Science·What on Earth?

Upset about Amazon wildfires? There's something you can do

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at what ordinary people can do to reduce wildfires in the Amazon rainforest, and examine the biggest producers of wind power worldwide.

Also: The biggest producers of wind power worldwide

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, folks! 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:

  • Upset about Amazon wildfires? There's something you can do
  • Mighty wind: A look at the world's biggest wind power producers
  • Climate change is endangering Canada's glaciers

Upset about Amazon wildfires? There's something you can do

(Adriano Machado/Reuters)

Over the past week, the world has watched with concern as flames lick at the lush forests of the Amazon and the smoke wafts across parts of South America.

As of Wednesday, there were roughly 179,000 fires burning across the continent, with the vast majority in the Amazon rainforest, a region rich in biodiversity and ecosystems that is shared by eight countries.

Most eyes, however, are on Brazil and its president, Jair Bolsonaro. Elected to office last year, Bolsonaro has been widely criticized for his policies and actions in the Amazon. The country's space research centre said the number of fires was 80 per cent higher this June compared to last June. Enforcement of environmental laws, including those pertaining to the Amazon, has also decreased by roughly 20 per cent in that same time period.

The Amazon plays a critical role in regulating the global climate and influences regions hundreds of kilometres away. Watching as it succumbs to numerous fires has left many people around the world feeling helpless, but experts say there are things that non-Brazilians can do to reduce the destruction.

Brazil "is a commodity-driven government," said Christian Poirier, program director at Amazon Watch, a non-profit organization that aims to protect the rainforest. "Therefore, the international community needs to play a much more influential role in the coming years."

This can take many forms. Since economic growth is front and centre for Bolsonaro, countries can demand better action, such as urging increased environmental protection of the Amazon. Some countries, like Germany and Norway, have already done this by freezing funds that were to be used for sustainability projects in Brazil.

But individuals can also make a difference. Much of the rainforest has been cut down to make way for agricultural activity, such as beef, soy and palm oil production. A great deal of those products are exported.

"The good news is, not only do we have a responsibility … but we also have some power" in determining the future of the Amazon rainforest, said Kai Chan, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability. 

"Something substantial" that consumers can do, he said, is to buy products that are certified to be sustainable.

You can double-check this by looking at the packaging for various items. RSPO stands for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a not-for-profit organization that has developed a set of environmental and social criteria for companies to produce a more responsible product. Another group, Rainforest Alliance, certifies products are made sustainably by ensuring they meet responsibility standards in three areas: environmental, social and economic.

Chan recognizes that it can be difficult for the average consumer to look at labels and try to discern which ones are truly sustainable and which are a case of "greenwashing." 

People can also urge retailers to sell those products, and perhaps sell them exclusively, Chan said. It's an example of how consumer demand at this end can have a positive effect where the items are produced.

Nicole Mortillaro

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The Big Picture: The biggest producers of wind power

Despite what U.S. President Donald Trump has to say on the subject of wind power (i.e., that it causes cancer and doesn't really work), this renewable energy source is making significant inroads worldwide. A recent study from Aarhus University and the University of Sussex found that Europe would have the potential to power the entire world for the next two decades with onshore wind power alone. Will that happen? Probably not. But many countries are making serious investments in this technology. Here's a look at the biggest generators of wind power worldwide, based on 2018 figures of capacity, in gigawatts.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • When a heaving mass of volcanic rock many kilometres wide appeared in the Pacific Ocean, many media outlets suggested it could help heal the coral in the Great Barrier Reef. It's a nice thought, but it's not quite right.

Climate change is endangering Canada's glaciers

(Bob Strong/Reuters)

A ceremony earlier this month mourning Okjökull, the first glacier to disappear because of climate change in Iceland, has brought attention to the fact that glaciers are shrinking and, in some cases, melting away completely.

In Canada, nine glaciers in the southern part of the Cumberland Peninsula on Baffin Island in Nunavut have disappeared completely or separated into several parts over the past 17 years, said Mauri Pelto, director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project.

Satellite images show the glaciers on Baffin Island averaged around one square kilometre in 2002. Pelto said that by early June, high snow lines, the boundary between a snow-covered and snow-free area, had led to the near-complete loss of snowpack across glaciers of the region.

Pelto founded the project in 1983 to identify the response of North Cascades and other Canadian glaciers to climate change caused by human activity.

Canada's landmass and climate support approximately 20 per cent of the Earth's glaciers, Natural Resources Canada said. 

A study released by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in August found the planet's glaciers are melting faster than previously thought, losing 335 billion tonnes of snow and ice each year.

One of the places where glaciers are disappearing at an unexpected rate is in Western Canada. Here, glaciers are losing an average of one per cent of their mass each year, according to a study published by Nature.

The U.S. Geological Survey says for accumulated ice to be classified as a glacier, it must have sufficient mass to flow under gravity. The minimum size of 0.1 square kilometre is also required. Below this, ice generally does not move and therefore can no longer be classified as a glacier. 

"Seeing glaciers disappear entirely is troubling and a direct symptom of climate change," said Dan Shugar, an associate professor of geoscience at the University of Calgary. He said the melting of large glaciers, which feed the major rivers of Western Canada — such as the Columbia, Bow, Fraser and Peace — is especially concerning.

Over the next 50 to 100 years, those rivers will change dramatically in terms of how much water flows into them, where it flows and what temperature that water is, he said. 

"Those are really important for the fish that live in the rivers, and the people that depend on those rivers, whether directly for drinking water or indirectly for irrigation of the crops we all depend on."

— Adam Jacobson

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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