Category Archives: Land Use

Amazon rainforest reaches point of no return

rainforest

Brazilian rainforest expert warns that increased deforestation under President Bolsonaro’s regime is having a catastrophic effect on climate.

LONDON, 16 March, 2020 – Antonio Donato Nobre is passionate about the Amazon region and despairs about the level of deforestation taking place in what is the world’s biggest rainforest.

“Just when I thought the destruction couldn’t get any worse, it has,” says Nobre, one of Brazil’s leading scientists who has studied the Amazon – its unique flora and fauna, and its influence on both the local and global climate – for more than 40 years.

“In terms of the Earth’s climate, we have gone beyond the point of no return. There’s no doubt about this.”

For decades, he has fought against deforestation. There have been considerable ups and downs in that time, but he points out that Brazil was once a world-leader in controlling deforestation.

“We developed the system that’s now being used by other countries,” he told Climate News Network in an interview during his lecture tour of the UK.

“Using satellite data, we monitored and we controlled. From 2005 to 2012, Brazil managed to reduce up to 83% of deforestation.”

Dramatic increase

Then the law on land use was relaxed, and deforestation increased dramatically – by as much as 200% between 2017 and 2018.

It’s all become much worse since Jair Bolsonaro became Brazilian president at the beginning of last year, Nobre says.

“There are some dangerous people in office,” he says. “The Minister of Environment is a convicted criminal. The Minister of Foreign Affairs is a climate sceptic.”

Nobre argues that Bolsonaro doesn’t care about the Amazon and has contempt for environmentalists.

His administration is encouraging the land grabbers who illegally take over protected or indigenous tribal land, which they then sell on to cattle ranchers and soybean conglomerates.

For indigenous tribes, life has become more dangerous. “They are being murdered, their land is being invaded,” Nobre says.

In August last year, the world watched as large areas of the Amazon region – a vital carbon sink sucking up and recycling global greenhouse gases – went up in flames.

Nobre says the land grabbers had organised what they called a “day of fires” in August last year to honour Bolsonaro.

Half of the Amazon rainforest to the east is gone . It’s losing
the battle, going in the direction of a savanna.”

“Thousands of people organized, through WhatsApp, to make something visible from space,” he says. “They hired people on motorbikes with gasoline jugs to set fire to any land they could.”

The impact on the Amazon is catastrophic, Nobre says. “Half of the Amazon rainforest to the east is gone – it’s losing the battle, going in the direction of a savanna.

“When you clear land in a healthy system, it bounces back. But once you cross a certain threshold, a tipping point, it turns into a different kind of equilibrium. It becomes drier, there’s less rain. It’s no longer a forest.”

As well as storing and recycling vast amounts of greenhouse gas, the trees in the Amazon play a vital role in harvesting heat from the Earth’s surface and transforming water vapour into condensation above the forest. This acts like a giant sprinkler system in the sky, Nobre explains..

When the trees go and this system breaks down, the climate alters not only in the Amazon region but over a much wider area.

Time running out

“We used to say the Amazon had two seasons: the wet season and the wetter season,” Nobre says. “Now, you have many months without a drop of water.”

Nobre spent many years living and carrying out research in the rainforest and is now attached to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

The vast majority of Brazilians, he says, are against deforestation and are concerned about climate change – but while he believes that there is still hope for the rainforest, he says that time is fast running out.

Many leading figures in Brazil, including a group of powerful generals, have been shocked by the international reaction to the recent spate of fires in the Amazon and fear that the country is becoming a pariah on the global stage.

Nobre is angry with his own government, but also with what he describes as the massive conspiracy on climate change perpetrated over the years by the oil, gas and coal lobbies.

Ever since the late 1970s, the fossil fuel companies’ scientists have known about the consequences of the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“They brought us to this situation knowingly,” Nobre says. “It’s not something they did out of irresponsible ignorance. They paid to bash the science.” – Climate News Network

  • Jessica Rawnsley is a UK-based environmental journalist. She has written stories on the Extinction Rebellion movement and police tactics connected with demonstrations. She has a particular interest in campaigning groups and their influence on government climate policies.
  • TOMORROW: Forest and coral reef systems in danger of collapse.

Brazilian rainforest expert warns that increased deforestation under President Bolsonaro’s regime is having a catastrophic effect on climate.

LONDON, 16 March, 2020 – Antonio Donato Nobre is passionate about the Amazon region and despairs about the level of deforestation taking place in what is the world’s biggest rainforest.

“Just when I thought the destruction couldn’t get any worse, it has,” says Nobre, one of Brazil’s leading scientists who has studied the Amazon – its unique flora and fauna, and its influence on both the local and global climate – for more than 40 years.

“In terms of the Earth’s climate, we have gone beyond the point of no return. There’s no doubt about this.”

For decades, he has fought against deforestation. There have been considerable ups and downs in that time, but he points out that Brazil was once a world-leader in controlling deforestation.

“We developed the system that’s now being used by other countries,” he told Climate News Network in an interview during his lecture tour of the UK.

“Using satellite data, we monitored and we controlled. From 2005 to 2012, Brazil managed to reduce up to 83% of deforestation.”

Dramatic increase

Then the law on land use was relaxed, and deforestation increased dramatically – by as much as 200% between 2017 and 2018.

It’s all become much worse since Jair Bolsonaro became Brazilian president at the beginning of last year, Nobre says.

“There are some dangerous people in office,” he says. “The Minister of Environment is a convicted criminal. The Minister of Foreign Affairs is a climate sceptic.”

Nobre argues that Bolsonaro doesn’t care about the Amazon and has contempt for environmentalists.

His administration is encouraging the land grabbers who illegally take over protected or indigenous tribal land, which they then sell on to cattle ranchers and soybean conglomerates.

For indigenous tribes, life has become more dangerous. “They are being murdered, their land is being invaded,” Nobre says.

In August last year, the world watched as large areas of the Amazon region – a vital carbon sink sucking up and recycling global greenhouse gases – went up in flames.

Nobre says the land grabbers had organised what they called a “day of fires” in August last year to honour Bolsonaro.

Half of the Amazon rainforest to the east is gone . It’s losing
the battle, going in the direction of a savanna.”

“Thousands of people organized, through WhatsApp, to make something visible from space,” he says. “They hired people on motorbikes with gasoline jugs to set fire to any land they could.”

The impact on the Amazon is catastrophic, Nobre says. “Half of the Amazon rainforest to the east is gone – it’s losing the battle, going in the direction of a savanna.

“When you clear land in a healthy system, it bounces back. But once you cross a certain threshold, a tipping point, it turns into a different kind of equilibrium. It becomes drier, there’s less rain. It’s no longer a forest.”

As well as storing and recycling vast amounts of greenhouse gas, the trees in the Amazon play a vital role in harvesting heat from the Earth’s surface and transforming water vapour into condensation above the forest. This acts like a giant sprinkler system in the sky, Nobre explains..

When the trees go and this system breaks down, the climate alters not only in the Amazon region but over a much wider area.

Time running out

“We used to say the Amazon had two seasons: the wet season and the wetter season,” Nobre says. “Now, you have many months without a drop of water.”

Nobre spent many years living and carrying out research in the rainforest and is now attached to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

The vast majority of Brazilians, he says, are against deforestation and are concerned about climate change – but while he believes that there is still hope for the rainforest, he says that time is fast running out.

Many leading figures in Brazil, including a group of powerful generals, have been shocked by the international reaction to the recent spate of fires in the Amazon and fear that the country is becoming a pariah on the global stage.

Nobre is angry with his own government, but also with what he describes as the massive conspiracy on climate change perpetrated over the years by the oil, gas and coal lobbies.

Ever since the late 1970s, the fossil fuel companies’ scientists have known about the consequences of the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“They brought us to this situation knowingly,” Nobre says. “It’s not something they did out of irresponsible ignorance. They paid to bash the science.” – Climate News Network

  • Jessica Rawnsley is a UK-based environmental journalist. She has written stories on the Extinction Rebellion movement and police tactics connected with demonstrations. She has a particular interest in campaigning groups and their influence on government climate policies.
  • TOMORROW: Forest and coral reef systems in danger of collapse.

A third of plants and animals risk mass extinction

As planetary temperatures rise, the chances of species survival lessen. Mass extinction is coming. The challenge is to measure the loss.

LONDON, 25 February, 2020 – Within 50 years, a third of all plant and animal species could be caught up in a mass extinction, as a consequence of climate change driven by ever-rising temperatures. What is new about this warning is the method, the precision, the timetable and the identification of a cause.

And – entirely felicitously – support for the prediction is backed by a series of separate studies of individual species survival in a world rapidly warming because of human commitment to fossil fuels.

Tiny marsupial insect-hunters in Australia could, on the evidence of direct experiment, fail to adapt to ever-higher thermometer readings, and quietly disappear.

As frogs and other amphibians in Central America are wiped out by invasive fungal pathogens – perhaps assisted by climate change – a set of snake species that prey upon them have also become increasingly at risk.

And directly because the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, the polar bears of Baffin Bay in Canada are thinner than they were 30 years ago, and have fewer cubs. That’s because Ursus maritimus hunts its seal prey on the sea ice. And as the winter ice forms later and melts earlier each decade, the bears have begun to go hungry.

Biologists, ecologists and conservationists have been warning for four decades that planet Earth could be on the edge of a sixth Great Extinction, as a simple consequence of the growth of human numbers and human economies, and the parallel destruction of natural habitat.

They have also repeatedly warned that climate change driven by human-triggered planetary heating would inevitably accelerate the losses.

Repeated surveys

But researchers from the University of Arizona have now confirmed the climate connection by using another approach: they decided to look directly at the numbers. They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they selected data from 538 species and 581 places around the globe: they chose these numbers and sites because they could be sure that specific animal and plant species had been repeatedly surveyed over intervals of at least a decade.

They also factored in the changes in local climate conditions at each site, and isolated 19 different variables in the climate machine to work out what it could be about global heating that would directly pose the most significant threats. They also considered the options open to their chosen species: could these, for instance, migrate easily, or tolerate longer periods of extreme heat?

And then they did the calculations. They found that 50% of the chosen species went extinct locally if temperatures rose by more than 0.5°C, and 95% if the mercury reached an additional 2.9°C.

In the last century, the planet has warmed by 1°C above the average for most of human history and prehistory. Right now, thanks to ever-increasing fossil fuel use and continued forest destruction, the planet could be more than 3°C warmer by 2100.

But the researchers also found that the climate factor most closely linked to the extinction of any population was simply the maximum annual count the hottest daily highs in summer.

This also implies that extinction could be two or even four times as frequent in the tropics as in the temperate zones: it is in the tropics – the reefs, the rainforests, the wetlands and savannahs – that the world’s species are concentrated.

Antechinis flavipes, or yellow-footed antechinus, is a native Australian: it is not exactly a mole, or a mouse, or a shrew. It is a little marsupial carnivore with an unhappy love life: males mate in a frenzy and then tend to die from stress-related immune system breakdown.

“If we stick to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, we may lose fewer than two out of every 10 plant and animal species by 2070. But if humans cause larger temperature increases, we could lose more than a third or even half”

It is also sensitive to temperature. When the mercury drops, the creature can go into a torpor and once comatose can even sleep through a bushfire.

Norwegian scientists report in the journal Frontiers in Physiology that they exposed 19 captive juveniles to spells of cold (17°C) and hot (25°C) temperatures, measured their growth and metabolic rate, and observed changes in behaviour. They conclude that, while individuals of the species can cope with short periods of high temperature, they may not have any way of surviving extended heat extremes.

Which is a problem for antechinus, because all the predictions for Australia – and indeed most of the planet – is that as the century proceeds and ever more greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, the hottest spells will become hotter, more frequent and more extended.

North American researchers have been tracking the polar bears who hunt seals and mate in Baffin Bay, between north-eastern Canada and Greenland, for almost three decades. They report in the journal Ecological Applications that when sea ice retreats, the bears wait on Baffin Island and live on their accumulated fat.

In the 1990s, the average stay on land – and away from the bears’ preferred prey – was 60 days. In the last decade, this rose to 90 days. Sampled females proved to be thinner than they had been, and were more likely to have one cub rather than two, all because unseasonally high temperatures in the Arctic mean that the hunting season on the ice is becoming ever shorter.

In 2004, the population of amphibians in a national park in Panama started to perish on a huge scale, and an estimated 30 species of frog and other creatures all but vanished in the wake of a pathogen fungus outbreak.

US scientists report in the journal Science that they set out to look at their wildlife observational data before and after the outbreak to measure the effect on the region’s snake species that prey on amphibians.

Rarely observed snakes

Even though the scientists logged 594 surveys in the seven years before the outbreak and 513 in the six years that followed, they had to use mathematical techniques to come up with probabilities of local snake extinction, because snakes are hard to observe at any time. Of the 36 snake species recorded there, 12 have been observed only once, and five only twice.

The bad news is there is an 85% probability that there are now fewer snake species than there had been, simply because of the disappearance of amphibian prey.

The study also highlights another worry for conservationists and ecologists: extinction of species is happening at an accelerating rate, but biologists still cannot put a number to the total of species at risk. Most of them have never been described or named. Like some of the snakes of Panama, they will have gone before scientists even knew they were there.

The climate connection with the worldwide loss of amphibian species is still uncertain. The certainty is that climate change will make life too hot for many species that – because what was once wilderness has now been cleared for cities, quarries, farms and commercial plantations – can no longer shift to cooler terrain.

John Wiens of the University of Arizona, one of the authors behind the research that predicts massive extinctions by 2070, thinks there is something that can be done.

In 2015 in Paris more than 190 nations vowed to act to contain global warming to “well below” 2°C. “In a way, it’s a ‘choose your own adventure,’” he said.

“If we stick to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, we may lose fewer than two out of every 10 plant and animal species on Earth by 2070. But if humans cause larger temperature increases, we could lose more than a third or even half of all animal and plant species, based on our results.” – Climate News Network

As planetary temperatures rise, the chances of species survival lessen. Mass extinction is coming. The challenge is to measure the loss.

LONDON, 25 February, 2020 – Within 50 years, a third of all plant and animal species could be caught up in a mass extinction, as a consequence of climate change driven by ever-rising temperatures. What is new about this warning is the method, the precision, the timetable and the identification of a cause.

And – entirely felicitously – support for the prediction is backed by a series of separate studies of individual species survival in a world rapidly warming because of human commitment to fossil fuels.

Tiny marsupial insect-hunters in Australia could, on the evidence of direct experiment, fail to adapt to ever-higher thermometer readings, and quietly disappear.

As frogs and other amphibians in Central America are wiped out by invasive fungal pathogens – perhaps assisted by climate change – a set of snake species that prey upon them have also become increasingly at risk.

And directly because the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, the polar bears of Baffin Bay in Canada are thinner than they were 30 years ago, and have fewer cubs. That’s because Ursus maritimus hunts its seal prey on the sea ice. And as the winter ice forms later and melts earlier each decade, the bears have begun to go hungry.

Biologists, ecologists and conservationists have been warning for four decades that planet Earth could be on the edge of a sixth Great Extinction, as a simple consequence of the growth of human numbers and human economies, and the parallel destruction of natural habitat.

They have also repeatedly warned that climate change driven by human-triggered planetary heating would inevitably accelerate the losses.

Repeated surveys

But researchers from the University of Arizona have now confirmed the climate connection by using another approach: they decided to look directly at the numbers. They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they selected data from 538 species and 581 places around the globe: they chose these numbers and sites because they could be sure that specific animal and plant species had been repeatedly surveyed over intervals of at least a decade.

They also factored in the changes in local climate conditions at each site, and isolated 19 different variables in the climate machine to work out what it could be about global heating that would directly pose the most significant threats. They also considered the options open to their chosen species: could these, for instance, migrate easily, or tolerate longer periods of extreme heat?

And then they did the calculations. They found that 50% of the chosen species went extinct locally if temperatures rose by more than 0.5°C, and 95% if the mercury reached an additional 2.9°C.

In the last century, the planet has warmed by 1°C above the average for most of human history and prehistory. Right now, thanks to ever-increasing fossil fuel use and continued forest destruction, the planet could be more than 3°C warmer by 2100.

But the researchers also found that the climate factor most closely linked to the extinction of any population was simply the maximum annual count the hottest daily highs in summer.

This also implies that extinction could be two or even four times as frequent in the tropics as in the temperate zones: it is in the tropics – the reefs, the rainforests, the wetlands and savannahs – that the world’s species are concentrated.

Antechinis flavipes, or yellow-footed antechinus, is a native Australian: it is not exactly a mole, or a mouse, or a shrew. It is a little marsupial carnivore with an unhappy love life: males mate in a frenzy and then tend to die from stress-related immune system breakdown.

“If we stick to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, we may lose fewer than two out of every 10 plant and animal species by 2070. But if humans cause larger temperature increases, we could lose more than a third or even half”

It is also sensitive to temperature. When the mercury drops, the creature can go into a torpor and once comatose can even sleep through a bushfire.

Norwegian scientists report in the journal Frontiers in Physiology that they exposed 19 captive juveniles to spells of cold (17°C) and hot (25°C) temperatures, measured their growth and metabolic rate, and observed changes in behaviour. They conclude that, while individuals of the species can cope with short periods of high temperature, they may not have any way of surviving extended heat extremes.

Which is a problem for antechinus, because all the predictions for Australia – and indeed most of the planet – is that as the century proceeds and ever more greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, the hottest spells will become hotter, more frequent and more extended.

North American researchers have been tracking the polar bears who hunt seals and mate in Baffin Bay, between north-eastern Canada and Greenland, for almost three decades. They report in the journal Ecological Applications that when sea ice retreats, the bears wait on Baffin Island and live on their accumulated fat.

In the 1990s, the average stay on land – and away from the bears’ preferred prey – was 60 days. In the last decade, this rose to 90 days. Sampled females proved to be thinner than they had been, and were more likely to have one cub rather than two, all because unseasonally high temperatures in the Arctic mean that the hunting season on the ice is becoming ever shorter.

In 2004, the population of amphibians in a national park in Panama started to perish on a huge scale, and an estimated 30 species of frog and other creatures all but vanished in the wake of a pathogen fungus outbreak.

US scientists report in the journal Science that they set out to look at their wildlife observational data before and after the outbreak to measure the effect on the region’s snake species that prey on amphibians.

Rarely observed snakes

Even though the scientists logged 594 surveys in the seven years before the outbreak and 513 in the six years that followed, they had to use mathematical techniques to come up with probabilities of local snake extinction, because snakes are hard to observe at any time. Of the 36 snake species recorded there, 12 have been observed only once, and five only twice.

The bad news is there is an 85% probability that there are now fewer snake species than there had been, simply because of the disappearance of amphibian prey.

The study also highlights another worry for conservationists and ecologists: extinction of species is happening at an accelerating rate, but biologists still cannot put a number to the total of species at risk. Most of them have never been described or named. Like some of the snakes of Panama, they will have gone before scientists even knew they were there.

The climate connection with the worldwide loss of amphibian species is still uncertain. The certainty is that climate change will make life too hot for many species that – because what was once wilderness has now been cleared for cities, quarries, farms and commercial plantations – can no longer shift to cooler terrain.

John Wiens of the University of Arizona, one of the authors behind the research that predicts massive extinctions by 2070, thinks there is something that can be done.

In 2015 in Paris more than 190 nations vowed to act to contain global warming to “well below” 2°C. “In a way, it’s a ‘choose your own adventure,’” he said.

“If we stick to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, we may lose fewer than two out of every 10 plant and animal species on Earth by 2070. But if humans cause larger temperature increases, we could lose more than a third or even half of all animal and plant species, based on our results.” – Climate News Network

Cities turn to freewheeling public transport

Cities worldwide are making their public transport free to use. As passenger numbers rise, car use falls. What’s not to like?

LONDON, 12 February, 2020 − In the United States, once the home of car culture, cities are increasingly experimenting with free public transport. But the idea is not an American preserve: it’s catching on fast across the globe.

In the French capital, Paris, the mayor is removing 72% of city car parking spaces. Birmingham in the UK is encouraging drivers to leave their cars at home and use public transport instead, or to walk or cycle. More public transport use means less toxic urban air, fewer greenhouse gas emissions − and happier citizens better equipped to escape one key aspect of poverty.

Transport is one of the big polluters. Cities in particular want more efficient, cleaner ways of moving people. The good news is that recent innovations suggest an effective answer: if public transport is free, more people are likely to use it, instantly cutting car use and pollution.

That kind of behaviour change can happen surprisingly fast. Around 100 cities worldwide currently run fare-free transit, most of them in Europe. Even in the US, home of the motor car, cities are showing increasing interest.

Sharing costs

Kansas City in Missouri and Olympia in Washington state have both said their buses will become fare-free this year. Worcester, Massachusetts’ second-largest city, has expressed strong support for waiving bus fares – a move that would cost $2-3 million a year in fares foregone.

The Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) is a UK-based organisation which argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C”.

It says: “A rapid change is under way, bringing into question the role of the car and promoting public transport that is available for all.”

Fare-free transit can also help to cut poverty. The benefits of maintaining a transit system that drives the economy and helps residents at all income levels to get to their jobs, while keeping commuters off the roads, are so great that some urban leaders say the costs should be shared fairly by taxpayers.

Pollution cut

Birmingham and Paris both aim to increase the space for cyclists and walkers by taking it away from car owners, traditionally privileged by planners. Does cutting road space, far from increasing congestion, actually cut pollution instead? The RTA thinks it can.

The Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, is basing her re-election campaign on ensuring that “you can find everything you need within 15 minutes from home.” She wants to see the return of the more self-sufficient neighbourhood, and aims to make all roads safe for cyclists by 2024.

Birmingham will introduce incentives for businesses to remove parking spaces through the introduction of an annual workplace parking levy, and the city will build 12,800 new homes on former car parks. Freight deliveries will be restricted to out-of-hours times, and there will be a blanket 20 mile an hour (32 kph) speed limit on the city’s local roads.

Free mass transit offers a practical, fast option for change − and a relatively cheap one. It can boost the local economy. The deputy mayor of Ghent, in Belgium, Filip Watteeuw, has said that since the provision of free city transit there “has been a 17% increase in restaurant and bar startups, and the number of empty shops has been arrested”.

“A rapid change is under way, bringing into question the role of the car and promoting public transport that is available for all”

Ghent’s plan cost just €4m (£3.4m) to implement. By contrast it costs an estimated £20m-£30m to build just one mile of motorway. The city also has significantly cleaner air – nitrogen oxide levels have dropped by 20% since 2017.

Unlike many major infrastructure projects, making public transport free is easy to implement in stages if, for example, planners are unsure how it will affect particular communities. In Salt Lake City public transport was declared free for one day a week as an experiment – Fare Free Friday.

Health and city design are not the only reasons behind moves toward free mass transit. Poverty in inner city areas, with long commutes on older buses, is the norm for many at the bottom of society.

Free transport can make an immediate and disproportionate difference to the money in people’s pockets at a time when many developed societies are seeing the income equality gap grow.

Not car owners

Experiments in the US cities of Denver and Austin were initially viewed as unsuccessful, because there was little evidence that they removed cars from the road; that was because new passengers tended to be poor people who did not own cars, according to a 2012 review by the National Academies Press.

But they were successful in a different sense; they increased passenger use right away, with rises of between 20 and 60% in the first few months.

Car sales are tumbling as people look for alternatives, and as rural populations – who are most dependent on cars – continue to fall. Figures for January to September 2019 showed car sales lower in all major car markets in the world except for Brazil and Japan.

Integrated transport brings impressive reductions in pollution, congestion and accidents and sometimes more. in Colombia’s second city, Medellin, a combination of rethinking public space and public transport has contributed to a reduction in crime.

Finding public transport

The US Center for Climate and Energy Solutions suggests that Americans can save more than $9,738 annually by using public transport instead of driving. However, access, a problem for many, is the key to reducing emissions – 45% of Americans have no access to public transport.

Many UK cities, towns and villages are also very poorly served by public services. Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, recently built a new and very expensive tram system, with fares higher than on the city’s bus network. Passengers numbers faltered, dashing hopes that the trams could pay their way.

But Edinburgh is renowned for its summer arts festival, which brings visitors flocking in. There is now talk of fare-free trams, at least from the airport to the city centre, which could help to increase overall festival visitor numbers and boost the city’s economy.

Carrots can often work better than sticks. Perhaps fare-free public transport schemes should offer something along the lines of frequent-flyer rewards? − Climate News Network

* * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Cities worldwide are making their public transport free to use. As passenger numbers rise, car use falls. What’s not to like?

LONDON, 12 February, 2020 − In the United States, once the home of car culture, cities are increasingly experimenting with free public transport. But the idea is not an American preserve: it’s catching on fast across the globe.

In the French capital, Paris, the mayor is removing 72% of city car parking spaces. Birmingham in the UK is encouraging drivers to leave their cars at home and use public transport instead, or to walk or cycle. More public transport use means less toxic urban air, fewer greenhouse gas emissions − and happier citizens better equipped to escape one key aspect of poverty.

Transport is one of the big polluters. Cities in particular want more efficient, cleaner ways of moving people. The good news is that recent innovations suggest an effective answer: if public transport is free, more people are likely to use it, instantly cutting car use and pollution.

That kind of behaviour change can happen surprisingly fast. Around 100 cities worldwide currently run fare-free transit, most of them in Europe. Even in the US, home of the motor car, cities are showing increasing interest.

Sharing costs

Kansas City in Missouri and Olympia in Washington state have both said their buses will become fare-free this year. Worcester, Massachusetts’ second-largest city, has expressed strong support for waiving bus fares – a move that would cost $2-3 million a year in fares foregone.

The Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) is a UK-based organisation which argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C”.

It says: “A rapid change is under way, bringing into question the role of the car and promoting public transport that is available for all.”

Fare-free transit can also help to cut poverty. The benefits of maintaining a transit system that drives the economy and helps residents at all income levels to get to their jobs, while keeping commuters off the roads, are so great that some urban leaders say the costs should be shared fairly by taxpayers.

Pollution cut

Birmingham and Paris both aim to increase the space for cyclists and walkers by taking it away from car owners, traditionally privileged by planners. Does cutting road space, far from increasing congestion, actually cut pollution instead? The RTA thinks it can.

The Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, is basing her re-election campaign on ensuring that “you can find everything you need within 15 minutes from home.” She wants to see the return of the more self-sufficient neighbourhood, and aims to make all roads safe for cyclists by 2024.

Birmingham will introduce incentives for businesses to remove parking spaces through the introduction of an annual workplace parking levy, and the city will build 12,800 new homes on former car parks. Freight deliveries will be restricted to out-of-hours times, and there will be a blanket 20 mile an hour (32 kph) speed limit on the city’s local roads.

Free mass transit offers a practical, fast option for change − and a relatively cheap one. It can boost the local economy. The deputy mayor of Ghent, in Belgium, Filip Watteeuw, has said that since the provision of free city transit there “has been a 17% increase in restaurant and bar startups, and the number of empty shops has been arrested”.

“A rapid change is under way, bringing into question the role of the car and promoting public transport that is available for all”

Ghent’s plan cost just €4m (£3.4m) to implement. By contrast it costs an estimated £20m-£30m to build just one mile of motorway. The city also has significantly cleaner air – nitrogen oxide levels have dropped by 20% since 2017.

Unlike many major infrastructure projects, making public transport free is easy to implement in stages if, for example, planners are unsure how it will affect particular communities. In Salt Lake City public transport was declared free for one day a week as an experiment – Fare Free Friday.

Health and city design are not the only reasons behind moves toward free mass transit. Poverty in inner city areas, with long commutes on older buses, is the norm for many at the bottom of society.

Free transport can make an immediate and disproportionate difference to the money in people’s pockets at a time when many developed societies are seeing the income equality gap grow.

Not car owners

Experiments in the US cities of Denver and Austin were initially viewed as unsuccessful, because there was little evidence that they removed cars from the road; that was because new passengers tended to be poor people who did not own cars, according to a 2012 review by the National Academies Press.

But they were successful in a different sense; they increased passenger use right away, with rises of between 20 and 60% in the first few months.

Car sales are tumbling as people look for alternatives, and as rural populations – who are most dependent on cars – continue to fall. Figures for January to September 2019 showed car sales lower in all major car markets in the world except for Brazil and Japan.

Integrated transport brings impressive reductions in pollution, congestion and accidents and sometimes more. in Colombia’s second city, Medellin, a combination of rethinking public space and public transport has contributed to a reduction in crime.

Finding public transport

The US Center for Climate and Energy Solutions suggests that Americans can save more than $9,738 annually by using public transport instead of driving. However, access, a problem for many, is the key to reducing emissions – 45% of Americans have no access to public transport.

Many UK cities, towns and villages are also very poorly served by public services. Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, recently built a new and very expensive tram system, with fares higher than on the city’s bus network. Passengers numbers faltered, dashing hopes that the trams could pay their way.

But Edinburgh is renowned for its summer arts festival, which brings visitors flocking in. There is now talk of fare-free trams, at least from the airport to the city centre, which could help to increase overall festival visitor numbers and boost the city’s economy.

Carrots can often work better than sticks. Perhaps fare-free public transport schemes should offer something along the lines of frequent-flyer rewards? − Climate News Network

* * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Rewilding the Arctic can slow the climate crisis

It would be a monumental task to start rewilding the Arctic, but the climate payoff could be mammoth.

LONDON, 29 January, 2020 − Releasing herds of large animals onto the tundra − rewilding the Arctic − to create vast grasslands could slow down global heating by storing carbon and preserving the permafrost, UK scientists say.

With no woolly mammoths available nowadays, the scientists, from the University of Oxford, suggest an alternative in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B − importing large herds of bison and horses to provide the mega-fauna that would prevent tree growth and create huge areas of grazing land.

These big animals, originally present in the Arctic together with the reindeer, wolves and other large creatures still living there, would create a natural geo-engineering project to alter the landscape, the researchers say. The idea is to preserve as much carbon in the soil as possible and reflect more sunlight back into space.

The scientists visited Pleistocene Park, a Russian experiment in north-eastern Siberia, which is an attempt to recreate the mammoth steppe ecosystem of the last ice age by re-introducing large grazing animals.

Trees that are growing ever further north as the Arctic warms are in turn leading to the melting of more permafrost by breaking up the snow which otherwise reflects sunlight away from the Earth. Instead, the snow absorbs more of the sunlight, enhancing the warming further.

“The Arctic is already changing, and fast. Taking a ‘do nothing’ approach now is a decision to allow rapid, irreversible changes to occur”

By removing woody vegetation, enhancing grass growth and trampling on snow in search of winter forage, the scientists say, large mammals increase the amount of incoming solar energy that bounces back to space − the albedo effect.

Unlike shallow-rooted trees, grasslands also favour the capture of carbon in the deep roots of grasses and enable cold winter temperatures to penetrate deeper into the soil. Altogether, they say, these changes would have a net cooling effect on Arctic lands and delay permafrost melt.

“The Arctic is already changing, and fast. Taking a ‘do nothing’ approach now is a decision to allow rapid, irreversible changes to occur”, says lead author Dr Marc Macias-Fauria, at Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment.

“Although the science of Arctic eco-engineering is largely untested, it has the potential to make a big difference, and action in this region should be given serious consideration.”

Big emissions savings

The study estimates that carbon emissions from thawing permafrost could be around 4.35 billion tonnes a year over this century. This is around half as much as fossil fuel emissions, and three times more than estimates of the emissions produced by current and projected land use change, for example in tropical forests.

One of the drawbacks to the scheme is the need to import large quantities of relatively scarce animals like bison into the vast expanses that would need to be rewilded. It would take time to build up the numbers of animals required.

The fossil record in the period the scientists are trying to recreate shows that each square kilometre contained an average of one mammoth, 5 bison, 7.5 horses, 15 reindeer, 0.25 cave lions, and one wolf. This is around the animal density of present-day African savanna game reserves. Rewilding efforts would initially focus on bison and horses.

The researchers believe the scheme could be economic, especially if the price of the carbon saved is reckoned in. They provide a detailed analysis for an experiment over a period of 10 years for the introduction and monitoring of three large-scale trial areas, which includes importing 1,000 animals for each of the three at a cost of US$114 million (£88m).  On an annual basis this alone would keep 72,000 tonnes of carbon in the ground.

The scientists believe that rewilding could be a cost-effective solution and bring extra benefits like new tourism and “carbon-negative wild meat”, which would cut the demand for farmed beef and reduce pressure on forested areas in the tropics. They also say the study constitutes a potential opportunity for UK-Russia cooperation on climate change mitigation. − Climate News Network

It would be a monumental task to start rewilding the Arctic, but the climate payoff could be mammoth.

LONDON, 29 January, 2020 − Releasing herds of large animals onto the tundra − rewilding the Arctic − to create vast grasslands could slow down global heating by storing carbon and preserving the permafrost, UK scientists say.

With no woolly mammoths available nowadays, the scientists, from the University of Oxford, suggest an alternative in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B − importing large herds of bison and horses to provide the mega-fauna that would prevent tree growth and create huge areas of grazing land.

These big animals, originally present in the Arctic together with the reindeer, wolves and other large creatures still living there, would create a natural geo-engineering project to alter the landscape, the researchers say. The idea is to preserve as much carbon in the soil as possible and reflect more sunlight back into space.

The scientists visited Pleistocene Park, a Russian experiment in north-eastern Siberia, which is an attempt to recreate the mammoth steppe ecosystem of the last ice age by re-introducing large grazing animals.

Trees that are growing ever further north as the Arctic warms are in turn leading to the melting of more permafrost by breaking up the snow which otherwise reflects sunlight away from the Earth. Instead, the snow absorbs more of the sunlight, enhancing the warming further.

“The Arctic is already changing, and fast. Taking a ‘do nothing’ approach now is a decision to allow rapid, irreversible changes to occur”

By removing woody vegetation, enhancing grass growth and trampling on snow in search of winter forage, the scientists say, large mammals increase the amount of incoming solar energy that bounces back to space − the albedo effect.

Unlike shallow-rooted trees, grasslands also favour the capture of carbon in the deep roots of grasses and enable cold winter temperatures to penetrate deeper into the soil. Altogether, they say, these changes would have a net cooling effect on Arctic lands and delay permafrost melt.

“The Arctic is already changing, and fast. Taking a ‘do nothing’ approach now is a decision to allow rapid, irreversible changes to occur”, says lead author Dr Marc Macias-Fauria, at Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment.

“Although the science of Arctic eco-engineering is largely untested, it has the potential to make a big difference, and action in this region should be given serious consideration.”

Big emissions savings

The study estimates that carbon emissions from thawing permafrost could be around 4.35 billion tonnes a year over this century. This is around half as much as fossil fuel emissions, and three times more than estimates of the emissions produced by current and projected land use change, for example in tropical forests.

One of the drawbacks to the scheme is the need to import large quantities of relatively scarce animals like bison into the vast expanses that would need to be rewilded. It would take time to build up the numbers of animals required.

The fossil record in the period the scientists are trying to recreate shows that each square kilometre contained an average of one mammoth, 5 bison, 7.5 horses, 15 reindeer, 0.25 cave lions, and one wolf. This is around the animal density of present-day African savanna game reserves. Rewilding efforts would initially focus on bison and horses.

The researchers believe the scheme could be economic, especially if the price of the carbon saved is reckoned in. They provide a detailed analysis for an experiment over a period of 10 years for the introduction and monitoring of three large-scale trial areas, which includes importing 1,000 animals for each of the three at a cost of US$114 million (£88m).  On an annual basis this alone would keep 72,000 tonnes of carbon in the ground.

The scientists believe that rewilding could be a cost-effective solution and bring extra benefits like new tourism and “carbon-negative wild meat”, which would cut the demand for farmed beef and reduce pressure on forested areas in the tropics. They also say the study constitutes a potential opportunity for UK-Russia cooperation on climate change mitigation. − Climate News Network

Wildfire risk can be reduced with agroforestry

As Australia struggles to recover from months of wildfires, farmers and foresters say agroforestry could help to protect the country.

LONDON, 28 January, 2020 – Researchers in Europe have found that simply adopting a way of managing land to support animals, crops and trees – a system known as agroforestry – can help significantly to cut the risk of wildfires breaking out in areas around the Mediterranean.

As uncontrolled wildfires threaten natural vegetation, biodiversity, communities and economies – and lives – and release large amounts of carbon dioxide, contributing to global temperature rise, the pressure to find ways of controlling them is urgent.

Studying ten years’ worth of data, the researchers analysed the relationship between the incidence of fire and several different uses of land (for agroforestry, forests, shrublands and grasslands). Agroforestry, occupying 12% of the land area, was linked to just 6% of the fires, while shrubland, which occupied 16%, suffered from 41% of the fires (these figures are based on two European Union documents – LUCAS, its Land use and land cover survey, and the European Forest Fire Information System, EFFIS, 2008-17.

Paul Burgess, reader in crop ecology and management at Cranfield University, UK, said: “Areas of shrubland were at particular risk of wildfire – where the land is not proactively managed or used, there is a build-up of dry vegetation and shrubs creating fuel.

Work boost

“Agroforestry is shown to reduce wildfire risk by encouraging rural employment and removing part of the dry ground-level vegetation through livestock grazing. Taking into account the effect of climate change in this region, it is a land management option that can successfully reduce fires, protect the environment and improve human well-being.”

Combining livestock and trees on agroforestry land can create habitats rich in a variety of species that provide an annual income for farmers through livestock products. For clearing vegetation, agroforestry uses less machinery and fossil fuel.

Dr Burgess, who is secretary of the Farm Woodland Forum, told the Climate News Network that agroforestry could help countries like Australia and Portugal to cut the extreme fire risk they have been facing.

He said: “Compared with unmanaged shrubland areas, agroforestry can provide three benefits. Firstly, it encourages local employment and management on the ground which can allow for more rapid initial responses. Then, in most agroforestry systems, the understorey, the vegetation between the forest canopy and the floor, is managed, and this reduces the store of fuel. Third, in many agroforestry systems there are breaks between the trees, which can also help to limit fire spread.”

“Agroforestry is a land management option that can successfully reduce fires, protect the environment and improve human well-being”

The proportion of burnt land in the area studied by the team over 10 years ranged from 0.1% of the area of France to 1-2% of the area of Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Spain, and to 14% of the area of Portugal. The researchers report their study in the journal Agroforestry Systems.

Land abandonment is an important element in the risk of wildfires. In many parts of the Mediterranean, an ageing population and the end of traditional farming and forestry activity have led to extensive unmanaged lands.

This results in an increase in decayed biomass, plant material which readily serves as fuel in shrublands that can be easily ignited by natural events such as thunderstorms, or by human activity.

Other suggestions for reducing wildfires include using sunlight to replace fossil fuel-derived kerosene with a synthetic version, and cutting fossil fuel reliance through wide use of new generation batteries. – Climate News Network

As Australia struggles to recover from months of wildfires, farmers and foresters say agroforestry could help to protect the country.

LONDON, 28 January, 2020 – Researchers in Europe have found that simply adopting a way of managing land to support animals, crops and trees – a system known as agroforestry – can help significantly to cut the risk of wildfires breaking out in areas around the Mediterranean.

As uncontrolled wildfires threaten natural vegetation, biodiversity, communities and economies – and lives – and release large amounts of carbon dioxide, contributing to global temperature rise, the pressure to find ways of controlling them is urgent.

Studying ten years’ worth of data, the researchers analysed the relationship between the incidence of fire and several different uses of land (for agroforestry, forests, shrublands and grasslands). Agroforestry, occupying 12% of the land area, was linked to just 6% of the fires, while shrubland, which occupied 16%, suffered from 41% of the fires (these figures are based on two European Union documents – LUCAS, its Land use and land cover survey, and the European Forest Fire Information System, EFFIS, 2008-17.

Paul Burgess, reader in crop ecology and management at Cranfield University, UK, said: “Areas of shrubland were at particular risk of wildfire – where the land is not proactively managed or used, there is a build-up of dry vegetation and shrubs creating fuel.

Work boost

“Agroforestry is shown to reduce wildfire risk by encouraging rural employment and removing part of the dry ground-level vegetation through livestock grazing. Taking into account the effect of climate change in this region, it is a land management option that can successfully reduce fires, protect the environment and improve human well-being.”

Combining livestock and trees on agroforestry land can create habitats rich in a variety of species that provide an annual income for farmers through livestock products. For clearing vegetation, agroforestry uses less machinery and fossil fuel.

Dr Burgess, who is secretary of the Farm Woodland Forum, told the Climate News Network that agroforestry could help countries like Australia and Portugal to cut the extreme fire risk they have been facing.

He said: “Compared with unmanaged shrubland areas, agroforestry can provide three benefits. Firstly, it encourages local employment and management on the ground which can allow for more rapid initial responses. Then, in most agroforestry systems, the understorey, the vegetation between the forest canopy and the floor, is managed, and this reduces the store of fuel. Third, in many agroforestry systems there are breaks between the trees, which can also help to limit fire spread.”

“Agroforestry is a land management option that can successfully reduce fires, protect the environment and improve human well-being”

The proportion of burnt land in the area studied by the team over 10 years ranged from 0.1% of the area of France to 1-2% of the area of Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Spain, and to 14% of the area of Portugal. The researchers report their study in the journal Agroforestry Systems.

Land abandonment is an important element in the risk of wildfires. In many parts of the Mediterranean, an ageing population and the end of traditional farming and forestry activity have led to extensive unmanaged lands.

This results in an increase in decayed biomass, plant material which readily serves as fuel in shrublands that can be easily ignited by natural events such as thunderstorms, or by human activity.

Other suggestions for reducing wildfires include using sunlight to replace fossil fuel-derived kerosene with a synthetic version, and cutting fossil fuel reliance through wide use of new generation batteries. – Climate News Network

Food at risk as third of plants face extinction

More than a third of the world’s plants are so rare they face extinction. In a warmer world, that would leave supplies of food at risk.

LONDON, 17 December, 2019 – Botanists have made a new census of terrestrial plants – only to find that with nearly 40% of them rare, or extremely rare, this may put food at risk.

And a second team of researchers, in a separate study, has established that some of these rare or vanishing species could include the wild relatives of some of the planet’s most popular vegetables.

The two studies matter. The first underlines yet another reason for new and determined conservation strategies to preserve the extraordinary natural variety and richness of life – the shorthand word that scientists use is biodiversity – already under pressure from the explosion in human numbers, the destruction of natural habitats and the looming catastrophe of climate change driven by rapidly rising global temperatures.

And the second study is simply a matter of the next lunch or dinner: many rare plants are survivors with the resources to adapt to change. In a fast-changing world, crop breeders may need to go back to the wild relatives to look for the genes that will keep the commercial carrots, courgettes, pumpkins and chilli peppers on the grocery shelves.

US scientists and international colleagues report in the journal Science Advances that they worked for 10 years and compiled 20 million observational records to establish a simple plant census: the forests, grasslands, scrublands, tundra and swamps of the wild world are home to about 435,000 unique plant species.

“The wild relatives of crops are one of the key tools used to breed crops adapted to difficult conditions. Some of them are sure to disappear from their natural habitats without urgent action”

And of this huge number, a surprising 36.5% are “exceedingly rare.” By this, researchers mean that these species have been observed and recorded no more than five times in the last 300 years of systematic botanical research.

“According to ecological and evolutionary theory, we’d expect many species to be rare, but the actual observed number we found was pretty startling,” said Brian Enquist of the University of Arizona, who led the consortium. “There are many more rare species than we expected.”

The rare species were most likely to be clustered in what ecologists call hotspots: the northern Andes in South America, Costa Rica, South Africa, Madagascar and south-east Asia.

What these places have in common is that, over millions of years, they have maintained stable climates, and as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age, these tropical mountains and valleys provided refuge for life’s variety.

But these survivors may not enjoy a stable future, as ever higher levels of greenhouse gases are spilled into the atmosphere from human use of fossil fuels, and global temperatures continue to rise, and as human communities expand into what was once wilderness.

Significant loss ahead

“In many of these regions, there’s increasing human activity such as agriculture, cities and towns, land use and clearing,” said Professor Enquist.

“So that’s not exactly the best of news. If nothing is done, this all indicates that there will be a significant reduction in biodiversity – mainly in rare species – because their low numbers makes them more prone to extinction.”

Humans depend on the natural world for survival: biodiversity – plants, fungi, mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles and so on – provides all human nourishment, most of the medicines, fuels, fabrics and textiles that warm and shelter 7.7bn people, and at the same time maintains supplies of water, air, crop pollinators and so on.

But new research in the journal Plants, People, Planet confirms once again that many of the wild ancestors and cousins of the crops that nourish billions could be at risk.

And these wild relatives – which have survived climate shifts over millions of years – represent a vital resource for plant breeders anxious to cope with rapid global heating.

Unpreserved

The latest study confirms that 65% of wild pumpkins and more than 95% of wild chilli peppers are not formally preserved in any gene banks protected by conservation scientists.

“The wild relatives of crops are one of the key tools used to breed crops adapted to hotter, colder, drier, wetter, saltier and other difficult conditions,” said Colin Khoury of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture.

“But they are impacted by habitat destruction, over-harvesting, climate change, pollution, invasive species and more. Some of them are sure to disappear from their natural habitats without urgent action.”

Dr Khoury and his colleagues have prepared a series of detailed maps of the range and distribution of the wild relatives of a range of important food species: the aim is to focus on the most effective kinds of protection for what, literally, could become tomorrow’s lunch in a world of rapid change.

“If they disappear, they are gone,” said Dr Khoury. “Extinction is forever, which is a loss not only in terms of their evolution and persistence on the planet, but also a loss to the future of our food.” – Climate News Network

More than a third of the world’s plants are so rare they face extinction. In a warmer world, that would leave supplies of food at risk.

LONDON, 17 December, 2019 – Botanists have made a new census of terrestrial plants – only to find that with nearly 40% of them rare, or extremely rare, this may put food at risk.

And a second team of researchers, in a separate study, has established that some of these rare or vanishing species could include the wild relatives of some of the planet’s most popular vegetables.

The two studies matter. The first underlines yet another reason for new and determined conservation strategies to preserve the extraordinary natural variety and richness of life – the shorthand word that scientists use is biodiversity – already under pressure from the explosion in human numbers, the destruction of natural habitats and the looming catastrophe of climate change driven by rapidly rising global temperatures.

And the second study is simply a matter of the next lunch or dinner: many rare plants are survivors with the resources to adapt to change. In a fast-changing world, crop breeders may need to go back to the wild relatives to look for the genes that will keep the commercial carrots, courgettes, pumpkins and chilli peppers on the grocery shelves.

US scientists and international colleagues report in the journal Science Advances that they worked for 10 years and compiled 20 million observational records to establish a simple plant census: the forests, grasslands, scrublands, tundra and swamps of the wild world are home to about 435,000 unique plant species.

“The wild relatives of crops are one of the key tools used to breed crops adapted to difficult conditions. Some of them are sure to disappear from their natural habitats without urgent action”

And of this huge number, a surprising 36.5% are “exceedingly rare.” By this, researchers mean that these species have been observed and recorded no more than five times in the last 300 years of systematic botanical research.

“According to ecological and evolutionary theory, we’d expect many species to be rare, but the actual observed number we found was pretty startling,” said Brian Enquist of the University of Arizona, who led the consortium. “There are many more rare species than we expected.”

The rare species were most likely to be clustered in what ecologists call hotspots: the northern Andes in South America, Costa Rica, South Africa, Madagascar and south-east Asia.

What these places have in common is that, over millions of years, they have maintained stable climates, and as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age, these tropical mountains and valleys provided refuge for life’s variety.

But these survivors may not enjoy a stable future, as ever higher levels of greenhouse gases are spilled into the atmosphere from human use of fossil fuels, and global temperatures continue to rise, and as human communities expand into what was once wilderness.

Significant loss ahead

“In many of these regions, there’s increasing human activity such as agriculture, cities and towns, land use and clearing,” said Professor Enquist.

“So that’s not exactly the best of news. If nothing is done, this all indicates that there will be a significant reduction in biodiversity – mainly in rare species – because their low numbers makes them more prone to extinction.”

Humans depend on the natural world for survival: biodiversity – plants, fungi, mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles and so on – provides all human nourishment, most of the medicines, fuels, fabrics and textiles that warm and shelter 7.7bn people, and at the same time maintains supplies of water, air, crop pollinators and so on.

But new research in the journal Plants, People, Planet confirms once again that many of the wild ancestors and cousins of the crops that nourish billions could be at risk.

And these wild relatives – which have survived climate shifts over millions of years – represent a vital resource for plant breeders anxious to cope with rapid global heating.

Unpreserved

The latest study confirms that 65% of wild pumpkins and more than 95% of wild chilli peppers are not formally preserved in any gene banks protected by conservation scientists.

“The wild relatives of crops are one of the key tools used to breed crops adapted to hotter, colder, drier, wetter, saltier and other difficult conditions,” said Colin Khoury of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture.

“But they are impacted by habitat destruction, over-harvesting, climate change, pollution, invasive species and more. Some of them are sure to disappear from their natural habitats without urgent action.”

Dr Khoury and his colleagues have prepared a series of detailed maps of the range and distribution of the wild relatives of a range of important food species: the aim is to focus on the most effective kinds of protection for what, literally, could become tomorrow’s lunch in a world of rapid change.

“If they disappear, they are gone,” said Dr Khoury. “Extinction is forever, which is a loss not only in terms of their evolution and persistence on the planet, but also a loss to the future of our food.” – Climate News Network

New water for old as glaciers vanish

Voids left as glaciers vanish could be used to store spring snowmelt and rainfall to save the valleys below from summer droughts.

LONDON, 4 December, 2019 – Building dams in high mountains to store water as glaciers vanish could produce much-needed hydropower as well as saving people in the valleys below from summer droughts.

Following an earlier study of their own crisis of retreating glaciers in the Alps, Swiss glaciologists have carried out a worldwide study of 185,000 retreating rivers of ice to assess whether the empty valleys they leave behind could usefully be turned into holding dams.

The issue is urgent, because even with an average climate change scenario about three-quarters of the storage potential of these valleys could become ice-free by 2050 – and all of them by the end of the century.

The retreating ice – apart from spelling the end for some magnificent natural monuments – will dramatically affect the water cycle, leaving large river systems with seriously low flows, and some perhaps drying up altogether in the summer. This would have serious consequences for hydro-electricity production, agriculture and even drinking water for cities downstream.

Although water shortage is a potential problem in many high mountain regions, it is already affecting cities like Peru’s capital, Lima, which lies below the Andes. It also has the potential to cause serious problems in India, Pakistan and China, all of them reliant on summer run-off from the Himalayas.

“This theoretical total potential corresponds to about one third of current hydropower production worldwide. But, in reality, only part of it would be realisable”

The idea of the dams would be to capture the water from winter rainfall and spring snowmelt and retain it for gradual release during the summer – so, at least partly, replicating the current summer glacier melt.

ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research report, in a study published in the journal Nature, that the scheme could be viable in many countries.

The team calculated that theoretically the storage potential of these glacier valleys was 875 cubic kilometres of water, providing enormous hydropower potential.

Daniel Farinotti, professor of glaciology at ETH Zurich, who led the team, said: “This theoretical total potential corresponds to about one third of current hydropower production worldwide. But in reality, only part of it would be realisable.”

Since it was neither realistic nor desirable to build a dam in each of the thousands of the valleys vacated by glaciers, the researchers carried out a suitability assessment for all sites.

Significant addition

They identified around 40% of the theoretical total as “potentially” suitable, equalling a storage volume of 355 cubic km and a hydropower potential of 533 TWh per year. The latter corresponds to around 13% of current global hydropower production, or nine times Switzerland’s annual electricity demand.

“Even this potentially suitable storage volume would be sufficient to store about half of the annual runoff from the studied glacierised basins,” Professor Farinotti said.

The results show that basins which have lost their glaciers could contribute significantly to energy supply and water storage in a number of countries, particularly in the high mountain countries of Asia.

Among those with the largest potentials are Tajikistan, where the calculated hydropower potential could account for up to 80% of current electricity consumption, Chile (40%) and Pakistan (35%).

In Canada, Iceland, Bolivia and Norway, the potential equals 10–25% of their current electricity consumption. For Switzerland, the study shows a potential of 10%. – Climate News Network

Voids left as glaciers vanish could be used to store spring snowmelt and rainfall to save the valleys below from summer droughts.

LONDON, 4 December, 2019 – Building dams in high mountains to store water as glaciers vanish could produce much-needed hydropower as well as saving people in the valleys below from summer droughts.

Following an earlier study of their own crisis of retreating glaciers in the Alps, Swiss glaciologists have carried out a worldwide study of 185,000 retreating rivers of ice to assess whether the empty valleys they leave behind could usefully be turned into holding dams.

The issue is urgent, because even with an average climate change scenario about three-quarters of the storage potential of these valleys could become ice-free by 2050 – and all of them by the end of the century.

The retreating ice – apart from spelling the end for some magnificent natural monuments – will dramatically affect the water cycle, leaving large river systems with seriously low flows, and some perhaps drying up altogether in the summer. This would have serious consequences for hydro-electricity production, agriculture and even drinking water for cities downstream.

Although water shortage is a potential problem in many high mountain regions, it is already affecting cities like Peru’s capital, Lima, which lies below the Andes. It also has the potential to cause serious problems in India, Pakistan and China, all of them reliant on summer run-off from the Himalayas.

“This theoretical total potential corresponds to about one third of current hydropower production worldwide. But, in reality, only part of it would be realisable”

The idea of the dams would be to capture the water from winter rainfall and spring snowmelt and retain it for gradual release during the summer – so, at least partly, replicating the current summer glacier melt.

ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research report, in a study published in the journal Nature, that the scheme could be viable in many countries.

The team calculated that theoretically the storage potential of these glacier valleys was 875 cubic kilometres of water, providing enormous hydropower potential.

Daniel Farinotti, professor of glaciology at ETH Zurich, who led the team, said: “This theoretical total potential corresponds to about one third of current hydropower production worldwide. But in reality, only part of it would be realisable.”

Since it was neither realistic nor desirable to build a dam in each of the thousands of the valleys vacated by glaciers, the researchers carried out a suitability assessment for all sites.

Significant addition

They identified around 40% of the theoretical total as “potentially” suitable, equalling a storage volume of 355 cubic km and a hydropower potential of 533 TWh per year. The latter corresponds to around 13% of current global hydropower production, or nine times Switzerland’s annual electricity demand.

“Even this potentially suitable storage volume would be sufficient to store about half of the annual runoff from the studied glacierised basins,” Professor Farinotti said.

The results show that basins which have lost their glaciers could contribute significantly to energy supply and water storage in a number of countries, particularly in the high mountain countries of Asia.

Among those with the largest potentials are Tajikistan, where the calculated hydropower potential could account for up to 80% of current electricity consumption, Chile (40%) and Pakistan (35%).

In Canada, Iceland, Bolivia and Norway, the potential equals 10–25% of their current electricity consumption. For Switzerland, the study shows a potential of 10%. – Climate News Network

Conservation pays its way handsomely

Money does grow on trees. The conservation of a native forest is natural capital, its cash value often reaching trillions of dollars.

LONDON, 2 December, 2019 – More than 400 scientists in Brazil have once again established that conservation pays: landscapes and people are richer for the native vegetation preserved on rural properties.

They calculate that 270 million hectares (667m acres) of natural forest, scrub, marsh and grassland contained in Brazil’s legal reserves are worth US$1.5 trillion (£1.7tn) a year to the nation.

Natural wilderness pays its way by providing a steady supply of natural crop pollinators and pest controls, by seamlessly managing rainfall and water run-off, and by maintaining soil quality, the researchers argue in a new study in the journal Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation.

“The paper is meant to show that preserving native vegetation isn’t an obstacle to social and economic development but part of the solution. It’s one of the drivers of sustainable development in Brazil and diverges from what was done in Europe 500 years ago, when the level of environmental awareness was different”, said Jean Paul Metzger, an ecologist at the University of São Paulo, who leads the signatories.

“Brazil conserves a great deal, protecting over 60% of its vegetation cover, and has strict legislation. It’s ranked 30th by the World Bank, behind Sweden and Finland, which protect approximately 70%. However, we must call attention to the fact that conservation isn’t bad,” said Professor Metzger.

Protection maintained

Brazilian law requires rural landowners to leave forest cover untouched on a percentage of their property: in the Amazon region as much as 80%; in other regions as little as 20%. But these protected areas shelter a third of the nation’s natural vegetation.

A bill that proposed to weaken or eliminate the Legal Reserve requirement went before the Brazilian Senate in 2019. Had it passed, it could have led to the loss altogether of 270 million hectares of native vegetation.

The bill has since been withdrawn, but a small army of scientists – including 371 researchers in 79 Brazilian laboratories, universities and institutions – have responded with a study that attempts to set a cash value to simply maintaining the natural capital of the wilderness.

Brazil is home to one of the world’s great tropical rainforests, and to one of the world’s richest centres of biodiversity. The global climate crisis is already taking its toll of the forest canopy in the form of drought and fire. But under new national leadership there have been fears that even more forest could be at risk.

“Preserving native vegetation isn’t an obstacle to social and economic development but part of the solution. It’s one of the drivers of sustainable development in Brazil”

The cash-value case for conservation has been made, and made repeatedly. Studies have confirmed that agribusiness monocultures – vast tracts devoted entirely to one crop and only one crop – are not sustainable: animal pollinators can make the best of the flowering season but then have no alternative sources of food for the rest of the year.

Other researchers have separately established that the loss of natural forest can be far more costly and economically damaging than anybody had expected; and that, conversely, conserved and undisturbed wilderness actually delivers wealth on a sustained basis for national and regional economies. But farmers concerned with immediate profits might not be so conscious of the long-term rewards of conservation.

“It’s an important paper because it presents sound information that can be used to refute the arguments of those who want to change the Brazilian Forest Code and do away with the legal reserve requirement”, said Carlos Joly of the Sao Paulo Research Foundation, and one of the signatories.

And his colleague Paulo Artaxo said: “Farmers sometimes take a short-term view that focuses on three or four years of personal profit, but the nation is left with enormous losses. This mindset should go. The paper makes that very clear.” – Climate News Network

Money does grow on trees. The conservation of a native forest is natural capital, its cash value often reaching trillions of dollars.

LONDON, 2 December, 2019 – More than 400 scientists in Brazil have once again established that conservation pays: landscapes and people are richer for the native vegetation preserved on rural properties.

They calculate that 270 million hectares (667m acres) of natural forest, scrub, marsh and grassland contained in Brazil’s legal reserves are worth US$1.5 trillion (£1.7tn) a year to the nation.

Natural wilderness pays its way by providing a steady supply of natural crop pollinators and pest controls, by seamlessly managing rainfall and water run-off, and by maintaining soil quality, the researchers argue in a new study in the journal Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation.

“The paper is meant to show that preserving native vegetation isn’t an obstacle to social and economic development but part of the solution. It’s one of the drivers of sustainable development in Brazil and diverges from what was done in Europe 500 years ago, when the level of environmental awareness was different”, said Jean Paul Metzger, an ecologist at the University of São Paulo, who leads the signatories.

“Brazil conserves a great deal, protecting over 60% of its vegetation cover, and has strict legislation. It’s ranked 30th by the World Bank, behind Sweden and Finland, which protect approximately 70%. However, we must call attention to the fact that conservation isn’t bad,” said Professor Metzger.

Protection maintained

Brazilian law requires rural landowners to leave forest cover untouched on a percentage of their property: in the Amazon region as much as 80%; in other regions as little as 20%. But these protected areas shelter a third of the nation’s natural vegetation.

A bill that proposed to weaken or eliminate the Legal Reserve requirement went before the Brazilian Senate in 2019. Had it passed, it could have led to the loss altogether of 270 million hectares of native vegetation.

The bill has since been withdrawn, but a small army of scientists – including 371 researchers in 79 Brazilian laboratories, universities and institutions – have responded with a study that attempts to set a cash value to simply maintaining the natural capital of the wilderness.

Brazil is home to one of the world’s great tropical rainforests, and to one of the world’s richest centres of biodiversity. The global climate crisis is already taking its toll of the forest canopy in the form of drought and fire. But under new national leadership there have been fears that even more forest could be at risk.

“Preserving native vegetation isn’t an obstacle to social and economic development but part of the solution. It’s one of the drivers of sustainable development in Brazil”

The cash-value case for conservation has been made, and made repeatedly. Studies have confirmed that agribusiness monocultures – vast tracts devoted entirely to one crop and only one crop – are not sustainable: animal pollinators can make the best of the flowering season but then have no alternative sources of food for the rest of the year.

Other researchers have separately established that the loss of natural forest can be far more costly and economically damaging than anybody had expected; and that, conversely, conserved and undisturbed wilderness actually delivers wealth on a sustained basis for national and regional economies. But farmers concerned with immediate profits might not be so conscious of the long-term rewards of conservation.

“It’s an important paper because it presents sound information that can be used to refute the arguments of those who want to change the Brazilian Forest Code and do away with the legal reserve requirement”, said Carlos Joly of the Sao Paulo Research Foundation, and one of the signatories.

And his colleague Paulo Artaxo said: “Farmers sometimes take a short-term view that focuses on three or four years of personal profit, but the nation is left with enormous losses. This mindset should go. The paper makes that very clear.” – Climate News Network

Forest damage costs far more than thought

Tropical forest damage is bad enough. New thinking suggests it could prove far more ruinous in terms of the climate crisis.

LONDON, 19 November, 2019 – We know already that human activities are causing devastating forest damage. Now a new study shows the loss we face could be much worse than we think.

Here, it says, is how to multiply your country’s contribution to solving the carbon problem sixfold. It’s simple. Do not do anything to your intact tropical forest. Don’t put roads around it, hunt in it, or select prize lumps of timber from it; don’t quarry, mine or plant oil palms in it. Just protect it.

Researchers have calculated that – compared with clearing it – the benefits of benign neglect are 626% higher than all previous accounting. And that’s just the calculation for the first 13 years of this century. Instead of an estimated 340 million tonnes of carbon spilled into the atmosphere, the figure from clearing forests now becomes 2.12 billion tonnes.

And a second team of scientists has identified a way to keep those conservation promises and carefully protect those forests and other habitats already declared protected areas. That too is simple: be a rich country in the northern hemisphere. That way, you might be able to count on the resources to back up the good intentions.

The role of the world’s forests in what climate scientists like to call the carbon budget – the annual traffic of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from all sources and back again into green plants, rocks and oceans – is a complicated one, and the play between human intrusion and the natural habitats makes it even more of a headache.

“Losing Earth’s remaining wilderness is devastating by itself, but climate impacts 626% greater than expected is terrifying”

Broadly, of the world’s tropical rainforests, only around 20% can be considered now intact. This by 2013 was an area of around 5.49 million square kilometres – an area much bigger than the European Union, yet smaller than Australia – but this green space concentrates 40% of all the carbon found in the trunks, branches and leaves of the world’s surviving natural tropical foliage, and gulps down carbon from the atmosphere at the rate of a billion tonnes a year.

So tropical forests play a vital role in worldwide national pledges, made in Paris in 2015, to contain global heating to “well below” a global average increase of 2°C by the end of the century. The planet has already warmed by 1°C in the last century, thanks to profligate human use of fossil fuels and the destruction of the planet’s natural forests.

And between 2000 and 2013, human growth and demand has reduced the area of intact forests by more than 7%. What the latest research has done is try to make a realistic estimate of the enduring cost to the planet.

“Usually, only ‘pulse’ emissions are considered – these are emissions released the instant intact forest is destroyed,” said Sean Maxwell of the University of Queensland in Australia.

“Our analysis considers all impacts, such as the effects of selective logging, foregone carbon sequestration, expanding effects on the edges of forests, and species extinction.

Better funding needed

“We were shocked to see that when considering all of the available factors, the net carbon impact was more than six times worse for the climate.”

Forest destruction has accelerated this century. Dr Maxwell and his co-authors report in the journal Science Advances that they considered all the carbon that was not sequestered by forest degradation between 2000 and 2013, along with the impacts of road clearance, mining, selective logging and overhunting of the animals that naturally disperse forest seeds, to arrive at their new estimate of the price in carbon emissions to be paid for destruction.

“Losing Earth’s remaining wilderness is devastating by itself, but climate impacts 626% greater than expected is terrifying,” said James Watson, of the University of Queensland, and a co-author.

“Humanity needs to better fund the conservation of intact forests, especially now we’ve shown their larger than realised role in stabilising the climate.”

And in the same week, British scientists confirmed that – around the globe – protected areas are not reducing human pressure on the natural wilderness. They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they looked at satellite evidence, together with census and crop data, to see what humans had so far done to 12,315 protected areas between 1995 and 2010.

Threat of protection

In every global region, there had been evidence of human encroachment. Overall, northern hemisphere nations and Australia had been more effective at keeping down human pressure in the areas set aside for conservation, compared to advances into unprotected areas.

But in those parts of the world where biodiversity is richest – South America, Southeast Asia and Africa south of the Sahara – human damage was significantly higher in protected grasslands, forests, mangrove swamps and other habitats than it was in unprotected areas. In parts of South America, clearance for agriculture in protected regions was 10% higher than in unprotected zones.

“Our study shows that agriculture is the driving force behind threats to protected areas, particularly in the tropics,” said Jonas Geldmann of the University of Cambridge, who led the study.

“Our data does not reveal the causes, but we suspect factors that play a major role include rapid population growth, lack of funding, and higher levels of corruption. Additionally, most unprotected land suitable for agriculture is already farmed,” he said.

“We think that what we are seeing are the effects of establishing protected areas on paper, but not following through with the right funding, management and community engagement that is needed.” – Climate News Network

Tropical forest damage is bad enough. New thinking suggests it could prove far more ruinous in terms of the climate crisis.

LONDON, 19 November, 2019 – We know already that human activities are causing devastating forest damage. Now a new study shows the loss we face could be much worse than we think.

Here, it says, is how to multiply your country’s contribution to solving the carbon problem sixfold. It’s simple. Do not do anything to your intact tropical forest. Don’t put roads around it, hunt in it, or select prize lumps of timber from it; don’t quarry, mine or plant oil palms in it. Just protect it.

Researchers have calculated that – compared with clearing it – the benefits of benign neglect are 626% higher than all previous accounting. And that’s just the calculation for the first 13 years of this century. Instead of an estimated 340 million tonnes of carbon spilled into the atmosphere, the figure from clearing forests now becomes 2.12 billion tonnes.

And a second team of scientists has identified a way to keep those conservation promises and carefully protect those forests and other habitats already declared protected areas. That too is simple: be a rich country in the northern hemisphere. That way, you might be able to count on the resources to back up the good intentions.

The role of the world’s forests in what climate scientists like to call the carbon budget – the annual traffic of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from all sources and back again into green plants, rocks and oceans – is a complicated one, and the play between human intrusion and the natural habitats makes it even more of a headache.

“Losing Earth’s remaining wilderness is devastating by itself, but climate impacts 626% greater than expected is terrifying”

Broadly, of the world’s tropical rainforests, only around 20% can be considered now intact. This by 2013 was an area of around 5.49 million square kilometres – an area much bigger than the European Union, yet smaller than Australia – but this green space concentrates 40% of all the carbon found in the trunks, branches and leaves of the world’s surviving natural tropical foliage, and gulps down carbon from the atmosphere at the rate of a billion tonnes a year.

So tropical forests play a vital role in worldwide national pledges, made in Paris in 2015, to contain global heating to “well below” a global average increase of 2°C by the end of the century. The planet has already warmed by 1°C in the last century, thanks to profligate human use of fossil fuels and the destruction of the planet’s natural forests.

And between 2000 and 2013, human growth and demand has reduced the area of intact forests by more than 7%. What the latest research has done is try to make a realistic estimate of the enduring cost to the planet.

“Usually, only ‘pulse’ emissions are considered – these are emissions released the instant intact forest is destroyed,” said Sean Maxwell of the University of Queensland in Australia.

“Our analysis considers all impacts, such as the effects of selective logging, foregone carbon sequestration, expanding effects on the edges of forests, and species extinction.

Better funding needed

“We were shocked to see that when considering all of the available factors, the net carbon impact was more than six times worse for the climate.”

Forest destruction has accelerated this century. Dr Maxwell and his co-authors report in the journal Science Advances that they considered all the carbon that was not sequestered by forest degradation between 2000 and 2013, along with the impacts of road clearance, mining, selective logging and overhunting of the animals that naturally disperse forest seeds, to arrive at their new estimate of the price in carbon emissions to be paid for destruction.

“Losing Earth’s remaining wilderness is devastating by itself, but climate impacts 626% greater than expected is terrifying,” said James Watson, of the University of Queensland, and a co-author.

“Humanity needs to better fund the conservation of intact forests, especially now we’ve shown their larger than realised role in stabilising the climate.”

And in the same week, British scientists confirmed that – around the globe – protected areas are not reducing human pressure on the natural wilderness. They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they looked at satellite evidence, together with census and crop data, to see what humans had so far done to 12,315 protected areas between 1995 and 2010.

Threat of protection

In every global region, there had been evidence of human encroachment. Overall, northern hemisphere nations and Australia had been more effective at keeping down human pressure in the areas set aside for conservation, compared to advances into unprotected areas.

But in those parts of the world where biodiversity is richest – South America, Southeast Asia and Africa south of the Sahara – human damage was significantly higher in protected grasslands, forests, mangrove swamps and other habitats than it was in unprotected areas. In parts of South America, clearance for agriculture in protected regions was 10% higher than in unprotected zones.

“Our study shows that agriculture is the driving force behind threats to protected areas, particularly in the tropics,” said Jonas Geldmann of the University of Cambridge, who led the study.

“Our data does not reveal the causes, but we suspect factors that play a major role include rapid population growth, lack of funding, and higher levels of corruption. Additionally, most unprotected land suitable for agriculture is already farmed,” he said.

“We think that what we are seeing are the effects of establishing protected areas on paper, but not following through with the right funding, management and community engagement that is needed.” – Climate News Network

Cuba’s urban farming shows way to avoid hunger

Urban farming, Cuban-style, is being hailed as an example of how to feed ourselves when climate change threatens serious food shortages.

LONDON, 11 November, 2019 − When countries run short of food, they need to find solutions fast, and one answer can be urban farming.

That was the remedy Cuba seized with both hands 30 years ago when it was confronted with the dilemma of an end to its vital food imports. And what worked then for Cuba could have lessons today for the wider world, as it faces growing hunger in the face of the climate crisis.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, most of Cuba’s food supplies went with it. To stave off severe malnutrition the people of the capital, Havana, found an imaginative answer: urban gardening. That’s now seen as a possible blueprint for the survival of city populations in a warming world.

The Rapid Transition Alliance has published a longer account of Cuba’s very fast move towards self-sufficiency as part of its series Stories of Change, which describes cases of large-scale, rapid transformation that can seem difficult to achieve but which have often worked before.

The problem of hunger for the Cubans arose because during the Cold War they had stopped producing food of their own and turned over most of their farmland to sugarcane plantations to supply the Soviet Union. In return for these mountains of sugar Moscow provided Cuba with food, chemical fertilisers and fuel oil for its cars and tractors.

US sanctions

The Soviet collapse brought the breakdown of this trade, and food rationing for city dwellers. And Cuba lost its main food supply while it was still coping with strict US sanctions. Reverting to conventional farming would have taken time and was in any case difficult because the Soviet fertilisers, fuel and pesticides had also dried up.

So the highly-educated urban citizens, faced with rationing which reduced the average Cuban’s daily calorie intake from 2,600 in 1986 to 1,000-1,500 in 1993, organised themselves to grow their own food in improvised urban allotments.

At first, struggling with little know-how and without fertilisers, their yields were low, but by producing compost and other organic growing mediums, plus introducing drip-fed irrigation, they began to see improvements.

Short of chemicals, the gardeners resorted to biological controls like marigolds (where opinions today are mixed)  to deter harmful insects.

By 1995 Havana alone had 25,000 allotments tended by families and urban cooperatives. The government, realising the potential benefits, encouraged the movement.

“Cuba’s experience suggests that urban farming can be one way of staving off potential famine”

Soil quality was improved with a mixture of crop residues, household wastes and animal manure to create more compost and soil conditioners. The extra fresh vegetables and fruit this provided quickly improved urban dwellers’ calorie intake and saved many from malnutrition.

In the Cuban climate, with irrigation changes and soils undergoing constant improvement from added organic matter, the allotments could produce vegetables all year round. Lettuce, chard, radish, beans, cucumber, tomatoes, spinach and peppers were grown and traded.

There is evidence as well that the extra exercise which these urban gardeners got from tending their allotments, plus the time they spent outdoors in the open air, benefited their health.

Eventually, realising that self-sufficiency was the only way to feed the population, the government banned sugarcane growing altogether. Lacking fertiliser, many former plantations were turned over to organic agriculture. The shortage of oil for tractors meant oxen were used for ploughing.

Partial solution

Cuba’s experience of urban agriculture inspired many environmentalists to believe that this is at least part of the solution to the food shortages threatened by climate change. By 2008 food gardens, despite their small scale, made up 8% of the land in Havana, and 3.4% of all urban land in Cuba, producing 90% of all the fruit and vegetables consumed.

As a result the calorie intake of the average Cuban quickly rose to match that of Europeans, relying on a diet composed mainly of rice, beans, potatoes and other vegetables – a low-fat diet making obesity rare.

Because of the climate, though, wheat does not grow well in Cuba, and the island still has to import large quantities of grain for bread. Meat is in short supply and also has to be mainly imported.

Despite this, Cuba’s experience since the Cold War ended in the 1990s shows that large quantities of fresh food can be grown in cities and that urban agriculture is sustainable over decades.

For other countries vulnerable to sudden loss of food supplies, Cuba’s experience suggests that urban farming can be one way of staving off potential famine when imports are restricted, expensive or simply unobtainable. − Climate News Network

* * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Urban farming, Cuban-style, is being hailed as an example of how to feed ourselves when climate change threatens serious food shortages.

LONDON, 11 November, 2019 − When countries run short of food, they need to find solutions fast, and one answer can be urban farming.

That was the remedy Cuba seized with both hands 30 years ago when it was confronted with the dilemma of an end to its vital food imports. And what worked then for Cuba could have lessons today for the wider world, as it faces growing hunger in the face of the climate crisis.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, most of Cuba’s food supplies went with it. To stave off severe malnutrition the people of the capital, Havana, found an imaginative answer: urban gardening. That’s now seen as a possible blueprint for the survival of city populations in a warming world.

The Rapid Transition Alliance has published a longer account of Cuba’s very fast move towards self-sufficiency as part of its series Stories of Change, which describes cases of large-scale, rapid transformation that can seem difficult to achieve but which have often worked before.

The problem of hunger for the Cubans arose because during the Cold War they had stopped producing food of their own and turned over most of their farmland to sugarcane plantations to supply the Soviet Union. In return for these mountains of sugar Moscow provided Cuba with food, chemical fertilisers and fuel oil for its cars and tractors.

US sanctions

The Soviet collapse brought the breakdown of this trade, and food rationing for city dwellers. And Cuba lost its main food supply while it was still coping with strict US sanctions. Reverting to conventional farming would have taken time and was in any case difficult because the Soviet fertilisers, fuel and pesticides had also dried up.

So the highly-educated urban citizens, faced with rationing which reduced the average Cuban’s daily calorie intake from 2,600 in 1986 to 1,000-1,500 in 1993, organised themselves to grow their own food in improvised urban allotments.

At first, struggling with little know-how and without fertilisers, their yields were low, but by producing compost and other organic growing mediums, plus introducing drip-fed irrigation, they began to see improvements.

Short of chemicals, the gardeners resorted to biological controls like marigolds (where opinions today are mixed)  to deter harmful insects.

By 1995 Havana alone had 25,000 allotments tended by families and urban cooperatives. The government, realising the potential benefits, encouraged the movement.

“Cuba’s experience suggests that urban farming can be one way of staving off potential famine”

Soil quality was improved with a mixture of crop residues, household wastes and animal manure to create more compost and soil conditioners. The extra fresh vegetables and fruit this provided quickly improved urban dwellers’ calorie intake and saved many from malnutrition.

In the Cuban climate, with irrigation changes and soils undergoing constant improvement from added organic matter, the allotments could produce vegetables all year round. Lettuce, chard, radish, beans, cucumber, tomatoes, spinach and peppers were grown and traded.

There is evidence as well that the extra exercise which these urban gardeners got from tending their allotments, plus the time they spent outdoors in the open air, benefited their health.

Eventually, realising that self-sufficiency was the only way to feed the population, the government banned sugarcane growing altogether. Lacking fertiliser, many former plantations were turned over to organic agriculture. The shortage of oil for tractors meant oxen were used for ploughing.

Partial solution

Cuba’s experience of urban agriculture inspired many environmentalists to believe that this is at least part of the solution to the food shortages threatened by climate change. By 2008 food gardens, despite their small scale, made up 8% of the land in Havana, and 3.4% of all urban land in Cuba, producing 90% of all the fruit and vegetables consumed.

As a result the calorie intake of the average Cuban quickly rose to match that of Europeans, relying on a diet composed mainly of rice, beans, potatoes and other vegetables – a low-fat diet making obesity rare.

Because of the climate, though, wheat does not grow well in Cuba, and the island still has to import large quantities of grain for bread. Meat is in short supply and also has to be mainly imported.

Despite this, Cuba’s experience since the Cold War ended in the 1990s shows that large quantities of fresh food can be grown in cities and that urban agriculture is sustainable over decades.

For other countries vulnerable to sudden loss of food supplies, Cuba’s experience suggests that urban farming can be one way of staving off potential famine when imports are restricted, expensive or simply unobtainable. − Climate News Network

* * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.