Up, up and away — with jet fuel powered by food scraps: 3 stories you may have missed

© Charlie Shoemaker

Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. Climate change: Jet fuel from waste 'dramatically lowers' emissions 

Fuel made from food scraps could slash the aviation industry’s carbon footprint. 

The story: As food waste dumped in landfills decomposes, it releases methane — a potent, planet-warming greenhouse gas. Now researchers have found a way to turn food scraps into jet fuel, according to a new study. Switching from standard jet fuel to this newly developed biofuel could help reduce greenhouse gasses by 165 percent – including the methane emissions avoided from landfills, according to researchers. They aim to use the biofuel in trial flights with Southwest Airlines in 2023, reported by Matt McGrath for the BBC.

The big picture: If international aviation were a country, it would be one of the top 10 emitters of carbon dioxide on Earth — and its emissions are projected to grow by 300 to 700 percent by 2050, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization. Cutting emissions from the sector will require not only improving fuel efficiency, but replacing air travel with more climate-friendly options like trains and buses when possible. 

"Sustainable aviation fuel is not a silver bullet," the study’s lead author, Derek Vardon, told the BBC. "So we do want to definitely emphasize that reduction [in air travel] is the most important and most significant change you can make. But there's also pragmatism and need for aviation solutions now, so that's where we want to strike a balance as we need a basket of measures, to really start getting our carbon footprint down.” 

Read more here

Further reading:

Protecting marine areas conserves threatened wildlife — and can help combat climate change.

The story: A new study found that bottom trawling — the widespread practice of dragging nets across the seafloor to catch fish — releases as much carbon as the aviation industry, reported Catrin Einhorn for the New York Times. Oceans are one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, helping to stash away about a quarter of all climate-warming emissions from human activities, experts say. Disturbing sediments in the sea releases the carbon dioxide stored underwater, which in turn increases ocean acidification and threatens marine life. 

Trawling is “wiping out biodiversity, it’s wiping out things like deep sea corals that take hundreds of years to grow,” one of the study’s authors, Trisha Atwood, told the New York Times. “And now what this study shows is that it also has this other kind of unknown impact, which is that it creates a lot of CO2.”

The big picture: The world’s oceans are increasingly becoming more hot, acidic and lifeless — with catastrophic implications for marine life, the climate and the food security of billions of people. But scientists have an effective tool for ocean conservation: Marine protected areas (MPAs) — regions of the ocean where human activities such as commercial fishing are limited. However, only 4 percent of the ocean is currently “protected” by MPAs. Scientists agree that countries must dramatically scale up their ocean protection to help conserve marine species and the livelihoods of coastal communities.

Read more here.

Further reading:

Scientists are searching for answers after a spike in manatee deaths in Florida.

The story: Three times as many manatees died in the first two months of 2021 as in the same period last year, Rebecca Renner reported for National Geographic. Most of the deaths occurred in Indian River Lagoon, part of an estuary system on Florida’s Atlantic coast, where manatees shelter in the winter. Though the deaths were initially attributed to cold weather, marine biologists and veterinarians now believe the mammals starved to death due to a lack of seagrass related to agricultural chemicals and other pollution in the lagoon. Algal blooms caused by nitrogen, phosphorus and other fertilizers smother the native grasses on which manatees feed.

The big picture: Along with the bald eagle, grizzly bear and other iconic species, the Florida manatee was added to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s first list of endangered animals in 1967. Due to federal protections and conservation efforts, Florida manatee populations have rallied in recent decades — growing from just a few hundred to approximately 6,600 animals. 

However, experts say conservation efforts must hold fast for the “sea cow,” which continues to face threats such as boat strikes, habitat destruction and polluted waters. 

“We didn't manage the warm water habitat” for the manatees, biologist Patrick Rose told National Geographic. “So all of the success we had for 30-plus years could be undermined, and we could see a collapse in the population if we don't get these things fixed soon.”

Read more here.

Vanessa Bauza is the editorial director at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Cover image: A plane taking off in Kenya (© Charlie Shoemaker)