Talking Points

Trump shakes things up in Washington – for old time's sake. PHOTO: Al Drago / Getty
  1. Congress and Trump split over relief cash: $600 or $2,000
  2. The outgoing president pardoned war criminals and allies
  3. Ursula von der Leyen took control of Brexit talks to strike a deal
  4. EU regulators approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine
  5. European doors slammed shut as Britain's new strain emerged
  6. Israel's government collapsed – set for fourth election in two years
  7. A sickening police shooting shocked the Philippines
  8. Kashmir went to the polls for the first time since subjugation
  9. Hong Kong news proprietor Jimmy Lai was freed on bail
  10. Elon Musk revealed he tried to sell Tesla to Apple for $60b

Deep Dive

It wasn't all bad. PHOTO: Reuters

EDITOR'S NOTE: Last week was fun – let's reprise the good times. In our last issue of the Weekly Wrap for 2020 we'll cover a years worth of inspiring and positive news in the fields of the climate and environmental sciences. A lot has happened beyond the coronavirus-imposed dip in energy use this year.

What happens in Paris...

In 2018 the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change started a countdown that will change the course of history. It stated that, according to the best projections available, the international community had just twelve years to radically lower emissions if they are to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. In the years hence the 'aspirational target' of halting global heating to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels has been shown to be fanciful. We know what isn't working (coal-fired power plants, the global textile industry, palm sugar and soybean crops, international air travel) – so what is?

In the extra-time of her premiership, British leader Theresa May had a net-zero emissions by 2050 target written into law. This was the first occasion that a major economy had legislated a time-line to meet the targets enshrined in the Paris Agreement. Today more than half the countries on Earth have committed to that target. And it's not just island paradises like Costa Rica (thrice blessed with sun, wind, and forests) but the industrial engine rooms of Asia like South Korea and Japan. China, a country that fully intends on leading the global community this century, has outlined a path to carbon neutrality by 2060 and a significant reduction in carbon intensity this decade. And while all these countries have deep cuts ahead of them, the UN acknowledged that 54 cities around the world – including Houston, Rio de Janeiro, and Milan – are on track.

The United States of America, an erstwhile leader in matters of global scientific consensus, will rejoin the Paris Agreement in January and host a world climate forum. Once the ink has dried the real work will begin in piecing together a reputation shattered by four years of pugnacious climate denialism. And still – it will be a moment to behold. Even with wholly unfavourable settings coming from the Washington, this year renewable power generation actually outstripped coal power in the US this year for the first time in two centuries. At this rate of change we may even save some of the Great Barrier Reef !

Buy in / lean in

All manner of industries are chasing green technologies – with or without sympathetic governmental regulation. We are in the midst of an innovation boom in renewable energy and products. The inflection point for broad acceptance of electric vehicles is clearly defined: when they are cheaper than their petrol-guzzling antecedents. The premium paid for electric vehicles is expected to disappear once battery costs drop below $100 per kilowatt-hour. Given that battery costs have collapsed 90% in the last decade alone, we can expect this within the next four years!

We're not just looking at traditional electric vehicles charged off a grid: a solar-powered car is no longer a dream. US startup Aptera has designed and built a two-seat, three-wheeled car that can travel up to 60km per day without being charged off the grid. The ultra-light vehicle (which looks more suited to Australia's brilliant World Solar Challenge solar car race) could in theory run all year round solely off the sun. This could be revolutionary for those who don't require long commutes.

Green planes are not that far behind (or above) them. ZeroAvia have developed a six-seater propeller plane that runs entirely on hydrogen energy . The UK startup has drawn attention (and funding) from the likes of Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Royal Dutch Shell. And if that's not futuristic enough: another zero-emissions aircraft concept uses no fuel tank or batteries while cruising at flight altitude: it derives power from the friction between the air and the turbine itself!

We're all looking forward to riding that wave.


Worldlywild

The first Somerset beaver dam in 400 years. PHOTO: Sally Robinson

Where the wild things are

There is a staunch argument in academic circles as to just how large the human population of humans can grow while still being able to feed itself . Whether it is 8b or 16b, we'll need to radically change how much of the planet's surface and seas we inhabit, farm, and fish. Simply put, t o ensure the survival of our species we must expand the definition of who is coming along for the ride. The recent '30x30' push to place 30% of the land and sea under protection by 2030 has been adopted by dozens of countries. These 'nature based solutions' (rewilding areas damaged by humans and placing more of planet under protection) are emerging as effective tools to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

The principles are well-established. Ban herders from shooting at-risk predators. Pay the rural poor to in areas where land-clearing is rife . Incentivise farmers in developed countries to return arable land to nature. You'll have seen various pledges by countries to plant one billion trees here or there. All well-intentioned, but research in Britain has shown that the most effective technique to regenerate forests is to... do nothing at all. Allowing trees (and their pollinators) to plant themselves produce far healthier forests that sequester more carbon and facilitate more biodiversity. The impost on us? Just cease wrecking the joint.

The positive results are plentiful. The well-covered reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park has not only proved a boon for biodiversity, but actually changed the geography of the park itself. It's a truly breathtaking story . Apex predators like bears, wolves, and, eagles have been brought back to Britain to stabilise long-suffering ecosystems. And, regular readers of this column know how excited we are about setting beavers to work on river systems.

The results can be seen the world over. The gorgeous Iberian lynx has been saved from the brink of extinction and today roam freely in the Andalusian mountains; in Galicia brown bears have been spotted for the first time in a century. Penguins and flightless cormorants are returning en masse to the Galápagos Islands. New pods of blue whales have been sighted off the coast of South Georgia and recorded singing near Madagascar.

One final note: if we are to maintain the practice of caging animals, we should at least ban people from looking at them. The giant pandas Ying Ying and Le Le have steadfastly refused to copulate for the decade confined together in Hong Kong zoo. Guess what happened when coronavirus closed the zoo and kept the prying tourists away from the enclosure? Safe from pandemonium, they did what they were put on the good green Earth to do.


The newest finds

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, etc, etc. PHOTO: Reuters

Ugly orchids and beautiful bacteria

This year our species prodded, measured, counted, and sized up all manner of new discoveries from the world of botany to physics. They emerged from unlikely places, like the "world's ugliest orchid" which was discovered in one of the least pleasing (aesthetically or otherwise) places on Earth: Heathrow Airport. It is a monstrous, scaly little thing that wouldn't look out of place on the set of a sci-fi film. Or a prison in Washington state, where an inmate serving a murder sentence broke new ground on continued fractions and has moved forward the development of Number Theory.

A team in north Vietnam literally stumbled onto an entirely new species of iridescent burrowing snakes . The main component of bee venom – melittin – was found to be unbelievably effective in killing cancer cells of aggressive breast cancers. And a single dose of psilocybin , the active compound in magic mushrooms, produced an anti-anxiety and antidepressant effect in cancer patients that lasted five years.

While the novel coronavirus pushed to the front of the emergency queue, the threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs remains the public health threat of the 21st century. A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used a machine-learning algorithm to analyse tens of millions of chemical compounds for signs of possible new antibiotic treatments . It discovered that an unsuccessful diabetes drug can be used to disrupt the electrochemical gradient of powerful bacteria. Because it attacks the superbug in a novel way, there is almost no chance resistant strains could grow.

Thwarting some bacteria with one hand, we developed new super-bacteria with the other. A pair of enzymes developed at Portsmouth University feed on plastics. In reducing plastic to its component parts, these enzymes may help solve the maddening pollution crisis. We have barely begun to understand the wonders of this planet.


The oldest discoveries

Still good. PHOTO: Reuters

Dusting off the heirlooms

If we do ever ascend to a higher plane of knowledge – if that psilocybin research really takes off and catalogue all the useful bacteria in existence, we can just dig up old stuff to pass the time. Time travel seems to be some way off so exploring the lives of earlier humans will just have to do.

It was a banner year for mummies: Egyptian archaeologists excavated dozens of sarcophagi from the necropolis at Saqqara . The wooden and lime coffins, each painted with ornate hieroglyphs, are believed to be upwards of 2,500 years old. Hopefully enough time has elapsed that the occupants won't be too fussed about being roused. More ancient Egyptian relics (fragments of wood from a measuring device) were found in the decidedly not-Egyptian city of Aberdeen ; researchers reviewing a university archive found the 3,000-year-old relics in a cigar box!

Granted, we were all rather preoccupied in July, but it was nevertheless disappointing that the mystery of Stonehenge was solved without greater fanfare. Geologists from the University of Brighton found the exact stretch of woods from which the large sarsen boulders that comprise the neolithic structure were removed. Now we just need to find out whether its builders were druids or aliens.

A farmer in Turkey accidentally dredged up a lost civilisation in his irrigation channels. A priceless Incan manuscript was returned to Peru (thank you Chile for returning stolen goods – you've set an example for Britain, Germany, and France to follow). And a team of forensic anthropologists scraped well-preserved brain material out of the skull of a young man killed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79CE. Pretty neat.


Weekend Reading

The image

A Japanese Santa bikie takes a break from the cheerful annual motorcade in Tokyo. You too should make sure to rest this holiday season. Photograph supplied by Reuters.

The quote

"It's really, really hard to move something that's more than a billion times the mass of the Sun."

– Western Virginia University's Sarah Burke-Spolaor sneaks in with the understatement of the epoch . Scientists are perplexed as to why they can't locate the supermassive blackhole that should be at the centre of the galaxy cluster Abell 2261. The central black hole weighs in at around 10 billion times the mass of the sun.

The numbers

644 goals

- This week Lionel Messi took Pelé's longstanding title of the most goals scored at a single club. Barcelona FC, you shan't see another one like him.

100,000 years

- What's humanity's oldest story? Today only six of the Seven Sisters star system are visible. Clever researchers recreated the path of the seventh "lost Sister" of the Pleiades: it disappeared from sight of the Earth 100 millennia ago, which dates Indigenous Australian stories of the all seven of the stars back at least that far. Truly extraordinary knowledge.

The headline

"Jupiter And Saturn Are Just Showing Off Now" The Atlantic is on a roll.

The special mention

The holidays are a time for giving, so our special mention this week goes to Chuck Feeney , a billionaire who pledged to give away his wealth and actually did it. Most of the well-heeled crowd (looking at you Michael Bloomberg, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Carl Icahn) sign up to Warren Buffett's Giving Pledge and then simple accumulate larger fortunes.

A few choice long-reads

  • Polite company may eschew discussing it, but pornography has been in the news this week. The world's largest and most lucrative pornographer is embroiled in scandal. Financial Times peers behind the curtain.
  • The effort to realign business values around ESG was easily ignored in years gone passed. It is gaining traction, and now derision is being replaced by a new response: fear. Bloomberg Businessweek delves into the quest to change the company.
  • Sweden was held up as the ideal model for anti-lockdown contrarians. They were wrong: the Swedish experiment failed. Foreign Policy has the inside story on what went wrong.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Bringing you a slice of the news each Saturday morning has been a distinct pleasure (even in a year that has drained us of superlatives/disbelief/wit). Thank you for you correspondence and patronage. We'll see you in the New Year. Happy Holidays!

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting