS) Weather Prediction Center said on Wednesday. 

atmospheric river; california floods; california rainfall

Image by NWS Bay Area/Twitter

Since the start of the year, the bundle of atmospheric rivers has killed at least 17 people and caused widespread flooding, forcing authorities to issue evacuation orders for millions of Californians. 

Featured image by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

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As the latest IPCC report warned, it is ‘now or never’ to limit global warming below 1.5C. Countries around the world are already bearing the brunt of climate change but the reality is that, unless we reverse this trend, the effects that we are going to experience in the near future are going to be significantly more devastating. The US is certainly not spared by global warming. From north to south, from east to west, all of its states are affected by pollution and extreme weather events in some shape or form. Here are the top environmental issues in North America and what the government is doing to tackle them. 

Top Environmental Issues in the US in 2023

1. Air Pollution

As the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, preceded only by China, it comes as no surprise that air pollution is one of the biggest environmental issues in the US. In 2021 alone, about 67 million tons of pollution were emitted into the atmosphere in the country, mainly coming from the transportation and electric power sectors. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), in the same year, the country’s electric power sector emissions from coal increased for the first time since 2014

The latest assessment on air pollution conducted by the American Lung Association found that 4 in 10 individuals – accounting for about 135 million people – are currently living in areas with unhealthy and polluted air. While the main cause is the burning of fossil fuels, climate change-related events such as wildfires and prolonged pollen seasons further exacerbate the quality of air in the country.

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Adopted in 1970, the Clean Air Act (CAA) is a comprehensive US federal law that led to the specific standards of emissions of hazardous pollutants that cause smog, acid rain, and other health hazards by setting specific limits on the atmospheric concentration of these pollutants. However, this alone will not solve air pollution in the country and the government’s best solution is drastically cut emissions.

A promising step forward was made in August 2022, as the Biden Administration passed the long-awaited   Inflation Reduction Act, the largest climate investment in the country’s history. Through investments in renewable energy and electric vehicles, the landmark bill is expected to help cut greenhouse gas emissions in the US by around 40% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade and bring the country one step closer to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. In the long run, this will significantly reduce air pollution.

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2. Water Pollution

According to a survey conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately half of the country’s rivers and streams – amounting to more than 700,000 miles of waterways – and more than one-third of its lakes are polluted and unfit for swimming, fishing, and drinking. 

In the US, agricultural pollution is the top source of contamination in rivers and streams, the second-biggest source in wetlands, and the third main source in lakes as well as a major contributor of contamination to estuaries and groundwater. This type of pollution includes how we grow, raise, transport, process, and even store food and nonfood crops as well as other agricultural products. 

A report released in August 2022 by California’s State Water Resources Control Board found that in the Western state alone, nearly one million people face possible long-term health conditions from drinking water containing unsafe levels of contaminants such as arsenic and nitrate. The audit found that 371 of California’s water systems contained high levels of toxic chemicals that can result in long-term, negative health risks including liver and kidney problems as well as cancer. 

The report comes as California, along with several other western states, battles one of the worst and longest droughts in nearly 1,200 years, which has forced the state to increase its reliance on groundwater. The auditor noted that the risks of toxic pollutants contaminating drinking water are higher in drought conditions: as groundwater levels sink, hazardous farm chemicals seep deeper into the soil, tainting underground drinking water supplies.

Tainted water has extremely detrimental effects on human health as well as the environment, with repercussions on biodiversity. According to a study published in The Lancet, water pollution alone killed more than 500,000 people in 2019 and makes about 1 billion people sick every year, especially among low-income communities. Even swimming can pose a risk. Every year, approximately 3.5 million Americans contract health issues such as skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, and hepatitis from sewage-laden coastal waters, according to EPA estimates.

In the US, the Clean Water Act of 1972 established the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters and regulating quality standards for surface waters. As for water destined for humans, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is the main federal law that ensures the quality of drinking water across the nation by protecting aquifers, the main source of drinking water. Groundwater can become contaminated by human activity through the illegal or accidental dumping of chemicals. 

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3. Water Shortages

The consequences of climate change are felt across the entire country, with some states experiencing worst effects than others. Historically, droughts in the US have had catastrophic impacts on agriculture and water reserves: the country has been experiencing continuous droughts over the last 20 years and each of them has caused billions of dollars in economic loss.

Among the worst-hit states are California – with currently 88% of the population estimated to live in drought, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Droughts bring with them a whole host of problems for the environment and the larger human population. With diminishing precipitation and rainfall, soils and crops dry out easily and die. In July 2022, nearly 230 million acres of crops were found to be undergoing drought conditions. Moreover, when these events occur over prolonged periods, they severely impact water levels in lakes and reservoirs, resulting in water shortages in nearby communities and cities. 

Water scarcity has been and will continue to be a salient environmental issue for the US as drought seasons become more prolonged and severe. At Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River in the southwestern US that some 40 million Americans depend on, water levels have crawled down progressively and at a dangerous speed. Here, the first-ever Tier 1 Water Shortage declaration for the reservoir has been in effect since early 2022.

top environmental issues

Image 1: Severe drought threatens Hoover Dam Reservoir on the Colorado River and Lake Mead in southwestern US (photo by Wikimedia Commons)

As the climate crisis worsens, the task of solving or at least tackling the consequences of droughts in the US becomes increasingly challenging. One thing is for sure: to reduce water shortage in cities and urban environments, water conservation and efficiency are key. Ageing infrastructure and deteriorating water delivery systems including pipes and mains cost the US an estimated 2.1 trillion gallons of lost drinkable water each year. Adopting widespread energy-efficient technologies and appliances could significantly reduce water wastage. Other methods worth expanding and considering include water recycling infrastructures and stormwater capture technologies.

As for the agriculture sector, adding more resources in crop rotation, no-till farming – a method for growing crops with minimal soil disturbance – and the use of cover crops could help build up soil health, enabling it to absorb and retain more water.

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4. Wildfires

In the US, a typical fire season that used to last for four months on average is now lasting nearly double that time because of climate change. In 2020, the country experienced one of the largest wildfires in history, which lasted for the entire year, tearing through parts of California, Oregon, and Washington state. 

A 2017 report found that careless human activities were behind about 84% of all wildfires in the US and accounted for 44% of the total area burned. This includes abandoned cigarettes, campfires, and barbecues that were not put out properly, as well as so-called “gender reveal parties” – particularly popular in the country where expectant parents use pyrotechnic devices to reveal a baby’s gender. One notable example is the El Dorado fire, where a smoke bomb led to a fire that lasted more than two months and covered over 22,000 acres of southern California. Another study showed that human-sparked fires typically spread about 1.83 kilometres per day, more than twice as fast as lightning-induced fires.

Smoke from large-scale wildfires causes significant air pollution in the affected area and is a threat to public health. In 2022, for example, 7 out of 15 most polluted cities in the US were located in California, a state that was most affected by severe fires that season. Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles, which can penetrate deep into the lungs and aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases. Smoke and poor air quality inhalation can lead to minor issues such as burning eyes and allergies or in a worst-case scenario, premature death. The 2021 wildfires that plagued much of the southwest US were visible from the east coast, and near-surface smoke from it contributed to hazy and even smog conditions.

To establish healthy and resilient forests and communities that can adapt themselves to these fires, the state set up the California Wildfire and Forest Management Task Force, in charge of developing a comprehensive plan to expedite efforts to reduce wildfire risk for vulnerable communities, improve the health of forests and wildlands, and accelerate action to combat climate change. This would include prescribing controlled burning to thin forest overgrowth – which acts as tinder for wildlife – and increase sustainable timber harvest programmes. 

While these mitigation measures could lower the intensity of California wildfires, researchers suggest it might soon be not enough. “The trends that are driving this increase in fire risk, fire size, fire severity over time are continuing – that’s climate change,” Professor LeRoy Westerling of the University of California Merced, who studies how the climate crisis affects wildfires, warned.

You might also like: 15 Largest Wildfires in US History

5. Food Waste

Food waste in America has skyrocketed in recent years, tripling in just five decades and it is now estimated to be 30-40% of its entire food supply, valued between US$161 and $218 billion. Today, the US counts as the second highest country in the world for food waste per capita, behind only Australia. Sadly, Americans throw away more food than the citizens of the UK, Germany, France, Italy, and Sweden combined, equivalent to nearly 206 billion pounds (103 million tons). On a daily basis, that’s about 0.5 kilograms (one pound) of food discarded by one American. 

As the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports, about 6-8% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced if we stopped wasting food. In the US alone, the production of lost or wasted food generates the equivalent of 37 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Food production is one of the most water-intensive practices as growing crops requires extensive amounts of water. In the US, agriculture alone is responsible for 80% of all water consumed, and it is estimated that between 21% and 33% of it is wasted every year.

Ironically, while almost 40% of food in the US is wasted, 37 million Americans and 11 million children are considered to be food insecure, a number that is expected to further rise in the coming years. 

top environmental issues

Figure 2: Environmental Impacts of Food Waste in America

But there is some good news. Fortunately, the US is home to some of the world’s most successful food waste startups that are changing the game and helping tackle one of the most pressing environmental issues of our times. Moreover, in 2015, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched the 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal alongside a series of programmes and initiatives aimed at reducing climate and environmental impacts associated with food loss and waste while improving food security and saving money for families and businesses. Led by EPA, USDA, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the federal government is “seeking to work with communities, organisations and businesses along with our partners in state, tribal and local government to achieve this goal.”

These initiatives alone, however, will not completely eliminate food insecurity or solve the issue of food waste. In order to achieve this, it is necessary that individuals do their part as well, learning first and foremost how to reduce food waste in their households and communities.

You might also like: 10 Food Waste Statistics in America

6. Plastic Pollution

Last but not least on our list of the most pressing environmental issues in the US in 2022 is plastic pollution. 

A congressionally mandated report released in late 2021 described the US as the leading country for plastic waste generation. The analysis found that the country produces more plastic waste than any other nation, equivalent to about 42 million metric tons every year, which amounts to 287 pounds (130 kilogram) per person. In total, the country produces almost twice as much as China, and more than all the countries in the EU combined. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 82.2 million tons of containers and packaging were discarded in the US in 2018. The situation has further deteriorated since China imposed a plastic ban in the same year. 

Researchers note that recycling infrastructure in the US has been unable to keep up with the growth of plastic production, and they estimate that 1.13-2.24 million metric tons of waste are leaked into the environment and oceans each year. This includes everything from plastic bottles and straws to packaging, most of which are made from fossil fuels and can take hundreds of years to decompose. 

Plastic production in the US is also currently responsible for 232 million metric tons of greenhouse gases every year, the equivalent of 116.5 gigawatts of coal plants. But, according to the report, the production is set to outpace coal plants in the country by 2030.

Implementing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies has been increasingly more popular in several US states as a solution for plastic pollution. An EPR legislates that the responsibility and costs of disposing of packaging materials and waste lie with the producers and manufacturers that made them, as opposed to consumers. While a number of European countries and Canadian provinces already have EPR in practice, the state of Maine became the first in the US to implement it in July 2021. Several others are now hopping on the bandwagon, including New York and California, aiming to implement it in the next year or two.

The latter has also recently introduced strict rules on single-use plastic packaging, requiring a 25% cut in production as well as 65% of all single-use plastic packaging to be recycled within the next decade. Companies that fail to comply with the new regulations could face fines of up to $50,000 a day.

In August 2014, California also became the first state to enact legislation imposing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. Other states such as Hawaii and New York followed suit, mandating plastic bag bans on grocery stores and other retailers in 2015 and 2019 respectively.

You might also like: US Extreme Weather Caused 18 Climate Disasters and Damages For $165bn In 2022

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