Carbon emissions increase—as do ways to track them
Carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are on track to rise 1% this year from the 2021 level, making it harder for many nations to reach their goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, scientists from the Global Carbon Project said last week. They cited an easing of pandemic precautions, including increased air travel, as one reason for the rise. Most researchers say the world is unlikely to meet the net-zero goals and limit global warming to 1.5°C by 2050. But two new tools announced last week will aid efforts by improving the ability to track, verify, and regulate greenhouse gases. One tool, developed by the Climate TRACE coalition, uses satellite imagery and machine-learning algorithms to detect and measure emissions from 72,000 sources, including power plants. Separately, the United Nations unveiled the Methane Alert and Response System, which will use data from new satellites capable of spotting large leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The announcements came as politicians at the U.N. climate conference in Egypt debated whether and how wealthy countries should pay for climate-related damages to low-income nations.
Wrongful dismissal case is settled
The U.S. government has agreed to pay hydrologist Xiafen “Sherry” Chen $1.8 million to settle a wrongful dismissal lawsuit that stemmed from a failed federal prosecution alleging threats to national security. In 2014, the government accused her of tapping into a restricted database on U.S. water management and providing information to a Chinese government official while working at the National Weather Service. Chen denied acting improperly, and the government dropped the charges in 2015. The Department of Commerce, which includes the weather service, fired her in 2016, but after a review board ruled the termination illegal, put her on administrative leave starting in 2018. Her case mobilized the Chinese American community, which saw it as racial profiling years before former President Donald Trump’s administration’s China Initiative against Chinese espionage drew similar criticism. In the 10 November settlement, the Department of Commerce does not admit any wrongdoing but agrees to meet with Chen to discuss how she was treated and to issue a letter praising her work. Chen agreed to retire by the end of this year. Her legal team called the settlement “a great blow … against bigotry and for the rights of Asian Americans.”
World population hits 8 billion as growth slows
Earth’s population has reached a milestone by surpassing 8 billion people, the United Nations said this week. But the rate of increase is falling, and global population may begin to decline late in the century after topping out at about 10.4 billion, according to the U.N. Population Division. Its World Population Prospects 2022 report notes that two-thirds of the global population already lives in a country or area where lifetime fertility is below 2.1 births per woman, roughly the level required for zero growth for a population with low mortality. More than half of the projected increase in global population between now and 2050 will be concentrated in just eight countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Tanzania.
China trims some COVID-19 rules
China last week announced 20 revisions of pandemic control and prevention measures that somewhat ease the burden on its weary, frustrated population. Changes include cutting required stays in designated quarantine facilities from 7 days to 5 days for international travelers and close contacts of infected people, ending tracing of contacts of patients’ contacts, and restricting mass testing to situations where the source of infection is unclear. Local governments retain responsibility for setting the timing, location, and duration of lockdowns, which have disrupted industry and sparked increasingly angry protests; on 14 November, residents of Guangzhou defied a lockdown by crashing barriers and marching through the streets. The policy changes come as COVID-19 is surging again in China: The National Health Commission reported 17,909 new cases on 14 November, the most since the spring. Most of the new cases were asymptomatic.
Roche Alzheimer’s drug flops
An antibody that pharmaceutical giant Roche designed to treat Alzheimer’s disease by targeting beta amyloid, a protein that builds up in patients’ brains, has failed in two large, phase 3 clinical trials. Compared with a placebo, injections of gantenerumab slowed cognitive decline on standard tests by just 6% or 8% in trials enrolling nearly 2000 people with mild dementia due to Alzheimer’s, Roche announced on 13 November. That reduction was not statistically significant. The drug removed less beta amyloid than expected, which some scientists suggest explains its failure. The setback follows positive results earlier this year for an anti-amyloid antibody called lecanemab, made by Biogen and Eisai. More detailed results on several antibody drugs are expected at the Clinical Trials on Alzheimer’s Disease meeting later this month.
It just tells us how terrible our culture is becoming, that we can’t have an honest scientific debate.
- Georges Benjamin
- executive director of the American Public Health Association, in MedPage Today, on the decision by public health specialist and commentator Leana Wen not to speak at its annual meeting about harassment of public health officials, after she received criticism and threats over her views about COVID-19.
Improved masks win U.S. contest
Two small companies that make innovative face masks designed to thwart the spread of pathogens tied for first place this week in a U.S. government–sponsored competition that awarded them each $150,000 to further develop the protective wear. The Mask Innovation Challenge, bankrolled by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), tested the masks for ability to filter out airborne particles as small as viruses and for breathability, comfort, and looks. The contest began in March 2021 and attracted 1448 entrants. One first-place winner, called Airgami and made by Air99, uses an origami shape that provides a big breathing space, making it comfortable to wear for long periods. The other, ReadiMask, by Global Safety First, has no straps and uses adhesive to make a tight fit on differently shaped faces. Both masks are already on the market. Despite the wins, BARDA says it has no plans to purchase either to stockpile for health emergencies.
Big satellite vexes astronomers
Scientists are alarmed that the glow from the largest commercial communications satellite could interfere with ground-based observations. The satellite, BlueWalker 3, unfurled its 64-squaremeter antenna this week, which made it among the brightest satellites in the sky. BlueWalker 3 is a prototype for the world’s first space-based broadband network, planned by the company AST SpaceMobile, which would deploy a constellation of 168 even larger satellites. Astronomers worry it could blot out objects such as exploding stars or Earth-bound asteroids. Radio astronomers are also troubled because the satellites will operate at radio frequencies that could infringe on parts of the spectrum traditionally reserved for the ground-based observatories. Astronomers were already anxious that communications satellites launched by the corporation SpaceX, which plans a network of thousands, are obstructing observations.