Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist

Discovering Global Environmental Interconnections

Archive for the ‘Agriculture/Food’ Category

Unseen World of Water and the Water Crisis

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world water supply

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Mar 22 2013 (IPS)

How much water does it take to turn on a light? It took 10,000 litres to make your jeans. Another three big bathtubs of water was needed for your two-eggs-toast-coffee breakfast this morning.

We are surrounded by an unseen world of water: furniture, houses, cars, roads, buildings – practically everything we use and make needs water.

“There is no way to generate energy without water,” said Zafar Adeel, co-chair of the UN-Water Task Force on Water Security and director of the Institute for Water, Environment and Health in Canada.

Even solar panels need regular washing to perform well. Wind energy might be an exception, Adeel told IPS from a water conference in Beijing being held during World Water Week.

There is growing recognition that peak oil is nowhere near as important as peak water because there is no substitute for water. The growing shortage of water — 1.2 to 1.7 billion people face scarcity — has alarmed many. Water has been identified as an “urgent security issue”, by a group that last year included both former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the InterAction Council, an association of 37 former heads of state and government.

It’s important that “water security” be recognised by the U.N. Security Council as either as a trigger, a potential target, or a contributing factor to insecurity and potential conflict in many parts of the world, said Adeel.

Killer Heat Waves and Floods Linked to Climate Change

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Projected drought and dry regions in 2060-2069

Projected drought and dry regions in 2060-2069

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Feb 27 2013 (IPS) 

Killer heat waves, floods and storms are increasingly caused by climate change, new research reveals.

Scientists in Germany say they have found how greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels are helping to trap the jet stream, resulting in extraordinary weather such as the 2010 Pakistan flood and the 2011 heat wave in the United States.

Human-driven climate change repeatedly disturbs the flow of atmospheric waves around the globe’s Northern hemisphere, said lead author Vladimir Petoukhov of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany.

Giant atmospheric waves called Rossby waves are meanders in the strong, high-altitude winds known as jet streams and have a major influence on weather. These wave movements are caused by the difference in temperatures between the cold air from the Arctic and hot air from the tropics. 

When the waves shift north, they suck warm air from the tropics to Europe, Russia, or the U.S., and when they swing down, they do the same thing with cold air from the Arctic, said Petoukhov.

“During several recent extreme weather events, these planetary waves almost freeze in their tracks for weeks,” he said. “So instead of bringing in cool air after having brought warm air in before, the heat just stays.”

Help Wanted: 27 Planet Earths

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This story was featured on the IPS wire and on the Al Jazeera network in 2011. It shows that national parks, conservation and protected areas do not and cannot halt the decline in biodiversity that is humanity’s life support system. It is hopeless without addressing the root causes: too many of us, taking too much and having too big of an impact. On our present course we’ll need 27 planet Earths by 2050 experts conclude. — Stephen 

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jul 29, 2011 (IPS)

Protecting bits of nature here and there will not prevent humanity from losing our life support system. Even if areas dedicated to conserving plants, animals, and other species that provide Earth’s life support system increased tenfold, it would not be enough without dealing with the big issues of the 21st century: population, overconsumption and inefficient resource use.

Without dealing with those big issues, humanity will need 27 planet Earths by 2050, a new study estimates.

The size and number of protected areas on land and sea has increased dramatically since the 1980s, now totaling over 100,000 in number and covering 17 million square kilometres of land and two million square kilometres of oceans, a new study reported Thursday.

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But impressive as those numbers look, all indicators reveal species going extinct faster than ever before, despite all the additions of new parks, reserves and other conservation measures, according to the studypublished in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

“It is amazing to me that we haven’t dealt with this failure of protected areas to slow biodiversity losses,” said lead author Camilo Mora of University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“We were surprised the evidence from the past 30 years was so clear,” Mora told IPS. Read the rest of this entry »

“We Should be Shaking in Our Boots” – UN Environment Official

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Construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, Brazil -- sml Photo by Hans Silvester

Earth’s Ability to Support Us At Risk – An Indictment of Governments We Elected

By Stephen Leahy

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 19 2012 (IPS)

The science is crystal clear: humans are threatening Earth’s ability to support mankind, and a new world economy is urgently needed to prevent irreversible decline, said scientists and other experts at an event on the sidelines of the Rio+20 Earth Summit.

Yet the Global Environment Outlook report, or GEO 5, which was launched on June 6 and assessed 90 of the most important environmental objectives, found that significant progress had been made only in four in the 20 years since the first landmark summit in Rio in 1992.

Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said the results of GEO 5 were “depressing, even to me”.

“This ought to have us shaking in our boots,” Steiner told TerraViva at the Fair Ideas conference that concluded Sunday. ”It is an indictment of our behaviour over the past 20 years and of the governments we elected. We need an honest conversation about why we are not turning things around.”rio banner sml

Instead, “what’s happening right now in the RioCentro (Rio+20 official site) is that science is being picked out of the text of the final agreement,” Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden, told the conference.

Rockström said he had received updates from the negotiations that the United States and some of the world’s least developed countries were attacking the science showing humanity is pushing up against “planetary boundaries”.

Climate is only one of those “planetary boundaries”. Another is the ongoing decline of biodiversity, where so many plants and animals are going extinct that the Earth’s living systems, upon which humanity depends, are unravelling. Fresh water is another planetary boundary. Water is a limited resource, yet water use has increased six-fold in the past century.

“The science is absolutely clear: we are up against the edges of the planet’s ability to support us and approaching irreversible tipping points,” Rockström said. Read the rest of this entry »

24 Policies That Can End Our Earth Emergency

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“Ecological literacy is vital for those in positions of power and influence”

Never vote for anyone who isn’t literate

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jun 7 2012 (IPS)

Ecologically ignorant policies are largely responsible for the interlinked crises that are unraveling the planet’s life support system.

The unintended consequences of such policies are climate change, desertification, biodiversity decline, ocean pollution and the destruction of forests, according to the policy advocacy organisation World Future Council.

The solution is to eliminate “bad” policies and implement policies that ensure a healthy planet for future generations. On world environment Day, Jun. 5, the World Future Council will present an emergency policy agenda consisting of 24 tipping-point policies that need to be implemented globally to preserve a habitable planet.

“We are in an Earth Emergency. It’s an unbelievable crisis. Policies are the most important tool we have to change this,” Jakob von Uexkull, founder and chair of the World Future Council (WFC).

The five-year old WFC is based in Hamburg, Germany and comprised of 50 eminent individual from around the globe who have already successfully promoted change.

“Policy may be seen as dull and boring but they are the things that shape our societies,” von Uexkull told IPS.

In 2000, the German government created the now famous feed-in tariff policy launching a renewable energy revolution. That policy has enabled Germany to generate 22 percent of its electricity from renewables today and created a new business sector employing more people than its automotive industry.

“With the best laws and right policy incentives we can mobilise human inventiveness and entrepreneurship to safeguard a healthy planet for future generations,” he said.

On the other hand bad government policies allow 3,000 of the world’s biggest corporations to escape more than 2.2 trillion dollars in annual costs through their impacts on the natural environment, according to the U.N. Environment Programme. (A trillion is one thousand billion. A trillion seconds is nearly 32,000 years). Read the rest of this entry »

Worlds’ Scientists Say Facing “Planetary Emergency”

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Planet Under Pressure – State of the Planet Declaration Mar 29 2012.

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, (IPS)

[Based on my article Climate Summit: A Moment That Must Be Seized ]

Governments, the media and the public aren’t paying attention to the “planetary emergency” unfolding around them. The situation is like firefighters yelling “fire” in crowded room and still no listens.

“The situation is absolutely desperate and yet there’s nothing on the front pages or on the agenda of world leaders,” said Pat Mooney, executive director of the ETC Group, an international environmental organisation based in Ottawa.

“The lack of attention is a tragedy,” said Mooney, who has 40 years experience in international environment and development issues.

Humanity is failing in its stewardship of the planet. An incredible 85 percent of the world’s oceans are in trouble, said Susan Lieberman, director of international policy at the Pew Environment Group, a U.S. organisation.

“Planetary emergency” is how many in the world’s scientific community describe “the mess we are in“. They will detail their comprehensive state of the planet assessment at the “Planet Under Pressure” conference in London Mar. 26-29.

That assessment will summarise the overwhelming evidence that “the continued functioning of the Earth system as we know it is at risk,” conference organisers previously told IPS.

Climate change, which is overheating the planet and making the oceans more acidic, is just one of the major challenges. Another is the ongoing decline of biodiversity, where so many plants and animals are going extinct that the Earth’s living systems on which humanity depends are unraveling.

Fresh water is another “planetary boundary” humanity is pushing up against. Water use has increased six-fold in the past century and in many places the quality of water resources has been degraded. Other challenges include increasing poverty, food and energy security, and the current financial and economic instability.

A first and essential step in a green transition is for nations to commit to phasing out harmful and unsustainable subsidies for fossil fuels, fisheries and industrial agriculture.

According to Mooney, some countries and large corporations see the green economy in terms of a post-petroleum future where resources and energy for industrial production comes from biomass and other living things. Most of those “living resources” are in the global South and local people rightly fear a massive land grab, he said.

Foreign investors have already gained access to more than 35 million hectares in Africa, Asia and South America for food and biofuel production according to GRAIN, a small NGO working with small farmers and farming communities.

 

Plankton Death To Come with Acid Oceans and Sunlight

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A number of marine diatom cells (Pleurosigma), which are an important group of phytoplankton in the oceans.
Credit: Michael Stringer

Global Warming has made oceans 30% more acidic already

“It’s clear we are conducting a giant experiment on the planet and we don’t know what we are doing.”

[This is a repost from my May 8 2012 article - see here for more on acid ocean impacts -- Stephen]

 By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, May 8, 2012 (IPS)

Without major reductions in the use of fossil fuels, sunlight will kill an unknown number of ocean phytoplankton, the planet’s most important organism, a new study reports this week.

Not only are phytoplankton, also known as marine algae, a vital component in the ocean’s food chain, they generate at least half of the oxygen we breathe.

In the not so distant future, sunlight, the very source of life for phytoplankton, will likely begin to kill them because of the ocean’s increasing acidity, researchers from China and Germany have learned.

“There’s a synergistic effect between increased ocean acidity and natural light,” says Ulf Riebesell of the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany.

Riebesell added that it was also possible “phytoplankton could adapt”.

Researchers were surprised to discover that diatoms, one of the most important and abundant types of phytoplankton, fared very badly during shipboard experiments conducted by co-author Kunshan Gao, from the State Key Laboratory of Marine Environmental Science at Xiamen University, Xiamen China.

Previous experiments in labs like Riebesell’s found that diatoms actually did better in high-acid seawater, unlike most other shell- forming plankton. Burning fossil fuels has made the oceans about 30 percent more acidic researchers discovered less than 10 years ago. Oceans absorb one third of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from using fossil fuels.

The good news is this has slowed the rate of global warming. The bad news is oceans are now more acidic and it will get worse as more CO2 is emitted. This is basic, well-understood ocean chemistry.  Read the rest of this entry »

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