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To feed the world amid climate change, we need a better way to grow rice

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Hello, hello. This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • A more sustainable way to grow rice
  • ‘We have lost the luxury of time’: A youth activist reports from COP24
  • The world’s smoggiest cities
  • Your suggestions for how to make the holidays greener

Growing rice in an age of climate change

(Erika Styger)

Humans have been growing rice for millenniums, so it can seem ignorant to say there’s a better way to do it.

Yet, for decades, there’s been a method that breaks from the norm and claims to do more for farmers and less to hurt the environment. It’s called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) — and climate change may finally drive it mainstream.

But let’s back up a little.

The world needs rice. Billions of us eat it, and more than 100 countries grow it. In 2010, global rice production was almost 700 million tonnes. As populations grow in Africa and Asia, so will consumption.

Traditionally, rice seedlings are transplanted from a nursery after several weeks and packed into flooded paddies. A kilogram of rice can take about 2,500 litres of water to grow. That flooded paddy creates an anaerobic environment, where organic material decomposes and creates a lot of methane. In fact, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says between five and 20 per cent of human-caused methane emissions come from rice.

So what’s different about SRI? Farmers transplant the seedlings earlier, spacing the plants apart and giving them much less water — even letting them dry out.

Examples inmore than 55 countries show the result is a stronger plant that yields more rice and uses up to 90 per cent fewer seeds and 30 to 50 per cent less water.

“The conventional wisdom is still that rice is a water-loving plant. It’s not true,” said Erika Styger, a leading SRI researcher at Cornell University. In fact, she said if you provide less water, “the roots develop much deeper.”

Hardier roots mean greater resistance to drought and other extreme weather events made stronger by climate change. Using less water also drastically cuts methane emissions, although some research suggests dry conditions may lead to the release of nitrous oxide, a more dangerous greenhouse gas.

Other criticisms have been that SRI isn’t always reproducible, and that it’s more of a loose set of guidelines than a strict scientific method. But Styger said it wasn’t designed in a lab. “It came from the farmers,” she said. “For farmers, it works.”

Indeed, it’s farmers who have helped spread it in West Africa, even adapting it to work on crops like wheat. But intensification may have its downsides.

Agricultural intensification “should free up space and reduce deforestation,” said Laura Vang Rasmussen, who studies crop intensification strategies at the University of British Columbia. “But it might be so profitable for farmers that we actually might have a situation where [it] escalates the agricultural intensification and expansion of agriculture.”

She cites examples in Laos, Uganda and Rwanda, where intensification has not only deforested more land but also degraded the soil and affected biodiversity.

Still, it seems climate change makes SRI a fix to an immediate problem: food insecurity. And in a warming world, how we feed ourselves sustainably will unquestionably demand more of our ingenuity.

Anand Ram


‘There is so much more to do’: Straight talk from COP24

(Marina Melanidis)

Marina Melanidis recently graduated from the University of British Columbia with a B.Sc. in natural resources conservation. This week, the 23-year-old Canadian is at COP24, the UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland, as part of a B.C. youth delegation. Here’s a snapshot of what she’s seen.

It’s only been three days into my COP24 experience and it is already easy to forget that I have a life outside of this conference. I’m overwhelmed by what’s going on: negotiations, high-level meetings, nation pavilions, larger side events and smaller working groups. I’ve walked by Canadian Green Party Leader Elizabeth May in the hall, blew past federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna en route to a meeting and heard whispers that Al Gore is here. (He was.) The voices around me are speaking English, Polish, French, Mandarin, German, Arabic and many languages I don’t recognize.

COP24 has been concentrated with impassioned reminders about the need to increase our climate action ambition and the frightening reality about what will happen if we don’t. “We have lost the luxury of time” is a common speaking point in the dialogues. Yet there is a seemingly intrinsic contradiction between the calls for ambition and the negotiations among countries. Despite the cries for urgency,no one can agree on a followup that adequately matches the ambition required. Countries have not even been able to reach a consensus to recognize the recent IPCC Report outlining the catastrophic impacts humanity will face if global temperatures rise over 1.5 degrees. Instead, to illustrate the host country’s dedication to coal, there is a literal shrine to that resource standing in the Polish pavilion, complete with coal soap and coal jewelry (I am not kidding).

COP24 has been overwhelming, and often disheartening. There is so much more to do, and it is clear that many countries and stakeholders are not only unwilling to give up the status quo for our future, but some are actively undermining any increment of progress — such as attempting to exclude the reference to climate change’s impacts to human rights within the Paris agreement rulebook.

Yet when I walk through security in the morning, past the “#COP24” sign and into the venue halls, I find the same excitement I’ve had since I was first selected for this youth delegation. l continue to grapple with the disbelief that I am actually here, surrounded by people from all over the world who are also pushing for climate action.

I don’t know if Canada, or the world as a whole, will meet our targets. The current trend to do the bare minimum, to shy away from the bold actions that we desperately need to take, worries me greatly. But when I am sitting down with youth and civil society members from all corners of the globe, discussing and making plans for how we can make the greatest impact in this space, I feel empowered and hopeful.


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Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web


The Big Picture: The world’s most polluted cities

Coal plants, car exhaust and burning foliage are major sources of smog. While a lot of cities have made efforts to reduce the soupiness of their air, the problem persists in many parts of the world. The World Health Organization measures smog as the amount of particulate matter under 2.5 milligrams in every cubic metre of air. By that metric, WHO found that six of the 10 most polluted cities are in India. (In case you were wondering, the least polluted city on Earth is Bredkalen, Sweden.)

(CBC)

It’s surprisingly easy being green (during the holidays)

Last week, Emily Chung examined whether it was greener to buy a real Christmas tree or a fake one. With that in mind, we asked you to share the ways you are greening the holidays. You had many insightful responses. We’ve included some below.

One reader, who asked to remain anonymous, shared the photo below of a natural tree that can be reused every year.

The reader explained that it’s “a potted Norfolk Pine, which is tropical. I have had this one for almost 30 years, but it has only recently been used as a Christmas tree. It has grown to be huge, but its branches are not really up to holding significant ornaments, so we just wrap the lights around the trunk, which gives it a decidedly Jamaican flavour after dark! It looks like a palm tree with the lights on! I wrap the pot in green silk and my son sets up his wooden toy train set all around the tree base as more decoration. I only use the very lightest and sturdiest of ornaments on it.”

“Brings me joy just looking at the pic,” they wrote.

In a similar vein, Brian Wood wrote that “every 10 to 15 years we buy a small live tree and keep it outside in a big plant pot.

Each Christmas, they decorate it, bring it into the house for a few days and then put it outside again. When the tree is simply too big for the house, they plant it in the ground.

“We have done this for over 30 years and have a small tree plantation in our front yard to prove it.”

Ruth Gatzke wrote about her eco-friendly gift idea: “I potted up rosemary plants that I grew from seed last summer. I have them in repurposed clay pits with leftover ribbons I found around the house tied to the base. Everyone on my list is getting one.”

Gatzke added that her family is not buying presents this year. “No stress — just spending time together is enough!”

Meanwhile, Samantha Salmon said that she has found a better way to package gifts. “One of my ways to green the holidays is to wrap gifts with cloth instead of wrapping paper. To keep it festive, I purchased some Christmas-themed cloth from Fabricland and hemmed it. It looks great!”


Stay in touch!

Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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DFO tries to allay fishermen’s fears that protected area would impact livelihood

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The two-lane highway along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore is dotted with dozens of signs declaring “No Marine Protected Area Here!”

It’s a sign, literally, of organized opposition to a proposed 2,000-square-kilometre marine protected area.

The Eastern Shore Islands area is the first coastal candidate in Canada with an active inshore commercial fishery, albeit a small one with just 150 lobster fishermen. Still, they are a mainstay of the local economy and leading the opposition.

The fishermen fear a marine protected area, or MPA, would automatically lead to so-called no-take zones, barring industrial activities like harvesting.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is moving to put those fears at rest.

“We will not be making a recommendation for there to be a zone of high protection within the MPA,” said Wendy Williams, director of DFO Maritimes Oceans Management.

A “No Marine Protected Area Here!” sign is seen along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. (Robert Short/CBC)

Last week, the department presented the results of a draft risk assessment to an advisory committee established to recommend what should or should not be allowed inside Eastern Shore Islands.

The committee was created after the department declared the unspoiled archipelago of hundreds of islands an area of interest. It is the first step on the road to designation as a marine protected area under the federal Oceans Act.

The risk assessment concluded the lobster fishery would not harm the kelp beds, eel grass and cod nursery the federal government wants to protect.

“The predominant activity that takes place there is the lobster fishery. It’s a low-impact fishery. It only operates two months a year, so we feel it’s not necessary to have a no-take,” Williams said in an interview.

“We talked to the advisory committee about that and what we heard and unanimously around the table is that they felt the same way. So in our design going forward we will not be incorporating a no-take zone.”

Fishermen seek assurances

But fisherman Peter Connors is not declaring victory.

“You have to remember this is deathbed conversion,” he said.

As president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen’s Protective Association, Connors represents the 150 active lobster fishermen in the area.

He does not trust DFO and is seeking some sort of legally binding commitment from federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson honouring Williams’s promise.

As president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen’s Protective Association, Peter Connors represents the 150 active lobster fishermen in the area. (Robert Short/CBC)

“I want to know the mechanism that he’s going to use and just how he intends to secure that for future generations,” said Connors. “I don’t want a trust me proposition and I don’t want a temporary reprieve … just because they are facing a lot of opposition now.”

Connors acknowledged a marine protected area on the Eastern Shore could help “Canada’s brand” from a marketing perspective. The country has committed to protecting 10 per cent of its ocean by 2020.

‘Give and take’

Environmentalists have watched in frustration as opposition to Eastern Shore Islands galvanized over the prospect of no-take zones.

Susanna Fuller, senior projects manager for conservation organization Oceans North, urged DFO to eliminate no-take zones from the discussion last year.

“Since it has been such an issue of contention, we are hoping that this gives the community and the fishermen a sense that they are being heard,” said Fuller.

“For this process to go forward there needs to be some give and take.”

While DFO has decided to allow unrestricted lobster fishing inside Eastern Shore Islands, Williams said no precedent has been set.

“Every MPA is different. If people have their expectations raised in any particular way because of what we’re looking at now for this MPA, they really shouldn’t. Everything is unique and we need to look at it that way,” she said.

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