While many of you are familiar with Pikachu, the beloved Pokemon character, very few I bet know about the Pika, the real life animal the short-tempered lightning conjuring Pikachu is modeled after.
The Pika is a small rodent, with big ears, and no tail, and about the size of a jumbo avocado. There are many species of pikas all around the world, and here in the US, they are important critters in the high-alpine landscapes of the American West, ranging from Nevada to Colorado.
They are also Indicator Species. Meaning they are pretty critical to our work in saving this planet in helping us identify the areas with the biggest need. And right now, they are very much indicating that climate change is very real and a very big problem as their populations continue to decline.
WHAT’S AN INDICATOR SPECIES?
You’ve maybe heard of keystone species – which are animals ranging from wolves to elephants that create important cascade effects many other species rely on.
Well an indicator species in one that provides very valuable early signals that there are environmental problems within an ecosystem. Essentially they are one of the first to react and change or suffer from these problems ahead of others. They can also indicate positive environmental change too. Think of them as lead generators for brewing issues we can’t easily detect, allowing us to target our investigative and restoration work before it’s too late.
There are many Indicator Species. Ranging from crayfish (respond quickly to water acidity) to peregrine falcons (exposure to pesticides quickly causes their eggshells to thin) to frogs (permeable skin is sensitive to toxins in the water) to spotted owls (nest in old-growth trees which are the first to be cleared in deforestation projects).
So is the pika. Particularly around warming.
You see, pikas are sensitive to both hot summers and short winters. They hibernate in the winter under rock debris that is covered in snowpack. That snowpack actually helps keep them warm by keeping out harsh winter winds and colder air temperatures. As those snowpacks melt faster, they are exposed to the colder dawn of spring, and being food depleted and carrying vulnerable young, both can die from this exposure. Likewise in the summer, they need those rock debris homes for shade, cause they can get heat strokes from temperatures too hot.
Pikas spend the majority of the summer collecting hay and grass to build their winter forts. They make over 13,000 foraging trips hauling some 50 pounds of material over summer. Considering they are about 4 ounces this is incredible commitment. So they can’t just sit in the shade during the summer and they can’t lose their warmth in the late Winter/early Spring.
So as pika populations decline in and around these key alpine ecosystems, it indicates they are getting warmer faster than we can protect them.
Here’s an article with some more info on how clever pikas are in building those winter homes.
WHAT’S OUR TAKE
First, pikas are freaking adorable and such cool little creatures. And we love Pikachu and you should too. What a namesake.
More importantly, losing pikas is an alarming signal, because given their diminutive size, they are quite resilient little fellas, to everything but a warming planet.
They are also critical for their ecosystems. Pikas are natural irrigators, aerating and moistening soil. That’s pretty important given the soil crisis we are in on a global level. As a reminder, healthy soil sequesters roughly half of all the carbon of our terrestrial terrain.
There are great projects out there to conserve Pikas, and it starts with collecting more data. They have been denied Federal Protection due to the lack of data on their entire home range. So go out and support the Colorado Pika Project if you can, and at least give them a follow and some social love because they are doing important, valuable work!
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DECARBONIZING THE GRID
There are a lot of different initiatives going on across the public and private sectors right now to meet our goals of 50% reduction in emissions by 2030 and to reach zero net emissions by 2050 globally as outlined by the Paris Accord. And we are NOT on a good pace – right now we are pacing to increase our emissions by 16% by 2030. Yikes.
Every effort counts, but often we get asked, what ONE thing will move the needle the MOST? That is probably decarbonizing our electricity.
Electricity accounts for about 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) worldwide. And consider that is only going to increase as more of our transportation goes electric, our currency goes electric (Bitcoin/crypto), and heck even some of agriculture is going electric (vertical indoor farming). Honestly nothing comes close to the impact of shifting our electricity from renewable energy over fossil fuels. How can any company reach zero emissions without it? Everyone needs power to operate their factories, their offices, their data centers.
So you are going to hear a lot about this here on Animalia and we will profile some really interesting initiatives in this space in the coming weeks leading up to Cop26.
This week, we are profiling the 24/7 CFE Compact.
SO….WHAT IS THE 24/7 CFE COMPACT?
It’s a coalition originated by the United Nations that everyone from countries to cities to companies to public utilities to NGOs can join. It’s making a pledge to contribute to decarbonizing our electricity grids.
How do we get there? Here are the guiding principles as outlined by the Compact:
- Hourly Matching – precision accounting to meet every kilowatt hour of electricity consumption with carbon free energy sources
- Local/Regional Purchasing – focusing on buying renewable energy for the grid at the local level, which is necessary to meet the hourly matching principle
- Tech Inclusive – a big wide open welcome to new technologies
- New Generation – a big wide open welcome to new sources of carbon free power (such as small modular nuclear reactors, a community solar farm, etc.)
- Maximize Impact by Solving Dirtiest Hours First – some grids and some peak hours are the most problematic, start by focusing resources there
What does it mean then to join the coalition? Any of the above entities fills out a form with their pledge and it’s reviewed by a small team designed by the UN. What the approval/review process is formally is a bit unclear to be honest, so we hope the Compact can get a bit more transparent about that.
But different organizations can contribute in different ways. If you are a big private company like Google or Amazon, you can and should contribute to procuring your electricity from renewable sources. You have the money and market weight to do so. Google is part of the coalition, and is the largest purchases of renewable energy in the US today.
An NGO or less electricity intensive company might contribute via advocacy.
A city or country might contribute via tax subsidies and various economic levers.
You can see the list of those who pledge here. Except to see this discussed a lot at Cop26 coming up in Glasgow at the end of October.
WHAT’S OUR TAKE
If you take away one thing on the climate front, let it be that the most impactful thing we can do is decarbonizing our electricity grid. BY FAR.
In some ways, this Compact is really designed to shift the narrative. There is so much talk on “sustainability” and “net-zero plans”, and we profiled last week for example why net-zero can be false gold. This is less about companies changing their own operations and more about how companies can impact the larger systems they operate within.
This is a critical nuance. If Company X reaches Net-Zero on their operations via the wrong kinds of offsets (remember not all offsets are made equal, for example, purchasing renewable energy contracts are great) but does not really impact the larger systems, and Company Y doesn’t quite get to try Net-Zero on their ops but via their advocacy or market weight significantly helps to decarbonize the grid, which one is contributing more long term to saving this planet? It’s probably Y. That’s the point here.
INDIA LAUNCHES CLIMATE RESILIENT RICE
On Tuesday this week, India unveiled a new type of climate resilient basmati rice – well 2 different types of basmati rice – along with over 30 other climate resistant crops ranging from chickpeas to soybeans.
Expect to see a lot of this in the near future – mutated and genetically modified crops that are built to better survive things like droughts and floods as the world prepares for climate change to intensify. In the case of the new strands of basmati rice, the big win is a 50-60% reduction in water needs to grow and harvest, preparing for a water crisis that is sure to intensify in the coming years and decades.
They do this by no longer needing to grow seedings in a nursery and then planting them 20-30 days later in large depths of water that have to continue to be irrigated. These new varieties can be directly sown into the soil from the seed stage and only need to be irrigated once. Traditional rice requires up to 5,000 liters of water, but these new varieties require over 50% less.
Rice is a big deal in India. It is the world’s largest exporter and 2nd biggest producer (China being the biggest producer, but with more mouths of its own to feed). Agriculture is 20% of their GDP overall.
Based on weather and climate projections, by 2039, India could see 4.5-9% reduction in crop yields. That’s a big deal and a big problem for a country with over 75% of its population living in poverty. So these new climate resilient crops are going to be much needed.
BOOSTING NUTRITION AND, WAIT, SUPPORTING HERBICIDES?
Another goal of these new crops is making them more nutritionally dense. One of the biggest problems in India and many parts of the developing world is called “undernutrition”…which is slightly different from hunger. It’s when there is food to eat, but that food is extremely nutritionally sparse and leading to dangerous health consequences.
In these 2 new strands of rice, India has modified them to carry more protein, zinc, iron, and Vitamin-A. All good things.
They’ve been using mutation breeding, which is different from genetically modifying something (GMO). Selectively breeding natural occurring mutations until you get it just right. Although, we at Animalia think we need to get out of the “all GMOs are bad mindset” as we will have to genetically modify much of our foods in the future. For now however, most GMOs are not healthy or advantageous, so this is a good route India has taken.
On the flip side, the other benefit of this new rice is that it is herbicide-resistant. Herbicides are necessary in India for combating weeds, but those herbicides can also kill rice. In today’s rice fields, the heavy water usage acts as a protection against this, but the new strands have a natural mutation that does that work, allowing herbicides to only target weeds, not the rice itself without the water protection.
“Water is a natural herbicide that takes care of weeds in the paddy crop’s early-growth period. The new varieties simply replace water with Imazethapyr and there’s no need for nursery, puddling, transplanting and flooding of fields. You can sow paddy directly, just like wheat,” said A K Singh, director of IARI.
WHAT’S OUR TAKE
We are going to need to modify our crops for climate change. There is no way around that. Increased droughts, floods, storms, wildfires are unavoidable. That’s clear in the IPCC 6th Climate Assessment from August. So kudos for India for getting out ahead of this.
In the world of Adaptation vs. Mitigation, this falls into that adaptation category. We still MUST mitigate climate change of course and if we do not, the damages will be inconceivable long term, but we also need to adapt to a new normal.
As for the herbicides, regenerative farming at scale is just starting to take shape. It’s been practiced in smaller ways for a long time, but not at scale. And there is no way to fully avoid scale in a country like India that has 1 billion people to feed and an export economy to support.
The trade-off here for minimizing water usage and bing more climate resilient is worth it in the short term. In the long term, we need to advance regenerative farming via technology, subsidies, and education. It is starting to happen around the world but needs to be accelerated.
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ARE THERE ANY GOOD OFFSETS?
It’s worth noting that some offsets are better than others. There are 4 criteria that should apply to all offsets. Unless all 4 of these are met, it’s hogwash. Even if these 4 are met, again, it should be a minimal part of any company’s plan and not reduce their need to lower their actual emissions in the first place.
Here are the 4.
- Additionality – does it add value that otherwise would not have existed (i.e. not investing in a wind turbine business that would have gotten the funding anyhow)?
- Permanence – is it long lasting without risk of getting derailed, like trees getting burned down?
- No Double-Counting – is there only one company taking the offset credit across it’s entire life cycle?
- No Leakage – such as the example of a neighboring forest being cleared to make room for the subsidized trees being planted
Most companies we’ve looked into don’t mention any of these in their net-zero plans or carbon offset audits. Why do the work if nobody is requiring you to do so? Why care if it’s so easy to trick the public and the media about your pro-environment net-zero formula?
SO WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE US?
We want to acknowledge that some of these offset programs are indeed funding valuable work. When they meet those 4 criteria, there is a net positive impact. We just don’t think they should be the backbone of any company’s environmental pledge. And while these companies will say, “hey, it’s just a bridge solution until we can make bigger changes”…..a bridge to what?
A bridge to getting to net zero? Bullshit. Net zero doesn’t matter. It’s propaganda.
What matters is changing the larger systems. The systems for how we make and source things. For how we finance things. Change material science for how we make things. Change our energy source to get off of fossil fuels. Change our macroeconomics that treat environmental damage as externalities with no cost basis. Change how we grow our food to be regenerative and less resource intensive. Change our culture to prioritize locally sourced goods.
Carbon offsets do none of this. At best they are a way to get important projects funded. At worst they will prevent all of these companies from ever doing anything meaningful to address the climate crisis.
Keep this funding going. Just don’t do it for your own accounting. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s time to call hogwash on Net Zero.