Magical thinking won’t help us reconcile biodiversity and food production

Recently, Science published a major review of the potential for conservation on farmland, rangelands, forests, and other working lands, authored by Claire Kremen and Adina Merenlender. The latest installation in a long-running debate about the relative merits of conservation approaches ranging from “land sparing” to “land sharing,” the piece presents an alluring vision of landscapes that can deliver not just abundant food and timber, but ecosystem services and biodiversity, all at the same time. However, the piece can only paint this rosy picture by downplaying the very real trade-offs between different functions in a landscape, thus eliding rather than illuminating the challenge of providing food and other goods while also protecting biodiversity.

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A New Day for Nuclear Advocacy…and Environmentalism?

Union of Concerned Scientists Becomes First Major Environmental Group to Publicly Back Policy Support for Nuclear Energy

Today’s release of a Union of Concerned Scientists report calling for policies to support continued operation of nuclear power plants marks a watershed. UCS is the first major environmental NGO to recognize that nuclear energy presently, and for the foreseeable future, is a key climate mitigation technology. It is also the first to publicly and explicitly call for policies to support nuclear energy.

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Does wildlife loss threaten civilization?

Last week, the World Wildlife Fund released their annual Living Planet Report, which estimated that wildlife populations (including mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish) have fallen by 60% between 1970 and 2014. This represents a staggering and tragic loss of non-human life and ecological heritage. But the loss of wildlife means more than that, according to the WWF. “Our health, food and security depend on biodiversity,” the report says, and “without healthy natural systems researchers are asking whether continuing human development is possible.” Mike Barrett, one of the authors of the report, puts it more bluntly in an interview with The Guardian: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is. This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ — it is our life-support system.”

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Nuclear for 1.5°C

Hope and Fantasy in Equal Measure

Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a major report on pathways to limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. The report is mostly a modeling exercise, as the 1.5° target is significantly more ambitious than most analysts consider feasible. The Paris Agreement formalized an international commitment to limiting warming to 2°, and even achieving that target may prove impossible. Nonetheless, IPCC reports deserve at least some attention, as they reflect the international scientific consensus around climate change.

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Deregulation and Decarbonization

Exploring the Evidence

Hopes were high when American electricity market deregulation began in the 1990s. By breaking up traditional utility monopolies on generation, transmission, and distribution, reformers hoped to create competitive markets that would increase dynamism while lowering costs. But despite the big promises of electricity deregulation, it appears to have had little obvious impact on innovation or prices.

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RIP Transatomic Power

Long Live the Advanced Nuclear Industry

Innovation is a messy business. With the benefit of hindsight, successful innovators are visionary seers while those who fail are tragically flawed: myopic, delusional, or incompetent, victims of forces they never saw coming or intractable problems they should have anticipated.

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Progress (Or Not) in Global Emissions

Decarbonization Stagnation by Sector

We talk a lot about decarbonization in the electric power sector, possibly because there are so many solutions on the table: nuclear reactors, renewable energy, carbon capture, and on and on. But electricity is only about one-fifth of global final energy consumption, and decarbonization outside the power sector is pretty disappointing. If we want to really tackle the emissions challenge, we’ll need innovation and deployment of technological options far beyond zero-carbon power generation.

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Toward a Half-Earth Future

How Agricultural Intensification Can Minimize Conservation Trade-offs

Over the last several years, a growing network of conservationists, through efforts like the Nature Needs Half network, has proposed an audacious goal for 21st century conservation: set aside half of the earth’s land area for nature. As an aspirational goal, the concept has inspired. Rather than framing global conservation as an exercise in damage control, the new effort offers a vision of an ecologically vibrant future in which people and nature thrive together.

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Beyond Yucca Mountain

Innovative Solutions to Nuclear Waste Management

Most nuclear advocates, often including us here at Breakthrough, tend to dismiss the issue of nuclear waste, noting that “you could fit all of the nuclear waste in the US on a football field at a depth of less than ten yards.” But that answer is insufficient: just visualizing the amount of waste won't make the political and technical challenges of managing nuclear waste (or “spent fuel”) go away.

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