Dear EarthTalk: Is ridesharing via companies like Uber and Lyft good or bad for the environment overall? — Jeff Timotheos, Akron, OH
Between fuel, maintenance and insurance, owning a vehicle is expensive — even more so in cities like New York, where residents pay an annual average of $430 for parking alone. It may be no surprise why the affordable, convenient enterprise of ridesharing, whereby you use a smartphone app to arrange a ride in a privately owned vehicle, has gained massive popularity in recent years and is expected to see even further growth (22.9 percent) in 2019. But is this shift from car ownership to ridesharing good for the environment overall?
Professor Daniela Rus of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who focuses on ways to reduce traffic congestion and otherwise improve mobility in major cities, thinks so. “Ride-sharing services have enormous potential for positive societal impact with respect to congestion, pollution and energy consumption.”
Perhaps the biggest environmental benefit to ridesharing is carpooling. Uber’s “POOL” option puts riders in the same car, with each individual rider paying less. Last year, Uber drivers served 35 million riders in POOL trips. If these riders had instead driven by themselves, cities might have seen an additional 314 million vehicle miles and 82,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Lyft has also set a goal to make shared rides account for 50 percent of all trips on the Lyft platform by the end of 2020.
Besides carpooling incentives, Uber is also expanding their app to provide customers with alternative forms of transport like electric bikes and buses. Their partnership with Jump Bikes, currently available in San Francisco, Sacramento and Santa Cruz, Calif., and Washington, D.C., can shift millions of trips from cars to bikes. “We realized that we shared Uber’s vision of multi-modal mobility and had the same goal of decreasing car ownership,” says Jump Bikes Founder and CEO Ryan Rzepecki. Uber is also working with transit agencies to help fill empty seats on buses and trains — which can be two to three times cleaner than a solo car drive — by allowing riders to book and use transit tickets in their app.
Additionally, in April 2018, Lyft announced their commitment to immediately offset the carbon emissions from all Lyft rides globally. Their first-year, multi-million-dollar investment will make Lyft one of the top voluntary purchasers of carbon offsets in the world. Lyft plans to help achieve carbon neutrality through the direct funding of emission mitigation efforts in the U.S., including emissions reductions in the automotive manufacturing process, renewable energy programs, forestry projects, and the capture of emissions from landfills. Lyft Co-Founders John Zimmer and Logan Green emphasize that this action is not the full solution, but a real step forward. “The more shared rides and clean vehicles on the platform, the fewer carbon offsets we will need to purchase,” they report.
Enhancing the environmental benefits of ridesharing is an emerging effort across the entire industry. This past February, leading transport and ridesharing companies that account for a staggering 77 million passenger trips per day signed on to Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities, a coalition committed to prioritizing people over vehicles and reducing emissions in an increasingly congested and polluted urban environment. “Working together, we can have a real impact on congestion, making our cities easier to get around and more enjoyable to live in,” said Joseph Okpaku, vice president of Public Policy at Lyft.
Dear EarthTalk: What are some ways Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being used to fight climate change and otherwise protect the environment? — David James, Chico, CA
Artificial Intelligence (AI), defined as the capability of machines to imitate intelligent human behavior and learn from data, is considered by many to be the final frontier of computing. And environmentalists and tech companies are now harnessing the power of AI to service to the environment.
To wit, Microsoft announced in December 2017 that it is expanding its “AI for Earth” program and committing $50 million over the next five years to put AI technologies in the hands of individuals and organizations working to solve global environmental challenges, including climate change as well as water, agriculture and biodiversity issues. Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s first Chief Environmental Scientist, is convinced that AI is now mature enough and the global environmental crisis acute enough to justify the creation of an AI platform for the planet. “I believe that for every environmental problem, governments, non-profits, academia and the technology industry need to ask two questions: ‘How can AI help solve this?’ and ‘How can we facilitate the application of AI?'” Joppa said.
The older, but rapidly growing project, eBird, has been demonstrating the power of coupling human observers with AI algorithms to provide a source of reliable data for scientists and environmental decision makers. Based out of Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, eBird engages a global network of bird watchers to identify bird species and report their observations through the eBird website or mobile app. Due to the variability in the observations the volunteers make, AI filters observations through collected historical data to improve accuracy. And now with over 500 million bird observations recorded through this global database, Microsoft’s Azure Cloud Computing Program is helping to allow calculations that used to take upwards of two to three weeks to now be accomplished in only hours.
California’s One Concern is utilizing AI technology to identify and mitigate future risk stemming from natural disasters. Last year, natural disasters caused a record-breaking $300 million in damage in the U.S. alone. One Concern’s platform can predict the impacts of climate change-driven events, and disasters such as earthquakes, floods and fires at a high degree of resolution and accuracy so that communities can better prepare and respond. Damage from an earthquake can be predicted with 85 percent accuracy within 15 minutes, and flood damage is predicted days ahead of storms.
Lastly, whale field research is being revolutionized by AI and drone technologies. “SnotBot,” which doesn’t exactly sound sophisticated, uses drones that allow a vastly different approach to whale research, flying well above the surface of the water where the whales are never touched or approached closely. Snotbots hover above a surfacing whale and collect the blow (or “snot”) exhaled from its lungs, then return back to researchers about a half mile away. Blow samples reveal a vast amount of biological data, including stress hormones and environmental toxins. Prior to SnotBot, data samples of wild whales were gathered by shooting sampling darts from crossbows into the mammal from a loud boat.
“It’s not just all about Silicon Valley building cool Silicon Valley things,” says Parley’s Ian Kerr who manages the SnotBot program. “It’s how AI could actually help us save the planet and solve scientific mysteries.”
Contacts: Microsoft AI for Earth, www.microsoft.com/en-us/aiforearth; Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, www.birds.cornell.edu/Page.aspx?pid=1478; One Concern, www.oneconcern.com; Parley for the Oceans, www.parley.tv/#fortheoceans.
Dear EarthTalk: What can I do to help bees back from massive die-offs in recent years? — Bill Gorman, Albuquerque, NM
Major declines in populations of bees in North America and beyond is a big problem for farmers who depend on this free natural pollinator to help fertilize their crops that end up as food on our tables. According to the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), $15 billion a year in U.S. crops — including apples, berries, cantaloupes, cucumbers, alfalfa, and almonds among others –are pollinated by bees. Meanwhile, U.S. honey bees produce some $150 million in honey annually.
Simply put, fewer bees means less food on our shelves and a major economic hit to the agricultural sector. “The global economic cost of bee decline, including lower crop yields and increased production costs, has been estimated at as high as $5.7 billion per year,” reports NRDC.
While we still aren’t 100 percent certain what is causing the decline across the board for bees, most researchers believe a class of pesticides called neonics (short for neonicotinoids) are at least partially to blame. Designed to eliminate insect pests that most commonly afflict agricultural crops, neonics — which are now genetically engineered right into the crop seeds themselves — are wreaking havoc on so-called “non-target insects” like bees, as well. And the shifting habitat zones and crazy weather that has accompanied global warming is only exacerbating the bees’ survival issues.
But NRDC remains optimistic that we can bring back bee populations if we each do our part to create pollinator-friendly habitat. For starters, you can welcome bees to your backyard by laying off the intense landscaping and letting things go a little wild. A greater variety of plants — especially native ones — will encourage bees to set up shop nearby.
Researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) Extension report that bees especially love to forage on purple, blue, white, yellow, mauve or violet flowers that direct them via markings and patterns unseen by the human eye to a “landing pad” where they can get pollinating. Find more regionally appropriate plants that will work to attract bees and other pollinators by downloading the free Bee Smart Pollinator Gardener app, which helps users select pollinator-friendly native plants to use in landscaping projects large and small based on location, project scope, flower color and other options.
You can also encourage bees to move right in by creating habitats tailor-made for them. “Revisit how you approach a fallen tree or a dead limb: it’s not an eyesore; it’s a potential bee nest!” counsels NRDC. “Drill bee-inviting holes in that dead wood, build nest blocks, or simply buy a pre-made bee box.”
And be careful about the plants you bring home from the garden store. A 2014 report by the non-profit Friends of the Earth (FOE) found that more than half of plant samples purchased at top garden stores across North America contained neonics. NRDC advises to only buy plants or seeds that aren’t pretreated with pesticides, and to read the fine print on the label: “If a plant is marked ‘protected,’ that may mean it’s chemically treated.” Patronizing smaller, organic plant nurseries is the best way to avoid neonics.
Contacts: NRDC, www.nrdc.org; FOE, www.foe.org; MSU’s “Gardening for Pollinators,” http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/gardening_for_pollinators_choosing_smart_plants_to_support_pollinators; Bee Smart Pollinator Gardener App, pollinator.org/bee-smart-app.
Dear EarthTalk: As a member of Joe Public, is it possible to monitor pesticide levels when my neighboring farmer sprays his fields? I have wild bees and am concerned that they are being affected. — Mickey Proctor, Ames, IA
In search of nectar and pollen, bees can be exposed to acutely toxic pesticide residues, resulting in both lethal and near-lethal consequences. Bees that come in direct contact with such chemicals can die immediately or succumb to short-term behavioral effects that eventually lead to death.
When not outright lethal, pesticides have been shown to give bees an increased susceptibility to the gut pathogen Nosema, inflict damage or death to parts of the bees’ brains responsible for learning and memory, and cause optical lobe damage, which likely impacts visual acuity and thus the bees’ ability to forage effectively.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 70 million pounds of pesticides are lost to drift — or the movement of pesticide to any site other than the area intended — each year. While at times clouds of pesticides can be seen drifting off a field, some pesticides are invisible and odorless or continue to evaporate from fields for several days or weeks after application.
The non-profit Pesticide Action Network (PAN) reports that incidents of pesticide drift — regardless of whether people were directly exposed or any ecological damage or economic harm is immediately visible — should be promptly reported.
Finding the appropriate state agency to report pesticide incidents to is as easy as steering your web browser to the website of the National Pesticide Information Center. When reporting an incident with your state agency, PAN recommends that you ask for a formal investigation and for sampling to be done as quickly as possible, given that pesticide residue can degrade quickly.
Meanwhile, the non-profit Beyond Pesticides recommends collecting a handful of dead bees and putting them in the freezer in a clean, tightly sealed plastic bag for possible analysis. While honeybees typically only live five to six weeks — and it’s normal to see dead bees in and around the hive — large numbers of bee deaths that result in piles around the hive can be the result of a pesticide poisoning.
Other signs that pesticides may be involved in bee deaths or other problems include increased aggressiveness, paralysis, rapid spinning or abnormally jerky, wobbly movements.
Another option to consider is PAN’s Drift Catcher tool, which allows you to measure the concentration of pesticides in the air. The Drift Catcher uses a vacuum pump to pull air through two glass sampling tubes, which trap pesticide molecules as the air passes through. The tubes are sent to a laboratory for analysis. If high levels of pesticides are found, you can use the data to raise awareness of the problem and spur local authorities to mandate improvements. PAN’s representatives are available to discuss costs and training associated with using the device and for general questions about monitoring pesticide levels in your local area.
Contacts: EPA Pesticide Drift, epa.gov/reducing-pesticide-drift/introduction-pesticide-drift; Pesticide Action Network, panna.org; Beyond Pesticides, beyondpesticides.org; National Pesticide Information Center, npic.orst.ed