e360 digest


25 May 2016: Could This Straddling Bus Help
Solve China’s Air Pollution Problem?

With an estimated 20 million new drivers on the road each year, China has long struggled to control its CO2 emissions, air pollution, and traffic problems.

YouTube/Xinhua
But a Beijing-based transit company is planning to test a new straddling bus this summer that could provide some relief, according to Chinese news agency Xinhua. The bus, which can carry up to 1,400 passengers, hovers above the road, letting smaller vehicles pass underneath. Because it operates on existing roadways, the system is much cheaper to build than underground subways, while carrying the same number of people. The idea of a straddling bus has been around since 1969, but has remained a far-fetched concept until recent years. A model of the system, designed by Transit Explore Bus, was unveiled at the International High-Tech Expo in Beijing this month. The company plans to build and test an actual straddling bus in Changzhou this summer.
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24 May 2016: Peru Declares Emergency to
Fight Mercury Pollution from Gold Mines

Peru has declared a 60-day emergency in the Amazon due to widespread mercury pollution from the region’s booming gold mining industry, the country's environment minister announced this week.

Marcin Nowak/Wikimedia
Several studies have confirmed dangerously high levels of the neurotoxin in waterways, fish, and people living in the Madres de Dios region, near Peru’s southeast border. Members of the Harakmbut indigenous group, for example, have mercury levels in their bodies six times higher than what doctors deem safe. Mercury is used to separate gold from ore, but it can have serious health impacts, including damaging brain, kidney, and lung function. In illegal mining operations — which make up the majority of mines in the Peruvian Amazon — workers often handle the substance with bare hands, and dump excess mercury into nearby rivers. During the 60-day emergency period, the government will supply uncontaminated fish to local communities and set up mobile health clinics.
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23 May 2016: World Could Warm 8 Degrees
Celsius If All Fossil Fuel Reserves Burned

As nations meet in Bonn, Germany this week to hash out how to achieve the 2-degree Celsius goal they set in Paris, new research is providing policymakers a glimpse of what would happen if the world does nothing to curb climate change.

NASA
What if nations chose instead to burn through all of their remaining fossil fuel reserves, equal to 5 trillion tons of CO2 emissions? According to the new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the world would warm an average 8 degrees Celsius (14.4 degrees F), or up to 17 degrees Celsius (30 degrees F) in the Arctic. The research was conducted by a team of climate scientists at the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who wanted to understand the worst-case scenario. “Such climate changes, if realized, would have extremely profound impacts on ecosystems, human health, agriculture, economies, and other sectors,” the researchers write.
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Interview: CO2 'Air Capture' Could
Be Key to Slowing Global Warming

For two decades, Klaus Lackner has pioneered efforts to combat climate change by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Klaus Lackner

Klaus Lackner
Now, after years of watching the global community fail to bring greenhouse gas emissions under control, Lackner — director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University — is delivering a blunt message: The best hope to avoid major disruptions from global warming is to launch a massive program of CO2 "air capture" that will begin to reverse the buildup of billions of tons of carbon in our atmosphere. "We need to have the ability to walk this backwards," says Lackner. "I'm saying this is a war, and we need to use all the weapons at our disposal. You don't want to get into this fight with one hand tied behind your back."
Read the interview.
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20 May 2016: Obama Looking for Kids
As Science Advisors to the White House

White House advisors tend to be experts with decades of experience in specific fields, from foreign policy to education to energy.

Chuck Kennedy/White House
But President Barack Obama announced this week he’s looking for a much younger batch of consultants to advise the White House on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The Kid Science Advisors outreach program will ask children which issues are most important to them and how to better engage students studying science to help guide White House policy and priorities. "The real reason we do this, as I’ve said before, is to teach our young people that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl or the NCAA tournament that deserves a celebration,” Obama said Thursday. “We want those who have invented the products and lifesaving medicines and are engineering our future to be celebrated as well."
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19 May 2016: Brewing Company Creates
Edible Six-Pack Rings to Save Wildlife

Plastic six-pack rings have long been a nuisance to wildlife and ecosystems, fouling oceans and shorelines, and entangling and choking wildlife.

Now, a brewery in Florida has developed an edible version from the byproducts of making beer, including wheat and barely. If not eaten by marine creatures, the six-pack ring biodegrades. Saltwater Brewery 3-D printed 500 of the holders in April and plans to scale up production to package all of its 400,000 cans of beer per month in the edible rings. The material is just as strong as traditional plastics, the brewery says, but is more expensive. The price would drop, however, as more companies use the edible rings, the brewery said. “We want to influence the big guys,” Chris Goves, president of Saltwater Brewery, said in a video about the new project. “And hopefully inspire them to get on board.”
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18 May 2016: Trees Sleep, With Branches And
Leaves Drooping at Night, New Study Says

Scientists have long known that plants have a day-to-night cycle. Some trees close their leaves in the evening. Most flowers open up their petals in the morning.

But these observations have largely been made only in experiments with potted plants. Now, a team of scientists has used a laser scanner to measure trees’ daily cycles in the wild, and they’ve discovered that trees sleep. “Our results show that the whole tree droops during night, which can be seen as position change in leaves and branches,” Eetu Puttonen, a scientist at the Finnish Geospatial Research Institute and lead author of the new study, said in a statement. Silver birch leaves drooped to their lowest point a couple of hours before sunrise and became upright again a few hours later. It isn’t yet clear whether the sun or the plants’ internal rhythm spurs the movement. The findings were recently published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science.
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17 May 2016: Norwegian Company Building
The World’s Largest Floating Wind Farm

Scotland is about to get the world’s largest floating wind farm, with five 6-megawatt turbines bobbing 15 miles offshore in the North Sea.

The project—which is being developed by Statoil, a Norwegian energy company—marks a shift in offshore wind technology. Most ocean-based turbines to date have been rooted to the sea floor by concrete and steel foundations, similar to oil and gas rigs. But this design limits the projects to shallower waters. Statoil’s floating turbines, known at Hywind, consist of a steel cylinder filled with ballast water and stones, and are tethered to the sea floor by a series of cables. The company, which was granted a lease to build the wind farm this week, will install the Scotland project in water more than 300 feet deep. The plan is for the wind farm to start generating electricity by the end of 2017.
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16 May 2016: Fumes from Farms Are
Top Source of Fine-Particle Pollution

Farms are the number one source of fine-particulate air pollution in the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China, according to new research published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Gases from fertilizers and livestock waste cling to emissions from cars, power plants, and factories to create solid particles less than 1/30th the width of human hair. Particles this size have been shown to penetrate deep into lungs, and cause an estimated 3.3 million deaths each year from illnesses like heart and pulmonary disease. Global climate action, however, could reduce this type of air pollution in the coming decades, says the new study, done by three Columbia University scientists. Cutbacks in energy consumption would mean that fumes from farms would have fewer emissions to which they could bond. This reduction in particulates would happen even if fertilizer use increases, the research says.
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12 May 2016: Despite Push for Renewables,
Fossil Fuels Likely to Dominate in 2040

World leaders pledged last year in Paris to cut CO2 emissions and limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Despite these promises, U.S. analysts said Wednesday that fossil fuels

EveryCarListed/Flickr
— including coal — will still likely be the world’s primary source of energy in 2040. The findings are part of the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s annual World Energy Outlook report. Electricity from wind, solar, and hydropower will grow 2.9 percent annually, the report concluded, and by 2040, renewables, coal, and natural gas will each generate one-third of the world’s electricity. But diesel and gasoline will still power the majority of vehicles, with electric cars making up only 1 percent of the market, the report said. The report also found that carbon emissions from energy consumption in the developing world could grow 51 percent from 2012 to 2040 as countries like India and China modernize their economies, particularly by using coal.
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Bringing Energy Upgrades
To the Nation’s Inner Cities

America’s low-income urban areas are filled with aging buildings that are notoriously energy-inefficient. It’s a problem that Donnel Baird sees as an opportunity. Baird is CEO and cofounder of BlocPower,
Donnel Baird

Donnel Baird
a startup that markets and finances energy-upgrade projects in financially underserved areas. Founded in 2013 with venture capital seed money, BlocPower bundles small energy-improvement projects together — from barber shops to churches —and sells them to potential investors. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Baird describes how BlocPower’s projects not only create jobs and reduce carbon emissions, but also raise awareness of global warming in inner-city communities. “It is not possible for the climate change movement to win anything significant without the participation of people of color,” says Baird.
Read the interview.
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10 May 2016: More than 2,000 New
Plant Species Are Found Every Year

There are currently 391,000 plant species known to science—and another 2,000 are being discovered every year, according to a new report from the U.K.’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Paulo Gonella
Last year’s new discoveries included a nearly five-foot tall carnivorous plant first identified on Facebook, a 105-ton tree in West Africa, and 90 new species of Begonia flowers. Brazil, Australia, and China were hotspots for species discovery. The State of the World’s Plants report did find, however, that one-fifth of the world’s plant species are at risk of extinction from habitat loss, disease, invasive species, and climate change. “Plants are absolutely fundamental to humankind,” Kathy Willis, director of science at Kew, told The Guardian. “Plants provide us with everything — food, fuel, medicines, timber, and they are incredibly important for our climate regulation. We are facing some devastating realities if we do not take stock and re-examine our priorities and efforts.”
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09 May 2016: Pacific Northwest Starfish Seem
Set for Comeback After Deadly Disease

Two years after a virus devastated colonies of starfish along the U.S. west coast, the population is showing early signs of a comeback, at least in some areas.

Canopic/Flickr
The number of juveniles in the Pacific Northwest is “off the charts,” said Bruce Menge, a marine biologist at Oregon State University. “Higher than we’d ever seen — as much as 300 times normal,” Menge said. Young starfish usually have to compete with adults for food. But with up to 84 percent of the adult population wiped out from an outbreak of “sea star wasting disease” two years ago, juveniles have had abundant resources to thrive, Menge and his colleagues reported in a recent PLOS ONE journal. However, the researchers warn starfish populations aren’t entirely in the clear. “Whether they can make it into adulthood and replenish the population without succumbing to sea star wasting disease is the big question,” Menge said in a statement.
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06 May 2016: Alberta Wildfire Could Unlock
Vast Reserves of CO2 from Permafrost

A massive wildfire raging in the heart of Canada’s tar sands region has forced 88,000 people from their homes, scorched more than 1,600 buildings,

Reuters
and caused several fossil fuel companies to reduce operations and shut down pipelines. The fire — fueled by above-average temperatures and dry conditions linked to climate change — burned through more than 330 square miles of land in Alberta in just a few days. Now, scientists are warning the fire, and the many others like it that Canada has experienced in recent years, could unlock vast reserves of CO2 stored in the region’s underlying permafrost. Fire destroys the protective layer of vegetation that keeps permafrost frozen, and warm conditions spur microbial activity, generating CO2 and methane emissions. “This is carbon that the ecosystem has not seen for thousands of years and now it’s being released into the atmosphere,” Merritt Turetsky, an ecosystem ecologist at the University of Guelph in Ontario, told the New Scientist.
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05 May 2016: With Climate Change, It Is
Survival of the Oldest, Not the Fittest

When it comes to climate change, the world’s oldest species are more likely to survive than newly evolved ones, says a new study published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.

Brian Gratwicke/Flickr
The logic is relatively simple: The reason they’re so old is that they’ve been tested by abrupt environmental shifts before and have come out on top. This group includes species like the cane toad and California sea lion. More specifically, the study found the planet’s oldest animals all share at least one of the following characteristics: They come in various colors, give birth to live young (as opposed to eggs), and live at low latitudes. The research could help “predict which [species] could be better able to deal with current climate change and to better predict the threat status of species on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature,” said Sylvain Dubey, an ecologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and co-author of the new study.
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04 May 2016: Extreme Heat Could Make Parts of
Middle East Uninhabitable by Mid-Century

Climate change could make parts of the Middle East and North Africa uninhabitable by mid-century, driving average daytime summer temperatures as high as 114 degrees F, according to new research published in the journal Climatic Change.

Molly John/Flickr
(For comparison, that is equal to the average maximum temperature in California’s Death Valley.) Heat waves in the region will occur 10 times more often and last longer, the study found. The number of extremely hot days per year could jump from 16 today, to 80 in 2050, to 118 in 2100, possibly leading to mass emigration from the region, said Jos Lelieveld, director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and lead author of the new study. “In future, the climate in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa could change in such a manner that the very existence of its inhabitants is in jeopardy," Lelieveld said.
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03 May 2016: A Sea Urchin's Mouth Could
Make it Easier to Study Distant Planets

Sea urchins have long inspired awe among scientists for their ability to chew through almost anything, from entire kelp forests to rocks. Their mouths — comprised of a ring of intricate muscles and five curved, pointed teeth —

UC San Diego
operate like a giant claw in an arcade game. Now scientists have designed a new space-exploration device based on the urchins’ teeth that will make it easier to collect sediment samples on other planets, like Mars. “Our goal was a bio-inspired device that's more precise and efficient at grabbing ground samples, and won't disturb the surrounding area like a shovel" — the tool space vehicles like the Mars rovers currently use, said Michael Frank, an engineer at the University of California, San Diego. The technology, based on 3D scans of pink sea urchins, has five claws with beveled edges that gather and trap material in a smooth, quick motion.
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02 May 2016: After a Decade of Decline,
Brazil's Deforestation Again on the Rise

Brazil is losing two soccer field-sized parcels of rainforest every minute, equal to 1,930 square miles annually, according to new reporting from the Thompson Reuters Foundation.

Matt Zimmerman/Flickr
The trend represents a significant blow to Brazil’s decades-long fight against illegal logging activity, which achieved an 80 percent decline in deforestation from 2003 to 2013 due to aggressive government and civil monitoring of the forests. But these efforts have slackened in recent years, and loggers have changed their tactics to better hide their activities, said Tasso Azevedo, a conservationist and former director of the Brazilian Forest Service. "In some cases, we are walking backwards," he told Thompson Reuters. The uptick could pose a challenge to pledges Brazil made during international climate talks in Paris last December. The country promised to eliminate illegal deforestation and restore nearly 30 million acres of forest by 2030 to combat global warming.
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29 Apr 2016: Kenya to Burn Ivory to Raise
Awareness of Growing Poaching Problem

Kenyan authorities are set to burn 105 tons of ivory confiscated from illegally killed elephants this weekend to bring attention to the country’s growing poaching problem.

Kenya Wildlife Service
Kenya conducted its first ivory burn in 1989 after elephant populations in the country dropped 90 percent in 15 years, and it has continued to do such burns periodically since. But the systematic cutting back of an international ban on the sale of ivory over the last 15 years has led to the reemergence of large-scale poaching in Africa. Approximately 30,000 to 50,000 elephants were killed on the continent between 2008 and 2013. Soon after announcing the ivory burn, Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, announced his nation would seek a total ban on elephant ivory during a wildlife trade meeting later this year. “We will not be the Africans who stood by as we lost our elephants,” he said.
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28 Apr 2016: Half of All Farmed Fish Have
Deformed Ear Bones That Cause Hearing Loss

Farmed fish have become an increasingly larger share of the world’s seafood market in recent decades—now accounting for 50 percent of global seafood consumption.

USFWS
At the same time, however, debate about the ethics, safety and health of farmed fish versus their wild counterparts has also intensified. A new study published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports finds that half of all farmed Atlantic salmon have deformed ear bones that lead to hearing loss. These salmon are 10 times more likely to have the deformity than wild fish. The findings “raise questions about the welfare of farmed animals," said Tim Dempster, a biologist at the University of Melbourne involved in the study. It may also explain why efforts to boost wild populations by releasing farmed juveniles have proven unsuccessful. Hearing loss would prevent farmed fish from detecting predators, or restrict their ability to navigate to breeding sites, the scientists said.
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27 Apr 2016: Wooden Skypscrapers Grow in
Popularity in Effort to Reduce Emissions

Architects are increasingly abandoning traditional steel-and-cement skyscrapers in favor of wood-and-glue designs — a move that experts say could help drastically reduce CO2 emissions from the world’s building sector.

Acton Ostry Architects
Creating steel, iron, and non-metallic minerals — including concrete — is an energy-intensive process that accounts for more than 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In the 1990s, developers created a product known as cross-laminated timber — planks of wood glued together by a polyurethane adhesive — with the strength and durability of traditional building materials, and far fewer CO2 emissions. With concern for climate change mounting, wood-based skyscrapers have been popping up around the globe in recent years. The University of British Columbia, for example, approved an 18-story, wooden housing complex in 2015. “This revolution has happened rather quietly and happened rather slow,” Kris Spickler, a heavy timber specialist at Structurlam, told Popular Science. “But I think we’re in a year right now where we’re going to see it explode.”
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From Mass Coral Bleaching,
A Scientist Looks for Lessons

Twice a year, Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb travels to Christmas Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to collect samples from coral reefs to better understand past and future climate change.
Kim Cobb

Kim Cobb
But when Cobb arrived on the island earlier this month, she was stunned. The corals she had spent the past 18 years studying were largely dead or dying. The scene has become a familiar one across the Pacific and Indian oceans this year as a record-breaking El Niño drove up water temperatures and caused fragile coral reef systems to bleach from stress or die. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Cobb talked about the recent bleaching event, the race to make reefs more resilient, and how coral records could improve short-term climate projections. “What you think reefs might be experiencing in 20 years,” she says, “they're experiencing now.”
Read the interview.
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26 Apr 2016: Historical Citizen-Scientists’ Ice
Records Confirm Global Temperature Rise

Centuries-old records from Japanese priests and European shipping merchants are helping scientists confirm that the earth has warmed substantially — and freshwater ice formation significantly decreased — since the Industrial Revolution.

These early record keepers tracked annual freeze dates and the breakup of ice each spring on lakes and rivers for hundreds of years, beginning in the 1440s in Japan and 1690s in Finland. The data represents the oldest known inland ice records. An international team of scientists published a study this week in Nature Scientific Reports examining how ice behavior changed over the records’ years. They found that from 1443 to 1683, for example, the annual freeze date of Lake Suwa in Japan moved back 0.19 days per decade. From the start of the Industrial Revolution, however, that trend grew 24 times faster, pushing back the date of ice formation on the lake by 4.6 days per decade.
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25 Apr 2016: Scientists Discover Antarctic
Lake That Could Contain Unique Life Forms

Scientists have discovered what they think is a massive, ribbon-shaped lake under the Antarctic ice sheet that could lead to the discovery of a bevy of new unique life forms.

NASA/Michael Studinger
The lake, which measures 60 miles long by 6 miles wide, was discovered using satellite imagery, and scientists plan to confirm its existence using ice-penetrating radar this spring. The lake has likely been locked under the ice for millions of years — allowing bacteria and other life forms to evolve in complete isolation from the rest of the world, according to a report released at the European Geosciences Union meeting. Unlike the continent’s largest under-ice lake, Vostok, the newly discovered waterbody — located in East Antarctica — is relatively close to a research station, making it easier to explore. “It’s the last un-researched part of Antarctica, so it’s very exciting news,” Bryn Hubbard of the University of Aberystwyth UK told the New Scientist.
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22 Apr 2016: Brazilian Officials Put a
Hold on Mega-Dam Project in the Amazon

A proposed 8,000-megawatt hydroelectric dam in the Amazon was put on hold this week by Brazil’s environmental agency out of concerns over its impact on a local indigenous tribe.

The São Luiz do Tapajós project — which would be Brazil’s second-largest dam and a cornerstone of government efforts to expand hydroelectric power — would require developers to flood an area the size of New York City and home to thousands of Munduruku people. The environmental agency, Ibama, said they were suspending the project’s licensing because of “the infeasibility of the project from the prospective of indigenous issues.” Brent Millikan, the Amazon program director for International Rivers, told Reuters, "The areas that would have been flooded include sites of important religious and cultural significance. The local communities have a huge amount of knowledge about the resources where they are — if they were forced off the land and into cities they would become unskilled workers."
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21 Apr 2016: A Town Made Almost Entirely Out
Of Plastic Bottles is Being Built in Panama

Construction has begun on the world’s first town made almost entirely out of recycled plastic bottles. Located on Isla Colón in Panama, the village will consist of 120 houses and a lodge on 83 acres of tropical jungle.

The first two-bedroom home was built late last year, and is made from 10,000 plastic bottles pulled from Panama trashcans, roadsides, and beaches. The walls of the homes consist of steel cages filled with bottles and then encased in a concrete mix. They are flexible enough to withstand an earthquake, and insulating enough to keep the home up to 17 degrees F cooler than the jungle outside. Because there are so many recycled bottles on the island already, homes can be built quickly and cheaply, said Robert Bezeau, founder of the Plastic Bottle Village. “We are changing the world, without changing the Earth, one home at a time,” he says on the project’s website.
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20 Apr 2016: Entries Invited for Third
Annual Yale Environment 360 Video Contest

The third annual Yale Environment 360 Video Contest is now accepting entries. The contest honors the year's best environmental videos. Submissions must focus on an environmental issue or theme, have not been widely viewed online, and be a maximum of 15 minutes in length. Videos that are funded by an organization or company and are primarily about that organization or company are not eligible. The first-place winner will receive $2,000, and two runners-up will each receive $500. The winning entries will be posted on Yale Environment 360. The contest judges will be Yale Environment 360 editor Roger Cohn, New Yorker writer and e360 contributor Elizabeth Kolbert, and documentary filmmaker Thomas Lennon. Deadline for entries is June 10, 2016.
Read More.
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19 Apr 2016: Thirty Years After Chernobyl,
Wildlife Thrives in the Contaminated Zone

Thirty years after the meltdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, humans remain relatively scarce near the accident site.

Jim Beasley/Sarah Webster
A gray wolf is caught on camera near Chernobyl.
Wildlife, however, is thriving, according to a recent study by scientists at the University of Georgia. The researchers set up cameras at 94 sites in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone—a 1,000-square-mile area where radiation levels remain high—and applied a fatty acid scent to attract animals. In total, they saw 14 mammal species in the footage, most frequently gray wolves, boars, red fox, and raccoon dogs. Since carnivores tend to accumulate radiation faster that animals further down the food chain, finding so many of them was good news. "We didn't find any evidence to support the idea that populations are suppressed in highly contaminated areas,” said James Beasley, an ecologist at the University of Georgia who helped lead the study.
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18 Apr 2016: The Complicated Case of
Global Warming’s Impact on Agriculture

Scientists have long debated whether climate change could help or hurt the world’s agricultural systems. Theoretically, additional CO2 in the atmosphere should help fuel crop growth.

Ananth BS
A farmer plows his fields in southern India.
But global warming’s other impacts, such as shifting rain patterns, higher temperatures, and extreme weather, could reduce crop yields. A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change by researchers in a half-dozen countries finds the answer depends on where you live. The scientists found yields of rain-fed wheat could increase by 10 percent, while irrigated wheat, the bulk of India and China’s production, could decline by 4 percent. Maize will decrease almost everywhere, down 8.5 percent. Rice and soybean could flourish in some areas and falter in others. “Most of the discussion around climate impacts focuses only on changes in temperature and precipitation,” said Delphine Deryng, an environmental scientist at Columbia University who led the study. “To adapt adequately, we need to understand all the factors involved.”
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15 Apr 2016: As Smog Continues to Worsen,
New Delhi Bans a Million Cars From the Road

For the second time this year, a million New Delhi cars will be forced to stay off the road each day for the next two weeks in an effort to reduce the city’s hazardous air pollution levels.

Mark Danielson/Flickr
Smog in New Delhi, India
The Indian capital was ranked the world’s most polluted urban center in 2014, with smog concentrations frequently reaching hazardous levels for children, the elderly, and people with heart or respiratory issues. The Delhi decision follows a similar recent driving ban in Mexico City, where heavy smog and high ozone levels have also raised health concerns. But some scientists argue that such bans are insufficient to combat escalating pollution problems in developing world megacities. “It is exactly like taking out 10 buckets of water from the ocean, the magnitude of the pollution problem is such,” Gufran Beig, the chief scientist at India’s state-run System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research, told The Guardian.
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