Category Archives: Land Use

More trees may do less to slow the climate crisis

In theory, more trees should mean a lower risk of dangerous climate change. In practice, it may not be so simple.

LONDON, 6 January, 2021 − The belief that more trees and better-protected forests can help contain climate change looks a little less sure − if only because climate change has already begun to affect the world’s trees and forests.

Researchers have in the last few weeks established a panoply of evidence that higher temperatures and more carbon dioxide may not be recipes for green growth in a greenhouse world.

In the tropics, as the thermometer rises, trees grow more vigorously − but overall lifespans are getting shorter. This must ultimately make the forests less efficient as absorbers of atmospheric carbon.

To compound the hazard to the rainforests, the proportion of the canopy that has always been fire-resistant is showing signs of decrease: in parts of Indonesia, only 10% of the forests remain fireproof.

Climate change and more importantly human disturbance continues to put the survival of whole groups of plants at risk: a new study finds that almost one-third of all the world’s 430 oak species are in danger of extinction.

A separate study of 447 North American trees suggests that they might not have what it takes to keep pace with changes in temperature and rainfall expected in a world of global heating.

Limited gains

And there is yet further evidence that more carbon dioxide does not inevitably mean more potential nourishment for plants: a study by the US space agency Nasa suggests that what scientists call the “carbon dioxide fertilisation effect” has been dwindling since 1982.

Finally, even the gains inevitable with rising temperatures in some regions could be limited. Another Nasa study finds that although Siberia, Canada and Alaska are becoming greener as the mercury rises, the increasing drought and tree death in the Amazon rainforest and others has offset this: another blow for those who hope more growth means more carbon absorption.

None of this should be a great surprise: the more researchers look in fine detail at the challenge of restoring natural habitat as part of the planetary arsenal against climate change, the more problems they have identified.

Although researchers have demonstrated that massive forest planting and restoration could in principle reduce the extra atmospheric carbon amassed over the last century, the details are less certain.

With more heat comes more drought which could turn some forests into sources of carbon rather than sinks. The increasing heat could affect the ability of some species to germinate, thus changing the makeup of the forests.

Trees may not only be dying younger, but growing shorter as conditions change.

“Many regions in the tropics are heating up particularly rapidly and substantial areas will become warmer, on average, than approximately 25°C”

And although spring is occurring ever earlier, so is leaf fall: all these things reduce the efficiency of forests as greedy consumers of carbon.

So the latest harvest of research is simply further confirmation that the global heating to which the world is already committed is going to change the nature of those habitats that have − until now − kept the planet at an even temperature.

That means that restoring forests is not just a matter of planting trees: foresters will need to identify the right trees for climate regimes that have yet to be established.

Tropical rainforests cover only 7% of the planet’s land surface, but they shelter and nourish around half of all the planet’s plants and animal species. Around half of the Earth’s stocks of sequestered carbon are locked in the trunks, branches, leaves and roots.

Researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they examined growth data from more than 100,000 trees of 438 different species found at 3,433 places around the world. They found that as temperatures go beyond 25°C, tree lifespans decline.

“Many regions in the tropics are heating up particularly rapidly and substantial areas will become warmer, on average, than approximately 25°C,” said Emanuel Gloor, of the University of Leeds in the UK, one of the authors.

Human interference

“Our findings, which are the first to demonstrate that there is a temperature threshold, suggest that for trees in this region, their longevity is likely to be negatively affected.”

Rainforests maintain their own microclimates: they keep themselves humid, and therefore more or less fireproof, as long as they remain intact, even during a drought. Researchers report in Communications Earth & Environment that they found 90% of the natural forest cover of Sumatra and Kalimantan had been so badly degraded by human clearance and disturbance that it was no longer fire-resistant. What was true for Indonesia could probably be true too for Central Africa or the Amazon.

“Contrary to the widely-held perception that worsening droughts are threatening the remaining rainforests, tropical forests in Indonesia become susceptible to fire only after human disturbance,” said Tadas Nikonovas of Swansea University in Wales, who led the research.

Human disturbance of natural wilderness threatens not just forests as a whole, but individual species of trees, each of which can be a natural ecosystem, supporting other plants and animals. English oaks, for instance, provide food and shelter to more than 2,300 kinds of moss, fungus, lichen, bird, mammal and insect.

Researchers for the Morton Arboretum in Illinois in the US report that of the world’s 430 species of oak, 113 are threatened with extinction: these include 32 species in Mexico, 36 in China, 20 in Vietnam and 16 in the US.

Tropical trees have naturally faster life-cycles. Trees in cooler regions can on average survive for more than 300 years. Climate change however is likely to happen over a few decades. Can trees keep pace with change at that rate?

Plants need water

Researchers from the University of Maine report in the Journal of Biogeography that they think not. They looked at the climatic ranges most suitable for 447 North American trees and shrubs to find that overall, these were at only 48.6% of their full potential. That is, the trees are no longer in equilibrium with present climate, and must increasingly be at a disadvantage as climate change accelerates.

And although the main driver of global heating and thus climate change − ever-higher ratios of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere − confers some advantage on species that live by photosynthesis, this advantage may not be guaranteed. A space-based study in the journal Science found that over the last four decades, as CO2 ratios in the atmosphere rose, 86% of terrestrial ecosystems became progressively less efficient at absorbing the stuff.

That is, the world’s green canopies have slowed climate change, but their ability to go on doing so may be limited. That is because even though more carbon dioxide should mean more growth, unless there is more nitrogen and more soil moisture as well, a plant’s capacity to respond is limited.

And that, says a second study, in the journal AGU Advances, is less of a problem in some places than others. The Arctic is greening rapidly as average temperatures rise, and there is no shortage of moisture from the thawing permafrost, nor of partly decomposed plant material, to serve as nourishment.

A survey of growth from 1982 to 2016 found that carbon absorption increased in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. But global heating has begun to reduce soil moisture in the tropics, and the gains of the Arctic are not enough to offset losses in what had once been rainforest. Nor are the polar regions likely to go on getting ever-greener.

“I don’t expect that we have to wait another 35 years to see water limitations becoming a factor in the Arctic as well,” said one of the authors, Rolf Reichle, of the Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland in the US. − Climate News Network

In theory, more trees should mean a lower risk of dangerous climate change. In practice, it may not be so simple.

LONDON, 6 January, 2021 − The belief that more trees and better-protected forests can help contain climate change looks a little less sure − if only because climate change has already begun to affect the world’s trees and forests.

Researchers have in the last few weeks established a panoply of evidence that higher temperatures and more carbon dioxide may not be recipes for green growth in a greenhouse world.

In the tropics, as the thermometer rises, trees grow more vigorously − but overall lifespans are getting shorter. This must ultimately make the forests less efficient as absorbers of atmospheric carbon.

To compound the hazard to the rainforests, the proportion of the canopy that has always been fire-resistant is showing signs of decrease: in parts of Indonesia, only 10% of the forests remain fireproof.

Climate change and more importantly human disturbance continues to put the survival of whole groups of plants at risk: a new study finds that almost one-third of all the world’s 430 oak species are in danger of extinction.

A separate study of 447 North American trees suggests that they might not have what it takes to keep pace with changes in temperature and rainfall expected in a world of global heating.

Limited gains

And there is yet further evidence that more carbon dioxide does not inevitably mean more potential nourishment for plants: a study by the US space agency Nasa suggests that what scientists call the “carbon dioxide fertilisation effect” has been dwindling since 1982.

Finally, even the gains inevitable with rising temperatures in some regions could be limited. Another Nasa study finds that although Siberia, Canada and Alaska are becoming greener as the mercury rises, the increasing drought and tree death in the Amazon rainforest and others has offset this: another blow for those who hope more growth means more carbon absorption.

None of this should be a great surprise: the more researchers look in fine detail at the challenge of restoring natural habitat as part of the planetary arsenal against climate change, the more problems they have identified.

Although researchers have demonstrated that massive forest planting and restoration could in principle reduce the extra atmospheric carbon amassed over the last century, the details are less certain.

With more heat comes more drought which could turn some forests into sources of carbon rather than sinks. The increasing heat could affect the ability of some species to germinate, thus changing the makeup of the forests.

Trees may not only be dying younger, but growing shorter as conditions change.

“Many regions in the tropics are heating up particularly rapidly and substantial areas will become warmer, on average, than approximately 25°C”

And although spring is occurring ever earlier, so is leaf fall: all these things reduce the efficiency of forests as greedy consumers of carbon.

So the latest harvest of research is simply further confirmation that the global heating to which the world is already committed is going to change the nature of those habitats that have − until now − kept the planet at an even temperature.

That means that restoring forests is not just a matter of planting trees: foresters will need to identify the right trees for climate regimes that have yet to be established.

Tropical rainforests cover only 7% of the planet’s land surface, but they shelter and nourish around half of all the planet’s plants and animal species. Around half of the Earth’s stocks of sequestered carbon are locked in the trunks, branches, leaves and roots.

Researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they examined growth data from more than 100,000 trees of 438 different species found at 3,433 places around the world. They found that as temperatures go beyond 25°C, tree lifespans decline.

“Many regions in the tropics are heating up particularly rapidly and substantial areas will become warmer, on average, than approximately 25°C,” said Emanuel Gloor, of the University of Leeds in the UK, one of the authors.

Human interference

“Our findings, which are the first to demonstrate that there is a temperature threshold, suggest that for trees in this region, their longevity is likely to be negatively affected.”

Rainforests maintain their own microclimates: they keep themselves humid, and therefore more or less fireproof, as long as they remain intact, even during a drought. Researchers report in Communications Earth & Environment that they found 90% of the natural forest cover of Sumatra and Kalimantan had been so badly degraded by human clearance and disturbance that it was no longer fire-resistant. What was true for Indonesia could probably be true too for Central Africa or the Amazon.

“Contrary to the widely-held perception that worsening droughts are threatening the remaining rainforests, tropical forests in Indonesia become susceptible to fire only after human disturbance,” said Tadas Nikonovas of Swansea University in Wales, who led the research.

Human disturbance of natural wilderness threatens not just forests as a whole, but individual species of trees, each of which can be a natural ecosystem, supporting other plants and animals. English oaks, for instance, provide food and shelter to more than 2,300 kinds of moss, fungus, lichen, bird, mammal and insect.

Researchers for the Morton Arboretum in Illinois in the US report that of the world’s 430 species of oak, 113 are threatened with extinction: these include 32 species in Mexico, 36 in China, 20 in Vietnam and 16 in the US.

Tropical trees have naturally faster life-cycles. Trees in cooler regions can on average survive for more than 300 years. Climate change however is likely to happen over a few decades. Can trees keep pace with change at that rate?

Plants need water

Researchers from the University of Maine report in the Journal of Biogeography that they think not. They looked at the climatic ranges most suitable for 447 North American trees and shrubs to find that overall, these were at only 48.6% of their full potential. That is, the trees are no longer in equilibrium with present climate, and must increasingly be at a disadvantage as climate change accelerates.

And although the main driver of global heating and thus climate change − ever-higher ratios of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere − confers some advantage on species that live by photosynthesis, this advantage may not be guaranteed. A space-based study in the journal Science found that over the last four decades, as CO2 ratios in the atmosphere rose, 86% of terrestrial ecosystems became progressively less efficient at absorbing the stuff.

That is, the world’s green canopies have slowed climate change, but their ability to go on doing so may be limited. That is because even though more carbon dioxide should mean more growth, unless there is more nitrogen and more soil moisture as well, a plant’s capacity to respond is limited.

And that, says a second study, in the journal AGU Advances, is less of a problem in some places than others. The Arctic is greening rapidly as average temperatures rise, and there is no shortage of moisture from the thawing permafrost, nor of partly decomposed plant material, to serve as nourishment.

A survey of growth from 1982 to 2016 found that carbon absorption increased in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. But global heating has begun to reduce soil moisture in the tropics, and the gains of the Arctic are not enough to offset losses in what had once been rainforest. Nor are the polar regions likely to go on getting ever-greener.

“I don’t expect that we have to wait another 35 years to see water limitations becoming a factor in the Arctic as well,” said one of the authors, Rolf Reichle, of the Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland in the US. − Climate News Network

Drylands hit harder by poverty than richer regions

The arrival of the rains leaves the drylands hit harder than richer areas. Once again, climate change sows injustice.

LONDON, 7 December, 2020 − Not even the climate can be even-handed. When the rains come they leave the world’s drylands hit harder: the wealthier fare better and the poorest get relatively a little poorer. And the evidence is visible literally at the grassroots.

European scientists have been measuring vegetation growth as recorded in fine detail by satellite observation over the last 20 years. And they report that in the developing world, the vegetation that sprouts after rainfall on arid lands is more meagre, while in the better-off nations the same rainfall on the same kind of dryland terrain produces more healthy growth.

The consequence, researchers warn in the journal Nature Sustainability, could result in more food shortages, more disruption, and growing numbers of climate refugees.

“We observe a clear trend of arid areas developing in a negative direction in the most economically challenged countries,” said Rasmus Fensholt, of the University of Copenhagen, one of the authors.

“Here it is apparent that the growth of vegetation has become increasingly decoupled from the water resources available, and that there is simply less vegetation in relation to the amount of rainfall. The opposite is the case in the wealthiest countries.”

“One consequence of declining vegetation in the world’s poorer arid regions may be an increase in climate refugees from various African countries. There is no indication that the problem will diminish”

Roughly 40% of the Earth’s habitable land is arid or semi-arid, and the global drylands are home to almost a third of all humanity, around half of all the planet’s birds and mammals, as well as providing range for livestock and land for crops. Most of the world’s drylands are also home to many of the world’s least developed countries, and many of the poorest citizenry.

And, in a world of climate change driven by ever-rising global temperatures, fuelled in turn by greenhouse gas emissions from increasing fossil fuel use, things don’t look promising.

Research from the last four decades has repeatedly predicted that although global rainfall may be higher in total, those regions already well-watered will tend to become wetter, while those that have adapted to arid climate regimes will get drier. By the end of this century the proportion defined as dryland may have expanded by 23%.

And although higher temperatures, higher levels of atmospheric carbon and changes in rainfall regimes have had the overall effect of “greening” many of the drylands, those already struggling to survive are getting less benefit from any rain that falls.

The scientists, from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands, made a close analysis of satellite imagery from 2000 to 2015 to identify not rainfall changes, but vegetation productivity in relation to rainfall: they found pronounced differences across regions and continents. Drylands in Africa and Asia fared proportionately less well compared to South America and Australia.

Upward trend reversed

What made the difference, they think, is the number and the plight of the people on whom the rain fell. Rapid population growth in Africa meant greater pressure on land less suitable for agriculture, and more intense grazing on already fragile grassland cover.

In the richer nations, conversely, farms had expanded and intensified with help from fertiliser and irrigation.

This is not the first study to find that in a world of climate change, the poorest − among them those who have contributed least to global heating − will be hit hardest. The match of more people with less productive land can only mean more competition for less food at higher prices.

“One consequence of declining vegetation in the world’s poorer arid regions may be an increase in climate refugees from various African countries. According to what we have seen in this study, there is no indication that the problem will diminish in future,” Professor Fensholt said.

“We have been pleased to see that, for a number of years, vegetation has been on an upwards trend in arid regions. But if we dig only a tiny bit deeper and look at how successfully precipitation has translated into vegetation, then climate change seems to be hitting unevenly, which is troubling.” − Climate News Network

The arrival of the rains leaves the drylands hit harder than richer areas. Once again, climate change sows injustice.

LONDON, 7 December, 2020 − Not even the climate can be even-handed. When the rains come they leave the world’s drylands hit harder: the wealthier fare better and the poorest get relatively a little poorer. And the evidence is visible literally at the grassroots.

European scientists have been measuring vegetation growth as recorded in fine detail by satellite observation over the last 20 years. And they report that in the developing world, the vegetation that sprouts after rainfall on arid lands is more meagre, while in the better-off nations the same rainfall on the same kind of dryland terrain produces more healthy growth.

The consequence, researchers warn in the journal Nature Sustainability, could result in more food shortages, more disruption, and growing numbers of climate refugees.

“We observe a clear trend of arid areas developing in a negative direction in the most economically challenged countries,” said Rasmus Fensholt, of the University of Copenhagen, one of the authors.

“Here it is apparent that the growth of vegetation has become increasingly decoupled from the water resources available, and that there is simply less vegetation in relation to the amount of rainfall. The opposite is the case in the wealthiest countries.”

“One consequence of declining vegetation in the world’s poorer arid regions may be an increase in climate refugees from various African countries. There is no indication that the problem will diminish”

Roughly 40% of the Earth’s habitable land is arid or semi-arid, and the global drylands are home to almost a third of all humanity, around half of all the planet’s birds and mammals, as well as providing range for livestock and land for crops. Most of the world’s drylands are also home to many of the world’s least developed countries, and many of the poorest citizenry.

And, in a world of climate change driven by ever-rising global temperatures, fuelled in turn by greenhouse gas emissions from increasing fossil fuel use, things don’t look promising.

Research from the last four decades has repeatedly predicted that although global rainfall may be higher in total, those regions already well-watered will tend to become wetter, while those that have adapted to arid climate regimes will get drier. By the end of this century the proportion defined as dryland may have expanded by 23%.

And although higher temperatures, higher levels of atmospheric carbon and changes in rainfall regimes have had the overall effect of “greening” many of the drylands, those already struggling to survive are getting less benefit from any rain that falls.

The scientists, from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands, made a close analysis of satellite imagery from 2000 to 2015 to identify not rainfall changes, but vegetation productivity in relation to rainfall: they found pronounced differences across regions and continents. Drylands in Africa and Asia fared proportionately less well compared to South America and Australia.

Upward trend reversed

What made the difference, they think, is the number and the plight of the people on whom the rain fell. Rapid population growth in Africa meant greater pressure on land less suitable for agriculture, and more intense grazing on already fragile grassland cover.

In the richer nations, conversely, farms had expanded and intensified with help from fertiliser and irrigation.

This is not the first study to find that in a world of climate change, the poorest − among them those who have contributed least to global heating − will be hit hardest. The match of more people with less productive land can only mean more competition for less food at higher prices.

“One consequence of declining vegetation in the world’s poorer arid regions may be an increase in climate refugees from various African countries. According to what we have seen in this study, there is no indication that the problem will diminish in future,” Professor Fensholt said.

“We have been pleased to see that, for a number of years, vegetation has been on an upwards trend in arid regions. But if we dig only a tiny bit deeper and look at how successfully precipitation has translated into vegetation, then climate change seems to be hitting unevenly, which is troubling.” − Climate News Network

Big builders’ plans threaten to wreck forest survival

Plans by corporate power and government investors risk corporate good intentions and national vows for forest survival.

LONDON, 24 November, 2020 − Forest survival in the world’s great conservation targets − the Amazon, the Congo and South-east Asia, for example − is at risk from not just ranchers, loggers and illegal foresters: it’s also under assault from some of the planet’s biggest spenders: governments and the big banks, giant mining corporations and road builders.

A new report warns that in the Amazon region alone − across Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador − governments have promised $27bn worth of investment on 12,000 kms (7,456 miles) of roads over the next five years. If all the promised infrastructure goes ahead, that could mean the loss of 24,000 square kilometres of forest in the next 20 years.

The Indonesian government is planning to drive a 4,000 km network of highway through a national park in Papua, western New Guinea, for access to 500 sq kms of mining concessions. A new planned railway in Kalimantan, Indonesia, will open up new opportunities for palm oil plantations and coal mining concessions.

And in sub-Saharan Africa nations plan dozens of “international development corridors” to provide access to minerals and to energy. The plans threaten to cut through 400 protected areas and degrade another 1800.

Threat intensified

“Big new projects under way or planned in the Amazon, Indonesia, Meso-America, the Congo basin and beyond, reveal that our insatiable appetite for coal, minerals, metals, energy and agricultural commodities like soy has opened up a new front in the battle to protect the world’s forests,” said Franziska Haupt, executive director of Climate Focus, Berlin, and the lead author of a new report on efforts so far to limit the destruction of the world’s forests.

“Some governments are compounding this threat and rolling back forest protections, as countries struggle to cope with the economic fallout of Covid-19.”

Forests are key to limiting climate change. It is not enough simply to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy to halt global heating: the climate emergency also requires nations to halt the destruction of, and restore, the world’s great forests.

But much of the promised investment will be devoted to destroying forest and then compounding the damage by producing new reserves of fossil fuels to increase levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are living in a dreamworld of pledges, but a reality of very little progress, lack of transparency, vested interests and short-termism … Alas, reality will always catch us up”

“Many of these projects would never get the green light if the true value of forests was factored in − their role in reducing climate change, protecting animal habitats and reducing the spread of zoonotic diseases [infections caught from other creatures], keeping water sources clean, providing economic opportunity and a long list of other benefits without a price tag,” said Erin Matson, a consultant at Climate Focus, and a co-author.

“Forests are at a dangerous tipping point, and these new large-scale infrastructure projects could push us over the edge and undermine global efforts to stop deforestation.

“There’s a very small − and closing − window of opportunity now to rethink and re-orient these projects in a more sustainable direction. Governments, companies and investors all need to step up, commit to more transparency and act quickly to avoid further harm to people, wildlife and nature.”

The report points out that mining is the world’s “most violent” economic sector, with the largest share of environmental conflicts. In 2019, 50 environmental defenders were murdered.

“Local peoples tend to have little say in economic development approaches and the allocation and use of forest lands,” the report says. “Instead, powerful corporations and national elites influence decision-making to facilitate resource exploitation, while grassroots actors who express their preferences are often shunted aside or ignored.”

Doubtful promise

Forest survival is tough going. Roads, too, are part of the problem: roads and road networks make it easier for farmers and loggers to clear land. They could account for as much as 16% of the destruction of tropical and subtropical forests.

Six years ago, in what became known as the New York Declaration on Forests, endorsed by the world’s governments, multinationals and non-governmental organisations, there were international pledges to halve deforestation by 2020, and end it by 2030.

The 2020 target will not be met. The 2030 pledge looks increasingly improbable. In 2019, a World Bank analysis of 29 case studies of sites of large-scale mining in forests could not find a single example of a mining operation that properly addressed and limited the risks to the forest and its biodiversity.

“This is a salutary reminder that we are living in a dreamworld of pledges, but a reality of very little progress, lack of transparency, vested interests and short-termism,” said Robert Nasi, director general of the International Centre for Forest Research. “Alas, reality will always catch us up.” − Climate News Network

Plans by corporate power and government investors risk corporate good intentions and national vows for forest survival.

LONDON, 24 November, 2020 − Forest survival in the world’s great conservation targets − the Amazon, the Congo and South-east Asia, for example − is at risk from not just ranchers, loggers and illegal foresters: it’s also under assault from some of the planet’s biggest spenders: governments and the big banks, giant mining corporations and road builders.

A new report warns that in the Amazon region alone − across Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador − governments have promised $27bn worth of investment on 12,000 kms (7,456 miles) of roads over the next five years. If all the promised infrastructure goes ahead, that could mean the loss of 24,000 square kilometres of forest in the next 20 years.

The Indonesian government is planning to drive a 4,000 km network of highway through a national park in Papua, western New Guinea, for access to 500 sq kms of mining concessions. A new planned railway in Kalimantan, Indonesia, will open up new opportunities for palm oil plantations and coal mining concessions.

And in sub-Saharan Africa nations plan dozens of “international development corridors” to provide access to minerals and to energy. The plans threaten to cut through 400 protected areas and degrade another 1800.

Threat intensified

“Big new projects under way or planned in the Amazon, Indonesia, Meso-America, the Congo basin and beyond, reveal that our insatiable appetite for coal, minerals, metals, energy and agricultural commodities like soy has opened up a new front in the battle to protect the world’s forests,” said Franziska Haupt, executive director of Climate Focus, Berlin, and the lead author of a new report on efforts so far to limit the destruction of the world’s forests.

“Some governments are compounding this threat and rolling back forest protections, as countries struggle to cope with the economic fallout of Covid-19.”

Forests are key to limiting climate change. It is not enough simply to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy to halt global heating: the climate emergency also requires nations to halt the destruction of, and restore, the world’s great forests.

But much of the promised investment will be devoted to destroying forest and then compounding the damage by producing new reserves of fossil fuels to increase levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are living in a dreamworld of pledges, but a reality of very little progress, lack of transparency, vested interests and short-termism … Alas, reality will always catch us up”

“Many of these projects would never get the green light if the true value of forests was factored in − their role in reducing climate change, protecting animal habitats and reducing the spread of zoonotic diseases [infections caught from other creatures], keeping water sources clean, providing economic opportunity and a long list of other benefits without a price tag,” said Erin Matson, a consultant at Climate Focus, and a co-author.

“Forests are at a dangerous tipping point, and these new large-scale infrastructure projects could push us over the edge and undermine global efforts to stop deforestation.

“There’s a very small − and closing − window of opportunity now to rethink and re-orient these projects in a more sustainable direction. Governments, companies and investors all need to step up, commit to more transparency and act quickly to avoid further harm to people, wildlife and nature.”

The report points out that mining is the world’s “most violent” economic sector, with the largest share of environmental conflicts. In 2019, 50 environmental defenders were murdered.

“Local peoples tend to have little say in economic development approaches and the allocation and use of forest lands,” the report says. “Instead, powerful corporations and national elites influence decision-making to facilitate resource exploitation, while grassroots actors who express their preferences are often shunted aside or ignored.”

Doubtful promise

Forest survival is tough going. Roads, too, are part of the problem: roads and road networks make it easier for farmers and loggers to clear land. They could account for as much as 16% of the destruction of tropical and subtropical forests.

Six years ago, in what became known as the New York Declaration on Forests, endorsed by the world’s governments, multinationals and non-governmental organisations, there were international pledges to halve deforestation by 2020, and end it by 2030.

The 2020 target will not be met. The 2030 pledge looks increasingly improbable. In 2019, a World Bank analysis of 29 case studies of sites of large-scale mining in forests could not find a single example of a mining operation that properly addressed and limited the risks to the forest and its biodiversity.

“This is a salutary reminder that we are living in a dreamworld of pledges, but a reality of very little progress, lack of transparency, vested interests and short-termism,” said Robert Nasi, director general of the International Centre for Forest Research. “Alas, reality will always catch us up.” − Climate News Network

Mixed farming beats intensive agriculture methods

It sounds like the conservationist’s dream. But a return to traditional mixed farming ways could pay off for farmers too.

LONDON, 23 November, 2020 − Once again, researchers have shown that it should be possible to feed the human race and leave enough space for the rest of creation, simply by going back to centuries-old mixed farming practices.

That would mean an end to highly intensively-farmed landscapes composed of vast fields that were home to just one crop, and a return to a number of once-traditional husbandry methods. It sounds counter-intuitive, but European researchers are convinced that it could be good value.

They report in the journal Science Advances that they looked at more than 5,000 studies that made more than 40,000 comparisons between what they term diversified and simplified agriculture.

And they found that crop yield in general either kept to the same level or even increased when farmers adopted what they called diversified practices of the kind that sustained subsistence farmers for many centuries.

These include intercropping − different crops side by side − and multiple crops in rotation, strips of flowers to encourage pollinating insects, lower levels of disturbance of the soil and hedges, and forested shelter belts to encourage wildlife alongside farmland.

“Most often, diversification practices resulted in win-win support of services and crop yields”

The payoff? Better ecosystem services such as pollination, the regulation of crop pests by natural enemies, a more efficient turnover of nutrients, higher water quality, and in many cases better storage of carbon in ways that could mitigate climate change.

This, of course, is not how big agribusiness delivers much of the world’s food.

“The trend is that we are simplifying major cropping systems worldwide,” said Giovanni Tamburini, an ecologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, who led the study.

“We grow monoculture on enlarged fields in homogenised landscapes. According to our study, diversification can reverse the negative impacts that we observe in simplified forms of cropping on the environment and on production itself.”

It’s an old argument. Is it better for a farmer to invest all in one vast crop of maize or wheat or soy, regularly nourished by commercial fertilisers, routinely sprayed to suppress pests, moulds and mildews, with the land ploughed and harrowed after harvest for the next crop, and always at risk of frost or flood, locust swarms, drought or blight?

All-round winners

Or would it be better in the long run for the farmer to spread the risk by changing and multiplying the crops, and to rely more on undisturbed soils and local habitats for birds and insects that would demolish some of the pests (and of course take some of the crop)?

Researchers have repeatedly argued that both to contain climate change and to preserve the natural world from which all human nourishment and almost all human wealth ultimately derive, farming practices must change, and so must human appetite. The argument remains: what is the best way to set about change down on the farm itself?

There have already been a large number of studies of this question. There have also been meta-analyses, or studies of collected studies. Dr Tamburini and his colleagues identified 41,946 comparisons embedded in 5,160 original studies. They also found 98 meta-analyses. And they took a fresh look at the whole lot to identify what could be win-win, trade-off and lose-lose outcomes.

They found that diversification is better for biodiversity, pollination, pest control, nutrient cycling, soil fertility and water regulation at least 63% of the time. “Most often, diversification practices resulted in win-win support of services and crop yields,” they report.

“Widespread adoption of diversification practices shows promise to contribute to biodiversity conservation and food security from local to global scales.” − Climate News Network

It sounds like the conservationist’s dream. But a return to traditional mixed farming ways could pay off for farmers too.

LONDON, 23 November, 2020 − Once again, researchers have shown that it should be possible to feed the human race and leave enough space for the rest of creation, simply by going back to centuries-old mixed farming practices.

That would mean an end to highly intensively-farmed landscapes composed of vast fields that were home to just one crop, and a return to a number of once-traditional husbandry methods. It sounds counter-intuitive, but European researchers are convinced that it could be good value.

They report in the journal Science Advances that they looked at more than 5,000 studies that made more than 40,000 comparisons between what they term diversified and simplified agriculture.

And they found that crop yield in general either kept to the same level or even increased when farmers adopted what they called diversified practices of the kind that sustained subsistence farmers for many centuries.

These include intercropping − different crops side by side − and multiple crops in rotation, strips of flowers to encourage pollinating insects, lower levels of disturbance of the soil and hedges, and forested shelter belts to encourage wildlife alongside farmland.

“Most often, diversification practices resulted in win-win support of services and crop yields”

The payoff? Better ecosystem services such as pollination, the regulation of crop pests by natural enemies, a more efficient turnover of nutrients, higher water quality, and in many cases better storage of carbon in ways that could mitigate climate change.

This, of course, is not how big agribusiness delivers much of the world’s food.

“The trend is that we are simplifying major cropping systems worldwide,” said Giovanni Tamburini, an ecologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, who led the study.

“We grow monoculture on enlarged fields in homogenised landscapes. According to our study, diversification can reverse the negative impacts that we observe in simplified forms of cropping on the environment and on production itself.”

It’s an old argument. Is it better for a farmer to invest all in one vast crop of maize or wheat or soy, regularly nourished by commercial fertilisers, routinely sprayed to suppress pests, moulds and mildews, with the land ploughed and harrowed after harvest for the next crop, and always at risk of frost or flood, locust swarms, drought or blight?

All-round winners

Or would it be better in the long run for the farmer to spread the risk by changing and multiplying the crops, and to rely more on undisturbed soils and local habitats for birds and insects that would demolish some of the pests (and of course take some of the crop)?

Researchers have repeatedly argued that both to contain climate change and to preserve the natural world from which all human nourishment and almost all human wealth ultimately derive, farming practices must change, and so must human appetite. The argument remains: what is the best way to set about change down on the farm itself?

There have already been a large number of studies of this question. There have also been meta-analyses, or studies of collected studies. Dr Tamburini and his colleagues identified 41,946 comparisons embedded in 5,160 original studies. They also found 98 meta-analyses. And they took a fresh look at the whole lot to identify what could be win-win, trade-off and lose-lose outcomes.

They found that diversification is better for biodiversity, pollination, pest control, nutrient cycling, soil fertility and water regulation at least 63% of the time. “Most often, diversification practices resulted in win-win support of services and crop yields,” they report.

“Widespread adoption of diversification practices shows promise to contribute to biodiversity conservation and food security from local to global scales.” − Climate News Network

Shrinking world leaves less room for wild creatures

Wild creatures are losing their range. One day jaguars and rhinos, pandas and tigers, may have nowhere left to go.

LONDON, 18 November, 2020 − Thanks to climate change and to the human colonisation of the natural landscape, the world’s wild creatures have vanishing space in which to roam. In the last two centuries birds, mammals and amphibians have lost − this is an average figure − almost a fifth of their natural range.

By the close of the century, this freedom will have been limited even more, by almost a fourth of their living space. That is a conclusion based on close observation by generations of naturalists since 1700, of almost 17,000 species on all the main continents. And those figures, remember, are simply averages.

Individual species may have lost much, much more of the habitat and climate regime on which they depend to survive. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s species Red List the jaguar has lost 21% of its living space; the cheetah 28%; the black rhinoceros 53%.

Even those charismatic creatures slow in movement and static of habit have felt the confinement. The panda has 11% less freedom. The koala’s range has been reduced by 22%.

Tropics hit hardest

And despite decades of conservation effort, the Bengal tiger’s hunting grounds have been diminished by a fifth.

“The habitat size of almost all known birds, mammals and amphibians is shrinking, primarily because of land conversion by humans as we continue to expand our agricultural and urban areas,” said Robert Beyer, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge in the UK, first author of the study, in the journal Nature Communications, of the habitat of 16,919 animals.

One in six of these has already lost half its estimated natural range. By 2100, it could be more than one in four, depending on a range of climate scenarios.

The swiftest and most dramatic changes have been in the tropical zones, as wilderness has given way to palm oil plantation or cattle range. In many cases, the tropical species’ ranges were smaller to begin with.

“The habitat size of almost all known birds, mammals and amphibians is shrinking, primarily because of land conversion by humans as we continue to expand our agricultural and urban areas”

“The tropics are biodiversity hotspots with lots of small-range species. If one hectare of forest is converted to agricultural land, a lot more species lose larger proportions of their home than in places like Europe,” Dr Beyer said.

“Species in the Amazon have adapted to living in tropical rainforest. If climate change causes this ecosystem to change, many of those species won’t be able to survive − or they will be pushed into smaller areas of remaining rainforest. We found that the higher the carbon emissions, the worse it gets for most species in terms of habitat loss.”

Researchers have calculated that perhaps a million species could be threatened with extinction as a consequence of the human conversion of wilderness and human-fuelled climate change. Cambridge co-author Andrea Manica warned that what happens to the creatures of the tropical wilderness will depend on just how much more fossil fuels humans burn, and how rapaciously human intruders scorch and clear the forests and grasslands.

“While our study quantifies the drastic consequences for species’ ranges, if global land use and climate change are left unchecked, it also demonstrates the tremendous potential of timely and concerted policy action for halting − and indeed reversing − previous trends in global range contractions,” he said.

“It all depends on what we do next.” Remembering the needs of the wild creatures who share the planet would be a start. − Climate News Network

Wild creatures are losing their range. One day jaguars and rhinos, pandas and tigers, may have nowhere left to go.

LONDON, 18 November, 2020 − Thanks to climate change and to the human colonisation of the natural landscape, the world’s wild creatures have vanishing space in which to roam. In the last two centuries birds, mammals and amphibians have lost − this is an average figure − almost a fifth of their natural range.

By the close of the century, this freedom will have been limited even more, by almost a fourth of their living space. That is a conclusion based on close observation by generations of naturalists since 1700, of almost 17,000 species on all the main continents. And those figures, remember, are simply averages.

Individual species may have lost much, much more of the habitat and climate regime on which they depend to survive. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s species Red List the jaguar has lost 21% of its living space; the cheetah 28%; the black rhinoceros 53%.

Even those charismatic creatures slow in movement and static of habit have felt the confinement. The panda has 11% less freedom. The koala’s range has been reduced by 22%.

Tropics hit hardest

And despite decades of conservation effort, the Bengal tiger’s hunting grounds have been diminished by a fifth.

“The habitat size of almost all known birds, mammals and amphibians is shrinking, primarily because of land conversion by humans as we continue to expand our agricultural and urban areas,” said Robert Beyer, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge in the UK, first author of the study, in the journal Nature Communications, of the habitat of 16,919 animals.

One in six of these has already lost half its estimated natural range. By 2100, it could be more than one in four, depending on a range of climate scenarios.

The swiftest and most dramatic changes have been in the tropical zones, as wilderness has given way to palm oil plantation or cattle range. In many cases, the tropical species’ ranges were smaller to begin with.

“The habitat size of almost all known birds, mammals and amphibians is shrinking, primarily because of land conversion by humans as we continue to expand our agricultural and urban areas”

“The tropics are biodiversity hotspots with lots of small-range species. If one hectare of forest is converted to agricultural land, a lot more species lose larger proportions of their home than in places like Europe,” Dr Beyer said.

“Species in the Amazon have adapted to living in tropical rainforest. If climate change causes this ecosystem to change, many of those species won’t be able to survive − or they will be pushed into smaller areas of remaining rainforest. We found that the higher the carbon emissions, the worse it gets for most species in terms of habitat loss.”

Researchers have calculated that perhaps a million species could be threatened with extinction as a consequence of the human conversion of wilderness and human-fuelled climate change. Cambridge co-author Andrea Manica warned that what happens to the creatures of the tropical wilderness will depend on just how much more fossil fuels humans burn, and how rapaciously human intruders scorch and clear the forests and grasslands.

“While our study quantifies the drastic consequences for species’ ranges, if global land use and climate change are left unchecked, it also demonstrates the tremendous potential of timely and concerted policy action for halting − and indeed reversing − previous trends in global range contractions,” he said.

“It all depends on what we do next.” Remembering the needs of the wild creatures who share the planet would be a start. − Climate News Network

Food system causes one third of greenhouse gases

How we eat causes dangerous climate heating. It’s time to change not only our diet, but the entire global food system.

LONDON, 13 November, 2020 − If the nations of the world really want to limit climate change to the level agreed five years ago, it will not be enough to immediately abandon fossil fuels as the principal source of energy: the global food system demands radical overhaul.

Humans will have to make dramatic changes to every aspect of agriculture worldwide, to planetary diet and to much else besides.

That is because the global food system − everything from clearing land and felling forests for cattle ranches to the arrival of meat and two vegetables on a suburban family dinner plate − accounts for 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. And to contain global heating later this century to no more than 1.5°C above the levels that existed before the Industrial Revolution, urgent action is needed.

In Paris in 2015, 195 nations undertook to limit the planetary thermometer rise to “well below” 2°C. The undeclared target was 1.5°C. In the last century, the global temperature has already risen by 1°C, and at the present rate it’s heading for a potentially catastrophic 3°C or more rise by around 2100.

“Food is a much greater contributor to climate change than is widely known”

British and US scientists report in the journal Science that they looked at the challenge of feeding a global population that has almost trebled in one human lifetime, and could reach 9bn or even 10bn later this century.

They found that the greenhouse gas emissions from food production alone would by 2050 take the world to the 1.5°C target, and to 2°C by the end of the century.

In just the five years that separated 2010 from 2017, the global food system accounted for an average of 16 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in emissions each year. If humans go on pursuing business as usual, then the cumulative emissions from the food system could add up to 1,365 billion tonnes.

Emissions on that scale from the food system alone would take the planet past the preferred 1.5°C limit some time between 2051 and 2063, and reach the 2°C limit by 2100.

Remedies at hand

“Food is a much greater contributor to climate change than is widely known,” said Jason Hill, of the University of Minnesota, and one of the authors. “Fortunately, we can fix this problem by using fertiliser more efficiently, by eating less meat and more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts, and by making other important changes to our food system.”

The finding should come as no great surprise: global heating is driven by more than simply the return of carbon dioxide fossilised 300 million years ago as coal, oil and natural gas to the atmosphere with every touch of the accelerator, with every jet plane take-off, with every ignition of the electric light, the air conditioning system and the heating, and every turn of industrial machinery around the planet.

It is also fuelled by the devastating clearance of natural forest, grassland and marsh for grazing land or plantation, and the conversion of natural canopy to fodder crops to nourish the world’s domestic cattle and sheep.

Researchers have repeatedly pointed out that even a relatively simple shift to greater reliance on a plant diet could save on carbon emissions, protect the million or so species threatened with imminent extinction, and improve global health, all at the same time.

Multiple benefits

So the latest study offers a new way of spelling out the scale of the problem − a global challenge that could be resolved by concerted and coherent international action.

The researchers identified five strategies that, they believe, could both help limit climate change and improve human health, enhance air quality, reduce water pollution, slow extinction rates and make farms more profitable.

The challenge is to increase crop yields per hectare, reduce food waste, improve farm efficiency and switch to healthy calorie supplies based increasingly on plant crops.

“Even partially adopting several of these five changes would solve this problem as long as we start right now,” said David Tilman, another author, and an ecologist at the university’s College of Biological Sciences. − Climate News Network

How we eat causes dangerous climate heating. It’s time to change not only our diet, but the entire global food system.

LONDON, 13 November, 2020 − If the nations of the world really want to limit climate change to the level agreed five years ago, it will not be enough to immediately abandon fossil fuels as the principal source of energy: the global food system demands radical overhaul.

Humans will have to make dramatic changes to every aspect of agriculture worldwide, to planetary diet and to much else besides.

That is because the global food system − everything from clearing land and felling forests for cattle ranches to the arrival of meat and two vegetables on a suburban family dinner plate − accounts for 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. And to contain global heating later this century to no more than 1.5°C above the levels that existed before the Industrial Revolution, urgent action is needed.

In Paris in 2015, 195 nations undertook to limit the planetary thermometer rise to “well below” 2°C. The undeclared target was 1.5°C. In the last century, the global temperature has already risen by 1°C, and at the present rate it’s heading for a potentially catastrophic 3°C or more rise by around 2100.

“Food is a much greater contributor to climate change than is widely known”

British and US scientists report in the journal Science that they looked at the challenge of feeding a global population that has almost trebled in one human lifetime, and could reach 9bn or even 10bn later this century.

They found that the greenhouse gas emissions from food production alone would by 2050 take the world to the 1.5°C target, and to 2°C by the end of the century.

In just the five years that separated 2010 from 2017, the global food system accounted for an average of 16 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in emissions each year. If humans go on pursuing business as usual, then the cumulative emissions from the food system could add up to 1,365 billion tonnes.

Emissions on that scale from the food system alone would take the planet past the preferred 1.5°C limit some time between 2051 and 2063, and reach the 2°C limit by 2100.

Remedies at hand

“Food is a much greater contributor to climate change than is widely known,” said Jason Hill, of the University of Minnesota, and one of the authors. “Fortunately, we can fix this problem by using fertiliser more efficiently, by eating less meat and more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts, and by making other important changes to our food system.”

The finding should come as no great surprise: global heating is driven by more than simply the return of carbon dioxide fossilised 300 million years ago as coal, oil and natural gas to the atmosphere with every touch of the accelerator, with every jet plane take-off, with every ignition of the electric light, the air conditioning system and the heating, and every turn of industrial machinery around the planet.

It is also fuelled by the devastating clearance of natural forest, grassland and marsh for grazing land or plantation, and the conversion of natural canopy to fodder crops to nourish the world’s domestic cattle and sheep.

Researchers have repeatedly pointed out that even a relatively simple shift to greater reliance on a plant diet could save on carbon emissions, protect the million or so species threatened with imminent extinction, and improve global health, all at the same time.

Multiple benefits

So the latest study offers a new way of spelling out the scale of the problem − a global challenge that could be resolved by concerted and coherent international action.

The researchers identified five strategies that, they believe, could both help limit climate change and improve human health, enhance air quality, reduce water pollution, slow extinction rates and make farms more profitable.

The challenge is to increase crop yields per hectare, reduce food waste, improve farm efficiency and switch to healthy calorie supplies based increasingly on plant crops.

“Even partially adopting several of these five changes would solve this problem as long as we start right now,” said David Tilman, another author, and an ecologist at the university’s College of Biological Sciences. − Climate News Network

More avoidable pandemics await a heedless world

There will be more avoidable pandemics, more devastating and lethal, as humans intrude further upon the planet’s forests.

LONDON, 11 November, 2020 − Once again, naturalists have warned that the invasion of wilderness can seriously damage human health: avoidable pandemics − Covid-19 is an instance of a disease transferred from wild mammals to humans − threaten to arrive more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the global economy, and kill more people.

That’s because the odds on even more fearful infections remain very high: the world’s wild mammals could between them be hosts to 1.7 million viruses that have yet to be identified and named. If only a third of them them could infect humans, that’s 540,000 new diseases waiting to happen.

The number could be higher: perhaps 850,000 potential infections lie so far undisturbed, waiting to happen.

A new report by a team of 22 global experts warns that Covid-19 is at least the sixth global health pandemic since the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918: all had their origins in microbes carried by animals, and all were awakened and spread by human interaction with the wilderness.

By July 2020, the coronavirus linked to a market in wild animals in Wuhan in China had spread around the planet at a cost of between US$8 trillion and $16tn. The world has already seen the Ebola virus devastating West African communities, the HIV/Aids epidemic, Zika, and many others claiming lives in the last century.

Wilderness no more

The arrival of new zoonotic diseases − infections caught from other creatures − has been counted at roughly two a year since 1918. The number could increase to as many as five a year. And most of them will be linked to increasing human impact upon what had once been largely undisturbed wilderness.

“There is no great mystery about the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic − or of any modern pandemic”, said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance and chair of a workshop of the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES for short) that assembled the research.

“The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. This is the path to pandemics.”

All living things are host to viruses and other microbes: in most cases host and parasite adapt to live peaceably with each other. The danger comes when a microbe transfers to a new host that is entirely unprepared for the invader.

“We still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge. We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a greater focus on prevention”

What became known as the human immuno-deficiency virus HIV-1 is believed to have emerged first in West or Central Africa from the remains of chimpanzees hunted and sold for bushmeat. It spread around the planet within a decade, to claim millions of lives as the disease AIDS. Ebola infects both primates and humans: in an outbreak among humans, it has been known to kill 90% of all infected people.

Researchers have consistently linked epidemic and pandemic outbreaks to climate change, to the destruction and degradation of the wilderness, and to the traffic in wild creatures as objects of value or commerce.

And all are consequences ultimately of exponential growth in human numbers in the last century, a growth that puts ever greater pressure on what had once been largely undisturbed tropical forest, grassland and wetland.

Around a quarter of all wild terrestrial vertebrate species are traded globally. International, legal wildlife trade has increased fivefold in revenue in the last 14 years. It is now worth an estimated $107bn.

The illegal traffic in wildlife could be worth anywhere between $7bn and $23bn annually. The US imports around 10 to 20 million wild animals a year. In China in 2016, what is now called wildlife farming employed 14 million people and generated $77bn in revenue.

Negligible cost

Researchers have already argued that intrusion into what should be protected ecosystems that are home to the shrinking pool of wild birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians − a million species could be nearing global extinction − not only threatens the wellbeing of the planet; it also generates an increasing health hazard.

The latest study lists a range of policy options to reduce the risk of assault by new plagues. These rest upon greater awareness of, and respect for, the natural capital of the wilderness. Conservation of this kind costs money, but at least 100 times less than the toll of successive pandemics likely without a change in human attitudes.

“We have increasing ability to prevent pandemics, but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability,” Dr Daszak said. “Our approach has effectively stagnated − we still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge, through vaccines and therapeutics.

“We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.” − Climate News Network

There will be more avoidable pandemics, more devastating and lethal, as humans intrude further upon the planet’s forests.

LONDON, 11 November, 2020 − Once again, naturalists have warned that the invasion of wilderness can seriously damage human health: avoidable pandemics − Covid-19 is an instance of a disease transferred from wild mammals to humans − threaten to arrive more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the global economy, and kill more people.

That’s because the odds on even more fearful infections remain very high: the world’s wild mammals could between them be hosts to 1.7 million viruses that have yet to be identified and named. If only a third of them them could infect humans, that’s 540,000 new diseases waiting to happen.

The number could be higher: perhaps 850,000 potential infections lie so far undisturbed, waiting to happen.

A new report by a team of 22 global experts warns that Covid-19 is at least the sixth global health pandemic since the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918: all had their origins in microbes carried by animals, and all were awakened and spread by human interaction with the wilderness.

By July 2020, the coronavirus linked to a market in wild animals in Wuhan in China had spread around the planet at a cost of between US$8 trillion and $16tn. The world has already seen the Ebola virus devastating West African communities, the HIV/Aids epidemic, Zika, and many others claiming lives in the last century.

Wilderness no more

The arrival of new zoonotic diseases − infections caught from other creatures − has been counted at roughly two a year since 1918. The number could increase to as many as five a year. And most of them will be linked to increasing human impact upon what had once been largely undisturbed wilderness.

“There is no great mystery about the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic − or of any modern pandemic”, said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance and chair of a workshop of the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES for short) that assembled the research.

“The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. This is the path to pandemics.”

All living things are host to viruses and other microbes: in most cases host and parasite adapt to live peaceably with each other. The danger comes when a microbe transfers to a new host that is entirely unprepared for the invader.

“We still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge. We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a greater focus on prevention”

What became known as the human immuno-deficiency virus HIV-1 is believed to have emerged first in West or Central Africa from the remains of chimpanzees hunted and sold for bushmeat. It spread around the planet within a decade, to claim millions of lives as the disease AIDS. Ebola infects both primates and humans: in an outbreak among humans, it has been known to kill 90% of all infected people.

Researchers have consistently linked epidemic and pandemic outbreaks to climate change, to the destruction and degradation of the wilderness, and to the traffic in wild creatures as objects of value or commerce.

And all are consequences ultimately of exponential growth in human numbers in the last century, a growth that puts ever greater pressure on what had once been largely undisturbed tropical forest, grassland and wetland.

Around a quarter of all wild terrestrial vertebrate species are traded globally. International, legal wildlife trade has increased fivefold in revenue in the last 14 years. It is now worth an estimated $107bn.

The illegal traffic in wildlife could be worth anywhere between $7bn and $23bn annually. The US imports around 10 to 20 million wild animals a year. In China in 2016, what is now called wildlife farming employed 14 million people and generated $77bn in revenue.

Negligible cost

Researchers have already argued that intrusion into what should be protected ecosystems that are home to the shrinking pool of wild birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians − a million species could be nearing global extinction − not only threatens the wellbeing of the planet; it also generates an increasing health hazard.

The latest study lists a range of policy options to reduce the risk of assault by new plagues. These rest upon greater awareness of, and respect for, the natural capital of the wilderness. Conservation of this kind costs money, but at least 100 times less than the toll of successive pandemics likely without a change in human attitudes.

“We have increasing ability to prevent pandemics, but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability,” Dr Daszak said. “Our approach has effectively stagnated − we still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge, through vaccines and therapeutics.

“We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.” − Climate News Network

Natural hotspots lose ground to farms and cities

Nature concentrates its riches in selected spots. Save those natural hotspots, and you could save biodiversity. Really?

LONDON, 6 November, 2020 − Nations that signed up to preserve biodiversity − the richness of living things in the world’s forests, grasslands and wetlands − are not doing so very well: in one generation they have altered, degraded or cleared at least 1.48 million square kilometres of natural hotspots unusually rich in wildlife.

This is an area in total larger than South Africa, or Peru. It is almost as large as Mongolia. And importantly, this lost landscape adds up to 6% of the scattered ecosystems that make up the world’s biodiversity hotspots.

The biodiversity hotspot was defined, in 2000, as an area of land home to at least 0.5% of the world’s endemic species of plant. That means that a tract of marsh, savannah, upland or forest that may have already lost 70% of its cover is host to at least 1500 species native to that landscape and nowhere else.

Researchers at the time calculated that 44% of all vascular plants and 35% of all amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals could be concentrated in just 25 such hotspots on the world’s continents and islands.

The hotspot count has since been increased to 34. But the message has remained. Focus on preserving and protecting these areas and you have a “silver bullet” strategy for conserving wildlife worldwide.

First such inventory

But, say scientists in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, between 1992 and 2015 much of this precious wilderness has been consumed by agriculture, or paved by sprawling cities.

Their analysis of high resolution land-cover maps made by the European Space Agency is the first to try to look at the global inventory of hotspots, over a time frame of almost a quarter century.

“We see that not even focusing protection on a small range of areas worked well,” said Francesco Cherubini of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who with colleagues carried out the research. “There was major deforestation even in areas that were supposed to be protected.”

Two fifths of the lost landscapes were in forests, and agriculture accounted for most of this loss, particularly in the tropical forests of Indonesia, the Indo-Burma region and Mesoamerica. Five per cent of the lost hotspots were in areas formally declared as under state protection.

“The soils in these areas are very fertile, and agricultural yields can be very high. So it’s very productive land from an agricultural point of view, and attractive to farmers and local authorities that have to think about rising local incomes by feeding a growing population,” Professor Cherubini said.

“Not even focusing protection on a small range of areas worked well … There was major deforestation even in areas that were supposed to be protected.”

But most of the lost land went not to feeding people: it went instead to producing palm oil or soybeans for cattle feed. And local people may not have benefited: the change was driven by commercial agribusiness.

“You have these big companies that are making these investments, with high risks of land overexploitation and environmental degradation. The local population might get some benefits from revenues, but not much.”

The tension between hungry humans and vulnerable wilderness continues. Once again, such research supports a call for the people of the planet to consider a switch to plant-based diets, a switch that could contain climate change and preserve the natural capital on which all life depends. But many of those rich habitats are in some of the poorest countries.

“We need to be able somehow to link protection to poverty alleviation, because most of the biodiversity hotspots are in underdeveloped countries and it’s difficult to go there and say to a farmer, ‘Well, you need to keep this forest − don’t have a rice paddy or a field to feed your family’”, Professor Cherubini said.

“We need to also make it possible for the local communities to benefit from protection measures. They need income, too.” − Climate News Network

Nature concentrates its riches in selected spots. Save those natural hotspots, and you could save biodiversity. Really?

LONDON, 6 November, 2020 − Nations that signed up to preserve biodiversity − the richness of living things in the world’s forests, grasslands and wetlands − are not doing so very well: in one generation they have altered, degraded or cleared at least 1.48 million square kilometres of natural hotspots unusually rich in wildlife.

This is an area in total larger than South Africa, or Peru. It is almost as large as Mongolia. And importantly, this lost landscape adds up to 6% of the scattered ecosystems that make up the world’s biodiversity hotspots.

The biodiversity hotspot was defined, in 2000, as an area of land home to at least 0.5% of the world’s endemic species of plant. That means that a tract of marsh, savannah, upland or forest that may have already lost 70% of its cover is host to at least 1500 species native to that landscape and nowhere else.

Researchers at the time calculated that 44% of all vascular plants and 35% of all amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals could be concentrated in just 25 such hotspots on the world’s continents and islands.

The hotspot count has since been increased to 34. But the message has remained. Focus on preserving and protecting these areas and you have a “silver bullet” strategy for conserving wildlife worldwide.

First such inventory

But, say scientists in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, between 1992 and 2015 much of this precious wilderness has been consumed by agriculture, or paved by sprawling cities.

Their analysis of high resolution land-cover maps made by the European Space Agency is the first to try to look at the global inventory of hotspots, over a time frame of almost a quarter century.

“We see that not even focusing protection on a small range of areas worked well,” said Francesco Cherubini of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who with colleagues carried out the research. “There was major deforestation even in areas that were supposed to be protected.”

Two fifths of the lost landscapes were in forests, and agriculture accounted for most of this loss, particularly in the tropical forests of Indonesia, the Indo-Burma region and Mesoamerica. Five per cent of the lost hotspots were in areas formally declared as under state protection.

“The soils in these areas are very fertile, and agricultural yields can be very high. So it’s very productive land from an agricultural point of view, and attractive to farmers and local authorities that have to think about rising local incomes by feeding a growing population,” Professor Cherubini said.

“Not even focusing protection on a small range of areas worked well … There was major deforestation even in areas that were supposed to be protected.”

But most of the lost land went not to feeding people: it went instead to producing palm oil or soybeans for cattle feed. And local people may not have benefited: the change was driven by commercial agribusiness.

“You have these big companies that are making these investments, with high risks of land overexploitation and environmental degradation. The local population might get some benefits from revenues, but not much.”

The tension between hungry humans and vulnerable wilderness continues. Once again, such research supports a call for the people of the planet to consider a switch to plant-based diets, a switch that could contain climate change and preserve the natural capital on which all life depends. But many of those rich habitats are in some of the poorest countries.

“We need to be able somehow to link protection to poverty alleviation, because most of the biodiversity hotspots are in underdeveloped countries and it’s difficult to go there and say to a farmer, ‘Well, you need to keep this forest − don’t have a rice paddy or a field to feed your family’”, Professor Cherubini said.

“We need to also make it possible for the local communities to benefit from protection measures. They need income, too.” − Climate News Network

Rewilded farmland can save money − and the Earth

To save civilisation, try rewilded farmland. But that salvation depends on which land goes back to forest and savannah.

LONDON, 2 November, 2020 − An international consortium of scientists has worked out − once again − how to conserve life on the planet and absorb dramatic quantities of the atmospheric carbon that is driving potentially calamitous climate change: go for rewilded farmland, fields of crops and livestock returned to prairie and forest. And they have identified the most cost-effective way to do it.

Global salvation requires the world’s nations to do simply what they have already undertaken to do: restore 15% of cultivated land to natural forest, grassland, shrubland, wetland and desert ecosystem.

If such restoration happened in the highest priority zones, then almost two-thirds of the wild things now threatened with imminent extinction could survive.

And the restored wilderness that would protect them would also start absorbing atmospheric carbon at an accelerating rate: it could sequester an estimated 229 billion tonnes of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2). This is almost a third of all the CO2 spilled into the atmosphere by coal, oil and gas combustion in the last 200 years.

All that would be possible if the world’s nations delivered on vows made 10 years ago in Japan, to restore 15% of ecosystems worldwide. If the 196 nations that signed up went further, and restored a carefully chosen 30%, they could save more than 70% of the million or so species sliding towards extinction, and absorb 465 billion tonnes of CO2: almost half of all the extra atmospheric carbon loaded into the atmosphere by human societies since the Industrial Revolution.

Two provisos

“Pushing forward on plans to return significant sweeps of nature to a natural state is critical to preventing ongoing biodiversity and climate crises from spinning out of control,” said Bernado Strassburg, of the Pontifical Catholic University in Brazil, who led the study.

“We show that if we’re smarter about where we restore nature, we can tick the climate, biodiversity and budget boxes on the world’s urgent to-do list.”

There is a catch. To be most effective, and for the lowest costs, nations would have to work together.

Right now, scientists report in the journal Nature, each nation has undertaken to restore 15% of its wilderness. But to save the greatest number of species, and absorb the highest levels of carbon, with the lowest cost to farmland and food security, humankind would have to assess the world as a whole, and restore those ecosystems that would serve the goals most effectively.

There is a second catch: barely a month ago, a UN report confirmed that although 196 nations agreed on 20 targets to protect biodiversity − to be achieved by 2020 − a decade ago, there has been “partial progress” in just six of them. The million species then threatened with extinction are still threatened.

Potential ignored

“Many good things are happening around the world and these should be celebrated and encouraged,” said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

“Nevertheless the rate of biodiversity loss is unprecedented in human history, and pressures are intensifying. Earth’s living systems as a whole are being compromised.”

And that threat starts with the green things on which all life depends: in September, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London published a new study on ways to identify and care for the plants and fungi that underwrite survival for what could be seven million or more species alive on the planet, and more than seven billion humans.

The study, involving 210 scientists in 42 countries, said Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, paints a picture “of a world that has turned its back on the incredible potential of plant and fungal kingdoms to address some of the biggest challenges we face.

“We have particularly earmarked the gaps in our knowledge, the changes we are seeing, the species being named new to science and the shocking pace of biodiversity loss.”

“The rate of biodiversity loss is unprecedented in human history, and pressures are intensifying. Earth’s living systems as a whole are being compromised”

The most recent finding builds on the drive not just to fulfil the obligations undertaken 10 years ago, but to identify the very best ways to fulfil them, so as to benefit the greatest number of people.

It delivers the evidence that restoration in the most carefully chosen regions would have the most profound impact: put simply, restoration could be 13 times more cost-effective if it happened in what the Nature researchers have identified as the highest priority locations.

They used sophisticated mathematical tools and detailed geographic data to take a closer look at the 28.7 million square kilometres of natural wilderness that have been converted to farmland: 54% of these were originally forest, 25% grasslands, 14% shrublands, 4% arid lands and 2% wetland.

They then tested these areas against three considerations: their value as habitat, their capacity for carbon storage and their cost-effectiveness. And they came up with recommendations that would deliver 91% of the potential benefit for plants and animals of the wilderness and 82% of the climate mitigation benefit, and reduce costs by 27%.

And then they considered the nation-by-nation approach: were each country to restore 15% of its own forests, the biodiversity boon fell by 28%, the climate benefits by 29%, while the costs would rise by 52%.

Vital partnership

They then considered the impact on the world’s food supplies, to find that 15.78 million sq kms, or 55% of wilderness converted to farmland, could be restored without squeezing food supplies, always providing nations encouraged what they call the “sustainable intensification” of farming, along with a reduction in food waste and a move away from meat and dairy products.

The findings simply extend a procession of such outcomes by other teams. It has been a given for decades that, if forest and other ecosystems become farmland, greenhouse gas levels rise. If wilderness is restored, then the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will fall.

Researchers have repeatedly argued that simply planting more trees could have a dramatic impact on global heating; that a switch towards a plant-based diet could help stem biodiversity loss and reduce emissions; and that without concerted global action, precious ecosystems could collapse altogether.

They have over and over again confirmed that conservation delivers real rewards. And they have pointed out that although nations have promised to act, such promises have not always been kept. The latest study highlights the need for action to be concerted, and global.

“These results highlight the critical importance of international co-operation in meeting these goals,” Dr Strassburg said. “Different countries have different, complementary roles to play in meeting overarching global targets on biodiversity and climate.” − Climate News Network

To save civilisation, try rewilded farmland. But that salvation depends on which land goes back to forest and savannah.

LONDON, 2 November, 2020 − An international consortium of scientists has worked out − once again − how to conserve life on the planet and absorb dramatic quantities of the atmospheric carbon that is driving potentially calamitous climate change: go for rewilded farmland, fields of crops and livestock returned to prairie and forest. And they have identified the most cost-effective way to do it.

Global salvation requires the world’s nations to do simply what they have already undertaken to do: restore 15% of cultivated land to natural forest, grassland, shrubland, wetland and desert ecosystem.

If such restoration happened in the highest priority zones, then almost two-thirds of the wild things now threatened with imminent extinction could survive.

And the restored wilderness that would protect them would also start absorbing atmospheric carbon at an accelerating rate: it could sequester an estimated 229 billion tonnes of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2). This is almost a third of all the CO2 spilled into the atmosphere by coal, oil and gas combustion in the last 200 years.

All that would be possible if the world’s nations delivered on vows made 10 years ago in Japan, to restore 15% of ecosystems worldwide. If the 196 nations that signed up went further, and restored a carefully chosen 30%, they could save more than 70% of the million or so species sliding towards extinction, and absorb 465 billion tonnes of CO2: almost half of all the extra atmospheric carbon loaded into the atmosphere by human societies since the Industrial Revolution.

Two provisos

“Pushing forward on plans to return significant sweeps of nature to a natural state is critical to preventing ongoing biodiversity and climate crises from spinning out of control,” said Bernado Strassburg, of the Pontifical Catholic University in Brazil, who led the study.

“We show that if we’re smarter about where we restore nature, we can tick the climate, biodiversity and budget boxes on the world’s urgent to-do list.”

There is a catch. To be most effective, and for the lowest costs, nations would have to work together.

Right now, scientists report in the journal Nature, each nation has undertaken to restore 15% of its wilderness. But to save the greatest number of species, and absorb the highest levels of carbon, with the lowest cost to farmland and food security, humankind would have to assess the world as a whole, and restore those ecosystems that would serve the goals most effectively.

There is a second catch: barely a month ago, a UN report confirmed that although 196 nations agreed on 20 targets to protect biodiversity − to be achieved by 2020 − a decade ago, there has been “partial progress” in just six of them. The million species then threatened with extinction are still threatened.

Potential ignored

“Many good things are happening around the world and these should be celebrated and encouraged,” said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

“Nevertheless the rate of biodiversity loss is unprecedented in human history, and pressures are intensifying. Earth’s living systems as a whole are being compromised.”

And that threat starts with the green things on which all life depends: in September, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London published a new study on ways to identify and care for the plants and fungi that underwrite survival for what could be seven million or more species alive on the planet, and more than seven billion humans.

The study, involving 210 scientists in 42 countries, said Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, paints a picture “of a world that has turned its back on the incredible potential of plant and fungal kingdoms to address some of the biggest challenges we face.

“We have particularly earmarked the gaps in our knowledge, the changes we are seeing, the species being named new to science and the shocking pace of biodiversity loss.”

“The rate of biodiversity loss is unprecedented in human history, and pressures are intensifying. Earth’s living systems as a whole are being compromised”

The most recent finding builds on the drive not just to fulfil the obligations undertaken 10 years ago, but to identify the very best ways to fulfil them, so as to benefit the greatest number of people.

It delivers the evidence that restoration in the most carefully chosen regions would have the most profound impact: put simply, restoration could be 13 times more cost-effective if it happened in what the Nature researchers have identified as the highest priority locations.

They used sophisticated mathematical tools and detailed geographic data to take a closer look at the 28.7 million square kilometres of natural wilderness that have been converted to farmland: 54% of these were originally forest, 25% grasslands, 14% shrublands, 4% arid lands and 2% wetland.

They then tested these areas against three considerations: their value as habitat, their capacity for carbon storage and their cost-effectiveness. And they came up with recommendations that would deliver 91% of the potential benefit for plants and animals of the wilderness and 82% of the climate mitigation benefit, and reduce costs by 27%.

And then they considered the nation-by-nation approach: were each country to restore 15% of its own forests, the biodiversity boon fell by 28%, the climate benefits by 29%, while the costs would rise by 52%.

Vital partnership

They then considered the impact on the world’s food supplies, to find that 15.78 million sq kms, or 55% of wilderness converted to farmland, could be restored without squeezing food supplies, always providing nations encouraged what they call the “sustainable intensification” of farming, along with a reduction in food waste and a move away from meat and dairy products.

The findings simply extend a procession of such outcomes by other teams. It has been a given for decades that, if forest and other ecosystems become farmland, greenhouse gas levels rise. If wilderness is restored, then the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will fall.

Researchers have repeatedly argued that simply planting more trees could have a dramatic impact on global heating; that a switch towards a plant-based diet could help stem biodiversity loss and reduce emissions; and that without concerted global action, precious ecosystems could collapse altogether.

They have over and over again confirmed that conservation delivers real rewards. And they have pointed out that although nations have promised to act, such promises have not always been kept. The latest study highlights the need for action to be concerted, and global.

“These results highlight the critical importance of international co-operation in meeting these goals,” Dr Strassburg said. “Different countries have different, complementary roles to play in meeting overarching global targets on biodiversity and climate.” − Climate News Network

African desert is home to abundant forest growth

Researchers have found an unknown wealth of trees in an African desert zone supposedly too arid for green growth.

LONDON, 27 October, 2020 − With help from high resolution satellite imagery and some advanced artificial intelligence techniques, European scientists have been counting the trees in a parched African desert.

They pored over 1.3 million square kilometres of the waterless western Sahara and the arid lands of the Sahel to the south, to identify what is in effect an unknown forest. This region − a stretch of dunes and dryland larger than Angola, or Peru, or Niger − proved to be home to 1.8 billion trees and shrubs with crowns larger than three square metres.

“We were very surprised to see that quite a few trees actually grow in the Sahara Desert because up till now, most people thought that virtually none existed. We counted hundreds of millions of trees in the desert alone,” said Martin Brandt, a geographer at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, who led the research.

He and colleagues from Germany, France, Senegal, Belgium and Nasa in the US report in the journal Nature that they used an artificial intelligence technique called “deep learning” and satellite imagery so advanced that − from space − a camera could resolve an object half a metre or more in diameter, to see if they could answer unresolved questions about all those trees beyond the world’s forests.

“Trees outside of forested areas are not usually included in climate models, and we know very little about their carbon stocks. They are  an unknown component in the global carbon cycle”

Trees matter, wherever they are. In cities, they enhance urban life and sustain property values. In forests, they conserve and recycle water, shelter millions of animals and smaller plants, and absorb atmospheric carbon. In grasslands they conserve soils, offer habitat for species and provide subsistence fuel, food and fodder for humans and animals.
But trees beyond the forests are an unknown factor when it comes to the puzzle of the global carbon budget and the great challenge of containing runaway climate change.

“Trees outside of forested areas are not usually included in climate models, and we know very little about their carbon stocks,” Dr Brandt said. “They are basically a white spot on maps and an unknown component in the global carbon cycle.”

The total identified in the target zone of the Sahara and the Sahel is almost certainly an under-estimate: the technology did not and could not pinpoint trees with a crown or shade area smaller than 3 square metres.

The study adds to the chronicle of surprises delivered by tree and forest research. In the last few years scientists have essayed a global census of woody growths wider than 5cms at breast height − that’s the botanist’s definition of a tree − and arrived at a total of more than 3 trillion.

New map possible

They have also counted the different kinds of tree: more than 60,000 species. They have already made attempts to measure the extent of tree cover in dryland and savannah regions and identified a kind of hidden forest.

They have calculated that a determined global tree planting campaign could absorb enough carbon to make a formidable difference to the challenge of global heating, and they have confirmed that conserved natural forests are, even on the simple basis of human economics, a bargain: forests are worth more to the world when they flourish than when they are cleared.

The new approach − the match of artificial intelligence with high resolution imagery − could one day help identify not just trees, but different tree species. It could, researchers hope, eventually even provide a reliable count of trees in a forest, although where canopies overlap it will always be difficult to number the trunks that support them. It offers the world’s forest scientists a new starting point for a map of all the planet’s trees.

“Doing so wouldn’t have been possible without this technology,” Dr Brandt said. “Indeed, I think it marks the beginning of a new scientific era.” − Climate News Network

Researchers have found an unknown wealth of trees in an African desert zone supposedly too arid for green growth.

LONDON, 27 October, 2020 − With help from high resolution satellite imagery and some advanced artificial intelligence techniques, European scientists have been counting the trees in a parched African desert.

They pored over 1.3 million square kilometres of the waterless western Sahara and the arid lands of the Sahel to the south, to identify what is in effect an unknown forest. This region − a stretch of dunes and dryland larger than Angola, or Peru, or Niger − proved to be home to 1.8 billion trees and shrubs with crowns larger than three square metres.

“We were very surprised to see that quite a few trees actually grow in the Sahara Desert because up till now, most people thought that virtually none existed. We counted hundreds of millions of trees in the desert alone,” said Martin Brandt, a geographer at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, who led the research.

He and colleagues from Germany, France, Senegal, Belgium and Nasa in the US report in the journal Nature that they used an artificial intelligence technique called “deep learning” and satellite imagery so advanced that − from space − a camera could resolve an object half a metre or more in diameter, to see if they could answer unresolved questions about all those trees beyond the world’s forests.

“Trees outside of forested areas are not usually included in climate models, and we know very little about their carbon stocks. They are  an unknown component in the global carbon cycle”

Trees matter, wherever they are. In cities, they enhance urban life and sustain property values. In forests, they conserve and recycle water, shelter millions of animals and smaller plants, and absorb atmospheric carbon. In grasslands they conserve soils, offer habitat for species and provide subsistence fuel, food and fodder for humans and animals.
But trees beyond the forests are an unknown factor when it comes to the puzzle of the global carbon budget and the great challenge of containing runaway climate change.

“Trees outside of forested areas are not usually included in climate models, and we know very little about their carbon stocks,” Dr Brandt said. “They are basically a white spot on maps and an unknown component in the global carbon cycle.”

The total identified in the target zone of the Sahara and the Sahel is almost certainly an under-estimate: the technology did not and could not pinpoint trees with a crown or shade area smaller than 3 square metres.

The study adds to the chronicle of surprises delivered by tree and forest research. In the last few years scientists have essayed a global census of woody growths wider than 5cms at breast height − that’s the botanist’s definition of a tree − and arrived at a total of more than 3 trillion.

New map possible

They have also counted the different kinds of tree: more than 60,000 species. They have already made attempts to measure the extent of tree cover in dryland and savannah regions and identified a kind of hidden forest.

They have calculated that a determined global tree planting campaign could absorb enough carbon to make a formidable difference to the challenge of global heating, and they have confirmed that conserved natural forests are, even on the simple basis of human economics, a bargain: forests are worth more to the world when they flourish than when they are cleared.

The new approach − the match of artificial intelligence with high resolution imagery − could one day help identify not just trees, but different tree species. It could, researchers hope, eventually even provide a reliable count of trees in a forest, although where canopies overlap it will always be difficult to number the trunks that support them. It offers the world’s forest scientists a new starting point for a map of all the planet’s trees.

“Doing so wouldn’t have been possible without this technology,” Dr Brandt said. “Indeed, I think it marks the beginning of a new scientific era.” − Climate News Network