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 space

Astronomers Find a Sibling Star to the Sun

The Sun has a sibling star
Astronomers have found a sibling star to our Sun Callista Images—Getty Images

Stars are born in stellar nurseries—and that includes the Sun. Now scientists have located one of the Sun's family stars

Astronomers have long known that stars are born, not one at a time in isolation, but in huge litters, all at once. In the Sun’s case, it happened about 4.6 billion years ago: a huge molecular cloud of interstellar gas and dust collapsed under the force of gravity, heating up until the densest, hottest knots of matter burst into thermonuclear flame and began to shine. The Sun has somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 brothers and sisters, but over the eons they all wandered off into other parts of the galaxy, never to be seen again.

Or at least, not until now. A team of astronomers led by Ivan Ramirez of the University of Texas at Austin thinks it has found one of the Sun’s long-lost siblings— a star known HD 162826, which is floating through the Milky Way about 110 light-years from Earth, near the constellation Lyra. “We were really just doing this as an experiment,” says Ramirez, lead author of a paper on the discovery which will appear in the June 1 Astrophysical Journal, “to test our search technique. The fact that we actually found it makes this even cooler.”

The idea behind a search for solar siblings is straightforward enough. Each star-forming molecular cloud has a slightly different chemical composition, based on both its age and its location in the galaxy—a sort of cosmic DNA that carries over to the stars that emerge from the cloud. Find a star with that same DNA, and you’ve found a sibling.

In practice, though, it’s a bit more complicated. You can’t measure those fingerprints with absolute accuracy; two clouds might be similar enough to fool you. So while Ramirez and his team identified 30 probable candidates from earlier searches done by other astronomers, they went a step further: they took precise measurements of the candidates’ distance from the Sun and their motion, allowing them to reconstruct the stars’ paths through space since they began to wander off.

Once they’d done that, only HD 162826 made the cut. It’s not a twin of the Sun: HD 162826 is about 15% more massive than our home star. That’s no surprise, however since a given molecular cloud will give rise to stars of varied sizes. (Ramirez was also on a team that found a near-twin of the Sun in 2007—but that one is about a billion years younger, and was born from a different cloud.)

It’s actually surprising that the astronomers found even one solar sibling. The Sun’s brothers and sisters could have wandered thousands of light-years since their birth, nudged here and there by gravitational encounters with gas clouds and with other stars. “Estimates of how many we’d be likely to find here in the solar neighborhood have been quite pessimistic,” says Ramirez—one at the most, and quite possibly zero.

Finding just one solar sibling isn’t going to tell astronomers all that much by itself, and since a star’s travels are difficult to reconstruct without knowing precisely where it is today and how it’s moving, it’s currently impossible to search for the Sun’s blood relatives further out than about 300 light-years. “We don’t have accurate distances any further than that,” says Ramirez.

But a new European satellite called Gaia, launched last December, will change all that. It’s slated to get precise information on the positions, distances, chemical abundances and more for a billion different stars, reaching to the center of the Milky Way, thousands of light-years away our solar system.

Armed with that information, Ramirez and other astronomers will not only be able pinpoint many more of the Sun’s long-lost siblings, but they’ll also figure out the common origin of thousands of other stars. “Grouping stars according to their origins,” he says, “and understanding how they spread out over the past few billion years, is really crucial to understanding how the Milky Way has evolved.”

It’s also oddly reassuring to know where the Sun’s family has ended up after so much time. HD 162826 has been under observation for some time, purely by coincidence, to see if it might have planets. Nothing has turned up yet, but the searches aren’t sensitive enough to detect Earthlike planets. It’s not impossible that we’ll someday learn that this first rediscovered Solar sibling has children—and that Earth itself has a first cousin.

TIME space

The Best Astronomy Photos of 2014 from the Astronomical League

In honor of Astronomy Day on Saturday, TIME teamed up with the Astronomical League to publish the umbrella organization's top photographs on the year. Here, a look into the heavens.

TIME energy

White House Reinstalls Solar Panels For First Time in Nearly 30 Years

The Obama Administration has installed solar panels on the White House for the first time in nearly 30 years. Of course, they could eventually be taken down again, as President Jimmy Carter’s were in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan. For the meantime, however, they serve as a a symbol of the clean energy revolution.

“Solar panels in the White House I think are a really important message that solar is here, we are doing it, we can do a lot more,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz said in a White House video about the panels released Friday. “I am very bullish on the future of solar energy as a key part of our energy future.”

“Everything from the solar components, to the inverter technology, to the labor that put the panels on the roof, was all American,” added Cyrus Waida, an assistant director of clean energy at the White House. “Every four minutes, some small business or homeowner is going solar. In a sense, we’re going through a transition here and the industry is going through a transition that we’re just seeing the beginning of.”

The new video coincides with the President’s upcoming Friday speech about advances in solar energy and energy efficiency.

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 Environment

White House Announces New Action on Solar Energy

President Barack Obama will announce over 300 new public and private sector commitments to clean, solar energy — but his decision to include Walmart in his plans angered some labor groups

The White House is announcing executive actions to advance clean energy on Friday, including $2 billion worth of upgrades to federal buildings to make them more efficient over the next three years.

President Obama will announce the planned upgrades on Friday in California, where he has been fundraising for Democrats running for the Senate since Wednesday. At the core of Obama’s announcement is a renewed focus on solar energy, including 300 new public and private sector commitments to make solar power more accessible. According to the White House, the commitments represent enough solar energy to power 130,000 homes.

Among the commitments are proposals to use more solar energy in affordable and low-income housing units, and expansion of solar energy at retail stores including Walmart, Apple, and Ikea. The decision to include Walmart angered some labor groups, who say the retailer pays low wages and offers few benefits to its workers. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich openly criticized the inclusion of Walmart in a Facebook post Thursday.

The attention to solar energy follows a White House summit held in mid-April, where the administration urged business owners and local leaders to use more solar energy. At the so-called “solar summit,” the administration launched a $15 million program to help local, state governments combat climate change and utilize solar energy.

Obama is also set to announce the installation of solar panels at the White House residence on Friday. According to the LA Times, White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said the installation of solar panels, “helps demonstrate that historic buildings can incorporate solar energy and energy efficiency upgrades.”

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.”

TIME animals

Birds Are Getting Lost Because of Our Gadgets, Claims Study

A Robin stands in the snow in Bramall Park in Manchester
Phil Noble—Reuters

A new study shows that man-made radiation stemming from electronic devices disrupts migratory birds' internal compasses

European migratory birds are having trouble finding their way around because of man-made magnetic radiation, a new report shows.

Researchers believe electromagnetic waves from major cities, stemming from electronic devices, disrupt the internal compasses of the birds, hampering their natural orientation skills.

Henrik Mouritsen, co-author of the report published in the science journal Nature, says robins were better able to navigate when their huts were covered with aluminum plating to obscure the magnetic interference.

Otherwise, the electromagnetic waves disrupted the birds’ internal magnetic compasses, he says.

The study was completed through seven years of double-blind experiments.

TIME human behavior

The Study of Injured Squid Explains Human Irritability and Pain

A Bigfin reef squid swims in a display at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Michael Fiala—Reuters

A study has found that squid that have one of their tentacles cut off react more strongly to visual stimuli. Researchers say that pain makes our peripheral sensory system become hyperactive, guarding us against further threats

When we are in pain, many of us become grumpy and irritable, and a study involving injured squid may explain why.

In the study, researchers found that squid that have one of their tentacles cut off — an injury that does not affect their ability to maneuver and would not be as serious an injury as losing a limb would be for a human — react more strongly to visual stimuli. The injury also increases the squid’s responsiveness to threats.

“The injured squid were really touchy,” Robyn Crook, an evolutionary neurobiologist at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, which led the study, told the Los Angeles Times. “An encounter a normal squid might just want to keep an eye on caused the injured squid to start up their defense mechanisms.”

The squid’s behavior helps explain the grumpiness and irritability many of us experience when we are in pain, Edgar T. Walters, who studies pain and at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, told the paper.

“One of the effects of pain is the peripheral sensory system becomes hyperactive,” he said.

“People in pain are very easily irritated and we found that this fits in with a primitive pattern designed for an animal to be extra-vigilant.”

TIME Science

Watch This Spider Cartwheel His Way Across the Desert

This lil' dude is more athletic than you

Arachnophobic? Don’t watch this video.

German scientist Ingo Rechenberg discovered a new, acrobatic species of huntsman spider in the Erg Chebbi region of Morocco, according to a recent study authored by biologist and spider expert Peter Jäger. When threatened, the little arachnid (Cebrennus rechenbergi) actually flips itself out of harm’s way, earning itself the name “the flic-flac spider”. Though not strictly a biologist himself, Rechenberg works in the related field of bionics—the application of biological methods and systems to the study and design of engineering. As such, he’s developed a robot that mimics the flic-flac spider’s odd locomotion.

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