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Friday, December 18, 2009

Ten beloved species threatened by global warming

Justificar a ambos lados
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has released a list of ten species that are likely to be among the hardest hit by climate change, including beloved species such as the leatherback sea turtle, the koala, the emperor penguin, the clownfish, and the beluga whale. The timing of the list coincides with the negotiations by world leaders at the UN Climate Change Conference to come up with an international agreement to combat climate change.

"Humans are not the only ones whose fate is at stake here in Copenhagen – some of our favourite species are also taking the fall for our CO2 emissions," report co-author Wendy Foden said in a press release. "This report should act as a wake-up call to governments to make real commitments to cut CO2 emissions if we are to avoid a drastically changed natural world. We simply don’t have the time for drawn-out political wrangling. We need strong commitments and we need them now."

The report also highlights the plight of the staghorn coral, salmon, ringed seal, arctic fox, and the quiver tree. The report doesn't include the polar bear since most people are already aware of the threat climate change poses to the world's largest bear.

The ringed-seal. Photo by: Kit M. Kovacs and Christian Lydersen.
Much like the polar bear, the ringed seal is threatened by ice melt in the Arctic. Ringed seals require ice for breeding and rearing young. In the spring they need at least six weeks of stable ice in the spring to milk their newborn cubs.

Below the ice, beluga whales are seen as indirectly threatened by warmer seas. A warmer Arctic is likely to bring more humans and more ships which will negatively impact the beluga whale through noise, pollution, and collisions with ships. Global warming could also bring the beluga whale in greater contact with its natural hunter, the killer whale. Beluga whales are currently listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List.

Also in the Arctic, climate change is putting pressure on Arctic fox. With warming temperatures the fox's tundra habitat is being invaded by new plants, eventually the tundra could be replaced by boreal forests, putting the Arctic fox in direct competition with its larger cousin, the red fox, with drastic consequence, since there is evidence of the red fox killing both young and adult Arctic foxes.

On the other end of the world, in the frigid Antarctic, emperor penguins are threatened by the loss of stable sea ice platforms for young chicks and moulting adults. A rise in 2 degrees Celsius would likely impact 40 percent of emperor penguin's total population. Conservationists also fear that the penguin's food source, Antarctic krill, will be diminished by warmer temperatures.

The clownfish. Photo courtesy of the IUCN.
North of the Antarctic, on the endemic-rich continent of Australia, koalas are also suffering from the heat. Rising CO2 levels have caused Eucalyptus leaves, the koala's only food, to decline in nutrients. Increased incidences of bushfires and droughts are also likely to hurt koala populations.

Ocean species are hardly immune from climate change. Corals, such as staghorn corals, are particularly susceptible. Rising temperatures are known to cause a phenomenon of coral bleaching, which can lead to increased propensity incidence of disease and even mass-mortality in coral reefs. In addition, ocean acidification, caused by higher concentrations of CO2 in the ocean, can weaken coral skeletons.

Bright orange with white-stripes, the ocean's famous clownfish are threatened by the widespread coral reef decline. Dependent on the sea-anemones which are found in biodiversity-rich coral reefs, clownfish would likely not survive in a world without anemones. In addition, ocean acidification has been shown to upset clownfish's ability to navigate, especially among juveniles.

The Arctic fox. Photo by: Örvar Atli Þorgeirsson.
The world's largest marine turtle is also threatened by climate change. Since the leatherback marine turtle's sex is determined by the temperature of the sand in which their mothers' lay the eggs, warmer temperatures are likely to increase the number of male leatherback turtles, upsetting the natural balance. Rising sea levels may also wash away important—and increasingly rare—nesting beach for the turtle. The leatherback is already listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List.

Salmon's ability to move from the ocean to freshwater rivers en masse has made them sensitive to even small environmental changes, let alone massive habitat upheaval from global warming. Warmer temperatures in the ocean and in freshwater ecosystems may upset the important timing of the salmon's migration, as well, warm freshwater can act as a barrier to migrating salmon, forcing them to migrate further and expend more energy. Less snow in the winter may also decrease the flow of important salmon rivers.

Even desert species are feeling the heat. Although the quiver tree inhabits some of the Africa's driest and hottest habitats, it is threatened by increasing drought. This large, slow-growing tree is undergoing sever drought-stress in parts of its range. Conservationists fear that the trees in the drought zones will not be able to migrate to other ranges, leaving remaining populations genetically deficient.

"Ordinary people are not powerless to stop these tragic losses," Simon Stuart, Chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission, said in a press release. "They can cut down on their own CO2 emissions and voice their support for strong action by their Governments to change the dire climate prognosis we are currently facing."

Beluga whale. Photo by: Bill Liao.

Taken from: www.mongabay.com

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Changing drivers of deforestation provide new opportunities for conservation

Tropical deforestation claimed roughly 13 million hectares of forest per year during the first half of this decade, about the same rate of loss as the 1990s. But while the overall numbers have remained relatively constant, they mask a transition of great significance: a shift from poverty-driven to industry-driven deforestation and geographic consolidation of where deforestation occurs. These changes have important implications for efforts to protect the world's remaining tropical forests in that environmental lobby groups now have identifiable targets that may be more responsive to pressure on environmental concerns than tens of millions of impoverished rural farmers. In other words, activists have more leverage than ever to impact corporate behavior as it relates to deforestation.

According to research by Tom Rudel of Rutgers University, from the 1960s through the 1980s, a large proportion of deforestation was the result of government policies promoting rural development, including agricultural loans and road construction. These initiatives, particularly in Brazil and Indonesia, drove large-scale deforestation by small landholders. Today, economic stability, an increasingly global financial market, and a worldwide commodity boom are conspiring to create a ripe environment for development by the private sector. While centrally planned development projects and poverty alleviation programs were once the engines of road construction and colonization schemes, the political impetus today for large infrastructure projects comes from industry interests seeking to facilitate access to international markets. Surging demand for grain, driven by the thirst for biofuels and rising standards of living in developing countries, are fueling the trend.

Since the 1990s deforestation has become increasingly concentrated. Recently published research by Matt Hansen of South Dakota State University suggests an even more dramatic shift in recent years. His work, which is based off of high resolution satellite imagery, shows that Brazil and Indonesia accounted for 61 percent of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2005, rather than the 43 percent reported by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Although many are dismayed by what they see as greater capacity to destroy forests, the recent shift from poverty-driven deforestation to industry-driven deforestation may offer new opportunities for rainforest conservation in that it is easier for pressure groups to target corporations and enterprises rather than tens of millions of poor farmers who are simply trying to put food on the table for their families.

A good example can be seen in Greenpeace's Slaughtering the Amazon report released this past June. The report linked some of the world's most prominent brands — Nike, Toyota, Prada, and others — to destruction of the Amazon rainforest. The fallout from the report was immediate. Some of the world's largest beef and leather buyers suspended contracts with suppliers associated with Amazon forest clearing. The Brazilian government announced a crackdown and fines, raided the offices of powerful cattle companies, and called for a review of loan programs. Government ministers joined the private sector in demanding new chain-of-custody controls for suppliers to ensure that cattle products were not contributing to deforestation. The largest cattle producers and traders soon responded with a moratorium on Amazon deforestation and a promise to implement improved supply-chain tracking mechanisms. The Brazilian cattle industry may now be on the cusp of transitioning from being the world's largest single driver of deforestation to a critical component in helping slow climate change.

To be effective, green NGOs should be careful to avoid "blackwashing" or using the same tactics corporations use to blatantly misrepresent environmental realities. Lying to the public undermines the credibility of activist groups and undermines support for protecting the environment, doing long-term damage to the cause.
But while the shift in Brazil and some other parts of the world would seem to herald a shift towards greater concern over environmental performance among the largest drivers of deforestation, difficulties remain. Some markets — notably India and China but even in the U.S. and Europe in some cases — there is less consumer preference for environmentally-friendly goods. Further, "greenwashing," or the misrepresentation of the environmental qualities of a product, also presents challenges for efforts to meaningfully reduce industry's impact on the planet. Finally, industrial activities can often create a strong economic impetus for infrastructure development that further promotes forest clearing.

However an emerging emphasis on the values that ecosystems afford humanity may take some pressure off forests by creating opportunities for corporations to profit from protecting — rather than destroying — wildlands. For example, the proposed Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) mechanism could provide incentives for traditional forest destroyers to embrace forests as valuable assets. The net result could be enterprise-driven preservation of wild lands. Of course, the key to the success of this effort is ensuring that rural populations and forest dwellers share in the proceeds. Without their partnership, deforestation is not going to disappear.

For a more nuanced discussion of this concept, take a look at New strategies for conserving tropical forests, a paper I wrote with Dr. William Laurance last year.

Taken from:

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Friday, December 4, 2009


As the first seven sections of this site have described, tropical rainforests are incredibly rich ecosystems that play a fundamental role in the basic functioning of the planet. Rainforests are home to probably 50 percent of the world's species, making them an extensive library of biological and genetic resources. In addition, rainforests help maintain the climate by regulating atmospheric gases and stabilizing rainfall, protect against desertification, and provide numerous other ecological functions.

However, these precious systems are among the most threatened on the planet. Although the precise area is debated, each day at least 80,000 acres (32,300 ha) of forest disappear from Earth. At least another 80,000 acres (32,300 ha) of forest are degraded. Along with them, the planet loses as many as several hundred species to extinction, the vast majority of which have never been documented by science. As these forests fall, more carbon is added to the atmosphere, climactic conditions are further altered, and more topsoil is lost to erosion.

Despite increased awareness of the importance of these forests, deforestation rates have not slowed. Analysis of figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) shows that tropical deforestation rates increased 8.5 percent from 2000-2005 when compared with the 1990s, while loss of primary forests may have expanded by 25 percent over the same period. Nigeria and Vietnam's rate of primary forest loss has doubled since the 1990s, while Peru's rate has tripled.

Overall, FAO estimates that 10.4 million hectares of tropical forest were permanently destroyed each year in the period from 2000 to 2005, an increase since the 1990-2000 period, when around 10.16 million hectares of forest were lost. Among primary forests, annual deforestation rose to 6.26 million hectares from 5.41 million hectares in the same period. On a broader scale, FAO data shows that primary forests are being replaced by less biodiverse plantations and secondary forests. Due to a significant increase in plantation forests, forest cover has generally been expanding in North America, Europe, and China while diminishing in the tropics. Industrial logging, conversion for agriculture (commercial and subsistence), and forest fires—often purposely set by people—are responsible for the bulk of global deforestation today.

Taken from:

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Deforestation emissions should be shared between producer and consumer.

Under the Kyoto Protocol the nation that produces carbon emission takes responsibility for them, but what about when the country is producing carbon-intensive goods for consumer demand beyond its borders? For example while China is now the world's highest carbon emitter, 50 percent of its growth over the last year was due to producing goods for wealthy countries like the EU and the United States which have, in a sense, outsourced their manufacturing emissions to China. A new study in Environmental Research Letters presents a possible model for making certain that both producer and consumer share responsibility for emissions in an area so far neglected by studies of this kind: deforestation and land-use change.

It's not just China that is seeing emissions rise due to demand from other nations: deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil accounts for 75 percent of that nation's emissions, but most of the products produced on deforested land, such as soy and beef, are exported to other countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Pastureland and transition forest in Mato Grosso, Brazil (April 2009). Since 2003 Brazil has set aside 523,592 square kilometers of protected areas, accounting for 74 percent of the total land area protected worldwide during that period. Photo by Rhett Butler.
"Brazil has some of the highest emissions from deforestation in the world and its exports of both soybeans and beef have grown dramatically in the last two decades," David Zaks, lead author and graduate student at the Center for Sustainability and Global Environment (SAGE) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison told Mongabay.com.

Brazil's high annual deforestation rates are currently supporting a massive agricultural industry that exports most of its product abroad: Brazil is the world's largest exporter of both beef and soybeans. Between 1990 and 2006, exports of beef increased by 500 percent. The soy boom, which began in the 1990s, did not cause as much direct deforestation, but pushed cattle farmers and small-land holders deeper into the forest.

From 1990-2006, EU countries and Asian countries were the primary importers of Brazil's soy, while importers of Brazil's beef came from around the world, including Eastern Europe, the EU, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and other South American nations. Yet so far none of these nations have had to pay a cent for the environmental damage, including high carbon emissions, caused by the deforestation of the Amazon.

Zaks and his team have proposed a model to change this. According to their study when a product is exported half of the emissions should be the responsibility of the producing country and half of the importing country and its consumers.

"There is no 'right way' to proportion emissions between consumer and producer, but we did not think that assigning the burden of emissions to either Brazil OR the importing country would be logical," explains Zaks. "If emissions are assigned only to the importing country, there is a reduced incentive to decrease deforestation in the exporting country."

He adds that the study "chose to split them 50/50 as more of an illustrative example than a definitive answer."

The reasons behind sharing responsibility between producer and consumer is not just one of 'fairness', but rather the study argues that a model of shared emission responsibility will provide better incentives for reducing global deforestation. The model would give an economic advantage for countries which are able to produce agricultural goods not dependent on recent deforestation. The agricultural industry's focus would be forced to shift, according to the paper, from deforestation of more land (extensification) to intensifying yields on already available land (intensification). This change would not only benefit the Amazon, but also the forests of Southeast Asia, where currently there is little economic incentive for agriculture crops, such as oil palm, to increase their yields.

"If agricultural commodities could be produced in another location, or use methods that have lower total carbon emissions, then demand would shift to those who could supply products with smaller carbon footprints," Zaks says. "Of course this assumes that the price of carbon is greater than the potential profit of increasing production on newly deforested land. We provide a methodology to 'internalize externalities' in the hope that the full cost of products will eventually be accounted for in the price."

Another part of the study's model would ensure that both consumers and the producing company would take responsibility for the long-term consequences of deforestation.

"If the emissions from deforestation are allocated to just the first year of production then the products that are produced in subsequent years do not have to pay for the carbon embodied in their products, and they are 'free-riding'. If the carbon emissions from deforestation are spread out over a longer time horizon, there is a limited disincentive to stop deforesting," explains Zaks.

Forest clearing in Mato Grosso. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Therefore the study picked a middle-of-the-road timeline—twenty years—and decided that the cost during that period should decline as it moves further away from the initial deforestation.

"The '20 year decline allocation' is a hybrid approach that assigns some of the responsibility of the carbon emissions from deforestation to the few years directly after deforestation at a higher rate than later years. This way, both the problems in the two other approaches are alleviated," he says.

Using the 20 year decline allocation model, the study found that between 1990 and 2006 soybean exports from the Amazon were responsible for 128 TgCO2e (128 million metric tons equivalent of carbon dioxide—roughly the annual emissions from electricity generation in Florida or Pennsylvania) while cattle exports were responsible for 120 TgCO2e. Cattle was responsible for less export emissions, since more cattle was consumed locally. According to the study, the EU—the biggest importer of Brazil's beef—imported a total of 61.8 percent of embodied (or indirect) emissions from 1990-2006 according to the study. The EU also imported 31.2 percent of embodied emissions from soy production in the Amazon. The cost of such percentages is not calculable as there is no set market price yet on carbon.

Of course, a carbon scheme such as this does pose difficult problems. One of these, especially when related to agricultural products, is how would adding a carbon tax on food affect the poor? Already the UN estimates that one billion people are going hungry.

"If this scheme were to be implemented, safety measures would have to be put in place to protect those who are food insecure," says Zaks, but he adds that a carbon tax might eventually help bring down grain prices. "If prices increased on high-carbon items (livestock, grain grown for livestock), demand for those items would decrease, which would subsequently increase the supply of those grains and decrease their price (and increase availability to the poor). Of course, those are untested assumptions and an economic model would need to be used to test that case."

Cattle herd in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Greenhouse gas emissions are, of course, not the only negative environmental impact from deforestation: biodiversity loss, decline of waterways due to a surfeit of nutrients, and local climate shifts such as rainfall decline have all been shown to follow clearcutting of rainforests. Zaks sees potential for adding these environmental impacts into the model at a later point, but more accounting of their impact needs to be done.

Of the ecosystem services provided by rainforests, "at this point, carbon emissions are the best quantified and also are closest to becoming widely monetized. There are some payment schemes that consider 'baskets' of ecosystem services, partly because the responses of other services are hard to measure. There are a lot of great research questions to be asked on how to incentivize reducing the impact of agricultural production on ecosystem services, and this paper just scratches the surface," Zaks says.

The study concludes that the importance of this model is self-evident: "while many mechanisms have been proposed to decrease rates of deforestation in the Amazon, very few of them include the ultimate drivers of deforestation: consumers of agricultural products."

Taken from:

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