Category Archives: Land Use

Ireland looks forward to a greener future

Often called the Emerald Isle, Ireland prides itself on its green image – but the reality has been rather different.

DUBLIN, 6 July, 2020 – A predominantly rural country with a relatively small population and little heavy industry, Ireland is, per capita, one of the European Union’s biggest emitters of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Now there are signs of change: after an inconclusive general election and months of political negotiations, a new coalition government has been formed in which, for the first time, Ireland’s Green Party has a significant role.

As part of a deal it has done with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – the two parties that have dominated Ireland’s politics for much of the last century – the Green Party wants a halt to any further exploration for fossil fuels in the country’s offshore waters.

It’s also calling for a stop to all imports of shale gas from the US. A new climate action law will set legally binding targets for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions – Ireland aims to reduce net emissions by more than 50% by 2030.

“We do not expect large emissions reductions as seen during the financial crisis of 2008”

Achieving that goal is a gargantuan task. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and an economic slowdown, Ireland’s carbon emissions are set to fall by nearly 10% this year according to a report by the country’s Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

The report warns that due mainly to low international energy prices, the use of fossil fuels is likely to surge after Covid.

“Though the economic impacts of the Covid crisis are severe, due to among others the decreased energy prices, we do not expect large emissions reductions as seen during the financial crisis of 2008”, says the ESRI’s Kelly de Bruin, a co-author of the study.

“Ireland would still need to put in considerable effort to reach its EU emission goals.

Methane abundance

“The results of the study underline the importance of having a well-designed government response policy package, which considers the unique economic and environmental challenges presented by the Covid crisis.”

Emissions have to be tackled mainly in two sectors – transport and agriculture – which together account for more than 50% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

With increased use of electric vehicles, higher diesel taxes and more efficient goods distribution systems, emissions in the transport sector are relatively easy to sort out. But agriculture – one of the mainstays of Ireland’s economy – is a much more difficult proposition.

Ireland has a population of five million – and a cattle herd of nearly seven million. The flatulence of cattle produces considerable amounts of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases.

Determined Greens

Farming organisations have traditionally wielded considerable political power. In the past politicians have been accused of indulging in plenty of rhetoric but taking little positive action to address the perils of climate change.

Ireland’s Green Party, which has four ministers in the new 16-member coalition cabinet, says it will not hesitate to bring down the government if environmental promises are not kept.

Eamon Ryan, the Green Party leader and Minister for Climate Action, Communication Networks and Transport, says the big challenge is to restore Ireland’s biodiversity and stop what he calls the madness of climate change.

“That’s our job in government. That’s what we’ve been voted in to do”, says Ryan. – Climate News Network

Often called the Emerald Isle, Ireland prides itself on its green image – but the reality has been rather different.

DUBLIN, 6 July, 2020 – A predominantly rural country with a relatively small population and little heavy industry, Ireland is, per capita, one of the European Union’s biggest emitters of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Now there are signs of change: after an inconclusive general election and months of political negotiations, a new coalition government has been formed in which, for the first time, Ireland’s Green Party has a significant role.

As part of a deal it has done with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – the two parties that have dominated Ireland’s politics for much of the last century – the Green Party wants a halt to any further exploration for fossil fuels in the country’s offshore waters.

It’s also calling for a stop to all imports of shale gas from the US. A new climate action law will set legally binding targets for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions – Ireland aims to reduce net emissions by more than 50% by 2030.

“We do not expect large emissions reductions as seen during the financial crisis of 2008”

Achieving that goal is a gargantuan task. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and an economic slowdown, Ireland’s carbon emissions are set to fall by nearly 10% this year according to a report by the country’s Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

The report warns that due mainly to low international energy prices, the use of fossil fuels is likely to surge after Covid.

“Though the economic impacts of the Covid crisis are severe, due to among others the decreased energy prices, we do not expect large emissions reductions as seen during the financial crisis of 2008”, says the ESRI’s Kelly de Bruin, a co-author of the study.

“Ireland would still need to put in considerable effort to reach its EU emission goals.

Methane abundance

“The results of the study underline the importance of having a well-designed government response policy package, which considers the unique economic and environmental challenges presented by the Covid crisis.”

Emissions have to be tackled mainly in two sectors – transport and agriculture – which together account for more than 50% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

With increased use of electric vehicles, higher diesel taxes and more efficient goods distribution systems, emissions in the transport sector are relatively easy to sort out. But agriculture – one of the mainstays of Ireland’s economy – is a much more difficult proposition.

Ireland has a population of five million – and a cattle herd of nearly seven million. The flatulence of cattle produces considerable amounts of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases.

Determined Greens

Farming organisations have traditionally wielded considerable political power. In the past politicians have been accused of indulging in plenty of rhetoric but taking little positive action to address the perils of climate change.

Ireland’s Green Party, which has four ministers in the new 16-member coalition cabinet, says it will not hesitate to bring down the government if environmental promises are not kept.

Eamon Ryan, the Green Party leader and Minister for Climate Action, Communication Networks and Transport, says the big challenge is to restore Ireland’s biodiversity and stop what he calls the madness of climate change.

“That’s our job in government. That’s what we’ve been voted in to do”, says Ryan. – Climate News Network

UK food giants mull Brazil boycott to protect forests

UK supermarkets are considering a Brazil boycott, an end to purchases of its food to try to save its forests.

SÃO PAULO, 1 June, 2020 − The UK’s leading supermarkets are threatening a Brazil boycott in an attempt to protect the Amazon and slow the loss of its forests.

Their move has led the Brazilian Congress to postpone the reading of a bill supported by the president, Jair Bolsonaro, which is widely seen as a green light for more Amazon destruction.

Over 40 companies, including Tesco, Sainsburys, Waitrose, Morrisons, Lidl, Asda, and Marks & Spencer, signed the open letter containing the protest, as well as the Swedish pension fund AP7 and the Norwegian asset manager Storebrand.

The letter, published by the Retail Soy Group, says: “Should the measure pass, it would encourage further land grabbing and widespread deforestation which would jeopardise the survival of the Amazon and meeting the targets of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and undermine the rights of indigenous and traditional communities.

“We believe that it would also put at risk the ability of organisations such as ours to continue sourcing from Brazil in the future.

Climate regulation

“We urge the Brazilian government to reconsider its stance and hope to continue working with partners in Brazil to demonstrate that economic development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive.”

The letter also outlines the importance of the Amazon for the environment, highlighting its role in regulating the global climate.

The Imazon Institute, a leading Brazilian NGO, estimates that, if passed, the bill would lead to an increase in deforestation of between 4000-6000 sq. miles (11 to 16,000 sq. kms).

The bill was originally presented to congress by President Bolsonaro as an executive order, Medida Provisoria No.910. Due to widespread protests in Brazil, its more outrageous provisions – which had led to it being dubbed “the landgrabbers’ charter” – were watered down, and it became a bill, No. 2633/5, due for reading two weeks ago.

“Let’s take advantage of the press being focussed on Covid-19 to deregulate”

After the speaker of the chamber of deputies, Rodrigo Maia, received the supermarkets’ letter, and letters from UK and European MPs, expressing concern about the preservation of the Amazon, he postponed the reading: a new date has yet to be set.

The European Parliament still has to approve a proposed trade deal between the European Union and the countries of the Mercosul block (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay), and the question of the Amazon could prove an obstacle here.

The government’s attempt to undo environmental protections and open up public lands to deforestation, and eventually to soy and cattle production, became clear when the video of a cabinet meeting held on 22 April was made public a few days ago, following a Supreme Court order to investigate allegations of presidential misconduct.

During the ministerial meeting the environment minister, Ricardo Salles, was recorded as saying: “Let’s take advantage of the press being focussed on Covid-19 to deregulate” – or, as he put it, “drive the herd through, while everyone’s looking the other way.”

Salles’ 16 months in charge of the environment have already proved disastrous for the Amazon. He has fired veteran staff, weakened enforcement and effectively encouraged illegal deforestation.

Fire season nears

Last year the fires in the Amazon alarmed the world. This year, even during the first four months when normally the rains keep it low, deforestation has remained high, boding ill for the traditional fire season, which begins in June.

The landowners’ lobby, which supports the bill, says that legally titling the land – “land regularisation” – is an essential step towards forcing owners to comply with environmental laws to limit deforestation in the Amazon.

But the bill’s opponents say the bill will reward land grabbers who have already invaded and deforested public lands, and who will now be able to “self-declare” the land and claim it as their own, instead of being fined and expelled. This will encourage more occupations and deforestation in the future.

Not only public forests are at stake, but also many indigenous areas whose formal recognition has not yet been sanctioned by the president. Instead Jair Bolsonaro has declared he will not sanction a single further indigenous area, leaving them vulnerable to invasion. − Climate News Network

UK supermarkets are considering a Brazil boycott, an end to purchases of its food to try to save its forests.

SÃO PAULO, 1 June, 2020 − The UK’s leading supermarkets are threatening a Brazil boycott in an attempt to protect the Amazon and slow the loss of its forests.

Their move has led the Brazilian Congress to postpone the reading of a bill supported by the president, Jair Bolsonaro, which is widely seen as a green light for more Amazon destruction.

Over 40 companies, including Tesco, Sainsburys, Waitrose, Morrisons, Lidl, Asda, and Marks & Spencer, signed the open letter containing the protest, as well as the Swedish pension fund AP7 and the Norwegian asset manager Storebrand.

The letter, published by the Retail Soy Group, says: “Should the measure pass, it would encourage further land grabbing and widespread deforestation which would jeopardise the survival of the Amazon and meeting the targets of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and undermine the rights of indigenous and traditional communities.

“We believe that it would also put at risk the ability of organisations such as ours to continue sourcing from Brazil in the future.

Climate regulation

“We urge the Brazilian government to reconsider its stance and hope to continue working with partners in Brazil to demonstrate that economic development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive.”

The letter also outlines the importance of the Amazon for the environment, highlighting its role in regulating the global climate.

The Imazon Institute, a leading Brazilian NGO, estimates that, if passed, the bill would lead to an increase in deforestation of between 4000-6000 sq. miles (11 to 16,000 sq. kms).

The bill was originally presented to congress by President Bolsonaro as an executive order, Medida Provisoria No.910. Due to widespread protests in Brazil, its more outrageous provisions – which had led to it being dubbed “the landgrabbers’ charter” – were watered down, and it became a bill, No. 2633/5, due for reading two weeks ago.

“Let’s take advantage of the press being focussed on Covid-19 to deregulate”

After the speaker of the chamber of deputies, Rodrigo Maia, received the supermarkets’ letter, and letters from UK and European MPs, expressing concern about the preservation of the Amazon, he postponed the reading: a new date has yet to be set.

The European Parliament still has to approve a proposed trade deal between the European Union and the countries of the Mercosul block (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay), and the question of the Amazon could prove an obstacle here.

The government’s attempt to undo environmental protections and open up public lands to deforestation, and eventually to soy and cattle production, became clear when the video of a cabinet meeting held on 22 April was made public a few days ago, following a Supreme Court order to investigate allegations of presidential misconduct.

During the ministerial meeting the environment minister, Ricardo Salles, was recorded as saying: “Let’s take advantage of the press being focussed on Covid-19 to deregulate” – or, as he put it, “drive the herd through, while everyone’s looking the other way.”

Salles’ 16 months in charge of the environment have already proved disastrous for the Amazon. He has fired veteran staff, weakened enforcement and effectively encouraged illegal deforestation.

Fire season nears

Last year the fires in the Amazon alarmed the world. This year, even during the first four months when normally the rains keep it low, deforestation has remained high, boding ill for the traditional fire season, which begins in June.

The landowners’ lobby, which supports the bill, says that legally titling the land – “land regularisation” – is an essential step towards forcing owners to comply with environmental laws to limit deforestation in the Amazon.

But the bill’s opponents say the bill will reward land grabbers who have already invaded and deforested public lands, and who will now be able to “self-declare” the land and claim it as their own, instead of being fined and expelled. This will encourage more occupations and deforestation in the future.

Not only public forests are at stake, but also many indigenous areas whose formal recognition has not yet been sanctioned by the president. Instead Jair Bolsonaro has declared he will not sanction a single further indigenous area, leaving them vulnerable to invasion. − Climate News Network

Natural forests are best at storing carbon

Natural forests are a global good. Well conserved, they help combat climate change. But as new research confirms, it’s not that simple.

LONDON, 18 May, 2020 – Two new studies have freshly confirmed an argument unchallenged for more than three decades: the best way to absorb and permanently store carbon from the atmosphere is to restore and conserve existing natural forests.

This proposition – successively urged on governments around the world since the first studies of strategy to confront global warming and potentially catastrophic climate change – has more chance of sustained success than any attempts to offset carbon emissions by indiscriminate plantations of new canopy, or even systematic investment in public initiatives such as the Trillion Tree Campaign.

And the argument gets even more support from a closer look at disturbances to natural woodland: these demonstrate that even simple clearings in forests will create unfavourable local microclimates and disturb the species that flourish in stable forests.

Karen Holl is a restoration ecologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She and a colleague from São Paulo in Brazil argue in the journal Science that while planting trees can help protect biodiversity, assist in natural water management and increase local shade, the same act can actually also damage local native ecosystems, reduce water supply, dispossess local landholders and increase social inequity.

“We can’t plant our way out of climate change. It is only one piece of the puzzle. Planting trees is not a simple solution”

The point she makes is that the wrong kind of tree on the wrong sort of land helps nobody. Nor does a tree that, once planted, is neglected and left to die, or to change the nature of the land it occupies – not even if there are a trillion of them.

“We can’t plant our way out of climate change. It is only one piece of the puzzle,” she said. “Planting trees is not a simple solution. It’s complicated, and we need to be realistic about what we can and cannot achieve.”

Her argument is that planting trees is not the same as increasing forest cover, and in any case will add up to only a fraction of the carbon reductions needed by 2100 to keep global temperatures from rising to 2°C above the long-term average for most of human history.

And given that increasing drought and temperatures can lead to widespread tree death, some of the effort could be hopelessly wasted.

Leave well alone

“The first thing we can do is keep existing forests standing, and the second is to allow trees to regenerate in areas that were formerly forests,” she said.

“In many cases, trees will recover on their own – just look at the entire eastern United States that was deforested 200 years ago. Much of that has come back without actively planting trees.

“Yes, in some highly degraded lands we will need to plant trees, but that should be the last option since it is the most expensive and often is not successful. I’ve spent my life on this. We need to be thoughtful about how we bring the forest back.”

Just how thoughtful is illuminated by another study, also in Science. European scientists looked at temperatures in 100 forest interiors and matched this with 80 years of data from 2,955 locations in 56 regions to discover that the routine open space temperature measurements collected by climate scientists do not reflect conditions under a mature forest canopy.

Avoid clearings

The denser the leaf cover, the more effectively the forest buffers the wild things that live there from climate change. But as the cover becomes sparser, conditions change and the thermometer goes up by several degrees.

The implication – supported by other recent research – is that any kind of clearing in some way weakens the integrity of a forest, both as a refuge for otherwise threatened biodiversity, and as a potential store of atmospheric carbon.

Global warming is already increasing what researchers have labelled “thermophilisation” – that is, a tendency for warm climate species to flourish at the expense of those already at the limit of their preferred temperature.

The implication is that some species will not be able to adapt swiftly enough to ever more intense extremes of heat and drought, and the nature of forest cover is likely to change. – Climate News Network

Natural forests are a global good. Well conserved, they help combat climate change. But as new research confirms, it’s not that simple.

LONDON, 18 May, 2020 – Two new studies have freshly confirmed an argument unchallenged for more than three decades: the best way to absorb and permanently store carbon from the atmosphere is to restore and conserve existing natural forests.

This proposition – successively urged on governments around the world since the first studies of strategy to confront global warming and potentially catastrophic climate change – has more chance of sustained success than any attempts to offset carbon emissions by indiscriminate plantations of new canopy, or even systematic investment in public initiatives such as the Trillion Tree Campaign.

And the argument gets even more support from a closer look at disturbances to natural woodland: these demonstrate that even simple clearings in forests will create unfavourable local microclimates and disturb the species that flourish in stable forests.

Karen Holl is a restoration ecologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She and a colleague from São Paulo in Brazil argue in the journal Science that while planting trees can help protect biodiversity, assist in natural water management and increase local shade, the same act can actually also damage local native ecosystems, reduce water supply, dispossess local landholders and increase social inequity.

“We can’t plant our way out of climate change. It is only one piece of the puzzle. Planting trees is not a simple solution”

The point she makes is that the wrong kind of tree on the wrong sort of land helps nobody. Nor does a tree that, once planted, is neglected and left to die, or to change the nature of the land it occupies – not even if there are a trillion of them.

“We can’t plant our way out of climate change. It is only one piece of the puzzle,” she said. “Planting trees is not a simple solution. It’s complicated, and we need to be realistic about what we can and cannot achieve.”

Her argument is that planting trees is not the same as increasing forest cover, and in any case will add up to only a fraction of the carbon reductions needed by 2100 to keep global temperatures from rising to 2°C above the long-term average for most of human history.

And given that increasing drought and temperatures can lead to widespread tree death, some of the effort could be hopelessly wasted.

Leave well alone

“The first thing we can do is keep existing forests standing, and the second is to allow trees to regenerate in areas that were formerly forests,” she said.

“In many cases, trees will recover on their own – just look at the entire eastern United States that was deforested 200 years ago. Much of that has come back without actively planting trees.

“Yes, in some highly degraded lands we will need to plant trees, but that should be the last option since it is the most expensive and often is not successful. I’ve spent my life on this. We need to be thoughtful about how we bring the forest back.”

Just how thoughtful is illuminated by another study, also in Science. European scientists looked at temperatures in 100 forest interiors and matched this with 80 years of data from 2,955 locations in 56 regions to discover that the routine open space temperature measurements collected by climate scientists do not reflect conditions under a mature forest canopy.

Avoid clearings

The denser the leaf cover, the more effectively the forest buffers the wild things that live there from climate change. But as the cover becomes sparser, conditions change and the thermometer goes up by several degrees.

The implication – supported by other recent research – is that any kind of clearing in some way weakens the integrity of a forest, both as a refuge for otherwise threatened biodiversity, and as a potential store of atmospheric carbon.

Global warming is already increasing what researchers have labelled “thermophilisation” – that is, a tendency for warm climate species to flourish at the expense of those already at the limit of their preferred temperature.

The implication is that some species will not be able to adapt swiftly enough to ever more intense extremes of heat and drought, and the nature of forest cover is likely to change. – Climate News Network

US farm workers face worsening lethal heat

By 2100, US farmers can expect more lethal heat, the equivalent of two months when it’s unsafe to pick crops.

LONDON, 6 May, 2020 – Life is already bad enough for underpaid and overworked crop pickers in the US, but as lethal heat levels rise they will render outdoor labour in the harvest season increasingly impossible.

The men and women who gather melons and strawberries, nuts and grapes, onions and lettuce already find conditions too hot to handle on at least 21 days a year.

By 2050, US agricultural workers will meet unsafe daytime summer temperatures on 39 days each harvest season. And by 2100, this number could triple to 62 unsafe days, according to new research.

Unsafe means that the levels of high thermometer readings and high humidity outdoors could put field workers at risk of heat exhaustion, heat stroke, heat cramps, dehydration, potential kidney injury and even death.

There are roughly one million people in the US officially employed picking crops in states such as Oregon, California, Washington and Florida. The actual number however is estimated to be two million.

“You don’t have to go to the global south to find people who will get hurt with even modest amounts of global warming – you just have to look in your own backyard”

More than three-quarters of them are foreign-born, many from Mexico. Only about half of these have lawful authority to work in the US. Of these, 71% do not speak English well, and on average educational levels are low. Fewer than half have medical insurance, and one third of the families of agricultural workers live below the poverty line.

Their housing and sanitary conditions are often not good, they are often paid on the basis of crops picked, so that to survive they must neglect breaks and work for longer, and they are often deprived of shade, according to data compiled in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

High summer extremes are a hazard, and can cause death on a significant scale. Climate scientists have established that by the century’s end, more than a billion people worldwide will be placed in danger of summer extremes, and the risks are growing.

One enterprising group has even numbered 27 ways in which high temperatures and high humidity can kill. Economists have already counted the price paid in falling productivity in severe conditions in Australia, and – since fruit tends to ripen as the thermometer rises and must be picked at the right moment – the hazards faced by grape-pickers in the world’s vineyards.

When Michelle Tigchelaar began her study of the climate impacts, she was at the University of Washington. She is now at Stanford University in California.

Low estimate

She and colleagues simply followed the climate projections and the impact rising global average temperatures will have on the intensity, frequency and duration of heat waves, and found that with a 2°C rise, expected by 2050, the level of unsafe days leapt from 21 to 39. At 4°C – and there is a high risk on present trends – then unsafe conditions could by 2100 reach 62 days.

“I was surprised by the scale of the change – seeing a doubling of unsafe days by mid-century, then a tripling by 2100. And we think that’s a low estimate,” Dr Tigchelaar said.

“The people who are the most vulnerable are asked to take the highest risk so that we, as consumers, can eat a healthy nutritious diet.”

And her co-author David Battisti of the University of Washington said: “The climate science community has long been pointing to the global south, the developing countries, as places that will be disproportionately affected by climate change.

“This shows that you don’t have to go to the global south to find people who will get hurt with even modest amounts of global warming – you just have to look in your own backyard.” – Climate News Network

By 2100, US farmers can expect more lethal heat, the equivalent of two months when it’s unsafe to pick crops.

LONDON, 6 May, 2020 – Life is already bad enough for underpaid and overworked crop pickers in the US, but as lethal heat levels rise they will render outdoor labour in the harvest season increasingly impossible.

The men and women who gather melons and strawberries, nuts and grapes, onions and lettuce already find conditions too hot to handle on at least 21 days a year.

By 2050, US agricultural workers will meet unsafe daytime summer temperatures on 39 days each harvest season. And by 2100, this number could triple to 62 unsafe days, according to new research.

Unsafe means that the levels of high thermometer readings and high humidity outdoors could put field workers at risk of heat exhaustion, heat stroke, heat cramps, dehydration, potential kidney injury and even death.

There are roughly one million people in the US officially employed picking crops in states such as Oregon, California, Washington and Florida. The actual number however is estimated to be two million.

“You don’t have to go to the global south to find people who will get hurt with even modest amounts of global warming – you just have to look in your own backyard”

More than three-quarters of them are foreign-born, many from Mexico. Only about half of these have lawful authority to work in the US. Of these, 71% do not speak English well, and on average educational levels are low. Fewer than half have medical insurance, and one third of the families of agricultural workers live below the poverty line.

Their housing and sanitary conditions are often not good, they are often paid on the basis of crops picked, so that to survive they must neglect breaks and work for longer, and they are often deprived of shade, according to data compiled in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

High summer extremes are a hazard, and can cause death on a significant scale. Climate scientists have established that by the century’s end, more than a billion people worldwide will be placed in danger of summer extremes, and the risks are growing.

One enterprising group has even numbered 27 ways in which high temperatures and high humidity can kill. Economists have already counted the price paid in falling productivity in severe conditions in Australia, and – since fruit tends to ripen as the thermometer rises and must be picked at the right moment – the hazards faced by grape-pickers in the world’s vineyards.

When Michelle Tigchelaar began her study of the climate impacts, she was at the University of Washington. She is now at Stanford University in California.

Low estimate

She and colleagues simply followed the climate projections and the impact rising global average temperatures will have on the intensity, frequency and duration of heat waves, and found that with a 2°C rise, expected by 2050, the level of unsafe days leapt from 21 to 39. At 4°C – and there is a high risk on present trends – then unsafe conditions could by 2100 reach 62 days.

“I was surprised by the scale of the change – seeing a doubling of unsafe days by mid-century, then a tripling by 2100. And we think that’s a low estimate,” Dr Tigchelaar said.

“The people who are the most vulnerable are asked to take the highest risk so that we, as consumers, can eat a healthy nutritious diet.”

And her co-author David Battisti of the University of Washington said: “The climate science community has long been pointing to the global south, the developing countries, as places that will be disproportionately affected by climate change.

“This shows that you don’t have to go to the global south to find people who will get hurt with even modest amounts of global warming – you just have to look in your own backyard.” – Climate News Network

Tigers retreat before spreading road networks

The global push to save an iconic species from extinction struggles, as tigers retreat before the relentless growth of roads.

LONDON, 4 May, 2020 − Humans have made inroads into the last territory of the tiger – literally: the inexorable increase in roads is driving the tigers’ retreat.

A new study of the wilderness set aside for the rapidly-dwindling populations of Panthera tigris in 13 countries warns that more than half of all this supposedly untouched reserve is within 5kms of a road.

Altogether, tiger conservation landscapes considered crucial for the recovery of an endangered species are now home to 134,000 kilometres of road. This intrusion alone may have reduced the abundance of both the carnivore and its natural prey by about one fifth.

And by 2050 researchers expect that another 24,000kms of road will have been built through the 1.16 million square kilometres of wilderness officially conserved in Russia, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Bhutan. Many of these will have been built under China’s so-called “belt-and-road initiative” in the developing world.

“Our analysis demonstrates that, overall, tigers face a ubiquitous and mounting threat from road networks across much of their 13-country range,” said Neil Carter, of the University of Michigan in the US, who led the research.

“Tiger habitats have declined by 40% since 2006, underscoring the importance of maintaining roadless areas and resisting road expansion in places where tigers still exist, before it is too late”

He and colleagues report in the journal Science Advances that they calculated road density, distance to the nearest road and average species abundance in all 76 blocks of land set aside for tiger conservation, to confirm conservationists’ worst fears.

Encroaching roads discourage the herbivores that tigers might prey upon; they degrade the habitat for all wildlife in the region; and they provide easier access for poachers, for whom a tiger carcass is a valuable commodity. In the Russian Far East, collisions with road vehicles were enough to reduce tiger survival rates.

The road seems the first enemy of conservation. Researchers have recently established that even the presence of human intrusion – the border of a ranch, a commercial clearing, a palm oil plantation or just a simple road – is enough to weaken and in some way damage the integrity of the 500 metres of wilderness next to the clearing.

The global record for the protection of those areas set aside for the conservation of endemic species is not good: another study found that, worldwide, since 1993, more than 280,000 sq kms of natural reserve had been subjected to “intense human pressure.”

And a third study fingered the road itself as the problem, and a growing problem: roads already fragment the world’s landscapes, and by 2050 governments will have added another 25 million kilometres of asphalt, traffic and settlement, most of it in the developing world.

Numbers still dropping

Thanks to human population growth and climate change, the planet is poised for the extinction of wild creatures and plants on a massive scale. So the tiger study reflects a wider pattern.

The difference is that for more than 50 years conservationists and governments have encouraged international efforts to conserve one of the most iconic and at the same time one of the most endangered of all the big cats, but the numbers are still falling, as roads turn what had been undisturbed habitat into an archipelago of little “tiger islands” in which populations are isolated from each other.

The scientists found that those areas most strictly protected in the tiger conservation were less densely interrupted by roads: however, these densities varied widely across countries. China’s average road density in tiger conservation landscapes was almost eight times greater than, for example, Malaysia’s.

“Tiger habitats have declined by 40% since 2006, underscoring the importance of maintaining roadless areas and resisting road expansion in places where tigers still exist, before it is too late,” Dr Carter said.

“Given that roads will be a pervasive challenge to tiger recovery in the future, we urge decision-makers to make sustainable road development a top priority.” − Climate News Network

The global push to save an iconic species from extinction struggles, as tigers retreat before the relentless growth of roads.

LONDON, 4 May, 2020 − Humans have made inroads into the last territory of the tiger – literally: the inexorable increase in roads is driving the tigers’ retreat.

A new study of the wilderness set aside for the rapidly-dwindling populations of Panthera tigris in 13 countries warns that more than half of all this supposedly untouched reserve is within 5kms of a road.

Altogether, tiger conservation landscapes considered crucial for the recovery of an endangered species are now home to 134,000 kilometres of road. This intrusion alone may have reduced the abundance of both the carnivore and its natural prey by about one fifth.

And by 2050 researchers expect that another 24,000kms of road will have been built through the 1.16 million square kilometres of wilderness officially conserved in Russia, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Bhutan. Many of these will have been built under China’s so-called “belt-and-road initiative” in the developing world.

“Our analysis demonstrates that, overall, tigers face a ubiquitous and mounting threat from road networks across much of their 13-country range,” said Neil Carter, of the University of Michigan in the US, who led the research.

“Tiger habitats have declined by 40% since 2006, underscoring the importance of maintaining roadless areas and resisting road expansion in places where tigers still exist, before it is too late”

He and colleagues report in the journal Science Advances that they calculated road density, distance to the nearest road and average species abundance in all 76 blocks of land set aside for tiger conservation, to confirm conservationists’ worst fears.

Encroaching roads discourage the herbivores that tigers might prey upon; they degrade the habitat for all wildlife in the region; and they provide easier access for poachers, for whom a tiger carcass is a valuable commodity. In the Russian Far East, collisions with road vehicles were enough to reduce tiger survival rates.

The road seems the first enemy of conservation. Researchers have recently established that even the presence of human intrusion – the border of a ranch, a commercial clearing, a palm oil plantation or just a simple road – is enough to weaken and in some way damage the integrity of the 500 metres of wilderness next to the clearing.

The global record for the protection of those areas set aside for the conservation of endemic species is not good: another study found that, worldwide, since 1993, more than 280,000 sq kms of natural reserve had been subjected to “intense human pressure.”

And a third study fingered the road itself as the problem, and a growing problem: roads already fragment the world’s landscapes, and by 2050 governments will have added another 25 million kilometres of asphalt, traffic and settlement, most of it in the developing world.

Numbers still dropping

Thanks to human population growth and climate change, the planet is poised for the extinction of wild creatures and plants on a massive scale. So the tiger study reflects a wider pattern.

The difference is that for more than 50 years conservationists and governments have encouraged international efforts to conserve one of the most iconic and at the same time one of the most endangered of all the big cats, but the numbers are still falling, as roads turn what had been undisturbed habitat into an archipelago of little “tiger islands” in which populations are isolated from each other.

The scientists found that those areas most strictly protected in the tiger conservation were less densely interrupted by roads: however, these densities varied widely across countries. China’s average road density in tiger conservation landscapes was almost eight times greater than, for example, Malaysia’s.

“Tiger habitats have declined by 40% since 2006, underscoring the importance of maintaining roadless areas and resisting road expansion in places where tigers still exist, before it is too late,” Dr Carter said.

“Given that roads will be a pervasive challenge to tiger recovery in the future, we urge decision-makers to make sustainable road development a top priority.” − Climate News Network

Threats to the insect world are growing

The insect world is dwindling. By 2100, half of all insects could be gone. But there could be gainers too.

LONDON, 30 April, 2020 − The butterflies are quietly flying away, the beetles are buzzing off, and the insect world is shrinking. The Earth’s  land-based insects are in steady decline, their numbers falling by around a quarter every three decades.

And although there could be a whole world of reasons for the global loss of a vital class of animals, European scientists have pinpointed at least one, in one location.

Insect food plants are being lost in the Swiss canton of Zurich, and with them, many of the hoverflies, bumblebees, bees and butterflies that depend on them.

Scientists from Germany and Russia report in the journal Science that they examined the bigger story told by data from 166 surveys of insects and arachnids – that is, not just flies but spiders too – across 1,676 sites worldwide, over periods from 1925 to 2018, and many of them of around 20 years.

Largely missed

They found that those insects that based their lives on land rather than water were slipping away at an average of 0.92% per year. “0.92% might not sound like much, but in fact it means 24% fewer insects in 30 years’ time and 50% fewer over 75 years,” said Roel van Klink of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research and based at the University of Leipzig.

“Insect declines happen in a quiet way and we don’t take much notice from one year to the next. It’s like going back to the place where you grew up. It’s only because you haven’t been there for years that you suddenly realise how much has changed, and all too often not for the better.”

He is not the first to draw attention to insect loss: other groups have warned of dramatic instances of decline and imminent extinction, along with the changes in insect populations and the disappearance of the habitat on which so many species depend.

But the researchers found the decline wasn’t uniform. Those insects – midges and mayflies, for example – that are essentially aquatic were actually increasing in number, on average by more than 1% a year. Flying insects overall however are in decline, and ground-dwellers and grassland insects too are slowly losing the battle for survival, while the numbers of insects in the woodland treetops remain about the same.

“Insect declines happen in a quiet way and we don’t take much notice from one year to the next”

Insect declines in Europe and the US West and Midwest were marked, but those insects that live for part of their lives in water in northern Europe and the western US showed a 38% increase over 30 years: this may reflect national and international attempts to limit pollution of the waterways. In both decline and revival, the scientists at work see the impact of human handling of natural habitat.

“Insect populations are like logs of wood that are pushed under water,” Dr van Klink said. “They want to come up while we keep pushing them down. But we can reduce the pressure so they rise again.

“The freshwater insects have shown us this is possible. It’s just not always easy to identify the causes of declines, and thus the most effective measures to reverse them. And these may also differ between locations.”

But within a day of the publication of the Science analysis, German and Swiss scientists had identified the cause of decline in one closely-observed area. They report in the journal Ecological Applications that over the past century there had been an overall decline in wild food plants for all kinds of insects in the Zurich canton.

Urban spread

Wetlands had shrunk by around 90%, the cities and towns had expanded, intensive farming had meant the loss of meadows and farmland habitats.
With help from 250 volunteers, researchers had made detailed studies of the 1,719 seed plant species in 1km plots of land at 3km intervals across the whole canton, between 2012 and 2017.

They then identified 966 of those plants visited by daytime pollinators, and compared their findings with highly-detailed data assembled about the vegetation of the canton before 1930.

Some specialised groups of insects evolved in partnership with equally specialised insects. The scientists found that, for instance, greater knapweed or Centaurea scabiosa was in decline, which was bad news for those bumblebees, bees and butterflies with tongues long enough to reach the nectar. The poisonous plant aconite, or Aconitum napellus, is pollinated by a bumblebee impervious to its toxin. Once again, the loss of floral variety and insect life even in one much-occupied place may not have been obvious.

“It’s hard for us to imagine what vegetation looked like 100 years ago,” said Michael Kessler, a botanist at the University of Zurich. “But our data showed that about half of all species have experienced significant decline in their abundance, while only about 10% of the species have increased.” − Climate News Network

The insect world is dwindling. By 2100, half of all insects could be gone. But there could be gainers too.

LONDON, 30 April, 2020 − The butterflies are quietly flying away, the beetles are buzzing off, and the insect world is shrinking. The Earth’s  land-based insects are in steady decline, their numbers falling by around a quarter every three decades.

And although there could be a whole world of reasons for the global loss of a vital class of animals, European scientists have pinpointed at least one, in one location.

Insect food plants are being lost in the Swiss canton of Zurich, and with them, many of the hoverflies, bumblebees, bees and butterflies that depend on them.

Scientists from Germany and Russia report in the journal Science that they examined the bigger story told by data from 166 surveys of insects and arachnids – that is, not just flies but spiders too – across 1,676 sites worldwide, over periods from 1925 to 2018, and many of them of around 20 years.

Largely missed

They found that those insects that based their lives on land rather than water were slipping away at an average of 0.92% per year. “0.92% might not sound like much, but in fact it means 24% fewer insects in 30 years’ time and 50% fewer over 75 years,” said Roel van Klink of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research and based at the University of Leipzig.

“Insect declines happen in a quiet way and we don’t take much notice from one year to the next. It’s like going back to the place where you grew up. It’s only because you haven’t been there for years that you suddenly realise how much has changed, and all too often not for the better.”

He is not the first to draw attention to insect loss: other groups have warned of dramatic instances of decline and imminent extinction, along with the changes in insect populations and the disappearance of the habitat on which so many species depend.

But the researchers found the decline wasn’t uniform. Those insects – midges and mayflies, for example – that are essentially aquatic were actually increasing in number, on average by more than 1% a year. Flying insects overall however are in decline, and ground-dwellers and grassland insects too are slowly losing the battle for survival, while the numbers of insects in the woodland treetops remain about the same.

“Insect declines happen in a quiet way and we don’t take much notice from one year to the next”

Insect declines in Europe and the US West and Midwest were marked, but those insects that live for part of their lives in water in northern Europe and the western US showed a 38% increase over 30 years: this may reflect national and international attempts to limit pollution of the waterways. In both decline and revival, the scientists at work see the impact of human handling of natural habitat.

“Insect populations are like logs of wood that are pushed under water,” Dr van Klink said. “They want to come up while we keep pushing them down. But we can reduce the pressure so they rise again.

“The freshwater insects have shown us this is possible. It’s just not always easy to identify the causes of declines, and thus the most effective measures to reverse them. And these may also differ between locations.”

But within a day of the publication of the Science analysis, German and Swiss scientists had identified the cause of decline in one closely-observed area. They report in the journal Ecological Applications that over the past century there had been an overall decline in wild food plants for all kinds of insects in the Zurich canton.

Urban spread

Wetlands had shrunk by around 90%, the cities and towns had expanded, intensive farming had meant the loss of meadows and farmland habitats.
With help from 250 volunteers, researchers had made detailed studies of the 1,719 seed plant species in 1km plots of land at 3km intervals across the whole canton, between 2012 and 2017.

They then identified 966 of those plants visited by daytime pollinators, and compared their findings with highly-detailed data assembled about the vegetation of the canton before 1930.

Some specialised groups of insects evolved in partnership with equally specialised insects. The scientists found that, for instance, greater knapweed or Centaurea scabiosa was in decline, which was bad news for those bumblebees, bees and butterflies with tongues long enough to reach the nectar. The poisonous plant aconite, or Aconitum napellus, is pollinated by a bumblebee impervious to its toxin. Once again, the loss of floral variety and insect life even in one much-occupied place may not have been obvious.

“It’s hard for us to imagine what vegetation looked like 100 years ago,” said Michael Kessler, a botanist at the University of Zurich. “But our data showed that about half of all species have experienced significant decline in their abundance, while only about 10% of the species have increased.” − Climate News Network

Halve the farmland, save nature, feed the world

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

If we farm efficiently, scientists say, we can cut climate change, slow extinction and feed the world even as it asks for more.

LONDON, 21 April, 2020 – Forget about organic farming: get the best out of the best cropland, return the rest to nature and still feed the world. It could work, say researchers.

Once again, scientists have demonstrated that humans could restore roughly half the planet as a natural home for all the other wild things, while at the same time feeding a growing population and limiting climate change.

That doesn’t mean it will happen, or could be made to happen easily. But it does yet again address one of the enduring challenges of population growth and the potentially devastating loss of the biodiversity upon which all individual species – humans more than most – depend to survive.

The answer? Simply to farm more efficiently and more intensively, to maximise the yield from those tracts of land most suitable for crops, and let nature reclaim the no-longer so productive hectares.

Even more effective would be to release as much land as possible in those regions that ecologists and biologists like to call “biodiversity hotspots”, among them the forests where concentrations of species are at their peak.

European researchers argue, in a study in the journal Nature Sustainability, that as less land was cultivated, but more intensively, the greenhouse gas emissions from farming would be reduced: so too would water use.

“Cropland expansion is not inevitable and there is significant potential for improving present land use efficiency”

“The main questions we wanted to address were how much cropland could be spared if attainable crop yields were achieved globally and crops were grown where they are most productive,” said Christian Folberth, a scientist with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, who led the study.

“In addition, we wanted to determine what the implications would be for other factors related to the agricultural sector, including fertiliser and irrigation water requirements, greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sequestration potential, and wildlife habitat for threatened species.”

The problem is enormous, and enormously complex. Cropland farming alone – forget about methane from cattle and sheep – accounts for 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. Worldwide, about 70% of all the freshwater taken from rivers and aquifers goes into irrigation.

Human populations continue to soar, while cities continue to expand  across the countryside. By the end of this century, there could be more than 9bn people to be fed.

Global heating driven by fossil fuel investment continues to increase, and this in turn threatens to diminish harvest yields across a wide range of crops, along with the nutritive value of the staples themselves.

Nature under threat

At the same time, both climate change driven by global warming and the expansion of the cities and the surrounding farmlands continue to amplify the threat to natural habitats and the millions of species – many yet to be identified and named by science – that depend upon them.

And this in turn poses a threat to human economies and even human life: almost every resource – antibiotic medicines and drugs, food, waste disposal, fabrics, building materials and even fresh air and water – evolved in undisturbed ecosystems long before Homo sapiens arrived, and the services each element provides depend ultimately on the survival of those ecosystems.

So the challenge is to restore and return to nature around half the land humans already use, while at the same time feeding what could be an additional 2bn people, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions but still sustaining development in the poorest nations.

Dr Folberth and his colleagues from Slovakia, France, Belgium, Spain and the UK are not the first to argue that it can be done, and not just by changing the planetary lunch menu.

The scientists looked at the data for 16 major crop species around the world to calculate that at least in theory – with careful use of the right crops on the most suitable soils, and with high fertiliser use – about half of the present cropland now cultivated could still deliver the present output.

That is, the land humans occupy is not being managed efficiently. If it were, the other half could be returned to wilderness, and conserved as natural forest, grassland or wetland.

Climate benefits

If humans then thought about how best to slow biodiversity loss, they would do almost as well by abandoning farmland in those places where there was the greatest concentration of wild things – tropical rain forests, estuary floodplains and mangrove swamps, for instance. And just returning 20% of farmland to nature everywhere else would still reduce human farmland use by 40%.

In return, fertiliser use would remain about the same, but greenhouse gas emissions and water use would fall, while more land would become free to sequester atmospheric carbon.

There would be costs – nitrogen pollution would go up in some places, and many rural farmers would become even poorer – so more thinking needs to be done. The point the European researchers want to make is that, in principle, it should be possible to feed people, abandon farmland to the natural world and reduce emissions all at the same time.

“It shows that cropland expansion is not inevitable and there is significant potential for improving present land use efficiency,” said Michael Obersteiner, another author, now at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford.

“If the right policies are implemented, measures such as improved production technologies can be just as effective as demand-side measures like dietary changes. However, in all cases, such a process would need to be steered by policies to avoid unwanted outcomes.” – Climate News Network

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

If we farm efficiently, scientists say, we can cut climate change, slow extinction and feed the world even as it asks for more.

LONDON, 21 April, 2020 – Forget about organic farming: get the best out of the best cropland, return the rest to nature and still feed the world. It could work, say researchers.

Once again, scientists have demonstrated that humans could restore roughly half the planet as a natural home for all the other wild things, while at the same time feeding a growing population and limiting climate change.

That doesn’t mean it will happen, or could be made to happen easily. But it does yet again address one of the enduring challenges of population growth and the potentially devastating loss of the biodiversity upon which all individual species – humans more than most – depend to survive.

The answer? Simply to farm more efficiently and more intensively, to maximise the yield from those tracts of land most suitable for crops, and let nature reclaim the no-longer so productive hectares.

Even more effective would be to release as much land as possible in those regions that ecologists and biologists like to call “biodiversity hotspots”, among them the forests where concentrations of species are at their peak.

European researchers argue, in a study in the journal Nature Sustainability, that as less land was cultivated, but more intensively, the greenhouse gas emissions from farming would be reduced: so too would water use.

“Cropland expansion is not inevitable and there is significant potential for improving present land use efficiency”

“The main questions we wanted to address were how much cropland could be spared if attainable crop yields were achieved globally and crops were grown where they are most productive,” said Christian Folberth, a scientist with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, who led the study.

“In addition, we wanted to determine what the implications would be for other factors related to the agricultural sector, including fertiliser and irrigation water requirements, greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sequestration potential, and wildlife habitat for threatened species.”

The problem is enormous, and enormously complex. Cropland farming alone – forget about methane from cattle and sheep – accounts for 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. Worldwide, about 70% of all the freshwater taken from rivers and aquifers goes into irrigation.

Human populations continue to soar, while cities continue to expand  across the countryside. By the end of this century, there could be more than 9bn people to be fed.

Global heating driven by fossil fuel investment continues to increase, and this in turn threatens to diminish harvest yields across a wide range of crops, along with the nutritive value of the staples themselves.

Nature under threat

At the same time, both climate change driven by global warming and the expansion of the cities and the surrounding farmlands continue to amplify the threat to natural habitats and the millions of species – many yet to be identified and named by science – that depend upon them.

And this in turn poses a threat to human economies and even human life: almost every resource – antibiotic medicines and drugs, food, waste disposal, fabrics, building materials and even fresh air and water – evolved in undisturbed ecosystems long before Homo sapiens arrived, and the services each element provides depend ultimately on the survival of those ecosystems.

So the challenge is to restore and return to nature around half the land humans already use, while at the same time feeding what could be an additional 2bn people, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions but still sustaining development in the poorest nations.

Dr Folberth and his colleagues from Slovakia, France, Belgium, Spain and the UK are not the first to argue that it can be done, and not just by changing the planetary lunch menu.

The scientists looked at the data for 16 major crop species around the world to calculate that at least in theory – with careful use of the right crops on the most suitable soils, and with high fertiliser use – about half of the present cropland now cultivated could still deliver the present output.

That is, the land humans occupy is not being managed efficiently. If it were, the other half could be returned to wilderness, and conserved as natural forest, grassland or wetland.

Climate benefits

If humans then thought about how best to slow biodiversity loss, they would do almost as well by abandoning farmland in those places where there was the greatest concentration of wild things – tropical rain forests, estuary floodplains and mangrove swamps, for instance. And just returning 20% of farmland to nature everywhere else would still reduce human farmland use by 40%.

In return, fertiliser use would remain about the same, but greenhouse gas emissions and water use would fall, while more land would become free to sequester atmospheric carbon.

There would be costs – nitrogen pollution would go up in some places, and many rural farmers would become even poorer – so more thinking needs to be done. The point the European researchers want to make is that, in principle, it should be possible to feed people, abandon farmland to the natural world and reduce emissions all at the same time.

“It shows that cropland expansion is not inevitable and there is significant potential for improving present land use efficiency,” said Michael Obersteiner, another author, now at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford.

“If the right policies are implemented, measures such as improved production technologies can be just as effective as demand-side measures like dietary changes. However, in all cases, such a process would need to be steered by policies to avoid unwanted outcomes.” – Climate News Network

Rising urban space demands squeeze out farmers

More people than ever now live in cities. Their growing urban space demands devour farmland, bad news for tomorrow’s hungry world.

LONDON, 9 April, 2020 – Even as people crowd into the cities, they don’t crowd the way they used to, and urban space demands are increasing. Even in some of the developing nations, townspeople are demanding more elbow-room.

And in the last four decades, worldwide, humans have claimed around 125,000 square kilometres of farmland or wilderness more than would have been necessary if urban densities had stayed at the 1970 level.

That is: to accommodate today’s city-dwellers with more space than their parents and grandparents ever expected to enjoy, an additional area almost the size of Greece has been covered by asphalt, brick, concrete, tile and glass.

In the US, urban settlements have always been fringed by more roomy suburban developments. Now in China, India and Nigeria, the cities are expanding and the population densities are decreasing.

Risk to farmers

“These three countries are expected to account for more than a third of the projected increase in the world’s urban population by 2050,” said Burak Güneralp, a geographer at Texas A&M University in the US.

“They also still have many millions of small farmers earning their livelihoods working fertile lands on the outskirts of cities. Thus any loss of these high-quality lands to urban expansion has huge implications for the livelihoods of these farmers.”

Dr Güneralp and colleagues report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that they looked at 611 case studies of 330 urban centres to calculate population growth, urban expansion and urban population densities between 1970 – the earliest moment for reliable statistics – and 2010.

They also factored in the size of cities, to distinguish different rates of change in centres with more and with fewer than two million citizens.

“Decreasing urban population densities in India and Nigeria since 1970 caused 85% and 30% more land, respectively, to be converted to urban”

Once most of humanity lived in rural areas. Now more than half the planet is crowded into cities and townships, and in a few decades the proportion could reach two-thirds.

But this crowding creates new problems. Cities are always significantly hotter than the surrounding landscape, and as global average temperatures rise, this in turn is likely to accelerate energy demand and global heating as people are forced to install air-conditioning.

The concentration of people in cities is likely to create new demands on sometimes precarious water supplies, and in any case the combination of climate change and population growth means ever greater numbers are at hazard from drought or flood.

All of this in turn increases the pressure for green spaces within the new cities and a more spacious lifestyle.

Cheek by jowl

But civilised city life comes at an environmental price. About half of India’s land is already classified as “degraded”, while India has the largest rural population but also the steepest fall in what geographers call urban land use efficiency, and the rest of the world calls living on top of your neighbours.

“Our findings suggest that decreasing urban population densities in India and Nigeria since 1970 caused 85% and 30% more land, respectively, to be converted to urban,” Dr Güneralp said.

“Furthermore, small-medium cities in India, China, South-east Asia, Africa and Europe are following in the footsteps of the United States in declines in urban densities.

“These findings are important, because globally, it is these small-medium-sized cities with limited institutional and financial capacity that are growing the fastest.” – Climate News Network

More people than ever now live in cities. Their growing urban space demands devour farmland, bad news for tomorrow’s hungry world.

LONDON, 9 April, 2020 – Even as people crowd into the cities, they don’t crowd the way they used to, and urban space demands are increasing. Even in some of the developing nations, townspeople are demanding more elbow-room.

And in the last four decades, worldwide, humans have claimed around 125,000 square kilometres of farmland or wilderness more than would have been necessary if urban densities had stayed at the 1970 level.

That is: to accommodate today’s city-dwellers with more space than their parents and grandparents ever expected to enjoy, an additional area almost the size of Greece has been covered by asphalt, brick, concrete, tile and glass.

In the US, urban settlements have always been fringed by more roomy suburban developments. Now in China, India and Nigeria, the cities are expanding and the population densities are decreasing.

Risk to farmers

“These three countries are expected to account for more than a third of the projected increase in the world’s urban population by 2050,” said Burak Güneralp, a geographer at Texas A&M University in the US.

“They also still have many millions of small farmers earning their livelihoods working fertile lands on the outskirts of cities. Thus any loss of these high-quality lands to urban expansion has huge implications for the livelihoods of these farmers.”

Dr Güneralp and colleagues report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that they looked at 611 case studies of 330 urban centres to calculate population growth, urban expansion and urban population densities between 1970 – the earliest moment for reliable statistics – and 2010.

They also factored in the size of cities, to distinguish different rates of change in centres with more and with fewer than two million citizens.

“Decreasing urban population densities in India and Nigeria since 1970 caused 85% and 30% more land, respectively, to be converted to urban”

Once most of humanity lived in rural areas. Now more than half the planet is crowded into cities and townships, and in a few decades the proportion could reach two-thirds.

But this crowding creates new problems. Cities are always significantly hotter than the surrounding landscape, and as global average temperatures rise, this in turn is likely to accelerate energy demand and global heating as people are forced to install air-conditioning.

The concentration of people in cities is likely to create new demands on sometimes precarious water supplies, and in any case the combination of climate change and population growth means ever greater numbers are at hazard from drought or flood.

All of this in turn increases the pressure for green spaces within the new cities and a more spacious lifestyle.

Cheek by jowl

But civilised city life comes at an environmental price. About half of India’s land is already classified as “degraded”, while India has the largest rural population but also the steepest fall in what geographers call urban land use efficiency, and the rest of the world calls living on top of your neighbours.

“Our findings suggest that decreasing urban population densities in India and Nigeria since 1970 caused 85% and 30% more land, respectively, to be converted to urban,” Dr Güneralp said.

“Furthermore, small-medium cities in India, China, South-east Asia, Africa and Europe are following in the footsteps of the United States in declines in urban densities.

“These findings are important, because globally, it is these small-medium-sized cities with limited institutional and financial capacity that are growing the fastest.” – Climate News Network

Tropical forests’ damage spreads catastrophically

Human inroads into tropical forests stretch far beyond oil plantations or the edge of cattle ranches and are a wider threat to conservation.

LONDON, 7 April, 2020 – Tropical forests are vital in the campaign to limit global heating. Here’s how to blunt them as a force – just put a clearing, or a plantation, a road or a ranch in the pristine wilderness. And then, as absorbers of atmospheric carbon, the trees up to 100 metres deep into the jungle will lose their edge.

Along that 100 metre width, the canopy height, leaf mass and phosphorus levels per square metre will begin to change. All three are measures of a tree’s capacity to grow vigorously and store carbon.

Researchers call this the edge effect. It matters. The world now has 1.2bn hectares of remaining tropical forest. This is an area far bigger than Canada.

But invasion of what, just one lifetime ago, were still unmapped wildernesses is now so aggressive that almost one fifth of the area of the world’s tropical forest is within 100 metres of a non-forest edge.

And about half of all the forest is within 500 metres of a ranch, road, settlement or plantation.

“The importance of this discovery trickles all the way down to how conservation managers work to mitigate biodiversity losses associated with agricultural expansion”

Scientists from the US report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they mapped change in the forests of Malaysian Borneo, looking closely at the sites where forest and commercial palm oil plantation co-exist.

They report that the levels of carbon stored “above ground” – that is, in the trunk and canopy – fell by an average of 22% along the forest edges, to a depth of 100 metres. The older this forest edge, the greater the fall in stored carbon.

There are already reports that degradation of the rainforest in the Amazon and Congo, amplified by the impact of climate change in the form of extreme heat and drought, is so advanced that within a decade or two these forests could cease to be “sinks” for atmospheric carbon, and instead start adding to the world’s burden of greenhouse gases that threaten to accelerate climate change, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

The world’s forests are vital in the global plans to contain or limit climate change driven by profligate combustion of fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Research has repeatedly confirmed that undisturbed forest is an efficient absorber and permanent store of atmospheric carbon and that almost any human transgression could damage the capacity of the rainforest to absorb carbon.

Road web spreads

And yet all the signs are ominous: humans will go on making inroads into natural wilderness, in the most literal sense: by 2050, there could be 25 million km new road lanes, most of them in the developing world, to carry timber trucks, livestock and minerals through the world’s forests.

There is an argument that “smart” roads can limit the damage to the environment and society caused by indiscriminate engineering: one group advocating this approach is the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science (TESS), based at James Cook University in Australia.

But the threat to the remaining forests is now so pronounced that many researchers simply point out, in the kind of understatement that comes naturally to scientists, that such changes have “far-reaching implications” for the conservation of forest biodiversity and carbon stocks.

They see their research as a potential guide to government and local authorities on the management of the remaining wild woodland.

“Not all forest-agriculture boundaries are created equal, and most remaining forests change for many years following the original land conversion that takes place nearby,” said Greg Asner of Arizona State University, one of the researchers.

“The importance of this discovery trickles all the way down to how conservation managers work to mitigate biodiversity losses associated with agricultural expansion.” – Climate News Network

Human inroads into tropical forests stretch far beyond oil plantations or the edge of cattle ranches and are a wider threat to conservation.

LONDON, 7 April, 2020 – Tropical forests are vital in the campaign to limit global heating. Here’s how to blunt them as a force – just put a clearing, or a plantation, a road or a ranch in the pristine wilderness. And then, as absorbers of atmospheric carbon, the trees up to 100 metres deep into the jungle will lose their edge.

Along that 100 metre width, the canopy height, leaf mass and phosphorus levels per square metre will begin to change. All three are measures of a tree’s capacity to grow vigorously and store carbon.

Researchers call this the edge effect. It matters. The world now has 1.2bn hectares of remaining tropical forest. This is an area far bigger than Canada.

But invasion of what, just one lifetime ago, were still unmapped wildernesses is now so aggressive that almost one fifth of the area of the world’s tropical forest is within 100 metres of a non-forest edge.

And about half of all the forest is within 500 metres of a ranch, road, settlement or plantation.

“The importance of this discovery trickles all the way down to how conservation managers work to mitigate biodiversity losses associated with agricultural expansion”

Scientists from the US report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they mapped change in the forests of Malaysian Borneo, looking closely at the sites where forest and commercial palm oil plantation co-exist.

They report that the levels of carbon stored “above ground” – that is, in the trunk and canopy – fell by an average of 22% along the forest edges, to a depth of 100 metres. The older this forest edge, the greater the fall in stored carbon.

There are already reports that degradation of the rainforest in the Amazon and Congo, amplified by the impact of climate change in the form of extreme heat and drought, is so advanced that within a decade or two these forests could cease to be “sinks” for atmospheric carbon, and instead start adding to the world’s burden of greenhouse gases that threaten to accelerate climate change, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

The world’s forests are vital in the global plans to contain or limit climate change driven by profligate combustion of fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Research has repeatedly confirmed that undisturbed forest is an efficient absorber and permanent store of atmospheric carbon and that almost any human transgression could damage the capacity of the rainforest to absorb carbon.

Road web spreads

And yet all the signs are ominous: humans will go on making inroads into natural wilderness, in the most literal sense: by 2050, there could be 25 million km new road lanes, most of them in the developing world, to carry timber trucks, livestock and minerals through the world’s forests.

There is an argument that “smart” roads can limit the damage to the environment and society caused by indiscriminate engineering: one group advocating this approach is the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science (TESS), based at James Cook University in Australia.

But the threat to the remaining forests is now so pronounced that many researchers simply point out, in the kind of understatement that comes naturally to scientists, that such changes have “far-reaching implications” for the conservation of forest biodiversity and carbon stocks.

They see their research as a potential guide to government and local authorities on the management of the remaining wild woodland.

“Not all forest-agriculture boundaries are created equal, and most remaining forests change for many years following the original land conversion that takes place nearby,” said Greg Asner of Arizona State University, one of the researchers.

“The importance of this discovery trickles all the way down to how conservation managers work to mitigate biodiversity losses associated with agricultural expansion.” – Climate News Network

Vegetation holds key to climate control

New studies shine a light on the intricate relationship in which climate affects vegetation, which in turn impacts on the global climate.

LONDON, 23 March, 2020 − Here’s an easy way to warm the tropics even further: just fell some rainforest, and the local temperatures will soar by at least a degree Celsius, showing the role played by vegetation.

There is also a good way to temper the summer heat of temperate Europe: just abandon some farmland, leave it to go wild and leafy, and the thermometer will drop by perhaps as much as 1°C.

And, paradoxically, there is even a leafy way to warm the Arctic: burn lots of fossil fuels, precipitate a climate crisis, advance the growth of spring foliage by three weeks or so, and check the thermometer. The region will be even warmer, just because the Arctic has become greener.

These apparently contradictory findings are, more than anything else, a reminder that the pas de deux of vegetation and atmosphere is complex, intricate and finely balanced. Nor are they inconsistent, as each study simply takes the measure of vegetation change on local or regional climate.

Reducing heating

In sum, and for the time being, the big picture remains that forests absorb carbon, and more vigorous growth absorbs more carbon to significantly reduce the average rates of global heating across the entire planet.

In effect, all three studies demonstrate that vegetation moderates extremes of temperature in three climate zones.

Brazilian scientists report in the Public Library of Science journal
PLOS One that they subdivided a tract of the Atlantic rainforest in the southeast of the nation into 120-metre squares, measured those segments that had been part-felled or clear-felled, and read the local land surface temperatures.

If even one fourth of a hectare had been cleared, the local temperature went up by 1°C. If the entire hectare had been razed, the rise could be as high as 4°C.

Risk to trees

The Atlantic rainforest is one of the world’s richest ecosystems: it covers 15% of Brazil, but 72% of the population lives there. It holds seven of Brazil’s nine largest drainage basins, delivers water to 130 million people and its dams provide 60% of the nation’s hydroelectric power.

Between 2017 and 2018, around 113 square kilometres of this forest was cleared. As temperatures continue to rise, some tree species could be at risk.

“We don’t have enough data to predict how long it will take, but in the long run, rising temperatures in Atlantic rainforest fragments could certainly influence the survival of tree species in the forest, albeit some species more than others,” says one of the report’s authors, Carlos Joly, professor of plant biology at the University of Campinas in Brazil.

“The forest is extremely important to maintaining milder temperatures on the local and regional scale. Changes in its function could disrupt this type of ecosystem service.

“Abandoned cropland – or land cover change more generally – and its role in regional climate can help us adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change”

“The Atlantic rainforest doesn’t produce water but it protects the springs and permits the storage of water in reservoirs for consumption, power generation, agricultural irrigation and fishing, among other activities.”

By contrast, Europeans have achieved a local 1°C cooling simply by abandoning farmland that was no longer sufficiently productive.

Between 1992 and 2014, the European Space Agency satellites compiled detailed maps of the continents, measuring the extents of evergreen needle-leaf forest, deciduous broadleaf woodland, open shrubland, crop fields, urban and built-up areas, wetlands, peatlands, grassland and mosaic areas of crops and wilderness.

In those 24 years – partly because of dramatic political changes that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union – around 25 million hectares of farmland was abandoned.

Drying wetlands

Although farmland was colonised elsewhere, the continent was left with 5 million hectares – an area the size of Switzerland – to be colonised by trees and other natural foliage, European scientists report in the journal Nature Communications.

Overall, the loss of cropland in Western Europe was associated with a drop of 1° in spring and summer. In eastern and northeastern Europe, however, temperatures rose by as much as 1°C, partly because what had once been wetlands began to dry.

“We are already at a mean warming of about 1.8°C on the land, and we will be about 3°C on the land even if we are successful at stabilising the average global temperature at 1.5°C,” says one of the report’s authors, Francesco Cherubini, director of the Industrial Ecology Programme at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

“That means we take action to adapt to a warming climate, and land use planning is one action that can bring local cooling benefits.”

The Arctic greens

“The message is quite clear. Abandoned cropland – or land cover change more generally – and its role in regional climate can help us adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. And by improving agricultural systems, we can free up land for multiple uses.”

But while Europe is changing, and forest in the tropics is being lost, the Arctic is becoming greener: as temperatures rise, vegetation has moved northwards and spring has arrived ever earlier, and growing seasons have lasted longer.

The science of measurement of seasonal change in plant and animal behaviour is called phenology. Chinese and US scientists report in Nature Climate Change that they looked at computer models of vegetation change and factored in the numbers: on average, in the last four decades, leaf-out has advanced by an average of more than four days a decade, and in some cases up to 12 days a decade.

That means snow-covered ground has retreated, and green leaves have moved northwards, and become denser.

Climate feedback

Snow reflects solar radiation, and darker colours absorb it. That means that local landscapes in the north have tended to become even warmer with each decade.

In the Canadian archipelago, the air has been measured at 0.7°C warmer, and parts of Siberia and the Tibetan plateau − far from any leafy canopy − have warmed by 0.4°C and 0.3°C respectively because advanced leaf-out further south means more water vapour, which moves north to change patterns of cloud cover and snowfall.

Climate scientists see this as positive feedback: climate change begets even faster climate change. Global heating tends to accelerate. Climate change affects vegetation, which in turn affects climate yet further.

“Positive feedback loops between climate and spring leaf phenology is likely to amplify in the northern high latitudes,” says Gensuo Jia, one of the researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “The impact of vegetation change on climate is profound in spring.” − Climate News Network

New studies shine a light on the intricate relationship in which climate affects vegetation, which in turn impacts on the global climate.

LONDON, 23 March, 2020 − Here’s an easy way to warm the tropics even further: just fell some rainforest, and the local temperatures will soar by at least a degree Celsius, showing the role played by vegetation.

There is also a good way to temper the summer heat of temperate Europe: just abandon some farmland, leave it to go wild and leafy, and the thermometer will drop by perhaps as much as 1°C.

And, paradoxically, there is even a leafy way to warm the Arctic: burn lots of fossil fuels, precipitate a climate crisis, advance the growth of spring foliage by three weeks or so, and check the thermometer. The region will be even warmer, just because the Arctic has become greener.

These apparently contradictory findings are, more than anything else, a reminder that the pas de deux of vegetation and atmosphere is complex, intricate and finely balanced. Nor are they inconsistent, as each study simply takes the measure of vegetation change on local or regional climate.

Reducing heating

In sum, and for the time being, the big picture remains that forests absorb carbon, and more vigorous growth absorbs more carbon to significantly reduce the average rates of global heating across the entire planet.

In effect, all three studies demonstrate that vegetation moderates extremes of temperature in three climate zones.

Brazilian scientists report in the Public Library of Science journal
PLOS One that they subdivided a tract of the Atlantic rainforest in the southeast of the nation into 120-metre squares, measured those segments that had been part-felled or clear-felled, and read the local land surface temperatures.

If even one fourth of a hectare had been cleared, the local temperature went up by 1°C. If the entire hectare had been razed, the rise could be as high as 4°C.

Risk to trees

The Atlantic rainforest is one of the world’s richest ecosystems: it covers 15% of Brazil, but 72% of the population lives there. It holds seven of Brazil’s nine largest drainage basins, delivers water to 130 million people and its dams provide 60% of the nation’s hydroelectric power.

Between 2017 and 2018, around 113 square kilometres of this forest was cleared. As temperatures continue to rise, some tree species could be at risk.

“We don’t have enough data to predict how long it will take, but in the long run, rising temperatures in Atlantic rainforest fragments could certainly influence the survival of tree species in the forest, albeit some species more than others,” says one of the report’s authors, Carlos Joly, professor of plant biology at the University of Campinas in Brazil.

“The forest is extremely important to maintaining milder temperatures on the local and regional scale. Changes in its function could disrupt this type of ecosystem service.

“Abandoned cropland – or land cover change more generally – and its role in regional climate can help us adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change”

“The Atlantic rainforest doesn’t produce water but it protects the springs and permits the storage of water in reservoirs for consumption, power generation, agricultural irrigation and fishing, among other activities.”

By contrast, Europeans have achieved a local 1°C cooling simply by abandoning farmland that was no longer sufficiently productive.

Between 1992 and 2014, the European Space Agency satellites compiled detailed maps of the continents, measuring the extents of evergreen needle-leaf forest, deciduous broadleaf woodland, open shrubland, crop fields, urban and built-up areas, wetlands, peatlands, grassland and mosaic areas of crops and wilderness.

In those 24 years – partly because of dramatic political changes that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union – around 25 million hectares of farmland was abandoned.

Drying wetlands

Although farmland was colonised elsewhere, the continent was left with 5 million hectares – an area the size of Switzerland – to be colonised by trees and other natural foliage, European scientists report in the journal Nature Communications.

Overall, the loss of cropland in Western Europe was associated with a drop of 1° in spring and summer. In eastern and northeastern Europe, however, temperatures rose by as much as 1°C, partly because what had once been wetlands began to dry.

“We are already at a mean warming of about 1.8°C on the land, and we will be about 3°C on the land even if we are successful at stabilising the average global temperature at 1.5°C,” says one of the report’s authors, Francesco Cherubini, director of the Industrial Ecology Programme at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

“That means we take action to adapt to a warming climate, and land use planning is one action that can bring local cooling benefits.”

The Arctic greens

“The message is quite clear. Abandoned cropland – or land cover change more generally – and its role in regional climate can help us adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. And by improving agricultural systems, we can free up land for multiple uses.”

But while Europe is changing, and forest in the tropics is being lost, the Arctic is becoming greener: as temperatures rise, vegetation has moved northwards and spring has arrived ever earlier, and growing seasons have lasted longer.

The science of measurement of seasonal change in plant and animal behaviour is called phenology. Chinese and US scientists report in Nature Climate Change that they looked at computer models of vegetation change and factored in the numbers: on average, in the last four decades, leaf-out has advanced by an average of more than four days a decade, and in some cases up to 12 days a decade.

That means snow-covered ground has retreated, and green leaves have moved northwards, and become denser.

Climate feedback

Snow reflects solar radiation, and darker colours absorb it. That means that local landscapes in the north have tended to become even warmer with each decade.

In the Canadian archipelago, the air has been measured at 0.7°C warmer, and parts of Siberia and the Tibetan plateau − far from any leafy canopy − have warmed by 0.4°C and 0.3°C respectively because advanced leaf-out further south means more water vapour, which moves north to change patterns of cloud cover and snowfall.

Climate scientists see this as positive feedback: climate change begets even faster climate change. Global heating tends to accelerate. Climate change affects vegetation, which in turn affects climate yet further.

“Positive feedback loops between climate and spring leaf phenology is likely to amplify in the northern high latitudes,” says Gensuo Jia, one of the researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “The impact of vegetation change on climate is profound in spring.” − Climate News Network