James West

James West

Senior Digital Editor

James West is senior digital editor for Mother Jones, and before that, the senior producer for its reporting project Climate Desk. He wrote Beijing Blur (Penguin 2008). James has a masters of journalism from NYU, and has produced a variety of award-winning shows in his native Australia, including the national affairs program Hack.

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This is really cool: Big brains at MIT recently announced they have created the world's thinnest and lightest solar cell—so light it can sit atop a soap bubble without breaking it. The world-first design is, however, eye-popping:

  • The new cell is just 1.3 micrometers—one-fiftieth the thickness of a human hair.
  • It is one-thousandth the thickness of an equivalent glass-based solar cell—the ones you are probably most familiar with.
  • Pound for pound, the new cells generate 400 times the power of traditional cells.
  • The cell is made from an incredibly flexible cling wrap-like plastic called "parylene"—potentially giving rise to solar panels stitched invisibly into our everyday lives.

MIT's design is only lab-tested, for now. Scaling up the invention for commercial use could take years. But the proof-of-concept is already exciting the scientists—professor Vladimir Bulović, research scientist Annie Wang, and doctoral student Joel Jean. They are publishing their findings in an upcoming issue of the journal Organic Electronics.

"It could be so light that you don't even know it's there, on your shirt or on your notebook," Bulović said in a news release. The release also describes how the scientists came up with an innovative process that grows the "substrate" (the layer the cell is built on) and the solar cell itself— both at the same time.

"How many miracles does it take to make it scalable?" Bulović said. "We think it's a lot of hard work ahead, but likely no miracles needed."

Joel Jean and Anna Osherov/MIT

China is continuing to drag itself off coal—the dirty energy source that has made it the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter. Figures published Sunday night by China's National Bureau of Statistics showed coal consumption dropping 3.7 percent in 2015, marking the second year in a row that the country has slashed coal use and greenhouse gas emissions.

To put that in perspective, Greenpeace East Asia says China's drop in coal use over the past two years is equal to Japan's total annual coal consumption—a trend the environmental group says could "far surpass" China's commitments enshrined in the Paris climate deal reached in December. Last year, China's carbon emissions dropped 1-2 percent, Greenpeace says, a decline the group attributes to both falling economic output from China's heavy industries and an upswing in renewable energy use. China is widely expected to meet or surpass its goal of "peaking" emissions (the point at which the country begins to permanently reduce its greenhouse gas emissions) by 2030.

But the shift away from coal will also hit the country's workers hard: The government plans to slash 1.8 million jobs in the steel and coal industries—about 15 percent of the workforce in those sectors, according to Reuters. The government says it has a $15.27 billion plan over 10 years to relocate these workers.

Today's news follows China's promise of a three-year moratorium on all new coal mines. The country also plans to shutter 1,000 existing coal mines this year alone, with deeper cuts to come. All of this has been accompanied by massive investments in wind and solar that have made the country's renewable energy firms world-leaders in clean power.

But with China—the world's second largest economy—there is always a disclaimer. It's right to be skeptical of official economic and energy statistics coming from China, which some experts say can be subject to political pressure.

Still, there are some undeniable signs of progress. The last major coal-fired power station in Beijing is expected to close this year, welcome news to residents of a city that is frequently blanketed in toxic smog.

In one of the most widely expected wins of the night, Leonardo DiCaprio took out Best Actor at the 88th Annual Academy Awards Sunday night for his role in The Revenant. DiCaprio used his acceptance speech to call out global leaders for climate inaction—capping off a night that was already fueled by the biting and brilliant political performance by moderator Chris Rock.

"Climate change is real, it is happening right now," DiCaprio said, to applause. "It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating."

He went on: "We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters or the big corporations." Watch the clip below:

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