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Was This Year’s COP Half Full or Half Empty?

December 17, 2023

Expert Says COP28 Was Fossil Fuel Industry’s Dream Outcome

COP28, the largest UN climate summit ever to address the problems of global warming, concluded last week and made progress, but according to some, it was too little, too late.

A group photo of national leaders and other dignitaries at the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference  |  Credit: Fotografía oficial de la Presidencia de Colombia

More than 150 nations signed the Global Methane Pledge to cut the potent greenhouse gas emissions from where they were three years ago by 30 percent by 2030. The U.S. is implementing a rule to regulate and capture leaks and end flaring. Many oil and gas companies agreed to the Gas Decarbonization Charter to end methane pollution by 2050, which is voluntary and largely a repeat of earlier promises.

At least 100 countries agreed to triple renewable energy capacity in seven years but there were few details, especially considering the industry is already growing fast and shows signs of strain. An agreement was reached on new commitments for a loss and damage fund to compensate poorer countries that are experiencing extreme heat and sea-level rise.

However, there was little action on cutting methane from food production, even as farmland, livestock, and landfills account for one-third of global warming emissions, according to Reuters, despite a whole day of the conference being committed to the agriculture sector.  Six large dairy companies including Danone, Nestlé, and General Mills said they will start disclosing their emissions.  

There were demands that the conference agree to “phase out” fossil fuels, but in the end, the final document called only for “transitioning away” from oil, gas, and coal, which climate scientist Michael Mann of the University of Pennsylvania said was “devastating,” and like promising your doctor you will transition away from donuts after a diabetes diagnosis. There were no timetables, limits on investments, or output goals for transitioning away from fossil fuels.

The final agreement said the 1.5 degree Celsius limit to avoid the worst disasters from global warming was still the goal; however, that target is likely unachievable, given that this year’s mean temperature was 1.46 degrees Celsius higher than the 1850-1900 average.

The final agreement that came out of COP28 was called “historic” by some, but others say it was a tragedy, weak and ineffectual. One expert, Mike Berners-Lee of Lancaster University told the Guardian that COP28 was “the fossil fuel industry’s dream outcome, because it looks like progress, but it isn’t.”

Boosting Beaver Populations Could Have Toxic Consequences

A family of seven beavers was released recently by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife onto the ancestral tribal lands of the Mountain Maidu people in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was the first beaver release for conservation efforts in about 75 years.

A family of beavers being introduced to their new habitat in Plumas County, California— the first group in 75 years to return to the state's waters.  |  Credit: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

The rodents are a keystone species that mitigate the effects of wildfire damage and drought and they build up resilience to climate change. According to the department’s Environmental Program Manager, Valerie Cook, who spoke to the Sacramento Bee, beavers can increase groundwater recharge and water flows.

However, a preliminary study from the University of Colorado, Boulder, suggests that beavers in the western U.S. could exacerbate the spread of mercury toxins in rivers and habitats. According to researcher Cliff Adamchak, a doctoral student, some beaver ponds lack oxygen and can be a hotspot for bacteria that generate neurotoxins containing mercury. The mercury in ponds comes from human activities like burning coal and mining, which emit the element into the air.  It then falls into lakes and streams through rain and snow. Chemical reactions with certain bacteria transform the chemical into a toxic compound that can get in the food chain. Mercury poisoning can cause nervous system damage in humans.

The study says that while mercury levels in the eastern U.S. have decreased, in the West they have remained constant or even slightly elevated. The research is in its early stages, but the concern is that, as beavers move and abandon old ponds, vegetation can grow in areas with high concentrations of the toxin, which can get passed onto other organisms.

The study was presented at the 2023 meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Repairing Wounds with Seaweed

Our skin handles lots of scrapes, cuts, and scratches in our lifetimes, but unfortunately its ability to heal diminishes with age. In recent decades, hydrogels have gained traction as a way to repair wounds of aging skin, by keeping them protected, well hydrated, and oxygenated. However, the adhesives they require tend to pull on skin and potentially worsen the injury they were intended to help.

Enter seaweed, which is a catch-all name for a variety of species of plants and algae that live in oceans. Researchers in Tokyo have used seaweed that collects on beaches to make a low-cost hydrogel that won’t tug at wounds. They extracted alginate, a compound found in the cell walls of brown algae, and combined it with calcium carbonate and carbonated water to make a gel that not only had the ideal pH and moisture levels for wound recovery but also didn’t stick too strongly to skin tissue and cause pain.

Although many people bemoan the so-called wrack line on beaches where driftwood, shells, and seaweed are deposited at high tide and leave behind a smelly, tangled mess, the marine plant is having a moment. In addition to supporting wildlife, it’s becoming a sought-after component for food and pharmaceuticals to cosmetics and biofuels. Just last week, research showed brown seaweed could help manage and prevent type 2 diabetes.

Now, seaweed can add to its accolades. It can be a renewable, inexpensive, biodegradable—and healing part of sustainable medicine.

The study was published in the International Journal of Biological Macromolecules.

New Investment Vehicle to Make Money While Protecting Nature

We can all agree that nature has intrinsic value and is priceless, but the world’s ecosystems that sustain us have been depleted, polluted, or suffered a loss of biodiversity. But what if you could invest in nature—and make money by protecting it?

Credit: Huw Williams/Creative Commons

That’s the idea behind “natural asset companies,” or NACs, where people put their financial capital in businesses working to safeguard our natural capital—Earth’s air, water, and living organisms. The idea was hatched two years ago by the asset management company Intrinsic Exchange Group (IEG) and could soon become a reality. They partnered with the New York Stock Exchange to create a special listing section for NAC equities and submitted a proposal to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

IEG says NACs will value the ecosystem services that nature provides, such as clean water or carbon sequestration, and provide a way to invest in maintaining those benefits. They say that relying on nonprofits, government regulations, and taxes aren’t enough to offset the skyrocketing costs of land destruction and climate change. NAC investments will generate revenue from sources like crops, fisheries, ecotourism, or carbon credits. They could also be used to increase an ecosystem’s value by adopting regenerative farming practices to build healthy soils, restoring wetlands to counter sea level rise, or protecting pollinators to safeguard food production.

Critics say the concept is dangerous greenwashing and could privatize assets we all have rights to share. They also warn that foreign entities could use NACs as a way to control public lands in the U.S. Meanwhile, scientists are sounding the alarm that human destruction of nature is pushing the planet to a point of no return and there’s no time to waste.

It’s too soon to give NACs as a stocking stuffer this year, but if the SEC approves the proposal, you might be able to, for example, protect water resources while saving for a rainy day.