Author: Worldwatch Institute

  • Can The Circular Economy Really Make The World More Sustainable?

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    Filed in Sustainability , Waste Management & Recycling , on by Worldwatch Institute

    Imagine that 100 percent of the recyclable materials that are currently headed for landfills are captured and re-processed into new products. This dreamy vision of the future is often referred to as “the circular economy,” and we aren’t there yet. Today, most countries with robust recycling programs have reached only around a 30 percent recycling rate (34.6 percent in the United States).

    But let’s say it could be done. Would it really help the world become more sustainable? Johann Fellner and his team at the Technical University of Wien in Austria are skeptical. They calculate that even if the world achieved 100 percent recycling, our total carbon footprint would be reduced by less than 1.6 percent (from 9,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per person annually to 8,856 kilograms). Considering that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “safe” scenario for 2050 requires a more than 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions, this can seem like a drop in the bucket.

     

    Other researchers have similar doubts about the success of the circular economy. Nancy Bocken, a professor at Delft Technical University in the Netherlands, mined 10 years’ worth of press releases from 101 companies listed on the S&P 500 stock index to identify ... Read More

  • Rebuilding Healthy Soil for A Changing Climate

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    Filed in Agriculture & Food , Environment & Climate , on by Worldwatch Institute

    To celebrate the recent World Food Day, learn how food production can be transformed from a greenhouse gas emitter to a carbon sink by improving soil biology.

    “Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too.” This year’s message from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization for World Food Day is timely as the planet emerges from yet another summer of record heat. With changing climates and increasingly frequent extreme weather events, the world is facing real challenges with food production, exacerbated by the declining capacity of soils to hold water, buffer temperature shocks, and supply nutrients to food crops.

    Agriculture as a Climate Change Contributor

    According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, over a 20-year period, agriculture accounts for about 22 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This makes agriculture the largest contributing sector to climate change. In comparison, industry emits 20 percent of greenhouse gases, electricity and heat production 17 percent, and other energy–related activities another 17 percent.

     Agriculture as a Climate Change Solution

    There is good news, however. Because the agricultural system is a living community, its capacity for greenhouse gas sequestration can regrow organically under management practices that allow the soil ecosystem to recover and thrive.

    To do this, farmers have ... Read More

  • Four Ways Cities Are Greening Our Buildings

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    Filed in Construction, Development & Real Estate , Eco-Innovation , Energy , Environment & Climate , on by Worldwatch Institute

    Can a city be sustainable? That’s what our 2016 edition of State of the World investigates. In his chapter, “Reducing the Environmental Footprint of Buildings,” author and project co-director Michael Renner explains what actions cities can take to make their buildings greener.

    Buildings are some of the biggest users of materials and water, consume nearly half of the world’s energy, and contribute almost half of global greenhouse gas emissions. With more buildings sprouting up every year and existing ones often being inefficient, cities have begun to tap into their toolkit of policies to help reach sustainability goals.

    Four Methods That Work

    Tapping into their policy toolkits, municipalities around the world are using a blend of building codes and permits, zoning regulations, building performance ordinances, and other mandates and regulations. Taxes and other financial policies can provide additional incentives. Subsidies can reduce the upfront cost of retrofits and ensure that lower-income residents are not left behind.

    Here are four tactics that cities and their residents are using to push toward urban sustainability:

    1. Building Certifications

    Hundreds of green certifications exist today, ranging from standards for equipment and appliances (such as Energy Star and WaterSense) to certifications for entire buildings (such as BREEAM and LEED). ... Read More

  • Art Transforms Plastic Pollution: Washed Ashore

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    Filed in Environment & Climate , Oceans, Fisheries & Aquaculture , Waste Management & Recycling , Water Quality & Water Pollution , on by Worldwatch Institute

    “I came to the ocean to heal, but found an ocean that needed healing.” That was the realization that inspired artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi to dedicate her life to saving the sea. Her medium? Trash.

    When Pozzi suddenly lost her husband, she took time to look for something meaningful and constant. Her search led her back to the Oregon shores of her childhood. There, she expected to find the familiarity and predictability of crashing waves. Instead, her life found new meaning and change.

    As Pozzi walked along the Pacific shores, she found piece after piece of plastic littering the sand. Passers-by collected shells nearby, leaving the pieces of trash untouched. At that moment, Pozzi decided that the problem of ocean pollution could not be left ignored. She had been an art teacher—she knew how to motivate and educate. She decided to develop the Washed Ashore project to show that the plastic problem was real.

    From Trash to Art

    Washed Ashore is a massive undertaking. Pozzi works with a team of only nine people. Over the year, over ten thousand independent volunteers collect scraps of trash along 160 kilometers (100 miles) of the Oregon coast. ... Read More

  • Three Reasons The Energy Transition Is A Bumpy Ride

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    Filed in Energy , Environment & Climate , on by Worldwatch Institute

    The energy world is changing fast. Investments in renewable energy are outpacing investments in traditional energy. But both traditional power providers and startups are struggling to find viable business models for an industry in transition.

    Among the first to feel the sweeping changes in the energy sector were utilities in developed countries that have a high share of renewables in the electricity mix. But now, more industries that rely on traditional energy sources are feeling the heat.

    Shifting Toward Sustainable Energy

    The overall business environment is shifting toward a clean energy future. In April 2016, 177 countries signed the ambitious Paris Climate Agreement. In response, companies are beginning to improve their sustainability footprint and are adjusting product portfolios and corporate strategies.

    Business Barriers

    Despite the enthusiasm and well-meaning political support, it still seems difficult for businesses to thrive in this global energy transition. So far, the transition has undermined traditional energy markets without yet having created functioning new markets. Both risk-taking, disrupting pioneers as well as the asset-heavy, path-dependent incumbents are often at a loss.

    Where Do We Go From Here?

    Existing, large energy companies will find it difficult to succeed in the new energy future. They would have to risk a lot (but what is their alternative?). Yet their shareholders ... Read More

  • Four Unexpected Champions of the Clean Transportation Revolution

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    Filed in Energy , Environment & Climate , on by Worldwatch Institute

    Greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector are growing faster than those from any other sector. With the transportation sector already accounting for nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, investing in public transportation is a critical strategy to address global climate change.

    Strategies to curb transport emissions, such as by transitioning to electric vehicles, depend primarily on pushing forward new efficiency-maximizing technologies for transportation networks and individual vehicles. Yet adoption rates have been slow, in part because vehicle owners and transportation providers lack the resources to finance the transition of their fleets.

    How Can the Transportation Transition Begin?

    Creative financing for the transport sector can be adapted from existing efforts to improve energy efficiency in buildings. The building sector has benefited from the involvement of ESCOs, or businesses that fund and install energy-saving equipment, charge the building owner a fee to pay back for this installation, and guarantee that the costs will not exceed the financial savings associated with the new product or system.

    Who Could Champion the Shift?

    A T-ESCO requires a handful of direct stakeholders, including: an entity interested and willing to play the part of the ESCO; a client or fleet manager interested in reducing energy consumption; and an ... Read More

  • Herbs Help Dairy Farms Abandon Antibiotics

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    Filed in Agriculture & Food , Healthcare & Nutrition , on by Worldwatch Institute

    Joining forces, dairy farmers in the Netherlands and Uganda are learning from Indian experts about using medicinal herbs to prevent animal diseases and reduce the widespread reliance on antibiotics for livestock.

    Many of us picture dairy farms with rolling green pastures and lazily grazing cows, but the vast majority of commercial dairy products come from intensive industrial farms optimized by modern technologies. Yet these “high-tech solutions” may also be the root of the industry’s main challenges.

    A common problem on dairy farms—especially large-scale industrial farms—is mastitis, an udder infection that is responsible for 16.5 percent of dairy cattle deaths in the United States. In addition to shortening the cows’ lifespans, mastitis results in the production of lower-quality milk, with lower cheese yield and a shorter shelf life.

    Dwindling Defenses

    The most urgent problem related to antibiotic overuse is the development of drug resistance—when bacteria evolve to become stronger “superbugs” that are able to survive subsequent antibiotic applications. This resistance makes it increasingly difficult to cure bacterial infections in livestock as well as in humans, since many human medicines rely on the same types of drugs being used for livestock. Losing the effectiveness of antimicrobials renders many medical therapies increasingly risky, including organ transplantation and ... Read More

  • Sustainable Development Goals: Will The World Stick to Its New Year’s Resolutions?

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    Filed in Environment & Climate , Fair Trade, Finance & The Social Economy , on by Worldwatch Institute

    As those of us who struggle to keep our resolutions know, following through on a New Year’s commitment isn’t easy. This year, however, the world has big plans. Last September, at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015, 193 countries signed on to tackle 17 goals and meet 169 targets “to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want” and “to heal and secure our planet” by 2030. On January 1, 2016, these Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into force. Will the world be able to stick to its New Year’s resolutions?

    Learning from the Past

    The SDGs were designed to overcome the shortcomings of their predecessors, the recently expired Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). While these eight objectives to halve global poverty between 1990 and 2015 were praised by some for bringing a focus on human development factors—rather than pushing solely for economic growth—the agenda also was criticized for being difficult to implement equitably across countries and within communities.

    Shifting into Synergies

    Building on the concept that people and the planet are intimately interconnected, the earlier MDGs were expanded to include environmental and human rights issues. The UN’s 2030 Agenda recognizes the importance of “the link between sustainable development and other relevant ongoing processes in the economic, social and environmental ... Read More

  • 5 Big Ideas to Save Our Global Food System

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    Filed in Agriculture & Food on by Worldwatch Institute

    The key bases of our agricultural systems—the world’s land, water, and climate—ensure that farmers can feed the world. But these resources are being depleted, even as global demand for agricultural products is expected to mushroom in the coming decades. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that demand will be 60 percent higher in 2050 than in the three-year average for 2005–07. If nothing is done, this growth could overwhelm our food systems.

    To save our global food system, it’s time to focus on conservation and efficiency. Here are five big ideas for doing this:

    1. Combating food waste.
    2. Reducing meat and biofuel production.
    3. Increasing water productivity.
    4. Conserving agricultural land.
    5. Infusing ethics into food trade.

    Food trade will become an indispensable nutritional lifeline,” writes contributing author Gary Gardner in State of the World 2015: Confronting Hidden Threats to Sustainability. “As such, food trade cannot be treated as just another exchange of goods, and food cannot be treated as just another commodity.” Instead, protecting access to food as a human right will ensure that food cannot be withheld for political reasons. Already, 28 countries have explicitly listed a right to food in their national constitutions since the FAO advanced this concept in 2004.

    Read more from Gaelle Gourmelon, ... Read More

  • You, Me, And The Sea

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    Filed in Ecosystems, Wildlife & Biodiversity , Environment & Climate , on by Worldwatch Institute

    You’re going snorkeling along a coral reef. This is biodiversity on over-drive: Every square centimeter is covered with hundreds of little creatures. You see millions upon millions of tentacle-rimmed mouths—each feeding a tiny individual coral polyp—guarded savagely by resident crabs, fish, and shrimp. Right next door, a myriad of other coral species, with added choice residents and predators, sway in the waves. Algae—the sugar-producing pals of corals—grow in and around these polyps, exchanging sugars, oxygen, and other nice things.

    Long story short, even if you spent your entire life only looking at coral reefs, you’d see tens of thousands of species.

    But coral reefs are in danger. Many have died completely. Seventy five percent of the remaining coral reefs are threatened. And why does any of this even matter in the first place? Because without coral reefs, we’re in deep, deep trouble.

    The obvious problem is that losing coral reefs means losing sea turtles, mollusks, and one third of fish species. Less obvious is the danger we are causing our own wellbeing: even though coral reefs cover less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface, they provide goods and services worth USD 375 billion each year!

    In some countries, one out of four fish catches depends on coral reefs, providing food for tens of millions of people. ... Read More