eyes on the U.S.

Reefer Madness - The Environmental Cost Of America's "Green Rush"

Illegal irrigation and other practices by black-market marijuana growers are drying up California's rivers, poisoning groundwater and killing wildlife.

California's Emerald Triangle is supplying tons of the green stuff
California's Emerald Triangle is supplying tons of the green stuff
Claudine Mulard

MIRANDA - The history of California's damaged ecosystem can be traced back to the mid 19th century gold rush; then there was the forest rush, when the lumber industry arrived to plant and chop down countless trees.

And now, after decades of devastation from the mining and logging industries, some environmentalists are warning about the green rush. That would be the marijuana growers who are multiplying, and the natural resources they're using to nurture their crops are being depleted, says Scott Bauer, of the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In Northern California, the three counties of Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino comprise the “Emerald triangle,” considered to be the largest marijuana-growing region in the United States, he says.

In a dried river bed, Bauer points out coho salmon, a threatened species, and other fish that have perished because of the river's drought. They are the victims of intense — and illegal — irrigation to support marijuana fields and greenhouses, which prematurely dries up the rivers. “Because of this summer's severe dryness, California's water resources are highly compromised,” he says.

Near Salmon Creek, which flows into Miranda's Eel River, we count almost 500 marijuana farms irrigated by this stream and its affluents within a 40-square-mile area. It amounts to about 500,000 liters a day, as each seedling needs between five to 25 liters of water a day. On Google Earth, we can see some seedlings in the middle of fields along with trellises and plastic greenhouse roofs.

Environmental conservation agencies sometimes intervene against these kinds of breaches when they fall within their jurisdiction, but they have limited resources and are dealing with so much land that it calls to mind the Wild West. Medical marijuana use has been allowed in California since 2005, but its production and supply are still prohibited by federal authorities.

“We respond to complaints, conduct investigations, and if we find violations, we pursue the offenders,” says David Leland, who works at the California Water Board, the agency that controls permits and water quality. On July 8, for example, two Mendocino County farmers were fined $30,000 after building a reservoir without a permit.

But it's not possible to keep all the illegal practices under control. The Emerald triangle is the new El Dorado. Marijuana farmers from all around the world have flocked here to get in on an enormously profitable business.

A $14 billion California industry

There is no reliable data to quantify the magnitude of the black market, but one-third of American marijuana is believed to be grown in California. It is a $14 billion industry here, more than the market value of grapes, corn and animal feed combined. Marijuana farming is believed to consume one percent of the country's electricity. So it's not surprising that this drug made popular by 1960s counterculture has a poor image within the environmental community.

This intensive cultivation is causing a new wave of deforestation. Access roads and flood barriers are being built without authorization. The uncontrolled use of pesticides and chemicals kills animals and pollutes groundwater.

Even Mexican cartels use California forests “with very destructive farming methods,” says Brad Job of Arcata Land Management, an agency that works to preserve natural resources.

“I'm not armed,” he says. To avoid the cartels, “I stay away between April and December, when they are working, hidden by trees and vegetation to avoid detection by police helicopters.” Two of these fields were found in 2012, in the Sierra mountains and in the King Range National Conservation Area. For the first time, federal authorities charged these illegal farmers with crimes against environment on the public domain.

Of course, some cannabis growers praise responsible and “sustainable” farming. Kristin Nevedal, spokesperson for the Emerald Growers Association — a 415-member farming advocacy group — refuses to confirm whether she herself is a grower. “Nowadays, farmers don't feel like talking to journalists,” she says. Marijuana farmers “don't try to get permits because they fear they will be sued, especially in California, where there are federal raids on a daily basis,” she explains, adding that growing 100 seedlings carries a five-year jail sentence, or 10 years for 1,000 seedlings. She is lobbying in Sacramento for approval of farming regulation and medicinal cannabis distribution measures.

Eureka Sheriff Steve Knight says there's been an increase in criminal activities linked to marijuana farming. So while he generally disagrees with “weed farmers,” that's not the case on the question of legalizing the drug. “Without rules, the situation will not get better,” he says. “Maybe we should legalize it in the whole country, and deal with marijuana as we do with tobacco.”

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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