TIME Environment

Top 10 New Species for 2014

The best of the best when it comes to new life

It may seem a bit early to declare the top 10 new species of 2014—after all, the year is less than half over. But keep in mind that scientists discover an average of 40 new species a day, so there have already been plenty of freshly uncovered life to choose from. This year the list is being released by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s International Institute for Species Exploration—and the timing isn’t coincidental. Tomorrow is the 307th anniversary of the birth of the Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus, who laid down the groundwork for classifying life.

And as the list shows, life is diverse. The collection includes a dragon tree, a skeleton shrimp, a gecko and a microbe that likes to hang out in the clean rooms where spacecraft are assembled. But there is still far more life to be discovered—scientists estimate that there are 10 million species remaining to be named and classified, five times the number we already know about. We’d better hurry though—while we discover about 15,000 new species a year, we may be losing up to 100,000 annually to extinction.

TIME Environment

China’s Food Safety Problems Go Deeper Than Pet Treats

Pet food retailers in the U.S. are pulling Chinese-made dog and cat treats from their shelves out of contamination fears

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PETCO became the first national pet food store to halt the sale of Chinese-made treats this week, due to concerns over contamination—but it won’t be the last.

Already the rival retailer PetSmart has announced that it will follow suit in taking Chinese pet treats off its store shelves. Over 1,000 dog deaths have been linked to problems with the imported jerky treats, but this problem goes back years. The Food and Drug Administration has been investigating thousands of reports of pet illnesses linked to jerky treats going back to 2007, most of which involve Chinese products, though there’s been a spike since last October.

It’s still not clear exactly how the treats may be contaminated, or exactly how the products may be hurting the dogs and other pets that eat them. But this is hardly the first time that tainted Chinese-made food products have made the news. There was a massive pet food recall in 2007 that implicated Chinese producers, and there were worried that those ingredients could have made it into the human food supply. There have also been concerns about lead paint on Chinese-made toys exported to the U.S.

But any worries about contamination in Chinese exports pales compared to the danger that homegrown Chinese food poses to the country’s own citizens. Food safety scandals are rampant, and by some estimates as much as one fifth of the country’s soil is contaminated. Chinese who can afford it buy imported food whenever possible—and those who can’t just hope they’re lucky. Tainted pet food may get the headlines in the U.S., but food safety is far worse—for animals and people—in China itself.

TIME Environment

How I Almost Got to Decide the Next XPRIZE

XPRIZE CEO Peter Diamandis
XPRIZE CEO Peter Diamandis takes the stage at Visioneering Donald Norris for XPRIZE

Some of the smartest and most influential people gathered in outside L.A. this weekend to brainstorm the next great innovation contest

Pro-tip: if you’re trying to pitch a winning concept for an XPRIZE contest, get NY1 news anchor Pat Kiernan on your team. I’m pretty sure Kiernan’s presence — and his smooth, TV-honed baritone on stage — was the main reason why the idea designed by Pat, myself and TIME’s Siobhan O’Connor made it to the finals here at XPRIZE Visioneering. We didn’t win — in what I would describe as grand larceny, we lost out to a contest focused around developing forbidden sources of energy. But for three journalists with pretty much zero experience in the digital innovation field, I’d say we did pretty well.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was in sunny Palos Verdes in southern California for XPRIZE Visioneering. It’s a now annual summit that brings together some of the smartest and most influential people in the world — and a few journalists like myself — to brainstorm what could become the next multi-million dollar XPRIZE concept. XPRIZE was founded in 1995 by the engineer, entrepreneur and relentlessly positive futurist Peter Diamandis, to incubate prize-driven contests meant to inspire innovation. The first XPRIZE is still the most famous — the Ansari XPRIZE, which offered $10 million to the first privately-financed team that could build and fly a three-passenger vehicle 62 miles (100 km) into space twice within two weeks.

It took 26 teams investing more than $100 million dollars for eight years before the prize was won by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, which completed their flights in the custom-built SpaceShipOne. Private space travel was a dream before Diamandis established the XPRIZE — today, the industry is worth more than $2 billion, as entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and his SpaceX company successfully put satellites in orbit without NASA’s help. “It used to be only governments and big companies that could play on a scale like this,” Diamandis has told me before. “But times have changed and accelerated in the direction where agents of change are small entrepreneurs who are enabled by new technologies to do extraordinary things.”

As you might be able to tell from the buzzwords, XPRIZE is extremely Silicon Valley. The contests the foundation has formulated unleash digitally-empowered entrepreneurs on some of the very problems where the government has failed, like ocean health and oil spills. Diamandis himself isn’t shy about the scale of his ambitions. “This is where we imagine the future and create the future,” he told the audience at the opening of the Visioneering conference. “We’re living in a world where you can solve ideas and not just complain about them.” It’s a vision where doing good also means doing well, where an intractable problem like child poverty isn’t a failure of global will, but a market failure. Those who can innovate successful solutions won’t just help the world, they’ll be helping themselves — starting with the multi-million dollar checks that come with an XPRIZE win.

But such contests actually aren’t new. Before centralized government and corporate R&D boomed in the post-WWII era, one of the best ways to encourage innovation was through a prize contest. Some group or person — the government or an individual tycoon — would set out a challenge with a cash reward. The British government did this back in 1714 with the Longitude Prize, to be awarded to the first person who could develop a way for a seagoing ship to measure longitude. The prize was won not by a navigator or ship’s captain — the class of experts who had been trying and failing to discover a solution — but by a clock maker named John Harrison. The 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris in 1927 in order to win a contest established by a hotelier named Raymond Orteig. (It was the Orteig Prize that directly inspired the Ansari XPRIZE for space travel.) Lindbergh took home the $25,o00 winnings — and everlasting global fame — but more importantly, the prize kicked off global air travel, seeding an industry of vastly greater value. “Within 18 months of the contest, air passenger traffic had gone up 30 times,” says Chris Frangione, the vice president of prize development at XPRIZE. “This is why prizes are so powerful — they leverage resources.”

The point of the Visioneering conference was to brainstorm the next contest. No one thought small. Bill Gross, the CEO of Idealab, urged the audience to try to solve Beijing’s killer air pollution problem. Shaifali Puri, the executive director for global innovation at Nike, told us to aim for a “moon shot for girls,” to find a way to ensure that tens of millions of girls around the world received the education and protection they needed to flourish. Ratan Tata, one of India’s richest men, said we should focus on the malnutrition and housing woes that still hold back the developing world. “It’s not just tech and it’s not just start-up companies,” he said. “It’s making a difference for disadvantaged people.”

To do that, we needed ideas, and we slotted ourselves into different tracks for brainstorm sessions. I took the future of cities on the first day, where New York University’s Paul Romer, who told us that “cities are where the action is.” We were broken into groups and asked to devise, bit by bit, a new contest that could produce an innovation that would improve life in cities, for the poor and for the rich. Once we’d completed that task — a process that used a lot of Post-It notes and whiteboard space — we pitched our ideas to the larger group, and voted on which one would move to the next stage. I should have known that my group’s idea — loosely centered around finding a way to provide infinite water to urban households — might be in trouble when we began debating whether to play Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” during the pitch. (Our title: “What a Watterful World.” I know.) We did not advance.

But that experience was useful for the next day’s session, on disaster prediction and response. The seismologist Lucy Jones — whom Los Angeles residents know as the “Earthquake Lady” for her ubiquity on TV every time a temblor strikes Southern California — told us the unsettling fact that the next big quake that strikes the San Andreas Fault could essentially cut off water to L.A. for months. We were broken into groups again, and tasked with designing a contest that would help cities prepare and bounce back from the next big natural disaster.

I roped in Siobhan, who had come to Visioneering as my guest, and NY1’s Kiernan, who had also come as a guest and who had only landed in L.A. that morning. None of us were disaster experts, unless you can count living through Superstorm Sandy in New York City. But between the three of us — though sleep-deprived and inexperienced — we managed to come up with a pretty decent idea. We’d called it Web in a Box: to win our proposed contest, a team would have to design a piece of technology capable of providing backup internet service on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis in the event of a sustained blackout following a disaster. Our rationale was that the Internet is now the most important communication hub we have, as vital a resource in the aftermath of disaster as food and water — and not just because you can’t tweet about a disaster if you can’t get online.

We honed our pitch and made it through the initial stages, where the entire Visioneering conference is brought together to vote on different ideas. We were even one of the five pitches that went up against each other in the finals on Saturday night—but no fault of Pat’s, we eventually went down in defeat, as the entire conference cast their votes in what felt a bit like a high school election contested by very rich and powerful people. The winner was a contest that offered $20 million to anyone who could prove an effective, entirely new form of energy. Ambitious, but I still say we were robbed. (We also came out behind a contest that offered prize money to develop a water cleaning system capable of filtering out the microscopic amounts of prescription drugs that are now found in our drinking water. This pitch memorably featured the actress Patricia Arquette asking the audience if they’d taken Viagra that day.)

The winning Visioneering idea won’t automatically become the subject of the next contest, but it will get automatic consideration by the foundation’s board as they decide the subject of the next XPRIZE. The winners also received a trophy created by a 3D printer, which might be the most XPRIZE thing that happened all weekend. We live in a strange age where we seem beset by enormous problems that seem to have no realistic solution: climate change, global inequality, the Alzheimer’s epidemic. As a society, we seem helpless in the face of those ills, gridlocked before looming catastrophe. Sometimes it’s hard to share Diamandis’s relentless optimism. And yet, he’s not wrong: the spread of information technology and education has made it possible as never before for anyone to put forward their solutions — and to be heard. “There is no problem that can’t be solved,” Diamandis said at the close of the conference. “We are heading towards an extraordinary world.” That’s a prize we can all share.

TIME Environment

Honeybee Deaths Are Down, But the Beepocalypse Continues

Honeybee Deaths Decline
Honeybees at the bee hives at Hudson Gardens in Littleton, Colo. on June 6, 2013. Seth McConnell—Denver Post/Getty Images

A new survey found that nearly a quarter of honeybee colonies died over the winter—and that's an improvement over last year.

How bad are things for the honeybee? Almost a quarter of U.S. honeybee colonies died over the past winter, according to new numbers released this morning—and that represents an improvement. The Bee Informed Partnership—a network of academics and beekeepers—along with the Apiary Inspectors of America and the U.S. Department of Agriculture surveyed 7,183 beekeepers from around the country over the past year. Those beekeepers are responsible for about a fifth of the managed colonies in the U.S., and after a year in which nearly a third of honeybee colonies died, this past winter was a reprieve of sorts. The loss rate of 23.2% was significantly lower than the 29.6% average loss beekeepers have been experiencing since the partnership began the annual survey in 2006.

(COVER STORY: The Plight of the Honeybee)

Yet even if honeybees had it comparatively easy this past winter, the numbers were still much worse than the 10-15% loss rate that beekeepers used to think of as normal—before honeybee colonies started dying off or simply disappearing thanks to colony collapse disorder, which began occurring with troubling frequency around the middle of the last decade. And there’s also the strange fact that 20% of honeybee colonies died during the spring and summer period last year, even though bees usually thrive in the warm weather. There’s no explanation for that anomaly—the survey began tracking summer losses only this year—which has researchers puzzled. “The combination of winter and summer losses was around 30%,” says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland and one of the leaders of the bee partnership survey. “That is still troubling.”

Just as troubling: we still don’t know exactly why the honeybee has been struggling in recent years. Actually, it’s not just the honeybee—native wild bees have been dying off in even larger numbers. It’s gotten so bad that yesterday the Xerces Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the U.S. government to list one wild bee species—the rusty patched bumble bee, which is now gone from 87% of its native habitat—as endangered. Bees of all sorts provide invaluable service to farmers; the honeybee alone adds $15 billion in value to crops each year by pollinating everything from apples to zucchini. But as I wrote in a cover story for TIME last year, it’s as if there’s something about the world today—the world human beings have made—that has become toxic to one of our oldest domesticated species. “Too many bees are dying,” says Lisa Archer, the food and technology program director at the non-profit Friends of the Earth. “This is not sustainable over the long term.”

(MORE: The Mystery of Animal Grief)

Many experts put much of the blame down to infestations of the Varroa destructor mite. Varroa are microscopic vampire bugs that burrow into the brood cells and attach themselves to baby bees, sucking out the bees’ hemolymph—their blood—with a sharp, two-pronged tongue. The varroa directly weaken the bees they infest, but the bugs can also introduce bacteria and other viruses, which in turn makes the bees that much more vulnerable to any other kind of shock. Varroa infested hives often need to be replaced every one to two years, while clean hives survive for as many as five years. Back in 1987, when varroa first arrived in the U.S., beekeepers managed more than 3 million colonies. Now they’re struggling to maintain about 2.5 million, and the bad economics are driving some beekeepers away from the profession altogether, partly because the struggle seems like such a losing one. The chemical miticides that beekeepers use on the varroa can be dangerous to their own bees—and then it’s only a matter of time before the mites adapt, and the miticide becomes useless. “Varroa destructor is a modern honeybee plague,” said Jeff Pettis, the bee research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at a Congressional hearing on pollinator loss last month. “What beekeepers truly need are long-term solutions to varroa mites.”

The USDA and other groups are working on some of those solutions, including efforts to breed honeybees that are naturally resistant to varroa. But the mites can’t take all the blame. Honeybees are starving as open land—which has the sorts of flowers and plants that serve as a buffet for bees—is filled up with monocultures of corn and soybeans that offer little nutrition. A number of other diseases are afflicting honeybees, including the tobacco ringspot virus, a plant disease that was implicated by researchers earlier this year. What’s more, commercial honeybee colonies may be trucked thousands of miles for work, including the massive and lucrative spring almond pollination in California, which requires billions of bees. The stress of travel can’t be easy on them.

Then there are what are known as neonicotinoid pesticides, which are injected directly into the seed of a future plant. That means traces of the insecticide may always be part of the plant tissue—not at all the case when pesticides are sprayed on crops and can disspiate. A growing but still controversial body of research has implicated neonicotinoid in the death of honeybees, leading the European Union to ban three classes of the pesticides over concern about their impact on bees and other pollinators. Several members of Congress have put forward a bill that would extend that ban to the U.S. A study released last week by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health claimed to find a link between neonicotinoid exposure and low survival rates during cold winters. There’s particular concern that neonicotinoids might have sub-lethal effects on bees—not killing them, but causing enough damage to make them vulnerable to an assortment of other ills. But don’t expect a ban on neonicotinoids any time soon—an EPA review of the pesticides won’t conclude until 2018.

(MORE: America’s Pest Problem)

The chemical companies that make neonicotinoids are, unsurprisingly, skeptical that their products are behind the plight of the honeybee. “Extensive research has shown that these products do not represent a long-term threat to bee colonies,” David Fischer, the director of pollinator safety at Bayer, said in recent Congressional testimony. But the very purpose of pesticides is to kill insects, and no one would deny that such chemicals are almost certainly one of many factors hurting honeybees today. (It’s notable that a recent study found that the diversity of pollinators like bees was 50% higher on organic farms than on conventional farms.) Many independent experts, however, doubt that neonicotinoids should get all the blame. Australia still uses neonicotinoid pesticides, but honeybee populations there are not in decline—something that may be due to the fact that varroa have yet to infest the country’s hives. The recent neonicotinoid study from Harvard has been criticized for feeding honeybees levels of neonicotinoids they never would have experienced in the wild. “[The study] just confuses the issues,” says vanEngelsdorp. “It doesn’t have any bearing on what’s going on.”

Despite the ruinously high levels of losses of recent years, beekeepers have managed to keep the number of colonies in the U.S. stable—and they’ve managed to keep meeting the pollination needs of farmers. Be glad they have; honeybees are responsible for one out of every three mouthfuls of food you’ll have today. But it’s expensive and dispiriting to keep replacing dead honeybees year after year, as researchers scramble to figure out just what’s killing them. Improving trends notwithstanding, we lost a quarter of our honeybee colonies over the winter—and that shouldn’t be good news.

TIME Food

6 Facts About Saturated Fat That Will Astound You

Steak has saturated fat
Steak—it's not so bad for you OJO Images via Getty Images

It's nutrition dogma: saturated fat is bad for you. But a new book makes the case that our obsession with low-fat diets has made us sick

Back in 2000, the journalist Nina Teicholz got a gig reviewing restaurants in New York City for a small paper. It didn’t pay much, but it did come with free meals out, which is how Teicholz found herself eating the kind of rich, fatty food—choice cuts of beef, creamy soups, foie gras—that she’d avoided all of her life. She was breaking every nutritional dictate in the book and yet Teicholz lost 10 lbs. Her cholesterol, which should have been spiking since she was all but mainlining saturated fat, remained at healthy levels.

That experience launched her multi-year investigation into the science and politics of fat that has culminated with her new book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. The book comes as new research has raised questions about the long-held connection between fat intake, cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. A meta-analysis published in March looked at dozens of past nutritional studies and found no evidence that eating saturated fat—chiefly found in meat, butter and cheese—increased heart attacks and other cardiac events, nor did it find evidence of less heart disease in people eating unsaturated fats like those found in olive oil or vegetable oil. In 2013, a prominent cardiologist argued in BMJ that the long-held advice to reduce saturated fats has actually increased the risk of obesity and heart disease.

It will take more than a few studies and this new book to sway the court of public-health opinion, but for now, here’s what Teicholz’s research reveals about saturated fat:

1. The war against fat was started by one man: Much of what we think we know about the supposed dangers of high fat intake comes from a single research project by a charismatic Minnesota pathologist named Ancel Keys. His Seven Countries Study compared the health and diet of nearly 13,000 middle-aged men in the U.S., Japan and Europe, and ostensibly found that populations that consumed large amounts of saturated fats in meat and dairy had high levels of heart disease, while those who eat more grains, fish, nuts and vegetables did not. The influential Keys relentlessly advocated the theory that fat caused heart disease, persuading the AHA in 1961 to issue the country’s first-ever guidelines targeting saturated fat—and he wasn’t shy about shouting down any researcher who questioned his data.

Yet it turns out there was a lot to question. Keys chose the countries most likely to confirm his hypothesis, while excluding nations like France—where the diet is rich in fat but heart disease is rare—that might have challenged it. “When researchers went back and analyzed some of the data from the Seven Countries study, they found that what best correlated with heart disease was no saturated fat intake but sugar,” says Teicholz.

2. Reducing fat has caused us to eat more carbs, which is not good: Nutrition science isn’t like the battle against smoking—you can’t simply tell people to stop eating fat and assume nothing will replace it. In the case of the U.S., saturated fat consumption has dropped by 11% since the early 1970s, while the consumption of carbohydrates—pasta, grains, fruit, starchy vegetables—has increased by 25%. To Teicholz, that’s been a bad trade. Carbs break down into glucose, which causes the body to release insulin, which happens to be very good at helping your body store fat.

3. That’s true even of supposedly “healthy” unrefined carbs: It’s not news that refined carbs like white bread and cookies are bad for you. But Teicholz says that even unrefined carbs—like whole-grain pasta and fruit—seem to be worse for your heart than fatty foods. “There have been rigorous clinical trials that have shown that a higher fat and lower carb diet is better for heart disease and obesity,” she says. “Even whole grains are less healthy than a diet that is higher in meat and cheese.”

4. Women have been particularly hurt by the demonization of fat: It wasn’t until the 1990s that women were studied as a separate group in heart disease and diet researcher, although they had been recommended to follow low-fat diets for decades. The major Women’s Health Initiative study, which looked at tens of thousands of women, found that a low-fat diet led to no significant reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease, nor did it seem to reduce cancer risks. It turns out that when women follow low-fat diets—and they’ve done so more religiously than men—their levels of “good” HDL cholesterol drops even more dramatically than it does in men, which increases the risk of heart disease.

5. We shouldn’t be so quick to ban trans fats: If there’s one thing nutritionists can agree on, it’s that consumption of trans fats—artificially produced unsaturated fats that are now common in much processed and fast food—is bad for your heart. The Food and Drug Administration is moving to ban all artificially produced trans fats and while Teicholz doesn’t deny that trans fats can increase heart disease risk, she worries that in the rush to replace trans fats, the food industry will go back to using liquid vegetable oils—which when heated create oxidation products that have inflammatory effects linked to cancer and other illnesses. “We need to consider the alternative before we ban trans fats,” says Teicholz. “Some of the replacement oils have never been tested.”

6. We’ve been eating saturated fat for thousands of years: Death rates from heart disease have fallen rapidly since 1970, but much of that change can be attributed to reductions in smoking, cholesterol-reducing drugs like statins and better emergency medical care. And during the very decades when the case against saturated fat became nutrition gospel, Americans have gotten sicker and fatter. “It’s amazing to think that scientists believed that all these invented foods would restore us to a state of health,” says Teicholz.

TIME climate change

Antarctic Glacier Loss Is ‘Unstoppable,’ Study Says

New data has scientists at the University of California and NASA convinced we've "passed the point of no return" with a slab of ice that makes up 10% of Antarctica's total land ice volume, enough to raise the global sea level by 15 feet if it melts

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is one of the keys to global sea level rise. Running up against the Amundsen Sea, it contains an estimated 527,808 cu. miles (2.2 million cu. km) of ice, about 10% of Antarctica’s total land ice volume. That’s enough ice to raise global sea level by more than 15 ft. (4.6 m) were it all to melt, collapse and flow into the ocean, which in turn would swamp coastal cities as far inland as Washington, D.C.

And according to new research, that’s exactly what’s beginning to happen.

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have found that the group of six glaciers on the ice sheet directly draining into the Amundsen Sea are rapidly melting, as warming ocean water eats away at the base of the ice shelf. That’s making the ice around the West Antarctic Ice Sheet increasingly unstable—and the researchers could find no clear geographical obstacle that would slow down the retreat of the glaciers. Essentially, that means these glaciers—which collectively hold enough ice to boost sea levels by 4 ft (1.2 m)—”have passed the point of no return,” Eric Rignot, a glaciologist with UC-Irvine and NASA and the lead author on the paper, said in a statement. “The retreat of this ice seems to be unstoppable.”

Another new study in the journal Science by researchers at the University of Washington gives us an idea of how long that irreversible decline might take—and the news isn’t good. The researchers estimate that the Thwaites Glacier—one of the six Antarctic glaciers also studied in the NASA paper—could collapse within 200 to 500 years. And the collapse of the Thwaites and its bordering glaciers could lead to the loss of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet, like removing the keystone from a bridge.

It’s not news that the ice sheets of Antarctica are melting as the glaciers that border the sea retreat, adding to sea-level rise. (Sea levels only rise when land ice melts into the oceans—the loss of floating ocean ice, like the shrinking Arctic sea ice on the North Pole, makes no difference on sea level.) But both of these new studies provide far more precise data on just what’s happening in Antarctica—and what will likely happen in the future. The NASA/UC-Irvine study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, is based on some 40 years of observation of the glaciers, chiefly using radar data from satellites. The researchers found that the grounding line—the point where the glacier first loses contact with the land as it moves into the sea—is retreating as the flow rate of the glaciers increases. As the grounding line retreats, more of the glacier lifts off the land and floats, becoming an ice shelf. As more of the glacier becomes waterborne, there’s less friction, which in turn speeds the flow of the glacier. At the same time, the glacier beds slope deeper below sea level, which further speeds the glaciers, like a roller coaster going down a hill. “They all reinforce each other to make the retreat unstoppable,” Rignot said.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had projected that sea level will rise by about 35.5 in (98 cm) at most by 2100, but that prediction will likely need to be revisited in the wake of these new studies. As the Science study shows, it will likely be a few hundred years before the glaciers along West Antarctica fully collapse and melt into the sea. That does give us plenty of time to figure out a way to rapidly reduce carbon emissions and slow the pace of climate change, which in turn can give us more time to deal with sea level rise.

But these studies are sobering—the warming we have already baked into the climate system seems to have put into motion a physical changes that will utterly remake the planet we live on.

TIME Environment

The World Needs More Clean Coal, or We’re Screwed

Coal plants in China
Coal plants like this one in China produce 40% of the world's electricity STR/AFP/Getty Images

Environmentalists have celebrated the rapid growth of renewable power. But a new International Energy Agency report makes clear that coal is still a major, and growing source of electricity. Unless we spend more time developing carbon-free coal technologies, there's little hope of holding back global temperature increases

The growth of renewable energy has gotten a lot of attention recently — and with good reason.

Buoyed by falling costs, wind and solar PV electricity generation has experienced double-digit growth globally in recent years. In the U.S. alone, demand for solar power increased by 41% in 2013. Altogether there are more than 440,000 operating solar electric systems in the U.S., a number that is growing every day thanks to the work of innovative new retailers like Solarcity. The Department of Energy just gave the go-ahead to three pioneering offshore wind developments along the U.S. East Coast.

All that good news makes it easy assume the world will soon be mostly powered by renewable sources. But as a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) makes clear, the numbers simply don’t back those dreams up. The global increase in coal-fired power generation has been bigger than that of all non-fossil fuel sources combined. And that’s not a recent change — coal has been outpacing non-fossil sources for 20 years, and coal now supplies about 40% of the world’s electricity needs. Six out of ten coal plants built over the past decade use the least efficient combustion technology, which means they emit even more pollution and carbon emissions then they should.

Even as the threat of climate change grows, the world is still using more and more of the dirtiest energy source out there; the World Resources Institute estimates that there are almost 1,200 big new coal plants in 59 countries proposed for construction. Developed countries like the U.S. should be able to reduce coal use rapidly, but most of the growth in electricity demand in the decades to come will be in developing nations—and coal will almost certainly be a big part of it. “Some people don’t want to talk about coal, but it’s the elephant in the room,” says Maria van der Hoeven, the executive director of the IEA. “It is there and it will be there for decades to come.”

Given that reality, you’d think the world would be working hard to make “clean coal” a commercial reality. That would be achieved by carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, in which carbon emissions from fossil fuel sources are captured and then buried in the ground, making coal essentially carbon-free. But CCS has been stalled by technological challenges and high costs. Even though the G8 in 2008 backed an IEA recommendation to launch 20 large-scale CCS demonstration projects by 2010, a recent Wired cover story on the subject reported that the number of such projects around the world is actually falling, except in China.

That has to change. As the IEA makes clear, growth in electricity demand is outpacing all other uses of energy, as developing nations begin to achieve electrical parity with the developed world. Efficiency will help significantly, but given that there are still 1.2 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity, we’re going to need more power. Renewable energy will keep growing as it gets cheaper and cheaper, while smarter grids will allow utilities to manage intermittent sources and reduce waste. The grid of tomorrow won’t look at all like the grid of today — except that it will almost certainly still include coal.

The IEA reports that if the world wants to hold global temperature increase to 3.6 F (2.0 C), the CO2 emissions per unit of electricity must decrease by 90% by 2050. It won’t be cheap; the agency estimates the transition will cost $44 trillion, though that could potentially be largely offset through fuel saving from efficiency. Either way, we almost certainly won’t get there unless we can make coal a carbon-free source of electricity, too.

TIME Environment

Obama’s Energy Announcements Are Nice, But We’ll Need Much More

Obama touts solar power
Solar power in the U.S. has grown nearly elevenfold under President Obama's watch Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The President visits a California Walmart to tout new policies on energy efficiency and solar

The warnings in the National Climate Assessment released earlier this week could not have been louder, predicting intensifying heat, torrential downpours and rising seas. And when President Obama spoke about the report, he was clear as well. “This is not some distant problem of the future,” Obama told The Today Show’s Al Roker on May 7. “This is a problem that is affecting Americans right now.”

But if climate change is the problem, what’s the solution? Today Obama began to answer that question, announcing several executive actions on renewable energy and energy efficiency at a speech he’ll give later today at a Walmart in Mountain View, California. Those actions include a plan to drive $2 billion in energy efficiency upgrades to Federal buildings over the next three years, using long-term energy savings to pay for up-front costs. The Department of Energy will issue two final energy efficiency conservation standards for industrial products like escalators and walk-in supermarket freezers, as well as tougher new building efficiency standards. Altogether the White House expects that the actions will push private companies to invest an additional $2 billion in energy efficiency, and will cut carbon pollution by more than 380 million metric tons—equivalent to taking 80 million cars off the road for a year.

That’s nice—and the President will also announce plans by a number of housing developments to increase their use of solar power—but it’s important to remember that the U.S. alone emits more than 6.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases. These new executive actions are small bore compared to the sheer size of the climate challenge—although they are taking place against the backdrop of rapid growth in the U.S. solar industry, which has increased nearly elevenfold since Obama took office. The selection of a Walmart for today’s announcement—while controversial with labor activists—isn’t accidental. Walmart already gets about a quarter of its electricity from solar, far more than the country as a whole, and the company has been a leader in energy efficiency for some time. Walmart might not be a political ally to President Obama most of the time, but the retail giant is light-years ahead of most of corporate America when it comes to climate change.

But energy efficiency and solar power are comparatively easy climate policies. The real challenge will come when the Environmental Protection Agency issues regulations on the amount of carbon that can be emitted by existing power plants, the single biggest source of greenhouse gases—and the single biggest action Obama can take to answer the climate challenge. Today’s announcement in Mountain View is just a warm-up. The marathon is still ahead.

TIME psychology

In China, Personality Could Come Down to Rice Versus Wheat

Rice farming in China
Chinese from rice-producing regions tend to be more collectivist Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

Chinese in the north have always been different than their counterparts in the south of the country. Farming could explain why

In the mind of many Americans, China is a monolith of 1.3 billion people, all equally similar to each other and all equally different from the U.S. But Thomas Talhelm knows better. Talhelm first went to China in 2007, working as a high-school English teacher in the booming southern metropolis of Guangzhou. Observant from the start—he’s now a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Virginia—Talhelm noticed that his students tended to be very conflict averse. But when Talhelm moved after a year to Beijing in China’s north, he noticed a difference. “On one of my first visits to a museum, a curator pointed to my roommate and told him, ‘Your Chinese is good,'” says Talhelm. “But then she pointed to me and said, ‘But your Chinese is much better.'” People in Beijing were much blunter, Talhelm noticed.

He found differences in dialect as well, and the dividing line was the Yangtze River, which divides China’s north and south. Above the Yangtze one word meant “hand,” for instance, while south of the river it meant “arm.” By no means were these regional traits true 100% of the time—there were northerners who were conflict averse and southerners who were outrageously brash. But the differences seemed common enough to Talhelm that they were worth exploring.

As it turns out, the Yangtze doesn’t just divide China between the north and the south—it also marks the rough boundary between the chiefly rice-producing regions below the river and the mainly wheat-producing regions above it. That gave Talhelm an idea. Rice production is extremely labor-intensive, requiring about twice the number of hours from planting to harvest that wheat does. Rice is also mostly grown on irrigated land, which requires communities to build canals and dikes cooperatively, while sharing water. “Rice farming provides an economic incentive to be cooperative,” says Talhelm. By contrast, the only thing wheat farmers need to cooperate with is the rain, which allows them a greater measure of independence.

That is how Talhelm came up with what he calls his “rice theory”: personality differences between China’s north and its south could be explained at least in part by the kind of farming practiced in each region. And in a new paper published in today’s Science, Talhelm puts the rice theory to a successful test. Talhelm and his colleagues conducted psychological studies on 1,162 Chinese college students in the north and in the south, as well as on countries that straddle the borders of the rice-wheat divide. The northern Chinese tested as more individualistic and analytic—similar to Westerners—while southerners were more interdependent, holistic-thinking and more loyal to their friends. (Analytic thinkers prefer to use abstract categories, while holistic thinkers focus on relationships.) “The differences fell along that rice-wheat border,” says Talhelm.

There have been earlier attempts to explain the psychological differences within China. The modernization hypothesis argues that as societies become wealthier and more capitalistic, they become more individualistic and analytic. But that’s not the case in China, or indeed much of East Asia—southern Chinese cities like Guangzhou experienced economic liberalization sooner than northern cities, and are still much richer, yet it’s northerners who remain more independent. The pathogen prevalence theory argues that a high prevalence of communicable disease in some areas makes it more difficult to deal with strangers, which in turn can make a region more insular and collectivistic. Infectious disease tends to be correlated with warmer temperatures, and China’s south is warmer than it’s north—so it’s possible the pathogen prevalence theory could explain China’s psychological differences. But Talhelm’s study found that Chinese students who lived just south or just north of the rice-wheat divide were as different from each other as students from the far south and the far north. And he noted rice-producing Japan scores uniformly high on the collectivist scale, even though the country is cooler and wealthier than most of China.

The rice theory isn’t foolproof. It’s almost certain that none of the young Chinese college students participating in Talhelm’s study have any direct experience with wheat or rice farming, which raises the question of how these psychological values are transmitted. The sheer pace of change in modern China, which has transformed from a closed communist country to a global capitalist powerhouse in a single generation, can make it difficult to be certain of any larger conclusions about the society. And as different as northern and southern Chinese can seem, they’re still more similar to each other on the individualistic/interdependent spectrum than China as a whole is to the West. The real test of the rice theory will come outside Asia—Talhelm plans to look at West Africa next, which has a vibrant rice-growing tradition.

There’s also something slightly uncomfortable about using agricultural practices to stereotype several hundred million people. Surely we’re more than what our ancestors chose to plant in the ground. But Talhelm notes that in China, regional psychological differences are taken for granted. “A Chinese word for ‘northerner’ literally means ‘direct’ or ‘brash,'” he says. “They’ve just never thought it could be due to rice or wheat.”

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