In North Equatorial Africa, Air Pollution Declines with Economic Growth

(p. A9) LAGOS, Nigeria — Rapidly growing countries generally see sharp increases in air pollution as their populations and economies expand. But a new study of air quality in Africa published on Monday [Feb. 8, 2021] has found the opposite: One of the continent’s most vibrant regions is becoming less polluted.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that levels of dangerous nitrogen oxides, a byproduct of combustion, in the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa have declined sharply as wealth and population in the area have increased.

. . .

The reason, according to researchers, is that an increase in pollution from industry and transportation in the area studied — from Senegal and Ivory Coast in the west to South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya in the east — appears to have been offset by a decline in the number of fires set by farmers.

For the full story, see:

Shola Lawal. “As Economies Get Bigger, Air Pollution Falls in Africa.” The New York Times (Tues., February 9, 2021): A9.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 8, 2021, and has the title “A Surprise in Africa: Air Pollution Falls as Economies Rise.”)

The National Academy of Sciences study mentioned above is:

Hickman, Jonathan E., Niels Andela, Kostas Tsigaridis, Corinne Galy-Lacaux, Money Ossohou, and Susanne E. Bauer. “Reductions in No≪Sub≫2≪/Sub≫ Burden over North Equatorial Africa from Decline in Biomass Burning in Spite of Growing Fossil Fuel Use, 2005 to 2017.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118, no. 7 (2021): e2002579118.

“Solar Geoengineering” Is “a Test of Our Technological Ingenuity”

(p. C6) . . . humans have been so successful at changing the environment that we have become the dominant influence on the natural world. According to Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, “Under a White Sky,” how we proceed is, in one sense, full of possibility, a test of our technological ingenuity and derring-do, . . .

. . .

Kolbert is a writer for The New Yorker, where parts of this book originally appeared. Her narrative voice is steady and restrained — the better, it sometimes seems, to allow an unadorned reality to show through, its contours unimpeded by frantic alarmism or baroque turns of phrase. The people she meets are trying to reverse the course of man-made environmental disaster, whether that might involve electrifying a river, shooting diamond dust into the stratosphere or genetically modifying a species to extinction. She says that the “strongest argument” in favor of some of the most fantastical sounding measures tends to be a sober realism: “What’s the alternative?”

The biggest and most urgent of the impending cataclysms involves climate change. Mitigation efforts — reducing emissions — won’t do anything to alleviate the greenhouse gases that are already trapping heat on our planet. The title of Kolbert’s book comes from one possible side-effect of “solar geoengineering” (or “solar radiation management,” in what’s supposed to be the less scary parlance). Spraying light-reflective particles into the atmosphere will make blue skies look white.

For the full review, see:

Szalai, Jennifer. “BOOKS OF THE TIMES: Exploring All Measures to Save the Environment.” The New York Times (Thursday, February 11, 2021): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 10, 2021, and has the title “BOOKS OF THE TIMES: Electrified Rivers and Other Attempts to Save the Environment.”)

The book under review is:

Kolbert, Elizabeth. Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. New York: Crown, 2021.

Optimal Size Changes With Changing Demand and Technology

(p. B1) Twirling above a strip of land at the mouth of Rotterdam’s harbor is a wind turbine so large it is difficult to photograph. The turning diameter of its rotor is longer than two American football fields end to end. Later models will be taller than any building on the mainland of Western Europe.

Packed with sensors gathering data on wind speeds, electricity output and stresses on its components, the giant whirling machine in the Netherlands is a test model for a new series of giant offshore wind turbines planned by General Electric.

. . .

(p. B5) In coming years, customers are likely to demand even bigger machines, industry executives say. On the other hand, they predict that, just as commercial airliners peaked with the Airbus A380, turbines will reach a point where greater size no longer makes economic sense.

“We will also reach a plateau; we just don’t know where it is yet,” said Morten Pilgaard Rasmussen, chief technology officer of the offshore wind unit of Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, the leading maker of offshore turbines.

For the full story, see:

Stanley Reed. “A Monster Wind Turbine Is Upending an Industry.” The New York Times (Saturday, January 2, 2021): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 1, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

Ancient “Cousin” to Homo Erectus Adapted to “a Chaotic Climate Shift”

(p. D4) Around two million years ago, this area in South Africa is believed to have undergone a chaotic climate shift. The regional environment transformed from wetter and more lush conditions to drier and more arid ones. In order for a species like P. robustus to survive in such terrain, it probably would have needed to be able to chew on tough plants. But the specimen found in the cave at Drimolen didn’t seem to fit with what some scientists had previously stated about the human cousin.

They labeled the skull DNH 155 and determined that it belonged to a male.

. . .

In addition to being smaller than male P. robustus who lived at Swartkrans, DNH 155’s cranium indicated its chewing muscles were not as strong as theirs. Mr. Martin said the differences suggest DNH 155 and the other P. robustus found at Drimolen were smaller not because they were all female, but rather because they were earlier forms of the species belonging to a different population that hadn’t yet been subjected to the environmental pressures that would favor larger sizes and stronger jaw muscles.

“It basically hasn’t become this massive chewing and grinding machine that it becomes later,” Mr. Martin said.

The change would have been the result of microevolution, or an evolutionary change occurring within a species. Such a morphological change, the scientists said, was likely the result of P. robustus adapting to that changing climate, with members of the species who were able to get enough nutrition from a change in their food supply surviving, and passing their traits to offspring.

For the full story, see:

Nicholas St. Fleur. “How to Adapt: A Skull’s Story.” The New York Times (Tuesday, November 17, 2020): D4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 9, 2020, and has the title “How a Human Cousin Adapted to a Changing Climate.”)

For California Electricity Regulator: “Safety Is Not a Glamorous Thing”

(p. A1) PG&E’s collapse has exposed the California Public Utilities Commission’s failure to hold the utility accountable on safety. The CPUC (p. A12) for years focused attention elsewhere, on setting rates and pushing for cleaner power.

Now, the agency tasked with regulating utility safety is struggling to refocus on the issue while also grappling with its failure to prevent the state’s second electricity crisis in two decades.

. . .

From the early 2000s, the commission’s focus was on setting rates and implementing Sacramento’s renewable-energy goals. Starting in 2002, three consecutive governors, two Democrats and a Republican, signed bills ratcheting up the percentage of wind and solar power utilities had to buy.

These mandates required investor-owned utilities such as PG&E to change their mix of generation, effectively phasing out burning coal and lowering reliance on natural gas while signing contracts to buy electricity from new solar and wind farms. The CPUC oversaw these deals, as well as figuring out how to integrate thousands of new rooftop solar installations.

“Was there a considerable amount of resources placed on policy? Yeah, there was,” says Timothy Alan Simon, a commissioner between 2007 and 2012 and now a utilities consultant. “It’s a challenge to balance between the safety aspects and the need for policy deliberation.”

Michael Peevey, a former Southern California Edison president, and CPUC president between 2002 and 2014, was a vocal champion of renewable-energy policies. Now retired, he says the regulator was large enough to focus on safety and renewables simultaneously but that it was tough to get Sacramento lawmakers excited about funding safety.

When compared with eliminating coal and adding solar energy, he says, “Safety is not a glamorous thing.”

For the full story, see:

Ruth Simon. “PG&E Regulators Failed to Stop Crisis.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, December 9, 2019): A1 & A12.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date December 8, 2019, and has the title “‘Safety Is Not a Glamorous Thing’: How PG&E Regulators Failed to Stop Wildfire Crisis.”)

Ranchers Will Protect and Invest in Brazilian Forest Land That They Own

(p. A1) POMBAL, Brazil—For the past 15 years, Carlos Pacheco has raised cattle in what was once virgin forest. When pastures went bad, he would simply cut deeper into the Amazon, one of millions of farmers who have helped strip away about a fifth of the world’s greatest rainforest.

Because he expanded into land he doesn’t own, he can’t use it as collateral for a loan to buy equipment and fertilizer, nor can he tap the expertise of a government agronomist. The upshot is that he uses more land to raise each cow than do legal farmers in the breadbasket of southern Brazil.

It may sound counterintuitive, but Brazilian authorities think giving Mr. Pacheco a deed to the land he farms might curtail deforestation. The idea is it could help him become a more efficient farmer, able to produce more on less land, and also make him hesitate to just walk away from depleted pastures and carve new ones. In short, it might discourage him and squatters like him from cutting ever deeper into the jungle.

“If this doesn’t happen, we will continue to deforest,” said the 49-year-old rancher, the leader of a tightknit group of several hundred settlers on the forest frontier.

The administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wants to see if he is right. In February [2020], it plans to start handing out deeds to some 300,000 Amazon squatters, with a plan that might help but has raised a howl of disapproval for re-(p. A12)warding bad behavior.

. . .

Over the decades, 73-year-old cattleman João Bueno cut into the forest in Pará state to build a network of ranches totaling 45,000 acres, with 28,000 head of cattle.

He has a special document that allows him to produce and sell cattle to a slaughterhouse, but it isn’t a title, so it doesn’t allow him to use the land as loan collateral. Mr. Bueno said tapping credit would permit him to modernize his operation with fertilizer and techniques common elsewhere, raising three times as many head of cattle on the same acreage.

“Land without documentation is nobody’s land, so people take advantage of it to clear forest for pastures,” Mr. Bueno said.

For the full story, see:

Paulo Trevisani and Juan Forero. “Brazil’s Unusual Bid to Curb Deforestation.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, February 1, 2020): A1 & A12.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date January 31, 2020, and has the title “Squatters Cut Down the Rainforest. Brazil Wants to Give Them the Land.”)

Bikini Atoll Is “Best Example of the Earth’s Resilience”

(p. A13) . . . “The Age of Nature” is not just a beautifully made series, it’s also a surprisingly joyful one. It’s about rehabilitation—how humans are correcting environmental outrages from Panama to Mozambique to Central China to Yellowstone Park—and how forgiving Mother Nature can be if we just pay her some affectionate attention.  . . .

The best example of the Earth’s resilience might be the first location visited, Bikini Atoll—or, rather, the crater left by the 23 nuclear detonations the U.S. set off there from 1946-58. More than 60 years later, humans still can’t live in the immediate area, but under the South Pacific’s surface, anemones, polyps, sharks and wrasses flourish in and around the coral reefs that have somehow clung or sprung back to life.  . . .

Elsewhere around the globe, similar acts of restoration and reparation are taking place, or already have: In the ’90s, China’s Loess Plateau, a vast expanse of arable but powdery soil, had been all but ruined by deforestation and grazing, until a massive effort was undertaken to terrace the land and reforest it. Similarly, the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, which once suffered the multiple threats of warfare, poaching, and poaching to finance warfare, had to be restocked with certain animals—200 buffalo, for instance, and 180 wildebeest—but other species, such as lions, have re-emerged on their own.

For the full review, see:

John Anderson. “TELEVISION REVIEW; ‘The Age of Nature’: Back From the Brink.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, October 15, 2020): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date October 14, 2020, and has the title “TELEVISION REVIEW; ‘The Age of Nature’ Review: Back From the Brink.”)

Invading Mussels Gave Lake Michigan Sparkling Clarity

(p. 12) Having just moved back to Chicago from Mexico, she had seen Lake Michigan with fresh eyes. “Have you noticed how blue the lake is now?” she asked me one day. I had not. “It’s, like, Caribbean blue,” she said. The next time I went down to the lakeside I noticed what she meant. The lake of my childhood had always vacillated somewhere between a slate blue and the gray found in the seams of an old tennis ball. But suddenly it had taken on a kind of hyperclarity; it sparkled. The lake was so clean, I read online, that passing airplanes could see shipwrecks resting on the lake bottom. Thanks to climate change, the lake was approaching Caribbean temperatures, as well; it hit 80 degrees one recent July, when it would normally be in the high 50s. I remember feeling pleased by this change, but also slightly unsettled, the same way we feel on an unseasonably warm winter’s day. It was too good to be good.

And so it came as a revelation to me to read Dan Egan’s deeply researched and sharply written “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.” Dipping into this book was like opening the secret diary of a mercurial and mysterious parent. I learned that the reason the lake had become so clear was that it had been invaded by a dastardly pair of bivalves — the zebra and quagga mussels — which had hitched a ride on a shipping barge from either the Black or Caspian Seas and then quietly but ceaselessly colonized the lake. They set about cleaning up the water with hyperactive single-mindedness, eventually sucking up 90 percent of the lake’s phytoplankton. The water is now three times clearer than it was in the 1980s.

For the full review, see:

Robert Moor. “Five Alive.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, May 28, 2017): 12.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 23, 2017, and has the title “April’s Book Club Pick: ‘The Death and Life of the Great Lakes,’ by Dan Egan.”)

The book under review is:

Egan, Dan. The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.

“Plastics Are Highly Functional”

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(p. B5) Before being elbowed aside by plastic after World War II, paper was the dominant packaging material for many consumer-goods products.

. . .

But paper comes with major drawbacks. It doesn’t have the protective properties that keep food fresh, making it unsuitable to replace some of the hardest-to-recycle plastics used for chip packets, baby-food pouches and produce bags.

“Plastics are highly functional. They’re water-resistant, grease-resistant, easy to seal,” said Patrick Lindner, chief innovation officer at WestRock Co. WRK +2.31% , a paper-packaging maker based in Atlanta. “Getting paper to behave like plastic is a tremendous technological challenge.”

For the full story, see:

Saabira Chaudhuri. “Ecology-Conscious Brands Try To Make Paper Mimic Plastic.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, Oct 7, 2020): B5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date October 6, 2020, and has the title “Consumer Brands Seek Ways to Make Paper Mimic Plastic.”)

California Energy Shortage Partly Due to Government Mandated Price Ceiling on Energy Imported from Out-of-State

(p. B9) As California keeps facing electricity shortages, the discussion around its grid often veers to extremes.

. . .

Should California . . . have shut down less natural gas and nuclear power? That is definitely part of the issue, and future shutdowns might need to slow.

. . .

. . . at least some of the shortage is addressable through market rules.

For example, California has a hard import bid cap of $1,000 per megawatt hour. Christopher DaCosta, regional director of western power markets at Wood Mackenzie, says that surrounding areas have a softer cap and are able to pay more. During this summer, that meant power plants often rerouted electricity to higher bidders than California.

For the full commentary, see:

Jinjoo Lee. “To Keep Lights On, California Needs Power Play.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, September 17, 2020): B9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sep. 16, 2020, and has the title “How to Keep the Lights On in California.”)

California Government Allowed “Buildup” of “Fuel for Future Blazes”

(p. A1) California is one of America’s marvels. By moving vast quantities of water and suppressing wildfires for decades, the state has transformed its arid and mountainous landscape into the richest, most populous and bounteous place in the nation.

. . .

(p. A16) The intensity of the fires . . . reflects decades of policy decisions that altered those forests, according to Robert Bonnie, who oversaw the United States Forest Service under President Barack Obama. And the cost of those decisions is now coming due.

In an effort to protect homes and encourage new building, governments for decades focused on suppressing fires that occurred naturally, allowing the buildup of vegetation that would provide fuel for future blazes. Even after the drawbacks of that approach became clear, officials remained reluctant to reduce that vegetation through prescribed burns, wary of upsetting residents with smoke or starting a fire that might burn out of control.

That approach made California’s forests more comfortable for the estimated 11 million people who now live in and around them. But it has also made them more susceptible to catastrophic fires. “We’ve sort of built up this fire debt,” Mr. Bonnie said. “People are going to have to tolerate smoke and risk.”

For the full story, see:

Christopher Flavelle. “Mankind’s Feats Place California At Climate Risk.” The New York Times (Monday, September 21, 2020): A1 & A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date September 20, 2020, and has the title “How California Became Ground Zero for Climate Disasters.”)