Climate renews famine risk to Africa’s Sahel

Climate renews famine risk to Africa’s Sahel

With population increasing and food demand far outstripping supply, the Sahel is vulnerable to a new humanitarian crisis − and researchers warn that rising temperatures will only make matters worse.

LONDON, 20 October, 2014 − The Sahel, the arid belt of land that stretches from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and separates the Sahara desert from the African savanna, is no stranger to drought and famine.

Now scientists in Sweden say the Sahel faces another humanitarian crisis even than in the recent past − with the changing climate partly responsible.

Writing in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the researchers from Lund University say people in the Sahel need more food, animal feed and fuel every year. But demand, which has more than doubled over a recent 10-year period, is growing much faster than supply.

Fewer resources

Data from 22 countries shows the result: fewer resources per capita and a continued risk of famine in areas with low primary production – that is, the availability of carbon in the form of plant material for consumption as food, fuel and feed.

Human numbers are part of the reason. Between 2000 and 2010, the population of the Sahel grew from 367 million to 471 million people − an annual rise of 2.2% over the decade.

But crop production remained essentially unchanged, so the margin between supply and demand for primary production is shrinking every year, while the Sahel’s population is forecast to total nearly a billion people by 2050.

Children's graves at a refugee camp in Kenya during the famine in 2011 Image: Andy Hll/Oxfam via Wikimedia Commons
Children’s graves at a Kenyan refugee camp during the 2011 famine
Image: Andy Hall/Oxfam via Wikimedia Commons

Some studies suggest that modern plant strains can withstand the effects of drought better than traditional cultivars, although this was not a focus of the Lund team.

They were mainly concerned with the staple crops grown regionally − such as sorghum and millet, which are used as food for people, with the residues used as fodder for livestock − and with the dry woodlands that provide fuel.

They used remote analysis and satellite images to calculate annual crop production in the 22 countries they studied, and compared the figures with data on population growth and consumption of food, animal feed and fuel. This relationship helps to measure a region’s vulnerability.

The study shows that 19% of the Sahel’s total primary production in 2000 was consumed. Ten years later, consumption had increased to 41%.

Reduced harvest

It says several forecasts suggest that harvests will be reduced as a result of the higher air temperatures the region is now experiencing, even though climate change is predicted to result in the Sahel receiving more rain in future.

So, the researchers say, climate change can only increase the vulnerability of the Sahel.

Asked by the Climate News Network whether higher air temperatures alone were likely to cancel the gains from increased rainfall, one of the study’s authors, Hakim Abdi, a doctoral student in physical geography and ecosystem science at Lund, said: “The short answer is yes. Studies indicate that higher temperatures offset both increased rainfall and CO2 fertilisation.

“Additionally, a recent study found that increase in future rainfall in the Sahel, a region where the soil generally receives little nutrient input and is over-exploited, causes nutrient leaching, and hence induces nitrogen stress.

“When we were in our study site in North Kordofan in Sudan, the most common complaint we received from the villages we visited was the lack of water.

“I think that if a drought occurs with an impact that matches or exceeds the ones in 1972/73 or 1982/83, we will see serious consequences − worse impacts than past ones.” − Climate News Network

Seaweed problem could provide biofuel solution

Seaweed problem could provide biofuel solution

Biofuels are controversial because they are often produced from food crops or grown on farmland, but a common algae found in abundance around coastlines and clogging up beaches may be the answer.

LONDON, 19 October, 2014 – It has often been used as a farmland fertilizer, and in some communities it is eaten as a vegetable, but now researchers believe that seaweed could power our cars and heat our homes too.

One species of algae in particular, sugar kelp (Laminaria saccharina), is exciting scientists from Norway. It grows prolifically along the country’s coasts and, as its name suggests, contains a lot of energy − about three times as much sugar as sugar beet. That makes it suitable for turning into food and fuel.

Sugar kelp uses excess nitrogen in the sea, and so cleans up fertilizer pollution. However, it can grow so fast it can be clog beaches and needs to be removed, so finding an economic use for it would solve many problems.

Scientists are competing to see who can get convert seaweed into fuel most efficiently.

One of them is Fredrik Gröndahl, a KTH Royal Institute of Technology researcher and head of the Seafarm project. He believes the algae are being upgraded from an environmental problem into a valuable natural resource and raw material.

“The fact is that algae can absorb nitrogen from the water as effectively as a wastewater treatment plant,” Gröndahl says,

Eco-friendly resource

In some places, it is so prolific that it disrupts normal activities along the shoreline, but Trandahl’s project converts algae into eco-friendly food, medicine, plastic and energy. “We see algae as a resource,” he says. “We collect excess algae along the coasts, and we cultivate new algae out at sea.”

The seaweed is being scooped up from the Baltic Sea, along Sweden’s southern coast, in order to be converted to biogas. It is a coast rich with the seaweed, and the city of Trelleborg estimates that its beaches host an excess of algae that is equivalent to the energy from 2.8 million litres of diesel fuel.

The first algae farm is already up and running, near the Swedish town of Strömstad, in the waters that separate the country from Denmark. The Seafarm project will, according to Gröndahl, contribute to the sustainable development of rural districts in Sweden. “We create all-year-round jobs,” he says.

One example is in the “sporophyte factory farms” on land where, to begin with, the algae are sown onto ropes. When miniature plants (sporophytes) have been formed, they sink and are able to grow in the sea. After about six months, when they algae have grown on the ropes, they are harvested and processed on land through bio-refining processes.

Grow rapidly

“It will be an energy forest at sea,” Gröndahl says. “We plan to build large farms on two hectares right from the start, since the interest in the activities will grow rapidly when more farmers and entrepreneurs wake up to the opportunities and come into the picture.

“In 15 years’ time, we will have many large algae cultivations along our coasts, and Seafarm will have contributed to the creation of a new industry from which people can make a living.”

Another line of research, using the same kind of seaweed, has been revealed by Khanh-Quang Tran, an associate professor in the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Department of Energy and Process Engineering. He has been producing what he calls bio-crude.

“What we are trying to do is to mimic natural processes to produce oil,” says Khanh-Quang Tran, whose results have been published in the academic journal, Algal Research. “However, while petroleum oil is produced naturally on a geologic timescale, we can do it in minutes.”

Using small quartz tube “reactors” – which look like tiny sealed straws – Tran heated the reactor, containing a slurry made from the kelp biomass and water, to 350˚C at a very high rate of 585˚C per minute. The technique, called fast hydrothermal liquefaction, gave him a bio-oil yield of 79%. That means that 79 % of the kelp biomass in the reactors was converted to bio-oil.

A similar study in the UK, using the same species of kelp, yielded only 19%. The secret of much higher yields, Tran says, is the rapid heating.

Carbon-neutral

Biofuels that use seaweed could lead humans towards a more sustainable and climate-friendly lifestyle. The logic is simple: petroleum-like fuels made from crops or substances take up CO2 as they grow and release that same CO2 when they are burned, so they are essentially carbon-neutral.

The problem of using food crops has led many to question whether bio-fuels are a solution to climate change. So to get around this problem, biofuel is now produced from non-food biomass, including agricultural residues, and land-based energy crops such as fast-growing trees and grasses.

However, seaweed offers all of the advantages of a biofuel feedstock, and has the additional benefit of not interfering with food production.

But while Tran’s experiments look promising, they are what are called screening tests. His batch reactors are small and not suitable for an industrial scale. Scaling up the process requires working with a flow reactor, one  with a continuous flow of reactants and products. “I already have a very good idea for such a reactor,” he says.

Tran is optimistic that he can improve on a yield of 79%, and is now looking for industrial partners and additional funding to continue his research. – Climate News Network

Wind turbines may lure bats into fatal errors

Wind turbines may lure bats into fatal errors

Hi-tech thermal surveillance techniques have enabled US researchers to hone in on the likelihood that mistaking wind turbines for trees may be the cause of many bat deaths.

LONDON, 12 October, 2014 − Scientists in the US might just be about to answer one of the great puzzles of biodiversity and renewable energy: why one of nature’s most agile flyers, a creature with the most sophisticated ultrasonic tracking system, should be so fatally attracted to wind turbines.

Blades on the giant towers of wind turbines can rotate faster than a bird can fly, and are known to cause huge numbers of bird fatalities. The bigger mystery is why they kill so many bats.

These nocturnal flying mammals perform their aerobatics at bewildering speed. They can detect and snap up an insect on the wing, and so collision with a wind turbine blade ought to be about as rare as collision with a building or a tree.

But there is no doubt about bat losses. Researchers have already estimated that US wind farms account for 600,000 or more of the creatures every year. And this is not good news − particularly as some experts think bats may be worth $3bn a year to US farmers as pest controllers.

Curious parallel

Now research biologist Paul Cryan and colleagues from the US Geological Survey’s Fort Collins Science Center in Colorado report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on a curious parallel: the species most likely to die near a wind turbine are those that are most likely to nest in trees.

And the conditions that bring the greatest number of deaths are not the high winds that send the blades racing through the air at a lethal 280 kilometres an hour, but the relatively gentle breezes of the kind that bats might experience as the familiar air currents in woodland when the insects are out in their millions..

In other words, it is just possible that bats – which notoriously cannot see very well – are led by their echolocation system to believe that they are flitting around a tree.

In 2012, at a wind farm in Indiana, Dr Cryan and his fellow researchers monitored the behaviour of bats with thermal surveillance cameras, near-infrared video cameras, acoustic detectors, and radar. Altogether, they detected more than 3 million animals flying through their target zone. A quarter of these were vertebrates, and four-fifths of these vertebrates were clearly identified as bats.

After each night’s surveillance, they also found about a dozen freshly dead bats, but very rarely did their video cameras actually observe a fatal impact.

Behaviour pattern

However, they identified a behaviour pattern. Bats were more likely to approach a turbine during low winds, and they were less likely to approach from downwind as wind speeds increased and turbine blades moved freely.

So the logic works like this: bats orient towards the turbines when the air currents are the sort they might expect to find around tall trees where the insects are gathered, or because they normally roost in tall trees.

Such findings are provisional, and there is more work to be done. But the hypothesis does help explain why it should be tree-roosting bats that suffer most losses.

“Behaviours that evolved at tall trees might be the reason why many bats die at wind turbines,” the report concludes. – Climate News Network 

Croppers pose new threat to Amazon rainforest

Croppers pose new threat to Amazon rainforest

Analysts in the US say parts of the Brazilian Amazon may face new deforestation as ranchers move from raising beef cattle to cultivating crops such as palm oil.

LONDON, 12 October, 2014 − Despite Brazil having made great strides in reducing logging in the Amazon region, a US study says the country faces a renewed threat to its forests.

The report’s authors − who focused on the Amazon states of Mato Grosso and Pará, where they interviewed ranchers and meat processors − say the cost of raising beef cattle is prompting many ranchers to consider switching to crops such as palm oil.

The study by Datu Research, a global economic research firm based in Washington DC. was commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund.

After decades of deforestation, it says, efforts to curb the losses have been working. Between 2005 and 2013, the rate of loss fell by nearly 80% − although  the Brazilian government’s figures show that losses rose again by 29% in the year to 31 July 2013.

The beef industry, meanwhile, which had caused nearly 75% of earlier deforestation, has continued to grow rapidly.

Curb on emissions

Researchers have argued that by taxing cattle on conventional pasture and by subsidising semi-intensive cattle rearing, Brazil could curb up to 26% of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by the loss of forests. This in turn adds up to about one-fifth of all human-caused GHG emissions.

But the forests face problems from another quarter. The authors of the Datu Research study say pressure from Western companies requiring deforestation-free supply chains for beef from the Amazon risks being overwhelmed by big increases in demand from non-Western countries.

Russia’s recent embargo of Western beef, for example, means it has increased its demand for Brazilian beef by over 10%, creating alternative markets that do not require deforestation-free operations.

The amalgamation of the meat processors has reduced the ranchers’ bargaining power. The market share of the three largest processors − JBS, Marfrig and Minerva − grew from 24% in 2011 to 37% in 2013.

The study’s authors also say many small and medium-size processors report that, unlike their big competitors, they have restricted access to finance, which reduces their ability to monitor deforestation.

Poor regulation of cattle-raising is another problem − expensive for those ranchers who comply with the rules, yet allowing those who ignore them to escape with impunity. Licensing agencies sometimes lose entire applications, and illicit cattle operations can still enter legitimate supply chains.

Falsified documents showing the origin
and destination of cattle are easily obtained

It is not difficult, the report says, to circumvent a system that is meant to track cattle from ranch to slaughterhouse. Falsified documents showing the origin and destination of cattle are easily obtained, and cost as little as R$200 (about US$85).

A major factor in prompting ranchers to fell the forests is the harsh economic dilemma they face. The study found that the cost of going deforestation-free on 145 hectares is R$412,000 (US$167,000), nearly double the R$217,500 cost of simply clearing forest for beef production.

And while newly-deforested land can sustain cattle for at least five years at no further cost, managing pasture properly is expensive because it needs fertilizers, machinery and other investments, which cost about R$50,000 annually.

Land tenure is another problem. Several ranchers told the authors they had been waiting, sometimes for more than 20 years, to receive legal title to their land. Without a title, banks will not lend ranchers the money they need to change to a deforestation-free operation.

Foreign demand

The study found that deforestation driven by land speculation is increasing rapidly in Brazil. A further concern is the growing foreign demand for a range of crops whose cultivation requires the removal of trees. The Federation of the Industries of the State of São Paulo says production of four crops alone − soya, corn (maize), sugarcane and palm oil − will need more than 10.5 m more hectares of land by 2023.

Palm oil is fairly new in Brazil, but it is well placed to grow faster than any other commodity. The government of Pará estimates that, by 2022, palm oil plantations for biofuel will cover 700,000 ha, which would make Brazil the world’s third largest producer, behind Indonesia and Malaysia.

The study says that that only already-degraded land should be used for palm oil, so that producers do not end up illegally clearing new land.

Deforestation in the Amazon region has a considerable impact on the world’s climate as the forest is a vital carbon “sink”, soaking up greenhouse gases. If it stopped acting as a sink and became instead a source of carbon, the consequences could be profound. − Climate News Network

California burning points to more intense wildfires

California burning points to more intense wildfires

As the forest fires season peaks in the western US, a new report predicts that climate-led temperature rise will lead to millions more acres across the world being burned to the ground.

LONDON, 27 September, 2014 − Smoke from fires burning at present in northern California has been detected as far north as Canada, as thousands of firefighters battle to contain blazes that together cover nearly 300,000 acres of forest and shrub wood. And it looks like things are going to get worse.

A new report by the US-based Cost of Carbon Pollution project forecasts that such fires are going to become ever more intense in the years ahead – not just in the western US, but elsewhere round the world, and particularly in areas of southern Europe and in Australia.

The ongoing drought across much of the western US has had a serious impact on the region’s agricultural industry, and has resulted in the build-up of vast amounts of tinder-dry material on the land.

“We haven’t been out of fire season for a year and a half,” a leading fire official told the Washington Post. “There is no end in sight.”

Incidence doubles

The new report says the incidence of wildfires – unrestrained fires that burn predominantly in areas of forests, woodlands, grasslands, peat or shrubs – has doubled in the US since the 1990s.

In total, between seven and nine million acres in the US are burned as a result of wildfires every year – an area equivalent to one-and-a-half times the size of the state of Massachusetts.

“These amounts are expected to increase significantly due to climate change and other factors,” the report says. And, overall, there is likely to be a 50% increase by 2050 in the area of North America burned, with more large and potentially catastrophic wildfires.

Not only will more valuable forest be lost, the fires will also have an increasing impact on the economy − with important industries such as tourism suffering serious losses.

More and more people have been migrating to the western US. In 1960, California’s population was 15 million: it’s now nearly 40 million, and is expected to increase to 50 million by 2030. The study says the fires are already taking their toll on people’s health.

Forests and peat lands function as carbon sinks – sucking up volumes of greenhouse gases (GHGs). But the report says an increase in wildfires could mean that, in time, these areas would become net emitters of GHGs, adding to problems of global warming.

Mistaken policies

Dr Wallace Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, is an internationally-recognised expert on forest restoration. He says that the growth in wildfires in the western US is due, to a large extent, to mistaken forest policies over the past 100 years.

Dense forests were planted, while natural fires – which form a normal part of nature’s cycle, and can regenerate growth in some trees and plants – were suppressed.

“Forests became unhealthy, and an excessive amount of fire fuel was allowed to build up,” Covington told the Climate News Network. “Natural fires can be easily controlled, but once fires spread over thousands of acres they are virtually impossible to contain.”

Covington says that climate change has exacerbated the situation. “We’re seeing wider swings from very dry to very wet conditions, and wind speeds, which fan the forest flames, have been building up across the region over recent years.”

Forest specialists at Northern Arizona University and elsewhere are now pressing for radical changes in forestry policy, including the thinning of densely-wooded areas and the reintroduction of controlled, natural fires at various times of the year. – Climate News Network

Croplands changed by climate’s ups and downs

Croplands changed by climate's ups and downs

New research shows that the complex balance of gains and losses caused by climate change could mean more land being available for agriculture − but fewer harvests.

LONDON, 25 September, 2014 − With climate change, you win some, you lose some. New research shows that suitable new cropland could become available in the high latitudes as the world warms − but tropical regions may become less productive.

Florian Zabel and two fellow-geographers from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, report in the journal Public Library of Science One that they made judgments about the climate, soil and topography to suit the 16 most important food and energy crops. They then compared data for the period 1981-2010 with simulations of a warming world for the period 2071-2100.

The results looked good: in northern Canada, China and Russia, they found that a notional additional land area of 5.6 million sq km became available for crops.

Significant losses

Less happily, in the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa there were significant losses of agricultural productivity – if no additional irrigation was factored in. Also, the chances of multiple harvests in tropical Brazil, Asia and Central Africa would be reduced.

Altogether, the land suitable for agriculture by 2100 would total 54 million sq km. But of this, 91% is already under cultivation.

“Much of the additional area is, however, at best only moderately suited to agricultural use, so the proportion of highly fertile land suited to agricultural use will decrease,” Dr Zabel says.

“In the context of current projections, which predict that the demand for food will double by the year 2050 as the result of population increase, our results are quite alarming.”

The Munich calculations were essentially mathematical projections based on climate models that are, in turn, based on broad conclusions of change. But what if those broad conclusions are too sweeping?

Climate researcher Peter Greve, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, and colleagues report in Nature Geoscience that the rule of thumb for climate change – that wet regions will tend to get wetter, and already dry regions will in general become more arid – may not always hold.

So they looked at the calculations again, and began to search for trends towards increasing humidity or aridity.

In effect, they were trying to see if they could predict what should have happened in the past, so they chose two periods − 1948 to 1968, and 1984 to 2004 − and examined the patterns of change.

Clear trends

They could find no obvious trend towards either a wetter or a drier climate over about three-quarters of the land area under consideration. There were clear trends for the remaining quarter, but, once again, the answers were not simple. In about half of this land area, the dry-gets-drier, wet-gets-wetter rule seemed to hold. In the other half, the trends seemed to be contradictory.

In the past, parts of the Amazon, Central America, tropical Africa and Asia should have got wetter, but instead became less moist. Patagonia, central Australia and the US Midwest were all dry areas that became wetter.

The wet-gets-wetter rule held good for the eastern US, northern Australia and northern Eurasia, and the already dry Sahel, Arabian Peninsula and parts of central Asia and Australia became more parched.

The lesson is not that climate projections are wrong, but that climate systems are very complex. “Our results emphasise how we should not overly rely on simplifying principles to assess past developments in dryness and humidity,” Greve says. – Climate News Network

UN population growth data is bad news for climate

UN population growth data is bad news for climate

Sophisticated new analysis indicates an 80% probability that the planet’s population will continue to rise this century, with serious implications for food security, political stability − and climate change.

LONDON, 19 September, 2014 − The demographers may have got it wrong. New projections say the population of the planet will not stabilise at 9 billion sometime this century. In fact, there is an 80% likelihood that, by 2100, it will reach at least 9.6 bn − and maybe rise as high as 12.3 bn.

The latest data, published in the US journal Science, has profound and alarming implications for political stability, food security and, of course, climate change, since greater numbers of people mean greater demands on agricultural land, water and fuel.

At the heart of the findings − led by Patrick Gerland, of the United Nations Population Division in New York, and backed by sociologists, statisticians and population scientists from Seattle, Singapore and Santiago in Chile − is both new data and a more sophisticated approach to the mathematical probabilities for fertility and life expectancy, and for international migration.

Larger families

The new evidence is that, contrary to previous expectations, women in Africa are still having larger families − in part, because contraceptives are not available and because mortality linked to HIV infection has been reduced.

So, by the end of the century, Africa – once relatively sparsely populated, but now home to around one billion people – will have to feed between 3.5 bn and 5.1 bn.

The new information is available because the UN Population Division re-examines its calculations every two years − and the new techniques include the adoption of a methodology known to mathematicians as “Bayesian probabilistic”.

In the new scenarios, Africa remains at the heart of the population explosion, and African women on average have 4.6 children. There are 4.4 bn people in Asia now, but this is expected to peak at 5bn in 2050 and then decline. North America, Europe, Latin America are expected to stay below 1bn each.

“Earlier projections were strictly based on scenarios, so there was no uncertainty,” said Dr Gerland. “This work offers a more statistically-driven assessment that allows us to quantify the predictions and offer a confidence interval that could be useful in planning.”

The study makes no mention of climate change, and the demographers are more concerned with the numbers of young workers who will have to support increasingly elderly populations. But population, economic growth and global warming are inexorably linked.

Most climate change predictions, when they incorporate population growth at all, have been based on the long-standing assumption that the planet’s burden of humans will peak around 2050, and then begin a slow decline.

Because of this, some researchers have been able to put forward arguments for optimism and propose that climate change can be contained and food security assured with careful management and new thinking.

But recent research suggests that while climate change will open more land in higher latitudes for potential crop growth, the gains will not be great, because the conditions for multiple harvests in the tropics will be reduced.

There are other factors. For example, land once available for crops is disappearing under tarmac and cement as the world’s cities grow, and even with a projected population peak of 9bn, an estimated additional 1.5 million square kilometers of tilth and pasture would be lost to the cities by 2030.

Losses of farmland

In addition, the encroachment of the world’s deserts and the erosion of once fertile farmland continues to exact its toll. Statisticians say that between 19 hectares and 23 hectares of land is abandoned every minute. With the latest, and more alarming, population projections, these losses of farmland can only increase.

But these are all projections, rather than predictions. Armed with such information, governments could take steps to ensure a more secure future.

The authors of the Science paper argue that fertility decline could be helped by better access to contraception, and by the education of women.

They add, grimly, that things could also get worse: “It should also be noted that the projections do not take into account potential negative feedback from the environmental consequences of rapid population growth.

“The addition of several billion people in Africa could lead to severe resource shortages, which in turn could affect population size through unexpected mortality, migration, or fertility effects.” – Climate News Network

Drought bites as Amazon’s ‘flying rivers’ dry up

Drought bites as Amazon’s ‘flying rivers’ dry up

Scientists in Brazil believe the loss of billions of litres of water released as vapour clouds by Amazon rainforest trees is the result of continuing deforestation and climate change – leading to devastating drought.

SÃO PAULO, 14 September, 2014 − The unprecedented drought now affecting São Paulo, South America’s giant metropolis, is believed to be caused by the absence of the “flying rivers” − the vapour clouds from the Amazon that normally bring rain to the centre and south of Brazil.

Some Brazilian scientists say the absence of rain that has dried up rivers and reservoirs in central and southeast Brazil is not just a quirk of nature, but a change brought about by a combination of the continuing deforestation of the Amazon and global warming.

This combination, they say, is reducing the role of the Amazon rainforest as a giant “water pump”, releasing billions of litres of humidity from the trees into the air in the form of vapour.

Meteorologist Jose Marengo, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, first coined the phrase “flying rivers” to describe these massive volumes of vapour that rise from the rainforest, travel west, and then − blocked by the Andes − turn south.

Satellite images from the Centre for Weather Forecasts and Climate Research of Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) clearly show that, during January and February this year, the flying rivers failed to arrive, unlike the previous five years.

Alarming proportions

Deforestation all over Brazil has reached alarming proportions: 22% of the Amazon rainforest (an area larger than Portugal, Italy and Germany combined), 47% of the Cerrado in central Brazil, and 91.5% of the Atlantic forest that used to cover the entire length of the coastal area.

Latest figures from Deter, the Real Time Deforestation Detection System based on high frequency satellite images used by INPE, show that, after falling for two years, Amazon deforestation rose again by 10% between August 2013 and July 2014. The forest is being cleared for logging and farming.

Tocantins, Pará and Mato Grosso, three states in the Greater Amazon region that have suffered massive deforestation, are all registering higher average temperatures.

As long ago as 2009, Antonio Nobre, one of Brazil’s leading climate scientists, warned that, without the “flying rivers”, the area that produces 70% of South America’s GNP would be desert.

In an interview with the journal Valor Economica, he said: “Destroying the Amazon to advance the agricultural frontier is like shooting yourself in the foot. The Amazon is a gigantic hydrological pump that brings the humidity of the Atlantic Ocean into the continent and guarantees the irrigation of the region.”

“Of course, we need agriculture,” he said. “But without trees there would be no water, and without water there is no food.

“A tonne of soy takes several tonnes of water to produce. When we export soy we are exporting fresh water to countries that don’t have this rain and can’t produce. It is the same with cotton, with ethanol. Water is the main agricultural input. If it weren’t, the Sahara would be green, because it has extremely fertile soil.”

Underestimated

Like other climate scientists, Nobre thinks the role of the Amazon rainforest in producing rain has been underestimated. In a single day, the Amazon region evaporates 20 billion tonnes of vapour − more than the 17 million tonnes of water that the Amazon river discharges each day into the Atlantic.

“A big tree with a crown 20 metres across evaporates up to 300 litres a day, whereas one square metre of ocean evaporates exactly one square metre,” he said. “One square metre of forest can contain eight or 10 metres of leaves, so it evaporates eight or 10 times more than the ocean. This flying river, which rises into the atmosphere in the form of vapour, is bigger than the biggest river on the Earth.”

The fear is that if the Amazon rainforest continues to be depleted at the present rate, events like the unprecedented drought of 2010 will occur more often. The fires set by farmers to clear areas for planting or for cattle-raising make it more vulnerable.

Nobre explained: “The smoke from forest fires introduces too many particles into the atmosphere, dries the clouds, and they don’t rain. During the dry period, of the fires, the forest always maintained a little rain that left it humid and non-flammable, but now two months go by without rain, the forest gets very dry, and the fire gets into it. Amazon trees, unlike those of the Cerrado, have no resistance to fire.”

Nobre’s warning in 2009 was that if deforestation did not stop, there would be a catastrophe in five or six years time. Five years on, his words are now proving to be prophetic as São Paulo and all Brazil’s centre and southeast suffer their worst ever drought, with devastating effects on agriculture, energy and domestic water supplies. – Climate News Network

Dietary effect on GHG emissions is hard to swallow

Dietary effect on GHG emissions is hard to swallow

Controversial new research findings say that US government guidelines on a better diet might be good for Americans’ health, but would be far from healthy for the climate.

LONDON, 13 September, 2014  − The news is enough to make climate campaigners choke on their high-fibre breakfast cereal: if Americans adopted the dietary guidelines suggested by their own Department of Agriculture, greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) would actually go up by 12%.

And even if Americans did what dietary campaigners urge and restricted themselves to a healthier 2000 calories a day, GHGs would not fall significantly.

Martin Heller and Gregory Keoleian, scientists at the University of Michigan’s Centre for Sustainable Systems, publish these findings in the Journal of Industrial Ecology.

And their conclusion  is liable to prove controversial, if only because other agriculturalists and economists have already argued that changes in human diet and more intelligent ways of promoting agriculture could simultaneously deliver better nutrition, greater food security, and less damage to global climate.

Contentious conclusions

Cynics will remind each other that all scientific conclusions about diet, health, environment and nutrition tend to become contentious shortly after publication.

Others are likely to agree with Paul Palmer, of the University of Edinburgh, and Matthew Smith, of the University of Cambridge, who argue in Nature journal that it makes no sense to speculate on climate change without considering how people will respond to that change. “Omitting human behaviour is like designing a bridge without accounting for traffic,” they say.

Social commentators will also point out that in a society in which one-third of all Americans are classed as clinically obese and another third are overweight − and in which, paradoxically, 49 million are also “food insecure” or just plain hungry − there might be something irrelevant about the US government’s dietary guidelines.

But the study by Heller and Keoleian, at bottom, simply addresses the problems associated with bureaucratic advice on subjects as personal as breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Direct emissions from agriculture make up between 10% and 12% of overall greenhouse gas emissions. If you throw in factors such as fertilizer and chemical production, fuel use and agricultural land-use change, the proportion rises – along with the uncertainty – to between 17% and 32%.

Researchers may enhance yields and farmers may use resources more efficiently, but populations will increase − and so will demand for meat and dairy products.

So the two scientists looked at greenhouse gas emissions associated with 100 foods. They considered the losses and waste in the food business: around a third of all food globally is lost or thrown away, and emissions from wasted food in the US add up to the equivalent of an extra 33 million cars on American roads.

Costs and losses

They added into the mix the potential effects of social change − looking at studies from Germany and Switzerland, at EU targets, and at calculations of the demand for water and fertilizer in Asia and Africa − to get a surer picture of the costs and losses and emissions associated with agriculture.

They then examined the particular case of the US, where, they say, “repeated assessments find that Americans do not meet the federal dietary recommendations”.

Those guidelines recommend that Americans eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and seafood, and also consume less salt, saturated fat, trans fats, cholesterol, added sugar and refined grains.

Their calculation is that even if US citizens consumed less beef and thus reduced greenhouse gas emissions – beef makes up 4% by weight of available food, but 36% of emissions − the increased use of dairy products would have the opposite effect.

If Americans followed the recommendations and continued to consume the same number of calories on average, greenhouse gas emissions would rise by 12%. If the nation reduced its intake to 2000 calories a day on average, the reduction would be only 1%.

“These findings emphasise the need to consider environmental costs in formulating recommended food patterns,” Heller and Keoleian conclude. – Climate News Network

Illegal deforestation is growing problem for climate

Illegal deforestation is growing problem for climate

Foreign demand for agricultural products worth an estimated $61 billion annually is driving up the devastating rate at which tropical forest is being cleared illegally – and pushing up carbon emissions.

LONDON, 12 September, 2014 – A report by the US non-governmental organisation, Forest Trends, says 49% of all recent tropical deforestation is the result of illegal clearing for commercial agriculture.

It says that most was driven by foreign demand for agricultural products, including palm oil, beef, soya and wood products – and  the impact on forest-dependent people and on biodiversity is “devastating”.

The report, funded by the UK Department for International Development, estimates that the illegal conversion of tropical forests for commercial agriculture produces 1.47 gigatonnes (1,470,000,000 tonnes) of carbon a year − equivalent to 25% of the European Union’s annual fossil fuel-based emissions. NASA said in 2012 that tropical deforestation had accounted for about 10% of human carbon emissions from 2000 to 2005.

Household products

“This is the first report to show the outsize role that illegal activities play in the production of hundreds of food and household products consumed worldwide,” said Michael Jenkins, the president of Forest Trends.

The report’s author is Sam Lawson, founding director of the investigative research organisation, Earthsight. He said that the equivalent of “five football fields of tropical forest are being destroyed every minute to supply these export commodities. There is hardly a product on supermarket shelves that is not potentially tainted.”

He said the report’s figures were obtained using conservative estimates based on documented violations of significant impact.

The study says that 90% of Brazil’s deforestation between 2000 and 2012 was illegal, and was caused mainly by a failure to conserve a percentage of natural forests in large-scale cattle and soya plantations, as required by Brazilian law. Much of the deforestation, the study acknowledges, happened before 2004, when the Brazilian government implemented an action plan to reduce deforestation.

Eighty per cent of deforestation in Indonesia was illegal − mostly for large-scale plantations producing palm oil and timber, 75% of which is exported. Brazil and Indonesia produce the highest level of agricultural commodities destined for global markets − many of them winding up in cosmetics or household goods (palm oil), animal feed (soya), and packaging (wood products).

Illegal deforestation is widespread across Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

In Papua-New Guinea, millions of hectares of forest have been illegally licensed for deforestation in recent year, and a recent parliamentary inquiry in the country found that 90% of these licences were issued by corrupt or fraudulent means.

In Tanzania, forests have been illegally razed to make way for jatropha, a plant commonly used to produce biofuels.

Flouting the law

“All over the tropics, companies are bribing officials to obtain permits, trampling the legal or customary rights of indigenous peoples and other forest-dwelling communities, clearing more forest than they are allowed, and causing pollution and environmental devastation by flouting the law,” Lawson said.

The report says the international trade in agricultural commodities produced on land illegally converted from tropical forest is worth an estimated US$61 billion annually. The EU, China, India, Russia and the US are among the largest buyers of these goods.

The problem is spreading. The study says that in the Congo Basin, for example, two of the three largest new oil palm projects have been found to be operating illegally. One of these, in the Republic of Congo, is set to double the country’s deforestation rate.

“The current unfettered access to international markets for commodities from illegally-cleared land is undermining the efforts of tropical countries to enforce their own laws,” Lawson said. “Consumer countries have a responsibility to help halt this trade.” − Climate News Network