ENN summarizes the most important and compelling environmental news stories of the week. In the news November 28th - December 2nd: Europe's climate change challenge, a two-headed turtle bodes ill, Asia fights animal smuggling, fish wrongly snared, and much more.
The Week's Top Ten
In the news November 28th - December 2nd: Europe's climate change challenge, a two-headed turtle bodes ill, Asia fights animal smuggling, fish wrongly snared, and much more.
1. EU Study Finds Climate Change Major Environmental Challenge for Europe
With temperatures in Europe rising faster than the average increases noted elsewhere in the world, the EU is coming to terms with the scope of its global warming problem. European Environment Agency director Jacqueline McGlade summarized, "Without effective action over several decades, global warming will see ice sheets melting in the north and the spread of deserts from the south. The continent's populations could effectively become concentrated in the center."
2. U.S. Virgin Islands Takes Steps To Prevent Seaside Pollution
Septic tanks of homes and businesses in the U.S. Virgin Islands will be subjected to stricter regulations following the discovery of fecal bacteria contamination along half a dozen St. Thomas bays in September. In two other bays, researchers found excessive levels of oil and grease contained in runoff from construction sites. New monitoring systems slated for installation will help define the extent of the problem further so that new regulations may be put into effect.
3. Researchers Convert Chicken Fat to Fuel
Looking for more efficient means of powering trucks and cars, University of Arkansas researchers have turned -- where else? -- to the chicken coop. Converting chicken fat to biodiesel, they say, has potential. According to chemical engineering professor R.E. Babcock, chicken fats "...burn better, create less particulate matter and actually lubricate and clean things like cylinders, pistons and fuel lines." All that, and it's less expensive to produce than other biodiesel options, though the fatty acids require processing to mitigate the effects of some undesirable chemical processes.
4. Southeast Asian Countries Launch Law Enforcement Network To Fight Wildlife Smuggling
Ten Southeast Asian nations this week banded together to battle the illegal wildlife trade. On the occasion of the launch of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN) on Thursday, Ralph Boyce, U.S. ambassador to Thailand said, "Southeast Asia will no longer consist of 10 different countries acting independently of each other in attempting to stop the trade in animals and animal parts. Instead, each of your countries will have the benefit of the knowledge, training and resources for an entire region, a region united to end this corrosive activity."
5. Scientists Say Too Many Fish are Snared in the Wrong Nets
The annual "bycatch" of commercial fisheries in the U.S. is a staggering 1.2 billion tons for every 4 billion tons caught, according to a study released this week. In other words, for every four pounds of "keepers" there's a pound of unwanted, unintentionally snared fish left for dead. Scientist Andrew Rosenberg, dean of the University of New Hampshire's College of Life Sciences and Agriculture summarized, "We can and should do better. This sort of waste undermines efforts to recover those depleted resources."
6. Two-Headed Turtle Hatched in Costa Rica, WWF Says
The World Wildlife Fund pointed to the discovery of a turtle with two heads in Costa Rica as an ominous indicator of the state of the environment. "The turtle caught the WWF's attention because this is a birth defect that could be associated with pollution or temperature increases, among other causes," said WWF's Carlos Drews, regional coordinator for marine ecosystems.
7. Aborigines on Australia's Bird-Flu Frontline
Australia's first line of defense against bird flu? Aborigines in the country's north, who are keeping an eye on the health of migratory birds as a potential indicator of bird flu. While stressing that bird flu is unlikely to make its way to Australia, given that water fowl from Asia don't tend to migrate to Australia, Australian Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran said, "We've worked with indigenous communities spread throughout northern Australia to try and detect signs of sick birds."
8. Activists to Canada: Warming Threatens Hockey
Here's a way to get the attention of hockey-obsessed Canadians: Predict the demise of their favorite sport, courtesy of global warming. Ten environmental and youth groups banded together to produce a vision of hockey's future, impeded by slushy ice. "We thought of something that is a fairly fundamental Canadian value and showed how it's going to be impacted as another way we can get more people speaking out and really pressuring our government to do something," said Global Exchange's Mike Hudema.
9. Study Finds Midwest Warming May Harm Ducks
From pucks to ducks, another likely victim of climate change is the waterfowl that call North America's prime duck breeding grounds home, according to a new study published this week in BioScience. Warming could cause duck habitat to become too dry, leaving only small fringes of wetlands. The study should serve as a wake-up call for hunters and environmentalists alike, said conservationist Dave Zentner. "I would hope that duck hunters would take this seriously and realize that this is not far-fetched theory. This is a real threat and the country needs to develop policies for it," he said.
10. Study Cites Risks of Eating Farmed Salmon
Long touted for its health benefits, salmon -- the farmed version, at least -- may carry a significant set of risks to frequent consumers. The salmon's diet determines in large part the levels of contaminant the fish carries and will pass along. Where the fish came from also plays a role, with salmon from Europe packing the most toxic punch and those from South America, the least. "We're not opposed to farmed salmon, just how it's farmed," said David Carpenter, lead author of the study. "The industry can reduce the level of toxins by changing how they feed (the salmon)."
Guest Commentary: Sustainable Gulf Reconstruction
By Tensie Whelan, Rainforest Alliance
As some hurricane victims return home while others still languish in trailer parks and temporary hotels, the debate over rebuilding hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast communities has been joined, though without much of a blueprint. There has been no near-total reconstruction of a major US city like New Orleans since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, or the great Chicago fire of 1871, and times have changed radically since then. We now confront twin imperatives to do the unprecedented: to tackle the largest urban reconstruction project in American history quickly, and to do it sustainably.
Federal hurricane relief legislation sowed reconstruction with controversy over provisions fast-tracking hundreds of billions in federal aid. For example the Hurricane Katrina Disaster Relief and Economic Recovery Act proposed an independent nine-member commission with a majority of Louisiana officials which would replace the normal Congressional appropriations and approvals process in overseeing federal spending. Equally ominous-sounding are exceptional powers that would allow the commission to waive existing federal environmental laws to expedite projects it approves.
If such provisions get implemented, moving reconstruction forward quickly and accountably without negative environmental impacts will be a particular challenge. Exemption from environmental law and normal congressional oversight are no excuse for ignoring environmental needs and sustainability, especially when there are excellent voluntary regimes for green planning, building and materials that the commission and other decision makers can and should adopt.
For example, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) is already working with officials on green performance standards for Gulf reconstruction, and with Habitat for Humanity to build green housing for hurricane victims. USGBC’s LEED program (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System is now being tested in major housing markets across the US, including in several Gulf Coast states. It incorporates best sustainable practices into residential and commercial buildings, ranging from site selection, permeability and water runoff from the home site, to recycling construction waste, energy use and indoor air quality. It only makes sense to build such standards into Gulf coast reconstruction now.
Consider, just to focus on one of the many complex issues involved, how the lumber for this massive rebuild will be supplied. The framing wood of choice in the US is pine, grown in our southeastern forests as well as in the Pacific Northwest and in Canada’s northern boreal forests. For Gulf Coast reconstruction, much of it will come from forests from east Texas to North Carolina. But these forests, like forests everywhere, were already heavily stressed from the recent housing boom and other factors, and whether and how to harvest them now is a complex and far-reaching consideration. Meanwhile, the hurricanes left behind thousands of acres of blown down trees in coastal forests, necessitating large-scale salvage logging. Yet salvage operations pose their own environmental challenges and should be handled carefully if we don’t want to add more negative impacts to the toll of this hurricane season.
Who’s got the time or the inclination to attend to such details amid the pressure to get on with massive reconstruction? The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) does, and already offers the means to supply reconstruction lumber responsibly. The FSC is a well-established voluntary certification regime embraced alike by the LEED program, environmental groups and major forestry companies all around the world. It requires the best, most environmentally and socially responsible practices for growing, managing, harvesting and milling lumber. It also confers certain efficiencies and competitive advantages to producers, so FSC wood ends up cost-competitive with non-certified wood. There is already a $5 billion global market for it, with some 125 million acres of FSC-certified forests in 60 countries worldwide, over 40 million of them in the US covering an area the size of Washington State. Major forestry companies in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas are FSC-certified, and FSC framing lumber is on the shelves right now at Home Depot and other retailers.
If the argument of the policymakers is that Gulf reconstruction is too big and too time-sensitive to be constrained by normal environmental regulation or congressional oversight, this is all the more reason to encourage voluntary standards for making it more sustainable. FSC, LEED and USGBC are all examples of voluntary approaches that aren’t utopian, but practical and ready to go right now. All we have to do is embrace them.
Tensie Whelan is the executive director of the Rainforest Alliance (www.rainforest-alliance.org), whose SmartWood program is accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Photo: The Bay of Waterfalls at the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Todd Logan/U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.