TIME Science

You Won’t Believe the Source of the World’s Most Sustainable Salmon

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Farmed salmon Rogan Macdonald—Getty Images

Josh Schonwald is a Chicago-based journalist and author of The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food.

Hint: it's not the open sea or a Norwegian fjord

When you hear the term “sustainable seafood,” you might envision a fisherman pulling catch from a pristine sea.

But a few weeks ago, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, arguably the world’s most influential arbiter of seafood sustainability, gave its highest stamp of approval to three companies that are about as far away from that fishing idyll as possible.

The Atlantic salmon deemed “Best Choice” by Seafood Watch were neither caught, nor from the sea. They spent their lives indoors in warehouses as far inland as Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

In the past, Seafood Watch has almost always advised consumers to avoid farmed salmon. But three indoor farms around the world have succeeded in eliminating the usual concerns about fish farming.

At these farms, there’s no risk of escapees mating with wild populations. There’s no risk of fish waste messing up the marine environment. There’s a vastly reduced risk of disease. Each of these farms recycles more than 95% of its water, and they use a smaller number of feed fish to grow their salmon than traditional farms.

There are other reasons to love these warehouse or “tank” farms. One of the farms, called Langsand Laks and located in Denmark, uses wind and geothermal energy for its electrical needs. The West Virginia farm, run by the Freshwater Institute, is using nutrient-laden fish waste to develop an aquaponic farm. And the British Columbia farm called KUTERRA, is touted as a an important job creator for Vancouver Island’s ‘Namgis tribe.

Seafood Watch’s stamp of approval may be the biggest yet for indoor, land-based aquaculture, but it’s not the first. During the past few years, a growing number of supporters—from environmental groups, often hostile to aquaculture, to sustainability-minded chefs to marine biologists—have been talking up the virtues of indoor aquaculture.

Critics say the indoor farms are little more than lab experiments until they prove their economic viability, and they point to several flops—most famously, Local Ocean. The New York fish farm graced the cover of TIME in 2011 under the headline “The Future of Fish,” and boasted of “zero discharge,” yet shuttered abruptly last year after spending its entire four-year existence in the red, according to Seafood Source. Alf-Helge Aarskog, CEO of Marine Harvest, the world’s largest salmon farmer, reportedly told a Norwegian paper that farming salmon on land was as foolish as raising pigs at sea and that fish should be raised in their natural habitat.

There are certainly good reasons for farming salmon in the ocean. Indoor fish farmers have to take care of so many things that nature provides: water temperature, oxygen content, pH levels, not to mention a physical environment. Even the most evangelical indoor fish farmers concede that their way is more technologically challenging and more costly than ocean farming. A 2013 study by the Freshwater Institute and Norwegian research organization SINTEF found that an indoor salmon farm was more than three times as expensive to operate as a traditional ocean pen salmon farm.

Still, despite higher costs, flops, and an industry poised to go negative on newfangled ideas, no one should count out indoor fish farming.

There have been numerous new projects announced during the last two years—from salmon farming in China’s Gobi desert to a plan to build the world’s largest indoor salmon farm in Scotland—which happens to be one of world’s major ocean salmon farms. There are now nine land-based fish farms working that produce more than 7,000 metric tons of salmon annually, according to Steve Summerfelt, who directs the Freshwater Institute’s aquaculture program. There are also dozens of smaller-scale projects cropping up, like this one in a Hong Kong high-rise and this one on a Wisconsin dairy farm.

There are some compelling pluses to indoor fish farming, even if your chief concern is profit. Fish grow faster indoors, proponents say, and fewer die. There is less need, if any, for vaccinations and antibiotics, and you can reduce feed costs. There are also collateral benefits, such as using fish waste compost to grow vegetables or generate electricity. “I’m not a tree-hugger,” Bill Martin, president of indoor fish farm Blue Ridge Aquaculture in Virginia told me. “I’m a capitalist. I’m an environmentalist because it’s good business.”

With a slew of failures to learn from, fish farmers are starting to figure out the technology and how to make money indoors.

The two big indoor fish farms that have thrived for 10-plus years, Martin’s Blue Ridge and barramundi-farming Australis, aren’t selling their haul to your Safeway. They’re selling to the “live market”—consumers who want higher quality, fresher, live fish and will pay for it. Likewise, Seafood Watch-approved salmon farms are targeting sustainability-minded foodies who are happy to pay more for a fish that is clean and green.

There’s also another argument you’ll increasingly hear from the “go indoor” crowd. It’s the patriotic thing to do.

Journalist Paul Greenberg, perhaps the closest thing to a Michael Pollan of seafood, often points out a staggering statistic: nearly 90% of American seafood is imported. In his newest book American Catch, Greenberg argues that environmentally concerned consumers should seek out sustainable American sources of wild caught seafood. He also highlights the potential of land-based, closed-containment farms, such as the Massachusetts-based Australis to provide Americans with a source of sustainable and locally sourced seafood.

The idea of Atlantic salmon harvested in a West Virginia warehouse might not strike one as appealing as salmon that hails from a Norwegian fjord. But when you start considering the state of world fisheries, the soaring seafood consumption, the ridiculousness of the global seafood chain (fish caught in Alaska, processed in China, sold in Miami), well, then that antibiotic-free, zero-discharge West Virginia warehouse-raised salmon is pretty damn appealing.

Josh Schonwald is a Chicago-based journalist and author of The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food, but he is perhaps best-known as the guy who ate the Frankenburger.Schonwald writes and speaks frequently about the future of food and agriculture. His work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, Slate, and The Wall Street Journal. A graduate of Macalester College and Columbia University’s journalism school, Schonwald lives in Evanston, Illinois with his wife, children, and indoor aquaponic system.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME energy

A Brief Guide to the Keystone XL Pipeline Debate

Construction Along The Keystone XL Pipeline
Workers move a section of pipe during construction of the Gulf Coast Project pipeline, part of the Keystone XL Pipeline Project, in Atoka, Okla. on March 11, 2013. Daniel Acker—Bloomberg/Getty Images

A handy explainer

What is the Keystone XL Pipeline?

It is a proposed extension of a pipeline that transports oil from Alberta, Canada to a major petroleum exchange in Cushing, Okla., and from there to the Gulf of Mexico. The existing smaller pipeline takes a more circuitous route. The Canadian company TransCanada’s solution is to build a larger-capacity, more direct link from Alberta to the existing pipeline. That project is known as Keystone XL.

Why is Obama involved?

Because the Keystone XL link would cross an international boundary between the U.S. and Canada, the project requires presidential approval. Proponents say Keystone XL will reduce the need to move oil by freight train—which can lead to potentially dangerous accidents—and create perhaps tens of thousands of jobs. President Obama, who has not taken a public position on the project, has cited a State Department analysis that concludes the pipeline will create only about 2,000 jobs during construction and 50 around permanent jobs once it’s complete.

Why is it controversial?

Climate activists have rallied around the Keystone XL pipeline as an environmental litmus test. They worry that it will intrude on property rights—courts have allowed TransCanada to run sections of the pipeline over private land, despite objections from the property owners –and warn that it could be vulnerable to environmentally dangerous leaks along its proposed 1,700 mile route. But their primary objection is that the project will encourage the burning of fossil fuels and worsen climate change. The oil shipped through the new pipe would come from Canada’s so-called tar sands, which climate activists say is dirtier and worse for the environment than regular oil.

A State Department review released in January found that Keystone XL would have little effect on the planet’s environmental health because the oil in Canada’s tar sands will be extracted and sold through another avenue if the project is blocked.

What happens next?

The southern portion of the Keystone pipeline connecting Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico will open for business in 2015. The northern extension—the one everyone’s arguing about—has yet to be approved. But the Dec. 6 runoff for the Louisiana Senate seat of Democrat Mary Landrieu gave the project a jolt in Washington, as Landrieu and her Republican challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy, jockey to claim credit for getting it built. The House passed legislation sponsored by Cassidy allowing Keystone XL on Nov. 14 and the Senate votes on a similar measure backed by Landrieu on Nov. 18. President Obama has signaled that he may veto the legislation, but he has not taken a public stance. No matter what happens at the federal level, Keystone XL is likely to face court battles in states through which it passes.

TIME Research

Your State Bird Could Be Gone By 2080

birds
Getty Images

If our climate continues to change, many birds will lose significant portions of their habitat

WSF logo

By 2080, the skies over North America could be much emptier. A new report from the National Audubon Society, compiled from data collected over 30 years of bird counts and surveys, shows that more than half of North America’s most iconic birds are in serious danger. Of the 588 bird species surveyed, 314 are at risk for losing significant amounts of their habitat to a changing climate.

“Birds are a good barometer of the overall health and wellbeing of the natural systems we depend on for food, water, and clear air,” Audubon chief scientist Gary Langham wrote in an email. “If half the birds are at risk, the natural systems we depend upon are at risk too.”

Ken Rosenberg, a conservation scientist at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, cautions that it can be hard to tie any one specific effect on bird populations directly to climate change—other factors like human development, pollution, and invasive species play big roles. However, both Rosenberg and Langham point to clear examples of climate change affecting the avian landscape. Many birds are shifting their ranges farther north; some migratory species are arriving in the northern areas and the endpoints of their spring migrations earlier and earlier. Higher tides and storm surges are wreaking havoc on the nesting grounds of birds like the Saltmarsh Sparrow and the albatross. And foraging birds that live in Arctic sea ice environments are in decline.

“Some land birds, like the Broad-tailed Hummingbird, are finding that the availability of food supplies no longer matches their migration cycles,” Langham says. “And some seabirds, like Atlantic Puffins, are starting to run out of food as ocean temperatures change, causing adults and young to starve.”

If our climate continues to change, many birds will lose significant portions of their habitat, especially those birds that live in marshes and beaches, low-lying islands and snowy mountaintops. Tropical forests could dry out, spoiling the wintering spots for migratory birds. Drought and fire could devastate the habitats of prairie birds like the sage grouse. Even tiny differences in temperature can have big impacts. The gray jay, for example, hoards perishable food to get it through the winter, relying on freezing temperatures to keep it from spoiling, but a warmer climate will short-circuit its natural refrigerator.

“Every bird species has a ‘tolerance zone’ for climate conditions,” Langham says. “If the climate gets too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry, birds will be forced to leave their homes—but many will have nowhere else to go.”

These climate trends are set to impact birds big and small. By 2080, Audubon’s model predicts the summer range for bald eagles will shrink to 26 percent of the current extent. New areas could open up for them as areas get warmer, but it isn’t certain that food and nesting areas will be available to them in the new spots. Allen’s hummingbird could lose up to 90 percent of its summer range. The spotted owl, already a poster child for endangered birds, is expected to lose 98 percent of its wintering grounds. 10 states could lose their state birds—Maryland’s Baltimore Oriole, Vermont’s Hermit Thrush and the Mountain Bluebird (claimed by both Idaho and Nevada) are all among the imperiled.

But don’t count nature out of the game just yet. “A big ‘wild card’ is the ability of the birds themselves to adapt in ways we can’t predict,” Rosenberg told us. “For example, some Laysan Albatrosses have begun to nest in suburban yards and rooftops in Hawaii, as their usual nesting areas become more threatened.”

Rosenberg is also concerned about how humanity’s response to climate change will affect birds. In many areas, he says, sea walls are being built to protect coastal areas without taking into account how they will affect the ecosystem around them. The flow of water, nourishment of marches, and shaping of seaside habitats could all be negatively impacted by hastily built walls. And the rush to create alternative sources of energy has to be done in a smart way, he says. “Paving over fragile desert ecosystems for solar-panel fields, or placing wind farms in critical migration corridors and bottlenecks, or destroying natural habitats around the world to plant biofuels such as corn for ethanol, are NOT smart alternatives” to fossil fuels, Rosenberg says. “We will just be creating new environmental problems in an attempt to solve another.”

Langham urges bird lovers concerned about climate change to speak up.

“We can’t afford to sit quietly on the sidelines while a well-funded oil lobby gets a small number of people to intimidate the rest of us,” he says. “Decide what you want to say to your child or grandchild in 20 years. The day will come when that generation asks: What did you do to leave a better world when the science was clear? I think about my answer a lot and it motivates me to act boldly.”

This article originally appeared on World Science Festival.

TIME Environment

Here Are 4 More Vulnerable Fish to Avoid Next Time You’re at the Sushi Bar

Blue-Fin Tuna Farm Operations At Kinki University Fisheries Laboratory As Seafood Proves Sweet Spot In Japanese Exports
A farmed blue-fin tuna on board a boat at a fish farm operated by the laboratory in Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, on Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. Tomohiro Ohsumi—Bloomberg / Getty Images

Pacific bluefin tuna, Chinese pufferfish, American eels and Chinese cobras named by conservationists as risking extinction due to overfishing

A dwindling population of bluefin tuna is among the species of fish that could vanish from the Pacific ocean for good, conservationists warned on Tuesday, unless constraints are placed on commercial fisheries that target the highly sought after fish.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature added Pacific bluefin tuna to its “vulnerable” list of more than 22,000 species threatened with extinction, according to IUCN’s conservationists. The tuna was joined by American eels, Chinese pufferfish, and Chinese cobras.

“The Pacific Bluefin Tuna market value continues to rise,” said the organization’s tuna and billfish specialist Bruce Collette. Without curbing catches of juvenile fish, he added, “we cannot expect its status to improve in the short term.” The group estimates that the population has diminished by 19% — 33% over the past 22 years.

TIME Food & Drink

The World Could Be Heading Toward a Global Shortage of Chocolate

Chocolate Bar
Getty Images

You might want to stockpile a few bars

People are consuming more cocoa than farmers are able to produce, according to two of the world’s largest chocolate makers, who say that a global shortage of chocolate might be on the cards.

Mars, Inc. and Swiss-based chocolate giant Barry Callebaut say demand is likely to outstrip production by one million metric tons by 2020, the Washington Post reports.

Seventy percent of the world’s cocoa is produced in the Ivory Cost and Ghana but growing conditions in West Africa have not been ideal.

Drought has ravaged many cocoa plantations and a fungal disease called frosty pod has wiped out between 30 to 40 percent of cocoa production. Farmers are looking to other cash-crops such as corn, to make their living.

At the same time, demand for the tasty treat keeps rising and this is likely to force the price of chocolate to rise.

[Washington Post]

Read next: The 13 Most Influential Candy Bars of All Time

TIME Environment

Congress May Approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, but History Shows How the Debate Has Shifted Against Energy Producers

House Passes Bill to Approve Keystone Over Obama Objections
A copy of H. R. 5682, a bill which would approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, on Nov. 14, 2014. Daniel Acker—Bloomberg / Getty Images

What can the Alaska Pipeline teach us about Keystone?

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Congressional leaders in both the House and the Senate moved on Wednesday to vote on the Keystone XL pipeline, hoping a decision on the controversial pipeline will help decide a runoff election for a Senate seat in Louisiana. The pipeline, if approved, would transport heavy oil 1,179 miles from Canadian tar sands in Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska and then through existing pipelines to refineries in the Gulf Coast area. The proposed pipeline would serve as a major conduit bringing tar sands oil to domestic and international markets. Announced in 2008, the Keystone XL pipeline has since come under fire from environmentalists and today sits at the epicenter of larger conversations about the environmental impact of energy development and energy consumption. If both houses of Congress pass legislation to approve the pipeline, they would force President Obama to decide to either sign the bill authorizing construction or deliver an unpopular veto. The president has shown reluctance to rule on the pipeline as he waits for the courts to resolve legal challenges to the project, but a bicameral congressional action may force his hand.

While the controversy surrounding Keystone XL stems from contemporary conversations about climate change, it also echoes past conflicts between energy developers and environmental groups over pipeline construction. These pipeline debates were especially prominent in the 1970s as policymakers labored over environmental concerns and energy shortages. In 1973, for example, Congress authorized construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline, superseding ongoing legal battles and ending five years of environmental obstruction. This is the resolution that today’s pipeline supporters hope to imitate by pushing approval of the Keystone XL pipeline through Congress. But while the narrative arcs of the two pipeline controversies appear to be converging, the circumstances surrounding approval of the pipelines suggest different trajectories in the political balance between energy and environmental concerns.

Between 1969, when the project was announced, and 1973 when President Richard Nixon signed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act, the trans-Alaska pipeline faced similar scrutiny to the Keystone XL pipeline. Oil companies proposed the Alaska pipeline after discovering rich oil deposits along Alaska’s remote North Slope. The proposed pipeline would bisect long stretches of untouched public lands to carry petroleum 800 miles from the arctic to the port city of Valdez, where tankers would transport the oil overseas to the lower 48. President Nixon and his secretary of the Interior endorsed the route but environmentalists waged a stiff campaign against hasty construction. The pipeline, they argued, threatened local wildlife, would damage fragile permafrost, and failed to account for Alaska’s frequent earthquakes. They utilized new environmental laws to stall the pipeline until the petroleum companies adequately addressed the pipeline’s harmful environmental impacts.

The environmental obstruction of the Alaska pipeline lasted five years and only weakened as new anxieties about domestic energy supply emerged. In the early 1970s, as American energy production peaked and consumption continued to climb, informed observers noted that an energy crisis loomed. Without changes to America’s energy production or consumption, the country faced acute shortages on the horizon. In this context, the trans-Alaska pipeline seemed the necessary panacea to oncoming energy woes. While fears of energy crisis grew in Washington, so did political support for the pipeline. In the summer of 1973, both houses of Congress passed bills to override remaining legal impediments to the pipeline, an action similar to those taken in the House and Senate this week. A few months later, in the wake of an embargo imposed by the Arab petroleum exporters, President Nixon signed the new legislation authorizing the pipeline. Nixon approved the pipeline in the midst of the country’s most pronounced energy shortage since World War II, signaling a transition from an era of energy abundance to a new era governed by energy needs.

The Keystone XL pipeline debate mirrors the controversy surrounding its Alaskan predecessor. Environmental groups, as they did in the 1970s, also oppose the new pipeline. Keystone XL, they argue, represents “an environmental crime in progress” for its reliance on tar sands oil. Oil products refined from tar sands burn dirtier than conventional oil, releasing as much as 37 percent more carbon than regular gasoline according to the Sierra Club. The increased emissions from tar sands oil intensify the growing threat of climate change, a decades’ long trend of warming global temperatures caused largely by increasing levels of carbon and other greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. By blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, environmentalists hope to prevent the consumption of this dirty fuel.

Keystone XL’s advocates disagree. They claim that impeding the pipeline will not prevent the consumption of Canadian tar sands. Instead, they say that Canada will continue to develop their energy reserves without American involvement. Blocking the pipeline, they suggest, will only exclude the United States from economic benefits of Alberta fossil fuel development. TransCanada, the consortium constructing Keystone, argues that a pipeline carrying tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf is necessary, valuable, and inevitable.

But unlike the approval of the trans-Alaska pipeline, which followed the biggest event in the history of American energy shortage, the pending decision on the Keystone XL pipeline will occur only days after one of the country’s most significant steps to curb the harmful effects of energy consumption. On Wednesday, as congressional leaders announced their intention to vote on Keystone XL, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced a joint agreement to cut carbon emissions. While the agreement promises only cautious steps to roll back emissions, it marks a historical first step in a joint effort between the two biggest energy consumers. The US and China agreed to mitigate the fossil fuel pollution that causes climate change and its associated global impacts. Meanwhile, Congress prepares to authorize the transportation of a fuel source that exacerbates the same problem.

So while the two pipeline decisions appear similar on the surface, they reflect very different trajectories in the political balance between energy and environmental concerns. Congress’s approval of the trans-Alaska pipeline, coming in the wake of the Arab oil embargo, portended an era that emphasized the rapid development of domestic energy reserves. By immediately following the momentous bilateral emissions agreement reached by the US and China, the Keystone decision suggests not a nation ready to embrace its high-carbon energy options, but rather the dying gasp of a partisan position that is growing more and more untenable from both a political and scientific perspective. Energy interests will win more legal battles against the environmental adversaries, but unlike the circumstances of the 1973 decision that showed a new embrace of domestic energy development, the political debate surrounding today’s decision marks a reluctance to continue along that same path.

Matthew K. Kahn is a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University. His dissertation is tentatively titled “To Conserve or Develop: The Politics of Energy Extraction and Environmental Protection, 1969-1980″

TIME Environment

The Keystone XL Pipeline: Three Stories to Help You Understand the Debate

Truth About Oil
The Apr. 9, 2012, cover of TIME PHOTOGRAPH BY KENJI AOKI FOR TIME

The House has approved a pipeline proposal; the Senate is expected to vote on the subject next week

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline has become the single most important environmental issue in the U.S.—even though its environmental impact may not even be that great. The pipeline would move some 830,000 barrels of crude a day from the Canadian oil sands in Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska and then down to the Gulf of Mexico. Keystone would make it easier for Canadian producers to sell their landlocked crude to the rest of the world—which is exactly what environmentalists fear. Oil sands crude is dirtier and has a bigger carbon footprint than conventional oil.

Landowners in Nebraska worry that a spill could contaminate the state’s vital aquifer, while environmentalists fear that the pipeline will speed the development of the oil sands and help add huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. But other experts argue that oil sands crude will come to the U.S. by another route—most likely through rail—or be sold elsewhere in the world if Keystone isn’t built, meaning the planet won’t be any better off.

Since it’s an international project, the President has to sign off on the Keystone pipeline before it can be built—and much to the consternation of the oil industry, President Obama has delayed his decision for years, claiming that he needs more time to study the pipeline. But with Republicans now firmly in charge of both houses of Congress—and many conservative Democrats in favor of the project—Obama may need to make a decision soon.

With a decision potentially on the horizon — the House passed legislation on Friday and the Senate is expected to vote on the topic next week — refresh your understanding of the debate with these three articles from the TIME archives:

Mar. 12, 2012: Cold Warrior

A profile of activist and author Bill McKibben explains why the pipeline extension drew environmentalists’ attention, and how they helped influence President Obama’s decision to reject a 2012 version of the application to build the pipeline:

Though Canada is already mining and selling oil-sands crude, McKibben saw the proposed Keystone XL pipeline–set to deliver up to 830,000 barrels a day to the U.S.–as a crucial accelerator. More practically, because the cross-border pipeline required State Department approval, he saw an opportunity to confront Obama, who dropped an early climate-change agenda in the face of stiff resistance. In late August, McKibben, along with major environmental groups, helped organize days of protest around the White House. Over 12,000 people showed up, and hundreds were arrested. In November, Obama said he would delay a decision until 2013. But Republicans tacked a provision onto a payroll-tax-cut bill mandating that the White House decide on the pipeline within 60 days. In response, Obama decided in January to reject Keystone XL altogether.

Apr. 9, 2012: The Truth About Oil

A broader look at new sources of oil explains why the crude that would travel through the pipeline is different from other oil:

Oil has never exactly been clean, but the new sources coming online tend to be more polluting and more dangerous than conventional crude. Producing oil from the sands in northern Alberta can be destructive to the local environment, requiring massive open-pit mines that strip forests and take years to recover from. The tailings from those mines are toxic. While some of the newer production methods eschew the open-pit mines and instead process the sands underground or in situ, which is much cleaner, they still require additional energy to turn oil sands into usable crude. As a result, a barrel of oil-sand crude usually has a 10% to 15% larger carbon footprint than conventional crude over its lifetime, from the well to the wheels of a car. Given the massive size of the oil-sand reserve–nearly 200 billion recoverable barrels–that’s potentially a lot of carbon. It’s not surprising that environmentalists have loudly opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, which would send 800,000 barrels of oil-sand crude a day to the U.S. “There’s enough carbon there to create a totally different planet,” says James Hansen, a NASA climatologist and activist.

Jan. 31, 2014: Report Raises No Major Climate Objections to Keystone Pipeline, But the Choice Is Obama’s

After the President’s initial rejection of the pipeline proposal due to insufficient information, the State Department spent the next few years putting together an assessment of its potential environmental impact. The finding, released early this year, was disappointing to environmentalists: that whether or not the pipeline was built, about the same amount of oil would be produced.

A lot has changed since Keystone was first proposed back in 2005. U.S. domestic oil production has soared, last year hitting the highest level in two decades—a fact that has weakened the case for the international pipeline. At the same, the rapid—and not always safe—growth of oil being shipped by rail in lieu of pipelines has shown just how creative the oil industry can be when it comes to moving their product. Given the overwhelming demand for oil, it’s quite possible that the State Department is right that whether or not the pipeline is built, it will have little impact on the carbon footprint of the oil sands—though that hasn’t stopped the Canadian government from lobbying hard for the project.

Read more of TIME’s science coverage in the TIME Vault

TIME China

Experts Are Skeptical Over the U.S.-China Emissions Deal

People wearing masks walk on a street amid heavy haze and smog in Beijing
People wearing masks walk on a street amid heavy haze and smog in Beijing on Oct. 11, 2014 Kim Kyung Hoon—Reuters

Meeting targets agreed on at the APEC summit requires Washington and Beijing to draw up and rigorously enforce unprecedented policies

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled a breakthrough deal on Wednesday, aimed at reducing both nations’ colossal carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.

During a press conference in Beijing, President Obama lauded the pact as a “historic breakthrough.” Likewise, in an editorial published in the New York Times, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. and China were “determined to make lasting progress on an unprecedented global challenge.”

But now comes the hard part.

Under the deal, the U.S. must slash carbon emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025, and China must start reigning in its release of greenhouse gases nationwide. Based on the initiative, China needs to hit peak CO2 emissions by 2030.

In addition, China, which has long relied on coal to fuel its unprecedented economic growth, also promised to rapidly increase the country’s reliance on nonfossil fuels in primary energy consumption. By 2030, Beijing is aiming to have 20% of the country’s energy needs supplied by zero-emission sources.

But to hit these targets, experts argue that both nations must now draw up and enforce unprecedented policies.

As Sam Roggeveen, of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, pointed out in a blog post published on Wednesday, the U.S. will have to “double the pace of its carbon pollution reduction to meet the new target.” Domestic politics could easily put a brake on that.

In China, Roggeveen writes, “an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emission generation capacity” must be deployed by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today. Otherwise the goal can’t be met.

Even if the central government had an all-consuming drive to achieve this, economists say it must provide the proper economic incentives to local bureaucrats who are pivotal to executing policies on the ground.

“The feasibility of doing [this] depends on the local bureaucrats, so if the local bureaucrats resist then nothing can be done,” Xu Chenggang, professor who is a specialist in China’s economic development at the University of Hong Kong, tells TIME. “[It doesn’t] matter how strong the leader is, to get things done really depends on incentives.”

Xu explains that China’s three decades of robust economic expansion were only possible because local officials were able to profit from the country’s rapid transformation into an industrial powerhouse. However, questions remain over whether there will be as much money to go around during a transition to a greener economy.

“In turns out it’s very, very difficult to find a scheme which is going to give local bureaucrats sufficient incentives to take care of their environment,” says Xu.

And even then, activists say the world’s two largest emitters of CO2 have yet to commit to the types of policies needed to reverse the effects of climate change.

“There is a clear expectation of more ambition from these two economies whose emissions trajectories define the global response to climate change,” says Li Shuo, a senior climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia in Beijing. “Today’s announcements should only be the floor and not the ceiling of enhanced actions.”

Still, others are hopeful that the historic announcement today will at the very least inject some momentum into the push to lower greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide.

“This is an important development, not so much because of the details,” explains Jim Falk, a visiting fellow at the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability in Tokyo. “It states a desire by US and Chinese leaders to add serious momentum to a global agenda to cap and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.”

— With reporting by Per Liljas and Helen Regan

 

TIME Environment

Midterm Elections Pass Four New Anti-Fracking Bans

Denton, Texas, passed high-profile ban on hydraulic fracturing

A record number of proposed bans to the controversial oil and gas drilling technique known as fracking were included on local ballots countrywide Tuesday. Out of eight proposed bans, four passed, in Ohio, Texas and California.

Perhaps the unlikeliest victory for anti-fracking activists was in Denton, Texas, a town north of Dallas situated in what one activist called the “cradle” of the U.S. oil and gas boom. The ban, which forbids the process of setting off large explosions underground in oil and gas drilling operations, passed with nearly 59% of the vote.

Denton is the first municipality in Texas to have passed a fracking ban–even despite heavy spending by the oil and gas industry to defeat the measure that the Denton Record Chronicle called it “the most expensive campaign in Denton’s history” by far.

“People in Denton rallied together and did some amazing organizing to pass a ban,” said Mark Schlosberg.

A legal challenge to the ban is all but assured, reports the Texas Tribune. Three of five similar bans passed in Colorado in recent years were overturned in local district court.

Fracking bans were also passed in Mendocino and San Benito counties in California, and in Athens, Ohio, while voters in Santa Barbara, California, and in the Ohio towns of Kent, Gates Mills and Youngstown rejected proposed fracking bans.

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