TIME Environment

Reality Bites: Why Sharks Aren’t Always to Blame for Attacks

Great White Shark
Getty Images

Scientists see it as good news that shark populations are growing in the Atlantic

Shark season has begun, thanks to real-life dramas like this month’s run-in with a great white shark off the California coast, the buildup to TV extravaganzas like “Sharknado 2″ and Shark Week, even the 40th anniversary of “Jaws.”

Reports show that shark populations are on the rise, so you can expect to hear a lot about big, bad sharks—but are they really all that bad?

“Having healthy shark populations is critical to having a healthy ocean,” Dean Grubbs, a shark researcher at Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory, told NBC News. “We know they play important roles in the ecosystem…”

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Environment

Finland’s Capital Plans on Making Private-Car Ownership Obsolete in 10 Years

HKL company's trams from line 9, 10 and
HKL company's trams from line 9, 10 and 6 pass on the main street Mannerheimintie on Jan. 20, 2010, in Helsinki's city center. Olivier Morin—AFP/Getty Images

Are you paying attention, rest of world?

Finland’s capital, Helsinki, plans on revamping its entire transportation system by linking together several modes of shared transportation to potentially render private cars obsolete by 2025.

It might sound like a far-fetched project, but Sonja Heikkilä, a transportation engineer whose master thesis inspired the new model, says that young adults nowadays are more concerned about affordable and convenient commutes. “A car is no longer a status symbol for young people,” Heikkilä told the Helsinki Times.

Under the new system, city dwellers would be able to plan their journeys and pay fares ahead of time via their smartphones, which would aggregate several transportation options — like ferries, buses, trains, carpools, shared bikes and taxis — into one app, and come up with the most efficient route.

A report in the Guardian said the service would be like “popular transit planner Citymapper fused to a cycle hire service and a taxi app such as Hailo or Uber, with only one payment required.”

The new system will be piloted this year in Helsinki’s Vallila neighborhood.

This isn’t the first time that the Finns have taken steps to create environmentally conscious transportation. Last year, the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority rolled out Kutsuplus, an on-demand minibus system, which aggregates the destinations of everyone sharing the vehicle into the most efficient route, again using smartphones. The service works out to be more expensive than a regular bus but cheaper than a taxi.

The greatest challenge facing the new plan is making it accessible to all, given that it requires everyone to use a smartphone and be willing to pay higher prices than what they pay for current public transportation. Heikkilä also admits that it might be difficult for the older generation to give up their cars. “Change comes gradually,” she says.

TIME Environment

A Year After a Deadly Disaster, Fears Grow About the Danger of Crude Oil Shipped By Rail

The U.S. is producing more oil than it has in decades—and much of that oil is being transported by railroads that travel through crowded cities

When 21-year-old mother Kahdejah Johnson was told two years ago that she’d secured a spot at the Ezra Prentice Homes, a quiet housing project in Albany, she felt confident she’d found a stable home to raise her newborn son. With its manicured lawns and tidy beige row houses, the Ezra Prentice Homes are a far cry from the crumbling housing projects of large cities. “When people come into town they’re like ‘These are your projects? These are condos!'” says Johnson.

But today, Johnson is losing sleep over how close her house is to railroad tracks congested, day and night, with tanker cars carrying crude oil, visible just outside her bedroom window. The fear of an accident is so great that Johnson has taken to evacuating her apartment some nights, to spend the night at her mother’s home, further from the tracks. “Now I’m afraid to be in my own home,” she says. “Do you know how fast we could die here?”

Albany is one of a growing number of cities where residents like Johnson fear the devastating consequences of accidents involving railcars filled with crude oil. They have reason to fear—on July 6, 2013, a train carrying oil derailed in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, causing an explosion that destroyed more than 30 buildings and killed more than 40 people. This past Sunday, Johnson and other Albany residents held a vigil to commemorate the Lac-Megantic derailment—and draw attention to the growing opposition to transporting crude oil by rail

“Jo-Annie Lapointe, Melissa Roy, Maxime Dubois, Joanie Turmel,” participants in the vigil intoned into a microphone, naming Lac-Megantic residents killed in the explosions. In a line, they held portraits of each of the deceased and read their names, pinning the pictures to a black metal fence. “You may not say that they lived right next door to you, but they were your neighbors,” said Pastor McKinley Johnson, who officiated part of the ceremony. “You may not say that you understand all the language, but they’re your sister and your brother.”

As in Lac-Megantic, oil tankers containing highly flammable crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana roll right through their residential areas. Rows of train-cars filled with crude oil often stand idle for hours on the tracks that hug the curves of the housing project, so tightly only 15 feet at most separate the two in some areas. “Once I found out that these are the same tanks that were in Canada, I was like ‘Oh my God, someone pray for us, We’re in danger’,” Johnson said.

This fear is a consequence of the unconventional oil boom in states like North Dakota, where for the last several years producers have been using hydrofracking techniques to pump oil previously locked in underground shale rock. The new oil fields have helped America’s oil production rise to a 28-year high. But that crude oil has to get to refineries, most of which are located in coastal cities—and much of that oil is moving by rail. Nationally, transport of crude oil by train has jumped 45-fold between 2008 and 2013, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

While the U.S. has yet to experience a rail catastrophe on the scale of Lac-Megantic, the country has had its share of close calls. The National Transportation Safety Board counts five “significant accidents” of trains containing crude oil in the United States in the past year alone. The latest, in Lynchburg, Virginia, saw a train carrying crude Bakken oil derail and burst into flames in the town’s center this April, producing black plumes of smoke and billows of flames taller than buildings nearby. The crude oil also spilled into the James River, though one was injured.

The worrying trend has opened a new front to the national environmental debate. Some 40 cities and towns across the country scheduled similar events to mark Lac-Megantic’s one-year anniversary. Many of the rallies will take place in the usual hotbeds of environmental activism —in places like Seattle and Portland—but also in blue-collar tows like Philadelphia and Detroit, where activists will voice demands ranging from a moratorium on oil-trains traffic to increased safety controls.

But the problem has also presented environmentalists with a conundrum. One of the factors behind the rapid rise of railroad shipment of crude oil has been the shortage of oil pipelines, which could move greater quantities of oil from landlocked states to coastal refineries. Front and center to this debate is the multi-billion dollar Keystone XL pipeline project, which would connect the oil sands of western Canada to the Gulf Coast, but which President Obama has yet to approve—in part because of objections raised by environmentalists, who fear the potential for a spill.

Fewer pipelines has meant more oil moved via rail. “If Keystone had been built we wouldn’t be moving nearly the volume of oil that we’re moving by rail,” said Charles Ebinger, the director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

That has exposed the Keystone’s opponents to criticism that by standing in the way of pipeline projects, they are raising the risk of rail accidents. Though hazardous material like crude oil makes its way safely via rail 99.998 percent of the time, according to the Association of American Railroads, a plethora of research suggests that pipelines result in fewer spillage incidents, personal injuries and fatalities than rail. That includes an authoritative environmental review the State Department released last January, which concluded that “there is… a greater potential for injuries and fatalities associated with rail transport relative to pipelines.”

Still, environmentalists like Ethan Buckner of ForestEthics, the group coordinating the string of events to commemorate the Lac-Megantic tragedy, reject that dichotomy. “The industry is trying to present Americans with a false choice between pipelines and rails,” he says. “We want to choose clean energy.”

Back in Albany, the vigil was deemed a success, drawing a crowd of about a hundred. But Kahdejah Johnson wasn’t among them. Why not? Her fear, she said, got the best of her. “Honestly, I don’t really hang by my house,” she said. “I don’t like to be in that area if I don’t have to be there.” She is now on a waiting list to be transferred to another development—something she’s told could take up to four years. In the meantime, the trains will keep rolling.

TIME Dubai

Dubai to Build World’s First Temperature-Controlled Indoor ‘City’

In Dubai's latest attempt to cement its place as the economic hub of the Islamic world, Sheik Mohammed announces plans to build the world's first temperature-controlled "city," which will double as the world's largest mall

Dubai’s ruler Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum has unveiled plans for the Mall of the World — a 48 million-sq.-ft. (4.5 million sq m) shopping center, to be the world’s largest, which will also form the world’s first temperature-controlled “city.”

Designed by developers Dubai Holding, the complex will be modeled on the cultural district around New York’s Broadway and Oxford Street in London, and is expected to draw 180 million visitors to the city annually — even during the sweltering 104°F (40°C) summer. (The complex will be opened to the elements during tamer winter months to allow fresh air to circulate.)

“The growth in family and retail tourism underpins the need to enhance Dubai’s tourism infrastructure as soon as possible,” Sheik Mohammed said in a statement. “This project complements our plans to transform Dubai into a cultural, tourist and economic hub for the 2 billion people living in the region around us; and we are determined to achieve our vision.”

The ambitious project will include the world’s largest indoor amusement park and shopping mall, 100 hotels and serviced apartment complexes, an entertainment center to host 15,000 people, and a 3 million-sq.-ft. (300,000 sq m) “wellness district” for medical tourism. Buildings in the city will be connected by promenades stretching 4.5 miles (7 km). The plan is Dubai’s latest attempt to mark itself as the economic hub of the Islamic world; the UAE’s most populous city already boasts the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, which stands at 2,722 ft. (829.8 m).

In addition, as countries around the world struggle to reduce their greenhouse emissions, the project could lead the way for environmentally responsible urban planning. Ahmad bin Byat, chief executive officer of Dubai Holding, said in a statement that technology used will “reduce energy consumption and carbon footprint, ensuring high levels of environmental sustainability and operational efficiency.”

The cost and timeline of the project have yet to be released, but it is expected to be a highlight at the UAE World Expo trade fair in 2020.

TIME energy

Obama Restarts Solyndra Program, But Solyndraphobia Could Ruin It

Barack Obama
US President Barack Obama pauses while speaking to people at 1776, a tech startup hub, on July 3, 2014 in Washington. Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

Fear of repeating the 2011 failure of the cutting-edge solar-panel manufacturer could drive the Energy Department toward overly safe projects, not environmental intervention

The Obama Administration announced Thursday that it plans to hand out $4 billion in new clean-energy loans, reviving the controversial program that went dark after the notorious failure of Solyndra in 2011. This time, though, the danger is not another Solyndra. The danger is excessive fear of another Solyndra.

Solyndraphobia is perfectly understandable, because the demise of Solyndra—a cutting-edge solar-panel manufacturer that defaulted on a $535 million federal loan—was a political debacle for President Obama. Republicans launched a slew of investigations of the loan, and even though they uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing, “Solyndra” became their one-word critique of the president’s efforts to promote renewable energy.

And even though President Bush signed the bill creating the Energy Department’s loan program in 2005—his administration actually selected Solyndra from among 143 applicants for the first loan—the program became a partisan target, Exhibit A for GOP complaints about Obama’s “crony capitalism.”

Overall, though, the loan program has been remarkably successful. It has poured $32.4 billion into dozens of projects that will help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, including one of the world’s largest wind farms, a half dozen of the largest solar farms, the nation’s first commercial-scale cellulosic biofuel refineries, the nation’s first new nuclear power plants in three decades, and a factory where Tesla Motors builds electric vehicles that are shaking up the auto industry. It has also financed a few clunkers, including Solyndra and its fellow manufacturer Abound Solar, both victims of an unexpected plunge in solar-panel prices, as well as Fisker Motors, which made beautiful electric vehicles that didn’t sell.

But all lenders make some bad loans. And not every clean-energy firm that receives federal support can succeed in the marketplace; the hope is that some of them will use their government jump-start to beat the odds and change the world. As a White House official once said to me, some Pell Grant recipients become drunks on the streets. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help low-income students attend college.

So far, the loan program has only burned through about $800 million of its $10 billion in reserves. Mitt Romney suggested during a debate with President Obama that half of its loans had failed; in fact, more than 95 percent are performing fine. That’s a record most private portfolio managers would envy, and it’s especially remarkable for a program that’s supposed to focus on innovative projects that private financiers won’t bankroll without government help. The goal was to help push promising green technologies across the so-called “Valley of Death,” and it seems to be working. Now that a bunch of huge solar projects have been built with government help, a bunch of copycat projects are under construction with purely private financing. They’ll benefit from the lessons learned in the initial round.

Peter Davidson, who runs the loan programs, says the Energy Department has learned some lessons, too. At the Renewable Energy Financing Forum in New York last week, he suggested that the department’s new round of loans will steer clear of manufacturers like Solyndra. It was an exciting company that had attracted a billion dollars in private financing, and it built its government-financed factory on budget and on time. But when silicon prices dropped and heavily subsidized Chinese manufacturers began selling panels at rock-bottom prices—a generally excellent trend that has sparked a spectacular solar boom in the United States—Solyndra’s business model collapsed and the department ended up looking ridiculous.

“We can deal with technical risk,” Davidson told me. “But when you’ve got manufacturing risk, you’re dealing with all kinds of stuff we can’t control.”

That makes sense. Manufacturing can be a crapshoot. But it would be a shame if Solyndraphobia drove the Energy Department towards overly safe projects that don’t need government help. We don’t need an energy version of the Export-Import Bank, offering slightly cheaper financing to borrowers with no plausible risk of default. The loan program’s main goal should be facilitating disruptive projects in order to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, not avoiding failure in order to make sure taxpayers recoup every dollar. The Ex-Im Bank’s repayment rate is 99.7 percent; that means it’s very unlikely to have a Solyndra problem, and equally unlikely to accomplish anything useful.

Davidson noted that the most successful first-round clean-energy loans went to wind and solar plants that already had contracts in place to sell their electricity. For first-of-their-kind projects like Crescent Dunes, a Nevada solar thermal plant that will store the sun’s power to generate electricity at night, the government support was absolutely vital even with a contract in place, because private investors were wary of the technical risks. But private investors tend to be more willing to finance second-of-their-kind projects, and the next Crescent Dunes should be built without government loans.

The Energy Department’s new solicitation does suggest it’s looking for the next thing, not more of the old thing. It called for “catalytic” technologies in several areas where breakthroughs are desperately needed, like renewable energy storage, waste-to-energy projects, and “drop-in” biofuels that can substitute for fossil fuels without changes in engines or infrastructure. None of those technologies have been commercial successes yet, and Republicans will be on the lookout for another Solyndra that they can use to tarnish Obama’s legacy and kneecap green energy.

But Solyndraphobia can’t prevent the broiling of the planet. Obama won’t be able to finance more transformative successes like Tesla without financing more embarrassing flops like Fisker. Clean energy is a risky business, and any good program will make bad loans. If we’re not failing, we’re not really trying.

TIME China

African-Elephant Poaching Soars as Ivory Prices Triple in China

Officials and guests including Hong Kong's Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing are shown seized ivory displayed in Hong Kong
Officials and guests, including Hong Kong's Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing, are shown seized ivory in Hong Kong on May 15, 2014 Reuters

Nigeria and Angola sell the greatest amount of ivory products in Africa

The price African ivory fetches in China has tripled in the past four years, causing the dissident militias and organized-crime groups that monopolize the trade to ramp up illicit poaching, according to a report released on Thursday.

Increased demand spurred by Beijing’s lax ivory laws has seen ivory prices rocket from $750 in 2010 to $2,100 in 2014, meaning the widespread slaughter of African elephants “shows little sign of abating,” according to Save the Elephants. The campaign group estimates 33,000 elephants were slaughtered annually between 2010 and 2012.

China has long had a fascination with ivory that harks back hundreds of years to traditional ivory carvings. In modern times, wealthy Chinese value ivory as a status symbol or to use as gifts to sweeten potential business deals, reports the BBC.

Conservationists say communities in Nigeria and Angola sell the greatest amount of ivory products in Africa. “Without concerted international action to reduce the demand for ivory, measures to reduce the killing of elephants for ivory will fail,” Save the Elephants founder Iain Douglas-Hamilton tells AFP.

TIME energy

This Is How Americans Feel About Different Energy Sources

Solar power is the most popular form of energy both in the U.S. and abroad, but Americans are more favorable toward less sustainable energy sources like natural gas, coal and oil than people in other countries.

 

energy3

 

Read Michael Grunwald’s analysis of the TIME energy poll here.

(MORE: New Energy Reality)

TIME Environment

Report Sees a Glimmer of Hope for Coral Reefs

School of smallmouth grunts (Haemulon chrysargyreum) over the coral reef Curacao, Netherlands Antilles
School of smallmouth grunts (Haemulon chrysargyreum) over the coral reef, Curacao, Netherlands Antilles. UIG /Getty Images

A staggering decline but also a way to reverse it

The rapid decline in Caribbean coral reefs is a result of fewer grazing species, but the right action can still reverse the decline, according to a new report.

The Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012 report was conducted in a joint effort by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The rate of coral reef decline is staggering—almost 50% of reefs have disappeared since the 1970s, the report says. Researchers attribute the loss to the decline of reef grazers like the parrotfish and sea urchin.

“But this study brings some very encouraging news: the fate of Caribbean corals is not beyond our control and there are some very concrete steps that we can take to help them recover,” Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme, said in a statement.

Countries with restricted fishing and hunting bans have the healthiest reefs, helping to encourage the rejuvenation of grazing populations. The report encourages others to follow their lead.

“This is the kind of aggressive management that needs to be replicated regionally if we are going to increase the resilience of Caribbean reefs,” said Ayana Johnson of the Waitt Institute’s Blue Halo Initiative.

TIME indonesia

Indonesia Now Has the Highest Rate of Deforestation in the World

Indonesia Forest Fires
Firemen spray water to extinguish wildfires in Dumai, Indonesia, on June 18, 2014 Rony Muharrman—AP

The Southeast Asian nation's forests are now being decimated quicker than those in Brazil

Indonesia now has the highest rate of deforestation in the world, releasing Brazil from its former title, according to a new report published in the Nature Climate Change journal.

Led by researchers at the University of Maryland, the study found that the Southeast Asian nation lost over 6 million hectares of forest between 2000 and 2012. Despite government attempts to ban logging nationwide, the deforestation rate has increased in recent years. During the final year of the study, in 2012, Indonesia lost a whopping 840,000 hectares of forest while Brazil only lost 460,000 hectares.

Yuyun Indradi, forest campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said in a statement that the findings should serve as a “wake-up call” for greater government action to protect vulnerable wildlife and curtail greenhouse emissions. “While it was a welcome step, it’s clear that Indonesia’s forest moratorium has not worked,” he said. “Law enforcement is weak, and even the country’s national parks are being logged — but now is a critical time for action.”

The findings will likely be a recurring topic of conversation during this month’s presidential election. Rival candidates Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto will discuss the environment later this week during a televised debate, and Greenpeace urges both to propose viable solutions to deforestation and to encourage sustainable practices.

TIME New Caledonia

Is a Vast Marine Sanctuary Any Use if You Can’t Police It?

New Caledonia, Atoll, Amédée Lighthouse
New Caledonia's Amédée Lighthouse marks the entrance to its coral reef. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY—De Agostini/Getty Images

Tiny New Caledonia relies on a handful of French ships to patrol a marine reserve twice the size of Texas

Correction appended, July 1, 2014

For the first half of June — until the U.S. declared an even bigger one — the tiny, French semiautonomous territory of New Caledonia boasted the largest nature reserve on earth.

Covering a vast 1.3 million-sq-km region of the South Pacific, the Natural Park of the Coral Sea was established on May 28 to protect the world’s second largest coral reef and its attendant lagoon. Already safeguarded in parts by a UNESCO World Heritage listing, this wonderland is a nursery for 25 kinds of marine mammals (including sea cows and humpback whales), 48 species of shark and five different marine turtles. It also spawns vast numbers of pelagic fish, 3,000 tons of which make it into the Pacific every year – an important food source for tens of millions, and a source of employment for thousands of people living in the region.

But before most people had even heard of the creation of the Natural Park of the Coral Sea, U.S. President Barack Obama went one better by using his executive powers to create an even larger marine park in the south-central Pacific on June 17. Known as the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, it protects 2 million sq km of ocean and a smattering of islands and atolls between Hawaii and American Samoa from commercial fishing.

Obama’s announcement made world news, while New Caledonia’s barely received a mention. Perhaps that’s because the U.S., while sketchy on the details, has the hardware and manpower to enforce the no-take rule at the core of any national park. New Caledonia, however, has no navy of its own and relies on a handful of French ships to patrol an area twice the size of Texas and three times the size of Germany. What, in the end, is the meaning of its marine sanctuary if it cannot police it?

“This is supposed to be a World Heritage area, but look around you. Where are the patrols?” asks Manu Hernu, an eco-tour operator in Bourail, a popular surf beach on the west coast of New Caledonia’s largest island, Grande Terre. “There is no one here to stop people from fishing but me. I have to be the sheriff because the government isn’t here.”

A similar picture emerges in the micro-state of Kiribati, the halfway point between Hawaii and Fiji. Two days before Obama’s announcement, Kiribati banned commercial fishing in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, which, at 400,000 sq km, is nearly equal in size to California. But with only 100,000 people and no defense budget to speak of, Kiribati has no means of enforcing the decree. It wants other nations already doing the heavy lifting in the area — like Australia, France and the U.S. — to provide ships and new technology to protect its massive mid-ocean wilderness.

New Caledonia’s lofty ideals must also be measured against its unremarkable environmental record. Home to a quarter of the world’s known nickel reserves, the archipelago is said to be “made of nickel.” The foreign dollars earned from nickel mining and smelting account for more than 90% of all exports. It’s the reason New Caledonia is so much better off than the aid- and tourism-dependent nations it counts among its neighbors in the South Pacific.

But that wealth has come at a price. In the highlands of Grande Terre, strip mining has turned great valleys rust red in color and sliced off entire mountaintops. Most of the damage harks back to the start of the mining boom in the 1970s, when rehabilitation of the landscape — once nickel had been extracted — wasn’t mandatory. Environmental protection standards for mining are relatively high today but accidents continue to dog the sector. In May, a mine owned by Brazilian giant Value leaked 100,000 L of acid-tainted effluent into a river that flows into a World Heritage zone. It follows another accidental spill of 40,000 L of sulfuric acid in 2009 and another in 2008 that turned a river green.

“We must do better for our marine resources than we did for our terrestrial resources,” World Wildlife Fund’s New Caledonia bureau chief Hubert Géraux tells TIME. He commends the announcement of the Natural Park of the Coral Sea but says it’s just a framework and the real work is yet to be done. “The first stage has been realized, but now it is necessary to ensure the success of the next step and implement a management plan for the rezoning of the park,” Géraux says. “People are quite supportive, but it’s too early to tell.”

Professor Joshua Cinner of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University agrees that just calling something a national park does not equate to protection.

“But I would not be cynical enough to believe a government would do something like this as a public relations exercise,” he says. “It’s being done in the kind of top-down manner which I really don’t believe in. But it could be part of a longer strategy that puts a framework in place for protection of marine resources on an absolutely massive scale.

“Either way, it’s always good to see governments talking about conservation,” he adds. “It creates intrinsic value just by just telling people that it’s there.”

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the name of an eco-tour operator. He is Manu Hernu, not Manu Hemu.

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