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April 2011 Archives

Ethics and Biofuels

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Are there right ways and wrong ways to bring biofuels to life?

Absolutely, say Alena Buyx and JoyceTait in the April 12 online issue of Science magazine's Policy Forum. In an effort to help biofuels development take the high road, the British ethicists offer policy makers five principles against which to weigh emerging technologies, summarized from the Biofuels: Ethical Issues report released by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics earlier this year:

1. Biofuels development should not be at the expense of people's essential rights. Making food unaffordable or creating slave-like work conditions: Not OK.

2. Biofuels should be environmentally sustainable. Developers must weigh environmental benefits against harms such as water depletion or nutrient pollution.

3. Biofuels should contribute to net reduction of total GHG emissions and not exacerbate global climate change. 'Nuff said.

4. Biofuels should recognize the rights of people to just reward. In ethical systems, workers get fair wages and intellectual property is appropriately protected.

5. Costs and benefits of biofuels should be distributed in an equitable way. Do those who shoulder the societal costs of producing biofuels also reap the benefits?

Going a step further, the authors also assert that society has an ethical duty to support development of biofuels that meet these five ethical principles, and suggest that lignocellulosic and algae-based biofuels are two promising candidates to meet the test. 

Does what you pump into your tank measure up? Something to think about on your drive home today - for that matter, every day.

How a Rot Got Hot

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rot2.jpgIf your attention is currently absorbed by a mysterious green growth on the edge of your sandwich or a bad case of athlete's foot, you may have a hard time believing fungi can be our friends.

But as global attention turns to woody biomass as a potential source of feedstock for liquid fuels, wood-rotting fungi are finding their moment in the sun.

The goal of these fungi, says IonE resident fellow Jonathan Schilling, is to release sugars from wood. That happens to the the goal of bioprocessing to make ethanol, too. So why not take a lesson from the pro?

Schilling, an assistant professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences, is doing just that. He's studying brown rot fungi to learn how they release sugar from non-edible parts of plants - in hopes of setting the stage to adapt their tricks to improving our ability to turn biomass to biofuel.

Want to learn more? Curl up in your favorite chair and watch "How a Rot Got Hot" - Schilling's recent Frontiers in the Environment talk.                            

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Schilling

Water for Mulobere

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Surrounded by sweaty engineering students and clamoring schoolchildren, videographer Beth M. Anderson kept her camera on her shoulder and her eyes on the vision of improving lives as she filmed a University of Minnesota's Engineers Without Borders team installing a safe drinking water supply in Mulobere, Uganda, during the summer of 2009. Her reward: knowing that her work would help the EWB team share the story with others, inspiring them to use their knowledge and talents to make a difference too.

In the past few weeks, Anderson received two more rewards for her work:  The documentary she produced, "Water for Mulobere," was selected as the 2011 Engineers Without Borders-USA Film Contest Best in Show award winner in March, and in April chosen for screening at the Awareness Film Festival in Los Angeles.
 
"Water for Mulobere" depicts the activities of a team of University of Minnesota engineering and public health students who designed, built and installed a solar-powered water supply system for a secondary and vocational school and its surrounding community in Mulobere.
 
"Access to safe drinking water is a life-and-death matter for many African communities," Anderson said. "In the case of this particular community in Uganda, if a student has to spend hours each day collecting water or becomes sick after drinking unsafe water, the result is less time spent in school. I hope that by seeing the documentary, people will realize what a problem the lack of safe drinking water is around the world."
 
As an Awareness Film Festival top pick, "Water for Mulobere" will be screened Friday, May 6, in Los Angeles in a shorts program that starts at 3 p.m. As Best in Show winner for EWB-USA, it will be one of 10 films to be featured in the soon to be announced EWB-USA Film Festival which will travel around the country starting in late 2011.
 
Check out the "Water for Mulobere" trailer above, or view the entire 37-minute documentary here.
 

Pulse of the Planet

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Pussy_willow_branch.jpgThe frogs started peeping last week. That meant not only that the pussy willows were about to pop - which they did, the next day - but also, according to my farmer brother, that it was time to pull the taps from the maple trees and focus on birthing lambs instead.

All around us, nature beats in rhythm with the seasons as plants and animals interact with each other and with their surroundings in a finely synchronized dance of life, choreographed by the pulse of the planet.

But what happens when that pulse becomes an irregular heartbeat? When it speeds up in one place and slows in another? How do the many dancers react? And what are the implications of getting out of step?

Those are questions Rebecca Montgomery hopes to begin exploring over the next year with the help of an Institute on the Environment mini grant. Assistant professor of forest resources in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, Montgomery will look at the potential for using a combination of 1) high-resolution remote sensing and 2) even higher-resolution Minnesota residents to explore the sensitivity of seasonal changes to shifts in climate.

The goal: to be able to predict where asynchronies might occur with climate change, and so head off adverse impacts before they cause problems for people and other living things.

Specifically, Montgomery will be using the IonE mini grant to fund two sets of workshops. The first will involve the application of satellite technology to observing shifts in phenology - the cycling of biological events with the seasons. The other will focus on building the Minnesota Phenology Network, a virtual community of nature observers around the state that stands to become a tremendously valuable resource for climate change research.

"My vision for the phenology network is to create a distributed network of observers that both are monitoring [now], but also are there as a resource for future research that we perhaps haven't even dreamed of," Montgomery says.

You can follow the progress of Montgomery's work (or join in, if you'd like) here. But don't forget to follow the progress of the planet as well. In my neighborhood, the yellow-rumped warblers should be back any day. And then it will be time to plant spinach.

Building a Better Neighborhood

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Eco-entrepreneur Majora Carter started by transforming a neighborhood waste dump into a community-boosting waterfront park. Now she's transforming the world by sharing the vision of environment-centered urban renewal far and wide.

Last month Carter appeared at Ted Mann Concert Hall as the inaugural speaker for the Institute on the Environment's Momentum 2011 event series. View the 3-minute sneak peek of her talk, "You Don't Have to Move Out of Your Neighborhood to Live in a Better One," above, or watch the full 40-minute video.

On deck for Momentum 2011: International health guru Hans Rosling, who will speak April 26 on "A Fact-Based World View" with a featured performance by comedian Cy Amundson. The season will wrap up May 10 with a presentation by oceanographer Sylvia Earle on "Sustainable Seas: The Vision, the Reality,"  and a performance by musician Mason Jennings.

If you enjoy an evening filled with enriching ideas and engaging entertainment, Momentum 2011 is for you! Click here for information and tickets.

Adapting to a Changing World

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momentum_cover_spring11_thumbnail.jpg

Change is in the air - and permeating the pages of the Spring 2011 issue of the Institute on the Environment's award-winning Momentum magazine, which will be available in print and online April 21. In the issue's cover story, science journalist David Biello looks at ways in which people around the world are adapting to climate change. Other articles explore how insects are transforming the American West, the influence of music on the environment (and vice versa), China's growing role in the global picture of energy innovation and more. Click here to subscribe to the print edition for FREE or sign up to be e-notified the day the issue posts online.

 


Islands in the Sun

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islands5.jpgIf you're anywhere near the latitude I am, a warm summer day probably sounds pretty good right about now. But come July you might be thinking differently - especially if you live in a city. In urban areas, pavement and rooftops soak up sunlight and radiate it back into the atmosphere, creating bubbles of heat surrounded by cooler countryside.

Known as the urban heat island effect, the tendency of cities to be warmer than outlying areas is a growing public health concern as Earth heats up. In fact, temperatures are climbing in most cities twice as fast as across the planet as a whole, say University of Minnesota climate scientists Peter Snyder and Tracy Twine.

Preparing for the future, Snyder and Twine are using an Institute on the Environment Discovery Grant to study 100 "Islands in the Sun" - urban heat islands around the world. They want to learn what factors contribute to elevated city heat and what cities are doing to reduce the effect. Based on the information they gather, they'll use the Twin Cities metropolitan area as a testing ground for engineering and landscape design strategies for reducing the urban heat island effect.

Hear Snyder and Twine talk about their study:

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Crop Yield and Climate Change: A Ray of Hope

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nathan.jpgPundits publish dire warnings on the adverse impacts of climate change on food production: Shifts of temperature and precipitation around the world are creating frightening misalignments between farm management practices and weather, setting the stage for failed crops and food shortages.

Still, all may not be doom and gloom, says Nathan Mueller, a doctoral student in the Institute on the Environment's Global Landscapes Initiative.

It's true climate change has huge implications for agriculture, where the likelihood of success or failure leans more heavily than just about any other enterprise on the whims of weather patterns.

But wait just a minute, Mueller says. Scenarios that predict plunging yield as Earth warms assume farm management business-as-usual. Yet farmers always have modified their practices with climate's punches - planting early, harvesting late, irrigating more or less, modifying rotations and so on based on current conditions, predictions from elders, the Old Farmer's Almanac or the latest iPhone weather app. If they continue to adapt management to fit circumstances as they have in the past, couldn't climate change have far less of an adverse impact on food security than the worst-case scenarios, which don't factor in management changes?

Mueller and colleagues Jamie Gerber, Deepak Ray, Navin Ramankutty and Jon Foley have been exploring how improving crop management strategies could counter the negative effects of climate change on crop yields. In a poster presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Washington, D.C., in February (and recently selected as the best environment and ecology entry in the AAAS Student Poster Competition), they examined two scenarios of climate change and management improvement for corn and soybeans. One would bring the worst-performing landscapes up to average yields for their growing regions. The other would bring landscapes close to their best possible yields.

The researchers found that in the first case, global production will still be lower in 2050 than it is today due to changed climate, but less severely so than under the business-as-usual assumption. And if farmers achieved the more dramatic yield improvements that are possible with application of precision agriculture and other 21st-century yield-boosting tools, the researchers' models predict overall production would actually rise. The effect would be especially strong for regions where yields are far below capacity, such as sub-Saharan Africa; less so for places like America's Corn Belt, where production is already close to maximum possible given current crop varieties.

"In areas of the developing world where food security is most closely tied to agricultural production, potential yield changes attainable from intensification of maize and soy are likely to far outweigh the effects of changing average temperatures and precipitation," the poster concludes.

In other words, intensification of farm management can serve as a valuable strategy for adapting to a warming world, particularly in areas where there are much yield gains to be gotten.

"We don't need to just sit here and wring our hands," Mueller says. "In a lot of those regions, agriculture is so underdeveloped that even though they take a hit by climate change, agricultural development could overcome those losses and we could still see a net gain."



  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.

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