Saving forests not enough to stop carbon imbalance

Saving forests not enough to stop carbon imbalance

Creeping expansion of croplands into areas not previously covered with trees could undermine attempts by forest conservation schemes to address the problem of “carbon leakage” into the atmosphere.

LONDON, 21 November, 2014 − Foresters may be guardians of the planet, but they may need to think about more than just the forests to reduce the threats from climate change.

New research suggests that a policy that protects the planet’s forests from fire and the chainsaw must also deliver new ways of stopping the spread of agriculture into other habitats.

The trick − according to a report by Alexander Popp, a senior researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany, and colleagues − is to be sure to reduce carbon emissions, rather than just displace them.

The researchers argue in the journal Nature Climate Change that while forest protection schemes could, by 2100, prevent 77 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from escaping into the atmosphere, the same policies could trigger cropland expansion into areas that were not forested.

This, in turn, could release 96 billion tonnes of CO2 over the same timescale. The researchers call this “carbon leakage”.

Changes in land use

That is because around a tenth of emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) arise from changes in land use, and the worst of these changes − in terms of GHG releases − is from tropical forest to agricultural cropland.

So any forest policy focusing on saving emissions must also embrace strategies for using existing farmland more efficiently and productively.

Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion provide the chief cause for alarm about climate change, and a switch to renewable sources such as wind, hydro and solar power remains an important part of potential strategies to reduce the hazards of global warming.

“A central challenge is the avoidance of international carbon leakage if forest conservation is not implemented globally”

But, in a whole range of ways, agriculture is responsible for about 25% of all emissions, and in a world certain to reach a population of nine billion this century – and possibly 11 billion − the demands and the impacts of agriculture are likely to increase.

The Potsdam scientists warn: “A central challenge is the avoidance of international carbon leakage if forest conservation is not implemented globally.”

But, they add, even global forest conservation schemes will fail to contain such leakage if croplands expand into areas that may not be forested, and are not protected from development in some way.

Overall, in recent decades, the planet’s lands have soaked up more carbon than they have released. Plants take up CO2 from the atmosphere, and although some of them are harvested, and others are burned or decomposed, a proportion of this sequestered carbon stays in the soil.

Woodland, heath, marsh, savannah and even mature meadow and grazing lands have reached some sort of equilibrium: they remain as carbon sinks.

Disturbed equilibrium

But change, in the form of a farmer’s plough, disturbs this equilibrium. Between 1990 and 2010, say the researchers, 12% of all emissions came from changes in land use and changes in the vegetation that covered the land.

So the Potsdam researchers took a hard look at a UN-proposed strategy called REDD –Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation – which is likely to remain an important part of all future climate treaty negotiations. The conclusion: it is not enough just to preserve forests alone; nations have to look at the bigger picture too.

“The results show that the largest benefits for climate change mitigation could be achieved by a full participation of all countries in a forest conservation scheme and the inclusion of other land types with high carbon content, such as wet savannahs,” Dr Popp says.

“While protecting forests to abate climate change is definitely worthwhile, our results illustrate for the first time that forest protection policies alone will not be enough.” – Climate News Network

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Diet’s effects on emissions give food for thought

Diet's effects on emissions give food for thought

American researchers confirm that a shift to vegetarian, Mediterranean or fish-based diets would cut greenhouse gases, conserve forests and savannah, and have a big impact on obesity-linked health problems.

LONDON, 14 November, 2014 − The worldwide trend towards a Western-style diet rich in meat and dairy produce will lead to an 80% increase in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from agriculture.

And since agriculture already accounts for 25% of all emissions, two US scientists argue in Nature journal that a shift away from the trend towards steak, sausage, fried potatoes and rich cream puddings offers tomorrow’s world three palpable rewards.

  • Greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced.
  • There would be less pressure to clear forests and savannah for farmland, so biodiversity would be conserved.
  • There would be lower rates of disease linked with obesity and cardiovascular hazard.

“The implementation of dietary solutions to the tightly-linked diet-environment-health trilemma is a global challenge, and opportunity, of great environmental and public health importance,” the report’s authors say.

For example, GHGs from beef or lamb per gram of protein are about 250 times those from a serving of peas or beans.

Rise in diabetes

And in China, the shift from traditional cuisine towards a Western-style diet rich in refined sugars, refined oils, meat and processed foods led to the incidence of type II diabetes rising from less than 1% in 1980 to 10% in 2008.

To put this greener, more sustainable world on the scientific menu, David Tilman, professor of ecology at the University of Minnesota, and Michael Clark, graduate science student at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California Santa Barbara, simply looked at the already published evidence.

They identified 120 separate analyses of the GHGs from the entire life cycle of crop, livestock, fishery and aquaculture, all the way to the farm gate.

These analyses embraced a total of 550 studies, involving 82 types of food plant and animal products, and from all this they were able to calculate the diet-related emissions per gram of protein, per kilocalorie and per serving.

To confirm the connection between diet and health, they looked again at 18 studies based on eight long-term population studies that incorporated 10 million person-years of observation. They used 50 years of data about the dietary habits and trends in 100 of the world’s most populous nations to see the way food consumption patterns were changing.

“Dietary changes that can add about a decade to our lives can also prevent environmental damage”

And they confirmed something that nutritionists, health chiefs and medical advisers have been saying for decades: that a shift to vegetarian, traditional Mediterranean or fish-based diets could only be good.

“We showed that the same dietary changes that can add about a decade to our lives can also prevent massive environmental damage,” Professor Tilman said.

“In particular, if the world were to adopt variations on three common diets, health would be greatly increased at the same time global GHGs were reduced by an amount equal to the current GHGs of all cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships.

“In addition, this dietary shift would prevent the destruction of an area of tropical forests and savannahs of an area half as large as the United States.”

Such a shift away from the calorie-rich Western omnivore diet could reduce the incidence of type II diabetes – a condition notoriously linked to diet and obesity − by about 25%, cancer by about 10%, and death from heart disease by about 25%.

The close link between meat production and GHGs has been reported before.  Researchers have also stressed the environmental value of a diet rich in grains and legumes. rather than meat and dairy.

Not everybody will agree with the detail of their analysis. Other scientists have argued that − in the US, at least − healthy diet recommendations may not make a big difference to GHGs, or might even lead to an increase in them.

Acidic oceans

And because the authors specifically identify trawling for fish as wasteful, destructive and costly in emissions, and because ocean waters are becoming more acidic because of GHG emissions, a planetary switch to a pescatarian or fish and seafood diet is likely to be problematic.

But the two scientists nevertheless are clear on the main point. GHGs are, they say, “highly dependent on diet”.

Between 2009 and 2050, the global population will increase by 36%. People will also become better off, and their appetites and demands will grow. “When combined with a projected increase in per capita emissions from income-dependent global dietary shifts,” they say, “the net effect is an estimated 80% increase in global greenhouse gas emissions from food production.”

This 80% would represent 1. 8 billion tonnes per year of carbon dioxide or its equivalent − which was the total emissions from all forms of global transport in 2010.

“In contrast,” they say, “there would be no net increase in food production emissions if, by 2050, the global diet had become the average of the Mediterranean, pescatarian and vegetarian diets.” – Climate News Network

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Research spanner thrown into coal’s publicity machine

Research spanner thrown into coal’s publicity machine

Australian thinktank’s data challenges coal industry claims that it drives economic growth, is a key element of alleviating ‘energy poverty’ worldwide, and improves quality of life.

LONDON, 10 November, 2014 − The coal industry has many friends in high places, and none more so than Tony Abbott, prime minister of Australia − one of the world’s major producers of a fuel that earns the country billions from exports.

“Coal is vital for the future energy needs of the world,” Abbott said recently. “So let’s have no demonisation of coal – coal is good for humanity.”

But a new report by researchers in Australia seeks to debunk what it considers to be myths promulgated by the powerful worldwide coal industry and its allies.

The report by the Australia Institute, an independent public policy thinktank, says claims by lobbyists that coal is a main driver of economic growth are false.

Slower growth

Data shows that coal use has grown much slower than global economic growth, says the report, “All Talk and No action: The Coal Industry and Energy Poverty”.

It points out that “developed countries have reduced coal use while economic growth has been unaffected. Developing countries are now the major users, but with alternatives becoming cheaper, they are likely to reduce coal use much earlier in their development.”

“Coal use is often associated with lower life expectancy due to health impacts”

The report also attacks industry claims that coal use increases life expectancy and quality of life. “On the contrary,” it says, “coal use is often associated with lower life expectancy due to health impacts of indoor and outdoor air pollution and the global health impacts of climate change.”

The study says that although access to electricity might initially improve quality of life, once basic electricity facilities are in place there is little correlation between increased electricity uptake and improved living conditions.

Talk in the coal industry about tackling energy poverty is just public relations spin, says the report, and it questions whether the coal industry itself believes its own claims.

It is significant, the study says, that coal concerns that choose to become involved in electricity and poverty alleviation schemes in poorer parts of the world support projects connected with solar technology or small hydro and gas-fired facilities, rather than with far more expensive coal-fired power installations.

Polluting gases

The report also takes issue with claims by the coal industry that coal is becoming cleaner. What is meant by clean coal varies widely: although many power plants and other enterprises have reduced coal-related emissions of sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide, coal still releases into the atmosphere enormous amounts of CO2 − by far the most polluting of greenhouse gases.

Meanwhile, progress on carbon capture and storage (CCS) – the process through which emissions from coal-powered plants and other industrial concerns are captured and stored deep below the Earth’s surface – has been slow.

There are only 13 such projects in operation, and together they are capable of sequestering only 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year – less than one percent of the world’s total annual emissions.

To put this in perspective, the report says, 33,376 million tonnes of CO2 were emitted worldwide in 2011, with the US emitting 5,420 million tonnes, and Australia – which has a much smaller population − emitting 400 million tonnes.

It concludes: “Addressing the challenges of energy poverty will become even more difficult if public relations campaigns are able to influence government policies away from genuine solutions towards spending that benefits the coal industry. The real solutions to energy poverty do not focus on coal.” – Climate News Network

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World’s wetlands play key role as carbon sinks

World’s wetlands play key role as carbon sinks

Areas of wetlands drained for human habitation and agriculture have been identified by scientists in California as sources of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.

LONDON, 2 November, 2014 − Researchers in the US propose yet another way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and at the same time prevent soil subsidence − by preserving and even restoring the world’s wetlands.

Jaclyn Hatala Matthes, a geographer at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, US, reports in the journal Global Change Biology that she and colleagues from Californian universities measured carbon dioxide and methane from a pasture, a cornfield and a flooded rice paddy, all in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta in California, which was drained more than a century ago and was settled for agriculture and human habitation.

The researchers found that the drained areas of land were carbon sources − that is, they released carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and added to the greenhouse effect. The flooded region, conversely, turned out to be a carbon sink that took more carbon from the atmosphere than it released.

They also found that the region is literally going down in the world, as soil subsidence rates are almost the highest on the planet.

Short-lived

The picture wasn’t quite perfect: the soggy soils also released methane, which is a greenhouse gas that, molecule for molecule, is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It occurs in much lower concentrations, and is short-lived, staying in the atmosphere for years rather than tens of years. But it does add to global warming.

“However, we do expect that the methane emissions will stabilise over time,” Dr Matthes says. “We’ve seen that emissions tend to increase over the first few years, and that this increase is correlated with an increase in wetland plant growth and spread during this time.”

Researchers have already warned that, in any case, methane emissions are likely to increase as the world warms, with methane-emitting microbes inevitably flourishing in warmer waters. But, overall, there remains a case for preserving or restoring wetlands.

According to the WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund), the planet’s freshwater marshes, deltas, swamps, bayous and wetlands are home to 40% of all the world’s species and 12% of animal species.

Important buffers

Deltas and mangrove swamps also provide an important buffer to protect coasts – and coastal settlements – from storm surges, cyclones and even tsunamis, and their annual value in ecosystem services and as protective zones has been measured in trillions of dollars.

The World Resources Institute calculates that, ultimately, 90% of the ocean’s fish depend on deltas, estuaries and coastal wetlands as nursery and spawning grounds, as well as sources of nutrient. The loss of coastal wetlands has been linked to an increase in oceanic “dead zones”.

So the case for wetland restoration is a strong one, even on climate grounds. It soaks up carbon dioxide, and skilful plant management might, according to Dr Matthes, reduce the methane problem.

“It’s a little bit tricky in ecosystem engineering,” she says “but we are hoping to learn some things about how people might plan wetland vegetation in order to maximise carbon dioxide uptake, but to minimise methane release.” – Climate News Network

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Lugworm’s turn to feel effects of ocean acidity

Lugworm’s turn to feel effects of ocean acidity

Researchers in the UK have found evidence that a marine worm is being damaged by the increasing ocean acidification that was widely thought to imperil mainly shellfish and coral.

LONDON, 27 October, 2014 − A common marine worm has alerted scientists to the likelihood that the effects of ocean acidification may be more widespread and severe than they had realised.

The lugworm (Arenicola marina) − common on the coasts of Europe and North America, where it can grow to 30 cms in length and is a bait popular with anglers − is being affected by rising levels of acid in the coastal seas. The acid is reported also to be affecting sea urchins.

This is further confirmation that ocean acidification is affecting species other than those that scientists call calcifying organisms − creatures that rely on calcium carbonate to form shells and similar structures.

The pH (a measure of acidity – the lower the pH, the more acidic the water) of the planet’s oceans is dropping rapidly, largely because the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are increasing. Since carbon dioxide dissolves in water to form carbonic acid, the seas are responding to global change.

Highest rate

Scientists say the oceans are now 30% more acidic than they were at the beginning of the industrial revolution about 250 years ago. The current rate of acidification is thought to be the highest for 65 million years.

Among the sea species most vulnerable to acidification are shellfish, coral and other creatures − including some species of plankton − which suffer because the build-up of acid prevents them from developing their calcium shells. Animals further up the marine food chain are also at risk when their prey feels the acidity’s effects.

Researchers at the University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences in the UK have now found that other creatures are also being affected because the growing acidity is increasing their vulnerability to coastal pollutants such as copper.

Writing in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, they explain how they found that the extra copper harms lugworms’ sperm, meaning that their young fail to develop properly. They say: “Larval survival was reduced by 24% when exposed to both OA [ocean acidification] and copper combined, compared to single OA or copper exposures.”

Toxic effects

Sperm motility − the ability of the sperm to swim strongly − was damaged by both OA and copper alone, but with added toxic effects when both factors were combined. Individually, both OA and copper also reduced the lugworms’ fertilisation success.

One of the report’s authors, Dr Ceri Lewis, a marine biologist at Exeter, told BBC News: “It’s a bit of a shock, frankly. It means the effects of ocean acidification may be even more serious than we previously thought. We need to look with new eyes at things that we thought were not vulnerable.

“Our work means we are underestimating effects of acidification for coastal invertebrates. We are now realising there are many indirect impacts of ocean acidification on other processes. It could be that we are facing a lot more surprises ahead.”

Dr Lewis told the Climate News Network: “Lugworms do as important a job as gardeners of our beaches as earthworms do on land, and they bring oxygen down to the underwater sediments. The discovery that they too are affected means there’s a whole new area of concern now, looking at the indirect effect of pollutants and at other species that may be harmed as the acidification increases.”

She has also found more evidence that copper pollution is damaging another marine species − sea urchins. They are already affected by the seawater’s increasing acidity, which means they have to spend more energy on making their shells and spines. − Climate News Network

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Climate linked to shrink in size of Alpine chamois

Climate linked to shrink in size of Alpine chamois

Scientists have found strong evidence that declining body size in herds of the chamois mountain goats that are hunted in the Italian Alps is linked to warmer spring and summer temperatures.

LONDON, 26 October, 2014 − The Alpine chamois is getting smaller. Researchers have found that climate change and a gradual rise in average temperatures over the last 35 years mean that young chamois now weigh about 25% less than animals of the same age did in the 1980s.

The latest find, reported in Frontiers in Zoology, is yet more evidence that bodymass and climatic conditions are linked, and that mammals have a tendency to respond to rising temperatures by dwindling in size.

“Body size declines attributed to climate change are widespread in the animal kingdom, with many fish, bird and animal species getting smaller,” said Tom Mason, a biologist at Durham University in the UK. “However, the decreases we observe here are astonishing. The impact on chamois weight could pose real problems for the survival of these populations.”

Vital statistics

Chamois, a mountain goat-antelope species native to Europe, are hunted every autumn in the Italian Alps − under strict regulation, which has allowed populations to increase. So the researchers had access to the vital statistics of more than 10,000 yearling chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) shot between 1979 and 2010 in three hunting districts in the mountains of Trento province in northern Italy.

The researchers found “clear negative temporal body mass trends in all sexes and sites” in all three populations.

In cold conditions, higher body mass confers advantage. Bigger animals will have a lower ratio of skin to volume, and therefore conserve warmth more easily. Conversely, in the tropics, smaller creatures have a greater ratio of surface through which they can radiate heat, and more easily maintain thermal equilibrium.

Biologists have confirmed this effect in fossil records: skeletal evidence shows that ancestral horses, deer and primates all got smaller as temperatures soared during a dramatic hot spell 55 million years ago. And they have found tentative evidence in a long study of the weights of America’s wild bison across a range of prairie temperatures.

Scientists have also warned that to survive dramatic global warming, humans could shrink to almost Hobbit-like dimensions.

The Alpine studies establish that the lower bodyweights of the chamois native to the region are linked to temperature, rather than to the availability of food.

Levels of nourishment

The same long-term data records reveal that the Alpine meadows that feed these mountain goats are just as productive, and deliver the same levels of nourishment, as they did four decades ago. But Alpine temperatures on average became between 3°C and 4°C warmer over the same period.

“We know that chamois cope with hot periods by resting more and spending less time searching for food, and this may be restricting their size more than the quality of the vegetation they eat,” said Stephen Willis, a co-author. “If climate change results in similar behavioural and body mass changes in domestic livestock, this could have impacts on agricultural productivity in coming decades.”

Wild animals are anyway under pressure from human population growth and loss of habitat, but the latest findings present new puzzles.

Body mass is valuable: it gets a grazing animal through the harshest winters. So chamois numbers are likely to fall, or may have to be kept low.

Dr Mason said: “This study shows the striking, unforeseen impacts that climate change can have on animal populations.” – Climate News Network

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Towering ambition to help protect Amazon rainforest

Towering ambition to help protect Amazon rainforest

A new 325-metre observatory soaring above the Amazonian tree canopy will capture vital data on how climate change is impacting on a delicate environment that is also under threat from encroachment by lawless urban settlements.

SÃO PAULO, 24 October, 2014 − In the Amazon, everything is big – the trees, the rivers, the snakes, and the statistics that measure everything in numbers of football fields or areas the size of entire countries.

Now one of the biggest towers in the world – taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Chrysler Building in Chicago − is about to rise above the rainforest.

The purpose of the 325-metre (1,066 feet) Amazon Tall Tower Observatory (ATTO) is to gather vital information on how climate change is affecting the Amazon ecosystem and other humid tropical areas, using climate models.

The research project is being run by Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonia Research (INPA), and the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Germany. As one of the project directors, Paulo Ataxo, of the University of São Paulo, explains: “The tower will help us answer innumerable questions related to global climate change.”

Jointly financed by the Brazilian and German governments, the ATTO – which has taken seven years to plan and build − is located 100 miles from the city of Manaus. The steel girders had to be transported 4,000 km by road and river from the factory in southern Brazil, and finally up a dirt track into the heart of the forest.

Monitoring network

The ATTO, adding to a network of smaller observation towers already in the area, will be able to monitor − without direct human influence − changes in air masses over an area of hundreds of miles.. It is expected to be in operation for at least 20 years, measuring the wind, humidity, carbon absorption, cloud formation and meteorological patterns in the soil, tree tops, and the air above, adding to the growing body of research showing how vital it is to stop deforestation.

Philip Fearnside, INPA research professor who has been studying the rainforest for over 40 years, says that the loss of natural tree cover is influencing the delicate environmental equilibrium of the region, and of the rest of the country. He says: “Among other services, the forest recycles water, which is critical for the rains in São Paulo , stores carbon, avoiding the worsening of global warming, and maintains biodiversity.”

A recent study by Brazilian, Canadian and German scientists from São Paulo Universities UNESP and USP, Toronto University, and the Hemholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany concluded that the deforestation of tropical forests emits at least 20% more CO2 than previously thought.

“Among other services, the forest recycles water,
which is critical for the rains in São Paulo”

The study, published in the Nature Communications magazine, used remote sensoring, the ecology of the countryside, and modelling of the forest dynamic to develop a new approach that included the previously uncalculated loss of biomass on the edges of forest fragments.

The Brazilian government claims it is reducing deforestation. But, according to Environment Ministry figures, the vast area known as Amazônia Legal, which covers the whole of the Amazon basin, has already lost almost a fifth (18.2%) of its total area of 5 million sq km  − that is, around 900,000 sq km.

Another recent study −  a three-year Amazalert research project begun in 2011 by 14 European and South American institutes, including the Universities of Leeds and Edinburgh and the UK Met Office − has concluded that if present policies continue, the future will be chaotic

Amazalert project looked at the impacts of deforestation and climate change on the Amazon up to 2050.

Human impacts

While there is a constant stream of research on the climate and vegetation of the rainforest, to which ATTO will be contributing, there is much less research and information about the role of human beings and society in the Amazon.

Amazalert found that violence and unplanned growth in the towns on the edges of the Amazon region are also threatening its integrity.

Among Brazil’s 50 towns and cities with the highest murder rates per 100,000 inhabitants, 12 are located in the so-called Arc of Deforestation, which runs around the southern and eastern borders of the rainforest. The report says that violence in these towns has reached the “level of civil war”.

For Amazalert collaborator Andrea Coelho, researcher at the Institute for the Economic, Social and Environmental Development of Pará state (IDESP), the problem is that large-scale mining projects, the paving of roads, and the construction of hydroelectric dams attract lots of people, for whom there is no infrastructure.

When the projects are finished, the workers stay on and become goldminers, extractivists, or land-grabbers. Many are living in miserable conditions, and so criminality erupts.

The huge Belo Monte dam, being built on the Xingu river, is an example. In 2007, there were four cases of drug trafficking in surrounding areas. Last year, there were 238. – Climate News Network

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Climate helps to halve world wildlife in 40 years

Climate helps to halve world wildlife in 40 years

Conservation campaigners say the plight of much of the world’s wildlife seems “worse than ever” – and climate change is a growing cause of the damage.

LONDON, 30 September 2014 – Human pressure has halved the numbers of many of the Earth’s wild creatures in just four decades, the Worldwide Fund for Nature says.

While the main recorded threat to biodiversity comes from habitat loss and degradation, driven by unsustainable human consumption, it found, climate change is a growing concern.

It says in its Living Planet Report 2014 that vertebrate wildlife populations have declined by an average of just over half, with freshwater species suffering a 76% decline, almost double the average loss of land and ocean species.

In a foreword the director-general of WWF International, Marco Lambertini, writes: “This latest edition of the Living Planet Report is not for the faint-hearted.

“One key point that jumps out is that the Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures more than 10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, has declined by 52% since 1970.

“Put another way, in less than two human generations, population sizes of vertebrate species have dropped by half.”

The Report is based on the Index, a database maintained by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Industrial killing

WWF says the state of the world’s biodiversity “appears worse than ever.” But it is confident in the robustness of its findings: “This is a much bigger decrease than has been reported previously, as a result of a new methodology which aims to be more representative of global biodiversity.”

The authors calculated the decline by analysing 10,000 different populations of 3,000 vertebrates. This data was then, for the first time, used to create a representative Living Planet Index, reflecting the state of all 45,000 known vertebrates. The consequences, it shows, can be drastic.

Last week conservationists said that elephant poaching was now happening on an unprecedented and “industrialised” scale in Mozambique, after 22 of the animals were killed for their tusks in the first two weeks of September. Numbers of some marine turtles are estimated to have dropped by 80%.

Professor Ken Norris, director of science at the ZSL, said: “The scale of biodiversity loss and damage to the very ecosystems that are essential to our existence is alarming. This damage is not inevitable but a consequence of the way we choose to live.”

There is wide disagreement about the number of species on Earth. In 2007, when the total was estimated by many scientists at around 1.5 m (it is now thought to be 8.7 m) the number of vertebrate species was put at about 60,000 in the IUCN Red List.

WWF says too that humans are using more resources than the Earth can continue to provide, felling trees more quickly than they can regrow, for example, catching fish faster than they can reproduce, emptying rivers and aquifers –   and emitting too much carbon for natural systems to absorb.

Boundaries crossed

The Report devotes a section to the idea of the Ecological Footprint, the sum of the ecological services that people demand which compete for space. For more than 40 years, it says, humanity’s demand on nature has exceeded what the planet can replenish, principally through climate change.

“Carbon from burning fossil fuels has been the dominant component of humanity’s Ecological Footprint for more than half a century, and remains on an upward trend. In 1961, carbon was 36% of our total Footprint; by 2010, it comprised 53%”, the Report says.

WWF urges respect for “planetary boundaries” beyond which humanity will “enter a danger zone where abrupt negative changes are likely to occur.”

It says “three planetary boundaries appear to have already been transgressed: biodiversity loss, and changes to the climate and nitrogen cycle, with already visible impacts on the well-being of human health and our demands on food, water and energy.”

The Report argues for the diversion of investment away from the causes of environmental problems and towards solutions, and for “ecologically informed” choices about how we manage resources.

Next year world leaders are due to conclude two critical global agreements: the post-2015 development framework, which will include Sustainable Development Goals intended to be met by all countries by 2030; and a UN treaty leading to effective action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. – Climate News Network

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Eat a plant and spare a tree

Eat a plant and spare a tree

A less meat-intensive diet is essential for the sake of wildlife and forests and to slow climate change, says a report by UK-based researchers.

LONDON, 31 August 2014 – Say goodbye to the steaks. Forget the foie gras. Put that pork chop away (assuming you can afford any of them). UK-based scientists say eating less meat is a vital part of tackling climate change.

A study published in Nature Climate Change says that on present trends food production on its own will reach – and perhaps exceed – the global targets for total greenhouse gas emissions in 2050.

Healthier diets – defined as meaning lower meat and dairy consumption – and reduced food waste are among the solutions needed to ensure food security and avoid dangerous climate change, the study says.

More people, with more of us wanting meat-heavy Western diets, mean increasing farm yields will not meet the demands of an expected 9.6 billion humans. So we shall have to cultivate more land.

This, the authors say, will mean more deforestation, more carbon emissions and further biodiversity loss, while extra livestock will raise methane levels.

Inefficient converters

Without radical changes, they expect cropland to expand by 42% by 2050 and fertiliser use by 45% (over 2009 levels). A further tenth of the world’s pristine tropical forests would disappear by mid-century.

All this would cause GHG emissions from food production to increase by almost 80% by 2050 – roughly equal to the target GHG emissions by then for the entire global economy.

They think halving food waste and managing demand for particularly environmentally-damaging food products – mainly from animals –  “might mitigate some” GHG emissions.

“It is imperative to find ways to achieve global food security without expanding crop or pastureland,” said the lead researcher, Bojana Bajzelj, from the University of Cambridge’s department of engineering, who wrote the study with colleagues from Cambridge’s departments of geography and plant sciences and the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences.

“The average efficiency of livestock converting plant feed to meat is less than 3%, and as we eat more meat, more arable cultivation is turned over to producing feedstock for animals… Agricultural practices are not necessarily at fault here – but our choice of food is.”

Squandered resources

This measure of efficiency is based on the units used in the study, which are grams of carbon in the biomass material, plant or meat.

The team created a model that compares different scenarios for 2050, including some based on maintaining current trends.

Another examines the closing of “yield gaps”. These gaps, between crop yields from best practice farming and actual average yields, exist everywhere but are widest in developing countries – particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The researchers advocate closing the gaps through sustainable intensification of farming.

But even then projected food demand will still demand additional land and more water and fertilisers – so the impact on emissions and biodiversity remains.

Food waste occurs at all stages in the food chain, caused in developing countries by poor storage and transport and in the north by wasteful consumption. This squanders resources, especially energy, the authors say.

“As well as encouraging sustainable agriculture, we need to re-think what we eat”

Yield gap closure alone still shows a GHG increase of just over 40% by 2050. Closing yield gaps and halving food waste shows emissions increasing by 2%. But with healthy diets added too, the model suggests that agricultural GHG levels could fall by 48% from their 2009 level.

The team says replacing diets containing too much food, especially emission-intensive meat and dairy products, with an average balanced diet avoiding excessive consumption of sugars, fats, and meat products, significantly reduces pressures on the environment even further.

It says this “average” balanced diet is “a relatively achievable goal for most. For example, the figures included two 85g portions of red meat and five eggs per week, as well as a portion of poultry a day.”

Co-author Professor Pete Smith from the University of Aberdeen said: “Unless we make some serious changes in food consumption trends, we would have to completely decarbonise the energy and industry sectors to stay within emissions budgets that avoid dangerous climate change.

“That is practically impossible – so, as well as encouraging sustainable agriculture, we need to re-think what we eat.” – Climate News Network

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‘End high seas fishing for climate’s sake’

'End high seas fishing for climate's sake'

Two scientists say fish from the high seas are too valuable to be eaten, because they lessen climate change through the carbon they consume.

LONDON, 8 June – Marine biologists have delivered the most radical proposal yet to protect biodiversity and sequester carbon: stop all fishing, they say, on the high seas.

The high seas are the stretches of ocean that nobody owns and nobody claims: they are beyond the 200-mile economic zones patrolled and sometimes disputed by national governments. They are also what climate scientists call a carbon sink, a natural source of carbon removal.

Life in the deep seas absorbs 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and buries half a billion tonnes of carbon on the sea bed every year, according to Rashid Sumaila of the University of British Columbia in Canada and Alex Rogers of the University of Oxford in the UK. The two researchers put the value to humanity of life in the high seas – in terms of its ability to sequester carbon – at $148 billion a year.

Only a hundredth of the fish landed in all the ports in all the world is found on the high seas alone. And around 10 million tonnes of fish are caught by high seas fishing fleets each year, and sold for $16bn.

“Countries around the world are struggling to find cost-effective ways to reduce their carbon emissions. We’ve found that the high seas are a natural system that is doing a good job of it for free,” said Professor Sumaila.

“Keeping fish in the high seas gives us more value than catching them. If we lose the life on the high seas, we’ll have to find another way to reduce emissions at a much higher cost.”

Staying in the depths

But it isn’t just the high seas that sequester carbon. In a second study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, British and Irish researchers argue that deep sea fish remove and stow away more than a million tonnes of carbon dioxide just from waters around the British coasts and the Irish Sea. If this volume were valued as “carbon credits” it would add up to £10mn a year ($16.8mn).

The reasoning goes like this. Deep water fishes don’t rise to the surface, they depend on food that filters down to them from above. At mid water level, there is a huge and diverse ecosystem involving many species that rise to the surface to feed during the night and then sink back down again, and some of this reaches the depths.

Clive Trueman of the University of Southampton and colleagues measured ratios of isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in the tissues of fish caught at depths between 500 and 1800 metres to calculate the original sources of food: more than half of these fish got their energy – their food supply – from fishes that went to the surface. But deep water fish, when they die, stay at depth. Their carbon doesn’t get back into the atmospheric system.

Research like this is done to solve the puzzles of the planetary ecosystem, but also to explore the options open to politicians who will one day have to confront the mounting costs of climate change.

The declaration of the high seas as “off limits” to all fishing sounds utopian, but fisheries scientists have repeatedly argued that present fishing regimes are not sustainable, and that radical steps must be taken.

Fish sanctuaries

Callum Roberts, of the University of York, UK, has been making the case for “marine parks”, or undisturbed ocean and shallow water wildernesses, for more than a decade.

Like pristine tropical rainforests, or protected wetlands and prairies, these would be nurseries and safe zones for rare or otherwise threatened species of plants and animals. But they would also serve as valuable carbon sinks. Either way, humans would benefit because the marine parks would slow global warming and limit climate change.

“The more abundant life is, and the more the seabeds are rich, complex and dominated by filter feeders that extract organic matter from the water, and creatures that bury matter in the mud, the more effective the seas will be as a carbon sink. Overfishing has diminished that benefit wherever it has taken place just at the time when we need it most,” Professor Roberts  told Climate News Network.

“I think the carbon sequestration argument is a strong one. The deep sea is probably the biggest carbon sink on the planet by virtue of its enormous size.

“It is incredibly important as a sink, because once carbon is trapped there, it is much harder for it to get re-released into the atmosphere than is the case for carbon sinks on land, like forests or peat bogs.”

Planetary benefits

Protection of fish on the high seas would also be good for fish stocks in the exclusive economic zones nearer the shores, where the global catch is more carefully managed, and where some areas are already protected.

This would benefit all nations where people depend on fishing or fish farming. At the moment, only a small number of nations maintain high seas fleets.

The Global Ocean Commission, which commissioned the high seas study,  claims that such a decision would make economic, social and ecological sense: the oceans supply “vital services” to humanity. They provide half of the planet’s oxygen, deliver nourishment for billions of people, and regulate the climate.

To protect the high seas could help offshore fish stocks, but demand for fish is likely to grow in step with population increases, and fish produce at least one sixth of the animal protein that humans consume.

The supply of “wild” fish caught by net or line peaked nearly two decades ago. The World Resources Institute believes that production of farmed fish and shellfish will have to increase by 133% by 2050. – Climate News Network

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