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Major environmental stories of January 2014

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On Jan 9, a chemical storage tank ruptured, spilling about 5,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol or MCHM into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia. The chemical, which is used for cleansing coal, smells like licorice , and can cause breathing problems, headaches, and skin and eye irritations after prolonged exposure to a high concentration. The tank had belonged to Freedom Industries, a company that processes and stores chemicals used in coal production. The spill left 300,000 people without access to clean water.

Three teams of scientists announced in the journal Nature Climate Change that the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica is irreversibly melting. The glacier is huge: It's about 2/3 the size of the UK and drains roughly 20% of all the ice flowing off western Antarctica. It has shed 20 billion tonnes of ice each year from 1192 to 2011. The glacier is expected to contribute 3.5 mm to 10 mm (0.14-0.4 inches) of sea level rise over the next 20 years.

On Jan 17, the state of California declared a drought emergency caused by a lack of winter rainfall. This is the third straight year of dry conditions in California, with the previous year being the driest in California's recorded history. Gov. Jerry Brown described California as being in a "mega-drought." The U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated parts of 11 western and central states, including 27 California counties, as primary natural disaster areas because of drought. The designation allows farmers to get low-interest emergency loans from the USDA.

Kenya has identified nine sites for building solar power plants that could provide 50% of the country's electricity by 2016. Construction of the plants, which is expected to cost $1.2 billion, will start this year. The government will pay half the costs, while private businesses will pay the other half. The Kenyan government is also planning what will be the largest windfarm in sub-Saharan Africa. It will be built near Lake Turkana and is expected to be operational by 2015.

The world's first Tribunal on the Rights of Nature was held in Quito, Ecuador. It was headed by Dr. Vandana Shiva, a physicist and environmental activist. The Tribunal heard eight cases to determine whether to adjudicate them at a later Tribunal, which will be held in a different country. The Tribunal plans to hear cases from all over the world. The eight cases involved fracking in the U.S., the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and corporations in Ecuador. The Tribunal also marked the end of a five-day summit of over 60 leaders of the Rights of Nature movement. The participants came from Spain, Canada, the U.S., India, Bolivia, Australia, Argentina, and Ecuador.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that 2013 was the fourth hottest year on record-- and those records go back to 1880. Of the ten, hottest years in record, only one, 1998, predate the 21st century. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) called 2013 the seventh hottest year on record -- and that organization uses records going back to 1850. Other temperature extremes were seen in Australia, which had record heat waves, and Japan which had its warmest summer ever.

On Jan 22, the world's largest solar-powered bridge opened in London. The roof of the Blackfriars Bridge was covered with 4,400 solar panels. the panels are expected to provide up to 50 percent of the energy for London Blackfriars station and cut its carbon emissions by 511 tonnes per year.

The European Union announced a proposal for its 28 members to cut carbon dioxide emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The EU already has a goal of cutting emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020-- and is on track to meet that goal. It also currently plans to boost energy efficiency by 20 percent and get 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources. The new proposal would call for Europe to get 27 percent of its energy from renewables. While the old plan called for specific targets from each country, the new one does not, provided the continent as a whole reaches an average of 27 percent. The proposal does not include any changes to the energy efficiency plan, since the EU has had difficulties meeting the current goal.

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