Andrew Kemp, Yale University
Sea level rise is swamping coasts; Rodanthe in the Outer Banks of North Carolina is pictured.
Diane Macdonald/Getty Images
It's a tough job taking care of the planet, but somebody has to do it. As the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close, what have we as a species done to help protect this planet we call home? Certainly we are having a difficult time reducing our levels of carbon emissions, meeting previous goals on biodiversity, and eliminating marine, atmospheric, and terrestrial pollution. But we now have a hard-earned understanding of the costs of our inefficiencies; newly gained appreciation for the amazing diversity of life on Earth; and a more realistic handle on what we need to do to make a difference in our own lives and in the environment around us. Here's a look at what we did in 2010 to help save the world.
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Put Areas Off Limits to Destructive Activities
Though they missed getting labeled with the status of "endangered," polar bears caught a break this year with the designation of 187,000 square miles (120 million acres) of mostly ice-covered northern Alaskan coastal waters as "critical habitat." This designation will help protect the region from shipping and oil drilling as the ice melts and forces populations to more northern territories in Canada and around Greenland, where sea ice is expected to hold out despite Arctic warming. In another wave of good news for the bears this year, researchers determined that the sea ice, which makes up most of the bears' habitat, will not reach a "tipping point" of no-return if carbon emissions are curbed. While this places a tall order on next year's efforts, it wraps up 2010 on a high note for the bears' future.
Photo credit: Vattenfall
Alternative Energies Harnessed
With a forest of giant turbines cropping up in the North Sea, a solar summit lighting up New York City, and ocean-driven power projects piloting their way onto the grid, alternative energy came to grips with its potential power in 2010. Confidence in renewable markets stayed strong despite the recession, but the market will still have to grow significantly more to make an impact on climate change. More than 60 percent of Americans polled this summer considered reducing dependence on foreign energy sources, creating jobs within the energy sector and protecting the environment from the effects of energy development "very important." Interest in specific energy proposals favored more production of energy from wind, solar and other renewables and placing limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
Jaguar Cars 2010
Electric Cars and Green Driving Technology
Fossil fuel cars aren’t obsolete just yet, but thanks to more efficient fuel technology, the American public is burning 8 percent less gasoline than the peak in 2006 even with more cars on the road. Even Jaguar, working with Bladon Jets, recently unveiled a hybrid concept car, the C-X75, that can accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in a blistering 3.4 seconds. Today’s drivers have plenty of options for going green on the road -- if they can get out of the traffic. The Nissan Leaf was the first inexpensive mass-market fully electric car, but you can't drive one yet, because they are already sold out.
Photo by: Roger Pielke Sr.'s climate blog
Clever Ways To Go Green
Energy-saving methods made practical sense in 2010. This year saw homeowners turning roofs white, planting gardens in the sky, getting personalized windmills, and decorating for the holidays with LED lights. Around the world, people are celebrating energy-saving techniques as smart, cost-effective ways to help not only the planet, but also ourselves at the same time. From phasing out incandescent lighting to running technologies that meet Energy Star standards and reducing the vampire suck of energy in stand-by power mode, consumers, industries and governments are working in tandem to help make society more energy efficient.
Darryl Leniuk/ Getty Images
Saving Coral Reefs
In 2010, UNESCO certified Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument as a World Heritage Site. Besides drawing tourists, coral reefs generate enough seafood to feed more than 500 million people; provide coastal protection from storm surges and tsunamis; and offer scientists new tools to make medical advances in helping form bone grafts, fight cancer and prevent infectious diseases. The ocean also acts as a buffer to the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by absorbing a third of our carbon emissions each year, but at the cost of raising the acidity of the marine environment. And global climate changes that are leading to warmer atmospheric temperatures are also cooking the oceans. With the first American underwater park celebrating its 50th anniversary in Florida this month, now is a good time to showcase what humans have done right this year to help protect coral reefs.
Photo by: Piotr Naskrecki/iLCP
Identifying and Protecting Earth’s Biodiversity
In 2010 we got an close-up look at life on planet Earth, including this yet-to-be-named fruit bat discovered along with dozens of other new species in Papua New Guinea. There were also major discoveries in the Amazon and Borneo. Finding new organisms helps us understand better what we are at risk of losing. 2010 was the international year of biodiversity and the closing year of the decade-long Census of Marine Life. Biologists this year also identified the human health risks that come with biodiversity loss, setting species protection squarely outside any notion of being an altruistic endeavor.
Recognizing the Perils of Extinction
Identifying species is one part of 2010’s year of biodiversity. The other part is taking action to prevent those species and others still not-as-of-yet identified from extinctions. While the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity did not meet their earlier goals of substantially reducing loss of biodiversity, they agreed to a new 10-year policy plan that includes sharing information on genetics across nations. During the meeting in Nagoya this year, 191 nations agreed to set aside 17 percent of the planet's land surface and 10 percent of the ocean as protected biodiversity sites. To meet these goals, international agreements will have to consider protecting areas of the open ocean and forests that cross national borders. In 2010 researchers identified close to 500 species in England that had been lost to the record books over the last 200 years, an unprecedented confirmation of the rate of mass extinction happening in our lifetime. Much of the loss comes from encroachment and development. The good news is that once a species is identified as threatened or endangered, it stands a fighting chance of becoming stable or recovering as conservation measures are improving.
Ridding the Earth of Plastic
From boom to bust, the reputation of plastics since World War II has gone from revolutionary dream invention to environmental nightmare. Degradable plastics break down into smaller pieces, leaching chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) into the water. Pieces of plastic are often mistaken for food among marine and desert animals alike -- with lethal consequences. Cutting back on the pervasive use of plastics in society is practically impossible, but helping to improve biodegradability, identifying new alternative materials, researching the ocean’s plastic-laden gyres, recycling plastic in new ways, and banning the use of plastic bags shows that in 2010 humans took the problem of plastic to the bank. In Agra, India, home of the Taj Mahal, plastic bags and bottles blocked drains during the monsoon season. Starting on Jan. 1, 2011, the city will ban polythene bags from shops, using the bags instead in material to help pave roads.
Taking Action to Conserve Sharks
Was 2010 the year of the shark? Not quite. Many species are in deep trouble, with nearly a third of all of these fierce predators potentially headed toward extinction. But shark conservation was on the rise in 2010 with Congress tightening a ban on shark finning and countries around the world supporting protection measures of sharks in the Mediterranean. In March, the Maldives put aside 35,000 square miles as sanctuary for sharks in the Indian Ocean and is setting a precedent in the region with a move to ban trade in shark fins.
Sharp reductions in short-lived airborne pollutants could significantly slow sea level rise before 2100, a new study finds.
The four pollutants — black carbon, methane, ozone and hydrofluorocarbons — all cycle through the atmosphere more quickly than carbon dioxide, which lasts for centuries in the troposphere, the part of the atmosphere we live in and breathe. Carbon dioxide is the main culprit in Earth's warming temperatures, which impacts sea level rise both by the expansion of water as it warms and by the melting of glacial ice.
Cutting the air pollutants, which all also act to trap heat in the atmosphere and last anywhere from a week to decade, worldwide by 30 to 60 percent over the next several decades would lower predicted sea level rise by 22 to 42 percent by 2100, according to the study, published April 14 in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Sea levels are expected to rise between 7 inches to 6.6 feet (18 centimeters to 2 meters) this century, according to a 2007 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The higher tides will bring more coastal flooding and bigger storm surges, the IPCC report warned.
Though the four pollutants are known contributors to climate change, policymakers tend to focus on carbon dioxide, the 800-pound-gorilla of global warming, when it comes to reducing emissions. Frustrated at the slow pace of negotiations on cutting carbon dioxide, the research team decided to investigate other ways to slow the planet's warming, according to a statement from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, which participated in the research.
"To avoid potentially dangerous sea level rise, we could cut emissions of short-lived pollutants even if we cannot immediately cut carbon dioxide emissions," NCAR's Aixue Hu, lead study author, said in the statement. "This new research shows that society can significantly reduce the threat to coastal cities if it moves quickly on a handful of pollutants."
The study models relied on emissions cuts beginning in 2015. Hu and his colleagues tested the effects of lowering atmospheric levels of the four gases and particles by 30 to 60 percent over the next several decades, the steepest cuts believed possible by economists, the study said.
Even if these cuts are made, though, carbon dioxide is still the main threat, the authors said.
"It must be remembered that carbon dioxide is still the most important factor in sea level rise over the long term," Warren Washington, a study co-author at NCAR, said in the statement. "But we can make a real difference in the next several decades by reducing other emissions."
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