Toyota invests in US car-sharing company

October 28, 2016

Leading Japanese car-maker Toyota Motor Corp has invested a reported USD 10 million in the U.S. car-sharing company Getaround, Reuters said on Friday.

A popular carsharing service in Germany

A popular carsharing service in Germany

The deal was done through the company’s investment fund, Mirai Creation Investment Limited Partnership set up in 2015 to invest in startups working on Artificial Intelligence, robotics, and hydrogen power.

The car sharing service, founded in San Francisco, US, was launched to the public in 2011 and has been available in San Francisco, Chicago and other US cities since 2013. It offers drivers the opportunity to rent cars from private owners in return for payment.  Owners earn 60 per cent commission on the rental prices they set. The company says it now has around 200,000 members.

According to Reuters, Toyota’s investment comes as automakers “seek to shore up their presence in new technology sectors amid growing competition from transport start-ups”.

Automakers have been scrambling to partner with tech firms to head off competition from self-driving cars and car sharing services that threaten to eventually trim demand for car ownership,” the report said.

Other companies in the automotive sector have shown interest in similar services in recent years.  General Motors Co set up its own car-sharing service, Maven, in January this year. Around the same time, Volkswagen transferred its own service called Quicar, set up in 2011, to Dutch project Greenwheels in which it has a 60 per cent share.  Audi has recently also announced plans to launch a similar service in 2017.

Source: Reuters

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Exxon spending big on clean tech advertising at Olympics

August 20, 2016

In response to pressure over climate change, Exxon Mobil Corp has been keen to show off its efforts toward advancing more clean technology through TV advertising at the Rio Olympics, Reuters reports.

According to Reuters, the four advertisements made by the oil and gas giant highlight the company’s efforts toward capturing carbon dioxide from power plants, making biofuel from algae and developing fuel-efficient cars. 

Exxon spokesperson Alan Jeffers explained that,”our main objective is to provide people with more information about the important role Exxon Mobil plays in safely and responsibly meeting the world’s growing energy demands.”

He added that, “we want to inform people about the technology and innovation that go into providing energy.”

According to iSpot.tv, Exxon has spent a total of $19.3 million to air 233 TV adverts in the US market between the 5th and 17th August this year.

The company has declined to release figures for advertising expenditure in previous years, however at the Rio Olympics, Exxon has been the eighth largest spender on TV advertising, Reuters reports. 

While there is nothing uncommon about an oil company advertising at the Olympics, this advertising package comes at a time when the company is facing mounting pressure regarding its contribution to climate change, not only from environmental groups, but also from shareholders and state attorney generals.

From shareholders, the pressure comes as governments around the world are cracking down on carbon emissions and seeking to be less dependent on fossil fuels.

This year in particular Exxon has been met by escalating pressure to act on climate change.

In what marks the first shareholder proposal to pass since 2006, in May the company’s shareholders approved a measure that may place an external climate expert on its board.

Then in March, the company came under fire when over a dozen state prosecutors announced that they would be investigating whether or not past and present Exxon executives had misled the public by contradicting research by company scientists regarding the threats posed by climate change.

In response to this criticism, Exxon representatives have claimed that the company has been unfairly targeted by environmentalist groups.

They assert that the company  has acknowledged the reality of climate change for over a decade, and supports a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

The company’s research into carbon capturing is said to have been ongoing over three decades, while it’s endeavours to make biofuel from algae date back to 2009.

 

Sources include: Reuters

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Antarctic ozone hole “healing” say scientists

July 3, 2016

A study published in Science claims to offer the first compelling evidence that the hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic is shrinking. This study, conducted by US and UK scientists, contains data collected annually between September 2000 and September 2015, which demonstrates a decline of 4 million sq km in the size of the ozone hole during this period.

The study’s authors attribute the good news to the phasing out of Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) chemicals since a global ban was introduced with the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

The study is also the first to highlight the role of volcanic activity in ozone depletion.

Ozone depletion and CFCs

Ozone is a gas which is present in the stratosphere, where it serves to protect humans, animals and plants on Earth by blocking harmful ultraviolet radiation coming from the Sun. For humans, exposure to UV radiation raises the risk of skin cancer and cataract damage.

Although depletion and production of ozone both occur naturally in the stratosphere, the level of ozone has been historically constant.

Yet in the mid 1980s British scientists discovered a dramatic thinning of the ozone layer above the Antarctic. Subsequently, in 1986, work by US researcher Susan Soloman called attention to the destructive effects on the ozone of the chlorine and bromine molecules in CFCs, which at the time were present in everything from aerosols to refrigerators and air conditioning units.

On the back of this research, in 1987 the Montreal Protocol introduced a global ban on CFC production, which was ratified by all UN member countries.

Ozone hole shrinkage

According to a BBC News article, the declining influence of CFCs has been reported by other studies prior to this latest research; however, this is the first time evidence has been put forward that the hole in the ozone layer is actually shrinking.

Between 2000 and 2015, Prof Solomon and her colleagues conducted detailed measurements of ozone in the stratosphere using weather balloons, satellites and model simulations. By so doing, they found that the hole above the Antarctic has shrunk by 4 million sq km over this period. Over half of this gain was due to the reduction of atmospheric chlorine.

For Dr Markus Rex from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany, “This is the first convincing evidence that the healing of the Antarctic ozone hole has now started.” He ascribes this achievement to the Montreal Protocol, and sees this latest finding as “a big step forward.”

Nevertheless as Professor Soloman made clear, “Even though we phased out the production of CFCs in all countries including India and China around the year 2000, there’s still a lot of chlorine left in the atmosphere.”

Given that this has a lifetime of between 50 to 100 years, recovery is expected to be slow. “We don’t expect to see a complete recovery until about 2050 or 2060,” said Professor Soloman.

Volcanic Activity

Yet, seemingly contrary to the reports conclusions, the reading taken in October 2015 showed the largest ozone hole on record; findings which at first baffled the researchers.

According to Prof Solomon, “Until we did our recent work no-one realised that the Calbuco eruption in Chile, actually had significantly affected the ozone loss in October of last year.”

The reason that thinning of the ozone layer occurred predominantly over the Antarctic is due to the extreme cold and ample light in this region. Conditions which helped to create Polar Stratospheric Clouds, in which CFCs linger and eat away at the ozone.

Prof Solomon explained that “”After an eruption, volcanic sulphur forms tiny particles and those are the seeds for Polar Stratospheric Clouds.”

“You get even more of these clouds when you have a recent major volcanic eruption and that leads to additional ozone loss.”

In fact this study has been hailed as “historically significant” by some in the field for being the first to draw a connection between volcanic activity and ozone loss.

Doubts

At the same time, there have been doubts raised by some in the field that the shrinkage in the ozone hole can be attributed to the decreasing amount of chlorine in the stratosphere.

Nasa’s Dr Paul Newman, for example, said, “The data clearly show significant year to year variations that are much greater than the inferred trends shown in the paper.”

“If the paper included this past year, which had a much more significant ozone hole due to lower wave driven forcing, the overall trend would be less.”

Even so, the researchers behind the study clearly believe strongly in their findings. For them, international efforts to tackle the hole in the ozone should serve as a model for other global environmental problems.

“This was an era in which international co-operation went rather well on some issues. I was inspired by the way the developed and developing countries were able to work together on dealing with the ozone hole,” said Prof Solomon.

Sources: BBC News, Guardian Newspaper

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Scientists map wheat genome

July 17, 2014

Bread is a staple food for one third of the world’s population, and accounts for a huge 20 per cent of the world’s calorie intake.

In terms of science however, wheat has been rather overlooked. Until now that is.

Since 2011, scientists and members of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, have worked to find out what exactly the humble grain is made of. On Tuesday, they published the first draft genome sequence of “common” or “bread wheat”: an accomplishment which they believe could help farmers meet the ever-increasing demand for a high-quality crop – something which is particularly important in the context of climate change and an ever-growing population.

The research, published in the journal Science on Tuesday, reveals the result of what has been nearly 3 years work and around USD 68 million. The team of scientists, including researchers from Germany, the United States, the Czech Republic, and Canada has so far succeeded in deciphering the blueprint for nearly all the genes of bread wheat and roughly 60 percent of the whole genome.

The unusual size and form of the genome made the sequencing especially difficult for the team, the article said. Indeed, that of wheat contains a staggering 100,000 or so genes, 5 times more than the human genome, which contains roughly 20,000.

The largely repetitive nature of the wheat genome also made its untangling more difficult.

The advantages of the project are manifold. “Wheat improvement is crucial to ensure food security and the development of sustainable agriculture in a context of climate change and growing population,” said Frederic Choulet, plant genomicist at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), and one of the lead researchers on the project.

The new draft genome is also expected to significantly decrease the time it will take to identify and isolate genes of interest to plant breeders, such as those which express resistance to heat, stress, insects, or disease.

The consortium plans to finish the full genome within three years. “We have a clear path forward for completing high quality sequences of all bread wheat chromosomes,” said Kellye Eversole, the consortium’s executive director.

Source: The Japan Times; National Geographic

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“Massive shift” to renewable energy needed, says UN report

April 14, 2014

A new report drawn up by the United Nations has called for a ‘massive shift’ to renewable energy. The study, which comes after a week of hard negotiations between scientists and government officials in Berlin, Germany, says that climate change can only be reduced by a significant and rapid shift away from non-renewable carbon fuels.

Whilst the report advocates the use of natural gas as a means of bridging the transition from oil and coal to other, renewable sources of energy, such as wind and hydroelectricity, the UN has as yet been unable to agree upon how this energy transition will be funded.

The UK’s Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey spoke of the importance of fighting climate change by all possible means, saying that “We can do this, we have to because it’s so challenging and threatening to our economies and societies, our health, our food security. The report today shows we can do it if we have the political will.”

The UK prides itself on being a major contributor to the fight against climate change and a leader in the use of renewable energy sources. Mr Davey added that “We’ve, for example, doubled the amount of renewable electricity in the last few years. We’re likely to do better than our targets in increasing renewable electricity. But we’ve got to do more.”

The United Nations report suggests that of all of the carbon emitted by human activity since 1750 has been produced in the past 40 years, and rates continue to rise. In particular, the report draws attention to the high increase in coal use since 2000: before this point, global energy rates were pointing towards a possible trend of decarbonisation.

The report warns that if drastic action is not taken immediately, our continually growing population and subsequent increased levels of fuel use could cause the average temperature of our planet to rise by up to 4.8 degrees Celsius by 2100, far above the 2 degree level which is commonly regarded as the point beyond which dangerous impacts of climate change will be felt.

However, scientists involved in the report believe that this situation is not irreversible, and whilst it will involve massive changes in the energy sector. Professor Jim Skea, vice chair of one of the groups working on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report, said that “One of the biggest areas that’s important is getting the carbon out of electricity, so renewable energy, nuclear, fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage, that’s all part of the menu if we are going to make the transition to stay under the 2 degree target.”

For this target to be reached, the world will need to see a 40-70 per cent lowering of carbon emissions by 2050. The IPCC is a keen advocate of the use of renewables in reaching this target, and has praised the progress that renewable energy has made over the past few years, saying that it has come on in ‘leaps and bounds’ since 2007. In 2012, renewable energy use accounted for just over half of the new electricity generation added around the world, and it is hoped that such progress will continue to increase as the need for a reduction in carbon emissions reaches critical levels.

Sources include: The Guardian, BBC News

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Japan launches precipitation-measuring satellite in bid to understand world’s weather

February 28, 2014

Following weeks of extreme and highly unpredictable weather all over the world, the launch of a new “precipitation measuring” satellite means we may from now on be more prepared…

Japan has successfully launched a rocket carrying a satellite built to track global rain- and snowfall, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The US-built “Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory” launched at 3.37am (Japan Standard Time) on Friday 28th February from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan.  The satellite is part of an international initiative to help us better understand the world’s water cycle and its relationship to storms, droughts and climate change, and is designed to help meteorologists more confidently predict extreme weather such as storms and typhoons.

Steve Neeck, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for Earth science flight programs, said of the project:

“Why are we flying GPM? Rain and snowfall affect our daily lives in many ways … The distribution of precipitation … directly affects the availability of fresh water for sustaining life. Extreme precipitation events like hurricanes, blizzards, floods, droughts and landslides have significant socio-economic impacts on our society.”

Indeed, after months of volatile weather, including deadly snowfall in Japan, severe flooding in the UK and a life-threatening Arctic freeze in the US, the promise of a more comprehensive weather observation system could not come at a better time.

The mission to launch the GPM Core satellite has been in place for over a decade. As a continuation of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, which began in November 1997, GPM will, among other uses, improve the resolution of images gathered by the TRMM satellite.

JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency, and NASA, have collaborated on the project and together have invested over $1.2 billion creating the sophisticated technology.

Designed and built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, the GPM Core satellite weighs more than four tons fully fueled. It hosts two instruments to peer inside storms and through cloud layers from an altitude of more than 250 miles, acting like an X-ray for the clouds.

One of the instruments, the Dual-frequency Precipitation Radar provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, will scan the planet to acquire three-dimensional views of rain and snow showers.

The other, NASA’s GPM Microwave Imager, or GMI, built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. will measure the total precipitation suspended inside clouds and falling to Earth.

“The GMI will sense the total precipitation within all cloudlayers, including, for the first time, light rain and snowfall,” Neeck said. “The DPR will make detailed three-dimensional measurements of precipitation structures and rates as well as particle drop size.”

The information gathered by the Observatory will fill gaps in precipitation data over oceans, remote land masses and other undeveloped regions.

The spacecraft is set to become the centrepiece of a worldwide program to synthesize observations from disparate international satellites into a database of global rainfall and snowfall, which will be accessible every three hours.

Researchers plan to use data from the GPM Core Observatory to calibrate microwave measurements gathered from the network of already-flying international satellite missions (developed by the United States, Japan, France, India and Eumetsat, the European weather satellite agency), creating a uniform dataset scientists can rely on in their work.

“When scientists incorporate data from the international fleet, they can get a snapshot of all precipitation on Earth every three hours” said Gail Skofronick-Jackson, NASA’s deputy GPM project scientist.

In this way, said Riko Oki, JAXA’s lead scientist in the project, the data recorded by GPM Core Observatory “will be to the benefit of all.”

Sources include: space.com; The Japan Times

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UK flooding and extreme weather linked to climate change

February 11, 2014

With the water level of the Thames at a record high, villages underwater and even more rain to come, the UK is searching for someone to blame, but is the real culprit climate change?…

With more than 130 severe flood warnings, which indicate a danger to life, issued in the UK since December 2013 compared with a mere 12 of the same for the whole of 2012, the storms battering the UK may not be unprecedented but are nothing short of exceptional said Dame Julia Slingo, chief scientist of the Met Office.

The extreme weather has caused flooding to over 5,000 homes over the past two months and thousands more are still at risk as the UK faces another period of rainfall with “no end in sight”.

14 severe warnings are currently in place in the Thames Valley area, while 2 remain in Somerset. The Somerset levels, a South Westerly region of the country, has been dealing with extensive flooding since the beginning of the year.

The Thames river, which runs through the South Eastern counties of Berkshire and Surrey, burst its banks yesterday, exceeding any water level reached since gauges were installed in th2 1980s, meaning many homes are now being evacuated. Train services have been disrupted between Hampshire and Berkshire and Somerset and Wales. Oxfordshire and Essex have also been affected.

While the UK government and the Environment Agency does its best to alleviate the crisis, debates continue as to who is to blame for the lack of preparedness. Some believe rivers should have been dredged (to remove excess silt build-up) and the Environment Agency has been heavily criticised for its poor handling of the crisis. People affected by the flooding have said they felt abandoned by the agency and the chairman, Lord Smith, now faces calls for his dismissal. Others believe government cuts have left funds for aid and flood defences lacking.

Whichever man-made solutions should or should not have been implemented, nature is at the heart of the problem. Evidence now suggests that the cause of what has been called “the most exceptional period of rainfall in 248 years”, may be climate change.

Speaking ahead of a Met Office report produced by the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, Dame Slingo  said: “while there is no definitive answer for the current weather patterns that we have seen, all the evidence suggests that climate change has a role to play in it.”

The report itself suggests that the recent Polar Vortex in America and the storms hitting the UK are linked. Both caused by “perturbations” in the North Atlantic and Pacific jet streams, partly emanating from changing weather patterns in South East Asia and “associated with higher than normal ocean temperatures in that region”

Dame Slingo said of the connection: “The air that enters this storm system comes from that part of the Atlantic where it is obviously going to be warmer and carrying more moisture.”

“We also now have strong evidence that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense”

She warned that Britons should be prepared to face more regular extreme weather in the future and that sea levels were expected to rise by a foot over time. “That might not sound a lot, but when you are looking at storm surges, when you are looking at moving water from the Somerset Levels out to sea, it does matter.” she added. 

“The attribution of these changes to anthropogenic global warming requires climate models of sufficient resolution to capture storms and their associated rainfall,” the report said.

Such models are now becoming available and should be deployed as soon as possible to provide a solid evidence base for future investments in flood and coastal defences.”

For now however, there is no end in sight. The jet stream is not yet moving further north to resume its normal position and Sky News reports that groundwater levels are so high that the risk of flooding could remain until May – particularly in low-lying areas such as the Somerset levels.

“Andy McKenzie, a groundwater scientist at the British Geological Survey, told Sky News that even if the rain stopped today, so much water is soaking through the soil that levels are likely to keep rising for another two months.” (Sky News)

For live updates on the floods and the areas affected, see Sky News.

Sources include: BBC News; The Telegraph; The Financial Times; Sky News

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