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Sustainability News

Pioneering planetary management

ASU Now | January 23, 2018

Image of a GlobeWith the goal of harnessing the innovative capacity of academia and developing options for the sound management of our planet, ASU President Michael Crow announced the launch of the Global Futures Initiative in January 2018.

Global Futures will take the pieces ASU already has and fuse them together more tightly while breaking intellectual ground. It will build new and bigger collaborations; find untapped opportunities that lie between disciplines, schools and existing projects; and amplify ASU’s global impact.

That's according to Peter Schlosser, Vice President and Vice Provost of Global Futures, who was recruited from Columbia University to lead the effort.

“Global Futures is a platform from which to take a broad look at the trajectory of our planet and the role of global society in shaping it," said Schlosser, "to gather and synthesize knowledge from many frameworks and to fundamentally alter how we manage the planet in ways that achieve sustained habitability.”

Illuminating gender inequality in Mexican aquaculture

View Source | January 12, 2018

Maria Cruz TorresAmid cartel-related chaos, female shrimp traders in Sinaloa, Mexico shed literal blood, sweat and tears to carve their niche in the historically male-dominated industry. Ultimately, these women managed to achieve economic independence and secure hope for future generations.

That’s why Maria Cruz Torres, an anthropologist and senior sustainability scientist at ASU, has worked tirelessly for twenty years to make their efforts visible – even despite the threat of personal violence. She tells the stories of 52 women in her most recent book, “Voices Throughout Time: Testimonies of Women Shrimp Traders in Sinaloa, Mexico.”

Cruz Torres’ work illuminates the interrelations of gender, labor and resource management in aquaculture, as well as the industry’s effects on the political ecology and economy of the U.S.-Mexico transborder region. She was elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2017.

Assessing the value of urban agriculture

View Source | January 10, 2018

Urban GardenThe benefits of urban agriculture may seem local and limited, but – according to a team of researchers led by ASU and Google – the collective environmental impact is significant.

The team – which includes Senior Sustainability Scientist Matei Georgescu – analyzed global population, urban, meteorological, terrain and Food and Agricultural Organization data sets in Google Earth Engine to come to their global scale estimates. They then aggregated them by country.

“Our estimates of ecosystem services show potential for millions of tons of food production, thousands of tons of nitrogen sequestration, billions of kilowatt hours of energy savings and billions of cubic meters of avoided storm runoff from agriculture in urban areas,” Georgescu said.

The team reported its findings in Earth’s Future.

Biodegradable plastics made from bacteria

View Source | January 9, 2018

Taylor WeissBy employing cyanobacteria – a photosynthesis-happy bug – Senior Sustainability Scientist Taylor Weiss is making environmentally-friendly bioplastics that dissolve in a matter of months.

Weiss achieves this by creating a symbiotic partnership between two bacteria, each specializing in a specific task. He recently joined ASU’s Polytechnic campus, where he is scaling up the process at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation.

"Bringing all these elements together and in real-world conditions at large scales needs to be done," Weiss said. "Fortunately, we have a one-of-a-kind academic test bed facility here at AzCATI that is uniquely suited to answer the remaining production questions and push development of the technology."

Direct air capture of CO2 engineered design

December 16, 2017

The world can no longer postulate a scenario that maintains global temperature rise at or below 4 degrees C, without significant removal of existing CO2 from the air. Based on the amount of CO2 already in the atmosphere (over 406 ppm) and the steady increase in CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, even the best possible efforts at reduction will fail to achieve a halt to warming at or below 4 degrees C.

The climate change crisis is so far advanced that even drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t prevent a convulsive future by itself — the amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere ensures dire trouble ahead.  A forward-looking calculation might postulate a need to return to 350 ppm and acknowledge that by 2040 we will be at 450 ppm.

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British diplomat examines US stance on climate change

View Source | December 12, 2017

Sir Crispin TickellIn December 2017, two years after the Paris climate agreement was signed, the One Planet summit explored ways to meet climate goals without the support of the United States government.

On that note,  Distinguished Sustainability Fellow Sir Crispin Tickell – an ASU Wrigley Institute board member – gave ASU Now his prescription for the denial of climate change science in the U.S.

"We need a bit of political leadership. We had it originally in Britain from Margaret Thatcher, with whom I used to work quite closely," Tickell said. "I think politicians should take a grip and explain clearly to people in language they can understand what is happening and what has to be done about it, and what it will be necessary to do if nothing is done sooner rather than later."

ASU Announces New Center in Sustainable Food Systems

View Source | December 7, 2017

Kelly and Brian SwetteWith the aim of finding better solutions to today's food-related challenges, Kelly and Brian Swette have made a major gift to establish the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University.

The new center, housed within the School of Sustainability, will tackle food systems from a holistic standpoint, taking into consideration water and energy use, carbon footprint and nutrition – all with an emphasis on efficiency across the global supply chain. It will also offer the nation’s first degree in Sustainable Food Systems.

Explaining that the new center will accelerate and expand current efforts, Dean Christopher Boone said, "By combining ASU’s assets as a research powerhouse with the entrepreneurial spirit of our students and the expertise from external partners, these sustainable food systems solutions will have profound and positive implications for livelihoods, human health and ecosystem integrity."

Brian is a member of the Board of Directors of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU, as well as an alumnus of the university. In 2012, he and Kelly launched Sweet Earth Natural Foods – a company that sells plant-based, natural and organic fare.

A savvy solution to Mekong River's hydropower dilemma

View Source | December 7, 2017

Person in a fishing-boatNearly 100 hydropower dams are planned for construction along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. While they are expected to provide clean energy to countries in the region, the dams may also offset natural river patterns if not managed properly.

In a December 2017 issue of Science magazine, Senior Sustainability Scientist John Sabo and his collaborators propose a solution.

“We have figured out the relationship between river flows and fish catch, and we have developed an algorithm for dam operators to use that will increase fish harvests and still generate power,” Sabo says. “Dams are going to be built no matter how much fuss we make; our research shows how we can be more strategic about the buildout and operations of these dams in the Mekong.”

Smithsonian exhibit to bring new understanding of water to Arizona

View Source | December 6, 2017

Image of a RiverASU's Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives is among the groups working to expand research and resources for an exhibit called Water/Ways.

The exhibit is part of the Smithsonian’s Think Water Initiative, which raises awareness of water as a critical resource for life through exhibitions, educational resources and public programs. Through the Smithsonian's Museum on Main Street program, Water/Ways will be transported to 12 rural communities around Arizona starting in 2018.

“This is another opportunity to educate the public about the challenges we face, of the importance of water and to try and help make us more intelligent managers of the resources in our world that support our lives,” says Senior Sustainability Scholar Paul Hirt, state scholar for the project. “Just explaining to people that there is an imbalance between the supply and demand is an important first step in solving it.”

Meeting purchasing needs the sustainable way

View Source | December 5, 2017

Nicole DarnallTo help organizations interested in eco-friendly purchasing, ASU's Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative is partnering with the Environmental Protection Agency on

The website features a searchable database of research articles related to the concept of “servicizing,” which promotes a more environmentally responsible way for businesses, nonprofits, governments and individuals to meet their purchasing needs.

"This new ‘servicizing’ approach offers and charges customers for the function of a product rather than the product itself,” explains Senior Sustainability Scientist Lily Hsueh. “Producers or vendors are the ‘owners’ of the products and consumers pay to be ‘users’ of the products.”

The website features a keyword search and provides crowd-sourced information, allowing anyone to share knowledge about servicizing or recommend other resources to be added to the database.

Sharing is not only caring, it's how we thrive

View Source | November 27, 2017

Amber WutichSmall acts of kindness – something as simple as lending a neighbor a cup of sugar – not only bind us together, but are critical to our survival as a species. That's according to Senior Sustainability Scientist Amber Wutich, an anthropology professor and director of ASU's Center for Global Health.

"Sharing is so important, that in most cultures it has its own special vocabulary and rituals," Wutich explains in a November 2017 KEDtalk. "Sharing helps families survive, and it's a core part of people's identity that defines their place in their communities. That's why anthropologists like me have studied how humans share in cultures in every part of the world."

Shrinking ozone hole a beacon of hope for climate change reversal

View Source | November 20, 2017

OzoneThe risk of things like skin cancer, extinction of sensitive amphibians and degradation of outdoor buildings is now lower, thanks to the fact that the hole in our ozone layer – which protects Earth from the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation – has shrunk.

Satellite measurements indicate that the ozone hole is about 1 million miles smaller than when measured a year ago, a positive trend that NASA says can be explained by an unstable and warmer Antarctic vortex. Senior Sustainability Scientist Kevin Gurney is heartened by this news, which suggests that other negative trends can also be reversed.

With regard to influencing the direction of climate change, Gurney says, "It suggests more than a possibility — it suggests that we can achieve the solution to a large global environmental problem."

Can carbon-dioxide removal save the world?

View Source | November 20, 2017

Carbon DioxideCarbon-dioxide removal could be a trillion-dollar enterprise because it not only slows the rise in CO2 but reverses it.

Many companies are vying to prove that carbon removal is feasible, but also owe their origins to the ideas of a physicist and sustainability scientist named Klaus Lackner, who now works at Arizona State University.

Featured in The New Yorker, this article chronicles the journey that led Klaus to found the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions.

From #COP23: Why does carbon pricing matter?

November 16, 2017

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development and ASU LightWorks® believe that carbon pricing is one of the most efficient means of driving the transition to a low-carbon world. As an increasing number of jurisdictions have adopted – or are considering adopting – carbon pricing, a recent document by the WBCSD focuses on the “what” and “how” rather than the “why.”

The WBCSD released the document in hopes of stimulating discussions between policymakers and business leaders on how best to implement the carbon price so that it can incentivize low-carbon innovation and investment, create a global level playing field and support the attainment of the UNFCCC 2°C goal in a sustainable way.

In summary, carbon pricing is a monetary cost put on the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It must be implemented by governments through legislation. Despite significant progress made with the Paris Agreement, the need to bring emissions to net-zero later this century is not yet reflected in the overall transition picture.

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US still part of the Paris agreement, for now

View Source | November 9, 2017

Road signs with Climate and USA pointing different directionsAt the first U.N. climate meeting since President Trump announced the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris agreement, countries came together to iron out some details – like rules for how carbon emissions will be measured and how to pay for these efforts.

Called COP23, the meeting took place in Bonn, Germany in November 2017, and School of Sustainability Professor Sonja Klinsky provided advance insight.

“We are still part of the Paris agreement. If the United States wants to pull out of the accord, it will have to file this in writing in November 2019,” Klinsky told ASU Now. "Other countries’ perceptions of the willingness of the U.S. to be a cooperative global actor generally may change how effective it is at promoting its own interests. It is a distinct possibility that the U.S. will have less influence in this arena than it had previously; however, it is too early to say whether or not this has happened."

Military training promotes serving country and planet

View Source | November 8, 2017

Army Reserve Mission Resilience and Sustainability conferenceDuring an inaugural Army Reserve Mission Resilience and Sustainability conference hosted by ASU, over 150 military personnel, Department of the Army civilians and contractors were given the mandate to change the “sustainability DNA” of their organizations. The conference – which took place in November 2017 – brought together experts in the areas of energy security, water security, solid waste diversion and environmental quality from across the Army Reserve, encouraging collaboration and fostering innovation.

Joe Knott, an ASU doctoral candidate in the School of Sustainability and retired Army lieutenant colonel, helped to facilitate the partnership between ASU and ARMRS. He points out that today's young people are better versed in subjects like sustainability and climate change. In that sense, if the Army does not develop a strong sustainability culture, it may have trouble with retention.

“They expect sustainability and doing the right thing in addition to serving their country,” Knott says. “They say ‘what are you as a military organization going to allow me to do to make this earth sustainable for my kids and grandkids?’”

Alliance makes strides toward phosphorus sustainability

View Source | November 2, 2017

Lake overgrown with algaePhosphorus is a basic element found in all living things and is a key component of most fertilizers – enabling modern agriculture. On the flip side, phosphorus runoff contaminates rivers, lakes and streams, providing an overabundance of nutrients that leads to toxic algal blooms.

That's why the Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance, a unit of the ASU Wrigley Institute, continues to grow – to take on the phosphorus problem in the global food system. Following a five-year National Science Foundation grant, the alliance received a second round of funding from the OCP Group – a Moroccan mining company that owns the largest deposits of phosphate rock in the world.

The alliance grew out of industry interest in phosphorus sustainability and recycling during the original NSF grant period, which brought together dozens of researchers from around the world. In 2017, the alliance grew to nine member organizations representing different stages of the phosphorus value chain.

Solar-powered library connects remote regions

View Source | November 1, 2017

Peace Corps Vanuatu Training Group Pic 1Not everyone in our highly-connected world is a text or tweet away. For those in off-grid locales like Samoa, lack of information access means fewer educational opportunities.

That’s where ASU’s SolarSPELL comes in. The digital library, developed by Senior Sustainability Scientist Laura Hosman, is both portable and solar-powered. With its own Wi-Fi hotspot, it functions without electricity or existing internet connectivity.

In October 2017, volunteers came to ASU’s Polytechnic campus and built 150 SolarSPELLs in one day! Hosman’s innovative device received one of the inaugural PLuS Alliance Prizes at the 2017 Times Higher Education World Academic Summit in London.

Accelerating biomass technologies to create energy and materials

October 24, 2017

By 2040, worldwide energy consumption is projected to increase 28% from 2015. Also, fossil fuels will still account for 77% of energy use, according to the International Energy Outlook Report 2017. Now is the time to foster innovation in the renewable energy supply chain to satisfy this ever-increasing demand.

Biomass is one renewable energy source that is both abundant and cost-effective, which can significantly help meet our energy demands. Biomass can be any organic material obtained from agricultural resources, agricultural residues, forest resources, waste – including municipal solid waste, industrial wastes and other wastes – as well as algae. Biomass used as sustainable fuels and energy products has been proposed to combat climate change, and it can help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Research led by scientists Reed Cartwright and Xuan Wang at Arizona State University aims to break through the innovation bottleneck for the renewable bioproduction of fuels and chemicals.

“My lab has been very interested in converting biomass such as agricultural wastes and even carbon dioxide into useful and renewable bio-based products,” said Wang, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences.

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1,000s of lab gloves will be recycled thanks to ASU sustainability student

View Source | October 24, 2017

Junkee Justin Ahn holding lab gloves and making the pitchforkWhile interning at paper giant Kimberly Clark, undergraduate School of Sustainability student Junkee Justin Ahn noticed that the company had a nitrile glove recycling program. He recognized the need for a similar program at ASU, where countless gloves are used in labs across its campuses each week, and began collecting information.

By bringing the program – called RightCycle – to ASU, Ahn is helping gloves from the Tempe and Polytechnic campuses reach recycling centers where they are turned into plastic materials. He presented his work at the nation’s biggest higher-education sustainability conference, held by the the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education in San Antonio, in October 2017.