The Race To Crack Battery Recycling—Before It’s Too Late

Every day, millions of lithium-ion batteries roll off the line at Tesla’s Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada. These cells, produced on site by Panasonic, are destined to be bundled together by the thousands in the battery packs of new Teslas. But not all the batteries are cut out for a life on the road. Panasonic ships truckloads of cells that don’t pass their qualification tests to a facility in Carson City, about a half hour’s drive south. This is the home of Redwood Materials, a small company founded in 2017 with an ambition to become the anti-Gigafactory, a place where batteries are cooked down into raw materials that will serve as the grist for new cells.

Redwood is part of a wave of new startups racing to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist yet: How to recycle the mountains of batteries from electric vehicles that are past their prime. Over the past decade, the world’s lithium-ion production capacity has increased tenfold to meet the growing demand for EVs. Now vehicles from that first production wave are just beginning to reach the end of their lifespan. This marks the beginning of a tsunami of spent batteries, which will only get worse as more electric cars hit the road. The International Energy Agency predicts an 800 percent increase in the number of EVs over the next decade, each car packed with thousands of cells. The dirty secret of the EV revolution is that it created an e-waste timebomb—and cracking lithium-ion recycling is the only way to defuse it.

Redwood’s CEO and founder J. B. Straubel understands the problem better than most. After all, he played a significant role in creating it. Straubel is cofounder and, until last year, was the CTO at Tesla, a company he joined when it was possible to count all of its employees on one hand. During his time there, the company grew from a scrappy startup peddling sports cars to the most valuable auto manufacturer on the planet. Along the way, Tesla also became one of the world’s largest battery producers. But the way Straubel sees it, those batteries aren’t really a problem. “The major opportunity is to think of this material for reuse and recovery,” he says. “With all these batteries in circulation, it just seems super obvious that eventually we’re going to build a remanufacturing ecosystem.”

There are two main ways to deactivate lithium-ion batteries. The most common technique, called pyrometallurgy, involves burning them to remove unwanted organic materials and plastics. This method leaves the recycler with just a fraction of the original material—typically just the copper from current collectors and nickel or cobalt from the cathode. A common pyro method, called smelting, uses a furnace powered with fossil fuels, which isn’t great for the environment, and it loses a lot of aluminum and lithium in the process. But it is simple, and smelting factories that currently exist to process ore from the mining industry are already able to handle batteries. Of the small fraction of lithium-ion batteries that are recycled in the US—just 5 percent of all spent cells—most of them end up in a smelting furnace.

The other approach is called hydrometallurgy. A common form of this technique, called leaching, involves soaking lithium-ion cells in strong acids to dissolve the metals into a solution. More materials, including lithium, can be recovered this way. But leaching comes with its own challenges. Recyclers must preprocess the cells to remove unwanted plastic casings and drain the charge on the battery, which increases cost and complexity. It’s part of the reason why spent lithium-ion batteries have been treated as waste ever since the first commercial cells hit the market in the early 1990s. It was often several times cheaper to mine new material, especially lithium, than recover it with leaching.

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Ancient Dog DNA Reveals Their Enduring Connection With People

After that domestication event, some things do seem to have stayed constant. According to the team’s results, after dogs split off from wolves over 11,000 years ago, wolves never made a major reentry into dog populations (until, perhaps, the contemporary craze for wolfdogs). Given that dogs and wolves belong to the same species and produce perfectly healthy offspring, this discovery came as a surprise to the authors. They inferred this result from the observation that some wolves are equally related to all ancient and modern dogs, which indicates that all dogs have the same amount of wolf ancestry. The logical explanation is that wolves didn’t contribute substantially to the dog gene pool after domestication. If, instead, wolves had continued interbreeding with dogs, the team would have expected to observe that all wolves were more closely related to some dogs—which had wolves in their family trees post-domestication—than others, which only had dog ancestors.

But, for some reason, the opposite happened when it comes to the wolf genome: Dogs are universally more related to some wolves than they are to others, which indicates that dogs did in fact contribute genetic material to wolf populations. This asymmetry between dogs and wolves may have a simple explanation: humans. “It shows us,” Lindblad-Toh says, “that probably people held onto their dogs and took good care of them and made sure that they didn’t let wolves in.” The wolves had no such guardians.

But Liisa Loog, a postdoctoral researcher in the Genetics Department at the University of Cambridge who was not involved in the study, believes that it is important to keep this result in perspective. She notes that the authors’ argument depends on some specific assumptions about how ancient wolves relate to modern wolves, assumptions that are impossible to confirm without studying ancient wolves directly. “The authors here rely on the assumption that this happened on a now-extinct wolf population that hasn’t been sampled, and that is equally related to all modern-day wolf populations,” she says. “This may be the case, but it also may not be the case.”

This assumption, and the assumptions about geographic and climatic consistency that undergird Bergström and Frantz’s trade hypothesis, do mean that their results and theories can’t be confirmed without additional research, like similar studies of ancient wolf DNA. But, ultimately, 27 dog genomes are a narrow window onto the past: When working with such a small amount of data, assumptions become necessary. “The DNA itself is just DNA,” Bergström says. “It needs that wider context of interpretation.”

The scarcity of evidence, coupled with the difficulty of extracting high-quality DNA from such old bones, might make ancient DNA research seem like a foolhardy endeavor—why not just obtain genetic samples from modern dogs and figure out the family tree from there? But ancient DNA also has some distinct advantages over modern DNA, especially when it comes to dogs. Many contemporary dogs owe their genetic profiles to the Victorian dog breeding craze, so the signatures of their more distant past may be difficult to discern. Looking for evidence about ancient dogs in the genomes of modern ones is like “searching for a needle in a haystack,” Loog says. So it can help to go directly to the source. “Ancient DNA,” Loog says, “literally gives us this time-stamped genetic picture of the past.”

So, while it may be difficult to learn about prehistoric dogs by studying their modern descendants, the special insights afforded by ancient DNA can provide invaluable context for understanding how humans relate to dogs today. “Dogs are kind of unique in that they are a predator, a carnivore. And they were domesticated by hunter-gatherers, way before agriculture, and they were also able to spread so quickly to most groups,” Bergström says. “It’s somehow a surprisingly good fit for the human species to take on this animal as a companion—even though, a priori, it seems like an unlikely candidate for domestication.” If Bergström and his colleagues are right, the human tradition of living with, breeding, and protecting dogs, and of treating canines not just as useful tools but as sources of social connection and emotional support, could have an 11,000-year history. Even before they figured out how to cultivate crops, humans may very well have known how to take care of, and be taken care of by, their animals.

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The Genome of Your Pet Fish Is Extremely Weird

Humans have domesticated a large number of animals over their history, some for food, some as companions and protectors. A few species—think animals like rabbits and guinea pigs—have partly shifted between these two categories, currently serving as both food and pets. But one species has left its past as a food source behind entirely. And, in another rarity, it ended up serving not so much as a companion but as a decoration.


This story originally appeared on Ars Technica, a trusted source for technology news, tech policy analysis, reviews, and more. Ars is owned by WIRED’s parent company, Condé Nast.

We’re talking goldfish here, and we’ve now gotten a look at their genome. And it’s almost as weird as the fish themselves are.

It’s worth stopping for a moment to consider just how weird they are within the realm of domestication. They started out just as slightly colored variants of a carp that is otherwise used entirely for aquaculture. We’ve completely removed them from the food chain and turned them into pets, but they’re not the sort of pets that we interact with like a dog or cat, or even a guinea pig. Largely, they just sit there and look decorative. And in the process of making them even more decorative, we’ve bred a lot of varieties that are far less functional as fish.

There’s also a bit of odd history here, too. While we call them goldfish pretty generically, most of what we have are not the actual golden goldfish. After their domestication in China (and later move from garden ponds to indoor tanks), gold-colored fish ended up reserved for the emperor, so they’re still fairly rare. In the meantime, we’ve bred strains with multiple tails, strains that lack dorsal fins, and more.

That’s likely to do some weird stuff to the fish, genetically. But it turns out they were pretty weird to start with.

Even the process of reporting the genome turned out to be kind of odd. It was first reported back in May, when a group described the genome of a goldfish and compared it to its ancestor, the common carp. But the analysis was pretty minimalistic. Then, this week, a huge consortium dropped an analysis of not only a strain of goldfish but 185 different strains. Plus 16 different wild carp genomes for comparison. While the goldfish genome is only 1.8 billion base pairs long (1.8 Gibases), the raw sequence required to do all of this ran out to 4.3 trillion bases. It’s an astonishing effort.

But because some other group published the data already, the researchers published it in PNAS using a route that only puts it through informal peer review. There doesn’t seem to be anything problematic with the paper that would cause it to fail peer review, but publishers typically want novel results, and this apparently wasn’t new enough.

Most animals have two sets of similar chromosomes, one each from their mother and father. In humans, there are 23 chromosomes, and we have two of each, meaning we each carry 46 of them. In both goldfish and the carp they were derived from, there are 25 chromosomes, but each fish carries 100 of them—instead of two copies, they have four, or rather two sets of two. Apparently, the lineage that produced the carp is a hybrid of two closely related lineages (possibly separate but closely related species).

Consequently, unless some copies of the genes have been deleted or disabled by mutation, the fish should have four copies of them. But there are some specific cases where they don’t, such as DNA repair genes, where one set of copies has been eliminated. And in a lot of tissues, one or the other set of genes is more active, but there’s no obvious and consistent pattern of which of the sets it is. So we’re not at the point where we really understand what’s happening with the fishes’ four sets of genes, but the answer is not likely to be simple.

The fish were only isolated recently and have undergone pretty serious selection for unusual features—just check out the pictures in Wikipedia’s list of goldfish strains. Many of the genetic variants underlying these physical traits are likely to be recent and have been selected as the only variant present in the strain. This creates what’s called a “selective sweep” in which the variant, and any others that happen to be near it when it arose, are the only ones present in a population.

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Is It Better to Plant Trees or Let Forests Regrow Naturally?

This story originally appeared on Yale Environment 360 and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

When Susan Cook-Patton was doing a postdoc in forest restoration at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland seven years ago, she says, she helped plant 20,000 trees along Chesapeake Bay. It was a salutary lesson. “The ones that grew best were mostly ones we didn’t plant,” she remembers. “They just grew naturally on the ground we had set aside for planting. Lots popped up all around. It was a good reminder that nature knows what it is doing.”

What is true for Chesapeake Bay is probably true in many other places, says Cook-Patton, now at the Nature Conservancy. Sometimes, we just need to give nature room to grow back naturally. Her conclusion follows a new global study that finds the potential for natural forest regrowth to absorb atmospheric carbon and fight climate change has been seriously underestimated.

Tree planting is all the rage right now. This year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, called for the world to plant a trillion trees. In one of its few actions to address climate concerns, the US administration—with support from businesses and nonprofits such as American Forests—last month promised to contribute close to a billion of them—855 million, to be precise—across an estimated 2.8 million acres.

The European Union this year promised 3 billion more trees as part of a Green Deal; and existing worldwide pledges under the 2011 Bonn Challenge and the 2015 Paris Climate Accord set targets to restore more than 850 million acres of forests, mostly through planting. That is an area slightly larger than India, and it provides room for roughly a quarter-trillion trees.

Planting is widely seen as a vital “nature-based solution” to climate change—a way of moderating climate change in the next three decades as the world works to achieve a zero-carbon economy. But there is pushback.

Nobody condemns trees. But some critics argue that an aggressive drive to achieve planting targets will provide environmental cover for land grabs to blanket hundreds of millions of acres with monoculture plantations of a handful of fast-growing and often nonnative commercial species such as acacia, eucalyptus, and pine. Others ask: Why plant at all, when we can often simply leave the land for nearby forests to seed and recolonize? Nature knows what to grow and does it best.

Cook-Patton’s new study, published in Nature and coauthored by researchers from 17 academic and environmental organizations, says estimates of the rate of carbon accumulation by natural forest regrowth, endorsed last year by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are on average 32 percent too low, a figure that rises to 53 percent for tropical forests.

The study is the most detailed attempt yet to map where forests could grow back naturally and to assess the potential of those forests to accumulate carbon. “We looked at almost 11,000 measurements of carbon uptake from regrowing forests, measured in around 250 studies around the world,” Cook-Patton told Yale Environment 360.

She found that current carbon accumulation rates vary by a factor of a hundred, depending on climate, soils, altitude, and terrain. This is much greater than previously assessed. “Even within countries there were huge differences.” But overall, besides being better for biodiversity, the study showed, natural regeneration can capture more carbon more quickly and more securely than plantations.

Cook-Patton agrees that as climate change gathers pace in the coming decades, rates of carbon accumulation will change. But while some forests will grow more slowly or even die, others will probably grow faster due to the fertilization effect of more carbon dioxide in the air, an existing phenomenon sometimes called global greening.

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What to Wear When Battling the Venomous Asian Giant Hornet

But exactly who makes the suit and what they might think about its use for Asian giant hornet wrangling is something of a mystery. The brand name Vevin didn’t yield any hits in a search for a manufacturer’s webpage, and it’s not clear if the suits are actually made by the Chinese company that is selling them on Amazon. WIRED reached out to the seller through the Amazon contact portal, as well as through an email listed on a website that tracks data about Chinese businesses, but received no response. This company doesn’t seem to have a web presence, either. An Amazon spokesperson declined to provide any contact information for either the seller or manufacturer, citing company policy.

The WSDA team purchased the suits in February but didn’t know until last week whether they’d need to use them. After multiple failed attempts this fall to use tracking devices to follow captured wasps back to their nest, on Wednesday, October 21, they finally got a hit. Looney trailed the signal from the tagged insect, following as it grew increasingly stronger. But when it hit max signal, he didn’t see a nest on the ground, which is where Asian giant hornets usually build them. Then the hornet buzzed over his head. Then another one. Looney realized they were coming and going from an opening in an alder tree on what appeared to be private property. About 20 feet away, he spotted a children’s swing set.

That’s one of the reasons WSDA wanted to move so quickly—there were worries the insects might be getting close to people. So it was a good thing they had the suits already on hand. But they hadn’t expected to encounter a nest in a tree, so they needed a few days to get a new plan together. Around 5:30 on Saturday morning, more than a dozen WSDA workers gathered in the property owner’s yard, helping each other into the suits by the red light of their headlamps. (White lights tend to agitate the hornets.) Looney and others had set up scaffolding around the base of the tree earlier in the week, and now his colleagues stood atop it as they crammed dense foam padding into a crevice above and below the nest entrance. Then they wrapped the tree with cellophane, leaving just a small opening. Looney inserted a Shop Vac hose, sucking the insects out of their nest and into a secure container.

In the end, no one on the eradication team suffered any injuries, but Looney can’t give a verdict yet on how swarm-proof the suits are, because the insects simply didn’t try it. Normally, an assault on a nest would provoke the hornets to attack en masse. But on Saturday, the temperatures dipped into the thirties, making the bugs sluggish. And the team’s Shop Vac strategy worked well—no hornets even attempted to sting anyone or squirt venom at them.

Still, Looney says, they did run into a mobility issue the moment they stepped up onto the scaffolding. They discovered they couldn’t raise their arms high enough to reach the top of the nest opening, which was about 10 feet off the ground. “They’re very constraining,” he says of the suits. It’s not so much the thickness of the material as the cut. “If they were designed by a high-level tailor, I’m sure they would move better,” he continues. “But I don’t think they were.”

All that foam might have been hard to move in, but at least it kept people cozy during the five-hour eradication mission, says Looney. Except for one place—the attached rubber boots. They were too small for most people to wear thick socks inside them. “We all had very cold toes,” he says.

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Want Some Eco-Friendly Tips? A New Study Says No, You Don’t

This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Need something else for your growing to-do list? Environmentalists have about a zillion things for you, give or take.

Chances are that you’ve heard a lot of them already: Ditch your car for a bike, take fewer flights, and go vegan. Oh, and install solar panels on your roof, dry your laundry on a clothesline, use less water when you brush your teeth, take shorter showers … hey, where are you going? We’re just getting started!

For decades, we’ve been told that the solution to our planetary crisis starts with us. These “simple” tips are so pervasive, they usually go unquestioned. But that doesn’t mean that most people have the time or motivation to heed them. In fact, new research suggests that hearing eco-friendly tips like these actually makes people less likely to do anything about climate change. Oops! Experts say there are better ways to get people to adopt green habits—and they don’t involve nagging or guilt-tripping.

In the study—titled “Don’t Tell Me What to Do”—researchers at Georgia State University surveyed nearly 2,000 people online to see how they would respond to different messages about climate change. Some saw messages about personal sacrifices, like using less hot water. Others saw statements about policy actions, like laws that would limit carbon emissions, stop deforestation, or increase fuel efficiency standards for cars. The messenger—whether scientist or not—didn’t make much of a difference.

Then the respondents were asked about their thoughts on climate change. The people who read the messages about individual responsibilities were less likely to report that they believed in human-caused climate change, less likely to support climate-friendly political candidates, and less likely to act to reduce their own emissions.

While the advice about personal behavior spurred a negative response from people across the political spectrum, the effect was much stronger among Republicans than Democrats, said Risa Palm, a professor of urban geography at Georgia State and the lead author of the study.

On the other hand, “when the message was linked with policy issues, it didn’t have this kind of negative effect,” she said. Palm’s study reinforces previous research that people prefer wide-scale changes that don’t require them to change their own behavior. They simply don’t feel like anything they could do would make much of a difference.

It’s a valid point of view, according to Sarah McFarland Taylor, the author of Ecopiety: Green Media and the Dilemma of Environmental Virtue. The scope of the proposed eco-friendly solutions—like, say, getting individuals to use less hot water—is simply “absurd” compared to the scope of the problem, she said.

Taylor, an associate professor of religious studies at Northwestern, uses the term “ecopiety” to refer to the voluntary duties that signal a person’s “green” virtue—driving a Toyota Prius, filling up a Nalgene, or ordering a salad instead of a burger. “We are fiddling with all these fiddly little ‘ecopiety’ details while the world is burning,” she said.

“The fact of the matter is, a small cadre of the ‘ecopious’ who have the wherewithal and the resources to do these voluntary individual actions, will do them,” Taylor said. “And the rest of the people will not.”

Why are people so resistant to climate-friendly behavior? It comes down to psychology. When people don’t like the solutions that are presented to them, or when they feel like their freedom is under threat, they may deny that there’s a problem altogether, Palm said.

When the Toyota Prius went worldwide in 2000, it was marketed as a climate-friendly, virtuous purchase, because it ran on gas and electricity. “There was an unintended rebound effect, with certain sectors of the population reacting very hostilely,” Taylor said. Years later, diesel truck owners started “coal-rolling”: removing emissions controls and rigging up their vehicles to spew giant clouds of smoke, targeted at unsuspecting pedestrians, bicyclists, and Prius owners.

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AI Is Throwing Battery Development Into Overdrive

Inside a lab at Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy, there are a half dozen refrigerator-sized cabinets designed to kill batteries as fast as they can. Each holds around 100 lithium-ion cells secured in trays that can charge and discharge the batteries dozens of times per day. Ordinarily, the batteries that go into these electrochemical torture chambers would be found inside gadgets or electric vehicles, but when they’re put in these hulking machines, they aren’t powering anything at all. Instead, energy is dumped in and out of these cells as fast as possible to generate reams of performance data that will teach artificial intelligence how to build a better battery.

In 2019, a team of researchers from Stanford, MIT, and the Toyota Research Institute used AI trained on data generated from these machines to predict the performance of lithium-ion batteries over the lifetime of the cells before their performance had started to slip. Ordinarily, AI would need data from after a battery had started to degrade in order to predict how it would perform in the future. It might take months to cycle the battery enough times to get that data. But the researchers’ AI could predict lifetime performance after only hours of data collection, while the battery was still at its peak. “Prior to our work, nobody thought that was possible,” says William Chueh, a materials scientist at Stanford and one of the lead authors of the 2019 paper. And earlier this year, Chueh and his colleagues did it again. In a paper published in Nature in February, Chueh and his colleagues described an experiment in which an AI was able to discover the optimal method for 10-minute fast-charging a lithium-ion battery.

Many experts think fast-charging batteries will be critical for electric vehicle adoption, but dumping enough energy to recharge a cell in the same amount of time it takes to fill up a tank of gas can quickly kill its performance. To get fast-charging batteries out of the lab and into the real world means finding the sweet spot between charge speed and battery lifetime. The problem is that there is effectively an infinite number of ways to deliver charge to a battery; Chueh compares it to searching for the best way to pour water into a bucket. Experimentally sifting through all those possibilities to find the best one is a slow and arduous task—but that’s where AI can help.

In their research, Chueh and his colleagues managed to optimize a fast-charging protocol for a lithium-ion battery in less than a month; to achieve those same results without the aid of AI would usually take around two years. “At the end of the day, we see our job as accelerating the pace of battery R&D,” says Chueh. “Whether it’s discovering new chemistry or finding a way to make a safer battery, it’s all very time consuming. We’re trying to save time.”

Over the past decade or so, the performance of batteries has skyrocketed and their cost has plummeted. Given that many experts see the electrification of everything as key to decarbonizing our energy systems, this is good news. But for researchers like Chueh, the pace of battery innovation isn’t happening fast enough. The reason is simple: batteries are extremely complex. To build a better battery means ruthlessly optimizing at every step in the production process. It’s all about using less expensive raw materials, better chemistry, more efficient manufacturing techniques. But there are a lot of parameters that can be optimized. And often an improvement in one area—say, energy density—will come at a cost of making gains in another area, like charge rate.

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Australia’s Koalas Are ‘Sliding Towards Extinction’

This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The koala is being considered for official listing as endangered after the summer’s bushfire disaster and ongoing habitat destruction on the east coast forced the government to reconsider its threat status.

The iconic species, which is currently listed as vulnerable under national environment laws, is among 28 animals that could have their threat status upgraded, Australia’s federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, said on Friday, September 25.

The greater glider, which had 30 percent of its habitat range affected by the bushfire crisis, is also being assessed to determine whether it should move from vulnerable to endangered, while several frog and fish species, including the Pugh’s frog and the Blue Mountains perch, are being considered for critically endangered listings.

Several Kangaroo Island species, including the Kangaroo Island crimson rosella and Kangaroo Island white-eared honeyeater, are among birds being assessed for an endangered listing.

Ley has asked the threatened species scientific committee to complete its assessments by October next year.

The koala assessment will apply to the combined populations of New South Wales, Queensland, and the Australian Capital Territory, where more than 10 percent of the population was affected by bushfire. Koalas on the east coast are also under multiple other pressures due to continued habitat destruction, drought and disease.

Environmental groups, which nominated the species for an endangered listing, said already severe populations declines had been made worse by the 2019–20 bushfire disaster.

“We welcome prioritization for the koala but also hope the process can be sped up and the koala listed as endangered before October 2021,” said Nicola Beynon of Humane Society International.

Josey Sharrad, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said koalas on Australia’s east coast were “sliding towards extinction” and immediate action was needed to bring the species back from the brink.

A recent New South Wales parliamentary inquiry found koalas would be extinct in the state by 2050 without urgent intervention to protect habitat and help the species recover.

Ley said on Friday that because of the ongoing effects of the bushfires, the government would introduce additional nomination processes for the listing of threatened species over the next two years on top of the annual nomination process.

The 28 species included on the finalized priority assessment list for formal assessment in the 2020 period include two reptiles, four frogs, seven fish, six mammals and 12 birds, bringing the total number of species currently being assessed to 108.

After a species makes the priority list, it is assessed by the scientific committee, which then makes a recommendation to the minister regarding its threat status.

“This process is critical in ensuring threatened species are given strategic protection, are eligible for targeted funding and that awareness is raised about the issues impacting them,” Ley said.

A recent interim report from a review of Australia’s conservation laws found governments had failed to protect Australia’s unique wildlife and the environment was in unsustainable decline.

The government currently has a bill before the parliament to devolve decision-making powers under national environmental laws to the states.

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In an Odd Twist, Cleaner Air in China May Mean a Warmer Earth

Over the past 15 years, Chinese officials saved the lives of an estimated more than 200,000 residents by reducing the air pollution from coal-fired power plants. But this public health campaign has an unfortunate side effect: The drop in pollutants is helping warm the planet.

In fact, China’s push to continue cleaning up its air in the future could warm the entire northern hemisphere by 0.1 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, making it even tougher to keep the Earth’s temperature below the 1.5 Celsius degree (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) warming limit that scientists say is necessary to avoid severe weather disruptions, increased rainfall, sea level rise, droughts, and other disastrous climate change effects by the year 2100. That’s because the same sulfur dioxide particles that come from coal burning and cause respiratory problems in humans also reflect sunlight, which cools the planet.

In a new study published this week in the journal Environmental Research Letters, a team of researchers from China and the United States analyzed emissions data between 2006 and 2017 during China’s big air cleanup. By installing scrubbers and other new technologies on older coal plants and other factories, the country cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 70 percent. The researchers then developed a computer model to forecast how this change in air quality would affect something called “radiative forcing,” or the amount of the sun’s energy that becomes trapped by the Earth’s atmosphere, minus the energy the Earth reflects back to space.

The scientists ran their model to simulate the passage of 150 years at both the higher 2006 emissions rate and the lower 2017 emissions rate. Then they looked at what the temperature changes would be after about a century. The results show that the emissions reductions will allow more energy to reach the Earth, resulting in a total warming of about 0.1 degrees Celsius, and not just where the pollution reductions occurred in China. That’s because these sulfur dioxide pollutants are dispersed by wind currents, and as a result the warming effect will be widespread throughout the northern hemisphere.

“It’s one of these tradeoffs that people have known about before, but we put some numbers on it,” says Steven J. Davis, a professor of earth system sciences at UC Irvine and a coauthor on the new report.

Of course, there are also benefits to cleaner air. Tiny particles that come from coal emissions, automobile combustion, and industrial plants enter the airways and get deep into the lungs, where they erode tissue and can enter the bloodstream. This can lead to an array of both short-term and chronic health problems from asthma to heart attacks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But from 2013 to 2017, China’s pollution abatement helped reduce premature deaths from respiratory disease, stroke and lung cancer by nearly 10 percent, or about 200,000 people, according to this 2019 study by health researchers published in the journal Science China Earth Sciences.

Since China is the 800-pound gorilla of planet-warming greenhouse gases (accounting for 28 percent of the world’s emissions in 2018, compared to the US at 15 percent, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists), how the nation sources its energy and whether it switches to cleaner fuels soon enough may well affect the rest of the world’s population as well. Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the United Nations General Assembly that his country would adopt tougher greenhouse gas targets and become carbon neutral before 2060. “We call on all countries to pursue innovative, coordinated, green and open development for all, seize the historic opportunities presented by the new round of scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation, achieve a green recovery of the world economy in the post-COVID era and thus create a powerful force driving sustainable development,” Xi said, according to an official transcript of his speech.

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The West’s Infernos Are Melting Our Sense of How Fire Works

Even as Knapp cranked the spigot, the swirling smoke he’d seen was fast accelerating, transforming much of the Carr Fire’s enormous lower plume into the biggest fire tornado ever observed, a whirling vortex of flame 17,000 feet tall and rotating at 143 mph with the destructive force of an EF-3 tornado, the kind that erases entire towns in Oklahoma.

While Knapp blithely sprayed water around Derksen’s house, that fire tornado—hidden from him by all the smoke in the air—leaped across the Sacramento River, touched down in Land Park, snapped high-tension power lines, uprooted trees, wrapped steel pipes around utility poles, and obliterated hundreds of homes, igniting and shredding them and hurling their burning debris up to altitudes at which commercial passenger jets fly.

Not far from where Knapp stood, CalFire captain Shawn Raley was evacuating a woman and her daughter in his truck when all the windows imploded, showering them with shattered glass. Close by, a 37-year-old fire inspector named J. J. Stoke radioed Mayday moments before the tornado lifted his 5,000-pound Ford F-150 off the asphalt and flipped it repeatedly down Buena­ventura Boulevard, killing him. Three other CalFire workers were driving bulldozers on that same boulevard when their windows also shattered. One of the 25-ton vehicles got spun around and dropped on top of a truck driven by a retired police officer, who then jumped out and crouched behind the bulldozer’s blade while his truck caught fire.

That’s about when flaming debris that had been sucked into the Carr Fire’s plume of smoke drifted out of the updraft column into what fire meteorologists call the fallout zone, which is exactly what it sounds like. Knapp couldn’t possibly have seen that happening; it was tens of thousands of feet above him. Nor could he see the flaming remnants of homes and trees hurtling downward like firebombs, smashing onto roofs and igniting dozens of houses. While looking up into the black whirling darkness overhead, Knapp, who still thought the Carr Fire was advancing with the slow predictability of a classic shallow flame front, watched embers rain down on the bark chips upon which he stood, lighting them afire. At the same moment, with the very ground at his feet aflame, Knapp felt an even more powerful pulse of heat.

That fire tornado, and the blaze that raged for weeks after, ultimately destroyed more than a thousand homes and buildings, killed eight people, and scorched nearly a quarter-million acres. Yet it was neither the biggest California fire of 2018, nor the most destructive, nor even the only one to behave in frighteningly anomalous ways. The Mendocino Complex fire, about 100 miles south of the Carr, which started the day after Knapp lingered unwittingly below a tornado, was also briefly plume-driven and ultimately burned almost 460,000 acres in what was then the largest California wildfire of all time. In early November, the Woolsey Fire near Malibu destroyed 1,643 structures while ripping trees and power-line posts out of the ground with a force suggestive of yet another fire tornado. The infamous Camp Fire, likewise in November, burned 70,000 acres in 24 hours—about a football field a second, for a while—and created an urban firestorm that destroyed more than 18,000 structures and killed 85 people, mostly in the town of Paradise, generating billions of dollars in insurance claims and bankrupting the state’s largest utility, PG&E.

By the time California’s 2018 fire season was over, it had burned more than 1.6 million acres to become the most destructive on record—a title it maintained for slightly less than 20 months, when it was overtaken not by the 2020 fire season but by a mere four weeks in late summer 2020, during which an estimated 3 million acres burned. But that’s not the truly worrisome part. In making sense of Western wildfires, total acres burned are far less important than the increasingly capricious violence of our most extreme blazes. It is as if we’ve crossed some threshold of climate and fire fuel into an era of uncontrollable conflagrations.

“Not only is the size and severity increasing, but the nature of fire is changing,” says David Saah, director of Pyregence, a group of fire-science labs and researchers collaborating on the problem. Still more concerning, given the trend toward fires dramatically more catastrophic than anything we’ve yet seen: The physics of large-scale wildfires remain so poorly understood that fire-modeling software is often effectively powerless to predict where they will next occur, much less how they will unfold once they do. If there is any good news, it is that, as Saah puts it, “the science for a lot of this stuff is under way.”

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