THE NEWS For the first time in a century, a cargo vessel will set sail in the true meaning of the word. The 10,000-tonne Beluga SkySails will embark from Bremen, Germany, this week, towed by a 160-square-metre kite, stopping at Boston en route to Venezuela before heading back again. Though the engines will still be required, the boost from the kite is expected to cut fuel use by 10 to 15 per cent. If it works, ships fitted with larger kites (up to 5,000 square metres) could reap savings of up to 35 per cent.
THE BUZZ It makes economic as well as environmental sense to harness the wind for free. The World Economic Forum certainly thinks so: It named the project as a 2008 Technology Pioneer. And the idea seems to be catching on. Anne Staack, press co-ordinator for kite-maker SkySails, says the Hamburg company's production capacity for 2008 has been reserved. It hopes to have outfitted 1,500 ships with sails by 2015.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Because oceanic ships are allowed to use fuel that is much dirtier than is permitted on land, they create more acid-rain-causing sulphur dioxide than global land transport. The shipping also adds to global warming. SkySails estimates that if its sails were used consistently wherever appropriate, 146 million tons of carbon dioxide could be saved every year.
In the spirit of Ford's Model T and the Volkswagen Beetle, car manufacturer Tata Group has given India its own "people's car": the Nano. The world's cheapest car, at 100,000 rupees (about $2,500), was unveiled this week. The new factory is ready to make 250,000 cars a year.
Tata Group's founder says the inspiration was humanitarian: Only seven or eight people per 1,000 in India own a car (compared with about 500 per 1,000 in America). The normal means of transport for many families is the motorcycle, even if it means precariously balancing five people atop its tiny frame. But critics point out that the country's underdeveloped roads are simply not ready for a motoring revolution - cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai are already plagued by traffic jams and smog.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If cars continue to boom in India as predicted, the country's carbon-dioxide emissions from vehicles could increase more than six times by 2035. What India really needs, argues the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, is investment in public transport, which would not only be good for the air, it would also - unlike the Nano - be affordable to the country's poorest.
In the bag?
China plans to place a ban on plastic bags. Starting this June, businesses will no longer be able to use bags with plastic thinner than 0.025-millimetres (thicker reusable ones will still be permitted). The country joins Rwanda, South Africa, Kenya, Bangladesh, Uganda, Taiwan, Ireland, Paris and the little town of Leaf Rapids in Manitoba in taxing, restricting or banning plastic bags.
To just about any environmentalist, plastic bags are one of our worst excesses: They get used once and are thrown away, wind up clogging drains, create breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes, end up in the stomachs of wildlife halfway around the world, or pile up in landfill sites where they will take centuries to degrade. Serge Lavoie, president of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, would not argue for an outright ban here because "we have the infrastructure to recycle them, but there is a good reason not to use them in somewhere like New Delhi."
THE BOTTOM LINE
Each year, 500 billion to a trillion plastic bags are used worldwide - two billion in Beijing alone. If the ban is enforced, a sixth of the world's people will stop using them.
The bottom line
Campaigns to protect endangered species are not just about saving cute animals. Science has long shown that the more biodiverse the world is, the more resilient to extinction all species are and the healthier the entire planet is. So the modern extinction epidemic is arguably the most dangerous of all environmental disasters. Now, a study reported in the journal Current Biology has shown that areas of ocean floor with fewer species do not function as well in key ecological processes, such as the breakdown of dead matter and the recycling of nutrients in the food chain.
You may not think that we would be able to cause havoc at the bottom of the ocean, but we are doing it this very minute. As fish stocks have collapsed, we have started to trawl deeper for seafood. Ships drag huge weighted nets along the bottom of the ocean for 30 kilometres at a time to haul up a catch, bulldozing over corals that take thousands of years to grow and wiping out species of worms, the recyclers that support all life in the sea.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Canada is opposed to a moratorium on bottom trawling in international waters (despite the support of countries such as Australia, Brazil and Britain). And our domestic legislation is inadequate, says Scott Wallace of the David Suzuki Foundation. "The U.S. is miles ahead of us in protecting their own deep-water habitats from bottom trawling."
Zoe Cormier is a science writer based in London. Her column on environmental news and trends appears every other week in Focus.