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The Looming Threat of “Phosphogeddon”

March 19, 2023

Failed Bank Was Big Lender to Environmental Firms

Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) in Northern California was the go-to lender for renewable energy and clean technology firms. SVB understood the financing mechanisms unique to those industries and was the lender of choice for many climate technology start-ups. One CEO told the Washington Post that the bank was woven into the cleantech community. 

Community Solar | Credit: Robford15/Creative Commons

After regulators closed the 40-year-old institution earlier this month, many firms in the environmental sector worried they might go under too, until the federal government announced that it would backstop depositors in what was the nation’s 16th largest bank. The problem causing the crisis at SVB was rising interest rates. Its collapse occurred when depositors hurried to take out their money after the bank said it was selling billions of its assets to improve its condition.

Still, what happens next is unclear, and environmental companies are wondering whether investors in climate-change-related businesses will lose confidence in the industry.

SVB had made loans to community solar projects that were avoided by larger institutions as too cumbersome. Bloomberg reports that these programs allow those who can’t install their own panels to buy power from local solar farms. The amount of power from solar farms is expected to double in the next five years. According to SVB’s website, the bank financed over 60 percent of community solar projects in the U.S and had committed more than $3 billion to sustainability endeavors.

According to the Washington Post, about 50 percent of cleantech startups used SVB, and some had just finished new financing when they were locked out of their accounts in which millions of dollars had been deposited. Now, there are hopes among investors that the billions of dollars from the federal Inflation Reduction Act will ease the pain of the bank failure and restore confidence in the clean technology sector. On the bright side, some say SVB’s collapse could ultimately stabilize that market and avoid a similar failure.

A Dire Warning About World’s Water Resources, as UN Conference Begins

A first-of-its-kind report on the world’s water resources contains a dire warning—within about seven years, the demand for the global fresh water will exceed supply by 40 percent. The study was done by the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, which was launched in May 2022 by the government of the Netherlands and facilitated by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The UN 2023 Water Conference will convene March 23-24 in New York—the first such event since 1977 and only the second time in the history of the UN.

The authors of the study say that we are changing the global water cycle and water must be managed as a worldwide common good. They emphasize that we won’t fix the climate crisis if we don’t fix the water crisis. According to the study, many governments do not recognize how interdependent they are in the water cycle. No country is on its own—a flood or a drought in one place reflects something that is going on globally.

The report says that those who make policy have neither ensured equal access to water nor protected it. We are now at the point where two billion people lack a safe supply.

The report criticizes governments that subsidize water, usually in ways that favor well-off corporations more than the poor, including hundreds of billions of dollars that go to agriculture, which can lead to excessive water consumption. The true value of the resource is not accounted for by economic systems.   

Released just before the beginning of a critical UN water conference this week, the report makes seven recommendations to policymakers, and among them water must be managed as a common good that is crucial to food security; water should not be underpriced; and support should be given to the poor. Also, governments should end agricultural subsidies, and there must be more recycling and reuse of wastewater. The report says that the disasters like floods, droughts, and heat waves that occur in one region on one day, and in another the next, are a warning of what’s to come.

We’re Facing a Shortage of an Element Critical to Life on Earth

Too little, too much—and perhaps too late. In a crisis scientists are calling “phosphogeddon,” we face both a shortage of phosphorus and its overuse.

Phosphate Mining | Credit: Alexandra Pugachevsky/Wikimedia

Phosphorus is a vital nutrient for living organisms. It is a key element of bones, teeth, and cell membranes, and used to fertilize crops we depend on. It also has nefarious uses in firebombs, rat poison, and nerve gas.

Humans long ago recognized that harvested crops pull nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus out of soils, which need to be added back in as fertilizer to grow more food. But much of the phosphorus in fertilizer runs off into waterways, creating toxic algal blooms and dead zones in the ocean, like the recurring one in the Gulf of Mexico. Add to that, in a feedback loop, algal blooms flourish in warmer conditions and then release methane, further contributing to the climate crisis.

Meanwhile, sources of phosphorus are shrinking. The U.S. holds about one percent of global phosphate from which the element is mined—mostly in Florida—and will potentially run out within decades, if not sooner. The world’s biggest supplies are in the disputed territory of Western Sahara and in Morocco, which hold 70 percent of global phosphate rock reserves and has been called the “gatekeeper of global food supply chains.” As reported in the Guardian, many analysts worry a few cartels could soon control most of the world’s supplies and threaten global food production.

In his new book, The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and a World Out of Balance, the environmental writer Dan Egan says there are solutions, such as water quality regulations and recycling phosphorus from human and animal waste.

“Mycoforestry” Could Produce Food and Fight Climate Change

Chances are you’ve never heard of “mycoforestry”—the practice of growing edible mushrooms alongside trees. New research says it could feed the world and fight climate change.

Saffron milk cap mushroom (Lactarius deliciosus) | Credit: Ian Sutton/Creative Commons

The amount of forested land being cleared for agriculture is happening at a staggering pace. Between 2015 and 2020, the rate was estimated at around ten million hectares every year. But Paul Thomas at the University of Stirling wondered what if, instead of having farming and forestry compete, they shared the same parcel of land in a mutually beneficial way? In a recent study, he and colleagues inoculated the roots of tree saplings with a symbiotic fungus called saffron milk cap (Lactarius deliciosus). After the trees were planted and grew, not only did they start to produce mushrooms packed with protein but also sequestered significant amounts of carbon.

How much? His analysis found the practice of cultivating ectomycorrhizal fungi (EMF) in forests could sequester up to 12.8 tons of carbon per hectare annually and produce a nutritious food source for nearly 19 million people per year. That’s a notable difference when compared to all other major food crops that produce greenhouse gases.

Thomas hopes the concept will mushroom because mycoforestry can not only produce a food source that combats climate change, they would also help conserve biodiversity and protect watersheds.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.