TIME energy

California Oil Spill Forces Exxon Mobil to Halt Drilling

The company had submitted an emergency request to Santa Barbara County to truck its oil to refineries, which was rejected

Exxon Mobil stopped drilling at three offshore platforms in California last week in the wake of a pipeline’s closure after a big oil spill, the company said Tuesday.


A spokesman said the company had submitted an emergency request to Santa Barbara County to temporarily transport oil via truck, the Associated Press reports, but the County decided the situation didn’t constitute an emergency, leaving Exxon Mobil will little choice but to halt operations. Investigators looking into the cause of last month’s spill—of up to 101,000 gallons of crude onto the coastline—recently found a section of the pipe was extremely corroded.

Before last week, Exxon Mobil had been producing a third of the oil it typically produces from three oil rigs. The oil was stored in an onshore facility that has now reached capacity.


TIME China

Could China, the World’s Biggest Carbon Emitter, Ever Go Green?

Steam Train Provides Link Between China's Past And Present
Kevin Frayer—Getty Images Coal to be used by coal powered steam engines is seen backdropped by a coal fired power plant on March 27, 2015 at a station near the town of Shixi , Sichuan Province, in Southern China

Beijing is making big pledges but faces serious implementation challenges

Its cities are cloaked in smog, the water is polluted and the economy is hugely reliant on coal, the dirtiest form of energy. But now, China is trying to change its reputation as the world’s worst polluter.

A recent study conducted by the London School of Economics says that, if all goes as planned, China may start reducing its C02 emissions by 2025 — five years sooner than the year pledged by President Xi Jinping.

Climate-change reformers say that in order to reduce such emissions, coal is the first thing that has to go. Many Western countries are struggling to meet this goal. Five G-7 nations have actually increased their coal use in the past five years, while countries like Australia hope to continue building their economy off of the fossil fuel.

It’s not going to be easy for China either. In the past year, the country has reduced coal use by 2.9%. But, according to a report by the Guardian, it still produced 3.87 billion tons of coal during the same period. A recent Greenpeace report states that China builds the equivalent of a coal plant a week.

The country’s rapid economic growth is largely to blame for its reliance on dirty energy. “The energy-use increase is actually pretty much following the GDP curve,” Professor Aleksandra B. Djurišić, who studies solar cell energy at Hong Kong University, tells TIME. “The regulations on the environment are not up to the level of developed countries.”

Djurišić thinks history will repeat itself. Like China, the U.S. relied heavily on coal to fuel its economy as it developed in the 19th century, fouling its environment as it did so. Environmental regulations only began to tighten much later, around the 1970s. “[In China,] you are looking at the situation that Europe or the U.S. was in 50 or 60 years ago,” Djurišić says.

Fergus Green, a policy analyst who helped pen the LSE report, is optimistic that the nature of the economy and Chinese GDP growth is poised to change, “shifting investments away from heavy industrial, factories and steel plants and toward more investment in services and higher value added manufacturing.” The government also plans to move away from coal and toward new forms of energy like hydroelectricity, wind and solar, Green said.

Beijing has certainly set some ambitious goals for itself. The central government’s 12th Five-Year plan, published in 2011, listed sustainable growth as one of the country’s top priorities. It has started creating incentives for companies to invest in renewable energy and has been investing heavily in the solar industry, driving the price of solar panels down globally. It’s also told local leaders that along with regional GDP growth, they will be judged on their ability to promote sustainable growth.

Li Shuo, a senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace, commends China for pledging to reduce carbon emissions. “The new momentum created by China’s coal decline, the major U.S.-China joint climate statement last year, and the latest G-7 declaration should all help secure the delivery of [an agreement at December’s Paris Climate talks],” he wrote in an email to TIME.

The government has come under criticism for not moving quickly enough, however, and for continuing to make economic growth too much of a priority. “They have to do something because the air quality is a disaster, but how quickly that is going to go, I’m really not very optimistic,” Djurišić says.

Some reports say that air quality has improved, at least in Beijing, in recent years. But the country’s population continues to criticize the state of the environment. Last year a documentary called Under the Dome gave a searing portrayal of pollution in the country. After it received hundreds of millions of views, the Chinese government blocked it from being viewed online.

The central government should also expect significant implementation challenges. Coal reduction doesn’t mean coal elimination — the economy still relies heavily on the fossil fuel. With many provinces to control, the central government will also have a tough time convincing local leaders that it makes economic sense for them to invest into more expensive renewable energy. “It costs less to pollute than to obey the rules,” Shuo said.

Some hope that the market will start slowly shifting in a greener direction on its own, as Chinese citizens become increasingly frustrated with the environmental degradation of the country. “Everyone’s living in a soup of air pollution and water you can’t drink,” Sean Kidney, the president of the Climate Bonds Initiative, says. Kidney’s organization encourages companies to seek out investments for green projects, then pay investors back incrementally through a “green” bond agreement once the project is implemented.

He thinks that China is poised to become one of the biggest issuers of “green” bonds in the next five years. “There are about $150 billion worth of domestic bonds that we would call green in terms of how the proceeds are used,” Kidney says.

The case shouldn’t be overstated, however: green bonds are a mere drop in the ocean of China’s bond market, which is the world’s third largest, according to Goldman Sachs, and worth a staggering $4.24 trillion.

The LSE’s Green suggests that the government continues creating market and local incentives to meet its long-term goals. It could also tax coal more heavily, he opines. But all of these changes will take time, especially in a country as vast as China. “China’s not an economy where the President pushes a button and everything turns around,” Kidney says. “It’s a supertanker … a tough supertanker to shift.”

TIME Chile

Chile Declares First Environmental Emergency Since 1999 Over Air Pollution

Smog shrouds Chile's capital Santiago, June 22, 2015.
Ueslei Marcelino—Reuters Smog shrouds Chile's capital Santiago, June 22, 2015.

About 40% of the country's 1.7 million automobiles must be off the road

Air pollution in Santiago is so bad that Chile declared a state of environmental emergency on Monday for the capital and the surrounding metropolitan area.

The decision forces around 40% of the country’s 1.7 million automobiles off the road, Reuters reports, and more than 900 factories must also cease operations. Chile’s first environmental emergency since 1999 is expected to last for 24 hours but can be extended if conditions don’t improve.

“We’re currently facing unusual conditions, with one of the driest Junes in over 40 years as well as really bad air circulation conditions in the Santiago valley in recent days, which boosts the concentration of contamination,” Chile’s Environment Ministry said in a statement.


TIME Environment

The Burning River That Sparked a Revolution

Cuyahoga River
AP Images A fire tug fights flames on the Cuyahoga River near downtown Cleveland on June 25, 1952.

June 22, 1969: The Cuyahoga River catches fire in Cleveland, drawing national attention and helping the passage of the Clean Water Act

It was the disaster that ignited an environmental revolution. On this day, June 22, in 1969, the Cuyahoga River burst into flames in Cleveland when sparks from a passing train set fire to oil-soaked debris floating on the water’s surface.

When TIME published dramatic photos of the burning river — so saturated with sewage and industrial waste that it “oozes rather than flows,” per the story — concern erupted nationwide. The flaming Cuyahoga became a figurehead for America’s mounting environmental issues and sparked wide-ranging reforms, including the passage of the Clean Water Act and the creation of federal and state environmental protection agencies.

But the episode itself did not quite live up to its billing. It was not the first fire, or even the worst, on the Cuyahoga, which had lit up at least a dozen other times before, according to the Washington Post. Flare-ups on the river were so common that this particular fire, which was extinguished in half an hour and did relatively little damage, barely made headlines in the local papers.

And industrial dumping was already improving by the time of the 1969 blaze. As the Post points out, “The reality is that the 1969 Cuyahoga fire was not a symbol of how bad conditions on the nation’s rivers could become, but how bad they had once been. The 1969 fire was not the first time an industrial river in the United States had caught on fire, but the last.”

In fact, TIME’s dramatic photos were not even from the 1969 fire, which was put out before anyone thought to take a picture. The magazine instead published archival photos from a much bigger fire on the same river 17 years earlier, in 1952.

The story’s points were valid, however, and even more shocking than the photo spread. Aside from the Cuyahoga, in which there were no signs of visible life — “not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes” — unregulated dumping befouled nearly every river that passed through a major metropolitan area. The Potomac, TIME noted, left Washington “stinking from the 240 million gallons of wastes that are flushed into it daily” while “Omaha’s meatpackers fill the Missouri River with animal grease balls as big as oranges.”

While the Clean Water Act might not have prevented any more river fires, which were already on their way out, per the Post, it did force cities to clean up their act, and their water, in other ways.

By 1989, the Cuyahoga was not quite pristine — but it was fireproof, according to the New York Times. Some signs of life had reappeared, including insects and mollusks. And Cleveland’s water pollution control commissioner averred that the Cuyahoga no longer oozed, but “often gleam[ed] and sparkle[d].” Almost like, well, a river.

Read more, from 1969, in the TIME Vault: The Price of Optimism

TIME Environment

Scientists Warn ‘Sixth Extinction’ May Be Underway

Science Advances

The paper used conservative premises and still arrived what scientists said was a concerning conclusion

A new paper warns that a major extinction event, one that would be the sixth in our planet’s history, may be underway. The authors of the paper, published in Science Advances, sought to determine whether recent loss in biodiversity has been caused by human activity; the conclusion they reach is that “a sixth mass extinction is already under way.”

The scientists’ abstract concludes:

Averting a dramatic decay of biodiversity and the subsequent loss of ecosystem services is still possible through intensified conservation efforts, but that window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

As Kaleigh Rogers points out at Vice, this paper hardly breaks ground in its premise; the idea that Earth is undergoing the sixth extinction has been written about by scientists before. What differs, here, are the criteria; the scientists estimated very conservatively when it came to how many species have recently gone extinct, and still found that conservative estimate showing the likelihood of an environmental cataclysm.

TIME Environment

The Surprising Link Between Trans Fat and Deforestation

palm oil deforestration Nutella
Saeed Khan—AFP/Getty Images A tree stands alone in a logged area prepared for palm oil plantation near Lapok in Malaysia's Sarawak State in 2009.

The ban will likely lead to an increase in palm oil cultivation

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned trans fat this week in a move hailed as major step forward in the fight against heart disease. But the move may have some unfortunate environmental consequences. The increased demand for palm oil—the leading replacement for trans fat—will likely lead to deforestation as wooded areas in the tropics are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations.

“It’s the single greatest immediate threat to tropical forests and wildlife,” said David Wilcove, Princeton University professor of public affairs and ecology and evolutionary biology, about palm oil. “It is the leading cause of deforestation and has been for a number of years.”

When the trans fat ban takes effect in three years, experts say that palm oil will be the clear alternative for food producers. In 2006, the FDA enacted a rule that manufacturers label trans fat on food products—and palm oil imports the United States jumped by 60%. The number will be much larger this time around, experts say.

“The labeling rule gives us a pretty clear indication that actually banning trans fats is going to further increase U.S. imports of palm oil,” said Jeff Conant, who leads the international forests program at the Friends of the Earth environmental group.

But with the new demand for palm oil also comes an opportunity to advocate for creating better regulations for the product, Conant said. Many manufacturers already prohibit their suppliers from cutting down new forest and instead ask that they rely on land that was already cleared. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil develops these standards and monitors the production of palm oil. Conant says the FDA rule provides the perfect opportunity to encode standards like these into law.

“Until now we’ve been saying avoid products that use palm oil but now that’s not really possible,” he said. “Now that we have mandatory rules for eliminating trans fat from our diets, we need mandatory rules to protect rain forests.”

TIME faith

John Kerry Praises Pope Francis’ Climate Change Encyclical

Secretary of State John Kerry called Pope Francis’ encyclical a “powerful” statement on the threat of climate change Thursday.

Kerry, who is Catholic, told TIME in a statement that religious engagement on the issue will help spur agreement at the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

The Pope’s powerful encyclical calls for a common response to the critical threat climate change poses to our common home. His plea for all religions to work together reflects the urgency of the challenge. The faith community – in the United States and abroad – has a long history of environmental stewardship and aiding the poor, and Pope Francis has thoughtfully applied those same values to the very real threat our planet is facing today. The devastating impacts of climate change – like heat waves, damaging floods, coastal sea level rise and historic droughts – are already taking place, threatening the habitat all humans and other creatures depend on to survive. We have a responsibility to meet this challenge and prevent the worst impacts. As stewards of our planet, we can all work together to manage our resources sustainably and ensure that the poorest among us are resilient to climate change. We have the overwhelming body of peer-reviewed science to show us what is causing this problem, and we are equipped with the tools and resources to begin solving it. Engagement on this issue from a wide range of voices is all the more important as we strive to reach a global climate agreement this December in Paris.

Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Sheba Crocker met with Vatican officials, including the Holy See’s Undersecretary for Relations with States Antoine Camilleri, on May 26 at the Holy See to discuss climate change and Pope Francis’ 2015 Development goals.

“When he speaks on issues—whether it’s on climate change, alleviating poverty, or peace and security issues—it just has a real resonance and that’s something that we find incredibly useful,” Crocker says. “It’s so important for Pope Francis to be speaking in the way that he is—with such a clear voice. He brings such a moral authority to these questions, and his voice resonates in a way throughout the world, which we think provides him with crucial impetus—both political and moral—to help us reach an agreement in Paris at the end of the year.”

It’s another sign that the Obama administration is hoping to leverage Pope Francis’ efforts on shared commitments, especially in advance of his upcoming trip to the U.S. In September. “We have really renewed energy—strong leadership from the United States, but also countries from around the world, and I think real dedication and commitment to try to reach a durable agreement in Paris, which is the historic step, obviously, at the end of this year,” Crocker tells TIME. “It’s a top priority for the administration.”

U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Ken Hackett was at the Vatican press conference Thursday morning for the encyclical’s release.

TIME Environment

Greenpeace Says It’s Ok to Eat Nutella

Environmentalists approve of the way the choclate spread makers use palm oil

Nutella may prove to be the unlikely source of a rift between Ségolène Royal, France’s ecology minister, and prominent environmental agency Greenpeace.

In an interview on French television network Canal+ Monday night, Royal took her stand against the popular chocolate-hazelnut spread. ““We have to replant a lot of trees because there is massive deforestation that also leads to global warming,” she said. “We should stop eating Nutella, for example, because it’s made with palm oil.”

Palm oil has contributed to deforestation in recent years and scientists have linked it to climate change. Nutella, however, has taken steps to minimize the environmental impact of its plantations, which likely explains why Greenpeace was willing to jump to the defense of the Italian company that manufactures it, Ferrero.

In a statement to Quartz, the organization said it does not support a ban because “a blanket boycott of this agricultural crop will not solve problems in its production,” adding that Greenpeace “consider Ferrero to be one of the more progressive consumer-facing companies with regards to palm oil sourcing.”


TIME Environment

This Ingredient Is Why a French Minister Wants to Boycott Nutella

'It’s the single greatest immediate threat to tropical forests and wildlife'

A French minister launched an international spat this week with her declaration that consumers should avoid their favorite Italian chocolate spread if they want to help save the environment.

“We have to replant a lot of trees because there is massive deforestation that also leads to global warming. We should stop eating Nutella, for example, because it’s made with palm oil,” French Ecology Minister Ségolène Royal told television channel Canal+ on Monday. Royal’s Italian counterpart fired back quickly, demanding that she “leave Italian products alone.”

But aside from the complicated diplomatic reasons behind the feud, Royal is right to call out palm oil as a key cause of deforestation and a contributor to climate change. Oil palm, the species of palm that produces the edible vegetable oil, is primarily produced in the tropics, and farmers first have to clear a large swathe of forest when they want to build a new plantation.

The results can be devastating for biodiversity. Oil palm plantations don’t even come close to supporting the same amount of wildlife as the forests they replace. For example, approximately 75% of bird species and 80% of butterflies are lost when forest land is converted to palm oil plantation land, according to one study.

“It’s the single greatest immediate threat to tropical forests and wildlife,” said David Wilcove, Princeton University professor of public affairs and ecology and evolutionary biology. “It is the leading cause of deforestation and has been for a number of years.”

Beyond ecology, deforestation also contributes to climate change. Forests act as carbon stores that hold carbon that is released into the environment when deforestation occurs. Oil palm plantations simply can’t compete with the carbon-storing ability of forests.

This is all bad news for the environment, but boycotting Nutella likely wouldn’t help very much. There’s still a good chance you would find it in the cookies you eat, the shampoo you use to wash your hair, or in one of the thousands of other products that rely on it. “It’s very difficult to avoid it,” said Wilcove. “It’s not like dolphin-safe tuna where there’s a very discrete product that you can decline to purchase.”

Finding companies that requires their suppliers to produce palm oil sustainably should be one part of minimizing the environmental impact of oil-palm plantations, Wilcove says. Palm oil farmers can rely on land that has already been cleared and not plant in areas with peat soil, which serve as carbon stores themselves. If farmers must clear forest, they can at least avoid areas with endangered species. There’s even an organization, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, that develops standards on how to cultivate the oil sustainably and monitors its production.

And that’s what’s so strange about Royal’s remark. Nutella’s manufacturer, Italian chocolate-maker Ferrero, has taken significant steps to guarantee that its palm oil comes from sustainable plantations and has even been described as a “mover and shaker” worth emulating in this area by environmental group Greenpeace. “The most important thing that consumers can do is to pressure the large purchasers to insist that their suppliers not create any new plantations on critical lands,” Wilcove said.

So perhaps consumers ought to buy more Nutella, not less.

TIME Environment

Why The French Ecology Minister Just Said We Should Stop Eating Nutella

Production of the treat may contribute to deforestation

French ecology minister Ségolène Royal called on consumers to stop eating Nutella this week because the cultivation of palm oil, a key ingredient, contributes to deforestation.

“We have to replant a lot of trees because there is massive deforestation that also leads to global warming,” she told French television network Canal+, according to Agence France-Presse. “We should stop eating Nutella, for example, because it’s made with palm oil.”

Producing palm oil requires turning tropical forest land into plantations. Research shows that these plantations harm biodiversity and increase carbon emissions. In Malaysia, for instance, research has shown that the creation of these plantation has led to a 12% decrease in biodiversity.

Ferrero, the manufacturer of Nutella, said it is playing a leading role in “the sustainable transformation of the palm oil sector.”

“Our target is to ensure our consumer that the palm oil we use in our products achieves our ‘No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation’ commitments,” the company said.

Read next: Parents Can’t Name Their Child ‘Nutella,’ French Court Says

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