EarthTalk…Questions and Answers About Our Environment: August 2022

Dear EarthTalk: I hear emperor penguins are on the brink of extinction… How did they get there and what can we do to save this species?                                    ~ J.W., Westport, CT

Two words explain the decline of Emperor penguins: climate change. Like many wildlife species across the globe, Emperor penguin populations have been declining for years due to the repercussions of a warming planet, such as melting sea ice and rising oceans. According to a 2021 population survey and assessment in Global Change Biology, “If Sea ice declines at the rate projected by climate models under current energy system trends and policies … almost all [Emperor penguin] colonies would become quasi-extinct by 2100.”

Emperor penguins in Antarctica have been declining for two decades as climate change melts the sea ice they depend on for survival. Credit:

“Antarctica is not escaping climate change at all. It’s warming, it’s melting, it’s contributing to sea-level rise,” Tim Naish of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) tells Newshub.
Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey and the non-profit Oceanites estimate that approximately 238,000 breeding pairs of Emperors, or 595,000 adult birds, live in Antarctica. Although these numbers have held relatively steady over the past several decades, new studies warn that the penguins’ future is tied directly to that of the sea ice on which they depend; as the ice melts, so too do the penguins’ chances of survival.

Emperor penguins are not the only Antarctic species with uncertain futures. As a sentinel species of the Southern Ocean—the proverbial canary in the coalmine—declines-in Emperor populations indicate larger ecosystem disruptions that affect other wildlife, as well. Krill, a small shrimplike animal that floods the Southern Ocean, serves as a major food source for baleen whales, seals and fish, as well as penguins. But krill populations have been declining in recent decades and may decline by as much as 30 percent by the year 2100.

One way to save Emperor penguins is to study how they adapt to their changing habitats. “In contrast to what people think, the Emperor penguin is a species very poorly studied,” Céline Le Bohec from the Hubert Curien Pluridisciplinary Institute in Strasbourg, France tells Popular Science. “…any data, especially from the sea, is exciting and precious.”

Scientific research recently got a boost in the form of a yellow data-gathering robot that roams among the Emperor colony. ECHO’s data will allow researchers to “define and map marine biological ‘hotspots’ and Marine Protected Areas,” Le Bohec said. Such information may prove invaluable to informing where and how to implement conservation efforts.

Additionally, any actions that reduce climate change will eventually help the Emperors and all Antarctic wildlife. Reducing our carbon footprint and plastic waste present two immediate opportunities. Eating less fish and cutting down on krill oil may also help. Many fish farms use krill scooped from Antarctica for fish food. Krill fishing not only reduces the penguins’ food source, but can also catch hungry whales, seals and penguins in the fishing nets. Finally, non-profit organizations that protect penguins and their habitats are always in search of additional funding—a small donation can’t hurt!

Dear EarthTalk: Why is the U.S. lagging behind Europe and China on the production and sales of electric cars?                                         ~ James V., Miami, FL

The U.S. lags as a distant third among electric vehicle (EV) sales and production. According to Bloomberg, China claims a whopping 46 percent of global EV sales. Europe comes in second at 34 percent, while North America accounts for only 15 percent. The U.S. EV fleet continues to expand, growing 28 percent annually from 2015-2020, writes The Guardian. But that same period saw the European fleet increase 41 percent while China’s fleet grew 51 percent.

Production rates show similar trends. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) establishes China as the market leader, accounting for 44 percent of EV production as of 2020. Europe again claims second place, with 25 percent market share. And the U.S.?: 18 percent of global production, a decrease from 20 percent in 2017.

Policy is the primary hold-up behind the U.S. lag. Both China and the European Union boast supply and demand policies to stimulate EV markets, such as greenhouse gas reductions, quota systems for new vehicle sales, and consumer incentives to reduce purchase price. “Electric vehicle manufacturing growth happens where there are strong national policies designed to spur the market forward,” says Nic Lutsey of ICCT. “Hundreds of billions of dollars are on the table, and the United States hasn’t even bothered to pull up a chair.” During the Trump administration, the U.S. rolled EV policies back. The Environmental Protection Agency under President Biden released new greenhouse gas vehicle standards in December 2021, but some argue the revisions merely reinstated Obama-era policies rather than advance the field.


Charging infrastructure is another missing link; electric charging stations are still scarce on the American landscape. In daily spins around the city, this dearth may not present a problem, but for long-distance trips, “range anxiety” can be enough to slow sales. As Alyssa Altman of Publicis Sapient told Wired, “Historically there simply haven’t been enough charge points. Potential EV customers are concerned with keeping their vehicle juiced up for long trips, and for some journeys in the U.S., the lack of charging stations makes this impossible.” Statista counts 113,600 charging outlets in the U.S., compared to China’s 800,000, with 36 percent in California, thanks to its profusion of EVs and supporting state policies.

Some bright spots are emerging for the U.S. EV market. President Biden is aiming for 50 percent of new car sales to be electric by 2030, although 20 percent may be more realistic. Congress passed a bill for 500,000 new charge outlets nationwide, but the death of the Build Back Better bill interrupted plans for expanding consumer incentives. Also, car manufactures are beginning to step up. GM, Volvo and Audi have announced intentions to go fully electric in 10-15 years. And, although the number of EV-ready manufacturing plants still lags behind traditional plants, that number is rising, says ICCT, with seven of 44 manufacturing plants scheduled to be all-electric by 2025. U.S. Department of Energy research shows that, even with higher price tags, less maintenance on EVs decreases lifetime costs compared to traditional cars. The more consumers consider electric, the more the U.S. market grows.

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