Air pollution recognized as a risk factor for diabetes


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“Whether the disease becomes manifest and when this occurs is not only due to lifestyle or genetic factors, but also due to traffic-related air pollution,” said Professor Annette Peters, director of the Institute of Epidemiology II at Helmholtz Zentrum München and head of the research area of epidemiology of the DZD.

For the current study, she and her colleagues…analyzed the data of nearly 3,000 participants of the KORA study who live in the city of Augsburg and two adjacent rural counties. All individuals were interviewed and physically examined. Furthermore, the researchers took fasting blood samples, in which they determined various markers for insulin resistance and inflammation. In addition, leptin was examined as adipokine which has been suggested to be associated with insulin resistance. Non-diabetic individuals underwent an oral glucose tolerance test to detect whether their glucose metabolism was impaired.

The researchers compared these data with the concentrations of air pollutants at the place of residence of the participants, which they estimated using predictive models based on repeated measurements at…up to 40 sites…in the city and in the rural counties.

“The results revealed that people who already have an impaired glucose metabolism, so-called pre-diabetic individuals, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution,” said Dr. Kathrin Wolf, lead author of the study. “In these individuals, the association between increases in their blood marker levels and increases in air pollutant concentrations is particularly significant! Thus, over the long term — especially for people with impaired glucose metabolism — air pollution is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.”

The authors are also concerned that the concentrations of air pollutants, though below EU threshold values, are still above the proposed guidelines of the World Health Organization… As a consequence, they demand changes in government policy: “Lowering the threshold for acceptable air pollution levels would be a prudent step,” said Dr. Alexandra Schneider, who was also involved in the study. “We are all exposed to air pollution. An individual reduction by moving away from highly polluted areas is rarely an option.”

Many folks currently focussed on the political battle over climate change have been at it for a long time. The crap air we’re all faced with as “normal” has been anything but normal for decades. Because we’ve moved slightly back from acid rain and a Love Canal in every backyard doesn’t mean we’ve won anything more than individual battles. Though significant, the full extent of poisoning of the Earth’s air breathers, water-drinkers, continues to demand a critical political movement against the polluters and their acolytes.

Milestone: Iceland power plant turns carbon emissions to stone


Coauthor Sandra Snaebjornsdottir with test drill core showing carbonate

Scientists and engineers working at a major power plant in Iceland have shown for the first time that carbon dioxide emissions can be pumped into the earth and changed chemically to a solid within months — radically faster than anyone had predicted. The finding may help address a fear that so far has plagued the idea of capturing and storing CO2 underground: that emissions could seep back into the air or even explode out.

The Hellisheidi power plant is the world’s largest geothermal facility; it and a companion plant provide the energy for Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, plus power for industry, by pumping up volcanically heated water to run turbines. But the process is not completely clean; it also brings up volcanic gases, including carbon dioxide and nasty-smelling hydrogen sulfide.

Under a pilot project called Carbfix, started in 2012, the plant began mixing the gases with the water pumped from below and reinjecting the solution into the volcanic basalt below. In nature, when basalt is exposed to carbon dioxide and water, a series of natural chemical reactions takes place, and the carbon precipitates out into a whitish, chalky mineral. But no one knew how fast this might happen if the process were harnessed for carbon storage. Previous studies have estimated that in most rocks, it would take hundreds or even thousands of years. In the basalt below Hellisheidi, 95 percent of the injected carbon was solidified within less than two years.

“This means that we can pump down large amounts of CO2 and store it in a very safe way over a very short period of time,” said study coauthor Martin Stute, a hydrologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “In the future, we could think of using this for power plants in places where there’s a lot of basalt — and there are many such places.” Basically all the world’s seafloors are made of the porous, blackish rock, as are about 10 percent of continental rocks.

Scientists have been tussling for years with the idea of so-called carbon capture and sequestration; the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that without such technology, it may not be possible to limit global warming adequately. But up to now, projects have made little progress.

Now, we have a fresh start and perhaps a solution to some of the carbon produced by existing technology. If the process becomes efficient enough, affordable, it may be usable for removing unneeded CO2 from our atmosphere.

China’s new economic model doesn’t sacrifice environment for profit


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Shenzen leads China’s pilot city program in new green development

Chinese lawmakers have approved the country’s 13th Five-Year Plan, the high-level document that will guide policymaking through 2020, including the country’s approach to climate and energy policy. As the world’s second-largest economy and the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China necessarily plays a role in shaping global climate policy — and if it can deliver on the goals outlined in the plan, that role will undoubtedly expand.

The plan is the first to set a national cap on energy consumption — 5 billion tons of standard coal equivalent for 2020 — as well as offering new visions for energy efficiency and air pollution. A World Resources Institute analysis concluded that this FYP sets China on a path to a 48 percent reduction in carbon intensity levels by 2020, compared to 2005 levels…For reference, China’s pledge to the Paris Agreement has the country slashing carbon intensity by 60-65 percent of 2005 levels by 2030.

All told, it’s the “greenest Five-Year Plan that China has ever produced,” said Barbara Finamore, director of NRDC’s Asia program…

There’s a lot more to the FYP than energy policy, but many of the other pieces are complementary when it comes to the climate. New standards on air quality indicators like PM 2.5, for example, will no doubt rein in the country’s rampant coal burning.

But it’s not all about coal, either. While China saw a cut in coal use of around 3 percent in 2015, it increased its oil consumption by 5.6 percent in the same year. “If China is going to peak its CO2 emissions, it cannot just rely on cutting coal,” said Finamore. “Transportation emissions and oil consumption are going to be exceedingly important.” And they are: The FYP addresses vehicle emissions and public transportation in cities, in addition to allocating new money to high-speed rail initiatives.

I haven’t read through the plan myself – yet – but, I’ve blogged before about changes already initiated. Notably, providing natural gas for household cooking and heating. Hopefully, the target of reaching every household in every Tier 1 city will be achieved during this 5-year plan. Though Talking Heads on Western TV relish the topic of smog in China, they always seem to miss the point that half that smog comes from household coal fires – identical to the problem faced in the UK after World War 2.

I lived through a similar conversion process in the New England industrial city where I grew up and the change is dramatic, beneficial and qualitative in how life is affected.

It’s easy to raise questions about China’s ability to follow through on these kinds of ambitious plans in the face of slowing economic growth. The FYP outlines a target GDP growth rate of 6.5 percent through 2020 — speedy by global standards, but a far cry from the 10 percent growth rate of yesteryear.

But that’s not the right way to think about it, said Paul Joffe, senior foreign policy counsel at WRI. “China envisions a ‘new normal’ level of growth,” explained Joffe to press. “At that level, they view the economic and environmental targets as entirely compatible.” In other words, anyone wildly gesticulating at China’s flagging growth rate needs to take a chill pill. Ten percent is simply not sustainable.

It also doesn’t match China economic planners’ vision of a model wherein up to 70% of the GDP is based on consumption, goods and services.

Joffe’s description of coinciding economic and environmental goals bucks the conventional economic logic that says “you need to consume more to grow more,” said Kate Gordon, a vice chair at the Paulson Institute. That logic is faltering. Earlier this week, the International Energy Agency released data suggesting energy-related emissions and global GDP growth are decoupling. Indeed, Gordon argues that China’s energy-efficiency savings have in part allowed for that kind of decoupling…

The plan’s ambition gives post-Paris climate-action further momentum, and can only serve to strengthen the recent U.S.-China climate pact. As with all ambitious plans, though, implementation will be key — and the country is outlining some stark transitions. Upwards of 1.8 million workers in the coal and steel industries are expected to lose their jobs due to changes outlined in the FYP, and those workers will need to be retrained and reemployed. Truly delivering on those goals will require an unprecedented degree of foresight and coordination.

Though I haven’t read the details – as I mentioned above – I watched many of the discussions on TV. Fact is, the target for new urban jobs is much higher than just those needed to be retrained and reemployed. That is 10 million new jobs every year.

I can’t skip over the sour grapes still to be consumed by anyone mentioning how this ties in with the US-China climate pact. That will certainly enjoy respect and a part of this 5-year plan. In China. As long as the US Congress is controlled by the Party of Do Nothing – likely the case until sometime after the 2020 census, redistricting, an opportunity to sort Republican gerrymandering – ain’t nothing like new positive environmental legislation coming out of Washington DC.

Big Oil must grudgingly make way for Big Solar

Saving the world isn’t going to be cheap. If you sell oil, coal or old-fashioned cars, that threatens disaster. For makers of stuff like solar panels, high-tech home insulation, and efficient lighting, it’s a potential miracle.

That’s the bottom line from this weekend’s climate deal in Paris, which commits 195 countries to reducing pollution in order to head off dangerous climate change.

Global governments and companies are counting the costs and benefits from the agreement, which calls for wholesale transformations of energy, transportation, and dozens of other lines of business. Fossil-fuel producers and countries that depend on them face massive, costly disruption. Players in up-and-coming industries like renewable power and energy efficiency are looking at an unprecedented opportunity.

The Paris pact, which also calls for a review of ever-tightening pledges every five years, is the most significant global climate agreement ever, outstripping the 1997 Kyoto Accord in its scope and ambition…The deal will likely accelerate investments in technologies like renewable energy and electric vehicles — especially if more countries join the European Union and parts of North America in imposing a price or tax on carbon. The United Nations estimates upward of $1 trillion a year in spending is required to de-carbonize the global economy and prevent temperature rises scientists say could flood coastal cities, disrupt agriculture, and destroy ecosystems.

That means companies with business models threatened by a low-carbon world need to re-focus, and fast, said Lyndon Rive, CEO of SolarCity Corp., a U.S. provider of home-solar systems…Rive said on the sidelines of the Paris summit, “you’re going to defend that job because that’s your livelihood. But your livelihood is going to be destroyed.”

Executives from more traditional companies have a similar, if less stark, view. Peter Terium, CEO of German utility RWE AG, said companies like his would have to learn from the successive transformations of International Business Machines to stay relevant in a new energy system. RWE on Friday approved a plan to split into two companies, one focused on renewables and grids and the other managing declining conventional assets.

That doesn’t mean Big Oil will be closing up shop anytime soon. According to a relatively optimistic forecast of emissions cuts by the International Energy Agency, fossil fuels will still account for about 75 percent of energy demand in 2030, with coal hitting a plateau, oil growing slightly and natural gas surging…

Energy investment, though, will increasingly shift toward green power. Under another IEA scenario, renewables will attract about 59 percent of capital in the power sector over the next decade, rising to about two-thirds from 2026 to 2040. France’s Total, for example, is building out its solar business, shifting investment to gas, and expanding energy-efficiency services to cope.

Executives at companies that have moved early to get themselves ready for a lower-carbon world argue there’s nothing new about the energy transition except perhaps its scale; after all, changing technologies have been obliterating business models since at least the invention of the wheel.

“Really high-carbon industries have had their day,” said Steve Howard, Chief Sustainability Officer at furniture retailer Ikea. “If they can adapt and reinvent themselves, fantastic! If they can’t, maybe some will just return cash to shareholders and slowly close up shop.”

One of the advantages of a globalized economy is that progressive tech – if a firm is capable of moving into global competition, planetwide distribution and sales – becomes widely accepted, faster and easier. Backwards portions of any industry will no doubt continue to drag their feet. Even more backwards politicians – the Republican Party and other wholly-owned subsidiaries of the Koch Bros. – will do their damndest to hold back time, deny any progress offered by science and technology. But, a global market offers the opportunity of scale sooner to bona fide enterprise. A global market doesn’t grow itself over time on the path of selling for cheap and dirty.

It would be great if our political infrastructure still believed sufficiently in American talent for innovation and invention to help out. Poisonally, I think too many of our politicians are owned by the two most reactionary wings of capitalism: the types who consume Earth’s resources regardless of the result and those who unblushingly are out to make a quick buck, especially with runaway shops. The first will rely on political flunkies to defend their diminishing global role. The second are already running hard to be importers instead of efficient, competitive manufacturers.

Inaccessible nutrients may limit ability of plants to slow climate change

Many scientists assume that the growing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will accelerate plant growth. However, a new study co-written by University of Montana researchers suggests much of this growth will be curtailed by limited soil nutrients.

The end result: By the end of the century, there may be more than an additional 10 percent of CO2 in the atmosphere, which would accelerate climate change…

Cory Cleveland and co-authors looked at 11 leading climate models to examine changes in nitrogen and phosphorous. They found that nitrogen limitation actually will reduce plant uptake of CO2 by 19 percent, while a combined nitrogen and phosphorous limitation will reduce plant uptake by 25 percent.

Most of the world’s leading climate models assume that plants will respond to increased atmospheric levels of CO2 by growing more and more, which is known as the CO2 fertilization effect. The more the plants grow, the more CO2 they absorb from the atmosphere, thereby slowing climate change…

Cleveland said most climate models so far have not included nutrients because such biogeochemical processes are difficult to simulate and vary greatly from one type of terrestrial ecosystem to another. The Community Earth System Model from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, jointly funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, is one of the first to begin considering the role of soil nutrients in the models that are used for climate change projections…

“We found that instead of acting as a carbon sink and drawing down CO2, the terrestrial biosphere could become a net source of the greenhouse gas to the atmosphere by the end of the century, with soil microbes releasing more carbon than growing plants could absorb,” Cleveland said.

Uncertainties remain, however. One of the questions is how soil microbes – which free up nitrogen in the soil, but also release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – will respond to warming temperatures. Similarly, scientists don’t know if plants will become more efficient at drawing up additional nutrients from the soil. If not, plants won’t be able to keep up with society’s CO2 emissions.

Symptomatic treatment is guaranteed to change only one side of the equation – if and when it works. Unless the continuing causes of anthropogenic climate change are dealt with the ever-expanding calculus of stupidity will still result in negative sums for our species.

We get screwed so corporate barons like the Koch Bros. can continue to optimize profits.

Microbes may have been responsible for the largest mass extinction of species in history


MIT professor of geophysics Daniel Rothman stands next to part of the Xiakou formation in China

A team of researchers from MIT may have found new evidence to shed light on the cause of the most devastating mass extinction in the history of our planet. The event, estimated to have taken place around 252 million years ago, was responsible for the extinction of roughly 90 percent of all life on Earth.

The team’s research indicates that the catastrophic event was in fact triggered by the tiniest of organisms, a methane-releasing microbe called Methanosarcina. New evidence suggests that at the time of the extinction, the microbes appeared in massive numbers across the world’s oceans, spreading vast clouds of the carbon-heavy gas methane into the atmosphere. This had the effect of altering the planet’s climate in a way that made it inhospitable to most other forms of life inhabiting Earth at that time.

It was previously believed that the mass extinction, known as the end-Permian extinction, was due to either vast amounts of volcanic activity, a devastating asteroid strike or prolific all-consuming coal fires. Any of these events could have caused the mass deaths, however there are inconsistencies in the evidence that point away from the traditional theories and towards the new findings presented by the researchers from MIT…

Although the team does not believe that…heightened levels of volcanism were responsible for the extinction itself, they do believe that it could have been the catalyst. The sudden and devastating increase in carbon-containing gases present during the end-Permian extinction is put down to a massive bloom of Methanosarcina. However, for this bloom to take place, the microbes would require an abundant source of carbon and nickel, both of which were discovered in a new analysis of sediments in China, and could have been distributed widely through a volcanic eruption.

The case for Methanosarcina being responsible for the extinction is further strengthened by the team’s findings that, at the time of the end-Permian extinction, the microbes had undergone a genetic transfer from another microbe. This is what gave the Methanosarcina the ability to produce methane at such a prolific rate.

With the catalyst of volcanic activity, the Methanosarcina were able to spread across our planet’s oceans unchecked. This allowed the microbes to produce vast quantities of carbon-containing methane, by harvesting the now carbon- and nickel-rich water. The release of said methane would have had the effect of raising the carbon dioxide levels in the waters, causing ocean acidification, irrevocably altering the ecosystem.

Let us hope no natural occurrence allows us to experiment firsthand with the hypothesis.

Of course, if such a cataclysm initiated, we can count on the usual assembly of know-nothings to stand around – doing their best to interfere with any attempt to save the species of Earth – while the rest of us die trying.

Successful experiment to simulate warming of Arctic permafrost

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Although vegetation growth in the Arctic is boosted by global warming, it’s not enough to offset the carbon released by the thawing of the permafrost beneath the surface, University of Florida researchers have found in the first experiment in the Arctic environment to simulate thawing of permafrost in a warming world.

Twice as much carbon is frozen in Arctic permafrost as exists in the atmosphere today, and what happens to it as it thaws – releasing greenhouse gases that fuel climate change – is a key question, said professor Ted Schuur…

“The plants like it when they’re warmer, so their growth is increasing, and if you just watch the tundra in the summertime and you look at the balance between what the plants are doing and what the soil is doing, the plants actually offset everything that happens in the soil. They’re growing faster, getting bigger and taking carbon out of the air,” Schuur said. “From the perspective of climate change, that’s a good thing, tundra vegetation is making up for any carbon you’re losing from the soil.”

The hitch? The Arctic’s short summers do not make up for the long winters.

Researchers are interested in the permafrost of the polar regions because these soils – permanently frozen at great depths and for tens of thousands of years – are vulnerable to global warming…

As the experiment continues into the next three-year cycle, Schuur said he is looking for a point at which the plants hit a growth limit and stop absorbing more carbon, while the thawing permafrost continues to release carbon…

One of the successes of the experiment, Schuur said, was finding a way to model carbon release from permafrost in the environment on a year-round basis. Previous studies had used miniature greenhouses in summer months, but creating a warming situation in the winter was more challenging.

“We wanted to warm the tundra and cause the permafrost to recede. This is the first experiment to isolate that effect in the field, so the first thing we show is that we’re able to simulate what will happen in a future world when the permafrost degrades,” Schuur said…

The studies confirm that a significant amount of carbon is released from thawing permafrost and highlight that there are factors beyond simply temperature that affect carbon release, Schuur said.

New variables identified by Professor Schuur and postdoc researcher Susan Natali range from water content to the ratio of nitrogen to carbon in the permafrost soil.

There’s the added existential fillip that these researchers are staff at a university in Florida – therefore they’re overseen by politicians and ideologues who refuse to accept any scientific acknowledgement of climate change.

In fact, there is at least one city in another neo-Confederate state where local politicians made it illegal for public funds to be used to publish any document describing sea levels as rising – even though that happens to be a problem in that city. 🙂

Milestone: commercial grade ethanol from wood and green waste

After months of frustrating delays, a chemical company announced Wednesday that it had produced commercial quantities of ethanol from wood waste and other nonfood vegetative matter, a long-sought goal that, if it can be expanded economically, has major implications for providing vehicle fuel and limiting greenhouse gas emissions…

The company, INEOS Bio…said it had produced the fuel at its $130 million Indian River BioEnergy Center in Vero Beach, Fla….The company said it was the first commercial-scale production of ethanol from cellulosic feedstock, but it did not say how much it had produced. Shipments will begin in August…

The process begins with wastes — wood and vegetative matter for now, municipal garbage later — and cooks it into a gas of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Bacteria eat the gas and excrete alcohol, which is then distilled. Successful production would eliminate some of the “food versus fuel” debate in the manufacturing of ethanol, which comes from corn…

The plant, which uses methane gas from a nearby landfill, has faced a variety of problems. One was getting the methane, which is a greenhouse gas if released unburned, to the plant’s boilers. (The plan is to eventually run the plant on garbage that now goes to landfills.) Another problem was its reliance on the electrical grid.

The plant usually generates more power than it needs — selling the surplus to the local utility — and is supposed to be able to operate independently. But when thunderstorms knocked out the power grid, the plant unexpectedly shut down and it took weeks to get it running again, said Mark Niederschulte, the chief operating officer of INEOS Bio…“We’ve had some painful do/undo loops,” he said…

The Department of Energy hailed the development as the first of a kind, and said it was made possible by research work the department had sponsored in recent years…

INEOS has a goal of eight million gallons a year.

If they can get up to consistent production of commercial-grade, commercial quantities of ethanol, a number of goals become practical. Replacing fossil fuels is the most obvious. But, even the process of producing fuel to be burned is freeing up land to produce more cellulosic products which absorb carbon while growing.

Low-carbon alkali cement paves the way to energy savings


Happy Drexel researchers at manual labor

The source of 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions is hiding in plain sight, in the sidewalk beneath our feet. It is cement, a key ingredient of concrete, the most widely used building material on the planet. And manufacturing conventional “Portland” cement releases nearly a ton of the greenhouse gas for every ton produced – some 3 billion tons in 2010…

Enter Drexel University materials scientists Alexander Moseson and Michel Barsoum. They’ve created a low-tech, low-energy, low-cost cement that they hope to move out of the lab and into the real world.

But they face huge hurdles: Entrenched industry, tough building codes, a mindset that says there’s only one way to lay a foundation or build a bridge – with Portland cement…

The problem with any bid to replace it…is that Portland cement enjoys economies of scale, which keep prices down. Introduced in the 19th century, it’s also familiar: Governments and builders have many decades of “use and comfort” with the product, he said. It is the benchmark for industry codes. “Officials have a duty to give taxpayers the best, most-durable road or bridge or whatever possible,” Steve Kosmatka of the Portland Cement Association said. “There’s risk to trying new things…”

Moseson and Barsoum are…mixing recycled iron slag or fly ash with readily available limestone. “We literally used a bag of garden lime from Home Depot,” Moseson said. Instead of a coal-fired kiln, they use a bucket with a spoon at room temperature…

Tests showed that the Drexel duo’s cement is as durable as Portland but emits 95 percent less CO2. “You’ve found a way to bake bread without the oven,” Moseson said one impressed investor remarked. That energy-saving trick means this cement could cost about 50 percent less to produce, according to their calculations…

But market issues, lack of environmental awareness, inconsistent ingredients, and limited knowledge of cement chemistry have restricted alkali cement to a niche market. The cement industry came up with viable alkali cements 20 years ago but found few customers, Kosmatka said. “It was a product ahead of its time.”

Now, proponents say, the time for more widespread application of alternatives may be right.

Governments in Asia and elsewhere are kick-starting green building industries, opening doors for alkali-activated and other green cements. China’s newest cement standards, for instance, require a 15 percent reduction in energy use. India’s green-building standard takes a life-cycle approach and emphasizes recycling and pollution reduction.

And in the United States…?