In this issue of Need to Know: Science & Insight I look at how Indigenous values and ways of living with nature can help guide us out of the mess we’ve created. But first trip to a remarkable Indigenous community in Panama.
In this issue of Need to Know: Science & Insight I look at some of the underlying causes of extinctions, what can be done, and how you and I can help. And, believe it or not, it starts with a breakfast with a cassowary, a really big en and dangerous endangered species.
Marine life in the high seas soak up twice as much CO2 from the atmosphere as Canada emits every year, a new study by the Global Ocean Commission revealed Tuesday.
Scientists estimate that phytoplankton absorb and bury more than 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2 in the seabed every year.
This would be news to readers of Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper’s detailed two-page spread on the Global Ocean Commission report, which failed to mention this vitally important carbon reduction service (or that it is worth an estimated $148 billion a year).
Additionally, if governments ended fishing in the unclaimed oceans beyond 200-mile economic zones, near-shore fish catches would soar, even more carbon would be safely removed from the atmosphere and the oceans would be healthier said co-author of the study Rashid Sumaila of the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre.
“The high seas are like a failed state. Poor governance and the absence of policing and management mean valuable resources are unprotected or being squandered,” said David Miliband, co-chair of the commission and former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom.
The dollar value of all the fish caught in high seas is actually negative
Governments like Japan, Spain, the U.S. and China subsidize fishing fleets to destroy the high seas by overfishing and deep-sea bottom trawling to the tune of $152 million a year.
Here’s the kicker: The dollar value of all the fish caught way out there is actually negative when costs like fuel and subsidies are subtracted. Turns out high seas fishing fleets get 25 per cent of their income from subsidies according to a 2009 analysis by Sumaila.
“Most would not be fishing the high seas without subsidies” Sumaila told DeSmog Canada.
The study was commissioned by the Global Ocean Commission, an 18-month-old organization comprised of business leaders and former senior politicians including former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin.
The commission is calling for the negotiation of a new agreement under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to prioritize ocean health and resilience and restore ocean productivity. It also called for an elimination of subsidies on high seas fishing within five years.
The commission’s proposals also call for mandatory tracking of all vessels fishing in the high seas, a ban on the transshipment of fish at sea, measures to end plastics pollution and binding standards for the regulation and control of offshore oil and gas exploration and exploitation.
Carbon really does sink
Phytoplankton are the carbon-eating plants of the seas and pass on this carbon when they’re eaten. When organisms die in the deep seas, their organic matter ends up on the bottom of the ocean, which makes for an effective, natural carbon sequestration process.
Fishing is crippling this free carbon-removal system. This is especially true for bottom-trawlers that bulldoze the sea floor scooping up every living thing. Trawling is by far the most common fishing method and recent studies warn it’s destroying corals and the sea bottom leading to “long-term biological desertification.”
Last May, scientists writing in the journal Science called for an end to “the frontier mentality of exploitation” of the high seas and recommended a ban on trawling to protect the carbon-removal service and halt the decline in the productivity of the oceans. The amount of wild fish caught peaked 20 years ago.
About 70 per cent of fish caught inside the 200-mile limits spend some time in the high seas. If the high seas are protected those fish are likely to grow larger and become more numerous, benefitting near-shore fisheries, Sumaila said.
A number of studies of marine protected zones where fishing is banned or very limited show these areas act as baby-fish incubators increasing the overall population of fish.
If fishing was banned in the high seas, fisheries profits would more than double, the amount of fish would increase 30 per cent and the amount of ocean fish stock conservation would increase 150 per cent according to a study published in PLOS Biology last March.
Given the reality that fishing the high seas is a money loser, even a low carbon price could make a fishing ban valuable, not to mention the other potential benefits of regulating international fisheries. Sumaila said the $148 billion-a-year value of the high seas carbon sponge is a conservative estimate, and it could actually be as high as $222 billion.
Fishing and trawling bans have been proposed before. Last December the European parliament narrowly rejected a bottom-trawling ban on its vessels.
“We need wide public understanding of the vital importance of the high seas to all of us,” concluded Sumaila.
Top 10 High Seas Fishing Nations (according to Sumaila’s study) in descending order:
The world’s last remaining forest wilderness is rapidly being lost – and much of this is taking place in Canada, not in Brazil or Indonesia where deforestation has so far made the headlines.
A new satellite study reveals that since 2000 more than 104 million hectares of forests – an area three times the size of Germany – have been destroyed or degraded.
Since 2000 more than 104 million hectares of forests – an area three times the size of Germany – have been destroyed or degraded.
“Every four seconds, an area of the size of a football (soccer) field is lost,” said Christoph Thies of Greenpeace International.
The extent of this forest loss, which is clearly visible in satellite images taken in 2000 and 2013, is “absolutely appalling” and has a global impact, Thies told IPS, because forests play a crucial in regulating the climate.
The current level of deforestation is putting more CO2 into the atmosphere than all the world’s cars, trucks, ships and planes together, he said, adding that “governments must take urgent action” to protect intact forests by creating more protected areas, strengthening the rights of forest communities and other measures, including convincing lumber, furniture manufacturers and others to refuse to use products from virgin forests.
Greenpeace is one of several partners in the Intact Forest Landscapes initiative, along with the University of Maryland, World Resources Institute and WWF-Russia among others, that uses satellite imagery technology to determine the location and extent of the world’s last large undisturbed forests.
The new study found that half of forest loss from deforestation and degradation occurred in just three countries: Canada, Russia and Brazil. These countries are also home to about 65 percent of world’s remaining forest wilderness.
However, despite all the media attention on deforestation in the Amazon forest and the forests of Indonesia, it is Canada that has been leading the world in forest loss since 2000, accounting for 21 percent of global forest loss. By contrast, the much-better known deforestation in Indonesia has accounted for only four percent.
Massive increases in oil sands and shale gas developments, as well as logging and road building, are the major cause of Canada’s forest loss, said Peter Lee of Global Forest Watch Canada, an independent Canadian NGO.
A big increase in forest fires is another cause of forest loss. Climate change has rapidly warmed northern Canada, drying out the boreal forests and bogs and making them more vulnerable to fires.
In Canada’s northern Alberta’s oil sands region, more than 12.5 million hectares of forest have been crisscrossed by roads, pipelines, power transmission lines and other infrastructure, Lee told IPS.
Canada’s oil sands and shale gas developments are expected to double and possibly triple in the next decade and “there’s little interest at the federal or provincial political level in conserving intact forest landscapes,” Lee added.
The world’s last remaining large undisturbed forests are where most of the planet’s remaining wild animals, birds, plants and other species live, Nigel Sizer, Global Director of the Forest Programme at the World Resources Institute, told a press conference.
Animals like Siberian tigers, orangutans and woodland caribou require large areas of forest wilderness, Sizer noted, and “losing these top species leads to a decline of entire forest ecosystems in subtle ways that are hard to measure.”
While forests can re-grow, this takes many decades, and in northern forests more than 100 years. However, if species go extinct or there are too few individuals left, it will take longer for a full forest ecosystem to recover – if ever.
Trees, plants and all the creatures that make up a healthy forest ecosystem provide humanity with a range of vital services including storing and cleaning water, cleaning air, soaking up CO2 and producing oxygen, as well as being sources of food and wood. These ‘free’ services are often irreplaceable and generally worth far more than the value of lumber or when converted to cattle pasture, said Sizer.
In just 13 years, South America’s Paraguay converted an incredible 78 percent of its remaining forest wilderness mainly into large-scale soybean farms and rough pasture, the study found. Satellite images and maps on the new Global Forest Watch website offer see-it-with-your-own eyes images of Paraguay’s forests vanishing over time.
The images and data collected for the study are accessible via various tools on the website. They reveal that 25 percent of Europe’s largest remaining forest, located 900 km north of Moscow, has been chopped down to feed industrial logging operations. In the Congo, home of the world’s second largest tropical forest, 17 percent has been lost to logging, mining and road building. The Global Forest Watch website also shows details of huge areas of Congo forest licensed for future logging.
Deforestation starts with road building, often linked to logging and extractive industries, said Thies. In some countries, like Brazil and Paraguay, the prime reason is conversion to large-scale agriculture, usually for crops that will be exported.
The new data could help companies with sustainability commitments in determining which areas to avoid when sourcing commodities like timber, palm oil, beef and soy. Market-led efforts need to gain further support given the lax governance and enforcement in many of these forest regions, Thies said.
He called on the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – a voluntary certification programme that sets standards for forest management – to “also play a stronger role” and to improve those standards in order to better protect wilderness forests.
Without urgent action to curb deforestation, it is doubtful that any large-scale wild forest will remain by the end of this century, concluded Sizer.
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.
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. Continue reading →
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.
“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.”
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. Continue reading →
Worlds’ Scientists Say Facing “Planetary Emergency”
By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, (IPS)
The upcoming Rio+20 conference has to be the moment in human history when the nations of the world come together to find ways to ensure the very survival of humanity, many science and environmental experts believe.
Except that 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.
Rio+20 is a major opportunity to turn this around, Lieberman told IPS.
The Jun. 20-22 Rio+20 meet is timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janerio. The Earth Summit captured world attention, with leaders from most countries and some 10,000 media attending.
It gave birth to the most important environmental treaties on climate change, biodiversity and land degradation and desertification. World leaders also endorsed Agenda 21, a detailed blueprint on how nations can practice sustainable development.
Years of preparation went into the 1992 Summit, while only months have gone into Rio+20.
“There hasn’t been nearly enough preparation to be able to sign treaties,” said Lieberman. It’s been a struggle to get many governments like such as the US to focus on Rio+20 at all she said.
Is there a middle ground between economic interests, livelihoods and conservation?
By Stephen Leahy
VANCOUVER, Canada (IPS)
The Earth’s life support system, which generates the planet’s air, water and food, is powered by 8.7 million living species, according to the latest best estimate. We know little about 99 percent of those unique species, except that far too many are rapidly going extinct.
What can be done to slow down this process, which could eventually lead to the extinction of the human species?
“The challenge is to find the middle ground between economic interests, livelihoods and conservation,” says Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, the newly appointed head of the Secretariat of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the international agency charged with helping countries slow and reverse the loss of plants, animals and other species.
A native of Brazil, Dias holds a doctorate in zoology from the University of Edinburgh, and worked for many years at the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment, where his last position prior to joining the CBD was as Secretary of Biodiversity and Forests.
An exclusive interview with BRAULIO FERREIRA DE SOUZA DIAS, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity
In what may be a ‘clash of worldviews,’ representatives from indigenous and local communities are holding a climate workshop with physicists, computer modellers, and other climate scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Cairns, Australia 26-28 March.
This is a unique opportunity for Native peoples to discuss their traditional knowledge and experiences as it relates to climate change.
Indigenous peoples are amongst the most affected by current and future climate change but their experiences and knowledge have largely been ignored by science experts at the IPCC. The workshop, Climate Change Mitigation with Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples: Practices, Lessons Learned and Prospects, is a significant effort to change this.
There are an estimated 350 million indigenous peoples according to the United Nations. They legally own more than 11% of the world’s forests and those coincide with areas that hold up to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. Traditional knowledge is a different but no less valid way of understanding the world. However, very few scientists of the thousands who have worked with the IPCC have any experience with traditional knowledge.
The IPCC is working on its next big report (to be released in 2014) and has acknowledged that its Fifth Assessment Report needs to look at how climate change will impact indigenous peoples, their role in reducing carbon emissions (mitigation) and what barriers they face in adapting to current and future climate impacts.
The Cairns workshop will focus on how indigenous peoples can help reduce global carbon emissions. It is being held in collaboration with the IPCC, indigenous organizations, the United Nations University (UNU), the Australian government and others.
“We need to have a ‘constitutional moment’ in world politics, akin to the major transformative shift in governance after 1945 that led to the establishment of the United Nations and numerous other international organisations,” said Frank Biermann of VU University Amsterdam and director of the Earth System Governance Project.
“Humanity is facing major challenges…urgent actions are needed,” Biermann told IPS.
Those challenges include, but are not limited to, increasing poverty, food, water and energy security, the financial crisis, climate change, ocean acidification, the loss of biodiversity. All of these challenges and their solutions are interconnected.
Normally, the complex, mutually dependent systems of the Earth can self-correct and are remarkably stable. However, they can reach thresholds or tipping points and then unexpectedly and abruptly shift, Gaffney said in an interview.
“We need only recall how the U.S. sub-prime mortgage crisis nearly collapsed the global financial system,” he said.
The upcoming Rio+20 conference on sustainable development needs to be the moment in human history when the nations of the world come together to find ways to ensure “the very survival of humanity”, he said. Continue reading →