Friendly Fungi

Botanists in Dublin have discovered a naturally occurring plant-friendly fungi that can prevent crop-ravaging diseases from spreading, and also aid plant survival in harsh environmental conditions. These fungi cause no harm to the plant roots in which they live. On the contrary, their gift of immunity against common seed diseases greatly reduces the need for farmers to spray environmentally damaging chemicals.

Barley is the fourth most important global cereal crop and, as a hardy plant, is often grown in relatively poor environmental conditions. For many farmers across the world, it is a vital source of food and income. Because of these poor conditions, barley crops are subject to many diseases, which can cause huge losses if they spread. Until recently, farmers have resorted to using continually changing chemical and pesticide formulas in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the diseases.

Fungal ‘endophytes’ that proved effective in suppressing seed diseases in the Trinity team’s laboratory experiments appear to have a ‘symbiotic’ relationship with barley. This means that both species gain some positive benefit from their biological union. In addition to warding off seed diseases, it seems that the endophytes possess other significant benefits: plants that faced multiple stresses at the same time were around six times as likely to survive if they were housing their fungal friends than those without!



Bamboo and Climate Change

Trees and other plants are often looked at as important carbon sinks with the changing CO2 concentrations taking place today. However, many times these environments are cut down for human economic activity. There is, however, a new study on how one type of plant – not a tree – may benefit both people and the climate.

Bamboo as a source of carbon sequestering has been ignored by some studies, as the plant is not a species of tree (bamboo is a species of grass). New studies have shown that bamboo forests have similar sequestering effects to other major forests around the world. It is projected that in China, bamboo forests will store almost 40% more carbon within only 40 years (727 million tons in 2010 to 1,018 million tons in 2050).

Bamboo is a grass species (not a tree), but is often found in massive forests in places like China. The plant can be grown in many different climate zones and on multiple continents. This makes it very viable as a source for human-planted carbon sequestration, helped by the fact that bamboo can be used after only 3-6 years depending on the species and environmental conditions. Bamboo has been cut in places instead of tree species due to this growth speed. Bamboo harvesting can be increased by harvesting the plant as a perennial rather than clear-cutting, a process that also has less of an impact on the environment at large.

Bamboo has shown to be more resistant to climatic disturbances than trees. A strong cold snap in China wiped out large numbers of bamboo and Chinese fir, another fast-growing plant species. However, fir stands can take decades to fully recover from an event at this scale, while the bamboo grew back to a state similar to pre-disturbance in about three years.

In addition to planting solely for the purpose of carbon storage, bamboo also has great potential as an economic engine, especially for lower-income communities. Bamboo as a material source for construction, textiles, furniture and numerous other uses is often perceived as being weak. However, the material is comparatively favorable to other sources of timber. The industrial processing used to create bamboo products on an economic scale has very little environmental cost compared to other mass-produced materials (include toxicity and land use in addition to carbon emissions). This increases the viability of the bamboo being used widespread over multiple different countries.

The regenerative speed of bamboo means it can also be used as a source of energy (charcoal, cooking fuel, biogas and others). Charcoal is often used in poorer regions as a simple fuel source, but is often unsustainably generated by harvesting native trees. Bamboo has been successfully introduced and used in Ethiopia as an alternative charcoal source, taking pressure off of native trees and providing a more reliable source of energy. Bamboo burning produces fewer pollutants than petroleum or conventional wood.

Bamboo presents an exciting multi-use source for carbon sequestration, material resources and renewable energy, especially in poorer regions of the world. The plant presents a strong potential to be a major market demand in the future as other resources decrease.


Norway Leads the Largest Divest to Date

On the fifth of Febuary Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global, the world’s largest fund, stated that they divested from 49 companies they considered to have high levels of uncertainty about the sustainability of their business model. The Guardian reported that thirty-two of those companies were coal mining companies. Others included tar sands producers, cement makers and gold miners. The fact of the matter is they are divesting from carbon intensive companies! Finally, big money that is investing in a sustainable future. Change is coming!

Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global divested from a total 114 companies, after having 2,641 meetings with the companies, analyzing the companies risk on climate change, water management, children rights and governance. Norway is taking a huge step to build international recognized principles for themselves and the future generations of their country, in an effort to encourage other countries to do the same.

An article that I found even more optimistic was an article published by Forbes called “Why It Makes Sense For Norway to Sell Its Fossil Fuel Shares”. This is great, right? If Forbes says it is true and is for this movement, then every investor should be, right? Well, here is what the article had to say: the future in investment is in renewables. Companies like RWE, a German electric utilities company, has had it’s first loss of 3.9 billion dollars since it began 60 years ago. Chair Peter Terium said their mistake was putting all of their eggs in oil, gas and coal market and nothing into the renewable market. Peter also projects that this will not be the only year to have losses to the ever cheaper and rising technology of renewable energy. Another reason Forbes suggests Norway divest is because environmental organization like and Carbon Tracker argue there is a “carbon bubble”.  This means that fossil fuel companies are overvalued by the market because much of the implied value is in carbon-intensive assets that the companies will be unable to exploit because of the growing level of regulation to limit greenhouse gas emissions. According to International Energy Agency, the fact of the matter is two-thirds of the known fossil fuel reserves will have to be kept in the ground without further destabilizing the climate past internationally agreed limits.

Norway got a huge applaud from NGO WWF by divesting, claiming that no one government could alter climate change but because Norway is the largest state investor in the world it can. It will define how we redefine how we use money consistently with commitments to limit climate change.

I found it to be very encouraging that economists and environmentalists are seeing eye to eye for the first time I can remember. Hopefully, Norway chooses to invest the newly available money in renewable, clean energy to put a positive light on alternatives to fossil fuel globally. It only takes one leader to start a movement!

Watching Penguins, and Their Poo, from Space

As the Earth continues to warm, habitat for many of our cold loving friends continues to shrink. One of those friends: the Emperor Penguin. Emperors are the only sea-bird which breed on sea ice, which is already shrinking in some parts of Antarctica. Estimates from climate scientists suggest it will continue to do so in the long term.

THE GOOD NEWS is there are actually twice as many colonies of emperor penguins in Antartica than had previously been estimated! Yay!! How do we know?: by observing their poop….FROM SPACE.

The newest advancement in conservation technology is here. It turns out, the future of huge numbers of seabirds, may rely both on the color of their poop, and how it looks from space. Penguin poop, or guano, can be seen with satellite imagery. Guano differs in color depending upon the age of the penguin as well as between species. This allows researchers to be able to distinguish them, and accurately establish a demographic.



The spectrum of colors were built into an algorithm able to differentiate the guano from the rest of the environment.

Recently a team of researchers managed to identify the breeding sites of all other seabird colonies with 50 pairs or more. They did this in a huge area on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, Marguerite Bay. These seabirds, in addition to penguins, included Dominican gulls, skuas and southern giant petrels. The unique signatures of their guano then allowed them to map where each colony was based and will now allow them to track where they move over time. The density of their guano also gave good indications of the numbers of individuals in each colony of bird which had previously been difficult to obtain.

I think this is a really cool and innovative idea! Especially considering that they are talking about potentially using this technology in other regions of the globe. Understanding breeding and migration patterns is a crucial starting point before scientists can begin to mitigate the effects of climate change and over-fishing. Go poop and all of your power!


Commercial Aquaponics (Aquaculture + Hydroponics)

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 2.26.00 PM

Ouroboros Farms, CA

Aqua Greens, Toronto

Aqua Greens, Toronto

Aquaponics is the fusion of aquaculture (raising aquatic animals) and hydroponics (soil-less plant growth) in one integrated system. Why aquaponics over aquaculture or hydroponics? Less water. In aquaculture systems, water must be discharged frequently to remove toxic wastes from the fish, particularly ammonia. In hydroponics, nutrients are added frequently to supply plant growth but salts and chemicals from the nutrients build up and become toxic to the plants.

The gist of aquaponic systems: Fish are fed and grown as their waste provides an organic nutrient source to the plants. In return, the plants provide filtration of the water for the fish to live in. To avoid toxicity to fish by ammonia (a product of their metabolism), nitrifying bacteria are added to assist the plants assimilate nitrogen more easily. To complete the cycle, fish can be fed organic compost from the grown produce! (cool) Aquaponic systems are typically found in closed environments to reduce the impacts of environmental factors and seasonality.

Plant growth in aquaponic farms is greater than soil-based farms. Nutrients are constantly produced within the system and less energy is devoted to plant root development in the absence of soil. Nutrient and root competition is reduced therefore, plants can be grown in close proximity. Some plants can be planted in media beds, such as gravel, to allow for multiple harvests from the same plants. Aquaponic farming is also beneficial to plant growth by reducing weeds, soil-borne pathogens and insects. In addition to these benefits, the system must be organic and chemical-free to keep the fish alive, due to their sensitivity to harmful pesticide and fertilizer chemicals. Aquaponics can grow profitable, organic, tasty veggies, fruits, and fish!

The main topic of aquaponics these days is commercial aquaponics… in other words, bringing commercial agriculture indoors. Commercial aquaponic systems are more efficient than traditional agriculture because they require less water, fertilizers, pesticides, and fossil fuels. New reports say aquaponic systems use up to 90% less water than soil-based farming. There is less reliance on fossil fuels guzzling farm machinery and transportation to regions unsuitable for traditional agriculture. Aquaponics energy usage is from 70% to 92% less than a conventional or organic farm which use fuel and/or petrochemical-intensive fertilizers. All energy used is electrical, so aquaponic farms can be powered by renewable energy systems such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric. Given the rapid rates of desertification, soil nutrient depletion, and fossil fuel exhaustion, aquaponic farms can support local food in many more regions and reduce emissions.

Let’s just say, I’m a super big fan! Plus, they look so cool! And you can start your own mini-aquaponic system in your own home! Aquaponic farms can also be a great way for farmers to gain an income during the winter season. The main products of aquaponics are herbs leafy greens, but tomatoes, kale, and berries can be translated into more stable beds for continued growth. Also, it would be nice to make a switch from corn to more substantial foods. Organic-made-easy produce and fish in a controlled environment. And I don’t know if any of you have experience working on a farm, but aquaponic farming seems to reduce labor of tilling, weeding, and bending over to harvest.

Sources: – FL, CA, CO – cool video of high-tech aquaponic farm in Toronto, Canada – CA

Annie Procaccini

Denmark To Have The World’s First Carbon Neutral Capital

The battle to slow climate change will be won or lost in cities, which are responsible for more than 70 percent of global CO2 emissions and two-thirds of worldwide energy consumption. Copenhagen has set itself the ambitious target of becoming the world’s first carbon neutral capital by 2025. The city does also not plan to cut growth, but rather add up reductions. Although much needs to be changed, Copenhagen has already made major progress, reducing its emissions by 21 percent between 2005 and 2011. The city currently emits about 2 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, and earlier initiatives were on target to reduce emissions to 1.16 million tons by 2025. A plan approved in 2013 will slash CO2 emissions even further, to about 400,000 tons by 2025.

Sustainable transportation, renewable energy, and green building design are all factors that are helping Copenhagen reach this goal. In Copenhagen Harbor, a wind farm, known as Middlegrunden, was funded by individual Copenhagen shareholders. The city hopes to expand this development. Nearly three-quarters of the emissions reductions identified in the 2025 plan will come by transitioning to less carbon-intensive ways of producing heat and electricity. The goal is to implement a combination of biomass, wind, geothermal, and solar. Wind turbines, such as those in Middlegrunden, now supply over 30 percent of Denmark’s electricity, and that share is set to rise to 50 percent by 2020.

In 2103, a clean-burning waste-to-energy plant was built that provides electricity to 150,000 households. Half of Copenhagen’s indoor heat comes from combustion of waste. Copenhagen currently has two heat and power stations that burn coal. Though these run at about 90% efficiency, compared to around 40% for conventional coal-fired power plants, the city hopes to eventually be completely dependent on biomass, just like Burlington! They will replace coal entirely with wood chips and straw.

Building and home design is also key in reaching the city’s goal. New buildings in Copenhagen must be constructed to Denmark’s Low Energy Class ratings; calling for net-zero energy buildings. It is hard to achieve energy savings in old buildings, though, and over 70% of the city’s buildings were constructed before the energy efficiency standards were set in place. As for homes and stores, most tenants rent from landlords. As the tenants pay for their utilities, the city is finding trouble in convincing building owners to make upgrades as they wont see the financial benefits. One easy opportunity for owners is to implement green roofs. It is now mandatory that all new flat roofs at or under a 30 degree-pitch, both private and public, have to be vegetated. As they are fairly inexpensive and can provide food, the city hopes old buildings start using them as well.

Lastly, clean transportation is one of the biggest initiatives the city is taking. As written about for another blog post on January 20th, I will direct you to read that post! In short, Copenhagen is already dominated by cyclists; 36 percent of trips to work or school in the Danish capital are made by bike, and more than 20,000 cyclists enter the city center at peak hours, filling Copenhagen’s 249 miles of cycle tracks. They have bike lanes that are safe and protected, with their own stop-lights. Recently an 11 mile cycling “highway” was built. Secondly, public transportation is key. Most people do not own cars, but rather commute and travel by trains, buses, etc. The city hopes all cars and buses, public and private, will run on biofuels, hydrogen, and electricity.

Personally, I am studying abroad in Copenhagen for the fall semester of 2015. As I am studying ‘Urban Ecological Design,’ within environmental science, Copenhagen’s progress is so enticing. They’re plan is very progressive and although it is costing the city a fair amount of money, it is necessary to combat climate change and ensure coastal cities like Copenhagen can even survive. They are taking the necessary steps to ensure our future. As cities are responsible for more than 70 percent of global CO2 emissions and more than half of the world population lives in urban areas, everyone needs to take note of Copenhagen’s progress.

Yale Environment 360, 2013

Sustainability is the minimum

Although premiering in 2007, the ideas in the documentary Waste = Food continue to be implemented today with more and more companies getting their products “cradle to cradle” certified, creating hope that our global industries will continue to lessen their impacts on the environment and mitigate the causes of climate change. The documentary focuses on the efforts of the German ecological chemist, Dr. Michael Braungart and the American designer-architect, Bill McDonough. They formulated the idea of cradle to cradle, which emphasizes the use of nonhazardous, reusable materials in products that can be easily disassembled in order to allow easier reclamation of parts to be used again. This idea comes from the notion that all waste produced by humans should be able to be returned to the earth, benefiting the biosphere (or should at least be able to be reused or become new raw material in the technosphere).

The pair has worked with major companies including Ford, Nike, Unilever, and Herman Miller to create environmentally friendly buildings and apply processes that create environmentally friendly products. For both Ford and Herman Miller the duo turned the companies’ factories and business complexes into what are essentially industrial nature parks. These parks purify waste water and harvest energy. Green roofs create habitat, act as insulation, and cut down on regulatory costs that are usually incurred from having to treat rainwater that is now filtered naturally. Nike is now making products whose materials have come from old shoes as well as reducing toxins in those materials and using alternatives to the toxic adhesive glue that usually bind the sole. Unilever now has biodegradable packaging for some products.

A major emphasis in this documentary is that implementing this waste = food idea is actually economically beneficial. So much of the time, the emphasis of sustainability is on the environmental and social aspect and rarely touches upon the economic side. Global economics run this world, and it can be disheartening because a lot of companies are out to make a profit rather than lessening their environmental impact for altruistic reasons. However, as seen in this documentary, creating products and work environments that benefit the world around us, is actually economically beneficial as well, which will hopefully inspire more industries to follow this path.

In 2013, cradle to cradle certification was added as a requirement to gain LEED certification. In 2014, Ecover, Mosa, Trigema, and I:CO won the Cradle to Cradle product award. Ecover makes cleaning products that are ecologically safe and bottles them in plastic collected from the oceans, a policy implemented in 2014. Mosa manufactures sustainable building products. Trigema is Germany’s largest sportswear manufacturer and was one of the first companies to use Braungart and McDonough’s design. I:CO ensures that unwanted textiles are collected and reused on a global scale. As more companies in more industries get onboard with this waste = food idea, the consumer world we live in will hopefully have less of an impact on the one resource we have in limited supply, this planet. Braungart said it well, “sustainability is the minimum.” It is not something we should strive for; it is the baseline we need to start from. With the continued application of cradle to cradle, we are headed in the right direction.

Overall reduction in Brazil’s deforestation rates

Vegetation that exists in the forests of our world not only provide the Earth’s inhabitants with oxygen to breathe, clean water, habitat, and natural resources, but they also act as massive sinks for greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, thus mitigating climate change when intact.

Deforestation is the process by which forests are cleared through logging or burning – usually to make room for agriculture or livestock grazing. 12-15 million hectares of forest are lost each year, which is the equivalent of 36 football fields per minute. The aggregate of clearing a little forest here and a little forest there has amounted to a truly devastating impact to the environment. Some consequences include reduced biodiversity – especially in the tropical rain forests where 80% of all species on Earth can be found, release of 15% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, disruption of water cycles, increased soil erosion, as well as devastating the livelihoods of millions of people that rely on forests (WWF).

Despite the knowledge that deforestation results in increased greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere, from 1960 to about 2000 deforestation was on the rise. This was particularly true in Brazil, where 60% of the world’s largest tropical rainforest – The Amazon – resides. At the peak of Brazil’s deforestation in 2004, the country not only boasted the title of the largest tropical forest country in the world, but was also the leader in deforestation worldwide.

So what’s with all these depressing statistics? As the leader in deforestation, there was only one way to go from there – and that is up. Since 2004, there has been a downward trend in deforestation rates. In fact, deforestation is at nearly three-fourths the rate of its high point in 2004. This progress is truly something to celebrate globally, but of honorable mention is due to the growth of social and environmental justice implemented in Brazil in the past 2 decades with the rise of the new Workers’ Party and their leader Luis Inácio Lula da Silva who was elected President in 2002. His first Minister of the Environment, Marina Silva, spearheaded the creation of protected areas, reduced deforestation, recognition of indigenous lands, as well as enforcement against illegal logging.

In the past, NGO’s worldwide have been striving to tackle the issue of deforestation of the Amazon, but ironically enough were benefiting from the products farmed in the deforested lands, mainly soy and beef. Now, the local government of Brazil as well as grassroots organizations and NGO’s from all over have collaborated to bring the movement and the forests to life. In 2008, the Zero Deforestation campaign was created. This movement, composed of indigenous peoples, rubber-tappers, laborers, human rights activists, and other groups exerted an even stronger pressure on the Brazilian government to speed up the process of saving the forests. President Lula himself agreed to move the deadline for Brazil’s targets to reduce deforestation rates by 80% up to 2016 from 2020 (, 2014).

The sinks of carbon stored in these forests know no political or country boundaries once emitted. If one the of most magnificent, biodiverse, and ecologically influential regions of the world can return to at least some extent of its former glory, this will be a victory for all people over the globe, and is a step in the right direction for mitigating the impacts of climate change for future generations.


A Bike Path Near Amsterdam Is Now Generating Solar Power

Reprint from Smithsonian article:

This week, in the Amsterdam suburb of Krommenie, a little stretch of bikeway officially opened to the public. It’s not all that long—not even three-quarters the length of an American football field—but it is perhaps a glimpse into the future for a country that has almost 22,000 miles of bike trails.

Instead of a conventional surface, the path is constructed of huge Lego-like modules embedded in concrete. The modules are covered with a layer of glass that is coated with a rough plastic to keep bikes from slipping. Inside are rows of silicon solar cells. Together those cells transform this strip of bike path into one large solar panel that plugs directly into the power grid. Engineers estimate that by the time it’s extended another 30 yards, an improvement to be completed by 2016, it will be able to generate enough energy to power three homes.

That may not sound like much, particularly considering that this trial trail, known as SolaRoad, cost about $3.7 million. That’s a lot of money for not a lot of road. But a partnership of the local government and a group of Dutch companies was happy to pony up with the hope that they can start building excitement for the concept of solar roads.

Sten de Wit, a scientist at the TNO research institute in the Netherlands, contends that even though these solar panels are about 30 percent less efficient than ones you’d put on your roof, because they can’t be angled to follow the sun, they have the potential to be used on 20 percent of the country’s roads. And that, the experts say, could end up powering traffic lights, street lamps and perhaps even electric cars.

The idea’s boosters also point out that solar costs will continue to drop and that solar cells in roads could push energy into the power grid more efficiently than rooftop panels. While solar roofs need to connect to the grid one house at a time, a roadway makes for one long unit. Plus, roads are much closer to where people live than most power plants. Engineers will spend the next three years gathering data to see if they really are on to something.

Here in the United States, a couple in Idaho, Scott and Julie Brusaw, will be paying close attention to how the Dutch experiment plays out.  They’ve been pretty much obsessed with solar roadways for almost a decade now, only they’re thinking even bigger. Their dream is to someday see all the asphalt and concrete highways in America replaced with roads containing solar cells.

Scott Brusaw, an electrical engineer, says this vision has resulted in quite a few people suggesting that the two of them are daft. He’s heard the same questions over and over. How could a tractor trailer not crack a road of glass? And how could it keep from sliding all over the place? How could the road possibly stay clean enough to let the sun reach the solar cells inside? And just how much would this crazy idea cost?

But Brusaw stuck with it, testing different materials and refining his product. Five years ago the Federal Highway Administration was intrigued enough to give him the first of two rounds of funding, including a grant for $750,000. Since then, he’s been upgrading his solar road concept, adding LEDs that light up a road’s white lines when the panels sense a vehicle approaching as well as the capability to melt snow and ice.

He also says his solar roadway has passed load testing for vehicles weighing up to 125 tons and that its textured surface enables a car traveling 80 miles an hour to stop within the required distance. That said, the only large surface where his solar road panels are functioning is a small parking lot Brusaw built next to his own barn. So far, the Department of Transportation has not signed off on the surface as being safe for vehicles.

Earlier this year, though, the Brusaws got a boost from the public. The inventors set a goal of raising $1 million on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. Not only was their pitch video viewed almost 250,000 times, but they ended up with pledges totaling more than $2.2 million, a response Scott Brusaw described as “humbling.”

The attention also stirred up the skeptics. One article described the idea as “completely impractical,” “expensive” and a project that would “never, ever get funded” by state and local governments. The writer, Joel Anderson, concluded that there are far better ways to spend your money than investing in “this couple’s hobby.”

The Brusaws plan to start production on their solar panels by the end of the year and then roll out some pilot projects in the town of Sandpoint, Idaho—some downtown sidewalks, part of an airport tarmac—and perhaps a casino parking lot on a nearby reservation.


I thought that this was a really interesting article particularly because the second half of the article focused on a solar road project that is occurring right here in the states. It is encouraging to read about projects like this in the US because the whole infrastructure of the US is build around roads and highways which led to our reliance of fossil fuels. However, if we can find a way to keep the same infrastructure that already exists but replace the concrete and asphalt with these solar roads then we can keep our old infrastructure while also starting to break our reliance on fossil fuels.