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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.

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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